Video: the Author of Ender’s Game Dispenses Writer’s Wisdom

Ben Shapiro interviews an eclectic grab bag of people each week on his Sunday Special. (Their main common factor is that they were willing to come on and be interviewed by him.) The interview embedded below is my favorite of all the ones he’s done so far. It’s super long, but if you are interested in the fiction industry or the writing process or the sci-fi and fantasy genres or identity politics or religion, then it will be worth your while.

Orson Scott Card is the author of the super popular sci-fi novel Ender’s Game. I tried to read this novel when I was way too young and I did not get all the way through it. It was hard for me to keep in mind that Ender and his co-trainees were kids when in some ways they acted like geniuses.

Card is also a Mormon, or LDS (Latter-Day Saint) as many of them prefer to be called. This gives him a unique perspective on religion, specifically on what it’s like to be misunderstood as a religious person.

Highlights:

AT 4:18, Card clears up what exactly counts as sci-fi versus fantasy: “The usual is that science fiction is stuff that has not happened but is possible, and fantasy is stuff that doesn’t happen and isn’t actually possible but we can imagine it. And that almost works except for the fact that it’s considered science fiction if you do things like faster-than-light travel or time travel. And those can’t happen. Time travel especially, because the string of causality is unbreakable. … So it’s arguable. But I learned the practical definition right away. The covers of fantasy books have trees. The covers of science fiction books have sheet metal with rivets. So it’s rivets versus trees. If your story is illustratable with rivets then it’s sci-fi, and if it needs trees to be effective, then it’s fantasy.” (N.b.: This is why my books are fantasy even though they feature no wizards.)

11:35 On the fact that fantasy magic systems have rules too: “You can’t just throw magic on the page and make it fantasy. You have to make it fantasy that would pass muster with a science fiction writer, because that’s who’s writing fantasy now.”

At 15:00, he addresses Pantsing versus Plotting: “I try to think ahead. Mostly milieu development. Then I’ll think of obligatory scenes, things that have to happen. And I’ll have to then set up those scenes so that they mean something. So there’s some planning that goes into it. I know writers who think like screenwriters, and their thought is all on the [outline]. I can’t do that, because anything I wrote for anything after chapter two is going to be discarded as soon as I find out what’s going on in chapter one. The process is pretty flexible, because by the time I’m nearing the end of any novel, the outline is now a relic … And I’ve seen, for example, an early novel by Dean Koontz, where it was obvious to me that after developing an amazing cast of characters that readers cared about, he caught up with the point in the outline where they all go into an alien spaceship together, and at that point he was just following the outline and it didn’t matter who any of the characters were.” (N.b.: Card’s method is plantsing, and it is the method I use as well. )

At 37:00, he starts talking about religions in fiction: “If you are going to create a character that has an existing religion, you have a responsibility to make it plausible. In America, we have two generic religions. If you need a hierarchical religion, you use Catholic. If you need a congregational religion, you use generic-Protestant-but-really-Baptist. Those religions are available and we all have some experience with them by watching movies. Jewish, not so much. I would feel a great deal of trepidation making a character of mine Jewish, especially orthodox, because I’ve known enough orthodox Jews to know how rigorous the demands are, what has to be kept in your head all the time. And I do that as a Mormon. I know all of our rules by heart, I don’t even have to think about them any more. But whenever I watch somebody’s fictional treatment of Mormonism, no one ever gets it right. No one even comes close. Getting somebody else’s religion wrong is a terrible faux pas.”

41:56: “That’s one of my minor messages: people have religion, and the fiction writer who retreats from that is cheating himself and his readers.”

43:51: “There are smart people in Hollywood. There are good people in Hollywood. They just don’t have the power to greenlight a film.”

At 52:00, he starts talking about the move towards identity politics in sci-fi: “And many of them, whom I know, are people who are simply writing their conscience. But their conscience is ill-informed.”

55:20 and following, on race: “When every white person in America knows that they are labelled as racist, that means why keep trying? Because no matter what you do, you are going to be labelled as white privileged and as racist. … But I know that now, all white people are getting more and more nervous that no matter what they say, it’s going to be turned on them and used to call them the ugly name racist. And that is pretty much the ugliest name that we have in our vocabulary right now. If you’re looking for your Tourette’s list of words that you should not speak, words which will wound, the f-word is way way low on the list. We are used to the f-word, we hear it all the time. Compared to racist. Wow! That’s serious. That’s savage.”

Another Meta Quote about Writing from Rich Colburn

“Yeah maybe,” Heather said. “I think we’re speculating. It seems like whenever we have a conversation like this, it’s almost a guarantee that it’s not how things are going to happen. Like the writers of our lives are trying to be intentionally unpredictable.”

“That’s one way to put it,” Ace said. “It does seem uncanny how true that is. So, if you were a writer and you wanted to mislead your readers so the story would be filled with unexpected twists, would you write your basic story with an outline and then go back and insert conversations like this one to intentionally mislead the readers or would you write the book as you go and change the plot as the characters figured out what’s going on?”

“Neither,” said Heather. “I would know all the characters, know their personalities and abilities, then throw it all together and see what happens. Even I would be surprised at how the events play out.”

“I think that would make for a completely chaotic story,” Ace considered. “I suppose if the characters were likable or made a lot of smart remarks, people might read it anyway even if it did seem like the author had no idea where the story was going.”

“I would totally put this conversation in the book,” Heather said.

Formulacrum by Rich Colburn, pp. 326 – 327

“Don’t Eat My Family”

Here is Ikash, who was a teenager when he was the protagonist of my novel The Strange Land. Now he is a husband and father, and he is doing what husbands and fathers do … trying to protect his family from the scary things in the world. (Of course Hyuna could help with this too, but as you can see, she recently had a baby, so she needs him to do the heavy lifting.)

This exact scene does not happen in my third book (at least not yet!), but it does illustrate his basic stance throughout that novel.

The black and white drawing did not scan great … a lot of detail was lost … but I needed something to post.

Are you perhaps feeling like this right now?

The Big Five and the Odd Couple

A month ago, I wrote a post about the Big Five personality traits (Extraversion, Neuroticism, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Openness). In the comments, Katie Jane Gallagher suggested that an author could use the Big Five to plan out their characters’ personalities. I replied that this might work for some people, but I was doubtful my characters would co-operate with being assigned a personality beforehand.

I still think it would be difficult to assign, in a fixed way, all five of your character’s traits before you begin writing. But I have thought of a trope that relies heavily on the use of character traits: the odd couple.

The Source of the phrase “The Odd Couple”

The Odd Couple was a 1968 movie starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.

Then there was a 1970 – 1975 TV series starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman.

Also, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick played the same odd couple in a Broadway revival of Neil Simon’s original play.

In all of the versions, the premise is that two men are living together because each has been kicked out by their wives: one for being such a perfectionist, the other for being such a slob. High jinks follow.

How odd couple stories use Big Five traits

As you can immediately see, the odd couple trope relies on selecting one Big Five personality trait (in this case, Conscientiousness) and throwing together two people who are on opposite ends of the spectrum with regard to that trait.

This is much more manageable than trying to run down all five traits for each of your characters before beginning to plot.

Of course, when you start to develop the story, other traits will come along too. In this story, the conscientious character (Lemmon/Randall/Broderick) is also high on Neuroticism. Interestingly, it is he, with his extreme conscientiousness, who is portrayed as being the harder person to live with. The slobby person is portrayed as more normal. That is not what I expected when I set out to research the show, because in real life, slobby people can be just as hard to live with, especially if they are low in Agreeableness, for example.

In fact, some shows will dispense with the “couple” part of the odd couple and just have the gimmick revolve around one person’s extreme traits. Monk springs to mind, in which the detective’s OCD about cleanliness is so incapacitating that he must have a handler with him at all times … but his attention to detail also makes him an excellent detective.

Odd Couples Everywhere!

Once you start looking for odd couples in film and literature, it seems to be a trope that is used to enrich all kinds of stories. You find odd couple cop partners, odd couple road trips, and (ubiquitously) odd couples in rom-coms. Often odd-couple stories are funny, but they can appear in dramas as well, such as Thelma and Louise, or Charlie and Raymond in Rain Man. Whether comedy or drama (but especially in drama), one or both characters are supposed to be transformed in some way by their forced relationship with their polar opposite.

In my own first book, The Long Guest, there is a bit of an odd couple dynamic going on between Enmer and Nimri. Enmer reacts to the demise of civilization by becoming hyper-responsible as he tries to care for his extended family. Nimri, who at the beginning of the book is selfish and has no one to care for, honestly doesn’t care if he himself lives or dies. The two are forced into proximity by the dynamics of the survival situation (and by Enmer’s mother, Zillah), and while they never resolve their differences, the inherent conflict between them drives much of the action in the book.

So … what do you think? Do you like odd couple stories?
Are you a member of an odd couple? Perhaps more intensely, now during quarantine? Have odd couple stories lost their appeal? What are some of your favorite odd couples from film or literature?

Author Baseball Card

Fellow blogger Black Sheep posted his personal baseball card here, inspiring me to post this one.

Hang on to this, guys. It will be worth money some day.

Jen Mugrage

Personality Type …………………………… INFP

Writing Style ………………………………….. Pantser

Bats ………………………………………………… Right

Throws …………………………………………… Like a girl

Followers ………………………………………… 44

Novels Drafted ……………………………….. 2.5

Novels Published ……………………………. – 2.5

Agents Queried ………………………………. 85

Years Married …………………………………. 18

Houses Inhabited in that time ………… 20+

Most Viewed WordPress Post ………….. Dinosaurs in History

Least Viewed WordPress Post …………. Serendipity

A Brief Outline of my Trilogy

Now that I am about halfway through drafting the third book in my trilogy, I am starting to get a sense of its overall arc. It looks something like this:

Book 1: Start with a stable situation, mess it all up.

Book 2: Start with a messed-up situation. Bring resolution.

Book 3: Start with another stable situation. Mess it all up again.

I think I may be doing this backwards.

Four Old Books that will Blow Your Mind in 2019

Photo by Wendy van Zyl on Pexels.com

‘Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis (1956)

Orual is a princess, but she’s anything but spoiled.  She is strikingly ugly, and her father treats his daughters with the same thoughtless cruelty with which he rules his pagan kingdom.  Orual eventually learns to stand up to her father, but she’s terrified of the royal priest, who wears a bird’s head on his chest, and of the deity he serves, a spooky, faceless mother-goddess. 

Orual’s younger half-sister Psyche is kind and beautiful, and Orual adores her.  As Psyche grows older, the two girls prove to be best friends.  But everything changes when Psyche is offered as a sacrifice to the son of the mother-goddess, who lives on the haunted mountain … and she actually seems happy about it.

‘Till We Have Faces is a re-telling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, seen from the point of view of Psyche’s supposedly jealous and evil older sisters.  Like me, you will probably pick it up because when you see the words “an ugly princess and a beautiful princess,” you immediately go into the book expecting to identify with the ugly one.  And you do.  But see whether, by the end, you don’t identify with Psyche as well.

This book is a perfect addition to the genre of novels that write ancient pagans sympathetically, but look at their beliefs with a critical eye.  That’s what I try to do in my books.  Mine were inspired in part by ‘Till We Have Faces, but they will never rise to its level.

Anna Karenina by Tolstoy (1878)

If you read the back of the book, you will be told that it is the story of Anna, a beautiful upper-class Russian woman (pre-Revolution) who has an extramarital affair and is eventually destroyed by society’s judgment on her sexual freedom.  Well, not quite.  For one thing, Anna is destroyed by the affair itself more than by the social condemnation. For another thing, Anna is only half of the novel.

The other half is about Levin, a wealthy young farmer who has a spiritual crisis and loses, then regains, the girl he loves.  His long, slow upward trajectory is the flip side of Anna’s long, slow downward one.

The writing in this novel is amazing (assuming that you get a good translation).  The psychology is beautiful.  It’s also an example of a successful omniscient narrator.

The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan (1678)

This book was first published in 1678.  The language, therefore, is more modern than Shakespeare, slightly less modern than Jane Austen, but just as elegant and succinct as either one.  

It is an allegory of one man’s spiritual journey.  It is anything but boring! 

Take the incident where Giant Despair throws Christian and Hopeful into the dungeon in Doubting Castle.  He beats them, he starves them, he tells them they will never get out.  It is Christian’s fault they are there (he led them on a shortcut across the giant’s lands), and he immediately begins to blame himself and apologize to Hopeful.  The giant encourages the two men to kill themselves and even provides them with a variety of means to do so.  He also shows them the skulls of past prisoners to emphasize that their fate is sealed. 

All in all, if you have ever been through depression (your own or a loved one’s), you will recognize this as a precise description of the effects it has upon mind and body.  This giant and his wife literally sit up at night thinking of ways to make the prisoners’ lives miserable.

When the two prisoners finally make their escape, the giant begins to chase them.  But when he comes out into the sunlight, he falls into an epileptic type of fit.

The Miss Marple books by Agatha Christie (1930s through 1960s)

Hercule Poirot is the more famous of Christie’s sleuths, but my favorite is Miss Marple.  All the other characters, being British, consistently underestimate Poirot because he a foreigner.  All the younger and more worldly characters underestimate Miss Marple because she is an old maid who has lived in a village all her life.  They think she is likely to be naïve and narrow in her views and experience.  In fact, Miss Marple has seen quite a lot of human nature in her 60+ years of life.  As she points out, her village may look as stagnant and sleepy as a pond, but like a pond, is it actually alive with all kinds of vicious microscopic creatures.

Miss Marple’s method of crime detection is to rely on her knowledge of human nature.  People she meets remind her of other people that she has once known.  She can recognize the essence of their character and even make guesses about what they will do based on these past people’s behavior.  She never makes a point directly; her method is usually to tell a little story about someone she once knew and then surprisingly tie it to the present situation.  Her method of thinking about crimes is a bit more intuitive than Poirot’s.  Rather than crunching data, she recognizes stories.  You could say that Poirot is a plotter and Marple a pantser.   But they both get their man in the end.

Miss Marple is also aided by her fantastic British manners.  She is an amazingly good listener.  She is excellent at drawing people out.  People cannot lie all the time; if you let them talk long enough, eventually they will tell you the truth.

Miss Marple might be a little old lady, but she is dangerous to criminals.  In one book, she wraps a pink scarf around her head before she goes out and then introduces herself to the murderer as “Nemesis.”

I want to be Miss Marple when I grow up.

What Makes You Doubt Yourself?

Of course you doubt yourself. All grown people do. In fact, I don’t entirely trust you if you don’t.

Here is the latest thing that made me doubt myself. It starts out with Jordan Peterson classroom footage, but ignore that. At 9:30, Dave Rubin and Jordan Peterson start discussing archetypes in movies. At about 13:15, Peterson says, “The artist shouldn’t be able exactly to say what it is he’s doing.”

That gave me pause. Sure, I’m a pantser, but this isn’t about pantsing versus plotting. It’s about whether you are primarily telling a story, or primarily illustrating an idea. And anyone, plotter or pantser, can do either. This made me ask myself, I am too heavy on theme? Are any of my characters behaving less like people and more like embodiments of an idea that I love or hate? Good questions to ask.

What have you doubted lately and how are you dealing with it?

Pantsing Endorsed by Another Great Author

OK, that might be an exaggeration. The “endorsed” part, I mean. Not the “great.”

Andrew Klavan writes hard-boiled crime novels. Sometimes they have supernatural elements in them too. I recently discovered Klavan and have started reading through his work. Within the last week, I read Damnation Street. And it is pretty hard-boiled, let me tell you. Lots of violence, lots of language. A keen sense of human sin nature and human limitations.

The hero detective in Damnation Street, however, has a deeply buried romantic heart. And he is very intuitive in his approach to detective work. Here is a passage that describes how he operates:

[The detective, Weiss] wasn’t even sure he was trailing the right guy. It was just one of his Weissian hunches that had brought him here. And while his hunches were almost always right, he almost never trusted them. They were too vague, too unscientific. He wished he could write out the facts on a whiteboard or something and look them over and tap the pen against his chin and reach his conclusions through logic and deduction. But he never could. He just knew what he knew, so he never felt certain he knew it. (pp 77 – 78)

In fact, Weiss is trailing the right guy. And later, on page 91, we get this line:

The truth came to him in that flashing way the truth had.

That’s when he realizes he’s been wrong in certain of his assumptions about the man he was trailing.

OK, so maybe this is not endorsement of pantsing, but it’s certainly a great description of it.

Damnation Street, by Andrew Klavan, published 2006. Harcourt, Inc.