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Deconstructing the Novel, Part 4 – Fearful Symmetry

BRIAN SAYS:

“So, where do we go from here?”

That was what Chris and I said to each other, probably at the same time, probably at a bar, when we sat down to talk about Fearful Symmetry, book 2 of the “Shattered World” series. Okay, it was very likely we said it at the same time, because the person who asks the question first doesn’t have to bear the burden of answering it, and we were most definitely at a bar, because that’s where we do our best thinking. Yes, I said thinking. The good news is we already had a bit of a blue print going into this. Believe it or not, we planned ahead while we were working on book 1, The Shattered Visage Lies.

Chris and I knew we wanted this to be a book series. Waking up with super powers is something that should be explored in depth. Comic books have been exploring super powers for over eight decades now, and we wanted to spend more time than just one book looking at what regular people would do if they were gifted these extraordinary abilities. Book 1 was a journey of discovery where we looked at a diverse group of people with different backgrounds at various stages in their lives. We wanted to factor in different religious beliefs and socioeconomic lifestyles and how those forces would impact an individual’s motivations. Without creating too many spoilers, we came to the conclusion that people would use these abilities to be self-serving. We’re not saying that everyone would be selfish, and we certainly know that there are many selfless people willing to risk their lives for others on a regular basis, but we believe there are very few people who would immediately change their morality or emotional status quo if they were suddenly bequeathed with superhuman abilities. Yes, people change, but that usually happens at a much slower pace, and that was how we wanted to handle things with book 2.

All too often, stories rush to get to a certain point and sometimes that point gets lost along the way. I’ve discussed how this happens in comic books “back in the day” when there was a new villain every month, one whose origin story takes place within one page. The hero didn’t care about the villain’s motivations, because they were never really fleshed out. Instead, it was just a different super power that the hero had to overcome. The hero was the focus of the story and the villain was just a conduit to get to the hero. The downside to that is desensitization. The hero experiences the same two-dimensional villain over and over again. We wanted to make sure that didn’t happen in “The Shattered World” series. Some of the super powers our characters have may be powers that other characters from comic books, television, and movies have, but we wanted to make sure we explored how our characters perceive these abilities, what they do with them, and how their lives change as a result.

With Fearful Symmetry, we wanted to take our time to really examine the toll these abilities would take on people. Not just the powers, but the experiences the characters had to go through. In The Shattered Visage Lies, we sent our characters on some pretty wild adventures to gain the knowledge of how they got these abilities. Many of them kept secrets, some even had to lie, and a few had to make substantial sacrifices. In Fearful Symmetry we wanted to explore the consequences of those secrets and lies, especially when those characters unravel the secrets of others. Don’t forget, if you’re keeping secrets and telling lies to other, then others are probably keeping secrets and telling lies to you.

In an effort to really maintain the “start small and then expand” idea throughout the series, we set book 1 in Pennsylvania. Even if the reader doesn’t know that it’s 5-6 hours of driving time from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, they will at least recognize that all of the settings are within the same state and, relatively speaking, close to each other. In book 2, we start to expand from that, taking our characters out of state, having them question how truly big of an area is affected by what’s happening, and wonder how many people have these new, powerful abilities. Another way we wanted to tackle the idea of growing from a single point is with our “big bad” of book 2, Ethan. With him we … You know what? Let’s talk about him later….

CHRIS SAYS:

One of the things that Brian and I agreed on early in the planning stages of the book was that we wanted this to book to be a horror novel. From that starting point we began to truly delve into the realm of horror and examine some of the key elements of the genre, some of which are rather subjective, so we both sat and thought about what horror really meant to both of us. While my mind often touches on Lovecraftian ideas at times like these, I was reminded of something far more unsettling than fantastic places and alien forces – reality. In college I read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl and have often thought of a singular phrase from that book: man’s inhumanity to man. Over the years I have revisited that phrase many times and it has led me to explore works by Robert Burns and Samuel von Pufendorf. The more that Brian and I discussed the notes that I had written about these pieces the more excited we got about trying to incorporate them into the novel.

Man’s inhumanity to man infests every period in history and manifests itself in so many ways and we wanted to try to incorporate the notion in several ways. The easiest and most recognizable form is violence. I’m not much of one for spoilers, but I don’t think there is any damage done by me saying that this is a book of violence. And why not? It’s easy to work with. It’s as real as every day. It’s identifiable. And quite frankly, when people want to be seen as powerful it seems to come quite naturally.

Greed and obsession also come to mind. Manipulation and control. Excess and denial. All of these can be exploited for the background that Brian and I were looking to create. And all of them followed with our desire to create horror through man’s inhumanity to man, sometimes these kinds of thoughts don’t even start out as intentionally cruel, but observation of the cause and effect leads one to realize just how devastating the effects can be. Perfectly horrory.

And then there’s fear – always unreasonable and irrational, a voice whispering words of doubt and insecurity. For instance, there’s the fear of change. Sometimes it’s mild and we simply ignore any possible benefits that might come our way, because we are secure in doing what we know. Sometimes it’s much more self-destructive. And the fear of losing comfort. We take for granted our convenience and our technology. But how irritating and unnerving it is to go back to doing things the old fashioned way or the absolute umbrage of being denied comfortable shoes, running water, premade meals … things that are small and inconsequential, perhaps, but things that we have enjoyed for so long that we take for granted their availability. Now perhaps neither of those two fears lead directly to doling out misery upon others, but fear is a powerful motivator and it often leads to anger – the key ingredients to brew up a powerfully horrific concoction. Until next time…

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Deconstructing the Novel, Part 3 – The Shattered Visage Lies

BRIAN SAYS:

Chris and I always tout The Shattered Visage Lies as an ensemble piece. Yes, the last time we discussed this book, we agreed that it had a protagonist and antagonist in the forms of Michael and Marvin. But we could also argue that they aren’t the only ones. There are more characters than just Michael going through life trying to accomplish individual goals, and Marvin isn’t the only one trying to stop them.

In The Shattered Visage Lies, people are waking up with super powers. We really wanted to examine what different people would do when bequeathed with these new abilities. We also knew that we were tackling some concepts that have been done many times before in comic books over many decades. We wanted to put our own unique spin on it, so we decided to give super powers to a woman in her mid-sixties and a girl who was still in elementary school.

In Emma, we have an active widow with strong Christian values. Her husband died as a firefighter and she never felt the need to remarry, always content with helping her community. Then one day she woke up with the skills to become a perfect killing machine.

We found Emma to be an interesting character because she wanted to view these new abilities (enhanced speed and reflexes with precision accuracy) as a gift from God, but she was unsure how to use them. She quickly learned that there were other people out there who would be more than willing to take advantage of her and her abilities. Her faith was being challenged. Sometimes in speculative fiction, especially stories with horror elements, a religious character is, or is quick to become, a zealot. Emma was not a zealot, but a person who was steeped deeply in her religion, and found it challenging when her faith wasn’t providing quite the answers she was looking for. Sure, Michael viewed her as a zealot, but that was mostly his viewpoint, one where organized religion was not a priority in his life. And, obviously, Chris and I had a fun time writing any scene where Michael and Emma had to interact. It’s always fun to annoy Michael!

Haley was definitely the most tragic character of the book. Sure there were other characters who had to deal with physique altering mutations, but Haley was too young to truly understand what was happening, let alone have any concept of how to control it. Especially since she could turn people to dust with a mere thought, making her one of the most powerful characters in the book. She was different things to different people. A cautionary tale to most. An advantage to others. A humanizing factor for Michael.

As we discussed last entry for The Shattered Visage Lies, Michael was the reluctant hero. For most of the book, the emphasis was on “reluctant,” but when he learned about Haley, he shifted to “hero.” As a family man, he loves his daughter more than anyone or anything, and Haley was about the same age. He knew very well how Haley must have felt, because he knew how his daughter would have felt had she gone through the same thing. It was because of that Michael went toe-to-toe with Marvin, and why he had to deal with the outcome of the situation despite doing all he could trying to avoid it all together.

 

CHRIS SAYS:

All of the characters in the book go through a period of growing pains, as they learn about their abilities and decide how these newly found powers change or don’t change who they are as people, but one stands out to me: Derrick.

None of the other characters go through a learning curve quite like Derrick does. His power is less definable than the rest and he’s not really sure what he is actually doing through most of the book. It’s true that he does learn how to harness it, but in the back of his mind he always has some doubt that things will work out the way that he expects them to resolve. This is a character that Brian and I agree is both fun and necessary, especially if there were going to be future books. We wanted to set a “power precedent” that makes possible the introduction of some less classical, more fluid abilities to intrigue the readers and for characterization aspects, as they certainly keep the characters themselves a little uncertain.

Derrick also struggles with others. Not just because he’s a slightly awkward young man, but he seems very sure of the role that he needs to fulfill. He wants to achieve the greatest good possible and he’s both dismayed and perplexed by characters like Michael who are very reluctant to take an active role in improving society. Derrick is a very outward thinker who simply refuses to allow Michael to shrink back into the crowd, making him a useful motivational tool.

Brian and I were also intrigued by the thought of a low-level thug using new talents to topple the hierarchy, which led us to create Stone. A big guy who was destined to run into a bigger guy sooner or later, Stone got as far as his brawn could take him. But what if the brawn gets amplified? Unbreakable skin shields his nerve endings, rendering him nearly impervious to pain.

Unfortunately for him, it doesn’t make him any smarter, but now he can walk out of a sticky wicket with the best of them… and unscarred to boot. The heightened fear factor alone makes him an attractive underground boss. It also makes him a force to be reckoned with as a character. Our heroes certainly have their hands full with this juggernaut. And how does his special power affect his personality, you might ask? It amplifies his thirst for a fight, naturally. And it leaves even me wondering if anyone can quench it.

 

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Deconstructing the Novel, Part 2 – The Shattered Visage Lies

BRIAN SAYS:

Okay, now that we’ve gotten into some form of rhythm with this blog thing, let’s revisit a concept we introduced a few posts ago – Deconstructing the Novel, where go behind the scenes of our first published novel, The Shattered Visage Lies, to answer questions, give novel writing advice, and discuss some of the concepts within the book. Last installment, we discussed what the title means, or at least what it means to us. For this installment, we’ll shed some light on what we’ve been hearing about the protagonist and antagonist – Michael and Marvin. Don’t know who they are because you haven’t read the book yet? Don’t worry, feel free to take a moment to grab yourself a copy, in print or eVersion to peruse. It’s okay. We’ll wait. Have it? Read it? Good. Let’s move on.

First of all, as you have now learned from reading the book in one sitting, the novel is an ensemble piece. In it, nine different people discover they have super powers. For the most part, we go over the discovery, exploration, and development of these abilities in detail for most of these characters, so it’s not entirely accurate to say that we have a definitive protagonist or antagonist. However, Michael and Marvin stand out as those concepts, respectively. Interestingly enough, these two are also usually the least favorite character and most favorite character, respectively. And we did that on purpose.

“What? You purposely made your protagonist the reader’s least favorite character?” Yes, we did. I want to remind you, though, that he’s not a detestable character. He’s just someone who can be likeable one moment, and then a jerk the next. Just like all of us. We are all the protagonists in our own individual stories. None of us are liked by every secondary character in our own individual stories. That is what we want to reflect with Michael. He’s a regular person, just like all of us, doing his own thing, just like all of us. He can be nice, he can be a jerk; he can be likeable, he can be not likeable. Just like all of us. When we follow up the “Who is the least likeable character?” question with “Who is the most relatable character?” the answer to that is usually Michael.

Michael is the reluctant hero of the story. Most reluctant heroes of popular stories are so because they lack confidence, usually because of doubt that is bred by the inexperience of youth. I’m looking at you, Luke Skywalker. That is certainly relatable to anyone. However, we wanted to explore a different, yet relatable, reason for Michael’s reluctance – comfort. We all get frothing-at-the-mouth fussy when the cable company changes the channels on us. We’re red-raging and ready to turn to Yelp, Facebook, Reddit, the Better Business Bureau, and/or a voodoo witch doctor because The Food Network is now channel 48 when it was channel 47 just yesterday. None of us want to change our routine because of forces beyond our control, and we certainly don’t want to take on added responsibility if we don’t think it’s at least congruous with what we’re sacrificing. Neither does Michael. He’s a man in his mid-thirties who has everything he wants in life. Sure, he’s a bit spoiled in regards to certain things, and he sometimes doesn’t filter the words between his brain and his mouth, but he loves his family; his wife and his daughter are his world. Gaining a new, very powerful new ability means he now has to learn how to use it, and be involved with a whole new community of people he’d rather not associate with. This new ability means change. It means a disruption in his routine. A sacrifice he doesn’t want to make. These burdens make him fussy.  Just like the rest of us.

CHRIS SAYS:

When we talked about the direction that we wanted this book to take it was clear very early on that Brian and I were both interested in creating a likeable antagonist…it’s just fun. We had a few ideas about how we could accomplish that, but as we hashed through them, tossing them aside like dandelions from a spring bouquet, a very obvious solution surfaced. If we simply make the character relatable to the reader, then even when the necessary philosophical issues arise, the character can remain true to himself, which also keeps him believable.

Quite simply, then, Marvin was born. Overworked, underappreciated Marvin who is surpassed by those half his age for one inconsequential reason or another. A dreary routine has taken the pep from his step and a stagnant lifestyle has taken a stranglehold on his view of the future. Marvin in a nutshell. Possibly he has the power to improve himself, but not to affect all of the forces around him that would need to be bent to his will in order to create real change. Until one day…

As Marvin develops his powers, he uses them to improve his lot in life, enhance his interest in things, most notably his marriage, and wreak a little bit of revenge on a few people who, quite frankly, don’t necessarily do much to warrant sympathy at their plight. All the while still walking that tightrope of relatability to the empathetic reader. While Michael is whining and bemoaning and remaining passive, Marvin becomes an all action kind of guy…sort of a fantasy fulfiller…or that is our hope anyway.

Gradually, of course, he becomes more and more despicable and the dichotomy between good and evil replaces some of his relatability with the reader, but the roots are still there because the character can remain true to himself even as he becomes less “human.”

It was an interesting experiment in characterization and Brian and I are often intrigued by reader’s comments about Marvin and what the future holds for him. Do you need a Marvin fix or are you hoping to explore new villainy? For now, it’s still shrouded in mystery, but later this year all will be revealed.

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