Robert Plutchik, professor emeritus at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, identified eight primary emotions: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, anticipation, trust, and joy. I’ve seen similar lists from experts as varied as Donald Maass and Tony Robbins. Some are a little longer, include a few other emotions, but looking at this list . . . I can see it. This makes sense to me, and anyway it gives us a place to start to talk about the emotions that motivate or drive our characters. In this series of posts we’ll get into each of these eight emotions and how they can help drive your narrative forward and infuse it with the humanity your characters need to connect with readers.

This week . . .


In her Psychology Today article “The Value of Sadness,” Lisa Firestone describes sadness as “a natural part of life and is usually connected with certain experiences of pain or loss or even a meaningful moment of connection or joy that makes us value our lives.”

Maybe more so than the other emotions we’re covering in this series, the label “sad” can be attached not just to characters, but to the novel (or story or movie, etc.) itself. That was a sad story, a sad song, etc. It’s much more rare that we say things like, “That was an angry story,” or “That was an . . . anticipatory . . . ? novel.”

Though I’m not sure most people tend to equate science fiction and fantasy with “sad” stories, Amanda Yesilbas and Charlie Jane Anders of io9 made a list of “10 Great Science Fiction Novels with Go-Back-To-Bed Depressing Endings,” and the two saddest books I’ve ever read in my life are science fiction and fantasy novels.


One of the most vivid memories I have from childhood is laying on the living room couch reading The Runaway Robot by Lester Del Rey. It’s the last “children’s book” I remember reading before pushing myself into “adult” science fiction with a detour into comic books. But I remember actually tearing up, my throat tightening. This story of a kid who has to leave his robot behind when his family moves back to Earth from Ganymede frickin’ shredded me. That, and TV special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer are two of the saddest experiences of my life, leaving me to wonder to this day why children’s media always seemed to be so sad.

I honestly have no answer for that, but even as a kid I railed against it—and why not? My own kids have the same wounding experiences over different media. My daughter crumbled under the emotional weight of the Pokémon episode “Bye-bye Butterfree” and my son struggled valiantly to keep it together at the end of The Iron Giant.

Whether The Runaway Robot scarred me or helped define me is still an open question, but look at how this sad science fiction book has stuck in my head when I don’t have the slightest memory of any other book I read that year. I’m not even sure what year it was, and how old I was. I just remember buying a copy of the book at a Scholastic Book Fair at school then being riveted by it.

Many years later—decades later—after hearing a lot of good things about The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue I had that with me when I flew from Seattle to Indianapolis for Gen Con—not sure what year. I can admit now that I wasn’t fully engaged in that convention. I spent most of the weekend looking for quiet, out of the way spots in hotel lobbies to read The Stolen Child. I rarely read on airplanes but I read all the way back, and even kept reading through landing, which for this recovering aviophobic is a huge deal. I chose to finish reading that book instead of using my complete attention to psychically will the plane to a safe landing. If you haven’t read The Stolen Child, consider this an assignment. It’s brilliantly written and emotionally devastating.

That having been said, if you had asked me yesterday if I like “sad books” I would have said no.

But, it turns out, I do.

Even if your primary emotional through-line for your story isn’t sadness, per se, this powerful and useful emotion can still form a big part of any character’s emotion. We have all felt sad at one point or another—it would be the most charmed of life if you could avoid it entirely—so we can instantly relate to a character who seems sad.

H.P. Lovecraft went right at sadness in the opening paragraph of his 1921 story “The Outsider,” setting a tone for the whole piece:

Unhappy is he to whom the memories of childhood bring only fear and sadness. Wretched is he who looks back upon lone hours in vast and dismal chambers with brown hangings and maddening rows of antique books, or upon awed watches in twilight groves of grotesque, gigantic, and vine-encumbered trees that silently wave twisted branches far aloft. Such a lot the gods gave to me—to me, the dazed, the disappointed; the barren, the broken. And yet I am strangely content, and cling desperately to those sere memories, when my mind momentarily threatens to reach beyond to the other.

And of course the old idea of science fiction as heroic potboiler with the all-but-emotionless hero is long debunked, we still seem to be a little reluctant to see this emotion in a genre hero. Leave it to Philip K. Dick to show us a character surprised by his own emotional state in the novel Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said:

Why does a man cry? he wondered. Not like a woman; not for that. Not for sentiment. A man cries over the loss of something, something alive. A man can cry over a sick animal that he knows won’t make it. The death of a child: a man can cry for that. But not because things are sad.

As with the other key emotional states, characters can be defined by sadness?

“She was a genius of sadness,” Jonathan Safran Foer wrote in Everything is Illuminated, “immersing herself in it, separating its numerous strands, appreciating its subtle nuances. She was a prism through which sadness could be divided into its infinite spectrum.”

Sadness can be a motivation for your protagonist.

Susan Piver wrote in her article “The Importance of Sadness” at

“When you look out at this world, what you see will make you very, very sad. This is good. You are seeing clearly. Genuine sadness gives rise, spontaneously, naturally, completely, to the wish—no, the longing—to be of benefit to others. When your wish to help is rooted in love (i.e. sadness), it is effective. There is no question.”

Heroes need to experience empathy. If a person is incapable of experiencing empathy that person is, by definition, a sociopath. So if your protagonist is confronted with a painful situation, is outraged or wronged, sadness can lead to a desire to do something about it, to right a wrong before anyone else can be made to feel sad for the same reason.

A slightly trickier one. Can sadness motivate a villain?

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, “Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad.”

What evil can be done by a sad person unable to work through his or her pain?


—Philip Athans


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Last week I happened across a New Yorker article from September 11, 2015 by Joshua Rothman entitled “The Unsettling Arrival of Speculative 9/11 Fiction.” In it, Rothman dissects the anthology In the Shadow of the Towers: Speculative Fiction in a Post-9/11 World, edited by Douglas Lain, painting an overall unflattering view of the book, the stories it contains, the authors of those stories, and the very concept of speculative fiction as it relates to real events. But before I try to convince you, if not Joshua Rothman, that it’s never “too soon” to begin exploring any event through the lens of fiction, a little something in the way of “full disclosure”:

Prior to September 11, 2001, I had never been to New York City. I have been there since. Twice. I was born in Upstate New York (Rochester, to be exact) but moved away in 1969, not yet age five. I watched the 9/11 attacks play out, like most people, on live TV, safe in my house in (then) Issaquah, Washington, a full continent removed from the reality of the disaster. As such, unlike Rothman, I couldn’t read this book “while in the shadow of an actual tower—One World Trade Center, where The New Yorker’s offices are located.”

Though I do know a bunch of people in the speculative fiction world, at least in a sort of friendly, “in passing” way, I don’t know editor Douglas Lain but have brushed up against some of the authors. That said, though, I have no actual involvement with this book, nothing at stake in its existence or sales.

I’m also decidedly not a “9/11 Conspiracy Theorist” or anyone with any sort of axe to grind in all the complex political stuff that continues to swirl around it.

I watched a vicious act of mass murder happen on live TV. I did not enjoy that experience. And no, I didn’t immediately run to my computer to write a short story about it. I did mention it in one draft of one book I wrote but that ended up being cut for reasons of character and pacing. I didn’t cut it because I thought it was “too soon” it just didn’t work in my story. I did, however, read the Onion’s coverage of the event. The sheer audacity of it blew my mind, and to be honest, I think it was not just okay for them to do that, it was essential. We need to be reminded, sometimes, that even on a really, really bad day, we are dragged down by grief but we survive by humor.

That leaves us with the question, then: When is it “too soon” to approach an event like 9/11—or Hurricane Katrina, or Sandy Hook, or . . . ?—from the point of view of science fiction and fantasy—or any other fiction genre?

All I can offer here—and, let’s face, it all I ever offer here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook—is one man’s opinion:

It’s never too soon.

That having been said, a disaster like this, where real people were brutally killed in some kind of spasm of misguided politics filtered through religious fanaticism, leaving whole families literally and figuratively blown up, is never something to be taken lightly. But that, to me, is at the heart of this particular discussion. Does this anthology take 9/11 lightly?

Joshua Rothman wrote:

“In the Shadow of the Towers” marks the beginning of a transition in the legacy of 9/11. At first, a protective aura surrounds recent tragedies, preserving them from the injudicious meddling of pop culture. But it can’t be “too soon” forever; no event is permanently beyond the reach of the imagination. Typically, to start, only respectful, realistic stories make inroads. Then some border is crossed, and it becomes possible to make revenge Westerns about slavery (“Django Unchained”), tragicomedies about the Holocaust (“Life Is Beautiful”), and horror movies about Vietnam (“Jacob’s Ladder”).

I have to ask, why can “only respectful, realistic stories make inroads” in the examination of a tragedy? After all, “realistic” stories are actually a fairly new invention if you look back across the full range of literature. I can’t help but think that this is where Rothman’s bias begins to show itself. The problem isn’t stories about 9/11, it’s science fiction and fantasy stories about 9/11 that are coming too soon. This is only a valid argument if you begin with the misguided idea that SF and fantasy are inherently frivolous, incapable of a deeper sense of the emotional carnage of 9/11. Even not having read the anthology in question I can reject that idea on its own merits. We don’t have to cross some unseen border between the perceived “respectful” realists and the apparently disrespectful genres.

This bias against the genres is, to my mind, clearly stated here:

But when we say it’s “too soon,” what we really mean is that we’re not yet ready to confront these ideas and feelings in ourselves. We already have the thoughts—they’re in there. But we’d still prefer moral clarity. We’re not ready to play.

The shortcoming to this way of thinking about “speculative” fiction is that stories are more than experiments; they are speech acts, written by particular people who wish to get some feeling across.

The fact that Rothman seems to have happened upon this otherwise unknown concept, that speculative fiction isn’t just about “play”—about silliness and frivolity—is what’s keeping him from looking at these stories as anything but disrespectful. And listen . . . maybe some of them are. I haven’t read the anthology. And though Rothman seems to have mixed feelings about specific stories, it’s this tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater that I think we’ve all heard far, far too much of, as though a science fiction story might occasionally, accidently, be good, but in general those purveyors of second-rate entertainments need to keep their hands off the serious stuff.

This really burns me.

I guess I have to ask then:

Was it too soon for George Orwell to warn of the rise of a military industrial complex that switches enemies at random between Eastasia and Eurasia (Communism and Islam) to keep society in a perpetual state of war that justifies the complete erosion of individual rights—which has actually come to pass in terrifyingly real ways—when he wrote 1984 at the end of World War II?

Was 1964 too soon for Frank Herbert to warn us of the dangers of a single-resource economy, especially when that resource is concentrated under a desert in which the fully-alienated local population has come to hate us and everything we stand for, waiting in quiet desperation for the rise of a charismatic leader to set them off on an empire-destroying jihad?

So then now I have to ask:

Was it that this anthology talked about 9/11 too soon after, or Dune talked about it too long before?

Which of these frivolous, unserious, unrealistic novels do we dismiss along with In the Shadow of the Towers?


—Philip Athans


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Robert Plutchik, professor emeritus at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, identified eight primary emotions: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, anticipation, trust, and joy. I’ve seen similar lists from experts as varied as Donald Maass and Tony Robbins. Some are a little longer, include a few other emotions, but looking at this list . . . I can see it. This makes sense to me, and anyway it gives us a place to start to talk about the emotions that motivate our characters. In this series of posts we’ll get into each of these eight emotions and how they can help drive your narrative forward and infuse it with the humanity your characters need to connect with readers.

If you haven’t read Part 1: Anger, you can start here.

This week . . .


“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”

—H.P. Lovecraft

Emotion is a shared experience, and that is clearly true of fear. Joseph LeDoux of the New York University Center for the Neuroscience of Fear and Anxiety was quoted in Lou Dzierzak’s Scientific American article “Factoring Fear: What Scares Us and Why”: “Since our brains are programmed to be similar in structure, we can assume that what I experience when I’m threatened is something similar to what you experience.”

Fear is an essential part of our animal existence. It’s like an internal fire alarm, alerting us to the presence of danger. In fact, “The ability to predict sources of danger in the environment is essential for adaptive behavior and survival,” Gavan P. McNally and R. Frederick Westbrook concluded in their study “Predicting Danger: The Nature, Consequences, and Neural Mechanisms of Predictive Fear Learning.” “Pavlovian fear conditioning allows anticipation of sources of danger in the environment. It guides attention away from poorer predictors toward better predictors of danger, and it elicits defensive behavior appropriate to these threats.”

We can see this idea of fear as a warning come into play in The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks:

Unable to move, to speak, even to think, they stood frozen in terror as the sounds of the spirit world reached up to them and passed through their minds, warning of the things that lay beyond this life and their understanding.

We—and our characters—can see and empathize with the effects that fear elicits in others, as in this bit from Catherynne Valente’s brilliant Palimpsest:

A ripple of fear and despair moves through the rice paddies, and Sei sees one girl with long braids fling herself from a great height, only to be caught up by a solicitous handhold. She hangs there by the waist, in misery, weeping.

The Third Rail offers no comment, but shakes her head in untouchable sorrow.

There has been a lot of talk in our new internet age about the ease with which cyber-bullying is carried out by people who can’t see the reactions their comments elicit. The realization that we’ve scared someone is a powerful thing. A normally empathic person doesn’t want to be the source of fear any more than he or she would want to be afraid of someone else. But that, of course is a normally empathic person. Your villain may very well not possess that particular trait—sociopaths, by definition, don’t.

Internally, fear represents one of our limits, it’s something inside us that stops us short of doing something dangerous, or otherwise risking some harm to ourselves either physically or psychologically. Ambrose Bierce gave us at least one character who was tested in this way in “A Tough Tussle”:

I repeat that Lieutenant Byring was a brave and intelligent man. But what would you have? Shall a man cope, single-handed, with so monstrous an alliance as that of night and solitude and silence and the dead—while an incalculable host of his own ancestors shriek into the ear of his spirit their coward counsel, sing their doleful death-songs in his heart, and disarm his very blood of all its iron? The odds are too great—courage was not made for so rough use as that.

And remember, courage is the ability to move forward through fear, a theme that pervades genre fiction in general. Take Frank Herbert’s classic Dune, for example, and the Bene Gesserit’s Litany Against Fear:

I must not fear.

Fear is the mind-killer.

Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.

I will face my fear.

I will permit it to pass over me and through me.

And when it is gone past I will turn to see its path.

Where the fear has gone, there will be nothing.

Only I will remain.

Fear is something that tests us, and heroes are asked to get through it, to resist their baser impulses, go into the burning building rather than running out of it. Depending on the story you’re telling, this can be very difficult for the less heroically-inclined everyman character, like Louis in Stephen King’s novel Pet Sematary:

Horror rolled through Louis, gripping his warm heart in its cold hands, squeezing. It reduced him, made him less and less, until he felt like taking to his heels and running from this bloody, twisted, speaking head on the floor of the infirmary waiting room.

Though not everyone writes horror, and not everyone likes a good scare, still fear is an essential part of what makes us—and our characters—human.

Even children’s and young adult authors shouldn’t be afraid to make their readers afraid.

“It’s a spooky time to be a kid, even without Sandy Hook making even the once-fortified classroom a potential doomsday ride,” Greg Ruth wrote in “Why Horror is Good For You (and Even Better for Your Kids)” “Look, the kids are already scared, so let’s give them some tools to cope with it beyond telling them not to worry about it all . . . when they really have every right to be scared poopless. Scary stories tell kids there’s always something worse, and in effect come across as more honest because they exist in a realm already familiar to them. Scary tales don’t warp kids; they give them a place to blow off steam while they are being warped by everything else.”

In that sense, fear isn’t so much the “mind-killer” Frank Herbert’s Bene Gesserit think it is, but a mind-protector. Something we shouldn’t let ourselves succumb to, but something we should listen to. And imbue our characters with, for good or ill.


—Philip Athans

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Another of my year-end rituals is to count up the number of books I’ve read in the past year, look back at what I liked the most, how the number of books I read last year compare to years past, and other weird little OCD quirks.

One thing I noticed this year, especially looking at the books I’m currently reading vs. the number of books everyone is talking about at any given time but that I haven’t (yet) read, I’m starting to worry that I’m reading too many old books and not keeping remotely current enough.

As a practice, I have five books at any given time that I switch off between as the mood strikes, and because yes, I can’t not categorize every aspect of my life, I draw these from five categories, which I hope will keep me reading a variety of things:

  • primary fiction
  • series fiction
  • random SF/F
  • non-fiction
  • graphic novel

My current primary fiction selection is Pandora’s Star by Peter F. Hamilton, which started out as a random grab-bag selection but has been moved up to the coveted “primary” slot because it’s so immensely long it’s taking me forever to finish and stalling out my whole fun grab-bag thing. Pandora’s Star was published in 2005, which was eleven years ago. This is the newest of the five.


My series fiction book is Children of Dune by Frank Herbert, published in 1976, because I’m re-reading the first few Dune books with an eye toward continuing into the Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson expanded series.

My random SF/F grab-bag selection for January is The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, which, published in 1764, really starts to drag the average age of the books I’m reading back a ways.

I always read a non-fiction book, too, with many of them on the subject of writing, which should come as no surprise to people who read this blog. Currently this is the oldest book I’m reading—probably the oldest book I’ve ever read, actually: Aristotle’s Poetics, which was published in 330 BCE—that’s right, 2346 years ago. In fairness, that’s kind of an aberration.

But even the graphic novel/compilation I’m reading now, Tales from the Crypt, Annual 4 (Issues 16-20), collects comic books originally published in 1950.

So the newest of these books is now eleven years old, and the oldest is more than three centuries older than Jesus. That averages out to 535 years (Aristotle really skews that number, doesn’t he?).

I’m currently reading nothing that’s been published in the past decade, and honestly, I find that kind disturbing. But how does this look as a trend?

Of the eighteen books I managed to read for pleasure (all the way through) in 2015 (don’t judge—it’s been a busy year), five are what I’ll call “new,” which is to say I read them within five years of their initial publication:


American Grotesque by Larry Little & Michael Moynihan (2014, only 1 year old), Attempting Normal by Marc Maron and Still Writing by Dani Shapiro (2013, 2 years old), The Given Day by Dennis Lehane (2012, 3 years old), and This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey by Steve Almond (2010, 5 years old).

In the middle range of, say, more than five but less than twenty years old, another five:

Just Kids by Patti Smith (2009, 6 years old), Beards of Our Forefathers by David Malki (2008, 7 years old), In Her Absence by Antonio Muñoz Molina and Giraffe by J.M. Ledgard (2007, 8 years old), and Faster Than the Speed of Light by João Magueijo (2003, 12 years old).

The remaining eight range from old enough to buy a six-pack of beer (21 years old) to a senior citizen (72 years old):


Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury (1994, 21 years old), Star Trek: The Enterprise Logs, Vol. 1 (1976, 39 years old), Jandar of Callisto by Lin Carter (1972, 43 years old), The Essential Silver Surfer, Vol. 1 by Stan Lee & John Buscema (collecting comic books originally published 1968-1970, so we’ll split the difference and call this 46 years old), Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert (1969, 46 years old), The War Against the Rull by A.E. Van Vogt (1959, 56 years old), The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke (1956, 59 years old), and The Midnight Raymond Chandler (the 1971 edition of an collection of stories and novels first published from 1933 to 1953, which we’ll say averages to 72 years old).

Put this together with the trend toward even older books like Aristotle’s ancient Poetics, and I seem to be getting older and older here.

Only half of the books I read in 2015 were less than ten years old, and less than a third were less than five years old. I managed to read only one book within a year of its publication date. This is a pretty clear sign that I’m not at all keeping up on what’s current.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there is tremendous wisdom to be gained from books from any era, and from any part of the world, so I’m not talking about throwing the Poetics out with the bathwater here, but I’m skewed way too “classic” for my own tastes.

And how do we reconcile a desire to read new books with an obsessive compulsive reading schedule? Let’s add to this list of five categories, starting as soon as I finish one of my current books, that one of the five at any given time must have been published within 18 months of the date I start reading it.

Maybe then books like The Martian (I haven’t even seen the movie yet!) or The Traitor Baru Cormorant, which I keep seeing people talk about, won’t miss me completely. Anyway, I should get to both of those in, say, 2066, but only if I make it to the age of 102.

That would be science fiction . . .


—Philip Athans


P.S.: Having just finished Aristotle’s Poetics, I’m putting my reading where my mouth is and started in this morning (1/14/16) on Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink by Elvis Costello, which is less than 18 months old.

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Robert Plutchik, professor emeritus at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, identified eight primary emotions: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, anticipation, trust, and joy. I’ve seen similar lists from experts as varied as Donald Maass and Tony Robbins. Some are a little longer, include a few other emotions, but looking at this list . . . I can see it. This makes sense to me, and anyway it gives us a place to start to talk about the emotions that motivate or drive our characters. In this series of posts we’ll get into each of these eight emotions and how they can help drive your narrative forward and infuse it with the humanity your characters need to connect with readers.

This week . . .


Anger is an emotion characterized by antagonism toward someone or something you feel has deliberately done you wrong.

Anger can be a good thing. It can give you a way to express negative feelings, for example, or motivate you to find solutions to problems.

But excessive anger can cause problems. Increased blood pressure and other physical changes associated with anger make it difficult to think straight and harm your physical and mental health.

American Psychological Association

We all know what anger is—we all know what all these emotions are, in fact. We’ve experienced them all, for good or ill, over and over again. It’s part of what it means to be human.

But beyond that, we’ve all seen anger brought up out of the mix to take a leading role in the presentation of a character.

Take the Hulk for example.

This long-lived, much loved Marvel superhero begins with the basic premise that, thanks to the careful application of gamma rays, anger can transform you into a monster. He was angry first and that’s why the gamma rays turned him into a “giant green rage monster.” It could also be read that Banner was a generally normal and reasonably well adjusted guy and it was the gamma rays that somehow selected anger as the trigger. Would the gamma rays have transformed Bruce Banner into a “small pink joy monster” if he was joyful at the time of the explosion? However you slice it, or however various Marvel writers have spun it over the years, Bruce Banner’s entire character arc is about controlling his anger and focusing it.

Anger uncontrolled, and he turns into a monster that hurts people and destroys cities. By controlling his anger, and hence his transformations, he becomes a monster that helps people . . . and destroys cities.

In the Marvel Universe, like the Godzilla Universe, cities get destroyed either way.

Lest you think Stan Lee was the first to conceive of a character whose primary emotional essence is anger, consider Euripides, who wrote Medea 2447 years ago as a warning against anger, which is seen as a force of nature not unlike a hurricane:

A frightening woman; no one who makes an enemy of her will carry off an easy victory…Her mood is cruel, her nature dangerous, her will fierce and intractable

…It is no trifling matter that can end a rage like hers.

In this case anger, as a primary emotion, is seen as a bad thing, as something to be overcome:

Know this, I will no further dispute this point with thee. But, if thou wilt of my fortune somewhat take for the children or thyself to help thy exile, say on; for I am ready to grant it with ungrudging hand, yea and to bend tokens to my friends elsewhere who shall treat thee well. If thou refuse this offer, thou wilt do a foolish deed, but if thou cease from anger the greater will be thy gain.

Anger survives well into contemporary science fiction and fantasy, as evidenced by this review of Black Sun Rising by C.S. Friedman posted at, which pointed to anger as one of the features of this dark fantasy world:

One of the best characters would be the world itself—its a twisted world, literally powered by the imagination. Magic itself comes from the fae, which is pure thought; dark emotions such as pain, anger, suffering, rape, and death feed the Fae and literally bring to life these imaginings, which take the form of monsters. Death, tragedy, and suffering are scattered throughout the novel; this world is a dark place and the story never lets you forget it.

Clearly the reviewer was comfortable with setting anger along with nothing but the most negative “dark emotions”: pain, suffering, rape, and death. This tends to follow from our shared cultural view of anger as a negative emotion. The Dalai Lama said:

When reason ends, then anger begins.

Therefore, anger is a sign of weakness.

Buddhism often discusses anger as something to be first recognized then curbed, if not eliminated entirely. Friedman’s approach would put anger purely on the side of the villain, but like Bruce Banner, a Buddhist hero can start from a place of unbridled anger then work his way along a path of enlightenment (you might call this a “character arc”) and end in a place where his anger has been controlled or eliminated. For more of the Buddhist view, take a look at the story “The Anger-eating Demon.”

Still, I think we do have the ability to separate anger out from things like pain and suffering, and there’s some thought that’s been put into not just controlling or eliminating anger but harnessing it. After all, the Emperor urged Luke Skywalker to get in touch with his anger and gain power from it . . . but then that was the Dark Side talking, wasn’t it? How about Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi, in Men’s Health:

An anger fantasy should be strictly contained within your head. You don’t want the anger churning inside your head to spill over onto the waitress who happens to interrupt you, or onto your mother who happens to call. An anger fantasy has no bearing on reality. You are doing in your head what you don’t want to be doing in reality—and that’s the point. So know what it is and keep it inside.

Other than that, go for it. Shout at, spit at, break with a bat, gouge out with a fork, hack at with a machete, dismember, set fire to, bury alive to your heart’s content. I’ve been doing it for years. Yet you’d meet me and think, What a nice guy. So friendly and genuine. And I am a nice guy. I don’t like guns, I’ve never swung a fist at anyone, I like Gandhi and Mandela as much as anyone, I’m a vegetarian, I’m a liberal. Hell, I’m even Canadian.

Before you take Yann Martel up on the Anger Fantasy challenge, you may want to check out the extremely disturbing HBO documentary Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop, which explores the sometimes fine, sometimes terrifying line between fantasy and reality.

In her Writer’s Digest article “Creating Emotional Frustration in Your Characters,” Rachael Scheller takes anger one step farther, to its foregone conclusion:

Quick–what is the most important emotion your fictional characters feel? Love? Hate? Anger? Desire? All of these are critical. Love for a person or desire to attain a goal drives most plots. Hatred or anger drives most of the rest. Anna Karenina loves Vronsky; the wicked queen hates Snow White; Ahab is furious at Moby Dick; Nero Wolfe desires to solve murders. However, despite this impressive list, the most important emotion in fiction is something else.


I say this because, without frustration, there is no plot. Frustration means that someone is not getting what he wants, and that’s what makes a story work.

So if anger gives birth to frustration, which leads to story, and both heroes (The Hulk) and villains (Medea) can come from a place, primarily, of anger, then that means this key emotion is a tool you can use on both sides of your narrative. Your hero can be angry with your villain, and your villain can be angry with your hero.

In The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction I defined a hero as someone whose motivations we understand and whose methods we find inspirational, and a villain whose motivations we understand but whose methods we find abhorrent. Villains, like Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi (spoiler alert!) can be redeemed if they finally either shed their anger or redirect it in a constructive way, or they can die pissed off like the terrorist falling to his death at the end of Die Hard.

But a hero is going to have to either take the Buddhist path and identify then work past his anger, or I guess it might be fair to say take the Western approach and be as angry as you want, short of violence.

I would caution you, however, against taking the sadly all too real stance that there’s such a thing as “righteous indignation,” that anger over an attack either real or perceived, trivial or serious, is reason enough to exact revenge. That might lead to the dystopian world of a decade and a half of continuous war in retribution for an a single act of mass murder. And pointing that out will get you booed at fundraisers like at least one Buddhist we know.


—Philip Athans

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The year-end mental inventory continues, so bear with me a little. This one is going to be fun.

I’ve talked a bit about my struggles with depression over the last half of 2015 and before that, and scheduling schemes and deadline fails and so on, and I’m working hard to start 2016 in a better place and stay there. So I’ve been doing lots of thinking this month about what little things I can do to reinforce that, but in a positive way.

I think that if we start any sort of “New You” program—a diet, an exercise plan, etc., with a sense of “I suck at X and need to force myself to do Y because I’m a huge failure and will never achieve Z” all we end up doing is wallowing in misery and failure and changing nothing because who wants to self-punish? I’m okay, you’re okay, we’re okay. No one needs to be punished for, say, not finishing a 50,000-word novel in November, or still being IP on the WIP you planned to have finished by now, or you don’t read enough or travel enough or actually like the movie 50 Shades of Grey, or whatever it is about yourself that you want to change.

Let’s face facts. Some stuff just isn’t fun and it isn’t going to be. I get no particular kick out of paying bills or doing accounts receivable work for my one-man business, but I do it. I get it done. I try to see what’s working and what isn’t and modify things in an effort to make that more efficient, and so on, but I don’t expect I’ll get a lot of joy out of that. I’ll leave it to the Dali Lama to be “present” while doing the dishes. I’ll just do the dishes as quickly and effectively as I can and get on with my life.

Let’s talk about writing, which is supposed to be a joy—and it is. And I want to do more of it not because there’s some dollar figure I’m chasing after but because I’d rather be doing that than anything else—and I bet you would too—so let’s frickin’ write already.

But depression is a real thing, time pressures for grown ups with families and bills and whatever else is real, and it’s all too easy to get into a rut in our thinking . . . I’ll speak for myself anyway: I can find ruts like nobody’s business and when I get in one, fuck you if you think you’re getting me out of it.

I won’t punish myself for doing that, but I will work at making it so that’s no longer part of how I live.

That’s a long way of getting to this one goofy idea that I’m going to try over the course of January, and would love to hear from other people who are willing to try it too and let’s see what sort of positive changes can come from it.

We now live in a science fiction world full of amazing technological tools that we don’t always take advantage of. One of the things I think we take too much for granted is the smart phone. Now that I have an iPhone that’s compatible with my iMac I have a calendar that syncs and sends me reminders with a little chirp. This is great, but what am I actually reminding myself to do?

This got me thinking:

What if I used that technology to remind myself to do little things at random that would break up my day—stop me in the middle of whatever rut I happen to be in at the time and suggest I do something that will change my mental state right then—just for a few minutes?

Changing your mental state has all sorts of positive psychological potential. Uber life-coach Tony Robbins talks about it all the time. Would he lie to Marlo Thomas of all people?

This is a real thing—it does actually work, but like most things sometimes the biggest stumbling block is just remembering to do it, and this is where my little prompts come in.

First I made a list of ten things I can do pretty much anywhere at any time, and can do it in less than five minutes—in some cases in less than one minute. These are not “tasks” that will have a payday at the end of it. These are not to do list items. these are instructions to do something other than whatever it is you might be doing at the time.

Here’s the list I came up with:

1-write a 10-line poem

2-do a little dance

3-superhero pose


5-jot down a story idea, must have a title

6-play a game

7-something appreciative on Twitter

8-write one sentence—the first thing that comes into your mind

9-pick something up off the floor

10-read the first page of a random book

More on each one:

1-write a 10-line poem: This is not meant  to be your generation’s “Howl” but ten lines of any words you can think of that might rhyme or not—just write anything that comes to mind. Ten sentences, sentence fragments, or single words. It’s a poem if you say it’s a poem because you’re the poet. And what the hell, you might end up 2016 with a solid little chapbook.

2-do a little dance: This was inspired by a tweet in which I admitted that sometimes, when no one is looking, I perform a little dance for my dog. He doesn’t always notice and never seems to understand what I’m doing, but I get this weird little endorphin rush every time I do it that staves off the limitless blackness for as long as twenty minutes. Just like you don’t have to be a good poet, you don’t have to be a good dancer, just shake what yer mama gave u.

3-superhero pose: I got this one from a TED Talk by Amy Cuddy.

4-stretch: My back hurts because I’m too fat and I also have a tendency to lean to the left—slouch to the left, more accurately—when I’m at my desk so my back hurts most of the time. It hurts right now, in fact. I try to stretch periodically during the day, but even if you aren’t in pain, when this prompt appears stretch your arms, legs, and back in a safe and non-strenuous way. I’m not a doctor, I have no idea of your personal physical situation, just do what is safe for you.

5-jot down a story idea, must have a title: This could be “Jim Zombroni, Undead Contractor,” or the next Catcher in the Rye. I don’t care what it is. Anything could be a story idea: “The Big Pullover” is the story of a guy who pulls into a parking lot to jot down a short story idea but is then carjacked by bank robbers fleeing a heist gone bad. Anything . . . but spend no more than fifteen minutes beginning to end.

6-play a game: I like Dicewars or Super Planet Crash for this sort of thing, but what else can you find, online or analog? Have a deck of cards? Play Blackjack against yourself for five minutes. Whatever you do, do not start up Fallout 4 or anything else that will then overwhelm your entire day. Find a mini-game. They’re all over the place.

7-something appreciative on Twitter: I always have Tweetdeck open and too often use it to bitch about stuff. Has anyone done something in the last day or so you thought was nice? Did you just hear a song you like? Is it someone’s birthday? Use Twitter or some other social media outlet to say something nice about someone. Don’t get sucked into Facebook or Tumblr, just a sentence that says someone did something good, something you like, something you appreciate.

8-write one sentence—the first thing that comes into your mind: Let’s get some more photos up in here. That just came into my mind. I’m not sure why. It doesn’t matter. Write one complete sentence that’s not connected to anything you’re doing just then. Maybe, if you read that back in a year, you’ll find it has some kind of meaning you didn’t recognize at the time.

9-pick something up off the floor: There’s always something that’s fallen on the floor. Even if you’re out in public, pick something up off the floor and throw it away, or put it back where it belongs, or bring it to the lost and found. Trust me, when this pops up on your phone you’ll be amazed by how quickly you find something on the floor wherever you are, whenever that may be. But you have now cleaned up the Earth a tiny little bit. Go you!

10-read the first page of a random book: I live surrounded by books and you should too. Grab a book at random—close your eyes and take one down from the shelf. I don’t care if you’ve read it before or not. Read the first text page (the title page doesn’t count!) and stop at the end, even in mid sentence. Put the book away and go on with your day. I have no idea what that might do for you, but I’m anxious to find out!

Having made this list, I then set up calendar events for random times over the course of each weekday, during what I’ve carved out as my work hours. These will now pop up on my phone at 9:15 or 3:00 or . . . whenever. I rolled a d10, because of course I have a set of D&D dice in my drawer, then randomly generated a time. I use my nerdness freely and for my own purposes.

Come along for the ride in the next month. What have you got to lose but the occasional rut, panic attack, back ache, or a few minutes of a TV show you can just pause anyway?


—Philip Athans


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No new year’s resolutions, I promise.

But still the end of one year and the beginning of another gives us all an opportunity to stop and think about what’s been working for us, personally and professionally, over the past year and we start to think about what else we want in the coming year.

I’ve already put you through my new to do list scheme and the personal and professional promises that demands of me, so what more is there to do as we wrap up 2015, a year of considerable ups and downs? How about a little year-end clean up of little dangling bits that have slipped through the cracks along the way?

I’ll start with this here blog. You may have noticed—I haven’t, until this morning—that some of the links you see running along the column to your right are out of date, in some cases linking you to an error page. I’ll clean that up today, so that the links either work and are of use to anyone, or are gone.

If you click on the index page you’ll find that that covers posts through December 31, 2013, making it a full two years out of date. I’ll update that.

My bibliography isn’t exactly up to date either. That’ll be fixed.

Let’s see if we can start 2016 with a nicely refreshed and useful Fantasy Author’s Handbook.

So what else can I clean up?

I have a few of those must-finish projects still in progress, so will need to spend the lion’s share of the next ten days on those, but with a long holiday weekend surely there will be some time to clear out my file cabinet, tidy up my work space, put together January’s to do list using my clever new scheme, and do a few other housekeeping tasks so as to begin the new year with that fresh feeling.

For you freelancers out there, this is not just a good time, but an essential time to review the past year from a business standpoint. I’ll look at finances compared to budget and goals set down this time last year—it’s looking pretty good so far—and reset new business goals for 2016.

What else?

When we put the Christmas decorations back in the garage, that’s a good time to give the whole garage a midwinter once-over.

It just seems to be the time to clean stuff. What does that mean? Am I nesting for some reason?

It just seems like, my own personal War on Christmas aside, I have to do something this time of year that’s reflective in some way. And this last year—the last six months of 2015 anyway—feels chaotic to me, disorganized. And I hate that.

So I’ll do something about it.


—Philip Athans


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