Read Bad Fiction

"Booze" by James Perkins, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

By which, of course, I mean you should read some fan fiction!

I kid, I kid… people talk shit about fan fiction but when you really think about it, all of those Expanded Universe Star Wars novels are professional fan fiction.

I am not going to talk about fan fiction. I did want to write a brief post about an idea I had based on a conversation over at Renee Branson‘s post for writing tips, which is that we shouldn’t be afraid to read bad fiction.

By bad fiction, I mean poorly-written, boring, frenetic, or even maddeningly bad fiction. Crappy characters, purple prose, excessive world building and obligatory infodumping, stereotypical fantasy cultures, tropes so obvious that you trip over them, that sort of thing.

Don’t just roll your eyes as you slag through each page, possibly drinking to kill the pain. Put your suffering to good use and take notes on everything the author did poorly. Then, don’t repeat those mistakes in your own writing.

For example, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (yes, a film) shows me how not to write the third act of a story. The Lord of the Rings, though a masterpiece in several respects, shows me how not to describe my world with flowery prose. Andromeda Strain shows me how to not completely ruin the suspense built up over the entire novel with an idiotic ending. Ender’s Game is in almost every way a novel I would not write, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post. I learned a lot from it. You catch my drift.

Like The Lord of the Rings, there are lessons to be had from good fiction as well but bad fiction makes it easier and more fun to tear apart.

So, don’t fear the bad fiction. Read it and learn from it.

What’s your take? Is it worth the effort to read bad fiction? Should we all just give up and read fan fiction? Leave a comment.

Featured image is “Booze” by James Perkins, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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Writing when you’re scared of novels

"Writing" by Jonathan Kim, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Continuing from my post on writing short stories, while I explained that I find short stories fun, I did reflect on my own philosophy a bit and questioned it. I asked myself, “do I write short stories only because I find them more fun than novels? Or am I scared of writing a novel-length piece of fiction?”

I’ll address some of my thought processes when I consider writing a novel and why I ultimately go with short stories. Are these legitimate concerns and considerations? I’ll let you decide that.

“Great novels are ‘complicated'”

While I am not terribly well-read on the classics, I have read a few great novels – Dune, The Lord of the Rings, etc – and I have chatted with my writer friends about writing novels. The common theme is that the foundation of a great novel includes:

  • a complex plot, such as multiple sub-plots that all tie and weave together
  • a healthy gaggle of characters to spice it up (related to an interweaving of subplots)
  • multiple villains or at least a big bad and his dragons – or at the minimum, a struggle with an antagonist (no matter the form) so profound that we all relate to it
  • grand, over-arching themes
  • lots of death and pain and suffering (or the threat of it)

Short stories miss the mark in each of these. Even in more modern epic masterpieces like Fullmetal Alchemist, the truly memorable stories are composed of these basic elements. To be honest, I do enjoy reading or watching a greatly written epic. I like to write simple stories, though. But while I say I like to write short stories because they are simple, am I saying that partly to justify my flagging self-esteem issues with feeling I “can’t” write complicated stories? Possibly.

I often say, “I don’t think I have enough ideas to put into a novel.” I tend to underwrite on word-count. I do dislike bloated writing and like to avoid unnecessary sub-plots and complications. It seems, though, that the successful novels are simple in their complexity, if that makes sense. How do they keep their immaculate bonsai tree from turning into an overgrown shrub in need of pruning?

Novels are like tribbles: they multiply

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harry potter 1-7” by kayepants, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

As a species, we like to continue mining an established world or story for as long as it produces good stuff. Forgetting even television and film reboots, look at the books related to Star Wars, Star Trek, Dune, Harry Potter, A Song of Ice and Fire, The Wheel of Time, and more. We love series. There is a marketing advantage in that it’s easier to profit off of an established audience than to venture into something new. While established is boring, new is risky and could fail.

I also get nervous at the idea that “everybody” eventually writes a sequel. I know, not literally everyone but it seems like it at times. I have never wanted to continue a story once I finished it. Maybe if I succeeded in writing a novel, I would feel like all of my effort should not go to waste. Maybe it takes a certain visionary edge to see novel-potential in a story where I don’t, or haven’t trained myself to. Maybe I haven’t written a story yet that I love enough to continue dreaming and thinking about.

Honestly, I think I would get bored.

Novels are too “easy”

Novel-writing can be relatively easy compared to writing a short story in regards to stress. The biggest problem may be getting enough words on the page. It’s much less stressful to write a fully fleshed out novel when you have infinite space to communicate your world. If you hang out with novel writers, you’re likely to discuss the fear of cutting a world down to a short story.

Like writing haiku, I appreciate the skill in writing short stories. It takes a certain degree of discernment that I find a lot of novel authors have but don’t practice and strengthen.

“Everyone” is doing it

"Let's Stick Together" by tHeDiGiTaLdRoPoUt licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Let’s Stick Together” by tHeDiGiTaLdRoPoUt licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The rebel inside of me feels that if “everyone” is writing a novel then I will swim against the current and write short stories instead. Short stories aren’t as marketable? I’ll prove that opinion wrong. I enjoy being the odd one out a lot of the time, as long as I am succeeding at doing what I do.

Obviously, not every story idea should be turned into a novel. I need a really compelling story to feel it can graduate past novella territory. I always assume that mine are not novel-material, and it then cycles back into the idea that I like simple stories so I avoid letting my stories get too complicated.

I wonder how many great story ideas were tossed aside because they couldn’t be turned into novels!

Short stories often morph into novels

On the other side of the coin, it’s true that there are novels that started as shorter or serialized pieces.

Ender’s Game, for example, started as a novelette about Ender’s military school training. Herbert worked the ideas of the epic Dune into various shorter and serialized works before finally publishing the entire epic. The speculative fiction novel Flowers for Algernon was an expansion of the short story of the same name (which I have read; the novel I have not). Asimov’s original Foundation of the Foundation series was basically a collection of short stories as was Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. Both span generations within the timeframe of the book.

It happens, but not often.

Novels have more impact

It’s also true that we as a public don’t read creative writing publications like we used to, so it’s harder to get exposure as a short story author. Publishers save costs by producing longer works. Is it worth more of an author’s effort to dive right into writing a novel, or even a series? If I want to get published, should I strive to write a novel?

Or is it more likely that while short stories can be successful and explore odd new ideas, it’s the novels that make a lasting impact? On any given layman’s list of books, I’m pretty sure that novels would outnumber short stories 10 to 1, if shorts even make it on the list. Shorts get published in a themed anthology. Novels get their own books. There is a sense of accomplishment associated with finishing a long novel, while short stories don’t pack as much punch.

Challenging oneself

Ultimately, it might come down to something like preferring watercolour over oil painting. Through this self-reflection, I think I earnestly do prefer to read and write short stories. Writing good short stories requires skill, and a well-written short story is a joy to read. I like the quick pay-off and the flexibility to pick up and finish a short story in an afternoon. They are also easier to critique.

Like I said in my post on short stories, if you are afraid of short stories, then you should face that fear and write them. On the other hand, I need to listen to my own advice. If I am afraid of writing a novel, I should challenge myself and write one. I will make an effort to be more open-minded toward a story’s potential and not be afraid of turning it into a longer work. Perhaps I will make planning a novel my second 2018 goal.

What’s your take – are these compelling arguments for and against writing a novel? Is a short-story author just a timid novel author waiting to come out? Did you participate in NaNoWriMo? Let me know and leave a comment.

Featured image is “Writing” by Jonathan Kim, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

My writing group, December 2017: short stories and getting published

"Untitled" by Ivan Marcin, licensed under CC BY-NV 2.0

I regularly attend a writer’s group with my husband and his-now-our friends. He introduced me to the group, knowing that I at one time was a creative writer before college sapped my creative energy. I was energized to get back into my old writing groove – only I realized I had a lot to improve upon!

There is usually an organically developing theme that dominates the group discussion. One month recently it was developing strong female characters. This month, the novel writers (of which I am not, apparently none of my longer works are novels) were discussing the merits of writing and reading short stories. The other topic of discussion was the process of getting published: conferences, agents, etc. I wanted to continue the discussion into the digital world because I know there is a lot to be said on both topics.

I wrote a follow-up post, Writing When You’re Scared of Novels, on my thought processes that go into deciding not to write a novel and what I intend to do about it.

“Short stories are the one-night stands of creative fiction”

“Didn’t everyone write and read short stories?” I thought to myself.

The group seemed a bit mystified by these exotic creatures known as short stories. The main drawback cited was a lot of investment with little payoff. You start reading, get into the world and BAM. It’s over. My contribution to the discussion was that some of us like the “one night stands” of stories (not my words!). I intentionally seek out the short short short stories.

So, what is so magical about short stories? After I have thought about it some, it can seem like there is little pay-off but the deeper reward is much more gratifying: in a few thousand words, you can read an entirely encapsulated world with a few characters, an engaging story, and themes which can be played more effectively sometimes than in a novel. You can say a lot more in fewer words in a short story, and read it in the span of a few hours (if you’re a tortoise reader like me).

On a related note, I have been writing haiku for years and I think it’s related to my impatience with reading: if you can’t capture in three lines what it takes you to say in twenty lines, then I lose interest. Like haiku, short stories get to the heart of a story. I can’t remember the last time I read a novel for the first time. I repeat lots of reads, usually three or four times.

(Actually, I am currently reading a very interesting new-read novel, and I am enjoying it, so this may be part of my laziness).

Other than haiku poetry, I have written numerous short stories, and conceived many more. I think in short stories, and I am always working to keep my longer works as short as possible. I have never ever considered a sequel or a trilogy or a nine-ology or a prequel (though, neither have some novel authors). Two of my favourite books, Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and Asimov’s Foundation, — okay I lied, only one of those is a favourite — started as a collection of short stories compiled into a longer, much more well-known work. Also, most episodic television can be seen as glorified short stories.

Short stories can also serve as an outlet to flesh out a world, where you dump all of your 100% original and essential fictional history into a few thousand words of short stories instead of awkwardly crowbarred into a longer work (not throwing shade at anyone, I have done exactly that). Fantasy especially suffers from long-winded story-telling and I always recommend to put all of that crap into a couple of short stories. It’s a win-win situation: you can actually tell the story with the right characters and make the reader care, you can discover new things about your longer story, and then you can reference that short story either in dialogue or in chapters (a la The Left Hand of Darkness). It also saves me from pulling myself through backstory when I want to get to the story.

So what would I suggest?

So, all of this to say: if you write novels and are afraid of running into a gang of short stories in a dark alley one rainy night and all you have to defend yourself with is a bludgeoning object Brandon Sanderson novel, by all means write short stories! But actually, they aren’t a gang. They want to sit down and get to know you and your characters. Just one character, maybe two.

If you write long short stories, cut that crap down to a flash fiction. I dare you. Rip off all of your short story’s clothes and leave that precious story exposed and shivering. Write a short segment of conflict/resolution from the POV of a character you have neglected. Try writing for a short short story contest. You will learn quickly what’s essential to storytelling. You learn to say more with less.

Second, post it online/publish it. One of my goals for 2018 is to publish what I am most scared to put into the limelight. If short stories scare you, write one and put it out there. That way, you get a lot of payoff for your effort: people don’t have to read the entire 100k-word epic and you can still get feedback on problems that plague all of your writing (because, those problems do. Admit it).

That’s not to say that writing a short story is easy because there are fewer words. Writing is never easy, but shorts are much more challenging because there are fewer words. I also want to say that most stories can’t be boiled down to a short story, nor should be, but you can boil down parts of a longer work.

Getting published is hard

All right, so this is where I step away from the podium and let another come forward. I actually don’t know crap about getting published…

2018 Goals

Goals and I don’t get along. Deadlines, I like. Not goals. However, like I said earlier, the one goal I can adhere to is to publish a work I care about online where it is open to critique. I may or may not partake in NaNoWriMo.

Your take

What’s your position on short stories – love them? Hate them? Want their autograph? Me too. Do you have advice on getting published? Do you have 2018 goals? Leave a comment >

Featured image is “Untitled” by Ivan Marcin, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Decluttering when you’re nostalgic

"random clutter" by Stephen Barber
Clutter
Clutter Portrait 1” by Andy Mangold, licensed under CC BY 2.0

As of yesterday, I had a storage room. It was small, and not full, but it was dense with memories. I didn’t want the rent and I have the idea that I can cut down all of my stored belongings to fit into our small apartment. Theoretically I will make it all fit.

It’s harder than it seems. I am a nostalgic person, and suffer from some anxiety at the idea of tossing belongings that have special significance to me, or that could potentially be useful someday. “Someday” is that elusive descriptor. Oh, I entertain lots of scenarios where this or that old or dusty or even broken thing is exactly what I need for a specific problem… ten years from now. The nostalgia and anxiety freeze me up and I put the item back in the box. I justify holding onto it with all sorts of reasons.

The problem is that memories – the basis of nostalgia – are infinite and weightless (and volume-less) in our minds but are metaphysically attached to physical objects that do take up space and weight in our lives. Memories are powerful and define each of us. All of us have nostalgia for items linked to the past. A person suffering from amnesia can still eat and basically live their lives, but they cease to be themselves.

Then there is anxiety. “What if I need this?” I ask myself. In particular, I am looking at a box of old college notes. The materials are neatly organized and I have already cut a great deal. I recycled most of my old notebooks a while ago because my scribbling is not likely to be useful.

What I kept, though, is giving me problems: there is a stack of six notebooks or so, not all full, from classes that I was particularly interested in. The notebooks are heavy, but I can’t get rid of them. I handwrote all of those notes and worked hard in those classes. When I open the books, memories flood in. And then I want to teach and may want to use prior classes as a guide for structuring my own classes. However, isn’t that what textbooks are for?

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clutter” by Staci Myers, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I really like the minimalism movement – decluttering our chaotic lives and getting back to what is simple and brings us joy (which is a great philosophy I do employ when going through old belongings). However, I think that too often the minimalism movement ignores our very human quality of memories. Thank goodness for collectors of history. If minimalism was the entire world’s philosophy since the dawn of time, we would have no history left to study…

The minimalist philosophy asks us to live with amnesia in a way. For me, as an INFP with an Si tying memories with what defines me as a person, taking pictures of the object is not enough and in a way, almost insulting. I need to feel the object with my own hands, or smell it, or see it. Throwing it away seems to disrespect its purpose and meaning that I have attached to it over time.

But why do objects, with no intrinsic value tied to us, call out to us? What if it’s a little statue we picked up in the thrift store? We remember buying it, putting on a shelf, cherishing it, and finally packing it away because of changing life circumstances. Those objects mean something to us as human beings. What do you do, though, when too many objects end up in boxes piled up around your house? They all still matter, but they cost too much real estate.

Sidebar: decluttering our physical world should also include decluttering our digital world as well – how messy is your hard drive? If we’re just pushing all of our sheets of paper into bits of data, we’re not really decluttering at all.

It might help if we ask why we are holding onto things. It might help, even, if we ask why we acquired those things in the first place. Once we have it, what do we do with it? I could not be one of those people with a simple, minimalist house with few if any personal effects around me. My home must reflect who I am, and if it doesn’t then I am more prone to anxiety and depression. But it can be overwhelming to just cut through old belongings ruthlessly, but keeping it all can also be overwhelming.

So here I am, searching on Google and finding I am not the only former college student facing the same dilemma: what to do with old notebooks from your field of study?

Do you get nervous over tossing old belongings, especially those that might be useful someday? Leave a comment >

Featured image “random clutter” by Stephen Barber, licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0.

Luke Skywalker Cannot Be a Grey Jedi

Luke Skywalker: initially the heroic darling of the original trilogy, Luke has long been derided as the whiny, sensitive, impulsive, immature farmboy. Since Han Solo’s demise, Luke has become seen as the “cool Jedi” again, largely based on the assumption that in the time span between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, he has tapped into the Dark Side, or is at least something analogous to a “Grey Jedi.”

But do people genuinely change their inner self when dealt traumatic experiences, such as the slaughter of Luke’s students at the hands of his own nephew? In the original trilogy, Luke is an idealist who saves his father from the Dark Side. How would that match with the suggestion that he has tapped into something more sinister?

Jump to the headlines…

Note: I am primarily using the most popular definition of a Grey Jedi, being a Jedi who uses both the Dark and Light Sides of the Force.

Luke’s Arc Through the Trilogy

In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, we are introduced to a young man who has a few questions about his past. The most important one would be, “Who is my father?”

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Luke committing to the Jedi ways.

We see Luke’s commitment to doing right by his obligations from the beginning, especially after meeting Old Ben, also known as Obi Wan Kenobi. The mysterious Jedi seems able to answer Luke’s questions (which his Uncle Owen refuses to answer), and gifts him a Jedi’s weapon.

However, the price for the answers is to leave his Uncle and Aunt and travel with Obi Wan. Luke reluctantly chooses to stay on the farm because they need him. Only after they have been slaughtered does he agree to go, where staying on Tatooine is almost too painful for him. When he changes his mind, he commits with his entire heart:

“I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father.”

He has no idea what his father became or what the Force or a Jedi really is, but he has pledged his life to it. Throughout the films we see that he tends to leap before he looks, and lives with the difficult consequences of his choices.

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Luke and Han awarded medals in A New Hope.

Luke believes that the Force is fundamentally good. Even when others doubt if an x-wing pilot can hit the exhaust hole on the Death Star, Luke answers confidently that it can be done… implicitly because it must be done. Right and good succeeds, so it will work out. You might describe Luke as pure-hearted, idealistic, and naive.

In Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, Luke leaves his friends to seek a Jedi teacher. He finds a powerful and wise Jedi in the form of a small, ancient, green alien named Yoda who does not meet his expectations…

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Luke and Darth Vader duel in The Empire Strikes Back

He is impatient and frustrated both with his training and his masters. Where the Jedi are reclusive, secretive, tempered, and possessing a single-minded, long-ranging vision, Luke is warm, open, passionate and sees multiple but short-sighted possibilities and solutions. Where Obi-wan and Yoda insist that he forsake his friends for his training, Luke forsakes his training for his friends. From the outset, Luke has rebelled against the traditional Jedi teachings and been his own kind of Force user.

Following Vader’s revelation, Luke must reevaluate his morals and vision. The naive and happy-go-lucky farmboy has disappeared. His experience at the Magic Tree revealed to him that on his current path of fear and hatred, he could fall as well. Luke must reconcile how he, who believes in good, is the son of the second-most evil being in the universe. He must reconcile Obi Wan’s words that his father was once a Jedi. He wrestles with Yoda’s wisdom that the Dark Side will forever dominate your destiny.

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Luke facing his father Darth Vader.

By Star Wars Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi, Luke’s purpose is refined: saving his father Vader. This is the ultimate expression of Luke’s dedication to his ideals. Obi-Wan, the Jedi who told Solo that “there are alternatives to fighting,” is advocating that Luke kill his own father. Luke’s failure to do so only spells defeat in Obi Wan’s eyes.

To Luke, however, there are alternatives to violence. Luke shows compassion and mercy to a man who deserves neither. His confidence now rests in his inner peace and lack of fear. In a way, Vader’s revelation helped to present a connection that Luke could use to his advantage. Vader is a human, now. The anger and fear that the Dark Side feeds upon has (mostly) disappeared.

Ultimately, Luke succeeded in saving the universe by first saving his father and by extension, his own soul. His small act of compassion and dedication moved Vader to end the Emperor’s torture. In their last moments together, Luke practices total forgiveness of his father’s crimes and insists on bringing him back to live as Anakin Skywalker. Anakin’s final words were to the daughter he never knew, effectively asking for her forgiveness through her brother. Described as “more machine, now, than human,” Anakin found his humanity again.

The Jedi Are not “Good”

I feel that the Jedi masters sought to protect Luke not from Vader the Sith Lord, but from Vader his father. Following Vader’s revelation, without proper training, he may have either joined Vader or killed him. Both would lead him down the Dark Side. Certainly that was Vader’s thinking as well. It harkens back to Uncle Owen not telling Luke anything about his past. Everyone around the young Jedi has been afraid that Vader’s connection would destroy him.

Instead, Luke throws himself into the abyss. He would rather die than join Vader.

How did his masters expect him to defeat and kill Vader without himself heading down the Dark Side and becoming the Emperor’s pawn? Ideally, Obi-Wan and Yoda would have preferred that Luke learned of his true parentage after Vader had been killed. They wanted an emotionless weapon. The moral and psychological consequences on Luke was of less concern. The news would probably have destroyed him. This plan would play into the Emperor’s hand, but when Luke realized that killing Vader was not the right path, the Emperor lost. He saw through what Vader had become. He was what the Emperor was after.

Never. I’ll never turn to the dark side. You’ve failed, your Highness. I am a Jedi, like my father before me.

At the end of it all, Luke still believes in his father Anakin. Luke uses every ounce of his compassion to not destroy Vader, against everything the Emperor wishes. The Dark Side is the “easy path” that leads to spiritual death. At the end of it all, with a defeated Vader before him, Luke throws his weapon aside and choses the Light Side – the difficult path towards spiritual life – facing physical death for his choice. He abandoned any motivations of fear, hatred, and desire for power.

Some would argue that Luke tapped into the Dark Side while raging against Vader. I disagree, at least to the extent that he tapped significantly into the Dark Side. I think we should separate hateful anger from righteous anger. Yes, Luke was angry. However, his anger came from a protective love for his sister, not a hatred of Vader himself. Though perhaps, a broader hatred of evil and the evil that Vader was proposing against Leia. Righteous anger can be productive when it causes us to enact changes and I feel that Luke was exercising (mostly) righteous anger.

The Jedi are not the gatekeepers of morality. The Jedi do not follow a supreme Jedi God handing down absolute truth – the council is led by mortal beings. The Jedi dedication to temperance of passions is naive at best, and destructive at worst. As humans, emotions separate us from robots. Violence and anger driven by fear and hatred – the motivations that Luke left behind – are what ultimately lead to the Dark Side.

Good is boring, evil is cool!

In 1977, we feared for the Rebels’ lives. Now [in Rogue One] we cheer their deaths.

Over the years, our culture’s preference for light or darkness has shifted toward darkness. A similar trend is observable in the Star Wars world. When it was first released, little boys wanted to be Luke Skywalker. Ten years later, Han Solo had eclipsed Luke Skywalker. By the mid-90s, Boba Fett was the man. Even more scoundrelly than Han, Boba Fett is morally grey. It’s easy to project onto him all of our fantasies of working in the shadows and committing crime while somehow maintaining our morality.

Since the prequel trilogy was released, the Dark Side of the Force has become much more popular. Star Wars merchandise features Darth Vader and the Empire much more frequently. Darth Vader has become a symbol of the ultimate “cool.” Little girls want to be Princess Darth. A miniature Darth Vader was a popular Superbowl commercial topic. Darth Vader’s final scene in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was universally praised as the best 2 minutes of the entire film (which is not saying much) as he slaughters Rebel fighters – in 1977, we feared for the Rebels’ lives. Now we cheer their deaths. Isn’t Vader awesome?

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Luke and his dying father

Darth Vader is to be pitied for his suffering and respected for his authority, but not admired. Vader is not good. Vader is a murderer who gets redeemed, but not before executing the Emperor. However, the cries of adoration ignore his redemption to Anakin Skywalker. In a sense, both men – Luke and Anakin – are lost. Luke’s arc is ignored. Anakin’s redemption is seen as unimportant.

Luke’s Legacy and Grey Jedi

“There must be both dark and light. I will do what I must to keep the balance, as the balance is what holds all life. There is no good without evil, but evil must not be allowed to flourish. There is passion, yet peace; serenity, yet emotion; chaos, yet order. I am a wielder of the flame; a champion of balance. I am a guardian of life. I am a Gray Jedi.” – Grey Jedi Code

We also have the emergence of the “Grey Jedi,” a bullshit “code of ethic” that patently misses the point of the Force. Thankfully, I understand that Lucasfilms has confirmed that Grey Jedi won’t be a part of the new films. We’ll see. There are two definitions of a Grey Jedi, 1) a Jedi who does not follow the Jedi Council, and (more popularly), 2) a Force user who uses both the Dark and the Light Side to achieve balance. Common arguments for the Grey Jedi is that you get all the goodness of the Jedi/Light Side while also getting all the bad-assery and awesomeness of the Dark Side. I have an announcement to make: the “awesomeness” of the Dark Side only serves to entice while actually offering up spiritual death. What better way to administer the poison than in something tasty?

Unfortunately Luke has been tagged with the “grey Jedi” label because he “tapped into the Dark Side to defeat Vader,” he “rebelled against Jedi teachings,” he “force-choked the Hutt guards,” or even worse, he’s “wearing black in The Return of the Jedi.” Those situations bore specific significance within the films, but don’t have any bearing on the actual Grey Jedi origin.

No one is pure. No one is above failure, sinning, darkness, etc. We are all capable of theft or murder, but do we necessarily do those things? Same logic. I am not denying that Luke has the capacity to tap into the Dark Side. However, because one has the ability to, does not mean one does that. While Luke was venting his anger and hatred toward everything that Vader has represented, he stopped. He recognized the path they could lead him down. He would become his father. We all possess both the raw darkness inside of us and the ability to choose not to entertain it. We should strive to be something greater. Effectively, the Grey Jedi code implies that to strive to be good is… bad.

Hoping that Luke has become a Grey Jedi – that he did not recognize the perils of the Dark Side – denies that he truly saved his father. Instead it says that Luke ultimately gave into his hate, at least from time to time. The very “code of ethics” for the Grey Jedi indicates that they have no moral compass or internal ideals. They follow whichever way the Force wind blows as long as it is “in balance.” Luke is the complete opposite, as his arc is defined by his ideals. Perhaps he changes his approach, perhaps he is cynical, but it is not possible for him to be a Grey Jedi in spirit.

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Never. I’ll never turn to the dark side. You’ve failed, your Highness. I am a Jedi, like my father before me.

By the events of the third trilogy, perhaps Luke has seen the errors of the Jedi way, the sentiment of his statement is still true. Kylo Ren, his student, turned to the Dark Side and thus Luke went into hiding. We aren’t certain why, but shame and fear (of being killed, or repeating his mistake) are two good reasons. It suggests that he in fact has not turned to the Dark Side at all – not even in the capacity of being a Grey Jedi – and instead is ashamed of his failure and is questioning himself. His possible refusal to train Rey is his own projection of his past failure onto her. Perhaps Kylo brought him to a place he did not want to go, and would not want to return to again. Perhaps he has come to cynically believe that using the Force seems to always lead to the Dark Side. There is too much power.

No, I believe Luke will still reject the evils of the Dark Side: fear, anger, hatred, and desire for power. There is no “grey area” in this realm. As the film will not be released for another month, we don’t know the full context of Mark Hamill’s deep-seated discomfort with Rian Johnson’s decisions for Luke Skywalker.

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Luke Skywalker in The Force Awakens.

If Johnson has indeed plunged Luke down into dark waters (without at least the hope of a redemption arc of his own) then the legacy of Luke Skywalker has been completely misunderstood. Luke’s sacrifice to save Anakin was in vain. Ultimately it sends the message that we will all fail and turn to our own Dark Sides, no matter how hard we fight it. That a good person is always ultimately corrupted, while the opposite – a corrupted person experiencing redemption – is not possible. We cannot rise above our fallen natures and become something greater.

I would like to believe that we still have room in our hearts for fundamentally good people.

Further discussion

I’ll just bring attention to a few great articles on why Luke is such an important character in Star Wars:

You All Forgot That Luke Skywalker is a BAMF

Misperceiving Luke: is it whining or is it character-development?

Exemplary Manhood in Film: Luke Skywalker (Christian perspective)

Do you think Luke should or would turn to the Dark Side? Does that further the story into new areas, or does it risk the trilogy becoming repetitive? Leave a comment >

The Enneagram, escapism, and accepting our flaws

I spend a lot of time thinking about how we try to understand our minds and personalities. This is one topic that has never bored me.

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The 9 points on the enneagram circle, each representing a different motivation or personality

I’m generally a pretty happy person, and I have a lot to be thankful for, but it’s also difficult being susceptible to the whims of my emotions. Below the happy exterior is a mildly unhappy person waiting to come out. To be completely open, recently I had a pretty low day. I am an INFP, and enneatype 4w5 (on the Enneagram). I was sucked into depressive thought cycles. Enneatype 4s are prone to seclusion and depression, and may typically be described as fundamentally unhappy with themselves (not others). We are internal perfectionists seeking an intangible, nameless ideal. It’s no wonder we get depressed.

I had started feeling (in typical 4 fashion) that on an intrapersonal level I seriously lacked compared to others. I was so strongly reminded of all of my flaws and shortcomings (that I have no control over) that I fell into a bout of mild despair. All of the colour was sucked out of my world. The worst question a 4 can ask of themselves is “who am I supposed to be?” I was asking myself that all day and wrote out a series of reflective questions that seriously called all of my “flaws” out into the open. All I could see was how much of a failure I am.

It may not seem too surprising that for people who love speculative fiction, cosplay, and daydreaming, they may enjoy pretending to be someone else. I have always done this, since I was young. 4s tend to idealize other people and emulate qualities that they feel they lack. I do this all the time with fictional characters in TV shows and movies – a character (man or woman) has a personality I admire or relate to, and wish I could be like them. When I was younger, I would naturally begin to act and talk like them and felt empowered because I was replacing my old flawed self with someone I thought was much cooler than me.

This is a variation, ironically, on the 4’s drive to be unique. 4s are often described as “envious,” a description with which I passionately disagree. Outside of the enneagram, envy is a despicable character flaw and so I reject that description. Maybe in their very unhealthiest a 4 may feel envy of another, but I personally don’t feel it that way. Anyone can feel envy of another. An envious person looks at what others have and wishes that those people didn’t have it so that he or she feels better about his or herself. Look at the story of Cain and Abel. Look at the evil creature Envy in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. I think a 4 not so much wants to take, but to belong. We want to partake but not steal. To envy’s last breath it steals, even to its own detriment.

So, I hate envy and how it is applied to poor innocent 4s. “Longing” is used instead to describe how we wish to be unique. We long for internal perfection. It’s more of a self-rejection and primal acknowledgement that we have a uniquely-shaped hole that needs to be filled. When we fail to fill it, we feel ashamed. A 4 “knows” they don’t belong anywhere, and want to be a part of a world where they do belong. We look to others to attempt to fill that hole because we see ourselves as insufficient to be loved. We can’t recognize the obvious — that we make ourselves complete — because we have rejected ourselves outright from birth.

Later I snapped out of it and I was left with the emotional wreckage that my mini-episode wrought in my mind. Over the next few days, though, I realized that I was sick of being subject to my emotions’ whims. I want to be able to stand on top of it rather than be buried by it.

I like to see a 4’s true self as a blind spot: we can’t see our true selves so we try to find it elsewhere. The other day I was reading some more on the enneagram and I realized that I needed to stop. These profiles were not going to help me find the answer. Reading pages that describe the type 4 is another way I engage in escapism and rejection of myself. I subconsciously think to myself, “this page will tell me who I am.” I am looking outwardly for who I am, when I need to look inwardly. I have the tools within me to stop this rejection. I need to take control. It’s all in my mind.

In a similar way, even though I love to pretend to be someone else for a few hours, I can’t use cosplay as a way to be an idealized form of me. Emulating others is lazy, inauthentic (a source of 4 shame), and ultimately doesn’t solve the problem. The only way for a 4 to find peace, in my opinion, is to look at his or herself in the psychological mirror and honestly examine each strength and weakeness. We don’t become strong by emulating a fictional character, and our flaws don’t disappear by donning a costume. It’s just another way I fill this hole of longing in my heart. I want to be accepted for who I am, and I think a lot of people in the cosplay community turn to it because it’s populated with others who also want to be accepted by a society, no matter how niche or small it is. The sad part is that the only person who can really accept me 100% is me. No person on earth accepts another person 100%.

It’s important to not feel like any one hobby fulfills us, no matter how fun or dynamic it is. No matter how much work it takes, or how much money it costs, or how much recognition we gain. The emotional highs associated with cosplay are fleeting. When I take my costume off I am still the same person I was when I put it on and I want to be the best version of myself in the mirror. It’s important to be happy with who I am when I’m alone in my room in front of my computer, not just when pretending to be someone else.

Are you a enneagram type 4 and struggle with self-identity? Leave a comment >

Slave Leia Is Exploitation, Not Empowerment

As a life-long Star Wars fan, Leia ties with Luke as my favourite film character. She is the perfect combination of sassy, smart, brave, warm, loyal, wise, and caring. Carrie was also a total boss and owned her life – the good and the bad – and didn’t care what anyone else thought.

Jabba and Slave Leia
Slave Leia and Jabba. Credit: Oracle of Film

The Return of the Jedi is my favourite of the eight five films. Luke’s arc culmination is incredible. He would go to the Dark Side to save Leia, and that has touched my soul since I was a child. Unfortunately, the movie is also famous for Leia’s Huttese slave bikini and it led to an explosion of marketing featuring her in the skimpy two-piece. Before we go further, I think the outfit is actually beautiful and sexy, and Carrie looked amazing. I have issues with its influence on how Leia is portrayed. For all of Leia’s accomplishments, the imagery associated most frequently with her in advertising, toys, etc is the slave bikini which, in my opinion, greatly undermines her power and legacy.

Carrie was not keen on wearing the outfit. It was director Richard Marquand’s idea “because she was incredibly sexy,” and it was floated by costume designer Nilo Rodis-Jamero and supported by George Lucas (from Star Wars Costumes: The Original Trilogy). She had very little, if any, speaking time while wearing it. Recently she advised Daisy Ridley to not be a slave like she was. Also, am I the only person bothered by her “fun” Rolling Stone beach photoshoot with Darth Vader (Leia’s father) to promote The Return of the Jedi? Why did George and the gang ever think that those photos sent the right message? I agree with Carrie in that the best moment is when she strangles Jabba with his own chain attached to her neck, and then changes into something sensible off-screen.

Disney should not outright ban the outfit as it’s still a part of her character. However, up until recently Slave Leia has dominated merchandise. I would have preferred the bikini to not be the first (for a while, the only) version of Leia released by Hasbro for the Black Series of action figures while they delayed other Leia figures due to “likeness issues” but released multiple variations of other male characters. I would have preferred that for a while the Facebook “page” for Princess Leia did not feature Olivia Munn dressed as Slave Leia as the photo that represents “Princess Leia.”

As a cosplayer, I personally would never wear the outfit because I respect Leia for who she would have preferred to be seen. Over the years, however, I have seen so many women embracing the outfit as an expression of empowerment (Amy Schumer’s recent GQ photoshoot being the most public and crude incarnation of Slave Leia cosplay). I would ask… “why?” She didn’t carry around a Huttese bikini in her bra just in case she ran across a slimy worm crimeload she felt compelled to snuggle up with. She was his slave. It was intended to humiliate her and reduce her agency and power.

I disagree with the various rationalizations put forth over time, and I believe that the bikini should be seen as exploitation and not empowerment. On the other side of the debate, some would arugue that it is a symbol of Leia’s suffering, conquering her oppressor, and that she needed to be the sex slave to prove herself. Noah Bertalsky argued that her Boushh-Slave transition was a metaphor for her sexual awakening. On a lower level, Lizzy Finnegan argued that anyone who criticizes the legacy of the bikini is just a jealous feminist. These rationalizations often sound to me like an intellecutally dishonest cover for “I want a Slave Leia poster on my wall” or “I want to be a slave.” If I was Leia, my first thought after killing Jabba would not be “Now I am a woman! That was the most edifying moment of my life!” No, I shun the idea that a woman draws her worth from being sexualised against her will, which is basically what these commentators argue.

I would ask these commentators: does the bikini need to be in so many of the advertisements over all of her other non-sexual outfits (that had significantly more screentime)? If Jabba had put her in a frumpy jumpsuit, would you be arguing so strongly for her wearing it? If Carrie wasn’t considered “hot,” would men actually argue that she was exploited? Can’t we appreciate what the outfit meant within the context of the film but remember that Leia would not have wanted to wear that uncomfortable metal contraption? Can we talk about the trolls who body-shamed Carrie when she appeared in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (her male co-stars escaping such scrutiny), many of whom are undoubtedly men who watch The Return of the Jedi “for the ewoks”? Can we just admit that sex sells and that’s what this is all about? What kind of message does that send to girls and young women?

In the film, she subverted the “damsel in distress” trope which is exactly what Leia would do. “Slave Leia” on merchandise and in advertising loses that context and reduces her to a one-dimensional male fantasy. It sends the message that this fierce warrior and politician, the only significant woman in the original trilogy, is only relavent to the entire story of Star Wars when she is essentially naked.

That being said, women being sexualised in fantasy and science fiction is nothing new. Women’s portrayal in the 1970s and before is a history lesson in itself. In the last thirty years of Star Trek alone, Marina Sirits said, of portraying Deanna Troi in Star Trek: The Next Generation, that she “got her brains back” when the writers gave her a uniform instead of a tight, cleavage-baring jumpsuit. The writers for Star Trek: Voyager swapped quiet and demure Kes for sex kitten Seven of Nine to improve the ratings and it took a long time for her to get any character development. She was actually an interesting character once they paid attention to her beyond suggestive camera angles. Cat-suit-wearing T’Pol on Enterprise stripped with Trip in the decontamination shower in the pilot episode, forever either establishing or destroying her potential as a character depending on your point of view (and emotional maturity). While Slave Leia never traded brains for boobs, the bikini’s legacy in our culture propagates the idea that the woman gets sexualized and such sexualization is the only way to justify her existance while men are never expected to prance around as sex objects in order to be fully fleshed-out characters.

 

Image collage: Princess Leia’s outfits through the course of the three films. The Huttese bikini remains perhaps her most iconic outfit in merchandise, with the Alderaan outfit a close second. All images found on Pinterest.com.

I don’t ask that the bikini be buried and never see the light of day again, or that Disney edits the film to cover her up in the spirit of Iranian state censorship. I take issue with the rationalization of why the bikini is so popular and I wish that for every instance where the bikini is used in merchandise and advertising, they also offered material featuring her seldom-seen Bespin gown, or her Hoth outfit, for those of us who don’t want to embrace and support her sexualisation. She does not need a bikini to show she is tough and she would still be the same beloved First Lady of Star Wars without it.

Your take: what does Slave Leia represent to you? Leave a comment >