The Young Wizards

Story time.

When my little brother and I were kids, we were part of the library’s summer reading program every year. At the end of the program, if we’d done all the eating hours we were supposed to, the library would give us a book. There were all kinds of books on the shelf to choose from: Lord of the Rings, picture books, Percy Jackson, I even grabbed the Odyssey one summer during high school.

One summer, not long after we had moved into the area,  my brother got the the bookshelf before me, and naturally grabbed the biggest thing on the shelf. The librarians all cooed at the sight of such a little kid with such a big book. I’ve seen bigger books since then, but at the time it looked huge: the spine was maybe three inches wide, and the inside was all print. No pictures. It was called The Young Wizards.

I don’t think my brother has ever actually read it, or at least not all the way through. I did, several times.

That book held the first five books in the Young Wizards series by Diane Duane, and at the time I thought that was all there was. It was enough. The gist of the story is that some kids, twelve or thirteen years old when they first start, find books on wizardry, and befriend one another over the shared interest. The books work, and they get pulled along on  various adventures to slow down entropy.

Adventure is a sort of tame word for it. Their first “adventure,” for instance, gets them pulled into a nightmare parallel-universe Manhattan where the cars are predators and the fire hydrants eat pigeons, created by a being known as the Lone Power, the one who created death.

Cheerful, right?

After books like  Fablehaven and The  Dark is Rising, this was one of my favorite books. The kids’ wizardry is all done through words,  and  one of the recurring themes of the series is how powerful words are to shape the universe. For a writer-to-be like myself, this was great.

The series was also one of the first things to spark my interest in Irish mythology and folklore, since  one of the kids gets sent to Ireland by her parents and  spends some time fighting off monsters straight from the myths. And there’s a scene with a cat going up a chimney that’s exactly like one of the folktales.

The reason I’m thinking about this right now is that I found out there are more books in the series than just the five books in that volume my brother had. Naturally, I have to reread everything. You know, when I’m not doing homework and other responsible adult things. I’ve already started.

It’s reminding me of the reasons I love storytelling so much, and why I’m trying to make telling stories my life’s occupation. There were plenty of frightening things in those books, but I never really got scared. I  was too busy feeling wonder at how a world so real could be conjured up with print on a page, and how the kids fighting the war against the corruption of good felt like something that had always been happening.

I was too young to have the story properly change my life, but it certainly had a hand in shaping it.


Announcing Dreamwatchers

I’ve mentioned projects I’ve been working on the past few months, and today I’d like to announce  one of them coming soon to an Internet near you: a new webcomic called Dreamwatchers.

It’s taking longer to put together than I’d planned, because life does that, but it’s finally at a place where I feel like I can tell you all about it, though it won’t be ready to hit the web till late October or thereabouts.

In Dreamwatchers, dreams are places that minds build and spirits visit, but they are also places where people live. Using a somewhat loose definition of ‘people’ and ‘live,’ that is. They’re the superheroes and imaginary friends born from childrens’ dreamscapes, monsters from nightmares, and mythical figures who all, for one reason or another, lasted longer than one night’s dreaming before fading away.

The character in the above picture is one of the oldest of those people, head of the Council of Deaths. Currently, she goes by the name Morgue. She used to be the Morrigu. She and her council play an important role in keeping the darker side of the balance of dreams. They butt heads with the Dreamwatchers, who keep the lighter side of the balance, quite frequently.

Morgue is technically an antagonist, but she’s one of my favorite characters anyway, and not just because I want her t-shirt. She knows exactly how scary and unpopular she is, and  doesn’t let it get to her or stop her from doing her job. Someone has to do it, after all. When she’s off the clock, she’s actually pretty nice. Not that she’ll admit it.

Dreamwatchers is something I’ve been thinking about and developing for a long time. I’m excited to share it with you all.

On Pain

Pain kind of sucks.  I’m pretty sure we can all agree on that.

Sometimes, though, pain (especially the emotional kind) can  be very useful. In Brandon Sandeson’s Stormlight Archive, the heroes have to have a “broken soul” before they can gain their powers. The cracks and scars in their souls make room for  the Nahel Bond to form.

The pain of their pasts becomes power in the present.

In real life, pain is used to fuel action, leading to people fighting for positive changes in society or scientific discoveries or beautiful works of art or music.

Have you listened to “Gavi’s Song” by Lindsey Stirling yet? You need to listen to it.

I’m not saying we need to encourage more painful events in people’s lives or take medications from depressed people if we want more powerful works of art–please, please don’t take our medications. Depression is more than just sadness and makes art harder, not easier. Van Gogh’s paintings  from when he was getting treatment  tended to be better than the ones from when he wasn’t.

I’m saying that there’s plenty of pain in the world already. It’s healthier to use it than to gripe about it.

Sometimes it’s really hard. It has been for me this week. But it’s worthwhile, I hope.

Redemptive Traits

I’ve talked before about causing readers to experience hatred for villains, and I probably will again, but today I’ll look at the other side of the coin:  loving villains.

It’s easy enough to hate a bad guy.  There are some outstanding examples where the opposite is the case in recent pop culture, but usually audiences want the bad guys to come to a bad end.

However, villains are people–well, characters–as much as heroes are.  People are complicated, especially the ones who do terrible things.  Reflecting that truth in a villainous character can make them incredibly interesting, and when I want to write such a villain, that starts with the aspects of the character that wouldn’t go on their bad guy resume.

The wholly evil villains aren’t terribly realistic, after all, any more than wholly virtuous heroes are.

Take Star Wars, for instance.  Emperor Palpatine is a backstabbing, scheming tyrant who really likes power and doesn’t much care about who he walks over to get it.  We never see a single redemptive act during Palpatine’s screentime.  Darth Vader, on the other hand, loves his son and misses his wife.  That doesn’t make up for the slaughter of the Jedi younglings or the destruction of Alderaan, but it gives us a look at him as something other than a scary black mask.

Star Wars would not be Star Wars without Emperor Palpatine, but Darth Vader is the face of the dark side.  In some ways, his redemptive qualities make his terrible acts even worse–how can you love that deeply, and kill that easily, at the same time?

It’s similar with the Lord of the Rings.  Sure, Sauron and the Ringwraiths are terrifying, but Gollum is the bad guy we remember, and Boromir the hero whose fall from grace speaks loudest.

It’s easy enough to look at popular villains and say what it is that makes them so interesting.  It’s harder to write similarly interesting baddies without accidentally slapping a new name on an old character.

However, there are some common themes which the most memorable villains tend to share.  Love.  Revenge.  Fear.  Hunger, in some cases.

Loving someone, as Darth Vader does, is the simplest way of giving a villain extra depth.  Real love, valuing someone else at least as much as oneself, is universally considered good.  Or so I assume.  If it isn’t universally good, then there are dark corners of the universe that I do not wish to visit.

Because of that belief in the goodness of love, baddies who love someone are fascinating.  Those who slip to the dark side as a result of their efforts to protect a loved one are doubly interesting.  Artemis Fowl loves his father enough to do practically anything to find him–and Artemis is definitely a villain in the beginning–and so we understand him.

Revenge is another common theme in the genesis of a villain, and it usually begins with love.  (Blank)’s need for vengeance against (blank) because of the death of (blank) in Captain America:  Civil War makes him far more interesting than the run-of-the-mill “I will destroy the Universe!” villain.  His destructive tendencies have a purpose and a motivation, even if they’re misguided.

Yes, the censoring was necessary.

That said, vengeance because of some slight against oneself can be as interesting as vengeance because of love.  It can establish the villain’s selfish nature, as well.  Loki joined the dark side initially because of his father’s rejection and finding out he’d been lied to his whole life.  We’ve all felt rejection, and we’ve all had some aspect of our worldview prove to be false–even if it was just Santa Claus.  The rest of us don’t normally try to destroy planets afterwards.

Well, I thought about it.  Briefly.

Giving our villains those redemptive traits so both we and our audience can better relate to them can be complicated.  Everything worthwhile is.  I keep at it anyways.  The characters that result are often at least as interesting as the flawed heroes.

On Accepting the Darkness Within

When I was in sixth grade, I doodled a vampire in the margins of my math homework.  My teacher made me erase it.  She seemed horrified that I would want to draw something with fangs and horns (I had an interesting idea of what ought to be a vampire) when there were so many other things to draw–or better yet, math problems to solve.

I hadn’t realized I was drawing something frightening.

With that, and being a Christian and a natural optimist, I figured that the “creepy” stuff in my head needed to stay out of sight.  I’d never watched horror films or anything, and didn’t generally think of myself as someone interested in scary things.  The adults in my life said I wasn’t.  I enjoyed doodling flowers and butterflies as much as doodling vampires, and I got into less trouble for the flowers.

Even now, I can talk about some of my favorite stories and fictional moments, only to find that everyone else thinks they’re creepy.  The Bartimaeus Trilogy.  The Dark is Rising.  Dementors.  Things like that.  I might understand that there are frightening aspects to those stories, but they don’t usually seem super important to me.

Apparently I like dark things.  Not for any particular reason.  Darkness just interests me.  I especially like it when it contrasts with light–when despair and hope collide, when the monsters force people to become their best selves.  I keep that interest on a leash, but it’s always there.  Just another, sometimes unpretty aspect of me that I have to work with.

My favorite moments in fiction tend to be the ones where our heroes are, or think they are, powerless.  Vulnerable.  I like those moments because they reveal what those characters are made of without all the pretenses and superpowers.  And because they’re dark.

Besides, the darker things get, the brighter the happy moments are.

But how do we create that darkness in our own stories?

Maybe you read about current events to get into the proper mindset.  Maybe you remember some nightmare.  Maybe events in your own life are enough.

Me, I let my own natural darkness out of its closet.

However you do it, finding the darkness is important.  Stories about little girls in an ideal Fairyland are all well and good, but the interesting ones have frightening things to go with the magical.

We all have light and dark inside us.  Life is a mixture of light and dark.  We might as well reflect that accurately in our stories, even the happy stories about magic schools or guardian angels.  Those angels are guarding the hero from something, after all.