Monday, February 28, 2011

Omniscience and Omnibenevolence

The second variant of Omnipotence/Omniscience/Omnibenevolence is the latter two: Omniscience and Omnibenevolence.  This is somebody who is all-knowing and all-loving, but without power.  I find this the most curious and most tragic of the three characters.

The tragedy comes from the natural story of the character.  Somebody who is all-loving wants the absolute best things to happen for everybody - a noble and kind-hearted desire.  If that person is also all-knowing, then they know exactly how to make it happen and what the results will be.  But without the power to do so, that person is trapped.

I think of a character like this as a brilliant scientist.  All the knowledge in the world will not give him the materials needed to make that reverse-doomsday machine.  But that is what leads to the curiosity.

If you were all-knowing, then why couldn't you know how to obtain the power needed to do what you wanted?  All I can imagine is that not everything is possible.  Although we like to believe that everything can be accomplished with enough know-how (plenty of stories paint this picture), sometimes knowledge just isn't enough.

This person is endlessly frustrated, and fairly sad.  They are an embodiment of "so close, yet so far."

Omnipotence and Omniscience

In my previous post, I talked about Omnipotence, Omniscience, and Omnibenevolence.  These are three characteristics given to God.  Having all three would be pretty wonderful, but what if somebody only had two of them?

What is somebody is all-powerful and all-knowing, but didn't give a crap about you?  Well, it sure wouldn't be useful asking for help.  Sure, they could give you anything you wanted, and they would know exactly how it would turn out, but that doesn't mean you'll get it.

Genies or djinns are like this. They can grant any wish (almost) and know what the results will be, and unless you nailed your wording perfectly, you will get what you asked for, but not what you wanted.  Can you blame them for not caring?  They have unlimited power and knowledge, but are bound to serve stupid, greedy mortals.

Despite the annoyance or frustration of dealing with somebody like that, there is a certain sympathy for them, too.  Somebody with such capabilities would easily become bored with everything.  To be all-powerful means there is no challenge.  To be all-knowing means there is no mystery.  Existence would be nothing interesting forever.  Even if they were to start creating, manipulating, or destroying out of sheer boredom, there would still be no surprise because you know exactly how the result of that would be.

A scary creature in its power and ambivalence, but a tragic one, too.  Total writing fodder.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Omnipotence, Omniscience, and Omnibenevolence: Intro

I had a conversation about God once (I've actually had more than one, but I am thinking of a particular one).  In this conversation, it was mentioned that God has three notable qualities: omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence.

Omnipotence is being all-powerful.  One could create the universe itself, the materials within it, time, space, spacetime, people, mushrooms, and even cows.  When you've got omnipotence, you can do anything you darn well please.

Omniscience is being all-knowing.  This is also pretty self-explanatory, but think about the scope.  You know everything that is happening, has happened, and will happen.  You know every single person's thoughts, feelings, actions, why they are that way.  You know where every star and every planet will be, when they will line up, what will happen in that case, when stars will explode, and what planets are getting wiped out because of it.  You could not only tell if a flea farted, but you could tell which hair on which dog it was on when it happened.

Omnibenevolence is being all-loving, or all-caring.  This means that you want the absolute best to happen to every single thing in the universe.  No matter what somebody has done (to themselves, to others, or to you), you love everybody. You love them all equally.  This is unconditional love taken to the super extreme.

The combination of these three qualities makes for one heck of a being.  It kind of borders on being a Mary Sue how great it would be.  But that's when I wondered, what would it be like if somebody had two of those three qualities?  No matter what you chose, you would make one seriously messed up being.

In the next several entries, I will explore those combinations, what they could come up with, and what it would be like to have them interact with each other.  It's gonna be some good stuff.  Stick around.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Lie Of Education

I've written before about a few different kinds of lies: Convenience, Malice, and Protection.  This is another addition to the collection.  The entry, as I have it written in my notes, is: "The Lie of Education.  You tell somebody a lie, so that as a result they come to realize a truth."

Your friend is having trouble with his girlfriend.  They bicker over so many little things every time you see them.  Your friend is getting frustrated, and continues to make googly eyes at another, attractive woman.  You happen to know that the attractive woman is dumb as a brick and as pleasant as a rabid squirrel.  However, you tell your friend that he should go on a break with his girlfriend and go out with the attractive woman.  Shortly after following your advice, your friend goes nuts because the attractive woman is so terrible to him.  The fights are 10 times worse and about far more insignificant and unintelligible things.  Because of you, he has realized that his current girlfriend is actually quite a catch and that the little things can be worked on and are far more tolerable.

That is a lie of education.  It is a technique usually reserved for the old and wise.  Partly because it is a dangerous one to do.  When you tell somebody a lie and send them on their way, you can't guarantee what's going to happen.  The best you can do is know the person so thoroughly well, as well as everybody else involved, that you can accurately predict what will happen.  Again, usually a skill reserved by the old and wise.  But even then, there is no way to account for everything out of your control (other people, acts of nature, mechanical failures, etc.)

The nice thing about the lie of education is that there are a number of ways you can use it.  Play it straight and have somebody learn a lesson the hard way.  It could be because it was the only way they would learn.  It could also be because the liar was just a jerk.  You can twist the classic story and make some unintended things occur.  Maybe the whole plan falls apart.  Maybe somebody learns a lesson even better than the intended one.  Maybe somebody learns a lesson completely contrary to the intended one.

As usual, the best examples come from life.  Have you ever tried to teach somebody a lesson?  Ever try to trick somebody into learning a lesson?  Ever have your plan totally explode in your face?  If so, write about it.  If not, make it up, then write about it.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Sometimes, Cheating Works

The best way to make really good writing is hard work, dedication, learning, and growing as a person and as a writer.  The fastest way to make really good writing is to cheat.

Cheating does not mean stealing.  Cheating means using shortcuts and tricks to replace brute force.  Creating ideas from nothing is difficult.  Sure, there are ways to find inspiration or to take the mundane and make it compelling, but it's a heck of a lot easier to simply not try to create ideas from nothing.

Talk with your friends.  Spit ideas back and forth.  Share writing with each other.  Swap stories and use that as the inspiration.

If you shirk the hard work, you may find yourself in a corner.  When you depend on others to help you create, you will be stuck when you're all alone.  Learning how to be independent means you will be able to be a writer anywhere, at any time, regardless of any other circumstances.

But as long as you are aware of what you are missing out on, you are free and clear to use the shortcuts.  People are not in short supply (although the finer ones do seem to have busier lives), so go ahead and let them help you create.  It's easy, fun, and still rewarding.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Writing Is Like Cooking

I read my friend Whitney's latest blog post, about a meatless skillet meal that tastes good.  It reminded me that buried in my list of blog post ideas was "Writing is like cooking."  So that's the one I'm doing tonight.

I don't often cook, but I do love to assemble.  Something about thawing a frozen steak and putting it on a pan or grill for the right amount of time at the right heat, and flipping it at appropriate times to prevent burning it does nothing for me.  But if you hand me a cooked steak and table full of spices, sauces, and other fixings and condiments, I would make the tastiest steak dinner you ever did have.

I do not sit around and think about what meal I would like to make, then go out and get the ingredients to make it.  What I do is keep my kitchen stocked and look at the ingredients I have, and figure out how to use what is already there to make a tasty meal.

Sometimes, though, I would rather fix a bland dish than make an exciting dish from nothing.  I may not think that I want a barley soup with a hefty dose of rosemary and lemon pepper, but if I try a bland, watery soup, I will add barley for thickness and hearty flavor, lemon pepper to add some zing, and rosemary to take the edge off.  The spices made perfect sense because they solved a problem instead of simply trying to create a particular flavor.

Writing works in all of these ways.  I cannot always come up with great lines of writing.  But if I have words and sentences already in front of me, I can arrange them in an interesting manner.  I cannot pull a story out of thin air, then pull the words to perfectly tell hat story.  But I do record the thoughts I have and take stock of those ideas.  When a particular idea looks tantalizing, that's the one I choose to write.  And, always, editing is just plain easier.  When somebody has already laid a foundation, even if it is a very bland one, I can fix it very easily.  But if I tried to create from scratch the piece of writing I was making by revising or editing, it would take me 10-100 times as long.

This analogy may not work for everybody, but it does work for me.  Creativity is creativity.  Whether I am building a meal or building a story, it all comes down to knowing what blends well, what makes good contrasts, and how to make it all go down smooth.  When I have trouble understanding writing, using an analogy sometimes helps.  If writing is like cooking, then I can understand why my writing doesn't work by finding the cooking equivalent.  If I can fix one, I can fix the other.

What is writing like to you?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Cost-Benefit Analysis Part 2

Yesterday I talked about cost-benefit analysis and how it leads people to make decisions in life.  It leads us to make all of our decisions.  Well, it does when we are rational enough to think about it.  This is a tool, and like any other tool, it is only useful when we think to use it.

Sometimes we just don't think.  Sometimes we act instinctively or subconsciously.  It could be that there is not enough time to make a rational decision, or it could be that a person was in such an emotional state that they were unable to take a step back and think things through.

Writing is a planned activity, and the results of it are a crafted work.  Characters say the things that people wish they were clever enough to say off the cuff.  Actions and reactions and interactions all nicely fall together to make an incredible set of circumstances. But real life is just not planned like that.  Incredibly weird, coincidental things do occur, and people can be pretty witty at times, but we largely don't think things through or plan things well.

If you want to capture humanity, you have to see them throw cost-benefit analysis to the wind.  They do something, not because they have determined it is the right thing to do, but because the basest instinct told them it was the thing to do.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Cost-Benefit Analysis

I learned about the term 'cost-benefit analysis' from business.  In short, when faced with a problem that has multiple possible ways to handle it, you measure the costs of the action and its results, and you weigh them against the benefits.

If you make cars and one of your models has a serious defect in it, you can either do a recall or you can leave it be.  Recalls are expensive, but they avoid the lawsuits that the defects could result in.  Lawsuits are expensive, but only if enough people sue you.  Both of them will result in negative press, but doing a factory recall is far less damaging than a news report of a baby getting killed because of a defect.  So you need to weigh out which will cost more, in time, effort, image, materials, and everything else, and see which has the lowest cost.

Really, though, that's something we all do, all the time (I hope).  I need to take a shower, but I only have 15 minutes to get to work.  Showering makes me smell good, but makes me late.  Leaving now makes me on time, but stinky.  You could compromise by scrubbing yourself with soap and water and putting on some kind of deodorant, which will make you less late and less stinky.  Three options are all viable, all have costs and benefits.  You have to decide how late you can afford to be and how stinky you can afford to be at work.

The choice we make depends on our opinions on the situation, which can cause some serious surprises in our stories.  When a character has to make a choice, they may not make the same choice you did.  Saving the bad guy's life is a strange twist to many.  But for some people, letting the bad guy fall to his death may be the surprise.  The difference is which one you would choose.

In that note, you can't choose whether your audience will agree or disagree, but if you present a compelling enough scenario, they will have a reaction no matter what.  And that's what matters more.

Quantifiable Suck

A lot of things in life suck.  Not everything sucks the same amount, though.  If all of your friends want to hang out with you on the same night, but it is the one night you want to relax by yourself, that may suck, but not nearly as bad as getting stuck in traffic when you're in a rush.  If you get stuck in traffic when you're in a rush, its level of suck pales in comparison to getting your leg amputated.

There are quantifiable levels of suck.  Some things are minor inconveniences; they only suck because things did not go exactly how you planned or desired, but by the next day you will have forgotten about it.  Some things are major inconveniences: your car breaking down, getting into a crash with another person, or losing your job (or, god help you, all three); they can take considerable amounts of time or money (or both).

Some things are more than inconvenient.  When somebody is gone forever, that sucks much more.  You don't wake up the next month and forget about it; you don't wake up three months later and forget about it, either. 

Getting your leg amputated is a thoroughly life-changing event.  You may get a prosthetic replacement, and it could even be better than your old one, but you will never have the legs you were born with again.  Your very being is permanently changed.  No matter what kind of positive spin you put on it, or how long you live with and grow to accept it, losing your leg sucks.  And it sucks a lot more than somebody screwing up your order at a restaurant.

Stories are pretty much about things that happen that suck.  Stories where nothing sucky happens are uninteresting.  But the level of suck that a story deals with is very variable.  The higher levels are more serious business.  How serious do you want your story to be?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Writing: Where You Can Say Whatever You Want

How many times did somebody set you up for the perfect joke?  How many times was it somebody who has no sense of humor?  How many times did you have the perfect insult, perfect comeback, perfect anything to say, but you had to bite your tongue?  If you happen to be me, it's a good chunk of the time.

Real life kinda sucks in that way. There's, like, consequences to your actions.  In writing, there aren't.  Well, there are still consequences to one's actions, but they don't affect you.  That's why it is such a glorious realm of escapist fantasy.  You can suddenly say everything you want, do everything you want, get it out of your system, get it out of your head, and in the least destructive manner possible.

When you use writing as escapism, you can make something entertaining, but you could also make Mary Sue drivel.  They difference between the two is consequences.  Even if you personally don't suffer consequences for the things that happen in your story, the characters themselves do.  Good writing deals with those consequences; lousy writing avoids them.

There's a reason you don't say whatever you want in real life.  You don't want to deal with the results.  In writing, you still have to deal with those results, but you can do it safely.  You can explore what might happen without having to experience them yourself.  That is the freedom writing grants you.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Personal Style

There are a few conventions of standard written English that I knowingly and willingly ignore.  One of them is that I will not put punctuation inside of quotation marks unless it is part of what I am quoting (although that actually is a convention in everywhere that isn't America).  Another is that I capitalize every word in my titles.  It's not that I don't know the rules; I simply don't care about them.  If I was writing a book, I may care about capitalizing in the conventional way, but for my blog posts, I don't like the way it looks.  They are short and sit right on top of the body text, so I like them to greatly stand out.

Although it is helpful and important to learn the standard conventions of writing, it is also important to develop your own style.  The fact that there are three common and equally accepted versions of written English means that there is no single right way.  Find the way that is right for you.

If you don't have a style, don't worry about it.  Do what you know.  I have only broken from conventions because I disagreed with them.  I think it's stupid to put a question mark inside of quotation marks because the sentence was a question, despite the fact that the quote was a statement.  It's confusing.

Your style of writing is all about how you choose to express yourself.  It's about how you use the written language to convey your ideas.  Commonly, we think of it as word choice and sentence structure.  These are definitely valid, but there is more possible.  Sometimes you will have to break conventions to make your style work.  But when you realize that you have to do it, you will know that your style means something, and that it matters.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Hope Is For The Future

Sometimes the world around you kinda sucks.  You hate your job (or don't have one), the people around you are downers (assuming you have any people around you), or for whatever other reason, you're just not happy.  In this situation, you have two basic outcomes: things will continue to suck, or things will get better.

If you believe that things will get better, then you have hope. Hope is a pretty cool thing.  It allows us to keep on going, doing things we don't enjoy, even without concrete proof that it will make things better.  Sometimes the world doesn't give us proof that things will get better, so being able to hold out even without a promise can be beneficial.

The one catch with hope is that it only affects the future.  If the world around you sucks, no amount of hope will make it not suck.  The best it can do is make those sucky things not bother you so much.  They can, however, go away over time.

Hoping to write a great work will not make your current piece of writing great.  However, it may give you enough confidence and motivation to get over your hangups and make something good.  Hope allows us to access the mind-over-matter superpowers we are capable of.

Although hope does not make our present moment any different, it can affect our future almost immediately.  What do you have hope for, and what does it allow you to do?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


I started wearing a watch again.  I haven't worn a watch in about 10 years, and today was the first day.  Honestly, it wasn't too bad.  It showed the time, showed the number day, and glows in the dark.  It fit comfortably on my wrist without being too tight or too loose.  I'll try it again to see how I like it tomorrow.

Something struck me about it, though.  This thing only tells time.  I'm taking up valuable body real estate to wear this device that only does one thing.  Sure, there are some watches that have calculators or alarms on them, but at the very most, it's a drop of water in the ocean compared to what a cell phone can do now.  Who in their right mind would use such a thoroughly limited device?

I'm not going to pretend that there are zero benefits to a watch.  The time can be viewed instantly, anywhere.  No looking for clocks, no pulling out your phone to see it.  The other reality is that I'm not really using my wrist for anything else, so giving up the real estate is not a huge concern.  Still, though, the fact that it only does one thing bothers me.

I think of writing the same way.  Sure, you can write a piece that does one thing, but it's usually unsatisfying.  You write something that is funny (like slapstick comedy), or you write about the sights you saw on your summer vacation, and those things my entertain or they may inform, but that's it.

Try to make your writing multifunctional.  Can you entertain and educate?  Can you tell a story about friendship that also teaches us about racial sensitivity?  Can you tell a sweet story about a dinosaur's life while also teaching us contemporary archaeological theory?

The more your writing can do, the more fulfilling it is for your audience.  And, the ultimate in multifunctionality success: Can you fulfill your audience and also fulfill yourself?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Writing Is About People

More often than not, I am writing about people.  Things we think, see, do, etc.  Although this is a blog about writing, I am rarely talking about very technical aspects of writing.  I do this for two reasons.

1. It is a thinly-veiled pretense by which I can write about my thoughts and experiences, but still fit it in my blog's guidelines of being about writing.

2. Writing is all about people!

Point number two kind of overrides point number one.  Writing is absolutely all about people.  Characters in stories are people.  Stories themselves are about the things people think, do, say, and the situations that people find themselves in, along with how they handle those situations.

Even if a story is not about people, there are still people involved: you.  The audience is people. A story affects an audience.  Therefore, as a writer, you must understand as much as you can about people so that you can affect your audience in exactly the way you wish.

My writing is done through the lens of life. That's why it says so under Cheff Salad.  And it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Learn About People From Their Problems

The best way to learn about somebody is conversation with them. (Well, the best way is to hire a private investigator, but this is the best way that doesn't make you a super creep.)  But in a regular pleasant conversation, you only get a small glimpse of who somebody is.  You see pleasant things, funny things, enjoyable things.  These are certainly real and a part of a person, but they are only part of that person.  You can still learn more about the other parts.

I tend to talk with people about their problems.  Part of the reason why is that I like to help people who want help.  The other part is that I like to learn about them.

In order to understand somebody's problems, you have to understand their life.  Who are the people in their lives?  What kind of relationships do these other people have?  How do they feel about each other?  What actions and interactions are going on among them?  What beliefs and philosophies do they have that makes them look at something as a problem?

The complex relationships and outlooks that we all have are part of what make us 3-dimensional characters.  If you want your created characters to be similarly real, they will need to have their own people and concerns in life.  Try learning about your characters from their problems.  Once you try to solve that person's problems, you're halfway done with your story.

Gone Forever

Death is a difficult subject in writing. (It's a difficult subject in real life, too, but for different reasons.)  It is a powerful experience, drenched in overwhelming emotions.  I've covered the subject before, so I will jump straight to the new content.

Part of what makes death so powerful is that it means somebody is gone forever.  Death is certainly the ultimate in gone forever, but it is not the only contender.  When your friend moves to another state, she's gone forever.  When your coworker gets fired from his job, he's gone forever.  It's not as severe for death, but you aren't going to see them again.  With technology, you can keep in touch, but it won't be in the same capacity.

When somebody is 'gone forever', you talk about them like they're dead.  You miss them.  You mourn their loss.  You aren't quite sure what to do with yourself.  The fact that you know they're not dead doesn't seem to take away the grief.

You can elicit a similar response in people that death does by finding some other way to make them gone forever.  You have two examples from me, what else can you come up with?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Wait Until It Happens To You

Two stories:

I started doing martial arts when I was 9 years old.  I did them continuously through college.  I had a conversation once with a yoga teacher, early in my college years.  He told me that he studied kendo for over a decade, but had gotten more out of yoga than martial arts ever gave him.  In my mind, I scoffed.  I couldn't imagine that a martial art, something that teaches your body how to move in order to accomplish something, could be less effective than a practice which uses the body not for that.  Some years after that, I stopped practicing martial arts, but I still wanted to move.  At that point, I realized that my desire was not in learning how to defeat another human being, but in gaining a mastery over the human body.  I understood why he followed yoga.

Early in my college years, I was taking my introductory courses in Professional Writing.  In them, we were reading a lot of advice like: Don't try to write a perfect first draft; write a quick and dirty first draft and fix all your problems with revision. (Yes, I'm bringing up this story again.)  Out loud, I scoffed.  I always edited as I wrote.  I always worked on issues and fixed problems along the way and it never hurt me, timewise.  I would lose more time trying to edit or revise a crappy draft (or writing four versions of it) than I would just making a great first draft.  Then I actually tried it the other way.  I flew through those drafts and rewrites.  I got over the anxiety I didn't realize I had.  I realized that fixing problems is way easier than creating from nothingness.

The point, stories aside, is that advice doesn't work the way we think it does.  It gives you something to think about, something to turn to.  It gives you an outreached hand when you fall on your face.  Advice is a joke until you need it.  Then it's the greatest lesson you ever learned (and wish that you learned it without having to fall on your face).

And I have no idea why I bothered to write this post.  You won't believe me until it happens to you.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Easier Said Than Done

It's so easy to say the things you're going to do. It's even easier to say the things you're thinking about wanting to do at some point in the indiscriminate future. Actually doing those things is noticeably harder.  Maybe that's why we have sayings like, "Talk is cheap."

Things really are easier said than done.  What we don't realize is that sometimes it's not that much easier.  The hardest part of actually doing something is starting.  It's about mustering the energy necessary to do something that you actually want to do.  It shouldn't be that hard, and once you try doing it, you find that it isn't.

We do have a tendency to wear ourselves out. We have energy, but we expend it elsewhere.  We may have the energy to talk about what we want to do, but not to sit in one spot, focus, and actually move our hands enough to record that speech.

Just as a little experiment, try keeping your mouth closed next time and letting your fingers do the talking.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Universe Is Bigger

During a recent writing session, I wrote a random piece about a cabin in the middle of nowhere, totally unfurnished, with no signs that it had ever been lived in or used.  For something I pulled out of nowhere, it was alright.  I don't consider it anything more than a writing exercise to get my mind started. However, I kept thinking about it.

Even though I created it, there was so much I didn't know about it, and I wanted to know what its deal was.  Who made it?  Why is it all alone?  Was it abandoned?  Were people abducted?

I realized that this little story was basically a piece of flash fiction, but it could be bigger.  By writing about its history and explaining how it became the way it is, I could turn it into a short story.  By detailing all of those events into a narrative, I could turn it into a novel. By zooming out into the world around the cabin and all of the other people who were affected similarly, I could create a series of novels.  By thoroughly examining the entirety of the world in which those stories take place, I could create an encyclopedia.

No matter what, you can tell more.  No matter how much of your world you do show, the universe is even bigger.  You can show even more, or something different. The same process works in reverse.  You could have a massive world and timeline that you create, but maybe the whole story that you want to share only is three sentences long.  It's ok if that happens.  You will always know more than your audience.  That's just the nature of creating the universe.


I made a post on Facebook about a week ago: "I want to create the word 'qizwix', specifically to be able to friggin' crush people in Scrabble. What should its definition be?"  I got two responses, but they were excellent.

"It should definitely be what happens when you burp and you had been drinking soda pop and it comes out your nose and makes it burn. There's got to be a name for that and qizwix sounds like a good one."

"It could be for a situation in which somebody lies either out of malice or a joke and the lie turns out to be true, much to the embarrassment and chagrin of the liar."

I loved both of the answers.  Somehow, they both totally made sense.  They felt right.  Those situations both sounded like 'qizwix'.  If, in 5 years, 'qizwix' was in the dictionary, I would be proud.  Of course I would be proud that I invented a word, but I would also be proud to see a word gain acceptance because of defining a situation that was previously undescribed, and doing so because it sounded good.

I have said it before and I will say it again: language is alive.  It grows and evolves.  It cannot be chained down.  Every generation will change its language, and it is no less real or fake than the version of the language it modifies.

In case you were wondering, 'qizwix' is pronounced like chizz-wicks.  How would you define it?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Characters vs. Caricatures

Almost every movie based on a Saturday Night Live sketch is horrible.  Some are better than others, as do some have cult followings, but by and large, they're not that funny.  You can't make a movie based on a sketch.  They're different beasts using different tools.

Movies need characters.  Characters are full people.  They are whole, three-dimensional, fleshed-out people.  What you see in comedy sketches are caricatures.  Those are absurd, cartoonish, inhuman people.

The main character from It's Pat is one-dimensional.  It is an androgynous person whose gender people try to guess, but get frustrated when their indirect questions get unhelpful answers.  It was funny enough for people to enjoy the several sketches made.  But when it was made into a movie, it was a miserable failure.

Pat is not a full person.  Pat is a joke.  Trying to go from 5 minutes worth of air time to 77 minutes worth of screen time meant creating a lot of scenes that didn't fit and a lot of characterization that undermined what the audience was used to.  When the movie did show the classic Pat jokes, they ended up giving too much of them, and the context (being part of a story instead of being a random sketch that ends as abruptly as it starts) affects the reception.

Caricatures are not bad.  They are different.  Caricatures are useful when you want to tell a joke.  They're useful when you want to illustrate a point.  They're useful when you need a generic human body of little-to-no importance.  They are not useful when you are trying to tell a story about people.

Characters are also tools.  There are times when you really do want fully-realized people.  There are times when that level of effort would be wasted (like making sketch comedy).

Know what you need, whether it be characters or caricatures.  Then use them.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Sneak Education

I find it interesting that lyrics often seem like an excuse to sing.  People can't sing "doot doot daa" without sounding like an idiot.  But when you make them actual words, it's totally fine.  In contemporary music, it is very rare to have a song without lyrics.  They're basically a prerequisite.  But because of that, they have a subtle power.

It's plenty easy to ignore the lyrics of songs.  They're just fluff to allow one of the musicians to sing a melody.  But, as it turns out, lyrics express thoughts and opinions, just like any other form of writing.  And sometimes the thoughts and opinions expressed are serious ones.  They can talk about civil rights, world views, personal responsibilities.

People are quoting music lyrics constantly.  They're on status messages, tattoos, shirts, tombstones.  Pretty much, anywhere you can put text, there are song lyrics.  People really care about them.  They mean a lot to people.  People live their lives by song lyrics.  People can change their lives because of song lyrics.  People can change the world because of song lyrics.

If you are writing something popular, you can sneak in some education and deep thoughts without people realizing.  You can discuss serious matters without the common sentiment of it being stupid or boring.  If you were writing something so powerful and so readily accepted, what kind of sneak education would you give your readers?

Hollow Victories

Your friend tells you that she can't cry.  Sounds like a challenge.  If not, it definitely sounds like a lofty claim.  You're curious to see if it's true.  And if not, how far can she be pushed?  Slowly but surely, you start pushing the envelope, seeing exactly how far you can go.

Finally, you succeed.  In just the right conditions, you say just the right things, and your friend starts crying her little eyes out.  You won.  Congratulations.  You made your friend cry.

Kind of a hollow victory, there.  You won, but you also lost.  You defeated the challenge, but what have you gained from it?

Writing is full of challenges.  Can you write a piece in a specific genre?  Can you particular character?  Can you realistically describe a certain scene?  Can you create a desired reaction from your audience?

With any luck, the answer to those questions is yes.  It's great if you can do all of those things.  Whether or not you should, though, becomes a different matter.  Not every challenge is equally useful.  Consider what the benefits of a given challenge are before agreeing to it.  If not, you may end up causing a lot more harm than good.

YOU Understand What You're Saying

Have you ever tried explaining something to a person and, when you finished, only got a blank, confused look in return?  What happened?  Why didn't they understand what you said?  After all, you understood what you said.

Sometimes, the problem is exactly that: you already understand exactly what you are trying to say.  You will take shortcuts.  You can use abbreviation or technical terminology.  You can talk about a process, but not realize that not everybody knows how that process works.  If somebody doesn't know how gentrification works, then telling somebody "and then gentrification takes care of the rest" means nothing to them.

You can't be anything less than thorough in your descriptions.  Thorough does not mean tedious, nor does it mean hair-splitting.  It means making sure that people understand exactly what you are trying to say to them.  Part of this is knowing your audience.  The other part is erring on the side of overexplaining.  Writing is communication.  If you are poorly communicating, you are poorly writing.  So don't do it.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Lie Of Protection

Some things we can learn from being told.  Lessons like, 'don't stick your hand in a fire' and 'don't jump off the roof' are pretty easy.  Most of us wouldn't do it anyway, but a simple verbal reminder will get the job done.  Some lessons are a little harder for us to learn.  "If it's too good to be true, it probably is."  How do you help somebody there?

Your friend is presented with an incredible opportunity.  You happen to know that it's a sham, but your friend is too dazzled to listen to reason.  But is your friend open to lies?  What if you said that the person offering the opportunity was a convicted felon who went to jail for pulling this stunt before?  You say that you looked him up and found a news article about him.  Your friend now avoids a potentially disastrous situation, but only because you did something generally accepted as bad.

The lie of protection is generally considered a naive act.  People need to learn things, and that happens from experience, not from being sheltered.  But people keep doing it because they don't want to see their loved ones get hurt.

Is it possible for somebody to lie in order to protect, but do so in a way that does not end up sheltering the protectee?  (I'll give you a hint: the answer is yes.  Tell me how, when you figure it out.)

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Lie Of Malice

I think about lying a lot, as do I mention it somewhat regularly here.  It's hard to avoid, since that's what fiction writing simply is.  But thinking about my post from yesterday, I realize that there are even more reasons one might lie.

Some people lie simply to harm others.  Some people are so twisted that they lie for the power.  They lie because it shows how much stronger they are.  When people believe your lies, they are sent into an alternate world where your lie becomes the truth.

The lie of malice is just that: malicious. People who do it are doing it not only to make themselves feel better, but to do so by hurting others.  Characters who do this make great pricks. Of course, that makes the far more interesting challenge to make such a liar compelling and loved.  Can you do it?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Lie Of Convenience

Most people lie because of fear.  People will not say what music or movies they like because they are afraid somebody else will ridicule or ostracize them for it.  People will not tell their boss how miserable they are because of the fear of being fired.  People will lie about the things they did because they are afraid of looking dull and boring.  I thought that all lies happened due to fear.  But I have realized that this is not the case.  Sometimes we lie for sheer convenience.

Suppose somebody asks you how to use a comma.  This is a question that has a very long answer that requires a lot of technical terms and jargon.  If the person who asked you then says, "you use a comma where you take a breath, right?"

The correct answer is "no".  The proper answer is, "It used to be that way, and it is still similar to that, but now there are formal rules on it."  But if you said "yeah" and sent that person on their way, you definitely lied, but it was not for fear;it was 100% for your convenience.

If your characters lied for convenience, it may be difficult for readers to tell without help.  A perfectly-executed lie cannot be distinguished from the truth, unless evidence is found to prove it wrong or the liar confesses.  If we aren't in on it, we may not get it.

Can you make your characters lie and have it not confuse the audience, without making it plainly obvious that it is a lie?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

"Adult" Conversations

There are subjects that we just don't discuss in polite company.  Stuff like, drugs, murder, and sex are major no nos. That's why we have to start using phrases like "no nos" to describe what we mean.  Taboo subjects, ironically are the subjects that bind us.  They are universally human.  They are subjects that ought to be discussed in storytelling.  The question is how.

When you talk about these things explicitly, they become pornographic.  When you use euphemisms to avoid it, you are Bowdlerizing.  So again, how do you avoid being licentious or pussyfooting?

I find the best thing to do is not care about it.  Make these things secondary.  Instead of a scene about characters having sex in an apartment, make the scene about the apartment, and the people having sex is simply one part of the scene as a whole.

Nothing is foolproof, though.  You cannot stop your audience from thinking what they will think.  Some people think that anything even remotely pertaining to sexuality is pornographic.  There's nothing you can do about them (unless you want to just completely avoid the subject forever).  But for everybody else, you can just act like a simple, rational adult, and treat the subject like you treat any other subject.