What’s in a Villain?

Star Wars’ Darth Vader and Conan’s Thulsa Doom have one thing in common.  Well, two, but this blog post isn’t about James Earl Jones.  The commonality is that they have strong, powerful villains who strike the audience with fear and hatred.

Building a character beyond the antagonist role, into a true villain is something that brings both challenges and rewards to an author.  A powerful villain can bring instant emotional involvement to the audience, in a way that makes them root for your protagonist(s).  A powerful villain is memorable and the elements of their character can heighten the audience’s emotional highs and lows as the villain and heroes clash.

The two examples above are from movies, and in movies they have some advantages.  They can make use of impressive audio and visual techniques to impress an image on them.  In writing, we don’t have that advantage.  We can describe the villain, but in that, we need to pick our words with care.  Getting overly verbose can distract the reader, while a few quick words can too easily be overlooked.  It falls on an author to choose the description carefully and to insert it in such a way as to avoid distracting the reader.

But a description doesn’t tell the whole story.  It gives the reader a few words to capture their imagination, but it doesn’t tell them what makes the character a villain.  True villany requires acts of darkness and it is this that makes a villain truly vile.  As with most writing, showing is better than telling.  Don’t tell the reader that the villain has no value for human life… show it.  Such callousness is part and parcel for evil characters.  A caution here, it is better to make implications rather than dive too deep in such darkness.  With small implications, you capture a reader’s imagination.  Often the readers can paint a darker idea of the character’s actions than you can describe on paper.  Wallowing in such details can also quickly go from tasteless to ghastly.  An atrocity is there to remind us what the hero opposes, not for authors to work out latent psychological issues.

Making a villain distinct is the next important area.  This is difficult for a number of reasons.  Science fiction and fantasy are replete with villains, both well developed and… not so much.  The tropes and cliches are such because of the vast scope of the genre.  The genre lends itself to powerful, maniacal and insane villains, and you’ll see scores of these chewing on the scenery and sending forth their Legions of Doom.  This is where being able to build strong, vibrant characters is important.  If the villain feels real and the actions they take seem to follow from their motivations, then the tropes and cliches won’t jar the reader.  Making those characters as unique as possible goes a long way towards this as well.

Hopefully this helps you to develop strong, powerful villains in your stories.

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SFWA, the Great SF/F Censoring, and WAFFLES

For those of you who aren’t really interested in the great hubub in the writing world, you can just skip this post.  For the rest of you, I’m sure it’s been highly entertaining and also somewhat like watching an avalanche or train wreck.  We’ve had the good, the bad, and the ugly.  The good comes in the form of various established authors who are standing up against what amounts to censoring.  Authors (from a variety of political perspectives) saying that the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) are being unreasonable.  The organization designed to protect and support authors is, well, doing the opposite.  Attacking members, limiting their free speech and the topics they can discuss, and generally being very juvenile.  If you’ve been following it, I’m certain you have a good idea of what’s been going on.  If not, well, read Sarah Hoyt’s article, or Larry Correia, Kate Paulk, or Mike Williamson.  They delve into the depths plenty and they’ve far more patience for it than I do.  They also say it better than I could and often in ways to poke fun at the stupidity manifest in the organization of SFWA.

I’ll preface this next bit by saying that I’m not a member of SFWA.  I don’t qualify, as a self-published and independent author.  Even if I do become published… well, I don’t really see much point in joining the organization.  At it’s root, SFWA has become that most dreaded of institutions… it’s a clique.  It’s rather like the juvenile groups I saw in High School, groups which hung together from popularity and commited terrible actions against their own members and individuals in the interest of establishing a social heirarchy.  This is most ironic to me because, well, isn’t SF/F supposed to be made up of the free-thinkers and the outcasts, people who don’t go for the social heirarchies?  Oh, officially it is a professional organization… which spends far too much time worrying about hurting feelings and making sure that all the ‘qualified’ members feel good about themselves.  It feels more like a union or guild to me… complete with popularity contests and a party line.  Anyone who steps over that line is a ‘scab’ or worse.  Anyone who doesn’t stand ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with the collective is double-ungood.  What is SFWA, anyway?  How is one supposed to say such an acronym?  Try to say it with me “SFFFWUH?”  It sounds oddly like when I tried to catch a football with my stomach or that time I sneezed after the dentist had used local anesthesia.

But that’s just my perspective from the outside.  And like I said… I don’t even qualify as a member.  What gives me any ground to say such mean and derisive things?  Well, I’m someone who has something of a deep interest in the future of Science Fiction and Fantasy.  I’m a writer.  In my perspective, every piece of drivel that some yah00 writes right now, with some thinly veiled message resembling a steel bar mace coated with a thin layer of flowery paper, is a book that some poor unsuspecting sap will be forced to read in college or high school and told that it is “Great Literature!!!”  I don’t know about you, but when I go to relax at the end of the day, I don’t want to be beaten over the head repeatedly by a heavy chunk of metal.  I just want to relax and read a book.

So, I propose a new writer’s organization.  If nothing else, it needs to be something that has a name you can actually pronounce.  I’ve already brought it up in other forums: WAFFLES.  Writers, Authors, Fans of Fantasy literature and Excellent Science fiction.  Yes, it flows somewhat like the acryonym for the PATRIOT Act… but there’s a reason it passed the House and Senate, after all.  Who can oppose being Patriotic?  Who doesn’t like WAFFLES?  See where I’m going here?  WAFFLES is an organization for everyone… no rules or restrictions, no clique, no saying you aren’t good enough to participate.  I think part of where SFWA went wrong is that it didn’t allow readers a voice… so it’s become detached from the one group they really need to hear from: people buying their books.  WAFFLES is going to be part help-group and part discussion forum.  The biggest part is that you come to discuss, in a logical and non-emotional manner.  Leave your thin skin and easily bruised emotions at the door.  Lets talk about possibilities and This is something of a trial run, in part to see who is interested, in part to stick a thumb in the eye of SFWUH?, and mostly because I don’t like guilds, unions, popularity clubs, or cliques.  Why WAFFLES?  Well, it’s kind of hard to call someone a jack-booted thug for liking Waffles… kind of hard to get worked up in a frenzy in that fashion, eh?

So, if you like SF/F books and are an author, artist, or fan, join WAFFLES.

Robocop Movie Review

I am not, as a general rule, a huge fan of movie remakes.  Now and again, however, I’ll be pleasantly surprised.  When I went to see it, I expected it to be a simple action flick.  Lots of shooting, some explosions, and robots and bad guys getting mowed down left and right.  What I didn’t expect was a surprisingly deep (for Hollywood) action movie with political and ethical questions.

Without giving too much away, let me say this: the movie has a rather murky and mixed message.  In some aspects, actors come across as almost caricatures and in others, you might feel almost like you’re being preached to… but you aren’t really sure what the message is supposed to be.  At the same time, there are moments in the movie where I was nodding my head at a reveal… or chuckling at a bit of satire.  The politics of security versus freedom was touched upon.  There was a good bit of character growth for a doctor, which I found interesting, while he fought between his ambition and his medical ethics.  There was also some decent discussion of the ethics of using automated weapons on American citizens…  Messages were there, but they were sometimes open ended, almost as if the director or actors didn’t want to agree with the conclusion.

As far as the action itself… by and large it was impressive.  There were some excellent firefights… if you could get past the ‘shaky cam.’  I don’t know about most viewers, but I don’t like leaving the theater feeling dizzy.  There were a couple of scenes where it was literally too much, where my brain just kind of went into shut-down because there was strobing lights, dark backgrounds, and a shaking, spinning camera.  To top it off, even the the moments where the main character was literally getting pounded, it was hard to have any dramatic tension… I mean, the moment of drama was solved before we really had any anticipation of danger.  There wasn’t enough build-up, I suppose.

The movie looked good, though.  And despite the nausea inducing shaky-cam, it was mostly fun.  In my opinion, it was a better movie than the original, which is a good thing.

Independent Author’s Toolbag: Reviews and Book Sales

This post is as much addressed to readers as it is to authors.  Many readers might feel that they are pestered, one might even say harassed, to provide reviews.  Why is that?  Well, it’s simple.  As a reader, when I browse through books on Amazon or B&N, I’ll take a few minutes to glance at what other people said.  Especially if it’s a book from a new or unfamiliar author.  I’ll check what the 5 star raters say and I’ll check what the 1 star raters said.  Why?  Because what irritated someone else about the novel often says more about the author than what someone who loved it might have said.  Also, especially in the era of self-publishing, if I see complaints about poor grammar, awkward sentence structure, or bad plot, I can steer clear.

Apparently, from various market research, ebook sales are highly driven by reviews and ratings.  There are a variety of readers, high consumption readers, who filter by number of reviews.  There is also a prohibition, from Amazon, on ‘reveiw farms’ of authors giving one another incestual reviews.  As an independent author, receiving reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, Barnes and Noble, and other locations can be the difference between selling well and not selling at all.  Full reviews at blogs and websites also help to channel some traffic, but the impulse buyers, the ones who need their reading fix, are browsing for their next fix right now… and does your ebook have the reviews to garner their attention?

The other part of this is sales ranking.  Amazon does this most visibly and has the highest volume of ebook sales in the US, so I’ll use it as the primary example.  As an author, you want your sales ranking high for a number of reasons.  The first reason, of course, is high sales means more people buying your book.  This is good for a variety of reasons.  The next reason is that high sales means that your book will appear higher on the lists when someone searches for ebooks in your genre.  That’s less of other people’s stuff that someone has to filter through before they find your work.  paradoxically, this means that in order to sell well… you need to sell well.  However, there are ways to ‘game’ the system.  Amazon tracks sales over time rather than total sales.  The good part about this is that if you can sell even a relatively small number of books in a short period of time, you can books yourself higher on the book sales ranking… which is good, because when a reader sees your book is #23 on some listing versus #230,000, they’re more likely to read what you’re putting out.

How do you do that?  Larry Correia uses a term called a ‘book bomb.’  When an author releases their new book, the author has everyone they know, who’s interested, buy the book around the same time.  The author’s book sales spikes and their book rises up the charts.  How effective is that?  A solid spike can guarantee that other people will see your book.  They might not buy it, but they’ll at least have the opportunity to make the decision… whereas if they never see it, they’re never given the opportunity.  This is an area where networking, developing loyal readers, and communication are essential.  You can seriously help your book sales by organizing loyal readers (also known as herding cats) to get them to buy your stuff.

What does that mean for readers in general?  Well, keep in mind that the authors you read and enjoy don’t just publish out of the goodness of their hearts.  Authors want their works to be appreciated.  We spend thousands and tens of thousands of hours on writing something to entertain you for a day or two.  We also like to eat, so getting paid for it is a nice form of appreciation.  If you really like what someone wrote, post that, write what you liked and didn’t in a review on Amazon or Goodreads or whatever.  A detailed synopsis like your teachers wanted in high school isn’t necessary.  A one liner “I liked this book, author X is my favoritist person EVAR!” isn’t particularly helpful, either.  A couple sentences such as “X writes with strong characters and a vivid setting.  His story hooked me with the first words.  I really enjoyed the dynamic between Character X and Character Y” tells a potential reader much more, without giving away anything that might spoil the read.  Ideally, if you really liked something, you can take five minutes to write three or four sentences about what you liked.  The same goes for something you didn’t like.  If you bought a book and it was the skunkiest piece of drivel you ever stumbled across, post a review about what you didn’t like.  If the author clearly wrote about a subject they didn’t understand, they had “teh worts grammer evar,” or if they wrote a preachy diatribe about some subject in which you disagree… give warning some other folks.  There’s nothing I hate more than spending some of my hard earned money on a book that isn’t worth the time spent in reading it.  And, believe it or not, some authors want that kind of feedback, so we know what to improve upon.

Here’s a link to Larry Correia who wrote a better article on the ‘book bomb’ subject:

http://larrycorreia.wordpress.com/2011/11/10/book-bomb-variant-today-get-a-good-book-for-a-good-reason/

And he’s apparently doing a book bomb for an author right now as well, so check it out:

http://larrycorreia.wordpress.com/2014/02/10/next-book-bomb-chuck-dixon-feb-18th/

 

 

The Romantic Pessimist’s Argument for Space

I consider myself a romantic pessimist.  I hope for the best… and plan for the worst.  That said, I’m also a dreamer and most of my hopes and ambitions are tied to space.  Not surprising, then, that I write science fiction, eh?  I’m writing this post as something of a dialogue, a hope that we continue to look out and push the boundaries.

So what do I think of space right now?  Well, to be honest, I’m afraid.  There is a very vocal percentage of Americans who seem to think that space is something that we should avoid.  Their arguments run a gamut of points.  Some are the simple ‘we need to fix things here before we worry about that stuff.’  Some are economic ‘it’s too expensive, we don’t get anything out of it.’  The most insidious, I think, are the people who seem to feel that humanity is somehow a corrupting influence, that we have polluted and destroyed our world and will go out and do the same elsewhere.

I’ll tackle those arguments, since they’re the ones I hear the most.  The first one, the one about fixing things here on Earth, is at its heart, an illogical argument.  What exactly are we supposed to fix here on Earth?  Poverty, crime, war, social injustice, sad puppies… the list goes ever onward.  The truth is, there will always be things that need to be fixed.  Humanity, is at its nature, imperfect.  We can never fix things here on Earth entirely, not without unlimited resources and a fundemental change in human nature.  Poverty is an effect of limited resources, economic factors, and supply and demand.  As wealth increases throughout  a system, it trickles down to others.  This is the free market… which can be imperfect and can be distorted, but that’s a can of worms I’ll open another time.  Crime is caused by a variety of factors, many of which stem from a society plagued by poverty, social inequality, corruption, and a failure of society to enforce the Social Contract.  War is another event triggered by limited resources and economic factors.  Add in perceived injustices and nationalistic fervor.  Sad puppies we can address at another time.  These are big issues, many of which do not have easy or simple solutions, no matter what some politicians say.  Most of them, short of a perfect world, cannot be fixed by us, they have to gradually shift over time.  Are we to focus all of our efforts upon these issues and any others, we still may not change them.  Indeed attempts to end poverty have often shown to make things worse, instead of lifting people up, they pull the rest of us down.  Attempts to end war, peacekeeping, is often a band-aid, which prevents violence while peacekeepers are present but fails to achieve long-lasting solutions.  Saying that we need to fix something first is akin to the man who says he’ll go look for a job… tomorrow.  Putting off a serious investment in space is not allowing us to focus more resources on problems, merely to offset the cost of space exploration to the future.

The economic arguement against space exploration and development is, in my opinion, the most spurious.  People said much the same about expeditions to the New World in the Age of Exploration.  Yes, many of those expeditions bankrupted people and others brought back only meager returns.  Exploration and development is not something that pays off instantly.  It, horror of horrors, requires hard work.  Space requires us to travel further, experience a harsher environment, and to put ourselves at risk… but in return we will gain access to resources and options far beyond what we now possess.  It will require the development of new engines, the construction of a space elevator, and yes, it will cost in lives lost in the effort.  Space is far harsher an environment than any place on Earth.  People have died in explorations of lonely mountains and remote polar regions here… but they expanded our knowledge and they died doing what they dreamed of.  It is far better to die doing something grand, in my opinion, than to live a life where you never accomplish anything.  And yes, I’m someone who lives and may well die by that opinion.  The resources we can harvest in space make our current resources laughable.  A single nickle iron asteroid could meet our steel requirements for a year.  Energy shortage?  A solar array in space could have more surface area than anything we could build in space, be dispersed, and still provide us with power, either directly beamed down in the form of light or converted to microwaves and transmitted down in that fashion.  No, these are not things that will come right away.  These are things we’d have to work for and work hard at… but hey, poverty’s one of those issues we want to fix, right?  Booming industry in space, lots of people needed, trained people.  New jobs created to train them and build the training areas.  New jobs created to provide them with support and services.  Going back to the previous argument, let’s fix the environment.  Don’t care for all those nasty coal plants?  Really like solar power, but you don’t like the nasty chemicals that solar plants produce?  Building it in space won’t contaminate our planet and if we’re smart about it, we could provide power to the entire world.  Cheap power for the entire world.  How’s that for fixing some problems down here?

The last argument is one of philosophy and outlook rather than one of reason and logic.  Some people seem to think that humanity is, at its core, a vile and wretched thing.  These people point out that wherever we go, we bring war, bloodshed, destruction.  Movies such as Avatar make me sick to my stomach.  Because under all that pretty CGI and ‘big dreams’ there is black withered heart that hates itself and wants to make you hate yourself too.  Those poor oppressed people who don’t really exist and those nasty military-industrial complex types who want to tear their planet apart.  It’s a movie with a message about how horrible people are… and how technology is evil and the only people who want to go out there to the stars are nasty, greedy, self-serving, types.  Why?  Why should we beleive that message, brought to us by Ferngully In Space?  Why should we look back at history and see only the negative… white Christian settlers slaughtering the peaceful Native Americans.  What about the Declaration of Independence?  What about great American artists and writers?  America the Beautiful, the National Anthem, Edgar Allen Poe.  What about the American Industrial Revolution that brought about the rise of the first real free society in the world?  What about standing up to the Soviet Union and showing that a free society is a match for a totalitarian regime any day?

There are people who honestly are plagued by such guilt that they would rather see humanity huddling naked in caves than happy, prosperous, and long lived.  This nihilistic tendency is a nasty, virulent ideology that upholds that people are bad… and all to many of them seem to think that the best thing anyone can do is to take themselves out of the picture.  They hate themselves, and they want us to hate ourselves too.  Rather than conservation, they want nature to remain immaculate, untouched, perfect.  They have some image of the world without people as being pristine.  This would, by necessity, lead to the removal of the human race.  And in, their hearts, they’re glad for that, because not only do they hate themselves, they hate you too.  The very thought of us polluting ‘untouched new worlds’ and the construction that would allow us to reach them causes them emotional agony, not just from the thought of what we might do out there, but also because we might expand, live, prosper… and show that their beleif structure is flawed.  If we succeed out in space, we show them that humanity is not bad and we show the potential that we hold in ourselves.

We have in us a desire to go forth, to see what lies beyond the next horizon.  To pent that up, to reject it, is to reject ourselves… to reject our very nature.  Our past is here, our home is Earth.  Yet in the nature of all children, as we grow up, we must take those first steps away from home, to find our own path.  That path lies in space… and the sooner we begin that journey, the sooner we continue our growth to adulthood.

Here’s some interesting links, people who say some good things… and people who argue the opposite.  Feel free to link anything in that you think pertinent.  Thanks for reading.

http://accordingtohoyt.com/2014/02/07/a-radical-notion-a-guest-post-by-james-cambias/

http://debatewise.org/debates/137-space-exploration-is-a-waste-of-money/

What’s your deal, anyway?

I was setting there, reflecting a bit, on the books that have influenced me.  I realized that there are a lot of books that have affected my reading interests.  There are only a handful of books, however, that I can point out as truly affecting me, as a person.  Sometimes I can’t even point out a book, just an author.  When I talk to friends, a some of them point out specific books they read, some of them just the other day, that amazed them or brought up some new information they found profound.  To tell the truth, that seems a little trite to me.  If you read a new book every week that blows your mind and caused you to radically revise your view of the world… well, then your view of the world must be either very simplistic or fundementally flawed.

For me, I can only remember a couple authors whose writing caused me to question my worldview.  Both I read in early adulthood and both authors delivered their messages through fiction.  Robert A. Heinlein is probably at the forefront.  Mark Twain is the other.  These two authors had the most profound influence on me, I think, because I read them when I was young.  Both authors have, at times, taken deeply satirical stances in their writing.  Both have, in various forms, a tendency to preach their stances.  As a weird side note, they’re both from Missouri.  Something in the water there, I think.  With RAH, three books stand out to me: Revolt in 2100, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and Starship Troopers.  With Mark Twain, I can’t really point to any one book, perhaps because I tore through almost everything he’d written in a year or so and it all sort of blends together for me.

I’ve also read a lot of the classic philosophers: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle.  I’ve also read a variety of other philosophers, from John Stuart Mill toto Nietchie, to Emmanuel Kant.  A lot of it I disagreed with, sometimes quite vociferously.  Some of it stuck and the influences it’s had are interesting.  Still, I think in a lot of ways, seeing such ideas played out in a work of fiction is an excellent medium for visualizing these ideas worked out.

More recent authors have, for whatever reason, not had as great an effect upon me.  Perhaps because my inner philosphies were settled or perhaps just because I’m a more aware reader.  Newer authors have influenced me, to be certain, but not caused any fundemental shifts in my outlook on life.  I deeply enjoy fiction with themes that I agree with, stories about challenging ourselves, freedom, big dreams, personal integrity, and individualism.

So… what authors or stories influenced you?  What books shaped your philosopies on life and molded you into the person you are now?  Who are you, and what’s your deal, anyway?

Independent Author’s Toolbag: Professionalism

Professionalism

Earlier today I made a mistake.  In one of the emails I sent, I attached the wrong file, and off it went.  No biggie, right?  Just a simple mistake?  No.  And I’ll tell you why.  Writing is a profession.  As with most professions, your reputation is essential.  Skill, yes, is vital, but professionalism is the difference between writing excellent stuff that no one ever sees and making those essential connections that lead to being successful.  Professionalism is defined as the competence or skill expected of a professional.  The key parts there are obviously competence and skill.  Writing is a skill set that all authors develop.  Some are born with a higher level while some of us have to seriously work at it.  Competence on the other hand, is more complex.  Competence means a lot of things.  It means behaving in a way that denotes professionalism.  It means following through on the things you say you’ll do.  It also means buckling down and writing when you would rather watch the Super Bowl, sleep, or even file your taxes.

Back to my screw-up.  I attached the wrong file, why is that such a big deal?  It’s the kind of screw up that people do often, so why should it matter?  Well, it matters for a variety of reasons.  Attention to detail is a vital necessity for authors.  It’s the difference between there, their, and they’re.  It’s writing a novel without changing the main character’s name midway through.  Another essential aspect of being a professional is not wasting someone else’s time.  The fellow I sent that wrong file to was basically doing me a favor, and I wasted his time when I hit send without checking.  Among a number of other reasons, one more in particular stands out: what does that say about the importance I place upon my own work, when I don’t stop to verify that I’ve completed it correctly?

So why does this frustrate me and what can you, dear reader, learn from my mistake?  Well, it frustrates me because I knew all of that and I made such a stupid mistake anyway.  After eight years in the US Army, I know the importance of professionalism.  I know to check a job is done right.  In a profession where a ‘simple’ mistake can cost lives, it is ingrained in me to act professional.  Yet somehow that lesson didn’t stick as well as I’d thought.  Granted, writing is somewhat less high risk, but to be certain, there is high value in doing things in a professional manner.  People want to read stuff from a professional, not some screw-up who happens to occasional write something worth reading.

What can you learn from this?  First off, think things through, stop to consider repercussions of your actions, especially in how you interact with your fellow writers.  Independent Authors are seldom so popular that they can afford to come across as unprofessional.  We are, as a rule, barely on the edge, some make a living, but a lot of us are just breaking even (or not even that).  Second, pay attention!  Most unprofessional actions are mistakes because, well, us writers tend to have our minds on something else.  Avoid those mistakes by putting your mind on the matter at hand.  You can resolve the plot or character interactions when you’re not trying to make a good impression with someone.  Last, if you do make a mistake, always try to follow through, make your apologies, try to correct it, and if you can’t… well, then I guess just suck it up and move on.