If you read or watch enough science fiction over time, there are certain tropes that tend to appear almost everywhere. Most of them are centered around external forces that provide a mirror to look back on ourselves. This alien world happens to be populated by a race that has an extreme philosophy that mirrors one of our own. This other creature we thought wasn’t intelligent has made us question our prejudices. These seemingly natural phenomenon are trying to communicate with us, making us question the nature of life itself. Sometimes these tropes will fall into cliche if done improperly, while they tend to say something of value if done correctly. But not all of these mirroring tropes happen to be external forces – sometimes they’re man-made.
Our own creations, or things that we do to ourselves, are often good reflections on what kind of people we are and what’s important to us. When we’re writing stories of artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, or science run amok, we tend to show not only our general motivations as a species but also our fears of our own ability to screw it up. However, there are other tropes about things that we create that are much more mundane in concept but still give us just as much of an insight into what we hold important. And, lately, one of those fantastic but strangely mundane technologies has been catching my attention more often -virtual reality.
When I say virtual reality I don’t just mean VR headsets but just about any technology that happens to simulate a different world for us. From the VR gear in Ready Player One to the holodecks on Star Trek, there’s a wide variety of approaches in sci-fi that reflect our efforts in the real world. And, despite how fantastic it may sometimes appear, we’ve been making great strides in this technology in the last couple decades to the point that a lot of graphics cards and game consoles now have VR support built right in. But while our real world vision of how to use VR can be a tad stunted from time to time, generally reserved for gaming, the world of sci-fi has shown us a variety of other uses that we only briefly touch on here in the day to day.
And, it’s strange, because when I look at the potential of fully immersing in fictional worlds, I actually think traditional video games are the least likely to take the lead…
Years ago, when I first started writing this blog, I wasn’t quite sure what exactly belonged on the blog of an aspiring author. I knew that I needed to show people the inner workings of my mind and let them get to know me, but the specifics of that eluded me for a while. Before long, I came to the conclusion that a lot of writers come to for blogs like these. I eventually settled into a routine of posting one of three categories – content, opinion, and “the process”.
When I say “the process”, I don’t specifically mean what I’m doing on any given day. The actual day-to-day process of writing is often full of mundane annoyances, minor detours, inside jokes that won’t make sense until someone can see the whole product, and a shocking amount of time spent playing casual games like minesweeper or Bejeweled while trying to figure out how exactly that last scene went completely off the rails. Instead, topics related to the process are usually the broader aspects of putting words to the page that apply to equally broad strokes of the community. These sorts of topics are things like the stresses of the occupation, the general direction of the industry or specific genres, and – of course – writing tips.
I’ve always done my best to not make those tips into steadfast rules (though I may sometimes call them that). I always keep it in mind that I’m approaching things from a certain perspective and that I may miss things. A tip can be expanded on or adapted to fit situations outside my viewpoint, but a hard rule doesn’t change to fit you – it’s either followed, bent or broken. Tips also tend to make things easier while rules tend to make things harder. Every rule is another thing to add to an already existing pile of stress while tips are generally just helpful advice along the way. But, recently, I saw a much more successful and influential author put out a series of rules and realized another good reason why I shouldn’t treat my advice like rules.
As I woke up this morning, I had a goal in mind. There has been a laundry list of things to do that I’ve been trying to tackle for several weeks now, ever since I finally finished a big project I had been working on for what felt like an eternity. A lot of things had fallen to the wayside and they needed addressing, and one of them was to get back on the horse and try to start updating this blog regularly again. So, sitting at my desk, getting my thoughts together, I started to come up with an idea of something to post. There were several topics on my mind at the time, including a few I’m probably going to use later this week.
But then I heard Stan Lee died, and those topics became moot.
For long time readers of this blog you know that I don’t actually post a lot about celebrity deaths – in fact, only twice that I can remember. It’s not apathy to what’s happened, I do feel sad about the passing of many of my favorite figures, but I try to reserve it for when I have something I feel I could actually add. As I also said when Leonard Nimoy passed, I am not the man to give this eulogy and there are people far more suited to do it than I. So, while I can’t really talk about Stan Lee as a person, I can talk about what he meant to me and people like me.
As of this writing, it’s early November and the “National Novel Writing Month” has begun again – and if you’re reading this after that’s over, you know how well you did. It’s a time that many people take the opportunity to try their hands as authors – either as a hobby, as their first real attempt, or just an excuse to get back on the saddle again. And, I know from experience it’s also a time when a lot of people decide to try their hand at being a professional too – even if they don’t broadcast that publicly. Hell, I started my first novel in a November (and didn’t finish it for some time later).
It’s an exciting time for some but kind of dreadful for others and generally for similar reasons. There’s an anticipation for the end result that can be both exciting and scary for newcomers and seasoned writers alike. Because, regardless of which side of that spectrum you happen to fall on, the end result will be the time when you can finally put it in front of people and see how they like it. It’s like our own little roller coaster as we experience excitement, fear, and sometimes a little nausea all at once. But, because no one is perfect and tastes aren’t universal, you’re going to run into criticisms.
And that part is going to hurt a little.
It’s unavoidable, but part of the process, and how you deal with it is usually more important than the criticism itself. Someone who can take criticism well and adapt to it will prove to have a long career if they want it. In a field where almost everything you do is up for public debate, you need to be able to hear it out and not let what’s being said consume you. But one of the problems that I often see with creative types, sometimes even within myself, is a tendency to take one of our easy outs – a view that the criticism is something that’s beyond our ability to fix, and thus something we can’t do anything about. It makes things a lot easier if it feels like it’s out of our hands, like a weight has been lifted from our shoulders and we don’t have to worry about it anymore.
There’s a saying that has always stuck with me over the years: “everyone sees themselves as the hero of their own story.” And it’s true, no one does an action thinking they are the absolute villain. They had reasons, they felt motivations, they were doing what they thought was right. Yes, they may later regret their actions, but in the moment of doing them they felt correct even if everyone in the world may think otherwise. No one commits crime because they want to be the bad guy – either they’ve convinced themselves that they are in the right or they have a mental condition that detaches them from a sense of right and wrong. Even the greatest monsters in human history were convinced of the righteousness of their own cause, no matter how abhorrent their actions seemed to the rest of the world.
So then applying that sort of thinking to your fictional characters can make your villains feel all the more real. If you make it so that you can see where the villain is coming from, it feels more natural to us by default because we can understand, on some level, why they would act that way. Do we have to agree with their actions? Not at all. But if we can understand why the villain thinks they’re right then we can at the very least feel like that villain was realistic, even if their methods and actions are far outside of the realms of reality. For instance, while none of us would have the opportunity to assemble a gauntlet of god-like power, a lot of us could understand the motivations for wanting to do so.
But one of the problems with writing villains in those grey areas is that sometimes people mistake moral objection with a plot hole. We all do it on some level, seeing mistakes made by characters – whether they be due to a lack of planning or lack of moral fiber – as a mistake by the creators and not simply a failure of the character. Sometimes, this results in people demanding answers to questions that were actually answered within the material. And our balancer of the universe, Thanos, is no exception to this. Faced with the uncomfortable ramifications of Thanos’ ruthless “solution” to a problem he saw as a threat to the universe, a lot of people online cried foul and some even said it was a failing of the movie. Then, in almost every case where someone pointed at this “failing”, they inevitably recommended a solution of their own – almost always the same solution.
Ironically, the solution those critics recommended kind of prove that Thanos’ mistake wasn’t a plot hole. Because, when you step back to actually consider it, the solution everyone recommended would actually kill more people than Thanos did… Continue reading Thanos And Objectionable Choices→
When looking at the history of Europe, one of the interesting things that comes up time and time again is the overlap of Christian holidays (particularly Catholic) with Pagan precursors. It’s pretty well known that Halloween is actually a Christian holiday that was created to overlap with the Samhain. Christmas probably had some influences from the Saturnalia and Yule. Easter may have straight up taken its name from a pagan goddess. But how Christians react to these holidays today is based in large part on just how much the church sold the “Christian” aspects of it. Easter and Christmas, anchored deeply into the lore of Jesus himself, is now generally forgotten by the general worshiper to have some pagan roots, but Halloween?
And because these three holidays are the most widely celebrated of the Christian holidays, they kind of shape how we think of Christian holidays as a whole. For those who don’t go out of their way to find these origins, it seems ridiculous that these holy days may be related to pagan holidays. Meanwhile, for those who’ve been told about this often, it often leads to the belief that every single holiday Christians ever came up with were to rip off the pagans (even when this isn’t necessarily true). But when someone takes the time to really look into the history of these holidays, it often turns out to be more complicated than first glance.
Like, for instance, when people celebrate the same holidays in the same fashion for the same reasons… to completely different gods. Continue reading Witchy Holidays→
Anyone who’s had any exposure to other people will know at least one person who’s said that there was no such thing as a new idea anymore. These people come in a few flavors, from the people who say that all “new” ideas are really amalgamations of old ideas to the ones who endeavor to be pedantic by pointing out that “ideas” were just things waiting to be discovered and someone would do it eventually. But the most common, and arguably the most annoying to creators, is the cynic who believes that we’ve run out of ideas and that creativity is dead. And, frankly, when you look at the swath of similar products coming out at once from studios and publishers, it’s kind of easy to see where they’re coming from.
From the perspective of these people, once any idea is put out there, everyone is going to race to copy it as fast as possible. There’s no coincidence between similar products, it’s all a matter of quick cash grabs. After all, how else can you explain so many similar stories being put to print and film back to back? It’s hard to argue with, because we can all see with our own eyes how publishers and studios can churn things out. So whenever one thing becomes successful, dozens of copycats will follow up. Is a dystopian YA story the new big thing? We’ll see 20 of them by the end of the year. Did a formerly terrifying monster suddenly become sexy? We’ll run that into the ground. And if you’ve managed to put out something original in that time, there’s a good chance you might get lumped together with the others whether you knew of them or not.
But what those cynics don’t realize is that often this race to hit the iron when it’s hot usually means the studios and publishers are digging up old submissions or overlooked IPs, and that the creators behind those ideas generally had no idea the others existed – but came to the same idea anyway. Continue reading Multiple Discovery→
One of the great forces that separates humanity from other animals is the fact we’re aware of the passage of time. We’re aware of things that other animals just don’t notice or care to notice. We know how short life is, how long it may sometimes feel, and we base a lot of our opinions on how we’re doing against that clock. Dogs don’t understand time, everything feels forever to them, which is why they’re always so happy to see you at the door. Despite the fact you were only gone for half an hour to pick something up from the store, you were clearly gone forever – they counted.
But we don’t have the luxury of seeing everything as forever. Sometimes we can fool ourselves into believing it for a while, and even tell others that things are going to last forever. This feeling is going to last forever, these hardships are going to last forever, that relationship you had in high school is going to last forever. But we know that none of them actually do. Though we can fool ourselves for a time, the ability to fool ourselves also fails to last forever. And the beautiful, if somewhat bitter, thing about that is that means a person’s time is probably the most valuable thing they have in the long run. Sure, money is really nice, and don’t believe anyone who says it can’t buy you happiness – those people weren’t shopping in the right places – but time is our ultimate finite resource. No matter what you do, eventually you will run out of time.
So am I dying? No. Well, yes, but very slowly – I probably have a few decades to live. But the day I post this is my birthday and I like to navel gaze on my birthday. And, because I’m a narcis-… because I’m a writer, I’m going to tell you the contents of my navel gazing.
Though it may sometimes take up too much of my time, one of the things I like to do most is to soak up random information and learn new things. I love to watch videos or read articles about science that are way above my pay grade. I’m fairly in tune with political debates and keep informed on current events around the world, particularly if they’re about countries I otherwise don’t know too much about. I’ve sat through discussions of psychology and sociology that really have very little to do with me but explain things about the world and the people in it. On the one hand, little if any of this is actually useful to me in my day to day life, but at the same time it’s something I can use to try to add more to my own work. As I’ve said many times before, anything can be used to inspire new writing – even if it’s sometimes peculiar.
And one of the fields I’m really fascinated in that I can see some real use to my work is psychology – particularly as it relates to the motives behind actions. This is great for figuring out character motivations, understanding why people think the way they do and what they may do because of it. If everyone is the hero of their own story, then how can people who see themselves as good do terrible things? If addicts know their addiction is hurting them, why can’t they stop? Besides being fascinating, it gives me insight that I hope to use to better my characters over time.
Though sometimes what really gets me is when I listen to these talks and it reflects a mirror back on myself. If finding out why someone else does something is useful, finding out why you do something yourself is invaluable. There are may facets to my personality which I’ve listened to someone take apart, but one facet in particular has gotten dissected more than any other in the talks I’ve listened to: why do we create art? Continue reading Monday Musing: Art And Purpose→
Over the years, one of the points of pride I have in my work has been in the effort to do things that may seem almost pointless to others. The story of an agency policing the supernatural isn’t particularly new and there are certainly more well known examples even in the last couple of months, but I’ve always made an effort to look harder at the details. Anyone following the Alterpedia or Alterpedia Historia can see this pretty clearly. Where as some versions of the concept are willing to simply go “everything is exactly the same, there’s just magic here”, I tend to look harder at the idea of these two worlds colliding. Wouldn’t the existence of Vampires motivate the creation of a viable blood supply that doesn’t require armed conflict? If magic wands were genuinely a thing, what would prevent them from overwhelming the whole planet? And if mythical creatures had to deal with a world like ours, full of the messy and troubled conflicts we’ve had, wouldn’t it have left an impression on them?
So I’ve always made an effort to take concepts from fiction and then find ways to work them into the real world as much as possible. A little tweak here, a modification there, and we’ve got something that looks like it could live in tandem with our world and our history. But there are some details where I’ve hesitated because I’ve seen just how deep the rabbit hole may go – not in fiction, but in the real world. I’ve been chewed out by people who really believe in Witches and others who think I’m somehow shilling books about actualGhosts to prey on the gullible or grieving. Neither of these were anywhere close to having substance to them, but they make me realize some things have genuine believers, and I always tread lightly in those spaces.