Doctor Strange and the Troubled Hero in Fiction

Doctor Strange
Copyright © 2016 by Marvel Studios

I finally got around to seeing Doctor Strange, that great addition in the ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe. While I admit that my interest in the MCU these days only centers around movies featuring a talking raccoon and a literal-minded alien played by Dave Bautista, it’s still nice to see what other stories this saga has to offer. And I must say, Strange definitely stands on its own as a magic-centered storyline.

But as I was watching this movie (and trying to deal with Benedict Cumberbatch doing an American accent), I noticed a neat little storytelling trick that I’d like to explore in detail. Namely, this: how do you make a hero’s flaw part of the story?

You’d be surprised at how difficult it can be to give a modern hero a serious flaw. Most storytellers settle on a traumatic incident, like the loss of a loved one, or they fall back on a general feeling of inadequacy. But in the MCU, we get heroes with personality flaws right off the bat. In Stephen Strange’s case, it’s his arrogance. He’s a brilliant neurosurgeon and he damn well knows it. He’s also more likely to consider how things affect him than he does consider anyone else.

Rewatch the scene where Strange and his love interest Christina are having their last conversation in Act One, right before he finds the lead that sends him on his mystical journey to Kathmandu. Christina’s trying to impress upon him that he’s more than just a skilled surgeon, that life isn’t just about continued success. But Strange refuses to give up, even when it means outspending himself on experimental, unguaranteed treatments to fix his nerve damage. It’s a tense, well-played scene, and it gives us the starting point of his inner and outer journey.

In Act One, Strange only wants one thing: to be healed and to be a success again. In Act Two, when faced with the Ancient One and the truth of how small he is within the multiverse, Strange wants to still be a success, but now it’s in a different field. He learns to deal with his shaking hands and perform real magic, but he still hasn’t corrected his basic flaw. He’s still, for lack of a better term, an arrogant prick.

It isn’t until Act Three, when the villain has all but claimed victory in Hong Kong sanctum, that our hero actually becomes a hero. He puts himself forward in a single act of self-sacrifice, rather than looking for the shortcut and the ego boost. Even when it means (spoilers) locking himself in a recurring loop with an eldritch being outside of time,  Strange puts all his knowledge and skill to use, but he does so for the larger purpose of saving the earth and all its inhabitants. He also makes a deal with said godlike entity, showing a patience and concern that Stephen Strange from Act One would never demonstrate. It’s in this sequence that he proves himself to be the Sorcerer Supreme.

Now, you might say that we can see the same character arc in films like Iron Man and Thor, where we watch those heroes grow from arrogant, boastful prodigies to slightly more humble, world-oriented people. And you’d be right, of course. In that sense, Doctor Strange fits the same character design as them.

But what I find interesting about Strange is that its hero isn’t a playboy billionaire inventor or a Norse god made human. For all his brilliance, Stephen Strange really is human. He has the same gift to learn magic as anyone else, and it’s only by an accident and the patience of a good teacher that he learns to harness it. That same human starting point also makes his arrogance a little sharper by comparison. He’s a good surgeon, but he’s also more self-destructive and dismissive than, say, Tony Stark or Thor might be at the beginning. It’s a kind of a hubris that we can all relate to, even if we don’t really want to see ourselves that way.

Even in an era where we’re inundated with superhero movies and antiheroes in the vein of Walter White and Don Draper, it’s still good to stop and examine what kind of people we’re rooting for and just how they grow as characters onscreen. We don’t simply go, “He’s a gambler!” or “He’s got pride!” The flaw has to be something our heroes wrestle with in the course of their journey. Ideally, it’s something they overcome by the end of their story, even if their tale has a tragic end. When you look past the fireworks and landscape-bending magic shows, this is what you have at the heart of Doctor Strange and I’m glad it’s there.

Podcasts and Diversity: 3 Points on Fiction’s Future

Photo credit:

Not so long ago, radio was a staple of the entertainment industry. You had your talk radio, your morning DJs, your rock n’ roll stations on FM, and so on. And to be fair, you still have them aplenty. But now, we’re seeing a massive upswing of Internet-based radio. Like podcasting. All of it ranges from NPR-style news programming to comedy shows where 4 people sit on a couch and make jokes for an hour and a half.

And thanks to podcasts like Welcome to Night Vale and The Black Tapes, audio dramas are now a thing. We can tell so many new stories in so many ways, all by using the freedom of the Web. It’s why I think (for the reasons listed below) that what we see in podcasting today is what we’ll see more of in fiction in the future.

More inclusive casting.

When I say that a show or a story is more “inclusive,” I mean that it takes a chance on telling stories from more than a standard or “safe” point of view. When we watch a TV show or a movie, we might find it remarkable that someone in a leading role is non-white, non-straight, or female. But because of the audio-only format, a podcast story can make it so very, very easy to erase those distinctions. I don’t think anything out of the ordinary when I hear Jasika Nicole (an African-American woman) playing a trucker in Alice Isn’t Dead, or when I hear Joshua Ilon voice a detective (who happens to be bisexual) in The Penumbra Podcast.

The more we as an audience grow comfortable with this kind of casting, I think the more likely we’ll see such changes in our visual medium, too.

More audience interaction.

Compared to traditional media, podcasters are a lot more open and acknowledging of what their fans can contribute to their productions. While you might have read about how authors and studios are still hating on fanfiction writers and YouTube uploads that use their content, fans of audio drama have been a major support to their creators. Whether it’s creating artwork or merchandise, running blogs and Tumblr pages to support their shows, or even participating in contests and live shows as part of the act, the audience comes first to every podcaster’s priorities.

More radical ideas for storytelling.

At a certain point, both the film and television industries have come to offer a very standard approach to how they want their stories told. Screenwriters have to abide by a very traditional set of beats, or else they’ll lose a network executive’s interest before they can ever find an audience to engage.

However, that’s not the case for podcasters. As Night Vale Presents has shown, it’s possible to tell a story however you choose, so long as the episode isn’t overly long or boring. Want to tell the story of a dystopian nightmare as a series of cassette tapes promoting relaxation exercises? Done. Want to add some surreal horror as the CB radio broadcasts of a lone trucker? Go for it. Want to resurrect the radio variety show as a genre? Hey, why not.

The point is, as good as many movies and TV shows are today, they do still have a follow a traditional format for delivering their stories, from the Three Act Structure to the Hour-Long Drama. But not podcasts. They can be as wild as they want, and they’ll still get their audience.

So, all of this should give you a pretty good idea of why I love podcasts. Now, it’s your turn. What are some of your favorite things about podcasts and audio dramas? What characters or concepts do you love in shows like The Black Tapes or Welcome to Night Vale, and why?

Star Wars: Thrawn by Timothy Zahn: Genius Wrapped in a New Uniform

Cover art by Two Dots. Copyright © 2017 by Lucasfilm Ltd.

If you know anything about my deep, abiding love for Star Wars, then you know that I’m more than just a fan of lightsabers and starfighter battles. I also adore some of the clever things that the saga has produced, such as sympathetic Imperial characters like the infamous Grand Admiral Thrawn. Thankfully, he’s canon once more, and his original author, Timothy Zahn, has graced us with a new novel that ties into the closing run of the animated series Star Wars Rebels. It’s also a great opportunity for us longtime fans of the old Expanded Universe to see how Thrawn made his mark and climbed the ranks of the Empire as an alien.

In the early years of the Empire, a task force comes across a lone Chiss warrior in the wilderness, one claiming to have been exiled. When Mitth’raw’nuruodo (better known to the galaxy at large by his core name “Thrawn”) crosses paths with a young Ensign and translator named Eli Vanto, their destinies become intertwined. Together, between Thrawn’s military genius and Eli’s number-crunching, they’ll ascend the ranks of the Empire and prove a thorn in the side of both the High Command and the rising tide of insurgent groups. As Thrawn works his way to becoming Grand Admiral, he has his own agenda to pursue, and standing in his way is an equally devious opponent, orchestrating one encounter after another under the alias “Nightswan.” In this foe, the Chiss warrior has finally found his match.

Eli Vanto is a nice addition to the series. He’s a relatable protagonist, since Thrawn is more the main character with his career arc laid out before him. Eli has to make more critical decisions in relation to the Chiss warrior and in terms of his own principles. On the one hand, he’s very much the Watson to Thrawn’s Sherlock Holmes. But on the other hand, Eli is his own guy. He’s a loyal Imperial who’s fighting his status as a backwater rube destined to be a low-level supply officer—something he originally wanted to be, before our blue-skinned friend came by.

And speaking of characters who aren’t Thrawn, I was surprised to see Arihnda Pryce (the female Governor from Star Wars Rebels) make an appearance here. She’s basically the B-story in this novel, but it doesn’t diminish the book. Compared to Thrawn and Eli’s plot to maneuver the military chain of command, Pryce makes her own course on the civilian side. She’s earning and claiming favors in the political arena, fighting betrayals and stepping over others to get to the top rung of the ladder on Coruscant and Lothal. In effect, what we see here is the midpoint between Thrawn and Eli’s characters: another person from a backwater planet in the Empire, but one with enough political cunning and ruthlessness to snatch victory from every defeat.

I’ll also say that reading through Thrawn as a novel makes me appreciate the new canon in the Star Wars saga. Whereas the old Expanded Universe (now known as “Legends“) was a lot more disjointed and tried to cobble every story under the sun into the same timeline, the new canon is more streamlined and better constructed. Things are set up to tie into every other piece of media, from animated shows like Star Wars Rebels to movies like The Force Awakens and Rogue One to other novels like the Aftermath series. And it’s always a treat to see what Legends material authors like Zahn get to bring back, such as the Chiss Ascendancy and side characters like Voss Parck. I know those names don’t mean much to casual Star Wars audiences, but they help flesh out the universe a little bit more, blending the old with the new.

If I have one complaint about the novel (and really, it’s only one), it’s that the ultimate reveal and payoff of Nightswan didn’t thrill me like I hoped. I appreciated the connection that Thrawn had to this individual, but ultimately I was hoping for it to be a more established character from the franchise showing off their strategic prowess. Even so, this book is worth the price just to see Thrawn play intergalactic three-dimensional chess with such a worthy opponent, because that’s our Grand Admiral does best.

Star Wars: Thrawn is available for purchase from booksellers like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, and Books-A-Million.

Bibliography: Zahn, Timothy. Star Wars: Thrawn. New York: Del Rey, 2017.

Flash Fiction: “George Washington and the Pencil War”

I wrote this story for my friends last month, and it was well-received. You can also tell by reading this like I listened to a lot of the Hamilton soundtrack around that time, given how many lyrics I try to slip in here not so subtly.


George Washington and the Pencil War,

by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 633

The fairies were coming at sunrise. In the predawn light, the terrain was a rocky, deforested surface, long ago harvested to satisfy some ancient custom. Everywhere one looked, all that could be seen were trenches and barricades. Hundreds and thousands of pencils, stacked tight row by row, fully sharpened and ready for attack.

And who else should be standing on the front lines but the general himself: George Washington.

And his right-hand man, George thought to himself. He turned and smiled at his aide Hamilton. Of course Alexander had chosen to follow him through that magical portal while crossing the Delaware. He’d said something about “not throwing away his shot” at the time. George, at least, was glad to have him along for the adventure.

“Sir! Sir!” A young corporal came running up. He saluted and almost knocked the tricorner hat right off his head.

George saluted back. “Yes, Ticonderoga? What is it?”

“Fairies, sir! Tons of them!” The pencil-shaped man pointed toward the gleaming horizon. “They’ve come for the Stone, sir!”

Ah, yes. The Stone of Memories. No larger than a man’s head, but cut like a diamond. The royal family of this peculiar land had been very eager to show it off to their guests from another world. Long ago, they’d said, it’d been hidden in Pencil Land to stop anyone from erasing people’s memories. Essentially, they’d become that world’s ruler. And if the good people of Pencil Land knew anything, it was the value of a good eraser.

George smiled and leaned over to Hamilton. “Well? Let’s not keep them waiting.”

Hamilton grinned back. “Til the world turns upside-down, sir!”

“You can say that again,” Washington replied.

Some days, he missed being back in America. In the wilderness that he’d explored as a youth, or roaming the streets of fine old towns like New York and Lexington. To stand beside his men—real men—instead of these pencil-carved duplicates. But if he wasn’t going to be the one to save his strange land, then who would?

Meanwhile, dozens of fairies came soaring through the air. The Pencil Army opened fire, unleashing wave after wave of sharpened lead and eraser stubs. Both sides clashed in a vicious snarl. Scores of fairies came crashing to the soil in a spray of glitter and a cacophony of windchime screams.

And all the while, pencil soldiers threw up their hats and cheered, “General Washington! General Washington…!”

Then George felt a hand nudge his shoulder.

“General!” Hamilton shouted.

Washington sat up in his chair. He blinked and rubbed at his eyes. The weight of his forty-five years kept him rooted in place. With dismay, he looked around at his changed surroundings.

He was back in his old, weather-stained tent. The fairies were gone. The pencil soldiers were, too. Instead, George was clutching at a blanket draped over his lap and staring up at the stricken young face of his aide-de-camp Hamilton.

“Sir!” said Hamilton. “The troops are ready.” His hand twitched at his side. “They’ve been ready for some time now.”

Washington blinked and nodded. Confusion dissolved, and he let the familiar weight of his soldier’s mind settle back into place. Ever a mission to complete. That was what he liked best. He rubbed at his head and threw off the blanket.

“Very good,” he said. “Tell them… I’ll be right there.”

As Hamilton left his tent, George stood up. He was surprised, however, to look down and see a handful of pencils strewn by his feet. And beyond them, only a few inches away, an ordinary-looking stone. Some rock plucked from inside a river, like the kind he used to collect as a lad near Pope’s Creek.

George laughed and dropped the stone into his pocket. At least, he knew, the fairies couldn’t get it there.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

How to Write for Your Ideal Reader

If you’re going to be in the business of telling stories, you need to know your audience. Maybe you write travel articles for a living. Maybe you want to pitch your screenplay to a movie studio or TV network. Maybe you’re writing the Great American Novel. Whatever the case may be, you still need to know who’s going to be reading your work. You need to sell them on why they should want to read your work after Page One.

I’ve spent a few posts on this blog on how to write good stories (just check out the tag “writing advice” for more details). But I haven’t really talked about the other side of the storytelling process: the Reader.

If you’ve ever read Stephen King’s book On Writing, you know that he likes to write for one person. Namely, his wife Tabitha. Many other authors do the same. They’ll write for their spouses, for their parents, for that one childhood friend, or for that kid hanging out by the comic book store after school. It helps to imagine your Ideal Reader. To picture them in as much detail as you can, even if they’re not a real person like Stephen King’s spouse is.

So, if you’re curious about how to start, let me tell you about Sam.

Sam isn’t real. She’s someone I created as my Ideal Reader. Here’s what I wrote down about Sam.

Sam, a woman in her late 20s who’s big into books and digital tech. Maybe she’s a freelance writer and too burned out to even consider writing in her spare time. Maybe she’s handling research or video editing for some multimedia company. In either case, she’s looking for a break. For an escape. That’s why she’s a fan of science fiction and fantasy stories, or books that delve into different cultures. She just wants something she can sit and read during lunch, or a nice Web series that she can crack into at the end of the day. Sam has her own life to live, her own love interests and friends outside of work, but she’s into this world that I’ve created. It’s a cool, safe outlet for her brain. Because, dammit, she wants to think and feel something new, and not just what’s trending or what she’s been assigned.

Now, let’s break this description down. These are questions that you should ask yourself when you’re crafting your own Ideal Reader.

1. How old is Sam?

“Late 20’s.” That tells us she’s young enough to know about the big franchises of the late 1990s and beyond. So it’d be safe to reference stuff from that era.

2. What kind of work does Sam do?

“Freelance writer, research and video editing for some multimedia company.” So, Sam is someone who works with the media. She writes and edits Web content. She’s probably familiar with the latest platforms and trends.

3. What kind of stories does Sam like to read?

“Science fiction and fantasy stories, or books that delve into different cultures.” This matches with what Sam wants from her media: an escape. She doesn’t want James Patterson novels. She’s looking for exotic, colorful worlds.

4. How much time does Sam give herself to read or watch?

“During lunch” and “at the end of the day.” The time Sam has when she’s not working is limited, so she wants to make the most of her lunch breaks and her weeknights. If she’s got a book at lunch, then maybe she’d like to get through a chapter in under half an hour (and a similar amount of time for TV with dinner).

5. Why does Sam want to read my work?

“Because, dammit, she wants to think and feel something different.” This says just about everything you need to know about Sam. The other details are useful, sure, but this is the heart of the matter. Anyone can read a story that’s just passing time, but if you’re going to read something and enjoy it time and time again, then it needs something to pull you back. In this case, Sam wants to break away from her writing and editing duties. She wants to put herself inside someone else’s brain for a chapter or an episode.

That’s the kind of experience that I, as a writer, have to deliver for her.

So how about you, dear readers? Do you know what the Ideal Audience in your head looks like? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.