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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A Villain Today

People never change,” the common belief goes.  But many people are trying each and every day to do better.  Sometimes, even though they’re trying,  they don’t make any real progress for a long time,  just thinking over and over every time they participate in a behavior they’re trying to change that they need to do better.  And sometimes they have bad days.

I think all of us have bad days, “woke up on the wrong side of the bed” days,  though I have also known people who are basically always pleasant,  even if they’re having an off day.  And there are grouches who always seem to be having a bad day. On my bad days,  I’m more prone to snap on a hair trigger and yell at my kid,  who as a three year old,  does not have the coordination to navigate hair triggers.  It’s not the kind of mom I want to be, but  trying to get back in control feels like I’m watching someone else yell at my kid.  It’s something I have to work on.  When I was younger,  sometimes I just wanted to antagonize my younger brother,  pick a fight with him.  He and I got along astonishingly well for most siblings,  so this wasn’t usual behavior for me. Overlord persona aside, I don’t really think of myself as a villain, even if I sometimes behave badly.
Therein lies the line between villains and jerks – you have to define for yourself where that line might be,  but dynamic people might be a villain for a day,  one off day.  Some people might be genuinely lovely in one setting,  and genuinely awful in another; a friend recounted in a Facebook status how one associate once left their garage door open for days straight because a bird had made its nest on it and he waited for the eggs to hatch and babies to fly away before he dared close it,  but in a discussion about the Middle East,  suggested our best tactic would be to bomb it into a sea of glass. Tenderness and heartlessness in the same person at different times and different situations.  Perhaps you could say he was a villain that day (and of course, saying something is pretty different than doing it – perhaps if he had the button to actually bomb the Middle East into a sea of glass, he would hesistate and fail to press it).
This is why mere bad actions alone do not a villain make. Villainy has to come from somewhere deeper, more innate. Certainly there’s some room for argument, but even if you feel comfortable calling a man who’s just having a bad day a week or month or year in a row trashing the lives of people around him a villain, he’s absolutely different than a villain who does the exact same outward actions for a different reason than “grouchy and angry”.
It’s the difference between a murder of passion and premeditated murder – you can say that either way, you’re a murderer, and you’re usually going to be right, but I find someone who can sit and carefully plan out a murder more terrifying than someone who gets caught up in the moment and does something terrible. (I am not, of course, particularly talking about the kinds of murders that are accidents or self-defense, but the kind where there were so many other options to deal with anger or a displeasing situation, and the assailant chose murder out of all of those). There certainly can be and often is something that’s terrifying about someone who, when pushed to a particularly excited state, responds with the extreme response of murder, and that sort of person can be especially bone-chilling as a villain, maybe even moreso than the premeditated sort of villain, but premeditation suggests a long game, a heart already filled with some kind of evil rather than a snap decision that might or might not indicate a dormant bit of evil that was always in the heart, that might or might not lead to increasing amounts of bad decisions, growing heartlessness, or any sort of true villain. Maybe they were just a villain for the day, a murderer for the day, and afterwards, the stain of their actions never leaves, but they aren’t really a villain either, they aren’t so changed of heart to be predispositioned towards more harm. Maybe they try to hide their crime until it all falls apart from within and they give in to the truth. Maybe they don’t, but they try to make up for their actions other ways.
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In this, they’re not so unlike a heel-face-turn character, especially if you meet them after the turn, like Skyrim’s Erandur.

Maybe they were just a villain for a day.
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Such Edgy. So Villain!

Much Evil. Very Scandal.

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Wow.

Okay Doge speak aside, the importance of scrutinizing both “Because I’m evil!” and “It’s okay. They’re evil!” in their parallels and differences is that doing so hopefully steers you far away from most of the toxic mindsets for writing a villain that probalby lead to some sort of edgelord crap. I mean, even if you’re not trying to be an edgelord with your villain, sometimes villains feel like they were written based on answers to the questions:

“What can I do to make my villain look evil?”

or,

“How can I make my villain scarier?”

which is exactly the wrong way to go about things. Not starting at this point is in fact one of my basic five tenets of writing villains; villainy, evil, scary comes from within. It’s not the stuff your force on them from the outside, not outside acts. In real life, you can tell the difference between a punk trying to act tough and someone who is actually seriously terrifying. Readers can do it just as easily in books.

Don’t worry about trying to get your villain to do something bad, or dress provocatively, or have poor habits, or what they are or aren’t allowed to do. Just worry about what they would do. You will probably have to talk to them to figure it out.

Because when you just try to force them into evil, then you only get a certain kind of villain. Might I say…

Such villain.

Wow.

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“It’s fine. They’re evil!” /Wink

A close parallel to the topic of whether or not villains do evil/bad/unsanitary/unhealthy practices because they’re evil is whether evil/bad/unsanitary/unhealthy and here I’ll add /edgy practices are performed because there is a villain.

What I mean is easily encapsulated by the old trope of villain women wearing less. (see both “Skimpy villains” and “Evil is Sexy”). Back in the day, censors were a lot stricter about dress, and you could get an “uncomfortably” revealing outfit past the censor if the bad guy (I mean girl) wore it because, of course, they’re a bad guy, so they’re going to do something “bad” like wear less clothes.

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Granted there’s lots of tropes about evil women wearing less clothing, and they’re probably all interconnected.

 

Beyond the fact that this, of course, goes right to that problematic “because I’m evil!” nonsense (a female villain is about as likely to dress in skimpy clothing just because she’s evil as any person is to not wash their hands just because they’re evil) there’s two other problems.

The first is where you get into weird moral statements. With the censorship thing, you have the statement, “dressing in a revealing way is immoral and only bad people do it.” This is a belief some people, perhaps in part, hold. I myself adhere to a religion with a dress code. But at the same time, I’d never want to deliver this message – you aren’t a bad person if you dress in a way more revealing than my moral code dictates one ought to. And what if it was swearing? Yes, yes, we all know swears are bad words. So only bad people say them!

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“Why I can even cuss a swear myself! Ahem! Diaper biscuits!” (Commandos in the Classroom, Homestarrunner)

But I mean, swears are things you say in a state of frustration, and literally everyone uses them. Maybe you say “crap” instead of something stronger but that’s still swearing. Pretending like good people don’t swear and bad people do is as foolish as pretending like good people never smoke and bad people do. Look, villains are often people who murder people, are you really going to put swearing and cleavage and cigarettes up there with actual criminal acts? It’s ridiculous and doesn’t make for strong writing. That’s not actually how the world works and when writing doesn’t reflect reality, even try to, its chances of becoming campy, cheesy, or otherwise poor rise exponentially.

And I get it, I get the moral messages you’re worrying about sending – but there are actual consequences to some behavior, and actual conflicts with others, when these things aren’t just “evil” and rather than trying to equate “oh no boobs” with “oh no villainess!” or “look kids only bad guys smoke!” you could, you know, actually try to add some depth into your story by adding those consequences and conflicts in. Maybe the good guy does smoke. Maybe he doesn’t get cancer, but is short of breath or finds that he hates being dependent or that he spends so much money on the problem. Maybe there isn’t a bad consequence, not visibly, as there often isn’t in real life, because your audience should know that things are complicated.

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What about cartoon characters? Media for children? Yeah, that’s where the smoking is for bad guys thing comes from…while things are different when you’re writing for kids, they still deserve good media, so use your judgement skills and figure it out. Besides, they still live in a world where adults they know and judge as good will smoke.

The second is the line of thinking, “They’re allowed to do it. They’re a villain.” This is not quiiite the same as, “Because I’m evil,” but a problem for all the same reasons – and a few more. Just becasue a villain is “allowed” to do it doesn’t mean they will, yes.

Additionally, just because whatever “it” is is deemed unacceptable doesn’t mean a villain is actually “allowed” to do it – for one thing, this wording suggests it’s “okay” if you’re “bad” when a lot of the behavior is not okay ever. The villain is not allowed to murder people, that’s why they are a villain. They aren’t allowed to. They choose to do it anyway. If you get this mindset of allowed to, you’re going to get weird, stilted characters and the messages of morality are going to be weird and offkilter. Heroes don’t always do what they are allowed to do, either. Honestly, unless it’s relevant to the setting by laws and culture therein, don’t think about allowed to so much as choose to.

You can argue that we’ve made progress on not being so ashamed of the existence of bodies and so the dress thing is less relevant, but “evil is sexy” is still alive and well and arguments about “what she was wearing” are too, so…in one form or another, this weird line in the sand of “good” and “evil” based on things that actually have little to no moral value also exists. Some things are wise or unwise, healthy/sanitary or not, desireable to one and not another, and people are all mixed bags, so to try to put everything into neat little columns of “good” and “evil” and then carefully tuck those items into your respective “hero” and “villain” boxes isn’t going to get you rich characters. You don’t have to draw a line every single time. There certainly are some lines that have to be drawn, and those are the lines you should be fighting over – because that’s the point of heroes and villains.

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“No…Because I’m EVIL.”

In Justice League Unlimited, there’s an episode where due to shenanigans, The Flash and Lex Luthor’s minds get switched. Lex, at this time, is in the depths of a secret society of supervillains (who aren’t hugely fond of him right now) and Flash is on edge.

Flash doesn’t realize he’s Lex until he walks into a bathroom and sees his own reflection. He stumbles into a stall to try and think things through and try to call the Watchtower, which he fails to do. On exiting the stall, one of the supervillains demands that he get on with an evil scheme he’d been plotting so he, Flash!Lex, goes to leave the bathroom. The following exchange occurs:

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Ah, Flash. You’re adorable. If The Question wasn’t my favorite, you might have a chance.

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Who knew? I hate conspiracy theorists but…somehow his charisma and hilarity got past that. “Orange socks?” haha.

No, Flash honey, that’s not how evil works. And I’m glad I know that you didn’t have a reason to wash your hands because otherwise I would have been a little freaked out.

That said, I’ve uttered, “Because I’m evil,” before, too, when I did some teasing impolite thing to my husband. “Why would you do that?” “Because I’m evil!” It kind of goes with the whole scene in the first Pirates movie where Turner says “You cheated!” and Sparrow says, “Pirate.” The real problem with “becasue I’m evil” is how easily it lends to getting mixed up with motivations. Evil is not a motivation. What I really mean is, “you’re operating under the assumptions that I’m going to act in accordance with basic morals and societal niceties all decent people hold to, when I don’t, because I’m not a decent person, aka evil.” A more solid example could be, “Why did you steal that?” “Because I’m evil” meaning, “A normal person might see something they covet, but they won’t take it, because they are hindered by the wrong moral nature of stealing. I am not so hindered.” In which case the actual motivation was, “I wanted it,” but the answer of, “I’m evil,” was answering the real question, which wasn’t just, “What was your motivation?” but also, “what allowed you to do something that isn’t allowed?” in which case the, “I wanted it,” is implied in the, “because I’m evil.”

Parsing out this whole train of thought might seem pendantic, but I find it necessary, since you get Flashes otherwise. If you don’t separate motivation from morality, then you get a blob of gelatinous evil goo that will just do whatever can even remotely be constituted as “bad” even if it’s not evil so much as rude or unsanitary or just a bad decision and that’s not a real person. I don’t consider someone who doesn’t wash their hands to be more evil than me. They’re just more gross. I also don’t consider someone who eats a healthier diet and exercises to be morally superior. They’re just in better shape. Uncouth is not evil, else all small children are evil as they haven’t learned societal niceties yet.

When I encounter nice people who have a hard time with villains, it’s usually this core Flash problem. It’s the inability to tell the difference between evil switching up a worldview to different moral inhibitions (or not), and no inhibitions on anything, even if that doesn’t make any sense. I mean, you can’t rule the world if you get sick and die since you didn’t wash your hands, right?

Also important to note is that a willingness to do something (like steal) is not the same as a motivation to do it. Just because a character does not feel guilt over stealing doesn’t necessarily mean that they always want to steal. They still will have to be motivated to do it. I could joke here that the exception is me playing a video game, but that’s still not totally true.As I try out the Octopath Traveler demo and, of course, pick Therion the thief, and strip every NPC of everything they own, it’s in part becasue I can, but also because then I don’t have to buy supplies, and might find something cool (there were some interesting key items held by NPCS), and I can save my money for something cool that I have to buy.

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Stoked for this game, guys.

It’s the same in Skyrim; houses aren’t cheap, and leveling skills often isn’t, either. Working honestly takes so long to earn enough. I can say that I ride on the giddyness of just taking ALL THE THINGS but there is actually a motivation in there beyond “I am doing it because I can.” And sometimes “because I can” is a motivation, but it’s still probably different than just a willingness to; Therion has a bit of that attitude but he’s also enjoying his reputation as Best Thief, so there’s more to it than that. (As an important sidenote, especially in Skyrim, there are things I don’t steal – if it’s worth little and isn’t even heavy, I am not as motivated to steal it and I probably don’t.)

So especially if you struggle, get pendantic with yourself about what your villain is willing to do, and what they’re actually motivated to do, and always remember that you can’t lump in all poor behavior into one great “evil” because that makes no sense.

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The Evil Race/Class

You know one of my favorite things? How many instances there are of scary-looking bikers being totally awesome people who aren’t actually terrifying thugs. I mean, some biker “gangs” are groups of people who do awesome charity work, like helping kids feel brave enough to confront adults who have abused them in court.

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They’re called “BACA”.

I think at this point, there are probably more people who are aware of the fact that a leather-clad handlebar mustache’d tattooed big guy with a bike is probably a Nice Dude who is not going to run you down with his loud bike, but there are definitely still people who aren’t sure if all bikers aren’t Hell’s Angels who want to kill and/or traffic them. And frankly, even BACA is working on the “bikers are scary” stereotype. So even if we think bikers might actually be nice, we apparently still think they are scary (perhaps because we still think they can break our face and/or kill us with their biker gang, who knows).

In a fantasy genre, this honestly makes me think of Orcs. Orcs are a “bad” race. But of course, if you talk to enough DnD players, you find several who wanted to play an orc or at least a half orc and turn that trope on its head. Even I have one that I want to do one day. Along with Orcs, it’s always bugged a friend that the Uruk’hai’s language was considered objectively worse and more evil than other languages like, that’s not actually how languages work, thanks. And along those lines, that’s not actually how races should work, either.

I’d like to advise that you scrutinize carefully any bad races in your story, especially if they’re the good old stereotypical Orcs. And I’d likewise suggest you think carefully about class/occupations that are stereotyped as evil. Bikers or necromancers, you shoudn’t just box order a cardboard printout of a sterotype. I mean, sure, stereotypes are useful, but flat characters are bad.

And hey, maybe you can present The Evil Race and it turns out your MCs are just racist.

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Look at those Isvhalans, with their scary red eyes and their psychotic murderer- oh actually most of them are perfectly nice people and are gonna be essential in our Save The World plan nm my bad.

As always, it’s important to remember little involving sapient life is black and white and you should always take a close look at anything you’re framing as objectively good or objectively evil. You could come up with a race or class that’s definitely totally evil 100% of the time, or define it as such in your story – I mean in the defense of the Uruk’hai, they are literally made from bad crap to be evil people. Their reproduction is popping out of a tar pit thing. They’re arugably not real people. But before you go making your villain a member of a Bad Race or leader of a Bad Race, you’ve gotta remember people are dynamic and race might sometimes be more than just skin-deep but it’s not that powerful.

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A Cat’s Quest

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NO. DEVELOP YOUR CURSING VILLAINS PROPERLY.

Actually this is pretty unfair to Drakoth (that villain cat there). I liked the main story of A Cat’s Quest, and Drakoth was developed decently and not horrendously generic, even if he put up a farce of it to meet his ends. The game itself was pretty fun, the battle system was simplistic without being stupid, and the amount of cat puns was about a B- Could Stand to be More Unbearable.

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“Even pretend to become a crappy generic villain.”

 

But seriously, to talk about what Drakoth said – If I say, “I hate generic villains,” what I mean is, “I find generic villains to be uncompelling and boring and it ruins my experience of trying to enjoy the story because the hero is less appealing to me because s/he looks lame in comparison wasting their time with some dumb loser who calls himself a villain and I hate that.” This is as opposed to if we’re talking about a villain I hate, because what I mean there is, “I hate that guy.” That’s a huge difference.

There aren’t shortcuts. There’s just laziness in setting up a cardboard cutout for your hero to knock down, and the actual work of making a dynamic villain who is more than just a conflict generator.

Btw if you have a Switch consider Cat’s Quest. It’s cute, silly, and like I said, I enjoyed it.

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A+ silliness.

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Dynamic Villains

I was working on a post about writing dynamic villains, but I’m pretty unhappy with it right now – then a friend tagged me on facebook with the following meme:

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Thank you Facebook Gods and Doug

I think this is a fantastic prompt. I mean, it automatically invokes the question of whether or not the villain is really even a villain – of course he or she could be, wanting a real challenge, morality built as such that children should not be part of the conflict of adults, etc…and maybe, maybe your villain isn’t actually a villain here. Maybe they’re just someone who defied the gods. There’s a lot of material here.

Whatever way you take it, the idea that a villain is upset because of this destiny nonsense that pits overwhelmed foes against him is a good start for making a dynamic person, who has good and bad traits, even if the character is, ultimately, evil, and that’s what matters most about making a villain.

Happy writing!

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Implementing Mental Disorder

After about three years of peace, my depression has come back in full-blown Crazy!Yuri mode.

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If you haven’t heard of Doki Doki Literature club and you love anime dating sims but hate psychological horror…yooou should stay away.

While I am fairly easily able to say, NO YURI, FRIGGUN STOP SUGGESTING THAT, it’s a never-ending thought now that my depression is back. And it’s awkward because on the one hand, I kinda want to ask for more attention from the people around me – I mean, an uncontrollable part of my subconsious is trying to convince me that suicide is a good idea – but on the other hand, I’d be asking for attention and I kind of hate doing that because then I feel needy and/or like an attention whore.

It made me think of how it can also be awkward writing about a person with a mental disorder – like any character with a “glaring” personality trait, it can be hard to have them be fully fleshed characters instead of just embodiments of their unique “thing”. Kind of how if you’re trying to diversify your cast and you include a POC or someone who’s gay, making it so that everything they do is a highlight of that trait is a particularly unuseful way of diversifying your cast. It’s better to write the person as a normal individual and what makes them unique just changes some of their behavior rather than overtly reminding the audience repeatedly that they have this unique trait.

Which, surprisingly, brings me to the Octonauts.

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Yep, another children’s show.

The Octonauts are undersea explorers/marine bioligists/police maybe. It’s a show I don’t mind watching with my daughter, since they explore sea creatures even I’ve never heard of before and teach new things about the ones I have, and that’s always good for writer brain. Siphonophore, for example. I mean, look’em up, they’re pretty cool.

One thing I really appreciate about the Octonauts is that they often have some kind of environmentalist agenda, but they’re pretty subtle about it – and not just for a kids’ show, they’re actually subtle. For their full-length Earth-day special, they addressed global warming without ever actually even saying the words global warming. All they did is that the polar bear captain went home to his sister to help her cubs go to the arctic circle and they couldn’t find any ice floes to rest on until they were crazy exhausted and then the one they did find already had polar bears complaining that they couldn’t find any others, either, and that the one they were on was already suspiciously smaller/thinner than it should have been. Then the Octonauts did their thing and got all the polar bears to their hunting grounds on their ship. The end.

I mean they introduced a problem that I, as an adult who is aware of hot button topics, knew to be more than just an “oh no” problem that shows up in a kids’ show. But for a kid who doesn’t know about global warming, it is just an “oh no” made-up problem no different than the episode where a fish gets stuck under something or whatever. It was just showing the consequences for the characters of a problem (whether or not global warming is real isn’t the point here). Just like the trash episode where the Octonauts are cleaning up ocean trash, and some fish show up in a feeding frenzy, and they have to get help from pelicans to get the trash away from the fish. No belaboring where the trash came from, or what a huge problem it is that people litter, could have just as easily been about kelp and fish that can’t eat kelp or something.

When they bring up issues like litter or global warming, instead of educating my child, it gives me, the parent, the opportunity to talk to my kid about this. If a parent didn’t believe in global warming, the show just presents that it’s an issue for polar bears if there isn’t ice between the continent the bear lives on and the arctic circle. That’s it.

If you were to write about what I look like when dealing with depression, it wouldn’t look so much like a neon “depression” sign hanging over me; there’s a reason why mental disorders are an “invisible” illness. It’s instead just going to look like the consequences – being subdued, sad, empty for no real reason, avoiding activities I love for no reason, being tired for no reason. You can specifically highlight that I’m walking around a restaurant looking at tables with my head cocked at a weird angle because I have OCD, or you can just write about my bizarre walk around the restaurant. You can try to imitate my self-interrupting dialog that is always spoken just a little too fast without saying it’s becasue of my ADD.

And honestly writing the consequences of mental disorders without the neon sign label might be beneficial anyway, because I’m still a normal person and I’m more than my illness. The only reason I find knowing my issues spring from depression useful is so that the people who get it can know “get more sun” is not going to cut it as a fix. It might be worthwhile to specifically say “this character has X disorder” and it might not – and either way it’s probably a bad idea to belabor the point.

So when implementing a mental disorder, consider just writing out the behaviors without needing to carefully dissect each one. And seriously, look up Siphonophores.

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It’s a Midnight Zone creature, so you know it’s cool.

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To Empathize with Nazis

A friend sent me an article about mindflayers in D&D and an analysis on what the lead designer Mike Mearls said about the tremendously evil creatures ability to garner empathy, or at least sympathy. The short of it was that the mindflayers were once an empire that fell and are now the last of their kind, viewing themselves as refugees, struggling desperately to regain the glory and purpose they once had, and while Mearls suggests that this is where sympathy comes in, author Cameron Kunzelman suggests that it’s trying to borrow from a basic fantasy trope set up exemplified in Aragorn, of the lost ruler fighting against bad odds to reclaim what is his, and how it’s not a fair comparison because the mindflayers are unequivocably evil and it’s dangerous and ugly to validate their struggle that way and that the idea that the villain is the hero of his own story is trash.

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A mindflayer, aka illithid – sheesh, I hate these guys about as much as I hate the undead, though for different reasons. (It’s mind control.)

There’s a lot to dissect here, but I’ll start off with that I generally agree with Kunzelman. There are, as the title of his article suggests, villains who just do not deserve sympathy. Mindflayers are one of them, because they’re a type of people who believe in metaphorically and literally eating the minds of others, enslaving them with mind control, and abusing the crap out of their slaves. They’re not good people (if, frankly, you wanna call them people at all). They are, as I said, unequivocably evil. You can paint anything you’d like to as sympathetic – even murder and rape and torture can all be painted that way – though, to use D&D terms, they’d still have to beat the will save of anyone looking at them ‘cuz some of us will refuse to see it that way regardless of how it’s presented; we will not devour garbage, not if you arrange it in a smiley face, put a garnish on top, or add a side of fries…erm, you can paint anything you like as sympathetic but that does not mean it deserves sympathy. Some things are just wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, the end. Trying to look at it differently is not an interesting moral quandry.

And that’s why if ever presented with this bs about, “Oh, but the mindflayers are saaad refugees who are the last of their kind struggling to recover from a mortal blow! Would you really snuff out a species?” I have no problem whatsoever saying “yes” – after I’ve already stabbed the mindflayer, of course, as per Overlord List #7. I mean, if I got a chance to destroy all of any given gross parasite after ascertaining that it wouldn’t be a dramatic detriment to the ecosystem, I totally would. Heck, if I got the chance to obliterate any particularly unpleasant aspect of mortal existence, I absolutely would. In D&D, that’s gonna include mindflayers.

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This is what makes Elder Scroll’s St. Jiub so awesome. You know why he’s a saint? ‘Cuz he went and murdered every last one of the Cliff Racers, an obnoxious flying creature prone to attacking the player frequently. He deserves that sainthood.

Honestly I find the idea of sympathizing with a fallen overlord race super bizarre. Like, the fantasy plot we follow is sympathizing with the Gith – the primary race the Illithids enslaved – as they overthrow their cruel (and abusive!) masters. Why on earth would we want to follow the reverse story? You could find entertainment in reading a story about the rise and fall of an overlord, but…if you don’t have that end part, your story is a tragedy.

But here’s where I disagree with Kunzelman. He suggests that the idea that the villain is the hero of his own story is a bad device since it does the whole garner sympathy for the devil thing. And you can use it that way, I guess. But that’s not the point of the device. The point is that when you’re writing a villain, that villain is probably a person, even if just barely a person like a mindflayer. And that person is going to have motivations and how they view those motivations changes if nothing else the flavor of the villain dramatically. It’s the difference between arguing with an internet troll and someone who absolutely believes their position is correct. It’s the difference between someone who acts out of hatred and someone who acts out of vengeance and someone who acts out of perceived righteousness. People don’t usually purposefully pick something wrong because it’s wrong and it doesn’t necessarily make your villain any more horrible or terrifying if they do. Honestly, usually someone who thinks they are right, that they are the hero, when they are demonstrably demonic, is more terrifying than someone who just admits they’re awful because of how hard the former will fight – and that’s the difference between someone fighting for something they want, even if they know they have no claim to it, and someone fighting for something they firmly believe is absolutely theirs and they deserve it and it is morally wrong for any other outcome. The point isn’t to make sympathy for your villain – it’s to flesh them out and understand – but disagree – with them.

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I like to learn about Hitler, the same way I like hearing about serial type criminals – I like to learn how a person goes rotten. But I never sympathize.

Kunzelman brings in modern day white supremacists (who are often (always?) also Neo Nazis) as why granting the objectively evil figure sympathy just for existing is a dangerous idea. Let me propose that if you’re writing a Nazi, you can write them as just an evil person who wants to kill “inferior” races and control others, but you won’t be writing a person, you’ll be writing an idea with a body. A person justifies themselves, and they probably do it by thinking they’re right. Nazis are still people, even if they suck, and if you want to write them well, you’ll remember that – because part of what makes them suck is that they are people and people should behave better than that.

You don’t have to sympathize with evil to understand it, and understanding doesn’t have to shift to sympathy. It shouldn’t. In the case of mindflayers, I’m happy to take the time to better understand them. Unlike goblins, they’re not just some monster with a rudimentary culture that maaaybe I shouldn’t kill? No – I understand that they think they are right, that they believe they are the rightful rulers of the universe, that it is their destiny, their birthright, and they’ll do anything to fulfill it. They are the heroes of their own story, the forsaken leaders – I understand their perspective, and that way, I understand why I have to kill them.

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Foiled (achoo!) Again!

“I didn’t write a blog post today,” I sigh to my husband yesterday, not complaining about anything so much as that the day was continuing in its not-so-great course. Not only did it start when the baby woke me with loud, baleful snuffling indicating he was sick, stuffed up, and having a hard time breathing, but when I went to check on my daughter (who I was sure I’d heard stirring but she hadn’t left her room yet, which was odd) I encountered a horror sick scene which I can sum up with that I had a moment of panic that she might have asphixiated. After a bath, she was much better, but still caused enough subsequent messes I couldn’t handle it and had to call in reinforcements. I’m lucky I’m in a position where Tyler could take a half day and come help me. Luckily, it looks like it was just food poisoning.

Tyler considered what I’d said for a moment, and then with a grin said that you never really see villains who are foiled by stuff like getting really sick.  I laughed – of course not. That would be pretty lame, building up this big conflict, and then on the day when the villain is going to execute his plans…he stays home with pneumonia instead and everything’s fine. Something like that could totally work in a comedy, but not your average story.

That said, sickness rarely shows up in stories in any sort of realistic manner at all anyway. You only really see some kind of exotic illness that can only be cured by a crazy McGuffin.

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Like in Final Fantasy IV when you cure Rosa’s desert sickness with a sand ruby (???)

And of course, I don’t believe in “you can’t” nearly so much as I believe in “you shouldn’t” and maybe writing your villain through a sick day could, at the very least, be a fun writing exercise.

Just something to think about.

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