Confessions of a chronic spoiler

I’m that friend everyone hates; the one who bursts out the ending of a long-awaited movie, or accidentally reveals a crucial plot point from a new book.

I don’t do this on purpose. It’s more like someone goes, “Have you read Half-Blood Prince yet?” and I respond, “OMG yes! I can’t believe Snape killed Dumbledore!”

It’s really not my fault – you can see from the exchange that it’s not clear that the person has not read the book yet. In fact, I would argue that it’s reasonable to assume they have read it, otherwise why would they ask? To see if it’s good? If you’ve gotten that far in Harry Potter, I would think you’re pretty committed to the series.

Clearly, therefore, I am blameless. But if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you probably already know this about me – pretty much every review I post has a decent chunk of spoilers, which I indicate for the unsuspecting reader’s convenience.

The thing about spoilers is: they don’t bother me. Yes, they make a joke less funny, or a death less sad (which actually is okay by me, I don’t like being sad). But when it comes to media consumption, I believe it’s all about the destination, not the journey.

Case in point: I am a huge fan of Agatha Christie, who is also called the Queen of Crime. This woman is a genius. No one can hold a candle to her, and I love me a good murder mystery.

(Side note: Has anyone here ever seen “Columbo?” Because O. M. G.)

Back on topic. Hercule Poirot is the best character in English canon, and Ariadne Oliver is ultimate self-insert parody character.

As a result of my undying passion for Christie and her writing, I have read her books repeatedly. They’ve already been spoiled: I know who was murdered, how, and by whom. But what I don’t remember is why it happened and how Poirot and/or Miss Marple figured it out.

(Yes, I have read other non-Poirot, non-Miss Marple Christie stories. They’re great too, but Poirot and Marple are gems without which the stories lack that certain je ne sais quoi.)

That’s the beauty of Christie’s writing. Watching the detective put the pieces together, watching the characters knowingly and unknowingly reveal the psychological intricacies that will inevitably lead to Poirot crying out, “Ah, but I have been such an imbecile!,” or Miss Marple launching into a parallel story based in St. Mary Mead. That moment, when you’re scrambling to catch up to their deduction, wracking your brain for that elusive clue that’s just blown the case wide open, and then sitting through the dramatic reveal. Even if you know who did it, the drama of the moment, the intersecting narratives, the details that were irrelevant and distracting, the ones that were crucial and revealing. Some of these details I remember. Some of them I begin to recall as the story moves along. Some I don’t remember at all. Some I discover with the second, third, and fourth read.

It’s an experience that’s never spoiled. Maybe it’s less dramatic, less tense, but it is no less exquisite for having been lived before.

So to all the friends I’ve spoiled over the years, sorry. Maybe lead with the fact that you haven’t read the book yet. Geez.

Does anyone know who the Flintstones are anymore?

I am not old. I want to put that out there from the start so we’re all on the same page here. I am NOT old. Unfortunately, television seems to disagree with me.

First there was the Sailor Moon reboot three years ago, which apparently was rather unpopular. I wouldn’t know – I didn’t watch it because the new character designs freaked me out. And yes, I have seen the manga, and yes, Sailor Moon was not exactly known for its accurate portrayal of the female body in its original run. I still don’t see why their faces need to be so shiny.

Her hair was not this plasticy-looking in the manga. Also her face seems pointier. Originally from Tumblr.

Back to the point: this year, Sailor Moon is celebrating its 25th anniversary. You know who else celebrated a 25th anniversary this year? ME. Sailor Moon and I ARE THE SAME AGE.

But here’s what’s worse: last year, Dragon Ball turned 30. This show, which, along with Sailor Moon, took up a pretty decent chunk of my childhood, is actually older than I am. And it also has the weird shiny character design.

All this I can live with. Sure, it’s been a solid 15 years since I’ve seen these shows (as a kid. As an adult, I’ve rewatched some episodes. If you’re interested, Toonami is airing the Kai version of the Buu saga, which thank God, because those seasons take an eternity.). But 15 years is not that much in the scheme of things. It’s also been 15 years since I’ve worn braces, 15 years since I started wearing a headscarf, 15 years since I put on my first pair of glasses. So big whoop.

But that’s not where it stops. Oh no! I recently watched an episode of “Teen Titans Go!” (yes, I watch a lot of cartoons. Let me enjoy my life!) where they parodied “Scooby Doo,” complete with a dogified Beast Boy, glasses-wearing Raven, and a masked villain(s).

Image result for raven as velma
Photo via YouTube.

You know when “Scooby Doo” first aired?

1969.

And it’s not only Cartoon Network that has it out for me. Disney’s getting in on the fun too. Did you know that the original “Beauty and the Beast” was released in 1991??? And “Mulan,” which is also getting the live-action treatment (which people already hate), was first released in 1998.

Here’s another one. Guess when the first episode of “The Flintstones” aired. Go on. I’ll wait.

Ready? The correct answer is 1960.

Turns out the Flintstones were the original Simpsons. And so in the 1990s, I was watching a cartoon that was already 30 years old. “The Flintstones” is basically my parents’ age.

Speaking of which, you know all those Flintstones Fruity Pebbles commercials on TV? Do kids today even know who the Flintstones are, or is it a “floppy disk is the save button” thing where they only know them as the guys on the cereal box? Do they even know the theme song?!

I’m not really depressed about the situation. It’s actually kinda nice to relive one’s childhood like this. But it is pretty weird to relive your childhood when you’ve only just become an adult. It’s also pretty jarring to realize just how much time has passed. Twenty years is a lot of time at the individual level, and it can be hard to remember that 20 years in the life of a young adult is not that much. If you were five 20 years ago, then you spent more than half of those years in school, which as we all know, Does Not Count.

So in conclusion, I will continue to watch cartoons, enjoy my life, and look down on kids who eat Fruity Pebbles but don’t know that the Flintstones are a modern Stone Age family from the town of Bedrock. Those fake fans.

Creativity: Maybe she’s born with it

Creativity is, I think, something that everyone strives for. Not everyone is an artist or a designer or a writer (and not every writer is doing creative work), but in general, I think people like to see themselves as creative, whether that’s by thinking outside the box within their profession, or with a fun hobby. So the question is, are you born creative, or is it a skill you can develop?

According to an article in “The Guardian,” research shows that there are “creativity genes” which impact the way our brains transfer information between different lobes. Basically, the more connective pathways your brain has, the more likely you are to be able to see connections and patterns, and therefore the more likely you are to be creative. (There’s also some stuff in there about the sizes of lobes and fibers and so forth.)

Of course, there’s a nurture component as well: you can hardly see connections and patterns if you’re poor and starving, for example. Trauma also has a negative impact on one’s ability to be creative.

But going back to our original topic, can you learn to be creative? I think that everyone has creative potential, just not in the same areas. We tend to think of creativity as being the purview of artists, writers, and increasingly, entrepreneurs and those in the tech industry. But there’s creativity everywhere: NASA just discovered a bunch of new planets. I mean, true, they didn’t build them, but the idea of looking for other planets and in that specific place, not to mention all the technology and breakthroughs that have built up over decades to lead us to this discovery – if that’s not creative, what is?

I think creativity is a lot like learning styles. Musicians and voice actors probably have auditory creativity, where they learn by hearing and, more importantly, visualize in sound. I know that kinda seems like an oxymoron, but bear with me here. I’m a visual learner, I need to read something to understand it. If you tell me something, especially directions, I will forget them almost immediately. I have to write stuff down, and by write stuff, I mean write with pen and paper like it’s the ’50s.

But not only am I a visual learner, I am also tend to think in words (vs. thinking in pictures – most people use a combo, leaning towards visual thinking. I use a combo too, but a lot of my thinking happens in words). Example: when I read Harry Potter, I don’t imagine Harry/Daniel in my head running around the Forbidden Forest. Instead, I see a thought bubble with the word “Harry” in it, and that is basically the stand-in for the character in the imaginary world in my mind.

I see Hogwarts, but in a limited space. So for example, if Harry and co. are in the common room, I only see the table or couch they’re sitting on, with no connection to the wider space. Similarly, the Room of Requirement is in an empty hallway – it has no spatial connection to the rest of the school.

It occurs to me now that this limit of spatial visualization is why I’m so bad at directions.

The point is, given this information, it’s not surprising that my first love was reading and that my main creative outlet is writing. I like to draw and paint, but without specific instruction I tend to end up with random blobs (I can draw flowers though! Mostly because I draw them as blobs with a yellow bit in the middle). Even when I visualize something in my head, transferring it onto paper requires a stronger grasp on distance and proportion than I currently have.

However, we must ask ourselves which came first: visual text-based mental wiring, or the love of reading? Could the early introduction to books have set up my brain to receive and process information in word form? Or did I fall in love with books because my brain likes to receive and process information in word form?

“The Guardian” article would suggest the latter. I know that reading and reading and reading like there’s no next Tuesday has hugely improved my writing. In theory, that should be true for everyone. Creativity, I think, is more about what you’re willing to embrace and how you’re willing to embrace it (as determined, in part, by genetics), rather than a some-people-have-it-some-people-don’t ability.

 

If you write fiction, you’re probably self-inserting

If you’ve ever had the (mis)fortune of delving into the murky waters of fanfiction, you’ve likely come across a Mary Sue character: a young and beautiful women who is as close to perfect as possible and universally adored.

(Fun Fact: According to TV Tropes, the “Mary Sue” character first became a Thing in a Star Trek parody fanfic.)

The thing about Mary Sue (and her brother, Gary Stu) is that she is almost always an author self-insert. We wish we were perfect (and in a smolderingly romantic relationship with our favorite show/book’s main character), so we create this version of ourselves: beautiful, strong, kind, honest, talented – just all around amazing.

Your self insertion is like your better twin. Which one is “better” is something I’ll let you decide.

Which is fine. If you’ve ever written any kind of fiction at all, you’ve probably done the Mary Sue thing. Writing is, at it’s heart, an exercise in self-reflection, an attempt to understand oneself and one’s place in the world through the power of imagination. This, I believe, is a basic human instinct. When you dressed up as your mother in your long-gone (I assume, since you’re on the internet) preschool days, putting yourself in her shoes (literally), it was a kind of self-reflection. By pretending to be your mother, you entertain the idea that you will one day become your mother, a notion you will undoubtedly recoil from a mere 10 years later. But I digress. The point is, the urge to write a self-insert character is present in every writer.

It’s worth noting that not every self-insert character is automatically a Mary Sue. You might find yourself going in the opposite direction, highlighting and exaggerating the flaws you see in yourself as a form of self-flagellation, or perhaps as an attempt to reconcile yourself to those flaws. Perhaps you tend to insert yourself as a side character, someone in the background who’s main role lies in observation – kinda like you are in real life (which is not a bad thing, btw. More people should observe).

Or maybe you’re the narrator. Technically, all writers are the narrator of everything they write. Here, I mean this more literally. Your narrator is of  the all-seeing, all-knowing variety who does not merely recount the facts of the story but influences it’s path. Lemony Snicket, for example, laments the sad story of the Baudelaire siblings even as he commits to telling the reader every last harrowing detail. A form of grappling with control, or lack thereof, in Daniel Handler’s own life? I have no idea, but if I had to guess, that would be it.

Geez, what a downer.

Tom Holt’s “Alexander at the World’s End” has this kind of narrator.  Euxenus son of Eutychides is telling the story of his life in the court of Alexander the Great, after having lived a long life. He is now dying in a small outpost at the end of world and is telling this story to some unnamed young man, who stands in place of the reader. By reflecting on his life, Euxenus considers the myriad coincidences and random events that guided his life and led him to this, his final resting place, thousands of miles from his homeland. And perhaps, in a way, Holt is also considering the twists and turns his own life has taken. Or not. I don’t know, but speculating is fun.

How does one get their own talk show? Asking for a friend.

(Also, I highly, highly recommend “Alexander at the World’s End.” It is one of my favorite books of all time.)

One of my favorite authors in the world, Terry Pratchett, does this too, I think. If you look at some of his main characters – Sam Vimes, William de Worde, Moist Von Lipwig – they’re all provocateurs. They’re different people, of course, in different times and with different priorities, roles, and concerns, but they all have the same characteristic in common: they don’t accept the status quo, and it is ultimately that characteristic which drives their stories. Did Pratchett see himself this way? His books are very political in nature, especially for the fantasy genre, and draw deliberate parallels between Discworld and our world. If the pen is mightier than the sword, I would say that Pratchett wielded his pen in much the same way Vimes wields his badge or de Worde wields his printing press.

I want to end on this note: if you want to read a hilarious parody of a Mary Sue character, read George Macdonald Fraser’s “The Pyrates.” I read it a hundred years ago but I still remember it, and let me tell you, the only book I have ever laughed so hard at is “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Captain Ben Avery is literally the most perfect human man to every exist in the universe: women fall over themselves trying to get his attention, while he remains utterly indifferent. It’s not just Avery – every character is an exaggerated stereotype, all of which serves to take the story in the weirdest and wildest directions. (It also makes the plot a little hard to follow, but let’s face it, this isn’t the kind of thing you read for the plot). If you like insanity, you’ll like this.

Bringing the superhero girls – and the princess girls

This morning, I watched Dr. Christopher Bell, a professor of media studies at the University of Colorado, ask an important question: why are the superhero girls in the movie theaters not present in stores?

It’s not like I didn’t know that superhero merchandising skews heavily towards males, but when you see it on display, when you hear the facts and figures, it’s honestly shocking. As Dr. Bell points out, not only are female superheros not represented, they are actually removed and replaced with male characters.

The video is a little old (it’s from a TEDx talk held in October 2015), so I decided to do a little research and see if this was still the case. After all, the gendering of toys has been a topic of much debate for a while now, and I figured maybe things have changed. So I went ahead and googled “childrens superhero toys.”

This is what I got:

These are the first results that are not ads. As you can see, the very first thing that comes up is a post from “Joys for Boys.” And look, I am all about boys having joy. Boys deserve joy. But the fact that is the first result, before stores that actually sell superhero toys, goes to show just how heavily gendered the media has made superheros. As you may well know, Google ranks results by popularity and by how well they connect with similar content, so this is pretty telling.

But just to be fair, I checked out the top two toy stores that came up to see what they were selling.

Amazon:

Of all the results on the first page (you can only see a small part here), only one of the toys featured a female character as prominently as it did the males.

Here’s Toys R Us’ Marvel section:

Hey, the very first toy is a girl! She’s being promoted by the site, sure, but hey! GwenPool is a great character too – because not only is she an awesome female hero holding her own in the Marvel Universe, but her outer appearance reflects a pink girly vibe that is often looked down upon in comic book culture (and let’s face it, the world in general). Sadly though, dear Gwen is alone – the rest of the page is dominated by male characters.

So yeah, not much of a difference in the last year and a half. Although in fairness, Disney specifically has introduced female superhero toys from its Marvel and Star Wars franchises. Hooray for progress!

For me personally, though, the problem is not with the representation of female characters in merchandising as much as it is with the notion that the qualities and interests we associate with girls are inherently beneath the qualities and interests we associate with boys. This is something that Dr. Bell addresses in the video, but there’s a link here that he doesn’t really expand on; namely, that part of the push for female superheros (in my view) is a result of that subconscious preference we as a society have for “boy things.”

We have gendered qualities like smart, strong, and just, and made it so that the women we see embodying those qualities most are women functioning in a male-dominated environment doing activities that have been long associated with males (all while remaining conventionally attractive). In many ways, that is a reflection of society at large, where many women often find themselves in male-dominated environments doing “guy stuff.” And in those situations, they have to prove that are just as smart and strong as men.

The thing though, is that yes. Yes absolutely, let women be superheros, kicking ass and taking names. Let them wear black on black on black, leather jackets, and high-thigh boots. Let them wear torn jeans and no makeup while they punch people through walls. Yes! I’m all about that stuff.

But I’m also about “girl stuff.” Let them wear dresses and cute shoes and makeup. Let them delegate the dirty work because they don’t want to break a nail. (It takes time to get your nails done properly! You wouldn’t want to ruin all that hard work either. And no, it’s not superficial to care about how you look – it’s human nature, as evidenced by the long aisles of male hair care and skincare products). And don’t roll your eyes at them or make fun of them. They’re kicking ass and taking names their own way, and they are just as smart and just as strong as men. They’re just as smart and just as strong as YOU.

This is what we should be teaching children, all children. You can like superheros and be cool, and you can like be princesses and be cool, too. You can like both! Because the qualities that make you a good person have no gender.

YouTube stories on diversity with Arif Choudhury and more

I was recently introduced to the YouTube channel JustStories through Arif Choudhury, a storyteller, filmmaker, and stand-up comic. Arif travels the country telling stories of his Muslim upbringing that tackle issues of religion, identity, and diversity.

Arif has a series on the JustStories channel where he talks about growing up as a Bangledeshi Muslim American, and how that has influenced his view of himself and others. His stories illustrate the diversity of the American experience – for example, in the video below, he discusses the diversity among American Muslims in how they view and practice their religion:

The video resonated with me because I think it’s a common experience for many people,

The JustStories channel is a project of RaceBridgesStudio, which itself is a project of the Chicago Province of the Order of the Divine Word, a Catholic religious order. According to their website, RaceBridgesStudio is essentially a resource for discussions on race relations and diversity.

The channel features videos from Noa Baum, Charlotte Blake Aston, who performs stories from African and African-American oral history, Shannon Cason, who has appeared on NPR and Tedx, and many more. The stories are all very different but they are all passionately told by people who clearly believe that human beings are ultimately good.

Here’s another from Arif:

And this, from Noa Baum, which I found particularly touching:

Frustrated? Embrace the potential for creativity

Are you familiar with the “group project” memes that have germinated all over the Internet?

Does this one resonate particularly strongly with you?

Via Tumblr
Via Tumblr

If you answered yes to these two questions, boy do I have good news for you!

In a TEDTalk, “Financial Times” columnist and author Tim Harford put forth the idea that frustration actually improves creativity and problem-solving skills.

Using examples from social psychology, rock n’ roll, and the German opera, Harford shows how disrupting factors – the things that trip you up, ruin your work, and complicate your process – are actually helping you think outside the box and do better.

According to Harford, strategic, predictable step-by-step processes can lead you to a dead end. You can only see what’s already there, and if there’s something wrong with your process, you can end up making the same mistakes over and over again. When you introduce an element of randomness, you’re forced to approach things differently, which makes for an end result that is new and different from what you’ve done before.

This isn’t just a theory. In practice, it’s called “oblique strategies” – a group of index cards list disruptive (and frankly annoying) things you can do to create obstacles in the creative process, and you pick one at random and implement it.

Because this whole idea is so counter-intuitive (making things harder makes them better? What?), our natural instinct is to shy away from it. What kind of masochist wants to make the difficult and often emotionally and physically draining task of making something even more complicated?

This is why, Harford says, when life doesn’t supply the randomness, you have to force yourself to find way to throw a wrench into your own plans.

So the next time you get an A+++ on a group project, you’ll know who to thank:

these-guys

You can find Tim Harford’s books on economics and creativity at the Creative Quibble bookstore.

The bizarre world of home improvement television

In case it isn’t already incredibly obvious, I watch a lot of television. What can I say? We get some pretty good channels at our place.

One of the channels we get (which will remain unnamed, lest I anger the Producers That Be) is dedicated to real estate and home renovations. If I had to guess, I’d say that this channel runs around eight different shows at a time. “Different,” however, is a strong word. These shows all run on one of two premises:

  1. A couple are moving to a new city and looking for a home in which to live. Both have very specific requirements for this home which are, more often than not, irreconcilable. A harried real estate agent accomplishes the impossible – finding them a home they both like – by showing them exactly three houses.
  2. An old house, rundown by time and probably weather, having suffered the neglect of man and woman and finally abandoned by the populace, is rescued from obscurity by a kindly, creative couple/siblings/single person determined to give it a new lease on life and on ownership, so that it may once again fulfill its housely destiny as a home for a family of three/five/seven/eleven/etc.

So, eight programs, all based on premise or the other. It is amazing to me that this kind of situation can occur and apparently be very profitable for said channel, although given the fact that there are approximately three separate “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” shows on at any given time, perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised.

And let’s face it, that’s basically what we’re watching, isn’t it? Yes, it’s interesting to see what you can get for your money in Chicago or wherever, or what kind of furniture goes with blue wallpaper, but that’s just a sideshow next to the real entertainment.

Why can't they indeed, Liz Lemon.
Why can’t they indeed, Liz Lemon.

What’s truly entertaining is watching couples bicker about budgets and yard size and “curb appeal,” a term I learned recently. It’s a short window into the relationships, but through it you can glimpse (and snigger) at the power dynamics. You’d think there’s enough conflict on television, but apparently not.

I don't know if these two are married, but they should be.
I don’t know if these two are married, but they should be.

 

Regardless of the whys and hows, it’s obviously a winning formula, because it seems that every time I turn on the television I see an ad for a new show based on the exact same premise. Clearly, this unnamed channel and its army of real estate agents and contractors are raking it in.

It makes you want to get into the real estate industry.

Is writer’s block a real thing?

You ever hear yourself talk about why you can’t do something and get this nagging feeling that maybe you’re just making excuses?

That’s how I feel whenever I hear the phrase “writer’s block.” It feels like the kind of thing you say when you just can’t muster the energy or willpower to work – an adult version of “the dog ate my homework” if you will.

Then again, I do experience what I legitimately believe is a sense of obstruction, a lack of inspiration, a feeling like the words are slipping in and out of your consciousness. A mental constipation. Just when you think you finally need to go,  you’re right back where you started from.

Walls and blocks seem to serve as a metaphor for a lot of bowel-movement-related advertising lately.
Walls and blocks seem to serve as a metaphor for a lot of bowel-movement-related advertising lately.

So is writer’s block a real, proper affliction of the mind? A quick Google search (good ole Google – yes you will one day rule us all with a Big Brother-esque dominance, but you will be a gentle and informative master) assures me that writer’s block is real enough that many trusted resources have dedicated time and space to addressing the issue. Purdue OWL, my go-to dispenser of wisdom for matters of APA comma placement, has several suggestions based on why you have writer’s block – you’re too stressed out, you don’t want to write about the topic assigned, you want to write about something without knowing what that something is (this, I assume, is their euphemistic way of saying ‘lazy.’)

In my experience, writer’s block is more likely to happen when you don’t have a clear vision of what you’re doing or where you’re going. That’s not what causes writer’s block though – I think the cause is probably a combination of mood and a lack of interest in a work or lack of belief in it. Those are the things that prevent you from writing at all, that have you staring at a page, having only been able to come up with “BY [NAME].”

[This, in fairness, is how I start all my writing projects. It’s part narcissism, part ease, part “I forget to put my name on an assignment once and got a zero” paranoia.]

When you know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there, it’s always easier to write. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to know the end, but you know the point. Even if your phrases are stilted and your vocabulary has seemingly shrunk to somehow include only words that would be more suitable for a 40-page treatise on the history of economic theory in Western thought (one of the many pleasant side effects of grad school), you can still write. It may not be particularly good, but it’s there and good can always come later. It’s when you don’t know where you’re going or why you’re writing that even the most creative and original ideas will sit on your page undeveloped and unfulfilled.

What’s a gal to do?

Of course, this is not exactly a breaking development in the understanding of writer’s block – in fact, a book my dad bought me when I was a teenager counselled exactly this: know where you’re going to end up before you start. It’s good advice and one that I should follow more often.

The problem is if you do have a really interesting (I won’t say great since it seems presumptuous, nevertheless feel free to assume it here) idea but you don’t have a vision for where it’s going to go, do you jot it down and then sit on it until you figure it out, or do you work with it to the best of your ability and hope that inspiration strikes eventually? Because when I do the former, I end up with a bunch of promising but unwritten stories, and when I do the latter I get writer’s block.

Writer and author Henneke Duistermaat doesn’t say exactly what I should do in this case, but she does have a lot of advice on how to overcome writer’s block. For her, it’s all about getting out of that routine that can sometimes suck the life out of you. Change where you write, she advises, or even the time of day you sit to write. Switch out your fonts, or hey, even change the color from boring black to intense hot pink. The idea is that change in your surroundings can jumpstart your mind.

James Altucher, who writes some really thought-provoking stuff on LinkedIn, says, “Start with the blood.” Sometimes the most frustrating part about writing is that you know something good is coming up in your plot, but you can’t seem to find your way there yet. So just jump ahead! It’s the kind of thing that would never occur to my linear mind, but it’s genius as far as I’m concerned.

Of course, not all advice is golden, and not all of it will work for everyone. For example, Altucher suggests reading before you start writing, but for me, that just serves to muddle my thoughts and distort my style. I’m a bit of sponge that way. But what I do find helpful is visual inspiration – just scrolling through photos and artwork online can motivate and encourage me. That is what originally motivated me to compile a list of all the websites I go to for inspiration.

So, in conclusion, there exists sufficient evidence to determine that writer’s block is certainly perceived as being very real by many established writers. If nothing else, that should at least comfort those of us who are still amateurs.

What do you do when you have writer’s block? Tell us in the comments!

 

Writing heroes we love to hate and hate to love

Whether you’re writing for the screen or the page, having an anti-hero character is becoming increasingly common. The reason is simple: anti-heroes, being much less determinedly honorable, are often easier to relate to. We see ourselves more easily in the anti-hero, someone who is far from perfect in a world that seems determined to make them miserable.

It’s here where a lot of confusion can start to crop up, because from where I’m sitting there’s a lot of overlap between the Reluctant Hero type and the Anti-Hero type. If you think about it, the anti-hero has plenty of reasons to be reluctant. Maybe they’ve done this before and don’t want to do it again. Maybe they know their abilities aren’t up to snuff. Maybe they just don’t want to have to sit through another one of the hero’s “Love, Honor, Friendship” speeches for the 40th time. And it is within these insecurities and annoyances that we find a kind of camaraderie, a parallel in our day-to-day lives.

Do we have to save the world?

So you’ve got your anti-hero. She doesn’t want to save the world, and she’s being kind of a jerk about it already. But of course she has to go, otherwise you have no story and that simply won’t do. How do we motivate her? Let’s use that friend of all Tumblr geeks aficionados, the Alignment Chart:

Man I miss this show. Via tall-T on DeviantArt, see it here.

Your traditional hero would be in the Lawful Good or Neutral Good categories – both want to achieve a goal they see as being moral. The former’s focus on is on achieving that goal while following the rules, while the latter is more flexible on following the rules to achieve said goal. Your anti-hero, on the other hand, is probably going to fall either into one of the neutral categories, where their motivation has nothing to do with the morality of the goal in question, or they’ll be in the chaotic good category, where they do what needs to be done to achieve the moral good.

One of my favorite examples of a neutral anti-hero is Rincewind the Wizard from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, who is described as being such a coward he’s gone all the way around to being a hero again. Rincewind isn’t a reluctant hero, he is adamant that he will not go on this quest, spending all his time and energy trying and failing to avoid confrontations that will require him to do anything remotely heroic. When he’s first introduced to us in The Color of Magic, he offers to help out a tourist visiting the city of Ankh-Morpork, only to find himself smack in the middle of an interstate diplomatic spat. It’s hilariously funny, but it’s also induces our sympathy. Rincewind didn’t ask for this. He was just trying to do a nice thing (and yeah, okay, make some good money, fine. But that’s not a crime!) and now he’s on the hit list of a minister in a country he’s never even seen before.

(Or something along those lines. I’ll admit now that it’s been a while since I’ve read The Color of Magic.)

An anti-hero that’s a better fit under Chaotic Good is Jessica Jones of MarvelxNetflix’s (Marvflix?) Jessica Jones. Jessica, like Rincewind, is our protagonist, and she’s absolutely the hero in the sense that she has actual superhero powers. But again, she doesn’t want to be the hero. Given the choice, she would trade her powers and her trauma for a quiet life private detectiv-ing. But once she sees what must be done, she throws herself fully into stopping the psychotic and powerul killer on the loose. Once she’s made her decision, she does whatever it takes to achieve that goal.

Putting the parts together

So what does this tell us about effective anti-heros? They need to have a couple basic characteristics:

  • Personal reasons to root for them: In any story, we don’t just root for the good guy because they’re not the bad guy. This is not an election. We root for them because of some inherent characteristic within them that makes them “worthy” of the win. With Jessica, we want her to defeat Killgrave not only because he’s a terrible person and a murderer, but because we want Jessica to overcome her trauma. Jessica deserves to defeat him because of everything he did to her, and we sympathize with that. Yes, it is a revenge, but revenge is arguably the oldest and most relatable motive in history.
  • Ultimately be good people, for a given amount of goodness: Kris Noel writes that even the hero has to have a balance of negative and positive characteristics to make them real. This is of course true for the anti-hero as well. They can’t just be surly, unlovabale jerks who happen to be in the right place at the right time for our story. Take Rincewind: he’s a coward, and given a choice he would go home and let the world around him explode. But he’s also a humble, kindhearted, and helpful person, and definitely much less of selfish, short-sighted jerk than many of the other wizards we encounter over the course of Discworld. 
  • They have relationships that create human stakes: Someone needs to care if these people die. After all, if no one in the actual story cares about them, why should you? Jessica Jones has an adoptive sister who loves her and a kinda-sorta love interest. Rincewind has his friend the Librarian and the Luggage (which technically isn’t a person, but can still feel so it counts). Throughout his many adventures, he’s also able to make enough of a pathetic positive impression on people that someone somewhere will care enough to try to help him escape whoever’s chasing him this time. This is actually a crucial part of all Rincewind’s stories. Someone has to help hide him, because you can only run for so long.

Within these basic structures, there’s plenty of room to develop a character that drives your story. Maybe she’s more reluctant than anti, or more anti than reluctant. Maybe she’s the anti-hero of the bad guys, or the anti-hero of law enforcement. Go wild.

Who are some of your favorite anti-heroes in books, television, or movies? Comment below!