Video: Fan Theories, Canon, and Reality

I’ve released another video! This one’s about the death of the author, among other things.

How do we know what’s “real” in fiction? We can’t always trust the writer’s word, especially in the era of fan creations and headcanon.

I try to release another video every two weeks or so (the weeks I don’t post writing), so subscribe! I’m having lots of fun with these videos, and I hope you’re having fun watching them.

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Illustrations and Authorial Intent

There are 15 illustrations in Homer VS the Elf. I won’t pretend they’re any good, but they’re probably the best so far, and I had fun making them. Today I’d like to describe my illustrative process and illustration’s relation to authorial intent, which is the latest buzzword I see online nowadays and might get me some views if I put it in the tags.

I started making little illustrations with Akayama DanJay because the psychedelic anime-robot-fight felt deserving of art to draw people’s attention. I didn’t worry much about making the illustrations actually match up with the text. Sometimes I’d elide scenes so the illustration transitioned from one to the next. The style is minimal with flat colors, and each character is color-coded. I started with only one illustration at the end of each section, then returned later to add another to each section’s beginning. Some sections have more than ten pictures.

A chapter of The Minotaur’s Board-Game might have thirty illustrations. The first step is always rereading the chapter and writing “pict1,” “pict2,” and so on whenever the readers meet a new character or visit a new location, or if the text could be clarified with pictures.

Once I’ve figured out how many pictures I want, I open up the GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program). There are other image editors, like Photoshop, but the GIMP is free and I can write plug-ins in Python to, for example, automatically generate any number of empty images with a white background layer and a transparent layer for sketching.

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(I made a palette so it’s easy to keep colors consistent from chapter to chapter. I won’t pretend to know any color-theory, but I think my palette looks nice. I made it here.)

I sketch all the illustrations in one go; it can take a whole day. I’ve got a Wacom tablet and pen, so I can use natural hand-movements to draw on my computer. The harder I press the pen, the more opaque the line!

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Then I decrease the opacity of the sketch layers and color all the backgrounds; that can take a whole day, too. I color unimportant background characters like Akayama-DanJay-style mannequins so they don’t distract from the real characters.

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Then I draw all the main characters in a new layer over the background. It’s often convenient to put each character on their own layer so they can be moved independently, especially if they overlap. Finally I disable the sketch layer.

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Pictures are especially helpful for table-war. Whenever a table-war strategy is hard to describe, I know a picture can save my butt.

But sometimes the text and the pictures disagree. I describe huge audiences but draw less than ten spectators. I’ve probably put Homer’s eye-patch on the wrong side more than once, and in the pictures he has hooves instead of fingers. Sometimes when eliding two scenes into one illustration, asynchronous events appear simultaneous. In these cases I’d argue the text takes precedence, if only because text is easier for me to edit and update than illustrations.

But as an author, can I declare how my work should be interpreted?

This has recently come into question with the latest works from J. K. Rowling and, more classically, George Lucas’ Star Wars. Is it appropriate to retroactively declare a character’s race, gender, or sexuality? Must we accept midichlorians as canonical? Who ultimately decides a work’s meaning, its author or its audience?

One of my goals in writing these commentaries is to show that authors only pretend to know what’s going on in their stories. Writing is literally just making things up. An author might plan some plot ahead of time, but that plan is just made up, too. Iterative making-stuff-up is the name of the game.

So maybe an author is the grand maker-upper whose holy word is the only authentic source of interpretation, even if their book disagrees with them. Or maybe an author’s word is worthless, because stories are ephemeral visions appearing differently to everyone and the text is the only thing we can all agree on.

When we talk about our favorite fantasies to fellow fans, we like to imagine our visions of the fiction match, or at least overlap. Hence, I’ve added some pictures. My illustrations don’t perfectly encapsulate the text, but I hope they provide a cohesive universe and showcase characters’ emotions or whatever.

Anyway, thanks for reading. If you’ve enjoyed my rambling, or you like minotaurs and board-games, feel free to follow me and catch the next update.

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The Wheel of Virtue

In Homer and the Griffon Aria sells her dragonling to humanity’s royal beast-master and meets Queen Anthrapas, ruler of the human race. She’s escorted by Sir Jameson, a military recruiter.

A military recruiter doesn’t do much in this fantasy world where war is replaced with board-games. Jameson just dresses up in armor to inspire people to register as game-pieces. A new recruit has gnomes take their notes, then leaves knowing he’s done his civic duty. His avatar might be fighting for humanity even while he’s asleep!

In my first draft, I wasn’t quite sure what Sir Jameson’s purpose was. I added him because I thought Aria needed another character to bounce off; Homer doesn’t talk at all, and gnomes are sorta robotic. I actually added two characters in my first draft, but now I’ve elided them together into Jameson.

Currently, I think Jameson is a Watson-type character. Sherlock Holmes is a genius, so the reader needs Watson for Sherlock to explain things to in layman’s terms. While Aria, Homer, and the gnomes understand table-war, Jameson doesn’t, so the other characters have a reason to explain things to him, and, simultaneously, the reader.

I’ve heard amnesia is a common trope in fiction for the same reason. If the main character doesn’t remember anything, then they know exactly as much as the reader! Homer, the total newcomer to this strange world, fills that niche.

Still, I don’t want Jameson to be a boring tag-along. I already mentioned YuGiOh is a tongue-in-cheek inspiration for The Minotaur’s Board-Game, and while I’m glad to write about a fantasy-world revolving around geeky hobbies, I don’t want useless, annoying cheerleader characters like those who follow Yugi all day.

A third-wheel character like Jameson can benefit from the Wheel of Virtue. I’m absolutely butchering this idea, but the way I understand it, the Wheel of Virtue a helpful way for me to think about how characters should act. Says Noel Carroll, “some… art can function and is designed to function as a source of moral purposes,” specifically a delineation between vice and virtue. If a novel is meant to convey a message about a particular virtue, it’s helpful to have a cast of characters which accounts for a spectrum of possibilities along the gradient from virtue to vice. A story whose message is “Greed is bad, charity is good” could benefit from characters who are very greedy, a little greedy, a little charitable, and very charitable.

If the novel explores multiple virtues, we can imagine a Cartesian plot of characters on the axes of virtue and vice. If you want your book to convey a theme about virtue X versus virtue Y, say for example, “greed is bad, charitably is good, and also Star Wars is better than Star Trek“, each character should express a unique combination of greediness/charitably and fandom affiliation. This lets the text show the reader how these qualities intermingle.

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Says Carroll, “In literary fiction… these comparisons and contrasts… prompt the audience to apply concepts of virtue and vice to the characters, thus exercising and sharpening their ability to recognize instances of these otherwise often vaguely defined or highly abstract concepts.”

In The Minotaur’s Board-Game I think the relevant “virtues” are physical strength, intelligence, and political power. These three attributes separate characters nicely: some characters are strong (Homer, Jameson), some characters are weaker (Aria, Anthrapas, gnomes, elves). Many characters are intelligent (Homer, Aria, Anthrapas, Stephanie, gnomes) because the story demands it, but they showcase different kinds of intelligence (Homer is mute, Aria is manipulative, gnomes are mechanical). But neither strength nor intelligence make someone politically relevant. These feel like linearly independent attributes.

So Sir Jameson should occupy an untouched area of the virtue-wheel. Let’s make him strong, and not terribly intelligent, but his patriotism for humanity gives him just enough political clout for Aria to leverage. In that respect he’s sort of a human version of Homer. I think that gives him a great vantage-point to be the perfect Tristan: a third-wheel character who just gawks while the real protagonist, Homer, wins table-war.

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The act of actually plotting characters on a virtue-wheel might be a little anal-retentive, but the idea itself is a handy device for conceptualizing what kinds of characters are necessary to complete a narrative and convey a theme. If nothing else, I hope it helps me keep from accidentally populating my work with duplicate characters; if any two characters occupy the same role, it’s often easy to smush them together into one franken-character and maintain thematic integrity.

I hope you enjoyed reading my weirdly analytical thoughts on fiction-writing! I sure enjoyed writing it.

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PS. Another applicable virtue might be Age, or Experience. Anthrapas is sort of Aria’s “evolved form,” so to speak.