Trope Tuesday: Death Seeker

The Death Seeker is a character who wants to die, but for whatever reason isn’t willing to commit outright suicide. The TVtropes page has a good summary:

At some point in the past, some characters have had a traumatic experience, found themselves dishonored, committed a crime they could not repay, or lost everything worth living for. For whatever reason, rather than turning to suicide, they went off seeking battles to fight, hoping to find an enemy who would kill them, and achieve an honorable, heroic, awesome, or otherwise acceptable death, sometimes going as far as outright surrendering and offering their life to their enemies.

I’ve written a surprising number of these characters, but more often than not they end up living instead of dying. Quite often, they have a mentor who used to be a death seeker themselves, who makes them promise to find a reason to keep on living.

Escapist fiction is fun, but I like to read stories that are meaningful as well. The two are not mutually exclusive. When the protagonist is a death seeker, the question “what is worth living for?” tends to be a major driver for the story.

One character who’s very much on my mind right now is Mara Soladze from Sons of the Starfarers. A refugee turned marine, she has a traumatic experience in Comrades in Hope that very nearly pushes her over the despair event horizon. She can’t just give up and die, though, because there are people depending on her. As she climbs up the ranks from first mate, to captain, and finally to commodore, that tension never goes away.

Probably the biggest difference between a death seeker and someone who’s simply suicidal is that the death seeker is looking for something to die for. They’re much more likely to make a heroic sacrifice or go out in a Bolivian army ending.

But if something is worth dying for, isn’t it also worth living for? That is ultimately the question.

The Legend of Deathwalker by David Gemmell

legend_of_deathwalkerI’m not even going to try to write a synopsis of this story.  It’s just like all the other books in the Drenai series, which is why I love it so much.  Basically, this one gives the story behind the rise of Ulric, khan of the Nadir, and the origin of the Nadir people.  Interestingly enough, Druss the Legend plays a major role.

This was the last book in the Drenai Saga that I hadn’t read, so reading it was a very bittersweet experience.  On the one hand, this one is just as good as all the other books in the series, and made me want to revisit Legend and some of the others.  On the other hand, I knew that once I’d finished it, there wouldn’t be any more Drenai books left.  So I took it slow for the first half, but naturally I finished it at a breathless late-night sprint a day or two later.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why I love David Gemmell’s books so much.  There are many reasons, but I think the main reason is that his writing is honest.  He strips away all the incidental stuff and gets right at the heart of the stuff that matters.  He doesn’t pussyfoot around, either–if his characters do something despicable, he doesn’t make any excuses for them.  He tells it like it is.  This can make for a very brutal story, but it also makes for a very cathartic one.

The other reason I love his books so much is because he does such a good job depicting raw, unrepressed manhood–not the stupid stuff like driving big cars and eating meat, but manning up and facing your greatest fears.  It’s about friendship, and honor, and fighting with all of your strength for something you believe in.  It’s about all that raw, pent-up energy we all have, that animal urge that drives us to competitive sports and first person shooters, and channeling it for a heroic cause.

The craziest thing is that the fight itself is actually more important than whatever side the characters are fighting on.  In this book, Druss is actually fighting to help bring about the rise of the Nadir khan who later invades his homeland and kills him on the walls of Dros Delnoch.  None of that matters, though, because Druss doesn’t fight with malice.  For him, it’s all about fighting for something, not against something, and the battle itself is just as important as the victory.  I don’t think I can put it better than this:

“Can we win here?” Sieben asked, as the shaman’s image began to fade.

“Winning and losing are entirely dependent on what you are fighting for,” answered Shaoshad. “All men here could die, yet you could still win. Or all men could live and you could lose. Fare you well, poet.”

The best thing about David Gemmell’s books is the fact that none of the characters–not even the bad guys–are defined by their own evil.  The Nadir are supposed to be the evil chaotic race of the Drenai universe, but when you come to understand what they’re fighting for, their hopes and dreams for a better future, you can really see what’s good in them.  Likewise, the more civilized Gothir are kind of like the evil white men who want to put down the savages and keep them in their place, but there are good and honorable men among them too.

And yet, even though the two sides clash, and good men die on both sides, it somehow isn’t tragic.  That’s the crazy part.  It’s almost like you can feel the characters salute each other as they die in a good cause, the way Ulric gave Druss a proper funeral in Legend, even though the two were blood-sworn enemies.  In David Gemmell’s world, honor and courage are more important than life or money.  Everyone dies; dying well is more important than living without honor.

This book is incredible.  As I was reading it, I decided it was the best David Gemmell book I’ve ever read–which is something I do every time I read one of his books.  I feel like I’m a better man for having read them.  If he had written a hundred books in this series, I would happily read them all.  The fact that there are no more new ones deeply saddens me, but I know I’ll revisit these stories again in the future.

Trope Tuesday: It Has Been an Honor

If there ever was a phrase that invoked manly tears, it’s this one.

It has been an honor” is pretty much the go-to catch phrase for any Heroic Sacrifice or Bolivian Army Ending.  It’s often a precursor to a Crowning Moment of Awesome, and as far as last words go, it ranks right up there with “I die free,” “I die as myself,” and “I regret nothing.” Expect to hear it a lot from blood knights, members of the proud warrior race, or anyone who belongs to a martyrdom culture.

Occasionally, you’ll hear a villain say this when he acknowledges the hero as a worthy opponent.  In such cases, the villain may evolve into a friendly enemy or a fire-forged friend. Or, if the trope is played straight, they just die.

One time you won’t hear this phrase is when someone is trying to play More Hero than Thou.  In that case, two or more good guys in a friendly rivalry basically argue over who has to bite the bullet, so the honor becomes a point of competition between them.

In my opinion, the heart and soul of this trope is the idea that some things are worth dying for.  Obviously, a character facing death is not going to say this unless he values his honor more than his life.  What exactly constitutes “honor” may be up for debate (with the potential for some unfortunate implications, especially in real-life martyrdom cultures like Japan), but the core element here is that the hero is fully willing to give up his life for something greater than himself.  Bonus points if he starts out as a coward and this trope marks the conclusion of his growth arc.

While this phrase often leads to a death of some kind, that isn’t always the case.  The cavalry can still show up to save them, or one of the characters can ultimately survive (either the one who says this phrase, or the one to whom it is said).  The important thing, though, is that the characters face death in a meaningful way.  Without that, this phrase doesn’t have nearly as much power.

In my own work, this trope tends to pop up a lot, especially in the more military sci-fi books in the Gaia Nova series.  It shows up multiple times in Stars of Blood and Glory, and also in Bringing Stella Home, though more in a posthumous way than anything else.  I suppose you could also say it happens in Star Wanderers: Homeworld, if you use a broader interpretation.

But either way, I’m definitely a big fan of this trope.  Expect to see it many more times in my own work in the future.

As a final note, it’s worth pointing out that the bandmaster’s violin from the real-life Titanic has recently been recovered and confirmed genuine.  It’s now on display in Belfast, less than two miles from where the Titanic was built.

The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend by David Gemmell

druss_chroniclesBefore Dros Delnoch, before Skeln Pass, before the Legend there was a seventeen year old woodsman and his young bride Rowena.  They lived a happy, simple life until slavers attacked their village and carried her away.

But Druss would stop at nothing to save her.  With the demon-cursed blade Snaga, he crossed oceans and continents, fighting corsairs, brigands, armies, empires, even chaos beasts to find her.  And with each battle, the legend grew.

But the greatest challenge Druss would face was not a warrior or a monster, but an old family curse from beyond the land of the living.

Oh man, it’s been far, far too long since I’ve read a David Gemmell book.  Far too long.  And this one was perfect.  It had everything you could possibly ask for in a book by David Gemmell: honor, glory, blood, war, mystics and evil sorcerers, monsters from beyond the grave, great empires and epic sieges, and even a good deal of romance.  And Druss himself is such an awesome character, an unassuming, simple hero who may be brash and may have a temper, but is never completely corrupted by evil.

That said, this is a brutal, brutal book.  The pithiest way I can describe it is Taken meets Lord of the Rings.  People get killed.  Women get raped.  In fact, I think most of the women in the book get raped.  Certainly, more than 50% of the characters die, most of them in a grisly, violent way.  And not everyone is redeemed.  In fact, some of the noblest characters fall.

But man, this is a good book.  Where other fantasy books start off with the lore of the world, painting an exquisitely detailed picture of the world and the magic and the history, Gemmell just throws you right in and grabs you with the story.  Things happen, and they happen quickly.  From the beginning, he snags his hooks in you.

But more than anything, the story means something.  Not in the sense that there’s some kind of underlying moral, or the characters are all black and white.  They aren’t.  People do good things for the wrong reasons, and bad things for the right reasons.  Some of the most despicable characters rise up to do heroic things, while some of the noblest and most honorable characters end up fighting for evil through no fault of their own.  But through it all, there’s so much truth, so much insight, that you can’t help but come away feeling like you’ve been through life and death, and seen the best that both have to offer.

I’m gushing, I know.  This book is INCREDIBLE.  Definitely on par with Gemmell’s best.  I wish he could have written a hundred novels just like it.  I would have read them all.

This is the second to last book in the Drenai series that I’ve read.  The only one that I haven’t gotten to yet is The Legend of Deathwalker, and I plan to get to that one right away.  After that, I’ll probably move on to the John Shannow novels, and then the Rigante series.  In three years, I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve read every book that David Gemmell has ever written.  He’s just that kind of an author to me.  And if he were still alive, you can bet I’d be ravenously devouring every new book that comes out…

Sadly, the number of David Gemmell books in the world is finite.  But still, there’s quite a few left before I read them all.  And one day, somewhere in the far-off future, I hope to write books as incredible as his.  To one day surpass him would be an impossible dream…but as the Ventrians say, may all your dreams come true save one, for what is life without a dream?

Awesome, awesome book.  If you’re a fantasy reader and brutal stuff like rape doesn’t trigger you, you definitely need to give the Drenai Series a try.  Start with Legend, but get to this one shortly thereafter.  It’s an amazing, incredible read.

Trope Tuesday: Came Back Strong

This trope, also kown as apotheosis, is by far my favorite part of the hero’s journey.

Up to this point, the hero has faced a lot of tests and trials.  Some of them he’s passed, some of them he hasn’t, but the setbacks haven’t yet been enough to stop him.  Sure, the costs have been high–he may have lost a friend or mentor, for example–but at least he’s still in the game.  Then, just as he experiences the power of love (meeting with the goddess) and reconciles with the ultimate power in his life (atonement with the father), what happens?

He dies.

This may be literal or metaphorical, physical or spiritual–but whatever form it takes, the hero has to lose something significant, up to and including…well, everything.  After all, there are so many things worse than death.  While all the other failures up to this point left him more or less intact, this one completely shatters him–and in the process, transforms him.

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the hero comes back from the dead, often with a level in badass.  By dying, he gains that last piece of knowledge, experience, or resolve that he needs to defeat the big bad and gain the ultimate boon of his quest.  Whoever or whatever he was before, that person wasn’t strong enough to pass the test–but now, he is.

When done well, this is a stand-and-cheer moment of the best possible kind.  It’s the culmination of everything the hero has gone through, not just in terms of plot, but character as well.  Years from now, you might forget everything else in the story–even the parts that you loved–but you’ll remember how you felt when you got to this part.

One of my favorite examples of this trope is in the clip I posted from the Matrix.  Seriously, when Neo realizes that he is The One, that is one of the best moments in all of cinema.  The Empire Strikes Back also has a moment like this, though since the movie is essentially a tragedy, there’s a lot more emphasis on Luke’s death (falling through the gas mine shaft after confronting Darth Vader) than his resurrection (getting a new hand and reuniting with his friends).  The oldest examples, of course, come from mythology–Odin gained the ability to use magic by sacrificing himself on Yggdrasil, and before returning to Ithaca, Odysseus first had to journey to Hades to pay his old friend Agamemnon a visit.

So as writers, how are we supposed to get this trope right?  I’m by no means an expert, but my gut instinct tells me that the way to nail it is to be as excited about this moment in the story as we want our readers to be when we get to that point.  Even though storytelling is ostensibly just making stuff up, it’s not something you can fake–if you aren’t excited about your own story, how do you expect your readers to even care?

Fortunately, this is often the part of the story that drives us to write everything else.  There have definitely been times when I could hardly wait to get through the other stuff and finally write the chapter where this happens.  Bringing Stella Home was a big one–and that’s all I can say, at the risk of giving spoilers.  Star Wanderers is another one, though it wasn’t until I was midway through Fidelity that it really came to me.  Desert Stars was more of a Heroic Second Wind, which is basically Came Back Stronger without the death.  However, there was definitely a transformation, both for Mira and Jalil.

So yeah, I really, really, REALLY love this trope.  When done well, it’s one of those things that can turn a run-of-the-mill adventure story into something both soul-searching and powerful.  You can definitely expect to see me play with it a lot in the future.