Friday, January 30, 2015

Strike a Heroic Pose

Today was a rough day. Not too bad, just the typical kind of give-you-a-headache-that-feels-like-an-ice-pick-entering-your-eye day. Nothing to worry about, but still, I think I'd like a hero today.

Two weeks ago I talked about the importance of a good villain. NOTE: even though I framed it in terms of traditional villainy, what I said also applies to other kinds of villains, like disease, economic trouble, natural disasters, etc. Whatever your hero has to deal with needs to be powerful enough that to overcome it requires true heroism.

So, first things first: what is a hero? Lots of different definitions for that one. Webster's dictionary lists three:


noun \ˈhir-(ˌ)ō\
: a person who is admired for great or brave acts or fine qualities
: a person who is greatly admired
: the chief male character in a story, play, movie, etc.

This seems right to me. A person who is admired for great or brave acts:

 This is especially relevant after the latest movie.

A person who is greatly admired:

 Also, any real-life person who is greatly admired.

Or the chief male character in a story, play, or movie (a female lead is a heroine, technically, though for my purposes I will use the word for both):

Thought about showing a character from The Lord of the Rings here, but there were too many heroes.

Now that that's settled, why is the hero important? Well, this is the person the story is about. The person your readers are supposed to care about and root for. This is the person who has to overcome your villain.

Again: the villain is important because the greater the problem to surmount, the greater the hero looks. Think about the top three examples. What is each one fighting against? Why does that struggle make them great? Katniss is fighting against a government that has been powerful enough to put down any uprising over the last 75 years. Also, their leader is a very intelligent, ruthless man. Atticus Finch fights against a prejudice that is so strong that even in the face of cold, blatant logic, it still wins. But I would argue that what Atticus wins in To Kill a Mockingbird (the respect of his children) may be worth more in the story's context. And Harry? He battles against, ultimately, a dark wizard who has cheated death for many years and has an army of sadistic followers. Try this with any hero you like. You'll see the same thing.

What else should a good hero be? Likeable. Relatable. At least, to a point. I've read books with unrelatable heroes that somehow work because they're funny. But there has to be something that keeps the reader engaged in this person's story. Sometimes it's not much. One book I read had a hero who was angry, violent, and self-isolating. But he had a lot of love for his brother, and that was enough for me to get to the end and find out why he was the way he was.

NOTE: this doesn't mean the hero is a saint. Personally, I like people who are generally good guys, but the hero could be a serial killer (Dexter) or just a total anti-hero who does the right thing for the wring reasons, or vice-versa.

I'll have to post in the future about anti-heroes. They're fascinating.

The hero also can't be infallible. They need a weakness or something to make it unclear if they can win. I have issues with Superman because he's too powerful. When the hero can easily beat anything, where's the drama? The hero needs to have weaknesses or insecurities to overcome along with the villain (heck, they might even be the villain), and to increase their likability. We relate to and like people who aren't perfect. We have a tendency to root for the underdog. That can be helpful to a person trying to create a likable hero.

Last: a hero needs to be a person. A real human person with quirks and flaws and strengths and everything. Think about yourself or the people you know. How would you react if you had to stop an evil wizard? Defend a racial minority in a skewed trial? Take down a corrupt government? If you contracted a terminal disease? Had your city flooded? Real, human emotions are what make heroes strong. They look like us, act like us. They are us, they way we wish we could become someday.

That's what I think make heroes so important. They are what inspire us to do better in our own lives. I think that, at least, deserves some effort and thought when creating them.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Book Review: Death Coming Up the Hill

Last week I decided to write professionally. I don't mean I took a job where I get paid as a writer; I mean that I started writing every day as if someone was paying me. This new goal came courtesy of one of my writing professors, who sent me this quote in an email:

“There was a moment when I changed from an amateur to a professional. I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don't want to, don't much like what you're writing, and aren't writing particularly well.” 
Agatha ChristieAn Autobiography

Hence the late blog post and the headache. I spent this week polishing a novel I've been scared to show anyone, and then showing it to people. We'll see how they like it. It's darker, heavier, than most of my other stuff. On the complete other end of the spectrum from Under Locker and Key.

But enough about that. Today I want to finally post my review of Death Coming Up the Hill by Chris Crowe.

I feel the need for full disclosure: I know Chris Crowe. He's the professor who sent me the above quote and possibly the mentor who has had the biggest influence on how I think as a writer. That said, I'm going to give an honest review.

Death Coming Up the Hill takes place in 1968 and follows a boy named Ashe. His father is, as described by the back of the book, "dogmatic" and "racist," while his mother is an activist against the Vietnam War. The battle between Ashe's parents echoes the Vietnam War, in a way. Before long, Ashe can't sit on the sidelines of the turmoil around him any more. You can look up more about it here.

This is a quick but heavy read. Why? It's a YA book about the Vietnam War and it's written in haiku. There is one syllable in the book for every U.S. soldier killed in Vietnam. Sounds like a gimmick, but it really works. Crowe is a master of haiku; the language feels natural and not constricted by the constraint. Haiku is a small form, so the book is spare. Personally, I like a little more information in a novel, a few more details. It sometimes feels like a short story spread over a novel length. But I never felt like I'd lost something important. It's compact, but complete.

I enjoyed the characters. Ashe came across as a realistic teenage boy of the time, trying to figure out his own life while confronted with what his family wishes for him. I'm very fond of stories that force characters into no-win situations, and this does it. It does it well. I'm trying to avoid spoilers, so I'm not saying much about plot, but let's just say there's a development in Ashe's mother's life that puts a lot of strain (a LOT) on his whole family. This kind of development is sometimes used just to add drama to teen books and make things "edgy." I really appreciated that it served the story: it revealed character all over the place and impacted Ashe's decisions.

Do I recommend it? Yes. Because I know the writer? Well, yes, but that's never enough . It would mean nothing to me if my friends recommended my book not because they liked it but just because they knew me, so I won't do that to anyone I know. Read this book because the language is clear and tight, read it because the story is impressive and the characters interesting. Read it because it's written in haiku but you stop seeing the constraint the deeper you get into the story. I think you'd enjoy it.

Monday, January 12, 2015

I'm Back, With A Villainous "MWAHAHAHA"

Hello, again! I'm fresh off a 2 month hiatus, during which I got a well-needed rest and read a lot. I finally read Mistborn (so everyone who kept asking me if I read it yet, you can stop doing that now). I saw Into the Woods and celebrated Christmas and discovered that the creepier the show/movie/book I experience before bed, the more likely I am to dream with cookie fountains and well-lit Christmas amusement parks. Huh. I had no idea I had a nightmare guard. I hope it doesn't go away.

Which brings me to what I want to write about today. I've been thinking about villains. I've done a post on villains before, but I want to revisit the subject because, if you're writing a book, this is such an important thing to keep in mind.

I got back on this subject because I was thinking about Disney movies and why some movies seem, well, better than others. I know I talk about Frozen a lot (sorry), but it's because something keeps bugging me about that movie. I've thought about it, and I'm convinced it's because the villain didn't do it for me. There wasn't this malevolent threat the hero had to fight, not really. Not until the end.

This guy is a big part of why The Lion King is so good. *shiver*

I didn't buy Hans as a villain (he was introduced too late and there was no build-up for the audience), and so the heroes lost a little steam. Not that that's a bad thing (I've posted on why I'm pleased the heroes weren't so great), but there is something powerful in having a strong villain.

Why? Because this is guy your hero has to fight! If your villain is weak, how strong is your hero, really, for beating him? There's no tension, not like there should be. Take a look at the books and movies you've enjoyed the most, with the greatest heroes. Look at their villains. They're powerful.

Like I said, I just read Mistborn (yes, I did it! No need to recommend it again). Brandon Sanderson is very good at writing scary-powerful villains. In Mistborn and Steelheart, the villain is so powerful it's stupid for the heroes to think they can beat him. They (the heroes) have basically a one-in-a-trillion chance of winning, if they're incredibly lucky. I'm not going to spoil endings, but think about it. If that's the odds of success, how strong are the heroes if they pull it off?


So, what makes a strong villain? Well, the first thing is that the villain has to have enough power to make the hero suffer. Without that, well, there's no point. Case subject: Professor Umbridge from the Harry Potter books.
Ooh, I hate her.
One of the things that makes this woman so hateful is how much power she has, and gains, over the 5th book. First she's a professor, then the High Inquisitor, then Headmistress. And there's nothing Harry can do about it. It's infuriating, and what makes Umbridge a great villain. Not the main villain, but a villain nonetheless. Voldemort also has power to make Harry suffer (killed parents, keeps trying to kill Harry, trying to rise to kill lots of people Harry cares about), but it's really clear in Umbridge's case.

A good villain also needs to win, sometimes. Ultimately the hero wins, but along the way the villain has to succeed a bit. The more, the harder it will be for the hero to win. Think of Umbridge again. She forces Harry to really painful detention and uncovers Dumbledore's Army. She wins enough to show us that she's not stupid and not weak. Another example is Scar, in The Lion King. He wins. He gets everything he wants. Right up until the very end when good triumphs.

Post is getting long, so I'll wrap it up. The stronger the villain, the stronger the hero has to be to beat them. I recommend writing your villain like your hero (I'm trying this). The hero has to win, but if you flip it around and write like the villain is going to win, it's going to be harder for your hero to beat them, make a more fascinating villain, and add buckets of tension to the story. All good things. So, hooray for bad guys we love, the ones we hate, and the ones we love to hate!
This post was somewhat inspired by this video. It came out a little while ago, but it reminded me of all the Disney villains that are good because of their power in battling the hero. So, enjoy, if you like.
I love the costumes.