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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Diablos Ex Machina

I’m sure you’ve all heard the term Deus Ex Machina and are familiar with why it’s generally a problem- and I’ve discussed why it’s a problem concerning the defeat of villains, even if not in those direct terms.

You’ve probably never heard of Diablos Ex Machina because it’s a term my husband made up. However, after watching a few animes and becoming increasingly frustrated with The Most Terrible Things cropping up out of nowhere for the sake of creating conflict and whatnot, he coined the term.

One of the primary examples of this was from an interesting series called Romeo X Juliet. It is, in fact, anime Romeo and Juliet. Kind of. I mean, the show had two noble families, one Capulet, one Montague, at odds with each other, and they had heir children, Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet, who fell in love in a place called Neo Verona. Beyond that, the story and charaters baaaasically had nothing to do with Shakespeare’s play, starting with the fact that the very beginning, Montague and minions burst into Capulet’s home and slaughtered literally everyone except two year old Juliet and a few retainers who helped her escape and raised her. From there, you have the Red Whirlwind, a vigilante  whose secret identity is the young boy Odin, whose secret identity is none other than Juliet, Mysterious Ninja Tybalt, Romeo is a genuinely cool guy not ruled by his penis, and there’s also a really stupid Yggdrasil-style tree that is the cause of the Diablos Ex Machina. Escalus, the stupid tree, is what keeps Neo Verona floating. Did I mention that Neo Verona is a sky island? It’s a sky island. Yeah this version is a very loose interpretation of the play with all sorts of neat stuff!

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LIKE MOTHER FLIPPIN DRAGON HORSES.

Anyway after enjoying the far better development of Juliet, Romeo, and their romance, you get to the point where they’re torn apart for pretty literally no good reason and it’s got nothing to do with the Montague thing. See, the whole time, the lady who tends Escalus (her name is Ophelia) keeps telling Montague that Escalus is dying because he doesn’t have love, and Escalus needs love to survive. And so Tyler and I draw the conclusion that obvs Romeo and Juliet’s love will heal Escalus – and there is a ton of other reasons why we drew that conclusion because it made sense. And then, as they’re gearing up for the final battle against Montague…

…it comes up that no, no, what Escalus wants is a female Capulet. See you gotta sacrifice a Capulet maiden to Escalus every now and then for it to be happy or it dies and the city crashes to the ground. So when the battle comes up and Montague is slain, Juliet runs off to go sacrifice herself and Romeo runs after and is like omg noooooo and then blah blah and he changes Juliet’s mind but then Ophelia is like Nope! and forces her to do the tree thing and then Romeo tries to get Juliet back and gets stabbed by a wooden stake of Ophelia who is also turning into a tree and then Juliet escapes Escalus but finds Romeo is kind of super impaled and so she does the tree thing anyway sorta and flies the continent to the ocean below and turns into a tree with Romeo.

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It’s a pretty weird tree. Something something the goddess of Verona is tied to it, hence the wings, but…still a pretty weird tree.

This whole thing was highly upsetting to Tyler and I. Especially because I have a sixth sense for when the female lead is going to turn into a tree at the end of the story – no, seriously, we read whichever Shanera book it was where that happens and I called it at the very beginning of their quest – and while it took a little while longer than it normally would for me to sense this was gonna happen to Juliet (Because it had no setup whatsoever), I ignored it hardcore because it would have been really stupid for her to turn into a tree (Because there was no setup whatsoever). This was because there was no setup for it at all.

When it came up and it was pretty clear that the anime was like la la everything is working out so nicely  oh crap this story was supposed to be a tragedy uhhh quick make Escalus eat Juliet! I mean, even if it had been planned from the beginning, that’s not how it was executed. And the bottom line is Tyler and I felt completely cheated.

And that’s the problem with Diablos Ex Machina – well, the same problem with anything in your machine. It’s cheap and it makes your audience feel cheated. Whether it’s BAM! Saved! or BAM! Everything is ruined for no reason! it’s a problem.

Sometimes life is unpredictable and bad things happen for no reason. But as random as life seems, it’s not actually truly random and when bad things happen for no reason, there’s still a reason it happened; that’s two different definitions of reason, one meaning cause, one meaning motivation. Many bad things don’t have motivation but do have cause. Take natural disasters – that’s a bad thing that happens to good people for no reason, which is to say those people did absolutely nothing to deserve the devestation. Except they did by living on this planet, which has a crust that’s a bunch of giant rocks floating on churning magma that sometimes causes earthquakes and weather patterns that include incredible winds and bad storms that carry hurricanes over cities or tornados across the land. A big forest fire has no motivation for burning down someone’s home, but there is a cause for it, such as the fact that they were living in a flammable home next to a flamable forest and something like lightning started a fire.

There’s also man-made disasters, like shootings. While people say “no one could have predicted this,” that’s not even remotely true.

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The fellow who wrote this book, his job is literally to predict disasters like shootings, and they are 100% possible to predict. Maybe there’s no particular reason that crazy gun terrorist shot, specifically, the random innocent people he did, but there is a reason he went out and shot random people.

The problem with Diablos Ex Machina is that in writing, we can go for the shock factor of Suddenly! Bad thing! but a well-crafted story will have set it up, even if just in a sneaky way. Getting that Suddenly! Bad thing! just right is great since that’s what makes your readers scream and throw the book across the room. But the thing is, for that to be the good kind of chucking the book and not the bad kind where the reader is just angry with you, the writer, and they don’t pick it back up, you need to make sure you know the reason behind everything and you’re writing accordingly. If Escalus wanted a Capulet, whether or not Montague had any love didn’t really matter, did it? What Ophellia should have been saying was that Montague doomed the tree by spilling the blood it craved, or something like that. Is that a dead giveaway? Doesn’t have to be with careful wording.

There are times when Bad Thing! coming out from left field is appropriate, but that usually involves introducing an entirely new element, not dramatically changing an existing one without preamble. Either way, you’ve got to take care that you’re not doing things just because you’re trying to get the story to be a certain way, without making sure the story actually works the way you’re bending it. The last thing you want is for your reader to feel cheated.

Edit: apparently TV tropes disagrees with the idea that Tyler made up the term. They have a page on Diabolos Ex Machina. Who knew? (Not me, apparently.)

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What Makes a Villain a Villain?

This is a question I’ve thought about a lot, and one that many other people have also thought about a lot and procured many answers, most of which are good – all of the ones I’ve heard have been good answers, at any rate.

And while I’d love to say that I, as an authority on villains, have the answer…my conclusion is that I just have a lot of good answers and good thoughts that are refutable in such a way as to spark a lively debate about it, and thus I’ve drawn a different conclusion.

Whether or not there is one single complete and objectively correct answer to this question, what’s more important is that you have your own answer to this question, and that you know it and are solid on it before you write. This will help keep you from conflating villains and antagonists, recognize when you’re writing a mere antagonist, and not call them a villain or force them to be something they’re not. And it’s okay if you have an answer where others might disagree. I mean, look at Snape! Is he a villain, an antihero, a misunderstsood hero?

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…please don’t take that as an invitation to start that debate on my post. No seriously please don’t.

People hold all of those opinions and more of him, and they are often quite strongly held. What causes a person to view Snape where they do on the spectrum of good and evil seems to depend on two factors: one, how well they understand his character and simultaneously remember all the things he did and said, and two, where they place moral values. And a lot of people disagree with Rowling’s assessment of her own character, and that is entirely okay. Especially when everyone remembers that a writer’s own assessment of their own character is not always correct, or at least objective truth.

I think of my own current main character – I find him to be an endearing jerk. Other people might find him to be a selfish brat. I think they are wrong but that’s also my opinion; maybe they can’t stand sarcasm and sass and if that’s where they put their values, then yeah, he’s going to be much more insufferable. Just as in real life, not every person is going to like any other given person, in fictional life, characters who are rounded enough to be like real people will not be liked by every person, nor judged the same way.

So what makes a villain a villain? Think hard about that question, and then when you have your answer, run with it, and perhaps you’ll find that the dichotomies of good and evil upon which you have decided will help shape aspects of your plot, as well. Since part of that dichotomy for me is caring about other people, some of the important plot arcs for my heroes involve becoming more personable, more aware of others around them, and more willing to trust them, whereas the arcs for my villains sometimes tend more towards despondancy, willingness to sacrifice others for their (the villain’s) own goals, increased coldness. Maybe you’re the kind of person so jaded by the unkind and morons of our world that your definition doesn’t involve a dichotomy of love for others or not. We all know how hard it is to label people because they’re dynamic, but it’s also because all our labels are different, too. Don’t worry about whether your definition is right or wrong, but just if it makes sense to you.

Of course, keeping an open mind, a flexible definition, that grows as you learn about the perspective of others is not a bad idea either. Either way, even if your definition changes later, you should at least have one so when you write a villain, you know what you’re writing in the first place.

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Megamind Isn’t a (Real) Villain

Hello all! It’s nice to be back! I am still pregnant and actually still not in great shape because of it, but at this point, I’m mostly just exhausted instead of outright sick. And during this hiatus, I got the chance to work through most of the movies I own with my kid because while I’d ordinarily like to limit her screentime…you do what you gotta when you’re sick or too tired to do much.

And that means I got to watch one of my own favorite movies again, Megamind. Watching Megamind is all kinds of nostalgic for me, since many of the times I saw it, including the first, involve wacky hijinks or at least wacky people. It also often reminds me about the interesting disparity between what I expected the film to be and what it was. The trailers presented it as, “This is an action hero story from the villain’s perspective!” but most people I talk to agree that that’s…not…really what it was. Heck, Despicable Me did a better job of telling a villain’s story, as a villain’s story, than Megamind did. (That said, while I like both movies, my own personal preference is still for Megamind). And that’s simply because Megamind isn’t and never was a villain.

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Sorry bro.

He only ever played villain, and as well as he might have filled the part, his motivation behind everything makes it pretty clear that he wasn’t ever a real villain. And this is incredibly important to note because amatuerish villains are barely more real villain than Megamind ever was – and in a big way, less so, because the writer generally (if not always) fails to make his villain a real person, whereas Megamind is wonderfully rounded out with real motivations and feelings and it is on purpose that he is only filling a role handed to him – which is kind of the point of the movie.

Now don’t get me wrong, Megamind filled the part beautifully – he knew all the things a villain does and he did them and he did them pretty well.

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I mean he had a cape with its own evil theme song and everything.

But he didn’t do any of those things because he’s a villain, he did them because that’s what he was supposed to do as a villain, and pretending to be a villain meant he could fit in and have a place in the world. All it takes is listening to the prologue for this to be crystal clear – he felt left out, confused, lost, and realized he could fit in if he played villain. The fact that he is not a villain, and still has to find his real place because he is not really a villain, is also reiterated throughout the movie. Metroman felt like he was also shoved into a role he didn’t care for, doing what others expected him to and failing to be true to who he really was; he tells Megamind that it’s now time for Megamind to find out who he really is, indicating he believes the same of Megamind. And the movie ends with Megamind declaring that destiny is the path we choose for ourselves, not what appears to be handed to us. The moral of the movie is tied to the fact that Megamind isn’t a villain.

No part of the movie makes it more clear that he’s not a real villain, to me, than when he takes over the city and crashes. His motivation to take over the city was “that’s what villains do,” rather than a real desire to control the city. A real villain? They have a real desire, for one reason or another, to have power over others. Sometimes it’s a noble goal in the eyes of the villain:

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…need to rule it.

So back to what this means for our villains – remember my five main points of villainy, most specifically, the one about evil deeds? Where I said that a villain isn’t evil because he does bad stuff; he does bad stuff because he is evil? Yeah, this is a prime example of someone who is trying to be a villain because he does bad stuff. And he does do some bad things. Like I said, he plays the part of villain well. But it doesn’t make him a villain. Contrast in the same movie, Titan/Hal:

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Look at that honest malice.

He was supposed to be a hero, but instead he becomes a villain – a real villain – because his motivations are sour and unlike Megamind, he doesn’t view his participation as a game. He actually wants power over other people. At the very least, he wanted power over Roxanne. Who knows how he might have developed if he hadn’t been conquered so quickly? But I’m gonna guess a man motivated by pain and frustration to scare and bully others was not going to go in any good direction.

When you compare Megamind and Titan, and their actions, and whose actions were worse, that’s a comparison between someone who does bad things to be a villain, and someone who does bad things because he is a villain. Compare an evil act both performed: kidnapping Roxanne. Roxanne was part of the act with Megamind, and being a savvy woman, was not afraid of him. She knew how the script went. And when she found herself in private with him after he took over the city, they still spoke to each other as intimate acquaintences, no assailant and victim. But she’s a true hostage when Titan kidnaps her. She is clearly honestly afraid for her life, and much more. And they still are close acquaintences, and that’s still part of their conversation, but you can see how the relationship has evolved to include real fear.

Even if Megamind’s villainry was more refined, it was still clearly an act.

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“Presentation” is a great quality for villains…if presentation is actually important for the situation.

If you stick yourself, the writer, as a character into Megamind, you are Destiny. You are the one who casts the die, to callback to the start of the film. And if your villain is Megamind, he’s someone who isn’t evil and doesn’t belong in the villain’s role, but you need a villain and that’s where you decided he fits, so that’s where you’re sticking him, directing his actions to be evil again and again when his heart is somewhere else. And even if he does a good job…he’s not a real villain, and the audience is going to see that one way or another, whether because you have to force him to act against his will so often that he goes limp and becomes cardboard, or as the audience begins to furrow their brow at your labeling him a villain when they can clearly see there’s more to him than that. Megamind was never a real villain because he was just filling a role; if you want your villain to be real, he can’t do the same thing.

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Pregnant

Hi everyone. I’m sorry for slipping away again with no warning. See, I’d been working on a couple blog posts, one of which I was struggling with its length, and then I gradually became so sick all I wanted to do was sit on the couch and die. Or nap, whatever, same thing.

I say “gradually” because it’s not like one day I woke up and was super sick, but it was still pretty fast, enough for me not to expect it and do something proper to finish a post or something. As it happens, I’m still incredibly sick, and will probably continue to feel stupid sick for another couple months at least.

As you should have gathered from the title, I’m sick because of a semi-delightful parasite lodged in my lower abdomen. (Semi-delightful is a word which here means, would be completely delightful it if wasn’t making me ravenously hungry while simultaneously causing all food to look and sound disgusting.) The last time this happened, the sickness abated after about four months, but who knows how it’ll work out this time.

So it’s back to the couch with my DS and Harvest Moon for me, and napping, when a friend has time to come watch my little one. But just as a baby and a toddler are not villains, I don’t think it’s fair to say a fetus is either.

It is TOTALLY fair to call it a parasite, though.

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“I’ll Do Anything!”

Aaand we’re back to torture. Following up on your hero being a person who expresses pain when under duress, you probably ought to consider another aspect of toughing torture out.

I mean usually – or sometimes at least – when one person tortures another person, they want something out of it. Information, a Thing, a Deed, whatever. Yeah, especially in the world of writing, sometimes torture happens because the perpetrater is trying to get something that the victim can’t just give freely, like data for an evil experiment, and sometimes the villain is a sadist who enjoys cruelty.

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This is kinda both. (The Machine – for ALL your pain blog post needs!)

But one of the primary points of torture is to force someone’s hand.

And this leads us to an important aspect of any character. What is their breaking point? Your hero can scream and writhe and cry and tremble and refuse, refuse to give up the location of his friends. He’s a tough guy. And loyal, too, really puts his friends before himself.  Your heroine suffers and suffers, and refuses to deny Key Belief. What a stalwart, tough lady she is!

But of course, this requires care. Your character suffering and suffering but managing to tough out the pain enough that they don’t give in and give up The Thing can be just as bad as your character toughing out the torture with no reaction. Again, you have the problem of, “It can’t be that bad,” because if it was that bad, they’d do anything to stop it.

But then I think of my capacity to withstand pain and if I’d do anything to stop it. I personally believe that the great thing about humanity is conscious choice. We have the power to break destiny and make whatever choice we want (given that it’s actually possible) in any situation, although breaking destiny might be so hard that a human (or whatever) is not likely to do it. So I like to think that if someone was torturing me to get information out of me that would kill my husband or child (or anyone else I love), I would die first.

And this, funnily enough, makes me think of the time when my baby was a newborn. I had some killer postpartum, which given my normal depression, is no surprise. I’m not meaning to say that a newborn is torture, but it is particularly hard (and when discussing with another mom about this topic, and quickly saying, “Not to say having a new baby is torture!” they replied, “Okay, but it kinda is” so…) I mean, think about it – depriving someone of sleep can be and has been used as torture. Newborns totally do that. And that was one part. One! I was pushed to my limits – which is also the point of torture. And as a standard part of postpartum, I thought a lot about getting rid of my baby, including frenzied thoughts of throwing her down the appartment stairs. (Yeah that’s totally normal postpartum, you’re not a bad mom, but you should probably get help.) Did I do that? Heck no! There’s no way I’d ever, ever ever ever, hurt my baby! There was something more important to me than ending the duress, no matter how extreme. But the duress broke me in other ways. To make my post about it shorter, I cried a lot, and shouted a lot (not at the baby), and had my frenzied thoughts, and my demoralizing thoughts about how I apparently wasn’t cut for being a mom after all. And that didn’t end until the kid got to be about four months old and her behavior shifted.

There are things that are more precious than life and fates worse than death. When the two collide…well, it says a lot about your character how they manage. There are countless stories of Holocaust victims who either shone as brilliant beacons of gorgeous humanity, or broke into despots. Fathers who stole crusts from their sons. Jews becoming worse than Gestapo. Strangers giving away their last piece of bread. You can also consider the study done on soldiers about what happens when they’re deprived of food. Spoiler alert: all they think or talk about is food. Various types of torture consume.

I recommend becoming familiar with the psychology of duress, so you can tap into your victim character’s thoughts; if we see them breaking down into frenzies like mine did, consumed by the torture, or (or perhaps also) clinging desperately to what’s important, then I could believe they withstand torture to preserve their Thing.

This also becomes an intersting thought exercise for all characters, villains included. Is there anything they love more than themselves? How much does it take to break them? What does it take to make them cry, “I’ll do anything!” ?

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LeFou and the Beast

So a little while back, I saw the new Beauty and the Beast. (And this post takes no care with spoilers so if you haven’t seen it, look out: there are spoilers.) I was nervous from the multitude of things I heard about it, various criticisms of all sorts ranging from the vague, “it wasn’t that good,” to the specific. As Beauty and the Beast was my favorite Disney movie as a kid, I desperately wanted it to be good.

And I absolutely loved it.

I felt that they addressed every major criticism of the original Disney film – especially the one where Belle’s love for the Beast is actually just Stockholm Syndrome – and they expounded plot and character arcs. And while I’d love to go into detail on those notes, there’s much to argue that in the end depends on what you care about most in a film, what you’re looking for in it. So, I’d rather get to why you’re all really here.

Which is of course Gaston.

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No one draws crowds like Gaston

Gaston has a bit of backstory in this new rendition – he’s not just this super pretty douchehole who wants to marry Belle. He’s a soldier who (probably?) owns the tavern in town (I mean it has all his hunting trophies and his name is painted on the wall) and is obsessed with marrying Belle due to sticking strongly to the delusion of the perfect life he wants that completely ignores one big detail – Belle isn’t the lovely doll he insists in his mind she is.

In the original animated film, Gaston does one main villain thing, beyond being a narcisistic jerk: he plots to use Maurice’s “craziness” as blackmail against Belle – and mind you, Gaston probably or definitely believes Maurie is psychotic. Everyone does. But it’s a matter of using that “obvious” disability against Belle that is villainous.

I’d argue that his wanting to kill the beast isn’t exactly a villain thing. He’s the village hunter, and there’s something that is “obviously” a monster. It’s his job to kill the beast. I mean, he probably should have listened to Belle, but you can’t really expect a small-minded small-town guy of old to listen to a girl, right? Especially when he displayed his inability to listen to her when she said “no” earlier. It’s more of a mob-mentality thing, the sort of thing a hero could get into just as easily, and have – I mean, my friend was just telling me how in his last DnD session, his players got lost in dimensions and eventually happened upon an orc, who they tried to kill, until their one player who speaks orcish discovered that they were the intruders in the orc’s pocket dimension: they’d broken into his house and tried to kill him.

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Art from Wizard of the Coast – yeah, you see this guy, you might be prone to freak and attack first, roll diplomacy later, right?

The difference is that Gaston never tried to pull out diplomacy, and probably had a clue that Belle loved the beast or somesuch. That part IS villainous.

But Live Action Gaston, he has more to him. He starts off the same big-headed jerk, refusing to acknowledge who Belle is or what she wants for herself, only what he wants. And then Belle disappears and Maurice comes in the bar yelling about a beast. Gaston, wanting to get on father-in-law’s good side, decides to try to help him even though he doesn’t believe Maurice. Unfortunately, the path to the castle has mysteriously disappeared, so they’re out in the woods when it’s late and cold and there are wolves and Gaston wants to go home. Maurice insists that they have to save Belle, his everything, and Gaston flips that Maurice is crazy.

An interesting bit here is that to calm his friend and idol down, LeFou reminds Gaston of the war. Now, I might not know anything about soldiers, but “the war, the explosions, the widows” is not usually a comforting thought. Like, PTSD is common among soldiers for a reason. But this works, calms Gaston down right quick, allows him to paste on a wide smile for a moment. That’s the first flag this guy is not just a jerk, like animated Gaston.

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Also, the widows? Seriously?

The second is that Gaston does something absolutely sinister, after bursting out he only helped Maurice because he wants to marry Belle: Maurice declares he will never marry Belle, and Gaston, after having established being out now means freezing to death or being devoured by wolves, punches Maurice, knocking him out, and ties him to a tree.

I have a bit of a hard time seeing Animated Gaston do this. Live Action Gaston, though? We just, like literally just, established that he enjoyed the war, and war is about death. He has no qualms with killing people, and didn’t figure out how to leave that behidn in the war, because it wasn’t a mantle he put on for the war. It’s who he is. We start to get the idea that Gaston is actually an evil person, a monster, masquerading as a normal person, or even a hero. And if we weren’t sure that maybe it’s just that Gaston is disturbed from the war, or maybe in Ye Olde Fairy Tale Times, this isn’t that, y’know, murderous, we have LeFou, who was Gaston’s war buddy, who walks into the bar with what’s basically,

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And Maurice, who had been saved by the beggar/enchantress, is there, accusing Gaston of murder. Unfortunately, Gaston is the kind of guy who is REALLY good at the game Werewolves, like me – which is to say, even if you are the only werewolf left in the game, you can convince the entire “town” – or just, town, in Gaston’s case – that you are the only person they can trust and to whomever you point the finger is the REAL werewolf, using only the sheer force of your maxed out Charisma skill.

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How else do you think he forms a mob in .5 seconds? No, but seriously, though.

And thus, convincing the town Maurice is psycho and needs to go to an asylum becomes much, much more sinister. It’s not about manipulating Maurice or Belle into the marriage Gaston wants so much as saving his sorry hide, destroying the evidence that Gaston is actually a monster – but hey, maybe twisting Maurice’s arm into forcing Belle into marriage is the cherry on top.

I would like to take this time to remind you of an important fact: Gaston says Maurice wouldn’t survive the asylum and he’s absolutely freaking right have you ever seen Ye Olde asylums holy HECk are they the things of nightmares. Like, even just, idk, fifty, sixy years ago, they were hell holes. But back in the day! If you saw the tools and the cells and the apparatus used, you’d think you were looking at a torture chamber.

Gaston is sending Maurice to what is more torture chamber than anything else on the pretense of being psychotic thinking of beasts and Gaston his murderer (which he was). That’s evil.

And he’s already in full-blown Cover Up My Villainy mode when Belle rides in and says whoooooaaaa hold on, here’s proof Gaston is full of crap. So he doesn’t roll diplomacy because whatever’s happening, he needs the people on his side, believing he is right, and the immediately obvious way to go is to kill the beast. And if Belle is saying, wait, wait, no! then that must mean that the Beast, like Maurice, is an obstacle and it needs clearing anyway.

And there’s poor LeFou, stuck with his own beast, his heart’s desire, his idol, wondering if he’s even on the right side, fearing War Gaston is on the loose, and thinking hard how he can reign is friend back in. And the harpsichord drops on him. And Gaston refuses to help because now’s his chance, with all the “furniture” distracted with the mob, to kill the Beast.

And LeFou realizes, this isn’t War Gaston – there isn’t War Gaston and Post-War Gaston. There’s just Gaston, and Gaston is a monster.

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Take a good look. This isn’t the face of someone who’s on board. This is the face of a very concerned friend who cares a lot and is getting kind of scared.

And Gaston finds the Beast and declares that Belle sent him, a clear lie – a pretty dang good indication that Gaston knows exactly what the Beast means to Belle, or at least that he’s important or precious to her if not that she loves him. It’s a sign that he has devoted himself single-mindedly to his fantasy, his delusion, that he will get what he wants, no matter the cost, no matter who he has to kill.

And that, friends, is one of the most basic cores of any villain. To get what you want, no matter the cost.

And that’s – wow I could maybe not like start the next paragraph with “and” – and that’s why I love this live-action Gaston. In the animation, I might have said that Gaston’s song is his villain song, but in this one, it really feels like Kill The Beast is the villain song. It’s not fun and silly and self-aggrandizing. It’s deadly mob psychology run by someone who knows better and doesn’t care.

The final aspect of Gaston that apparently upset many is that he dies because the castle crumbles from underneath him (and also that he shot the Beast instead of stabbing him, which I won’t grace much with response because that’s a dumb complaint. It makes sense, much more sense than stabbing, in the context.). While I might be prone to whine about this as well, since the defeat of the villain is crucial, I’m actually okay with this one. See Gaston is a villain and a problem, but he isn’t the problem that the heroine has to overcome for much of the story. Actually, Gaston is nearly side plot to that.

See, the running theme of the story as told here seems to be to me “be true to yourself”. The Beast, on realizing that this whole time he’s been a snooty, selfish ponce because his dad raised him to be that way, starts to explore himself, find out who he truly is, with Belle at his side. Belle is already true to herself, and others criticize her for it (why I’ve always connected to her, that and her incessant reading). And Gaston, like the Beast, is not who he appears to be on the outside. But unlike the Beast, who is putting aside a mask of cruelty he was taught to hold to find out what’s underneath, Gaston is holding tight to his mask of heroism to get what he wants as the mask crumbles away to reveal a monster. The juxtaposition is sufficient; either hero laying a hand on Gaston, or being responsible in any way for his death, would be detrimental to their character arcs. Especially the Beast’s, who has just discovered he’s actually a pretty decent guy when he’s true to himself. Decent guys don’t usually kill other guys regardless of the situation.

As for falling to his death from a crumbling castle – that was foreshadowed pretty heavily. The castle was constantly crumbling throughout the movie, and all throughout the fight scene. So it wasn’t a Deus Ex Machina or anything, either. It was a consequence of zeal to kill the Beast and lack of care.

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So if you were wondering if there’s a good model for how to make your monster of a man – just a man, yes, but a monster of one – look like a normal person, take a look at Live Action Gaston. There’s no one quite like him.

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When “What If” Explodes Into Panic

Continuing on as promised from the first part: Panic attacks.

I’ve had two now, and lemmie recount my experiences with the second (it’s shorter to explain and was more dramatic) and hopefully that illustrates a panic attack a little better.

One day I was sitting at my computer desk, going over a manuscript a member of my writing group had submitted. He’d written it in a Google Doc, so I could immediately edit it. It’s immensely soothing and satisfying to me, in that Grammar Nazi way, to correct little spelling and grammar errors; however, the manuscript in question was an early draft. What Andrew wanted was broad strokes, big picture. And that’s what I was actually looking for, but I couldn’t help but to correct the small semantics, too.

So since it’s in a Google Doc, Andrew could see the changes as I made them, and he happened to be looking at it while I was reading it. Andrew sent me a text saying something along the lines of, “I’m not looking for grammatical errors right now, this is just a rough draft”. That’s a perfectly reasonable thing to say – in fact, I have said something of that nature to the members of my group when submitting a piece, too. We all know that that we generally can’t help but correct little mistakes and that that’s still gonna be feedback sometimes and none of it – none of it – is a big deal.

I freaked out when I got that text.

I started to panic. Oh no. Oh no! Andrew hates me! Andrew isn’t just a symbiotic writing relationship to me – all of those guys are dear friends to me. They’re precious. And Andrew, he’s the kinda guy who doesn’t waste time on people he doesn’t like. If he doesn’t like you, you will know it.

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It’s the opposite of this.

Which…makes it all the more unreasonable that I was flipping out about this text. If Andrew hated me, I wouldn’t be in the writing group. The dude invites me over to watch anime and reviews games and game systems with me and we play DnD together. As someone who doesn’t play games of niceties, this is a clear sign Andrew does not hate me.

And even as I’m freaking out – and I mean, I start crying and shaking because I’m so upset about how this stupid, simple text means that he hates me – I know this. I know that there is no way in the Nether Andrew so much as dislikes me. And I start crying harder because the whole thing is so dumb. I am dumb because I am crying and freaking out about something that is obviously false and stupid. And I need to stop crying right now. I need to stop immediately. And holy heck Andrew hates me no this is stupid, stop it, stop it, STOP IT!

And instead of stopping, I start hyperventillating because I can’t stop it. I can’t stop. I’m out of control. I’m choking now because I’m literally hyperventillating. I thought people only hyperventillated on purpose but I’m not doing this on purpose and now I can’t stop but I’m still trying to cry and I’m still furious with how stupid I am and this whole thing is and now my body is shaking and trembling as I choke on my hyperventilating crying and I collapse out of my chair and curl up into the fetal position under my computer desk and cry and choke and breath after big, unplanned breath and choking and

and I think

I’m dying

I knew I was having a panic attack, but it felt like something was happening to my heart. That much was true. It felt like it was exploding and being ripped out simultaneously. But it was hardly my heart that was the focus, that just put a nice touch on the “dying” bit. I was breathing but I couldn’t control how or when I did, and it felt like every breath I took in wasn’t oxygen but something else just as free-flowing and cold, cold, cold. And I couldn’t feel, and I couldn’t stop shaking, and I was constantly choking, and my ribcage had become fingers of something malevolent squeezing, squeezing me. Much like had happened with my first panic attack. And my whole mind was hazy. I felt like a weird videogame POV when the POV character collapses. Like that part in Skyrim in the Thieves’ Guild quest where you find Karliah and she shoots you with that poisoned arrow and then Mercer stabs you. Or any other time in any other similar POV game when you fall down from an explosion or something. My cat walked towards me and sympathetically sniffed at me and it felt…like it wasn’t my experience, just a weirdly angled cut scene.

After a few minutes, like it was all a part of the same cutscene, I crawled out from under the computer desk and staggered through the kitchen, down the stairs, along the hall, to my bedroom, where I closed the door and collapsed into bed, still with the odd hyperventillated breath and latent sobs. My last thought was worrying that the baby, who should have been napping but I heard her playing in her room when I staggered past, wouldn’t leave her room and cause trouble while I freaked out in the dark, cool, safe of my room, and hopefully, while I slept.

I did sleep, and the kid just played nicely in her room until Tyler got home. And I was…mostly okay. There was a lump in my throat, a huge one, extremely painful, that didn’t go away for weeks, maybe even a month. It hurt badly to swallow, and it hurt to touch from the outside. I believe I’d pulled something, hypertension or somesuch, during my panic attack. Eventually I asked for help and was told to massage it and drink hot drinks and use lavander oil and similar stuff. Some of it worked, the muscles relaxed, and all was well.

Except for the part where I still have anxiety, of course. But so far, no more panic attacks. And maybe as I accept this new part of me, I can keep it that way.

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When “What If” Explodes

You know I really thought my next post after the I Scream one was going to be another post about torture but then the sweater thing happened and I wound up re-reading my post on anxiety and…it was weird, because I said I don’t understand anxiety as a disorder very well in it. I made a pretty good analogy about hoses concerning anxiety, but otherwise felt uncomfortable talking about it, and actually did kind of a poor job on panic attacks, mostly just parroting what I’d learned in class.

And it was weird because I forget it wasn’t that long ago, only a handful of years, when I didn’t suffer from anxiety, and I’d never had a panic attack. Apparently, it was sooner than I thought because I thought my anxiety started being A Thing around when I got married, but judging by the post, no. And guess what? Talking about anxiety and panic with experience is way more words than just learning about it from a book, so the next post isn’t goign to be follow up on I Scream either. Just remember – the reason I talk about this on a writing blog is because you should know about mental disorders when you write. You should know about them anyway. But writing mental disorders is frequently common and very often done badly. Know it.

Now to think, remember, I didn’t always have anxiety is weird as orignally, it was quite hard for me to accept this new disorder because, you see, I’m an extrovert. A poster child extrovert. And social anxiety, well…there’s a reason why everyone assumes I must be an introvert if I have it and so badly. There’s nothing wrong with being an introvert, of course, but I’m not one and the worst part of all this was losing my extrovert. I mean, it was an aspect I’d cultivated, worked on. In middle school, I saw a show where people were doing random crap in public just ‘cuz. I wanted to be that fearless. And I worked at it, erasing my shame bit by bit, until I could say the most random crap to anyone. I had mime battles with a friend across campus. I walked up to people I didn’t know and rigamarolled shenanigans. I honed the skill in high school. In college, I became expert at promoting the Quill and Sword, fearlessly prowling campus in my medieval garb, I threw on a black cloak and carried a red lightsaber to meet up with a friend and duel at lunchtime, I blasted Knights of Cydonia as I charged to the testing center on finals day. And then suddenly…I couldn’t talk to anyone. I couldn’t say hi, what’s your name, what do you like? Everything I worked so hard, so hard to build, it was just…gone. And in its place, crippling anxiety.

What happened to me? I’ll never really know. Maybe it was all the hormones from having a kid. They changed me permanently in other ways.

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We watched this the other night and there were SO many moments where I almsot started crying and I just – what the HECK has happened to me!? WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO MEEEEE?

But it doesn’t matter now because the anxiety is a part of me and that’s that. Do you understand how devastating this change is for me? I mean, we very often talk about it in such a way as to conflate it with introversion. So let me explain: I want to be around people. I love people. I want to talk to them, learn about them, find out what they’re passionate about and delight in it, I want people, I need people. I need a lot of people. We all need social interaction, like a plant needs sunlight – but introverts are like shade tolerant plants that actually start wilting if you put them in too much sunlight, and I’m like a friggun sunflower who starts dying in the shade. (I assume they die in the shade as their name implies they are the sunniest of flowers. If I’m wrong, just insert in your head a flower that dies in the shade.) I need people, and anxiety makes people terrifying. They make people immesurably, paralytically, would rather face down Ye Elder God terrifying. This disorder makes me hide my sunflower face from sunlight because I can’t stand to look at it.

For me, this anxiety is an explosion of What If. What if they think I’m dumb? What if they think my writerly-ness is weird and creepy? What if no one wants to be around me? What if I lose everyone I love, chase them off because of who I am. irredeemably? WHAT IF WHAT IF WHAT IF!?

And I can’t talk the what ifs down. If I push and push against them and scream, THIS IS NOT WHO I AM and try to bulldoze through it, it’s like a series of ice-cold hands reach out and pull me down, screaming the what ifs all the louder, shaking me to my core, shaking me until I shake myself in fear of the what if.

Slowly, slowly, I’m regaining my extroverted self, once again becoming a socialite.

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For some reason, an extroverted butterfly person who is the center of attention – so basically Rarity with her butterfly wings – is what the word “socialite” makes me think, ever since I first heard the word.

It helped that there were friendly, outgoing people in my current ward (church congregation if you will) who reached out to me when we moved here. And that we have friendly neighbors. And that Tyler is so understanding – because he has his own anxieties, especially about me. And that my friends offered support when I explained my new problem. But most of all, it’s helped to just accept this is a part of my life now and rather than trying to deny it and just act the way I always did which only exasberated the problem, and instead being gentle with myself and asking the people around me to be gentle too, and to try to understand.

 

 

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Putting a Sweater on Depression

Although there are countless creations trying to explain depression in comics, pictures, witty memes, posts, etc, the continuing creation and presence of these items suggests that it’s still misunderstood. And given that time to time I say something about my disorder, or a friend theirs, and we recieve common responses ranging from “what do you have to be depressed about” to “I know how to fix that, it’s [“solution”]”, I see exactly why it’s suggested that depression is misunderstood.

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You aren’t the guy from Holes. You CAN’T fix it.

And while I tried my best to spew Psychology Student information about depression, I got thinking about what might be a good analogy. Actually I got thinking about it because I have insomnia and you think about all sorts of things trying to go to sleep, but the point is, I thought of at least a decent analogy.

Say that there’s a huge problem in the world with people being cold – and I mean everyone in the world is at risk for being really, freezing to death really, cold, not the ones who actually are cold. Freezing is the worst ailment because you lose all feeling, become completely numb, have a background sensation of suffering, and then if it gets bad enough, you die.

So there’s a problem where people are freezing. And you’re walking along on the street and you’re nice and cozy warm, and encounter someone who is freezing, and they say to you, “Hey, I’m freezing!” and you say to them, “The solution is simple – put on a sweater.”

In this part of the analogy, I think a lot of the breakdown is that people seem to assume they get it already. “Oooh, I see! Depression is where that person doesn’t have a sweater!”

No.

See if freezing is emotional despair, emptiness, all that stuff that is depression, then a sweater is favorable circumstances, good company, enjoyable activities, etc etc. And someone who is depressed may well have a sweater. They may have forty sweaters, all piled on making them look like Randy from A Christmas Story.

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“I CAN’T PUT MY ARMS DOWN!”

And maybe they don’t have a sweater. And all the “I can fix that” solutions people offer to fix depression usually seem to revolve around getting the person a sweater. “Let’s go buy one.” “I’ll make you one.” “You can have mine.” “A blanket works just as well in a pinch.”

But the problem isn’t the sweater.

You see, a sweater isn’t actually warm. It’s insulation. If you put a sweater on a snowman, the snowman wouldn’t melt, because a sweater isn’t warm. As insulation, the sweater would help keep in the cold, and thus a snowman who is wearing a sweater melts more slowly than one who isn’t. (They even did this on a Mythbusters show.) When you say, “A sweater will keep you warm!” the operative word here is “keep” because you, as a living being, generate heat, and the sweater keeps it in.

So when you’re feeling down, you’re generating warmth – happiness, contentedness, the ability to feel, so even anger, fear, sadness, etc – but having a hard time hanging onto it. The heat flows away from you and you feel cold. And when you put on your sweater – your favorable circumstances, good company, comfort food, pleasurable activities, the like – that insulates you, and the heat you generate sticks.

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It insulates you and shows off your style. And also that you have an amazing “aunt” who will make you a sweater like my bestie did here for my kid. The love of others is all a part of the sweater, even in real life with actual, non-metaphrical sweaters.

When you’re depressed, you AREN’T generating heat. You have lost the ability to feel. You are numb and cold and dead because you have lost the ability to generate within you happiness, anger, fear, emotions, feelings. So when you put on a sweater, nothing happens. It just insulates the void.

And it can become so severe, this nothingness, this coldness, that you die.

So no matter how many sweaters someone makes or buys for you, lends you, how many blankets make up for your lack of sweater, no matter how hard someone tries to show you the joy of life – the sweater and blankets are all still great, but in the end, there isn’t any heat. The sweaters don’t do anything.

So when I’m in the height of a wave of depression, I’m still wearing my, “I have a pretty great life” sweater. It’s got the knitted knots that are my superb family, the cute buttons that are my house and belongings, the decorative trim that are all the incredible, amazing people that I know, my friends and neighbors, and it even has a hood from all my talents that provide so many things I like to do. It’s thick and packed with love. I’m wearing that sweater, I’m aware of it, and I’m so, so grateful for it.

And I’m still freezing. Because something inside of me is broken. Something inside of me forgot how to feel. Something inside me doesn’t know how to make heat.

Thing is, I still want to be included, I still want to be loved. When you invite me somewhere, I’ll try not to drag anyone down with my depression, and I ask in return if it looks like I’m not having a good time, it’s just that I can’t so much right now, and you just leave it be. Just think of yourself as Pooh and I’m Eeyore. I’m depressed, but since you can’t do anything about it, continuing to be my friend anyway without trying to fix me is the best thing you can do.

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Even when he was kind of being a huge bummer, the others still played with him.

The problem is when you look at me and think you can fix the depression and say, “Well come hang out and that’ll make you feel better,” or, “Let’s go get ice cream/pizza,” or, “Why don’t we watch a movie/go for a walk/read a book/play some games,” or, “Just count your blessings!” or, “Do something productive like do chores or work on your new garden!” or, or, or – what you’re saying is, “Here, put on this sweater.”

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I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream…For Torture!

This one’s a huge pet peeve of mine. You have your hero in the terrifying dungeon of the bad guys, and they come in and do some horrible things to him/her, and…

The hero, being a Super Tough Guy ™ – you know what this is a way bigger problem when the hero is a guy so – the hero, being a super tough guy, “refuses to give [villain] satisfaction” and stays quiet. The big bonus round is if they also don’t do much – no (or little) flinching, gritting of teeth, clenching of fists, curling of toes, squeezing their eyes, etc…which makes ME grit MY teeth, clench my fists, flinch, and even howl out in pain.

That’s because reading about another stupid hero who won’t scream for torture is torture to ME.

Yeah see unless your dude or dudette (but again a big problem with the macho heroes) is SPECIFICALLY TRAINED to handle extreme duress with a poker face, he darn well better be screaming his face off when the villain is trying to rip it off. Because you know what? Pain hurts. A frickton. We should all be pretty familiar with this, because:

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I mean it’s a great many other things too, but it’s feeling, and sensation, and a lot of those feelings and sensations are painful. That’s an essential part of life.

And when you get hurt, you react.

Look, I know how we all wanna be tough and we look up to the cool guys who CAN tough it out. Well, honestly, I mostly want to whine when I’m in pain, if it’s moderate or worse. But it is true that I want to mitigate my reactions as much as possible when I’m doing something medical. If I’m getting a shot, I try really, really hard to be a Big Girl ™ and just take it, no reaction. And you know, aside from a slight flinch in the face, I usually do.

I might have mentioned that I am quite familiar with all sorts of degrees of pain. You know what else I learned from all those experiences besides how to describe pain? That you don’t sit still when it happens, no matter how much you want to be a Big Girl ™. You just don’t. When you get hurt really, really badly, beyond your ability to cope with the pain, you writhe around in pain screaming and crying and wishing for death.

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I mean writhing and screaming so loudly the country could hear it was good enough for Wesley and we all still think he’s a Cool Tough Guy ™

But okay, you want your hero to be the big tough guy. What does So Wimpy And Little She Can’t Even Donate Blood® know? Let me make the case that you DO make him tougher by having him react, and you also make your villain stronger, too.

Your hero is a cardboard cut-out without human reactions.

Unless your hero has established training to prevent reaction to pain – and I don’t mean a lot of experience with pain, because lots of exposure to horrific occurences just means you get hurt a lot, I mean actual training – if he fails to react to what is happening to him, it must be because he can’t actually feel anything because he’s made out of cardboard. You diminish the humanity of your hero. Real breathing living thinking feeling sentient beings react, at least a little, to pain. If your hero doesn’t, he must not be a real breathing living thinking feeling and/or sentient being, ergo he is cardboard.

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Cardboard, or something like this.

Your villain comes off as incompetent.

If your character is usually not cardboard, his brick-strong lack of reaction makes the PAIN not real. I mean if he can withstand it so totally, it must not actually hurt that much.  If you are literally describing what is happening to him, that creates dissonance. It doesn’t sound so much like the intestines they’re ripping out hurt a ton but your hero is just so tough it’s whatever – it sounds like maybe the villain is so incompetent he can’t make evisceration hurt. So – either your hero is cardboard, or your villain is a loser who can’t even torture someone right, or both. Don’t forget – it hurts your hero if your villain sucks, so everyone loses.

The reader cannot relate to your hero’s pain if he isn’t feeling any.

It’s going to make it hard for the reader to sympathize with what is happening to your hero if you tell them but don’t show them – I mean, you’ll still get a good flinch when you say, “metal hooks through his eyelids held his eyes open” (Props to Andrew Whittaker, that was a fun chapter to read) but then things get weird if dude is just sitting there like his eyelids held open with hooks is nbd. (He’s so informal about it he’s using chatspeak, you see.) I’m going to relate a lot more to him if he’s more like, “aaaaaaah there are hooks in my eyelids aaaaaaah my eyes and my eyelids hurt so badly aaaaaaah!”

Choosing smaller reactions is more likely to make your hero seem tough than none at all.

Choose what responses he displays wisely. When I’m undergoing torture (it’s usually called a pelvic exam, but I have a medical condition that makes it torture instead), I’m dealing with a doctor and therefore trying really, really hard to just lay still until the doctor is done. But it hurts enough that I can’t help but squirm, grasp at the…chair thingie doctors have, grind my teeth, and sometimes, with a particular jolt of pain, a little whine slips through. This is me at my bravest, toughest, most determined to not show that all that’s on my mind is, “frick frick frick omg stop holy heck are you done make it stop frick frick frick frick.” Or possibly swearing, I’ll never tell.

So consider full body movement, like writhing, squirming, trembling; single areas of the body like the hands, jaw/teeth, eyes; breathing patterns, like sharp intakes of breath or panting; noises from screaming to weeping to groaning. If your hero is Big Tough Guy ™, maybe he might say the boring mantra of, “I won’t scream, I won’t scream.” And maybe he won’t. But maybe he’s trembling so badly that now he’s straining his own muscles in protest to the pain as he tries to hold in that scream. Maybe he’s flexing his fingers as he holds back the tears. And maybe it’s been going on so long that his mind is shattering and the reaction is psychological and a modicum of insanity – though I’m gonna say you should probably include major physical reactions if you aren’t going full focus on the mental.

One last thing – these moments of torture between villain and hero are, in their own way, intimate; it builds a specific type of relationship between the two. If you were writing a romantic scene instead of a torture one, and the hero just sat there like a brick to all of the villain’s ministrations, that would really ruin the scene, and put a big block between any developments that ought to be happening – or crush some serious credibility for developments that happen anyway. I mean, if the hero, after bricking it through a romantic moment with the villain, comes to them later and says something like, “that was great, I’ve never felt this way before,” I’m not really going to buy it. It’s no different when the hero bricks it through torture and then bellows, “I hate you for all you’ve done to me!” or whatever. It’s just not as strong.

Torture is, in its own right, an intimate thing.

Blag Magazine

That’s why sleazy magazines could TOTALLy be villain mags if you just change the picture in the middle from some photoshopped female to a belted up guy whose feet I didn’t want to draw. I guess the difference between “sleazy magazine” and “evil magazine” is consent.

So take the time to do it right if you’re going to do it at all. Make the villain competent. Make the hero human. Make the scene actually matter.

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