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Writing Excuses 8.47: Roguishness with Scott Lynch

Writing Excuses 8.47: Roguishness with Scott Lynch


 Key points: Sympathetic roguish characters are usually very charming. We like transgressive performance -- strong warriors, fast fighters, amazing magicians, and social transgression, too. Boundary and rule breaking can be attractive! Charming rogues and antiheroes are closely related. Part of the appeal is getting away with stuff we wish we could try. How do we do this? Time compression! Charming, witty, exactly right can take months of writing for just a minute of action or dialogue. Go back and punch it up -- you don't have to do it all in one afternoon. Awful is in the eye of the reader, and what the author intends may not have the expected effect. Often antiheroes are seen as good in comparison to the people they are going up against, who are worse. Have a foil hang a lantern on the behavior.

[Mary] Season Eight, Episode 47.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Roguishness with Scott Lynch.
[Howard] 15 minutes long, because you're in a hurry.
[Mary] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] I'm Howard.
[Brandon] And this is Scott Lynch! Yay!
[Brandon] Who braved back injury to come and join us.
[Scott] I was going to say my own name, but I guess that works.

[Brandon] Scott Lynch. Scott, tell us, if people don't know, about your work. Tell us about yourself.
[Scott] All right. I am from Minnesota. I live in Wisconsin. Don't hold that against me. I am the author of The Lies of Locke Lamora, Red Seas under Red Skies, and the increasingly non-hypothetical, actually in existence, definitely coming in October of this year to this very planet on which you are residing unless you are listening to this on the ISS in which case Godspeed, The Republic of Thieves.
[Brandon] I saw Saladin carrying around a copy of that.
[Mary] I know.
[Scott] Yes, I gave Saladin Ahmed a copy of the book, and if you want one...
[Howard] Actually, by the time this episode airs, that will almost certainly be a book that is already in your hands, fair listener.
[Scott] But if you are at GenCon, and you want a copy of Republic of Thieves, find Saladin Ahmed and bring more people...
[Scott] He's wiry and he's fast, but you might be able to get the jump on him.
[Brandon] He's walking around petting it. I don't know if you noticed, but...
[Scott] As is only suitable. Well, Saladin came up to my... This is the kind of person Saladin is. Saladin came up to my hotel room... We're not even in the same hotel... This morning when I woke up and could not stand up. Saladin is the one who pried me off the floor and tolerated my screaming while I put my spine back into position to approximate a human being. So yes, he earned that copy of Republic of Thieves. Wait, scratch that. Don't beat him up. At least not at GenCon.

[Brandon] All right. Roguishness. This is like a catchall topic for stuff that Scott Lynch does awesomely.
[Mary] I think we've just seen a demonstration of the roguishness.
[Scott] I was being nice. I can't even be nice to somebody without somebody saying, "Ah, there goes a rogue."
[Mary] Go beat him up and take his book is nice?
[Scott] It was polite.
[Mary] You're confusing...
[Scott] It was...
[Howard] He's wiry, bring friends.
[Mary] So this is... He was being nice to the audience?
[Scott] Exactly. I was being helpful to somebody who is not Saladin.
[Mary] But this is in fact an example of how to create a roguish character who is sympathetic by making him really, really charming so you don't notice what an asshole he really is.
[Scott] You can also surround him with people who are more sanctimonious... I mean, moral to keep him on the straight and narrow especially when it comes to slugging or not slugging other famous authors. At least let Saladin get to the Hugo ceremony. Because he's...
[Mary] That's true.
[Scott] After that, he's fair game.
[Brandon] He's not up against me in any categories, so... [Inaudible]
[Mary] Oh, yeah. So I could just totally go for that book right now.

[Brandon] All right. So. Roguishness. Why do we like rogues? Why do we like people that are on the outskirts of law and perhaps morality?
[Scott] Well, we like to see transgressive performance, which is a very complex way of saying we like to see strong warriors, we like to see fast fighters, we like to see amazing magicians. We like to see socially transgressive people as well. We like to see people who break the customs and the laws and the social conscience that most of us are happily constrained by. I mean, I'm not running around on people's rooftops for purposes other than putting out fires. The actor who was recently chosen to play the 12th Doctor, Peter Capaldi, plays a character called Malcolm Tucker in a British show called In the Thick of It. He's a political consultant, and he's a foulmouthed maggot of a human being who has no redeeming features whatsoever except for the fact that he is so utterly transgressive, beyond the bounds of propriety as we recognize it in this universe, that he becomes hypnotic and fascinating. That sort of boundary breaking and rules breaking in any form is what we seek when we fall in love with characters.
[Howard] How is that necessarily different from certain kinds of antiheroes or are we really talking about two sides of the same coin?
[Scott] Absolutely the same thing. I mean, there's a very long shifty gray area between charming rogue and antihero. I mean, it's a continuum, it all blends.
[Brandon] Right, though you add that charmingness on and that shifts it entirely. The other thing I would say is I think like from this type of roguish character, we will take the slightest bit of something like moral and latch onto it and say, "Oh, they're good at heart." The littlest thing. Like they pet a puppy and then stab 17 people. We're like, "Oh, but they're really just lovable at heart." We latch onto that.
[Mary] Let me...
[Scott] Yeah, trail of corpses... I'm sorry, I stepped on Mary. Not literally. Not yet.
[Mary] Ow! Eh-heh, eh-heh, eh-heh.
[Scott] She's so tiny. How could you not...
[Mary] Ow, ow, ow.
[Scott] You were going to say something.

[Mary] Oh. I was going to say that I think part of what is... What appeals to us about the transgressiveness is that they are getting away with stuff that we want to try. That this is... This is very much the nature of catharsis, that it's... Watching someone drown a bag of rabid weasels is something that many of us want to do.
[Brandon] What?
[Scott] That's the title of Mary's forthcoming autobiography, Drowning a Bag of Rabid Weasels.
[Howard] The weasels are rabid.
[Brandon] The weasels are rabid?
[Howard] The weasels are rabid, so...
[Brandon] Oh. I was just going to say, you don't use a safe for that? Because you toss it... A safe sinks, a bag doesn't sink.
[Mary] Oh, you're right. You're so right.
[Brandon] You just put them in it and then it just goes down.
[Mary] I didn't think about... Okay, you're right.
[Scott] You have thought the physics of the situation through entirely too much.
[Mary] I was just going to say...
[Brandon] Bags float, Mary, and weasels get out.
[Mary] Okay, you're right. [Inaudible]
[Howard] That's one aspect of making this rogue wonderful is that the rogue thinks it through more than you have and brings a safe to the river.
[Mary] Yes.
[Scott] Well, I know who I'm calling for weasel disposal purposes in the future.
[Brandon] I know. These guys are... No, let's... Yah!

[Mary] It's the same thing that you see in fairytales that a lot of times these are cautionary tales, they're a way to experiment with what would happen if I did this. The thing that is appealing about the transgressive characters like a rogue, a charming lovable rogue, is that they actually get to act out things and get away with it. Like you would love to be able to tell your boss off. There are times when you see something in your life, "Boy, it would just be so easy to do that, but I'm not going to because..." Sometimes your answer is because I'm a good person and sometimes it's just because I would get caught.
[Brandon] And I would also say that sometimes it is you don't have the right words in the moment. Right? We are not... This is superhuman capability to in that moment just come up with the perfect thing that is the utter burn that is brilliant on three levels. We just can't do that, a lot of us. And if we do, it's only occasional. So there's this like wish fulfillment. It's all that time where you're like, "Oh, if I would have said this. If I would've said that, it would've been genius.
[Scott] Typically six months after the fact.
[Brandon] Yeah, you've been thinking about it for six months.
[Scott] I was on that podcast with Brandon Sanderson, that rabid weasel drowner, and if only I had said this...
[Howard?] At least I remembered the word sanctimonious.

[Brandon] Okay. Let's do our book of the week. Which is this... By this unknown author named Scott Lynch.
[Scott] The book of the week requires much sympathy because it is an unheralded, unknown... Wait, what am I saying? It's a brilliant work of staggering genius that will leave you sobbing for many of the right reasons and a few of the wrong reasons. You can find it on It's the Lies of Locke Lamora, my debut novel from 2006. As relevant today as it was when it was written. It is narrated by the brilliant Michael Page who really does a voice for nearly every character in the book. This is how I discovered just how many damn secondary characters I had put into the thing. It was a shock to me. The only person on earth who does not like Michael Page's narration is my grandmother. My grandma Georgine... Hi, grandma George. Bless her heart, grandma George wants to hear the voices in her own head and doesn't want to hear Michael Page doing them for her. But if you are not my grandmother Georgine, you will love Michael Page. He gets a lot of fan mail. He gets more fan mail than I do. Send me fan mail. Buy the book at, Lies of Locke Lamora.
[Brandon] Wow.
[Howard] so that Writing Excuses gets their cut.
[Scott] Oh. Howard shows me up while I'm taking a breath.
[Brandon] No, no. I think Howard's fired. That was a wonderful promo.
[Howard] That was a better...
[Mary] I'm like I've already read the book, but I'm just totally going to get the audio one now.

[Scott] Yes. You podcast listeners, you'd be so much less impressed if you could see me like nodding and gesturing and speaking to the physical microphone. Like doing all this totally irrelevant meatspace stuff for the podcast.
[Mary] That's because we have a live audience.
[Brandon] Live audience at GenCon.
[Scott] I'm nodding so loudly.

[Brandon] All right. So. Often the second half of the podcast is the part where I ask how? How do we do this? How do the writers who are listening who are like, "That sounds awesome. I want to write the most brilliant, clever rogue story ever, but I'm not clever enough." How can they do this? No, I've run into this. Like... My characters are far more clever than I am. Far more. How do we do this? How do we... Can we tell our listeners to imitate this?
[Mary] Well, you have a crazy outlining graphing thing.
[Scott] I do. Well, there's a couple answers. The first is you can't, go home.
[Scott] But that's a big lie. Because I am not the super clever rogue genius who runs around always having the exact right thing to say popping out of his head. I am the guy who can't find his sock six days out of seven, who would misplace his spine if it was not somehow attached to my back. I don't know how, but it's always there when I need it.
[Brandon] Except this morning.
[Scott] The advantage that we have is that our characters benefit from the time compression. What happens for them on the page may take a minute or a second. We have six months to think about it. We get to plot and plan in detail, and they pretend to be as charming and as witty and as sharp as months of trial and preparation can make them look. I mean, that's the big secret. The big secret is we do all the work, they get all the credit, the little bastards.
[Howard] I've found that writing the situation and knowing that the dialogue is going to need to be punched up... Something clever goes here. Very, very often I will write a script, a Schlock Mercenary script, and I know that witty repartee is the punchline here, but I don't know what it is. I don't feel witty yet. So what goes in the dialogue bubble is "think of a better punchline than this."
[Scott] [garbled]
[Howard] Then I keep writing... Then I keep writing and I go to other things and eventually it comes to me or I work on it or I don't say something in the grocery store that I maybe wanted to say and I remember something clever at home... Whatever your percolation process is. It just...
[Scott] Very true and very good. Remember that you do not have to do this all in one afternoon, and that you can wait for inspiration to strike. Reread your dialogue, reread your scenes. Ask yourself, "Has this ever been asked in this fashion before? Have I read this dialogue before? Is this clichéd? Is this chock-full of similes that are right out of third grade?" Essentially, look at it always with an eye toward doing better and making it more unique, whenever you can.
[Mary] There's something in comedy writing called a joke area, which actually works really well with regular dialogue too, which is that you think about what the purpose of that line is. Not just why the character is saying it, but what it's... What function it serves in the story. Then you look at other ways to say it. So an example... And try and make it more and more specific to the character. So like if your character can't hear something and they say, "What did you say?" Okay, that's one very straightforward way to say that. But there's also "Eh? Couldn't quite hear that?" Or "Come again?" You look at all of the different ways until you find something that is specific to the character and moves the plot forward as well.
[Brandon] Yeah. I really like what has been said here, also, the whole you can witty punchline here. I actually... Something I found myself doing lately is you have your little writing book we've talked about... Mine is my phone, but... Where you jot down ideas. I've actually been reversing that where I write down the line that came before and what I need, the witty punchline here, what's going to be in there. I carry that around with me, because there will be time when I got 15 minutes just sitting and sometimes the cleverest things happen when you're not working on a book, when you're not sitting there and putting all the plot and characterization together, when you can just look at this and say, "Okay. Wife is running in to grab something from the store. I've got 15 minutes. How can I make a clever line here? This line needs to be clever with..." I'm working on the sequel to Steelheart right now, and there's a character... His thing is he's really bad at metaphors. Coming up with a bad metaphor is so much harder than coming up with a good one. Because it has to be a bad one that makes you snicker when he says it. Because it can't be a complete non sequitur. So these things have been so tough to come up with the right ones. I just have a list. I need a metaphor here that means this. And I need a metaphor here that means this. I've been working and trying to check them off one at a time.

[Mary] So I want to ask another question of the group, now that we've dealt with dialogue, which goes back to something we were talking about earlier about transgressive and puppy and all of that. How do you keep a character from... We want somebody who is transgressive and charming, how do you keep them from being awful? Because there is a lot of times we are dealing with characters who are killing and stealing and pillaging.
[Scott] That is an interesting question. Often times more of interest at the authors than some of the readers. I have to say it has alarmed me at times, the degree to which some readers will accept the propriety of what is being done by a character in a book, simply because they are the protagonist. People who would never think like that in real life will simply accept some fairly heinous things because there's the implication that the character is right. There's this weird...
[Brandon] It's okay if Jack Bauer tortures everybody and breaks every lock. It's okay.
[Scott] Speaking of my first novel, I... There's a scene towards the end where the two protagonists do something that I consider to be reprehensible. I put this in there specifically to show where they came from, what sort of people they really were. I mean, they're essentially fantasy mafioso. They have... There are boundaries that ordinary healthy people would not cross that these guys will. As lovable and roguish and is charming and as wonderful as they really are, as much as I love the guys, they will do cruel things. They will do awful things, by accident and by design. And I... In the first book, I can't go into it all now because the clock is ticking...
[Howard] Oh, no, you're fine. Don't... You don't worry about this. Brandon will keep track of the clock. We're good.
[Brandon] Just talk as much as you want.
[Scott] Both by accident and design, they ruin a couple of people's lives and they prove themselves to be a little bit cruel and vicious. I was hoping that this would create sort of a nuanced appraisal of them in the minds of most readers. It did sometimes. But I was startled by the degree to which people simply accepted a Jack Baueresque scene of torture. Because it's not something that I personally believe is appropriate or civilized. But at the other hand, I was not preaching this in any way in the book. There's no omniscient voice that comes in and says, "By the way, readers, this is bad." It was simply there and I was very startled to discover that it did not have the effect that I had intended it to. I am, of course, the first author on earth who has ever written something that did not have the effect he intended it to. I'm that guy. So I guess that's what I mean when I say it is sometimes difficult to make your characters awful enough to have readers throw the book across the room.

[Brandon] One classic way to do this, though, the antihero [garbled] brought up. One of the reasons the antiheroes tend to work is usually they're going against people who are even worse.
[Scott] [inaudible]
[Brandon] Or on an equal level. So you've got all these awful people doing awful things to each other, and then we're kind of morally absolved by reading it. That's one method I've noticed is we root for the protagonist, because he's the protagonist, and these people are awful anyway.
[Scott] True.
[Howard] My...
[Brandon] It's Oceans 11. We're robbing a casino. They're all crooks anyway, so...
[Howard] One of my... One of my go-to's for this is the foil who hangs a lantern on the behavior, calls out the fact that... I've got a cast of mercenaries in Schlock Mercenary. They're hurting people and breaking things. Every so often somebody will say, "Wait. Should we really be doing this? I really don't think we should be... I'm not in charge here, but I really don't think we should be doing this."
[Scott] I think the relevant TV tropes-ism is the topic "What the Hell, Hero?"
[Scott] If you've got nothing else to do for the next three days, go look at TV tropes.

[Brandon] All right. Let's... We're out of time. This has been a wonderful podcast. I'm actually... I'm very sad we're out of time. But we do need to wrap it up. Let's go ahead and do a writing prompt. I think Scott... Let's be roguish and give us a writing prompt.
[Scott] I have to... Okay, a writing prompt. Well, for research purposes, locate your nearest bank...
[Howard] Oh, my gosh.
[Howard] Stop! Stop him! [We need some?] People who are bigger than Scott Lynch.
[Scott] Okay. For legal purposes, I can't say that. You know what would be interesting, if you went to the closest bank and attempted to withdraw $20,000 by means... Okay, I can't do that. I will give you one directly relevant from my day. Complicate a scene or story by adding an unexpected injury or illness that completely flips the protagonist's perspective on what they're doing.
[Brandon] Very nicely done. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
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