The Problem with Piebaldery

The first problem is that I’m not 100% sure that “piebaldery” is a word. In fact, I’m almost certain it isn’t. But bear with me and overlook that for now. What I mean by “piebaldery” is the act of segregating “good” and “bad” in writing.

In other words, creating characters who are “good”, stand for what is “right” and never do anything “wrong” and pitting them against villains who have absolutely no values or beliefs but instead stand for something many people would have a hard time accepting. Something like meaningless bloodshed or power or destruction without a thought of construction.

Things like that.

Things where the black is so obviously black and the white is so obviously white.

You may be tempted to call this a morality play, but I’m not so sure I agree. In most of the successful morality plays I’ve read, the main character is actually tempted to do something wrong and they often do it. It is this act which royally screws them over in the end and lands them in an unfortunate situation.

Original faerie tales were like that too. (See stories written by the Brother’s Grimm.)

Currently, I’m unsure of where this style of writing came from or if using it could be beneficial in anyway. However, I am sure of one big gaping hole in its construction, however: adults, and sometimes even children, find this method of story-telling childish.

Let me give you an example.

My friend and I went to the Renaissance Faire last weekend. Like usual, we attended every single jousting event, out of our mutual respect for the recurring villain of the series, but, like usual, the plot was very piebald.

The “good knight” stood for truth, justice and chivalry.

The “bad knight” made snide comments and just wanted bloodshed.

The “good knight” stood for his people.

The “bad knight” just wanted blood shed.

The “good knight” earned his shield by saving an orphanage.

The “bad knight” earned his shield by burning it down.

That kind of thing.

From Pelican Pete
His caption: “The Evil Knight never wins in the end. That’s why he’s the villain.” Best ever.

The unfortunate thing is that often people react to this the opposite way you intend. Take my friend and I for example. We see a good guy who seems so upitty, so good by society’s standards that he’s not even human. We can’t relate to him.

But we can relate to the bad knight.

Sure he’s mistaken in his ideas–but so are we sometimes. Sure he loses the battle–but we often do too!

We look at this battle and remember all the times self-righteous people have pushed us around and spat on us. All the times we’ve lost to someone seemingly better.

And we root for the very knight you want us to despise.

Life isn’t perfect.

People aren’t perfect.

Dilemmas in life aren’t piebald.

The only thing you should make perfect in your story should be Jesus Christ–otherwise you are risking readers pulling away and/or joining hands with the very characters you want them to hate. Even many children’s stories understand this–and they’re some of the most successful stories to boot. Children aren’t as daft as some authors think they are.

“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart,” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wisely argues. Every character is capable of being a villain. Every character is capable of being a hero. The difference in how we classify them comes from what they choose to do with their potential.


How to Hook a Reader

I have no idea how to do this, so I’ve decided to analyze books and movies that captivated me and try to figure out why. This is what I’ve come up with so far:

Characters Should Always Be Learning
My characters should never be perfect–especially the main characters. This makes their choices predictable and draws the readers away from them. It also makes things less interesting. How is it a story if the main character always does the right thing? How is it a story if everyone loves them? How are they human if they don’t have any problems?
Characters should always be learning. Always put them in situations that make them struggle.

Give the Reader a Heart Attack
There is no such thing as “too many villains.”
There is no such thing as “too many problems.”
People read books to give themselves heart attacks. They want to see characters who struggle like they do–or worse than they do. They want to watch these characters overcome impossible odds. They want to read about characters who fail but pick themselves up regardless.
None of these things are fun to experience first hard, but stories thrive off them.

Romantic Tension is Often Better Than Romance.
I have read way too many series just to see if two characters end up together. Sometimes I’ll hate books in a series, but I’ll read them just to see if the characters become an item.
Romantic tension is addicting.
Romance, however, doesn’t interest people as much–possibly because it isn’t done right. With Romantic tension, there’s the threat of losing something dear, but not in romance. Perhaps this is why people dislike it? I’m not sure. I’ll need to analyze this more.

Get People Emotionally Invested
My characters don’t have to be powerful. They don’t have to be funny. They don’t have to be perfect. They do, however, need a certain je nes sais pas that draws people to them.
No matter how good or bad my characters are, my story depends on my readers relating to them or understanding them. It depends on my readers enjoying them. Especially if I’m going to place the characters in impossible situations. Putting the character in tension isn’t worth anything if the reader doesn’t connect with them.

“Writer, Know Thyself”

Some people scoff at writing books.

“How will writing about a Thanksgiving I remember help me write my novel?” They scoff. “I’m a better writer than the person who wrote this entire book–their own novel wasn’t even that good.”

Personally, I don’t think that matters. Sometimes you just need to write something–even if it is in response to “what kind of fruit do you think your lead character would be?”

Currently, I’m working through Melissa Donovan’s “101 Creative Writing Exercises.” The exercise today was a questionnaire about why I write.

“As a writer,” Donovan says, “it’s important to know where you are in relation to your goals.”

I think that’s very wise. If I’m able to cling to the reasons why I write, depression won’t make me give up and success won’t give me a big head–especially if that reason is God.

Many authors I admire began their career as Christians but, as they became more famous, they turned their back to God and focused on their fans.

I need to make sure I don’t end up this way. I need to make sure that depression doesn’t cause me to give up, that shame doesn’t keep me from picking up my pen.

So I filled out the questionnaire and would like to share it with you.

If nothing else, it ties in well with yesterday’s post.

1) What do you want to write?
I want to write what God would have me write. In every genre I read, every genre I watch, I can see God’s glory shimmering beneath the surface. There are questions that authors and script writers over-look. Questions whose answers point directly back to God.

I want to answer all of these questions. To glorify God in the genres that have strayed the furthest away from him. A lot of Christians turn their noses up at genres such as “fantasy” or “science fiction” or “horror.” I think that’s wrong. John Calvin once said that God’s glory could be shown in all things and that denying this is actually sinful on our behalf. Not only that, but children who like these
genres feel separated from their parents and peers when they say, “I’m a Christian. I don’t read things like that.”

It makes them feel lesser than their parents or their peers and so they rebel against their parents or their peers. They rebel against their religion. They rebel against their God.

But God is in all things.

I want to show them that. I want to show them that even if they things they like are unconventional for Christians, God loves them just the same. Not less. Not more. God loves the same things they do and even if the genera has been perverted by man, God was behind the creation of that genera.

2) How often and how much do you write? Can you make more time?
As of now, I write blog posts every Monday through Friday and freewrite for twenty minutes on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. So I should add a little more time to that. As I am trying to spend more time learning how to live (rather than spending the days researching) I will need to make the time by taking it from my reading time.

I’ll need to think over this question more since I need to read in order to analyze the
philosophy of the genres I want to write in so for now I will stick with freewriting thirty minutes every Monday through Friday. Every minute counts.

3) What are your top three goals as a writer?

  • To worship God in everything I write.
  • To reveal God in everything I write.
  • To understand and share possible answers that plague both my life and the struggle of society. In a way that glorifies God, of course.

4) Why are these goals important to you?

“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
–1 Corinthians 10:31 (ESV)

5) What is your five-year career plan as a writer? What do you need to do over the next five years to achieve your goals?
Most of these five years will be spent in studying in college–so I’m not planning on publishing anything serious. From now on, though, I need to submit random works to the school’s literary magazine and research journal. Why? It’s good practice and it keeps me from trying to hide in the shadows in an effort to perfect my writing before publishing it. I need to publish some bad work before I can write something grand.

As for my goals, they’re everlasting goals which require me to always be in the right state of mind when I’m writing. I can’t just check them off a list and forget about them. They’ll be at the top of my list every time I put my fingers to the keyboard.

6) In the past year, how have you worked toward these goals?
In the past year, I learned just how difficult writing is and how much further I have to go.
Once upon a time, I thought that I was the best writer ever. That there was no way I could improve. That I would go through Creative Writing and get an easy A.

Thank God I took those classes–I got the kick in the pants that I needed.

I’ve realized that I have a ton to learn from authors that came before me, I’ve realized that I need to practice a lot more to catch up with the writing world and I’ve realized that writing is an extremely difficult craft that requires daily exercise. I’ve realized that I need to sweat in order to best serve God.

7) What can you do over the next year to move closer to your top three goals and your five-year career plan?
Write more. Make a habit of it.
Be humble. Always be willing to learn.
Focus not only on writing, but on living. How can I write if I’ve never lived through anything myself?
Above all, however, I need to focus on God in all the things I do. No matter how bad the Writer’s Blocks get, no matter how defeated I feel, God will guide me through–if my eyes are trained on him.

“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”
–Matthew 6:33 (ESV)

Why Do I Write?

I do not write because I am entitled to.

I do not write because I am perfect.

I do not write because I am imperfect.

I do not write because I am in need of proving myself.

I do not write because I am a genius.

I write to worship God and God alone. I need to remember that more often.

I Know and Am Persuaded…

While Saint Patrick wasn’t the first person to bring the gospel to Ireland, he was certainly the most beloved person to do so. Medieval Irish historians, Philip Freeman claims, loved Patrick so much that they attempted to downplay any missionaries sent before him so as to make his actions all the more amazing.

But what made Patrick so much different than his brothers?

After all, many of Patrick’s brothers would have been better versed in Latin and schooling, would have been under the instruction of the church for longer, would have been more confident speakers.

But Patrick is the one best remembered today.

Perhaps this isn’t so much because of what he did, but what he didn’t do. As Malachy McCourt says in his History of Ireland, “one of Patrick’s strengths in Ireland was his ability to integrate the Gaelic culture with the Christianity he was trying to bring. He did not, as other missionaries in other places would later, condemn the Celts as ignorant infidels or uncouth pagans. Instead, he took the Druidic world and tried to explain it in Christian terms.”

This, I think, is incredibly important.

In Acts 17:16-34, we find Paul in Athens. Now Paul’s “spirit was provoked” at the sight of the idols that filled the city of Athens, but not once did he think of the Athenians as lower than himself. He “reasons” with the people of Athens and when speaking in the Areopagus, Paul begins by praising them.

“Men of Athens,” he says, “I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your woship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘to the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”

Paul observes the culture of Athens and instead of declaring it heathenish, he finds God hiding in it. As he says in Romans 1:20, “[God’s] invisible attributes, namely his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever  since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”

Patrick, I think, understood that God wasn’t the God of Rome, just as Paul knew that “[God] does not live in temples made by man.” In every culture, in every science, in every genre, God is lying there in wait.

Although we follow Christ, although we are one body, we are still individuals. Our cultures have shaped us, our experiences have shaped us and (like as not) our families have shaped us. Often, we make assumptions about the laws of the scripture that aren’t there.

Patrick, for example, could have condemned Irish culture because it was nothing like his own. He could have gone in assuming that the way of the Roman church was the only way. But he didn’t. He looked to find where God was.

I think this is what we are called to do.

Every movie we watch, every book we read, every class we take, we have to look for God in them–even if it isn’t a Christian movie, book or class. Just because something is “Christian” doesn’t make it right.

In regard to non-christian books, John Calvin wrote, “in reading profane authors, the admirable light of truth in them should remind us that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator.”

Calvin goes on to say that  condemning non-Christian literature isn’t just a choice, it’s actually an insult to God.

“If we reflect that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we will be careful, as we would to avoid offering insult to him, not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appears. In despising the gifts, we despise the giver.”

This doesn’t mean that you should read every book ever written by men, but that you should think twice before condemning them or claiming that they couldn’t be used for God’s glory. The same goes for different cultures or philosophies or abilities. Everything is given by God. Gifts will, of course, be perverted when they are used without God’s purpose in mind, but God can still use this for his glory.

As Paul says in Romans 14:14 “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself.”

Saint Patrick knew and was persuaded. Are you?

Importance of Discipline

“Even the dippiest of us can be a writer,” Harlan Ellison says, “the trick is not in becoming a writer, it is in staying a writer.”

The moment I stepped foot in school, teachers were set on immersing me in the idea that I could become anyone and do anything I wanted to do–the belief that Americans have long flocked to. Anyone can become rich if they try hard enough. Anyone can become famous. As I grew up with this philosophy, I’m inclined to believe that it is true–although I think most people forget the most vital part of this success formula.

You need to work hard.

If you want to become a successful doctor you need to study your heart out. If you want to amaze the world with your art you need to paint until your hands fall off. If you want to become a best selling author you need to spend your every moment reading and writing.

And you need to make time for practicing these things every day.

Some days what you study won’t make sense. Some days you won’t know what to paint. Some days everything you write will be horrible.

But you need to practice. Daily.

You can’t win a race if you don’t practice. You can’t swim across channels if you don’t practice in lakes and pools.

So why should writing be any different? Why should medicine?

What makes a man great is not what he is born with but what he forces himself through every day.

The Japanese have a philosophy known as Kaizen, a philosophy which stresses the idea of constant improvement. It isn’t enough to push improvement in small bursts–it has to be constant. Daily. Disciplined.

As Authors, We Must Be Careful

In their book, The Myth of the American Superhero, John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett discuss something they call “the Werther effect.”

In the Werther effect a [reader or audience member] (a) experiences a work of fantasy within a secular context that (b) helps to shape the reader/viewer’s sense of what is real and desirable, in such a way that , (c) the reader/viewer takes actions consistent with the vision inspired by the interaction between his own fantasy and that popular entertainment. (Myth, 10)

In other words, the readers (or audience members) experience the story in a personal way and shape their opinions, beliefs and desires from these false experiences as they would real ones. For example, if there is a movie or novel that promotes war, the Werther effect would instill upon its readers/viewers this pro-war sentiment. The same goes for anti-religion or anti-establishment–through the Werther effect, any philosophy–even if not consciously propaganda–is absorbed and adopted by the readers/viewers.

The namesake for this effect comes from an eighteenth century author, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who wrote a story about a young man named Werther. Now Werther was a romantic fellow who only had eyes for one woman–and she denies him. So he commits suicide. “Within a decade of this novel’s publication,” the authors explain, “it had become an international sensation.” (Myth, 10) Young people loved the book–they could relate well to the protagonist and his deep desires for another. In fact, they loved the book so much, they could relate to the protagonist so well, that they decided to immitate him.

They committed suicide.

“All over Europe large numbers of young people committed suicide with a copy of the book clutched in their hands or buried in a pocket.” (Myth, 9) Walter Kaufman explains.

That is why Lawrence and Jewett call their condition “the Werther effect.”

Every book–however cliche and contrived–has a philosophy to it. Harry Potter, among other things, stresses the importance of equality, The Dresden Files praises the strength and cunning of the individual, Beowulf teaches the qualities of a “good king”–no book is without its Philosophy. A good book, however, often creates its own Werther effect–the readers relate to the main character, live through the story themselves, and adopt the character’s own conclusions.

This is why we as authors must be careful.

Words are powerful. Powerful enough to destroy establishments, change cultures and take lives. We must be careful what we write, what we promote, in case our readers experience a Werther Effect when reading our work.

Poor Johanne Goethe was held accountable for all of his readers that committed suicide. Preachers, families, friends, all of them chastised him and threw the blame of these suicides on his shoulders. Goethe hadn’t wanted to promote suicide–of course he hadn’t–but it was his writing that twisted these youth’s hearts to the point of suicide. It was his writing. What a terrible thing to live with.

As authors we must be careful. We aren’t simply writing something we find “fun” or “interesting.” We are writing a scenario for our readers to live through, giving them a chance to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.” They gleen their own conclusions, their own beliefs, from what they read, but we need to be very careful as to what we promote. We don’t want it blowing back in our faces.