How to Write a Psychopath

Fiction is enamored with psychopaths. The concept of an emotionless, calculating genius is a fascinating one, and one I’m always down to see – except it’s almost always wrong. Off the top of my head, I can think of one good example of a Hollywood psychopath, and it is Cillian Murphy’s character Jackson Rippner in the movie Red Eye. (I love that movie. If you haven’t seen it go watch it. I’ll wait.) But enough preamble, let’s dive into what a psychopath looks like in real life.

• Psychopaths are inherently manipulative. This is one point Hollywood usually gets right, at any rate. A psychopath, however, is far less likely to be a mastermind genius than they are to be the freeloader on your cousin’s couch who always has another grand scheme, another excuse, another seemingly good reason you should let him keep living off your good will. They don’t tend to be glamorous. They tend to be That Person You Can’t Stand.

• Psychopaths are charming. Most people who encounter psychopaths describe them as extremely charming, talkative, and interesting. They will keep you dazzled and entertained as long as they want, but you can’t trust anything they say. Interestingly, many of the people who described their psychopathic conversation partners as ‘charming’ indicated they felt the charm was insincere and more snake oil than truthful.

“What makes psychopaths different from all others is the remarkable ease with which they lie, the pervasiveness of their deception, and the callousness with which they carry it out.”
— Robert Hare, criminal psychologist and creator of the Psychopath Checklist
Psychopaths are unable to work on a team. This is a fact of how they operate. They either have no interest in ‘making it’ and are content to live without effort, or they thrive in competitive, get-to-the-top situations. Wall Street is full of psychopaths. Many psychopaths also choose to become surgeons, or engage in another job where they will be seen as the Top Dog and be able to either give orders or work alone. A while back they tried an experiment, placing psychopaths on bomb squad teams (I would cite this except I can’t remember which book it was in – I’ll list all my favorite books on this subject at the end of the post, however) and it turns out it was a terrible mistake. Psychopaths didn’t want to listen to orders, employed ‘cowboy’ behavior that constantly endangered not only themselves but their teammates, and the idea was quickly put out of practice.
Psychopaths do not learn from their mistakes. They will either blame others for those mistakes or refuse to believe a mistake happened in the first place. While not all psychopaths are criminals (and indeed many are not), the major percentage of Maximum Security Prison inmates are psychopaths. The usual cause of their being caught is their inability to learn from their mistakes. They have almost no concept of consequence, and will continue to repeat the same behavioral patterns over and over again until they are unable.
Psychopaths do not care about you. The concept of ‘a psychopath with a heart of gold’ is what I like to call Actual Garbage. Brain scans of psychopaths reveal an atrophied amygdala, among other things – they cannot feel the feelings you might want to project on a psychopathic character. They will act out of their own best interest and nothing else. It might sound harsh – but it’s also the truth. Korean Dramas are full of psychopathic characters who are not, in fact, psychopaths – they can be the BEST characters and I adore them, but they don’t hold up whatsoever against the reality of what a psychopath truly looks like.
“Psychopaths have a narcissistic and grossly inflated view of their self-worth and importance, a truly astounding egocentricity and sense of entitlement, and see themselves as the center of the universe, as superior beings who are justified in living according to their own rules.”
Robert D. Hare, Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us
Psychopaths do not believe anything is wrong with them. There has been one program (still fairly new in the grand scheme of things) attempting to see signs of psychopathy in children and treat them in unconventional (i.e. actually good + helpful) ways and they have a fairly high success rate, but there has been no success with any teen-or-older psychopath. You cannot treat someone who doesn’t believe anything is wrong with them, and psychopaths will staunchly refuse to believe they have a problem. They are extremely happy existing how they are, which brings us to the next point—
Psychopaths have no empathy. The subtlety of human emotion is something psychopaths have to learn and pick up on, and when they do, they exploit it in others. Sometimes they simply refuse to learn, leading to a life of social dysfunction. A psychopath is never going to ‘feel sorry’ for you, ‘understand what you’re going through,’ or ‘want to change.’ They are incapable of feeling guilt.
“Psychopaths show a stunning lack of concern for the devastating effects their actions have on others. Often they are completely forthright about the matter, calmly stating that they have no sense of guilt, are not sorry for the pain and destruction they have caused, and that there is no reason for them to be concerned.”
Robert D. Hare, Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us
Psychopathy and sociopathy are not the same thing. The words are often – incorrectly – interchanged, but there are distinct differences between the two. When asked whether they would rather be sociopaths, psychopaths have been known to show distaste toward sociopaths as ‘lesser’ and more emotive (again, I can’t recall which book this was in but they’ll all be listed below).

Psychologist Kelly McAleer says of the difference between psychopaths and sociopaths, “

“The psychopath is callous, yet charming. He or she will con and manipulate others with charisma and intimidation and can effectively mimic feelings to present as “normal” to society. The psychopath is organized in their criminal thinking and behavior, and can maintain good emotional and physical control, displaying little to no emotional or autonomic arousal, even under situations that most would find threatening or horrifying. The psychopath is keenly aware that what he or she is doing is wrong, but does not care.

“Conversely, the sociopath is less organized in his or her demeanor; he or she might be nervous, easily agitated, and quick to display anger. A sociopath is more likely to spontaneously act out in inappropriate ways without thinking through the consequences. Compared to the psychopath, the sociopath will not be able to move through society committing callous crimes as easily, as they can form attachments and often have ‘normal temperaments.’ . . .”

When in doubt, align your fictional character with the PCL-R. This twenty-item ‘psychopath test’ is now used in the criminal justice system (and now anywhere this determination is needed) to determine whether or not someone is, in fact, a psychopath. It’s not a list of attractive traits, in case you were wondering. Here are the traits it measures – all of which are accurate to clinical psychopaths.

• glib and superficial charm
• grandiose (exaggeratedly high) estimation of self
• need for stimulation
• pathological lying
• cunning and manipulativeness
• lack of remorse or guilt
• shallow affect (superficial emotional responsiveness)
• callousness and lack of empathy
• parasitic lifestyle
• poor behavioral controls
• sexual promiscuity
• early behavior problems
• lack of realistic long-term goals
• impulsivity
• irresponsibility
• failure to accept responsibility for own actions
• many short-term marital relationships
• juvenile delinquency
• revocation of conditional release
• criminal versatility
Honestly I should have titled this blog post ‘How NOT to Write a Psychopath,’ but it’s a little less catchy. I hope this helps you in your quest to write accurate-to-life psychopaths (and maybe even be able to spot them in real life).

RECOMMENDED READING LIST

Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of Psychopaths Among Us, by Robert Hare m.d.

Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work, by Paul Babiak m.d. and Robert Hare m.d.

The Sociopath Next Door, by Martha Stout, m.d.

The Mask of Sanity, by Dr. Harvey Cleckley

Confessions of a Sociopath, by M.E. Thomas

The Wisdom of Psychopaths, by Kevin Dutton Ph.D

Flipnosis: The Art of Split-Second Persuasion by Kevin Dutton Ph.D

(A NOTE ABOUT KEVIN DUTTON: Much of what is contained in his books is pseudoscience and anecdotes. I highly recommend them for both entertainment and insight, but they can’t be wholly ingested as perfect truth.)

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Schriver (this book is fiction, yes, but provides an extremely accurate look at not only raising a psychopathic child, but dealing with the aftermath of that child’s horrific criminal actions.)

AND my personal favorite,

The Psychopath Whisperer by Dr. Kevin Kiehl (a protege of Robert Hare and longtime maximum-security prison psychologist)

See you all next time!

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Know Your Novel, Part One: Welcome to Eden, Wyoming

Wade sauntered over to the side of the road, and for the first time got a glimpse of where he was. Brown, weedy grass stretched over endless rolling hills as far as he could see, on all sides of him. He turned to look at the sign he’d run into, and sure enough, the front of the truck had smashed into a pole. The green sign above it said ‘WELCOME TO EDEN, WYOMING. POPULATION 566. ENJOY YOUR STAY.’

I joked before this month began that I apparently have a thing for angsty guys winding up in mysterious small pseudo-western towns where the preternatural happens, but that joke wound up becoming Welcome to Eden, Wyoming – -a novel about an angsty guy winding up in a mysterious small pseudo-western town where the preturnatural happens. My main question was if I could convince people it wasn’t  Dark is The Night 2.0 but the book is taking care of that itself and shaping up nothing like my other Novel with a Similar Premise. Wade isn’t even that angsty. He’s kind of sweet.

So far.

  1. What sparked the idea for this novel? Honestly, it just came together in a flash without a particular ‘spark.’ Watching Logan and Predator made me want to write Boyd Hallbrook’s particular persona into a novel. I love the ‘weird west/american gothic’ genre and wanted to write something that felt a little more western than Dark is the Night, and include beings I hadn’t used before in other novels, like ghouls and kelpies and black shucks. Also I’ve wanted to use the town of Eden, Wyoming in a novel since we drove through it last year – I gave it a population of 566 in this book, but it might actually have been less in real life.
  2. Share a blurb! When Wade Lawson wakes up on the outskirts of Eden, Wyoming in a stolen truck, with hands that aren’t his and tattoos he doesn’t remember getting, he figures life can’t get any worse. The only thing to do is wait for his memory to return so he can go back to his normal life – but Eden’s inhabitants hold more mysteries than Wade’s past, and Wade’s past just might hold a fate worse than death for everyone involved.
  3. Where does the story take place? What is your favorite thing about the setting? I wanted to write a small midwestern town that felt kinda old-fashioned but kinda Night Vale at the same time, with a very small population and lots of room for Mysterious Things to Happen. Hence, Eden, Wyoming. Also I enjoy ironic names.
  4. Tell us about your protagonist. I originally set out for Wade to be kind of a ‘confused badass.’ So far he’s just confused. Mid-thirties. Honestly I can’t tell you more about him than he knows, that would be giving things away.
  5. Who (or what) is the antagonist? This I DEFINITELY can’t tell you. I can tell you the unseelie sidhe are involved. I can also tell you that I wanted to make them legitimately scary and not just ‘beautiful but fickle.’
  6. What excites you the most about this novel? Probably the upcoming plot twists. I do love a good plot twist. Also the Phoenix character. Also the Kelpie character. Also Miranda Rodriguez. But mostly the plot twists.
  7. Is this going to be a series? Standalone? Something else? Honestly I don’t know. I might hazard a guess at a duology unless I manage to actually wrap the whole book up this month, which is slightly unlikely. I have trouble writing standalone novels, I always wind up with dramatis persona I enjoy too much to relinquish after one book.
  8. Are you plotting? Pantsing? Plantsing? I usually plot out the barest minimum at the beginning and then fill in the rest as I go. Honestly there’s so little real plotting involved it’s BASICALLY pantsing but there is a smidge of plotting involved. Sometimes.
  9. Name a few things that make this story unique. What kind of QUESTION IS THIS, I ask? It’s not as if I choose a generic story and go ‘here’s how I’ll make it unique,’ I pick a story and I write it and hopefully everything that happens has the unique flavor of a Mirriam Neal story and manages to be fairly unique in its own right. If it winds up being unoriginal, that’s a BAD thing.
  10. Share a fun “extra” of the story (a song or full playlist, some aesthetics, a collage, a Pinterest board, a map you’ve made, a special theme you’re going to incorporate, ANYTHING you want to share!). The Pinterest Board is here for your souls: https://www.pinterest.com/mirriamneal/welcome-to-eden-wyoming-novel

SNIPPETS

(These aren’t officially part of this post but I’m including them because I’ve posted a few on Facebook but haven’t done the mandatory ‘snippets post’ for NaNoWriMo yet)

The sheriff stuck the patch onto Wade’s head. “There. Should be fine in a day or two. You didn’t seem concussed, so.”
Wade raised his eyebrows as the sheriff crumpled up the packaging and picked up the alcohol bottle. “Didn’t seem concussed?”

“Hey, I’m not a doctor.” Zane walked out of the cell, leaving the door open as he set the alcohol back in the unusual first-aid kit. “And you look okay.”


“There’s an old cemetery over the hill behind the house. Keep an eye on it but pay it no mind.”

Wade glanced over his shoulder at the hill, an eerie sensation washing over him like he was a kid and his parents had just told him to ignore the monster in the closet. “You have a real grave-robbing problem or something?””

“Not usually.” Zane climbed back into the car and shut the door, draping his arm out the window.  “If you see Moon-Jae, say hi to him for me.”

“He your not-usual grave-robber?”


“Did Zane send you or what?”

The figure chuckled and opened the granola wrapper with a single long tear. “Hardly. He didn’t tell you about me, did he? He has a delightful sense of humor.”

Wade was not feeling delighted. Nor was he feeling a large amount of patience. “Yeah, well, this is my place for a while so I suggest you get out before I make you leave.”

“I suppose I shouldn’t blame you for your behavior, but it leaves something to be desired.” The figure broke off a piece of granola bar, and Wade heard the stranger chewing and chewing loud.

“Out,” said Wade. “Now.”


A twig snapped and he turned, squinting through the early-morning light at the trees to his right. A shadow – too large for an antelope or a deer – moved, then surged out onto the street several yards in front of Wade.

It was a horse, but unlike any horse Wade had ever seen. His charcoal-gray coat was slick with water, dripping in rivulets down its long, sharp face. Its mane and tail were abnormally long, and Wade was pretty sure he could see seaweed tangled in them both. Rows of small, ridged spikes ran down the animal’s neck and side, from ears to haunch. The horse shook itself like a dog, flinging water, and swung its head to look at Wade with large eyes.

“Easy, boy.” The words left Wade automatically, but for a reason he couldn’t understand this animal gave off the vibe of a half-starved junkyard dog more than a horse and he didn’t want it coming anywhere near him.

The horse lifted its ears as if surprised at the sound of Wade’s voice and took a tentative step toward him on slender legs.

Wade lifted his hands. “Easy,” he repeated, wary.

With a sudden snort, the strange animal shook its head and spun, cantering away down the street with fluid speed until even the sound of its hooves on the pavement faded out of hearing.

Wade lowered his arms and released a deep breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. With the strange feeling he’d escaped something bad, he picked up the pace again, trying to make sense of the strangeness in the air around him. The horse, the skeletal man from last night. The howling that sounded almost wolf-like but also not quite.

The fact even the air here felt different; every breath he took filled him with a mingled sense of dread and excitement, like he was going to round a corner and see a UFO idling in the middle of the road.

I was tagged by Arielle who gave me no choice thought of me but if you want to join in, head on over HERE to link up!

Ye Stars That Shudder (snippets)

Several years ago, while I was writing The Fading of the Light (the first novel in my futuristic science-fantasy Samurai Robin Hood retelling) I joked, “Just wait until I put a spin on King Arthur. ‘Camelot & Aliens.'” A few months ago that joke came full circle as I began to write Ye Stars That Shudder, a mostly-modern-day post-alien invasion version of King Arthur. I began it, wrote seven chapters in quick succession, and then had to put it on the back burner while art, the moneymaker, sat in front. I’m trying to find a way to write and paint, and at my mom’s suggestion I’m going to take up waking at 5:30 consistently so I can write for an hour/hour and a half before the workload starts. That said, it’s about time I introduced you to the current novel in the form of snippets!

YSTS

Arthur folded his hands and studied the scarred tabletop. Searching his feelings, he realized he felt oddly betrayed by Uther’s capture. Here in the mountains they were isolated but still received news – infrequent trips into so-called civilization for supplies, the scattered reports over the old radio in the corner. Since the Visitors landed three years ago, Uther had risen; a determined, stubborn beacon of hope shining through the fog of complacency and despair. Uther was the rebellion and the rebellion was Uther. Now he was captured, soon he would be dead.

It did not seem terribly irrational to Arthur that the rebellion might die soon after.


“Even so,” said Hector; his voice mild and his eyes hard, “they’ll be expecting this kind of thing. I won’t have you be the next well-meaning idiot who dies at the hands of the Visitors.”

“Well-meaning, yeah,” said Arthur. “Sometimes. But I’m never an idiot.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure,” said Kai.


“Thirty seconds and I’m leaving,” said Kai, blowing out a breath through his nose and looking at the door.

Hector placed his spoon on the table. “You’ll do what I tell you, boy.” Kai raised an eyebrow, and Hector leaned on his elbow and pointed at him. “That’s what I said. Boy; which boggles my mind, personally, seeing as how you’re nearly thirty years old. And you,” he added, pointing the finger in Arthur’s direction now, “I made my share of bad decisions when I was your age, but twenty-three is plenty old enough to know what constitutes a fatal mistake. Savvy?”

“Savvy,” said Arthur, straightening. When Hector took that tone it always made him feel like he was slouching, even if he wasn’t.


                Kai set the bow down and lifted the rosin up to his face. “The only reason I’m not throwing this at your head is because I’m not done using it.”


“Uther would give it to me.”

“That doesn’t answer my question,” said Badge, in a slightly less-friendly tone.

“I cannot disclose the reason to you, but it is a good one.”

“Oh, well. As long as it’s good.”

“You sure you don’t want to shoot him, Badge?” asked a man with a bow and arrow standing several feet behind the other man. “Looks like he could use a bullet. Or an arrow,” he added, acknowledging his current weapon. “Whatever works.”


It was the most up close and personal Uther had ever been with a Vee – probably the most personal anyone still alive had ever been, probably. They breathed, he could tell that much; the suits emitted a rhythmic purring sound every couple seconds.

When they spoke, it was only in words typed onto a screen. They might not be able to speak, but they could read and write English. The same word had been staring at Uther in black, sharp lettering for the past twenty-four hours – W H E R E I S T HE S W O R D, unrelenting. Their concept of spacing was backwards, apparently.


Merlin lifted his hand to his face, touching his fingers to his forehead like an exasperated father. “There is a plan,” he said, “and I will tell it to you once you stop reeling.”

“I’m not reeling. Surprised, shocked, definitely not cool with any of this, but not reeling.”

“I wish I had the ability to blink,” said Merlin. “Slowly. To show my exasperation,” he added.


He reached into his back pocket, holding his other hand out. “Don’t hit me, love, I’m just getting my business card.”

“You have a funny way of making sales pitches, I hope you realize that.”

“It’s not exactly a sales pitch,” he said, holding the business card out between his fingertips.

She took it from him with a sharp glance and read the name. Tristan Troye, Private Investigator. Collaborator. She looked pointedly at him and let the card fall from her hand onto the floor. “You look like a Tristan,” she said with a disdainful sniff.


“What guy are you?”

“I don’t know,” Arthur snapped. “I’m the guy who makes sarcastic comments on things and has existential thoughts.”

“Oh, yeah? Today should be right up your lane then, mate.”

“Ha; you’d think, but no.”

“Says the guy who was griping at me earlier for not caring about the world at large,” Kai retorted. “Now you’ve been told you’re like some kind of angsty superhero and you don’t want it.”

“This isn’t exactly what I meant,” said Arthur, tasting bitterness sharp on his tongue. “This is like wishing for firewood and having a tree fall on your house.”

“Hey, wood is wood.”

“Oh my gosh, go away.”


Wayne Gaheris could never remember to turn his phone off, which was why its ringing woke him up at three forty-seven in the morning. He answered automatically with a groggy, “Deputy Gaheris.” Only then did he look at the clock and fight the urge to swear at the caller.

“She got away. She ran off.”

“Tristan? Who ran off?”

“Vivian Atwater! She’s got a hell of a roundhouse. I took one in the knee.”

“A what?”

“A kick, man, a kick.”

“Are you telling me a sixty-seven-year-old woman incapacitated you and then took off?”

“It’s a terrible truth and I’m ashamed, but yes.”

“You’re a disgrace.”

“I shall wear sackcloth and kowtow fifty times at the alter of your disapproval, but as I’m currently en route to the hospital you’ll have to accept a postponement.”


Hector broke in, his voice rough with barely-suppressed anger. “Hang on. You’re telling me you brought this all on our heads without knowing if you had your head on straight?” He took a step toward Merlin but the robot did not back up; he only turned his head unnaturally far to the right and replied, “Yes.”

“I should grind you into dust right now.”

“Try it, tough guy,” said Merlin, in a voice that sounded suddenly very human, very old, and very annoyed.

 

Why I Love ‘The Last Jedi’

I’ll be honest – it’s taken me nine months to write this because I really didn’t want to. The reasons are twofold: one, I’m extremely emotionally attached to this movie and attacks against it feel way more personal than they should (Alexa play My Immortal) and also, I don’t want to devalue critic’s opinions of the movie. I get why people don’t like this movie. Whether you hate it because it Destroyed Your Childhood or because Rose and Finn’s subplot was kinda dumb, I do understand. I’m not here to change your mind, but instead to state why those who liked the movie DID like it (meaning: myself) and hopefully create better discussions on a small part of the Internet.

That said if you’re one of the people who harassed + bullied those involved in STARS FORBID making a movie you didn’t like, your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries and you have my disdain. mOVING ON

Before I continue, I want to get some things out of the way.

ONE: This movie isn’t perfect. NO movie is perfect. (Except maybe Pride & Prejudice & Zombies DON’T @ ME) I’m not here to ignore the flaws or claim the movie doesn’t have any.

TWO: Entertainment is a subjective medium. I can (and will) lay out the big reasons why I find this movie amazing and you can disagree with every single one of them and neither of us is necessarily wrong. Go watch a movie you DO like!

THREE: If you’re saying Mirriam why are u bothering 2 wRITE this POST we know u love the movie and we hate it why r u wasting ur TiME –  I’ve been asked. Repeatedly. And I figure if nine months can make a baby, it’s probably long enough for me to have some emotional distance between myself and making a list about why I liked it, so here we are.

REASONS WHY I LOVE THE LAST JEDI

(in no particular order)

  • It doesn’t play by the numbers. The Force Awakens closely mirrored A New Hope in both story structure and feel, while remaining different enough to shoot the sequel in a new direction. While I loved The Force Awakens, I’m glad they veered off from the paint-by-numbers formula. The formula was needed to re-draw Star Wars fans into the new era, but they needed something different and fresh to keep it going. So yes, everything about the new movie was polarizing because it was different – and that doesn’t mean it was all perfect – and that’s something I enormously appreciate.
  • I appreciate that they took Hux’s near-nonexistent role in the first movie and dared to actually make him funny. He was more or less superfluous in the first film and here he still kinda is, but at least they gave him the role of comic relief. And on that subject,
  • I appreciate the humor in this movie. Granted, it’s more outright than in most of the previous Star Wars films – Poe Dameron messing with Hux, Rey reaching out with her hand instead of her feelings, Finn walking around in a leaking medical bodysuit. If this isn’t your kind of humor, that’s fine – but I liked the humor in this movie. It could very easily have taken itself too seriously – and in some ways it did (i.e. Finn and Rose’s subplot) but it chose to keep its sense of humor intact, which it needed to keep it from being a Serious Sci-Fi Melodrama. (Also if you have a problem with the humor in this movie but love the humor in the original trilogy – arguably more slapstick and On the Nose even than this movie – I’m a little baffled, but okay.)
  • It delved into the concept of Gray Jedi, something myself and many Star Wars fans have been wanting to see more of for years (and years). The concept of stark white/dark and good/evil worked well in the original trilogy, but you can’t simply stay there with ongoing trilogies and while the prequel trilogy tried its best to kinda diverge from that, it was…um, muddy. (I still love them. But they are a mess.) Good and evil really exist and light/dark symbolism is a wonderful thing, but it isn’t all there is and the exploration of that more conflicted center comes heavily into play with both Rey and Kylo Ren, and I find it exhilarating. It’s exactly the kind of conflicted, complicated topic I want to see being discussed, and this movie dives unapologetically into that arena.
  • This movie also doesn’t back away from the reality of war in that good people will mess up and do bad things, and situations aren’t always as clean and simple as we want them to be. Poe disobeys orders and gets a lot of people killed. He’s not an evil guy by any means – he was doing what he thought was right, and he was wrong. This movie looks at this theme a lot, and again, it’s something I highly appreciate seeing and experiencing. This movie doesn’t take the easy way out with its decision-making. The good guys don’t always make the good decisions, and the bad guys don’t always act like bad guys. Heck, the good guys don’t always feel like good guys and the bad guys don’t always feel like bad guys. And even though I agree, Finn and Rose’s subplot is hardly riveting, I don’t even mind that in the end it comes to no fruition – because sometimes life doesn’t. Just because the heroes set out to accomplish something doesn’t mean it’s going to work or make a difference. You can call this a storytelling flaw and it might be, but since it fit with the overall theme of the movie in that hey, war is messy and life is complicated, I don’t mind it that much.
  • This was also the first time I’ve liked Yoda ever in any Star Wars movie (don’t talk to me about the lone Wars I don’t like the animation style and so never got into them I KNOW, I KNOW, SUPPOSEDLY THEY’RE AMAZING)
  • Luke. I know quite a few people who feel Luke’s character arc here was in complete opposition to his earlier arcs, but I completely, and respectfully, disagree. (YES, EVEN WITH MARK HAMILL.) Looking at the progression of Luke’s character arc, his position in this movie seems completely reasonable to me. We want our heroes to remain unchanged by time, but that simply isn’t the way life works. And given Luke’s past and the mistakes he’s made – and the fact he’s a Skywalker and Skywalker Blood Means Drama™ – the role in which we find him here makes complete sense to me. He nearly gave into the temptation of the dark side after fighting against it his entire life, and his momentary weakness set off a chain reaction that destroyed basically his life’s work and crumbled the entire foundation of his life. I mean I could be wrong, but if you had similar experiences, you’d probably be tempted to hole up on a dark planet in the middle of nowhere with your creepy blue milk aliens and wallow in your own guilt. The whole first movie was about searching for Luke, and people were disappointed to find him shut off from the Force and playing hermit – but what was the alternative? That he was in hiding for fear of his life? Luke has never been a coward. In fact, one can clearly see that his life choice have been anything but easy. Every decision Luke makes in this movie is a hard one. The decision to help Rey? Hard. The decision to help the rebels? Hard. The decision to face the nephew he drove away? Hard. Even the decision to shut himself off from his identity (Luke the Jedi Master) and the family he loved were incredibly difficult decisions made from the enormity of disillusionment and guilt, and I don’t think we can blame Luke for doing what he thought was best. The other alternatives – he was moping (which he kind of was, BUT THAT’S ONLY A LITTLE OF THE REASON) or was being held captive – don’t work either, as one just makes him pathetic and the other….also just makes him pathetic. This was the only path that made sense, and I personally love it. (Also Mark Hamill’s’s acting in this movie was amazing.)
  • This movie also took the unimportant hang-ups from the first movie (WHO ARE REY’S PARENTS?? WHO IS SNOKE REALLY??) and said ‘Hey. Hey. These aren’t important. Focus on what IS important, okay? Please?’ and I think that was brilliant
  • This movie flips the usual story upside-down. Our hero, Rey, starts out as a hard-knock orphan with passion and wide-eyed idealism and slowly becomes more and more jaded the more she realize life isn’t always as easy or simple as she thought it would be off Jakku, and our antagonist Kylo is constantly being tempted and seduced by the light side of the Force. He is being tempted away from evil the entire series, and it brings both of their character arcs into a BEAUTIFUL meeting in the middle that threatens to go the way of Luke and Vader but instead spins off into something entirely different. Looking at Rey and Kylo from a typical storytelling standpoint, Kylo has the hero’s backstory and Rey – well, she has the villain’s. And speaking of Kylo,
  • Kylo Ren is one of my favorite fictional characters of all-time. I’ve heard every ‘he’s whiny + weak’ argument available, but I disagree and even wrote a whole blog post on that after The Force Awakens came out (and subsequently had to write one about Rey because she was also getting dragged through the – er, sand, and I love her as well). In this movie we see much more of Kylo and there’s even more to discuss, and I can’t go into all of it here, but I’ll cover some of it. Kylo Ren is a character unlike anything we have seen in previous Star Wars movies. He’s a Dynasty character – both a Solo and a Skywalker, but instead of being the Golden Boy, he’s a tormented emotional drama queen with more power than we’ve ever seen in an individual, and in this movie he chooses to do several things with that power. a) he uses it to talk to his space girlfriend and genuinely bond with her b) he uses it to fight alongside his space girlfriend in THE BEST SCENE IN STAR WARS HISTORY FOR SO MANY REASONS YOU CAN FIGHT ME, c) he murders the abusive Snoke not for himself, but because his space girlfriend is in pain, and then d) offers to burn everything to the ground so his new best friend can be Somebody instead of nobody. I’ve seen people argue that when he tells Rey ‘You’re nothing. But not to me,’ he’s trying to manipulate her, but everything about the way this scene is shot, framed, and acted indicates he is completely genuine in his feelings for her. Snoke even derides Kylo and Rey for thinking the force bond was theirs, shocking them both, but we can also see the bond they had in The Force Awakens, supposedly before Snoke was actively manipulating it. We see extreme emotion on all sides of the spectrum from Kylo, from surprising tenderness to raging temper tantrums, but nothing about him makes him less redeemable than Anakin was as Darth Vader. If anything, Kylo’s arc is just the more extreme version of Vader’s, but we still see Ben inside him, just as Luke still sensed Anakin in Vader. Oh, and while you can argue that Kylo was lying about Rey’s parentage, nothing seems to suggest that to me (and he is innocent of that until proven guilty) – he never once lied to Rey, unlike everyone else.
  • I’m a sucker for stories about redemption, and BOY HOWDY if that ain’t what The Last Jedi is and what the final trilogy installment is shaping up to also be. Furthermore, this movie isn’t just about redemption, but about what happens when you stop believing in redemption. In the original trilogy Luke was always willing to believe in the possible redemption of the most evil people, including his father, the Ultimate Murdering Space Wizard. Here, we see what happens when that resolve, that belief in redemption, flickers – it causes catastrophe. Luke had the ability to recognize that the dark side was ravaging his nephew and in a moment of weakness, he stopped hoping he could change that. Rey, however, still does believe in redemption, and – exactly like Luke in the original trilogy – throws herself into danger believing she can turn the bad guy around. Which she…doesn’t, exactly, but I would hardly call it a failed attempt. Her plan doesn’t work out, of course – at least, not yet – but I believe the events of this movie will play heavily into the next, as otherwise the set-ups for Rey and Kylo’s character arcs would fall flat and they have DEFINITELY not done that so far. In a heavy-handed On the Nose moment, Rose tells Finn they won’t win by destroying what they hate, but saving what they love and while it was a little *cough* blunt, that encapsulates the theme of this movie and even the entire trilogy. Luke momentarily forgot the truth of that statement, and it cost him and the galaxy a whole, whole lot.
  • The symbolism for the scene where Kylo destroys his mask is another thread that winds its way throughout the entire movie. This movie destroys the concept of masks, either real or simply the false way we view our heroes and villains – as purely Good or purely Evil. This movie is all about staring a very specific question in the face – what do heroes really look like?
  • This movie is also about mistakes, and I’m here for it. Everyone messes up. Rose and Finn trust the wrong guy and he screws them over. Rey makes a naive but wrong decision and has to admit she’s been lying to herself. Poe makes…a lot of mistakes with disastrous consequences. Kylo is suffering from the mistake of killing his father, which leads him to refuse to kill his mother. Luke made a mistake so horrible that the only way to atone for it was to sacrifice his own life.

I could go on with the smaller reasons why I really love this movie, but this post is pretty long as it is and I’ll spare you the minor details. You don’t have to like The Last Jedi or appreciate what Rian Johnson did with the Star Wars universe, and that’s fine. But I do, on both counts, and hopefully this helped explain at least part of why it means so much to me, both as a lifelong Star Wars fan and a storyteller.

If you have any comments, questions, or disagreements, keep it all civil (as I know you will) and let the discussions commence!

How to Twist a Plot (and how to not)

There have only been two plot twists in the world to blow me over. (The plot twist in Ted Dekker’s ‘THR3E,’ experienced when I was fifteen, and the plot twist in Teen Wolf season 3 when I was nineteen.) Those two plot twists have stuck with me like no others. It’s not because I’m some Super Predicting Genius who automatically knows every plot twist before they happen. It’s only because most plot twists just aren’t surprising – and I realized why yesterday.

I was thinking about the Attolia series – a series which many of my friends praise as being the most plot-twisty and surprising books they’ve ever read – and why the plot twists in these books have yet to actually surprise me. The major plot twist in The Queen of Attolia didn’t surprise me. It wasn’t shocking. I wasn’t delighted.

That’s not to say it was badly written (not at all) or the plot twist wasn’t a good plot element (it was), but plot twists should shock and awe. They should have you gasping in surprise and thinking about them for days, if not weeks. They should be ones you remember.

So, I wondered, why have I only ever been truly, wonderfully surprised by two plot twists in the History of Ever? I turned this question over and over until finally the answer fell out, and like any good sporadic blogger I had to share it with you.

The Best Plot Twists Have Nothing To Do With What You Know

I’m going to spoil the first two books in the Attolia series for you, so if you haven’t read it yet proceed with caution. Let’s take a look at this twist. The main character in the series is Eugenides, or ‘Gen,’ a royal thief. His hands are relatively important to him. When he loses one of them, it sends him into a complete spiral and for the rest of the book he’s a mopey, depressed, obnoxious brat who refuses to leave his room. (Again, I’m not saying this is bad writing – this was written intentionally. He’s SUPPOSED to frustrate the heck out of us.) It isn’t until the end of the book that the author reveals Gen has actually been strategizing, planning, and carrying out enormous deeds in secret, and his bad attitude has been an act to fool the enemy.

It was the Big Reveal, but I felt incredibly….unimpressed. My reaction was more like “Ah. Okay. Sure,” than “WOWOWOW. WHAT,” and the reason for my lack of shock is this: the plot twist was completely within Gen’s character norm.

We know Gen by this point, so we’re aware that he’s clever, devious, cunning, scheming, a liar, and generally untrustworthy (to most). Also, the plotline of the first book had the same formula – the book shows you one side of the coin until the end, where it flips the coin and shows you the other side. We know Gen is irascible and moody, although he’s far moodier and more irascible in the second book.

So I wasn’t surprised when the big reveal in The Queen of Attolia was: Gen being himself.

And that, I realized, is why most ‘plot twists’ aren’t really plot twists at all. They’re just happenings. They can be good happenings and keep us entertained, but most plot twists don’t really twist the plot because they rely on a character basically being – well, in-character.

The same happens frequently with Loki. I love him as much as the next person, but every plot twist regarding Loki is fairly expected because he’s proven who he is over and over again. If a Mysterious Mentor Figure ‘dies,’ you can be pretty sure he’ll come back because he’s just that – mysterious. When the Rogue With a Heart of Gold leaves, you know he’ll return – because he has a heart of gold.

My two favorite plot twists did not rely on the personality of a certain character. They were an outside force, acting upon the plot in a way that was surprising because it was unexpected.

They went against the expected grain.

You know what – there will be spoilers all over this post because I’m going to talk about those plot twists. If you haven’t read THR3E or seen Teen Wolf and are planning on doing either of those things, you’ve been warned.

The plot twist in THR3E worked for (you guessed it) – three reasons.

One: They began at separate sides of the story. The novel opened with the hero on one side doing his thing and the villain on the other side doing his thing.

Two: You were already ‘Faked Out’ with a plot twist shortly before the true plot twist took place. You discover that one of the focal characters is actually the main character’s second self. That was fun, but it didn’t particularly blow me over.

Three: You discover at the very last moment that the main antagonist and villain is the main character’s third disassociated identity. The three separate characters about whom you’ve been reading are all the same person – but Dekker did an excellent job of setting up this plot twist. There was no evidence of the over-arching villain also being a second personality. When you read about the villain, there was nothing to indicate you already knew him. This third personality did not rely on the main character’s personality to spring the plot twist, he acted separately.

The aforementioned plot twist in Teen Wolf is still my favorite plot twist of all time, and it works for some of the same reasons. In fact, it’s a fairly similar plot twist, albeit approached differently. To set the stage very badly: for the mid-(third) season finale, the main characters – Scott, Stiles, and Allison – had to open themselves up to a dark dimension, the Nemeton, in order to save their parents from the Darach. They were warned there would be consequences, as opening yourself up to darkness in any form is a terrible idea. However, these ‘consequences’ were vague, unknowable, and the kids proceeded anyway. They saved their parents, achieved victory against the odds, and we got our happy(ish) mid-season finale.

Stiles, as a character, was always just short of three-dimensional. The plucky comic relief and loyal sidekick, he was a delightful character but also the Token Human; the Samwise Gamgee, the Robin to Scott’s Batman. Season 3b began focusing more on Stiles and working hard to add dimension to him – we see him struggle with PTSD from everything that’s happened previously. It’s hard to be plucky and comedic when you’re constantly being hit with hallucinations, panic attacks, and the fear you might have inherited the genetic issues that killed your mother. Not to mention both Scott and Allison are experiencing similar issues – it’s not just Stiles.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the plot, two Oni have entered Beacon Hills. The deadly Japanese spirits are searching for someone – nobody knows who, but they know that when they find that person, they’re going to kill them. Not only that, but the arrival of the Oni has also brought plenty of chaos – attacks, disappearances, and death. The Oni are the antagonists, with the teens fighting to keep them from killing anyone. The plot directs your focus as Teens vs. Oni, while Stiles’ struggles are easily chalked up to severe PTSD.

And then comes the moment. The Oni approach a terrified Stiles alone in a hallway. You know what’s been happening in town, you know the Oni are causing death somehow, and you know there’s a chance Stiles might actually die.

The Oni – incorporeal spirits so far impossible to kill – reach for Stiles. And Stiles, the Token Human, grabs the Oni’s fist in his. He stares at his hand, shocked. And then he looks at the Oni, and his expression changes from Astounded Stiles to something entirely different and you know suddenly and shockingly that the real villain the whole half-season has been Stiles, and the show has been misdirecting you. (And misdirecting you beautifully.) Turns out the Oni aren’t the real villains – they’re actually (more or less) the good guys, searching for the true cause of the destruction and death haunting Beacon Hills, aka the Nogitsune who has been fighting for control of Stiles’ mind.

(I even hunted around and found the little clip for you HERE. You’re welcome.)

This plot twist was so well done, and so beautifully built from the ground up, that I think I just stared at the screen in awed silence. I still want to throw a party when I think about it because it was just. so. good.

And it worked because it didn’t rely on Stiles’ personality whatsoever. It was an outside force acted upon the plot – not a twist derived from Who Stiles Is as a Person. It wasn’t Stiles Being Stiles. It was Stiles, being acted on by an outside force. That’s why it was a surprise.

And that, folks, is how you get a plot twist to surprise me. So sally forth, carry on, write your plot happenings, but also write true, grand, shocking Plot Twists. They’re a little extra work – but they’re so worth it.

Now riddle me this – what is YOUR favorite fictional plot twist of all time?