An Ode to Superheroes

I have always loved superheroes. Always. I remember waking up on Saturday mornings or rushing home every day after school just so I could park myself in front of the T.V. I rarely missed an episode of Spider-man or the X-men as they battled their foes. I even watched the old-school, live-action version of Batman with Adam West. As I grew up, I never lost that love. I still watch every superhero movie when it comes out and think about them often. I’ll be the first person in line when The Guardians of the Galaxy movie comes out. I would even tell you about the dream where I lived out my own episode of Doctor Who if I wasn’t thwarted by the evil that is my alarm clock and its dream-erasing abilities.

In the past I’ve written a blog post titled Why We Love Superheroes, but I never explained why comic book lore is so important to me. I turned to superheroes because I needed them. I can still recall an incident when I was six years old and my superheroes served me well. After a day of being teased at school, back when I hadn’t made a single friend, I headed home, bundled up in a new blue snow suit. It was my first Canadian winter and I wasn’t used to wearing so many layers. I looked like the clumsy Smurf cousin of the Pillsbury doughboy. It was also the first time I fell into a small, icy ditch, (and yes, that’s happened more often than I’d like to admit).

All the layers I wore acted as a cushion but it didn’t keep my bare face from smashing against the ice. I hit the ground, right cheek first. Stunned, I tried to get up but the ground so slippery that each time I found my legs, I fell again. Aside from the actual fall and the bruise that covered my face for a good two weeks after, what I remember the most about that incident was that I didn’t cry. I didn’t fall apart or give up. Instead, I just kept trying to stand up and crawl out of that ditch.

Why? Because Spider-man didn’t cry. Batman wouldn’t stay down after he took a hit. The X-men didn’t give up in the face of adversity. And I wanted to be like my heroes.

Superheroes are our modern-day incarnates of ancient myths. They inspire us to rise above our limits and circumstances in order to become something greater. They teach us to believe that through our actions, we can change the world. They are role models that show us that integrity and morality are a choice, and that the choice can be a difficult one that often comes at cost. And most importantly, they reflect the best in us — our strengths and our vulnerabilities.

As I’ve gotten older, my definition of the word ‘hero’ has evolved. It’s no longer limited to those who can fly and crawl up walls. Many of my current heroes have no superpowers. But they’ve taught me that showing courage, providing inspiration, persevering, and being compassionate are the kind of superpowers that can be greater than invisibility and superhuman strength. Writers like Stan Lee and J.K. Rowling gave me worlds to disappear into when the reality I lived in crumbled. I once had a teacher who made me stand up and answer questions until I learned to speak up for myself and another who told me that I could do anything I wanted. The former gave me a voice, the latter changed my life. During my toughest times, I have also been able to turn to great friends. When it comes to finding good ones, I have been uncommonly lucky.

As I prepare to prepare to head into the publishing world with my book series, The Dark Matter Chronicles, I’ve turned to my superheroes once again. Through my characters, I get to live out my hopes and fears on blank pages. And I’m not at all surprised that when I made the choice to be a writer, I created a world where superheroes exist but still struggle to find their place.

While I try to find my place in this world, I’ve encountered a lot of people who have told me to put away the kind of dreams and fantasies that are often associated with childhood. You can’t build a life imagining superheroes, they said. I know now that they were wrong. I’m glad I was too childish to listen. They are welcome to become proper grown-ups if that’s what suits them. I prefer to be that six-year-old kid who got back up thanks to a team of caped crusaders.

The Importance of Failure

At some point you’re going to fail. It’s inevitable, especially if you’re a writer.  It’s what you do with failure that really counts. If you accept that’s an opportunity, (or ‘crisortunity’ as I’ve learned from Homer Simpson), then you can use it as a platform to succeed upon while learning something about yourself in the process.

I recommend that everyone watch JK Rowling’s Harvard commencement speech on the importance of failure. It’s a lesson we all need a reminder of every once in a while.

What The Hunger Games Has Taught Me About Writing

If you haven’t heard of a little book/soon to be in theatres movie called The Hunger Games, then chances are you don’t live on planet Earth, (or you’re not a fan of YA books which is also possible but somehow less likely in my twisted mind). With all the anticipation surrounding the movie, I couldn’t help but reflect on how I have been influenced by the books. I’ve read through the series 3 times now and each time, I’ve learned something new.

Here are a few of the most important lessons I’ve taken from The Hunger Games:

Introduce your world at the beginning.

I don’t just mean within the first chapter, I mean within the first paragraph. I’ve mentioned how important an opening sentence is to setting the tone for the rest of the book in an earlier post. It’s equally as important that the reader knows what kind of book they’re getting into. A strong opening that captures the essence of the book and hooks a reader in will help your audience stick with it for longer. Not only that, it lets them know what they’re in for. In the first paragraph of The Hunger Games, we know that Katniss wakes up on the day of the reaping (a word closely related to reaper, which we associate with death). Just a quick mention of reaping day and that’s enough to keep readers going until the author has a chance to build an emotional connection with the reader.  Which leads to my next point…

Create an emotional connection early on.

When you reveal something personal about your main character, (e.g. the relationship between Katniss and her younger, more fragile sister Prim), it makes your protagonist more relatable. The easier it is relate to him or her, the easier it is for you to build an emotional connection with your readers. That’s how you get people invested in your characters and stick with them until the end. For me, I connected with the story when Prim’s name was chosen and Katniss volunteers in her place. That was the moment I became fully invested in Suzanne Collins’s world. Again, this plot point occurred early on (end of chapter 1/beginning of chapter 2).

Be honest about human nature.

The reason why this series strikes such a chord with so many people is because the issues presented within it are a reflection of many things happening in our world. The division between rich and poor, the garishness of reality TV, and the ongoing wars and violent acts that are carried out everyday are just some of the issues that it touches upon. While your story doesn’t haven’t to revolve around specific events in our world, (or even take place on Earth), it should tell the truth about human nature. Like all artists, writers have a responsibility to tell the truth—about who people are, what we’re like, what we’ll do—in any given circumstance. A good book will hold up a mirror to humanity and say ‘here you are’. And when a book tells the truth as well as The Hunger Games does, people are responsive to it.

Create a logical and consistent world.

Everything about the world within The Hunger Games is rational. It makes complete sense as to why society organized the way it did, why the games take place, why the people behave as they do. I’ve found that if I ask any ‘why’ question about the world, the answer I get will be consistent with the answer to any other ‘why’ question.  This is because the world is well thought out. This is what every writer should strive for. I find that sometimes writers don’t spend enough of time on this and when they don’t, it always shows. It usually means there are gaps in the background story, plot, or with character development. Odds are that your reader will walk away unsatisfied. If your world fundamentally doesn’t make sense, your readers will know. And it will detract from the quality of your work.

If you’re like me, (neurotic with a long list of issues), or a fan of the book, you’ve probably already bought your ticket for opening weekend. In which case, I’ll see you guys in line at the theater. I should warn you though; I have developed a method to shove people out of my way as I run to the best seats at back. And since there were 8 Harry Potter movies, I’ve gotten pretty good at it.

May the odds be ever in your favor.

Simple Ideas Lead to Scientific Discoveries (and Great Novels?)

We’ve all heard the expression that the simplest idea/solution is usually the correct one. I think that definitely applies to the field of science but it also applies to writing. I find that the best stories, (even the ones that are very intricate), are simple at their core. *On a side note: I’ve touched upon this topic in my post about The Simpsons and Writing (see below).*

I’ll use one of my favorite series as an example: Harry Potter. *Spoiler Alert*: skip this paragraph if you haven’t read the book but want to! If you’ve read the series then you know that each of the 7 books has its own plot line with many twists, characters, Chekhov guns, and plot details. J.K. Rowling has created a very elaborate world with a million little parts that all add up into something that’s magical yet tangible–a world you’d actually want to be a part of. Who would pass up on a chance to go to Hogwarts, am I right? At the same time, it has an underlying plot line that permeates the entire story; one goal that all 7 books work towards. I think the entire story can be summed up with 2 statements: ‘Boy learns he’s a wizard and goes to wizarding school’ and ‘Hallows vs Horcruxes’. Interesting fact: J.K. Rowling has said that idea came to her as ‘boy who’s a wizard that doesn’t know he’s a wizard’. That one simple idea launched one of the most beloved and successful series of all time.

As with science, it’s important to remember that when it comes to writing, the simplest ideas are often the most powerful. That’s not to say that story can’t have depth and layers. It should. But it should also convey simple truths and revolve around one central idea. That one idea then becomes the foundation that the story and all its details rest upon. And anything that isn’t consistent or relevant to it should be cut out in the editing process.

I highly recommend this short and interesting TED Talk that elaborates on this topic wonderfully. Take a look and enjoy!