Wednesday, October 31, 2012

16823--Barlow's Barren Land

The sun hung low against the orange sky as another day drew near its end.  John Barlow stood on the porch his great-grandfather had built. Abe Barlow had started the farm and his family had worked it ever since. John Barlow grew up working the land with both his parents and his grandparents. Time had overtaken them until John was the only one left above ground. When he worked the land he liked to feel that something of them all remained within him.

Standing at the top of his porch steps, John Barlow watched as an uninvited pickup truck drove onto his farm from the main road.  With the late afternoon light being what it was and that the truck was bouncing along the dirt driveway largely obscured by his fields of wheat, Barlow could not tell whose truck was approaching.  Following the cloud of dirt rising behind it, he could only tell how close it was and that it was coming in fast.  Seeing heads occasionally bouncing above the level of the crops, he was sure that he was about to have several visitors.  For a moment, he considered greeting them with his shotgun in-hand, but decided he could handle whatever was coming without it.

“Barlow!” the driver of the dirty red truck shouted out to him as it skidded to a stop outside the farmhouse.

“Ellis,” he responded to the agitated driver, “where you and these boys off to in such an all fired hurry?  Billy sellin’ nickel beers down at the bar?  No, wait, I know: there’s another buffalo downtown and you’re gonna watch the sheriff try to run him out.”

“No,” one of the men in the back of the pickup said, “we’re on our way over to old Sitwell’s and we figured you’d want to come with us.”

“Old Sitwell’s?” Barlow asked.

“Yeah,” Ellis said.  “Harlan’s wife saw that hag out near their farm two nights ago and today all their cows’ milk done dried up.”

“What? You think she made that happen?” Barlow asked.

“How about the day I tilled the field I left fallow last season,” Pete Wilson spoke up from the passenger seat, “the very day, the corn in the next field dried up.  Then, overnight, all the grain in my silos disappeared. An it ain‘t like we‘re the only ones.  There‘s some kinda curse over this whole area.  Look at your own field, Barlow,” the man said, pointing at the scorched acreage north of the farmhouse.  “You gonna tell us that just happened by itself?”

“A meteor fell on it, Pete,” Barlow told him.  “Sometimes that stuff happens.”

“Maybe,” Wilson said, “and maybe not.”

“Well, those two city fellas said it was,” Barlow said, “and I don’t see ‘em writin’ checks with all them zeroes for any rocks that come from around here.”

“Yeah, Lord gave me a field full of rocks ain’t nobody payin’ for,” Ellis said.

“OK, so it was a space rock, so what?” Wilson asked.  “Just because you got some money for it don’t mean it wasn’t part of a curse.”

“Alright, so you think she can drop rocks on us from space,” Barlow proposed, “and you’re on your way to do what?  You gonna tie her up and take her into town for a trial and get her to confess?  You think she can cast spells to wither your crops and cattle and you’re gonna go scare her outta town?”

The men in the truck fidgeted and looked about sheepishly.

“What happened to you, Ellis?” Barlow asked.  “Your fields catch fire?  The barn collapse?”

“No, but…Carol told me she saw lights in one of the fields,” Ellis told him, “and…somebody dancing.  Then, she left me.”

“Well, that’s weird,” Barlow said, “but weren’t you two fightin’ all the time, anyway?”

“Things wasn’t that bad,” Ellis insisted.

“Alright, sure,” Barlow said.  “So, y’all gonna blame Georgia Sitwell for all your ills?”

“That old witch--!”

“Is the same age as us,” Barlow reminded them.  “She went to school with us!  Maybe she was weird, but we’re not in high school anymore, guys.  We’re grown men and sure as shootin’ too old to be actin’ afraid of the dark.”

“Well…” Ellis said.

“If you see Georgia out walkin’ near your land,” Barlow said, “try bein’ neighborly.  Offer her a ride.  Say ‘Hello’.”

“Not if she’s wearin’ that creepy cape,” Harlan said.

“It ain’t a crime, Harlan,” Barlow said.  “Maybe she’s just cold or she thinks it’s gonna rain.  Try askin’ her.  She might tell you.”


“Y’all go on home,” Barlow said.  “Sounds like you’ve got some things to tend to and so do I.”

“Alright,” Ellis said, putting his truck back into gear.  “We’ll see you soon, John.”

“Alright,” Barlow said, giving a nod.  “You boys stay sane.”

The truck vanished in the distance as the sun dropped below the horizon.  Conversely, as darkness fell and the wait began for the respite of the moon’s silvery light, a glow rose behind Barlow.  The screen door opened for a slender blonde, though she never laid a hand to it.  What little clothing she wore, a diaphanous weave of silk and dew, barely seemed to touch her, instead hovering and swirling just above her radiant flesh.

“You were right,” she said to Barlow, “that one and his wife don’t belong together. Now, if we could only find someone to suit you…”

“We’re like soap operas to you folk, aren’t we?” Barlow asked her.

“You say the strangest things sometimes,” she smiled.  “You should try the honey,” she said, taking another sip from the jar he had brought her.  “The bees made it extra-sweet today.”

“Soon, thank you,” he said.  “Your gifts have brought me such bounty I have to milk the cows and collect from the hens again before dinner.”

“I know how you like the eggs and the extra creamy milk,” she told him, running a hand through his thick black hair.  “It was the least I could do after all you’ve done for me.”

“Good hospitality’s just the way I was taught,” Barlow said.  “Flaming rock falls out of the sky and wipes out your home, a neighbor helps out.”

“And I’ve been feeling a little stronger every day,” she said.  “Your family’s always been good to our folk.”

“Truth be told,” Barlow said, “I think my grandpa was always partial to the moon dances.”

“He was.”

“I’m sorry the others didn’t learn better,” Barlow said, half-mesmerized by her sparkling glow.

“That’s their fault, not yours,” she said. “The price to be paid for their offensiveness is theirs. You were very kind in defending the woman they hate.”

“I don’t think she’s ever hurt anyone her whole life,” he said.  “She may be odd, but she’s certainly no witch.”

“If I’m going to help you with the rest of the harvest,” she pointed out, “you’re going to need a bigger barn or another silo.”

“At the risk of sounding unappreciative,” he said carefully, “if we only harvest what’s left on my land, the barn should just be able to hold it.  I don’t want you hurting yourself with overexertion while you’re still healing.”

“Oh, John, that‘s so thoughtful,” she said, glowing a little brighter as she touched a hand to his cheek. “Thou art sweeter than honeyed cakes and forever friend to the fey.”

“You’re too kind,” he said, smiling broader at her irresistible radiance.

“That means I’ll have extra time tonight to decide which one of those guys loses his hair, which one becomes impotent and which one gets warm skunky beer for the rest of his life," she said with a mischievous gleam in her violet eyes. "Think about it. You can give me any suggestions when you come in for dinner.”

Barlow chuckled softly as he walked off toward the barn, pondering, “I don’t know what those idiots ever did to piss off the faeries, but I’ll bet they’d have been better off if they were trying to negotiate with a witch.”

Thursday, October 25, 2012


   Magic!  It's a loaded word, carrying more weight for some than others.  Likewise, it bears the possibility of meaning something different to virtually everyone.  When I'm writing stories, I give thought to how superhuman abilities (those outside mundane experience) will be portrayed and their capacities.  Any writer who is going to use such abilities as significant elements of their stories should do so.  You may have a detailed system formulated or you may be in the early stages of doing so.  You may have no idea how to proceed at all.  Below are some of the ways I handle magic in my writing.  Maybe something there can help you or just amuse you.  If you have any questions or would like help solidifying rules of your own, I'm always happy to help.

Psychic abilities are, naturally, consigned to the realm of the mind.  Those I treat as tools of the brain.  Some writers use them interchangeably or synonymously with magic.  Some plots may have characters using one system to fake the portrayal of another (using psionics or magic to create the illusion of some physical prowess or pretending that a mental ability is actually a magical one, for example).  They're extraordinary ways for the brain to interact with the world without having to use the normal systems.  Telepathy allows the brain to bypass speech and hearing.  Psychokinesis lets the brain bypass the use of hands.  Pyrokinesis saves the brain a trip to gather fuel and matches.  The supercharged brain really starts to show its stuff when it allows someone to do things he couldn't normally do with any amount of skill or practice, such as reaching and perceiving through solid barriers or evacuating a room of its air.

Magic has other capabilities.  Magic allows for simple shortcuts, but with the proper use of will and imagination it also allows physics to be ignored or at least taunted.  Some users of magic make this sort of thing look easy, while the cost to others can be seen more readily.  By that, I mean, some are born to magic: faeries, dragons, even the rare human adept.  For such beings, use of magic comes so naturally that any cost for common exploitation of their special communication with the universe seems negligible.

For those without such easy access, things become more complicated.  That's when the traditional concepts of sacrifice become involved: years of study, items of rarity or unique sentiment, blood, lives...  One of the common sacrificial items I decided to incorporate into stories was precious gemstones, with different spell effects requiring specific stones that would be consumed with the initiation of each spell.  Different rules, of course, apply to enchanted items that may have been imbued with the power to generate a specific spell effect or to take on a unique quality in perpetuity.

Beyond the quick and dirty spell there will exist effects of signifcance that require more effort and power.  That's where the ritual comes in, which calls for one or more magic practitioners to perform a spell of grand working.  It will, of course, be something done in more than one part and call for the use of many more spell components than normal.  A magic circle and ancient symbols of power are certain to play a part.  Depending on the nature of the ritual, fire, water or blood will likely be essential elements, possibly all of them.  Then, we get into the most dangerous part.  It's something that may have been going on since the use of the simplest of spells a given magician has been using, but when moving up to castings of greater power, additional assistance and higher costs go along with the action.  That's when your characters get into talking with the mysterious entities from other dimensions.  To such beings, mere mortals may have pledged all manner of things tangible and not in exchange for access to fractions of their vast unknowable power.  These relationships tend to create situations where a character is beholden to another in some manner of intractable bargain, which is a source of great tension or conflict when properly utilized.

Additionally, the nature of each type of magic relegates it to a specific universal alignment that is connected to a dominion of influence.  Within each alignment are subsets of discipline governing the uses of the magic.  Lastly, each alignment is also associated with a color.  These details make the creative aspects seem rather dry and technical when spelled out like that, but breaking them down in that manner affords consistency to a subject that could, by its very nature, run out of control if not properly managed.  Assigning specific areas of influence allows me to know ahead of time things that a particular magic slinger might do and things that might be beyond her ability.  Some facets of your planning may produce results that are never again seen by any eyes beyond your own, but I don't think your characters or your stories can suffer from you knowing too much about them.  Consideration of such rules and limitations is something I feel to be important because of a memory I devoted its own brain cell to long ago: if anything can happen, who cares what does?

Allow me to illustrate the result of my machinations with a few characters from Theobroma: Child of Fire and Blood:
   The necromancer Attan relies on both years of study and his devotion to Death to empower his practice of magic; Attan's invocations are facilitated through his raven familiar Dalar, especially anything requiring greater complexity or effort; he dresses largely in red, the color of the alignment of Dark Order and thus the color of any of his magical special effects; aligned with Dark Order, many of his spells are associated with Time as well as Death; because he works with one of the Order alignments, his workings have a foundation in dedicated study and preparation (including carrying a hefty personal grimoire and numerous powders, potions and spell components)

   Kieren Sha is part-faerie, aligning her with Bright Chaos; any visible manifestations of her magic use are as purple as her eyes; the use of specific magical effects comes to her easily, but cost her in physical stamina; because she is associated with a specific alignment by virtue of her birth, magical effects of other alignments are particularly difficult for her to access; because her magic stems from a Chaos alignment, it has a foundation in emotion rather than study (cracking a book to learn a spell is foreign and in some cases loathsome to her).  Born a child of Bright Chaos, her connection to Coyote, the realm of Magick and any attendant gifts have not required her to make any bargains, but still put her under the immortal trickster's special notice more often than she finds convenient.

   Lar Kwa and Bobalaren are both less disciplined users of the enticing golden light of Dark Chaos magic; the alignment gives both men special access to the dominion of Souls, Bob uses that magic primarily for detecting untruths and reading auras while Lar Kwa practices manipulating and enthralling others; Bob's uses of magic are relatively minor (mostly relying upon enchanted items), Lar Kwa's are far more intense and costly (draining years from his life) driven by boundless ambition and eagerly indebting himself to ancient and merciless gods with whom he has...special relationships.

Every magic user takes it upon themselves to find their way, discerning some path by which they feel they may get the universe's attention, for good or ill, and dealing with the consequences later.  The writer who would deal with such characters, as always, has the privilege of squeezing as much entertainment out of their journeys and choices as possible.  That doesn't mean letting utter chaos run amok, but imposing limitations as one would on a willful child.  Certainly, display the incredible, but never forget that such things are most interesting when the event the audience sees as fantastic impacts on the characters as a fantastic pain in the ass.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

16815--Zen and the Art of TV Archery

Taking another shot at adapting an A-list superhero from comic books to TV, executive producer Marc Guggenheim has launched a new visioning of Green Arrow at audiences. Some might debate my assignation of A-list status to a low-tech hero with no superhuman abilities, but I’ll argue that he’s carried his own title, been a long-time member of the Justice League and has a name that the average citizen-at-large won’t respond to with “Who?”. Even without a version of him appearing on the now-defunct “Smallville” for several seasons, he’s a well-known quantity who has never been shy about working in the ranks of the comic universe’s heavyweights. Like his fellow mere mortal Batman, that similar list of credentials is more than enough to qualify his Tough Guy status.

Like others of his costumed stalwarts, the details of his backstory have been tweaked as much as any urban legend. This time around, he’s been presented with a live mother and a dead father, the circumstances behind that being only a part of making him into the heroic figure he has had to become. Still a part of the Gilligan’s Island travel plan, wealthy young socialite Oliver Queen was stranded on a remote island that would serve as the crucible in which he would be tempered. Marooned as the result of sabotage to his yacht this time around, the playboy-reborn-as-Tough-Guy has come back to civilization with an attitude and a secret agenda worthy of the Count of Monte Cristo. Add in the fitful sleep of a troubled soul and they are clearly making the effort of presenting a nuanced protagonist intriguing enough to hold everyone’s attention. Certainly, that’s something the Green Arrow who first appeared in More Fun Comics back in 1941 could not have done in the modern era.

While the hero of “Arrow” may take on gangs of thugs, loose arrows with skill enough to make an Olympic archer go slack-jawed and Parkour like a monkey on Red Bull, executive producer Guggenheim is nothing less than adamant that superpowered heroes like Superman and Green Lantern won't have a place on the show. Wow. What happened to helping your buddies share in the wealth? Courtney Cox may have had plenty of her old co-stars show their faces on “Cougartown”, but it looks like Guggenheim has other ideas about how “Arrow” will play out. Conversely, he also says the show will try to utilize as much of the DC Comics universe as humanly possible:

Sorry, pal, they said...uh...our greens would clash.

"We've got a lot of different characters and then there are characters you may not recognize unless you're a diehard comic book fan. One of the things we've done, mainly because we're fans, is we've thrown in a lot of Easter eggs for the hardcore fans. If you're a big fan of the DC Comics universe, you'll see a lot of familiar names and places: Big Belly Burger, which is a hamburger chain from the Superman comic books, makes a regular appearance on our show and we have a Big Belly Burger franchise as one of our standing sets. You'll still hear about characters from those worlds and from those cities. We're imagining a DC universe without super-powered characters, but that doesn't mean that in our parallel universe that there isn't a Metropolis or a Gotham City. There are references to places like Corto Maltese (a war-torn island) and Markovia. I would listen and watch carefully if you're a comic book fan because some of the references are really subtle and will go past a lot of people."

Now my opinion on this is if they're imagining a DCU without super-powered characters, they‘re not imagining the DCU.  If you’re going to piss away the unique infrastructure that goes along with Green Arrow, why bother building a show around that character?  It seems ridiculous to waste elements of story that others can't offer in the midst of such a competitive market.  The audience may as well go watch “Nikita”, “Revenge” or “Person of Interest”.  Or the evening news.  Why spend time on a another new series when we already have proven products who've passed their first season hurdles?  Oh, it's Green Arrow, you say?  Hey, there's a quantity with some potential!  Oh, just Green Arrow?  You know, we already have plenty of non-super action and drama.  We live in it. 

Green Arrow lives in a different reality and has the opportunity to explore themes using levels of depth denied to mundane genres.  Ignoring that reality sounds like the same error “Smallville” started with when the ultimately ousted producers insisted that “no tights, no flights” was the only cool way to present Superman to the 21st century and a generation that had outgrown such heroes.  In time, the people making the show got over themselves and “Smallville“ improved. One of the notable additions to the show, ironically, was Green Arrow (though I hear they really wanted a young Bruce Wayne, but were denied such lofty access). After all these years of adaptations, you would think TV producers would’ve learned by now that acknowledging the integrated universe of such characters works far better than yanking a single thread from a tapestry and pretending that their chosen hero is the only one. I’m waiting for the day someone brings us an adaptation of some popular vampire story, but without all the silliness of biting and fangs and supernatural stuff.

Meanwhile, “Arrow” doesn't have to show people leaping tall buildings, but could slip in references to superhuman activities in newscasts and the odd urban legend mention without letting the idea overrun the show. That sort of thing would certainly put a bigger smile on my mug than a trip through Big Belly’s “drive-thru” lane. I trust “Arrow” and Oliver Queen will prove tough enough to endure creator egos and the rigors of TV ratings to become even better than the better than average showing it has already given us.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

16805--Settling Differences Between Good and Evil

Phantom Limb: "We're not so different, you and I."
Brock Samson: "Yeah, I don't need another 'We're not so different' speech.  I get those a lot."
Phantom Limb: "Yes, I'm sure you do."

There's a strange intimacy that exists between antagonists and protagonists.  The dynamic interplay of their differences creates both attraction and friction in a dance of interconnectedness.  Despite their enmity, they are drawn into each other's orbits, each one's movements influencing the other.  One is driven to create Chaos while the other's passion is to preserve Order.  One is driven to commit the crimes that the other is dedicated to stop.

They are Lex Luthor and Superman, one striving to freely exploit as much of the world as he can while the other champions life and freedom for all.

They are Moriarty and Holmes, linked by the crafting of criminal intrigues versus the drive to unravel challenging puzzles.

They are any politician's image and the image of the politician's opposition, each contesting to propagate the best lie.

In characters, the simplest form of the dynamic may exist between one character seeking a goal and the other blocking the attainment of that goal.  Very often, at least one of the two will hate the other.  In the more complex dynamics, the two may have begun as friends and, though their choices have put them at odds, there could still exist a measure of respect between them--if not mutual, at least one for the other. 

Their backgrounds often serve to highlight the friction between them, whether they perceive themselves as having come from a loving family environment or one fraught with tension.  Do they consider their formative years to have been easy or difficult?  A protagonist will usually see their life experiences as the foundation for positive growth.  Some of the most bitter antagonists can go through the same experiences as the protagonist they oppose yet find excuses not to grow at all.  The  most complex antagonists will find justification to respond to their struggles in such an extreme fashion that while the hero might consider their paths to differ greatly, the hero can still understand the choice of his opponent.  Perhaps more importantly, readers can accept it as a viable choice that they themselves might have made.

Professor Xavier and Magneto are prime examples of opponents locked in a dynamic where two friends came to be at odds by choosing differing paths to achieve similar goals.  Both characters want to see the world grow into an environment where mutants can live safely.  Xavier believes this can be achieved through peaceful coexistence between mutant and non-mutantkind.  Magneto believes this is only possible if mutants rule over society.  He respects Xavier's efforts, even supports them, but his own suffering at the hands of Nazis has soured his faith in the potential of humanity's goodness and a special intolerance for racism.

In a relationship of such complexity, hero and villain might ultimately come to a point where, even though they continue at cross purposes, they recognize a validity in each other's mission.  By that, meaning that while they don't kiss and make up, they don't go out of their way to oppose each other directly either.
Is there a hero-villain pairing that resonates with you as being particularly profound?

Friday, October 12, 2012

16804--Welcome to Write Club...

The first rule of WRITE CLUB is you do not talk about WRITE CLUB.  Writing is about writing, not talking about writing or finding a hundred other easier to perpetrate distractions.  You have a large and important job ahead of you and only you can get it done.  Your work will be humanity's mirror.  Your work will help humanity keep from tearing itself apart for another day, even if it only serves as a distraction during the reading.

The second rule of WRITE CLUB is  you do not talk about WRITE CLUB.  See the first rule.  You're not a talker, you're a writer.  Stop trying to impress people with what you plan to do someday.  Go do it.  Don't wait for inspiration.  You're not a waiter.  You're a writer.  A writer writes to get the writing done.  It's an active, dynamic process that produces a result because you hunted it down, clubbed it and dragged it home to be your bitch.  That's when you'll take those words and put them together with the fit of a verbal jigsaw puzzle, painting a picture that only you could've made.  You don't do Show-and-Tell.  You just show and let your writing do your talking.

The third rule of WRITE CLUB is if someone says "stop", goes limp or taps out, the writing is over.  Because you weren't a real writer, anyway.  If you were, quitting would never have been an option.  Some writers seem to spill words onto the blank page with ease.  Good for them, but there's no promise that coherency and quality are going to come together with ease.  What you've undertaken is supposed to be one of the hardest endeavors known to man.  Do it anyway.  Look into yourself, go where the pain is and poke it with a hot, dull spoon.  Take what you've found there and put it on your page.

The fourth rule of WRITE CLUB is you're alone with your writing.  There's endless inputs into your raw material, churning and filtering through the magical processor atop your neck.  There can be as many helpful hands as you like proofing and editing, but between your brain and the stringing together of words into coherent art there is only you.  No one can get your work to done better than you.

The fifth rule of WRITE CLUB is write one at a time.  Focus on your goal.  Finish whatever's on your mind before going on to something else.

The sixth rule of WRITE CLUB is shirts and shoes don't matter.  You're not a fashion model.  You're a writer.  Kick off the shoes and socks.  Write naked.  Or wrap up in a parka or a blanket.  Get comfortable and get to work.

The seventh rule of WRITE CLUB is writing will go on as long as it has to.  Give it all the time it needs, but don't rewrite forever.  At some point, you need to call it finished and show it to somebody else.

The eighth rule of WRITE CLUB is if you're going to be in WRITE CLUB, you have to write.  Writing is what writers do.  It doesn't get any simpler than that.  If you're going to write then do it.  Write or die.  You can plan all you like, but you never know what'll unfold while writing until you're writing. That's not something that comes by waiting for inspiration but by just getting on with writing.  Start it.  Then, finish it.  Not half.  Not some.  All of it.  You don't know what writer's block is because that's something whiners get, not writers.  In fact, from now on, let's just call it "whiner's block".  You write every day you breathe.  You have to.  You wouldn't feel right if you didn't.  You write, therefore you are.

Monday, October 8, 2012

16797--Sowing the Seeds of Chaos

Every now and again, you may feel that your personal life, the world around you or one of your writing projects has fallen into a rut of stagnation.  How can you fix it?  Change your normal routine.  Yes, big scary change.  Embrace the change.  It can be good.  It can stimulate new ideas and ways of doing things.

Static systems tend to produce static results.  That's often just fine.  Predictable results are frequently what we seek.  Sometimes, though, you're going to be searching for something new, even if you don't know what it is.  I would also suggest that when you go shaking things up, have some fun doing it.  Give your imagination a little challenge, though, and you might come up with some more creative ways of shuffling your deck. 

In the spirit of my recent writing about tricksters, I'll share a couple of my own past shake ups.

Once upon a time, I worked as a radio DJ.  It's a job that can be fun, but it has its own particular thorns, too.  Hey, that's why it's work and you get paid to do it.  Anyway, one particular afternoon, I decided to play Queen's "We Will Rock You".  Most of you familiar with it know that it is normally followed by "We Are the Champions".  This makes sense because it's the very next track on the album and the gap between them is so small that the first flows into the second very well.  People have become accustomed, almost programmed, to hear them together.  Well, that particular afternoon, I made note that the two separate tracks are just that: two separate tracks.  When "We Will Rock You" finished, I spun something else.  It was a nice smooth transition into another bit of rock and roll that I don't even recall at this writing.  What I do recall, though, is that we got a pretty fair idea of just how many people were listening to my show that day because the phone lines rang like I was giving away money.  Not playing "We Are the Champions" was apparently enough to incite an emotional riot because that was suddenly the most important thing in their world.  I even got to talk to some some station executives who usually didn't care about talking with me.  Who knew they had such an interest in what I played?

Another fun upon a time came way back in 1993.  That's right, the twentieth century.  Some friends of mine had gotten terribly excited about the opening night of "Jurassic Park" and called a couple of dozen of us together to go watch it.  It was a real event.  The box office lines were long, spotlights were sweeping the sky and news crews had come out to do their little feature pieces.  One of my friends who had called us all together had arrived about the same time as I had.  As we were getting our group organized in the very long lines, we chatted to pass the time.  To make the wait more interesting, he said we should "Sow the seeds of Chaos."  What could I do but accept such a lofty challenge?  I put on my 3D glasses. 

Now, let me explain at this point that earlier that very day I had come upon a stash of 3D glasses.  These weren't the slick Men-in-Black-looking 3D glasses we enjoy in the twenty-first century.  No, these were their primitive forebears, made of colorful cardboard and sporting one red and one blue lens.  I had found a box of them at work that no one else wanted.  I was told I could have them and shoved them into my backpack.  Between the time of that find and the movie showtime, I found that those 3D glasses didn't just enhance 3D films.  They also made the world a brighter place as well as the covers of comic books.  So I was already having a fun Friday afternoon.  Since we were going to see this great new film with groundbreaking computer effects, I had to give it a try with my new glasses.  And I had enough for everybody.  As more of our friends arrived, I gave everyone their own 3D glasses.

With the challenge aired and accepted, I encouraged the rest of the group to begin putting on their 3D glasses.  Then, I waited.  At first, there were a few curious finger pointings and giggles, but I held my ground and acted "normally".  Soon, the questions started.  "Why do you have 3D glasses?  Is this a 3D movie?  Do you have any more?"  "Well," I said, reluctantly reaching into my bag of tricks, "I have a few extras..." and began handing out 3D glasses to grateful strangers.  As that spread, more inquiries came, people asking "Where'd you get those?  Is this a 3D movie?  Where can I get a pair?"  "I really need to hang on to some for my friends," I told them, "but you could ask at the box office."  Grateful for the guidance, they'd trot off to bother theater management.  As I recall, we even made it onto the news as the curious reporters began to wonder why no one had told them "Jurassic Park" was being shown in 3D.  The movie theater personnel were too busy to respond to the inquiry, but I was happy to give out some of my extra pairs of glasses to the local media.

As we drew near to getting our tickets, my friend conceded his challenge when he asked, "What the Hell are you doing?"  I reminded him, "You said, 'sow the seeds of Chaos'."  "Well, yeah," he said nervously, "but I didn't think you'd be so good at it." 

It was all in good fun.  No lies were told and there were no casualties that I heard about.  Plus, we all enjoyed the show.  It seemed like those dinosaurs were ready to leap off the screen.

How do you shake things up and turn the mundane into something fresh?

Sunday, October 7, 2012

16796-Conundrums of Prophecy

Stop me if you've heard this one:
     Oedipus was born to King Laius and Queen Jocasta. Laius was given a prophecy that he wished to thwart.  It said that his child would grow up to murder his father and marry his mother. Sure, it sounds crazy, but "Why take the chance?" he figures.  Thus, Laius fastened the infant's feet together with a large pin and left him to die on a mountainside. Killing the baby would open a whole other can of worms and I guess he didn't have any towers or dungeons available.  Naturally, the baby was found by shepherds and raised by King Polybus and Queen Merope in the city of Corinth.  Growing up with privilege in spite of being abandoned to the wilds, Oedipus eventually consulted the oracle at Delphi and learned the same thing that Laius had, but believed it meant he was fated to slay Polybus and marry Merope.  Like any good Greek of the time, he also respected the warning and left Corinth.  Heading to Thebes, Oedipus met an older man in a chariot coming the other way on a narrow road.  The two quarreled over who should give way, which resulted in Oedipus killing the stranger and continuing on to Thebes.  He found that the king of the city (Laius) had been recently killed and that the city was at the mercy of the deadly Sphinx, frontrunner in what would become a long tradition of Earth's supervillains.  Even in self-imposed exile, he was still a prince so Oedipus rose to the challenge and answered the monster's riddle correctly.  Apparently more mentally unstable than anyone knew, having its riddle solved drove the Sphinx to leap from a cliff to its death.  Supervillains, huh?  Anyway, ridding Corinth of the threat won Oedipus the throne of the dead king and the hand in marriage of the king's widow, Jocasta.
Sure, there was more tragic bloodshed yet to come, but the point was made: individuals were powerless in the face of destiny.  You can't run from it, hide from it or stand your ground and shoot it.  Still, the oracle was a popular concept in times past and receiving knowledge of the future remains something for which people hunger.  The traditional prophecy is no mere tea-leaf reading or the voice of a departed spirit in a candle-lit room, though.  Prophecy is a non-negotiable message from the gods.  Maybe they're being generous enough to share with you the shape of things to come.  Maybe they're just messing with you to see what you'll do.  Maybe they feel it's amusing, tormenting their characters the same way writers do.  What do we know? 

Well, we know they're gods and a divine prophecy is going to happen whether we sit on our hands or strand ourselves on Gilligan's Island.  Something will happen to set the confluence of events in motion to make sure the punchline plays out accordingly.  The funniest ones are when the fearful individual's own attempts to thwart the future bring it all into being like a self-fulfilling time-travel paradox.

I say all this, of course, to remind us storytellers to remain aware of the differences, assuming we're going to respect the traditions of the foreshadowing hammer.  A probable future is not the same as an inevitable one.  If you want to chum the water of your story with red herrings, make sure they're just clues that don't set anything in stone.  If you do, rest assured that some sharp-eyed reader is going to call you on it.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

16793--Not For Kids

Adults love tricks, too.  It stands to reason that we would also love tricksters.  To be clear up front, I'm not talking about illusionists putting on shows at the Bellagio.  No, this time I'm talking about that special class of roguish heroes and flawed deities that we adore for their colorful ways.

They take on different forms, but their methods of operation share similar patterns: interceding between gods and man, playing games for their own amusement.  Sure, sometimes they benefit the heroes of the stories, but that payoff is often incidental to their intent.

One of the virtues we usually hold in highest esteem is their cleverness.  Whether its Odysseus outsmarting Polyphemus, Prometheus pulling a fast one on Zeus or some clever scheme woven by Anansi on behalf of his father Nyame the Sky-God, the highlights of their tales focus on outthinking others.  Noted exceptions regarding this particular characteristic include stand-outs Loki and Coyote.

Loki's mischiefs often bore the twist of malice, but for all he did to draw the enmity of Asgard there were also times he would redeem himself through the use of his cunning against the giants who opposed the gods.  With that and being Odin's adopted son, the punishments he received over the years were mild enough to enable his survival to the time of Ragnarok, Asgard's prophesied final war.  When the foretold Twilight of the Gods fell, Loki aligned himself with Asgard's enemies.  Given his track record, it should've come as a surprise to no one.  When I was a kid, one of my schoolmates who lived next door to me could've been Loki's avatar.  He lied, bullied and drove his father nuts.  If you had teams in a snowball fight (something we liked to do), about five minutes into the battle you could count on him to throw snowballs at his teammates and run to the other side.  A little while later or maybe the next day, he'd be playing on our goodwill and get chummy again.  He always seemed like someone destined for ever more trouble.  I may have to track down whatever became of him.

  For my money, Coyote has always topped the trickster ranks.  Can he be bullying, willful, forgetful, greedy, gluttonous, arrogant and profane?  Of course.  No matter what form he takes to romp through life sowing the seeds of Chaos, though, he's also a creator and a teacher.  He's seldom accused of cleverness.  In fact, he never learns any of his own lessons, but he can be a great teacher to men and spirits alike.  Sometimes he gives and sometimes he takes.  Whether he's Father Craft or Coyote (or even Wile E. Coyote), he's always quick to bounce back with some new ploy designed to bring him a meal or a laugh that may just blow up in his face again.  That's OK, though, because he's nothing if not dauntless.

That appears to be another trait the tricksters seem to share, especially the deific ones.  They're not just resourceful, they're resilient.  Whatever karmic payback they might incur, they come back for more and more.  Are they gluttons for punishment?  Are they insane?  Maybe they're just not done teaching yet.  Perhaps they're puppet masters letting other gods think they're running things.  Who are we to say?  We only know the angle of their stories that we're allowed to perceive.  Never be quick to write a trickster off as a simpleton.  Illusion is their conversation.  What we call reality is their toy.  You may never know an immortal trickster's long-game.

Prometheus is not only a Titan, but one who can see probable futures and is willing to suffer torture rather than give up information.  Loki is a manipulative strategist.  Coyote...sees humor and complexity at which we can only guess in a very limited number of dimensions.  Even Wile E. Coyote is a super-genius.  Just ask him.