Monday, June 15, 2009

Steps in Creating Something

In my first-year psychology class today, my professor listed the following steps in doing something creative:
  1. Orientation - defining the problem that needs to be solved
  2. Preparation - gathering relevant information
  3. Incubation - setting the thing aside and doing other stuff, meanwhile figuring out things in the background
  4. Illumination - after awhile of incubation, a solution suddenly comes to you
  5. Verification - you check out the insight you had and make use of it (or else go back to stages 2-3, I guess)

That's a pretty good description of how I write essays or other assignments. Stages 1 & 2 occur when I read the work I need to write about, find out my assignment and then reread what I'd most like to write my essay about. If I don't have an idea right away, I let it simmer a bit and then decide what exactly I want to write about (stages 3 & 4) and then I write it (stage 5). But I also write fantasy stories on my own time, a more creative act than writing an essay, and I don't follow these stages at all in writing fantasy.

Here's my impression of what steps I do follow:

  1. I have an idea - like, for example, 'imagine if a half-vampire was going around biting people and then pretending to hunt himself down in order to get money?' These ideas can come from reading another story, pondering some problem, having a weird dream, whatever. I don't always know where the idea came from, but often I do.
  2. I ponder the idea a bit, and maybe combine it with other ideas, let it simmer awhile, and eventually come up with a starting scene and (hopefully) a plot.
  3. I write the starting scene, and keep on writing along the plot, stopping when I get stuck on something.
  4. I talk over what I'm stuck on with someone else, or just let it simmer awhile. Then I get another idea, and either keep on writing from where I was before or rewrite part of the story and continue.
  5. Eventually, I come to a point where I can say that it's done. Usually by then I've had ideas for a sequel, whether or not I write one depends on how good my ideas are.

Anyone else want to share?

Friday, June 12, 2009

Abused/Traumatized Characters in Fiction

I see a lot of people portraying trauma and abuse poorly in fiction. Here are some of the common problems:

With Good Guys:
  • Very Little Effect - a prime example is Harry Potter. He's got a big advantage over Voldemort because he's 'full of love'. Where did he learn that love? From his parents? They died before he could remember him. From the Dursleys? They abused and neglected him and made it pretty clear that they hated him. From teachers or classmates? Until Hogwarts, none of those people cared about him either. For a boy with the unpleasant life history he had, Harry Potter was surprisingly healthy psychologically. A more common example is how little the story's events usually affect the characters. There are people they know dying all the time, they face their own death on several occasions, maybe experience torture, but they still act like a carefree kid a lot of the time. To get an idea of what living through those kinds of things is really like, talk to anyone who's lived in a war zone (soldier or civilian).
  • Instant Healing - this is where a character has some kind of trauma, and for 10 years or whatever, they've shown a certain dysfunctional pattern as a result. Yet one transformative experience cures it overnight. A few stories stretch it out awhile, but very often it's still too brief. Or maybe they've recently experienced something traumatic and are showing symptoms, but something helps them deal with that and they instantly go back to being who they were before the trauma. Well, guess what? Healing from trauma is long and hard. You'll go through a great deal of pain, you'll come back through the same stages over and over, and maybe, years later, you'll finally be able to consider yourself to have healed. Only to realize you've still got wounds. And when you finally are healed, you will not be like you were before the trauma, or would have been without the trauma. It's not possible to undo something that happened to you, all you can do is integrate it into your life experiences in a healthy way. A series that portrays this really well is The Hollows by Kim Harrison - one of the major characters is a vampire who's experienced some pretty serious abuse, and throughout the series, she is gradually healing. As of the latest book, she's still clearly got issues, but she's not nearly as prone to unexpectedly attacking people as she was at the start of the series.
  • 'Good Guy' Trauma - This is another thing Kim Harrison managed to avoid. A lot of characters, if they actually seem affected by their traumatic experiences, show it by depressive episodes, bad dreams, acting scared of certain things, etc, but never in a way that could actually make them likely to harm someone else. Sure, there are some traumatized people like that, but there are also traumatized people - who have good intentions, and are basically good people - who have explosive rages, misinterpret situations in a dangerous way, and so on. My Dad said when he was growing up, everyone knew not to take certain veterans hunting, because they'd start thinking they were back in the war. It's easy to feel sympathetic for the person sobbing xyr heart out because xe never realized just how much xe wanted the motherly love xe never got. It's much harder to feel sympathetic for the person who has pinned you to a wall and is demanding that you prove that xe can trust you, but that's just as much a part of being traumatized.
  • Normal Standards - one of the most pervasive and damaging effects of trauma is how it changes your view of the world. But so many characters seem to be perfectly aware that what they went through is not OK or representative of what they can expect from life, even when they really had no way to find that out. An abused child who never got any sympathy from anyone for being abused, yet somehow knows that what they went through was abuse is a prime example. Real abuse survivors often blame themselves for not being able to cope, or being 'bad' and making their parents hurt them, or not being able to stop the abuse (my cousin seemed to think it was plausible for a 4 year old boy to be able to beat up his own father). Or they may think the abuse had no effect on them when it clearly did, or think the effect was positive. Then there's how they view the abuser. It's possible for an abused person to honestly care about their abuser (part of what makes it so agonizing). They may be able to see the good points in the abuser as well as the bad - if the abuser is a parent, for example, they probably did some things right in order for their child to even be alive. They may be aware that the abuser's life isn't easy either, and feel sorry for them. They may have been so dependent on the abuser that they had to care about the abuser or else they wouldn't have survived.

With Bad Guys:

  • Dark Lord Was Abused - this is where the bad guy is given a backstory of abuse as a replacement for actually trying to explain xyr behavior. There are two big problems with this. Firstly, it often carries the connotation that abused people automatically become bad, especially if there are no other abused characters. Secondly, the standard villain types often don't act like abuse survivors. The biggest thing is that they have too much fun. If you're going to make them an abuse survivor, make them unhappy. It seems obvious to me, but there's the gleeful cackling evil guys with histories of abuse to prove that people can miss this. Thirdly, it still doesn't explain why they act the way they do. Let's say a boy grows up with regular beatings and no one who really loves him. Why would that make him decide to create a doomsday device? You can't just say 'because he was abused' and leave it at that. You should work out the chains of logic there. Maybe he thinks every child suffers as much as he does, and feels that he's doing them a favour by killing them all because they won't have to suffer anymore. Or maybe he wants to destroy all the people who've wronged him, views the whole world as having wronged him because no one stepped in to help him, and thinks everyone deserves to die. Or maybe he isn't really trying to destroy the world, but hoping that making this device that could do that will get everyone to finally see how much pain he's in and force them to care about that. It has to make sense from his perspective, however warped that perspective is. Best if you can get people to empathize with him and really feel sorry for him, even as he's putting the whole world in danger.
  • Abusive parents - if you're going to have any development of the abuser whatsoever, you need to make them have more depth than just being bad guys. What they're doing to their victim makes sense to them. They have reasons for doing it. Maybe they snap under too much pressure or when their buttons are pushed certain ways, and then feel terrible about what they did. Or they honestly think they're doing the right thing (see 'Normal Standards' above for why an abuser might believe that). Or they might not care about the child or want to hurt the child - but I recommend limiting that, because it seems to me that most abusive parents actually do love their children.

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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Two Different Sorts of Minorities

There are a lot of parallels between the experiences of different minority groups. This is widely referred to, even as people try to claim their group's experiences are unique. But there are also, clearly, differences. Often, these show up not so much as specific groups having unique experiences, but as broad categories encompassing several groups (and sometimes dividing within groups as well as across them).
One division, within the category of people who are born into a minority group, is whether the parents are also members of that group.
Examples of groups where minority-group children are raised by parents belonging to the same group include ethnicity, religion (in fact the child's religion is largely caused by the parent's religion), and some genetically-based disabilities. Examples of groups of minority children raised by majority parents include almost all gay kids, most disabled kids, and a few kids of ethnic minorities (either adopted or mixed-race with a single parent).
The big difference is in the experience of community. The minority child who grows up with minority parents typically lives in two different communities. One is the majority community, where the power lies but also the source of discrimination and exclusion. But as a counterpoint to the majority community, they have their own community, which often lacks resources but provides a place where they can truly feel that they belong.
This has good points and bad points. The good points are the sense of belonging, as well as the ready availability of role models whose experiences truly resonate with the child. However, often the child feels caught between the two worlds, between the greater acceptance found in their own community and the greater opportunities in the other community. This can be seen, for example, in the issue of school success for poor (and often ethnic minority) kids in many large cities in US. If they work hard and try to be successful in school, that can mean turning their backs on their community.
The minority child with majority parents doesn't have the same experience of community. For them, unless their parents make have minority contacts, they belong only to the majority community. But they don't really belong, because this community discriminates against and excludes them. Even their parents may be discriminatory. And the only role models they have are different from them in an important way.
The good points are that these kids often have more opportunities, because their parents are more successful. This type of minority group is also much more likely to have majority-group allies, who advocate with and for them - almost all parents want what's best for their child. In the early years of the fight for rights, these allies may be the only ones who can get people to listen to them. Majority-group parents may be less likely to take certain forms of discrimination for granted (especially when this discrimination extends to themselves), because someone who is accustomed to respect readily notices when they're suddenly being disrespected.
But the bad side is a lot of loneliness. The children may feel like they don't really belong, even when among people who accept them, because the difference is still there. Self-made communities are a big help (and extremely common for such minorities) but can't completely erase the loneliness of growing up different from most or all of the people you know. In addition, it can be harder for these kids to find support, because there are some aspects of discrimination you can only really understand if you've lived through it. Lastly, adult role models may be very hard to find, leading the child to either identify with someone from the majority group, or have pretty much no idea what the future holds.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Problems With Fantasy Analogies

A lot of stories I've seen use fantastical situations as analogies for real-life ones. I can certainly see the value in that - it helps illustrate a problem in terms people may be more willing to accept, and can be a vehicle for fascinating thought experiments. But too often, they are too caught up in the real-life situation they're trying to make an analogy of to recognize that the fantasy scenario they've thought up really isn't the same thing.
In Season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it becomes clear that Buffy's friend Willow, a powerful witch, is using magic too much. It's clearly intended as an analogy for drug abuse, as she starts partying with a fellow witch and using magic all night long, and then going to a guy who does weird magical things to her that clearly create a 'high'. Finally, she ends up putting Buffy's sister Dawn in danger by accidentally summoning some sort of demon-thing that attacks them, and after that she declares to Buffy that she's going to stop doing magic - 'it's not worth it'.
Replace 'magic' with 'drugs', and that story works fine. Person uses drugs for fun, shirks responsibilities, then puts someone they care about in danger and decides that drugs aren't worth it. That's a story that often happens in real life. Now, that bit would have come across as poorly written with drugs, too, because of how much they sped the process up, but it wouldn't have been nearly as bad.
But Willow's magic was not equivalent to drug use. Willow's magic actually did things, very valuable things. Towards the end of Season 5, Willow saved all of their lives several times with her magic, such as when she projected a magical shield around a building they were hiding in so the knights attacking them couldn't come in. At the beginning of Season 6, she brought Buffy back from the dead, a spell which was for the most part the right thing to do (not so much for Buffy, who was in Heaven, but Buffy's absence put her town and her loved ones in serious danger). Drug use doesn't save lives (unless you're talking about prescription drugs, but that's different). Given that Willow has actually saved many lives with her magic, it doesn't make sense for her to just give up doing magic all together because she overdid it a few times. It would make sense if the only benefit of her magic was to make her feel good.
I'm sure there are many other examples of people force-fitting a fantasy situation into an analogy for real life, and getting something that doesn't make sense as a result. It seems to me that writers like that should really make a choice. Either:
a) Design a situation that really does parallel what they're trying to make an analogy for, such as if Willow's magic was limited to making illusions only she could see (which would necessitate giving up on using magical solutions for plot problems).
b) Explore the situation your characters are actually in rather than trying to stick to things that fit the analogy you're making. For example, if Willow realized that magic was addictive but also extremely useful given the problems their team faces, and worked on figuring out how to control her use of magic so that she could still save people's lives. Or, if she couldn't control it somehow, made a choice between losing control of herself and saving lives (I'd like to see a story like that sometime, it would be an interesting dilemma).