How to construct happiness

Lately, I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be happy. Y’know, other than the obvious.

Nom nom nom nom.

This isn’t a new quandary for me. I’m part of the millennial generation, an age group that’s getting a lot of mixed messages about what to do with our lives. And as a fantasy writer trying to make meaningful statements, I’ve always questioned what life and its components really are. But in the past year, I’ve been thinking particularly about what happiness is —partly because I’ve been managing anxiety in that past year, too.

I mean, it was nothing serious. Difficulty sleeping and some general unease, fixed with a tiny daily dose of antidepressants and some life changes. Pretty easy fix, as far as medical conditions go. My family history of nervous dispositions — we’re like horses, you see: strong but sometimes finicky — wasn’t as big an issue as the fact that I needed to examine my life. Get a different job. Adjust my writing career focus. Throw out some junk, both literal and figurative.


It’s a lot like what Peregrine does in my first book, Remedy. His doubts and fears need to be addressed, and a job change and a plague relief effort help him break out of his little rut of worries. I didn’t take as long to straighten out my issues as Peregrine did, thankfully (partly because I’m not a dragon and I don’t have 80 years to spend on a midlife crisis).

And as the Tinder Stricken draft opens up to me, I find more and more that Esha isn’t simply chasing the thief phoenix to get her stolen heirloom knife back. She’s also chasing that phoenix as a desperate attempt to put her life in order and, ultimately, be happy. The story isn’t about a petty theft so much as Esha and the phoenix reacting to their crummy lots in life, and trying to change those lots. That’s how I write. I don’t typically like stories that focus on hatred, or revenge, or a lust for power — because there’s too much of that in our real modern Earth. I’d rather spend time with characters who seek happiness and comfort in the middle of a turbulent world.

Last time I saw my nurse practitioner, she said she’s glad to hear that I’ve made some positive changes.
“I had all the pieces,” I told her. “I just had to move them around.”
“Yeah,” she said, smiling kindly, “but some people don’t move their pieces around.”

I think that’s an important way to view life. We all have pieces. Maybe they’re not the pieces we want — but we have pieces. Maybe we can construct happiness if we just try moving them.

Knife calluses and what they say about their owners

I recently changed my day job. Tired of the customer-service grind of being a waitress, I decided to return to my professional cooking roots — but this time, I’m working as a prep cook. It’s less exciting than being the line cook who makes meals with speed and flair, but that’s okay. I’m not looking to be a hotshot in my day job. Cutting vegetables and making basic sauces will hopefully be a low-stress occupation that leaves me more energy for writing.

Although, it’s been about 6 years since I last chopped restaurant quantities of vegetables. My knife callus had long since faded away, and in the past few weeks I’ve had to harden my hands up again. It made me realise that a chef’s knife leaves a very particular mark on its user — and that’s a detail not everyone is aware of, because it’s not very glamorous. Knife calluses aren’t something a Food Network host will grinningly tell you about.


Why dice 20 pounds of onions like a sucker when you can skip straight to the tasting?


So, since I’m a world-building fantasy writer, how about I show you a defining part of my real-life world? I’ve been showing all my friends this visible change in my hands. I find it interesting that my occupation is changing the texture of my hands, and leaving a visible mark. It’s telling. But more on that later.

First things first! When I talk about using a chef’s knife, I mean something like this:


Chef’s knives vary slightly in design, depending on whether the knife is German, French or Japanese-styled. The blade can be between 6 and 14 inches long (15 and 36 cm), but the most common chef’s knives are between 8 and 10 inches (20 and 25 cm) long. My own knife is a 9-inch Victoronox, a lightweight, nimble model preferred by the female chefs who trained me. My new workplace provides a whole bucket of chef’s knives for my use, all between 8 and 11 inches, and all of them a heavier tool than I’d prefer. It’s like wearing nice, breezy sneakers every day and then suddenly putting on hiking boots that, relatively speaking, feel like blocks of cement.

Anyway, regardless of the knife’s exact measurements, a professional cook gets a callus from using it. A very particular callus, on the index finger of their dominant hand. Here’s mine:


Two weeks ago, that was a truly alarming blister.

Why does the chopping friction affect such a small, specific area? Because when you use a knife for hours each day, it’s not always held by the handle. Well, uh, let me show you. With some pictures of me using my Victoronox knife in my tiny apartment kitchen.

Tender foods — such as parsley leaves — don’t provide much resistance. The cook can easily hold the knife by its handle and make a quick up-and-down chopping motion.


Holding down the tip of the knife is optional, it just gives you a pivot point.


But when cutting larger or tougher foods, holding the knife by its handle puts the cook’s wrist at an ineffective angle. It’s more efficient to actually hold the base of the blade, to allow more direct downward force. Like so:


That blunt edge of the knife is what creates the callus. And that callus shows that I work with actual meat and vegetables, not factory-made things pulled out of the freezer. My prep work isn’t glamorous but it’s a necessary part of making really good food, which is why I’m proud of my little friction wound.

And that’s what I mean by my knife callus being a defining detail of me. It’s always kind of bothered me when I’m reading a fantasy story and it offhandedly mentions some character’s “callused hands of a swordsman”, or whatever their profession is. Callused in what way? Just callused all over? Probably not. And they’re probably not the same calluses you’d find on an archer, or a seamstress, or a blacksmith.

This guy pauses to reflect on how his hands looked like raw hamburger the whole time he was learning to use that sword.

This guy pauses to reflect on how his hands looked like raw hamburger the whole time he was learning to use his sword.


Granted, I’m sure most authors don’t want to include an infodump explanation of exactly where a swordsman’s hands get callused. They might not even know where a sword hilt rubs on its user’s hands — because I sure don’t. It … varies by the type of sword and the fighting technique, I’d assume. But that’s exactly why I want the book to specify that detail! It would lend authenticism to a fantasy world if the seasoned warrior gets lost in thought while rubbing that one particularly leathery spot on his hand.

Calluses are something I’ll have to include in Tinder Stricken, since the main character Esha is a manual laborer. She’s been farming for most of her life and even if she doesn’t think much about her own calluses, she’ll probably notice the state of other people’s hands and what that says about them. I could have included calluses in the Stories of Aligare, now that I think about it. Aemet and korvi skin have different properties than human skin — but however tough korvi hide is, it’s nice to think that Peregrine’s hands tell a story of hard work.

And as for me and my day job? I’ll get more interesting marks to go with my knife callus, I’m sure.

Is blood thicker than water?

I grew up hearing the expression, “Blood is thicker than water”. Meaning that a person’s family is more important — and more reliable — than their friends.


But the funny thing about idioms is that they change over time. A quick look at Wikipedia shows various ideas of blood thickness. There’s an interesting Arabian idea of blood (as in the blood-brother you’ve sworn loyalty to) being thicker than milk (suckled together).


But the alternate version I heard first was this one: “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb”. Which means the polar opposite of “blood is thicker than water”: it means that the relationships we choose are stronger than the relationships we’re just born into. I found it striking that the expression changed meaning completely — but hey, that’s the power of language. Phrasing matters.

More than that, I think that “blood of the covenant” idea is the more truthful one. Some people are born into abusive families who hurt them and stifle their potential. Some people are born into families they don’t hate, but also don’t really get along with. Ironically, relatives don’t always relate to each other. It’s great if you truly connect with your blood family, but if you don’t, there’s no good reason to prioritize DNA connections over the found friends who actually love and support you.

My stance shows clearly in the Stories of Aligare. In that world, a family is whoever you care about. Homes can be a patchwork of different people and connections. It’s fine if they’re not biologically related to you — or even if they’re a dramatically different species. Peregrine the korvi loves his adopted ferrin friends more than anything. Tenver the ferrin considers Constezza the korvi to be his mother. And as the years go by, Rue the aemet rearranges her definition of her nuclear family:

“I’m glad [Feor the dog] went to you,” Mother admitted. She worked an arm behind Rue, to put a love-soft hand on Rue’s shell. “You two match. Two is a half-measure of luck, you know.”

“You match?” Denelend hopped closer, tipping his head. “Oh, your names? Aemet names mean things, don’t they?”

“They do. Come on, Denelend — have a rest, dear. We’ve got plenty of light.”

Mother paused until Denelend was seated by her booted feet, patiently enduring while Feor sniffed him over. It was growing less strange to think of this gathering as the Tennel family — one with found friends woven in, a ferrin and a korvi and now a dog, too.

                                                                                    —Render (A story of Aligare), Chapter 7

I find that sort of attitude fulfilling to write about — as opposed to the more common fantasy ideas of family lineage and bastard children, which seem to breed nastiness and judgement. I think we can all use as many covenants as we can get.


Purple dinosaur earrings and other telling details

The other day at my restaurant day job, three young women came in for dinner. They asked for their waitress friend to serve them — let’s call the waitress Madison because that’s her name. Madison wasn’t working that day, though. When she heard that her friends ate at her workplace, she asked which server they got.

The friends reported that they didn’t remember their server’s name, but she was wearing purple dinosaur earrings.

“Oh, that’s Heidi,” Madison instantly said.


Pictured: my actual earrings.

The details of someone’s appearance can be really distinctive. I don’t mean the details they can’t control, like their body type or face shape. No, I mean the telling ways they arrange themselves. The colours they like to wear. Whether they always look clean and pressed, or they usually look like they’ve just rolled out of bed. Whether their accessories are personally meaningful or just one of a hundred trinkets in their roster. We make a lot of minor decisions when we pick what to wear. Those decisions aren’t just items on a visual checklist: those decisions tend to reflect who we are.

And my purple dinosaur earrings are distinctive enough that they stand out in my coworkers’ minds. When Madison told this story and got to “purple dinosaur earrings”, the other servers knowingly grinned. Heidi likes vivid shades of purple, and awesome stuff like dinosaurs. When those two things combine, even better! Awesome purple dinosaurs! I like to think that if Heidi the waitress were a book character, those earrings would imply a lot about who she is — more than a laundry list of her height, weight and hair colour.


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Flashback post: What maturity means

If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you! This was originally posted on November 26th, 2012.

There’s a problem with the way we categorize things — a problem I’ve struggled with for a long time now. Movies, books and video games are called “mature” when they have violence and/or sex in them. The horrors of war and the depths of sexuality are clearly not appropriate for small children, therefore they’re meant for adults.

Simple enough. But this distinction is often misconstrued — so that some people think if a work doesn’t have inappropriate content for children, it can’t possibly be meant for adults. If a work doesn’t have R-rated violence and sex, it must be boring Teletubby stuff.

There are a lot of factors at work here. Our marketing-driven world wants there to be clear lines between children’s entertainment and adult entertainment. And we have increasingly short attention spans in this day and age, so the public probably wants punchier content. And American culture strongly associates some forms (e.g. non-human characters, or colourful animated art) with children’s entertainment. Media is expected to fit into categories — and one of those category divisions is mature/not mature.

But what is maturity, really? The word has many connotations. It might mean mere physical maturity — so a pubescent 13-year-old could be called mature. Moreso if he plays “mature” video games about shooting Nazi soldiers, or watches a “mature” movie with a sex scene in it. That kid is probably fixated on violence and boobies at least partly because he’s grasping at adult concepts, thinking that by association, he’ll be less child-like.

C.S. Lewis had a thought on this subject that I’ve always liked:

“Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

He didn’t use the word “mature”, but I think his point is the same. Insisting on some arbitrary type of “adult” content is the most childish thing a person can do. A truly mature person recognises that they like what they like and no one else gets a say in it. I mean, an adult can watch Barney the dinosaur if they damn well please. The show wasn’t intended for anyone over the age of 5, but if a 40-year-old sees something pleasing about the show, why not watch? Maybe they find it relaxing after a stressful day of work.

Because mature people are also discerning. They’re the quietly confident ones with taste and insight. They’re the polar opposite of the “mature” things that would traumatize a child. Revelling in fighting and sex isn’t necessarily a mature thing to do. Heck, it’s not even a psychologically balanced thing to do. I think that’s the real measure of an adult: the ability to look past flashy novelty and appreciate the nuances of things.

Just look at Harry Potter. The series was a surprise hit with adults, probably because that story of a destined boy had a lot of interesting detail that a kid would take for granted. The story has worldbuilding and social commentary. There were racial tensions, and elaborate cover-ups, and characters struggling to do the right thing. Just because the main character was a kid didn’t mean the saga lacked maturity. But some people are still ashamed to be seen reading those “kids’ books” in public. Part of the problem is probably the stylized cover art.

This isn't photorealistic at all! Where are the explosions?

This isn’t photorealistic at all! Where are the explosions?

Another part is probably the recent trendiness of dark, grim fantasy — under the belief that happiness, justice and noble ideals are somehow less suitable for adults than murder and rape. The people who think Harry Potter is exclusively for children probably don’t have a problem reading Game of Thrones on the bus.

This maturity connundrum is something I encounter a lot with my writing career. I have non-human characters full of peaceful intent, so many people draw a conclusion of, “Oh, so it’s a children’s book full of cute little woodland animals?” There isn’t a lot of precident for what I do, so I navigate a minefield of cultural assumptions. As for the covers, I’m careful not to include any of my Aligare characters in the cover designs. If I made the cover look edgy enough to counter the “cute animal people”, I’d contradict the peace, understanding and actual maturity I’m trying to convey inside that cover.

Pictured: Peregrine of Ruelle as played by Bruce Willis, in this summer's intense action thriller.

Pictured: Peregrine of Ruelle as played by Bruce Willis, in this summer’s intense action thriller.

Fortunately, every parent I’ve met has been wise enough to ask me if my work is actually appropriate for their elementary-school-aged kids. Not really, I tell them. Remedy doesn’t have gory battles or overt sex, but it does have some pretty graphic medical drama. Watching a character struggle to breathe isn’t glamorous or pleasant.

More importantly, I think a certain amount of maturity is needed to understand Peregrine, an older man with long-term responsibilities and a moral quandary. I can’t imagine that a kid under a certain age could grasp why Peregrine is unhappy at the beginning of the story, or why he tries to push his best friend Tillian out of his life. To empathize with people very different from oneself, maturity is needed. I’ve had a report that one particularly advanced 12-year-old reader enjoyed Remedy — which is cool, I guess, but I still found it surprising.

So I guess what I’m saying is that maturity is simple, and yet it’s not. And an actual mature adult should be able to handle that.

Related articles:

My favourite dialogue from Render (A story of Aligare) (

Moodiness: A part of real life, not fiction (

Trying to write colourfully (

My favourite dialogue from Render (A Story of Aligare)

I always forget how effort-intensive it is to copy-edit a book. Whew. I’m still working on this pass of Render, and hoping to smooth out all the typos and phrasing tweaks by the end of the week. But at least rereading my own work is letting me enjoy the little moments again.


In the drafting process, I wrote a lot of odd conversations between Rue and Felixi. Their gradual, uneasy friendship meant that they didn’t always get straight to the point when they talked. They’d go on tangents sometimes, or tell jokes that fell flat. Bridging the gap between them took some awkwardness and vulnerability from both parties.

Some of these scenes made it into the final Render story. My favourite is what I think of as The Weird Egg Conversation.

But still examining his cuticles, Felixi spoke, clear and even as lake water:

“I made plans before I was born. I decided I was going to run the moment I was free of my eggshell. I didn’t know where to. Likely because I had no idea what a place was, other than the singular place inside my egg. Which was too cramped and dark to be doing any running.”

Rue watched the droop of his eyelids, and sensed the angle of his feathers in the air; she expected a grin and saw no trace of one.

“You … didn’t want to fly?” she asked.

“Not at all. I couldn’t even imagine such a thing.”

It could well be the truth. Every flighted creature in the land learned its legs before its wings, as far as Rue was aware.

“That’s curious,” she said. “Aemetkind don’t think much of anything before we’re born. Not even for a few days afterward. I imagine because there’s no air inside the womb — we don’t have a membrane to hold one of those bubbles of air, like the ones in the end of an egg? It takes a certain quantity of air to wake a child up.”

“Is that so?”

Keep talking, her innards knew. Felixi’s tail drifted nearer to the ground, and nearer, like he might sit and the stories might go on. What a gift pressed into Rue’s hands, these nettles to be held carefully.

“I think so,” she said. “The earliest thing I remember is someone saying that I looked plenty alert for a two-day-old child. Those were the words he said: plenty alert. It turned out to be my father saying so… And ferrin must be the same way. A ferrin friend of ours said his first memory is of opening his eyes, and that takes at least three days.”

“Hmf. Quite a lot of difference, but we’re all full of life, aren’t we.”

It was true. Rue hummed.

Dancing his gaze around — anywhere but on Rue and whatever it was she embodied — Felixi took a hitching breath. He said, “If it’s such a frightfully large deal, I’ll take your bargain.[“]

I don’t know, I just like the stranger-than-fiction feel of this scene. Pre-natal consciousness in the various Aligare peoplekinds? Heh, wow. It’s one of those bizarre things you bring up with someone, then you both chuckle because how the heck did you get on this subject? But here you are talking about it. That’s the kind of unexpected honesty that sways Felixi’s opinion of Rue. Render wouldn’t be the story it is without stuff like The Weird Egg Conversation.

Related articles:

    ◦ Felixi of Velgarro: outcast in a friendly world (

    ◦ The role of emotion in Aligare magic (

    ◦ Forgetting about plumbing: why the worldbuilding details matter (

What speech patterns mean

First things first! This past week, I’ve been working the bugs out of Render’s paperback edition. It turns out there were some technical difficulties on my end (e.g. my poor little Macbook Air struggling to display a huge OpenOffice file) that threw my formatting out of whack. The print-on-demand version of Render available now has had these problems addressed, and all known typos corrected. I also managed to trim down the physical size, which — happily — allowed me to lower the paperback price to $13 USD. This lower price is available now through the Createspace store, and it should be reflected on Amazon in the next day or three.

Now then! Let me tell you about an issue I looked at while actually writing that book: characters’ speech patterns.


Sometimes, book reviewers will complain that a novel’s characters all “sound the same”. Meaning that multiple characters in a story have the same general pattern to their speech and use the same set of slang and idioms — regardless of their personality or background. In really severe cases, elderly farmers and urban teenagers might speak the very same way. That just doesn’t make any sense. It makes the characters blur together and it can even make the story outright confusing, if it’s too difficult to determine which character is speaking any given line. Even if a book’s characters are all from the same small town, they should put words together differently because, well. People are different.

And besides, these speech pattern differences can show a lot about how a person relates to their culture. In this culture, for example, women are unconsciously taught to be agreeable by phrasing things as questions, not commands. “Could you send me that report?” instead of, “Send me that report.” It’s an outdated idea but it persists, probably because it’s so engrained and commonplace that neither men nor women consciously notice it very often. I sometimes catch myself asking questions when I actually intend to direct someone confidently — and boy, am I annoyed with myself. And I see the same downfall in my fellow restaurant workers. Hosts often find that directing a customer to sit at a certain table is like herding cats. I noticed that the hosts who have the most trouble seating customers in a specific place? Are the younger female hosts, who say, “Is this table alright?” rather than, “Here is your table.” Phrasing does matter.

So if I were writing a story about a modern-day-ish woman from Canada/the United States, I’d pay close attention to how often her dialogue ends in a question mark. That particular pattern might reveal a lot about her. If she’s confident in commanding people, why is that? Because she’s a self-aware feminist? Because she works in a male-dominated career field and has picked up the speech pattern, a pattern she uses like a tool in everyday interaction? Maybe she’s just a very bluntly honest person who doesn’t care about seeming polite and agreeable? There are many ways her dialogue can shed light on her character — and as a bonus, she’ll seem distinct from the female characters who are always asking polite questions.

That’s just one angle. The way a person puts words together can reveal their past, their thoughts, their insecurities and much more. That’s the deeper layer, and then there are the more decorative elements — like that one character who exclaims “Great Scott!” when surprised instead of a more generic, “Oh my god!”

The Aligare world has a different cultural landscape than Canada in 2013, but I pay the same amount of attention whenever quotation marks show up in one of my books. I try to give everyone a particular feel to their phrasing, and make sure their speech really reflects who they are. In Render, Rue almost never uses “well” as verbal filler. “Well” is a mild, passive word and Rue is usually more decisive than that. She says “now” instead — so she says, “now, let’s see” to give a sense of immediacy that “well, let’s see” really wouldn’t convey. Everyone has their basic patterns and particular tics, which need to be used in the right amounts. People are quirky and they don’t even follow their own patterns 100% of the time. Syril of Reyardine speaks in long, rambling sentences, but he is capable of answering in four words or less.

So ultimately, editing a novel’s dialogue involves a lot of fussing over every word. I’m sure even non-writers know that. But if a character’s dialogue is distinctive and it fits who they are, it’s easy to forget that you’re reading about a fictional creation. The character becomes simply an interesting person you want to hear more from. Just like a random person you might meet at a party and find delightful. Like so many aspects of writing, good dialogue can be a lot of work — but done right, it comes off like the most natural thing in the world.

On fitting in


With every Render scene I write and/or tweak, I’m working on character development. Making sure the events of the story really resonate with the characters, because that way they’ll strike a chord in the reader, too. (Presumably. I hope.)

And I keep finding my protagonist a striking character. Rue Tennel is an aemet just old enough to be considered an adult, and because of her mature sensibilities and her skill set and her unusual courage, she doesn’t really fit in with her own kind. She can get along with her samekind neighbours. She can collaborate to do chores and politely imply that she agrees with the typical views. But she’d really rather be talking to a feisty korvi, or an adaptable ferrin. Someone she can share a sassy thought with and not upset the whole apple cart.

Felixi stretched his long neck, craning backward to better eye Rue. “And knowing that, you weren’t scared of walking to this field alone?”
A little, if Rue was honest with herself. It had been years since she could pass among the unspeaking trees and see it as just a walk, a simple trip for a handful of greens. Ordinary life had warped under all this trouble and fret.
“I need to come here,” Rue said, “that’s all. And I am in the presence of an able korvi, you might notice.”
Felixi snorted, half laughter and half indignity. “I’m your guard, now? Have both mages check your head.”
“Not to worry, good Velgarro.” Rue could barely stifle her grin; she felt wreathed with a small victory.

-Render, a story of Aligare, draft version

Not fitting in is a phenomenon we often find pathetic — the ugly duckling, the awkward turtle, the outsider. But it’s not always a situation to be pitied. In fact, to be a strong person, it’s important to recognise that you won’t fit in with every single group — and that’s okay. Social relations are machines made of many moving parts. Sometimes you and a group aren’t compatible and you both just need the freedom to disagree.

Render is a story of Rue finding her place. It’s the journey she makes from childhood, from wondering where she’ll fit in, to adulthood, where she knows and accepts who she is and uses that uniqueness to its full advantage. Living in the Aligare world, she has some positive messages to help her. However much it’s thought that aemet people are X and behave like Y, there’s also the idea that everyone fits in somewhere. This idea that people can be different from each other and still get along. So Rue is a bit saddened when she realizes she’s the odd aemet out, but it’s a wistful sadness. Almost a nostalgia for something she used to believe in. She realizes that she doesn’t entirely fit here, she needs to search out that psychological space where she does slot neatly into place.

It’s not really something I’ve struggled with, myself. I’ve had abundant self-confidence ever since I can remember, and I’ve always liked the idea of standing out. Better to seem weird than to blend impotently into the wallpaper, I say. But as I write Render, I’m still proud of Rue for having the maturity to be true to herself, and I hope her story will be meaningful for others. No one fits in 100% of the time and that’s not something to be ashamed of. There’s a message our society could stand to hear more often.

Torturing a favourite character

In writing, they say to kill your darlings. That doesn’t typically mean that all characters should die, but, y’know, it’s an option.


It’s a strange balance, reading about a fictional character. If we like the character, we naturally want them to overcome their strife, defeat the villain(s) and find happiness. But if the character is always being conveniently saved from bad situations (e.g. by passing out, then being told later how they were rescued), that’s generally considered a weak story. Deus ex machina endings aren’t well-regarded nowadays. That’s because such convenience is an outside event being enacted on the character. If Hero McAwesomepants is rescued by someone else, or if the danger turns out to be nothing, that means McAwesomepants isn’t actually doing anything. We don’t buy books or go to movie theatres for the privilege of seeing nothing happen.

No, we want to see McAwesomepants fight until their body can fight no more, or grieve for lost allies, or grapple with inner demons. Maybe all three at once! We want to experience pain and victory and redemption from a safe passenger seat. So when we like a character, that often means that horrible things keep happening to them. That character is somehow satisfying to empathise with, even when they’re suffering. Especially when they’re suffering. That pain means they’re going through something important (usually).

Some stories stay as far away from convenience as possible: they have suffering and conflict loaded into every scene. Some argue that this is realistic. Real life doesn’t have a cosmic author wincing at our predicament and writing a nice, easy solution. Real life doesn’t have limits. But does this make for an enjoyable story? Is schadenfreude — the enjoyment of someone else’s suffering — really just a simple formula for a good story? This is a matter of personal taste, really. I’ve given up on critically acclaimed books because they just seemed to pile misery on top of misery, with no reward in sight. Whereas some folks like having their heart broken and their favourites killed off. Maybe character torture is a seasoning and some folks just prefer salt pickles so intense they make your jaw hurt.

I’ve been thinking about this since reading the teaser blurb for the next Temeraire book. In the ongoing struggles of Captain Laurence and his dragon partner Temeraire, I think there’s a good balance of hope and suffering. They live as military pawns in the Napoleonic era, which means few material comforts and many battles — but much potential to change the future. They are imposed upon by governmental bodies that are difficult to reason with, and they’re trying to reason with whole societies. But into the 6th book (the farthest I’m caught up), Laurence is showing more and more psychological effects of his struggles. As a character, he seems tired from all that he’s been through, and he’s less inclined to stand up for his dignity or his personal desires. It’s a realistic way to react to long years of war and injustice — but as a reader, is that what I want? I’m not sure. I want the characters to be happy, but not easily so. I want Laurence and Temeraire to achieve their goals, without bleeding so much that the whole story is stained red.

I can only decide that this is what good fiction does. It makes you think about conflict and characters until you’re confused and your heart hurts. That’s not as simple as killing off a few darlings. Balance is the key.

I met my role model in the 8-bit era: A look at Bowser

When I think of a fictional character who inspires me — someone who sets an example for life — you know who I think of? King Bowser Koopa. Yes, this monster turtle thing:


He’s been a staple character since Super Mario Brothers came out in 1985. That game more or less saved the entire video game industry, so it’s kind of a big deal. Back then, video game stories were usually a simple “rescue the the hero’s girlfriend from an evil kidnapper” affair. Yes indeed, Bowser had kidnapped a princess and he was the menacing Dark Overlord to be vaniquished. As a kid, I delighted in guiding Mario through levels and knocking Bowser into lava pools. It was fun, if not intellectual.

That formula held true for several more games, until Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars came out. I was 11 when I played that one. I didn’t know that RPG stood for Role-Playing Game, so I wasn’t expecting the heavier emphasis on storytelling, but I ended up liking it a lot. In this game, Bowser was kicked out of his castle by a stronger foe. While Mario tries to save the world from new bad guy armies, Bowser is seen trying to take his own castle back by siege. With progressively smaller armies …


Until eventually, the player stumbles across Bowser. He’s standing in a clearing all alone, wondering aloud what to do, musing to himself that he misses the old days of kidnapping the Princess. He turns around with big, dripping cartoon tears in his eyes — and sees Mario standing there.


He then mumbles to himself, “Oops … Okay, okay … Calm down! Don’t let him see you like this!”

That moment stands out in my memory. Video gaming’s biggest, baddest villain was suddenly a person and a real, rounded character. I’m sure it changed the way I looked at fictional characters. For the rest of the game, Bowser fights a greater evil by Mario’s side (although he claims Mario is really just helping him take back the castle), and the food for thought only continued.

As more Mario games came out — in more and varied genres — Bowser’s characterization got more interpretations. Sometimes he’s his classic Bad Guy self, kidnapping the Princess and menacing entire realms. Sometimes he’s an anti-hero with a snarky sense of humour. Sometimes he’s a comedic buffoon, the clumsy oaf who gets tricked by everyone else. Bowser has teamed up with Mario a few more times since Super Mario RPG, with varying degrees of willingness.

All of these interpretations add up to an interesting whole. Overall, Bowser may be a megalomaniac known for kidnapping a woman — but he doesn’t seem to want to hurt anyone. He usually kidnaps Princess Peach because he likes her and has a messed up of showing it. She’s treated well and Bowser has expressed “I hope she likes me”-type sentiments. You never hear of Peach’s guards being killed in these kidnappings — maybe transformed into a brick or locked in a room, but never permanently harmed. And Bowser is usually fixated on defeating Mario, not killing him — why else would he snatch the high-profile Princess and gloat about it, instead of just attacking Mario directly?

All this strikes me as a blustering demand for attention, a kid-at-heart wish to look cool and strong in front of everyone. It certainly explains why Bowser appears in spin-off games where he races go-karts or plays tennis with the good guys. Because who would invite an actual, dangerous enemy to do that?

Basketball, too. Don't forget the basketball.

Basketball, too. He plays basketball.

So the result is a layered meaning that suits E-for-Everyone video games. On his simplest level, Bowser is a scary-looking villain to be beaten. But look more closely at his patterns and he’s really just a rival/antagonist, a blocking figure who is intimidating without being truly dangerous. He’ll laugh about stomping you into the dirt but it’s a metaphorical threat, really.

Yes, yes, this is all an interesting character study, and tough guys with secret soft spots are always adorable. But why is Bowser an inspiration for me? His bad deeds aren’t exactly a guide to life. I’ll tell you why I’m inspired: because Bowser doesn’t give up. He sulks over his losses, he gets his feelings hurt — but he never, ever gives up.

Just think of it: Bowser is a big, strong armoured creature with fire breath, the unquestioned king of his people, who keeps challenging one little chubby human — a human who doesn’t even bring a weapon on a typical day. Bowser loses every time. All the elaborate plans and armies in the world never seem to stop Mario from defeating Bowser in arena combat. How humiliating must that be? But Bowser always thinks about next time. Next time, he’ll try a different plan and show everyone how great he is. Next time, he’ll win. Bowser’s been getting his butt kicked since I was a small child and he shows no sign of quitting.

I think that’s a trait to aspire to.