Allegories: The Ups and Downs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Megan and Sam: [Groan and facepalm.]

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

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

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

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

Jared: It’s called…Giraffe-ic Park!

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

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

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

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

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

Megan: Yes…that’s right.

Sam: And his words were hurtful to you?

Megan: Yes! They hurt a lot!

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

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

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

Jared: Oh yeah? Like what?

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

Megan: Oh…well, thanks for saying so.

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

Jared: Yay! Thanks, Safari Sam!

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

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

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

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

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

What Happens When I Don’t Have Anything Left to Say

don_t-be-a-slave-to-writer_s-blockThere are any number of causes behind writer’s block. Perhaps you haven’t really thought through a scene, or perhaps you’re characters just aren’t cooperating and you don’t know why. Perhaps there’s some underdeveloped foundational area of research or creative work that you need to spend more time on, or perhaps you’re just stumped about how to get your characters from A to C without going through B (where B is some undesirable element of story or characterization). These are all legitimate reasons to struggle, and these are all things that many writers struggle with. Creativity is hard work, and sometimes it just takes effort to get through the block. However, there is a more pernicious cause of writer’s block, and even more grievously, or plain bad writing: a lack of message.

We’ve all read books that were shallow. They fill the shelves of your local book store and your local library. They have flat characters, uninteresting story lines, and seemingly meaningless plot twists. The only purpose for which they exist is to sell copies, make people money, and maybe give you some mild entertainment for a few hours. I call this bad writing because even though it can be formally excellent, it is devoid of substance. It’s like a five-star Filet Mignon that turns out to be made of tofu, or like eating cheetos… for anyone who doesn’t know, I hate cheetos. Sometimes you really want mindless drivel, just like sometimes you really want tofu or fake-cheese powder. However, no one in their right mind would call tofu steak, cheetos nourishing, or shallow fiction great literature.

guard2However, I think that its worth asking where such bad writing comes from in the first place, and I am convinced that it comes from the same place as one of the main causes of writer’s block. When you have something that is worth saying, have done your research, worked out the details of your world, understand your characters, and planned out your story, the actually writing part tends to come fairly easily. Its usually when one of these is missing that writer’s block sets in. That being said, I think the the most important of these is the first: having something that is worth saying. When my fiction has a purpose, when I am trying to express something that is meaningful to me, it tends to be much better. Even fiction that is not exceptional formally can be very enjoyable and captivating when it has a clear purpose: when its alive. A good example of this is Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers or Stranger in a Strange Land. Both of these are wonderful novels that do not excel formally. In Starship Troopers Heinlein tends to use his characters as mouthpieces, and some of the characters are under-developed. In Stranger in a Strange Land the characters as a whole tend to be under-developed and at times it is difficult to follow the course of the story. However, in both novels his message is clear. The same criticisms can apply to much of Ayn Rand’s work, and yet Atlas Shrugged is still selling copies more than thirty years after her death.

So, the question is: what do we do when we’ve said what we wanted to say? I think that there are three major options:

Streets-of-Blood-cover1) Write Bad Fiction: as I said above, there’s a place for it. Sometimes I want to read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation or Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, but sometimes I want to read Never Deal with a Dragon or Streets of Blood (I’ve been on a Shadowrun kick lately). I don’t expect the later to live up to the high standard set by the former. In fact, I don’t expect much from them at all except a few hours entertainment in a setting that I love. So, I think that there is a legitimate choice here, though I certainly hope that writing bad fiction won’t be a permanent choice.

2) Do Something Else: the vast majority of my favorite writers didn’t spend their entire lives writing. Some of them didn’t even spend most of their lives writing. David Eddings was a soldier, a purchaser for Boeing, and a college lecturer as well as a writer. Isaac Asimov was a soldier and a Biochemist as well as a writer. Frank Herbert was a journalist for much of his life. Robert Heinlein was a sailor, a miner, and a failed politician as well as a writer. And Steven Erikson is an anthropologist and archaeologist. So, if you don’t have something that’s worth saying, its perfectly valid to go and do something else for a while. Maybe you’ll return to writing, hopefully you’ll bring back a lot of experiences that will make your stories that much better. Maybe you won’t, but you’ll contribute to the world in some other way. However, for many of the greats writing has been something that they did along with life, not the center and goal of their life.

3) Find A New Message: you might actually do this by doing something else for a while. However, if the best writing has a purpose and a point, and if you’ve made yours already then maybe the best thing to do is to find something else that’s worth saying. Of course, you could just make the same point over and over again, there are plenty of authors writing both fiction and non-fiction who do this, but that can get tedious after a while. However, you are in the midst of an entire world worth of possibilities, ideas, arguments, and beliefs. Find one to support (hopefully a good one, I’m not encouraging you to go out and write something glorifying and defending slavery or mass murder), and write something that does so in a meaningful, interesting way. Don’t be random about this, but find something that you actually believe in, and that you actually know something about.

So, this is my advice for when you don’t have anything left to say. I’ve been majoring on the second for the last year (of course, between work, school, and relationship I haven’t really had time for writing fiction), and if I get into a Ph.D. program I might be focusing on the second one for a while longer. However, what you decide to do is up to you.

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

Well, I think my exam yesterday went fairly well… as long as my instructor can read my handwriting anyway… if he can’t then there could be problems. So, today’s philosophical challenge post is going to be fairly difficult I think. Metaphysics is a discipline of philosophy dealing with higher things such as being, knowing, the nature of truth, etc. It stands above disciplines such as ethics, politics, philosophy of law, medicine, science, etc as a discipline that deals with first order concerns. For instance, metaethics is the study of metaphysics as it is applied to ethics. Where as ethics deals with conceptions of right and wrong and how we can discern right from wrong, metaethics deals with questions of whether we can discern right from wrong, whether right and wrong even exist to be discerned, and whether conceptions of right and wrong are meaningful in the first place.

So, two of the major subdisciplines in metaethics are ontology and epistemology: the study of being and the study of knowing respectively. These two disciplines are often and easily confused because they are very closely related to one another. For instance, if I say that I am a moral realist, I am making a statement of belief concerning the ontological nature of morals: I am saying that morals have an actual, objective existence apart from myself. If I say that I am a moral irrealist, then I am making the opposite ontological claim. However, if I say that I am a cognitive moral realist, then I am making both an ontological and an epistemological claim: i.e. that morals have objective, real existence, and that they can be known by man. Similarly if I say that I am a non-cognitive moral irrealist, then I am making the opposite ontological and epistemological claim (though it’s kind of redundant… I’ll get to why in a moment). But, if I claim that I am a non-cognitive moral realist, then I am making three claims at once, two of which are possible contradictory: first I am making the ontological claim that morals have a objective existence, second I am making the epistemological claim that I cannot in any way know the objective nature of morals, but thirdly these two claims together make the third claim that nothing I say about morals can be objectively meaningful. Because I can’t know anything about morals, then whatever I claim about the objective existence of morals is meaningless because I can’t know anything about their objective existence, which means that (for all practical purposes) they may as well not exist.

Are you confused yet? I told you this one would be hard. Here’s your challenge: What is the distinction and relationship between ontology and epistemology?

As always, provide a 1000 word long story that presents and defends your answer to the question.

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

(image credit)
(image credit)

Well, I’m sure at least some of you saw my giant ramble on Thursday. I must apologize that I didn’t have a more coherent post put together, but with Alayna visiting the post kind of slipped my mind. That being said, I do think that the issue of meaning is one of the most significant challenges that modern culture faces. So, this is my question for you today: what is meaning and where does it come from?

Obviously, this is a pretty complicated question, so we can simplify it some to this: what gives life meaning? Plato argued that the only goals truly worth pursuing are those goals that are pursued for their own sake and nothing else. This led him to propose eudaimonia as the worthy goal of life. This Greek word is commonly translated ‘happiness’, but a better translation for Plato’s usage might be ‘joy’, ‘contentment’, or ‘fulfillment.’ Augustine argued that the glory of God was the only thing worth pursuing, because God was the only thing worth glorifying. Nietzsche, on the other hand, saw the goal of life as the development of personal power, or the power to do that which I will to do. Epicurus saw pleasure (especially intellectual pleasure) as the ultimate goal of life. So, is it some ultimate goal that gives life meaning? Is it the immediate moment? Something else?

As always, write a story of 1000 words that presents and defends your answer.

Fantasy and Reality

You’ve got to love expensive books :). I’ve been thinking about getting a set of the 10 volume collection of the writings of the Ante-Nicene fathers… for a hardcopy set its a minimum of a $121. That’s not actually be, considering that there’s 10 hardcover volumes involved. Still, it’s a lot more money than I’ve got at the moment. There are some cheap kindle versions, but a 10 volume reference set needs to be fairly well-organized and easy to navigate to be useful and the Kindle versions… are not. I’ll be honest, I have no agenda today. Alayna is visiting for a day or two, and I had an 8 hour Ph.D. seminar today, so I really have no brain-power left. However, I do want to say a few words about the imagination the context of an actual reality. On this blog we tend to emphasize speculative fiction (fantasy and science fiction generally), mostly because that’s what we as the authors love to read and what we love to write. However, it is easy to let ourselves slip away into the fantasy. This is especially true in the post-modern world where the cultures that many of us live in have essentially rejected any fundamental truth or meaning. Part of the reason that speculative fiction is attractive is that it lets us escape the real world for a little while and live in our imaginations.

There’s nothing wrong with this as far as it goes. We all have escapes, and we all need escapes. They let us cope with a reality that is often stressful, painful, frustrating, and generally difficult. However, we also have to keep a tight hold on our imaginations. If reality actually exists, and lets assume for a moment that it does, then we are left with a couple of options: 1) that reality is totally material, devoid of any meaning or metaphysical truth, and thus the only realistic response is some form of nihilism, or 2) that reality is more than material, and thus there is something else beyond the physical world that gives meaning and metaphysical truth to reality. If we assume the first, then we can ignore everything that I’m saying here. The world is pointless, we are perfectly right to escape it, and we should all just party until we die. Why bother working… why bother surviving in a meaningless world if it isn’t any fun?

However, if there is something more, then we have to seek for truth. This quest (and yes I use terminology common to the literature intentionally) is a very real one that does call upon us to use our imaginations, but it also calls upon us to use those imaginations within the restrictions of reality. We can’t simply imagine the world we want. Instead, it is incumbent upon us to use our imaginations to better understand the world that is!

So, why should we believe that there is meaning, truth, or reality in the world? Well, I suppose the layman’s answer is that the world is just too damn depressing if there isn’t. Despite the postmodern claim that we create our own meaning… that sounds like a lot of work just to delude myself into believing that there’s a point to getting up tomorrow. I have to ask… what’s the point?

I think a better answer is found in the classical arguments for God. The universe might seem arbitrary in some ways (i.e. why does one man lose a job and the other man not lose a job), but in most ways and especially on the grand scale it is far from arbitrary. This is true in physical reality (i.e. the way planets move, weather patterns work, etc), and in the way life’s events play out (i.e. I know looking back at my life I can see signs of a design beyond my own making, and I know that many others would say the same). While events often seem arbitrary in the immediate instant, in hindsight they often seem to be anything but arbitrary. Further, while science has ways of pushing back the question of origins, initially the universe had to come from somewhere. The universe is, for everything that we can tell, neither eternal nor static. On top of this, an infinite regression into the past is implausible at best, fundamentally impossible at worst. This means that we need to posit something that exists outside of time itself as the first cause that Aquinas put forth. This must be outside of time because that is the only way to avoid an infinite regression. The combination of a being outside of time and the sense of design throughout the universe also posits a being of intellect. Further while the problem of evil is often raised, and it is a problem with which we should, and perhaps even must wrestle, we rarely consider the opposite problem of good. If we posit an eternal, intelligent, and obviously powerful being that is wicked, or at best amoral and passionless, then we must ask the question: why is there so much good, truth, and beauty in the world? While the problem of evil can be answered in multiple ways, the problem of good isn’t quite as easy (at least I haven’t seen a truly strong response to it). This leads us to add ‘good’ to our list of traits. So, if there is an eternal, intelligent, powerful, and good entity that created an ordered and beautiful universe, and pursues plans within that universe (remember that our lives seem designed, not just the cosmos), this then seems a good reason to infer that meaning then resides with this being. So, this only gets us so far, and honestly it’s only intended too. I’m writing this because I do believe that meaning is important, and that we should pursue meaning and truth with our writing, even our speculative writing. I’m reading a book right now that effectively, and quite depressingly, does the opposite. If you want more on this same argument I suggest looking up Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis or something along the lines of Contending with Christianity’s Critics by William Lane Craig. Or just go back to the source and read the first several questions of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica or his Summa Contra Gentiles.

What’s in a Name?

Today’s topic is about an aspect of fiction writing that seems relatively minor, but can actually be fairly important. It’s something that (in my experience, at least) isn’t usually the first big idea that pops into the mind of the writer, but often, when well-chosen, ends up being an important aspect that sticks in the mind of the readers. What I’m talking about is naming characters.

NametagPersonally, I’m not very good at coming up with names. That can apply to titles of a work, or, more along the lines of what I’m talking about here, to character names. I usually can figure out easily what I want my characters to be like–their personalities, backstories, driving motivations, manners of speaking, and more. But not their names. This results in me having a well-developed person in my mind who I feel like I know very well, and yet it’s a bit awkward because I don’t know what to call them. Sometimes, when writing an early draft, I’ll just refer to the characters with titles such as “Male Lead” or “Female Lead” or “Villain” or whatever until I think of something more permanent–and I’ve heard of some fellow writers doing this too.

On the contrary, I’ve heard some writers say that, once they know a character well enough, the right name just comes to them, and it feels like the only one that fits that character. If you’re one of those writers, then that’s great! However, as I somewhat touched on in my last post, I personally am not the type of writer who can just churn out something on a whim and have it be good. I need to put thought, time, and good reasoning into my writing before I’m satisfied with it–and that applies to character names as well.

So, if character names don’t just come to you in random bursts of inspiration, then what’s the best way to think of them? I’m afraid I don’t know. But I’ll tell you a few methods that I’ve used in the past.

  • Just pick whatever sounds good.
    • There’s not a whole lot I can say about this one because it’s fairly subjective and imprecise–just a matter of personal preference, really. Go through the baby name book (is that still a thing?) or search for online name generators, because there are a lot of them out there–some for ordinary, everyday names, and some for more unique fields such as fantasy and science fiction. Just pick a name that you like and that seems to fit with your conception of the character.
  • Pick (or avoid) names with personal significance.
    • Some writers like to pick names based on people they know, such as if a certain character is based on or reminds them of a real-life friend or acquaintance. Personally, I used to do the opposite. I would try to avoid using names of people I knew, because I didn’t want my perceptions of those people to influence my perceptions of the characters. Of course, the more people I knew, the more difficult it became to find names that weren’t attached to anyone in particular for me, so I usually don’t make this my primary criterion anymore. Still, names of people you know, and their personal connotations for you as the author, can sometimes be a good way to decide whether or not to use a certain name.
  • Put in some secret or special significance.
    • This is one that I, personally, like to do whenever I can. If you want your character’s name to mean something, but you don’t want it to be super obvious or directly connected to real people, then find some distant connection that’s not so easily recognized, such as a rearrangement of letters or a reference to another character.
    • For example: About five years ago, for my first-ever NaNoWriMo, I wrote a story about aliens, with a heartfelt but painfully obvious Christian allegory underneath. I named the Christ-figure Ussej Thrisc, and I’m sure I thought at the time that I was being incredibly clever by rearranging the letters of “Jesus Christ,” and calling the villain who betrayed him Usdaj Troicasi. Some of my friends who read the story told me that they enjoyed figuring out the name puzzles of those characters and others, but I have to acknowledge in hindsight that in this case, once the names and their significance are figured out, the cleverness is thinly veiled from that point on.
    • These days, I don’t do as many anagrams, but I still like the names to have some significance, even if it’s one that only I know about and others might not recognize as readily. Sometimes, if a character is loosely based on a previously established character, or if I see a connection in my mind to another work, I’ll try to “borrow” parts of the other character’s name in order to pay homage. For example, in my superhero story, the dark vigilante’s secret identity is Wayne Murphy, and I fully admit that I took the first name “Wayne” from the last name of anotherWayne dark vigilante’s secret identity. (The other names in that story have similar significances, but that’s the only one I’m giving away, so if you ever read it, then you’ll have to guess.) Similarly, in my dystopian story about the dangers of forced or unhealthy romantic relationships, I’ve tried to appropriate the names of various literary and historical figures who were known for their bad relationships, such as Romeo, Juliet, Lancelot, Bathsheba, and Delilah (and I slightly alter them for the purposes of subtlety, resulting in characters named Lance, Sheba, and Lilah). The readers may or may not get all the connections, but the names at least mean something to me, and I still get to feel like I’m being clever and sophisticated by putting subtle literary and historical allusions into my novel that the common man probably won’t get right away. So if you want your characters’ names to mean something, try taking the name of a person or character who already means something to you, and rearrange or alter it a bit. Be creative and see what you can come up with!
  • Remember to pick something that works with the setting. This is more of a side issue and may not help you actually generate the names themselves, but you want to make sure that you pick names that are appropriate with the time, place, and tone of your work. For example, if you’re writing an epic high-fantasy adventure far removed from Earth, then you probably don’t want your main hero to be “Bob.” The name is casual and sounds silly in the context of the serious world around it (unless you’re writing a tongue-in-cheek satire, in which case it’s perfectly appropriate to feature an android named Marvin). Similarly, if it’s a real-world drama of ordinary people, then don’t pick anything too eccentric just for its own sake. But sometimes a good balance of the familiar and the exotic can be helpful. For example, futuristic stories like the one mentioned above will sometimes go with names that are less common, but not entirely unheard of. I like to think that names like Lance, Sheba, and Lilah help to give the setting some distance from our own culture, but also enough familiarity that the story still feels tangible and possible on some level.

Those are some of my best suggestions for coming up with character names. What methods or techniques do you use? 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.


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 with a brief introduction, bio, and writing sample. If you have any previous blogging experience that would also be good to mention :).

A Lesson from the Preacher

ecclesiastesRecently I’ve been reading Ecclesiastes in my devotions. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I am a Christian, but for those of you wondering, yes I am one of those serious Christians who reads the bible every day and thinks that God speaks to me, it’s not just a one way conversation. However, I don’t bring up Ecclesiastes because I want to show talk about my faith, as you know, I try to do that relatively little, and I hope I do a good job of making this blog ultimately accessible for everyone. Ecclesiastes (specifically Ecclesiastes 3) has two very important lessons that writers everywhere need to take to heart. 1) Everything’s been done before… everything. Whatever your plot twist, new character, or super-cool magic/tech concept, someone, somewhere has already done it. As the book says, ‘there is nothing new under the sun’. 2) Everything has a place. The author’s point in Ecclesiastes is that God rules the world, and thus everything that happens is under his control, and he has a purpose for all of it. The good, the bad, and the ugly all have a purpose, even when we can’t understand it. However, this is also an important lesson for authors.

All of us have things that we don’t like to write. Whether we are uncomfortable with it, feel like we’re not good at it, or just feel like its unnecessary doesn’t really matter. For some of us, it’s killing characters, for others its hard things like rape or abuse, for others its romance, for others religion, etc. I’ve no doubt that something that you hate writing just popped into your head. For me its romance. It’s not something that I’ve ever had much luck with in real life, and so I always feel like I’m out of my depth when writing romantic scenes. I worry that I’m fantasizing the scene, or over-dramatizing it, and that it just won’t match up with reality.

ecclesiastes (1)However, as writers we are striving to create a world that mirrors reality, and that means that everything has a place. People die, people fall in love, bad things happen, and so do good things, and all of these should have a place in the story. This is because it is that very reality that makes stories powerful. What would Lord of the Rings be without the death of Boromir or the insanity of Denethor? What would Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series be without Covenant’s leprosy and the bitterness that it brings?

While life has many pleasures and much joy, it also has a lot of pain and brokenness. Good fiction often shows us one side of that coin, whether its light and fluffy like the Spearwielder trilogy, or dark and distrubing like Lolita or Ellison’s Invisible Man. However, truly great fiction doesn’t just show us one side of life, it shows us all of life, and how all of life is interwoven. Great fiction shows us how pain and joy can intermingle and, in many ways, become one and the same. It shows us actions and consequences, both good and bad. So, this is always the challenge that we’re striving for: write something that is real. Write something that shows life in all of its horror and glory and gives meaning to both of them.

Anyway, that’s my two sense for the day.


A drink recipe for anyone out there who’s interested.

2 Parts Cranberry Liqour

2 Parts Tonic Water

1 Teaspoon of Sugar

1 Teaspoon of Lemon Juice

1 Part Absinthe

It’s surprisingly tasty