On Creativity and Choice
vorel_laraek
I love stories. Not just books - TV, movies, games, and comics are lovely, too - but for me, it always comes back to the books.

It's a rather interesting obsession. It's certainly not about being surprised - as a troper and a prolific reader, very little comes as a surprise in stories.

I understand that everything follows set patterns. In fact, I expect it. So what I look for in a new work is a different interpretation of the set pattern, a creative take on an old idea because very few ideas are truly new.

That's why I'm so fond of fanfiction - I can read about the same characters in similar situations a thousand times, and still have each portrayal be subtly different, and I find that fascinating. I especially like AU - I like seeing what is kept constant when the world is turned on its head.

I'm speaking here of good fic, of course - like every other medium, fanfiction follows Sturgeon's Law: 90% of everything is crap. It doesn't make the remaining 10% any less worth the time.

On Labels
vorel_laraek
Labels really are a rather fascinating social construct.

They're commonly erroneous and far too conducive to stereotyping and prejudice, but they're also an essential part of our social makeup.

Although every person is of course a unique individual, defined by who they are, not what, no one actually has the time or inclination to get to know every single person they meet. So we stereotype. We label. We assume.

It's not terribly pretty - creates prejudices and misunderstandings in spades - but it's an unavoidable part of today's society.

I've really been rather lucky in the labels I was born with - white, cis, middle class, straight(ish). I haven't had to deal with prejudice on any significant scale, the way some do - and don't think our society is above all that, because we aren't. Improving, perhaps, but a long way from cured.

The one label that I do deal with is Aspergian. I'm on the autism spectrum, although I must admit that it's the highest-functioning end.

I haven't really faced any problems because of it personally, but I do see how it's portrayed in pop culture, and especially since April is Autism Awareness Month, it's gotten me thinking. About labels, about identity, about separating myself from my diagnosis.

Don't misunderstand, I am in no way ashamed of who I am, and Aspergers is absolutely a part of that. But it's only a part, and that's what I'm trying to define.

You see, in a way, "Aspergian," or "aspie" is different from a lot of other labels.

Most labels - black, white, Mexican, gay, straight, rich, poor, etc. - come with their own attached sets of stereotypes. But most of these are patently false, and can be and have been proven to be so. Skin color has nothing to do with intelligence, or sexuality with fashion sense. What truth there is in stereotypes is mostly to do with societal pressures and expectations, which are reinforced by those selfsame stereotypes. For example, although social class has no effect on intelligence, it has a very definite effect on access to and quality of education, which can create the appearance of erudition.

The point is that despite what the bigots say, all of these labels have no inherent effect on personality. They affect your perception of your identity and society's view of you, which in turn can inform the development of personality, but there is no inherent personality type for most of these labels.

Aspergers, though, is a neurological disorder. It really does affect my personality, because it affects how my brain is wired. It still does not define my whole personality, but it is rather difficult for me to separate myself from it. That makes it harder to deny the stereotypes, and easier for people to define me by this one thing.

I cannot accept the collapse of my entire self to one data point, so I intend to go over the symptoms of Aspergers, and to elaborate on how I fit the diagnosis - and how I am absolutely myself outside it.

1. Delays in social interaction
I don't catch social cues that I probably should, I don't always get jokes, and I can fake small talk, but I usually don't care about the answers, much less know what to ask next. I can carry on a conversation, if I'm interested in the subject, but I have some difficulty starting one, and far too often I turn it into a lecture instead of a give and take without really realizing it. I can safely say that I present this symptom.

My coping mechanisms, though, are my own. Perhaps not entirely unique, but still mine. I'm a generally happy person (a trait which I can claim as wholly my own), so I smile a lot. I turn that into a coping mechanism by doing it easily, quickly, and on command. I may not be great at social interaction, but I do know that if you grin at someone, they are generally inclined to smile back. Puts everything on a more pleasant footing. My other primary coping mechanism is a confidence bordering on arrogance, because I know that I'm capable of success, and that acts as an excellent bolster in continuing to make attempts at what should be basic social skills.

I'm also a hell of a lot better at social interaction than I used to be, because social skills are learnable and I'm working on it. People are worth the effort.

2. Logical Thinking.
Absolutely. I turn to logic first and foremost to understand the world. I do have an intellectual understanding that people as a whole aren't logical, but I have some trouble understanding why. In most cases, the evidence is right there! Why can't they just accept it? Logic is at the core of how I interpret reality - but what I do with that interpretation is my own choice.

3. Literal Thinking
I'm very clever, and as such I manage an excellent understanding of metaphor and satire - actually, I find them quite interesting - but I don't tend towards them in my own thought processes. I also have trouble with some humor - I usually know that a joke's being made, but I can't always find the actual humor, and in these cases it becomes difficult to find the correct response. One thing I do have an excellent grasp of is sarcasm. I quite like sarcasm. Probably overuse it, since I'm often not sure when not to be flippant but I do understand it just fine.

4. Lack of social empathy
In that I don't always catch other people's emotions, or know how to deal with them if I do. Note that although it used to be commonly misdiagnosed as such, Aspergers is NOT like sociopathy - quite the opposite, really. Sociopaths don't feel much, but they're very good at faking it. Aspergians feel plenty, but we aren't always good at showing it, and we're usually terrible fakers. I do feel emotions and I do care about other people, but I'm not always good at displaying it. Hugs work. Hugs are good. So are origami things, which can be quickly crafted and given away for a combination of a caring gesture and an ego boost in the resulting amazement at the intricacy.

5. Narrowly defined interests
Obsessions, basically. For me it's, dragons, origami, Doctor Who, the Japanese language, and stories - especially literature, especially fantasy, and lately, especially fanfiction. To keep hammering at this theme of identity, the obsessions - some constant and some changing regularly - are a symptom, but their nature is very much my own choice. I want to understand everything that I possibly can, and my interests shift as I learn, but I always come back to fiction, and how our fantasies reflect and inform he real world. Plots are always predictable, of course - I'm a troper, and I read everything I get my hands on - but somehow that isn't the point.

6. Speech Issues
Check. A stutter (cluttering) when I try to speak as quickly as I think, and seemingly contradictory tendencies towards clipped language and sequipedalian loquaciousness. I might also have a tendency to equivocate more than is strictly necessary. Finally, this might go under social awareness, but I have trouble with curses, because I'm not offended by much at all so I'm not always sure what I'm allowed to say.

7. Motion and Motor Control
I can be clumsy. Mostly, I'm not that aware of my body - I tend to run just because I can, or jump onto convenient walls, or contort myself into odd positions. Probably comes across as a bit childish, but I cannot bring myself to care.

8. Gaze Avoidance: I don't always see the importance of eye contact or remember to retain it. It's always seemed a bit awkward, really, and when I do attempt it I end up turning it into a staring contest.

Satellite Traits:
I have some of these, but not all, and at some point it does become difficult to determine what is actually caused by the disorder and what is entirely my own.

I don't really stim (repetitive motions, especially when stressed), at least not that I've noticed. But I've also not been off my ADHD medicine for any significant length of time, so perhaps I would. I do swing or tap my feet on occasion - does that count? I don't know.

Extreme sensitivity to sensory input: I'm fairly touch-sensitive, so comfy clothes and soft fabrics are important, but it isn't debilitating. The rest of my senses are normal, as far as I know. It's somewhat hard to compare. From what I've read, I got lucky in this respect.

Social anxiety: this is not actually a symptom of Aspergers, but given that we're at a disadvantage when it comes to social interaction and usually aware of it, it is perhaps unsurprising that it's a common secondary symptom. I certainly have it to some extent, though I generally use logic and arrogance to bludgeon it into irrelevance.

Hyperactivity: Yes.

A strong attachment to routines or familiar objects: I like schedules, and I like being in control of my time and myself. I can break the routine when I need to, though - if I break my rules, then I'm still in control.

Ability to focus to an abnormal level or for an abnormal length of time: If I'm really interested in something, usually a good book, nothing else exists for a while. The same is true of an interesting assignment, which is good when I need to get things done.

Unusual friends: More a side effect of disregarding social convention and having odd interests than a true symptom, but one of my favorites. I do tend to find interesting people, especially since I don't really bother to maintain interaction with boring ones.

I don't have food allergies, or trouble planning or multitasking, or a tendency towards epilepsy. There are a wide variety of possible symptoms that manifest in different ways, and every Aspergian is different.

One note before I finish:

One of the things that really pisses me off about some of the public Autism awareness groups - especially Autism Speaks (who are secretly assholes), is this whole "find a cure" bullshit. There is absolutely nothing wrong with me, and I don't want to be cured. Frankly, I'm offended at the very idea. I do understand that I am relatively high-functioning and that things can be much harder for people farther along the spectrum, but I still don't see a "cure" as the answer.

In addition, the idea of "curing" something so fundamental to personality and self-identity raises the unpleasant question of whether the "cured" individual would still be themselves. Which is not even a little bit good.

So to conclude, Aspergers makes up a significant part of my personality. It does not make up my whole personality, and it does not define me entirely, but it does form the template on which the rest of me is built. It is part of who I am - and I wouldn't change that for the world.


Looking back on this post later, I am reminded of a) the extreme unreliability of self-diagnosis, and b) the fact that my own diagnosis is unofficial (My parents and teachers filled out questionnaires and sent them off, and got back a "Probably" in return, and c) I should really schedule an appointment with an actual psychologist at some point. I won't delete this because I like the writing and the record of my thoughts, but it seems sillier in retrospect.

On Wishful Thinking
vorel_laraek
My last entry was on my attitude towards honesty - basically, that I tend not to lie because I rarely have a reason to. I certainly wouldn't lie without a reason - it's pointless at best and harmful at worst, and if I tell one of any significance then I have to remember it.

In particular, I make a concerted effort to be honest with myself, because nothing good ever comes of doing otherwise.

So I know that I'm not perfect. I know that I can be arrogant, vain, callous, bossy and rude. I know that I'm sometimes highly unobservant, and often talk too much. I know that I'm distractable, self-absorbed, and have a minuscule attention span for subjects I don't deem interesting. I know that I often talk too fast, and that I can be hypocritical. I know that I'm obsessive and have an addictive personality, and that I have problems with impulse control. I know that I'm somewhat awkward socially, and that my own anxiety about my social skills only serves to make me hesitant and worsen things. I know that I'm a truly terrible know-it-all. I know that I tend to assume that the things that interest me will interest everyone. I know that I can procrastinate horribly, and have a tendency towards velleity and towards clever ideas that I can't be bothered to actually enact. I know that I can be fairly hard on myself, especially in terms of the things I create.

I also know that I'm very, very smart. I know that I'm curious, well-intentioned and genuinely kind. I know that I'm fun and funny and honest and uninhibited. I know that I'm exuberant and enthusiastic, and that my excitement is often infectious. I know that I'm articulate, that I can be charming, and that I can make my various obsessions seem interesting through sheer enthusiasm. I know that I'm generous, and that I care about people. I know that I'm improving at faking social skills. I know that I have enough self-confidence for five of me, and that I'm quite good at bulling through until I figure out what I'm doing. I know that while I don't make friends that easily, I'm loyal to the ones I have. I know that I'm a meticulous planner, but also that I'm entirely capable of throwing out the plan for something more fun. I know my own flaws, and I know that I always work to do better. I know that if I'm willing to put in the effort, I can accomplish anything that I set my mind to.

I know that I have a driving obsession with knowing everything that I possibly can.

I know that I'm a pretty girl, and that that makes it easier for people to overlook my myriad eccentricities.

I know that I'm not normal, whatever that even means, and that I never want to be.

I know that I have a tendency to go off on tangents - like that one.

The point is that I have a strong tendency towards brutal honesty, and I turn it on myself.

It's why I'm not religious - I couldn't find a reason other than the comfort it offered to keep believing, and my honesty wouldn't let me maintain it for that reason alone.

And yet, there is one thing that I really, really want to believe, even as the facts tell me that it's rather unlikely.

I want to believe in a future where humanity as a whole has chosen to discard religion.

It isn't precisely that I dislike religion - I don't, really - but I do see it almost as an immature belief, and as closing questions that should be open.

What I want to believe is that in the future, a more mature humanity will realize that they can find truth in themselves, that we'll realize that our gods aren't necessary to be moral, and that we can find our paths on our own.

I want to believe that, but logically, it's impractical.

For one thing, any actual method intended to counter religion would be skirting authoritarianism. I may not agree with them, but I believe absolutely that people should be able to choose what they do believe in, and that I have no right to dictate to them. Persuade, argue, discuss, yes, but the final choice is not mine. It can't be. People have to be allowed to choose their own beliefs, and so many people believe so deeply, it's hard to imagine them honestly giving it up in significant numbers.

For another, religion has a very basic emotional appeal that is extremely difficult to counter. Belief systems based on science tend to be more complex and cerebral and less viscerally moving than religious ones. That doesn't make them any less valuable - or any more so - than emotionally-based systems, but it does mean that it is very difficult for them to catch on on a large scale.

There's also a difference between theology - the coherent body of religious thought that is taught and preached and studied - and popular religion, the collection of stereotypes and generalizations that most people actually believe in. Popular religion is as widespread as the name suggests, and since it isn't really based on logic, it can't really be countered by logical argument.

Furthermore, science is a complex body of knowledge that takes a huge infrastructure to maintain and advance, whereas at its most basic, all religion takes is a good storyteller. If humanity survived the apocalypse, we'd probably keep more of religion than we would of science.

Also, even though society is becoming increasingly secular, atheists are still mistrusted and not widely represented outside science - and most well-known atheists are well-known because they're militant about it, which hardly engenders public liking for atheism.

One of the biggest reasons atheism won't catch significantly today is that atheists are a rather fragmentary group, united only by lack of belief. Saying that you're an atheist doesn't really say much about what you do believe in, and it's what people do believe in that unites them - the positive, not the negative.

In my opinion, the only way disbelief in God could ever really take off on a large scale would be the spread of a philosophy that included atheism or agnosticism in addition to a more positive, emotionally appealing belief system. Humanism tried to do that, but although it's what I believe in, it hasn't really taken off on any significant scale. A lot of the trappings of religion, like community, tradition, and unity, have been discarded by atheism purely because they're religious, but those are the things that people value, and any widespread belief system needs to provide that sort of community, if for no other reason then because gatherings of like-minded people tend to reinforce each other's beliefs. Humanism tries, but I can point to no modern secular belief system that is really offering this sort of unity.

In summary, I want to believe that the world of the future will look like it does in old science fiction. I want to believe that different people can agree to come together in the name of humanity. I want to believe that we'll be able to discard our prejudices and irrationalities, and that we'll look for answers in what we can see and touch.

What I know is that religion is very deeply entrenched in today's society, that I won't live to see the future I envision even if it does happen, and that people will always be human - we might improve, given time, but we aren't perfect, and we can always find excuses for prejudice.

Mostly, I would really love to believe that the future will look rather like the one on Star Trek, but I can't really see how we'll manage to get there.

On Honesty
vorel_laraek
One of the more common myths about people with Aspergers/autism is that we can't or don't lie.

It's bull, of course, but there's an element of truth in it.

I can and do lie, of course. I can even lie quite well, if I can manage not to get flustered. Which is about half of the time - the other half I do get flustered, and am painfully obvious.

So it isn't really about the ability to lie. It's a learnable skill, after all.

The truth in the myth has more to do with not thinking to lie in the first place.

After all, why do people lie? Because they're hiding things, because they have secrets. Because they're embarrassed by the truth, or they think that someone else will be. Sometimes because it's easier or simpler than the truth. White lies grease the wheels of society - very few people are entirely honest about themselves.

Then there's me.

I have minimal social awareness and a rudimentary filter, and I honestly think that embarrassment is in most cases a pointless emotion. Doesn't mean I don't feel it on occasion, but I try to treat it as irrelevant.

There are very few things about me that I would actually mind other people knowing - I don't actively keep secrets, and when asked a personal question, I generally answer it. There's a kind of freedom in not minding.

So while I can and do lie, I don't bother to. I miss the social cues that would tell me to offer a white lie, and I lack the filters that would cause me to deflect inquiry. So I could lie, but I don't.

Actually, all that's lovely, but it's not wholly true. I do lie about what I'm reading, when what I'm reading is fanfiction - especially erotic fanfiction. Even then, it isn't really embarrassment - after all, I'm posting all of this publicly on the internet. However, saying I'm reading fic requires explanations, and it runs up against prejudices against "derivative" works, and I don't always want to give my rant on the validity of derivation.

I also am honestly somewhat embarrassed by the sexy ones, probably as a function of my lack of experience. But not nearly enough to stop reading them.

So I lie - or answer vaguely - because it's easier, and because I explained enough times when I still answered that question. But if people found out my "secret," I don't really think I'd care.

Like I said, it's freeing.

On Religion, and the Lack Thereof
vorel_laraek
I'm an atheist. A humanist, to be specific about it - I don't just not believe in God, I believe that people can find their own paths - and do the right thing - without any supernatural aid.

However, I don't really have anything against conventional religion. I was raised Christian, and I see value in Christian morality - the parts about love and tolerance, not the parts that have been twisted to justify hatred. I don't judge religion by things like the Crusades any more than I judge all Germans by Hitler. I certainly don't see people who do believe as stupid for believing, though I do disagree. If what you believe holds meaning for you and does not interfere with my life, than I have no right to contradict you.

I also don't see religion and science as contradictory forces. That is primarily a modern viewpoint, and it's not really a true one. For example, Galileo was imprisoned not for his scientific discoveries, but for his heretical religious beliefs. Many early scientists saw their discoveries as a way of getting closer to God, by understanding how He had constructed the universe. For everyone who looks at scientific evidence as disproving religion, there are some who look at the amazing scope of the universe as proof of a divine creator. Obviously I've made clear which viewpoint I hold, but I really don't see religion and science as being in conflict. They're trying to answer different questions.

Moreover, religion has historically been the basis of morality. In the past, religion was the binding glue that held society together, expanding social bonds and forming a base on which society could be built. Without religion, we'd still be hunter-gatherers, only attached to our immediate families. I recognize that importance, and I understand that religion still holds that role to some extent today, serving as a source of hope and moral imperative for much of society. Watched people are nice people, so the concept of a supernatural watcher has merit in holding people to a particular moral code.

However, today's increasingly secular society is bound together by more than religion. Civil justice - the legal system - holds some of the same "watcher" role as a supernatural deity traditionally has in encouraging moral behavior. We are held together by communication and by a complex social contract, and although I respect religion's historical and moral role and I don't anticipate that it will be eliminated any time soon, I don't believe that religion is necessary anymore.

I believe that doing the right thing means less if you're doing it because you believe you were told to than because you believe it's right. Although I know people aren't perfect and often do need an overarching system as a reminder of moral behavior on a large scale, I don't think that that reminder has to be religion, and I don't personally put any faith in religious doctrine.

I can certainly understand the emotional appeal of religious belief. Religion offers comfort. It posits that you're never truly alone, that there is a purpose to everything, even if it isn't always clear, that those you love are never truly gone, that there is an ultimate justice in the world. I don't believe that emotional appeal should be a basis for belief, but I can certainly see the appeal, and I don't begrudge anyone who does believe the comfort that religion offers.

Since I understand the importance of religion, I understand the stigma against atheism. People see religion as the basis of morality, so they assume that rejecting it rejects that morality. They think that atheists are untrustworthy, because we have rejected the basis of the social contract and because we don't believe in an ultimate justice and therefore apparently have no incentive to behave rightly in the long term. They also think that in completely rejecting conventional beliefs, athists are deprecating their intelligence for still believing. The vocal, militant atheists like Richard Dawkins certainly haven't helped this opinion.

The fact that I understand the stigma against atheism doesn't mean that I like it, especially since the fact that it's understandable doesn't make it right. That's part of why I prefer to say that I'm a humanist - not only because of the stigma, but because atheism is a very broad term that really only says what I don't believe in, and I think that it's much more important what I do believe.

Even my dad, who is agnostic himself and in all other ways eminently reasonable, doesn't quite get it. He sees atheism as the arrogant certainty that there can be no God. That's why he prefers agnosticism, stating his lack of belief but admitting he doesn't know it all. I respect his position, but would like to make clear a fine but important distinction about my own. Atheism is the affirmative belief that there is no God. I honestly don't believe that God exists, but I also accept that I am fallible. I am no more absolutely certain than most theists are.

Perhaps I should say more about why I don't believe. It isn't anger. I didn't turn from my beliefs after some traumatic event. Although I honestly don't accept any of the explanations I've heard for the "If God is benevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient, then why do we suffer?" argument, I've heard a few very good ones, and that isn't my primary reason for my own lack of belief. It isn't disgust with the contradictions of religious doctrine, because I was raised Disciples of Christ and I can certainly support the overall message of love and tolerance. I'm a humanist, after all, and humanism could be justly described as "Judeo-Christian morality with God taken out."

I stopped believing because I stopped seeing God as necessary. I read the work of honest, decent atheists like Isaac Asimov and Douglas Adams, and learned that it was possible to be a moral person independent of religious belief. I discovered humanism, and found that the idea of making our own purpose in a purposeless world spoke to something in me. I learned more about science, and in seeing how reality created itself I wondered what role God had really played in any of it. I toyed with Deism - "God created the world and then left us to deal with it" - but couldn't see the point. In all honesty, I find myself unable to point to any one book, any one event, any one moment when I sat down and said to myself "I don't believe any more." I don't have just one reason. I made my choice because it felt right to me, and I am entirely comfortable in my lack of belief. If anyone else isn't, then that is their problem.

I don't believe in God, but I don't think that that's what really matters. I believe in helping people. I believe in finding my own purpose, and I believe that it means more if I choose my own way than if there is one laid out for me.

I believe that atheism isn't enough on its own, and that it will take the spread of some unified philosophy - it doesn't have to be humanism, but it certainly could be - before people as a whole learn that you don't need to have any faith in a deity to be a good person.

And if I reach the end and it turns out I'm wrong, then I shall take refuge in this wonderful quote by Isaac Asimov: "If I were not an atheist, I would believe in a God who would choose to save people on the basis of the totality of their lives and not the pattern of their words. I think he would prefer an honest and righteous atheist to a TV preacher whose every word is God, God, God, and whose every deed is foul, foul, foul."

Social Interaction and the Art of Faking It
vorel_laraek
As anyone who knows me will attest, I'm really not very good with people.

I'm not a recluse. I like people, and I have a handful of close friends whom I'm very lucky to know. I'm just not terribly good at being social.

My main problems are things I'm told are common in Aspergians - I have an odd sense of humor and almost no filter, and I tend to miss social cues. It can make things a bit difficult.

What I have learned is how to fake it with reasonable success. Being social doesn't come naturally to me, but I'm learning. Still have trouble with some of the finer points, but I'm learning nonetheless.

There are a number of things that really helped me to begin to figure this whole thing out. At this point I will begin to sound like a rather odd self-help book, but I really don't care.

1. Everyone else is faking it, too.
This is more a motivational thing than a strategy, but it's no less important. It is the simple revelation that nobody really knows what they're doing when it comes to other people, because while there are certainly guidelines, there are no set rules. It's easier for some than others and it generally improves with practice, but at the end of the day everyone's making it up as they go along. It sounds obvious, but it's part of where I got the courage to try the rest.

2. Confidence
One of the more interesting guidelines for human interaction is that people are strongly attracted to confidence - and that I do have. Actually, what I have borders on and sometimes crosses into arrogance, but I'm working on that bit. Regardless, if I act like I know what I'm doing, people assume that I do. If I can make the attempt to talk and laugh at myself when I inevitably make a mistake, then I can get pretty far.
2b. People, in general, are fairly nice. Confidence is not just engaging when talked to, but having the courage to initiate. People generally respond well if engaged with a grin and an interesting topic. Still working on this bit.

3. Smiling
This one also sounds obvious, but it's more helpful than you might realize. People respond well to amiability - if you grin, they grin back, and everything starts out on a pleasant footing. I'm a fairly happy person and I learned years ago to give a genuine smile on command because it was useful for taking pictures, so this isn't too hard.

4. Questions
People like to talk about themselves. I do know this - get me started on myself, and I can keep talking long after anyone's interested. I did say I was bad at this. One of the tricks to being social is remembering that everyone else enjoys talking about themselves as well. It is therefore helpful to make "small talk" - to ask questions and seem interested in the minutia of other people's lives. Even if I don't much care, I have to seem as if I do and to try to remember the data gleaned in this manner. I'm still working on that second bit. I started trying to ask more questions because I finally realized that I talked too much (a realization which took far too long to come, but again I'm not that good at this). I kept trying because I realized that other people are capable of being interesting (Sometimes. But even if they aren't, it behooves me to act as if they are.). Of course, I'm not always terribly good at thinking of questions to ask, but making the attempt seems to count for a fair bit.

5. Social Filter
There are things that should not be talked about in mixed company. Most of these I learn by rote, because not only do I miss social cues I'm open-minded and somewhat difficult to embarrass, but these are apparently important to know. This is not just the obvious, like sex, but casual comments about God and the nonexistence thereof. Those are a bit not good.
5b. People are often offended by swearing, even if I'm not. Use alternatives - frak, for example. Avoids offense, and adds to the geek-girl image. Or kuso, which at least isn't rude in English. Or 'Gods,' which is a good alternative even given lack of belief. The plural, to me, makes it less specific to a particular religious allegiance.

6. Paying Attention
I'm terrible at this one, which given its importance is quite unfortunate. Paying attention to other people - and judging when they're interested in what you're saying - is really, really important in conversation. It's also important to take note of what they're saying, because I am expected to respond appropriately. Proper attention is important in general - this all has to do with those social cues that so often fly directly over my head.

7. Politeness
Sometimes confusing - the level required varies based on situation, and Mom always tells me to be more polite than whoever I'm talking to seems to require. Do I really need to call everyone older than me ma'am or sir? I have no objections to the titles as terms of respect, but I do not extend respect merely based on age. Conclusion: Mom is Southern and sometimes over-formal. But she isn't wrong about being polite to people being important. People are less likely to be forgiving of foibles if I'm rude, and though I can fake being sociable, normal is quite beyond me.

8. Make an Effort
Try to interact with people. Do not retreat to the book. I may be happy to put it down and talk, but people who see me reading don't know that. And apparently it's rude.

9. Communicate
People cannot read my mind, and I should not assume that they can. If I have a concern - or an idea, or a passing interest - it helps to mention it.

10. Compassion
Caring about people's problems - and showing this emotion appropriately - is important to friendship. I have no problems with the caring part, but beyond "that sucks," I often have no idea what to do to commiserate. Listening seems to be helpful in and of itself, though, and that I can do.

11. Don't Be Afraid to Fake It - Everyone Else Is!

All of these are merely guidelines, gleaned from parental advice, experience, and good fiction (taken with several grains of salt to account for imperfect realism), but I think they're useful. And I do have friends, who are excellent if not terribly numerous, so I must be doing something right.

On Mary Sues
vorel_laraek
In fandom, Mary Sue is one of the most loathed terms - and one of the worst defined, since it seems to be used to attack any character whom someone dislikes.

My default definition is "a character so perfect, you loathe her," but that's not quite accurate.

Ebony Dark'ness Raven Way, from My Immortal, slits her wrists, curses constantly, and generally makes an ass of herself. She's a long way from perfect, but she's still indubitably a Mary Sue.

Conversely, Superman is essentially perfect - handsome, genius, morally upright, absolute laundry list of powers, precisely one weakness (and Kryptonite is hardly a character flaw). If perfection is the problem, then he should be terrible, but he's one of the most beloved heroes of all time.

So clearly, perfection is not what makes a Mary Sue. Then what is?

Maybe flawless is probably a better term than perfect - a Mary Sue is, essentially a blank. They have no real flaws because they don't have that much character - and what flaws they do have are superficial, like clumsiness or an arbitrary weakness. However, Mary Sues are generally treated as perfect within their stories, and we tend to hate their perceived perfection because perfection is uninteresting, and we can't relate to them.

Superman isn't a Mary Sue because he's an escapist character - we don't hate his perfection, we want to emulate it. Instead of being shallow, he's a paragon. He demonstrates his awesome by acting it out. Sir Percy Blakeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel, is another escapist character: handsome, intelligent, brave, rich, and a good enough actor to successfully fool the entire English aristocracy into thinking him an idiot. Escapist characters are fairly hard to write well, since it's rather difficult to make a character "perfect" while still leaving them with an interesting problem to solve, but they do exist. They share some elements with Mary Sues, but are deeper, more interesting characters. Some Sues are just poorly-done escapist characters.

Of course, that a character is not an escapist character does not necessarily mean that we don't want to emulate them, because they can be - and often are - still very cool. It just means that we don't actually want to be them, if we're honest. I love Buffy, but I really wouldn't want to deal with her hero complex - or Sherlock Holmes's drug habit, or the Doctor's crippling guilt. Escapists are paragons - they're above all that. It can make them hard to relate to, so they're really, really hard to write well, but they're interesting when they're properly realized.

Most good fictional characters are neither escapists nor Mary Sues - they're just people, flawed and relatable and dealing with problems that the audience can understand. We don't all have to go and fight monsters every night to understand Buffy - we all understand when she deals with love and loss and pain, whatever the circumstances.

Mary Sues aren't like other characters. They don't have much in the way of real personality, but what distinguishes them from faceless blanks is that they - and their authors - think that they're more interesting than they are. A Mary Sue tends to have a laundry list of powers and descriptions and detailed histories, all focused on how very special they are. A lot of "Mary Sue Tests" look for these descriptors, since they're fair barometers of a Sue, but things like unusual names and hair colors or reality-bending powers aren't really inherently bad. What really makes a Mary Sue is that there isn't anything behind the description.

Let's play a game: try to describe each of the following characters. You may not use physical descriptors, professions, species, or any other descriptors of what they are - stick to words describing who they are. So girl, vampire, hero, wizard, and the like are all out, as are superficial descriptors like 'clumsy' or 'beautiful.'

Bella Swan: bland?
Ebony Dark'ness Raven Way: bitchy, self-centered
Superman: moral, loyal, dedicated, heroic, just
Sir Percy Blakeney: brave, determined, clever, facile, deceptive, loyal
Sherlock Holmes (BBC version): brilliant, arrogant, curious, self-destructive, obsessive, rude, callous, focused, petulant

Now I am biased and I admit it, but I honestly couldn't think of many for the first two. Strip away the trappings, and who has character left?

A Mary Sue often springs from a bad self-insert. Self-insert is actually an important form of writing, but it's really very difficult to make yourself a character in your story. To do it well, you have to be honest with yourself about your flaws. You have to determine what really makes you who you are, positive and negative, and then put it out there for the world to see, and that's not easy. When an inexperienced writer tries to write a self-insert, they try to "fix" their own flaws, and the results are so blandly idealized that they aren't really the author anymore - they're just Mary Sues, bland, shallow, and "flawless."

Mary Sues are black holes in the plot of a story - they draw all attention towards themselves, making what could be otherwise interesting stories revolve around them to the point of destruction.

Ebony destroys Harry Potter by making Hogwarts revolve around her. Every canon character is a parody of themselves - witness the Golden Trio transferred to Slytherin for Satanism (because Ebony converted them), Dumbledore screaming in rage (at Ebony's transgression), and Draco Malfoy becoming obsessed with her, his character distorting as he "falls in love" (with Ebony). Everything wrong with My Immortal can be traced directly to the story's revolution around Ebony, because she's a quintessential Mary Sue.

Similarly, Twilight has a number of interesting elements and characters, which can be explored in good fic. Alice is awesome, as is Carlisle, and the Volturi are genuinely very cool. However, everything that could have been interesting about Twilight is dragged into the darkness by Bella, a blatant Mary Sue. Edward's very interest in her - because she "smells good" - is textbook Sue. Everything instantly focuses on her, and anything interesting falls by the wayside.

Mary Sues aren't necessarily perfect from an outside perspective, but they are portrayed as perfect and other characters generally immediately love them. Those that dislike them are often portrayed as terrible people. The plot of the story twists to completely revolve around the Sue, and the Sue, being shallow and uninteresting, cannot carry the story alone. When she tries, the story collapses around itself.

Because the plot of a Sue's story revolves around her, whatever problems appear in the story are generally superficial and relatively easily resolved - again, boring.

When Edward leaves in New Moon, instead of having any actual character development, such as realizing that she's capable of living without him (she isn't), Bella lays about for months. After she finally wakes up, she has a small chance with Jacob to actually become interesting. She returns to obsession with Edward soon enough, though, even trying to kill herself to get back to him (Why is this positively portrayed?). She eventually does find him again, and then they're back to their rather creepy state of bliss. In summation, he leaves, it's sad, he comes back, it's happy. Bella has spent an entire book without learning anything, and nothing has really changed. She's a Mary Sue - she doesn't have to change and she doesn't have to learn anything because her problems can be solved for her. Which is, of course, rather boring to read about.

For a story to be interesting, it requires conflict. There has to be something to fight - yourself, nature, another character, or any combination thereof. Mary Sues tend to eliminate interesting conflict. They don't have real personalities, so they can't really fight themselves. The world revolves around them, so it's hard to fight nature. And other characters either love them or are blatantly evil, making them uninteresting sources of interpersonal conflict. A Mary Sue tries to be interesting, but her author doesn't really understand characterization and the result tends to make that obvious.

Ponies, and the Decline Thereof
vorel_laraek
I love My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. I think it's a clever, funny show, sweet without being saccharine and with genuinely good morals. At least, it was - given Season 3, that description seems less accurate. Hasbro has officially sold quality, consistency, and artistic integrity to the great and greedy Gods of Profit.

The whole season has been a bit off. Still well-drawn, well-acted, and well-made, and still funny, but it wasn't really amazing - certainly not up to its previous standards.

In particular, they've stopped caring about continuity. This dates back to Season 2 - Cadence's very existence as a third alicorn is unnecessary (unless your goal is to sell more Princess toys), and completely breaks the mythology of the series. "Just for Sidekicks" makes gems suddenly and inexplicably valuable in a way that belies their former commonness - and uses them as currency, despite the fact that Equestria has been established to use gold coins called "bits." Pinkie Pie's always been random, but now she seems to exist to turn up, say something stupid and funny, and disappear again. She's been reduced to a gag. Magical Mystery Cure could have been great - the idea certainly was - but Hasbro crammed two or three episodes of material into one, and the result was so ludicrously rushed that I could hardly enjoy it. Rainbow goes to Wonderbolt Academy, but it's never mentioned again after the episode - nor is the Equestria Games, which could have made an excellent finale had they actually made time for it. Continuity and consistency seem to have gone out the window, and it's driven a lovely show straight over the shark.

This is particularly jarring because MLP, at least in Season One, had a really wonderfully consistent world - it all fit together, and it all connected into an interesting mythology and a coherent medieval setting that was fun to watch and fun to play with in fic. Then they broke it.

Now, you may say that I'm being pedantic, that it's "just a kids' show" - why should it matter so much if it's consistent? It's not like the kids will notice.

That's a disservice to kids, though - they notice more than adults tend to realize, and they have the right to expect quality entertainment. To say that a show is "just a kids show," and is therefore permitted to be lower quality, is to accustom kids to poor entertainment - and to raise the next generation of Twilight readers.

Moreover, no truly good kids show is only for kids - anything really good can be watched by parents as well, because the good shows are intelligent, and make a point that even someone older can appreciate. There's a reason that there are as many older bronies as younger ones. Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra are also great examples - I watched those with Dad, and he loved them, because though Avatar in particular is technically aimed at young audiences, it isn't just a kids' show.

That's what I love about MLP, more than the art or the humor or the magic. It's more than just a kids show. It makes a genuine point about friendship and love that is no less valuable for being adorably presented. It united a sizable portion of the internet in the service of love and tolerance. It spawned one of my favorite works of philosophy - a fic that taught me a lot about the nature of consciouness and the soul, as well as containing one of my favorite poems (It's at the very end of the chapter). My Little Pony is far better than "just a kids show," and to see it diminished is painful.

Basically, f**k you, Hasbro. F**k you with a rusty piece of pipe for destroying something beautiful just so you could sell a few more f**king toys.

On Shipping
vorel_laraek
One of the things that is simultaneously a lot of fun and highly annoying about fandom is shipping.

I've heard it said that shipping occurs when young, inexperienced authors misinterpret every relationship as inherently sexual, but though there's certainly an element of that, I don't think that that covers it.

Humanity as a species is obsessed with sex, and we love to have a romantic element to any story. We want our favorite characters to be happy, however they reach that point.

In fandom, this often means creating your own romances, sometimes on tenuous grounds and often regardless of canon, sexuality, species, or sanity.

It's annoying because so very much of the really good writing is shippy, and it makes it really hard to recommend things to people outside fandom. Shipping is part of the reason for fanfiction's reputation as drek - even if it's very well-done, it's rather hard to explain seriously, especially if the pairing is odd.

On the other hand, a lot of the really good writing is shippy, and that the romance isn't necessarily canon doesn't make it any less of a good romance. It's no different from AU, really. It's just that the thing changed in this universe is that these two (or more) characters are attracted to each other. If the author's any good, then the rest of it can flow from there.

As long as the characters stay in character, I have no problem whatsoever with shipping - quite the opposite, really. I like a good romance, and I like for my favorite characters to be happy.

I don't even mind - though I understand why some do - if a character's sexuality is meddled with to make the pairing work, because sexuality isn't character. It is certainly a part of identity and as such can shape character, but it isn't itself an element of personality. As long as the characters are recognizably themselves - and given a good writer, many more things (age, gender, species, etc.) can be changed without endangering that - it's all fine.

Though I see their canon relationship as more of an epic bromance, I'm really rather fond of Johnlock.

All this said, there are a few things (incest comes to mind) that I simply won't read. I still think that they could be done believably if well-written, but I have no desire to believe in them.

What I Believe In
vorel_laraek
I believe that life - all life - has value.

I believe in that freedom of choice is vitally important.

I believe that as long as you don't harm anyone else, you should be able to do whatever you want with your life.

I believe that the vast majority of people are idiots.

I believe that more damage is done by ignorance than malice, and that people have the capacity to do better.

I believe that there is no god.

I believe that there is no necessity for a supernatural deity.

I believe that humans can live life well here on earth, without looking to any afterlife as a reward or a punishment.

I believe that moral choices that we make because we believe them to be right mean infinitely more than moral choices made because we believe that some deity would be pleased by them.

I believe that though we do not understand everything about how our universe works, we can and will find the answers through science.

I believe that the supernatural is purely the realm of fiction, and that to look for supernatural answers for real questions is lazy thinking and closes questions that should be open.

I believe that organized religion can and does serve as a moral center and a source of hope for some people, and that as much good has been done in its name as evil.

I believe that we forge our own futures, and that we do not need to rely on destiny or fate.

I believe that aliens are out there somewhere, simply because the universe is too large for us to be the only intelligent life around.

I believe that aliens - if we ever actually meet them or establish communication, which is rather unlikely at the moment - will look nothing like anything on Star Trek.

I believe that the world tends to run on power - who has it, and who does not.

I believe that it is the responsibility of those with power to temper it with compassion.

I believe that addiction should be a medical issue, not a criminal one.

I believe that confidence is paramount in nearly every activity from driving to social interaction, because it covers a lack of skill and enhances what skill you have.

I believe that confidence is different from arrogance. Confidence is the ability to keep going if you make a mistake, to be willing to put yourself out there, and to believe that you're capable of doing well. Arrogance is the inability to admit that you can make mistakes.

I believe that there are no set rules for social interaction, for life, or for relationships. There are guidelines, but in the end everyone's muddling through.

I believe that despite the lack of set rules, communication, confidence, and compassion cover quite a lot.

I believe that education is essential for everyone, because we can only make our choices based on what we know.

I believe that the world can be wonderful as well as terrible, and that it never pays to assume everything to be awful.

I believe that there is a difference between optimism and naivete.

I believe that although not all people are equal, it is essential to treat them as if they are.

I believe that the only way to measure a person's value is on an individual level, on terms of competence and personality, and that things like sexuality, gender, and race should not affect that measurement.

I believe that though death is awful and irreversible and should never be chosen easily or lightly, sometimes it is necessary. I believe that this applies to the death penalty, to abortion, and even to suicide, in the right circumstances.

I believe that as long as all participants are consenting adults and all reasonable precautions are taken (condoms, safewords, etc.), people should be able to take pleasure in whatever they like.

I believe that sexuality and gender identity are far more complex than a simple binary, and that people should be able to be themselves, whoever that may be.

I believe that love is far too valuable to take issue with the forms that it takes.

I believe that love is knowing another person wholly, warts and all, and accepting every part of them.

I believe that nobody is destined to have just one partner or one person to love - if your perfect match is one in a million, then logically several thousand people exist who you could be happy with.

I believe that love is beautiful even if it isn't perfect, and perhaps because it isn't perfect.

I believe that love is something that people build together over time.

I believe that love isn't always easy, nor is it always enough on its own.

I believe that there is more than one kind of love, and that not all of those kinds are sexual.

I believe that forgiveness is deciding that the other person matters more to you than your pain at being wronged.

I believe that nothing is completely original, because everything builds on what came before it.

I believe that though the world can be terrible and life can suck sometimes, a good book, good music, and a good friend make up for quite a lot.

I believe that good communication is infinitely valuable in all areas of life.

I believe that although everyone is different, in the ways that matter we are all the same.

I believe that life is empty without something to believe in, whatever that may be.

I believe.

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