Monday, December 30, 2013

Normal Snowflakes

People are not normal.

Ask any family and they will say they, as a group, are crazy. I am not questioning the truth of the statement. Most families are, in fact, crazy, especially when they’re all together. My own family has a tendency towards craziness, or maybe riotousness. Anyone who’s ever been in the same room with us will tell you that when we’re all talking at once and we can’t hear each other, we fix it all by shouting louder. It doesn’t bother most of us, because we’re used to it. And things get crazy.

The thing is, no matter how uniquely crazy I thought my family is, I’ve realized that other people think the same things about their families. 

Is it just that people want to be unusual, unique, that humans have an inborn desire to stand out, at least privately? So they claim craziness in an effort to avoid being ordinary?

Or is it that “normal” is a myth, that in reality, people are never normal.

Normal, according to the dictionary, is a noun or an adjective referring to the usual, average, typical state or condition of things.
And in some ways there is such a thing. There is a normal body temperature, normal childhood development, normal weather for this time of year. Normal in that sense can be a good thing. It implies that, good or bad, this is to be expected and can be survived. 

But is there such a thing as a normal person? An average person? What characterizes the “typical human being?”

There are normal people according to many books and movies. High schools have the jock who plays football, and the nerd who is ostracized, and the mean girl, who is always beautiful and a cheerleader. (Did it ever occur to them that ugly people are capable of meanness too?)
But in real life people don’t go in the little boxes that fictional people can be trimmed to fit into. And even in fiction the best characters are the ones that are far from normal. The ones that break barriers, are anything but average, and stand out.

Saying “a normal person” is like saying “a normal snowflake.” 
Sure, they’re all made of frozen water and they all have six sides. They’re all the same, normal, as long as you don’t look too close.
But look at a snowflake under a microscope and it is a wonder of crystal ice and glassy lace.

Get to know a person, a family, a group of people and they are unique and marvelous individual creations of God.

There are no normal people.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Choice and Compassion (Villains: Part Three)

What kind of villain is best?

That depends on what kind of story you want. Here's my take on what the three kinds of villains do to stories:

Scum add plot, not character. They are not bad for the story, you can develop your hero without personalizing your villain, but they’re not really even characters. They make no choices. They’re just “the bad guys.” They’re someone, something, for the good guys to fight. This is a villain for a clean cut, old fashioned “fighting bad guys” story. Often they are the villains of action movies or some of the bad guys in fantasy stories. They exist not just to die but to be killed. It is the hero who makes any choices regarding them, easy choices, like, “Which sword do I use to cut off it’s head?”

The fallen can be just something for the good guys to fight, but they have more to offer. The fallen want nothing more than to bring others with them into their fall. And so, as the dragon tempted the knight, they will try to trick and draw the heros into becoming nothing better than the evil they fight. The hero’s response to this gives you a myriad of opportunities. Does he stand firm and remain true to his values? Does he slip and then repent his mistake? Is he drawn into becoming one of the led astray? Or does he weigh the lies in the balance and choose death, becoming, as the villain wished, one of the fallen?
These are the villains of fantasy more than any other genre. They are the Black King and the Dark Lord, they are powerful as well as evil. This is a category that you can make any species fit into, but the most naturally suited to the part are those that are so far gone, they are not only evil themselves but they control all other evil things. They cause fear, they corrupt and destroy, they are dangerous. They force the hero to make the most important choice, one that will decide whether he remains a hero or not.

While the led astray can also develop the character of the hero, they are characters in their own right. They are not just, “the bad guy.” They may not show any inclination towards doing the right thing at first, but they do still have a conscience. They are still struggling, still choosing, still human. Sometimes, like the fallen, they may try to corrupt the hero. Misery loves company: they’ll feel better about themselves if they’re not the only ones on the path to destruction. Often they envy the hero. They see the choices they could have made and weep.

These are my favorite villains. They elicit compassion, and it is that which makes them human, makes them a character. Someone still loves them. Even if they are so wicked that there is only one man or woman in the story who still loves them, it is enough. At least one person, mother, sister, brother or even just the reader, weeps at their death. Because there was a chance for them. Whether they chose life or death, it was theirs to choose. They not only make the hero choose, but they are also choosing for themselves.
And choice is story.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Dragon's Blood (Villains: Part Two)

St. George and the Dragon

What difference does it make, which kind of villain a story has?

 It’s the same story either way, right? A knight battles a dragon.


Imagine a story about a knight battling dragons. Three dragons.

All three kill men, burn villages, and slaughter sheep. They kill more than they need, they incinerate for no good reason, they waste and destroy. They are villains, evil, wicked, and the knight sets off to free his land from these scourges.

The first dragon crawled from beneath a mountain. His scales, skin, and flesh are charcoal black. He loves evil, takes pleasure in burning villages and slaughtering sheep. He plays with death, spreading it about for entertainment. He was born like that, has always been that way. He is a wicked beast. No matter how smart he is, no matter if he had reasoning powers, he is a brute.

The second dragon fell from the sky. Somewhere up there he chose darkness, and it has pervaded his body until he too has black flesh. His scales are black as well, although when he washes they turn white again for a brief time until the darkness in his heart overcomes their natural color once more. He hates men for what they stand for, creatures that cling to a sense of morality no matter how depraved they become. Like the first beast, he kills for fun. For him, however, it is a different kind of fun. Not only does it offer him the pleasure of seeing that which he hates suffer, it has the added thrill of rebellion. He was created good, but he has chosen evil.

The third dragon was once a man. He got lost, made wrong choices, took the wrong path and became enchanted. He hates men because he is one, he sees their humanity and envies it. But he hates himself more. He burns villages in anger and then swoops down into the furnace he created to save a child crying and lost in the burning street. He kills fields of sheep, finding pleasure in his power, then weeps at what he has become. Betrayed and angry, he kills men, but he wants nothing more than to go back to the time when he was a man himself.

The first dragon will kill, be killed, or slink back into his hole to emerge somewhere else. He waits for the knight in the cave that he lives in. He will try every dirty tactic he knows. He has no sense of fighting fair, if he did, he wouldn’t care.
Eustace the dragon, from The Voyage
of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis.
The young knight engages, and after a hard struggle, kills the beast. The victory is complete. There is no sorrow, the brute was wicked and evil. The knight picks up his shield, shines his blackened armor, and sets out towards the second dragon.

The second dragon will kill, be killed, or turn the knight to the side of darkness. He waits on the top of a hill, watching the knight struggle uphill toward him. Unlike the first dragon, he knows perfectly well that his position gives him an unfair advantage. He chose the place on purpose.
His first aim is to wear the knight out. He dodges and ducks, not really fighting, raising hopes only to dash them, until the young knight is exhausted physically and mentally. And then the temptation begins.
He gives the knight opportunity after opportunity to fight dirty. He want to kill the knight, but even more than that, he wants the knight to do something unfair.
The knight struggles to continue to fight fair. Once he begins to give in, but stops. The fight wears on. The dragon starts to get flustered and frustrated. He makes a mistake and the young knight wounds him. Furious, the dragon throws himself on the young knight, and as they fall together the knight drives his sword into his heart.
The knight has won, but he is exhausted and wounded. It has been the fight of his life. He almost yielded to the dragon’s temptation and he feels his own vulnerability. His armor has been blackened by the dragon’s blood and not all of it will come off. He makes his way to the nearest village to recover before fighting more dragons.

The third dragon waits in an open field. He has heard of the knight coming. He is afraid, knowing that the knight is an expert dragon killer, but some part of him doesn’t care. He feels that death might be better than life as a dragon. 
The knight approaches cautiously, expecting a trap, but the dragon turns toward him and sends a fireball hurtling past him, a sort of warning shot. Then he attacks, with desperation and a desire to have it over.
The battle is fierce and dramatic. There is fire and explosions, a flashing sword and bent shield. The dragon and the man are both wounded, and blood is everywhere, but this dragon’s blood does not turn armor black. It is bright red, like the knight’s blood.
Finally, the desperate struggle ends. The dragon collapses upon the grass, but as it dies, it begins to shrink and change, until lying before the knight is a man. 

A man who opens his eyes to a world in which he is free at last.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Of Scum, the Fallen, and the Led Astray (Villains: Part One)

Many stories need villains, and for the infamy of playing villain the scum, the fallen, and the led astray compete.

The scum are evil. They do what is wrong for no reason other than that it is wrong. They delight in pain and suffering, they hate joy, peace, and love. They wallow in darkness and filth. The only thing anyone wants for them is death. There is no hope or even desire for redemption. They are evil born and bred and there is no good thing in them. 
They are not the fallen, for to fall one must have started high, and characters like these have crawled from below, not fallen from above. They come from darkness and unto darkness they will return. 

 The fallen are also evil. They also do what is wrong for wrongness’ sake. They too hate joy, peace and love and delight in pain and suffering. 
But they are not like the scum. They do not come from darkness.
The fallen have tasted heaven and spit it out. They have seen light and, unsatisfied, tried to conquer it. Their pride is insurmountable, they want to be above the sky. They were not born evil. They were born with a love for beauty, but in their quest to find it they forgot what they were looking for and thought that beauty was in themselves. They want to sit on top of the world, but, since in goodness there is no High Seat for the selfish, they turned away from goodness, valuing themselves above all else.
The fallen were not always evil. But they are even further from the good they were born for than the scum are, because they chose to turn to darkness for their own ends.

The led astray are not evil. They may do the works of darkness but they do not love it. The led astray were trapped as children, ensnared by the fallen, enslaved by the scum. They are deceived into thinking darkness is light, tricked into thinking that evil is good, or frightened into doing wrong. They know not what they do. Or, if they know, they do that which they hate.
They were born in the light and covered by the shadows. They tried to choose right but failed and lost their way. They have been led astray, by others or even by themselves. But a part of them still longs for what they have lost.
Forgiveness is their only hope. 

What difference does it make which kind of villain a story has? A lot of difference. 

I would argue that it can define the story. 

(To be continued)

Monday, December 16, 2013

Tell me everything....or don't.

"Le secret d'ennuyer est celui de tout dire."
(The secret of being a bore is to tell everything)

There are two rules.
"Show, don't tell. No one wants to be spoon-fed information, they want to find it out themselves."
"Tell, don't show. You are a story-teller."

"Show, don't tell," is a good rule. Some say that you should see yourself as a movie maker. Never tell the reader anything they wouldn't find out by watching the screen. (Especially never stop the movie to show a black screen while your voice says, "You'll want to keep an eye on Uncle Tom. He's hiding something and it's important!") I don't disagree. But a book is not a movie, and you are allowed to tell some things.

It happens that most beginning writers shamelessly abuse their ability to tell. I can't tell you how many times I've read something like this:
"Joe has always been a daredevil, but when he was sixteen he jumped off a barn roof playing Superman and broke his leg. Ever since he has had a fear of heights. The cliff part of the trail was hard for him, but he got through it."

Bo-ring. Because the writer told us everything.

"Joe hesitated as they reached the part where the trail skirted the cliff. Scott looked back and saw that Joe's face was white and drawn. He'd never seen Joe look so sick.
           'What's wrong?' Scott asked.
           'Is there another way around?' Joe asked. 'I hate heights.'
Scott looked down at the cliff dropping away beneath them.
           'No,' he said. 'There isn't.'
Joe edged out onto the trail, one hand gripping the railing, staying as far from the edge as he could. Scott walked slowly in front of him, trying not to leave him behind.
          'Sorry,' Scott said.
         'It's OK,' Joe said. 'I need to get over it anyway.'
Slowly they moved across the cliff and back into the forest."

In this example, instead of saying, "Oh, Joe is afraid of heights," the writer showed that Joe becomes very uncomfortable around heights. And we understand, because Joe is gripping the rail and keeping away from the edge and we can feel his fear.

You can tell a little bit. You can tell us that Scott had never seen Joe look so sick. You can tell us that he was trying not to leave Joe behind, that's why he was walking slowly.

Just don't tell everything. Don't even show everything. Leave a little bit of mystery. Readers aren't stupid.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Imagine your first thaw...

Imagine that you are eleven years old. You live in Arctikia, where it stays below freezing for years at a time. The last time there was a warm year and everything melted was the year before you were born. You have never known anything but snow and ice, and you are used to it. Twenty degrees is warm to you. At that temperature, you take your sweatshirt off.
Of course you’ve heard the stories. For years after the periodic Great Thaws, tales of flooding and water and crocuses circulate. But you can’t imagine the world any other way than the way you’ve always known it: frozen.

One day your father tells you that the weather man has predicted a warm year, nothing less than a Thaw. And you are not sure whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. The reactions of the grown ups around you don’t help your uncertainty.
Some are excited. It has been a long time since a Thaw. They miss the smells, the splashing, the color in all the plants that come out of hibernation for the month or so that the world is warm.
Others scowl and mutter, foretelling everything from floods to fire to dragons awakened by the heat. There are good reasons for Arctikia being frozen, they say. Thaws are unnatural, they cause suffering and death.

One day you awake to the sound of wind, a wind unlike any you’ve ever heard, and with the wind another sound that is new to you, the sound of rain.
You get up quickly and climb down from the loft in the little cabin where you live. Your father is standing at the window, looking out at the storm. You join him and for a long moment you can’t even speak.
The snow, the white snow you have known for your entire childhood, is being pelted by water falling from the sky. It’s riddled with holes and beginning to look brown. It’s limp and tired looking. It’s melting. You’re dismayed.
“Go outside,” your mother says. “You’ll like it, you’ll see.”
You are reluctant, you want to go up and hide under your bed and cry. But instead you bundle into your coat and hat, don your gloves, and step outside onto the porch.
The warmth amazes you.
There is rain on your cheeks and wind in your hair. You pull off your coat and hat and gloves, dropping them heedlessly in the melting snow.

There are little green leaves peeking from bare patches, the trees are dark and dripping, twelve years of snow is running down the driveway, the ground is soft and muddy and you take off your shoes.
For the first time, mud squishes up between your toes. 

It doesn’t matter if there are floods and fires and dragons. There are green plants, mud puddles, and the air is soft. The rain is cool and wet on your bare arms and your legs are spattered with mud. You run and laugh and fall down and you don’t care. 

Monday, December 9, 2013

No Greater Love

"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."
John 15:13

When I was a little girl, I thought that if the occasion presented itself, I would be a hero, would fearlessly risk my life for someone else, that I was the kind of person who would die for a total stranger.

I know myself better now, and I am not a hero. I would probably hesitate, would freeze in agonized horror until it was too late. 
And if there was time to think about it, I would think.
My life is very sweet. I look forward to my future. I want to see what’s going to happen next. I want to get married, have children, grandchildren, like most other people. I want to build a house and travel to foreign countries and publish the stories I write. I want to learn to sail and fly and weld.

I would hesitate to give up all that I look forward to for the life of another man. Humankind is not, as I used to think, generally good, kind, caring. Actually, a good percentage of them seem to be losers and idiots and jerks. (Especially if you look at them quick.)
If I was to die for a man or woman, I would want to be sure that the person I was dying for was the kind of person who would do great things, that they would be worth dying for, worth sacrificing all the things I want to do in the future for.

I grew up in a Christian home, and I heard this all the time: “Jesus came to earth, lived a sinless life and died on the cross for our sins. All you have to do is believe and you’ll have eternal life and live in heaven forever…”
 I have lived my life believing it, and from time to time, when I think about it, I am thankful. Too often I take it for granted. It’s something I grew up with. 

Like air, and water. 

Like life.

But once in a while something happens, something small and insignificant, but for some reason, for however short a time, I see. Sometimes whatever clears my head for that moment is completely unrelated. Sometimes it’s something as unholy as a song by Bruno Mars: “I’d catch a grenade for you, throw my hand on a blade for you, I’d jump in front of a train for you…” 
For some reason hearing those lines made me think. How many people on earth would I catch a grenade for, throw my hand on a blade for, jump on a train for? Could I, would I, really die for someone?

I like to think that in the heat of the moment I would be a “hero,” save strangers just because they needed saving, that I would act without regard to my own safety, but I don’t know that. I can’t know what I would do in that moment, until I am in that moment.

But what if you picked ten random strangers, and showed them to me and said, 
“These people will die if you don’t die in their place.” Would I give my life for theirs? 
I wouldn't know these people. Even if I did know them, if I knew they had greater promise or talent than me, if they were smart like Einstein or gifted like Beethoven, what if they wasted it? 
What if they weren’t ten random strangers? What if they were ten people that I know, but do not like? What if I knew them well enough to know that they were not worth dying for?

What if, even if I died for them, they could all commit suicide ten minutes later? 
They might shrug their shoulders and walk away, not caring that I just saved them. They might not know that I died for them. They might be right back here tomorrow, and next time, without me here to save them, they will die.

Even if I knew that one of the ten was going to do something worthwhile, that only one of the ten would care, would honor me, would live on, while the other nine would commit suicide ten minutes later, I don’t think I would do it. Like them, I am only human. I don’t think I could. I would say, "No."

 Jesus said, “Yes.”

Jesus knew the world. He saw it exactly how it is, imperfections, horrors, beauties, bad and good. Millions of people, living from hand to mouth, fighting, scrabbling, scraping an existence from a cursed earth. We weren’t doing anything worthwhile. We weren’t doing anything important. We were spiraling downward into a messier mess than we were already in and we weren’t even asking for help. We may have seen Death coming but we never thought to ask for someone to take our place. 

Jesus could see that in the future, men would know about his sacrifice. Some men would care, some men would have eternal life, some men would become the immortal splendors they were created to be.
He could also see that many of them would turn their heads. Many would ignore his sacrifice, many would deny that it ever happened. The way out of Death would only be taken by a few. Maybe as few as one out of ten. The other nine would go on, unthankful, uncaring, to commit a slow and stubborn suicide.

  “For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
Romans 5:7-8

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Word Play

I love playing with obscure and unusual words. So today I wrote paragraphs describing some. Introducing two little-used adjectives, lugubrious and insouciant.

Lugubrious, a lugubrious aunt and uncle:
Aunt Lucinda sat on one side of the room and stitched mournfully at clothes for poor children; Uncle Alfred sat on the other side and stitched gloomily at the old harness for the horses, which wasn’t needed any more because their son, Benjamin, was in charge of the land now, and he used a tractor. Uncle Alfred persisted in using every scrap of leather in the old barn to mend ancient harnesses, in preparation for the coming day when that darn tractor broke down and there was no harnessing to be had anywhere, so even the horses they still had would be useless. Aunt Lucinda only hoped that the clothing she was laboring over would be of some use to the poor creatures that were unwanted and unwelcome to this vale of tears that was life. Occasionally they would share these hopes and plans with each other, by way of conversation. They were both firmly fixed in the idea that sooner or later, the world would come to pieces and so prove the foolishness of the present generation. Their only consolation, it seemed, was the thought of being there to see it, and, in the best of cases, have the opportunity to say, “I always said this was going to happen, didn’t I, Lucinda?”

Insouciant, an insouciant boy:
The storm was breaking dramatically around the lighthouse, yet when Jem slammed the door it was not with haste, but with mere thoughtless impatience.
His father was putting his coat on in preparation for mounting the open stairs that led to the top of the light.
“This looks like being a big one, Jem,” the lighthouse keeper said. “We’d better close the shutters.”
“Are you worried?” Jem asked lightly. “Why, we’ve ridden out worse gales on board ship.”
“You’ve never experienced a storm on land,” his father said rather sternly. “Go close the windows.”
Jem did, but his lighthearted whistling as he made the rounds of the tiny, weatherbeaten house at the base of the light betrayed his carefree disrespect of the coming storm. This blithe lack of concern caused his father to frown as he came down the stairs from lighting the lamp.
“It’s going to be a rough night,” he said grimly. “Look at the clouds coming. We must be sure to keep the light burning.”
Jem squinted out over the ocean with the air of a hardened sailor. “Aw,” he said confidently. “We’ll be fine.”
His father looked down and met his son’s fearless eyes. He permitted himself a brief smile.
“Just listen to me and do as I say,” he said.
“Yes, sir!” Jem responded with a casual salute. 

Monday, December 2, 2013

Freedom Fighter

The priest sat down in one of the chairs near Tegan’s in the empty, echoing cathedral.
“Can I help you?” he asked softly.
Tegan raised his head from his hands and looked over at the priest, glancing over his black robes and meeting his politely friendly eyes. 
It had been a mistake to take refuge in a church.
“I don’t think so,” Tegan said. He stood and pushed his jacket back to reveal the gun on his hip. “Whether you are a true man or not, you do not want to lose your license helping me.”
The priest’s eyes narrowed slightly.
“Perhaps I can help you in a different way,” he said, his tone only slightly patronizing. “Are you one of the rebels the Guard is hunting?”
 “Yes,” Tegan said shortly. The man had probably been sent in to delay him. “Excuse me, I have to go.” He stood up.
The priest stood and turned to follow him as Tegan made his way towards the little side door.
“You rebels fight against the cause you claim to fight for,” he said loudly. 
Tegan stopped. He hesitated, knowing it was a mistake to allow this man to draw him into conversation. The Guard was probably closing in around the church now as the state-sanctioned priest bought them time.
“Say what you mean by that,” he snapped.
“You claim to be fighting for freedom,” the priest said. “And yet your secret society of outlaws is not free. You run for your lives and fight the government.”
“I have said rebellion brings freedom,” Tegan said. “I never claimed that rebellion is freedom.”
“Look at me,” the priest said. “I have not rebelled. And I am free to have a comfortable house, a family, even to worship God.”
“As long as you think the way they want you to think,” Tegan took a step forward. “You can do what ever you want—as long as it’s what they want.”
“I do not do things that are wrong,” the priest said. “And so I am free.”
“You preach lies and propaganda every week in this church,” Tegan said. “You enslave the people’s souls with sermons of a God that backs the government, and for this service the state lets you live in peace. You speak as if from a God you do not believe in. You set the government above your own conscience. All in payment for comfort and peace.”
“And you kill and steal for an ideal you call freedom,” the priest retorted, quickly, as if stung. “How does your conscience condone that?”
“We do not murder and we do not steal,” said Tegan. “We fight a government that kills the innocent and steals not only homes and livelihoods but lives and freedoms.”
“The government sometimes has to kill rebels like you so that everyone else can have freedom,” the priest said sternly. He glanced down at a device in his hand. Tegan recognized it. It was a linker, a device on which all the man had to do was press a button and call in the Guard.
“Who are they to decide what is right and wrong?” Tegan asked. “Freedom means each man follows his own conscience. Each man is born with a knowledge of right and wrong.”
“Anarchy!” the priest said. His thumb hesitated over the red call button on the linker. “Your ideals would have riots in the streets.”
“Maybe,” said Tegan. “But a free people does not need to riot. They can simply say what they think.”
“The people need government,” the priest said.
“Let them govern themselves,” Tegan said. “It has been done.”
“Never successfully,” the priest said scornfully.
“The tribes that were here before us have been doing it for hundreds of years,” Tegan said. 
“We’re getting off the subject,” the priest snapped. The hand holding the linker dropped to his side, momentarily forgotten.“The state government does no harm to law-abiding citizens. You are always free to do what is right.”
“No,” said Tegan. “The right thing to do is to say that oppression is wrong. I am not free to do that. And so I fight for freedom.”
The priest looked down for a moment and Tegan went on.
“You have seen it too,” he said. “You have seen the government murder, steal, and you have been unable to say anything. You hate your own cowardice and you wish you could renounce your comfortable life and make a difference.”
The priest looked up and Tegan saw the truth of his words in the man’s eyes.
“Do not tell me I am wrong for doing what you wish you had the courage to do,” Tegan said gently.
The priest stared at him and the linker dropped from his hand onto the stone floor of the church. The knock of metal on stone echoed in the silence.
“Do not tempt me to do my duty to the state and call the Guard,” the priest said. “Begone from here.”
Tegan turned instantly and walked out, stepping through the little door in the side of the church. Back in the church, the priest slowly picked up the linker and put it back into its place in his pocket. 
Tegan slipped away through back streets towards the edge of town, heading for the woods where his little band of outlaws lived, hunted, but free.