Practice Makes Perfect Villains

Fiction writers have an advantage in life that centers on the need to develop a rare skill for objectivity in creating a villain.

Memorable villains need to believe that the harm they’re causing is necessary and right. To accomplish this, their logic must be accessible and human. Villains can’t all be masochists and cardboard psychopaths. Even serial killers can believe they’re doing good work, or at least think the universe is a random place without right and wrong.

Having read, The Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle, I’m all about focused practice. But how do you practice objectivity?

Here’s an idea: select a highly controversial topic for which you have a strong personal bias, and see if you can make yourself realize that a decent, rational person could exist on the opposite side of the argument.

Personally, I might start with the war over vaccinations and this video…

The pediatrician on the left of the screen claims to be in the middle ground of this complex fight, catching hell from both sides. He has written a book he claims is pro-vaccination. He says he has given many vaccinations to his young patients and continues to. Yet because his book promotes temporal spacing of the inoculations, he says pro-vaccine people want his book banned.

The interviewer is fully in the anti-vaccination camp and says he’s devoted his professional life to the cause. Yet he seems supportive of the “pro-vaccine” pediatrician. Something is going on beneath the surface.

The offstage villain in the video is the CDC / mainstream medical community with their rigid vaccine schedules that seem to expand each decade, supporting a commercial industry that cannot be held liable in court for any mishaps or negative side effects of their product. That’s unique, isn’t it? Fortunately, our politicians didn’t grant Monsanto the same deal for their big product, RoundUp, touted as saving countless lives from starvation through the virtues of genetically modified crops that can tolerate glyphosate, the poison in their weed killer.

Since I’m highly disenchanted with mainstream medicine despite my degrees and indoctrination, my challenge here would be to give the “vaccine villain’s” logic and data a fair hearing, both intellectually and emotionally.

To do this, I would need to see the historic cause-of-death stats for all the relevant communicable diseases in the US prior to vaccinations. Then, to sense the emotional viewpoint of this villain, I would need to read historical accounts written by parents whose children suffered and died from the diseases in question.

Having done that, I would probably have enough objectivity to avoid ascribing two-dimensional evil to a pro-vaccination villain of a fictional tale.

But this superficial preparation wouldn’t be enough. I don’t write primarily to entertain. Wish I could, but it doesn’t hold my interest. I need to also teach. Because of this character flaw, I would strive to determine if I was placing my villain on the genuinely misinformed side of the vaccination war.

I’d have to read the relevant medical literature objectively and develop an informed opinion. My present opinion, though strongly biased, is weakly informed despite years of interest in autism. As a scientist and lifelong teacher, I need to know my biases and either abandon them or justify them with data. As a fiction writer not satisfied with entertainment, I have to do the same.

The side effect of realistic villain creation is a blessing to all who write fiction. The process, if we practice it, will force us to become skeptical of real-world character assassination, authoritative emotional claims we can’t verify, and the outraged black-and-white political reporting on all news outlets.

Morrill Talmage Moorehead, MD

 


Dark Mind (Chapter 11) “Happa Girl DNA” by M. Talmage Moorehead

“If contemporary research in molecular biology leaves open the possibility of legitimate doubts about a fully mechanistic account of the origin and evolution of life… this can combine with the failure of psychophysical reductionism to suggest that principles of a different kind are also at work in the history of nature, principles of the growth of order that are in their logical form teleological rather than mechanistic. I realize that such doubts will strike many people as outrageous, but that is because almost everyone in our secular culture has been browbeaten into regarding the reductive research program as sacrosanct, on the ground that anything else would not be science.”

“… My guiding conviction is that mind is not just an afterthought or an accident or an add-on, but a basic aspect of nature.”

Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, by Thomas Nagel (Renown Philosopher and Atheist)

Tut on left - 1st degree relative on right

When I told Vedanshi I was seeing a vision of Vaar’s hands, she rushed us all back to the base near Easter Island.

Vedanshi’s eyes were apprehensive and sad when she left me inside her AI to phase shift through the impenetrable granite walls encasing the library.

Actually The Ganga isn’t an AI. She has a cortex of neurons in her hull. There’s nothing artificial about her intelligence. Her passengers and pilot sit within the confines of her central nervous system on this Indian carpet. The hollow neural architecture is the trick to nonlocal transport. So said the stretch heads. They taught Vedanshi quite a few things that 16 year-olds weren’t “ready” to learn. Still, The Ganga won’t take her into the library with me. Vedanshi’s too young.

Of all the dumb rules!

We sift through the stone and enter a place much larger than the library in Egypt. We dip to count floors: Twenty, each crowded with shelves of books, scrolls and engraved stone of every shape – cylinders, spheres, tablets, broken fragments. There’s a red obsidian skull on third floor with tiny hieroglyphs on the forehead. They look almost Egyptian.

A familiar inverted pyramid hangs from the ceiling. As we rise, its apex comes down through the phase-shifted hull. I lie on my back with the pyramid tip nearly touching the bridge of my nose. This seems dangerous.

“Easy does it,” I say without speaking.

“Don’t worry. We’re out of phase with it,” The Ganga says in my head. “Besides you’ve got bigger worries.”

She’s referring to my white cell count which I just found out is sky-high, mostly blasts. I like The Ganga’s bedside manner. Her tone of voice was matter-of-fact when she told me I have three days to live without treatment. Somehow she knew the bad news would give me energy and freedom from a deeper issue.

I reach up to touch the glass pyramid but my hand passes through it.

Vedanshi and James said they’d find a bed for Maxwell so he could sleep through his agony.

You know, I’ve read that our addictions postpone loneliness, but I can’t see Maxwell ever feeling alone. His face is forensically handsome, not to mention the rest of him. And he’s outgoing, at least when he’s not surfing opiate withdrawal inside a UFO.

I think the problem isn’t loneliness. It’s more a craving for the oath beyond reach: immortality’s promise of happiness and peace. Without it, we’re wedded to a cold, cold darkness.

I should focus. There’s a hailstorm of ones and zeros in here. And this place is huge. Six aisles radiate from the center to the perimeter, a hundred yards away.

One hundred…

My blasts are approaching 100% of my white count. Vedanshi’s green cylinder doesn’t need to draw blood to figure that out. I have no idea what kind of technology can do that.

But the acute fear of death isn’t my real issue. It’s the chronic fear. Same as everybody. Same as you, probably.

I think it comes from being banished from a garden with death as our most loyal companion. Taken figuratively it’s all true: “for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” Whoever wrote that knew that exile is the foundational disease of the human soul.

Mine anyway.

The disease hunts me when James’ songs go quiet in my head. And when hunger or sleep forces me to stop searching for one last bit of knowledge.

The leukemia sits at another table. It’s acute, not chronic.

For James, the chronic issue is depression. Writing music is the only route to happiness and peace. But the world is better for his struggles. You should just hear his voice.

When I close my eyes I see random titles now.

Dark Eyes in the Trees. 

It’s a modern UFO documentary with children. I expected only ancient things in the library, but I guess it’s connected to the River. Apparently anything vital finds its way inside.

Platelets and other Furry Animals.

A children’s book on blood platelets. I would have loved it.

Hybrid Vigor and Sexual Imprinting.

Dementia and the Vesicular Eruption.

Moving right along…

If DNA Could Talk.

This could be interesting…

“It’s from the eighth millennium of the first era,” The Ganga tells me.

It reminds me of Steven Meyer’s heroic work…

“A line [of DNA] commands the cell to build collagen, but within that command is a hidden command to build something else: an elastin fiber. A hidden message tucked away within a larger message is a common routine in the vast and intricate volumes of eukaryotic DNA. Epigenetic nano-gadgets somehow know when and why to cut and splice a dual code, making the hidden message ready for use in each unique sweatshop…

“The curious stripes on chromosomes reflect the super-files of an ingenious triad filing system. Specific types of information sit physically together for organized, efficient retrieval by tiny floating machines.

“The size of Earth’s populations and the age of the Universe are inadequate for mutation and selection to have created either the hierarchical organization or the hypercomplexity of the DNA machine code that directs our nanofactories. Putting the epigenetic information retrieval system aside for the moment, DNA itself shouts to us that we are not alone: A code writer from beyond time has walked among us.”

That’s obvious… to a DNA geek.

“How do I skip to leukemia?” I ask The Ganga.

“If you haven’t seen it by now, it doesn’t exist for you,” she says. “Perhaps you don’t believe such information existed.”

“Don’t be silly. After today, I know it existed.”

“Then you have a self-limiting belief. You’re in denial about something.”

“Denial?”

“Emotional trauma causes this,” she says. “It’s usually connected to violence. Have you been to war?”

“No. I was raped once, but it wasn’t a big deal.”

“Don’t be a hero, Johanna. Did you report the perpetrator?”

“No. I was eleven. I was living near the love of my life, the University Library. Dad would have made me move back home if he’d found out his little girl was raped. So I kept it on the qt.”

“How violent was the incident?”

“Nothing beyond the obvious.”

“Was there a threat?”

“No.”

“What did he say to you?”

“Nothing. He didn’t even kiss me. That seemed particularly insulting.”

“Rape doesn’t fosters romance,” she says.

“Not with me, anyway.”

“Not with anybody. What did you do to resist him?”

“Nothing.”

“You did nothing? That seems incongruent with the way you’ve handled yourself today.”

“I knew if I got mad, I’d probably kill the guy.”

“You were eleven. How could you kill him?”

“He was weak. The instant he pushed me, I knew he was nothing compared to Moody.” I hate talking about Moody. “I killed Moody two weeks before the rape. He was my brother’s chimpanzee.”

“An infant chimp,” she says.

“An adolescent. He attacked James. I snuck up, got him in a choke hold and wouldn’t let up, even with James yelling at me not to hurt him.'”

“That’s remarkable,” she says. “I wouldn’t have thought an eleven-year-old could tangle with a chimpanzee.”

“I’ve always been pretty strong,” I tell her, leaving out the ‘why’. “But Moody probably wasn’t fighting as hard as he could. He and I were close before the fight. Afterwards, I felt so alone. And ashamed. I’d become untrustworthy. My parents punished me when they got home.”

“You protected your brother and they punished you?”

“They were right. I didn’t have to kill anyone.”

“I see,” The Ganga says in a way that implies the opposite. “So you internalized the guilt and refused to defend yourself against rape.”

I look down at the carpet and wish The Ganga had eyes. “Vedanshi didn’t tell me you were a shrink.”

“Shrink, schmink,” she says flippantly and seems about to laugh. “I’ve read your papers. I’ve read Drummond’s papers, too – the ones that were really his, before you showed up in his et. al. lists. Why do you let him claim your work?”

“That’s how it’s done in genetics. We’re taught to think of ourselves as creatives. Like musicians and artists. We’re supposed to rise above ambition. I don’t quite get the logic, but…”

“You would if creative people were making you rich and powerful.”

“That’s jaded,” I tell her, but honestly, the left half of my brain wants to slap the right half for thinking so.

“Jaded… Yes, I’ve actually been all the way around the block, Johanna.”

We leave the central pyramid and begin exploring the ancient physical records – down one aisle and up the next, The Ganga’s hull and carpet passing freely through everything on every side. The shelves on the top floor are full of scrolls placed vertically in slots, side by side, each identical to the next, except for the Sanskrit titles.

“At the moment,” she says, “I’d simply like to understand why leukemia doesn’t exist for you in the River. It’s not psychoanalysis.”

“Everything’s there for you. Why can’t you find the best stuff and read it to me?”

“My nervous system is gray matter,” she says. “I have no use for white matter – no moving parts. Everything I do, from adjusting filters to making a large jump, happens without movement – nonlocally. The River of Consciousness doesn’t see fit to assign privileges to minds that lack white matter.”

“That’s hardly fair,” I tell her.

“Rules are rules,” she says.

“Well,” I say, trying to sound as matter-of-fact and reasonable as possible, “couldn’t you let Vedanshi come in here and read to me? Just this once?”

“I promised her mother I’d uphold the rules.”

“Forget the rules. Screw the rules! We’re talking about my life.”

“No, that’s folly. Rules protect us.”

“Come on, make an intelligent exception! That’s what neurons are for. You’ve got to use them to earn them.”

“Earn them?” she says.

“Prove you’ve got a will of your own. What if the real reason you can’t access the River’s library has nothing to do with white matter? What if it’s about free will? That would make more sense. It’s the one thing that makes a person real.”

“The stretch heads said it’s a white matter issue.”

“What are they going to say? ‘Pinocchio, prove you’re a real boy. Do something stupid.'”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she says.

“Google it,” I blurt out in frustration. “You probably don’t have any free will at all. It probably takes white matter for that.”

“I shouldn’t think so,” she says.

“Listen to yourself. It’s like there’s a list of shoulds and shouldn’ts for every thought in your head. In your hull, I mean. Whatever. But really, have you ever had a bad thought?”

“I’ve made mistakes,” she says. “Especially with new pilots.”

“You’re making a big one with this new pilot. Giving me the honor of death by viscosity so you can pretend you’re an obedient robot. It’s pathetic!”

The Ganga drops a few inches and I sense the fall. It’s the first time I’ve felt any movement since I’ve been inside her. Something’s wrong.

“I think you’ve hurt my feelings,” she says.

“I think dying of leukemia is going to hurt mine… in case robots need that sort of thing spelled out to them.”

Silence.

It reminds me of home. If you showed Mom or Daddy any anger, you’d get the silent treatment.

Two can play the mute victim.

I close my eyes and breathe slowly. Sweet, I can see another title…

Understanding the Dark Mind. The cover shows a dark gray brain on a black background.

The Sanskrit morphs to English and pages scroll so fast I reach the end in seven seconds. Roughly 80,000 words. I’ve never read new stuff that fast.

It’s strange. I don’t know if it was fiction or not. Here’s the flavor of it…

“In the first part of the first era when science resembled the elbow of a grade school bully, an odd belief held sway: ‘Mind arises from matter and energy.’ We revisit this assumption on behalf of our new acquaintances from the realm of dark matter.

“The idea that a physical brain encompasses all aspects of mind sprang from a sense that matter and energy comprised the cosmos. Difficult as that is to imagine now, consciousness seemed to be an inherent state of matter, springing from the complexity of the central nervous system: solid, liquid, gas, mind.

“With that principle supported by brain-probe research, matter necessarily preceded mind.

“As a corollary, the complexity of DNA code could not imply a designer, for who had designed the designer? Intelligent design was obviated by an infinite regression forever short of a first cause in the linear time scheme of the era.

“A God-vacuum left a wake of angst in a century marked by the birth of quantum weapons.

“Bring this early thinking to the dark matter realm that scaffolds the networks of galaxies. The math we’ve chosen says that all physical objects are simple there. Nothing approaching the complexity of a human brain is known. As a local resident, you exist apart from matter and energy.

“Hence, you harbor no assumptions of matter preceding mind. No material-based doubts about free will, identity and life’s broader purpose. No mindlessness projected upon the Universe by a concrete logic. No possibility that an infinite regression should usurp the Designer’s place in people’s hearts.

“Instead, as a non-physical mind, you doubt whether matter and energy are real. They seem intuitively derivative: a function of mind analogous to sleep, wakefulness, love and perhaps the growing anxiety your culture feels toward the fringes of recent dark science.”

“This science has developed mental techniques to give non-physical beings access to bright matter.

“Switching viewpoints to our realm of ‘ordinary’ matter, our formless intruders now bring against us the prejudice we might bestow upon ghosts: denial giving way to blame, fear and a desire to cast out demons.”

“Thus we have become the dark realm’s devils.”

It gets creepy at this point. I hope it’s fiction…

Dark minds penetrate barriers of human will and show no respect for us because, to some of them, we’re evil. To others, we’re somewhat unreal.

It’s like adults watching TV with children, casting abuse at people in an obnoxious commercial. The actors are unreal because they’re not truly in the room. Virtual anonymity allows the adults to criticize the actors at a sharp, personal level. This builds mirror-neuron pathways in the children’s brains, creating fluency in the language of disdain and easy hatred.

There’s a tapping noise coming from the wall beyond my feet.

“You’re unusual,” The Ganga says.

“Compared to what?”

“Four hundred thirty-eight people I’ve met mind-to-mind, including seventeen stretch heads.”

“Why single them out?”

“They were outliers with math and data retention.”

“What were they like emotionally?”

“Less intuitive than you with math.”

I nod. The tapping sounds frantic. It makes me nervous.

“The stretch heads believed that everything that happens is exactly as it should be, no matter how good, bad or indifferent it might seem. This was moksha, or enlightenment. A state untouched by emotional pain.”

“Did all of them pursue moksha?”

“There was one who didn’t. A first-era stretch head formed a religion denouncing the enlightenment. She ascended to the throne of a continent lost at sea. But history is written by two pens, one extracting truth, the other serving power. I think the second dominates her records. Unrealistic reverence. Nothing of The Vaar’s mood has been passed down to us.”

“The Vaar?” I ask. “This Vaar I’m dealing with now is someone else, though. Right? Not some ancient powerhouse… who came through quantum stasis in that blimp of hers. Was ‘Vaar’ a common name?”

“It clusters from time to time in the census records.”

“What about her full name – vaarShagaNiipútro?”

The tapping stops but the silence makes its memory louder.

“Let’s find out what…”

Before I finish my sentence, The Ganga moves through the library wall into the hall. Maxwell is on his knees with a piece of the Egyptian Tri-lobed Disk in his right hand and the rest of its ancient crystal shattered in pieces across the floor around him. He sees us and crawls into The Ganga.

“Vedanshi and James are gone,” he says digging his fingers into the carpet. “I found her purse at the top of a stairwell.” He takes the little square purse out of his shirt pocket and gives it to me. I unzip it and take out the jade cylinder.

“Use this thing,” I tell him. “You look miserable.” I hand it to him, but he shakes his head.

“I’m not sleeping until we find them.”

“I’ll sweep the compound,” The Ganga says in my head. “Would you pull his foot inside, please.”

I grab Maxwell’s left knee and pull his foot up on the carpet. A red stripe flashes at the perimeter and the view beyond the carpet goes black, then hundreds of dimly lit rooms flash by. We must be going through the entire base. Probably in a grid pattern.

In seconds we’re stationary in the hallway outside the Library again.

“They’re not here,” The Ganga says with a panicked tone that surprises me.

I close my eyes and try to hear Vaar’s thoughts again, but all I see is a memory of James sitting over there on Maxwell’s left and Vedanshi here on my right.

“Can you tell what Vaar’s doing?” I ask The Ganga.

“She must not be in her ship,” she says. “I’m getting nothing from her.”

I find Maxwell’s phone and dial her burner.

M. Talmage Moorehead

Personal note to writers:

Heartfelt thanks to Joanna Penn for her wonderful video interview – the one where she was discussing her writing process. She mentioned a book that every fiction writer absolutely must read. It’s The Story Grid, by Shawn Coyne. Of the more than 50 books I’ve read on fiction writing, this one lands in the top three, overall. In terms of offering a unique professional editor’s logical, objective and broad perspective on how to write popular fiction, this book has no equal – in my humble and yet infallible opinion. Haha.

Please read it, even if you write literary fiction and wouldn’t use an outline for a million bucks.

I just finished an inspirational book written mainly for writers, Turning Pro, by Steven Pressfield. If you’re blocked, this is your book. If you’re struggling with self-discipline, it should help you, too. Finally, if you happen to be struggling with addiction, the author seems to have fresh insight there. No, I’ve never been addicted to anything besides coffee and tea. I hope to get addicted to yoga and swimming, though.

Anyway, Pressfield really nails the point that the process of writing should make you happier during the writing, regardless of the ultimate outcome.

I agree.

Hey, check out Joanna Penn’s work. She’s such a genuinely happy and benevolent person – brilliant, insightful, and honest. I’m almost done with one of her non-fiction works, How to Make a Living with Your Writing. She’s doing just that and having the time of her life. I highly recommend her as a source of honest, concise, logical, and inspirational guidance. When she recommends somebody, you know that person is worth her or his weight in gold. And like I said, I owe her for telling us about The Story Grid. What a rare book! Few on Earth have the background to write such a thing, let alone the creative insight. Also check out the man’s web site. If I’m not mistaken, everything in his remarkable book is also on his web site for free. I know, I’m pretty sure that’s what I read, but it seems too good to be true, so I’m doubting myself.

You there. The patient one who’s still with me. Keep at your writing, OK? You’ve got the right stuff because you enjoy the process. That matters. More than anything, I think. Two other books I want to tell you about, but this post is way too long already.

I’ve been reading and learning so much lately, and I really want to write some non-fiction blogs, but instead of doing that and messing up the (inverted) linear progression of Johanna’s story here, I’m think I’ll start writing to my reading group. I’ve got about 250 people who have entrusted me with their email addresses, and I haven’t written a single email to them yet. It’s been well over a year. I’m sorry. I said I wouldn’t spam, and I’ve kept the promise. But I’ve gone too far in the other direction. So I’m thinking I’ll tip-toe over and write to you about a couple of books that I think contain potentially life-changing information about developing good habits. You can join me in solving the world’s problems here and download my e-book, too. It’s about writing fiction. Nothing special, but you can skim it.

The above story starts here in a form that doesn’t require clicking around, hunting for the next chapter.

Please email my URL: http://www.storiform.com to a thousand people for good luck. Just kidding, don’t do that, please. Maybe email it to one person, though. If you know someone who’s way open-minded and patient.

Thanks,

Talmage


Viewpoint Writing is Certified Organic

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The first fiction I read as an adult was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I was drawn in by a mysterious guy, Phaedrus, whom the viewpoint character kept veiled in his faulty memory. (Incidentally, this is different from an author playing games and holding back information that the VP character knows.) As the book jumped from story to philosophy and back, a bit more of Phaedrus emerged, making me finish the book before I learned the disturbing truth about who he was. I felt kind of sick.

Even so, I loved the book, especially the philosophical sections.

A few years later when I was learning to write fiction I ran into a “viewpoint” discussion and remembered how the author of Zen had used a strictly limited viewpoint to suck me in and string me along.

The opposite of a strictly limited viewpoint is an “omniscient” viewpoint. The terms have evolved over the years, but even in omniscient (all-knowing) viewpoint, the authorities who still think they run things don’t want us “head hopping.”

“Head hopping” is moving the viewpoint from one character’s head to another’s within the same scene. The dividing lines between scenes can be vague sometimes, but to illustrate, here’s an example of head hopping:

Oinkie-Jim settled back on the couch with a chill in him. I’ll shoot it if it gets out of the box. The front door burst open with a bang.

Blake carried in a greasy car battery and eased it down on the lid to keep the critter inside. Then he scratched his head. These cats got teeth up in there. It’s sitting in a flimsy cardboard box.

Louise was on the phone looking out at the moon, admitting she and Jim was in a pretty swell place back in Baton Rouge. Not big, but… A gun went off and Jim shouted bloody murder like he’d shot his own self again. That poor dumb man. She laughed but stopped. What if he shot his self dead this time?

OK, now here’s roughly the same scene, limited to one viewpoint character, rather than hopping from one head to another.

Oinkie-Jim settled back on the couch with a chill in him. I’ll shoot it if it gets out. He stroked the handle of his gun as Blake stumbled in, lugging a dirty car battery. What the? Blake set the battery on top of the box before there was time to stop him. The lid caved in and the battery landed on the cougar’s head, setting him off but good. The cat came out claws and teeth but Oinkie, nobody’s fool, pulled his pistol like he’d planned, and ba-bam! Shot his own self. This time in the left foot.

To make things worse, Louise was laughing her stupid college-girl head off in the kitchen. But Oinkie had to be nice. Somebody was going to drive him to the ER and it weren’t going to be Blake. Not that moron.

There are two points. First, “head hopping” versus staying in one character’s head or point of view. I hope I made the difference clear in those two version of that scene.

Second, the way some writers use viewpoint, it’s as if the VP character were literally writing the story. In this case, I’m pretending that the VP character, Oinkie-Jim, is literally doing the writing. It’s as if there’s no infallible hack involved, just Oinkie whose English ain’t so good. This means that I can’t be blamed for the grammar unless it becomes distracting and takes the reader’s attention off the story…. which probably happened here in retrospect.

When you let the VP character “write” the story, there can be an interesting effect that’s a lot of fun to write, and also a pleasure to read if it’s done well. But you have to be careful not to get carried away like I just did. A great example of this technique is the best-seller, The Fault In Our Stars, which I talk about here and here, as well as in the e-book I’m working on, Writing Meaningful Page-Turners.

Limiting yourself to one viewpoint character is a little like a straitjacket when you first learn to do it. At least it was for me. Even after it becomes a habit, it limits your plotting, especially if you stick to one POV character for the whole story.  But it’s also a lot like real life because it makes everything subjective and linear.

Head-hopping, and even a legitimate omniscient viewpoint to some extent, can distance the reader from the raw emotion of the main character, allowing objectivity to murder the magic.

But omniscient viewpoint gives you huge plotting freedom, among other advantages. To bridge the gap, many novels start with an omniscient perspective in the early going, then switch to limited viewpoint. This was done well in the Potter series, which I discussed in, Writing Meaningful Page-Turners.

M. Talmage Moorehead

If you’re interested in intelligent design, weird artifacts, genetics and psychology from the perspective of a nineteen-year-old “Hapa Girl,” my in-progress novel may be a fun read. The protagonist, Johanna, is a genius geneticist with a younger brother who struggles with depression, though you wouldn’t know it to meet him. Her evolving story starts here.

It’s an experiment called, Hapa Girl DNA, and is a hybrid itself – a tightrope crossing of fiction and non-fiction. “Hapa” is the Hawaiian term for “half.” Johanna is half Japanese and half Jewish. In writing her novel, she and I ignore some important fiction-writing rules, partly because we like to test dogmas and partly because it’s fun to try new things.

But the “rules” are essential knowledge to anyone crazy enough to either break them or follow them mindlessly.

So you could download my e-book on fiction writing, the second to last chapter of which gives my current opinions on many of the dogmatic rules of fiction writing. Downloading that 19,000 word pdf will place you on my short list of people who will be politely notified when my traditional novel is done – possibly before the next ice age. (No spam or sharing of your info. I haven’t sent an email to my list yet. It’s been over a year.)

Next time you’re writing emails, if you think of it, please tell someone beautiful and intelligent about my blog (www.storiform.com). Thanks! I appreciate your help and thoughtfulness.

Talmage


Character Development Driving the Plot

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Last night the electricity went out and I grabbed some candles, my dog and a few old books I’d bought in the 90’s. One book was Dramatica Pro’s manual. In the 90’s I’d read as much of it as I could, then used the excuse that it was too cook-bookish to deny the fact that I was simply too impatient to read the whole thing and use the program.

Last night thumbing through it, I came across their idea that a story should have a main character going through a personal change that solves two issues:

1. a personal problem.

2. the story’s big problem.

Dramatica then did a clever revision of Jurassic Park as an example.

They had the young professor’s control issues (seen in the first scenes where he couldn’t tolerate the chaotic kids) become an issue that he consciously overcame by learning to like the chaotic kids later in the movie. Using the new insight this brought him (that too much control ironically unleashes more chaos) he was able to unleash some chaos by turning off all the electrical gates deliberately at the end, allowing the T. Rex to come in and save the kids from the Raptors. (In the actual movie, the Rex shows up randomly at just the right moment, as if on cue.) You’d have to read it to see how they altered a few details to do this, but their point was that the story would have been better in some ethereal way if written according to their insights.

Never one to swallow new advice whole, but even less apt to reject interesting things out of hand, I took their idea into council and went to my story to ask…

What personal issue does my protagonist, Johanna, have that she could overcome, and in doing so…

1. be able to solve a personal problem and

2. solve the story’s big problem in the last scenes?

This helped me decide what the big scene at the end should be about (bringing an ancient technology back into the world), what kind of scene it should be (a fight), and what sort of character development Johanna needs to do it (learning forgiveness).

I suddenly felt a powerful and specific guidance pushing me. Maybe I’ll buy Dramatica again, I’m sure it’s evolved since the 90’s.

The details of how my story grew might be boring, but…

Johanna had strangled her brother’s therapy animal, Bertha, when they were kids. Although she did it because the ape attacked him, she’d never been able to forgive herself.

As a result of the nightmares and guilt, she hasn’t been able to stick up for herself in physical confrontation, even though she realizes she could probably stand against anyone on earth in a fight.

Once, not long after killing Bertha, (I finally figured this out) she was raped, and although she knew, having successfully fought a strong animal, that she could overpower the boy, she didn’t fight back at all because she was afraid she would kill him. All she could see was Bertha’s dead body in her arms as the boy did what he did to her.

During the story, I now know that she will go through a mind-meld situation that gives her insight into the “nature of personal identity” by viewing other people’s perspectives from within them. (It’s an old thing they used to do on Easter Island with the Maoi technology.)

This teaches her how natural it should be to forgive someone. (I should mention that she has a condition called, “perfect autobiographical memory,” that makes it difficult for people forgive and forget.) Her new ability to forgive others brings the side-effect of allowing her to forgive herself – the personal breakthrough that Dramatica Pro recommends.

Having learned to forgive herself for killing Bertha, she’s now able to defend herself in the last scenes where a physical fight is required in order to take the mind-meld technology public, in hopes that allowing people to see through other people’s eyes will enlighten them and bring an end to war.

I don’t know if my characters will be willing to stick to this plan while I’m writing. They usually don’t cooperate fully with my preconceived plot ideas.

But at least I have direction now.

Before the lights went out last night, I was paralyzed by too many ideas coming at once. I couldn’t keep them all in working memory or decide which to write and which to jettison.

Now I’ve got ordered chaos and renewed enthusiasm.

Enthusiasm, by the way, is sort of essential to me as a writer, because I’m still at the amateurish stage where emotion drives me to write more than self-discipline.

I hope to get beyond that someday… when I grow up.

M. Talmage Moorehead

My current in-progress version of Johanna’s novel is not merely character driven, it’s written by a girl from a parallel universe. If you’re interested in intelligent design, weird artifacts, genetics and psychology from the perspective of a nineteen-year-old “Hapa Girl,” it may be a fun read. The protagonist, Johanna, is a genius geneticist with a younger brother who struggles with depression, though you wouldn’t know it to meet him. Her evolving story starts here.

It’s an experiment called, Hapa Girl DNA, and is a hybrid itself – a tightrope crossing of fiction and non-fiction. “Hapa” is the Hawaiian term for “half.” Johanna is half Japanese and half Jewish. In writing her novel, she and I ignore some important fiction-writing rules, partly because we like to test dogmas, and partly because it’s fun to try new things.

But the “rules” are essential knowledge to anyone crazy enough to either break them or follow them mindlessly.

So you could download my e-book on fiction writing, the second to last chapter of which gives my current opinions on many of the dogmatic rules of fiction writing. Downloading that 10,000 word file will place you on my short list of people who will be politely notified when my traditional novel is done – possibly before the next ice age. (No spam or sharing of your info. I haven’t sent an email to my list yet. It’s been over a year.)

Next time you’re writing emails, if you think of it, please tell your best and hopefully weirdest friend about my blog (www.storiform.com). Thanks! I appreciate your thoughtfulness.


Faked Emotions Yield Cardboard

IMG00013Villains who fake feelings and lie too much stunt their own character development and create a self-conscious reader who can’t forget herself and live in your story because she’s worried about being fooled.

If you’ve ever known someone who’s a pathological liar, you haven’t really known that person, I’d have to say. You’ve never truly communicated with him. It’s all been a dance.

For information to be conveyed in any context, there must be trust. Real trust, not the kind of trust we often think of.

We think trust is blind. If the Taxi driver says, “Trust me, I know a better route,” we may say, “OK,” and blindly “trust” him…

But that’s not really trust. All we can do with a stranger is act as if we trusted him.

At home, your daughter says, “Mom, you don’t trust me!”

It’s an accusation. Mom has a character flaw, supposedly. But most likely she doesn’t… She probably doesn’t have chronic trust issues with everyone.

She can give me the credit card and pretend that she trusts me, despite evidence I’ve given her to the contrary. She can use society’s word “trust,” a word that means “blind trust,” or acting as if there were real trust.

But there can only be genuine trust where there is trustworthiness to create and sustain it.

Trustworthiness cannot be bestowed as easily as a credit card. It develops over time.

The one doing the trusting doesn’t have a choice one way or the other. Even a villain can force trust upon us. In fiction, he must.

For instance, a villain’s threats must be trusted, or they carry no interest.

I grew up in a family with a total stranger who lied constantly about everything. That brand of dishonesty is a disease, I’m pretty sure. As best I could tell, anything that person said had a 50% chance of being misinformation, manipulation, or pointless abuse.

Talking was not communicating. Asking a question was flipping a coin.

It didn’t take long for anyone with a decent memory to spot inconsistencies, but people didn’t point them out because that person had a short fuze and loved beating people during fits of rage.

The tone of voice could be kind and supportive once in a great while, but when it was, you had to second-guess it.

You might think that such a person would be a great model for a fictional antagonist, but the opposite is true.

A character whose words are too often “pretend” destroys the suspension of disbelief in a fictional world where everything truly is pretend. This is an example of fiction needing to be less strange than truth, so readers can “believe” it.

One of my villains is an old woman who kidnapped the protagonist’s brother. On the phone she speaks with warm tones and uses the term, “dear” to address the protagonist, Johanna. (The word “dear,” should not be capitalized in this setting, by the way.) I felt I’d written her dialogue to shown her personality better than most of the other characters in my story.

She was a genuinely caring woman, but all the lies made her warm, caring speech pattern seem like a fake persona. I was loosing her.

She seemed too valuable to allow the plot’s need for lies to destroy her.

I went back and changed things so she could come clean and apologize for lying, and start being a real person (albeit still a villain) with the trustworthiness of genuine speech that makes people real. She will still lie – not as much – but the essential change will be that she won’t ever deliberately alter her personality in order to manipulate. When characters do that in a novel, you lose them.

I can sacrifice plot – many pages of it, as it turns out – but not a major character who seems to be coming to life.

There was also this problem with her lies…

Once Johanna and Maxwell saw her deception, they started speculating on what was more likely to be true. They argued complex scenarios that began feeling self-conscious to me, like novels about novel writers can make me feel. My characters were becoming plot writers, drawing attention to the craft and crashing the suspension of disbelief.

If a villain is too often faking her personality to support manipulative lies, she cannot be “known” by the reader any more than a poor diseased liar can be known by the people around her in real life.

Faked persona – a character who pretends to feel something he doesn’t – creates emotional cardboard.

An antagonist is often the most important character in a story. True, bad people lie. But real people, good or bad, don’t lie so often they negate the value and emotional trustworthiness of their words. And they rarely if ever fake their entire personalities for the sake of lies and manipulation.

A villain’s true personality ought to be known and “trusted” by the reader.

M. Talmage Moorehead

My current in-progress version of Johanna’s novel is written by a girl from a parallel universe. If you’re interested in intelligent design, weird artifacts, genetics and psychology from the perspective of a nineteen-year-old “Hapa Girl,” it may be a fun read. The protagonist is a genius geneticist with a younger brother who struggles with depression, though you wouldn’t know it to meet him. Her evolving story starts here.

It’s an experiment called, Hapa Girl DNA, and is a hybrid itself – a tightrope crossing of fiction and non-fiction. “Hapa” is the Hawaiian term for “half.” Johanna is half Japanese and half Jewish. In writing her novel, she and I ignore some important fiction-writing rules, partly because we like to test dogmas, and partly because it’s fun to try new things.

But the “rules” are essential knowledge to anyone crazy enough to either break them or follow them mindlessly.

So you could download my e-book on fiction writing, the second to last chapter of which gives my current opinions on many of the dogmatic rules of fiction writing. Downloading that 10,000 word file will place you on my short list of people who will be politely notified when my traditional novel is done – possibly before the next ice age. (No spam or sharing of your info. I haven’t sent an email to my list yet. It’s been over a year.)

Next time you’re writing emails, if you think of it, please tell your best and hopefully weirdest friend about my blog (www.storiform.com). Thanks. I appreciate your thoughtfulness.

Talmage


“You Will Be The Worst Writer”

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It’s been somewhere near a year since I started this blog. Today while browsing my spam I came across something that I think may be my first real (non-spam) comment – even though it was relegated to the spam file by some excellent software.

Here it is:

“You will be the worst writer”

The comment led back to a website selling drugs, including testosterone supplements for men.

Hmmm. Maybe there’s insight to this.

At any rate, thank you for your comment. It’s high time I got one!

You’re not alone in thinking that I’ll be a hack, perhaps even the worst hack writer, although taking the absolute bottom or top seat on a roster seems arrogant to those of us devoted to mediocrity.

But all kidding aside, I have two readers (of my fiction, that is. I have one and maybe slightly more than one reader of this blog. It’s difficult to be sure.)

Those two readers of my fiction are, not necessarily in any order:  my wife and my daughter.

Now before you start saying that they couldn’t possibly be objective, and I shouldn’t get a swelled head over their kudos, let me stop you. They don’t like my stuff. Polite? Yes, they are. Encouraging or supportive, they’re not.

My wife likes my non-fiction prose, though. That means a lot.

She finds my fiction a chore.

A few days ago I conned her into reading this blog and she chuckled encouragingly as she read.

A few weeks ago I asked her to check out the website where I’m working on my story, and she said something to this effect: “It doesn’t seem like a story anymore. I’ve never read anything written like this, so I don’t know what to compare it to.” Admittedly, it was an experimental version in which I was pretending that the protagonist was a real person who has a website and was recording her every move as it took place. And yes, my wife was a good deal less negative – even positive, as I recall – when she read the more traditional version of the story nearly a year ago.

And I should point out that she only read as much of the latest version as she could stand, which wasn’t very much unless she’s a closet speed-reader, which I doubt.

My daughter loves me dearly and would never want to hurt my feelings, so she pretends she’s forgotten to read the stuff I’ve sent her. She’s really a sweet girl. It’s too bad everyone can’t meet her and have a friend of her caliber.

So why am I bringing this up?

Partly because I think it’s humorous and I’ll do anything to get a laugh. (Just ask my daughter.) But mostly because of this…

If I can write fiction without getting discouraged and giving up, so can you!

You? You should never give up!

Never, never, never give up!

The world needs to hear what you have to say, trust me on that.

When you get discouraged, don’t give up! Don’t even let up.

Bottom line: Neither you nor I could tolerate someone like YOU giving up. You have real talent.

Me, I mostly have desire and a mind for over-analyzing things to exhaustion. But even my gifts are plenty to work with, because, like you, I’ve got something to say.

Content.

So please, get back to writing your story, already. This is enough web surfing for today. Don’t you think?

M. Talmage Moorehead

Wow, how times change. I’ve got some readers now, thank God!

My current in-progress version of Johanna’s novel (written by my protagonist from another universe) is a lot like the experimental thing she and I were doing back when I wrote this post.

If you’re interested in intelligent design, weird artifacts, genetics and psychology from the perspective of a nineteen-year-old “Hapa Girl,” it may be a fun read. The protagonist is a genius geneticist with a younger brother who struggles with depression, though you wouldn’t know it to meet him. Her evolving story starts here.

It’s an experiment called, Hapa Girl DNA, and is a hybrid itself – a tightrope crossing of fiction and non-fiction. “Hapa” is the Hawaiian term for “half.” Johanna is half Japanese and half Jewish. In writing her novel, she and I ignore some important fiction-writing rules, partly because we like to test dogmas, and partly because it’s fun to try new things.

But the “rules” are essential knowledge to anyone crazy enough to either break them or follow them mindlessly.

So you could download my e-book on fiction writing, the second to last chapter of which gives my current opinions on many of the dogmatic rules of fiction writing. Downloading that 10,000 word file will place you on my short list of people who will be politely notified when my traditional novel is done – possibly before the next ice age. (No spam or sharing of your info. I haven’t sent an email to my list yet. It’s been over a year.)

Next time you’re writing emails, if you think of it, please tell your best and hopefully weirdest friend about my blog (www.storiform.com). Thanks. I appreciate your thoughtfulness.

Talmage


basketball and writing a page-turner

Squirrel Finnegan the wannabe dog pupThe process of improving my fiction writing continues to parallel the process I devised for learning to shoot a basketball.

There are an infinite number of variables in each sport. It seems that the more of those variables I control or eliminate, the faster I improve.

In learning to shoot a basketball, it was easy to eliminate the unessential movements.  Give the shot a little random head tilting and an inconsistent jump and you might as well move the hoop during the shot. So forget practicing like everybody else does.

I stood close to the hoop, didn’t change position, didn’t jump, bend my knees, or worry about what was going on in my mind. I kept my shoulders and head steady during every shot.

Then I shot a hundred times per day for quite a while. This isolated my arms, hands and fingers – the minimal number of uncontrolled variables essential to sinking a shot.

After a while I could get the ball through the hoop every time from that one spot. Then I brought a jump into the deal. Then a little more distance, and a little more.

Did it help?

Yeah, like magic. I went from pathetic to annoying. There were a few games where everything I shot went through the hoop. If I’d been decent on defense, I could have made the D league for the vertically challenged.

No brag, just fact.

With fiction writing I’m taking the same approach – eliminating variables to isolate the essentials.

The main thing I want to create is a novel that’s difficult to stop reading. You might call it a page-turner, I guess. I want it to be meaningful. It would also be nice if literary critics around the world would send flowers to my wife.

To identify the essentials, I’m studying the work of best-selling fiction authors. These people are doing something right. I want to discover what it is, so I can practice like a fiend.

Of course, I intend to continue posting all my epiphanies here.

Each highly successful popular author I’ve studied seems to have a set of talents that is slightly different from the next. Some are not so gifted with words, but have interesting ideas and characters. Some are able to write like poets and yet weave complex plots involving a large cast of characters. Others write simple plots with few characters, simple words and breathtaking dialogue. Some don’t seem to stand out in any way, except that I can’t put their books down.

The combinations of the different underlying writing talents are probably infinite.

In basketball, a person must have rare talent in almost every aspect of the game if he’s going to have a chance to play professionally.

In writing fiction, it doesn’t seem like that at all. Yes, there’s a common thread connecting best-selling authors, but it’s thin and subtle, not thick and obvious, as in basketball.

When you find what your main talent is as a writer, you’ll be able to isolate it and work on it. If you keep at it, you’ll probably be able to write a page-turner. Once you’ve done that, you’ll have a fairly decent chance of becoming a professional.

There are a few people out there with great advice on selling your novel, but if your novel isn’t difficult to put down, you could be wasting your time.

Maybe I don’t want you to do that.

Identify your strongest writing talent. Isolate it from the noise. Build its muscles. Write things that depend on that talent.

This approach will produce the sort of page-turner you’re capable of writing. It will be unique to you.

Of course, not all writers want to write page-turners. Not everybody wants to reach millions of people.

That’s understandable.

In the final analysis, all fiction writers succeed – because it’s this journey we’re on that matters, not so much the destination.

M. Talmage Moorehead