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How The Belgariad Taught Me To Write A Cyberpunk Dystopia – Guest Blog by Ferrett Steinmetz

Ferrett Steinmetz

Ferrett Steinmetz

Full confession: I thought my new novel The Uploaded was a dystopian novel about the miseries that happen five hundred years after humanity perfects brain-uploading. But my publisher Angry Robot told me it was something different.

“You wrote a cyberpunk family drama, Ferrett!”

I looked up, baffled, from my chocolate milk – the only drink of Serious Spec Fic Authors. “…I did?”

“Of course!” they told me cheerfully. “The Uploaded is all about families coming together in times of adversity. That’s what you wrote about in your ‘Mancer trilogy, and that’s what you wrote about here. You write lovable, realistic families.”

I wanted to protest, but then I thought about the novel I’d just sold to Tor, which was also about a ragtag family being bonded together by friendship and affection. And, well, I guess that “disparate personalities learning to love each other” is sort of my schtick, even when I’m dealing with the horror of a world run by immortal uploaded consciousnesses that will never, can never, die.

Yet the weird thing is I can’t actually claim credit for that talent. Everything I learned about writing families, I learned from David Eddings’ The Belgariad.

Let me tell you what I learned.

– – –

Pawn of Prophecy (cover)Now. The Belgariad was written in the 1980s – and like most fantasies from the 80s, it’s got some dated elements you have to scrape off to enjoy it. It’s got some gender essentialism in that all women secretly enjoy dressing up and have an unending fury if they’re crossed. The races have a chronic case of Funny Hat Syndrome, where every last Drasnian is a sneaky spy, every last Algar is a horseback rider, and every last Asturian is a headstrong, Lawful Stupid knight.
The Belgariad is not what you’d call “nuanced.”

Still, as some extremely woke friends of mine have dived back into The Belgariad expecting to be punched in the face https://www.annleckie.com/2013/10/21/real-heart-real-artificial-heart/, they’ve instead found a mostly respectful take on fantasy with potent female characters and an abundance of witty banter.

Which is the first lesson I learned from The Belgariad:

Witty Banter Goes A Long Way Towards Creating Love

This is a lesson Joss Whedon realized early and the Marvel Cinematic Universe took to heart, but I learned it years ago from David Eddings – if you can have character conflict wrapped up in quotable, snarky lines, you can compress a lot of affection into a very small space.

The Uploaded (cover)There’s a thousand ways to generate sympathy for a character, and as a writer you’d better learn all of them. (I haven’t. One day I hope to.) But a very quick way to make a reader care about someone is to give the reader a laugh inspired directly by your character.

Now, if you lean too heavily on that walking assistive device, what you wind up with is Marvel at its worst: hollow characters who are balls of snark with no heart. But if you can shackle that snappy dialogue to genuine character motivation, you can have readers who get very attached to your people because, well, who doesn’t like someone who makes them smile?

And in The Belgariad, even the blandest of the lead characters (poor Durnik) gets a zinger off once in a while. And in The Uploaded, it’s why I have a character starting off his deadly serious adventures by saying, “We had not, I should stress, done anything illegal yet.”

I mean, he hasn’t. But when you’re breaking into a hospital to rescue your sickened sister, you’re trespassing on dead property, you’re neutralizing the dead’s security cameras, and you’re visiting after-hours.

The dead will probably let that last one slide. Maybe.

…But You’ve Got To Have Actual Flaws For Your Characters

In The Belgariad, literally everyone will drive you crazy once in a while. Garion, the lead, is young and a chronic whiner. His mentor Belgarath is prone to self-pity and drinking. His mother figure Polgara is too stern, sometimes dismissive of genuine emotion.

The Belgariad by Daniel R. HorneThey don’t like each other all the time. They’ll usually get past their irritation by snarking at each other’s shortcomings, and that’s funny because yes, once again, witty banter.

But then – occasionally – it’s a real character motivator.

Because yes, Garion is whiny and he does get dragged everywhere for no reason by Polgara, and at one point Garion explodes at Polgara about how thoughtless and unfeeling and brutal she is. At which point she reminds Garion that he is the last of a vital bloodline she has sacrificed everything to protect, that she rescued him from a burning barn after watching his parents die, that she has spent the last hundred years living on a farm in the middle of nowhere all to keep him safe, and if he wants to call her unfeeling then he had better think again.

She’s right.

And after she’s done, Garion has a pretty massive apology to deliver.

But the truth is that Garion is also not wrong. He’s whiny; Polgara is mission-driven. And Eddings, wisely, doesn’t take sides on that. You shouldn’t either.

You don’t make a character likeable by smoothing off all their edges. You make characters likeable by giving the reader things to like and things to dislike. Give your reader someone who’s not irritating ever, and they bounce off that character because that doesn’t match up with their experience of real life people.

A couple of reviewers have already noted my lead character Amichai is headstrong, almost annoyingly so. And he is. (“Headstrong” is a good trait to have in a lead character, because then they become a plot-seeking missile.) But he’s at least interestingly annoying, I hope, and is protective of his friends enough that his stubbornness battles with his loyalty.

Your friends piss you off every once in a while. You know that. So let your characters breathe.

Remember Neil Gaiman’s Party Advice

I once was lucky enough to ask Neil Gaiman how he created such sympathetic characters.

“I read a book once,” he said after a thought pause. “Can’t remember the name of it, but that’s because I put it down after eighty pages. It was written well enough, I suppose, but the lead character was someone so unlikable that I realized that if I met him at a party, I’d make my excuses after five minutes and find another room to be in.

“So I thought, ‘All my characters should be people I’d want to talk to at parties.’ That’s my – well, I’m just formulating it right now, but it’s my Party Theory. Why would I like this person enough to spend time with them at a party I’m having a good time at? What about them would make me want to stand next to them and chat?

“If you don’t know what that is, you should find it.”

Final Fantasy XIV Online Concept Art by Kazuya Takahashi

Now keep in mind “The sort of person you’d find fascinating at a party” is not necessarily “The sort of person you’d be best friends with.” You could have a very fascinating conversation with someone who, say, cleaned up murder scenes without wanting to take them home.

But if you think of The Belgariad, you can easily see reasons why you’d want to curl up with each of these people – Polgara’s a hawk who will have your back in a fight, Belgarath is the naughty uncle who’d sneak your underaged butt some beer at the family reunion, the princess Ce’nedra is haughty but you have to admire her willpower.

A lot of people focus on the family’s dysfunction. That’ll happen naturally if you get the right mix of characters. But many people forget to focus on the good qualities of someone – why would you want to spend a few hours kicking back with this person?

Belgariad by K-HUDThink about when you’d text this person to ask ‘em over for the evening. Find the love.

Because if you do it right, your publisher will tell you, “Oh, yeah, your family is heartwarming” when what you thought you wrote was a cold, callous take on post-Singularity cultural changes.

But hey. If I’m gonna have a schtick, “Writing people you’d like to hang out with” is not a bad one. Because I spent a lot of hours curled up rereading The Belgariad when I was a teenager, wishing those guys were my friends.

If I manage do that for anyone, well… thanks, David. I learned it from the best.

Title image by Crooty.

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How The Belgariad Taught Me To Write A Cyberpunk Dystopia - Guest Blog by Ferrett Steinmetz, 10.0 out of 10 based on 6 ratings
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One Comment

  1. Thanks for writing this, I really enjoyed it. I, too, spent much of my teenage years rereading these books. For some reason I was always trying to see how quickly I could read them. I think my record was three and a half days for the Belgariad.

    I think made a mistake though. You referred to the Asturians as lawful stupid knights. Asturians were bowmen. It was the Mimbrates who were knights. Together they were Arends and they were all lawful stupid together.

    I don’t think it’s entirely fair to call Durnik bland. Remember two things. He was a bit introverted but he had some incredible skills and when they were doing something he knew he was the expert in, he didn’t hesitate to take charge.

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