Secondary Characters, Learn to Love Them

Happy Throwback Thursday!

Paper Beats World

If you’ve never questioned my sanity, you might be after reading that title.  But I bet that I can say four names that will change your mind; Hermione Granger, Gandalf, Rue and Four/Tobias.  Secondary characters make the story.

If you’ve never really explored all the different ways to use secondary characters in your book, here are just a few things you can do with them.

  • Comic relief.  It’s obvious, maybe, but it’s really useful.  No matter how serious a story is, I expect to laugh at least once.  I mean really, what can’t benefit from a laugh?  Your main character might not be the right person for that sort of thing, though.  That’s why characters like Matt from Wheel of Time work so very well.  Rand’s got too much of a stick up his ass to me funny.
  • Crazy sub plots.  These are always fun.  You can do thing with…

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Lilliann, The Inventor

Now, Lillian,” Daddy said, squinting through the rain on the car windshield, “I want you to remember that moving was not an easy task.  I had to find a new job, to start with.  I’m going to have a hard time getting new jobs if I get into the habit of quitting after just a few months.”

I know, Daddy,” Lillian said.  She was fiddling with Jeffery, her toy robot.  He was her very favorite, with a square shaped copper body, a dome style head, and multicolored lights on his chest

Daddy glanced at Jeffery, and shuddered.  “Finding a new place to rent was even harder.  I had to convince the new landlady that the old one was crazy.  I don’t know if I’ll be able to find us another place if something happens at this one.”

Lillian looked up at her father.  “I didn’t mean to make everyone so mad, Daddy.  I’m sorry.”

Daddy sighed.  “I know you didn’t mean to cause all this trouble, Honey.  Just, no more pets, okay?  That’s what really got everyone’s attention.  Just stick to strays from now on.”

No pets, got it,” Lillian said.  “I promise.”

Alright, then,” Daddy said.

They drove past a park.  The falling rain made the swings and the slide glisten.  “I thought you could play at the park,” Daddy said. Looking hopeful.  “You spend too much time inside with your grandpa’s books.”

Can I have a workroom in the new house?” Lillian asked.

Sure,” Daddy said, “down in the basement.  But only if you spend some time outside in the park.  Every week, Lillian.”

Lillian sighed.  “Alright,” she said.

He glanced again at Jeffery, and said, “I mean it, Lillian, no pets.”

Okay,” Lillian said, “I promise.”

The next few days were a flurry of unpacking.  Lillian made sure to put up a bookshelf and put away her grandfather’s ancient books first.  Then she unpacked the box of her machines.  “You’ll all be happy to get out of your box, won’t you?” she crooned.  One by one she set the machines out onto the floor.  The yellow race car scooted around, beeping its horn.  The horse shaped one stomped around, and the gurney truck pulled its weight up and down. 

One day, about a week after they moved in, Lillian made her way down the stairs for breakfast.  She had lovely plans to spend the day working on setting up her work room.  Those plans were dashed when she sat down to breakfast.

Daddy gave her a smile, and set a plate of waffles down in front of her.  “It’s a beautiful day out,” he said, setting down his own plate.  “A great day to head down to the park and meet some girls your age.”

“I was hoping you’d forget about that,” Lillian said.  She took a bite of her waffles.  “I wanted to start setting up my workroom.  I haven’t been able to yet.”

There will be lots of days to do that,” Daddy said.  “Rainy days and cold snowy days, and those days it’s just overcast and you’re not sure if it will rain or not.  You have to take advantage of sunny days, Lillian.  Your grandpa’s books will still be there when you get home.  I know, I’ve tried to get rid of them.  It doesn’t work.”

Oh, alright,” Lillian said with a sigh.  She dug into her waffles, and thought grudging thoughts about other girls her age.  She’d never liked other girls her age.

All to soon Lillian made her way down to the park, Jeffery in her arms.  The park was full of other children, running around on the grass and climbing all over the equipment that looked a lot less shiny in the sunlight.  They were loud and screaming, and not one of them were bothering to look where they were going.  Lillian held Jeffery close to her, too afraid of him being stepped on to put him down anywhere.

Lillian looked around for somewhere a little quieter.  She spied a sandbox under the shade of a tree, and headed that way.

The only two children there were a little boy playing in the sand with a plastic red shovel and pale, and a girl about Lillian’s age.  She was reading a book, and looked up when Lillian approached.  “Hi,” she said, “I’m Kasey.”

Hello. I’m Lillian.  My dad and I just moved here.”

Cool,” Kasey said.  She closed her book and inclined her head towards the boy in the sandbox.  “That’s my little brother Charlie.”

Hi!” Charlie said.  He waived his shovel at her, and went back to patting sand into his pail.

I like your robot,” Kasey said.  “Can I see him?”

Lillian considered this request for a moment, then said, “Okay.  His name is Jeffery.”

She set Jeffery down on the grass, and he started to walk around, making his beeping noise.  Kasey picked him up, taking the utmost care.  “Where do the batteries go?” she asked.

He doesn’t run on batteries,” Lillian said.  “I made him.”

Oh, that’s really cool,” Kasey said, making Lillian feel much better.  “How did you learn to make robots that don’t need batteries?”

My grandpa taught me before he died,” Lillian said.  “He taught my dad, too, but he doesn’t like it as much.”

Charlie took notice of Jeffery then.  “Robot!” he cried. He hurried out of the sandbox, and reached for Jeffery.

“Charlie, no!” Kasey cried. She held Jeffery away from him, passing the robot back to Lillian. “You don’t grab stuff that isn’t yours.”

She turned to Lillian and said, “Sorry. My mom works here at the park, so I have to watch Charlie all day.” She pointed towards a woman selling ice cream out of a truck. The woman saw Kasey gesturing to her and waived. “We come here every day that she works.”

“So you must spend a lot of time here,” Lillian said. “That must be fun.”

“It is most of the time,” Kasey said.

“What are you reading?” Lillian asked.

“A Wrinkle in Time,” Kasey said. “I don’t like it all that much, but everyone seems to say how good it is.”

Lillian sat down on the grass next to her. “I didn’t like it either,” she said. “What books have you read that you do like?”

The girls chatted about books while Charlie went back to his pale and shovel.  Lillian, who’d had experiences with little boys before, was pleasantly surprised to find that Charlie was neither loud or insistent on attention.  He hummed to himself while making lopsided castles in the sand.

After a few moments, though, his humming stopped.  “Kay,” he said, looking towards his sister.

Kasey looked up, and muttered, “Oh, not him.  Don’t even look at him, Charlie, and maybe he won’t come over here.”

Who’s him?”  Lillian asked. 

Billy,” Kasey said.  She nodded towards a little boy coming onto the playground.  He was holding the hand of a woman who wasn’t looking at him.  Instead she was looking at her phone.  The boy looked to be about Charlie’s age, and he was straining away from the woman.  She let him go and settled herself onto a bench, not bothering to see which direction he went.

That’s not a very good babysitter,” Lillian said.

That’s his mom,” Kasey replied.

Billy made his way to the sandbox.  Charlie picked up his red pale, and gave Billy a concerned look. 

“Bucket!” Billy cried, “Mine!”                 

“No!” Charlie cried.

Quit it!” Kasey said.  She hurried to pull Charlie and his pale away.  Lillian looked towards Billy’s mom.  She hadn’t noticed anything, and was still playing on her phone.

My bucket!” Billy said again, and reached for the pale, grabbing hold of one side of it.  “No, mine!” Charlie said.  He kept ahold of his pale, and tried desperately to pull it out of the bully’s hands. 

The pale, which was a cheap thing from the dollar store, snapped in half.  Charlie fell back into Kasey’s arms, and Billy fell into the sand.  Both boys were holding half of the broken pale.  They started to wail.

Charlie, please don’t,” Kasey said, desperately trying to console him.  “Don’t cry, it was only a plastic pale.”

But it was his plastic pale,” Lillian said.  She carefully took the piece from Charlie, then snatched the piece away from Billy.  “I’ll got tell his mom,” she said.  She walked up to the woman on her cell phone.  “Excuse me,” she said, “maybe you didn’t notice, but your son broke that little boy’s toy pale.”

The woman glanced at Lillian, but didn’t respond.  She instead looked right back at her phone. 

Ma’am, can you hear me?” Lillian asked.

Go find your mom,” the woman replied.

Lillian knew a lost cause when she saw one.  She sighed, and threw the pieces of the pale away on her way back to Kasey and Charlie.  “Sorry,” she said.

It’s okay,” Kasey replied.  She’d distracted Charlie with a piece of chalk to draw on the sides of the sandbox with.  “I’ve tried that before.  That lady doesn’t pay attention to anything but her stupid phone.”

So I’ve noticed,” Lillian said.

It was getting close to lunch time.  Lillian got to her feet, and said, “I should go home now.  It was nice to meet you, Kasey.  I don’t usually like meeting new people.”

It was nice to meet you, too,” Kasey said.  “Will you be back at the park again?”

I think I will,” Lillian said.  She waved goodbye to her new friends, and started for home.

Along the way Lillian heard a sound from an overturned trash bin.  She looked inside and saw a thin cat munching on the leftover fast food someone had thrown away.  It was dirty, with matted fur and stains around its mouth.  When it saw Lillian looking at it, it arched its back and hissed.

Hey, there,” Lillian said, reaching a careful hand towards the cat.  “No collar.  You don’t look like anyone’s pet.”

A few days later Lillian hurried down the stairs for breakfast, holding her newest robot.  It was a shiny blue race car.  She held Jeffery in her other arm.  Once she reached the

kitchen she set them down on the floor.  Jeffery walked around, and the sports car drove along the floor, beeping its horn.

Do you care if I go to the park?” Lillian asked Daddy.

Of course not,” Daddy said with a smile.  “Did you finish your new robot, then?”

Yeah, I want to show it to Kasey and Charlie,” Lillian said.  Daddy set a bowl of oatmeal in front of her, and she started to eat a little quicker than usual.

I’m so glad you’ve started making friends,” Daddy said.  “It’s important to not let your work consume you.”

I know, Daddy,” Lillian said.

Soon she was on her way to the park, both Jeffery and her new blue car tucked in a bag along with a copy of The Wind in The Willows for Kasey to borrow.

Looking around, Lillian spotted Kasey and Charlie.  They were playing on the swings.  Kasey saw Lillian and waved to her.  Lillian hurried over to join her.

You haven’t been around for a couple days,” Kasey said.

I get kind of caught up when I’m working on a new robot,” Lillian said.  She pulled the blue car out of her bag, and set it in the gravel around the swings so it could drive around. 

Charlie’s face lit up and cried, “Car!” He jumped down from his swing and ran after it.

Be careful, Charlie,” Kasey said.

It’s okay,” Lillian said.  “I made it for him to chase.  He can’t break it.”

You don’t have a little brother, do you?” Kasey asked.

Still, Charlie was happy to chase the car, leaving Kasey and Lillian free to swing and talk about books.  “Thank you for bringing this for me to read,” Kasey said, looking over the cover of The Wind and The Willows.

Lillian, who had never had anyone to share a book with before, said, “I’m glad you wanted to read it.”

There were shouts from across the park.  It was Billy, pulling a little girl from a bouncing hippo so that he could clamber onto it himself.

That really is a wretched little boy,” Lillian said.  “His mom should keep a better eye on him.”

She won’t, though,” Kasey said.  “Mom was really mad about the pale.  She didn’t have the extra money to replace it.”

That’s not fair,” Lillian said.  “Billy’s mom should replace it.  He’s the one who broke it.”

As though talking about him had gotten his attention, Billy started towards them.  Lillian reached down from her swing and scooped up Jeffery.  But Billy wasn’t looking at Jeffery.  He was looking at the sports car.

Car!” Billy cried, and started to chase after it.  Charlie kept his distance, but didn’t seem to mind Billy chasing the car with him.

Are you okay with that?” Kasey asked.

I’m okay if you are,” Lillian said.  “At least he’s not terrorizing anyone.

So long as he doesn’t mess with Charlie I don’t care,” Kasey said.

When Lillian had built her car, she’d done so with Charlie’s speed in mind.  Billy was bigger, and he could run faster.  Lillian also hadn’t planned on a little boy jumping onto  the car with both feet.  But that’s just what Billy did.

No, you wretched little brat!” Lillian cried.  She jumped from her swing and set Jeffery on the ground.  He car lay in the gravel crushed into pieces.  She raised up her hand to slap Billy, but stopped herself just in time.  Even so, Billy sat down on the ground and started to bawl.  “Mommy, Mommy!” he screamed.

Good luck with that, kid,” Lillian muttered.

But suddenly there his mother was.  Her phone was in her pocket for once.

You again,” she said, glaring at Lillian.  “What did you do to my son?  You little brat, you broke his car!”

That is my car,” Lillian said.  “And your son broke it, not me.”

Billy’s mom grabbed Lillian by her upper arm.  “You little liar.  What girl your age plays with toy cars?  You’re going to take me to your mom right now.”

I can’t, she’s dead,” Lillian said.  “Let go of me!”

Well, that explains a lot,” the woman said.  She let go of Lillian, and scooped up Billy along with the remains of the car.  “Take me to your dad, then.”

Kasey, keep hold of Jeffery for me until I can come back for him,” Lillian called.

The woman walked behind Lillian the whole way back home, carrying her wailing son.  When they got there she hammered on the door.  Daddy answered, looking very puzzled.

Can I help you?” he asked, glancing from the woman to Lillian.

Yeah, um, your kid smashed up my son’s toy car,” the woman said.  “Toys aren’t cheap, you know.  I don’t have the money to be replacing stuff that other kids break.”

Daddy looked at the wrecked bits of car.  Then his eyes went to Lillian’s arm, which was still red from where the woman had grabbed her. 

Oh, Honey,” Daddy said.  “What were you thinking?  You’re a big girl, you should know better.”

Daddy!” Lillian cried, “that is my car.  I made it.”

Now don’t tell lies, Lillian,” Daddy said.  “You know I hate liars.  Miss, I am so sorry.  Please, won’t you come in?  I’ll make us some  coffee, and we can discuss the cost of the car.  It looks very expensive.”

Thanks,” the woman said.

As Daddy closed the door he said, “Lillian, did anyone see you leave the park?”

It was nearly a week later when Lillian once again set off for the park after breakfast.  It was an overcast day, but she thought she could catch an hour or two before it started to rain.

Other children had apparently not thought they would be so lucky.  The only two in the park were Kasey and Charlie.  Charlie was playing in the sandbox with his red shovel and a mixer bowl.  Kasey was on the nearby cement, playing with a set of jacks.  Jeffery was walking around at her side.  Their mom was on the path near them, looking around for customers.

Hello,” Lillian said.

Hi,” Kasey said.  Charlie waved, then went back to the sand.  “You’re the little girl Kasey was telling me about,” her mom said.  “She told me how you stood up for Charlie, and that terrible woman went to your house.  I hope you didn’t get in any trouble.”

No, Daddy knew I wouldn’t smash some other kid’s toy,” Lillian said.

Well, I’m glad,” Kasey’s mom said.  She gave Lillian a quick pat on the shoulder, and moved on along the path.

Lillian sat down next to Kasey, and scooped up Jeffery.  “Thank you for keeping him safe for me,” she said.

No problem,” Kasey said.  “Mom was a little freaked out by him, though.  He doesn’t ever really stop walking around, does he?”

No,” Lillian said.  “I’m sorry he upset your mom.  She seems really nice.  I hope she doesn’t mind that I made a robot for Charlie.”

Charlie heard his name and looked over at the girls.  His eyes came to rest on the shiny red fire engine that Lillian had just taken out of a bag.  “Fire truck!” he cried.  He ran over to the truck, and knelt down to push it across the grass.  The light on top of the truck started to flash, and the little ladder moved up and down.  “I made this one a little different than the others,” Lillian said with a smile.  “It’s a new power source.  Can you let me know if there are any problems?”

Sure,” Kasey said.

Still holding Jeffery, Lillian pulled her new cell phone out of her pocket.  “Check out what my dad made me,” she said, holding it out for Kasey to inspect.  “He said that now that I’m out of the house more often, he wants to make sure he can get a hold of me. So, how have you been the last week?”

“Really good,” Kasey said. “Billy and his mom haven’t been here at all since the last day I saw you.”

“Well, I think Dad made her feel pretty bad about how she’d been acting,” Lillian said.

They watched Charlie play with his fire engine in the sun. Lillian smiled, enjoying the feeling of the sun. Daddy was right, she decided. She should take advantage of the sunny days.

If you liked this story, please check out Days, available on the I Store, Gumroad and Tablo







The Best Movies for Storytelling

I’m low key in love with movies. Okay, not low key. I really love movies. And I’m as crazy eclectic with my movie love as I am with music. (Remember, I’m the weirdo that has Eminem, Sugarland and Elton John on my tablet, right along with Cher and Panic! At The Disco.)

It goes further than that, though. As I say over and over, my whole life is about good stories. I write them, read them, watch them and listen to them. But, part of PBW is that I also love to share them. I’ve also been watching a lot of top ten videos with my kids. So, with that spirit in mind, here are ten movies every writer can learn from. It’s surprising to me that most people haven’t heard of a lot of these. If you haven’t seen any of them, and you’re looking for something to do this weekend, here you go. And if you’re so inclined, please share with us your favorite movies in the comments below.

Saving Mr. Banks

This is probably the most popular and newest of the movies on this list. It’s the story of how the Disney movie, Mary Poppins, was made. A highly dramatized version, mind you.

At it’s core, though, it’s the story of a young woman with a sad childhood who becomes a writer. Then, she has to watch her story turn into a movie with dancing penguins. (According to the movie, she hated that.) This also makes her come to terms with her past.

Maybe don’t watch this with your smaller kids, but my older daughter loved it.

The Incredibles

I really love Pixar in general. It’s widely understood that Pixar is a creative powerhouse. And The Incredibles is a great example. Being a huge comic book fan girl, I jumped on that movie to start with, but if you’ve never read a comic book or seen any super hero movie, you’ll still love this. Even if you don’t have kids, watch it.

It’s all about super heroes that are being sued, so that they need to be placed in a relocation program. That is, until a super jealous genius decides to look up his childhood hero.

Star ship Troopers

This movie is amazing, and it’s based on the book by the same name. It’s a dark, dystopian future story about a future where people are only considered citizens if they serve in the military. Which is a little worse than it would be right now, because Earth is at war with a scary bug alien race. It’s also got Neil Patrick Harris as a psychic with a pet ferret.

Children of The Damned

The original black and white, not the remake. Based on the book, The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham, this is probably one of the coolest Science Fiction story ever. Everyone in a small town suddenly falls asleep. When they come to, every woman who can be pregnant is. The children who come from this weird rapey situation are all blond with blue eyes. (I don’t think this is a Nazi reference at all, do you?) The kids all have weird manipulation powers. Very dark, and very emotional. Imagine knowing that this child you carried is actually evil, and probably not human. (I know my kids have those days, but still.)

Shaun of The Dead

Is it a little low brow? Yeah, kind of but watch me care. Shaun of The Dead is a zombie movie, but it’s a comedy. It’s about a man named Shaun who is kind of a loser. He’s got a crappy job, two asshole flatmates and his girlfriend is getting ready to leave him. Oh, and some shitty pens that leak red on his shirt. Then zombies start attacking people, and it actually takes people awhile to realize that there are zombies around. The thing I like about this movie the most is that the government acted like I would expect the government to act. They didn’t suck!

House on Haunted Hill

Again, I’m talking about the black and white original, not the remake. Now, before we go to far, the special effects are terrible! At one point there’s a skeleton walking around with fishing line holding him up. You can see it.

Despite this, the acting is super awesome. Vincent Price, my goodness I love that man, played his snooty and rich character to perfection. Of course, being an old school horror movie, only the bad wife and her lover die. Even so, it’s a creepy movie. I’m a little biased, though, because the darling husband and I went on our first date at a local movie house. They played some old black and white horror movies during one awesome summer.


I want to be careful talking about this movie, because despite the awesome stars who were in it (Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon Levitt and Jeff Daniels) a lot of people haven’t even heard of it. And the ending is killer.

Basically, the story is based in a world that has two big differences from ours. Time travel is real, and illegal, and telepathy is real. Mobsters send people back in time to be assassinated. Eventually, the people who are in the past who are assassinating for the mob will kill themselves, thereby closing their own loop. This is the story of one man who is trying really hard to close his own loop, but his future self is just too damn fast.

Jakob The Liar

This movie is why I’m in love with Leiv Shcriber. He’s in it with Robin Williams, who plays the main character, Jakob, who lives in a Jewish Ghetto in Germany during WWII. I guess I don’t have to tell you what sort of life that is. He accidentally finds out a bit of news about the war, and spreads it around. When people start wondering how he found this out, he makes the mistake of telling his friend Mischa, (Mr. Schriber) that he has a radio. This all gets even more dangerous when a little girl, who snuck into the ghetto to save herself from going to a concentration camp. It’s a Robin Williams movie, so I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that you’ll choke on your own spit from laughing, then cry your eyes out at the end.


This might not be the movie for you if you’re easily offended. But it is a very deep movie, if you can get past the sex jokes. Some of my favorite religious quotes come from this movie, such as, “Catholics don’t celebrate their faith, they mourn it!” Love that.

It’s a story about a woman who works at an abortion clinic who finds herself responsible for saving the world when two fallen angels are trying to get back into Heaven. What they don’t know is that if they get back into Heaven, all of Heaven, Earth and Hell will cease to exist. Again, not one to watch with the little ones. But a good one if you feel like getting some good ideas. Also, a great example of getting a religious message across without being an ass.


This is, and has been, my favorite movie ever. It’s the story of a boy who’s parents are divorced. He’s a big old nerd who is totally obsessed with his favorite show, Pleasantville. His sister, a rather slutty girl and not the smartest, has a date on the same night as a marathon of his favorite show. They end up in the show, a creepy black and white world that rather resembles Stepford. But as Bud and Sue, the two main characters, start teaching people about ‘the real world’ things start turning color.

I don’t have any way to explain the beauty of this show. If you, like me, wish you’d been born in the fifties so you could have been involved in that cultural explosion, you’ll love this. Imagine a little micro society evolution, decades of sex and rock and roll shoved into a tiny town all in a few days.

I’m sure I didn’t mention all of the amazing movies that writers can learn from. If you know one I missed, please share it with us below.

What Aaron Sorkin taught me

I’m a huge political junkie, if you can’t tell. Normally I spend a lot of time during an election year, even the mid term elections, glued to the news, reading every paper I can get, and just stuffing myself as full of election information as I can.

This year, I’m not really thrilled with the candidate my party has chosen. I wanted Bernie Sanders, and it’s looking like he’s not going to get the nomination. (Sigh) So, it’s kind of depressing to watch the news. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still paying attention. It’s just that right now it’s evoking a lot of emotions in me, like anger and confusion. It’s shaping out to be a race to the bottom, and that’s the last thing we need right now.

So, to sooth my political addict mind when I can’t handle the current news anymore, I watch West Wing and Newsroom, two shows by Aaron Sorkin. And, I just have to share this with all of you, he’s probably one of the best tv writers of all time.

His characters

Aaron Sorkin’s characters are some of my favorite. His bad guys are relateable, and complex. More than once, I’ve heard someone argue that someone wasn’t a bad guy at all, or totally was a bad guy when I didn’t think s/he was. A good example is the Vice President from West Wing. I thought for sure he was a good guy, because of how he stood up for Leo and how he knew the president has MS but didn’t say anything. My husband was convinced that he was a bad guy, because he seemed to be working against the President. But that makes perfect sense if he didn’t think Bartlett was going to run for a second term!

The thing I took away from this, is that no one is just evil. Everyone’s got a motivation, and some of the nicest people can do the most heartless things if properly motivated. Someone you think is an asshole, other people might see as a really decent person.

Along the same line, some of his characters, his good characters, make dumb decisions. Maggie Jordon from Newsroom constantly makes shitty choice after shitty choice. I feel that her every action proves that she cares for no one but herself. Lots of people like her, I’m not one of them.

His dialog

I can’t get through an episode of West Wing without thinking, “Hell yes, you are so right! You tell that -insert the big bad for the episode-!”

Dialog rings true for these characters, and each person’s speech is unique to them. You don’t have many lines that could have come out of just anyone’s mouth. And, because he did such a good job with his characters, you can tell that this was the line for this person.

More than that, the dialog is honest. It’s often things we might have wanted to say ourselves. It’s sometimes arguments to something we have said. More than once, it’s made me rethink my opinion on something. Sorkin’s dialog is persuasive without being pushy. It’s eloquent. It expects that you are smart enough to understand what he’s saying. Just, do me a favor. Watch the first speech on the first episode of Newsroom. See if it doesn’t stir up some emotions in you.

His opinion of intelligence

I want to go back to something, there. What I said about ‘It expects that you are smart enough to understand what he’s saying.’ That kind of sums up both of these shows, though. They expect you to be smart.

Not a lot of shows expect that of us. In fact, most shows expect just the opposite. Short attention spans, an emphases on conformity and comfort. The thought that people don’t want anything new, or unexpected, (to paraphrase Futurama). Don’t talk about the taboo topics, don’t make people mad. Don’t expect people to understand complex storylines, even multiple story lines in one episode. Overall, there’s a sense of, “You’re smart enough to get this, so I’m not going to talk down to you.”

If you get a chance, all of West Wing is on Netflix, and all of Newsroom is on Amazon. Check it out, you won’t regret it.

Idiosyncracies, how to use them and why your character needs them

Happy Throwback Thursday.

Paper Beats World

This is an often overlooked and sometimes misunderstood part of creating a character. Too often we talk about a characters strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, favorite brand of coffee, that sort of thing. We don’t talk a lot about characters idiosyncrasies, though, and that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. When you think about it, isn’t that a big part of what you think of when you think about a real person?

So, just so we’re all aware, an idiosyncrasy is a behavior or way of thought particular to a specific person. Often this is associated with something weird or unexpected in someone’s personality. There are a lot of examples, but the first one that comes to mind for me is from the show Burn Notice. The main character is a smart, fearless super spy. Or as he says, he used to be a spy. He eats yogurt. I…

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Golden Eyes

It had seemed like such a simple thing to compliment Martha on the dragon tattoo on her left ankle. I’d always liked tattoos, and her’s was especially nice. That green and silver dragon, wrapping around her brown ankle. How the hell was I supposed to know that she was going to drag me off to the tattoo studio without so much as a warning.

“If I give you time to think about it, you’ll get up in your head over it and never do it,” Martha said, pulling me into the waiting room. She was right, but that didn’t make me any happier about it.

There was a woman waiting at the desk when we came in. She was chewing gum and flipping through a Russian magazine. Her arms were bare, and covered from shoulder to finger in ink. “I don’t give out change for the meters,” she said when we came in.

“No, we’re here for tattoos,” Martha said, smiling at her. She shoved me a little, and said, “Beth here is going first.”

The woman looked me up and down. Finally, she said, “I’ve got some paperwork you have to sign out. And I’ll need to see your ID.”

The paperwork took too little time, and I found myself being ushered into a brown plastic chair far sooner than I’d have liked.

The woman pulled her long hair up into a bun, and started getting out supplies. “Where do you want your tattoo?” she asked, snapping rubber gloves on her hand.

“Um, on my shoulder, I guess,” I said. I figured that was going to be the easiest to cover up. “Is that a good place for them?”

“Any place is a good place,” she said, “Take off your shirt, please.”

Of course, I had been the idiot who hadn’t realized I’d have to take my shirt off to get a tattoo on my shoulder. I hesitated, just for a minute, trying to remind myself how mortified I’d be if I had to go tell Martha I’d chickened out.

I pulled of my shirt. “What do you want?” the woman asked.

“I’m not sure,” I said.

Her eyes went down to my wrists. The burn marks were little more than scars now, but still visible. The bruises, at least, were gone.

“You were born in 1998, yes? That means your a tiger, according to the Chinese Zodiac.”

“I guess so,” I said, though I could never remember feeling very much like a tiger.

“Tigers are great for tattoos. The represent courage.”

“I guess a tiger is fine, then,” I said.

She rubbed my skin with an alcohol cloth all the way from my shoulder to where my chest started to curve.

“Most people who come in here with marks on their body tell me they’re just clumsy,” the woman said, as she moved on to using the tattoo pen. “Not that it’s any of my business.”

“I just got out of a bad situation,” I said.

The woman nodded. “That takes strength. Good for you.”

It took nearly an hour for her to put on the outlines and color. She looked lost in thought for most of the time, and I didn’t want to disturb her.

“I have a special ink for the eyes,” she said. “It’s unique, no one else has this color. One minute while I go get it.”

“Sure, no problem,” I said. I needed a break from the puncturing sensation anyway.

I supposed that this ink must be special, because she didn’t apply it to the mechanical pen like she had the others. She used, instead, a pen that looked more like a knife. As she added the gold color, it felt like she was cutting it right into my skin.

When she was done, she helped me stand to look in the full length mirror. There were all the things I hated. The flabby, doughy belly. The breasts, big and saggy in my ill fitting bra. The marks on my skin, from burns and cuts. But now, there was something I liked.

The tiger looked like it was stepping down from my shoulder onto my chest. Its colors were so much more vivid than I’d anticipated, especially the bright golden eyes. “It’s gorgeous,” I whispered.

The tattoo woman laughed. “Come back in a could of weeks so I can touch up the color,” she said. “I’ve got some lotion for you to put on it in the meantime.”

Martha was in the waiting room. Her wrist was bandaged, and she had her tablet out, reading. She grinned when she saw me. “What’d you get?” she asked.

“A tiger,” I said, pointing to my bandaged shoulder, “What about you?”

“You’ll have to see when I take the bandage off,” she said.

It was getting late by the time we got home, and neither of us felt like cooking. I ordered pizza while she went around the apartment, watering her thousands of plants.

My phone started ringing, nearly falling off of the counter with the vibration. I caught it just in time, and looked at the caller ID.

It was my mom.

My fingers shook so badly as I tried to hit the ignore button that I was sure I was going to answer it by mistake. I managed to turn it off, though, and set the phone down.

“Was it her?” Martha asked.

“Yeah,” I said, trying to take a deep breath.

“I thought you changed your number,” Martha said, putting her watering can away.

“I did. I don’t know how she got this one.”

“Well, who did you give it to?”

“I can’t, I can’t remember,” I whispered. My chest was starting to hurt again. The new tattoo stung, almost like a small cat digging it’s claws into my chest.

“Okay, it’s okay, calm down,” Martha said.

No, it wasn’t okay. I’d been stupid, giving my number to someone who’d given it to my mom. Hadn’t Martha told me to be careful who I gave it to?

“I’m okay,” I said. I took a few deep breaths, and forced myself to smile at her. “I can ignore a phone call.”

“Exactly,” Martha said. She came to me, and wrapped her arms around me. “And we can go get your number changed again tomorrow.”

I put my head on her shoulder. “You shouldn’t have to take care of me like this,” I said.

“Someone should,” she said, “You’re worth taking care of. Besides, you’re the one who moved all the way here from DC just to be with me.”

That hadn’t been for her, it had been for me. She’d seen me broken and called me beautiful. How could I help but to run to her?

“So, d’you think you’re ready to take your bandage off yet?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said. We sat in the kitchen, and she helped me pull my shirt off. Then, she peeled the bandage away and gasped. “Oh, I love it. Look at those eyes, Beth! I’ve never seen a tattoo with such a bright gold before.”

“Let’s see yours,” I said, pulling my shirt back on.

She grinned, and held her hand out so I could take her bandage off.

There, written on her wrist in blue comic book font, were the words, ‘Beth’s Girl’. “Oh,” I said, “I didn’t know you were going to do that. I would have gotten your name too, if you’d told me.”

“Next time,” she said, “Trust me, tattoos are addictive. You’ll get another one.”

There was a knock at the door. “Wow, that pizza was fast,” she said. She went to the door, and opened it.

She had no hesitation, no reason to have ever thought better than to just open a door.

There stood Mom.

She looked just as she had all through my childhood. Thin and tall, as she was forever reminding me. Her make up and hair were done to military perfection, except for the lipstick. It was always smudged when she’d been drinking.

“I’m here to pick up Elizabeth,” she said.

“Um, no,” Martha said. If she was shocked to see my mother there, she didn’t show it. She crossed her arms, and said, “She’s grown, you can’t make her go anywhere.”

“I didn’t ask you,” Mom replied. She looked past Martha, and saw me standing in the kitchen. “I see you’ve been stuffing yourself. Let’s go.”

“No, Mom,” I said, but it was faint. My tattoo was starting to sting again, right a the front and back paws.

“Don’t you dare say no to me,” she snapped. She pushed right past Martha, to come to me. “You selfish brat. I’m sure you don’t care that you’ve put your father’s whole campaign in jeopardy. Every newspaper in town is howling! Senator Callow’s oldest daughter ran off to California to shack up with a black girl. Mrs. Henderson at church is telling everyone how she’s praying for your little sisters, that the can overcome. Elizabeth, that is what she says about the children of gamblers and whores.”

“What about alcoholics?” Martha snapped.

Mom spared her a seething glance. “Don’t speak to me, Nigger,” she said.

“And this is when I call the cops, and get you kicked out of my apartment,” Martha said. “Wonder what your papers will say about that?”

“Elizabeth, come with me,” Mom said.

“Mom, I live here now,” I said, quietly.

“Young lady, if you cannot be smart or pretty, you should at least be obedient,” Mom snapped.

“I’m dialing,” Martha said, picking up her phone.

Without hesitation, Mom marched across the room. She had always been stronger than I ever thought possible. She slapped Martha, kicking her phone away when she dropped it.

“Leave her alone!” I yelled. The pain in my shoulder grew. It felt more like pulling.

Mom took a few unsteady steps back toward me. “You brought this upon yourself, and on her. If you had just done what I’d told you, this wouldn’t have happened.”

My shoulder started to burn. As the pain grew worse, my vision started to fade. Mom was in front of me, raising her hand. Suddenly, I knew no more.

I woke up to an EMT gently patting my face with a wet cloth. He looked intently into my as as soon as he saw them open. “You’re a lucky girl,” he said.

Luck had never been a word I thought fit me well. “Why?” I asked.

He laughed. “You got knocked out by a bobcat and you woke up. Do you remember your name, and where you live?”

“My name is Elisabeth Callow, and I live here,” I said.

“I’ll take it,” he said, grinning.

“Where’s Martha?” I asked, “What do you mean, what bobcat?”

“The one that attacked you and your mother,” he said. His face darkened. “She’s on her way to the hospital now. We’ll do what we can.”

“Where is Martha?” I asked, more insistent this time.

“I’m here,” she called. I looked towards the arm chair. She was sitting there, talking to the police officer standing in front of her. “I’m fine. The bobcat didn’t even come at me.”

Once the EMT was convinced I was going to die and the police had gotten Martha’s statement, they left. The living room was enough to make me sob. There wasn’t a piece of furniture that wasn’t clawed. To me, it looked like more damage than a bobcat could do.

“How do your hands feel?” Martha asked, “They look shredded to shit.”

I looked down. My hands were a mess of cuts, and were swelling. “How did a bobcat get in here?” I asked.

She just smiled at me. “A bobcat didn’t do this,” she said. She came to the couch, and pulled me into her arms. My shoulders and arms were starting to ache.

“Your eyes were golden,” she whispered.

Please check out my book, Days and Other Stories, if you like this.

A Review of Bo Burnham, Make Happy

The darling husband and I are big on stand up comedy. I, in particular, love musical comedy, like Weird Al and Stephen Lynch. (That’s the only thing those two people have in common. Weird Al’s usually family friendly, and Lynch works about as blue as you get.)

One of our recent favorites is Bo Burnham. He was big on Youtube awhile ago, and finally got his own Comedy Central special called What. Start out by watching this, it’s great. Well, it’s great if you’re not easily offended. If you are, this might bother you. My favorite song is Right/Left brain.

Recently, while searching through Netflix, we found a new Burnham stand up. It’s definitely worth a watch.

First off, I love that he’s an indie comic. He started himself on Youtube with no backing at all, and worked hard to earn his reputation. I love seeing someone get themselves out like that, it gives me hope.

I also love that Burnham’s comedy is surprising. I watch a lot of comedy, and I sometimes feel like I could recite the comedian’s jokes right along with them. Sadly, it’s a curse that my seventh grade English teacher warned me about. Eventually you’ve heard everything, and can guess the ending of every movie and book. I just didn’t think that was going to happen at thirty. I like it when someone thinks of something I haven’t heard. Even better when it’s good.

It helps, I think, that he’s totally honest. In the new standup, Make Happy, he talks about depression, music, and male privilege to name just a few topics. He’s bitingly shockingly honest about all of those things. This is something I strive for, and I don’t know if I’ve really gotten to, yet.

But what I really want to talk to you about, what I really want you to see, is the last few minutes of the show. Bo very suddenly goes from funny to “Holy shit, I think he’s being serious.” The last bit speaks to a part of me that I think all creators have and don’t want to admit. I don’t want to ruin the moment for you, but trust me, it nearly made me cry. I’m also sure it encouraged more than a few, ‘How are you doing?’ emails for Burnham.

So, it’s been awhile since I’ve done a review for anything, so I hope you all like it. If you get a chance, check out Make Happy on Netflix. And let me know if you’d like to see more reviews here on PBW.

My Grandmother, My Heritage

I don’t get on with my mother, I might have mentioned that before. I really don’t talk to most of my blood family, really. I love my husband, mother in law and kids, and that’s about it.

But I do talk to my grandmother. Actually, as I get older, I realize that there’s more of her in me than I realized as a child. I’m also realizing that’s not a bad thing.

I’ve mentioned before that I come by my geek genes honestly. I started watching X-Files and Star Trek, Next Generation with my grandma as a little girl. I’d do that while playing with these glass beads. She told me that they were for some game that one of my uncles played. I’ve searched but I can’t figure out what game it was. Anyway, that’s not the point.

Grandma also introduced me to computers, and all the wonders they provide. She showed me my first computer game, Commander Keen. (Yes, I am old. Shut up.) She had book shelves full of books, far superior to anything we had at home. She had all of the Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of The Rings, The Dragon Riders of Pern. She also had all of the Calvin and Hobbs books, with which I spent many a joyous summer day.

My grandmother was also bitingly critical. She would tell me exactly what she thought of something I’d done with no sugar coating at all. I showed her a story I’d written when I was young, younger than my kids are now. I’d labored over it, writing an outline, making up detailed character backgrounds. I even printed it out, on the old copy paper that ran together and had ridges on the side that had to be pulled off. (Man, I loved that stuff.) And after laboring over this for days, (I was like eight) I gave this manuscript to my grandmother to edit for me.

She went through it with a red pen, and she used it liberally. At the end of it, she wrote, “This is a good outline.” She also took out all of my childish swearing, like ‘Dorks’ and ‘Jeez’.

Looking back, I’m able to appreciate the good lessons in there while disregarding the bad. (I think we’re all aware my vulgarity has evolved.) I appreciate now, far more than I did back then, the honesty in which she dealt with my work. It really set me up for an expectation of honesty in my life. Sadly, it’s not one the world has lived up to, but we can’t all be my grandma.

Finally, my grandmother is anything but a pushover. She is fearless, and insistent upon good behavior. If my grandmother is served the wrong thing in a restaurant, everyone knows. If someone has a problem with her, they know her opinion of them. She’ll say anything to anyone, with not a moment’s hesitation, and she’s encouraged me to do the same. She was the lady none of the young men in church wanted to sit in front of, because she’d be sure to tell their mothers if they were acting up. (I have no idea why none of them wanted to ask me out.) She cared not a thing about what people might think of her. She only thought of doing what was right.

I don’t want you to think she’s a saint. She’s got some serious judgmental problems, and her strictly Mormon lifestyle doesn’t quite mesh with my anti gender rolls, pro gays, pro choice life. But she loves me, even if she’s really quick to tell me what I’m doing wrong with my life.

As far a role models, I guess I could have gotten worse.

Protagonist vs. Good Guy

It’s Throwback Thursday!

Paper Beats World

Last week, we talked about what an antagonist doesn’t have to be. This week, we’re going to talk about the one thing your protagonist doesn’t have to be, a good guy.

Modern story telling has given us all sorts of examples of main characters who are not good people.

The bad guy with good intentions.

Example, Magnito. And yes he does count, because he’s the main character of his own comic recently. Magnito does really, really bad things. But it works for him, because he’s often the one doing the bad things that need to be done, allowing the heroes to keep their hands clean. This is a fascinating character, for any number of reasons, but the biggest one is that he’s deep. He’s also cathartic. It’s never going to be Scott Summers who decks the bigoted moron yelling racial obscenities. It’ll be Erik, or Logan, or even Emma Frost…

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Vivian trudged from her last class of the day, feeling sore.  There was no rest in sight for her.  The night would consist of a few hurried hours of studying, followed by a six to midnight shift at the diner.

As she passed the line of student apartments a yard sale caught her eye.  Vivian was broke enough that she didn’t pass up a way to get cheap cloths.

Marcy from her chem class was there, manning a cash drawer.  “You’re not leaving, are you?” Vivian asked.

“No,” Marcy said with a sigh, “my room mate left.  No warning, and now I’ve got no one to split the rent with.”

“Connie?  When did she leave?” Vivian asked.  Had she really been so tired she hadn’t noticed one of her classmates missing?  Her eyes were scanning the table, looking over the tops, a lamp and some text books. 

“She just vanished, didn’t come back to our room one night, about a week ago,” Marcy said.  “Her folks came and picked up most of her stuff, said I could keep whatever they forgot.  They haven’t heard from her either.”

“Wonder where she went.” Vivian asked.

“Probably after some guy,” Marcy muttered.

Vivian picked a tablet off the table.  “You don’t want this?” she asked.

“No, my parents got me one for Christmas.  Besides, like I said, I’ve got no one to split the rent with now.”

“You want fifty bucks for it?” Vivian asked, reading the price sticker.

“Eh,” Marcy said, “I don’t even know if it works.  D’you want to give me twenty five for it?’

“I can handle that,” Vivian said.  She figured she could get at least that much back if she sold it on one of those broken electronic websites.  She paid Marcy, and headed for the library, her new tablet in hand.

As she walked, she pressed the power button, half expecting it not to turn on at all.  It did, though, the welcome screen flashing merrily.  “Aren’t you a pleasant surprise,” Vivian said.  She carried it into the library with her, and it connected to the wireless without a problem.

The problem came when she tried to go into the reference room.  The tablets alarm app opened, and started to make a high pitched, screeching sound.  A man, possibly homeless, was napping in a corner chair.  He had a baseball cap pulled down over his face, but he looked up when the noise started.  She couldn’t see his face, but she was pretty sure he wasn’t smiling.

“Sorry, sorry,” Vivian said.  She turned down the volume on the side, but it failed to get any lower.

People were starting to mutter.  Vivian desperately held down the power button.  It finally shut off.  Vivian shoved it in her bag, and left the room.

Deciding that this study session might just be a bust, she headed to work, figuring she’d read some before her shift started.

Later that night, during her break, Vivian hesitantly turned the tablet back on, expecting noise.  The tablet came on silently, though, and worked without a problem.  She chalked the earlier incident up to goofy electronics.

The next day Vivian planned to spend the whole morning at the library, to make up for the time lost the day before.  As a precaution, she turned the alarm application off.

She settled to work, her notebooks and supplies scattered all across a long table.  The tablet was working fine.

“Hey,” a voice said behind her.  Vivian turned to see Mark, who had an econ with her.  He also had stunning green eyes and really broad shoulders.

“Oh, hey,” Vivian said, praying that her smile didn’t look stupid. 

“Do you remember me from class?” he asked.

“Yeah, Mark right?” Vivian said, as though she had forgotten.

“Yeah,” he said.  “You were like the only one to get a good grade on that last paper.”

“Well, I mean, it’s just what I’m good at, I guess,” Vivian said.

“It’s sure not what I’m good at,” Mark said, wincing.

“We can study together, if you want,” Vivian said.  Her face felt numb, she wasn’t used to getting this lucky.

“That would be great,” Mark said, “My mom’s going to kill me if I flunk this class.”

“That would be a tragedy,” Vivian said, glancing behind him as the homeless man from the day before walked behind Mark.

He started to pull out his books, and she made room on the table for him. Then, the tablet’s alarm started to go off again, high and piercing like a woman’s scream.

Mark Jumped. Vivian grabbed up the tablet and tried to shut it off. It didn’t respond at all to her frantic button mashing.

“Sorry,” Vivian said, trying to give Mark a casual smile while her tablet continued to lose its mind. Finally she shut it off, her face red.

“That’s okay,” he said, laughing. “It happens. Mine went off in one of my classes one time, and I thought the professor was going to skin me.”

Later that night, Vivian made her way home after her shift. She was sore, and sleepy, and elated. Mark had asked her to a movie tomorrow night, her first college date. She felt lighter than she had in some time.

That is, until her tablet’s alarm started to go off again.

“Ugh, you stupid thing!” she cried. She knelt on the pavement, and pulled the tablet from her bag to silence it.

That’s when she heard a slithering sound behind her.

Vivian stood up, grabbing her bag in one hand and the screaming tablet in the other.

There was a homeless man, with a ball cap plled over his face. Vivian was sure it was the same one she’d seen hanging out around the library the last few days. Last few months, now that she thought of it. She’d started seeing him about the same time Connie had vanished, according to Marcy.

He walked towards her, but here seemed to be something wrong with how he was walking. It seemed smooth, almost serpentine.

“Hey,” Vivian said, holding her bag closer to her.

The man didn’t respond. He lifted his head, revealing yellow eyes and black, scaled skin. As he slithered towards her, he opened is mouth to reveal sharp, long teeth.

Vivian screamed, and tried to run. Before she could, he was on her, his fangs sunk deep into the area where her neck and shoulder met.

The tablet dropped to the ground, and screamed. And screamed and screamed.

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