Greetings, Action Force. I trust the world has been treating you well this last week. Of course, given the law of averages, it’s fair to say that for many of you it hasn’t, and I can only offer my sympathies. Hang in there. I’m rooting for you.
Today, let’s talk about what exactly defines my novels. Given the disparity of sub-genres and range of character types, it’s not always easy to pin down. But I think that there is, without a doubt, a common theme or two that runs through them, and I think if they’re not going to rely on a traditional series model to tie them together, then maybe we should draw attention to what they do have in common.
Of course, there’s the humor. Although I am reluctant to use that as a defining element because humor is so damned subjective there’s no indication that anyone will find something funny just because I do. As I’ve said far too many times anyway, I don’t consider myself a humorist, and I don’t think the humor is what sets my books apart. There are plenty of humor writers out there, and plenty that do a far better job of being funny, satirical, or goofy than I do. Especially since that is never my goal.
Also, the humor varies from book to book, and while each of them has their moments, some are clearly funnier than the rest. Divine Misfortune is almost a sitcom in that it has a wacky premise and plays on that premise for intentional humor while Chasing the Moon‘s humor is more perplexing and confusing than that. And The Automatic Detective, while an absurd setting, isn’t meant to be parody or goofy at all.
Like so many elements of my books, humor tends to fall between two extremes, and while all of my books have some humor in them, some are definitely goofier than others. Like many discussions of my books, opinions vary quite a bit. I’ve been called too silly by some, not silly enough by others. While we all know that I am actually just right when it comes to my deft comedic stylings, some people don’t quite agree. Humor is just too damned ethereal to consider a common theme.
I do believe there are four themes that run through all my books. Strangely, I’ll admit I didn’t even notice them until other people brought them to my attention. Just goes to show that the artist doesn’t always understand what he’s doing, even while doing it. I also believe it’s why so many artists start becoming accidental parodies of themselves. Once an artist becomes aware of what he does, he risks losing his natural ability to do what he does. Although some artists do become better at what they do once they become aware of it.
Let’s hope I’m the second type.
The first theme, stated elegantly in one review, is the notion of Identity being different than Origin.
I might write about monsters and aliens, gods and mortals, but for the most part these beings are not solely defined by where they came from. Often, they don’t even have a very complex backstory at all.
This might be because I grew up in a relatively solitary existence. I was a very shy kid and spent a lot of time by myself. As such, I never really thought of myself as part of any group. It wasn’t as if I rejected groups, though I never really was part of any particular sub-group. I collected comic books but didn’t hang out with comic book readers. I watched Godzilla movies, but never was part of any fan club. I played video games, but when I was a kid, video games weren’t a culture. They were just something people did. Alone.
Even now, I admit to being uncomfortable with the notion of such sub-cultures. To me, they so often seem like a way of cramming our own personality into nice boxes of expectation. It’s why I cringe when people debate what it means to be a “real gamer”. And hardcore fandom has always been something I have hard time getting behind. Not because things aren’t worthy of fandom, but so often, it seems to serve as a shorthand for personality assessment where nuance would work better.
This is definitely why most of my characters start out as one obvious thing and then are (dare I say it?) different by the end. Vom the Hungering (from Chasing the Moon) might want to devour the universe, but he also is conflicted about that urge and trying not to (usually). Earl (from Gil’s All Fright Diner) might be a vampire, but being a vampire doesn’t make him any cooler than a regular person. And Emperor Mollusk (from Emperor Mollusk versus the Sinister Brain) is certainly a megalomaniacal genius, but he’s trying to put that tendency in a good direction.
Few if any of my characters are defined by what they happen to be, whether robot or alien, kobold or werewolf. It is that sort of cavalier disregard for origin that I think often gets my books mislabeled as goofy or weird. In most stories, if a character is other than human or unique in some way, it is what defines them more than anything. Almost every Vulcan on Star Trek is a Vulcan first, a character second. Almost every dwarf in every fantasy story will be gruff and greedy and hard-drinking. This isn’t bad writing. It isn’t actually too far from the truth. We are, all of us, under tremendous pressure to conform to standards set down by above (though who the hell above is, I’ll never know), and it’s easy to do because that’s the stuff we get exposed to early and often generally.
Which brings me to my second common theme: Outsiders.
With rare exception, almost all my protagonists are outsiders. They aren’t necessarily exiles, but they do tend to be on the edges of the world they live in. This is probably because I’m a bit of an outsider myself, and it’s a natural way for me to see the world. It’s also a natural way to set up conflict in any story. Mack Megaton (The Automatic Detective) is a robotic citizen in a biological world. There are other robots in the city, but even among them, Mack is an outsider, a guy who doesn’t quite fit in.
There tends to be a lot of conflict generated by who my characters are versus who the world wants them to be. Mack is a reformed warbot, but the subtext of the story is that no one is really quite sure how reformed he is. Not even Mack. Nessy (Too Many Curses) is a short, unimposing housekeeping kobold defined by her common sense, so she lives in a world where she is constantly underestimated, despite demonstrating competence and cleverness at every turn.
In my upcoming novel, Helen and Troy’s Epic Road Quest, Helen is a minotaur (a family curse) and Troy is an all-American perfect person. She’s bigger, stronger, and covered in fur, and it is something she and the world around her struggle with every day. Meanwhile, Troy, who is intentionally nearly perfect, must deal with a world where being perfect is expected of him at all times. Two different questions of identity, but a similar struggle all my characters must face. (As must nearly all of us.)
The third common theme is one of Transformation.
I bring this one up because I think it gets overlooked the most. My characters almost always change through the course of the story, but they do so without being obvious about it. Nessy the kobold is small and practical, and she remains small and practical by the end of her story. But she has also learned not to underestimate herself and found a true home. Emperor Mollusk IS a dangerous genius but he’s also found a little peace within himself by accepting and learning from those decisions that haunted him in the past. He isn’t penitent, but he has grown at least a little bit.
I hesitate to use the word subtle too often, but I think it’s definitely warranted here. My characters do have arcs. They do change, often changing the characters and world around them. They just do so without having to make a big deal about it. Whether or not that works for the reader depends on a lot of things, but I believe it to be true and wouldn’t mind if people noted it more.
The final common theme is Teamwork.
This is definitely something I believe in, and it is probably the only element I’ve always been consciously aware of since the beginning. Even my most self-sufficient protagonist, Emperor Mollusk, has a trusty giant bionic centipede and a reluctant bodyguard to rely upon. Heck, Lucky the god (Divine Misfortune) only really wins the day by seeing he’s in over his head and doing the smart thing that so few adventure characters are ever smart to do: Get backup.
Will these themes always be part of my work? I don’t know, but I do know that up to this point, they have been and for the time being, appear to be remaining so. And I’m pretty cool with that because they’re good themes to explore. Very human themes, even if visited by space squids and minotaur women.
So the next time someone asks you to describe what makes an A. Lee Martinez book so special, you’ve got something to fall back on if you should feel like it. Or you could always just tell them I’m a guy who writes about mutant dinosaurs and giant robot fights. Those are pretty awesome elements too.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,