Dog Ear
Straw men (DOG EAR) PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 18 October 2012 00:00

You’ve carefully considered your hero, his background, driving factors and idiosyncrasies.

You’ve come up with your world, be it an isolated Turkish village on a volatile border, the hold of a star-bound colony ship, or perhaps a Brooklyn slum of 1923. You’ve given it life, made it real.

You’ve developed your plot, the twists, surprises and mysteries.

And with all that, suddenly you decide that your antagonist can be cut out of cardboard and propped up. After all, what more do you need than some frothing villain shouting “Seize them!” or “Throw every resource into their downfall” or whatever?

You’ve made a Straw Man, a two-dimensional bad guy for your hero to be heroic against. Straw men are easy to put together – just find an overused aspect of that character-type and use it in place of imagination. In this, religious leaders are fat, southern hypocrites. Military leaders are buzz-cut red-baiters. Super-spy villains are gloatingly urbane. And worse, they all share the trait of being incredibly stupid.

At their worst, they don’t seem to have any primary goal (other than to obstruct the hero from his heroics). They will scream, lose their tempers and even sacrifice mooks in pointless displays of their evilness. They have no dimension, not reason, and no background.

Employing them in your story does nothing but cheapen that story, making it juvenile and immature. Sure, you might have researched 12thcentury Constantinople, but if your ruler is going to scream, “I want their heads!” instead of focusing on matters of state and trade, congratulations, you’ve just turned your historical fiction into a cartoon.

If I had to give a good example of a non-straw villain, I’d have to point to an old favorite, the Cardinal Richelieu from the Three Musketeers. He wasn’t focused on four low ranking musketeers; he was trying to disgrace the queen by the purloining of her jeweled studs owned by her lover to maintain the king’s standing. That the musketeers got in his way did not turn him into a beard-tugging maniac. No, he just kept doing his cardinial chores, maneuvering his spies and dealing with church business. He gave his minions (Lady de Winter and Comte de Rochefort) assignments that made logical sense, which they did to the best of their abilities). And finally, in the end, once the musketeers had won, he didn’t go into a vengeance-seeking tizzy. He actually gave a commission to D'Artagnan in droll reward for besting him.

He felt powerful, strong and in control. He made logical sense. And in beating him, the musketeers felt all the more powerful and realistic.

Don’t make us hate your villains. Make us understand and respect them. Your story will be better for it.


Last Updated on Tuesday, 09 October 2012 14:58
Digging a Ditch (DOG EAR) PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 11 October 2012 00:00

I'm reading The Merry Men by Robert Louis Stephenson. In it, a bible-thumping Christian stands on a high Scottish ledge in a gale, baying laughter as a poor schooner tries to tack out of a bay surrounded by murderous rocky reefs (the "Merry Men" of the title). And why is he doing this? Pride? Nationalism? Personal animosity?


When you think about it, it comes down to the fact that this weasel wants the ship's cargo on the beach, where he can pick through it and make it his (he might even loot the bodies of the dead sailors should they be fortunate enough to wash up). And the reason this is all so is because he wants money for nothing. He wants stuff to be his, magically. He could get this same gain by labor, such as digging a ditch. But no, Scottish soil is rocky, not good ditch-digging there. He'd rather gain it at the expense of the misery, terror, and extinction of others (and yes, it is a horrible scene).

But when you think back at the wars nations have fought, of slavery and thievery and pimping and murder and most horrors inflicted by a human on a human, it's because someone doesn't want to dig a ditch. They would rather steal credit card numbers, knock over old ladies, and drop napalm on refugees rather than ditch digging.

Writers are no different. Oh, I'd love to get the recognition I crave. Occasionally someone comes up to me and tells me they liked a book of mine. I'm referred to, at work, as "that writer guy". I even once had a person out of the blue recognize my name and tell me how much he loved Fire and Bronze. Yes, it's a nice ego boost. But it doesn't keep me out of any ditches.

So there is that fantasy, the J. K. Rowling one, where you become one of the richest humans in the world because of five simple books. Somehow your words catch the morlock population of the world (who wouldn't know true literature if you snapped a copy of Lord Jim on their nose) and suddenly the printers can't keep up with demand. Money is flowing in. You can watch zeros stack up behind your wealth on a daily basis. And from your Malibu beachfront, you look out at the setting sun and marvel in your wealth. And out by the road out front, a bunch of work trolls set out their cones, quarter their ground, and raise their picks. Better them than you.

I'm not sure what this says about us as writers, if we set out to tell a story, not because we believe in it but because we want to avoid nasty work with it. Does this mean in our effort to stay out of that narrow trench (with the flies and heat and heavy tools) we'll not give the audience a true story with the telling it should have, but rather a pandering tale that appeals to them and doesn't challenge (or shock or cause reflection) on them. If we are all pushing for that big sale, that ding-ding-ding success, are all we producing popularistic bullshit?

This is the sort of thing writers think about. Kill a character and anger the crowds? Or have the same vampires and wizards and secret agents going through their poorly-written motions?

What can I suggest here? Keep your day job, keep digging that ditch, and write your tale unhampered by commercial desperation.


Last Updated on Sunday, 07 October 2012 19:17
Are writers better drivers (DOG EAR) PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 04 October 2012 00:00

I was driving home after dropping Ark off at the library. Two lane road, and over on the opposite side, riding against the flow, a cyclist on a yellow bike.

No gearing, upright stance, big retro fenders. No real branding or effort to conform to "road" or "mountain". A K-mart bike.

And the rider, a guy with flip flops, a ball cap, no gloves, in street shorts and a shirt.

And, as mentioned, he's on the wrong side of the road. A casual cyclist.

To the right side, the Hideaway bar. I'm looking at him, placing him as just the sort of character who lives in a small hipster pad downtown, who works some strange little job (like a frame shop or deli waiter) and who likes the image of peddling over to the Hideaway (where all the downtown bohemians go). Covered my brake and sure enough, he came right across my lane and almost my hood, showing as much control as a seagull.

And into the bar parking lot he goes.

I'm left wondering if writers make better drivers. By writers, I'm talking about honest writers, the one's who take apart other stories to see how they work, who shake their heads at clever devices others have used, and who know how to string a plot with just enough twists to make it interesting. No, not the Harry Potter wannabe billionaires, the ones who are working on their Great American Novel yet never read anything (except, of course, Harry Potter). No, real writers. Artists.

So, do they drive better?

I'm not sure. I think I do. Actually, I know I do. I've had one moving accident (a three mph tap thirty years ago). In the same time, I've been rear-ended four times, twice hard enough to replace a bumper. I've also been side-impacted by a motorcyclist who had all the cool gear and none of the methodical skill (I saved his life, too, but that's another story).

So I'm left to wonder if writers (if they still exist by my definition) are better drivers. Do writers see the story behind the story (remember The Man With The Can?). Do we see the ebb and flow of people, their virtues and faults. Do we notice the AnnRomMom in her Escalade and give her wide berth, to the angry guy in the beat up car who looks like a poster boy for repression? Do we look at these people in the cars next to us and see their stories, their hopes and faults and foibles?

Or are we just as distracted with our plot-musings, our self-deadlines, our own little worlds?

Then again, maybe this is because I'm a bike-commuter, and I'm used to spotting dangers before they become spinning wreaths of cartoon pain-stars.

If you don't notice the drivers around you (or you've given more accidents than you've received), maybe its time to start looking harder at them. It's a good exercise - it will let you practice creating characters and perhaps lead to that Great American Novel you've been dreaming about. And at the very least, it might spare you hundreds of dollars of repair bills...


Last Updated on Sunday, 30 September 2012 12:32
It don’t come easy (DOG EAR) PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 27 September 2012 00:00

(This was orignally supposed to run on Sept 20th but I wanted to touch on the movie The Words. Wonder if my life is better in the future...)

There is the common thought that a writer is only a writer if he is a suffering writer. If you have a big house and kids and everything paid for, you aren’t wired to angst and can’t capture human existence.

And that might be true – certainly people who know the crush of personal loss or the humiliations of modern society can ‘write what they know’. But sometimes it comes in so fast and hard, you can’t keep up. Sometimes the grinding of life’s millstone can kill off the writer’s enthusiasm.

I haven’t lost a child or been diagnosed with cancer but lately things have been pretty lousy. I’m trying to keep a train club together and our post-recession finances are shaky. So Sunday, I go in to mow the lawn and find out the Bithlo hicks have boosted our $1700 lawn mower (as recounted HERE). And nobody else seemed to have time to make a pass through the various pawn shops, looking for it (my job again). At home, my computer seems to be having MSE boot problems. My Dale Carnegie course ended and my recognition for feeding 25 people was nil. Another rejection notice. A slow driver clips a light and leaves me behind. On and on.

It’s very easy when this sort of Jobish-overloading happens to really want to chuck writing. I actually was thinking of just skipping this week’s Dog Ear, just because I’m not really in the mood.

So last night I just went to bed early and read further through Ark, by Stephen Baxter. It’s good. Not Pendido Street Station good, Snow Crash good, or War of the Worlds good (the latter is like comfort food for me). But it’s interesting. But the thing is, it reminded me of how much I like reading. Even “meh” books are still books, with the potential to surprise you with a twist or charm you with a phrase. To me, writing is like going to a museum, one where every paragraph is a portrait with its own artful presentation. Yeah, I like reading, and doing things we like sooths the nasty, brutish things we must endure in this world. And with reading comes writing. Art follows appreciation.

So here is your Dog Ear. Enjoy!


Last Updated on Tuesday, 18 September 2012 21:02

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