Children Make Great Villians

I often wonder at the mindset and expectations of criminals. How they can possibly dream up some of the things they do? How can they feel good about doing it? I never feel like I understand the “darker psyche”. However, tonight I have come to realize that the greatest source of inspiration for villainy is children. My wife had a blog for a time called “Step-Eclecticity” and used little code names for the kids, so I’m going to borrow those monikers for this.

Tonight, I awoke from bed to yelling (possibly, I was still asleep there) and then the definite sounds of loud crying. I got out of bed and made my way to the children’s side of the house. When I hit the hallway, I paused to determine which direction the crying was coming from. Both directions?? (We currently have two kids in the house, as their older brother, ‘Scooby’, is out of state for the balance of the summer.) After a moment of listening, I decide the louder crying seems to be coming from the left, so I start in that direction. There I find ‘Bliss,’ our 11 yr old rock-climbing daughter, lying on the bed, holding one side of her head and in terrible tears.

“My face is broken,” she sobs out. I’m slightly in shock, and resisting the instant urge to go destroy the vile miscreant who has chosen to bring my daughter to such painful tears and heart-wrenching beliefs. “He pressed my face down with all his weight, and I heard it crack!” She fully believes that her twin brother has literally broken her face, cracked her skull. After a few more minutes of gentle holding and reassurances that her face appears to be just as pretty as always, other than tear-tracks and puffy eyes, I get a grip on my temper and head for the other end of the hallway.

On that end of the world, I discover Digi, our 11-yr old baseball fanatic and potential genius, curled into the fetal position on the giant beanbag under his Texas Rangers comforter. He, too, is sobbing his heart into the night. I ask, calmly, what happened. “She turned off the light, and pushed me off the ladder, and made me feel like I wasn’t even a person!”

I tennis-matched back and forth for an hour, comforting, interrogating, chastising, and reassuring the pair of them, and in the end, after much begging to see each other on both their parts, I let Digi in to see Bliss, and he tearfully said he was sorry and begged her forgiveness, as she apologized to him and told him it was alright. There were hugs and ‘I love you’s as I watched from the door. There will certainly be more talking in the morning, but as it was after midnight, I put them both to bed with kisses and instructions to get some sleep. Oh, what was the fight over? The top bunk. When there are four kid beds to choose from in that end of the house.

So, I’m reasonably certain that her face isn’t broken, and I’m pretty sure he is a person, but I was completely floored at the actions they were willing to take against someone they each profess to care deeply about, and for so little an incentive. Truly, childhood is the stuff of villainy. Earlier this week, one of them slipped around the table while I was chatting with their cousin, and then whispered behind my back (I can still hear pretty well in my doting old age) to that cousin, who promptly stepped back to my attention and asked about playing on the Wii with the child that was so conveniently positioned behind me. I asked why my child wasn’t the one asking, and promptly came the defense that the cousin had just been asking to play. Yeah, right. Manipulative little… villain.

Their older brother Scooby isn’t innocent on this, either, by no means. Every time he travels between houses, he smuggles a shipment of toys back east. There was even an entire post on my wife’s old blog a couple of years ago about a certain candy thief that was caught chocolate-handed.

I am probably far too tired to try to assess what this observation might mean from a psychological point of view, but I am quick to spot the writing advantage! What is a villain willing to do to get what he wants? Look to the children. Lie (“I didn’t put that there!”), Cheat (“Oops, I moved my piece too far. And that was a practice roll.”), Manipulate, Steal, and, apparently, break a little girl’s face, or turn their own brother into a “non-person.”  Frankly, I’d call that a pretty impressive list for a villain. 

I was about to say that the crazy thing is, if we base villains on children, they don’t even need all that convincing a reason for their evil deeds. I mean really: he wanted the top bunk. Then again, was all that really about who got the top bunk? Or maybe about how one made the other one feel? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t care how someone makes you feel, reciprocal violence is not an acceptable response. Yet we must take something like that into account when writing villains: they have reasons for what they do. They also must have a certain viewpoint about it. Either they feel it is justified, or they have to be in some way conflicted about it. Or perhaps numbed to it, as they have lived that way so long.

My problem with villains, or writing any character that isn’t just stock criminal, is that I have trouble making them be truly evil. They don’t lie, they kind of sort of tell half-truths… When just watching my children should make me realize that, angels they may be, but they’ll lie to you. Straight up, stare you in the face, I-didn’t-do-it-and-you-can’t-prove-it lie. Not to mention the other things they are willing to do, especially in the heat of the moment, even if they feel bad about it later. Maybe my next villain will cry himself to sleep at night, trying to justify his actions, or push blame onto the victims of her crimes. Or maybe we’ll see their dad, lying in bed, trying to figure out where he went wrong to raise someone so… human.

Revising Violently

This Saturday I printed out the first arc of The Beginner GM and curled up on the couch to make my first editing pass. It was a massacre. I shed so much red ink that I’m not sure the ME would be able to identify the body. I slashed paragraphs and carved similes into imagery. I ripped the metaphorical throat out of some of those passages, and then I put it back in backwards. In my defense, those pages deserved it. I’m not sorry I did it, and first chance I get, I’m going to do it again!

I’ve never liked to revise, or even proofread, for most of my life. I’m not sure why. When I clean and think I am done, I take a last look to catch anything I missed. If I’m eating a good meal, you’d better be sure I check the pot before giving up my plate. Revising, however, I hated. I don’t know why. Perhaps it was admitting I had been wrong, or that I could have done it better, though you’d think I was used to that. Maybe it just felt like too much work. It could be that I was scared to see how bad it was. Whatever the reason, When I threw down my pen and pages, I was done, for better or worse. I promise you, it was worse.

Revision, as detestable as it might be to some, is critical to good writing. I don’t know why it’s impossible to do it right the first time, but it is. I’ve never ever heard of a successful writer that didn’t revise. Moreover, every time I recall an author talking about revision, they talked about how MUCH they revise! Many authors are still mentally revising their work after it’s been published.

So, I can’t tell you why we need to do it, but I can tell you how it helps. The most obvious is basic proofreading. People make mistakes, all the time. Proofing lets you spot and fix those mistakes before someone else does. Revision allows you to see the places in your story that need tightening, or loosening, or more explanation, or less exposition. It lets you follow the voice of your characters, and better recognize when they shift, than when you were writing mad about the wet newspaper and it soaked into your characters.
I think Writing and Reading are two different parts of the brain, perhaps editing is as well. When you take a second look at what you’ve written, after letting it cool for a time, you see it as a reader instead of the person writing it, and that makes all the difference. Writers have no clue when they have screwed up. Readers can always smell it. Fortunately, the best writers are both.

Pretend This is a Creative Blog Post Title

It is a new year, and with new years come… calories, if we’re going to be honest about it.

Over the holidays (and just after), I finished Elven Fire for the Beginner GM, which was my NaNoWriMo project this year. (I did hit my goal, but had some finishing pieces I wanted to add.) Now it’s time for that to go into revisions so it can be published this spring. The actual game manual went out last summer. That has been a fun experience, and a new type of project for me.
Once that’s done, I’ll be going back to work on Hero Games, which I abandoned in the middle. I’ve decided to try an unusual (for me) approach, though, and writing each character’s storyline independently, then weaving them all together. With the plot well mapped, it should be doable, and may help to maintain the continuity of their voice.
One night over the holidays, I had to get up in the middle of the night to write down a couple of story concepts so that I could sleep, and hopefully not lose the ideas. When I shared the ideas with my wife later, she praised the concepts, but commented that she thinks I have enough projects on my plate.
Even ignoring the “real life” commitments of teaching and family, she’s right. I have just finished writing one project that requires editing before a deadline for publications; I am still in the midst of a challenging novel with a dozen main characters, each with their own subplot. I have at least three other novels-in-progress awaiting their turn in line. I have a Santa’s List of story ideas waiting to become works-in-progress. I have blogging that I try to do weekly, Tweeting that I do whenever I can, which isn’t often enough. On Common Ground is gathering dust waiting to be edited. On top of all that, I really should be trying to build my portfolio by entering contests, submitting short stories to magazines, networking within the blogosphere. Oh, I’d completely forgotten that Derek Daniels, my poor Nanite Chaser, is desperately in need of another episode or five.
How does a writer do it? Do we throw some of these wonderful ideas away? Should I start a Writer’s Idea Bank and store them there in the hopes that some other author may be able to use one? It makes me wonder, of those amazing authors that are out there, the prolific, and the departed, how many of their stories went unwritten? How many amazing tales have passed unpenned? I hope there’s a library in heaven, and I hope Satan’s not in charge of the publishing house.

My Teaching Materials: The Letter

One of the things I rather enjoy is making pertinent materials for my writing classes. Yes, I probably do way too much myself, and should save energy by finding or buying and using pre-made stuff, but I like it. So, I thought I would share a few of those with you.

The past couple of posts in this series have focused on spelling. My classes are graded in three areas: Prewriting, Writing, and Editing. Spelling falls under the editing category. This week, I thought I would jump over to the Writing category. The following is not so much a worksheet, as a model for them, to show how to add detail in order to “explode the moment,” as my district calls it. Beginning writers have a tendency to gloss over entire scenes, because they are used to watching them play out on television or in movies instead of reading through them. This, I believe, is the same reason they struggle so much with describing characters and setting: on the screen, it is never described, just shown.

The first one I show them is a short little paragraph that covers an entire scene. Below is the first version of The Letter.

The Letter

It was night. It was windy. The girl stood on the roof. A man walked up to her. He gave her a paper. Then the man jumped off. The girl read the paper and cried and threw the paper away.

This I show them on one screen. Even the kids can tell you it’s bad. Then I tell them I have another version, and ask them to see if they like it better. Reading the second one has every kid’s attention.

The Letter

It was a dark and stormy night. The wind howled around the corners of the street. Above the street, the wind and rain assaulted the rooftops.

On the roof stood a girl, wearing a dark trench coat with a hat pulled low over her eyes. Whether it was meant to keep out the rain, or hide her face wasn’t clear. She seemed to be waiting for someone. It must be an exceedingly serious reason to be out on a rooftop in such blustery wind and biting rain.

Suddenly, the rooftop door opened. The wind slammed it against the wall. The man standing in the doorway had long, stringy hair and a cruel-looking face. His countenance made the scar across one eye look almost cheerful. He stepped out onto the roof, leaving the old wooden door to slam and swing back and forth helplessly in the wind.

As he walked up to the girl in the broad-rimmed hat, he held out his right hand. Clenched in his fist was a paper envelope wrapped in plastic. She hesitated, but accepted the mysterious package. In a flash of lightning, she could just barely make out the address on the outside of the envelope.

She looked up to ask a question just as he stepped up onto the ledge. This was so startling that her question froze unvoiced in her throat. Then the man jumped.

“No!”

She stepped forward, but it was too late. He was gone, even more mysteriously than he came. She ripped open the envelope and held the letter in both hands to keep the wind from ripping it away. As she read, her sudden tears mixed with the pouring rain. She finished the letter and stood, frozen, shocked. Finally, she opened her fingers and let the wind take the hateful letter out of her life.

After reading this, I have to go through 5 minutes of questions about what happened to the two characters and what was in the letter. To which I have to shrug repeatedly, with a knowing smile. Then we discuss what made the two versions different. I go back to the first version and point out how every piece was turned into something larger. Practically every sentence in the first version became a paragraph in the next. “It was night. It was windy.” From those two sentences, we get a full paragraph of setting description in the second. The same with the next sentence about the girl, and so on.

At the end, I ask them to choose a piece of their writing that they feel matches the first version, and turn it into the second one. This has been a pretty effective lesson in the past; I look forward to trying it this year.

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Other posts in this series:
Land of Xanth
Thief & Chief
Key to Happyness

My Teaching Materials: Key to Happyness

One of the things I rather enjoy is making pertinent materials for my writing classes. Yes, I probably do way too much myself, and should save energy by finding or buying and using pre-made stuff, but I like it. So, I thought I would share a few of those with you.

This is the companion worksheet to Thief & Chief, which I posted last time. Before giving out either of these, we cover the rules that are included in them.

Name: _________________
Period:___ Date: _________

Please correct the following paragraph. These mistakes focus on the following rules: Changing Y to I, and Doubling the Final Consonant. Previously covered spelling rules may also be present. Each of the 25 errors is worth 4 points.

Their was one key to happyness in Jane’s life: she partyed. Parting was everything to her. It occupyed all of her free time and deli ghtted her and her freinds. There favorite place to party was a club that admited them even though they had not agged to 18 yet. They had made copyes of they’re driver‘s licenses and handded them over, smileing. The IDs claimmed the girls were 21. They had tryed to get into other clubs, but the bouncers stoped them at the door. One threatenned to call there parents! Jane finaly was geting to have a good time, when suddennly, she heard a bad sound: “Police. Everyone stay where you are!” They were takeing everyone’s IDs and puting them under arrest! When her parents came to get her, she was ashammed of what she had done.

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The first post in this series was Land of Xanth.
The second was Thief & Chief.