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Author of off-kilter Sci Fi/fantasy books. Fond of apocalyptic and fantastical things. Known for phuquerie. I bite. http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00BGWZRCW

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Why You Should Be Hard on Your Characters: Power Porn, Part 1

Hello hello!

Well, as always, this is motivated by a few of the manus I've been seeing, and frankly, by fixing up one of my own works. Why do we pat our characters on the back so much, going to unreasonable lengths to talk about them as 'better'? This isn't always just about characters--their houses, their cars, their favorite cafes--they're

I said when I first started this blog that I'd avoid too many technique blogs, but frankly, I like analysing this stuff, and I also didn't expect to become a professional editor,, so I hope you guys are still enjoying this. Do let me know in the comments.

Moving along, let's talk about a bad, bad habit of both film and literary media: the pat on the back. There's a few ways to do this, and I'd like to mention the good, the bad, and the ugly. Let's get to it! We'll start with analysing the essence of badassery.

Success is sexy: power porn  



I'm not going to lie, I really like the new trend of 'competence porn' or 'power porn'. I don't care particularly about the sex, though that is commonly a big feature. No, what interests me, and millions of other viewers, is the political machinations and the use of expertise to accomplish wonderful, unbelieveable things. Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, the Warhammer 40K Ciaphas Cain series by Sandy Mitchell, Banksters by Nic Wilson--those are just a few titles I've enjoyed that tend to veer into this area. Other examples would be my beloved favorites Les Liasons Dangereuses by Du Laclos, The Count of Monte Cristo by Dumas, and Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevski. All of these feature men (and sometimes women, though female-led power porn is rare) who manipulate, scheme, and use their intellect and social influence to accomplish their goals. As mentioned, sex is usually a big part, though revenge is also a popular motivation. I suspect Wolf of Wall Street belongs to the genre, though I haven't seen it yet.

What's the big deal? 


In addition to wonderful writing and cinematography, as well as superb acting (in the movies, anyway) all of these tend to focus on anti-hero characters. Most of them are evil or chaotic in terms of their alignment (sometimes chaotic evil, too).

The risk, the danger, the power imbalances, and often, the oceans of money, all have an intoxicating effect. We, the audience, are complicit in character's actions. Just reading/watching these stories makes one feel more like a badass, and I think that's a vital part of the allure. Everyone loves a bad boy/girl/person, a badass, and that's a blog of its own. So, readers/viewers get both the thrill of feeling cool and the closeness to someone cool. And, obviously, there's the whole BDSM aspect of control, consent, and the rest of it. Danger is another big part, and it's one of the reasons why so many people faint over these characters--even a cuddly character like The Doctor can turn on a dime and drop all pretense of sanity.

The other thing is that currently, we're in a pretty dark place with politics. Evil, frankly, is easier to believe in than good--not unlike that dark period we went through with entertainment in the eighties. Everyone' disillusioned. Furthermore, good characters have become caricatured, and evil and morally grey ones have grown more nuanced and numerous. There's more freedom with a dark character, and that is the other reason they're kind of everywhere right now.


David Tennant/the 10th Doctor has some of the best crazy faces.

Still not seeing a problem here...


The problem comes from the implementation of this. The way characters are made cool and powerful should be through their actions, but presentation is a huge part of the equation as well. When a character dismounts a flaming motorcycle, kisses someone, then walks into a room wearing a suit and reels off something brilliant, you know they're cool because you're getting that message from the writers. The problem comes in when the character's actions don't fit their presentation. Other characters are often part of the presentation, talking up your protagonist, but if the protag whines, simpers, shrugs, and smirks their way around (I hate the word 'smirk' and every character who does it ends up on my hit list, by the way) instead of doing useful things, there's narrative dissonance. The other issue is talking your characters up.



Neil DeGrasse Tyson is not impressed. 


We have a badass over here...or not. 


Having a character who is supposed to be SUPA KEWEL--and fails at it--can completely ruin a book. Make sure you minimize talk and maximize actions. Show, don't tell us that your character is cool. Have them do something badass, don't spend time with everyone else mentioning 'that awesome thing' they did. This involves taking a hard look at your character, and that's not always fun, but avoiding it leads to limp noodles. Sure, a bit of talking up is okay, but it's better to have a character show off without help from their friends. Too much foreshadowing or too many side details, and you lose the moment. I mentioned the 10th Doctor above because one of the writing issues Russell T. Davies has is talking his protagonists up too much, even when he just uses other characters' reactions to show off the protags' badassfulness. And that, ultimately, hurt the series more than few times; I can't count the number of times that excessive 'you know, our character's a total badass' speeches or scenes have acted as a buzzkill in books I've edited. Hamlet's whole spiel at the end of his famous 'to be or not to be' soliloquy is very apropos--

"And enterprises of great pitch and moment,
With this regard, their Currents turn awry,
And lose the name of Action." 

FIX IIIIIIIIT

Of course, no Magpie blog post would be complete without solutions. This one is simple but poses a few hidden difficulties--the issue is to avoid too much foreshadowing. Character foreshadowing is a much more advanced technique than people think it is, because it requires a lot of balance. You have to tease your audience without giving too much away. Co-star reactions are important, but too many, and you can set up unreasonable expectations. Even showing your character's badassery instead of telling the audience can get kind of annoying. The key is moderation and a keen feel for self-parody. You may need a second set of eyes to make sure the character is truly badass but not a caricature. And, as always, avoid writing a self-insert cool character, because that will throw your judgement out the window.


We'll explore the really vital part of this in the second half of the blog. Stay tuned!

*****
Thanks for dropping by the nest once again. Don't miss any of the phuquerie. Find Michelle on TwitterFacebook, and on Tumblr, and find her work on Amazon. Check back on the blog to see when one of the irregular posts has careened onto your feed. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out! 

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Rule of Cool: Or, Science Plays A Sad Violin

Hello hello!

So, a quick post today. As some of you will know, I'm an editor as well as a sci fi writer, and that means that I fix a lot of errors. But, being a writer, I also make them.

I've been watching Mythbusters a lot lately. Unfortunately, I don't spend my days firing guns, breaking down doors, fending off wild jellyfish, etcetera, so my understanding of how to do these things is impaired. And Hollywood certainly doesn't help. Did you know, for instance, that bullets don't ricochet and produce sparks? Sure, they do ricochet, but--as frequent readers of Cracked.com may also know--they certainly aren't as fatal as advertised, either. In movies, TV, and a lot of books, one shot means you die.

But what about science fiction? We often talk about matter transporters, Faster Than Light (FTL) travel, fast-growth cloning, and other semi-realistic and sometimes purely fictional technologies. (Yes, I know cloning is real, but we haven't cloned any humans and we haven't sorted out that pesky issue of the telomeres yet.) So when it comes to the little details, do we follow the 'Rule of Cool' (doing whatever seems coolest) or do we try our best to create something realistic? There's a few approaches to this, which I'll outline below.

Approach 1: Whatever is The Coolest


This is what it says on the tin. Ricocheting spark-bullets? Diving through suspiciously close asteroid belts? Ignoring side-effects of a drug treatment? Convenient amnesia? Arguably, this is sloppy writing, but it's also within most readers' comfort zones and is often easy to picture. As well, most readers won't be experts, and most who are will recognize the value of entertainment rather than something that's, well, more rigorous in intent. However, some readers are annoyed by this, and too many scientific errors or historical anachronisms will bounce you right out of a story.

Approach 2: Scientific Rigor


Jack McDevitt stands out as an author who follows this; Charles Sheffield, too. It characterizes a lot of Golden-Age sci fi, but not the pulp sci fi (which tends to follow Approach 1). This is more realistic, and that can be nice, but it can also be bogged down by exposition. Sometimes it's also a bit inaccessible. After all, not all of us who write sci fi are teachers or astronomers. It also involves a lot of research. However, 'getting it right' is really satisfying, and readers often compliment it.

Approach 3: Stuck in the Middle With You 


Most sci fi falls into the middle, but there's a skew towards each end. Personally, I think that due to the lack of scientific education, we should be aiming a bit more towards Approach 2, but modifying it. Really, it's okay to have space be silent and sacrifice sparkly bullets and deal with injuries realistically. The thing about Approach 1 is that it arguably makes a story too easy for the characters. Consider Starship Troopers, which is intentionally a satire, and which makes use of Approach 1 very heavily. Consider Alien instead, which was a bit more realistic, and much more difficult for characters to survive.

It's a matter of taste, but consider doing your research very thoroughly before your next story--question the little stuff, too, not just the location of the nearest habitable moon or planet. How would doors work? You don't have to--and shouldn't--explain everything, but a little realism can go a long way.

*****
Thanks for dropping by the nest once again. Don't miss any of the phuquerie. Find Michelle on TwitterFacebook, and on Tumblr, and find her work on Amazon. Check back on the blog to see when one of the irregular posts has careened onto your feed. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out! 

Saturday, 29 March 2014

B!tch Please: An Argument Against Token Female Warriors

Hello hello!

I seem to be on a character development kick, and we're bringing it back to feminism once again this week. People seem to like these, so I hope it gives you guys something to chew over in the next book you read, movie you watch, or creative work you produce. This week, I want to talk about a new trend that seems to be the counter-answer to princess culture: warrior girlz. Note the zed. There are also...

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS


...for a whole bunch of movies, but none of them are less than several months old. Mulan, Tangled, Frozen, Brave, How to Train Your Dragon, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Alice in Wonderland are all getting mentioned, so beyond this point, deal with it.


Context: What got the ball rolling


I was watching Mulan earlier this week, and man, does it ever stand up well. Sure, it activated Nostalgia Mode and I pretty much ended up belting out "Be a Man", interrupting my editing flow, but it was still great. There's a lot of great stuff on gender performance and normativity that the movie examines really well.

 I've gone on the record as being a fan of Frozen, but I agree--that, Tangled, and Brave all have this intense discomfort with their female characters. I love that Kristoff never once mentions that Anna might not be able to do something because she's a girl--it's that she's untrained with the mountains that earns his ire. (And the bloggers who object to him calling her 'fiestypants'....really? Not exactly an offensive nickname there, guys.) People complained that she didn't do as much as Rapunzel, but not everyone has to be an intellectual---Anna's clearly physically active and strong, and would probably be a jock if she grew up in our time, and that's fine. However, the cutesy character designs are, well, a bit over the top. Brave was fun, but the painful and strained GIRLS CAN TOTALLY DO STUFF OKAY tone and the awkward SHE'LL TOTALLY MARRY EVENTUALLY thing at the end of the movie wrecked it for me. And Tangled...I'm sorry, I just can't forgive the movie for having its female protag invent astronomy, teach herself about art, and wield a frying pan while she does acrobatics...and kinda shove all that aside, because oh my goodness, boyfriend! I get that she's lonely, but that was The Little Mermaid-level bad.

Now measure that against Mulan. A girl who can pass for a guy, has more game than her intended romantic partner but who *doesn't* marry him at the end of the movie, develops confidence in herself, and above all, trains hard before she kicks ass? Great personal journey, and one that really holds up, along with the gorgeous animation. I'm not a 2-D-will-always-be-better-than-3-D person, but there's something to say for the lovely details in this movie. It's got the montage, sure, but Mulan still does a lot of work outside of that, and it's impressive.


Comparison: Aye, there's the rub


Now we get into less comfortable territory. I was watching a review of Alice in Wonderland--the Burton version--and I noticed a strong similarity to Snow White and the Huntsman. Combined with something I was editing, I noticed an ugly parallel. Many critics complained about Alice's takedown of the Jabberwocky. I actually liked AiW, for all its flaws, but the review brought a bunch of them to light. And honestly? I agree with the critics now. Not unlike in SWatH, our insipid and dull heroine gets a sword and armour and defeats the baddy with minimal effort...after no training or work whatsoever.

I love warrior women. Brienne of Tarth, Arya Stark, and Asha Greyjoy were my favorite characters in Game of Thrones. Joan of Arc? Personal inspiration. Athena? My favorite goddess when I studied Greek mythology as a kid. Boudicea? My go-to reference when I'm angry, if I don't think of The Morrigan first. And yes, Xena is awesome, but you don't need me to mention that.

The thing is, all of these women did things the hard way. So did Mulan. The challenge is part of the story. So slapping on the boob plate and just defeating the antagonist cheaply is...well...almost as bad as princess culture, really. Andrey, aka Disarcade, aka the boyfriend, pointed out that boys have been getting the easy-win treatment for years, so I guess it's progress from that perspective. But I have to admit, I don't like it. Playing dress-up in armour and weaponry is an improvement, I guess, over pink frilly stuff, but is it really? Snow White and Alice are boring as hell and only token-assertive, and these roles are still pretty heteronormative and cis-normative (meaning that they confirm gender roles and identity as they currently exist). I haven't seen non-white girls get the roles, either, but the trope is young. Standing up for yourself or for others involves fighting, and people don't just part like the Red Sea the minute you stop accepting what you're told. (Please, ask me how I know.) Hell, even in Lord of the Rings, Eowyn just puts on armour and rides forth like it ain't no thang. Arguably she at least had context for maybe having some skills, but the other two?

 


How do we fix it? 


This is really, really easy. Show some pushback. Create more diversity in the girls elevated to warrior stance. A little age diversity wouldn't hurt either, because life doesn't end when you turn thirty. Above all else, show some effort and give the girls (and people) some personality. A character needs to have a personality when you decontextualize them. What can you say about a character apart from describing their actions? Mulan, for example, is brave, obedient, Lawful Good, and struggles to handle people's expectations. She's compassionate and very patient, but isn't a vanilla cake of sweetness or neurotic. I'll give Disney this--I can at least describe the personalities of all the girls in the cartoons I just described. (Rapunzel, for the record, deserved a better movie; I've omitted Tiana from the lineup because I wouldn't say gender performance or norms are as much of a thing in her movie, though Naveen certainly learns to respect women more as a result of exposure to her.) Snow White? Alice? I guess they...exist? That's about as far as their characterization goes. Guy characters tend to be 'cool' or 'nerdy' (because the 90s never died, I guess), and problems are similar, but the ladies generally get the shaft in characterization and tend to be weaker to boot.

So, there you have it. Make sure your character is a person, and if they become a fierce warrior or something like that, make sure they have to work for it. Now, let's get down to business...!

*****
Thanks for dropping by the nest once again. Don't miss any of the phuquerie. Find Michelle on TwitterFacebook, and on Tumblr, and find her work on Amazon. Check back on the blog to see when one of the irregular posts has careened onto your feed. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out! 


Saturday, 15 March 2014

Hurt So Good: How To Break Your Heroes



Hello hello!

So, as an editor, a lot of stories cross my desk every month. I'm also a writer, though, and that means that writing a good story isn't just a matter of being a spectator. I mentioned in a recent post  that sexual assault is often used for female characters as a sort of plot device--an easy way to give them a tragic backstory and offer a motive for being both defensive of themselves and prickly. However, that post also outlined the issues with it. On reading it, my partner challenged me, "Okay, so how can most writers craft a good character without using that as a plot device?"

Disclaimer


That's what I'm going to talk about today. Obviously, I've already covered one base, but I really think we can get more creative with ways to give your character that challenge. Before we get going, just a note--I'm going to keep saying "heroes", but all of this applies equally to heroines or nonhumans/non-binary heroes as well! I'm also going to focus a bit on fantasy and sci fi in particular, so keep in mind that you may have to adapt things based on your setting and genre a bit. And obviously, they're not set in stone, but do read them before you run off to break them.

So, why should your character "be programmed with the most tragic backstory ever written"?



Rule 1--They Don't Have To


Shocking, right? You can always give your character a surprisingly healthy history and then just load the tragedy and conflict on as events play out through your story. Never be afraid to hurt your characters on stage! They can't be too precious. Conversely, if you find yourself wanting to smash your heroes' hearts a bit too often, maybe pull back on a a bit. If I had a dollar for every time a manuscript had gone overboard on the tragedy department, I'd have a solid gold computer. Jenny Kirkette doesn't have to be an orphan whose pet beagle died in a horrific transporter accident to be on an uneven footing during the events of the story.

Rule 2--Know the Difference Between Pathos and Bathos


Hyperbole is *not* your friend in a serious manu--unless other characters poke fun at your character's unfortunate circumstances or there's inherent absurdity to the tragedy. It worked for Lemony Snicket, but I wouldn't call tragedy-overload a recommended style. It's hard to use. Pathos is, simply, an appeal to your audience's emotions. Bathos is transitioning from the exalted to the absurd. While Christopher Moore is a master of bathos, and can actually make some moving stories from the contrast, but it's not easy to do. I keep pressing the yellow 'caution' sign to make it light up here, but it's important to know when your backstory is so sad it's gone all the way to being silly. There's a balance point between tragic, heartbreaking, and tragedy overload--at 'tragedy overload', the audience's brains shut down and can't handle any more sadness. They have to giggle to deal with with things. (This is the same part of your brain that thinks Holocaust jokes and other offensive, tragic subjects are funny.) Be aware of that when you're writing.

Rule 3--Mind Your Cliches 



I mentioned sexual assault above. It's one of the gender-bound cliches; however, it's seldom used for male characters. Cliches are actually quite fine to use as long as you spice them up a bit. Consider gender-swapping them, for instance. Losing a mother motivates quite a few sons to seek revenge, but that's fine for a girl, too, instead of losing her father. Brothers and sisters are great targets, and lovers are traditional. Friends are less often used, and that's a shame, because I think we all know that in real life, friends can be as close as family, too. Adopted siblings are a good one. However, do be aware that they are cliches, instead of turning a blind eye. If you're going to have alien bandits capture your human hero's girlfriend and tie her to the space elevator tracks, be aware that it's been done before.

Rule 4--Gender-Swapping Is Your Friend


If you are using a cliche, try to do something different with it. Heck, this goes for less-overused ideas as well. Put a character in a situation that would not necessarily conform to their gender or cultural expectations. If you're in a fantasy or sci fi setting, this is doubly true. Don't limit yourself to Terran norms! If readers can suspend disbelief enough for dragons and magic and interstellar travel that's faster than light, they can handle having a sister rescue her brother, a mother rescuing her child, or a father who's been captured. Remember to think outside the normal box of boy-save-girl or girl-gets-hurt-by-boys-automatically. Your readers will love you for it.



Source. Above: Your main character. 

Rule 5--Go All the Way



If you're going for a cliche, don't be half-hearted. This goes for any sort of tragedy, really. Mind Rule 2, but a lot of readers do like it when authors amp up the sadness. Oh, sure, subtlety is important, but it's okay for something to wreck your character's life. After all, tragedies don't just conveniently come back whenever you need to talk about them. They keep characters up at night. Maybe your hero has flashbacks and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Triggers are a convenient way to add to tension and realism--the smell of whiskey or Martian flowers or the colour octarine might remind your character of that fateful night in a way they can't forget. Addictions are a 'fun' way to add consequences, too. Remember--tragedy doesn't exist in a bubble.


Rule 6--Motivation Does Not Equal Reactions


Is your hero doing what they have to as a result of someone else's tragedy? How do they feel about it? Maybe they're annoyed because it's not really their war and they just want to go home. That ambiguity is great for having your character switch sides or even switch back! Is your hero inclined to forgive the person who hurt them, but feeling forced to go through with their revenge? Honour works both ways. What if the character's heart just isn't in it? Conversely, you can have your character go to some really dark extremes for revenge, even go overboard, but if you do that, make sure other characters (and not just a single, often female, token) criticize their choices. Just because your character has a motivation, doesn't mean it will determine their reaction. People change over time and consider their personal tragedies differently.


Rule 7--Sympathy For the Devil


Maybe your character understands why her commanding officer left her family to be devoured by the ravenous space wolves on the mine orbiting Betelgeuse--because it meant saving thousands of people in the colony ship. Just because your character is driven to revenge, doesn't mean you should hate on your antagonist or villain all the time. That leads to boring antagonists, and lack of conflict. Furthermore, making your villain/antagonist sympathetic will create distress in your main character. Distress is your friend! A strong villain is almost more important than a strong lead. Make sure their motivations make sense.

Rule 8--Why?


Why is your character's backstory important? Does it really add to the story, or is it cleverly-disguised filler? Is it exposition, clogging up the beginning, or is it revealed slowly? If you're stumped, it's okay to be mysterious. Sometimes it's good to discover your character's motivation along with the audience. And for a first draft, well, anything goes. You're going to fix it anyway. You can also map out multiple possibilities for the background if you're not sure about it. Above all else, make sure your character's tragedy adds to the story rather than clogging it up or slowing it down.

So, that's my list of recommendations! Hopefully it's set your plot bunnies to chewing at the lettuce in the garden. If you're feeling doubt over your story's direction, that's okay too. Remember, no-one's going to judge you for rewriting or playing with things.

*****
Thanks for dropping by the nest once again. Don't miss any of the phuquerie. Find Michelle on TwitterFacebook, and on Tumblr, and find her work on Amazon. Check back on the blog to see when one of the irregular posts has careened onto your feed. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out! 

Friday, 7 March 2014

Breaking News--Two Short Reviews

Hello hello!

So, I try not to review too many books apart from my top-ten list, but I was overflowing with enthusiasm and love, and I just had to post these.

image

Re: Rags & Bones by Neil Gaiman, Garth Nix, Kelly Armstrong, et alhttp://www.amazon.com/Rags-Bones-Twists-Timeless-Tales-ebook/dp/B00BAXFB46

"I don't even know how to talk about this book. I loved it, and it was so beautiful it hurt. I admit that I'm prejudiced--it was an anthology of some of my favorite authors, about retellings--one of my favorite things--and folklore--another favorite thing--and it was illustrated by Charles Vess. I don't think it would be physically possible for me not to love this book.

And I still loved it more than I expected to. In the interest of balance, I'll mention that the last story left me cold and the organizational structure of the stories didn't make too much sense to me, but enh.

I loved it, you should buy it, and this will be going onto the list of some of my favorite books, with an honoured place. I am going to seek out the authors, too; some of the stories really caught my attention. It's well-written, spooky, mournful, romantic, haunting, and still very simple. It crosses genres.

Long story short, I can't say enough good things about it. Buy it and see why for yourself."

image


Re: Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig http://www.amazon.com/Blackbirds-Chuck-Wendig-ebook/dp/B007B2D4DU

"I adore urban fantasy horror, and Wendig just nails it. I'm going to quote fanmail I sent the author:
"So I am pestering you again because I just finished Blackbirds. How could you do that to my heart?! How? And it is a series...I am so scared and so excited. It was marvellous and awful and...I don't even know, but I think I have a big throbbing crush on Miriam Black." Miriam is like a manic pixie dream girl rendered goth, if the MPDG was a human being with damage and scars and a sad but realistic history and a romantic streak, and if MPDGs were prone to beating the living shit out of the men they're supposed to save. Her story is the story of America, and I can't wait for the next one.
It's tight, it's gritty, it's sorrowful, and it's funny as phuque. Oh, sure, I'll admit that the interrupted narrative gives it a slightly choppy flavour, but that's far from a dealbreaker.
Buy it, love it, and for the love of the gods, don't be a wimp about the cursing. The swearing is part of the soul of this book, and Miriam is going to haunt my dreams--cigarettes, cheap hair dye, scars, and all."

Also, I desperately want Miriam Black to meet Shadow from Gaiman's American Gods just to see what would happen.

*****
Thanks for dropping by the nest once again. Don't miss any of the phuquerie. Find Michelle on TwitterFacebook, and on Tumblr, and find her work on Amazon. Check back on the blog to see when one of the irregular posts has careened onto your feed. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out! 
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