Monday Snippits: Merit Badges

NOTE: Don't forget to enter my Super Contest of Awesome to win free books!
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So I found THIS completely awesome website over the weekend, and thought I'd share it with you.

This is the badge I know I have:




This is the one I'm working on:




How about you? If you could get a merit badge for anything, what would it be?

Friends around the world

NOTE: Don't forget to enter my Super Contest of Awesome to win free books!
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My brother-in-law recently posted a list of the top five countries (outside the US) that visit his blog.  I thought that was rather fun, and so I have blatantly stolen his idea.  Here are my top five for the last month.

1. United Kingdom: the top five visiting cities being London, Bristol, Manchester, Belfast and Nottingham.

2. Canada:  top five are Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Calagary and Winnipeg.

3. Australia contributed quite a few, including Melbourne, Sidney, Brisbane, Perth and Canberra.

4. Germany chimed in with Duisberg, Hamberg, Hannover, Sulzbach and Essen

5. And finally the Netherlands, with Hilversum, Gouda, Boxtel, Amsterdam and Rhenen

I'm not sure what this demonstrates, (except that the blog seems to attract views from cities that are hard to spell) but it was fun to look up.

So thank you all of my top five, and everyone else around the world who drops in now and again. You are all full of awesome! *waves*

How about you? Where are YOU from?

Super-Duper Awesome Book Contest!

In honor of all my fabulous followers, I'm giving away some books. And not just one book, not just two books, no. The winner gets THEIR CHOICE of one of three great book packages.

You could win...

THE ZOMBIE PACK


Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith and Jane Austen
Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Ben Winters and Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls by Steve Hockensmith

 Or...

 THE DRAMATIC FICTION PACK


My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult 
Vanishing Acts by Jodi Picoult
Sisters by Danielle Steel

 Or...

THE SUPER-DUPER YA PACK


Graceling (The Seven Kingdoms Trilogy, #1) by Kristin Cashore
I was a Non Blonde Cheerleader by Kieran Scott  
Does My Head Look Big In This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah
Eternal (Tantalize, #2) by Cynthia Leitich Smith


Entering is simple.

1, Follow my blog

AND/OR

2. Leave a comment on this post telling me which of these prizes you would want and why.

The winner will be picked next Wednsday via random number generator, and will receive the awsome book package of their choice.

Ready, set, go!

Double post day!

Yes, it's true. Today is the day of my Super Contest of Awesome, in which I will give away books in honor of having 100 followers.

However, that post must wait until I get home this afternoon. So, for your amusement and delight, I'd like to introduce you to Josiah, my newly-official nephew.




And these are all three of my sister's kids:



All in all, I'd say the weekend was a success, wouldn't you?

Be sure to check back later today for contest details!

Monday announcements

1.  I am now the proud possessor of a Nook!  And I'm not sure which is more awesome, the Nook itself, or the fact that my husband adores it. He got a free copy of Dracula and has been devouring it. (This is extra funny because my husband does not like vampires.)

2. I am still at ninety-nine followers, which means I can't have a Super-Awesome-Book-Giveaway yet. But I have faith. One hundred is coming....  EDIT: I'm over one-hundred!! Hooray!! Contest info coming up...

3. As some of you know, I'm up in CdA, which is why I wasn't around this weekend. What you may not know is that I'm up here for another adoption. This afternoon was family bowling with my sister's kids, and tomorrow is the official court day. Hooray!

How was your weekend?

When writers make music videos

Jeff Foxworthy once said that all comedians do comedy because they can't sing, which may or may not be true of comedians, but is certainly NOT true of writers.  To prove it, here are a couple of videos the Internet sent my way this week.
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Writer's Blok- by Jackson Pearce, via Saudra Mitchell


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Signing in the Waldenbooks by Parnell Hall, via a bunch of people on my Twitter feed.


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Also, you might notice that the number of followers on this blog is currently at ninety-nine, and has been there for about a week.  In honor of this almost-milestone, I've decided that when I reach one hundred followers, I will have...

A CONTEST!  In which I will give away BOOKS!  *cheers*

Now, all I need is one more follower...

Reviews, reviews

For those of you who missed it, on Monday I gave you a look at my bookshelf and things I've recently read. Now it's time for a review of those same books.

Ready? Here we go!
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Graceling (The Seven Kingdoms Trilogy, #1) by Kristin Cashore Graceling (The Seven Kingdoms Trilogy, #1) Cashore, Kristin

On this one, I LOVED the concept. LOVED it. As you know, I'm a sucker for Super-Competent characters, and a girl who's an unbeatable assassin falls under that heading very nicely.  The writing was solid and the characters were realistically drawn.

That said, I didn't resonate with the characters as much as I would have liked. It could just be a personality thing, since Katsa, the MC, and I have very different opinions and reactions to certain things, and so it was harder to identify with her.  HOWEVER, because Cashore's writing is so good, I was definitely rooting for her, and anxious to see how everything turned out. A fun and solid read. 4 stars

Incarceron (Incarceron, #1) by Catherine Fisher Incarceron (Incarceron, #1) Fisher, Catherine


There's been a lot of talk about dystopias floating around my corner of the Interwebs, like this whole series of posts by my friend Beth, and this book is one of the most unusual dystopians I've ever read. A vast prison that no one can find and no one can get out of. (No, really, you can't.) A prison intended to create a utopia that failed. A prison that's ALIVE, in a very creepy Hal 9000 sort of way. I kept expecting it to say "I can't do that Dave."

This is an excellent book for the study of creating tension. Even in low-action periods, there are things that Fisher does that make you even more anxious to find out what happens. For dystopia fans, a must-read. 4 stars


The Hunger Games (Hunger Games, #1) by Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games (Hunger Games, #1) Collins, Suzanne

And speaking of excellent dystopias, this book is one of them. Right after I read it, I couldn't wait to recommend it to a friend of mine, who then not only read it, but went out and bought the second one and loaned it to me.

This one hit all the right notes with me, an inventive, resourceful character that I resonated with, a very cool concept (teenagers forced to fight for survival for the entertainment of the Capitol), smooth writing, and some VERY powerful enemies that made me wonder how this girl was ever going to survive. 5 stars


Catching Fire (Hunger Games, #2) by Suzanne Collins Catching Fire (Hunger Games, #2) Collins, Suzanne

And the sequl was just as good. Had a little more set-up, and some more interpersonal drama than the first one, but the tension clipped along at a good pace, and the stakes just kept rising and rising and rising...

This series is an excellent example of one of Terry Brook's rules for writing. The strength of the protagonist is measured by the threat of the antagonist. Again and again, I found myself wondering how the MC, or indeed any of them, was going to avoid being crushed like bugs by the Capitol. Are they going to win in the third book? I have no idea. And that's awesome. 5 stars.


City of Bones (Mortal Instruments, #1) by Cassandra Clare City of Bones (Mortal Instruments, #1) Clare, Cassandra

You would think with all the urban paranormals (i.e. vampires, werewolves, city streets, etc.) out there, that there wouldn't be any new ways to tell that kind of story.  You would be wrong.

City of Bones puts a fresh spin on the urban paranormal, largely by regulating the vampires and werewolves to bit players and focusing on demons and their nemeses, the Shadowhunters. The main character is a fairly ordinary girl trying to deal with a paranormal world that she's suddenly stepped into. There are a couple of nice twists to keep the story interesting, and the writing is lush and descriptive. If you like urban paranormals, you should definitely give this a read. 4 stars
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What I found the most interesting about these books was that I liked them all for different reasons. Graceling for concept, Incarceron for tension, The Hunger Games and Catching Fire for worldbuilding and strong antagonists, and City of Bones for description and characters.

Has anyone else read books that they liked for wildly different reasons?

Monday Snippits: A peek at my bookshelf

So if you look at my bookshelf lately, you'd notice that I'm catching up on my YA to-read list. Specifically, I've been trying to read those wildly-popular-everyone-talks-about-them books that I just hadn't gotten around to yet.

Here's what I've got so far:


Graceling (The Seven Kingdoms Trilogy, #1) by Kristin Cashore Graceling (The Seven Kingdoms Trilogy, #1) Cashore, Kristin

Incarceron (Incarceron, #1) by Catherine Fisher Incarceron (Incarceron, #1) Fisher, Catherine

The Hunger Games (Hunger Games, #1) by Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games (Hunger Games, #1) Collins, Suzanne

Catching Fire (Hunger Games, #2) by Suzanne Collins Catching Fire (Hunger Games, #2) Collins, Suzanne

City of Bones (Mortal Instruments, #1) by Cassandra Clare City of Bones (Mortal Instruments, #1) Clare, Cassandra
 

Now, I'll give you my reviews of these in the next post, but for now I want to hear your opinions. Has anyone else read these? What did you think?

Some Saturday Inspiration

It's been a hard month in my neck of the woods, and I'm feeling a little stalled out.

A little stuck.

A bit discouraged.

When I need some encouragement, I tend to repeat things to myself, and all day today I've been muttering this poem:
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Listen to the Mustn'ts
by Shel Silverstein

Listen to Mustn'ts, child, listen to the Don'ts.
Listen to the Shouldn'ts, the Impossibles, the Won'ts.
Listen to the Never Haves, then listen close to me.

      Anything can happen, child. Anything can be. 
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 What about you? What do you tell yourself when you feel stuck?

Character is destiny, part 6: Never underestimate the Everyman

 This is part of a six-part series on characters that I'm doing. You can find the other parts here:
~Character is destiny, part 1: The Edward/Bella dilemma.
~Character is destiny, part 2: The Character Store
~Character is destiny, part 3: Character Store, cont.
~Character is destiny, part 4: Who gets to be the catalyst? 
~Character is destiny, part 5: Building a villain 
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As I mentioned in the first post of this series, one of the things that started me thinking about character was reading the Midnight Sun excerpt by Stephanie Meyer.

The other one, oddly enough, was re-watching the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (Clearly the key to good characterization is vampires.)  As strange as it may sound, I started thinking more about characters and the roles they play by watching one of the least powerful people in the series, Xander.
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For those of you who hated/never heard of/can't remember the Buffy series, it was basically about a girl born to kill vampires. She's super-strong, super-fast, etc. Her friends are witches, ex-demons, werewolves, and even a couple of vampires.   And Xander. 

Xander is one of Buffy's friends in high school, and when I re-watched the show, I was amazed by how truely dislike-able his character is. He's awkward, impulsive, insensitive, arrogant, has a temper, doesn't see his best friend is in love with him, and can't seem to settle down with any one girl without secretly also wanting someone else.  He has no powers, can't win a fight to save his life, isn't super smart or charming and is only occasionally funny.

In short, Xander is the Everyman.  But  he does have one outstanding quality. He's not a coward, and he doesn't abandon his friends. And as a result of that, at the end of season one, Xander saves the world.
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Here's how it goes: Buffy fights this big, mean, mega-vampire and he drowns her. Xander, who has, against all orders, followed her (and brought the requisite "good-yet-tortured-vampire" with him) shows up, pulls her out of the water and gives her CPR. He's the only one around who can do this, since vampires don't breathe.

Buffy revives, kills the master and stops Armageddon.

Because of Xander.
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Terry Brooks, in his book Sometimes the Magic Works, talks about the strongest similarity that he sees between his Shannara books and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy. I don't have the exact quote because I loaned the book out, but it goes something like this:

"In all this discussion, no one ever mentions the similarity that I think is the clearest....My characters.. are written in the same vein as Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee. It was Tolkien's genius to make the hero of his story neither king nor wizard, but just an ordinary man trying to do the right thing."

Orson Scott Card says something along the same lines in his book How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy:

"Remember, you look for characters with both the power AND the freedom to act... Kings and queens and dukes and duchesses--they can be extravagantly powerful, yes, but too often they aren't free at all... The lives of commanders and kings are generally going to be above the most interesting action. The really neat stuff is going to be happening to the people on the cutting edge, frontline troops, scouts, etc."

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For writers, especially those of us in fantasy and other genre fiction, I think the temptation is to veer away from ordinary people as main characters. We want special, we want magical, we want powerful wizards and chosen ones and princesses and people with grand destinies already laid out before them.

And that's okay, to an extent. But if you're having trouble making your story compelling, if you can't find the emotional center of the book, try adding an Everyman. Write about the princess's servant, like Shannon Hale did in The Book of a Thousand Days. Write about the wizard's assistant, or the king's food-taster, or even just give your hero an ordinary best friend, like Harry and Ron in the Harry Potter books.

Give your readers someone to really identify with. Write about people like you and me.
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Any thoughts? Do you have a favorite Everyman character?

Character is destiny, part 5: Building a villain

This is part of a six-part series on characters that I'm doing. You can find the other parts here:
~Character is destiny, part 1: The Edward/Bella dilemma.
~Character is destiny, part 2: The Character Store
~Character is destiny, part 3: Character Store, cont.
~Character is destiny, part 4: Who gets to be the catalyst? 
~Character is destiny, part 6: Never underestimate the Everyman  
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The strength of the protagonist is measured by the threat of the antagonist~ Terry Brooks,

Not every story has an actual villain. And though every story needs conflict, not every story needs a person to be the antagonist.

However, a well-written bad guy can add suspense and interest to pretty much anything.  But how do you know what kind of villain your story needs? Fortunately villains, like other characters, fall into some recognizable types. And by mixing and matching them, you can make a villain for all occasions.

(I've listed some of the types here, but I've left out the examples this time because I want to hear from you, and who YOU think are examples of great villains.)
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Epic:  An Epic villain, like Sauron from The Lord of the Rings, is mainly distinguished by the resources they have at their disposal. Sauron is epic because of his vast armies and his almost unstoppable powers. Darth Vader is the same way.  Any of the villain types below can be epic if you give them enough power, be it manpower, political power, technology or magic.

Intelligent/Organized:  A lot of serial killers and government-conspiracy bad guys fall into this category. They're formidable because they are so hard to out-think. They lay elaborate plans, and they have a plan for every contingency. These villains often like to play games with their opponents just for the fun of it. They are very hard to defeat, but generally a chink can be found in their overconfidence.

A sub-set of the Intelligent/Organized villain is the Ruthless villain. Ruthless villains don't have to be particularly smart or organized, they just have to be callous enough to take down people who oppose them, and possess enough power to do so. (Many high-school antagonists fall into this category.)

Creepy/Calm: This one was a favorite in the reader poll I did. There's just something about a calm villain that's deliciously freaky. And in some instances, like evil children, a calm killer can be downright disturbing.  These villains are marked by their lack of emotion, they don't even really show anger or excitement. You feel like they could do any atrocity as casually as a normal person would squish a bug.

Stubborn/Selfish:  This is a popular villain for disaster movies, the short-sighted bureaucracy that refuses to admit the danger lest it hurt tourism. They aren't necessarily trying to hurt anyone, and they may have the best of intentions, but they are still endangering people and obstructing the protagonist's goal. In many of these stories, the stubborn villain ends up dying, a victim of the very thing they were in denial about.

Bumbling/Wormy: This is a type usually reserved for the villain's sidekick, although you can use it for a primary bad guy if you're brave. The Wormy Guy is usually less powerful and less charismatic than his master. He may follow out of fear, worship, or hope of personal gain. This bad guy is useful for the better class villains because they do a lot of the grunt work, like stealing things, or spying, that the villain doesn't care to stoop to.


Gradually Unhinged: This might be the hardest one to write, the perfectly normal person who's only a little "off", but gradually starts to crack as the story progresses. Such people are generally used to intensify the plot, adding complication to the protagonist's life right when they can least afford it. Sometimes this person is even a member of the protagonist's inner circle, though not always.
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Now it's your turn.  Do you have any examples of good villains?

(Coming next: Character is destiny, part 6: Never underestimate the Everyman)

Character is destiny, part 4: Who gets to be the catalyst?

This is part of a six-part series on characters that I'm doing. You can find the other parts here:
~Character is destiny, part 1: The Edward/Bella dilemma.
~Character is destiny, part 2: The Character Store
~Character is destiny, part 3: Character Store, cont.
~Character is destiny, part 5: Building a villain
~Character is destiny, part 6: Never underestimate the Everyman 
 
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Catalyst: a substance that initiates or accelerates a chemical reaction without itself being affected.

Some of you right now are reading the title of this post and scratching your heads.  Why am I talking about catalysts in a post about characters? Aren't catalysts, or inciting incidents, as some people call them, part of the plot?

Well, yes.

But in fiction, as in real life, incidents don't just HAPPEN. People make them happen. Sometimes a lot of people make something happen, sometimes it only takes one. And even when an incident can be classified as an Act of God, the effect of the incident depends on the people involved.

To use a recent example: An earthquake in a desperately poor country like Haiti will have a different effect than one that strikes New York or LA, because the people and culture involved are different.
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Remember in the first post of the series when I asked you "Who has the power?"  Well, figuring out which of your characters is the catalyst is a good way to find out who has the power. Or to give power to a character that needs it.

You can have more than one catalyst in a story, in fact, most stories have at least two.  In the movie, The Mummy, the catalyst for the main conflict is when Evelyn reads from the Book of the Dead and releases the mummy.  But the catalyst, or inciting incident for the story itself, is when Johnathon, (her brother, and the Trickster character in the story) gives her a puzzle box he stole off a drunk.

Johnathan is mostly comic relief for the rest of the story, but the fact that HE was the one who started the whole thing off gives his character substance. And since it was Evie who awoke the Mummy, it gives her an incentive to face off against an ancient evil instead of running away. (Evie needs that piece of motivation to be plausible because she is a somewhat clumsy Intellectual character and not a person of action.)
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In many good vs. evil stories, the catalysts are shared between the protagonist and the antagonist.  In The Lord of the Rings, Sauron's rise to power is a catalyst in and of itself. But Bilbo Baggins's accidental finding of a magic ring in The Hobbit, and later giving it to Frodo, is also a catalyst. And one that will ultimately prove to be Sauron's undoing.

This dynamic is extremely common with murder mysteries, and suspense. Because the antagonist gets the first catalyst (usually a murder or explosion), they're instantly set up as powerful characters. The protagonist's decision to chase the enemy is the catalyst that draws us into the conflict.
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Finding those catalyst moments can also be a good way to solve the problem of passive or helpless characters.

In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo gets a catalyst moment, when the council decides that the only way to destroy the ring is to drop it in the fires of Mordor. The members fall to arguing over who will take the ring, and Frodo, the least powerful character in the group, stands up and volunteers.

This is a character who has spent most of the first part of the movie running away, and much of the latter part being protected by others. But because he's the one who volunteered at that critical moment, he retains his power, and when he decides to go off on his own at the end of the movie, we believe it.
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Any thoughts? Can you think of other uses for characters and catalysts?

Character is destiny, part 3: Character store, cont.

This is part of a six-part series on characters that I'm doing. You can find the other parts here:
~Character is destiny, part 1: The Edward/Bella dilemma.
~Character is destiny, part 2: The Character Store
~Character is destiny, part 4: Who gets to be the catalyst?
~Character is destiny, part 5: Building a villain
~Character is destiny, part 6: Never underestimate the Everyman  
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As I've mentioned before, I asked my blog readers to tell me their favorite kinds of characters, and this is part two of the list that they came up with.

It's not all the list though, because several people listed certain types of villains as their favorites, and villains are another post entirely.  

Ready to meet more characters! Here we go!
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The Adventurer/Survivalist: This is one of the most popular characters in action/adventure, and horror fiction. The Adventurer is generally clever, athletic and inventive and good with weapons and/or fists.  They're often running off to exotic locations, fighting evil villains, or locating hidden treasure. 

Adventurers may not have the most intricate character development or the best conversational abilities, but they're famous for their knack for getting out of impossible situations and overcoming any odds to save the day.  (The Survivalist may or may not be any of these things, but they are almost always inventive, which is how they survive the apocalypse/horror movie in the first place.)

Movies with Adventurer/Survivalists:  Indiana Jones, The Mummy, G.I. Joe, I am Legend
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The Super-Competent:  At first glace, the Super-Competent character is very much like the Adventurer, but there are several distinct differences. To begin with, while the Adventurer can  be a bumbling character in real life (i.e. Indiana Jones), the Super-Competent character is almost always in total control of his/her situation. They possess a high level of skill in their chosen field, like the fast-draw heroes of early cowboy movies. 

The other main difference is that the Super-Competent character's skill in work is almost always matched by a corresponding lack of skill in personal relationships. Modern-day Super-Competents are often divorced, or permanently unattached because of some personal loss, like a beloved husband or wife. They don't show emotion easily and have a hard time getting close to people. 

Examples:  With the exception of the James Bond francise, the Super-Competent has fallen out of favor in movies since the golden age of the cowboy film. But some excellent TV examples are Cal Lightman on Lie to Me and Jethro Gibbs on NCIS.
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The Intellectual:  Intellectuals are the "bookish characters" of the fiction world. They are, of course, very intelligent, and are thinkers rather than doers. These are the computer geniuses, the science experts, the artists, the dreamers, and sometimes even the masterminds. Intellectuals can have a wide range of character traits, but almost all of them are more comfortable with ideas than with people.

Movies and TV with Intellectuals: Anne of Green Gables, Evelyn in The Mummy, Die Hard 4, Bones, Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer
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The Ruler-Of-All-They-Survey: This character is the king or queen of their domain. They are the star athlete in their high school, the famous actor, the millionaire businessman.  They're confident, charismatic, and often ruthless (though not always)  When the Ruler character is a primary character, their development arc usually involves becoming a better person, often through the love of someone else. Ruler characters make excellent antagonists, and they can also be used as catalysts for the plot, because these are characters who make things happen.

Movies with Ruler characters: Sabrina, She's All That, Mean Girls, Notting Hill, Chicago
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While all of these character types can be fun, the real fun comes when you combine them. For example, Temperance Brennen in the TV show Bones is both an Intellectual and a Super-Competent character, while the FBI agent she works with is an Adventurer type with a bit of Trickster in him. 


What do you think? Which character types do you like? Do you think any others go well together?


Sorry guys...

I'm fighting off some sort of Martian Death bug, along with a horrible headache. I'm still planning on putting up the next Character Store post, but it won't be until Saturday night after I get off of work.

If I live through work, that is....

Sigh.

EDIT: This is Dan, Miriam's husband, here to include an accurate photo representation of Miriam so that you all take pity on her and do not burn her in effigy for her late column:

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Fabric art in the header by Carol Riggs.