Screaming, Necessity, and Waistcoats
On thaws, 'relatability', and the Athena Club
In my corner of the U.S., in the last two weeks, we’ve felt the thaw. At first I knew one person who was vaccinated. Then there were dots here and there, like snowdrops. Then all of our elder relatives were vaccinated. Then I was. In a month or two it will be more remarkable for us to hear that a friend isn’t. Stepping into a store doesn’t feel like an Adventure any more. A thaw is a moment of possibility, moments of possibility are great times to ask, what’s next? And, in this case, to reflect on what used to be.
I don’t much miss the big consequential aspects of Adult Life in the World of 2019: the office appointments, the flights, the Weddings and Appearances and Presentations, the going-to-the-DMV of it all. I do miss the little things. Chance encounters on the street, chats in the locker room after fencing practice, the social life that’s an atmosphere more than an agenda. I miss those evenings when you go to someone’s place for a board game but you end up talking about medieval Chinese mathematics or the Cradle series until there isn’t enough time to play the game you lugged over from your apartment—even if the box was remotely honest about the game’s actual playtime. I miss casual encounters in the coffee shop with old coworkers, with people you haven’t seen since you or they stopped going to the gym. I miss getting to know the people behind registers, in that accumulating-snow kind of way, where over a year of brief chats you learn that a person has a comedy podcast, or that they’ve seen the Northern Lights. And, because almost every train of thought winds through writing sooner or later, I start thinking about what this implies for books, and the writing of them.
One trouble with big prophecy-and-chosen one fantasy is that saving the world is a bit all-consuming. If there’s a dark lord in a castle somewhere, I mean, with a world-devastating Plan, the kind of scheme worthy of a good cackle, our heroes should obviously be doing something about it. They shouldn’t be comparison shopping croissants, or arguing about a play, or trying on waistcoats.
But it’s the croissant shopping, the play-reading, the waistcoat-trying-on that anchors us in the lives of these people. Most readers, thankfully, aren’t The Destined Heroes Upon Whom the Salvation of the World Depends, note capitals, so they don’t feel much common ground with a main character in that regard. (We are all, on some level, the people upon whom our own lives depend, which is part of why these stories work at all—but that’s deep background structure, a subtle tangency at best.)
If a story is all doom and malevolence and Last Desperate Chances it can feel distant and impersonal, or else veer in the other direction, into a humorless traumatic mud pit where everything is as over-the-top miserable as a sophomore year breakup. When we’re trying to describe this effect we often say that characters should be ‘relatable,’ whatever that means—but in my experience when people read ‘relatable,’ they too often understand it to mean ‘identical with the presumptive audience,’ when that’s not the point at all. (Do you think John Wick would enjoy a John Wick movie?) Rather, when characters experience things that we readers intuitively understand—say, when they attend an awkward birthday party, or meet an aging relative after a long separation—we remember how we felt in similar situations. These moments prime us to connect the character’s experiences with our own. And when that character is, later, trapped in an underground maze by a giant evil spider, that bond encourages us to reflect on times in our lives when we, too, were, hopefully metaphorically, trapped in an underground maze by a giant evil spider.
But it’s a difficult balance to strike. The more urgent the plot, the more dire the stakes, the less room characters have to breathe, and the harder we must work to stop our stories from collapsing into screaming and necessity. There was a thread dancing around Twitter a while back, of a screenwriter lamenting the slow going-into-the-west of the old 22-episode US television season. From an equity and talent development perspective (in the writer’s room at least), longer seasons mean less competition among the writer’s room for scripts—so there are more chances that an assistant or kohai, someone eager for their come-up, scores a script. But the crux of this argument—which I’m afraid has receded into the Swamp of Twitter—was the challenge that shorter seasons present to serial storytelling.
An 8- or 6-episode season, so runs the argument, is an awkward length for American live action media—too long for a single story, but not quite long enough to reach cruising altitude, with a stable episodic pace. Without an episodic story engine—the ‘case of the week’ from a Leverage or a The Good Wife—a shorter season relies on a driving arc to maintain tension. But you need a lot of arc to drive twelve hours of narrative, and once you have that arc, once you have those stakes, then you’re in danger of losing the particularity of the characters, because anything they do that doesn’t loop back to the arc feels wrongheaded. Cue screaming and necessity.
(This is more of a challenge with live action TV than with animation, I think—animation, especially Japanese animation, uses decompression and introspection in an almost novelistic way that live action US TV really doesn’t. When we watch Haikyuu!! in this house, we joke about how conversation and character development are free actions in volleyball—a character goes for a spike, their teammates shout encouragement, time slows down, we refresh their whole character arc leading up to that spike. A stunning effect. A novelistic effect. Not really a live action TV effect.)
Now—obviously short-season live action television works! Some shows like The Mandalorian square the circle by going HARD in the direction of format. Or you have British-style novelistic miniseries like, I don’t know, Broadchurch. Tell me Russian Doll isn’t great and you and me are gonna have an argument—but then, Russian Doll, at 8 taut 30 minute episodes, isn’t actually much longer than the director’s cut of The Fellowship of the Ring.
Longer stories just have more room. My wife rewatched Star Trek: Deep Space Nine recently, and there’s this episode, in season five, called In the Cards. It runs like this: on the eve of an interstellar war, Captain Sisko is depressed, and so are the rest of our heroes, because interstellar war is a bummer. Jake Sisko, the Captain’s son, wants to cheer his dad up—but how? He learns that a 1951 Willie Mays rookie card will be part of an antiques auction on their space station. Jake’s going to get the card for his dad! Which scheme spirals out of control into an absurd series of fetch quests featuring a teddy bear, Klingon Opera, the Bajoran TVA, and a quack scientist who thinks he’s going to cure death by creating a “cellular entertainment chamber,” because your cells die when they get bored. The whole thing builds to Jake and his buddy Nog getting kidnapped by spies from the Gamma Quadrant, but don’t worry, it all turns out okay in the space of a 40 minute hour. It’s absurd. It’s wonderful. It’s off-speed. And when the war starts in earnest the next episode, it hits that much harder, because we’ve seen these characters catch their breath. We know—we have been reminded—that they have lives. So we care when those lives change forever.
Novels face a similar challenge to the short series. Even a long-running doorstopper series doesn’t have a lot of space for the “off speed episode.” Can you imagine if the next Game of Thrones book was a 250-page beach episode starring Dany and Brienne of Tarth? I’m sure that fic exists, and more power to it, but if that was the actual content of Winds of Winter, there would be riots. (I’d buy it. But I won’t claim I’ve never felt the urge to Get On With It: as a Wheel of Time fan, I still can’t quite forgive The Book Without Mat.) Pacing is an issue here, too. A year (at least) between installments, off-speed novels can really test fans’ engagement with the series.
So: how do you give characters room to breathe, and have those relatable, human moments that establish and sustain their bonds with the reader?
There are traditional answers. In epic fantasy, you go on a long walk. Maybe it’s a long walk through a dangerous place, maybe it’s a long walk where you’ll be in trouble if you are discovered, but, fundamentally, it’s a long walk. You set up camp, you break down camp. You settle your pack on your back and you grab the walking stick you’ve carved and you go. You climb hills. You climb more hills. It rains. You sing songs. You forget the words to songs. You make them up. You remember someone with your full body. Sweating and worn out after a long climb you reach the ridge and see mountains and valleys rolling out before you, endless. Sweating and worn out after a long climb you reach the ridge and see only a featureless gray expanse. You eat lunch. You reach the point where you can’t bear to eat one more goddamn slice of summer sausage. You set up camp. You break down camp. There’s a rhythm of daily incident. There’s space for human stuff to happen.
In noir or mystery or the procedural, you investigate a crime. Sometimes you’re running after a suspect or questioning a witness, but there’s a lot of getting in cars, out of cars, going to diners, losing your change in the vending machine, watching people in an airport. Gibson’s Millennium Trilogy is brilliant at the modern version of this sort of thing, and he adds to it the magic trick of spinning that wandering incident back around into the narrative, without (apparent) contrivance.
But I’m always looking for new answers to this question, new techniques to try. Especially since many of the traditional answers only tell us what these characters are like when they’re on an adventure, that is, hiking to Mordor, investigating a murder, etc. You don’t get the sense Phillip Marlowe has a private life—just an assembly of cases in which the murder hasn’t happened yet.
Theodora Goss’s Athena Club books have an approach I haven’t seen before, in traditionally published fiction at least. These are The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, and The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl. They’re really fun novels, well told, and perfect for the audio, which is how I read them. The narrator, whose name, improbably enough, is Kate Reading, juggles a plethora of European and American accents with grace and skill. (Here’s a Bookshop.org link for the first novel, and here’s, you know, the other guys.)
Formally, these books are gaslamp fantasy crossover adventures, in a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen milieu—the kind of world where Sherlock Holmes and Mr Hyde both exist, and maybe know each other. Our heroes are the Athena Club, an association of women who’ve all been the unwilling subjects of alchemical experiments, namely Diana Hyde, Mary Jekyll, Justine Frankenstein, Beatrice Rappacini, and Catharine Moreau (the puma-woman from the Island of Dr. Moreau). They’re out to help each other, to save others from becoming the experimental subjects of unethical alchemists, and to flourish in a world that’s not particularly kind to people who don’t look or act like everyone else.
The books are thick with consequential action—vampires, mummies, beast men, murders and plots. They drip with countesses and continental excursions and historical detail. At least one person tries to conquer the world. It would be so easy for this all to collapse into screaming and necessity. And yet it doesn’t—the characters are carefully wrought, bold and reliable. They make big and small mistakes, they care for one another and they interfere with one another. We know who they are.
Some of that is done with careful management of narrative tempo. A 19th century thriller plot sometimes requires characters to kill a day in Paris waiting for the next train, relatively free of vampire attack. But Goss deploys a further technique that I find fascinating: a running actors’ commentary.
The texts of the novels are supposedly written by Catharine Moreau, the puma-woman, who has a thriving career as a writer of crowd-pleasing potboiler mass market fiction. (“Rick Chambers and the Spider-Women!”) The Athena Club is perpetually short on money (another welcome off-speed pitch, in a milieu where characters tend to be ‘of means,’ even should those means be limited), so everyone has agreed that Catharine will write up their adventures as a side hustle and use the proceeds to fund Club activities, i.e., lunch. However, everyone has opinions about what actually happened, and about Catharine’s writing style. So they drop in while Catharine works on her manuscript, and comment on what they read over her shoulder. By way of revenge, Catharine includes their conversations in the manuscript—in block quotes set off from the proper text, no description, just dialog back and forth, like a transcript of a recording.
Goss is careful with her timing of this gimmick, and that timing highlights her skill as an author. Something like this calls attention to itself, and anything that calls attention to itself in fiction can become grating if deployed carelessly. But with the proper balance, it’s a tremendous effect. As characters comment on Catharine’s story, and on one another’s commentary—“It didn’t happen like that! I was much more composed.” “Oh no you weren’t, I was there, remember?”—we get little details about the texture of their daily lives, and the nature of their memories. We learn what parts of their own adventures they find exciting and what parts they find horribly embarrassing. We hear their banter. And we learn how the connections they make through their adventures remain a part of their lives—we learn how they’re still friends, years later, with the woman who owns this one inn in Cornwall, we learn whether they’ve managed to get the bloodstain out of that rug. Small subplots even develop within the commentary—Justine’s gallery opening, Catherine’s and Diana’s fight. We get a sense we’re peering behind the curtain, seeing a part of these characters that’s not intended for public consumption—even though it obviously is, or else it wouldn’t be here.
It’s not an effect without its tradeoffs. The conceit, if played fair, means that certain things can’t or won’t happen. A character who comments on the events of a story is almost certain to survive it, for example. We know the Athena Club exists at the point when these books are being written, which heavily implies some things about the greater political universe—the world in the commentary doesn’t feel conquered by an undead foe, so it probably won’t be. This can undermine the main action’s urgency—but that’s where the sense of timing and balance comes into play again. When you’re carried along by a thrilling narrative, even if you know the characters survive, that fact may not bubble up to the surface of your mind unless you’re reminded of it. Still, it is a trade-off. On the flip side, Goss uses the commentary track to incorporate the kind of editorial commentary and foreshadowing that’s period-appropriate, and a great literary effect, but not really in fashion in modern books—“Little did she know she would never see him again.”
The resulting effect is that, by the end of even the first book, we know these characters. They’re not just people who happened to be in this one adventure novel we read—we recognize them, in the way that could drive a fan fiction AU.
Sure, they defeat the vampire cabal, sure, they stop Professor Moriarty, that’s fine, any group of heroes could do that. It’s an oddity of genre that I’ve lost track of the number of characters of my acquaintance who have Stopped Professor Moriarty or Defeated the Vampire Cabal. Even Rick Chambers could do it!
But when it comes to the Athena Club, I can imagine their customary Starbucks orders. I can imagine what they miss about their pre-pandemic life, what aspects of their survival strategy they’re hoping to keep with them moving forward but inwardly suspect they won’t be able to. (Except for Diana. Introspection isn’t her strong suit. Burning things down is.) I can guess what kind of masks they’d wear, what’s their work from home outfit, what they miss most about the outside world, how they’ve been getting on each other’s nerves during lock-in and how they’ve tried to keep themselves together. Maybe Mary wants to get back to the DMV. After all, she’s spent the last fifteen months low-key anxious about how her drivers license wasn’t updated to Real ID before the quarantine hit. And Catharine is excited for everyone else to go back to their lives, so she can focus on her writing without people barging into the office all the time and peering over her shoulder at her manuscript. Even if she’ll miss them. (Though she’d never tell them that.)
The books would be strong and functional without the asides, but I don’t think they’d be nearly so vivid. They cost the reader something in suspense, but I think that’s more than worth the trade.
After all, it’s not all dark lords and office visits and flights and DMVs. The little things that give life, and novels, joy, and texture, and truth—that’s what we reach for. The dark lord or their analogue provides necessary pressure, driving characters out of whatever rut they’ve locked themselves into—but then the author has to connect us to these people, so we care about their fates. There are so many tools to accomplish this end: character choice, flashback, tempo control, memory, characteristic action, and, in the Athena Club books, meta-narrative asides. But they all share a similar drive, a need felt by characters and readers and writers alike. We all want a moment beyond screaming and necessity. A moment to be ourselves.