The Four Pillars of Fiction Part 2: Characters

Your story’s objective is only as powerful as the characters that convey it.

Each member of the cast must represent opposing sides of the main argument, thus providing several different angles to perceive your story’s philosophy.

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I’ve already written a couple of other posts about characters, both of which you can check out here for more:

Crafting a Character Series

Goal, Motivation, and Conflict

–but for today, let’s focus on why characters  should be as extensively explored as I have in previous posts.

Me, Myself, and Who Am I?

Fundamentally, every story’s main character is on a quest to achieve self-knowledge. This goes for both putty characters and pebble characters. Think of throwing a pebble at a wall, the physical structure of the pebble remains the same, whereas throwing a blob of putty will cause it to reform.

That’s what characters experience; being thrown against a wall, so to speak, and they either change or don’t change throughout the course of your story. Either way, their purpose remains the same; to argue for one or several sides of the objective.

I know that there’s a plethora of stories where morality is ambiguous (and that they’re usually much more interesting), but for the sake of simplicity, let’s take the basic concept of Good vs Evil to illustrate how characters argue for each side. And by argue, that could mean verbal or physical combat, or in just the way that they conduct themselves.

Generic Good Guy is a law abiding citizen, doing some good for his friends, family, and community. Everything he does in the story is for the benefit of others or for himself without hurting anybody except possibly…

The Typical Bad Guy whose sole purpose is to watch the world burn. He causes destruction everywhere he goes, expressing his preference to be evil and not care about hurting others because it’s what he intends anyway. Generic Good Guy may hurt other people unintentionally, but he usually owns up to it, while Typical Bad Guy has no remorse for the pain he causes.

In this basic story dynamic of Good vs Evil, the argument is (usually) that good triumphs over evil, all the time.

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Who Would You Be Without Adversity?

To convey this, Typical Bad Guy will have to test Generic Good Guy on the grounds of his ethics, philosophy, strength, and integrity by throwing obstacles in his way. Perhaps Generic Good Guy’s objective is to a safe and adjusted life, but TBG is getting in the way of that by hurting GGG’s social circle and disrupting his day to day life.

It is through adversity where Generic Good Guy will discover or grow into a force for good. If he’s a putty character, maybe he’s a weak underdog type who has to train in order to defeat the almight Typical Bad Guy. Or perhaps he’s a pebble character that has strength and prowess, but hasn’t had the chance to exercise any of it because he hasn’t been challenged yet.

In either case, the end result is the same. The character has developed some level of self-knowledge by fighting for what he believed in, whether he won or lost against his opposition. He now knows what strength he’s capable of, or made himself capable of it through hard work and determination.

Pouring Some Sugar in Generic Brand Oatmeal

Now, that was a very very basic example I had to keep simple in order to elaborate on a more complex concept. Stories these days have many more layers in their examination of the objective, and even more layers in their characterization.

Ultimately, characters are meant to represent several sides of an objective, and they do that by trying to express their personal preferences, only to have them attacked or dismissed by the other characters.

The key ingredient to conveying Objective is having characters disagree with each other and fight over who gets to assert their preference, or if any common ground can be met between them in less black and white type of stories.It is through disagreements between characters that we are given the opportunity to passively experience different sides of an argument–and decide for ourselves which characters we agree with, if any at all.

Stay tuned for The Four Pillars of Fiction Part 3: Setting…

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How to Be Single

In BSBS fashion, following a ranty review on something I loathed, here’s something I loved. Thanks to this desire of mine to review book to film adaptations, I caught wind of How to Be Single, a book about the modern love life and how it has changed since women have become more independent to pursue careers and become financially stable without having to get married.

It was complimentary to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies being about women exercising their power to choose the right man to marry for life, in hopes of landing a nice and wealthy man. But gone was the wordiness and stupid pointless zombie decaptation scenes and presented to me what I prefer in my fiction now; contemporary and grounded in reality.

For this video, I strayed away from getting too detailed on the plot and storyline and focused more on the philosophy of it. I wanted to leave those details for others to enjoy at their own leisure and talk more about the cultural impact this book can have if more people read it, or even watched the movie. The idea that being single shouldn’t be a shameful affliction, rather a liberating time in your life where you can develop self-knowledge and heal from your pain before you find a lover to share your life and self with.

How I Conceived the Idea of It Starts at Home

bully-6“My life sucked when I was in high school, so how much worse would it have been if I was a girl?” That was the important question I asked myself after I finished reading Damned and Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.

When I was a teenager, I got into heaps of trouble due to talking back at teachers, retaliating against bullies, and on some occassions I became a bully myself. The kind of bullying that I experienced and carried out fell on the masculine side of bullying. This included, but was not limited to, physical violence and intimidation.

And so due to society’s propaganda against us males being thoughtless violent brutes, I used to think bullying was only a male thing, but no, our supposedly gentle birth giving and nurturing counterparts are not exempt from this behaviour. I am speaking in generalities of course, since typically it is boys who get into fist fights, but the form of bullying girls are capable of can be as equally destructive. It’s just more subtle and harder to spot.

To understand the female psyche, and more importantly that of the teenage female psyche, I took to reading more young adult novels with female lead characters, as well as talking to my female friends, cousins, and co-workers to ask about their experiences of having been teenagers.

50-race-attacks-schools-day-picturebullyingpreventionnow-comI learned about how feminine bullying consisted more of psychological tactics. They employ more verbal abuse through passive aggression, spreading gossip, and public humiliation, thus resulting in the destruction of their victim’s self esteem. By recognizing their victim’s personal vulnerabilities such as their body image and emotional issues, female bullies exploit those weaknesses in order to gain a sense of power.

Why would anyone want to command and demand power in such destructive ways, especially when there are healthier ways to feel and be empowered? The answer is quite simple, but also very difficult to accept. High school students are made to feel disempowered, not only by the prison like structure public high schools consist of, but also by the maltreatment they receive at home.

This is why it’s important for parents take the time to connect with their children as opposed to control them. To use their hands and their words to guide and comfort their children, not to strike or intimidate them. Otherwise, where do you think this behaviour comes from? Children are sponges. They only learn what they live, and devoid of any self awareness or intervention from peaceful people to point out the dysfunction, they will often bring their home life out into the world, particularly at school.

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If you are bullied at home, you are likely to become a victim and/or perpetrator of bullying. Either you will walk down the school hallways with slumped shoulders, head bowed in hiding, and sticking close to the walls as to avoid detection, or you will attempt to regain the power you are robbed from at home by mistreating the former.

It’s not set in stone, teenagers do have the choice and capacity to act virtuously, as well as develop the self confidence and healthy support groups in order to ward off bullying–but studies have shown that maltreatment of children sets them up to exude anti-social behaviours and aggressive tendancies later in life.

So why write through a female perspective for my book? Threats of meeting another boy at the flagpole to beat the shit out of him is already such an obvious and apparent form of bullying, but bullying takes on several other forms. Society and the media will usually only touch upon the effect, but not the cause, because fundamentally…

Bullying…starts at home.

How I Got Into Young Adult Novels Through Chuck Palahniuk

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I used to think that Young Adult novels were lame, because I assumed that you weren’t allowed to cuss or discuss dark and gritty topics. Of course, that’s what happens when you assume things; you make an ass out of u and me. Now that I’ve actually read a ton of YA novels, I am hooked!

And I actually owe it all to Chuck Palahniuk!

Although he writes mature adult novels–full of excessive vulgarity, disgusting details, and overtones darker than the night itself–I got into YA thanks to him. Most of his novels do feature adult characters getting into adult situations, most of which involve some awesome plot twists (Fight Club, Invisible Monsters, Snuff), but there’s one book of his that features a fat 12-year-old dead girl in Hell.

Damned follows the story of Madison “Maddie” Spencer, the daughter of two Hollywood big shots who are constantly too stoned out of their minds to give her any genuine attention or affection. She apparently dies of a mairjuana overdose, and is sent to Hell where she meets a group of other damned souls who become her posse of misfists.

The book is often described as The Breakfast Club meets Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret in Hell because each chapter begins with “Are You There, Satan? It’s Me, Madison,” and she shares the coming of age struggle Margaret faces in Judy Blume’s book.

Now, I’ve watched The Breakfast Club several times in my life and have always connected with the universal themes of the teenage struggle, but never once have I ever read a Judy Blume book. Why would I anyway? Aren’t her books written for little girls?

Apparently not!

Don’t get me wrong, I love Damned, but the sequel Doomed, felt a little overwritten compared to its predecessor. The narrative voice felt too intellectual and masculine to be that of a 12-year-old girl’s, but I read it anyway because I highly enjoyed the overall adventure of Maddie’s goal to confront Satan and find out why she had to die early and be damned to eternal torture.

(Chuck Palahniuk’s idea of eternal torture includes walking on hills of toenail clippings, passing by rivers of pimple puss and rejected human fluids, and my personal favourite; working at a telemarketing office to troll the people still alive on Earth)

So I got curious about Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret just so I can see how much of it actually inspired, or at least reflected the content in Damned. Aside from the chapter openings and having a 12-year-old protagonist, there was obviously a stark contrast that astounded me.

Gone were the supernatural elements, gross descriptions, vulgarity, drugs, and violence etc.

What I got instead was a story about a middle grader feeling left out because she’s the only girl in her class who hasn’t gotten her period yet. That made for a great a surface theme–since I’ve never considered what the female puberty experience was like, though it was a welcomed surprise–but what really captivated me about the book was Margaret’s struggle with her religious beliefs.

It surprised me immensely when I started noticing the bigger picture. Margaret was raised without religious affiliation; her father is Jewish and her mother is Christian–but pushed  neither religion on her–and so Margaret’s internal struggle, on top of her desire to get her first period, was trying to find religious singularity.

[spoiler]There was this epic scene where her grandmother and her parents argue about what religion she should conform to, but she gets so frustrated and cries out about how no one even is stopping to consider what she wants to believe in.[/spoiler]

Although I prefer to read more mature YA novels with older characters who do cuss and discuss dark topics, Judy Blume single handedly diminished my assumptions about YA. Now I have absolute respect for it because it’s now that I understand the appeal to it.

Being a teenager is an intense time in anyone’s life because it’s when we begin to truly begin to question our identities as individuals separate from culture. Our hormones and emotions are the most sensitive and although it’s such a small amount of time in our overall lives, they are the most intense, bringing with it the growing pains that shape us. The teenage experience is universal for anyone who has survived it.

Stay tuned for How I Conceived the Idea of It Starts at Home…

Music as a Milestone Marker

Music-is-the-fire-in-my-heart-music-35607170-471-458For the first decade of my life, I actively avoided music, but now I can’t go a day without listening to it. In the past month, I have spent $100 getting new albums from Rock bands I recently discovered. I. Can’t. Stop.

When I was growing up, though, everybody listened to Rap and R&B. I kept hearing the same songs everywhere and I couldn’t stand the lack of variety beyond the top hits. I have nothing against these genres– in fact, I actually have phases where I’ll listen to nothing but Rap and R&B–but it just wasn’t for me at the time.

The only music I ever enjoyed came from TV shows, movies, or video games. Otherwise, I never sat down and listened to anything for its own sake. But then came one of my favourite video games from my childhood, Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kongquest. There was a level called Bramble Blast where most of it consisted of shooting Diddy and Dixie Kong through a bunch of barrells and the background music for the level was incredibly relaxing! Perhaps to contrast the chaotic nature of the barrells.

I was so enamored by this well crafted composition that I paused the game and listened to the song for about an hour. To this day, listening to Stickerbrush Symphony still captivates me with its simple and catchy melodies. From that point on, I had much more appreciation for the rest of the game’s music score, which I believe is still one of the best OST’s in gaming history.

David Wise, thank you for pushing the SNES’s 16-bit instrumentation capabilities!

When I beat the game and stopped playing it, I was left without music once again. It wasn’t until I stumbled upon a music video featuring an animation with the art style of Todd McFarlane, the artist and creator of my then favourite comic book character Spawn. That music video, my friends, was for Korn’s hit single Freak on a Leash.

That was when I realized Rock music was my natural element. I just love how the combination of guitars, bass, and drums can produce so many different styles of music alone. Whether the guitarists use clean channels and/or distorted tones–or in Korn’s case, a crap ton of FX pedals–I’m always up for a rockin’ riff that gets me headbanging. Especially if the band’s got a great vocalist who can belt out the power vox! Can I get a “hell yeah”?

I’ve since listened to other genres of music throughout my lifetime from Dubstep to Lounge, Trip-Hop, Pop and much much more, but the music I always find myself listening to is some sort of Rock. This could range from Metal, Mathrock, or even Pop Punk–WHATEVER! I’m not here to impress you with the long list of bands and genres I’ve listened to.

The point is; I’ve listened to a kaleidscope’s variety of stuff lo’ these past two decades or so.

Each and every band, and genre, is associated with a certain point in my life, and I am instantly reminded of those eras of my life whenever I go back in my collection and listen to something I haven’t listened to in a while.

Korn reminds me of my early teen years battling with anger and depression, the DnB, Trip-Hop, Lounge, and Ambient music reminds me of when I learned to relax a little more in my early 20’s. Fast forward to today, the vast collection of new Rock albums I bought recently will remind me of this particular time in my life where I’ve finally become comfortable with myself having delved deeply into self-knowledge and greatly improving my life circumstances.

I see music as a way of marking milestones in your life. When you spend enough time listening to a certain artist during a high or low point in your life, you’re training your brain to associate those tunes with that specific place in time.

After all, the media we consume is a reflection of who we are, it’s a piece of us. It’s how we identify ourselves in the world. By empathizing with the expression of art, we let it speak for us when we don’t want to explain ourselves, or we let it embellish our inner most thoughts and desires. Why do you think so many songs are about finding love?

Our particular tastes and preferences in music, art, and literature all have something to say about us. This is why we enjoy sharing these things with those we love. Understanding what others are entertained by is a quick way to understanding how they think and feel about themselves and the world.  All you gotta do is ask why it moves them so much, and they’ll tell you everything you need to know about them.

Do you have any favourite artists you’ve listened to consistently throughout your life? Or on and off for any particular reasons?

Do you continuously seek to expand your music library? Do you have any favourite artists that invoke particular memories whenever you relisten to them after taking a long break?

For anything else music related and how you relate to it, let me know what you think in the comments below!