Playing Tag With Your Shadows

It’s Recess Time and We Need More Players!

Earlier this week, For Meaningful Mondays, I wrote “a little bit” about how I’ve been learning to integrate my shadow.

Today, I will share how Playing Tag With Your Shadows can inform your writing.

More particularly, how you craft your characters so that they can become multi-dimentional beings that pop out of the page.

Whether you’re writing a protagonist or antagonist, it is important to give them a dark side that isn’t dark for the sake of being dark. You want to make their malevolence understandable and rooted in believable reasoning–no matter how horribly they will behave in your story.

Audiences these days are starting to catch on to how lazy and boring stock villains are. You know the kind, the ones that wake up in the morning and wonder if there’s a cute little puppy somewhere out there that they can kick for sake of being evil. There’s a time and place for such a generic villain, but the villain (or even protagonist) that I will help you create today could massacre that generic villain into oblivion.

So be prepared for a very unconventional type of writing exercise that isn’t your run of the mill plot graph or haiku practice. We’re going to dig deep into your discomfort, and use all those disgusting and disturbing feelings inside you for your benefit. Who knows? Maybe you’ll be grateful that you even have them in the first place!


Tag, You’re It!

The most common writing advice is “write what you know,” and so in regards to crafting a malevolent and sympathizable villain, or even a flawed hero, you need to guage how well you know yourself. Here’s how you do it:

Keep a journal, if you don’t already. It’s a useful tool in taming the chaotic mind.

In order to create genuine darkness in your characters, you need to first understand the darkness that dwells within you. What kinds of disgusting and disturbing thoughts enter your mind on a daily basis? What causes them? Are they of your own making or are they reactions to circumstance?  These are the kinds of thoughts that you usually keep to yourself and have, for better or for worse, not told anybody if not for a handful people (possibly even a professional clinician).

Whether you feel guilt, shame, or embarassment, write them down and explore them. Take the time to understand why you may think and feel this way at times. Most importantly, don’t hold back on saying what you really want to say. If you feel yourself thinking “that’s too harsh, I shouldn’t say that,” then actually say it. Give your shadow the space to express itself.

Maybe you’re grieving the loss of somebody you loved, or even hated, and have yet to process what your relationship to them has meant to you.

Maybe there’s somebody in your life that you love, but for some reason often get frustrated with because you either haven’t told them why or you don’t even know why yet.

Or maybe somebody wronged you in the past. A family member, a friend, or a lover has hurt you and you hold a grudge against them.

Writing Prompt #1: In your journal, write about a person or situation that often stirs up negative feelings in you. What kinds of irrational and dangerous things do you fantasize yourself doing in order to have your emotions be known? Don’t actually do them, but write them down no matter how horrible they may seem. The worse, the better.

“Tag. Now You Are the One Who is It”
“Understood…”

If you thought understanding your own dark and disturbing thoughts was hard enough, try this even more difficult exercise:

Put yourself in the shoes of someone who has hurt you, or someone who you simply cannot stand for hurting others. Or maybe they haven’t hurt anybody at all, and it’s just their entire mode of being itself that disturbs you (like US President Donald Trump).

These are real everyday people just like us. They have their own troubles and concerns, and in their minds, they too are the heroes of their own stories. Whether we agree with them or not is not important, but what is important is understanding where they’re coming from.

Everybody has their own reasons, no matter how rational or irrational, for doing what they do. Everybody is driven by their own goals and motivations, and often times those goals and motivations just so happen to be misaligned with the opinions and values of others. Everybody hurts; everybody gets hurt.

You know the saying, “bad guys are just sad days.”

Or better yet, to quote one of my favourite lines from Netflix’s Daredevil series, “you’re just one bad day away from becoming me.” It’s what The Punisher says to Daredevil when Daredevil argues for why he has never and never will murder criminals.

So maybe these people you can’t stand have been hurt themselves and are acting out their hurt in a way that’s inconvenient, if not downright disturbing to you. Maybe they get on your nerves because they lack basic self-awareness of how undesirable their behaviour is. Or better yet…they remind you of yourself.

Sometimes the criticism we have for others is criticism we need to apply to ourselves so can ultimately improve. After all, it’s so much easier to see fault in others and wish they would change rather than admitting to our own faults and actually doing the work.

Writing Prompt #2: Put yourself in the shoes of someone you dislike despise. Try and see if you can understand why they might have done what they did to you or others, or simply why they might be the way they are. Again, the worse they are, the better. And if you can ascribe understandable reasons on their part, whether they are close to the possible truth or not is not what’s important. The important thing is to see if ou you can empathize even with the worst of people so that you can create villains who people will understand.*

*Understanding where someone’s coming from is not condoning their actions. It’s simply the difficult, yet very important practice of admitting to our own human follies. That we are all flawed, make mistakes, and misunderstand things at times.


Game Over, Man!

I originally intended on a third writing prompt, but I think keeping it at a more local and personal level was the best way to go about this Workshop Wednesday. The third method of integrating your shadow in your writing is a lot more abstract and impersonal, and you can feel free to request it of me for a future article, but for now this is what I impart to you:

Dig deep into the darkest parts of yourself and understand it, and on the flipside, take the time to understand the people you usally perceive as disgusting and disturbing. Maybe you’re more alike than you think, and that’s not such a bad thing. Maybe they reflect parts of yourself that you repress and being aware of these parts can help you keep them under better control.

If you found this lesson helpful, please feel free to share it with others who you think can benefit from it and leave a comment below if you have any feedback or criticisms!

 

 

Sprouting Symbols in Stories

Planting the Symbolic Seeds

We’re all pattern recognition machines. Whenever we experience repetition through objects, places, and actions, they implant an impression in our minds to create future expectations. And within getting those expectations met, the reward system in our brains releases dopamine, making us feel not only a sense of joy, but also a sense of comfort and familiarity.

This is why babies love when you play Peek-A-Boo with them. When you cover your face with your hands or hide behind the couch, they expect you to “pop up out of nowhere” and make a silly face that gets them giggling their cute little baby laughs.

In fiction, you want to do the same thing. You want to play a literary form of Peek-A-Boo through Symbolic Action. A reoccuring object, place, or action engages your audience’s sense of familiarity and by letting them feel safe from an expected routine, you are given the opportunity to also trigger the part of the human brain that thrives on novelty.

Or simply put; you want to mix the new with the old.

What this does is symbolize how an aspect of your story is progresses over time. This can range from how an important plot item is used throughout the story, the state of a physical location your characters frequent, or how characters relate to each other through repetitive actions.


Papa Can You Hear Me?

Today we’ll focus on reoccuring actions and how they symbolize ever changing relationships between characters. In particular, I will be using the father and daughter combo from my work in progress It Starts at Home; Antonio and Johanna Pascual.

The story starts off with Antonio blasting his heavy metal music as he drives Johanna to her first day of high school. He just wants to drop her off and go to work, unaware of how nervous she is, and thanks to the rockin’ tunes he’s so used to pumping on every car ride, he’s even more oblivious to how reluctant she is to start this new chapter in her life.

She wishes she could say something. That she’s not ready yet and wants to stay home for the day. Or worse, that she actually feels sick to her stomach and is unsure if she can physically manage herself in this new environment.

Johanna tries to speak up, but her tiny voice is buried beneath pounding drums and distorted guitars, and all that Antonio can offer her is yelling “you’ll be fine,” before returning to his mini headbanging session. She keeps trying to complain and his solution is to remind her to not be afraid and be sure to make new friends.

Needless to say, Johanna ends up feeling ignored and down right invisible.

What this symbolizes is the distance between father and daughter, even though Antonio drives Johanna around quite often. The fact that Antonio chooses to listen to the noisy music of his own teen days over the soft tiny voice of his teenage daughter comes to show their giant lack of communication between each other.

Smells Like Teen Spirit

Throughout the book, similar car rides occur where Johanna has a desire to communicate with her father, but the metal music continues to serve as a point of contention between them. He uses it to drown out the nagging voice of his wife and the whiny voice of his daughter, both of which have valid things to say to him, but tension rises the more he attempts to ignore them.

Furthermore, his wife Miranda is actually offended by his choice in music. Because she immigrated to Canada from a traditional Filipino family, and that she met Antonio at a youth church group, she feels that Antonio is listening to “the devil’s music” which clashes with their Christian values.

Over time though, Antonio gradually learns to put the volume down when the ladies in his family are speaking to him. Most of the time it’s much to his detriment, but it’s a hard pill of pride to swallow to actually start listening to his family. And even on the flip side, for his family to respect his preferences because Johanna and Miranda spend a huge chunk of the novel judging him for everything he likes.


Reaping What You Sow With Symbols

Along with my favourite aspect of fiction being character, I have recently fallen in love with recognizing symbols and how they can serve as tools to further describe the progress of a story. It greatly reflects how our lives change over time despite some of the routines we engage in from childhood up into our adult lives.

Think about how you celebrate your birthday compared to how you used to when you were a child. Sure, cake and candles are the staple of every birthday celebration, but as you depart from your childhood you outgrow the need for face painting, clowns, and bouncy castles. (Unless you still do face painting, clowns, and bouncy castles well into your 20’s, I won’t judge!)

To celebrate and symbolize your ongoing maturity you begin to add different elements to your birthday parties like alcohol, expensive vacations, or whatever else floats your boat.

Likewise in fiction, you want to use symbols to implant familiarity in your audience and take them on a ride toward growth by letting your symbols sprout.

Are there any symbols that you appreciate in your favourite stories?

Have you used symbols before? Upon reflection, were consciously or unconsciously planted?

With expanded knowledge on symbols, do you plan to employ them in your work? If so, how so? Let me know in the comments below!

(Stay tuned for more on symbols in the future…)

Being a Decent Human Being is Hard Work

Conscience Just Ahead Green Road Sign with Dramatic Storm Clouds and Sky.Please forgive me, I’m very new to this whole “being a decent human being” thing. Really, I am. After a decade of intensive self work, I am still prone to lapsing from time to time, and thus will do or say things that are out of line.

I’m not trying to excuse myself from being offensive or sometimes outright shitty, but old habits die hard, and some ingrained habits of mine include saying some outrageous and shocking things. This also includes, but is not limited to being an asshole and insulting someone directly or indirectly.

For instance, when my first writing group criticized a sex scene in my adult contemporary novel (2nd novel I wrote called Me, My Self and Who Am I?)–a fellow writer told me, “they say write what you know, so maybe you should get some experience before you write a sex scene.”

And I replied, “experience? Wanna come over and smell my sheets?”

My college professor placed an arm down on her desk and said, “this is the line,” and then crossed her other arm over it saying “and this is Marlon.”

Everybody laughed, and I got off from it. Yes, pun intended.

I get it, some situations and certain people are open to it, but overall, it may or may not be appropriate in others. I’m left wondering if this part of me is worth keeping alive. It’s been a big part of me and one of the ways I’ve humoured people.

Keeping it or ditching it…that’s something I still need to figure out, but ultimately, I will commit to learning how to put on a bit of a filter for myself around those who may not be able to stomach it or just may be more mature than myself.

I think the reason why I make dark, cynical, and explicit jokes is because being plain ol’ me never got me that much attention. I want to grab at attention by saying shit that shocks and disorients people. It’s fun to see what limits and boundaries I can break sometimes and I wonder to what degree that kind of attention is even healthy for myself or others.

I don’t know…

I constantly wonder if trying to be a better person might include lessening or completely removing such behaviour because I do feel an immense joy in simply being kind, generous, and empathetic, instead of acting like a character from some adult sitcom.

(You know, that kind of character you love watching offend people and laugh your ass at, but would never want to associate with in real life, ie. Sheldon Cooper and Barney Stinson)

Being a decent human being is hard work, but hard work is often associated with having a high reward, and I think it’s even more true than with anything else. You can work hard at running a business, doing your job, or studying for school etc., but I think the hardest work anyone can do and have the highest reward lies in being a decent human being.

Not only are they in high demand in this world, for they/we are very rare, but really do make the world a much better place to have empathetic and understanding people. People who can own up to their actions, self improve, help guide others into similar behaviour (but in their flavour), and overall make the world a little less cruel and disgusting one interaction at a time.

So hey, I’m not perfect. Not yet anyway. And as I write this, one of my favourite songs has popped up on my iTunes by Kacey Musgraves. After everything is all said and done, having done my best to be the most authentic version of myself, “you can’t be everybody’s cup of tea.”

This is me embracing the duality of being genuine and douchey all at once. Take it or leave it.

The Very Heart and Soul of Fiction

fire-heartWhether your characters live on planet Earth or in a galaxy far far away, all fiction is really about is relationships. Conflicts arise in relationships due to the disagreements people have with each other’s goals and motivations, and the aim for good fiction is to avoid painting these conflicts in black and white.

What makes the most interesting character to character conflicts is when each party is (or believes they’re) right, but their opposition believes their needs and preferences take presedence over them. And I’m not just talking about the basic hero vs. villain dynamic: Hero wants to save the world, Villain wants to destroy it, big whoop.

Readers and viewers of fiction are drawn to moral gray areas because they allow the consumer to make their own decisions about who’s right or wrong according to their own moral code. It gives them the freedom to feel the way they want to about the events, instead of being spoon fed like melodramatic stock characterization so often does.

The Greatest Allies = The Greatest of Enemies

movie-xavier-and-magneto-chessSome of the best conflicts usually happen within the same alliance, as opposed to the standard “my team is better than yours,” spiel. Take the classic example of Professor Xavier and Magneto from the X-Men series, particularly the First Class storyline.

Sure, as seasoned veterans of the mutant war they each have their own teams of mutants on their sides, and are at constant odds with each other on what the fate should be for humanity’s relationship with mutants. But when they were younger men still discovering and developing their own respective abilities, they were friends. Together they formed the first team of X-Men that ended up dividing due to a conflict of interest.

Professor X wanted to train fellow mutants and help them understand their own unique powers, but wants to keep them blended into society, if not hidden from it completely. After all, the world would not have be ready to accept these strange individuals.

Meanwhile, Magneto wanted mutants to embrace their individuality and stand out from the rest of society. That they should be world reknown and a force to be reckoned with if they were met with disgust and indifference. This causes him to rile against a world that initially becomes afraid that such beings exist.

Professor X and Magneto admire each other’s abilities and tenacity, but this clash of values is what creates nearly a century long feud between the two. Yet despite of all the broken bones and epic fights between their factions, along with all the havoc and destruction the common populace has to experience amidst all this…the two can still kick back and have a nice little ol’  game of chess and chill like old times as old timers.

X-Men features a huge cast of different mutants, some more popular than others–

*coughcoughWolverine>Cyclopscoughcough*

and they all have their own ways in which they relate with each other.

How I Met Your Mother By Becoming a Better Friend

However, a personal preference of mine is to keep casts to a smaller number. A handful of characters is all you ever really need to write compelling fiction that’s rich with unique relationships between all individuals. Such is this case with one of my favourite sitcoms How I Met Your Mother.

Here’s a quick and digestable Mind Map I made to outline the value they each offered to the other.

himym relations

Fiction is Friction

Despite of the value characters can offer to each other, the assisstance in growth is always met with resistance from whom they’re trying to help, either intentionally or unintentionally. The most potent and blatant clash of values in HIMYM is between the hopeless romantic Ted and the womanizer Barney. They’re polar opposites, yet they’re best friends. Why? Because they have a lot to teach each other.

how-i-met-your-mother-season-9-spoilersBarney shows Ted how to have a good time, how to act instead of over thinking everything, and not be so stuck on finding “the one,” which ironically inhibits Ted from having any success. He’s got his head so stuck in the clouds that he needs Barney to pull him down to Earth.

Likewise, Ted teaches Barney the consequences of screwing around with too many women. He shows Barney that true happiness can only derive through monogamy as opposed to an endless string one night stands. Barney’s behaviour derives from a great place of hurt from his childhood and romantic history. Seeing his bestfriend Ted get hurt over and over again, but still have the hope that he could find his true love becomes, much to Barney’s detrement, an inspiration to him.

Ted and Barney undo each other’s illusions by pulling each other out of their extremes so that they can meet somewhere in the middle. But it’s not like they initially accept each other’s differences from the get go. It is usually met with messy and hilarious hijinx.

A Peephole Into Another Reality

Reading or watching a piece of fiction gives us the chance to eavesdrop on some of the most vulnerable exchanges between people. It cuts through the mundane day to day conversations about sports and the weather, and in turn, highlights the challenging and life changing conversations that most people tend to avoid.

We are drawn to stories because we get to sit back as objective and passive participants to watch how these characters maintain or diminish their relationships. Fiction helps illustrate how people from different walks of life can find common ground…or not. All fiction ends with either a resolution between people’s differences or an even wider divide between them.

What are your favourite ensembles of characters?

Do any of their relationships mirror some of your own?

What have you learned about relationships through your consumption of fiction?

How much more interesting can your fiction become if you focused more on character relationships and development instead of crafting a compelling plot?

I would argue that intense focus on character relationships and development CREATE compelling plots. Let me know wat you think!

Goal, Motivation, Conflict

One of the most important driving forces of fiction is characterization. Without character, there is no story.

The reason why many of us are drawn to the art of storytelling (be it from film, music, TV, theatre or books) is because we like to relate to the characters who have clear goals, motivations, and conflicts to help build their character arcs.

It may not be clear to them–at least not right away at the beginning of a story–but as an audience we can easily identify with these concepts because as human beings, we all have unique goals, motivations, and conflicts to be confronted with in our own lives.

hiking-hiker-standing-mountain-top-1024x682

Writing is just like anything in life, it not only requires practice to make perfect, but also preparation. You can not just run a marathon without having gone on your own runs every morning to exercise them leg muscles. Well, you could, but you would most likely not have the endurance or capacity to do so. If you do, then you are a unique super human whom I will bow down to and feed grapes to from now until the end of eternity.

To help prepare your character for the journey that lies ahead, you outline their goals, motivations, and conflicts in a chart that looks a little something like this:GMC Chart

This GMC Chart is designed to help you gain clarity in undertanding exactly what your character wants, why they want it, and the conflicts that will arise to help challenge them. Without pressure, challenge or conflict, characters cannot grow. Think about your own life for a second and all the hardships you may have faced. Can you imagine who you would be today without having had overcome them?

“Pressure makes diamonds.” – George S. Patton

Let’s take a quick look at the purpose of each section of the chart and why they’re important.

WANTS TO/GOAL: This is where the clear cut desire is stated and outlines what the character wants to achieve. At the internal level, it’s what they would like to achieve at a personal level and  how they will grow as a person. The external level describes the effect they would like to have in their immediate world, or the entire world at large depending on the size and scale of your story.

BECAUSE/MOTIVATION: Why does the character have this desire? Internally, what do they struggle with or wish to improve on within themselves? Externally, what is it about their current circumstances that drive them to action? Once a goal is set, they need to have logical (sometimes illogical) reasons why they desire these things or we won’t understand why we should root for them in the first place.

BUT/CONFLICT: The but is the meat of fiction (hehehe) where the character will face obstacles that prevent them from achieving their goals. Internally, what holds them back from moving forward? Ego, lack of confidence, vanity? Externally, what are the circumstances in the empirical world that stand in their way? Could it be a family member, a friend, or a flat out foe? This is the most essential aspect of a story for the reasons I stated above. Without challenge, there is no growth.

SO: And finally, the so describes the actions the character will take in order to overcome (or attempt to overcome) their challenges and grow from them. Internally, what will be the ultimate personal growth gained from this battle of attrition? Externally, what effect will their overall actions have on their friends, family, and the other characters in their proximity?

Have they gotten what they wanted, or have their desires changed throughout the course of the  story?

Let’s take a quick look at that question in greater depth. Typically, a character should have a desire that gets fulfilled at the end of the story in a linear fashion. The internal and external goals stay the same and they receive the right challenges they need to achieve their goals.

However, sometimes the internal goals change while the external goal stays the same. For instance, a man who was bullied in school may have the external goal to become a teacher for the internal purpose of regaining his lost power. Then maybe he confronts one of the bullies from his past and that bully actually apologizes for his past behaviour. And so this character may remain a teacher, but instead of using his position for power, his internal goal transforms into being an inspiring source of education for his students.

On the flip side, sometimes the internal goal may stay the same, but the external effect will change like for a woman who’s internal goal is to help people. She may start out as a real-estate agent and fulfill her goal by helping people find afforadble housing in areas convenient to their lifestyles, but as the story goes onward, she loses interest in flipping houses. Though since she still has the yearning burning desire to help people, perhaps she becomes a self-help author and motivational speaker to inspire people on how to live instead of where to live.

How to apply this to your life: 

The GMC chart is both used for the long-term and short-term clarification for what drives a character. A GMC chart can be made for an entire story’s overall narrative, but it’s also recommended that writers chart out the GMC for each chapter so there’s logical cohesion and progression throughout the story. You can do the same for the overall trajectory of your life and help understand your own goals and motivations, and then help identify the buts that butt in your way of achieving them. If you know what prevents you from your goals, you’ll have better understanding in what you need to do to overcome those conflicts.

“Knowing is half the battle!” – GI Joe. 

 Why this exercise is important:

Like writing the narrative of a character’s life, you can take control over your own with the GMC chart by identifying what your desires are and why they are important to you. Take the time to understand what’s holding you back in terms of your own inner-critic, as well the outer-critics in your life, and you can formulate an action plan to overcome them. It may be something as large as cutting poisonous people from your life or attempting to repair and transform your relationships–or it may be something as simple as stepping out of your own way.

 

Download the: GMC Template here!