On Problematic Plot Devices

I don’t often respond to the prompts on The Daily Post, but I couldn’t let today’s pass without comment because it’s such a doozy (emphasis added):

You’ve come into possession of one vial of truth serum. Who would you give it to (with the person’s consent, of course) — and what questions would you ask?

Truth serum. Sodium pentothal or the like. Developed and used for interrogations to force people to tell truths they want to keep hidden. And in this hypothetical scenario one is supposed to get consent to use the stuff? Consent? THAT TOTALLY DEFEATS THE PURPOSE OF USING TRUTH SERUM!

It’s like the love potion trope, which many people nowadays find problematic, and for good reason. One of the best treatments of it that I’ve read, honestly, is Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan und Isolde, where Isolde gets a potion to use on herself to help her forget Tristan and accept her arranged marriage to King Mark; purely by accident, Isolde’s lady-in-waiting mistakes the potion for a flask of wine and serves it to Isolde and Tristan instead, which only cements their existing ill-fated love. (I generally don’t like Tristan und Isolde because of its romanticization of infidelity, but at least Gottfried’s use of the love potion plot is decent.) By and large, though, the whole point of the potion is its coercive power, its elimination of consent. Ditto Cupid’s arrow–Chaucer makes the trope all the more disturbing in Troilus and Criseyde with his portrayal of Pandarus, who all but physically throws his ward Criseyde into Troilus’ bed for the sake of his own political ambitions, but Troilus is just one of many figures in classical literature whom Cupid forces to fall into unrequited love as a punishment.

If a story isn’t going to deal with the nasty implications of magic forcing attraction from one or more unwilling parties, the author shouldn’t bring in Cupid or a love potion. Likewise, if the story doesn’t involve an interrogator forcing truth from an unwilling witness or captive (with the potential exception, as occasionally on Mission: Impossible, of helping an amnesiac or traumatized individual recover memories they couldn’t otherwise reveal), the author shouldn’t bring in techniques like truth serum or hypnosis. Now, that’s not to say these plot devices don’t have their place; they definitely do, and truth serum especially has a place in spy thrillers and war stories, even in the hands of the heroes who are in a ticking-time-bomb type of scenario. But getting past the subject’s will is both the point and the problem, and it needs to be treated as such for the story to work.

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On writer’s block

Goodreads recently debuted a feature whereby authors can accept questions (kind of like an ask box on Tumblr, I think, though I’m not terribly familiar with Tumblr), and the system helpfully generated a handful of questions to get authors started. One was, “How do you deal with writer’s block?”

I almost laughed bitterly, because I’ve been battling writer’s block all summer. The best recommendation I’ve heard and made use of, naturally, is to work on something else, but lately even that’s been a struggle.

There’s a mental component to it, of course, as with many things. I need to pluck up my courage and send some emails for research help for the next Order of the Silver Star book, and while I know the basic plot for the next Loyal Valley book, the details are proving frustratingly elusive. (I may have to break down and work on the parts of Books 4 and 5 that I’ve got clear in my mind, just to get something written!) And I do have Smash Cut Culture added to the mix lately, although in truth, that doesn’t take up nearly as much time and energy as one might think.

But physical and emotional elements play a role, too. And on that score, while it’s not the sort of thing I feel comfortable blogging about much, I’ve been dealing with a lot this year. Nothing major/life-threatening, but draining all the same. And while I’m feeling better now, even after a fairly rough week, than I did earlier in the summer, it hit me a couple of days ago how deeply exhausted and dry I feel.

The thing about feelings? They pass eventually.

I’m really not trying to complain here. Another recommended cure for writer’s block is writing about how frustrated you are to be blocked, so that’s what I’m doing.

All the same, though, if you have a mind to, pray for me, for rest and refreshing and healing. I’ve been stuck in the desert (on a horse with no name) for five years now; I’m beyond ready to be on the other side.

A pledge

Sorry to have been absent so much of late, folks, and there will be other content coming soon(ish)–some housekeeping, some reflective writing. But right here and now, I want to make a pledge to all my readers.

I may let my main characters get dinged up physically and emotionally. I may let them navigate questions of morality and legality, man’s justice and God’s, even the tensions between virtues like justice and mercy. I may put them through some rough spots and tight places, especially when I deal with some of the darker points in Texas history. And I won’t make any promises about who lives and who dies.
But I will never let my heroes become what they fight, go full Dark Side, lose the core of what makes them heroes.
EVER.

And you may hold me to that.

“Why would a good Christian girl….”

I wasn’t sure whether I should post this, for fear of being accused of answering questions that haven’t been widely asked. (Let’s face it: I’m not exactly burning up the best-seller lists right now!) But I do know of at least one person who has been disappointed, however briefly, with the fantasy content in Look Behind You, and I’m sure there may be others. “Why,” the question runs, “would a good Christian girl be studying the occult to write a book like this?”

The thing is… I didn’t study the occult. I didn’t have to.

Much of my information came from folktales, especially Irish and Scottish fairytales and the legends of King Arthur and the Round Table, though some American Indian mythology also comes into play. I consider such literature mostly harmless, and many fairytales carry good lessons. The Ethics of Elfland from G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, C. S. Lewis’ reflections in On Stories and Other Essays, and J. R. R. Tolkien’s On Fairy-Stories all discuss ways in which the right kinds of fantasy, and fairytales in particular, can be extremely useful as part of a Christian’s literary diet.

(IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: There are wrong kinds of fantasy. I’ve actually known someone whose spiritual life got messed up by reading the wrong books, and I’m pretty picky about what I read myself. Yet–and this is crucial–no two people will react the same way to the same book. I know very godly people in the Harry Potter fandom, over which other very godly people have expressed concerns that I think are valid; I know people who’ve gone astray over The Lord of the Rings, which Tolkien himself called “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work” [Letter 142 to Father Robert Murphy, Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien]. In this area, as in all things, each believer needs to exercise prayerful discernment for his or her own walk… and not presume to make his or her needs or preferences an absolute rule for everyone else.)

But the rest, quite literally, is history. Many people know, for example, that Hitler and Himmler were interested in astrology and the occult. What may not be as readily apparent, and what didn’t register for me until I worked on translating The Apostolic Fathers: An Introduction, is the insidious nature of even one of the best-known bits of Nazi propaganda, the concept of the “thousand-year Reich.” Translation has done us English-speakers a disservice here. The term der tausendjährige Reich doesn’t only refer to a hypothetical thousand-year Nazi kingdom; it was and is the theological term usually rendered in English as the Millennial Kingdom or the Millennial Reign, the period prophesied in Revelation 20:2-7 during which Jesus will return, bind Satan, and establish a thousand-year reign of absolute peace on earth. Hitler’s use of the phrase was deliberate blasphemy.
And it gets worse. Here’s one of my sources, a History Channel documentary that argues that the Nazi Party was a full-blown cult:


If you prefer a more scholarly print source, Heather Pringle’s The Master Plan: Hitler’s Scholars and the Holocaust documents in greater detail the SS obsession with the occult and attempts to resurrect ancient German paganism.

In all honesty, I have zero desire to study magic. The danger of genuine magic, as opposed to mere sleight-of-hand trickery, is that it attempts to force reality to bend to a human’s will. There are, of course, perfectly acceptable non-magical ways of getting nature to do what you want it to do; that’s called technology, which is subject to its own questions of ethics and morality. But magic seems, at least on the surface, to fall into one of two formulas:

Do you have problem W? Do X, Y, and Z, and your problem will go away.

or

Do you want D? Do A, B, and C, and you will get exactly what you want.

And from where I stand, what you plug into those blanks makes not a dime’s bit of difference–killing a black cat at 3 a.m. on a starless night of the new moon, washing your hands in a silver basin by moonlight, rearranging your furniture just so and painting your walls a certain color, or (dare I say it?) thinking happy thoughts and telling God what you want and sending $50 to your favorite televangelist. At best, it won’t work, and either you receive something good that would have happened anyway or you get no results at all and end up wondering what you did wrong. At worst, you end up in league with powers beyond your understanding or control, powers that want nothing more than your absolute destruction.
Prayer doesn’t work that way. Prayer submits reality to God’s sovereign control, humbly presenting petitions with full trust in His goodness and seeking to align our will with His will. That’s why “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much”–and that’s also why, if you pay close attention, the only ‘spell’ I write out in Look Behind You is actually a prayer. That power is the only power I need… and even when I write fantasy that involves an element of horror, I will always show that prayer trumps magic, because that is the truth.

Why Christians should write dystopian sci-fi

(There’s a nice provocative title for you, eh?)
Having gotten into a bit of a dust-up–civil enough, but still–with an atheist over this Christ and Pop Culture post on transhumanism, I found my thoughts running down the following path:

Let’s say I want to live forever in this world, on the assumption that there is no other. But my body has something wrong with it, and science has not yet gotten to the point where whatever it is can be fixed without some sort of transplant; and while technology in this hypothetical situation can support transplants of anything, including consciousness, donors for my particular need are not forthcoming. (Or something like that; we can posit any number of scenarios.) You, however, are in perfect health and are not particularly useful to me otherwise.
Suppose I have the means, the motive, and the opportunity. What is to stop me from taking what I need from you, up to and including your entire body, even if it kills you?
Ethics? Pssht–the ends justify the means. Society? My life is at stake; I don’t care if society lives while I die. The law? Ah, but laws can be changed. Until they are, if I am sufficiently clever, the law will never know that I’ve killed you. And if I’m not–ah, well, it was a jolly good try, fair cop, but they won’t take me alive once I eat this cyanide capsule… if that is in fact what it is and not a trigger that sends my consciousness on to yet another body. They don’t attribute crimes to a person that are committed after that person is dead, after all. Meanwhile, I get to enjoy your health, your wealth, your significant other, maybe even your skills and more–and who is to say me nay, and by what authority?
You may, of course, point out that there’s also no good reason in this scenario why I should live and you should die, and you would be right. Just as there is no authority preventing me from taking your life because I want to live forever, neither is there any authority preventing you from taking my life because you, being in perfect health, see no reason why I, being ill, should go on using up resources that ought to be going to those who are already strong and healthy. The two views will clash violently at some point, and the view that wins out belongs to the person who survives. There’s no inherent superiority to either without some external standard of right and wrong that cannot be arbitrarily made up and agreed upon by both parties; that agreement won’t survive a kill-or-be-killed situation. Even if one party still holds to it… well, see Patton on how one does or does not win wars. And that’s the problem.
If there is no God, everything is permissible.
The Christian view, on the other hand, would stop the whole scenario before it starts. This world is not our home, so there is no need to try to stay in it indefinitely. Not only that, but as humans uniquely created in God’s image, each of us has value and a right to life, and neither of us has the right to deprive the other of life simply for being an inconvenience. To do so would be unjust–and the standard of justice is established by God, Who is supremely just. On the contrary, it is my Christian duty not to cling to life at the expense of another… and it might just be your Christian duty to do what is within your power to help me, whether that involves researching a morally acceptable cure or simply mowing my lawn when I’m too sick to do it myself.
Note well, I’m not saying all modern medicine is evil (I thank God for most of it!), only that some lines should never be crossed. Yet I can’t say “should” without appealing to some authority higher than myself, one high enough that any other person ought to be able to recognize it. But of course, there will always be those who are willfully blind, like the physics grad student of my acquaintance who started out claiming that ethics has no place in science and, when pressed by me and another classmate, ended up defending Mengele.

And all of this brings me back to the point I started with: Christian writers need to be willing to tackle such hypotheticals. There will always be people whose consciences are so seared as to not see anything wrong with the strong eliminating the weak by force or with the crafty taking what they want by stealth. Most other people will at least feel vaguely uncomfortable with either scenario, but Christians are uniquely positioned to be able to explain why we feel uneasy and why those views are wrong. The trick, of course, is not letting the point overwhelm the rest of the story. Show, don’t tell–strip back the veneer of a society perfected by science to show the tyrannical injustices it hides. Put the reader in the shoes of someone whom that society does not deem fit to live. Add details not for the shock value but for the story value, yet don’t hold back from the grit and the gore that the story itself demands. Let the whys and wherefores come out organically. And if there’s no way the story is going to end happily… then let it end badly. Don’t shoehorn in a conversion scene or a chirpy, cheery ending that doesn’t fit; you’ll lose your audience.
To be sure, there are already Christian authors writing such books. P. D. James did so in Children of Men, and I’m sure there are others I haven’t read. But too many people seem to be laboring under the misapprehension that Christian writers ought never to deal with dark topics–yet who can explore them better than we? “Watch yourselves lest ye fall,” of course, but the Light shines in the darkness not only to dispel it but also to expose it for what it is. “You’ve got to get ’em lost before you can get ’em found,” as the old saying goes, and such books can do a good deal of work in plowing up hard, fallow hearts to prepare them for the gentler work of other hands in sowing seeds of faith and supplying the water of sound teaching so that God can, in His time, give the increase.