Monday, July 14, 2014

Phoenix Comicon 2014: “Writing Rogues” Panel Report

“Writing Rogues” was the final panel I attended at this year’s Phoenix Comicon, and it was definitely a high note to end on. The lineup of author panelists was stellar, with Jim Butcher, Kevin Hearne, Patrick Rothfuss, Pierce Brown, Sam Sykes, and Scott Lynch all present to discuss rogues in literature with each other, the audience, and the moderator. The panel blurb went like this: “Kvothe, Harry, Atticus, Locke, Darrow, and Lenk are their names. Meet the writers who created these rogues.” In case you’re unfamiliar with these authors and their work, the author/protagonist-and-alleged-rogue match up is…Rothfuss/Kvothe (The Kingkiller Chronicle series), Butcher/Harry Dresden (The Dresden Files series), Hearne/Atticus (The Iron Druid Chronicles), Lynch/Locke (The Gentleman Bastard series), Brown/Darrow (the Red Rising trilogy), and Sykes/Lenk (The Aeons’ Gate trilogy). With regards to that “alleged”…there was a little discussion of whether or not some of these characters truly are rogues, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself. This was probably my favorite panel I attended during the whole convention! It felt kind of like those really good classes in college—you know, the ones where the discussion was always lively, you really felt like you were learning things and contributing to the dialogue, and left each session with a little fire in your brain and belly. Did you have classes like that? I had a couple, and felt really lucky to be a part of them. I’m digressing a bit, but that’s kind of what this panel was like—the conversation got into some deep, potentially sensitive territory, and I was impressed by the authors’ attitudes and their handling of the subject matter. Intellectual and geeky and respectful and so awesome!

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Sam Sykes and Scott Lynch were the first to arrive, soon joined by Kevin Hearne.

As I entered the room, found a seat, and read the panel description in my guide, my first thought was, “Huh. There are no women on this panel.” (This comes up again later, which is why I make a point of mentioning it here.) As we waited for the other panelists to get there, Sam Sykes and Scott Lynch talked back and forth a bit, and Scott made a joke about how terrible it was that we’re at a panel about rogues, but were all so punctual. The other authors soon began to file in, and the panel got under way. Even before it had really started, though, Scott Lynch had us laughing some more when he told us about how at the Drinks With Authors event the night before, someone had mistaken him for Jim Butcher and began gushing to him about how much they loved the Dresden Files. Oops! They’ve both got long hair and glasses, so I guess I can see how it might happen… XD

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Authors assemble! Left to right: Pat Rothfuss, Jim Butcher, Pierce Brown, Sam Sykes, Scott Lynch, Kevin Hearne, and our moderator (whose name I did not catch).

The moderator introduced all the authors and their books, and then brought up an interesting point to get the conversation started: “The name of the panel is ‘Writing Rogues’ and I’m not entirely sure why. A lot of your characters are beloved, and I’m not sure I’d qualify them as rogues. But I’m going to go with the theme, because I work in programming and programming tells me what to do. So, across literature, television, and books, everybody seems to like that roguish character. Not truly evil, but for lack of a better phrase, an SOB—but they also have those lovable qualities. Is that easy, or more difficult, to write? To keep them in that grey area, and not true black or white?”

Pat Rothfuss: I think it’s more of a return to basics. At some point, we forgot what the Greeks knew really well—that a good hero had flaws. And then at some point our heroes stopped having flaws, and when that happens, you need an external conflict generator, which is a villain, typically. And who’s really interesting? The villains are the interesting ones. When I was thinking of this character [Kvothe, I assume?], I’m like, ‘He should be a little bit of an arrogant bastard.’ And it’s charming, in a way.

Pierce Brown: Is that easy for you to write? Arrogant bastard? [much laughter from audience] Oh, sorry, Scalzi’s not here. [even more laughter] …I hope he doesn’t hear about that. [or something to that effect]

Rothfuss: I think it’s not so much a different thing…I think in some ways it’s a lot easier. I mean, Superman is fine and good, but who gets tired of Superman? Right? It’s like, goddamn Superman… Who likes Batman? [cheering from audience] Good internal flaw—it’s the classic flaw, it’s hubris. And there’s a reason it’s a great flaw—that really complicates your life, it complicates your story. It can kinda write itself. Except it really doesn’t actually write itself…

Sam Sykes: I think it’s also that it’s harder and harder to relate to the idea of someone not driven at least in a large part by self-interest. And I wouldn’t necessarily describe a rogue as a jerk or an SOB, but comparatively…yeah, they are kind of jerks, but I would classify a rogue as driven in no small part by self-interest. Like Han Solo—not necessarily a dick, but he clearly was not in it for the rebellion or the Force, just looking to get some. [laughter] Trapped on a ship with a wookie for awhile, anything else looks pretty good. I would say that it’s easier for people to identify that self-interest, and I think the appeal of it is not necessarily ‘Oh, you lovable bastard,’ but looking at what that rogue did and saying, ‘Ahh…I might’ve done the same thing, and that’s interesting.’

Pierce Brown: A lot of time I look at heroes from the past and sometimes I feel like they’re shaped more by what’s around them—they’re forced to do things, either good or bad, and they’re forced to do them. But I think the characters with agency are the ones that are interesting to me. Like Han Solo always had his own moral compass. He decided what he wanted to do and he did it. That’s more interesting for me because it creates that air of unpredictability, but also believability, because we do what we want to do. If we want to eat a Snickers bar, we eat the Snickers bar. At least I do. The point is basically that rogues are that unpredictable factor which makes stories so much more interesting than the cookie cutter King Arthur. Although, if you look at the classic King Arthur tale, he’s kind of an asshole as well. And it creates that interesting human layer which makes that story span a thousand years in our consciousness.

Scott Lynch: It’s difficult to get emotionally riled up about somebody for whom being good and decent is a persistent, easy attainment, something that’s always intrinsic to them and never goes away. Because for those of us living in actual reality, being decent human beings is a matter of making decision after decision, situation after situation—it’s something to aspire to. It’s not something you just automatically have, as a parity of virtue. Parities of virtue are very boring. People trying to be virtuous in the face of life itself are interesting. Rogues just bring a little bit more of that to the foreground. They’re just a little bit grayer than your average hero.

Kevin Hearne: Absolutely. One of the things that I actually kind of admire Marvel for very recently is what they did with Captain America, because before the Winter Soldier one, what was wrong with Captain America? Too much JUSTICE! It was very sort of flat. I like the fact that finally he had some moral issues there with preemptive war and some of those things that were going on. I thought that was pretty brilliant of them. So, I have not just Atticus—I guess he wouldn’t consider himself a rogue, but other people that don’t particularly like him would. But what I consider rogues are actually some of my secondary characters, like Leif Helgarson and Coyote. They’re a lot of fun to write because I actually don’t know what they’re going to do until they do it, because they’re so ambivalent and you don’t know whose side they’re on except their own. I think Sam was talking a little bit about that—how they’re really motivated by self-interest, and everybody is. That might be perceived as ‘evil,’—selfishness is sometimes just ‘evil’ to other folks.

Pat Rothfuss: I don’t know about the defining characteristic being self-interest. I think that that crops up, but I don’t think that we can consider that necessary and sufficient. I’m sorry, but if we’re gonna define, then we’re gonna define here! [laughter] Because there is some commonality, and I think it might be a certain element of realism, because if we want some of these fictional characters to be a little larger than life—I think very few people wake up in the morning and think, ‘I’m just gonna get through the day,’ or, ‘I’m gonna be evil.’ We all like to think of ourselves as good people, and so we want to do good things, but also, maybe we want to be kind of wiseass. Maybe we want to be clever. And so if you turn that up to ten, you get this exaggerated…sort of like the you you would be on your best day in these extraordinary circumstances. And so we can empathize, maybe because it’s realistic, and we can admire it because it’s better than we are. I don’t know.

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Rothfuss hashing out the finer points of roguiness.

Jim Butcher: I think Kevin used the key word, which is ‘ambivalence.’ The rogue is the gray character, and he always is. He’s of a number of minds about a number of different things that are around. The rogue is never the guy who is committed to the cause. The rogue is never the guy you can absolutely be sure is going to be there to back you up, because that essential ambivalence is part of his nature. So when he doesn’t come through, well, what did you expect, it’s the rogue, and when he does, it’s extra awesome because you really didn’t think he would be there. Which is why Solo showing up at the end of Star Wars is an amazing moment.

Pat Rothfuss: That’s right, I think that’s the key—because if Superman shows up, you’re like, ‘…thanks.’ [laughter]

Someone, maybe Jim Butcher? Or still Rothfuss?: You know he’s going to be there. His superpower is practically ‘I’ve got your back.’

Pat Rothfuss: Superman’s baseline is save everyone all the time, and if he doesn’t, you’re kinda pissed. But somebody else, maybe not being horrible is a heroic act for them. And it’s true, I think in terms of, like, straight up rogue, Kvothe…I don’t know. I’m too close to him to be subjective. But Bast is core rogue. Talk about conflicted. There’s all the things he wants to do…actually, that’s all Bast is. [laughter] There’s all the things he wants to do, and he’s slowly becoming aware of the fact that he can’t always just do them. And that’s what makes him an interesting character for me.

Sam Sykes: I think when we say ‘self-interest,’ we’re actually referring to an additional layer of conflict that a character has to face. A lot of characters are defined by their conflict. Superman’s conflict is, as we pointed out, can I punch out this guy. And if so, can I punch him out without killing him. It’s not interesting. Whereas a rogue has to fight against himself before anything else. Han Solo had to fight against the idea that if he goes up against the Empire he’s probably going to die.

Pierce Brown: You look at a Superman fight scene, and they have to knock down half of New York to make it interesting. You look at Batman, the pinnacle of The Dark Knight climax, and it’s a battle of Batman’s conscience.

Sam Sykes: Or if you’ve ever read The Killing Joke, which is one of the essential Batman novels—Batman’s greatest fight with the Joker is the one he lost, where the Joker got him to laugh. He told a joke, and Batman laughed, because Batman’s fights are always philosophical duels with fisticuffs, whereas Superman is punching things out. I think the rogue always has to battle against himself.

Pat Rothfuss: To clarify with Superman—the true struggle with Superman was always can he save the world and actually have a life. That’s where the real conflict always came from. It’s like, ‘Oh, I need to get out of here so they don’t realize that I’m really Superman.’ That was the conflict in those stories. It was never can he overcome, it’s can he be fast enough. That was where the conflict came in that story, and as soon as you lose that as a conflict, that’s when the stories stop working, and you try to make it all about this huge fight and it doesn’t work. Who was bored watching them destroy Metropolis? Everyone was bored. Because that’s not the conflict that’s at the heart of Superman.

Sam Sykes: It’s a good approach—if destroying a city is boring, then you’ve fucked up. [much laughter]

Scott Lynch: To generalize—the appeal of rogues in general, a shorthand I’ve used before—when we look for heroes, when we look for interesting characters in fantasy or science fiction, we tend to look most of the time at characters who break boundaries of all sorts. We want warriors that are really strong, we want scholars that are deeply knowledgable, magicians of surpassing power—and rogues are the characters that are morally transgressive, that give us that vicarious thrill of breaking the rules that shouldn’t be broken, saying the things that shouldn’t be said. The rogue is the sort of person who—we might only daydream about telling the assholes in our lives what we really think of them. I daydreamed back when I was a waiter of the things I would say to my jerkass customers that I couldn’t stand. But I only daydreamed—I needed that job, and I didn’t have the spine or the wherewithal to tell them some of the things that, y’know, Locke Lamora would tell them. Locke Lamora could not retain employment in the food service industry. [much laughter] I could while swallowing my tongue, and so it’s that thrill of vicarious ethical and moral transgression. Like breaking into something—what do I do in Skyrim and Oblivion? I break into people’s houses! I steal their cheese! If there’s no cheese in Skyrim, I stole it all. I think that’s a really important note. That for some of us who are freaks that is as thrilling as ‘I am the strongest warrior in the world, I am the wisest paladin in the world’—‘I will do anything and I have no boundaries.’ It’s exciting!

Pierce Brown: That’s why I inherently don’t trust anyone in Skyrim who’s a thief. [laughter]

Pat Rothfuss: Actually, think about—Superman is really cool when you’re 14, because the thought of no one being able to hurt you and being so strong is the coolest thought you can have. And then you get to be 30, and you’re like, ‘Oh, if I could tell these people what I really think of them…’ You’re like, ‘Pffft, being bulletproof? How often would that come up in my life?’ Always having that perfect, cutting response? There’s my mutant power. I could use that every minute of every day.

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Rothfuss, making us laugh.

Where are the female rogues?

Moderator: Back to rogues, and listening to you guys talk, you always talk with a male perspective. Outside of maybe Lisbeth Salander from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, why are there so few female roguish characters? I would think, speaking for myself, a female with moral transgressions—I think for most of us that’d be right up our alley.

Pat Rothfuss: Actually, I’m going to say the why—not ‘here’s why I think it should be,’ but ‘here’s why it is.’ I think it’s because, you hit on it—it’s because our culture has a real problem with women who are outspoken. I mean, if a guy—again, you turn a guy up to 11, it’s like, ‘Whoa, he was sarcastic before, but now he’s super sarcasmo.’ But a woman who just kind of expresses her normal opinion—look at the internet, jesus.

Pierce Brown: We create labels for them, it’s the exact problem.

Pat Rothfuss: You turn that up… I mean, it goes against social convention that a lot of people aren’t comfortable transgressing against, and I think that’s why people don’t default to that. I don’t think that’s right, but I think that’s one of the shitty things, the methods of action that’s keeping that character down. And I will speak to that through Denna. Right? Who hates Denna? [no one raises their hands, and I’m thinking bullshit, y’all] Yeah, see now you won’t cop to it! [much laughter] You know who’s a rogue? Denna. Denna says what she thinks, Denna does not let herself be pinned down. If Denna is not comfortable in the relationship, she fucking leaves the relationship. And you know the character that people bitch to me the most about? Denna. So…the reason is you. [laughter and applause]

Sam Sykes: [helplessly] What more could you add?

Pat Rothfuss: Sorry, I drank A LOT of caffeine today.

Scott Lynch: The reason is us, too. It’s just endemic to the total sexism that you just kind of…you aren’t magically born with this, it’s a constant uphill struggle to realize—I mean, fish don’t see the water that they’re swimming in. You have to be educated and educate yourself before you learn to go, ‘Oh, holy God, I’ve been an asshole—I forgot this and this and this.’ You have to gain perspective.

Sam Sykes: Just to put out a really good example of some female rogues right now—this being comicon, I assume some of you actually read comics. Check out Kurtis J. Wiebe and Johnny Roc’s Rat Queens. Rat Queens is about…it’s basically a D&D party full of assholes, and they’re all women. And it’s fantastic. Maybe sometimes you do have to be educated to force that perspective, or sometimes you just have to provide a really kickass example and let people enjoy it. So…read Rat Queens. Do it.

Scott Lynch: I’ve had—I’m sorry, I don’t mean to steamroll you.

Sam Sykes: No, go right ahead. Steamroll me.

Scott Lynch: I’ve kind of had the same experience that Pat has with my third novel, which finally reveals a character named Sabetha Belacoros, who I kept offstage for two books. So, we’ve only experienced her through the viewpoints of other characters, who may be completely full of shit about her. So when we finally see her in the flesh, it turns out it’s exactly what Pat said—male characters are allowed to be mercurial and troublesome, problematic and stubborn, everchanging, and they're still perceived as lovable. But if you do this with a female character, ‘She’s a megabitch! Why do you have her in the book?!’ What drives me crazy is I see this online from a lot of young women, who are essentially being taught that having more than one dimension in a female character is a negative trait. And it’s just a poisonous indoctrination into this whole notion. Sabetha is as flawed and mercurial and stubborn and arrogant as Locke is, which is a substantial amount in every different case. Locke is a better improviser and Sabetha is more mature, is always more of an adult and thinks in the long term. I’ve gotten a lot of the same thing from certain quarters: ‘Ugh, she’s such a BITCH! What is it with her?’ What it is with her is that she’s not standing still and just being a help-me or a prize for Locke to grab. Which is the role that the female in this romantic relationship typically gets thrust into. Just the prize to grab. And if the guy doesn’t get to grab the prize, what’s wrong with the prize?! Something must be wrong with the prize!!! It’s ingrained in so many of us, and it’s so deep, and it’s something you just have to punch against for years until you realize that you’re even dealing with it.

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Pierce Brown discussing female rogues, as Sam Sykes and Scott Lynch listen.

Pierce Brown: The problematic thing that I see in this question, I guess, is that we might have female rogues in our books, but almost inevitably they’re going to be attractive. Almost that the female rogues, in order to sustain this independence or this mercurialness and wit, they have to be attractive. And that’s the thing that I think is different between a male rogue and a female rogue, is that for some reason, whether it’s the readers or whether it’s us because we have it ingrained in us or whether it’s Hollywood because sex sells or because it’s just these things that we’ve been trained since youth—the female can be interesting, she can be funny, she can be a bitch, but she has to be hot too in order to be accepted. And I think that’s the biggest problem. I mean, even Joss Whedon does it. I think Joss Whedon’s one of the best at writing female characters, but Faith, who is the epitome of rogue for a Joss Whedon character, is still really attractive. Would we like her if she wasn’t? I don’t know.

Jim Butcher(?): Yeah, because Harrison Ford is just repulsive. [much laughter]

Pierce Brown: Look at Rorschach. Who doesn’t like Rorschach here? Rorschach is a very interesting character, but he’s dog ugly and is hideous in a lot of ways, but we don’t care about that because he’s a guy.

Sam Sykes: I would argue that Rorschach is an idea—the guy under the mask doesn’t matter. That’s his whole point.

Pierce Brown: Perhaps Rorschach might not be the best example for you then—

Sam Sykes: I get your point. I just felt the need to be a pain. [laughter]

[The next section of the panel had pretty much constant audience laughter at a high volume throughout these exchanges, so I’m having trouble picking it all out and deciphering it, but doing my best!]

Someone, maybe Pat Rothfuss: Good thing I’m not on this panel with you…

Sam Sykes: You’re trapped on this panel with me!

Pat Rothfuss: [laughing] That’s the best… That’s the best reference I’ve ever seen in any panel. [everyone else laughing too] I’m just going to be happy about that for like a week…

Pierce Brown: …I don’t get it either, but it sounds pretty funny so I’ll laugh.

Someone, maybe Sam Sykes: Do you honestly not get that? [A ‘How old are you?’ must’ve been in there somewhere, too]

Pierce Brown: I’m 26.

Scott Lynch: Oh. The reference is older than you are! [laughter and ohhhs]

[I didn’t get it either, but YouTube helped me out.]

Sam Sykes: Fake geek spotted! [laughter] Yeah, what do you know about Watchmen? Or are you just doing this for attention?

Pierce Brown: Yeah, it’s the prison, I know…I get it.

Pat Rothfuss: These pretty authors come in here…pretty, young, pretty boy authors come in here, pretending to know their fantasy…

Pierce Brown: And guys who write trilogies and don’t write the third book… [biggest laughter and ohhhs yet, followed by applause]

Pat Rothfuss: It’s fun! It’s tradition!

Someone, maybe Scott Lynch: Douglas Adams wrote a five book trilogy, Pat wrote a one book trilogy! [I think, on that last bit]

Pat Rothfuss: I’m breaking with convention.

Moderator: Oh boy. [panel looks to him] No, keep going!

Sam Sykes: We need to stop before Pat kills…

Your First Rogues Stick With You

Moderator: Let me get in one more question before I kick it out to the audience. Much like you never forget your first Doctor, what was the first roguish character in literature that really attracted you?

Scott Lynch: Snake Eyes.

Kevin Hearne: McMurphy from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Scott Lynch: Oh, okay, okay.

Sam Sykes: Gah…he brought up G.I. Joe, and Kevin brings up One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Scott Lynch: [puts on hoity-toity voice] In the works of Thucydides, I would find… No, fuckin’ Snake Eyes.

Sam Sykes: You just stumbled upon a great truth of the appeal of the ninja!

Scott Lynch: He dresses like a ninja all the time, he never salutes, he comes and goes as he pleases… Does he even have a military operational specialty? What does Snake Eyes actually do? He hangs around, he’s a ninja, he does ninja stuff.

Sam Sykes: His rank, class, and hobby is “ninja.”

Scott Lynch: You never see Snake Eyes, like, polishing the tracks on a tank, or loading the ammo. He always vanishes, boom, he’s gone.

Pierce Brown (I think): Snake Eyes is in the army, likes to be a ninja.

Sam Sykes: Looking for other ninjas. Just not Storm Shadow…

Someone, maybe Lynch or Sykes: Oh, that got sad… [much laughter]

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Sam Sykes and Scott Lynch…photobombing?

Pat Rothfuss: I’m going to pick Strider. Because early on—it’s like now, who do I love in the Lord of the Rings? I love Gandalf. But when I first read it, and like, who I named my D&D characters after or when I was playing a video game I’d put in Strider. And not Aragorn, because Aragorn is Superman. But Strider—that’s when the book starts. We talked about this before, but you know pretty much they make it to the inn, they fuck it up, they go back to their room, and Strider kicks the door shut and says, ‘Seriously.’ He tells them off, and he comes in, and I’m like, ‘He is so cool…’ And then he immediately outwits the Nazgûl, and then he immediately takes them off-roadin’… And then saves their ass at Weathertop, and then he knows things that he shouldn’t know, and he tells people off. I mean…I’m pretty sure he tells Gandalf off? He is one of the wise. One of the wise ass. [laughter]

Jim Butcher: It’s when they’re arguing over the palantír.

Pat Rothfuss: Yeah, thank you! I think for me it’s Strider, and I never would’ve thought of him as a rogue until right now when I was going back into those early days of reading.

Sam Sykes: I’m going to go full dork and say my first rogue was probably Drizzt Do’Urden. Because when you think about it, I was a 14 year old boy, and Drizzt Do’Urden is written specifically to appeal to 14 year old boys. He comes from a world where no one understands him, and everyone is mean to him, and everyone is jealous of how great he is… [audience laughter] And then he goes into another world where no one understands him, and they judge him purely on shallow looks, but he’s so cool and if only people would give him a chance…he has swords, and a panther… And there’s this girl he really likes, but he can’t get laid because he’s too noble… [more audience laughter]

Pat Rothfuss: It’s the Twilight of D&D!

Someone: He’s got one or two nerdy friends who aren’t quite as cool as he is…

Sam Sykes: Yes, and he always puts them to shame, and when he’s gone they really miss him, and they stand around asking, ‘Where’s Drizzt?’

Someone, maybe Pierce Brown: With Snake Eyes! [laughter]

Sam Sykes: Drizzt is off doing ninja stuff.

Jim Butcher: I’m gonna go with Kirk. Kirk just could never follow…I mean, really, everybody would come up, ‘Regulations,’ Kirk: ‘Whatever.’ You know, ‘We’re gonna do this however I want to, because I’m the captain.’ You were never really sure what Kirk was going to be up to. He had to fight his own crew members every other episode. So yeah, I’m going to go with Kirk as one of my original rogues.

Pierce Brown: I think I’ll go with Kyp Durron from the Star Wars series. [audience member cheers loudly] Yeah, thank you, someone! Probably because he’s the first time I realized a Jedi didn’t have to be rigidly adhering to an overall moral code, and that they could be gray in a lot of ways. Now, that led to some problems, like destroying the solar system, but…just small things. [laughter] Kyp opened up the Star Wars universe a lot for me.

Moderator: Alright. Any questions from the audience?

Pat Rothfuss: Actually, before that happens—Reepicheep? [awwws and applause from audience] In some ways I’m like, ‘Eh…paladin?’ But no, he’s a little too mouthy for that, I think.

Someone: In Prince Caspian definitely, he’s grown there.

Audience Q&A

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Moderator: Okay, questions?

Devi as a Rogue

Audience Dude: This is for Patrick Rothfuss or anyone who’s read the book. Would you consider Devi to be a good example of a strong female rogue?

Pat Rothfuss: Yeah, actually, I was thinking of Devi as well. I think she’s a little more tolerable to the general populace because she’s not a direct romantic interest of Kvothe’s, but actually Devi is effectively drummed out of the university for doing her own thing. She’s suffering in-world consequences for being a rogue in that particular culture.

The Rogue Code

Another Audience Dude: One of the things I’ve noticed about good rogue characters is that they usually have some sort of code or some sort of line or some sort of thing that they won’t cross that informs their character. Can you guys talk a little bit about how important that is or how you go about setting what that is for your characters?

Sam Sykes: I would say that’s more important to most characters. Most characters will have that moral center. It doesn’t have to be moral, but they have something about them that will not break. Or until that does break—

Someone, Scott Lynch, I think: That’s how you keep generating tension based on character—you keep putting them in situations that take them closer and closer to having to make decisions about their moral code.

Sam Sykes: Yeah, I think it’s more noticeable in rogues because they don’t obey the other moral codes.

Pierce Brown: And that draws them into contrast with all the other characters, and you create the tension off the rogues. That’s why you like them—because they contrast with the main, good character a lot of times.

Sam Sykes: They’re the bad boy.

Scott Lynch: A completely conscienceless, amoral character who will really do anything may have some shock and novelty value at first, but there’s nothing interesting after that because if they’ll literally do anything then they’ll really do anything. There’s never going to be any interpersonal conflict.

Pat Rothfuss: Yeah, you can’t play chaotic-neutral. [laughter]

Contrasting Characters

Yet Another Audience Dude: How does having a rogue as the main character affect the other characters in terms of, you have to have one supremely moral person alongside them? Like Michael Carpenter…to help force the character to be who they are, but not be a bad guy.

Sam Sykes: [to Scott Lynch] May I speak? May I speak of The Lies of Locke Lamora?

Scott Lynch: [laughing] Oh, this should be cute, everybody… [much laughter]

Sam Sykes: I wouldn’t say Jean Tannen is actually the unbreakable moral character. I think he’s made of stronger stuff than Locke, but I think that’s precisely why Locke needs him. Locke is not really concerned about doing something that crosses a line, but he is, himself, pretty weak. He’s fragile, he can’t get by on his own for a lot of things. He needs Jean. So he might cross a lot of lines that other people [wouldn’t], but he needs Jean to be there. And to link this to another great modern art, The Simpsons—Marge Simpson is not a strong moral character or the center of a universe, but she is the center of Homer’s universe. And at the end of every episode ‘Homer loves Marge’ is the one thing that is never broken. So he’ll do a lot of shit, but the minute Marge is displeased he goes back. …Jean Tannen is Marge. [laughter]

Scott Lynch: I did not expect you to say that, Sam. I will say that it’s directly analogous to the classic two-person comedy setup of the straight man and the screwball. You have someone who makes the jokes and does the goofy stuff, and someone for them to bounce off of, someone to provide a contrast. And Jean is not exactly a knight in shining armor—he’s still a crook. He’s just—well, everyone is a little bit more emotionally stable than Locke is, except for the absolute bleeding psychopaths. But Jean is a wall the other characters can bounce off of. A wall they can bounce off of and a wall they can lean on when they need it. As in comedy, so with crime.

Sam Sykes: So maybe it’d be fair to say that unbreakable part of someone can sometimes be another character entirely.

On the Sexualization of Female Rogues

Audience Lady: So, speaking of female rogues, I can’t help but notice you’re an all-male panel. I’d like to speak to that with an insight, if I may, as to why that might be harder. I think to name the elephant in the room, for male rogues, you have somebody strong, but women are not just traditionally but physically are smaller, and it’s harder for us to defend ourselves. And I do sword fighting and parkour and hang out with a bunch of groups of guys, so one thing that can be hard is that in a society where a rogue is going to be appreciated and have lots of friends, there’s also a danger of becoming the sex toy of the boys in the band. And so if you have a believable female rogue, a lot of times they have to be so self-defensive out of fear. Male characters can get away with just being funny and female characters are usually…

Pat Rothfuss: I think you’re absolutely right. There’s also the—

Another Audience Person: What was the question? [laughter]

[There was a little bit of talking back and forth as they noted that it was a complex topic and difficult to sum up, but someone gave the asker a microphone and she was able to condense her question down admirably and at a volume everyone could hear.]

Audience Lady: In societies where rogues are going to be popular and have friends, a danger for a female rogue is becoming the sex toy of the band. And so my question for them is, how do you make a female character that’s believably safe enough to be comfortable in that environment, capable of being funny and not driven by fear—believably safe but also emotionally accessible for the reader?

Pierce Brown: I think a lot of it is how much the band respects her. If you have characters around her that respect her as a person, then I think you won’t suffer that sort of problem. I think if you have a sort of cannibalistic band, where it is survival of the fittest, what happens a lot of times is the female getting cast in that role. I think that’s a problem, but I think it’s our responsibility to create characters who can believably—females as well, so she can believably have enough power intellectually and in the relationships where that’s not a problem. I mean, I wouldn’t even consider that being a problem with the females in my book, because they’re so intellectually brilliant—that’s their power, because they don’t have the physical strength of the men, so they have to be clever—otherwise they wouldn’t be in the band.

Pat Rothfuss: I’m working on a story with a female main character. It was going to be a novella, and apparently I can’t write a novella, so… It’s really long, and as soon as I started writing it, I started trying to effectively deal with—how do you effectively deal with the reader’s cultural expectations, and how do you create a culture where a woman can behave in this way? I think the big thing you have to overcome, one of the very primary things you have to overcome is the fact that fantasy is not accepting of women as active participants. There’s rare exceptions. If you are a young, attractive…like the plucky virginal sword awesome girl—right, we’ve all seen that in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? That is a trope that we find acceptable, and you see it repeated a lot. However, say…what about ‘mature woman.’ How often do you see a mature woman take an active role in a story?

Someone, probably Jim Butcher: Well, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. [laughter]

Pat Rothfuss: But how about this—how about a mature woman with children who then decides to go out and see the world, have an adventure. It doesn’t happen because of the huge cultural expectation that a woman is a mother, a woman is inherently a nurturing creature, and I think that, the whole woman-as-nurturer—that cultural expectation really is one of the main forces that keeps them from being rogues, because rogues are transgressive. If you invert the gender roles in Shakespeare’s Tempest—you can do it in a lot of places, but you do it in The Tempest and things get fucked up, because the behavior that’s acceptable from a father figure? We see it coming from a woman and it freaks us out. We find it absolutely unacceptable. Ummm, what’s your point, Rothfuss? I got really excited and I lost track of my point. [laughter] I can’t say what can we do as a general thing…I know what I have done, struggling to write this character is first off, writing a culture that is believable, which means people are still dicks, there’s still going to be racism or sexism or classism, there’s going to be prejudice no matter what flavor it is, but I wanted to create a culture that wasn’t so horribly bunched up about sex. And with healthier sex attitudes, a woman, say, traveling on her own, is not in constant fear of rapine behavior, especially from strangers, let alone members of her own band. Even if you don’t want to create a whole story just so a character can exist in a safe space, I think creating a subculture, even if that subculture is only as big a group of people as the band itself, because, I mean…I hang out with groups of friends and we have women in there, and if they’re the sex toy of the group then it’s a surprise to me. [laughter] Who has a female in their group of people and they’re not a sex toy? [hands go up] But the tricky bit is, it’s the cultural expectation in these narrative forms. We have very well-worn grooves in this narrative tradition that it’s really hard to bump up out of that rut, because you have to blaze a new trail. You don’t have a lot of benchmarks to follow. …That is a supremely mixed metaphor that I just did there. [laughter] Textbook triple mixed metaphor.

Sam Sykes: If I can offer an example that I think would answer your question here—Gail Simone is one of the most talented comic writers out there. She has recently taken over the run of Red Sonja, who is a character that has dealt with a lot of issues about whether she’s a sex icon, or an actual character. Gail Simone’s run absolutely knocks it out of the park. Red Sonja, wearing what she wears and doing what she does, is frequently under threat—Gail Simone pulls it off because Red Sonja gives zero fucks.

Pierce Brown: How many fucks?

Sam Sykes: Zero fucks. She carves out her own safe space, carves out her own niche in society. Not everyone is down with that, and she sort of makes it her own in both violent, adventurous ways and in her own personal life. I wrote a lengthy blog post on this and I wish I had time to talk about it more, but yeah, read Red Sonja and I think Gail Simone answers this question very well.

Quemment #1

Another Audience Lady: It’s all our consensus that Mab [from The Dresden Files] is the most kickass rogue woman that we know of.

Jim Butcher: Yeah, I’m trying to imagine the band in which she was the sex toy. [much laughter]

Pat Rothfuss: ‘We’re getting the band back together!’ ‘There’s no getting the band back together…’ [more laughter]

Recommendations of Tons of Female Writers of Roguish Characters

Yet Another Audience Lady: Going back to the fact that this is an all-male panel, why do you think there are so few female authors who write roguish characters?

Someone, maybe Pierce Brown: Is that true?

Scott Lynch: You’ve got to remember, at the moment—I can think of a couple in particular who are at a panel that was intended to be about the life and work of Jay Lake that has turned into the de facto memorial service for Jay Lake. So we were up against structural inhibitions above and beyond the panel composition… I think that’s one of those unfortunate things that is tried out all the time—‘Oh, women are interested in this, oh, but women don’t write this!’ And I really wonder if that is actually true, because right off the top of my head I can think of Elizabeth Bear, Rachel Aaron…

Sam Sykes: Rachel Aaron wrote the Eli Monpress series.

Scott Lynch: C.L. Moore and Leigh Brackett were writing rogues to the hilt back in the 1930s and the 1940s.

Jim Butcher: Anita Blake. [cheers]

Sam Sykes: Damn near all of her characters are.

Pat Rothfuss: Patricia Briggs. [Even more cheers! :D But they covered his comment on her rogues. D:]

Scott Lynch: Trudi Canavan writes them. Joanna Russ—one of her major threads of her stories was the Alyx stories. I mean, Alyx time-traveled and slept with Fafhrd of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Joanna Russ played in the sword and sorcery sandbox with the guys who were doing that back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s all fallen into shadow now, along with most of her non-academic work, unfortunately, but she loved her some rogues. It’s an unfortunate near secret.

Sam Sykes: I hate to keep going back to comics, but Ashley Cope, author of Unsounded—it’s a free web comic online—writes Sette. And she is the rogue’s rogue. She descends from rogues, she is a rogue among rogues. It’s an amazing comic, and go read it.

Someone in the audience: But she’s a kid.

Sam Sykes: She is a kid, but she deals with a lot of the shit that kids and young women do. She’s also a freakish thing with a tail and teeth, but she’s still a female rogue. [laughter]

Pat Rothfuss: Angela Carter. Wooooow. Read The Company of Wolves. Probably people wouldn’t read that and then say, ‘Oh, a rogue,’ but I’m like, transgress against tradition more than in that story. I wish I had a copy for every person here.

Scott Lynch: Dorothy Dunnett, a historical novelist who wrote something called the Lymond Chronicles about Francis Crawford of Lymond—the biggest smartmouth kilt-wearing asshat that 15th century Scotland could produce! He’s a rogue 110%. I’m only just reading the series now for the first time, and he’s unbelievable, the things he does. He’s one of those characters that I would feel ashamed to have written, because he’s so completely over the top. And he’s delightful in that respect. Nobody rogues harder than this guy. No one rogues harder than Dorothy Dunnett. Highly recommended. If you have ever read anything by Patrick O’Brian, the Aubrey/Maturin series—Dorothy Dunnett is like the yin and the yang of that sequence. Give it a try.

Pat Rothfuss: Ellen Kushner. The anthology Coyote Tales. Patricia McKillip, to a certain extent, in some of her books. I mean, Patricia McKillip wrote The Riddle-Master of Hed, and THERE’S a rogue. That was one of the cornerstones of my childhood reading.

Jim Butcher: Every character, every heroine Lilith Saintcrow writes. Lilith Saintcrow. 

Kevin Hearne: Jaye Wells.

Pat Rothfuss: So they are out there. I thought the same thing when I came in the room and I went, ‘Oh no…dudes…’ [laughter]

Quemment #2

Audience Dude: So long as we’re on this topic of gender, I don’t know how many people in here have read the Codex Alera series [by Jim Butcher]. That’s one where it’s not really a lot of your typical rogues, because everyone’s kind of in the political system in some way and it’s more sort of transgressing the politics of it, but I think—pick practically any female character out of that entire series. NONE of them you would want to mess with. At all. You don’t want to mess with Invidia, Isana…any of them.

Jim Butcher: Well, Invidia’s just crazy, though. [laughter] Well, not really. I think she’s just supremely ambitious and it amounts to the same thing as crazy.

Audience Dude: It’s almost like…well, it’s not actually rogue, but half the time you don’t know where she is.

Jim Butcher: She just doesn’t care. Really, she has no regard for anyone, except somebody who’s actually earned her respect, and otherwise you don’t matter. That’s kind of her attitude.

The Easiest Answer of the Panel

Another Audience Dude: I have a different kind of question. At what point do your rogues run the risk of becoming an anti-hero, or are you ever worried that your characters will take that darker turn and become something less virtuous or maybe even less likeable?

Pat Rothfuss: No. [much laughter]

Pierce Brown: That’s the answer for all of us, by the way. [more laughter]

More Discussion of Female Rogues

Audience Lady: Do you think that the female rogue issue has to do with the fact that they kind of begin as side characters? Like, so, Denna. I don’t like her because she hurt Kvothe, and I’m on his journey. But I think if I were on her journey and I knew why she was a rogue, I would really sympathize with her. And so I wonder if you guys ever plan on having a…I know you’re doing Auri, but do you ever consider doing a main character that is a female rogue?

Pat Rothfuss: This story that I’m working on that’s turning into a novel, it’s probably fair to consider that character a rogue. She’s certainly transgressive. And I deal with the band toy issue because she’s sexually aggressive. She goes on an adventure and her kids are at home and her husband is at home and she’s like, ‘I’m gonna dance with that boy, and it’s gonna be awesome,’ and she does. So yeah, making them the center of the story—you see anyone’s story and they immediately become more sympathetic. I think that’s part of the issue.

Kevin Hearne: I am making Granuaile kind of—well, I was kind of annoyed with the fifth book cover of Trapped because the way they shot it, I had no input on the cover shoot, and that was the book for me where Granuaile got on the cover because she is now a full druid and she should be equal with Atticus—she has all the same powers that he does. But yet the way they shot it was that she was behind him, in sort of just a secondary role, like you were saying. I didn’t feel that that was right, so I said, ‘Well look, if you can’t get rid of the sexism in your cover shoot, I don’t want her on the cover any more,’ even though to me she is just as important as Atticus, and she has as many chapters in the new book as he does. She’s a really important character for me and I’ve been building that up all along, and so it’s taken awhile. People are like, ‘Well, is she just going to be somebody that he rescues?’ No. You will see in the next book. No, that’s not the way it’s gonna go.

Change Comes Slowly

Audience Dude: You’re all talking about the lack of female rogues, and I’m thinking about The Hunger Games, I’m thinking about Divergent, and I would have to say that the main characters in those series are female rogues. In fact, I think we are seeing an upswing in main characters that are female, that are strong, that are not the sex toy. And I think that’s a good thing. So I don’t know what the complaint here is.

Kevin Hearne: It’s good to talk about it because—because people talk about it, that’s why we’re seeing more of it, and that’s good. That’s how change happens.

Pat Rothfuss: Yeah. I think it’s a long-standing issue that even though we’re starting to get better, we still need to progress.

Scott Lynch: Change is always incremental and change is always gradual, and always that danger of saying, ‘Oh what, you want a movie with a woman in the lead? We did one of those last year!’

Sam Sykes: I don’t remember who it was on the panel that said it, but it’s something you have to punch against for a thousand years. So we are in year…four? [laughter]

Female Rogues in YA Fiction

Audience Lady: I was just going to make a quick comment that I think there’s a significant gap between young adult fiction and adult fiction, because I think we are seeing a lot more of those strong female characters and female rogues in young adult fiction—and hopefully when that generation that’s reading those grows up, we’ll start to see more of that.

Pat Rothfuss: And hopefully they’ll be less resistant to—they won’t have nearly so much of the cultural baggage that the authors will feel like they have to overcome. So we won’t have to effectively, instead of explaining our elaborate magic system, it’s like, ‘Well here’s the culture in which a woman is actually safe and doesn’t have to hide her face and ankles.’

On Building Characters in Writing

Audience Dude: Kind of off the general topic of the theme so far, but when writing a character and trying to figure out the kind of personality you want to write for them—I personally in my writing have a lot of trouble diversifying the kind of characters that I use. What is your process to figure out the personality for a character that you’re writing?

Jim Butcher: The biggest thing that drives a character’s personality is what they want. Once you figure out what a character wants, you can build things from there, but the absolute core of what you have to figure out is what does that character want. What is motivating them.

Someone: And who’s going to keep them from getting it.

Pierce Brown: In a lot of writing I see people having characters that are predestined for a certain role, like they have a role in the party. I think a lot of us grew up on D&D, or party-based books, or party-based games, and we immediately think in that way. We think in the way of sport teams. And I think that if you shake that, like Jim said, make it what they want instead of what their role is in terms of how they function in the group, it’s much more interesting. Because someone’s going to get in the way of what they want, and how they deal with that is how their personality unfolds.

Someone in the audience: Do they have to know what they want?

Pierce Brown: No, that can sometimes be the best part. So you put an obstacle in their way, and they have several options of how to deal with that obstacle. That’s when you start finding out what they are, who they are.

Jim Butcher: The character can not know…the writer has to know. [laughter] Once you start getting into territory where you’re not sure if the writer knows what’s going on…and you know when you’re there. [more laughter] The beginning of Battlestar Galactica. We knew. [uproarious laughter and ohhhs]

Scott Lynch: There’s a really important difference between an obstacle that’s just an obstacle, and an obstacle that forces a character to make a decision. That is the entire crucible in which character is revealed. Decisions where there is a price in any direction. When there are no easy options, you will see the real character emerge.

In Which We All Fail at Shakespeare

Audience Guy: Is a rogue then defined by being a character that wants something that they’re not supposed to have, according to society or…?

Pat Rothfuss: I was thinking earlier that an interesting—if you go back to some classic stuff…can somebody with a little more book learnin’ help me out here? The character in Shakespeare who, they would show up in one of the plays, the person who was the wit. Were they called a fabulist? Anyone?

Pierce Brown: Well, sometimes they’re a fool…

Pat Rothfuss: Not the fool. Not Dogberry. The person who would come in and who was snarky…

Audience Member: Falstaff.

Pat Rothfuss: Like Falstaff…

Random Person: Iago?

Another Person: Mercutio?

Pat Rothfuss: It was the person who would come in and kind of be witty and snarky—

Audience Person: Oh, like Beatrice—

Pat Rothfuss: Okay, I’m gonna stop this. [much laughter] There is a type of character in Shakespeare’s plays which I think the term for them is a fabulist, and their main position was to be kind of fantastic. They would show up in court and they’d be witty and clever and they’d be snarky, and that was kind of like their role. And in some ways it’s much easier to have the rogue be the supporting role as opposed to the main. [to Jim Butcher] Would you say that Harry is the most roguish of the characters?

Jim Butcher: No. By no means. There’s almost always someone who is roguier. [much laughter]

Moderator: And with that, if you’ve been to my book panels you know I like to close with if you haven’t gotten to know your local independent bookseller, they are a fantastic resource. I myself got turned on to three of these authors by my local independent bookseller, so I highly encourage you to seek yours out. And thank you gentlemen, it was a fantastic panel!

I think part of the reason I enjoyed this panel so much was because I was familiar with a lot of the books and characters of the authors on it, and also with many of the other books and things they referred to. I apologize for any errors or misattributions of who said what in the transcription—it was sometimes hard to discern who was saying what when discussion went back and forth, and to pick things up under the audience laughter or when the mic didn’t pick up voices clearly. And there was a lot of laughter—these guys were hilarious! Quick wit and good senses of humor all around. Pierce Brown took a bit of heat from his writer senpais, but gave as good as he got, and I loved how Jim Butcher just kind of sat back for most of the panel, like a sniper of witty remarks. It’s actually even funnier in retrospect how Scott Lynch was mistaken for Jim Butcher at the party, because as I was typing this up, I realized that their voices sound vaguely similar, too. Scott Lynch is so wise and so funny—he may be joining Libba Bray in the ranks of my author spirit animals.

But now to you, fair readers! If you made it through this whole post, you deserve a cookie. What did you think of the panel? What parts of the discussion did you find most compelling? What did you agree with? Disagree with? Let us know in the comments!

And that about wraps up our coverage of this year’s Phoenix Comicon! It was tons of fun, and I can’t wait until next year’s. What authors will they get in 2015? Hm…


Lisa Barry said...

Enjoyed the read/panel and we obviously share a love of similar books! :)

Alyssa L. said...

Yay! :D It really was an awesome panel, and I'm glad you enjoyed reading about it! I was really just kind of in shock and awe at all the fantastic authors they had at Phoenix Comicon. Do you have a favorite among those on this panel?

sixgables said...

I wandered onto your blog in the midst of research for trying to write romance that doesn't suck...But this, this is what I like to READ. How I love Kingkiller. Thanks for putting all of this up here, it was fascinating.

Alyssa L. said...

Hooray, and thanks for the comment! :D It's always fun to hear about how people end up at our little ol' blog. And I'm so glad you enjoyed the panel! It was a really awesome one, so I'm so happy you found/liked the transcription effort. Seeing Rothfuss was so cool! He's hilarious--pretty much all of them were, actually. :) I can't wait for the Auri novella!!!

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