Saturday, May 23, 2015
They are hard to get rid of and tricky to see. Goat-head thorns attach themselves to the soles of shoes and the little demons end up being transported onto our soft carpet. There they bury themselves in deep waiting for an unsuspecting foot.
At least this is what I image they do. It's hard to think of them as anything other than a demon when I step on one. The pain is quick. It jolts me out of my previous thoughts. There is usually some literally jolted as well when my foot instinctively jerks away from the goat-head.
The pain strikes a nerve and yanks me out of my previously comfortable moment*. It causes me to pull out the vacuum and go over the carpet several times to suck the little monsters up.
While annoying, the sharp pain does cause me to jump to action. As a writer I've had similar experiences to stepping on a goat-head. It's like a pin that swiftly pricks at my thoughts. That feeling that I've let myself get comfortable with my excuses.
In December I had the fortunate opportunity to interview Valerie Cameron-Walker for UGeek Magazine**. She is a film maker and events coordinator for Fantasy Con. During her career she has become quiet accomplished in the arts. As she told about her past experiences as a dance instructor, volunteer and promoting companies Valerie mentioned something which hit me hard.
She said that sometimes people get stuck because they have a certain plan or path***. For example a person might expect to take film classes, graduate, work on a small film, then a larger one and on and on. This linear success rarely happens in the real world though.
To succeed a person should be willing to build their resume helping other people with their projects. This in turn creates friendships, connections and opportunities.
It caused me to reflect on my own career path. I had become so stuck in going from point A to point B. Anything less than that felt like a failure or unimportant. Lately I've realized that I have to rethink my goals and be more flexible. This openness has given me several opportunities I wouldn't have come across otherwise. One of which includes being able to post on this amazing blog with so many talented women.
Have you ever taken a job or volunteer opportunity which ended up helping you with your career? Maybe it gave you a new friend or way of looking at the world. I would love to hear about it.
* If you've never stepped on one, imagine stepping on an invisible pin cushion.
**An Indy Magazine about geeky/nerd culture
***Note that there aren't any quotation marks. That's because I am paraphrasing.
Monday, May 18, 2015
Promises of genre
In science fiction and fantasy which are the genres in which I feel most at home it has much more to do with the subgenre but even that's not a laser-proof indicator of what the story holds. Space opera in general promises adventorous good times and a happy ending with some sacrifices made along the way. It also promises some whizbang cool technology and space travels. The thing is though, that a space opera doesn't necessarily have to have a happy ending to be a space opera, nor does it necessarily need to be an adventure.
Epic fantasy makes different promises from urban fantasy which in turn makes different promises than steampunk. The problem with science fiction and fantasy as genres is that they're pretty young. They're still developing which means that the promises they make to the reader are not nearly as rigid as the promises more established genres like romance and thrillers make. Jeff Vandermeer's Southern Reach trilogy and Asimov's Foundation trilogy are both science fiction but they deliver a very different reading experience.
There are some few authors who manage to transcend the boundaries of genre to deliver a signature reading experience all their own. Neil Gaiman, Nnedi Okorafor and the aforementioned Nicholas Sparks are the three that come to my mind easily. But since most authors really, really aren't one of these people - I certainly am not - it's always a good idea to first and foremost keep in mind the promises made by the genre one has chosen to use.
Promises of tone
Of course there's more to tone than that. You couldn't write Sophie's Choice in a comic tone and expect people to go along with it. The dramatic material requires a serious tone. The same goes the other way too. Using a dramatic tone to narrate for example The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy would entirely defeat the purpose.
Promises of awesome
Saturday, May 16, 2015
There. I said it. Yep. I dislike bad guys. Intensely.
|Image via Flikr User Sam Lavy shared via a Creative Commons license|
I've spent a lot of time considering why this is, so let me unpack some of the reasons.
First, most bad guys are written pathetically two-dimensional. Or even just one-dimensional, if you want to get into theoretical geometry. They have a single-minded focus on ruining the life of the protagonist. Their only story purpose is to make life crappy for the main character, or scare the beejeesus out of the main character to keep him/her on the run. Or to kill the main character's mother/brother/uncle/dog.
These kinds of bad guys don't work for me for the primary reason of: WHY? What the heck is motivating bad guy to so single-mindedly pursue our treasured main character? And why does bad guy continue doing so even after a point at which most sane people would stop the pursuit? Mostly because it serves the story's purpose, not because it makes any kind of logical sense.
I also dislike the deep, dark baddie because I have trouble believing in that sort of person. Sure, there are some deep, dark baddies in the world and we read about them in the news, but they aren't as commonplace as popular fiction (genre or otherwise) wants you to believe. Of course the counter-argument is that we only tell stories of great conflict and a juicy bad guy helps create that great conflict, but ... yeah. Ugh! Isn't there more to a great story than just a nasty meanie who wants to make life miserable for the main character?
Even when the "bad guy" is part institution/part person, it still falls down for me. Primary example: Hunger Games. I have a hard time believing in the whole story premise because the badness of the government is so great, and the nasty man at the head so nasty, it starts to feel like watching a bad cartoon. I think I have a greater dislike for institutional baddies than most other types, perhaps due to reading too much dystopian fiction.
So what is the alternative if I don't want to see such nasty bad people? How to make a story work without a Big Bad for the main character to be set in opposition to?
Well one of my favorite kinds of stories are the kind where the conflict stems from the main character and some antagonist/oppositional force being at cross-purposes to one another. Stories where there is one character with goal A and another character with goal B and the pursuit of goals A or B mean thwarting the achievement of the *other* goal.
These are hard stories to pull off, but often tremendously satisfying. This usually requires for an investment in time on the part of the author to draw the antagonist/oppositional character fully. Often this is done by giving the antagonist the moral opposite characteristics of the main character. Since real people are morally complex and carry many different views about things, done well this can create a nuanced character that can be difficult to pigeonhole into a "bad guy" category.
Tamora Pierce does this to amazing effect with the last in the Beka Cooper series, Mastiff.
Maggie Stiefvater's Raven Boys series includes some weird stuff and several characters at cross-purposes to the main characters' quests (including a caricature or two of the traditional "bad guy," though she takes us into the POV of one in an effective way.) There's even a character in the second book in the series who is semi-antagonist, semi-mentor role, showing one of the principals how to use his magic. It's definitely a more compelling series to read than many others due to this layered complexity to the "bad guy" aspect of the story.
Isaac Asimov used to play with this quite a lot in his books, an example of one I recently read was Currents of Space. In this book, there is a "bad guy" who put the main character into the bad situation he finds himself in, but that character turns out to be a very minor player, instead the primary conflict is driven by information the main character learns gradually (coming out of an amnesiac episode) which is in direct opposition to how the institutional system the main characters live in operates. It's a more satisfying read because of this complexity, I believe.
Have you seen this in movies you've seen or books you've read? What about movies like Night at the Museum, where much of the conflict is driven by the weird magic of that world, although there's a few baddies as played by the old security team. (But even they aren't really "bad guys" but rather trying to achieve their own goals, which are somewhat understandable and sympathetic.)
What other examples can you think of?
Thursday, May 14, 2015
In anime, the evil level of any villain is easily determined by the size of his or her shoulder pads
Pretty much every author I talk to is aware of this issue. One solution that many of us choose is to give the villain a twist of good, a redeeming feature to make them seem less of a caricature and more human. More often than not, this ends up being a love for cats.Though villains’ cats are always sleek and well behaved, and don’t shred the Shroud of Evil into tiny pieces, or bat the Orb of Pain around the kitchen floor, or interrupt multiple times as the villain is trying to just get her friggin' blog post finished.
Tuesday, May 12, 2015
Handy Dandy SCALE OF EVIL
EVIL LEVEL HIGH. understanding low.:
Strength of using this character: Ooh boy does it feel good to see this kind of villain defeated. This type of bad guy was used in 2011's Battle Los Angeles, where the villains were super evil aliens and the heroes, this group of marines, were doing the awesome real life stuff marines do, but without any guilt, or justification or questioning, so there's a clear line between good guys and the villains. You get to have violence and explosions and fun stuff, and no hand ringing. ( I can't be the only one to watch James Bond kill extras and wonder if that person had children, can I?)
I was a beta reader for an awesome book with a minor villain who was an evil teenage popular girl, who was just nasty for no reason. I commented that this character didn't feel like a character, she felt more like an obstacle, Real people aren't that nasty, at least without a reason, so I suggested clarifying her motivation. When I read the final version, my friend didn't give the character any empathy or clarity. If anything, she made her worse. This character had no character arc, but we were able to see the hero's character arc because of her. At first the hero was cowed, and then she bristled, and then stood up for herself, and it was so satisfying because you didn't care about the bad girl at all.
Weakness of this character: I also don't remember her name. I also had to google marine fighting aliens because I didn't remember the name to the marine's fighting aliens movie, or a single detail about them. In fact, the more evil the villain is, the more righteous the heroes are, but if you get too perfect a hero can turn into propaganda, or worse, turn boring.
But this... this is so satisfying.
EVIL LEVEL HIGH/ Understanding level medium:
This is the sweet spot Voldemort level of villains. Super bad guy, killer of children, totally needs to be defeated, possibly killed, but he is who he is for an understandable reason. He wanted power, since he was powerless as a child, and sold his soul to get there.
Strength of using this character: High satisfaction level at ending, believably of actions and motivations.
Weaknesses of this type: It's been done before. Like a lot. Like so much it's easy to push it into mockable terrain. So you might want to keep searching to find an understandable reason for bad guy to be a bad guy that hasn't been done a thousand times, because again, this can get a tad bit boring.
Also these villains have to be gone a lot,( Possibly to a villain conventions) or the reader is going to start understanding them too much. As a writer, you have to walk a line and not have the villain be too understandable, because to understand someone means to have sympathy for them, and defeating a sympathetic villain can lessen the satisfaction.
which leads me to...
Evil level medium/ UNDERSTANDING HIGH:
This is the Sue Sylvester level of Villain.
Strength of this character: At first it's SO AWESOME. Bad guys get to do stuff that good guys don't get to do, so this character is fascinating, and just understood/good enough that you get why they are doing these awful things you could never get away with doing. They start to grow, because that's what understood characters do, and then they are brave, ballsy, and awesome...but they've left a hole in the story.
Weakness of this character: The awesome doesn't last. Once you understand and like said villain, the story now has no villain. Which means the story has no conflict, so you're left with a choice. One, the villain can go right back to his or her evil ways, but then they are obnoxious, because it's like Why don't you just grow, you darn stagnant character. Or else they are replaced with someone who ends up a lesser copycat, because the story has a character based hole, so you need to find a replacement to fill it, but then the awesome character is still there, but without a purpose, or a job to do.
One solution, is to give that awesome character a different job to do. Let them be a love interest, a martyr, or a wisecracking sidekick, and find a COMPLETELY different villain, even if it means breaking the format and location of the story completely.
|But also this can happen...|
Evil level low/ UNDERSTANDING HIGH:
This is actually my favorite level of villain, and it's really rare to find stories like this one. But when they work, they really work.
Take this example. Our hero, a young woman training in magic. Our villain, a Prince, who has been taught his whole life to protect his sister, so when she goes to (THE PLACE) to train in magic, he goes to train to be her protector...Or Warder if you like. The Sister and the Hero meet, become best friends. Hero and Villain meet. They fall in love. Would be HEA, except The White Tower (a.k.a. THE PLACE) splits when the DIFFICULT TO SPELL LEADER is killed. Our hero, we'll call her Egwene, chooses one side and they elect her to become the new DIFFICULT TO SPELL LEADER. But our villain, Gawyn, chooses to side with a different DIFFICULT TO SPELL LEADER, because she was the adviser in his mother's court.
His decision makes complete sense and is in line with his character, but choosing to support Elaida leads him to killing his mentor, and killing several innocent people. It's the kind of thing that if he had made the wrong choice, meant he was a bad person. So he has to convince himself that his side must be correct. Egwene made sacrifices herself, including risking her entire life, so she is certain that her choice was the correct one. So we have clear battle lines.
Now imagine with me that they go to battle, and Gawyn killed more people until he is standing in front of Egwene with his sword drawn, and he knows that the only way to stay in the right (mentally) would be to kill this impostor DIFFICULT TO SPELL LEADER, but he can't, because LOVE. And then he realizes all of the horrible things he's done weren't actually right, and he collapses under the guilt, and Egwene forgives him, and LOVE saves the day. SATISFACTION LEVEL High!
Strength of choosing this character: Villains don't have to be bad. Their goal just needs to be contrary to the goal of the hero. But when they lose, and they switch sides, it can lend weight to the satisfaction at the end. For justice to be satisfied, though, the hero can't kill a likable villain.
Weakness of this Character: How much the bad guy needs to be punched in the face is directly correlated to the amount the reader is cheering on the hero to punch the guy in the face. So the more likable a villain is, the more likable the hero has to be, or else maybe the reader will switch sides, and not be satisfied with the hero winning. The hero will have to work twice as hard to win the side of the reader.
Can you imagine if at the end Egwene decides she can't be a strong hero and let him go, so she has him killed for his crimes?
That's possible too, but then wouldn't that mean she's unjust leader? So then maybe her side wasn't the correct one? That can't happen either. Because they both are technically heroes, they both need to win, and they both need to lose. Like maybe Egwene would have to lose her right to lead, or her pride, and her anger. There has to be a cost.
Evil level low/understanding level low:
This is one of those times where there's isn't a villain. Imagine a story about a guy trying to push a rock up a hill. Or someone trying to get medicine but who has to travel through a storm to do it. Or a contemporary novel where the likable hero is also a teenager who is their own worst enemy.
Strength: When the villain is a storm, or a hill, or teenage hormones/immaturity, there's no soul wringing guilt when you defeat the bad guy. Sometimes it's just a story of grit, or friendship, or learning a real life lesson. It can be very relate-able, and create awesome heroes.
Weakness: It also can leave you feeling unsatisfied, because the ending just kind of happens, and you're left saying, oh so that's the end of the book then?
Evil level Medium/ Understanding level low:
The problem with a character like this, is that readers love to be surprised, but they hate to be tricked. So you need to have some clues as to the why the villain is doing this, otherwise it's going to seem like a mean trick. But if the clues are too obvious, then there will be no surprise.
So it's another fine line. I just read a book like this, The Chaos of Stars by Kiersten White (dug it), but I didn't really care about the villain so much, so while it worked, it didn't blow me away. The villain felt one note, because there wasn't really time to play all of the notes, and still be surprised.
However the love story was fantastic. (Melanie add this to your TBR pile.You'd dig it)
EVIL LEVEL HIGH/UNDERSTANDING LEVEL HIGH:
The Anti-hero, where the POV character is actually the villain.
Strength: Gives you cool characters. Like amazing, understandable, despicable, broken, fascinating, heartbreaking characters.
The Catastrophic History of You and Me didn't work for me for this reason.
The POV character was awful. She kept yelling and fighting with likable people, doing awful horrible what-are-you-doing?-you-are-so-stupid things, and then she got a Happy Ever After ending, and my sense of justice is like...no.
There were no consequences. She stole people's souls. She stole a baby's life...Yet she gets to ride of into the sunset with her love? Technically, yes she was dead, but still. The injustice burns, even though it's been a few weeks.
That's the main thing I hope you get from this post, (other than my strange love for gifs) is that if you break a readers sense of justice, they won't be satisfied, and they might actually get annoyed.
But if you use the sense of justice, then you get a satisfactory AWESOME ending.
Even if it means everyone dies.
Monday, May 4, 2015
And I think part of why it's so good at it is down to the villain, Wilson Fisk. (Please note, this post may be somewhat spoilery about Fisk and his past. If that bothers you, please feel free to return after watching the available episodes.)
I've never really loved the Daredevil comic. I don't really know why, it's all about things that I usually enjoy. There's a hero who's at an extreme disadvantage against his adversaries, working class background, taking place in a city, the MC is a complete nerd etc. It should be right up my alley but for whatever reason, I never really connected with it.
That changed with the first episode of the Netflix series. Now, while I'm willing to admit that some of it may be because I fell hard for Charlie Cox (who plays Matt Murdock aka Daredevil in the series) in Stardust, that's not the whole truth of it.
For me the turning point of whether I just liked the show or loved it came when they started to delve deeper into the life of Wilson Fisk. The first time we actually meet Fisk, he is utterly captivated by a modern painting, titled "Rabbit in a Snowstorm" which is basically white paint slathered over a white canvas. The moment could have gone in so many ways that would have made the character cartoonish but instead Vincent D'Onofrio's (previously probably best known for his performance as Private "Gomer" Pyle in Full Metal Jacket) performance made the character into someone who is not only vulnerable but also a force to be reckoned with.
|The man in the mirror|
The writers of the show keep drawing parallels between Fisk and Murdock and their respective quests to clean up or "save the city". On the surface, the two men want the same things, they just have very different methods of going about it. They're similar in a lot of ways, but their lives have taken different courses which have led them down very different paths.
Wilson Fisk in the series is a terrible example of humanity but as such he is also utterly, irrevocably, undeniably human. Kingpin (as he will no doubt be known at some point of the series) is one of the comic book bad guys who has been very often portrayed as being evil for the sake of evil, a mustache-twirling baddie from the silent films if you will. In this series he is human first and the evil, his evilocity if you will, rises from his humanity and the particular flaws that make Wilson Fisk the man he is.
Saturday, May 2, 2015
My 6th grade teacher's name was Mrs. Carroll. In my childhood, she was one of the first teachers to really see me, to see what I was capable of. I was a little bit of an oddball in a class of 40 Catholic grade schoolers. I knew so much and could do so much more than I showed in school, and Mrs. Carroll was onto me. But not in the "call on Karen in class and embarrass her in front of everyone" kind of way. Rather she'd quietly talk to me, invite me (and a few others) to stay late and help her clean the classroom (6th grade entertainment options for suburban Catholic schoolchildren were limited...) She took the time to know me. With 40 of us, many teachers simply couldn't. Or many would see I could do more and attempt to get me to show it. In grand fashion. Which never suited little introverted me (who always felt weird, not knowing how normal my preferences for quiet and books were for an introvert.)
In one of those after-school chats she shared something really interesting. She told us that she had kept her journals and diaries from her teen years. She kept them so that when her kids, who were entering their teens at that time, whined at her, "Moooo-ooom, you just don't understand!" she could pitch them some journals and say, "Yes I do."
For whatever reason, out of all the many things we talked about, this one point has stuck with me through the years. And here I suddenly (time warp) find myself parenting an 11 year old and a 13 year old and ... omg. My diaries.
|I was particularly addicted to My Melody (in the Hello Kitty universe.)|
I was never a perfect diarist, but I did keep journals and diaries on and off from mid-elementary through to today. I have an entire box of them, and a digital file set from my early days parenting. (I may save those until my children are old enough, for ex parents themselves, to understand the context of the difficult days parenting small children... ;) )
Because of this, when I read this article by Heidi Stevens in the Chicago Tribune this week, I was enraptured. An entire BOOK composed of people's adolescent journal entries, along with essays from them today, putting those journal entries into context, adding the lessons learned, the growth that happened after, etc.
What an amazing thing. I am off to scour the internet for my own copy of My Diary Unlocked: Stories of Teen Girls Heal the Inner Adolescent of Our Soul.
And maybe, just maybe, to hand my 6th/7th grade journal to my daughter who is finishing 6th grade...