Reminder: The VisDare returns November 5th with the 3rd annual Triple VisDare Challenge – every Wednesday during NaNoWriMo! Stay tuned!
One year for my birthday, I was given a gift card to the (now defunct) Borders Bookstore. I used up most of the $50 on a single book: Saga of the Icelanders, a translation of some of the richest, most compelling Viking sagas of the 11th and 12th centuries.
(Yes, I’m a nerd. I gladly accept that moniker.)
What I love about these sagas is the rich tapestry they afford of the human soul. They show a complexity of relationships that we really don’t see in Western literature till Chaucer, perhaps Shakespeare. It’s been said that in a lot of ways, the Viking sagas are the original “modern novels.” If that’s the case – and even if it’s not – these rough and rowdy Norsemen sure have a lot to show about the nuts and bolts of storytelling.
3 Things that (Real) Vikings Can Teach Us About Storytelling
1. The most memorable characters are wonderfully paradoxical. My favorite character from the Icelandic sagas, Egil Skallagrimmson, can best be described as a Poet Warlord. He’s huge, violent, largely remorseless, but can drop a deftly turned poem at the drop of the hat. The best example of his contradictory nature is when Harold Tanglehair (later King Harold Fairhair of Norway) hunted him down, for charges of treason and murder. Brought before the king, Egil promptly composes a long, gorgeously worded poem in honor of his enemy. Harold is so flabbergasted by receiving such praise from so violent a man, that he is obliged to release Egil and give him a two day head start before sending his men after him…..again.
2. Even heroes have their dark side. Though these Viking sagas fall smack in the Middle Ages, you will find no swooning, shallow, “Mary Sue” characters here. Every hero has a skeleton in his closet: rash deeds, broken promises, neglected duties, overweening pride, overstepped boundaries. Egil makes his reputation as a violent bully, even as he’s standing up to bullies larger and more powerful than himself. That “tainted hero” dynamic is part of what makes his story so compelling.
3. Great tension can be psychological, as well as physical. Another thing that struck me about these sagas is the fact that there are actually very few battle sequences, of the “Battle for Middle Earth” type. Skirmishes, yes. Raiding parties. Vigilantes. Assassins and blood feuds. But most tension is built in the cat-and-mouse strategies that unfold between opponents: Disputes. Intrigues. Double-crossings. Timely (or disastrous) appeals to the wise, the deceitful, or the occult. Some of the best story arcs in Egil’s Saga is when he readily outthinks his opponents, even as he’s on the run. Nine hundred years later, readers still find themselves struggling with who to identify with and, consequently, who to root for.
Have a paradox.
Have a dark side.
If you want to distill it into a basic “rule of three” – there you go. And if we stop long enough to think it through, we’ll find that our most beloved stories have all three characteristics. Even if the story isn’t widely considered to be “dark” or “psychological” or “mind-bending,” they still give thought to the contradictions, secrets, and mindsets that pit person against person, in large and small ways. From The 13 Clocks to Animal Farm to The Great Gatsby to The Secret Garden (just to name a few) the stories that grip us most keep us on edge with that three-fingered grip: Paradox. Darkness. The Inner Mind.
As the writer, the rest is up to you.
What books have gripped your imagination most? Why is that? Do you think this is the “essential three” of storytelling, or is there something more?
Let me know in the comments!