Extreme Graphic Content! Deadpool vs. The Revenant

Let’s be honest. We probably all enjoy some stories or media that are not completely tame. Whether your taste is for moderate action violence, excessive blood and gore, or maybe some passionate moments that go further than some would be comfortable with, not everything we take in is 100% family friendly. Nor should it be, for as we get older and become more discerning we can hopefully come to appreciate books or movies that may have more mature content and themes without being negatively affected. But how far is too far? As readers, viewers, or writers, where do we draw the line when it comes to sensitive content or topics?

Deadpool_poster 2
Theatrical poster for Deadpool (2o16). Image taken from Wikipedia. Fair use.

This is a very complex question, and obviously there isn’t one simple blanket answer that works for everyone. But it’s a question that I want to explore today. And, in keeping with my last couple of posts, I’ll use the recent superhero blockbuster film Deadpool–rated R for excessive violence, strong language, and some nudity–as an example. I’ve seen a lot of controversy going around the internet about this movie. But as both a Christian and a comic book fan, I have friends in both camps and everywhere in between, some claiming “THIS MOVIE IS FILTHY AND NOBODY SHOULD SEE IT!” while others retort, “THIS MOVIE IS AWESOME AND EVERYONE SHOULD SEE IT!” So should you see Deadpool or shouldn’t you? And why?

First, a disclaimer. Being a Christian, my moral beliefs will naturally affect my perceptions of this movie to some extent, and not everyone may share my views. Still, I believe that the question of mature content in a story is not just a religious or moral issue, but often a question of good storytelling quality as well. Through studying English at a Christian university, I’ve had the opportunity to formulate my views on this topic fairly well, but I believe some of these principles I’m going to mention can be relevant to any audience of movies or stories, regardless of beliefs.

Anyway, I’m part of a Facebook group for Christians to discuss movies and pop culture, and Deadpool‘s release nearly started a civil war between two opposing camps. But someone there recently had a good question. They asked, basically, “is it hypocritical for some of us to be hating on Deadpool while still enjoying movies like The Revenant? Both have very graphic, violent, and mature content. Is it okay to support one but not the other? Where should we draw the line?” And here was my response:

“I have a certain philosophy that I use for almost all art/media/culture these days. Taking a lot of English and writing classes at a Christian college helped me a lot with this. My belief is this: in regards to content in movies, etc., WHAT is portrayed is not as important as HOW it is portrayed. There can be quite a bit of dark or violent content, but the way it’s portrayed or the overall message can be either positive or negative.
For example: The Revenant contains very many graphic scenes, but I think it does a decent job of showing the consequences of those things. It shows how violence, rape, etc. only lead to more hatred and brokenness. It portrays those things but does not glorify them; it shows them as ugly, which they are. And [SPOILER ALERT] the protagonist makes a positive climactic decision in the end, so I think that helped it to have a *slightly* more positive and uplifting tone and theme overall.
On the other hand, the Deadpool movie (at least, based on what it looks like from the trailers) contains lots of violence and sex, but tries to pass them off as fun and funny. It glorifies evil behaviors for cheap entertainment. It takes serious topics that should be treated with reverence and makes them into a joke. This is a major part of why I generally do not enjoy or support Deadpool (whether in comics or movies).
If it helps, ask yourself this question for almost any media you encounter. Think about not just the content being portrayed, but how the overall theme and tone portray it. Even the Bible contains some very graphic descriptions of violence and sex, but it doesn’t portray those things in a positive way. Those are my thoughts at least.”

The_Revenant_2015_film_poster
Theatrical poster for The Revenant (2015). Image taken from Wikipedia. Fair use.

I have watched and enjoyed The Revenant, but admittedly have chosen not to watch Deadpool (at least not until maybe I can rent it on DVD). So I could be wrong about this movie. Maybe there is some deep purpose or relevant plot to it that I’ve missed out on so far. But, based on what I’ve seen and heard, it sure doesn’t seem that way. It seems like, “hey, let’s throw in a nude scene in a strip club just so we can put in more sex and give it an R rating! And don’t forget to make tasteless jokes against people while violently murdering them!” It uses violence, sex, and death not for well-crafted story or for thought-provoking discussion, but simply for cheap entertainment and laughs. And that’s why, both as a Christian and as a discerning consumer of media and culture, I can’t really give my approval to this movie.

But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the Deadpool film seems to be like this. Because, as I’ve alluded to in my last few posts, the Deadpool comics are largely the same. With perhaps some exceptions depending on the writer and the direction of the story, they fill their pages with mature, sometimes disturbing content on sensitive topics, and write it all off as a joke and a cool action-y comic for the kids.

I’ve noticed this tendency in Deadpool a number of times, but one particular instance was more disturbing than the rest. In one story arc, Deadpool decided that he had nothing to live for and wanted to die. But due to his healing powers, death does not come easily for him. So we got three whole issues about Deadpool trying to trick the Hulk into killing him. In other words, Deadpool exploited someone else (with what could be considered a mental condition) in his attempt to commit suicide, and the whole thing was made to look like a fun, funny, action-packed jaunt between two brightly colored superheroes, complete with witty dialogue and everything. Were these comics more violent than normal ones? Did they have too much bad language or sexual content? No, not really. But they took some very serious topics that affect a lot of real people–mental illness and suicide–and tried to turn them into slapstick mindless entertainment. I had to consider after that story whether or not I was really comfortable still reading Deadpool. And, while I do still read his comics occasionally, sometimes I’m still not sure.

For readers and viewers of stories, being able to discern the message behind the content–the “how” and “why” instead of just the “what”–is essential to understanding both the purpose and quality of the work. But consider this principle as creative writers, too. Including mature content or serious themes in your work is not wrong, but there’s definitely a right and a wrong way to do it. What messages will you take into your mind by what you read, watch, and listen to? And what messages will you send out to the world by what you write?

 

Punisher, Deadpool, and the Ups and Downs of Antiheroes

I’ve written about antiheroes before on this blog, about how their character motivations affect their actions and how their moral ambiguity can show us what we value as an audience and a culture. But lately I’ve been writing about a specific comic book antihero named Deadpool and why, despite all the recent hype, I don’t really think he’s that great of a character. In my last post I mentioned how I can’t really root for Deadpool much, because he’s not fighting for a good reason, but only for money and fun.

“But wait!” you say. “Deadpool is more of an antihero anyway! Isn’t that what he’s supposed to be like? Not every character has to be a completely moral hero. You can like him even though he’s morally ambiguous.”

Yes, and I do like a lot of morally ambiguous characters. As a comic book fan, I still enjoy and am often fascinated by the adventures of grim antiheroes such as Wolverine, the Punisher, and Rorschach. I also really enjoy(ed) shows like Breaking Bad and its successor, Better Call Saul, which feature protagonists who definitely walk the moral line and in many ways become worse as they go along. In the literary realm (which I majored in), I love the stories of authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, who frequently treat the theme of moral ambiguity and often feature heavily flawed protagonists. And yet I’m still not a huge supporter of Deadpool. Why?

Deadpool vs Punisher
Art by Steve Dillon from Deadpool #54 published by Marvel comics. Image taken from user lukesuperior on Flickr Creative Commons.

In my analysis, there are two different types of morally ambiguous characters. Or, characters who we would label as “antiheroes” are considered such for one of two different reasons. There may be some overlap or some in-between now and again, but I think these two categories encompass quite a few “antihero” characters.

The first type of character has high ideals and goals (morally, philosophically, etc.), but they become antiheroes because they use morally questionable methods. They have good goals, intentions, and motivations, but maybe not good actions. This is the standard “chaotic good” character. I would posit that Wolverine, Punisher, and Rorschach all fit into this category, and even Batman sometimes does depending on how he’s written. They believe in fighting evil, but they use violence, brutality, and even lethal force to achieve that end. Even Walter White seems to fit this description, at least toward the beginning of his transformation; he has noble goals (providing for his family) but they lead him to evil actions (dealing drugs). For more on this type of character, see my previous post about monomania, or an obsessive goal that would lead someone to do almost anything, no matter how drastic or immoral, to achieve it. Personally, I find this type of character quite fascinating and compelling, because I like to see their determination and just how far they’ll go to carry out their mission.

The second type of antihero has no such noble goals or high ideals; they are antiheroes because they only serve their own interests without actively trying to commit either good or evil. This type of character is often labeled as “chaotic neutral,” or maybe even “true neutral.” Characters of this sort would include Han Solo when the audience first meets him in Star Wars, as a lone(ish) smuggler without much altruism. In discussing the show Heroes with some friends, I’ve placed Noah Bennet in the first category and Nathan Petrelli in this second, self-serving group.

This is also the category where I’d place Deadpool. He’s commonly labeled as a mercenary, so we know that he’s not supposed to fight for much of anything besides his own gain. In many iterations (although I listed some exceptions in my last post), he just fights for money, for fun, for personal vendettas, or for his own depraved, insane reasons. Personally, I don’t find this type of character nearly as interesting, because they tend to lack a strong or clear motivation. Unlike those rigidly determined characters I mentioned above, they just kind of meander and get into random adventures and do whatever feels best to them at the time. They lack a compelling reason to fight or for the audience to root for them.

Some people tell me, “if you object to Deadpool’s mature content, then you must only like morally good characters.” That’s not really true, but I do tend to favor characters who have good intentions. Even when their actions are severely flawed like in the examples above, I’m drawn in by their determination and by the inherent conflict between their motives and actions.

On the other hand, when a character has a less compelling motivation, I have to ask myself why I should even be rooting for him. If Deadpool is just killing people for money, then why should I support him over his enemies? Why should I care if he wins or loses? And for me, the answer is that I really don’t.

It’s often been said of writing fiction that desire plus obstacle equals story. In other words, give a character a strong desire, place obstacles in the way of that desire, and you have conflict, which is the basis of story. You have something happening that audiences will find interesting. But what happens if you take away that strong desire and throw in a halfhearted character who doesn’t care enough to take almost anything seriously? Where does the conflict come from then? Where is the compulsion? I think a lot of it gets lost.

Now, I’ve been saying that this preference is my own personal opinion. Maybe it’s just me and some people can enjoy the second kind of character without much motivation. But I think there’s a solid case in stories for the first kind (chaotic good) being better than the second kind (neutral).

HanSolo
Harrison Ford as Han Solo in Star Wars. Image taken from Wikipedia. Fair use.

You know why? Because Han Solo didn’t stay morally neutral for very long before he gained some more development and started fighting for a cause bigger than himself. And because even Deadpool, traditionally an amoral mercenary in the comics, has been altered for his huge film debut. In the movie, he’s not taking a hit on someone just for money–he’s trying to take revenge on someone who ruined his life. Yes, Deadpool is fighting against a bad guy, doing at least some form of good, and giving him an actual compelling character motivation! While he’s still a very flawed character certainly, this mission of his seems to place him more in the first category than the second. Filmmakers know that, for a big action movie, there needs to be a clear antagonist and a clear reason to root for the protagonist over that other person. They know that the antihero with a good(ish) mission is a lot more interesting than the antihero who just aimlessly does his own thing.

So that’s why I find the Punisher and others a lot more interesting than I find Deadpool. That’s why I have a hard time really rooting for Deadpool very often in the comics. But if I’m saying that the film version of Deadpool is closer to the kind of character I like, then why is it that I’m still not too excited about the film? Wait for my next post to find out.

What do you think? Is there really a huge distinction between different kinds of antiheroes? Who are your favorite antiheroes, and why do you find them compelling? Post your thoughts below.

 

Why I’m NOT Excited about Deadpool

Deadpool! Theaters, audiences, and social media posts have been abuzz lately with the newest Marvel superhero to hit the big screen. But aside from the normal hype about the action and laughs, the Deadpool movie has also gotten lots of attention–both positive and negative–for being R-rated due to violence, nudity, and excessive language. While the superhero genre was once thought to be good family-friendly fun for kids, that is certainly not the case with this offbeat, over-the-top antihero, leading to high praise and enjoyment from some longtime fans and harsh criticism from others.

As a longtime comic book fan among other fans who usually flock faithfully to each new superhero film, mine is an unpopular opinion, or at least so it seems in my circle of friends. But, while admitting that I haven’t actually seen the Deadpool movie yet (and probably won’t at least until I can rent it on DVD), I must admit that I’m not excited about or in favor of this one. People say it’s a very faithful representation of the character in the comics–but guess what? I don’t really like Deadpool much in the comics either. And I’d like to tell you why. Do my moral convictions and objections to mature content have something to do with it? Probably. But I think it goes beyond that into the realm of good storytelling and character development as well. Allow me to explain.

Deadpool-cover
Art from X-Men: Battle of the Atom #1. Art by David Lopez. Image taken from Wikipedia. Fair use.

It’s a generally accepted rule of fiction that a protagonist has to be likeable in some way in order to garner the support of the audience. I even had one friend posit that “likeable” was not the criterion so much as “fascinating”; even if we don’t “like” the character per se, we as the audience have to find them compelling and interesting enough to care about for some reason or another. Feel free to form your own opinions, but I don’t see this quality much in Deadpool.

When I read a superhero comic book (which I do a lot), I’m looking for a reason to root for the hero, to think that he’s in some way the “good guy” (even if he’s a flawed character) and that he’s justified in fighting his enemies. But with Deadpool being a mercenary, commonly labeled as the “merc with the mouth,” I don’t get that sense of compelling support for a character. He’s only a mercenary, so he’s not fighting for some good or noble cause; a lot of times he’s just doing his own thing and fighting others for money or for fun. Therefore, I wonder, why should I root for him over his enemies? What makes him better or more likeable than the people he fights? Why should I care whether he wins or loses? I often can’t answer these questions with Deadpool.

Some people criticize me for this, saying that I must only like morally ideal characters such as Superman and Captain America. That criticism is simply not true, because I do often appreciate a certain kind of antihero; I find characters like Wolverine, the Punisher, and Rorschach all fascinating, despite or perhaps because of their moral ambiguity (more on this point later). But my thinking is that, if the character isn’t going to be morally good, then there’s got to be some other quality instead that makes them likeable or compelling to the audience. And, while some disagree, I still don’t really find that with Deadpool.

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Promotional image of Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool in the 2016 film. Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons user canburak.

In internet arguments (some specifically in preparation for this blog post), I’ve asked my friends to explain to me what exactly they find appealing or likeable about Deadpool’s character. I haven’t gotten a very compelling answer (in my opinion). A lot of people say they like him primarily because he’s violent, crazy, crass, and crude. And that simply just doesn’t hold much appeal for me. While I admit that I sometimes enjoy Deadpool’s pop culture references and metahumor (even I don’t completely hate the character, although I do think he’s vastly overrated), I usually don’t enjoy crude jokes when they’re there just for cheap laughs and no story purpose. And I don’t really see much purpose or compelling character depth in an insane guy who just likes to shoot things for money or for fun. That kind of character could easily be a villain (such as the Joker or Carnage), but again I ask, why should I root for them as a hero? What deep or complex quality in this character’s psyche is supposed to make me root for him or support him in his random misadventures? For the most part, I haven’t found one.

“But wait!” you may say. “Deadpool actually is a complex character with a complex psychological disorder! And he actually is a hero sometimes!” To that, I would begrudgingly admit that you have a point, and after some recent social media discussions with friends, I’ve concluded that it largely depends on who’s writing Deadpool at the time. The thing about comics characters is that they change creative hands quite frequently, and so their portrayals aren’t always as consistent as some of us would like to think. For example, due to the recent Deadpool ongoing series beginning in 2012, I’ve developed a somewhat greater appreciation for him than I previously had. Among other reasons, the writers gave Deadpool both a wife and a long-lost daughter, two reasons for him to genuinely try to be more of a hero. And I was like, “Yes! Finally he has something interesting to fight for other than just money and tacos! Finally there’s a reason for me to care about his character a little bit!” I’ve also heard some people claim that Deadpool was a much more complex character following his initial creation in the ’90s, but that he got watered down when his popularity grew in the late 2000s. I can’t really speak to that personally, as I didn’t follow Deadpool much until around 2008, but it may be true that Deadpool’s history has had some deep character moments that I’m not familiar with.

However, when I say that I don’t care for Deadpool much, I’m talking about what has, for better or for worse, become the most common portrayal of Deadpool these days. And from what I’ve read and seen, I don’t think that’s the one who has a lot of deep character moments. Rather, it’s just the one who is known for, “YEAH! VIOLENCE AND SEX AND CHIMICHANGAS AND INSANITY FOR ABSOLUTELY NO STORY PURPOSE BUT JUST FOR RANDOM FUN!” It seems that whatever potential Deadpool may have for compelling plots or complex character development too often gets lost under the banal banner of utter ridiculousness that appeals only to the entertainment of our basest appetites. And, while I could be wrong, having not seen the movie yet, the trailers and reviews lead me to believe that this is the same version of Deadpool that has been translated to film.

This is why, from a storytelling perspective, I’m really not a big fan of Deadpool, or at least not the Deadpool we most commonly see. In my next few posts later this week, I plan to continue this discussion. I’d like to elaborate on why I like some antiheroes but still don’t like Deadpool (told you that was coming), and then on why I can appreciate some other very mature movies without appreciating Deadpool.

Do you agree or disagree? Is there more to Deadpool’s character that I haven’t considered and still should? Let me know in the comments.

 

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!

Story Challenge of the Week

2285787-hercules19I only have 104 pages left to read in my last book for the semester! I do still have a few articles to read, an exam to study for, five papers to write, and one to edit… but all of that will go by fairly quickly. I also get to take Alayna to see the new Avengers movie next weekend, which is exciting for me. So, all in all, it’s looking to be a pretty good week! That being said, you never know what could happen… Anyway, today is your story challenge. I want you to set this story in a world that your currently developing. One of the best ways to develop a world to write in, amazingly enough, is to write in that world. The more you write, the more your understanding of the world will solidify. The key here is to remember what you’ve written before and keep your world consistent (this is where world bibles come in handy). So, pick your nation and then write a story based off of these questions:

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

Story Challenge of the Week

GilgameshWell, I’m just about finished with Plato’s Republic and after that I start into David Lyon’s book on law and ethics. Meanwhile, I am currently procrastinating on putting together my prep notes for this months meeting of my seminar. We’re covering the ethical thinking of the 5th century monastics through Martin Luther… sounds like a lot doesn’t it? Yeah… it pretty much is. We’re covering the Christian mystics this month as well, such as Bernard of Clairvaux, which I love (well… some of them anyway), and I really should be eager to write about Aquinas, given the sheer amount that I’ve read about/from him already this semester. However, sometimes ‘am’ takes a little while to catch up with ‘should.’ Honestly, I had the reading for the seminar done three weeks ago… I probably should’ve just written the paper then. Anyway, today is your story challenge. I want you to set this story in a world that your currently developing. One of the best ways to develop a world to write in, amazingly enough, is to write in that world. The more you write, the more your understanding of the world will solidify. The key here is to remember what you’ve written before and keep your world consistent (this is where world bibles come in handy). So, pick your nation and then write a story based off of these questions:

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

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!

The Monster As Hero

Hey everyone, I’m here with some sad news and then a fun post. Over the past couple of months my life has gotten really busy, and slowly but surely my motivation for writing these posts has dwindled down to almost nothing. Because of this, I’m afraid this is going to be my last post. I have too many other things occupying my time that I feel like I am not able to dedicate the time and energy these posts, and you as the readers, deserve. That being said, I want to go out with a bang so I’m writing one last post on a particular dynamic within stories that I find especially interesting: The Monster as Hero. I know I’ve written many times on how I am fascinated with villain psychology and understand the perspectives of a variety of characters. In fact, I recently wrote a series of posts about archetypal heroes and one such hero that I discussed was the tragic hero. In many ways, I think, the tragic hero and the monster as hero can be very similar archetypes. However, before we get to that, let’s begin by discussing what we mean by the monster.

1377527950_rorschachTo me, there are two types of monsters. Monsters by form and monsters by actions. Both of these can be heroic characters and both of them bring a unique spin on stories in their wake. Monsters by form would be similar to The Thing or The Hulk. They are typically your more classical monsters but they act in heroic ways for whatever reason. In the case of the Thing and the Hulk they are both human underneath the monster and it is this humanity that guides their actions to some extent. What I really want to spend my time dissecting is the monster by action. These are people who do monstrous, sometimes heinous things (at least from an objective perspective) and yet these characters, too, can be heroic. I think particularly of Rorschach from Watchmen for this archetype. They are the characters that have good motives but have forsaken the moralistic ideology typically seen from classical heroes. They are willing to kill or murder for the sake of the greater good. They are willing to waste a few lives here or there to save millions. Why? Because what is 10 or 20 lives in the grand scheme of things. We all insignificant mites floating around on a piece of dust in the middle of nowhere. Why should we (or they for that matter) value our lives simply because we are alive. If this seems fatalistic to you, good. You’re paying attention. These heroic characters are monsters because they view existence as unimportant. But this is also what makes them heroic. Their existence, in the grand scheme of things, is no more important than ours, and they realize this fact to the very core of their being. They recognize two distinct facts about themselves: 1) their own existence is worthless, and 2) they want their existence to have worth. They are heroic because they WANT to be heroic; they want to be remembered; they want to be significant. Because of this fatalistic desire they essentially will themselves to be heroes, or in the case of Rorschach, to continue being a hero. This is why I am fascinated with this dynamic of the Monster as Hero–the same ideology that makes them a monster in our eyes, is also what makes them a hero. This duality of existence is fascinating to me as a writer and a reader, because I don’t know how to process these characters. I want to think of them as heroes but I can’t because they do monstrous things along the way. I cannot overlook one in favor of the other and so I am left at in impasse, caught between my own ideology and that of the character I am reading.

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Tobias here! First of all I want to say a hearty goodbye and thanks for all the fish to Neal. If you know what I mean, then you know what I mean. Neal’s been writing on this blog for a while now, and he’s going to be missed.

I believe that, as individuals, as friends, and as writers, each person who has contributed to this blog is irreplacable, and each is special to me in some way. That being said, having lost both Abbie and Neal to the vagaries of school and life, I find myself in need of writers to fill those positions. So, I am looking for two good writers who are capable of being, and wish to be, regular contributors to the blog. One would be posting on Thursdays only and would be alternating with me, and the other would be a floating author posting less regularly on Thursdays, Tuesdays, and possibly Sundays. I’m also looking for a philosophically minded individual to help me with the Saturday Challenges. If you are interested in any of these duties, please email me at tmastgrave@gmail.com with a brief introduction, bio, and writing sample. If you have any previous blogging experience that would also be good to mention :).

Story Challenge of the Week

Ok, really... we all knew I wasn't likely to put up a picture of a woman in labor.
Ok, really… we all knew I wasn’t likely to put up a picture of a woman in labor.

As all of you know, I’m a comic book nerd. Honestly, if you haven’t figured that out yet, then either you’re new to the blog, or you just haven’t been paying attention. So, I’ve been watching Marvel’s Agents of Shield, which started off as a pretty iffy show at best, but has turned into a pretty awesome show. I’m watching the latest episode and it is not only strong, but actually surprising (well, sort of), which is a nice change of pace. However, today is your story challenge. So, you’ve all done this one before: I’m going to give you a theme prompt, but I want you to write this story in a genre that you don’t normally write in. If you usually write fantasy, then make this story a modern day romance. If you usually write romance, make this story a thriller. The key here is to get out of your comfort zone as a writer. Do something new.

You’re Theme: The birth of a hero… …literally… if you want some interesting idea fodder I suggest reading some Hindu mythology.