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Saturday, July 26, 2014

Just Tips!

About two months ago, I wrote a post on creating well-rounded villains.
Well, although it's entitled 'Some Tips for Creating Well-Rounded Villains', it doesn't come off as tips, but as 'you must do all these things or you will have a lame villain'.
So, let's backtrack a little.
I would say that the only two things you really, actually need for a successful villain are: a motive, and average (at least) intelligence. In my mind, these are non-negotiable in a serious story. We're not talking about comedies where a ridiculously stupid villain still somehow takes over the world.
Why these two things are important is simple: believability. To me, having a villain who doesn't have a motive (power, revenge, etc.) and/or is brainless, but most especially the latter, annoys me. Sure, a story can still be entertaining if the villain is lame (think, old cowboy movies), but it might have me banging my head every time he shows up.
So, while the other 'tips' I wrote about are good to think about, they're just tips; take 'em or leave 'em. After all, the ultimate villain is the Devil, and while he definitely has a motive and is super intelligent, he doesn't conform to anything else on the list.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Talking Animals - C. S. Lewis vs. Thornton W. Burgess

Anyone who knows me very well knows that I love C. S. Lewis. I think he was an amazing writer, and I have a quote from him for just about anything. Of course, The Chronicles of Narnia rank right up there as the best childrens' books ever.
So today I'm going to discuss talking animals, using Lewis and Thornton W. Burgess as examples of the right and wrong way to do it.
We've had a few of Burgess' books around our house for as long as I can remember. I've tried and tried to get through them, and I've only succeeded in finishing one; and that one I was never able to re-read. I think for my next article I'll discuss why that was, but for now let's focus on the animals.

Lewis' animals aren't human, that's for sure. Well, OK, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, some of the animals seem more human than in his later books (especially The Horse and His Boy), but the fact remains that Lewis wrote them as animals. However, these animals have consciences; they know right from wrong (whether they do the right thing or not), they have consciences, they can love, and there are certain rules that, as rational and sentient beings, they must obey. Also, to knowingly eat a talking animal is a great crime, whereas eating a regular dumb beast isn't. Basically, the way Lewis treats his Talking Animals is summed up by Aslan in The Magician's Nephew: 'Laugh and fear not, creatures. Now that you are no longer dumb and witless, you need not always be grave. For jokes as well as justice come in with speech.”

On the other hand, we have Burgess, who wrote a whole lot of stories about the woodland creatures. These creatures may talk, and Burgess may moralize them to death, but they might as well be 'dumb and witless'. Several years ago I picked up Blacky the Crow and read a bit of it, until I came to a certain part that's stuck with me ever since. But first, a quick bit of set-up: Blacky the crow really, really wants the eggs of Mr. and Mrs. Hooty the owls, so he devises several plans to lure the owls away so that he can get to the eggs. All his plans fail, and he ends up deciding that if he can't have the eggs, then he'll get Farmer Brown's boy to take them so that the owls can't have them either.
During all this, we're told several times that Blacky is wronging the owls by trying to steal their eggs.
Then this (emphasis mine):
Blacky The Crow isn't all black. No, indeed. His coat is black, and sometimes it seems as if his heart is all black, but this isn't so. It certainly seemed as if his heart was all black when he tried so hard to make trouble for Hooty the Owl. It would seem as if only a black heart could have urged him to try so hard to steal the eggs of Hooty and Mrs. Hooty, but this wasn't really so. You see, it didn't seem at all wrong to try to get those eggs. Blacky was hungry, and those eggs would have given him a good meal. He knew that Hooty wouldn't hesitate to catch him and eat him if he had the chance, and so it seemed to him perfectly right and fair to steal Hooty's eggs if he was smart enough to do so. And most of the other little people of the Green Forest and the Green Meadows would have felt the same way about it. You see, it is one of the laws of Old Mother Nature that each one must learn to look out for himself.
But when Blacky showed that nest of Hooty's to Farmer Brown's boy with the hope that Farmer Brown's boy would steal those eggs, there was blackness in his heart. He was doing something then which was pure meanness.
I could hardly believe it when I read that. I still can't believe that Burgess goes to so much trouble to get us to think Blacky is being mean and self-serving by trying to get the eggs. Then he completely contradicts himself by saying that, basically, it's perfectly fine according to the laws of Mother Nature (who is worshiped by the animals in all of Burgess' stories) because, hey! Everyone has to take care of himself. No, the only really wrong and mean thing that Blacky did was try to get Farmer Brown's boy to steal the eggs.
So what
is wrong, according to Burgess? These are just animals, obeying the laws of Mother Nature, so why shouldn't Blacky do as he pleases? How can he do something out of pure meanness if he's just an animals obeying the laws of nature? If it's perfectly all right for him to steal Hooty's eggs, and for Hooty to eat other talking animals in the forest, then is anything wrong at all? It's not wrong in the real world for a lion to kill and eat a deer, or even for some animal to kill another animal and just leave it there without eating it. But, just as soon as they can talk and think and reason, that's not good enough anymore. And you can't justify it by calling it 'Mother Nature's law', especially if you've been moralizing against it the whole time.

Of course, if Mother Nature is the goddess and makes all the rules, we can't say anything against it, now can we? Survival of the fittest and all that. But as Christians we can't accept that; so, if you're going to write about animals that can talk and reason, then Lewis' way should be the way you go, and not Burgess'.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Just Some Thoughts on Writing

I'm a bit tired of hearing all this high-falutin' talk about Writing. Wait, before I go on, let me give a disclaimer: I love writing; I love reading. It's been one of my chief pleasures since I was little. I love the way words can be put together to form a picture in my mind. So, with that out of the way, what do I mean by 'high falutin'?
It seems like people who write have a serious superiority complex. Not only that, but they describe writing in terms that make me cringe.
How about this one? 'If you are still emotionally stable after reading, then you're not reading the right books.'
Or this one: 'Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.'
And a hundred thousand other things said by various authors. Things like that really annoy me. Take the first quote, for example. As far as I know, I've never become emotionally unstable after reading any book. Any. Some stories have made me almost cry, and a few have haunted me for a long time, but they've never destabilized me emotionally. I have started a few books that I've put down as being too depressing. Why would we want to become emotionally unstable? That's just stupid. Shouldn't a book, a good book, do just the opposite?
What about the next quote? Oh, that sounds so grand. 'Just open a vein and bleed' eh? I wish there wasn't anything that needed to be said further, but too many writers think of themselves as martyrs, pouring out their hearts and souls into living words of passion and vulnerability.
Is there any rule that says a story must be birthed in agony? I've certainly had some tough times while writing, but never come close to anything like opening a vein and bleeding; not even close. Sometimes I wonder if I'm the only one who feels like this. I know I can't be the only one, but no one else seems to be saying it.
I'm tired of being told that, as an author, I'm basically sitting up on a cloud with a halo. Everything that I write, simply because I am an Author, is worthwhile and everyone should automatically read it.
That's what annoys me a bit about NaNoWriMo. Thousands upon thousands of people sign up for it and are told that, 'Everyone has a story inside that the world needs to hear.' No they don't. Sorry, but no. Your story, my story, any story in the whole world, isn't worth something simply because of the fact that it was Written. Stories have to prove themselves. If they didn't, then writing would be pointless. It doesn't matter if you sit down and pour out your soul; that doesn't make it a good story.
Any thoughts, anyone?

Friday, May 16, 2014

Some Tips for Creating Well-Rounded Villains

Yesterday I talked about characters in general. Today, I'm going to expand on what makes a villain work.
By the way, for anyone who didn't read the last post (I don't know why you didn't; you should!), the characters, Kinlar and Keldrin, that I reference, are from an old story that I wrote about six years ago.

So, what makes a good villain?

1. Motivation. No one does anything for nothing. Keldrin joined the sorcerer, and the only reason he did so was because he was ... evil. 
There was very little motivation. He would most likely have done it whether Kinlar had been around or not. There should always, always be some reason villains do what they do.

2. A range of human emotions. Keldrin had jealousy, fear, and hatred. He had no emotions besides these; no remorse, uncertainty, or longing.

3. He (or she) must believe that what he is doing is right for either himself or everyone. Either your villain must believe that he is above the law and can do whatever he wants; or else he thinks that what he is doing is best for everyone. 
And I don't mean in that annoying, patronizing way that authors will do where they sort of do the sarcastic aside: 
'Of course he was doing it for the greater benefit! Greg was firmly convinced that poisoning all the dogs would be best for everyone. Why couldn't anyone see that?'
I mean where he firmly believes that whatever it is, he is in the right. 
He has to have reasons (of course the wrong reasons) that he's thought out and convictions that he holds to.

4. He must believe that the ends justify the means, but he shouldn't necessarily like the means. I don't know about you, but I'm tired of villains who get kicks out of evil. I'm not saying that they should dislike being cruel, but it really is boring when villains seem to forget their goal and instead focus on being nasty for no reason.

5. He should have at least one moment of almost choosing right over wrong. Perhaps I should say that he has to have an inner struggle. Especially if he sees the protagonist doing the right thing despite the trouble it causes him. He should wonder, at least for a little while, what it is that motivates the hero. He should maybe remember back when he himself wasn't evil. Then, the next time the chance presents itself, he should struggle against doing the right thing.
Now, the way he goes will depend on your villain. If you intend to redeem him by the end, then perhaps he should choose the right thing ... just this once. Not necessarily, but possibly. Even if it's not a positive act, such as helping a beggar; maybe it's just not doing something wrong. Maybe he decides not to poison the king, or he lets one of his enemies go free.
If he's going to be evil to the end, then he will probably end up choosing evil over good, sending him on a further downward spiral that will result in his destruction at the end. Or he might choose the right thing, but when the consequences are negative he quickly goes back to the security of his evil.

6. They should be at least of average intelligence. One thing that gets my goat is how overtly stupid villains usually are. 
How in the world (that they plan to utterly dominate) did they ever get in the position they're in if everything they do is obviously calculated to overthrow their own regime? Never mind the hero destroying them; they should have destroyed themselves long ago. Cackling evilly and revealing your evil plans will never get you to the place you want to be. Here's an example of a typical villain's List of Things to Do: 1. Conquer the world. 2. Destroy the good guys. 3. Enjoy it.
Conquer the world. Yep, that's a pretty broad category. They don't even have an idea of how they're going to do that. I guess they just figure that being fearsome and treating their own henchmen bad will cause everything to fall into place.
Your villain should have a set and definite plan for how he's going to get what he wants, and it should either be a plan that would probably work out if the hero didn't throw a wrench into it, or it should be the 'perfect crime' sort of scenario, where everything should have worked, but, because of the very nature of evil, no matter how perfect it is it's doomed to failure.

So, I hope this was helpful and entertaining! If there's anything I missed, please let me know in the comments box :)

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Don't Tell Me He's Smart!

Recently I re-read the first long fantasy I ever wrote, The War for Erasthinia. It was probably around twenty thousand words. I was ... fifteen, I think.
One thing I noticed about it was my main character. Throughout the entire book we're being told that he's really smart. He's put in charge of the army at the age of seventeen, the king listens to him, etc, etc. He's also incredibly humble and brave and the best sword-fighter ever (except for his uncle who taught him how to sword fight, of course).
But, despite all the telling of how smart he is, what I actually showed was that he was pretty stupid. He did quite a few things that make you wonder how he even made it to the age of seventeen, much less became the commander of the whole bloomin' army.
So I was wondering, why is that? How come you can say something in a story until you're blue in the face, yet be contradicting yourself all along?
I think it's because I wasn't really interested in the character; I was just interested in the story. Kinlar had to become the commander, and to do so he had to be so smart, skilled, brave, and just generally amazing, that everyone else who might have been qualified were passed over in favor of him.
But then I made him act stupid in order for him to be captured. Of course, I didn't realize he was being stupid; I wasn't even paying attention! All that mattered was that The Plot went the way I wanted it to. The characters weren't part of the plot; they were just along for the ride.

I can't say that I've learned to master character completely over the years, but I have learned a few things.

1. Show, show, show! We've all heard this a million times, but showing really is better than telling; and most especially (I would say) when it comes to characters.
It can be difficult to understand what showing means; to me, I have to really take the time, because whenever I just think about showing instead of laying everything out for the reader I have a hard time imagining how to do it. I have to actually be writing.
I often catch myself describing something that I should be showing through a character's actions, and then I'll either change it or leave myself a note and come back to it later.

2. Know your characters strengths and weaknesses. In The War for Erasthinia, Kinlar didn't have any weaknesses whatsoever in my own mind. He was pretty much perfect.
When he got angry, it was at the man who betrayed his soldiers; he was so humble that all the adulation heaped on him did nothing to affect him; he was such an amazing sword fighter that even after being in prison for a month or more he was able to defeat a guy who had the sorcerer's magic sword fighting power in him. He had absolutely no flaws whatsoever.
And so he ended up being super boring. He needed a balance of both good and bad; if he was brave, he needed to be hot headed. If he was smart, and everyone was always telling him so, he needed to become over-confident and make a stupid mistake. If he was kind to his men, he needed to be too lenient to someone who deserved a heavy hand to keep him in line.
Every strength must be balanced by a weakness. Which brings me to my next point.

3. Know your villain's strengths and weaknesses, too. In my novel, Kinlar only had one enemy (besides the sorcerer). Everyone just loved his socks off except for this one guy, Keldrin. Keldrin was bad, through and through. I made sure to let everyone reading the novel know that he was a no account, nasty, selfish, jealous dude.
Throughout the book, he sneers at Kinlar, threatens him, ignores him, and then goes off and betrays him. He has absolutely no remorse; no moments when he wavers between right and wrong; and no qualms about bringing his whole country down to the ground, even if he gets very little or nothing out of it. Not only that, but he stinks at just about everything. He's no good at sword fighting, he's not very smart, he's a coward who stays as far away from the fighting as possible, and he's only tolerably good at archery (despite having trained under the same tutors as the prince).
And guess what? His being so obvious made him just as boring as Kinlar.
The things that make a villain really work are,

  • 1) Motivation. 
  • 2) A range of human emotions. 
  • 3) He (or she) must believe that what he is doing is right for either himself or everyone. 
  • 4) He must believe that the ends justify the means, but he shouldn't necessarily like the means. 
  • 5) He should have at least one moment of almost choosing right over wrong. 
  • 6) He should be at least of average intelligence.

In my next post, we'll look at these points in detail.

4. Make your plot and characters work together. If something is a convenient coincidence, it probably shouldn't be there. Coincidences are evidence of characters serving the plot. In my current novel, the main character and the villain meet for the first time in a seemingly random way; but in reality, the villain had set it up on purpose.
If something happens, it should be something in character for the characters, and it should be something that makes sense plotwise.
In The War for Erasthinia, Kinlar somehow escapes from the sorcerer's island on one of the sorcerer's ships. The explanation given is very weak; but I needed him to escape at that time, because the story was more important than the story making sense.

5. Your story will be much better if you just tell it. There are plenty of Christian books that I've read that I'd never read again.
There are other Christian books that I've liked enough to read again, but have skipped large portions in the re-read.
The first group are just sermons disguised as story; the second group is comprised of books where the author has a good story and good characters, but once in a while lets the message overwhelm them.
I once read a series of books where each one was called A Journey in ... where it was basically a theology book with a bit of story to give it more interest. The theology was good, and these weren't exactly supposed to be novels. The characters had conversations and debates on whatever the theme of that book was, and at the end came to a conclusion; and that was fine (though definitely not 'read again' material).
But it seems like a lot of books that claim to be exciting novels are really about the same as that series; the story comes second to the agenda, the characters are not developed, and both plot and characters serve the ultimate purpose of bringing us to whatever point the author wants to make.
People don't like being lectured. They like reading a good story where the message isn't in their face. So just tell the story. Your readers will thank you.

6. Don't be obvious.
I'm not telling you to be obscure. That's just as bad. But don't throw the villain's nastiness or the hero's awesomeness in our faces. Let us figure it out from the story.
In cowboy movies, everyone knows immediately who the bad guy is because the music turns sinister, we see a close up shot of a nasty smile and cold eyes, and he starts making trouble the second he's on screen. We know the hero because there's a beautiful girl who smiles at him, and he's handsome, and right away he starts being amazing.
Not every hero/heroine should be the epitome of beauty, and the villain shouldn't right off the bat repulse everyone except for the other equally evil (but less important) bad guys who work for him.
Also, if someone dislikes your main character, that shouldn't automatically put him/her on the bad guy's side. Maybe he has a legitimate reason for not liking your amazing, perfect hero; or maybe he's been lied to. There are a lot of possibilities, so why just stick with the boring one?

7. Don't flaunt your idea's uniqueness. If there's one thing that annoys me, it's this: in the middle of a book, typically fantasy, the author will either break in with narration or have one of the characters say something about how different this book is. Something like, "Now fairies are often regarded as cute little pixies with wings; but in reality, they are far more dangerous than the tales would have us believe."
For me, that destroys the credibility of a book. That's just as bad as any other kind of telling. Why do they feel the need to jerk us out of the story, just to point out that fairies aren't really like we think they are? How about you show us that? And don't show it by having a character yell,
"Wow! I always thought that fairies were cute little pixies with wings! Apparently they're far more dangerous than the tales would have us believe! RUN!"
Show it by being subtle. Or maybe don't call them fairies, since the word has so many connotations that you might not want to have attached to your totally unique dangerous beings.
Nothing will drive me further away from a book than being told that it's breaking the mold and that (by implication) all the books where fairies are cute little pixies with wings are boring and not worth my time. Maybe they are, but I don't need to be hit over the head with the author's opinion on that.
The best stories are those that are focused, unassuming, and self-confident enough to trust the reader to figure things out. If your story is unique, then we'll be happy to acknowledge that. But if you tell us it is, then we might just put the book down and go read something better.
Plus, it just makes you look desperate. "My story is amazing! I have ideas in here that no one's ever thought of before! I'm really thinking out of the box on this one! Please read it! It's so unique!"
Now, of course, if it's a comedy then that might be different. In the 'Ella Enchanted' movie, there are some genuinely funny references to well known fairy tales that are sort of turned on their heads.
But don't do it if you're trying to be serious.

Well, I hope that you enjoyed this! Now go write a unique story where Hansel and Gretel aren't the shivering, scared children that we've always heard about, but are instead fearsome warriors ...

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Debunking the Myth of 'Anything Goes' in Fantasy

Possibly the most annoying thing I've heard from people defending certain fantasy movies is the argument that, since it's fantasy, who cares if it's realistic? After all, the whole thing is fake anyways. In other words, a character can defy the laws of gravity, but it's OK because, hey, it's fantasy!
That's just ridiculous. If, in the movie, the laws of gravity are present and intact, then no one should be able to violate them, no matter how amazing he or she happens to be. But how do we know that the laws of gravity apply in the movie? Well, do the characters fall down when they die? The law of gravity is therefore intact; and anything contradicting it, without a better excuse than the awesomeness of the character, has no business being in the movie.

This certainly goes in our novels as well as in our movies. We can't establish a rule (implicitly or explicitly) and then break it willy-nilly. If we do it once, then our readers might forgive it as an oversight. Twice, and they begin to wonder what's going on. Multiple times, and they start to nod their heads in boredom. What's the point of a story that breaks its own rules just for the sake of excitement or convenience?

I think that the people who make the argument of 'anything goes' are those who don't get fantasy. They'll watch/read it once in a while just for entertainment, but they don't understand people who really like it. So when people like myself complain about Thorin and Co. in The Desolation of Smaug being chased around by a dragon that breathes fire and can fly, and this same dragon being unable to even singe their beards, they just don't get that a story must stay true to its own rules or else it becomes laughable. Or maybe it's because the viewing public has been so dumbed down that a stupid chase scene that stretches the movie out way beyond what it should have been is more interesting than what should have happened: a tense, witty scene in the dark with Smaug and invisible Bilbo. Because who wants dialogue when we can have a dragon covered in molten gold just for the fun of it?
That's the way we'll get people to regard fantasy as a legitimate form of literature or film.