Predictably Fun: The Success of Superheroes

In my last post earlier this week, I started trying to tackle some pretty big questions of originality in fiction writing. I looked at the recent success of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which, though enjoyable, lacked originality and seemed to recycle many elements from the original Star Wars. Today I’d like to explore the same ideas but in a slightly different genre of story, one that is also immensely popular despite some potentially legitimate claims of unoriginality. And it’s one of my favorite genres too. I’m talking about superhero movies, specifically the ones made by Marvel.

Before we begin, I’ll admit my personal bias. I love superheroes and superhero films. Even the mediocre ones are still enjoyable to me on some level, and it has to be pretty bad for me to actively dislike it (but trust me, there are some bad ones out there). While I love Star Wars as well, I do have to admit that Star Wars is probably my second-favorite fandom–after superheroes. So with the exponential popularity of Marvel movies over the last several years, I’ve had quite a lot to enjoy.

Iron Man poster
Theatrical poster for Iron Man (2008). Image from Wikipedia. Fair use.

But I can certainly understand why, from a perspective of an outsider who doesn’t love all of those characters as much as I do, the movies may seem to follow a similar or predictable formula. If you’re unfamiliar, you can find a pretty decent summary of that formula here. This type of movie may have seemed fresh and innovative when Iron Man introduced the Marvel Cinematic Universe back in 2008, but eight years later, it’s been done and redone a number of times.

 

Consider the Ant-Man, Marvel’s most recent big blockbuster from August. (Interestingly, I almost typed “bug blockbuster” there, but I guess that would have also been accurate.) The film was, in my opinion, a lot of fun and a well-made story for what it was. But it was also very predictable, at least to someone like me who has watched quite a few action and superhero films over time. The good guy overcame his challenges and figured out how to be a hero in the end, even when it seemed like there was no hope left. The bad guy was fairly one-dimensional and was pretty obviously the bad guy from the beginning without much subtlety. The whole film was laced with Marvel’s trademark blend of flashy action sequences and witty humor and dialogue. I won’t say that it lacked character development, but the characters and the relationships it did build were familiar too from a number of other works of fiction–the ex-con looking for redemption, the older mentor figure and his estranged daughter, the maniacal businessman-turned-supervillain, the goofy friends who provide comic relief. Etc. (Not to mention the fact that Ant-Man is a science expert who gets his powers from a scientific suit. Now where have we seen that before?)

Ant-Man_poster
Theatrical poster for Ant-Man (2015). Image from Wikipedia. Fair use.

Of course, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Ant-Man is exactly like all the other Marvel movies. Each hero and their backgrounds and personalities are different enough to make them distinct, ranging from a billionaire scientist hotshot-turned-hero, to a legendary god come down to earth, to the idealistic super-soldier back from the past. The film version of Ant-Man is a little different from them all in that he’s a former criminal, a down-on-his-luck ordinary guy trying to support his family, who ends up becoming a superhero. The individual characters and settings are different in each movie, and of course team films like The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy shake up the dynamic somewhat too. But still, I must admit that by and large the Marvel movies are getting similar and predictable in terms of plot structure and overall tone.

 

So then, what’s the missing element? What is it that makes Ant-Man and similar films so enjoyable still, even though they’re so formulaic? And why do I appreciate one type of movie despite its unoriginality, but still look with a critical eye on recycled plots like that of The Force Awakens? Is it just because I happen to like superheroes a little bit more than space operas? Or is it because TFA was hyped up so much more that unoriginality on its part felt like a letdown in comparison? Maybe. But maybe there’s something more objective in the content of each story, too.

I’m honestly not sure exactly what that would be yet, but maybe I can figure it out in my next post later this week. And if I can, then I’m sure there will be some important applications for us as writers as well when it comes to originality and borrowing from other works.

 

 

 

 

Nothing New Under the Sun: The Franchise Awakens

STAR WARS STAR WARS STAR WARS STAR WARS

Star_Wars_The_Force_Awakens_Theatrical_Poster
Theatrical poster for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Image from Wikipedia. Fair use.

Now that I’ve got your attention by name-dropping the biggest and most record-breaking film on the market right now, I’m going to be talking a bit about the film Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. There’s a lot I could say on the film, both good and bad, and since much of it has already been said throughout the many circles of the blogosphere, I’m certainly not going to try to give an exhaustive, in-depth analysis here.

Actually, I’m going to take it back a bit and try to get a broader look at some things, such as general storytelling principles and the concept of an ongoing franchise that has a lot of continuity to deal with. About a year ago, when advertising for the film first began in full force, I wrote a post about it on my personal blog. I was a tad skeptical, but cautiously optimistic, because I’ve been a fan of all things Star Wars for so long–not merely the movies, but also the numerous books, comics, and other media that had been created subsequently by various authors to flesh out the story more and further expand this universe. My post argued that, even though the new movies weren’t drawing from the existing source material and were straying from the wealth of books and other stories that I loved, I would still enjoy the films as long as they told good and creative stories of their own. (The original post I’m speaking of can be read at this link–and, since it was written a year before the movie came out, it is 100% spoiler free.)

4101886742_cc2e69a07a_b
One fan’s collection of the very best Star Wars books (which are pretty much any written by Timothy Zahn). Image taken from user Sarah Thrawn on Flickr Creative Commons.

Well, like many fans, I saw the film on opening weekend (and again after that). And, true to what I said above, I did enjoy it. But that’s about all. I liked it well enough to see it a couple of times as a fun event with friends, but I didn’t really love it quite as much as I may have anticipated. And there may be a few reasons for that, including the fact that I had some pretty major parts spoiled for me (thanks, internet jerks). But now that the initial hype has begun to settle down and my opinion has solidified more, I think it’s because–as many people have claimed before me–The Force Awakens was not a very original film on the whole.

If you’re a fan of Star Wars and have talked to anyone about the new film, then you may have heard some people claim that it’s not a very original film, reusing many plot and character elements from the first Star Wars film back in 1977 (not to mention many concepts that appeared in the books but were somewhat changed or mixed around for the onscreen version). Some harsher critics have even used terms like “rehash” or “rip-off” to describe the film. And, while I did enjoy the film on the surface and for the few hours of exciting escapism it gave me, I find myself agreeing at least somewhat with those critics who say that the film was lacking in originality and thus somewhat lacking in depth. (For a fuller and mostly-accurate explanation of how The Force Awakens recycles things from A New Hope, click here–but this link DOES CONTAIN SPOILERS, so beware!)

This common complaint about the film’s lack of originality raises some interesting questions for us, both as audiences and as writers. Questions such as: does a work of fiction have to be completely original in order to be good? Wasn’t it good that J.J. Abrams tried to recreate the feel of the original trilogy, since that’s what a lot of fans wanted? Or would it have been better for him to take a new creative direction with the franchise? Is it even possible to be completely original anymore? Aren’t most stories just new combinations of old elements in different ways anyway? Where do you draw the line between appropriately borrowing from the ideas of previous works and completely ripping them off? How much true originality and creativity is it really possible for us to muster and channel into our writing?

These are questions that I hope to explore further in my upcoming posts for the rest of the week, as they relate to both Star Wars and other massively popular fictional franchises. I hope you’ll join me then. In the meantime, if you need some food for thought, chew on the questions above and feel free to voice your opinion in the comments section below.

 

Allegories: The Ups and Downs

Cruciblecover
Cover of The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Image taken from Wikipedia. Fair use.

Lately I’ve been reading Arthur Miller‘s classic play The Crucible with my 11th grade Honors students, and I’m loving the experience. Reading it aloud in class with them has reminded me of when I first discovered the play as an 11th grade student myself, and its powerful characters with strong moral themes still resonate with me today. In fact, I tend to get so caught up in the action of the play, in the brilliant character dynamics and the almost otherworldly setting of early Puritan America, that I almost forget a few things. I forget that the play was written much later than it takes place—within the last century rather than in the 1600s—and that the author wrote it as an allegory for the social and political climate of his own time.

Now, why would I gloss over such an important historical detail, and one that is well established as the greatest influence for the writing of the play? Maybe it’s because allegories get a bad rap sometimes—and, sometimes, they deserve it. Oftentimes, when we think of allegories, what comes to mind is childish fairy tales with thinly veiled symbolism and much too didactic moral messages. I am reminded of stories like the Chronicles of Narnia—a series which, though I enjoy and respect it to a great degree, is understandably considered by some readers obvious and simplistic in its symbolism. Of course, I’m also reminded of some of my own science fiction and fantasy writings from five or more years ago that I kind of cringe to remember, because the Christian symbolism was similarly thinly veiled and rather unoriginal. (Heck, I know someone in a Christian writers’ community who even used the word “allegories” in the title of an independently published graphic novel. It’s like some authors aren’t even trying to hide it.)

The point is that allegories are sometimes looked down upon these days, because when they’re too obvious, they can come across as preachy and pretentious—a moral message disguised as a work of fiction rather than a genuine creative work itself. I saw an internet article once that, when poking fun at heavy-handed symbolism in a popular contemporary novel, jokingly called the author “C.S. Lewis.” And that got me thinking. First, my English major nature thought things like, “Well, if you think C.S. Lewis’ symbolism was so heavy-handed, then maybe you should go read ‘Young Goodman Brown‘ by Nathaniel Hawthorne and be glad for C.S. Lewis. And if you think that’s too much, then you should go read The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, in which pretty much every character’s name equates to some moral concept like ‘Charity’ or ‘Despair’ or ‘Faithless.’ But once I let my snarky English major side calm down a bit, I got to thinking, “well, aren’t there right and wrong ways to do symbolism and allegories in ways that today’s audiences will accept?”

And the answer is that, of course, there are. After all (though I personally haven’t seen it yet), wasn’t there recently a very popular movie in which the characters were just living embodiments of emotion? And aren’t some of the superheroes I like, the Green Lanterns and their multi-colored associates, based largely on the same thing, harnessing their powers from will or fear or hope and rage?

It’s not that symbolism—or direct thematic conveyances of emotion—are entirely shunned in today’s culture. It’s just that those elements have to be coupled with others, too—like good characters and a good story, which every compelling work of fiction should have anyway.

I remember writing a paper on the allegorical nature of The Faerie Queene, and how it (or at least the part we read in class, because the whole thing is super long) is pretty much just a Christian knight battling monsters who represent different sins, and using supernatural help to overcome them. My professor recommended a book called The Allegorical Temper, which I ended up citing in my paper. I don’t have exact quotes handy anymore, but the author’s consensus was that allegories only work if they’re stories as well. They shouldn’t be only moral messages, but they should be able to function on two levels, as messages conveyed through a good story. If a character represents an idea, then the character shouldn’t completely disappear into that idea; they should still be a well-developed, fleshed out character who is enjoyable and compelling to read about, like any other character should be. Then whatever underlying messages are present may still come through, but without overpowering the story for what it’s supposed to be.

Animal Farm
Copy of Animal Farm by George Orwell. Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

In hindsight, I’m not sure I can say that The Faerie Queene meets that goal particularly well. Obviously, more than a few direct allegories have been good enough to make their way into the classic canon of literature, and yet they vary in how much they actually tell a story beyond just the allegory. I recently started rereading George Orwell‘s Animal Farm because I’ll be teaching it too later in the year. Of course, my memory may be flawed because I haven’t read it in a decade, but I seem to remember the symbolism in that book being fairly thinly-veiled as well. Different animals correspond directly to different people or social classes involved in the Russian revolution, and the plot is narration-heavy without a lot of room for extra character development. The anti-totalitarian theme—a political message if not necessarily a moral one—comes through very directly, and the entire story seems to be there to serve that theme.

But again, consider The Crucible. It’s well known that Arthur Miller wrote it as a caution against the militant McCarthyism sweeping through 1950s America. Thus, the judges conducting the Salem witch trials within the text of the play are analogous to the anti-Communist courts of Miller’s era, and the town of Salem can be seen as a warning against America following a similar path. But that’s about it. That’s where the allegories end. John Proctor, the main hero of the story, doesn’t directly represent goodness or sin or anything like that. He’s a well-developed, realistic character with both good and bad traits, who just acts in accordance with his personality based on the events of the story. Abigail Williams, the main antagonist, isn’t directly representative of any one person or philosophy in Miller’s time. She’s just the villain, acting on evil motives but not on the author’s determination to drive home a moral point. The characters have lives and stories of their own that stretch beyond the text of the page and can exist independently of the author’s anti-McCarthyist sentiment.

To summarize: if you’re ever trying to write an allegory, or any story with an above-average amount of symbolism, know how to do it well. Include your symbolism and the themes and meanings you want it to represent, but don’t lose sight of writing a good story beyond that. Develop your plot and characters first and foremost so that the deeper messages can really come through in an engaging, compelling, and powerful way.

A New Novel, and that one big break we’ve all been waiting for

If you’re passionate about writing fiction and you’ve been writing for any amount of time, then maybe you’ve dreamed of getting a novel published, or becoming a bestselling author someday. I know I have, and it’s something I still aspire to (you know, in all of that free time I have in between teaching and figuring out adulthood). While I have self-published and gotten gradual bits of publicity here and there, I’m still a long way from “that one big break” that many of us hope for.

Nonetheless, I’m here today to offer hope to all of you aspiring writers, and to tell you that actual, legitimate publication is a completely achievable goal. And what’s more, I can tell you from personal experience of a longtime aspiring writer who has recently achieved that goal–or at least begun to. No, it’s not me. It’s my dad.

Brace yourself. NaNoWriMo is coming.
Brace yourself. NaNoWriMo is coming.

In addition to typical Dad activities like telling lame jokes and offering wise insights, my dad, Mark R. Harris, has been an English professor for years and has been a writer on the side. He’s published the occasional poem and has worked on other projects now and again too. I think, after so much time spent reading and teaching great American novels, he’s always kind of wanted to write one himself. And now he has. After I got him involved in National Novel Writing Month a few years ago (hey, I’ll take a little bit of credit where I can), he completed and has been revising a manuscript, and now has a book deal with an actual publisher. His original novel, entitled Fire in the Bones, is now officially in the process of being published.

So what does this mean for you? I’ll tell you, but first I’m going to give a bit of a plug for my dad. After all, as an aspiring writer, you want to stay on top of what other up-and-coming writers are doing, and get tips and ideas from them, right? Dad is in the process of trying to build an audience before the book comes out, and it would be great to have you on board. He has a Facebook page entitled Mark R. Harris and a blog called Inkglish. My dad has been a major source of a lot of good things in my life, including my interests in literature, Christianity, superheroes, and bad puns. If you’ve enjoyed any of my writings on this blog, or are willing to give an up-and-coming author a chance, I’d ask you to go and give Dad’s pages a like and follow. You’re not committing to buying the book, but you’d get updates about when it’s coming out, and maybe pick up a few other cool things along the way.

What else does this mean for you? It means that you are interesting enough to write a novel. Yes, you, in your ordinary, average, and yet beautifully complex life. I haven’t read Dad’s full manuscript yet, but my understanding is that it’s semi-autobiographical, about a guy growing up around the ’70s and searching for some meaningful fulfillment in life. And if an ordinary guy like my dad can turn a series of life episodes into a novel good enough for publication, then I’m betting that you’ve got a story or two somewhere inside you too. Keep searching and writing, and it’ll find its way out sooner or later.

Lastly, this means that there’s hope. If you’ve been trying to get into the writing world for a while without results, don’t give up. Sometimes it takes years of trial and error, or a lot of small steps leading up to big ones, or maybe just the right amount of perseverance and motivation, to make a dream into a reality. Sometimes you may not taste the fruits of your labor for years–but hey, better late than never, right? Don’t get discouraged just because you don’t see immediate results. Keep working and keep doing your best. I can’t promise that every one of you will become big-name bestselling authors–heck, I can’t even promise that for myself. But it will definitely never happen if you don’t keep trying.

Actual picture of my dad, Mark R. Harris, soon-to-be-published author
Actual picture of my dad, Mark R. Harris, soon-to-be-published author

So, in short, keep doing what you’re doing. Keep on writing and looking for opportunities, because you never know what might come up. And also, please go like my dad’s page. I’ll leave you with a published poem of his, hoping that you’ll like what you see:

Morning, Sickling

by Mark R. Harris

A black dawn this morning,
but feeling pastoral,
I ventured out
in spite.

The air was gone,
at first–
then became solid,
creeping beads across
my tight forehead.

I tried an apostrophe:
“O wind, rend the heat–“
that didn’t work.

The lifeless air
matched my thoughts,
forging on like a lost soldier.

I flailed,
wielding the sickle blindly,
trying to lay the sharp
bitter grass low.

Thick roots seemed to ooze,
bent, buckled
before my masterful strokes.

But I heaved and sighed,
sweat flowing freely,
coating my hands, neck,
hardening ribs,

and the strokes came slower,
stiffer,
duller…stopped, I cleared my vision
with a swipe of shaking forearm.

No light yet.

O wind, get over here already.

Exposition: How Low Can You Go?

Theatrical poster for Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Fair use.
Theatrical poster for Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Fair use.

This past summer, a phenomenon of cinematic glory crashed onto the big screen and took moviegoers everywhere by storm. Reviving a thirty-year-old franchise with all the action and visual effects of today, Mad Max: Fury Road impressed action movie fans all over the country with its stunning visuals, tough action heroes, and high-speed car chases across a futuristic dystopian landscape. Critics and fans alike lauded the film for providing a solid, compelling, and thoroughly exciting action movie. Among other things, one praise I heard of the film more than once was for how well it told a story and dived right into the action from the start without getting bogged down in too much exposition. In any case, many viewers began holding Fury Road up as the new standard of what action movies should be like.

Once I saw the movie, I liked it too. But I do intentionally say “liked” rather than “loved.” Now, I like fast cars, big fights, and visually appealing women as much as the next guy, so I certainly enjoyed the movie–but it still seemed to me that something was lacking in this film. As an English major (now an English teacher) and a lover of stories, I tend to be a big fan of well-thought-out plots and well-developed characters. So, while some of my friends praised Fury Road for being able to function successfully on so little exposition, I personally could have used a little more in that area. Despite the film’s many good points and overall fun quality, its sparse explanations about the details of the story or the characters kept it, to me, in the range of “good” rather than “great.”

And I thought I was the only one who felt like that, until, in a forum I’m part of, someone else called the film “an insult to dialogue and story craft” and “a 2-hour ADD music video” (and a heated Facebook debate ensued, as must always be the case with internet opinions). While such reviews seemed a little harsh for my tastes, I have to admit that I do see some truth in these criticisms.

Theatrical poster for Mad Max (1979). Fair use.
Theatrical poster for Mad Max (1979). Fair use.

Like I said, I’m a story guy by nature, so I may be biased and my standards may be a little higher than most. In fact, I can admittedly be quite the stickler for continuity. So much so that, before I went to the movie theater and watched Fury Road, I spent the summer tracking down the previous three Mad Max films from the ’70s and ’80s and watched those, in order, too. (Also, a friend had recommended them to me, so they were on my to-watch list for a while, even before I knew about the new one.) And the very first one did give me a decent amount of that exposition and character development that I like. It showed Max’s descent from an upright police officer in a corrupt world to a morally ambiguous antihero struggling for his own survival. It showed where he came from and how he got to where he was. Personally, this exposition helps me to appreciate the action more. If I’ve invested in the character a little bit and gotten to know where they come from, then I’ll care more once that character is thrust into a high-speed chase with cars and guns and explosions. Otherwise, if I don’t know the character quite as well, scenes like that tend to feel like mindless, over-the-top action, the sort that would make Michael Bay proud.

But the next three Mad Max movies, including Fury Road, seemed a lot less story-based to me. They usually fling Max into another adventure with some other group of people in this post-apocalyptic world, but they don’t provide much info on the society or the characters other than Max. And even Max’s character doesn’t develop much past where we left him at the end of the first film. Admittedly, Fury Road did have the compelling character of Furiosa, who I’d argue was really the heroine of the story and definitely wins the Strong Female Character of the film award. But, for a movie titled “Mad Max,” we actually got very little information about Max or where he came from. In fact, he didn’t even do much in his own movie; it felt more like he was just along for the ride on Furiosa’s adventure. I couldn’t help but wonder, had I not watched the first film first, would I even know or understand who Max was at all?

Furthermore, we never learned much about the film’s villain, other than that he’s a tough-looking bad guy who rules a dystopian civilization. Personally, I could have used just a few more details to help me care about the characters more and know where the story was going. It wouldn’t have to be much; just some well-placed verbal introductions at the beginning or scattered throughout the film to identify the characters and give me a little more insight into this world and the heroic quest. But Fury Road seemed rather sparse in that area.

If you’ve ever written a story before, then you’ve probably dealt with exposition, even if you didn’t know the official name for it. “Exposition” is what we call the setup of the story, the basic background details–who the characters are, where they come from, what the hero’s main plot or quest will be, and whatever other information will be necessary to understanding the story. Authors often give exposition toward the beginning of a story, but sometimes it can be spaced out or revealed over time to add suspense and dramatic effect. But, like most aspects of writing, exposition can be tricky to do well and there’s definitely a balance to be found.

Almost all stories need at least some exposition to get by and function in such a way that the reader understands them. However, too much exposition all at once can get tedious and boring. That’s why people have begun to complain about so many reboots and origin stories in superhero movies. It can feel like an “infodump” that detracts from the main action of the story, and it can easily lose a reader who isn’t invested already. Still, too little exposition can make it difficult for readers to get to know the characters fully or to learn about the world you’ve placed them in. It can really detract from those details that make your story and your characters unique.

So where should the line be drawn between exposition and action? How little is too little before the story gets lost in all the flashy visuals and the plot becomes largely generic and indiscernible? I admit that the standard is very subjective, and it often depends on the individual work, as well as the individual reader or viewer. But, despite the film’s several enjoyable qualities, I can’t laud Fury Road as being my ultimate standard for action movies, because I think it could have benefited a lot from just a little more exposition.

What do you think? Do you prefer stories with more or less exposition? What kind do you like to read? What kind do you like to write? As a writer, how do you balance the need for exposition with the main action of the story and keep the reader’s attention through it all?

Discuss in the comments below. Thanks for reading.

Everyone’s an Antihero

Most of us have heard that the hero of a story can reflect or embody the values of the author or the culture. But sometimes we don’t give antiheroes–those ambiguous, mysterious characters who blur the lines between good and evil–enough credit to do the same.

I touched on antiheroes somewhat in my last post, talking about how even “heroes” and “good guys” in fiction can become antiheroes or villains if the writer invents a story or motivation that will change them enough. Today I’d like to talk more about the trend of antiheroes in fiction, and about what it means for us as writers–and as humans. And, as before, I’ll draw largely from one area of pop culture that I know a lot about: comic book superheroes.

PunisherWarZone1It seems like the ’80s and the ’90s were the era of the gritty antihero, in comics as well as perhaps in film and other areas of culture. Gruff, grim, leather-wearin’, gun-totin’ characters like Deadpool, Cable, and Lobo began to emerge. But, more than that, other characters who were previously either heroes or villains began to cross the line. Characters like Catwoman and Venom, villains up to that point, got their own titles where they were ambiguous protagonists. Batman was temporarily replaced by a more savage version of himself, and even Superman grew his hair out and wore black for a while to make him seem more dark and edgy.

But, in some ways, it seems like this trend has never really stopped. Because what got me thinking about antiheroes so much was a recent Marvel Comics event called Axis. In this story, several heroes and villains teamed up to try to stop the Red Skull, Captain America‘s Nazi nemesis. But, because of a magic plot device–er, magic spell–everyone’s personality was (temporarily) inverted on its moral axis. Thus, the good guys present suddenly had the desire to be bad–and the bad guys actually wanted to be good.

14904391768_66a2aeb0f8My reaction to this event was also mixed. Part of me wanted to complain. “Really? More antiheroes?” Maybe I read too much into this, but to me, so much blurring of the lines between good and evil seems like it might perpetuate more moral ambiguity. Call me old-fashioned, but sometimes I miss the days when good guys were good, bad guys were bad, and both held uncompromisingly to their values. With the trend I’ve mentioned of making more and more characters antiheroic, sometimes it seems that those clear lines of good and evil are shifting and fading faster and faster.

My last post mentioned several Marvel heroes who have acted as antiheroes or villains in the recent past. Also, even before Axis, a number of Marvel’s major villains were being portrayed as less “evil” and more “misunderstood,” including Magneto, Doctor Doom, Apocalypse, and Loki. For various complicated plot reasons, the latter two had both been reborn into young, teenage versions of themselves (yeah, I know, comics are weird–just roll with it) who want to do good but who may or may not be destined to return to villainy once more. Then, in Axis, the change got even more extreme. Villains like Sabertooth and Carnage, who previously were violent killers for the fun of it, suddenly valued life and made it their quest to do right. On some level I found it a little hard to believe.

And yet, even when I get a little tired of the antihero craze, I have to admit a few things to myself. The first is that antiheroes show us our own values and that of our culture–just as much as heroes do, if not more so. Like, sure, you’ll root for Captain America for being all good and noble and patriotic. But will you also root for the Punisher for bringing violent vigilante vengeance to the scum of the streets? And, if you do, then what does that say about your  values? How far can a good guy go and still be considered a “good guy”? How bad does a bad guy have to be for us to think they’re truly irredeemable? Antiheroes ask us to think through questions like these.

One interesting thing to note in the Axis event is that the Red Skull (although briefly shown to be affected by the spell) was never really featured as a hero or as having heroic intentions, even temporarily. Personally, I think that also says a lot about our culture. We can believe that most villains, even a psychopath like Carnage, can turn over a new leaf. But not the Red Skull, a Nazi who embodies absolute hatred, racism, and intolerance. Even with a magic spell in place, we can never bring ourselves to root for him as a hero. What this says to me is that such hatred and bigotry are the worst of evils in the eyes of our culture, utterly irredeemable beyond even senseless murder for fun. The levels of moral ambiguity that we will–and won’t–tolerate say a lot about who we are and what we value.

The other thing I’ve had to admit to myself is this: antiheroes are realistic. Even if they sometimes seem overdone and contrived, they do make for much more complex characters, and often more interesting ones, which is how ordinary human beings really are. None of us is completely good and nice and noble all the time. And neither is any of us completely cruel, heartless, and evil. As Nathaniel Hawthorne strove to show us in stories like The Scarlet Letter and “Young Goodman Brown,” we are ambiguous, imperfect beings with a capacity to do either right or wrong. No matter how good we might think we are, we’re all antiheroes too in a very real sense, with conflicting desires, motives, and morals constantly shifting around within us. And maybe that’s why we can so often still relate to and root for those characters who seem to straddle the moral line.

As writers, I’d like to issue you a challenge. Take a hero or a villain you’ve previously written into a story. Now write a short scene, episode, alternate universe, or whatever in which this character’s morality has changed drastically. Your hero is now more villainous, and your villain must be more heroic. What cataclysmic circumstances could have motivated such a shift in behavior? How much influence does morality have on your character’s personality, and what will that personality be like when it’s divorced from the values it had previously held to? What will happen if your hero-turned-villain has a sudden confrontation with your villain-turned-hero?

Happy writing, my fellow antiheroes.

A Quick Guide to Monomania

You may have heard before someone describe the basic formula for writing fiction. It goes something like this: “desire plus obstacle equals conflict.” In other words, when you take a character, give them a motivation or goal to work toward, and then put challenges in their way, then you’ve got the makings of a story.

Of course there are many more elements that go into fiction, but this formula gets pretty close to the core essentials. Overall, plots are (or should be) driven by characters and their desires or goals. This is true in most stories, but it’s even truer whenever a character has monomania.

“Monomania” is a fancy literary term that refers to an extreme, overarching obsession that a character has. “Mono” means one and “mania” is a craze or obsession, meaning that any character with monomania is crazed or obsessed about just one thing, just one goal. These characters will go to extreme lengths and do whatever it takes to reach this goal–or die trying. While perceptions can differ from one author to another, monomania is often portrayed as a negative thing. The idea is that having such an all-consuming obsession is unhealthy and can lead to disastrous consequences for that character or others.

Moby-DickIn classic literature, the term is often used in reference to Herman Melville‘s Moby-Dick. In fact, the book’s narrator frequently and directly refers to Captain Ahab’s unrelenting pursuit of the whale as monomaniacal. Nathaniel Hawthorne, a contemporary of Melville’s, also uses monomania in several of his stories, from Hollingsworth’s well-intentioned but misguided plan for social reform in The Blithedale Romance, to several short stories (“The Birthmark,” “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” and more) featuring obsessed scientists who place their mad experiments above even human life. One of the last papers I wrote in grad school argued that this same monomania also appeared in the lesser-known novel Wieland, where the main character’s twisted religious fervor leads him to commit horrendous acts. In hindsight, I might also be able to argue that one of my favorite novels, The Great Gatsby, reflects monomania in the protagonist’s quest for the woman he loves and perfect life he has always dreamed of (but I’d better not get started on Gatsby now or I could probably go on and on).

Walter WhiteThis theme of unhealthy, unrelenting obsession shows up in pop culture, too. Think of the recent television masterpiece Breaking Bad. Walt’s goal to provide financially for his family is initially a noble one, but over time his obsession and determination in his goal lead him to make a number of moral compromises and horrible choices that end disastrously for both him and the ones he loves.

Personally, I’m a huge fan of Marvel comics and superheroes, and I’ve even seen monomania show up in a number of different ways there. With the cyclical, ongoing nature of comics, writers have to shake things up once in a while to keep the characters interesting. Therefore, even among the main heroes or “good guys,” there have been several instances of a driven, obsessed hero taking a good goal too far and becoming (at least temporarily) a morally ambiguous antihero. For example:

  • Civil_War_7In the Civil War story arc (soon to be a major motion picture), Iron Man seeks peace and order through government registration of superhumans, but he has to turn on his allies and make hard decisions in order to carry out his goal.
  • Cyclops has long fought for equal rights for mutants, but in Avengers vs. X-Men and subsequent stories, he becomes an extremist for this goal, much like his former enemy Magneto.
  • In World War Hulk, the Hulk threatened the entire world in misguided revenge on allies who had exiled him into space.
  • Recently in New Avengers, Mr. Fantastic has been leading a covert team whose mission is to save the Earth–by destroying other alternate Earths that threaten our own existence.
  • Daredevil tried to protect his city with force by taking control of a clan of ninja assassins, but he reaped the consequences in the Shadowland story and crossed a line he never had before.
  • In Superior Spider-Man, Spider-Man‘s body was possessed by Doctor Octopus‘s brain (yeah, I know comics are weird. You just have to roll with it sometimes). The result was an ambiguous antihero who also tried to protect New York, but with extreme brutal force and by any means necessary.

Hopefully now you get the idea of monomania and obsession in fiction, the kind that makes ordinary characters into fascinating and compelling (if sometimes misguided and evil) ones who will stop at nothing to achieve their goals.

But what does all this mean for us as writers?

It means that you now have an excellent formula for creating an intriguing story! Yes, it’s true that desire plus obstacle equals conflict. But what happens when you increase that desire a hundredfold to make it a driving, all-consuming obsession? You get a monomaniacal character who, despite any deep character flaws they may have, has an unbreakable will that can drive the story forward past any obstacles that you as the writer throw in their way.

So why don’t you try it out? Create a new character and give them a goal. Have them want nothing else in the world more badly than they want that one goal. Now write a story where things get in the way of that goal and see how your character deals with it. What will they do? How will things turn out? What kind of toll will it take on your character? What will be the cost of their obsessive actions? You may be surprised at the developments that come and at the epic conflicts that result.

Why Study Fiction?

Hello, friends of the writing world! Today has been a very exciting day for me. That’s because today was my first official day as a teacher. Not a teaching assistant or a student teacher as I’ve been for the past two and a half years, but an actual teacher, a goal I’ve had to some extent or another for nearly ten years.

I haven’t blogged about it much yet because I’ve been pretty busy for the last few weeks (and because I don’t currently have internet at home), but I’ll say a little bit about how I got to this point. After finishing my Master’s degree in May, I spent most of the summer looking for jobs teaching secondary English and driving to interviews all around. In mid/late July, I got offered a job teaching 9th and 11th grade English at Grace Christian Academy, a small private school in southern Maryland. Of course, mid/late July is a time frame dangerously close to the beginning of the school year, so I’ve spent the last month or so frantically looking for a place to live and trying desperately to prepare. I moved from Lynchburg to Maryland only about a week and a half ago (hence me not having internet set up in my new place yet), started teacher orientation about a week ago, and had my official first day of school today (Wednesday)! It’s been a crazy whirlwind of a ride, but I’m loving it so far.Welcome to English Class

Unfortunately, since I’ve been so frantic with relocating and then lesson planning and a million other things, I haven’t had a whole lot of big creative writing opportunities lately. However, the whole process of preparing to teach literature has been a good reminder to me of why writing is so important. And as a teacher, I’m going to need to find creative ways to convey that importance to my students as well (especially the ones who don’t really like to read or write so far).

Originally, I was asked by my new boss to teach a creative writing elective along with my English classes. Sadly, that class didn’t make it this time around due to low interest and low enrollment (although I did have at least a few students today who said they liked writing, so there’s always hope for next year). Still, I’m probably going to give each class a writing prompt as a warm-up each day. Some days the prompts will be more literature-related and will be used as starting points for class discussions, but I may be able to do some creative prompts at times too (so if you have any good suggestions for creative writing prompts for high school students, please feel free to let me know!).

For the next class, though, I plan to ask my students something along these lines, and hopefully have a good discussion based on their responses:

  • Why is it important to study grammar and writing?
  • Why is it important to study literature?
  • What makes literature good?

I know, I know. These are tough, big questions. I hope they’ll be helpful for establishing a rationale for some of the things we read and do in the class, but I don’t expect 9th and 11th graders to have the perfect, ultimate answers to these questions. Heck, I took a whole graduate class specifically devoted to the question of “what makes literature good?” and I still don’t fully know the answer in every situation. Probably no individual scholar ever will in this lifetime.

But when I was decorating my classroom this past weekend, I tried to find some good literary quotes (amidst lots of memes and cartoons) to stick on bulletin boards. And I came across a couple quotes–from a couple of my favorite authors–that I had probably heard before but that struck me especially this time around. Here are two of the ones I hung up:

  • “That is part of the beauty of literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” -F. Scott Fitzgerald

    Image taken from Wikipedia. Public domain.
    F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Literature adds to reality. It does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.” -C.S. Lewis

    C.S. Lewis
    C.S. Lewis

Thankfully, even in my new location, I have a couple of friends nearby who I knew from college–and who were also English majors. Last Friday night, I went to a twenty-somethings fellowship group in the area with one such English-y friend. He warned me that there was typically some good-natured joshing between himself, an English major, and the other group members, who all studied and worked in the maths and sciences. Sure enough, the group leader shook his head in mock-disgust upon learning that I had gotten not one, but two English degrees, and he even said at one point (again, with no intended malice) that he didn’t know why anyone would get a liberal arts degree.

And yet, most of the group members there could also be considered “nerds” just like myself and the friend I went with. They talked long and deeply about their favorite movies and games, and we played a board game that night which required us to roleplay as a specific character while killing zombies. In reference to one movie, I even heard one person there use the phrase “the book was better.” I didn’t say this at the time, but I wanted to ask, “So you’re telling me that you like all these movies and games, and yet you can’t see the value in studying creative works of the human imagination?”

In short, literature matters. Writing matters. If you read, study, or create writing or literature, then that matters. Among other things, fiction adds beauty and creativity to our lives and lets us connect with each other on a profound and poignant level. So if you’re a reader or a creative writer, then keep reading and writing, no matter what you might feel or what others may say. It may be more important than you know.

Drama versus Prose: An Overview and a Challenge

So, you’re a pretty experienced writer by this point, eh? You’ve done prose pieces? Short stories? Maybe even a novel or two? Not bad, not bad at all.

But if that’s you, then I’ve got a new challenge for you. Try writing drama.

Of course, this challenge won’t be too hard for you, because you’ve already mastered general storytelling elements such as plot and character development. The rest of it couldn’t be too hard at all, right?

Wrong!

Drama masksIn my last post I wrote about my recent experiences with writing children’s drama for my church. This time I’d like to talk more about the major differences between drama and prose–because, believe it or not, there are many, and being good at one does not necessarily mean you’ll be good at the other. In fact, as far as I’ve seen, in famous authors and aspiring ones alike, it’s relatively uncommon for one person to be really good at both prose and drama.

And before my challenges to you start to sound like I’m bragging about being such a great writer myself, let me level with you for a minute. I’m not good at both prose and drama, either. I consider myself a pretty decent writer when it comes to narrative prose, but I’m really not so great at writing drama.

“But wait!” you may ask. “If you’re not good at writing drama, then why were you in charge of writing drama for church recently, and even of subjecting innocent children to partaking in puerile performances of your poorly-penned plays?” That’s a good question that I’ll get to a little later.

For now I want to tell you a story, dating back three years or so to my undergrad years. I was an English major with a Writing minor, and I had already taken classes on creative poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. As an elective for my minor, I decided to take a class called “Writing for the Stage.” I had written church drama several times before and also had a little prior experience writing a (probably not very good) play for my high school theater senior project. Like I alluded to above, I probably thought that, as a master of prose, I would have an easy time with drama too. But, upon getting a ways into the semester, I realized a couple of things: 1) the class was mostly full of close-knit theater majors, so an English major like me was a little out of place, and 2) drama is an entirely different animal from prose, one which is not particularly my forte.

There may be many elements that differentiate drama from prose, but I’ll tell you about the one that I think tripped me up the most. In drama, you as the author can really only speak through dialogue and action. You have to do everything you normally do in prose–develop characters, flesh out the plot, etc.–but you must do it through only dialogue and action. An outside narrator doesn’t really have much of a voice to describe with words what is happening or what a character’s inner thoughts are like. And, for a wordy author like me who is used to the freedom provided by prose, condensing so much meaning into so few words is hard to do.

For example, my play’s protagonist was a very well-developed character. At least, he was well-developed in my head. I had a pretty specific idea of his backstory, his goals and motivations, his inner thoughts and feelings, etc. And, to me, he was a very sympathetic and relatable character. But, when we peer-reviewed each other’s plays in class, most of what I knew and felt about my character didn’t come through to my readers, because I wasn’t good at conveying it through limited dialogue and action. Everyone else, for the most part, saw my protagonist as distant, flat, and unlikeable, because they didn’t know him like I did and I didn’t do a good job of showing what he was like through this medium. (In hindsight, maybe I also shouldn’t have picked a protagonist whose personality was by nature secretive and guarded. That combined with my inexperience with the medium made it doubly hard for the audience to get to know him. But I digress.)

Hamlet“But wait!” you may ask. “Is all drama always so restricted in what it can show? Aren’t there some plays with narrators and characters who clearly explain themselves to the audience?” And the answer is that yes, there are. Dating back to ancient Greek drama and throughout subsequent centuries, it was very common for plays to have an outside narrator, often called the “Chorus” or some other entity. Later, in Shakespeare’s day, characters often spoke in asides or soliloquies, which was one character onstage speaking directly to the audience, often openly stating his or her own thoughts, feelings, and intentions. To me at least, that kind of direct writing seems relatively easy to do. But it’s no longer in vogue these days. In modern drama (or film, etc.), audiences don’t really take it seriously when narrators or characters explain the action to them so directly. It’s considered tongue-in-cheek or corny at best, and didactic or insulting at worst. No, the stage of today is not the place for long written descriptions of characters’ thoughts and personalities, but rather for quick dialogue and visual actions that should show what they’re like.

So, going back to my recent writings, maybe I should amend an earlier statement. It’s not that I’m horrible at all forms of drama. Like I detailed in my last post, I’m good at writing children’s drama. I’m good at writing the kind where relatively basic stock characters can speak directly to the audience and talk openly about what moral they learned today. I’m able to entertain, amuse, and educate a certain type or demographic of audience. But serious drama, for adults, with passion and pathos, nuance and skill? That’s a bit above my reach for now.

This is not to completely discount the genre or my experiences with it. Although I cringe a little when I think back to the play I wrote in stage-writing class that semester, the experience did help me to learn more about my strengths and weaknesses as a writer. And could I get better at drama if I tried? Yes, knowing what I now know about my limitations and the areas where I fell short before, I could probably get at least a little better if I worked at it more and practiced with that genre again. I just haven’t done so in a while, and I’m not nearly as comfortable in the world of drama as I am with prose.

But sometimes it’s good to get a little uncomfortable and challenge ourselves to try something different. So, if you’re used to writing prose, then I challenge you to try some drama as well. Write a short scene where all you can show between a few characters is dialogue and stage directions. Or, if coming up with one from scratch is hard, take a scene from a favorite book, or from a story you’ve written previously, and rewrite it as if for the stage. See if you can still develop the characters fully and make the plot just as clear without being obvious. Warning: you may get frustrated and find that it’s not as easy as you thought! Or you may stretch your creative horizons and learn more about your potential as a writer!

Writing for Children (and how to do an at least halfway-decent job at it)

Today I’m talking about the writing project I’ve been working on most recently. I’ve been busy—traveling to visit family and attending to some projects with tight deadlines—so, sadly, I still haven’t made any headway on either of the stories I mentioned in my last post. What I’ve been doing lately is of a fairly different nature. Last week I wrote a series of short skits (that I will also direct and act in) for my church’s upcoming Vacation Bible School.

I know. It’s hardly lofty or literary writing. It’s not a deeply involved sci-fi story, and it’s not even written in the same medium as a novel. (I’d like to talk more about the differences between drama and prose, but that may be a post for another day.) I’ll be honest: as you might have guessed from my descriptions, these skits are geared toward children, and they’re designed specifically for teaching moral and spiritual lessons, in a way that some might understandably consider didactic. I wanted to write a post on this project, because it’s my most current creative writing experience. But I admit I had some trouble with the question of “how can simple skits like these relate to the writing of more ‘serious’ fiction?”

Of course, C.S. Lewis is also well-known for his own series of children's books that are still well-loved by many adults.
Of course, C.S. Lewis is also well-known for his own series of children’s books that are still well-loved by many adults.

But, according to a long-standing principle of writing fiction, a book written only for children is a bad book. A good children’s book (or skit, etc.) will be enjoyable to children but also appeal to adults, because the author hasn’t watered down the quality just because it’s for kids. If I recall correctly, C.S. Lewis espoused this belief on children’s writing (or one like it) in An Experiment in Criticism, and our own Mr. Mastgrave reminded me of it when I asked him if he had any ideas for my post. So now I’m trying to see whether or not my skits can be counted as “good” children’s fiction by appealing to people of all ages.

As I’ve already admitted, these skits I’ve written are not literary or extremely profound. Yes, they are mostly episodic in nature, and yes, they do each feature a “Brady Bunch” sort of ending in which characters verbally recognize a moral, apologize to each other, and resolve their conflicts nicely and neatly by the end. That’s kind of dictated by the nature of doing only a ten-or-fifteen-minute skit for instructional purposes. In fact, I might say that the quick, clean-cut moral resolutions are more due to the time constraints than to the age of the audience. In any case, due to the nature of the beast, these skits inherently have some qualities that definitely seem non-literary and would be seen as bad writing if they appeared in serious fiction.

Nonetheless, that’s not all they have. When I write skits like these, I do make an effort to write for adults as well, because 1) I know that the leaders helping with VBS will also be watching them, and 2) I’m an adult and I like to feel clever to myself with my writing. So, in accordance with the above principle about good and bad children’s writing, here are some qualities in my skits that I hope will appeal to both children and adults:

  • Humor. When you’re writing for children, you’ve got to make it fun. But shouldn’t writing for adults be enjoyable too? I try to fill each skit with jokes that, while still not incredibly clever or original, can be appreciated by both children and adults (as long as the adults like corny puns, which I happen to personally). In fact, sometimes the humor is more for adults than for kids, because the youngest class of children (four-year-olds) doesn’t understand the wordplay. Nonetheless, I still include one goofy, comic relief character who often tells puns. But the humor doesn’t exist in isolation; more serious characters react to the puns but still show off their own eccentricities as well. For example:

Megan: As camp guides, you and I will be responsible for watching over the activities and making sure all of our campers have the most awesome time they can!

Jared: Wow! That sounds pretty intense! [Smiles and points as if he’s just made a hilarious joke.]

Megan: [Confused.] Yes, um…very intense…

Jared: Get it? Intense? Like, “in tents”? [Slaps knee and laughs loudly and obnoxiously.]

Megan and Sam: [Groan and facepalm.]


Megan: A movie, huh? That does sound kind of interesting. What’s it about?
Jared: It’s about a park, not so different from this one, except it’s full of huge, tall giraffes. And then the giraffes escape and go wild and try to eat everyone in the park!

Megan: Oh, that’s silly. Giraffes don’t eat people. They just eat plants!

Jared: Well, in this movie, the giraffes are ferocious hunters with huge fangs, and it’s awesome!

Megan: That still sounds silly. What’s the name of this movie, anyway?

Jared: It’s called…Giraffe-ic Park!

Megan: [Sarcastic.] Oh, wow. What an original idea.

Jared: The first movie has a boy giraffe and a girl giraffe falling in love. And there’s a really cute baby giraffe.

Megan: A BABY GIRAFFE? OH MY GOODNESS! I’VE GOT TO SEE THIS! [Rushes over and sits down with them.] I can’t wait to see that baby giraffe! I bet it’s gonna be sooooooo cute!


  • Morals. Again, the moral messages here can’t be too complex or obscured as they might be in more serious fiction, and that’s just the nature of this type of writing. Nonetheless, the moral principles conveyed apply not just to children but to people of all ages. Furthermore, I tried to bring them away from just a quaint platitude in a Bible verse into the realm of real-life application. For example, one skit is about the dangers of hurtful words. In addition to just quoting Bible sayings about words, I also want to show, in a realistic way through the characters, that hurtful words don’t solve anything, and that encouraging and affirming others is important. Do kids need to learn that? Sure. But so do a lot of adults these days.

Sam: So, you and Jared got into an argument, and you both said some mean things to each other. Is that right?

Megan: Yes…that’s right.

Sam: And his words were hurtful to you?

Megan: Yes! They hurt a lot!

Sam: And did saying mean things to him make you feel better?

Megan: Yes! Well, no. I mean, a little bit at first, maybe. But now I just feel awful about the whole thing!


Sam: Even though you can do a lot of bad things with your tongue and with your words, you can do a lot of good with them too!

Jared: Oh yeah? Like what?

Sam: Well, how about this? Megan, I think you’re a great part of our team! I like that you’re always hard-working and focused on the important things!

Megan: Oh…well, thanks for saying so.

Sam: Jared, I think you’re a lot of fun to be around! You bring a lot of good energy and enthusiasm to our team. Plus, I like your jokes!

Jared: Yay! Thanks, Safari Sam!

Sam: See how much better it feels when you use your words to say nice things instead of mean ones? When you encourage and strengthen each other instead of trying to hurt?


  • Creativity. What I love about writing these skits is that they allow me to be creative and have fun onstage, and this sort of fun (costumes, visual spectacle, etc.) appeals to children and to young-at-heart adults. Here’s a quick run-down of the most creative element I included this year.
  • When performing these skits, I work with high-school or middle-school-aged volunteers. Thus (if I write myself in at all), I usually make myself the older leader of some group, and have their characters be my underlings. For example, when we did a medieval theme a few years ago, I was the king, and the other actors were my knights and ladies. Last year, they were secret agents and I was the commander of their top-secret organization. This year’s theme is some blend of camping, mountain climbing, and an African safari, so I made myself the camp director and made them guides or counselors under me.
  • If including a talking lion worked for C.S. Lewis, then it's got to work for me too. Right?
    If including a talking lion worked for C.S. Lewis, then it’s got to work for me too. Right?

    But, in my opinion, camp guides aren’t quite as exciting as knights or secret agents. So I asked myself, “what can I do to make this more exciting and fun?” And the theme-appropriate answer was to make one of the other actors into not a camp guide, but a lion. Yes, a friendly, cartoonish, anthropomorphic pet lion, with a limited vocabulary about the size of Scooby-Doo’s, who the camp staff has taken under their wing. But a lion nonetheless. Because, adult or child, who wouldn’t rather see a lion onstage than another boring old human?

  • Having a lion as a main character is another source of comic relief to the skits, but also a chance to do a lot of visually fun things, like tackle other characters or chase them around the stage. And I think it adds a nice touch to the skits overall. I anticipate that the kids will love seeing the lion (the youngest ones will likely be ecstatic), and the adults will have fun with it as well.

So that’s what I’ve done to try to make my children’s writing slightly less childish and make it fun for adults as well. Did I do a good job or do I still need some work? Have you ever written for children? What approaches do you use to make it appealing for everyone?