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How Viewers of Inside Out Got the Message Upside Down

There’s a reason that I used the word Rants in the title of this blog. This post is full of strong opinions, italics, bolding, and ALL CAPS. I also had a bit of fun with the colours.

 

This has been bothering me for a while. It doesn’t bother me that often, but every time I see a theory article, comment, or youtube video asking why there were mainly negative emotions in Inside Out, and every time I see a fanfic which “fixes” things by adding another emotion – almost exclusively: lust/desire, love, or surprise – it makes me furious. As in: it makes the little Anger inside my headquarters not merely burn hot enough to roast marshmallows, but actually burn hot enough to turn metals into gas (like on the sun).

I have yet to meet a child who did not understand the basic message of Inside Out – that all your emotions, even if you don’t understand them, are necessary for your health. And yet, almost no adults seem to understand what the movie was about, despite the fact that the message was all but spelled out for them and the intended audience – some of whom are young enough that “not needing diapers anymore” is an important achievement – did get it. What I’m saying here is that adults are clearly idiots. Well, no, that’s a bit too mean, but it’s still extremely frustrating to see so many people not get it. Urgh.

The point of Inside Out IS that there is no such thing as negative and positive emotions: it is how the emotionals are handled which gives positive or negative results. Come on, people this was literally explained in the prologue and the rest of the movie was about the discovery that this applied to Joy and Sadness as well as Anger, Fear and Disgust. Heck, the movie could easily be summed up in the phrase “sometimes you need a good cry”!

Emotions are like magnets. Magnets have a North and a South pole – but if you chop a magnet in half you do not get one which is totally North and one which is totally South: you get two smaller magnets, each with their own North and South poles.

The emotions shown and dealt with in Inside-Out are – as per the psychological theory the film was based on – what can best be described as Primary Emotions. Like primary colours: if you divide pink into its basic components, you get red and white (or negative green, depending on how you look at it, since pink doesn’t technically exist). If, however, you try to divide red into its component parts you get …red. Red is the colour equivalent of an atom: it cannot be broken down into further pieces. Likewise, anger is a primary emotion; it is not created by mixing two simpler emotions. If you mix anger and sadness (in the right amounts) you get bitterness. If you mix nothing with anger you just get anger. If you mix anger and joy you (can) get vindictive glee.

So what does this have to do with magnets? Well, to the outside observer – unable to remove their own filter which divides things into separate categories based on whether they cause positive or negative results – these emotions seem to be double-sided. They aren’t: it’s just that we give different names to the different results and expressions of them. Nevertheless, if you chop them in half to separate the “good” from the “bad” you just end up with two smaller bits of the same emotion – just as the magnet will become two smaller magnets, rather than an all-positive/north and all negative-south.

This is made explicit in the prologue, when Joy is talking about her fellow emotions and what they do.

Anger is the one who “keeps things fair”. That is: Anger and a sense of Justice or right and wrong are the same thing.

Fear is the one who “keeps Riley safe”. That is: Fear and self-preservation/common sense are the same thing.

Disgust is the one who “keeps Riley from getting poisoned – both physically and socially”. That is: Disgust and comfort/non-sexual desire – and the ability to discriminate between things which are good for you and those which are not, the ability to dislike and like things – are the same thing.

The rest of the movie is about Joy figuring out what Sadness’ purpose is and learning not to be an egomaniacal tyrant. But the answer to that question is shown in the first minute or so of the prologue, when Sadness’ actions are what alert Riley’s parents that something is wrong when she can’t say anything (the baby cries to indicate it has needs). There is really no excuse to have missed it.

Sadness is the ability to empathise. Sadness is the sympathetic emotion. Sadness is what allows us to cope with all the terrible things that happen to us and the ability to give a damn about the suffering of others. Sadness and caring are the same thing.

So what about Joy? It astonishes me that so many people keep insisting that Inside Out should have had more than one “positive” emotion in it, given that Joy – as I already mentioned – spends most of the story as an ego-maniac who selfishly terrorises the other emotions because she’s convinced of her own superiority. It’s only when Joy experiences sadness that she is able to feel or express compassion. When Bing-Bong looses the one thing he cared about most (besides Riley) Joy is annoyed with him for getting in the way of her happiness.

Joy and selfishness are the same thing.

Anger-Justice, Fear-Self-Preservation, Disgust-Comfort, Sadness-Compassion, Selfishness-Joy. These things are one in the same. They’re magnets. You can’t take the selfishness out of joy. Joy is an inherently selfish thing. Anger always comes from a sense of justice (no matter how warped that sense can become). Fear is always about protecting the self and those things which the self has deemed important. Disgust is always from and part of the ability to discriminate between what is comfortable and what is unpleasant. And all Sadness is inherently about the ability to sympathise – sometimes with your own circumstances, sometimes with those of others. Someone who is incapable of feeling sadness is also incapable of feeling sympathy, because they are essentially the same thing. There are words for that, often which begin with psycho- or socio- and which typically end in –path. I AM NOT SAYING THAT RILEY WAS INSANE. If Riley had been insane in that fashion, she wouldn’t have had a Sadness in her head at all.

Which brings me to another point which the adult viewers, in general, have fundamentally failed to understand even though their toddlers got the message: Sadness and Depression are NOT the same thing. The main reason people keep not getting this, I think, is that there is a tendency toward exaggeration in language. The deeply grieved and sorrowful person who keeps bursting into tears and eats three tubs of ice cream wails “I’m soooooooo depressed”. No. No you’re not you fuckwit. You’re SAD. Deeply, deeply, grieved and sorrowful – but those are intense forms of sadness, not of depression.

As so brilliantly illustrated in the film when the console stop responding to the other emotions and turned dark (the lock out), truly depressed people don’t feel anything. They don’t feel. They’re hollow, worn through. The depressed cannot feel sad. They can’t feel anything – they are apathetic. To give you an example: my mother used to work in a psychiatric hospital and one of the patients there was truly and severely depressed. She was, literally, too depressed to move: she sat all day, every day, for years, in the same chair, staring out the same window – never talking, never moving. She wasn’t sad. She wasn’t anything. That’s depression. It is the purpose of sadness to keep that from happening. Only sadness can lift a person from depression, because sadness is what allows a person to accept that terrible things have happened and then move on.

We live in a society which has falsely labelled happiness as the only “positive” emotion – a society which claims all the other feelings are negative. But, as shown with Riley, when a person tries to be happy all the time – even when it’s inappropriate, even when they desperately need to feel Anger, Sadness, Fear, or Disgust – they only ever wear themselves out and become empty, depressive shells. Depressed people, at least those who aren’t quite dead inside yet and still can be bothered to move about, are terrifyingly good at pretending to be happy. In fact, if a person who has been depressed for a long time suddenly starts being happy all the time, it is often – but not always – a sign that they are preparing to commit suicide. Depression and Sadness are not the same thing. Sadness is the cure for depression, because it allows the feeler to then move on.

 

Now for the other thing that’s been really pissing me off: the fans who feel the need to add an additional emotion to the primary five. STOP IT. Yes, in the psychological theory the film was based on there was a sixth: Surprise. But surprise as a character would have been a gibbering idiot because every moment of everything would have been a complete shock to him. The filmmakers knew that would never work and so combined surprise with Fear. Yes, surprise is one of the “primary emotions” but it was cut for cinematic reasons.

JOY, SADNESS, ANGER, FEAR, DISGUST, SURPRISE. There are no other Primary Emotions. All other emotions, in the psychological theory the film was based on, are made by combining those primary emotions – just like other colours are made by the painter who combines the three primary colours on their palette. “Love” is one of the more popular additions, but has absolutely no place in headquarters because Love is a COMPLEX emotion made by combining the others in uneven amounts (Joy/Selfishness, Sadness/Compassion, and a hint of Disgust/Comfort, most likely). Even HATE is more complex than the basic Primary emotions. Hate is a combination of Anger and Disgust.

Moreover, the idea of these primary emotions, and of the film, is that these are the basic emotions which EVERY SANE HUMAN BEING HAS. Which is why the other most common interloper who fans try to “fix” things by adding is so absolutely disgusting and offensive.

I’m talking about Lust/Sexual Desire/Desire/other name. Usually, as the fanfic cliché goes, this one turns up in Headquarters after the Puberty button gets pushed. This is especially egregious, given that many fans of Inside Out believe that Riley may be some form of Intersex or Genderqueer because she has both male and female emotions. In other words: most fans are aware that people who are not cis and straight can still be sane human beings, but somehow they still feel it is acceptable to try to “correct” Riley’s mindscape to feel lust. Because “obviously” everyone must feel lust.

How dare you?

Especially given how many of you know about the genderqueer, intersex, and so forth. How dare you?

I think I speak for every Asexual person here when I say: lust is NOT a fundamental part of human nature and we aren’t broken or in need of fixing.

Now, I’m not saying I think Riley is an Ace. I think Riley is a preteen girl. But that doesn’t mean Lust has any place as a primary emotion (things all sane humans are supposed to have all of – meaning that if you insist Lust should be a primary emotion you are saying you think asexuals are either not sane or not human). Lust is a physical sensation. To use a metaphor: if emotions are paint colours on a canvas (primary colours = primary emotions, complex emotions = mixed colours) then lust (like hunger and physical pain) is a bottle of perfume being sprayed around. Not everyone likes or wears perfume. And even those that do don’t add it to a canvas and call it a colour!

In other words, “dear” Inside Out fanwriters, I don’t care if you “didn’t mean to” – by adding Lust to the primary emotions you are engaging in the erasure of Asexuals by encouraging your readers to think of those people who do not lust* as broken or insane. KNOCK IT OFF.

 

*Lust is, by definition, sexual attraction (save when used in terms such as “wanderlust”) and as Asexuality is the orientation of not feeling sexually attracted to anyone, the two are mutually exclusive – regarless of whether or not the ace in question is nonlibidoist, although there is a distinct gray area of Gray-A aces.

 
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Posted by on July 15, 2016 in On Writing

 

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Fantasy IS Fantastic, Thanks, And Has Its Own Worth

Welcome to Fantasy IS Fantastic, part three. Better known as what happens when you yammer on too long about what you want to say, instead of saying it, or why part two should never be allowed to take steroids.

Okay, so last time I talked about how and why fantasy is disparaged by fans of other genres and society in general – and I failed to get around to what I actually intended to talk about. To avoid a similar mishap this time, I shall get straight on to the two issues which need to be discussed. To save you having to go back and check what I said last time, I will quote myself: “This disparagement of fantasy comes from two basic errors. The first is the fallacy that because fantasy can include things which could not be in reality that anything goes – and therefore that it is the “easy” genre. The second is a fundamental failure to understand what fantasy actually is.”
Huh. Pretentious much? Well, I never claimed to be perfect. In fact, in hindsight I now realise that I should have listed those two fallacies in the order they would have to be discussed rather than the order which sounded best. Oh well.

 What is fantasy? There is a common misconception that fantasy is about dragons and medievalism and magic, although not all fantasy has those aspects and not all stories with those aspects are fantasy. Likewise, science fiction is not merely space tits and death rays fiction, nor is horror merely jump scares and vampires. This is how they are commonly viewed, due to a typical error of assuming the thing is the same as what is often used to wrap it, but it is highly inaccurate. At its core, each genre pulls at a different emotional or psychological (or even physical) aspect of the reader. In most non-speculative genres it is very easy to see this:

  • The core of Erotica is arousal.
  • The core of Romance is attraction.
  • The core of Comedy is humour.
  • The core of Mystery is puzzlement (and the solving of puzzles).
  • The core of Adventure is curiosity.
  • The core of Action is aggression.
  • The core of Historical Fiction is nostalgia.
  • The core of Tragedy is grief.
  • The core of Drama is grief (this is because drama and tragedy were – to the Ancient Athenians responsible for their invention – the same thing; there was no differentiation in genre between the possibility of terrible things happening and their actually having happened).

These make sense. After all, to use the most straight forward example, no one reads Erotica for puzzlement (save, perhaps, baffled teenage Asexuals trying to understand why everyone their age has suddenly gone insane).

However, if you try to apply this to Speculative Fiction while only looking at the trappings of it, is simply doesn’t work.

  • The core of Science Fiction is NOT spaceships.
  • The core of Fantasy is NOT wizards.
  • The core of Horror is NOT things going bump in the night.

So what is?

We often talk about Hard and Soft, or Technical and Social, Science Fiction – an idea started by Isaac Asimov in his 1953 article “Social Science Fiction” (in Modern Science Fiction) when he suggested that all Science Fiction plots fell into one of three categories: Gadget (“Look, I’ve invented a car: this is how it works”), Adventure (“Oh no, the bad guys stole my newly invented car, we must rescue it!”), and Social (“Some idiot invented cars, now we’re all stuck in traffic”). But those are distinctions within the genre, not the core of the genre itself. Nevertheless, it does illustrate quite well what the core of Sci-Fic actually is. Every plot type, you see, hinges on scientific knowledge being extrapolated into something new.

The core of Science Fiction is comprehension. It is knowledge – both current (science fiction being based on current scientific fact) and future (what possible advances in knowledge can be theorised from current scientific fact)

  • The core of Science Fiction is THE KNOWABLE.
  • The core of Horror is, of course, THE FRIGHTENING.
  • The core of Fantasy is THE UNKNOWABLE.

And that is why I spent so much time, last time, talking about how the arrogance of humans – in their belief that they will one day understand everything in the universe – results in distain for fantasy.

Now, this might sound totally crazy, given how strongly how strongly fantasy is tied to magic, but answer me this: what is magic? Not; what kind of magic are you playing with? What is magic? Magic is a term for things that exist but which science cannot explain. Not “hasn’t explained yet”: cannot explain. Science is a system of making sense of the universe which doesn’t work on magic. And this is precisely the point. Magic is the most common term for this, but it doesn’t have to be “magic” to be the incomprehensible-unknowable that is present in all fantasy (because it is, in fact, the core of fantasy). Magic is, also, easily confused with the knowable – even though it is not actually comprehensible. This is because people often conflate coping with something (learning to do spells, for example) with the ability to understand something (there is not a single work of fantasy out there which can explain why magic can break the laws of physics which otherwise govern the universe it is in – and no work which did give and explanation could truly be fantasy). A way of coping and the ability to recognise a specific phenomenon is NOT the same as being able to understand it.

To illustrate: In Science Fiction the characters come across, or create, a phenomenon and proceed to understand it. In Horror the characters come across a phenomenon and proceed to be scared shitless by it. In Fantasy the characters come across a phenomenon and fail to understand it, forcing them to accept and cope with its status as incomprehensible. Now, this does not need to be overt – both because the presence of the unknowable, or incomprehensible, will inevitably subtly touch upon itself in the background of coping with it, and because the incomprehensible lends itself to themes such as good versus evil (the paradox of right and wrong) and the question of death.

Fantasy is a liminal genre. But the threshold upon which it stands is that between what can be comprehended and what cannot. Sci-Fi, on the other hand, stands on the threshold of what is currently understood and what is going to be understood. This is why all Sci-Fi stories which end with the “some things man’s not meant to know” cliché fall flat. The audience is not reading or watching Sci-Fi to experience coping with the unknowable. They are reading or watching Sci-Fi to cope with what is known and the process of coming to know more. Fantasy is the genre readers and viewers go to when they want to cope with, or experience others coping with, that which cannot be explained or comprehended. Horror is about being scared by either the known or the unknown.

Or, to put it in simpler – yet far more laden – terms: Science Fiction is about the expansion of the Self, whereas Fantasy is about coping with the Archetypal Other. WAIT! Don’t panic. I’m not going to start quoting Sartre at you. Instead I will direct your attention to the fact that, after variations on “Dark Lord”, variations on “the Other/s” is one of the most common and recognisable terms for big bads in fantasy.

The importance of Fantasy as a means for coping with the incomprehensible and unknowable cannot be understated. The Archetypal Other can be incomprehensibly huge – when the Other is not our universe or other than life (cosmic horrors, existential dread as related to the question of death, etc) – and it can be painfully close to home; not only in Us vs Them and the Othering of those we reject socially, but also in that we can never truly understand another person. Other people, other races, other species, phenomena which follow other rules than the norm of the universe, other states of being or not being; these are all things which ultimately we can never truly comprehend – which frightens us – and which, at the same time, we dread because our nagging doubts make us wonder if we could become like that or might already be that way. Ultimately, we fear the Archetypal Other because we fear that we may become something which we are incapable of understanding. And that’s why Fantasy is so important. Because without Fantasy as a coping method, all we have is fear – Horror.

This key difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy, between knowledge and the impossibility of knowledge, is best expressed by considering the third major genre in the umbrella of Speculative Fiction and why, perhaps subconsciously, it has been placed with the other two. This is because fear is a reaction to both the known and the unknown and thus Horror cannot exist without one of the other two. Thus Horror, roughly speaking, comes in two forms: that dealing with real or soon-to-be real dangers and fears, like serial killers wielding Jigsaws and Aliens, and that dealing with incomprehensible or inexplicable dangers and fears, such as the House of Leaves, Stephen King’s IT, and most things written by H.P. Lovecraft. Or, in other words, the two main forms of Horror are that which falls under the genre of realistic extrapolation (Sci-Fi) and that which falls under the genre of trying to cope with the incomprehensible (Fantasy). Fantasy is looking at Eldritch things humans cannot comprehend (like magic: laws of physics which do not follow physics and appear to be utterly lawless) and finding it within oneself to see beauty as well as Cosmic Horror.

“We find it difficult to conceive of evil and beauty together. The fear of the beautiful fay that ran through the elder ages almost eludes our grasp.” – Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

But this, precisely, is what Fantasy allows us to do. We no longer view magical creatures as a terrifyingly incomprehensible reality, as our ancestors did, but we still find the archetypal Other frightening and difficult to perceive as something which is not terrifying. This is also, perhaps, why Fantasy lends itself so strongly to the notion of Good Vs Evil. This notion allows for both the fear of the Other and the acceptance that some things cannot be understood to be expressed. And that’s a hell of a lot for one genre to (inherently) have to handle. There is no easy way to handle Fantasy because the core of the genre is our deepest unease.

But this is, once again, getting a bit long and I don’t want to rush my last point. So I’ll see, or not see depending on how you liked this, you next time in the (hopefully) final part four: Fantasy IS Fantastic, Thanks, And Is Bloody Difficult to Pull Off.

 
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Posted by on June 29, 2016 in On Writing

 

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Methods of Character Building

I apologise for how long it has taken for me to get this one written and up. I’ve been – and for about a month will continue to be – extremely busy with other things (such as editing the writing/characterisation advice book which I hope to publish soon).

 

This is not about fleshing out a character or building them up along the way as you write. Those are things you do when you already have created a character and need to make them more than they currently are. This is not that. This is also not about making yourself a better person.

This is about finding starting points for when you have a cool idea for something other than a character and don’t know where to start in creating a character for it. It is about different types of starting point. This is for when you, say, have a cool idea for a world where extrasensory advertising is a thing, but can’t turn it into a story because you can’t tell a story with no characters and you don’t know where to start because you have no ideas for them. For the natural storyteller, this can be a common occurrence – although whether the inspired idea which cannot tell a story on its own is an item or a gimmick (or image, or character, or map, etc) varies. Sometimes the best thing to do is to put the idea away – in a file, mental or physical – and come back to it a later point (such as when you’ve had a great idea for a character but no idea what to put around them). Sometimes it’s just a bad idea and the lack of auto-expanding inspiration stemming from it will indicate that. But sometimes it is worth going over the idea to figure out if you can create a character from it and, if so, then you can potentially write a very good story. The following are methods, as divided by starting point, of building a basic character (which will later need to be properly fleshed out) for those occasions when you’ve essentially painted a mental picture in detail and bright colours, but lack of inspiration left you with a vague character-shaped silhouette where you need a person (or, at least, a proper profile).

 

Character from Image: If you have a visually-attuned imagination, you may find yourself in the position of having the image of a cool character – like a drawing or a snapshot – but no idea how to turn that into a story because you have no context (you know what they look like, but not who they are, or when or what the heck is going on). Now, if you are a painter or other type of visual artist, this isn’t a problem, but primarily visual imaginations are not limited to those who work in visual mediums. Many natural storytellers who have primarily visual imaginations and no ability to translate what they see in their minds eye into physical images (i.e. can’t draw for shit) will write extremely evocative descriptions into their work or go into film (especially directing) and theatre (where scripts must have some visual elements).

But I digress. Trying to create a basis for a character – and thus story, setting, and plot – is essentially the art of analysing the implications of everything your mind’s eye shows you and extrapolating upon it.  Some images are easy to analysis and extrapolate on – if you see someone locked in battle you can quickly start making suppositions on who they are fighting and why, and if you’re imagining someone say, with distinctly elfin features you can quickly narrow down the situation to some form of fantasy. In other situations there are no obvious tells and the author may have a great deal more difficulty figuring out who this “person” their mind is showing them is. In both cases, however, the key to creating a character from an image is to analyse all the data the image gives you first and then to extrapolate from it. You want, after all, to create a coherent character, rather than a character that has traits (left over from the original image) which do not fit the rest of their stated nature and their setting. This method of character building is pretty straightforward. First you analyse your mental image and write down everything you can see (facts only – that someone’s stance gives them the appearance of being prideful is a fact, whereas that they are prideful is a supposition from that fact, likewise you can say from an image that someone is wearing well-to-do clothing, but not that they are well-to-do). This list should contain everything from what they’re wearing, to what environment they’re in, as well as what their physical position is like, what expression they have, and what they look like. Next go over each item on the list and check out when, where, and why that would exist (clothes belong to specific eras and places or are inspired by them and would have to come from similar cultures in similar eras, different patterns of calluses on hands mean different things and subtle dents on either side of the bridge of the nose indicate that the nose’s owner habitually wears glasses, etc). Use this list to narrow down what sort of era and location, as well as lifestyle, the person could conceivably have – that is: what fits all of the data and the constraints the facts of that data (could only have lived in a time after glasses were invented, clearly does a great deal of work with their hands, etc) reveal. Now there should be a strong frame of what is possible, and from there the writer can extrapolate – deciding which of the options made available by the data’s constraints is the one which suits the character they are building, and so on. Eventually this leads to questions like “Why” – as in “why does this imaginary person have callused hands if they are wearing well-to-do clothing and have obviously expensive glasses?”. Perhaps they are rich and have a hobby which involves a lot of hands on work, or perhaps they are poor and have stolen the outfit in order to pull off a con. At this point it becomes a question of what answers please the author – one is likely to speak to them more than the others –and from there they merely need to keep analysing and extrapolating based on the new information and restraints that are brought with each answered question.

Character from Item: This is what you get when you have a really cool idea for a thing (say, for instance, a longsword that allows the user to fly or a phone which allows the user to time travel) only to discover afterward that, without a character or plot, that cool thing alone does not a story make. From this starting point (a cool thing) you can start to build a character by asking a simple series of questions, they are as follows. Who would make something like that? (Someone capable of making it.) Who would want something like that? (Someone whose motives it would suit to use above other similar items.) Are they the same person? If not, which is more inspiring to write about? Now, these might seem like impossible questions to answer, but they aren’t about who the person is as a whole, but rather what their motivation was. In other words: the potential uses of the object and what would be required to make it must be analysed and from there you can begin to figure out what sort of person would make it, want it, or both.

Let’s take the flying sword as an example. Who would want to have or make a flying sword? Someone who wants to use a sword and be able to fly, possibly at the same time, and doesn’t want to carry around two separate items – this means they must be in need of as much mobility as possible (doesn’t want to carry extras), expects to do close-range battle (what use is a sword, even if it can make you fly, against: arrows, bullets, and bombs?), and who expects to need to get off the ground during combat. So we’re probably looking at someone who lives in a pre-gun world, who travels a lot, and who is expecting to fight something which is much taller than they are (such as a three storey high monster). From this we can reasonably say that we’re looking at some form of knight errant in a world with lots of monsters (possibly dragons, given the whole flying aspect) to slay. If we also decide that they are the same person who made the sword that allows the wielder to fly, we can also argue that they are (given comparisons to how similar historical societies worked) probably a younger son of some gentry or minor lord who has the education to create enchantments on a weapon (an unusually learned man, thus, as many historical lords and noblemen would not have bothered to learn about the sciences and studies of monks, here replaced by apparently workable magic). Now, this is by no means a complete character and much still remains to be worked out, but from the example and analysis it would be a reasonable basis to say that the world is one with magic that can be studied scientifically, and thus is not uncommon, and that the character is a well-educated – and probably with an interest in the practical applications of intellectual pursuits – knight errant from an upper class background or lower nobility who is out to travel the world and slay dragons in aerial hand to claw combat. It’s not a complete or well fleshed out character by any means, but it is a workable starting point.

Character from Location: I differentiate this from setting for one key reason; setting is not by definition a location description as it can also include things like worlds with strange physics as their gimmick. Such worlds will be discussed later. Character from location is the best method for creating basic characters (to later be fleshed out) when you are starting from either a world map you’ve invented or you have, say, a beautiful city or an awesome jungle with a hidden temple in your imagination. Now, depending on the type of location (structure/settlement in use, structure/settlement abandoned, natural location unsettled, etc) you have to start with different questions. When you are starting from a structure or settlement which is in use you have to start by asking yourself why someone would want to live, or work, there – as well as who is in charge there. Now different places will get different answers (if the location is a creepy curio shop with an apartment over it: the answer is probably that they own a curio shop and therefore they are in charge, if the location is a beautiful seaside city: the answers are likely lots of fishermen and someone dedicated to the upkeep of their city, etc). But the key is to answer each question, often with multiple options, and then follow that on to its own question (and in the case of options to choose the one that is most inspiring: that gives you the most next-step questions – in the fishing city example that’s more likely the ruler than the fishermen).

In the curio shop example we can actually build out fairly easily: a shop of curiosities is not going to be found in a town or village; so it is owned by a city-dweller and in an era and location of enough prosperity to support such a business. What’s more: curio is a word from the 1850s, and while there is no reason to believe it couldn’t be found earlier in an alternate world, it is reasonable to assume that curiosities would not have been an overly profitable business before that era’s technological level made middle classes with spare money and longer distance travel common, into normal things. Now being a curio shop owner suggests a middling social class, with some literacy and a curious – likely intellectual – mind given the fact that the shop sells (and thus probably buys and evaluates) curiosities. It is possible that the owner has inherited the shop, but if they were not inclined to curiosities or minded the creepy atmosphere it is likely that they would have switched products or sold the location to pursue a different career at the first opportunity. Further, we can reasonably presume that the owner of the shop is either unable to travel themselves due to financial or medical reasons or simply prefers to learn about the strange things in the world from the comfort of home. The curio shop may be creepy due to the content or due to the upkeep of the actual building and that will determine whether the character has a very macabre set of curiosities or if they merely are not diligent in (or, less likely, unconcerned by) the maintenance of their store. That’s a lot of potential explanations for a character, so for the end of this example I’ll pick those traits I’m most interested by, and conclude from the starting point of “creepy curio shop” that the character is an intellectual, middle class shop owner in a prosperous and post-industrial revolution city, who has macabre interests and is prevented from caring for their storefront and travelling by poor health. That’s not a fully fledged character, but it’s pretty good for building off a three word starting point.

Comparatively, when you’re dealing with an abandoned or unsettled location, you have to ask yourself why someone would go there (and in the case of abandonment: why was it abandoned). Someone who lives somewhere may simply have been born there and never moved away – it takes far more effort and motivation for someone to choose to go travelling (implied in this form of location to character building) than to simply stay where they are. Motivation is a key player here: someone who goes to an abandoned temple in a jungle because they got lost probably isn’t going to be sticking around out of curiosity – but they also must have been trying to get somewhere else – and someone who is out adventuring or exploring (curiosity, excitement, funding from somewhere) is going to be a very different person than the one who comes to that place because they are looking for somewhere to settle (and different again from someone returning to a location they had abandoned!). To give brief examples: the person who got lost and found the temple city may have been travelling through the jungle after being forced off course from some other adventure (this could be anything) and may be on a time limit, whereas the explorer might be an archaeologist or a merchant trying to find a better trade route. Likewise, the settler may well be the leader of an exiled group who pushed into deep jungle territory after recently losing a war, and the person returning to the place they abandoned might have realised that in their rush to leave they forgot something important or be seeking closure. Now, after the slightly divergent first questions (why would someone want to live there versus why would someone want to travel/explore/return there) the process is essentially the same, and I won’t bore you by building out more characters when you’ve already seen it done a paragraph ago. But the main difference to keep in mind is that if you are building a character from a location they are already at it is the location which is the shaping force upon the character, whereas if you are building a character from a location they are travelling through it is the motivation of the character to travel which is the deciding force.  Character from location they’re already in is straightforward, but character from location they’re travelling to is much more a case of character from plot …which leads us to…

Character from Plot: Right off the bat, different genres and plot lines call for different kinds of characters. A detective has to have an inquiring mind or they just aren’t going to bother trying to solve the mystery, let alone actually solve it. Erotica just isn’t going to feature an asexual main character having loads of sex (unless it is purely sexualist discrimination in the form of corrective rape fantasies which objectify and misrepresent an entire orientation). An action hero needs to be a physically inclined sort of person, else they’d be a guile hero and in a very different sort of story. For a story to hinge on a big misunderstanding, one person has to be really bad at talking about anything and the other has to be mildly paranoid, stubborn, and inclined to jump to conclusions – with two straightforward or practical people, it just wouldn’t work.

When people have a great idea for a plot or incident within the plot and have no ideas for characters to run that plot, the most common mistake in attempting to build those characters from that starting point is to ask what sort of person would do that. Yes, I know, it seems counter-intuitive to say that’s not a good plan, but it’s not a good plan. Trying to define a person by asking what sort of person would be in a sort of plot is just setting yourself up for an endless stream of tautologies and clichés. What sort of person would go on an adventure? An adventurous one.  What sort of person would be the hero on the quest to save the world? The reluctant hero. Who are the protagonists in the grand romance? People seeking romance. What kind of person would try to stay alive during a zombie apocalypse? Someone who wants to live. These descriptions ultimately tell you nothing of use.

What you actually need to ask yourself is what each action (each moment in the plot) actually is. What word describes the action of going to investigate a mysterious happening? Inquisitive. Active. Curious. Probably not satisfied with whatever answer everyone else has accepted. What does going on a quest to save the world mean? It means a genuine belief that the world is in danger, degree of self-confidence that they alone can fix the problem – arguably arrogance, active inclination. Party goer at a grand gala meets a beautiful stranger and asks them out? Impulsive. Arguably, they’re more interested in external beauty than internal beauty – lust driven, not love. Also: wealth and possible enjoyment of the festivities. The thing here is that you have to ask yourself to describe the specifics in the plot – rather than just genre – and work from there. From every point in the plot – even if it’s just a vague idea of a plot with some genre attached – you should be able to pull one or two, minimum, adverbs (descriptions of what that action is: cautious, reckless, etc) and from there apply those to the beginnings of a person. These then can be interconnected so that they all make sense together and expanded upon until a basic character has been built.

Character from Setting: Given that I’ve already done location separately, this one might seem a little strange, but it is a distinct starting point. Setting is not merely a location, but also how that particular universe works. One could arguably call this character from gimmick instead, but that has a negative connotation. The best way to find character from setting is to start by asking yourself what the normal of that universe is and then extrapolating on that to figure out what ways a person could differ from the norm. A person who is slightly out of the ordinary is often a good primary character – although, writer beware: most of the first conclusions of who would be out of the ordinary are nothing more than clichés (such as the princess who doesn’t want to wear dresses, the reluctant hero, and the person from a society with some norm we would find alien or repulsive who just so happen to be exactly like us, despite how unlikely that would be). However, you do not have to choose to build a character who does not match their society’s norms if you do not wish to – just so long as you actually have the normal by their standards character behave normally by their standards and are willing to portray them as an ordinary person.

To give you an example or two: let’s say we have a world with two distinct differences from our own – the first is that air and water are essentially bound by the same rules, so all fish fly, and the second is that everyone, upon reaching sexual maturity, is magically bound by a red string of fate which connects them to their soulmate (offensive premise much?). If we accept these as the norm in that world we have to ask what the results of such things would be. Drowning wouldn’t be a thing, obviously, so it’s likely that lifeguards wouldn’t exist. Likewise, fishing might well involve standing on top of hills and shooting arrows with nets attached into the open sky. Arranged marriages probably never became a thing, politically speaking, and the obsessive search for love and romance which suffocates the modern world probably doesn’t exist either. Meanwhile, you have to ask if this red string affects people who aren’t romantically or sexually inclined (given that it comes upon reaching the age when you can start procreating) and how people who are string-free are treated by society. And just like that we have moved from asking what normal in that world is to asking what abnormal in that world is, because defining the one automatically means you have to start defining the other. In such a world, if you wanted a normal person as your character, you could ask what milestones and niches would appear (that is, extrapolate off the first question: what is normal). You might find that given all fish can fly, that sharks can also fly and that your normal protagonist is a shark-falconer: a person whose profession it is to shoot sharks out of the sky before they can swim in and swoop down on populated areas. You might write about the everyday struggle of a young person who just got their red string and was deeply perturbed to find they must go on a long journey to find the other end – or that they know and dislike the person they’re tied to. Meanwhile, if you wanted abnormal people, you might find yourself writing about a fisherman who has started using aeroboats to do his fishing, in defiance of all traditional methods, or explore the ramifications of being asexual in a world where everyone is expected to find their true love the moment they become adults. This means, ultimately, that you start defining the character by comparing them to what normal is.

 

…I think that’s everything? Comment if you think I should have mentioned another method or starting point to begin building characters from, or if you’d like me to extrapolate on something I’ve said – I’d love to hear from you.

 
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Posted by on April 29, 2016 in On Writing

 

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Folklore Is Not Static

Only a short post today because I’m ill and struggling to concentrate. Just a brief list of misconceptions about folklore that really piss me off, those being that: the oldest form of a folktale is the “right” one, that folklore is somehow accurate to political correctness and other things the folk didn’t know about, and that innovation in writing about folklore by exploring its limitations and changing thins is somehow “Wrong”. Dear people who think these things: [redacted due to excessive vulgarity in vulgar Latin].

 

1) There is no one “true” or “purest” version of any folklore. Just because you’ve gone back to the earliest form of a folktale or the earliest description of a creature that we know of does not make that version any more “accurate” or “real” than any later version, okay? The Strigoi Mort, for example, is no more real folklore than the Stokerian vampire or the, loath as I am to have to include them, sparklepires of Twilight and its ilk. They are different pieces of folklore from folk who differ in both location and era, but they are all folklore. One can argue whether the latest still deserve to be called vampires instead of some new name, but the same was indubitably true when the Stokerian vampire first immerged from literary origin and became folklore. If, say, you had one person fall ill from iron deficiency or TB in one town and the story of their illness or death spread sideways to the two neighbouring towns – one of which recently had things knocked off tables by a minor earthquake in the night and one which had an albino merchant travel through it recently, within no time you’re going to have three completely different sets of vampire folklore (one without attachment to other issues, one implying vampires are also nocturnally poltergeists, and one laying blame on the poor innocent albino person who happened to pass through the week before). None of those is any less folklore than the others. Nor are the inevitable versions that form as time goes by, but which were based on those, any less true folklore than the earlier forms. I don’t say “original” because, frankly, although we can tell where certain traits originate from, all these ideas have to come from somewhere before and so there can be no true “origin” of any folklore.

2) Folklore is the lore of the lowest common denominator: that means it’s every –IST and –ISM in the book and then some. As a collective, humans are pretty stupid. And when they’re not stupid they’re still prejudiced – especially in groups. Folklore, as the name suggests, is the lore of the folk – that is, of the least educated group. Folklore, essentially, is ruled by the lowest common denominator amongst the social group it originated in. This means that it’s racist as hell. It’s sexist as hell. It’s sexualist (also called homophobic, but that’s narrower) as hell. It’s ableist as hell. It’s classist as hell. It’s religiously intolerant as hell. And it’s every other –ist and –ism which I’ve failed to mention as hell. Somewhere, I believe (it’s been a while since I read them) in one of the Eddas there’s a line about how Odin could seduce any pale wristed woman in the world. To the people who came up with that it probably was just a pretty way of saying “all the women in the world”, but to the modern lowest common denominator it begs the question “so what about women who aren’t white?”. The Sirens of Greek myth were said to be able to seduce any sailor (into crashing or drowning) with their beautiful singing… until one day someone pointed out that deaf people are a thing. Western European fairy tales, or rather: the majority of those fairy tales, have taught children for centuries that women are a passive reward for a heroes actions and only recently are fairy tales beginning to be retold without love interests or with more active female characters. Many traditional Scandinavian mythical creatures were said to be able to seduce (a word now almost exclusively attached to sexual seduction, although it originally also included leading astray and winning someone over to the other side – something vaguely remembered by “seduced to the Dark Side” although there tends to still be the evil=sexy implication) both men and women, both gay and straight – probably because Scandinavian countries have had a somewhat healthier mindset toward homosexuality and bisexuality. However, this does not account for asexuals, for whom there was no term until 1940 and before that either had to put up with almost definitely having to marry a sexual person who wouldn’t understand or taking a vow of chastity. (This is why it is hard to find “proof” of asexuality in the past. Also, my pet theory is that the concept of chastity – choosing to not have sex for religious reasons – cam about one day in prehistory when one quick witted repulsed Ace, who either didn’t want kids or couldn’t put up with sex to have them, was reminded that the way things are is that when you grow up you get married and have kids and that Ace went “NOPE! …because …um, religion! Yeah, I promised [vaguely appropriate deity of choice] that I’d dedicate my life to them specifically and that means ix-nay on the sex and babies thing, okay?” – and then it got dogmatised and lots of people who weren’t asexual and weren’t going to be okay with a vow of no-acting-on-pantsfeels got pressured into it, leading to all the disturbing jokes about “favourite” altar boys.) In all of these cases the common people – the folk – give absolutes which may make sense to them at the time because they don’t know that people aren’t all like that, but which are horribly restrictive and offensive when viewed through the critical eye of a different culture or era. All of which leads me to point 3:

3) Folklore adapts and changes as the L.C.D. changes and there’s no point clinging to the past. The nature of folklore is change. The beauty of folklore is change. Folklore shifts, like sand dunes in a desert – slowly to the human who stands there for a time but shockingly fast to the human who sees, leaves, and returns to see again. This shifting is a detailed record of how the lowest common denominator – how the general population or common folk – viewed the world. Both what is included and what is not excluded but simply not considered tell us far more about how people viewed the world and how those cultures changed (I won’t say evolved because people tend to mistakenly believe evolution is a linear progression to some betterment rather than just adapting to different circumstances). Folklore does include traditions, it is true, but to say “you shouldn’t change [X] or consider how [Y that the folk the lore originated from didn’t know about] and must take those absolutes they told for granted despite their lack of universal applicability because IT’STRADITIONAL” is bullshit. Folklore includes traditions, but is not confined by them. Folklore is about the ebb and flow of traditions, the path they take from when the idea was first formed to when it becomes defunct and forgotten. Folklore is about change. Without that person history has made anonymous who first pointed out that “uhhh, guys, deaf people can’t be seduced by Siren-song because they can’t hear”, we would never have had the story – so much a part of folklore for thousands of years now – of Odysseus being tied to the mast while his crew sail them safely past with wax blocking their ears. There is no reason, for instance, that the “common knowledge” (the folklore) that a creature can seduce any gender should not eventually amend itself to “can seduce any person who is interested in sex” and that new Western European fairy tales and new telling of old ones should not slowly change to reflect the fact that women are people too.

Sure, sometime writers and other artists will try to do a new take on a piece of folklore (by examining the changes between what the originators of the folklore believed was normal and what the modern folk believe is normal) only to have it be quickly forgotten because the older form of the folklore still holds strong and the new idea was not adopted by the folk, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try. Folklore is like a wild and thorny, but beautiful, plant: you can’t control it; you can only offer it things to support itself with and stand back in awe.

 

…This was supposed to be short.

 
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Posted by on February 11, 2016 in On Folklore

 

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Scrap Pile: Life Without Smell

At the moment I’m working on the first of my planned six books for the year (I decided I wasn’t getting enough done and challenged myself to get six first drafts ready by December 31st – sort of doing NaNoWriMo stretched over two months, six times in one year, except that I’ve beaten NaNo in five days and ten hours and have no interest in doing it again).

The book is writing advice (this is somewhat ironic given that I’m not published or making money yet) and I had a lovely metaphor running through it. Unfortunately, I had to excise some significant portions of analogous material because it was simply getting too complicated and too detailed. I wrote this section for the analogy and I didn’t want to have to lose it completely, so while it will never be in the book I decided to share it here. It was in a section on characterisation and was going to be an example in discussion of less obvious ways that character’s can have physical imperfections. It was also a really long paragraph.

 Life Without Smell:

Have you ever imagined life without a sense of smell? What about with a diminished sense of smell? Someone gives you flowers and enthusiastically mentions the odour, so you shove your nose right up into the centre and use the petals for cover as you try to school your face into an appropriate enjoying-the-smell-expression, because you have no idea what that’s actually like. You eat the same, often bland, foods all the time without getting bored of them, because you don’t really notice the taste anyway. You wear too much perfume or deodorant because you have no idea how much is enough for other people to notice. You can’t tell if the person you’re talking to has or has not bathed in a few days, so you make the wrong call on whether they’re friendly or creepy. You can’t smell pheromones (presuming they even have an effect) either, so if you’re heterosexual, bisexual, pansexual or homosexual you can (but don’t always) suffer from a distressingly decreased libido, while if you’re asexual you don’t really notice beyond being irritated by people who assume getting a sense of smell would “cure” you of your orientation (despite there being no causal relationship between anosmia and asexuality). You’re dependent on other people and use by dates with food that could have gone off but isn’t visibly so. You find it confusing when characters and people describe loving someone else’s scent (and you spend much of your life too embarrassed to ask if people really can naturally smell like vanilla and cinnamon like in all the romance scenes in stories). You write a scene set in a restaurant and describe everything but the odour lavishly – then your beta or editor complains that the whole thing seems unrealistic, either because of the lack or without explanation, and you can’t understand it because you described everything that was there …the idea that you should have described any odour at all isn’t one that occurs to you until someone else mentions that it was missing. That’s life without smell.

 

 
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Posted by on January 19, 2016 in On L.C. Morgenstern's Work

 

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