Plot Challenge of the Week

Happy Halloween! So, today I’m doing lots and lots of writing. I have a ten page paper to write today, and another 3 pager, and a short story to write. So, lots and lots of writing. However, at the moment it’s last night and I really want to go to bed. So, for today’s exercise I’m going to give you a picture and I want you to use it as inspiration to design one part of the world you’ve started. This could be fleshing out one of the nations that you’ve already come up with or it could be creating an all new nation or continent for your world. Here’s your picture:

Tatev_Monastery_from_a_distance

The Role of Roles in Character Development

Do you like my title? I like my title. I have to admit that at times I am far to easily amused by my own antics. Anyway, there is a concept in the philosophy of self that the self is entirely defined by the roles that an individual plays in society makes up the entirety of who that individual is. A really easy way to envision this is to consider character roles in MMORPGs or D&D 4.0. There is a tendency in both of these to be identified entirely by one’s role (i.e. striker, controller, leader, tank, etc) and the ‘character’ of the character might be a piecemeal pasting of disconnected ideas over that central aspect. This sometimes happened with the 2.0 D&D class system as well where a character was incapable of changing classes. Obviously, this says less about the system itself than it does about the individual playing the character, but I think that this is something that we need to be very careful of in our writing as well. Role-based character development is a good way to wind up with flat characters.

Consider, if I create a character (let’s call him Rick) and my concept of the character is entirely based on a particular role or set of roles (for instance, let’s say that Rick is a warrior, priest, and husband) then I set myself up to intrinsically limit who and what the character can become. I’ve argued before that character development in fiction, both in pre-writing and in writing the actual story, should be a natural process. I am not Tobias the writer, Tobias the theologian, Tobias the Christian, Tobias the philosopher, Tobias the professor, Tobias the student, Tobias the boyfriend, etc, etc… honestly, I’m pretty sure I could come up with a whole page or more of these, and that itself is the problem. I do fill these roles, and in some ways these roles help to define who I am. However, I am not a Christian at church and a student at school. Nor am I simply a student christian writer theologian philosopher professor etc. Each of these roles informs my self and helps to shape my self, but that self exists apart from any one or set of these roles. Thus, when I leave school I will stop being a student (formally at least), but who I am won’t change. Similarly, if I close down the blog tomorrow and never write again, who I am doesn’t disappear, nor does the skill and creativity that is intrinsic to being a writer. Certainly, we can argue that some of that skill may ebb over time, but it doesn’t simply vanish, it ebbs in the way that any unused skill ebbs. So, the I that is my self fills out and gives meaning in ways to each of these labels (for instance, someone who meets me and learns that I am a Christian will assume certain things about Christianity because of me as well as assuming certain things about me because of Christianity), and each of these labels helps to define the I that is myself.

So, what does this mean for writing? All too often (and I catch myself doing this as well) we base our characters around a certain very limited set of roles (i.e. my character in this story is an orphan, beggar, thief) that inherently limits not only the realism of the character now, but also limits who the character can actually become in the long-run. We are more than just roles, and even if we weren’t I don’t know of anyone who only plays 3-5 roles in life. However, as a writer rushing (oh… wait… that should be a clue) to develop a character it is very easy to throw a few roles around that character’s neck and call him/her done(ish). This is a bad thing.

However, does this mean that we shouldn’t use roles at all in developing characters? Should we just forget about roles entirely? Of course not. We all play numerous roles in life, and so roles are important in some ways. For instance, Rick might be a warrior, priest, and husband. However, he is probably also a son, grandson, brother, nature lover, amateur philosopher, roller derby fanatic, etc, etc, etc. None of us is going to think through all of the roles that a character might have in a few days. At the same time, if a character’s suddenly estranged father who has never been mentioned before in any of the other three novels about him shows up in the fourth… well, as a reader I might be a little bit cynical (yes, this is an extreme example, but the same problem arises if he suddenly becomes a nature lover). Characters will grow and change over time, and their roles will change as well. However, a character should start your story with a realistic array of roles to avoid being a flat character, and you should be away of the roles that are changing and how those changes will affect the character. For instance, a character who suddenly stops being a son in the middle of a story is likely to spend some time grieving.

All this to say, keep roles in mind when your writing your characters. Consider what roles are realistic for the character, and what roles aren’t realistic for the character. Further, keep in mind how role changes will affect the character, and let the character develop roles naturally in your pre-writing. Consider that there aren’t many people who are going to tell you both their parents are dead upon your first meeting. Don’t expect your characters to do that either.

Scene Challenge of the Week

200px-TheWayOfKingsSo, like Selanya, I am ridiculously busy this week. I’m working, reading, and writing pretty much all day everyday. So, hopefully by the end of the week I will have three books finished (one already is), five papers written, and another paper read and critiqued along with… you know, my job :P.  Anyway, you’re here for a writing exercise, and today’s exercise is a scene challenge. If you can’t remember the rules, I’ll provide them: I provide you with specific rules for how to write a particular scene.  Try to keep your scene under five hundred words, and try to keep it in the same tone as the introduction.  If I give a line that is very dark and depressing, then I don’t want to see a scene about a drunken monkey in a tutu…it just doesn’t fit.  If I do give you a line about a drunken monkey in a tutu, then you should probably try for a funny scene.

Your Challenge: amazingly enough I want you to write a scene about absolute submission. This is going to be a variation of the movie/book scene challenges we’ve done in the past. Choose one of your favorite scenes from a good book or movie about struggle and find a moment of absolute submission in the middle of it. However, instead of simply rewriting the scene, I want you to write a version of what happens that is entirely your own. Your own voice, your own characters, your own setting. Everything should be your own. This isn’t a simple rewrite for practice. I want you to write a scene that reflects the same mood, evokes the same emotions, and handles plot in the same way, but that is still completely your own work.

Deadlines? What are Those?

deadlineSo obviously, today’s post is a few hours late…this week’s been insanely busy for me, and it completely slipped my mind. Tobias reminded me yesterday afternoon, and I meant to write something, and then I started grading essays ,and writing my post completely slipped my mind until, well, just now (sorry, Tobias!). It’s rather frustrating for me, because as a Type A, obsessive compulsive person, I REALLY like to stay on top of things, especially deadlines, and I get really freaked out and stressed when I miss something. This is why I don’t participate in NaNoWriMo – if I miss a day, I’m sunk, and I can’t handle that kind of pressure, especially during the school year. What I’ve been learning recently, though, is that it’s (usually) ok, particularly in regards to my writing. Academic writing deadlines I still get freaked out about because I kind of don’t want to fail my classes (never missed a deadline there yet, so I’m aight :D), but my other forms of writing will still be waiting for me if I miss them. I missed the submission date for a poetry contest because I wasn’t done with the poem yet, but it was fine. If you rush a Miracle Man, you get rotten miracles; if you rush creative writing, you get rotten poetry/short stories. I finished the poem anyway (a week late), and I actually really like it. If I’d cobbled it together in a hurry to meet my original deadline, I would have had an awful poem that I would have hated and probably never looked at again. I guess the point of all of this is…don’t freak out, especially you NaNoWriMo people, if you miss the original time by which you wanted to finish something. It will get done :)

Story Challenge of the Week

Well, it is an object of fear and loathing... and if you don't know, The Necronomicon is a creation of H.P. Lovecraft that he mentioned in a few of his short stories. It is not an actual occult text (though there are now several versions of the book floating around all based off of Lovecraft's description).

Well, it is an object of fear and loathing… and if you don’t know, The Necronomicon is a creation of H.P. Lovecraft that he mentioned in a few of his short stories. It is not an actual occult text (though there are now several versions of the book floating around all based off of Lovecraft’s description).

Well, I finished three books last week and started into two more. One of them in Cornelius Van Til’s Christian Theistic Ethics. The other in a book of articles on Confucianism and Human Rights edited by Kwong-Loi Shun and David Wong… I don’t actually remember the title… it’s rather long. I have to say that I just read an article in it by Henry Rosemont Jr. that I absolutely loved though! It was very good. I’m also submitting my first major paper for a Ph.D. seminar… next Monday I get it back, ripped to shreds by my professor and all my classmates. I’m excited about that… and a little bit scared, but mostly excited. Anyway, today is the day for a story challenge, and it’s time for my favorite story challenge. I’m going to give you a series of criteria including genre, theme, some character archtypes, etc. Your job is to write a story that includes all of the features required in the challenge. If you intend to post it here, please keep it short. However, the complexity of this challenge often requires a longer story.

Theme: Hope as The Phoenix

Genre: Surreal Fiction, Modern Fiction, Fantasy, Science Fiction

Setting: I’m going to suggest a small community of some kind. However, this could be a fantasy/historical village, a space ship, a neighborhood in a major metropolis, etc, etc

Character Archetypes:

1) A Discouraged Man/Woman

2) A Spiritual Counselor

3) A Close Friend or Love Interest

4) Despair (as a personified idea, an actual person who drives one to despair, a feeling that becomes a character in its own right, etc, etc, etc)

Items:

1) A desk

2) A spiritual book

3) An object of fear and loathing

Sunday Picture Post

Well, I probably didn’t get enough sleep last night, but that’s par for the course. Putting final touches on my first major paper in this program. Anyway, I went and found you this piece of art – it’s from a card in the Avacyn line for Magic the Gathering (which tends to have gorgeous card art if your not familiar with them).

ca57eb94b53eee32d935e40454432059

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

puritySo, you all know that on Saturdays we do philosophy challenges, and I’ve been focusing on wealth and poverty issues for the past couple of months. Last week, or the week before, I asked a question about the concept of a ‘fair wage’ and whether or not that was even a meaningful term in a Capitalist society. This week, I want to build on that idea some. Honestly, I think the previous question is a good one, but I also think that we need to go farther with the question. I think, as a general basis, the concept of a ‘fair wage’ has no meaning in a generally Capitalistic society… unless that society is ‘just’. I want to stress here that I am using ‘just’ in the Platonic sense of ‘rightly ordered’. In Plato’s philosophy justice was the virtue of having a rightly ordered soul. That is to say that the three parts of the soul (rational, spirited, and appetitive) were all doing what they were intended to do, and not shirking their duties or usurping someone else’s. Plato also sets this out in his just society where the Guardians (rulers), Militia (soldiers), and Laborers (… … laborers…) were all doing their jobs. The laborers weren’t trying to be rulers or soldiers, and the soldiers weren’t trying to be laborers. However, rather than any concept of rightly ordered roles, I want to argue that a capitalistic society must have rightly ordered values (i.e. the importance that we place on entertainment, education, health, exercise, virtue, income, etc) in order for the concept of a ‘fair wage’ to have any meaning at all. Further, I think (though I haven’t thought this argument through entirely) that a capitalistic society with rightly ordered values could not fail to have a truly fair system of wages. So, take this idea and run with it. Agree? Disagree? Think I’m completely loopy and need to become a communist? Write me a 1000 word story that exemplifies and defends your response to this idea. Oh, and have fun!

Plot Challenge of the Week

The_Equalizer_posterWell, my girlfriend’s been up here this week. So, I’ve been enjoying myself a little bit more than normal :P. Plus she sent me a care package with a lot of baked goodies in it… that was kind of awesome. And, to top it all off, I had my first afternoon off in a long time and I watched both The Equalizer (which is excellent, btw, it should definitely be on your watch list), and I’m watching Godzilla as I write this. I’m hoping that you are having a wonderful day as well. So, I have a plot challenge for you, and in honor of my day, here are the rules for today’s challenge:

Your challenge: Take a movie, book, short story, play (preferably something religious) that you love, and identify each character and significant plot point. Now, identify the three most significant, pivotal events in the story, and work your way back through the plot, but change those three events. For instance, in Romeo and Juliet you might change the death of Tibedo so that he lives. Now, work your way back through the story step by step and figure out how the characters would react to those changed plot points. How would they react (in character)? How does this change the overall events of the story? Feel free to use this as an impetus to write some up a new story entirely, but the goal here is to see how character’s themselves help to shape the plot of a story.

Writing Worldview Well

Here’s a question that every serious writer should wrestle with at some point: How do you write worldview well? How should you incorporate a message about what you believe into your writing? Or should you at all? Since our contemporary culture values authenticity while still striving to say something meaningful, there’s a lot of talk these days about how to convey important ideas without being preachy, over-the-top, or too in-your-face.

Personally, I’m most familiar with this discussion in the context of the evangelical Christian subculture that I’m part of. While still holding their theological and moral beliefs in high esteem, many younger Christians are shying away from art and fiction that is specifically labeled as “Christian” art, on the basis that it tends to be inauthentic, un-subtle, and overly didactic, and that many secular writers or artists put forth content that is just as “Christian” while being less overt about it.

Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

A class I’m taking this semester, focused on the relationship between Christianity and the arts, wrestles with this same issue of whether fiction should be labeled as “Christian.” Writings from many influential Christian thinkers, including Jacques Maritain, Flannery O’Connor, and Francis Schaeffer seem to uphold the idea that has become the consensus among many thinking Christians today: namely, that fiction and art don’t need to be overtly Christian, and writers shouldn’t try to write Christian fiction, but rather that writers (of any worldview) will automatically and naturally write their worldviews into any honest work they produce.

Overall, I tend to agree with this approach. I realize that much (though I wouldn’t say all) of today’s Christian art and fiction suffers from being too clean-cut and preachy without being authentic and aesthetically good. I also believe that almost any work of art is, to some extent, a reflection of the author’s worldview; what you believe and value will come through in what you say and write, whether you intend it or not. But if that’s the case, then I don’t think it always necessarily follows that writers should just let this happen “automatically” or “naturally” as if it was merely an unconscious impulse. Maybe this works well for some writers, but as I’ve touched on in my last few posts, I’m the type who needs to think and plan in advance and be conscious of the messages I’m sending. And, if our worldview is going to come forth one way or the other, then I see no reason why we shouldn’t be intentional about it and try to make it come through in the best way possible.

That being said, here are some principles I’ve tried to use for consciously conveying a worldview in my writing without being too obvious about it.

  • Show a variety of worldviews. One crime that Christian fiction is often accused of is making the world too nice and neat so as not to offend readers. Ie., almost everyone in the story seems Christian. Beliefs and lifestyles that fall outside of a respectable churchgoing attitude are either covered up so that Christian readers don’t have to see any offensive content, or they’re vilified so that it’s painfully obvious what the writer thinks of worldviews outside of his own.
    • But that clear dichotomy of worldviews is a good example of what not to do, no matter what perspective you’re writing from. If you want to write honestly and authentically, then be respectable and fair-minded to beliefs and value systems outside of your own. Feature characters from a number of backgrounds and worldviews, even (or especially) if they disagree with each other, and treat them as real people rather than just stereotypical cardboard cutouts. This will help show that you as the author acknowledge the realistic complexity of the world and the beliefs that are out there. Then, if your own worldview does happen to show up among this diverse group, it won’t be as obvious to the reader and it won’t feel as much like you’re bashing them over the head with it.
  • Give your heroes flaws. This goes hand-in-hand with the last point. When you do have characters who espouse
    Image from Walking Dead #84. Art by Charlie Adlard. Taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

    Image from Walking Dead #84. Art by Charlie Adlard. Taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

    your worldview, who would be the “good guys” from your perspective, make sure they’re not flat, distant, and flawless paragons of virtue. No, they should be real characters as well, with at least a few bad habits to balance out their good ones and make the reader realize that they have problems and struggles just like the rest of us do. As mentioned above, Flannery O’Connor‘s work demonstrates this principle excellently; while she was a Catholic and openly admitted to writing from that viewpoint, she wrote moral flaws and philosophical blindspots into all of her characters and their worldviews, Christian and atheist alike. In fact, as harshly as she criticized the hypocrisy in Southern Christian culture, the Christian characters in her works sometimes seem even more flawed than the non-Christian ones. I once quoted O’Connor in a review I wrote of the Walking Dead comic books, emphasizing how writer Robert Kirkman also portrays both good and bad traits in all his characters, from prisoners to priests. The point here is to avoid making characters of your worldview completely good while everyone else is bad. Make sure your heroes, villains, and everyone in between are real and complex, because this will also help you be honest about the world and the state of humanity.

  • Use a character as your “voice” in the story. While it is important to be fair-minded and honest to various worldviews in your writing, that doesn’t mean you have to completely hide what you believe or what you want to convey to the reader. You can have one character who acts as your voice, your ideal, and who lives out a principle you want to get across. Of course, it may take some thinking on the reader’s part to figure out which character (if any) this is and what you as the author are actually saying, but that’s a good thing; if your writing doesn’t require thinking from the reader, then you’re probably being too obvious.
    • I tried to follow this principle in the superhero story I wrote. I have an ensemble cast of about seven protagonists, ranging from idealistic do-gooders to vengeful vigilantes to selfish or detached metahumans. But in the midst of this flawed and diverse cast of characters is one who I intended as the voice of my worldview: a heroic symbol of hope called the White Knight, embodying my beliefs and values of heroism just as Superman and Captain America are the moral standards of their own respective universes. Admittedly, having one character act as a paragon does somewhat seem to contradict the necessity of flawed characters, and the White Knight was the one character in this story who I tried not to give too many flaws to. But, with one idealistic character in the midst of several realistically flawed ones, I think it works for my purposes. The reader can see a diversity of worldviews, attitudes, and lifestyles in my characters, even in my team of “good guys,” but they can also see the type of character and behavior that I esteem above all the rest.

Have you ever been frustrated by heavyhanded worldviews in your own reading or writing? Do you have any tips for how to include your values in a good and effective way? Sound off below!

Scene Challenge of the Week

Woops... not that kind of shock...

Woops… not that kind of shock…

Welcome to the middle of your week. I got 15 papers graded yesterday, several emails answered, 100ish pages read, a paper written, took my girlfriend out for dinner and ice cream (… well, technically I took her for dinner and then she took me for ice cream), and then watched part of an episode of the walking dead with her, did devotions with her, and spent some time talking. Today I plan to get another 10 papers graded, discussion boards done, another 100ish pages read, attend a class, and spend some quality time with my wonderful lady. So, at the moment I feel like I’m having a pretty productive week. I hope that your week is going as well! Anyway, it’s Wednesday, which means that you get a scene challenge. If you can’t remember the rules, I’ll provide them: I provide you with specific rules for how to write a particular scene.  Try to keep your scene under five hundred words, and try to keep it in the same tone as the introduction.  If I give a line that is very dark and depressing, then I don’t want to see a scene about a drunken monkey in a tutu…it just doesn’t fit.  If I do give you a line about a drunken monkey in a tutu, then you should probably try for a funny scene.

Your rules: You task this week is to write a scene of at least 150 words that is all one sentence. If you’ve been following the blog then you’ve seen this challenge before. Remember to make sure that the scene is grammatically correct, and that it flows well. Again, you might want to give it to a grammar nazi after you finish to make sure that your grammar is solid. Your cue: “I stared at the computer screen in shock…”

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