Friday, December 28, 2018

Top 5 Things I Learned at Realm Makers 2018 from Tosca Lee

I’d been to all of one writer’s conference before, and it was probably the furthest out of my comfort zone I’d ever been. It was a small conference at a camp a good three- to four-hour drive away from my home state. Three days to spend with approximately forty strangers. I knew no one; I was wholly on my own. It was tough to be so out of my comfort zone, but it really grew me.

When I signed up for the Realm Makers writers conference, I thought I knew exactly what I was getting into. It was just another conference, right? I’d be in a nice little room with about 40-50 people. No big deal.

I probably should have expected the culture shock the minute I learned that my favorite Christian author, Ted Dekker, had been a key speaker at Realm Makers previously. Or when I saw that Tosca Lee was teaching a pre-conference workshop this year.

But I was clueless. I eagerly signed up for Tosca’s conference, having no idea what I was getting into.

Imagine my surprise when I arrived at a towering conference center, watched the volunteers helping with sign-in’s rifle through dozens and dozens of nametags, and saw at least twenty-five booths of published authors set up in just one of the many rooms we’d be using.

Wow, I thought to myself. This is so different from the other conference I went to.

I didn’t know the half of it.

The workshop was being held in a large dining hall, maybe seating a hundred people. And since I’m a studious dork—I was that over-achieving classmate everyone hates in highschool—I sat near the front of the room. This gave me a great view of the people filing in. And table after table kept getting filled. Soon there were a bazillion people here, grinning and greeting each other.

Holy cow, I thought as the minutes ticked down to the beginning of the workshop. The room fit for one hundred was nearly full. And this is only the pre-conference workshop! How many people are going to be at the actual thing?!

A lot more, I was soon to find out.

That weekend, I found my intensely introverted self swimming in a sea of 350 people. My mild pre-conference anticipation/anxiety had swelled into sheer terror. But I rode that wave as best I could. And, just like the conference before, it grew me in ways and places I never would have expected.

Tosca’s workshop helped tremendously. Not just to help me deal with the culture shock, but also with getting the most out of the conference. Her workshop inspired me and rejuvenated me, sparking my desire to write even more. These were the Top 5 things I took away from her lecture.

Top 5 Things I Learned at Realm Makers from Tosca Lee

#1: You’re Not Alone in Your Fear and Doubt

It’s so easy to get overwhelmed as a writer. You’re working on a story largely in isolation. Sometimes, you’re creating entire worlds from scratch. There’s so many things that could go wrong. It’s inevitable you’re going to fall into self-doubt, especially without a good support base. “Can I really do this?” “Is this story any good?” “Am I actually a bad writer?”

Photo by George Gvasalia on Unsplash

That fear is normal, Tosca reminded us; all writers go through it. So even when you’re petrified by fear, you’re not alone! Tosca even assured us that we will always struggle with a lack of confidence in some capacity, even after we’re published!

But we don’t have to let the fear cripple us. Tosca gave us some tools to use to help combat the fears that keep us from writing.

#2: Murphy’s Law

Think about the absolute worst that could happen. Dig deep down to those fears. What could go wrong? What are you afraid will happen? Go all-out. You’ll see how ridiculous some of those fears are... and how much some of the real fears are affecting you.

Once you have your list, Tosca said, write them all down, tear apart that paper, and throw it away. It doesn’t define you. Don’t let it.

#3: Self-Evaluation – Why Do You Want to Write?

When you’re an artist and you’re not creating, it may be because of fear. And what does fear hate? For the truth to come to light.

Analyze why you want to write. Why do you do it? Write it stream-of-conscious. Be open and honest. No one else has to see your answers!

Why is this important? Because this is what keeps you writing even on the hard days, Tosca said.

So what drives you to be a writer? Do you have a story burning inside you that no one else has told? Does it make you come alive? Could you spend hours getting lost in the process on the good days?

#4: Self-Evaluation – Why Do You Secretly Want to Write?

Oh, but Tosca didn’t stop there. The real scary question was yet to come: “Why do you secretly want to write?”

Time to really let it all out! What are the reasons you’re ashamed of?

Yes, Tosca said, it really is okay if you want to write for money; the important thing is to be honest with yourself about it. (Though she was also quick to point out, there’s not usually a lot of money in the writing world. So, if you want to do it to become a Best-Selling millionaire, you might want to rethink your career choice. :P)

#5: How Do You Stay True to Yourself?

The self-evaluation reiterated why we wanted to write, but another scary thing about writing is the dichotomy Tosca highlighted: we need to write what we want so it’s authentic and unique, but we also need to sell books to keep writing! Writers need readers, or our stories will never really be told. How do we find the right balance? How do we stay true to ourselves while delivering something to someone else?

Tosca’s solution? Think about the reasons you read!

If your favorite stories are your favorites because of their great characters, interesting premises, confident storytelling, and unique voice, then write stories that have those characteristics! Write stories you’d want to read.

Tosca reminded us that we read speculative fiction to escape, whether that be to flee a boring normal life or a terrible one, or just to visit places we’d never be able to go to otherwise. This is the main job of an entertainer: to entertain! And that entertaining—telling a good story, taking the reader for a ride in a fantastic setting—is incredibly valuable and powerful, Tosca said.

If you tell your story well, it can become a part of someone’s life. It can help people who are struggling to get through a hard time. It can help people who have undergone trauma to know they’re not alone. It can help people who feel isolated to know there are others like them somewhere.

Be honest about your reasons for writing and stay true to them... but find where those reasons intersect with why the reader wants to read. Write the kinds of great stories you want to read. Write for that ideal audience that loves the same stuff you do.

That’s what produces stories that are honest, the ones that resonate with people. And it’s the best way to fight back against the fear that tries to keep you from telling your stories.


From Him, To Him

Friday, December 21, 2018

Confessions of a Writer Who Couldn't Write Character Flaws

Up until recently, I found it very difficult to write flawed characters.

I fall deeply in love with my characters, so I really want other people to like them as much as I do. This makes showing others my work a terrifying event. It feels like bringing a boyfriend home for my parents to meet. Will they like him? Will he say something dumb that misrepresents who I know he is? It turns me into a ball of nerves; I’m sure something catastrophic will happen that will leave them despising each other.

It got me so worried, in fact, that I wouldn’t give my characters real flaws. My characters used to be idealized people: my perfect idea of a boyfriend, or my idea of the perfect girl.

But perfect characters aren’t perfect reading material!

My characters may have stayed polished and flawless if it weren’t for my fear of Mary Sues. As I’ve written about before, claiming a character is a Mary Sue is practically a death-sentence for that character’s popularity. So I wanted to avoid it at all costs by proving that my characters weren’t perfect. I had to slap some flaws onto them, quick!

To this day, I giggle thinking about the “flaws” I tried to throw onto Jaranin, the protagonist of The Victor’s Blade. Messy hair, clumsiness (which never negatively affected him). The only flaw that really had any bearing on the narrative was his naivete. Back then, I wasn’t trying to develop real flaws; I was just tossing out random quirks. I didn’t understand that flaws have to be something that cause problems for the character in ways that matter.

I didn’t want to give my characters genuine flaws because I was scared it’d make them unlikeable. If Jaranin were boastful, who would want to root for him? If Isalaina were whiny all the time, why would anyone want to read about her?

Character flaws are a balancing act. If a character is too flawed, it can be hard to root for them. But a character without flaws is annoying, even if no one says they’re a Mary Sue.

I still struggle with character flaws to some extent, but I’ve found a trick that makes it easier to find that sweet spot between flaws and redeemable qualities. My secret? I sprinkle my own flaws onto characters. It sure helps me to relate to the characters, and it gives more nuance to a character rather than artificially giving them an abstract, big ol’ seven deadly sin to wrestle with.

For instance, Prince Aeron struggles with pride, a flaw I wrestle with daily. On the surface he may seem like a stereotypical pompous overlord, but there’s more going on under the hood than that. There are reasons he is the way he is. For one, he’s been raised in a country that has thrived off nationalistic racism for thousands of years. He’s been groomed to believe people from the next-door nation of Hoarnaest are lesser due to their lack of education and their base culture compared to his own politically-nuanced people. His pride comes from the near-godlike status his people bestow upon royalty, giving him a superiority complex. He doesn’t even realize how stuck-up and ignorant he is until he finds himself drawn to a servant-girl who’s from Hoarnaest. Only after building that relationship and having her confront his behavior does he realize what a jerk he’s been all along... and that he’s not, in fact, better than anyone else around him.

Putting my own flaws into characters not only helps me relate to them better, it helps me get into their heads. Understanding how a character thinks helps me write them more realistically, enabling their flaws to drive their decisions.

One of my favorite flaws to work with is cowardice and fear. People will go to great lengths to avoid things they fear. How far will this character go to prevent their greatest fear from happening? What crimes would they commit? What loved ones would they push away? What tragic events would they initiate? Not to mention it creates great dramatic tension when a character is forced to confront their fear at last.

I’ve found putting my own flaws into characters also helps keep them likeable even despite them being flawed. I think it’s because it helps keep them grounded and vulnerable, human. It’s easier to show their reasons for why they act on these flaws or how much they struggle with them. For instance, showing a character loathing their flaw and wrestling with it almost always makes them more likeable. We naturally want to root for them, want them to win and become better people.

Photo by Tom Pumford on Unsplash

It’s tough to write a character with flaws without alienating the audience. And sometimes, alienating some audience members is unavoidable: what some readers can forgive, others will find unforgiveable. But writing isn’t about pleasing the biggest number of people; it’s about writing the best story you can for your ideal audience.

I’m glad my characters have grown along with me, but the fight to write more realistic, multi-dimensional characters is never quite done. I’m excited to see how much further my characters will grow with me in the days going forward!


From Him, To Him

Friday, December 14, 2018

Character Study: Reki (Haibane Renmei)

This post will contain spoilers for

Haibane Renmei

You have been warned.

"This is my cocoon dream. The nightmare that has been tormenting my existence in this world... I remember cold winds stinging my cheeks that were wet from tears... I was too tired to think. I remember wanting to become a stone. A stone that doesn’t feel pain. Or sorrow."1

The seeming simplicity of Haibane Renmei hides fascinating depth just beneath the surface. No character mirrors this quality more than Reki.

Funimation 2002

Reki, along with the rest of the main cast, are Haibane, beings nearly indistinguishable from a human except for their angel-like wings and floating halos. It’s said becoming a Haibane is a rebirth, but no one knows why the Haibane are born or who they were before, as these memories all disappear the moment a Haibane is born. Haibane must lead highly-structured lives as dictated by the shaman-like people called the Toga. Part of this structured life includes living in one of two abandoned buildings on the edge of the walled-off town of Glie. Only the Toga are allowed to leave Glie, but it’s a good life.

Though it’s not all sunshine and rainbows.

From episode one the show implies there’s something significant about Reki. We eventually discover Reki has been singled out her whole life: she is a “Sin-bound” Haibane, having committed some wrong in her previous life. Even though Reki cannot remember what this sin was and doesn’t know what to do to atone for it, most Haibane avoid Reki out of fear.

Reki’s Backstory

But there’s one Haibane who sees Reki as someone worthy of attention and care: her best friend and mentor, an adult Haibane named Kuramori. But just as Reki opens up to Kuramori, Kuramori undergoes her “Day of Flight” and leaves Glie. The Day of Flight is a kind of second death for a Haibane, a peaceful ascent from this world. Every Haibane undergoes the Day of Flight, but no one knows when it will happen nor why.

Reki feels she’s been abandoned by the one person she felt understood her. Desperate to find answers and to reunite with her departed friend, Reki drifts even further from the other Haibane of Old Home, instead befriending the Haibane who live in the abandoned factory on the other side of town. In particular, Reki bonds with a male Haibane named Hyouko, who is determined to help Reki.

Hyouko and Reki concoct a plan to scale the walls and escape Glie. But touching the walls is forbidden and allegedly brings a curse upon those who do so. Sure enough, Hyouko falls and sustains injuries while trying to scale the wall; and he and Reki are punished for their disobedience. Rather than helping Reki deal with Kuramori’s loss, the incident only causes more tension and strained relationships, not just between Reki and Hyouko, but also between Reki and the other Haibane of the factory, who blame Reki for Hyouko’s injuries.

This leaves Reki feeling abandoned or misunderstood by Old Home and cast out from the Factory. She is Sin-Bound without fully knowing what that means, for no one can tell her what sin she committed or what she must do to fix it before her own Day of Flight arrives. All this causes Reki to feel bitter and lonely, haunted by her sins. As the years pass, Reki feels she’s only adding to her sin rather than atoning for her initial wrong.

Reki’s Lie

Reki’s sins are complicated and multifaceted. Even her first sin is only hinted at, and Reki can recall nothing about her previous life. Not even Reki herself understands her sins, as evidenced by her faulty view of her own behavior.

Rakka, the newest Haibane
Reki claims that her worst sin was treating the newest Haibane, Rakka, as a tool to be used. Reki says that all her time spent caring for Rakka when the new Haibane came was all just an act to earn redemption. She says she was only acting selfishly and manipulatively, using Rakka to redeem herself rather than genuinely helping Rakka out of a selfless nature and a desire to help someone else.

However, her own behavior contradicts this.

For one, even before Rakka is “born,” Reki speaks tenderly to Rakka’s cocoon. There’s no need for Reki to put on an air of gentleness here; she is alone with Rakka’s cocoon, with no guarantee that Rakka can hear her inside. But in this moment of vulnerability, Reki vows she’ll help and protect Rakka and asks Rakka to help her. This is no manipulation; it’s the heartfelt request of a young woman who remembers what it was like when she was the frightened newcomer in the cocoon, who Kuramori took under her wing.

Funimation 2002

Funimation 2002
Once Rakka emerges from her cocoon, Reki remains with her every step of the way. Reki cares for Rakka like an older sister, tending to her like she were family, even staying up all night when Rakka’s wings first burst from her back, causing her great pain.

Certainly, Reki could have tended to the new Haibane out of selfishness, but she goes through such incredible lengths to care for Rakka that it’s clear she’s doing so out of concern for a newborn Haibane she sympathizes with. Reki waits with Rakka through the critical first hours when Rakka’s wings emerge. Reki brings Rakka medicine and offers her own thumb for Rakka to bite to deal with the pain. Reki is the one to stay and comb Rakka’s new wings until they’re clean.

Reki never would have so tenderly administered to Rakka’s every need if she were only interested in using Rakka. And she certainly would have never allowed the other Haibane to help; but it’s clear that while Reki enjoys helping Rakka, she doesn’t keep the newcomer for herself.

Though Reki might be mistaken about using Rakka, Reki isn’t without her flaws.

Reki’s Struggle

When Reki discovers Rakka is also Sin-bound, something shifts for Reki. She clearly sympathizes with Rakka; she knows how scary and intimidating, confusing and isolating being Sin-bound is. She seems to mourn alongside Rakka while trying to shield Rakka from some of the weight of responsibility and fear by giving Rakka medicine that conceals the dark spots on her wings that mark her as Sin-bound.

All the while, Reki thinks for once, there’s someone who’s going through the same things as her. She’s not alone anymore.

So when Rakka quickly and (relatively) easily cures herself of her Sin-bound status, while Reki is still struggling with her own, Reki becomes jealous. Having struggled with bitterness all her life, this is when that flower fully blooms. Reki knows this means she’s being left alone again. And this, in turn, stirs her greatest fear: that she will always be alone, left behind as everyone else redeems themselves, lives a good life, and undergoes their Day of Flight to abandon her.

Reki lets herself slip into her darkest side. As Reki senses her Day of Flight drawing near, feeling all hope is lost, she lashes out at Rakka in anger and self-hatred, trying to push Rakka away. At least if Reki gets her to run away, she will maintain control over the situation. Better than someone abandoning her again.

Reki fears and loathes her dark side and incorrectly asserts that this is her true self, that this is who she’s been the whole time. This is the point where Reki proclaims that she was merely using Rakka the whole time. In her stupor of pain and fear, Reki lies to Rakka and herself, convinced she was never anything more than a terrible sinner who deserves to be alone. Reki lies out of fear; in part fear of abandonment and in part fear of her own dark nature. Reki is flawed and imperfect.

Reki asserts that she’s used Rakka, but this is just her attempt to push others away, refusing help as she has all along. Feeling isolated and abandoned, Reki has tried to become a rock, a self-sustaining person who never needs to rely on others again. After all, the last time she relied on someone, they abandoned her. Even after Reki struggles with her Sin-bound nature for seven long years, she never once asks for help. She won’t let herself.

Reki’s Redemption

But despite Reki’s best efforts to push Rakka away, Rakka still refuses to give up on her friend.

When Rakka is first reborn as a Haibane, Reki has almost given up hope for her own future. But Rakka is one of the first brand-new cocoons to appear in a long time, and to Reki, it symbolizes a fresh start, one last hope.

Reki has no idea how true this perception is; Rakka is indeed Reki’s final hope. Though she begins quite naive, Rakka eventually grows through her own experiences thanks to the other Haibanes’ (including Reki’s) care. Rakka’s growth enables her to see Reki in ways no one else has. She sees past Reki’s tough and independent exterior to the hurtbeneath. She learns of Reki’s deepest fears and darkest impulses. Still, Rakka is willing to even see past Reki at her worst, refusing to give up on her.

Reki says she doesn’t want to be saved—that she’s not worthy of being saved. She believes she has to unravel the mystery of her sin and how to atone on her own; and, since she has not (though Rakka has), she must not be worthy to find these answers at all. But the riddle she can’t unravel is that her sin, though complex, only requires something simple to overcome. Reki must learn to open herself up to potential abandonment. She must ask others for help. But Reki has built up pride from her isolation. She hasn’t connected to anyone enough to trust them this much...

No one... except Rakka.

The moment Reki cries out for Rakka to save her, the curse of her sin shatters. Her suffering is finally over. And she discovers she was never beyond grace and redemption. Hope was never lost, even when she’d given into despair.

What Reki doesn’t realize is that even her smallest acts of kindness helped bring her to this moment. Neither Reki nor Rakka could have rescued her on their own. When Rakka was still within her cocoon, Reki had asked her for help. She’d promised they’d help each other. And this is precisely what happened. Reki cared for Rakka, helping teach her what it meant to be a Haibane. This enabled Rakka to grow and even surpass Reki in maturity... so Rakka could be there to help Reki in her time of direst need.

Simple but complex. Sinful but redeemable. Fearful yet beautiful. This describes Haibane Renmei... and it describes Reki, too.

Notes and References:
  1. Reki, Haibane Renmei, “Reki’s World – Prayer – Epilogue,” Episode 13, Directed by Tomokazu Tokoro, December 18, 2002, Funimation.
Photo of Rakka from All others from Photos property of their respective owners and used under US "Fair Use" laws.

Haibane Renmei and all related names and terms are the property of Funimation.

From Him, To Him

Friday, December 7, 2018

Captain America: Flaws vs. Weaknesses

Note: Made a slight revision to this post after I watched the new Avengers: Endgame trailer and remembered just how bad Thanos is. My apologies for the slight mistake in information.

This post will contain spoilers for

The Marvel Cinematic Universe,

including Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America: Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, and Avengers: Infinity War

You have been warned.

Mary Sues have everything handed to them on a silver platter. Every other character in the story thinks they’re amazing. Not so in the real world; the audience usually despises them. So when a character is deemed a Mary Sue, it’s basically a death-sentence for their popularity.

That’s for the perfect Mary Sue, but what happens to characters who simply have no notable flaws? What about characters who seem... not perfect, but certainly intrinsically good?

I’ve written before about how Captain America seems to escape the Mary Sue punishment. But catching up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe unearthed a question I’ve been puzzling over ever since:

Are flaws and weaknesses two different things?

Marvel Studios 2016, via The Movie DB
Captain America does not have any notable character flaws. He’s firm in his beliefs, and that causes conflict sometimes. But is that really a flaw? I guess you could argue he’s stubborn, fighting for what he believes is right even when his own best friends stand in opposition to that. But... when have Cap’s convictions been wrong? Makes it hard to call this trait a flaw. And if it is a flaw, it’s one that only endears him to the audience even more.

But while most characters without flaws get accused of being a Mary Sue, Cap gets a pass. I have yet to hear someone argue the Captain America of the MCU is a Mary Sue. I’ve never heard anyone complain about him not having any flaws. So... if Mary Sues are so loathed because they don’t have flaws, how come Cap doesn’t suffer the hate?

It doesn’t make sense to me... unless there’s a difference between character flaws and character weaknesses.

Character flaws are something bad the character does on a regular basis; it’s a vice they struggle with. For instance, Tony Stark’s alcoholism or Dr. Strange’s pride. Flaws are things that we really shouldn’t like about a character. This is why when I experimented with making an unlikable character, Cassius, I tried to pack as many character flaws onto him as I could. He was loud and lying, cold and cruel, selfish, and so delighted in brutality it bordered on sadism.

According to this definition of a character flaw, I don’t think Captain America has any. However, Cap still isn’t a Mary Sue.

Why? Because he’s not all-powerful: he may not have character flaws, but he does have weaknesses that legitimately debilitate him and keep him at a relatable human level.

A character’s weaknesses may include character flaws, but “weakness” is a broader term. It’s anything that makes the character weak. It could be a physical weakness (like Superman’s weakness to Kryptonite), a relational one (How often did Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man villains kidnap Mary Jane to get to Spidey), an emotional weakness, or more. It could be a tragic backstory that has left the character scarred and fearful of intimacy. It could be something the character isn’t willing to lose, something that will push them to do anything to protect it.

Weaknesses, obviously, aren’t always inherently bad things. We all have weaknesses of many kinds... and our friend Cap is no exception.

Cap may be suped up on super soldier serum; but he has enough weaknesses that it’s not hard to recall he’s still just a human being.

So what are some of Cap’s weaknesses?

A Man Out of Time

One of the most obvious weaknesses Cap struggles with is cultural. He’s literally a man out of his time. The beginning of Winter Soldier did a great job showing that adjusting to our modern world is and continues to be a bit of a struggle for Cap.

Just think about all the technology he had to adjust to. That’s no easy task for people who didn’t grow up around it; just ask any elderly person to try turning on a computer.

Marvel Studios 2014, via The Hollywood Reporter
It’s not just a change in tech that Cap has to deal with, but also changes in media and culture. His pop culture iconography “to-do list” is endearing, but it also highlights how much he feels he’s missed out on, how far behind he is, how he’s still trying to catch up to a world that rolled on without him.

And that’s minor compared to the cultural shift. One of my favorite scenes from the entire MCU occurs when Cap chastises Tony about his language almost without thinking, and how Tony and the rest of the team keep teasing him for it. It’s a detail that is, again, endearing, while showing how drastically the culture has shifted from Cap’s time to now. That’s a tough adjustment to make.

With all these things Cap has missed out on and needs to learn (or relearn), it’d be easy to feel isolated. Alone.

And I think he does.

Emotional and Relational Weaknesses

Cap has lost the people he was closest to, who are also the only people who could understand what he’s going through... the people who could rescue him from his weakness of loneliness.

Marvel Studios 2011, Captain America: The First Avenger
Take Peggy, for instance. Though losing his brave and beautiful “dance partner” doesn’t affect his performance as a superhero outwardly, you can see how deeply it’s hurt him. It’s hard for him to even consider getting into a romantic relationship with someone else, especially after Peggy dies, even though he’s clearly interested in getting married and having a family.

And then there’s his best friend Bucky. Not only has he lost Bucky, but he’s had to endure losing him three times: once when Bucky fell to his seeming death during a wartime mission, next when Bucky was brainwashed and forced to fight against Cap, and finally when Thanos snapped his fingers and eliminated half the universe's population.

Marvel Studios 2011
Captain America: The First Avenger behind the scenes via Rebloggy

It’s hard to pull through the loss of one important person in your life, but the two people closest to you? That’s a tough hit to take. And wounds, more often than not, cause weaknesses, as is the case for Cap. The loss of his friends creates hurt and leaves him lonely.

But it’s thrilling to watch Cap fight against his weaknesses, especially when we know how difficult those weaknesses are for him to deal with. We want to see characters whose weaknesses are pushed and preyed upon, because it brings the characters to their lowest points... and gives them a chance to overcome them in the end.

So when we say we want flawed characters, a character with weaknesses might work just as well. Which is why I think flaws and weaknesses are two very different things... and why audiences might be okay with characters who may not be as “flawed” as we think they need to be.

Photos used under US "Fair Use" laws.

Captain America and all related terms property of Marvel Entertainment, LLC and Walt Disney Studios. And I am not affiliated with them.

From Him, To Him