From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books that I think fantasy authors should have on their shelves. Some may be new and still in print, some may be difficult to find, but all will be, at least in my humble opinion, essential texts for the fantasy author, so worth looking for.
This one will be easy to find. In fact, you can read it online for free in any one of a number of places, including here and here. And you can read it for free without feeling guilty. Aristotle has been dead for a few years and this book, like all his other writings, are firmly in the public domain. I will caution you, however, that some translations aren’t necessarily in the public domain, so if you want to publish the book yourself, proceed with caution.
That being said, I read the Dover Thrift Editions paperback, which I paid $2.00 for because that’s how I roll. This is a reprint of the S.H. Butcher translation from 1895. This also happens to be the translation on the MIT web site, or the first link above. I’ll copy passages below from that text.
I’ll spare you a full review of the life of the Greek philosopher Aristotle. If you don’t know who he was you can find out more about him here.
This book—really more a long essay, I guess—is surely the oldest text I’ll have recommended so far here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook. It was written circa 330 BCE. By “circa” we mean, “people who’ve studied the history think it was probably somewhere around there.” But let’s say that’s accurate and ask what a book written 2346 years ago (or so) could possibly teach the contemporary fantasy/science fiction author?
Poetics was written at time and from an author’s perspective that included basically just two forms of writing: the epic poem and the play. The novel as we know it was yet to be invented. For that you have to wait a full 1351 more years and travel to Japan to read the Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of the Genji. There weren’t even prose short stories when Aristotle wrote this, let alone movie or video game scripts.
And, okay, it does show its age in lots of places, not the least of which is his introduction to what he considers the four cardinal character qualities:
In respect of Character there are four things to be aimed at. First, and most important, it must be good. Now any speech or action that manifests moral purpose of any kind will be expressive of character: the character will be good if the purpose is good. [So far, so good] This rule is relative to each class. [Umm . . .] Even a woman may be good, and also a slave; though the woman may be said to be an inferior being, and the slave quite worthless. (Okey dokey.]
So, yeah. A few things have changed in the last two and a half millennia.
But what we get from Poetics is the very foundation upon which all creative writing was based, at least in the Western World.
Let’s look at some high points—and throughout, notes in brackets within the quoted passages are mine.
For our purposes, Aristotle is concentrating on the tragedy, which he defines as such:
Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.
Aristotle begins with the concept of “imitation,” making the point that art imitates life—how often have you heard that repeated? But he goes on to caution us that in that act of imitation, the writer should be allowed considerable artistic leeway.
Since the objects of imitation are men in action, and these men must be either of a higher or a lower type (for moral character mainly answers to these divisions, goodness and badness being the distinguishing marks of moral differences), it follows that we must represent men either as better than in real life [heroic fantasy, or the hero in general], or as worse [dark fantasy, or any villain], or as they are [realist/literary fiction, or secondary characters in general].
I did have to disagree with Aristotle on a few points. Here we see Aristotle cautioning us to remain bound by the even-then slightly crusty classics in a way that seems to fly in the face of writing, or storytelling, as a purely creative act:
A well-constructed plot should, therefore, be single in its issue, rather than double as some maintain. The change of fortune should be not from bad to good, but, reversely, from good to bad. It should come about as the result not of vice, but of some great error or frailty, in a character either such as we have described, or better rather than worse. The practice of the stage bears out our view. At first the poets recounted any legend that came in their way. Now, the best tragedies are founded on the story of a few houses—on the fortunes of Alcmaeon, Oedipus, Orestes, Meleager, Thyestes, Telephus, and those others who have done or suffered something terrible.
Thankfully, contemporary writing is free to explore beyond the set limits of instructional fable. This shows a shockingly limited view of his otherwise inclusive ideas. Likewise:
This, then, is why a few families only, as has been already observed, furnish the subjects of tragedy. It was not art, but happy chance, that led the poets in search of subjects to impress the tragic quality upon their plots. They are compelled, therefore, to have recourse to those houses whose history contains moving incidents like these.
So every story has to be “ripped from the headlines”? Bah, humbug!
He seems to be telling us that this idea of fiction as imitation should be taken literally. Patti Smith might disagree, from her book M-Train: “Nothing can be truly replicated. Not a love, not a jewel, not a single line.”
And as though recognizing this, later on Aristotle makes a blanket excuse for playing fast and loose with historical “fact” in furtherance of your fiction:
Further, if it be objected that the description is not true to fact, the poet may perhaps reply, “But the objects are as they ought to be”; just as Sophocles said that he drew men as they ought to be; Euripides, as they are. In this way the objection may be met. If, however, the representation be of neither kind, the poet may answer, “This is how men say the thing is.” applies to tales about the gods. It may well be that these stories are not higher than fact nor yet true to fact: they are, very possibly, what Xenophanes says of them. But anyhow, “this is what is said.” Again, a description may be no better than the fact: “Still, it was the fact”; as in the passage about the arms: “Upright upon their butt-ends stood the spears.” This was the custom then, as it now is among the Illyrians.
I think he might be saying “When the legend becomes fact . . . print the legend.” In any case, context is king:
We must also consider by whom it is said or done, to whom, when, by what means, or for what end; whether, for instance, it be to secure a greater good, or avert a greater evil.
If you should find yourself confronted with that strangest of modern beasts, the anti-plot critic, author, or editor, start quoting Aristotle and shut that shit down fast and hard. Here is Aristotle on the subject of plot:
. . . an action implies personal agents, who necessarily possess certain distinctive qualities both of character and thought; for it is by these that we qualify actions themselves, and these—thought and character—are the two natural causes from which actions spring, and on actions again all success or failure depends. Hence, the Plot is the imitation of the action—or by plot I here mean the arrangement of the incidents.
In other words, plot is what characters are doing. Continuing:
But most important of all is the structure of the incidents. For Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality. Now character determines men’s qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse. Dramatic action, therefore, is not with a view to the representation of character: character comes in as subsidiary to the actions. Hence the incidents and the plot are the end of a tragedy; and the end is the chief thing of all. Again, without action there cannot be a tragedy; there may be without character.
The plot, then, is the first principle, and, as it were, the soul of a tragedy; Character holds the second place.
Aristotle drops the mic on plot haters.
You’ve probably read that Aristotle was the earliest proponent of what we now know as the “three act structure,” as he describes here:
A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it. A well constructed plot, therefore, must neither begin nor end at haphazard, but conform to these principles.
As to that poetic imitation which is narrative in form and employs a single meter, the plot manifestly ought, as in a tragedy, to be constructed on dramatic principles. It should have for its subject a single action, whole and complete, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It will thus resemble a living organism in all its unity, and produce the pleasure proper to it.
But that having been said, he also accepts the power of what might better be called a “two act structure’:
Every tragedy falls into two parts—Complication and Unraveling or Denouement . . . By the Complication I mean all that extends from the beginning of the action to the part which marks the turning-point to good or bad fortune. The Unraveling is that which extends from the beginning of the change to the end.
Here he’s describing the concept of rising and falling action.
I teach an online course in Pulp Fiction, and this passage struck me as interesting:
Tragedy is an imitation not only of a complete action, but of events inspiring fear or pity. Such an effect is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follow as cause and effect. The tragic wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or by accident; for even coincidences are most striking when they have an air of design.
In his Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot, pulp legend Lester Dent asks at the end of each of four 1500-word parts of a 6000-word pulp short story: “SO FAR: Does it have suspense? Is there a menace to the hero? Does everything happen logically?”
In strict terms, Aristotle’s tragedy revolves around some implicitly dark stuff, and tends to support my own assertion that the villain starts the story moving:
The action may be done consciously and with knowledge of the persons . . . the deed of horror may be done, but done in ignorance, and the tie of kinship or friendship be discovered afterwards.
For me, this goes right to the concept of motivation. When Aristotle finally turns his pen to characters we start to see some good advice:
As in the structure of the plot, so too in the portraiture of character, the poet should always aim either at the necessary or the probable. Thus a person of a given character should speak or act in a given way, by the rule either of necessity or of probability; just as this event should follow that by necessary or probable sequence.
Plausibility is one of my saws, and Aristotle got there well before me:
Within the action there must be nothing irrational. If the irrational cannot be excluded, it should be outside the scope of the tragedy.
And in this instance I was really drawn to what he was saying in that it matches my own process, in which I often imagine a scene playing in my head like a movie and type furiously in order to describe it as it plays:
In constructing the plot and working it out with the proper diction, the poet should place the scene, as far as possible, before his eyes. In this way, seeing everything with the utmost vividness, as if he were a spectator of the action, he will discover what is in keeping with it, and be most unlikely to overlook inconsistencies.
Winding through some of his now archaic assumptions, especially in terms of the structure of a play and the assumed necessity of the chorus, I think if we dig deeper into what he really means, could we swap out the word Chorus for the word description? So instead of
The Chorus too should be regarded as one of the actors; it should be an integral part of the whole, and share in the action,
[Description] too should be regarded as one of the [characters]; it should be an integral part of the whole, and share in the action,
I like to think this is Aristotle warning against info dumps, but I may just be bringing my own baggage along with me.
And then this:
But nothing contributes more to produce a cleanness of diction that is remote from commonness than the lengthening, contraction, and alteration of words. For by deviating in exceptional cases from the normal idiom, the language will gain distinction; while, at the same time, the partial conformity with usage will give perspicuity. The critics, therefore, are in error who censure these licenses of speech, and hold the author up to ridicule.
I like to think this is Aristotle telling us to write clearly and simply, but don’t be afraid to occasionally challenge your readers. Stick to the story. Don’t try too hard to impress with your wordplay:
The diction should be elaborated in the pauses of the action, where there is no expression of character or thought. For, conversely, character and thought are merely obscured by a diction that is over-brilliant
Poetics contains a relatively small number of words, but there’s a lot hidden within.
How about this as a prophetic condemnation of contemporary special effects movie blockbusters:
The Spectacle has, indeed, an emotional attraction of its own, but, of all the parts, it is the least artistic, and connected least with the art of poetry. For the power of Tragedy, we may be sure, is felt even apart from representation and actors. Besides, the production of spectacular effects depends more on the art of the stage machinist than on that of the poet.
And here, at least to my mind, Aristotle gets to the heart of the horror story or monster movie:
Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies.
So dive into Poetics yourself and look for all those little things you’ve been doing all along as a writer, and think about what that means in terms of a continuity of experience across vast stretches of time. If I can find something in a book that’s three centuries older than Jesus that reminds me of what I didn’t like about Jupiter Ascending or makes me feel better about liking gory horror movies, what will it reveal to you?