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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Superheroes Cause Supervillains

The city of New York is experiencing an average day. Average because it’s normal people doing normal things, as has been the case ever since New York’s conception. Somewhere within, a nerdy boy is on a science field trip in some labs when a curious spider bites him. He gains “fantastic” powers – I personally would probably kill myself if I started to become spider-like – and days later, he has equally fantastic – or should we say sinister – enemies to fight. It’s after Parker’s mishap with a spider that mishaps create a goblin of a particular color, or a fellow with four extra limbs and a vengeance, or a man made of sand.

Good thing the guy who uses his powers for good happened first, right? I mean, can you imagine how screwed first New York and then The World would be otherwise?

Hey remember in The Incredibles how there were totally supervillains at the beginning of the movie

and then the improbable lawsuits happened and all of superheroes were rejected by the common folk to the point that the heroes were all forced into hiding and the supervillains, no longer opposed by powers equal to their own, laid utter waste to the city?

Yeah I don’t remember that part either. No one really says what happened to them; they all sort of just disappear. Sure, there’s a brewing supervillain and that’s the whole plot and everything, but not only is it not quite the same thing, but it doesn’t really prove me wrong.

Just remember that Syndrome WAS this kid.

It’s all Mr. Incredible’s fault that Syndrome was ever a thing, undeniably so. You want to argue with me about how you can’t blame Mr. Incredible? Batman and Robin the boy wonder your argument is invalid.

What about at the end of the movie? Superheroes are back in style and the very next day someone comes popping up.

Literally.

Where were these craptastic villains before? Why always are Krypton prisoners landing on Earth after the escape pod has landed and the child inside grown and prepared to be a ridiculously OP superhero? What about Ultron – built by Stark or Pym depending on the version you prefer?

Back when Megamind was first released, I was excited to see it because it was a story from the villain’s perspective. I was excited to see a superhero story about the rise of the villain, his struggle, his goals without the taint of morals making him look like a crackpot. That’s not what Megamind would up being about in the slightest and my first time watching it, I was really disappointed, although now that I know what the movie is about, it’s one of my favorites. And Megamind highlights my point because it addresses the true reason for the existence of supervillains.

Megamind is not an evil person. You see that as a youth, despite his interesting upbringing, he still wants to do good. His goals were to fit in. And the hero of the story – the hero, people, the hero! – is the one leading those mindless drones in their refusal to accept Megamind. Ultimately, Megamind chooses to be the hero once Buttface McPreppyPants gets out of the way and lets him do anything good. Megamind is a good guy and was clearly playing evil because that was the way to accomplish his one goal: to fit in. He fit in as a villain. He didn’t want to take over the world, he just wanted to fit in and fitting in meant playing evil and playing evil meant trying to take over Metrocity. If you didn’t just pronounce that meh-trah-city, you’re dead to me, by the way.

Once he got Metrocity, Megamind left his blue mark, did some hilarious things, stole the Ark of the Covenant, and had an existential crisis because he was no longer playing evil. He was being evil, because at this point, evil wasn’t a tool for fitting in because he didn’t fit anymore. Megamind thought that he needed opposition because it was the yin to his yang. That wasn’t it. He needed opposition because that was how he fit – he was a villain made to fight the hero, never actually evil. Once his evil became a career rather than a coping mechanism, he didn’t want to do it anymore. Or, more specifically, he wanted to go back to when he was just playing evil, never actually able to harm anyone because of the opposition.

What’s the point of being bad when there’s no good to stop you? What’s the point of being bad when there’s no good to stop you!? DO YOU EVEN VILLAIN, BRO?

And that’s the thing, folks. Super villains are not independent from superheroes. When you have someone who is invincible equipped with lasers, X-rays, speed, and good looks (y’know, if he’s your type), you can’t have a story of him running around with a pair of extremely diversionary glasses getting news stories. Boring. Boriiing. And you can’t tell a story about him flying around breathing on bad guys to stop them. It would not serve to entertain the masses to see some villain like myself running around doing evil only to shriek and surrender, sobbing, when some man with spider qualities approaches, web-slinging device at the ready. (“Please put the spider web down. I’ll go quietly. Don’t touch me. I swear to Satan’s second cousin I’ll go quietly if you don’t touch me. Actually why don’t you just bring the police here, I’ll collapse into a nervous wreak at the thought that you almost slung a giant spider web at me and sob hysterically while you’re gone.“) No, no, you can’t put ordinary people with major arachnophobia against your superhero! That’s boring! You have to make someone suitable. And if your superheroes all team up, you’re going to have to make a villain more stupid ridiculously OP than My Only Weakness Is An Alien Rock Earth Has No Reason To Possess. Like maybe Death’s Boyfriend with Bling.

Bling-a bling bling

Hey, in that post I linked to about how your villains need to be separate from your heroes, I said that your villains can’t be pins you set up just for your hero to knock down. But guess what? That’s exactly what supervillains are. In a lot of superhero stories, no supervillains existed before the superhero showed up. Their creation, their birth, is just to fill a necessary role. The best supervillains are those who are not so stilted because of this birth defect.

The backstory, the goals, the actual character himself, all fleshed out beautifully. He is a villain I truly enjoy.

The worst…well, I learned in my research for this post that Lex Luthor isn’t bald just ’cause he is, and his sole reason for villainy is because he’s bald.

Forty

It won’t bring your hair back, Lex.

Either way, supervillains exist so that superheroes have someone to fight and therefore, you see, superheroes cause supervillains.

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The RIP Word List

RIP

In my junior year as a high school student, I took what was one of the most challenging and educational classes of my life. You scoff, wondering what sort of pathetic college education I then must have had, but it was an AP class and therefore supposed to be college level – AP English 11. Anyone who was also a part of Mr. Adams’ class will probably shudder but grin in memory of it, and probably about half my best stories about my time in high school have to do with that class or Mr. Adams. Usually Adams himself.

One aspect of the class was that at the beginning of the year, Mr. Adams handed out a short list of words he called the RIP word list and it was called such because we were instructed to never, ever use any of the words on that list. They were dead to us, at least in AP English 11. It may seem as though a lot of the words aren’t a big deal. Some of them you obviously shouldn’t put into academic writing, so of course they’d be on that list.

Obviously “sweet”, “stuff”, and “thing” generally are not good words for an academic paper.

But remember that much of the essay writing was in AP style, so a time limit on reading the source material, a time limit on writing the essay. When you’re trying to write an essay and you’re more concerned about getting your ideas down than your word choice, and then you’re forced to stop and think about your word choice, writing an essay becomes a lot harder. And writing essays for that class was already really hard.

I never did get a 9, the highest score, on any of my essays. Although there was one that would have been a 9 if I hadn’t confused mangoes and papayas – the source used one fruit and I accidentally wrote the other.

I thought the list was torture. But I realize now why Mr. Adams did that to us. He was forcing us to think about what we were really trying to say. You can’t express your ideas properly without proper word choice. Compare,”There is something very bad about writing quickly without thought to word choice.” and “Writing a sentence where you are spitting out words that basically get your idea across rather than thinking carefully about what you are trying to express makes for weak writing because you lack strong word choice, conciseness, and specificity.”

Some of the words on the RIP list are hard for me to avoid and in casual conversation and writing, I don’t bother. You’ll notice I’ve broken RIP rules several times in this post, and that’s because I prefer for the style of my blog posts to be conversational, writing the way I’d say things if I was speaking to you face to face instead of writing to you. But for the final draft of my novel, I’ve emailed Adams for the list.

Some of them were not hard for me. Imprecise language, like “kind of” and “to some extent” were not hard for me to surrender. Well, the latter involved any surrendering, “kind of” was not a problem for me in academic writing. “Seems” was harder. But the point is, don’t write imprecisely. Was it or was it not? I would be lying if I said I never struggled with this in creative writing (just in my last writing group meeting, I had several sentences that used “it was like” or “as though” etc. that were marked) but that doesn’t change the fact that imprecise writing isn’t good writing.

Obviously, not every word on the list ought to be forbidden every time. I am specifically instructing you in this blog post; I am talking to you, so to ban ‘you’ if I were trying to obey would be foolish. It’s appropriate for me to say ‘you’ in this blog post, it is not in an academic essay. The novel I’m writing is in first person, and that person is on a quest with a group of others so yes, he’ll be saying ‘we’ frequently. It makes no sense for me to avoid saying ‘we’ in the story. That’s a correct, proper, and appropriate use of both of those words, however. And as for ‘really’, I did learn by the end of AP English 11 that ‘really’ isn’t forbidden if you mean ‘in actuality’ – it really is a word that’s not horrid if used appropriately. Even then, it’s of course possible to over-use the word; ‘in actuality’ really may still be weak compared to other words. Really is always problem if it’s ‘very much so’ – Adams really didn’t want to hear us use it that way for the same reason that ‘very’ and ‘extremely’ are problems.

dpsvery

…honestly one little aspect that is so attractive to me about my husband is his lexicon. His sexy, sexy lexicon. So listen to the man.

Say what you mean, exactly what you mean. Why is ‘it’ on the RIP list? ‘It’ is such a common word, it’s like banning ‘is’! The reason why ‘it’ is on the list is because ‘it’ is an incredibly non-specific word. Every time you begin a sentence with ‘it’, which by the by is the primary reason ‘it’ is on the list, there was more lenience if it wasn’t at the start, every time you begin a sentence with ‘it’ you start it with something unspecified. If I could, I’d just play sentence jenga until I’d rearranged the sentence so that it didn’t start with ‘it'; even that method made the sentence stronger. But oftentimes ‘it’ just had to start the sentence, no way around it, and I didn’t want to waste the time to think of a new sentence, so instead I was forced to think exactly what ‘it’ was. Maybe it was obvious what it was. Maybe the subject of my sentences should have merited more attention from myself, and that subject wasn’t obvious. Either way, the sentences were stronger when I spent the time to say exactly what I meant rather than slapping an ‘it’ on there.

Again, in creative writing, it’s going to be different. For one thing, it includes dialogue, more often than not. All people do not consistently speak in highly revised, concise speech upon opening their mouths; sometimes they start sentences with “it” and say “really bad” and “kind of makes”. Dialogue, yes, should be tight, but it should also be organic. In an essay, “good” and “bad” are like “really” – there could be exceptions to their use, but generally you’d want to avoid them. This is less true in creative writing, or at least it’s the exact same amount of true but the chances of your encountering an exception are so much higher that it’s no longer an exception. But this list still has its uses, and consider, when you’re writing, if your language couldn’t be stronger (the answer is always yes).

Maybe you’re the type who has thought of exception after exception to what I’m saying. That’s cool, I mean, the great thing about writing is we have all these rules and then we break the rules and it’s fabulous. But you can’t break the rules before you’ve mastered them. You won’t know when or how to break them. And while language is malleable, only a wordsmith is able to craft an object of beauty by bending it.

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Scars

Whenever scars are given, it seems to be something pretty important, maybe plot-important, or at least a significant mark. Generally speaking, writing advice is not to add something unless it’s important to the plot somehow so the fact that characters don’t have scars unless the scars are backstory or otherwise plot-relevant makes sense. However, I feel as though scars could be a very important way to pepper detail into a story.

You may think, as I thought about this earlier, “Well, not that many people have scars.” However, on considering this further, I think this is totally false. Just immediately, I recognized that I have two scars, my husband has about four or so, my dad and brother both have at least one, and my mother has at least two (three?) and a cap on one tooth. The only person in my immediate family, including myself, who definitely does not have a scar is about four months old.

Following up on this, I made a FB post asking who had scars and how they got them. There were a lot of replies and almost all who replied had at least two scars. The sources ranged from pock marks, mosquito bites, and acne to falling and furniture to mishaps with knives to a wolf bite. Seems like most people do have scars after all!

But why go to the extra effort? Well, scars aren’t like birthmarks: you got them from somewhere. And while a scars and birthmarks do have in common a unique marking on an individual, scars carry with them stories, and those stories often tell a little bit about who the bearer is, even when the source is really mundane. (As a side note, a birthmark can still bear interesting uniqueness beyond marking, even if not as useful as a scar; I have an oval birthmark on the back of one of my shoulders. When pressed, it tickle hurts and also feels kind of like a bruise. If that was part of a character, would that be an interesting fact or useless detail? Depends on how you use it. Maybe your character has an obnoxious younger brother who has to jab it every time he sees it. Maybe that’s too much. You decide.)

Consider the scars I mentioned earlier and what you learn from their backstories:
I have one scar on the underside of my chin from when I split it open on my knuckle in drama class in high school. I tried to do a cool jump kick with my hands behind my back, blacked out randomly, and was on the floor next thing I knew. My other scar is a long, ugly thing below my belly button from an emergency C section.

What did you just learn about me? Knowing I was in a drama class says a lot about my personality, especially because that wouldn’t be a required course. You can infer I probably really participated in the class judging by my active movements that led to the injury. If you haven’t come across any of my other posts where I talk about my pregnancy or baby, you now know I have a baby and that I know both how much labor and major surgery suck.

My mother’s ‘three?’ comes from the fact that both my brother and I were C sections, and I’m not sure if that’s one scar or two. Now that you know she also had a C section, you know a lot about how things went when I had my baby, since I had a mom who knew just what I was going through when things didn’t go as planned. I haven’t told you the whole scene but it’s probably easy to imagine if you’d care to do so. With just those two scars, a whole section on important-to-me backstory is filled in without much explanation.

My mom’s other scar is an invisible thing on her eyelid from when she sliced it open on a barbed wire fence in Paraguay on her mission.
You now know that she is (or at least was, although ‘is’ is correct) religious, likely of some Christian denomination since I’m pretty sure Christians are the most missionary-est people. You know she probably speaks Spanish, which she does. And learning that someone’s been to another country just oozes of stories and experiences; knowing which country allows for a certain flavor of those experiences, and even if you don’t know any other stories about her time in Paraguay, you can probably guess what a lot of them involved. Again, much backstory is colored in just from one simple scar.

Sometimes scars are more mundane, even if they should have a more interesting backstory. I met a guy in college with Inigo scars on his cheeks.

He did not introduce himself this way.

At one point, he volunteered the information that his scars were from when his older brother (whom I also knew) tried to close a pair of scissors on his face when he was a baby. Is that as interesting as losing a duel to a six-fingered man who killed your father? You be the judge. It does speak volumes as to his family dynamic – and adds something when you know that the brothers are still friends. Also that his older brother once made me want to kick him down the stairs from my third-floor apartment for insulting my writing, although he later apologized.

Likewise, one of my husband’s scars, a small but jagged thing on the back of his hand, is from when he was at a concert of one of his brother’s and he had his hand on the armrest and his sister wanted to use it but instead of asking him to move his hand she just scratched him. Apparently badly enough to leave a pretty vivid scar. Interesting story? Maybe not, but again you know the family dynamic. You know he has at least two brothers now. You know he has a sister. And you know a bit more about his family, and their relationships. I think telling this little story about the scar is more interesting than outright saying, “My husband has two older brothers, a younger brother, and a sister who is the youngest” even if that’s shorter. All that does is tell you what siblings my husband has, and nothing about what their family was actually like. You know one of his brothers played an instrument, since they were at a concert, for example. Telling you a story about his life makes it feel real, instead of like some crappy gradeschool presentation.

What about plot scars? Do away with those? By no means! I think plot scars, so long as they aren’t stupid and/or badly cliche, are just fine. I mean, Inigo’s pretty cool, eh? But maybe consider scars as another way to reveal backstory. They don’t necessarily have to be present or even really visible – you can’t really see the scar on my chin anymore, not even if I’m looking up, nor the scar on my mom’s eye, nor the scar on the tip of my brother’s finger if you’re not paying attention – and therefore you can pull them out for the flavor and then forget about them. Everyone loves telling injury stories, even when they’re stupid and/or mundane, so why not your characters? Considering some of the dangerous or rough lives characters tend to lead, and how scarred we mundane folks become doing nothing, your characters ought to have plenty of scars to share.

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The Face-Heel Turn

Because we can’t very well have one without the other, right? A heel-face turn is where a villain becomes a good guy; a face-heel turn is therefore where a good guy goes bad. A complete 180 bad.

One of the points I highlighted in the post about the heel-face turn is that these turns lend easily to black-and-white morality and that’s a problem because we don’t live in a world of black-and-white morality and neither should your characters. Life is never that simple and if you’re writing it as such, you’re being lazy. Of course, there’s a time and a place for your paladins and your monsters but if it’s all white or black, we have a problem.

Why might a good guy turn sour? Again, I think that you could think of reasons on your own, or just read the TV tropes page. There’s no need for me to repeat here, even if in more detail, although I’ll boil the reasons down for you later. And again, if your hero turns, it has to matter, it cannot merely be a simple erasing of alignment on a character sheet as the DM points out that you’re not chaotic neutral but “evil and a whore”.

It’s not a face-heel turn if the character was, in any capacity, always evil, however.

We’re talking about a complete change of personal philosophy here and something like that is hard to come by so make it count! Think about how hard it is to even change your own mind about something. Take your political stances, for example. Liberal, Republican, Libertarian, Two-Party Politics Are Stupid Screw Your Houses I’m My Own Thing – if you encounter someone who has pretty different views than yourself, and how likely you are to get them to change their mind, or they to change yours. Especially in this day of yelling at people on the internet where actual argument has mostly been lost (sigh). What’s your stance on abortion? Uh-huh, and how many arguments have you been in where the most convincing arguments about the person-state of a fetus, the rights and responsibilities of a woman, and whatever else were presented? And how many times have you left with the same view anyway? That’s a personal philosophy. It’s not easy to change.

Thus the problem of a face-heel turn – and a heel-face turn, yes, although I think because people usually at least want to be good, it’s easier to go good than bad unless what’s what is very unclear. Which, then again, it usually is. Either way, the idea is that a person is at least trying their hardest to be good and then decides they just don’t care anymore, for whatever reason, has a change of heart (it’s not a turn, either way, if there’s not a change of heart) and rides the opposite way.

So the reasons – you can boil them down to either the hero got tired and gave up or he was corrupted. The former reason has an excellent example in the idea that “you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain”:

I feel like I could make a joke here about a literal turning of face but maybe that would be rude.

Of course, just giving up is not quite right as that indicates, to use DnD terms, more of a slide from good or lawful to neutral. So make sure if you’re heroine is “just giving up” she’s “just giving up” all the way into actively doing wrong because what the hey. Who cares? No one’s good anyway. Or whatever.

There is one important aspect of turning evil I want to address that shows up in visual media and that’s the evil makeover. It’s that the evil makeover is really gimmicky and I hope that you don’t do it. Well, that’s not true: I hope you don’t do it stupidly, especially if we’re talking the most gimmicky of it all, the evil costume swap. It’s one thing if you have, I dunno, some little Catholic school girl who says “screw this” and wears  the clothes she’s always wanted to wear, the way a girl might actually do it.

I personally always felt like this was a betrayal of Sandy’s true self ; Danny’s cleaning up was kind of a thing through the whole movie and then Sandy does just do a face-heel, inasmuch as it’s possible in the smears of gray morality in the movie.

But putting your character into “evil clothes” just because you have to visually identify them as evil?

8-bit theatre, page 80: Princess Sarah helps Garland because he sucks at being evil. It’s funny, of course, but if it wasn’t lampshading it’d be a problem it wasn’t for her own amusement.

Just please…don’t. The only people I know who dress a certain way because “that’s how [X thing I want to be] dress” are people who don’t know how to actually BE X, and they’re often teenagers or clueless midlife-crises “old” folk. It’s shallow, and it’s really pathetic. Besides that, I think a lot of the clothes in which women find themselves stuck are really stupid.

Another thing I want to address is what, exactly, it means to go evil. If the character is trying, especially if they’re trying too hard, it’s not really going evil, is it? Going evil should be natural – again, it’s a change of heart, so it’s just letting go of things that mattered. Regardless of whether or not it’s giving up or becoming corrupted, barriers against evil acts are worn away all the same. Thievery? “Everyone steals so why does it matter, it’s about time I got what I wanted” and “To get what I want I have to steal and I’ve decided what I want is more important than anything else” – a giving up and a corruption example each – are both the same death of a value.

But remember that just because someone does a face-heel turn does not mean that they are now going to become the essence of everything bad. Because morality is not actually black and white, your character may decide he doesn’t care about not being a jerk, but still wouldn’t kill someone. Maybe he’ll eventually get to the point where he might kill someone, but getting to the point where you could kill is a pretty big leap. Your hero shouldn’t have been someone who was perfect at everything good so why in the name of Satan’s second cousin would they become perfectly evil with a turn? So when you do a face-heel, take careful note of just exactly what drove your character to this, how far-reaching and long-lasting the effects are, if he’s fallen and can’t get up or will continue to fall, and gauge carefully just what he will and will not do now that he’s evil. Going from decent enough of a guy (or better!) to an anything-goes bad guy without good enough reason is lazy.

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Veto Valentine’s Day; Replace it with a New Halloween

I hate Valentines’ Day. Hate it. People now ask me what right I have to hate Valentine’s Day since I’m married now and don’t have to worry about being alone. Here’s the thing: Valentine’s Day is a day about shaming singles and exploiting couples. As I understand it, not in my marriage but as I understand it in other relationships, Valentine’s Day can be a source of stress and damage to the relationship, so I really don’t see how it’s that much better for people in a relationship, either. “Oh, you’re not single? Now you’re obligated to buy stuff if you want to stay that way!”

Ugh.

Someone suggested to me we replace Valentine’s Day with a second Halloween. I agree. The main reason I agree is because Halloween is my favorite holiday ever. But if you don’t like Halloween – and now that I’ve lived in Provo, I actually know a lot of people who don’t, or who even hate Halloween – let me try to convince you to my side.

Valentine pro: discount chocolate day is the 15th of Feb.
New Halloween pro: *also* discount chocolate day the day after

Valentine pro: excuse to go out and do some nice date
New Halloween pro: also an excuse to go out – but there’s an opportunity to do something as cheap as free without the pressure of doing something potentially expensive like a fancy restaurant. Also while it’s an excuse to go out, there’d be less of an obligation to unless you have small children. It’s just less pressure all around with just as much fun!
Valentine rebuttal: But it’s not romanti-
Halloween rebuttal: I’m gonna cut you off there, Valentine. If we make Halloween II: The Electric Boogaloo themed less on wearing masks and leaving out candy to ward off the spirits of the dead (yay pagan tradition!) and more, I don’t know, somehow couple themed like couples fighting through the impending Zombie Apocalypse or whatever, it’s still romantic.

Valentine pro: …I’m, uh, running out of pros here. I’m trying really hard but…er, my husband will buy me flowers?
Halloween pro: Candy > flowers. Arguably, anyway. Look if you really want your husband to buy your flowers, you could probably just ask him to surprise you with flowers one day and he would. It isn’t as if he would say “no”. Looking for a holiday for your husband to buy you flowers is kind of lame.

Halloween pro: ANOTHER DAY OF COSTUMES! :D (What? I like dressing up. And not in the business formal sense.)

Halloween pro: Halloween parties tend to be way more fun than any sort of Valentine thing. Especially Singles Awareness parties which can become pity parties, even if that’s just a tiny subtext.

Halloween pro: Anyone of any age, gender, and relationship status can enjoy the day pretty equally.

So let’s start vetoing Valentine’s Day in favor of Halloween II: Surviving the Impending Apocalypse – Together Even in Death! Or whatever!

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The Heel-Face Turn

The Heel-Face Turn is a trope in which the villain becomes a good guy. Forewarning, there are about fifty million links on the Tv Tropes Heel-Face Turn page so if you go there the chances of getting sucked into a big wiki-walk are pretty high; all you really need to know about it, for the purposes of this post, is what I just said about it: it’s where the villain changes alignment in a nice 180. If you don’t know about the moral event horizon, you might look into it too as encountering but not crossing the moral event horizon will likely be an imperative part of your heel-face turn, although not necessarily. Either way it’s a useful trope to bear in mind as you read.

There are some pretty typical reasons as to why a villain may do a heel-face turn, and not only are they listed on the Tv Tropes page, but they’re also pretty obvious. You could probably think of them all on your own without even looking at the page. I want to talk about using the heel-face turn as more than just your cliche story – not that there’s anything inherently wrong with cliches, mind you, but a cliche used thoughtlessly is lazy writing so do take care.

The reasons for the heel-face turn can easily, and obviously, be boiled down to there being a problem with evil and/or a benefit to good great enough that the villain changed. However, I want you to consider that changing alignment is not actually a matter of the DM turning to you and saying, “Hey, I don’t think that “miscreant” fits your character any more.” (or perhaps, “true neutral” or any other alignment) and you agree, decide upon which alignment fits better, erase “miscreant” and pencil in “aberrant” (or “neutral good” or whatever). Because morality is a far bigger line of gray, gray, and gray. Which is hard for people, because a lot of us get stuck on black and white morality. The good guys eat their vegetables and dogs like them and they save orphans and princesses and pay their taxes. Or beat up the evil tax collector, whatever. And bad guys smoke and kick dogs and kidnap princesses and collect taxes. Except…people aren’t like that. Good guys sometimes tell lies. Sometimes good guys cheat. Sometimes they’re rude, or say hurtful things, or are prejudiced. And sometimes that tough biker guy with all the tattoos that are skulls with snakes crawling out the eyes on his bulging biceps is accompanying a young child to his trial where he’s going to witness against the sexually abusive adult in his life he’d otherwise be too afraid to confront. I apologize for the length of that sentence. People aren’t all bad or all good. There are some people who try really hard to be good, and they do a pretty swell job, and there are some people who try really hard to be good and they suck at it. A villain, I think, is generally someone who is more willing to do questionable things to get to his end, perhaps because he’s justified it with the belief he’s right.

So how then, on gray morality, do we get a heel-face turn? And how is it right?

Last things first: I personally believe that while there are many ways to execute a heel-face turn, what’s going to be best and most believable is if the villain has a true change of heart.

A literal change of heart? Up to you.

Friendship and the power of love are usually what cause the heel-face turn, but if you consider that an actual change of heart is needed, this makes sense for these are the things that change the heart.

I think the exception may be is if your villain is a really good guy who is just stupidly mistaken about what he ought to be doing, and the heroes or whoever manage to fully convince him that he’s on the wrong course, or he otherwise has a “crap I’m the bad guy, aren’t I?” moment. That, then, is a change of mind. But if you do this, if you do actually good all along, take great care to execute it carefully. If he was really a good guy the whole time how did he get there and how much evil doing did he do, if any, before he realized he was on the wrong side?

Celes from FF VI: She helped burn down a city in the name of her empire, but later when the water supply of a besieged castle was poisoned, she realized maybe this dishonorable Empire was not where she wanted her alliance. 

General Leo, same game: his turn came after Celes, when he was able to witness an ally of his outright murder-absorbing the espers. The horrors of war were one thing he could stomach – even if he tried to be honorable in his fighting – but when slapped in the face with his Empire’s evil intent, he put his foot down and his sword up.

If you want the heel-face turn to be poignant, you’re going to have to make it mean something. There has to be extreme emotional attachment to the turn, and/or it has to be very significant perhaps because it seemed so impossible or because of major character growth or dramatic plot twists perhaps unrelated to the turn itself. Consider this famous turn:

Father and son, together as they should be.

Vader was THE evil man. But the bonds between father and son won out and in the end this moment, this moment where they truly connect is meaningful, significant, because it’s so much more than just the prominent villain with his epic theme song deciding he doesn’t want to be evil anymore. Vader throwing Palpatine down the reactor shaft and dying by his son’s side, that’s his deciding that his son means more to him.

That’s what I think most heel-face turns should be – something more than just erasing an alignment on the character sheet.

As for gray morality, I think that Harry Potter is full of examples – a lot of you will cry Snape! Snape! But my personal jury’s still out on Snape. According to my husband, that’s a no: Snape never showed remorse for anything he ever did, except for telling Voldemort about the prophecy, and only because that resulted in Lily’s death. And he only switched sides because he came to hate Voldemort for killing the woman he loved. AND he didn’t seem to really change alignment, just sides. Is Snape evil? Eeeeh [/extended hand wobbling back and forth] let me get back to you on that. But we don’t need Snape for the examples; there’s Regulus Black, and he’s a great example! And he’s totally in the background. I mean, just understand this guy’s circumstance. He’s raised in a pureblood family that hates “mudbloods”. He joins the Death Eaters, a group that’s all about wizard supremacy. And yet when Voldemort nearly kills Kreacher – Kreacher! his house elf! – Regulus has a heel-face turn. And Sirius never knew. And they give Kreacher the fake locket and he’s so happy about it, you see a side of the elf you  never knew existed and that, that’s the poignant part of Regulus’ heel-face turn where you know there was goodness in him, even if he was born to a dubious family and raised to hate. And maybe he still thought wizards were superior, that purebloods were superior, but he still could tell that Voldemort was wrong and that he had to be stopped. Grindelwald may potentially have had a heel-face turn in the background as well, since he might have felt guilt for his evil deeds, and he certainly didn’t help Voldemort with the Deathly Hallows – perhaps not potent, especially since it’s so in the background, but great for deeper lore for Potterheads and rather plot critical.

Just remember that if someone makes a major change to their behavior, or beliefs, or motives, there has to be a really good reason for it. And when they make that change, it should be meaningful, potent, significant, something. It has to be a big deal. Maybe you’ve been leading up to it all along. Maybe there’s massive emotion tied to the change. Maybe it’s shocking and the whole plot hinges on it. But don’t use this trope idly because then it becomes a lazy cliche.

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STOP, DROP, AND ROLL!

Turns out that I draw mushroom clouds basically the same way I draw trees.

StopDropRoll

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