Saturday, January 13, 2018

Two Out of Three Ain't Bad: The Meatloaf Method of Character Development

Since finishing my latest book, I've been taking some time to beef up on my craft of writing study. Due to my limited free time, I decided that what I was looking for was a quality writing podcast, that I could have on while walking home or completing routine stuff at work. All of this preamble is to say that I am now officially addicted to Writing Excuses.

Brandon, Mary, Dan and Howard are offering up some of the best advice on crafting stories available on the internet. They get an A+ for me, both for depth and accessibility. I find myself reminded of things I learned in school, but restated or filtered through new eyes.

One thing I've enjoyed has been Brandon Sanderson's theory on character. Character is arguably the most essential part of any story. Give people an engaging character to follow, and the rest of the story often writes itself. Strong characters are so essential, that the entirety of this year's Writing Excuses is going to be dedicated to the study of character. Yet, when Sanderson teaches about character, he tells his students that there're only three qualities that matter.

This sounds insane, especially coming from a guy like Sanderson, who has written dozens of books with massive casts. And in fairness, Sanderson knows he isn't covering every permutation of character with this theory. What he's covering instead is how an audience engages with a character. And if you ask me, he's bang on. You see, I can tell Writing Excuses is a brilliant podcast because it happens to align with my own pre-conceptions of how good writing works. And if you don't think I'm authoritative on this topic, then I turn you to none other than the great Loaf himself.

This is not a face you argue with

I am, of course, talking about the classic rock song, "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad." It's not quite a love song. Not quite a break-up song. It's more about a "good enough for now" that is somehow more depressing than outright ending the romance would ever be. I love the whole, glorious, bombastic thing, but for our purposes today, we're looking most closely at the iconic chorus.

I want you
I need you
But there ain't no way I'm ever gonna love you
Now don't be sad
'Cuz two out of three ain't bad

For a romance, this is awful. But it makes for a fantastic character and a great story, and story-telling was always what a Meatloaf song excelled at. But how do you apply it? I'll admit, that the rhyming stanzas don't necessarily expose the recipe for reader/character engagement, but with a little help from Brandon Sanderson, I think I can break it down for you.

If you want a reader to engage with your character, they need to be at least one of the following, probably two, but almost NEVER all three...

1. I Want You

One way to get a reader invested in a character is to give them a compelling desire and then to have them chase that desire. Sanderson likes to call this "pro-activity." A pro-active character will drive the plot forward by making choices of their own accord. They're easy to compel to action and rarely reluctant. It's the difference between Captain America, who desperately tries to join the army, and the Hulk, who is so afraid of his powers, he strives to be as inactive as possible. Cap is pro-active. Hulk is not. (At least in the MCU - Marvel Cinematic Universe - all these things get hazier once you factor in years of different comic book writers interpreting the characters)

Interestingly, the thing the character wants doesn't necessarily have to be terribly noble in order for the reader to engage with them. Cinderella wants to go to a ball, but man, do we care! Edmund Dantes wants revenge. Indiana Jones wants to know what's inside that temple. Derek Zoolander wants to build a center for kids who can't read good. Characters who excel at pro-activity simply try harder than everyone else. They might not be the most qualified. They might not even have the right objective. But they pursue it with passion, and that kind of gumption sucks a reader in.

But what if you're writing about a lazy slob? Someone who wants things but doesn't follow through on that? Well, if that's the case, they better...

2. I Need You

Once you know what a character wants, the next important thing is how they are going to achieve it. Some characters have the skills they need. Some don't. Sanderson would refer to this as character "competence." This is super sleuth Sherlock Holmes, who can solve any puzzle. Katniss Everdeen has a freaky ability to snipe her way through the Hunger Games. Or it's Tony Stark, weapons expert and over-the-top cool guy. Readers enjoy stories about people who are exceptional, because they're the type of people who are equipped to live through exceptional circumstances. Within the MCU, Hawkeye fills the role as the "incompetent" team member. He's fighting space aliens with a bow and arrow.

Competence is an interesting thing to measure, however, because it's situational. Tony and Sherlock are obvious examples, but what about Dolly Levi, the matchmaker who always knows exactly who to introduce someone to? In her story, that's the only measure of competence that matters. One of my favorite movies that plays with this situational aspect is Legally Blonde. Elle Woods spends the movie struggling to prove that she's just as smart as her classmates. It's not until the end of the movie, when the court room drama turns to hair care, that she reveals to everyone that brilliance can sneak up on you in the most unlikely of places.

If the pro-active characters try harder, the competent ones try better. Of course, neither of these factors suggest that the character is trying to do the RIGHT thing.

3. I Love You

There is one final way you can make a reader like your characters which is, you know, by simply making them likable. When Sanderson talks about character "likability" I don't think he's talking about if the reader likes the character. Think of it more like, would you like this character if they were a real person you had to put up with daily? Are they a half-way decent person?

Katniss, for instance, is a likable character, but not a very likable person. She's prickly and angry and unpleasant. Readers like her for her other qualities. In contrast, Samwise Gamgee blunders through much of the Lord of the Rings, but no one is better at loving their friends than Sam. It doesn't seem like a very important skill, but it rockets him in reader's hearts, because who wouldn't want a friend like Sam? For the fans of Stranger Things out there, Will Byers isn't very competent or pro-active. But he's sweet and gentle and lovable, so you keep hoping that the characters will save him. Or there's Groot, who is adorable and makes us laugh, even if he's a killer tree monster.  Or Luna Lovegood, who has us by the hearts the moment she reads her Quibbler upside-down.

But Two Out of Three Ain't Bad...

It might seem after reading this list that the answer would be to make a pro-active, competent, lovable hero and readers will be hooked on your story, right? RIGHT? Interestingly, no. There are very few characters who manage to tick all three boxes and get away with it. Classic portrayals of Superman probably come the closest to making a perfect hero interesting, but it does speak to why Supes can be such a tricky character to write.

The problem with a character who scores highly in all three categories is that it usually means they don't have room to grow, and traditionally, stories are about growth and character change. Almost any genuine character flaw will take a person down a peg in one of these categories. If they're a slob, they probably aren't very pro-active. If they're impulsive, they probably make a lot of mistakes and wreck their competence. If they're sharp tongued and emotionally detached, they damage their in-universe lovability.

Especially with main characters, you tend to need two out of three. They need enough good qualities to propel the story forward, but enough weaknesses that they have something to learn. Combine the three basic qualities into pairs, and you get three basic types of heroes.

Pro-Active/Competent: The Classic Anti-Hero
Strengths: Motivated, skilled, can and does do all the awesome things.
Weaknesses: Mean, unconcerned with others, self-interested.
Growth arc: Learning to be better/value others/sacrifices for others
Examples: Sherlock Holmes, Gregory House, Katniss Everdeen, Tony Stark, Elphaba

Competent/Likable: The Reluctant Hero
Strengths: Capable and uses their strength for good, understanding others, empathy
Weaknesses: Wishy-washy, nervous, uncertain of their place in the world, victim of circumstance
Growth arc: Taking control of own life/destiny/accepting their role
Examples: Harry Potter, The Hulk, Peter Quill, Spiderman, Eleven, Belle

Likable/Pro-Active: The Everyman Hero
Strengths: Highly motivated to save the day, seeks adventure
Weaknesses: Frequently fails, out of their depth, self-doubt
Growth arc: Becoming the hero they are in their hearts/completing their "quest"
Examples: Captain America, Elle Woods, Derek Zoolander, Mulan, Moana

Of course, some of these are characters who have been written and rewritten so many times, it's difficult to point to any portrayal as definitive. And often, a series will transition a character from one category to another. Luke Skywalker starts Star Wars as something of an unskilled Jedi, who must learn to master his abilities. Once he has, his arc becomes about sacrificing for others and whether he can save those he loves, much more in line with the first category. Similarly, Tony Stark is a better person by Iron Man 3, so much of the movie involves stripping him of his super suit, and rendering him an Everyman.

Naturally, you can argue that these categories aren't anywhere close to describing all the possible variations on character, and I would agree that they're generalizations.

Still, if Meatloaf knows that two out of three ain't bad, who are we to argue?

Thursday, December 28, 2017

New Year, New Writer!

This is one of those blog posts that will probably hold more interest for me than anyone who regularly reads this blog. It calls into question why I'm posting it here, but I've come to realize that in the absence of a more traditional journal, this blog has taken the place of that for me. In fact, I've got a few pages of unpublished posts that are either too messy, too raw or too boring to make the cut as public posts, but they live on in my drafts folder as reminders of earlier ideas or thought processes. You could say I've hit that point in nerd evolution, where all my deep, personal thoughts come out as long form essays, but I digress.

Today, I want to talk about goal setting! New Years is one of my favorite holidays, even if I'm not doing anything for it. (I've got nothing but attending church planned for New Year's Eve this year. Woopwoop!) Mostly, it's because I'm a chronic goal setter, and I love that blank slate feel that a new year gives.

Further, I'm a firm believer that if you want to get anything done as a writer, you need to have some system for setting and fulfilling goals.

Making Time and Reason for Writing

When you are like me - unagented and unpublished, but striving to reach both those milestones - it can be very difficult to make time for writing, due to the absence of any external pressure to do those things. Currently, my income is not derived from my writing. Writing does not make my house any cleaner, feed my cats or fulfill my church assignments. It takes me away from my friends, and as we speak, writing this blog post is keeping me up past midnight. Whoops.

My passion for writing is my primary motivator that keeps me coming back. I love stories. I love creating. I would do some form of writing and creating no matter what in my life. But due to the other demands on my time, it's downright impossible to get anything substantial done in my writing without some coordinated effort. Those other things distract me and destroy my productivity, unless I  hit back.

To me, goals are the names we give our dreams. If I want to achieve those big picture dreams I have, like selling books and using that money to buy cat food, I need to give a name to each brush stroke of that picture. So today, I'm doing that.

Feel free to comment with some of your own New Year Resolutions! Like I said, I love this holiday, and when people tell me their goals, I feel like I'm learning what they named their little, baby dreams.

First, The Year in Review

Let's look at some of the things I achieved or learned this year! YES!
  • Joined an online writing group. Got my revision game back on. All the love to you, my Oddballs.
  • Attended the Storymakers Conference, where I:
    • Met some of the people in my online writing group. HEY GUYS!!!
    • Got my first page onto the First Impressions agent critique panel
    • Pitched an agent after said panel, didn't die, and got a request for pages
    • Subbed two stories to the first chapter contest
    • Finally understood what is meant by Deep 3rd Person POV 
    • Learned what a beat sheet is
    • Wrote about insulation, and was complimented on it by Allie Condie. Guys, I may never get over this one.
  • Endured the loss of Tuula Mantta and Miranda Leavitt, when they had the nerve to move away.
  • Resolved to make more friends. Forced people to watch Planet Earth II with me.
  • Took trips to Kelowna and Calgary, where I got to see Tuula and Miranda, keeping summer awesome. YES!
  • Realized my friends were a terrible influence on my writing habits. Sat down, and finally...
The SWEET PEE timeline
  • Started drafting a new manuscript, titled SWEET PEE - and yes, that's spelled correctly - for NaNoWriMo in November 2016. Got about 20,000 words in by November 9th.
  • On November 9th, started a new job, which destroyed my brain and productivity. Put the manuscript on the backburner until the New Year.
  • Wrote large amounts of the first draft on the bus, to and from work, due to time constraints. Learned the value of a light, small laptop.
  • Resolved to make more friends in April/May. Got terribly distracted. Failed to finish last 4th of book for several months.
  • Realized the deadline for the Pitch Wars writing contest was coming, and remembered that I wanted to enter. Banged out the last 4th of the first draft in the first week of August, and submitted to Pitch Wars August 4th.
  • Got into Pitch Wars August 24th! Spent the next two months revising the book with the help of my amazing mentor, Lianne Oelke. Check her out here!
  • Completed the polished manuscript in time for the October 31st deadline, making it almost exactly a year from sloppy, first words to query ready manuscript. Fastest turn around I've had on a manuscript to date!
And back to other lessons learned...
  • Realized during revisions that there is DEFINITELY such a thing as biting off more than you can chew.
  • Learned some things about comma placement and compound sentences that would likely make my poor Master's Thesis advisors weep for joy, knowing I've finally... improved. Slightly.
  • Started listening to the Writing Excuses podcast.
  • Bought some awesome Christmas decorations.
Whew! I honestly didn't expect the list to be that long when I started, but it's kind of nice to see the year captured like that. Of course, I'll be the first to admit that this version of events glosses over some of the angst and messiness that goes on behind the scenes, but this is New Years and it's a frickin' holiday, and I reserve the right to have a party. GO ME!!!

This Year's Goals
  • Complete another first draft of a manuscript - this might not seem very ambitious in light of the turn around on my last book, but I am "between ideas" right now, and so it's hard to commit to getting something all the way past the editing stage when nothing is on the page yet. I'm between several different ideas, all appealing in different ways. We'll see where I go.
  • Draft 10,000 words in January - Again, I could be more ambitious in terms of word count, but the real goal lurking here is PICK AN IDEA AND WRITE ABOUT IT!!!
  • Send 100 query letters during the year - or get an agent. One can hope.
  • Send 20 query letters in January - right now I'm itching to do this, so it shouldn't be too hard.
  • Read more books - while I got a LOT of writing done in 2017, my reading suffered a bit. I'm trying to make up lost time right now while I'm between ideas. Still settling on a realistic yearly/monthly reading goal. 
  • Attend Storymakers again and maybe a second conference/writing retreat - anything additional will depend on finances, but I am SO STOKED for Storymakers! Anyone who writes and can get to Provo, Utah in May should absolutely check it out.
  • Start a Bullet Journal - guys, I am so excited about this. I've been reading up on them, and I think it could be really useful for me. I've been feeling like I want to a) do more journaling again b) start using a sketch book again and c) try and make a day planner work. But the idea of trying to do all three at once sounds insane. I like how a bullet journal can kind of grab from all three of those things at once. Like, guys! It's a journal/planner you get to DRAW IN!!! I just have to keep reminding myself that it's okay that I have terrible penmanship. I'm in it for the organizing/better documented memories/excuse to draw pictures. Pictures. Not pretty penmanship and headers. That's what I've got to focus on. Anyhow, if anyone out there uses one and has tips/spreads they use (especially any for organizing writing goals or LDS church callings) let me know!
And there you have it! My writing recap for 2017, and my writing goals for 2018. Here's hoping for another good year.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Tropes VS Tropes: The Self-Defeating Villains Strike (Themselves) Again!!!!

This summer, my church group needed somewhere to host an activity one Friday night, and because I am an exceptionally generous person, I offered my house on the condition that I get to force everyone to watch a movie of my choosing. Because they were desperate, this worked, and that's how most of my friends came to watch the 1987 cult classic Willow for the first time.

It's a campy fantasy movie, filled with well-known tropes, special effects that have not aged gracefully and Warwick Davis. One of the reasons I love this movie so much is because almost every scene and every creative decision is simultaneously "pretty good for reals guys" and "what is this and why am I laughing" horrible. There's nothing okay about Willow. It is either wonderful or disastrous.
Begin the Ritual!!!

One perfect example of this is how the movie ends. (SPOILERS!!!!) There's a clever little bit where Willow, who has always wanted to be a great sorcerer, uses a common carnival trick seen earlier in the film to confuse the evil Queen Bavmorda. Bavmorda, who is an actual sorcerer, has no knowledge of side-show magic, so assumes the trick is real. As a result, Willow is finally able to get the upper hand in the battle and defeat her.

Wait... sorry, scratch that last sentence. That would have been a good ending. No, what happens is that Bavmorda gets confused and then accidently summons dark spirits to banish her soul into the Dark Dark Evil Way nether region (or something?) Honestly, it's hard to tell. She slaps her ceremonial table and then get's struck by lighting. Valuable lesson, kids: don't forget where you're Satanic ritual offerings are, even in the middle of a battle sequence.

As my captive church group let out a collective "wuh?" I started to laugh hysterically. They were on board all the way through Willow's "Disappearing Pig Trick." But why the crap had Bavmorda just electrocuted herself? How did that happen? Was this seriously the end of the movie?

Yes it was! Because Willow is amazing and terrible. And it might just be the best example of the pitfalls of creating a villain that has to defeat herself. And yet, I've always found the ending oddly satisfying too. Some of that is for the wrong reasons (did I mention all the laughing?) but the joy we feel in seeing a villain cause their own demise is real. Don't we all secretly want a baddy to be hoist by his own petard? So why is it that Self-Defeating villains also strike us as inherently bad ideas from a story perspective?

Character Arc VS the Villain

Defining a villain can be a difficult thing. Is it the story's most evil character? Not necessarily. In Milton's Paradise Lost, Satan fills the role of protagonist, making the villains anyone who sides with God. On a less grand scale, gangsters, pirates and thieves all might fill the role of protagonist in their stories, with law enforcement officers taking the role of villain on.

From a craft perspective, a villain is defined by their relationship to the hero. Villains stand between the hero and their ultimate goal, regardless of whether or not anyone involved is a "good" person. This is one of the reasons why your English teacher insisted you learn the words "protagonist" and "antagonist." They strip away some of the moral implications we associate with Heroes and Villains so that we can instead focus on their roles in the story.

With that in mind, here are some quick n' dirty definitions I like to work with for Heroes and Villains.

The HERO: The person the story is about. The person trying to get a "Thing." The story ends either when they a) get the Thing or b) can no longer get the Thing.

The VILLAIN: The person standing between the hero and the Thing.

The rest of the story then plays out as the Hero's quest to get the Thing. The Thing, of course, doesn't have to be a physical object. It might be love, or your father's respect, or a safe place to live or winning the sports tournament. And of course, sometimes the Hero isn't struggling so much against another person as they are their situation. I love RomComs, even if they don't tend to have villains. There, the struggle is usually more internal. Likewise, disaster stories tend to be about surviving a brutal environment rather than defeating a person.

So Villains are a specific kind of conflict but are, nevertheless, defined by their opposition to the Hero in the Hero's quest to get the Thing. Sauron is trying to stop Frodo from throwing the ring into Mount Doom. President Snow keeps threatening Katniss's friends and family. The closer Moana comes to restoring Te Fiti's heart, the more fireballs Te Ka throws at her.

And because a Villains' purpose in the story is to be a roadblock to the Hero, it's sort of kind of maybe a tiny bit possibly a little important that the HERO be the one who defeats them.


The conquering of the Villain is almost always the climax action of any story involving a prominent Villain. They are the final test; the great struggle that the Hero must overcome in order to earn the Thing that they want so badly. So if the Villains somehow defeat themselves and the final victory falls into the Hero's lap afterwards, you're left with an unfulfilled character arc.

This is what makes the ending to Willow so weird. Willow has a moment where he does do something that advances his goal, but Bavmorda still manages to rob him of the victory by banishing her own soul.

The Self-Defeating Villain Writ Large

So we've established that it's incredibly important to have a Hero that defeats your Villain, at least if you're going for a conventional happy ending. Yet Willow isn't alone in featuring a Villain that successfully foils herself. 

One of my other favorite examples comes from the movie adaptation of Ella Enchanted, which took a lot of liberties with the children's novel it was based on. The book is a more classic take on the Cinderella story, where Ella's main obstacles are her step-mother and step-sisters, though with the added twist that she was "blessed" as a child with the Gift of Obedience by a misguided fairy named Lucinda. As a result, Ella's conflicts are mostly internal, as she fights against magic for her own free will. 

The movie adaptation clearly worried that this would be too heady for kids to understand (forgetting that it was already a wildly successful children's book, but whatever) and so shoe-horned in an Evil Uncle for Prince Char (Char. Charming. Get it?) who is bent on segregating all the world's magical races from each other. Because Evil.

The movie is goofy and dippy and doesn't try at all to match the tone of the books, but it still seemed extra odd when the final conflict involved the Evil Uncle poisoning a crown that was about to be placed on his nephew's head at his coronation. POISONING A CROWN I SAY. 

Anyway, Ella arrives after breaking her curse, and exposes the Evil Uncle, who earlier tried to command Ella to kill Char. Except Char doesn't believe her because, as noted, she almost killed him on order of Evil Uncle. So there is every reason for Evil Uncle to get away with it all until this happens:

Char: But Ella, you tried to kill me! Now you want to turn me against my beloved uncle? Lies!
*Evil Uncle's pet snake attempts to bite Char*
Char: On second thought... are you Evil, Uncle?
Uncle: Screw you all! You suck, nephew! You don't deserve to be king! I should be king!
*Evil Uncle places poisoned crown on his own head mid-rant*
Uncle: Oops.

And then the movie ends with a dance party. 

But seriously. Char, your Uncle *might* be Evil.
All of this is played for laughs and if I'm being honest, I had a good time with the whole thing. But it did reinforce how pointless the Evil Uncle subplot was. Ella's essential conflict - getting over her curse - was not tied to the Evil Uncle, so defeating him wasn't part of her character arc. This disconnect both speaks to why he was a weak Villain, but also why the movie got away with it. It's such a silly film, that they might as well lean into how unimportant the Villain is and have him defeat himself. Honestly, that moment is the best use of his character the entire movie.

Ella Enchanted highlights the two instances where Self-Defeating Villains can work, or at the very least sheds light on why they get used despite the way they inherently weaken the Hero's arc.

1) The Comedic Death

Self-defeat! Now with more lampshade hanging!
There is nowhere a Self-Defeating Villain is more welcome than a comedy. Here, the Hero's personal journey can take a hit in the name of humor. Self-Defeating Villains are inherently funny because they tap into our sense of Schadenfreude. People love seeing the wicked get their just desserts. This is one of the reasons I laugh during Bavmorda's death even though I'm not *supposed* to. The fact that she just stumbled into soul banishment is kind of hilarious.

After the shenanigans of the rest of Ella Enchanted, there really was no more fitting end for Evil Uncle. Additional examples include:
  • In The Emporer's New Groove, Yzma drops Kronk down a trap door for betraying her. Much later in the final battle, he pops out of another hidden door and squishes her right as she's beaten Kuzco. 
  • In the second Scott Pilgrim book, Scott is getting pummeled by Ramona's second Evil Ex-Boyfriend, Vincent Lee. Scott asks Vincent how fast he can skateboard and Vincent demonstrates by grinding down a very long stairwell. He goes so fast he explodes from friction.
  • In The Incredibles, Syndrome is in the middle of ranting at the Parr family that he WILL return... when his cape gets sucked into a jet engine. #NoCapes
  • I swear I'm not obsessed, guys, but there's an amazing episode of Survivor: San Juan Del Sur where a doofy, arrogant guy becomes convinced one of the nice, quiet girls on his tribe is secretly a mastermind. He throws an immunity challenge so that his tribe can vote her out and then gets voted out instead because of his erratic behavior. This is a prime example, but this arc generally happens at least once a season on Survivor.
I think this list helps show why it is that despite how it weakens a character arc, I still love this trope. In the right context, it can bring a lot of humor to a story.

2) Tonally, it would be Problematic for the Hero to Kill the Villain

The other reason Evil Uncle has to off himself in Ella Enchanted is because NEITHER of the film's Heroes are cut out for the job. Ella just doesn't care enough (as stated earlier, her character arc isn't about Char's Evil Uncle) and Char... well, this is a Disney movie, for Pete's sake! Do you honestly think Disney is going to let a sweet young prince murder his uncle?

Children's stories often face the messy task of finding themselves with Villains that need defeating, but the Hero is too pure to straight up kill the Villain. In fact, it's almost rarer that a Disney Villain meets their fate directly at the hands of the Hero than that fate intervenes in some way. To give an idea, here are a few of the numerous ways Disney Villains have defeated themselves/fallen victim to fate:

Climbing too high and then falling:
  • Gaston
  • The Wicked Witch/Evil Queen
  • Judge Frollo
  • Clayton (Tarzan even tries to save the guy by wrapping him in vines but he just HAS to keep swinging that machete)
  • Captain Hook
  • Percival McLeach
  • Lucifer the Cat
  • Ratigan
  • Charles Muntz
Colliding with oncoming traffic:
  • Cruella DeVille
  • Bill Sykes
Eaten alive by other nefarious forces:
  • Hopper
  • Scar
  • Captain Hook (again)
Someone more equipped to deal with the problem arrives:
  • Prince John, Sherrif of Nottingham et al
Strapped to the front of a garbage truck by passers-by:
  • Lotso-Huggin Bear
In fairness, some of these Villains were partially defeated by the Hero. In fact, the ideal Disney formula seems to be that the Hero gets the Villain within range of defeat, and then let's fate do the rest. Simba tosses Scar into the mouths of the Hyenas. Peter Pan tricks Hook into falling off the mast and into the crocodile's jaws. But I have to admit, I have some serious respect for Mulan when she blows up Shan Yu as well as when Eric rams a boat into Ursula. Not a lot of Disney good-guys get their hands that dirty.

But the best defeat of a Disney Villain is, in my opinion, also the ultimate Self-Defeating Villain. And because this is a Trope Showdown, I guess you could say that this is winning TWO CONTESTS AT ONCE!!! Wowie-zowie!

It involves a Villain defeating himself BECAUSE the Hero has learned a valuable lesson, grown as a character and uses that knowledge to trick the Villain into doing the very thing HE was guilty of earlier in the film.

Aladdin VS Jafar: When Self-Defeat is the Right Move:

Thematically, Aladdin is the story of a boy trying to escape his own identity. You can't blame him for it. He's a street rat that no one respects, barred from being with the girl he loves because he isn't "good enough." 

Then he meets the Genie and has an instant ticket to Princedom! But deep down, Aladdin knows he's living a lie. Even when Jafar is exposed and Jasmine promised to him as his bride, he's terrified of what will happen when he becomes the Sultan. He denies Genie his freedom, because he doesn't know how to live the lie alone.

Meanwhile, Jafar is outwardly doing the same thing - trying to escape his station. Once he gets ahold of the lamp, his thirst for power goes wild. Its not enough to be the Grand Vizier, he must be Sultan! But it's not enough to be Sultan, he must be an all powerful sorcerer!

Aladdin recognizes that his own inability to embrace his real identity led to this. If he'd freed the Genie like they'd planned, Jafar would have only found an empty lamp. Instead, he must fight Jafar as nothing but his regular street rat self. 

To say the least, he's outclassed. Jafar has victory on lock until Aladdin points out the very thing that made him screw up earlier - Jafar is nothing without the Genie. He's still second best. And so Jafar, weak to the same temptation Aladdin was, uses his final wish to become a Genie.

Phenomenal cosmic powers? Itty-bitty living space.

I love this sequence. I love how at first, Aladdin's only solution for fighting Jafar is to reclaim the lamp. He and his friends all run at the lamp over and over, knowing the Genie could end this conflict if they only controlled him. But it's not until Aladdin turns that impulse to crave the Genie's power against Jafar that he's able to defeat him. 

It's a perfect circle for Aladdin's growth as a character, and yet still let's us enjoy that delicious irony when Jafar gets sucked into his own lamp. Aladdin's hands might not get all that dirty, but he also clearly directs his own destiny. And so, with all that said, Jafar, by virtue of his relationship with Aladdin, is the best Self-Defeating Villain!!!!

I'm sure he's thrilled. Congratulations.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

5 Excellent Pieces of Writing Advice I NEVER Follow

Writing is an intensely personal endeavor. Most people are aware of this, even if they've never written anything besides a term paper, but on the surface, it just seems to make sense. Writers are sitting at their computers (or notepads if they like to kick it Old School) and pouring their souls into their work, so of course what they produce must be personal.

And while that's true, it's really only a small part of how intensely personal and individual writing is. Writing is solitary, and as such writers rarely employ the same process for producing quality work. Of all the arts, I think writing is one of the strangest, in that the process of creating a thing can be very separate from the thing itself. In visual art and music, there tend to be some fairly discrete skills that people need to learn in order to produce a finished product; certain ways you hold a paint brush or train the vibrato of your instrument, for example. There's far less of this in writing. Sure, mastering certain skills are important, but I think it's more of a toss up whether or not a particular writer ever chooses to employ that skill.

Simply put, one writer's key to success might just "not work" for another. This makes teaching writing incredibly difficult. It's already such a subjective discipline, it can be super frustrating that so little experience actually transfers well across different writers. You almost can't learn from the mistakes of others because what were mistakes for them might be your golden ticket.

And so to that end, I've compiled a list of excellent pieces of writing advice that I don't use. There's nothing inherently wrong with the advice, and some of it might solve your writing problems. But for me, they're so useless, the opposite is often truer. And maybe that will inspire you! Either way, call this a celebration of how unique the process each writer goes through to create something is.

#5: Create a plot outline before you begin your novel. This will stop you from getting lost in the middle, where your book may die a slow, tedious, plotless death.

I've put this one at #5 because, while this is incredibly common advice, there's some acknowledgement within the writing community that it's fairly split down the middle whether your a "plotter" or a "pantser." These terms are used to refer to the two main modes of preparing to write a story - Plotters make sure they've got an outline banged out, usually in a fair degree of detail before they get started and Pantsers... well, we just wing it. The term comes from the expression "flying by the seat of your pants."

Now, it might sound like a situation where the Plotters are the harder workers and the Pantsers are just over-excited or lazy, but that's not how things typically work out. I've tried plotting books before starting them. The idea of having an outline to guide me sure sounds appealing, but this is the reality:

I have never finished a book I outlined before I started writing.


Those books I over outline are the ones that - for me - die in the middle. They might not be plotless, but they are lifeless and the key is usually that I've focused on the plot and structure first, rather than finding the natural voice, characters and world for my book to inhabit. Once I've spewed some pages of rough text, I might sit back and outline a few things, but I've always free-written a large chunk of my books before committing myself to any kind of structure. For me, it's how I suss out if the characters and their stories are worth investing in.

For some people, outlining saves them from the mires of their writing nightmares, but I also know people mired in outlines, who I wish I could convince to just write until they FEEL the words. It sounds airy-fairy and ridiculous, but for certain people, it really does work. Sure you will have to revise later, but you're going to have to do that anyway. Might as well have the book in front of you so you can do that.

#4: Don't tell people too much about your novel before you write it down in scene. You want the ideas to be fresh when you get going, and holding details in keeps you from losing the magic of them while you write.

I was given this advice right when I started school and luckily, knew write away this would be suicide for my writing style. You know that whole point about NOT outlining? One of the main reasons I can get away with that is because I always have a friend or two who will let me yammer at them when I need to work my way out of a plot hole. Talking things out helps my ideas to flow naturally.

As for whether or not I've taken the "zing" out by talking about it too much - I'm sure I could do that eventually, but for me, those conversations usually get me excited and make me fall more in love with my book. And that gives me energy I can channel into the writing, often improving it.

Or at least I sure hope that's the case. Because seriously guys, I don't think anyone is ever going to stop me from talking about my books, no matter how well-meaning they are.

#3: Write everyday. This keeps momentum up and how else are you going to finish that novel?

This is one of those points where I just end up staring at the person who gives this advice, holding in the desire to scream, "BUT HOOOOOOOOOOWWWWWWWW?????"

Seriously, HOW!?!?!? How do you find time literally EVERY DAY to write something? How do you not end up with conflicts? How do you not end up with family yelling at you for bringing your laptop to a reunion? How do you ever feel like you ever have a day off? I mean, I love writing, but it's also work. I don't WANT to write every day, and I don't mean that in the way where you're just in a funk and you can't find the "magic" or whatever. I mean, I genuinely want days off where I don't have to perform the mental gymnastics of thinking about writing while I'm also busy gardening or singing or jet-skiing or whatever the heck it is I do when I'm not writing.

I've often wondered if this advice is related to multi-tasking. I'm not a very good multi-tasker. But I'm VERY good at focusing, and these limitations aren't just of the kind where I can't do one thing with one hand and another thing with the other at the same time. It's also mental. I need days that are "WORK" days and "WRITING" days and "FAMILY" days and so on and so forth. I learned years ago that Christmas vacation would always be a terrible time for writing, no matter how many hours I took off. My brain won't go there. So instead, I use that time to read, because it doesn't take as much focus. I catch up on my reading, and wait for the new year when I can become a writing hermit again, down in my hermit hole.

And yet I still finish projects. I don't have any kind of rigid work schedule, but I set my goals and I slog towards them and I get it done. Often it means breaking things up into monthly or quarterly chunks, rather than tasking myself with something specific daily, but for me, that's enough. Given enough time, I WILL get antsy and I WILL make time to write. But I find I don't function well as a human being unless I also give myself time to focus on other things.

Then again, I do see the appeal. When I do get into a writing groove, I can write pretty much every day. I live in times of boom and bust. Famine and plenty. I wish I could write every day, because holy crap! I bet I would get a ton done. But all told, I think I do okay. Generally speaking, most of those people who do write every day are speaking to a need to write at least SOMETHING, rather than pages and pages of text every day. It's how they keep the energy and the dream alive. And I can absolutely be happy for them for doing that. 

#2: End your writing day in the middle of a scene, so that when you pick up again, it's easier and you aren't starting from scratch with a new scene. Remember, keep that momentum!

This piece of advice sounds great in theory and I would LOVE to hear from someone who follows it because good heavens, it is not me. Sometimes I do end writing sessions in the middle of scenes, due to time constraints or other factors. But I hate doing it. Without fail, I fall prey to the opposite of what is SUPPOSED to happen.

Nothing kills momentum for me like opening a book I'm working on and having to pick up mid-scene. Somehow I have to get back in that headspace I was in that seemed so real a few days ago, but now just looks like squiggles on a page. The words feel meaningless and I have to read and reread them a lot before I rediscover the energy I was following through the scene. I would much rather have a fresh, new scene to start. Something that allows me to craft a nice beginning, middle and end sequence and leaves me feeling accomplished.

It can take forever for me to pick up on scenes that I stopped in the middle of. In fact, I am writing this blog post because I was drafting a scene while on the bus to work this morning and the freakin' bus got to my stop before I finished and baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!! I don't want to look at that half-finished scene!!!!

But seriously. Some people swear by the purposefully half-finished scene method. Go figure.

#1: Find what works for you - whatever it is - and stick with it.

This, to me, sounds like the very best of advice. Find what works for you and do it! In fact, I lied. I DO follow this advice! I follow it all the time! In fact, I am constantly finding what works for me and sticking with it for... well... for at least a day, I guess?

I really do try to use this advice. I stick with my "new found thing that works" for as long as it keeps working but for me, eventually, it stops. Maybe it's because my life circumstances have changed. Maybe it's because that methodology has grown stale. But in my experience, it's dangerous to "find a thing that works" and then marry yourself to it, because you never know when that thing will no longer be there for you.

I used to do all my writing in the evenings, but a new job made that impossible, not because I didn't have time in the evenings, but because I was zapped for energy. So writing on the morning bus to work became the one place I could get writing done. Except sometimes, if I stay up past midnight, I'll get another new wave of energy and I'll be writing until the wee hours of the morning.

I used to ask for feedback from critique partners on my rough drafts, so I knew they were going the right direction. Now? Not so much. I plot and outline more than I used to (even if it is after some freewriting). I seesaw between times where I read a lot and write very little and times when I write a lot and never find time to read. But in school, I had the writing vs reading balance just right. Go figure.

My point is yes, find what works to you. Hold onto it as long as you can. But if it stops working, that's not the end of the world. There's more advice out there. In fact, there's advice that stands in direct opposition to that thing that used to be your motto.

If I could give one piece of advice to writers that I do think is universal, it would be this: Do whatever it takes to get your story out there. If what you do now works for you then great! Don't fix it. But if you're feeling stuck, comb the internet for ideas and try every freakin' thing until something works. Throw noodles at the wall until one sticks. Then you'll know your pasta is finally cooking the right way.
(Pasta is a metaphor for novels. Erm... just in case you were wondering...)

Thursday, June 8, 2017

World Building, Observation and Crackers

I'm eating crackers tonight. Crackers I purchased yesterday from Walmart because I'm classy like that. To be precise, I am eating Stoned Wheat Thins which I would lovingly describe as the very best boring cracker out there. They're like the big sister of soda crackers - a little wider, a little heftier and substantially more crunchy. When I want to eat some cheese or a spread but I don't have the time or resources to properly pair toppings and cracker, I shrug my shoulders and say, "well, a Stoned Wheat Thin won't taste WRONG with that" and off I go. A well-paired Triscuit might taste superior to a stoned wheat thin, but you can get a Triscuit wrong. That's a lot of pressure.

Stoned Wheat Thins also happen to be my personal favorite metaphor for perspective shifting, which I think is one of the most underrated skills when it comes to world-building.

The Pittsburgh Cracker Caper

Image result for stoned wheat thins

It all comes down to a night where I was in a Giant Eagle grocery store in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvannia. I had some fancy goat cheese I'd never tried before and needed a good, solid cracker to pair it with. The problem was, I wasn't confident I knew what that cheese tasted like well enough to pick out a truly sophisticated cracker. Plus, I'd already blown my wad on the cheese. (Like most MFA students, my desire to eat overpriced, fancy food was not proportional to my ability to purchase it).

But no matter. I knew that in a pinch, a box of Stoned Wheat Thins would do the trick, plus they would go fine with hummus and whatever else I picked up after the cheese was gone. I entered the cracker aisle, scanning for a nice big box only to be greeted with a wall of Triscuits and Pepperidge Farm and hundred other crackers I couldn't afford.

I honestly can't remember another time I've ever been so confused in a grocery store. Maybe the first time I went shopping in the UK and there was only one type of peanut butter on the shelf, but I expect cultural dissonance when it comes to the British. America, I figured, must have Stoned Wheat Thins, because what on earth did they do when they wanted a cheap cracker that didn't instantly dissolve under the weight of dip? You can buy massive boxes of Stoned Wheat Thins in Canada, yet in America, the very land of large boxes of carbs, there was nothing.

I scanned the Triscuit section, hoping some equivalent would appear. By now, I was deeply worried for myself and my cheese. Was I going to have to develop a taste for Melba toasts?

Luckily, this story has a happy ending. After about ten minutes of pacing the aisle, I spotted a tiny box that held a single sleeve of crackers, packaged in a box that wasn't blue, which was weird for Stoned Wheat Thins, let me tell you. I laughed, relieved as I realized that some idiot had put them in the International section, next to all the fancy Italian and French crackers.

Then I looked at the box again and saw it stamped to high-heaven with REAL CANADIAN WHEAT labels. And bam, there it was. The paradigm shift.

In America, Stoned Wheat Thins are a very fancy cracker and they are priced accordingly. It was, like, $3.50 for a sleeve of crackers but I'd just spent ten minutes looking for them and I was an MFA student, and it's always a little exciting when you over spend on food if you're an MFA student.

On Paradigms and World Building

One of the things that experience reminded me of was that Canadian things are almost always much more exotic to Americans than American things are to Canadians. The exception to this might be those American cities that hug the Canadian border, where the people are often from smaller towns than the cities just north of them in Canada and they're likely to visit and shop up there frequently. But drive just a few hours south of Canada, and the reactions to meeting a "Canadian" start piling up.

People in Washington never comment on my accent, but people in Utah and Pennsylvania absolutely do. Sometimes it's annoying, sometimes I enjoy the attention, but in the back of my mind is always this sense of wonder that they find me interesting at all. They are so ordinary to me. I'd never put their crackers in the International section.

Intellectually, I get why this is the case. We live in a globalized world where unequal distributions of wealth and power impact the rate of cultural exchange, but what catches me off guard are the small, personal ways that impacts life. Since that instance in the cracker aisle, I've had a few more of these, like when I realized I'd never seen a gas station in the States with open bins of loose, five-cent candy. Those exist at bulk food stores and a couple other small enclaves. But on the whole, kids in the US are not going to 7/11 so they  can hand select a bag of gummy frogs and coke bottles with a hard earned Toonie.

In writing, I tend to be the most impressed with world building when it documents these small moments. Any writer can tell you "the Queen sits on a throne of carbuncles" or that "the council is made up of yeomen from all the villages round about" but the ones who can capture the inner lives of different people are the ones worth paying attention to. Those are the ones that have the ability to bring you down to a character at eye level.

Here are just a couple of examples of fabulous authors who have found ways to strike that balance:

- In the first chapter of Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, the narrator is struggling to grow a proper mustache and very self-conscious about it, because he's trying to impress a girl from another culture and is convinced she'll be into good facial hair.
- Early in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, Junior takes a few paragraphs to rhapsodize about why he loves fried chicken so much and why it's such a treat for his family, making every time chicken shows up in the rest of the book unexpectedly poignant.
- In the Oryx and Crake series by Margaret Atwood, fictitious brand names litter the pages and provide a good indicator of how off the rails society is going. Jimmy's evolving acceptance of ChickieNobs (chicken parts grown in a lab without an actual chicken. What is it with books and chicken, exactly?) is a particularly good example.
- During the scene in the second Harry Potter book where Draco first calls Hermione a Mudblood, she and Harry have no clue why Ron reacts so intensely to the insult.

Aside from being about the small details of life, the other thing all these examples have in common is that they're really well filtered through the viewpoint of the characters. They show a personal relationship to the worlds the books take place in, whether those worlds are fantastical or real. If those moments were told through someone else's eyes, they'd read completely different and perhaps wouldn't have any impact on a story at all.

Not everyone is going to relate to crackers the same way I do. I've come to accept that over the years, as I've retold my cracker tale to anyone who has the nerve to open a box of Stoned Wheat Thins around me. But it still strikes me as an example of how our world is built up of small things and even smaller moments. Switch the country a box of crackers is in, and it becomes something fancy and exotic. But even if it is sitting next to a selection of French and Italian crackers, it can still be the most boring, ordinary, glorious cracker out there to a homesick Canadian.

It all depends on whose story you're telling.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Tropes VS Tropes: Best Fantasy Feast

Welcome to the new Tropes VS Tropes series, where we celebrate the tools of fiction and ask ourselves, "who did it best?" As discussed earlier, a trope is a commonly used literary device or plot element that an author uses to call up a quick set of associations in the reader, so that they can build a story more quickly/easily.

Last time I discussed The Plucky Girl Goes on an Adventure (a surprisingly common trope in early children's literature) and then solicited my readers for suggestions for future articles. I got some great ones, which I hope to dive into soon, but one thing I noticed was that all the suggestions tended to be character related, possibly because the examples I gave in that first post were character tropes. But tropes can extend far further, and to give an example, I'm doing one that isn't a character trope at all. Today, we're talking about what (after elaborate clothing) is probably the most favorite thing of every long-winded fantasy writer on the planet. FOOD!!!!

The Fantasy Feast

Image result for game of thrones feastsFull disclosure: I have never read the Song of Fire and Ice books, probably because I am a terrible person, but you know what I DID know? Without ever having read the books or watched the shows, I knew if you Googled "Game of Thrones" and "Feast" the internet would throw down with some awesome photos because in fantasy novels, feasts are serious business.

In speculative fiction, food is one of the main ways that authors worldbuild. You can learn a lot about a culture by what and how they eat. Feasts also provide a chance to see what your fantasy culture is like when it celebrates, plus they provide opportunities for the characters to mingle and have intrigues. They rank right below "the prince is holding a ball and invited all young maidens" for socially crucial events. One does not miss the Feast.

But if you had to attend a feast in a marvelous world, what one should you pick? With so many to choose from, I have narrowed the list down to four, all coming from children's lit, since that's my area. But I'd love to see someone better versed in the feasting of adults do something similar!


Peter Pan: A Special Award for Worst/Most Hilarious Feast

The feast scene isn't one of the more familiar parts of Peter Pan, and I can only think of one adaptation that features it at all - Hook. In it, a now adult Peter joins the lost boys for a feast only to see that there is literally NOTHING adorning the silver platters. As the boys reach for this pile of "nothing" Peter grows more and more frustrated, since they keep insisting there's food in there. This spirals into an argument with their leader, Rufio, and finally, playfully, Peter pretends to dig his spoon into his empty bowl and "throw" some of the nothing at Rufio.

And right at that moment, as he chooses to pretend the food is real, a real glob of florescent whipped cream hits Rufio in the face.

Image result for hook feast
Only a child would find this many shades
of Cool-Whip appetizing.

It's so magical. It's so lovely. It's such a perfect example of how fantasy feasting can paint a world just right. The power of imagination is so potent in Neverland, it literally makes food appear. It's possibly the best fantasy feast ever because it's practically a post-modern fantasy feast where one actually feasts on fantasy.

Except in the book, that isn't how it works at all. In the book, Peter Pan is much more Fey and he actually CAN'T TELL THE DIFFERENCE between when he's only pretending to eat and when he's actually eating. And because they're the same to him, he expects the Lost Boys to treat make-believe food the same as real food and if they don't, he get's angry, because in the book, Peter is a fabulous, tyrannical dictator and Thou Dost Not Tell the Peter there is No Food. Instead, the Lost Boys just go to bed hungry because Peter is insane and oh my gosh, do I love that book.

But I'd much rather go to a feast that I was confident would actually exist.

The Hunger Games

Being about hunger, it's not surprising that food plays a key role in Suzanne's Collins books. When Katniss arrives at the decadent capital, the shallow populace is constantly eating. They eat so much, they make themselves throw-up so they can eat more. Famously, during her audition in front of the judges, they grow bored of watching her and start feasting and she gets so annoyed, she shoots an arrow through the apple of the suckling pig.

Image result for hunger games arrow pig
What is a feast without suckling pig?

The Hunger Games provides a decent example of using feasts to further the plot, whether Katniss is shooting apples or dancing with Plutarch Heavensbee. But overall, Katniss is so judgey of all the feasting, the reader never really wants to attend one . For some reason she finds feasting a bit uncouth when everyone's starving. Really harshes on the awesomeness of feasting.

It's not all bad, though. Katniss does rave about the lamb stew, but I think I'd rather feast somewhere that I don't have to feel terrible about myself for enjoying the food or where an angry rebel might try to shoot me while I eat.

Harry Potter

When Harry arrives at Hogwarts and has his first feast in the Great Hall, I think it's fair to say that all of us go veritably INSANE with joy at the thought of joining in. Everything is either British or magic or both and I think it's fair to say that British food never sounds so good as when J. K. Rowling describes a neglected orphan feasting on it.

Potter is one of those series that has spawned legions of recipes for fans to imitate - from pumpkin pasties, to butterbeer, everyone wants to replicate the Great Hall feasts. Who doesn't want house elves prepping their food and making it appear as if no one needed to order it?

Of course, the underlying house elf tensions that fuel the feasts are a bit uncomfortable come book four, but c'mon. Look at that feast! LOOK AT IT!!!!

Image result for great hall feast
Also: Feasting changes seasonally!
But... I must admit, I don't think this is the best feast out there. It's probably the best location. And it's got some cool foods added from the magic of the world. But most of it is sweets. Where are the main courses that you can only eat in the Potterverse? After you've sampled all the sweets and drank you're Butterbeer, you're going to be kind of jittery and buzzed at the same time, but what about a proper meal? You know, the HEART of a FEAST?????


Image result for redwall feastWe all have books from childhood that we can't entirely explain our obsession with. Books that we loved so dearly as kids, but then we start to notice some of the flaws of as we get older. For those who aren't familiar with them, the Redwall books are about mice and moles and otters and hares and badgers and other nice, English animals living in an abbey and... they're sort of monks, maybe?

Every book, they get attacked by evil English animals, like rats and weasels and voles and stouts. Sometimes even cats show up. One character got attacked by a nasty pike. And then they must save Redwall Abbey!

One of my toughest realizations in adolescence was when I came to terms with the fact that every book in the series had essentially the same plot and characters, going through the same motions. But one of the most important repeated elements of these books is that Redwall is not only under attack, it's under siege. Supplies must be managed carefully, because running out of food is not an option. You see, running out of food is the worst thing that could happen to a Redwall mouse, because those animals LIVE for nothing but hardcore FEASTING!!!!

I can't tell you how many times I have wanted to eat the shrimp gumbo that the otters always make so hot, they're crying after. Or Abbot Durral's Seventh Season Cake, which is always shown in meticulous preparation. Or the shrewbread or the salads or EVERYTHING. Redwall food is so vast, there is a Redwall cookbook now, with seasonal recipes, and I cannot tell you how much I want it.

The feasts in Redwall took several chapters - from a character suggesting one, to the preparation, to everyone finally eating, to everyone lounging around in a food coma after. It was amazing! AMAZING!!!! There was a small chance a group of stouts or rats would attack while you were feasting, but this is a small price to pay if it means you get to sample the spring trout.

In many ways, Redwall genuinely was about the feasts. You want to see the mice and their allies save the abbey over and over, because you want them to protect the homey, good feeling about the place. A feeling that is best personified by their intense love of food and sharing it with others. So yes, I genuinely believe that the feasts were a major part of why I loved those books so much.

I might want to live in Hogwarts castle more than I do Redwall Abbey, but even the Potterverse could learn a few things about feasting from these mice. They know what's going on.



Monday, February 20, 2017

Boys VS Books: Gaston and the Book with No Pictures

A little while ago, I started a new post series centered around the problems facing boys in regards to literacy. I framed the initial discussion around Disney's Beauty and the Beast and how reading is portrayed within that movie. The movie is famous for its positive portrayal of Belle as a modern, forward thinking princess, and that portrayal is driven home through her love of books. But while Belle is constantly shown reading, the men around her all have problematic relationships with books.

If you're interested in reading the earlier discussion, you can find the previous posts in this series here:

1. Boys vs Books: A Tale as Old as Time
2. Boys vs Books: Beating Back Against Busy

Today, we're looking at one of the three male characters Belle attempts to share her love of books with. Today, we have moved on to Gaston.

First off, I love this image. It cracks me up every time. Ahem...

From the perspective of a writer, this is one of the most problematic scenes in the movie. Belle's love of books is used as shorthand to convey her intelligence and independence to the viewer, so it's little surprise that they're similarly used as a tool to show that Gaston is stupid and domineering - the perfect threat when you consider that he fancies himself her suitor.

The domineering aspects of his personality come from the way he steals the book and eventually tosses it into a mud puddle. (I'm not going to argue. This is pretty low.)

The stupid comes from this line:

"How can you read this? There's no pictures!"

HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!! Hilarious! He thought the book should have pictures in it! What does he want? A children's book? Ridiculous!

In all honesty... the line is actually pretty funny. His reaction and his facial expression and his behavior are so oafish. It treads the line between mocking him but also making him a threatening presence. I can see why the filmmakers wrote it this way.

And yet that comment he makes about expecting a book to have pictures plays into some persistent cultural stereotypes about what books are "worthy" of praise and attention and what books are "unworthy." And wouldn't you guess it? The very books the movie is making fun of are among the books that little boys are most likely to find interesting.

I'm talking, of course, about comic books.

Words and Pictures

During my Master's program, I had an excellent professor who taught my foundation course on children's literature. He had a deep appreciation for old books, the history of the discipline, as well as an enthusiasm for what modern writers were doing now in children's literature. More than anyone, I heard him repeat the command to read, read, READ extensively within your genre if you wanted to create work of publishable quality. He also was a remarkable writer and someone whose work I continue to admire. I plan on being just like him when I grow up.

So let's say you want to teach your child to love books as much as he does. What is the foundation on which this enthusiasm for books was based? As it turns out, comics. As a kid, comics were a far more natural love for him than the books he was SUPPOSED to love. During adolescence, he wanted to be a comic book artist when he grew up, not a novelist. Hints of this still exist in his works, such as illustrated chapter titles.

Of course, for his chosen career path, he eventually had to fall in love with honest-to-goodness-pictureless books too, but the transition between an avid comic reader to a literature super fan is not as strange as it might seem on first glance.

During my research for this series of posts, I was struck by the fact that from the perspective of educators, many of the skills that fall under the umbrella of "literacy skills" are things that you can pick up from other forms of art. Skills like the ability to follow and explain a narrative, or the ability to empathize with a character. These skills can even be developed by having thoughtful discussions with your kids about the movies they watch.

But the amazing thing about comic books is that they provide a natural bridge between visual storytelling and text based storytelling. We're used to the notion that younger children use the pictures in their books to get hints at what the text might say. The same holds true with comics, but with the added bonus that the language and storylines have grown more complicated, since they're usually aimed at an older audience. Even if you have someone who has fine reading comprehension, comics might still help with reading engagement, since they provide helps for readers to visualize the world the story is describing.

And yes, an enthusiasm and passion for comics can lead to a passion for books. And vice versa. Yet you still hear things like what my professor once said when he told us, "I didn't read a lot as a kid. I mostly read comics."

Somehow, both those sentences contain the word "read" in them, because comics are a form of reading that doesn't "count." The Ontario School Board, in their work in boys literacy, notes that many boys who are labelled as poor readers often read far more than they think they do, but they don't believe what they do counts as real reading. They don't report that they frequently will read comics, instruction booklets for video games, sports magazines, web pages filled with information about baseball or animals or Minecraft or cars or whatever other hobbies they might have. Children are highly intuitive and they pick up quickly that adults don't place a lot of stock in reading those things. So is it any surprise that they don't value their own achievements in these areas?

The Price of Literary Elitism

To me, the comic book conundrum is symptomatic of larger problems that the book world has around literary elitism. Certain types of books tend to get valued more than others. Disdain for comics and magazines grows as we age to include an ever-increasing array of books. Oddly enough, it tends to smack people in the face along both gender lines. Romance is confined to a "pink ghetto" while science fiction gets treated like the quintessential "bad books for men."

I'll never forget the first writing course I ever took as a naïve undergrad student. My instructor explained the course syllabus and then had all of us introduce ourselves by name, and favorite book. It was the early 2000s, we averaged around 18 years old and you could see the side of his lip twitching as half the class announced their love for Harry Potter. Then he told us all, very flatly, "so you know, we only study literary fiction here. You won't be writing mystery, suspense, romance, science fiction or fantasy. They're all too formulaic. We want you to learn from great writers instead."

No wizards or spaceships. Both far too childish. We weren't to deal in the whiz-bang plots of thrillers, clearly intended only for the uneducated masses. And heaven help us if we wanted to write a story that existed solely to explain how people fall in love!

I can't tell you how much I wanted that writing program to work for me. I'd wanted to study writing my whole life. But sadly, I realized it wouldn't be during my undergrad, because my world of writing couldn't function if it had to be that small. (Incidentally, my main project for that class was a short story that took place during the after-life, and I got an A+ on it because my professor knew so little about speculative fiction, he never realized I'd tricked him into reading paranormal fantasy.)

Sometimes when I think back to that first undergraduate writing course I took, I'm amazed anyone reads at all. Or writes at all. There are so many people who are foaming at the mouth, eager for their chance to tell you that what you're reading is stupid. People who might not know much at all about the books that you love, but are dead certain you shouldn't waste your time on them.

Books! Books for everyone! You get a book! And you! AND YOU!!!!

I'm a firm believer that if we want to increase literacy, it doesn't happen by demanding people like very specific things. In one of my previous posts, I touched on how important it is to meet readers where they are, rather than insist they conform to your tastes. This should also mean NOT belittling what they're interested in.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that incorporating comics and other alternatives to traditional books in education is a balancing act. I'm not here to argue that comics should replace books or that literary fiction be thrown from the curriculum in favor of Harry Potter. What I hope is that they'll be treated more as allies in a common cause.

When I first read Howard's End, a classic novel from 1911, I fell in love so quickly with the text because it reminded me of Peter Pan. Plot-wise, the two books have nothing in common. One is decidedly sillier than the other. But you know what they do share? Time period. They're both Edwardian novels and I realized that part of what I liked about the books was a particular turn of phrase that was in style just before the start of the First World War. Pan prepared me to love a classic novel, and that in turn taught me to be more curious about literature from that whole time period.

The frivolous books of our childhood - the books with pictures - are often preparing and informing our taste in adult literature. And with the sophistication of many graphic novels and comics, they can continue to be an influence, worthy of engagement. It doesn't have to be an either/or.

Rethinking Belle

So like last time with the baker, let's attempt to re-imagine the scene where Gaston steals Belle's book and make it, ummm.... better?

Gaston: How can you read this? There's no pictures!
Belle: Well, there's actually a graphic novel version of The Graveyard Book too, if you're interested in seeing the story illustrated.
Gaston: Belle, that was just an excuse to start talking to you. I'd rather we talked about me now. *throws book into mud*

Look, he's the villain of the story. We can only do so much.