Villainous Observation

I’m listening to back-broadcasts of the Writing Excuses podcast, and in Season 11, they make an observation about villains. (They tentatively ascribe this observation to Victoria Schwab although they aren’t 100 percent certain.)

The observation is that villains often have a “big picture” motivation for what they do. “In order to save the world, I have to…” “To advance science, I must…” “If I want to improve everyone’s life, I’m going to…” High-level goals are how these villains justify low-level acts of evil: “Murdering a few individuals is insignificant compared to the great things I’m trying to accomplish.”

Heroes, on the other hand, often have small-scale personal motivations. “This villain killed my father.” “If the villains get their way, my friends and family will suffer.” Etc. Paradoxically, such intimate motivations allow a universal connection: any reader can sympathize with someone who wants to avenge their father.

More abstract causes aren’t so easy to connect with emotionally. I may not even agree with a villain’s high-level motivation (do I really want to see America made great again?)…but even if I think what the villain wants to do is admirable, I’m much less likely to continue with, “So it’s okay to commit violence in such a cause.”

I like this observation, and I think it holds true in a ton of fiction: bad guys abstract, good guys personal. I’m passing it on to the readers here, just as something to contemplate.

P.S. But I hate the saying, “The end doesn’t justify the means.” This is often said in the sense of “No end ever justifies any means.” But that’s nonsense. Lots of ends justify lots of means. Cutting people up with knives is usually bad, but if I’m a surgeon performing a life-saving operation, the ultimate goal justifies making careful incisions.

In fact, the end is the only thing that ever justifies any means. Whatever you do, you should have a good reason for doing it; if you don’t, that’s bad.

So I’d rather see the phrase changed to, “Some ends don’t justify some means.” That I wholeheartedly agree with.

Idle Thoughts on Role-Playing

I’m embarking on a new Dungeons & Dragons campaign with a number of people who go to the same Kung Fu school as I do. I’m the Dungeon Master, which means I’m the one who sets the stage for the players and who referees the game if necessary. Since four of the five players are beginners, I’ll also be helping them understand the rules, and orienting them a bit in terms of their odds of succeeding or failing.

(Spoiler alert: even though it’s called Dungeons & Dragons, beginning level characters should not try to slay a dragon. They will fail. However, I have a policy with brand new players: I promise that their characters won’t die in the first three sessions. If they really do try to slay a dragon, the dragon may just beat them up, take all their stuff, and leave them naked outside the nearest town. Or more likely, the dragon will singe them a bit, then say, “Okay, if you don’t want to die, you have to agree to run an errand for me…”)

As I said last week, I love planning campaigns. I love dreaming up new worlds full of wild and wonderful things. Also, since this campaign will only be the six of us sitting around a kitchen table, I love stealing stuff from my favorite books, comics, movies, TV, etc.

In my real writing, I can’t steal egregiously…but at the kitchen table, I can. So in the past, I’ve stolen from Doctor Who, Michael Moorcock, Star Trek, H.P. Lovecraft, and many many many more sources. For me, creating a campaign is a form of fanfic: as over-the-top as I can make it.

But one of the best things about role-playing is that the game isn’t just what I steal and what I invent on my own. It’s a joint creation of everyone at the table, all of them smart and devious. Players always invent their own goals and backstories—stuff that goes beyond what I could dream up on my own. We work together, developing the story from all that material. This means that a role-playing campaign emerges unpredictably from interactions between everyone present. Like good improv theatre, nobody knows what’s going to happen until it happens.

Role-playing is also an excuse to get together with friends. Perhaps that’s the most important feature. Of course, we could just get together and talk…but we probably wouldn’t, and certainly not week after week. Playing the game is fun, but it’s also a pretext to socialize and surprise ourselves in the process.

The next session for this group is Friday night. I may or may not report what happens; I’ll have to talk to the others about it. But if you’ve ever thought you might be interested in role-playing, I strongly encourage it. And perhaps I’ll talk more about role-playing games in the near future.

[Disclaimer: For a lot of you reading this, role-playing games are probably old hat…but given that some readers haven’t played RPGs before, I’ll write these posts assuming no prior knowledge.]

[Dragon picture by Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons]

Sharing, May 7, 2019

Links? I got ’em.

Convention: When Words Collide, Aug 9-11, 2019, in Calgary
For a long time, I’ve loved the concept of When Words Collidge. It’s a convention specifically aimed at genre diversity: science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, and more. It’s a great way of expanding your horizons beyond your favourite niches…and this year, I’m going to be one of the guests of honour! Yay! So come out, say hi, and enjoy the convention.
Role-Playing: A New Dungeons & Dragons Campaign
I’ve been talked into running a new D&D campaign for a group from my kung fu school. I didn’t take much persuading…and now I’ve been cackling to myself for more than a week as I design the arc of the campaign, with a whole bunch of surprises built in. I can’t give details, of course—at least one of the players reads this blog. But starting any new tale gets my juices flowing, whether it’s a novel, a short story, or a campaign. [*Insert sinister laugh here.*]
Season: Spring
Today, most of the trees on my street suddenly acquired leaf buds. Within a week, the trees may actually look like trees. About damned time! And it means that I can get out and start running (okay, jogging) again.

 

 

Sharing May 1, 2019

Let’s get back to this, shall we?

Books: The Slough House series by Mick Herron
I’ve been burning through the books of this series one after another. Slough House is the place where MI5 agents are sent when they’re burned out or incompetent, but for one reason or another can’t just be fired. They’re given boring and meaningless desk jobs in the hope they’ll give up and quit…but of course, things don’t stay that simple. In each book of the series, the “Slow Horses” as they’re called stumble into serious cases that the rest of the Security Service has overlooked. Not only are the books exciting thrillers, they’re written in a delightfully snarky tone of voice that makes me laugh a lot. Highly recommended.
Place: Banff
The last time I was in Banff was 1979, but I had a chance to get back there last week. The town has completely changed, but the mountains haven’t. Neither has the smell of the air. I should get back there more often.
Movie: Avengers: Endgame
It’s not at all a perfect movie, but it does what it had to do: serve as a gala ending for Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (Technically, the forthcoming Spider-Man movie is considered the end of Phase 3, but no matter how good that movie is, it’s more of a palate cleanser than a climax…although it could still go out with a bang as I suggested in my recent speculations.) I’ve seen a lot of people point out weaknesses in Endgame, many of which I agree with, but still—it worked for me.

Sharing, February 26, 2019

Stuff I’m doing:

Fixing a cataract: I’ve had a slow-growing cataract in my left eye for at least three years and it’s finally reached the point where (perhaps) it’s time to get rid of it.

My cataract is almost certainly just a symptom of age. The way I understand it is that the lens in your eye is made of transparent fibers which should lie tightly side by side. As you get older, the fibers loosen up enough to allow small gaps between them. Not only does the lens have more difficulty focusing, but light can get in through the gaps which has various effects. In my case, if I look at a single point of light, I see three points (or sometimes six, depending on the size of the original point).

Luckily, my right eye is still good, and with my glasses, it’s 20/20. This means I can still see fine for driving. However, I’d love to have two working eyes again. As it happens, eye surgeons prefer not to deal with cataracts until they’re bad enough—cataracts can develop very slowly, in which case there’s no reason to jump the gun. At long last, though, my optometrist says that it’s time; so I now have an appointment with an eye surgeon to see if he agrees.

What I’m reading: The Mister Miracle graphic novel by Tom King. Mister Miracle is a lesser known DC “superhero” created by Jack Kirby. I put “superhero” in quotes because MM doesn’t fight crime, and he seldom gets involved in standard superhero shenanigans.  Instead, he’s the greatest escape artist of all time.

The graphic novel is essentially about MM having an extended bout of depression. It’s not played for laughs (although there are plenty of humorous moments). It’s very human and highly recommended.

What I’m playing on the computer: Dragon Age: Inquisition. I don’t know why…but on the weekend, when I looked at the list of games I have on my computer, DA:I is the one I clicked on. (I’ve played DA:I from start to finish at least four times. I guess I might be making it five.)

What I’m writing: In the mornings, I’m working on the novel I’ve designated PROJECT TECH-BRO. In the afternoon, I’m working on a short story I’m tentatively calling “The Red Wolf Canto” (although that might change). It’s a combination of Little Red Riding Hood and Dante’s Inferno. Because they belong together.

(Seriously, on the very second page of Dante’s Inferno, Dante meets a wolf in a dark forest. So hey, it’s a gimme.)

PLR Day

Today I got my cheque from Canada’s Public Lending Right program, so I thought I’d say a little about how great the program is.

Public Lending Right (PLR) is a way to compensate authors for the use of their books in public libraries. Libraries are absolutely wonderful, but for writers they have one drawback: if someone buys a book, the author gets a royalty; but if someone borrows a book from a library, the author doesn’t get paid.

Now of course, libraries do buy their books in the first place, so the author gets a royalty on that purchase. But once a library buys a book, the book may be read by dozens of people, and the author gets no more money.

PLR attempts to balance the accounts, at least a little. The details differ in different countries, but the basics are simple: the government allocates a pool of money, then divides that pool between authors in proportion to how much their books are “used” in the country’s public libraries.

In Canada, this is done by checking computer records in a representative set of libraries across the country. They don’t count actual check-outs; they just count how many copies of an author’s books each library has on the shelves. In Canada, only Canadian authors are compensated. In other countries, other policies may apply.

The money isn’t huge, and there’s a maximum payment cap for each author. According to the Canadian government’s web site, payments run from $50 to $4000. Still it’s a nice gesture, and the cheque always brightens up my February.

(By the way, if you’re an author, it’s worth checking to see if your country has PLR. The U.S. doesn’t, but many other countries do. Once you register, you’ll get a bit of money every year, with almost no work on your part.)

Sharing: February 18, 2019

A rundown of what I’ve been up to recently.

What I’m Reading: The Percy Jackson books by Rick Riordan. They’re fun middle-grade books about the demigod children of deities in the Greek pantheon. Percy Jackson is sometimes painfully slow on the uptake—I’m on Book 3 (The Titan’s Curse) and he still hasn’t got it through his head that EVERYTHING HE ENCOUNTERS IS SUPERNATURAL…but because these are middle-grade books, I’ll cut him some slack.

What I’m Listening To: Audio versions of the Goddess Wars books by Kendare Blake. You might consider these a dark YA counterpart to Percy Jackson. These books too feature characters from Greek mythology, including gods and heroes, but in a much grittier context. Gods are slowly dying in horrific ways, and those who still survive are at war each other. Interesting but nasty.

What I’m Playing on the Tabletop: One reason I’m reading the above books is because I’m running a campaign of Scion (Second Edition) from Onyx Path. Players portray the half-human/half-divine children of gods; our group includes children of Thor, Loki, Kali, Lugh, Winonah, and Cheeby-aub-oozoo. This is part of a continuing campaign that’s been going for more than ten years, having spun through multiple game systems including D&D, Ashen Stars, Mage: The Awakening, and more.

I’m also part of a group play-testing a tabletop RPG that I can’t talk about. Maybe eventually…

What I’m Playing on the Computer: Sunless Skies, a game where you fly a Victorian locomotive through otherworldly landscapes. I’ve reached the point where I don’t die too often, and therefore can follow the story-threads of my crew. It’s an odd but compelling little game. I got it on Steam.

What I’m Writing: The novel I’m calling PROJECT TECH-BRO, and a short story for an anthology that will be published in 2020. I will definitely say more about these in the fullness of time…but not yet.

Meditation

Okay, here we go: my take on meditation.

First of all, I’ll note there are many types of meditation, arising from many religious traditions. Furthermore, individual teachers may have their own homegrown approaches to meditation, based on whatever they’ve found helpful or even approaches they’ve invented themselves. Many people think that meditation is always just sitting quietly, but there are forms of meditation that involve walking, lying down, chanting, running, yoga positions, and lots of other activities.

But let me talk about the forms I know best. These forms do one of two things:

  • Either the practice is intended to focus the mind on something in order to shut out external and internal distractions. This means quieting the mind.
  • Or else the practice is intended to open the mind to observe whatever thoughts and sensations arise.

Often in a meditation session, you do the first type of practice for some length of time to calm the mind and make it less busy. You focus on your breathing, or chanting, or a mental image, or a phrase. Then you move on to the second type of meditation form.

A phrase used to help you focus is called a mantra. It may or may not make sense. One of my teachers taught us a particular mantra saying, “I’m not going to give you an English translation. That’s not the point. Just focus on the sounds.” This illustrates an important principle: meditation isn’t an intellectual exercise. It’s not something you figure out or think your way through. In fact, it’s the opposite—it’s designed to quiet the talkative intellectualizing part of your mind and to get you into a more non-verbal state.

The second type of meditation practice is basically watching your thoughts and body sensations. You do this after your mind has settled down enough. Notice that you pay attention to your body, not just your brain. Ideally, you get out of your head completely and just make note of whatever is happening in your entire realm of experience. But you don’t make that a goal. You don’t make anything a goal. You do nothing except observe.

That way, you see what you see, moment by moment. You aren’t trying for a result, you’re just observing. Why? To get past your mistaken ideas of who you are, to get past your habits of ignoring the truth, and to see what’s real.

One last note about meditation: I strongly recommend you find a teacher. Meditation is hard, and it doesn’t get easier with practice. In fact, once you accumulate some experience, it’s embarrassingly easy to find yourself just going through the motions and not really paying attention. You get in the groove…and that means you start ignoring your mind and body again because you’re doing what you did before and you think you’re “there”. A good teacher will keep you honest, and help you stay awake.

The Three Poisons

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the causes of bad behavior. Given the way that things are now, how can anyone not think about the causes of bad behavior?

In the Western tradition, this kind of thinking can go two ways: talking about psychology, or generalizing about evil. But Buddhists look at bad behavior from a different angle.

Why do people act in ways that increase their own suffering and/or cause suffering in others? The Buddhist answer is that people are affected by the Three Poisons: the three roots of unhealthy behavior. These three are translated into English in various ways, but I’m going to use craving, aversion, and ignoring.

Craving and aversion are familiar moral “evils”, even in Western thought. Craving is wanting something in an unwholesome way; it lines up with the Christian deadly sins of Greed, Lust and Gluttony. (I’ve talked about the deadly sins before.) Craving is the urge to fulfill our desires even when we should realize it’s going to be bad for us or someone else.

Aversion is the flip side, corresponding to deadly sins like Wrath and Envy. We hate or fear something so much that we go to extremes to reject it: fight or flight.

The third poison is the one I’ve been thinking about the most: ignoring. We cause suffering to ourselves and others because we ignore things.

We ignore our own feelings and the feelings of others. We ignore the probable consequences of our actions. We ignore the real consequences of our actions. We ignore how other people have different experiences and viewpoints than we do, so their reactions to our behavior will differ too.

Although I’ve translated the name of the third poison as “ignoring”, another common translation is “delusion”. If we’re ignoring significant aspects of the world, we aren’t seeing things as they are; we’re deluded. And if we’re deluded, it’s no wonder we make bad choices. How can we get things right when we’re seeing things wrong?

This leads to one of the major reasons for meditation: to pay attention to what’s actually going through your head. If you learn to pay attention to your mind and body, you start to notice when you’re ignoring things: when you’re in denial about something, or skipping over inconvenient truths. The more you notice that you’re ignoring things, the less you’ll let yourself do it, and the less you’ll poison yourself and others.

On that note, I’ll step off my soapbox…but sometime soon, maybe I’ll talk a bit more about meditation.