Two weeks ago, I started a column on the relationship between heroes and villains. Then, I discussed two characters that managed to be total opposites, yet have just enough in common to make their battles carry some sadness. Today, I’ll be speaking about characters that are opposite in nature, but also with a unique difference in their very symbolism- Batman and the Joker.
Two of the most well-known comic characters in history, Batman and the Joker have had a relationship that has stretched back over fifty years. Batman is, of course, the Dark Knight of Gotham City, sworn to protect the innocent after the childhood tragedy of losing his parents to crime. The Joker is the ultimate Gotham criminal, an insane murderer who happily causes chaos with lethal pranks, or with just a knife and some spray paint. Unlike Batman, the Clown Prince’s origin is a mystery, as he is too insane to give a clear account. The most common belief is that he fell into a vat of chemicals that bleached his skin and hair, giving him his clownish appearance. Both hero and villain have emerged at the top of their games, as one of the most respected and most feared figures, respectively, in the DC Universe.
The Traits of Good and Evil
As with most heroes and villains, the very natures of Batman and the Joker are at odds. Batman is arguably the ultimate anti-hero, using fear and intimidation to run the criminals of Gotham ragged. Batman is so driven in his mission to create peace and order that he can barely tolerate failure, and will go into a situation with five backup plans, with five more backups for each of those. By contrast, the Joker is driven simply by madness, and is therefore unpredictable. The Joker will often change his plans to suit his mood, or kill an associate for no real reason other than a joke. He is totally driven by dark humor and murder, and sees his work more as an art form then a mission. As such, he is the perfect foe for the logical, dark-edged Batman, who must ironically think like his insane counterpart in order to defeat him.
However one of the most unique things about the relationship between Batman and the Joker is the unique reversal of symbolism. The Batman is man dressed in black, who uses fear and intimidation, insists on doing things his way, and often keeps secrets from those around him. Yet he is the hero, while the Joker, who dresses like a clown and is obsessed with humor and jokes, is the villain. It is a unique dichotomy, that allows the readers to move beyond the traditional appearance of good and evil and get a serious role reversal with each battle (though there are certainly many that are afraid of clowns). But even with these opposing factor and even opposing roles, there is still rather unique factor that connects both Batman and the Joker- the masks they wear.
Comic experts will often make the argument that Batman ceased being Bruce Wayne when his parents were murdered, and that the Batman persona is his true nature. As such, he is being himself as Batman, while Bruce Wayne is the mask he wears to operate publically. While the Joker would likely never use a civilian identity, he has also totally become his alter-ego, with nary a second thought to his previous life. As such, these two are both men who define themselves by their masks and therefore each other. Batman’s darkness and heroic nature are at their most apparent when contrasted to the Joker’s humorous appearance and obsession with humor and death and vice versa. In fact, the Joker has often said that Batman is the driving force in his life, and in many portrayals, either becomes sane or shuts down completely, when Batman leaves the picture. And since Batman cannot bring himself to retire and lose himself, the Joker continues to exist and cause mayhem, which causes the need for Batman.
The Joker and Batman are two of the most epic foes in history, and bring a unique opposing nature and even an inversion to their rivalry. And at the same time, they are intrinsically linked; one simply does not exist or function as well, without the other. Writers can use their relationship to not only set two opposing forces against each, but to make them unique, and give their relationship something beyond the simple nature of black vs. white. And at the same time, these characters still manage to define each other by contrast, and as such, their battles become essential, necessary devices for them to truly define themselves and who they are, now and forever.
For the last few weeks, I’ve discussed the major influences that led to the conception and development of The Lightrider Journals. But like any learning process, it’s very easy to make mistakes along the way, especially in literature. While my biggest challenge is in grammar and punctuation, as well as reining back on the number of characters, I have learned of other mistakes authors can easily make. This mistakes have ruined countless stories and characters, and if I can do one thing for new writers, I want to make them aware of these mistakes so they can avoid them in their work. So as Points of Light takes a breather, I ‘d like to begin my new series- Portals of Darkness, and at the first mistake that can swallow writers- the Mary-Sues.
What it Means
Mary Sues were first named by parody author Paula Smith in her story “A Trekkie’s Tale,” as a satire of Star Trek fan fiction. That story focused on Lieutenant Mary Sue, the youngest Star Fleet Lieutenant history at only fifteen years old (knocking the abundance of such ‘gifted’ women in ST Fan-fiction). Since then, the term has gone to mean a character that represents an idealized version of the author, and is used primarily for said author to experience wish fulfillment. MS’s are most commonly found in fan-fiction, allowing the others to make themselves the heroes of established works, or as catalysts to change the established story to the author’s wishes. Since it’s inception, many characters outside of fan-fiction are sometimes considered as Mary-Sues (or the male equivalent, Gary-Stu’s).
Why It’s Wrong
To allow readers to truly embrace a protagonist, that character must have some quality that the audience can relate to, usually through some flaw, or central trait that readers will see in their own lives. It can be broad, such as a character that is bullied, or looked down upon, or more specific, such as a half-demon character pulled between two worlds. Regardless of the manner, this ability to relate to the characters is what makes them interesting and memorable to the reader. A Mary-Sue does not allow for that. Because they are idealized, they are generally written with almost no flaws- they make the right decisions, are smarter then everyone around them, physically attractive, and in some cases, heroic martyrs that are mourned by all following their death. These characters are failures because they are not relatable. No reader is at that level of perfection, nor are they likely to be enthralled by a character that never has anything go wrong for them. Therefore, the protagonist becomes boring and the reader loses interest, while the author is left with a piece of writing that only serves as a vanity mirror.
While more an example of self-insertion, Dante’s work is an excellent example of an early Gary-Stu. In The Divine Comedy, Dante is taken through the realms of the afterlife during a period of self-doubt. In the first section, The Inferno, it is explained this is brought about by Beatrice, the beautiful love of Dante’s life. He is guided through Hell by the spirit of his favorite poet, Virgil, and meets several men that wronged him in life suffering eternally. These men are not only cursed by Dante, but readily accept his damnation and that he was right on cursing them for all their sins. It is a good example of some of the traits that can be seen in Mary-Sues.
Wesley Crusher- Star Trek: The Next Generation
An example from the series that coined the term, Wesley Crusher is seen by many as a Gary-Stu for series creator Gene Wesley Roddenberry (even by Wil Wheaton, the actor who played Wesley). The character, who travels on Starfleet’s flagship, which is crewed by it’s finest members, was often credited with saving the ship singlehandedly, despite having trouble being accepted by Starfleet Academy. While this portrayal may have been influenced by writer’s strikes (during which several prototype scripts of Wesley saving the day had to be used) having such a young character constantly being portrayed as more competent then his experienced superiors are well-established traits of a Gary-Stu.
Milo Thatch- Atlantis: The Lost Empire
A lesser-known Disney film, Milo Thatch is a young archeologist that wants to find the lost city of Atlantis. Over the course of the film, the materials, ship, crew, and money to do so are literally handed to him by a wealthy man that knew his grandfather. Milo then manages to save the ship, despite his more experienced crew, decipher the long dead language and centuries old secrets of Atlantis, successfully battle the evil and greedy captain, and then remain in Atlantis as King, with a beautiful Queen by his side. A near perfect example of a Gary-Stu.
Bella Swan- The Twilight Saga
Perhaps the most current example of the Mary-Sue in popular fiction. Most of Bella’s MS traits are established in the first book of the series. Bella moves to a new to make life easier for her mother, is instantly given a new car by her father, is found fascinating by the student body, complains about how her classes are beneath her, and instantly grabs the attraction of a vampire and werewolf who then fight over her. The reminder of the books show her starting a vampire war but constantly being protected by her handsome lovers, having no harder choice to make then which of them to choose, and eventually being granted power and immortality by said vampire lover.
Bella has been criticized for many problems, but for writers, her MS qualities (some which are seen in the picture above) are the worst. Her actions towards her mother are saintly and unlikely for any teenager and the rewards and adulations by her father and schoolmates are complete fantasy. Her intelligence is spoken off but not displayed, as are any reasons for her supernatural relationships beyond physical attraction. The following books never show any growth beyond her finally decide ding between two suitors and then eventually being made into a perfect being despite causing tremendous unrest and war between everyone involved. Her personality is also barely existent, which allows readers as well as the author to project themselves onto her character, making Bella a wish-device instead of a character.
How to Avoid
While some have rightly criticized the Mary-Sue term for causing a lack of strong female characters in writing, (as such characters are often wrong saddled with the term) the negative qualities these characters represent should be avoided for characters of any gender. For writers, this means taking a few basic precautions.
- Remembering Perfection Does Not Exist- perfection is an ideal, but not a realistic one. If you write a character that is perfect, you have written a character that is dull and boring and does not exist in any reality. Read the rest of this entry
Since I spent last week talking about an author that inspired me, I felt I should continue the trend with another highly influential author. A longtime source of classic fantasy literature, the work of this particular author was what convinced me that Lightrider would even be possible to attempt. This author is the one and only, Terry Brooks.
Points of Light: Terry Brooks
A writer since high school, Terry Brooks first drew attention in the seventies with his first novel, The Sword of Shannara, above the adventures of the Ohmsford family, last descendants of the Elven house of Shannara in a multi-cultural medieval land reminiscent of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Brooks then turned the novel into a long running series, with each book dealing with a different generation of the Ohmsford family and their allies, usually linked by one of the ancient Druids (first the grim and dark Allannon, then his sucessors) or another character from the previous books. While the series has been a hit, Brooks has also expanded into other series, such as the contemporary fantasies of Kingdom of Landover and Knight of the Word (which has been linked to his Shannara books). Brooks continues to write to this day, currently working on the next volume of Shannara.
The last few weeks on POL, I’ve discussed some out of the box sources of inspiration, but since this is about a book, I felt this week, I should talk about something more book-related. And so I have decided to use the week to discuss an author whom I can claim as my first writing influence- one of the masters of American horror, Mr. Stephen King.
Points of Light: Stephen King
Almost everyone has probably heard of at least one story by Stephen King. One of the most popular and bestselling authors of the last forty years, King is primarily known for his horror stories, which range from the supernatural (Pet Sematary, The Shining, Needful Things), to the mundane turned horrific (Cujo, Christine, The Dark Half), to gritty suspense (Dolores Claiborne, Misery). However, King has penned tales of hope, redemption, and the trials of youth (Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Hearts in Atlantis), as well as epic fantasy (The Dark Tower Saga, The Eyes of the Dragon) all spread out over thirty novels, countless short stories, and even some original screenplays. Writing well into his sixties, King remains one of the most successful authors in the world- his work has been turned into various films (though not all successful), and he has received various literary awards over his career.
What I Learned: Description, Themes, Dialogue,
Stephen King was the first serious author I ever read, thanks to my mother’s attempt to wean me from the child’s horror of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series. With the impact King had, it was probably the best thing she ever did for me. What I loved the most about my first King book (Different Seasons, a collection of four novellas) was how much of a picture King painted with his words. Just by having the characters talk, I not only got a clear picture of them, but also the world in which they lived. When Red, the inmate narrator of Shawshank describes his life as the prison’s ‘supplier’, you immediately understand not only him, but the dreary, endlessly routine world in which he lives. And by doing that, King shows another skill- his ability to tie themes into his story without letting them overshadow the tale.
Last week, I discussed how a video game gave me inspiration for the worlds and diverseness of Lightrider. And since I’ve already discussed TV and literature, I’d like to discuss another aspect that helped in a particular area of the book’s development- my love of music. Obviously, this didn’t mean I was now writing about rock stars, but as Zelda helped me to create a diverse, rich world, music helped me to create real people to populate it.
Points of Light: Music
Thus far on points of light, I’ve discussed two of my influences from television and literature. As many people can tell, these are mediums rich with inspiration and ideas to inspire the imagination. However, as writers, we should try to look for inspiration anywhere we can find it. Great books can come from anything; as I’ve mentioned before, Stephen King wrote the epic IT after seeing a sewer drain in the middle of a forest. So I’ve always tried to take something from any sort of medium I’ve found, and one particular source has been a source of great inspiration- Nintendo’s classic video game series, The Legend of Zelda.
Points of Light: The Legend of Zelda
Zelda’s first game was released back in 1986, and has spawned several sequels across various consoles. While the general plot has varied between games, the general concept is usually the rescue of the Princess of Hyrule Zelda by the game’s hero Link, and the exploration and redemption of the medieval land of Hyrule (or another land in some games). In particular, I have taken influence from the games Majora’s Mask, Twilight Princess, Wind Waker, and the most recent game, Skyward Sword. However, one game more then any other was influential in the development of Lightrider- the gaming classic Ocarina of Time.
This week, I’m continuing Points of Light with a look at a source that was so essential to the book, I would never have been able to write it without it. When I started writing, one thing I very much wanted to avoid was creating a sword and shield style fantasy book. Even though I love stories like Lord of the Rings, I felt there wasn’t anything new I could add to this genre, and that having those elements in modern times was far more interesting. However, one such fantasy book series provided such tremendous insight on concept and character that I found myself compelled to use it. That series was the Dragonlance Chronicles, by Track Hickman and Margaret Weis.
Hey everyone, decided to try the Write on Edge challenge today. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Write on Edge posts weekly writing prompts that anyone can participate in – you simply link up your post on the website. This week we were prompted to compose up to 500 words on the following Dr. Seuss quote and image:
“I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees for the trees have no tongues.” – Dr. Seuss, from The Lorax
One question every author gets asked is: what advice can you give to young writers? I say there are only two things that young authors can do. One of them is simply to write. Writing is a skill like any other, and no one develops a skill or talent without extensive practice and fine tuning. But there is another practice, that I must put before all others: READ! Because as much as writing is a skill, it’s also something that requires an understanding before you can start. Just like you wouldn’t start constructing a building without learning how, you can’t start writing a story about vampires without first reading vampire stories and understanding the rules and just how the genre works (unless your name is Stephanie Meyers).
But while you should always read if you plan to write, there are many ways to see a story progress and learn from it. Lightrider was born out of books, TV, film, and even video games, so you should be no means limit yourself to one medium or genre. As such, I’ve decided to start a series on this blog about some of the influences that went into the making of Lightrider and how they left their mark on the book (I may also start a series on the reverse). But also, I want to hopefully show how to pick up on themes and concepts from bodies of work in order to really get something that you can use out of it. And with that said, I’d like to begin with a TV series that taught me not only about the mechanics of Lightrider, but also a tremendous amount on character and morality, Avatar: The Last Airbender.
In some ways, writing a book is like constructing a building: it requires planning, time, and a vision of a grand final product. Yet while a building is far more rigid in its production, often requiring several sets of blueprints and designs that must be followed in a set time frame, books are different. Books are freer.
How to Develop a Writing Process
Everyone writes differently (an obvious statement, I know). Thoreau wrote in a cabin in the woods, Stephen King writes for six hours a day and countless others wrote in other ways. Each author has their own anecdotes, rituals, rules or escapes. Yet beyond the method, the biggest question about writing relates to the sort of blueprint a writer follows, rather, the outline they use.
As with everything else, this is different for every writer. Many writers devise extensive outlines, going every detail of the story before they even start putting their pens to paper (or words to a computer screen). Others simply get inspiration and start writing with no real plan. Both ways can work. Stephen King wrote the 1,000 page epic IT after seeing an old, dark storm drain in the woods one day. J.R.R Tolkien spent many years going through several drafts of the Lord of the Rings before finally completing the work, twelve years after its inception! To be successful, every author needs to find out the method that works for them.
Personally, I used a mix of practices for Lightrider. I came up with the main points of the stories (Joe’s human life, the selection some kind of training, and the eventual battle with the Chaos Demons) first. From there, I had no idea how they would all be connected, or how I would move from one thing to another. Rather than sit down and make a more detailed outline, I simply started to write. As I came out with the first scenes, I started to see things: I saw how the Architects would be watching Joe and commenting on his actions; I saw how Joe’s training would impact his actions towards the final battle; I realized how much drama I would get from bringing Joe back to his home during an attack; finally, I saw how Joe and Nightstalker’s relationship would grow enough that the bat would bring Joe back to the fold.
This process didn’t just dictate the major moves of the story, but also minor things; subplots grew out of needing to bridge gaps. For instance, Sandshifter’s character arc, and her relationship with Forester, came into play to fill a hole. As did the antagonism between Wavecrasher and Firesprite – something that can be built in future stories. Even the lightness of Windrider’s comic book know-how was crucial and developed from this technique. By having a moderate outline, I was able to come up with many of character plots and threads that made the story strong.
While I had success with this method, it might not be right for you. So if you like what I’ve described here, then by all means, give it a try! It frees your mind from having to create the whole story at once and allows you to have some fun while being creative as your write. If it feels too loose, then maybe you need an outline with more detail. Or maybe you need a house in the woods. As long as what you’re doing works for you, then it’s the right way to go.
Finally I wanted to share a special treat with you this week. It’s a special donation from my friend Craig – a Lightrider action figure! How cool, right? I’m just blown away by this: