Hey there, my name is George O’Connor, and I have been generously invited to contribute this guest post to Bookbanter. In fact, this is the first stop of my virtual blog tour, or blogcrawl as I prefer to call it, commemorating the release of my new book Aphrodite: Goddess of Love. Aphrodite is the sixth volume of my graphic novel series Olympians, published by First Second. Olympians is projected to be a twelve book series, and each volume spotlights a different Olympian god.
So, befitting a site named Bookbanter, I thought I’d take a little time today to speak, or banter if you will (haw!) about how I use the choice of language to set the mood and tone of a piece of writing. You probably noticed already that I affected a very familiar and somewhat non-formal way of speaking as I started this post. It’s a nice easy way of beginning a piece of writing, very inviting and comfortable. Hopefully you, the potential reader, encountered it and thought “Huh, maybe I’ll give this post a read”. Had I busted out some serious pedantic tone right off the bat, you’d be more likely to give my post a pass (unless that sort of thing is your bag, in which case more power to you).
When I first started Olympians, I made a deliberate choice in setting the tone, linguistically, of how I retold the stories. People tell me over and over again about how they never got into mythology, that it was so deadly dull and stuffy. That’s crazy, says me. If you’re relating a story about primordial giants slicing open the sky with blades made of adamantine, or a perfect woman creating herself out of foam and it comes across as boring, well it ain’t the subject matter that’s not carrying its weight. You’re doing something wrong as a storyteller.
My favorite band is the Pixies and the ‘formula’ of their music has been distilled to loud quiet loud. It’s an enormous oversimplification, but it is interesting to see how many of their songs start off loud, go quiet, and then back to loud again. I utilize a similar formula for writing each volume of Olympians. I tend to start ‘loud’ –each volume begins with the sort of on-high narration one might expect (and often encounters) in retellings of myth—full of grandeur and lofty language, the sort of thing that might sound impressive on the page but might easily sound hopelessly pompous spoken aloud unless you possess a James Earl Jones set of pipes. I think it’s important to set the tone this way—If you’re telling the story of how Mother Earth begat the cosmos from the ether, well, that’s a pretty big idea, and the sort of thing that is hard to convey properly with, like, y’know, conversational English. “So then Kronos the Titan took a sickle and, like, he cut off his dad’s junk and his dad’s junk fell in the ocean and made a big frothy mess and eventually became Aphrodite”—that language might inspire a lot of things, but grandeur probably isn’t one of them.
So lofty and imperious is good for setting a certain mood, but there is more to Greek mythology than just the huge and powerful. The genius of the Greek pantheon, and one of the reasons why I think they remain so popular millennia after most of their active worship ceased, is that they were patterned on a family. A big huge, uber-dysfunctional family with superpowers, but still, a family. And to continue, my Pixies analogy, this is where soft comes in.
Even if that guy can throw lightning bolts, even if that lady can turn into an eagle, the Greek Gods still have a very relatable, very human quality to their character. They’re jealous, they’re spiteful, they’re silly, they’re sneaky, they’re everything you and I and all people are, writ large. In relating the scenes of their human fallibility I choose a more familiar and down-to-earth manner of language for my retellings. One of my editors was initially slightly thrown when he first encountered this technique in my first book Zeus. We went from a quite literally omniscient narrator to a young and randy Zeus frolicking with nymphs and dropping anachronistic speech like the headstrong kid he was. But as the book progressed, he understood what I was going for. The series is called Olympians, it stars the gods themselves. Through the way they speak to each other, though their banter (did it again), we hopefully, if I did my job as storyteller right, we get to know them, we see them as something more than remote and distant gods, we see them as human.
I admit, I have another trick up my sleeve as far as telling a story besides diction. As a cartoonist I also supply images to my retellings, and I’ve certainly been able to spruce up some dull genealogical exposition with a pretty drawing or two, but comics are not pictures, or words, alone. Even if my images are adding to, or basically telling the sequence, the accompanying language contributes to the mood, and rhythm of the scene.
When Homer and Hesiod recast their gods as a squabbling scheming family they made them more real, more tangible. It was the words they used to describe Zeus, Aphrodite, Hera and the rest, and the words they attributed to the gods themselves that made them transcend mere religion.
See the rest of George O’Connor’s blogcrawl here.