I have thought recently about some of the principles that I believe in when it comes to fiction stories and genre. I am not speaking about genre in the more traditional sense. When I go to Amazon, I realize that if I go to the Fantasy section, then I will get results that reflect books having to do with magic, mythical creatures, swords, and the like. I am speaking in this post more to the general idea of a fantasy. A fantasy is something created in one’s imagination. Something that has not actually happened. See how that fits into fiction? Fiction is a story that never actually happened, created from someone’s imagination.
Of course the next question you have, after accepting that premise, is, “So what?” I hear you. I notice many writers and readers get caught up in the “reality ” of stories. In science fiction, I have seen some argue about whether or not space travel in X manner (notice I dodged the argument by using a variable instead of mentioning a specific method.) Some people only want to write or read those science fiction stories that reflect realistic technology. My take on it is that it is called science FICTION for a reason . If it was real, it would be called a science textbook.
What I see many authors gloss over these days, however, is what I call internal consistency. This applies to everything that is created within the story. It applies in many ways, and it requires the writer to be somewhat cerebral. Before he became delusional and arrogant, M. Night Shyamalan created the Sixth Sense. He created certain rules that he followed throughout the movie. For example, anything the dead interacted with in the physical world was red. After the surprising ending, one could go back and see all of these rules in place throughout the movie. I remember seeing an interview with him, where he described going through scenes and looking for discrepancies in the color scheme, sometimes finding a problem right as they were starting to shoot.
This, to me, is internal consistency, and is very important to me in the stories that I enjoy. I want stories to be consistent with the rules created in that world. If this is a story where the ghosts cannot speak to the living, then I do not want to catch a ghost talking to a living person, unless there is a development in the story that accounts for this. I don’t want to see a character that acts wildly outside of their established personality. Internal consistency, in my estimation, is critical in any fiction story. As far as whether or not certain elements are realistic? It is all fantasy, which is not real by definition.
A new life sustaining Earth-like planet is set to be discovered this year. It is no secret that I am a big fan of science fiction, but I am also a fan of science, and the possibilities through space exploration are just amazing.
As a society, we have benefited greatly from the science of space exploration. There are some very concrete things that space exploration science has brought us. NASA promises to bring us even more science this year. I think that in addition to feeding cordless drills, space exportation also fuels our imagination. Who hasn’t imagined what it would be like to fly into space in zero gravity, or land on the moon or even mars?
The Milky Way is only one of billions of galaxies. The Milky Way itself is 100,000 light years in diameter. A new estimate say there are probably at least 17 billion earth sized planets in the Milk Way. Scientists believe they are set to discover Earth’s twin in 2013.
According to Geoff Marcy at the University of California, Berkeley, “The first planet with a measured size, orbit and incident stellar flux that is suitable for life is likely to be announced in 2013.” Wow, can you imagine? Another planet we might be able to send humans to in the future. Maybe after our planet dies. What forms of life will be there already? For me it just sparks the creativity and curiosity in me.
A little closer to home, Space.com has a list of 13 must-see space events this year, starting with Jupiter event on January 21st that should be highly visible.
The Importance of Fleshing out your Villain
People are complicated. Villains, like any other people, are usually complicated. One hallmark of a great villain, in my estimation, is one that I can empathize with. I may not agree with the decisions that they have made, but I can understand why they made those decisions. I am using the term villain and antagonist in this post, because I am really talking about villains for the most part. Not every antagonist needs to be a villain, though, but the same character traits may apply in varying degrees.
If a character is flat, and one-dimensional, then I will not have respect for that character. In most cases, it is important for the reader to have respect for the antagonist, or they will not be able to see the respect that the protagonist has for the antagonist. This is important, because the antagonist is usually the ultimate obstacle for the protagonist.
Empathy for the Antagonist
Justin Cronin, in The Passage is a great example of this. Throughout the novel, I was able to see a bit into the psyche of the nefarious characters, and I found myself sympathizing with people I would normally not want to be friends with. This too me is great fictional writing. These are characters that are the antagonists in the books, and I would never want to be friends with them in real life, but I can find myself understanding them, and even empathizing with them.
Make Your Villain a Personality
Many things can motivate the villain. One thing that the villain should not be, in my opinion, is a character that is not as well thought out as the protagonist, and by association, just the opposite of the antagonist. By this, I mean that the protagonist is good, and the antagonist is evil. The protagonist is messy, and the antagonist is tidy. The protagonist is a country boy, and the antagonist is a city dweller. Booooorrrrriiiiiiiing.
The antagonist should be multidimensional, meaning that they should not been seen solely in contrast with the protagonist. The antagonist should also be a complete personality in their own right. Certainly, there will be some opposition that includes polar opposites, but that should not be the sum extent of the character.
Some Thoughts on Villains
- Unfiltered Villain – Freud’s theory is that people have three different aspects to their psyche. One of these aspects is the Id, which is our inner toddler. It has basic carnal desires, based on animalistic impulses toward sex and aggression. The Id is chaotic, unreasonable, and seeks immediate pleasure. The Ego is the person’s self-identity that tries to moderate the impulses of the Id, and the realities of the real world. The SuperEgo develops to help control the person, and have them meet the expectations of society. This is something that develops as a young child starts to become aware of, and influenced by society in general. So the unfiltered villain is one that has a very active Id, but a relatively inactive SuperEgo and/or Ego. They are driven by instincts of lust and aggression, with little, or no, filtering. A slight variation on this would be the extremely selfish villain, that is just looking out for him or herself.
- Doin’ the Right Thing Villain– Hitler, and many other historical figures can be thought of in this category. They may realize they are being looked upon unfavorably for now, but believe that once they have achieved their dream, then the world will come to understand and respect them more. This villain may have other mental health problems that have them seeing the world from a skewed vantage point. They may even see their actions of that of a parent, doing what is best for the child, even though the child may throw a tantrum.
- Thrill Seeking Villain – Personality theorists have long theorized that there are some people that have a high threshold for pleasure. Something like playing a board game is fun, but running off to Mexico on a whim, or skydiving finally get their heart pumping a little. The Thrill Seeking villain is just trying to make life interesting. Competition and the thrill of edging out an opponent in a high-stakes game is just the ultimate thrill.
- Turnabout Villain – “You done me wrong,” is more than just the start of a successful country & western song, it is the motivating factor behind this villain type. A villain who is mistreated and abused turns around to do the same to others. Some people that are exposed to violence become peacemakers, while others go with the flow and become violent in turn. With the proliferation of dark fantasy novels, this type of antagonist has shown up a lot in the form of a child who is abused, and grows up turns that abuse on others. This villain may carry around a lot of pain that they may or may not be aware of.
- Mentally Ill Villain– This kind of villain has mental health problems.
- The Sociopath – This character has no connection to those parts of the brain that would lead to empathy or connection and concern for others. Some studies have shown that our brains react in sympathy with what we see others going through. For this mental illness, however, this part of their brain just does not function. From an early age, however, they study others, and usually are quite good at “faking it.” That is why the neighbor on TV news always says, “he was such a nice, quiet man.” They can be quite charming, appear very empathetic, and have great concern for others. Is is all an act, however, as underneath it all, they have no real regard for others as anything more than a means to some end.
- The Mood Disordered – A range of emotions is a normal part of human functioning. Mood disordered characters, however, have wild mood swings that they cannot control. They can become angry an violent at the drop of a hat, even depressed, irritated, and just as quickly snap out of it. This character is a slight exaggeration of what is usually found in real life, but the basis is in reality.
- Revenge Villain – Perhaps similar to the turnabout villain, this antagonist is exacting revenge on those who he or she believes wronged him. Those who have wronged him or her can be specific people, a group of people, an entire class or society, or the whole world. The whole world you say? Yes, the villain can see the world as stacked against them, particularly if they have experienced a nasty set of life events. People often say “it was meant to be” or even “if God wills it,” so the idea is there for many people, but these villains see the cosmic influence as being negatively set against them.
- Power Broker – Someone has to be in charge, and have their every whim attended to, and this type of villain says, “why not me?”
- Resource Manager – This antagonist, particularly useful in more world-building speculative fiction stories, seeks to control a valuable resource or resources. Think of the spice in Dune, water in The Last Stormlord, and so forth. He (or she) who controls the __________, controls everything.
Ultimately I love a villain that is three-dimensional, and seems real. Hopefully that is enough to get you thinking. Maybe I will add more later, if some more comes to me. I would love to hear your comments on other villain types, or villains you love to hate in stories you have read or written. Happy writing!
A Pint with the Professor is a (somewhat) bi-weekly feature where I apply the things I know about psychology, sociology and other related disciplines to fiction. I love thoughtful fiction, and I love hearing from authors and writers of speculative fiction when they think deeply about their fictional worlds and the people and cultures in those worlds. I hope you enjoy reading these posts as much as I enjoy putting them together.
The Importance of Economy in Fiction
Economy is a social construct. That is something that only has relevance or importance because an entire group of people has made it so. Let’s look at money first. A dollar (or your local counterpart only has worth because your entire society has given it some agreed upon value. It is really just paper though, with no intrinsic value of its own. It is only worth something because we all agree to let it be worth something. I can trade a dollar for anything at the dollar store, for one of my kids to do a chore, or for a candy bar at the grocery store. This is because we all have agreed to worth of a dollar. We may not have sat and hashed it out, but that is what money is.
As a further example, there are also many things money cannot buy. I cannot buy a car with a dollar. I cannot hire a babysitter for three hours for one dollar. I cannot purchase anything at the jewelry store for one dollar. So our shared agreements dictate both what a dollar is worth, and what it is not worth. Though money may seem mathematical, and certainly we can calculate interest rates and earnings, in the end it really has a worth in the first place because of our shared agreement of worth.
Many societies have a class or caste system based on economics as well. A caste system is very rigid, only rarely allowing movement between castes. A class system is more permeable allowing movement. The Horatio Alger stories where someone who is born poor is able to claw their way to the top (or at least the middle) through hard work and dedication is an example of how this impacts fiction. Often times, different characters in books are empowered or challenged by the class or caste they are in.
Again, though, this is an agreed upon structuring by society. Your story might take place in a society where wealth of money is treasured above all else, and the class system is rigidly structured, allowing for little movement. Begging may be illegal, with folks born poor being oppressed, jailed, maybe even physically abused, exploited and perhaps even executed. Think about what this would take. Everyone in society would have to agree with this for one reason or another. Police would have to be empowered by their government to jail or abuse the poor. The rich would have to not see at as their responsibility to help the poor and unfortunate. The bystanders would have to stand by, and not intervene. The poor themselves would have to accept this treatment.
This may sound a bit crazy, but think of the Holocaust. Hitler only had power, because people gave it to him. In research experiments conducted later, it was found that people tended to follow authority, especially when the people were absolved of responsibility by that authority. So Hitler just needed to establish himself as an authority, and his insane ideas were taken as truth. Think of it this way, what if every single man woman and child in Germany had said, “no thanks.” That is an overly simplistic solution, but the idea behind it is that Hitler had the power to do what he did, only because a large number of people gave it to him.
This is important, because in fictional worlds, things other than money may have worth too. In a world or time where water is scarce, an economy would develop around water. People need water in order to survive. In a time or place where food is scarce, it might be treated differently. My kids, after eating a meal, often throw some food away that they did not eat. Some of my kids are picky and only like to eat certain things. How would this change if food were to become scarce? Food, water, shelter, warmth, and perhaps some other basic needs, such as sex and procreation might be worth less in a society of abundance, but worth quite a bit more in a society experiencing shortages.
Western society shows they value knowledge by paying people with college degrees more than people without them. We give those people honorary titles, such as “doctor.” Sometimes this gets complex when values intersect. In the United States, we show that we value families by giving people time often when they experience the birth of a child. We show that we value work as well, because we give far less time off than other countries do. So there is a value, enjoy your baby, but don’t take too long before you return to work, or we will stop paying you the money that you can trade for food, clothing and shelter for your family.
We can look at one more example. In the United States, people often complain that teachers get laid off and paid poorly, while athletes and actors make millions or billions of dollars. I can see some of you nodding your head. But why is that? Well, the government pays teachers, and we often vote in spending limits for the governments. Why? Well, there is only so much money to go around. People spend that money on tickets to sporting events, to see movies, and to buy the products that these people advertise. I am sure you are the person that never falls for that, but everyone thinks they are the person that never falls for that, but advertising brings in billions of dollars every year. It would not bring in billions, if it did not work. So what if in your fictional world, teachers were the celebrities? People bought products based on the advertisement and recommendation of teachers. Parents bought passes to get their children in with their favorite teachers, and the most popular teachers made millions as the wealthiest parents paid large sums of money to have their children instructed by such teachers. What would such a society look like? What events would get a society of people in such a condition?
Other things may have an economy too. The value of art, performance, a particular vocation, a powerful resource, knowledge, human contact, children and family, and many other things can vary greatly in your fictional world. Even the value of race, gender, or other psychical features can have some value. They can all have an integral part in your world.
A Pint with the Professor is a (somewhat) weekly feature where I apply the things I know about psychology, sociology and other related disciplines to fiction. I love thoughtful fiction, and I love hearing from authors and writers of speculative fiction when they think deeply about their fictional worlds and the people and cultures in those worlds. I hope you enjoy reading these posts as much as I enjoy putting them together.
About A Pint with the Professor
I do believe that the experiences we have, and who we are as people shapes what kind of writers we are and strongly impacts our voice as writers. I teach psychology courses for a major university, and I work in the mental health field. I really do infuse much of my writing with what I understand about people and their psychological make up.
I came up with the idea for this feature on my blog from multiple different sources. It would only be right to acknowledge them, and it might also be interesting to some. Marian Lizzi, an editor, recently wrote in the Writer magazine, that she likes to read books where a smart person is writing about something fun. She said,”Some projects—even at the proposal stage—make you feel like you’re having a pint with a favorite professor. (Not in a creepy way.)” Thus, the name of the feature. Along with this, I realized that I love hearing about how writers think about their own writing and the fictional worlds they create.
I also have to admit a somewhat selfish reason to write this. It is good practice for me to think about these things as well. In order to write something for you, I will have to research, and wrap my head around it first. That helps me to be a better writer, because ultimately I am a very cognitive writer. If it also helps you too, then what an exciting thing for me to be a part of!
So in this series, which I aim to publish each Thursday, I will share how I believe the things I know well, like psychology and sociology impact my writing, and impact the writing of writers that I admire. Each week I will try to preview the next section, so that you can let me know of any stories that provide effective examples of the concept coming up. I would love to feature the work of other writers as examples of the themes I am talking about each week.
What you can expect from me is not the ins and outs of grammar, or the rules about writing. Those things are important, but are not my focus here. You should know, that as the Cat in the Hat says, I am not really a rules guy. So I do not see myself as an authority whom you should not question. I see these things as just my ideas. I don’t mind debating them with you over a pint.
I will focus on the things that I know. I will explore psychology, sociology and other related concepts as they apply to stories and characters. I hope you find it fun, interesting, and informative.
So pull up a stool, grab a pint, and order some fish and chips. Let’s have some fun.
My first post, scheduled for Thursday next week (7/19) will be an examination of the social psychology factors that influence characters. Social psychology is the study of how society impacts each individual person’s psyche.
I love conducting research for my stories. I remember reading a blog post by someone who said they hate doing research for their stories. I love it though.
Bradley P. Beaulieu talks about the intense amount of work that research is. I really get it. It is very consuming. But just so interesting. My problem is that I can so easily get lost in researching, that I don’t get anything else done. Arg.
Randy Ingermanson notes that there are three classes of fiction writers:
- Writers who love research
- Writers who hate research
- Writers who insist on classifying all writers into three classes
Randy goes on to say that those writers who love research need to get out of the library and start writing their damn book. I can so relate. Sometimes I even end up researching things that have no bearing on anything I am currently writing.
What The Vampire Said To The Horseshoe Crab: ‘Your Blood Is Blue?’ So the horseshoe crab, which has been around for 450 million years, has blue blood that is copper based instead of iron based like that of humans. One advantage this affords them is that they are incredibly resilient. They are able to seal off their blood to combat harmful bacteria. Also, 450 million years old makes me feel more secure when I consider that I only turned forty last year. This stuff is fascinating! So what did this have to do with the current story I am writing again? Oh yeah, absolutely nothing!
Sixteenth century fishing? There’s an app for that. Okay, it’s a web page, not an app, but “There’s a web page for that” is not a famous marketing line.
Mind controlling parasite? More parasites? Zombie inducing bug? This stuff is so amazing! There is definitely a story or two in these programs. Well, I have a few more You Tube videos about aliens to check out. It’s a good thing that this was a short blog post, or I might have been too distracted to finish writing i
I wanted to take a moment and send a shout out for a series of books I had fun reading. Eliei’s Chronicles take place in a dystopian world where parasites are rampant and physically alter the people that they inhabit, in noth positive and negative ways. Elei himself may hold some keys to rebuilding the oppressive world.
Book One and Book Two of the trilogy are out, and Book Three is promised for the summer of 2012. So as of the writing of this, I have only read books One and Two.
Rex Rising is the first book in the main trilogy. The story starts out with action, is written in such a way that is is fairly easy to understand this world, the characters are fun and likable, and the story is interesting and creative. On the con side, the book was simplistic in its writing, but had sex and gore, so it seemed like it could not quite decide between being YA (with the simplistic writing) or adult (with the sexual and graphic elements). I also found myself wishing charters had not said certain things that seemed more akin to our own contemporary world, than to their dystopian world. Even with those weaknesses. I would definitely recommend the book, it was a creative world with colorful characters, and it was definitely a short, but fun read.
Rex Cresting is book two of the main trilogy. There is much character development in this book, and action that is fun and engaging. The final mission and the resolution of the final mission were pretty predictable, and not very climactic. In fact, with none of the developments in the book will you say, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t see THAT coming!” There really are no surprises. However the character development was important for the series, and the action sequences are engaging and fun, so I would still recommend it as a fun speculative fiction read and important to the series.
There is also another book called Hera, about the character named Hera. I have not yet read this book, I am not sure if I will. If I do, I will add a post on the blog.
In short, the series so far is creative and has compelling characters, it really is everything I love about Speculative Fiction. Give it a read!
The author, Chrystalla Thoma seems like a great lady, and has a blog at http://chrystallathoma.wordpress.com/.
3 June, 2012 update: Rex Rising won a reader’s choice award! Congratulations. Told you it was worth reading. 🙂