Tag Archives: Characters

The Americans

A little while ago I did a list of my favourite TV series of all time, which was clearly a project of mammoth significance. And now it needs to be revised. The reason is that one of the rules I set for myself was that I needed to have seen the whole run of the series, because there are all too many shows that started out great and then Lost-ified themselves.

Last week, The Americans aired its last episode, I will miss it greatly, and it probably deserves a spot in that top 5. I’m going to write about it a little more today. Obviously there are spoilers below, and if that bothers you, I would suggest not reading further, because you should really give The Americans a shot. You’ll be in for a treat.

The concept of the show was a reasonably interesting one – deep-cover KGB agents in 1980s America – and that was what got me to originally give it a go. I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting, probably hoping for something that would at least be a decent action-y drama. That’s not what I got. What I got is what I think is one of the best written TV shows I have ever watched.

One of the great strengths of the show was that the writers were pretty good at doing things you didn’t expect. They would foreshadow things that never happened, and refused to follow what people will say are basic storytelling conventions. This past season, Elizabeth was issued a cyanide suicide pill to prevent her being captured alive. I read a lot of speculation of whether she would take it, or someone else would, or it would be used to kill someone, or as evidence of her KGB work – there had to be something, because ‘Chekov’s Gun’, after all. The cyanide pill ended up getting dumped in a hole in the woods, unused, as the Jennings’ fled America. It’s just one example of how you could never really know for sure where the show was going to take you. That was a lot of fun.

The thing that impressed me the most, though, was that where a lot of stories these days present an array of characters who are all basically unlikeable, The Americans did the reverse. Philip and Elizabeth do lots of horrific things in service of the KGB, and yet they’re still very easy to like. It would also have been very easy to make the FBI agents chasing them (essentially, the show’s antagonists) into some kind of vile caricatures of government agents, but that’s not the case. Stan Beeman is another genuinely easy to like character who, despite some of the fairly awful things he does at times as well, we also want to see end up all right.

Watching the finale was suspenseful in a bunch of ways, but the largest way for me was that the Jennings’ subterfuge is finally collapsing, Stan is closing in, and I wanted, somehow for both the Jennings and Stan to be ok when it all shook out, some kind of obviously impossible quantum state where the Jennings both were and were not captured, I guess. As it turns out, instead of getting both those things, the audience more or less gets neither. Every beat of the final hits super hard because you care, very much about all the imaginary people you’re watching it happen to. That’s what this show did really well.

The story of Philip Jennings was amazing to watch. From Season 1, he was clearly far less ideologically-committed to the espionage work he and his wife were asked to do, but keeps doing it because she is his wife and he needs to support her. It all grinds him down as the seasons wind on, through one of my favourite scenes (mentioned earlier in this blog) where he tells an asset simply “I feel like shit all the time”, because this is one of the very few people in the world he can afford to be somewhat genuine with. He goes on with it, still primarily because the idea of not supporting his wife is unbearable, until he simply can’t any longer. Philip tries to quit. Finally, he is drawn back in one more time, again because he knows Elizabeth is probably dead if he doesn’t, and it crushes him. The end of their mission in America would surely have been some kind of relief, if it wasn’t that it also meant the end of the pleasant life he had wanted so badly for himself and his family. In the end, everything Philip was trying to accomplish, and all the horrible shit he did trying to do it, ends up being for nothing at all. It was brutal to watch. It was great. That was just one character. We could run down the whole cast and get basically the same impact for nearly all of them.

I think the fact that the characters were so well done is the main reason why I liked the whole arc of the show, and its really very bleak ending, despite my preference for a positive ending, these days. Look, a happy ending wouldn’t have fit very well with the overall themes of the show, which often painted the Cold War in great swathes of grey, but I have haven’t enjoyed many a bleak story, even though the darkness may have made sense. The difference is that in this one, I was interested enough in the people to want to see where their dark paths led them.

In terms of authenticity, the writers and showrunners for The Americans got a lot right. They reproduced 1980s places with fantastic detail; the final episode gave us an entire McDonalds set that reminded me of car trips as a kid. They got Russian-speakers to do the Russian dialogue, leaving scenes between Russian characters subtitled rather than doing them in cheesy accents. I have also read commentary from more than one intelligence professional saying that The Americans got much of the tradecraft for their spies more or less correct. That was fun to know, but these details aren’t really why I loved the show. Ultimately, the show was great because of the characters, and how well and believably they were all rendered, and how very much the show made you want to follow them around and see what happened to them.

I continue to believe that this is what will always separate a good story from a truly great one. They’re all about people in the end, just as The Americans was, when you boiled it right down to the core, just really about people. I loved every bit of the journey as a fan, I think I learned a lot as a writer, and I will miss the show very much.

Thanks for reading.

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Boba Fett

There’s a lot of Star Wars content coming out these days. Here’s a little more.

No, I haven’t been to see Solo (continuing my tradition of taking an extremely long time to see movies), but it did open just recently, and then at about the same time we got the announcement that a Boba Fett movie is in the works.

Somewhere, 16-year old me is god damned delighted. There’s history here – I was among the very many Star Wars fans who latched on to Boba Fett in the first trilogy of films. I used Boba Fett as my alias in games and online whenever possible, I had a Boba Fett mug on my desk for years, along with a little model Slave One.

Boba Fett was cool, and in part it’s because the character has a great, distinctive visual design (although much copied since then) and mostly he just stands around looking dangerous. Han Solo is clearly terrified of him. Darth Vader, of all people, treats him with something approaching respect. Beyond that, he’s a menacing, rad-looking mystery, except for the part where he suffers a jarringly slapstick demise in Jedi, and even that was okay because the writers for the Dark Empire comic (I’m pretty sure) wrote him a more typically badass escape from a grisly fate in the Sarlaac Pit.

And that was where the trouble started, really. Ever since then, we’ve had more and more bits and pieces added to Boba Fett’s story, first in comics, and then in the prequel trilogy, and various associated books. To me, everything they’ve added to the character past the original trilogy has made it worse, to the point where I really don’t particularly want a Boba Fett movie at all, anymore. Somewhere, 16 year old me wants to fight.

Some of this may be personal taste, but I think also the character has lost a lot of his appeal by having more and more of those tantalizing blanks filled in. Sometimes it is more compelling to go ‘who is this guy? What’s their deal?’ than to have the answer handed to you. I think part of why that is is the fun of feeling your own imagination engage and working on your own answers to the question. Some of it is that our brains love a mystery, or a puzzle, and usually those are a lot less fun once you have the answer in hand.

For me at least, that’s what happened with Boba Fett. I found almost all of the added detail we got about the character fairly boring, and most of the answers we got made him into a lesser figure rather than a more interesting one. Having been given what I thought I wanted, I like the character so very much less. This may all have been inevitable. If you’ve created a character and your audience is clearly into them and eager for more about them, it’s an extremely attractive idea to go ahead and write more of their story. I felt that a bit with one of my own characters from King in Darkness, although the money factor is obviously much different.

For what it’s worth, I think it’s important to remember that there’s some risk along with the reward, and that in creating more, you may in fact end up diminishing what you had before. It was better before. I think I was right, in the end, not to make Professor Marchale a more prominent character than he was in my books; people seem to dig the scenes he’s in, they want to read more (which is good), but it might wear thin or get tired if those scenes increased in length or number. I think it would have been better if we had gotten a lot less about Boba Fett, and I really don’t think we need any more.

It’s not a character that I’m curious about any longer, I’m not excited to see him in action (somewhere, 16 year old me is very sad) and I think there’s a good argument to be made that we’ve got more than enough stories about gritty shades-of-grey violent dudes already, and it’s difficult to see how a Boba Fett movie could be anything else. I don’t really need to be asked to sympathize with another guy who ends up doing bad things in reaction to the tough hand he’s been dealt. Show me more people who rise above that shit.

I also worry, just a little, that the Star Wars universe is going to become heavily overfished, with too many movies about too many second-rate characters that will ultimately dilute the appeal of the whole. There are, I’m sure, good stories waiting to be told (I think the case for a ‘Leia’ movie is pretty strong, and you could make a pretty awesome Lando movie), but we don’t need to know the untold origin of every B-list character, and ultimately I don’t think we need a Star Wars movie every year for the rest of time. It was rough waiting for new Star Wars, but I think often we appreciate the things we don’t get very much of that tiny bit more.

Obviously all of this comes back to the most basic of principles: tell good stories. Easier said than done, sure, and I’m equally sure that everyone at least sets out with the intention to tell a good story, but it’s important (I think) to really think over whether or not the story you’re planning to tell is going to be awesome, and if it’s not, maybe wait until you can figure out a way to get it there. In my own work, I had an idea for a fantasy novel that I thought was ok but not, like, amazing, so I put it aside and did the project that is (slowly) becoming Heretic Blood. By now, I think I know how to make that fantasy story awesome, so it’s next on my list. Make sure the stories are good stories, and not just something that’s done for the sake of doing it. We owe our audiences and our characters better than that.

It’s clear that the hunger for more Star Wars stories is there, but although it may be a faint hope in a situation where the money is also clearly there, I hope the people making the decisions are considering that it’s not only important to tell stories, but to tell good stories, and that sometimes the untold story can be just as compelling.

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We are coming up on a provincial election here in Ontario, and it looks as though it will be an extremely close one. There’s also an extremely clear choice to be made, and though I don’t typically write about politics here, in this case I’m going to.

I’ll start by acknowledging that my own politics are, uh, not conservative. Even so, although I will almost always disagree with it, I think a conservative viewpoint is an important part of our political conversations and landscape. Even though I basically always wish they wouldn’t do so, I can generally understand why rational people might go out and vote for a conservative politician.

However, I don’t think there’s any argument to be made for voting for Doug Ford. There’s a long list of reasons why but perhaps the most important is that a party running on fiscal responsibility still hasn’t said how they will pay for their promises. They’re promising tax cuts and rebates and cheap beer and not saying where the money will come from for any of it.

This is leaving aside their stated policies that are anti-environment, socially regressive and favour wealthy corporations. We’ve also seen this playbook before, not all that long ago, when Mike Harris was premier, and it was a disaster. Ford seems worse, because they’re not telling us what we’d be giving up in return for the things they say they’d ‘deliver’. I imagine we wouldn’t care for the answer.

There are legitimate reasons to criticize the current Liberal government, and they’ve been in power a very long time. It’s not a surprise that a lot of people want change. I also understand if you’re a conservative and can’t bring yourself to vote NDP. I would ask, though, that everyone think very carefully about whether or not they honestly want to see the province run by Doug Ford in particular for the next four years, and cast their vote accordingly. Spoil that thing if you have to, but please don’t vote for Doug Ford, who gives every sign of being a perilously bad candidate for premier.

It also looks like voter turnout is going to be important, particularly for the progressives. You should always vote, but especially in a tight election, one that is a choice between very different alternatives, there’s no excuse not to.

That’s what I’ve got for you this week. I appreciate your reading it.

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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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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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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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Lord Jericho

There was a story in the news last week that got me thinking: the author Terry Pratchett, who passed away not too long ago, had left instructions that the hard drive containing his unfinished work was to be crushed by a steamroller, and his agent was finally able to have that carried out. The drive was crushed by a vintage machine named Lord Jericho, and then fed into a stone crusher, which is pretty badass all by itself.

There was a reasonable amount of reaction from Pratchett’s fans, expressing sadness about the stories they’d never get to read, which is more than understandable. When we love an artist, we hate the thought of never getting any more of their work. We want it to keep coming forever, and the idea that there was more to be had sounds appallingly sad. This (and of course the ever-present ‘money’ explanation) has led to a long list of ‘completed’ and ‘from the notes of’ works that generally do pretty well and scratch that itch.

So I understand that reaction, but as a writer my first impulse was that I totally understand what he wanted done. Some writers I know said ‘oh god yes, I don’t want anyone seeing my first drafts’, but for me that’s not it. People look at my early drafts all the time. I tell them what they’re in for and presumably they understand the flaws they’re about to encounter. Usually, that’s the point of me showing the drafts to them.

No, my first reaction, and my objection to having anyone do anything with my unfinished work (should the situation every arise) is simply this: My stories are mine. I know my characters and I know where I want my stories to go. I know what I want to do with the parts I haven’t written yet. I know what I want them to say and how I want them to feel. I don’t always achieve those things perfectly, but the goal and the attempt are mine.

I would not be at all content with the idea of having someone else play with my imaginary people and places. I love reading the work of other writers, but I think I’d much prefer it if they did their own thing. This is probably a thoroughly narrow-minded and territorial reaction – and I’ve read enough collaborative fiction to know that artists combining their work can go very well – but it’s genuinely where I am right now.

Second reaction, though, is to think about those imaginary people and places I’ve called into being. It seems very sad to me, even wrong, to think of them not ever having their stories told and never having people know about them. Maybe that would be a greater injustice than having another artist tell part of their story.

(I write all this fully aware that there wouldn’t exactly be a long queue of people wanting to complete my works if I were to pass away, by the way.)

I guess it’s a pretty difficult question, in the end. I love the idea of people reading my stories (I imagine all writers are the same) so, yeah, I kind of want people to be able to read all the ideas I’ve had. I still really don’t like the idea of the stories being only partly mine, though. It’s probably just as well this isn’t a problem I need a solution for any time soon, and I think ultimately what any writer decides is right for them needs to be respected.

Viva Lord Jericho.

That’s all I’ve got for you this week.

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Orphan Black

Back to more pleasant topics today, at least to the extent that saying farewell to a wonderful TV program is pleasant. This past weekend we said goodbye to Orphan Black, which ended its story after a 5 season run.

The first two seasons of the show I would put up against any other TV show in terms of the quality of the story being told as well as the level of the performance. I thought the plot wobbled a bit in this last season, which maybe shows the difficulty of maintaining a level of quality throughout the run of any serialized story, and it’s true that in the finale, the ‘plot’ part of the show was finished before the halfway mark.

But it didn’t matter. The reason it didn’t was that we got to indulge in a nice long wrap-up with the characters we’ve followed around for the past seasons, and as much as I did enjoy Orphan Black‘s plotlines and the issues of autonomy and identity that it raised, I think it was characters that I will remember most about the show. This is perhaps particularly remarkable because so many of the main characters are all played by the same actor, the remarkable Tatiana Maslany.

I could not be more impressed with how she made each of the Leda clones entirely unique in terms of their mannerisms and speech patterns (the writers obviously their share of the credit here too), so that you could easily forget that they really were all the same person. Even when one ‘sestra’ would try to disguise herself as one of the others, instead of just slipping into that character, we got an entirely new thing of ‘this person pretending to be another person’ where watchers of the show could easily still recognize the ‘real’ personality of the clone peeking through the act they were putting on.

I’m not doing justice to how amazing it was to watch. You’ve kind of got to see it.

Even leaving Maslany’s performance aside (although please give her all the awards), Orphan Black had amazing characters. I was so impressed, both as a fan and a writer, at how they took a character who we first met as (apparently) a vicious, genuinely disturbing antagonist and gradually showed you more of her story, and more parts of her personality, taking us through having sympathy for her, and then by the end of the show we (or at least I) were very much on her side. Helena was easily my favourite of all the Ledas, and if you had told me that would be the case early in Season 1 I would not have believed you. (I could not have been happier that we got one final sting of the ‘Helena kills things’ theme in that last episode. Kudos to the music composer, by the way, in creating such a distinctive theme that is basically two sounds and that’s it, but if I hear them 15 years from now I’ll still know exactly what they are)

That’s immensely hard to do as a writer; to create a character that has enough genuine depth that it’s possible for your audience to completely reassess them in the course of the story and not feel cheated either by how they first reacted to them, or at where you asked them to be at the end. The writers of Orphan Black did it just right, and I like to think I learned something from watching them do it.

I think the wrap-up of the show, and why it felt so good to me (and, judging by the bulk of the comments I’ve seen online, to a lot of others) is that we got a satisfying ending to all the stories of the women we’ve followed around for 5 years. None of it was plot-necessary, but the show asks you to get invested in these imaginary people, so I think having something that felt like a proper farewell was also warranted. Whenever I see people’s reactions to characters in books, movies, or TV shows, or feel my own, I’m reminded of how much writers can affect people with the things we create. Every time, I am also reminded that that influence isn’t something we can or should use lightly. We ask audiences to give us a lot, we need to be careful with that trust. Orphan Black did right by its audience.

So it was a wonderful farewell to Orphan Black, even if it was inevitably slightly bittersweet because we’re not going to see these characters again. I felt that the writers have told all the story that they really have to tell, though, so it’s a good place to stop. Especially for a show that I only really checked out on a whim (I really didn’t know what the heck it was about), Orphan Black is one of my very favourite TV shows of all time. If you’re reading this blog, I would suggest checking it out if you haven’t. It was really good SF and really good entertainment, and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

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La Machine

There were monsters in my city last weekend. Seriously.

Ottawa just finished playing host to La Machine, a street performance collective from France, and they brought a 3 day long battle between a Horse Dragon and a a giant spider to the streets. The monsters were enormous robotic creations, with (fascinatingly to me) wood making up a significant part of the construction. Long Ma (the dragon) and Kumo (the spider) were both tremendously impressive to see, whether in pictures or video or (more impactfully to me) glimpsed rather more imperfectly looming over the huge crowds that turned out to watch. Maybe my favorite image of the whole weekend was when I looked up Sussex, packed with people, and towering above it all, in the middle of the street (just like in a monster movie) was this huge creature.

LongMA

Ok, so the monsters were amazing. Long Ma roared and breathed smoke and flames. It also snored charmingly when ‘asleep’ between shows. Kumo climbed down the front of a building and shot presumably venomous water. Just seeing these things tool around the city was pretty incredible, and kind of right in my wheelhouse as someone who writes stories in which the supernatural intersects with the world with which we’re familiar. This was that idea, done on a huge scale, and so it was very fun to watch.

There was also a story to it all. Long Ma is supposed to be a cosmic force from the ninth level of heaven, watching over all humanity. Its wings are stolen and its temple robbed by a sinister force in the form of a giant spider. Long Ma tracked the spider down in Ottawa (amusingly described as ‘the mother-city of all spiders, which will resonate with anyone cynical about Canadian politics) and here they had their confrontation. Long Ma (of course?) ends up retrieving the wings and restoring things to rights.

Kumo.jpg

Pretty good, legendary-style story. I only found out about it by doing some research on the internet, though. I’m not sure it would be possible to come up with all that just watching the monsters and what they did. Obviously the two creatures were not friends – the roaring, flames and water jets when they crossed paths would tell you that – but the rest is certainly not immediately obvious.

I started to think about that from a storytelling perspective, and whether it was a problem. On one level, clearly not, because you could enjoy the spectacle of the city’s titanic visitors without knowing any of it. They were just fun to watch. It’s also possible that La Machine expected you to do the (fairly minimal) amount of research that I engaged in before going down to see the show, if you cared about the story. That’s quite possibly fair enough.

The more I think about it, though, the more I think that maybe you weren’t exactly expected to have the whole story down. Watching the show and figuring out what you thought was going on may have been the plan. There were probably parts of the ‘official’ narrative a lot of the audience would pick up on: Long Ma is clearly designed to be charming. It has big expressive eyes with long lashes, a sort of pleasantly deep rumbling voice, and an elegant stride. The giant spider – given our usual associations with spiders – seems more obviously an antagonist. When Long Ma was snoring cheerily in front of City Hall, Kumo loomed ominously from the top of a building. All of which to say, identifying the ‘good monster’ and the ‘bad monster’ from the pairing is probably fairly easy.

Fight.jpg

From there, most people could probably write their own story. One of my friends, in posting their La Machine photos, also presented their own narrative, which I really enjoyed. Their theory was that Kumo was angry with Long Ma because the dragon woke it up (which it did, on Friday afternoon), the fight and the day’s long chase through the ByWard Market proceeding from there. Suddenly, there’s a version of events where I have a lot more sympathy for the spider.

This strikes me as – potentially – a really cool way of telling a story, or causing a story to be told. Most people who saw La Machine didn’t see the whole thing; they went to one or two encounters with the creatures (although some did apparently follow them throughout), saw part of the weekend’s events, and came away with their own part of the story, their own interpretation of what it all meant, whether cosmic battle between good and evil, grumpy, sleep-deprived spider, or something entirely different.

This is, of course, the mode in which most of us learn about the real world. We almost never have all the facts and the full story about anything, at least not when events are in motion. We encounter what we encounter, experience what we experience, and construct our narratives about what it all signifies about the world, society, other people, and ourselves, from there. There are piles of studies with witness testimony to show that basically no two people are likely to come away from even the same experience with the same story about what happened, never mind each person with their own unique experiences to build from. We all write our own stories, all the time.

I’m not sure if that was really the intent of La Machine, but I think it’s both an inevitable consequence of a big, publicly performed, lengthy spectacle like their story was, and a pretty cool idea. Everyone who saw Long Ma and Kumo (and who didn’t then go and look up the ‘real story’ like I did) came away with their own version of what had happened, what was important, and what (if anything) it meant.

Fight2

This isn’t (I think) a form of storytelling that translates very well to books, although I guess some of the collected interview and diary style books along the lines of World War Z nudge somewhat into the territory. They still take all those different points of view and weave them into a ‘big picture’ for the reader, though. I’m not sure you could really recreate the La Machine experience with a written story unless maybe electronically, with the reader being presented with selected scenes from an overall whole and then having to put them together into a narrative, or not.

It probably doesn’t matter if you could do it in writing, though. One of the great things about storytelling is that it’s possible to do it in all sorts of different ways, with different techniques and technologies, and each has special possibilities. La Machine was the oft-cited “rule” of ‘show, don’t tell’ taken to its extreme extent, where you were told nothing and had to interpret the experience yourself, and (depending on how much time you wanted to spend navigating crowds on Ottawa’s streets, where summer had finally arrived) probably from a partial sample of the whole experience.

It was pretty great.

I really enjoyed the little sliver of La Machine that I got to see in person, and it’s been almost as much fun to see all the different pictures of the monsters taken by other people and to hear about what their experiences were like in different places and at different points of the weekend.

I’m really pleased that for a weekend, a fantastic, amazing story took over the city, and I hope maybe we’ll see something like it again.

This entry now includes some wonderful photos taken by my friend, Rohit Saxena.  Check out other examples of his work here and the rest of his La Machine shots here.

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Ramblings in the Halfway House

I struggled a bit to find a topic for this week. I’m somewhere past the half-way point – somewhat behind my notional ‘schedule’ of where I wanted to be at this time, but not bad – of the WIP (now tentatively titled Heretic Blood) and I’ve sent a chunk of it out to the Eager Volunteers for a check through, but ‘still writing’ doesn’t do much for a blog topic. Overall I think it’s going fine, although I’ve already done a couple of reasonably major rewrites as I come to understand the story a bit better.

One of the rewrites was deciding/discovering that a character who I had originally planned on surviving the book should probably get killed. This really wasn’t a fit of bloodthirstiness (well, not only), it was sort of the most logical or plausible conclusion to an accumulation of actions in the story that all seemed reasonably incidental at the time. Then, all of a sudden they added up to the character being quite different than I originally thought they would be, and their death became the most natural conclusion to their art.

It was one of those times when I feel like I’m discovering things about my plot and my characters rather than creating them, although I know on some level that that isn’t true. However, I’m convinced that there are subconscious processes at work and as much as I find it mildly frustrating at times – it would be wonderful to not have to make these ‘discoveries’ which require significant rewrites and just write the damn story

Maybe that’s what you get from more extensive planning than I do. I know some writers have really detailed and extensive plans of their work before they ever begin to write, either in electronic form or big charts with strings and things going on. I have honestly tried it, but there are two problems. One is that (I guess because I’m somewhat disorganized by nature) my plans tend to be kind of a disaster area, and thus more confusing than helpful about 48 hours after I’m done making them.

The other is that I find making plans boring. Writing is interesting, especially at the start of the project when I think everything about the idea is super rad. If I’m excited, I basically want to stop making the plan and start getting some of the ideas on the page. Maybe this a moment where a more professional writer would be disciplined and do the damn plan and then not have to do as much major surgery on their work once they start writing it.

I kind of suspect, though, that this is one of those cases where everyone has to find whatever process they need to Get Stuff Written and then do that. The more I learn about my own writing, talk to other writers about their writing, and read different people’s ideas about how writing works, the more convinced I become that there is no one correct and proper way to do it. There are basically no rules. There may not even be guidelines. There’s just what works for an individual artist, and you gotta figure out what that is and then do it unapologetically.

Which leaves me with my rather arcane and confusing process where I sometimes feel like I’m in a somewhat uneasy state of detente with my own brain, but it works, or at least works better than anything I’ve yet tried, and thus I continue. I do feel ever so slightly bad for my imaginary person who got flipped from survivor to horribly mangled corpse in the course of a morning writing session, though.

Hmmm. I honestly thought this was just going to be a preamble to another topic, but I should probably get back to Heretic Blood and this feels like enough to call an entry now.

I am looking forward to sharing Heretic Blood with you, since it’s really quite different from either of the books I’ve done so far, and even at this point where I’ve been working on it for quite some time, I’m not hearing too much from Statler and Waldorf yet. Which tells me that yes, somewhat incomprehensible process or not, I should keep at it while that continues to be the case.

Thanks for reading.

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