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Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s De val van Icarus (The Fall of Icarus) c. 1558. Musée des Beaux Arts, Brussels. Credit: Bridgeman Art Library: Object 3675. Copyright: Public Domain
Musée des Beaux Arts
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood
Nice bit of culture to ease us into things, eh? I’ve been chewing over this poem of Auden’s a lot lately, and what he was saying about how believable art, art that touches us, places the epic, the history-making stuff, slap-bang in the middle of the humdrum. It’s just the latest lesson I’m trying to learn as I branch out from horror into YA fantasy, and have to juggle creating real, breathing characters and legendary, titanic events. I’m not saying I’ll ever be a Bruegel of Indie Books, but I do passionately want to hit the right balance of breathtaking action and characters who still feel believable.
And it isn’t easy. I don’t just mean for me. As a die-hard Game of Thrones junkie, I had great hopes for House of the Dragon (on HBO), but three episodes in it’s still not grabbing me by the gizzard, and I’ve thought long and hard about why. The costumes are as sumptuous as ever, and the stakes as high. Finally, I think I’ve put my finger on it. Everyone swans about as if they know they’re the stuff of legend already. They’re always stalking out of rooms with a thousand-yard stare that says “The Maesters will remember the day you put too many sugars in Lord/Lady Fancyname Valgaryan’s tea!” These aren’t real people, they’re playing-card kings and queens – gorgeously drawn in luxurious colours, but paper thin when you look at them from the wrong angle.
To check my theory, I rewatched the first episode of GoT, and wow! Consider my socks exploded off (take that, Zangrunath!) and my mind blown! The scene where King Robert Baratheon arrives at Winterfell has some major players of the whole shebang lined up like a sneaky premonition, with arch little nods to what’s coming, but they are all so non-legendary, so small-scale, so believable.
The kids of House Stark are arrayed as awkwardly as if they’re meeting a crotchety maiden aunt, and Arya scrambles up late, wearing a purloined helmet, to be stopped with a very northern “Ey, ey, ey!” from Ned that couldn’t be more exasperated-here-we-go-again-Dadish if it were wearing a string vest and comfy slippers. The Royal Family ride in, all pomp and splendour, but the airs and graces of Cersei and Joffrey are already subtly putting peoples’ backs up and laying down grudges that’ll come back to write history later on. When Ned bows before his frowning, formidable king, who admonishes him, “You’re fat!” all it takes is a flick of Ned’s eyes to reveal an entire relationship. That’s writing (and acting)! That’s what I want to do.
The same lesson’s there for me in the other series I’m in love with right now – Slow Horses (on Apple). Jackson Lamb who, we will later discover, is so legendary within MI5 that an agent in deep cover will only need a glimpse of his face to get the hint that everything’s gone pear-shaped, is introduced as a seedy old chain-smoking has-been with holes in his socks and a flatulence problem. While he rules his rundown office like a bad-tempered medieval monarch, he is very much the warts-and-all variety, not the worship-me-for-I-shall-turn-out-to-be-many-fabled kind.
It’s not just the Old Masters and gold-standard screenwriters who’ve tumbled this “make ‘em great, but make ‘em human” trick. Historians have been doing it for – well – most of history. Consider what we remember about that real-life dynastic block-buster moment, the execution of King Charles I. Assuming you learned about this in History at school and still remember it, I’m going to guess that what stuck in your head is how he wore two vests to ascend the scaffold, because it was a cold morning, and he didn’t want people to see his teeth chatter and mistake it for fear. When we hear the tale told this way, we feel the rough wool of those vests on our own skin, rubbing like a reminder of the coarse grain of life in the very midst of this most pivotal moment in his-story.
Editing my first YA fantasy for real, actual teen readers, I was chuffed beyond measure to see that I instinctively got this right, the first time. Whatever plotholes they find, whatever great gaping character flaws, they will also discover voices and situations they’ll recognize as real. But somehow, in the thrill of finishing up that first saga and outlining the rest of the series I, like the House of the Dragon writers, forgot this crucial lesson. I went all playing-card-kings, watch-me-honey-cos-I’m-going-to-be-important.
Book Two, when I checked, was slated to begin like this:
It is midsummer, but the skies lour like November, sullen with clouds. The air, this most vibrant of mornings, is chilly, thin. Nature holds its breath, waiting. A storm is coming.
So far, so po-faced!
So now, I take up my down-to-earth biro and scratch out the start of Book 2, all of it. Hardly ever do we have a sense of history when we are in it, I remind myself.
My great-destined character sits down with a sigh at his Ikea desk, takes out a textbook from the draw that sticks a bit, and starts to cram for a maths exam which seems like the end of the world.
Halfworld I: In The Blood debuts this winter. Check it out and see how it measures up to my aspirations!
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ABOUT F.K. MARLOWE
F.K. Marlowe is a Shropshire lass who lived in London and Beijing before settling down with her husband, three daughters and rescue pup in Vancouver. She writes horror stories with a tendency to the paranormal, and Young Adult fiction with fangs and sass.
Marlowe doesn’t worry overly much about the placement of semi-colons and the like, having spent far too long pootling about in academia to take them seriously. (She has an Oxford first in English Lit, plus a Master’s and PhD from Leeds). She has, however, discovered that life is the best education for a writer, and plans to continue her studies there as long as possible.
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