Tag Archives: Lord of the Rings

One Does Not Simply Walk into Mordor

A couple of weeks ago I happened to see a tweet by a writer who seemed to be having a bit of trouble. Specifically she said she was having some problems with something called “negative self-talk.”

Now I don’t know about you guys, but I’m kinda dumb, and I had never heard of this “negative self-talk” stuff. So I asked.

The writer explained that negative self talk was that voice in your head, the one that tells you you’re not good enough, that your writing sucks, that you’re fooling yourself thinking you’ll ever get anywhere trying to make this writing thing into a career.

Turns out I knew more about negative self-talk than I thought. Because I’ve had to deal with this a lot. And if you’re a writer, I can guarantee that you’ve had to deal with it too. Maybe you’re dealing with it right now.

Man, that inner voice is mean isn’t he? I mean, you’d think he’d care a little more about your feelings considering that he lives inside of your mind. But somehow he seems to take great delight in bashing you over the head again and again with your inadequacies.

I bet you wish you could be rid of him don’t you? You wish you could tell him to go away and never come back.

Well that isn’t what today’s post is about.

See I’ve been thinking about this mean-spirited inner voice, and I think he gets a bit of a bad rap.

As a writer I understand the number one thing a story needs to be compelling is conflict. If the Hobbits just took a leisurely stroll down the road to Mount Doom and tossed the ring in just before having a tasty picnic, Lord of the Rings would have been a really crap story.

But what we often fail to realize is that conflict is an important part of real life too. Just like out stories would be boring and uninteresting with no one to oppose the protagonist, so our lives would be a bit pointless if we never faced any obstacles.

And just like in fiction, the obstacles come from within just as often as they come from without. Am I saying that horrible condemning voice inside our heads is a good thing? Well, in a way, yes.

See, the reason our characters need conflict in fiction is because they’ll never change without it. And we’re the same way. If the path was easy we’d never get stronger. The higher the mountain you climb, the harder the path is. You’re going to need to be one tough cookie if you want to make it to the top.

If you think about it, that inner voice is really doing you a favour.  Because odds are we’re not as good as we think we are. And none of us is beyond improvement.

And that inner voice knows that a cheerful “You can do it!” isn’t going to cut it. So he berates you. He cuts you down. He insults your dreams. He tells you that getting published is impossible.

Now it’s up to you to decide what you’ll do with that voice. You can curl up and whimper that it’s no use. Give in and give up.

Or you can get pissed off. You can rebel. You can tell that inner voice to take a hike, because you’re going to succeed no matter how long it takes. And in so doing you will get better.

And trust me, it does get better. When that inner voice says you can’t do something, prove him wrong, and he’ll get just a little bit quieter.

It’s not that he’s gone. It’s just that he’s served his purpose: to make you a better writer.

And after a while you’ll be so far up the mountain you’ll hardly be able to hear him at all.

Evil is a Bad Thing

Here’s a fun fact you probably didn’t know about Walmart: people steal condoms. You wouldn’t expect shoplifters to be socially conscious enough to worry about birth control, but it must pretty high on their list of priorities because nearly every day, you can find a partially empty box of condoms sitting on the shelf in the Toy Department (apparently there’s no security coverage back there or something, but it’s still really unsettling to see a box of Trojans sitting next to Sleepy Time baby dolls.)

Note that I said the box was only partially empty. That part used to bother me a lot. I couldn’t figure out why people wouldn’t just take the whole pack. It’s not like you’re going to get into any more trouble for stealing the whole box instead of just taking three.

But then it finally dawned on me: the reason people don’t empty out the whole box is because somewhere in the back of their minds they are trying to justify what they’re doing. They’re thinking to themselves, “Well yes, it’s wrong to steal, but this isn’t really stealing because I’m not taking the whole box.”

This realization helped me to understand something broader about the human condition: people do not like to think of themselves as “bad people.” They almost always construct some kind of rationalization for why what they’re doing isn’t really that bad. Often they’ve even convince themselves that ultimately the crime they’re committing is in the interest of the greater good.

For instance, take Adolph Hitler. No seriously, please take him. He’s been haunting my blender for far too long. But while he was alive he did horrible things, unspeakable things. And yet even Hitler the man who has become the very image of the clichéd villain had to justify himself, had to convince himself that the people he was trying to wipe off the face of the earth were somehow less than human, that they were evil conspirators,  responsible for keeping the real people down.

People in fiction don’t often think this way. People in fiction to bad things because they’re EVIL. Kids movies and fantasy are particularly bad about this sort of lack of characterization. They throw some guy in a black cloak and give him glowing red eyes and suddenly that character is the VILLAIN, a person completely without scruples or sympathy.

And all the time I’m asking myself, why? Why does this character hate the hero so much? Why does he want to murder tiny unicorns and take over the world? How did he go so far wrong?

And that's all the motivation you need!

In my opinion the best stories are the ones in which all the characters have convinced themselves that on some level they’re doing the right thing. I’m not just talking about giving the antagonist some tacked-on motivation for what he’s doing and then going on to portray him as utterly unsympathetic. I’m talking about crafting characters that people can genuinely empathize with on some level.

I know that there are plenty of good stories out there that don’t follow this rule. In Lord of the Rings no one really cares what Sauron’s deeper reasons for trying to rule the world are. But for my part, I always get more enjoyment out of reading a tale where you can understand where all the characters are coming from.

It may be more difficult to craft this kind of story, but I believe that creating villains who are not simply doing bad things FOR TEH EVULZ will serve to make the kind of story that speaks to readers on a far deeper and more meaningful level.

Variations on a Theme

If you’ve been a writer for any length of time at all, you’ve had this happen to you.

You tell someone “I’m a writer.”

That someone says, “Oh yeah? What are you writing?”

So you tell them about your story. But about halfway through your synopsis it dawns on you. This story sounds frighteningly familiar. Why if you didn’t know better…but no. No, this is your story. You didn’t steal it from anyone else. You certainly didn’t steal if from that award winning movie that approximately everyone has seen.

Only now that you think about it you story about the girl with the magical ring who trains a dragon and falls in love with a vampire? It sounds just like that other story.

So what do you do? Naturally you go into full panic mode. You shout out “Heavens to Betsy, it’s all in ruination!” and run away from that slack jawed stranger as fast as you can. Or maybe that was just me.

Okay. Calm down. Just…deep breaths. That’s right…in…out…in…you can do this.

Alright, back with us again? Here’s the thing. Originality is a myth. Seriously.

Try to think up a story no one has ever thought of before. Go ahead, think. Come up with something completely original.

Nope, been done. I don’t care what it was you thought of it’s been done somewhere somewhen before.

The truth is you’re never going to make up an original story. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be creative. And it certainly doesn’t mean you should throw up your hands in disgust and start cribbing directly from someone else’s narrative.

But what it does mean is that you can’t let that fear of being unoriginal stop your progress.

The first story I ever wrote was about a girl who finds a magical ring and is chased by an evil presence who’s very existence is linked to the ring. And when you boil it all down like that it sure sounds a whole lot like Lord of the Rings which is pretty much the greatest fantasy story ever written.

That used to bother me a lot. But it doesn’t bother me so much any more. For one thing I know much of the rest of the book is nothing like Lord of the Rings. The rest of the book involves a group of rebels striking from a hidden base against the oppression of an evil empire, and that doesn’t remind me of anything else at all.

So what’s a writer to do? The bottom line is balance.

“Balance again?” you say.

Yes, balance again.

On the one hand you really may have created a story which is too similar to another more famous story. That isn’t wrong persay, but it might very well mean you’ll have a hard time getting it published.

On the other hand, stories are all connected to each other in weird and wonderful ways. Let’s face it, without other stories to inspire us we’d be in a sorry state as writers. We can’t work in a vacuum. And that means that no matter how hard we try some elements of our story are going to line up with other elements in other stories.

It’s okay. It’s not plagiarism. Let’s call it…inspiration.

So if your story ends up sounding like something someone else has already written, take heart. Chances are they were inspired by someone else too. And that’s completely okay with me.