A Lesson in Storytelling from Star Wars

I don’t know anybody who cheers on Darth Vader in A New Hope. He’s scary, he destroys planets, and–while he looks very cool–he cuts down our newly beloved mentor with a lightsaber. He’s the bad guy, the villain, the terror that flaps in the night–wait. That’s Darkwing Duck. Anyway, you get the picture. But here’s the catch, we don’t just love to hate him, we love him too.

Darth Vader isn’t a good guy, but by his untimely end two movies later, we’re sad to see him go. That’s the mark of a good villain. He was redeemable. And if you bring in the prequels, we can see his deterioration and understand why he made the choices he made to become the source of so much fear. It had a lot to do with the fact that he was super emo and brooding, but then his son started out the same way, so it makes sense. But I digress.

Nothing about Anakin/Darth Vader is out of left field when you know the story. It’s a natural progression. A slave boy who dreams of more is taken from his mother and trained in how to use the galaxy’s greatest power and then told he’s not allowed to love, fear, or hate anything. Naturally, this becomes a problem sometime after puberty. Then when he fears losing his lady love, his fear drives him to make questionable decisions. I know, it’s a very simplistic view of what happened, but when you break it down to the bare minimum, that’s his character arc. And it’s very relatable. We’ve all made questionable decisions out of fear, and I’m almost positive we’ve all made questionable decisions when it comes to whoever we’re attracted to. Just saying. It’s like a rite of passage. His decisions just had higher stakes than looking like an idiot in front of the whole class/school/whathaveyou.

So he’s relatable, and because he’s relatable he’s redeemable. And even while we hate him, we can’t help but be a little in awe of him. And if you don’t believe me, go to a Disney park and look at the line just to meet him.

As writers, our villains should be relatable on some small level. Leave some smidgen of a chance of redemption, even if you know they would rather die than take it. Give them dimension. Sure, you can make them terrifying. You can make them powerful. But make them whole in the process. Nobody is ever just power and fright. At some point, they got that power. At some point, they wanted to be frightening. You don’t have to give the entire backstory in an info dump, but leave traces of it. Leave hints and trust the readers to be smart enough to follow the breadcrumbs.

The lesson here is that in stories, and in my experience life itself, nobody is all good or all bad. Everybody struggles with internal demons of some kind. It’s how they face those demons that makes them protagonists or antagonists. While this post has solidly focused on making sure your villain is more than just one big ball of scary, the same rule applies to your protagonist. They have to be given the opportunity to make bad decisions. Because people do. And they can make the right decision or they can make bad ones and then redeem themselves.

Luke was a whiney brat who just wanted to go to Tochi and score some power converters. He chose to train with Ben Kenobi and Yoda to become a Jedi. He found out who his father was and was given the opportunity to go dark and rule the galaxy. He turned it down. And when he shows up at Jabba’s place dressed in all black, we all know that some questionable things happened since we last saw him, but we trust him to still be at least mostly on the light side.

I could do this for every major character in the story. And before you go pointing out, “But Palpatine!” I’m going to stop you. I watched the movies. I haven’t read the bajillion and one books and comics and read all the fan theories the internet has to offer. I don’t know his backstory, but I’m pretty sure if I did I would find reasons he became a Sith. Because nobody is all good or all bad.

Except for Leia. She’s perfection.

Just kidding.

Sort of.

Won’t You Let Me Take You on a Sea Cruise…

That’s a line from a song. I only know that because my dad used to sing it while he made dinner when I was young. But it’s been stuck in my head a lot lately because my dad (and my stepmom) went with us on a Disney cruise last week. It was the first cruise I’ve ever been on that lasted longer than a few hours. And in true Disney fashion, it was outrageously expensive and completely magical.

Because my boys (and my husband) are big fans of the Star Wars franchise, we went on a Star Wars Day at Sea cruise. It was a seven-day jaunt through the Caribbean with a full day at sea at the beginning and one near the end. The second full day at sea was completely dedicated to all things Star Wars.

I’ve never actually been to a Con, but if that isn’t one big, seafaring Star Wars Con, I don’t know what is. There were character meet and greets, a guest speaker, information about new and upcoming Star Wars attractions at the parks, a cosplay celebration, a stage show, a whole store full of merchandise, etc. The ship’s horn even played the Imperial March before Stormtroopers swarmed the pool deck and began questioning suspected rebel spies. Imperial officers arrested my husband. He loved it. I even got a picture with a Gamorrean Guard while he snorted and sniffed at me.

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As a family, we also got time with C3PO, R2D2, Darth Vader, and Chewbacca. And you better believe I got a big ole Wookie hug. We also caught Bobba Fett checking the vitals on Han Solo who was frozen in carbonite. My older son got to play games with BB-8 and Rey in the kids’ area, where he also got to fly a Millenium Falcon simulator and run the command post (and that was just one corner!). Our dinner menu had offerings from different planets across the galaxy, and you could get drinks or snacks served in droids or AT-AT containers. The festivities rounded out with late-night fireworks and a showing of Solo: A Star Wars Story. There was also a dance party, but my dogs were pooped.

There were a ton of events we didn’t even get around to; like Star Wars Pub Trivia (we did make an appearance at Pub Trivia, just not Star Wars trivia). For my parents, especially my stepmom–who loved seeing my boys be so excited, but never really got into Star Wars–there was a Star Wars 101 class so they could get up to speed and know what the heck my kids were talking about.

I met a couple on the elevator in full garb (and they looked fantastic!) who went on the cruise to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary because on their first date they went to see Star Wars together. Y’all. It was adorable. It was fun. It was magic. It was Disney.

I’ll probably have a few more things to say regarding our vacation, but for now, I have to dig my way out of the piles of laundry that came home with us. And bundle up. We’re not in the Caribbean anymore and have a threat (mild though it may be) of snow tonight. I want to go back to the beach. This reality stuff is for the birds.

An Ordinary Fairy Tale

I was reminded of something my husband did for me back when our oldest child was born and wanted to brag on him a little. So today might get a little mushy.

When I was a little girl, my favorite Disney princess was Belle. She was a brunette and a bookworm. And people thought she was a little weird. Y’all. She was my people. I loved singing along with candlesticks and teapots. And it wasn’t weird to me that she was a human woman in love with what was essentially a living stuffed animal. I was little and slept with a teddy bear every night. It made sense to me.

And what made even more sense in my head was that she began to fall in love with Beast after he gave her a big library. A whole library. With ladders. And three-story windows. Fireplaces and comfy chairs. I would live there if I could. Ever since that scene, I have wanted my own library.

Marie Kondo says that I should probably have no more than thirty books. I have no hate for her, truly. But that goes against my dream. I will choose to ignore that advice. I want to live among hoards and mountains of books.

And now I do. Let me back up.

Clearly, I love to read. I always have. However, when I had my first child, I had a hard time fitting in time for anything that I wanted to do just for me. I think all new parents go through that. It can be difficult, no matter how much you love and cherish your child. I remember telling my husband that I didn’t feel like my own person anymore. He was concerned and did his best to be a supportive partner and try to shoulder a little more of the load. But being that he doesn’t have mammary glands, there were certain limitations.

During late night feedings, I often had to find something to occupy my mind (besides the general and ever-present terror that I would never be a good enough mother) to help keep me awake. I would read. While I pumped, I would read. And the more I read, the more I felt like me. This belonged to me. This wasn’t a Mama activity. It was a Kathryn activity.

For my next birthday, my husband gave me a kindle. It was certainly pricier than we usually go for birthday presents, but he wanted me to be able to download books from the library in the middle of the night as I rocked our son. He even got his mom to coordinate gift ideas with him and get me a gift card to buy books from Amazon to start my–wait for it–library.

It wasn’t three-stories tall. It doesn’t have fireplaces (unless I want to use a picture of one as my lock screen). There are no comfy chairs or ladders. But there are hoards and mountains of books. They are digital mountains, but mountains nonetheless.

My husband. He’s my prince. My fairy tale.

Because he gave me a library.

Aspiring to Julia

When I was a little kid, we didn’t get a lot of television channels. More specifically, we got three. Maybe five by the time I was eight. We had one television in the living room that got channels. We had another that was hooked up to the Atari in the “children’s den”–I think this was originally a bedroom of sorts, but we used it as a play area when we had to be out of the way of the adults. In any case, we didn’t watch a lot of TV. I remember a few shows, though. The TGIF line-up stands out. Things like Boy Meets World, Family Matters, Full House, etc.

We didn’t have a remote, so we had to get up to change the channels. This means, as the youngest, I was often told to go change the channel, but rarely had any actual control over what we watched (the exception being when I was allowed to watch Disney movies on VHS). My father and brother preferred the news and sports. My mother and my sisters (pretty much all the women I knew, actually) had a deep devotion to soap operas. General Hospital and All My Children ranked supreme. And both of them had strong, powerful women in the cast. But it was a different show entirely whose strong female lead captivated my attention.

Before I knew what the word politics meant, I was listening to epic political commentary via one Ms. Julia Sugarbaker on Designing Women. I was still young when the show went off the air, but I remember the steel gentility with which Julia would cut down the people who tried to insult or gaslight her. She rarely used anything like a curse word. She could calmly and with great dignity cut someone to the quick with her words. And when she did finally raise her voice, the whole room listened. My father always told me that the art of being Southern was being able to tell someone to go to Hell and make them think they’d enjoy the trip. Julia could do that (looking at you, Ray Don). I loved her for it.

While I haven’t seen the show, except in clips here and there, in years, I’m sure there are problematic aspects of it. I’m certain of it. It was the late 80s and early 90s. Everything was. Most everything still is. But I still feel like I could learn from Julia Sugarbaker.

Someday, I want to be chill enough to be like Sophia Petrillo from Golden Girls. I want to sit around and tell crazy stories, break my friends out of Shady Pines to go to parties at the Senior Center, and laugh at life. But Sophia will have to wait. I still have work to do. Right now, I have to be like Julia. She worked hard, she loved deeply, she held her head high and she put her foot down whenever she had had enough.

On Tuesday I talked about not trying to be like someone else. And I’m not. I’d like to think I have a dash of Julia in me anyway. I think that’s why I loved her. She was a fictional representation of what I had already been taught and what was modeled for me. What I aspire to be.

Someday, Sophia. But today, Julia.

Plotter vs. Pantser

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If you are newer to the writing scene, you might have no idea with either of the words in the title of the posts actually mean. Or maybe you do know, but don’t know which one you are yet. That’s fine. Really.

For those still scratching their heads, a plotter is someone who likes to plot out their story ahead of time. Notes, outlines, character profiles, etc. A pantser has an idea and more or less just sits down in front of the keyboard and starts telling the story. They fly (or write) by the seat of their pants, hence “pantser”.

The first manuscript I ever wrote was a pantser project. I wrote one chapter per week and when I finished one chapter, I usually didn’t know what would happen in the next one. I finished the project, which was good. I proved to myself that I could finish an entire manuscript. It sounds like a small feat until you have to do it.

I didn’t sit down at the keyboard and decide to “pants” the project. I just didn’t know where to start, so I started writing. This works for a lot of people. I know some very talented writers who choose to write this way all the time. There is nothing wrong with it if it works for you. It…didn’t entirely work for me.

My next project, I plotted out a few things. I didn’t make a whole outline or character profiles, but I certainly had an idea of what would happen at the end of the story and all the major plot points that would lead there. A writing partner of mine calls working like that being a “plantser”. That project went better. It didn’t go perfectly, but it went better.

For my next project, I’m doing a lot of plotting. I have a lot of notes. I have character profiles. I have a road map to keep me from getting distracted from, well, the plot. I don’t know if this will improve my writing or decrease the time it takes for me to finish the first draft. Only time will tell. But I want to try it because I’m still trying to figure out what works for me as a writer. I’m experimenting with my process until I find my groove.

Let me know which one you are in the comments!

 

I’ll Have What He’s Having

I have two young sons. The elder of the two is five. The younger is not quite two. And I will readily admit that I learn just as much from them as they do from me. One of the ways I learn from them is to see my own behavior mirrored back at me in undeniable ways and being able to see it from a more objective perspective.

My younger son, though blessed with a very independent personality, is more dependent on me than my five-year-old. Kid #1 is old enough to dress himself, brush his teeth on his own (though not as thoroughly as I prefer so I usually end up helping anyway), carry his own backpack, read, do simple math, etc. Kid #2 desperately wants to do all that, but is still only a year old and has a lot of skills left to master. As you can probably guess, this means Kid #2 gets a lot of attention. I try to make sure I’m fair to Kid #1, but he usually thinks his brother gets more attention than he does. There are some days that he’s probably right.

Whenever Kid #1 begins to feel like he’s getting shorted on his time at center stage, he begins to do things more like his brother does, thinking this will force me to bestow more attention on him in order to help him. He pretends to not know things, like how to talk (which, I assure you, he does well and with a vocabulary far beyond what is expected of someone his age). This always hurts my heart a little and so I talk to him about it. I remind him that while his brother needs help doing a lot of things right now, the truth is that all Kid #2 wants is to be just like Kid #1 in every way. It’s his goal. And while the attention I give Kid #2 is usually to help him learn new skills and achieve new milestones, the attention I give Kid #1 is different. I get to laugh and listen to his abundance of terrible pun jokes. I get to cheer him on while he plays sports or listen to him tell me all about the newest thing he learned by reading a book.  I cherish that. It’s so wonderful that I can’t really describe it. I remind Kid #1 that he’s fun, kind, incredibly intelligent, and imaginative. I tell him he shouldn’t disregard all of that by trying to be more like his younger brother just so he can feel like he’s the star of the show again like he was when he was an only child. I often say, “Don’t throw away what is special about you because you’re trying to be like someone else. Being you will always be more than enough for me.”

And yes, this is a conversation we’ve had a lot. More than I’d like. But I can’t blame him for not being ready to take it to heart. After all, I know plenty of adults (sometimes including me) that struggle with this. In fact, I think we all have those moments where part of us just wants so badly to be like someone else, sometimes anyone else, that we forget about what makes us special to begin with. What makes us unique. What makes us, us.

The next time I give that advice to Kid #2, I’m going to write it on my heart as well. I don’t need to be like anyone else. I just need to be me. And in case you need to hear it, I’m telling it to you too. Don’t throw away what is special about you because you’re trying to be like someone else. You are enough just as you are.

 

10 Things About the History of College Football

Monday night the NCAA College Football National Championship game was played. And, at the risk of sounding like Anna from Frozen, for the first time in forever I didn’t watch. We recently ditched traditional TV service in order to save money. We like to watch live sports, but pretty much everything else we watch is through a streaming service these days anyway. And our internet package affords us access to several big sporting events, so we’re covered for now. We might have to revisit our options before next Fall, but we’ll see. The point is, I could have watched the game, but I didn’t.

It was the same ol’ teams, playing the same ol’ match-up. To be fair, I did read the recap and even get some live updates during the game so I know that it wasn’t actually just “same ole, same ole” all night. But I was very busy and not altogether upset over missing it. That was a new feeling for me. Even when my oldest child was born and I was knee deep in hormone changes, new infant insomnia, and new parent panic I still watched most of the game. Maybe next year.

A lot of my friends, especially the writers I know, have different interests from me. They don’t watch or follow “the sportsball”. Totally fine. I don’t judge. We’re allowed to have different passions. In fact, it means we bring different things to the table. I value that. But I also realize that there has been a lot of talk about using sports and/or holidays to make your fictional world/culture feel more real and true. How are you supposed to build a believable sport when you don’t like sports to begin with? Where do you start?

It might help to start with the history of a game that already exists. Sports didn’t appear out of the ether one day with complete rulebooks and defined playing surfaces. Each game we know and love has evolved in some way or another, and many continue to do so in small ways. Looking at that evolution could be helpful while trying to build a fictional sport. So let’s jump in with some examples.

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10 things about the history of college football (American football, that is).

  1. American Football as we know it today evolved from a game commonly played in Britain called “mob football”. The same game is also the precursor to rugby and was mentioned as far back at the 9th century. Versions of this original game are still played at special events in parts of the United Kingdom.
  2. While mob football became a more organized tradition at Princeton (then the College of New Jersey) first, it was also part of a traditional at Harvard that began in 1827 when the sophomore class challenged the freshmen to a game. This became known as Bloody Monday and was an annual tradition until 1860 when university officials and local police banned it due to violence.
  3. The first intercollegiate game was November 6, 1869 between Rutgers and Princeton. There still wasn’t a formalized set of rules, and the game was often played differently from school to school, so the team captains came together to decide which rules to play by. A round ball was used and the field and number of players were both considerably larger than they are today.
  4. Walter Camp played at Yale in the late 1870s and was instrumental in formalizing the rules. He reduced the accepted number of players per team on the field from 15 to 11 (1880 – though this would officially change once more before returning to eleven), reduced the size of the playing field to the current 120 yards (1881), created the line of scrimmage, and adjusted the scoring rules and points awarded. And for those of you who don’t follow the game and are asking “But I thought the field was only 100 yards,” you aren’t crazy. However, each endzone is ten yards. Two endzones+field of play=120 yards.
  5. Officials were not mandated (or paid) for games until 1887 when two became the requirement. We commonly call them all referees, but that’s not accurate. A referee is only one member of a team of officials who all have different roles. This is true for most sports, but it’s just easier to angrily scream “Hey, REF!” than it is to keep that same angered tone for “Hey, Line Judge!”
  6. The new, more organized game spread from schools in the East, to the Midwest, and then to the South by 1873. It would travel to the Southwest and then the Pacific coast by 1888. However, the game was still very violent by nature and between 1890 and 1905, 330 players died on the field or as a result of their injuries. The game was banned at many colleges around the country. President Theodore Roosevelt, who was a fan of the game and had sons who played, met with leaders from several schools to find a solution. The Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (IAAUS) was the solution. In 1910 it would be retitled the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and is still the governing body over collegiate sports.
  7. As the sport grew in popularity and more schools began to play, groups of schools began to form conferences to better govern the game on more regional levels. The Southeastern Conference (SEC) and the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), the conferences represented in Monday’s game, are both descendants of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association (SIAA). Alabama and Clemson (the two teams from Monday’s game) were both charter members (so was my alma mater, Mississippi State then known as Mississippi A&M). The SIAA boasted the first accepted forward pass, the first game decided by a field goal, some of the first trick plays, John Heisman, and Pop Warner.
  8. While the SIAA claims the first ever forward pass in 1895, the forward pass wasn’t technically legal in the game until 1906. The game sometimes evolved faster than the official rules.
  9. The most lopsided victory in college football history was Georgia Tech over Cumberland in 1916 with a score of 222-0. That’s not a typo.
  10. “Modern Era” college football has more or less been the same since 1958. However, meetings are held each year at both the conference and national levels to discuss rule changes and adjustments and reassess any changes from the previous years. Most of these are minor, but the sport continues to evolve, especially when it comes to player safety.

I’m not going to lie, being both a geek and a sports fan I could keep going on this for a while. Lucky for all of you, this is clearly a “10 Things on the 10th” situation so I must stop. Hopefully, though, this shows you how sports come into being and gives you some ideas for what sports in your fictional world might look like.

And if not then at least you have some new tidbits for your next trivia night. You’re welcome.