Tuesday, April 30, 2013

I Know Enough Words

I had the thought today that I don't know if I will learn any more words. Certainly, there may be slangs the come in and out of fashion, and new acronyms or proper names, but as far as regular vocabulary words, I feel like I've learned all the ones I'm going to use.

Part of me was saddened by this. My life isn't half over, and yet all my word learning is done. That's not fair.

After that, I realized that there are plenty of words I don't really know yet. Some I half know, but still have to look up. Other words, I don't at all know and have to discover. It seemed nice.

Ultimately, though, it's futile. My vocabulary as it already stands is isolating. If I were to learn new words , they would be useless because nobody else would know them.

In the end, I accept that there are more words to discover, but any new words I learn will be purely for my own edification. I know enough words to effectively communicate with people, and as a storyteller, that is of utmost importance. With that chapter of my studies largely complete, the next chapters unfold.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Taking Things Literally

I have been both complimented and condemned for being a very literal thinker. Some people are impressed at how I can use it to aid in creativity, and others are annoyed at how I take symbolism at face value.

In my mind, taking things literally is a useful tool. I find it an amusing game to take metaphors and analogies and imagining them as real events. For example, what if we lived in a modern world where people would actually stab each other in the back to get what they wanted (and it was socially acceptable)? What if lying increased our body temperature so much that extreme ones made people's pants combust?

Ideas come from my mind wandering about and probing thoughts like that. I find it always a fruitful venture for creative purposes.

If you find yourself not sure what to do or where a twist or turn might come from, try taking what characters say literally. Find a way to weave a common saying or a hyperbole and make it real. You should be able to get a pretty good surprise out of your audience, but more importantly, you can make your world all the richer.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Appreciate Unrealized Brilliance

Clever people are always clever. Whether they're having dinner with friends, posting stuff on the internet, or writing a magnum opus, people with natural wit will always be making jokes or having deep thoughts; they will always be observing.

These are the things that make life worth living. It's not enough to only be clever when you're on the clock. You should have as many laughs as possible, whether through jokes or puns or gags.

The tragedy is that most of this stuff will be lost to the ages. These things will be said and will vanish in the aether, or they'll be recorded somewhere, but lost or forgotten.

This is all the more reason to try and appreciate the unrealized brilliance that surrounds us. Appreciate those little quips, that stuff that makes us smirk and chuckle. They may not entertain the masses, but they made your life better.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

You Have To Know What's Possible

Knowledge is an important thing to have. Not all knowledge is equal, though. Knowing how to solve 4x-3=2/3x is of exceedingly limited value. Knowing how algebra works can be incredibly valuable.

There is great value in knowing the principles of information. Specifics can always be looked up, but the fundamental level of knowledge is necessary.

Simply put: you need to know what is possible.

Knowing what can and can't be explained with sciences, with maths, knowing how much information can be found by analyzing a stain on the ground or the contents of a trash can, these are all things that give us some semblance of the world.

There is so much out there that we don't know. But just because you specifically don't know something doesn't mean that it isn't known, or that it isn't knowable.

As a writer, there are some people just trying to poke holes in your story. When you make assumptions or when you ignore an easy solution to a problem, these people will lash out. Having more understanding of what is possible helps you keep them at bay.

Moreover, knowledge is inspirational. The more things you know, the more possibilities you are aware of, the more you have to play with in your creativity. And that will always lead to more interesting stories.

Friday, April 26, 2013

On Love Songs

Simply put, I hate love songs. They are the lamest kind of music. Every time I hear a love song on the radio, it ranges from obnoxious to infuriating.

Love songs all tell the same story, and that story is repugnant. The singers always say "I was nothing before you" and "I'm nothing without you" and "You're the best, most precious thing ever in all the world."

These stories may sound sweet or endearing if you are the object of that person's affection, but there are two problems. First, you are an OBJECT. The people who are sung about are not humans; they're idols. They are placed on pedestals and bequeathed magical powers. Second, the singers consider themselves worthless. They say that they are not worthy of the love they feel, yet somehow all they do is sing the praises of love instead of actually, you know, working on becoming a better person.

In reality, love songs (or love stories) do not have to be based on such a story. In fact, the song Invincible by Muse (which is arguably a love song) perfectly encapsulates the beauty of true love. In the first section of the song, the singer does say that the other person is truly special, but does it in an empowering way. He tells the person to do what they want because of being so strong. As it goes on, the singer says "us" and "let's". He shows that both people are involved, like in a partnership, and he expresses that the partnership is stronger than the individuals, culminating with the line, "Together, we're invincible."

This is a song of hope and strength, some of the best qualities of true love. If you are wanting to write a story (or a song) about people in love, try looking at love as a two-sided thing, where both of the people are real people, and not where there is a lowly peasant trying to appease a flawless god.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Your Tastes Will Change

The funny thing about taste is that we usually think of it as permanent. The things we like, we will always like. The things we hate are fundamentally awful, so they could never be anything else.

The funny thing about life is that the things we think will last forever usually don't. Sure enough, stories you hated become appealing, genres you loved grow stale, and you find yourself wanting to write the kinds of stories you once mocked others for reading.

Don't feel bad when your tastes change. Embrace it. After all, it's just a part of life, and life is funny. Jump head-first into whatever you're interested in, regardless of what you used to think, and regardless of what others may say (after all, they may one day love it as much as you do).

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

On Traditions

What makes something a tradition? Technically, it's just something that's done repeatedly. So why does one thing become traditional and others don't?

Historically, things become traditions because they work. If sticking an earthworm on my fishing hook attracts fish to bite it, I'm going to keep doing it. If putting tree branches on my hook doesn't work, I won't do it again.

The problem with traditions is they aren't perfect. Putting a worm on a hook may be better than nothing, but it might be worse than other baits. If you stick with what works, you may never find what works better. Or even just what works differently.

I write this post not because of fishing, but because of writing. (It totally does apply to fishing, though, as well as any other endeavor, too.) Why do we write novels the way we do - with chapters of certain lengths and paragraphs of certain lengths, and sentences of certain structures? These are not essential to the communicative ability the way spelling and punctuation are. These are stylistic. They certainly do work well; many novels have used this structure. But when we start assuming that novels have to be written in the traditional style, we miss out on so many possibilities, some of which may communicate far more effectively than the traditional style ever could.

Try different styles. Be experimental. See what works best for the story you want to tell. It may be the traditional style, and that's ok. It may be a non traditional style, and that's ok, too.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Company vs. Attention

The concepts of company and attention often get confused or lumped together. Though they are similar, they are also quite different.

Attention is active. People are looking at you; they're engaging you. Conversations and arguments, playing games, or just having other people paying attention while you perform, these are examples of attention.

Company, on the other hand, is passive. The heart of company is sharing space and time together. Two people can read different books in the same room at the same time and it would be company. So could watching a movie together. So would doing nothing while cuddling.

The embodiment of these two concepts are introverts and extroverts. Extroverts need attention. They are the life of the party, the entertainer on stage, the master of ceremonies. Introverts do not usually want to be alone, but they want the company of another person who matters to them. Even when doing separate things, they are together, and it is a comfort to them.

Attention usually needs company, and company can involve attention, but they are not the same. Treat them distinctively.

Monday, April 22, 2013


A churl is a person who is rude, mean, and generally unpleasant. It is actually an incredibly old word and can be traced back to Old English. Back then, though, it wasn't so negative.

Churls were commoners. They were the peasants, the working class. They were uneducated, and may have been perceived as crude by the royalty, but truly they were just regular people.

An interesting fact is that the name Carl actually comes from churl. The 'ch' sound was pronounced more like a 'k' sound, so German had the name Karl, which became Carl in America (as well as other languages like Carlos in Spanish). Similarly, Charles also comes from the same origin.

Though "churl" has fallen out of use, it is an interesting word to know. It's a fancy sounding word, and the origin of many fancy-sounding names, but it actually is a word talking of the low class.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Keep Organized

The only thing worse than not writing down a thought is writing it down and having no idea whatsoever where it is. When I take notes on a given subject, I like to keep them all together. Unfortunately, ideas come to me at all different times, so I don't always have the right papers with me to do that. I write down thoughts on the closest piece of paper, and I mean to transfer them as soon as I get to home base. But because I'm me, I often forget to or don't get around to consolidating all my notes.

It is very easy to lose track of paper scraps or even of where you saved a file to in your computer. Organization, though, is critical. Much as your written words require a certain order to make sense to a reader, so, too, does your personal space need order to remain a usable tool for doing work.

If you are the lackadaisical type, you may never feel that it's bad enough to need reorganizing, or even basic cleaning up, but trust me that the minutes, or even hours that you spend clearing out trash and putting like items together and giving each of them their own space will all be well worth it. Not only will you be more effective at being a writer, but your mind will feel uncluttered and free to do more than it did before.

It never ceases to amaze me how much a clean working space clears my mind, but invariably it does. Keep organized, and keep it up.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

You Need The Basics

I want to continue my thoughts from yesterday. I can express myself with the most common words, but I still have to know the most common words. If I recall correctly, the average person needs to know about 20,000 words to get by in life. Since communication is a two-way bridge, my audience still needs to know the most basic words which I am using, too. This is precisely why, no matter how good I may be at my craft, it means nothing to those who do not know English.

Similarly, although language can be isolating, it doesn't have to remain that way. If I can teach people new words and use them regularly enough for them to stick in people's minds, then any such word becomes a point of connection. I implore you to teach people your words instead of keeping them to yourself and lamenting being the only one that knows them.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Language Can Be Isolating

I know a lot of words. I know more words than most people. This should make me an excellent communicator, but that fact alone doesn't. In fact, knowing more words than most people hinders my communication at times.

Imagine if you hated reality TV shows so much that the only way you could describe them was to say "they are my anathema." People don't know what the hell an anathema is. The average person would think that Anna Thema is a character on a reality show.

Language can allow for a very rich means of communication, especially a language as colossal as English, but language can be isolating. The most important aspect of communication is that all parties are using the same tools to communicate. If you know words that the other person does, they're no use in communicating to them.

I think of myself as a communicator more than anything else. Therefore, I take great pride not so much in an extensive vocabulary, but in my ability to use words that people do know in such a way that they can feel the power I want to express. If you rely on finding the perfect words to express your intent, you are missing out on so much of the art of communication. A good communicator may know the word that says just what they mean, but a great communicator can say just what they mean with even the most common of words.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Verbiage N' Shit

An author's voice is often talked about, but is not always easy to see. Like, what makes something part of an author's voice? What isn't part of an author's voice? Does your voice determine what words you can and can't say? Does it determine how you have to construct your sentences?

The best answer I have is that your authorial voice is the collection of words, phrases, and structures that you most commonly use. For example, I always use lists of three. They have a certain rhythm that appeals to me. If I give a lengthy list of examples, it will not sound right coming from me because it will be inconsistent.

In general, then, your voice can only be determined and understood by having a prolonged experience with your writing. An unknown writer could have any voice.

The one exception is that there are certain classes that words belong to, and using words from different classes almost never sounds right. If anybody said, "I shall astound you with my verbiage n' shit", it would just be wrong. It might come off as hilarious or horrifying, or just plain weird, but in any case, it wouldn't be right. Those words and that phrasing simply do not work well together.

Although common advice to writers is to "find your voice", I would worry less about what that is and try more to find your comfort zone. Find a way to tell a story that people enjoy hearing. Find a pace and rhythm you are comfortable maintaining and collect words you enjoy using. Your "voice" will be a consequence of the development of your language and communication skills.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

What Are You Inspired To Do?

People will often ask rhetorically, "What inspires you?" It's not a bad question. Inspiration is a great thing. It stimulates the mind, which in turn stimulates the body. Inspiration is one of the main forces that makes people do anything. But what exactly are you inspired to do?

Not all inspiration is equal. Many things might inspire you, but inspire you to do completely different things. When I watch the Rocky movies, I feel inspired to work out and punch things really hard. When I watch Honey I Shrunk The Kids, I'm inspired to build Rube Goldberg machines.When I have a conversation with my writing friends, I'm inspired to do more writing.

What inspires me is people with motivation. Being around those who are doing things with enthusiasm, because they are awesome, makes me want to join in on the fun and do work of my own. Seeing people who have created things with their own hands inspires me to do the same, so that I might hold things of my own creation.

Before you start asking yourself what inspires you or what you are inspired to do, figure out what it is you actually want to do. From there, the other questions will help you succeed in that goal.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Your Projects Inform Your Other Projects

Let me start by saying something painfully obvious: experience informs your future. In other words, the lessons you learn now will help you do better in future endeavors. Basically, when your boyfriend or girlfriend breaks up with you because of your poor hygiene, you learn to get nice and clean before your next date.

Again, I know this is obvious. You can't even understand what experience or knowledge is without also understanding that concept. But let me take it a step further: Your projects inform your other projects.

Say, for example, you are writing a story that has an antagonist who cares only about his pet schnauzer. This could be a weird character for you to work with. You may have to study dog ownership, the kinds of bonds people in real life can have, and you may also look into mental illnesses where people lack empathy towards humanity.

You have done your research and it has helped you make a believable character. And because you have done this research, you also now have a far better understanding and some new ideas for a protagonist character of a completely unrelated story you also want to write who happens to be an animal charmer.

You are now making a completely different character, one who is personable and energetic, but happens to share this quality of love for animals, and you know how to implement it because of the work you did with an unrelated project you're juggling.

This is yet another reason I like to have multiple projects I'm actively working on. They very often spur one another on, inspiring me with new ideas to play with that I would not have come up with if I hadn't have happened to be juggling them.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Balance Your Mind And Body

Writers are often intellectuals. They care very much about their minds, and that's not bad. But you are not just a brain in a jar; you are a consciousness intricately connected to a physical form, and both your mind and your body are crucial to your well being.

Take the time to take a walk, ride a bike, go swimming, do some push ups, lift some weights. Anything you do will do some good. Proper diet is also a great way to keep your body healthy.

Sure, your mind is important. It may even be the most important thing to you. But it shouldn't be the only important thing to you. Remember that your brain is part of your body, so if you care about one, you need to care about the other. And you need to take care of both.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Keep Chipping Away At It

Larger scale projects are quite impressive when finished, but so often fail to see the light of day. They require so much effort, energy, and planning, that it seems like an insurmountable goal.

If you try to do it all at once, it very well can be. When you feel overwhelmed, take a break, but keep chipping away at it. Spend an hour a day on it, even 15 minutes if you're swamped. Don't ignore your project. Don't let it go wanting.

A little bit of work, done consistently, will add up. So go and keep working on your project until you have completed it, one chip at a time.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Ignore The Man In Black

There is an interesting phenomenon in theatre: stage hands (people who do work like changing sets) wear all black and are understood to be invisible.

The black outfit does make it hard to see them, but not impossible. Despite that, though, we understand that they are not "part of the show" and so we let them do their job and allow ourselves to forget that they're their.

Sometimes, as a reader, I feel like I am ignoring the man in black. I can see certain things being set up and moving around. I can recognize important events or lines being set up, but I try to let it go. I want to ignore the man in black setting the stage for the show to occur.

As a writer, I find myself wanting to wrap the man in as much black as possible. I want it to be impossible to see which things are important and which are just vibrant description. I want them to just go along for the ride.

A good reader will ignore the man in black. A good writer will make the man invisible.

Friday, April 12, 2013

He Ne Sais Quoi

It can be really difficult to fairly judge stories. It's easy to say something sucks, or to say that it's awesome, but it's hard to say why. Obviously, you say or because it produced an emotional response in you, but again, what specifically caused that feeling?

We can analyze stories and what techniques seem to work and which fall flat, but it seems there are always contradictions to whatever rules we come up with.

For example, I can say I hate sitcoms, but some of my favorite shows are actually sitcoms. There is a certain unnamed quality that good stories have that can transcend whatever rules you've come up with. A similar je ne sais quoi can make a story that ought to be enjoyable an utter cringe fest.

Be aware of these things, and try to define these undefined qualities. It can grant you great insight in yourself and your writing abilities.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

High Fantasy, Low Frequency

When people think about fantasy novels, they usually think of lands scattered with castles full of aged wizards, damsels in distress, and all the nearby mountains with angry dragons in them. That's understandable because a lot of fantasy is that.

But consider a setting where there's only a couple wizards, where there's only one dragon and there aren't any princesses at all. Also imagine that these fantastic beings don't get out much and they don't even live near each other.

What you have here is high fantasy with low frequency. Stories in these settings are still largely about people and their relatively mundane lives. There is amazing stuff out there in the world, and maybe every now and then they interact with the main characters, but largely that's not what the story is about.

I really like this idea. It allows for the true feeling of "anything is possible", and keeps it just rare enough that you don't suspect it around every corner. That's just the right way to keep shocking your audience, which is always a great way to keep them turning the pages.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Avoid Expectations

More often than not, people with expectations are less happy. Expectations could be for anything: how a person acts, how a story resolves, how a casserole will taste.

Expectations have a fundamental flaw. In general, your expectations will be met, or they will fail to be met. When things don't meet your expectations, you are disappointed, and when they do meet your expectations, you are only as happy as you expected to be.

Admittedly, things can go beyond your expectations, but it only happens if something is exceptionally good or if you have mediocre expectations. The former is rare in life, and the latter would have you walking around as a miserable sod.

I find the healthiest thing to do is avoid expectations. Take what you see at face value. Accept what is there and go on the journey for the experience that it is. Don't worry about what could be or what might be. Just pay attention, smell the roses, and enjoy the ride.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Not Everyone Stays Interesting

Creating a new character is like meeting a new person. They have a personality, beliefs on all sorts of subjects, and a number of backstories. There is so much to discover about them that it seems like an endless well of information.

Unfortunately, no matter how deep the well my be, it is not endless. If you spend enough time learning about a person, you will learn everything about them. You will have heard all their stories and learned what they think about the things they care about.

Then what? What do you do when you know all about a person?

In real life, the answer is to look to the future. If somebody is cool, you probably want to hang out with them and do stuff together.

In fiction, the answer is to challenge their beliefs through dramatic narrative (or simply revel in their personality through comedic narrative).

In both of those cases, we're assuming that these people remain interesting to us. Sometimes when we learn more about somebody, we find out that they are not so intriguing or inspiring or charming or attractive. Sometimes we find out that a character was quirky, but had no substance behind it. Other times, we find out that they simply are not so complex as we thought, or that they are not so similar as they first appeared to be.

There are a lot of reasons that one can grow tired of a character. More often than not, though, it's overexposure. As an author, learn how to tell just enough to keep people interested and wanting to learn more, but not so much as to spoil the intrigue. And also know when a character is tapped out. If they have nothing more to say or do, let them go. Start a new project or focus on a new character to keep things fresh.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Circuitous Plans Are Stupid

Evil masterminds suck at actually being smart. Look at the classic James Bond villains, who always manage to capture Bond, and yet Bond always seems to escape and foil their plans. It is such a classic storytelling element that people more often refer to it in parody than in sincerity. (I'm looking at you, Austin Powers.)

Now, I understand that it is a necessity of sorts. Storytelling demands that the heroes have a chance to escape the trap and pull victory from the jaws of defeat. But I want to ignore that meta level of thinking and take these villains at face value. I have seen a lot of people who really love coming up with unbelievably complex and circuitous plans to try to get what they want. The top two offenders are creative writers and teenagers. (And god save us from teenage creative writers.) So I'm willing to accept it as a human tendency.

In fact, I can see this nature in myself. I freely admit that I love seeing machines work. One part affects another part, which in turn affects others, and through very simple mechanical principles, you have a clock or a pinball machine or an internal combustion engine. I also admit that I see stories in the exact same way; the right placement of people in locations with proper stimuli will create the story you want to happen.

Because I marvel at the intricacies and complexities of such machines, I will be more enthralled at increasingly more complicated machines. The problem is that, as any engineer will tell you, the more complicated you make your system, the more likely it is to fail. Similarly, the more parts a machine has, the things there are that can break. (If you doubt me, do some research on Rube Goldberg machines.)

The same thing happens in building a story or in masterminding an evil scheme. Every part you add to it increases the chance of failure. So why do we do it? Because it's exciting. It's thrilling. Seeing all of the dominoes you've set up fall down in exactly the way you planned is one of the most satisfying things on earth, especially to people who are smart enough to come up with these plans.

However, this analogy goes deeper. Try actually setting up thousands of dominoes and then tipping them over. More often than not, something will go incredibly wrong. And the more dominoes you have, the more likely that is. Yes, it's satisfying when it works, but it's too risky to be worth the reward.

If you want to come up with an incredibly difficult antagonist, make them practical. If they capture the hero, shoot him in the head. And do it right away; don't give a speech first. Have the villain give the speech to the hero's corpse. When you come up with somebody who is so cold-blooded and so smart, you will need a hero at the very top of their game to face the challenge.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

What Do You Not Think About?

When you tell a story, the message you are trying to get across definitely matters. That is the reason we tell stories. But sometimes, it is the things you don't mention that show the most.

What do you consider normal? What do you think about? What matters to you? The things you notice, the things you talk about, the things you judge others by, they are what speaks to your own mind.

Sometimes, though, what people may notice is the connections you don't make, or the strange occurrences you don't notice. For example, if you live in a crime-ridden area, the sound of a car alarm going off may not affect you. If you live on a fault line, you may not even notice minor earthquakes. Meanwhile, people from anywhere else would be blown away by you, not because you live where such things even happen, but that you don't even pay attention or care about when they do happen. Again, this is very telling.

Always remember that understanding yourself as a person is a key step as learning how to create and work with your characters. They may be fictional, but characters are still people, so this technique works just as well for understanding them.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Remember When You Didn't Know

I've been writing and telling stories for a long time. I've studied English in terms of its grammar, syntax, spelling, and history. I know so much about this language, both mechanically and artistically, that I could probably write about it every day of the rest of my life and not run out of ideas.

You know what's hard, though? Remembering what it was like to not have this knowledge. There is so much to me that seems obvious, but it's only obvious because I've dedicated so much of my life to knowing and remembering it. There was a great deal of time when these random bits of information were not only not obvious, but completely unknown to me.

I try to remind myself of some of the difficulties I've had over the years: words with confusing spellings, phrases whose words I never thought about, remembering all the different rules for all the different punctuations, etc. There was a lot. And I didn't always have great teachers to guide me. I recognize that most of my desire to learn these things was internal. It simply was something I was naturally passionate about.

On that note, I do recognize that not everybody has the same passion. I shouldn't expect everybody to know as much as I do and I shouldn't fault people for not knowing it. It's a nasty assumption people often make with anything they know a lot about.

Always try to remember when you didn't know so much. It's a good way to keep you humble, and it can remind you of exactly how difficult the road to knowledge can be, and how much experience you have accumulated since those days. If you ever plan on being a teacher of these things, it is essential to know what your students are going through, to be able to relate to them, and to show them how to get through to the next level.

Friday, April 5, 2013

You Have To Be As Smart As Your Geniuses

I do love stories about smart people. It never ceases to impress me what puzzles people can solve by putting the right clues together. I am equally impressed by the puzzles people can create and get others to try to figure out.

I would love to write stories about these people, but there is one distinct problem: you have to be as smart as the geniuses you write about. You can use some tricks, like taking the ending and working backwards, or taking a fairly simple puzzle, but then add a lot of red herrings that the character has to sift through.

Ultimately, though, the idea of smart characters is that they are problem solvers. They are observant, have good memories, and can make connections between things that most people miss. And if you have the ability to build any kind of story, then you have the ability to make a puzzle that a genius could solve.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Reluctant Villains

I've heard it said that everyone is the hero of their own stories. Everybody believes they are doing the right thing, whatever it is they're doing. Anyone who honestly thinks they are a villain is completely insane; that's basically the perfect example of a sociopath.

Now, I do want to add one layer of complexity to this. There are some people who truly think that the things they do are not good. The catch is that they feel as though some outside influence is forcing them to do bad deeds. In this case, they are not villains, but victims of a nefarious other. The idea here is that doing bad things does not necessarily make somebody a bad person. The key factor is why they do it.

From here, we approach the idea of the reluctant villain. This is the character who does bad things, but for understandable reasons.

I was having a conversation about superhero movies with a friend, and The Incredibles vs. Megamind was brought up. I said that The Incredibles was a good movie, but it was a pretty boring one. The story was standard and simple and wrapped up nicely. Megamind, on the other hand, had a tinge of intrigue to the characters. The bad guy wasn't really the bad guy. He was misunderstood. He was a victim of severe bullying. He felt as though he had been pushed into villainy. And when his outside situation changed, so did he.

Another version of the reluctant villain is the one who accepts the moniker of villain, and explicitly tries to wreak havoc and chaos, but does it because he sees the world around him as reprehensible beyond reprieve. This character is a proud villain because his villainous ways will lead to a better world (the calm after the storm, if you will). My favorite example of this, not to mention one of my favorite stories ever, is Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-long Blog. It truly depicts a torn, conflicted character, one who is evil, and wants to be evil, but also wants to have the hero's life.

I find reluctant villains to be the most fascinating characters right now. They are the most complex individuals, both from their own perspective and from ours. Entire stories can be told just of their inner struggles, but all the while, they are also actively doing things that make for compelling stories on their own. They also make us wrestle with our own morals and question how quickly or strongly we judge others' actions. Try to make one up and see what they get themselves into.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Live In The Words You Peform

I went to a concert a couple months ago that was really disappointing. Basically, these two Broadway divas took turns performing well-beloved songs that other famous divas were known for. The programming of the concert was actually very impressive, but the actual concert just wasn't.

The biggest problem I had was with the singers. I did not believe a single word they sang. These were all passionate songs famously performed by very strong women with commanding stage presence, but the divas at the concert I attended sang them like pop songs. It was all surface and no substance. All the way through, I couldn't help but feel that they knew the words, but they didn't feel the meaning.

Performing anything is actually difficult. It is a learned skill and one that needs to be practiced and trained. Just because you can write powerful words does not mean you can speak them just as evocatively. However, if you are going to perform something, it is essential that you immerse yourself in it.

Again, it is more than just the words. It's their meaning, their subtext, the greater context of everything else going on. And you have to do better than simply knowing these things. You have to feel them. You have to embrace them. You have to live in the words you perform.

To do anything less is to present a hollow shell to your audience.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Don't Call Your Characters Quirky

I have come to realize why I really hate people who describe their characters as "quirky": as a description, it actually describes nothing.

Consider what we mean when we call somebody quirky. In short, they have quirks. That means they have mannerisms which are odd to other people because they are not standard. Quirky people wear out of style or mismatched clothing; they have a verbal tic like pronouncing words oddly or avoiding certain words or phrases; they have a physical compulsion like an eye twitch or a half smile or they snap their fingers to accentuate a point.

All of these things are weird to us. But they aren't weird to the person that does them. Unless they have a disorder which causes their affectations, they are choosing to wear certain clothes or snap their fingers. These decisions are expressions of their personal beliefs or upbringings, but they are not themselves characterization.

If you have a story and your main character "snaps his fingers to emphasize words", then you have a very weak story. I still know nothing whatsoever about this person. You might as well say you wrote a story about "a guy who wears pants". Unless your story is about why your character snaps his fingers, then it is completely irrelevant.

When you have a "quirky" character, you are trying to pass of their habits as characterization. But if you do that, they will always fall flat.

I don't necessarily mind starting the character-making process with a quirk. I certainly can see it as a starting point with a lot of potential for creativity. But it is just that: a starting point. If you can't go deeper than describing their looks or tics, then you simply don't know your character, and it'll be impossible to get other people to care about them.

Monday, April 1, 2013

All Stories Are Stories

With my two-month-long tabletop gaming month coming to a close, and now transitioning to business as usual, I reflect on why I did this in the first place. There were two main reasons. The first was that I really wanted to introduce role playing games into the blog because I like talking about them. The second is that I was trying to approach my main concept from a new angle.

All stories are stories. People have told stories through spoken word, written word, dance, still image, moving image, all combinations therein, and far more ways than I can fathom. Within any form or format, countless stories have been told (and countless more could be). And although each and every one of these stories will be different (sometimes based solely on the method in which they are told), they are all fundamentally related because they are stories.

Stories involve people. They involve choices. They have an intended audience. They have an intended reaction or effect.

Good stories open our eyes to the world around us and to ourselves. They make us think and question. They make us feel and act.

There are certain universal techniques that all stories can employ to affect their audience and create those thoughts and feelings. As such, any and all stories are equally valid so long as they are done well.

Cheff Salad is officially a blog about writing. And when I describe myself to strangers, I generally call myself a writer. But in reality, I am a storyteller, and this blog is about stories.