How to avoid cultural appropriation when writing historically-influenced fantasy stories

Hello, internet. I have another slightly philosophical post for you today.

Following up from my last post, I’m trying to force myself back into the habit of writing a solid 500 words every day. I currently have two book concepts in the forefront of my mind, and I’m trying to work on both of at the same time. I might have to drop down to one if juggling two books proves to be too much of a hassle, but at the moment I’m enjoying the freedom of being able to hop between worlds, or to focus exclusively on one project for a while if I’m having trouble with the other. It also means that I can’t use the excuse of ‘book problems’ to slack off from writing.

One of the projects that I’m working on is a continuation of the story that I shared with you last month, set in a fantasy world that shares a lot of parallels with 19th century Europe. I’m essentially taking the Crimean War (the original one in the 1850s, not the more recent Crimean conflict) and adapting it into fantasy, with fantasy analogues for most of the belligerent factions and major events of the war.  This is a fun concept and I’ve been enjoying the process of fleshing it out into a complete story. But a while ago I started to wonder if there were some awkward problems with the initial concept.

My story features a large empire which resembles an industrialised, centralised version of Sauron’s empire from the Tolkien legendarium. In the events of the story, this empire plays the same role that the Russian Empire played in the Crimean War. Due to events that occurred before the start of the narrative, the orc empire is at war with an alliance of other nations who have landed an invasion force on the empire’s shores and laid siege to an ancient city. These events are intentionally similar to the 1854-55 Siege of Sevastopol, and the allied forces are fairly transparent fantasy analogues of Britain and France. But I’m concerned that my story might have unintentional racial undertones if the Russian Empire is ‘replaced’ by orcs, whilst the British remain mostly human. I’m not trying to use my story as a piece of anti-Russian political commentary and I’d hate for any Russian readers to think that I was comparing them to orcs, at least in the common cultural understanding of what an ‘orc’ is like.

Orc
Boo

My own depiction of orcs is quite sympathetic, but that’s the sort of nuance that might not make much of a difference to someone who’s angry with me for appropriating Russian history.

Other writers tell me that I worry too much about this sort of thing, but I think it’s very important for authors to consider that their work can have unintended cultural aftershocks. Even if I’m only intending to write a harmless swashbuckling fantasy novel, it still has the potential to cause offence, and that’s not something that I want to do. Some people roll their eyes at ‘political correctness’, but for me being PC just means ‘wanting to upset the smallest number of people that I possibly can’, and I don’t want to belittle or dismiss things that are hurtful to other groups of people. I’ve read enough to know that turning someone’s culture or history into a piece of set dressing in a fantasy novel can be very hurtful. Just today, JK Rowling has come under fire for appropriating the “living tradition of a marginalised people” by writing about the Navajo legend of the skinwalker in a new short story. You only have to look at the responses from Navajo Americans to see why they are upset, and why this isn’t something that Rowling should have done. Navajo writer Brian Young wrote “My ancestors didn’t survive colonisation so you could use our culture as a convenient prop.”  The people of Russia aren’t a marginalised people who survived colonisation, but the same principal applies. I’m taking part of Russian history – a war in which many Russians lost their lives – and using it as the inspiration for a fictional war in which their sacrifices will be attributed to inhuman fantasy creatures.

Fortunately, there’s a lot that writers in my situation can do to make their writing more culturally sensitive. The most obvious way is to avoid homogeneous depictions of any factions or races within my fantasy world. A lot of fantasy writing doesn’t do this very well, and it’s hardly surprising, when we’re all just following the example set by J.R.R. Tolkein. Tolkein’s orcs and goblins are uniformly nasty, brutish, savage, and deformed. His humans are mostly noble warriors, with a few odious exceptions. His elves are mostly wise and fair. His dwarves are mostly avaricious and argumentative. This obviously isn’t very representative of reality: “racial attributes” are the stuff of tabletop roleplaying, not real life or nuanced fiction. I’m going to do my best to present orcs as nuanced characters rather than savages. I’m planning to present many of our own cultural stereotypes about orcs to be racist misconceptions. When we think of ‘orc’ we think of the caricatures from the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings adaptations – slimy savages with foul habits and no morals, who are born out of holes in the ground. I’m going to present this image as propaganda. Ordinary soldiers in my story will believe these things about the orcs as well, the same way that soldiers always believe their enemies to be murderers and rapists who roast babies on spits, but these ordinary soldiers will find out that they’re wrong. One of the things I want to say with this story is that misconceptions and generalisations of other cultures can lead to unnecessary suffering, and I hope that message  is enough to make amends to any Russians who might be upset by my initial decision to replace them with orcs.

Another step that I can take to make things more realistic is to diversify all of the factions in my own story. Different factions in fantasy novels are often divided along racial lines – there’s not much overlap between different races and political entities – but this has never been the case in real world history. If the armies in my story are made up of human and orc soldiers, it would reinforce a lot of unhealthy colonial attitudes that still linger in our cultural subconscious, which I’ve talked about this before in a previous post. To combat this, I can make sure that each army has a varied racial makeup: the allied army has humans, but it also has dwarves, gnomes, half-giants, reptilians, or whatever other interesting fantasy races that I want to throw into the melting pot. The opposing army has orcs, but it also has humans. This doesn’t just increase the cultural sensitivity of my writing, it also makes both armies much more interesting, and much more realistic: a ragtag, multi-ethnic army with a diverse racial makeup is much more fun than an army made up entirely of orcs or humans.

 

I’m running out of space, but I hope I’ve made you think about how you can avoid cultural appropriation and racial homogeneity in your own writing. If you want to read more, there are lots of places that you can go online to educate yourself about the issues. Tumblr is a good place to start: blogs like Writing with Color are a great resource for finding out how to handle these concerns sensitively, and also a great place to go and remind yourself of exactly why authors should be so careful to avoid cultural appropriation: the team there are very eloquent at setting out the issues, and they are very quick to inform you if they think your story concepts contain anything problematic.

That’s all from me today, and I’ll see you on Sunday!

Taking notes from history

Hello internet!

If you read my last post you’ll know that I’m on a quest to move away from the books that I’m familiar with and branch out to other writers, to see if it has a positive effect on my own writing.

So far, I’m sort of cheating. The first book that I’ve delved into since Tuesday isn’t actually another fantasy novel. I want to write fantasy  but for whatever reason I’m bad at actually getting myself to read fantasy novels by other authors, and so I have a wide variety of award-winning fantasy books lying around my bedroom in unread heaps. It would have been easy to pick up one of these and get stuck into it, allowing the author to transport me into the world that they’d created. But instead, I prized open the covers of a book so heavy that it could be used for construction purposes.

Honourable Company

The Honourable Company is a 475-page narrative history of the East India Company, written by the journalist and historian John Keay. It’s a comprehensive, entertaining history of the early expeditions that led to the establishment of the trading company which eventually bought control over most of India and Southeast Asia.

I’m ‘cheating’ by reading it because I’ve already read the first few chapters, and because I love reading books like this. I studied history at the University of Manchester, and when I was in a productive frame of mind – rather than procrastinating or panicking under the weight of imminent deadlines – there was nothing I loved more than selecting a weighty academic tome off my course reading list, checking it out of the library, and plunging head-first into history. (I enjoy learning new things, but only when I’m not expected to write an essay on the subject.) There’s something wonderful about reading the culmination of somebody else’s painstaking research, knowing how much effort they put into scouring through history and recording it, with the honest intentions of simply producing a book that would improve other people’s understanding of the past. I also find history very entertaining. Perhaps this makes me a huge dork, but history isn’t necessarily dry and boring, particularly when it’s written by an author who has a sense for the ridiculous, which John Keay certainly does.

I’m of the opinion that everyone ought to read as many history books as they can. Defeating your own ignorance about the complex history of the human race is always a good thing, and studying the efforts of the generations that came before ours can lead to a renewed appreciation of the world we live in. History also has a habit of repeating itself, and forewarned is forearmed. But history is especially valuable to aspiring authors, no matter what genre you’re writing in.

Firstly, history provides us with exquisite morsels which can be shamelessly plundered and inserted directly into books. John Keay’s book has provided me with several of these which I’m almost reluctant to share with you, lest you steal them. For example, in the early days of the East India Company, when poorly-coordinated expeditions often led to ships sinking, sailing to the wrong parts of the world, losing most of their crew to scurvy, or bringing back merchandise which had gone down in price on the London markets, the company decided to improve their internal communications by leaving a single man on an island off the coast of South Africa, for several years, with only penguins for company.

Penguin
A 17th-century sketch of a very sassy penguin

Keay writes that ‘Whenever a ship anchored in the Bay he quickly donned jacket and hose and pushed past the penguins with whatever messages had been left in his care’ by ships passing in either direction. If you’re in the business of writing humorous fantasy novels, or historical fiction, or even contemporary fiction – perhaps you want a quirky back-story for one of your character’s ancestors – you could have a character marooned for years on an island full of penguins. Or if you’re writing grimmer, more hard-hitting stories, you could create an impactful story about the loneliness or depression of someone struggling to stay alive in a similar situation. And that’s just one story from one history book.

Isolated incidents aren’t the only realm from which we can draw historical inspiration, however. If you’re struggling to add a sense of background realism to your fantasy, you can go and read up on real-world history and see if you find anything that fits your setting. Towns and settlements often spring up for odd reasons. The first British trading post in India was built in a harbour exposed to typhoons and blocked by a huge sandbar, which made it a terrible location for trade ships to land. It was built there because the leader of that particular expedition had managed to acquire a mistress in a nearby Dutch settlement, and he wanted to make his visits easier. Despite it’s poor qualifications for a trading port, this little settlement eventually grew to become the city of Madras, now known as Chennai, with a population of 6,000,000. Perhaps a city in your world could have similarly unlikely origins. Or if you want a story that’s slightly less absurd, history books are filled with geopolitical intrigues and details of the birth of nations, many of which might fit the story that you’re trying to write.

Finally, I also find history to be a source of insights into the kind of complex characters who I want to create in my fiction. Studying the history of real nations, real organisations or sub-cultures, is a good way of ensuring that we don’t fall foul to the crimes of stereotyping or creating unrealistic, monolithic portrayals of large groups of people. Even in a group of people like the merchants who worked for the East India Company – men who wanted to make money at other people’s expense and weren’t afraid to sail halfway around the world to do so – there is a surprising range of motivations and a surprising amount of moral integrity. It might be tempting to paint all historical figures with the same brush, and assume that even the most highly-celebrated figures from history held ideas that we would deem to be morally reprehensible in the modern age. This is the kind of assumption that fuels the current trend of ‘grimdark’ fantasy, where fantasy worlds are depicted as brutally indifferent to the fate of their protagonists, and most characters encountered by the protagonist are shown to be intolerant and unprincipled. Grimdark is, of course, a backlash against earlier tropes in fantasy, where fantasy authors brushed over historically-accurate unpleasantness such as plague, slavery, skin tumours, and open sewers. But it’s equally disingenuous to present history – or fantasy worlds based on real-world history – as wholly dark and unpleasant. Reading history shows us that even insides the most insidious organisations and maritime empires in history, most people were complex characters, and there were still isolated individuals who were acting commendably by our own moral standards as well as their own.

I’m not an apologist for the misdeeds of colonial empires, and it’s important to record the dark side of history – but it’s also important to make sure that we don’t make our fantasy settings into wholly bleak worlds, bereft of the kind of characters who act with good intentions. By reading history, we can learn about how real people acted in difficult situations, and we can use their struggles to enrich our own stories.

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.

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.

The Power of Parody

Hello! I’m Sam, and this is my first post for The Art of Writing. I’ve loved writing in many forms (stories, poems, or whatever I’m in the mood for) ever since I was little, and I still try to practice it pretty regularly to this day. When I’m not writing, I’m taking classes toward an M.A. in English, reading a whole lot, and secretly fighting crime in dark alleyways at night (but don’t tell anyone). If you like what you see here and want to read more from me, you can find my personal blog and more info here.

But now that I’ve introduced myself, I’m afraid I have a confession to make.

I’ve got to admit, I haven’t actually been writing much fiction lately.

It’s not because I don’t love writing fiction. I truly do enjoy it when I get to do it. I have several story ideas and novels in my head that I hope to finish writing and/or editing one day. But, for a variety of reasons, it seems that I’ve gravitated away from fiction in recent years to focus more on articles, blog posts, and other forms of shorter creative non-fiction (such as the one you’re reading right now). So when I was asked to contribute to a blog about writing fiction, I didn’t really know at first what I would write about.

“I don’t have much recent experience to draw from,” I said to myself. “I really haven’t been writing much fiction lately except for…except…”

This poster was created by Jef Castro of Entertainment Weekly, based on Patton Oswalt's monologue from Parks and Recreation.
Poster created by Jef Castro of Entertainment Weekly, based on Patton Oswalt’s monologue from Parks and Recreation

And then I remembered the one fictional work that I have been working on sporadically: a parody mash-up co-written with two friends, in which we basically decided to see just how many different fandoms and references we could combine and simultaneously poke fun at in the span of one epic tale (or trilogy). It’s a quirky, over-the-top, very tongue-in-cheek amalgamation of Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Super Mario Bros., Batman, Doctor Who, classic literature, and much, much more.

Now, being a blatant rip-off of quite a few other works, this story of course is not what most of us would call “serious” fiction, and it’s hardly “literary” by anyone’s standards. This supposed subpar quality is inherent to works of parody, or at least to people’s common connotations about them. But that’s no reason for either readers or authors to completely write off parodies as insignificant or juvenile. After all, any story, even a parody, still has to be good by a certain standard of judgment; it still has to conform more or less to certain criteria, adhere to common conventions of fiction, and accomplish what it sets out to do as a story.

For someone who hopes to write more serious or original fiction, writing a parody can be a good way to gain some easy practice. Here are a few reasons why:

  •  Tropes and conventions are exaggerated. Parody is a good way to explore and play with common tropes or conventions in fiction, since they’re intentionally exaggerated and ridiculed in parody. In fact, it’s not uncommon for some parodies to include metahumor and directly announce the plot points they’re following or the sort of work they’re poking fun at. If you’re writing a parody, you don’t have to be subtle; you can go over the top and be painfully obvious with plot points and character development. If you’re in the experimental stage of writing fiction, this overt use of story components may help you to more concretely map out the narrative elements that make up a legitimately good story.
  •  Parodies are fun, not serious. As mentioned above, nobody expects parodies to be brilliant, profound works of fiction that will endure in the canon of literature for generations. They’re inherently meant to be lighthearted and fun in tone and by nature do not take themselves as seriously as other works might. These qualities take a lot of pressure off of you as the writer! You don’t have to come up with something original or groundbreaking when you’re writing a parody; you can rearrange existing elements of a story, or combine those elements with your own ideas that may or may not be fully fleshed out yet. Overall, you can let loose and relax just a bit. You can write something just to write, or to get into the habit of writing, without caring overmuch about how good or literary it is. You have the freedom to try different things out and see what works and what doesn’t. You can just play around and have fun!
  • An illustration of Mark Twain, printed by the Washington Times in 1907, reprinting the Philadelphia Inquirer
    Illustration of Mark Twain, printed by the Washington Times in 1907, reprinting the Philadelphia Inquirer

    Parodies still carry some weight. Even though parodies are for fun and not “serious,” don’t make the mistake of thinking that they’re less important or worthwhile pieces of fiction, or that you can make a good one with just a halfhearted effort. An enjoyable parody isn’t just haphazard elements strewn together; it still has familiar characters and a functioning story with a beginning, middle, and end. It should also have a good amount of humor and wit, cleverly satirizing certain conventions with varying degrees of subtlety. Even classic authors such as Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain relied heavily on satire, on pointing out and exaggerating the flaws in institutions or certain types of literature. Well-made, entertaining parodies must do this to some extent as well. To use another example, I also wrote another parody in recent memory, a Christmastime poem blatantly imitating Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I largely filled it up with jokes, laughs, and cultural references, but I also based it on my own real-life experiences and tried to at least touch on a legitimate moral about the importance of family and fellowship. Even though it was lighthearted and fun, it wasn’t completely meaningless or devoid of serious significance. If you’re truly dedicated to writing fiction and serious about wanting to hone your craft and skills as a writer, then you’ll still put your best thought and effort and personal feeling into it at all times, even if you’re just practicing with a parody.

So, if you have the misfortune to be visited by writer’s block in the near future, or if you’re like me and you haven’t been able to find the opportunities for “serious” fiction lately, then I encourage you to try writing a parody of your favorite book, movie, or TV show. Figure out what sort of plot and character formula makes that story work, and play that up a lot in your parody. But also look for the flaws or ridiculous aspects in the work you’re imitating and be sure to exaggerate those for comedic effect. Consider what messages your use of satire will send, overtly or subtly, about the work or genre you’re imitating, or about life and the world as a whole. Don’t be afraid to play around and see what works for you, and as you continue to write, try to notice how your own storytelling style begins to develop and differ from that of the original author. Use this time and this opportunity to hone your skill and your own unique voice. And in the midst of it all, don’t forget to have some fun!

Christ and Death

Yes, this strikes me as vaguely sacrilegious... but it also strikes me as hilarious. It was found here.
Yes, this strikes me as vaguely sacrilegious… but it also strikes me as hilarious. It was found here.

The other day I had a conversation with a friend that took a rather interesting turn. During a pause in the discussion my friend turned to me and said, very randomly I might add, “So, Jesus killed death.” This led to the following exchange (reconstructed from memory, so I’m essentially paraphrasing here):

Me: Well… not exactly.

Friend: Jesus destroyed death?

Me: No, that’s not really it either.

Friend: Jesus killed his own death!

Me: I suppose you could say that, but still, it’s not quite… it.

Friend: Ok, well then what is it?

Me: Well, Jesus conquered death. He didn’t kill it, and he didn’t destroy it, death is still around. It’s kind of like… I guess you could say that Jesus made death his bitch.

Friend (laughing): Jesus made death his bitch? Only you!

While I’m certain that the colloquialism will be offensive to some readers (and I apologize to anyone who might be offended), the message contained within is correct. Now, of course, for any of this to matter one must believe that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is factual, and not simply a Christian myth. If it is myth, as opposed to truth, then any debate over whether Jesus conquered death or destroyed death is a moot point, rather like arguing whether Superman or the Hulk would win in a fight. However, if the resurrection is fact, and not myth (this argument has been made by many and I have provided links to some good examples below), then this semantic difference actually does matter. Jesus did not kill death, nor did he destroy death, but instead he conquered death, both nullifying the power thereof for believers, and making death his servant, instead of his master.

4smThe accounts of the resurrection themselves (if believed, see below) are ample proof that Christ was not contained or mastered by death. Of course, the crucifixion itself is prophesied in the old testament (most notably in Isaiah 53, Psalm 22, and Zechariah 12), and his resurrection is also prophesied (notably in Psalms 16 and 40, also the story of Jonah is used as a type of resurrection by the new testament, and Hosea 6 is often seen as a prophecy as well, Hosea 13:14 is sometimes seen as a prophecy of the resurrection, but this does not place the verse in its proper context). However, throughout scripture the teaching is not that Christ has destroyed death, but that he has removed its vicious power. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul quotes Hosea 13 saying, “O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?” And in Revelation 1 Christ himself tells us, “I was dead, and behold I am alive forever more, and I have the keys of death and of Hades.”

The verse that most notably gives pause to the argument that Christ conquered, rather than destroyed, death is 2 Timothy 1:10 which reads, “…who abolished death and brought life…”. The term ‘abolished’ here is sometimes translated as ‘destroyed’, but most often as ‘abolished’ or ‘annulled’, and the Greek word used here is καταργήσαντος (katargesantos) which comes from καταργέω (katargeo). The basic meaning of this term is to ‘bring to naught, sever, or abolish’, and its meaning here is best understood by the term ‘annulled’. Paul is saying to Timothy that Christ, through the resurrection, has made the power of death inconsequential; not that he has brought an end to death. It should be noted, in this discussion, that Revelation 21 tells us that there will be an end to death, but this is a matter of timing. In the new heavens and new earth death will no longer be, but this does not mean that death no longer is.

This is a beautiful wallpaper from Playlogic that just seemed appropriate.
This is a beautiful wallpaper from Playlogic that just seemed appropriate.

Now, the conquest of death is no small matter. Christ’s victory over death, and his rulership of death is something that every Christian can and should rejoice in daily. However, we should not confuse the issue with poor terminology. If Christ had ‘killed’ death, as my friend stated, then logically everyone, or at least every Christian, should be immortal. Obviously, this is not the case, and thus the declaration of Christ’s destruction of death is not only a logical impossibility, but implies a ridiculousness to the Christian faith that is not truly associated with it. This is one example of the importance of theology and biblical hermeneutics. We cannot say that Christ killed death and retain any semblance of credibility. However, we can say that Christ conquered death (or in my colloquialism ‘made death his bitch’ – I still really like this), and thus understand that death should have no fear for the Christian.

Christ has removed the fear of death, and the power that fear holds over us, but he has not yet removed the presence of death. We will all die and, for the Christians among us, go on to glory with Christ. I, for one, look forward to this.

***************************

A Q&A Argument for the resurrection from William Lane Craig

An excerpt from Peter Kreeft’s Apologetic work

Transcripts of a debate between William Lane Craig and Bart Ehrman

A Synopsis of Various Arguments

An Article by N.T. Wright – Also see N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God

Some Articles and Videos from Gary Habermas – Also see Habermas’s The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus

New Beginnings: To Psychology and Addictions

Inside the head are stores of philosophies that drive everything we do and say. Psychology at its most basic.

I had been planning on posting part of a new story I have been writing to celebrate my return back to the blog, but then my reason gave me a knock or two on the head, making me think that my short story may not make a very auspicious beginning to the New Year with its rather morose tone. I have never been a fan of New Year resolutions. But, I do love what the New Year symbolizes – a fresh start, a clean break, a revitalization of the spirit. It is not necessarily the best time for a story about a young girl lost in a world of brokenness and depravity. It seems to me that should come after all of the new resolutions have been broken, not before they’ve had a chance to begin.

So, in the spirit of fresh starts, I’m going to use this post to introduce/reintroduce myself to this blog and its loyal readers and to clue you in on my plans for my future posts in this coming new year. Hopefully, if I tell you my plans now, I will hold to them.

In the past year I have come to understand more fully the meaning behind, “Write what you know.” In light of this adage, I wrote “Asylum.” While I had been writing a page here and a page there on several storylines, nothing really came together quite as easily as “Asylum” came to me. Why?

Because I know pain and chemical imbalances. I know art and music. I am drawn towards darker subject matters, not because of the plots and characters themselves, but because of the psychology moving the characters and causing the plots. Even as a history major, my specialty was identifying causes and effects, tracing chains of events through hundreds of years. For everything, there is a reason. And I love digging into the emotional, and often damaged, depths of those reasons found in the human psyche.

Emily Grierson from "A Rose for Emily"
Emily Grierson from “A Rose for Emily”

I also love short stories, even more so than novels. I still remember reading Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” and Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” They were my gateway to short story addiction. Short stories offer the reader only a glimpse of a life as compared to a novel, which can span years. Still, within that glimpse lies a profound and magnified experience that can engage the mind in realm after realm of thought. Whereas a novel gives you a detailed description of point A to point B, short stories often retain a specific focus and minimalized plot which is often enhanced by the writing style.

So, over the next few weeks, and possibly months, I will be using my own writing to explore different aspects of psychology. I will be posting a mixture of informative blogs on various aspects of psychology in writing, short story analyses and summaries, and a few of my own short stories and short story excerpts.

In order to get the ball rolling, for those of you unfamiliar with “A Rose for Emily,” let me be the first to introduce you.  May it be your gateway to addiction.

A Farewell Booklist

Well, with the New Year comes a new list of books I want to read. Also with the New Year comes the expiration of my stint on this estimable blog. I’ve enjoyed trying my hand at writing these weekly posts and I hope you, the reader, have enjoyed reading my (occasionally curmudgeonly) cogitations. Anyhow, it seemed most fitting to leave you with the list of books I hope to read in the upcoming months. My thought, you see, is that you may find one of them interesting also. I think it fitting because I started these posts of mine by writing about reading. So, some of the books on this list I received as presents for Christmas. Others I will have to procure some way or other… selling blood, menial odd jobs, who knows? As Erasmus said, whenever I have money, I buy books.

This is hands down one of the best books I've ever read.
This is hands down one of the best books I’ve ever read.

The first book on the list is one I’m actually reading now, To Change the World – The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, by James Davison Hunter. This book was on the top of my Christmas wish list. Comprised of three interconnected essays touching on how culture is changed (with satisfyingly extensive historical examples), the relationship of Christianity to the broader culture and politics (Hunter says Christianity’s primary witness is a political witness), and the author’s alternative suggestion for Christian cultural engagement dubbed “faithful presence,” this book by Hunter, a sociologist stationed at the University of Virginia, is thus far the best book I’ve read on the immensely interesting topic of Christians and cultural involvement. It is one of those books that  has articulated vague ideas that have been circulating in my head for some time, and by articulating them it has developed, altered and more fully delineated those ideas. I would just highly recommend it to anyone whose curiosity touches on this subject – along with another favorite of mine, Republocrat – Confessions of a Liberal Conservative, by Dr. Carl Trueman of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. This book is called by one of its reviewers a “[Christian] pilgrim’s pogrom against political pabulum.” It is certainly great fun to read and intellectually worthwhile. In fact, it’s something of a lesson in logic in and of itself.

The second book I can’t wait to read is The Republic and The Laws by Cicero. I was acquainted with the former work by St. Augustine in The City of God. Augustine gives a fairly detailed summary of a certain passage in The Republic wherein the interlocutors are considering the nature of  republic – what it is, what makes it so. I’ve long since forgotten the point Augustine was driving towards by quoting Cicero; I only remember thinking to myself, “I’ve got to read The Republic!” The last great work of political thought I read was The Federalist Papers, this past summer (that is, in entirety–I started Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy in the fall and stopped, deciding I’d better go back and read Livy!). So it’ll be good to delve into this.

Washington Irving
Washington Irving, AKA Dietrich Knickerbocker.

Thirdly, A History of New York by Washington Irving. Known mainly for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” Irving is considered the Father of American letters, and he’s one of my personal favorites. A History of New York is a satirical history of Dutch colonial rule of what was then New Amsterdam. Irving – ahem, Dietrich Knickerbocker – would have you know that the history is, of course, wholly factual. But it is also delightfully satirical. I have fairly ugly orange tome of Irving’s works that contains excerpts from the History and it is one of those rare, delightful books that doubles me over with laughter. I got the full work for Christmas and can’t wait to romp through it.

Well, these are but three of the books I will be reading in the upcoming weeks. Perhaps you will find one of these useful for your own reading. Of course, I know everyone says they have their own books to read and can’t find the time. However, it seems most people actually have plenty of time to watch tasteless “reality” TV shows and sitcoms mistakenly called “comedic” and “entertaining.” Read one of these books instead and be thankful I told you about them. If you don’t, “You will be most ungrateful and the angels will weep for you.” I love that line, from Pygmalion, I think. Cheers!

Long Days, Short Years

I found this Left Behind-worthy picture here...
I found this Left Behind-worthy picture here…Credit to where it’s due.

Since the world didn’t end yesterday, I have the privilege of writing to all of you again. Indeed, with the end of the world behind us, Christmas is just a few days away. New Year’s is a week after that. Where has the time gone? I had an uncle who used to say that you know you’re getting older when days are long and years are short. At first I didn’t understand what my uncle meant, but time has revealed the truth of his saying. With increasing responsibilities and cares, individual days become long and heavy. But looking back over months from the vantage point of a holiday like Christmas or New Year’s, everything seems to have passed by so quickly.

Long days, short years – I think we tend to shrug off sayings like these because we don’t think they have any meaning or relevance. “For goodness’ sakes, they’re just sayings!” Ironically, we think they have no meaning not because they don’t, but because we can’t see their meaning at the moment. Words of advice like this are borne out of years of experience and reflection, and though my uncle wasn’t an academic or trained philosopher, he knew a great deal about life from having lived it.

This saying encapsulates a basic tension in life – a paradox: the tension between the urgent and the important, between the dull and the quickening, between the necessary and the interesting, between the mediocre and the beautiful. All of the foregoing adjectives describe the things that make individual days long and heavy. But all of the latter adjectives describe those things that we celebrate on holidays or commemorative occasions. The great bulk of time is occupied with the mundane, the unpleasant, the humdrum – such as chores around the house, work, school, errands, meetings, driving, riding the bus or subway, and the list goes on (everyone can make their own list, I’m sure). Only occasionally, and oftentimes at the least expected moment, do we experience the beautiful, good moments when life seems to be as it ought to be, when we catch a glimpse of the truth and there is rest – at least for a little while – for our weariness and striving.

One of the all-time best Christmas shows!
One of the all-time best Christmas shows!

Perhaps the goal of life is about finding that rest, permanently. It seems everyone is searching for that same rest in every way imaginable. St. Augustine famously said that we are restless until we find rest in God through Jesus Christ. At this time of the year, I simply affirm Charlie Brown’s complaints against commercialism and hope that this Christmas and New Year’s is more than presents and food and superficial, passing happiness. I hope it’s a time that helps us reflect on life’s goal and purpose; that will reorient our minds on what really matters. Just as Christmas is more than material presents, life is more than the routine and necessity of everyday. On this, I wish you all a Merry Christmas and hope we attain the rest we seek.

Conservatism vs. Liberalism

Abraham_Lincoln_November_1863

Yet another post from Canaan Suitt:

“What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried?” – Abraham Lincoln

Conservatism is obstructive to the pursuit of truth and harmful to the wellbeing of society when the old ways of thinking and doing things are erroneous. Conversely, Liberalism, which we may say is in essence trying the new and untried against the old and tried, is dangerous when it is merely a desire to push against tradition for its own sake, without the guidance of reason. Both may be dangerous, and for the same reason: namely, both may eschew truth for something else–tradition for the one, “liberation” for the other.

It doesn’t seem to me that the ideas we call liberal would be called liberal if they had come first. Conversely, it doesn’t seem to me that those ideas that come along and challenge the established ideas can be called conservative. Of course, established and new ideas could be called liberal and conservative, respectively, if, like Humpty Dumpty, we could call things what we please. But using the established meaning of the words, it seems to me that conservative is conservative because it comes first in time and development and liberal is liberal because it comes subsequently. Now, probably both conservatives and liberals would take umbrage at this reduction of their respective ideologies to a matter of chronology. Conservatives may counter by saying that their ideas and values are in accordance with absolute truth, regardless of what newfangled ideas may come. Liberals may give an argument not unlike the conservatives’ in that it gives their position legitimacy by according their views with the truth (in throwing off the falsehoods of tradition).

This image was found here. I like the image... not sure I like the site. However, credit where credit is due.
This image was found here. I like the image… not sure I like the site. However, credit where credit is due.

As I began by saying, so now I reiterate that the relationship between conservatism or liberalism and truth is precarious. To clarify, I am talking about conservatism and liberalism in a political context. Now if conservatism were defined and used to mean–what I don’t think it really means–accordance with absolute truth, then I would unwaveringly call myself a conservative. For, as C.S. Lewis once wrote, “An open mind, in questions that are not ultimate, is useful. But an open mind about the ultimate foundations either of Theoretical or Practical Reason is idiocy. If a man’s mind is open on these things, let his mouth at least be shut.” Liberalism, because conservatism and liberalism are opposites, would mean the open mind that Lewis condemns–would be forsaking the foundation that gives meaning to anything. But traditionalism–adherence to the old and tried–is not synonymous with adherence to truth, period. Conservatism means going along with the old and tried politically, which may be good and may not. In the context of Lincoln’s speech quoted above, it is very good, because by it he means adhering to the Constitution and being devoted to the perpetuity of union. Liberalism, politically, as doing the new and untried, may be good and it may be destructive. A liberal mindset or idea may in fact greatly improve upon the conservative way of doing things. I think of the great contribution of those “liberals” Erasmus and Luther, or those liberal measures called the Thirteenth and Nineteenth Amendments. On the other hand, rebellion against the old and tried merely because it is old and tried is no good reason to be a liberal. The standard against which both conservatism and liberalism have to be tried is truth itself.

This photo was found at Keyboard Militia.
This photo was found at Keyboard Militia.

I myself think Plato’s approach (see The Republic I) is the best one – to be guided by reason and the ever-pressing desire to understand and act upon the truth. I am not very concerned with labels–it seems to me that most labels are applied in hindsight by posterity or in the present by the opponents of a certain way of thinking–I am concerned with knowing the truth (“as God gives us to see the right,” as Lincoln said elsewhere and applying it to society. If this means that at times I seem conservative to those who may observe me, well, that’s fine. And so it is if I may be liberal.

This sort of person, who is not concerned for labels or movements or systematized political stances, the person whom I’ll call “The Sojourner,” will unsettle conservatives and liberals alike. On some issues, conservatives will applaud the Sojourner; on others, liberals will approve him. Both will be disturbed on many other points. Both sides will see him as an anomaly–an unstable conglomeration of diametrically opposed ideologies. Neither will welcome him entirely. “He’s delusional, you know. That chameleonic fellow thinks he can support our pro-life stuff while supporting the legalization of homosexual marriage!” Or, in a meeting room on the other side of the Capitol, “What’s he trying to do–get a bigger constituency? Everyone knows you can’t support these damn imperialistic programs and align yourself with our green initiatives! It’s just a load of BS.” For his part, the Sojourner knows the world is more complex than his friends seek to make it. In his thoughtful quest for the right, he is mostly alone (except in the company of books and rarely met like-minded people), but he knows solitariness is necessarily a part of the quest.