Everyone’s an Antihero

Most of us have heard that the hero of a story can reflect or embody the values of the author or the culture. But sometimes we don’t give antiheroes–those ambiguous, mysterious characters who blur the lines between good and evil–enough credit to do the same.

I touched on antiheroes somewhat in my last post, talking about how even “heroes” and “good guys” in fiction can become antiheroes or villains if the writer invents a story or motivation that will change them enough. Today I’d like to talk more about the trend of antiheroes in fiction, and about what it means for us as writers–and as humans. And, as before, I’ll draw largely from one area of pop culture that I know a lot about: comic book superheroes.

PunisherWarZone1It seems like the ’80s and the ’90s were the era of the gritty antihero, in comics as well as perhaps in film and other areas of culture. Gruff, grim, leather-wearin’, gun-totin’ characters like Deadpool, Cable, and Lobo began to emerge. But, more than that, other characters who were previously either heroes or villains began to cross the line. Characters like Catwoman and Venom, villains up to that point, got their own titles where they were ambiguous protagonists. Batman was temporarily replaced by a more savage version of himself, and even Superman grew his hair out and wore black for a while to make him seem more dark and edgy.

But, in some ways, it seems like this trend has never really stopped. Because what got me thinking about antiheroes so much was a recent Marvel Comics event called Axis. In this story, several heroes and villains teamed up to try to stop the Red Skull, Captain America‘s Nazi nemesis. But, because of a magic plot device–er, magic spell–everyone’s personality was (temporarily) inverted on its moral axis. Thus, the good guys present suddenly had the desire to be bad–and the bad guys actually wanted to be good.

14904391768_66a2aeb0f8My reaction to this event was also mixed. Part of me wanted to complain. “Really? More antiheroes?” Maybe I read too much into this, but to me, so much blurring of the lines between good and evil seems like it might perpetuate more moral ambiguity. Call me old-fashioned, but sometimes I miss the days when good guys were good, bad guys were bad, and both held uncompromisingly to their values. With the trend I’ve mentioned of making more and more characters antiheroic, sometimes it seems that those clear lines of good and evil are shifting and fading faster and faster.

My last post mentioned several Marvel heroes who have acted as antiheroes or villains in the recent past. Also, even before Axis, a number of Marvel’s major villains were being portrayed as less “evil” and more “misunderstood,” including Magneto, Doctor Doom, Apocalypse, and Loki. For various complicated plot reasons, the latter two had both been reborn into young, teenage versions of themselves (yeah, I know, comics are weird–just roll with it) who want to do good but who may or may not be destined to return to villainy once more. Then, in Axis, the change got even more extreme. Villains like Sabertooth and Carnage, who previously were violent killers for the fun of it, suddenly valued life and made it their quest to do right. On some level I found it a little hard to believe.

And yet, even when I get a little tired of the antihero craze, I have to admit a few things to myself. The first is that antiheroes show us our own values and that of our culture–just as much as heroes do, if not more so. Like, sure, you’ll root for Captain America for being all good and noble and patriotic. But will you also root for the Punisher for bringing violent vigilante vengeance to the scum of the streets? And, if you do, then what does that say about your  values? How far can a good guy go and still be considered a “good guy”? How bad does a bad guy have to be for us to think they’re truly irredeemable? Antiheroes ask us to think through questions like these.

One interesting thing to note in the Axis event is that the Red Skull (although briefly shown to be affected by the spell) was never really featured as a hero or as having heroic intentions, even temporarily. Personally, I think that also says a lot about our culture. We can believe that most villains, even a psychopath like Carnage, can turn over a new leaf. But not the Red Skull, a Nazi who embodies absolute hatred, racism, and intolerance. Even with a magic spell in place, we can never bring ourselves to root for him as a hero. What this says to me is that such hatred and bigotry are the worst of evils in the eyes of our culture, utterly irredeemable beyond even senseless murder for fun. The levels of moral ambiguity that we will–and won’t–tolerate say a lot about who we are and what we value.

The other thing I’ve had to admit to myself is this: antiheroes are realistic. Even if they sometimes seem overdone and contrived, they do make for much more complex characters, and often more interesting ones, which is how ordinary human beings really are. None of us is completely good and nice and noble all the time. And neither is any of us completely cruel, heartless, and evil. As Nathaniel Hawthorne strove to show us in stories like The Scarlet Letter and “Young Goodman Brown,” we are ambiguous, imperfect beings with a capacity to do either right or wrong. No matter how good we might think we are, we’re all antiheroes too in a very real sense, with conflicting desires, motives, and morals constantly shifting around within us. And maybe that’s why we can so often still relate to and root for those characters who seem to straddle the moral line.

As writers, I’d like to issue you a challenge. Take a hero or a villain you’ve previously written into a story. Now write a short scene, episode, alternate universe, or whatever in which this character’s morality has changed drastically. Your hero is now more villainous, and your villain must be more heroic. What cataclysmic circumstances could have motivated such a shift in behavior? How much influence does morality have on your character’s personality, and what will that personality be like when it’s divorced from the values it had previously held to? What will happen if your hero-turned-villain has a sudden confrontation with your villain-turned-hero?

Happy writing, my fellow antiheroes.

Be sure to destroy hope

My masochistic post, but I swear there is a writing lesson at the end.

One of those posts. Bored-now (c) 2008
One of those posts.
Bored-now (c) 2008

There’s that ex. She dumped you for good reason, you became a changed man, and liking what she sees, she starts saying things like, “We should get back together…after I dump my boyfriend.” Those with wisdom get on a train and flee with the vigor of a halfling from a troll. Then there are the other ones. The guys like me.

The line is baited and we bite, fat and stupid fish ready for harvest. Hook after hook sinks into our flesh, but instead of saying, “Gee golly this hurts,” we say, “It must mean she’s interested.”

Then one of two things happen. She says just kidding and goes off with the boyfriend. Option two is your testicles finally drop and you snap. Hopefully not kill them snap, but I’m sure that’s far more fulfilling. You go off, you ask what’s the hold up. Startled by your sudden assertion, they walk away.

Either way, the result is the same. You are kneeling on the ground with your heart in your hands, bloody and ruined. The responses are countless, but generally severe. Some come out with depression, disorders, and other internal issues of general self-loathing. Others become jaded, steeling their heart against any fresh invaders. I went Hulk.

This pulls on something we experienced, and it is something we understand. We can pour emotion into it, and give the character authenticity. You got passed up for a promotion? Have a promising warrior passed up for knighthood. There are countless responses to any dashed hope, but they’re almost always severe. They almost always lead to poor decision making.

Set up something for your character to hope for, preferably something similar to what you hoped for. Let it play out. Make us think he will get it, since we are wired to think our novel characters will get what they want. Using Song of Ice and Fire, the series is based on dashing our hopes. We see Bran as a capable climber, and athlete at a young age. Crippled. Ned Stark could be the greatest and most honorable man ever in King’s Landing. Decapitated. Samwell Tarley is sent to the Night’s Watch to die. Survives. Remember, the success of one person’s hopes can dash another’s.

There are also a number of ways people respond to despair. Sometimes they crumble like paper in a strong wind. Other times they soar like birds through zephyrs. Play with it. Even pick a path you did not take. Perhaps you overcame and grew into a better person. What if you became jaded instead?

Go create some despair and pull some heartstrings. Purchase stock in Kleenex and get moving.

 

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.

Why Study Fiction?

Hello, friends of the writing world! Today has been a very exciting day for me. That’s because today was my first official day as a teacher. Not a teaching assistant or a student teacher as I’ve been for the past two and a half years, but an actual teacher, a goal I’ve had to some extent or another for nearly ten years.

I haven’t blogged about it much yet because I’ve been pretty busy for the last few weeks (and because I don’t currently have internet at home), but I’ll say a little bit about how I got to this point. After finishing my Master’s degree in May, I spent most of the summer looking for jobs teaching secondary English and driving to interviews all around. In mid/late July, I got offered a job teaching 9th and 11th grade English at Grace Christian Academy, a small private school in southern Maryland. Of course, mid/late July is a time frame dangerously close to the beginning of the school year, so I’ve spent the last month or so frantically looking for a place to live and trying desperately to prepare. I moved from Lynchburg to Maryland only about a week and a half ago (hence me not having internet set up in my new place yet), started teacher orientation about a week ago, and had my official first day of school today (Wednesday)! It’s been a crazy whirlwind of a ride, but I’m loving it so far.Welcome to English Class

Unfortunately, since I’ve been so frantic with relocating and then lesson planning and a million other things, I haven’t had a whole lot of big creative writing opportunities lately. However, the whole process of preparing to teach literature has been a good reminder to me of why writing is so important. And as a teacher, I’m going to need to find creative ways to convey that importance to my students as well (especially the ones who don’t really like to read or write so far).

Originally, I was asked by my new boss to teach a creative writing elective along with my English classes. Sadly, that class didn’t make it this time around due to low interest and low enrollment (although I did have at least a few students today who said they liked writing, so there’s always hope for next year). Still, I’m probably going to give each class a writing prompt as a warm-up each day. Some days the prompts will be more literature-related and will be used as starting points for class discussions, but I may be able to do some creative prompts at times too (so if you have any good suggestions for creative writing prompts for high school students, please feel free to let me know!).

For the next class, though, I plan to ask my students something along these lines, and hopefully have a good discussion based on their responses:

  • Why is it important to study grammar and writing?
  • Why is it important to study literature?
  • What makes literature good?

I know, I know. These are tough, big questions. I hope they’ll be helpful for establishing a rationale for some of the things we read and do in the class, but I don’t expect 9th and 11th graders to have the perfect, ultimate answers to these questions. Heck, I took a whole graduate class specifically devoted to the question of “what makes literature good?” and I still don’t fully know the answer in every situation. Probably no individual scholar ever will in this lifetime.

But when I was decorating my classroom this past weekend, I tried to find some good literary quotes (amidst lots of memes and cartoons) to stick on bulletin boards. And I came across a couple quotes–from a couple of my favorite authors–that I had probably heard before but that struck me especially this time around. Here are two of the ones I hung up:

  • “That is part of the beauty of literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” -F. Scott Fitzgerald

    Image taken from Wikipedia. Public domain.
    F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Literature adds to reality. It does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.” -C.S. Lewis

    C.S. Lewis
    C.S. Lewis

Thankfully, even in my new location, I have a couple of friends nearby who I knew from college–and who were also English majors. Last Friday night, I went to a twenty-somethings fellowship group in the area with one such English-y friend. He warned me that there was typically some good-natured joshing between himself, an English major, and the other group members, who all studied and worked in the maths and sciences. Sure enough, the group leader shook his head in mock-disgust upon learning that I had gotten not one, but two English degrees, and he even said at one point (again, with no intended malice) that he didn’t know why anyone would get a liberal arts degree.

And yet, most of the group members there could also be considered “nerds” just like myself and the friend I went with. They talked long and deeply about their favorite movies and games, and we played a board game that night which required us to roleplay as a specific character while killing zombies. In reference to one movie, I even heard one person there use the phrase “the book was better.” I didn’t say this at the time, but I wanted to ask, “So you’re telling me that you like all these movies and games, and yet you can’t see the value in studying creative works of the human imagination?”

In short, literature matters. Writing matters. If you read, study, or create writing or literature, then that matters. Among other things, fiction adds beauty and creativity to our lives and lets us connect with each other on a profound and poignant level. So if you’re a reader or a creative writer, then keep reading and writing, no matter what you might feel or what others may say. It may be more important than you know.

Drama versus Prose: An Overview and a Challenge

So, you’re a pretty experienced writer by this point, eh? You’ve done prose pieces? Short stories? Maybe even a novel or two? Not bad, not bad at all.

But if that’s you, then I’ve got a new challenge for you. Try writing drama.

Of course, this challenge won’t be too hard for you, because you’ve already mastered general storytelling elements such as plot and character development. The rest of it couldn’t be too hard at all, right?

Wrong!

Drama masksIn my last post I wrote about my recent experiences with writing children’s drama for my church. This time I’d like to talk more about the major differences between drama and prose–because, believe it or not, there are many, and being good at one does not necessarily mean you’ll be good at the other. In fact, as far as I’ve seen, in famous authors and aspiring ones alike, it’s relatively uncommon for one person to be really good at both prose and drama.

And before my challenges to you start to sound like I’m bragging about being such a great writer myself, let me level with you for a minute. I’m not good at both prose and drama, either. I consider myself a pretty decent writer when it comes to narrative prose, but I’m really not so great at writing drama.

“But wait!” you may ask. “If you’re not good at writing drama, then why were you in charge of writing drama for church recently, and even of subjecting innocent children to partaking in puerile performances of your poorly-penned plays?” That’s a good question that I’ll get to a little later.

For now I want to tell you a story, dating back three years or so to my undergrad years. I was an English major with a Writing minor, and I had already taken classes on creative poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. As an elective for my minor, I decided to take a class called “Writing for the Stage.” I had written church drama several times before and also had a little prior experience writing a (probably not very good) play for my high school theater senior project. Like I alluded to above, I probably thought that, as a master of prose, I would have an easy time with drama too. But, upon getting a ways into the semester, I realized a couple of things: 1) the class was mostly full of close-knit theater majors, so an English major like me was a little out of place, and 2) drama is an entirely different animal from prose, one which is not particularly my forte.

There may be many elements that differentiate drama from prose, but I’ll tell you about the one that I think tripped me up the most. In drama, you as the author can really only speak through dialogue and action. You have to do everything you normally do in prose–develop characters, flesh out the plot, etc.–but you must do it through only dialogue and action. An outside narrator doesn’t really have much of a voice to describe with words what is happening or what a character’s inner thoughts are like. And, for a wordy author like me who is used to the freedom provided by prose, condensing so much meaning into so few words is hard to do.

For example, my play’s protagonist was a very well-developed character. At least, he was well-developed in my head. I had a pretty specific idea of his backstory, his goals and motivations, his inner thoughts and feelings, etc. And, to me, he was a very sympathetic and relatable character. But, when we peer-reviewed each other’s plays in class, most of what I knew and felt about my character didn’t come through to my readers, because I wasn’t good at conveying it through limited dialogue and action. Everyone else, for the most part, saw my protagonist as distant, flat, and unlikeable, because they didn’t know him like I did and I didn’t do a good job of showing what he was like through this medium. (In hindsight, maybe I also shouldn’t have picked a protagonist whose personality was by nature secretive and guarded. That combined with my inexperience with the medium made it doubly hard for the audience to get to know him. But I digress.)

Hamlet“But wait!” you may ask. “Is all drama always so restricted in what it can show? Aren’t there some plays with narrators and characters who clearly explain themselves to the audience?” And the answer is that yes, there are. Dating back to ancient Greek drama and throughout subsequent centuries, it was very common for plays to have an outside narrator, often called the “Chorus” or some other entity. Later, in Shakespeare’s day, characters often spoke in asides or soliloquies, which was one character onstage speaking directly to the audience, often openly stating his or her own thoughts, feelings, and intentions. To me at least, that kind of direct writing seems relatively easy to do. But it’s no longer in vogue these days. In modern drama (or film, etc.), audiences don’t really take it seriously when narrators or characters explain the action to them so directly. It’s considered tongue-in-cheek or corny at best, and didactic or insulting at worst. No, the stage of today is not the place for long written descriptions of characters’ thoughts and personalities, but rather for quick dialogue and visual actions that should show what they’re like.

So, going back to my recent writings, maybe I should amend an earlier statement. It’s not that I’m horrible at all forms of drama. Like I detailed in my last post, I’m good at writing children’s drama. I’m good at writing the kind where relatively basic stock characters can speak directly to the audience and talk openly about what moral they learned today. I’m able to entertain, amuse, and educate a certain type or demographic of audience. But serious drama, for adults, with passion and pathos, nuance and skill? That’s a bit above my reach for now.

This is not to completely discount the genre or my experiences with it. Although I cringe a little when I think back to the play I wrote in stage-writing class that semester, the experience did help me to learn more about my strengths and weaknesses as a writer. And could I get better at drama if I tried? Yes, knowing what I now know about my limitations and the areas where I fell short before, I could probably get at least a little better if I worked at it more and practiced with that genre again. I just haven’t done so in a while, and I’m not nearly as comfortable in the world of drama as I am with prose.

But sometimes it’s good to get a little uncomfortable and challenge ourselves to try something different. So, if you’re used to writing prose, then I challenge you to try some drama as well. Write a short scene where all you can show between a few characters is dialogue and stage directions. Or, if coming up with one from scratch is hard, take a scene from a favorite book, or from a story you’ve written previously, and rewrite it as if for the stage. See if you can still develop the characters fully and make the plot just as clear without being obvious. Warning: you may get frustrated and find that it’s not as easy as you thought! Or you may stretch your creative horizons and learn more about your potential as a writer!

Character and Location Driven Stories

I recently played The Witcher 3 and Elder Scrolls Online. I discovered in my playing two very different and awesome ways to tell a story.

The Witcher 3 enticed me with character based stories. The major plot lines were all moved through an assortment of supporting characters. As you continued their story, you got closer to your end goal. When you finished the main story surrounding the support character you had a personal plot line which gave the relationship some closure.

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Usually you were hanging with people. But sometimes you were a lonely mountain.

ESO went a different direction, likely due to the MMORPG aspect. You went from one locale to the next. At each one you were to unravel an issue. Sometimes you fought a war to take or defend a point. Other times there were plagues, spirits, and other oddities to deal with.

Both forms of anchoring gives an easy format to follow as a writer and reader. You can easily trace your story arcs, where they begin and where they end. Readers have easier cues to see the flow of the plot. When you set all conflict for an arc to move along one character or place, it allows better focus.

In The Witcher 3, character based stories hooked us from one person to the next in a hunt for Ciri, a sort of adopted daughter to Geralt, our protagonist. Geralt had to hunt support characters down. Most of them Geralt knew from past adventures, which were hinted at from time to time. After doing a search quest, there was usually some personal favor which occurred. After that, Geralt was given information on Ciri. At this point, Geralt could move on, never to look at that support character again, or he could go back and finish a final personal quest to give the relationship some closure, or provide a little entertainment.

As with anything, there are strengths and weaknesses. For the strength, you get attached to one support character. We get to learn their fears, desires, and wants by the quests they give and the solutions they come up with (or not). The support character’s motives can take them far and wide, so it is easy to change setting. Finally, it gives the opportunity to have your protagonist deal wish issues they would otherwise ignore or not run into. Motivations to keep the protagonist can be money, love, compassion, hostages, information, or any number of other incentives which a support character can provide.

The weaknesses consist of you are very heavily basing the story on a single support character at a time. Other support characters will come in and out, but really we are investing in the one with agency, and any others are in and out with a shrug. The protagonist can be overshadowed as the drive for the story is handed over to someone else. If the support character is flat, you’ve dedicated a lot of time and effort into their tale, and the reader will not stick around.

In ESO, you went into a location and dealt with an issue. As an MMORPG, it requires you to be tied to a place in order to gain levels before forcing you on. To make the game less of a grind, and feel less like you were chasing quest icons, there were locations you ventured into where you resolved some plot. This could be going into a town and discovering some plague. In the next town, you help a temple that is dealing with the ramifications of the fact it’s a zombie plague. You find a cure, then go on to put an end to the organization that created the plague. Each location had its own plot arc leading into the major story.

The advantages consist of you create empathy for a region instead of one character. People are tied into events greater than a single person which allows you to see more politics over a larger scope. More often than not, when a story is revolving around a setting, the character is there to change that location. The character also has significantly more agency as far as how they’re going to deal with the issue, or if they’ll even just walk away and let the location to its fate.

On the flip side, there is the issue of mobility. Your character isn’t going anywhere, so your setting better be interesting, much in the same way the support character above had to be interesting. It can be harder creating a driving force if there is a line of setting based arcs. Home town only works for one location, which is fine if they will be in that one location forever. After that, money or virtue can be excellent motivators. By focusing on a setting, there is the possibility of ignoring people. Make sure you still have a strong protagonist and support cast.

These are just a few of the possibilities. There are plenty more pros and cons, along with countless ways to tell a story, but it was fascinating to see the two very blatant ways these franchises approached storytelling.

Writers: Take care of your body

I wasn’t going to do this. I was not going to write a “health and fitness for writers” article. Yet every time I tried to write, my shoulder tensed. My right arm throbbed. It seemed as if I could feel all the veins and tendons moving. It’s hot, I’m miserable, I want to throw up, and I’m crashing hard. Why? Because of poor life choices. I ultimately could sit and write a bunch, the ideas are unlimited, but there are a few really important health issues I’m ignoring, and those are slowing me down.

1) Write at the appropriate level

This isn’t your age or audience’s reading level. Your elbows are supposed to be dropped comfortably at your side, bent at a 90 degree angle. The screen should be eye level. Laptops make that impossible. My current real issue is my arms are up higher, causing pain in my shoulders. My forearms are angled higher than a 90 degree angle, resting on the table, which is creating pressure. Whoever created my office desk was an administrator of torture.

2) Get a nice chair

At home I literally have the perfect set up. The chair is firm, the right height to the desk, and it keeps my back straight. I inevitably write at my coffee table while on the couch, where I have to sit on the edge with my back curved. You should be able to sit flat against the back of your chair, you should not feel like it’s trying to eat you. I try to convince myself I’m at least doing a core work out.

3) Eat healthy foods

Pizza Hut? Yeah, I might as well kiss my afternoon goodbye.
Pizza Hut? Yeah, I might as well kiss my afternoon goodbye. (C) 2011 Rob_rob2001

I’ve been eating fast food. There comes an age where your body says, “You can’t eat that.” I am just crossing that threshold, and I keep pretending it didn’t say anything last week. I know a lot of us survive on energy drinks, coffee, and alcohol. We eat munchies because it doesn’t take 20 minutes to cook. Sometimes take that 20 minutes. Make a real meal. Use fruits and veggies as the snacks. Drink tea. Tea can both be calming, give energy, and even increase mental acuity if you are imbibing the right brews. You can obviously indulge from time to time, but a lot of what we use as writers for quick food or drink fixes end up causing us to crash hard, making us lose focus.

4) Control your environment

I sit here in humid, hot weather, wondering if my computer will melt. The computer isn’t the only heat sensitive piece of equipment involved in writing. You are as well! Try to keep the temperature comfortable. Too warm will make you uncomfortable and sluggish. Your ideas can get slow and you really just want to run around streaking in a freezer. At least I do. There’s no such thing as too cold for me. I’m not sure what I can suggest to help you out there.

5) Get physical

Physical activity is important. This doesn’t require you to go all out, but take a walk, play in a pool, and definitely stretch. When writing, most people are curled up in themselves, causing the pectorals and shoulders to tighten up. When walking through a threshold, grab hold of both sides of the door frame and lean forward, while keeping your feet at the threshold. Hold it for a couple seconds before walking through, and you will start to loosen up your chest, which is shriveling up as I write this. Also stretch your neck from time to time to try getting out or loosening kinks. For physical activity, I like to swim. There’s a chance for bikini glad girls who haven’t tried to lap swim before, attractive lifeguards, and some really interesting sights. You don’t need cardio or a hard workout, but I find it allows my mind to focus better, as well as letting me get to sleep easier. Speaking of sleep….

6) Sleep

Sleep is important. From what I can tell, somewhere between six to nine hours is ideal, though it depends on the person. I can’t seem to find studies which agree with each other, and they change every other week. I’m guessing they are sort of like text books: if you keep changing small details, people keep paying for new information. When I work out, I find a good strong six to seven hours is perfect. Best ways to fall asleep consist of not looking at digital screens before bed, try reading or some other wind down activity, do not do work in your bedroom, no horror movies (I will be up all night figuring out how to kill that sucker), drink tea, eat turkey, drink warm milk, or any number of other solutions that seem to work for you. Try to get your body so it wakes up naturally at least once a week. When I sleep in on Saturday and get ten hours, I know I’ve been depriving myself during the week, and I try to fix it. When I sleep six hours, the dump truck came early.

 

There is more to life than writing. There are also other influences on how well you write, or even how often you’re capable. Take care of your body and mind, and you’ll do just fine.

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?

Lessons from the death of Deadpool: Consistency and Politics

My friend let me borrow the last four or five comics for Deadpool. For those unaware, a few months ago, Deadpool was sent to the great beyond.

I started at Deadpool #40, “The Magic of Gracking.” The style looked like it was done in crayons to be family friendly. The fictional oil company Exxon Roxxon paid Deadpool a lot of money to support their fracking gracking attempts, and they said everything was okay. Over the rest of the issue, they bang over your head that gracking is bad and evil, Roxxon is evil, and Sarah Silverman even shows up with super powers to tell Deadpool and the reader how evil they are.

Deadpool then goes on to help people in an undeveloped country survive against Roxxon’s attempts to kill them all. Deadpool sides with the poor people, free of charge, because he’s a nice guy.

There are two issues I have with this. First, when you do something specifically to make a political point, more often than not, it sucks. It lacks any substance aside from the propaganda, and this was 100% that. The final two comics were pretty great, as Roxxon was swept aside and became inconsequential, but before then I felt like I was in a room from 1984, being force fed information.

Let me expound. When we do art to tell the truth of the world, we are recreating the world, and through that people will glean truth. When we know the truth, form it into a baseball bat (compared to planting a seed and watching the tree grow), and proceed to club people over the head, there is no room for truth to be gleaned. There is no room for a person to grow and develop though the story, learning about themselves alongside the author. There is only room for propaganda. I’m sure they really got all the people against fracking on their side. All the green folk were out in troves, “Go Deadpool!” But I wonder how many of them read Deadpool in the first place.

Second, and actually far more important to me, they sullied Deadpool. I have to be honest, I might read a couple comics a year about him. I was informed he reached a zen-pool stage, when the comic book characters became opposites of themselves (which tells me Deadpool died in that moment). The reason Deadpool was unique, and why I liked him, is he was self-aware. He knew he was a comic book character meant to entertain, that it was all a joke, and that he was bound by shackles of ink. How do you make a true sociopath all of a sudden care about the puppets surrounding him?

I remember the zombie comic when there were kids he looked after. He barely flinched when they turned into zombies. They’re not real. He slaughtered the Marvel universe and classic literary characters to cut the strings, so he could die and no longer be stuck in that comic book. He didn’t feel bad for killing a dozen Spider-Men, because they were not real. Yet every time a Peter Parker dies, a puppy is kicked and small children learn truths reserved for adulthood, like Santa’s not real.

Suddenly in issue #40, a kid with cancer tells Deadpool the gracking is killing people, and Deadpool turns on Roxxon and their money. The Deadpool I knew and loved would say, “Kid, you don’t have cancer. You’re just here to seduce me from all this cash. Wanna swim in it later with me?” All of the people he ends up saving, in a story line which felt more inconsequential than usual for DP, weren’t real, and he knows it. And in his final moments, he should not be thinking about the protection of these poor sods who are inked in to draw appeal. He should be thinking, “FREEDOM!” He is the metaphysical Ultron, desiring no more strings, and he was given an out, finally, by his cruel overlords.

I know I wasn’t a die hard Deadpool fan. Maybe that’s why I don’t get it. But from the comics I read, from the character’s mentality and his ability to realize he’s a comic book character, I don’t get why he would ever care about the people in the comic, even if he reached a zen state. The only thing which would maybe change is his ability to enjoy it, instead of trying to gank himself.

For your own writing, watch out for the trap of becoming too political. There are always two sides. Sometimes a dozen. Even if you want to prove your point, use the art first and the truth will come through. Also, just keep your characters consistent. The readers shouldn’t look at what’s happening and think, “Body snatchers!” Yes there are moments that can redefine us, but how do you reach a turning point to shrug off knowing for a fact everyone around you is nothing but ink, fed dialogue by some greater being?

Write well, respect the art, stay consistent, guys!

Note: there is no picture, because it would have to be of Deadpool. To respect his wishes of not being utilized for the entertainment of others, I did not include such a picture. Deadpool had me type this at gunpoint.

Writing versus Editing: The Eternal Struggle

Which is more important: writing or editing?

Obviously, that’s an unfair question. To a serious writer in any type of writing, the answer should be “both.” The act of writing itself is essential because it gets you into practice and gives you raw material to work with. While your first draft probably won’t be great the very moment you put it down on paper, at least doing so gives you a draft that you can revise and improve later on. That’s where editing comes in. Even if your first draft is crap, editing lets you refine it and hone in on the good parts while weeding out the bad. Editing and revision, especially after you’ve gotten some feedback or taken some time to come at your work with a fresh perspective, are what can turn a decent story into a good one, or a good one into a great one.

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

For a good writer, writing and editing should of course go hand in hand. Without the act of first writing something, editing wouldn’t exist at all. And without the act of editing and continual revision over time, writing couldn’t be nearly as good as it is. So it seems impossible to answer the question of which one is more important.

And yet, nonetheless, I’m still trying to answer that question now.

Well, maybe I’m not asking which is more important–just which one I should work on now. Here’s why.

If you’ve read some of my other posts on this blog, then you might know that, with some exceptions, I haven’t worked on writing novels in a long time. Two years of grad school and other responsibilities will do that to you. Yes, I’ve still been writing throughout all this time, and not just for school. But since my free time has been sparse for a while, I’ve focused my attention more on shorter works, such as poetry, blogs, articles, parodies, and maybe one serious short story. While I once dreamed of writing best-selling novels (or even halfway decent ones), I’ve barely worked on any for at least two years–probably closer to three, really.

But now, all that could change. I finished my graduate degree last month and, for the first time in about two decades, have absolutely no intention of continuing my studies in the fall. It’s summer and I have plenty of free time to catch up on reading, Netflix, and perhaps even writing. I have at least a few friends (and/or family members) who are using this summer to work on novels, and I want to join them because at least a part of me misses it.

But there’s a couple of problems. First, I’ve been out of novel-writing for so long that I’ll really have to re-cultivate my motivation for it if I’m going to make any progress at all. Secondly, there are two different large projects that I’ve wanted to work on, and I don’t know which one to start with or to give my attention to first. And that’s where my conflict between writing and editing comes in, because one project is a full novel that needs editing, and the other is an unfinished novel that needs writing.

I’ll give you a quick summary of both:

My full-length novel is a superhero story, tentatively titled Fractured Heroes (although I’m still not fully satisfied with that

This is a cover I made for Fractured Heroes a while back. I commissioned the drawing from my friend Sharon and made the text designs myself.
This is a cover I made for Fractured Heroes a while back. I commissioned the drawing from my friend Sharon and made the text designs myself.

name). It follows an ensemble cast of seven main protagonists, all superheroes or crime-fighters of some sort, with various personalities and character flaws. Some are brutal and violent; some are cold and detached; some use the outlet of heroism to seek redemption from a past of guilt and shame. But when they uncover a dangerous super-drug and a plot to destroy their city, this disjointed group of heroes has to band together and rely on something greater than their individual selves. I wrote this story throughout 2010 and 2011 (it was long enough to be two NaNoWriMos, and then some), and it’s gotten good reviews from a few friends and online forum readers. At some point in 2012, I had a trusted friend read through it and make comments or suggestions about how it could be improved. So I have a large document full of my friend’s comments…and I have made very little progress since then in going through those comments or revising my story at all. However, I would love to revisit it and get it good enough to send to a publisher one day.

And the other story I’m working on is a futuristic, dystopian one called The Joining. A couple centuries into the future, society is built almost entirely upon romantic relationships and physical pleasure. On their eighteenth birthday, everyone is expected to choose a partner and be joined with them for life. But one seventeen-year-old boy doesn’t fit into his society’s customs and doesn’t like feeling rushed to commit so soon . What is he to do with his Joining ceremony fast approaching? I started working on this story sometime in 2012. I outlined the entire plot, so I know more or less what I want to write. And in all that time I’ve written a walloping two chapters, about ten pages or so. I’ve got a story in me and I want to get it out, but I just haven’t had the time!

Of course, I want to work on both of these projects eventually, so maybe this dilemma is a bit redundant. If I really planned it and worked at it this summer, then I could certainly do some of both. Still, since I haven’t done that yet, I’m a little torn, and I’m opening it up to input.

Which one do you, my faithful readers and fellow writers, think I should focus on more so? And why? Is it better to get a new story idea out of my head or to hone the one that’s closer to a finished product? Which story sounds more interesting to you? And do you have any wise advice for a long-dormant novelist trying to get back in the game?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Thanks for reading.