The Stopping Point of Sympathy

Warning: Here be spoilers for the latest Game of Thrones episode 7×04, for them as hasn’t seen it yet.

There seems to be a line that people draw in the sand when it comes to the amount of bull they will put up with from characters. Puppy kicking is usually the first one. As soon as you see a character harming an animal, that character has to die.

Different people draw different lines in the sand, of course. For some people, Cinderella saying that she stays with her awful step-family because she needs to keep living in her parents’ house that they lived in for hundreds of years, well, that’s a bit too stupid for them, and after that they lose all sympathy for her. (I am very much not one of those people. But that’s an opinion for a different post.)

For some people, the fact that Wesley threatens to strike Buttercup in the movie (and actually does strike her in the book) despite how much he claims to love her, well, that rings a billion alarm bells for them, and after that they lose all sympathy for him.

And for some people, the fact that Daenerys Targaryen refuses to help Jon Snow to the benefit of every life in Westeros Essos and beyond, purely because she wants him to bow and he won’t (because there’s no time for politics when literal ice zombies are coming)–

Well. You can imagine that some people might lose all sympathy for her.

It’s amazing how a formerly sympathetic character can become, well, former, in the space of a few short episodes. Daenerys had a complicated personality; most people on the show do; so it wasn’t like she was entirely pure and perfect before Season 7 started. But someone had to bring King’s Landing around Cersei’s ears, and Dany was the girl to do it.

But as Jon Snow points out, they’ve got bigger fish to fry these days. The problems that these characters face are literally life and death. And Daenerys is too focused on her personal goal of conquering Westeros to acknowledge that.

And even when Jon shows her a most convenient proof that White Walkers are real, she still insists that unless he swears fealty to him, she will not help.

This is the point when my BS indicator went into overload. Sorry, Daenerys, but for that last battle between the Dothraki and the Lannisters, I was actually rooting for Lannisters this time. Roasting people alive is an effective tactic, sure, and no one ever said war was nice. But the Casterly Rock plan was created specifically to avoid roasting people alive. It didn’t work, but that doesn’t mean your next step is to start roasting people! And I wouldn’t be surprised if her dragon Drogon died from this. Congratulations, you’ve just wasted an incredibly valuable resource for no reason whatsoever.

Try to divorce yourself from the Mad King’s reputation now, Dany. I dare you.

Mental Music Videos

Another short post, sorry folks. Life likes throwing spanners into the works. In this case, post-surgery siblings.

Apparently one way to create a character is to do like my Method Two, only with songs. Put on the radio, or a playlist on shuffle, and find a song that you like and try to create a character out of it. As usual, your mileage may vary; I prefer my usual two, though you may find a song-created character to be the bomb dot com.

What’s fun also, though not necessarily productive, is going through your day listening to music (for example, the daily commute) and hearing a song and thinking “Ah, Yes, this song matches the relationship between these two characters perfectly.”

Sometimes it is productive, though. If a song comes across as a montage, then you can take the feel and themes of the song and try to transmute that onto the page. Or if a song lays out a series of events — whether those events are exactly the ones described in the song or not — then you can put those events into your plot.

Is that plagiarism? Well, if you take song lyrics and write them down into your story without getting permission from the singer, the writer, the studio, and their great aunt Agatha, then yes, it’s plagiarism. But if you don’t write the lyrics? Look: people have been singing about the same things since the beginning of time when we first discovered we had a voicebox. It’s not the story that you tell, it’s how you tell it that matters.

So yes, go ahead and write your Jukebox Hero.

WIBBOW (Update)

Monday’s post was going to happen and then didn’t. Today’s post is why.

Working on draft and getting closer to the post-production stage means pedal to the metal, as it were. And sometimes even with carefully rationed time, it burns a body out. Even more so when life gets in the way.

Writing is my job, but I can’t write if I don’t take care of the writing machine. Sometimes that means grabbing an extra twenty minutes of sleep. Sometimes that means spending an evening with a sibling who’s recovering from a medical procedure, instead of shutting myself in the Writing Corner.

That can’t be all the time, of course. Writing is still my job, and you can’t spend hours on the clock watching Game of Thrones. But occasionally that work/life balance has to come out in favor of sitting down for half a second and resting.

Occasionally, the answer to WIBBOW — Would I Be Better Off Writing? — is no.

(Here’s the actual update: We’re nearly at the post-production stage, which means cover art shenanigans this weekend. Stay tuned!)

Accountability

Technically I’m in two lines of work right now: the writing job, and the day job. Sneer all you like at the concept of day jobs but right now this one is bringing in a lot more money than the book (singular, soon to become plural) — that old saying about beggars and choosers, et cetera et cetera. But I like my day job. I get a sense of accomplishment, and I get to help people out. It’s pretty nifty.

I’m also accountable to a solid handful of people. If I muck up, it isn’t just me on the line, it’s my manager, and her manager, etc. Turtles all the way down, as the saying goes. But the other thing is, my job hinges on other people doing their jobs, too. If I don’t know the answer to a problem, sometimes I can find it out on my own, but sometimes it isn’t up to me. Sometimes all I can do is ask the question and wait.

It’s not the most uncomfortable of situations, but still. One of the reasons indie publishing appealed to me so much is that I don’t have to rely on the decisions of some agent or publisher in order to get my work out there. As an indie, every aspect of the process is under my control. What the cover art looks like, which scenes get cut, when the final product gets released. And if something goes wrong, or I find a mistake, it’s on me — which also means, I have the ability to fix it. I am accountable to and for myself, and no one else.

Some people like to think that nothing is their fault, that they are the victims of circumstance and the machinations of others. It’s all one big conspiracy against me specifically, they cry. It’s not fair. I don’t deserve this!

Mm, sorry, since when did “deserve” enter into the equation at all? The whole concept of a free market means that if you work hard and often, and your product or service is good, you have a higher chance of succeeding. Notice the use of the word “chance”. There are no guarantees in life except death and taxes. And frankly, no one owes you anything, not their money, not their respect, not their patience. You have to earn it, no matter what line of business you’re in.

Even more so if you’re part of a team working together, with other people relying on you to do a specific job.

Is that harsh? Maybe. But personal accountability is something that everyone should have, and use, and examine. Playing the victim means giving up part of your power to affect the world around you, and it’s a self fulfilling prophecy. You can’t just wish for good things to happen. You have to work at it, and test it out, and work at it some more.

Now I’m off to go work at it.

The trouble with Bad Boys

Aka: the Twilight phenomenon.

Acknowledging that I was a wee middleschooler when the Twilight books first boomed kind of dates me — as either Too Old To Be Cool or Very Much A Young’Un — but hey, I have an insider’s point of view. Yes, I was Team Jacob. Hold on, this is actually relevant.

The fact that Jacob was a werewolf was the main reason I was Team Jacob, but there were other reasons too. (Hold on, I’m getting there.)

My sister was very much Team Edward. One of the mutual friends we had at summer camp was also incredibly Team Edward. And naturally we had big arguments about who was better and, naturally, which of us was right and which was a soppy idiot. Ah, middle school. Preteens are savages.

In fact the main reason I was so firmly Team Jacob and so anti Team Edward was that Edward was a creepy vampire stalker who literally wanted to drink Bella’s blood, but Jacob, on the other hand, Would Never Hurt Bella Ever.

Yes, I believed this even after reading New Moon. You know, the one where Jacob forcibly kisses Bella and she punches him to try to make him stop, and then he tells her it’s her fault her wrist is broken.

So romantic, right?

</sarcasm>

But this whole Girls Liking Bad Boys, whether the boys in question are vampires or leather-studded bikers or powerful demigods hellbent on conquest, is a bit of a puzzler. Loki murders hundreds of people on the screen and girls swoon? I mean, really? I was fourteen and embarrassing once too, but really, younger self?

I think I’ve figured it out, though. Here it is, the Theory of Awkward Antihero Obsession:

“Bad guys are attractive because they have the ability to do bad things to other people BUT, and this is the important caveat, they would never hurt ME.”

Makes sense, mostly. There’s a sense of self-preservation in there somewhere, so that’s alright.

The problem with the Twilight books, while we were mid-craze, is that our definitions of the word “hurt” varied so much. Now, of course, we’ve grown up a bit and we can recognize that both Edward and Jacob are creeps.

Creating a Character, pt 3

Pt 1 | Pt 2

So you need a Problem to stick your character with, and you need realistic ways for the character to respond to the Problem in order to flesh out who the character is. But how the heck do you come up with the idea for the character in the first place?

I myself have two ways of going about it. Other people have different ways of creating character concepts, that work best for them. As usual with Advice On Writing, your mileage may vary.

Route 1: I’m reading, or watching, some other piece of media and one of the characters strikes a chord with me. So I pick up the character, examine what makes him appealing to me, I dust off a few of the character traits and add some from other sources, and voilà. Frankencharacter. I’ve also heard this called “filing off the serial numbers”, though I’m pretty sure that filing off the serial numbers applies to taking one specific character instead of creating an amalgamation.

So for example — and this is a character that’s rumbling around in my head, though you won’t see him for another few years, I think — take the emotional rigidity and stubbornness and sarcasm of Javert, and the weird mix of brashness and gentleness of Oblek from the Oracle Betrayed trilogy, and throw in a Tragic Past, and there you go! Put him in a new environment, and dress him up in different clothes, and if you know those characters already, I hope you’ll be able to recognize the influences — but he’ll still be his own entity, separate from the original bits and bobs.

I should note, at this point, that I might have an idea of what the amalgam character looks like, but probably no set image.

Route 2: comes at this from the opposite direction. There’s an actor just doing their own thing, and I think to myself, “self, I want to have this actor play a character based on one of my books.” It’s pure self indulgence, but it’s fun, and that’s why it works for me.

And hey, if Cornelia Funke did it with her Inkheart books, then so can I.

Sometimes I can’t figure out the character beyond the basic archetype, and that’s when I go to my friend and toss over a picture of the artist, and we have a brainstorming session — what sort of villain is he? What world would he fit in? And usually while we’re puzzling out the answers to those questions, Inspiration bops me on the head, and then we’re off.

Now we go find a Problem to stick that character in …

Making Time

I’ve previously talked about how, if it’s important to you, you have to find the time to write, and if necessary you make the time to write — whether that’s by taking an abbreviated lunch break at the day job, or waking up early or staying up late, or some other way. You create the time you need to do the job you need to do.

Lofty words from someone who was comfortably in the post-production stage of a book, she said, grumbling at herself from the draft-writing stage.

But grumbling is just carbon dioxide. And the people who know and care about you will understand when you have to shut yourself in your Fortress of Solitude. So you grab your beverage of choice, and you put butt in chair, and you work.

There’s more to the job than banging out the draft — blogstuff is the next thing that comes to mind. Going indie means being your own advertising company, in addition to all that other stuff that involves paperwork. It’s funny; you’d think that there would be some people who’ve gone indie who will say “it’s easy to self-publish! easiest thing I ever did!” but the only people who actually say that are the ones who … you know … have never actually done it, and instead are clutching the traditional publishing industry to themselves like little kids with their favorite soft toy that’s coming apart at the seams.

*cough* Anyway.

Wanting to make indie writing into a career, means treating it like a career. So the hobbies that are fun but that don’t, you know, help make money, have to take a hike for a little while. Because you have to focus on the writing, and the blogging, and all the other stuff. You might have noticed that on my home page the description went from “updates weekdays” to “updates Mondays Wednesdays and Fridays” — that’s an attempt to keep myself sane, while I juggle everything. Posting regularly is part of my job (whether I post at home, or from the parking lot, or during lunch break), but I can’t burn myself out. Because then, whether I have the time or not, how am I going to have the energy to write?

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; or close the wall up with our empty coffee mugs.

But was it a good story?

It seems like most of the movies and books that I like include at least one minor (or major) character that I like, who bites the dust. Well, considering a book like Les Misérables, where only three major characters make it out alive, basically any character you attach yourself to is going to die horribly; the disclaimer is right there in the title. But even regular things like, well, like GotG2 or Wonder Woman, have cool characters that I really like that somehow manage to die. For a reason, yes! For a reason that is consistent with their previous characterization, yes! But still.

I can still remember the first time a character I liked died, because I pitched a fit in the Sears by the refrigerator section and my dad had to calm me down again. What can I say, I was a weirdly emotional seven year old. These days I don’t have melt-downs in public places, I just write fanfiction. A much better coping mechanism, if you ask me.

But when I tearfully described how Rose had been killed in Martin the Warrior, my dad asked a question that made me very reluctant and also very mutinous and also very, very confused: “But was it a good story?”

Uhh, sure, Dad, it was a good story, I guess. But the character died. And I didn’t want that character to die, I wanted the bad guys to die. Only the bad guys are allowed to die. (What can I say, I was seven. I still believed an evil alien was mind-controlling my third grade teacher.) And the fact of that character’s death hovered over everything else. I haven’t read any Redwall books in uh, probably about a decade, but off the top of my head I can tell you that the ones I reread included Taggerung (because it had an otter as a main character) and the ones I didn’t reread had Martin the Warrior at the top of the list.

But was it a good story? Well, that’s the kicker, because it depends on what you think of as the story.

To some people, it’s the plot and only the plot that constitutes the story. The swashbuckling pirates steal from the rich and escape the British Navy and ride away into the glittering sunset. The girl escapes from her evil stepfamily and sews a beautiful dress by hand and marries the handsome prince. Keanu Reeves kills a bunch of people as revenge for Theon Greyjoy killing his pet dog, and the Green Goblin, sorry Willem Defoe, helps his old buddy Keanu out.

To other people, it’s the characters that are the story, and the plot is nice and they enjoy it but it’s basically window dressing. Say what you like about Jane Austen, but Pride and Prejudice is about characters making decisions about themselves and each other. The plot isn’t grand, and it doesn’t have to be, because the characters are strong enough to propel the plot by themselves.

So when my dad asked, “Was it a good story?” and I sullenly answered “I guess,” we were working off different definitions of the word.

It’s pretty difficult to want to return to a story that includes part of the story dying off, unless (like in Les Mis, or Rogue One, or Romeo and Juliet — stop giving me that side-eye, they do have this one thing in common) there’s a big old disclaimer stamped everywhere and really what you’re reading is how and why they die. But meanwhile, people who focus on plot are just puzzled as to why you’re sobbing into your handkerchief in the theater.

“The movie was better”

“… and other sentences to irritate the heck out of nerds.”

When it comes to films like The Golden Compass, or the Harry Potter movies, then “the movie was better” becomes utter sacrilege. But for other films, sometimes it’s actually the truth. No, wait, hear me out.

Take Coraline for example. Yes, it added a character; yes, some of the scenes were completely rearranged, or even nixed; yes, the end result is very different from the original book. But having another person her age around made Coraline’s situation a little more stark. Having more scenes with the Other World enchanting her made more sense. And the end result, while different, was an enjoyable film with not only cool stop-motion animation but a story that had more than one lesson to take away from it.

This isn’t to say that I don’t like Coraline the book. I just enjoy Coraline the movie as its own, separate, entity. And the same can be said for other book-film or book-musical adaptations. Does Les Mis the musical slightly butcher themes and character development in order to fit over 500,000 words into a three hour play? Yes. But, taken as a separate entity, it’s just as much fun as the book, and much more accessible. Fewer people are likely to run screaming from Hugh Jackman’s singing in the 2012 movie than they are from the Waterloo digression in the book.

What’s cool is when you have something like the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, where the director lifted an obscure comic character, Yondu Udonta, and took the bare bones of his identity and then created a whole new personality for the films. Maybe comic nerds are tearing their hair out over this, but I think it’s pretty neat. Take a look at Yondu’s page on the Marvel wiki. He’s a big blue alien with a bow and arrow, and he’s one of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Well, James Gunn sure expanded on that. An empathically controlled floating arrow, a space pirate crew, a tragic backstory, some truly hilarious dialogue, and a character arc that I think could make a pretty decent oneshot movie. I haven’t read the comics that feature the original Yondu, but dang if I didn’t enjoy the new Yondu.

And that’s what it’s all about, really. Pandering to the masses is what entertainment is for. There can’t be room for snobbery.

Pete and Repete were on a boat

I have a friend who can only watch a movie or read a book for enjoyment once every few months, and even then, it’s iffy. Over the years that we’ve known each other, we’ve had the following conversation more than five times:

“Do you want to watch x?”

“We already saw that.”

“Yeah, six months ago!”

“Yeah! We already saw that. Can we watch y?”

And sometimes, you know, once every six months is more than enough when it comes to a book or a movie. The Water Diviner with Russell Crowe, you know, I’m glad I saw that but I could happily never see it again in my life. And if I never see Repo!: The Genetic Opera again, well, I think that’ll be alright too.

But mostly the idea of not seeing a movie, or reading a book, just because I saw or read it a few months ago, drives me slightly bonkers.

I may be biased because one time my sister and I watched Pride and Prejudice (2005, the one with Keira Knightly) four times in a row and enjoyed it each time. But, well. That’s an extreme case.

The fact is that I can watch the same movie once a day every day for a solid week (or longer) and still enjoy it. I did it so many times in college that I can’t possibly count them. Movies like Kung Fu Panda, The Mummy 2: The Mummy Returns, Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, Captain America: The Winter Soldier … the list goes on for a while. And for each of these movies, I’ve now gotten to the point where I can comfortably recite lines of dialogue for an embarrassingly long amount of time. What can I say? Repetition is good for memorization.

And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read the Discworld books, or Good Omens, or the Resurgam trilogy by Joan Frances Turner — to say nothing of the musical soundtracks that I listen to during the daily commute.

But the thing is, although repeating a word or a song often enough saps it of all meaning, I can experience the same book or movie a thousand times and still want to experience it again. I don’t know if that’s due to the greater amount of time it takes to experience those forms of media, versus a song that only takes up about three and a half minutes. But these movies and books are like old friends.

Some of them I only want to re-experience every so often. The Chronicles of Narnia are one such series, as is the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. But others, they’re like coming home after a long day.