Tag Archives: writing

How I Name My Characters, Part Three: Using Names to Serve the Story

So, if names that fit too well distract readers, why even try to match names to characters? One reason is that a good name can enhance a story beautifully. Making good art isn’t about avoiding risks. It’s about taking risks, and learning which ones pay off. While a bad name can be ungainly, and weigh a story down, a good name can accentuate a story’s strongest aspects. And that doesn’t just apply to characterization, though that’s certainly a good place to start.

Character

The first impulse, when naming a character, is to find something that goes with their personalities. That’s not a bad impulse. Some of the most memorable characters have names that neatly match their most noteworthy traits. Scarlett O’Hara, for example. The color red in nature either signals something highly alluring, or extremely dangerous. The shade we call scarlet is especially intense, yet sophisticated, all of which sum up the power of Scarlett’s character.

What some writers don’t realize, however, is that a name that contrasts with a character can be just as effective. Consider John le Carre’s most famous protagonist, George Smiley. He’s not smiley. He’s not even slightly happy. In fact, he’s fairly morose. But the the interesting thing about him is how well he keeps it under the surface. He has no shortage of reasons to be actively, dramatically depressed, but he isn’t. He minds his own business, does his duty, ignores the various jabs people send his way, and, when life gets the better of him, lets it out with quintessentially British subtlety. The name Smiley draws attention to the depths below his facade. The problem with subtle, even keeled characters is that they can feel like an uninspired author’s default, rather than a character’s honest choice. Smiley’s name helps him avoid this fate, by drawing attention to what he is not.

Contrasting names are different from arbitrary names. Near and far are opposites, because they both exist on a spectrum of distance. Neither is the opposite of green or apple. In the last post, I talked about How I Met Your Mother has Lily, a feisty mother bear whose namesake flower normally symbolizes gentleness and purity, and, Barney, a suave player with the least suave name imaginable. It wouldn’t have been nearly as memorable to name them Jill and Aaron.

I think it’s also worth noting that a fitting name can feel generic when it corresponds to a trait the character shares with nearly everyone. One character on 30 Rock is named Frank. Frank arguably fits his name; he always speaks his mind. But so does everybody else. The cast has a nice pile of entertaining quirks and flaws between them. Bashfulness isn’t one of them.

Setting

I’ve already mentioned in both previous posts that you should choose a name that fits the setting. Every society has naming conventions. When you’re writing in a real world setting, a little research into these adds authenticity, especially if you’re willing to use names that are decidedly unfashionable nowadays, as they do on Downton Abbey. When your setting is invented, it’s a good idea to come up with a few rules for names, as well as guidelines for how class, gender, occupation or ethnicity tends to affect people’s choices. It enlivens your worldbuilding and can also communicate the values of your culture. The Hunger Games, Battlestar Galactica and Lord of the Rings all do this very well.

Because who we are is often shaped by our environment, this is a great place to go for names, in order to avoid excess of names that sound too much like the namesake. It can also be a quick way to communicate conflicts between cultures, or between an individual and their culture.

  • The scene where Finn is named in The Force Awakens, establishes the difference between the First Order, which sees people as tools, and Poe Dameron, who refuses to dehumanize Finn with a serial code.
  • The book Good Omens (which everyone should read) has, among other things, a Satanic nun mistaking an ordinary Englishman for an ambassador, and giving him the Antichrist to raise. She attempts to convince him to give the baby a traditional name, like Damien or Wormwood. He goes with Adam.
  • Even a subtle change can speak volumes about a character, as in Anne of Green Gables, where she insists that if she must have a name as plain as Anne, it absolutely must be spelled with an e.

But when a name completely breaks from established rules, it can be jarring. In How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup explains that it’s tradition on their village to give babies undesirable names (this is based on a real tradition in many cultures; exact explanations vary, but it’s sort of like telling actors to break a leg). If a character isn’t named for some bodily function or piece of refuse, it’s something that sounds just as bad, like Stoick, Hoark or Phlegma. Then, there’s Astrid. It’s not a word, it doesn’t sound gross, and it literally means “beautiful goddess.” Every time someone said her name, it reminded me that this isn’t a real place, but a human invention whose creators can ignore the rules at their convenience. Either that, or her parents hated her.

It also weakened the character. Astrid is great, and I loved her, but there is an obvious reason why they didn’t follow the rules. She’s the love interest, and they didn’t want to disrupt her beautiful image with an ugly name. Her name is a signal that, because she’s the pretty girl, she could be badass, but they weren’t going to let her be injured or dirty her up. It was more important to preserve her desirable image than make her someone who organically fit the world. I think they should have gotten over that. They could have come up with something that sounds beautiful, but fits the established rules of the setting, like Bramblethorn or Stormcloud. Or they could have just embraced the comedy gold of having Hiccup breathlessly talk about the most beautiful girl in the village; Crabgrass.

Plot

Here we get into tricky territory. As I explained in the last post, naming characters for which tropes they fit in the narrative just draws the audience’s attention to cliches, not originality. Foreshadowing in names can also be hard to do with real subtlety. Nobody was surprised that Remus Lupin was a werewolf. But, as I said, writing is sometimes about taking risks.

I just finished reading Warm Bodies, and I loved it. If you look closely, several characters have names that reference Romeo and Juliet; not just R for Romeo and Julie for Juliet, but also M for Mercutio and Perry for Paris. These names work because they are buried. They make sense in-story, they are surrounded by names that don’t reference Shakespeare, and the plot is willing to break the formula just often enough that the parallels aren’t dead giveaways. I knew the hints were there, but I was so swept up in the story I forgot about them until I closed the book. It was perfect.

Misleading audiences is also perfectly good use of a name. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho relies on twists, and those twists are still emotionally effective when you know what’s coming, because of how much he commits, on every level, to luring you into a false sense of security. This goes all the way down to Norman Bates. Look at that. He is practically named “normal man.” Bastard.

 

These two techniques can also be used to play off of each other. In the original Star Wars series, we first meet Han Solo… who always travels with a partner, and comes back to help the rebels in the end. Solo is the image he tries to project, but the man inside is more complicated than that. This red herring created a smokescreen over other hints; the alliteration of Luke and Leia, or the fact that Vader is Dutch for father.

Theme

This is a the hardest one to use well. Most of the time the only authors who even try are attempting to make a painfully obvious allegory, as in Pilgrim’s Progress. And hey, if allegory is your dream, there’s a market for that. You do you, more power to you, etc etc.

That said, I can think of two cases where a writer pulled thematic names off. First is Hope, from the series Jessica Jones. I don’t even know how to explain this one without spoiling the entire show. All I can say is that she absolutely symbolizes Hope, but the writers were willing to do things with the idea of hope that I’ve never seen before. Second is Calvin and Hobbes. Yes, the comic strip. Both protagonists were named for philosophers who had a cynical view of human nature. John Calvin came at it from a religious perspective, and Thomas Hobbes from a political one. In between skipping school and making killer mutant snow goons, Calvin and Hobbes spend a lot of time walking through the woods, talking about human nature and everything we as a species just can’t get right. Two things make the references work. First, it’s not like the strip is named Plato and Nietszche. The references are a bit obscure and the names sound like real names. Second, Calvin and Hobbes aren’t parroting their namesakes. At most, they are interested in similar questions. They are their own people, having their own conversations, and instead of lecturing us they are being bewildered along with us.

The worst thematic name I could think of was Veil from The Outcast of Redwall. Redwall is a series of animal novels that I loved as a kid, but their biggest weakness, in my recollection, was the simplistic species based morality. Mice, moles, otters, badgers and hares were always good. Rats, stoats, ferrets and foxes were always bad. In The Outcast of Redwall, a ferret, is raised by the good creatures of Redwall. The book keeps acting as if it’s about to discuss nature vs. nurture, but then slams the door on the question with some pointless act of cruelty. His name is an early example of this simplistic approach. Supposedly, his name is Veil because there’s a veil over his past and his future, but early on somebody points out that veil is an anagram of both evil and vile. Oh dear, what an omen! The author never really wanted to examine the question of morality and upbringing, and the name just draws attention to that.

You can think of words in a story existing on a spectrum, from the little words that usher the readers along without calling attention to themselves (the, said, it, come, was) to the ones that pop out and define the story. On this spectrum, the words that call the most attention to themselves will be the names. Audiences will actually put in work to remember your character’s names, so they can keep track of the people driving the narrative. It’s worthwhile to put some thought into them.

How I Name My Characters, Part Two: Character Names That Don’t Sound Like Character Names

In the first part, I talked about where names get their associations. Next time I’m going to talk about various ways to use those associations to enhance a story. But first, I wanted to share advice on making sure those names don’t sound so literary that they distract readers from the story. An arbitrary name isn’t nearly as fun or evocative as one that really suits a character, but one that fits too well draws attention to the fact that a writer constructed this world.

Beware of Tropes

As I mentioned in the last post, names are multifaceted, and characters are multifaceted. It often works very well to give your characters a name that matches up with some, but not all, of who they are. There are many directions you can take this, but the absolute worst is to name a character for the trope they best fulfill. Nothing screams “this is a story” like naming everyone for where they fit into the narrative.

There are three exceptions to the avoiding tropes rule; one-scene characters who will exist just long enough to need a name but then disappear from the story, stories with a comic, self-aware tone, and characters who initially fit a trope but then subvert those expectations. Jane the Virgin uses both of the last two criteria. Her love triangle is between Michael, the stable boyfriend of two years, and Rafael, the rich playboy who broke her heart. Except, as the series goes on, Michael gets increasingly hard to trust, and Rafael seems more genuine and pure in his intentions. This role reversal combined with the loving-parody-of-a-telenovela vibe makes the names perfect.

And if I’m totally off base, I’m only halfway through season one, so don’t tell me, okay?

Don’t. Tell. Me.

But that said, there’s a difference between an homage and a replay. Several years ago the film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow got my hopes up. It promised to be tribute to classic 1940s adventure stories, and it was. Unfortunately, it wasn’t really anything else. It was a restitched series of familiar tropes and twists; it had no heart of it’s own. The names they chose had the same problem. Joe Sullivan, Polly Perkins, Dex, Totenkopf. Which of those is  the reporter girlfriend, the heroic pilot, the villain, the sidekick?

Yup. You got it.

Don’t do that. Write characters, and name them for who they are as people, not who they are as pieces on the chess board.

Be Aware of the In-Story Reason

I loved Juno, both the film and the character. But I must admit, it always irked me that she had such a conveniently quirky name, to go with her character. We didn’t get to know her parents very well, but they didn’t seem like the type of people to pick a name like Juno. They seemed like the sorts to name their girl Hailey or Kimberly. The quirky name for a quirky protagonist thing worked a lot better in Easy A, where Olive’s parents are named Rosemary and Dill, and it’s quickly established that the only thing they like more than a joke is a running joke (her little brother’s name is Chip).

Names say things about the person who picked them. They reflect hopes, expectations, values and personal tastes. When a character’s name doesn’t sound like the kind of thing their parent (or other namer) would have chosen, it points back to the author.

If your heart is set on a type of name that your character’s in-story namer would not have chosen, there are no shortages of ways out. In both fiction and real life, people change or adjust their names all the times. Whether they choose an appropriate nickname, like Jo from Little Women, or they are given a name that reflects how others see them, like Fat Charlie in Anansi Boys, or whether there’s a subtle consensus to reshape the name into something more appropriate, like Pepper from Good Omens, it’s a perfect way to make an on the nose name sound natural. It feels right because it happens fairly often in real life, as well. Names shape people’s expectations, and when those expectations don’t fit, their bearers often seek something more appropriate.

Vary Why They Fit

As I mentioned last time, names are multifaceted, and characters are multifaceted, and names can fit in ways that are unexpected. A perfect way to make names feel appropriate without being contrived is to have them fit different characters for different reasons.

One of my all-time favorite shows didn’t do well with this; Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy, Cordelia, Willow, Xander… each name fits perfectly, on an individual level. But they all line up with their namesake’s personalities so well that, collectively, it’s clear they have been named by some omniscient author. Especially when the British librarian introduces himself as Giles. Later on, as characters evolved and others were introduced, this problem gradually went away.

On the other hand, How I Met Your Mother got this right from the start. First, three characters have names that fit, both on the level of sound and meaning.

  • Ted, the old fashioned romantic nerd. It conjures up images of your old, safe stuffed bear, and that’s the kind of lover he tries to be; the kind who makes you dinner and always returns your calls right away. As a diminutive, it also indicates that he has some growing up to do before he’s ready for The One.
  • Marshall, the gentle giant. Its soft sounds give Ted a serious challenge for most huggable name contest. At the same time, the law enforcement gives it a little backbone, and he does have a surprisingly tough and mature side, when needed.
  • Robin, the mercurial beauty. She is feminine, but with an androgynous streak, and like her namesake bird she sometimes needs to fly away.

But then you have Barney and Lily. A lily is a delicate flower, commonly used as a symbol of purity. Barney conjures up either a hay chewing hick or a purple dinosaur. Lily’s personality is half den mother, half scrappy hellion. Barney is a smooth city player.

These two names that break the pattern have an effect of naturalizing the entire cast. What coincidental appropriateness? Clearly we are just five people, named by five sets of people who had no idea how we would turn out. And sure, some of us did end up like our names, and that happens. Nature and nurture and all that. But sometimes you get a wild card, and look at us. Wild cards. Totally didn’t end up anything like our parents thought. Nope, our names and our personalities have as little to do with each other as you can imagine.

It’s a big lie, by the way. Barney and Lily’s names still signal something; they signal it by contrast, rather than emphasis. But I’ll get into that in the next installment.

How I Name My Characters, Part One: Finding a Name

God, I haven’t done something purely writerly in a while. I’ve been a bit distracted lately. I dunno if you’ve noticed, but our country is desperately backpedaling from the cliff’s edge while an orange troll yanks our handlebars forward, muttering “fake news media claims thousand foot drop may cause injury or death. SAD.”

Anyway, it’s nice to do a post on one of my favorite aspects of writing. I don’t think naming is the most important part of character design. My favorite show, Parks and Recreation, sounds like they wrote common names on slips of paper and pulled them out of a hat; Tom, Ron, Chris, Ben, Andy, Ann, April, Donna, Larry/Gary/Jerry. The most evocative name in the whole cast is Leslie. But I do think a well-chosen name can enrich a character and help the reader keep track of your cast. Also, I personally have an easier time connecting to my characters once they have been named. It’s like, in my head, an unnamed character is a quantum particle, potentially one of many things, and then it’s only when I’ve named them that I’ve properly seen them, and snapped them into a single, solid reality (feel free to explain to me how badly I just botched quantum mechanics). So the only real hard and fast rule I have is to choose a name that works for me.

That said, names are not blank slates. They come pre-loaded with associations, and picking one that will help the reader connect as well as me is always a plus. That’s the real challenge of picking a good name. There are many things that give names their public associations; famous namesakes, fashion trends, or use in slang or idioms, for example. Everyone has their own private associations as well. I, for example, have color-grapheme synaesthesia, and I like to match the colors of a character’s hair, eye or favorite clothes with the first letter of their name. That said, there are four things that I think authors in general should be mindful of when choosing names.

Pure Sound

We’ve all repeated a word until it stops sounding like a word. When that happens, it’s easy to notice how, regardless of their meaning, some words and phrases sound good (cellar door) while others just don’t (moist).

Just as there seem to be some universal mathematical underpinnings to visual art, and some universal wiring behind our basic facial expressions, there does seem to be some human consensus about which words sound pleasant or feel nice to say. If you are want to go down a fun linguistic rabbit hole, google phonaesthetics. Tolkien was a fan; it’s how he designed Elvish to sound ethereal and sophisticated, and the Black Speech to sound gutteral and snarly.

The science there is still fairly fuzzy, but anyone can say a word or name aloud, over and over again, and see what it really sounds like, apart from any meanings or cultural associations. When you do that, you start to notice things that help you match them up with a character.

    • Your tongue clicks through both Tristan and Keiko, but Tristan rolls into a clean ending with the “n” while Keiko bounces off of it’s final vowel. To me, both feel like young, active characters, but Tristan wears ties and shakes hands, reserving his fun side for his close friends, while Keiko laughs freely and has a touch of ADHD.
    • Short names feel simple; Dean, Hope, Anne, Ron. They get right to the point, and fit characters who are humble or practical. Long names feel complicated; Nicodemus, Gwendolyn, Roderick, Cordelia. The attention and time they demand from you suggests sophistication, or perhaps intellectualism, or possibly just arrogance.
    • Names almost can’t help sounding nice when they are mostly rs, ls, ms and vowels. Oliver, Leilani, Eleanor, Lamar, Amelia. I like using these for especially attractive characters.
    • Hortense twists your tongue so much you almost gag. I would never use this for a character; I would hate her too much to end up making her interesting. Honestly, can any of you come up with an uglier name, I will name you Lord/ Lady/Gender-ambiguous High Commander of the comments. 

My favorite thing about this is you can use it without making a name sound contrived. The risk of putting too much thought into a character’s name is that it could end up sounding like the author put too much thought into it. Just like everything else in a story, a good name has a purpose that enhances the story, but feels like it naturally belongs there.

Meanings

This is the part of names that we obsess over the most, but fairly often, they don’t actually matter. Take Armand and Bob. Let’s suppose I was going to pick one of those for a suave, successful businessman whose face you see on magazine covers at the checkout stand. The other one is an army sergeant from Kansas. It’s pretty obvious which name fits which description. But Armand means “soldier”, while Bob means “bright fame.”

Names have meanings because they come from words. Robert comes to English name books from the Normans. It’s composed of the old Germanic elements “hrod” and “beraht.” Beraht turned into bright when it came to words but “bert” when it came to names, and somewhere out there is a very smart linguist who can tell you why. That person is not me. Armand also came from the Normans, but took a detour in France, where it picked up a Parisian flair. It has the same roots as Herman (“hari” for army and “man” for, well, man). When names travel circuitous routes like these, their original meanings become overwhelmed or lost completely.

On the other hand, some names stay close to the words they came from. On the opposite end of Robert and Armand are common word names; Rose, Pearl, April, Joy, Melody, Robin, Gray. In addition to the sounds and cultural associations, these are names inevitably flavored by their literal meanings.

This isn’t a tidy binary between word names and everything else. It’s a spectrum. One tick down the scale from Grace and Faith are names like Viola. A viola is a musical instrument, and also a plant closely related to the violet. If you aren’t much of a musician or gardener, you might not know that, but you don’t really have to. It sounds something like “violet” or “violin” and invokes the beauty of strings and petals, regardless of whether or not you  know that connection is literal. There’s a whole class of names like that which do technically have meanings, but because they are jargon, or regional, or archaic, the names feel like names first and words second; Felicity, Mason, Cooper, Bonnie.

Next comes a whole band of names that are no longer words, but have visible roots with their origin. Sometimes they only drift one letter away, as with tailor and Taylor. Other times, you might need a large vocabulary or a second language to see the connection. Amy shares a root with “amiable” and “amity,” but as we learn these words later in life the association isn’t nearly as visceral. Perdita comes from Latin for “lost.” In English, the most common influence is “perdition,” which doesn’t quite mean the same thing anymore. But it also ties into the common Spanish verb “perder,” so to a Hispanic person it might feel more destitute.

The last degree brings us to misleading similarities. Timothy doesn’t mean timid. The connection between Jean and blue jeans is completely coincidental. Melanie is not a variation on Melody. Yet, Timothy sounds like a shy person, Jean is practical, and you can easily see Melanie singing, dancing or playing an instrument. Or at least, that’s how I’ve always seen them.

In brief, a name’s meaning makes a difference, when the meaning is still kept alive in the reader’s language. But that connection isn’t a direct line. It is subject to the whims of history, as well as the reader.

Cultural trends/origins

I think it is useful to think of your character’s name not only from the perspective of the author, but from the perspective of the person who named them in story. Usually this is a parent, but, depending on the story, they could choose it themselves, or it could be the nickname their older sister gave and that just stuck, or perhaps in their village the astrologer names every child, based on what is lucky for their birthdate, or maybe they were named by the scientist who grew them in a lab. Wherever it came from, it will break suspension of disbelief if the name is something the namer would never have come up with.

The point of caution here is not to over-rely on a character’s cultural background. There are so many names out there that are stereotypically the Hispanic name, or Black name, or French name, or baby boomer name… A good character is informed by their cultural background, not defined by it. The same goes for their name.

Namesakes

Namesakes are powerful associations. The problem here is that, like wasabi, they can be too powerful. It can be too obvious that a character is named for someone else, and they can feel like copies instead of homages. There are a few ways to get around this though.

  • Make a more obscure reference. If your heroic mutant with superstrength is named Hercules, it’s obvious what you’re going for. If his name is Jason, you’re still referencing a mighty hero of Greek mythology. It’s just less of a neon sign, more of an Easter egg.
  • Disguise the name. You could the character who conquers your dystopian post-apocalyptic landscape Caesar, but your audience will probably roll their eyes and think, “gee, I wonder what the writer is trying to tell me about this character.” Julian or August, on the other hand, wink at the reference without drawing your readers out of the story.
  • Disguise the reference. It’s one thing to name your character Merlin because he’s an elderly magical mentor of your chosen one. But what if he’s a clairvoyant child, constantly disoriented by his visions? What if he’s a mentor, but is in his thirties, clean shaven and never seen without a perfectly knotted tie, and is teaching the protagonist the fine art of insider training? What if he is a crotchety bastard who lives in a trailer and initially refuses to help the heroes, an anti-Merlin in every respect except age, then, after your readers have come to associate Merlin with “trailer park asshole” and not “King Arthur’s teacher”, he gradually comes to like and guide the protagonists? In other words, let the name be a reference to a facet of your character, not their entirety.

I’ll go more into background and namesakes in part two, where I talk about how to use names in a way that serves your whole story. In the meantime, here’s some helpful links

  • Behind the Name – each name has a ratings tab where you can see other people’s impressions of a name. Many names sites allow people to rate names, but this one lets people break down their impressions into fourteen categories, including intelligence, strength, formality, and humor. It also has a section that sorts names by thematic meaning, a name translator in case you need the Dutch version of Margaret, a surname themed sister site… basically it’s my favorite online resource
  • SSN baby name records – perfect for checking the real world history of popular names in the United States
  • Nameberry – the official site of Linda Rosenkrantz and Pamela Redmond Satran, the queens of baby names. Their books are essential for the writer learning to think about the images popularly associated with baby names. While their target audience is parents, and some of their advice must be adjusted accordingly, there is probably no one else on Earth right now who knows more about names. 

Happy writing!

Good Offense, Bad Offense

Whenever I write about social justice and writing, whether I’m sharing my own perspective or asking for someone else’s, typically someone will come along and inform me that it’s impossible to avoid offending everyone. Therefore, apparently, my entire effort is fundamentally pointless. I was recently in an argument with a particularly belligerent person, out to save me from my futile quest of political correctness, and I realized he was misunderstanding something very basic to my goals. Contrary to his assumption, I’m actually all for offending people with my writing.

I’ve heard people say that good writing is often offensive, and I’ve heard that idea attacked by fellow social justice geeks. I actually think that attack is misguided. It’s not that the very concept of “good art offends” is wrong. It’s just normally presented as part of an overall bad argument. It’s like a seed that’s been planted in one of those tea candle holders. It won’t ever have room to properly bloom and fruit, but that’s not the seed’s fault. It’s the fault of the dumbass who planted it there.

Offense is the reaction of people who have been made to question something that they profoundly did not want to question. Sometimes that reluctance itself needs to be challenged. Some things stagnate and decay when they aren’t shaken up and re-examined regularly. Politics and religion in particular are improved by periodic interrogation. Great storytelling hacks our brains to make us think about something in a way we didn’t expect, so we should want it to occasionally offend people.

However, that principle doesn’t apply to everything. A person shouldn’t have to question their basic self-worth; their behavior or habits, sure, but not their fundamental value or basic human rights. That’s my first issue with the whole “you can’t please everybody” argument. No, I can’t please everybody. That’s why I try to prioritize pleasing people by treating them like humans, as opposed to pleasing people by tiptoing around their worldviews.

Which brings me to the core issue. The kind of offense I’ve been targeting these days really doesn’t come from any kind of intentional statement (most of the time). Instead, it comes from laziness. We have built up a vast tapestry of tropes that center around treating straight, white, heterosexual cisgender non-disabled men as normal and everyone else as subtly less human. Writers, from romance novelists to screenwriters to stand-up comics, draw from art that came before them, and often that means borrowing racist, sexist, ableist or homo/transphobic tropes. Even recognizing them takes conscious thought. Figuring out how to write without them takes serious effort. But failing to put that effort doesn’t make you the good type of offensive. It’s not thought provoking to stereotype Black women. It’s not constructive to question a disabled person’s basic worth and dignity.

Every norm eventually takes on a basic comfort; even ones that have no other redeeming quality. Challenging bigoted norms, therefore, is offensive. It isn’t even just offensive to people who are actively invested in oppression. It’s offensive to people who intellectually dislike oppression, but also have gotten comfortable with the rhythms of it. They don’t like to be confronted with the idea that their own story ideas, inspired by bigoted works, might have inherited bigotry. They really don’t want to be challenged to do the work to undo it. That’s the real reason for the ubiquitous pushback. It’s easy to tell others that the real world doesn’t have safe spaces, or that other people need to grow a thicker skin. It’s a lot harder to grow one yourself.

So to everyone out there who makes it your mission to remind people that they’re eventually going to piss off someone, or that they’ll kill themselves trying to make everyone happy, or that good art is sometimes offensive; take a moment to consider that maybe you’re the one they are willing to offend.

This rant has been brought to you by a really annoying conversation, a bad case of staircase wit, and my sudden realization that I hadn’t met my four posts a month standard. You probably picked up on that. You smart reader, you. 

Dreams

I don’t believe in God, but that hasn’t stopped the universe from occasionally throwing me exactly what I need at exactly the right time. Large numbers; they work, bitches!

I love my job. I’m also about to quit my job, to work part time and go into nursing. It’s a field I think I’ll love just as much as I love chasing tiny humans around. It also isn’t what I want my career to be. As always, I want my career to be writing.

But the trouble with that goal is that I have no idea when it will pay off. In the meantime, I want to afford a house with my boyfriend and show a social worker that we have enough money to adopt my own tiny human. I want a puppy and, when I have shown my boyfriend enough pictures of tiny sneks in hats that his fear of them is overcome, an entire room devoted to reptiles. I want things that take at least a moderate and stable income. So, I’m going to go invest time and money into a skill set that will let me do a thing, and keep on writing in the meantime.

What makes this feel worst to me is that it feels like betting against myself. Taking this step is like saying to all the characters living inside my head, “listen, you’re great and all, but I need to grow up.” Which is not the message I want to send them at all.

Anna Akana is an actress and Youtube comedian who I have been following for a while. She’s an absolutely perfect human being and I can’t get enough of her. Today, she posted a video about dreams and passions, about working but still making time to do the thing you love, and it really encouraged me. Sure, I have a backup plan in case I do end up being one of those authors who doesn’t get big until relatively late in their lives (aka one of the normal ones). That doesn’t mean for a moment that I’ll stop writing and dreaming and trying to break into the world of storytelling. And as long as I’m loving what I’m doing, it doesn’t matter whether I’ve attained a particular level of success or not.

Here’s the video; its short and I highly recommend giving it a watch yourself.

Take care, and thanks as always for reading.

Batman v. Superman; Yeah, It’s Not Good

This movie gave me an actual headache.

Spoilers ahead, but I recommend reading anyway. It’s not worth the trip to a theater, and if you’re determined to do so, knowing what you’re in for might save on brain cells. But you know, you do you.

batman-v-superman
We are brooding men. Look at us brood. Producers tell us brooding = interesting. Broooooooooood.

I find that I generally agree with the Rotten Tomatoes rating of a film, but disagree with the consensus on why. Many critics said this movie was too complicated. On the contrary, it was very simple. Batman and Superman don’t trust each other, and Lex Luthor manipulates that distrust until they fight, but then Batman changes his mind because both their mothers are named Martha. They team up with Wonder Woman to fight a big monster, and Superman dies but only for until the sequel. Obviously.

All that seems complicated because the film is made of too many short scenes, all of which cut suddenly to the middle of the next one, so your brain is constantly playing catchup. The following is typical of my thoughts throughout the movie.

“Wait, how did Batman know to be here? Oh, he was decrypting those files last we saw him, so I guess they had the location. And he assembled a whole team in the meantime. Wait, how did he know which files to decrypt to begin with? Okay, he was stealing them from Lex Luthor, and I guess they established back when he got the invitation that he thinks Luthor has information on something for reasons. That scene wasn’t really clear on what Luthor had, so I think I was looking too hard for clues about that to remember how he knew Luthor had whatever it was. Or maybe it was the other way around. Anyway, he’s opening the thing, and…. oh, looks like a trap. And the person behind the trap was, uh, Superman? Why is Superman being so aggressive? Is that out of character? They haven’t fully established where this interpretation falls on the Pacifistish Hero spectrum. Oh, okay, it was all a dream. Hey! Hey movie! You’re only allowed one of those dream sequence fake outs per film, and you already done that twice!”

Oh, yeah, about ten percent of the in media res scenes turn out to also be dream sequences or fantasies. That really helps with the coherency.

So that’s the first issue; in lieu of having a complex web of intrigue, they shoot all the scenes in the most confusing way possible and hope you can’t tell the difference. The second issue has to do with broken promises and the elements of stories.

There are many ways to model stories, but one of my favorites is to break them down into elements of plot, character, setting and theme. It’s a helpful abstraction because it works across genres and culture, and it helps explain why the same errors can be tolerable in one story and unforgivable in another. All four elements are present in all stories, but most stories choose to emphasize one or two over the others. Mad Max: Fury Road had some flaws in its worldbuilding, but from the start it emphasized events and characters. The action was exciting and well choreographed, while the characters were remarkably rich. As a result, we were satisfied with the two other elements lagging behind.

Way back in the earliest teasers for Batman v. Superman, the creaters began promising that this would be an idea story. They took two characters with a common goal but deep ideological differences and pitted them against each other. They showed us society disagreeing in conflict about which was good and which was evil. They even brought in religious references. So we came prepared for superheroic fisticuffs, but we also brought our egghead glasses. We were prepared to go home talking about the mirror this holds up to society, or something equally pretentious.

Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent don’t have any interesting philosophical debates. Bruce Wayne goes, “You have too much power and might turn bad, so even though you’re clearly good now I have to destroy you!” Clark Kent goes, “You hurts bad guys a lot so you must be stopped!” I go, “Anyone going to point out that you are both powerful guys who might eventually be corrupted by said power, and furthermore you’ve both chosen a career path that involves some collateral damage? Anyone?” No one does. The only reason anybody objects to either of them is that they’re super powerful and also sometimes people get hurt. Well, that applies to the police, the military, the government, and any other agency of power. People point out that some people approve of them and some people don’t. That applies to… everything. Period. The specific contrasts between Superman and Batman are there, but nothing is said or done about them. Lex Luthor doesn’t even have an interesting reason to oppose them. He’s just a generic nihilist.

And yet, the film never stops reminding you that you were here for a thinky movie. It’s got the non-linear complex structure of the intellectual action film. It’s got the somber music and dark lighting.

Tim Minchin Dark Side
“I can have a dark side to-o-o-o-o-o-o”

And the religious symbolism! Symbolism works best when used sparingly to subtly emphasize certain characters or events. This is just everywhere, crosses and halos and the camera zooming in on some bystander praying. It’s not there to say anything, but its everywhere. Some people draw parallels between Superman and God, because, uh, they’re both way powerful and people look up to them. That’s it. They weren’t saying anything interesting about God, so much as giving me the impression the props department had a 50% off your entire purchase coupon at Family Christian Bookstores.

It was so ubiquitous, I started looking for it when it wasn’t there. Honestly. At one point the camera lingered on a hole in the wall. The hole looked kind of like a fish, so I wondered if they were going for an  ichthys, but it looked more like the Moby Dick restaurant sign. Then the fighting resumed and I decided it was just the place where Superman threw Batman through drywall. In my defense, my head had been hurting for a while.

In short, they let people down on their main promise. If this is an idea film, it explores said ideas like an argument on Facebook. Nowhere does anybody articulate their full point of view. Nowhere does anybody change their mind for any interesting reason, and when characters do talk they talk past each other. The only aim of 70% of the dialog is to spout some quotable soundbite, each of which sounds good in isolation, none of which meaningfully advances the conversation. Put that all together and you get a lot of people with black and white mentalities babbling at each other and saying nothing.

Huh. Maybe, in a completely unintentional way, it said something about society after all.

Tune in next time for me being way less grumpy, hopefully. As always, thanks for reading.

Mental Health and Creativity

I’m not sure how to categorize this post. It’s certainly not a review, and its not exactly writing advice either. I suppose, in a way, its my own personal PSA.

Starry Night

I just read yet another book where the author went on a rant about what would happen if we had medicated Van Gogh. Psychiatric drugs are turning us all into zombies and the negative feelings in life fuel our art and many great geniuses would have been diagnosed with mental health problems today. Therefore meds are bad! Sigh.

I do think we often rush to medicate when other options might be better, and there are people out there with good, educated opinions on this issue. But when your example of someone who should not have been medicated is a man who mutilated himself and took his life at 37, my bullshit alarm starts clanging. These arguments make me angry for many reasons, but one of the biggest is that they, at one point, prevented me from even exploring the option of medication. I have an anxiety disorder, and as it turned out, a low dose of an SSRI was extremely effective in treating it. Medication isn’t the answer for everyone, and I’ll get to that in a minute, but first I want to talk a bit about our ideas about the relationship between mental health and creativity.

The idea that creativity and mental illness are linked is an old one, but studying it is problematic. Search the internet for mental illness and creativity studies, and you’ll find a tenuous statistical connection that raises more questions than it answers. People who spout the Van Gogh argument tend to assume that when mental illness comes along with creativity, the former is essential to the latter. This is only one explanation. Here are some others;

  1. Artists tend to live unstable, stressful lives. This means that those who are predisposed to mental health problems are more likely to develop them.
  2. People who happen to be both mentally ill and creative often turn to art as a kind of self-therapy. If they hadn’t been mentally ill, they still would have been creative, but would have channeled their abilities into other arenas.
  3. Mental illness and creativity share a genetic cause, a bit like those genes that cause both blue eyes and deafness. Just because a person wears a hearing aid, that doesn’t mean their eye color will change.

It’s funny how those who wail the loss of a hypothetically medicated Van Gogh never mention Monet, Manet, Renoir, Pissarro, Cezanne, Morisot or Degas. All of them, like Van Gogh, produced moving Impressionist art that is beloved today. They used the good and the bad in their lives to inspire them. See Morisot’s portrait of her husband on holiday…

 

eugene-manet-on-the-isle-of-wight

… and Monet’s portrait of his dying wife.

Monet's Wife

For most of them, there is no historical evidence that they suffered any kind of mental illness. Others, like Cezanne or Degas, did have some moodiness and isolationism that might have been signs of a disorder, but then again, maybe they were just shy eccentrics. It’s almost as though great creativity appears across a spectrum of functioning, rather than being dependent on extreme mental anguish.

Now, I should say, there have been people who have tried medication and then gone off it, because the side effects were awful, or because the meds didn’t help, or because they felt they could manage it better with therapy alone. Some people who use the Van Gogh argument just mean we shouldn’t force medications on people who don’t find them a net positive. I do agree with that point. Unfortunately, it is just as often used as fear mongering by people who don’t really know anything about either psychiatry or what its like to be mentally ill.

The stigma around mental illness made my parents inclined to ignore it, and the image of the tortured artist was a convenient way for them to explain away the warning signs in young me. I wasn’t really miserable. I was just “moody, like all the great writers were.” Growing up with this as the way to understand myself made me feel guilty even considering that I might have a medical problem. When I considered getting help, my brain filled with some Orwellian nightmare of personality erasure. Even when I broke away from them, these images fed my anxiety disorder and added one more boulder to the massive wall of issues stopping me from seeking help.

For years, I managed my anxiety by educating myself on calming techniques, recognizing my own personal triggers and picking my battles. At some points in my life, that worked fairly well. I would face my fears in order to maintain friendships or keep my job, and then I would go home, cry and crash, not because anything had gone wrong but because I was exhausted from fighting through my fear every time I was around people. Other times, I had to miss out on things I really wanted to do, because I did the math, and I knew I didn’t have enough spoons to both see my friends and face the crowds of strangers at the grocery store. I thought I was doing pretty well. The tears and shaking became almost invisible to me, because they were so normal. Then, I moved in with my boyfriend, and those breakdowns weren’t private anymore. He was loving and supportive, but simply having another pair of eyes on me made me realize how unusual my mental state was.

Then, last fall, my long estranged older brother started reaching out to me. I had to take advantage of this, because I loved and missed him, and our visit went very well. Unfortunately, the trip was so hard that the anxiety crash didn’t take an afternoon of crying. It took weeks, and I couldn’t limit my outbursts to home. I started having breakdowns at work, over nothing. My boss took a moment to talk to me privately about what was going on, and shared her story about how she had gotten on medication. Obviously that story was private, but it debunked a lot of my worries and got me to set up an appointment with a general practitioner (I had tried to get an appointment with a therapist, but invariably my first few calls would go to people who weren’t accepting new patients, and of course one of my major anxiety triggers was making phone calls).

Now I’m on meds. I still feel fear, sadness, and all the other normal negative emotions that we all need to function. What changed is that after I feel them, I calm down normally, without exhaustion, tears and shaking over something that I know, rationally, was no big deal. It hasn’t harmed my creativity. If anything, I have more time and energy to write. Once again, I need to say that everyone reacts a little differently, and what worked for me might not work for someone else. My point is not “go on medication, you will definitely be fine.” Instead, my point is twofold.

To those of you who struggle with mental health problems but have been spooked by those who say you’ll lose your ability to feel, let me tell you, they don’t know what they are talking about. Psychiatric medication might not be the best option for you, but then again it might improve your life more than you ever thought was possible. And here’s the great thing; if you try a medication and you hate how it affects you, you can stop taking it. Do talk to your doctor first, because sometimes you need to wean yourself off gradually, but any decent doctor won’t make you stay on something that is hurting your quality of life. If they aren’t willing to listen to you, change doctors. There are plenty of good ones out there. Your brain is a wonderful, powerful instrument, and your life is a precious thing. Take good care of them both.

To those of you who spew the cliche about Van Gogh, I understand that you probably didn’t mean anything by it. You probably hadn’t thought of this perspective. I hope I’ve given you something to think about. I leave you with this. Perhaps Van Gogh would not have responded well to medication, but given how much pain he was in, he should have been given the choice, and that choice should be respected by us all. If that would have resulted in a world without Starry Night, I dare say we’d have consolation enough from Monet’s Sunrise.

Impression, Sunrise

How to Not Write a Mary Sue

I’ve recently started Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor. The protagonist has a mysterious past and was raised by a foster family of chimaera. Her foster father sells wishes, which means that her equivalent of an allowance lets her learn languages instantly, painlessly get rid of any tattoo she regrets and make her hair naturally grow peacock blue. She is exceedingly beautiful, and studies art in Prague. Oh, and her name is Karou.

And no, she’s not a Mary Sue. At least, as of halfway through the book, she does not have a remotely Sueish vibe. In fact, I quite like and identify with her. Continue reading How to Not Write a Mary Sue

Three Things a Theme Needs

Ideas in stories fascinate me, and one of the things that interests me most is the lack of consensus on what makes a good theme. I write about this a lot.

I’ve been trying to look at themes in stories from a different angle lately. Instead of just thinking about whether I agree with the moral of what I just watched or read, I’ve been thinking about how the idea was presented. Regardless of whether I consciously agreed, how did my heart react? Did the ideas seem well supported by the story, or were they awkwardly wedged in?

In the process, I’ve noticed three basic things that help a story’s theme not only sound true, but feel right.

1. Complexity. The story shouldn’t be populated by straw men. The utopia shouldn’t have gaps that the writer has conveniently overlooked. The world should feel multi-dimensional and complicated, just like the one we really live in. It’s seeing high-minded ideals interact with a messy world that makes stories so interesting. That’s the reason we forget the PSAs we saw in our teens but remember the gangster films.

2. Continuity. In music, the theme is an arrangement of notes that recurs throughout the piece. They tie the whole piece together. In a story, images, situations, phrases and dilemmas that occur over and over again create a sense of coherence. When, in the last fifteen minutes of a story, a character blurts out an aphorism and everyone nods at how profoundly it fits the moment, it feels clunky. We roll our eyes and think, “oh, right, they’ve gotta have a moral. Whatever.” But if that idea has come up before, and been examined by different characters from different angles, depending on their personality and what is going on at the time, the theme feels integrated with the story, not tacked on to check an item off a list.

3. Intersectionality. Contrary to the common idea that you need a single theme, stories are most interesting when they explore the overlap of a few values and ideas. The theme can’t just be love. What about love? That it conquers all? Well, you can’t literally have it conquer everything. The story has to end sometime. So maybe all in this case is represented by families who object because the two belong to different religious castes. Great! But now you’ve got a society with a religion and family obligations, and you’ve got to develop those things to flesh the story out. Now there are themes involving love, religion and family. The author might think its about love conquering all, but someone else could write a whole paper on how well it demonstrates religion stifling free expression of love.

These three aspects, complexity, continuity and intersectionality, combine to create a story that feels like its definitely about something, but still leaves the readers freedom to figure that out for themselves.

Reviewing Veggie Tales as an Atheist; Esther, the Girl Who Became Queen

As I recall, I didn’t care for this episode much as a child. At the time, I mainly attributed that to the absence of Silly Songs of Larry. A valid criticism, younger me. A valid criticism.

Typically my Veggie Tales reviews have a summary of the plot, some stuff about how funny and well done I thought it was, and then I wrap up with my feelings about the message. Was it a good lesson, was it bad, and how well did they express it? In this case, I’m going to turn that around. The moral of Esther is “do the right thing even if you are scared,” and the context is the protagonist protecting her people from an evil vizier. Clearly all that works and I don’t think I need to argue why, but I really can’t say the story was well done or even charmingly funny. So for once, this atheist has nothing to say about religion, but a whole lot to say about good writing.

Esther is one of the two books in the Bible named for women. It takes place in Persia, where Jews are a conquered minority struggling to keep to their faith despite all the hardships and prejudice in a strange land. The episode, like the Bible story, starts with the current queen of Persia being banished for refusing to get up in the middle of the night and make the king a sandwich. I mean, she wasn’t making a sandwich in the Bible. She was called to appear before the king and his drunk partying friends and, well, I’m pretty sure she was expected to do some old-timey equivalent of a striptease.

This puts the episode in an awkward position. Esther will end up married to the king (King Ahasuerus, who the veggies simply call “king” for obvious reasons) and if he’s the kind of person who throws a woman out into the night over a “sandwich,” he’s an awful guy. This isn’t a fairy tale marriage that the kids can feel  happy about. The episode deals with this by making the king come across as simple minded and easily swayed, so most of the blame lies with his advisor, Haman. Unfortunately, this solution creates two more problems. One is that they pick the Mr. Nezzer/Mr. Lunt duo to portray the king and Haman. Mr. Nezzer is deep voiced and serious, and we are used to seeing him as sinister. Mr. Lunt, on the other hand, has a high voice, a long pencil-thin moustache and is typically the hapless toady. For those who haven’t seen any of these episodes, imagine somebody is doing a live action version of Aladdin, with Aziz Ansari as Jafar and Ben Kingsley as the Sultan. That’s about as off as this felt. I think if Archibald or even Larry had been the king, and an Evil Scallion had been Haman, it would have worked much better.

Mr. Nezzer...
Mr. Nezzer…
...and Mr. Lunt
…and Mr. Lunt

As for the other problem, maybe I should just get along with the review. I think it will become clear.

So, now that the king is wifeless, Haman sets off to find a new bride. He runs across Esther, who is hanging out with her Uncle Mordecai. Her friend recently stole an apple, and Esther is too afraid to confront her, which sets up her character as kind of a wuss. Now, I’m not saying that confrontation wouldn’t be hard, but I think most of us can confront people when we feel strongly about the issue at stake. Because Esther doesn’t find that courage, she comes across as either someone who is fairly cowardly, or who doesn’t really care about the confrontation to begin with. Mordecai is actually pressuring her a lot in this scene, and will do so for every decision she makes in this whole episode, so I think you could make a case for either one.

Haman nabs Esther for a game of Persia’s Next Top Queen, and Mordecai advises her to keep their family connection a secret, because Haman hates him and their entire family. Haman’s motivation for hating them isn’t really explained. In the Biblical version, Haman just hates Jews (anti-Semitism; providing narrative impetus since 550 BCE!). In this episode, however, Esther and Mordecai carefully and awkwardly refer to their “family” not their religion or ethnic group, and nobody says the word “Jew.” I’m not sure why not; the protagonists of Josh and the Big Wall were clearly Jewish.

Esther sings a pretty song about God and wins the queenship, if winning is the right word. She explicitly states that she doesn’t want to be queen and she’s scared. When Mordecai meets her later on a balcony, he rolls his eyes at her anxiety with the statement, “you’ve always had a mind of your own.” That line really bothered me. For one thing, I’ve noticed that toxic, domineering people often respond to normal emotions and healthy boundaries with “you’re just being stubborn.” It makes people feel guilty for having things like the basic capacity to think for themselves, or a vague sense of selfhood. In this case, even if you ignore the sexual consent issues, the king’s last wife got kicked out for refusing to make a sandwich in the middle of the night. That’s a pretty valid reason to be scared.

This is also bad storytelling because if there’s one thing Esther does not come across as, it’s headstrong. That’s another recurring problem in this episode. Mordecai and the narrator constantly inform the audience that Esther is brave, but I don’t think there’s a single scene where she does something based on personal conviction and motivation, rather than being pushed around by outside forces. This characterization comes all the way down to the nonverbal elements of her characterization; she is limp and her voice is mild and quavery.

Just look at that face.
Just look at that face.

The next scene is an assassination attempt by the French Peas. It is simultaneously the best and most disappointing part. It is the best because it is the most funny. There’s a cake and a giant piano and peas with French accents. It’s disappointing because it exists to set up three plot points that will all be paid off very awkwardly. First, it is illegal to approach the king without being invited. Second, Mordecai saves the King’s life. Third, in this version of Persia, criminals get sent to the Island of Perpetual Tickling.

The Grim Tickler
The Grim Tickler

When Haman tricks the king into signing an order for Mordecai’s family to all be killed Perpetually Tickled, Esther has to approach the King in order to convince him to save her people. She’s terrified, because that’s forbidden. We are supposed to be scared for her because of the dire fate of the French Peas, but the king didn’t react much when they showed up unannounced and was easily tricked to stand under the giant piano of near-death. The king didn’t seem bothered by anything that was going on until it was clear they were trying to kill him. He’s also clearly smitten, and doesn’t seem disturbed by what nearly happened to him. Even as a kid, I couldn’t identify with Esther’s terror. It was too obvious that nothing bad was going to happen to her.

The second plot point gets paid off by the king rewarding Mordecai for saving his life. This makes Haman mad. This would, in most stories, be the point at which Haman decides to get revenge because he is jealous of Mordecai’s new status, but in this episode Haman has already put his murderous tickley plan into action. His increased anger changes nothing in the plot, so the whole thing is fairly pointless.

In the end, Esther finally tells the King what’s up and he freaks out because he likes both her and Mordecai. Obviously that was going to be his reaction, and that’s the second problem with his characterization. In the original biblical story, the king was fickle and brutal, which made the story rather family unfriendly, but maintained the suspense. In this story, the question isn’t whether the king will turn on Esther, but whether Esther will whine and hesitate until it’s too late and everyone is dead.

Er, tickled.

On top of all those plot and characterization problems, this episode just didn’t have that Veggie Tales charm. They went for something of a gangster movie pastiche, which didn’t work for two reasons. One is that you can’t parody something when most of the target audience isn’t familiar with it. Do you know any six year olds who are fans of Martin Scorsese? The other is that the design elements this concept brought in were all very dreary and adult; a narrator with a slow, drawling voice, for example, or veggies wearing fedoras, which isn’t any sillier than veggies wearing robes and crowns. The thing about most Veggie Tales is that no matter what I’ve thought of the episode, I’ve felt like the writers were having fun. This didn’t feel fun.