the Janus man

I’ve nattered about it in other circles, so I might as well do it here. Be ye warned: this post is a long one.

As a consumer of media, I tend to go through cycles of intense obsession that die down to more reasonable levels after a few months (or years), but that can flare up again at any time with only the slightest provocation. To millennials, that much-bemoaned demographic to which I belong, it’s pretty par for the course. To the iGeneration, those people born after the year 2000, who are in high school or about to enter college (!!!), it’s also very much the norm. To people older than Gen Y, that’s … weird. For some reason.

Whatever. The original Trekkies pretty much laid the groundwork for fandom as it is today, y’all don’t get to sneer at us.

The point that I’m meandering towards, is that the level of obsession in the media I consume is directly correlated to the characters in that media. Whether it’s a book or a tv series or a movie, or heck, a period of history, it’s the people involved that I’m interested in, not necessarily the events.

Which is funny, because I tend to stay within certain genres and certain trappings. I’m not a horror or mystery fan. Shoot-‘em-up action films don’t do much for me. Mil scifi and hard scifi can be pretty interesting (see: Starship Troopers and The Martian), but I usually stick to space opera, fantasy, historical fiction, etc. I come for the setting, but I stay for the characters.

I stay for the authors, too. If someone writes one book I enjoy, I’m a lot more likely to read the rest of the backlog, even if it’s part of a different series or universe. That’s how I got into the Discworld: via Good Omens. And Good Omens itself I read because of Gaiman’s Coraline. Never underestimate the transitive power of a well-liked book.

It’s how I got into Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. If JKR is good at anything, she’s good at capitalizing on her backlist to sell the frontlist.

Which – you know, good for her. The woman’s got her own theme park. If I can be a tenth as successful as she is, I’ll have made it big.

(The Cursed Child is, uh, a different matter, but that and Pottermore are a different post altogether. Let’s table that for tomorrow.)

Anyway! Fantastic Beasts. Or more accurately, the characters of Fantastic Beasts.

The first time I saw it, I was reasonably pleased with the goings-on of the plot and the characters, up until a crucial reveal scene in the last quarter of the film. If you’ve seen the film, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t seen the film, maybe skip the rest of this post altogether, because it’s a big freaking spoiler.

The casting of Grindelwald was a mistake, in my personal opinion. Mr. Depp may be a talented actor, and I may have enjoyed previous films that he was in – Pirates of the Caribbean sparked a huge interest in the Golden Age of Piracy for me in middle school – but if you’re going to have a film with a central plot focusing on domestic violence, maybe don’t cast an actor who’s been charged with beating his (now ex-)wife.

Seems kind of tasteless.

That’s the casting, though. Even if they’d cast Jamie Campbell Bower (you know, the actor who played Young Grindelwald in the HP movies), the decision to make Creepy Antagonist Percival Graves actually an international terrorist is … well … I’d still chafe at the bit, I think.

It’s not that the movie isn’t internally consistent. On the rewatch, there are plenty of clues to indicate that the man isn’t just a fashionable-and-imposing-yet-creepy dude. The slight fixation on Dumbledore during the interrogation scene is the biggest indicator that he’s actually Grindelwald. The Deathly Hallows bit, as well, works as an alarm bell for them fans that know, that all is not as it should be. But … well …

I mean, the alley scenes with poor Credence do a pretty good job of that, too. There was enough emotional manipulation in those short scenes to choke a horse. And you don’t have to be an international magical terrorist to be a manipulative creep. Anyone can be a creep! Equal opportunity creepiness!

And he didn’t have to be the literal terrorist to agree with the terrorist’s ideas. That’s the point, isn’t it? Not everyone is Magical Hitler, but he didn’t get so much power without supporters. It would have been concerning enough, and it would have remained consistent with the rest of the story (except for that pesky Dumbledore question), if Percival Graves had still been Percival Graves at the end of the movie. I get that “terrorist infiltrates government by stealing a man’s face” is one hell of a plot twist, and hey, stealing faces is a sufficiently sinister magical thing to do, so hey, why not. It’s a good “gotcha!” moment. But wouldn’t it make more of an impact to say “hey, this trusted lieutenant dedicated his life to protecting people but now he agrees with the magical terrorist”?

Especially when – and this is the particularly sticky issue – right before the reveal, he actually poses a pretty good question.

“Who does this law protect? Us, or them?”

The question was already answered two seconds ago, but the question forces us to think about it. The no-majs who were killed during the Obscurus’ rampage, they sure weren’t protected by the Statute of Secrecy. Credence, who was executed by wizarding firing squad rather than be rehabilitated, he sure wasn’t protected by the Statute of Secrecy.

And it also confronts the fact that MACUSA was too blinded by pride to acknowledge that there was even a possibility of Obscurials existing anymore. They could not realize that an Obscurial was tortured into existence right down the street from their headquarters. Essentially, the government condemned a young man to die.

That law protected no one.

Graves was morally gross, but the dude had a point.

And the movie confronted us with that uncomfortable truth, right up until – whoops, actually he’s Grindelwald so we don’t have to weight his words at all. Everything that spews out of his mouth is a lie. We can dismiss the uncomfortable truth, because it came from the lips of a mass murderer.

Oh well.

The character of Graves – or GrindelGraves – was a ruthless man who would do whatever slimy thing it took to achieve his ends, but who commanded the respect and loyalty of one of the most sympathetic characters in the movie, Tina Goldstein. Her shock and sorrow when he sentences her to death is visceral, and not just because she’s about to die! There’s some legitimate betrayal going on there! What kind of man is he, that can inspire that level of dedication, and then turn around and condemn her to death?

Mmmm, he’s a terrorist. Well, there went all that moral complexity, right out the window.

On the plus side, the switcheroo means that distinguished-older-gentleman-with-the-rakish-clothes Colin Farrell is now officially a mystery. We don’t know who the real Percival Graves is! Is he an accomplice? Is he a captive? Is he dead? Until the next installment (and JKR is planning 6 more movies as far as I last heard), we have no idea. He’s Schroedinger’s character. And fandom has taken that blank slate and run with it.

I’m really hoping he isn’t dead. If we’ve introduced the face-stealing plot and we can’t retcon it, by God, let’s explore it to its full potential.

It’s all in how you look at things

In other news, I aten’t dead, just … restin’.

Perspective is probably the first thing you notice when you crack open a book. Whether it’s first-, third-, or second-person — yes, I have encountered second-person — it’s going to make an impact on the reader, and of course on the story itself. I don’t usually like first-person stories, though there have been notable exceptions (the Resurgam books by Joan Frances Turner immediately come to mind). Second-person immediately gets jettisoned, unless it’s a choose-your-own-adventure story, and I haven’t read one of those since I was in middle school.

That’s a prompt for another blog post, though. There are other kinds of perspective thay matter in a story, and those are the ones I want to focus on today.

Innocence versus experience is probably the one used most in Western literature. You’ve got Wordsworth of course, and then you also have writers like Philip Pullman who prod at the notion, unravel it, and stitch it back together to make something new. Then you’ve got the hero’s journey where a character gets dragged kicking and screaming into caring about other people. There are other shifts in perspective, but usually they can be boiled down to innocence versus experience, or selflessness versus selfishness.

And these are interesting character arcs in and of themselves.

But — and I refer back to my favorite zombie book Dust by JFT– sometimes, using a changing perspective to look on the same event (or using the audience’s different perspective) can be just as interesting, and just as thought-provoking.

In one of the flashbacks, Jessie (our undead protagonist) meets up with a group of other undeads and becomes particularly attached to Joe, a Chicago biker who died sometime in the seventies. At the time of their meeting, Joe has been undead for over thirty years; Jessie, meanwhile, is fresh out of the grave, and was just fifteen when a drunk driver killed her. So we, the audience — as well as Joe, who keeps reminding her of the age difference — know that he has a huge psychological advantage over her, even if she can pound him into a pulp just as much as any of the rest of the undead crew. Jessie, freshly dead and twitterpated, stays with Joe when she has every ability to leave, and Joe of course is perfectly happy with this outcome.

But the main story takes place nine years after Jessie died, and when she narrates this flashback, it’s from a position of experience and disillusionment. “Like I said,” she tells the audience, and we can hear the bitter wistfulness, “I was fifteen.”

It’s that darn verisimilitude at work again. We’ve all had something happen that we feel differently about years after the fact. And if we can identify that same feeling with a zombie? Then maybe the rest of the story will feel real, too.

Same Song, Second Verse

Nothing is original, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Any story can be boiled down to about a sentence. If you condense the stories enough, pretty soon they all sound the same — to say nothing of all the retellings of fairy tales and myths. How many times has Cinderella lost her slipper?

But just because two stories have the same basic plot doesn’t mean they can’t both be enjoyed. And it’s not so much what the story is as how you execute it that matters. And because every storyteller is unique (“yes! we are all individuals!”), no two stories are going to end up being told the same way.

Take, for example, Cinderella. Specifically, the 2015 Disney live-action remake, Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix, and Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. They all have the same plot bones, but they end up being three very different stories.

Just Ella has Ella being her own fairy godmother. In Ella Enchanted, the fairy godmother is a hindrance. The 2015 movie features a helpful fairy godmother. JE has a prince who’s callous and didn’t care about getting to know Ella, just marrying the prettiest woman at the ball; EE has a prince who knew Ella for years beforehand, and the ball itself was just a traditional coming-of-age thing; the 2015 movie shows a brief acquaintance between Ella and the prince before she inspires him to open invitations to every eligible maiden. Without going into further spoilers for people who haven’t read the two books, you can already tell that those are going to be very different from the Disney retelling. So you don’t have to be completely original in order to tell a dang good story.

Not being original doesn’t mean plagiarism, of course. You can’t snag plot points and characterization, down to the dialogue, and dress it up with different names and pretend you did everything yourself, without at least one person calling it what it is: stealing. There’s a particular phrase that I absolutely love, but that I can’t use in my fiction because according to Google, Pratchett is the only writer to have written that phrase. Yes, I’m going to err on the side of caution and not use it. I love the man’s writing; I’m not going to disrespect him by stealing his exact words. Paraphrasing, or finding another dang literary technique, is the way to go.

Doesn’t mean we can’t be influenced by other people’s writing, though. And seeing, not an exact replica, but a shadow or a hint of someone else’s style is a good thing. We none of us live in a vacuum, and to try to strip our influences away from what we create is to leave a blank canvas, and none of that absurdist stuff either, but something dull and boring. Frankly, I’d rather that my work reminded the reader of someone else, than to not be read at all. “That reminds me of __” is a compliment. That means I’ve done something right.