Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Things I Learned from Volunteering at the Seminary Library

Disclaimer: I'm not sure 'volunteering' is a good choice of words, since it implies that I was actually organised, as opposed to just sort of pitching up to see what I could do or if I should sit and read until my mum's classes finished.

  1. Those primary school exercises about arranging decimal fractions in ascending order do, in fact, have a practical application. Even the ones that go to an advanced number of decimal places, because there are a lot of decimal places in the Dewey numbers of some books. (Biblical exegesis from the African feminist perspective is only beginning to get there.)
  2. The Dewey system isn't entirely infallible after all. Are the confessions of St. Augustine theology or autobiography?
  3. The most useful thing I've learned from compulsively ordering increasingly substantial fragments of the family book collection is not how the Dewey Decimal System works. I learned that better from using the library anyway. It's how to transfer half a shelf of books in one motion, without disrupting their order. I should put that on my CV.
  4. Having access to Twitter, IM, email and the web in my pocket did not distract me. Finding Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the 17th Century and Humanae Vitae did. Lets not talk about the 268 shelf.
  5. However many shelves you think you will need for Church History, double that. If that seems a lot, bear in mind that New Testament history and Biblical Archaeology fall under 'Bible' not 'Church History'—it could be worse.
  6. Sorting all those books without being able to read them was tough. Librarians must be well practised in self-discipline!

Monday, 19 July 2010

The Excellent Villainy of 'Kung Fu Panda'

I recently re-watched (parts of) the animated film Kung Fu Panda . To be honest, it doesn't really appeal to my sense of humour, although my brothers found it hilarious. What I did appreciate was the characterisation, especially of the villain, Tai Lung. (As well as stuff like the animation, which is really cool, but not what I want to talk about.) There are mild spoilers ahead, so if you haven't watched the film, but are planning to, maybe don't read on.

Creating a working villain is, in my experience, quite difficult. On the one side is the camp that says villains should be believable. If you're writing for an intelligent audience "he's evil" is simply not good enough. I buy this. Exploring characters is fun, even if it's not done explicitly.

The other camp is telling me that I need to make sure that my readers hate my villain. If the villain is soft and cuddly, she doesn't pose a realistic threat to the protagonist. Even worse, my readers may end up siding with the villain instead of the hero!

In his book How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, Orson Scott Card sides very firmly with the former camp. It would be hard to pinpoint a real villain in the Ender Saga, but that certainly doesn't stop him from building up  fantastic set of novels. Isaac Asimov similarly said that he wanted people to question who was really on the right side in many of his stories. I'm sure there are examples outside the SF genre; that's just what I know best. However, while I very much admire what can be done, I don't think I'm ready to go there just yet. I struggle with much more fundamental things!

Kung Fu Panda, on the other hand, ha almost textbook characterisation. In fact, the explicit characterisation is part of what I enjoyed about it. In a flashback we see Tai Lung as an abandoned baby. He's cute and adorable, and is brought up and pampered by Kung Fu Master Shifu. Shifu doesn't see what a spoiled brat Tai Lung is becoming until Master Oogway refuses to let Tai Lung become the legendary Dragon Warrior.

At that point, Tai Lung cracks. In his mind, he is the dragon warrior He will do whatever it takes to get what he deserves. That lands him heavily sedated in a deep dark prison at the beginning of the film. Soon after the film begins, he escapes. He is completely ruthless, but there is a small sense of sympathy. Maybe he just feels betrayed. Poor guy--but he's still horrible.

Later, Shifu apologises to Tai Lung and gives him a chance to turn back. By now, we know Shifu well enough to see that he's far from perfect, but still very wise. Tai Lung rejects the apology and threatens to kill Shifu. That's where, in my book, he becomes a really well-crafted villain. He's not just innately evil, but he is, fundamentally, evil. We can see how he got there, but also that he chose to stay there. He's not misunderstood: he's evil.

Until (hah!) I reach an Asimv-esque fluidity of hero and villain, I'll be very satisfied if I can create villains like Tai Lung. He hits a very sweet point on the balance of a traditional villain.

Addendum: I would feel that I'd left something out if I didn't mention that Shakespeare has written villains that seem to fall a long way into the second camp. Iago of Othello is a good example. Clearly it can be made to work.

Friday, 16 July 2010


I like blogging, because it helps me to sort out my ideas, it makes me happy to share some of my thoughts with other people who might potentially care about them, being part of the blog community is fun and it's just one of those cool things I'd like to be the sort of person who does.

I don't like blogging because it takes a whole ten minutes out of my day.

Some days, when I've done twelve hours of schoolwork, asking for another ten minutes of brain time is pushing it. So maybe I can't blog every day, even if I'd like to. Some days, I have free time, which gets sucked up into doodling or web-hopping or staring a the ceiling.

It looks like maybe—just maybe—I should try to blog more often. And so that this post actually has a point to it, instead of being me repeating myself, I will append some unrelated bullet points to my argument.

  • Flash Fiction Month is July, which lands very neatly over the end of my world-cup-extended winter vac. I've enjoyed it far more than I've ever enjoyed National Novel Writing Month. They're both great, but they're different flavours, and FFM has made me more confident about my writing and encouraged me to experiment. I can't wait for next year, when it launches outside of deviantART.
  • I spent some time (and will spend more) working at the seminary library. I was amazed at the sheer volume of books on topics I would have thought rather esoteric. I think I found as many books on exposition from the perspective of the African woman as I did commentaries on Revelation. (Admittedly my sample may have been skewed.)
  • Mostly, I'm glad that I'm relatively independent. I'd feel awkward if my mother was still making my lunch. However, I will admit to mild envy of people whose laundry magically gets done when I have a basket of ironing that could compete with the leaning tower of Pisa and no wearable jeans.
  • Next semester I get to learn MATLAB. I am beyond excited about getting to write code again. (Last time I seriously wrote code was for my major Matric project in 2008.) Maybe I'll even stop trying to decipher the notes the Computer Science lecturer leaves on the board in our Calculus lecture theatre. Maybe.
  • The End