Monday, March 22, 2010

That Doesn't Work! Common misconceptions

Since my last rant, I got to thinking about other things that annoy me in fiction.  Things that denote not only lazy writing, but also that the writers spend little time actually reading or researching and get all their information from watching episodes of A-Team or 80's action flicks.  Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Gunshot Impact - I love it when I read that a character, wielding a .22 calibre pistol, shot a guy and the impact knocked him backward.  Even funnier if the bullet knocked him through a window.  Folks, a .22, while perfectly lethal, doesn't pack that much of a punch.  In fact, I've read several reports in which people shot with them don't even realize they've been shot until after the fact.  Reasearch people.  Research. 
  • Exploding Cars - Unless you're driving a Pinto, cars don't usually explode on impact.  ANY sort of impact.  They just don't.  They're designed not to.  Get over it.  Sure, explosions are big and exciting, but they don't happen all that often.  Include them in your work at your own peril and at the risk of being called a hack.  Sure, rig them up with explosives, stash nitroglycerine in the trunk (good luck finding that if you're writing modern fiction, by the way) or hit them with a surface to air missile and they'll explode.  But slamming into a wall?  Not likely. 
  • Throwing Knives/Stars - Do you have any idea how difficult is is to stick a perfectly-balanced throwing knife into a stationary target, much less a moving one?  Moreover, how next to impossible it is for the random untrained dipstick to throw an unbalanced 10-inch chef's knife and hope that it hits with the pointy end?  I've read enough passages where people "buried the knife up to the hilt" in muggers, intruders and monsters that I'm starting to believe that America is populated with nothing but circus performers.  Folks, it doesn't work.  Throwing stars work basically the same way.  The other tines on the star would actually prevent it from penetrating very far.  They're more an annoyance and a distraction than they are lethal.  Plus, most folks seem to want to aim for the head or the chest, ignoring the fact that the body has a wonderful protective system for such things.  It's called bone.  Look it up.  Fairly tough stuff. 
  • Knockout - I've been knocked out a few times.  I've also taken more than my fair share of hits to the head (no comments, please).  I can tell you beyond any uncertainty that knocking a person out isn't as easy as the UFC fighters make it look.  Also, getting hit in the head with a board will generally not knock you out, but you will get a nasty concussion, a severe headache, and be disoriented for a while.  
  • Amnesia/Regaining Memory - Amnesia is the result of a few specific types of trauma to the brain, either physical or psychological.  There is no "hit him in the head and it'll all come back" situation.  It just doesn't happen.  
The point here is simple, and one I've tried to make before:  Research.  If you've seen it in the movies, that doesn't mean it's true.  Most of the time, it means no way on Earth could it happen.  If you're thinking of using a clever plot device, do the leg-work and make sure it's possible.  In some situations, try it out yourself to see if it works (and no, I'm not advocating blowing up cars, throwing knives at people, or attempting other acts of random stupidity).  If you want your work to be believable, show things that can be believed. 

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Common Stereotypes (that drive me up a friggin' wall)

As readers, we see hundreds of thousands of the same idiot-formed stereotypes in what we like to call "popular fiction."  Characters that are cookie-cutter cliches and paper-thin do nothing to advance the art and are indicative of bad writing.  Yet, they still happen.  Pick up five random paperbacks, I'd bet that four of them have some kind of stereotyped characters.  Moreover, the stereotypes are based on ill-informed prattle, hearsay, paranoia, and are oftentimes racist, sexist, and just plain wrong.  It irritates me to no end that such stereotypes exist, and that so-called "artists" continue to put them forth.  Here are a few of my least favorite stereotypes:

  • Satanists - Check the news and you'll see hundreds of reports of "Satanic Cults."  Lots of books play into the same hysteria and paranoia.  But guess what folks:  There is a Church of Satan, and they don't do what people say they do.  They were founded by a fellow named Anton LeVey and they don't go around kidnapping babies, sacrificing kittens, or most of the other things ascribed to them.  In fact, they pretty much leave everyone else alone unless they're provoked.  "Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law" (which was actually said by Alestair Crowley) is pretty much their guiding force, but they don't just go on random ritual killing sprees.  The people who do that are called serial killers.  
  • Minorities - We like to think we've moved past this, but I can't count the number of times in the past couple of years that I've seen books containing ignorant black thugs, lazy fat Mexicans, money-grubbing Jews, Oriental bad drivers and tech geniuses, noble Native Americans, and Russian/German militant bad-guys.  Come on, people.  Haven't we gotten past this?  Can we please?  People, no matter their skin color, nationality, religion, sexual preference, or hat size, are just people.  They are products of their environment, upbringing, moral code, nutrition, and hundreds of other factors.  All people, no matter what, deserve to be treated with respect.  Period.  When you belittle someone for being different, you reveal yourself to be small minded. 
  • Witches - Not evil, not insidious, and not out to recruit everyone.  It's not like they win a toaster for converting x-number of non pagans.  They're generally not premiscuous (or any more so than any other religious group), nor are they "out of touch" or "living in a fantasy world."  In fact, chances are, there's one working next to you right now and you'd never know it. 
  • Gays/Lesbians - How many times have you seen the stereotype of the flamboyant, cross-dressing fag or the Burkenstock-wearing, granola-eating, man-hating dyke?  Gay men and women are just like everyone else.  They love, they laugh, they cry, they make decisions and they need to pay the rent, just like everyone else.  They don't all run around wearing the opposite gender's clothing, nor are they all "lipstick lesbians" or "boy-toys."  They come in all shapes and sizes, all races, and all backgrounds.  Build a good character, not a good stereotype. 
  • Christians - I'll probably catch flack for this one, but I'm sick of seeing the "God-Warrior," the militant ignorant bigot who does everything because "God says so."  Not all Christians are assholes.  In fact, the vast majority of them are kind and accepting of other people.  Just because the psychos get all the press (as they do in any religion) doesn't mean they're all like that.  It has become somewhat fashionable to portray Christians in a negative light, and that's tragic.  For every dipshit who tells the world that "God hates fags," there are a hundred others who reject his hate-filled doctrine.  
What I'm trying to put forth here are words that someone much smarter and much more talented that I once said:  "Good writing is truth."  Don't perpetuate bigotry.  Build real people. 

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Secrets to Happiness

I read a post a little while ago in which someone gave a list of suggestions for living a happy life.  It was a good list.  So good, in fact, that it made me think of my current mental state.  I don't really tell very many people this (though I guess they'll know now), but years ago, I was diagnosed with clinical depression.  Prozac worked until my insurance provider stopped covering it.  It took me a long time to become a happier, healthier person.  While I still have my bad days, they are fewer and farther between than ever before.  So here, then, are some tidbits that worked for me.  (Disclaimer:  I'm not a doctor, psychologist, psychiatrist, or even someone from whom most people consider taking advice.  However, if this works for just one person, I'm happy.)

Eat Healthy - It would surprise most people how much your diet can affect your outlook.  But the old saying "Garbage in, garbage out" really applies.  Tanking up on trash constantly makes your body feel tired, sluggish, and can really bring on a case of the blahs.  The healthier you eat, the better you will feel.  And it doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg either.  I changed my diet and found out I was spending less on healthy foods (that taste just as good, I might add) than I was on junk.  

Exercise - It plays off the point listed above, but it still holds true.  You don't have to be an athlete or run a marathon, but you need to get up off your butt and move around some.  Spend some time in the sunshine, take a walk, anything to make your heart beat, your lungs expand, and to put your body in motion. 

Be Passionate - About SOMETHING.  Anything.  Find your passion, and follow it.  I'm not saying to quit your job in your quest to become the world's finest cheese-maker (though if you think you can, go for it!), but find something that stirs your soul.  For some its painting.  For me it's writing and music.  I can't live without either one.  Well, I could, but I'd be one miserable bastard if I did.

Ignore Stereotypes and Fads - ...which is a less Pollyanna way of saying be yourself.  Living your life living up to what Vogue, Cosmo, and People declare are the "in" fashions and trends is a quick way to make yourself feel inadequate.  Don't believe me?  Look at the covers of those magazines and realize that those women are being force-fed as the ideal of "beautiful."  Sorry, but unhealthily-skinny women just don't do it for me.  As for fashion, I wear what I like (which is usually a Hawaiian shirt with sneakers and jeans).  Wear what you like.  Be you, not who someone else wants you to be. 

Never let anyone determine your worth - No one needs any other solitary person to be whole.  Too many people are part of bad relationships or are made to feel less than their worth.  Make yourself happy and realize that you are a whole person.  Once you realize that you don't need another person to make you whole, you'll realize that you enjoy other people more, and that they enjoy you. 

Love Yourself First - Boy, that's a hard one.  For someone who came from a veritable plethora of neuroses and self-loathing (me) to somehow come to terms with, and genuinely like, himself is a huge step.  But the old saying of "You can't love someone else until you love yourself" is true.  

Laugh - Best medicine and all, but a good hard laugh has been proven to have all kinds of psychological and physical benefits.  Just never forget to laugh at yourself and with others. Never take yourself too seriously. 

I hope someone who reads this finds it useful.  Please, feel free to leave your own hints for happiness as comments.  Notice, I never said turn to Christ/Buda/Allah/The Flying Spaghetti Monster.  Happiness comes from within.