What is a Wordsmith, Anyway?

Rii the Wordsmith. I always thought it had a nice ring to it. But what is a wordsmith, anyway?

A smith, dictionary defined, is one who works with metals. A blacksmith would be the guy who makes stuff out of iron and steel and whatnot. And then there’s the goldsmith, who works in gold, usually artful sorts of things. There’s not really such a thing as a leathersmith, or a silksmith, or a plasticsmith. I suppose, if you play Kingdom of Loathing, there’s meatsmithing, but otherwise that’s nonsense. Smithing seems limited to metal.

So why wordsmith?

Words aren’t so different from ore and metal bars. Language can be raw, or it can be refined. One could argue that language is more useful when it’s refined, since it can better express what is desired. Certainly, language is far prettier when refined. And words are weapons, or tools, or protection, or glamor. Words cut as well as any sword. Words can defend against such attacks as plate mail defends against the sword. Words build up others, build up nations, inspire others to action, and destroy.

Language is malleable. The meanings of words are, too, as words are bent into puns and double entendres.

And language is a craft.

Picking just the right word to complete a sentence is like picking just the right jewel to affix into the gold piece, the necklace or crown or earring. Such skill takes knowledge and an eye for beauty…or maybe an ear, in the case of words.

Why wordsmith? Because when I write, I pound out words into sentences. When I polish up, I grind off unneeded words that fly away like little metal shavings. When I put in the finishing touches, I take care with my word choice.  And when I’m done, I’m exhausted.

My first draft, and even my second draft, may not be perfect in prose. But then, if a smith were to provide his own ore, the first step would be to procure said ore, unrefined and ugly. That’s the first draft. The second step would be to refine the ore – but a gold bar is not a beautiful work of art; it’s still, in effect, a raw resource. That’s the second draft. Subsequent drafts, those are the art: pulling the gold into wire, shaping the wire, melding the wire into something of beauty, setting in gems…wordsmithing is an editing skill, primarily.

So what is a Wordsmith? Perhaps not one from whom words flow perfectly on the first try…but by the finished copy, there are no words out of place.

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Vying with Readers’ Imaginations

Hello, readers. It’s Tyler (Rii’s husband; I’ve done enough of these guest posts that I figure I might as well start using my own name) again.

A few months ago I was reading a post where the author was explaining what disappointed them about the Star Wars prequels. What set this post apart for me from the myriad other diatribes against the prequels was one specific point that the author made that I had never heard before. He pointed to the scene from A New Hope where Obiwan takes Luke to his home and gives him Anakin’s lightsaber. It is here that we get the first (and if I remember correctly only) refernce to the Clone Wars in the original trilogy. The thing is, the name is essentially all we get. We are told that there was a conflict called the Clone Wars in which Anakin fought, and that’s about it. And since there was next to no detail given about this conflict, the author of the article had filled in the details with his imagination as a child. Knowing that Anakin was a Jedi Knight, he envisioned a war of Jedi clones. Just take a moment and imagine that. Entire battlefields of Jedi fighting with lightsabers and the force.

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This, but TWO ENTIRE ARMIES.

That is a mental image that is so awesome it borders on undeniable.

Instead we got this:

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The author of the article was understandably let down.

The thing is, when I read this person’s account of the disappointment that the clones were not Jedi and that they were fighting droids (instead of more Jedi), I thought about how we got the war that we actually got in the prequels. Of course the Sith (who were behind the creation of the clone army) wouldn’t want their clones to be force users. Their modus operandi is to try to get rid of all force users beyond the two Sith. A Jedi army would be completely antithetical to what they were trying to do. However, making clones of a Mandalorian, the go to Jedi killers, that makes sense. The clone army makes perfect sense in the context of the story that was being told.

All that reasoning, however, does precisely nothing to mitigate my disappointment that the Clone War was not a war between armies of Jedi clones now that the idea’s been presented to me. I want to see that story told, and will now add its absence to the list of things that will always disappoint me about the prequels. And this is after the fact. I can only imagine how much stronger my disappointment would be if I already had this headcanon of the Clone Wars for years before the new movies came out.

And this is perhaps the central problem of doing prequels. Your audience will have filled in the information they don’t have with something that is so awesome to them that it is nigh impossible for you to top it. That’s why I don’t think fans would actually appreciate the Marauders book/movie that they keep asking for. As fans of Harry Potter, we have envisioned what Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs were like at school, and anything that J.K. Rowling writes about that time period is bound to produce dissonance with that vision to the point of disappointment. To be clear, I’m not saying that I don’t think that fans could enjoy it, but I am saying that they would not enjoy it as much as they think they would. Because their headcanons  would be contradicted and nobody likes to be told they are wrong about something that is so important to them.
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There’s SO MUCH fan art and fan theory about the Marauders; a movie couldn’t encompass it all, even the parts that do all fit together. (This piece is found at atalienart.tumblr.com)

This really is an extension of what Stephen King talks about in On Writing. He says (and this is certainly an oversimplification) that the unseen monster is always scarier than the monster that you show the reader, because the reader will fill in a more personalized terror that will seem worse than whatever you end up showing them. To put it in terms of what I’m saying here, as soon as you prompt the audience to fill in something you haven’t shown them, you make it very hard to live up to what they expect.

So what do you do if you want to write a prequel? What do you do if you want to leave out information to be revealed later? I have two suggestions.

There is another Harry Potter prequel that is being released soon: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I personally think that this movie will be much better received than a Mauraders movie would be, for the simple reason that I don’t think a single reader has ever wondered about the adventures of Newt Scamander. It’s something we hadn’t thought about before the movies were announced, so we don’t have any preconceived headcanon in jeopardy. We’re free to enjoy this entirely new story. So if you really want to write a prequel maybe you can try to pick something that fans won’t have thought about but that would make an interesting story. Pick a Newt Scamander.

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My second suggestion is to leave LOTS of careful breadcrumbs. The more carefully hidden clues you give the audience, the softer the blow when they are told they’re wrong. Part of the problem with the Clone Wars example is that we had no information about it. There was nothing we could point to after the fact and say “Oh, I see how they told me before hand that this is what it was. I just missed this information in my original analysis.” Not only does this make it easier to accept something besides what we have always thought, but it gives the original work a lot more lasting appeal. Going back through the whole Mistborn trilogy after finishing The Hero of Ages gives the books a whole new feel as you can see all the evidence that seems inconsequential except in hindsight. So leave as many cleverly hidden breadcrumbs as you can. Of course, this obviously only works if you had the prequels envisioned beforehand.

In the end, vying with the audience’s imagination is all about the balancing act.
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Recurring Villain: Death – Psyche!

Deciding to kill off a recurring villain is a pretty big decision. After all, they might well have been a major part of the story and a device you use to spur the plot onward.

I have just one request of you if you’re going to kill a recurring villain: don’t bring them back.

Seriously.

Someone who keeps showing up, completely ignoring things like death, are easy to take for granted – that’s a bit of the challenge of writing a recurring villain. But it also cheapens death. And it makes it increasingly difficult to take death and the villain seriously.

It’s already a bad enough trope that if you don’t see the death, it didn’t happen.

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“I presume they died in the elly-vator!”*

Combine that with the trope of “these guys always show up” and just of course the recurring villain is immortal. And that makes them that much more of a joke.

I mean, sure, there are totally ways that you could have an immortal recurring villain. Maybe it’s a scary robot or something and it defies all the tropes and it would be weird if the thing didn’t recover from death. But hey, if you’re an experienced writer, you know when and how to break the rules. That said, let me challenge you with a rule and you’ll procure all sorts of cool “exception” ideas, so it’s never a bad idea to put up good boundaries before you try to pass them.

*I love this scene though because CLU is like, “You presume?” and for once, for once, the villain didn’t say, “Oh, they fell to their deaths? Okay. No need to double check or anything.”

I guess what I’m saying is take your recurring villains seriously unless there’s a very good reason not to (like you’re writing a comedy) and take character death seriously. Maybe if you want to bring a character back, killing them or pretending to wasn’t the right move. Or maybe you just need to re-structure the death so that it’s all the more shocking that they came back because it’s conceivable that they could, just not necessarily probable. And not in the same old, didn’t see it, didn’t happen way, perhaps?

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Sacrificing Beauty

Hello, readers. Rii’s husband here again. Today I want to talk a little bit about Frozen. Specifically, I want to talk about one song in particular: Do You Want to Build a Snowman?

If you need a refresher, here’s the clip. Pay attention starting around 2:21.

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There’s a lot of things that disappointed me about Frozen, but even when I first watched and especially now when I’m looking back, this song really bothers me. It bothers me because there is so much wasted potential. This song could have been a gorgeous moment but it was ruined by a desire to make sure it was pretty. Let me explain.

Put yourself in Anna’s shoes. Here is a girl who used to be best friends with her sister until one day, out of nowhere, she cloisters herself inside her room and never plays with you any more. This alone would be heartbreaking. In essence, Anna lost her sister that day. Then she loses her parents at sea. This leaves her effectively devoid of family, as she lost Elsa a long time ago. She has lost everyone she knows and loves. And if you listen to the words sung, she is desperately pleading for her sister to come back to her, to give her someone to hold onto, to regain even a tiny bit of the family that has twice now been riven from her cruelly and without any explanation or reason given. That is the story her words paint.

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Rii is interrupting this moment to make a joke: huh huh he said “cloister”*

That is not, however, the story her voice paints. Sure there is a bit of sadness there, but for a girl bereft of her entire family, it doesn’t even come close to appropriate. It totally jerked me out of the story. They were so concerned with making sure the song sounded pretty that they missed the opportunity for the real emotion that could have made it gorgeous.
Imagine if Anna’s voice had cracked during that segment of the song. Imagine if her tears and sobbing had interrupted the cadence, putting her off rhythm ever so slightly. Imagine if it had actually been sung as if from a girl who was now entirely alone and had no idea what to do or where to turn. The amount of ethos that could have been packed into even just the first line of “I know you’re in there…” is overwhelming. It brings me to tears every time I think about it. This one simple change, sacrificing the beauty of the song for real emotion could have made me connect with Anna in a real human way. It would have made the moment breathtaking. Instead, I got a pretty song that pulled me out of the narrative and a moment that would be entirely forgettable if it didn’t make me so upset with its wasted potential.

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I can’t just let it go. What? You can’t do a Frozen post without making a Frozen joke.

This is advice that is much easier to apply to film than to writing, but I think it can carry over there as well. A lot of inexperienced writers (myself included) are so wrapped up in ensuring eloquent prose that we completely ruin the feeling of the scene. Sometimes something really does just need to be described as large instead of titanic. Sometimes we do need short, choppy, terse sentences. Sometimes we need to use the same word over and over and over again.

Consider how your word choice, sentence structure, and pacing affect the emotions of a scene. And remember that sometimes you have to sacrifice beautiful writing for gorgeous scenes and stories.
*See I went ahead and interrupted my husband’s post to make a pokemon joke (if you don’t get it, that pokemon is called a cloyster) and it was totally inappropriate. If this had been a post about anything else other than inappropriate timing, I wouldn’t have done it. Really – the thing about sacrificing beauty is it’s another mention of kill your darlings. Kill them to make the narrative better. The song and its prettiness is a Disney darling because Disney songs are known for…well, being Disney songs! It’s a darling. They should have killed it for the narrative.
Also imo don’t use the same word over and over again unless in dialog or you’re absolutely positive you know what you’re doing.
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A Tantabus

Here’s a short but important consideration today. It starts with some My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic spoilers: in Do Princesses Dream of Magic Sheep?, there’s a nightmare monster from Princess Luna’s dreams called the Tantabus. It looks a little like a blob from her mane, and it escapes her dreams to the Mane Six, and then into every pony in Ponyville, with the threat of escaping into the real world. At the end of the episode, Luna reveals that she created the Tantabus to torment her dreams with memories of when she was Nightmare Moon, to remind her how she’s actually a totally awful person who never deserves to be happy ever because she hurt ponies in the past. The Tantabus is defeated when Twilight Sparkle and her friends are able to convince Luna that no seriously, she’s not Nightmare Moon anymore, she’s the awesome good pony Luna, and everyone forgave her and can’t she trust them and forgive herself? On forgiving herself, the Tantabus is destroyed.

Nightmare Moon was the first big villain of My Little Pony, who appeared in the first two episodes. Following her rainbow-induced defeat, she was able to pull a heel-face-turn to become one of my favorite characters Princess Luna.

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But she still has guilt. So much so that she creates a literal tormentor to makes sure she never forgets that she was once evil and never, ever deserves to be free of her past ergo never ever deserves to be happy.

Going through a redemption process is difficult because of guilt and the lack of forgiveness in others. My own analysis on that last one is that it’s fair to expect people you hurt won’t trust you for a while once you say you change, but that people who withhold forgiveness as a form of punishment are now doing a wrongful act themselves and also grossly misunderstand how forgiveness works.

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I mean you can forgive people and still cut them out of your life. I have. I choose not to be angry about what they did to me or hold it against them or really think about it anymore. I also choose not to give them the opportunity to hurt me again.

It’s easy to think people never really change, but they do. Just not usually in a dramatic swoop. And that’s the interesting part of a redemption arc, changing in a way people don’t normally change, in dealing with the fallout.

Guilt is a difficult thing to deal with, though. Guilt is defeated with forgiving yourself. And the tough thing is that a lot of the time it feels like you don’t have permission to forgive yourself. Like, if the people around you are still angry, how can you be okay with what you did? And as for whether or not you are allowed to forgive yourself before everyone else has forgiven you, I think depends on how the individual defines forgiving themselves – I think so long as they decide not to identify with the act(s) anymore, and not to hold it against themselves because they’ll do better, that’s an integral part of the redemption arc. Because Nightmare Moon lived on in Princess Luna, as Princess Luna kept Nightmare Moon alive through her guilt. Like, kind of literally. And that’s ridiculous. That means the Bad Guy is never really gone. And maybe the Bad Guy is just tormenting the reformed character, but that’s still awful that the Bad Guy is allowed to live in any capacity. So a critical part of full redemption is killing the Tantabus – in whatever form it may take for the character who is trying to find redemption.

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Teaching the Reader the Magic Arts

Hello again, dear readers. This is Rii’s husband, coming back once again to cover for her after a sudden increase in writing work to talk about one of my favorite subject: magic systems. Specifically, I want to talk about how to have a magic system that is revealed gradually over the course of a whole series.

One of the best known examples of this is Harry Potter, and I think it’s a pretty great example for pros and possible cons of revealing a magic system over time. So let’s jump right in.

One of the big pros of revealing a complex magic system over a long period of time is that often that makes the most sense for the story. In Harry Potter, Harry and company are students at a school specifically designed to teach magic. It would be pretty jarring if we were told absolutely everything about magic right off the bat. No one wants that much of an info dump at the outset of a series, and there would be almost no way to do it with at least some “as you know, bob”-ing. By revealing magic along the way as Harry learns about it, we are made to feel as if we are right there with him, just another student at Hogwarts.

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Though thankfully not actually right there with Harry during his angsty, shouty phase…

 It did wonders for immersion in the story, and at least for the most part it all felt natural.

Another pro of this method is that it tends to leave the reader with a sense of wonder and mystery. Whether you are using a soft “because magic” magic system or a hard pseudoscientific magic system, magic is supposed to be fantastical and a little beyond our comprehension. That’s what makes it magic. And that sense of wonder can keep the reader coming back, hungry for more, glued to the stories. And that is always a good thing for you as a storyteller.

So what are the cons of drawing the magic system out over several books as opposed to having it well established by the end of the first installment?

For starters, you have to make sure that it makes sense for the characters to not know about magic, and this can be deceptively hard. Harry Potter’s route of following students at a school for magic worked well, but well, it worked so well that a lot of other people did it and for many readers its a little cliche and… well, it’s hard to live up to HP’s standard. But it can be equally hard to come up with other plausible reasons why your characters don’t know something important about magic.

This brings us to another potential pitfall. It can be hard to balance the difference in knowledge between reader and characters. It can be frustrating for readers to know something that the characters don’t that could really help the characters out of whatever tight spot they’re in. This sort of dramatic irony is not inherently bad, but I feel like with magic systems in particular it is painful, especially if used repeatedly. The opposite end of the spectrum can be just as bad. If the characters have knowledge that the readers don’t, then the readers can become lost with what is going on, wondering why the characters make the decision they make. Or worse, the reader can look back and wonder why the characters didn’t use a particular bit of knowledge much earlier. Harry Potter is a huge offender here. It is understandable that the children don’t know about certain spells and potions, but the adults have no excuse. To take one example, the whole imprisonment of Sirius Black should never have happened. There are so many ways that he should have been exonerated. Veritaserum, priori incantatum, occlumency, the list goes on and on. Heck, they could even use a time turner and invisibility spell combo to go back and watch the whole incident for themselves. Black should have never been tried, let alone convicted and sent to Azkaban. There is never a good reason given why they so thoroughly dropped the ball on this one, and it could have changed the whole series. Harry could have been a (relatively) well adjusted boy who grew up with a loving god-father instead of his abusive relatives. He could have known about magic all along. Who knows how much better he might have been at defense against the dark arts and any number of other subjects if his first idea that magic existed hadn’t had to wait until he was 11?

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Because at least when Gandalf neglected his friends, he still left them in the hands of nice, competent people, and when he lied to them, it was just to steal all the exp, not get the Hobbits killed.

So it is usually best to have your characters learn at about the same rate as your reader, which can be a tough balancing act, especially since it has to be tailored to each individual story. If you want an example of how this can be done well, I would recommend the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson (I would recommend it anyway, because it is awesome). There are good reasons given for why there are unknowns about the magic systems and the pacing of revealing that extra knowledge is spot on. Seriously. Read Mistborn if you haven’t already.

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Although really, the second arc of the series is my absolute favorite more than the first three…and though I’d recommend reading all of them, you CAN skip the first arc.

Anyway, the key thing to remember here is to think about the larger implications of your decisions when it comes to magic systems. They can mean the difference between a great story and one that falls flat.

Oh, and make sure that if nothing else YOU know all there is to know about your magic system. It wouldn’t do to paint yourself into a plot hole or retcon corner, as can be said of Harry Potter. And with that, I bid you adieu. Happy writing, and may your magic systems be as awesome as you are!
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From My Point of View, the Jedi Are Evil

Hello, readers. It’s Rii’s husband again. Today I’m here to talk about Star Wars. As you can tell by the title, I’m going to be talking about how the Jedi are not as good as the movies would have us believe.

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Though hopefully with less whining and more reasoned argument

The movies, from the very start, paint the Jedi Knights as the guardians of peace in the galaxy, the good guys, with the Sith as the evil corruption of the Jedi Order, the bad guys. We’re told of a light side and a dark side, a clear dichotomy. But how much of that is a combination of biased story telling in favor of the protagonists and history being told by the winners?

Let me explain. I know that Disney recently threw out nearly everything from the Star Wars EU as not cannon, but there is one event in particular that I think merits consideration: the Sith Holocaust. In the ancient days of the galaxy, there were two major forces that vied for control: the Republic and the Sith Empire. In the Hyperspace Wars the Republic, with its Jedi Knights, eventually defeated the Sith Empire. Despite its decimated military strength and its threat totally neutralized, the Republic and the Jedi continued to hunt and exterminate all survivors of the Sith Empire in what would come to be known as the Sith Holocaust. Very few of the remaining Sith survived this dark period in the Republic’s history. Let me say this again, the Jedi made the decision to hunt down and exterminate a defeated and nonthreatening “foe”.

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I’d argue that giving no quarter to a defeated enemy isn’t very chivalrous, but that doesn’t actually seem to be a part of the code of chivalry. Hm. 

Now, it is possible that this is no longer cannon, but I feel that this event may have escaped the cutting board for one big reason: Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Did you ever wonder why the movie was called Revenge of the Sith? Because up to this point in the movies we have seen nothing that would merit the actions of the Sith being called revenge. The existence of the Sith Holocaust would certainly justify the use of the word. Furthermore, in Episode III, Darth Sidious says “Once again the Sith shall rule the galaxy…” Once again. This means at one point the Sith ruled the galaxy. This, to me, confirms the existence of the Sith Empire, and likely the Sith Holocaust. It is only natural then that the Jedi would make sure that history painted them in a favorable light, and with the sith mostly gone they were unable to give their side of the story. Now, this only shows that the Jedi were evil once, not that they are evil as of the movies. So let’s take a look at what the Jedi actually do.

One common force power we see is ‘force suggestion’, also known as the Jedi Mind Trick. But let’s be honest, for those that it works on a more accurate name would be Jedi Mind Control. If it was anyone but the “definitively good” Jedi using this power we would be outraged. And the Jedi have no qualms about using it in any and all situations. Qui-Gon Jinn uses it against Watto to try to get him to accept what Watto has clearly stated is worthless money for a very expensive part. In essence, he was using the force to try to steal the engine. Obiwan uses it on Storm Troopers. Luke uses it on Bib Fortuna. In each case it is being used against a “bad guy” so we’re supposed to overlook how horrifying that power is. And the fact that it only works on the “weak-minded” makes it worse, not better.

When their mind control doesn’t work, the Jedi seem to be really quick to jump to violence, and their rigid adherence to the light/dark dichotomy of the force makes them much, much deadlier than they have to be. We can’t use the magic space lightning which is shown multiple times to be effective at non-lethally subduing opponents (see Sidious shocking Luke at the end of Episode VI). It’s much less evil to potentially push someone off of a cliff or just chop them to bits with our laser swords. Look at how quickly Obiwan jumps to literally disarming the thug in the Mos Eisley canteena. A quick burst of lightning could have solved that problem with much less lasting damage. But no, we can’t do that. Because that’s evil. Not mind control though. Use that at the drop of a hat.

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In Obiwan’s defense, it would have broken the Loses At Least One Limb combo the movies had going if he hadn’t chopped off that guy’s arm in IV. 

There is also the issue of the Jedi Code, but that might be best argued elsewhere. While I recognize that the idea that the Jedi are (also) evil is in no way a new idea, I think remembering this idea, and taking an honest look at the view brings up an important note for your own stories. Maybe the story of Star Wars is less about good and evil and more about jerks and bigger jerks.

Ultimately, it’s important to reevaluate both sides of the story and judge whether or not your hero is really “the good guy”. It’s easy to assume stories are about good guys and bad guys, just like with Star Wars, and to assume that’s the story you’re telling. The truth, as with so many things, will often be more of a shade of grey.

Specifically Grey Jedi. Grey Jedi are awesome.

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“It’s A Sort Of Threat, You See.”

“Come,” called the old man, “come now or you will be late.”
“Late?” said Arthur. “What for?”
“What is your name, human?”
“Dent. Arthur Dent,” said Arthur.
“Late, as in the late Dentarthurdent,” said the old man, sternly. “It’s a sort of threat, you see…I’ve never been very good at them myself,  but I’m told they can be very effective.”

-Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Threats can be a bit of a difficult thing to write. Part of it is that a really good threat is often tailored specifically to the receiver. However, if all you have is a threat with no ability to follow through, even the best tailoring means nothing. One of my writing group members has severe arachnophobia. I myself am a bit afraid of spiders (and I say “a bit” here because my fear is nothing compared to hers). Because of this, threatening Heidi with spiders is a good idea on paper – but in practice, she can laugh it off from me because I couldn’t ever execute a threat like that. Also it would be a bad idea to execute. The payback would be absurd. In that same vein of thought, the obvious threat isn’t always the best.

Not to say phobias can’t be good threats, of course.

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Rats worked just fine.

It’s just that phobias are an easy pick…and it’s easier to retaliate in kind, since often how threats with phobias come off is as a cruel prank.

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Happens all the time here.

I usually see them better used as devices for character growth than as threats, whether the character has to face the fear, or their fear draws others in around them.

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Haruhi is afraid of thunder, and this rallies the rest of the Ouran Host Club around her.

So if you can’t just grab an obvious fear, how do you go about making a good threat?

Ehh…well, it’s not really about not grabbing an obvious fear. I think making a good threat, or what’s appropriate for what your story needs, is just assessing these three items:

  1. What makes the most sense for the situation? (Tailor it to the situation.)
  2. What works against the recipient? (Tailor it to the character.)
  3. How clever is your villain/what are they capable of?

Maybe your villain isn’t any  more clever than to find out what the recipient fears, or maybe they do actually have the capabilities to take a phobia and make it really, really awful – or maybe they’re just a good old fashioned threaten with violence kind of guy.

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Honestly good old fashioned incredible amounts of violence tends to be something most people fear since bodily harm is undesirable for more than one reason. It’s easy to say in theory that there are things we’d rather die than do, but I’m pretty sure if pressed, that wouldn’t be true in practice. Especially a painful death. And just because a person survives torture doesn’t mean they ever really escape it, thanks to scars. I think, in a way, it’s more devious to focus on creating good scars than the immediate now of physical pain because those last forever, whether it’s a crippling injury or mental. Pain is temporary; scars are forever, and scars that cause pain invalidate the first part of this sentence.

That said, other good threats play on pain and fear. Like harm to a loved one. I’d liked to have always thought of myself as an empathetic person, or at least someone who strove for empathy. But I’ve not had an empathetic link with anyone that compares to the one I have with my kid. Made more than one doctor’s trip super sucktastic. I know that there are a lot of people who don’t have great families or great ties to their family members. And also it’s popular to say that you hate pretty much everyone. And that harm to a loved one is super common. But there’s a reason why, and usually a person has at least one other person (or heck, animal)  that is that important to them.

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For the record, it wouldn’t be worse to hurt my kid than a different loved one. Just different. Probably ‘cuz hormones and maybe something about the innocence of a tiny child?

Course then there are somewhat more abstract threats. In my senior year of high school, we had to make our own Dante’s Inferno. I had my reputation as an evil overlord well in hand by then (I was voted most likely to take over the world and it was awesome) and one group asked if they could make a layer specifically for me. Which would have been flattering but then it was only level three *grumble*. I’d said at the time their eternal torment for me wasn’t that bad but the more I’ve thought about it, the more that’s an underestimation and frankly a lie. They’d put me in a cardboard box with a small cutout to view the world, always watching, never able to change anything, do anything. Just watching.

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Honestly I think that would totally drive me insane, even if I could deny it was all that bad at first.

As useful as relational threats – threats against standing, success, standard of living, etc, or even blackmail sorts of threats, threats of exposure – can be, they can be trickier to pull off depending on the recipient’s ability to retaliate or diffuse the issue. If a recipient has the ability to escape a relational threat and they don’t use it, especially if it’s painfully obvious to the reader, the whole threat scenario is bunk. It’s just going to be annoying. Your hero might only be as good as your villain but that doesn’t mean that you don’t have to give your hero brains too. Of course there could be other factors in play, like gaslighting and other psychological manipulation…but then one could argue the recipient doesn’t actually have the ability to escape a relational threat. Not in their world, anyway.

All this said, and nothing too earth shattering, the most important thing to keep in mind with threats is that people don’t like to be threatened, so a good threat is either perfectly backed and strong and actually super terrifying to the threatened, water tight so it can’t be revealed later that they’re being threatened, or it’s a subtle threat, something that sounds more like just natural consequences for an outcome the one making the threat doesn’t like than consequences that the threatener (that’s a word now) will cause to happen. You can’t fight natural consequences. You can fight artificially made consequences. One person reminding or warning of natural consequences is just an ally in responsibility. One person reminding or warning of their own consequences is, well, threatening – and we don’t like to be threatened. Fighting a threat becomes a motivation secondary only to successfully staving off the realization of the threat.

Get out there and write some good threats! Or else! (Sorry, I thought it would be funnier.)

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Happy (late) Independence Day

I realized too late that since I was up with family the whole weekend, it was gonna be awkward for me to write a blog post for Monday. But Monday was the 4th of July and with it comes watermelon, barbecues, and a remembrance of our breaking off from Britain.

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And if I think of villains, it gets me wondering how a villain can fight for independence, too.

Usually, especially in ‘Murica, if someone is fighting for independence on a big scale, or heck, a personal one, they’re the good guys. They’re probably the underdogs, too, like us. It’s quite relatable. And of course, there’s the patting oneself on the back – we did that in the past, and we are totes heroes*, and these guys are doing it so they are totes heroes too. Heroes twinsies!

*not to say that the colonials who broke off WEREN’T heroes. It might be a bit of a stretch for most people to say “we” about it, though.

Heck, any “fight the overlord” story is in its own right a freedom fighter story, and many involve a setting where the overlord already rules a bunch of stuff.

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Freedom fighters!

But that leads us to an interesting thought exercise, doesn’t it?

How could someone trying to fight for independence be a villain?

Well, if fighting for independence is good, then the villainous part of it could be motives, probably of the ulterior sort. Maybe a member of a country who wants a bit of land colonized by a different country could pretend to be a colonial and fight for independence…so that his own country could sweep in and grab them after weakened from throwing off their old overlords. Maybe fighting for freedom will reinforce derogatory stereotypes and cause the destruction of the freedom fighters – maybe that could have been avoided if fought diplomatically, but the villain pushed the fighters to do more literal fighting. Maybe the timing sucks and the economy collapses once the whoevers become independent. Perhaps the villain is playing both sides.

But maybe the independence itself is bad. Maybe the desired separation is like the civil war, and the side that wants independence is because they want to be racist or continue other egregious practices in peace without the bigger part of the country or whatever telling them to knock it off.

Even if ultimately you don’t want to determine a way to warp the beauty of the underdog escaping her cruel master, it’s an important sort of exercise to go through because it gets you thinking like a villain. Evil warps all things, and sometimes that warping is more like a carnival mirror than a twisted piece of metal. It’s a reflection of something good and might even be mistaken for the good thing, but ultimately, it’s not. And if you can figure out how to warp even the best of things, then you have an important tool for writing a villain.

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Math and Writing

Hello, readers. This is Rii’s husband Tyler, here to write a guest blog post. You might be asking yourself, “What makes him think he’s villainous enough to write for this blog?” Well, I’m fairly certain that for a large segment of the readership I can dispel that trepidation with one fact: I am a mathematician. I found it amusing during my time at university just how often someone’s first response upon learning of my major was “I HATE math.” I mean, I never heard any other major get that response. The very mention of the subject seems to invoke a primal hatred in large segments of the population.

It’s a mentality that I can understand. The way math is taught in school often leaves a lot to be desired and understanding the more advanced and esoteric concepts of higher mathematics requires a certain way of thinking that a lot of people have a hard time with (which is fine; I’ll be the first to say that we shouldn’t be forcing students to take anything beyond Algebra and maybe geometry unless they want to go into a field that will actually require it). Another definite problem is that a lot of mathematicians can get snooty about our discipline.

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Exhibit A (from XKCD)

The argument goes that theoretical mathematics is completely removed from human errors. Everything that mathematics proves it proves through cold, calculating (pun definitely intended) logic, free from the experimental errors and limitations that plague the physical sciences. Mathematics is the one TRUTH of the universe, unimpeachable and unquestionable. And this is true… if we add one little asterisk to that statement.

You see, every branch of mathematics begins with a few assumptions about how things work. These statements usually seem fairly intuitively obvious, like the assertion that given a set of things we can choose one of them (the actual mathematical statement of this is much more convoluted, but that’s what it boils down to). We call these axioms, and they are the structure upon which all mathematics is built. So the more honest statement is that mathematics is truth assuming the axioms are true. And that caveat is not trivial. There has been a lot of interesting work into studying the validity of the axioms and trying to eliminate some of them as necessary starting points. Well, interesting to a mathematician at least.

So what does this have to do with writing?

Whether you consciously realize it or not, there are a whole bunch of assumptions floating around when you set about writing a story. Assumptions about people and how they work, assumptions about what it means to be heroic or villainous, assumptions about what it means to be alive, assumptions about the nature of reality. The list goes on and on. Identifying these assumptions and challenging them can lead to very interesting twists in the direction of your story.

In science fiction, we often seen alien species as being essentially humanoid, if not always in appearance. The thought process goes that if they’ve conquered their planet enough to travel to other worlds, they must have certain qualities, certain social structures, etc. But why? Why couldn’t you have a species that has mastered interstellar FTL drives but not “simpler” technology like gunpowder? What if you had a species of single celled organisms that were able to develop an advanced space-faring civilization? Or you could have a hyper-advanced technological civilization that hasn’t ever been bothered to even invent flight, let alone space travel. What would that mean? How would that shape and be shaped by their history?

Maybe the answer you come up with is that none of that makes any sense, that it couldn’t happen. That’s totally fine. But it’s still good to go through the thought exercise because an assumption questioned is an assumption better understood and armed with that knowledge you can better examine the consequences of its certainty.

You can do this sort of thing with any genre. For fantasy you can examine the assumption that humans are the vanilla ice cream of races: everywhere, pretty mundane by themselves, nothing special, but incredibly versatile in their uses (because you can put all sorts of toppings on top). Another common fantasy assumption is that magic and technology are inherently at odds, that as one waxes the other must wane. You see this all the time.

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You see it in Harry Potter as the Wizards use flying post it notes instead of just having computers that they can use to e-mail back and forth.

The battle for balance between magic and technology is a major plot point throughout the Terry Brooks’s Shannara series. But magic and technology don’t have to compete. There have been some really interesting stories that have come about by allowing magic and technology to integrate with each other.

So dig down as deeply as you can into the assumptions that underpin your story and ask yourself if they are really so. And watch as your stories take on a whole new life of their own.

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On Writing Queer Characters

 

I wrote a post last week about diversity. That’s fine and good, but I think support from someone who actually is in a minority – their thoughts and opinions – may be a bit more useful than mine here. So here’s a guest post from a dear friend of mine who does plenty of consuming of all types of creative medium himself.

On Writing Queer Characters

Guest Writer David Delbar

It seems that queer* people are all the rage in media nowadays. From mainstream TV shows to tacky romance novels, queer individuals are experiencing unprecedented representation. Now that we’ve broken through the taboo, the question is “What kind of queer characters should we write?” or “What does good representation look like?” While I certainly don’t have the only correct answer to those questions, I can give you my two cents on the matter.

I know that some people will be complaining “Well, I don’t think that homosexuality is right, so I don’t want to put it in my story.” I would answer, “Why are you on a blog for writing villains, then?” Villains are evil; that’s what makes them villains. I’m pretty sure you don’t approve of evil, either. But a story without a villain, without an antagonist, is no story at all. Stories are about life, about people, and even in the most fantastic of fantasy novels, the closer a character is to a real person, the more we like the story. You don’t have to like homosexuality to write about it well. But you should understand that it is a part of being human, either because you are homosexual yourself or because you will encounter those who are, and stories are richer when we include it. About 5-10% of the population is queer in some way; that’s about 1 in 15 people. Make about the same proportion of characters in your book queer too. Maybe every 15th story, the queer character can even be the protagonist. Inclusion can be done in subtle ways, and for minor characters it may never come up at all. In hostile worlds, queer people tend to group together, and if you focus on such a group, that might tip the percentages of representation. But make sure that the characters are present, in some way or another. Dealing with those moral complexities can elevate your book to a new level.

The first rule is one that long-time readers of this blog should be well familiar with: Queer people are people! That means that their sexual orientation or gender identity is just one of many traits that make them a complete person. You can’t just cut out a cardboard outline and write “gay guy” on it and plop it down in your story. What does this guy think about clam chowder? Is he a fan, or does he hate the taste of shellfish? Is he a staunch supporter of the new evil overlord because the increased stability of the kingdom has allowed him to better sell his lentils, or is he part of the resistance because the minions killed his father?

WAREHOUSE 13 -- "The New Guy" Episode 301 -- Photo by: Steve Wilkie/Syfy

Steve Jinx from Warehouse 13 is gay, but he is also a human lie detector, a Buddhist, former ATF, very uptight, has a soft spot for girls that remind him of his litter sister, and is estranged from his mother because she didn’t pursue the death penalty against his sister’s murderer. Get it? Complete person.

It’s usually a mistake to say “I need a lesbian at this point of the story” because that almost guarantees that she’ll be too flat of a character. It’s better to ask each of your characters what their sexual orientation might be, perhaps after you’ve asked them about other aspects of their personality.

Now, the importance of your character’s queerness will largely depend on the world around him. A former roommate of mine was mercilessly teased as a child for having red hair. Eventually he realized that it was nothing to be ashamed of, and he is proud of his orange locks. In fact, “ginger” is now a primary aspect of his identity; it’s the subtitle on his Facebook profile. On the other hand, I have striking blue eyes, for which I frequently get complements. Because I’m not teased for them, I tend not to identify as “blue-eyed.” So a good rule of thumb is, the more hostile your world is towards a trait, the more strongly your character will identify with it. Is this a world where being gay is considered sinful and abhorrent? Your character’s sexuality will probably be on his mind a lot more. Is it no big deal to have a same-sex lover? Your character won’t think twice about it then. While the former world is certainly important for telling the oppression narrative many queer people face in the real world, it can be refreshing when characters can just be queer without all the baggage. And then there are mixed worlds, where some people or groups are hostile and others are accepting. How you form the world around your characters will help determine their attitudes about themselves.

Next, don’t be afraid to add in some romance! Sometimes we identify that a character is gay or lesbian or bisexual, but we only have romantic scenes between straight couples. Unless a queer character has chosen not to get romantically involved (such as a vow of celibacy or the like) there’s no reason that he shouldn’t be getting his fair share of love interests. Use your straight characters for a gauge. Is this a story with lots of sex and promiscuity? Make sure your gay characters get some too. Is this a children’s story with schoolyard crushes? Then maybe just have some innocent hand-holding. Most books will fall somewhere in between, so make sure that your queer characters’ romances are at about the same level as your straight ones’.

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Korra and Asami are bisexual, and we see both of them give Disney-like kisses to boys. but when they get together, we see some hand holding, but no kissing. See the problem here?

 

As a side note, be sure that their love interests are fully fleshed out characters too, or you’ll be back to boring cardboard cut outs, and no one wants to fall in love with that.

And speaking of cutouts, remember that the L and the G are just the first two letters of the alphabet soup acronym of LGBTQIA+. Gay and lesbian characters are great, but bisexual ones are great too. It’s ok for a character to fall in love with a girl, then a guy, and then a girl again. It’s ok for them to never fall in love, or not even experience any attraction towards others (called asexuality) or to only experience love for a childhood friend and be totally immune to a seductress (called demi-sexuality). Maybe it’s a woman who always felt like he is in fact a man (transgenderism) or doesn’t feel like either a man or a woman (agenderism) despite having a female body.  Perhaps your characters have a change in their DNA that makes them wholly neither male nor female (called intersex, which occurs in about 1 of 100 people, usually in imperceptible ways). Be sure to research the lived experiences of others before making these characters, though. You want your representations to be accurate and lifelike. Sexuality and gender are complex, and in reality it’s unique to each person. If you want to make unique characters, start asking them what their own sexuality and gender are like.

Now, let’s talk villains. It’s 100% ok to have queer villains, since people can be both queer and evil. Just don’t make the mistake of making your character evil because he’s queer. Maybe he turns evil because of resentment for years of ostracism, bullying, or outright violence for his sexual orientation, but being gay isn’t reason enough to turn evil in and of itself. That same alienation can also push a character to great feats of good to prove herself in the eyes of her community. How people react to others shows more about their own character than anything about their queerness. And this is good, because you want to show your queer villain as a person.

The Flash is a good example of balance. Police Captain David Singh (left) is a good guy. The Pied Piper (right) is a villain. Both are gay. Each is his own person.

Queerness is a neutral trait, neither good nor evil. It’s something innate, something a character has no control over. But a character does choose how to respond to their queerness and the reactions of others, and that is what will make him cruel or compassionate, haughty or broken. It’s the interaction with other traits that make things interesting. Queerness is one of many ingredients in the human recipe; while you don’t want it to overpower all the other flavors, you don’t want to leave it out altogether. It’s a great way of making characters (and villains) who are more vibrant, more human, and more alive.

*The term “queer” is often used as an umbrella term to describe those who are part of the rather unwieldy acronym LGBTQIA+. When used respectfully as an adjective, most people find it appropriate. However, you should ask before using it to describe individuals.

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