With my fourth novel, X-Dimensional Assassin Zai Through the Unfolded Earth, just released, I have been reflecting a bit on what I write, and how I write it.
When people ask me what I write, I usually says ‘comics and books’ and then reel off a list of speculative fiction genres, and then add ‘comedy’. In my head I just say ‘horror’. I then shrug and say ‘everything project is different’.
All of this is true. Especially in my prose work, even the voice and style the POV and tense, change from book to book. But as I
grow old and see death approaching mature as a writer I am become more aware of some features they have in common.
The most obvious is the protagonists I choose. I’ve always loved the bad guys better, and many of my protagonists are villains, monsters, sociopaths or criminals, with the occasional antihero thrown in for texture. I like characters who have a plan or an agenda that will drive the narrative, rather than some external force that they have to oppose.
A lot of my stories are about subverting tropes or stereotypes that I dislike. Shadowmancy is an attack on the Chosen One trope, where some character is gifted with undeserved power that they use to Overthrow Evil, or just, I don’t know, walk around posing like a bad ass. Quay gives it a red hot go, but if you’ve read the book I think you’ll agree the result is, ah, probably not what anybody hoped.
I don’t like Good vs Evil, Save the World From Darkness stories. The opposite has happened several times in my work: a character brings an apocalypse or world-ending event on some place he visits (it’s always a man) because it’s an expedient way of achieving some end. Sometimes the stakes are high, sometimes they’re petty.
I like to have a lot of characters and expansive worlds and lots of story beats and I like it when not everything contributes to a single fat conclusion. I’ve read a lot of recent genre fiction novels that are epic in scope, but only consider the actions of four or five players (including the villains), and nothing outside of those characters exerts much influence on the story. I can appreciate streamlining, but I can’t enjoy them.
But I’m not a big Worldbuilding writer. I don’t care to look at the map of the Apost’rophe Empire or the City of Random Syllables. I want the world to feel cohesive but also like it’s big and strange and there’s too much of it to document thoroughly. I want readers to learn about the world/s as the characters do, but none of them have a complete picture of it. Just as I do not have a complete understanding of human history and science. The truth is that I learn about the worlds by writing them in much the same way–rather than by indulging in intricate planning and design activities beforehand.
Which brings me to Zai: a book with only a handful of recurring characters that is in a lot of ways about exploring a set of tightly coupled worlds. As with Shadowmancy and Faerie Apocalypse, my project here is to examine various tropes and ideas critically, while also hopefully delivering a fun story driven by an interesting, if morally unacceptable protagonist. Zai does, in fact, continue some story lines dangling from Faerie Apocalypse, and some of the ideas about magic from Shadowmancy are present here as well.
One of the main concerns of the book is travel and tourism. The wonders of discovering a foreign land, the miseries of long haul travel, and the growing unease that tourism is eroding everything that’s worth seeing in this new place. It’s not a road novel. Zai isn’t a nomad or a a lost soul. He makes short, solo journeys, knowing that he has a home to which he’ll return. This is why the number of characters are few: he travels alone, and most of the people he meets are involved in setting up a murder (or, uh, actually being murdered). That doesn’t leave much room to build relationships.
Which brings us nicely back to character again, and the other central concern of the book: the way that Asian men are portrayed by western writers. You know what I mean. They are either martial arts heroes with rigid codes of honour and zero sense of humour, or they’re a hacker/scientist/geek who might serve double duty as the comic relief. Even if they are the hero, they never get the girl.
Now, obviously, I am not an Asian man–but my son is, or will grow up to be one. And I really want to him to see representations of people like him as he grows up.
I took a bait-and-switch approach here. Zai is an assassin–but he’s not a ninja. He won’t carry weapons and he’ll run away every time, rather than fight. An assassin who keeps getting in brawls is doing it wrong, if you ask me. Zai’s cover is that he’s a tourist with a camera, which is an even older stereotype–but he leans into it, because it’s as close to a real identity as he has and it works for him. At home he’s a fashionable guy with disposable income, time on his hands, and a punk rock girlfriend.
I admit it–a lot of these things are in my upcoming work, including Blackened Skies, the sequel to Bloody Waters (stay tuned, space ranger). I’m trying out some nicer protagonists in what I think will be my following projects, because maybe some commercial success wouldn’t hurt me, but I’m not sure you’ll ever see them saving the world from darkness. At least not conclusively.
I’m now feeling a bit indulgent for going on in so much detail about what I write, so I think I’ll shut my face now and let you get on with reading something good.