‘The Promised Neverland’: Finding Freedom In A Demon-Haunted World

Life looks good for the children of Grace Field House, but then two children see behind the curtains.
Audie Thacker | Jun 18, 2019 | 10 comments |

Life is good for the nearly forty orphans of Grace Field House.

They have a large, nice house to live in. They have plenty of good food to eat. Their clothes are nice—though all of the same white color—and they all get along like one big happy family!

Of course, they’ve not left the grounds since coming there when they were infants. And they have a few rules, such as to never go near the gate, and never cross over the low wall that surrounds the property. But the grounds are large and give them lots of room to run around in the woods, playing games like tag. Above all, their caregiver Isabella, whom they lovingly call Momma, clearly loves all of them and does all she can to make sure they are happy and healthy.

They don’t even have to worry about school! Still, they do have tests they must take. But they have plenty of books to help them study. And Momma is very happy that the house has three older children who consistently make perfect scores on these test: Norman, a calm and very intelligent boy; Ray, a boy who reads a lot and is quieter personality than most of the other children; and Emma, whose warm and bright personality makes her like a big sister to the younger children.

Every few months, one of the children gets adopted. On the day this story begins, a little girl named Connie is leaving in the evening to meet her new family. Her departure is filled with happiness for her getting a family and sadness that she’s leaving. After Momma has walked Connie to the gate, Emma finds she’s left behind her much-beloved stuffed bunny toy, so she and Norman decide to bend the rules a little and go to the gate to return her toy before she leaves. They find the gate open, go into the gateway, and . . .

And what looks to be a happy, cheerful little show about carefree children turns into something much, much, very much different.

How bad do you really, really want it?1

After learning what’s really going on at Grace Field House, Norman, Emma, and Ray begin making plans to escape. Though this part of the story offers a lot of tension, their plans seems to coming along.

Then, things go very wrong, very quickly.

One thing the story does well is challenge the main characters. How badly do they want to be free? As escape looks impossible and their opponents appear to be in total control. These kids who have lived essentially soft and cushy lives must put half-baked plans and half-measures behind them. Otherwise, they must resign their hope of escape and accept their fate.

Finding freedom

Grace Field House is not a nightmare orphanage from a Dickens story. It’s a bright and cheerful place where the children live carefree lives together, almost as a family. They have few worries, all their needs are met, though they take tests no one is bothering them about getting to school and doing their homework. In short, they live lives that would be the envy of many people in the real world.

There is just the one little problem: instead of being adopted, they will be killed and eaten by demons. (But we should note that these “demons” are not spiritual beings.)

Here’s a bit of an excerpt from Christless Christianity that may be helpful here:

What would things look like if Satan really took control of a city? Over a half century ago, Presbyterian minister Donald Grey Barnhouse offered his own scenario in his weekly sermon that was also broadcast nationwide on CBS radio. Barnhouse speculated that if Satan took over Philadelphia, all of the bars would be closed, pornography banished, and pristine streets would be filled with tidy pedestrians who smiled at each other. There would be no swearing. The children would say, “Yes, sir” and “No, ma’am,” and the churches would be full every Sunday … where Christ is not preached.2

The manga for The Promised Neverland is well past were the anime has ended. Without spoiling the story, we can note that the main characters have learned there are other place where humans are being raised as food for the demons—and many of those places are much worse than Grace Field House.

We may think about places in this world where life is difficult, with poverty, war, oppression, or corruption. We may think of those places as being something like “hell on earth.” That may not be an unfair evaluation. But we still find warnings in the Bible, in such places as Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus, or his parable of the farmer who built barns to hold all his crops. Here, Jesus warns that there is also danger in the life of ease and plenty.

Because, whether any individual’s road is rough or smooth, those roads would lead to the same outcome—Hell.

In our demon-haunted world, we cannot escape our condition on our own, no matter how drastic the measures any of us may take. Only God can rescue us, only Christ could die as the sacrifice for our sins, and where our own efforts are worthless, only faith in Christ is required for this rescue.

Conclusion

This is a series worth giving a shot. If you do give it a try, though, you may want to keep your RPG dice at hand. That’s because, as you watch it, there will be times you will need to roll for damage.

So far, there’s been only one season, but it’s been announced that the series will continue in 2020. Just be ready for a wild ride.

  1. Apologies for the title of this section, which is rather like a mad scientist’s mutation of Don Henley and The Spice Girls.
  2. Michael Horton, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church, page 15.

Awards Season Around The Corner

It’s always good to take a look at books that have won awards or those that others thought were at the top of the list.
| Jun 17, 2019 | No comments |

As is usual, late summer seems to start a variety of awards for fiction. Some nonfiction, too, but I’m more aware of and concerned about fiction awards, specifically speculative fiction. Consequently, I thought it might be helpful to alert spec faith visitors which books are up for award. It’s always good, in my opinion, to take a look at books that others thought were at the top of the list.

Realm Makers actually has two different kinds of awards. First is the type that is similar to other award organizations, only the categories involve speculative titles. Here are the three finalists for the Realm Awards—“among the best speculative titles published in 2018”—which will be presented during the Realm Makers Conference dinner:

Debut

The Story Peddler by Lindsay Franklin
Launch by Jason Joyner
Identity Revealed by J. M. Butler

Fantasy

Seeds: A Christian Fantasy by Rachel Starr Thomson
Dagger’s Sleep by Tricia Mingerink
Fierian by Ronie Kendig

Science Fiction

Through Chaos by Joshua A. Johnston
Fraught by Kerry Nietz
No Road Among the Stars by A. Walker Scott

Supernatural/Paranormal/Horror/Other

Shade: The Complete Trilogy by Merrie Destefano
The Breeding by Avily Jerome
Forsaken by Gina Detwiler

Young Adult

The Story Peddler by Lindsay Franklin
Launch by Jason Joyner
The Wolf Prince by Claire Banschbach

The other type of award is The Alliance Award, a readers’ choice award given for the best book. Here are the finalists:

The Story Peddler by Lindsay Franklin
Fawkes by Nadine Brandes
Mark of the Raven by Morgan Busse

The website also references the Parable Award, recognizing the best book cover of the year. Unfortunately I couldn’t find a list of finalists there or on the Facebook page. Hopefully we’ll be able to announce the winner after the awards dinner, July 19, so stay tuned.

Of course there are many other awards that include speculative fiction. The American Christian Fiction Writers organization offers the Carol Awards while the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association presents the Christy Awards. Both have categories for speculative literature—the former called Speculative and the latter, Visionary. Apparently the finalists in those have not yet been announced.

Other awards are available from various conferences:
Oregon Christian Conference offers the Cascade Awards. The category is Speculative and the awards will be presented at the conference in August. The finalists are
The Ruins of Jienrenil: Helkrom by Randall Rutherford
Konnor the Collector by Pat Schantz
Quest of the Queen by Dawn Shipman

The Blue Ridge Mountains Writers Conference offers the Selah Award. The finalists in the speculative category this year were
Mark of the Raven by Morgan L. Busse (Bethany House/Baker)
Sky Light Falls by Donna E. Lane (Bear’s Place Publishing)
The Revolutionary by Kristen Hogrefe (Write Integrity Press)

The winner, announced last month at the Blue Ridge conference, was Mark of the Raven.

There are undoubtedly other awards and I hate to present an incomplete picture, but I hope this list will start readers thinking about the books that are out there which you could add to your summer reading, ones that have at least reached the finals stage, which means someone has judged them—either professionals in the writing industry or readers, who may be the best judges of all.

Does Family Enhance Female Heroes?

Was Mark Carver’s post on Speculative Faith yesterday right about a need to have more families with children in speculative fiction? In particular, would children benefit female heroes?
| Jun 13, 2019 | 55 comments |

The title of this post may get at least a few people upset, because it may smack of “patriarchy” to some, but my conclusion may not be quite what you’d expect. Note I changed what I planned to post today based on looking at what Mark Carver wrote yesterday (not for the first time). His post on Those Meddling Kids points out that families with children are often excluded from speculative fiction, some exceptions notwithstanding. And he’s right that while there are plenty of stories that feature child protagonists like Harry Potter and even Narnia (and teen protagonists in The Hunger Games etc.) and plenty of stories that feature adult protagonists who are married (though I’d say single protagonists are more common), a family of adults and children together is a relative rarity in speculative fiction, outliers like Lost in Space notwithstanding. No doubt there are loads of reasons this is true, but it occurs to me that separating kids from adults in fiction cheats characters from certain types of important interactions that may especially help female protagonists. Or at least some great speculative fiction stories have featured women bearing children and protecting them as major aspects of the story–and perhaps more stories should do so.

Why would the issue of having children be important especially to female characters? Well, in spite of living in an era in which more and more often the tiny, tiny minority of people who arguably could be either gender are treated as if they are role models for everyone, as if everyone could either be male or female according to inner desires and not according to biology (most people are clearly born either male or female, in spite of rare cases of congenital hermaphroditic conditions), women are different from men in that a woman with a healthy reproductive system can bear children, something no biological male can ever do. That’s a pretty significant difference and has profoundly affected the reasons why men have been warriors in many societies and women have not been–bearing and breastfeeding children takes a toll on a human body and raising kids takes decades of effort. So while most families in human history have worked a family business or farm in which dad, mom, and all the kids worked together most of the time, when a war came around, the men left and the women stayed behind. That system wasn’t deliberate oppression of women for the most part, it just was practical–somebody had to be at home and the one with the attached milk bottles was clearly the better choice if babies were in the house, as they usually were for men young enough to fight in combat. Even in societies in which women served as warriors (like the historic Sarmatians), women with children fought less often than women without children.

And most societies traditionally found stories of warriors more interesting that stories of ordinary life, including ordinary family life. We carry this notion of what makes an interesting story with us today, especially in speculative fiction. Hence the interest in women warriors in our genres on the part of people wanting to equalize the playing field between men and women. Because fighting in war has been a “male privilege” and we want to see women who fight! Such as in superhero stories, with more and more women in battle scenes!

From Avengers Endgame. Image Copyright, Marvel.

I happen to think warfare is a lot less fun in the real world that in fiction and am rather against the notion of pretending the use of force (even morally justified force) is something other than what it is. But I’m not against portraying women in combat in fiction, nor am I against women fighting in combat in the real world who able to perform physically at a high enough level, which does happen, but represents abilities only a minority of women are capable of. Nor am I against portraying alien species in which the relationship between male and female is different from our own so that the females may be the stronger gender (this works especially well with egg-laying species on Planet Earth), even though I’m opposed to the notion that gender in human beings does not almost always have an obvious biological basis.  I think implying women can be men or vice versa is a bad idea, yet I’m not opposed to portraying women who are in a situation which allows them to fight.

Though instead of a story in which women voluntarily are allowed to fight alongside men, I think stories in which women are required to fight because they need to are more compelling. This is where inclusion of children benefits speculative fiction stories. Because generally speaking, women will fight for the lives of their children with an urgency unlike any other form of warfare.

Speculative fiction has already done this at times. While Ripley is an interesting character in Alien, where she winds up fighting a monster to save her own life and the lives of her crew, she’s even more interesting in Aliens, in which she’s fighting for her surrogate daughter, Newt. In that story, you would not have been able to substitute a male character in her position and get the same urgency, the same resonance and power, especially given Ripley fights the alien mother queen (which had clear parallels to queen ants and queen bees). And other alien movies played around with the idea of Ripley as the mother to the alien and what that would mean–even though those movies were not as good, you could not have put a male character in that position.

Image copyright: Twentieth Century Fox

The Terminator films likewise cast Sarah Connor as an ordinary woman who becomes extraordinary because of fighting (and preparing to fight) for the life of her son, John Connor. The character’s role as a mother was an essential part of what made her a warrior and fighter. (Terminator 2 was notably one of the speculative fiction films in which a child and parent worked together, even though the film kept them separated a great deal of the time.)

I recently watched a film made for Netflix named I Am Mother, which featured a female-voiced artificial intelligence/robot raising a girl as her daughter in post-apocalyptic environment (I originally planned to post on this movie, by the way). It’s an interesting story in part because of what it does and does not say about motherhood. I won’t say a lot more about it here, but the three main characters in the tale are all women, which was totally natural in the context of the story world. (I do recommend this movie by the way–I found it thought-provoking.)

While this post must at this point surely seem to be making a straight line argument in favor of writing women heroes who have to fight to defend their children, I’m about to deviate a bit. The Road showed a post-apocalyptic world in which a father rather than a mother fought for his son. And I would say the story was more powerful for the inclusion of a child, much more, than if it had been the story of a single man trying to stay alive in a world where everything had gone wrong.

So maybe Mark was right in his focus and I started off on the wrong track. Maybe the inclusion of parents in stories who are desperately afraid for the lives of their children is the phenomenon I’m talking about. I’ve seen more stories with women written in this position than stories with men made that way, but male characters can and do resonate when fighting for the lives of their children, especially when the man has been shown to be vulnerable, as The Road did well. (How nice of me to recommend The Road in time for Father’s Day. 🙂 )

Father and son in The Road. Image Copyright: Dimension Films

As I write this, I realize a reason why so many of the minority of stories that feature children don’t do what I’m talking about. While The Incredibles was lots of fun, a story that features parents with their children is much more powerful if the children are in serious danger, as opposed to cartoon danger. And generally speaking, writers and film producers have been reluctant to create fiction dark enough to give readers (or a viewing audience) the sense of the character’s terror that their child is about to suffer a horrible death. The Road did it and so did Aliens–and I recommend we do the same.

We Christian authors should not only write more stories that feature children, but more stories in which the children are in mortal peril, real danger, provoking real parental terror. Because while Christian-authored stories can be light reading for the whole family, they can also show real rescue from a providential God in times of genuine, terrible fear over the vulnerabilities of children. By the way, Lelia Rose Foreman’s Pacifist War (part of her Shatterworld trilogy) manages to capture that fear–which is part of what makes it a such great story.

What are your thoughts on this topic, readers? Do you agree that Christian authors would do well to include more families in which parents have to fight to save their children’s lives? If you enjoy these kinds of stories, are there examples I failed to include?

Those Meddling Kids

It takes just a quick glance at movies, TV shows, and books to realize that our entertainment is packed with attractive and unmarried characters, and a good portion of those that are married look and act like they aren’t married. […]
| Jun 12, 2019 | 23 comments |

It takes just a quick glance at movies, TV shows, and books to realize that our entertainment is packed with attractive and unmarried characters, and a good portion of those that are married look and act like they aren’t married. Fictitious families usually have one or two children, and the only times we see large families are either for comic effect or to provide a challenge for our middle-sibling protagonists to overcome. Depictions of marriage and family vary by genre (you’ll find a lot more husbands, wives, and kids in Western and Amish stories) but it’s interesting to observe how rarely families show up in speculative fiction.

Fantasy, with its medieval roots and settings, naturally has more instances of families featuring prominently in the story, either as the fertile soil from which our hero springs or as a tangled web of secrets and lies, especially if the story centers around a royal family. In quest-based fantasy, our marrying-age hero or heroine is usually still single or must rescue their kidnapped love. Rarely do we see our intrepid traveler leave a wife and children behind to go on their epic quest, and this is for a number of reasons. One, it’s not very realistic (as far as fantasy goes). A man or a woman with a family to care for would not go on a quest unless the survival of the family depended on it, and there are usually more capable and less married people around to do the job instead. Two, it wouldn’t sit well with readers if a spouse and parent left their family in pursuit of the Scroll of Destiny as the Prophecy Foretold. It would be hard to generate sympathy for such a character, especially from readers with families of their own. Three, families are a mental, physical, and emotion burden. A joyous burden but a burden nonetheless. An unattached protagonist is much easier to read and write since they are able to devote themselves to the cause at hand.

Science fiction goes even further. I would have to think long and hard to recall a sci-fi story or movie where a large family was central to the storyline (I’m sure some of you could come with some examples, though). Lost in Space is one of the few instances of where a family remains together for the duration of the series. By and large, the people hurtling through space are either unattached or have left loved ones behind, but these tangential characters exist only to elicit empathic emotions from the audience (and to cry when their intrepid parent nobly sacrifices themselves).

The bottom line is that kids (and to a lesser degree, spouses) get in the way of a good story, or at least that’s the popular perception. Turn on a movie or TV show and take a look at the characters on the screen and ask yourself if these people would be single and/or childless in real life. I believe that as entertainment consumes greater amounts of our time – and we fashion our lives into entertainment thanks to social media – marriage, children, and families are being perceived in an increasingly negative light. The young, hot, wealthy Instagram influencer is able to live that way because she is unmarried and has no children. She is carefree and stretch mark-free. Contrast that with “mommy blogs” where stressed-out moms seek guidance and support to make it through their hectic days. A society that craves the perfect body and the drool-worthy backdrop looks at family life and says, “Ew.” They see how children consume the lives of parents and think of kids as a ball and chain.

This viewpoint naturally features heavily in our entertainment, especially futuristic stories. Granted, it’s hard to have action-packed adventures when you have half a dozen hungry mouths to feed, and single people have often been the heroes of stories since ages past. Yet it’s clear that this antagonistic attitude towards traditional families and children goes beyond entertainment. We see women “shouting their abortions” and hits like The Handmaid’s Tale stirring up imagined persecution complexes, while children are exposed to gay marriage as young as elementary school. At its core, this sentiment is based on hatred of God and His word. The Bible says, “Male and female He created them,” and the world says, “We’ll see about that.” The Bible says, “A man shall cleave to his wife,” and the world says, “Boring!” The Bible says, “Be fruitful and multiply,” and the world says, “And miss out on all the fun?!”

Even among Christians, not everyone will get married, and not everyone will have children. And yes, children would be a bit of an encumbrance in many stories. But despite what we see on the page and screen, marriage and parenthood is a wild and exciting journey, and above all, a blessing from God.

Get a Glimpse of Lorehaven’s Summer 2019 Issue, Which Arrives Next Month

Coming in Lorehaven’s next issue: novelist Shawn Smucker with “Light from Distant Stars,” plus 12 more book reviews.
| Jun 11, 2019 | 1 comment |

My battle for survival in May 2019 is over. The battle to release the next issue of—

Oh, nah, it’s not a battle. Not really, not to finish Lorehaven magazine‘s sixth issue. Not with so many fantastic folks exploring, advertising, and sharing stories for review in this free-to-subscribe publication.

We’re still in the editing process. But I can reveal some of what Lorehaven magazine‘s summer issue will showcase:

Cover author

We interview novelist Shawn Smucker. He wrote the award-winning The Day the Angels Fell and The Edge of Over There. Such fantastic themes. I really enjoyed our conversation.

Featured review

Smucker’s newest novel, Light from Distant Stars. This book is a bit different from the Christian-made fantasy you might expect. It’s a late-coming-of-age, suspense story with a murder mystery, magical realism, and lots of family conflict.

Sponsored review

Don’t look now, but we might also have one other feature-length sponsored review–name and author to be announced.

Book reviews

Once more, we found the best in new, Christian-made, excellently written fantastical novels.

(“Review mine!” cry the authors among us. Sure, we’ll consider it; just share your story here. Even better, sponsor a print or online advertisement! We’re taking this magazine into new frontiers for Christian fantasy creators.)

Fanservants articles

Paeter Frandsen explores how God’s “creative writers,” who wrote the biblical book of Psalms, help give fans divine instruction and inspiration.

Marian Jacobs shares several great ways that parents can graciously guard against sexual content that slinks in the pages of some young-adult novels.

More potential voice(s) for the Fanservants section to be announced . . .

Lorehaven beyond

We’re preparing to showcase the magazine, including all six issues to date, at next month’s Realm Makers conference.

Please pray for an improved chance for Christian fantasy book clubs, growing from the Lorehaven Book Clubs online group into reality (at least in Austin, Texas!).

Next year’s conferences will be even more interesting. After all, we’ll have not only magazines but a whole book to offer, come spring. Just today I learned the (very potential) release date for my upcoming book (with two coauthors). Watch this space for updates.

Further up and further in!

Stephen

Characters And Their Development: From The Writers’ Tool Chest

Characters make the story, even in speculative fiction. For all our intriguing Other Places, readers still read because they care about the characters.

So often writers of speculative fiction focus on worldbuilding, and rightfully so. When a story takes place in outer space or on a planet far, far away, or in a pretend world, or in our world in a future time, the world the author creates must be realistic, believable, textured. But the truth is, characters still make the story, even in our imagined worlds.

For all our intriguing Other Places, readers still read because they care about the characters. I wrote about this nearly three years ago, particularly addressing the way Christian writers portray non-Christian characters. But in truth we need to deepen our understanding of how to develop all our characters.

Here is an excerpt from Power Elements Of Character Development which introduces this topic of developing our characters:

Fundamental to any good novel is a good character, but what makes a character “good”?
When I first started writing, I had a story in mind, and my characters were almost incidentals. Since then, I’ve learned how flat such a story is. Characters make readers care about the events that happen, but in turn, the events are the testing grounds which allow characters to grow.

So which comes first? I believe that’s an immaterial question. A good story must have both a good plot and good characters—the non-flat kind.

In developing main characters, a writer needs to give each something he wants and something he needs. The “want” is generally outside him (to destroy the One Ring, to marry Ashley Wilkes, to escape the Safe Lands), and the need is that internal thing that drives him (to find purpose, to do the right thing, to be loved). The internal may not be something the character is aware of consciously. For example, in Jonathan Rogers’s excellent middle grade novel The Charlatan’s Boy, young orphaned Grady doesn’t go around saying, I need to be loved and accepted, but the reader fairly quickly understands this about him.

Secondly, having given the protagonist a want and need, the author must also put him on a path to gain what he wants. However, as the story moves forward, this initial want may change. If the character wants to reach point A, he may discover upon arrival that his need is not met, so he now sets out to reach point B. Or, along the way he may realize that he only thought he wanted A, but in actuality wants B; consequently, he abandons the quest for A and aims for B.

Another important aspect of character development is the increase of a character’s self-awareness. The protagonist should have strengths and weaknesses, and as the story progresses, his understanding of how to use his strengths and/or change his weaknesses should expand.

Fourth, the character should make progress, both in achieving what he wants and acquiring what he needs. Yet success can’t come too easily or there really is no story. But to make no progress defeats the character, and the reader, dyeing the story in hopelessness.

Notice that all these first character development points have little to do with hair style or eye color. Often those are the things writers settle on as the most important when they start putting a character together. Is he tall? Does he like football? Is she a shopper?

Those things are secondary to the wants/needs understanding. If a character like Grady wants to be loved, then how does that affect his choices—his aspirations, the way he dresses, what he does with the hours in his day, the type of job he seeks, and so on.

Part of understanding these aspects of the character depends on the personality of this individual. Is he a “can do” sort, so he looks at obstacles as challenges, or is he burdened by his wants and needs, fighting to keep from despair?

Notice that in either instance, the character is fighting. In contrast, a character who takes a passive approach to life as opposed to taking action, is not someone readers will connect with easily.

One more important element—a writer needs to think of his character as an individual. What are the quirks that he has that no one else has? Or the gestures, the speech patterns, the thinking style?

Know your character, inside and out. Then put him in any circumstance you wish, and you will know what he will do. Someone as spacey as your character would do something silly when the pressure’s on. Someone shy and retiring would never make herself a spectacle but would probably have a favorite get-away spot where she hides from the world.

Throughout the story, authors test their characters and grow them and change them so that in the end they do more than even they thought possible.

Photo credit: toolboxes by Susan Holt Simpson on Unsplash

Against the Tragic Villain Backstory

I’m mostly against the tragic villain backstory as a storytelling device. Let me tell you why.
| Jun 6, 2019 | 20 comments |

Ming the Merciless. Image Credit: Villains Wiki.

Once upon a time in speculative fiction (say in the heyday of Flash Gordon, first published in 1934), most storytellers wrote as if good was good and evil was evil. Writers might use speculative fiction to explore the nature of good and evil by attempting to distill the purest imaginable form of each and set them at war with one another (which is arguably one of the great achievements of The Lord of the Rings) but nobody had to explain why the villain was villainous–Sauron and Ming the Merciless were just bad, period. That “once upon a time” has mostly disappeared–villainous characters today are often given sympathetic backstory treatment which explains how they suffered some form of tragic circumstance which transformed them into the evil being they became. And it happens to be that I’m mostly against the tragic villain backstory as a storytelling device. I’m about to tell you why.

First let me give some credit where credit is due. In some of the old tales of speculative fiction, good and evil were often distilled out to the point where they became…well…really corny. The villainous laugh of the over-the-top baddie not only is a bit silly, it really hasn’t been all that common among historical bad guys (though if, say, Ivan the Terrible were to be laughing at you, you could be sure that you were in deep, deep, deep, deep trouble–so villainous laughter really has been “a thing” sometimes). Plus, isn’t it actually true that most people are a blend of good and evil impulses? Isn’t it fascinating to see a character who exemplifies both virtuous traits like courage and charisma while at the same time being a heartless butcher and abuser of oppressed people? (I’m thinking of you, Gul Dukat, Star Trek Deep Space Nine.)

Gul Dukat
Image Copyright: CBS

Yeah, in many ways, storytelling has become richer in certain aspects by exploring people who are shades of gray and by showing how circumstances can lead a person to switch from one side of the equation to the other…though even the cheesy Flash Gordon stories occasionally showed a good character tempted by evil or a bad character helping someone good. And The Lord of the Rings did this very well at times, showing dividing lines between good and evil in complex ways in places within the narrative, including how Frodo was drawn to evil by the power of the Ring, while Gollum was drawn back the other way.

So my objection to the modern villain’s tragic backstory is not that I’m protesting “gray” characters–at times such characters are very interesting (though I also like good and evil in purer versions at times, too). Nor am I objecting to characters shifting over time in either the direction of evil or the direction of good.

I am a bit put off by the presumption that people are by default good and something needs to happen to make them bad that I see in a tragic villain backstory. No, people in my belief and observation generally have both altruistic and also selfish impulses and while that doesn’t make everyone literally totally depraved (as in Five Point Calvinism) that does make all people helpless to expunge themselves of every form of selfishness by self-effort. People can get better by effort of will, but cannot get all the way good. You can find some few human beings in history who show nothing but utter contempt for other humans at all times, even though that’s quite rare. But I cannot think of any human being who has always been completely altruistic in all moments of life, not even Mother Theresa. In general, human beings round down to bad rather than up to good and in fact someone being a very good person requires a great deal of education and modeling of the example of others, not to mention an extra helping of natural empathy. All things considered, I would say that someone being very good requires more of a story explanation than someone being very bad–though getting this wrong is not what bothers me most about the tragic villain backstory.

What I most find offensive about a tale like Oz, The Great and Powerful, which shows the Wicked Witch of the West becoming evil because of romantic jealously, or Maleficent, which shows the wicked sorceress turn bad because of the a love interest who dies, or the recent Joker movie, which shows the villain (played by Joaquin Phoenix) as an emotionally fragile misfit who turns dark due to a series of slights and misfortunes, is the role these stories assign suffering. Suffering, hardship, something going wrong, someone abusing you–this is what these movies portray as producing evil.

Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker.
Image Credit: GeekTyrant

Why do I find that offensive? Well, not only because I have a rather tragic backstory myself in some ways (and I’m pretty sure I’m not a supervillain), but some of the greatest of all heroes are suffering heroes. Suffering can be the ultimate demonstration of love–Jesus Christ carrying the cross to the place of the skull–Frodo carrying the Ring up the slopes of Mount Doom–both barely able to move under the weight of their burden. Suffering can also deepen empathy and teach someone who never really had any tragic experiences how hard life is for some who walks in different shoes.

Suffering often drives people towards faith in God–many of the poorest and most suffering people in the world are also the most devoted to God, and often are very genuinely kind and gracious people. Yes, rough neighborhoods produce thugs, too, and poor countries can also be violent ones. Yes, sometimes suffering really does seem to harden people and make them worse than they otherwise would be. Yet passing through a great deal of suffering isn’t the most common profile of the scariest people who have ever lived on Planet Earth.

The scariest people on the planet are those willing to make others suffer, while avoiding all forms of hardship themselves. Yes, sometimes this sort of person is born into a rough neighborhood and looks around and notices that joining up with bad men will help protect him from harm–and he is willing to be cruel to others in order to avoid suffering hardship himself (using masculine pronouns because it’s almost always men who fall into this particular pattern of behavior).

But sometimes the worst of the worst are born into privilege and start life with inordinate power. Not having ever deeply suffered themselves, they view the suffering of others with contempt. Caligula and Nero grew up with this kind of power–and grew up in utter indifference to the hardship of others. Ivan the Terrible likewise, while he did suffer hardship and loss at times, was raised to believe he literally represented God on Earth. He believed for a time that he could do no wrong–he believed he was different from all other human beings–and that the lives and needs of other people were not as important as his wants, needs, and desires. Plus of course, some of the worst of the worst not only are poorly raised to see themselves as the center of the universe, they also lack natural empathy for a variety of reasons.

Ivan IV (the Terrible) of Russia. Forensic facial reconstruction by M.Gerasimov.

Note that I’m offering an opinion here about the true nature of evil, but I think it’s a solid one. The wickedness within the human heart springs forth far more when people are handed the power to damage others than when a person is helpless before the cruelty of other human beings. Helpless, suffering people may indeed become bitter and lash back, but normally, it’s those who are not themselves suffering, in an environment where suffering is commonplace, who have something to gain from making others hurt, who show the true depths of wickedness that our species is capable of.

Can I back up my opinion with science? To a degree, yes. Scientific studies on the nature of evil in general would be unethical, but one of the major ones that has taken place, the Stanford Prison Experiment conducted by Philip Zombardo in 1971, in which students were divided into two randomly-selected groups, one of which were prisoners and the other, prison guards, showed those in power turning sinister, not those suffering. Philip Zombardo in fact sees evil strictly in terms of this kind of environment of power imbalance as he explains in his book The Lucifer EffectI disagree with him about that, because I see evil having multiple causes, but I do agree that an environment where people are given inordinate power over others who are suffering does far more to produce villains than people going through hardship themselves.

Historical events also have demonstrated how the seeds of evil in the human heart (through sin) sprout and grow in an environment of unlimited power over the lives of others. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn noted in his books on Soviet prison camps, The Gulag Archipelago, how guards in power routinely performed evil actions–though he also saw that an ideology justifying cruelty made people worse than power alone:

“The imagination and spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology. Ideology – that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others’ eyes…. That was how the agents of the Inquisition fortified their wills: by invoking Christianity; the conquerors of foreign lands, by extolling the grandeur of their Motherland; the colonizers, by civilization; the Nazis, by race; and the Jacobins (early and late), by equality, brotherhood, and the happiness of future generations…”— The Gulag Archipelago, Chapter 4, p. 173

But concerning his own suffering in the Gulag, Solzhenitsyn said: “Bless you prison, bless you for being in my life. For there, lying upon the rotting prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity as we are made to believe, but the maturity of the human soul.”

So if we as authors wish to portray ordinary people (commonly considered good, though they aren’t entirely) becoming blatantly evil because of circumstances, let’s pick the right circumstances. Tragedy and suffering are often ennobling. Whereas power over others made worse when backed by an ideology that justifies treating others cruelly–that is the sort of backstory that routinely cranks out villains. Not tragic events, not suffering and loss–not usually.

A Vulnerable Technique

Flashbacks possess a special nature, generally inclined to be awkward.
| Jun 5, 2019 | 4 comments |

When you had to write in school, you were probably placed under certain all-encompassing bans. “Never use the first-person” is a perennial favorite among teachers. I once had a respected professor who instructed students not to use semicolons. Now, the semicolon is a perfectly legitimate punctuation mark and has been put to many venerable uses. I believe my old professor banned it because so many people were prone to use it badly it was better that no one use it at all.

Many of the “Nevers” in writing are drawn up along a similar principle: Almost nobody does it right, so nobody should do it. Adjectives are an oft-targeted victim of this kind of reasoning. Another technique vulnerable to it is flashbacks, our topic of the day. Flashbacks possess a special nature, generally inclined to be awkward. They are written like narrative, but they are not narrative. Flashbacks disrupt the story, breaking up the flow and momentum of events to reprise old news. I have seen them done well, but I have also seen them done with extraordinary badness. Not all authors appreciate the nature or the purpose of the technique.

Two rules may be applied to the use of flashbacks. First, flashbacks must be relevant. A good way to think of this is that flashbacks must be revelatory of the story and not of the characters. What ought to be revealed of your characters can be revealed through the narrative proper: through their present talk, actions, thoughts. You might have constructed an entirely fascinating backstory, but you are telling a different story. Your story is in the present. The past throws light on the present, but the present throws light on people. There is no need of flashbacks to tell us about your characters.

Once I read a sci-fi novel that made excellent use of flashbacks. Very brief chapters, sprinkled among the narrative and set apart by italics, gave snapshots of the past. But these snapshots were keys to the story. They explained the nature of the present struggle, put forward mystery, foreshadowed the final revelation of villainy. Like all good flashbacks, they were dedicated to the story.

The second rule is that flashbacks must be brief. Again, flashbacks break the flow of the story, and for that reason they must be employed sparingly. Even if the flashbacks are genuinely interesting, people will become frustrated and impatient if the story is continually interrupted for field trips to the past. Flashbacks can spice up a story, but they should never be a main ingredient. Neither are they, in prodigious measure, likely to be altogether relevant. In the rare event that a prodigious measure is necessary, it is possible that you are starting the story in the wrong place.

The things people warn you about when you write fiction can generally be done. They just have to be done carefully. Flashbacks have been used to great effect, and you should always feel free to use them yourself. Only remember that they break the narrative and so must be very relevant and always brief.

Mission Report, May 2019, Realm Makers Bookstore in Orlando and Columbus

This year so far, Realm Makers Bookstore has sold about 2,500 Christian-made fantastical books to eager readers across America.
| Jun 4, 2019 | 1 comment |

This year, fans of Christian-made fantastical novels have more proof than ever that these books can find eager readers.

To be exact, we have nearly 2,500 reasons. That’s the number of books sold by Realm Makers Bookstore at seven conferences.

(Browse the bookstore overview here. Or read my in-person reports from Fort Worth and from Cincinnati in past months.)

Last night, bookstore co-owner Scott Minor shared the latest progress. Scott and his wife–novelist Rebecca P. Minor–had just wrapped two more events, in Orlando and in Columbus, Ohio.

“Nashville and Columbus are unique,” Scott said. “They are the two events we did this spring, which we also did last spring.”

In each city this year, the bookstore doubled its 2018 sales.

This year the bookstore has found better ways to reach out to students and parents, including bigger booths and (especially) bookmarks.

“The more bookmarks we can get in people’s hands is directly proportional to how many books we end up selling,” Scott told me.

With bookmarks and more, Scott and Becky have found more ways to start conversations with families about the kinds of books they love. Plenty of parents end up finding the perfect stories for their children and teens. Or, perhaps more likely, readers are asking parents to purchase the books.

One large family, Scott said, bought $330 worth of books all in one go.

“They had already made two purchases separately before then!” he said.

More families say they want books for middle-grade readers, Scott said. Realm Makers Bookstore sells many copies to these readers, including older titles such as Wayne Thomas Batson’s The Door Within and Robert Liparulo’s The House of Dark Shadows.

“The general market has known that middle grade is big for some time,” Scott said.

For these last events, the bookstore was joined by authors Kerry Nietz in Columbus, and Catherine Jones Payne in both Orlando and Columbus.

Kerry Nietz (The DarkTrench Saga, Amish Vampires in Space) shares this:

Probably the two highlights were:

1) The lady with a math/science-oriented son who bought everything DarkTrench hoping they’d be something he’d connect with. She has a difficult time finding something he’ll read for fun and was near tears talking about it. Let’s hope he enjoys them.

2) A young man (late teens, I think) who was hovering near the DarkTrench books. When I asked him what he read, he said “graphic novels” and had already bought the Ted Dekker ones from the store. He said that too many words on the page bothered him. I was like “No worries, I’m glad you found something.” A few minutes later, he rounded the corner and saw the Amish books [Amish Vampires in Space, Amish Zombie from Space]. They went into his hand and stayed in his hand until his mom showed up to pay. I have no idea if he’ll be able to read those books or not, but he wanted them. (Those were the only copies of those I sold, but I told the stories about the books a lot.)

Once again, the big takeaway: Realm Makers Bookstore keeps finding that homeschool families alone are a great market for Christian-made novels in fantasy, sci-fi, and other fantastical genres.

“Christians read books that aren’t [labeled] ‘Christian books,” Scott said. “And they buy fantasy and science fiction for their kids.”

What Science Fiction Fact Will Be Next?

Although speculative fiction has taken the duel turn toward horror—vampires and monsters of various kinds—and superheroes, are there science fiction writers imagining and producing the next set of future technologies or societal trends in their stories?

Recently Travis Perry addressed this significant topic: “How Science Fiction Portrays the Future of Christianity.” For some time people have commented on the fact that science fiction can “predict” the future. Not really, of course, but a significant percent of science fiction imaginings become the technology of the future.

I remember, for instance, when the original Star Trek cast pulled out their communicators and flipped them open. Then along came those early cell phones that flipped open in much the same way. Of course the electronic tablets the various Star Trek shows used for passing on information and/or storing it, are so reminiscent of today’s computer tablets and reading devices.

But there are dozens more such connections between science fiction and the inventions of the future. Most famously Jules Verne described a submarine in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1870), though apparently a writer named Margaret Cavendish first mentioned submarines in a 1666 satire, The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World. I don’t know if the latter counts since satire and science fiction are not trying to accomplish the same thing. Still, it’s remarkable that people so long ago imagined technology we now take for granted.

Other such looks into the future by science fiction writers include things like space travel, space stations, and going to the moon; cloning and robots; the use of microwave technology, radar, x-rays and CAT-scans. Artificial intelligence, of course, is a major player in many science fiction concepts, but so is “Borg technology,” and artificial implants.

Some of the science fiction ideas came less from imagination and more from an awareness of the current direction science was heading. Electric cars, for instance, popped up in 1969 in John Brunner’s novel Stand on Zanzibar. Aldus Huxley, influenced by J.B.S. Haldane, wrote, in his novel Brave New World, about a world dependent upon what we now call in vitro fertilization.

Of course there are many imagined science fiction concepts that have not (yet) been turned into fact: star ship “cloaking devices” and “transporter technology”; “photon torpedoes” and “dilithium crystals” that make “warp drive” and interstellar travel possible. These ideas come from the Star Trek family of stories inspired by Gene Roddenberry, but of course there are many others that readers of science fiction can add.

Some of the futuristic ideas coming from the genre, however, point to a bleak future. Thus, the start of the dystopian novel. Much of the downward turn of society, according to these science fiction accounts, comes from the political and social arena: power in the hand of the unscrupulous (such as Darth Vader and the Emperor, or The President in Hunger Games). Divergent by Veronica Roth also conceived of a world engineered by analytics—each young person took a placement test that figured heavily into the “faction” or various divisions from which they’d be assigned.

George Orwell in his novel 1984 married future technology with societal changes, envisioning a world divided into three states based on location. The one known as Oceania was ruled by Big Brother who controlled the population by a sophisticated system of surveillance. From this authoritarian control came unreliable or “fake” news intended to deceive, not enlighten, the public. Along with this effort the Ministry of Truth regularly modifies photograph (photoshops pictures) to portray what they wish, Orwell’s novel introduced the Thought Police which is a forerunner to the politically correct climate of western culture today.

Similarly Huxley brought science and society together in Brave New World, and in the process “anticipates huge scientific developments in reproductive technology, sleep-learning, psychological manipulation, and classical conditioning” (Wikipedia, Brave New World). He included a society that was drug-dependent in order to keep them compliant and peaceful.

So I wonder, although speculative fiction has taken the duel turn toward horror—vampires and monsters of various kinds—and superheroes, are there writers imagining and producing in their stories the next set of future technologies or societal trends?

As I understand it, science fiction can serve as a prophetic voice, a warning against the natural outcome of directions that currently exist, or they can point toward hope and help and creativity. The former seems to have dominated the dystopian novels, but without real influence. So another question I have: is a novel successful just because it is popular, or should it have an impact that changes people?

I’d be curious what you all think, especially those who know science fiction better than I do.