Monday, April 25, 2011

Are YOU an Authoritarian?

I had an interesting/disturbing conversation with some family members yesterday. It was about the upcoming Canadian election. We got into the topic of Stephen Harper's undemocratic proroguings of Parliament. It wandered a bit, then ended when I, in a shocked voice, asked them, "Do you... want a government that just shoots people?" They must have looked at each other and silently decided that the conversation was over. They changed the subject.

This conversation put into focus for me that Harper is not acting alone in his undemocratic actions. He has the support of people in our country who no longer believe in our constitutional, parliamentary monarchy and would prefer a powerful government with an unaccountable dictator who "gets things done". These folks are what are called authoritarians. Are YOU an authoritarian?

Answer these questions and your score will reveal how authoritarian you are.

1. Do you believe that politicians are all yappy crooks and we should get rid of them?
(a) No.
(b) Yes.
(c) No, only that one politician I like is honest. We should get rid of the others.

2. Do you believe that national leaders should hide information from their citizens?
(a) No.
(b) Only in the interests of National Security.
(c) Yes, if the information contradicts my views.

3. What is a terrorist?
(a) "Terrorist" is only a label. One man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter.
(b) A terrorist is somebody who uses fear, economic disruption and war to achieve political ends.
(c) A terrorist is somebody who opposes my government.

4. Should terrorists be tortured?
(a) No.
(b) Only in the most dire emergencies and lives can be saved.
(c) Yes, please. Can I help?

5. Criminals. We hate 'em, right? Should they vote?
(a) Yes.
(b) Not while they're in prison.
(c) No. They've forfeited their rights as citizens. Let's force 'em to make combat helmets!

6. What's the best way to keep the crime rate low?
(a) Ensure healthy communities through a strong economy and/or social programs.
(b) Hire more police.
(c) Hire more police, make it easier for them to arrest and convict people, oh and let's make some more laws for people to break.

7. Panhandlers are always asking for money and making you feel bad and, besides, all they do is spend their money on booze. How do we get rid of them?
(a) My annoyance with panhandlers is caused by my own feelings of fear, guilt and inadequacy. Deal with those emotions and panhandlers won't be so trying.
(b) Form public awareness groups to ask people not to give to panhandlers.
(c) Arrest them for loitering. Can't beg for money in the drunk tank, can you, stinky?

8. Our soldiers occasionally commit atrocities. Should we prosecute them?
(a) Yes, in the public court system.
(b) The military courts can handle that stuff on their own. They're not biased at all.
(c) Plunder and rape are historical rights of soldiers. If we want to keep morale high, we sometimes have to look the other way. So no.

9. Media information can be contradictory. What's the best way to make sure you know all the facts?
(a) Listen to and watch all media available to hear all opinions.
(b) I have a news source that is fair and balanced. I only need to pay attention to that one: the other media lie all the time.
(c) Why listen to the media when I can listen to the President/Prime Minister/Il Duce/Der Fuhrer talk?

10. Some criminals just have to be killed for the good of society.
(a) No.
(b) Only after a trial by proper authorities.
(c) Just criminals?

11. Artists, musicians, actors, playwrights, filmmakers and writers should receive funding and tax credits for:
(a) Skillfully produced and engaging art.
(b) Art that does not contradict public policy. Pornography and treason must not be funded by taxpayer money.
(c) Artists ought to do what the government asks them to do if they want funding.

12. Oh oh. It's that pesky asshole, Pastor Fred Phelps and he's not just picketing gay funerals anymore. Oh my God. Is he seriously picketing the funerals of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and screaming at the bereaved that their loved one is burning in hell? What's to be done?
(a) If you need to do something, make some noisy public display that drowns out Fred Phelps and shows support for the families.
(b) Fred Phelps ought to be arrested for disturbing the peace.
(c) This way, Fred. Step into the car. Just move that spade out of the way. You'll need it later. So... pray much?

13. A bunch of eggheads at the university are saying that the government shouldn't be holding those protesters without charge. What's the best course of action?
(a) Join the protests.
(b) Stay home. There must be a good reason why the government is doing that. It'll sort itself out.
(c) There's nothing worse than intellectuals trying to tell us what's what. Let's go yell at them for being so mouthy!

14. Gun violence is out of control. The innocent are dying in the crossfire. What's to be done?
(a) Nothing. It's sad, but sometimes innocent people must die upon the altar of freedom. Besides, prohibition pumps money and power into the hands of smugglers, black marketeers and gangs.
(b) Guns must be controlled and licensed. If you want to own a gun, you have to take a safety course. Concealable weapons need more control than long guns. RPGs, flamethrowers and artillery are completely prohibited.
(c) No citizen should be able to own a gun. It's for their own good.

15. Some weirdo scientist is telling you to turn a knob that will electrocute somebody. He's yelling at you to do it. You:
(a) Walk out of the experiment.
(b) Protest, weep and cry but turn the knob anyway.
(c) There must be a good reason for this. He's a scientist, after all. Bzzzt!

You did it! Add your score thusly: For every answer of (b), give yourself one point. For every answer of (c), give yourself two points. Compare to the list below.
(0): I don't believe you got a score this low. Go back and do it again.
(1 to 10): You believe in personal freedom. You see a logical need for order in society but worry about too much government control. You are most likely either a student, a hippie, a libertarian or an educator.
(11 to 20): You have strong authoritarian tendencies. Your belief in democracy is shakey. Cameras and cops make you breathe easy. You would rather be safe than free. You are most likely a person living in a gated community or parent concerned about some kind of moral panic.
(21 to 29): You are an authoritarian. You don't really believe that democracy works and you would feel better if somebody would just "take care of things". You yearn for a powerful leader to tell you to do things and what to believe. You are most likely a strict soldier, survivalist, angry cop, religious housewife, somebody who lives on a compound for some reason, or a brooding revolutionary hunched alone in your basement in front of your computer monitor, writing insane blog posts and waiting for the day you seize power.
(30): Henry VIII, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin.... *sob*... Why did the Lord take them from us so young?

Enough with the semi-joking already. Liberté, égalité, fraternité: remember that? It's not just French bullshit. It's the essential ingredients to a democracy or republic: liberty, equality and brotherhood. Liberty is the important one here. Large numbers of nosy police and soldiers cramp liberty's style. You cannot have freedom and have armed men imposing strict laws at the same time.

Everybody, look deep inside, especially if you vote Conservative or Republican. Are you really a democrat? Do you believe in your republic/parliament? I'm asking you because I fear for your mental health. A sick society is a society that is dishonest with itself. If you can admit to yourself that you don't believe in democracy and you are an authoritarian, you will be happier. Every time you invoke democracy in the name of hurting, jailing and killing people you don't like, it sounds a little more hollow and we all know it.

So go ahead and admit it. You'll feel powerful and maybe afterwards we can have an honest talk about all y'all going off and forming a little dictatorship in Arkansas with Sarah Palin as your despot.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

J. Adrian's bePatented Character Worksheet™

People are always saying to me, "My God, J. Adrian, how the fuck do you get your characters so goddamn compelling?" Okay, that's a half-truth. Nobody asks me that, but my characters are very compelling. At least that's what my mom says. In any case, when you're preparing to write a long work of fiction, be it a screenplay, a novel, novella, RPG campaign or stage play, it's always a must to have your characters fully-fleshed before you attempt to tackle your plot.

Robert McKee, screenplay guru, says in his bestselling book "Story" that there is no difference between plot and character. He calls mannerisms, such as clicking one's fingers to light a lighter, always wearing black or habitually tossing a dead mouse into the air "characterization", rather than "character". He says that true character is revealed in the decisions your characters make and it is those decisions that drive the plot of your story, not gunfights and explosions. That sounds like good advice, so if character=plot, then you had better be damn-well sure that you know what those decisions are going to be.

When I sit down and consider my major characters (not walk-ons and stormtroopers), I like to flesh them using my bePatented Character Worksheet™. I'll be sharing it with you today, so if you don't care about the craft of writing, bugger off. Feel free to use it when you're thinking about your own characters. It may seem like a lot of work in the short term, but hell, you're a writer for God's sake, not a capitalist democracy! You can actually conceive of the idea of short-term work for long-term gain.

J. Adrian's bePatented Character Worksheet™ is divided into these sections:
1. Summary
2. Personality
3. History
4. Passions and Hates
5. Hopes and Fears
6. Talents and Advantages
7. Dishonesty
8. Relationships
9. The Vietnam Dilemmas
(a) 8-Ball is Down
(b) The Weekend Pass
(c) The POWs

As I describe each of these sections, I'll provide an example. This example will be completely pulled out of my ass and bears no resemblance to anything I am currently writing. Nor do I recommend anybody else try to tackle this character or plot: they're far too epic.

1. Summary
This starts with the character's name and gives a brief rundown of their personality, outward appearance and role in your story. Feel free to come back and edit this section over and over as you discover your character through this bePatented creation process.

Example: Captain Albie Hotchkiss
Albie is the best fighter-pilot in the Royal Flying Corps, currently serving over France in 1917. He has a heroic countenance and looks absolutely dashing in his leather uniform. Aside from being a fighter ace, he is a gifted mechanic and talented horseman. He is a Canadian and devout Christian, and yet hides the fact that he is secretly gay. In order to triumph against the evil Viceroy Starglax and his Worm-people contagion, he will have to accept that he is not the best at everything and use the unholy biotechnology of the future police. He is my story's protagonist.

2. Personality
If you're designing a personality, it's probably a good idea to have some actual psychology behind it. This section is based on the theories of psychologist Theodore Million, who divides the personality into three areas, motivation, cognition and social behaviour. For example, motivations are based on three different dimensions, or scales, that measure what makes a person get up in the morning, detailed below. If one of my characters tends toward one side of the scale I note it. Here they are:

Motivational Dimensions:
Enhancing vs. preserving (pleasure vs. pain): Enhancing people are optimistic and seek pleasure while Preserving people are pessimistic and seek to avoid painful experiences.
Modifying vs. Accommodating (active vs. passive): Modifying persons take an active role in changing their lives while Accommodating persons are content mold themselves to existing circumstances.
Individuating vs. Nurturing (self vs. other): Individuating people tend to further their own aims while Nurturing people consider community and the needs of others as more important goals.

Cognitive Dimensions:
Extroversing vs. Introversing: Extroversers look to other people for advice, stimulation and attention, while Introversers look within themselves for such things.
Sensing vs. Intuiting: Sensors believe in structure, concrete facts and their senses while Intuiters tend to focus on intangible things such as magic, personal insight and hunches.
Thinking vs. Feeling: Thinkers try to solve problems cooly and logically, downplaying emotions. Feelers concentrate on their own subjective experiences of events, using empathy and emotion to solve problems.
Systematizing vs. Innovating: Systematizing people evaluate new experiences based on their past experiences and make their realities conform to their present worldview. They like reliablity and consistency. Innovating people seek novelty and like change. They are flexable and spontaneous.

Behaving Styles:
Asocial vs. Gregarious: Asocialites are quiet, passive and don't interact with others much, whereas Gregarious people can be colourful and charming, but often have low-attention spans and can be demanding or manipulative.
Hesitating vs. Confident: Hesitators are shy and timid in social situations, always worried that they will be rejected if they show too much of themselves. While they are emotionally responsive, they are also lonely and frustrated. Confident people think they're better than everybody else and thus have the cajones to assert themselves. Others can see them as arrogant or inconsiderate.
Conforming vs. Dissenting: Conformers follow the rules, respect and relate to authority and value societal standards. Dissenters defy traditions and can be seen as either reckless or enterprising.
Yielding vs. Controlling: Yielders are accustomed to life as martyrs, are self-demeaning and submissive. They often miss opportunites and fail to accept help. Controllers are dominant and aggressive. Compassion is weakness and a strong will is a sign of strength.
Complaining vs. Agreeing: Complainers are often dissatisfied, sullen or angry, often believing themselves to be misunderstood. Agreeing people try to be likeable and amenable, but often hide their own feelings if they disagree with others.

Example: The Personality of Captain Albie Hotchkiss
Enhancing, Modifying, Individuating. Albie is a go-getter, ready further his own reputation and have a good time doing it.

Introversing, (neither strongly Sensing nor Intuiting), (neither strongly Thinking nor Feeling), Innovating. Albie, being a mechanical genius, loves to tinker with his plane. His Sopwith Triplane must always be faster and more durable to withstand the strain he puts upon it in action. When he's tinkering or in battle, he relies on his senses and intellect, but he knows that sometimes, especially in crisis or experimentation, you have to follow a hunch.

Gregarious, Confident, Conforming, Controlling, Agreeing. Albie thrives as the centre of attention. His reputation as a pilot is just as important as his reputation as a proper Britisher. As such, he attends church regularly, is chivalric to women and hides his homosexuality.

3. History
This is the time to forge your character's history. What we're looking for here are the turning points and motivations as they grow up, from birth to present-day. The more detail you provide, the better. Actual dates and place names will provide more material to draw upon when you actually go to write your story, so don't spare anything. If your story is historical, make sure you do your research.

Here's an example. It's long, so if you don't care, skip over it.
Example: The History of Captain Albie Hotchkiss

Albert Theodore Hotchkiss was born on August 24th, 1892 to John and Dora Hotchkiss on a farm just outside Guelph, Ontario. As a young child he would spend every moment he was allowed rushing about the farmyard and chasing chickens, jumping off of fences and finding creative ways to hurt himself. The family farm was prosperous and as soon as he was able, his father purchased a pony for him. Albie was a natural in the saddle and as he grew, he would take every excuse possible to race his horses to town and back. It was in junior county horseraces he got his first taste of fame and he loved it.

Albie's first problem was that he was not born a girl. He was the third son and Dora had been hoping for a girl. Her disappointment leaked into her treatment of him. What's more, he required constant attention to keep him from seriously hurting himself. All this contributed to a nervous breakdown when Albie was six. John sent her back to Salford to stay with her family until she was better, but somehow she just never returned. Albie's constant attention-seeking in adulthood is the direct result of his mother's lack of affection.
Albie was good at everything he tried and always popular at school (though a poor student). In 1904 he was introduced to his second great passion when his father purchased an Oldsmobile, the first automobile in Guelph. Together, Albert and John learned how to take apart and re-assemble the automobile blindfolded. However, it was also at this age he began to notice he was not like other boys. He developed close relationships with his school chums and felt deeply attracted to them. Despite this, he showed affection to girls and was very popular with them, though his relationships with them didn't last long. He never pursued his crushes on his male-friends. If this made him sad in any way, he certainly never showed it in public, even to those closest to him.

After barely graduating from school, he split his time between working as a hand on his father's farm, tinkering with community automobiles in a part-time garage in Guelph and horseracing. As soon as it was humanly possible, he and his father set to work attempting to build their own airplanes. Over the course of five years they built a glider and three lavishly decorated airplanes which became hits at fairs all over southern Ontario. In 1912, Albie was engaged to Eliza Wendt of Waterloo, but destroyed the relationship by publicly courting another woman two months before the marriage (he also dumped her).

In 1914 Great Britain declared war on Germany and her allies and Albie camped all night in front of a Toronto recruiting office and was literally the first applicant. He joined the Toronto Regiment and was sent to England with the 1st Canadian Division. When the regiment was deployed to France, he was spared the hardships of the front line by acting as courier on horseback and motorcycle. Though he claims otherwise, he spent both battles of Ypres in Paris. It was in Paris, in fact, that he first indulged his sexual urges, meeting discretely with a male prostitute in a hotel.

After second Ypres, Albie was promoted to lieutenant (he was always popular with the brass) and immediately asked for a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps. He spent five infuriating months in an observation balloon at the end of 1915 but took every opportunity to fly that he could. In March of 1916 he was finally allowed to fly combat in a SPAD. To everybody's surprise, he shot down a Bosch plane on his first mission. It was the beginning of a marvellous career.

In summer, 1916, he obtained what would become his only baby, a prototype Sopwith Triplane. The construction fascinated him and he was given permission to tinker with it. On the fall equinox, a strange sight was seen over the trenches: a green triplane with the name "binky" painted on it raced over no-man's land and buzzed the German defences, seeming to spoil for a fight. Three Albatrosses answered the challenge and all three were shot down. The triplane made one final victorious swoop over the Hun's trenches and returned with a mighty cheer to the British line. A promotion came a week later.

It is now Fall, 1917 and Albie has his own squadron. He has 46 air victories and is now a Captain and a celebrity at home and abroad. His wingman, Lt. Arch Bennett, has been a willing participant in Albie's glory, acting as bait for Bosch planes while Albie swoops out of cloudbanks and claims the victories. However, Albie has recently realized, much to his chagrin, that he is in love with ol' Arch. He's reasonably sure Arch feels the same way, but he dares not find out. A misstep could cost him his celebrity. He has a reputation as a fair-playing, God-fearing gentleman to uphold. Instead, Albie has been keeping him out of the fighting and Arch is furious.

When the damn war is over, he has a job waiting for him at Sopwith designing planes. But he's sure he won't take it. He'd rather be wowing a crowd than sitting behind a desk. Little does he know that his greatest trials lay ahead of him and that a mysterious plague from the future will destroy everything he holds dear.

Pretty awesome, huh? No? Fuck you then.

4. Passions and Hates
These are hot-button issues that will drive your character forward. If they are ever in a dilemma, and, as a writer, you are unsure of what they would do or say, keep these in mind: they will always follow a passion or avoid/attack a hate.

Example: The Passions and Hates of Captain Albie Hotchkiss

Albie's has four passions. The first, and foremost is thrill. He loves the rush of air, speed and the triumph of honest victory over a fairly-beaten foe. Second, he loves fame and the knowledge that he is the best. He will always show off whenever possible. Third, he loves Arch. This is a new sensation for him, because he has never been truly in love. His sense of fear over Arch's well-being is very distressing. Fourth, he loves to improve things, especially machines. He loves to dissect and assemble parts, think about aerodynamics and improve designs.

Albie has few hates in the world. He hasn't thought very hard about the validity of British war propeganda, so he assumes that all Germans are sneaky devils without consciences. He is also beginning to despise the affections of ladies. He has had too many failed relationships and is tired of pretending. Lastly, once the first act is complete, he will be filled with loathing for Viceroy Starglax and his army of worm-people.

5. Hopes and Fears
This is, by far the most important section of your Character Worksheet. Hope and Fear are what make your audience identify with your character. With protagonists, it is especially important to be as clear as possible with hopes and fears and rarely conceal them. Once an audience knows a character's hope, they will hope with them, and once they know a character's fear, they will be frightened for them.

All major characters should have this section well-polished, even the bad-guys. Bad-guys without depth are just cartoons. Even Sauron, the ultimate faceless evil overlord from the Lord of the Rings, is well-defined in this area: Tolkien makes it clear exactly what Sauron wants and what he fears will happen throughout the books.

Example: The Hopes and Fears of Captain Albie Hotchkiss
Albie wants to be the best and stay the best using his own abilities, also being recognized by as many people as possible. He wishes to unload his feelings for his Wingman, Arch, and pursue his first honest love. However, once the plot gets rolling, his only hope is that he will live unscathed a hero and that there will be a world left to admire him.

He is terrified of the idea that his celebrity will vanish. He is not a nobody and he needs his attention. Death is not frightening in the least. However, once the worm-people contagion spreads, he will be terrified of losing his will and becoming another mindless servant of Starglax. However, he will also be terrified that by accepting the help of the time police and injecting himself with their biotechnology, he will lose everything that made him human and special.

6. Talents and Advantages
Did I say that Hopes and Fears were the most important part? I lied. This is just as important. Now that your character has a mechanism by which audiences will identify with him/her, you need a reason for them to WANT to identify. These reasons are basically anything that makes them "better" than the other characters. Mad skills, sharpness of wit, strength of body, moral conviction, and dedication are all common examples. Remember: "better" is a subjective term and some people may not agree with your reasons to like the character. It's best to give protagonists several reasons to like them to cover your angles.

A word on flaws: character flaws can be one of the best ways to make your characters "better" than other people. WTF? How's that, you say? Let's take alcoholism, for example. Not a very becoming character trait, right? The easiest way to turn this around is to have your character attempting very seriously to get off the sauce. Your audience will see this and say, "At least he's trying!" and as long as there isn't some other character attempting to kick alcoholism, he will be "better" than other people in some way. Or you could go the other way! Your character could be the best damn alcoholic in the world! He holds his drink well, he relaxes, he invites joy around him, or hell, maybe booze even gives him super powers! (remember Drunken Master?)

Example: The Talents and Advantages of Captain Albie Hotchkiss

Albie is an awesome pilot, a whiz mechanic, and a celebrity. He believes in fair-play and won't take advantage of a helpless enemy. His daredevil personality combines with an almost supernatural luck that helps him triumph against insane odds. What's not to like?

7. Dishonesty
When will your character lie? To whom will they lie? When will they cheat to get ahead? When will they break the rules? Consider this as you are constructing your character. Lies and dishonesty are the backbone of any story as they create so much conflict. Plot is the love-juice of conflict.

Example: The Dishonesty of Captain Albie Hotchkiss
As discussed earlier, Albie lives the lie of a closeted homosexual. He is willing to make other people unhappy in order to maintain this lie, particularly women who are interested in him. He will also lie in order to protect the reputation of anybody with whom he has had a romantic relationship.

His military code is to never take advantage of a helpless enemy. However, that does not mean an armed but unaware enemy. He is not a bloody knight, for Gosh-sake!

8. Relationships

Here's where you get a rough idea of how your character interacts with the other major characters, especially how this character views the other. Make notes on how you think the relationship will develop.

Example: The Relationships of Captain Albie Hotchkiss

*Arch Bennett: Arch is the only person Albie has ever loved, with his big square jaw and passion masked by thin stoicism. Albie has found himself unable to express his feelings and has been trying to find the right place or time to do so. He knows his feelings are interfering with their friendship and also their ability to deal with the Hun, but can do nothing else than try to keep him out of the fighting. Arch will die near the end of the story and Albie will go, "Noooooooo!"
*Carrie MacRorie: The senior nurse in the RFC's local field hospital, unfortunately in love with Albie. Albie has been "seen" in public with her for appearances' sake, but has kept her at arm's reach, despising the idea of another tearful female. However, he will soon have to learn to work with her as she will be the only medical professional left able to deal with the Worm-people contagion.
*Viceroy Starglax: Starglax is the exact opposite of everything Albie admires - ugly, sneaky, murderous and hidebound. Yet Starglax commands the admiration of countless thralls willing to do his bidding, just like Albie! When they meet, they will be destined to be worst enemies, even though the Worm-people contagion threatens to turn Albie into one of Starglax's mindless worshippers!
*Major Urdu of the Time Police: Urdu's first appearance, that of a bio-engineered monstrosity with slant-eyes, will put Albie off severely. They'll fight at first, but then Urdu will become a mentor figure. As such, he'll die just before the third act.

9. The Vietnam Dilemmas
If character=plot, then dilemmas=plot points. Why not test your character with some dilemmas? Dilemmas that involve death are always the most interesting. With these exercises, you will imagine what would happen if your character was suddenly thrust, as they are now, into dilemmas set in the Nam. Don't worry about how they got there or any hardships they may have suffered in getting there, such as basic training or months in mosquito-infested bogs. Just imagine them dealing with these:

(a)8-Ball is Down (with apologies to Full Metal Jacket)
Your character is squad leader. 8-Ball goes out to scout, but is shot in the leg by a sniper. He's moaning in pain and the sniper is shooting him bit-by-bit in various limbs, trying to goad the squad into the open.

What does your character do? Do they attempt a rescue? Do they give up? How successful are they? Does 8-Ball survive? Do they get the sniper?

(b)The Weekend Pass
Rumour spreads throughout the barracks that there's going to be a major offensive on Monday. Things are looking bleak and the character is certain that they're going to die. But they have a weekend pass. How will they spend their last hours among the living?

How does he/she spend it? Do they seek pleasure or avoid pain? Do they spend it alone or with other people? Do they spend their time fretting or forgetting?

(c)The POWs

The spec-ops mission behind enemy lines is going well, but the squad has captured some prisoners. Sarge orders them killed. How does the character react?

This scenario tests your character's reaction to authority figures and atrocity. Do they refuse the order? Do they attack the Sarge? Do they freeze-up or weep uncontrollably? Do they shoot the prisoners? Or is this a chance to do something truly unspeakable?

Example: The Vietnam Dilemmas of Captain Albie Hotchkiss

(a)8-Ball is Down:
Albie orders the squad to sit tight while he distracts the sniper. He charges into the open firing a light machinegun, spraying bullets everywhere at random. When he reaches cover, miraculously, he isn't hurt. He locates the sniper nest and orders his squad to surround the building. He keeps the sniper occupied by rushing about and blazing away whenever he gets a chance. Soon the sniper is dead and Albie rescues 8-Ball. What a hero!

(b)The Weekend Pass:
This is it: the time to tell Arch how much he loves him. To his joy, Arch reciprocates the affection and the two spend a weekend of passion in a hotel.

(c)The POWs
Albie spends a minute in absolute moral outrage and arguing with the Sarge. Then, he suddenly goes quiet, smiles and says, "You take 'em back to base, Sarge. I'll complete the mission," and then blunders off into the jungle, leaving the squad speechless. After a few minutes of arguing, the squad hears sounds of shooting in the distance. Assuming Albie has blown the mission, they head back to base. The Sarge prepares his scathing report and is delivering it to the CO when a mud-spattered Albie bursts into the tent and roars, "Mission accomplished!"

So there you have it. A fully-fleshed, gay World War I fighter ace who battles the minions of a time-travelling overlord. And it's all thanks to J. Adrian's bePatented Character Worksheet™! Feel free to use it if you wish, just give me credit. The trademark sign is just for show, it's really copyleft, all rights reversed. May your characters shine like gems and may the be tortured by compelling, horrible dilemmas. Good luck, write diligently and have fun!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Legend of the Knockout Blow in Debates

I just watched the 2011 English Leaders debates on CBC, streaming live on the internet with viewer commentary. When the debates finished, I was excited. For the first time in a long while, I saw the people on stage talking instead of shouting at each other. It was civil and thoughtful.

More than this, as an avowed enemy of Stephen Harper, I was excited. I had the powerful impression that he had lost the debate. Online polls suggested that people were impressed and surprised by the performances of Jack Layton and Michael Ignatieff. By contrast, Harper spoke plainly, rarely to his opponents and habitually into the camera, never allowing himself to become excited, but making himself a total bore in the process.

Then, a few hours later, I started clicking news stories about the debate. As the spin wheeled forth, I began to seriously question my sanity. The debate these political pundits described bore no relation to the one I had seen. They described a debate in which an unflustered Stephen Harper, for six minutes, sparred with his opponent, Michael Ignatieff, and won the debate because he didn't allow himself to lose his cool. And Jack Layton made some off-colour remarks. The end.

I began to pack my bag for a lengthy stay at one of Saskatchewan's fine mental institutions. Clearly, my perception of events was deeply flawed and it was only a matter of time before little glowing gnomes appeared in my peripheral vision and started telling me to stalk Miley Cirus. But then I remembered, and with a huge sigh of relief I exclaimed, "Oh yeah! The media have their heads up their collective asses!"

The source of the madness claiming that Stephen Harper won the debate is the Legend of the Knockout Blow. You see, a long time ago, there was a magic man with a big chin. Giant-chin-man once had a debate with a man who patted women's bums and all the mooses and beavers came to see them talk. (A godless commie was also in the debate, but nobody remembers him). Until the debate, the Bum-patter was very popular. Then, Giant-chin-man said, "You had an option, sir!" and Bum-patter sputtered and gibbered and all the forest creatures cheered, "Hurray!" and made the magic man their Viceroy of Evil.

Since that day in 1984, the media have been hungering for another Knockout Blow. Every election, political commentators judge the performance of our politicians by saying, "So-and-so failed to deliver a Knockout Blow, so therefore the other guy won!"

It's been 30 years since Mulroney's Knockout Blow on John Turner. None other has occurred. It is time to stop expecting our politicians to deliver them, because they don't happen. It is nice to hope for them, but madness to expect them.

Every year except this one, the media consortium that governs the leaders' debates has tried to encourage Knockout Blows by presenting debate formats that glorify sound-bite politics, giving each person very little time to present their case. It's always devolved into candidates shouting over each other, trying to deliver the Knockout Blow. Finally we have a format that is inspiring thoughtful debate with minimal interruptions. Please, let's stick to it and junk this childish yearning for something that happens less often than a blue moon.

So, now that we've gotten that out of the way, allow me to indoctrinate you with the correct version of events, free from the intellectual shackles of Knockout-blowism. Ignatieff was sensible but stiff. Layton was lively and funny, which is surprising because he's sucked so hard in debates-past. Duceppe was likeable but irrelevant.

And Harper was a huge snore with his beady eyes searing into the camera and droning away on his dull talking-points. He started off the debate boring, then was a little more boring midway-through, then varied his act by being insensere. Then he bored us during the healthcare debate and finished with words of inspiration in his closing remarks: inspirational only because they inspired me to check my watch and restlessly tap my foot. In conclusion, if I hadn't known that Stephen Harper was onstage I would have sworn that a giant, boring black hole had opened above the soundstage and was sucking anything interesting or exciting into a vast parallel universe of tedium and deflected questions.

But whatever, this is Canada and we like our politicians boring, so maybe he did better than I thought. There's no accounting for some tastes, eh hosers?

Oh yeah, and while I am truly anti-Harper and cringe at the idea of the Green Party splitting the vote further, Elizabeth May should have been there. And I'm also sick of the media casting every election as a simplistic black/white two-way battle when there are in fact five major parties competing for our vote. But those issues are for another rant.

Remember: Anybody but Harper. For the love of God and your democracy, anybody but Harper.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Why I'm Not Voting for Stephen Harper this Year

Okay, I admit it. This will come as no surprise, but I have never voted for Stephen Harper, the Conservative Party or its predecessors the Canadian Alliance, the Reform Party or the Progressive Conservatives (dumbest party name ever). However, just so I'm not mistaken for some ideologue who votes for the party his parents voted for out of habit, I like to give reasons why I'm not voting for Harper. It's only fair.

In 2004, I didn't vote for Harper because I heard that he was a member of a Christian sect that recently stood outside a tavern and prayed to God to make it collapse. I figured it would be a bad idea having a guy like that guy in charge.

In 2006 I was disgusted at the Conservatives' stance against criminals. They wanted to make more laws that would create more criminals and then they wanted to strip those criminals of their democratic rights as citizens and not allow them to vote.

In 2008 Harper revolted me with his comment that ordinary folks don't care about art. As I explored in this post, I don't think he's incorrect. I merely understood loud and clear what he meant: "I don't care about art".

So here it is, 2011, and Harper is running again. Normally, my not voting for Stephen Harper wouldn't be news, or even worthy of a blog post. This year is special. It's special because if he wins, he'll be justified in pulling all his undemocratic horseshit. Read on.

It's fair to say that Harper has been a clever Prime Minister. Since he first formed a minority government, he's known exactly where he is. He knows that he can't get everything he wants because Parliament won't let him. For his first term (2006-2008), he laid very low indeed. He even, dare I say it, governed well. He was receptive to the wishes of the people and he tried to work with Parliament. What resulted was a government that was moderate and responsive.

During this period, I have to admit that I was surprised. I wondered, fleetingly, if Harper was worthy of my vote. But then I thought about it a little more and realized that Harper was biding his time. He had his own Conservative dreams and would have loved to realize them, but he had three left-wing parties breathing down his neck, constantly threatening to topple him if he didn't play ball. He knew that if he governed as a populist, he could maybe win a majority government and then truly do what he wanted, free of meddling.

In 2008, he made his bid for a majority government, called an election and got another minority. It was immediately obvious to me that he was frustrated and losing his patience. The man has dreams after all. He had plots to hatch and Parliament was getting in his way. Harper's government went from being clever to ruthless. This began a new phase for the Conservative government, what I call the "undemocratic" phase.

Since 2008, he has since done everything he could to do to push his agenda and thwart parliament. Remember this? He shut down Parliament. Twice. In 2008, after the election, he told the Governor General to shut down the show. Why? Because it looked like some other parties were going to form a coalition government. Then he did it again! In order to keep a Parliament prying into allegations that Canadian soldiers had handed prisoners to torturers, he closed down parliament. Why? "Uh... the Olympics are on... or something..." Can you imagine that? Imagine the government of the United States shutting down because there were Olympics happening! It would never, ever ever happen. Is Canada even a real country? Disgraceful. Disgrace, shame and INFAMY!!!

Why does this bug me so much? These are our elected officials. He was using proroguing, a rule used in the past to allow our elected officials to go home and help their constituents, to prevent himself from losing power and getting embarassed during the Olympics. If he is re-elected, what kind of message are we sending him? We are telling him it's okay to thwart democracy.

Well, it's not. It opens the door for future abuses, and greater ones. What's stopping Harper from shutting down Parliament whenever it's inconvenient for him? What's stopping him from closing Parliament indefinitely? Legally, nothing. The Governor General can legally do just about anything here, and he/she usually does whatever the Prime Minister asks. The only way to keep Harper accountable for this total bullshit is at the polls. Vote him out!

Need another reason? Okay. How about this? His government was found in contempt of Parliament. His own government! This is the first time in the history of Canada that a government has been found in contempt of its own Parliament! Why did this happen? He's buying some really expensive military jets from the States and refuses to tell Parliament how much they really cost.

Well, Steve, we have a right to know. It's our money and our elected officials get to find out what you're up to. That's why we have Parliament and opposition parties. What are you hiding? Why are you hiding it?

Once again, if we re-elect that guy, it's sending the wrong message. If we put him back in the PMO, it tells him, "Go ahead, Steve. Govern without our consent or knowledge. We think you're cool for being such a rogue! Would you like to hit us over the head with a truncheon?"

(The funny thing is that, you know what? I think the Canadian Forces could use some modern jets. Those junky CF-18s are nearly thirty years old. The Americans seem to be getting a bit, um... unreliable. We can't continue to rely on them to protect us from commies and we need to be more self-sufficient. Bring on the multi-million-dollar hardware. Just be truthful about how much it costs.)

This undemocratic strain in Harper's governing style is now leaking into his campaigning style. If you want to attend a public rally where Harper is speaking, you have to submit to a pre-approved identity check. Then, once you're there, if Harper's goons see that you're wearing a T-shirt they don't like or not acting enthusiastic enough, they can toss you. Then when Harper takes the podium for questions, we only get five. If we ask him why we only get five questions before he leaves, he refuses to answer.

But here's what makes this scary. Our loveable mounties, the beloved RCMP, have recently admitted that they've helped Harper investigate and remove people Harper doesn't like. Can you imagine that? Our national police force is helping the Conservative party conduct its unwholesome business!

I'm reading now that Harper has actually apologized for chucking people out of his gatherings. Is an apology really in order? What does this apology really mean? Is he sorry for being creepy and undemocratic? I doubt it. He issued the orders in the first place. Surely he thought about the moral consequences and decided to do it anyway because he didn't want to be embarassed. No, what he's really sorry for is that people called attention to his George-Bush-style campaigning.

Dear Canadian readers, Harper has kept his minority government since 2006. He has been waiting for his majority for a long time. I now know in my heart what he wants. He wants American-style Republican government. It's not religious, because if it was, they would actually abide by Jesus' wishes to live poor and await the next life. It's not capitalist, because if they were true capitalists they would want fair trade, not monopolies. They don't really believe in smaller government because they spend billions on authoritarian institutions like the military and police. They're not democratic because they are hell-bent on locking more people behind bars and then denying their right to vote. The only word I can use to describe them is Opportunists. They wrap themselves in religious, capitalist and libertarian rhetoric when they are, in fact, the antithesis of all they proclaim. They are servants of powerful men who want more power.

Don't believe me? Go ahead and vote for Harper. Give him his majority and see. Then come back in four years, read this post and weep.

Alternately, why don't we all save ourselves a lot of trouble and vote the crooks out? If we hand government to another party, I guarantee Harper won't run again. We'll be rid of him and maybe, just maybe, the Conservatives will get the message that it's not okay to pull this bullshit.

I once took a political leadership class in university. In it, my professor told me about many of the constitutions of other, less-democratic countries. These constitutions are well-thought-out and sincere in their desire for democracy. However, powerful dictators in these countries routinely declare martial law, choose not to hold elections and make people disappear at night. By contrast, Canada has very few legal safeguards on our constitutional monarchy. Our Governor General has the power to roll tanks through the streets, dissolve Parliament on a whim and choose not to hold elections.

Why doesn't it happen here? It just isn't done. We have inherited a British Parliamentary tradition of fair play, compromise and reverence for our method of legislating and certain things you just don't do.

Well it's being done now. Harper isn't playing fair. Rather than compromising, he is finding sneaky ways to circumvent Parliament. I know a few people who like Harper because he "gets things done." What price are you prepared to pay for getting things done? Any dictator can "get things done" by waving his hand. And where does it end? If the Conservatives are not handed their asses, this bullshit will continue with other governments, no matter which party is ruling.

So please, dear Canadian readers, when election day arrives, vote NDP. Vote Green. Vote Liberal (even though they started this proroguing bullshit in the first place). Vote for the skeleton of Abraham Lincoln. Vote for the giant, malevolent toad who only you can see and tells you to do things. Take your ballot and wipe your ass with it.

Anything, anybody but Harper.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Review of "The Haunting of Hill House" by Shirley Jackson

"The Haunting of Hill House" is a novel by Shirley Jackson, published in 1959. It was adapted for film twice, in 1963 and 1999 under the name "The Haunting". It's been called a haunted house story. Right now I'm trying to think of a clever reason why it's not, but I'm drawing a blank. It's just different, okay???

The story follows what can only be called a neurotic loser, Eleanor Vance. Because her life is so lonely and friendless, she agrees to spend a summer in a reputedly haunted house. Dr. Montague, her host, has invited several people with experiences with the supernatural. Only Eleanor and a flakey beatnik named Theodora actually show. Also joining them is Luke, the future-owner of the house. Together, the four become fast friends and endure the ghostly tortures of the unhappy mansion in the name of science.

Here's what the book does very well: terror. (There's a difference between horror and terror. Terror is the dread that anticipates something scary happening while horror is the fright at the actual scary event.) The supernatural terrors of Hill House are not equalled in many books or movies. This terror is established in the book's opening paragraphs with the brilliant phrase, "...and whatever walked there, walked alone." When you identify with Eleanor, you feel acute dread at something invisible and malign looking for her. I recommend it as a how-to for other writers interested in terrorizing their audience. Remember, o ye horrorists, that the spook you describe is never as scary as the spook that an audience can imagine.

What makes this book different as well is the dialogue. The house's occupants speak in the style of sophisticated socialites. Eleanor, Theodora, Luke and the Doctor are all clearly intelligent and they are always playfulling razzing each other even in the midst of blackest terror. It adds a note of authenticity to the story that makes the moments of fear more surreal for the characters and more real for the audience.

Here's my only complaint with the book. Eleanor. She sucks. The story is told from her perspective and we are constantly offered insight into her deepest thoughts. She starts the story as a friendless milksop with an overactive imagination. From there she is robbed of her few admirable qualities by Hill House as she starts losing her marbles. By mid-novel, I found her constant neurotic inner monologue to be irritating rather than scary. I stopped caring about her as a character. By the end I was begging Hill House to put this poor slob out of her misery.

This is a lesson in character identification when you're trying to create your protagonist, you writers. When you're crafting a protagonist, you have to give them at least one admirable quality. This character has to be not only realistic and therefore easy to sympathize with, but the readers also need a reason WHY they would want to sympathize. This reason has to be a personality trait that makes him or her better than the other characters.

This personality trait doesn't even have to be that admirable. People like James Bond for some reason. Why? Because he's a way more effective spy than everybody else: he's an efficient killer and he always gets the girl. But if you really think about it, why would you ever want to know a guy like that? He's kind of a sociopath. Yet millions of people worldwide continue to identify with him.

In the case of Eleanor Vance, she starts the story lame, but you can see her vivid imagination and will to make her life better despite her past hardships. You want to like her. But then, her imagination is turned against her by the evil will of Hill House and her desire to change her life is subverted. With these qualities removed, Eleanor Vance is just a crazy-lady and it is very frustrating to be inside her head.

The Haunting of Hill House is a masterpiece in a way, but I cannot give it an extremely high recommendation because of problems with Eleanor. I still maintain that it is a must-read for anybody interested in horror because of the terrifying way that Jackson handles the spirits of Hill House. But because I was asking myself, "Why am I reading this?" near the end, it honestly breaks my heart to give it:
3 1/2 doors that shut on their own out of 5

By the way, I loved the 1963 movie adaptation of this book. For once. the movies did it right. The terror of the book is captured perfectly and the majority of Eleanor's insane inner-prattle is omitted. Go rent it!