In Pursuit of Perfection

Very few things in this world are perfect. Our jobs, our relationships, our partners and ourselves – these are all subject to the (often enormous) imperfections of life, and for the most part we live our lives content with – or at least ignoring – this fact most of the time.

It doesn’t help that perfection is highly subjective; one person’s ‘perfect’ book might be another’s most-loathed prose ever. I saw a post on Reddit the other day asking for opinions on the ‘perfect’ movie; answers ranged from Star Wars to The Grapes of Wrath. Many people agreed, others disagreed, and some simply suggested their own ‘perfect’ movies.

Unfortunately, despite knowing full-well that perfection is unattainable, many of us are perfectionists anyway. I know I am – or at least, I used to be – and I know many others who share this trait with me. For me it varies from subject to subject, as I suspect it does with many; those things I’m most passionate about are the things I have the highest expectations of. Projects that mean a lot to me come with an elevated need to be as close to perfect as possible.

But here’s the thing: perfection, whilst not technically impossible, depends entirely on the scale at which one is assessing the thing claiming to be perfect. My books, for instance, are far from perfect. They contain numerous flaws, plot holes, typos (despite intense editing), and passages that, in retrospect, I wish I had written differently.

But let’s zoom in a little more. Take the following passage:

“And so it was with a lighter heart that Brandyé Dui-Erâth began to walk away from the river and away from all he knew. And so it was that, unknown to him, Darkness followed behind and laughed.”

Satis – The Redemption of Erâth: Consolation

These are the final lines of the first Redemption of Erâth book. For the style and setting, to me this is as perfect as I can make it. I adore this lines, it took me a long time to come up with them, and they close out a book of sadness and despair beautifully. These two sentences are, to me, perfect. Better still is that they form the last paragraph of the book, because it leaves the reader feeling both sadness and hope.

One of the things I’ve been doing for my alter-ego’s upcoming young adult novel is writing songs to go with it. I’ve put down the notes, played with the sound, and recorded some vocals. Again – far from perfect. Yet some of the songs I actually really enjoy. My singing isn’t great, and the guitars sound a little artificial at times, but there are the odd ‘magic moments’ that really make me think, wow – I did a good job.

The problem is that minute perfection is exponentially difficult to scale. One note, one sentence, can be perfect. But art is made of millions of paint strokes, and not every one of them can be perfect. And as artists, we have a choice: we can go back and change and improve to no end … or we can just release the damn thing and let people enjoy imperfection.

After all, a song with perfect timing will not only sound like it’s being played by a robot – a robot is the only thing that could play it perfectly. Imperfections make us human, and some of the best recordings and works of literary genius are all the better for their imperfections; they help the rest stand out all the more as the genius that it really is.

Besides – most people will never notice.

Movie Night: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Year: 2018
Genre: Fantasy
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler

The  second installment of the “Fantastic Beasts” series featuring the adventures of Magizoologist New Scamander.

I was curious at the critical dislike for this movie, considering how successful “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” was back in 2016. In fairness, I didn’t go to see this movie in theaters when it was released, although I do regret that – if nothing else, the Wizarding World films have proved to be some of the most visually spectacular in recent cinema history.

After a while, I began to assume the hate was directed at poor casting choices, or controversial thematic material (e.g. Dumbledore’s alluded-to romance with Grindelwald), but I never really paid much attention until I finally watched the film the other night.

I thought it was great.

No, really – I actually very much enjoyed it. I do think I understand some of the criticism levied at it – in particular the plethora of characters, the inexplicable rewriting of wizarding history, and the bizarre, one-line reference to homosexuality (I mean, either dive in and embrace it, or just forget about it) – but for me, it was a worthwhile installment in what I hope will become an excellent series.

I was afraid that Johnny Depp would bring his characteristically outrageous performance to Gellert Grindelwald and ruin the character; I was also disappointed at the casting of an American in a distinctly European role. I was also afraid that Jude Law, who in my eyes can really only play a villain, would ruin Dumbledore for me.

I’m glad to say I was wrong. Depp was surprisingly understated and reserved – just what was called for. Law was able to be both charismatic, charming and dangerous – exactly what I wanted Dumbledore to be. And the supporting cast all performed admirably, as well.

The movie isn’t without imperfections; as a sequel to “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”, Newt Scamander’s role is becoming somewhat relegated to the sidelines of another story. In fact, it really seems like the first film should have stood on its own, and this one been called something else entirely. I agree with the criticism of having a large number of characters, but not with the idea that there are too many to care about; I’m used to plentiful characters from Rowling’s novels, and it fit the feel of what she’s created in the past.

In the end, I’m glad I watched it, and although it’s no “Deathly Hallows”, it holds a dear place in my heart as a continuation of Rowling’s admirable magical world.

8/10 would watch again.

To Trope or Not to Trope? A Balancing Act

One of the things I’m highly aware of in my fantasy work, The Redemption of Erâth, is that there are quite a few parallels and similarities to many other fantasy novels out there. From character names to events and creatures, I’ve borrowed heavily from the great fantasy masters that came before me to craft a world that, whilst unique, might feel suspiciously familiar to those who already know well Middle-Earth, Narnia, or Westeros.

That isn’t to say that those same early fantasy writers didn’t borrow themselves; even Tolkien relied heavily on Anglo-Saxon mythology for his invented creatures and languages (though their invention is still masterfully his).

Everything in storytelling is rehashed, recycled and reused eventually, and this is of course where tropes are born. Elves, goblins, fantasy languages and healing herbs find their way into so many fantastical tales that it becomes difficult at times to know which story inspired which. Where did the concept of speaking dragons first come about? Was it Christopher Paolini who popularized them? Was it Tolkien? Was it in Beowulf?

Tropes have become so frequent in the canon of popular fantasy that even using them has, in some circles, become a trope of its own. Articles such as this one from The Toast point out so many of those frequent fantasy themes that one bows one’s head in shame to find them in one’s own work. (There may or may not be quite a few in my own.)

So when is it acceptable to use a trope?

But here’s the thing: tropes have their uses. They help to define genres, for a start; after all, what defines a fantasy novel? Typically the concepts of an alternate world or history, yet one bound strictly to a single place or planet (as opposed to sci-fi), languages that don’t really exist, and mythical tales, quests and demons, all play a part in helping the reader to establish the type of novel to expect. If one were to open to a page that contained sentences such as, “She caressed his chest, as smooth and hard as the Glock 9mm she kept in her purse,” we’d probably have a very different concept of what sort of book we were reading.

So when is it acceptable to use a trope, and when does it cross the line? Is there a difference between a loving homage and outright plagiarism? And what is the tolerance of a reader to coming across the same concepts over and over again?

In my own fantasy novels, I’ve tried hard to navigate the line between these two realms. I do not have elves, or orcs – though I do have races other than ‘men’. I do not have any ‘magic’, or at least anything along the lines of the Harry Potter universe (or even words of ‘power’, such as in The Lord of the Rings) – but I do have unexplainable phenomena. I do have a mythical weapon of legend to be found. I do have numerous languages and civilizations. Perhaps most importantly, I do have a young orphan who is taken in by his grandfather when his parents die in a fire.

I can’t argue that the world of Erâth is utterly unique or inventive, but I do find that these tropes help forward the story itself. You see, what I’m trying to achieve is really a sense of grandeur, of nostalgia, and of lost hope. By the projected end of the series (seven novels in total), the hero will have gained and lost everything – and may not make it out alive (I have yet to decide). In fact, the hero may not even end up being the true ‘hero’. I think that if I focused too hard on making the world and its inhabitants completely ‘original’, it would detract from the actual story I’m trying to tell.

And that’s where I think the balance lies: using tropes to our advantage, whilst not over-relying on them to support the plot. Is it important that a character be able to heal from a wound or illness? Then why not use some healing herbs – a staple of fantasy since time immemorial – so that you can get on with what really matters: the emotional journey of the characters.

At the end of the day, I think there are some authors who spend so much time making their world original that they forget what the story was meant to be about in the first place. I don’t need worlds I’ve never conceived of before, so long as I’m reading about characters I’ve never conceived of before. I don’t need to dream of new and fascinating creatures, so long as the emotional and spiritual journey of the people in the story rings true.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that fantasy can’t be original; it just means that to focus too narrowly on the details risks overlooking the bigger picture: the fact that every story is unique in its telling by the nature of the person telling it. So don’t worry about making your story stand out with details no one cares about; make it stand out with a compelling character arc and an exciting, fresh journey.

In other words, don’t fear the trope.