May 21, 2010

flying car parts

This morning, I was just thinking about how many bad drivers are on the road, when a collision happened right before my eyes. I was in a left turn lane. The light was green, but the green arrow wasn't lit up, so our lane had to yield right of way. The car in front of me completely failed to do so. He just swung out in front of a pick-up truck. The truck tried to swerve at the last minute, but it was quite a crash. Car parts few everywhere.

Fortunately, it looked like no one was hurt. The car driver jumped out and ran to the truck to make sure the driver was all right. The truck looked more or less undamaged, and its driver just looked shaken.

Everyone thinks their own city has the worst drivers, but I've lived on both coasts ... I've spent time in several U.S. cities ... and I think Austin is right up there with Boston. It's like the worst drivers from both coasts decided to move here and get drunk, get high, or otherwise mentally check out. The poorly marked, narrow roads for high volume traffic don't help (although Boston is worse on that factor). I like Austin, but maybe they need huge blinking traffic signs everywhere that say STAY ALERT! Maybe the Austin Chronicle should publish a memo that says "pay attention."

It seems that witnessing traffic accidents here is pretty routine. A few months ago, I almost got rear-ended by a speeding pick-up truck. There was nowhere for anyone to swerve; it was a two-way backroad in a forested area. I was waiting to make a left turn. The truck coming up behind me swerved at the last minute, but it had to drive on the grassy shoulder to avoid hitting me, and could easily have hit a boulder or tree. This was in daylight; the truck should have seen me and slowed down. I can't imagine what delayed mental processes led the driver to ignore the fact that my car wasn't moving and had a turn signal on.

A few weeks ago, I got stuck behind a car driving at maybe 2 to 5 mph in heavy traffic. I was stuck behind this car long enough to determine that they were not stalled; the driver was arguing with his passenger. It looked like a greasy older man and either a tiny old lady or a little girl. As we went through a heavy traffic intersection, I honked. The car slowed down even more, causing a huge traffic pile-up. I was able to swerve around him, and everyone behind me was forced to swerve, as well.

I could go on and on. Bicyclists pedal across busy intersections without looking. People cross roads without looking to see if traffic is coming. Cars change lanes or pull into busy roads without checking to see if anyone is coming. This is normal, daily driving in Austin.

May 14, 2010

The Chemistry of Hate

I’m pondering the nature of hatred as I write the fourth novel in my Torth series. The interaction between two characters (one of them a new introduction) who grow to absolutely hate each other on a personal level is a challenge for me, and my particular set-up feels like unexplored territory in fiction. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any comparable examples.

The closest might be Harry Potter and Professor Snape. Harry Potter and Snape are both on the same team, forced to interact for the larger good, yet they can hardly tolerate being in the same room together. This is similar to my character situation, except that the Potter and Snape relationship is skewed in favor of one character over the other. Harry Potter has valid reasons to hate Snape, but Snape simply equates Harry with the school bully who tormented him. In my opinion, this makes it harder to identify with Snape. If you had to side with one or the other, most people would side with Harry. Snape is just a little too greasy, a little too mindlessly supportive of Draco Malfoy.

My characters locked in mutual hatred are meant to balance each other. They’re both good guys. They’re both on the same team, which holds them in check. They both have equally valid reasons for wanting to strangle the other to death. (To readers: I can’t say names or details without giving major spoilers.)

This got me thinking about the nature of hatred. It seems to me that fictional hate relationships tend to be impersonal and sketchy. The grand scale of hero vs. villain hatred is alien to the average person. A serial killer or a tyrannical dictator is almost like a force of nature. Even if the villain orders the hero's family to be murdered and gets the hero framed for the crime, readers have to acknowledge that the villain is just acting in his or her best interest. Fictional villains usually target the hero because he or she has the wrong genes, or happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The villain simply acts; all the hatred comes from the hero, who reacts. This is not the simmering, mutual hatred that leads siblings to tattle on each other, or divorced couples to use their children as pawns against each other. Most people can’t identify with grand-scale hatred, but everyone has some personal experience with mutual or personal hatred. Personal hatred seems to come from a betrayal of trust. It’s the flip side of respect or love.

Is there anyone whom you once admired? Someone whom you used to protect out of love? Someone you once held in great esteem? Someone who used to be your role model? Is this person now the one you speak of with venom, and can’t say two kind words about?

Yeah. That’s the chemistry between my two hate-filled characters. In a different story, they might admire each other. They are naturally inclined to respect each other. But each character feels as if the other did him a grave injustice, or has grossly misjudged him.

Both of these characters consider themselves to be very wise, but their world views are polar opposites. One character wears his emotions on his sleeve, while the other hides everything he feels. One character tells the truth no matter who it hurts, while the other sees no problem with lying. One character is deeply spiritual, the other is abhors religion. One is an adventurer, while the other would rather stay home and hide. One is a gambler, the other takes no risks. One advocates peace, the other is a war-monger. One sees the universe going to hell in a hand-basket, the other is wildly optimistic. One curses like a sailor, the other uses scientific jargon. They are hot and cold. They are night and day. All their personal differences add to the friction.

Real life abounds with this spectrum of friction. It’s as much a part of life as love. In America, we see outspoken atheists sharing a family with the devoutly religious. We see liberal Greenpeace advocates living and working with conservative Republicans. This is our world. I don’t know what side of the fence you fall on in those examples, but if you’re anywhere close to the middle, you probably agree that both sides have some merit and certainly have a right to exist. But people on the extreme fringes would disagree. They scream with fury if forced to spend significant amounts of time with their polar opposite.

That’s the kind of hatred I’m talking about. Personal hatred seems to parallel the love formula. Two characters meet, they get to know each other, they exchange scathing verbal attacks (as opposed to flirting), they are thrown into a situation where they have to rely on each other (as opposed to torn apart and having to rely on themselves), they start making death threats towards each other (instead of long for each other) and tearing the other down at every opportunity (as opposed to reuniting in romantic bliss).

I’m learning as I write that hate is just as complex as love, and takes just as long to build. I’m eager to see reader reactions on this one. Torth Book 4, World of Wreckage, will be finished sometime this year. As always, please let me know if you’d be willing to test read my Torth series. Unfortunately, the fourth book in the series only makes sense if you’ve read the first three.