Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Craft of Writing: Bonus Post - Mental Illness in Characters.

Hi folks!

Below in all of it's bad grammar glory is something I posted on Facebook. I'm not typically one to cross post stuff from Facebook on my blogs because I'm not comfortable translating things from different platforms. This, however, is one of my exceptions. Before I share it, though, please allow me to provide some context.

In a writer's group I'm apart of on Facebook, a discussion arose as to how to create a truly scary antagonist. Several people bemoaned the difficulty of providing a good scare when so much seems to be based in viewing fear as directly proportional to the amount of gory violence detailed. (Which is a reasonable complaint that is especially valid with respect to the visual medium such as television or movies.) Somewhere in the course of the discussion, someone tossed out how sociopathy is a 'scary' concept.

Sociopathy as a 'scary' trait is a heavily over used trope, in my opinion. It has become short hand for saying that a character is a villain, along with things such as bipolar, mania, and schizophrenia. This trope is so prevalent that it is accepted as common knowledge and bandied about in the media as an explanation for things such as mass murder. I have a justifiable hatred for this trope. It comes from multiple things. But, I think that this bit that I am cross posting from Facebook makes my position clear, so let me present it now.

i prefer it when the sociopath trope is turned on its head. when the hero is one, things get much more interesting in my opinion. 

also, the argument that they are inherently amoral is not really a good one to go with. there is a significant number of people in the general population who have a sociopathy diagnosis that are not dangers to society. they do tend to be very stoic and their reasoning as to why something is appropriate or not tends to be based on logic or a code of honor they choose to adhere to rather than emotion.

honestly, the idea of using mental illness as a stock trait for your antagonist can be slipshod and poorly done if you're just going to plug in what you find on the internet describing symptoms instead of building the character so that their symptoms are not their only 'scary' quality. stereotyping mental illness as the prime motivator of a villain's behavior is piss poor writing, in my opinion, and only furthers the negative stigma that people in the real world face as suffering from mental illness. it is just as bad as making your villains of an ethnic minority simply because you need to shoehorn in a minority character and some how provide an additional dimension to your character.

now, mental illness CAN be a very powerful factor in an antagonist's motivations and scare factor but it requires a degree of sensitivity to things such as how mental illness effects all parties in a situation. exquisite horror can be written showing how your sociopath character is suffering due to their illness with out removing the horror of their deeds. i can tell you that the fight with your own mind is just as terrifying as having someone directly threaten your life, especially when it is a 24-7 experience with no relief.

also, another reason to consider showing your antagonist's suffering from their illness is because it humanizes them and effectively forces your reader to view them as a person rather than a straight up monster. this plants that seed of identification with the antagonist which makes the horror of what they do that much greater because a part of the reader is forced to envision themselves enacting it.

tl:dr - mental illness does not equal good villain. please tread carefully, do your research, and make it one of many identifying traits rather than the primary trait that marks them as an antagonist. failing to do so makes it harder for people with mental illness IRL.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Flora et Fauna: Development of Species.

This week's post regarding the lifeforms of Evandar is a bit of a departure from my usual format. I wanted to share with you how I develop plants for my world. I don't have an exceptional grasp of botany. I do have the beginnings of an understanding of herbalism. I have a small reference library and the all wise oracle known as Google to answer my questions. Fortunately, this is relatively adequate for what I am working on here.

I wish I could say that my plants were dreamed up on the basis of scientific theories and such. That, alas, is not the case. I start out with the question of how these exotic plants will be used. I look at what purpose they serve the story - which usually means how are they used by people. Some of my plants are developed to create unique 'flavors' for Evandar and the world. I want to present things in my world that are there for the purpose of making mundane matters such as cooking more interesting because most anyone can make a plain loaf of bread with a bit of time and effort.

At the same time, however, I recognize that most plants that arise do more than just influence food and drink. There are plants that have medicinal qualities and also serve as magical implements. If you consider the folklore that I devised around plants, you will find many parallels to English and American folklore regarding plants. There is, for example, a cognate to mandrake. Mandrake has a very rich body of folklore surrounding it. I have taken elements of that folklore and tweaked it a bit to  make it fit the folklore of Evandar. Still, I have retained enough of the parallels that it is still somewhat recognizable that this is something that serves a role like that of Mandrake.

I try to describe the plants as I would anything that I find in our world. I do my best to make my descriptions like those of many popular herbals that are out for people in the pagan community. I confess, I do this because these herbals were my first real introduction to descriptions of plants in common language rather than the scientific language used by botanists and biologists. My background as a student scientist, however, does color my writing about these things.

I try to assemble my information in a manner that makes logical sense. And I work hard to answer questions about matters like where these plants would grow and what role they play in the ecosystem. Sometimes the answers come fairly easily. More often the answers are difficult and require research. It may sound odd to say that I have to do research about a plant that I am creating for a fantasy world. My research is into plants that fill similar niches within the ecosystems of Earth to get a better understanding how the plants arise.

I hope someday to put together a book like the Voynich Manuscript. It is most likely going to be a purely artistic effort. My goal is to write descriptions of the things I illustrate (plants and animals) as well as put down other things that are typically found in medieval codices. If I can manage it, I want to include marginalia that is reminiscent of what is found in those ancient books as well. This may sound like a maddening degree of work just for a few interesting plants.

My codex is more than a scratchpad for ideas. I have a separate notebook for that, though I haven't anything for marginalia or drawings in it at the moment. No, the codex is in some respects an endgame project. My devising recipes, folklore, and mythos that are drawn from the well of medieval Europe's history serves the ultimate goal of somehow managing to recreate something of that world in my own life. One person stitched a Bayeux tapestry styled tapestry detailing the modern saga of Star Wars as an expression of their medievalist interests and their other passions. My codex would serve the same role in my own life. Or at least, that is my mad dream and the main driving force behind my particularly detailed descriptions of these elements of my world.

The Blood of Kings and Paupers

Mina watched as the messenger recounted his report from the north. As the man spoke, her gaze strayed to Sorenan. The sandy haired man seemed to lounge in his chair like some cat with one of his long legs thrown over the left arm. His hair was unbound and fell in a tousled mane that was more than a little reminiscent of the great cats of the menagerie. A knife twirled in his left hand. He tossed it up into the air, caught it, flipped it over the back of his hand, and generally toyed with it with impressive dexterity. The messenger seemed uncomfortable with the mercenary's restless action and paused often to glance at the man who stared at the floor with a bored look.

Marcos sat at Mina's left. As the messenger was detailing the latest demands from the governors for troops to strengthen their defenses, the Emperor of Dacia was doing his best to try to gauge how severe the need was. The messenger hemmed and hawed, trying to down play what he had been told. There was some fear that he was to meet an evil end after word had spread of what happened to Temna's envoy. Marcos pinched the bridge of his nose and leaned back, closing his eyes with a harsh sigh of frustration. "Have they taken any of the cities?" he said, deciding that perhaps his best route was brutally blunt questions.

The messenger fell silent. He dropped his gaze from Marcos's face to the floor. Taking the man's silence as an affirmative answer, the priest-king of Dacia city let his hand drop to his side. "How many have fallen?" Marcos demanded in a flat tone. The messenger slowly raised his eyes. His face was pale with terror and grief. "Answer me, man," Marcos barked loudly, half rising from his seat on the dais. The messenger flinched and stumbled back a pace.

"Does the city of Sarben still stand?" Sorenan asked, sounding almost as bored as he looked. The messenger looked over at the man seated on the impressive carved chair beside the dais at Mina's right. The messenger shook his head. The man wrung his hands and then began to twist the lower hem of his travel stained tunic between them. "Are the passes at Mivan and Carlian still in our hands?" Sorenan continued. The messenger again signaled a negative answer. Sorenan raised his head and looked at the man standing before them.

In the grandness of the throne room, the messenger from the north seemed pathetically small. Sorenan couldn't tell if it was because of how the man seemed to stink with fear and cringe when one even looked at him or if it was because he clearly looked under nourished and ill. Sorenan's gaze focused on the messenger's boots. They were cracked and worn. The dull grey dust of the road was not merely coating them but caked upon them as though the man with his cloak pinned at his left shoulder with a greening brass fibula had trudged through mud but recently.

"Where did you come from? "Sorenan asked, "What city?" The messenger looked over at the blond man, surprised by his question being phrased in an unexpectedly kind tone. The messenger swallowed past a lump in his throat. His expression moved deeper into grief. "What it Sarben?" he continued as he moved to sit more properly on his chair before slipping his knife into the sheath at his left boot.

"A village an hour north of Sarben," the messenger said. Marcos's impatient noise prompted Mina to place a hand on his wrist. "I went south to Sarben because Lady Elia needed the aid of Governor Laelius's men," the messenger spoke haltingly, "Men came from the high places and troubled us over the last two passages of the High Lady and Her Children. As I left Xaxio, my village, they came again."

"What became of Xaxio?" Marcos asked. The man before them dropped his gaze and raised a shaky hand to pass it over his eyes.

"The smoke turned the sky black," he answered in a voice that was little more than a whisper, "I was almost to Sarben when they came upon me. They forced me to march ahead of them with others. We stood at the gate of Sarben. The raiders were behind us but the guard could not seem them for the fog. When the gates opened, the raiders came forward. Otho was trampled as he pushed me away from the riders. I... I laid on the ground and prayed for it to stop."

The messenger's voice gave out and he softly began to weep. "So much blood," he said in a watery tone, turning his eyes on Marcos. "They slaughtered them," the man said with a catch in his voice, "They split children on their spears, laughing as they caught them. Governor Laelius was marched to the gates. They hewed him like a tree."

"You ran," Marcos said quietly. The traumatized man dissolved into tears, unable to nod or speak. Marcos looked over at Sorenan. "Laelius was my cousin," the Emperor of Dacia continued in a hollow tone, "He was the reason why I entered the priesthood.Our mothers deemed it proper work for us." Marcos looked at the man weeping before him, seemingly through him.

Sorenan looked to Mina. Where Marcos looked to be somewhere in between anger and seeking black vengence, Mina's expression was calculating and cool. She broke her silence through out this audience, snapping all eyes that were focused on the messenger to her, as she said, "Governer Bastizia was wise to send you as his messenger. Did his Lady have additional words to send?" The messenger's eyes widened and he suddenly began to frantically dig through the pouch at his left hip.

He extracted a tightly wound roll of parchment from a narrow oilskin sleeve. The man walked forward three paces and knelt before the dias, holding the scroll up upon his raised hands while he lowered his head to press it to the edge of the dias. Mina leaned forward. She lifted the scroll from his hands. As she sat back on her throne, the Empress of Dacia said, "Lacryan, bring this man to where he might rest from his journey. See to it that he is well cared for. When he is refreshed, bring him to Sister Lydian. She will attend to the injuries of his soul."

The messenger lifted his head when Lacryan, the majordomo who served the Emperor set a hand on his shoulder. Lacryan's sober, yet compassionate, expression made the man from the north look as though he was about to resume weeping. Grey haired Lacryan lead his charge from the throne room. As they exited, General Zalaz was entering. He looked over at the messenger briefly as he departed and then turned his attention to Mina, who sat reading the scroll with a look of stern disapproval.
"Lady Zia has been murdered. Governor Bastizia has written that refugees of the domain beyond the wall built by his ancestors have come in greater numbers. This man's forced march with the tribesmen appears to have revealed that they are ... organizing," Mina said as she handed the scroll over to her husband. Zalaz opened his mouth to say something and Mina raised a hand slightly, stilling him.

She turned her attention to Sorenan. "Though you know the north and the ways of these tribes, we need you here. It is not yet time for you to go," she said as she then looked to Marcos. "I shall send an emissary to the priestesses to assist them in this. You should send one of the priests militant with her to learn what the threat is. It will be better to have one of Ashur's sons there than a low ranking officer who might be swayed by promises of riches."

Zalaz frowned with displeasure at Mina's statement. Again, he prepared to say something when Mina forestalled him. "General, word has come from the south that Temna's forces again are moving towards us. I would have confirmation of this. It would not do to have a war fought on two fronts," she said. Zalaz sighed, even more displeased with the situation in learning the news he had come to report was somehow reported to Mina and Marcos before he reached them.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Craft of Writing: Losing Your Voice

Sometimes writing is a glorious thing. Words just pour out and scenes dance before the mind's eye like some exciting play. It all is so easy. Work is done in something of a trance and when it is done, it is as though some form of time travel happened because it didn't feel like several hours had passed. This type of inspired flow is often upheld as how all authors work and that it is the ideal experience.

I wish it was so easy. It is not. Anyone who tries to convince you that it is like this all the time is selling you something or lying to you. In a casual survey over the last year with other authors I know who write in a wide range of formats and for a wide range of reasons, the type of writing where it feels like you're shoveling manure from a sitting position seems to happen more often. Now, this is not an instant kiss of doom to anyone's aspirations. Because hard work doesn't make things worth less most of the time, it usually makes them even more valuable for the labor.

Once in a while, though, that hard work is extra hard. Your tools for shoveling the proverbial manure got downgraded from that nice square ended shovel to a wee, little trowel that is bent, has the tip broken off, and the handle is more than a little bit questionable. In those times, it may be that you are tempted to just give up on it all. It could be that everything you write just looks awful to you. It could be that you look at your work and find next to nothing about it that is truly standing out as yours. It could also be that you spend your allotted writing time staring at the blank page suffering from enough existential dread to make Friedrich Neitzsche look as cheerful as a Disney princess with her songbird chorus.

Those moments where you have lost your voice are awful. Nothing quite is as gut wrenching as the feeling like you are never going to write anything worthwhile again. Except perhaps the prospect of actually doing so. Giving up on our dreams is a really hard thing to do. Sometimes there are practical reasons to give up on dreams. Sometimes the dreams just can't be manifested because the circumstances necessary to manifest them are beyond what you can orchestrate.

Sitting here at the computer at the end of a long day, I struggle to come up with words to put down. This has been the struggle pretty much everyday since sometime last spring, if not earlier. My sense of time right now is a bit skewed. Some days, I'm stuck in a sense of despair that I am going to never break this dry spell. Other days, I just grimly glare at the blank page and put down words only to erase them. I can not say that I have miraculously found my voice right now.

Even this blog post is difficult. I am, however, not going to give up. I have more than just this going on. When I find it functionally impossible to work on the fantasy novels, I switch my attention to backstory. If this fails, I move to entirely different genres. Sometimes, I find myself just writing a very emo sounding entry into my journal. And, when I am at a point of utter impasse in producing material, I edit.

At one point, last year, I literally lost my voice. I caught a fairly nasty cold and after prolonged bouts of coughing, I lost my voice. Something my family doctor told me was crucial to healing my vocal cords (which I had strained and this is why I lost my voice) was being silent. Now, with two small children, it is really hard to be parenting them effectively when you are silent. It was a challenging week and a half. But, taking that time to be quiet and use alternative modes of communication was what I needed to do to regain my voice.

Difficulty in writing is a lot like losing your voice. Sometimes, you just have to be silent in the area that you are struggling with and do something different until you are able to go back to that difficult area. It will be hard and frustrating. But, with a little time, you will find that you can get past that thing which is making writing so hard.

Right now I'm whispering. Please be patient with me. I hope to soon have my full voice back.