Behold, the Humble Pen

And the traditional (slightly creased) blank white paper.

elf sketch oneMany people I talk to act as if art is some arcane magic accessible only to a few, and I’d like to refute that theory today.  Art comes more easily to some than to others, sure, but that’s true of virtually every skill on the planet.

I have only three rules about my art when I’m not specifically working on a project:  1.  Look at things.  2.  Forget about making it perfect.  Won’t happen.  3.  Enjoy it.

I’ll show you how those work together in a sketch.  No tricks, no magic, just me and a black ballpoint pen.  Images copyright Dragon Harris, naturally.

Art starts with learning to see things the right way.  Sometimes it can be hard.  The human brain uses different patterns of thought for different tasks, and switching thought styles can be tricky.  Once there, though, art is wonderful.  Even if you draw only in the dead of night and burn the pictures so no one else will see them, getting into art is almost meditative.  It helps your mind work through things from a different angle than it normally does.  It’s a chance to make your brain shut up.

elf sketch twoWhen I was in high school, one of my art teachers gave my class a picture to duplicate–upside down.  This forced our minds to see the actual lines of the picture as we drew, instead of what the picture represented.  With time, we learned to see both.

I don’t have that picture anymore, but here’s today’s sketch.

I wasn’t sure what to draw at first, but I had a suggestion for drawing an elf, so here goes:

The traditional Tolkienesque elf has long hair.  Maybe I’ll make a North Pole elf when Christmas draws closer.  I’ve decided to make this elf female.  I rough in the head, hair, and shoulders.  (Hair flapping in the wind always looks better in pictures than in real life.  Sorry.)

Now she has a nose and pointed ears.

elf sketch threeI try mixing modern clothing styles with fantasy armor.  Her arm’s a bit messier than I wanted, but this is a sketch.  Perfectionism gets you nowhere at this point.

Now for the midriff and legs, which require a very basic knowledge of human anatomy.  It looks like she has a drop-leg knife sheath.  I touched up her eyebrows so her expression would be more devious.

I’m not entirely sure where the skirt thing came from, though.  Now there’s a knife, and feet.

I sketched in a little detail on the trousers.  The other arm has arrived, and it’s holding something.  I added a bit of shading to the face so she wouldn’t look flat.

Turns out it’s a spear, with a crooked point.  I like the feathers tied on the end, though they’re probably not too practical.

elf sketch fiveWe have a completed elfin spearmaiden, but it’s a little boring her standing alone on the page.  I added a hazy horizon line with hint of buildings in the distance–blocks of light horizontal lines, letting the viewer fill in the rest.  That grounds her, so it doesn’t look like she’s floating.

Smoke and clouds are hard to draw.  They seem to think edges are optional.  I think this smoke came out all right, though.

Naturally, there has to be a signature.

And that’s the sketch.  Could it be better?  Yes.  It actually has some potential.  I might rework it in a different medium later.

The point isn’t making it perfect, today.  It’s getting started.  elf sketch six

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Mental Illness in Fiction

I’m not a big fan of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which basically says:  You have to have food, water, shelter, the things you need to survive, before you can move on to your need of security.  You have to feel secure and safe before you can form strong social bonds.  You need strong social bonds to develop your sense of self.  Only when you have all that you can experience self-actualization, which is supposedly where things like art and philosophy hang out.

Yeah, right.

I’m not saying the basic layout of priorities isn’t right, but the idea that a person is somehow less of a person just because their need fulfillment isn’t where it should be, that they can’t think about the nature of the universe and create beautiful things, doesn’t sit well with me.

I have depression and anxiety.  That makes it hard for me to develop social relationships, and sometimes I don’t even feel safe in my own mind.  But does that mean I can’t value music or find something meaningful in a work of art?  Does it mean I can’t look at the stars and wonder about how something so wonderful could come to be?  Of course not.

And I think that’s something storytellers need to understand before they try to create characters with mental illnesses or other issues.

I’m going to use a character with struggles similar to my own, since that’s what I’m most familiar with, as an example:  Kaladin in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive.

Kaladin has been many things–a surgeon’s apprentice, a brother, a soldier, a bodyguard, a rebellious slave.  He has a natural gift for both combat and healing, which don’t always go hand in hand, but he makes them work.  The men under his command call him Stormblessed.  He’s a Surgebinder, bonded to the spren Syl, which gives him amazing powers that he uses to brilliant effect.  He tries to decide whether it’s possible to protect by destroying, and whether he believes in the religion he was raised in.

He is really, really cool.

But.

But he feels sort of desolate when the rainy season comes.  But he can’t trust his new commanding officer after being betrayed so many times in his past.  But he feels personally responsible for anything even remotely bad that happens to the people he cares about.  But sometimes his mind is such a dark place it’s impossible for him to make decisions.  But Syl has to lecture him about doing the normal human things like smiling and going out with friends.  But even when things are going well he can’t help expecting a disaster tomorrow.  But when things were awful he stood on the edge of a cliff and thought about jumping.

He’s a lot like me.

Reading about Kaladin helped me better understand my own disorder.  He helped me recognize that my value isn’t contingent on my mental health–because Kaladin isn’t healthy.  He’s crossed some barriers, but he still has a long way to go for the rest of the series.  He’s wonderful, and so am I.  He showed me that it’s possible to have depression and still do amazing things, even if you mess up a lot.

Kaladin tries to figure out how the universe works the same as anyone else.  His personhood isn’t lessened because of his illness.

Neither is anyone else’s.

Repeated Stories

I’m taking a mythology class this semester, and while I’ve only gotten through six chapters in the textbook so far (one of which was devoted to analyzing Firefly as a modern myth, which was cool) I can’t help but notice the fact that some stories just seem to keep repeating themselves.  Nearly every Creation story involves a divine Creator who generally acts with affection for humankind.  Nearly every story of destruction is caused by someone’s actions rather than just “nature”, and the destruction is generally brought down on that same someone’s head.

More than that, the themes of the stories, like “conflict between child and parents” keep repeating themselves.

We’re currently discussing what exactly a myth is.  My current understanding is that, among other things, a myth is a story that parallels the experiences of the people of the culture and time who tell it.  It would have to be.  People don’t pass along stories that don’t mean something to them.

My point?  We’re doing the same thing today in our stories.  Greek myths centered around things like glory in combat, the struggle of resisting one’s fate, and the essential values of their time.  But the stories we tell revolve around our own experiences.  There are war stories, because we still have war, but many of our stories have nothing to do with war.  We tell stories about isolation, the awkward dance of two people who think they might like each other, the frustration of sudden deaths of loved ones, among other things.  We look at stories like Oedipus Rex and don’t understand them the same way we understand Harry Potter.  I’m sure Homer would have some troubles understanding why we bother to tell our tales, too.

When we read ancient myths, we read them from our own perspectives, not the perspective of the person who told them.  Our definition of a satisfying ending is different.  Still, we can learn from them.  The best myths, the ones that lasted–like the story of Achilles choosing a short, glorious life that ended in violence instead of a long, uneventful life that no one would remember–captured a piece of the experience of their tellers, some of which still matter to us today.  That’s because the stories did what every good story does.  They tried to pin down what it means to be human.

The best stories of our time do that, too.  Whether it’s Captain America choosing the hatred of the people he wants to protect over compromising his values, or cancer patients trying to understand oblivion, or Ender Wiggin speaking for the dead, the stories we tell now reflect the things that matter most to us, that make us human

Copyright Dragon Harris

Copyright Dragon Harris

–even the comedic ones, like the Discworld novels.

Those things that matter to us drive our stories.  So when you decide to tell your story, think:  what matters most to you?  And how will it shape your fiction?

The worst thing that can happen

Not intended to represent any particular teacher, but this is what my school fears look like.

Not intended to represent any particular teacher, but this is what my school fears look like.

I received my first rejection letter last week.  It’s not the worst thing that can happen, but it sure wasn’t awesome.

The letter was simple, running briefly along the lines of, “Your story didn’t place, please submit a story again another time.”

Isn’t this one of the requirements to becoming a “real” writer?

Anyways, between the rejection letter and preparing for a new semester, I’ve been thinking a bit about worst-case scenarios.  What actually is the worst thing that can happen?

I listed some bad potential situations to myself when I was preparing that story for submission, and when getting ready for the new semester.  For the story:  rejection.  Which wasn’t fun.  But my worst-case scenario for that involved the people rejecting the story informing me frankly and without sympathy that the story was absolute bantha fodder and I should never try to set pen to paper or finger to keyboard again.

That didn’t happen.  They were actually rather nice about it.  And in any case, even if they had told me that, would I have listened?  Probably not.  I spent months on that story, writing, rewriting, sharing it with people who know what a good story is, and I believed in it.  I might have tried to alter my writing style a bit to appeal more to the publishers, but I wouldn’t have stopped or tried to delete every file that ever existed relating to that story.

For school, I listed out even more potential disasters.  The girl I never got along with in middle school being in every single one of my classes was one.  Somehow losing my textbooks and making my professors hate me was another.  Tripping and getting blood all over my clothes was a scary enough idea that I made sure to have band-aids in my schoolbag along with the textbooks, notebooks, writing utensils, and everything else I decided I’d need. I worried for a while about having a panic attack in the middle of class and being written off as crazy.  Having too much homework to ever hope to have time to do everything else I need to was another one.

This is my fourth semester of college.  None of those things has happened in the past, so far none of them have this semester either.  Maybe I’m a little paranoid.

The point is, the bad things you think might happen aren’t usually as bad as you thought.  Really, really bad things do happen, have happened, and will again, but I’ve found that we humans are resilient beings.  We won’t enjoy the terrible awful things that happen to us, but we’ll get through them more or less intact, especially when the terrible awful things are actually the everyday disasters that really aren’t so awful when we get some distance from them.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get some readings done by Wednesday or my professor will turn into  a fire-breathing demon…

Speculations about Captain America: Civil War

There will be spoilers for any and all Marvel films and comic books that become relevant for this discussion.  You have been warned.

I saw Ant-Man last week, which was a great film on its own, but it also devoted some time to setting up for the next Marvel film.  And that’s okay, but it has me ready to go and watch a film that is still in fact being filmed.  Since watching Captain America: Civil War isn’t an option, let’s speculate about it.

To grossly summarize, the comic book plot of Civil War featured more or less every Marvel character to ever grace the page, divided into opposing teams as regarding the new Superhuman Registration Act that occurred as a result of a superhero-related tragedy involving an explosive villain and a school full of children.  Captain America (Steve Rogers), goes rogue, taking several other superheroes with him, on the grounds that the act is a violation of civil rights.  Tony Stark (Iron Man), feeling guilty about his (very indirect) involvement with the tragedy, sides with the law.  Spider-man winds up stuck between the two, though every character has difficult choices to make.

The movie will be different, because movies are different from comics, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe is different from the one in which the comic Civil War plot occurred.  So here are my speculations.

The disaster triggering the Superhuman Registration Act may have already happened.  The events of Age of Ultron were a PR disaster for the Avengers, as we saw in Ant Man when Dr. Pym says they’re probably too busy dropping cities out of the sky to help him.  On the one hand, it’s nice to know that there are powerful people out there protecting the world.  On the other hand, sometimes those powerful people really, really screw up.  Hence the Registration Act.  There are rumors about another disaster involving Scarlet Witch and Crossbones, but I don’t know how accurate those rumors might be.

I have another theory about reasons for the Registration Act to happen, but first, let’s talk about who will be on which side.

Enter Tony Stark.  Stark has a long history of acting to fix a problem, and having that fix blow up in his face and cause even more problems, then having the fixes to those problems also blow up, and so on.  That’s how Ultron happened.  He still wants to fix things, though.  When people tell him about the new law, I imagine he’ll see it as a chance to finally put everything to rights.

Teaming up with Stark, I think we’ll have Maria Hill, War Machine (Colonel Rhodes), the Vision, and possibly a couple others if they don’t decide to remain neutral.  Hill has already demonstrated her dedication to the law.  Rhodes has a long friendship with Stark to swing him to his side, and has also been working as a superhero for the government for years at this point, and doesn’t seem to see a problem with it.  Then there’s the Vision.  Thanks to Vision’s previous incarnation as JARVIS, he is already well-inclined towards Stark, if only subconsciously.  That won’t be why he sides with him, though.  The Vision is a unique mix of human and computer.  His computer half will run through calculations as to which path will lead to the fewest deaths and Stark’s side will come out on top.  He may end up switching sides when new information comes along–more on that later.  We may also have Spider-man, who is definitely in the film.  The problem is that this version of Spider-man doesn’t have the same long history with the other heroes as he does in the comic books to sway his loyalties, and so the role he plays in the film is going to have to be different.

With the Captain, we’ll have Scarlet Witch (Wanda Maximoff), the Falcon (Sam Wilson), and I think Black Widow (Natasha Romanova).  Scarlet Witch already mistrusts Stark, who built the bomb that destroyed her apartment and killed her parents when she was a child, and the “murder bot” that killed her brother in Age of Ultron.  The Falcon has already shown a tendency to agree with Cap when it comes to politics.  They’re both veterans with strong beliefs about what the law should and shouldn’t do.  I’ve heard rumors that Natasha will be with Stark as a way of finally “going straight”, but I don’t believe them just yet.  Thanks to Natasha’s history with both the KGB and SHIELD/Hydra, she’s already tired of being controlled by shady government forces.  I suppose she could take the role Spider-man did in the comics and switch sides halfway through.  We’ll have to see what Marvel does with her.  Ant Man (Scott Lang, and possibly Wasp) will probably get involved too.  They don’t want the Pym particle to get into even the most well-meaning government’s hands.  Registration would ruin that plan.  The end credits scene of Ant Man show Falcon saying he “knows a guy” to help them, and I think that’s our Scott Lang.  They’ll get pulled in.

That still leaves a lot of characters in the middle ground.

Thor is on Asgard, and has plenty of shenanigans to deal with there without getting involved in Midgardian politics.  Hulk (Bruce Banner) is in hiding.  Even if he does show up in this movie, his divided loyalties will make it hard for him to pick a side.  Hawkeye (Clint Barton) worked very hard to keep his family’s location off SHIELD records, and Registration will mess that up for him, but he may want to protect them and get them deeper into hiding rather than taking an active role in the fight.  However, as his wife (whose name I don’t remember at the moment) said in Age of Ultron, the Avengers do need him.  He’s their stability.  He’ll get dragged in to it.  Then there’s the Winter Soldier (Bucky Barnes).  We saw him in the Ant Man end credits scene being found by Cap and Falcon in a spot of trouble.  He has enough on his plate without getting pulled into this fight, but if Cap and Falcon were already on the run in the end credits scene then he’s going to have to be involved.  In addition, this is probably his last chance to reconcile with Cap before the Captain America (probably) gets himself assassinated (he might be killed in a regular old fight, but he’s going to die soon).

Nick Fury, who is pretending to be dead but puts in some random appearances, may also turn up, along with Agent Thirteen, who we last saw joining the CIA.  Old Peggy Carter will probably show up too.

Now for my theory:

In the comics, the Registration Act was left deliberately ambiguous as to whether it was good or evil, but I think in this film they’re going to change that.  We saw in Ant Man that Hydra is still alive and kicking, and wouldn’t they be interested in a way of knowing all the names and locations of the folks who might be a threat to them?

So I think Hydra is putting their support behind the Registration Act.  They managed to infiltrate SHIELD and the government pretty well before the events of Winter Soldier, and they’re probably still there.  Project Insight, which would have given them an easy way to identify and neutralize threats, didn’t work, so they’ll try a more subtle approach.  This would mean the Winter Soldier, who knows how Hydra works and I imagine has been hunting down plenty of Hydra agents on his own, will have to get involved.  When the Pro-Registration team finds out about Hydra’s involvement (with the Vision, they will) they’ll have to switch sides.  Stark would be obliged to admit he was wrong, which would be a good experience for him.  He still hasn’t got the hang of humility yet.  Of course, he might not believe Hydra is involved when the evidence is first presented to him.

If Hydra is involved, the frustrating end of the comic’s Civil War (Cap realizes that in fighting, he is hurting the people he is trying to protect, and surrenders, then later gets assassinated) will have to change.  The MCU public is probably tired of hearing how “Hydra caused…” and will take time to swing to Cap’s side, Some might even agree with Hydra about controlling superhuman activities, if not about everything else.

Those are my theories, and they might be all wrong.  I don’t know how it will all end, except that there will be some setup for Ragnarok and Infinity War before the screen goes black, and I don’t really want to until I see the film.  I’m just excited that it’s happening.

What are your ideas about Civil War?

I’d like to say that this twice a week posting schedule will work, but classes start next week and I have no idea.  We’ll have to see what happens.  

Scars

My dog recently had her first-ever surgery, leaving a long gash in her belly.  She has to wear a cone to stop her licking it until the cut’s healed and the stitches are out.  All this has me thinking about scars.

Unless you have a highly traumatic birth, you come into the world largely unmarked.  As time passes, though, the neighbor’s cat scratches you, or you fall off the swing set, or have an incident with some heavy machinery or broken glass, and while the wounds heal, the marks stick around.  Scars have a way of showing a person’s history.  They can influence attitudes and behaviors, both in the bearers of the scars and those who see the scars.  For instance, I used to refuse to wear any clothing that might possibly show my knees.  I had an accident prone childhood, and my knees had a lot of scarring, which no one else might have noticed but I was self-concious about.

All these real-life observations can be useful in using scars to show character.  Scars from a bullet or a knife hint at a violent past.  A character’s efforts at hiding their scars might indicate a sense of shame about the events surrounding those scars, or that they come from a culture where anything less than physical perfection is frowned upon.  Someone flaunting their scars says something different.

Here are a few scarred characters I feel were especially written well (mild spoilers):

Harry Potter, Harry Potter by JK Rowling

Harry’s lighting scar plays a major role in both his past and his future, as (spoilers) a physical sign of his connection with Voldemort and his being a Horcrux.  It warns him of danger and marks him as unique to anyone who sees him.

Kelsier, Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson

Kelsier’s scars from his time as a slave in the Lord Ruler’s death mines demonstrate that he has survived something no one else has.  While his memories of gaining those scars are far from happy, he goes to an effort to show the scars off, using them to inspire people to rebellion.

Eragon and Murtagh, Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini

Though gained from different locations, their matching scars foreshadow (spoilers) the relationship between these two brothers.  Murtagh’s scar makes him a target.  Eragon’s makes it nearly impossible for him to fight, for a while.

Kaladin, The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson

Kaladin’s special talents could probably heal the slave brands on his forehead if he tried, but he hasn’t.  Either he still bears a grudge against the man who gave him those scars or somehow his self-perception says that he ought to have those scars.  Neither option says much good for his future mental health.

Know any other well-written scar stories?  Let me know!

Another blog I follow, the Fictorians, is celebrating a milestone this month and hosting a free giveaway contest.  Visit them at http://fictorians.com if you’re interested.  

Respect the Sketchbook

I carried my sketchbook everywhere with me in high school (still do), and sometimes something happened that I found a little confusing. I’d get distracted by a conversation during lunch hour or class, and set my sketchbook down. Before I knew it, someone was flipping through it. Usually it was someone I wanted to remain friends with, so I learned not to get too upset. Mostly.

I can’t say what the people flipping through my drawings were thinking, since I’m not them and can only guess, but I can explain a bit about what a sketchbook is for the artist. For me, anyways, but I don’t think I’m in the minority.

 In some ways it’s a journal.  It’s a place to work out whatever I’m thinking about during the day.  I doodle out the interesting things and people I see in my sketchbook during the day, draw whatever strange creatures I had dreams about recently, and use it as a way of relaxing when life gets too complicated.  A journal isn’t meant to be perfect.  Neither is a sketchbook.  The things I draw are affected by what I think and feel at the time, and nothing is meant to be a finished product.  So on days when I don’t feel like my art is going that well, having someone unexpectedly flipping through it is a bit like having them dig through my laundry bin.

Of course, as an art student, I normally have teachers looking through my sketchbooks, but that’s different.  I go to art classes so my teachers can help me get better.  Letting them see all of my drawing process is part of that.  And they don’t stand right in front of me when they look through it.

Of course, since I’ve been working to maintain my friendships with those folks who don’t quite understand the importance of a sketchbook, I’ve gotten to be okay with people touching my sketchbook.  Not every artist has, though.  So next time you want to see someone’s artwork, ask first.

I’m attaching an image of a recent sketchbook page of mine, in all its messy glory.  The words are notes from church.  Images copyright Dragon Harris.