Drawing inspiration from video games (Part 1)

Hello, internet!

Cards on the table: I completely forgot that this week was my week here on The Art of Writing. As such, I’ve prepared absolutely no material for you, and I’m going to be making it up pretty much as I go along. I feel a little like Gromit, the anthropomorphic dog in the treasured British clay-animation film Wallace & Gromit in the Wrong Trousers, speeding along on an electric train and laying track hurriedly in front of me as I go, as illustrated in this helpful gif.

giphy

Hopefully it will be a fun experiment for both of us.

One thing I have been doing a lot of in the last week is playing video games, so let’s riff off that to start with, and talk about how video games can inspire really good writing.

Before I delve into what I’ve been playing, and how it’s been influencing my writing, I want to quickly discard any stigma surrounding video games. Some people might scoff at the suggestion that writers of literature have anything to learn from the story-telling, worldbuilding, or characterisation of interactive entertainment like video games, but I couldn’t disagree more. I think there’s a general scepticism towards video games among the same demographic who are sceptical of genre literature (the industry term, sometimes used unkindly, for sci-fi, and fantasy, and anything which isn’t ‘serious’ literature).  I know I’m in friendly territory here, among my fellow nerds. None of you are likely to think less of any piece of media just because it contains dragons and challenges your imagination by taking place in a fantasy world. But some people baulk at video games just the same way they baulk at Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings, and that saddens me a little. Art doesn’t implicitly lose value because it relies on fantastical tropes instead of the tropes and hallmarks of ‘mainstream’ literary fiction. Stories aren’t inherently less complex or robust because they’re being told through the medium of an interactive video game. Writing doesn’t inherently lose value if it draws inspiration from video games or shares a lot of stylistic elements. Perhaps I’m stating the obvious, but there are some people who still don’t see video games as a valid medium for artful storytelling. And I am sad for them, because they’re missing out. Not just on some great art, but on some lush material which can be mined for inspiration.

Writers can choose how much they want their gaming life to influence their writing, and whether they want to disguise their influences or make them explicitly obvious. If you love a video game world enough to want to write stories within that universe, there’s nothing stopping you, and your stories don’t lose any value just because they’re set in a pre-existing universe. A close friend of mine has been writing some excellent fiction set in the Mass Effect universe and posting it online for fans of the series to enjoy, and I’ve been reading it with relish, even though I wasn’t a fan of Mass Effect when I started. (Although, binge-gamer than I am, I have since played through the first two games of the series and enjoyed them both tremendously).

Nathaniel is unlikely to make any money from this particular story, but that’s not why he’s writing it. Not all art is intended for publication, and once again, it doesn’t necessarily lose any value as a story just because it’s available freely on the internet. But if you’re planning to publish your writing and adapt your gaming experiences into your own fantasy world, then it’s probably a good idea to distance yourself from your influences: lest ye fall foul of the thin line between emulation and plagiarism.

That becomes a lot easier when you’re drawing inspiration from an open-world game. Recently, I’ve been playing my favourite video game, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. It’s now five years old, so I’m not going to bother with a belated review. Suffice to say I adore playing it, which I’ve been doing sporadically since 2013, but I have yet to complete it, so packed is it with excellent content. My fondness for Skyrim is perhaps best illustrated by measuring the slightly destructive influence that it has had on my life: it became my favourite form of procrastination during my third year of university, and was instrumental in the deterioration of at least one romantic relationship. I regret neither of these things. I spent my evenings reading books of magical lore in my study at the College of Winterhold when I should have been reading about seventeenth-century economics for an upcoming exam. By night, I crawled through ancient catacombs in the darkest bowels of Nirn, destroying undead wights and uholy Draugr with the righteous purity of cleansing fire. As the sun rose outside, I fought with fearsome Dragon Priests on storm-wrought mountaintops, because their aspect seemed less daunting than the hardships of writing my dissertation. When I play Skyrim, I have private little adventures, and then I’m often inspired to write about them.

If I adapted my adventures into prose word-for-word, using the same name for every character and location, depicting events in the very same order, then I would be committing plagarism. But that’s never what I’m inspired to do. The important thing with roleplaying games is that you can take away the role-playing element and leave the game itself behind. Role-playing games are designed to provide you with a bare skeleton that serves as a scaffold for your adventures: they give you the building blocks of a story, and you can assemble them however you want. As I’m playing through the story that the developers have created,  I’m imagining the thoughts and feelings of my character and the other characters that they encounter. I’m wondering what might be different if the events were happening outside the confines of a pre-programmed environment. Sometimes, even with a vast open-world game like Skyrim, I’m raging at the limited choices that the game allows. I’m thinking “if I had control of this story, my character wouldn’t be picking any of these options” – and at that point, my interpretation of the player character has become something separate from the game itself. It’s become something that I can extract from the game and insert into my own writing.

I’m sure that many gamers do the same thing when they’re playing a role-playing game, especially if they also happen to be writers. I can guarantee that your experience as a player – your interpretation of the game’s events – will vary dramatically from the experiences and interpretations of any other player. Your character’s progress through the game world, the story that you decided to create in the sandbox that the game provided, is unique, and it belongs to you. And that’s where you stop plagiarising and start creating your own content. You’re drawing your inspiration out of your gaming experiences like a sword being drawn out of a forge, which you can then temper over time, refolding and reheating until it’s become something that’s entirely yours.

I’m running out of room here, and I still haven’t got to my point – so I think I’m going to elaborate on this over the course of the week, and put it into action for you to watch. Come back on Thursday to see how I go about adapting my in-game experiences into prose. Then on Sunday I’ll actually post a short story that I’ve adapted from in-game events.

In the meantime, I suppose I’d better log into Steam and gather some more in-game experiences that I can adapt. Purely for research purposes, you understand…

 

Overdue!

I moved into my new flat this past weekend, Sunday was taken up with watching the new episode of Doctor Who, and Monday necessitated a great deal of unpacking in addition to job prep for my last day of teacher training (for today), so when I suddenly realized at about 1930 on Monday night that I had to write a post, I was somewhat flummoxed. I had no ideas whatsoever for a topic, and I was contemplating the writer’s version of ritual seppuku (making and sharpening your own quill pen before disemboweling yourself with it as you chant the names of all your literary ancestors in hopes that they will forgive you), when Tom stepped in with an alternative.

humperdinck
But not like this.

“Write a short story!” he said, as I sharpened my quill, only half-paying attention. “About a time traveler,” he added, knowing exactly what would pique my interest. A few more interesting details were added to the prompt, and I arose, dramatically tossing my quill to the side, salvation in sight. “I will take it! I will take the Ring to Mordor!” I declared, apparently unaware of the irrelevance of the reference, and began to write. For your enjoyment today, I present “Overdue!” a short story by yours truly.

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

You’d think that being a time traveller would mean never having to deal with library fines. It’s a completely logical thought to have, what with the ability to jump around the time stream and all, but it’s also completely wrong. Studies have actually proven that owners of time machines are more than twelve times more likely to be chronically late about returning their books. The entire Warsaw library system is funded completely by fines from sheepish chrononauts who thought they were popping in right at closing on the due date to return their copies of Welles’s novels and other historical fiction, only to discover they were showing up at noon two years, six months, and four days later. “Sounds like the voice of experience,” you might say, and you’re quite right, kids. My name is Morstan, Elliott Morstan, and I’m a time traveller. And as of three days ago by linear time, I’m also a library criminal.

Until recently, I’d always been conscientious about taking care of my library books. They keep telling you the rules: never leave your library book in your time machine, don’t check out books from libraries in more than one time period at the same time, and above all, don’t ever try to return your book while using your machine. We all know libraries are bound by linear time in order to contain all the strange time irregularities that happen within, and strange things sometimes happen if you mess around with that. We’ve all heard about what happened when someone broke the rules in Alexandria.

Oops.

But even though we know these stories, something deep down inside still whispers “but it could never happen to me. I’m so much more careful; I’d never cross my own time stream while returning a book” and so on and so forth. That’s what I thought, too, when I took my library copy of the best-selling theoretical manual Wibbley-Wobbley, Timey-Wimey, and Other Stuff for the Discerning Time Traveler by R.T. Davies, along to occupy me during the boring bits of the Battle of Hastings. This in and of itself isn’t a problem…but I became so engrossed in the battle that I left the book inside my machine. All on its own. With all of that peculiar book magic that wreaks havoc on the temporal mechanics of any time engine if left unsupervised.

Ugh. Keep in mind, this was a genuine moment of forgetfulness. Not a good thing to do, but not criminal.

So when I made the return journey home, I planned to arrive just 5 minutes after I left, which would give me two hours to finish my book before returning it. I opened the door, stepped out, yawned, and then my jaw dropped as I stared ahead, terrified. Where the library had once stood instead loomed a giant Starbucks. The 50-mile high green and white logo leered at me as it proudly pronounced in glowing neon letters, “Meeting your linear caffeine needs since 2367.”

The library was closed.

My book was at least 50 years overdue.

When the library branch police caught up with me, and we all know they always will find you if your book is overdue, the fines would be horrendous. I’d never be able to pay them off. And I’d never be able to live with the shame of having my name on the list of those “Banned for Reckless Endangerment of a Book,” the terrible fate of those who eat tomato sauce near a book or return it more than 5 years overdue. I had to go back. Surely just going back along my own time stream to the library just long enough to drop my book in the slot wouldn’t hurt anyone… Fortified by resolve and blinding fear, I jumped back into my ship and headed back for the original due date.

Upon landing (in the correct date this time), I opened the door and cautiously peered out. The fabric of reality seemed to be holding together pretty well thus far. Emboldened, I grabbed the book and stepped out, prepared to make a dash for the return slot just a few feet away. But the moment both feet touched the ground, I realized I’d made a huge mistake. Time seemed to constrict and expand all at the same time. Something started screaming in a high-pitched tone that threatened to shred my eardrums. The whole world began to shake and I felt as though I was about to turn inside out and explode. Terrified, I dropped to the ground, curled up in a ball, and began pleading with the universe to calm down.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I sobbed. “Just please stop. It was stupid of me. Don’t unravel all of space and time. I’ll never do it again, I promise.”

“We know you won’t,” a cool voice said from behind me. I sat up, my eyes blurry, to find myself surrounded by severe-looking people in dark red uniforms.

Damn…not the library police! Dear god, please no.

The speaker, a stern woman in a peaked cap glared down at me over the bridge of her spectacles. “You are lucky we were on hand to stabilize the fabric of reality before your reckless actions could cause any real damage to the universe,” she said, nostrils flaring. I shivered. “We cannot allow such actions to pass with just a warning. Your machine will be confiscated and you are hereby restricted to the index room for twenty years, with no chance of parole.” I stared at her in horror. The index room…where I would only ever be able to see the bibliographical information for books but never see the books themselves.

“Mercy,” I pleaded, kneeling as the tears streamed from my eyes. “Anything but the index room!”

It was clear that to her, the matter was now over. “Confiscate her library card and give her an index room pass,” she declared to the uniformed officers as she swept past me.

“Yes, Madame Librarian.”

I have been restricted to the index room for three days now, and I already feel my soul dying. Follow the rules, kids, no matter what time you’re in. Don’t be like me. Don’t be…a library criminal.

This segment of the Library Criminals PSA cycle is brought to you by Librarians Against Time-Space Book Negligence. Don’t read and time travel.

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!

The Power of Parody

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Authenticity in Writing

Prestige_posterHey everyone, once again this is a late post and I must apologize for that. There was some confusion on my end as to whether or not it was my week to write a post. Anyway, I want to talk to you all about the importance of authenticity within your stories. For me personally, what grabs my attention in a story is not just having interesting characters, but also an authentic setting. There are the obvious things like types of transportation that are relatively easy to adhere to, and then there are the tiny details which I think make a story real even though (and possibly because) they escape casual attention. I think a great example of what I mean is the movie The Prestige. This movie is brilliantly put together, in my opinion, and is a must watch. If you haven’t seen this movie then I’m sorry, but I’m about to spoil a major plot device in order to make my point. One of the main characters, Borden, is actually two people. They are identical twins and they have spent their lives being one person, taking turns between which one got to be Borden and which one got to wear a disguise. This is where the authenticity of the movie plays such a huge role! Christian Bale plays both twins but depending on which twin is being Borden at any given time, portrays the character of Borden slightly differently. He walks a little differently, he talks a little differently, he even responds differently to certain situations. What is fascinating is that during the first watch it is almost impossible to discern this, and yet after this fact is revealed if you re-watch the movie it becomes obvious when the different brothers are being Borden. This is authenticity at its finest, and also incredible acting by Christian Bale!

Of course, there is more to authenticity than just having authentic characters. Authentic settings are also vitally important. If your character comes to a village that lives in a heavily wooded area you might want to think about what types of trees are in those woods and what sort of life those people would live with the resources they have available to them. Authenticity is about having coherency between what is seen in the story and what would actually be plausible given the setting of the story. Even if some of the elements of this coherency are not explicitly given in the story it is important for you, the writer, to think them through. A grandiose example of what I mean by this would be the relationship of The Silmarillion to the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. The Silmarillion gives life and authenticity to the world of Middle Earth and its rich history. Obviously, I don’t expect you to create a Silmarillion-esque work for every story you write, but the idea that you should have details in your mind which influence the story even if they aren’t presented within it remains true.

So I guess the takeaway is that when you are writing characters and worlds, part of what makes them believable and relatable is the authenticity of the world with its history and the characters within their respective settings.

Archetypal Heroes: The Mentor

Hey everyone, it’s time for another installment of my archetypal hero series. For this post I’ve chosen one of my two personal favorite hero archetypes, the Mentor, to write about. We all know this character; he’s the wise sage who gives advice and/or trains the protagonist; often sacrificing himself on the quest so that the protagonist can live. He is Gandalf, and he is Morpheus; Grandmother Willow and Uncle Iroh, Yoda and Rafiki. These characters are the embodiment of wisdom and they exist for one main reason and only one: to be a guiding pillar for the protagonist. It is the mentor’s job to make the sure the hero has the right morals and the right path to take. We love these characters because they make the story simpler in a charming, lovable way. They give advice and provide most of the practical life application for the audience to receive the moral lesson. I think ultimately, though, we love the mentors because we wish we had them in our own life. That’s not to say that we don’t have our own mentors throughout life, but that life would be simpler and more enjoyable if I could sit down to tea with Uncle Iroh and have him talk me through what moral lesson I ought to be gleaning from the day’s experiences. I’m sorry but nothing beats that for me. Nothing.

Not only do these characters provide important moral guidance to the protagonist, they also help keep the audience interested in the story. They provide unusual, often unpredictable encounters which should make the readers more attached to both the main character and the mentor. Ideally, the reader should share a similar level of emotional attachment to the mentor that the protagonist does. Authors want their readers emotionally invested in a story, and what better way to create emotional investment than to kill of a character that the isn’t necessary to the end of the story but that the audience shares a deep emotional connection with?

Simply put, we like these characters because they simplify the story and create emotional attachment. Authors like these characters because they can be simple to write and we get invested in the story because of them.

Characters and their quirks

I sent out my manuscript for reading and when it returned I wept a little. I honestly debated printing it out physically just to light it on fire. I like symbolism.

One of the comments I received in the early pages was that my characters had moments of life, but then they fell flat. They merged together into one, like clay that wasn’t thrown in the kiln before putting it near other sculptures, so the clay went back together, returning to a natural form.

This led me to soul search in an attempt to figure out how to make each character unique. Obviously there is dialogue, but I’m still tackling this. At the moment, I have each character gaining some sort of pattern they repeat, whether it’s a word or phrase they say at least once a scene (“Old sport” from Jay Gatsby) or sentence structure (“…the dark side of the Force are they” from Yoda). I’m sure there are other ways to individualize dialogue better, and I’m researching currently.

However, right now I’m focusing on character quirks. Quirks are weird habits which bring the character to life. We all have quirks, even our pets have quirks. The cat that acts like a dog. The tiger that plays well with a lion and bear. The man who took a vow of silence. The woman who spits on all her plates for a final polish. I’ve created a character sheet, and below “merits” and “flaws” there is now “quirks”.

Look pretty and smell pretty? Sauron doesn't stand a chance.
Look pretty and smell pretty? Sauron doesn’t stand a chance.

Gimli and Legolas had their friendship, despite racial differences. It showed up in games, despite violent situations. In Pokemon (I know, now we’re talking some high fantasy literature) Ash cannot for the life of him think out a move. He will always take the hardest path. In Frozen, Anna is doomed to awkwardness. Kristoff is doomed to talk to himself and eat carrots from the mouth of a reindeer.

Quirks make us remember. They make us relate. If you write a character who gets chronic bloody noses, my dad and I will understand that character. After last night my bed looks like a scene from CSI. Perhaps you will relate to Kessem, my character who loathes the sound of dripping water. We can nearly all relate to the kid who refuses to listen to his parents. A few of us can relate to the kid who refuses to admit he listens, but ultimately does what he’s told in his own time and way. Perhaps it’s the way a dame in a speak easy always smokes with her left hand, though she does everything else with her right.

My challenge to you is go out of your way to find quirks people have. Discover your own. I bet you have at least five. I bleed like a faucet, play Pokemon, enjoy cartoons as a grown man, have a personal library, and make horrible puns. I’m only grazing the surface. Remember, quirks aren’t necessarily huge, they’re just things that are odd compared to the society we live in. While I surround myself with cartoon-watching, Pokemon-playing friends, it’s still rare.

Once you’ve done that, make sure to consciously tack them onto each and every character you conjure. Put a side note area for quirks and throw it in there. If you already know what it is, that’s great. It’s a character you obviously already love and have brought to life. That character is making the rest jealous. Practice equality. Give them all quirks.

Also, if you have a particular place you found good for learning dialogue tricks, please post them down below. That’s my next area to work on for the edits and I could use some aid. Might write about that next time based on what I find and what everyone helps me find.

Finally, I know it’s a day late, but for those in the states, blessed Memorial Day. For anyone in any democratic country, remember your warriors who fight and die for the rights we assume and take for granted every day. I’m not saying we’re horrible, it’s just we can’t possibly understand what it is to live in these other countries without having actually been there. So enjoy.

Archetypal Heroes: The Reluctant Hero

Well guys, I’ve been gone for a bit but I’m back now, and I’ve got the next installment of my series on archetypal heroes and their importance to our stories. My first post briefly discussed the tragic hero and gave a few examples, so for this post I want to analyze the reluctant hero.
the_avengers__bruce_banner__the_hulk_wallpaper_by_rainbowplays1-d5dawtbThe reluctant hero is most often an ordinary person who is forced to rise to meet extraordinary circumstances or is an extraordinary person who desires not to use their powers or abilities for the sake of others around. Because of this bipartisan definition, it should be obvious that reluctant heroes can come in many shapes and sizes. In fact, the types of reluctant heroes that audiences more frequently bond with are those who lack any extraordinary qualities. We bond with them because we could be them; that is why the reluctant hero works. Of course, there are reluctant heroes who DO exhibit extraordinary powers. Perhaps the most obvious that comes to my mind is Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk. He has immense power, but with that power he also becomes a danger to society–to the very people he would want to help. He sees his most heroic action to be isolating himself from places where he might accidentally do more harm than good, but in the end he is forced into action. Another example of this can be seen in the movie version of Aragorn, from The Lord of the Rings trilogy. He alone holds the power to fulfill a prophecy and retake the throne that is rightfully his, and yet in the movies he is reluctant to do so. Why? Partly, I think, because he is ashamed of his heritage and the treachery that came from it. But all that aside, the reluctant hero will always choose heroism when forced into a choice. He will do what he must, when he must, and not a moment sooner; and I think that is just one more reason why we connect so easily to these characters–they aren’t cocky or obnoxious, often they are just normal people, and yet they can be relied on when they are needed most. Everyone desires reliability.

Placing Fantasy in Reality

Well, I’m sure all of you remember Paul Davis from his previous posts here. He’s just started a new venture writing for Jukepop and would love for all of you to checkout his work there! For now, enjoy his post, and I have to say that Exalted is an excellent game!

(Photo Credit)
(Photo Credit)

I was in a creative writing class where we alternated which student would write a ten to twenty page story for the class to read and critique. Each of us wrote three stories throughout the semester, and my turn was coming up. I was beside myself as to what I should write, so I chose something simple: a fan fiction. I was playing Exalted, a very fun and exciting, anime based, table top role playing game. The world used a great deal from our own in order to make it easier to connect. There was whiskey, rice, shacks made of wood, and other very common items in our every day life. Being a writer, whiskey was very common in my every day life. So this was the story submitted to my fantasy hating class.

Before this attempt, the advice had been the same every time: I had to make it so people could connect to the characters. No one understood a character fighting a dragon. So I made my character an alcoholic whom lost his daughter and wife to a twisted creature. People could relate to drinking and the thought of losing loved ones, and for once it felt like I won a battle in this class of hard critics. Until one classmate spoke up. “Why is he drinking whiskey? That’s from our world. Why is it here?” This isn’t where he stopped. This colleague became a chef, and I was tossed into the oven. However, when he roasted me it left a lasting impression. How much fantasy in the world is too much or too little?

Star Wars was my first major introduction to a science fiction setting. Nearly everything is imaginary. The material for buildings to the drinks commonly served all had names foreign to any earth tongue. Drugs were unique, and even common guns were called slug throwers. It takes a lot of work keeping it all straight, but for most fans of the genre it was acceptable.

However, do writers of science fiction and fantasy lose fans because of the numerous foreign objects which show up on the pages? Is it too difficult to connect with the common person when every other drink, food, and building material is something the average reader doesn’t understand? Most fantasy has ale, mead, or other forms of alcohol we know. Swords are made of steel, iron, or bronze. Pig, cow, and vegetables are often consumed. Now and then one or two mysteries are introduced. You have pipe weed in Lord of the Rings, but swords might be made of star metal or armor of mithril.

This great piece was done by Alexiuss, whose work can be found here.
This great piece was done by Alexiuss, whose work can be found here.

Then comes the question of physics. One of the most liberating moments in my writing experience was the realization physics in each and every world we create is alterable. Every time we introduce magic we shake up the physics of our world. Since magic or super science is common to our genre, however, we don’t think twice about these changes. However, also an inspiration primarily from Exalted, why do we have to stop there?

Suddenly there is a mystical waterfall which falls up instead of down. The world has a border of mist, and even though it’s a modern world they don’t think twice about it. Trees in a natural park are actually made of crystal due to a science experiment gone wrong or nymphs which became bored. While too many alterations can make it difficult for the readers to follow, a few interesting quirks ignite the imagination. These deviations from reality make your world stick out from every other world created. Just look at nature for a good long while and brainstorm what you can alter to give that zip to your own setting.

My first question is when do we deviate too far from reality or not enough in our writing? Is fantasy and science fiction different in regards to how much we may leave the known? Those really are related, and in some strange way one question. We’re changing the physics of the English language. Also, go observe nature. Sit out there and ponder what you could change for your world which would be awe inspiring. Watch the wild life, the rivers or oceans, the trees and shrubbery, and come up with something to make your own.

Now write your heart out and make something that awes even you, as the creator. That’s when you know it’s something amazing.

Characters and Conflict

Well, I promised a post from Paul Davis, so here it is! And if you like his writing, check out his blog!

(Photo Credit)
(Photo Credit)

Throughout a story, characters develop to reveal to the reader who they are. The idea is to find out more about the human condition through these fictional creations. At other times, really we’re just looking for entertainment and to see if the protagonist will change in the required way to save the day. However, when we first meet the character, there is a state of normality.

In video games from my generation, role playing games often started with an average teenager in some village doing what any teenager would do: peek at beautiful women, kill insects, and cut grass. The character is naive, has few skill sets, and ultimately is happy where he is at. If the world never changed, he would marry the girl he “accidentally” peeked at, he would be a great hunter or farmer, kids would be involved, and he would die at an old age as a village elder.
We didn’t play the game for that life (unless you’re playing “The Sims”). We don’t pick up books that tell such mundane tales that we’ll likely live out ourselves. If Bilbo Baggins didn’t have his life invaded by a company of dwarves, we never would have read his story. We didn’t read about Hamfast Gamgee, Sam’s father, the gardener of Bilbo and other hobbits. We wanted action and adventure, not tips on how to have a green thumb.
So how does Bilbo and Frodo go from common, chunky, serene hobbits with only petty cares in the world to amazing adventurers? How does Sun Wukong in Journey to the West become more than a mischievous, no good, magical monkey? How did you go from being some kid dreaming of writing and thinking it could never happen to a writer on some level, living the dream?
(Photo Credit)
(Photo Credit)

Conflict. Characters, cities, beliefs, people, and so on, will not change without conflict. Take from your own life on this. Love was a beautiful adventure. There should be wonderful kisses, giggling walks through the park, romantic dinners, and whatever else you dreamed of. Then you date that first person, you give them your heart, you create those magical moments, and at a point they leave you, tired of the over the top romanticism. At that point you change. Your idea of love has been irrevocably altered for better or worse.

When a best friend betrays you and takes the third wheel in your group to the playoff game, you have reached a point of conflict. Will you remain friends and brush it off? Will you go to an equally amazing event and either heap coals of kindness in the hopes they will repent, or you can invite the third wheel and shove it in our former friend’s face.
Conflict changes us, or at least reveals something about our nature. It does the same with our characters. However, remember that a static character tells as much to the reader as a dynamic character. A static character will not change, no matter the adversity. A static character terrified of spiders may have to push a button to save his friend, but there are numerous spiders all over the button. Unable to change, the character allows fear to take over and loses his friend because he can’t push that button. A dynamic character does change and would push the button, capable of overcoming his character flaw.
When plotting your story, keep this in mind. If you plan nothing else, create a basic character and give him a flaw or two. Realize any real conflict, anything that will tell us truly about the integrity of the character, will test those flaws. You don’t need every obstacle to be based on those flaws, such as side stories, but have the key conflict revolve around what would show the character’s growth (or lack there of).
So I ask of you to create a character. Create one flaw for that character, then come up with a way to test that flaw. Write a short story on it and whether or not the character overcomes the flaw. This can be gambling, insecurity, snakes, the dark, Aunt Gertrude pinching his cheeks, or whatever else you come up with. Then decide whether or not the character will overcome. Reflect upon what that says about your character (and scarily enough, sometimes you).
Go to it and have fun!