Isobelle Carmody is the author behind the Obernewtyn Chronicles, The Legendsong, The Gateway Trilogy, The Legend of Little Fur, and a heap of stand alone novels. Recently, the final piece of the Obernewtyn Chronicles, the Red Queen, was released, closing a near 30 year journey for readers.
Isobelle was a guest at the 2015 Brisbane Supanova convention, and these are some of her words of wisdom from that weekend. During her time on the Impossible Quests panel, alongside Juliet Marillier and Lynette Noni, she was discussing the idea of the quest, the art of writing, and the problems with killing off characters.
Impossible Quests Panel
Practically everyone is a misfit at some point. Everyone has some need to strive towards something. There must be something more.
Quests are important because it’s about the journey from novice to master, or from ignorance to knowledge. The character will grow and change as they travel the story, and it’s important not to set up a perfectly perfect hero or heroine. We all start out imperfect. We can all relate strongly to the misfit character working towards a goal greater than themselves.
It’s hard to relate to perfect characters, because none of us are perfect, and none of us go through life without struggling to achieve our goals and dreams.
Everything that’s written is a quest. Any great book has a quest at its heart. Every great quest has truth at its heart.
Finding Nemo is a quest to reunite with a son. Hamlet is a quest for vengeance and justice. Detectives quest for truth and the restoration of order, most killers are on a specific quest for a specific reason. Romance is the quest for love… every character is on some kind of personal quest. It may not be throwing rings into volcanoes, but they’re still working towards something.
Every novel is a new journey of discovery.
This is true for the reader as well as the writer. In every story, the writer is learning more about themselves, their writing, and the worlds and characters they’ve created. But in stories, readers get to see themselves as a hero, get to explore new worlds and grapple with new ideas about who and what they really are.
I didn’t feel like I do it (writing) right.
Even highly successful, beloved authors have that self doubt. We all seem to believe that there’s some ‘one true way’ to write a story, and if we don’t live up to it, it can make writers feel like they’re not writing right. But the truth is that there actually isn’t only one valid way to write: every writer needs to figure out what works for them and go with that, rather than trying to force themselves to work within a system that destroys their creativity or inspiration.
You don’t have to know where you’re going as long as you know where you’re starting from.
If lots of plotting doesn’t work for you, don’t force yourself to do it. Isobelle’s description of her writing process works well with the night driving analogy: you can’t see much, only what’s lit up with the headlights, so you don’t necessarily know all the details right away.
A quest is towards some kind of perfection. There is no real perfection, so all quests are impossible. It’s striving for the unattainable.
Destroying a ring wont create eternal peace, because there will still be bad people/beings around, cheerfully still being bad. You can’t kill all evil, because there’s evil inherent in everyone. Your perfect partner will never actually be perfect. The ideal their fighting for is always going to be bigger than they can ever truly achieve, but there’s something beautiful, tragic, and heroic in the idea of watching someone bring about massive changes in the name of an impossible goal.
The true quest is something you figure out along the way, parallel to the quest you thought you were going on. Acceptance of imperfection: that’s the quest.
Life doesn’t ever run smoothly. There you are, sailing home from the Trojan War, and then all this stuff happens and you get home to find your house overrun with suitors for your wife’s hand.
It’s the way it goes. There’s an expression ‘the gods laugh when men make plans’, and that’s true for quests, too. Situations evolve, for good or bad, and sometimes you’ll get to the end of the quest and realise you shouldn’t take the magical doohickey from its hiding place because really, it wont end well. The Winter Soldier is a perfect example [SPOILER ALERT]: Steve (Captain America) thinks his quest is to subdue the Winter Soldier, until it turns out that the villain is his childhood friend, Bucky, who has been brainwashed into servitude. [END OF SPOILERS] The quest shifts as the truth of the situation becomes known.
Quests can be external or internal. Learning to live with the differences within you is a worthy quest.
It’s not all destroying rings and terrorising one armed Russian assassins. Sometimes quests are about overcoming internal limitations and beliefs. Look at Dorothy: all that hard work and it turns out that the power was within her all along. Quests don’t have to have a high death count to be valuable, or worthy. Sometimes someone getting up and facing the day is a more epic, heartbreaking quest.
There’s a truth in stories that sometimes requires characters to die. There’s a truth in films and stories, and you know when they get it wrong.
Though ‘kill your darlings’ is a well-known bit of wisdom, a lot of writers still hesitate to actually kill their characters. Or, and I’m looking at Buffy and Supernatural here, they just bring them back to life, over and over, backing away from that decision. If there’s a valid reason for the character to die (shock value and fridging don’t count as valid reasons), then kill characters when the story calls for it.
There are some times where the “I’m dead/not really” trope is useful, but it feels disingenuous when it comes across as the writer toying with reader/viewer emotions, or backing away from a narrative decision.
Character death should feel like a surprise, but inevitable at the same time.
Deaths that make no sense, or that happen out of nowhere for no discernible reason, are annoying. Does a fictional death matter if the reader doesn’t know or care about the character? Do readers feel anything when unnamed red shirt 18 croaks?
Sometimes heroes fail. Sometimes, even though we desperately want them to succeed, they have to sacrifice themselves to make it happen.
And sometimes? Sometimes they stumble, or go left when they need to go right. Sometimes the villain has the upper hand and is smart enough not to monologue about it. Sometimes they’re outmatched, even though it breaks our hearts.