Archive for the 'Uncategorized' Category

Dec 16 2007

Bad Writing Question

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I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

Quick question: which fictional character is better characterized:  Eragon’s dragon, Ash’s Charizard or a limp noodle?

I will make the counterintuitive argument that Charizard is actually better than the noodle.  He has a defining characteristic– laziness– and he gets slightly better lines than Eragon’s dragon.

(For new readers:  I hated Eragon… I’d write a review explaining why, but it would take me a lot more than 4000 words and I absolutely do not want to ever see that book again).

  • Absolutely cliche plot.  JRR Tolkien should have been credited as the co-author.
  • PAINFULLY bad characters– including a wasted dragon that is worse-characterized than a Pokemon.
  • The Chosen One.  This is actually a problem I should write about.  I will, after finals.
  • Montana Syndrome.  Did you know the author was from Montana?  Believe me, after the first ten pages of the characters trudging through a hellish, howling wasteland, you’ll figure it out.  This is closely related to NYC Syndrome in superhero stories, but NYC has the advantage of being remotely interesting and somewhat less desolate than Montana.

    • It’s never a problem to write what you know… as long as what you know isn’t painful (I hope Tom Clancy is reading this).  Tom Clancy’s sub chapters are so painfully parochial that I skip through them now.  “But how do you know what’s going on?”  If an enemy ship disappears from the plot, chalk it up to the sub and move on.

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Dec 15 2007

Sorry guys!

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I don’t anticipate that I will be able to post again until Wednesday night.  My finals schedule is catastrophic.  But I will leave you with this curse from Dubai, the Las Vegas of the Middle East:

“May your life be as interesting as Girls Gone Wild: Tehran.”

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Dec 14 2007

Quote of the Day

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Actual quote from a philosophical texts (Agents, Causes and Free Will): I want to look at two different objections [to my thesis.]  The first of these, and by far the most popular, is spurious.  Since it is spurious, I will bury it in a footnote.7

I wish I could make arguments like that.  The counterarguments to my thesis are so shoddy that I will say I’m burying them.

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Dec 13 2007

Military Casual Fridays

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Some of the better unit badges ever.  Get a load of these.


When everything’s on the line, uniform standards slip a little.  


Uhh… routine training exercises?  

Love the bomb, biatch!  



Somewhere, a Human Resources staffer is taking notes.   



I wonder what Agent Orange would say?  “The Q stands for Quality.”  


This unit was probably deployed to Tokyo at some point.  


Not quite Snakes on a Plane, but close.  

I’m from the government…

THE REAL DEAL!  I think it’s Greek.


EL DORADO:  It ain’t just a fountain of youth! 


Actually, this was a badge for the Russian Spetznaz.  You can tell by their choice of logo that they, unlike most Russian forces, were actually effective.   

This next one includes some rough language.

Continue Reading »

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Dec 04 2007


I hate little writing guides. I read one this morning that offered only ~300 words on writing characters, all of which could be summarized as “write authentic characters,” which was incidentally the chapter heading. Write authentic characters. Thanks!

Hopefully, this article will prove more useful to you. As you craft and introduce a character, you have many tools at your disposal. I’ll offer some tips for the following aspects and tools of character creation.

  1. Character genesis: what kind of character do you need?
  2. Introducing your character
  3. Making your characters memorable/sticky
  4. Three dimensional characters
  5. Character problems

Character Genesis: what kind of character do you need?

Virtually every well-designed character has each of the following:

  1. Purpose
    1. This is the role he plays in your story. If your character does not play a unique and useful role in the plot, you need to rewrite or remove him. Characters are unique if their role can’t be performed by the story’s other characters. A character is useful he cannot be removed without dramatically weakening the story. That’s subjective, but often your beta readers agree which characters are productive and/or interesting and which aren’t. If you have beta readers, ask questions like “what role did John play in this chapter?” or “which character contributed the least?”—those are pretty direct ways of getting reader impressions on the material. If you don’t have beta readers, go to; it’s a very professional and free online writing workshop.
    2. Purpose comes first because everything else you put into your character hinges on the role you need him to play. Purpose should drive development. For example, if you want a character to add comic quips, he should be witty. Readers will notice if a supposedly slow character is verbally quick.
    3. Your audience and world often reach the same conclusions about a character. But, if you intend your readers not to agree with what your characters think about another character, make it clear why there’s a distinction. (Failing to do so will make your characters feel flat or unbelievable). NOTE: this should be done as sparingly as possible. Discrepancies tend to disconnect readers from the story.
  1. Goals
    1. Real people have goals. Your characters should, too! Goals add plot coherence. If your plot moves from one characters attempting to achieve his goal to another thwarting him by pursuing his own agenda and then back to the first character trying again, it tends to flow nicely.
    2. Goals make characters deep and believable. Did Neville Longbottom go to Hogwarts just so Snape could pound on him? Hell no! He wants to be a man, which drives him to (hilariously) confront Harry Potter towards the end of the first book. Goals are essential to making your characters more than just props. Even your minor characters should have them.
  2. Problems
    1. Real people have problems, too. Problems are a great way to develop your characters. In fact, sometimes the problems are more memorable than the characters themselves (how long could you talk about Luke Skywalker before saying “Darth Vader?”)
    2. Sometimes you reach for your goal and fail. Failure adds drama! Someone who succeeds the first time, every time is not really interesting. The higher the barriers are, the more your readers will enjoy watching the leap. Failure also helps develop characters. Adversity brings out resourcefulness, ingenuity and strength.
    3. Problems also help you mix up the plot. If your character tries shouldering open a locked door but fails, it wouldn’t be very dramatic if he just kept hitting it until it opened. This gives you an opportunity to show that your character is able to do more than solve all of his problems one way—action writers often tend to focus on violent or confrontational solutions. If you feel you have that problem, try mixing it up by placing your hero in a position where he’s hopelessly outpowered, ideally in a social setting. You can’t punch your boss…
    4. Are you using a broad set of problems? Here are a few to consider. 1) Nature/natural phenomena 2)Violent antagonists 3) Iagos (diplomatically savvy antagonists) 4) The hero’s shortcomings 5) The hero’s goals conflict 6) Conflicting heroes
  3. Flaws
    1. Authors sometimes mistakenly confuse problems with flaws. Problems are obstacles or failures. Flaws are attributes that the audience won’t find endearing.
    2. Many authors tend to subconsciously write characters as reflections of themselves. That’s fine, as long as you don’t idealize yourself. Realistic characters virtually require flaws. “But I want my audience to sympathize with my hero!” That’s a good point, but keep in mind that flaws can accentuate positive traits. For example, an idealistic character might be depressed because the world doesn’t meet his expectations. His depression will remind us that he lives by his ideals.
    3. On the other hand, villains often have too many flaws. Sympathetic villains—with agendas we can relate to, even if we don’t want them to succeed— are often the most memorable and feel the most realistic (Darth Vader).
    4. Flaws tend to be more memorable. For example, in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, Temeraire has an interesting set of characteristics. Let’s see… he’s a dragon, enthusiastic about geometry, he is very affectionate towards his Captain/partner, is strongly anti-slavery and wants sweeping reforms to make British society more dragon-friendly (like tearing up London buildings to make the streets widers). But what is most salient about Temeraire—and characterizes him the best—is that he’s politically radical and doesn’t care about what society deems acceptable.
    5. Flaws tend to add plot coherence. Temeraire [SPOILER] goes rogue and refuses to carry out a plot to poison French dragons. [/SPOILER] That flows naturally from his deeply held views about the dignity of dragons. It doesn’t feel like the author randomly decided to have Temeraire rebel to spice the plot up. Plots driven by flaws tend to be more coherent and feel less arbitrary, partially because flaw-driven foreshadowing is more noticeable and memorable.

Memorable/Sticky Characters

You want your characters to be memorable, I’m sure. More precisely, your characters should be sticky—something about them needs to stick long and hard with your readers.

Readers will often miss minor details, especially one introduced only once or twice. The essence of stickiness is giving each character one or two defining characteristics that provide memory cues to everything else about the character. If you bring attention to those defining characteristics a few times, readers will gradually make a lasting impression and they will easily remember the character.

Here’s an example from my own work: one of Agent Orange’s defining characteristics is that he’s an (reptilian) alien. I assumed that readers would remember that unusual detail. WRONG! Not only had the majority forgotten that he was the alien, many more had gotten confused about the species of some human characters. To help cue my readers, I had Agent Orange say “mammals*” whenever he’s exasperated, faces a political obstacle, has to explain something about himself or is otherwise perplexed by American culture.


ORANGE: Do you smell that?

LASH: That you smell like an ashtray?

ORANGE: The squid. He’s a mile off.

LASH: How the hell could I smell a squid a mile away?

ORANGE: Mammals.


Agent BLACK: I’ll stick with the experience and Darwin factors.

Agent ORANGE: (Mammals). When Freakshow is melting your neural synapses together, let me know how much inspiration and comfort those give you.

BLACK: I will try to remember to do that, sir.

ORANGE: (Wiseass).

This recurring remark has benefits beyond reminding readers that Orange isn’t human. Sometimes I’ll ask my reviewers questions like “do you remember a passage that shows how Agent Orange (or nonhumans generally) get along with humans?” They almost always pick a “mammals” passage. I think the word “mammals” is a pretty good cue that the reader is supposed to make associations there.

Since I’ve introduced the “mammals” lines, readers have fared much better on open-ended questions like “how would you characterize human-nonhuman relationships in Superhero Nation? I’m looking for words like “awkward,” “well-intentioned,” “strange” and “friendly”—at least, that’s what I meant to convey. Before I used mammal lines, most readers had no clue and the rest mentioned discrimination. That was certainly puzzling, given that the only recurring nonhuman character is a ranking government official that’s friendly with his co-workers.

Now, I see a lot more answers that use words like “strained,” “symbiotic,” different perspectives, etc.

Big picture, “mammals” helps characterize Orange. It reminds us that he’s not a human and that his relations with humans are mostly positive but kind of outsider-looking-in (I like “symbiotic”).

*I experimented with him saying “humans” but that came off much more sinister and lacked the whimsy and exasperation I was looking for. Reviewers overwhelmingly agreed that “mammals” was friendlier. One said that “humans rings with contempt. It sounds like a slur.” Another agreed that mammals was less threatening because it paralleled racism less. By using “mammals” instead of “humans,” Orange implicitly contrasts himself as a reptile rather than a dragon. “I don’t think he’s suggesting reptiles are categorically superior to mammals, but I think using ‘humans’ does suggest a categorical assertion about the superiority of his species [dragons].”

I’m only done with part 1 of this, but it’s pretty late here. I’ll complete this later.

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Dec 03 2007

You heard it here first (unless you work in drug rehab)

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The Miami Dolphins, vying to be the first team ever to lose more than the 0-14 1976 Buccaneers, will beat the Patriots and end their hopes of a perfect season.

I saw it in a dream.  It was one of those trippy-as-hell dreams that you KNOW is a dream even before you wake up.


Superhero Hallucination

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Nov 24 2007

Presenting Hegemonopoly

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I think what America clearly needs is another board game. This is where Hegemonopoly comes in.

Some aspects of the game.

In place of Park Place, we’d have National Missile Defense.  In place of Boardwalk, we’d have Strategic First Strike.  The “Go to Boardwalk” card would be “Accidental nuclear launch on your enemies.  Uhh, whoops.  Go to Strategic First Strike.”

Since the three reds are the most popular squares in the game, they will be perennial victims Manchuria (Kentucky), Poland (Indiana) and the Caucasus (Illinois).  The “Go to Illinois” card would be replaced by Caucasian Invasion.

The two utilities will be replaced by Russia and North Korea.  It seems like all they do is supply (nuclear) power and (heavy) water, anyway.  And they have about as much impact on the game.

Since the three oranges are conspicuously correlated with total annihilation, I’ll go with such tried and true methods of statecraft as Carpet Bombing, Untargeted Assassinations, and Death by Slaughter.  (Yes, you can get there with Go Back 3 Spaces).

St. James, States and Virginia will be Sri Lanka, Pakistan and India. The “Go to St. James” card will be replaced with “You always knew it’d be the little one, didn’t you? Go to Sri Lanka.”

The four railroads would be replaced with the Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf of Guinea, Siberia and the Arabian Peninsula.  The more oil someone acquires, the more dangerous they get.

The School Tax card would be replaced by Second-Rate Brinksmanship: choose a player.  Unless the two of you immediately conduct a land deal, you both lose $150.

In place of Baltic Avenue, we’d have Exploding Sheep.  In place of Mediterranean, we’d have France. (Worth $60? Questionable).

Income Tax would be Contractor Surcharge, but I’d have to make it take more than 10% of your money to maintain plausibility.

Jail would be replaced by UN Conference.  (Somewhere you want to be when the game gets hot, but otherwise a death sentence to the aspiring hegemon).

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Nov 22 2007

Quote of the Day: Thursday

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Agent Orange: You find time for congressional hearings, field missions, heading Operations and a dual life as a psychiatrist that somehow isn’t compromised by a high degree of celebrity.

Captain Carnage: Yeah.

Agent Orange: … how is that possible?

Captain Carnage: You’re missing the point. I’m Captain Carnage. Of course it’s possible.

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Nov 20 2007

Quote of the Day

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Agent Orange:  It’s been said that truth is the first casualty of war.  But usually RETCON gets involved after there’s a bodycount.

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Nov 14 2007

The Delicious

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This Youtube video has nothing to do with superheroes but is still one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.  It’s hard to describe, but it has something to do with a man’s growing obsession with The Delicious, which is a bizarre and ritualistic dance associated with a bright pantsuit.  The first minute or two are kind of slow but I promise it’s worth it.

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Nov 14 2007

Quote of the Day: Wednesday

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[This is part 3 of the Catastrophe strand]

Journalist:  Do you feel discriminated against?

Catastrophe: Someone called me an egghead once…

Journalist:  Has anyone ever made untoward cartoonophobic comments, glared at you, suggested a government internment camp or secret holding/dissection facility, or shifted uncomfortably when you moved near?

Catastrophe:  Hmm, yes.

Journalist:  Really!  The internment camp, I hope.

Catastrophe:  I notice that children…

Journalist:  Yes, children, excellent… they haven’t learned to hide their prejudices yet…

Catastrophe: …have an unseemly tendency to approach me…

Journalist:  Out with it, man.  Out with it!

Catastrophe:  And ask if I’ll get around to killing the son of a bitch in the sequel.
Journalist:  …

Journalist:  …

Journalist:  What about stereotypes?  Do you find that people tend to stereotype you as a cartoon-American?
Catastrophe:  What, umm, stereotypes did you have in mind?

Journalist:  You know… stereotypes… of cartoons.

Catastrophe:  [???]

Journalist:  Christ, man, don’t make that face again.

Catastrophe:  What?

Journalist:  That face!

Catastrophe:  [???]

Journalist:  GAH!  It looks like you’re ready to cleave my skull open with the power of your mind and suck my brains out.

Catastrophe:  If I gave you a look as puzzled as you deserved, I think it would melt your face off.

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Nov 13 2007

Quote of the Day: Tuesday

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[this is part 2 of the Catastrophe quote thread].

Journalist:  What about your superpowers?

Catastrophe:  What superpowers?

Journalist:  What do you mean, ‘what superpowers?’  How could you be turned into a cartoon character and not get superpowers?  Even effing frogs– not cartoon frogs, mind you– turn into super ninjas.  You wouldn’t happen to have developed something earth-shatteringly interesting, would you?  Strong proclivities towards violence, particularly with melee weapons?

Catastrophe:  Well, I don’t suppose I could rule out a superhuman intell…

Journalist:  Fine, fine.  I’ll just say you don’t know yet.

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Nov 12 2007

Quote of the Day: Sunday

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Journalist:  Mr. Berkeley…

Catastrophe:  Doctor.  Bar-keley.  Doctor Barkeley.

Journalist: Well, if you have just a momen–

Catastrophe: Doctor Barkeley.

Journalist:  Doctor Barkeley, if you have a moment–

Catastrophe:  We’ve met before, haven’t we?

Journalist:  Yes.  Believe me when I say it was an unforgettable experience… one that won’t soon be forgotten, anyway.

Catastrophe:  Ah.  Was it the lecture on the relational degree of freedom in quantum mechanics?  I’ve also done work in noncommutative dynamics and I’ve been branching out into mathematics…

Journalist:  As fascinating as those undoubtedly are, I can’t remember what the topic of your lecture was.  But I’m pretty sure that you were a non-purple human at the time.  I think that I probably would remember if that had not been the case.

Catastrophe:  …and my thesis on combinatorial mathematics– I suppose the more accepted term is ‘combinatorics’– is coming along quite nicely.  Peer view has been favorable.  Do you need help spelling ‘combinatorics?’

Journalist:  Unless it has something to do with you taking on a startling resemblance to a cartoon character, no.

Catastrophe:  Well, there was, uhh… an unfortunate incident with a wizard.  He cursed me.

Journalist:  I can’t print that!

Catastrophe: Fine. Fine! I had been contracted to help produce a sunscreen that would permanently make skin more resistant to solar radiation. Or so I had thought! I discovered, to my chagrin, that the “sunscreen” was actually a weapons-grade mutagen.

Journalist:  How did you determine that?

Catastrophe:  An esteemed colleague threw me in it.

Journalist: …

Journalist: …

Journalist: …

Journalist:  What’s the name of this wizard, again?

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Nov 09 2007

Only a Bumbling Person Can Stop a Supervillain

A supervillain is easily identifiable because power is sexy.  That’s why we always get the best women (no one really wants to date a mild-mannered reporter or an inept freelance-photographer).  But superheroes are also easy to identify if you know what to look for: the bumbling factor.  The more bumbling someone is, the more superpowers he’s waiting to unleash. For example, the last time my henchmen attempted to break into a presidential convention, they got absolutely shellacked by Tucker Carlson. If you have ever wondered whether someone that looks that bumbling could only get on TV because he was really a superhero, you’re not alone.

Tucker Carlson, Superhero

There’s really no way to know how many of my plots have been spoiled by Carlson and Alan Colmes, but I’d feel pretty confident saying that they’re the main barrier between me and global domination.


I’d give you two guesses whether it’s Hannity or Colmes that’s the bane of supercriminals everywhere. Remember, people that look bumbling are dangerous. And anyone that looks as bumbling as Colmes can strangle your best assassins with his mind.  Interestingly, Sean Hannity is also a superhero, but any supervillain that fears a conservative diversity hero should reconsider his line of work.

Way to keep a secret identity, dumbass

Unsurprisingly, the talk radio guy doesn’t know how important it is to keep his appearance secret.

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Nov 06 2007

New Feature: Quote of the Day

Hello. Today, I started running a Quote of the Day. I’ve already got the next two weeks covered.

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Oct 05 2007

Combatting Cliches

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Short post.


Character One: “Give it up or I’ll pound on you.”

Character Two: “Is that a threat?”

Character One: “No… that’s a promise.”

My Version

(Agent Orange speaking to a Social Justice League director about League mutants waging an insurgency against city sewer-cleaners)

Agent Orange: “The sewers, of course, teem with mutant alligators and rats and terrapins and whatever else is stupid enough to want to live in New York City but smart enough not to pay New York rent. Municipal sewer drills have been repeatedly attacked. I won’t say that Leaguers were responsible and I definitely won’t say that they weren’t. But I will say that if a municipal employee is bruised, that the leathernecks that clean out the sewers won’t be crocodiles.”

Leaguer: “Is that a threat?”

Orange: “Fast on the uptake, aren’t you?”

(In case you missed the pun, leatherneck can refer to either a Marine or a certain NYC-sewer-dwelling crocodile). I vaguely doubt that a third of my audience got the Marine reference and probably less know the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle character. However, I do expect that a large majority of my readers would get the TMNT references in “mutant alligators and rats and terrapins” living in the NY sewers even if they didn’t know that a terrapin is a turtle.

A Brooklynite writes:

I don’t know what you’ve got against New York’s sewers. They’re a lot cleaner than Chicago politics.

Touche. Go jump down some more pipes or something.

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Aug 31 2007

Real Life Imitates Comic Books

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Anyone who reads comic books knows that weird stuff happens in New York. A lot. A spaceship randomly crashes into Earth? Central Park or maybe the Brooklyn Bridge. A rampaging lizard is born in a nuclear test site? Why wouldn’t he come to New York? One guy left alive on Earth? Probably a New Yorker.

It should not surprise us that Iraq’s WMDs have been found… in New York.

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