Monthly Archives: September 2010

Writer’s Block

You sit down at the computer, ready to write something brilliant.  You rest your fingers on the home row keys (just like they taught you in school) and . . . . . nothing happens.  Your brain is blank, completely devoid of ideas, a barren wasteland.  You turn on music, hoping inspiration will strike.  Nothing.  You drink a nourishing cup of coffee.  Still nothing (although you do have that wonderful warmth of coffee coursing through your veins).  You cry out to the heavens in desperation, or perhaps kick something.  Other than perhaps stubbing your toe, this does nothing to cure your miserable condition.

Sound familiar?  Oh, I have been there, too.  Writer’s block is a vicious, vindictive ailment, destroying young writers in their prime, making old writers think they’re senile, draining the writing process of all joy and fun.  So what is a victim to do?

Having suffered this ailment many times, I have a few ideas which will, I hope, help.

1.  Write in stream-of-consciousness for a while.  Get a blank document, and just write whatever comes into your head, without worrying about making sense.  If you write anything that sounds remotely legible, sane, or even witty, save it and try to forge something useful out of it.  If all you produce is nonsense, print it out and fold it into a therapeutic paper airplane.  Try to aim for an impressively distant/small/living target.

2.  Put what you’re working on aside and write an envelope story to get your creative juices flowing again.  Envelope stories are fun and easy.  Get about ten small pieces of paper and write random words on them (I sometimes flip through the dictionary for this).  After each piece of paper has a word on it, fold them and place them inside an envelope.  Shake them up a bit, then choose three or four (without peeking).  Now, write a short story, poem, essay, etc. using all of those words in it.  The wackier the story, the better.  Often, I start to feel my creativity rejuvenated after an exercise like this.

3.  Skip ahead.  There is no rule that says a story must be written in the same order it is to be read.  If you can think up a later section, skip the section that is giving you trouble and work ahead for a while.  Later, when you feel more inspired, you can come back to the trouble area.

4.  Move to another spot.  Sometimes, all the brain needs to jumpstart it is a change of scenery.  So get up, grab your laptop or a pen and paper, and go somewhere different: across the room, to another room, to the park, to the library, etc.  Sometimes just changing chairs is enough to get my brain off its duff and working again.

5.  Take yourself on a field trip to someplace inspiring.  Visit a museum, an art museum, or a scenic area.  If you’re writing about something happening in a generic location like a grocery store, a DMV office, etc., go visit one.  Walk around, observe the people there and take notes.  With luck, you’ll freak them out into thinking a spy is on their tail.  With more luck, you’ll figure out how to write the part of your story that’s troubling you.

6.  Stand on your head for a while.  This is one of the most ridiculous cures I’ve ever attempted, but it actually works sometimes!  Maybe it’s the ludicrousness of it.

7.  Make a list of cures for writer’s block.  This works especially well if it’s your day to post on a writers’ blog and you can’t come up with anything to write.


On Villains Part 2: On Types, Stepping Forth Into Darkness

So, last time I talked about where a writer’s villains come from, this time I want to put a little thought into what they look like. Now what I’m going to put forth here are four general archetypes for villains, sometimes two villains of the same archetype look quite similar, other times they look very, very different. The general rules for these archetypes are these:

1. They are very broad categories and sometimes even overlap. One in fact overlaps with portions of all of the others, or all of the others overlap with that one depending on how you want to look at it. These categories are intentionally broad to cover the largest amount of villainy in the shortest amount of space.

2. They are not stereotypes and should not be used as stereotypes. Whenever you use an archetype for any character, as Erik sagely pointed out, you have to be careful not to turn it into a stereotype. Here is the difference: Wise old sage who gives what aide his knowledge allows=Archetype/Short old master who happens to be a hermit, talks funny, and trains the hero for his final showdown when he really should be taking on the villain himself=Stereotype (in this case the Yoda character).

3. These archetypes are not intended to cover the entirety of possible villains, to do so would, likely, be impossible. At the very least it would be an effort to time-consuming with to little reward for me to engage in. Now if someone out there wants to pay me about 50 grand I’ll be happy to spend the next two or three years coming up with a comprehensive list of types of villains used in literature/movies/comics/games/etc…until that happens this is what I’ve got.

So, that being said, on to the four archetypes for your devious, or not so devious villains. The four archetypes I am going to be discussing are the Sociopath, the Joker, the Power Monger, and the Hero.

Archetype 1: The Sociopath
Remember me saying that one of these was going to overlap with the rest, this is it. First of all lets define this term. Sociopathy and Psychopathy are often confused because they are very similar conditions and often presented as the same in the public media. For my purposes here realize that we are speaking of a person who has antisocial personality disorder. This person is characterized by an abnormal lack of empathy and amoral conduct. To put it simply he does not see that the mores, or laws, of society should apply to him. He feels no guilt and sees only an ephemeral difference between right and wrong. I read one study which suggested that around 20% of the American population show signs of Antisocial Personality Disorder. The same study suggested that many CEOs, Stock Brokers, Hollywood Stars, etc showed strong signs of this disorder.

I say this to disabuse you of the serial killer stereotype. The most common Sociopath archetype seen in literature, film, any type of entertainment actually, is the serial killer. Either the slow, methodical serial killer of many psychological thrillers, or the spree killer of many hour long cop shows. However this is a very limited usage of such a rich mental disorder.
The reason that the Sociopath archetype overlaps with all of the others is that most any of the others may fit the Sociopath archetype while still belonging in one of the other three categories Take Stephanie’s villainess from Alicia Fenn. Alicia is a classic sociopathic villain, she has no morality whatsoever, sees it as a waste of time. She is devoid of empathy or guilt and seeks out the most practically efficient way of attaining her goal. However she also fits into the power monger archetype. She is cold, calculating, obsessively ordered in everything she does, and her only goal is to obtain power, both personal and political.

While many other villains will have sociopathic tendencies I have set this archetype on its own because it is very useful in building any type of villain. The most common pure sociopath is the serial killer. However, as I said above, this is a very limited use of the archetype.

Your sociopath might be a banker who doesn’t care who he hurts as long as he makes money, she might be a homewrecker who takes joy in breaking apart families, or perhaps he is a captain of the king’s guard who doesn’t care how order is kept, as long as it is.

While not likely the main villain of a fantasy or science fiction series any one of these might be a useful sub-villain, or perhaps they are your main villains. Realize that any character you choose has been done before, probably multiple times, the key to keeping an archetype from becoming a stereotypical cliche is personalizing the character, making him your own.

Archetype 2: The Joker
I actually named this archetype after my all-time favorite example of it. Just like the defining characteristic of the Sociopath is a certain amorality and lack of empathy, the defining characteristic of the Joker is a desire to create chaos. The Joker is the archetype most often comfortable seeing himself as evil. Why? Because it doesn’t matter, he can be good, evil, or neither, to him the chaos is the only thing that matters.

Just like the other archetypes the Joker can come in many forms. Obviously the archetype is named after the iconic Batman villain. This Joker fits into the sociopath archetype as well, he is amoral, violent, and obsessed with creating as much chaos as possible. He is also obsessed with making other people similar to him, or to put it more precisely, proving that they are already like him. We see this in his character in the comics, the cartoons, and the movies. These are the foundational aspects of the character that do not change even though everything else does. When you read through the comics you will find at least a half-dozen different origin stories for the Joker, different names, faces, attitudes, sometimes completely different personalities. This is, in my opinion, what makes him the perfect example for this archetype, everything about the character changes except for those archetypal aspects which make him the Joker.

In my own stories you have the character of Finnias Ghall. He is a Joker archetype, however he is a very different character. Where the Joker is sociopathic Finnias is self-hating. He loves chaos, he loves destruction, because he hates. He hates himself and the only thing he hates more than himself is everything else. Finnias pursues chaos and destruction because it allows him to satisfy his own insecurities and, at the same time, express his hate. It is not that he does not recognize his actions are wrong, or that he does not feel guilt, but that guilt simply fuels his self-loathing which prompts further acts of destruction. He covers this by convincing himself that he enjoys the destruction, that he feels no guilt because he is outside human laws.

Lastly lets look at Erik’s characterization of Loki. Ultimately it’s kind of a toss-up whether or not this Loki is evil. He is violent, and certainly seems to be uncaring of human life, yet at the same time he expresses remorse for his malicious trick that wound up putting a mistletoe spear through Baldur. He is working against the gods and seeking to bring about Ragnarök but we don’t know why he wants to bring about Ragnarök Chaos and destruction is his ultimate end, however his motivations are obscured. Contrast this against Batman’s Joker, whose motivations are generally told to anyone who’ll listen and who doesn’t seem to have the word ‘sorry’ in his vocabulary, and you find a very different version of this same archetype.

So, how can you use the Joker in your story, perhaps your joker is a Sociopath, perhaps he is causing chaos in an effort to achieve some greater good. Perhaps he is a powerful, but mentally deficient character who simply doesn’t know any better, or perhaps he is a childish god playing with his toys. There are a great many ways to portray the Joker archetype, both poorly and well, however these villains can be very useful in a story and are generally very fun to write.

Archetype 3: The Power Monger
Sometimes you just need an evil overlord. This is the defining characteristic of the Power Monger.

He wants, or has, power. He is in charge, the man with the plan, he can be anything from a god to a warlord to a superhero gone mad. Regardless of his details the point is he is obsessed with having, and using, power.

There are many examples of good Power Mongers, and many examples of bad. Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars, Saruman from Lord of the Rings, Darken Rahl from Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series, all are examples of Power Mongers.

From our writers Brian’s character of Korluus is an excellent example of the Power Monger archetype and my own character Abin-Thul fits some aspects of it, though not perfectly. Let’s look at some of these characters for a moment. Korluus is old, for his world at least, he has been the ruler of his world for centuries. Korluus holds his power tightly, unwilling to let it go, he keeps his people drugged so they will be pliable, and indoctrinates them to his own glory. In many ways Korluus is similar to Palpatine, however Korluus does not have the smooth persona which Palpatine exhibits. They both rule by fear but in Palpatine’s empire many people genuinely love him, he makes them rich, keeps them safe. How doesn’t matter so much. Korluus, on the other hand, keeps his people under his thumb. Rebels are fewer than in Palpatine’s empire because no-one can remember how to rebel, or how to be angry with Korluus.

On the other hand Saruman, from Lord of the Rings, does not rule. He has great power but he is just beginning his conquest when we meet him. He is thousands of years old and has been ‘one of the good guys’ for most of that time. Saruman is a Power Monger that has been seduced by power, more precisely by the person of Sauron and the power of the Palantir.

Darken Rahl begins the story as a mighty king ruling two different kingdoms with an iron fist. He treats his own people poorly and the peasantry like cattle. He is charming, in person, and powerful however it is difficult to see why anyone would actually follow him because of the way he treats them. Needless to say that Rahl is not one of my favorite villains because he makes too many classic villain mistakes…for a great list of these see the Evil Overlord List. I promise it will change your life.

Anyway, on to my own character Abin-Thul. Abin-Thul is a character who doesn’t quite fit into any of these categories He is a king, and dreadfully powerful at that, but he is not obsessed with that power, nor is he under the impression that he is the most powerful being in the world (a general failing of the Power Monger is that they tend to suffer from megalomania..though not 100% of the time and you tend to get a better Power Monger if he doesn’t). Abin-Thul is a being of great power who knows exactly where he fits in the order of things, he plays his part well. He is not ambitious, nor is he intentionally cruel, however he is somewhat apathetic when it comes to his own kingdom. He allows corruption to spread through his kingdom and does nothing to hinder it because he does not care. He rules by fear, like most Power Mongers, but not fear of himself. He has convinced his people, partly through conniving and partly because it is the truth, that the world is full of wicked monsters and spirits and only his power protects them. The people do not fear Abin-Thul, though there is plenty to fear about him, but instead fear life without Abin-Thul and thus willingly submit to the rampant abuses of his chosen authorities in order to retain his protection.

How could you use a Power Monger in your story? Well, the Power Monger is usually the big bad guy in any story in which he appears. He is powerful, and generally not willing to share with anyone else, so if there are other villains they will normally be subordinate to him. Again this is where Abin-Thul falls out of the Power Monger mold, he is not the biggest baddy in his world and he knows it. Power Mongers can have many motivations though, from the good of a certain people group, to the perfection of their own beings, to proving themselves better than everyone else, to achieving some esoteric goal which no-one else really understands. The Emperor’s primary goals, for example, were to create order in the galaxy and force all aliens to submit to the human race. Saruman’s goal were so twisted by the seductions of the Palantir that they are difficult to understand at all. Korluus’s goal on the other hand is to achieve perfection and become a god. The key is to avoid stereotyping your Power Monger and, especially, to make his downfall believable. Again, read the Evil Overlord List and scoff at the incredible number of stupid, unbelievable mistakes that have brought down Power Mongers throughout the history of fiction. Then do your best to avoid them.

Archetype 4: The Hero
This last archetype is probably my favorite. It is also the most difficult for which to find examples. The Hero is a villain who is doing all the wrong things for the right reasons. He is the man who commits genocide to save the world, the man who enslaves a people to save them from a greater foe, the man starts a war to create peace. That is the defining characteristic of the Heroic villain, his motives are good. Not that he has convinced himself that they are good, they ACTUALLY are good. This is were many attempts at writing heroic villains get lost. You have to write a villain so lost that he believes he can accomplish his genuinely good motives through wicked means. You have to write good man who does horrible things and believes it necessary. Here are a few examples of the Heroic villain, and they are few.
One of my favorite heroic villains is from a Japanese Animation ‘The Record Of Lodoss War’. His name is Ashram and he is an honorable man. He is also a cold-blooded killer in search of great power. He starts a war, hunts down other good, honorable men, murders sleeping dragons (in this world dragons are holy gods…sort of), and massacres his enemies. Why does he do this? Because his people, the people he loves, are living on a hellish island and no-one is willing to make room for them to move. He wants to carve out a new kingdom for his people, he wants to protect them, to love them, to lead them, and he is willing to kill whoever he has to.

Another great heroic villain, the nameless Assassin from the movie Serenity. He kills anyone who gets in his way, plants bombs that kill innocents, murders a planetary population, and kills children. Why? To create a better world. The Assassin does not believe he is a good man, he does not believe he deserves to live in a better world, but he is willing to sacrifice himself so that others can.

Lastly I present one of my own villains, Horash. Horash, the ruler of the Neshelim, leads his entire people into darkness in order to save them. He teaches his people to treat all of the other races as live-stock, he leads them in conquest, and murders one of his best friends. Everything Horash does he does for the good of his people.

Now, the heroic villain is one of the most difficult to write into your story, you must write him as both a hero and a villain, your readers must be both attracted to him and horrified by him at the same time. I love Horash, but, in all honesty, the most successful heroic villain I have ever seen in Ashram. His personal honor exceeds some of the heroes in the story, his virtue is doubtless, and yet the savagery he employs in his dedication to carving out a new land is horrendous. He is a Heroic Villain in every sense of the term. So, I hope to see some Heroic Villains coming out here pretty soon. Remember, they have to be good guys…good guys who do horrible, horrible things.

Anyway, this is a long post I understand, but I hope that these archetypes are helpful in finding out who your villains are, why they do what they do, and how they do it. Remember that this is not a complete list, and that none of these archetypes are set in stone. Mix and match, take aspects from several or combine a few, I would love to see someone’s take on a sociopathic, heroic, power monger. Ok, well…maybe not really, but you get the picture, none of these archetypes are solid, always let your characters define themselves, if your villain doesn’t want to be a hero then don’t force him. On the other hand if he does want to be a hero then don’t try to keep him from it. Remember that your villains are just like all your other characters, if they’re going to be good you have to know them, inside and out.


Among The Neshelim: My first novel, Among the Neshelim, is now available from Smashwords here, and Amazon here. Print copies are not yet available, but will be soon.

Among the Neshelim


Tobias Mastgrave

Understanding. One little word, and yet it means so much. We spend our lives pursuing it in one form or another. We long for it, seek it out, and break ourselves trying to find it. But it is always a rare commodity.

Chin Cao Yu, priest and scholar, has sacrificed all he held dear in its pursuit. Now he undertakes the journey of a lifetime, a journey among the mysterious Neshilim, a people of power unlike any he has seen before – all for the hope of understanding. This journey will turn upside down the world he thought he knew and challenge all of his dearly held beliefs. Has he found the ultimate truth or the ultimate lie? And what will he do with it when he learns?

Dead as a Doornail: A Fantasy World Falls Victim to Cliches

Since we seem to be on a bit of a run here with the issue of clichés, I thought that I might give a hard earned example of a story that I had put quite a bit of work into, only to have it fall victim to Melissa, queen of the clichéoclasts!

All during graduate school, I had worked on a fantasy story centered around the clash of two cultures building themselves back up in the wake of a massive war. One race was, of course, magical and were called the naia (ironically, in the hopes of writing an entire fantasy story without having to use elves or dwarves) and the other a collection of human countries. The naia, who were born into kindreds with the inherent ability to manipulate one of the four elements (YES, this was written long before the Last Airbender), were waning, losing their power, and within several generations would have no unique abilities to speak of. The humans, on the other hand, could work magically with all four elements though with much less ability than the naia. Three naia—Essel, Etain, and Lian—were unwitting pawns in the High-King Addis’s plan to spark a war with humanity in the hopes of bringing them under his rule before the naia faded completely. Three humans—Nicholas, Katrena, and Jaelyn—were charged by a supernatural banshee type with preventing the slaughter.

It was one January evening when our writers group met, and Melissa read her infamous “The Tragic Love of the Exiled Pirate Prince (Who Also Happens to be a Spy for the British Government, a Highwayman, a Smuggler, and a Highlander)” before I brought out the first chapter of my story about the naia. It was supposed to be a good chapter, a nice chapter, an engaging one where Nicholas and Kate meet the White Lady at shoals on the Black River as she washes a river of blood from a burial shroud. That was what it was supposed to be.

What actually happened was I managed to squeeze just about every major cliché that Melissa had only a moment ago so thoroughly and effectively destroyed into a painful twenty pages of text. By the time I was done, everyone was laughing hysterically and I was mortified. Four years of work died hard that night. It was frustrating. It was embarrassing. Worse, it was entirely deserved.

I would still rank the world of the naia as one of my best creations and its characters and some of the most real I’ve ever created.  It was distinct from the high fantasy of the Lord of the Rings in its use of races, was at least somewhat original, and apparently interesting enough that the few who read it immersed themselves in the story.  It also fell on the point of its own sword, forged of cliches.  After Melissa’s unintentional savaging of it, I haven’t been able to look at it without a feeling of shame.

I may yet resurrect the naia. I think that world, those characters, deserved far better than I gave them. But if I do, I should do it right.

Keeping Your Hands Off of the Cliche Shelf

Melissa set me up pretty well on this one (actually I got the idea from her post…), and I decided I would hop over to the other book on writing fiction that I’m currently reading from Orson Scott Card. The book is Characters &Viewpoint, in Writer’s Digest’s Elements of Fiction Writing series, which I recommend to every writer, new or old.

In the second chapter, What Makes a Good Fictional Character?, Card is discussing his process for creating interesting characters- and what he recommends to avoid creating boring, shallow ones. The trouble he points out is that because of our constant immersion in media today, we are subconsciously absorbing thousands of cliches which, unless we are careful, are the first to bubble to the surface when we try to come up with new ideas.

“Everybody- not just writers- has a little library of cliches, stock story elements. We all pick these up from reading, from jokes and stories people tell us… the first answer that pops into your mind will be a cliche” (Card,23).

His solution? Interrogation. “Be brutal. Don’t let your idea sit there without answering. Don’t believe the first answer that comes to mind, either…Keep asking the questions [Why? What result?], trying for more answers- eventually one will come along that really comes alive for you” (Card, 23). So, don’t let your first idea sit- keep asking for better ones!

Trying to think of a main character to fight the impending doom of a despicable overlord rising to power through dark magic? See, you’ve already got yourself a cliche, but let’s ignore that one for a moment. The immediate idea that pops into my mind is just like Kyle (noothergods) said in his comment to Melissa’s post- the typical farmboy of questionable parentage, but world-shaking destiny. Let’s pick that one apart (with glee!): Card suggests two major lines of questioning: Why and What Result.

Why: Why is this kid the only one who fits the bill? Why aren’t there any other ways to defeat the villain?

What Result?: If there was another way to defeat the villain, what would that mean for his paranoia? Would he still be interested in a farm boy in some random village?

You get the picture- always be wary of the first idea you get- it’s not always as obvious as this one.

So what do you think? What are some other questions we can ask this tired old cliche?

“Me? A Prince? But I’m Just a Simple Farm Boy With a Heart of Gold and Mysterious Magical Powers!”

In my epic short story titled “The Tragic Love of the Exiled Pirate Prince (Who Also Happens to be  a Spy for the British Government, a Highwayman, a Smuggler, and a Highlander)” I attempted – with, I believe, some degree of success – to incorporate every major cliché of the historic romance genre into sixteen dense pages of fainting females, tortured heroes, dastardly dukes, and long lost heirlooms.  I based my story mostly off of the torrid artwork and the summaries on the back covers of the books at the bookstore where I used to work.  It was terrifyingly easy.

What sometimes bothers me is how much people seem to love their clichés.  They want the simple farm lad with the unexpected parentage and the long foretold destiny, the spunky, convention-flouting heroine, the quests for the Awesomely Amazing, and Probably Shiny, Magical Relic That Will Save Humanity From the Dark Lord of All That is Evil and Corrupt, the black stone castles with deep dungeons, and the elves mounted on unicorns shooting green-shafted arrows at wart-covered trolls…

You know you’ve read them.  You may have even enjoyed some of them.  And there is a reason for that. As much as I love blasting clichés into the next dimension, there is something to be said for familiar fantastic and science fictional motifs and well-used archetypes. People keep coming back to them.  Before  Tolkien penned his Aragorn, Arthur was the once and future king of a magical golden age.  Rachel, I’m sure, could tell you all about fairy tales, which have their own set of motifs and archetypes that are not just anticipated, but expected.

I don’t think that we can or should avoid these motifs altogether. However, there is a fine line between an archetype and a stereotype.  The former is a well known and accepted literary form, such as the rising hero or the mysterious old, wise mentor.  The latter is a flat and badly rendered copy with no originality on the part of the author.

There is very little chance of coming up with something entirely new.  What we should attempt to do is to take something known and loved and accepted and make it our own.  If we make it different, in a good sort of way, we will have something that is both brand new and time-tested, something familiar, but still original and uniquely our own.

So, I guess the questions that I have are these:

*What have you seen in literature that is a unique spin-off of a well known motif?

*What do you consider to be an absolutely unacceptable cliché because it has been so overused (For instance, when anyone uses the phrase “You killed my father!” with the slightest hint of sincerity…)?

*What sorts of motifs and archetypes do you see repeated in literature that you love every time they appear on the page?