The Somerset Celebration of Literature finished last Friday, though I didn’t get home until Sunday after staying on the Gold Coast to visit family…and if you ever get the chance to check out the Gold Coast Hinterland, I highly recommend it!
I’ve been to writers’ festivals as an author before…well, once before…but this was the first time I’d had multiple sessions over multiple days. And the experienced was incredible. I learnt so much in so short a period of time, and I can’t wait to take all the knowledge I’ve gained and start applying it to my future events.
Something that I found especially interesting was how engaged and switched on all the kids were, with many of them showing a confidence I couldn’t have dreamed of when I was their age. When I asked if there were any writers in the audience, one girl raised her hand and said she was writing a verse novel. A verse novel! I wouldn’t have the guts to try that now, let alone when I was a teenager!
Spurred on by her calm self-assurance, I decided to take a chance and read out a poem I wrote a year or so ago and recently rediscovered in my notebook. Admittedly, I did it mostly to fill time, but the kids in the audience responded really well to it, so I may end up posting it here…in fact, I might even add it to the end of this blog post. Let’s see how I feel by the end…
One question I was asked during my sessions was “What makes a good villain?”. I’m afraid I can’t remember the name of the guy who asked me that particular question, which is awful of me given that he came to my signing line after the talk and was very sweet. I felt at the time that I gave him a bit of wishy-washy answer, so I thought I’d take a moment to address that critical error.
What makes a good villain?
It’s something I ask myself a lot because, in writing adventure fiction, you want to create an antagonist that is memorable, that is intimidating, that is worthy of your hero, and who maybe even has some shades of sympathy to him/her. I think the best villains are the ones who are a little morally ambiguous – perhaps they have a tragic back story, or a legitimate reason for doing what they do, even if they’ve taken it too far.
But more than that, the best villains are the characters that shed light on your protagonist. In dealing with the quandary of this opponent, facets of your main character’s personality and history are revealed. Villains are dark mirror images of heroes, serving as a warning of what we can all become if we give into the weaker elements of ourselves.
I could write up a whole essay on this subject, but I think I’ll leave it at that for the time being. Don’t be surprised, however, if there ends up being a future blog post that digs down deep on this topic to an almost tedious level!
In addition to Somerset, I’ve also made a trip in the past week to Channel 9 studios, where I filmed my second appearance for Kids’ WB. I’ll blog more about that in the future, but in the meantime enjoy this behind-the-scenes snapshot;
The segment should be airing at the end of March, though that’s yet to be confirmed. Watch this space for updates!
Okay, so we’re at the end of the post. Will I put up that poem? Hmmm.
You know what? Nothing ventured, nothing gained. So here’s the poem, but before you read it there’s a few things you should know;
1) I have no idea if it’s crap or not.
2) I’m not a poet. See point # 1.
3) It got a good response at the festival, but I think that had mostly to do with how I read it…and the demand I made for applause at the end.
4) It’s about writing and being a writer.
5) I studied poetry at uni but the best I got was a ‘C’.
6) I don’t have a title for it.
7) I’m stalling now.
8) Here’s the poem…
We are dream merchants. And magicians.
We are astronomers, charting the stars,
and astronauts, reaching up to touch them.
We work instruments made of mirrors,
weaving invisible threads.
We stitch together scraps of cloth collected across a lifetime,
to make flying carpets and coats of many colours.
We are explorers. And hermits.
We study the soul and bring it names.
We take names and make them ideas.
We sell inspiration. We sow fancy and bottle stray thoughts.
We do this with ink in our veins and with our hearts beating to the rhythm of a keyboard.
We do this because we have to.
We do this because we can’t imagine anything else.
And that’s it. Hate mail can be sent here.
‘Til next time.
The wait is over! Vanguard Prime: Wild Card will be released tomorrow, 27th February, and to celebrate I thought I’d return to a series of posts that haven’t been featured here in a while; the Making of a Superhero. And given that Vanguard Prime: Wild Card heavily features the Knight of Wands, what better time than now to take a look at the team’s resident man of mystery?
I wanted to create characters that felt interesting and dynamic enough that they could very easily be the protagonist of their own book. The examples I had in mind of these stemmed from comic books, of course, where the Justice League and the Avengers were traditionally populated by characters that were already established in their own series.
This was in opposition to teams like the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, where the characters were created to be part of a team, and as interesting as they may be in their own right, they still work better as part of that team structure.
I wanted the “Big Three” of Vanguard Prime to be much like the Big Three of the Avengers and the Justice League. Just as Captain America, Thor & Iron Man and Superman, Batman & Wonder Woman all have their own supporting characters, antagonists and personal lives, I wanted to come up with characters that felt as established as that…without the benefit of 70 or so years of continuous publishing behind it.
I started in the place I was most comfortable with, drawing on the ‘Self-Made Man’/’Mortal Amongst Gods’ elements that Iron Man and Batman share, while also focusing on the ‘Dark Avenger’ archetype originated by characters like Zorro and the Shadow, their legacies continued to this day by the aforementioned Dark Knight Detective.
It wasn’t the first time I’d used the ‘Dark Avenger’ template to create a character; when I was 10, I came up with a spoof superhero called Penguin Man, who eventually mutated into “Nighthawk” when I was 12.
But with my new story, I didn’t want a Batman rip-off. I didn’t want to just transplant Nighthawk from my childhood into the present day (not least because there’s already more than one comic book character that’s taken that name).
So I looked back at the characters that intrigued me when I was younger; not the characters I loved, like Batman or Spider-Man, but the characters that seemed slightly goofy or “off”, but still stuck in the brain. Characters like Steve Ditko’s Blue Beetle and the Question, or Jack Kirby’s Mr Miracle. Strange, colourful characters that immediately capture your interest with how quirky they are.
I’ve spoken before of the need for a memorable superhero to have a strong thematic element; something that elevates them from the mundane to the iconographic. As an example; Batman and Spider-Man draw on the animal kingdom, with those two animals informing many of the elements that make those characters unique, such as Spider-Man’s web-slinging or Batman’s Batcave.
It’s hard these days, after so many thousands of superheroes have been introduced to the world, to come up with a unique theme for a new character. What I ended up drawing from was the memories I had of my mother practicing divination with her tarot card deck. I never put much stock in the fortune-telling side of it, but I always found the names and the illustrations of the cards themselves fascinating.
So bearing in mind the off-beat features of the Ditko and Kirby characters, I was immediately drawn to the “Knight of Wands” card, combining as it did aspects of the warrior and the magician under one, evocative name.
Storytelling is the art of posing questions and then answering them. The first question I posed to myself about a character called “the Knight of Wands” is why would he take that name? Especially when you consider that there are two decks in the tarot; the major arcana and the minor arcana, with the Knight of Wands belonging to the minor arcana. Out of all the cards in the deck, why would someone pick that one?
And that’s when it occurred to me; he’s named himself after a character from the minor arcana because there’s a villainous organisation called the Major Arcana that he’s working to bring down.
That’s where the next question comes into play; why? Why is he fighting this organisation? And it’s from there that I developed the Knight of Wands’ back story, fleshing out the Major Arcana as an organisation of superhumans that the Knight’s father founded but that has been overtaken and corrupted by his older brother.
This idea had a certain Shakespearean flavour to it that really appealed to me at the time; it’s only in retrospect that I also see the influences of films like Infernal Affairs and anime series like Cowboy Bebop as also having a fair amount of influence.
Using the tarot deck also provided me with ideas for the Knight of Wands’ paraphernalia, including his method of transport; his “Batmobile” wouldn’t be a car, it’d be a supersonic scramjet stolen from the Major Arcana, named after “the Chariot” card.
Originally, I had the Knight carrying a flaming sword, but that felt off given that he was meant to be a knight of wands. An off-hand comment someone made about Doctor Who’s sonic screwdriver being the Doctor’s “magic wand” gave me the idea of giving the Knight a similar high-tech wand, albeit as a collapsible quarterstaff, which is where his “laser-lance” comes from (though I called it a “photon rod” at first).
His real name – Ethan Knightley – came from two separate sources; Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt from the Mission: Impossible franchise (not that I’m a major fan, but it was always a name I thought was cool) and Mr Knightley from Jane Austen’s Emma. I imagined the Knight to have been a Scottish aristocrat, born and bred to continue on his family’s legacy, only to end up a beggar knight errant.
This would be a Batman with no fortune, forced to do things on a budget, and just as the Knight of Wands card represents improvisation, he’d work from his gut and off-the-cuff rather from than any grand plan or comprehensive system of preparation.
Unlike the other characters I created for Vanguard Prime, the Knight’s creation came quickly. By the time I was done, I had a character that I was very fond of and just as interested in exploring, which is why I decided to make Book 2 his spotlight story after keeping him in the background of Book 1.
That affection has also led this post to being much longer than I intended it to be, but I wanted to give you a sense of everything that goes into creating a superhero character…especially as it seems to be one of the things that people Google that brings them to my website!
And if all this rambling has somehow intrigued you about the Knight of Wands, this is where I remind you that you can read all about him and the Major Arcana in Wild Card, Book 2 in the Vanguard Prime series. You’ll recognise it on the shelf; it’ll be the only one where a hooded figure is wielding a flaming laser-lance…
‘Til next time.
Ever since I was a kid, the simple practice of handwriting has proven a real challenge for me. I distinctly remember being seven years old and completely confounded by what the teacher was saying about how to hold your pencil “properly”. You were supposed to grip your pencil just so, because if you didn’t then terrible things would happen.
It turned out that the terrible thing was that you’d develop a nub, which is what happened to me in high school after years of holding my pens and pencils incorrectly. Worse, the nub would get red and sore when I spent too long writing. Give that this was before kids were working off laptops in the classroom, I was writing by hand a lot, and my nub would often be aching by the end of the day.
My handwriting was always messy and it never got better. My cursive consisted of scrambled letters joined together like sloppy spaghetti, and it was with great frustration that I struggled to write as fast as my brain was working – mentally, I’d be a sentence or three ahead of what my hand was up to writing.
When I started uni, I switched back to writing in all caps, much as I did in primary school before we were indoctrinated into exclusively using “running writing”. This meant my penmanship was clearer to read and looked less like mad scribbles, but it also looked less adult.
I envied the mature, artful, confident handwriting of my parents, who had undergone penmanship lessons in their formative years on par with military drills. The method used to teach them cursive seems awfully draconian in this day and age…but it got results; their handwriting had a mechanical reliability to its form. They could write for hours and it would still look as precise and beautiful as it did when they started.
My handwriting has stayed much the same in the years since graduating from uni, and I still feel self-conscious about it. Now, you might argue I’m worrying over nothing. After all, we’re living in the 21st century and everyone speaks of handwriting as a dying art form. But then there’s this;
I received my advanced copies of Vanguard Prime: Wild Card today (!). It’s the second time I’ve been sent copies of a book with my name on it, and it was just as thrilling as the first. I’m also happy to say that it looks great. But the reason I bring up the issue of handwriting is because I’ll be heading out soon to promote the book’s release, and with that comes the fact that I’ll be inscribing and signing many, many copies (well…hopefully that’s what I’ll be doing).
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; if you want to be a writer some day, practice your penmanship! (Well, penpersonship). Not only is it handy for signing books, it also means you’re not beholden to a keyboard when it comes time to write. I remember taking a trip a couple of years ago and during the long flights I discovered…or rediscovered…the simple joy and satisfaction in writing by hand.
In fact, writing my first draft by hand proved a distinct advantage. When it comes time to transcribe the handwritten notes, it gives you the opportunity to do some simultaneous rewriting. You get a second draft just by doing something as simply as typing out your story.
And in case you were wondering, Vanguard Prime: Wild Card will be released on 27th February. In the meantime, I’ll be in my office practicing my handwriting. I hope I don’t hurt my nub too bad.