Gun Violence, Homophobia, Terrorism, and the Real Enemy: Fear

I don’t usually talk about controversies on this blog. That’s not the purpose of it, and I’m not going to talk about it today. This isn’t a post about controversy, this is a post about human nature. A character study, if you will. Regardless of your feelings on gun control, homosexuality, or religion, bear with me for a while, because this is one truth that is relevant to all. image

We fear things we don’t understand, and we destroy things that we fear.

Look at our history. We exorcised and killed people with mental illness. We attempted (sometimes successfully) to eradicate entire species of animals, and entire cultures of people. Even something as benign as being left handed was met with cruel treatments that could permanently impair function.

It is human nature to say, “This scares me, I want to destroy it.” But we’re not animals. We can chose to act above and against our natures, but first we have to recognize them. Do you hate something? Do you hate a group of people? Do you hate guns? Do you hate GMOs?

Does it scare you?

I know of only one remedy for fear, and that is understanding. When you understand something it gives you a measure—however small—of power over the subject, even if that power is simply in your ability to anticipate and control your response to it. Like anyone, I fear a great many things. I fear losing my loved ones and having violence done to me. I fear death. I fear losing control of my life. I choose to explore these subjects in my writing because it helps me understand them, and that helps me live my life freely and fully. I know more about tapeworms, ticks, and bot flies than anyone who’s not parasitologist has any business knowing, and I’ve recently acquired enough information on dental maladies to take an entrance exam to dental school. Knowledge empowers us against what we fear, but we have to seek it the right way.

First, we must accept our fallibility. There is no such thing as perfect understanding. Anyone can be wrong, maybe everyone is wrong. The goal of learning is to be ever closer to the truth. We never stop learning.

Then, we must open our minds and attempt objectivity. We will never learn anything if we only seek to confirm our bias. We must learn things that support our beliefs, and learn things that challenge them. Learn freely. Learn ravenously. Learn with the goal to understand, not to prove or disprove.

And never stop. Never stop.

And finally, we must learn with the knowledge that there may not be one answer, especially as our fears grow in complexity. A bot fly is a relatively simple creature. A person, a culture, an ideology is complex. As fellow writer and blogger, Chuck Wendig said (far more entertainingly than me) you must be able to hold many truths in your brain at once. Can you do this?

The more we learn, the more truths we can hold, the less helpless we feel, and the less we fear. I promise you this.

Do I think this will work for everyone? No, of course not. But I believe it could work for anyone. In a world with strikingly few absolutes, I believe that education can change the world. So arm yourself against fear. Take a sociology course at your local community college. Check out a book on human sexuality, and then check out another book from a different author. Research statistics from reputable sources, and then cross reference them. Compare the results to the statistics of different places full of different people. Question everything. Be brave. Become a seeker of truth, many truths, and then choose your nature, don’t let fear choose it for you.


Do Main Characters Need to be Likable?

Short answer: No.

Long answer: One of the things most commonly criticized about fiction of any medium, is whether or not the characters, most importantly the main characters, are likable. So, what does it mean for a character to be likable? Usually, it means the character is relatable, sympathetic, or even admirable. Audiences generally want to connect to the characters they’re reading about. Characters are the vehicle through which readers get to experience our world, and if you’re reading in first or deep third person point of view, that whole world is filtered through the character. It’s hard to stay in the head or life of someone you despise, so it is definitely easier to write a good book with a large appeal if your main characters are likable.

But it is not a requirement.

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) – Breaking Bad _Season 5 – Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels/AMC

Enter, the anti-hero. The anti-hero is a protagonist who lacks traditional heroic (and often sympathetic) qualities. The anti-hero is also increasingly popular among audiences, to the point where even villains will gain popularity over easier-to-stomach heroes. Why is this? It’s because while they may not be likable, they still possess the key ingredient in a main character. They are compelling. Walter White, Cersei Lannister, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, these are not good people, but we love—or love to hate— because they’re interesting. Walter White had vaulting ambition, Cerci Lannister has sheer tenacity, and Dr. Lecter has a veneer of charm and polish over a darkly twisted psychosis. What’s more, if we make our heroes too heroic, we run the risk of having a protagonist who is sympathetic (we feel for them) but not empathetic (we feel with them). I don’t know what it’s like to have Captain America’s unwavering sense of justice, but I do know what it’s like to have Loki’s seething jealousy. (I’m not proud, but I’m human.) Sometimes we have a character who is so far removed from the average reader or viewer that they’re difficult to understand. We often see this with genius-characters like Sherlock, or Dr. Gregory House. The average reader or viewer is not a genius, so we end up with a character who is hard to empathize with, but is fascinating to observe.

All of these characters stray from the traditional likable protagonist (some of them are villains in their own right) but all of them have huge fan followings and immense popularity, because most of all, audiences want to be entertained. So go out there are write unlikable characters. Make them wicked. Make them flawed. Afflict them with genius and psychoses. Anything is forgivable, just don’t be boring.

Back for More

It’s been almost three months since my graduation from Seton Hill’s MFA in Writing Popular Fiction program. My graduate study at Seton Hill made up some of the best years of my life. I learned more about the craft, and pursuing a career in writing in two and a half years at SHU than the sum of my previous experience, and the friendships and professional network I made there will last the rest of my life. Graduation was bittersweet. On one hand, I had a very difficult accomplishment validated in my degree and thesis. On the other hand, I was leaving the place and program I’d come to think of as a second home. The completion of my most difficult task to date was just the beginning of an even harder journey with the road to professional publication.

I am still traveling that road, thankfully with the help of an amazing literary agent, but today I signed up for the In Your Write Mind workshop, hosted by the WPF Alumni, and held at Seton Hill concurrent with the WPF summer residency. That’s right. Three months out and I’m already eager to return. I have friends and colleagues graduating, mentors and teachers to catch up with, and like all writers, I have more to learn. Writing is a craft that is never mastered and constantly improved. One of the best things about writing workshops is that everyone, regardless of their place in their writing career, has more to learn and relationships to benefit from, and the workshops offer both.

While reuniting with friends and improving my craft are big motivators for returning to SHU, there’s a third element, harder to put into words but just as important. I’m addicted to it. The residency experience at SHU is hard to describe and impossible to replicate, but IYWM comes close with its heavy involvement with and proximity to the residency students and the option to stay in the dorms on campus (highly recommended) for the workshop weekend. There’s an energy and a comradery at Seton hill that recharges your creative batteries, bolsters motivation, and reaffirms the rightness of the decision to pursue the difficult craft of writing.

I need my fix, and one thing that’s certain is that I’ll continue to return to Seton Hill where it all began, year after year, no matter where the road to publication takes me.