March 17, 2014

Creating a Culture, Part 1: The Protagonist

Every once in a while you get a moment of intuition. There are a lot of words for this: an ah-ha or eureka moment, a feeling of being “in the zone” where all your mental pistons are firing perfectly. What it really is, I think, is a moment of connection, a point where your mind somehow – usually by random chance, or so it feels – slips into the perfect perspective to not only view the pattern and similarities of a larger picture, but also the possibilities.

It’s a moment, in other words, of understanding what something is, and what you can do with it.

This is kind of what it felt like when I had the idea for City of Stairs. The moment when everything came together for me for this book remains quite clear in my memory.

(Of course, this is the hard part: ideas never feel like they had a single origin point. In some fashion, every story or idea you have was bubbling away in some protean form for years and years and years. It just takes you a moment, perhaps, to realize that the idea is now ripe. But I digress.)


I’d been reading Dark Star by Alan Furst, a terrific spy novel about a KGB agent in Nazi Germany, and I thought the Eastern European perspective was a really interesting and rare one: it explored how Poland was just wildly unprepared, operating as if this was still the 19th century, with 20th century warfare bearing down on them. It was an aspect of a major historical event that was often unexplored to Americans such as myself: we prefer to approach World War II from the avenues of British or French participation, rather than consider the Poles or the rest of Eastern Europe. (In other words, from a Non-Western perspective.)

Then one day I was vacuuming the house and Turner Classic Movies was on, showing a 1930s satire about the nobility of a fictional Eastern European nation. It was a mildly amusing little movie – an English tourist who just happened to look a lot like a frivolous king was forced to stand in as him, under ridiculous circumstances – and I thought it’d be interesting to write about a diplomat trying to maneuver this densely complicated and Balkanized area, navigating the echelons of a foreign elite; someone dealing with both the dreary slog of bureaucracy, while also managing the terrifying spycraft going on in the background.

And I remember thinking, “Well, all these countries are mad at this diplomat. But why?”

And the answer came back immediately: “Why, because her country killed all their gods, of course.” And, as I’ve told others, that was that.

The idea kept boiling in my head, this idea of broken nations and dead gods and burgeoning imperialism and colonialism, and I started to imagine a history of this world, a history in which every year and every major event was shaped and formed by the presence of very active gods.

This presented both a challenge: if a god is truly omnipotent, or so close as for the difference to be immaterial, how definite can a history or reality be? If a god wishes for, say, five years of a history to have never existed, wouldn’t it be possible for them to wish it out of existence? How would the citizens of this world even know that their reality had been edited, overwritten?

I realized pretty quickly that though I’d felt “that was that,” that was not, actually, that. This was going to be a second world fantasy, and I’d never written something like that.

But then, every challenge is an opportunity.


Most fantasy stories are not escapism. This is because most fantasy stories are about us, about the real world.

Well, every story is about the real world, sure: all stories are built in reaction to our understanding of our reality. But some fantasy stories are more about us than others.

For example, most fantasy stories, it seems, will prominently feature a Caucasian bearded man holding a weapon. The nature of this weapon will vary – in some, a sword, in others, a steampunk-like firearm – but it will always be there, as will be the beard (sometimes more of a dense stubble) and his often-undeniably Caucasian background.

One could say, perhaps, that this fixation in fantasy is truly about us. One could say that these stories are really about our own masculine wish-fulfillment, in which manly men with manly weapons do manly deeds, engaging in royal skullduggery and leading armies of other manly men across vaguely North European battlefields. These are men with important lives doing important, violent deeds, and this world is largely about their will and how the world is subjected to it. These are men living in a mythical, primeval state from which our current culture is theoretically derived – that is to say, a culture that is both male and white – a violent, messy, gritty Garden of Eden in which things were real, things were authentic, where everything  mattered, and though things weren’t perfect, they were imperfect in the right ways.

One could say that. This is, I gather, a not uncommon criticism of fantasy in general, particularly epic fantasy.

However, when I debated writing the story that would be City of Stairs in this manner, I realized that the main thing I could say about this is that I thought it’d been done a lot.

A whole lot.

I mean, seriously, I’ve been reading those stories since I was a kid. I spent years and years and years in those worlds – so, really, I didn’t want to spend any more time in one with the purpose of writing it. I wanted to go someplace new.

So what to write?


Here’s the thing about diversity: a lot of people will attach a certain degree of morality to it, a sense of moral obligation, that one should include others because to not do so is an indecency.

I think this is completely true. I think there is a morality in acknowledging and accepting the human condition, no matter what form it may take. It’s perhaps the only morality. I think challenging and reconsidering what you consider to be the “default” nature of humanity is perhaps the key to spiritual and intellectual growth.

However, I’ve found that moral righteousness is frequently not a very good way to entice people to act about anything. Approaching morality from this perspective sometimes has the same attraction as Sunday school: a thing you really ought to do, but you’d really prefer to be doing something else.

People are selfish. They will do things for moral reasons, true, but I think that’s not usually the biggest carrot to dangle from the metaphorical stick.

For example, take environmentalism. Sure, we all support sustainability. However, for about the past fifteen years it’s been pretty expensive to do so. Some people will spend that extra dollar out of a sense of moral obligation, sure, but most won’t.

However, if sustainable energy grows to be less expensive than non-sustainable … Why, then it’s suddenly so much easier to support sustainability. Selfish reasoning, sure, but that tends to be the kind that works.

So here’s what I think is the totally selfish reason some people (I hope) gravitate toward diversity:

Because it’s interesting. And a lack of diversity is hugely, cripplingly boring.

There is a point, I think, when someone realizes that confining one’s self to stories about one single culture is, in effect, denying one’s self the vast riches this marvelous world has to offer. Realizing that you’re being trapped in a hermetic little cultural bubble is often the hard part. Realizing that there is something outside of it, that there’s always been lots of things outside of it, going on for years and years and years, is a tantalizing and exciting epiphany. And it makes you want to plunge through the bubble’s wall, and out into the rest of the world.

This is a very selfish decision to make, and, true, it can encourage a sort of arriviste voyeurism, in which one feels free to cherrypick from other cultures and histories without any attention to the real human experience of those who actually live in those cultures and histories. However, anything right can also be done wrong, and so long as one anchors one’s perspective in the human element – acknowledging that these are not stories or tropes you’re playing with, but people – the result is not so much akin to sampling dishes at a buffet, but rather a massive shift in self-regard, where one realizes one’s tiny, insignificant, arbitrary vantage point in a huge, ancient world.

It’s the difference between being entertained and learning. One involves change on your part; the other does not.

When I had that first idea for City of Stairs, so far I’d written three novels about white dudes. Two of them tough white dudes with guns (one of which, eventually, had a beard). I’d written one book featuring a woman of color, but she was so deeply alienated that it would be difficult to say she belonged to any single culture.

Writing books takes a very long time. You are going to spend a lot of time in this place you’re making. And I knew I did not want to spend it with the sorts of people I’d written about or read about before. I want to meet someone new. I wanted to look at humanity from a new vantage point, through a new lens.

And when I started finishing up on that day when I first had the idea for City of Stairs, putting up the vacuum cleaner and dragging out the mop, I realized who I wanted my protagonist to be.

I wanted her to be a woman. She would be a woman of color. And her primary weapons would be books and a terrifying ability to manipulate bureaucratic and governmental institutions.

Enter Shara Komayd.

(This will be an ongoing series I’ll be writing, exploring why I chose to make the world of City of Stairs as I did, what was difficult, fun, and unexpected about it, and how I felt I succeeded and how I felt I failed. Stay tuned.)