Monday, July 27, 2015

Character Sympathy - Lessons from Mad Max Part 2

As promised a few posts ago, I'm going to get back to talking one of my new favorite movies: Mad Max: Fury Road. This time, particularly I want to talk about building character sympathy. As promised, this time we'll start to think about how to do these things in your own manuscript.

Max Rockatansky

Max is probably the most straightforward of the characters as for sympathy. He's the title character, after all. Even if you haven't seen the previous movies, the monologue in the beginning establishes him as the loner who's just been attempting to survive for a while now. After his two failed escape attempts it's not hard to see why he wouldn't trust anyone. So even though he acts like a rabid animal for the first half of the film, you keep wanting to follow along if just to see how he gets out of his troubles.

Imperator Furiosa

Furiosa is established as a bad ass from the second she struts her way onto the screen. She commands her own war rig and the missing arm seems to be a testament of just how hard won it was. The trouble is, she's supposedly one of the tools of the villain of the story. But it's obvious from the very beginning that she isn't a true believer like the war boys she's hauling. She doesn't react to Immortan Joe's with the religious fervor of pretty much everyone else and seems more anxious to just have it over with. Later when the war rig is attacked for the first time, she proves that it's not an accident that she's in charge. And finally, she's caring for someone other than herself. Her manner may be gruff and fitting the horrors she's been through but she is taking care of someone who's weaker than her. Several someones.

War boy Nux

Nux, even more than Furiosa, is supposed to be a villain, or at the very least a minion of evil. From the beginning he's presented as someone who is deeply into the Immortan Joe religion. He's anxious to give his life in service of Immortan Joe's world domination. In other words he's the very epitome of a cultish suicide bomber. And yet... when he is presented as probably dying in the sandstorm, you kind of feel bad for him. You feel even worse when he's lying unconscious and Max attempts to free himself by blowing Nux's arm away. This is mostly because Nux is presented as an underdog from the very beginning. Before Furiosa leaves for her - shall we say - unsanctioned outing, Nux is more or less dead which is why he needs Max as a blood bag. "High octane crazy blood". Despite being nearly dead, he successfully fights off Slit to make sure he is the only one who drives his car on the Fury Road. Throughout the first chase scene he's almost like a puppy; so anxious and excited to please his master.

How to do it

  1. Make them an underdog
    This is a really popular one, mostly because it tends to work pretty easily. If they're good at what they do, have them face an overwhelming force, such as in Max's first flight. He gets swarmed by war boys who seem to have an unlimited supply of guzzoline, overwhelming numbers and explosive weaponry. No matter how good he is at what he does, there is absolutely no way he's getting out of that situation. That doesn't stop him from trying. It's the Indy rule all over again. In the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark Indiana Jones faces numerous obstacles to get the object of his desire which he loses in the end because he gets surrounded by overwhelming numbers.
  2. Make them really, really good at what they do
    Think about Furiosa hanging out of her cab to shoot the pursuing scavengers. She barely has time to sight them before she needs to be back in her cab to drive the rig and still she manages to blow the pursuing buggy out of the road. She keeps her cool even when her second in command is trying to strangle her and manages to get out of the situation. Make your character competent. Make her face hardship and get through to the other side. Loss and injury are okay but they need to come out of it victorious.
  3. Make them a rebel
    In the Western societies we seem to have a natural tendency to root for the people who fight the power, so to speak. Furiosa's eye roll at Immortan Joe's speech marks her as a rebel even before she takes the detour. It's the whole Cool Hand Luke thing. Here's this stranger who comes to town and starts stirring trouble and yet we like him instantly for it. It makes no logical sense since human societies thrive on stability and rebels make stability harder but there you are. Maybe it's our inner teenager reminding us what it was like to be young and stupid.
  4. Give them someone/something to care for
    This is another of those easy ones. You give a character a kid or a dog, something or someone weaker than him to care for and to protect, instant sympathy. See for example Tom Cruise in War of the World. The guy's a douchy loser but even though we don't really care about him per se, we want him to get to his target in tact because of the kids he's trying to get to their mother. The Wives are considered grown-ups but they've led such a sheltered, captive life that despite being, at least technically, adults they're in a much weaker position than pretty much anyone else out in the desert. Therefore everyone and anyone who protects them is automatically more sympathetic than everyone else around.

Homework time!

So, homework! You knew this was coming, didn't you? Write a page or less (maximum 300 words) introducing a character for each of the sympathy-inducing writer tricks.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Fuel for Stories - redux

Welp, two weeks ago, I was busy moving house - so busy, apparently, that I completely spaced on posting. Sorry about that. And now I don't even have an original post for you, because even though I'm finally (more or less) unpacked, I'm about to go camping. Tomorrow. Sooo here instead is a post from a few years back about inspiration. Enjoy!


I’m well-practiced at driving long distances. I’ve gone back and forth across country (alone) several times, and I’ve made the drive between Northern and Southern California a dozen times or more, driving and as a passenger. I cope through methods like coffee drinking, good music, podcasts, and creative corn nut consumption, to name a few.

But on the most recent drive, I found that I was missing the most important coping skill of all. You see, my imagination was malfunctioning.

It was very perplexing. When I tried to consider the stories I had in progress, my mind seemed only able to move within the bounds of existing scenes and plotlines. I couldn't even garner interest in my silly sci-fi/fantasy stories that I never intend to write down. It was hours and hours of pure torture. How do non-writers survive such long periods of boredom? 

Near the end of the drive, steel-gray clouds drifting over butter-yellow hills caught my fancy and re-fired my imagination. But that wasn't until hour seven of eight. My imagination seems to be back to normal now, but I do not want to tolerate this condition again on the eight hours back to San Diego.

And so, in this time of stuffing our bodies full of food, I decided to look up and share ways that we might feed our imagination. Not literally - that imagining food diet sounds kind of silly to me.

What works for inspiration for me? Beautiful images, unusual places, and nature walks. I listed some of my favorite triggers for stories in this post. Susan just blogged about the power of the what-if

To further fuel your imagination, here are some lovely images from Wikimedia Commons' Picture of the Year for 2011.

This is my favorite, because it makes me think of a world frozen over:

And here are some quotes about enhancing your imagination:

From Seven Sentences:
One simple way of increasing your creativity is to use the law of opposites . When you come up with an idea of what to write, of how to play a character, or of what to paint on that canvas… STOP……ask yourself what is the opposite of that idea; now create something about that.  
 From W. I. B. Beveridge, quoted at
Many people will not tolerate a state of doubt, either because they will not endure the mental discomfort of it or because they regard it as evidence of inferiority.
To be genuinely thoughtful, we must be willing to sustain and protract that state of doubt which is the stimulus to thorough enquiry, so as not to accept an idea or make a positive assertion of a belief, until justifying reasons have been found.
And from Suzanna Stinnet:
Notice in Categories: Start by deciding what it is you want to notice today. Once I did this exercise by actively looking at noses. People's noses, dog's noses, noses on billboards and beaks on birds. Crowdwatching while only noticing noses is absolutely hysterical. You bring your focus to one thing and it compounds. You begin to notice many aspects, and suddenly you can't see anything but noses, noses, noses!! The laughter this induced is another great component to brain health, inducing circulation and releasing many natural chemicals related to brain stimulation. Now, while you are noticing and observing these noses, tell yourself about them. Engage the storytelling part of your brain by actively using descriptors. See the details. Make up new words to tell yourself about the noses everywhere in your environment.

And here are some of my favorite pictures from Wikimedia Commons' 2014 Picture of the Year contest!,_Senja,_Norway,_2014_August.jpg,_Embalse_de_los_Bermejales,_Andalusia,_Spain.jpg

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Is The Minions Movie Sexist?

So I just watched The Minions with my own minions AND I have a couple of issues.

Here there be spoilers.

It was a funny movie with cute moments, (Bob giving away the tiny crown. Bob and his Tim--basically all things Bob.) but it bugged the feminist in me, and here's why.

1. Where are the girl minions?

I googled it, (as one does,) and turns out there's an answer.

Here's a quote from that article.
In an interview with The Wrap, Minions creator (and director) Pierre Coffin explains there’s a reason we don’t see female Minions. Easy answer, they don’t exist. When he created the Minion world, he purposely didn’t include any girl Minions for one specific reason. Ready for it?According to Coffin, the Minions are all guys because, “Seeing how dumb and stupid they often are, I just couldn’t imagine Minions being girls.” 

Seriously. The creator of Despicable Me couldn't imagine a character who was zany and mischievous, stupid and lovable, and also female. I Love Lucy has been showing reruns for 60 years, and he couldn't imagine a girl as mischievous. Gracie Allen has been dead for decades, and he couldn't imagine a girl as stupid and lovable.

Also, if I may just add that the argument that a girl is too X to be included in Y isn't a compliment. It's an excuse said in a way that we can't get mad at for explaining why woman who aren't perfect can't exist.

I'd really like a girl Minion movie where the girl Minion cells evolve into following the most heroic boss they can and then meet and have an EPIC GOOD VS. EVIL BOY minions verses GIRL minions showdown, that features GRU. Because I missed you Gru!

2. Scarlet Overkill.

Why did Scarlet Overkill have to be the very first female Supervillain? I mean seriously? Why, Minions Movie are you erasing history? Scarlet Overkill calls herself the first female Supervillain in 1970s, WAY after Lizzie Borden, or Queen Ranavalona  of Madagascar,  or Catherine de Medici. But in this movie, before 1970's there were only male villains.

Which I guess is okay...that could be a story point...if, and only if it was actually used as one. This wasn't crucial to the all. There wasn't room to show a history of male villains that was changing. And if she was the first, why, for the love of peanut butter, did she have to be the only one? There was a Swamp Thing, and Sumo Dude, and a bunch of other awesome male supervilllain henchmen. Couldn't she have a few henchwomen she inspired? They had zero lines. Would it really have been that much more difficult to draw one or two other human beings as a girl?

3. Scarlet Overkill.

 She's a supervillian, but she doesn't get to do anything except wear a dress. Withing the first minute of introducing Gru, he had popped a kids balloon, freeze ray'ed a bunch of people and threatened to kill his neighbors dog. The only evil Scarlett gets to do is threaten the minions about what will happen to them if they don't, and she has to do it in a sing song voice while telling a fairytale...i.e. the least threatening way possible. She tells us she's bad, but she never shows us she's bad, and that's just bad storytelling.

Her husband, Herb, is the inventor, the designer, and the one responsible for her being the first female Superpower. So then, isn't she really just the first female puppet of a supervillain? How much cooler would it have been if she was the inventor, the designer, and the person in charge?

4. Scarlett Overkill.

Okay, so her entire goal as a character was to steal the crown so she could be a pretty princess like she wanted to when she was a little girl.

So to sum up, Scarlett Overkill is the first female Supervillain whose super power is wearing a dress. The source of her power is her husband who makes this dress for her, and whose only motivation is to be a pretty princess when she grows up.

Ask yourself one question, if Scarlett Overkill was a Barbie doll that Herb Overkill dressed up and moved around, then would the plot still work? The answer is sadly yes.

It's set in the backdrop of the 1970's, with hints of the Feminist revolution, with an "awesome" Female Supervillain played by the phenomenal Sandra Bollock. And she did a great job... with what she had been given. But it fails, in a zillion I've-seen-this-all-before ways. She's not a supervillain, she's a supervillain with a bow placed on her head. She's a flat uninteresting character, whose entire characterization begins and ends with she's a girl. She's a girl living in a world with no other females. She is the idea of a girl, and not an actual character.

And so, I'm going to design a better Scarlett Overkill.

Meet Scarlett V.2. 

She wants to be the greatest Supervillain of all time, and she has posters on her wall of awesomely powerful female villains; like Motherload, Lizzie Borden Ax Murderess, and her hero The Crimson Spike. She designed her own self propelled vehicle and armory belt/dress, which she rocks, thank you very much. She has friends who are female. She has rivals who are female. She makes choices, and decisions for herself, and when she is finally caught in her web of ice, by..... say, one young Gru, the freaking Queen punches her and takes back her crown, because she is the freaking Queen of freaking England, and she's not going to abdicate for her own son let alone a Yellow Twinkie in glasses, or allow that Twinkie to change laws so that an American could be the next queen, are you freaking kidding me right now? Even the Queen was shown as powerless. She is only shown with men; male guards, male carriage drivers, and even in the scene at the bar there are only male patrons, and she only wore pink.  BLARG.

In my version of this story, the queen would fight for her thrown, and Scarlett Overkill would have to be smarter to defeat the queen. She'd have to be smart and powerful, with allies, and obstacles and they'd go to war over this freaking crown.

It's possible I just described a Taylor Swift music video.

It's also possible I'm making too big of a deal about this. It's just a kid's movie about yellow Twinkies with goggles who don't speak human.

It's also possible that I sat next to impressionable little boys and girls who just learned that the only way for a woman to be powerful, is for her to wear a dress and be married to a powerful person.

And sure, that's a great way to be powerful. But does it have to be the only option?

I can't wait for that narrative to start changing.


p.s. how young is too young to take my kids to go see Mad Max?

Friday, July 17, 2015

Writing for hope

This morning a young girl died close to our home. I wish this was the opening sentence of a contrived novel and not real life. Unfortunately, it isn’t.

A twelve-year old girl was murdered. We didn’t know her or her family, but that doesn’t lessen the horror. It makes me ill to think about it. My heart bleeds for the mother who searched for her child. That terror she went through when her daughter was lost. I can’t even fathom the agony which she is going through now. 

Life truly can be hellish at times. Doubtless there are more eloquent ways of saying this. However, sometimes the plain and simple ones do a better job. 

For some reason it reminded me of when I was younger. I have always known that I wanted to write. During that time I knew kids who joined gangs. I even saw some of the aftermath of their "initiations". There were people who went through drug rehab at 14, were abused, suicidal and many other awful things. 

I didn't always know what to say in the moment. There were other kids who I didn't know well enough to reach out to them when I overheard what they were going through. That's when I knew what I why I wanted to write. I wanted to write books to inspire and uplift people. It felt like a way I could reach out to other people in pain 

That doesn’t mean that I think one story of mine could ward off an atrocity. I’m not naive. There are many poisonous things in our world. Things that people can choose to indulge as their mind is twisted. 

I write stories about young men and women who overcoming demons and monsters. The empowering message might seem like spitting into a fire to put it out. In a way it is, but that doesn’t mean that I will stop. Whether they are spoken or written, there is power in words. 

Evil and demons will persist. I will continue to do my best to comfort those in need and to help keep my on family safe. It is a small thing. That's true, but it's mine. This is a small thing I can do.

~Deborah Moore

Deborah Moore is a recurring columnist for an Independent magazine where she shares parenting advice and interviews successful women in the fields of science, math, technology and fantasy

Monday, July 13, 2015

Writing while life happens

As I write this, I am seconds away from having spent the weekend away with extended family. By tomorrow morning my time, which is about sixteen hours from now, I need to have finished this blog post and two separate homework assignments that I've barely gotten even started. Not to mention the short story I really need to get done. A month from now I'll be heading to Spokane for Worldcon right in the middle of the second draft round of my next novel. At this very moment I'm unemployed but I've written with a day job with an hour's commute in each direction. There are a few things that I've noticed that help whenever life happens at me. Of course I'll endeavor to them with you, my fine readers.

Inside the frantic writer's mind. (Assistants and George Frederic Watts - Chaos)

Make plans

Plans are important. They help you know what kinds of  deadlines are coming up and how much headway you need to make in various projects to be safe. Or, if life happens at you unexpectedly, which projects you can push off if need be. This also allows you to let any people who are waiting for your writing know well in advance that you might have trouble delivering said writing on time.

Even if you're not under a publishing contract, it's still a good idea to have deadlines for yourself, if only so you can get things done in a timely manner.


If you know in advance that there's a chance that life might be happening to you soon, it's a good idea to  prepare. Work harder to get your upcoming deadlines into a state suitable for life to happen. Also be sure to know your own limits. If it's hard for you to write new fiction while traveling for example, make sure you've got something to edit or plot, whatever is better for you while you're not as productive as you'd like.

Write when you can

There's one post keeps coming back on my dash on Tumblr. It tells all the writers out there to write one sentence. Not to take fifteen minutes here and there to write. Just write one sentence. There's almost always time to write that one sentence. Unless of course you're Kameron Hurley and write best in monstrous, 10,000 word chunks. But even if you are Kameron Hurley, write when you can. Your can will just be different than us in the "write one sentence" crowd.

Give yourself some slack

Whether you're traveling or otherwise indisposed, it's a good idea to be able to forgive yourself when you inevitably fall behind. Just keep writing. Anything. It doesn't have to be the stuff that rocks the world. Just get words down, any words, in a somewhat coherent continuum.

Finally, I'd like to leave you with this: whatever's happening, take a page from Neil Gaiman
Make good art. Make it on the bad days and make it on the good days too.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

My Complicated Relationship with Classic Literature

Everyone is all abuzz about Go Set a Watchman, the new title from Harper Lee that releases shortly. Literally everyone. Or so it seems. (If you're into it, I hear the Guardian's interactive first chapter, with voice narration available by Reese Witherspoon, is very good. I don't know as I don't plan to watch/read/consume.)

It's interesting to me to watch this new trend in literature, and it comes from an overall trend in society I think. The trend is the Celebrity Author Pedestalling. I can hardly blame JK Rowling for publishing under a pseudonym (this article is worth a read about the field of forensic linguistics, though I understand the original tip came from a blabby wife of an exec at the agency or elsewhere in JKRow's world.) The fuss about Harper Lee is ... confusing.

First, a confession. Due to an odd set of circumstances in my childhood (we moved twice during my high school years so I attended 3 schools in 4 years) I have never read To Kill a Mockingbird. I've also never read Moby Dick. Uncle Tom's Cabin. Beowulf. The Great Gadsby. Old Man and the Sea. Of Mice and Men. Lord of the Flies. The Grapes of Wrath. I don't really regret these absences, though I have The Great Gadsby on a bookshelf. Maybe one day it will out-compete my massive to-be-read pile. I doubt it.

I have, however, read and dissected Macbeth at least 3 times in High School and once or twice in college. I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 100 Years of Solitude, which almost killed me, but then was thrilled to find it as an option on the AP English exam that year or the next. I earned a 4 on that exam. (out of 5, which got me out of first year English requirements and composition classes in college.) I've read Dr. Faustus, Madame Bovary, and The Inferno. I've read Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, Ibsen, Camus (in English and in French.) I hated with a pure unadulterated passion Kafka's Metamorphosis. Don't remember ever hating a book so much.

The subject of teaching kids classic lit comes up often in the media. (Here's one very interesting article about it, featuring a number of quotes from children and parents that are eye-opening.)

So we're back to the buzz about this new book, which has it's own odd backstory, almost like a book itself (this post isn't meant to address any of that odd backstory.) But I'm so puzzled by the elevation of this book as the One Thing That Is Awesome About Literature in 2015. There are *so* many good books that came out in 2015 or are due to. So much good stuff last year and the year before. So many books to anticipate. Why all the extreme focus on this one author, this one book? I know there's some element of joy of hearing from an author who didn't publish much, but I fear when we laser-focus on one author, we risk further alienating kids from books because they look at something like this and think, meh. Maybe it'll be assigned reading this year in my son's Honors 9th grade English class. I just asked him about his opinion of To Kill A Mockingbird (which he read within the last year) and he answered, "Meh."

When we've got so much great fiction coming out, so many great authors, I fear a focus on one title by one author will take away the emphasis on these other great titles, pull from the limited time we all have these days, pull emphasis from these other authors writing great works. It's not a rising-tide-raises-all-ships kind of situation, I don't think, when one author's singular work gets this kind of media attention/spectacle. It's not the same as the Harry Potter Phenomenon, best explained as the fact that when kids (and adults) finished reading HP, they moved on to other books. (Here's a great Leaky Cauldron article about that. I searched and read several other articles, but I find the fansite the best for this particular bit of HP-related trivia.)

I've sort of mushed the idea now that I've mentioned Harry Potter, but it brings up a point that helps me finalize this post -- when there are books like Harry Potter out there which can spark imagination and literally get millions upon millions of people to read, why do we need to over-emphasize just one title, just one book, just one author who wrote this book a very long time ago? And when it comes to literature classes and teaching English to kids, why aren't we using contemporary fiction more? I'm sure I'll have more observations as my son gets into his 9th grade English class, but for now, I'm left scratching my head at the idolatry and love for one book, when there are so very many books. It's like falling passionately in love with one poppy in a field with hundreds of thousands of them.

Friday, July 3, 2015

writing IS living

By Deborah Moore

Being a writer can be terrifying. It’s scary to send off queries. Deadlines can feel ominous and cause panic*. There’s also that lingering lost feeling. That worry about not writing well enough, fast enough or often enough. Paradoxically, the idea of success is also enough to elicit anxiety. 

My computer, stretching out on the table soaking in some rays and enjoying the view. 

The idea of not writing eclipses them all. Whenever I feel lost and like giving up, I take a moment to consider the alternative. There is nothing quite as sobering as imagining my life without telling stories. A place where I ignore the ideas and characters in my head. 

The Edge - U2

To give up on writing would be like deciding to give up on air, food or the company of people. This isn’t an exaggeration either. I feel exhausted and bitter when I don’t take the time to let the stories in my head spill out onto the keys of my computer**. The weight of ignored ideas weighs me down mentally and physically. 

Conversely, when I sit down and write I return to the world as a happier person. I’m a better wife, mother, friend and all around person. 

Me looking happy, and not just a little bit crazy. 

That’s why I can’t think of writing as a hobby. I don’t make money eating, breathing or drinking water. No one is going to praise me for taking care of these basic needs. That doesn’t make them irrelevant. 

No one is going to say, “You’re wasting time with that eating hobby of yours again?”*** It would seem silly. I encourage you to defend your life force with the same intensity. Maybe you’ll make money or receive notoriety from it, maybe you won’t. If it truly is a deep passionate part of yourself, it won’t matter. It’s not about if I will make a living as a writer. Being a writer is living. 

I’d love to hear from you. What is your life force? How do you foster it? What’s your favorite flavor of ice cream?**** 

That last one was mostly there to see if you’re still paying attention. If not, I won’t blame you. As I said earlier, I tend to get…ooo look there’s a katydid on my window screen. 

*It has dead right in the word. It’s like the word diet and die. Some things warn you right away. 
**It can be messy, but ultimately it’s worth it. 
***Well, I’m sure there’s someone who would say that in the world.  There’s always that one person. You know who I’m talking about. 

****Mine is strawberry.