Party Like a Writer; or, Why Are You Screaming at Your Cheetos?

The Last Mortal Bond
Written by Brian Staveley

I was at this party a few months ago, and I got cornered somewhere between the refrigerator and the fire-escape by this guy who could not stop talking about the emerald ash borer. The emerald ash borer, for those of you who don’t go this kind of party, is a nasty little creature that’s trying to destroy our ash trees. I like a good ash tree as much as the next guy, except in this case, where the next guy was this guy, whose concern about Vermont’s ash population seemed… disproportionate, his dismay and impotent rage the sort of thing you expect from characters in movies featuring trench warfare or biological terrorism.

Years ago, faced with this sort of arboreal zeal, my strategy would have been simple: immediate exfiltration. Barring that, I would have rummaged in the fridge for the strongest IPA available, then settled in to politely ignore a lecture on the winter range and mating habits of the emerald ash borer. I’ve found that, with the right beer in hand, I can nod and smile through just about anything.

That was before I started writing.

Writing fantasy full time has done strange things to my brain. Instead of fleeing the Ash Warrior, for instance, I found myself perking up. For one thing, the pest in question is straight out of a fantasy novel—a poetically-named scourge upon the land, a curse capable of leveling entire forests, an evil against which there seems to be no recourse. This is good shit, I found myself thinking, leaning closer to make sure I didn’t miss the bit about the egg-laying cycle. I can totally use this.

Even more than the discussion of ash and its borers, however, I was intrigued by this guy. Fantasy needs scourges, obviously, but good scourges are a dime a dozen. Far more important than any zombie army or orcish horde are the characters at a story’s heart, and it’s hard to write good characters without paying attention to people, without caring about them.

I realized this embarrassingly late in life. I used to try to avoid that woman in the bus station who was muttering sweet imprecations to the vending machine or the salesman on the plane who really wanted me to understand that kelp was the bacon of the future. (For the record, I still don’t think that kelp is the bacon of the future. Bacon is the bacon of the future.) More and more, however, I find myself attracted to the kelp-lauders and vending-machine mutterers of the world.

The trick, of course, is not simply to notice people—making notes of clothing and verbal style is easy—but to try to see the world through their eyes, to understand the cravings, loves, and fears that make them who they are. This can be scary. Once I actually bother to understand why that woman is shouting at her Cheetos (Her kid’s sick and she didn’t sleep all night? She’s had strange attacks of rage ever since getting back from Iraq? She just lost her job?) I probably have to start giving a shit, and giving a shit is not easy. Easy is having another beer while nodding and smiling vacuously. Unfortunately, easy does not write the books.

It’s been strange to discover that writing, at least for me, involves this moral component. I might have been less eager to get involved with fantasy if I’d know it would require, not a retreat from the world and all its varied people, but a more comprehensive engagement. I signed up to write about magicians and ancient gods, and found, belatedly, much to my surprise, that I couldn’t do that very well without spending a long damn time talking to this guy about the emerald ash borer, trying to learn, not just about the creature itself, but why he cared so much.

The Last Mortal Bond, the concluding book of my fantasy trilogy that started with The Emperor’s Blades, comes out in just over a month. I was struck by a strange thing as I worked through this final volume: I found myself caring about the characters, even minor characters, in a way I hadn’t when I started writing fantasy. I could imagine running into them at parties—the starch-stiff Aedolian guardsman, that girl with the plague, the vicious, drug-addled magician—and actually talking to them.

When the ship’s captain pulls out his iPhone to show me about a million photos of his daughter, instead of nodding vaguely and sliding away, I imagine leaning closer, poring over those endless images, trying to see in them whatever it is that he sees. Conversely, when the old man on the barstool starts talking about his sciatica, I’m reminded that he’s more than this moment, that there’s a whole story behind him, an epic, something worth knowing, something that I want be told.

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10 thoughts on “Party Like a Writer; or, Why Are You Screaming at Your Cheetos?

  1. Ah, I love this. I totally understand how it is. I’m one of the loopy people that are good to base characters off, and have enough iterations of cray to use myself to mould many of my characters, the ones I can’t mould I use my friends and family for- and a stranger hee or there, though they don’t seem nearly as bizarre as my friends and I when we are together, plenty of random conversations about random things unrelated to the context of space or time that we find ourselves in.

    1. Of course he had a mustache… and a beard. With things crawling in it, drawn by the bits and pieces of meals long past.

  2. Amen.
    I’m still f*ing pissed about being borm too late for the dodos and passenger pigeons and American Chestnuts.

    Don’t get me started.

  3. Interesting. Ex boyfriend of mine from many years ago wanted to be a writer but couldn’t get his head round the fact that he had to have a real interest in people and the world around him and he simply didn’t.

  4. Awesome essay on getting to the meat – or bacon – of the matter which is why we write, read, and try to live our fantastical ideas well done!

  5. That is an excellent way of looking at the world at large. Terry Brooks said that if you don’t worry about your characters, that if you don’t think about them constantly and wonder what they are doing while you are away, then you don’t deserve them at all and they will surely abandon you. As much thought, at least in the short term, needs to go into the minor characters of your story. It is not enough to have “the bar wench at the Merry Wagon Wheel”. The reader doesn’t need to know that she has three kids and that her drunkard husband hasn’t worked in three years. They don’t need to know that he beats her twice a month when she brings home enough money for him to buy a bottle of gin. But you need to know. The internal motivation shows through in the narrative. It shows in the way that she flirts a little more with certain customers just to get that extra copper. The disheveled look that none of the customers see when she returns to the kitchen. There is no way to avoid this extra “work”, and it is essential. It is the methodology by which we follow the mantra “Show, don’t tell”. We can’t weigh the prose down with these inconsequential nuances, but those inconsequential nuances are what separate the mundane from the incredible. Live their life as if it were your own, and, for one brief moment, it can be.

  6. Hey–just wanted to let you know that I started reading The Emperor’s Blade because of your emerald ash borer. Glad I did!

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