the public sector did not understand the importance of freedom

As an institutional trainer, I must know what the institution would have wanted if it were a natural person. Our policy on reading policy specifically stated that all policies must be read before a decision based on them can be given. The institution in question could not have been more specific about the importance of freedom in academia if it had tried.

The Freedom of Inquiry Statement that was a part of Andrew J. Szeri’s department outlined exactly why allowing members of an academic institution to have free rein on whatever piques their interest is so vital, not just for the institution but for the progress of knowledge. The statement warned the institution that the most significant risk to that progress was academic instructors tied to a way of thinking that only works in their old modality.

But it was completely ignored like all the other warnings that advised administrators they could lose their jobs by acting in the manner they had. If a man told his institution a student’s complaint was not liking how the class was taught — even if it actively harmed the majority of its learner base and violated academic freedom — then the complaint could only ever be about personal preference.

New Decision Makers could consider the matter closed despite their duty to be a New Decision Maker in the appeal process.

I will never forget my conversation with Director Narain when I tried to get her to understand that a complaint based on academic freedom must be taken. The statement states that academic freedom is fundamental to the institution’s primary purpose.

To this day, it still quotes a hypocrite.

The institution decided it could decide that my complaint was not liking how the class was taught because it didn’t believe students had the academic freedom to be heard in their complaint process. The policy change request below doesn’t have an impact statement about the change. It doesn’t state removing any mention of a student’s right to appeal any decision made regarding their academic standing has both legal (v) and government (Sections 4.3.9 and 4.3.10) concerns.

University Counsel decided the Investigations Policy could go from saying the Provost must investigate any complaint that doesn’t fall under another policy:

To stating this:

The only way to determine if a complaint is sufficiently substantive or material in nature to warrant an investigation IS TO DO AN INVESTIGATION.

The 1996 harassment policy states that any respondent wrongfully accused can apply for remedy as much as a complainant having to put up with institutional harassment may. Worrying that an investigation might possibly limit the rights of an innocent person is not a valid reason to create a grey hole that complaints like “student didn’t like way class was taught” can be dropped into without any oversight.

The University did not put anyone in charge of deciding which officer’s misconduct is minor enough to ignore.

UBC Persons must not commit scholarly misconduct is a complete sentence.

Because of UBC, institutions must disclose to their reporting institutions the true nature of all complaints — signed off by the complainant — that they failed to investigate. The complainant must agree that the uninvestigated complaint is a true reflection of their entire complaint.

Self-reporting has proven it fails.

By infringing on what a student can say, the institution doesn’t just violate academic freedom; it also violates a member of their organization’s freedom of expression. But because no public sector employee personally valued the freedoms UBC stripped from its member to not have to report its own wrongdoing, they couldn’t have cared less about it.

And if each person I spoke to couldn’t personally understand the freedoms stolen from me, they couldn’t understand why their loss was so upsetting. And if they couldn’t understand why I was so upset, they believed the respondent. If it didn’t matter to each officer personally that the institution had chosen to crush its member’s right to have their side of the complaint heard before it was decided on, UBC had to be right.

In an institutional setting, the person least upset by an unfair decision must be correct.

Getting upset just means the natural person is in the wrong.

timeline of my complaints

My first complaint in 2020 did not involve being told my problem. That cock up was entirely Director Narain’s personal error. Her duty to her office was to interpret policy to and for students. Instead, she allowed her “team” to advise her that if throwing a student out of class for asking their instructors questions about their methodology wasn’t illegal on the street, it wasn’t institutionally improper conduct.

When I asked if I could have that decision appealed, that director refused to allow it to even be reconsidered because she believed if improper conduct wasn’t illegal, it’s 100% proper conduct in an institutional setting.

I dropped it because I still had to get through another year of class. Director Narain told me I had no expectation of a respectful environment because the university didn’t “legally” have to provide one. I’m so glad I didn’t. My institution didn’t know retaliation was also improper conduct. At least I made it through my last year.

I made it through because I asked my instructor if I could send her constructive criticism that might have helped the story. I told the instructor I would share praise on the public forum. She agreed and thanked me.

Every diety ever worshipped knows my instructors only instructed me to give up even more academic freedom. You can’t imagine how grateful I was that the last properly controlled document dealing with harassment clearly says harassment is harassment, even if the UBC member has allowed it to continue before.

By the end of the program, every nerve I had was on its last edge. I didn’t complete my program and then discovered just how much my academic freedom had been violated — I think it was the first thing I said to the first instructor who told me to be less craft-focused. They didn’t care being less craft-focused violated academic freedom entirely, but I did.

But I also foolishly believed — even with no evidence of one after three years of the program — that my program had a pedagogy that allowed the methodology to work. In my first year, I believed that my sample size was too small to decide no pedagogy existed. Even if none of my instructors couldn’t explain how only focusing on the positives worked as a methodology, that didn’t mean no instructor could.

I didn’t even attend my classes in my last semester. My instructor had emailed me to tell me to stop defending my opinion that fiction requires a source of tension, and I had had enough.

At the end of my coursework, I emailed my director to explain how uncomfortable her program had made me and asked for an apology. Instead of providing one so I could move on with my life, she told me that I could have my academic freedom destroyed and retaliated against for asking freedom of inquiry-protected questions because we had a “difference of pedagogical opinions.”

She believed that I didn’t deserve a respectful environment to learn in because we had different opinions. When I asked her to explain her pedagogical view, she couldn’t. She only provided me with the mission statement.

If she had been a teacher and a director, she would understand that a mission statement guides the program’s ideology and a pedagogy guides its methodology. They are not the same thing. The only aspect of the mission statement that was somewhat pedagogical in nature was being “rigorously craft-based.” My program had been rigorously anti-craft-based.

So, I complained to the Dean of Graduate Studies. I told the Dean that my program seemed to attack academic freedom, and not even the Director could explain its pedagogical approach. The Dean sat on my complaint for three months and then wrote back the same day I queried her: “you had a difference of pedagogical opinions.”

The Dean also refused to explain what theirs could be. As a New Decision Maker, she failed entirely.

Then the real gaslighting started. I emailed the president to explain the academic freedom violation and the lack of pedagogical support. Dr. Santa Ono’s only contact with me was to tell me that Andrew J. Szeri “handled” complaints like that. I thought he meant “in an institutional setting.”

He’d meant it like a wartime consigliere.

Because handle it, Andrew J. Szeri did. He sent me a letter explaining a creative writing program I would have loved to attend. Szeri’s mythical program used all the “standard industry tools” that my program refused to allow mention of. My program almost focused only on what was already done well in work that almost always needed structural assistance.

Szeri told me — in writing — that his program’s pedagogy was “gentle.” When I told him that any program that needs to explicitly control what a learner says violates academic freedom at its core, he stopped all communication. Szeri confirmed my program violated academic freedom and didn’t have a workable pedagogy in a single sentence.

My new complaint became that once Andrew J. Szeri had confirmed my original complaint in writing but had dismissed it as “not liking the way class was taught.”

Every New Decision Maker should have considered that Andrew J. Szeri hadn’t even investigated to see if my program had attacked academic freedom. They should have considered that he confirmed that to be the case in writing.

They failed to understand that even a suspected conflict of interest — such as closing down a complaint you just confirmed in writing — had an obligation to report that was tied to billions of dollars of public funding and billions of tonnes of public trust. If each New Decision Maker in the appeals process decided that I hadn’t liked how class was taught before starting their review of Szeri’s decision, they wouldn’t even look into it.

To the Senate, if they were told what my problem was, they had no problem telling me I’d already been informed I just hadn’t liked the way class was taught at the University of British Columbia as an absolute fact.

Wanting a program that didn’t violate academic freedom at the methodology level was a personal preference.

Hubert Lai took it further by eliminating any mention of the word “appeal” in his falsified version of the 2019 Investigations Policy. It seems like he wanted to give UBC officers the ability to tell the student what their problem was without the student being able to appeal that decision. It sure seems like there was no aspect of that man’s duty to his institution he did not violate. The law even requires FOIP responses to be within six weeks. UBC’s response time was slightly less than it would have taken to complain about the FOIP response times.

That I didn’t go ahead and file a complaint about it is my one regret.

I’ll probably outline what each point of contact was like dealing with the Ministry of Post-Secondary Education, the Law Society of British Columbia and the Ombuds Office of British Columbia was like dealing with. I was accusing senior administrators of the UBC of some pretty heinous acts (that they committed in writing.)

None of the other public sector institutions had personal stakes in the matter.

lost writing advice #1: letting work sit

Once upon a time, the best writing advice was to finish a work, let it sit for six months to a full year, and then edit it. As a wee writing sprog, I found it absolutely inconceivable that anyone would want to do that. Writing for an anthology meant having an absolute deadline I wrote until, and I wanted regular submissions in the mail ASAP.

Waiting a few weeks was too long. But before I started my MFA, I was very prolific. The books I wrote in my apprenticeship will never be great literature, but they were fun. I often let a draft sit for six months before revising it, but only because I hated rewriting. I usually wrote the next book in the series in its downtime.

It took writing a completely different world than the book cooling off to understand that allowing prose to cool wasn’t just a matter of linear time. If I wrote in the same world, it was easy to remember what I meant to write instead of seeing the prose I had written.

Vihart’s Twelve Tones video is one of the best videos on the creative process. The section at 14:37 is one of the best representations of how experience guides the creative process. It explains how originality is just another aspect of craft that writers must learn by doing.

But it’s the section that starts at 3:21 that is a great visualization of most writers’ first drafts. As the writer writes, they know all the parts of the story that may not yet be effectively captured in the prose. The reader can only see what is written in black and white. Without the context the author knows but didn’t put down on the page, the writing can feel flat.

When I wrote a sequel to the work, I couldn’t see what parts of the scene I hadn’t captured. I was too close to the story. Even after a year, the prose felt like hot copy. When I wrote a completely different book before revising the first, what wasn’t captured on the page was obvious. Excessive prose was obvious. Underdeveloped aspects of the story stood out. I now do a hot revision when the draft is finished to fix the errors I saw in its writing, then I would write something new before rewriting the first book entirely.

I have a friend who writes page by page. When the page is finished, it’s perfect. But they don’t know how to fix a final draft that isn’t greater than its parts. Engaging fiction draws readers into the story and keeps them in it. First drafts rarely do that as effectively as a final draft that has completed a full revision process.

Writing is hard.

Revision is harder.

If anyone tries to tell you differently, they are selling something.

educating adults through the trauma of being wrong —

Let’s call it the cognitive dissonance awareness approach.

Since 2018, many well-educated people have lined up to tell me how wrong I was about something they only believed they knew. Something they thought they understood — who could be trusted, for example, or the importance of professional standards — didn’t match up with what I was saying.

And as the minority voice, it meant I had to be wrong. Dyscognitive assurance feels like pride in being so sure you’re correct that the already inconceivable idea you might not be can be dismissed outright. Adult learners have had more than a generation of assurance that writing jargon like “conflict” means what it means in plain English. No writer needs to learn how to use its literary definition.

I emailed a prof because they had taught “metaphor” as its simple English definition. An instructor should understand the difference between the English definition of a metaphor and its use as a tool of clarity which compares one known thing directly to something else where the reader is asked to draw their own comparison between the two concepts.

It is the language of dopamine rewards. A new comparison builds a new connection to two disconnected things. That connection feels rewarding to the reader, independent of the language of the text.

It’s not just a comparison between two things not using like or as. Two unknown things to the reader can’t allow the reader to draw any conclusion unless it is to state how muddled both concepts are. The instructor told me I was wrong.

A week later — and probably for no causal reason — I was summarily thrown out of class for asking the most gentle way I could if the dark thought in the non-fiction prose was intentionally placed there. And then I wasn’t invited back into the class because I insisted actual policy written for that exact situation be followed.

But I had been held responsible from our first critique class for the offence a learner felt having their English definition of writing terminology challenged. If conflict is people arguing then no work of fiction needs conflict. And if the methodology doesn’t require conflict, it can’t unbelieve tension is Hitchcock or better.

It’s not the Dunning Kruger keep-going-up-forever. It is shaped like a slide for a reason. Learners have to get as far as they can go with confidence and time before they can even consider competence might also be a factor.

There are two pathways to reach a stage where the competence of a confident person are more or less on par and a box canyon leading off to the side that goes nowhere. A learner doesn’t have to understand the value of competency to learn how to become an excellent writer.

They are on the same steep ramp all writers are on, but their ramp has a steep acute angle up to the top right-hand corner that is at least achievable if the learner can learn on guidance alone. There’s a tonne of advice on how to make the steep climb from tonnes of writers, but it’s written in a language that writers who start out with an outlier amount of raw talent and have the stability or tenacity necessary to practice for years before it can become something that can produce enough support to live on part of its income. This gives the author the time and energy necessary to at least somewhat concentrate on it while still supporting themselves and their family.

The second type of writer also keeps doing what they are doing well, but that follows the law of diminishing returns The further up they go without ever attempting to become more competent, the more their writing focuses exclusively on what the learner can already do flawlessly.

There’s a third way to competence/confidence parity. It is a learner making it up a staircase where the height of each rise can be as high as the learner’s head or higher. Because each learner has to reach the end of what they can do with their new-found competence and their existing confidence before they need to figure out the next part of what is holding them back. It’s a path up to the righthand corner full of plateaus and confidence snakes you thought held weight until you tested them.

And worse, the more you start to learn, the more what you thought you knew barely scratched the surface. It’s not just a matter of finding instructors who can explain how to get where they are because they had to scramble up the learning staircase. Writers who just needed better guidance can only learn how to give better guidance.

The learning staircase was hard enough when most people had to move to cities. Writers had nothing to do but practice writing until they had the independence necessary to move to the city to meet the right person who was impressed with their writing to give them a seat at the table with literary giants who — almost guaranteed — looked like older models of themselves.

Today’s learners have to find instructors who understand how to teach how literary terminology is used to write to a professional level. If the learner learns the jargon as plain English words, most writers can’t conceive anything can be more complex than a metaphor being a comparison that doesn’t use like or as.

Everyone knows a metaphor is the simplified definition that fits on a standardized test. To suggest otherwise would feel like blasphemy. It is the unpleasant sensation is the brain reacting to cognitive dissonance by shutting down all its chains of thought as though a sentient, chain-following virus had been released in its sub-basement.

You can’t teach a person their layperson’s understanding of professional jargon is incorrect because they know what those words mean. This methodology forces learners to find their own platform where their reward for getting more confident in what they’re doing well isn’t improving the average outcome of the writer’s submission.

fiction as the character’s liminal space

A liminal space is a time or space required to make a transition. The video points out better than I could that they exist as physical spaces, such as hallways and staircases, linear like a gap year between high school and college, or not physically possible but exists anyway, like the backroom scene in the Truman show or the door to John Malkovich’s brain.

But fiction itself is the length of time in a character’s life the story encapsulates. Whether it is a moment captured in flashfic, a significant experience caught in short work or the entire movement of the change shown in a much longer work, the work captures what happens from the moment their reality alters in some way. What the character does about the new reality is the conventional story.

The unconventional story of a character who does not (or cannot) change any element of their world, problem or self requires an unconventional writer using unconventional tools. And “conventional” in this case means “using the conventions of the foundational structure of genre fiction” which has always included literary work.

Any culture with a storytelling tradition has its own conventions and artists that do unconventional things with them. It’s how art has always evolved.

I still think about one of the works we read in class. It had no conflict or tension at all. It was about a character who had been given the process of asking for help when they needed to learn how to ask for support as a concept first. The outcome of the protagonist depended entirely on who the reader imagined was reading it. The ending of the work continued beyond the liminal space on the page, depending on what the reader imagined the imaginary reader would have done after reading the work beyond the liminal space captured.

It was absolutely stunning as a work of fiction.

But thinking of fiction as a finite amount of “time” the reader spends with the protagonist on their journey answers the age-old “how long should my work be” question. Fiction is as long as it takes to show the reader everything they need to know so that when the character is on their precipice of change — whether the work is a drabble, flash fic, short story or novel — at least the reader understands the consequences of leaping or staying where they are.

The ideal work creates events that test the character’s belief in who they really are. This allows the reader to understand the cost of changing or staying the same better than the character could at that moment. Stick around any writing forum eventually, and a newbie will ask, “how do I write a ______ character?”

The answer is simple but takes years to do. The ______ character has to be shown to be _______ in a moment of their life where being _______ is easy. Then, the story begins and being _______ becomes more complex as (plot progresses). If the character chooses to be _______ despite the cost, the character is shown to be a _______ character.

If the character realizes that they can be _______ in their everyday life but it costs too much to be _______ in times of __________, they’ve shown to the reader that they were a ________ character when it was easy to be so.

If the character continues to believe they’re a ____________ character despite their proven actions, the reader is left to question whether not being ___________ in a difficult moment was justified or hypocrisy.

This is a particular type of story’s recipe, not its formula. This one is a smaller recipe that’s just part of a much more complex desired outcome, like a roux. A formula limits the answer from an infinite number line — and all the irrational concepts that don’t have a place on it — to a finite set of “correct” solutions. Following the ratios and directions required for a desired cake texture still creates infinite versions of what that particular cake might look and taste like. “A fluffy cake” is a specific type of cake in baking and science-fantasy is a sub-subgenre of fiction.

Using the conventions of storytelling doesn’t make creating a meaningful work of fiction any easier. They are the tools the artist uses to show the interactions necessary so that the reader’s understanding of the situation may separate from what the character sees, knows, or learns.

“There are no rules” is the best example of what happens when writing jargon is taught as plain English. The fact exceptional work doesn’t require the use of conventional story structure doesn’t mean learning conventional story structures won’t help writers who want to produce exceptional work.

the crucible of character change

Before I enrolled in my MFA, I recognized writing advice from the professional writer’s perspective failed the underpublished writer because the same pros that spent 40+ minutes discussing the importance of craft will dismiss the need to actually learn how to do any of it with “there are no rules” as a closing remark.

But that’s not the only problem. The average pro writer will discuss their craft as though discussing it with other professional writers and not the audience listening. I couldn’t find a better example of this than a writer I’ve heard speak several times. If he was only speaking to an audience of other professional writers, I wouldn’t be concerned with what he says.

He quoted Maass’ brilliant “tension on every page” in a recent post, but then stated it wasn’t “tension” that every page needed, it was “emotion.” And to other professional writers, that is a much better way of stating it. However, to the average underpublished writer, it doesn’t help.

There are three types of underpublished writers. Those who focus on the aesthetic nature of the prose wouldn’t know how to manipulate the story so that the character’s actions (or lack of action) cause an emotional response in the reader if it didn’t organically do so in the first draft. A structure-focused writer may be able to write a plot that can emotionally engage the reader, but their aesthetic choices and rough prose keep the reader focused on the trees and not the forest they’re walking through. The rare underpublished writers who can do both just need more butt-in-chair time.

But if any of the three believes “there are no rules” means “I don’t have to put my hours of deliberate practice in,” it won’t matter what any advice says to them. Writers who don’t believe they need to improve won’t be convinced by any advice that says deliberate improvement is a necessary part of learning any skillset.

Underpublished writers need to hear the part of the advice that professional writers assume other professional writers know. It’s not about putting “tension” or “emotion” on every page. That’s Wimbleton-level advice for top-ranked players. Maass says tension on every page is something only writers who have a traditionally published book need to learn how to do. The underpublished writer has to know how to control the ball each time, every time, before they learn how to win world-class championships.

Learning how to create enough conflict from enough sources so that the story creates moments of challenge that feel organic to the story every 250 words or so is extremely difficult to do. The writer has to be able to manipulate the plot, Point of View, escalating tension and conflict in relation to the character’s needs.

The vast majority of work I have read by talented, underpublished writers regardless of the genre of work focused almost exclusively on the exquisite detail of what the character sees, knows, and says. But those are all tools the author uses to tell the reader the story. All the skillsets tied up in showing the reader the world — a character’s goal, actions, motivations, concerns and the antagonistic forces acting against them are usually told to the reader in dialogue between the beautiful descriptions.

If creative writing instructors won’t teach the purpose of fiction is to test the metal of a character in circumstances outside of their comfort zone, then a “story” is only the way the author uses prose. Readers read for the crucible the story puts the character in to see what emerges. This can be “will they save their marriage” or “will they save the world.” The individual stakes of the story don’t matter. The ideal reader only cares about how the character reacts to something they are invested in.

But while the traditional genres of speculative fiction or mystery have the genre mechanics acting as an additional source of conflict, the literary genre only has the depth of humanity as a conflict source. It is starving for unconventional protagonists doing unconventional things with unconventional results.

But the lack of conventions does not an unconventional story make. A work without plot, conflict or tension has no appeal to the reader unless the meaningful lack of convention serves the story. Beautiful prose the author fails to shape into a beautiful story only impresses MFA instructors.

A far more valuable lesson from Maass that underpublished writers should focus on is knowing at the start of the story what that character in that moment in their life would never say, think or do. Then, the story focuses on creating the exact situations it would take for a character that would never blah to blah.

For example, if a character would never be disloyal to their leader, the story’s beginning sets up that loyalty so the reader knows the character would never betray who they follow. Most of the story must set up the events required for a turning point inside the character that makes their best course of action disloyal.

But whether they betray their leader when they need to is their crucible. The story is about who they became to even contemplate the need to do so.

hubris — the missing component of the unlikeable protagonist

this post contains up to season 5 Rick and Morty spoilers.

I was listening to a video about the Moscow murders in November 2022. It sounds like the cops quickly knew exactly who they were looking for. The super-genius Ph.D. student had been pulled over in August in his white Elantra and gave the cops his cellphone number. One of the first things investigators would have done was check the area for traffic or parking citations.

It was how they caught Son of Sam. The criminology doctorate student had forgotten criminology was a field of study.

I’ve dealt with intelligent people making the most ridiculous mistakes in a high concentration of late. The worst thing a person can assume is that they cannot be mistaken. Cognitive dissonance is a very well-documented effect but the physical sensations don’t come with a: hey, your brain can’t handle thinking about what was just said so we’re going to make you feel like you’ve been punched in the gut and throat at the same time, just because this person is challenging you.

It’s why Dr. Expert hung up the phone, upset that I had asked them for their working definition of their field of study. If we’d met waiting for an elevator, they could have stated it in a sentence or two. It wasn’t the request that made Dr. Expert so angry they could only sputter as they slammed the phone down. It was their brain realizing before Dr. Expert could that if they just rattled their definition off, it would prove my point.

It’s why Dr. House, ultimately, failed as a protagonist despite being a well-written empathetic/unlikeable character. Unlikeable characters don’t care if the average reader likes them. The reader has gotten to the end of the book based only on their empathy for the journey the character has travelled. If it is the character’s hubris that keeps the reader from wanting to like them, it has to spur a change in them in any direction.

To leave the character exactly as they were, unaffected by what they had just gone through means the journey itself had to be memorable when the series was ultimately a case-of-the-week show. A character experiencing change is the most significant moment in any creative writing work. The quality of the character’s path to the end of the story has to make up for its lack of catharsis.

A movie (not directed by James Cameron) runs 90-140 minutes. A character who gets to the end of their story and isn’t changed by it isn’t impossible with great storytelling.

An episode of a TV show has a run time of about 40 minutes. In any given timeslot, a character’s lack of change is meaningless. But the length of an entire television series can rival the reading time of a blockbuster fantasy series. Dr. House had remained almost unchanged over the series duration.

Readers invest several hours to decades to finish a book or a series. If the hubris of the unlikeable character fails to impact the character in any significant way, the reader is reading a book about an unlikeable character doing unlikeable things and those actions cost them nothing.

They can’t do anything about the assholes who get away with bullshit IRL, but they can stop reading about fictionalized versions of them. Donald Maass said it best when he said a wounded protagonist has to give the reader some glimpse in the first scene that they want to be whole even if they couldn’t start on that path yet. His example starts with the drinking-buddy calling for a ride to rehab. I think the beginning of their story begins the first night they considered picking up the phone.

But for hubristically-centred unlikeable protagonists who aren’t wounded by it, their story begins the moment their hubris starts to bring about their downfall. How they escape it or surrender to it is the story. It’s why Rick from Rick and Morty will never be Rick from Rick and Morty again. Rick is only Rick when he is an asshole to his diehard fans. But by season six, Rick knows he can’t be an asshole around the people he likes. And Jerry…most of the time. But to the vocal fanbase, if Rick can’t be Asshole!Rick all the time, he’s not Rick at all.

I trust Harmon’s storytelling skills. In an earlier season, Rick surrendering himself to the cost of being the most brilliant man in all the universes to keep his family safe was the most haunting scene of the show. The image of him sitting alone on the toilet at the end of season 5 was Rick coming to terms with the cost of his assholery outside his immediate family.

four types of characters in storytelling

A character’s likeablity is if the work’s ideal reader is supposed to root for the character’s success because they want to see the character succeed.

A character’s empathy depends on the ideal reader being able to understand where the character is coming from or why they act the way they do. An empathetic character will try to change their fate for the better depending on how they define the term. The desire to improve their lot in life will keep the ideal reader reading, even if the work makes liking the protagonist difficult.

A likeable character has an ideal reader who wants to see them succeed and can understand the reason why they act the way they do. While they are the “easiest” character to write of the four, setting a likeable character down a path where something in their life, personality or world needs to meaningfully change if they were to achieve their goal is not an easy story to write. It, too, is just easier to write because the reader will continue to read because they care about the character’s journey.

This is the character that is easiest to have them do something unforgivable within the story’s circumstances. A character who kills the person who killed their dog is understandable. If the protagonist waited a year to plot the death of the dog killer’s family, however, the ideal reader’s empathy for the character can snap.

An empathetic character does not need the reader to like them or hope for their success. But the ideal reader of this work will continue to read on despite not liking the character because the reader understands where they are coming from. The character’s struggle to improve their lot does a lot of the heavy lifting that liking the character enough to follow their story does.

But there is less room for this character to do something unforgivable. All the reader is reading for is at least understanding why the character is the way they are. If the unforgivable act breaks that, nothing keeps them reading to discover what happens. The empathy meter has to be dialled in so the character can act unforgivably but not in the way its ideal reader would give up on the character for it. It’s a tricky balancing act but when done correctly, it creates memorable work.

A sympathetic character is a character the reader is meant to like but makes no effort to change their fate. We feel _____ for them when they experience ______ things, but without a desire to change their fate, the reader has nothing to understand about them. Meaningful work with protagonists who are only what they are is the most difficult.

An unlikeable character isn’t meant to be liked by its ideal reader and doesn’t ask its reader to understand where the character is coming from. It is far easier to create a meaningful unlikeable character in a visual medium where the viewer isn’t asked to empathize with the train of thought that allowed them to make horrific choices and carry through with them.

If an unlikeable character attempts to change who they are, they are an empathetic protagonist even if they fail. An unlikeable character does not try to change who they are.

The problem with “there are no rules” is that it teaches characters have no need to change anything about their life, world, or personality. If a character doesn’t attempt to change anything, the work doesn’t ask the reader to judge those actions based on where the character was coming from.

breaking a rule vs. getting away with it

I used to watch this Youtuber who got white-collar criminals ready for their prison sentence. He’s honest about why he went to jail — the Feds could prove he didn’t not know about a person who was criming. And they knew he didn’t not know because in one email sent X years ago, he’d used the criming guy’s promised rate of return sarcastically.

The Feds had criming guy’s emails.

As long as Youtuber didn’t officially know what criming guy was doing, he had no legal jeopardy. But if he’d written down that he knew and the Feds could prove it, the Feds had him locked in as one of their 98% success rate. But Youtuber had sworn up and down to Feds he had no idea what was going on with criming guy. He had assumed he hadn’t made a single mistake. In doing so, he committed the crime of lying to the Feds.

Breaking the rule is easy. Justifying breaking the rule is even easier if they person doing the breaking gains something out of it. It’s the “attempt to get away with it without paying the consequences” that is the story.

I would never sit down to write a story without conflict. Even a character changing their mind requires the internal conflict of a character discarding what they had known — true or not — and replacing it with what was learned. It isn’t an easy process to get past the discomfort of realizing something once held as truth might not be the whole truth or even part of it.

“Conflict is important enough to learn how to manipulate deliberately” is not a rule I think I could break. Conflict does multiple things in a story. It creates the events necessary for a character to be tested when humans must be as eusocial as bees are for our species’ survival.

You could argue Tolkien’s Silmarillion or the Fantastical Beasts and Where to Find Them are successful books without conflict or tension. But they are supplementary work for novels in existence and their audience is anyone who loved the books enough to seek out supplementary work.

I used to keep a copy of the Silmarillion beside my bedside table in high school. Nothing put me to sleep faster than opening the book and reading a random passage. The lack of conflict made my brain so bored that falling asleep was the more exciting option. But I know Tolkien fans IRL who can Colbert it.

Prisons are full of people who are survivors of intergenerational trauma. But it also has a population of people who thought they could get away with it and didn’t realize that multiple systems are designed to catch unethical behaviour. There are catches and traps most people would never think to look for even if they can’t see how they could get caught from their office view. Unethical conduct can be caught in a lack of ethical conduct in a controlled environment.

It’s how the Feds have a 98% success rate. There’s always evidence in the system of a crime being committed, those who crime must crime flawlessly, and lying about not committing crime is still crime.

Understanding how to use conflict to manipulate the tension of a piece is difficult enough. The writer has to understand — implicitly or explicitly — how the elements of the story work to create the meaning in the meaningful challenges on the character’s path. To do the same thing — to create meaning on the character’s path without the character being challenged is as tricky as criming flawlessly.

But this is the problem with the loss of assumed knowledge. Once upon a time, writers knew conflict was significant enough to learn how to manipulate meaningfully. That got shortened to conflict is important because the rest was assumed. Then along came “there are no rules” when “conflict is important” is assumed as a given.

And suddenly what is assumed in “conflict is important” becomes “but not enough to have to learn how to use deliberately.” And to assume otherwise becomes intolerable to imply. Because the first rule is that there are none.

The second rule is “given A, conflict is important is a rule.”

Writing a story with tension but no conflict requires a flawless first draft or endless rounds of editing until perfection is created. A character’s lack of change and their lack of need for change must both be meaningful. That is a character a writer either knows how to write or is willing to learn how to write on the fly.

And once that author figures out how to do that by themselves, all it would require is its prose polished.

writing takes more than grit today

When I worked in Korea, one of my gigs was working for Volvo. The joke was the senior administrators spoke Swedish and the workers all spoke Korean, so they were all equally disadvantaged in English. I never met the guy, but one engineer was a legend for all the wrong reasons. He was the smartest of any of them, in any room he was in but Volvo had decided that all workers must be bilingual to work for them.

The company did everything it could. They gave him private lessons until he choked on them and finally shipped him off to England for six months just so he could learn English in a fully immersive environment. It wasn’t as though the engineer didn’t try. Despite being a brilliant engineer, he just didn’t have the capacity to learn a second language through any of the methods that were tried, and he was let go.

Intelligence is a separate thing from the capacity to learn complex systems.

I noticed in my twenty-five years of moving in my writerly circles that only the brilliant people were consistently brilliant writers. Most of the writers I know are highly intelligent people. Writers draw from a population who have something to say and the willpower to keep trying to say it for years and Intelligence and divergent thinking are linked.

Creativity is a combination of natural talent, developed skills, and practiced, divergent thinking. When I was a public school teacher, I found that even on days where I managed to have time to write after all my obligations were finished, I had very little to say. I used to think my creative well that had run dry. It was just creative decision fatigue. Being creative in my teaching made it difficult to be creative in my writing.

Angela Ducksworth, in Grit, talks about what happens when kids entered a structured learning environment. They learn pretty quickly that their mistakes should create fear, shame, and embarrassment. Having learned that, the learner’s ability to pick themselves up and dust themselves off after making a mistake diminishes greatly. Every kindergartner can sing, dance, and draw. By high school, only those who deliberately practiced those activities think they can say they can.

If three words perfectly encapsulated my first public critique after years of non-deliberate practice, fear, shame and embarrassment would be them. I stopped writing to make my story 20% cooler at every decision and started to write so that I wouldn’t feel fear, shame or embarrassment again.

But again, going back to Grit, I didn’t have the ability yet to modify the length of shocks the critiques simulated. That would have required the craft necessary to hear what my critiquers were saying, take them in as genuine suggestions, and have the ability to make changes in the text to incorporate their suggestions.

And I couldn’t do that yet. It wasn’t until my perspective on critiques did a 900-degree turn that I realized I couldn’t even recognize my own errors yet. Someone said they only critiqued to get their stuff critiqued and I realized that wasn’t the benefit of critiques at all. The benefit came from reading work on par with mine, but with no emotional attachment to the world or characters. I went from only critiquing so that my stuff would be critiqued to getting my stuff critiqued so I could critique other people’s work.

I never turned down an opportunity to critique from that point on. I beta’ed enough unpublished novels over the years to see common patterns emerging, regardless of the genre, theme, or level of writing skill. Like a juvenile rat allowed to shorten its own suffering by pushing a button when the shocks came, I learned how to hear what was being said in the nature it was being said in. Once I knew how to fix the parts that still needed work, it didn’t sting as much.

It just took learning how to manipulate a complex system without any external verification that what I learned was correct but for evaluating the results the new method produced. To do so took a mindset I’d cultivated from childhood to always take into consideration I might be wrong about anything until I could prove I wasn’t.

It took having a horse that taught me that thousands of hours of prolonged, deliberate action could pay off, even if it took a very long run. It took realizing I could pay attention in class if I paid attention and wrote at the same time. It took realizing my intelligence had always allowed me to understand complex thoughts quickly, but that couldn’t help me if I wanted to learn a complex system, like learning a second language as an adult learner.

Because, unlike my poor Korean engineer example, within six months of living in an immersive environment, I became a chatterbox. The joy on people’s faces when I at least attempted to speak to them was all the extrinsic reward I needed.

But I still pretended I didn’t speak a word of it when every other woman in the office was out for some reason, and my boss’s boss’s boss and his boss were trying to figure out how to make tea. When they insisted I do it because I was the only woman in the office, I said very loudly in English that my translator would be back in an hour.

When she got back and they told her she had to teach me Japanese, she told them I already spoke it. The two elderly gentlemen who ran our town found it absolutely hilarious and brought me a cup of tea and sweets.