Our Writers of Fantasy series continues with an exclusive interview with Karen Miller, best known for her epic fantasy novels such as the Innocent Mage (Kingmaker, Kingbreaker series) as well as her new book, The Falcon Throne.
She has also written Star Wars and Stargate novels and under the pen-name K.E. Mills writes the Rogue Agent series, about a wizard with special skills who works for his government under unusual circumstances.
SFFN: When you look back on your first books, such as The Innocent Mage, and compare them to something more recent, like The Falcon Throne, how do you feel you’ve changed as a writer? Has your process or method changed?
KM: Innocent Mage was a fairly uncomplicated, straightforward book. It doesn’t have a really big cast, or a challenging narrative structure, and the landscape is restrained. It was enough of a challenge for me to just to finish it, and polish it to the best of my ability, and then sell it, without burdening myself more!
But the first two books in that series (Innocent and Awakened) gave me the courage and confidence I needed to challenge myself a bit more, and so that’s what I’ve been trying to do with every book since.
The end result of that process is the Tarnished Crown series, The Falcon Throne being the first one, where the narrative structure, the landscape and the scope of the story are by far the most vast, complicated and challenging I’ve aimed for. This story is making me sweat! But that’s a good thing, even when I’m banging my head against the keyboard. *g*
The other shift, I’d say, is that the characters I’m working with are becoming progressively more layered, more convoluted, less easy to pigeon hole. Don’t get me wrong, I adore Asher and the rest of the Mage books cast, but they are all fairly uncomplicated, in terms of their motives and personalities. The Tarnished Crown cast still has good guys and bad guys, but the waters are muddier. Balfre, for example, is not a good man – but I think some of his actions are at least understandable, if not forgivable, because life has not been kind to him. I think he could have been a good man, if his circumstances were different.
Likewise Liam is a complicated person, someone whose basic nature has been distorted by events beyond his control. Benedikt is a far sunnier, simpler man – but even he has his moments. LIkewise Catrain. She’s a hero, but she has her flaws. And Izusa, who willingly embraces evil, and does terrible things, she’s actually motivated by love. I think that’s because to be human is to be complicated and multi-faceted. Even very good people have their very bad moments. And bad people are capable of selfless, loving acts. That can get confusing, and even confronting, but it’s also human. It certainly keeps me on my toes, as a writer.
I wish I could say, after some 19 books under my belt, that the process of writing a novel has become easier, but no. It’s not. Maybe if I didn’t keep asking more and more of myself it would be! But I still struggle with the doubts and the demons. I suspect most writers do. At the end of the day, it’s about you and the empty page (or screen) and the only cure is to sit your arse in the chair and apply your fingers to the keyboard and wrestle that story out of your head, then polish it until it shines.
KM: This is a hard one to answer, because so much of the character stuff comes out of my subconscious. I don’t sit down ahead of time and decide what accent, or what word choices, or manner of expression each character will use. When I start I know the kind of people I’m dealing with, I know their places in the world and their hopes and fears, their basic personalities, and then they open their mouths and start talking and I just take dictation! *g*
What we say, how we speak, is a direct reflection of our souls, really, and our moods and emotions and experiences. So someone like Balfre, for example, who is very very angry, and has been for most of his life, swears a lot and is quite crude and violent. Catrain is very smart, very quick, she’s been loved and cosseted and never had to doubt her worth, she’s far more confident in herself. She has reason for her own anger, but that hasn’t been her dominant emotional mode. Molly and Iddo and Benedikt, all native to the Marches, are less polished, more rustic. Their locale is very particular, and has created a particular mode of speech.
Liam, because he was born into wealth and the high court nobility, and was influenced by his nurse for a long time, doesn’t sound so much a Marcher even though he was raised there with Benedikt. He might not realise it, but he actively chooses to speak more the way his nurse wanted him to, as a way of staying in touch with his true identity and history and place in the world. That keeps him connected to the father he never knew, and helps him keep the faith that he will achieve his ambitions and reclaim what he believes was stolen from him.
Roric, on the other hand, might have been born into that same world, but his place in it was never quite as secure and he is a man who can’t escape his self doubt and criticism. He has a keen sense of responsibility and torments himself with guilt over things he’s done. No matter what he achieves, he can’t ever quite feel worthy or good enough. And that fragile foundation is reflected in the way he expresses himself.
I think it’s vitally important that characters are revealed by their language/manner of speaking. In real life, we might all be speaking the same language, but how we express ourselves via that medium is a direct result and reflection of our personalities, our families, our social experiences, our pasts.
Someone who isn’t religious will blaspheme without thinking. Someone who is would rather die than use their god as a curse word. In some families money is never discussed publicly. In others it is. Or, as a response to being told what can or cannot be said, some people will deliberately break that rule in an act of rebellion.
Some people love to hear the sound of their own voice and will use 25 words where 5 would do. Others aren’t good at reading social cues and so are tactless or insensitive. And some people use words as weapons, because they know they can hurt others and that’s what they want. It all comes back to who they are, how life has shaped them, where they come from geographically and socially and physically. Someone who grew up in an abusive domestic atmosphere might avoid conflict at all costs, and never use violent or confrontational language. Or, conversely, they might do so aggressively. In both cases the root cause is a desire to avoid pain, but how that’s expressed depends on other personality factors and experiences. That’s what makes writing so much fun — playing the armchair shrink with all your characters!
KM: Another hard one to answer! I’m not sure that I create the characters in my books. I think they come and find me! It’s hard to talk about this without sounding like a certifiable whacko *g* but truly, every character I’ve written about is a real person to me.
I think a lot about who they are, where they’ve come from, how they grew up, and how those things have shaped them. I think about nature versus nurture, and try to become them in my imagination. I think of myself as an actor playing multiple roles. I have to think myself into a different person’s skin every time I change character point of view, and every time I consider the other characters from that one person’s perspective.
None of us is one person. We’re all someone different, depending on who we’re with. I spend a lot of my writing time playing parts, really. And making sure that the flavour of their scenes matches the kind of person each character is, that they speak ‘in character’ and don’t sound like somebody else. Or, if they do, that there’s a reason and it’s made clear.
For me, character and plot are inextricably entwined. Plot is what happens, the events of the story. But without the characters to drive the engine, you go nowhere. If you’re writing a mystery, for example, your detective (professional or amateur) must be the kind of person who is intrigued by unanswered questions, or has a thirst for justice, or else there is no story. They must be driven to find out the truth regardless of consequence, and they must be determined. If they give up at the first dead end, there’s no story. Likewise if you’re writing a quest fantasy, there’s no story if your main character isn’t driven to see what’s over the horizon or doesn’t hunger to attain something they consider to be of paramount importance.
And after that, no matter what kind of story you’re telling, it’s the characters’ choices, the decisions they make, that drive the story forward while also revealing and defining their natures. So, in that sense, they shape each other. If your story revolves around revenge, your main character must be the kind of person who will risk everything to right a wrong, to shed blood even to make the villain pay a price for their act.
And then it’s a case of seeing how far they’ll go, what they’ll sacrifice, what they’ll do when faced with more than one option, which both defines them and drives the narrative forward. What they do keeps the story running, but it also tells us who they are, in their souls.
At the end of the day, my primary focus is always on character. For me, the most exciting battle scene or chase scene or whatever is meaningless if it doesn’t involve characters I care about. It’s the characters that give a story meaning and emotional connection. I think that even after the events fade, it’s the characters that stay with you. Or moments that are momentous for the characters, that touch us as humans, make us think and feel and relate to the fictional world of the story.
The humanity of the characters is what keeps us believing in the fictional world. With every event in a story I’m writing, I’m always asking — how does this person feel about what’s happened? How do they react? What does this event tell us about him or her? Do we learn something new? Do they surprise us? Or do we see the train wreck coming, knowing the kind of person they are, knowing how they’ll react to what’s going on?
Either way, we’re emotionally engaged with their journey. And that, for me, is the point. Taking the reader on an emotional journey with the characters. And since it’s our character that decides what happens in life, fictional characters must be clearly drawn and believable and knowable, which is what I work on. They are how the story gets told.
SFFN: You also write for established worlds, like Star Wars and Star Gate - how do you find writing for characters and worlds over which you have less control and a more established canon to follow? Is it easier, or just a very different experience?
KM: We all of us write to rules. All stories have a framework, parameters. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t make sense. This is usually called worldbuilding — the framework that’s set in place to define the when and how and why the world of the story works.
The only difference is whether you’ve made up those rules yourself, or if you’re following someone else’s rules. Of course, if you’re the architect you can change anything you like, however you like, and you’re only answerable to yourself.
When you’re playing by someone else’s rules, usually that means you don’t have that freedom. But either way, there is always a story framework you must work within — and even when you’re writing within your own framework, you have to abide by your own rules or you run the risk of destroying your own continuity and with it your story’s credibility.
Now, having said that — my personal experiences writing for those other worlds have been wonderful. I never felt restricted. I think that’s mostly because I looked for holes in the narrative, gaps where there were no footprints in the snow, so I was free to make my own. Of course, I had to work hard to keep the characters ‘in character’, which is always the major job. The biggest challenge when writing in those other worlds is that because they’re a shared experience, no two members of the audience will see those characters in quite the same way — so ‘in character’ is more often a subjective judgement.
I do my best to study the characters as presented on screen, and make sure I can justify my writing of them with textual evidence. But in this instance you’ll never please all the people all of the time, and that’s something you need to accept going in if you’re going to write stories set in those large shared worlds.
SFFN: It‘s eleven years since The Innocent Mage came out! How has the industry itself changed in that time from your perspective?
KM: In many many ways. I had my own bookshop at the time I was writing Innocent Mage, but that ended around the time the book was bought by Voyager. Since then, the whole culture of bookselling has changed – and to my mind not for the better. Online bookselling is convenient, and I use it myself, but nothing can replace the experience of browsing in a real shop full of real books, chatting to staff who love books. The joy of picking up a new release, of holding that book and dipping into the first few pages, or of finding a new author, or the next book by a favourite author — you can’t get that by shopping online. Not in the same tactile, visceral way. And you can’t chat with someone in real time, face to face.
With the real life bookshops being so squeezed, so many of them closing their doors, new authors are finding it very hard to be noticed. Mid list authors are rendered invisible. A few big names swallow all the oxygen and attention and limited shelf space. There was a time when authors were nurtured, their stories given time to grow and develop and build an audience. Janet Evanovich didn’t hit the big time until about 5 or 6 books into her Stephanie Plum series. She’d likely have been binned after the first one in the current climate, because she wasn’t an instant mega hit. It’s crazy, and self-defeating.
The rise of the internet as a filter is also tricky, because the anonymity of it lends itself to mob rule, group think, political agendas and gatekeeping, hate fests and attempts to silence writers who don’t adhere to a particular political philosophy. People write horrible reviews online because they disagree with the author’s politics, for example. Or they trash the book for other reasons — it wasn’t the book they’d have written, for example. And with the severe restriction in physical bookshops, and people to talk to in person about books, these online reviews carry a weight that’s not earned.
As well as those pressures, there is more and more of a push for writers to be their own PR managers, to spend time creating and cultivating online personas — and with a few exceptions, that’s anathema to writers because we are usually, by nature, introverts who like to remain behind the keyboard. I know I really struggle with that! It takes away the mystery. Who the writer is should be irrelevant to the process.
I think we are living in a time of way too much information. The only thing that matters is if you enjoy the book. The rest of it has no bearing on the reading adventure. In the last few years I’ve seen so much nastiness, so much vitriol and horrible attempts at shaming authors and wrecking their careers, all because of internet mobbery. It makes me very sad.
There’s also the problem with ebooks, in that they are very easy to pirate and we authors are forever reporting new piracy sites to our publishers. Ebook piracy costs us hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars of income every year — and it’s terribly disheartening. There’s an attitude out there that somehow it’s not really stealing, that writers don’t deserve to be paid for their hard work. As for the unmitigated scum who steal our work, then sell it and pocket the money themselves — I have no words. They’re destroying livelihoods and breaking hearts, and they don’t care. I loathe them beyond the telling.
The rise of self-publishing is an interesting aspect of the industry. That’s been actively fostered by outlets like Amazon, and while it means more people are able to get their stories out there, because traditional publishing does have finite resources and not every good story can be published by them, it also creates the impression that publishing is easy, writing is easy, and it’s not.
Unless you’re prepared to invest time and money in editing, for example, to make sure your work is as good as you can make it, most likely a self published book is going to be substandard. Quality matters. And without some kind of gatekeeping and quality control, whole genres can suffer from loss of reader trust because too much poor work is being pushed out there. Self publish by all means, but be ferociously rigorous and demanding of yourself.
The other thing that’s increased is the competition for the entertainment dollar/time span. Choices for entertainment are huge now. Books are competing for time and money harder than they ever have. That makes life tough for authors, as does the increasing pressure on household budgets thanks to stagnating economies everywhere there’s a tradition of reading. Books are purchased after the basics are bought — and if the income shrinks, books go last on the list.
It’s a tough gig right now. But humans are hardwired for stories and the industry has weathered storms in the past. When the clouds clear, there will still be stories. When the smoke clears and the dust settles, we’ll have found our way forward.
SFFN: You’ve mentioned elsewhere that you had thought of the story of the Kingmaker, Kingbreaker series while swimming! How long have you been writing? Can you remember some of your early stories and did any of them lead into the books you are writing now?
KM: I’ve been scribbling stories, in one form or another, ever since I learned how to string sentences together. Composition class in primary school, English classes in high school. A creative writing major at university. I wrote fan fiction for many years, when I lacked the confidence to build my own worlds but was full of stories inspired by the worlds I visited on tv and in film.
So really, the first two Mage books were my debut into original fiction. But the fan fiction taught me a lot, and I’ll never regret it or apologise for it!
SFFN: One thing that has made your books stand out has been your diversity of characters. How important to you is the diversity within your own books? Is this something the genre as a whole needs to get better at, and have you seen it improving?
I find people endlessly fascinating, so I can’t imagine writing books with a limited character landscape. I do try hard to keep things interesting, for myself as much as for the reader! I’ve done a fair bit of travelling, lived and worked overseas, and now live in a very racially/culturally diverse city, Sydney.
I’ve worked in local government, been a teacher, a bookseller, a horse groom, a publishing production co-ordinator, a customer service rep, a checkout chick — I’ve rubbed up against an amazing array of people over the years. My life has been really diverse, so I suppose it’s inevitable that my work reflects those experiences. As for the genre as a whole, I have to say I’m not a fan of imposing agendas on people. Writing is intensely personal, and our stories arise out of our individual lives, our experiences.
I’m not a fan of the ‘fiction as soap box school’ of storytelling. I see my job as being an entertainer, mostly. It’s dangerously easy to start lecturing people, and I hate that with a passion. I don’t like being lectured at when I’m reading a story, and I do my best to avoid the temptation as a writer. I think diversity is a natural result when you have a lot of different people from different walks of life telling their stories. Certainly I think that’s the case with the genre today — we’ve come a long way in the last 20-odd years of speculative fiction. Provided we stay on that trajectory, I think we’ll be fine.
Well, the action picks up directly where we left off, with Roric, Liam and Benedikt in serious strife – adrift in a stolen boat and no hope of rescue in sight. Salimbene is still plotting behind the scenes, and the principality of Cassinia, where Catrain remains a prisoner in her own palace, is on the brink of enormous change as mad Prince Gael approaches his legal majority.
Everything is in a state of uncertainty and upheaval – with many different people pursuing their own ambitions and agendas, most of which are in conflict with each other. Alliances, betrayals, love, loss, sorcery and sacrifice — that’s what you can expect as the story unfolds!