C is for Commentary: Shut Up and Tell the Story, Percy Jackson

C is for Commentary: Shut Up and Tell the Story, Percy Jackson

(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians Book 1), although we’re only really talking about the beginning.)

CAnyone who reads heavily–be they agent, scholar, or just passionate bibliophile–is going to go through a lot of openings.  You’ll inevitably start to spot patterns, and just as inevitably, start to hate some of them.  One early-page tic I’ve been noticing, one that’s really started getting on my tits, is what TV Tropes calls Little Did I Know.  You know the one: “Had I only known what happened next, I would never have gone in there.”  I note that TV Tropes calls it a discredited trope.  From my recent reading, TV Tropes is a liar, because it’s definitely still out there.

I most recently encountered this in the first Percy Jackson book, which I feel safe using to discuss a device that I detest because 1) it’s a pretty good book despite that, and 2) I’m sure that Rick Riordan can bury any despair over the criticisms of a random Internet plebe under his piles of bestseller and movie deal cash.  The novel starts with a fourth wall breaking aside about the danger that lies ahead, and then twice in the next two pages stops to comment on how things are about to go wrong.

This is a sister trope in annoyance to the “teaser” prologue that flashes forward to the climax: both use a somewhat meta alteration of chronology to inject some excitement and intrigue, and thus both seem like a tacit admission on the part of the author that the opening pages are too boring to stand on their own.  (Note that this isn’t the same as the intercutting style I discussed yesterday; here we’re talking about cases where the timehopping is never revisited again.)  It’s classic “show, don’t tell”: rather than making the opening pages, you know, not boring, the author directly implores the reader to tough it out because better stuff is coming.  It’s as subtle as a shovel to the prostate.

The thing that makes this so frustrating in The Lightning Thief in particular is that it’s so bloody unnecessary.  In the first chapter, Percy throws a bully into a fountain and then kills a Fury with a magic sword.  It is, in technical terms, fricking sweet.  This might just be a factor of me not being the target audience, but I think I can survive a few pages of exposition without constant breathless reassurances that no seriously shit is about to get so real you just have no idea.  I would say that perhaps things need to get spelled out a little more clearly in middle grade fiction, except this trope is the reason I gave up on the decidedly not kid-friendly John Dies at the End, which spent so much time telling me how fucked up things were going to get that I finally despaired of them ever actually getting there.  A cheap tactic is a cheap tactic, regardless of category, and self-aggrandizement is pretty much always off-putting.  No one likes the guy who does nothing but talk himself up.

Look, I get it.  Openings are hard.  First impressions count for a lot, and the overwhelming glut of books on the market means that readers are increasingly likely to abandon books that don’t grab them and move onto greener pastures.  But I’d implore authors to trust their readers and have confidence in their pages.  I promise that I don’t need to be reminded that your story has an inciting incident and/or climax just like 98% of things that have ever been written.

Don’t waste my time telling me that this is going to be awesome.

Just be awesome.

B is for Backstory: Non-Linear Narrative in Vicious

B is for Backstory: Non-Linear Narrative in Vicious

(Standard spoiler warning applies to Vicious by V.E. Schwab.)

BBackstory can be a real bugbear for authors.  You’ve built up all this history, the rich and complex details that have come together to make this world and this tale, but how to get it across?  After all, readers aren’t here for the backstory, they’re here for the front story.  And if you’ve got a plot that spans a long period of time, crafting it into something that feels like a single tale instead of several connected ones becomes a tricky juggling act.

It’s tempting in our post-modern world to eschew normal chronological progression to solve these problems, but this is basically trading out your juggling pins for chainsaws: a spectacularly impressive trick if you can pull it off, but if your execution isn’t flawless, the result is going to be a big mess and lots of screaming.  This is where it pays to study someone who’s juggled the chainsaws and come out with all their limbs and digits.  Vicious, the story of two superpowered rivals, can seem rather disorientingly unhinged in time, but there are several important points to consider that make the whole thing work.

eli (2)The first third or so of the novel bounces primarily between the early stages of Victor’s plans to confront Eli and their college experiments ten years earlier.  The chapter headers throughout identify where and when the chapter occurs, but rather than using concrete days and dates, scenes are described as taking place “last night,” “five years ago,” and so on.  You see, dates can be difficult to keep straight, especially when a reader is also trying to orient themselves to a brand new world, but relative positioning is easier to parse.

These chronological headings aren’t relative to just anything, though.  Once we get to “today,” the headers are broken down even further: “this morning,” “this afternoon,” and then “six hours until midnight” and going from there.  That midnight countdown is where this tactic reveals itself most clearly, because midnight is when Victor and Eli finally face each other.  Once the timeline has caught up to itself, it could easily switch to concrete times, but we still get “five hours until midnight” instead of “seven p.m.,” which gives us a rather literal ticking clock.  The entire novel is building up to that final confrontation, and these relative chapter headers propel us there.

Consistent chapter headings also help emphasize the consistent pattern of the overall narrative.  The primary conflict of the story is between Victor and Eli, but just as important is the relationship between the Clarke sisters, Sydney and Serena, who find themselves on opposite sides of the battle.  While the novel could easily open with the two young men pursuing their joint thesis, the event that drives the sisters apart comes much later, and only really makes sense once you understand how far over the edge Eli’s gone.  By making the fluid chronology a core structural component, Schwab can easily slip back to that key history of the Clarkes without breaking the narrative flow; indeed, the alternation between past and present develops its own rhythm, and having two distinct backstories to relate provides enough past material for that back-and-forth to carry us all the way to the climax.

victorReally, it’s that steady progression toward the finale that makes the whole thing work, giving us a solid core to build around, one defined not by chronology, but by tension.  Thus, Sydney’s discovery of the extent of Victor’s powers unfolds in parallel to Victor’s acquisition of those powers, both reaching crescendo simultaneously.  Frequently the issue with strict chronology is that it gives us the answer to a question we didn’t even know we needed to ask, which can lead to frustration as we’re laden with information that seems irritatingly tangential and irrelevant.  By intercutting the backstory rather than dumping it all at once, that information has context.  Reversing the cause and effect removes a bit of the “and then what happens” tension from the scenes in the past, so the point of those scenes becomes the character study and thematic development.

The biggest danger with backstory is overindulgence, including things because they’re cool or interesting rather than because they add to the story.  Not so with Vicious, where every pop back in time serves some larger purpose.  A good example is Mitch, who is a major character but whose personal history only gets about four pages.  See, as I’ve touched on before, a major theme of the book is loyalty.  So while Mitch’s life has certainly been interesting and colorful, all we really need is to understand his connection to Victor, so we get the Cliff’s Notes with that in mind.  A different book might get into the histories of its side characters, but that’s eschewed here in favor of tighter narrative focus.

It’s a common refrain with me and something that will come up more than once this month: In order to employ a storytelling tool effectively, you have to know what effect you’re trying to have.  You need an understanding of your story that is both broad and deep (which is why a lot of this stuff will only come into focus most of the time with the help of perspective and good critique/editing partners).  Backstory should provide a purpose in the narrative beyond merely imparting information.  When deciding whether or how to include a particular bit of backstory, ask yourself why the reader needs to know this, and you’ll probably have your answer.

A is for Antagonist: The Rocketeer and the Art of Who Knows What

A is for Antagonist: The Rocketeer and the Art of Who Knows What

(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to The Rocketeer.)

AHowdy, new people!  Let’s give this A-Z Challenge a shot, shall we?  I try not to blog unless I’ve actually got something to say, so I don’t update all that often… normally.  But I’m going to do this daily thing if it kills me.

My philosophy, and also the basis for most of my posts, is that the best way to understand the rules and conventions of writing is to see them in action, to analyze stories and figure out what makes them work and why.  So to kick things off, let’s look at the different ways you can reveal the identity of your antagonist, and at The Rocketeer, which conveniently features all three.

When you talk about imparting information in a story, there are actually two groups that need to get clued in: the audience and the protagonists.  So, we have three potential combinations for how we start:

  • Established Villain: Both the audience and the characters know the bad guy
  • Dramatic Irony: The audience knows who the bad guy is, but the characters don’t
  • Big Reveal: Neither the audience nor the characters know the bad guy

(There is a fourth combo, where the characters know something the audience doesn’t, but that one doesn’t often apply to the identity of the antagonist.  And it would kind of ruin my thesis here, so shh.)

Established Villain

3335-3The Feds in The Rocketeer know from the outset that the rocket thief is working for gangster Eddie Valentine, and as we learn around the second act break, they also know that Valentine has been hired by an unidentified Nazi spy.  In general, you see this one mostly in retellings where the audience is already familiar with the story, or in series and serials where characters reappear frequently.

Benefits: There’s not a lot of mucking about with setup.  Nazis frequently get used in this capacity (though not in The Rocketeer, funnily enough) for exactly that reason.  You don’t need to spend a lot of time establishing who they are, what they want, or just how nasty they can be.  Both the audience and the heroes say, “Oh shit, Nazis!” and we can get on with things.

Drawbacks: Our current storytelling culture tends to favor novelty, originality, and surprise, and the identity of the bad guy is a frequent source of that mystery.  As such, you don’t see this one much anymore.

Dramatic Irony

imagesOur first introduction to Neville Sinclair is when he’s chewing out Valentine for fucking up the robbery.  Though we don’t yet know why he wants the rocket, there’s no question that he’s up to no good.  Tends to be common in kids’ movies where the “sides” are clearly delineated.

Benefits: Easy source of tension.  The audience is on edge from the moment Sinclair sets his sights on Jenny, although she doesn’t realize the danger she’s in until much later.  If you didn’t suspect Sinclair from the start, the only emotional investment we’d have in his seduction of Jenny is pity for Cliff that he’s going to get dumped.

Drawbacks: Be careful to keep track of who knows what, or of treating something as a reveal when the audience already knows.  It’s also easy to fall prey to accusations, fair or not, that a character is carrying the Idiot Ball.  After all, we may know a character is in a horror movie, but they don’t.

Big Reveal

nazisOh shit, Nazis!  We actually get the reveal in two consecutive scenes demonstrating the two different flavors: Jenny stumbles upon information that solves the mystery for both her and the audience, while Cliff puts the pieces together for himself when he’s told about the Hollywood spy, and then explains his conclusions to the group.

Benefits: The aforementioned suspense and surprise!  We all live under the shadow of the spoiler now, so it’s rare to find a story these days that doesn’t have a reveal of some sort.  Throwing this sort of curveball at the characters can also force them to reevaluate and change tactics, as when the reveal to Valentine prompts him to betray Sinclair.  (As a side note, I always thought that development was kind of cheesy, but rather awesomely, it’s Truth in Television: prominent gangsters worked with the government during WWII to aid in the war effort.)

Drawbacks: Setting up a good reveal is a tricky balancing act: too much information and the audience will figure it out early, but too little and it feels like an ass pull.  Also, a lot of times you end up with a reveal for the sake of the reveal, which is something I’ll discuss later this month.


As demonstrated here, the different ways that the antagonist’s identity can be revealed aren’t necessarily better or worse than each other; they just do different things.  Which one is best for your story depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.

 

A-Z Challenge Theme Reveal! Sort Of!

A-Z Challenge Theme Reveal! Sort Of!

Today, the people participating in the A-Z Challenge are sharing with the world their theme for the month.  So, here’s mine…

::drumroll::

Literary analysis of books, movies, and other media with an eye toward advice for writers!

anchorman

Eagle-eyed regular readers will recognize that this is otherwise known as the theme for every other month on this blog, and you would be correct.  However, regular readers will also know that my usual posting schedule is “Mondays when I can be arsed,” so daily posts are going to make life a little interesting.

So howdy, new people!  You may want to check out the Blog Disclaimers page, which tells a little about what I do hereabouts.  Posts will be long, occasionally sweary, and spoilery as balls.  Or you can wander through some of my older posts, where I’ve discussed topics like Captain America, ultra-violent fairy tales, and why I hate the phrase “strong female characters.”  And if you like what you see, be sure to hit up the subscription options on the sidebar so you can get notified when the schedule goes back to normal.

The Nuts and Bolts of Querying

There is a whole universe of information out there about writing queries: composition, etiquette, expectations, that sort of thing.  (And yet so many people seem to get it just plain wrong.  The mind boggles.)  But it occurs to me that there’s not much information about the actual mechanics of managing your submissions.  I hadn’t thought this would be an interesting topic, but talking with some local writers made me think that those just starting out on this particular path might benefit from someone who’s been at it for a bit.  Plus, I’m saving up my litcrit posts for the A-Z Challenge, so meta it is.  This isn’t a definitive guide by any means, just what works for me and what might work for you, too.

Finding Agents

Step One: Back when I was waiting on feedback from my beta readers, I took the opportunity to start building my agent list.  There are all kinds of resources out there, but how I did it was this: I pulled up Literary Rejections’ database of US literary agencies in a new window in Chrome.  For each agency that said they accept my genre and category (as well as a few that weren’t clear from the listing), I right-clicked the link to their site and opened in a new tab.  Once my RAM was doing dry heaves and about to pass out from the weight of the open tabs, I went to Menu > Bookmarks > Bookmark open pages and tossed everything into a folder, then closed the lot.  I’d say this step took me an hour or two.

Step Two: Next (a few days later, because this shit is tedious and you should take breaks), I went through those bookmarks one at a time, checking out each site.  Here I was able to weed out the ones that didn’t actually accept what I had (despite initial promise).  Of the rest, I read through the submission guidelines and the agent profiles.  I picked the likeliest agent(s) and added them to a Google Drive spreadsheet with the following headers:

  • Agency name (hyperlinked to submissions page)
  • Agent name
  • Query others at agency Y/N
  • Actively building Y/N
  • Columns for each applicable genre and category, marked if they explicitly listed or don’t want
  • Submission format (most are email, but a couple had web forms and a couple still want dead tree)
  • Materials requested
  • Posted turnaround
  • Notes (MSWL, general conclusions drawn from available materials)

(Some of these columns were left blank if the information wasn’t available; for instance, I marked someone Yes under actively building if their agent page had language to that effect, No if it talked about them looking for “select” projects, and left it blank if there wasn’t an indication either way.)

As I was adding agents, I followed them on Twitter if available and added blogs and Tumblrs to my Feedly if they looked enjoyable.

Once I’d cleaned out that bookmarks folder, I had a good-sized list.  I then ranked them into the tentative order I’d be submitting, using the information I’d gathered to determine which agents might be the best matches and moving them higher than the ones that I thought might be long shots.  I held back my very top choice agents, test driving my submission on agents who I thought were still a good match so that I’d have a chance to revise if I came up totally empty.

I chipped away at this part over the course of a few days (again, tedious) until I was happy with everything.  Once I’d gotten beta feedback and gone through another round of edits and a polish, it was time to go.

Organizing Materials

I work primarily from my Chromebook, secondarily from my desktop PC, and occasionally from my iPad or phone.  Thus, I’ve found Google Drive to be the best option for managing everything (and really, I’m pretty deep in the Google environment anyway).  Here are the documents I keep:

  • The query.  The personalization changes for each agent, but the pitch is the same, so I pull it from here.  This also ensures that everything is spell-checked every time and that the links in my signature work.
  • The manuscript.  For versioning purposes, I keep separate documents for each revision, so the current one is labeled *CURRENT* so I can spot it at a glance.  I considered creating separate documents for the various sample sizes that agents request (5 pages, 10 pages, 15 pages, first chapter, first 3 chapters), but that means to make a tweak I’d have to make that change in multiple documents, so it’s just easier to have one master and copy the correct excerpt from it when it’s time to email.  Pro tip: Holding shift and using the arrow keys is faster than holding the mouse button and scrolling, because Drive doesn’t play nice with large documents and it will lag like whoa.
  • The synopsis.  I have this in several lengths (1, 3, or 5 pages) as requested.  I started with the long one and then kept cutting as needed.

For the most part, agents want these materials pasted into the body of the email.  If they want everything assembled as a PDF, I’ll download them from Drive and use Adobe Acrobat to assemble it into one tidy file with the page numbers and headers all undisturbed.

Tracking Submissions

The thing with that list I built a few hundred words back is that it’s really easy for it to get out of date.  Things move quickly, and you don’t want to waste your time submitting to agents who are now closed, or who have moved agencies, or who have changed their wishlist and aren’t looking for the same genres anymore.  So this is where I created a new tab in the agent spreadsheet.  The headers for this one:

  • Agency name
  • Agent name (both columns copied over from the other page, which preserves the handy hyperlink)
  • Query date
  • Nudge/Requery (I’ll get to this one)
  • Query nudge date
  • Response received date
  • Query response
  • Notes

As requests started coming in, I created columns to track the dates and notes for partials and fulls as well.

That nudge/requery column is a major sanity preserver.  When I send a query, I check the submissions date, check their posted turnaround time, and figure out the date by which I should hear something.  Then, in that column, I’ll note “Nudge [date]”.  (If no turnaround is posted, I go with three months, which seems to be fairly standard.)  If they’re a “no response means no” shop, I note “No response by [date] means pass.”  The reason this is a sanity preserver is that a lot of people tend to freak out about these responses, which leads to premature followups, which leads to irritated agents.  Doing the math up front and making a note means I’m not continually recalculating.  When I’ve got the spreadsheet up, if a date has passed, I’ll either send a nudge or cross them off (or occasionally adjust the date out if I know from Twitter that they’ve been on vacation or at a conference or something).  If no dates have passed, nothing to worry about.

Responses get their dates noted, and I’ll add any personalized feedback to the Notes field to make it easier to spot potential patterns.  I also color code those rows by clicking on the row number and selecting the paint bucket tool.  Here’s the code I use:

Screenshot 2015-03-12 at 19.24.02

The color coding is easier on the eyes than crossing out, so that I can still see that old information.  The “never responded” is handy, because after a certain point, it’s not inconceivable to get a response, but I’m not going to consider that an active query anymore.  I only nudge once, then let it go.  (High fives if you just started singing Frozen.)

As far as the response emails themselves, after I’ve noted the details, they get moved to a folder (even the rejections).  As with the nudge dates, it’s an “out of sight, out of mind” thing.  No matter how thick your skin is, seeing a rejection at the top of your inbox sucks, so get that sucker out of there.

Assembling the Query

So, now that I’ve got all these fancy spreadsheets, it’s time to get to the actual email.  I use Gmail’s web interface due to the aforementioned multi-device setup (and the aforementioned Google fangirlness).  I prefer to put together query emails from my desktop PC so I can have the email draft up on one screen and the various documents and resources on the other, but it’s not impossible to do from the Chromebook.

Here’s what goes into assembling a query for Agent Awesome:

  1. Go to the submissions page for Agent Awesome.  Look for any changes that might affect submissions (closures, new wishlist items) and confirm correct email address and requested materials.
  2. Subject line: If the guidelines specify a particular format, use that format exactly.  You don’t want to end up on the wrong end of an email filter.  If there’s no format requested, I go with “Query: [TITLE] (#MSWL/#PitMad Request/whatever is applicable if anything.)” Manuscript title goes in all caps.
  3. Salutation (checking the spelling of the name about eight times because I am neurotic).  Paste in the query below that.  If it’s a MSWL or pitch party request, I usually lead with that, otherwise I go straight into the pitch.
  4. Paste requested materials
  5. This is my favorite part.  Fonts and formatting can be the kiss of death if you mess them up, but Gmail makes this so damn easy that there’s absolutely no excuse for getting it wrong.  Here’s what it looks like after I’ve pasted everything from three different documents that all have different formatting:
    Mess, right?  There are actually two more different styles in this document beyond what you can see here.  But see that button at the end of the formatting bar that’s highlighted?  That strips this puppy bare.  Here’s what it looks like after selecting all (Ctrl+A) and hitting that bad boy:

    Screenshot 2015-03-12 at 20.00.18
    Boom.  Done, son.  It even correctly throws in the carriage return between paragraphs.  True, I have to go back in and add italics to the manuscript, but I pretty quickly memorized where they are (two on page 1, one on page 5, one on page 9, ball change jazz hands hey) so putting them back is no problem.  The basic font may not look as fancy, but I guarantee this will show up correctly on any given device.
  6. Walk away and do something else for a little while, even if it’s just tabbing out to check Google+.
  7. Look over the submission once more with fresh eyes.
  8. Hit send.
  9. Do a little happy/nervous dance.
  10. Note it on the spreadsheet and do the nudge/requery calculations.
  11. Repeat for remaining agents in this wave, then go do something else again.

I was initially maintaining six active queries at a time (so submitting a new one when a rejection came in or when I’d stopped the clock on a non-response), but I ran into a surprising amount of dead air, so I bumped it up to twelve to keep things moving.


So that’s about it.  I know there are tools out there like QueryTracker that can help manage this stuff, but I’ve always been fond of a good, simple spreadsheet, and I’ve found this has kept things organized and manageable, so I can at least pretend to be a professional and shit.

Does your query management system look like this, or something else entirely?  Do you find it difficult to stay on top of everything?  Sound off in the comments.

 

Case Studies: The Atticus Finch Guide to Writing Lawful Good

Case Studies: The Atticus Finch Guide to Writing Lawful Good

(Standard spoiler disclaimer this week applies to Man of Steel and To Kill a Mockingbirdthe book, not the movie, although pictures are from the movie because I like to be confusing)

Last week, we used Captain America to look at how it’s possible to make the Boy Scout character not be an insufferable pill.  But this week, I want to take it further.  Conventional wisdom in the writing world says, quite simply, that saints are boring.  But is it possible to take the Lawful Good character and make them just as complex, as compelling, as great as any damaged and brooding anti-hero?  Set your wayback machine to high school, boys and girls, because Atticus Finch is in the house.

I never had to read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school, actually.  I took American Literature in tandem with American History, which was an awesome way to contextualize what we were reading but meant that we didn’t get the opportunity to stop and linger on the books as much.  So I’m probably a little late to this party, what with the huge amount of criticism already out there on this deserved classic.  But as always, I’m looking at these things from the perspective of a writer.  I think there are some very useful lessons that you can apply to your own characters to really push them to the next level.

Define his values

What does it mean to be a good man?

Okay, this is kind of an unfairly broad question.  After all, there are several great works of art, bodies of philosophy, and even entire institutions that grapple with it and can’t always come up with an answer.  As the author, you don’t necessarily have to take a stance on this one way or another.

However, your oh-so-heroic hero?  He probably has a pretty good working definition.

This is one of the reasons I’ve never really connected to the character of Superman.  He mainly seems to be a good guy by virtue of opposing the bad guys, and defining a character solely in the context of something else makes it difficult to connect to the character himself.  He’s boring not necessarily because it’s so difficult to put him in over his head or because he’s too perfect, but because I never get a sense of who he is as a person, of why the stuff that he does matters to him.  Generic goodness isn’t enough.  You have to get specific.

Atticus Finch’s chief virtues are compassion and empathy, and much of the book deals with him trying to hold to these virtues himself and trying to instill them in his children.  This philosophy bookends the story: when trying to convince Scout to keep going to school early on, he says, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from their point of view — until you climb into their skin and walk around in it.”  Then when putting her to bed at the very end, he reminds her, “Most people are [nice], Scout, when you finally see them.”  It’s not merely about being kind, it’s about understanding why someone is deserving of kindness.  He treats people with dignity because he sees them as they see themselves, from the Cunninghams and their refusal of charity to Mrs. Dubose and the pain of her final illness.

To-Kill-a-Mockingbird-MovieVirtue is a somewhat flexible thing, frequently more of a social construct than an absolute truth.  To our eyes, Atticus is a good father: attentive, encouraging, stoic but unquestionably devoted.  But what he’s giving his children is not seen as a “normal” upbringing, and he frequently has to defend himself to family and neighbors as “doing the best he can.”  He even second-guesses himself a few times, like when he tries to explain the family legacy to Jem and Scout.  The struggle between his parental instincts and society’s expectations generates conflict without really getting anyone’s hands dirty.

Of course, things can’t stay that tidy…

Challenge those values

There was a very disappointing moment in Man of Steel for me.  Okay, there were a lot of disappointing moments in Man of Steel for me, but I’m talking about one in particular right now.  Like many other contemporary versions of familiar stories, Man of Steel gives the villain, General Zod, a sympathetic motivation: he was bred to protect Krypton and only wants to restore his people.  So far, so good.  He poses the ethical dilemma to Superman — save the people of his birth, or of his adopted home?  Supes considers for all of two seconds before choosing the latter.

Now, it’s not like he got it wrong, but that’s kind of the point.  The movie might allow you to sympathize with Zod, but it pushes him right back into cartoon villain territory so you aren’t tempted to agree with him.  I see way too many of these cake-or-death softballs, where the hero gets faced with a choice that isn’t really a choice.  He’s the good guy, so he’s right.  End of discussion.

For the most part, Atticus Finch is right about the world, as well.  A mob backs down when a little girl forces them to realize that the man they’re planning to attack is a father.  The Black community recognizes that he tried to save Tom Robinson, even though he failed.  Scout gets her final moment of clarity on the Radley porch where she sees her childhood through Boo’s eyes.  Repeatedly throughout the story, having empathy makes the interactions between people easier.

But empathy isn’t always the answer, and there are two significant points where it fails, with tragic consequences.  Tom Robinson’s sympathy for Mayella Ewell is directly responsible for his downfall.  On the stand, his pity is damning, because how could any Negro think himself in a position to feel sorry for any white person?  As for Atticus, his belief that everyone is ultimately decent leads him to underestimate Bob Ewell as a threat.  If not for the intervention of Boo Radley, this misjudgment would have cost his children their lives.  The fact that showing compassion is the right thing to do doesn’t mean that it’s without risk.

What is your hero willing to risk for what he believes?  And — the more interesting question for my money — what isn’t he willing to risk?  Not everyone weights their own values equally, and when they come into conflict, it forces that person to choose one over the other.  Atticus hates guns, but when a rabid dog threatens his neighborhood, he still pulls the trigger.  He takes Tom Robinson’s case explicitly because he can’t choose his reputation over his conscience.  The scene where Atticus keeps vigil over Tom’s cell pits several of these factors against each other: he has no qualms about putting his own personal safety on the line, but when he realizes that his children might have to watch, or might even get hurt themselves, that’s when he shows fear.  And again during Tom’s trial, right at the moment that Atticus has pinned everything on, he’s willing to walk away (at least temporarily) because his children might be in trouble.  There’s a clear hierarchy of the things he values.

full_bgThis question of risk is one of the reasons Man of Steel didn’t work for me.  I didn’t feel like Superman had any skin in the game, like there was any personal cost of failure.  Yeah, billions of lives and all, but that’s a statistic.  It’s also hard to think that he’s that concerned about human life as a general concept given his role in the destruction of Metropolis (not to mention it’s hard for the audience to care when it was apparently rebuilt pretty much overnight).  With all the flashbacks, there’s nothing that ever backs up Jonathan Kent’s fears that horrible things will happen if Clark reveals himself, so when he’s willing to die rather than risk exposing his son, it just feels pointless instead of tragic.

Doing the right thing — knowing what the right thing even is — is frequently difficult in real life, and thus it should be in fiction.  It’s somewhat rocky territory for the writer because we’re pushing away from the safe shores of easy answers and into ambiguity, but don’t shy away from it.  This hearkens back to that tricky “show, don’t tell” chestnut.  Don’t just tell us what the character believes in; make him prove it.

Temper the idealism

I keep coming back to Superman because he’s kind of the archetype for this paladin sort of character.  And I’m sure that some of you are just itching to get to the comments, so you can tell me all about why Man of Steel isn’t really a fair representation of the character, and how other writers have handled him and made him more interesting and blah blah blah fanboycakes.  But I think the failings of this most recent incarnation show exactly how difficult it can be to reconcile this sort of character with such a jaded world.  So it’s tempting to shove him into broody angstdom, but there are other ways to strike the balance.

To Kill a Mockingbird gets accused of being somewhat saccharine, but it’s surprisingly unromantic when you get down to it.  After all, no matter how badass a lawyer Atticus is, he can’t overcome the deeply ingrained racial prejudice of his time, and he doesn’t even get to try for an appeal because Tom commits suicide by prison guard first.  If this were a fairy tale sort of story, Boo Radley’s heroism would make him a cherished family friend and would be enough to conquer whatever issues kept him shut in his house all those years.  But it’s not a fairy tale, and Scout never sees him again.  For all its idealism, it doesn’t flinch away from the harshness of reality.

The other important thing to remember is that, while Atticus Finch is definitely the most significant character and the main driver of the story, he’s not the protagonist.  That’s his daughter Scout, who’s also the narrator.  She’s a much more capricious character, which relieves Atticus of some of the burden of carrying the drama.  Scout doesn’t understand him and is sometimes critical of things like his age and his habits, and her perspective keeps things more interesting than if we spent the whole time in Atticus’s head.


Hopefully all of this gives you some things to try if you get stumped by a squeaky clean character, and perhaps a new appreciation for the old crap they made you read in high school.  Sometimes it’s more relevant than you’d think.

Why I Love Captain America

Why I Love Captain America

(Standard spoiler disclaimer for Captain America: The First Avenger, The Avengers, and Captain America: Winter Soldier)

I am a cynical, contrarian broad.  I know, you’re so surprised.  But I’m hardly the only one out there, if the general love of the anti-hero is any indication.  These days, the Lawful Good character seems hopelessly quaint, something that can only be subverted or deconstructed because playing it straight just wouldn’t work.

But I love Captain America, more than just about anyone else in the MCU.  (And I’m strictly talking about the MCU, mind.  The few comics I read growing up were mainly DC.)  It surprises the hell out of me, because he never struck me as my kind of character, but I just can’t resist the charming bastard.  Naturally, I started trying to break down why, and discovered that he’s actually quite complex.

He’s humble

Screenshot 2015-02-09 at 13.55.26Have you ever played D&D with a paladin in the party?  Did they make you want to slap them repeatedly?  There’s an unfortunate tendency for the white knight character to lapse into annoying smugness, to make the leap from “I am good” to “You are not, therefore I am better.”

But we don’t get that with Cap.  It’s actually the major distinction between him and Red Skull: Schmidt is convinced that his abilities make him superior to mere humans, while Steve insists that he’s “just a kid from Brooklyn.”  (Because once upon a time, “Brooklyn” was shorthand for “poor and scrappy” rather than “hipster.”)  It’s rather telling that he only refers to himself as “Captain America” just the one time (during the rescue in Azzano); the rest of the time, he’s just Steve Rogers, even while in costume and kicking ass.

Speaking of Azzano, one of the best examples of Steve’s humility comes when he returns from his successful but unauthorized mission and turns himself over for discipline.  It’s the kind of thing you never see with other heroes; if they’re breaking the rules for the right reasons, that’s the end of it.  I mean, contrast that scene with the scene from Star Trek Into Darkness where Kirk seems utterly appalled that violating Starfleet directives can have consequences even if things more or less turn out okay.  (Infuriatingly, those consequences don’t really stick, but that’s another post.)  Steve knows that going AWOL to perform a daring rescue mission is still going AWOL, and he doesn’t hesitate to face whatever might come of that.

On that topic…

He’s decisive

Screenshot 2015-02-09 at 13.43.27I was rather shocked by the trailers for The First Avenger where Cap bursts into a room, pistol blazing.  See, as I said, growing up I didn’t really have access to or interest in comics, so my familiarity with those properties was mostly by way of the cartoons, where firearms were strictly verboten.  The idea of a superhero with a gun seemed inherently contradictory to me; guns represented that bright line that you simply did not cross.

You know that Doctor Who quote about how good men don’t need rules?  I think that’s the difference here.  A Superman without restrictions is a terrible alien god.  A Batman who uses guns looks a whole lot like a villain.  But Steve Rogers is a soldier in a war, and not only that, but he’s fighting Nazis.  It’s just not as problematic for him to use lethal force as it is for some rando in a cowl.

Consider the moment when Captain America and the Red Skull first meet face-to-face.  Steve throws a punch, and Schmidt throws one right back, a punch that’s so strong it nearly goes clean through Steve’s prop shield.  Steve responds by immediately reaching for his sidearm, in a cut so quick it took me several viewings to catch it.  He realizes that he’s dealing with someone who is his physical match or better, someone who represents a major threat to both himself personally and the Allied war effort, and he does not hesitate to put him down.  Or he would if the gun didn’t get knocked away, anyway.

An even better example of this occurs right after the super soldier transformation, when Steve is pursuing the Hydra spy through the streets.  The spy takes a kid hostage and throws him into the harbor as a distraction.  This is where you’d expect a bit of dithering and wangst from the hero, faced with the impossible choice between saving an innocent and pursuing justice for his fallen friend and mentor.  But nope, Steve goes without hesitation toward the child in danger, only continuing his pursuit after the kid confirms that he doesn’t need help.

Winter Soldier does introduce a bit more doubt and handwringing about what the right thing really is, but still, in our obsessively introspective culture, it’s rather refreshing to see someone who simply does what needs to be done, no fuss or whining.

He’s flawed

True, Cap doesn’t have any of your stock character flaws: no drinking problem, no dark secrets, no hidden vices.  But that doesn’t change the fact that our boy is a little fucked in the head.  The more appearances he makes, the clearer it becomes that Steve Rogers has a serious death wish.

Screenshot 2015-02-09 at 14.09.56Bucky calls him out on it when it’s still just a question of him trying to get into combat when he’s woefully unfit; the very first line they exchange is “Sometimes I think you like getting punched,” and later he cuts through Steve’s high-minded talk of service with, “Yeah, ‘cuz you got nothing to prove.”  Over and over Steve puts himself in the most direct and extreme danger without considering other less suicidal alternatives, from jumping on a (fake) grenade that doesn’t really present a danger since everyone is already clear, to his decision to crash the Valkyrie despite Peggy’s pleas to at least try finding another way.

This stance gets clarified a bit in The Avengers while everyone’s bickering in the Helicarrier’s lab.  He calls out Tony for being selfish and unwilling to sacrifice, which Tony doesn’t deny.  “Always a way out,” Steve says.  “You know, you may not be a threat, but you’d better stop pretending to be a hero.”  From this statement, it’s clear that Steve equates heroism with sacrifice.  As the skinny kid, he shows the desire to have his life mean something, and to that end he takes every opportunity possible to die for a cause, whether it’s necessary or not.

He’s a dork

I think this is a big part of Cap’s appeal for me.  Even after he becomes, as the Apple Store guy in Winter Soldier says, a specimen, he’s still that socially and physically awkward little guy inside, still the guy who brought a trunk full of books to basic training.  Thrown into a chase immediately after undergoing his transformation, he’s a newborn foal, constantly oversteering and crashing into things–and apologizing every step of the way.  One of my favorite moments in all of cinema occurs in The Avengers, where Steve gets excited about catching a cultural reference, then abashedly explains himself to the group.  It’s a brief exchange, but it perfectly encapsulates his character.

He’s also quite intelligent, especially when it comes to tactics.  It’s first evidenced when he outsmarts the flag challenge at Camp Lehigh, and eventually even the egomaniacal Iron Man defers to him during the Battle of New York.  It’s a minor point, but it really does help flesh out the character, and ensures that he’s the one driving the plot by actively figuring things out.

He’s funny

Honestly, much of what makes Cap wonderful is Chris Evans’s performance.  Yes, he’s got the All-American aw-shucks thing down pat, but he also uses his wry deadpan delivery to fantastic effect.  It’s the same understated comedy that made him so perfect as the straight man in Not Another Teen Movie.  So many heroes, especially of the paladin variety, are so goddamn humorless (I’m looking at you, Man of Steel) that it’s really a treat to see someone who’s always ready with a self-deprecating quip.


So really, it turns out that there’s quite a lot to like about Captain America, even for an unpatriotic and jaded sort like myself.  He’s a well-constructed and multifaceted character portrayed with skill and subtlety.  Marvel’s films have given us a lot of memorable characters, but Steve Rogers has a special place in my wrinkly, black heart.

Reclaiming Cinderella

Reclaiming Cinderella

(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Cinderella)

The other day, my husband told me about a conversation he had with a woman who claimed not to like Disney’s Cinderella because she’s a feminist.  It’s not the first time I’ve heard such an argument, and I never cease to find it to be bullshit.  I wish I could have asked the woman when she had last watched the movie, because I’m guessing it hasn’t been since puberty.  So many of these knee-jerk dismissals of things like the classic Disney canon are based on vague recollections of movies the person half-watched decades ago, rather than the actual text.  (And the actual texts definitely merit a second look as an adult, if only for the frequent what-the-fuckery, like how Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio is a hobo who hits on every remotely feminine entity in the movie, up to and including wooden carvings and the fish.)  There’s this perception that Cinderella is a wholly passive character who just sits around and waits for a prince to rescue her, but that’s just not supported by the film itself.

For starters, Cinderella’s not going to the ball for the prince.  When the invitation arrives, her stepsisters are the ones who burble at the idea of seeing the prince, but Cinderella presses for her chance to go because, dammit, she was invited too.  She never equates her unspecified wishes and dreams with this invitation or implies that her whole world is riding on it; she simply wants to be treated like an equal, to have a night off and enjoy herself.  When it’s all over, she’s thrilled to have been left with the one glass slipper and the memory of a dance with a hottie.  The idea that he’s the prince, or that she could have a shot at marrying him, doesn’t even occur to her until the news gets out the next morning.  Hell, she didn’t even seek him out at the ball; he’s the one who came over to her, and never managed to introduce himself while they were dancing.

Fairy-Godmother-Scene-1Then there’s the tricky question of agency.  This is the image that detractors seem to point to as the essence of the issues with the story: Cinderella weeping while the Fairy Godmother comes out of nowhere to solve all her problems.  But that’s not quite what’s going on here.  When she appears, FG implies that Cinderella actually summoned her.  (“Nonsense, child.  If you’d lost all your faith, I couldn’t be here.”)  True, that would indicate a power that Cinderella doesn’t otherwise demonstrate–except when she’s singing.  She harmonizes with herself in multiple parts on “Sing, Sweet Nightingale”, and immediately before FG materializes, Cinderella is having a conversation with the background music.  Seriously, there’s no other way to explain her dialogue there.  A little later, she duets with the prince on “So This is Love” without either of them opening their mouths.  It’s not a direct correlation, but it’s enough unnatural shenanigans to underscore the repeated refrain that believing hard enough (not just possessing a belief, but the action of believing) will make a wish come true.

But that’s still passive, right?  She’s not actually doing anything, just bursts into tears and gives up.  Well, she did do something about going to the ball: she finished up an inhuman workload and found an outfit, which her menagerie did an extreme makeover on.  She earned her chance and then was fucking assaulted, forced to watch in horror while her dress, a memento of her dead mother and a gift from her only friends, was destroyed.  Of course she breaks down.  Holy shit, guys, give the girl a minute.  All FG is doing is restoring the balance, popping in like Sam Beckett to set right what just went wrong.

Of course, the dress was only presentable in the first place because of the mice and the birds.  So let’s talk about them for a second, shall we?  After all, the Tom and Jerry bullshit takes up over half the runtime (41 minutes out of 75, I shit you not; it is 23 sodding minutes before Lady Tremaine gets a line), and we meet two of the birds before we even meet Cinderella.  The animals, then, drive the bulk of the plot.  But this isn’t like Sleeping Beauty, where the supposed protagonists take a back seat to fairie face-offs.  See, while the mice are the main ones we see in action, they never act on their own behalf.  Ever.  The one time we see them doing something for their own benefit is when they go out seeking food, and who’s the one that provides it?  In addition to feeding them, Cinderella clothes them and teaches them to speak (which is something they value, apparently) and protects them from traps and the cat.  This has created a cult of personality, where the animals all happily sing to her tune as they perform incredible feats of engineering in her service.  Everything they do on-screen serves Cinderella’s interests, from acting as her lady’s maids in the morning to altering her dress to helping her escape her tower.  In short, she has a small army of devoted minions at her command, who prove by the end that they’re willing to risk their lives against a sadistic predator if she needs them to.  Do we say that the supervillain has no agency because he hangs out on his dark throne until the final battle, letting the underlings get their hands dirty until then?  (Am I calling Cinderella an evil mastermind?  Well, she has taken over a kingdom by the end credits.  Just saying.)

In summary, Cinderella is fighting for equal rights and a fair leave policy.  She is maybe a little bit psychic and can bend animals to her will.  I’m not claiming that she’s a perfect template for a protagonist, or that there’s not some problematic bullshit at work here.  (The love-at-first-sight thing is only part of a ludicrously compressed timeline; the entire story, barring the prologue, takes place in just over 24 hours, including the complete organization of a royal ball.)  But this incarnation of the fairy tale gives us a heroine who’s snarky, determined, and industrious at the very least, a woman who unfailingly approaches her situation on her own terms even if she’s not exactly fighting to change it.  She might not be a feminist icon, but she’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.

Just Friends: Agent Carter, Jarvis, and Platonic Chemistry

Just Friends: Agent Carter, Jarvis, and Platonic Chemistry

(Standard spoiler disclaimer for Agent Carter, episodes 1-3)

Beneath my crusty, jaded exterior, I am a sap.  I just love me a good romantic subplot, and while the key components of that phrase are usually “good” and “sub,” I’ve been known to enjoy both straight-up love stories and pairings that actually, if we’re being honest, weren’t that well executed.  However, despite my weakness for kissy stuff, I am continually fascinated by platonic relationships, possibly because they’re so much rarer.

This is one of the many reasons I’m digging on Agent Carter, the delightful bone ABC and Marvel have tossed us until Agents of SHIELD returns to answer some pressing questions, the cliff-hanging bastards.  The overarching story concerns Peggy Carter trying to prove that Howard Stark hasn’t committed treason, with the help of Stark’s butler Edwin Jarvis.  Peggy and Jarvis are not quite partners, not quite friends, and despite them both being so very pretty, possess not one spark of sexual tension.  That’s a very good thing, and while there’s still time to fuck it up, I don’t think they will.

The main reason is that Jarvis is quite happily married, thank you.  Not that writers have ever balked at using an established relationship as a mere obstacle for their preferred couple to overcome, but Jarvis’s biggest character trait is his unwavering loyalty.  Last week’s episode “Time and Tide” further underscored his devotion to his wife; the first time we ever see him get really riled is when the SSR dudebro (I admit that I can’t really tell them apart) threatens her, and he reveals that he risked his life and career to save her from the Holocaust.  This is not a man whose head will be turned by a pretty secret agent.  For her part, Peggy also shows no interest, likely because she’s still a bit hung up on Steve Rogers and because she already has a perfectly good love interest in Sousa, the fellow agent who may or may not be the rescued POW she will eventually marry (according to the archive footage in Winter Soldier).

Mind you, I’m still a little annoyed that the status of this friendship is assured by one (or possibly both, depending on how you look at it) being unavailable rather than them just not being interested.  Someday, we’ll have a proper platonic pairing who have absolutely nothing standing between them and the horizontal mambo but complete lack of desire to do so, and I will shout my joy unto the heavens.  But until then, these two make an appealing pair of guides through this world of old-school spy shenanigans.  Hayley Atwell and James D’Arcy have a chemistry that has nothing to do with uglies and the bumping thereof, and there are the hints that Jarvis is still hiding something that might undermine their growing mutual regard.  Plus, their particular relationship means that some common scenarios get to take on fresh meaning; when Jarvis chides Peggy for going into danger alone, it’s not from a place of overprotective macho bullshit, but from the logic that it’s silly to do so when she has a willing and capable ally.  He’s trying to convince her to let him take his proper place as field support rather than trying to take over.

Given that this is the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first female-fronted property, the execution and reception of this show are kind of a Big Deal.  It would be easy to fall into the common traps of the stories deemed appropriate for girls to carry, but while the relationships in Peggy’s life are really the core of the show, it’s heartening that those relationships aren’t your usual romantic fare.  (Her friendship with waitress Angie gets much more weight and screentime than her mild flirtations with Sousa.)  Her SSR colleagues may not take her seriously, but her real friends do–and Marvel certainly does.

Case Studies: Of Fairy Tales and Face Biting

Case Studies: Of Fairy Tales and Face Biting

(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters)

Let’s do some character analysis, shall we?  Today I’d like to take a crack at one of my favorite movies, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.  Sidebar: I don’t mean “favorite” in an ironic sense or as a guilty pleasure.  I unabashedly adore this movie, and I don’t care how low its Metacritic score is.  People seemed to dismiss it as an action B-movie, missing the key fact that it’s produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay.  It’s horror comedy, and while it might not be as outright funny as Shaun of the Dead or Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, its humor derives from its over-the-top cartoonishness, from its gleeful anachronisms and hyper-violence.  I’ve seen it compared to “Itchy and Scratchy,” which is pretty accurate.  You don’t have to think it’s a great movie (I mean, you’d be wrong, but you’re entitled to that), just make sure you’re judging it by the correct metrics.

Our titular heroes aren’t particularly deep or complex.  They had a traumatic childhood encounter with a witch, and now they go around exacting messy revenge on the whole species.  Aside from the intriguing brother-sister dynamic, just your standard Caucasian brunette stoic badasses, right?  Yet I find myself rather fascinated by Gretel.  At first glance, she seems like she’s cut from the standard Strong Female Character template.  She’s introduced as an adult by coolly taking charge of the situation, and when her authority is challenged:

tumblr_ma27j232tQ1qe4ixoo1_500

And yet the headbutt is a rather unusual move for the textbook SFC.  Using it doesn’t require any particular training, finesse, control, skill, or any of the things that you normally associate with a great fighter–just raw force and a disregard for your own safety.

When we see a woman in melee combat, she’s usually a martial artist, employing moves that require just as much grace as strength or skill.  There’s quite a lot of overlap between dancing and fighting, but it’s especially true for female fighters.  Even when issuing a beatdown, the heroine remains aesthetically pleasing.

But there is nothing elegant about Gretel.  She’s a pure brawler, as befits her backstory of learning to fight through experience rather than formal training.  When she punches, she’s not mainly using her arm; instead, she sticks her arm straight out and swings her whole torso, an awkward move that provides power at the expense of accuracy.  Gretel’s character is not, in any sense, about looking pretty.  Oh sure, Gemma Arterton is gorgeous, and she spends the movie in these cleavagetastic bodices and tight leather pants.  She also spends most of the movie positively covered in grime, gore, and every filth imaginable.  Gretel is not here to impress you–she’s here to bite your fucking face off.

KR0XBE

Not a figure of speech.

Gretel also doesn’t have many of the traits of a great fighter, because, well, she’s not actually that great.  Oh, she’s not a Faux Action Girl by any means.  The woman will bring the pain, no question.  But watch the movie again, and really watch her fight scenes.  She’s solid with a weapon, but in hand-to-hand, she just holds her own and never really gets the better of anyone.  Her main assets in combat are her quick thinking and tenacity–she gets the absolute shit kicked out of her, yet keeps getting back up.  Since she works as part of a tag team and most of her fights seem to be battles of attrition, that’s all she needs.  She’s merely competent, which paradoxically makes her rather extraordinary.  After all, how often do you see male action heroes who are just reasonably good at fighting, and when’s the last time you’ve seen a female fighter in a primary combat role who’s anything less than the best of the best?

I think I’m so drawn to Gretel for the simple reason that I’ve never seen anything quite like her before.  In an SFF landscape filled with action heroines who seem to have graduated from the same dojo, she’s a crass, scrappy knuckle sandwich of fresh air.  Really, it doesn’t take that much to create a new spin on something.  In this case, all you really needed was the fight choreographer.

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