Monthly Archives: January 2018

RPG (again)

Short one this week, I fear. Busy with start of term, but also the start of that D&D campaign I mentioned a while back. That, and a discussion on Twitter about whether or not playing RPGs is good for your writing, got me to thinking.

Again.

I wrote a blog a while back about how being the Game Master of a campaign reminded me how writing for an RPG is very different from the process of writing a piece of prose. Getting ready to be a player in this game has made me think about how that’s yet another different kind of creative process.

Superficially, it seems like it should be similar. You’re creating a character, hopefully an interesting one that will be fun for you to experience the game world through and for the other players to have as part of the team. But right away, that’s where the big difference comes in.

When I create a character for one of my stories, I create the star of the story (along with various others) and the whole fictional world that I’m showing you revolves around that person. The story is, more or less, about solving their problems or exploring their characteristics or understanding of the world or what have you.

However, in the game, my character is no more or less important than any of the others. They need to be a useful part of an ensemble, and in most well-run games I’ve been in, everyone gets their turn in the spotlight, but no one character is the star of the show. So, in writing a backstory for this guy, I immediately had several ideas that I would really enjoy exploring – but odds are we never will, because this story is not that character’s story, or not only their story. The story of the game is going to be what this character creates with all the other ones, going forward.

Now it’s true that in thinking about how my character in an RPG should react to situations and behave, they would think that they’re the centre of their own universe, just as we all more or less do. Absolutely a well thought-out character has goals they want to accomplish and drives. The thing is, though, that as the player/writer, I also have to be aware that those things are all less important than the whole group having fun, and telling a good story collectively that everyone (including the DM) can enjoy.

Tricky.

But fun.

We had a sort of intro session on the weekend and I was reminded about one of my weaknesses as a player – I am not real quick on the draw with a good line. If I was writing the scene, I could come up with just the right thing for my character to say. But during a live game session, when I don’t have time to think, and try a few different phrasings and see what works best, I don’t do nearly so well. I guess that’s why I’m a writer and not an actor.

Somewhat tangentially, this also makes me very impressed with how well the people on Critical Role do playing their D&D game live on the internet. The quality of the dialogue all of them come up with shooting from the hip is really something to see.

All of this is to say that creating a fictional person and collaborating in creating a fictional world in this way has some overlap with what I do when I’m writing my own stuff, but it stretches me in very different directions at the same time. I think that’s a good thing, overall – it’s like doing a different set of exercises at the gym, strengthening different muscles and building different kinds of fitness. Also sometimes you ache in the morning.

Thanks for reading.

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Discarding Asimov

If you’ve read this blog in the past, you may have seen me mention the work of Isaac Asimov. This will be the last time that I do that. I have a simple reason for it.

Isaac Asimov abused women. I’m not going to go through the details of it here; Google will turn them up easily enough. Exactly what he did isn’t entirely relevant. It’s what the consequences are, and should have been, because evidently the SF world did what far too many communities have historically done and apologized for it and covered it up.

It was something I had sort of heard hints and sideways references to, but never bothered to find out very much about. Then recently, for whatever reason, I seriously looked into it, and what I (very easily) found was horrific. Of course then comes the question: Now that you know, what do you do about it?

There isn’t a lot that I can do, obviously. Asimov died years ago and even if he was still alive my condemnation would matter very little. But, after giving it some thought, I am at least going to discard my copies of all his books that have been on my shelves for a very long while. Some of them went to university with me, all those many years ago, but even these old companions have to go.

I admit one of my first thoughts about this – and it doesn’t flatter me – was disappointment that I would never read an Asimov story again. But this is exactly the reaction that has enabled not just the abuse of women, but so many kinds of abuse, to thrive: the impulse to put one’s own career, or convenience, or even one’s own passing pleasure, above the suffering of another human being.

We must do better.

Recently a lot of people have asked whether or not it is possible to separate the artist from the art, to love and enjoy their work even while we condemn the person who made it. My problem with that is two fold. First, in accepting their art, we inevitably accept the artist. We at least imply (and I think more than that) that their behaviour is ok, because we still buy the book or go to the movie or watch the TV show. This is the opposite of what we should be doing.

My other objection is that there are so very many worthy artists out there, struggling to have their work seen, that honestly we can easily do without the art that comes from awful people who hurt their fellow human beings so profoundly. Instead of being sad that I won’t be reading Asimov again, I should be (and am, really) excited about the people I will be reading instead, because there are writers who are just as good and even far better who are also far superior human beings.

Some people object in return that if we do this we will have to discard a lot of artists, a lot of people, in general. Unfortunately, they’re probably right. But, if we want to stop having a society where women are routinely harassed and abused, well, no-one said the job was going to be a small one. So, yes, Asimov is out, along with my H.P. Lovecraft. I can find books that I will be proud to fill the space on those shelves with.

It’s probably fair to ask how much of a difference any of this makes. The books are long bought and their writer is long dead, so it isn’t even a question of ‘supporting’ anyone at this point. Is it an empty gesture?

I’m not persuaded that it is, entirely. If there is really to be lasting change for our society’s tolerance for the mistreatment of women, there have to be lasting consequences for abusers. Yes, even after they’re gone. We need to send a message, that we will not brush things under the carpet because the stories were good or they were important in their field. We won’t say kind things about them, we won’t honour their name, and their books won’t be on our shelves. If that’s all we can do at this late remove, then we shall at least do that.

Thanks for reading.

——–

Today is a truly sad day for lovers of SFF and writing in general, as the great Ursula K. Le Guin has passed away at the age of 88. I’m not going to attempt to write anything about her importance as a writer or her impact on her field. Those tributes are springing up everywhere, deservedly so, and doing a much finer job of praising this wonderful writer than I would be able to.

The only thing I want to say is that I kind of encountered (not in the sense of actually meeting her, alas) Le Guin twice. I was introduced to her writing by that Prisoners of Gravity show I’ve mentioned a bunch of times, which brought up her Left Hand of Darkness I think every other episode. Again, deservedly so. So I knew she was a very good and bold writer.

I didn’t realize until much more recently that she was an equally bold and courageous thinker about writing, and about our society. She used the platform she earned for herself to try to do good and promote positive changes and that is just as great a thing as the books she wrote.

I’m very sad that she has left us, but I feel ever so grateful that she was with us at all.

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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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