Monday, February 20, 2006

The Problem of Evil

Normally I stay away from fundamentalism, whether it's the typical Evangelical Protestant brand or radical-traditionalist and ultra-traditionalist Catholicism. But recently I came across a gem of an article series that I couldn't pass by just because of the writer's other intellectual positions.

The blog's called The American Inquisiton, and in among the railing against the republic is a most interesting set of articles on the portrayal of evil in the media, and particularly in the cinema. It starts with Narnia, and continues through The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, then closes with a final analysis.

Whether or not we agree with the blogger's conclusion that the problems in portraying evil in current films are the result of a loss of a religious sense of sin, as writers we have to take note of the issues he raises that these filmmakers have not adequately established that the antagonists in these films are indeed evil, and the protagonists are indeed justified in the actions they are taking against the antagonists.

As beginning writers we are cautioned against the danger of creating cardboard villains who are purely Eee-vil, without any beleivable motivations. We carefully study methods for giving our villains believable "tragic virtues" that show they are developed characters rather than merely types. Yet do we, in doing so, end up undercutting the sense that they are indeed villains, and end up sending the message that there is no such thing as evil, merely misunderstanding?

Part of the problem is of course the need in visual media such as the cinema and television to shy away from graphic violence in order to gain a rating that will garner the widest range of audiences. In this the novelist has an advantage, for there are many ways to describe atrocities in written media without becoming needlessly graphic, for instance, focusing on the trauma of the survivor, with the actual act kept in the past.

But there still seems to be a noticable misuse of the "tragic virtue," such that "he's not all that bad" becomes a process of excusing the villain's crimes, as though being kind in one area makes it all right to be vicious in others. To take a historical example, the fact that Joseph Stalin did seem to actually love his daughter Svetlana, while it makes him a human being rather than a cardboard cutout, does not diminish the magnitude of his crimes against the peoples of the Soviet Union, whom he murdered by the job-lot in his pursuit of total control.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

On Seizing the Moment

So today I finally get some writing time, and decide to pull out the novel of King Rene XIV of the Swamp Kingdom and his wicked uncle Sebastien the Usurper. I'm figuring that the words are going to just come pouring out, since I know the story so well and it's a pretty straightforward action-adventure fantasy. Not a lot of intricate philosophy or social dance, just the slam-bam of a coup d'etat and a boy king fleeing for his life to another world and teenage allies.

But when I sit down to write, it's a real struggle to get the words flowing. I push out a few sentences, and then I'm wandering around the house before I can sit down and put out a little more. I did manage to turn out almost 1500 words, but I'd been hoping for so much more.

I think it's that old problem of holding in and letting out. After having to hold back so long because of the press of non-fiction deadlines, it's hard to let go and let myself write. There's the pull of multiple other novel and short story projects that all want my attention. But there's also the sense that I ought to be doing something else. I do have two other article projects, even if I don't have the right books for either of them right now. And this house is anything but spotless and ready for the realtor to show Right This Minute, so there's the guilty sense that I Really Ought to be busily cleaning and getting it Just Perfect.

All of which makes it difficult for me to make the best use of this wonderful chunk of time that suddenly presents itself for me to use. It's so frustrating to produce so little, when there's so much to be told and so dreadfully little time.

Friday, February 03, 2006

The Perfect Stranger Problem Again

As I'm forging ahead on The Crowns of the Martyrs, I'm realizing how completely ad intra a novel it is. That is, it's a novel set almost entirely within the halls of the Catholic Church, dealing with its people and politics. Unlike the other novels like Cloak and Shadow, there's not the strong element of interaction with members of other traditions, both Christian and non-Christian, and particularly the Independent Churches of Christ and Christian Churches of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, my own religious background.

Since I'm not Catholic, I suddenly have to confront the question of whether I should be writing this book, or if it's a form of trespass. In Cloak and Shadow, the strong role of Paige McFarland and her Restoration-Movement faith as seen through Jan-Pawel's Catholic perspective becomes a form of "how others see us," a chance for reflection. However, there just isn't going to be that element in The Crowns of the Martyrs, due to its focus on internal Catholic Church politics.

On the other hand, The Crowns of the Martyrs is going to be near the end of the Jan-Pawel Trzetrzelewski sequence, so by the time it comes out (assuming any of this stuff ever gets published), my ecumenical credentials should be well established. However, each novel really needs to stand on its own merits, since there's no guarantee that any given reader will have read any of the previous books.

In the meantime, I keep writing, even as I consider the issues. I do my best to handle the material respectfully, with the same sort of consideration and reverence I'd want my own faith given by others.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006


As I'm working on the novel of Jan-Pawel Trzetrzelewski and the massacre at the consistory (tentative working title either The Martyrs' Crowns or The Crowns of the Martyrs), I'm becoming steadily more convinced that my original plan for the first two chapters is faulty. Instead of having Jan-Pawel appear in the second scene of the first chapter, I'm thinking it's best to delay it until the beginning of the second chapter. This will permit the first chapter to deal entirely with the political maneuvering that makes possible the massacre, and will connect Jan-Pawel's entry with the next scene, in which he's introduced to Siloan. This way it will flow better, instead of moving in jerks.

However, I'm not entirely satisfied that delaying Jan-Pawel's appearance until the second chapter is really that good of an idea. Most of the important characters who are now appearing in Chapter 1 will be killed when the ninjas strike, and play no role in the subsequent conclave. On one hand, it's possible that the massacre is well enough into the novel that their deaths will mean all the more, but on the other, it's possible that readers will feel cheated to lose what seemed to be significant characters midway through the novel, and may not realize that Jan-Pawel, along with Eigun Eiderveyen, is the principal protagonist.

Of course this may be just another case in which I really need to write the whole novel and see where it's going before I can get a real feel for what needs to be done.