Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Wednesday Wanderings

A long time ago, I submitted a story to a writing challenge where a character in impossible circumstances (because aren't they all?) cheats on her husband.  A fellow writer / critiquer said they enjoyed the story, but had trouble with that aspect.  I said that I'd had trouble writing it, and the response was ... "So why did you include it?"

Not a bad question.

This aspect in film / fiction has always been a pet peeve of mine; I find it difficult to sympathize with characters in that position.  And that is why I did it.  I challenged myself to take on a perspective I didn't agree with and do it sympathetically.

As a writer, I think this is an important exercise; as a speculative fiction writer, doubly so.  If you write antagonists, chances are they espouse positions that don't align with those of your main characters (and we'll assume that usually, main characters have morals and ideals similar to those of the writer).  Can you make the antagonist convincing without at least trying on his shoes?  Can you write a nonhuman character if you can't write a perspective that isn't your own?

And maybe the answer for some writers is they don't, whether due to interest or because they are trying to convey a specific message.  For me, though, I like squishing around in heads that aren't my own, though I could always do a better job of it.  Maybe it's high time I visit a foreign (mental) land again.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Song Styles

I mentioned recently on Facebook that I've had a number of earworms running through my head, some of them stranger than others ("Living On A Prayer" substituted with the words "Pigeon on a bear," for instance).  One of those is from Kate Nash, whose CD I just purchased.  It's my first experience with Nash.  She's a lot like Lily Allen, with a piping, high-pitched voice, a chipper hand with profanity, and catchy rhythms and melodies, but (in my opinion, at least), her lyrics are quirkier and their path is a lot more meandering.

This is the song that keeps worming its way into my brainpan:

I identify with Mariella, really.  She'd get along with Angie Baby.  They might go on a serial killing spree.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Wednesday Wanderings

Work and life have been hectic - including some good writing news, as the previous post will attest - so I've spent a lot of time vegging out with television, and I've taken advantage of Amazon Prime's collection to binge House.

Now, House is not high theater.  It's formulaic, though the dialogue is often snappy and clever, and the overall series arc is relatively predictable.  However, there are two elements that are particularly well done, and I think there's lessons to be learned for writers.

First, the way the show handles filling in the backgrounds of the characters.  Every actor has to be well versed in rattling off arcane (medical) information, so it would be relatively easy to give them an excuse to infodump their personal history and leave it at that.  Instead, the characters make casual remarks that fill in bits and pieces - Chase has a rich dad; Cameron was married - sometimes approaching the same information from a different direction.  In their behavior, in their speech, in the ways they react, we feel the iceberg under the surface ... so when the story finally comes out, the audience feels they've earned it.

This cycle flows seamlessly through the first seasons with Cameron, Chase and Foreman, and then repeats with the new crop of residents added thereafter.  How the show handles the huge number of new characters is worth a look, too.  There's no possible way for the audience to remember, or even want to remember, such a cast, but for the audience to care about the process of elimination, the characters have to be memorable.  So the show puts shorthand right in House's mouth.  Through the excuse that he can't possibly remember everyone's names, he gives them all descriptive nicknames, drawing attention to their key attributes.  The names we need to know flow naturally in the background until we start to pick them out.

The second element that House handles well is making the medical "mystery" work.  It's the reason for that tight formula:  a major dramatic case; a secondary, minor case - often humorous; and one or two personal storylines.  The latter provide an unrelated dialogue that spark an "aha!" moment for House to solve the primary case.  This particular beat is overused in most mainstream television shows, from medical mysteries to cop shows to courtroom dramas, but I forgive it in House because it provides an important hook for the audience amongst a sea of the incomprehensible.

Because I put "mystery" in quotation marks for a reason.  A true mystery follows the rules of fair play, giving the reader all the clues they need to solve the mystery before the detective (in this case, doctor) does.  In the case of House, this is impossible unless the viewer has a medical degree, and possibly even then.  In fact, the average person has limited ability to follow the cause and effect of the medical aspects of the plot, which means that the elements have to make sense on a deeper level.  We have all internalized the basic shape of plot arc, so we instinctively respond to those beats, even if we don't totally understand the logical connection between B and C.

And the show does an excellent job of this, signaling to us where we are in the story progression with plot symbols.  The audience recognizes when the mystery isn't solved yet, and not just by looking at the clock.  Arguably, this is why House has to be so formulaic, and while Chase, Cameron and Foreman grow and change, the character of House himself has to be static.  Any major alteration to the way House works would jeopardize the plot signposts.

Or I'm simply justifying binge-watching as writing research.  Take your pick.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Family Tree sold to Metaphorosis

Metaphorosis just purchased my tongue in cheek fantasy story, "Family Tree," about an evil overlady - make that Overmother - and her wayward son, for publication around the end of the year.  Keep your eyes peeled!

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Wednesday Wanderings

There's a phenomenon in fiction and film that I like to call "villain creep."  Villain creep is when an antagonist, whether they are the primary opponent of the main characters or a flunky / associate, evolves into an ally and perhaps even becomes one of the protagonists.  Villain creep often occurs when the antagonist reveals that all their actions have actually been in service of fighting even a bigger threat.  Differences are put aside ... and never quite picked back up.  Villain creep isn't the same thing as a pragmatic antagonist temporarily aligning with the heroes to solve a single problem, then returning to his/her roots; it's a permanent (or at least long-term) transformation.

It's easy to see why villain creep occurs.  For a character to be more than a cardboard cutout, they need to have valid motivations; in novels with multiple points of view, that sometimes means stepping inside their brain.  The writer begins to identify with them; so does the reader.  And sometimes the evolution makes perfect sense with the villain's goals.  It's the smart writer who lets the plot move in accordance to the characters.  On the other hand, it's also easy for a writer to sympathize too much with a character they've developed so deeply.  When that happens, villain creep infests the entire plot.  No matter how unsavory that new antagonist seems, they're probably going to end up helping the hero out eventually.

Villain creep happens in television for additional reasons:  viewers get attached to the actor (especially an attractive one); or the writers like working with the actor and want to give them a greater role.  (Of course, this doesn't explain incidents like the evolution of Aneela in Killjoys, because she's played by the exact same actress as the protagonist Dutch.  If this sounds confusing, it is.)

This isn't to say that villain creep is a bad thing.  (It had better not be, because I'm kind of addicted to it, myself.)  There is something deeply satisfying in watching a character we've slowly come to admire "see the light" - and it also makes breathe a certain sigh of relief and shake off the guilt we may have felt for sympathizing for him.  Handled right, the surprise has the perfect punch.  But when used again, the impact slowly lessens.  So the best way to incorporate villain creep is in moderation, and perhaps in combination with movement in the other direction:  protagonists turning coat and joining the other side.

Is hero creep a thing?  Certainly not to the same extent, possibly because we all like to think we're the hero of our stories, not the villain; watching those we identify with become the enemy is unsettling.  But every now and again, it's a good reminder that life is complicated, and people even more so.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Song Styles

Still working on my worldbuilding for my next novel project, then it's on to character profiles.  The dynamic duo at the center of this story, Pirelle and Chiria, both started out as D&D characters - both shapeshifters, because I'm a bit obsessed with that, apparently.  There's a song that inspired Pirelle as a character and shaped her personality and profession both:

Popular - Wicked soundtrack

Yes, I have an addiction to musicals.  I sought help, but it burst into song.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Song Styles

I'm a fan of the songs from the Waitress musical, the story of a waitress stuck in a dead-end town / job / marriage whose biggest joy is baking pies.  When she discovers she is pregnant, she dreams of entering a high-profile pie contest to earn a better life for her child (and also starts an affair with her obstetrician).  The songs were written by the marvelous Sara Bareilles.

There's an ongoing refrain that often gets stuck in my brain as an earworm, and it's featured here in the opening song:

What's Inside

(And if you enjoy, just let Youtube carry on:  it will flip to the next baking themed song, "What Baking Can Do."  Is it any wonder the pastry chef loves this musical?)

I find myself mutter-singing "Sugar butter flour" in the kitchen more often than I care to admit ...

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Wednesday Wanderings

When I was little, I had a huge whiteboard - I think it was maybe 3' x 4' - that I used to draw maps on.  I've never been much of an artist, so it was all symbols.  Sometimes, it was countries, with swaths of coastline, little blue squiggles for oceans, and starred cities, but I particularly liked drawing towns and cities.  Maybe it was the level of detail:  I drew individual houses, placed shops here and there, and formed the outline of streets with the spaces in between.  The maps would stay up for days or even weeks before I erased them and started anew.

As I grew older and technology advanced, I started to dabble with map drawing programs.  Sometimes, I'd use them for existing projects, but more often I liked to come up with a map concept, put it together, and then come up with a world / story to match.  I used the map programs as I always had used maps:  to begin.

Over time, I lost interest in map creation, and I've never really come back to it.  It would be nice to have a formal map for one of my projects - especially since one of my fellow writers at Grimbold Books does beautiful illustrations - but I don't need it.  I can arrange countries and lay out rivers and lakes in my head without the need for the visual reinforcement.

In fact, I'm not sure there's much visual about it at all.  It's very possible that the way I think about positioning and geography is a kinesthetic, bodily system of organization.  Sadly, this theory is reinforced by how much trouble I've have had with the maps in my wine studies.  When there's a tangible description of the relation between geography and climate, I can keep track of how regions interrelate.  But when it simply comes to dots on a map, all the visuals in the world don't help.