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…”

Autumnal Inspiration

leavesFall is my second-favorite season, just behind winter. It inspires my creativity in ways summer and spring can never manage. However, for most of us, especially those in education, fall is also the busiest time of the year, with classes, midterms, work, grading, and so on. As a result, it can be hard to find time to write. I personally haven’t done any creative writing in over three weeks, which is downright depressing. I think it’s time to change that. So today, I want to leave you with a challenge: find an hour, or even thirty minutes in one day this week, and let yourself be inspired by autumn and everything about it. I don’t mean go sit in Starbucks and bury your face in a Pumpkin Spice Latte (although one of those beverages can be involved if you so desire). Instead, go outside. Take a walk in the woods. Sit on your front porch and watch a rainstorm. Relax under a tree and just look at the multi-colored leaves. Get out and enjoy the beautiful weather. Take a notebook with you, and after a few minutes of relaxation and inspiration, just start writing. It doesn’t matter what you write or how good it is. Just write until you feel the need to stop or until you run out of time. Give yourself the time to write and enjoy the Fall :) I know I will. Feel free to share with us whatever ideas Autumn brings your way!

Story Challenge of the Week

Welcome to Monday! So, this is not your story challenge today, though feel free to work it in somehow. Something that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is the question: what is justice? What do we mean when we use this word? For Plato, justice was one of the virtues, and he saw it as a right ordering of the soul. A person is just when his rational soul (the sources of wisdom) leads, his spirited soul (the source of courage) defends, and his appetitive soul (the source of temperance) provides controlled labor. In the Christian scriptures justice often seems to reflect the Old Testament Law. The people were just when they obeyed the law by caring for the land, caring for one another, providing for the needy, defending the weak, punishing the guilty, and worshipping God. Justice can also refer to right action defined by some non-legal standard. It’s a complicated topic. Anyway, you’re here for a story challenge. So, in case you haven’t done this challenge before, I’m going to post a picture. Your job is to write a story about what is happening in said picture. Feel free to flesh it out some, to add things to the picture (you’ll probably have to with this one), but make sure that your story is actually about the picture that I post. For example, if I post a picture of a dart competition in a bar, don’t write a story about slavers selling mermaids. If I post a picture of a sorcerer casting a spell at the top of his tower, don’t write a story about a fist-fighter competing in the ring. So, no that you’ve got a good concept of what your doing, here’s your picture. Remember, if your going to post a story here, keep it under 500 words. If you want to post a longer story on your own blog, feel free to post a link to it here.

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Sunday Picture Post

Well, it’s Sunday, which means that it’s time for our day off (from the blog at least :P). I still have a lot of reading to do today. However, I hope that you all have a truly wonderful day! If you love miniatures games then I strongly suggest checking out Bluetable Painting’s Youtube channel (lots of fun stuff there). I also got permission to share some photos from one of Megalith Miniature’s painters so here’s a big thanks to Il Nano Nefasto! And here’re his pictures:

The Halodyne's Godquester Warlord!

The Halodyne’s Godquester Warlord!

 

 

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Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

001372acd0b50f2ddaab07What do you think about capitalism? Good? Bad? Ugly? Necessary? The best we can do? There are a lot of differing opinions. This isn’t actually your challenge for this week, just a primer for it. I’m planning on writing a paper about the concept of a ‘fair wage’ for my Wealth and Poverty class, and of course this raises a lot of questions about capitalism and society. So, there are a few considerations here. First of all, what do we even mean when we say ‘fair wage’? Do we mean: a wage that is essentially what my work is worth? A wage that I can survive on? A wage that gives me a comfortable standard of living? A wage that reflects that standards of the society? These are really just the first questions. Choosing which of these we even want to answer raises a bunch of new questions, for instance: what is my work worth? Who gets to decide? How do we decide? By survive do we simply mean ‘put bread and water in my belly and a roof over my head’ or do we mean something more than that? What do we mean by ‘comfortable’? Can we argue that the standards of our society are actually good standards? How much damage can artificially inflating payments cause? Consider that, if minimum wage moves to $15/hour its likely that a lot of service workers (fast food employees for example) will probably lose the jobs they have now as companies cut jobs. At the same time, there are plenty of minimum wage workers who actually are trying to survive of their income. Do these people simply not have a good option? Do we just let them suffer? Take care of them forever?

So, here is your philosophy challenge today: what do we mean when we ask speak of a ‘fair wage’? Does the concept even matter outside of a capitalistic society?

Remember, you need to write me a story of 1000 words that presents and defends your answer to this question.

Plot Challenge of the Week

zhang_sanfeng_张三丰a_semimythical_chinese_taoist_priest36b1ea4ecc58c8a78914Well, today I started into Principles of Conduct by John Murray, Money, Greed, and God by Jay Richards, and An Aristotelian Approach to Ethical Theory: The Norms of Virtue. I think that these three should be… interesting. So, my reading list for this semester keeps growing, and I have to admit that it’s a fairly interesting mix. I’ll post it sometime in December. I hope that all of you are having a wonderful day! Mine is going fairly well thus far. So, it’s time for a plot challenge! Today’s challenge is a pretty basic one. I’m going to give you a very general idea for a setting, and then a few basic character archetypes to work off of. Feel free to alter things as you see fit.

Your Setting: okay, if you’re still working on building a world than feel free to use this post to keep building that world. If you feel like trying something new, then I want you to put together an urban fantasy city setting. It doesn’t have to be large, but large enough for you to write a story in.

Your Archetypes:

A Troll: He might live under a bridge, or he could be a bouncer at a club, or even a top-level researcher. Personally, I think a classic bridge-troll would be interesting in an urban fantasy setting (maybe he lives under the Brooklyn Bridge…).

A Political Guru: This shouldn’t actually be a politician (like the mayor, governor, etc). Instead, this should be a king-maker. Think about the modern political consultants and campaign planners who specialize in winning difficult campaigns.

An Inhuman nobleman: I have to admit that I have the elf prince from Hellboy 2 in mind right now. However, don’t feel like you need to do the same. Come up with something yourself… maybe even combine this with your troll… it would certainly make an interesting character.

An Undead Comedian: This could be anything from a zombie Joker to Gabriel Iglesias as a vampire. The key here is that this be some form of undead who truly and thoroughly believes that he/she is really funny.

Some form of Magic User: What’s an urban fantasy setting without a wizard of some kind, right? This could be a classic wizard, a druid, some kind of oriental monk, etc, etc, etc. There’s a lot of different choices. You could pattern this character off of an actual magical tradition such as a hermetic mage, a qabalist seeking after God, a taoist monk pursuing immortality… you get the possibilities. Have fun!

Moral Education In Fiction

When was the last time you read about a character that you really liked? Not just because he/she was cool, but because he/she was a good person? As I read for my ethics classes something that I’m finding is that western philosophy (especially for the last 100 years) has largely ignored the idea of moral development or character development. Debates largely focus on which system to use in making extreme moral decision, but less on how to be a good person in general. However, I can think of plenty of fiction author’s who’ve tackled the issue of how to be a good person, or how to go from being a bad person to being a good person: Stephen R. Donaldson, David Eddings, George R.R. Martin, Steven Erikson, Glen Cook, and Lars Walker just to name a few. In fact, one of the first rules that I emphasize in developing characters for a story or a novel is 1) figure out who they’ll be at the beginning of the book, 2) figure out who they’ll be at the end of the book, and 3) figure out how to get from 1 to 2. This concept of character development has a strong following in the fiction world, and you can identify it in many different characters, regardless of whether their development is good bad or ugly. So, Neal and I have written a fair amount about how our fiction needs to be informed by a depth of philosophical and theological thought. However, in this instance I think that western philosophy and theology have something to learn from fiction.

That being said, as authors we also need to be aware of our place in the world. Fiction does have a profound effect on the way that people think. Some of the books that have been significantly and thoroughly shaping in my own life have been works of fiction (Dante’s Inferno, Walker’s Year of the Warrior, Herbert’s Dune, Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Erikson’s Midnight Tides, etc). That means that fiction’s current corner on the moral development market (something that I will do all in my power to change) becomes even more important, and it’s something that I see some, but not a lot, of modern author’s taking seriously. For instance, I compare the development in Glen Cook’s character Marron Shed and the development in Jim Butcher’s character Harry Dresden, and I see a significant difference. I see a difference not only in the quality of the writing, but also in 1) the quality of the development (Shed develops in one novel as much as Dresden does in seven) and 2) in the type of the development. Cook presents one of the strongest concepts of personal redemption that I’ve ever seen in fiction, and I think that this is worthy of note. Erikson does something similar with Karsa Orlong (though he takes longer to do it).

I honestly think that this could be a great thesis topic (for someone else :P… Sam, Selanya, you know anyone?), but honestly my purpose right now is really just to call attention to it as an issue. The fact that we can present moral education through fiction doesn’t and shouldn’t mean that every work of fiction should also be seen as a work of moral education. Honestly, I think that would be a significantly bad thing (what would happen to Conan…?). However, as fiction authors we also have a responsibility to consider what messages and concepts we’re presenting in our fiction, and to be responsible with them. We need to understand that people do listen to us, and that what we write does impact the lives of others. Further, we need to understand that what we write can actually lead people to become better people. This doesn’t mean that it will, but the fact that it can is important in and of itself. Consider who you want your readers to be, and consider whether what you write is actually likely to lead them closer to or farther from that goal.

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