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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When Weaknesses Are Strengths

Remember when I chatted about the evolution of my feelings on pride as a downfall? My husband and I have been reading through Harry Potter again so I can finally do a villain review. Surprisingly, it’s only the second time I’ve read through the series. I remember thinking little of Voldemort, and after watching the movies, thinking even less but as we are working through Deathly Hallows, I’m struck by a thought: Voldemort may have many flaws as a great villain but as an imperfect human being (sorry, Tom, butcha are human) he’s written very well. Rowling wasn’t trying to make a villain to be the beacon of all villains; she was trying to write about a very specific person, one Tom Riddle that had a series of imperfections and quirks. Did some of those lead to his ultimate downfall in a way that makes me cringe? Yes. Is that a bad thing, though? Let’s discuss.

DeviantArt user JuliaDeBelli’s piece “Horcruxes T-Shirt”

If I was going to split my soul into seven and seal them into objects, you know what I absolutely wouldn’t ever, ever choose? Precious objects of great value to myself that would be the obvious choice. I would take a handful of incredibly dull pebbles and throw each one into a different ocean over the deepest point. Find THOSE, Harry. (Course, I have a pretty strong attachment to my soul so I wouldn’t split it up.) People criticize Voldemort for his fancy choices of horcrux but on re-reading it, Rowling gave Voldemort a personality quirk: trophies. The man loooves himself a good trophy. The items that little Tom the Orphan stole weren’t about stealing at all, but of gaining memorabilia of his victories. This is a trait that Rowling runs with throughout the entire series and you can see that when you read, looking for that, that self-gratifying display of objects. That’s something I can get; I like to have trophies and icons and decorations and cool things too.

Bec Noir (Homestuck) also had a fling with collecting trophies from his victims for a little bit; trophy collecting isn’t that uncommon a trait.

My desire for shinies is different than Voldemort’s in many ways, but not so different that I can’t appreciate his “Ha, ha, I have the Founder’s stuff and I’ve literally claimed them with my soul” thing he has going.

The thing about this quirk is that it’s not just in the horcruxes. Voldy had wanted his grandfather’s ring before he was going around making horcruxes. He wanted the Deathly Hallow wand, yes because it was powerful, and yes because he wanted all the Hallows to beat death once again, but I think also because it was another trophy.

See the thing is, Rowling gave Voldemort a weakness that was, due to the nature of the weakness, “not too hard” to overcome (compare finding the horcruxes as they were to say, six random pebbles lost long ago around the world). But she didn’t do it to build in a way to defeat the villain; she did it because that was just who Voldemort was. And that makes Voldemort less of an obscure necessary evil and more of an actual character honestly participating in the story.

There are other examples, but we’ll talk about that when I DO write the review on Voldemort.

However, from this we can learn that if you’re going to give your villain a flaw, you’d best run with it. Give your villain a flaw because he’s a person, not because you need your hero to beat the villain, and then don’t forget about that  flaw. If your villain always has to have some extra flourish, some mark to let others know it was him, think how that might come up in everything he does. If there’s just something he can’t resist, it might be interesting to see that come up in a low-stakes environment. These suggestions are incredibly vague, but there’s so much you can do with a villain that to say one thing would be to neglect infinite others. Think of what makes your villain human (more in the, “I can relate to this character” sense than the racial sense), and how that would make their every-day life. Take them out to lunch, see how that goes.

Because, you see, when your villain is more like an actual person and less like something you had to have for an antagonist, the stronger of a character that villain becomes. Weaknesses make our characters strong.

For the record? I still think Umbridge is a better villain than Voldemort.

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The Theme Song

A villain’s theme song is iconic, even if what the song may be varies widely. Disney alone can attest to that. The theme song has a weird non-place in writing in that reading is simultaneously silent and quite noisy. When I read a great book, I can hear the storm outside the window as the varied character’s voices discuss the plan, interrupted by a dog barking. Until my baby starts crying and then all I hear is that.

Unlike a movie, when a character walks into a room, music does not start playing. Writing that in to a serious piece of fiction would be really weird. However, if I were to read something with Darth Vader in it, I’d still hear dun, dun, dun, dun dundun, dun dundun. Provided I wasn’t reading an insanely crappy piece of fanfiction, that wouldn’t be written in there, his song wouldn’t be mentioned at all, but it’s a part of him.

However, the movie came first. Unless you are a songwriter too (or know one or hire one), your villain’s theme song, if he ever gets one, will come after the fact if your story is made into a movie. All the same, songs have a certain power and they can assist greatly in your writing. On working a chapter about a place called Strikeslip City, my writing group again and again complained that they couldn’t get the feel of the place, that it always felt white-boxy, that my MC wasn’t shining properly in his home environment. You know how I finally got that chapter up to snuff? I built myself a playlist of songs that made me think of Strikeslip City, that could get me in the mood and in the zone. I tucked in earbuds and listened to those six or so songs over and over all trough writing and the next time I submitted Strikeslip’s chapter, my writing group felt it was much, much stronger.

Pick a song for your villain if you can’t make one up, one that makes you really feel like he or she is there. Pick something that your villain would listen to, or that would play as they make their first screen appearance (don’t tell me you never fantasize your favorite scenes redone as a movie. It’s okay, we all do it) or that would indicate that your villain is near. Maybe write lyrics to your villain’s song – I might not always have super-high opinions of Disney villains for their forced weaknesses but I can’t deny their songs are awesome.

“A shining new era is tip-toeing nearer.” “And where do we feature?” “Just listen to teacher. I know it sounds sordid, but you’ll be rewarded when they see what a wonder I am. Our teeth and ambition are bared; be prepaaaared!”

If you make rhymes like “sordid” and “rewarded” you automatically get 20 coolbucks. They are redeemable at your local…coolbucksredeemingplace. For pie.

Listen to the song while you write. Music makes everything cooler.

Immerse in the adventure via music!

And hey, maybe one day, you’ll be able to see your villain move to a theme song on the big screen.

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On Giving and Receiving Criticism

There is little else that’s harder than to make something, especially something inducing pride, and have another person tell you that there’s a problem with your creation. I’ve come to learn that both giving and receiving criticism are skills, just as much as writing.

In joining a writing group, I’ve had to learn how to really give criticism. It didn’t come naturally; I’d read through the entry, read through it again, and the most I might have to say at times was “There was a typo here, here, and here.” In listening to what my group members said to each other and said to me, there was a gradual shift where I began to try less to just enjoy the story, where my willingness to overlook problems was quite high, and developed a critical eye. I can’t tell you how to have a critical eye; it’s something you have to learn for yourself, to practice and develop. I can, however, say that it helps to go in with the mindset that everything could be better.

When you read through a passage with the intent to critique, ask questions whenever you can. If your questions suck, don’t worry about it, as you practice, your questions will get better. Think of word choice, flow, structure, but also think of the character’s actions and possible, better actions, of the presence of setting, and the plot. If a character is making a decision that is stupid, is that in line with the character or is it just because the writer didn’t realize that was a stupid option for the character to take?

Then, of course, there’s delivery of criticism. Delivery is always as tough as initial reception, I think. Most people I know just look me in the eye and say, “This is a problem.” “Why is Tristan doing such-and-such?” “I feel like we’re in a white box.” However, different people just laying it out feels differently. I think inflection affects this, and behind that, intent. If they’re being ranty, “I felt this was wrong and this and this and I didn’t like this and Rinlin is really annoying and that fight scene was stupid,” then my feelings get hurt on initial reception. Geeze, tell me how much you hated it, then. Sure, I could grow a tougher skin but I’m just not going to because my writing is my pride and to grow a tougher skin I’m going to have to distance myself from my writing somewhat and I’m not doing that. I can get over my hurt feelings, I do, but what would be better is if we could not slam dance others’ works when the writer asked for criticism. Remember that when someone says “Could you read this and tell me how to make it better (or, tell me what you think),” what they’re saying is, “I don’t know if this is where it needs to be/know this isn’t where it needs to be, please help me get it there.” They already know it’s not perfect, there’s no need to imprint how imperfect it is in your words.

With the intention of just laying out the problems because you know they can do better and want to help them do so, your words can still hurt, but that’ll be if the writer doesn’t know how to receive criticism. Of course you can also be kind and gentle, but the point of criticism is to say what’s wrong with the piece so don’t sabotage that ultimate goal with kindness. It’ll always be hard to hear that there is something wrong with your writing even if you know that’s the case. If you know you need to be soft, pad each “wrong” with a positive review, a “right”. If your writer is a child, this may be a good idea. If your writer is an adult, that’s at your own discretion to decide, but it’d be good for them to learn to buck up a little because once it’s published, people will love and hate it very ferociously because that’s how our culture does things.

As for receiving criticism, again, I believe it to be a learned skill. I don’t want to be babied with padded criticisms anymore. I mean, it’s nice and pleasant, but it’s so much more rewarding to me when my writing group says something positive about my writing not because they’re being nice but because it was actually good enough for them to say something good about it. They don’t say things just to be nice. We’re adults and trying to be/actually are professionals. Padding is for newbies and youngsters, we need to move on to more productivity.

That’s not to say that when my writing group points out problem after problem, I never get defensive and have to struggle not to bring out the justifications, or that my feelings have never been hurt. I mean, initially, when I was still leaning to take criticism. Sometimes a criticism is a question or a misunderstanding and there’s room for justification, though on the latter end, if there’s a misunderstanding that’s a different problem that needs to be fixed.

Here’s the thing about receiving criticism: unless obviously otherwise, you have got to remember that the people criticism obviously care enough about you and your story to help you. When you hear someone say, “this is a major problem” and that hurts, take a deep breath, take a moment to gather yourself, and then say, “Okay.” Think if you need to, “They didn’t say I’m a bad writer. They didn’t say this is a bad story. They said I can do better, and they’re right. I can do better.” If the critic is really trying to help you, they will allow you to have time to do this because taking offense to criticism helps no one. Do this enough times and you get the skin you need to receive helpful, constructive criticism.

If you feel like someone is flat-out wrong about your story, take a moment to think why they criticized the way they did. Just taking offense or getting defensive is always the wrong way to react to constructive criticism. Really, it’s the wrong way to take any criticism because it’s unprofessional; if a criticism isn’t constructive, it’s not worth your time. If you think about the criticism and you still feel like it’s wrong, get a second or third opinion. Find people who read and enjoy the genre you’re writing for those second and third opinions. Do not ask your mom, your BFF, or your spouse – I mean, unless you know they can be subjective. My best friend can be and in fact her criticisms are pretty harsh sometimes.

Learning to give criticism well can help you to find mistakes in your own writing better. Learning to receive criticism allows you to maintain a vital resource to your improvement, as no one wants to criticize someone who gets sore over criticism. We can all improve and we can help each other do it.

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“Oh, Hero…I Already Have.”

You know what that line follows. “I already have” is a cliche answer, and sickeningly so. But I’m not one to say you can never say a cliche line or use a cliche concept because to say so would be wrong. If I did expressly forbid use of “I already have”, I myself already can think of an exception – maybe your villain is slightly genre savvy and has been dying to use that phrase.

But I have problems with this phrase because villains are getting antsier and antsier about using it. I mean I get that pride tends to be a big issue with villains but counting one’s chickens before they’ve hatched is foolishness and villains should not be foolish. So while a villain may count on his plan working out and everything is in motion and the whole thing will be working like clockwork…no. No it isn’t. And your villain should know, accurately, when the Point of No Return is and not act like he’s past it when he isn’t because if he does, he’ll over-look that tiny bit of tar hanging out on one of the gears of his clockwork that will gum up the works and ruin everything.

What I’m getting at here is that your villain shouldn’t say “I already have” when he hasn’t. I’d like to use a recent and popular example:

You know what would be good right now? For you to sing a villainous reprise of “Love Is An Open Door” instead of saying anything you’re about to say.

You know when Hans has actually gotten away with his plan? WHEN ANNA AND ELSA WERE BOTH DEAD AND HE WAS CROWNED. That is when he’d gotten away with it. While Anna is still alive, he hasn’t gotten away with it. Just because he thinks she’s going to perish doesn’t mean that there isn’t some miraculous way she won’t – and the way she doesn’t perish in that room isn’t even all that miraculous (point that a living snowman is a miracle aside ‘cuz Disney movie). Her friend came and helped to save her, woo surprise.

But even if it was a safe bet that Hans had put Anna on ice (haha I’m so funny guys) there were still several steps left in Hans’ plan. I think if he was going to tell anyone “I already have” is if Elsa had somehow been in an incapacitated position and all that was left was for Hans to kill her and return – he could be saying it then as he stabbed Elsa. That would be appropriate.

You know who actually already did when they said so? Doris from Meet the Robinsons.

OH $#!^ IT’S ALREADY THE FUTURE!

You know whose line was far more terrifying and potent? The hat’s. My feelings as Hans said the line was something along the lines of, “Really? That’s what he’s going with? Ugh [eyeroll].” That was in addition to what I’ve already said, of “No you haven’t either gotten away with it yet” thoughts. My feelings about Doris’ use of the phrase? It’s the caption to that picture. Time continuum whatevers aside, that was a pretty terrifyingly excellent use.

So I will not tell you that your hero may never say, “You’ll never get away with this!” because cliche as it is, when the villain is leaving and you’re angry, you really want to just shout something at him but he’s winning so you can’t think of anything else but, “You’ll never get away with this!” And I won’t tell you that your villain can’t respond, “Oh, Hero…I already have.” But please, please, if your villain says that, make sure that he actually already has gotten away with it.

Hey, aside update: I’m still working on the Villain Sue test, I haven’t forgotten, promise. It’s still just having to take second place to my life.

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Flash Fiction

Hey all, just a tiny update to let you know that I’ve changed my mind about putting my writing on the blog. I have started writing bits of flash fiction for ideas that I’ve had that aren’t big enough for whole stories but they’re too small to do much with them so I thought rather than type them and let them molder on my computer, why not share them here? I may also do drabbles, but drabbles are hard for me (it’s a snippet of exactly 100 words; you may try them too, they’re an interesting writing exercise).

So if you ever wondered, “Sure this girl has some interesting thoughts on villains but can she write?” now’s your chance to find out.

Flash fiction will not be posted as blog updates because maybe you don’t care and just want to see my villain/writing advice and random thoughts. Also it’s long for a post. Instead, it’ll all be neatly kept on its own pages accessible from the “Flash Fiction” option on the menu bar. Each story will have its own page.

Thank you all for helping me to feel confident enough to post something here. (But Rii, none of us ever said anything about posting your writing here!) Yes, but you did say something about my blog posts by reading them or actually saying “this was interesting” which helped. Enjoy!

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A Bit of Murder Psychology

I’ve already made a few posts about killing, including about how a villain may not kill. However, because I do encounter plenty of writers who are, unlike myself, good-aligned who don’t understand the nature of evil, I want to write one more in hopes of absolute clarity on whether or not your villain could and should kill someone. Your villain may well be able to cause the death of a man or a people, but actually personally killing someone is different than causing a death. Let me explain with a common exercise:

You are in a subway station in a control room. There’s a situation where ten people have become trapped down along the tracks and a subway is coming fast. The subway is out of control and cannot be stopped in time to save the people, nor can anything be done to free the people in time. However, there’s an individual of immense girth standing on a bridge going over the tracks and you have access to a button that would drop the guy onto the tracks. His size is big enough that the impact would stop the subway in time to save the people. Do you push the button, sacrifice one flabby guy for ten people?

Okay, same situation, except he’s standing next to the tracks as are you. You could still stop the train with the portly fellow but you would have to personally shove him onto the tracks. Do you do it?

Picture it. You’re right there. Just one push.

Statistically, a lot more people would be okay with pushing a button to kill a man than to physically put him in mortal danger with their own two hands. This lines up fairly well with the saying, “The death of an individual is a tragedy; the death of a country is a statistic.” What I mean by all this is that your villain may not have a problem ordering his thugs to gun down people, he may not have a problem with pushing the ‘Missile Launch’ button to destroy a town, and he may not have a problem with lighting a building on fire, entombing the people inside. But he may falter when it’s him and the hero, or any other person, gun or knife or what have you in his hand, up to the villain himself to actually, personally kill his opponent. Maybe he doesn’t, maybe he loves to watch the life flicker out of another. But you shouldn’t assume that to be the case.

There are many easy assumptions about killing that we make – we assume that when soldiers go to war, they shoot at each other. How else is fighting done? But there were actually many, many studies conducted by the military to show that a percentage of soldiers don’t want to kill and will tend to fire over the enemy’s head, or not at all. While some studies have been contested, there still appears to be grains of truth in these claims. Either way, perhaps this is in part why the overlord tends to have armies of orcs rather than humans. How much easier is it to kill when the other guy is literally an evil monster? Or, as we think on the villain’s perspective, how much better is an army of literal evil monsters who will have no qualms with killing the enemy?

There are other factors to consider for mooks and whonot in causing death, like the Milgram experiment. But this is not useful for your main villain because he is the authority figure, there isn’t one above him. And as mentioned already, pushing a button or telling someone else to do it isn’t the same as doing it yourself so just because your villain will tell his minion, “continue”, doesn’t mean that your villain will shoot the hero.

Of course, with your villain, an easy solution to this consideration of murder is a little hand waving with anti-social personality disorder or other problem with empathy. If your villain lacks empathy, he lacks an important element that might cause him to hesitate. “The ant has no quarrel with the boot”, Loki says, showing that if he has empathy, he doesn’t see humans as on his level. Not even close.

But I said “hand waving” because the tendency to just go with, “Well my villain’s evil and that’s not a problem” is the easy way to go; it’s a tendency towards laziness. It’s absolutely fine to write a broken man who has no issues with murder. Such a man, due to this quality, would probably be a villain. It makes sense. But when you write a villain like that, the lack of empathy, for whatever reason, is a part of that villain, not an afterthought, not a retcon-esque explanation for his actions. And it’s definitely not an assumption. The issue with your villain will not come out clearly in all that he does, and because we humans are social creatures whether we like it or not, a lack of empathy will come out in all that we do. As much as I hate to draw the parallel, consider Sheldon from Big Bang Theory.

I hate to draw the parallel because I hate to draw upon a source that thinks Asperger’s is JUST SO FUNNY lol

Sheldon’s entire character’s worth for the show revolves around his social shortcomings. Just because Sheldon is with several other “smart guys” doesn’t mean he works well with them, that they aren’t frustrated with him, that everything goes smoothly. If he did, the show would not be, to those who enjoy it, as interesting.

What does this mean for your overlord? Just because he’s evil doesn’t mean he gets along well with the other evil guys. Sheldon thinks he’s intellectually superior to his friends. So could your overlord, as he brushes off his generals. You think those generals appreciate that? The overlord or supervillain’s minions are always bowing and scabbling about, but why? I’d be pissed if I was treated like that, wouldn’t you? Internal conflict is what keeps many shows afloat, makes many books interesting. And if the heroic group can hold things together despite differences and issues, so can your evil team…but they probably ought to have internal conflict like your average sub par sitcom (although hopefully written better) if you have the leader or main villain or whatever as a guy who lacks empathy as “lacks empathy” is a terrible quality for a leader.

In any case, if your villain couldn’t kill a guy his own personal self, that doesn’t necessarily have to come up as an actual situation. But it will come across in how you write him, in what he does, how he interacts with other people. Know your villain as well as you know your hero. Take him out for lunch and find out all you can about him.

Killing is easy to write, but not to actually perform, so don’t assume that your villain will, and don’t assume his mooks will either.

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Humor and Avatar Addendum

Hey, all – just on thinking more about humor and villains, my husband pointed out that a villain who uses humor well can actually be scarier. His example

HAVE SOME CANDY :D This phrase will not at all become a vicious death-chant later in the movie.

was King Candy from Wreck-it-Ralph. Certainly, his jovial nature put me off his trail. Also I don’t usually try super hard to figure out plot twists beforehand and choose to just enjoy the book/movie/whatever. But in any case, the only thing more terrifying than a man saying menacing words is a man saying kind or silly words menacingly. Provided you pull it off right, of course. Otherwise it might just be downright silly.

Of course when my husband first mentioned this point, my first thought

was the Joker. Certainly, if anyone has a terrifying sense of humor, it’s him. Then again, part of his deal is that his sense of humor isn’t just dark, it’s totally off and what he finds funny, like say killing someone and then shaping their face into a grotesque smile for rigor mortis to seal, we probably don’t. But you can’t say he doesn’t have a sense of humor, even if it’s totally twisted.

Either way humor is still a special technique seasoning, it seems, and you’ll probably need practice to get it right. Humor can be hard to write anyway.

As for Avatar…I do want to make a few things clear.

I do not consider Iroh a villain because, well, he’s not. I don’t think anyone will argue with me on that point. Heck, he’s barely even an antagonist for season one and definitely not afterward.

I do consider Zuko a villain. Still. We just finished season two and…aaargh, Zuko, nooooo! I will continue to consider him a villain until he finds his honor the way Iroh found his.

Willingness to steal and mug, puts his own goals above anything or anyone else (not always but more than never), chooses the side of his clearly sociopathically evil sister instead of the friggun Avatar despite the Avatar’s offer of friendship and the kindness offered by Katara (twice, since she offered to heal Iroh AND his scar) versus the life-long teasing and antagonizing of Azula, which ultimately betrayed Iroh…Look, I know there are redeeming qualities but the kid ain’t using them to redeem himself out of the “villain” box.

I do not consider Zuko anywhere near as heinous and excellent a villain as friggun Azula, but that is not to say I don’t enjoy Zuko’s character. And by “excellent a villain” I just mean Azula is scoring villain points left and right whereas Zuko has proved himself a competent fighter but doesn’t have the material to be an overlord like Azula.

D: So here’s to hoping that Zuko changes his mind in the last season. No spoilers please.

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