Unchaining Ourselves

The Great Chain of Being needs breaking.  Brian Switek took bolt cutters to it in a SciAm guest post last week, and my, how the creationists howled.  Got so bad that Bora called in the cavalry.  Did my duty, registered so I could comment, and laughed my arse off because these silly little nitwits howling their protests got me to thinking a lot more seriously on the subject.  What follows is an expanded version of the comment I left.

First, an explanatory image, taken from a wonderful lecture by evolutionary biologist Lindell Bromham:

On this depiction of the great chain of being you can see that plants are higher than inorganic things, animals are higher than plants, humans are better than animals, angels are above humans and so on. You might say, ‘Oh, we don’t believe in that any more.’ Yet, if you pick up any evolution textbook or even a popular science evolution book, you will often find something that looks very similar to this.

And creationists apparently can’t stand it when somebody like Brian comes along and says this:

At the beginning of the 20th century, American fundamentalism was gaining momentum and the public circus that was the Scopes trial turned the teaching of evolution into a controversial public issue. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, anti-scientific opposition to evolution remains a prominent cultural force. Be it straight-up young-Earth creationism or its insidious sibling intelligent design, fundamentalism-fueled views of science and nature abound. Groups such as the National Center for Science Education are continually tracking the spread of anti-evolution agendas which would further erode the quality of scientific understanding. Perhaps this is why we keep returning to the March of Progress. When the fossils and stratigraphy are laid out so plainly, how can any reasonable person deny that evolution is a reality? Yet, by preferring this antiquated mode of imagery, we may have hamstrung ourselves. Given all that we have gleaned about evolution from the fossil record—especially the major pattern of contingent radiations cut back by extinction before bursting into numerous splendid forms all over again—why not bring this wonderful “tangled bank” imagery to the public?

Yes!  Having come out of a march-of-progress, great-chain education, I can give you plenty of reasons why it’s well past time to break the chain and go to the bank.  And don’t tell me it’s too complicated for kiddies and laypeople to understand, and that a nice, neat line is the best way to introduce folks to evolution.  It’s not.  Far from it.

Ultimately, that linear way of explaining evolution set me back several years.  Yeah, it may be simple, but it’s too simple.  It doesn’t leave room for all the side trips, dead ends, and scenic routes, and it doesn’t give a person room to think outside of a destination.  That confused the hell out of me, because there are plenty of things that didn’t reach the supposed destination, but were there for a good part of the journey.  It’s like supposing several cars worth of people can only travel between Phoenix and Flagstaff: you can’t explain then why some of them buggered off sideways to Prescott instead.

View Larger Map

Handy map illustrating the concept for those who aren’t from the area.

Then I started reading books on evolution.  And there was this tree:
Darwin’s Sketch

Once I saw the tree, started thinking not in chains but in trees and bushes, it started to make sense.  Not every branch goes “up.”  The top of the tree isn’t the only place to be.  It’s still a simple model, but it’s one that leaves plenty of room for all the bits that don’t fit when you chain yourself to the Great Chain.

That’s true in a lot of things about life.  It’s time to let go of the black/white either/or thinking and embrace the world as it is: fuzzy, chaotic, contingent, and far more interesting than mere lines from A to B.

So grab your bolt cutters, my darlings, and join Brian Switek in cutting those chains.

Unchaining Ourselves

Dana's Dojo: Ante Up with an Antihero

Today in the Dojo: Creating antiheroes your readers will hate to love.

To write in praise of antiheroes could seem ironic, if not downright perverse.

–Victor H. Brombert, In Praise of Antiheroes: Figures and Themes in Modern European Literature

It’s a good thing I was raised rural and know what a salt block is and where to find one.  When it comes to researching antiheroes, a grain of salt just won’t do.  There’s no consensus on whether “antihero” should be hyphenated or not, much less what one actually is.  Lists of purported antiheroes run the gamut from heroes in tarnished armor to outright villains.  Definitions vary wildly.  Let’s use another rural metaphor: imagine a big barn with a pie chart painted on its side, divided into wedge segments that read “Villain.”  “Tragic Hero.”  “Flawed Hero.”  “Rogue.”  “Ordinary Man.”  “Crass Coward.”  “Antihero.”  There’s a man with a shotgun who’s supposed to hit the slice that says “Antihero”.  He pulls the trigger.  The buckshot scatters all over the circle.  The man turns to you and says, “Yep.  Them sure is what an antihero are.”

Where does that leave a writer who wants to create a really spiffy, honest-to-goodness-badness antihero?  Confused.  Possibly frustrated.  And here I come to shatter all of your deeply-held illusions, because I’m about to present you with a narrow definition that excludes just about every purported antihero on the list.  (The List, for those of you who want a peek, is here.)  Before this is over, you may decide that I’m the antihero for putting you through all of this, but I would disagree, as you’ll see in just a moment.  You might even decide that creating a true antihero is far too much work and give it a miss altogether.  Again, I disagree. 

Why Antiheroes?

Jon: Why do you think anti-heroes have such appeal?

Victor: I can only speak for myself, and I know I don’t want to read about a prissy do-gooder. I like rough, gritty stories that slam and bash me from the first chapter to the last. I could spout a lot of post-modern hoo-hah to answer this question, but the fact is that flawed, mean protagonists are just more fun.

From Booksnbytes.com   Interview with Victor Gischler by Jon Jordan

You’ve got a villain readers will love to hate, and a hero they’ll love to love.  Why muddy the waters with an antihero?  Why go through all of the effort to create a character who’s neither one thing nor the other?

Sometimes, you won’t need to.  But there are circumstances in which it’s a good idea.  Antiheroes can spice up an otherwise dull good vs. evil story.  You can use your antihero to put your goody-two-shoes hero into a moral quandary.  They’re great for commenting on the morality in your story’s society or cultures.  The can balance a story that’s otherwise too full of pure nobility and/or pure evil.  And there’s nobody better for forcing the reader to make some tough moral choices and really sweat.

But the main reason is, they’re just so much damned fun to create.  There’s no feeling better than creating a character your readers hate to love.

So once you’ve decided that an antihero would be a really snazzy addition to your story, you’ll need to know just what one is.

What Antiheroes?

The true “anti-hero” is rare in fiction.  Most seeming anti-heroes are really heroes who need, metaphorically speaking, a bath.

Orson Scott Card, Characters and Viewpoint

Ask the question “What is an antihero?” and you’ll get a cacophony of answers.  There are a few points of similarity between them, but not that many.  I’ll present you with a few that I found, and then explain why they’re all so much hokum.

“An anti-hero is a central or supporting character that has some of the personality flaws traditionally assigned to villains or un-heroic people, but nonetheless also has enough heroic qualities, intentions, or type of strength to gain the sympathy of readers or viewers… a paradoxical character that is, within the context of the story, a hero; but in another context could easily be seen as a villain, simply as unlikable, a normal person, or a coward.”

-from Wikipedia

Now, the first part of this definition is fine.  The antihero is indeed a central or supporting character that shares characteristics with villains and the non-heroic.  They do indeed have a few sympathetic qualities and eventually gain at least a grudging sympathy from the readers.  It’s the second part of this definition that pushes my BS button.  I have no problem with an antihero being paradoxical, but I do take issue with the idea that, in another context, the antihero would be anything other than an antihero.  You’ll see why shortly.  But first, another view:

“The Antihero is someone with some of the qualities of a villain, up to and including brutality, cynicism, and ruthlessness, but with the soul or motivations of a more conventional Hero. “

-from What is an Antihero? The Gallery of Antiheroes and Villains

Can you guess which part of this I disagree with?  Yepper.  The “soul or motivations of a more conventional hero” part.

There’s also psychological discussion of the antihero in some articles that puts them all on the level of id or ego, which is fine as far as it goes, but degenerates into something that discusses traits more in keeping with the classic villain than the antihero.  I will not torture you with the psychobabble.  If you’re masochist enough to torture yourself, see the article Exploring The Dark Side: the Anti-hero’s Journey.

No.  There are many variations on the theme of villain and hero that masquerade as antihero, but I’m going to go with the only opinion that matters in this forum: mine.  Here are my proposed Elements of the True Antihero:

1.  He/she is not the villain.

2.  He/she is not the hero in dirty armor.

3.  His/her morals do not fit the story’s morals, not simply the morals of the society within the story.  (I.E., if the moral of your story is that Fascist societies are evil, your hero is not anti simply because he does not accept the mores and morals of the Fascist society the story preaches against.)

4.  The reader should be forced to root for him/her, but feel really uncomfortable doing so.

5.  No winning by default.  If everybody else is worse than your antihero and he/she ends up being the one the readers root for by default, your character is a hero, not an antihero.

6.  His/her motivations are selfish.  Altruism must be extremely limited, and ideally limited to altruism that will earn the antihero rewards.

Some people buy the view that an antihero is anti if he/she is the protagonist, but is a coward, average joe, rebel, rogue, or simply obnoxious.  In my opinion, these are not traits of the true antihero.  In fact, antiheroes are often quite courageous, not average at all, probably not all that obnoxious, and not the protagonist or antagonist.  They could be rebels or rogues, but that alone doesn’t qualify them for antiherohood.  In my limited definition, an antihero is no more and no less than this:

A character who is not the protagonist or antagonist, but is a major player who influences the outcome of the story; who helps the hero to achieve some laudable goal but for completely selfish reasons (which means he/she is a wildcard who might be playing both ends against the middle); and above all, is the character the reader hates to love. 

Yes, that’s narrow.  But using other definitions will probably lead you to create another species of character that’s really not an antihero at all.  We’re after Antihero antiherous here.

Types of Characters Who Masquerade as Antiheroes, But Really Aren’t

History has to move in a certain direction, even if it has to be pushed that way by neurotics.

George Orwell, Essay

As a case in point, I’d like to point out that on Wikipedia, Hamlet appears on the List of Anti-heroes, but then is defined as a Tragic Hero.  The following types are often portrayed as antiheroes, but if your antihero falls into one of these categories, he’s not Antihero antiherous.

Tragic Hero: A hero with a tragic or fatal flaw that eventually leads to his/her demise.  This was a big one among the Greeks: think of Oedipus, Achilles, that sort.  Overall a really good person trying hard to do the right thing, but with that one drawback that destroys them.  A variation on that theme is the Modern Tragic Hero, who’s the Average Joe who tries to beat the odds but fails miserably.

Byronic Hero: You know this kind if you read the works of the Romantics.  He or she is talented but arrogant and self-destructive.  They thumb their noses at society, rank and privilege.  They’re rebels, probably with a few not-so-respectable secrets in their past.  They’ve probably gone into exile somewhere, running away from the society and culture that they’re rebelling against.  Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights is a prime example of this type.

Dark Hero: You find these guys all over comics these days.  They’re vigilantes, PIs, tortured and gritty people who will do the right thing even if they’re going about it in ways society would not consider legal.  They’re not necessarily nice, and they’re often tortured souls, but their hearts are in the right place.  They are trying to save the world, no matter the cost to themselves.  The Punisher and Batman are great examples.

Flawed Hero:  Heroes with problems such as addiction or mental illness who nonetheless do their level best to do the right thing.  Commander Samuel Vimes from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels is a shining example.  He’s a recovering alcoholic, antiauthoritarian, and at times he’s tempted to cross the line and do something really nasty, but he always pulls himself back from the brink and follows the law as he defines it. 

Unwilling Hero:  The Why Me? type.  This could be a crass coward or somebody with too much else to deal with, now you’re asking them to save the world on top of it all, but somehow they always manage to come through and save the day, even if it’s with a lot of grumbling.  Again, Terry Pratchett provides the master template with Rincewind, a cowardly failed wizard who covets boredom and constantly tries to run away from saving the day, but always manages heroism in the end, even when it’s completely by accident.

The Rogue:  A “bad guy”, but a good one.  These characters may be lawbreakers or rakes, but they’re not truly evil and they will do good things with decent motives for doing so.  Even if they do “bad” things, it’s often because they think they’re doing right.  These are the outlaw heroes, the Robin Hoods, those bucking what they see as a flawed social system. 

Redeemed Villains: Characters who are pure evil through the whole story until they’re transformed or saved in the end.  They end up seeing the error of their ways and either repent or die.  Javert from Les Miserables is a fairly good example.

Lovable Villains:  A well-rounded villain who’s charming, debonair, handsome, and has other traits that make the reader like him/her, but is pure evil in the context of the story.  No matter how much we love them, they are always bent on the hero/heroine’s destruction and stand against everything we’re fighting for in the story.

As you can see, all of the above can easily be mistaken for antiheroes, and often are.  There’s nothing wrong with writing one of them.  But I beg you, if you’re going to label the poor bastard, please apply the proper one!

So, you’ve decided you like my definition best and you want to try your hand.  How the hell do you do that?

Creating the Antihero – And Keeping Them Anti

Q: How can a writer develop an antihero with whom audiences will empathize?

A: Just make them good characters, meaning they should have all the human equipment — hopes, dreams, fears, flaws, blessings, etc. Maybe they started out as optimists or innocents who got burned by life. They are wounded in some way. Maybe they had noble aspirations that got crushed or corrupted. They should have some flamboyant, colorful, flashy, charming, or skillful aspects. They can be appealing by their contempt for the hypocrisy of conventional heroes or society itself. They can be attractive because they get to express something the audience feels deeply and strongly. They fulfill some wish: to see the crushing authority of the world defied, to escape from social restrictions, to act on impulse without inhibition.

-Chris Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey, in an interview

I’d like to bring in three of the greatest antiheroes of all time: Gollum from Lord of the Rings, Gerald Tarrant from the Coldfire Trilogy, and Hannibal Lector from Silence of the Lambs.  Most of you are probably familiar with at least one or two of these guys.  If you’re planning to write an antihero, you should become uncomfortably intimate with all three.

They’re about as different as three guys could get.  I’m not going to say too much in order not to spoil your pleasure in discovering them for yourselves, but I’ll give you some hints without naming names.  Two of them started out as “good guys” before something went terribly wrong; one was a predator all along.  One of them was a simple country bumpkin; the other two were sophisticated men of culture and refinement, one rich, one part of the middle class.  One of them is psychotic, one a creepy sociopath, and the third a coldly logical killer who only gradually reveals a deeper anguish.  Two of them earn the readers’ sympathy through wit and sophistication, the other through pity.  One of them is imprisoned with no hope of release, one free but under compulsion, and the third the virtual lord of a world.

I go through that list of differences by way of showing that a narrow definition of an antihero doesn’t lead to a flat or stereotyped character.  He doesn’t even have to be a he – I just haven’t happened across any truly great female antiheroes.  But despite their differences, they all share some common traits that make them antiheroes in the truest sense:

1.  They Do Really Bad Things.  Murder, cannibalism, lies, theft, psychological torture, rape, betrayal….  There’s not much that these guys will stick at, and not much they haven’t done.  No matter how slick or sophisticated some of them are, no matter the pity they inspire at times, they are Not Nice.  You couldn’t construe them as heroes without a serious psychological makeover.

2.  They Are Not the Villain.  Evil, hated and feared, they may be – but they’re not the Big Bad that the hero is trying to defeat.  They may be a servant of it, a reflection of it, a symbol of it, a victim of it, totally unconnected but still an enemy of the hero and all he/she stands for, but they are not the evil the heroes must defeat.  And the hero hates them like poison.

3.  They Help the Hero from Enlightened Self Interest.  Somehow, the world (Earth or otherwise) being what it is, they end up helping the heroes achieve their goals.  Personal enmity has to be set aside and they all have to pull together against the Big Bad.  There is never any certainty that this happy state of affairs will continue.  These are antiheroes, after all, and it’s quite possible that they will make an alliance with the villain, or give in to their own darkness or selfish impulses, and turn on the hero.  Sometimes, they actually do.  No one is ever sure of their loyalties, least of all the hero.  However, one thing is crystal clear: everything these guys do, they do for themselves.  If any altruism appears, it’s soon revealed as a ploy or a momentary lapse.  Refer back to Point #1.

4.  They Are the Ones You Hate to Love.  All of them start out as people you despise.  Slowly, as more of the character is revealed, you start to like them against your will.  At the end, whether they get their just deserts or not, you’re rooting for them.  And horrified that you’re doing so.  Put it like this: when I first read the Coldfire Trilogy, I went from, “I hope Tarrant gets killed off” to “Okay, but not before he helps the hero” to “Only if I get to do it myself” to “Pleasepleaseplease let him survive this omigod“.  But the character hadn’t changed.  My perception of him had.  That’s vitally important: an antihero doesn’t have to change much, but what you reveal about him/her must change the reader’s perception drastically.  In the antihero’s case, most of the dramatic movement comes not from the character, but the reader.

5.  They Do Not Get Saved.  I don’t mean that they die in the end, although they might.  I mean that none of these guys are redeemed.  None of them repent their crimes, they do not turn good, they don’t wallow in regret and try to set everything right.  They’re in this for themselves and themselves alone through the bitter end, and while there might be some flashes of hope for redemption, it never comes.  But in the end, the service they’ve provided for the hero balances the scales just a bit.  After all, the hero couldn’t have won without them.  And so we forgive them their sins, we wish them the best even while we hope something awful happens to them so they won’t ever have the chance to hurt anyone again, and we end up satisfied with their fate.

That list of five points is a good tool to measure your antihero with.  It’s what I used to create my antihero, Adrian Sykes, and it kept me from letting my sympathies clouding my judgment.  It also helped me direct the readers’ perception of him.  When Adrian started getting too sympathetic, I’d drop in reminders of his dark past and the fact that he’s still the same bastard despite his current alliance with the hero.  Worked like a charm.  Adrian stayed anti and turned out to be one of the best characters I’ve ever had the pleasure to write.

So how should one go about creating an antihero?  Every story is different and will require a different type of antihero, but here are some general guidelines to help you along:

1.  Which Bad Guy Is Best Placed to Help the Hero?  Your antihero does no good at all if he/she can’t help the hero achieve the story’s goal.  But you have a lot of leeway here.  This could be a confederate of the villain who’s out for revenge, a common thug with insight or information (or simply the lack of conscience it takes to do the dirty work that must be done), a bad guy who wants to see the villain fail for some reason (hey – even a good reason, like the villain being too evil for the antihero’s taste)….  The possibilities are endless.  The antihero may not even be that much of a bad guy.  What you do need is someone with selfish motives, no or very few moral hang-ups, and a motive.  It helps if they’re willing to play all sides against the middle.

Remember: the focus on the hero can be as great or as little as you like.  If you want the antihero to be the star of the show, by all means!  But make sure there’s a character there fighting the good fight and reminding us that the antihero’s morals and motives aren’t the ideal in the story’s society.  There also needs to be a villain showing us what the true evil is.

2.  Round ‘Em Out.  I cannot even begin to tell you how important it is
to thoroughly work out the antihero’s background and motivations, and then judiciously dole out that information throughout the course of the story.  You’re playing a dangerous game: too much sympathy and good impulses, and you’ve got an unlaundered hero on your hands.  Too little, and you’ve got another villain.  Read about the three antiheroes I’ve mentioned above and watch how the authors play the game to perfection.  They balance everything good with something bad, and vice versa, keeping the antihero from tilting too far either way.  And they always make every action make perfect sense when measured against what we know of that character.

In my case, I didn’t reveal Adrian’s background for a very long time.  By that time, the fact that he’d started life as a pretty decent guy didn’t hurt his status as antihero, because the reader had seen too much of what he’d become.  And yet, his amoral approach to killing for hire is balanced by the fact that he’s provided a lot of help to the hero.  When he starts looking too nice, I bring in a bit more of his history as an assassin and humanize his victims.  When he starts coming across as pure evil, I show there’s a heart in there somewhere.  Lemme tell ya: tightrope walking without a net is far easier than balancing an antihero!

3.  “Such Civil War Is In My Love and Hate”.  Thank you, Mr. Shakespeare!  A hero can have some not-so-heroic traits, a villain some charming or admirable ones, but no other character sets us at war as much as an antihero does.  We’ve already discussed the history and motivations of the antihero.  The other part of that is who this person is now.  They can’t be overwhelmingly awful.  Every bad trait – bad breath, sadistic impulses, what have you – must be countered by something attractive.  Not balanced, necessarily, but the reader has to be given something to latch on to, since this is an ally of the hero and neither of them like it.  In Tarrant’s and Lector’s cases, it’s elegance.  Lector’s a verbal sophisticate – even if you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, you’ve been subjected to the infamous line about him eating a man’s kidney with a glass of Chianti.  Tarrant is suave, a perfect gentleman, and attractive.  Gollum is none of those things, but there’s a trapped innocence about him that really makes you hope he can be salvaged.  Little flashes of the person he might have been come out, and you’re torn: he seems beyond redemption, but you want to believe that he’s helping the heroes out of some remnant of goodness.

Obviously, it’s easiest to give the antihero some sophisticated or physically attractive traits in order to get the reader to accept this deal with the devil, but it’s not the only way.  I just happen to be a sucker for the heartless debonair types.  Remember: if your antihero is ugly, deformed, or truly sadistic, you’re going to have to work a hell of a lot harder to earn the reader’s acceptance.  What they’re doing for the hero must be enough to overcome the revulsion.  Those little flashes of beauty in them must be played up all the more.  Conversely, you’ll need to tone down the attractiveness and emphasize the negative if your antihero is Christian Bale/Angelina Jolie gorgeous.

4.  “Myself Corrupting, Salving Thy Amiss”.  One of the most powerful tools you have is “There but for the grace of God go I.”  Portraying your antihero as Everyman makes it that much harder for the reader to condemn him/her.  That’s where all of that hard background work pays off dividends.  If you show how this character ended up evil, and show that the hero could have ended up the same way, you’ve just fired a fatal shot.  Lector is an exception here: as far as I know, Thomas Harris hasn’t yet suggested that we’ve got a sexual psychopath sleeping within us – although I believe that Lector does (sorry, folks, it’s be awhile since I read the book or watched the movie).  Tarrant and Gollum both are shown to be people who took the wrong path.  We see the decisions or mistakes they made and shudder because we realize that in their situation, we might have done the very same thing. 

There’s a classic example of this in the Highlander television series.  I’ll try to be succinct: Methos used to ride with an Immortal named Kronos, who raped, pillaged and burned across several continents, giving rise to the legend of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  Fast forward several thousand years.  Methos, as he puts it, got over his angry adolescence and is a fairly decent guy.  But Kronos isn’t, and when he returns, all hell breaks loose.  Methos is sucked in.  Not sure who’s going to win, he plays Kronos and McCloud (the hero, of course) against each other until the end, where the hero wins.  McCloud asks Methos why he didn’t simply kill Kronos and avoid all the agony.  Methos tells him that “We were brothers.  And if I’d judged him worthy to die, I’d be judging myself the same way.”  Powerful stuff, folks.  Powerful.

The same thing happens with Frodo and Gollum.  Same thing again with Tarrant and Damien, the hero.  We’re reminded that the hero is not so different from the antihero here.  The antihero is a dark reflection of the hero, who they might have been, who they might become.  All of the other techniques I have mentioned are paintballs compared to this cannon.

And this is a fantastic way to take some wind out of your hero’s sails.  One of my favorite moments between Adrian and Ray, my hero, is when Ray is busy condemning him, full of moral outrage, painting his crimes in lurid detail, and Adrian shuts him down with a mild, “And how does that make me different from you?”  Adrian points out that he’s a hero to the people he killed for.  Ray’s a hero for killing his own people’s enemies.  They aren’t so different at core.  Of course, Adrian adroitly avoids the huge disparity in motives: Ray kills to save lives, Adrian kills to pad his savings account.  But the sentiment is there, and we start to see Adrian in a whole different light.

5.  And, Finally, A Healthy Dose of Pragmatism.  There’s something about the guy who’s not out for world domination or salvation that’s damned attractive.  We know that rooting for the person who’s only out to save his own skin or see to his own creature comforts perhaps isn’t the noble thing to do, but let’s be honest, folks: how many of us want to make grand sacrifices or go through Herculean effort when we could vege in front of the TV instead?  I think that’s why so many antiheroes get our vote.  We like the person who’s in it for no one other than himself, because it makes sense.  We can empathize with the desire to make money the easy way, avoid grievous bodily harm, and weasel out from in between clashing titans any way possible.  Not every antihero will be a pragmatist, of course, but there are plenty of them around.  If you’ve got a mafia guy going to the FBI, and you want him to be an antihero, having him sell out the Mob because he wants to save himself works just fine.  Readers get it.  They won’t mind so much if he doesn’t have a change of heart.

We’ve come to the end of my semi-comprehensive look at the true antihero.  I’m going to close this with what I’ve come to call the Reader Meter.  If you want to know if you’ve succeeded in creating the perfect antihero, spring your story on an unsuspecting Wise Reader and ask them to tell you how they feel about the character throughout the story.  You should get a Daisy response: I love him/I love him not, right up until the very end.  If the antihero ends up ruined, dead or in jail, you should hear, “Well, I guess it’s justice, but I feel sorry for him.”  If they walk away scott-free, you should

get, “I know what he did was wrong, but I’m so glad he’s okay!”  If you hear that, you know you’ve got the closest thing to the perfect antihero you’ll ever get in this gig.

And trust me when I say: writing a successful antihero is the most fun you’ll ever have.  Clothed, anyway.

Dana's Dojo: Ante Up with an Antihero

Handy Reference Guide to Biblical Rape Laws

For those who like to take their religion literally, here’s an easy-to-use reference guide:

Lessee… had we been following those guidelines, I do believe I would’ve been married.  Believe me when I say that given the choice between that and stoning, I would have been handing out rocks.

This is one of the reasons I despise fundamentalists.  They don’t think the world has changed since Bronze Age goatherders went on a killing spree.  Oh, some of them say Jesus came and gave us a new, kinder law – then try to tell us the Ten Commandments et al are still in force.  And they somehow conveniently forget the violent bits of the New Testament when telling us how wonderful and gentle Jesus was.  And they enjoy endorsing Paul’s misogynistic bullshit far too much.

Building a modern civilization on Biblical foundations makes about as much sense as licensing only psychopaths as child care providers.

(Tip o’ the shot glass to whoever posted this on Twitter.  Alas, I cannot remember who it was!)

Handy Reference Guide to Biblical Rape Laws

Chinese. Fucking. Elvis. Need I Say More?

Apparently, I do.

Today, I braved rain, floods and landslides (oh, my) in order to go see Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis at Burien Little Theatre.  If you live in the Seattle area, you have three more chances to see this show, and if you miss it, you will be reduced to a pathetic wreck of a human being, weeping with remorse until the day you die.  I mean, c’mon, how often do you get to see a show about a demotivated dominatrix, an obsessive-compulsive housecleaner, a cross-dressing drycleaner, a wanna-be ice dancing daughter, and an allegedly dead woman?  Not to mention, Chinese Elvis!

Maggie and Eric truly find some fucked-up shit to put on, but man, is it ever good.

This is one of those moments I cursed myself for not bringing the camera.  There were some strikingly artistic, truly beautiful and haunting moments in this play.  When soon-to-be-former dominatrix Josie Botting is standing at the top of the stairs, watching her daughter try to walk in her stilettos on the hapless Chinese Elvis, everything about her screamed noir.  It was a moment worthy of film.  And it wasn’t the only one.

Alas, I haven’t got a picture of it, but courtesy of Ken Holmes and Phillip Benais, you can have a taste:

Thank you, Burien Bloggers!

You can read about how outstanding the play is at the link, there, and every kind word is true.  Myself, I want to give a few particular shout-outs to the cast.  Gerald B. Browning, who plays Lionel Trills, had the hard job of making a balding transvestite sub drycleaner come across as the most admirable man in the universe – and he does.  Loved him.  Geni Hawkins, who plays the very repressed housecleaner, does the best Irish accent outside of Ireland, and let me just say she makes you root for good girls wanting to go bad.  Kelli Mohrbacher had a hard job playing Brenda Marie Botting, the “simple” twin, but she made you want to run her straight out for a pair of ice skates and a sequined costume (you’ll understand why, should you see the show).  Angelica Duncan, who is long-lost twin Louise Botting, played a difficult character to perfection (and I shall say no more, least I spoil your fun when you see it).  They were all outstanding.  They all got and deserved center stage.  Which makes me feel guilty singling out the next two for special treatment.

But Alexandra Novotny… holy damn.  I mean, honestly, she runs through the shadings of an extremely complex character flawlessly, and her expression was so fucking perfect.  Some people can act without saying a word, without even moving more than a few muscles in a face.  She is one.  She left me breathless.  And no, it didn’t have anything to do with that cocktail dress toward the end there, although it was an excellent costuming choice.  War paint, indeed!

I felt like bowing to her when I left.  Seriously did.

And yet, she very nearly got overshadowed by Ken Wong, who is the Chinese Elvis that Lionel hires for a birthday party that turns bizarre.  People, we are talking about an American who managed a Cockney-Chinese accent even while singing just like Elvis.  Everything – his timing, his delivery, his expressions, his movements – everything was perfect.  I mean, look at his face up there.  Does that not look like a hapless, rookie Chinese Elvis who’s been having a horrible night of it, and is now wondering just how to fuck he’s gotten into this mess and wishes someone would come rescue him from it?

He even delivers a line as corny as “Elvis has left the building” in a way that was funny, fresh, and brought the fucking house down.

And in case you see the play and wonder: no, he’s not lip-syncing.  That’s really him, singing Cockney-Chinese Elvis and sounding eerily like the King.

They couldn’t have found a more perfect cast for this show.  ‘Twas a delight, worth risking life and limb and missing the weekly phone call with my best friend for.  If you get a chance, go.  Just go.  You’ve got all next weekend for it.

Do not end up spending the rest of your life moaning about missing it.

Chinese. Fucking. Elvis. Need I Say More?

Cantina Quote o' The Week: For Scirnis

The length of my life and the day of my death were fated long ago.

For Scirnis

No, that’s not a person, but a poem, specifically from the Poetic Edda.  The translation online, alas, is a lot more King James-Englishy, and not as wonderfully, poetically succinct:

“To a destined day has mine age been doomed,
And my life’s span thereto laid.”

Poor Skirnir (whose journey this poem is about).  Being the servant of Freyr, especially when Freyr’s feeling lovesick, isn’t especially easy.

Cantina Quote o' The Week: For Scirnis

How Music, Math, Architecture, and Goosebumps Combine

Right at this second, I’m sitting in silence.  It’s merely because I’m waiting for my Blind Guardian CD to copy into the computer so I can play it, but it’s tough going – while I know in mere minutes I shall have music, the quivery anticipation is combining with my natural abhorrence of silence to make me a little fidgety.

The CD-Rom drive clicks open.  I put the CD away.  I hit play.  And an orchestra takes me up and we’re soaring.

There went my hair.  I feel my scalp prickle.  Later, when hearing a particularly poetic verse or an unusual juxtaposition of instruments, I might get chills, lose my breath, find my fingers faltering on the keyboard as sound transports me from this world into theirs.

Turns out you can tell a lot about a person’s personality by gauging their reaction to music:

Los Angeles, CA (December 7, 2010) Most people feel chills and shivers in response to music that thrills them, but some people feel these chills often and others feel them hardly at all. People who are particularly open to new experiences are most likely to have chills in response to music, according to a study in the current Social Psychological and Personality Science (published by SAGE). Researchers Emily Nusbaum and Paul Silvia of University of North Carolina at Greensboro asked students about how often they felt chills down their spine, got goose bumps, or felt like their hair was standing on end while listening to music. They also measured their experience with music, and five main dimensions of personality: extraversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, and openness to experience. Of all these dimensions, only openness to experience was related to feeling chills. People high in openness are creative, curious about many things, have active imaginations and like to play with ideas, and they much more frequently feel chills in response to music. 

Hee.  That’s me.  That’s Brian Romans, too, and I’d imagine it’s a lot of you, my darlings.

But that little article’s a mere warm-up to the other delight Brian found us.  Prepare to think of music in a way you may have never thought of it before – as math and architecture:

WHILE auditing a musical composition class in 1940s Paris, Iannis Xenakis showed his work to his instructor, the great composer Arthur Honegger. “This is not music,” Honegger informed the young man, and he was right. It was architecture.
At the time, Xenakis was working in Le Corbusier’s studio, calculating the load-bearing capacity of concrete for low-income housing. His interest in music, and his recognition that music and architecture were both manifestations of mathematics, impelled him to see the geometric figures on his drawing board in terms of sound – and to set them in musical notation.
 Xenakis’s breakthroughs in music and architecture were deeply intertwined. Asked by Le Corbusier to design a pavilion commissioned by the Dutch Philips Corporation for the 1958 World’s Fair, Xenakis began by considering the internal acoustics, and realised that the optimal design would be based on hyperbolic paraboloids.
The concept, first fully explored in his orchestral piece Metastasis, was to construct the composition on the musical equivalent of the Philips Pavilion cables: straight lines intersecting to define sweeping curves. In place of cables, Xenakis used glissandi, lines of rising pitch each assigned to a different instrument. In both the pavilion and the musical composition, he was “interested in the question of whether it was possible to get from one point to another without breaking the continuity”, he later said.

Remarkable, no?  Most of us are vaguely aware of the math-music connection, but I doubt many people could look at architectural drawings and see literal rather than metaphorical music.  Though, if you’ve ever read a book called Spaces Speak, Are You Listening? you might be a bit more prepared.

Oh, and for those wondering if, oh, say, geology can also be made music, the answer is yes.  Yes, it can:

Mt. Etna is Singing

I love this kind of thing, love seeing disparate things brought together, seemingly unrelated entities merged into a seamless whole.  It makes the world fresh and fascinating.

It even gives me goosebumps, on occasion.

How Music, Math, Architecture, and Goosebumps Combine

Blind Guardian: Sing Me Stories

This concert almost went the way of Epica: if I’d had a choice in the matter, I would’ve blown it off to write instead.  Thankfully, I have friends who kept me from making that mistake.  And so, on Monday night, we went to have stories sung to us.

Blind Guardian, Showbox at the Market, December 6th 2010

Blind Guardian, you see, is the metal equivalent of a bard.  They tell fantastic tales.  When I went to see them with Leaves’ Eyes all those years ago in Phoenix, I’d been startled by the fact that Hansi Kursch didn’t do the normal front-man thing and just babble platitudes to the crowd and introduce songs.  No, he wove everything into a tale we became part of.  Became something of a novel, that night did.  This night, it was a short story collection.

And I knew it would be a good night when Hansi gave his bandmates some gentle ribbing over their World of Warcraft obsessions, got the crowd roaring, and then turned aside to one of his mates and said, “I know how to motivate people” in an arch-comic tone that brought the house down.

Then they reminded me why they are one of my most favorite bands.

Hansi Kursch

Cameron Lee’s the one what done it.  Many years ago, he introduced me to Blind Guardian by way of an album called Nightfall in Middle Earth.  Back in those days, I couldn’t stand Tolkien, hadn’t even heard of the Silmarillion, and barely knew good heavy metal existed, much less mythic, epic, relentless German power metal that could transport you to other worlds.

There are some albums that harrow the soul.  They become your spirit and purpose, cycle endlessly through your brain, transport you to a different realm at odd times of day, and refuse to let you go even after you’re left sweating, shaking, changed.  This was that album for me.  They’d written the soundtrack for my novels.  My main character moved to this album.  I wore out the mylar on that tape before I’d even had a chance to pick up the CD for myself.  I’d never heard anything so intense in all my life.

Hansi getting intense.

Nightfall In Middle Earth even changed my perception of Tolkien.  Up till then, I’d considered him a pretentious bore whose books were impossibly dense.  After, I decided there had to be something to him.  I picked up a copy of the Silmarillion illustrated by Ted Nasmith, and gave it pride of place on my shelves.  So what if I wasn’t yet prepared to truly enjoy Tolkien?  I was starting to get it, and thanks to Blind Guardian, I had an excellent sense of the story.  (The Silmarillion’s still a desperately difficult read, but if you read it out loud, you’ll discover just why Tolkien’s a master of language.  It flows in a way nothing else does.)

I played that album once a week for years.  And it’s been my guide as I’ve stumbled my way through a very complex several years of worldbuilding.  When it comes down to it, the theme of carrying on when all hope is gone is very much the theme of my series.

Hansi’s power

I have this habit of pulling lyrics to use as title quotes, guide chapters, outline stories, and encapsulate characters.  Everything that ever needs to be said about the character who is at the center of most every story I tell is captured in this quote from “The Curse of Feanor:”

I will always remember their cries
Like a shadow they’ll cover my life
But I’ll also remember mine
And after all I’m still alive

They’ve been one of my most steadfast guides as I’ve stumbled through the dark.  So you can understand why they mean a little something to me.

A steady hand

So, there I was, a Blind Guardian fan, and this a time when they didn’t come out with an album for a while.  During that time, I got to know their older stuff and got to know my stories better.  Along the line, somewhere, I figured out that who I’d thought was my main character was actually just the main character for the final three books – the person who the whole story arc was about turned out to be someone quite different.  I’m not sure I would have realized that without Blind Guardian, to be quite honest.  They came out with his soundtrack about the time I was ready for the revelation.  A Night at the Opera contained the lyrics that helped me understand him, and understanding him led me to the realization that it’s really been about him all along.*

He’s not just all about A Night at the Opera, though.  It turns out that one of his favorite songs is “The Bard’s Song,” which rather startled me a bit.  But it’s a beautiful song, and a good one for someone who’s lost very nearly everything but still managed to survive it all, and so it became something of a theme.  That’s one of the reasons I’m delighted Blind Guardian plays it nearly every concert.

Relatively sure this is Marcus Siepen, playing Bard’s Song

Bard’s Song Too

Years have passed.  Other musicians have come along to inspire me: I got addicted to Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers, which led to a story about Mexico; there’s Epica and Kamelot and Leaves’ Eyes and Nightwish and too many others to name, all of whom have had something to contribute to the stories.  Blind Guardian will always hold pride o’ place, though, for being true epic storytellers. Without them, I doubt I could tell the stories I do now.  They influenced my thinking hugely at a critical juncture.

I’ll always be grateful for that.

But enough o’ my babble. Here are the final few photos I wanted to share:

Got a groove on
Eerie light

Final Bow

Truly a night to remember.

Now, some of you may not yet be Blind Guardian fans but may wish to become so after all this.  So let me provide you a few songs.  First, if you ever plan to attend a concert, you will need to have one song memorized so that you can sing along.  Here’s “Bard’s Song.”

Works its way right into your brain and stays there, doesn’t it just?

Here is the song that quickly became my theme: “Nightfall.”

When I heard that song the first time, I knew Cameron Lee had given me something special.

And, finally, my favorite Blind Guardian song of all time, “Thorn.”

Now, go thee and see them in concert.  You won’t regret it.

(*For interested Wise Readers, the entire lyric outline shall be posted at A Slight Risk of Insanity.  For those who aren’t yet Wise Readers but would like to be, email me at dhunterauthor at yahoo dot com.)
Blind Guardian: Sing Me Stories

Why (Part of) the World Is Flat

I hate flat lands.  Let me just state that for the record.  I don’t mind table-top flatness with mountains in the background, but endless land without relief, I can’t stand.  So you’ll understand why I felt a bit sorry for Chris when I learned he’s lived in mostly flat places.

I may abhor flat lands, but I loved Chris’s explanation of how they got that way.  If you’d missed it, check it out.  It turns out there’s a great many ways for the world to be flat, which is something that hadn’t really impinged upon my awareness until now.

And when you’re done perusing that post, move on to his co-blogger Anne’s fascinating post on The Driftless Area.  It’s got me burning with curiosity: how did that bit of topography dodge the ice bullets again and again and again?  And it’s beautiful to place those two posts side-by-side, to really see how glaciers or lack thereof influence the way the land lies.

Why (Part of) the World Is Flat