Sunday, January 27, 2013

Dissecting The Chosen One, Part I

I'm a fantasy writer and a fantasy reader.  I don't consider myself an expert on everything, but I do have opinions about the tropes that appear in the genre.  Some I like, some I do not.  One of my biggest pet peeves in fantasy is the eminent appearance of The Chosen One.  In this post, I'll dissect precisely why I dislike it.

What is the Chosen One?

The Chosen One, whether stated as such or not, is a variation of a hero.  Usually, they grow up in an impoverished, abusive, or just plain ordinary environment.  Bonus points if they're orphans.  Then one day they find out about some kind of wonderful destiny they possess.  Maybe they're the secret heir to a kingdom.  Maybe, they wield some kind of rare magic.  Maybe a prophecy has pinned the fate of the world to their shoulders.  At any rate, they are suddenly deemed extraordinary.

In general, our Chosen One is less than thrilled about this change.  Doubt blossoms in their bosoms and they protest they're not worthy, they can't do it, someone made a mistake.  Fortunately, a wise old mentor and a posse of followers usually bolster the hero's ego with such platitudes as, "you must fulfill your destiny," "the fate of the world rests on your shoulder," "if you cannot do this no one can," etc., etc.  Eventually, the hero bows to the pressure and saves the world.   

Why Do I Dislike It?

In the first place, the Chosen One is overdone.  It's fairly ubiquitous, and it's also fairly predictable.  Whenever I read a blurb about a displaced royal or an outcast magician having to embrace their destiny, my instinct is to shudder and put the book away.  I know exactly what's going to happen.  It's not new.  It's not interesting.

Aside from that, there are several pitfalls inherent to this kind of character that the writer may inadvertantly fall into.  I'm not saying all writers do or that all falls are unintentional.  A skilled writer may even embrace these traps and pull them off.  In general, though, these three pitfalls bother me because they are not pulled off well.

Pitfall #1: Laziness

Creating a Chosen One character does not mean that the writer is lazy, but it does give them an easy way to justify super-powering the character, showering them with luck, or unlocking a previously unknown ability right in the nick of time.  Why?  Because it's destiny, that's why.

The problem with a Chosen One is that you run a dangerous risk of creating an all-too-perfect, all-too-lucky, rather unlikable character to whom the entire world bows down before.  (A Mary Sue, in other words.)  Even if they aren't all powerful, remarkable things just happen to them.

The issue here isn't that these things occur, but that they aren't explained or justified.  If the author takes the time to set up these remarkable events and/ or abilities, fine, crisis averted.  But the temptation is to say, he's just special and move on.  That's laziness, and that does not satisfy this particular reader.

Pitfall #2: Predestination

Skipping the theology, I'm going to use define as predestination a set future in which whatever is destined must come to pass.  Many fantasy novels grapple with the issue of inserting free will into their story.  In the most literal sort of way, it doesn't exist.  In the world of the novel, the writer is God.  The author choses their hero, the author plot out the end, and they control the choices of the character.  End of story.

But the story can't be so transparent.  You see, destiny isn't so popular in the real world right now.  Most people in the audience like to believe they make their own decisions and control their own fate.  To compensate, the author tries to give a marginal amount of free will to the Chosen One: they can either accept or reject their destiny.  
Thus, we get heroes who spend 3/4s of the book moping about whether to accept the responsibility or not, all in an attempt to maintain the illusion of free will.
But readers know there is no real choice.  If the hero rejects destiny, there goes the story.  So the author pulls all sorts of strings to make the hero to complete their task.  Kill off a friend, kidnap the love interest.  Give them a nudge in the right direction.  In the end, as much as the author tries to disguise it, destiny wins.  The Chosen One had no choice.

It's a paradox.  

In my opinion, the problem comes down to one: one choice, one future, one destiny.  If the writer admits there are other choices, other futures, other destinies, then fate is a little more dependent on the hero's choice.  A good way to show this is to show the consequences of other hero's decision or to make the fate of the world a little more ambigous.  

Pitfall #3: Messiah-Complex

This takes two forms.  First and ugliest, is the self-righteous hero.  This hero has been told he is special so many times, he cannot conceive of anyone else saving the world but him.  As such, his methods are always right, wise, and justified.  Unless the author slaps the hero with a failure, this type quickly becomes insufferable.  

The second form of the Messiah-complex is the slavish-followers syndrome, wherein the hero may be modest enough to doubt he's the Chosen One, but his posse clings to their belief in him with the tenacity of cult members.  You'd think the hero would come across more sympathetically in this version, but that's not always the case.  A hero who needs ego baths from his followers just to get up in the morning is worse than the self-righteous hero.  At least Mr. Insufferable has self-confidence.

And heaven help you, if both forms converge.  A hero with a Messiah-complex followed by a posse of ardent worshippers is almost a sure-fire recipe for a villain.  The only cure is to make the hero lose--badly.  Rip all his adoration away and make him ordinary.  Only then will he recapture the audience's sympathy.

* * *

So this concludes my critique of the Chosen One, as seen in fantasy novels.  Next week, I'll post ways  to fix or avoid these problems.  How do you create a Chosen One who does not come across as generic or predictable?  I'll give you my suggestions.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Weekly Update: 1/26/13

No substitute jobs this week, so I spent almost 40 hours writing--and yes, that included Martin Luther King's Day.  My parents came over, and we watched The Hobbit.  Nice, advernturesome fantasy.  I finished Chapter 24 of my novel, which turned out to be a mamoth 10,600 words or 39 pages.  

But the big news of the week happened on Thursday.  I had my driver's exam.  And... I failed.

Stupid rain.  Here I live in Southern California, and the one day I schedule for an exam is the one day it happens to pour.  (Though, to be fair, it rained all weekend.)  I was so flustered about keeping to the speed limit and signaling properly and backing up along a curb that I completely forgot to de-fog my window--resulting in a prompt disqualification.  

I was mad, mostly at myself.  I didn't practice enough, I let nerves get the better of me, stupid, stupid, stupid. 

Since then, I've been practicing.  And since I hate it, you're going to be subjected to a rant.  Driving is a mix of monotonous and terrifying.  You're forced to use all your concentration muscles, never knowing if one careless moment can cause you an accident.  And believe me, I've had some careless moments.  If my mind starts to drift off even the slightest, suddenly I'm stopping at green lights or turning into the wrong lane.  Grrr.  So frustrating.

Aside from that, there's the reason I've put off driving so long, in that I don't see it as a symbol of freedom, but rather as a restraint.  You get a car and you need to pay for insurance, gas, and maintanence.  Where do you get the money?  You work.  You get stuck at a minimum wage job or you get roped into debt.  I mean, it's fine, but I spend hours a week just writing, without pay, so it's not exactly like I can afford it.  To me, a car is a symbol of the "real world" imposing on my dream.

Okay, rant over.  You can tell me how childish I'm being in the comments.

Hours Spent Writing: 39 (Novel: 30.5, Fanfiction/ Other: 8.5)
Hours Spent Driving: 9.5

Sunday, January 20, 2013

5 Delectable Descriptions

I'm the sort of person who skims description if it gets too long or seems too pointless to the story, but there is one kind of description I read over and over again.  I love reading about food, seeing it prepared, tasting it.  It adds a whole different dimension to writing.  

And so I have assembled a list of my personal five favorite food descriptions, all of them found oddly enough in children or YA books.  (Is it because I just have stronger memories of food when I was younger or does adult fiction neglect the sense of taste?)  Here they are in descending order, with my own attempt at food description at the end, so you can see how I stack up.

5.  A Feast of Soups from The Hunger Games: Catching Fire by Susanne Collins

(This passage evokes all my fantasies of going to one of those four-star restaurants and sampling everything on the menu.  All the different colors and textures and flavors.  I just want to keep reading and reading.)

"OK, no more than one bite of each dish," I say.  My resolve is almost immediately broken at the first table, which has twenty or so soups, when I encounter a creamy pumpkin brew sprinkled with slivered nuts and tiny black seeds.  "I could just eat this all night!" I exclaim.  But I don't.  I weaken again at a clear green broth that I can only describe as tasting like spring time, and again when I try a frothy pink soup dotted with raspberries.

4.   Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

(There are very few descriptions that can be tasty, disgusting, humorous, and magical all at the same time.  J. K. Rowling pulls this off nicely.  The sheer variety is wonderful, especially for a curious taster like me, who wants to try everything at least once.)

"You want to be careful with those," Ron warned Harry.  "When they say every flavor, they mean every flavor--you know, you get all the ordinary ones like chocolate and peppermint and marmalade, but then you can get spinach and liver and tripe.  George reckons he had a booger-flavored one once."

Ron picked up a green bean, locked at it carefully, and bit into a corner.

"Bleaaargh--see?  Sprouts."

3. Dinner with the Beavers from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

(I love how Mr. Lewis is so enthusiastic about this fish, he wants to pop into the book and eat it himself.  When I was a kid, I hated fish, yet somehow he convinced me that if I had dinner with the Beavers, I'd be scraping my plate clean.  It's fresh, wholesome, comforting description.)

Just as the frying pan was nicely hissing Peter and Mr Beaver came in with the fish which Mr Beaver had already opened with his knife and cleaned out in the open air.  You can think how good the new-caught fish smelled while they were frying and how very much the hungry children longed for them to be done and how very much hungrier still they had become before Mr Beaver said, "Now we're nearly ready."  Susan drained the potatoes and then put them all back in the empty pot [...].  There was a jug of creamy milk for the children (Mr Beaver stuck to beer) and a great big lump of deep yellow butter in the middle of the table from which everyone took as much as he wanted to go with his potatoes, and all the children thought--and I agree with them--that there's nothing to beat good freshwater fish if you eat it when it has been alive half an hour ago and has come out of the pan half a minute ago.

2.  Chocolate Stories from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

(Do I even have to explain why this is on my list?  Roald Dahl took all the lusciousness of candy, combined it with his deep imagination, and layered on the description.  While the whole book is wonderful, this paragraph nicely summerizes the fantasical flavors in one condensed passage.)

"And then again," Grandpa Joe went on, speaking very slowly now so that Charlie wouldn't miss a word, "Mr. Willy Wonka can make marshmallows that taste of violets, and rich caramels that change color every ten seconds as you suck on them, and little feathery sweets that melt away deliciously the moment you put them between your lips.  He can make chewing gum that never loses its taste, and candy balloons that you can blow up to enormous sizes before you pop them with a pin and gobble them up.  And by a most secret method he can make lovely blue bird's egg with black spots on them and when you put one of these in your mouth, it gradually gets smaller and smaller until suddenly there is nothing left except a tiny little pink sugary bird sitting on the tip of your tongue.

1. Pig Tails from Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

(Actually, anything by Laura Ingalls Wilder qualifies.  Anyone can make chocolate sound good.  It takes a real wordsmith to make me drool over headcheese and bear.  I chose this passage in particular because the author took something I would normally find disgusting and not only made it seem delicious, but fun as well.)

Pa skinned it for them carefully and into the large end he thrust a sharpened stick.  Ma opened the front of the cook stove and raked hot coals out into the iron hearth.  Then Laura and Mary took turns holding the pig's tail over the coals.

It sizzled and fried and drops of fat dripped off it and blazed on the coals.  Ma sprinkled it with salt.  Their hands and their faces got very hot, and Laura burned her finger, but she was so excited she did not care[...].

At last it was done.  It was nicely browned all over, and how good it smelled.  They carried it into the yard to cool it, and even before it was cool enough they began tasting it and burning their tongues.

They ate every little bit of meat off the bones and then they gave the bones to [the dog] Jack.

Bonus: My Attempt Describing Food

(This comes from Chapter 15 of the novel I'm currently writing, called The Changelings.  I've tried to learn from the masters, even if I'm not quite at their level yet.)

Amber took her to the kitchen.  Fire pits lined the floor and filled the air with smoke.  Sylvie coughed.  Massive chains and hooks hung down from the ceiling, suspending huge, bubbling cauldrons just over the fire.  Ku Rokai cooks with sweaty faces stirred and shouted to each other for more garlic, more salt.  They didn't seem to mind the presence of Amber, who maneuvered 
around them and dipped a ladle into a pot.

"Smoked salmon chowder.  Delicious.  I get my serving before they add so much salt.  Would you like it?"

"I don't really care for fish," Sylvie said.

"No?  Then maybe fried meat and vegetables.  Simple."

Amber danced around the kitchen, plucking up ingredients and handing them to Sylvie.  Soon Sylvie's arms were filled with leeks, carrots, and a half a squash, as well as the canteen of salmon chowder.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Weekly Update: 1/19/13

This week got off to a rough start.  I didn't get enough sleep on Monday, which ruined me for about half the week.  I also spent a lot of time driving this week, practicing for my licensing exam next week.  (Yes, I'm 28 and still don't have a driver's license.)  Worst of all was the sheer amount of editing for my most recent chapter of my fanfiction.  It start off at 10,000 words.  I re-wrote at least 8,000 words, the edited it down to 6,000 words.  That took most of my week.

Compared to last week, I felt lazy and unproductive.  So, I looked over my weekly planner, where I've been recording my work for the week.  It turned out that Monday-Saturday, I worked a full week, betwee my writing and my substituting.

Hours spent on Novel: 18.5
Hours spent on Fanfiction: 23
Hours spent Substituting: 7
Total: 48.5

It's not as good as last week.

Hours spent on Novel: 28.5
Hours spent on Fanfiction/ Other: 5.5
Hours spent Substituting: 21
Total: 55

And that's the weird thing.  I feel guilty for not getting enough work done or enough of the "right" kind of work done.  It's my perfectionism coming up again, I suppose, my persistant worry that nothing I do will ever be enough, that I'm not enough.  Keeping records is a bit helpful, because at least I can look back and say, you know what, I got my hours in, I can rest now.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Book Review: Unwind

Title: Unwind
Author: Neal Shusterman
Genre: Science Fiction (Dystopian), YA


After a messy war over the sanctity of life, society has decided on a horrific compromise.  Life cannot be taken, but it can be "unwound."  Teenagers can be split apart, every part of their body transplanted to others, so that they are technically living, if not whole.

Connor is a troubled youth, who's parents decide he's too much hassle to keep alive.  He discovers their plans for him and runs, bumping into two other unwinds: Risa, a ward of the state who is deemed not quite talented enough to be kept alive, and Lev, a "tithe," the ten son "donated" by a religious purpose for holy sacrifice.  They fight for their lives and ideals, while the threat of unwinding looms on the horizon.


This is one of those dangerous books, where, if you pick it up, you will have a great deal of trouble putting it down.  The suspense begins on page 1, when our hero Connor faces a decision: does he submit to the unwind order his parents signed for him or does he escape.  From there is constant action and the threat of danger.  I found only one lull, mid-book, when the characters reached a point of relative safety.

Like all good Dystopian scifi, Unwind begins with a horrific idea and explores its ramification.  Why would parents think about sacrificing their children?  How would a society try to assuage its guilt?  And, most prominently, child actually continue to live in some function after their unwinding?  The answers are not so simple as they may seem.   This is not a society of black and white, but shades of gray.

While dark at times, Unwind maintains a good balance of hope, and the story never fails to surprise or intrigue.  Just when you think you know where something is heading, it turns around and surprises.  If you're fond of Dystopian science fiction, suspenseful writing, and twisty, well-crafted plots, this is a story for you.  Just be sure to read it when you have some time to spare.

Rant (Spoilers):

This is a solid book.  Craft-wise, it does everything a book ought to do.  It began tense, provided twists and turns, and ended right where you dreaded going but in your secret heart really wanted to see.  There was a cast of colorful characters, moral dilemnas, action, drama, and romance.  It was fast-faced, vivid in its world-building, but not overly wordy.  The conclusion contained pangs of loss and sparks of hope.  If you want heart-wrenching, look no further than the scene where a character gets unwound, losing one by one all the pieces of his identity.  If you want sweet, witness how the parents of Humphry Dunfree put their broken boy back together again.

This book did everything right.  And yet, for some reason I just can't understand, I didn't fall in love with it.  I felt completely satisfied, but not personally attached or compelled to immediately go out and read the next book.  Maybe the end was just a little too "closed like a clamshell" perfect for me.  I didn't have any lingering questions.  I didn't feel the drive to start a revolution and overturn the world.  The characters seemed settled into their roles as minor revolutionaries and that was good enough for me.

I guess if I'm going to be fanatically picky, Connor and Risa, while likable characters, never really transcended their "hero" and "heroine" archetypes.  They always acted good insofar as they could, but never revealed any tremendous hidden depths.  All the internal conflict and shades of gray went to Lev, who easily usurped them as the most interesting character in the book.  But even he, by the end, seemed to have resolved all the doubt that haunted him throughout the book.

But this is all just taste.  Can I blame an author who did everything well because I personally didn't bond to his characters, because it didn't reshape my way of thinking?  The book is well worth reading.  It's just not one of my all-time favorites.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Weekly Update: 1/12/13

It was the first week back from winter break, and I honestly expected to get no work, as I figured teachers were rested and healthy.  Boy, was I wrong.  I had subbing jobs on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.  It was my busiest week thus far.  Now, don't get me wrong--I'm not complaining.  But this sudden influx of work did put a wrench in my plans for the week.

Anticipating an abundance of free time, I had devoted Monday and Tuesday to creating an enacting a plan of discipline for the week.  First, I'd spend 6:00-7:30 writing in my journal or my idea notebook. At 6:00-7:00, I'm staring at the website, waiting for a subbing job to pop up, so I can't use any other app on my ipad.  But pencil and paper work fine.  So after 7:30, when I know there's no job, I take a quick walk around the block to get my writing juices flowing.  Then, I write from 7:30-2:30--or the exact amount of time I'd spend substituiting.  I take another walk to end my session.

The beauty of it is that after 2:30, I do not have to write anymore.  I can spend my free time getting caught up with my correspondence, watching T.V., doing chores, whatever I want.  And I'm under no obligation to do any more writing.  Free time is my "bribe" for pushing through my writing.  And on Monday and Tuesday, it worked well.  I got a hard ten pages written and had time to watch a couple movies.  All went well.

Until I got a job.

Well, now what?  I still work 7:30-2:30, but now I have no time to write.  So, I have to go home and squeeze in a couple hours from 7:00-9:00 PM to do writing.  But that's still not enough, so now I have to spend Saturday and possibly Sunday writing, just to keep my (self-imposed) deadlines.

No plan is perfect, I guess.  We'll just have to see how it goes.


Sunday, January 6, 2013

How Writing is Like the Stock Market

Once I dreamed of being a factory.  In discipline, not in product: I dreamed of cranking out page after page, manuscript after manuscript, of setting up a schedule and achieving it without fail.  But the discipline of writing, I discovered, is not much like factory work. 

Driven by emotion, subject to unpredictability, writing is so much more like the stock market.

Please note: I'm not an expert at the stock market by any means.  But my father is, and some of what he has tried to teach me has managed to stick in my head.  These are the lessons I learned from him.  

1.  The Stock Market is Not Consistent

The market goes up and down.  Your energy will go up and down.  Governments may try to stimulate the stock market by fiddling with interest rates or tax codes.  It doesn't guarantee a rise in profits.  Likewise, you may gulp down expresso after expresso, but that does not mean the pages will come flowing out.  Some days are a struggle and you just can't help it.

2.  There are Trends in the Stock Market

My father has a trader's almanac, which tells him that September is historically a low-performing month, while December will usually be higher during the season of Christmas.  Likewise, I know that historically I am most energetic in the spring, whereas my energy decreases from November and December, due to darkness and holiday stress.  This helps me as I work out my goals.

Aside from seasonal trends, you can see the state of the economy based on news and a careful observation of sectors and companies.  In this way, you can forecast your energy levels based on upcoming events.  Moving?  Vacation?  Surgery?  Maybe you'd better invest your time in journaling or just skip writing altogether.

3.  The Most Money is Made in Spurts

Most sectors chug up and down, up and down, and remain pretty flat.  But then, all it once, they have a hot streak.  This is when you need to be in the market.  This is when the profit reels in.  Likewise, when you write.  You chug and chug until you hit a bubble of inspiration that lifts you to the heights of glory.

The lesson seems to be to cash in only when the market is hot, but wise investors know that by the time the general public is aware of a trend, chances are that trend has already topped out.  In order to make sure you're in right when the market is starting to go up, you have to be on the look out every single day.  Writers need to catch burst of inspirations and milk them for all their worth, but to do that, they must be constantly prepared, constantly writing.   

4. You Can Make Money No Matter What

If the market is going down, you can still make money.  You just have to change your strategy.  Maybe you sink your money into bonds.  Maybe you play the "bear market," and invest in the market continuing to fall.  Maybe you take money out of the market and pay off debts, "making" money by getting rid of the life-sucking high interest rates.  You can always do something.

If writing a particular chapter gets you nowhere and you're feeling constantly uninspired, try something else.  Write a short story.  Do some research.  Go tackle that pile of chores you've been meaning to get to which is always in the back of your mind and starting to give you anxiety.  If you aren't productive in one thing, try another.
5. You Will Lose Money

No matter how professional you are, how wise, how experienced, you will make bad choices at least some of the time.  If you can't stomach the thought of losing hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, then playing the stock market may not be right for you.  Similarly, all writers throw away hundreds, if not thousands of pages.  If you get too cannot let go of what you write, this might not be the profession for you.  But if you don't get too attached to your every gain, you'll find that you will prosper indeed.

6. Even the Stock Market Gets Days Off

And so should you. 

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Weekly Update: 1/5/13

At last I'm 28.  The twenties are falling out from under me.  30 looms on the horizon.

I celebrated my birthday at It's a Grind coffeehouse in Anaheim with Michelle and Jean.  The waiter gave me a gingerbread mocha with a heart in the steam.  Later that night, we got Chinese food.  My aunt made me a stack of red velvet cupcakes with exactly 28 candles on them.  I couldn't blow them all out.

Brea Library Writer's Club was a small group today: only five of us showed up.  Ned spoke about an app called Ether Books ( that publishes and lets you read short stories for free.  They'll even pay you for your story if it meets certain criteria.  I should look into it.  There's a Saint Patrick's Day short story coming up in March, but I don't know if I should enter.

I'm so close to finishing Chapter 26, I can taste it.  Literally 1 1/2 pages stand between me and success.  I will vanquish it tonight and check it off my list.