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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Temper Tantrums: A Star Wars Post

My kid is only 18 months old – that’s a year and a half for you whiny babies who don’t know anything about how to count tiny humans’ age and complain we do it in months – but she, like several of her counterparts months older or younger, has already hit the terrible twos.

It’s kind of amusing at first the way she bursts into loud tears when I say “No” to her, and throws herself on the ground. Like, where did she learn that? I’ve done my best to keep her from looking much at screens which means she’s had no TV…and she hasn’t had many playdates until recently, nor otherwise interacted with other kids. Yet she still does the classic throw herself on the ground manuver. All the other toddlers who have hit the terrible part early also thrown themselves on the ground. I guess it’s just innate? I personally honestly find it funny. Like how is that supposed to change my mind, kiddo? I guess it’s just a reflexive, pure expression of emotion.

Hey you know who else was kind of into unbridled emotion? Not that I’m a big Star Wars buff* or anything, but I’m pretty sure it was the Sith.

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Idk I might have misunderstood their style of using the Force. *I am seriously not a Star Wars buff.

My husband and I finally got around to seeing The Force Awakens recently and I’d heard so much about Kylo Ren. Most of it was bad, with a few differing opinions, usually from people whose opinions I respected a lot, so that was good and intriguing. The bandwagon is to hate on him as a whiny baby. But. I’m not going to be joining that bandwagon.

Here’s my thoughts. When Kylo Ren loses his cool, whips out his lightsaber, and starts smashing things without regard, yeah. That’s pretty much a temper tantrum. And temper tantrums aren’t really admirable in any fashion. It’s unbridled emotion, a total lack of control, childish. We all look down on them because they don’t make anything better, and it’s something parents often try to get their kid to grow out of it. Or they should, anyway. Not impressive. And no, it’s not a good trait for a villain to have. Villains need to be able to be in control.

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Brian Kesinger’s adorable work.

However, it is a trait that people have. And villains are people. People have flaws. So it’s not unreasonable that a villain, as a person, could have the flaw of temper tantrums. Does that make them a bad villain? It really depends on how much the temper tantrum gets in the way of their being able to do things. That’s my own benchmark for flaws. Villains should definitely have flaws! But those flaws shouldn’t be self-defeating. As for temper tantrums, it’s not an impressive trait in the slightest and if you want to roll your eyes at it, I can hardly blame you. Usually, if you’d want to call someone who is an adult who throws temper tantrums a whiny baby, I also wouldn’t blame you. But. I don’t feel like that’s quite fair in this instance.

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Anyway it’s not all bad, right? gave us this hilarious moment.

Remember that Kylo was personally trained by some ill-defined Sith douchebag who seems much less collected than Sideous. It’s as likely as anything else Snoke just led Kylo to let his emotions go completely uncontrolled. And as I said, a temper tantrum is a pretty big display of total lack of control. That’s why we turn our noses up at it. But that’s such a Sith thing. Sorta. I mean you can’t really be a great fighter if you can’t keep yourself in check. But as a fledgling Sith, is it so out of the question that just…letting it flow in any expression could be a part of training? Kylo’s training isn’t complete, after all.

There’s also Kylo’s position and the bomb that was Anakin Skywalker. It’s been hashed over pretty well that the big problem with Anakin is that Darth Vader was so cool, to go backward to his developing up to that ended up requiring a character that many people didn’t like. At all. But if we want to have a dark lord of awesome develop, and Abrams wants us to watch Kylo blossom into his idol, whelp. The precedent of kind of whiny confused post-teen has already been established. But honestly it’s not like Kylo was really all that whiny. And it isn’t like he didn’t have any moments of promise, either. I mean, remember that he took a shot from Chewie’s laser crossbow of +2 death and proceeded to have an epic battle with people who shouldn’t have been as good with a lightsaber as him due to their lack of training but were anyway because sure, why not.

Anyway it’s not like I have a whole lot to lose in personal investment if I’m wrong about my projected path for Kylo’s development. Star Wars is an important piece of my childhood but I’ve never really been that much into science-fiction. I don’t know, it just doesn’t do it for me. Maybe it’s because I have a hard time keeping up with technology and science and the advances are cool but don’t make my heart race, so the fantasy of those things tend to be beyond my understanding and I’d rather read a story about dragons. But I can appreciate a good storyline regardless of whether it’s cloaked in the magic of technology or, er, magic. And I can recognize a good or poor villain regardless. And for a story that is so important to so many other people, I am invested in their happiness, in yours if you’re a fan, so I really do hope that I’m right, that Kylo develops into something worthy of Vader’s shadow. Because I’d hate to see this reboot go to waste. And because I’m not as invested for myself, I won’t bother to waste emotions hating on Kylo when he comes up on my Facebook dash, but if you’re invested, I can understand why you don’t want to ease up on him. But all the same, I think you should. I don’t think he is nor will grow to be a villain that’s as poor as most people think right now.

And hey, if nothing else, he’s given us the above mentioned comics and the Emo Kylo Ren twitter and that’s worth something, right?

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Death Note

Death Note is an interesting story if for no other reason than that the protagonist is a villain.
I mean I guess you could argue that, and in a small way that’s the whole point, but I believe Light Yagami is a villain.

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Look into those eyes, that grin, and tell me he’s not deranged.

I want to avoid spoilers because my husband and I are watching the anime and he hasn’t seen or read it before, but the basic plot is that there are death gods – Shinigami – who use notebooks called Death Notes to kill people by writing their names in the books. One Shinigami gets bored and drops his notebook into the human world where a high school student, Light, picks it up and upon realizing it’s real, decides to use it to wipe out the criminal population, ruling in righteous and abrupt judgement. The police catch on, this mystery killer is dubbed “Kira”, and the police bring in the world’s most famous detective known as L. L and Light begin a chess game of wits, moves and countermoves. Everybody dies. The end. (no wait. That’s not how it ends.)

If you simply write a person’s name in the Death Note, they die of a heart attack.

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Is killing evil people evil? That’s a big question in Death Note. Some of the antagonists – who are the good guy police, it’s all inverted – believe that it’s not even necessarily about who Kira is killing. It’s the power to kill someone that is evil.

You know? I don’t think that’s wrong. I mean, technically speaking, we all have the power to kill someone without a Death Note. Sure, it’d be really easy to kill someone just by thinking of their face while writing their name in a notebook. But like, we have guns. We could just get one and kill people with it. In fact, people do that. A lot. That’s kind of the thing in the media and stuff. Bombs and shootings. So it’s not like having the power to kill people, even easily, is special or eludes us. And we do generally agree that doing so is evil.

But there is the question of killing people who are judged to be evil. As a moral person, I would argue that no one human really can judge. That’s the point of God. (Not to say people who don’t believe in God aren’t moral; just to say, speaking as a moral person and not, say, from my overlord-sona, if you will.) I mean, evil is a really deep concept. There’s actions, and intentions, and perspectives…and change. If a really evil person could change for the better, who are you to deny them that journey? It doesn’t matter if you will never forgive them, no matter how saintly they become. Who are you to deny them the journey of redemption?

But even beyond that, Light was thinking that if judgement was swift for evil acts, people would never do evil. Quotable Dudes, like one of the leaders of my church, have also literally said that. And what I know personally of conditioning also heavily suggests that. Light is probably right.

But see that’s a problem. I consider that concept evil. The whole point is that people can do evil things if they chose to, that to be so conditioned by punishment and possibly reward to do only good is just another form of tyranny, mind control. That’s evil. That’s cutting off agency. Technically one might be choosing to do good but is it really choosing to do good, does it really count, if it’s only done to avoid swift punishment and possibly also to get something good? If nothing else, I do hear people complain about the phenomenon of planning on doing something, but then someone, particularly Mom, asks you to do it, and all of a sudden you have zero desire to do it. You were GOING to take out the trash, but then Mom nagged, and now you don’t want to.

So maybe it’s all in perspective, and maybe your perspective is EVIL! but looks appealing and voila, villain. After all, I don’t believe in moral relativity, but I do believe that everything isn’t black and white – so sometimes it is a matter of perspective, but a lot of times, it isn’t.

Let’s take a quick moment to add what Light’s big mistake was, in my opinion:

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Raye Penber, FBI; Died of a heart attack.

L suspects that Kira is either a policeman or associated with the police, probably a loved one. He brings in 13 FBI agents to investigate the Japanese police force with which he is working. Light discovers that he’s being followed, goes to careful lengths to act like a normal student, and then to kill his stalker, Raye Penber, along with the other agents and their director. How he does it is clever enough, I guess, but completely unnecessary.

The day that Raye is wrapping up his report is the same day Light weasels out of him Raye’s name; he, Raye, specifically says “Light is a normal kid; not suspicious,” as he’s making his final notes. And Light suggests he knows that Raye doesn’t suspect him. But he gets Raye’s name out of him anyway and then gets all the FBI agents killed. Why? WHY? There was no reason to do that! I mean if it’s a matter of just declaring loudly, “Kira will not be opposed!” I guess it was necessary? But then that brings in how Kira will not just kill the evil, but also those who oppose him – which really does make him a tyrant. Besides that, the whole charade is when things start getting way stickier for Light. Mostly because even without his oversight, L uses just the information about his agents’ dealings to narrow down a list of suspects, but then there’s also

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Naomi Misora

Raye’s fiance, an ex agent. And even though she doesn’t get her vital information to L, L is alerted to the fact that she had wanted to contact him and then disappeared before she could. Which means L figures that it was probably someone Raye was investigating who is Kira.

Good job, Light. You should have just let it go.

Consider whether making a move or just keeping on stealth mode is the better move carefully. Always. And please, if your villain thinks he IS justice, maybe break the stereotype a little where he doesn’t assume that everything he does must then be justice and doesn’t feel guilt when killing people that are innocent, like the police. You know? The “I ought to be unopposed!” bs. I mean, it’s totally fine. It works. It’s tried and true. But shaking it up and having someone stick to a more stringent moral code as a villain would be cool too. What if Light had refused to kill anyone who wasn’t a criminal, police or not? L would have had a heck of a lot harder time catching him.

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Character Building Exercise

I said that this week I’d talk about Undertale, but Sans is really, really hard, okay? Sheesh, if there’s anything after the hour long laser show of his special attack I will probably end up ragequitting harder than I’ve ever ragequit before.

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That heart is you. Look at that spinning circle of death lasers.

So today we’ll just talk about some character building; my husband and I just finished off Fate Zero, and it brought up some interesting questions to ask about your character. (As a side note, I personally didn’t much care for Fate Zero. The storytelling style was, imo, unappealing…and I felt like their use of child deaths was a pathetic cheap shot.) For those unfamiliar with Fate Zero, the basic plot is that wizards summon ancient Heroic Spirits to fight each other to claim the Holy Grail to make a wish.

We’ll start with Ryuunosuke:

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Ryuunosuke is a serial killer. He mostly summons his spirit on accident – he was toying with summoning a demon and has no idea what the Holy grail wars are. He just wants to kill people, children mostly. He summons Gilles de Rais – if you know the old Bluebeard fairytale, you know he was a murderer. The historical figure was a commerade of Joan of Arc who got into creepy occult, sacrificed a bunch of children to the devil, and eventually was put to death for a way more mundane crime. Embezzling or something.

Since they’re both murderers, Ryuunosuke and Gilles get along famously. They eventually have a really creepy conversation about God. Giles declares that God never punishes the wicked – that he didn’t die from murdering children but because the people wanted to steal his lands. Ryuunosuke asks if there is a god, sounding upset that there might not be, which confuses Giles. Ryuunosuke explains that the world is so cool, that there’s something magnificent in every detail if you just know where to look, that there must be a god, and he thinks that God must love humanity since he spends all his time writing the stories of humans. He continues that he thinks God must love all kinds of stories, the good and brave as much as the blood and gore, because “why else would he make blood and guts so interesting?” This is heartening to Gilles; obviously, with his work with Joan, God is a big deal to him, and it’s exciting to find a point of view where God is just another performer, even a clown, that can be impressed by horrible misdeeds as much as anything else.

I’ve…heard a lot of, erm, interesting viewpoints on God from villains before, but not this particular vein before. And while the conversation was uncomfortable for me, it did make me think more seriously about how many of my own villains think of God, if they even remotely believe in one or not, if they want to, hope to – what, exactly, is their situation with it. Because in a big way, I think, one’s belief in God can be, often is, a reflection of their belief in morals. Even if one does not believe there is a god, this can still be helpful in understanding a person’s moral standing. There are plenty of atheists who rightly point out that doing what’s right because it’s right is a higher moral behavior than doing something that’s right because you’ll avoid punishment and get a reward. And therefore doing what’s right to avoid hell or gain heaven…there can also be the perspective that since there isn’t any omnipotent being watching out for humanity, you personally have got to do it. Obviously there’s a lot of variety when it comes to believing or not believing in any god.

The other interesting conversation in Fate Zero was about what it means to be king.

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King Arthur, Gilgamesh, and Alexander the Great gather to discuss kingship.

Ultimately, Alexander the Great insists that to be king is to live the most inspiring lifestyle he can, to encompass the dreams of his people on the full spectrum of good and evil, to give them something to look up to. Arturia (Aurthur, who is a girl in Fate Zero) believes a king should be humble and serve his people, encompassing an ideal. Gilgamesh just kinda holds himself above most of the conversation, seeing the other two as items for his own amusement. Alexander mocks Arturia’s ideals, saying that she couldn’t possibly understand her people that way.

What does it mean for your characters to be kings, or even just leaders, figures others look up to?

Ultimately, what role does your character try to fulfill, want to fulfill, expect to fulfill? Not what role do they actually fill – not what you want or need them to do.  It’s not just their own ideals; maybe they have a view of what it means to be king, which is why they would never want to be king.

Part of the hard part of asking big questions about your character is determining what those big questions even are. So I think it’s important to look for inspiration anywhere, even an anime you didn’t much care for, to find new dimensions to add to your characters. I know I’ve only worried about my characters’ religious views if religion is a really important part of the story, or if religion is an important part of the character.  But religion is always kind of a thing, even if it’s just a personal moral code and rejection of anything more. You could argue that’s not religion, but that’s not the point; you have to consider religion to determine your character doesn’t have it. And while I have overlords…what they want to do is different than who they want to be. I haven’t thought much about that.

While you shouldn’t include everything about your characters in a story, you can never know too much about them yourself. Besides, each new discovery brings with it a new realization for the whole story, a new development.

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Rhinovirus

The common cold sounds a lot cooler when you say “rhinovirus” instead, doesn’t it?

Anyway that’s what my little one has, and it’s actually pretty bad (who knew a stupid rhinovirus could make a kid’s temperature rise well above 104?), which is why I haven’t been able to play through a genocide run on Undertale, which in turn is why I’m writing about how much cooler “rhinovirus” is than “common cold”. I actually wanted to do three posts this week about what we learn about villains from Undertale. It’s going to be 100% spoilerific so if you have been planning on playing, better not read the posts about it. And you should plan on playing it. I’ve really enjoyed Undertale.

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Anyway if I can’t get to it this week, and it’s likely my kid will be sick all this week, then I’ll try to finish up the genocide run and get my thoughts up next week. I guess I should go because my kid is throwing a tantrum because I wouldn’t open up the fridge for her, which is her new favorite hobby: get mom or dad to open the fridge.

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It’s All Context and Perspective

There’s a funny sort of phenomenon in children’s films about animals. If the story is about mice, then cats are bad guys.

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Remember how all the cats in An American Tail were bad guys except for that one?

But if the story is about cats, then mice are either essentially non-entities

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or the cats are friends with the mice. For. Some reason.

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And who are the villains?

If it isn’t a dog or other animal dangerous to a cat, like a wolf, then it’s probably a human. It is in the Aristocats. The same goes for dogs (Like 101 Dalmations) – they might fight a wolf or something but there’s not much higher on the “food chain” than humans.

So basically, there’s some coinciding between antagonists and villains. When your protagonist is prey, predators are a consideration and a problem. But while you can tell a story about happy vegetables or insects, personifying them as your prey protagonist’s food is awkward. And when your predator is the protagonist, the prey loses traits that would appeal to the audience – like, say, sentience. It’s all the cycle of life. And what hunts the hunters? Whatever it is, it’s the new antagonist.

It’s all in perspective, see? I mean, you read Charlotte’s Web and the humans are just awful for raising Wilbur for pork. I suppose you can argue they weren’t going to raise Wilbur at all and therefore he really was more of a family pet, but the point is the humans are antagonized to some degree for wanting to eat a pig.

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And sorry, but…that’s why humans raise pigs. At all. We give them life so that they may grow delicious and then we eat them. It’s more traumatic when the pig is fully sentient and can talk, which real pigs aren’t, but the point is, the villain thing is all perspective here. Some vegetarians will say carnivores are monsters for eating meat and villify the action. That’s their perspective. I’d like to point out that that animals eat animals all the flipping time and that our ancestors didn’t get to be a civilization building master race by eating raw vegetables. Nope. We got to be the humans we are because we cooked meat (and vegetables, too, sure). That’s our secret. Meat, and fire. Wheat helped too. Yay gluten.

Anyway some things are objectively wrong. We can all agree that cold-blooded murder is pretty much totally evil. I’d like to say we can all agree that torture of any living creature is totally evil but some, er, political statements by a particular candidate and the agreement of his followers suggest somehow that’s not agreed upon. But. The point is, you should consider very carefully your villain and morals. Because what’s 100% evil to you, little rabbit, is 100% moral to the wolf trying to eat you.

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That wolf might just be Balto, aka the protagonist

 

Ultimately, this applies to more than just prey and predators in children’s films. And when you have a wolf who thinks he’s Balto but he’s in a Bambi film, you have your villain. Villains usually think they’re the hero. And it’s just as easy for an antagonist to be sympathetic and not necessarily a villain. For example, consider both sides of most hot-button debates: with a lot of equal rights debates, it seems like the rabbits who are afraid of the wolves are in a wolf film. But with something more ambiguous, like abortion, it’s really hard to say whose film it is, rabbits or wolves. It really is a matter of perspective. And when you have a perspective on the issue, it’s incredibly hard to see how the other side is not totally evil. If you’re pro-life, those who are pro-choice are literally pro-murdering-babies, which is totally evil. But if you’re pro-choice, you absolutely know murdering babies is totally evil and would never do it – and you don’t believe an embryo is a baby, so why are we even talking about murdering babies? On the flip side, the pro-lifers are trying to control people, and it’s highly arguable that limiting someone’s agency is totally evil. I have in a couple posts in fact. So the pro-lifers are actually totally evil. Who is right? I frankly have no idea; my own opinion has been formed by carefully considering the views of both sides and looking really deeply into what my religion has to say about things – not the issue, per se, but things relating to it – and I wouldn’t feel comfortable calling myself either pro-life or pro-choice. So maybe I’m a horse in this cat-mouse war.

But no seriously, who’s right? Well, despite my belief in an actual True Answer, I don’t think we have full access to it at this time and therefore my answer is it’s all in the perspective* and context – abortion debates always get sticky when rape and endangered mothers are brought into the picture. In the right context, what was a mouse film with a cat becomes a cat film.

*I do stand by my own thoughts. I mean that, as a matter of perspective, it’s reasonable for someone who I think is wrong to think they are absolutely right and think I am the villain; in that case,  who the story is about – perspective and context – determines who is actually the villain. See?

In order to understand your villain, try considering that maybe they don’t hold an evil view because they’re Evil McEvilpants. Maybe they hold that view because from their perspective, it’s not evil.

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Maybe they think this is a spider film that has dwarves in it rather than the other way around. (No that’s totally how this pristine movie adaption works.)

It’s all in perception and context.

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The Evils of Beauty, That’s What

This is continuing on from So What’s Up With Evil Sorceresses?

In that post, I talked about how evil and vanity are frequently embodied in the “vain sorceress” trope and how that’s actually kind of a problem. But that’s not even the biggest problem, in my view.

If I say, “Enchantress”, what do I mean? One who enchants, or is enchanting, of course. And what’s usually enchanting about a woman? Her enchanting looks. She could have an enchanting personality, or a skill that’s enchanting, but if a guy is talking to another guy and says “she’s enchanting,” it’s implied he’s either talking about her looks or the whole package, personality and looks. If looks aren’t in there, it’s generally specified. “She’s hideous, but her [whatever] is absolutely enchanting.”

The other thing about “Enchantress” is that it often comes with the suggestion of a lie. Her beauty is deceptive. If Protagonist is warned about Enchantress before going to see her, he will probably be warned not to be deceived by her beauty. And all too often, the Enchantress doesn’t have to use her magic to manipulate people; she can use her beauty.

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Just like Queen Narcissa from Enchanted (haha) manipulated Nathaniel with her beauty.

Finally, the idea behind an enchantment is that it’s some sort of manipulation or lie. So. What is an Enchantress – which is, remember, fairly synonymous with Sorceress?

A deceptive, manipulative person who deceives and manipulates using beauty or deceptive and manipulative magic.

Cut off the magic part of that and what you have left is an old definition of a woman.

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John Roddam Spencer Stanhope’s “Eve Tempted by the Serpent.” Thanks to this event, women get a great stain of either “weak minded” or “totally evil” stamped on them.

The idea that women were given their beauty by the devil to seduce, trick, and manipulate men, leading them down dark paths and making them their slaves, is a very, very old idea. Heck, even a simplified one that women’s beauty is evil and they use it to trick and manipulate men is still alive today, even if it isn’t always recognized as that idea. Calling all women “manipulative bitches” pretty much is just another way to express this idea.

So the problem that I have with the evil sorceress is that in many cases, she’s the exact embodiment of this ideal, that women are evil, and their dark gift of beauty is her best weapon against men.

Come on. The battle of male vs female is utterly ridiculous. Women are just another mortal like men. They’re not these ethereal temptresses who bewitch men and uuurgh I can’t even type that ideal again, it’s such BS.

Here’s the problem. If you want to have an ethereal temptress woman who is totes evil and wants to lead the protagonist, even men specifically, down to the dark paths of whatever like a beautiful siren…this is writing. You’re allowed to do that. But you have to be mindful of what message you are sending.

I will never tell you that you can’t use a writing element, that you can’t make a specific type of character, not even a Mary Sue. I might say I hate that kind of element, or strongly recommend against it. But you can do whatever you want.

What you may not do is go in blindly. You have to be conscientious as to what message you are sending. You are an artist, and your art affects the people who enjoy it. Think about how some books have shaped entire generations.

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You can’t be ignorant to what themes and messages you’re sending. And if you know full well that you’re sending a message like women are innately evil and manipulative, well…go ahead and do that, I guess. I know you are wrong and I think that it’s awful that you think that and would write about it, but I’m not one to say you can’t do something because I disagree with it.

So what if you’d like to have the kind of evil sorceress we’ve talked about but would not like to suggest beauty is the weapon of women who are evil? Here’s a few ideas I can suggest:

  • Have more than one woman in your story, and make certain your other women are rounded characters who are more than their beauty or definitely do not use their beauty to manipulate others. Which means that the sorceress cannot be the only pretty person around.
  • Do not make the sorceress’ appearance a big deal. It might be nice if for once, a sorceress actually used her magic and just her magic and not her enticing anything for doing whatever it is she does. She could still be pretty but that trait is not an essential part of her character.
  • Round out the sorceress so that she is more than just the wielder of beauty; have her use beauty as a weapon without suffering from vanity.
  • Make the sorceress a dude and play with gender and gender roles.

There are women who use their beauty as a weapon, who do fit the old ideal that women are evil and they do try to manipulate men, especially with their looks. There are vain, shallow, and petty women. But it gets to be a problem when you see the same sort of character over and over again and not any other examples of different types of characters. So I don’t really have a problem with evil sorceresses as a common female villain; I just have a problem with the tropes and stereotypes that always go with it.

And yeah – maybe the types of [magically] powerful women are severely limited and sorceress tends to be the most powerful and that’s why it was used…

…but that doesn’t make it immune to the underlying messages that can be tucked in the story if a writer isn’t conscientious of them.

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So What’s Up With Evil Sorceresses?

I swear whenever there’s a female villain, especially in video games, it’s always some sort of evil sorceress/enchantress. Seriously? What is the deal with that? It’s irritating to me for a variety of reasons, starting with the fact that I’d like to, for once, see a sorceress or enchantress who is 100% not evil, scary, or mysterious-dangerous to the protagonists. Usually the best you get is some sort of good-neutral enchantress who is fickle and may totally destroy the good guys but will probably just give them a relic or a hint or something.

I mean, I’m totally down for a good evil sorceress but for evil’s sake, can we tone it down?

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The Naughty Sorceress from Kingdom of Loathing; they get a slight pass since it IS satire on everything.

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Cia, Hyrule Warriors

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Ultimecia Final Fantasy VIII

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…you know the Evil Queen from Snow White, right?

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And Mother Gothel from Tangled?

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The Enchantress, Shovel Knight

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That snake? It’s an enchantress. Who is the villain.

Look there’s a ton. And I didn’t even try super hard to think of non-video game examples.

Half the problem I have with the evil enchantress is the possible subtle symbolism that comes with her. I’ll talk about that in a moment. Part of it, I already mentioned. I want the sorceress to be able to broaden her horizons. But in a way, that ties into the subtle symbolism. And part of the problem I have is that the actual trope isn’t evil sorceress, it’s vain sorceress – which again, is part of the symbolism.

So what’s this symbolism?

What are the elements of a sorceress, and how is she different than a witch? As magic users and the differences between them tend to be fairly ill-defined, I believe most people would suggest a sorceress is more powerful than a witch as their main difference, and they might suggest that a sorceress is more beautiful than a witch. And while I might normally discriminate between a sorceress and an enchantress I don’t know that a lot of people would, or really do, and if they do, it tends to be minute differences in magic use. So, here, I’m just gonna use them indeterminately.

So the traits of a sorceress is that she’s very powerful and very beautiful. They’re, as I mentioned, at best, helpful if you please them and your end if you tick them off, but very often, they want to take over the world, even if they suck at it.

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I haven’t finished Rune Factory: Tides of Destiny yet but I’m feeling confident Pandora isn’t remotely the villain, even if she is an “evil” sorceress.

And, according to TvTropes, beauty is a really important part of the whole sorceress gig – so important that she might suck it out of someone else if necessary. If you look at the first three examples, you’ll notice that these ladies are scantily if not exotically clad. If you aren’t sure about the stick figure, it’s in her descriptions that she’s sexy; here’s some fan art of her:

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Artist Naska, picked up from pendakocafe.com/kol.html

Of course the Disney characters aren’t scanty; they’re Disney characters and also it wouldn’t make sense for their time period. But even Pandora in the friendly, cuddly Rune Factory is wearing something that is supposed to be flattering and The Enchantress might be covered but you can see the girl’s got curves.

So, one: these women are beautiful, they may be vain, and they are evil. That’s the trope. I’m. Not really okay with having a hand-in-hand quality like “vain” and “evil”. I mean, “pride” and “evil” are hand-in-hand qualities and I don’t like that either, but you see such a broad range of pride and hubris in many characters that I can shrug it off. Vain is a bit different because of the unique position women are in relating to their physical appearance.

You see, we are constantly told that we need to be pretty, care about how we look. But we also can’t be shallow and vain by caring about or liking how we look. We’re told to love ourselves and our bodies, but also that our bodies aren’t good enough, and also if we like our bodies, we’re shallow and vain. Do you see? And just, to have vanity be an obvious “evil” trait that just goes automatically with a certain type of villain is not helping. To have a trope that shows ethereally beautiful women, way prettier past the norm, very often be vain and evil, that’s sending a really awkward message. Beauty and vanity don’t go hand-in-hand. Vanity isn’t a good trait, but our society appears to not really understand what vanity is since women who like what they look like are called “vain”. That’s not vanity. And becoming offended when someone insults your appearance isn’t automatically vanity either, although again, our society often calls it as such. It’s the idea that you can really get a girl going by insulting her looks because she’s vain. But let’s not forget that insulting her looks is, after all, an insult, and insults do hurt. Besides that, when we’re in a place, as women, that we’ve been told our sum total worth is in our beauty (and we are) then when you insult a girl’s looks, you’re insulting her sum total worth. That’s not vain at all, that is a huge deal!

So I don’t like the vain sorceress because of this subtext. It’s entirely possible to attempt a vain sorceress who isn’t a symbol; she’s just a sorceress who is pretty and vain. And that’s fine. I never want to tell you you can’t do something; I just want you to be mindful. If you want to have a vain sorceress, though, please make sure she is actually vain. It has to be more than just that she’s beautiful and she knows it. Heaven forbid a woman can recognize she’s pretty. It has to be self-absorption, or even self-obsession.

But there’s something even more sinister to me about sorceresses, and seeing as this post is running a bit long, lemmie talk about it tomorrow.

 

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A Good GM Makes For A Good Writer

GM – often interchangeable with DM – stands for Game Master (or Dungeon Master). You see GM usually in the context of a table top roleplaying game like Dungeons & Dragons (in which case it’ll probably be DM) and sometimes also in a forum roleplay since “admin” can get confusing with a forum admin.

A stereotype of GMs is that they are the enemy. Players versus GM. The evil GM laugh, or smile. And in a way, that’s not wrong. The bad guys that the characters face, those are all the GM’s own characters (with rare exception). The traps, the plot twists, the betrayals, usually if not always come from the hands of the GM.

However, I don’t really see the GM as the villain, per se. In fact, the GM is much like a writer. I mean, it sounds familiar to writers for me to say “a storyteller who finds that his/her characters are blatantly ignoring the course he/she wants them to take,” yes? It is a little different with players ignoring plot hooks and characters doing unexpected crap, but only a little, if you ask me.

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Language, sorry.

 

There is a point to being more than just an evil GM who tries to screw over the party every chance he gets, though. I mean, unless the players like that. And that’s the point. If you like GMing and you want your players to praise you, you gotta figure out what the players want and give it to them. I think the best outcome for a gaming session is when everyone leaves it raving about something, when everyone has a sense of satisfaction. The GM can leave with a smug sense of satisfaction knowing she made things really horrible for the players and they struggled, or she can leave with the satisfaction knowing that everyone had a lot of fun due to her abilities. (And again, maybe horrible struggles is what the party likes.)

The point is, GMing requires more thought than just throwing as many terrifying monsters as possible at the party.

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Yes, very happy.

And this is the skill, I think, that overlaps with being a writer. Because your ability to figure out what your players really want out of the game can help you both figure out your characters deep motivations, the ones they can’t tell you about because they don’t recognize them and or have words for them, and I would guess it could help you figure out what your readers want out of your books. I mean, there’s book reading trends and marketing whatevers to help with that, but you can’t write a book for a reading trend, unless you’re really good at writing quality stuff fast. Even then, it’s questionable. I’m talking about your personal audience once you start building one, however.

Thing is you can ask me, “Hey, Rii, what do you want out of a gaming session?” and I’ll tell you, “Oh, I like it when we all work together to tell a story!” which is true. And that can give you a lot to work with. But it might take a bit to realize that when I say “work together to make a story,” what I mean (because I don’t think to say it) is that I want a story about our player characters, not just a story with our PCs as the protagonists. I want all the characters to provide good backstories and interesting character traits and I want the GM to incorporate as many as he can into the story. Right now, I’m in a Shadowrun campaign where I gave my character an allergy to the cold. I keep reminding my GM about it and then “whining” and “crying” (not really doing much of either) when he says he’s going to either lock my elf in a freezer or else, “You know that scene in Aladdin?” But I keep bringing it up because, to be honest, I took time to figure out an allergy that was weird in nature but common in presence and I would be really disappointed if it didn’t come up in the game, even if it’d be negative. And I don’t want the story to be all about me. I want to go on quests all about another character intertwined in his or her backstory, too.

Some people really like hack and slash gaming. Some really like making it by on the skin of their teeth. Some like solving puzzles. Some like punching Cthulhu or even just punching a cyborg’s head clean off. And the GM should always have leeway to do what she likes best about GMing, too, although if it’s the rush of power you get from holding the fate of your friends in your hands, just be careful that you aren’t constantly making them feel powerless. As a writer, I hope I can make my readers want to throw my book across the room. But as a reader, hate it when all my favorite characters die. Though, if your group really sucks, maybe they deserve it.

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Anyway when you take time to realize, as a GM, this isn’t your story, it’s the whole group’s story, I think the story, and the gaming and sessions, become better. And I think that when you learn that skill, of considering more than just what you want for a story, you write better too. Because when you’re writing, you do own all the characters, they are yours and it is your story. But the ability to step back and look at more than just your story lets you draw in a lot more than you might have originally. After all, that’s the reason I love it when the GM makes his own story but then weaves in character backstory to make the campaign even bigger. The story, which is what I care about most, becomes even richer.

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Color Code Your Villains…or Not.

You should all be fairly familiar with color coding in storytelling. But for a quick overview, it’s taking color symbolism – black is evil, white is good, etc – to the level of marking the moral alignment of a character, sometimes (oftimes?) too far to the point where it’s obvious and/or poorly done.

Color coding isn’t automatically bad, but it is tied in with assumptions and can easily be lazy, amateurish, or poor writing. But if your villain wears black, I think you should take time to consider why.

My own overlord does wear black jewels and gray or black clothes; gray is his favorite color, the jewels are a family symbol (his family, historically, were good guys), solid black is a really expensive color for the time period (sorta kinda medievalish). He likes expensive things, he’s proud of his heritage, and like I said, gray is his favorite color.

If your villain feels like black is a dark and mysterious color or they just like black or whatever, I can’t really fault you for putting your villain in black clothes. I mean, I prefer to wear black shirts – usually they have some sort of geeky thing screenprinted on the front, and they show up better on black. Black is slimming. I have an aversion to lighter colors, though I may wear them. There are a lot of reasons to like the color black.

But it becomes tiresome to see villains always or only in black, or maybe pink if they’re bucking tradition. And if it’s not black, it’s scarlet. Not red. Scarlet. Probably both together.

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GEE GOLLY DO I WONDER IF THIS IS A BAD GUY.

It’s just…villains are people. And sometimes you really need all the assumptions that the creepy colors bring in with them. Tree frogs wear bright colors to warn their predators they’re poisonous. Sometimes villains have to wear dark colors to warn they’re evil. But I just…feel like there are many times you really don’t and it doesn’t necessarily make sense for your character to wear black or scarlet or “slimy green”. Like I said, getting a rich black color was really expensive, so if you’re writing “medieval” fantasy – though likely you’re already writing so many anachronisms that something this small is a teensy sin – it actually is kind of unreasonable for everyone to have all these pitch black cloaks. I mean, think about how easy it’d be to get a bright scarlet color all by yourself, without buying anything at the store. Yeah. And even today, black can be kind of expensive – if I buy India Ink for trying to practice nib pen use, a little bottle isn’t particularly cheap, but if I dilute it at all with water, it’s no longer black. It’s gray. I’d like to make my bottle of ink last and it doesn’t take much per parts water to still be ink so I get light gray.

Also, consider climate.

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Seeing black versions of this outfit always weirds me out. Also women in black chador or niqab. How are they not dying? I lived in Arizona for years and like I said, I like black so with my own experience, I really don’t understand the not dying thing.

If you’re going to be somewhere that black will either kill you or make you stand out (i.e. kill you) then you probably shouldn’t wear black. Duh.

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The Stormtroopers not only prove that white can be just as good a villain color, but show that weather preparedness is an important consideration.

There are a lot of artful reasons why your villain might wear black. Or any other color coding color. But…maybe try to consider the practical applications too. First, even. Because it would suck to come up with some really cool symbolism juxtaposition metaphors only to realize that it’s totally impractical in practice.

If nothing else, don’t just stick your villain in villain clothes because that’s what villains wear.

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As cool as a cape with its own theme song is, Megamind was basically just playing dress up, just like he was trying to be a villain to fit in, not because he was a villain.

Doing so, I feel, is lazy writing. Lazy writing is always the biggest enemy to your villain. Villains are people too, and they deserve your full attention. If you have no explanation that they wear dark clothes because that’s what they’d wear, it’s still better than that’s what you think they should wear.Don’t put villains in a villain box. Don’t color code them for no reason whatsoever.

 

EDIT: on seeing my confusion about black robes in the desert, a friend provided some research. It’s still a little confusing to me, but clearly the people who wear black aren’t all dead so...I’d probably still recommend your characters not wear black in the desert unless they really know what they’re doing (and by extension YOU know what you’re doing). That or they face the consequences of going into a desert unprepared.

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Positivity

I got to attend LTUE this year and while I was there, I realized I wanted to develop an attitude towards all writers (and other artists, but mostly writers for reasons I’ll explain in a sec) even if I didn’t think that they were as good as me, or that their story idea was dumb. That attitude was one of encouraging, excited positivity.  Because I’ve been a Gatekeeper about “real” writers in the past, even if my definition steadily got looser as I matured (I’ve never been a gatekeeper towards other types of art). But when I go to LTUE, I try to do as much introspection as I do…er, well, this year, running around not getting to listen to any panels due to a baby.

This year’s introspection led me to think about my writing group. I met three of the four members, all at LTUE but separately. When I found out they had a writing group all together, I was shy about asking to join because they’d talked about how nice it was they could be exclusive due to having had several groups where someone sucked. I don’t mean at writing, mind, but at giving and receiving criticism. That really kills it for a writing group. I was afraid they’d find my writing level below theirs or just otherwise not trust me. When I asked to join, they said they’d talk about it, which freaked me out. They’ll have a conference and decide I’m not good enough!

Wait, I’ve had anxiety that long? Didn’t realize. Huh.

Anyway I was just being anxious – aaand that continued after they accepted me in, because I was afraid they’d kick me out. And this is where positivity comes in.

When my friends criticized each others’ works, they looked the writer in the eye and just laid out what was a problem. No sugar coating. This is a writing group, the point is to point out what could be better and what’s wrong. The writer nodded, took notes, scowled at themselves over stupid mistakes. Then when it was the critiquer’s turn, the writer now critiquer did the same thing as the critiquer now writer reacted basically the same. My friends have thick skins, and they’re comfortable in their works.

I do not have a thick skin. I don’t now, but I am comfortable with my story and today, when I’m the critiqued, I do the same thing. I nod, type a note, and laugh at stupid mistakes with my friends as they just hit me with everything they found in the story. But I was freaking out that they’d kick me out of the group because when I first came in, my skin wasn’t just the soft “never been critiqued before”, it was more of a kind of “raw, sore, and bruised” metaphorical skin. And they told me critiques straight, one after another, and I nearly, or actually, cried. Every time. For every person. For like the first month or two or three.

It was irritating. I didn’t want to cry. I knew they weren’t telling me I was a bad writer. I knew they were just saying they thought it could be better. But it was a reflex. It was like someone pushing on a bruise and my crying out in pain. Because honestly that’s what it was. And thank goodness my group seemed to understand what was going on, just that it was a reflex and I just wasn’t used to positive, blunt critique. They didn’t ease up on me, but they did encourage, and they’ve been helping me to grow a thick skin.

This is one reason I call them my friends. I still have some sore spots, and they catch them, and they encourage and help old wounds to heal. My metaphorical skin was so damaged because growing up, people told me to shut up a lot, like actually to shut up*, told me that my ideas were stupid, and someone actually told me that my love of storytelling was a psychological delusion and I seriously needed help and really needed to see a therapist to help me overcome my delusions. I’m serious.

*In all fairness, I did talk a lot, and sometimes the “stop talking”s were totally warranted. But. A lot of them…let’s just say that my conditioning still lingers since I can have an audience obviously captivated by a story they asked me to tell them, and then in the middle of it, realize I’ve been talking a lot, freak out, and break the captivation to ask, “I’m so sorry, am I talking too much? You totally have my permission to interrupt me and tell me to stop.” Less now. Still a thing.

There were people who encouraged me, too, especially my mom. And that’s why I kept writing and telling stories anyway. I might have quit if it weren’t for them.

And that is why I’ve decided that gatekeeping is stupid, and I’m sorry. With my introspection on my writing group, and how much they’ve helped me overcome conditioned insecurities, and realizing how much work had to be done and how much more there is to go, I…don’t want anyone else to go through that.

And if they are, I want to be someone who encouraged them to keep on going anyway, rather than adding to the boos that make it harder for them to do what they love. I don’t want to add bruises. I don’t want to be that kind of person.

While I wanted to be honest, because I have always believed in being sincere, I also wanted to be positive about other peoples’ ideas regardless of what they were, no matter how bad or cliche. I wanted to be enthusiastic about their trying to write a book, which is hard. I wanted to listen to the story. Sure, even the agonizing play-by-play, because giving the agonizingly long play-by-play meant so much to me. Although, I also was prepared to shoosh people if I asked, “What’s your story about?” and they started in with a play-by-play, which I would follow with, “I asked what your story was about. You need to be able to tell me in about three sentences tops. That’s called an elevator pitch. Every time someone asks, work on that pitch. If you would like to tell me the whole story, I will listen. But first, think about the elevator pitch, and give that to me.” (I didn’t have to shoosh anyone. Go people I talked to at LTUE this year!) But that’s…part of encouraging. That’s positive critique. The underlying message is, “I believe in you so I want you to do better.”

People who criticized me in the past didn’t give that message. They said, “You’re annoying me; I’m humoring you because I have to; you aren’t good enough; stop telling stories.” My writing group tells me, “I believe in you so I want you to do better.” It took me months to start to hear that when they said what was wrong with the chapter, and stop crying, stop hearing the echoes of “You aren’t good enough.” I don’t ever want to tell that to someone else. I don’t want to discourage them from writing, or make it hard for them to hear constructive criticism the way it’s meant. I’m only going to be positive from now on.

As a wordsmith, I’ve had to learn how much you sometimes have to polish (and use rock-related metamorphoses processes with) a story to change it from an unattractive rock into a gemstone. I’m starting to learn now that sometimes writers are the rock – talking strictly with skill – seeing as how natural skill is hardly anything compared to tenacious practice, and as it turns out, intolerance of the polishing process is detrimental to the production of the gem. Sometimes the polishing process is telling someone about your story that needs more work. Sometimes it’s starting with a stupid, cliche idea or character and working from there. Sometimes it’s realizing a story you thought was great is unsalvageably bad. But it’s never having someone tell you that your passion is annoying or that you aren’t good enough.

I believe that if you want to do this writing thing, inside you is a diamond waiting to sparkle and I want to see it.

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