Dylan Xavier Chroz In the "Flesh"

>> Thursday, December 23, 2010

I told you about him, but I'm all for you deciding for yourselves. Be warned. There is a preponderance of references here on his overthinking and feelings regarding Tessa. That's because it's central to the story and because depth of feeling does not bring along with it innate knowledge on what to do when something really matters. I personally find that both charming and humorous.

From Chapter 2

Dylan was not the slightest bit melodramatic, even emotional, as a general rule. He didn't see his response to Tessa as romantic or fantastic at all but as a single irrefutable and immutable fact. He loved her and she had changed his world into something worth living.
Chapter 3

Tessa said nothing, but held herself stiffly. She did have a temper. She waited until they were halfway through the school before hissing, "I could have taken care of that myself."

"I haven't the least doubt that you could have nor that watching you kick his rather pansy ass would have afforded anyone of taste no little satisfaction. But I wanted to do it and I was faster," he replied. Not to mention that no one—no one—man-handled Tessa and walked straight for a week. Tessa could have taken him down, but she would have been less inclined to make it painful and humiliating.

"I don't need a bodyguard, Dylan. Seriously. I'm quite capable of taking care of myself. Right now, they'll likely think I kicked him in the balls, not that you hit a pressure point that I know as well as you do." She did know the pressure point and many others. Dylan had made sure of that personally. He also knew, first-hand, how effectively she had learned it since she had tested her knowledge on Dylan—at his own insistence. He sincerely hoped she never used it on him in earnest. At least he hadn't screamed.

"I expect anyone who saw I was there will have no doubt who hurt him. If you are called into the office, as I highly doubt you will be, you need only have them contact me. I'll take full responsibility."

"And you'd do the same if you were halfway across the school. If I get called into the office, I'll take care of it myself, Dylan. I don't need to be insulated from all ugliness. Have you so little faith in me?"

He was genuinely shocked at the notion, so shocked he stopped dead. "No, Tessa. Of course not! Who better than I to know what you're capable of. You're incredible, talented, brilliant, and driven. I know you could have taken care of him and half a dozen like him," he told her, earnestly.

She sighed and grabbed his arm as she so often did, laying her head on his shoulder. "But?" she prompted, tugging him forward.

For Tessa, ever and always, the truth. "But, I wanted to do it." Just like he wanted to protect her, give her every opportunity, and make her happy. Did she need him to? Perhaps not. But he wanted to do it anyway. “I'm not altruistic," he assured her with perfect honesty. "Everything I have ever done has been done to suit myself.”
Chapter 5

His mind dispassionately contemplated hiring a professional to ensure he would be an skilled and careful lover for Tessa. Despite an instinctive antipathy to the idea, he evaluated several positive aspects. He considered proposing it to Tessa until he realized that, if she endorsed the idea, she would likely expect the same type of instruction for the same reasons. His revulsion at that notion was sufficient to make him realize that the idea was very unlikely to find favor. Better not try it.
From Chapter 7

He'd hardly slept. She liked him, perhaps loved him. He hadn't even allowed himself to expect that. After hours of tossing and turning, he'd looked for distraction.

In the interest of furthering his knowledge, he looked to the internet in search of more detailed sexual instruction, and found far far more than he had bargained for. Perhaps such things were of intellectual interest, but they were, across the board, a far cry from what he had envisioned with Tessa.

Feeling a bit disoriented, he cleared registers, cookies and history, shut down his browser, ran a virus scan, and vowed to be far more selective in his terms for any future searches he might contemplate.

Then he thought he should get her something. If they were dating, surely, he could buy her things outright, no? No more passing by a jewelry store or clothing store, frustrated because the perfect item for her beckoned and he had no right to buy it for her. He recalled a set of tanzanite and another of sapphires that would have suited her exceptionally well. And a lovely dress, full length, of deep blood-red silk. She'd need rubies for that.

Perhaps that was too much? Overwhelming? He had to admit he had a tendency to overkill when it came to Tessa. No sense scaring her silly. Perhaps going slow was a good idea in every aspect.

He contemplated an on-line retailer, like Amazon.com, then realized he had absolutely no idea what he should buy her. He could buy her any number of things, but what did she want? Shouldn't each gift mean something, reflect his deep understanding of who she was as a person? If so, why was he stumped on what to buy her? Shouldn't he know?

He was overthinking things again. She didn't care about stuff. He'd ample proof of that. Or prestige. Or travel, or not much. She liked books and learning new things and trying new things, and challenges and him. He'd known that, of course, he'd always known she'd liked him. He'd just had been too afraid to read too much into that, afraid of expecting something from this lively fascinating person he could never earn as he was relatively dull and uninteresting.

That's it! He could make something for her. She made presents for him every birthday, something crafty and clever and perfect in every way. Each one was a work of art and treasured. He just wasn't crafty. Oh, he could probably make something, but it took some time to develop a skill, and special materials. And they frequently took time to create, too, like the crewel work she sewn that hung over his fireplace or the needlepoint on the opposite wall.

For the first time, he regretted his inability to create meaningful poetry or fanciful stories. He could write in rhyme and rhythm, but the facility to make them alive, to touch the heart, that was beyond him. He'd have to think of something else.

They should go on a date. They could head out tomorrow, just the two of them, to spend time alone together . . just like they always did, but, somehow, more romantical.


But where?

In his whole life, his brain had never been this sluggish and unresponsive. Instead of the dozens of destinations it should have provided (which would be nerve-wracking enough), his mind was completely blank.

He almost called Lawrence [his chauffeur] for advice before realizing it was three in the morning.


Meet Dylan Chroz (Really, this time)

>> Tuesday, December 21, 2010

I said, some time ago, that I was all excited about a new character, one of those uber-bright people that don't seem possible, largely because I identified with him so completely. Yes, I know that still sounds conceited.

Well, I'm still pleased to know him even though I've been too distracted with other things the past week or so to really work with him much since. I will though. I have some time off. I got sidetracked on what I saw were some of the challenges for being "too" smart, but I really want to focus on Dylan because I want you to understand him, even if you don't like him.

I could tell you what everyone else sees: he's brilliant, with a perfect recall (a genius friend of me once explained that everyone has a perfect memory; what they might lack is recall) and an innate logical ability that can address details and big picture simultaneously (not impossible, I do that, too. It's the obvious that often gets me and that's true for Dylan, too). He can instantly size things up and plan out action (think Sherlock Holmes in the recent film) and has the motor skills I lack.

He's also rich and already, at the age of seventeen, enjoys a substantial autonomy, partially because his father does not have his technical abilities (and his grandfather did and used Dylan from an early age) and partially because his personality is forceful. He's good-looking, though he doesn't see himself that way. Too busy.

But that's what everyone sees.

He's been, however, largely isolated from any affection. His mother despised him. His grandfather used him (and despised his father). His father didn't really try to know him until Dylan was nearing his teens. Other than that, his life was filled with fawning or resentful servants and acquaintance, most of which never saw past the obvious.

However, like myself, Dylan is capable of great emotional depth however dispassionate he might appear, depth, in fact, in direct proportion to his intellect. As I am, he's somewhat all or nothing. When he loves, it is absolute.

Enter Tessa. Smart, pugnacious, impulsive, determined, imminently honest and honorable, she is as isolated in her way as he is, except she has the love of family. And an unshakable sense of self, that instantly draws Dylan who had all but stopped thinking of himself as a person, but only as a thing to be used. As he, in turn, saw people around him.

Tessa wants nothing from him, but only demands from herself, including the urge to one-up Dylan. Her unwillingness to take engenders an obsessive need to give. Her regard for herself--and himself--as people, not tools, changes his outlook entirely. (I know some are skeptical this is plausible. I have to believe otherwise; I've lived it.)

At no moment in the book is his unshakable devotion to Tessa in doubt. For the readers, I doubt her love for Dylan is also obvious (though he is slow to acknowledge it - long story). But then, love is only part of it. It's when Tessa is threatened, endangered, that we see both Dylan's strengths and weaknesses in the clearest light, his abilities and his limitations, what makes him human not robot.

And we see that he wasn't necessarily as alone as he thought he was.

Next time, a taste.

Gosh, I hope things work out well for Dylan. I really like him.


Having It Easy Ain't Easy: Sidebar on Birds of a Feather

>> Monday, December 13, 2010

Over my last two posts on this subject (here and here), two different people brought up putting gifted children among their peers, where their differences are not so marked and where they could conceivably develop social skills among less stratified peers. One noted it with clear approval (if not obligation on the part of the parent to ensure gifted children are surrounded by similar peers), the other more in the terms of a question so good I'm posting it here:

One question I read into your post is whether it is more important (1) to bring up children in such groups that will minimize "being different" so that they may develop social skills in a friendlier (less bullying) environment or (2) to allow a more diverse environment so as to force them to learn that it's acceptable to be independent, to be who they really are rather than who they think the crowd wants them to be. Should they pursue path one while young and vulnerable and then slowly attempt path two only after they've developed strong social skills and can withstand the blowback from expressing their real differences?

What's the answer? I don't know. Nor am I readily convinced there is one good answer. But, I can tell you what I learned going from town to town, living in small districts and large districts, with strong gifted and talent programs and none to speak of as well as what I learned when I went to college.

One caveat is that I can only discuss this subject with regards to US schools. In an environment (such as found in certain European and Asian school systems) where being bright is socially acceptable, if not prized, much of this may not be the same.

First, from an academic standpoint, gifted and talent programs are almost essential (if not just plain essential) to not discourage or squelch the potential of an extraordinary mind. Dragging along a bright mind that "gets it" immediately, at a pace convenient for the lowest common denominator is good way to discourage any interest in learning or school. Bright children readily become disruptive influences, bored, desperate for diversion and other more dangerous mischief if they don't have adequate constructive activity.

Stratification allows different paces so that a teacher isn't forced to either drag those less adept along a pace they can't match, bore the bright students nearly to tears, or try to teach two or more paces concurrently in the same class (and, yes, teachers try this). Do note that yanking a struggling child forward at a pace they can't possible match isn't any less discouraging than bogging down the pace for bright mind. It's not just pace either. Many of the methods that work best for children who don't necessarily understand the concepts (repetition, memorization, formulaic teaching) are counterproductive to very bright children, either providing useless make work or failing to spark any mental stimulation.

Stratification is challenging, however, for smaller schools and earlier grades given the unforgiving fiscal realities (which will continue as long as local, state and federal governments continue to regard a viable education as a "nice-to-have"). The smaller the pool, the less gradation you can put between classes and the more the brightest or slowest have to work outside their given path. Given that being bright doesn't always reflect ability in all subjects, grade school classes (where all subjects are frequently taught in the same classroom) stratification can be more challenging when math brains with backwards verbal/writing skills end up in the same classrooms of brilliantly articulate children who can't visualize math easily.

This is one of the conundrums pertinent to Mike's question. Putting bright children together early in their social development when all the children are learning mostly academically and the same curriculum has a great deal to recommend it. It's just harder to do given the limitations in the student pool size and the challenges inherent in the fact that all bright children aren't created the same.

Another problem is that identifying a bright gifted and talented child isn't a black and white business and early testing may not identify a mind that catches up and sprints forward at a little later date. Too frequently, an early test determines placement for an entire gradeschool career, leaving a mind that "gets it" long discouraged and anti-school by the time they graduate (with the same social issues discussed in earlier posts). But another part of the problem is just the reliance on tests to decide.

At a higher level (middle/high school), stratification is easier with a larger pool of students and more specialization (i.e. math genius isn't forced into highest level English classes etc.), but social awkwardness may already be deeply entrenched and the academic stratification has to compete with other forms of stratification, including wealth, race, beauty, interests, athletics, etc.

Still, with all those challenges, I think stratification is still a good thing for most gifted children (and less gifted children as well) at as many levels as possible, but for academic reasons more than anything else.

However, I'm less convinced it's always better from a social standpoint. Here's why.

Gifted does not mean identical or compatible. Among the gifted, you might find creative geniuses, math savants, logical experts and people who can retain and regurgitate anything they've been given, and to varying degrees from the somewhat quicker than average to the "that ain't human" levels. That makes for a wildly divergent mix of personalities and talents and doesn't assure anyone is "normal" or has a potential friend readily identifiable. In my own experience, I found my own way of thinking outside the norm, whether it was the five student superclass in the tiny town in Maryland or the thirty student college-bound seniors at the largest high school in Nevada.

Being the top of the latter class, yet thinking differently than most of the others who seemed to generally have more "standard" smartness made me feel more of an outsider than ever, even though I was a favorite of teachers (or perhaps because). I was also poor, articulate, proud of my brains, sarcastic, and responsible. I was backward socially and I found my bright peers were no more tolerant of it than any other group I'd ever known. In fact, I was loathed far more in my G&T classes than the classes I took that were with general students (Driver's Ed, Spanish, World History, Health), possibly because those interactions had more to do with personality than brains and partially because sarcasm and stylelessness apply to more than brainiacs. I actually found myself most socially accepted in the ROTC crowd, which is ironic given how little interest I've ever had in the armed services. But they were friendly and nonjudgmental.

Competition. As much as kids don't like the "smart" kid in class, most kids aren't personally offended by it. They know they have other interests, other strengths. However, make it a class of nothing but people who see intelligence as their bailiwick, and the competition can get very ugly, very quickly. This can become more pronounced when children, used to setting the curve find themselves in an environment where they are barely competing at all or when there is still a bright frontrunner standing head and shoulders above the rest. The front runner can be socially brutalized (particularly if they think in ways that are outside the norm the others have), but it can also be demoralizing for those that are no longer at the top. When they were teased and made fun of by "regular" kids, they at least had something they excelled at. Now, they aren't even the best at that . . .

I saw this in college a great deal. I had the highest level of academic scholarship (limited to 15) at my university and most of the other recipients were very bright, very talented, with far more other scholarships as well. Of the other ones I knew personally for more than a year (three of them), one flunked out, and two lost their scholarships and changed to easier majors. The one that flunked out even told me I was directly responsible for her flunking out (GPA 1.2 the semester we were roommates) - she "couldn't compete." (Utter nonsense.) Part of that was, naturally, being under the tight control of someone else's discipline instead of developing your own. Part of that was that they weren't prepared for things to be actually challenging instead of as easy as it had always been. Part of that is that, with no one to tell them what to do, they started doing "fun" diversionary things they'd never had the chance to do before (and it took over their lives or at least enough of their lives they couldn't do the work). Part of it was that, when things started to go south, they had no internal mechanism to deal with it. They had no idea what to do or how to recover once they started failing. So they gave up.

Subgroup biases against visible brilliance. There are certain subgroups where you have a "built-in" social group where being visibly academically brilliant is an anathema. Girls are one; it's not a coincidence that I still number more male friends than female friends. I wish that last statement wasn't true more than you would believe and I saw it less than many because I was fortunate that all of my teachers were passionately pro-smart women (as was my father, even if he didn't always express it well). I have heard stories from others that this can be true of other minority groups like blacks and Latinos. Some subgroups venerate intelligence and academic prowess in the opposite manner, like the Vietnamese community of my friend Phuong Nga. But it means that putting bright kids in classes of their peers doesn't entirely insulate them from social bullying and the like. And not just from the community.

In such an environment, being bright anyway (in a visible manner) has social consequences also in the expectations of others outside that community. In many areas of this country, people will assume black children, for instance really aren't that bright. That kind of thinking flavors their willingness to teach a brilliant child to his potential, but also, in those children who excel anyway, tends to allow people to regard those bright black children with suspicion. For women, it can be equally marked and more socially acceptable to make those kinds of sweeping patronizing assumptions. Several of my engineering coworkers (female) had stories of teachers that literally asked them what a "pretty little thing like you is doing in an engineering class like this." That didn't happen to me, but in college, I could scare guys away in a heartbeat. I just had to tell them my major (Engineering Physics). (That didn't happen in high school, probably because most people already knew who I was and just didn't approach. I was a pretty girl, too.) Ironically, because of my own social backwardness, the men who didn't run screaming as I approached generally ended up friends either because I was too dense to notice advances or they were too cautious in approaching me. Or because we were just better friends.

For many, just this kind of repercussion is more than reason enough to hide one's intelligence. I accepted (2nd grade) being ostracized and took it as a given. I can literally remember the moment when I decided I wasn't going to be less than myself for anyone and accept the consequences. I can't speak for anyone else, but I'm guessing that kind of resolve and acceptance is unusual.

It has another consequence. When you are resigned to ostracism, you are also very grateful for anyone who doesn't care you're bright. Sometimes, too grateful and too accepting, even if that attention is self-serving, using, or otherwise destructive. I've got a whole marriage to prove it. But that's another story.

Grouping social misfits together doesn't make them adept. Socially stunted people don't suddenly gain acumen by being grouped together. There's something to be said for like minds and not feeling alone (provided that's the reaction of your particular gifted individual in a group of other gifted children), but it doesn't mean that it solves all the problems. It may even emphasize and reinforce some notions and antisocial tendencies which might be most prevalent like individual pursuits, strictly electronic socializing or considering those that aren't bright the same way "lesser beings." Which is one reason why MENSA has never held any interest for me.

Reinforcing intellectualism to the exclusion of all else. What do Math Club students do when they throw a party? Go bowling? Well, if they're smart, they might. Too much time in front of a computer screen (guilty!) and the solution to everything is on the internet. Books, games, friends, social interaction, shopping, entertainment. When I was going to school, I was supposed to take four years each of English, math, science, history, foreign language. And do the required classes, a quick glance will show you that doesn't leave much time for something fun or creative or entertaining or inspiring like art or choir or drama, speech. I love to sing, but I never sang in class until college and even there I had to take it for no credit hours because my calendar was already full. Other interests, besides just books and school, are healthy and not just for the body. Burn out is a real risk when all you think life is a series of word problems or you never come outside of the work and the artificial worlds other people have created. It's hard to find something passionate about your life if you're just working and not living.

I think it also tends to focus people on what they do as a definition of who they are instead of, well, who they are. I'm an engineer or a writer or a pick-your-label-here. I get a black belt in Tai Kwon Do and crochet a few baby blankets for friends, and I might start to realize I have more going for me than just my brain. And, once I see myself as a three dimensional person, others might as well.

Real world isn't stratified. I mean, it can be if you're a research physicist or something, but most people living in communities that have a mixture of all types of people. Either you will have no friends (except on line) or you will have to learn to learn to interact usefully with people of all intellectual levels. Going through school without understanding that can lead to a very jarring realization after the fact.

I'm not sure if that's all of it. It might be. It's long enough for today and just gives you some perspective, hopefully, on why I don't think the question or the answer is black and white.

My husband, who doesn't have a high school diploma but still routinely gets 20 points higher on IQ tests, wanted me to add two things.

The problem won't go away until society as a whole stops vilifying people for being bright, being expert and thoughtful. As long as the suspicion of all things unfathomable is part and parcel (and that plays into teachers and parents, too) of society, bright kids will always have a tough road.

The second part is that the US emphasis on measurable metrics (i.e. testing) will continue to marginalize and adversely affect those that think in original ways. School will continue to bore the pants off children at every level unless their intellects are challenged and that means more than teaching kids to take tests. That means teaching critical thinking and fostering creativity and imagination.


Having It Easy Ain't Easy Part 2

>> Friday, December 10, 2010

Last time I talked about some of the reasons why "having it easy" makes having friends difficult. There are more reasons but the others are also tied to what I alluded to was the other issue here: the stunted or off-nominal social/emotional growth often found with a "genius." I'm considering these factors have to do with both.

Dispassion. The same capacity for honest evaluation required to excel at anything—anything!—is frequently tied to a sense of dispassion. Even someone who is passionate about, say, dance, passionate about excelling, has to look at his own performance dispassionately for improvement or he will never be great. Dispassion is great for excellence but sucks for interpersonal relationships. Passion, for the dispassionate, can be confusing and seem perverse. The objectivity built into the genius frequently leaves him unable to cope, not only with the passionate resentment of others, but with extreme emotional responses of any kind.

He may try to counter emotional responses or motives with reason and be genuinely confused when it fails. He may try to understand the emotional responses using logic and decide that all unfathomable emotional responses are, by definition, stupid. I don't think I really have to work too hard to explain why this would not do much to reconcile a genius with his peers.

But it can do more than widen the gap. It can also be self-limiting. Dispassion in some aspects, and a reliance on logic for everything, can severely limit emotional relationships with anyone, or emotional reactions. Dispassionate excellence is only intellectually satisfying. Do it often enough, and it's not even that (Straight A's isn't thrilling if that's all you ever get). Passion adds meaning to life, interest, color, purpose. Having none came make life colorless, bland and unappealing.

People have emotions, even the genius types. If people begin to distrust emotional reactions on principal, they stand to either squelch/revile their own emotions (which makes a fulfilling life just that much harder to attain) or they feel no responsibility for them whatsoever, no handle on control or limiting them. Which means their natural emotional reactions are out of control, unhinged.

Perhaps I could have saved myself from several paragraphs of explanation by just saying dispassion adds distance, whether it's with others or within one's own life.

Expectations. This is a big one. It plays a part in social ostracism—people expect geniuses to be unpopular and behave a certain way, even if it's not true—but it also plays heavily into a child's development. For instance, an intelligent logical child might be expected to excel at math, but, because they can't spatially envision three dimensions, they become stymied by geometry. The censure (both self-inflicted and by teachers/peers/parents) can be far more severe than that for someone "normal" who had the same problem. My husband, like many dyslexics, was very articulate at an early age. When writing began in school, he went a considerable time being told he was lazy, he wasn't trying, that he was unmotivated, when the problem was very specific. Their expectation of his brilliance (which was valid - his IQ is almost off the scale) led them to expect he could do anything language related (which was not valid) and a presumption, if he didn't, that it was willful.

Expectations, even within a field of excellence, can also be unrealistic as children and adults continue to push the bar up, only to find no satisfaction but rather even more egregious demands. Parents planning to live their dreams vicariously through their children are notorious in this aspect. Coincidentally, expectations in a particular field may also be for a particular kind of result, one that may be at odds, particularly for a creative genius. The genius can readily become frustrated at always being asked to provide Y, which he finds limiting, or gets criticized for providing something that doesn't fit neatly into a box, even though that creativity is part and parcel with genius.

One of the most devastating ways expectations can adversely affect a genius is by parents/mentors confusing their smarts with maturity. Parents of a gifted child (and teachers) can often feel emotionally distant (see dispassion) and assume their child really doesn't need nurturing, emotional support, love. Not so. It is quite possible that a gifted child won't know to ask for nurturing and support—how would she know?—or might not even realize she was lonely or lacking because she's never known any different. The parent assumes, because the child might not be demonstrative, that the child needs no demonstrations of care or concern. A parent might even be put off by that perception and make it self-fulfilling.

That same sort of thing, expecting a gifted child to be effectively an adult, is also carried forward in other ways, where a parent expects judgment or adult-level dedication from someone who is still a child. Logic does not take the place of experience in many ways and the emotional challenges a gifted child might have actually makes them less likely to address an emotional or social dilemma effectively, not more. Too often, and we see this with prodigies in music and athletics frequently, the parent expects devotion to the art, judgment, skill, self-control to just be part and parcel of the gift, instead of something that must be developed. And that is frequently not the case.

Ironically, the same people (parents, the occasional teacher) who expect them to have the dedication, work ethic and judgment of an adult are frequently the same people who seem determined to control every aspect of their child's life, dismissing what a child might want (or need) over what's "good for them." It's a conundrum that, even now, I can't wrap my mind around, yet I've seen it played out time and time again. Children, forced to take adult-sized responsibilities and meet adult-sized expectations, but given no autonomy or control over their own destiny. That is one resounding recipe for a screwed-up kid.

All work and no play. When my daughter was born, I had a very disheartening realization. I did not know how to play. I couldn't recall playing (though I had a vivid imagination), not with dolls or games or anything except as an indulgence to my siblings or others. This concerned me because I understood, intellectually, how important play is to the development of children. Fortunately, my second husband is a professional-quality player and helped me learn the basics and provided play for my children. Maybe too much, but that's a different story.

My point is that play is often overlooked while people are "nurturing" genius. And that's bad. Play is a great method of social interaction, where one's talents or brains aren't necessarily a handicap. There are many aspects and types of play that are cooperative rather than competitive. Play is a great way to foster creativity and give the mind a break from constant overuse. Play can be a good place to learn some of those emotional responses in a relatively safe environment, even develop some passions. Play is a good place to learn about other aspects of life, beyond books or one's special bailiwick, hobbies, outlets, pastimes that can help fill an otherwise dreary life. Too much of one thing is pretty darn limiting and sometimes unfulfilling.

Cynicism. One of the real risks to being a genius is becoming cynical. As you become dismissive of the passions and emotional railings of others, you can't help but notice how many people want to use your skills or make you look bad so they can look better. It's very easy, especially if you've had limited emotional connection with others, to ascribe the worst to the motivations of others and/or see the world as collection of users.

It's not just the expectations (which can quickly escalate into the absurd), but also the sense that you are just a tool, with no value other than what you can do. If the people around you are primarily focused on what you are (Genius, Prima Ballerina, Quarterback), it's challenging to see yourself in any other terms or to think that you have any value as an individual. It's not much of a step from that to begin looking at others the same way, as means to an end, as tools, as things. It's dehumanizing. I have actually been called "a machine" on performance evaluations. It sounds like a compliment (in terms of performance) but it's a far cry from being seen as an individual.

Self-reliance. Self-reliance is good, right? Ah, all things in moderation, grasshopper. Learning to depend on yourself rather than others is something all children (not just the gifted ones) should learn to do. Gifted kids are often called upon to do so early (see "Expectations") and more extensively than other children because, in large part, of the expectation of maturity (whether or not they are also being controlled). Combine that with a sense of cynicism (most people just want to use me anyway) and the belief (whether real or perceived) that someone can only accomplish things if he does them himself, and you have a perfectionist control freak.

This has many issues associated with it, not the least of which is an inability to ask for help when needed, whether with a project, or in the larger world. Any failure, even if the task was impossible, is taken as a personal failing and the results can be collapse, despair, suicide, depression, pick one. It is unreasonable that one can always handle whatever is tossed at one, no matter how capable. A bright star on her way to glory at a dizzyingly young age can be completely sidetracked by an unexpected pregnancy. And clueless how to deal with it. A man with everything to live for who has the world in his hand can find it gone in a flash with kid's diagnosis of leukemia. No one of can control every aspect of our lives (God, can you think how boring it would be if we could?), but there are many of us who leap to take responsibility and shoulder burdens that are more than can be born.

Of course, social ostracism can limit the pool of resources one can draw on, but frequently gifted people don't even turn to the people closest to them, determined to figure out a solution alone. And that, my friends, has done a great deal of damage, especially when they fail.

And that's more than enough for today.


Having It Easy Ain't Easy Part 1

>> Thursday, December 9, 2010

I told you there were downsides to having it "easy." My first thought is that there are two serious issues. The most obvious one is emotional isolation from other people, which tends to be blamed on either the smarty-pants or the "envious hordes," depending on which group you're in. The other is a potential for a lack of any sort of emotional fulfillment, a stunted emotional growth that can be related to the emotional isolation but also part and parcel of a life that has too few challenges or the wrong kind of challenges.

Note that when I talk about geniuses here, I'm not just talking about people who are book smart (though I do include people who are exceptionally book smart and/or logical - not the same), but also prodigies in music or athletics or a particular academic field, people who make something (if not several somethings) look so easy that it seems they have no troubles at all.

I can't address it all in one post and I also can't seem to get a handle on separating the two. Some of the same factors play a part in both isolation and emotional growth. I won't touch them all and some won't apply and some will to any particular individual. These are the ones I've seen first-hand, factors that increase that isolation and make it hard to fully develop.

Being different. This is the easiest to explain, starts the earliest, lasts the longest. It's also the easiest to overlook because, as people mature, they come up with other rationales to explain why they dislike someone even though being different is really at the core. Smaller children are less reticent about the core differences and words like freak and weirdo are used liberally. But the belief that there is one kind of thinking, one way of doing things that "everyone" should do, is still alive and well even among adults.

Fresh perspectives, new ideas, different ways of doing things, dispassionate evaluation, even genius—all can be readily dismissed along with the people who have them. For children, they're dismissed for no better reason than because they're different. For adults, it's frequently because it "hasn't been tested" or "challenges core values" or "goes against logic" even when the logic challenged is entirely unsound. People like to understand, to know, to feel they have a handle on things. People who don't think the same way, who are not readily comprehended, threaten that and frequently pay the price by being ostracized.

There's also an impact on the genius herself other than ostracism: that sense of no one being like her, no one understanding her viewpoint. It's a very isolating feeling to believe no one in the world sees things like you do. You don't belong anywhere.

Resentment. In this case, resentment is the attitude that it's unfair one person can excel "so easily" when others struggle. Note that this also manifests when dealing with people who succeed through hard work, but it's particularly pronounced when someone excels in a particular challenging field or when someone is academically superior "effortlessly." Busting the curve, making others "look bad"—almost always ascribed to malice—are considered crimes against fellow students, deliberate slaps all because the genius has an unfair advantage. It's difficult to fight because geniuses do have an unfair advantage (someone who understands math instinctively, for instance, does have an unfair advantage over someone who struggles to understand concepts) but the difference is made worse when the system is designed for children to compete against each other.

The problem isn't that it's untrue, at least to an extent. It's that it's no one's fault, either the genius or the kids who feel lessened as a result. Without a convenient target, however, resentful students have no choice but to blame the genius, as if he had anything to do with the advantage other than using it. A genius cannot use his genius to its greatest extent without causing resentment. In fact, once it's been identified, he cannot use it even minimally without resentment. Perhaps at all.

Arrogance. One of the most frequent complaints about genius in any field is arrogance. I won't lie; I suspect most geniuses are arrogant at least in the sense that they're well aware of their capabilities and even their limitations. There are also, any number of truly arrogant geniuses, in the sense that they feel their genius in whatever field proves that they actually are smarter and superior to the insignificant flotsam around them. It may not look like it from the outside, but there is a difference.

Don't get me wrong. Both can be tough to swallow from the outside. People who know what they can do and do it generally look good, even when they have notable limitations, largely because they're aware of them and steer clear of them. False modesty serves no dispassionate purpose (outside of relationships with others) and gets in the way of honest self-evaluation. Even the best of geniuses can be dismissive or intolerant of error or slower efforts (despite the effort that might have been exerted) others make. They shoot down ideas that don't make the cut without compunction. They are slower to be impressed with achievement. Part of that may be that they're just not competing with anyone but themselves; part of that might be dispassion that comes with pure logic—more on that later.

Those inflicted with the latter kind of arrogance, however, give the rest of us a bad name. I can kind of see it especially if you excel in a particular field. One can't expect Mozart to sit comfortably back as someone butchers a piece of music on the harpsichord when he could have played it better at the age of five. It is frequently difficult for prima donnas who are truly gifted to working effectively with those that are not so gifted, without being impatient and rude.

Note, however, that you certainly don't have to be truly gifted to be a prima donna. In fact, in my experience, that kind of attitude is almost inversely proportion to the amount of talent someone has (with some exceptions). If I find someone like this, he is usually either a true genius in some very narrow field who mistakingly thinks that makes him a genius in everything. (Not so!) or she is a person who consider herself a great deal more smart/talented than she actually is. In my experience, people most often jumping to the forefront to trumpet their intelligence are the ones whose intelligence is, at most, moderately high. People who are truly brilliant don't need to tell anyone. Many wish they were better at hiding it.

There are a significant number of geniuses (most of the ones I know) who are well aware of their abilities, yet don't treat people like crap. Part of that is because no one is good at everything. If you're smart enough to see this, you're smart enough to realize others have strengths and weaknesses, too, that they're not lesser, just different. They go out of their way to understand that strengths in those around them and are the types most likely to work well with others.

Sometimes, the arrogance is a direct result of the ostracism, a defense mechanism to defend a sense of self-worth in a critical world. Focusing on what one can do and telling yourself everyone else is jealous may be all one has to avoid a sense of worthlessness. This arrogance/impatience on the part of the genius undoubtedly contributes to their emotional isolation from others, something they do that makes their ostracism more pronounced. It's an ugly cycle made worse by . . .

The perception of arrogance. One of the most frustrating things about being on the genius side of things is that just acting normally is considered an act of arrogance. This goes hand in hand with the resentment described previously. Speaking using complete sentences, good diction and vocabulary becomes a calculated slur on those around one. Performing well on a test, getting a difficult task completed handily, correcting other people's problems, finding problems that didn't exist—just doing a job right can be viewed as an insult to everyone else, everyone who didn't do so.

For folks who are looking for arrogance, there's no distinction made between knowing one's own worth and thinking one's god's gift to the world of whatever. Short of playing dumb or completely hiding one's gifts, you can't win with this sort. They will see arrogance in everything, especially if they are the ones being corrected or overruled. However, even among the more tolerantly minded, the ones who might appreciate the notion that someone is intelligent, there is still a lingering sense of "less" when confronted with someone who sounds superior in some way. If a genius, unwittingly or no, makes someone feel inferior, especially repeatedly, it's only a small step in logic to deduce the effect was intentional.

Defenses. One cannot stress enough how challenging this ostracism can be on a genius, even among others of "his own kind"—the hierarchy is often less forgiving among geniuses and intellectual achievement does not equate to emotional maturity (which I'll go into in a later post). For some, the isolation is completely debilitating and they grow up emotionally crippled, either leading to lifelong psychological issues or overwhelming arrogance bordering on sociopathy. For others, it's just painful, one of the prices of excellence.

Some choose to hide their abilities or distract from them. They become class clowns with witty comebacks and negligent study habits (which may still not protect them from good grades, but might distract). I've seen several very bright boys go down this path.

Another frequent defense mechanism is playing dumb, way dumb, in fact. I'm sad to say, I see girls do this more than anyone, though I hear that it's also common among some minority groups. There's many women who have felt under particularly intense pressure to pretend an ignorance they didn't have or face near complete isolation. I find that ineffably sad, especially as my daughter is one of them. I can't tell you how painful it is for me to see my sharp quick-thinking daughter turn into a trash-talking moron whenever in the company of a "friend," even though I know how painful her isolation was for her her first few years of school. There is always a price and many a girl who spends her life playing dumb eventually discovers its no longer an act, her abilities and knowledge leeched away through misuse.

There's more features, many of which contribute both to isolation and to emotional challenges for geniuses, but I'll leave that for next time


Still Working on It

>> Wednesday, December 8, 2010

It is much easier to just sit and write Dylan Chroz than it is to sit here and write about what it's like to be "the smart one" or some type of child prodigy. I am working on it because I think it's actually important, but it's harder than I expected and I have to come to grip with things I tend to set aside and work past.

I accepted being unpopular as being part of being myself, since I wasn't willing to act like someone else. But there is always a price. I hadn't appreciated how much there was to it, how complicated and interwoven it was until I tried to put it together. How much my first marriage was tied to it.

I'm not sure everyone gets to decide if they accept it (some are unable to play a role). I know a lot of genius types do put on a persona not realizing that there's a price for that, too.

Bear with me.


Setting the Bar (Renamed, I'll explain why later)

>> Friday, December 3, 2010

Yes, I'm still busy writing and the end is not in sight (+45K words and counting). But I thought I'd pause to tell you why I've found this particular book so compelling.

I've been leading up to it, I think, for some time. I've skirted around it and flirted with the concept, taken away bits of it and put others in. I've written variations on the theme in almost every book I've worked on (if NOT every one). I wrote a multi-post review of mangas and somehow, I think, missed a key common denominator, one particular type of character that is endemic to my own work: the over-achiever who makes things look easy. There's one in every one of my favorite mangas (save two and they're barely among my favorites). They're in some of my favorite novels by others (Roarke, The Duke of Avon, any member of the House of Korval).

I've always been fascinated by people who did exceptional things as if it were easy, Mozart writing timeless music while still a youth, Baryshnikov who would look graceful falling down a flight of stairs, Feynman, Hughes, by a long list of people who made it look "easy" without getting famous. I've been fascinated not only by their abilities and thought processes, but by what they didn't have and their challenges (but that's another post).


Because I am one. I never took homework home in four years of high school. I could get it all done in and between class (I walked to/from school and hated carrying the books) [with the exception of writing research papers and I could have done that if I hadn't insisted in topping myself]. I could literally have been anything I wanted, gone into any into any scholastic field: history, English, foreign language, math, science, engineering. I don't joke when I say I'm an engineering physics graduate by accident (I could get a scholarship from both the college of engineering and and the physics department at the same time). Or, at least any field that didn't require motor skills, artistic talent or athleticism.

I don't think like anyone I've ever known, even people I consider equally intelligent. I don't see things the same, don't reach the same conclusions given the same data. I get more done in less time than anyone I've ever met, and I've met a great many productive people. I get, I kid you not, words like "machine" in my performance reviews routinely.

I know some of you are thinking, "Get over yourself, why don't you?" It's not like that. I'm not bragging. There's no merit in inherent logical ability; I didn't earn it. It just happens to be part of who I am like the curly dark hair and the really horrible fingernails made, apparently, of papier-mâché I have. I'm not better than other people. I'm just different.

I don't do everything better than other people. In fact, there's any number of things I suck at, like selling anything to anyone or remembering names. But I don't believe in false modesty. Nor do I consider it arrogance to know and say what I can do. If I tell you I can do it, you can take that to the bank. And I know first hand how hard it is for people to understand that having it easy doesn't actually make it easy. All my life I've heard "Well, everything's so easy for you," as if really was. It's surprisingly difficult, having "everything easy." There's always a price (but that's another post).

That's why I'm so excited about Dylan Chroz. I've never had a character that reflected so completely the way I think, the way I feel, the world as I've seen it. Oh, he's different than I am in many ways, better in many ways, backwards in others. I've loved writing him and that's why this has been so exciting for me.

Or, like many things, maybe that's just me.

Update 12/4/2010: I read this and it scares me a little. I can feel how this sounds, so off-putting when my intent is anything but. But I don't know how to say it more effectively. Will I alienate people rather than reach them on how it is to be me? As always, language is too limiting. I wish I could put a portal in my forehead so I could pass what I mean along to people in a way they could understand. (I've actually written one in one of my incomplete novels).

Or would my unusual thought processes thwart that, too?


Quick Update

>> Friday, November 26, 2010

Still cranking on the new novel. Still got the inspiration going. Damn thing woke me up at 6:30 this morning (which should be criminal on a day I could normally sleep in), with two scenes that had to be written.

Which is one reason why my nine day total is inching dangerously close to 30,000. I'll be riding the wave as long as it lasts and trying to get as much done as I can during the extended weekend.


Quick Status

>> Sunday, November 21, 2010

For those of you who wonder if I've fallen off the earth. I haven't. Not really.

I just got inspired last week and started yet another novel project (not one on the my sidebar, though I'll update that eventually). I'd intended it, at first, as a character study for my own entertainment, presuming it would never make a real viable novel or, at least, not a marketable one.

I'm now not so sure, but going to write it nonetheless. I can't really stop myself. Since Tuesday, I've written some 13,500 words with almost no effort. I guess my brain had something to say.

Unfortunately, inspiration takes precedence over blogging.



Environment vs. Innate Personality

>> Saturday, November 6, 2010

My sister, Shakespeare, was talking the other day about motivation. I've discussed in terms of characters before a few times.

But my mind is a festering pool of associative logic and it got me thinking on another philosophical question that frequently comes up - what has the greatest influence on a character, environment or innate personality?

It's a philosophically big question and there's no "right" answer (in part, in my opinion, because both are factors but I get ahead of myself). But I have my own opinions.

In my own opinion, and in general, innate personality is the key element, not because environment isn't important but because personality determines how an individual responds to a particular environment. An environment that can break one person can make another stronger. An abused child can grow up to abuse other children or can grow up to become a social worker and protect other children.

You might think this question isn't important for a writing blog, but I think it is for a writer. When you have a character, he or she is at least partially developed already. You should understand both the environment and the innate traits that made him or her as they are now (and hopefully that combination makes sense) whether you pass that along to the reader or not. But you should understand why they are the way they are. I have several fairly abrasive characters. In each case, I understand why they are distrustful or caustic or argumentative (and usually provide enough background that the reader can understand even if it doesn't make them like a character per se).

If I don't understand them understand how they got how they are, how can I get them to grow as they work their way through the environment and plot I've devised for them?


Just Goes to Show

>> Wednesday, November 3, 2010

I wrote yesterday about how challenging I found it to write with the same power as the combination words/pictures in the anime/manga I loved best.

My friend David has done a fine job of showing me how it's done here.


What I've Learned from Animé/Manga 6: Feeling Strongly

>> Tuesday, November 2, 2010

If you hate animé/manga or don't know what I'm talking about, see the intro or the disclaimer here. This series is all about trying to figure out what is so appealing in animé/manga, given that they almost always have nonsensical premises and ridiculous storylines, yet they appeal to millions, including me. Why? Note, I'll use observer to refer to both an animé watcher or a manga reader.

You know, there's a perception that the Japanese are very stoic, very subdued emotionally. Well, I don't know. If animé/manga (and not just the stuff I love best) is any indication, they are anything but. Over and over, emotions - adoration, affection, hatred, revenge, anger, sorrow, despair - is played to the hilt. The characters in these manga feel with everything they have and often show what they're feeling overtly. They cry (no one cries with the abandon of an animé character), they shout, they fall to their knees, they frequent respond with violence, they squeal with anticipation or joy.

So much extreme emotion frequently adds to humor (a theme in nearly every type of fiction I favor), but is also frequently over the top, even irksome. However, one of the side effects I've found is that a moment can be unbelievable poignant, so emotionally charged yet right in a way that might be hard to sell in a western book. Those moments are so powerful, so enthralling an observer can fall in love with a story or a character no matter how challenging they might otherwise be to love.

That open-heartedness makes the characters very accessible, vulnerable in ways that real people often aren't. Given that they also are focused on their love of others and acceptance of who they are, it is frequently a moment of surpassing tenderness or connection.

I can think of dozens of moments like this in the
animé/manga I love. I'll only be touching on a few, but they got to me, touched me. And, really, isn't that what a story should do? Suck you in, make you part of it, touch your heart, make you laugh and, yes, make you cry. In every one of the animés/mangas I listed, there was at least one moment that made me cry or completely compelled me. (Literally getting caught by one from Fruits Basket as I write this where Momiji explains how his mother chose to forget him because of what he was and how he didn't want to lose his own memories, even the sad ones.)

The problem I have is that the artwork is so intrinsic to this that I'm not sure I can capture this in my writing, though it's exactly what I want most to capture. Frequently, there's no dialog. There's no need.

Like when Tamaki, restricted from seeing his mother again, finds out his cold calculating friend spent his vacation tracking her down and talking to her so he could tell Tamaki about it. So he'd know she was alright. (Ouran High School Host Club)

Like when Kyo hugs Misao as if she were the most precious thing ever, not because he wants her (though he does) but because she's been the focus of his life for ten years. As if he needs to touch her, hold her, know she's real. (Black Bird)

Much the way Tamaki hold Haruhi when he finds her after she'd been kidnapped, as if he needed to feel her to know it was real, that she was really safe. (
Ouran High School Host Club)

Like when Kyoko realizes that during her descent into despair after her husband's unexpected death, she has forgotten about her own toddler daughter. She did have a reason to live in her little Tohru even though her husband was gone. (Fruits Basket)

That connection when Haruhatsu reminds Rin that, no matter what she says, she does care about something, or rather, someone. (Fruits Basket)

That moment after Kyo firmly tells Kagura he doesn't love her, but holds her as she cries for something she herself destroyed (and if you know what she put him through, you'd realize how very decent that was). (Fruits Basket)

I wish you could see them like I do. I wish I could do with words what these pictures, these scenes do for me.


What I've Learned from Animé/Manga 5: Nobody's Perfect

>> Thursday, October 28, 2010

If you hate animé/manga or don't know what I'm talking about, see the intro or the disclaimer here. This series is all about trying to figure out what is so appealing in animé/manga, given that they almost always have nonsensical premises and ridiculous storylines, yet they appeal to millions, including me. Why? Note, I'll use observer to refer to both an animé watcher or a manga reader.

One of the things I like about the animés/mangas I "observe" is that even the most extreme or obvious character, the most beautiful, talented or smart character, has darkness behind them, has flaws and room to grow.

It sounds obvious, yet I'm often amazed how frequently a story, novel, even series of novels have a character that doesn't evolve or have any real depth. For some reason, animé/manga (at least the stuff I like) takes this sort of thing very seriously. Tragedy and darkness are frequently significant aspects of his past or his present. That means issues they have to overcome, angst that might not be obvious or perspectives that might take the observer by surprise.

With magic and whatnot often an element (again of the kind I like), it would be easy to make someone too "perfect," but I don't run into them in the ones I like. No matter how "perfect" or powerful a character is, he or she has flaws or weaknesses or vulnerabilities. These weaknesses not only allow growth and change, but also play into the interdependence that is so much a part of these stories. There is not one hero saving all, but a number little victories by different protagonists depending on each other to lead to eventual success. (Animés/mangas frequently feature ensemble casts, which I like.) Or that interdependency, that selfless love for another, can be the vulnerability.

These weaknesses and vulnerabilities also make the characters more approachable, less obnoxious, more readily identified with. They can add charm to someone otherwise cold or humor to someone otherwise polished.

And they are not always successful. One thing I admire is that frequently animés/mangas will encompass tragedy, embrace unthinkable failure. Such things can be depressing or sad, but they also add interest. A story centered on a character that never fails, no matter who he (or she) faces, can get old and hackneyed. Failure and setbacks not only contribute to growth, they add interest and uncertainty that can keep the observer involved.

This tendency is hardly animés/manga specific, but it seems universal to the genre. However, it also gives emotional over-the-top would-be caricatures amazing depth and complexity.


Raimon Shiragi - Raimon could readily become the too-good-to-be-true type. He's a genius, can subvert any computer, invents, and fights like a demon. However, his single-minded devotion to Kotobuki leaves him vicious, callous and suicidal if she is "lost." He also is put into danger on her behalf (many times giving himself up so she would not be harmed) and ultimately is captured and apparently destroyed for no greater reason than his refusal to break his word to Kotobuki. (Tsubasa, Those With Wings)

Habaek/Mui - A Water God of surpassing power, he suffers for love of a mortal (who tried to betray him) and has been cursed by the Emperor of the Gods (because the latter feared his power) so that he lives his days as a child and is only an adult at night. When he falls in love with another mortal, most of the story surrounds his wooing of his suspicious bride (who thinks she's married to the child Habaek not the would-be lover adult Mui) while protecting this great vulnerability from the machinations of the immortals around him who want any leverage possible against him. And not with particular success so far.

Kyoya Otori - Cold, talented, brilliant, rich, powerful, ruthless. His interactions and interdependence with the flighty extravagant Tamaki can be hard to appreciate until you realize that Tamaki's encouragement (no slouch in the perception department) has enabled him to break away from the mold of the dutiful third son and strike out for his own interests, going so far as to find his own fortune and destiny.


What I've Learned from Animé/Manga 4: Putting Others First

>> Monday, October 25, 2010

If you hate animé/manga or don't know what I'm talking about, see the intro or the disclaimer here. This series is all about trying to figure out what is so appealing in animé/manga, given that they almost always have nonsensical premises and ridiculous storylines, yet they appeal to millions, including me. Why? Note, I'll use observer to refer to both an animé watcher or a manga reader.

As I was thinking about common traits in the animé/manga, it struck me that the motivations of the characters were so frequently related and all about unselfishness.

The motivations of characters (protagonists) are almost always selfless, putting their own needs behind the needs, safety and/or happiness of others. Selfless! What kind of moron lets everyone walk all over them, giving up everything for love of someone else? What kind of passive, stupid, pathetic . . . Except I don't find it that way at all, because it's not one character giving everything and having everyone else walk all over them. Everyone even vaguely on the good side either starts out thinking of other people first or they learn to. Pure selfishness is reserved for bad guys. Always. Perhaps it's a Japanese thing. Maybe it's an idealized love thing, that no one can love anyone without putting the other's needs first. Maybe those are just the animés/mangas I love.

Now, why is that distinctive? I mean, sure, lots of stories have noble or self-sacrificing people in them, but in western stories, it is frequently one person doing so, or a small cadre of people. People, even protagonists, are frequently motivated by greed or serving a disembodied purpose like patriotism or proving something. In animé/manga, the primary motivation (at least of the ones I've loved) is the protection, happiness, rescue, or freedom of other people. And not just the main character, but every one of the protagonist characters. Even those characters that are otherwise self-absorbed, will put themselves on the line without hesitation for the well-being of others.

Sometimes a character starts out seeming a doormat, but, over time, you realize that they engender protective feelings in those around them and that they'll stand up for others in a way that shows they have tremendous strength. Sometimes someone apparently self-absorbed or narcissistic turns out to be amazingly perceptive and unselfish underneath. Many times, these depths of strength or generosity are only apparent through the interactions with others.

It changes the dynamics. Love of others is part and parcel of the stories, the interplay, the interactions. Not just romantic love (though that's frequently there too), but friendships and family relationships, as if that were what life was all about rather than success or money or fame. It's about finding your place, where you belong, what's really important.

Maybe it's just me (I am the only one writing this), but it seems to me that kind of thinking is a lot healthier than books that are focused on teenage angst or petty rivalries, or revenge or hatred, or even the kind of love where no one is really committed to anyone else. It's not to say you can't find all these things, and more, in animé/manga, but, at least in the ones I read, it's not what it's all about.

More next time.

Examples for this topic:

Tamaki Suoh - Beautiful, brash and unabashedly self-absorbed, he is almost painfully devoted to the happiness of others. No sacrifice is too much, and he expends a great deal of effort keeping others from seeing any of his own unhappiness or vulnerabilities for their sake, not his. It sounds sappy and he's as over the top as any character I've ever seen. But I can't help loving him. He's a gem who's touched me as often as he made me laugh. (Ouran High School Host Club)

Kyo Usui - A demon who fell in love with a young girl when he saw her misused by his older brother, he spent ten years becoming the head of his clan so that he could wed her (only a clan head can) and devotes himself to her protection, which is a full-time job. When he believes consummating their relationship may put her at risk, he's even protects her from himself. (Black Bird)

Misao Harada - While attacked by the otherworldly demons and the like, pursued by a demon she knew as a child but barely remembers, she determines she doesn't want to be a helpless victim, but actively works to heal and protect the interests of Kyo, even at the risk of her own life, even if she's working against what Kyo wants to do (which drives Kyo crazy) if its in his best interest. (Black Bird)

Bart Garsus - motivated primarily self-preservation in the beginning, he is a shallow fellow to begin, but he finds new depths when he befriends a dying girl and devotes himself to protecting the other people he's grown to care about. Even when he is later "captured" by his own nation, he doesn't betray his friends under torture. In fact, as was a common theme, people routinely found new capabilities only when driven to new heights for the protection of others. (Vandread)


What I've Learned from Animé/Manga 3: Outsider Main Character

>> Saturday, October 23, 2010

If you hate animé/manga or don't know what I'm talking about, see the intro or the disclaimer here.

This series is all about trying to figure out what is so appealing in animé/manga, given that they almost always have nonsensical premises and ridiculous storylines, yet they appeal to millions, including me. Why? Note, I'll use observer to refer to both an animé watcher or a manga reader.

Last time, I talked about how the main characters were frequently ordinary, but it's not the only key trait.

The story usually centers around someone who is, in some aspect, an outsider. It might seem that ordinary and ostracized are contradictory traits, but are they? Don't most people feel like outsiders, at least at some point in their lives? Even if they're part of a group, don't they, at times, feel outside it? I think many (if not most) people can identify with a character who either has to put on a show to fit in (but never really feels accepted) or is ostracized because they don't put on a show, with a character who either is or feels alone.

Admittedly, like much about animé/manga, they often take it to extremes. Main characters are often orphaned or far from home or otherwise alone. Though ordinary, they often have traits that make others shun or avoid them, something that sets them apart as other. They also frequently think of themselves as nothing special, as if they deserve to go unnoticed. So, why is this powerful? Because the observer can identify with the character? I think yes, but there's more.

Usually, very early in the story line, the main character is accepted, even embraced, by the strange/talented/beautiful/odd other character(s) and their equally eccentric friends, included by individuals who see the main character as he really is. That is a very compelling notion, the notion that people who seem so exceptional could look at someone normal and see what makes them special, appreciate it. It humanizes these over-the-top other characters and gives the main character a sense of belonging that, lets face it, most of us have longed for at some time or another. People who understand us. People who appreciate us. People who accept us as family.
It's a very satisfying notion.

But wait, there's more. Next time.

Examples of today's topic:

Sophy - convinced that she is plain and dull, Sophy doesn't participate in the frivolous enjoyment others do and, by a strange coincidence, is eventually spelled into a body as old and unappealing as she sees herself. (Howl's Moving Castle)

Misao Harada - can see spirits and ghosts and otherworldly demons. As a child, she was ridiculed for lying or treated as insane. As an young adult, she feels she has to hide it and her reactions to these things no one else sees still keeps people at arms length. (Black Bird)

Hibiki Tokai - a lower class citizen who is marginalized for his bravado so that he always feels he has something to prove to people who will never accept him anyway. It is only when he finds acceptance by those he never expected to accept him that he really finds his stride. (Vandread)

Kotobuki - rejection by a society that considers orphans effectively unpeople (nameless) leads to her life of crime, but someone else's belief in her as a person, first as a child, then as someone approaching adulthood, help her find her own strengths. (Tsubasa Those With Wings)

Tohru Honda - The name, Fruits Basket, refers to a game where children are assigned a fruit and will join in when called. Tohru was assigned rice ball as a joke only realizing after the fact that she would never be called since she wasn't a fruit. The analogy carried over to her sense that, with the strange and surreal Sohma clan, she was finally called. (Fruits Basket)


What I've Learned from Animé/Manga 2: Grounded Main Character

>> Friday, October 22, 2010

Disclaimer: Animé and manga are not for everyone. I'm not trying to push it on the uninterested. However - and I was surprised as anyone - I've been intrigued and entranced by certain shows/books. I also know that there are, literally, millions of fans world-wide. Given that, and my tendency to try to understand anything that draws me in, I'm trying to pinpoint why it appeals to me (and, perhaps, why it appeals to others). I also must point out that I'm hardly hard-core. I've watched a limited number of animé, read a limited number of manga, and I've enjoyed only a subset of them. And I've mostly been entranced by shojo manga, a small subset of what's out there. Also note, I'm not a teenager, not a comic book fan, and not a gamer.

So, I was thinking about what common threads I find in my favorites, what I notice and why I think it appeals. I'll list those common threads and why I think they work. Today, I'm going to focus on main characters. I'll use observer to denote both an animé watcher and a manga reader.

They usually center around someone comparatively ordinary. Although animé/manga frequently explore truly fantastic notions, the main character is often comparatively mundane, a foil for the extremes around them They are rarely the smartest or most beautiful, usually not the most (overtly) magical if magical at all. Frequently, there is every appearance that their involvement in the whole thing is some strange coincidence. And yet, they end up being pivotal, either the central focus of the story or the catalyst that makes things happen.

There are many reasons why this is powerful. First, it's easy for observers to identify with this main character, an easy transition from this character the the observer to imagine his or her self in the story. The character's absolute acceptance of the most extreme magic, whimsical technological notions or the otherworldliness around him or her makes the world more believable.

More than that, though, the MC frequently becomes the focus for the most extreme characters, who turn out to be devoted to the main character, even obsessed. Usually, this focus seems misplaced, a strange quirk of fate, pity, confusion, something, that makes this humdrum individual the center of the universe for people/beings who seems so much more fantastic, talented, beautiful or whatever.

But, over time, it stop seeming so odd or unnatural and begins to makes sense as the observer (us) learns to appreciate what the other characters are fascinated by, learn to acknowledge the strengths and spirit that makes the main character treasured by individuals who seem like they'd never give a second thought to ordinary people. Whether the main character turns out to have hidden talents or capabilities or whether it's just the value of her personality, character and spirit, her value and contribution to the greatness around her eventually makes sense. Finally, her treasured status seem natural for the observer. That's a great way for the observers to feel empowered, to feel like there's more to themselves than most people see and appreciate. Like they might be worthy of more than the normal people appreciate.

More on this next time.

Examples of this:

Tohru Honda, a normal girl surrounded and cherished by shape-shifting wealthy people conditioned to feeling under someone else's control. Their protection of her starts out as a rebellion and turns into a revolution and revelation for them all. Her nature is her magic. (Fruits Basket)

Kotobuki, a "nameless" (orphan) and unsuccessful thief, beloved by the hopelessly overtalented and brilliant Raimon who was entranced by her drive to live when he had no will to do so himself. She changed that just by existing. (Tsubasa Those With Wings)

Carrot, a seemingly talentless man surrounded by talented sorcerers, obsessed over by the female contingents of his team, seemingly crass and crude. But he is filled with heart and a generous spirit and turns out to be the strongest of them all in a very unique way. (Sorcerer Hunters)

Soah, a human girl sacrificed to the Water God who ends up the focus of a complex world of deities. (Bride of the Water God - technically a manhwa, a Korean version of the manga)

Haruhi Fujioka - smart but normal, Haruhi is completely focused scholarly success. She is not charismatic and lives fairly oblivious to the people around here until she's "adopted" into the Ouran High School Host Club, a group of charismatic super-rich stunningly handsome teenagers who have a few issues of their own. And learns about all those important aspects lost in the gloss of their high profile lives. I know how it sounds, but I love this one. It's funny, too. (Ouran High School Host Club)


What Moves You

>> Thursday, October 14, 2010

One of the key elements of a novel or story, for both plot and characters, is motivation. Too frequently, in my opinion, a writer will pile actions on top of each other in order to make a plot without thinking through motivations. Instead, in order to meet the goals and plans intended by the writer, character Y has to do action T here, and the fact that there's no compelling reason for character Y to do so is glossed over in the interest of getting all the good stuff the writer intends.

Good authors do it (once in a while). Bad authors do it. A lot. Constantly.


No matter how cool your plot is to you, how precious a twist or turn that's coming, how clever a denouement you have planned, don't cheat to get there. A plot is only as clever and strong as it's weakest link. Skip steps, cut a corner here or there, have a character wander down a path that makes no sense and the plot comes across as contrived, false. At best. At worst, the bottom can fall out of the whole thing.

That doesn't mean it has to be logical. People do illogical or stupid or perverse things all the time. But it has to fit. That's good and bad. The cool thing about writing is that you can make as much or as little of the fictional world as you want. It's wide open. Limitless. The downside is, once you've built your world, you're bound by it. The rules need to be consistent, make sense within their own framework. That means almost any action can make sense if you've set it up so the actions fits. Having your protagonist slug a man in the mouth unprovoked requires a reason, a provocation (unless, say, they're brothers). There are any number of good ones, but you need to have a plausible reason for it, one that the reader can identify with, at some point in the story. But even perfect reasonably actions for a regular person may make no sense depending on how you built your character. The actions need to fit or the characterization gets muddy.

If not, the real damage is done to the characters. Nothing, in my opinion, kills a character, particularly a strong or personable one, like forcing them to do something that doesn't jibe with who they are. Like with the plot, you can have a character do almost anything, kill, maim, kick puppies - as long as it fits with the character or there's a rationale that makes sense for that character in that world in that situation. You start pushing your character in a direction that is hard to understand or seems at odds with who they are, you can lose a reader's interest, in the situation, in the plot, even in the character.

That doesn't mean the motivation always has to be spelled out. Nor that it will make sense to everyone. Sometimes, something will sit wrong with a reader and there's nothing to be done about it. If there are enough that identify with your viewpoint, that's not an issue - there's always someone who won't get it - but if you have to explain it to everyone, you might want to rethink it.

This is one of my pet peeves. For character readers, like myself, it can make or break a book, a character. In some cases, an author.

For me, once I've felt betrayed once too often by an author, I never go back.


More than a Telegram

>> Monday, October 11, 2010

I read Query Shark quite frequently. I've found it invaluable, not only to see what mistakes others are making, but honing my critical skill so I can write my own queries better. I may have mentioned that marketing isn't my strong suit.

Frequently, I often stumble across interesting discussions, not only on what books are effective or interesting or marketable (though that too), but what's appropriate for young adults or what ideas seem, um, twisted. And, every once in a while, there will be a discussion that intrigues me, like the one attached to query #183. There's some technical stuff, and some detailed stuff, some continuity headaches, etc. But what intrigued me is the notion that deeper meanings are taboo. The moderator, Query Shark, said:

I'm also EXTREMELY wary of authors who are trying to make a point or teach a lesson, or illuminate a problem in novels. Story comes first and authors who want to make a point rarely are willing to let the story dominate the points they want to make. Stories with lessons are called parables, not novels.
Others agreed (as I did to a point) and one quoted Samuel Goldwyn (of MGM), "If you've got a message, send a telegram." Now, let's be clear. I agree that the heavy-handed message intended in this query seems clumsy. I agree that people with an axe to grind frequently fill novels and stories (and movies and whatnot) with tons of useless, painful, contrived garbage that turn what might have been a story into an dull flavorless experiences or a mindless miasma of illogical contortions that only appeals to like-minded sanctimonious "intellectuals." Think Oscar winner.

Most people don't pick up a novel to get a sermon. Or, if they do, they're reading different books than I'm reading.

For example, Victor Hugo's great novel (one of 'em anyway), Les Misérables, was interspersed with long tracts on French post-Revolutionary politics and history. Fortunately, he set them apart from the novel and, by just skipping those sections, the novel itself makes a fine read. What's more, every point he's trying to make in those sections (at least in my opinion) is just as clearly elucidated in the story proper - and more effectively.

Why do I say that?

Because it wasn't a dry lesson when it involved Cosette, Valjean and even Javert. Each of the characters grew, living in that history Hugo was trying to portray, changed by it, growing through the hardships and even the successes, learning something. It didn't feel like a sermon, though the lessons were there. It felt like a story and I could appreciate the hardship because I read along with the people, lived alongside them for a while. The problems, issues and history were humanized by making it into an accessible story. That's why it was great.

Make it clunky, subvert the characters or story to press your point, and it because unreal and contrived, undermining the lesson's credibility, precluding it from touching the reader. But make the characters alive, the story all too plausible, believable, real, as say Charles Dickens did, and you send a message that continues to echo generations later. You want to talk about power.

Stories, particularly character stories as I favor, are about growth. Lessons come naturally, fall into place without any browbeating or monologues. Each writer helps shape each character into what they want them to become, provides the world, which can be harsher than today or more enlightened, and uses that circumstance to highlight all kinds of thoughts pertinent to people in today's environment. No matter how far-fetched the notions, it can be accessible, characters can suck people in and make them identify with different viewpoints, aspects, prejudices, cultures. If we, as writers, can't get readers to identify with our characters, the stories wouldn't work anyway.

But it should be natural, unforced, a quiet side effect of telling a compelling story about interesting characters. Even fluff fiction has aspects of this, depending on what direction you want your characters to grow. One reason I read only a couple of romance authors is because I hate the ever prevalent rapist-as-the-hero trend. Harmless tripe, one might say. Well, I think anything you read has the potential to influence you, make you think the world is as it's shown. And, in my view, that's not harmless.

I read and write characters living the way I'd like to think I'd live if I were in that situation. Honest, caring, generous, forgiving, tolerant. Funny. Imperfect. When I write characters with those characteristics I admire, I'm instilling a deeper meaning, even in my least serious work.

I don't think any novel serves a higher purpose by battering the reader with obvious homilies and preaching. A good book, should, at most, makes it an "a-ha" moment as a reader thinks, "I never thought about it that way." Preferably after the fact. And, at best, the reader looks out at the world differently than they did before without even necessarily knowing why.

At least, that's what I think.


Best Thing to Hear

>> Sunday, October 10, 2010

I read my books (and others) to my husband. I always catch things to fix and he's ruthless if something isn't working. The collaboration has it's down sides. Sometimes we butt heads and it's a real struggle to work through it.

This last novel was no exception. I had my heart set on infecting the hero of book number one with a brain-eating parasite and Lee just wasn't happy about having his favorite character get his brain eaten (even though I was going to make him survive). My medical friend actually sided with him so we did something different-ish.

Had to find a different way to pull it all together, but, in many ways, it worked out even better. Which is why I work with my husband.

So, I just read the finished book to my husband, cleaning up this, straightening wording here, tightening up this phrase or that. Still needs some polish, but, really, I thought, not as much as I expected. I seem to need less and less polishing the more books I write.

My voice, with my allergies was going, but he kept urging me to read more. How can you not want to read more if your audience is wanting it? Very gratifying. We managed to finish it up at 2 am yesterday.

What does he say to me this morning? "You know the worst thing about that book? There's not more of it."

If we're never published, I'll still have that.


Done With the Draft of My First Sequel

>> Thursday, October 7, 2010

So, novel number four is done. Well, not done, done, mind you. But the draft is done. I've put down what I want to say in the order I want to say it. And parts of it, I know, are great - or at least fun. Still, I know parts are very rough, clumsy or too pat. The pieces are all there, but it might not all be put together correctly.

It's not the end of the journey, of course. I'll have to read it through with Lee to even get the draft feeling done. And then it'll need to sit a few months before I look at it again and fix what I'm too close to fix today. Pieces that need to be shuffled (which is not uncommon in ensemble novel like I have here and the one before), fight scenes that need to be expanded (or trimmed) and made better, dialog to be polished.

Still, I like the notion. I like my characters and I'm glad to be "finished."

Odd, more and more my sweet spot for book length seems to be between 90 and 100K words.

So, what's next?


Keeping It Real

>> Monday, October 4, 2010

Last time, I talked about selling the implausible, figuring out ways to make the implausible palatable to the discerning reader. However, building an acceptable framework to make an out-of-the-ordinary scenario or character acceptable is only part of the problem. The other half is living with the consequences.

What does that mean, living with the consequences? That means that, however nonsensical your premise/characters are in relationship to the real world as we know it, it has to makes sense in the world you create. The more out-of-normal you make a scenario or situation or character, the more consistent you need to be in reinforcing that scenario or situation or character. Whatever your framework, you need to be true to it, whether far future, pure fantasy, alternate reality or historical.

Keep your rules consistent. This is most useful for SF/Fantasy writers, but it can be true for anyone. If mages can't have children in your reality, don't give one an illegitimate child later. Any world has a framework of what is and isn't true. The more original your world, the more rules and reality you get to decide - but you have to stick with them. Every time you break a rule, or change what "is" in a world you've created, you blur the picture, take it that little bit out of focus. Do it often enough and the reality you're trying to project becomes blurry or with colors so disharmonious the reader can't suspend disbelief.

Keep what's normal normal. Every world, even the most bizarre, has some grounding in reality. Gravity works the same or creatures react the same way to heat and cold. The more normal you can make the normal aspects of your world or situation, the (a) more what's original stands out and interests and (b) the more believable those extraordinary aspects are. If you send someone back in time, don't have him invent cars and what-not if he was a shoe salesman in his own time. He's not going to back in to the time of Da Vinci and design a real helicopter in between hot sessions with smooth-skinned sweet-smelling women. The women he'll meet will have rotting teeth and hairy legs and lice. And they'll smell bad. And, within a short time, so will he.* The more real and accurate you build the past, the more realistically modern he is (and his reactions are to the realities of the past), the more effective such a scenario is.

People are people. Tall, short, tiny, furry, aquatic, superpowered, telepathic, sparkly, whatever, they still act in a way people can identify with or, well, no one's going to identify with them. If that happens, your scenario's going to go to pot. Oftimes, that means giving at least some human characteristics to those who aren't human (like rabbits in Watership Down), but, more importantly, it means that the characters in your story behave in a believable way within the framework of that story. People act with believable motivation (and, yes, stupidity can be one of those motivations, but it ought not to be the primary one for your protagonists) or it won't work. Far too frequently, a plot or situation is contrived by making a character act, well, completely out of character for a period of time. Like a fantastical scenario, an apparently out-of-character action needs to have a plausible explanation or your character will falter. Do it too often, and your reader will trip right out of the story.

*Oy, historical novels. I almost can't read them, so many of them are so awful. And I love history. It's not enough to get the historical details right (and even that happens far less often than it should). You have to build the world right. The further back you go, the harder it is. If you set a historical novel in Elizabethan England, the people won't speak like they do on the Tudors. They'll sound like a Shakespearean play because that's how they talked back then (only with less iambic pentameter and, likely, a smaller vocabulary). A lady's maidservant in William the Conqueror's time wouldn't be reading letters from her lover - it's not even likely her mistress could read it. Don't be pulling out the hip baths and daily changes of clothing in 1670. Most people only had a handful of outfits because cloth production and sewing were hugely labor intensive. Ditto for bathes (and many thought them "dangerous"). And, for "nobility" doffing and donning clothes was equally challenging and not to be done without help.

And, for the love of God, don't give your character the traits of today's modern women or men. People, for all their individuality and talents, are also products of their time. If you want to write historicals, please please read contemporary literature first. If you can't drag yourself through Chaucer or Shakespeare or Austen, maybe you should pick another venue for your story.


A Likely Story

>> Saturday, October 2, 2010

After giving you all "permission" to write stories, plot, scenarios and characters that seem implausible, unlikely, even fantastic, what more is there to say? I've given you carte blanche, no?


I truly feel that the sky's no limit when it comes to characters, plots, settings, and stories, but - and it's a big but - you have to sell it as believable and live with the consequences. That's really two completely separate things and may mean this is in two segments. And I should probably explain it more.

Selling the implausible. We all know I hate marketing, but I love story-telling and this is part of it. And there are multiple ways to take a fantastic idea and make it work.

Everyone buys it. One method to impart plausibility is to make it a natural part of the world you build. If everyone takes shapeshifters or faith healers as part of the normal populace, it's easier for your audience to do so as well. An excellent example of this is Edwards Scissorhands which involved a highly implausible scenario and building characters and stories upon it. It worked because everyone in the movie took the scenario at face value and they ran with it. This is a pretty common method in fantasy and science fiction.

Build a plausible explanation. Something can seem impossible but turn plausible if the steps leading to it make sense: societies that work differently than ours, different biologies, different technologies, a character so capable you can believe he/she can do anything. Want an eleven year old starship captain? You'd better make him a prodigy, brilliant and mature beyond his years (and an explanation for that is useful too - did he raise himself and/or others? Trained as a pilot since birth? Have exceptional parents? Do people mature early or are children considered adult earlier? Do years last longer?)

It has to make sense. Not in our reality, but in the one you make. If, to get there, protagonists have to do stupid or nonsensical things, or rules are made and then unmade or the events behind it are so contrived and convoluted as to be ridiculous, you haven't built it right. I'm not saying each action has to make sense, but each thread, as part of the whole tapestry must (or it probably doesn't belong).

Make the story/characters so compelling that people forgive the details. This has been done by newbies and experts alike. It's frequently used to make hackneyed storylines (like romances) palatable despite being done a jillion times (and still loved by many). The problem with this method is that (a) for everyone who does this successfully, there dozens who don't pull it off and (b) you will always alienate a certain group of readers automatically by doing this. The Twilight series is a good example of this. For those caught up in the characters (as I was), the details are forgiven even though a (sizable) number of them make no sense. For purists, even saying "sparkly vampire" is enough to have them beat you up. Twilight et. al. made gobs of money, but there is a huge faction of haters who have never even read it. And, as I said, there are dozens of books that tried similar things that fell flat. Making compelling stories/characters with a story riddled with errors or poorly thought out details is HARD and falls flat more often than it succeeds. It's not a path I recommend.

As for part two, living with the consequences, I'll save that for the next post.



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