The Fall of Fashionable Platonism

Note: I will say a few things in this article with which you may disagree. If at any time your feelings are hurt by anything I say, feel free to click the red “x” box in the top right of your browser. It will make the offending text go away. Thank you.

Frodo and sam

Well. So far, the twenty-first century has been a remarkable one. We have witnessed the rise of stupidity on a level rarely seen since the days of the Roman Empire. We have seen the downfall of common sense as proved by this court case and mindless outrage as in this story, and soon we may even see a megalomaniac elected as the primary leader of our nation. To quote Emily Dickinson, “Much madness is divinest sense.”

But this lack of circumspection isn’t limited to the stage of politics. No, fellow writers, we have officially seen the downfall of platonism in fiction. Allow me to prove it. I just did a quick Bing search for keywords “frodo and sam,” and six out of fourteen links had to do with whether their friendship was more than a friendship.

Six out of fourteen.

Okay, people. Anybody who knows the first thing about Tolkien knows that he would stand staunchly against homosexuality and other such unnatural relationships. Tolkien was a boldly conservative Roman Catholic with strong evangelical ideas that he didn’t hush up. If he really would go so far as to deny everything the Bible and the contemporary English culture said about homosexuality, he would have shouted his opinion from the rooftops of Rohan and Gondor. Believe me, if any of his characters was gay, it would be obvious, as in the case of Baron Harkonnen in Frank Herbert’s Dune. (If you don’t believe that, go re-read the chapter where he made a woman defeat the witch-king.) No way around it; Frodo and Sam were friends and nothing more.

Quick definition: friends (frendz)- people who show loyalty to each other on the basis of mutual affection. 

At this point, a lot of readers may claim that it was the fault of Tolkien and other authors for not being clear enough about the difference between agape, philos, and eros in their fiction. They might even cite a prestigious quote like this one:

Don’t write simply to be understood. Write so that you cannot possibly be misunderstood. -Robert Louis Stevenson

But these people are again reading themselves into the text. While Stevenson does make a good point about how writers should be able to write properly, we should never take this guideline out of context. He was referring to word choice- choose a strong, vivid word over a vague, passive one that leaves people bewildered. He was not talking about illiteracy that supports certain lifestyle choices. The person who would twist Stevenson’s words to that extent has no right to call him/herself a reader.

Even if Tolkien had failed to spell out the most important concepts in his books (which is an utterly outlandish claim), it is the fault of the reader, not the writer, for reading a bias into the story. No author can possibly anticipate and dispel every single lie that might be perpetrated about their work. It is the author’s job to write well and expect that readers will read well.

Yet people often don’t allow themselves to understand. If they want to believe something, they will believe it, even if it means ignoring the truth. Think about it: conservationists could always say that “The Mark on the Wall” is a satirical censure of graffiti and other defacing of natural landmarks, or abortionists can insist that “A Modest Proposal” was meant to be taken literally. Frankly, I’m surprised that nobody has tried either of those approaches yet. But none of these claims actually makes it the truth; indeed, anyone with basic comprehension skills can understand that the authors had no such intent in mind.

I may make jokes about how I’m afraid that people will ship my characters, but that is true to some extent. I am honestly nervous about any of my books becoming popular because I don’t want to think about the day when readers insist that the relationship between Elkay and Ramilon was anything but platonic. I never intended it to be more than a friendship, but some people will always try to twist my words. And that is not fair.

At the end of the day, I am calling everyone out- myself included. Don’t read yourself or your opinions into a book that is talking about something completely different. I promised myself a long time ago that I would not juxtapose Christianity, pro-life, or any of my other beliefs into a book written to support other ideas, and I know that everyone would certainly support that commitment. Well, they must get rid of the double standard, and keep their ideas out of my book. If someone really need to find support for one’s choices in a fictional work, they ought to go find someone who writes pro-gay fiction. But never come whining to me or to Tolkien for it.

No matter what our worldviews, I think that we can agree this far: we all should be able to say what we like without readers twisting our words. Read what the author wrote, not what you want to hear. And if no author has yet written what you want to read… then just write it yourself.

Have you seen the downfall of platonic reading? Why do you think it is happening? Can we writers stop it?

Why I Wrote an Encyclopaedia (and Maybe You Should, Too)

Okay. I promise we will have a real post in a few seconds, but first things first. I have gotten this question way too many times, and now I have to clear it up:

Yes, Elkay and Kylo have the same surname. No, that was not intentional on my part. I don’t know about J.J. Abrams.

Get it? Got it? Good. Now on to this week’s real topic.

Let’s be honest again, my writing friends: sometimes we overlook the bloopers in our work. Of course, we don’t realize it until we are happily reading an official paperback copy of our newly-published book. Then we see the blooper, and we panic. It’s too late to contact CreateSpace! Everyone will see this terrible continuity error or plot hole, and they will discredit our work forever! Our books will never be read!

Of course this is all hyperbole, but we writers are very good at exaggerating things. It would seem that we’re also very good at writing bloopers. Wouldn’t it be easier to skip these painful experiences altogether? Wouldn’t it be wonderful never to make any stupid mistakes like that? Ah, wishful thinking.

Or is it?

I have to keep track of a lot of little details that fit together to give my stories a sense of realism. For example, we’re coming up on Ivora’s birthday on 24 May (and Elkay had better not forget this year). The cannon was invented in Lord Vien’s city in 1218, but didn’t catch on in Agran for another hundred or so years because it was so expensive to make. The infamous Farran’s last name was Fenden, and he was an INTJ like me, albeit a more romantic one.

None of those details ever turned up in Son of Ren, but as the author, I needed to know them for myself. But I can’t possibly memorize all of those things or scribble them on misplaceable note-cards as I go. How in the world can I remember all of this random but important information? Because I have an Encyclopaedia. Always, always spelled with a capital “E” and the archaic “ae.”

The Encyclopaedia is basically like the internet. It is a slave that reminds me of random useless things and keeps track of all the details that I would otherwise forget. What should I do with this epic battle scene that didn’t make the cut? Encyclopaedia. Where did I record the laws of succession for Agran? Encyclopaedia. How much older was Sardar than Elkay? Encyclopaedia.

My Encyclopaedia is just another Google Document with a table of contents. I have a timeline of years, historical summaries for each kingdom, a collection of legal codes, a list of character names and etymological origins, the rules of my magic system, and of course an index of deleted scenes. In the past I even had a calendar of holidays that were unique to my world.

Now I might sound super-organized and nerdy. Well, I am not super-organized, not when it comes to writing. However, making this kind of system is really quite achievable, even for a busy college student like me who has to keep up with a lot of other responsibilities and hobbies. And I didn’t write all of it in a week; I created the document in 2013 and have been expanding it ever since as I write my books. You have no excuse: if you have time to write books and stories, you certainly have time to record little details like this as they come up.

As for the nerdiness… let’s face it: writers are nerds.

How do you keep track of all the details? Have you ever forgotten a detail and written a terrible blooper? Share in the comments!

MBTI: How It Can Help Your MC

Note: If you are unfamiliar with MBTI – the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator – or missed Part 1 of this series, click here. Once you’ve read that, this post will make much more sense!

Once upon a time, there was a young author named Hannah who never had any struggles with characterization. She had in her head a wide array of staggeringly diverse characters, each with their own imagination, goals, and personal history, and even a few annoying habits to make them stand out. You see, she was one of those obsessive plotters who writes a biography for every one of them.

No individuality- just like the whole Star Wars hero-quest cliche, come to think of it.

Yet when Hannah sat down at her desk, armed with a laptop and her favorite peppermint coffee, and wrote the story for real, all the characters’ individuality was gone! They fell flat. She couldn’t put her finger on the reason, but her characters lacked that all-important sense of realness. No matter how much she rewrote and edited, they all just felt the same. So Hannah finished her peppermint coffee and buried her head in her hands, thinking, “I am a horrible writer.”

The end.

Now if this has never happened to you, mazel tov. You no longer need to read this post. If, however, you are the kind of writer who struggles with characterization, I’d like to encourage you that it’s a normal problem. The problem isn’t a lack of imagination. The problem is the writer’s own personality filter. Every time you sign up to write a character with a different personality from your own, you are agreeing to take on a whole new set of traits, values, and thought processes. And most writers don’t even realize it.

Here’s an example for all of you Sensing types. I plotted one of my protagonists, Elkay, as an ESTJ: a tough, steely leader with a sense of duty. However, by the time I finished the story, Elkay had morphed into an INTP: an objective puzzle-solver with big dreams. What facilitated such a change? It was myself; the ESTJ in my imagination had to go through me before he reached the paper, and I rubbed off many of my own traits to make him an INTP. Slightly different…

How on earth do we avoid this? I have a few suggestions:

Get familiar with various kinds of personalities. The truth is that you can’t write a different kind of person accurately until you get to know that kind of person. So spy on people. Talk to people. Analyze people. Be it an official temperament test like Myers-Briggs or simply an informal people-watching experiment, you must find some way of understanding how other people work. Read and learn how people think, and then get to work applying this new knowledge.

Decide on an inspiration for your character. It’s permissible to have some sort of real-life basis to which you can refer as you write. Is your protagonist like Abe Lincoln? Read a book about him and get that character into your head. Find out his personality type. Is a villain like your sister? Take your sister’s personality and just transfer it to the villain (but be tactful about that one, my friend).

Write one scene over and over until you know what your character is really like. Try writing one scene multiple times, giving a different voice, worldview, goal, etc. to your character each time. It need not even be a scene that you will use in the final draft. Just play with the character, tweaking, rearranging, flipping him on his head until you find the essence of the character.

Rethink and rewrite. Sometimes a certain personality just doesn’t work for a character. Looking back, I realize that making Elkay an ESTJ would not work well at all with my plot, and it was for the best that he changed. Be flexible. You have to write more than one draft anyway; you might as well experiment with different personalities while you’re editing.

Has MBTI helped you write “real” characters? Let me know in the comments.