Wednesday, June 4, 2014

WHAT YOUR READERS UNDERSTAND

For the last time Billy, we're Racoons, not bandits
There's a sequence in my first book Snowberry's Veil that I've thought about quite a bit over the years because of what it says about readers and authors.  The scene is in the forest where the main character Erkenbrand judges then executes a bandit, leaving him dead for the animals.  When I wrote it, I had something in mind, and I expanded on that concept beyond what I had originally conceived of.
But what I had in mind and what at least one reader got from it was pretty different.  Here's an excerpt of the scene:
When he started to come around, I dragged the bandit to his feet and pinned him to a tree with his blade at his throat.
“Bandit, I am Erkenbrand, King’s ranger. I am the representative of the King’s justice and duly appointed guardian of the King’s lands and peoples. You, on the other hand, are a bandit,” I pushed the point of the sword against this throat, upward under his jaw, “who admitted murder to my face.”
He stared at me with hate and probably pain from the rock I’d bounced off his head. He swore at me with a defiant gaze and the blood from his head matted his hair on one side.
“How many men are in your camp?”
“Go climb your ___,” he snarled.
“Who is your leader?”
“My ___,” he snarled. I sensed a theme.
“You’re not going to answer any questions, are you?”
He stared at me silently, proving my point. I didn’t have time to break his will, even if I could. I took a deep breath and sighed, tasting bitterness on my tongue.
“Because we are too far from a standing court or authorities” I said quietly, “and I am unable to hold you prisoner for delivery to the hands of magistrates, I now am passing judgment on you: guilty for the crimes of murder and theft, of banditry, and preying on the subjects of the king. Do you have anything to say for yourself?”
The bandit’s eyes filled with contempt. “Ranger, you’re a ranger? Pretty sad stuff the King is sending out these days. You ran like a goblin.” He repeated his foul oath and spat at me.
“The sentence then is death,” I told him, and drove the blade through his throat, up through his mouth and into his brain with one brutal thrust. He made a sort of wheezing gasp and blood gushed out of his mouth and the wound, then he slid dead to the forest floor.
I cleaned off the blade and sheathed it, carrying the scabbard and sword in my hand. Kaskala stared at me without moving.
It was only then that I remembered that horse I’d seen in the camp. It was Lord Valance’s mount, and it was well cared for. He was either a prisoner as well - which seemed unlikely since I’d seen none of his goods strewn around or on the bandits - or with them in … some other capacity. Probably I should have asked the bandit I’d just executed about that, but I knew he’d never have answered me without some manner of torture and I just wasn’t going to do that.
I tore the patch that identified me as a ranger off the tattered remains of my shirt that I’d been carrying and left it on his body, then Kaskala and I turned to leave. I gave Kaskala the bandit’s sword, and as we walked, he looked at me regularly, as if to see something new in me.
“You killed him,” he finally said.
I nodded. The memory of the jarring crunch through the blade as it drove into his skull made my arm feel sick.
“Is this the way of your people?”
“It is sometimes. I am given the power to capture and determine justice over criminals in lesser cases such as theft, poaching, or assault. I can decide who is guilty and pass sentence on them, usually fines or restitution. The King gives rangers, such as myself, the power while in the wilds to act as watchmen do in cities, to act for justice for the people in places far from magistrates.” I wasn’t exactly sure if the words I was using were ones Kaskala would be familiar with but I didn’t feel like a long explanation either. I didn’t feel like talking at all.
“But you killed him,” he repeated.
“Yes. When there is an emergency or we are too far from cities, when I cannot appeal to any other authorities or must act quickly, I may adjudicate more serious crimes such as murder.”
“He took a life, so you take a life?” Kaskala asked.
We stopped and I took a deep breath.
“That’s not exactly how it works. That’s kind of what happened, but there is more to it than that. He was a bandit, a man who preys on others. He used his strength to take from those weaker than him, he killed and raped and harmed others and stole from them. And in the wilderness, there is no one to appeal to out here, there is no court, and there are no guards. So men like him act without fear of reprisal.
“Because he was so destructive to the safety of others, because the helpless were prey to him, people with power must stop him. It wasn’t so much that he took a life, it was that he took an innocent life to steal from that person, he killed because he wanted what they had. I killed to protect others from this fate, and because justice requires that he pay for his deeds. I killed not because I wanted to kill or because I am so powerful that he’s prey to me. I killed as a representative of the King’s justice, of his authority, and the authority of the people he serves as their ruler.
“If I had not killed him, he would have continued to prey on the weak, continued to kill, and continued to do evil. His past crimes and the threat to others required that his life be taken, justice required that he pay a price for what he had done, and I was acting as an instrument of justice. I wish it were not me, I wish I could have walked away, but I cannot. It is part of the burden of being a ranger.”
“You do not seem happy with what you did.”
“I’m not.” I was quiet a while as we walked, then thought I should explain more. “I don’t like killing. I’ve done it before and unless providence smiles on me, I will do so again in the future. Killing the wyvern was a hunt of sorts but killing that man while staring him in the eye, executing a helpless prisoner is different. It was awful, but it had to be done.”
We turned and walked toward our camp. Kaskala thought about it a while and then put his paw on my back and we walked that way for a while.
“I would not want such a burden to carry.”
When Huck, sometime commenter here, read the book, he reviewed it quite positively, but had this concern:
The one section of the book that I thought was very out of place was the scene where Erkenbrand and one of the Raccoon beastmen have a kind of philosophical discussion about the necessity and morality of capital punishment. If I were Taylor, I would have simply let the story itself be the defense of the necessity of capital punishment, instead of having the characters engage in a dialogue that was inconsistent with any of the other interactions the characters had.
Huck might have a point about the inconsistency of dialogue, which is worth pondering, but he didn't catch what I was trying to toss out there. The scene is kind of a shock based on the previous actions by Erkenbrand who I tried to portray as a pretty gentle, sensitive guy, if a bit rough around the edges.  Here he just offs a guy in cold blood.
And I thought about how that would look to his beastman companion who, after all, was part of a tribe that was essentially holding Erkenbrand on probation.  Further, I wanted to expand a bit on what a Ranger is in my world, since I'd established Erkenbrand and his abilities enough that I could get into another aspect of his life and work.  And Rangers are not just forest warriors, they are actually a branch of the royal military, acting as scouts and explorers, charting the wilderness, cataloging species and plants, clearing areas of threats, and when necessary, agents of justice.
In our world we are comfortable with the idea of the go-to guy for law and justice, and its always a comfortable system.  Life hasn't always been like that, and it wasn't that long ago in parts of the USA even where the law was what you made of it where you were.
Part of the Ranger's job is to execute justice, and if he must, do so with lethal force.  In a monarchy in a lower tech fantasy setting, the death penalty is significantly more common than in ours.  Further, in these circumstances, Erkenbrand can't tie the bandit up and call the cops, or drive him to a jail.  He's several days travel from civilization on horseback (which he doesn't have). 
So I was trying to show how Rangers worked, and what their duties were beyond just being some guy in the forest with a bow.  Politics and arguing capital punishment was the last thing on my mind.  I wasn't trying to argue for or against it.  My only concern was this was going to be jarring and shocking to many readers, who are comfortable with their world and not used to this kind of thing.  In this setting, this isn't particularly noteworthy to the people of Morien, but it could be to modern readers.
So I had Erkenbrand and Kaskala talk it over a bit, trying to show that Erkenbrand felt he had no choice but was awful about it, and Kaskala not really understanding but knowing that he could trust Erkenbrand's judgment.  Up to this point the beastmen have been, if not adversaries, not exactly allies either, and this was a bonding moment.
So to me it was a matter of character development and explaining the setting.  To Huck it was a treatise on capital punishment, an argument trying to justify or support it.  Which brings up a concern for writing.
What you're trying to do as an author doesn't always carry across well to readers, or at least not to all readers.  Some might have strong feelings on a given topic and respond poorly to it, perhaps missing what you're trying to do.  Sometimes what you try to do as an author fails, and you don't get across the concepts very effectively.
And that's just something you have to deal with.  Nobody ever has written a book that everyone loved and understood completely.  In fact, very few will really "get" your book the way you meant it.  Sometimes someone will understand completely, but its going to be rare.  The hardest part is when a reviewer misses your work entirely which can feel unfair.  So far nobody's review has particularly upset me, although sometimes they puzzle me (like the one that gave me 4 stars then spent the whole review complaining about first person).
Its just interesting to me the dynamic between readers and authors.  What you're trying to accomplish often will simply go unnoticed or be misunderstood.  But hey, as long as they're reading, that's good enough for me.

Incidentally, Snowberry's Veil is available here in ebook and here in paperback.