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.

Writing ethically about warfare and violence in science fiction and fantasy: Part 1

Hello, internet!

I’ve been thinking a lot about violence recently.

Freddy Kreuger
Muaahahahaha

I promise that it’s not as creepy as it sounds.

I’m endeavoring to write a book series that features – among other things – a goodly amount of shooting, stabbing, explosions, death, and organised warfare. Characters engage in battle, participate in acts of bloody violence, and deprive each other quite liberally of life and limb. I am trying to write about war at its ugliest, but I am trying to depict it thoughtfully, and in a way that doesn’t disguise my opinion that there’s no such thing as a good or necessary war.

Some of you might be thinking “great, pass the popcorn.” But if you’re anything like me, and you have a propensity for overthinking things, you might be wondering why I’d choose to write about something so violent in the first place – especially if I don’t believe in the idea of a necessary war. I’ve been wondering the same thing.

Fantasy, of course, has its origins in violence. The earliest fantastic stories are of the warrior fighting the beast: Beowulf and Grendel, St. George and the dragon, or Rostam and the White Demon. Here we have three examples of human heroes who embody all of the heroic masculine virtues of the cultures who created them, pitted against supernatural creatures of unknown origin which are depicted as vile, murderous and often entirely unsympathetic. We do not, generally, want the monsters to win…although we might briefly come around to the monster’s side in the moments where classical heroes throw tantrums about treasure or honour or shouting their name at cyclopeses that they’ve recently blinded. Despite their occasional idiocy, we still support the hero, and we still cheer when the monster is brought to ruin.

Dragon Slayed
Hurraaay!

This has its problems, as I’ll discuss below. Stories of organised warfare have also featured in folklore and fantasy since the earliest oral storytellers, the earliest example I can think of being Homer’s Illiad. The Illiad actually does a decent job of depicting neither side in the Trojan War as being ultimately evil, which is more than can be said for a lot of fantasy that has been written in the centuries since. I’m going to start this series on violence and warfare by taking a few shots at a relatively easy, low-hanging target: the Tolkien legendarium.

Tolkien offers us a fairly clear-cut, simplistic idea of good and evil. When Tolkien’s audience is presented with a choice between the desperate armies of men and the dark hordes of Mordor, few of us would suggest that the Fellowship of the Ring were unjustified in lopping off all of those greasy orc limbs or blithely counting off their kills atop the walls of Helm’s Deep. Anyone who’s seen the movies will remember Frodo’s vision of what the future would look like under the reign of Sauron: the Shire despoiled and the Hobbits impressed into slavery.

Visit New Zealand!
Visit New Zealand!

Faced with such a foe, the fellowship never seem to doubt the morality of their crusade against the orcs, and neither do we as the audience.

And therein lies the problem.

Warfare in the real world is never as clear-cut as it is in the War of the Ring, and I think fantasy authors are under a very important moral obligation to avoid depicting violence or warfare in ways that simplify war into a battle between good and evil. I’d hope that this is obvious to many writers, and it is true that very few contemporary fantasy authors are guilty of writing about war in these terms. Even if they did, publishers would be unlikely to take them on, and politically engaged modern readers would probably be very critical of their books. But it can happen, and it’s worth remaining vigilant against it and analysing why it’s a bad thing when it does happen.

The problem with creating a race like the orcs – or a villain like Sauron – is that it encourages attitudes deep in the western cultural subconscious that are leftover from the time of colonialism, or from earlier medieval attitudes towards the Islamic world, which probably have their basis in the rivalry between prehistoric tribes. The attitude of ‘otherness,’ which morphed into Orientalism during the 18th and 19th centuries, has been written about at length by cultural historians like Edward Said. It is essentially a racist attitude which allows negative characteristics to be ascribed to groups who aren’t “us,” vindicating ourselves in the process and making us feel as though “we” are somehow morally superior, and ultimately strengthening the divide between “us” and “them,” whoever us and them happen to be. Encouraging the idea of the racial “other” as different, physically repulsive, and morally inferior is a strategy that has been used for centuries to make westerners feel morally justified in engaging in various kinds of colonial exploitation and domestic warfare.

Destroy this mad brute
An example of “otherness” mobilised to encourage British men to enlist as soldiers during the First World War

We can see ghosts of this divisive kind of “otherness” when we see the way that the orcs are depicted in the Lord of the Rings film adaptations – they are physically repulsive, greasy and black-skinned, and they seem to be universally morally bankrupt, delighting in violence, theft, cannibalism, and tormenting their captives. They are literally birthed from holes in the ground, which is a stereotype that used to be applied to people of Asian ethnicity during the European middle ages. We don’t see any sympathetic orc characters throughout the entire trilogy, and so, at the end of The Return of the King, we cheer when we see the surviving orcs being swallowed up by the ground outside the gates of Mordor. In short, the idea of a genocide against orcs seems entirely justified.

Whenever fiction leads us to believe that a genocide of any race, even a fictional one, seems entirely justified, I think we have to take a step back and ask some serious questions about the fiction we’re reading, or watching on the screen.

The greatest risk is that our attitude towards orcs bleeds over into our attitudes towards other nationalities or ethnic groups in the real world, allowing us to ascribe negative characteristics to them and make sweeping generalisations about them in the same way that we felt comfortable making sweeping generalisations about the orcs. Even on a very small scale, orcs can be used as a way of insulting subcultures that we don’t like. In the UK, I’ve heard fans of Manchester United Football Club refer to fans of Liverpool FC, and people from Liverpool generally, as ‘orcs’. If humans can draw those kinds of comparisons with the supporters of rival football teams, it stands to reason that we can draw similar comparisons with disadvantaged ethnic minorities, or members of other cultures.

Peter Jackon’s casting decisions for the orcs and Uruk-Hai in the Lord of the Rings films stray uncomfortably far into this territory. Amazingly, orcs were the only speaking parts given to actors of colour in the entire trilogy. If you don’t believe me you can watch this fairly depressing video by Dylan Marron on Youtube:

We should be very worried that Peter Jackson didn’t see fit to cast any black actors as hobbits, Rohirrim, or soldiers of Gondor – especially when people of colour were very much present in all of their real-world analogues, such as the Anglo-Saxon and Viking armies of the late first millennium. What was it that subconsciously led to black actors only being cast as orcs? What was it that made Peter Jackson think, “If I need actors to play characters who look disgusting, act immorally, make guttural chanting noises, and terrify my main characters, I should definitely hire some black actors”?

There are also the Haradrim and Easterlings, who are mute throughout the films – but if anything, they represent an even bigger example of divisive orientalism. Within the universe of Middle Earth, we’re forced to wonder why any humans would realistically ally themselves with Sauron, who appears to be a manifestation of pure evil. The disturbing implication is that the men of the east somehow have more in common with the orcs than they do with the men of the west.

I have a lot more to say on the subject, but I doubt that Tobias would thank me for turning this post into a 5,000 word essay. I’ll talk more about this topic in future posts. Until then, think hard about how you’re presenting the bad guys in your own writing. And write well!

A Wedding Gone Wrong

Hello, internet!

I have another story excerpt for you. First, though, congratulations are in order: our patron Tobias is now a married man. I hope matrimony brings him infinite joys and doesn’t distract him too much from his writing ;).  As writers we hope to find understanding partners who will tolerate our erratic behaviour and our unique strain of artistic madness, but I have always found that my writing is at it’s most prolific when my romantic life is at it’s least eventful. I am sure, however, that Tobias and Alayna will be able to find a suitable compromise – and I wish them all the happiness in the world.

To celebrate the occasion, this week’s story is actually a response to the scene challenge that Selayna set for you earlier in the week. Read on for my own personal take on the theme of “a wedding gone wrong”…


Tent

Farashak, the-fulfiller-of-wishes, was an understanding god. This was written in the Tasperad, the sacred book, and everything in the Tasperad was true, so Esfad believed it without question.

Even so, Esfad had feared that Farashak would not be very understanding about his daughter’s wedding. A boy named Jawed from the city – an underfed scribe, apprenticed to a rug merchant – had made Sasra very sensible of his affections for her, and she had accepted his suit. Which was all fine and good, as far as Esfad was concerned, apart from the fact that Jawed was one of the sun worshippers, and his family expected a wedding which their Sun God would smile upon.

Sasra had said that she didn’t mind what kind of wedding she had as long as it still meant that she could live in the city afterwards without being called a loose woman. Esfad had protested, knowing that his own parents would have forbidden such a thing. But Nira, his wife, had reminded him that he was not his parents. He knew that he lived in changing times. The sun worshippers didn’t burn copies of the Tasperad anymore. They let simple herdsmen like him worship Farashak in peace. Why shouldn’t Sasra marry one of them? He had finally relented, and now there they were. In the desert, near on oasis. Perched on benches beneath a huge red tent, with Sasra’s tribe sitting on one side and Jawad’s family on the other. There was no ill-feeling between them. Earlier that day, Esfad himself had joined all the men from both families in the sun worshippers’ ritual of hammering the tent-posts into the sand, and they had all bathed happily together afterwards.  All was smiles. Sasra and Jawed stood in the centre, with the sun cleric towering over them and speaking of doom. Despite the strange ceremony, Esfad was gripping Nira’s hand tightly in his, and welling up with pride. Sasra looked more beautiful than even he could have imagined.

The dowry, of course, had helped to ease his conscience. Esfad was sure that Farashak himself – lord of tricks – would be shrewd enough to let his own daughter marry an unbeliever, if he stood a chance of gaining sixty cows from it. Esfad was so happy for his daughter that he feared he might weep, but part of him was itching for the ceremony to end, so that he might go and check the hooves of his new heifers without causing offense. Thankfully the cleric was coming to the end of his long diatribe against worldly sin, and reaching the part of the ritual where the lovers would proclaim their vows. Esfad settled his thoughts and began listening again to what the cleric was saying.

“Sasra and Jawed stand here clothed in the trappings of wife and husband, but they stand naked in judgement before the all-pervading gaze of the Sun God! Who can see through all vestments! All disguises! All untruths!”

Esfad pursed his lips. From all that he had heard the cleric say, he did not much like the sound of this severe, all-knowing Sun God. Esfad much preferred Farashak, who enjoyed wine, played cunning tricks, and couldn’t see through Sasra’s vestments. Or if he could, it did not say so in the Tasperad.

“This so being,” the cleric continued, with fire in his voice, “if there is deceit or hesitation in their hearts when they speak their vows, the Sun God will see it clearly, and in his ire will strike them down instantly with righteous fury!”

Esfad could not help but see that his daughter’s choice of husband seemed suddenly quite frightened by the cleric’s words. Sasra reached oud to hold the man’s hand.

“But before this, if any of the Sun God’s children have reason that Sasra and Jawed should not be bound in union, let them speak. And if there is malice in their heart, let the Sun God strike them down with even greater fury!”

“I have reason,” said a voice.

Gasps filled the tent, and all heads turned towards the back of the crowd. Esfad flew to his feet and stared back over the rows of guests, scouring them to find the voice’s owner. Nira tugged at his arm to pull him back down, but he stood as firm as a tree.

The man who had spoken was old and frail, wearing dirty rags, and hunched over a staff that was a foot too small for him. At any other time Esfad would not have wished any harm upon a crippled old stranger, but this crippled old stranger had a mocking smile on his face that made coals of anger glower in Esfad’s belly. He felt the strong urge to bury his fist in that face.

“What reason?” Esfad spat.

“Don’t get angry, Esfad,” Nira said.

“Sasra is one of mine,” the old man said, calmly.

Esfad looked to his daughter. She looked back at him from beneath her veil with baffled amusement in her eyes, as if she thought this was a bad joke and she was waiting for it to become funny. Jawed stood beside her looking feeble, like a startled lamb. It was clear to Esfad that neither of them knew the old man.

“How, one of yours?” Esfand replied, struggling against Nira’s iron grasp.

“It is simple,” said the man, calmly. “Sasra was beholden to me in her birth rites. She cannot be given away without my blessing.”

At this fresh outrage Esfad tore himself free of his wife’s grip and strode over to the old stranger. “Sasra was beholden to Farashak in her birth rites, and Farashak alone!” he yelled, “No-one else!”

“Esfad, please!” Nira pleaded, leaving her seat.

Esfad talked over her. “She was never beholden to some mad old hermit,” he growled, coming close to the old man. He wanted to shove the frail stranger to the ground, and break his staff over his knee, but he feared that the shock might kill the man. “Be gone,” he said, instead. “She is not beholden to you. Unless you want to tell me that you are Farashak?”

The old man renewed his thin smile, and the anger drained from Esfad’s face. He noticed with dawning horror that the old man had different-coloured eyes, one fiery green and one deepest indigo. Just as was described in the Tasperad.

Esfad threw himself down in the sand, kissed the old man’s sandals, and begged for forgiveness. Farashak, the-fulfiller-of-wishes, laughed with delight, and mused over whether he should grant this particular request…

“Make ‘Em Laugh!”: Basic Tips for Funny Creative Nonfiction

For my past couple of posts, I talked a little bit about creative nonfiction. I gave a brief example and then tried to give a working definition and explain how creative nonfiction relates to writing fiction. My basic definition of the genre is this: stories that are true (more or less) but which, just like fictional stories, are told with creativity, with artistic style and authorial voice and good narrative techniques.

Today I’d like to talk about one of my favorite kinds of creative nonfiction: the funny kind. Because who doesn’t like to laugh at a good, funny story? If you have any interest at all in writing humorous stories—short fiction, satire, stage or screen plays, or even a comic relief character within a more serious plot—then it may help you to get some good practice by looking into funny creative nonfiction. And even though we don’t always use the exact term “creative nonfiction,” I think this genre has already pervaded our culture more than we realize. Allow me to explain.

Some of us already watch funny creative non-fiction without even knowing it. What’s one type of entertainment that revolves

Chris Hardwick performing stand-up comedy
Celebrity Chris Hardwick performing stand-up comedy

entirely around people telling funny stories in creative ways? Stand-up comedy, of course. Depending on the particular comedian and their typical subject matter, stand-up comedy is little more than telling true stories or talking about real topics, but with a certain method of delivery and timing that will make people laugh. Recently, I’ve been doing some freelance writing for a little extra cash, and several of the jobs I’ve taken have been descriptions of various stand-up comedians based on their clips on Vimeo. I have to find different wordings to describe what they’re doing, and I’ve noticed that a lot of times I just say that the comedian “tells the story of” something or “describes his experiences with” a particular event . They’re basically just telling true life stories in funny ways. That’s all it is.

If you need some funny inspiration from stand-up comedy, then there are probably a lot of names I could recommend, and you may very well have a few favorites of your own too. But, based on some of the jobs I’ve taken recently, I’d suggest you look up some of the following: Daren Streblow, David Dean, Jeff Allen, Bob Stromberg, and Taylor Mason.

Also, in my last post, I mentioned David Sedaris as one of the big names in contemporary creative non-fiction. If you get a chance, you should look up a video of him reading some of his works to an audience, because his essays are (often) funny, and so reading them live becomes a lot like a stand-up comedy routine. When I took my class on creative non-fiction, our professor showed us a clip of Sedaris reciting one called “Six to Eight Black Men.” My prof also remarked on how great it is that someone in the field of creative writing can gain fame and a living just by reading his works to an audience. You should check it out.

Do you know where else a lot of us read and do funny creative nonfiction? Social media. Think about it. Let’s say you had aSocial Media Explained funny or awkward moment in your day and you want to share it with your friends. But, instead of just reporting what happened verbatim, you decide to give it a little sarcastic or witty twist. That counts as creative nonfiction, even if it’s just a few sentences for a quick status update . You’re telling a story, or a snippet of your life, in a creative and funny way.

I’ll give you a few examples of my own from my recent Facebook usage:

  • “Last night I had a dream that I still had papers to grade. This whole Master’s degree thing is gonna take a little while to recover from.”
  • “Don’t you hate it when your alarm goes off in the morning and you just know you forgot to do something really important? For example, my alarm just went off this morning, and I realized that I forgot to go to sleep last night.”
  • “Friends, I need some professional advice. If I responded to an online pet-sitting ad, and the owner described her house as a bachelorette pad with lots of books and sci-fi stuff, then at what point is it acceptable to ask her to marry me?”

Of course, the sort of creative non-fiction that’s done on social media also translates easily into blog-writing, which I touched on in my last post. A lot of bloggers (myself included) like to try to spin unique, awkward life situations into funny,  relatable written stories. The main difference is that, if I just have one quick moment to share, then it usually turns into a Facebook status, but if I have a fuller story then I can make it into a blog post.

However, this sort of writing can still present a problem. As the writing professor I used to work for has sometimes said, “You’re not always as funny as you think you are.” For example, I’ve written blog posts about bad things happening to me, or disappointments in the area of romance, and I’ve thought to myself, “This is funny, because I’m looking back on it and laughing now.” As they say, tragedy plus time equals comedy. But I’ve had some readers interpret those posts as still being sad, serious, or sympathetic rather than funny. In order to be funny, I need to not just describe events objectively as they happened, but make sure I emphasize the sarcastic/facetious tone, focus on portraying myself as a comical character, etc. It may take practice, but it can be done, especially with helpful inspiration from some of the other funny sources I’ve listed above.

If you’re interested in writing funny, lighthearted, or tongue-in-cheek fiction of any sort, then try out some funny creative non-fiction first. Chances are, if you have a Facebook or Twitter, that you’ve already done some without realizing it. But find some funny, awkward, or noteworthy moments in your life, and figure out how to tell those stories in the best and funniest way you can.

Experiments are fun and necessary

I was published for the first time. It happened last week Wednesday through a Facebook post. “We’re on Amazon.” I figured this couldn’t refer to a trip to the great river or rain forest, palling around with jaguars and dinosaurs, if you believe Professor Challenger’s account. There was no trip on the books, and surely I would have been invited for my intuitive and manly nature. I mean the hair on my chest and back? I could totally pass for a gorilla in a life or death situation where it was required I was mistaken as one of their own.

Anyway, I realized it was the anthology, and we were on the website, Amazon. What a remarkable piece of technology. I sat in the van, with my grandparents and parents, about to leave my brother’s call day, when I mumbled, “Oh, I’ve been published.” This caused a whirlwind of sorts, but it’s neither here nor there. What’s important is what I wrote for the anthology.

While agonizing over what I would contribute to this pot of fledgling authors, many of which can only claim the mantle of author now that they were put into an anthology, such as myself, I was reading stories from India. They were beautiful, enchanting, filled with descriptors and impossible events. There were talking birds which took their revenge on evil owls. Jackals made fools of lions until exposed and subsequently eaten. The endings consisted of all the mortals realizing they’re gods, and ascending back to heaven after fixing some fault in the past.

So I decided I wanted to experiment. I was going to write an Indian myth. It was criticized. I’ll level with you, the majority of modern readers do not like mythologies because they’re filled with tropes, deus ex machina, gods, beautiful people, and perfect endings. Aside from the Ramayana. What was that, Sita? “My husband can’t just accept things? Fine! The earth is going to swallow me and you’ll never marry me. Thanks for rescuing me from the demon king so I can willingly be swallowed by the earth.” If I were Rama, I’d go off with the bear and monkey and drink myself into a stupor. I bet you’re at least marginally curious about what any of that means. It’s a good read.

Technically Thai, but this is their depiction of the Ramayana. I know you want to read it. It's free online. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramayana#/media/File:Wat_phra_keaw_ramayana_fresco.jpg
Technically Thai, but this is their depiction of the Ramayana. I know you want to read it. It’s free online.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramayana#/media/File:Wat_phra_keaw_ramayana_fresco.jpg

Anyway, the point is I experimented. It wasn’t necessarily appreciated by all. In fact about 15% of the story was not appreciated by any. But it’s a little like baseball spring training, where pitchers can have abysmal ERAs. You’re throwing the same pitch not to strike out the batter, but to perfect the pitch. I wrote an experimental piece as much to entertain as I did to grow and learn. What I got out of mimicking Indian mythology was a much stronger sense of description.

I experiment in most of my stories and world building. I use old mythologies to teach me concepts and techniques. Each culture teaches me something new, often ideas that we don’t really dabble in anymore. Funny story, it’s unique if no one’s really used it in 1500 years.

While you don’t need to experiment for the rest of your life, I do highly suggest you experiment. Find a writer and copy them, but in your way. Even make it publication quality. Go for it.

What experimentation have you committed? Where are your influences? What have they taught you?

Also, please do look into purchasing the anthology I was fortunate enough to be a part of. The writers are all young. Many of us, this is our first story. But more important than checking out our author pages, is that the money goes towards the World Literacy Foundation. There’s even a cute video of children reading around the world. I think the companies we are publishing through get a 30% cut, more on the physical copy, but the rest goes straight to helping people read in a global economy where reading is critical for high end employment.

If you want to pay full price, Amazon is a great place to get it. Not dinosaurs, but books. There are also dinosaur books.

For those who are a little more frugal, you have two options, both available until May 31, 2015.

For digital, go to the link and put in code VB87J for 25% off.

For physical, go to the link and put in code TGERED9J for 25% off.

Please do leave reviews on the site, and thank you for your patronage. More importantly, thank you on behalf of all those kids who will learn to read because of your contributions.

Details: Culture

Culture [noun]: 1. the quality in a person or society that arises from a concern for what is regarded as excellence in arts, letters, manners, scholarly pursuits, etc. (Dictionary.com)

We spoke a little on history.  We’ve touched on religion. There are a dozen more to follow, but for today we’re looking at culture.

History forms a culture. Religion is part of it. History is fact. It is lifeless. It is, “1000 soldiers died and lost the war. King Tight Pants won the war and made King Flowers lick his boots. The following year they had another war.” Culture is why. Culture tells us how they fought, how the soldiers treated each other and their feelings towards family back home. It is the human element on a grand scale, as well as on the small, personal scale.

A town usually has one culture, handed down by whatever country rules them, then modified lightly for their own experiences. France is a central culture. The religion, the clothing, the feudal system (we’re talking hundreds of years ago), dating traditions, the meanings of sigils, and numerous other cultural norms would expand out. The closer to the center the village, the more it would resemble the capital.

Some cultural occurrences are stranger than others. http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/dgkeysearchdetail.cfm?trg=1&strucID=1870549&imageid=1699899&total=1&e=w
Some cultural occurrences are stranger than others.
http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/dgkeysearchdetail.cfm?trg=1&strucID=1870549&imageid=1699899&total=1&e=w

The culture would also include what can be a pet, what they would eat, which foods were delicacies, what tailor everyone wanted, what the artwork looked like, what music was played, what themes showed up in philosophy, and so on. The list for what is culture is endless. But the capital would have what was mandated by the king and the nobility.

Getting back to the villages. Each one would have their own urban legends, just like we do today. They would have their own twist on the norm. Maybe the premier tailor of the land slighted a local duchess, so they have stories about how he’s actually a bewitching demon. Another created the Boogie Man after a string of child kidnappings. Maybe the Boogie Man is real. Maybe there were local bandits who sold children or cannibals who ate them.

What creates the central culture is war, beliefs, spirits, natural disasters, trade, and numerous other influences. Keep these in mind when making the culture systems. Put in your little celebrations, your myths, your urban legends (most myths started as an urban legend which spread out far and wide). Add language barriers and dialect issues if you feel so inclined.

Good luck on writing about your culture! Hope it turns out well and gives you a few plot hooks and reality checks.

Details: Religion

In the beginning….

The Chinese have a world born from a dragon. Christians, Jews, and Muslims have it created by an omniscient God. Christianity was once unified, but slowly fractured out into different sects of Catholicism. Then it became completely different denominations with different interpretations of the Bible, not simply religious focuses. Buddhism was created when the suffering under Hinduism became apparent to a man of noble birth. Shintoism, I believe the only massively recognized animistic religion in the modern days, continues to evolve and exist, though people from hundreds of years ago wouldn’t recognize it today.

Religions are alive. They are breathing, shifting, shattered things. Whether or not the Divine breathed into it to begin, it eventually makes it the hands of us mortals, and we are a corrupting, self-serving, greedy force. In the darkest of times, we can also be a compassionate, loving, and selfless people. All of these actions influence religion in our world. It should also influence religion in yours.

When you begin, look at your world and how it came to be. It could be anything. Come up with how each culture envisions the world was created, because surely they each have their own interpretation. You don’t even need to decide which one is right, as more than likely it’s academic. Keep it academic unless you are going to reveal the creators. This gives a sense of faith and it’s true to our own world experiences.

From these creation beliefs, and using the cultures of your societies, form the religion of the time. A group of nobles may try to kill their ancestral religion, becoming monotheistic or polytheistic to buck the old trend. A bunch of villages scattered and without an abundance of learning are likely more animistic, worshiping hundreds of individual spirits.

The chances of there being no religion is minimal. There will always be faith in something. There will always be something science can’t explain, whether simple anomalies or straight out miracles. Religion may not have been big in Star Wars, but it was there. Even Mass Effect had religion, Enkindlers bless the Hanar.

At this point you have a general sense of religion in your world. Check which are simple and which are complex. Simpler religions will have a more personal edge, less doctrine, and so there really aren’t splinters in how people worship, but there are different focuses and most (though they still have taboos) are good. The hunter prays to the great stag, while the weaver prays to hemp. Worship is respect, and because of how they live they respect different aspects of life.

The more complicated the religion, the more ability for interpretation, the more likely it is for spider-webbing and eventually a complete shattering. Christianity began under harsh persecution. The people did not have the luxury to have divisions. While there were some debates as to proper attitudes and behaviors, even what Christ meant, the body of followers remained one. It’s difficult not to when your people are being burned to light city streets or they’re being fed to lions as entertainment.

Onyx cross? Wait, no, just stylized. http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=1859&picture=cross&large=1
Onyx cross? Wait, no, just stylized. http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=1859&picture=cross&large=1

In the Byzantine Empire, everything changed. Constantine, when faced by an insurmountable horde, had a vision of a cross and was told to conquer in that image. When they were victorious, he found it was the sign of Christianity. So began Christianity’s acceptance.

In the coming years it gained favor, but there were disputes. Greek Orthodox broke off due to interpretations, such as if it’s right to use images. In the Middle Ages, the Holy Roman Empire maintained solidarity through ignorance, guilt, and fear. Unity was not out of fear from the outside, but fear from within. People were discouraged from reading, especially the Bible, and scripture and liturgy was always said in a language the peasants couldn’t understand, so they could not question.

Until Luther. Appalled by the way a merciful God was turned into a tyrant, he fought the church, and from him the protestant movement spread like wild fire. Lutherans, Calvinists, Puritans, and many more branched out almost immediately. The Bible was one of the first mass produced pieces of literature through the Gutenberg printing press.

Today Christianity is a cluster of faiths, heretics, heresies, cults, and depending on which group you belong to depends upon which groups fall into which categories. This is just one religion in the world, each one being just as complicated and multifaceted. Each one filled with tenants we cannot possibly understand, some we do not want to understand, and others we will cling to as if the world would end if the sin was committed. Each one completely altering history and culture.

Give your religion these details. Make it so there is confusion and debate. Scripture is rarely airtight, especially after a thousand years and most people can’t even read the original texts, let alone understand the nuances. Wars are fought over religion, either because of different religions or interpretations within the same one. Families are ripped asunder, people are exiled, politicians are condemned and lose all ranking. Gods shift in and out of importance. The Hindu pantheon changed regularly as far as who was powerful and well known and who was obscure.

So go create your own religions. I generally keep this in the same book as my history, and usually enjoy making them alongside each other, as religion should be influencing history, and history influencing religion.

How do you go about religion in your writing? Do you prefer mono- or polytheism? Either way, happy writing, writers!

Character Challenge: A Fresh New Spin

Adaptations and retellings of stories have been around for probably almost as long as storytelling itself. Sometimes we think it’s a relatively new phenomenon, given how much of Hollywood’s output these consists of reboots, remakes, and sequels these days, and how little of it is comprised of original ideas. But really, with ancient epics and legends being passed down orally from one generation to the next, with classics from the Greek myths to Shakespeare’s plays drawing large influences from stories that were already well-known in their cultures, the practice has been a major tradition for a long time.

Sure, all the retelling and rebooting can certainly be overdone, and not every new story that comes out of it is a winner. But still, there’s a reason why retellings and adaptations hold a certain appeal, both for audiences and for writers. It allows the opportunity to take something that people already like and look at it in a new way, or for a new writer to put his or her own personal spin on it. The oral storyteller can elaborate or expand on the story the previous generation told him by using his own unique storytelling style. A new director can take a superhero or cultural icon who’s been around for decades and try to make the character fresh and original for a new audience. While we sometimes praise original ideas more simply because of their originality, there’s still a certain appeal to taking something that already exists and making it new, or making it our own.

The whole reason the show Gotham exists is because someone decided to elaborate on a supporting character's backstory. And it's been pretty good so far!
The whole reason the show Gotham exists is because someone decided to elaborate on a supporting character’s backstory. And it’s been pretty good so far!

Of course, there are countless examples in our culture, but the one that got me thinking about this concept recently was exodus-posterExodus: Gods and Kings. I haven’t watched the movie yet, but I want to, despite whatever surrounding controversy there may be from various groups. But in the wake of recent films such as Exodus and Noah, I wrote a post on my blog about the next biblical adaptations I’d like to see if this trend continues. And that got me thinking of how, sometimes, a well-developed adaptation with very complex and human characters can be fleshed out based on very little. While the Exodus is a fairly significant portion of the Old Testament’s narrative, Noah’s story is confined to only a few chapters in Genesis, and yet a full-length movie was made about him. The same can be said of Jonah, one of the other suggestions I made in my post. A whole full-length film could potentially be made out of the Bible’s short account and relatively sparse descriptions of character development.

Based on this trend in books, movies, and more, your challenge is to take a pre-existing character–from literature, film, history, religion, or whatever you want–and flesh them out more or add on to their story. You may want to choose a minor or more obscure character so you’ll have more liberty to be creative and more ground to cover that hasn’t already been taken by the main character. If you don’t know much about your character yet, then figure it out or make it up based on what little you do know. Ask yourself questions like these:

  • What is this characters’ motivation? What are his or her goals or desires?
  • Why does the character want this goal? Is there anything that happened in their life to set them on this path? (Remember, drawn-out origin stories are all the rage these days.)
  • What will your character do to meet his or her or goals? What lengths will they go to?
  • Are there any conflicting desires or interal struggles? If so, why, and how will your character deal with them?
  • How does this character see others? What are their relationships like with other people? (You can use characters from the work you’ve already chosen, or, if not many are available, then make up some significant relationships of your own.)
  • Are there any other quirks or interesting personality traits that your character might reasonably have?

Of course, there are plenty of other aspects of character you can flesh out and explore, but these are a few that might be especially helpful in elaborating on a lesser-known character who someone else has already created.

Once you feel like you know your character fairly well, write a short scene (or, if you’re up for it, maybe the beginnings of a longer project) focusing on this character. Are they going about their normal daily life, or maybe beginning a grand adventure that will define them in the long term? You decide! Use what you know about the character and follow their activities with your writing. Make sure to be creative along the way!

Parody in Practice: “How the Scrinch Spent Thanksgiving”

My first post for this blog was about parody. I explained how parodies, even though they’re by nature lighthearted and somewhat silly, can still be well-done stories with at least some serious meaning. Today, I’m revisiting the subject because I recently worked on a parody. About a year ago during the post-Thanksgiving/pre-Christmas holiday season, I wrote a narrative poem that was nothing less than a blatant rip-off of Dr. Seuss‘s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” and this year, I converted that poem into a quirky, tongue-in-cheek, animated short film. To get some context for this post, if you want to read what I originally wrote about parody, you can find that here, and if you want to watch the humorous and heartwarming video that is “How the Scrinch Spent Thanksgiving,” you can do so here. (The video is probably more fun.)5

I’ll try to run through a bit of what I did with the narrative aspects of the video and how that applies to parodies overall. Maybe it’ll help you make cheesy but lovable holiday stories of your own, or at least to expand your writing horizons in some useful way.

Parodies play around with common tropes and conventions of fiction.

The point of parody and satire is usually to exaggerate and poke fun at things from existing fiction, whether it focuses on one individual work or author, or an entire genre or style. Obviously, my video of “The Scrinch” takes many of its cues from “The Grinch.” But it also borrows a few elements from A Christmas Carol, Elf, and just about every Lifetime movie in the history of Christmas in which a disgruntled, jaded, or heartless adult gradually comes to learn the true meaning of the holidays. Heck, if you take out the Christmas part and merely focus on a grumpy older person being softened up a bit by an enthusiastic child, then you could also add Despicable Me, Up, and even more Lifetime movies to the list of that trope’s appearances.

In a parody like “The Scrinch,” I wanted to incorporate that trope somewhat, but I also wanted to subvert it so as to avoid too much sappiness and mushy feelings. That’s why, instead of the Scrinch’s heart growing three sizes, I made it his stomach. I mean, let’s be honest–which one of those is really more likely to grow around the holiday season?

Parodies are funny.

This may seem obvious, but parodies are usually supposed to be fun and funny. People don’t really expect them to be brilliant, profound, original works of classic, sophisticated literature, so the reader and the author both have some leeway to let loose and have fun a bit. And they can use at least a few different types of humor. Parodies inherently rely on referential humor, which isn’t all that original, but at least it works; audiences like it when you can say, “Hey, I’m making fun of this thing you know about,” or even just, “Hey, I’m giving a slight nod to this thing you know about.”61

But parodies also have a lot of room for odd juxtaposition, for combining something funny with something that is usually serious. For example, “The Scrinch” uses somewhat elevated language, or at least a strict pattern of rhyme. When someone is reading rhyming poetry in a formal tone, the listener doesn’t expect jokes to come at them; they expect something warm and fuzzy about the holidays, or something old-fashioned from Dr. Seuss’s time, or maybe even Shakespeare’s. But instead, in “The Scrinch,” they get modernized and familiar terms like “ramen,” “Doctor Who,” and “Breaking Bad.” They also get quirky, uncommon words like “isthmus” to rhyme with “Christmas.” And, let’s face it, “isthmus” is a funny word no matter how you spin it.

If you have any skill or interest in the art or animation field, and you’re able to add visuals to your story like I did, then go for it! Silly, simple visuals can serve to increase the humor of a parody. That’s totally the only reason I went with MS Paint and Windows Movie Maker for this project, and it’s not at all because I have no skill with or access to any actual moviemaking technology whatsoever.

Parodies can still have some meaning and significance.

Just because parodies are fun, lighthearted, and cheesy doesn’t mean that they’re completely devoid of significance, or that you can just throw random elements together to make them work. No, parodies still have to adhere to certain conventions of genre and storytelling (even if they do so in an exaggerated way), and they still have to be well-made for their intended purpose. In many cases, satire and humor can be used to deliver a serious or relevant message, subtly criticizing or pointing out the flaws in a work, a genre, or even perhaps a real-life social institution.

I don’t claim that “The Scrinch” contains much subtle, profound social commentary on the nuances of real life. But it does contain a message about breaking out of your own priorities and appreciating family, friends, and fellowship during the holidays. Yes, it’s sappy and unoriginal, but it’s still a true and important message. As I mentioned earlier, I tried not to make that the main focus or spend too much time on super-serious sentiment, but hey, it’s in there somewhere.

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Also, the Scrinch here seems to be a disgruntled, introverted twentysomething bachelor grad student, in a story that, coincidentally, was also written by a disgruntled, introverted twentysomething bachelor grad student. If I didn’t know better, then I might even suggest that the story contains perhaps the slightest hint of an autobiographical quality about the real life situations of its author. Good thing I know better, right?

Overall, parodies such as “The Scrinch” are a fun and enjoyable way to tell a story, but they, like any story, can still contain some depth and meaning as well. If you’re not sure what to write about this holiday season, try a parody (whether Christmas-y or not) and be sure, first and foremost, to have fun with it. (Then, maybe, if the mood strikes you, you can make a video of it and become the next YouTube sensation, but hey, one step at a time.)

Merry Christmas and happy writing, everyone.

Writing Worldview Well

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

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

Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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