On Gender Relations Post 5: Great (or not so great) Expectations (Tobias

Have you ever heard of the book Good to Great? I have to be honest and say that I haven’t read it. I can’t actually tell you whether it’s a good book or not. I do know that one of the primary principles of the book is a teaching of Voltaire that ‘Good is the enemy of great,’ or that when we settle for what is good we somehow miss out on what is great. Consider the saying ‘Shoot for the moon. If you miss, at least you’ll hit the stars.’ Honestly, American culture is generally replete with sayings like this. We believe that everything can be the best all the time. We generally ignore the fact that missing the moon generally leaves you floating dead in empty space, not frolicking among the stars.

Something that I’ve been thinking quite a bit about lately is the idea of that which is good enough. We often connect ‘good enough’ with ‘mediocre’, ‘lazy’, or ‘really not good enough.’ However, I think this is a profound mistake. We have this idea that something has to be the best in order to be good enough. However, this isn’t (in fact it can’t be) true. Something that I drill into my martial arts students is that they will never be the best. There is always someone better: someone stronger, faster, more skilled, more experienced, luckier, etc.

This actually reminds me of one of my favorite movies, Three Idiots. This movie actually does a great job of illustrating what ‘good enough’ looks like. One of the themes of the movie is ‘pursue excellence and success will follow.’ This doesn’t mean that if you aim at being the best, you will be. It means that if you aim at being your best, you can be satisfied with it. Being the best and doing my best are two completely different things. When I do my best I generally hit ‘good enough’, and I can be satisfied with the result. When I focus on being the best, I generally fail miserably and don’t even reach ‘good enough’. This is important because when I say ‘good enough’, what I actually mean is good enough, or enough to be considered good, enough that I can be satisfied that I’ve done the best I can.

This is especially important when it comes to my relationship with Alayna. I’ve found that there are two significant struggles in which understanding this difference is key: appearance and romance. We live in a nation that is steeped in false notions of both. Between movies, super-models, and pornography, Americans have a garbage dump full of ideas about what their significant other is supposed to look like, act like, be like, and what they themselves are supposed to feel, want, desire.

I’d like to tackle these in order: appearance first. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Alayna is, objectively speaking, the most beautiful woman to ever walk the planet. She is a very attractive woman (I actually told her she could be a porn star once… …that did not go over well at all…), but there are women who better fit the American model of beauty. Of course, the American model of beauty is rather insane in the first place. Consider that not even super-models actually look like super-models. Watch this video if you don’t believe me. So, what I’m saying is that it is important for men to be satisfied with a woman who doesn’t look like ‘the ideal’ or even like ‘that other lady.’ Alayna is beautiful, not just because she looks good normally, but because she 1) tries to look good, and 2) tries to look good specifically for me. My point here is that Alayna’s appearance isn’t ‘the best in the world’, but that she makes the effort to look the best that she can, and that she her looks are easily good enough. She can be satisfied in her appearance, and I should be satisfied in her appearance. If I’m not, it’s my fault, not hers.

Further, pornography itself is incredibly destructive to the American view of what a woman should look and act like. It leads us to objectify women (problem one) seeing them as collections of parts that either meet or don’t meet standard, rather than as people who are worthy of love and respect. Further, extreme overuse of pornography can lead to an assortment of erectile related medical problems that no guy actually wants to deal with. Most destructively, pornography teaches us to expect things that, were we thinking rationally, we would never expect.

Amazingly enough, I’ve never opened the door to find a busty blond naked on my doorstep and ready to go. I’m not going to say that it’s completely inconceivable that this could ever happen… just that it doesn’t. Women generally don’t act like this, and generally don’t look like what we see in movies. The thing is… that’s a good thing. Heck, I don’t want Alayna showing up naked on some other guy’s doorstep. Nor do I want her to look like someone who isn’t real… or someone who couldn’t actually stand up straight (honestly… imagine the back problems some of these poor women have). Models and porn-stars often have to trade actual health for an ‘ideal’ appearance. Honestly, I’d rather Alayna be around to take care of me when I’m eighty than look like some movie vixen now. This doesn’t even begin to go into the addiction problems, the feelings of betrayal and unworthiness, etc. that use of pornography can create. However, while I am away of the damage that pornography does to relationships both before and during the relationship. It actually hasn’t been the most significant problem that I’ve had to overcome in my relationship with Alayna.

Since the start of our relationship it’s been the American culture of romance that has been the source of my most pernicious struggles. As Alayna said last week I’ve never been obsessed with her. I’ve never chased her through an airport, nor have I pined after her, and I struggle with feeling like I should. I struggle with fear born out of the fact that I don’t feel overwhelming passion that blinds me to all of her flaws and makes my heart sob with grief when I’ve been away from her for five minutes. I struggle with the fact that nothing about her makes me feel like I’m falling through space or have completely lost control. I’m afraid that this absence means that she’s ‘not the one’: which is a total pile of horse hockey because I don’t even believe in ‘the one.’ This is not to say that I believe that I could be ‘as happy’ with anyone else, or that Alayna won’t make me happy. What I mean is that I don’t believe that there is one and only one woman in all the universe who I was fated to be with, and that if Alayna isn’t that woman that my life will be miserable. I believe that I could be happy as a single man. I also believe that I could make a relationship with someone else work, and I believe if (God forbid) Alayna dies young I probably will eventually be able to move on and find someone else. I also believe that I have chosen to tie my life to hers, and that we can be happy together regardless of anything else. All of this to say: I chose Alayna. I decided that I wanted to tie my life to hers in particular. I didn’t do this because I thought that no one else would have me, or that there was no other possible choice. I did this because I decided that she was the person that I wanted more than anyone else.

Still, that fear remains. It remains because culture inundates us with this kind of uber-romantic gibberish that leads us to believe that ‘real love’ is about immediate passion, uncontrolled feeling, and the rejection of all that is rational, rather than about consistency, willingness to work on yourself, and willingness to love a broken person who needs to work on him/herself as well.

For years I’ve preached against this same kind of uber-romanticism, and yet I find myself falling into it. I’m afraid that I don’t love her enough. That I’m going to let her down, hurt her, ruin her life… you get the picture. Ultimately, I’m afraid that this is going to be a real relationship that takes work, effort, patience, and forgiveness; not a fantasy relationship where I get to be the hero, she always adores me, we burn with passion, and never disagree. You can ask her, I’ve struggled to move past these fears, and the expectations that engender them, from the very beginning. I like to think that I’m succeeding, but the fact that I’m not madly obsessed with my fiancée still scares me sometimes.

All that being said, someone asked me on Wednesday how I knew that Alayna was the woman I wanted to marry. The answer was easy: the easy things can be hard, but the hard things are always easy. Alayna and I will fight tooth and nail over the what the bible says about divorce or whether Drago and Danni’s relationship was, in the beginning, non-consensual (i.e. repeated rape) or consensual but still painful and unwanted. However, when it comes to making big decisions (like whether I’m going to move up to where her new job is so that we can get married; or whether to get up early and drive 2.5 hours just to go to a doctor’s appointment with her, and then drive 2.5 hours back to make it to my class on time), the answer is just obvious. Sometimes I really struggle to say the things that Alayna wants to hear, mostly because I’m afraid that they might not be true and I might hurt her by building up false expectations. Actually, not too long ago, Alayna asked me who I loved more than anyone else in the world. I stopped. I was thinking, ‘I love God more than anyone else, and I love my family, there are many friends that I love… oh my goodness, what if I don’t actually love her enough?! I can’t say what she wants me to say! What do I do? What do I do?!’ (… …I don’t overthink things… what are you talking about…) I did finally calm down, and with some help from Alayna I finally stopped over-thinking and was able to tell her what she wanted to hear. On top of that, Alayna is the person that I want to tie my life to. I do love God more than her, and He is my first priority. However, if I had to choose between friends and family or her, I would choose her. Thankfully she isn’t going to ask me to make this choice, but it is the choice that I would make.

When it comes to doing things to express my love for her, I tend to do much better. Honestly, there aren’t many things that I wouldn’t do. I won’t lie for her to cover up something she’s done wrong. I wouldn’t kill someone just because she didn’t like him/her (though there have been a few times when someone actually hurt her that I’ve considered it). But if I can do something to make her happy that isn’t flat out wrong, even if it’s hard… well, that’s just an easy decision to make.

On Gender Relations Post 4: Great (or not so great) Expectations (Alayna)

Welcome everyone! I hope that you’re having a wonderful Sunday. As you all know, Alayna and I have been working on a series of posts lately dealing with some of the things that we’ve struggled with and some problems that we see in the culture. As I’ve said in earlier posts, we both hope that those of you who read this find in helpful, but the primary purpose for writing these has actually been for us, not for you. We’re working to get ourselves on the same page, work through some disagreements, and effectively express our concerns, beliefs, positions, and fears so that we can better understand one another first and foremost. So, this week’s post is from Alayna, and I personally think that she did a great job of expressing some real issues in American society as a whole:

While preparing a post about what marriage means and what it’s meant to accomplish, I kept getting hung up on exactly what it means to be loved and how people allow that love to die. This necessitated that the marriage post be postponed a few weeks so Tobias and I can wrestle through a major issue that helps sour multiple marriages. This issue is one of harmful expectations. And just like we did with dating, this post is directed to women and next week Tobias will address the men.

While the coffin for a marriage is always ready (as part of living in a sinful and imperfect world), couples put the nails in and hammer them through with repeated mistakes. The nail of harmful expectations is often firmly in place long before rings are exchanged or ‘I do’s’ are said. This of course means that even before a marriage begins, its demise has already been started. This demise comes to you straight from Hollywood (and the like). From the comfort of our couches or theater seats, we see heroes who possess a perfect hairstyle, physique, and fashion. He locks eyes with the heroine and instantly his life (and our’s) is changed. She consumes his every waking moment and is in his dreams at night. He knows when she will have a bad day before it happens and always shows up with the perfect remedy. He chases her through airports so they can share one last-last (since the last one was in the car seconds previously) kiss or embrace. He wows her with lines like “you have bewitched me body and soul” (Pride and Prejudice). He obsesses over her (in a romantic way of course) and moves heaven and earth to save her and be with her. And all this in only a couple hours…think what we can fit into our entire lives!!! While watching these scenes play out, our heart skips a beat and our breathing quickens (or momentarily stops…depending on how one processes romantic thrills). And then the moment is over and we have a desperate yearning to live it out again…the next time, however, we fully intend to play the role of the heroine. We walk out of the theater with a subconscious but fully planted expectation of what it looks like to be loved by a man.

When our real-life hero walks into our lives, we notice him and fall in love with him, but there is nearly always some level of discontent. Something is missing. Most women walk into marriage with either a ‘husband improvement plan’ in the back of their minds, or with the expectation that he will magically change himself and become the beloved Hollywood man we’ve pined away for. While these women imagined love being like a torrential downpour preceded by roaring thunder and flashing lightning, most love is like a small rainstorm. Constant, pleasant, and allows the sun to shine through. But it lacks the drama and intensity that we women can crave. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with grand gestures or making some days (like important anniversaries) extra-special. But women often condition themselves to miss the gentle rain because they’re too busy desiring the giant storms and think that that’s the only way to show real love. Men claim that these expectations are unrealistic, but how hard can it be to chase someone through an airport, we ask ourselves. Ultimately, it’s not that these expectations are unrealistic, it’s that they’re misguided. Is it possible that while focusing on what our man is not, we’ve lost sight of what he is?

The simple truth is that, while your man may be missing some of the characteristics that Mr. Hollywood possesses, it is emphatically true that this works both ways. Mr. Hollywood is also missing characteristics that your man possesses. The key here is refocusing our attention so that we notice what our men do to show their love for us. And then we can prioritize and maybe come to the conclusion that the constant gentle rainstorm might actually be preferable to the occasional downpour.

The following are ways that Tobias loves me in his own way rather than Hollywood’s style. While I appreciate the opportunity to publicly brag about him, I’m guessing some of these are true for a lot of men (maybe even your man?). So ask yourself, what is really important?

-Tobias has never chased me through an airport (and in all likelihood never will). But he has pursued my heart through his own loving gestures (flowers, quality time together, hugs, making contact throughout the day (calls, texts, messages, etc.)

-Tobias has never talked like Mr. Darcy. But he has told me that he loves me.

-Tobias has never been obsessed with me or been overwhelmed by a need for me. But he has deliberately chosen to prioritize me in his life and has shown that by repeatedly setting aside time in his busy schedule to make sure my needs are met and to spend time with me.

-Tobias has never been awestruck by me. But he has loved me regardless of what I’m wearing, how my hair looks, or what my make-up regimen was (or wasn’t) that morning.

-Tobias has never felt desperately lost or alone while living 4 hours away from me (our current situation). But he has re-arranged his schedule (when he can) to make time together happen. And he has been faithful to me through the distance.

-Tobias does not find his life purpose in me; nor does he claim that I am the only important part of his life or the only receiver of his attention. But he has made me his highest priority (other than God) and has trusted me to be a help to his other projects rather than a hindrance.

So how does Tobias (and most men) score on the Hollywood test? Fairly low probably. The adoration, worship, and all-consuming nature of the love that Hollywood shows is polar opposite to what many women receive each day. But they receive that love day in and day out. Year after year. And isn’t that more important?

Conclusion

Men are human, too. It can be difficult for them to do small things for us over and over if they go repeatedly un-noticed or seem unwanted. Like us, they want recognition for their efforts, and a response that shows we notice and appreciate them. Cultivate a spirit of thankfulness rather than discontent. You will be happier, and your man will be as well. Start today and find 5 ways your man has shown you love in small ways in the last couple days. Then go find him and thank him for them. Looking for a new year’s resolution? Look no further.

On Romance

ImageRomance is an experience that virtually everyone has experienced. It’s relatable. Perhaps, and I do think it is probable, this is why it is such a common tool to find in stories today. Our society teaches us that love is what makes the world go round, and this is true to an extent, but it takes advantage of the fact that the English language has only one word to describe something that is incredibly diverse. The Greeks uses four words to differentiate and clarify on the topic of love; many of you have probably heard this and are familiar with it so I won’t really explain it. However, I would make the argument that when people say things like “love is what should guide us” or “follow your heart” they are referring to compassion as opposed to romance, as we commonly see it portrayed. But since our language doesn’t automatically differentiate between the two there has been a lot of confusion, leading to an imbalanced propensity towards seeking romance above all else. Bypassing the many sociological, psychological, and political implications of this statement, as a writer and a reader I find the trend within current writing towards the same to be both unnerving and tremendously annoying.

ImageThe truth is that romance should not be the driving force behind virtually anything—especially writing. With a few possible exceptions, if your story could not function without romance being overemphasized then it is probably not a good story. It is for this reason, among many others, that I found myself enjoying the recently released film Pacific Rim. Not only was it a beautiful film to watch as far as graphics, it was a gripping, relatable story that involved virtually zero romance as we commonly see it portrayed. There was not a single kiss in the entire movie. The main character and the female protagonist never really shared a moment. There was obviously some affection and some attraction portrayed between them, but it was so downplayed and realistic that it was refreshing. The story did not revolve around a romance between the main characters, it was a secondary, almost nonexistent story-arch that simply added to the story itself. Too often I feel like I’m watching a romance with a story added in secondarily instead of a story with a romance written in secondarily, and that is why I found Pacific Rim to be such a refreshing movie. And please do not misunderstand me, I’m not saying that we should never include in romances in our stories, but I’ve found that if a story can function without a romance it is usually more enjoyable than a story that revolves around a romance. Likewise, if you start with a good story and add a romance, you will probably have a better story than if you start with a romance and add a story.

As usual, I would summarize this post by saying that moderation is key. Do not write stories that are overly dependent on romance, but neither should you be afraid to add some romance to your story.

Scene Challenge of the Week

valentines-day-wallpaper-01So, tomorrow is the big day! I hope that all of you with a special someone have something special planned! If not… well, then my hopes and prayers go out to you, and if you don’t have a special someone, then find someone else who doesn’t and make their day a little bit brighter! Your scene challenge today is obviously valentines day themed. You probably know the rules, but if not:  I provide you with specific rules for how to write a particular scene.  Try to keep your scene under five hundred words, and try to keep it in the same tone as the introduction.  If I give a line that is very dark and depressing, then I don’t want to see a scene about a drunken monkey in a tutu…it just doesn’t fit.  If I do give you a line about a drunken monkey in a tutu, then you should probably try for a funny scene.

Your rules: Write a scene that reflects your perfect valentines day experience. If your planning on posting the scene, or a link to the scene here, then please keep it clean and above board. Also, let your imagination go here, write about what you wish could happen, instead of what you expect to happen. No special rules for this challenge, just write a solid scene about your dream valentines day.

Tortured Souls

Well… I have no idea what’s up, but Selanya’s computer couldn’t load the page to add this post. This is Selanya’s post for today:

This excellent photo must be credited to Podvinak, whose work is available here.
This excellent photo must be credited to Podvinak, whose work is available here.

I mentioned in last week’s post that I have trouble with writing romances in part because I like to torture my characters. I do, I really do. It might seem strange to you, but when I write, my character’s lives almost always turn out to be a living hell. So today, I’m going to share with you what I do with my characters and why I make bad things happen to them.

For some reason, I have never been able to write a decent story where a multitude of bad things did NOT happen to at least one character. The first story I remember writing involved the death of a young woman at the World Trade Center and her husband’s attempt to deal with the disaster. I know I’ve posted at least one story for y’all to read that involves a large explosion and at least two deaths. I’ve written stories about serial killers, suicides, a murdered bride, actual torture scenes, and so on and so forth. The tortures I inflict on my poor characters don’t always have to be physical, though. Far more often, the pains are emotional, traumatic (and usually, the physical pain is caused by some deep, underlying psychosis). The aforementioned serial killer murders people because his severe OCD drove him completely insane. One suicide occurs because the person is so hounded by ghosts of misdeeds that his pain breaks his health and his mind. I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture. To be a character in one of my stories is to be broken, abused, mentally ill. That’s just what I do.

woman-crying-2So why do I so thoroughly abuse my characters? Well, the main reason is that happy people are boring people in stories. I don’t want to write about a man who is healthy, wealthy, and wise, and has a successful, fulfilling life. People in pain are far more interesting to me. As I’ve mentioned several times, I’m a psychological writer. The psychology of a psychotic man or clinically depressed woman is more fascinating to me as a writer than that of someone completely healthy, or even mostly so. I like to put my characters through pain and trials to see how that pressure and that torture will affect them. What will they do, how will they act, how will they change? Sometimes they emerge stronger and wiser, as in the story “Heroine.” In others, they succumb to the pain and become even more dark and twisted than they were before. In Dostoevsky’s novel “Crime and Punishment,” the main plot of the story is not whether or not Raskolnikov will give in to the urge to commit the crime. The crime is a foregone conclusion. Rather, the story looks at the effects that his depravity have on him, and waits to see if he will overcome his madness and confess his sin and rise above his past. That, for me, is a compelling story. And sometimes, I just like to look at a character after he’s already given in to the Dark Side, so to speak, and just follow him for a while and see what the full effects of his earlier torment are. The story about the OCD killer that I talked about earlier does that: his mind has already snapped and he’s past the point of no return. I just look at the deeper reasons for his murders, and see how far his depravity takes him. That’s why I put my characters through so much pain. There’s so much more about human nature and psychology in their actions when they’ve been through the wringer. Seeing how they react and grow (or wither) during their trials helps me identify with them, understand them, and write them. They are tortured souls, but all for a reason.

Any thoughts? Do any of you do similar things to your characters? Either way, why? Good writing to you all, and I look forward to reading your comments.

 

Confessions of a Crazy Writer, Part 4: You and Me Could Write a Bad Romance

I imagine any relationship with her would be a bad romance.This image can be found on the website of Luna Magazine.
I imagine any relationship with her would be a bad romance.
This image can be found on the website of Luna Magazine.

No, I’m not talking about the Lady Gaga song. This week, I’m going to be wrapping up my series on the problems I have when it comes to writing and how I fix those issues (or at least make them easier to deal with). You can find part three here. This has been an interesting series for me, since it has really forced me to focus on the problems I have in writing and consciously look at how I resolve the issues, in addition to getting me thinking about what I don’t like to write about and why. I hope that these few posts have been helpful for you as well, whether or not you struggle with the same writing issues that I do. Anyway, let’s talk about writing romances.

Simply put: I hate it. Or rather, I hate writing about healthy romantic relationships. I just can’t do it. Every time I try to write dialogues or situations for a dating/married couple, it comes off as cliched and cheesy and completely unbelievable. It’s not because I have no experience in the matter…I’m in a very healthy relationship with a very wonderful guy and we’re both helpless romantics. I just can’t translate the essence of that relationship into words on a page, no matter how much I try. Consequently, all the relationships I do write about are dysfunctional, to say the least. I mentioned in yesterday’s post that I’ve written a sort of satire of my own shortcomings as an author, and the romance problem is one of the first things that I mock. Well written happy relationships are really not my thing. Every story I have with a romance in it usually has something wrong. Dead Flowers explores a happy relationship as it rapidly turns sour and painful (without the use of dialogue). The narrator in Words Between the Lines is dealing with the memories of past abuse and the  pain of being abandoned by her lover. Things don’t end so well for the young married couple in Odd One Out. I think you’re starting to get the picture. To recap: when I write about romantic relationships, either something really bad happens to the two characters involved, or I write about things going wrong in that relationship. Every time I read a story with a couple in it to my friend Kat, she always says something at the beginning along the lines of “Poor things. I wonder what you’re going to do to them this time.”  Try as I might, I cannot get a good, healthy relationship written in any of my stories. I guess it just goes along with why I don’t like writing happy endings to my works, only in this case, it’s not for lack of trying.

Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane - one of my favorite romances.
Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane – one of my favorite romances.

What do I do to fix this particularly unfortunate problem? Well….to be honest, I’m still trying to figure out a solution that will actually work for me. The closest I’ve come to resolving the issue is using examples from my own dating life. The problem seems to be that what is natural for me and my boyfriend in real life comes across as stilted on the page. I’ve actually come across very few people who write romance and write it well (Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers both did excellent jobs). So, I’m still rather stumped on this issue. If any of y’all have any suggestions, please let me know. I’m more than willing to listen to advice. Anyone else have any problems writing good romances?

Scene Challenge of the Week

almost-kissing-couple-sweetHave you ever seen the movie 3 Idiots? If you haven’t, then you should go out, find it, and rent it. I promise you will not regret this decision because it is one of the best movies that you will ever see. I really can’t talk enough about how much I love this move. So… yeah, anyway, the challenge post for today. If you don’t already know the rules: I provide you with the beginning of a scene (from a phrase to two sentences) and you finish it.  Try to keep your scene under five hundred words, and try to keep it in the same tone as the introduction.  If I give a line that is very dark and depressing, then I don’t want to see a scene about a drunken monkey in a tutu…it just doesn’t fit.  If I do give you a line about a drunken monkey in a tutu, then you should probably try for a funny scene.

Your scene: “John gazed deeply into Beverly’s eyes, and when she leaned in he flinched back, muttering, ‘But, what about our noses?…'”

Have fun with this one!

Modern Romance

Real romance lasts a lifetime.

I’ve written a few posts on romance and what it should look like (here, here, and here are three examples), and a common theme in these posts has been a criticism of the fact that modern romance has replaced love and virtue with lust as its central defining foundation.  Well, a few days ago a friend of mine posted this on facebook and I thought that it would make a good example of what we should be seeing.  This is something that her uncle said about his parents (and if you read this I’ll let you decide if you want to identify yourself): “Now, I admit I like a good rom-com as much as the next guy…errr, um gal…even like sweeping epochal romances like Pride & Predjudice. However, last night I watched my mom, feet twisted by bunions, failed surgeries and arthritis walk from one side of the room to another to find the salve she had packed. Then watched as she applied it gently to my dad’s lower back, hip, and leg lovingly trying soothe his pain while ignoring her own. Then she curled up next to him with her arms around him tight, gently raised up and kissed him lightly on the cheek or forehead. In her kindness I saw more passion than movies can muster. The care, the respect, the dignity she showed in those minutes to her husband of 56 years…without soft lights, air brushed bodies, or a sweaty soundtrack. Hollywood just doesn’t understand. Thanks to God for parents who have taught, but more importantly shown me a living example of love. May I live/love worthy of this gift.”

Instant gratification seems to be the norm in our pursuit of love.

The vast majority of 20th and 21st century romance (even back to movies like Hello Dolly) has displayed and encouraged an increasingly selfish notion of love.  This version of love is centered around two aspects of a single concept.  This concept is that ‘love is about me’.  Modern romance presents an idea of love that says ‘I want, I need, I deserve’.  It presents these concepts in the focus on passion and need.

Modern romance adds to these the belief that love and romance are based in emotion, a fickle foundation at best.  Thus, what we see is an idea of romance that says, “Love is all about me, my feelings, my needs, and my wants.  You have to fill the hole in my heart, and as soon as you fail, I’m moving on.”  It creates an idea of love that is akin to a match: it blazes bright with momentary passion, and then disappears.  Unfortunately, this idea does represent the concept of romance among much of the American populace.  I am always hesitant to blame cultural norms on media, but in this case media has (at best) created a descending spiral in which media reflects the worst aspects of the culture, and the culture then moves to make those aspects the norm.

But real love takes time, and work, and effort. It ignores pain, and it never gives up.

The kind of love shown in the above quote does not exist in the vast, vast majority of modern media.  It is selfless, focused on what it can give instead of what it can get.  It is passionate, but not the burning, reckless, heedless passion that fills our romance novels and movie screens.  Instead of a match the love shown in the quote above is a gentle fire filled with lasting embers.  It is the kind of love that has been built over a lifetime of mutual respect and devotion.  It is commitment, admiration, and concern not for oneself, but for the other.  It is hard, and it is often painful, but it is lasting, exalted, honorable, and far more intense than any momentary passion could ever be.

I use the example of a match for a reason.  Try this sometime: light a match and run your hand through the flame, even hold your hand in the flame for a while.  There’s instant heat, but it’s minimal and doesn’t last long.  Now try this: build a fire and keep it burning all night long.  Build up a heap of red hot coals, and then try putting your hand into the coals.  This is the difference between the kind of romance that we see in the media, and the kind of romance that we see displayed in the quote above.  One is immediate, but ultimately brief and unsatisfying.  The other is hard, it takes time to build, and it takes commitment through trials, but it will keep you warm through the long, dark night.

So, let’s fill the shelves with books and movies that display real love, not lust and momentary desire.

Another friend of mine pointed out some time ago that true love isn’t blind to a person’s flaws.  True love sees a person clearly, and loves them regardless.  It doesn’t say ‘I love you because of what you can do for me’, or even ‘I love you for who you are’.  Instead it says, ‘I love you. In spite of your flaws, and regardless of what you can do for me, I love you.’  So, I leave you with this, the definition of love: Love is patient, love is kind, love does not envy, it is not boastful, is not conceited, does not act improperly, is not selfish, is not provoked, and does not keep a record of wrongs.  Love finds no joy in doing what is wrong, but instead it rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.  Love never ends.

If this sounds frightening to you, it should.  Love, actual love, is a terrifying thing.  It means putting another person before yourself.  It means letting them hurt you, and forgiving them when they do.  It means committing to someone, even when they aren’t committed to you.  So, stop letting fear run your life.  Grow a pair and love someone.  And let’s start writing some real love into our fiction.

From Here to There: On the Basics of the Development of Character in Fiction

Who your character’s become is up to you.

I love character driven fiction, and good character development is, therefore, a must.  However, there are a lot of books on the market that have poor, or no character development.  For instance, The Dresden Files provides less character development over the course of five novels as I can find in one novel by Lars Walker (The Year of the Warrior) or Glen Cook (Shadows Linger).  One of the greatest costs of the current focus on serial novels is the strong development of character.  When a single character has to last a writer for ten or twelve novels, then he just can’t develop much in any particular novel.  On the other hand, when a character is only needed for a few novels (one to three perhaps), then much more focused character development is possible.  The same is true when a writer has a large number of character.  Stephen Erikson is a good example of this.  His Malazan Book of the Fallen series has thousands of characters, and hundreds of major characters.  Now some of these characters are obviously not the focus of a great deal of character growth and development.  However, when there are hundreds of major characters over the course of ten novels, the author is not relying so much on one character to carry the series.  He can develop each of these characters well consistently, and show their growth, knowing that he doesn’t need them later on.  Some of my favorite characters in the series only appear in one or two books, are strongly developed, and then die or move on.*

The most basic aspect of developing your character is to have a goal.  We’ve given you a number of good posts on how to create a character, but you should also have a goal in mind for every major character you create.  You can start with something as simple as a theme for the character:

Heroes is a show with some truly phenomenal character development.

At the beginning of the story John is childish and naive, but by the end of the story he is capable of making his way in the world (Coming of Age story)

At the beginning of the story Sathra is a selfish, evil person, but by the end of the story he is a noble character (Redemption story)

At the beginning of the story Melchior is single and hopeless, but by the end of the story he has found his true love (Romance story)

There are any number of themes that you can choose for your character, but the key is to know where you want the character to start, and where you want the character to end.  Ideally, you will develop a character profile for what your character is like at the beginning of your book (who he is) and what you want the character to look like at the end of your book (where he is going), but you can probably get away with general themes.

Overall, the first goal of character development has to be know where each character is going, and who each character is going to be by the end of the novel.  For instance, over the last couple of weeks I posted a two part introduction to a new book I’m working on (here and here).  Right now I know who Alanoc is, and I have a fairly good idea of who Drevor is.  I also know who Alanoc is going to be by the end of the novel, but I’m not completely sure who Drevor is going to be (I have an idea, but it’s something I’m still working on).  Knowing who Alanoc is and where he is going as a character is important (he is the main character), but if I don’t figure out where Drevor is going, then I could easily leave him as a flat character who doesn’t develop over the course of the book.  Obviously, this would be bad.  We’ve all ready flat characters, and they aren’t fun. The best authors are those who provide depth and development even in their minor characters.  J.K. Rowling is a good example of this.  While I don’t like how some of her characters develop in the Harry Potter series, she provides strong character development in each of her characters, even the relatively unimportant ones.

No one really stays the same over time.

So, here is your task: choose one of your stories and make a list of the major characters in that story.  Then write out basic tropes for who the character is now, and who you want the character to be by the end of the story.  This could be as simple as ‘An SOB’ to ‘The White Knight’.  If you want to go the extra mile then take two or three of your main characters and write out full character profiles for who they are at the beginning of the story, and who you want them to be by the end of the story.

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*Erikson writes Russian novels, and so it is not uncommon for major characters to die and be replaced by other characters.

Scene Challenge of the Week

Well, we’re almost half way through the month of March! I suppose that’s a good thing, although this year has already thrown me on a roller-coaster a couple of times.  Hopefully things are going well for you.  I’ve got another scene challenge for you today, so here are the rules: I provide you with the beginning of a scene (from a phrase to two sentences) and you finish it.  Try to keep your scene under five hundred words, and try to keep it in the same tone as the introduction.  If I give a line that is very dark and depressing, then I don’t want to see a scene about a drunken monkey in a tutu…it just doesn’t fit.  If I do give you a line about a drunken monkey in a tutu, then you should probably try for a funny scene.

Here is your scene:  “Alex stared at the woman who had broken his heart, and then he said…”

You know what to do: finish the scene.