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.

Blog? What Blog?

Oh yeah, this blog.

So for the past month or two, I’ve been writing gaming fiction and even some gaming crunch for The Onyx Path. I don’t know how much more I can say at the moment, but it’s kept me busy…mostly because it’s a new experience for me, so I’ve put in quite a bit of time on the work to make sure it’s good.

I get the impression that people who’ve been doing this for a while can produce material a lot faster than me; a number of them work on several projects a month. I’m not at that level of productivity yet, but I hope they’ll keep hiring me—it’s a good group of people to work with, and feedback comes more quickly than with fiction writing.

Still, I am writing fiction, every morning for several hours. I’ve also been doing some editing, and I’ll be leading workshops at When Words Collide in Calgary, Aug 9-11, and VCON in Vancouver, Oct. 11-13.

In the meantime, I intend to start posting regularly again. And as a start, let me announce that I’ll be at Ad Astra in Toronto, but only on the Saturday, July 13. Hope to see lots of people there!

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]

Just a rabbit picture

I had to take a new picture of Bowen for a group I’m part of, and hey, why not post it here too?

(Rabbits generally look very deadpan. That’s just how their faces work. And actually, it’s not easy to get rabbits to sit still for a picture. Deep in their bones, they know the world wants to eat them…so if you focus on them too long, they decide maybe it’s time to be somewhere else.)

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.