Thursday, June 26, 2014

Why I Hate Batman (And What Writers Can Learn From His Character Mistakes)

One of my earliest memories is going to see Tim Burton's Batman in the theater with my parents. Not long after one of my uncles gave me a leather bound copy of Frank Miller's run on the Dark Knight, and I was a loyal follower of the animated series from the time it came out. I even wrote an article right here that shows players how to convert the caped crusader into a character for the Pathfinder roleplaying game. No I can't quote the comics chapter and verse, but it's no stretch of the truth to say I've been a fan most of my life.

That's why it was so awkward for me when I realized Batman is actually really bad at what he does.

What Are You Talking About?

Make it good, punk.
Let's begin at the beginning, shall we? Bruce Wayne goes to see the Mark of Zorro with his parents, and on their way back from the theater a mugger shoots and kills Bruce's parents. Broken, Bruce dedicates himself to making sure that no one else goes through this kind of pain. He trains with martial arts masters in the east, studies under criminal investigation experts in Europe, and devotes his mind, body, and soul to understanding every method at his disposal for stopping crime. When he returns to Gotham he builds an arsenal of highly advanced weapons and tools, and declares himself the protector of all the citizens within the city limits.

With me so far? Good.

Comedian Reginald D. Hunter put it best, so I'm going to paraphrase what he said. The argument goes a little something like this. As I understand it Batman is a rich white man in a hopelessly corrupt city, and in order to avenge the death of his parents he decides to put on a costume and beat up on street level crime. He doesn't go after crooked bankers or white collar crime, just drug dealers and gang bangers. Batman is a conservative's wet dream. Fuck Batman.

From that point onward I could never see the character in the same light.

No Punching Required

To be fair Batman is a character written for comic books. This means he needs to have serial adventures, often with a repeat cast in the form of the Rogue's Gallery, and that he needs to be actively participating in his adventures. With that said his actions make no goddamn sense given his experience, education, and knowledge of human psychology.

Ummm... what?
All right, I'll put it this way. Bruce Wayne has studied crime all over the world. It's intimated that he is a genius capable of building the most advanced machines, maintaining a technological arsenal, following the most obscure trail left by the neatest of villains, and that he understands the human mind so well that he often knows what criminals are going to do before they take any action at all.

So why the hell hasn't he completely eliminated common street crime in Gotham City by using the two greatest weapons in his arsenal: prodigious wealth, and the social standing of the 1%?

The Massive Plot Hole

While there are some villains (The Joker, Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, etc.) who are threats beyond reason or sense, most of the crime that Batman goes after is pretty garden variety stuff. He patrols the city from the rooftops looking for muggers, drug dealers, pimps, hired killers, and others. While there's no argument that these are legitimate problems, criminal justice research generally agrees that patrolling the streets is one of the worst ways to stop crime from happening. This is true even for huge, metropolitan police forces... Batman's one man. So not only is the most brilliant detective and dangerous martial artist in the world wasting his time on a technique he must know is inferior, but he isn't fighting the root cause of most crime.

What is the root cause of crime you ask? And why can't Batman punch it in the face?

Because crime isn't perpetrated by evil; it's perpetrated by people. Crime is a symptom of crumbling infrastructure, poor education, lack of good-paying jobs, and other, more ephemeral things. For every lunatic with a painted face there are a hundred thugs and goons who might never have decided to beat people up for a living if they had a comfortable home to live in, a good education, a chance to get good jobs, and social services they could depend on. Things that a billionaire who runs a massive corporation could easily provide, and even better turn a profit off of so he could help even more people.

Failing that (because who wants to read about a superhero who does good by providing jobs and social welfare?), why not focus on people who commit the biggest crimes? Bankers that launder money for organized crime keep these organizations going, white collar criminals who bankrupt hundreds of thousands of people lead to suffering and desperation on a massive scale, and corrupt politicians pave the way for policies like the school-to-prison pipeline. These are characters mentioned in passing, sometimes, but generally speaking they're passed over in favor of tooth-splintering brawls and madmen with time bombs.

Batman's avowed goal is to fight crime, but all he's doing is fighting criminals. He's punching the tide, and while a few droplets are stopped, the waves just keep crashing onto the beach.

He's Only One Man

Then again, so is he.
It's a romantic idea, the lone knight standing against a sea of wickedness. The problem is that as a character Batman has been shown to be a pragmatist. He's recruited numerous cohorts and allies, from Robin and Batgirl to James Gordon and others. Time and time again we see him not sleeping for days trying to do it all himself... why not just recruit more help?

It's pretty simple, really. Bruce took Dick Grayson and turned him from an acrobat into a skilled crime fighter... why couldn't he do that with others? There is a plot from Frank Miller with this very proposal, but more often than not Bruce hogs all the action to himself. Why not start up a security company and personally train those in it to act as his agents? Why not provide some of his technology to the police force to give them the tools they need to keep order? Why not campaign as Bruce Wayne to put driven, honorable men in public office?

The short answer is because that would solve too many problems. The more convoluted answer is that what drives Batman as a character, and us as his readers, might just be the need to indulge in the Old Testament style retribution against those we perceive as being in the wrong. It's a clear hero/villain line... but are those really the only stories Batman has to tell?

The Lessons Writers Should Take Away From This

There are a few things that I think my fellow writers can take away from this discussion.

Number one is that it's always a good idea to explore your character as deeply and fully as you can. If you give a character certain skills or knowledge, then it's important that they use those abilities in the most logical ways. Never be afraid to plumb the depths of your characters; you need to know everything about them even if your audience doesn't.

Number two is that you should always examine character goals from a big-picture perspective. One man eliminating crime is a Quixotic kind of goal, while killing a particular crime family (*coughs* Punisher *coughs*) is a great deal more feasible. Neither is necessarily better or more right than the other, but it's important for you to know whether or not your characters can achieve their goals in a believable way by the time you finish telling your story.

Number three is that there's always room for improvement. Even classic heroes and villains have rough spots that can be sanded out, and there will always be holes in the plot road. The best we can hope to do as authors is to make the bumps as shallow as possible, and to make sure our readers are driving so fast they don't notice the flaws we do have in our narrative highways.

As always, thanks for dropping by the Literary Mercenary. If you want to keep in touch with my updates plug your email into the box on the top right, or follow me on Facebook or Tumblr. If you'd like to see more content like this then drop a tip into my "Shakespeare Gotta Get Paid, Son" box on the top right, or drop by my Patreon page and become a patron today!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

What I Learned Writing Short Stories For Two Years

Like most folks in my profession I grew up as an avid (rabid) reader. I wouldn't read any old thing (dramas and young adult books didn't much appeal to me then or now), but chances were good I had one book in hand, and a holdout in an ankle holster just in case. While I loved a good novel just as much as the next kid, one thing I was always up for was a good short story collection. Scary Stories, Bruce Coville's Monsters (and other versions), along with the infamously trashy Fright Time books that would put three horror novellas in a single book were my bread and butter in boring classes and on family road trips. As I got older my love of short stories didn't waver, but I moved on to collections by Stephen King, Clive Barker, and others. I also read a lot of anthologies with different authors in them, but it never occurred to me to ask how those writers got their stories into those books.

Or at least it hadn't, until the summer of 2012 when I stumbled across a call from Jupiter Gardens Press for their Boys of Summer anthology. I stared at my screen, read the page a few times, and a light bulb went off in my head.

"Oh," I thought. "So that's how you get into a short story anthology."

The Experiment

In May 2012 I'd been a freelance writer for four years. I had worked for magazines and newspapers, and I'd completed two novel manuscripts, but I hadn't actually published a piece of fiction in several years. So I wrote the short stories Summer People, Heart of the Myrmidon, and Skin Deep. All three of them were accepted, and I was told they'd become part of anthologies for Jupiter Gardens Press. I realized that I was now officially a published author, and that for every anthology I was part of I would get a small cut of the royalties.

I had a plan: Get into 10 more anthologies, then start work on a novel.

What could possibly go wrong?
What I Expected

The expectations I had going in were pretty low. I wanted to get back into the fiction groove I'd fallen out of, I wanted to shape up my publishing credits, and I wanted to develop a relationship with a variety of publishers. I also had some idea about making money. The younger, less-experienced me figured that if I could get into a dozen or so different anthologies that he could make a decent, regular royalty check that would let him relax and work on a novel.

I know right? I was fucking adorable back then.
The logic went something like this; the publisher wants to sell books, so it will put in a lot of effort to make sales and market the collection. There are between 10 and 20 of us who contributed to this anthology, some of us with bigger followings than others; if we combine our efforts then we can sell a lot more books between us. If I can get into 10 or more collections then average revenues should give me what a middling successful novel should, allowing me to pad my bank account. Additionally I figured I could dip my toe into certain markets and see what was more popular. Would I be better off writing a dystopian sci-fi novel? Is horror making a comeback? Is steampunk still a thing? These were questions I needed answered.

Lastly, and I stress this one, if a publisher turned out to be a lemon all I lost was a few weeks of work on a short story. If I sent a novel to the company then I'd lose months to a year of hard work. I was not anxious to deal with that worst-case-scenario, so I figured I'd put out some shorts as feelers for who was trustworthy, and who just wanted to reap the sweat off my back.

What I Got

I won't regale you with everything I did between the start of this experiment and today (the tab on the right hand side that lists the books my work has appeared in will give you the details if you're curious), but I've gotten around a little bit. I've worked with a dozen publishers, some of which were excellent and some of whose names I cannot speak without spitting and forking the sign of the evil eye. I'm not famous, and the idea of a regular, sizable royalty check is still something I only see in my dreams.

That said though, I don't feel these two years were wasted.

Oh Yeah? How's That?

No, please, regale us.
Well let's begin at the beginning. After two years of constant cranking I've sanded off the rough bits from my voice and style. I've managed to strengthen the muscles that let me work even when I've got a headache, when I'm stressed about rent money, or when there's no caffeine in the house and I haven't slept in a day and a half. I've never missed a deadline, even when I was asked to provide work at the last minute, and I've developed the ability to match the size of my story to the word count it needs to be told in.

In brief, these two years put a fine edge on my professional blade.

There's more beyond the whetstone. I've found fans and friends alike who, when I tell them I have a new piece coming out, will be eager to get their hands on it. I've been recognized as a professional by conventions, and given all of the benefits that comes with that status. I've also figured out which companies are solid, dependable operations, and which ones just want the writers to do all the work while they reap the profits.

It's not a million dollar pay day, but it is a rung or two up the ladder. It's the experience to know a raw deal when I see it, and it's the currency of goodwill that lets me step right over the slush pile to talk to an editor directly. It's the ability to sample some of my ideas to see which ones are big enough for a book of their own, and which ones aren't done growing yet. Lastly, and this shouldn't be written off, it's the confidence to walk into a room and comport myself like someone whose words are worth hard currency.

I'm not rich. I'm not famous. What I am is a professional, and this experiment is what made me that way.

As always, thanks for popping in on this week's update. If you'd like to get regular updates from The Literary Mercenary then enter your email address in the bar in the top right corner, or follow me on Facebook or Tumblr. If you'd like to support me then drop by my page and buy a book, drop your loose change into the "Shakespeare Gotta Get Paid, Son" jar on the upper right, or become a patron by visiting my Patreon page today!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Five Types of Beta Readers Every Writer Should Have

Writing a story is a lot like giving birth; it's uncomfortable, sweaty, causes a strain, keeps you up nights, makes you want heavy drugs to kill the pain, and in the end you're so exhausted and proud of yourself you don't know what to do. Your first urge is to show everyone the thing you've accomplished, blind to the fact that your story is covered in shit and squalling at the top of its voice.

That's what beta readers are for. They pat you on the back, tell you what a good job you did, and start pointing out all the places you really need to clean up before you offer your latest accomplishment for a "best baby of the year" competition. In short it's their job to make sure that you don't get so stuck on how perfect your child is that you overlook its hanging indents, weeping plot holes, and bastardized concept.

Here is a picture of your ideal beta reading team, though you can add more if you need to. Your team consists of:

The English Teacher

"There were ducks," not "Their were ducks." How many times do I have to tell you?
The front line enforcer of homophones and proper contractions, the English Teacher is an author's best friend. Blunt and occasionally harsh, the Teacher tends to ignore plot and language in favor of checking to be sure your grammar and spelling are correct and acceptable. If the Teacher doesn't remark on the story, character development, or other stylistic choices then you can usually assume they're fine. I recommend starting with the Teacher because it's important to let the air out of your ego early in order to make your story the best it can possibly be.

The Librarian

Dude, you can't call it a Hitler-stache. Why? Your story's set in 1879, for starters...
Nothing is more embarrassing than writing an entire novel, just to find out your facts are wrong. Contrary to popular belief being an author doesn't make you an expert on martial arts, firearms, explosives, murder, tax accounting or any other dangerous activities your characters may participate in (though you can learn how to get rid of a body right here!). Every now and again you're going to screw up, and when you do the Librarian is there to catch you. Whether it's informing you of the proper breed of horse used for Civil War cavalry, correcting the caliber of the weapon your soldier is using in the European theater in World War II, or pointing out that the poison your killer used is a highly controlled and very easy to track substance, the Librarian gives you the facts and just the facts. Even if no one other than you and the Librarian would ever know you screwed up, are you willing to take the chance that you'll be known as the author who doesn't do enough research?

The Genre Lover

A dismembered body under the bridge? Oh, Horror, you shouldn't have!
Every story has a genre, and every genre has dedicated lovers. Chances are pretty good you have that one friend who loves your genre just a little more than the others. You know, the one with photoshopped pictures of themselves making out with the genre in the bookstore? The one with whole shelves dedicated to it, who can name off every trope the way Rainman could name the cards left in a deck? Yeah, that one. That's the Genre Lover, and if you can satisfy the big G.L.'s very high standards as someone who's seen it all and done in all in that genre of choice then you have a solid piece of work on your hands, my friend.

The Non-Genre Reader

Ugh, the leads are kissing? If I wanted to read a smut book that's what I would have bought.
Good books have fans from a genre that love it; great books can reach across the aisle and include everyone in their narratives. Frankenstein is science fiction and horror, but it also speaks to those who love human drama and elements of high adventure. The appeal of the creature's struggle, and Victor's attempts to reconcile his life with his one terrible achievement are usually enough to appeal to any reader.


There are still people who will turn up their noses at a book that has even the barest whiff of a certain genre about it. If there's a mention of magic, a suggestion of romantic undertones, or if a murder scene is presented in a way that's a little too heavy on squick, these are the readers who will shut the cover and walk away. Not to be confused with the Literary Reader (a pretentious and dismissive breed in its own right), the Non-Genre Reader is your toughest competition. If you can make a Non-Genre Reader care about your story, then you've got something powerful.

The Dreamer

Yeah, but wouldn't it be cool if...
Authors wade out into the pool of imagination, dip themselves down and let the quicksilver spray of inspiration wash over their skin and bleed their stories out of them. It's a kind of immersion that isn't for everyone, and every author has a little area of the pool they prefer to soak in. Dreamers, by and large, are kindred spirits. Some of them are authors in their own right, but some of them just come down to the water's edge and dip their feet in. The Dreamer is the polar opposite of the English Teacher, often ignoring the finer points of language to focus completely on the story. Many times they'll provide plot hole patches that are completely seamless, or build upon your initial ideas to take the story in places even you never thought it would go. Invaluable for their insights on concepts and ideas, as well as archetypes and possibilities, Dreamers shouldn't be ignored just because they're a bit ephemeral at times.

Different Stories, Different Betas

It should be noted that some beta readers can fulfill multiple roles at once. Some Genre Lovers also possess the encyclopedic knowledge of Librarians, and some English Teachers may be Non-Genre Readers as well. Sometimes you'll need multiple betas in the same role, particularly if you need to call on the expertise of half a dozen different kinds of Librarian to get your facts straight. Generally speaking the more eyes that crawl over your story before you submit it, the cleaner and smoother it will be when you hand it to a publisher. Or try to sell it to the masses, whatever your preference happens to be.

As always, thanks again for stopping in at The Literary Mercenary. If you want to keep up to date on all my latest doings then type your email into the box on the top right corner, or follow me on Facebook or Tumblr. If you want to help keep us going then drop your loose change into the tip jar by clicking the "Shakespeare Gotta Get Paid, Son" button on the top right, or check out my Patreon page and become a patron today!