Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Sometimes Having Superpowers Sucks (And That Makes Characters More Relatable)

If you crack open a comic book, or switch on a superhero film, one of the first things you notice is that having superpowers looks awesome. Whether it's Superman's fight for truth and justice, Spider-Man desperately battling to save his city, or Captain America's ability to go all day and all night without so much as slowing down, the power fantasies on display are engaging, thrilling, and just downright fun.

Well, most of the time, anyway.
While there are some heroes whose powers create complications in their lives (the Hulk is the perfect example, but characters like the Thing, Dr. Manhattan, Deadpool, or the very obscure Mr. Bones are also on the list), those tend to be the exceptions rather than the rule. More often than not heroes (and even a lot of villains) tend to have powers that improve their lives... often in meaningful ways.

One thing you can do, though, is to introduce complications. A drawback or two to go with that power. So step back and ask how, exactly, your character's powers affect their personal lives? What potential issues and sensitivities do they create? How do they manage them? And how involved is that management?

And for those who are curious, I've been dwelling on this idea thanks to the short story "Hero's Wake" in my recently released book The Rejects. Also, if you'd like more examples of superheroes caught between a rock and a hard place with their powers, take a look at KM Herkes and her novel Rough Passages, where powers tend to manifest along with mid-life crises rather than puberty for once!

Wetting The Bed, and Power Drawbacks

The basic plot of "Hero's Wake" is that one of this world's best-known metahumans has passed away, and his friends and family are coming together at his funeral. No masks, no costumes, no code names, just people who knew him, and who are going to miss him. One of the younger members of the team he helped establish loses control of her emotions, and the grass all around her starts blooming as she cries, flowers and greenery rising up at an unnatural rate.

When our protagonist comforts her, she says not to worry about it. They've all had their share of bed-wetting incidents, especially at times like this.

Seriously, go get your copy already!
As we see the other guests, we start to notice they've all taken little precautions to help stay on the level throughout the evening. One speedster wears these high, chunky heels because it stops her from accidentally moving too fast. A pyrokinetic stays away from the alcohol table, because it interacts strangely with the mutations that give him his gift. A super soldier is constantly eating, because if he doesn't then his metabolism will have him starving in a few hours. And though our protagonist has lost her father, she's very careful about who she embraces. All it takes is a moment of lost control, and she could crush someone to death in her arms because she was seeking comfort.

On the one hand, that's a bit of a look behind the curtain when it comes to metahumans. It gives you a glimpse into their lives, and makes them seem more human, and less like an archetype in a set of spangly tights. On the other hand it can be a lot of work, and it establishes a very particular tone. Weighing those things is important, as this advice needs to be evaluated on a project-by-project basis.

This concept can extend out past comic books and their associated sci-fi settings into other genres, as well. For fantasy stories, do your elite warriors develop a dependence on their performance-enhancing mutagens, needing to keep a steady stream of them in their systems in order to fight at full strength? Does being a sorcerer mean you have to wear particular kinds of clothing to avoid setting your robes on fire because your body produces so much heat? Does too much use of your magic make you feverish, risking death? Are those with orc heritage prone to skin conditions, or scars that overcompensate, making them stronger but also unsightly?

Whenever you've got characters with unusual abilities, powers, or attributes, it's worth taking a moment and asking what the drawbacks of those things might be. Sometimes they'll be small, like how elves speak softly because their ears make them sensitive to noise. Other times they'll be large, such as how a psychic might get overwhelmed by the noise of too many thoughts in a crowd if they don't take careful precautions. But whatever the situation, you can learn a lot about your characters (as well as making both them and their setting that much more interesting) if power has a bit of a price to it.

Even if it just means the guy who shoots lasers out of his face is colorblind, and didn't realized his girlfriend was a redhead until their second anniversary.

Like, Follow, and Come Back Again!

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing! For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, or my short story collection The Rejects!

If you'd like to help support my work, then consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page! Lastly, to keep up with my latest, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now on Pinterest as well!

Thursday, January 16, 2020

"The Rejects" is My New Release For 2020 (and You Should Totally Check It Out!)

2019 was an extremely busy year for me, as a creator. I started the Great Reshuffling, where I started moving and re-homing old articles of mine to my Vocal archive, which is a process that should be done in the next few months for those who've been following along. I had several RPG products released onto the market (at least 1-2 a month, if I'm being accurate), such as the Dungeons and Dragons module The Curse of Sapphire Lake, as well as working hard on 100 Kinfolk: A Werewolf The Apocalypse Project. I took on several short-term writing contracts, I judged a fiction competition for the first time in my career, attended a few conventions, and finished off a manuscript for a new novel.

However, it's been a hot minute since I released my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife last year, so I wanted to make sure my readers had something new from me to start the year off right. So this past summer I started putting together a unique collection of short stories that I like to call... The Rejects!

Come on... you know you're curious.

What is "The Rejects"?

Folks who've followed my career know that I've written a lot of short stories over the past dozen years or so of my life. For a while I was putting out 1-2 a month, on top of running blogs, handling freelance assignments, etc., and I had a fairly steady acceptance rate of around 80 percent or so for several years.

However, that still meant that roughly 20 percent of my stories came back to me.

Yeah, that math checks out.
Some of those stories eventually found homes with other publishers in fresh calls, but a lot of the ones I'd written kept getting cut for length, or being not quite right for the publishers I sent them to. One tale in particular, Dressing The Flesh (which you can read part of in the book's free sample) had a terminal case of, "Always a bridesmaid, but never a bride."

After a fresh consult with my beta readers, and deciding that I still loved these stories, I figured it was time to take matters into my own hands.

But what kinds of stories are actually in this book? Well, as someone whose tastes and writing projects have been all over the genre spectrum, I can say that the only really unifying themes are that these are stories I've written, and they were all rejected at least once before they wound up here. There's horror, science fiction, steampunk, thrillers, fantasy (traditional as well as modern), a weird Western, a ghost story, and many more.

In addition to genre, though, this collection boasts:

- A love-lorn ifrit
- A troll that eats child molesters
- The second story ever published in my Chicago Strange setting
- Several flavors of vengeance
- Two short stories inspired by gaming projects
- Two short stories about metahumans that are from opposite ends of the tonal spectrum

In short, it's a bag of trail mix! There might be some parts of it you like more than others, but if you've been a fan of my work thus far then I have a feeling you won't find too much to complain about if you dip a hand in, and scoop up some stories!

Like, Follow, and Stay Tuned!

That's all for this week's Business of Writing! If you'd like to see more of my work, take a look at my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!

If you'd like to help support my work, then consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page! Lastly, to keep up with my latest, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now on Pinterest as well!

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Age Needs To Be More Than Just a Number For Your Characters

Fiction is full of characters whose appearance belies their age. From vampires and aliens, to elves and mutants, there are a dozen tropes surrounding characters who are somewhere between long-lived and immortal. However, this is one of those areas where the urge to tell often overtakes the urge to show... and you really get way more out of these reveals if you show them to your audience rather than just tossing a number at them.

There's a reason this have been on my mind again, of late, for those who are wondering.

Doing It Poorly...

Giving examples is one of the best ways I've found to make solid points about techniques to use in writing, but I figured we'd get the most out of these examples by starting with the bad ones. And while there are plenty of potential examples out there, the one that bubbles to the surface in my mind is Twilight. I'm not even going to put an affiliate link for that book, that's how negatively I feel about the series, and the imprint it left behind on pop culture.

That's a whole separate blog post.
For this example, I'm going to use the film rather than the text. Simply put, the revelation of the vampire characters' ages tends to be done as matter-of-fact exposition rather than revealed through actions, speech, style, etc. We never have a moment where Edward has oddly dated speech or slang, or where he inadvertently reveals something telling (even if was a simple, "I learned to drive stick shift," cutting himself off before revealing he's older than automatic transitions, to say nothing of modern cars). In much the same way that the signs for him being a strange, inhuman creature are all blatantly just handed to the audience, we just get told his age instead of drawing out the suspense and letting us work for it. As such, it just slides right off of us without impact.

There are other vampire movies that do this (most whose names I can't remember, as they were only shown on Saturday afternoons by hosts with specific, spooky schticks), but we also see it in the original Dungeons and Dragons film. While a slapstick romp that's alternatively fun and cringe-worthy, there's a throwaway line in it where our comedy sidekick is trying to put the moves on an elven woman. Her curt response is to just toss her age at him (something absurd, I think it was in the 800s), and then to move on with her scene.

The issue is that in these examples, being told how old these characters are has no bearing on how we perceive them. It isn't reflected in meaningful ways, and there's no weight behind it. It's no different than being told someone is 26 or 40... we can mentally accept the age, but it doesn't affect the characters or the story in any way that re-contextualizes them.

Doing It Well...

From the other end of the spectrum, when a character's longevity is revealed over time, or in meaningful ways, it can be like a punch to the gut to the audience. It can make us feel for them, and at the same time add so much weight to the story, and their interactions in it, that the fact becomes impossible to ignore.

You probably know where this one is going.
If you've seen the extended edition of The Two Towers, then you already know the scene I'm talking about. However, in case you haven't seen it, for a swath of the film the young blonde Eowyn has been trying to catch our ranger's eye. One thing she does is make him some soup while they're on the trail; she's not much of a cook, but she tried. Then she brings up something funny her uncle said. He remembers Aragorn from when he was a boy, and said the ranger rode to war to war with Thengel, Eowyn's grandfather. Rather than laughing about how the king must be mistaken, Aragorn nods, and says he's surprised Theoden remembers, since he was only a small boy at the time.

We watch as Eowyn re-evaluates what she knows of Aragorn in that moment, going from playful, to surprised, to horrifically awestruck every time she guesses a higher number. Realizing in a way that is real for her, and thus real for the audience, that Aragorn's blood has made him long-lived, and that he has seen and done things far beyond the scope of a mortal's years.

It's not just the revelation that Aragorn is actually 87 when he looks like a rugged mid-30s, but Eowyn's reaction that drives it home. It casts all the skills he's displayed in a different light, and makes us look at him with a fresh perspective. It makes us realize that, for all his nobility, passion, and strength, that he is in a lot of ways an outsider to other people. That those who were afraid of the man called Strider might have had good reason to feel the way they did after all.

There are other instances of similar reveals really adding a lot to how characters are perceived. Wolverine, for example, played on this for years as we steadily realized he was far older than any living mutant on the heroes' side of things. Sometimes it was subtle, with mentions of certain bits of history that he was present for, or showing us skills he'd learned that he'd never showed off before. Other times it was blatant, with flashbacks in the 60s, World War II, and other eras where Logan looked the same as he always has. And in the Netflix adaptation of the Witcher, we see that Geralt is the stoic, grunting, easily annoyed curmudgeon many of us think our grandparents are... and that the mutations that make him so good at what he does might be responsible for his long life. Possibly feeding into the legends that Witchers have no feelings... because on a long enough timeline, everyone you knew or cared about will die, and you'll be left as their children, and even their grandchildren, grow old all around you.

Give Your Years Some Weight

If you're going to have characters whose age defies their appearance (or if it's something people just can't tell when they look at them in the case of strange or alien characters), don't just write a number on it. Writing a number tells us nothing, and gives us no value; it's just a fact.

Make us feel this character's age in big ways, and small ones. Show us the parts of them that never changed, and the little things that make them unique. Give us a glimpse into their inner lives, and show us a piece of their past that can put who they are and what they're doing into context. It's harder, yes, but you'll get a lot more oomph out of it, and it can make a character into an audience favorite if you do it just right.

Also, for more on this topic I'd suggest checking out the 4 Tips For Making Long-Lived Characters FEEL Old over on my sister blog Improved Initiative!

Like, Follow, and Come Back Again!

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing! For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!

If you'd like to help support my work, then consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page! Lastly, to keep up with my latest, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now on Pinterest as well!

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Authors, Thanks To Algorithms, You're Going To Have To Repeat Yourself To Be Heard

I've been comfortable calling myself an author for about ten years and change now. For most of that time I've had an Amazon author page where people can find my work, I've had The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page for those who want to help support what I do, and I've regularly posted all across my social media channels about my projects.

Despite that, every month or so I have a conversation with friends (and even followers) that feels like talking to an elderly relative who's hearing has started to go. Because no matter how clearly I've posted the links to my projects, or how often I talk about them in the forums and groups I'm in, there's always someone who pipes up with, "Wow, I didn't know you have a book/Patreon/archive of articles! That's great!"

Speak up, will ya son? I can't hear what you're saying.
On the one hand, this can feel exasperating when you've been bending your efforts to getting the word out so that people know what you've got on the market, and what you're working on. However, the way algorithms are designed actually stops a lot of people who would be interested from seeing your posts.

As a result, you're going to have to mention something multiple times if you want everyone to get the message.

Huge Potential Reach (With Problematic Connections)

Social media has a potentially infinite reach, which is kind of like saying that playing the lottery could make you a millionaire... it's technically true, but sort of overlooks the fact that you're really betting against the market if you expect that to be your meal ticket.

If lottery tickets were a good investment, rich people would buy them instead of stock.
For example, say you have a few hundred people who have decided to follow your Facebook page (my Facebook page has just over 700 folks on it right now, but you could boost that number a bit if you had a sec). Ideally you'd think that when you post something on your page that a majority of those folks would see it... after all, they liked you, and they're actively following you, so surely the site lets them see your content?

No. Not really.

If I put something on my page that generates a lot of activity from my followers, maybe 200 of them will see it. Of those who see it, maybe 70 and change will interact with it. The average interaction is significantly worse, with maybe a third to half of those numbers. And the stats are even worse when it comes to forums and groups. Because even if you post something that's really popular on a social media page or in a forum, it will only be seen by folks for a few days at most. That means anyone who wasn't on, who hadn't joined yet, or who wasn't particularly tuned-in during your brief moment in the sun missed what you had to say.

Think of it like a commercial. Most of the time the people you're trying to reach just walk into the other room and ignore you, even if you're selling something they want. But then the fifth time your post comes around, you manage to catch their attention, and without fail the first thing they say is, "Hey, that looks great, how come nobody told me about this?"

Well, I was trying. But the algorithm wouldn't put my call through until just now.

Repeat, But Don't Get Repetitive

The challenging part of marketing is trying to remind yourself that you still have a valid product that not everyone has seen yet. Because when you've been telling everyone who will listen about your book, your game, your YouTube channel, or whatever other endeavor you're working on for more than a year, it can feel like you must have reached everyone.

You haven't, trust me on that.

But there are going to be folks who heard you loud and clear the first seventeen times.
The thing to keep in mind here is balance. Because if you only talked up your book before its release, and then a brief weekend spot when it first came out, then a lot of people haven't heard about it through the social media grapevine. However, there are going to be people, groups, and forums who are going to get sick of seeing you post the same thing all the time if you keep harping on it.

So while you should endeavor to keep things fresh, and talk about new releases, new blog entries, and new projects, don't be afraid to toss out a throwback on the regular. Acknowledge it's been out for a while, and remind folks to leave a review if they liked it. Or to share the link with a friend who hasn't gotten their copy yet; a call to action never hurts!

This is sort of like how your book seems boring and stupid to you, because you've read it ten times before it went to the editors. Just remember, someone out there will be hearing about your work for the first time... so phrase your posts accordingly!

Speaking of which, check out my links below, and see which parts of my sprawling archive have escaped your notice thus far!

Like, Follow, and Stay Tuned!

That's all for this week's Business of Writing! If you'd like to see more of my work, take a look at my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!

If you'd like to help support my work, then consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page! Lastly, to keep up with my latest, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now on Pinterest as well!

Thursday, December 26, 2019

"Ready Player One," Identity, and Internal Consistency

So, a while back I sat down and listened to Ready Player One while I was on a road trip. I was really not all that interested in the book after all the things I'd heard about it, but Wil Wheaton was the reader for the audio book, so I figured what the hell, I'll give it a listen.

Everything you've heard is true... good and bad.
Before we go any further, yes the trivia about all of the nerd ephemera of the 1980s was interesting. Yes Wheaton's reading was engaging, and kept my attention. Yes the sheer amount of the different stuff touched on (video games, tabletop RPGs, movies, computers, etc.) all wrapped up in a Willy Wonka style hunt for the throne was a clever way to package the sheer amount of stuff the author wanted to hold forth about. On the other hand, it's also true that this book's style glorifies gatekeeping, is pretty incomprehensible in how the world and tech actually works, and it bends over backwards to make the nerdy, chubby, socially awkward white guy into a hero when, really, he just comes across like a whiny sad sack.

Now that that's out of the way, though, I want to touch on how the internal consistency of the book sort of falls apart regarding identity, experience, and who is and isn't "real."

Because it sticks out like a sore thumb, and it's a teachable moment.

A Modern View That Doesn't Fit The Sci-Fi Future

For those who haven't read the book, the world of Ready Player One is a crumbling, energy-starved dystopian hellscape where a massive, virtual reality computer world called the Oasis is the main place where people come together. You go to school there, meet people, attend parties, hang out, play video games, become a well-known celebrity, etc., etc. It's a tool that has been fully embraced for at least a generation, now.

Which is why the whole concern in the book about who someone "really" is, and the subtext of, "what if they don't look the way their avatar looks online?" hits such a flat note.

Because really, who are any of us?
That concern is rooted in a very 1980s/1990s view point, where we don't consider the things that we do online to be genuine. It's not real life, in other words, it's just the Internet. But in this book, the Internet IS your real life.

Our protagonist, for example, was a child when the Oasis first came online. He literally describes it as his first babysitter, keeping him plugged-in and entertained while his mom worked (also through the Oasis by doing cam shows, and similar digital work). He attended in-person school very briefly, but then switched to an Oasis school. The only people we ever see him interact with in-person till the end of the book are his aunt, one of her boyfriends, and a neighbor of his... literally every other interaction he has is online. For a majority of the story our protagonist is actually in a tiny apartment in Ohio, which he never leaves, ordering all his food and necessities from the net, and never so much as going outside. We see him shower once, but even his heartbroken brooding takes place online.

The idea that someone who's lived their whole lives knowing nothing else, and who can count the number of offline people he's had meaningful interactions with on one hand, would consider online friends to be somehow not their real selves is jarring, to say the least. And the over-emphasis on, "Do you really look like your avatar?" is equally weird.

Sci-fi with this amount of emphasis on the freedom and expression of the virtual world is typically used to dip into questions of race and ethnicity, of age, of gender and its expression, and dozens of other areas that it can be used to comment on... and there is a token nod to that with H, whose avatar is an athletic white guy while offline she's, in her own words, "a fat black chick." However, H chose that avatar so people would take her seriously, and so she could avoid harassment... realistic for today, certainly, but in a world where everyone is digital, and you could be a seven foot komodo dragon with a unicorn horn, are there really people demanding to know if their friends and loved ones really look the same offline? And rather than spending the middle chapters going on about the glitched screen in Pac Man's final level, wouldn't a brief moment to lay out some kind of anti-Oasis movement, or subcultures where you must have an avatar that truly reflects your appearance in the interest of some sort of digital code of truth be helpful to smooth out this oddly-placed emphasis on something that feels like a relic of the past?

Think Through The Implications of Your Extraordinary Elements

On the one hand, it could be argued that this book was just an excuse to wax nostalgic about all the pop culture elements of the 80s and 90s; a handy way to fit video games, giant robots, Internet culture, Monty Python, and all the other geek ephemera of the era into the text. And yes, the book does that.

But that doesn't make it a good book.

And, in this case, the world building falls apart because too much energy was being put into deciding which forty-year-old video games were going to be pivotal plot points, and not enough into asking what the culture, norms, and world was actually like after the introduction of such remarkable technology.

Because it's fair enough to say that someone who grew up offline, but who then adopted the online world would still have all sorts of hang-ups and cognitive problems telling physical reality from digital reality. But the book feels like a Gen X individual trying to write from the perspective of a gen Z character, who then goes on this whole tear about the world away from their screens, and their phones, and all these digital devices... things that only appear weird or unnatural to the older generation because they weren't in place when they were younger. To someone born to it, who grew up with it, these tools are just a part of how the world is... and the fact that the protagonist has a whole rant about who we really are offline, and how the world would be better if they could all leave the Oasis, feels like a rant from an out-of-touch grandpa who fell off the technology curve.

 For a book series that did this right, I recommend starting with Feed, the first in Mira Grant's Newsflesh trilogy. Short version, zombie apocalypse happened, and now our protagonists who grew up in the next generation are just trying to make a living. And there's plenty of nostalgia for older media (particularly zombie movies), but we see how the world has changed through their eyes, and how what would be bizarre or unheard of is just normal to them.

Like, Follow, and Come Back Again!

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing! For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!

If you'd like to help support my work, then consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page! Lastly, to keep up with my latest, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now on Pinterest as well!

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The Marketing Lessons We Could Learn From Elvis Presley's Manager

Marketing is a tricky beast, but if you're a creative professional then you can't afford to miss a trick... sometimes literally! That's why it pays to study some of history's great successful campaigns, and to take notes on them.

I was reflecting on one of those earlier, and I thought I'd share it for those folks who don't know about it. If you're not familiar with the ins and outs of the life and times of Elvis Presley, the example started with these handy little buttons.

Full honesty, I might have bought one of these, myself.

What These Little Buttons Can Teach Us

If you like music, chances are good you know who Elvis Presley was. Still referred to as the King of Rock and Roll by a lot of folks, his music remains popular, and going to see his home is like a pilgrimage for some of his fans. While he was a landmark in chart toppers and record sales, it was important to remember that not everyone was an Elvis fan. In fact, a lot of people back then actively disliked his music, and they were pretty vocal about that fact.

Some things never change, I guess.

Of course, just because someone hated Elvis, that was no reason he couldn't make money off of them. Or, at least, that was his manager's reasoning according to Boing Boing.

We got what they want, baby!
You see, back in the 1950s, Elvis's manager started printing buttons and other merch which declared that the purchaser hated Elvis and his music. Making these buttons was easy, of course, because they were already producing the "I Love Elvis" variety, so all they had to do was change the text for a different crowd. This was the marketing equivalent of selling guns to both sides of the conflict, which meant that whatever your opinion was all of your money went straight into the King's coffers one way or another.

Something For Everyone

While most of us aren't famous enough that we can make money off our haters with such a brilliant strategy (I mean, have you ever read and reviewed anything off my Amazon author page?), the core principle on display is sound. In short, ask what people who aren't buying what you're selling want, and offer them that, too.

You don't have to be as extreme as the anti-Elvis buttons to put this strategy to use, either. If you have an ebook you're trying to sell, for example, how many people have said they only read physical copies? If you have a physical book, how many people have told you they prefer ebooks? If you have tee shirts that tie in, how many people ask for those designs on buttons and pins instead?

Pay attention to what people will actually buy. Because while they might not say, "I'd buy that if only it was in X format," being able to read between the lines (and make some small leaps in logic) can do a lot to make sure that you clean up at the end of the day.

Just something to keep in mind, since we're in the midst of the holiday crunch, and all of us are putting together new plans for our marketing in 2020.

Like, Follow, and Stay Tuned!

That's all for this week's Business of Writing! If you'd like to see more of my work, take a look at my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!

If you'd like to help support my work, then consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page! Lastly, to keep up with my latest, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now on Pinterest as well!

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Fiction Creates Empathy (Yet Another Reason Inclusion and Diversity Matter)

How many times has a book or a movie brought you to tears? Probably more times than you're willing to admit in mixed company, but from Bambi to Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 chances are good you've had some tearjerker moments in your life. And if you tried to stem those tears with logic, you might have asked yourself why you were so upset? After all, these characters aren't real. They couldn't have died, learned deeper lessons about themselves, or reconciled with their parental figures and estranged family because they never lived... they aren't real.

The problem, of course, is that for the couple of pounds of jelly housed in your skull that makes all of your decisions, real is a slippery thing to define.

But if Darkblade isn't real, is anyone real?
For the gelatinous thinking parts between our ears, reality is nothing more than sensory input. Our higher brains know there isn't a hulking masked killer in our homes when we watch a slasher movie, but the construction of the narrative allows us to essentially hack our own bodies to produce adrenaline and a fear high, along with the catharsis of release when the characters do something on the screen. That doesn't mean the sensations are somehow less real, just because the scenario that produced them is fake.

What psychologists have found in studies like this one is that fiction also creates the capacity for empathy in the reader. Because your brain can't tell the difference between reading about a person who doesn't exist, and actually knowing someone who does. As long as the book you're reading provides you with an emotional journey that invests you in the character's experiences (something Scientific American pointed out, even if they also took the time to shit on genre fiction while they were at it) it improves your ability to empathize with other people.

So, the more you read, the more able to see other people's perspectives you become. This also means that people could begin to sympathize with perspectives they wouldn't otherwise see, or which they simply have no first-hand experience of. The same way as if they had diversified their groups of friends or family members in real space.

The Ripple Effects of Inclusion and Diversity

This is where the true power of the written word really shines through. Because just like how a scary story might give us the vicarious thrill of being chased by an undead maniac, other stories could put us in other situations we've never experienced. What it's like to be a young woman for male readers. What it's like to have a disability for those without such a condition. What it's like to be an ethnic or religious minority just trying to make your way in a world that is doing its best to keep its boot firmly on your head.

Fight the man, you feeling me?
In situations like this, your brain can't tell the difference between reading about a character and actually making a flesh-and-blood friend. Not in the delusional way (people aren't going to go around talking about how they spent the weekend escaping the prisons of NarShan with their best friend, as a rule), but in the sense that exposure to characters and exposure to people can have similar effects on your brain. So even if you live in a white suburb, reading a book can make the injustices and intolerances faced by the black community feel more real to you. Even if you've never once questioned being heterosexual, you can catch a glimpse of what it's like to be unsure, or to have other people trying to push and pull you in different directions regarding your sexuality. If you're part of the most common religion in the nation, a good book can show you what it's like to be someone persecuted for their faith by the majority.

In short, making friends with fictional characters affects us. The messages we see in their worlds lodge themselves in our brains, and open up channels that might not grow in any other way. They allow us to see different perspectives as readers, and to understand people outside our own experiences and beyond our own skins, metaphorically speaking.

This is why it's important for people to read a varied diet, but it's also why it's important for writers to make sure that the characters and stories we present are the sort of things that we want changing people's brains. We need to make characters, not caricatures, and to present scenarios that have internal consistency and logic to them, while also being engaging to read. In short, we are the ones tasked with making brain food for the masses, and tricking them into eating a double dose of empathy because it has a candy coating of engaging story and tasty drama to it.

Nobody ever said this job was easy. But if you've ever wondered if what you're doing matters, know that it does. You are literally affecting the way people see the world when they chew through your story... who else can say that about their work?

Like, Follow, and Come Back Again!

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing! For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!

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