Wednesday, July 31, 2013


Heaven is something that is highly difficult to write about. Partly that's because no-one who writes about it has ever been there and partly because humans have a hard time imagining what something that good would be like even if it did happen. We have a far easier time imagining hell, because we naturally understand what would happen if the pain and misery we experience in this life were taken up to eleven, but we don't understand heaven as well because we have a hard time comprehending joy.

This makes writing heaven difficult. we humans are naturally pessimistic in nature, so we tend to be far more in tuned with how hell would feel then the opposite. So how does one write about heaven? I would tend to avoid the topic since I confess it's a subject that I know nothing but what scriptures tells me. But supposing you are a writer and you do want to write about heaven? How would you got about it?

Firstly, pray. This may sound like cliche advice (which it is), however if you are going to write about heaven, the best thing to do is to talk to God about it. After all since God is the one who made heaven in the first place you might thing talking to Him about it would contribute something to your edification on the subject. Heaven is going to be a place where the Power of God drips in everything. Prayer is basically one of the ways we can get close to the way heaven feels. What John Calvin called 'directing one's heart to fellowship with the Lord'.

Secondly, read scriptures. Wow prayer and scriptures? Legalistic much Brendan? Probably. But not here. See if you are going to right about Paradise it makes sense to look at what Scriptures actually says about Paradise. Seeing as it was written on the only authoritative source on the subject.

Thirdly, make it beautiful but also make it powerful. This is the problem with a lot of 'fluffy cloud heavens' or those cheap little pictures that show a picture of heaven that one saw in Sunday School. No, remember, that Heaven is not only a place that's good, but also the throne of God. Don't treat the Throne of God as if it was some sort of light vacation spot full of feminine angels and little lambies. Heaven is powerful. Beautiful. Wondrous. Numinous.

Fourthly. Love for God will go a long way here, as well as a healthy Fear of Him. Love is important, because heaven is dripping with His love. Fear because our God is a powerful God.

And this ended up being more a theological lecture then a discussion on writing. But when it comes to writing Heaven, theology comes into play.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

And the Elves are always right.

File:Ängsälvor - Nils Blommér 1850.jpg

Now to deal with a small pet peeve of mine.Elves. Now Elves were beautiful when Tolkien made them. He did Elves well, but ever since their original inception Elves have gone from Tolkien's amazing mythological to race to a frankly annoying race of know-it-alls. Of course every Fantasy or Sci-Fi calls this race 'elves', sometimes they are called 'Eldar' or 'Eldarin' or better yet 'Na'vi'. Basically the problem is like so. 

The makers of the story try to make a race that epitomizes 'goodness', they make them beautiful (usually), wise, intelligent, in harmony with nature etc. But they have the creators have a tendency to forget one thing. Humility. To actually epitomize goodness a race has to be humble. A race that is good at everything and arrogant about it becomes annoying and insufferable. Worse yet the authors seem to be of the opinion that the Humans have to listen to this Elven patronization, and obey. Because the humans aren't as 'awesome' as the Elves are. 

This is not to say, that it's wrong to make your Elves awesome in every way except arrogance. However, it's wrong to overlook that fact that arrogance itself is a flaw and a very deep one. Pride comes before a fall. If the Elves are arrogant that's a flaw that can and will lead to their downfall if it's not kept in check.

See this is what is different about Tolkien's Elves, though they are sometimes proud; their pride is always in proportion to their failing and downfall. Arrogance is not rewarded in Middle Earth, and the times when the Elves were arrogant were the times that Men or Dwarves were actually right.

Note that this doesn't only just apply to Elves or elf-like creatures. It can also apply to Mentors, Churches, Ministers, or basically any 'good' character or set of characters that you try and put into your novel. Arrogance is an ugly thing and the author should recognize that, not commend it. 

Monday, July 29, 2013

For Science!

We've taken a look at magic, the supernatural and the weird. And now for something completely different. Science! Science by definition, or at least by it's current definition deals with the empirical world, the one that we can touch, taste, smell see and hear. Well except for theoretical physics but that's closer to the subject of Religion anyways.

What with Harry Potter and other such books out there, not to mention the fact that imaginative people are rarely scientifically literate, Magic gets much more press in Christian fiction (whether for good or for evil) then Science does. It's not that Christian authors tend to see Science as an evil, but rather that it tends to be a rather non quantity. This is perhaps because Christianity honestly has a great dearth of good sci-fi novels.

This is not simply a recent trend though, this is all throughout history. You can find Christians among the great fantasy authors, the great drama authors and many more, but you won't find any among the great sci-fi authors. Now at this point a lot of people bring up C.S Lewis's space trilogy, which people argue is excellently written and a classic. True, but it's not exactly Science Fiction as it's main focus is the Supernatural and Philosophy not dealing with scientific themes. Other books lauded as Christian Science fiction such as the Wrinkle in Time tend to explore Philosophical themes rather then Scientific ones. Right now it seems that when a Christian writes 'science fiction' he or she tends to end up writing fantasy... in space.

Now there's nothing wrong with fantasy in space, but it would be interesting to see a Christian speculate like Asimov and Wells do about where current science will lead us. What moral dilemmas, what theological problems will arise from the new developments of science? Writing this sort of science fiction is important, because as science marches on the questions that are addressed in books will become the questions that are going to be addressed in reality.

Of course, I'm being a hypocrite here,  I've never written hard sci-fi in my life. But it would be interesting to do so...

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Writing Villains

Judas - Fyodor Bronnikov

Upon deciding upon my daily blog post I promptly uttered an evil laugh and played the organ a bit to get in the mood. No I didn't do that exactly, but those who know me well know that designing villains is on my list of favorite things. Villains fascinate me because they tend to be the driving force of the plot. The heroes wouldn't have anything to fight if it wasn't for a villain. The villain is the force that makes the problems that the hero has to solve. So how on earth do we make a villain?

The villain should evoke some strong emotion out of the reader. And that emotion is fear. Fear of the villain is one of the elements that keeps the reader turning the pages. They want to know how on earth the heroes are ever going to win in the presence of such nefariousness. To do this a villain has to be believable. An unrealistic villain isn't going to scare anyone, because the reader could never imagine themselves being threatened by such a person.

So how does one write a realistic villain? Well the first question I would ask you is whether you villain is a sociopath or not. A sociopath has absolutely no sense of morality, which makes them an entirely different beast to deal with. Most villains are not sociopaths, most tend to have some sort of sense of morality even if it's been compromised. So we're not going to deal with him.

The fact is, many authors forget that their villains are humans. Since most authors are not the sort of people who would commit villainous acts themselves they have a hard time understanding that. For someone to murder, destroy and commit the unspeakable acts the a villain does they think that they have to be a inhuman monster. But no, villains are almost always very human monsters. It's not their inhumanity that makes them so evil, but rather their humanity.

See villains are people like us, with the same flaws, fears and desires. They're flaws have just been deepened. Where we might snap at a brother and sister, they break into torments of rage. Where we might get depressed, they might want to try and cast the whole world into darkness. But you see, our villains are humans just like us. They're darkness has just been taken to a whole new level.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Pirates, ye be warned!!


Well I got out of bed this morning and my first thought went something like "Pirates, I want to write something about Pirates", and Pirates being the amazing things that they are I proceeded to get up an write about them.

To start with, let me state the somewhat obvious,  Pirates, just like Ninjas, Dragons, Elves, Knights, Dinosaurs and Robots... are just one of those things that are simply inherently interesting to popular culture at large. When you hear someone say the word 'pirate' your ears perk up in delight. Well at least mine do. Perhaps my attachment to nerddom is evident.

Now writing about Pirates it's often hard to tell what's realistic and what's not. Our culture has a lot of romantic notions about Pirates, but it's not exactly easy to tell where the line where Realism begins and where Romanticism begins. Because the fact is, the Pirates actually tended to be every bit as fantastical in their own right as their fictional counterparts. This is something that's rather exceptional. Normally fictional accounts are dramatized, sensationalized versions of the real thing. But when writing about Pirates we as writers have the advantage of having their history be every bit as amazing as their drama.

Let's think for a moment on the various archetypes of Pirates. One would be the terrifying, heartless sea tyrant who would betray his own crew in the blink of an eye. The  other (much popularized by Pirates of the Carribean) is the freedom-loving, nautical version of Robin Hood. Stealing from the rich and giving the poor. Or at least stealing from the rich. I guess one has to start somewhere. Both of these stereotypes can be found in actual Pirate History. Here's a few examples.

When it comes to sea tyrants it's hard to imagine a worse one then Francios l'Olonnais. The man left no survivors and had a penchant for eating the dead flesh of his enemies. He once sliced open a Spanish sailors's chest and pulled out his heart and proceeded to devout it. And he was hardly alone is his brutality. Many other pirates were similarly merciless. Fictional pirates such as Long John Silver is a far cry from being unrealistic

Roguish antiheros such as Captain Jack Sparrow also existed among the pirates. Jean Lafitte was particularly helpful in helping the Americans win the battle of New Orleans which made him something of a hero to the local populace. Many established rules of decency, some tried to help help. Sparrow himself was based on the real life Pirate 'Jack Birdy' who was described as being 'Enigmatic and perpetually drunk'.

On a side note, here's a few other awesome facts about Pirates. One Tortuga and Port Royal were actually real places known for being Pirate havens.  And the Pirate code was actually founded by Bartholomew Roberts, though the Brethren Court itself was entirely fictional.

So the point of this article, is though normally fiction exaggerates and romanticizes certain topics. There is an occasional time where the stereotype is entirely accurate. And I desist.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Concerning Magic Part 2

Idylls of the King - Gustave Dore

Yesterday we went into the obvious dos and don'ts about magic. Occultism should never be presented in a positive light. Miracles and Angelic abilities are perfectly acceptable. However these two are somewhat obvious from a Christian perspective, the reason being that Occultism, Miracles and Angels are all real. But in fiction another dimension is added that we don't observe in reality, and that is that characters often have abilities that we don't have in reality, with no apparent theological explanation given.

This sort of fiction includes such fictions as Star Wars and Harry Potter, and this is the part where things get somewhat messy. See the problem with all three of the above is that one is dealing with something that doesn't exist in the real world, namely a mysterious force that can give people superhuman abilities. In Harry Potter it's called 'Magic', in Star Wars it's 'The Force' and in Superhero media it's generally a rather contrived pseudo scientific explanation. Harry, has gotten most of the heat from the mainstream Christian culture, mostly because it uses words such as 'magic', 'witch' and 'wizard', however all and all the abilities contained therein are mostly the same.

See Christians come across a bigger problem here, since Superpowers do not exist in reality what do we do when they appear in fiction? Are they edifying, morally neutral or occultism with a pretty face? How do well tell the difference between a power that is Occult and a power that not? Well first we need to go a bit deeper into what Occultism is.

Occultism is the deep desire on the part of human beings, to gain more power then they already have. To play God if you will. The desire for more power beyond their natural sphere. In a Superpower, the character is either born with inherent abilities, or gains them through use of the natural sphere. This becomes complicated because it calls into the question what is a human's natural sphere? Christians have disagreed. Tolkien being a pseudo Luddite was of the opinion that much of Science violated humanities natural sphere. Others have expanded the natural sphere to be anything humanity can achieve as long as it wasn't expressly forbidden in scripture.

 In all honesty the line is vague and Harry Potter and Star Wars especially fall somewhere between obvious Occult Fiction and Edifying Christian Fantasy (such as what one finds in Narnia or Middle Earth). It's here that Christians have full liberty to draw the lines wherever they deem fit. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Concerning Magic: Part 1

Idylls of the King - Gustave Dore

Magic, is and has always been, a rather strange word in our lexicon. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as 'The power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces'. But wait a minute, what constitutes a mysterious force? If I use the force of electricity to power a flashlight is that magic? Of course not you say! But wait... if I show that same flashlight to a tribesman in the Amazon, is it magic? If you tell him that it isn't, that it actually works on a force called electricity will that make it any less magical in his mind? 

Of course, there's question underlying the questions I asked here, what is Witchcraft? As Christians we know that Witchcraft is forbidden, something which is clearly echoed in both the Old and New Testaments. As fantasy is currently all the rage most Christianity has remained at large rather leery about all the fantasisim, and not for a bad reason. Witchcraft is prohibited and the last thing we as Christians want to do is encourage our children to practice it. 

So what is Witchcraft? Well the Bible gives us a few blatantly obvious examples, spiritual mediums, necromancers, divination, ritualized spells, consulting with spirits and any sort of worship of Pagan gods. Alright so we covered the obvious, Wicca, Horoscopes and Theurgy (summoning of spirits) are most definitely forbidden. Any book wherein the obviously occult is practiced and encouraged should not be read for enjoyment and certainly not given to children. 

 On the other side of the spectrum, any sort of power that comes directly from God (ie Miracles) is most certainly not forbidden. God and His Angels most certainly are allowed to have their own supernatural power. This is why works such as Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia tend to be accepted by most Christians as any supernatural power that is good, either tends to be the work of God, or worked by an angelic character (such as Gandalf) using his own natural abilities. Such obvious distinctions between the power of God and that of Evil are quite healthy, both for children and adults. 

But between these two extremes lies a fuzzy grey area. What about Star Wars? The Matrix? What about Superheroes? It's hard to say exactly, because fantasy complicates the issue by adding forces and situations that we don't have to deal with in reality. But I'll deal more on that subject tomorrow. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

To alert you of a brilliant post.

My friend Elizabeth Lewis gloriously expounds on the nature of intelligence and how it applies to books. This is a good read right here, I suggest you take a look into it. Here's a snidbit of whats she has written here.

My dad is pretty much a genius. As a civil engineer, he daily processes things I can only imagine – advanced geometry, mathematical gymnastics, laws and ordinances and all the little things that make street plans work. But he’ll look at me playing the piano, shake his head, and say “That looks like magic to me.”

There’s no doubt in my mind that my dad is intelligent. Quite visibly so. But intelligence is relative depending on your location and what is happening. This is apparent in many stories just after the New World is introduced. This is the part where your hero encounters a whole world of possibility he never knew and isn’t prepared for. Imagine sending Sherlock through a portal to Middle Earth. What use would his specialized intelligence be there?

Often, intelligence is an overarching trait. It is an ability that helps your character to adapt to, learn from, and thrive in new situations. I can’t see Sherlock taking very long to figure out the new world and how it works, because he’s smart.

Pure Brilliance. 

Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon

Rebecca Kidnapped by the Templar, Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert - Eugene Delacroix

Ever since their inception in the year of our Lord 1119, it has been generally accepted among most of Western Civilization that the Knights Templar are cool. Something about the idea of cross bearing, secret keeping warrior monks has caught on to the public imagination for some reason. Writers love them, usually either to provide some sort of 'conservative christian' secret society, or use them as a vehicle to peddle whatever heresies they had thought up at the moment (see Da Vinci Code).

The Knights Templar were a monastic order founded by a French Knight, Hugues de Payens as way of protecting pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem. It was founded on the Temple Mount, above what the Knights believed to be the Temple of Solomon which gave their order mystique right from the beginning. The Order had many functions, it's main goal was to work as a police force, but they also worked as elite military units, and some of the first bankers in the western world. Pilgrims would often leave their valuables in the hands of the Templars, and received a slip of paper indicating the value of their deposit. This improved the safety for Pilgrims an increased the order in wealth. In this way the Templars soon became the world's first multinational corporation.

As the Templar became wealthier they began to clash with powerful nobility of Europe, several of which owed them money. This came to a head when Phillip the IV of France who owed them a substantial deal came up with the brilliant idea that he wouldn't have to pay them back if be burned the whole order as heretics. After getting a few to confess to idolatry and other heresies under torture, and using the Pope who at the time was merely a puppet for the French Monarch, he managed to dissolve the Order. However their legacy has survived.

So interesting story, how does this apply to writing? Well ever since their sudden disappearance these Knights have made more then a few appearances in writing and other media. A few examples would be Ivanhoe, the Da Vinci Code, and more recently Assassin's Creed. For a long time the Knights had a tendency to be represented in fiction as a dangerous group of heretics, or perhaps (in fiction such as the Da Vinci Code) a group of people who knew what the real story of Christianity was. This story was always historically suspect since the Knights confessed only under torture, but their orthodoxy was confirmed when a document was found written by the Pope absolving them from all charges of heresy.

Which is where my rant comes through, if you are going to write about the Knight's Templar, please, please do not use them to prove your obscure theological point. Also please remember (and this is the one everyone seems to forget) that the Templar were a religious and Christian order. A lot of people seem to forget that. The Templars are a fascinating order however, and make great stock for writing. I've yet to see them done from a Christian perspective though, which is something I would really like to see done someday.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Historical Stuffs

In the Kremlin - A Fire - Vasily Vereshchagin

Being a great writer and being a great historian are not exactly the same thing, barely even close. Unless you're a historical fiction writer, then it's a different story altogether. However one thing that will never serve a writer ill is a decent grasp of history. So why is that?

Well for starters let's take a look at phrase you've probably heard before, "Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it". It's quite a cheerful phrase that at first glance seems to have little to do with writing, but think about what it's saying. History follows certain patterns and if one doesn't learn what those patterns are they will end up making the same mistakes as other people who were similarly ignorant.

 Okay but what does this have to do with writing? Well let's just put it this way, history follows patterns, and those patterns don't change because human nature doesn't change. Whether you are creating a world or writing in our one, studying the patterns of human nature will always come in handy.

Thinks of it this way. Artists often study anatomy and the human form in order to draw humans more realistically. Writers similarly should study history in order to draw the human soul more realistically. Now I'm not talking about a dull and dry memorization of dates and battles, that's not going to get a writer anywhere. Instead the writer must treat history as a character study. Keep in mind, that people such as Richard Lionheart, George Washington, St Thomas Aquinas, Anne Frank and David Livingston were all real people. And Real People are the source of inspiration for our fictional characters.

Which is why, every so and so often on this blog I'll be pulling out odd historical events and talking on how they can apply to novels! And yes. It will be fun.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Worldbuilding for the Rest of Us.

File:Cellarius ptolemaic system.jpg
Some writers would be better classified as world-builders, for some infernal reason they seem to have the ability to conjure realistic, interesting worlds seemingly from their fingertips. Though generally these writers have a harder time with character or plot development, for the purposes of this article I'm going to be unfair and pretend they have it all together, because for the purposes of world building... they do.

For those of you who aren't acquainted with the concept of world building, it's not the difficult a concept. It's simply the process by which fantasy and sci-fi worlds are made. So this post is for all the fantasy and sci-fi authors out there who aren't quite good at world building but would like to be better. So I'm going to tell you how to world-build in three easy steps.

Step 1:  Go for the Essence

When people think about world-building (and most of them would probably be writers), they often think of a logical process where one tries to think realistically about what sort of things would be in your world. However this is not entirely true, world-building also can use emotions and an artistic sensibility. If logical progression doesn't help you world build, consider the basic essence of your world. It gives off a certain feel right? Try and think of places, peoples and races that match the feel of your world. If it doesn't feel like it belongs in your world you probably shouldn't add it and if it does you probably should.

Step 2: Make sure it works

Now I'm not saying abandon logic to the wind either.  If you're a more logical type personality, feels might not be the best way to world-build, and even if you are more of an intuitive world-builder, you should probably stop to consider whether the your world flows logically or not. How deeply you plumb the logic of your world vastly depends how big your world is.

Step 3: Make the world bigger then your book

The world we live in is a big place, and if you set a book in the real world you can't even begin to cover all the different histories, civilizations and dramas that have actually occurred, however in some books (and some of them are very good books) the world seems to exist solely for the purpose of the plot. Unless you are going for the feel of a children's fairy tale this is probably not a good idea since you diminish the feeling of realism to the world.

So that's my short rant on world building... there will probably be a lot more to come in the future.

Friday, July 19, 2013

V is for Vampire.

Those who are better acquainted with me know that vampires happen to be one of my favourite topics. And no... we aren't talking about the sparkly kind. Heaven forbid. But we are going to be talking about the menacing Stokereque kind. And it will be fun.

I'm going to note that there are basically two types of vampire; they're closely related but not exactly the same. One symbolizes sin itself and the other symbolizes the sinner. The difference in classification is subtle and often rather interchangeable. But wait... hold up a second... how is a vampire a symbol of sin? Isn't it just a demonic entity bent on terrorizing the living? Well no, not exactly... 

See the vampire differs from the demon, in that unlike a demon, a vampire is human. The demon is something alien, something other, while the vampire symbolizes all the worst of humanity. Especially it's sinfulness. The vampire drinks the blood of the rest of humanity and turns it into a monster like itself. As a note, they generally don't do it out of any particular malice, but simply as a matter of satisfying it's craving, and so it is with the sinner. The sinner, just like the vampire, hurts others, lusts after them, kills them, he doesn't do out of any particular malice for them, just a desire to satisfy his own needs. The vampire characterizes the underlying selfishness and lustfulness of sin, which makes him a valuable villain.

It also makes him a valuable character for a redemption story. Think of this, is the vampire is a sinner then... unlike the demon who is entirely other, the vampire can be redeemed. Think of this, Christ is the inverse of a vampire, as one who was willing to shed his blood to save people, rather then take the blood of people to satisfy himself. In that way Christ's blood can atone the vampire in just the same way it can atone the sinner. I've never seen anyone write a vampire in this way... but I would like to see someone try. 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Postmodern Angels


There's a certain segment, of what is now passed as 'Christian Fantasy' that suffers from a peculiar disease. It's not really well written, it's not really poorly written, but it's weird. In fact most of the best writing in Christendom these days is quite frankly belongs to this category. God and Jesus are often the centers of a very weird pantheon, complete with angels, demons, disease infected nations, talking computers, dragons, other dimensions and just about anything else the author can imagine. Often the theme is 'Spiritual Warfare' but because of the underlying empiricism, the spiritual warfare often looks a lot more like physical warfare then one would normally imagine. However, if you're pressed, you'll find none of these eccentricities are the source of the weirdness. Neither bizarre worlds or the empiricism (to which we are too accustomed to find it weird) are the source. The source is underlying postmodernism. 

Most writers who write this way aren't postmodern themselves (at least as far as I can tell), however their works tend to react against the overwhelming preachiness in rest of Christian Literature, and as a result tended to abandon the underlying morality that generally had influenced Christian literature. Such writers are brilliantly imaginative, but what with their reaction against preachiness, it's hard to tell where the 'Christian' comes in except for a few Bible verses and/or symbolic references thrown haphazardly in. The world has no order. No design other then whatever the author happens to feel like at the time. 

The result is that the whole novel gains a weird dream like sensation, reminiscent to the feeling one gets reading H.P Lovecraft. The whole world, even (with a few scattered exceptions) the good parts give off a strange and alien feel.  The angels and other good creatures lack that deep and rich morality and joy in God that is so often found in works such as the Chronicles of Narnia or Lord of the Rings. Most often they're just as strange as the rest.

It seems that in reacting against the overly moralistic trends in modern Christian literature, these and other authors have allowed postmodernism and moral relativity to sink in. To those unfamiliar with the philosophy of Postmodernism, it simply is the Philosophy which states that there is no absolute truth. Though undoubtedly these authors would vigorously oppose such a philosophy, their books are not free from the taint of its shadow.

This is most of what makes me sad to read books that go on this vein, are gifted writers, but it seems like they have trouble relating their writing to their faith. When it comes to writing, Theology is important, almost as important as skill. Without attention to it, we will not be able to reflect the gospel in our writing.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Four Kinds of Books

Still Life with Books and Candle  - Henri Matisse

We're all aware that not all novels are alike, we have fantasy books, historical fiction, mysteries, romances, sci-fis, Christian fiction, atheist fiction, Zoroastrian fiction (well perhaps not that) and all sorts of other delightful genres. However, in all honesty, most books can be boiled down to four different types, character based novels, plot based novels,

The Character Based Novel. 

I would argue that this is the most important type of novel. In all honesty in order to for a novel to be truly great it usually has to be character based to a certain extent. There are exceptions to this rule, but most nine times out of ten, a classic novel is a classic because of it's characters. Imagine Lord of the Rings without Gandalf or A Christmas Carol without Scrooge. It can't be done. The plot relies intrinsically on the characters who act in it. Most great writing relies on character building. This is because humans tend to be more interested in other humans, then they are in plots, otherworlds or allegory. People are interested in people.

The Plot Based Novel 

Some political fiction, action novels, mysteries and romances run more on plot then they do on character. An example perhaps would be Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, none of the characters are particularly memorable, however the plot it well known even to people who haven't read or seen the movie. Plot based novels make quite a bit of money every year and are often the kind of novels seen on the New York Time's Bestsellers list. However very few of these novels ever become classics. The reason being is that once a plot based book is read, the plot is over, it's resolution is discovered and the suspense cannot be recaptured. 

World Based Novels 

A lot of what might be called 'hard' science fiction falls into this category as well as some historical fiction, as well as a few fantasy books. World based novels run on neither character nor plot, but is centered on describing a world, whether real or imaginary to the audience. World based novels comes the closest to non-fiction in style of writing, because their primary goal is not to describe people, but the world they (or some other race of beings) live in.  The works of Issac Asimov would be examples of world based novels.


Most world based novels, at least if they take themselves somewhat seriously, tend towards allegory. I don't think I really need to describe allegory for anyone here, but just in case, I'll describe allegory as trying to describe one story, by using another to represent it. Here, neither the character, plot, or the world is the most important, but rather the deeper meaning behind the story. Animal Farm and Pilgrim's Progress would be examples of allegory.

So those are the four kinds of books. Which one would you say you prefer most?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Writing and Empiricism

Eye Colour - M.C. Escher

For a long time Christian writers didn't have to deal with empiricism, the Christian worldview was something that permeated every aspect of western civilization. Then came Empiricism and ruined everything. Though the story is a little more complex then that... the purpose of this blog post is not meant to be a history lesson, instead it's meant talk about how empiricism works, and how Christians ought to avoid it. 

Ernest Hemingway once described Empiricism in his book A farewell to arms, "Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers and the numbers of regiments and dates,". In other words, things that can be seen, heard, touched or in are in any other way discernible to the senses are in fact... more real then abstract concepts such as good and evil. This is Empiricism boiled down. Lets note here, the Empiricism isn't Atheism (though most atheists tend to be hard line empiricists), it isn't even necessarily agnostic, it's simply skeptical of anything information that isn't obtained through the senses. 

And in the modern day world... Empiricism is everywhere.

This includes writing, even what one would call, Christian Writing, has been affected drastically by Empiricism. Though most Christians reject Empiricism, a lot of it has permeated out philosophy.

For one, Christian writing often depends upon the five senses to verify the Supernatural. It is more rarer today, to see the Supernatural presence as  something given through symbolism such as in Pilgrim's Progress or something indiscernible to those who are foolish such as Uncle Andrew in The Magician's Nephew Now this is not always the case, but sometimes when Christian writers describe the Supernatural, they tend to describe something that works much the same as the material world with perhaps a few more superpowers. Angels become less creatures of awe inspiring wonder and more like humans with telekinetic powers. God is often reduced to one (or three) physical person/s (as in The Shack for example) who function more as mentor characters then anything else.

Instead of trying to raise Humanity to God's level, and help them understand His Glory, through use of symbolism, modern christian writing has decided to pull God down to our level by making him merely physical. I will note, the problem is not emphasizing God's physicality (as the Word did indeed take on flesh), but instead reducing it to mere physicality. Where everything that is important about God is something that can be felt in some way by the senses. The sights, visions, feels, rather then the deeper things underlying them. It's not that those things cannot be used to communicate God, but rather that those things are limited and should instead point to the Thing in Itself.

(Art by 

Monday, July 15, 2013

Character Sketch Part 2: Organic Characters

A Knight At the Crossroads - Viktor Vasnetsov

Creating characters is not all about archetypes though. Archetypes form the foundation by providing an interesting character but they won't help you when it comes to developing them. And most characters, with the exception of some minor ones, need development. Which bring up the question, since we have the foundation for writing characters, how do we develop them? 

Now here comes the part that requires empathy. To really write a character well, you have to get inside their head. This can be a real challenge, especially if said character is very different in personality from the author themselves. This is why it really takes intellectual discipline to develop a realistic character.
Empathy is not easy, and does not come naturally to all of us, and it doesn't come to all of us when we want it. What a lot don't realize it is that Empathy, to a certain extent is something that we can control, especially when we use it in writing. The advantage to writing, as opposed to other situations which require empathy, is that in writing we get as much time to empathize with the characters as we wish.

There's not real way around it. Developing your character and empathizing with them is work. Just remember, always concentrate on how the character thinks. Don't get distracted by their appearance, their sex, or their backstory. Though these can tell us something about the character none of them really tell us enough.

On a final note, if you have difficulty putting yourself in a character's shoes, one trick is to think first on your own thought stream, then imagine how your own character's thought stream would be different. This will give you a reference model to help you empathize. And that's the whole core of character building. Getting to know your own characters. 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Character Sketch Part 1: Creating the Archetype.

Young Ladies Looking at Japanese Objects - James Tissot

Pause a moment and think on one of your favorite books, what about it made it your favorite book? Odds are it's probably the characters. It's not the plot that makes people fall in love with novels, it's the characters. They're the faces that we associate the novel with. The reason we read a novel in the first place. As one write puts it, good characters can support a bad plot, but a good plot cannot support bad characters

So how do we make good characters? The answer is actually rather simple. Simple, but not easy in the slightest. Writing good characters requires empathy. You have to get inside your characters head and find out how they think. Every character has a different thought pattern, the trick is finding out what it is. So how does one doe this?

Well, one starts with an archetype. What's an archetype? It's a short, vivid description of a character that can be reduced to a one colorful sentence. For example "a flirtatious criminal vampress" or "A sarcastic first lieutenant" would both examples of archetype. It's basically the 'big picture' of your character. More specifically this is about the role your character plays in the story. It's not about his tragic backstory, or extraneous fear of tapioca pudding that plays no part in the plot. It's a short summary of what your character is in the story.

Now... that seems a bit odd doesn't it. I told you we had to empathize with the character more, to learn how they think and now I basically just gave you the equivalent of character stereotyping. How does putting a character is a box such as 'the abusive farmhand' or 'the reluctant teenage assassin' help you think up a well rounded character? Wouldn't applying labels limit their development?

Yes and no. Limits are good things within moderation. Writing involves a balance of logic and creativity. A good archetype creates a good foundation for the characters development, it imposes certain limits. It sets the stage for organic development and allows you to proceed from there. 

Now I might note that not all Archetypes are created equal. Some are very intriguing "a perpetually drunk seamstress' and ' a banker transformed into a kitten' are very interesting archetypes while 'a young farm lad' or 'a girl champion roller-skater' are not. The first two are intriguing because it shows you hints of the way the character thinks while the latter two only show the character's occupation and station in life. The archetype should give a glimpse at the way your character thinks.

As a final note, getting archetypes down is very important when writing secondary characters. Since you secondary and tertiary characters don't get as much development, the archetype will be most of what the reader will see. The more unimportant the character the more important it is that you give it a interesting archetype.

So now we have the foundation. The Archetype, in part 2 we're going to go into how to develop your character. 

Friday, July 12, 2013

In Defense of Dragons.

Fight Dobrynya Nikitich with seven headed serpent Hydra  - Viktor Vasnetsov

In Bill Watterson's immortal Calvin and Hobbes, the main character, Calvin is asked to write a paper in defending the Tyrannosaurus-rex as a predator opposed to a scavenger. His argument goes something around "The T-rex was a predator not a scavenger because it would be much cooler that way."

That's an easy trap to fall into when defending the use of fantasy creatures. Unfortunately for a lot of fantasy writers out there, there is a definite subculture within Christianity which is suspicious of the use of dragons, elves, fairies etc, especially as good guys. The reason given? They're pagan creations. Shouldn't Christians stick to reality when writing fiction and stay away from using the alluring creations of non-Christians?

 It's a compelling argument and those who are Christians should pause and give it a second thought. We who write fantasy more often appeal to Christian liberty, but in doing so we're just saying "Dragons are cool therefore I want to write about them," in a slightly more sophisticated way. Alright, writing about dragons is cool and nothing in the Bible expressly prohibits it, but is it really edifying? Does using pagan creatures and myth really help grow us as Christians.

The answer is yes. But for reasons that go a lot deeper then the Christian Liberty argument. And the argument has everything to do with the redemptive nature of Christianity itself.

Christianity, of course, unlike most other world religions (there are exceptions), is trans-cultural. It was not founded to found one monolithic culture and have all others conform to it but rather to set the foundation for Salvation and have all cultures redeemed by it. When the Early Church started evangelizing, they didn't reject things just because the pagans did them. They tried to find out how the ideas the Pagans had conformed or contrasted to Christianity and tried to explore then in light of the Christian Faith. We can't reject something just because the world does it. We need to examine why it does things instead of outright rejecting them.

When it comes to fantasy creatures, they are inherently symbolic creatures. Things that the pagans used to convey certain ideas, life, death, mercy and nature, this makes them a ripe opportunity for use in evangelism and the Christian Novel. This doesn't mean we should we should use them in the exact same way the pagans did. Christianity will always give mythical creatures a different twist because the ideas behind Christianity are inherently different from those of paganism. For example dragons are symbols of power, and thus a dragon can be used to communicate the Christian view on power. Faeries are symbols of beauty and they can be used to communicate the Christian view on that as well.

Always remember though the meaning behind certain fantasy races/creatures when you use them. The reason we use them is not simply because they are cool, but because they are able to communicate ideals in ways that few other things are. It's not that coolness is not important, but it's secondary. The point of other races/creatures is symbolism. 

A focus on books

The Writing Master (Benjamin Eakins) - Thomas Eakins

If Christian Art is starving, then the most emaciated sector of Christian Art is literature. Over the past few decades, Christianity has managed to churn out a several good musicians and has revived Christian fine art, it has largely left the idea of the Christian novel with the short end of a stick that wasn't very long to begin with.

Exactly how bad does Christian Literature have it? Just give the 'Christian Fiction' section of your local bookstore a browse. What you'll find is an unholy matrimony between bad eschatology and Amish romance. In most cases the Christianity tends to be forced, squeezed between the lines of rather sub-par writing until the most devout among us are sick of it. It's not to say that Christians don't have a few good writers. Names such as Ted Dekker and Frank Perretti come to mind. The problem is, these men are enjoyed by Christians, not because their writing has any merit of its own (it may or may not), but because it's simply not bad like everything else written by their contemporaries.

The fact is, modern evangelicalism is suffering from virulent anti-intellectualism, and literature as an art-form, is the hardest hit. See, literature, more than all other art forms, relies on deep and rigorous thought. This is not to say the music and art don't rely to a certain extent on challenging oneself intellectually, but not to the extent that literature does. The core of making good literature is challenging oneself intellectually. Unlike painting and music which both rely on dexterity as well, literature is a purely mental enterprise. When Christianity abandoned its intellectual heritage, literature was the first to suffer.

Novels are something we need. Christianity is the only world religion that is primarily based on story. A true story yes, but a story nonetheless. More then any other form of art, the novel is the best suited to carry our message. It explains the gospel in ways that no other art form can. The History of Christian of literature is unique. We can boast of such works as The Inferno, Paradise Lost, and Lord of the Rings. With this proud intellectual history behind us are we really willing to accept the endless stream of Amish romances as the best we can do?

This is why this blog is going to be focused on books, writing books, reading books with an occasional side dabble into the realm of other media (movies, video games, tv shows) but only in so far as they relate to plot and writing. Our aim will be to challenge ourselves, as writers when it comes to literature.

So I've introduced you to my purpose, both general and specific. In the future posts we're going to start delving into how one can discipline their mind and improve their writing.

(art by ~amethyste-stock)

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Art on a silver platter.

Corner of Painter’s Table - Giovanni Boldini

Imagine if you will, a starving man. He hasn't eaten in a weeks, his form is thin and emaciated. Beside him is a silver platter, and on it a steaming roast chicken. However instead of gorging on delicious bird flesh, he simply leaves the plate alone. You walk up to him and ask him why he doesn't just eat the meal. He replies 'oh I wouldn't want to eat that chicken! It would make me fat!'. 

Before you can reply that he's in absolutely no danger of becoming fat, another man walks on the scene. He's fat, enormous even... the guy just smells like diabetes. He eyes the chicken hungrily. "Take it!" says the starving man cheerfully offering up the silver platter. He grabs it and gobbles it up. The starving man smiles at the fat one condescendingly and whispers to you, "See that's why I didn't take the food, otherwise I would end up fat like him!". 

I don't think I have to tell you what's wrong with this picture. Quite obviously the starving man needs the food he's giving away. 

This is the state of Christian Art. 

Art is like food, it's one of the things that cultures need to survive. It takes the beliefs and values of a society and represents them in an emotional format that people can easily relate to. It's just as important as Science, if not more. What's more is that Christians have a proud history of art and literature that can rival that of any competing philosophy or religion. So why are modern Christians so apathetic or even hostile when it comes to art? 

The fact is. We're scared. We're scared that if we make art... any art... we will become what liberalism has become. Fat, enormous, diabetic... swollen on artistic junk food. So we react to that by starving ourselves. We make a little art. Just enough to survive. But it's purposefully bland and unpleasant... so we don't enjoy it too much. But in doing so we've ignored the blatantly obvious. 

We need to make healthy art. We need to make good, deep and interesting art that encourages people to grow in their lives. Our literature should be deep, challenging and wholesome literature. Our artistic diet should be balanced. After all doesn't the Apostle Paul himself encourage us to grow in the spirit of our minds? 

Those of us who aren't artists need to realize that art, is something vital to our health as human beings. Imaginations are just like bodies, they need to be treated right to be healthy. It's that simple

Those of us who are artists in Christian Circles need to discipline themselves. Because good art is not easy. It's work. We shouldn't feel bad, or liberal about making or devouring art. Good Art requires work, sympathy, empathy, vision, skill. 

This is what this blog is about. Developing Christian Art . A place where we can discuss how and why we should grow our imaginations. That's what you can look forward to in the next few blog posts. The topics here will cover a range of topics, philosophy, theology, literature, world-building and yes... dragons, but the core is going to be the same. Developing Christian Art. It's a profound missions and a dangerous one, but it's also worth it.

Hope you can join us
~ Brendan Hanley

(art by Fiona Hanley)