Sunday Picture Post

So, you know those days when you get up early, work long hours (like 12-14), relax for a bit, then sleep for five or six hours, only to get up and do it all over again? Yeah… that’s our week this week. Hey, at least I’m getting a lot of reading done. Also, hospital cafeterias are not known for the quality of their coffee… …there is a good reason for this. You should avoid it whenever possible. Also… Because, yes!

This is by someone named Jonathan Moore, but I couldn't find his website.

This is by someone named Jonathan Moore, but I couldn’t find his website.

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

So, at the moment I’m writing this from a hotel room in northern Virginia. Alayna was on her way down to visit me when her car started acting up, and it acted up even more when she was down where I live. So, it’s in the shop down in my town, and I drove her back up here so that she could work her shifts this week. Sometimes life just throws you the unexpected, right? I say, roll with it as best you can. That’s what we both try to do. Success may be intermittent, but the attempts are pretty consistent. Anyway, a few weeks ago I gave you a challenge post about what the purpose of the law is. So, now I want to give you a practical problem to deal with a long the same lines. If you remember, a year or two ago New York state tried to ban the sale of sodas over 36 ounces in size. You’re challenge this week is actually very simple: was this law a good law or a bad law? Why?

I want you to consider your response from a couple of weeks ago, because your answer should probably be radically different depending on whether you think the purpose of the law is to make us better people, or just to keep us from doing predictable and demonstrable harm to one another.

So, you know the drill: write me a story of 1000 words that presents and defends your answer to this question.

Plot Challenge of the Week

Well, I’ve finished with sin. I’m done with it. … … …Or at least my initial deep research into what Aquinas said about it anyway. I’ve no doubt that I’m going to go on sinning. However, I did get more of my research done today than I actually thought I would, and I had a few hours to spend with Alayna, which is always very nice! Anyway, I do actually have a plot challenge for you today. I’m going to give you a picture and I want you to develop a part of your world based on what you see. It should be a setting that is believable in your world, and that has potential for stories in it. Here’s you’re picture:

This was retrieved from imagekid.

This was retrieved from imagekid.

Archetypes: The Ups and Downs

As a reader and a writer, archetypes and tropes are things that I like a lot. I recognize them frequently in the fiction I take in and incorporate them into my own writing too. And I fully believe that archetypes are great–but only up to a point. So I want to talk a little about the good and bad points of archetypes and how they should be used.

First of all, let me clarify my terms in case anyone isn’t sure. An archetype or a trope (I’ll probably use the terms interchangeably here) is a common character, event, setting, or other element that recurs in different stories time and time again. For example, in a typical good versus evil story, there’s a common set of characters: the hero, the villain, the girl who the hero rescues and/or falls in love with, the sidekick or partner or friend who helps the hero out, etc. From the most ancient classical legends to the cheap action movies of today, these universal character types are used over and over again because they’re familiar to us and they make for good stories. To use an example that one of my professors recently made in class, there’s a sense in which Han Solo could be considered a cowboy and Luke Skywalker a samurai, because they fit the general role of those types of figures, even though their story takes place in space. If you want more info about archetypes from a scholarly perspective, then do some quick research on Joseph Campbell, Northrop Frye, or the concepts of the hero’s journey and the monomyth. Or, if stuffy academia isn’t your thing, then go to TV Tropes, click the “random” button at the top, and fall into an inescapable hole of jumping from one page to another for a good several hours until you get the idea.

I searched for Gandalf and this picture of Dumbledore came up. That's because archetypes.

I searched for Gandalf and this picture of Dumbledore came up. That’s because archetypes.

Like I said, as both a reader and a writer, I like archetypes. Because of my love for archetypes, I was able to co-write a parody with some friends where we mashed up a bunch of our favorite characters based on their similar qualities.1 Archetypes are a big part of how I interpret literature and fiction, by comparing them to other stories and characters that I’m already familiar with. I like being able to say, “Oh, so Gandalf is pretty much the old wise wizardly mentor like Ben Kenobi,” or “hey, Nathaniel Hawthorne sure uses evil scientists in a lot of his works who are kind of all pretty similar to each other.”2 On the whole, I believe that archetypes are useful for readers in interpreting stories, and can be a lot of fun to play around with too. But, like any other theory or approach to literature, they have their limits.

Recently for my grad studies, I gave a presentation on a very lengthy book called Love and Death in the American Novel, in which the author argues that all American novels over the couple centuries they’ve been around follow the same archetypal patterns. The book had a lot of interesting points, but most of its critics agreed that it was too narrow and exclusive. It tried too hard to argue that every book followed only one pattern, when in fact the many books out there are quite diverse in their plots and characters and can be interpreted in a number of different ways. The author relied too much on archetypes and tried to exclude nearly everything else.

While researching that book, I also had to acknowledge that I was having similar problems with my thesis. I’m arguing that certain American classics (The Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird) can be interpreted as dystopias because they share certain similar archetypes. But my committee isn’t fully convinced yet. They recognize that it takes more than just archetypes to understand a story–more than just “oh, this part is similar to that part because it follows this same pattern.”

Batman + Wolverine = Generic Dark Vigilante

Batman + Wolverine = Generic Dark Vigilante

As writers, it’s good to acknowledge archetypes, but also not to rely on them too heavily. They can be a great starting place for stories. They can be a good beginning to thinking up new characters or plots, or a good way to bring in stock characters who the audience can understand perfectly even if they don’t get much development. But archetypes can’t be the entirety of your story, or else it’s not really your story–just a rehash and a repetition of all the other stories. Sure, you can decide that you want a certain character to be the hero or the villain or whoever, but (for major characters at least) you also have to flesh them out more and give them their own traits and quirks that are unique to those characters–and unique to you. If you don’t, then your story will just seem trite and generic. In a superhero story of mine, a reviewer once told me that my dark vigilante antihero was too much like Batman. This was not much of a surprise to me, as I had indeed consciously based the character partially on Batman. But I still needed to flesh him out more and give him a personality of his own before he could be his own character.

It's on the internet, so it must be true.

It’s on the internet, so it must be true.

And that’s how good fiction does it too. We could say that Han Solo, Malcolm Reynolds, and Star-Lord are all the same type of character, because they’re roguish but heroic outlaws in space. But Han’s development changes him more over time, Mal seems more bound to a cause other than self-interest, and Star-Lord puts a slightly more comical turn on the traditional role. They’re similar characters in some ways, but they’re also unique and well-developed on their own.

As a writer, you should be aware of archetypes and use them to your advantage. By all means, use them to establish a story and bring the reader in and make the characters seem familiar and appealing. But don’t stop there. Make sure your characters and plots go beyond typical tropes and archetypes to result in a well-developed story of your own.

Footnote 1. Shameless Plug #1: Read Super Karamazov Bros., the most epic, comprehensive, and ridiculous parody mash-up of our time!. (Back 1.)

Footnote 2. Actually, this idea about Hawthorne recently got me accepted to an academic conference, which leads me to Shameless Plug #2: my conference fundraiser page!. (Back 2.)

Scene Challenge of the Week

tumblr_m7oaa5DlX71rqu5bzo1_400Have you ever spent all day tracking down quotes in sources? That’s what I did today. I spent the entire day tracking down quotes that Aquinas uses from Augustine and Aristotle… which reminds me… when the book you’re using cites Aritotle’s Metaphysics Book 7 chapter 2, and you open Aristotle’s Metaphysics to find that it has no book numbers, but instead has Book A, Book B, Book Lambda, Book Pi, Book Theta, Etc… and that all of them have a second chapter… and counting them doesn’t work because the second chapter of the seventh book on the list has nothing to do with the quote you’re looking for… it is possible that screaming ensues… Anyway, I have a scene challenge for you and you all should know the rules, but just in case: 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: Choose one of your favorite scenes from a novel. After reading the scene a couple of times, rewrite it in your own style and voice. The characters and basic elements of the scene should remain the same, but the way it is written should reflect your voice and style of writing, rather than the original author’s. This can be very challenging, so don’t be too disappointed if you need a few tries to go it well.

Dear Lone Wolf

Note: Song of Ice and Fire, Sword Art Online spoilers. Also Die Hard, but if you haven’t seen it by now, that’s your problem.


Dear Mr. Critical,
I wander around the world by myself, taking out vast armies on my own and walking away from explosions. Because no one looks at their own explosions. That’s just not cool.

I wear sunglasses at all hours, rarely talk, but when I do, I’m cool. Like an iceberg. Because those are cool.

My problem is sometimes I struggle to fit in with groups. They think I’m too cool for them, or something, and so they won’t let me play with them. Can you please advise?
L. Wolf

Dear L. Wolf,
Good news! You’re more salvageable than Mary Sue. Why? Because you’re a character we can sometimes relate to, you have mystery as well as purpose, and there are a dozen different uses for your archetype.

Oberyn Martell, from Song of Ice and Fire, may be one of my favorites that currently comes to mind. You have Cloud, from Final Fantasy VII. There’s John McClane of Die Hard. Or any other Bruce Willis or Clint Eastwood flick before 2000. The Lone Wolf is a beloved character, so don’t worry too much.

First, embrace the fact others don’t like you. Your advantages are numerous. If you need to travel, you just go. This is excellent for adventure or sojourner stories. You are also generally an outsider. Every culture looks unique to you, giving you the ability to see it for what it is, for what the reader would see it as. Think Gulliver’s Travels.

If the story is going to have a revolving door cast, this is perfect. You hop in and out of numerous lives, showing snapshots of the world. This can happen even if you know the culture. Sword Art Online does this form of storytelling, where Kirito moves around the game meeting new people and helping them, but never sticking around with the same folks more than an episode or two. Aside from Asuna, but those two need to make babies.

There is also a beautiful opportunity for character growth. Looking back at SAO, we were able to watch Kirito. While many saw him as a jerk, we were able to see the kind and caring spirit that went into all his interactions. His apathy and feigned malignance towards others was just an attempt to keep from watching others die.

McClane didn’t really change. I mean, does a man as perfect as Bruce Willis require changing? In Song of Ice and Fire, Oberyn’s inability to change his course is what led to his demise, where his character flaw, not being rectified, led him to make poor life choices. If we are allowed to see through the eyes of the Lone Wolf, we are able to see someone who is usually going through intense personal struggles. You can show this through keen observers with a lot of empathy as well.

The potential for you to be a fully rounded, fascinating, more than sexy and mysterious character is unlimited. But there are pitfalls, friend, and they are as riddled as Swiss cheese.

What people have a tendency of doing is making you a caricature. I know, it hurts to read that, but I’m giving it to you straight, LW. They make it so you don’t care about people, you do what you want, and every now and then you steal candy from a baby. Why did you steal the candy from a baby? I’m sure you’re wondering that. It doesn’t jive with who you are, there was no reason, and what happened is your writer just wanted to make you seem like a maverick.

Other times you just don’t talk. You grunt a few times, as if an orc with his tongue cut out, but you don’t say anything. Even Michonne of The Walking Dead talks when she likes someone. Yes, Michonne is a Lone Wolf, she’s a little towards the caricature side, but just short. I mean really just short. But she’s awesome with her zombie mules, so we forgive her. You can make up some ground by being that epic.

In short, rejoice in your loneliness. It is your fault. Embrace your pain. The self-inflicted misery is what makes us like you. Your attempts to get beyond it and find love in any of its forms is why we love you. So if you have no friends and you’re well written, just keep in mind, you have our hearts. If you have no friends because you’re pointlessly stealing candy from babies, kick your writer and buy them a book on how to create good characters.
Almost sincerely,
Mr. Critical


Story Challenge of the Week

John_William_Waterhouse_-_The_Favorites_of_the_Emperor_Honorius_-_1883Welcome to the Week of Paper 2014! This week (or more likely in the next two weeks, just being realistic) I am going to write both of my major term papers for the semester. That’s one twenty page paper and one forty page paper for you folks who haven’t been reading the blog. So, my hope is to knock out 10 pages today. So far I have about 5 done on the 40 page paper and 10 done on the 20 page paper. So, I’m not doing to badly thus far… we’ll see if I can keep up this breakneck pace. Also… I am making no claims as to how good the rough drafts of said papers will be. However, if I get them done this week, then I’ll have a month to edit both of them before I need to turn them in (… …never mind the 2500 pages of reading I also have to do in that month. Who’s really counting that anyway? O.o…) So, I’m going to be a little bit busy. Anyway, today is your story challenge. I want you to set this story in a world that your currently developing. One of the best ways to develop a world to write in, amazingly enough, is to write in that world. The more you write, the more your understanding of the world will solidify. The key here is to remember what you’ve written before and keep your world consistent (this is where world bibles come in handy). So, pick your nation and then write a story based off of these questions:

Your Challenge: Choose one major character in the history of this world and write a myth about him. This could be a great hero like Hercules, a god like Thor or Osano’wo, a monster like Jormungand, or an actual historical myth like Alexander the Great or Vlad Tepes. Regardless, the story should be written as a myth about the figure, not as a historical treatise. Make up a story that the people of your world tell around the fire, whether they believe it or not.

Sunday Picture Post

Well, as you all know, here at The Art of Writing we try to take Sundays off whenever we can. Unfortunately today won’t be much of a day off for me (I’m going to be reading and writing pretty much all day), but that’s okay. I did find this for you:


Philosophical Plot Challenge of the Week

Okay, so we’re back to a bit of thinking in the philosophy of law today. Consider that there are two major definitions of what a law is or can be. Natural Law theories tend to define a law as something that must inherently be moral. This is not to say that a law cannot be amoral (as in laws concerning how laws are made), but that a law cannot be immoral. For instance, Thomas Aquinas defines a law as ‘a rule or measure that moves towards the common good.’ Now, Aquinas makes the distinction an an unjust law has the appearance of a law but does not have the nature of a law. Thus, a ‘bad law,’ such as Nazi laws or (in the opinion of many) President Obama’s health care plan, is essentially half a law. It can be called ‘law’ because it has the appearance of a law (being a rule or measure enacted by an authority), but it is not a real or actual law because it does not work towards the common good.

However, Legal Positivists have, in the past century, argued that this conception of a law is incoherent because it makes bad laws ‘fake laws’ or non-existent. Thus, on their argument, one could not really speak of the Nazi laws a ‘bad laws’ because they do not exist as ‘laws’ in a real sense, which makes it difficult to critique them. Thus, Legal Positivists have argued that we should consider both bad and unjust laws and good and just laws as being equally ‘law’. This makes it easier to critique bad laws, but also sacrifices Aquinas’ focus on the ‘true nature’ of a law, and essentially presents the argument that any rule or measure enacted by an authority is a law in a true or complete sense.

So, today I’d like you to take a side in this debate. Write a 1000 word story presenting and defending your view of what defines a law.

Plot Challenge of the Week

Well… the moment of truth has arrived… Next week I’m going to write my 40 page paper and hope that 1) I manage to get it done in a week, and 2) I do it well. We’ll see if those two things happen. I think I’ve done a fairly decent amount of research for it, and I have a few more original sources to go through. Ultimately, though, I’m going to do my best and see what happens. Anyway, 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:



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