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.



One of speculative fiction’s few flaws is that it rarely touches on that frustrating aspect of contemporary civilization:  Paperwork.  There’s a great scene on the subject in the film Jupiter Ascending, possibly inspired by a similar scene in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but for the most part we don’t talk about it.

It’s not like we discuss how often the characters vacuum their bedrooms unless it’s plot relevant either, but I find that paperwork is mentally and emotionally draining enough to deserve at least a few storied moments.  Maybe we just avoid thinking about it too much.

I’ve always quietly worried that there’s a clause hidden somewhere that means I’m signing away my firstborn child.  I always at least skim the terms and conditions.  Or maybe I worry that I’ll get a digit wrong on my SS number and be arrested for trying to impersonate someone else.  Or that I’ll forget to write down a relevant medical condition and accidentally sign up to do the kind of physical labor my spine isn’t straight enough for and end up unable to get out of it and cripple myself for life.

Avoiding the topic of paperwork could be an aspect of the character of a spec fic creator.  I would have cheerfully spent the rest of my life in Middle-Earth fighting orcs if it meant I didn’t have to fill out another scholarship application at the end of high school.

I still might consider it today.

Maybe it’s just me.  Creators of speculative fiction are a complicated mix of businesspersons and daydreamers, and the most successful ones are responsible adults in all the ways that people outside our field care about, including with paperwork.  Even I’ve gotten okay at doing it.

I still don’t want it invading my fantasy worlds.

But I think there’s a story in paperwork.  Maybe not one I’ll bring myself to write in the next few years, but definitely a story or ten.  A red tape ninja who buries the bad guys in paperwork so they don’t have enough time to do their villainy would be epic.

The Boy Who Never Grew Up

So, I missed two weeks.  Sorry about that.  There was a family reunion.  And a comic-con.

I also saw a live production of Peter Pan, which was great, and leads in to what I want to talk about today.

This image has been hopping around the net for a while:

And it is related to the original story–Mrs. Darling as a child had heard that Peter held children’s hands part of the way to heaven–but it changes or ignores the rest.

That’s okay.

When Sir J.M. Barrie first wrote the play about a boy who wouldn’t grow up, he wasn’t trying to make a myth.  He was just telling a story, inspired by his own experiences and interacting with his friends’ young sons.  That’s how myths start.   One person tells a story, and someone remembers it and retells it, and each time it’s retold it changes, because different elements are important to different people.

That doesn’t happen as often these days, except perhaps in the stories children tell each other, because the majority of our stories are set in print.  Superhero stories can be mythical in nature, and Captain America stories certainly aren’t being told the way they were back in World War Two.  But even superheroes aren’t quite there the way Peter Pan is.

Peter Pan is still in print, the same book Sir Barrie wrote, but it’s been well over a hundred years since it was written.  Even though we all have access to the story the first way it was told, it’s been retold dozens of times, and we remember Peter the way we saw him in a movie or TV show or a more recent novel.  Not the first play or the children’s book.

However many times the story gets retold, though, most of the core themes stay the same.  The idea that childhood is magical and wonderful and incredibly selfish.  That children are the centers of their own universes.  That there is a darkness in the experience of childhood that we adults can’t or won’t acknowledge very often.

Peter Pan might refuse to grow up, or be incapable of it.  He might be an Angel of Death or simply someone who shows up during transitions in people’s lives.  He might kill Captain Hook and be pleased with himself, or feel guilty.  However people tell it, though, he remains a child who doesn’t grow up, a child who could fly through any bedroom window in the world and include the children who know his story in his adventures.  That keeps him alive for all of us.  That keeps us reimagining him.

So when I try to find inspiration for my writings, I look to Peter Pan and other stories like it.  The stories that stick around for years, not because they’re the best written or have the most popular actors in their films–all that only lasts as long as it takes for a language to evolve or a generation to grow up–but because they pull at our shared experiences as human beings and say something about what it means to be a person that resonates with us.

What’s in a name?

Personally, I wouldn’t be all that interested in smelling a rose if it was called Decaying Flesh.

Names can have as much an impact on first impressions as appearance does.  Most of us have a picture in our mind of what a Sarah should look like, or an Angelique or Eugene.  If not those names, then others.  It’s not the most reasonable of pictures that our brains put together, but it’s there–like our minds expect a handful of syllables to tell us all we need to know about a person.

And woe be unto the child whose name carries the weight of history.  There’s a reason the name Adolf has gone out of style.

So whether it’s for fiction or a newborn baby, careful consideration is required over the choice of name.  In the case of real babies, it’s hard to know who they’ll be when they’re not so small and wrinkly anymore.  Family names are common, and names that refer to some good quality or person.  Names like Hermione are increasing in popularity lately, but who knows if the kid will match the expectations behind that name?

With fictional characters, it’s easier.  Some characters may run off from their writers and do something unexpected, but generally we can have at least some idea of who a character is and what role they have to play, and can choose a name accordingly.

JK Rowling does this frequently in the Harry Potter books.  A wizard who can turn into a dog is named after the Dog Star.  A werewolf is named Remus.  The Big, Bad Guy’s chosen name roughly translates to “flees from death.”  The worst teacher ever is named Severus, which means grumpy.

Names are especially notable when they play an active role in the plot.  In the Bartimaeus Trilogy, magicians rarely reveal their birth names to anyone because they could be used against them magically.  When a magician finally separates himself from their toxic lifestyle, one of the first things he does is tell someone his real name.  It’s a moment that the entire series is aimed towards.

A more recent example of a name influencing the plot is from The Force Awakens, when Poe Dameron names his unlikely rescuer from the First Order.  FN-2187 is just a string of anonymous numbers (albeit ones that also refer to Leia’s cell on the Death Star) and could refer to any stormtrooper.  By calling FN-2187 Finn, Poe marks him as an individual and separates him from his mass-produced upbringing in the First Order, though the old name’s influence on the new is obvious.

That’s a great way to get a name, even with them getting shot at while it happened.

All that said, even the best names won’t capture the full complexity of a person.  I just try to capture a piece of them.  Eventually, I may even have an excuse to name a character Loki.

On Being Peculiar

I don’t know if you’ve read the book Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children and its sequels.  If not, I’d recommend it.  The protagonist acts like a teenager in most of the more annoying ways at the beginning, but it does get interesting fast.  Plus, Tim Burton made it into a movie that looks like it will be pretty good.

The idea of the story is that there are some people born with “peculiarities,” or special powers.  Because humans are terrible at being nice to each other when there are any sort of differences between them, and because there are others who want to exploit their abilities, those peculiar people have to hide.

No, it isn’t quite like X-men.  Though that’s another good story.

I’ve thought about why Miss Peregrine’s is such an appealing story, and come to the conclusion that it’s because of one of the themes it shares with so many young adult books:  that of being different.

Adolescence and young adulthood are kind of rotten.  Your body and mind have run off and changed on you without your permission.  You’re supposed to act more like an adult than ever before, but still get treated like a child.  Decisions about future careers are demanded from you while laws and policy that affect your options are made without you getting to vote on it.  You’re locked in a building with hundreds of others in just as vulnerable a position as you, and you’ve just realized (if you hadn’t before) that you aren’t normal.

The understanding that “normal” doesn’t exactly exist anyways comes later.

Of course young adults are interested in stories about people who are even less normal than they are.  A human Taser with Tourette’s Syndrome.  A boy wizard whose scar attracts far too much attention.  A kid with the magical gift of breaking anything he touches.  Werewolves and vampires, mutants and peculiars.  I’ve forgotten how many times I dressed as Rogue from the X-men during middle school.  If Miss Peregrine’s Home had existed when I was that age, I’d have wanted to go there too.

The thing these stories about being different taught me as a kid, and still teach me when I forget it, is that being different, or peculiar, or whatever other term you care to use, is okay.  Accepting yourself as you are, even when you know there’s room for improvement, is okay.

That’s a lesson we all need, I think, when pressure to conform comes at us from all sides, whether in appearance or politics or liking Marvel or DC.

Plus, you know, having a character who can hold fire in her bare hands is just cool.

On Creating Beauty

One of my favorite things about Vincent Van Gogh is that even though he was fighting his inner demons every day, he turned the pain from that battle into paintings of incredible beauty.  People might find the way he cut off part of his own ear or the way he died to be memorable, but those things matter because of all the positive things he added to the world when they could have been all negative.  That would have been the easier route.

I try to do that too, but pretending that I’m always, or even usually, okay, would be lying.

My semester at university ended last week, and now I’m home.  Changes like moving, even moving home, always strengthen my own inner demons, but I’ve managed to be pretty productive this past week despite that.  Started a new sketchbook for my reapplication to the illustration program.  Found a couple books on figure drawing and worked on proportions and structure.  Developed a project I’ll probably tell you all about when it’s a bit more outside my head.  Watched the first season of Agents of Shield.  Met up with some friends.  Drove my little brother to and from rehearsal practice for a school musical.  I might even finish unpacking before I have to pack up and leave again.

My mind is still a pretty unawesome place to be in right now, though, so I’ve been thinking of ways to increase the beautiful, good things I make.  I have a list.

1: Bake cookies.  Obviously.

Chocolate chips cookies make everything better, and the simplest recipes only take five ingredients.  Making them is a good way to expel nervous energy without having to think too hard–perfect for a bad anxiety day.

2:  Listen to music.

I have two playlists of the best songs I’ve heard:  One on Youtube and one on iTunes.  There’s something about listening to the right music that helps me get centered so I can get up and do things like eat breakfast.

3:  Read scriptures.

It’s cliche, but that doesn’t really matter.  Scriptures remind me that there’s a lot more to the world than myself, and that there’s someone watching over everything.  That’s usually enough to kick me out of circular thoughts.

When I do one of those things, I can generally get started on drawing or writing something good, though perhaps a little dark.  When I can’t, reading or watching someone else’s fiction is always an option.

What are some things you all do to get motivation to do awesome things?  Let me know in the comments.

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.