Friday, December 2, 2011

You Are Not Special.

CE Jenkins
    
           Your character is not perfect. If your character is perfect, then we have a problem. Very few people want to read about a half-elf, half alien that can shoot lasers from her nostrils and bitch-slap a t-rex with a shark. Actually, I take it back; I would read the hell out of that book. Rephrase: No one wants to read about a character that is super pretty and super powerful who everybody loves and who never makes a mistake or has any flaws at all. There are a lot of reasons behind this: readers don’t enjoy being nauseated, for one.

            I’m confident that most of us who have ever spent time around other human beings have run into a person kind of like this; they’re peppy, intelligent, kind, beautiful, altogether perfect, and odds are you can’t stand them. They remind us far too much of robots or aliens inhabiting human meatsuits and quietly plotting our demise.

Just sayin'.

 Personally I can’t imagine spending an hour with someone like this, let alone 500+ pages.

            One way to counteract this is to give your character imperfections; I know that’s a pretty shocking statement, so I’ll give you all a minute to pick yourselves up from the floor. Aside from that bit from Sir Patrick O’bvious, it’s also important to be sure the flaws you start slapping down aren’t just good things masquerading as bad. A few examples of this fallacy include a character who is stubborn, read, “he never gives up!” or a character whose acidic temperament results in a bunch of snappy one-liners which the supporting characters take in stride instead of getting irritated or defending themselves like normal people. The key is to make your imperfections actually unlikeable sometimes. For one thing, unlikeable traits don’t necessarily make an unlikeable character, and an unlikeable character isn’t necessarily a bad one. Your audience doesn’t have to want to hang out with the hero on weekends for them to want to read about her. And after all, there are plenty of things that you hate about yourself that don’t necessarily make you a terrible person.            

            So instead of having Billy’s shyness make him cute and relatable, also have it get in the way of his ability to socialize properly like it would for a real person. You say Donna likes to pick fights and is tough and cool as a result? Why not have it give her a bad reputation and get herself and her friends into trouble as well?

            One facet that seems especially fallible is the issue of beauty. When appearance is dragged into things, characters can either end up being one of two things: an airbrushed angel with rippling muscles and an eye color you’d expect to see on the side of a crayola crayon, or kill-it-with-fire ugly to show how they’re going against the status quo. The problem is that your character’s physical description should not revolve on how perdy they look, but on how their appearance reflects on who they are as a person. If you have a good reason for them being so stunningly attractive or repulsive, then go for it. Otherwise, I’d avoid it. It’s easy to fall victim to making your other characters dote on your protagonist’s beauty in a vomit-inducing way, or having your unattractive hero constantly whining about the evils of appearance. Whatever you do, make sure it’s not just for the sake of indulging yourself or your characters.

            Another thing that’s often glazed over is a character’s ability to make mistakes, especially ones with lasting consequences. Maybe it’s just me, but I live in continual fear of the inevitable moment when I do something so incredibly embarrassing that I’ll be forced to live in a secret underground cave for at least three years until I can forget my shame. I have one of these incidents about twice a week. But people in books hardly ever respond to someone who wasn’t talking to them, or writhe in the wasting agony of the awkward silence. They rarely make the kinds of errors that drop a heaping helping of lasting consequences into their laps on a regular basis.

 Yet mistakes are what makes us human, and if you’re sitting there grinning because your protagonist isn’t human to begin with, then congratulations, you won the internet. And yes, that was sarcasm. Every kind of character can benefit from errors of some kind to make them more believable. I mean, think about it; if you were a humble farmhand suddenly chosen to wield the magic sword and de-throne the evil king, you would be lucky to make it a couple weeks without slicing your own toes off or otherwise fucking the whole thing up. Besides, it can be a lot more interesting to read about how characters that done goofed deal with their errors and work to correct them. So in short, characters could stand to make mistakes and then have to deal with the repercussions.

            Lastly, many protagonists end up with some kind of super power or ancient weapon as one of the perks of being a main character. Be careful of this. It’s really easy to overdo it and make your hero a living god with so much power that all the challenges they have to face start to look almost pathetically easy. If there’s one thing I got out of government class is that great power should have checks and balances and something about great responsibility; Social studies wasn’t my number one subject. If your protagonist is immensely powerful, I suggest you have a damn good reason why and make sure that they don’t leave their supporting characters swooning in the dust. Then make your hero suffer for it. Everything has a cost, and the universe is one hell of a collector. Reflect this.  

            If you make your protagonist too perfect, pretty, and powerful, they will probably end up boring to read about and completely unbelievable. Everything needs to balance out in the end; like yin and yang, the cosmic scales, the circle of life; take your pick of metaphors. I'm out. 

Picture Reference
            

Friday, November 11, 2011

Villains

CE Jenkins

           …Are one of the most important elements in a story. In my opinion. Which is right.

When I say villains I really mean antagonists, because not every story needs a pale thin man with a goatee and a penchant for dark castles and evil laughter. But every story does need conflict of some kind, because readers are evil people who love to watch characters suffer in elaborate ways. Even in character driven stories there must be a source of inner turmoil or whatever the kids are writing these days that will lead to character development. Characters are defined by their problems, so if you don’t have a good antagonist then your story could end up as stable and coherent as a drunken one-legged tyrannosaurus.

A lot of times baddies get the short end of the stick when it comes to character development, when there’s so much potential for a stronger story with a stronger antagonist. So here are a few general tips on building a good bad guy.

Decide what kind of villain the story needs. For responsible, organized writers, this step occurs naturally when they are neatly outlining their plot. But if you write like I do, you’ll just throw in an evil space monkey that you’ll realize 30,000 words later bears an unavoidable resemblance to Mojo-Jojo. No matter how you go about it, in the end the choice is yours. There are some categories to help get you started, though:

·         Man vs. Nature- Think disasters or survival in the wilderness. May also include the drinking of one’s own piss.
·         Man vs. Man- Someone or thing out there doesn’t like your character very much. What do?
·         Man vs. Self- Whether it’s demons from your character’s past or an existential epiphany, most of the conflict in this type will take place in your protagonist’s head.

Plenty of stories have more than one of these, or even all three. We’re going to be focusing on the Man vs. Man model this time, because I don’t feel like talking about the other ones.

Once you have your villain, find out where they come from. What was their childhood like? How did they get so evil? Why do they have an irrational fear of cheese? Most people don’t wake up one day thinking, “My, I quite feel like turning evil today!” Put your villain on the couch and ask about their childhood. Just be sure you have a taser or a thick sheet of bulletproof glass between the two of you, because you know they won’t stand for that Freudian shit. You don’t have to go too far in depth in the actual story, but the key is knowing it yourself and then working it in subtly as you go. This will make your baddie feel much more rounded, and studies have shown that being hit with a Frisbee hurts less than being hit with a wrecking ball. Think of characters like Voldemort, Loki, or Darth Vader; that last one got three whole prequels dedicated to how he got so evil.

Come up with your villain’s motivations. This can go hand-in-hand with backstory, but because this is an evil post of evil we’ll just pretend that metaphor was a lot more ominous than it was. So, why does your villain what to do that wicked thing he wants to do? If you answered that question with “Because he’s evil,” take a moment to enjoy this wonderful gif I found for you: http://gifsoup.com/webroot/animatedgifs3/1290449_o.gif
You need at least a simple reason for why they do things. Otherwise it’s just silly.

Consider their personality. No matter how much backstory you give a character, you still have to pay attention to where all that history has brought them. So many villains seem to be made with the same mould; they monologue, they kill their underlings and messengers like there’s no tomorrow, and they’re always very sinister with occasional bursts of insanity to remind us how evil they are. Don’t get me wrong, I love those guys. But at the same time, it doesn’t hurt to shake things up a bit. Villains are people too, unless they’re an evil squid dragon. They still should have the courtesy of having their own individual personality, because that will make them much more interesting to read about. Grey morality and sympathetic characters are fun, but on the other end of the evil spectrum you have buds like the Emperor and Sauron, and clearly those two franchises aren’t doing too badly. So no matter how you choose to do it, make sure you make the character unique.

Lots of good stories out there have a weak or clich├ęd villain. It is possible to pull it off, but my question is why would you want to? Baddies are a well of awesome story devices just waiting to be mined, and if that wasn’t a mixed metaphor then I don’t know what is. So build your villains carefully, folks. That is all.  

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Wow Oh WoW

CE Jenkins 



               This shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone, but I am a geek. Meaning I play WoW. Meaning I play World of Warcraft, the Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game with orcs and night elves and spacegoats. Those who have accessed the internet on prior occasions may be familiar with it. Now, one reason I enjoy the game is that it comes with a detailed and constantly changing storyline; another is because it allows me to take out my rage at the injustices of so-called “real life” by punting gnomes into pools of lava. We will be focusing on the first reason today. Mostly. There might be forays into gnome punting. Mostly I just want to talk about why I think the latest expansion pack sucks. It’s also good to keep in mind that I’ve only ever played World of Warcraft and none of its predecessors, so all the ways in which WoW supposedly butchered it have no effect on me. Yay? >.>

            WoW’s lore is extensive; I’ve been playing since I was barely old enough to know what trolling was and I still can’t say I know it all. They have to add new content on a periodic basis to placate the raiders, and then they have to come up with a reason in lore why we’re fighting mind-reading octopus-faced things (yeah, it's a thing). It’s kind of like a really long-running season of a TV show that’s also one of those interactive novels, that also has hundreds of important characters to keep track of. That is also as addictive as crack. Needless to say, shit gets fucked up.

However, the expansion Wrath of the Lich King (WOTLK for the lazy of typing) saw things going just dandy from a lore point of view: dragons were slain, heroes fell in battle, and gnomes were drop-kicked with ruthless efficiency and enthusiasm. The storyline and the actual game play teamed up and with their powers combined kicked more ass than can reasonably interpreted by the human brain. Everything you did felt like you were actually moving through the storyline and accomplishing something, so that by the time you reached the Frozen Throne you had no choice but to be invested in the story. Not to mention the final boss, the Lich King; badass voice acting, badass writing, badass badassery to the degree of badassitude. The more troops you threw at him, the most ravenous ghouls he would have at his disposal when they all died horrible deaths. He killed his own father, massacred his own people and completely turned his back on the light, and he doesn’t even give a shit about anything except destroying or corrupting every living thing on the planet. It was all so very epic.

And then Cataclysm came ‘round.

            To illustrate my point, watch this video. It’s the trailer for the WOLK expansion.

         Cool guys don’t look at the giant fucking undead dragon coming out of the ice behind them.

            Now, if you’re me, by the end of this video you have goosebumps and a burning desire to go kill some undead. If you’re a normal person you might feel mildly unimpressed. Reserve your judgment until you’ve watched this glowing gem of a cinematic:


            See the difference? If not, the difference is that one of them leaves me with a deep-seated sense of personal shame. I’m thinking that wasn’t what they were going for when they made the Cataclysm trailer.

            What I like so much about the WOTLK trailer is that, for an ad for World of Warcraft, it’s actually pretty classy. The narration adds a tang of bitter irony and doesn’t need to drop two octaves and use every ounce of its rage to get the point across. In both trailers the visuals are very good; they might even be better in the second. Alas, that was never enough to save it.

            The operant problem I have with the second one is the voiceover. Let’s put it this way: where the first trailer employs subtlety and irony, the second trailer beats you with a giant-ass club screaming, “HE’S EVIL! HE’S EVIL! HE’S SO FUCKING EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEVVVVVVVVIIIIIIIIILLLLLLLLLLL!!!11!!!” And it’s not even written well. Thus is Cataclysm.

            Don’t get me wrong, there’s lots that I really enjoy about Cata; but little to none of it is in the lore. The worst part is how much potential they’re throwing down the Maelstrom by screwing this up; the basic idea behind Cataclysm is really pretty neat. I mean, the evil aspect of earth breaking free from his prison and getting loosened up from all those eons of confinement by curb-stomping Azeroth in the nuts? Uh, awesome much? The main problem in my opinion is bad writing. All the dialog is overblown and overwritten and soggy with melodrama. I have yet to hear a boss say something genuinely off-putting enough to make me stop chewing on my poptart and think about death like I used to in WOTLK.

            Another huge problem with the Cata lore is that they look at every ongoing plotline they had going at the end of WOLK and say, “Ah fuck it, let’s just make money.” Allow me to veer a little deeper into nerdville for a moment and give an example: Blood elves were addicted to magical energy, the source of which was destroyed by the Lich King. As a result, blood elves got kinda evil in the insatiable need for magic way. At the end of WOTLK their energy source was restored, thus resulting in dramatic changes to blood elven society as their crippling lack of magical energy was finally relieved! Right?

            Quite obviously wrong, or else I wouldn’t have set up the sentence that way. Fuck all has happened on the front of elven magic use. The most they have done is to change a few lines in the quest text to mention that the Sunwell is back in business before sending you off to do a bunch of shit that was only relevant when it was still out of order. Obviously I’m oversimplifying it, but you should still feel outraged nonetheless.

            One thing Cata lore does really well is off the front lines of the battlefield. Thing is, no matter how bad and scary their newest end boss might seem, it’s pretty obvious that they’re going to die in the end. “Evil wins” is not a very effective marketing strategy when your income directly depends on your customers not wanting evil to win. But now they’ve added in tensions within the ranks of the Horde and the Alliance, and the threat feels pretty real. At their most basic level most of the faction leaders are assholes, self-righteous or an unholy breeding of the two. Finally someone realized that putting that many personalities in a room would be like giving six people a steering wheel and putting them in a shopping cart full of cinderblocks before pushing them down a black-diamond ski slope and telling them to steer. And the fact is, the idea that Blizzard would break up the factions is more feasible and threatening than anything an external threat could provide. Will they do so? Probably not. But the fact is that it really wouldn’t be out of the question, and with the direction they’re heading it’s going to be looming there.

            And lastly, the supposed new expansion pack: Mists of Pandaria. Exibit A: Pandaren are a joke. No, not metaphorically, they are literally a joke that one of the designers came up with and everyone was laughing about up until some idiot decided that what the game really needed is more bullshit. The preview on youtube has 50/50 likes and dislikes, with about 18-19k on both sides. Blizzard is literally giving us all a giant middle finger. The worst part is that I will still be buying it. I have an addiction that no level of fury or shame can unhinge.
           
             

Friday, October 28, 2011

Nazis are Terrible People and Other Shocking Revalations

        A part of building a blog is forming an intimacy with the audience, creating a connection that leads to a sense of community, and as the numerous self-help books I’ve read have told me, every relationship is based on trust. So I am going to tell you something I’ve never told anyone else before. Are you ready?

        Okay.

        I love Nazis.

        Ha, psych, no. I’m just fucking with you. But I confessed that I was. Trust! But seriously, guys, fuck Nazis. I know I’m not getting into controversial territory here by telling you that Nazis were murderous fuckheads, but I do fancy myself somewhat of an amateur Holocaust historian, and I have years of study to tell me just how murderously fuckheady Nazis are with a great deal more statistics and exact numbers than the layperson.

        Now, Sarah, you might say, isn’t it a little disingenuous to claim that you are well-versed in the Holocaust when the truth is you were interested in it when you were 12 and only got back into the subject when you saw X-Men: First Class and decided you wanted to make your 10,000 word Charles/Erik fic more realistic? To which I’d say, run-on. Also, how the fuck did you know that? Jesus Christ, our readers are clairvoyant.

        And FYI, that fic was awesome. Respect.

        So why are you bringing Nazis up at all? you might ask meekly, rightfully slapped down by my stern yet compassionate manner.

        Because Nazis are great for writers. Let’s have a small history rant to explain why.

        While you could make the case that Nazis and the Holocaust do not represent the worst thing humanity has ever done, you’d be a piss-poor judge of history to keep it out of the top five. Nazis did not stumble across Treblinka or Chelmno already fully operational. They did not have a few thousand canisters of Zyklon B hanging around that they needed to get rid of. Nazi Germany was not passively evil. Nazis innovated. Nazis set about solving the “problem” of the Jews and other undesirables methodically and cleverly. They chugged away at the problem, experimenting with gas trucks and shooting squads and carbon dioxide pumped into crowded rooms. And when they needed workers for the war effort, they killed through exhaustion, working their prisoners in the harshest, cruelest conditions imaginable because if their workers died that was all the better and there were more where they came from. Camps like Auschwitz were not an anomaly in the Nazi state; they were the culmination of everything the Nazis strove for.

        Which brings me to my two points: One, if someone were to suggest legislation that proposed exhuming all known Nazis for the sole purpose of skullfucking their skeleton, I’d be first in line with a strap-on. And second, Nazis are the greatest enemies a hero could ever hope to have. Alongside robots, zombies, and other emotionless creatures bent on killing (you know, monsters), Nazis are one of the only groups in fiction that heroes can kill with complete impunity. Kill a henchman and there will always be some asshole (i.e. me) who will slow clap and go, “Way to go, hero. That guy probably had a family. He probably took the only job he could get in this economy. Maybe he didn’t even know what the villain’s giant laser was for. Did you know if he did? You didn’t ask. You could have, but you decided to make a pun first before you set him on fire with your wristwatch flamethrower. Bravo, sociopath.”

         But make that henchman a Nazi? “WOOO! STOMP ON HIS BALLS WHILE HE BURNS!!!!!”

        Case in point: Indiana Jones? Fights Nazis! The Empire? Space Nazis! The Daleks? Stupid looking robot Nazis! They are so guilt free to kill you have to wonder why the Doctor just won’t do it again and stop whining about it. Wolfenstein? You murder every single man, woman, and child of the Third Reich in that game. Hellboy? Shit, son, we got magic occult super Nazis to fight. Captain America? Fuck yeah, Cap, punch Hitler in the face again!

        And so on and so forth. As much as violence against Nazis makes me happy, I think you see my point. It’s hard for a bleeding heart like me to cheer on the wanton slaughter of a fellow human being. But slap a swastika on that motherfucker and let’s bring out the popcorn.

        Wait. Actually, readers, I don’t know. Isn’t this complete disregard for one type of person just what the Nazis were guilty of? The lesson we need to take from the Holocaust is how very easy it is to let evil have sway over you. And lord knows the Allies committed atrocities in the war. Hell, they knew about the concentration camps and did nothing. People do terrible things in war, and that’s not an excuse but maybe it’s an explanation. If I harbor hate towards the Nazis, am I any better than them?

        Yes. Yes I am. But in the broader sense, maybe I should chill.

         Reader, let’s go back to that henchman we killed before. We said he had a family. Nazis have family! With children in the Hitler Youth! But I used to eat dirt. We do a lot of things before we learn that they’re fucking terrible ideas. So kids, we like kids. Kids don’t want to lose their dads, we don’t want kids to lose their dad, so even if the guy is a Nazi, it’s sad that the kid lost his father. Boom! Sympathy! Now when Indiana Jones shoots a Nazi bastard in the face, we imagine little Hans at home waiting for a Dad that will never come home. Awesome! We’ve ruined that action scene!

         I remember reading in one of my numerous Nazi books that even Adolf Eichmann, an SS-Obersturmbannf├╝hrer (a rank that translates roughly to “Nazi shitfucker who dealt with the logistics of killing millions”) cared deeply about his family, saying goodbye to them before he fled to Argentina. Here, I have the book (Hunting Evil by Guy Walters, page 10, so we can be above board on all of this) right here. Let me double check that quote.

         “Eichmann later recalled how in turn he took his wife Vera and three sons into his arms. ‘I clung to them with a fervor that is only possibly in such circumstances,’ he would write. ‘The smallest was only three years old. Just three—and I was seeing him for the last time.’”

          Aw, that’s sweet. I’m sure the rest of the quote will in no way invalidate that.

          “‘I knew that the finest gift a German father can bequeath his son is the gift of discipline. And so I beat him.’” Ha ha ha! It’s funny because he’s a terrible human being in all the ways a person can be. God bless Nazis. And by “God bless”, I mean “skull fuck”.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Don't Tease Me Bro

One thing I’ve noticed as a recurring theme throughout book and movie series’ alike is the author’s tendency to let the midden hit the fan—and then not let anything be splattered with shit. Or they whip out some sneaky plot device that wipes up the mess as surely as if it had been karate kicked in the throat by Mr. Clean.


Readers spend the whole book being teased (see what I did there? with the title? Yeah, I'm ashamed of me too) by the possibility of something really game-changing happening, then are denied at the very end by some silly little trick. But instead of magic-erasering all the effects of world-changing occurrences away (or stopping them from happening in the first place), it can be so much more interesting to take those changes and make them a new part of the world. It shows that the story can evolve in unexpected ways instead of going flat as a month-opened can of mountain dew.

One example of this involves unleashing some kind of major event to wreak major havoc or change on the world, then mashing the ‘undo’ button at the last minute with finger guns and maniacal laughter. Now, I ask: Why? A big problem I’ve always had with sequels is that the novelty of the world wears off, but if you blast the world halfway to hell at the end of book one you have plenty of new material to work with. It’s interesting and unexpected, much more so than killing off half the planet then yelling “SYCH!!1!” and bringing them all back with some kind of magical event of carebear proportions. Yet if you let things stay screwed-up for a change you have a whole new set of challenges for your characters to adapt to and a whole bunch of cool things you can do in regards to worldbuilding.


Just look at all that nummy character development waiting to happen!

I’ll use Twilight as an example, since anyone who hasn’t already read it probably doesn’t give a shit about spoilers. In the very last book they spend the greater part of it amassing a veritable army of supernatural creatures to fight an epic battle against the cooler, more evil vampires. But when the bad guys show up we are denied the fight scene the whole book has been building up to and instead everyone decides to talk about their problems; thus betraying all of us who only read so far into the series in the hopes that Edward would die a horrible death. Then the bad guys skip into the sunset linked arm-in-arm throwing flower petals and singing cheerful songs about the power of friendship. Okay, exaggeration. Still, we spent the whole book anticipating the battle for one way or another, and suddenly all we get is an anti-violence lesson jammed down our throats and a vague feeling of self-loathing.

Nothing even closely resembling this image should be allowed to exist. Now please excuse me while I sterilize my computer's browsing history. With fire.

            My dislike of twilight aside, this plot device also applies to character development; say, the protagonist finds out she is responsible for the evil villain’s rise to power, or is destined to bring about the end of the world, and is understandably upset about all of that. Then suddenly, along comes that GD plot device with news that it was really the hero’s twin who did it, or the prophecy was broken when she helped that old lady cross the street back on page 23. Tada! All that baggage the protagonist was promised to be toting around is suddenly ejected somewhere over the realm of bullshit and she’s as snarky and carefree as ever. Um, epic hax much? What’s even the point of adding that plot twist if it’s getting curb stomped 50 pages later without contributing to the character? It’s much more interesting to take a problem the character must face and then show how it affects and changes them.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Like pretty much everything that doesn’t involve Nazis or cannibalism, this technique can work well if done properly. The problem is that most times it’s not done properly. Anyways, when things happen in the real world there’s hardly ever a quick fix to make everything go back to normal. Seeing the characters get off the hook so easily just looks like they’re using cheat codes. Or at the very least a game guide.



Picture References:



Monday, October 17, 2011

FIRST!!1!

You know how the saddest thing in the world are those opening blog posts where the writers lay out all their plans and hopes and dreams that you know they never got around to doing because it’s the only post in the past four years?
WELCOME TO THAT POST! :D
We are a blog about fiction, reading fiction, writing fiction, interacting with fiction, cutting fiction open and crawling inside it. Be it books, movies, TV shows, video games, fanfiction, art; anything that lets us abandon our responsibilities, you’ll find something on it here. And then some details about our personal lives, when we can’t actually think of blog posts to write. Cap’n will post on Tuesdays, and C.E. Jenkins will commit to Fridays, but we’ll really spend all of our posting date locked in a room weeping into cartons of chunky monkey because we work best when we’re 48 hours behind the deadline.
So in conclusion, our blog will be a rough mixture of analysis, passion, dragons, and thinking about things way more than the writers did. Enjoy.