Perfect/Imperfect

I’ve been thinking about heroes, or I guess more properly about protagonists, the last while. I confess that a lot of the reason why is connected to The Last Jedi and the reaction to it, still. (I fired off my overall feelings about the movie a few blogs back.) A lot of the more thoughtful criticism I’ve seen of the movie (there’s a lot of it that I have no trouble dismissing out of hand) centres around Luke Skywalker, and the argument that his portrayal in Last Jedi is either inconsistent with the character we saw in the original trilogy or even a ‘betrayal’ of the character.

Mostly this is because either (depending how you look at it) Last Jedi shows us a side of Luke we haven’t seen before, or introduces a significant change to the character from the last time we saw him. Original Trilogy Luke is good at everything, and with a couple of notable exceptions, he doesn’t screw up. And even when he does screw up, it works out for the best in the end. Even when Ben and Yoda are convinced he’s wrong about Vader, nope, it turns out that Luke was right in the end. He always comes through, and he’s always up to the challenge.

There’s no question that things are different in Last Jedi. Luke has made at least one big mistake that he doesn’t know how to fix, and made a series of decisions that look, at least, pretty questionable. (Now, I think this all hangs together perfectly well, narratively, but I’m not going to dig into that seriously now, except to say that I think the basic issue is the difference between Original Trilogy Luke who Does Things and after-Original Trilogy Luke who now has to be a teacher, which is not the same at all) So, if what you need or want is for Luke to continue to be a flawless hero, then yeah, the film is not going to give you what you’re after.

Now, my reaction was that I like Luke Skywalker better as a character after getting these new parts added to his character, precisely because it makes him (more) imperfect. However, this whole issue got me to thinking about whether, on the whole, we prefer our heroes to be perfect, or not. If you look around SFF (and other kinds of fiction, really) you’ll find a lot of popular examples both ways.

In general, I like my heroes to be a little less than perfect, and I think I always have. I never really liked Superman, growing up, because he really had no downsides. (I’ve come around a bit on him in more recent years, but he’s never going to be a favourite) Easily the least interesting of the characters at Camelot is Galahad – literally the perfect knight, also indisputably the least fun of the lot of them. Give me a dozen Gawain or Palomides stories, hold the Galahad please.

I think any character that has some flaws and some things they aren’t good at and some parts of their life they struggle with is easier to identify with and easier to root for. I also think they’re a little more dramatic, because you never know exactly how the balance between positives and negatives is going to shake out. (Or at least, we can convince ourself that we don’t know long enough to enjoy the story)

On the other hand, there is something reassuring about the flawless hero. They can’t ever let you down, they can’t ever disappoint you. Whatever you need them to be, that’s what they are. It’s a lovely idea to think of having someone like that on your side. I suspect that’s a lot of the appeal of Superman, for example, and perhaps part of what people liked about flawless Luke Skywalker.

I’m not sure there’s really a right or a wrong answer here, and which sort of protagonist is appropriate probably depends a great deal on the kind of story that you’re trying to tell. I also suspect that, as usual, the thing that may really be problematic for people is change – when a character that we thought was one way is revealed to be a little different. Personally I don’t have an issue with that, as a fan or a writer, as long as the change is handled with some sensitivity and we’re given a strong reason for it, but I can understand where the unhappiness might come from.

Something worth thinking about with my own imaginary people, probably. Thanks for your time.

I’ll try to ease up on the Star Wars blogs for a while.

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Fireplace

I’ve kind of revised my life goals downwards as I’ve gotten older. When I was in Grade One I predicted being in charge of Earth Defense Command by age 21. By about 17 or so I thought I would be a world-renowned journalist. Turned out I took to journalism like a duck to lava. These days, my aim is to one day own a house with a wood-burning fireplace.

These things happen.

I’ve just gotten back from a weekend at a cabin in the Laurentians where I spent a good bit of the time burning about a cord of wood in the fireplace. It was pretty awesome. Aside from making the place warm, I find the whole experience of a wood fire very peaceful. The light from the flames, the sounds from the hearth, the smell of woodsmoke – I find it all very soothing. There’s something satisfyingly basic about it, as well – making a fire is part of how humans have been making a place ours for a very long time. Maintaining the fire feels like taking on a genuinely ancient task. That feeling of timelessness is sort of heightened by the cycle of watching the fire burn down at night, and then starting the next morning’s new one with the embers of the old.

I also enjoy the whole process of building and maintaining a fire. I was surprised, a few summers ago, to discover that my father has only the vaguest idea of how to do this. A lot of his fire-building technique involves ‘soak log with gas’ and ‘light repeatedly’. This is not very effective. I’m not sure where I learned how to get a fire going properly and keep it crackling away all day long but there’s a bit of a thing to it. How exactly I learned this is a little unclear, given that I obviously didn’t get it from Dad. I guess we’ll blame the Boy Scouts.

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You have to plan things out a bit before you start – your fire needs some structure before you’re ready to light it, with kindling and small pieces of wood. Once that’s going, you can think about adding bigger chunks of wood. If you try to start with the enormous logs, the whole thing dies before you get going, and if you try and add too much too fast you’ll kill it similarly. Once burning, the fire requires attention – you gotta keep adjusting things so that there’s a flow of air and adding more wood. If you don’t keep working at it, before long it will die down and go out. Once you get things burning properly, it’s easier to keep the fire lit than let it go out, and start again. A nice hot fire will quickly get its teeth into whatever new fuel you add in, but a mostly dead one takes time to build back up again. However, if your fire does go out, if you dig around in the ash a little bit, you’ll be surprised how long you can find embers still glowing down in there. So you’re not beginning entirely from scratch. Be patient, and start again.

That was, I swear, not a big pile of writing advice.

Thanks for reading.

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I guess it’s 2018

So we’re here at the start of 2018, and I see a lot of people are either doing ‘year in retrospective’ or ‘plans for the year ahead’ blogs. This is not going to be one of those, not really.

I was never big into New Year’s resolutions, and I don’t do them at all, anymore. Lots of people are – we set up lists and make declarations and then sometimes grade ourselves on our performance. I guess I’m not convinced it’s helpful. A lot of times these things just turn into ways for us to persuade ourselves that we’re unworthy, and I think most of use get enough of that.

I think there’s value in planning ahead, of course, but it’s important to recognize that we can’t always control all the things that are going to happen and therefore not necessarily what we’ll be able to get done. Waubgeshig Rice’s New Years’ comment on Twitter was that 2018 will be a grind, just like 2017 was a grind, and he’s absolutely right.

That sounds super negative, but I don’t think it was intended that way. Life always has obstacles for us and demands our best effort at times. It’s not really useful to imagine that it will be any other way – thinking the year ahead is just gonna be smooth sailing is setting up for disappointment. But, it’s also nothing we aren’t used to. Not only nothing we can’t handle, but nothing we aren’t already handling.

There will be challenges, of course. Knowing that doesn’t have to be intimidating. It means we can get ready. We can be strong, we can be prepared to weather everything the year is gonna chuck at us.

What was my 2017 like? I did the best I could with it. I didn’t accomplish all the things I might have liked to, but I handled everything as best I was able, did what was possible within my limits, and in the end I’m all right with that. What kind of year was it? It was the best year I could make.

What do I have planned for 2018? There are things I want to do, sure. But ultimately, I’m gonna do the best I can with it, what I’m capable of, and what I have the strength and energy to do. We’ll see how it ends up. But however that works out, it’ll be the best year I can make.

It’ll be a grind. It always is. That’s ok. We’re strong enough for it.

Go forth and make the year.

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The Last Jedi

Once again I followed my absolutely watertight plan of waiting a really long time after a movie to come out to go see it and desperately ducking spoilers until finally getting into a theatre. Today I became approximately the last sentient collection of cells to watch The Last Jedi. I’ve got some thoughts. This is gonna be a long one. (Sorry, Brandon)

I did manage to go relatively unspoiled, but of course it was scarcely possible to avoid seeing at least some of the reaction to the film. It was, even more than for Force Awakens, mixed. Some people loved it. Some people hated it. So (once again) I went in with a little trepidation. I saw someone on Twitter (really can’t recall who) say it was like a Harry Potter movie except that Hogwarts turns out to have been a terrible place and Harry is now a cynical failure. (I mean, Hogwarts’ is clearly a terrible place, but never mind that for now)

I don’t get it, not really. We learn that Luke failed in training Ben Solo – which we already knew. He’s not actually wrong about the Jedi, as an institution. The Jedi have always been fuckups, since the first movie, so this revelation is also nothing new. They were supposed to be the guardians of the galaxy (heh) and they let the Empire happen. They’ve always made questionable decisions. Ben Kenobi flatly lies to Luke about his father, and when he’s caught out in it offers one of the very lamest justifications ever. Luke buys it because he’s still really an extremely innocent kid not far removed from being a Tatooine dirt farmer, and because he desperately wants to believe in the Good Guys.

And this is where some of the problem comes in – I think a lot of times Star Wars fans conflate ‘Jedi’ with ‘The Good Guys’, as though the one label necessarily means the other. One of the things I love about the Star Wars universe is that there are unambiguously Good and Evil characters and they face off. I was juuust a little concerned with some of what I had heard about The Last Jedi that they were taking that away. But they didn’t. There are still Good characters and Evil characters, it’s just that Good and Jedi aren’t necessarily exactly the same. The Jedi screwed things up in the past. Luke screwed things up again, thinking he could bring the flawed institution back.

But even the idea of using the Force for good ends is still very much there. (Are we still gonna call that being a Jedi? It seems like by the end of the film, we are, or at least Luke says so, and I’m not gonna argue with him) Luke Skywalker is still, in the end, an unambiguously heroic character. It’s okay for a heroic character to screw things up (I mean, listen to Yoda if you don’t want to listen to me) and it’s ok for Luke not to actually have all the answers. That’s how it is. We do our best – and Luke did, by any standard, very well – and sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. What he needed to learn (and I like that among the messages here is that you’re never done learning) is that failure is okay, and you pick it up and keep going on. (It’s maybe not a surprise that Luke has a problem with that, seeing as he more or less grew up surrounded by people telling him that he was the last hope and that if he dropped the ball it was all over)

So I’m perfectly fine with the movie’s take on Luke Skywalker, the Jedi, and the Force. I think it actually all hangs together really well. The Jedi were an institution that was probably past its sell-by date and weren’t doing what they were meant to be doing any longer. Great Problems Ensued. These will not be fixed by just trying to put things back the way they were. It’s gonna take a new approach, or remembering what the old approach actually was: Luke was too focused on the Jedi books and not enough on the Jedi idea. (By the way, If Luke Skywalker had showed up and fixed everything, that would be, first of all, terrible writing. You don’t create a bunch of new characters and then promptly undermine them by having them saved by one who has already done his time in the spotlight.)

Ok, so that was stuff that I kind of came into the movie thinking that I might not like and came away thinking was really good. What did I just straight up like?

I loved that there was no big clever answer to Rey’s parents. I adore that she’s ‘Rey from Nowhere’, and that’s your hero, not someone with a ‘special’ bloodline or someone long foreseen in prophecy. She’s ordinary, but she’s gonna do something special. Kylo Ren – so completely sold on the idea of destiny – tries to tell her, and probably desperately wants to believe, that she ‘has no place in the story’, but he’s wrong. It’s her story. She’s the hero. She’s the star. The person to restore the spark of hope to the Resistance isn’t Luke Skywalker, it’s Rey, or perhaps it’s the entire rag-tag band of them on the Falcon at the end. (I still kind of miss Han a little every time the Falcon is on screen.)

Now, Rey also appears to settle into this hero thing pretty easily. Just like Luke in the first trilogy, she has that perception of what needs to be done, and steadfastly goes and does it. Unlike some of our other main characters, Rey is actually right. That’s fitting for our main character. I also, however, love that in this film we have some characters learning to be heroes.

In Force Awakens, Finn mostly wants to escape the First Order and his first instinct (heh) is just to Get Away. By the opening of this film, he’s grown a bit – he’s looking to make sure he and Rey escape, but the rest of the Resistance, he’s prepared to leave – even buddy Poe Dameron, who we’ll get to in a second. It takes the events of the movie, and especially some perspective from Rose (about whom more, too) before he really buys into this cause bigger than himself, one that he’s willing to put it all on the line for. By the end of the movie, he’s proudly ‘Rebel scum’. It’s nice growth, and I expect great things in the final instalment.

Oh, Poe Dameron. What a fun character, and what a great example of a guy who has a hammer and so everything looks like a nail. He basically wants to solve every problem by blowing it up with an X-Wing (as General Organa points out) and that came across pretty positively in Force Awakens when the situation genuinely called for a lot of space fighter shoot-em-up. In Last Jedi, not so much. Poe fixates on blowing up something big in the opening scenes and sacrifices way too much to do it. (Arguably, this cues up the terrible problem the Rebel fleet ends up in afterwards) He’s still determined that there must be an Exciting Daring Plan to solve the next problem, so he doesn’t listen to Admiral Holdo, even though she’s a veteran officer and probably should know what she’s doing (and does, as it turns out). In passing, it’s certainly not a great look for him that he spends a lot of the movie not listening to qualified women and causing shit because of it. Hopefully he’s learned.

I think he has, because to Poe’s credit, as Admiral Holdo’s plan eventually unspools, though, and he sees that Holdo was far from a ditherer or a coward, and not only knew exactly what she was doing, but had the right plan for the situation (well, nearly), you can very nearly see the light come on. There are times to blow things up. There are times when that’s not how to win. Poe takes that lesson into the last set piece battle and realizes that there’s no sense in getting all his pilots killed. Time not to fight, time to live and stay in the struggle. Nice growth, again.

(I think it’s important that both Holdo, and Leia, ultimately realize that everything Poe does wrong is coming from a very good place – he wants to do well so very badly. It’s just that he’s also internalized a very dramatic, front-and-centre idea of what being a hero means, and that’s not always going to serve him well.)

Now, overall this is one of the lessons that The Last Jedi seems to want to hammer home – that we don’t necessarily win by blowing things up, as satisfying as that often is to do. It was the wrong plan in the opener. Holdo’s understated escape strategy was correct. Luke doesn’t show up to fight Kylo Ren, he shows up to stall and cover an escape. It didn’t make sense for Finn to die blowing up another piece of Imperial tech; the important thing was for him to live and stay in the fight. People matter. Surviving matters. Persevering matters. Sometimes the fight is not a literal fight.

I’m going to be very interested to see if they carry this through into the last part of the trilogy and give us a final victory that doesn’t come from a big space battle and something enormous exploding. It would kind of make sense if they did, because the Rebellion kind of already tried that and it didn’t end up really solving things. The amoral codebreaker (who I really hope we’re not actually done with) was right, in a way – one day they blow you up, one day you blow them up. The solution could be, perhaps needs to be something else. It’ll be very cool to see if, and how, they make that happen. (Of course things will still blow up. It’s Star Wars, after all)

I’ve seen several clever people say that The Last Jedi is a very 2017 movie, and in some ways I agree. Sometimes the galaxy lets you down: no-one shows up to answer Leia’s call for help. Sometimes there is no cavalry, sometimes if something’s important you gotta do it yourself. Moreover, the Resistance’s saviours are not coming from our old cast of characters – not Han, not Luke, not even (alas) Leia. The answer is emphatically not reaching back to the past, or assuming that because someone has a particular label that they’re The Answer. We need new ideas, new approaches, new heroes.

Speaking of, Rose is a great character. Like Rey, she’s not anyone Important. She’s not a Skywalker, she’s not a Princess, she’s not a flashy pilot or a cool smuggler. She’s a technician who is initially starstruck to meet Finn, but (somewhat like Bodhi Rook from Rogue One) she signs up for way more than she probably should because it’s necessary (or at least it appears to be). She’s able to convince Finn that the Resistance really is something pretty important. She saves his life for exactly the right reasons. Again, I expect great things.

I really loved a lot about this movie. I loved that ‘the worst place in the galaxy’ wasn’t another grungy dive bar, it was a glittering casino full of beautiful wealthy people who couldn’t find morality with a map. I love (as a friend of mine just pointed out to me) that the film suggests that the Force belongs to everyone, not just an elite caste of people with the right bloodlines and groovy robes. How great, not really incidentally, was that shot of the kid with the broom, almost looking like a lightsaber in the starlight, looking up into the night and dreaming of being in the fight. I love that the last shot of Luke was watching twin suns set, very nearly exactly like the first time we saw him.

Of course I have a few minor niggles with the film and places where I think perhaps things could have been done a touch better. But overall, I thought it was fantastic, far better than The Force Awakens, in large measure because it was a really different and new story. I can’t wait to see how it concludes.

Go get ’em, Rey from Nowhere.

(That’s a lot about this movie. I’m gonna stop here. I could write so much more. I’m just that excited about how good it was. Here‘s a good column that digs into some of the politics of the movie really well, and better than I really am able to.)

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Gifts

I write this amid a bunch of holiday-related runnings around so this will be another short ‘un. I suspect I’ll write rather more next week.

It’s the Christmas season, so of course there is a lot of focus on gifts, given and received. I have been fortunate enough to receive more than my fair share, this year and through my life. Hopefully I’ve given a few of value in return.

Among the very best gifts I have ever gotten is writing, wherever it came from. I don’t mean that in the sense of ‘I am good at it’, I mean that in terms of what writing does for me. It is indescribably cool (although I do keep trying) to create stories of people and things and places. I am delighted to share a great many of my stories with people, but I have stories that will never be told to anyone.

For a few years I had my own imaginary football league filled with teams and players, each with their own tales that will always be just for me. On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve been privileged to share two big pieces of my imagination with the whole world.  Very different in many ways, but the essential process is the same.  Creating stories makes some crystal thing deep inside me hum in just the right fashion; there is no substitute and nothing I would substitute for it. There is no feeling quite like writing my imaginary people into being, and then of course there is no pleasure quite like having someone read a thing I wrote and say that they’re glad they did.

Thank you all for reading something of mine. I’ll be so very pleased if you continue.

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Just (literally) finished watching the Doctor Who Christmas Special and the exit of Peter Capaldi as the Doctor. I suspect I may have a lot of thoughts about it all eventually, but on the whole it was a different kind of exit for a different iteration of the Doctor. I look forward to the next telling of the tale.

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UFO? UFO!

I was not expecting a UFO controversy. I really, truly thought that we had had our last flurry of UFO excitement (in North America anyway) in the 90s with the black triangles and all that was immortalized in the X-Files. In more recent years the only time ‘aliens’ seemed to enter the popular consciousness was that meme with the guy with the crazy haircut on History Channel.

And then this week. Revelations of a(nother) U.S. government investigation into UFOs during the 2000s. A pretty wild video of … something, apparently shot by aircrews from the USS Nimitz. Speculation that this is all a shell game being played to distract public attention away from Trump. It’s the Good Old Days again.

The Good Old Days are really pretty old, of course – UFOs in the sense we usually think of them (things that might be alien spacecraft, in general usage) (the term, not the spacecraft) go back to the mystery airships of the 1890s*, some of which were indeed interpreted as extraterrestrial craft. There was a big surge of interest in the 1950s and 1960s, coinciding (I would hazard) both with the Space Race and the appearance of genuinely very different looking aircraft in the skies. Then that other surge in the 80s and 90s.

Basically, the idea of there being Strange Stuff in the sky that might be something really quite remarkable seems to be one that we keep coming back to, collectively. We leave it for a while, and then after some time passes, for whatever reason we pick it up again.

It’s interesting to me that the UFO question still keeps grabbing us, after so many other mysteries and myths (Bermuda Triangle, Loch Ness Monster, Sasquatch) have fallen increasingly aside. I guess part of it is that UFOs do still exist in that ‘maybe’ space where it’s just about possible that there’s something weird going on, while for a lot of other things our expanding reach has closed off the avenues of possibility. That Nimitz video is pretty weird. It could be something.

I think part of it too is that the UFO question hooks into one of our broader, probably species-wide wonderings: are we alone? Are we everything in this universe? Is there more, out there? Especially as Western society has become more and more atheist, if we’re looking for something beyond ourselves and our society and perhaps greater than ourselves and our society, we’ve gotta look off-planet, because we’ve sort of eliminated the other options, intellectually.

And it is an important, interesting question – is there other life, other than what’s on this rock? What would it be like if there was, and what would it be like if it came to visit? The very wide range of very different answers people have to this question – from ‘nothing’ to ‘space friends who want to help us’ to ‘inscrutable intellects who want to use us as lab animals’ – is fascinating, and has of course been the fodder for very many wonderful SFF stories.

We’d like to know what’s out there. We can’t go ourselves, so we imagine the sorts of things that might come to us instead, to visit, to teach, to torment, or to conquer. There’s probably a lot to be gleaned from the different types of aliens we imagine, and the different types of encounters we envision.

The UFO/government (and maybe especially U.S. government) connection in particular I think twangs another part of our understanding (or imagining) of the society we have built, here in the West. Since the 1960s or so, there’s a current of thought that the government can be relied on to be up to no good – with a certain amount of evidence in support of that feeling! When you see the things that governments really have done, and you’re maybe already thinking about alien visitors, it’s not much of a reach to think of the government in league with interests opposed to our own, on a planetary rather than class-based scale.

Anyway, I’m watching this latest wave of UFO-ery with glee and interest. I would dearly love for there to be something remarkable, exceptional, and wonderful happening Up There. Those are the kind of stories I enjoy, after all, and it would be fun to have that be one that comes true. Probably.

I’m not sure that if I had set out to write a less Christmas-y/holiday-themed post that I could have done much better than the above. I hope you all enjoy time with friends and family and get some time to rest and recuperate from all this strange old world keeps hucking at us. I’m gonna try to do some writing. Thanks for reading.

*-I know you can find stuff going back much, much further than that, although it’s not always entirely clear that the weird stuff in the sky is being interpreted as we do today, so I simplified a bit.

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Characters, Still

Yet again I struggled to know what to write for this week’s blog. The last while I have been tired and ill and feeling generally uninspired. I don’t write this fishing for sympathy, but more as a reminder for myself that these things happen. Everyone goes through down periods where they’re not their best and don’t accomplish all that they might like to. Some people are just better at concealing that shit than others.

However that may be – what I decided to write a little about was that I created a new character this week. I always have a lot of fun doing that, and this time it is a little different because this one is for a role-playing game. I wrote a bit a while back about the Star Wars game I’ve been running, and that’s still going. Now, one of my friends is starting up a D&D game and I get to be a player (something I haven’t done in a long long while) this time, so instead of creating the whole setting, I get to concentrate on one imaginary person.

I’ve been having a lot of fun with it, although the process of making an RPG character is a little different than my usual writing process, because my natural impulse is to start making this new person the star of the story. However, with an RPG, they really won’t be. My character won’t be any more (or less) important than any of the other players’ imaginary people, so what I have to do is create more of a supporting cast member – someone who can fit easily in with a bunch of other narratives and the overall tale our DM has for us.

I think it’s going ok.

Of course I’ve written some bits and pieces of story to go along with this character – because, honestly, what else would I do? – and this also got me thinking about all the characters I’ve created in and for unfinished stories that float around the nooks and crannies of my hard drive, their worlds partially created and their tales only somewhat told. I am just odd enough to feel a little bad about these stranded creations of mine, and also to wonder what it must be like to live in a partly-written world.

There’s probably a story in that, as well, and if Neil Gaiman hasn’t already done it, maybe I’ll write it one of these days.

——

There was a bit of a kerfuffle on Writing Twitter yesterday when an almost-certainly-well-meaning literary agent offered up a fairly broad brush piece of Writing Advice that drew a digital hailstorm of criticism. I was going to write about that a little, but I don’t really have anything to say that I haven’t already – I don’t put a lot of stock in Writing Advice, and certainly not in there being one or more Rules that are the path to Good Writing.

Good writing is, fortunately or unfortunately, something that isn’t about what rules you did or didn’t follow, it’s about whether or not you can write your ideas down and make it work. Different things will work for different people, and for different applications. Ultimately, the wonderful and terrifying truth is that you just gotta write well, and there’s no magic trick and no step-by-step for that.

That’s it for this week. Next week I hope to be a bit more out of my doldrums.

(But Brandon, these entries are getting shorter, huh?)

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Characters

I really didn’t know what I was going to write for this week either (I blame end of term occupying most of my mind these days) but then it occurred to me that I was reading a book where there was not a lot going on in terms of plot, but I was still really enjoying it, and wondered why. Surely this should be disappointing, or at least boring. But it wasn’t (and isn’t) – the book is an absolute pleasure to read. The reason: the characters are wonderful, and even though not that much is happening event-wise, it is just such a joy watching them interact that I don’t mind even a little.

(I’m not sure if I should say what book this is, and I’m pretty sure I won’t. Suffice it to say that despite what I said above, at about 3/4 of the way through it is a wonderful story from one of my very favourite writers, who is about a thousand times better than me both in terms of success and ability. I’m not looking down on the work in any way, just thinking about where its strengths are.)

As I think about it some more, that maybe isn’t the biggest surprise. At a writers’ event a few weeks ago, I got asked about the most important part of the stories I write, and my answer was that when you strip everything else away from my stuff, they are all stories about people. I like to write about people and the things they do, and basically I like to read stories that are, fundamentally, about people and their interactions as well.

In the same way, the kind of fiction that doesn’t work as well for me tends to be not as character-based. Some ‘hard’ science fiction, for example, is basically about technology, or a scientific idea, and the characters are almost peripheral to exploring those things. Sometimes the characters seem to be there just to dialog out pieces of exposition and describe things at each other, rather than speaking and reacting like real human beings. When I think about stories (which again I think I won’t name) that I liked when I was younger but haven’t liked as much on a reread more recently, a lot of times it’s because the characters are shallow and artificial-seeming.

(Now I know a lot of hard SF fans will vigorously dispute the above, and I want to be clear that I don’t mean all hard SF is like this. Just some of it, that I have read. A lot of this is also personal taste, because I know people who couldn’t really care less about the characterizations as long as the concept and the plot is cool.)

I’m not sure if this means I’m exactly very good at writing characters. I think they’re important, and I would sure like to be good at creating them. For the kind of stories I like to read, you need it to be about people before it’s about anything else. So they need to be fully thought out characters who react and speak like real people do, and they need to have concerns and motivations that are the sorts of things that real people are really motivated by.

Which is what the author of this book I’m reading has gotten very, very, right.

Something I’m going to keep in mind, anyway.


Fresh off last week’s post, and clearly lacking any ideas of his own, my friend Brandon Crilly has written up his own Top 5 TV shows list.  It is obviously misconceived, but you should find your way to his blog anyway.  It is here.

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So, About that Top 5

The other day my friend and fellow writer Brandon Crilly and I were hanging out and, perhaps inevitably, got to talking about writing we’ve enjoyed, and that got us to talking about TV shows we’ve both enjoyed, and we both mentioned shows that ‘would be in our Top 5’. That of course got me thinking about what my actual Top 5 would be, and I didn’t have a topic for the blog this week, so here we go.

My main criteria for picking anything here was that I couldn’t pick and choose parts of a series. So, for example, much as I love the first few seasons of X-Files, it was never going to make this list because it really dies hard in the later seasons.

Bear in mind that I haven’t actually seen every show ever, so if your favourite isn’t here, that may well be why.

Bear in mind that you can also just fight me.

I think these are in order? Maybe. I guess there may be spoilers.

Battlestar Galactica (2004 Series)

Right out of the gate we’re probably in trouble. I know a lot of people didn’t like where this series ended up, but I thought it was perfect. Yes, even the last episode. I can’t really think of another series that gave me so many characters that I genuinely cared about, did character development as believably and well as this did, and went to some dark and difficult places without ever quite turning the light out entirely. None of the characters were two-dimensional. Starbuck is still my favourite.

Person of Interest

I wrote about this series once before, so I’ll just briefly reiterate – this seemed as though it was going to be the most procedural procedural that ever procedured. It wasn’t. Person of Interest turned out to be really thoughtful SF about AI and a surveillance society, and the ethics of both. It also had really, really good characters, and really, really good performances again. Michael Emerson is good in everything I see him in.

Fringe

I came into this show thinking, as I think a lot of people did, that it was basically going to be an X-Files knockoff. For a couple episodes it kind of was an X-Files knockoff. Then it took a huuuuge left turn and never looked back. It ended up being nothing like any other show on TV. It was hilarious, it was disgusting, it was genuinely disturbing, and like BSG, it made you care. It had tremendous sustained performances from Anna Torv and John Noble. Even crunching the timeline of the series down by several seasons, it told its story well and ended it on just the right note. Absent everything else, ‘White Tulip’ is a fantastic SFF story. Fringe did not get nearly the attention it deserved, and it was some of the best SFF television we’ve had.

Orphan Black

I didn’t even really know what this show was going to be about, I just kept hearing ‘man you’ve gotta watch Orphan Black‘. I finally did. Holy crap this show was good. So much of it hinged on the amazing performances of Tatiana Maslany in pulling off portraying all of the various Leda clones, but the story being told was genuinely original and genuinely very well done. Again, they gave us amazing characters that you couldn’t help but get invested in. The transformation of Helena from an almost Michael Myers like threat into a beloved ally was beautifully done. The writers introduced a cold, manipulative villainess in Rachel, got you to care about her, and then got you to buy her as a villain again. Orphan Black wobbled just a little in its last season, but it was still so so good.

Doctor Who

Ok this one was a little tricky to leave on the list, because honestly, if you look at the whole immense size of the series, you’ve gotta say that the quality is more than a little uneven. There are, I will admit, some truly awful episodes in there. I’ve talked before about how sometimes the special effects, well, they reflect the budget the show had at the time. ‘Continuity’ is a very vague sort of concept for the show at all, by this point.

And yet. When I think about the TV show that probably has more to do with me being a fan of SFF today, and someone who writes fantastic stories, it’s Doctor Who and it isn’t close. I was never that into Star Trek (sorry), and my Star Wars fandom came a little bit later. I started out watching shows from before I was born on PBS Sunday afternoons, and just got terribly, terribly hooked. Tom Baker will always be ‘my’ Doctor, but I truly like them all and I like all the various eras the show has gone through. It wins huge points for longevity and for continuing to find new stories to tell about an itinerant busybody alien and the people who wander around time and space with them. I forgive it its misses because among the hits are things like ‘the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don’t alters their views to fit the facts, they alter the facts to fit the views’, which is really very good. And also ‘You know, I don’t think these cows know anything about the time scanner”.

Doctor Who is good.

Missed the Cut:

The Americans: This was very, very, very close. I love this show and I love the writing on this show. Partly I cut it because this is otherwise an SFF list and I like that, because ‘genre TV’ tends not to get the same critical respect as other shows do. Also though, as much as I adore the main storyline, in the last couple seasons there have been some plotlines I am not spellbound by. Watch The Americans, though.

Stranger Things: You know I love this show. It didn’t quite make it because I feel like I need to see more of the story the Duffers are creating to really evaluate it yet. Season 1 was damn near perfect, but now they’re working on a bigger vision that we haven’t had fully revealed yet. Maybe this one gets shuffled up in a few years.

Both Jericho and Deadwood were series that I thought had very nearly perfect first seasons, but didn’t maintain that quality throughout. Lost was a series I thought was awesome out of the gate and then by the end was watching out of spite. I’m still kind of bitter. I thought the writers of Terminator: The Sarah Connors Chronicles were trying to do some genuinely bold and interesting stuff, but they had some really heavy misses and then the show got cancelled. One day I’d like to pick the writers’ brains about what they would have done. Before you ask, I haven’t had a chance to see Westworld yet. I hear it’s very good. I also haven’t seen The Wire.

Brandon tells me these blog entries are too long. I’m stopping. Thanks for reading. Come fight me in the comments if you want.

More importantly, go check out Brandon’s blog and work here.

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Can of Ants

This week I want to write a little about what I felt was a really skillful piece of storytelling on the TV series Mindhunter. Some of this is a little spoiler-y so if you haven’t watched it yet, I’ll suggest you go do so (it’s really well done, although not SFF) and then maybe read this afterwards. Or maybe you don’t care about spoilers. Onwards.

Mindhunter is loosely based on the real story of the growth of ‘profiling’ as a tool the FBI used (uses?) to try to catch serial killers. One of the characters is Dr. Wendy Carr, a psychologist who gets recruited to help the two FBI agents who are the primary focus of the show, in their work. At the beginning of this relationship, you can tell she’s quite excited. She’s expecting to do work of serious scientific and academic merit, to be working with colleagues who respect her, they get an unexpectedly huge budget. She moves close to Quantico and it even seems that in her new building, there’s a stray cat that lives near her laundry room that she can charm with cans of tuna. Everything looks more or less perfect.

It all comes apart. The other agents refuse to use her methodology, and quickly change from coveting her approval to dismissing her opinions. The director starts making her do his dirty work in riding herd on the behaviour of the FBI agents. Beyond that, the actual work they’re doing seems to her to lack validity and to frequently be unethical. And then in the end, instead of a new adorable kitty friend, she ends up with a tuna can full of disgusting ants. I haven’t explained this as well as I might have (summarizing is hard) but the main point is that none of this is addressed directly.

Dr. Carr never says ‘man, this isn’t what I thought I was getting in for’. Her conversations with the FBI agents get less collegial, more curt, and more argumentative, but she never actually says ‘hey you guys are treating me like junk’. (Arguably, maybe she *should*, but that’s like a whole separate thing) And overall her optimism about the new life she things she’s getting is nicely represented by a few scenes with an off-screen cat, some cans of tuna, and some ants. You get it, but it’s never really explicit on the screen. You just come to understand that this is what’s going on. It’s really good.

Broadly I guess this falls under the umbrella of ‘show, don’t tell’, perhaps the most cliched of writing advice. Like many things pertaining to writing I think this is situationally valid. Dongwon Song put it really well on Twitter one time, basically saying that you’re a storyteller, and that if you ‘told’ rather than ‘showed’ something and readers didn’t like it the real problem is that you didn’t tell it very well – not entertainingly enough or with enough impact.

What I think is especially good about the thread from Mindhunter isn’t so much that it was show-don’t-tell but that it was done with such a precise touch. They gave you just enough to pick up on what the character was going through and really get it, but not so much that it was clumsy or overwhelmed other parts of the story. I think in general good writing is about finding that balance a lot of the time; giving your reader enough to know your characters, visualize your scenes, and follow your plot, without giving them so much that it becomes confusing, dull, or hard to follow.

I think Mindhunter did that really well, not only with the Wendy Carr character but with all the various threads of the story they wanted to tell. I should also say that none of this would work without the performances of the actors, and Anna Torv was, I thought, very good in this role. I really enjoyed her work on Fringe and it was nice to see her again. She’s very good at conveying understated details in her performances, I think. There’s a scene late in Mindhunter where she’s riding down in an elevator and doesn’t actually say anything but you can just feel the anger boiling off her.

Now, because a lot of what they did in the show was fairly understated and especially because there wasn’t a lot of repetition, you did have to pay close attention to what was happening or you’d miss important stuff. A lot of my favorite writers are that way as well – John Le Carre and William Gibson both get so much out of all their words that you really need to focus on the writing or you won’t really get what they’re trying to convey.

There’s no conclusion to all this except to say that as much as I enjoyed the plot and the performances in Mindhunter, I also did enjoy it on an entirely separate area of admiring the artistry of the writing. Sometimes, for me, that’s just as entertaining as the plot itself. Anyway, those are my thoughts for this week. Thanks for reading.

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