With the smashing success of Guardians of the Galaxy, let’s take another look at what can be done within sci-fi.
If you step away from science fiction, you may see a tendency among its writers and creators to divide it up into different sub-genres. Time travel is practically its own sort of story, as is ‘hard’ sci-fi, along with various “_____punk” styles and derivations of the space opera. I mean, Blade Runner is noir, Flash Gordon is camp, and never the twain shall meet. Right?
This doesn’t always have to be the case. Imposing the limits of a particular style of story can make writing said story easier, but you also run the risk of falling into cliches and conventions of said style. At a Barnes & Noble yesterday, I saw that a good portion of the sci-fi & fantasy racks had been set aside specifically for “teen paranormal romance.” Something tells me I have a good idea as to the content of those books, and of their average quality. Some may be spectacular, but I suspect others are sub-par to the point of making Twilight look good.
Let’s get back to science fiction as an overarching genre. I don’t feel you need to pick a particular sub-category into which you must pigeonhole your story. Deux Ex: Human Revolution doesn’t. The game has noir & renaissance overtones throughout but goes from conspiracy intrigue and solid character moments to incredible action and out-there sciences within moments. Yet none of it feels out of place. It is consistent with the themes and timbre of the story. Adam Jensen is a man reborn and remade, both struggling to maintain his identity and utilizing the benefits of his augmentations to do his job and find his answers. In most detective yarns, a scene where the protagonist punches through a wall before turning invisible would be rather out of place. Likewise, few are the space operas that truly tackle the aftermath of a tragedy the way this game does. The elements are balanced in such a way that all of them combine without losing sync and creating a richer, more rewarding storytelling experience.
Why shouldn’t sci-fi go for multiple tones and moods? Obviously this needs to be done with care, lest the emotional moments become too saturnine or the high-action ones come off as overly ridiculous. In a story like this, you only get so many style points in your tale with which you can get away with “cool shit” moments. Too many and you’ve become style over substance. Too few, however, and your story becomes dry and plodding. Again, the watchword is balance.
And I believe it is a balance worth striking. Science fiction can include all sorts of threads from other genres of storytelling, from romance to horror to crime to adventure. Once all is said and done, be able to look over the work and say, “I’ve got a _______punk action-mystery” can be useful for marketing it, but my point is the genre only has the limits we choose to impose. Moon is phenomenal because of how hard its science is, and if your goal in writing is to go for something similar, by all means work within those constraints. There is, however, no obligation to pick a particular pigeonhole from the outset. Science fiction is our contemplation of the heavens, the nature of the universe, the exploration of the impossible, and the examination of the individual within all of it. It is, like those heavens, and like our imaginations, limitless.
What examples of sci-fi that break from traditional molds come to mind for you?
Writers are murderers. This is an established fact. But I would contend that only bad writers kill characters on a whim, “just because”. If you look at good writing, a character death is never accidental, never flippant. It’s a calculated move. And, if you’re attached to said character or characters, after the initial shock, if you think about it, you can nod and say “Yes, that was a good death.”
Spoilers ahead, obviously.
Quite a few character deaths are, unfortunately, are a means of raising the stakes. Joss Whedon has a habit of doing this. From Shepard Book and Wash in Serenity to Coulson in The Avengers, the death of characters is a sudden gut-punch that knocks the wind out of the audience for a moment and demonstrates that things are serious, and deadly. Our pathos shoots up for those left behind. We feel raw loss at the same time as the surviving characters, and while this can sometimes feel like manipulation on the writer’s part, the effect is undeniable.
Character deaths are even better when they are the result of character decisions and actions, cause and effect, leading to that terminal point. I think of The Wire as a good example of this. Some of the character deaths may seem senseless, in one case even random, but a moment’s thought puts the violence in context, and the realization comes that every bullet is the final result of a series of choices made by the characters. Especially since good writers go out of their way to realize their characters as people, we can understand why those decisions were made, even if we don’t agree with them.
A Song Of Ice And Fire is notorious for character deaths, but here is another example of characters dying more as a result of deicions made by themselves or others, rather than seemingly at the whim of the author. The deaths are just as calculated, but the arithmetic is obscured by deep characterization and excellent dialog. Consider the death of Tywin Lannister. Here is a man who had power and ambition, but also cunning and charisma. He definitely made enemies, and burned a lot of bridges, but for a while, he seemed almost untouchable. But many of the decisions he made were disadvantageous for his second son, Tyrion. He underestimated the fury and calculation of his malformed child, and even when the terminal point was reached, Tywin’s pride does not allow for him to do anything other than confront Tyrion directly and boldly. Neither man backs down and, in the end, it’s the one with the crossbow that walks away.
So. Character deaths. Let’s talk about them. What has stood out in your mind as a good death for characters? Which have seemed pointless, or badly executed? How powerful is death when applied from a writer’s toolbox?
For a long time, space travel in fiction was predominantly shiny. Long, slender, cigar-shaped rockets predominantly made of chrome blasted off towards the stars. More often than not, equally shiny flying saucers spun their way towards our suburban homes to shower our Sunday barbecues with death rays. I am exaggerating a bit, but what I’m driving at is there was an aesthetic that remained largely untapped until 1977.
Just before then, the shiny sci-fi aesthetic extended to both realistic films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and episodic television such as Star Trek. Roddenberry, in particular, envisioned the future as a utopia, peaceful and squeaky-clean. Then along came a little movie called Star Wars. From the very beginning, it was something different. The Star Destroyer was enormous, imposing, and definitely not peaceful. The Tantive IV, said Star Destroyer’s prey, was battered and utilitarian. Mos Eisley was both visually and ethically dirty. And the Millenium Falcon? What a piece of junk!
The galaxy far, far away as envisioned by George Lucas is the result of literally thousands of years of history. The worlds and ships are used and lived-in. Even callbacks to earlier times, the tales set in the Old Republic, have worn edges and is painted with shades of gray morally and aesthetically. It was this, not the shiny utopian vision, that informed the immediate followers of Star Wars, such as the original Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.
Gene Roddenberry tried to resist this trend. Star Trek: The Next Generation was a big, bold utopian statement, to the point that Roddenberry himself said that there should be no interpersonal conflict on the gigantic new USS Enterprise. This lead to early seasons of the show often feeling pretentious and sterile. Thankfully, later seasons moved past this to have the crew behave more like real people than Federation pontificators, and Deep Space Nine pushed things even further. That show was concurrent with shows like Babylon 5 and FarScape, both of which introduced universes that were both brand new and familiar in their dynamics and feeling of history.
As fun as it is to envision a shiny, utopian future, the fact is that a more lived-in universe is more accessible to a wider audience. We picture ourselves more easily in a galaxy with some history, some mileage, and some rough edges, because it’s closer to the world we actually live in. We’ve walked down a street like the one we see in Mos Eisley. We’re familiar with being elbow-deep in our vehicle trying to get it to behave. We’ve had conversations with very stubborn, well-reasoned people, and tried to fight back against things that we feel are wrong, even if it’s an uphill battle. These are universal elements to good storytelling, no matter what the ‘verse in question might be – looking at you, Firefly.
What are some other instances of science fiction feeling lived-in and familiar, despite being set in galaxies far, far away?
Good fiction, when you get down to it, is about people.
I don’t just mean the characters. It’s true that, no matter how original or fascinating your premise, you need to have three-dimensional characters. If your characters are flat or uninteresting, or exists solely as ciphers for your own expectations or those of the reader, or blank slates upon whom the reader can project, the story will fall apart. Characters with depth and personality keep your story going and, at times, can even help you write it. If you find yourself trying to write out of a corner, have your characters strike up a conversation. It doesn’t matter what it’s about. Just have them start talking to one another. Before you know it, you’re either out of the situation you were in, or you’ve started something new.
However, when I refer to good fiction being about people, I also mean the audience. A good novel thrives on the reader wanting to turn the next page – or, perhaps, not wanting to, for fear of what will happen next to the characters they’re following. To truly hook a reader in this way, there has to be a connection between them and the characters you’ve created. While you can’t necessarily make a reader give a damn about your characters, you can certainly encourage them to do so.
Compelling stories thrive on conflict, be it internal or external. I don’t just mean the gunfights and fisticuffs. What moral decisions must the characters grapple with? What complications arise due to relationships, be they familial or social? Is there a supervisor involved, and if so, is there tension or disagreement there? Are there incidents in the character’s past that embarrass them? If a character’s present form is different from one they had in the past, how do the people around them reconcile that change?
Even more questions can be asked based on the role the character is filling. If they’re a protagonist, what are their motives, and can an audience get behind them? When they make a decision that is against the law or contrary to prevailing morality, will the reader understand why and, more to the point, accept it? Can your antagonists justify their actions in a way that’s understood, or even forging a connection of their own to the audience? Doing these things will elevate your storytelling.
Ask yourself these questions. Find the ways to connect your characters to your readers. It’s a solid way to make a good story into a great one.
Courtesy Floating Robes
Lately, that feeling has come back. Every time I get that heavy, bulky, stinking boulder up to the top of the hill, it rolls back down on top of me. I think I’m overdue for a vacation. My family reunion starts tomorrow (and I will have posts ready, I swear!), so that will probably help, but right now I’m mired in a lot of things I’d rather not delve into in a general, scattershot-to-the-Internet basis.
So I will just say that getting my best work from me at a time like this is like getting blood from a stone. I’m just trying to boulder-roll my way through what’s in front of me to get to better things, and I know that such a bull-headed approach can lead to things appearing as not my best work. I’m trying to get past that, too. Maybe I’m working too hard, or maybe I’m overthinking things.
Either way, it’s been a time when I’ve been smacking my forehead against the wall between me and where I want to be, and I’m not stopping until either I or the wall gets destroyed.
And it’s not going to be me.
The X-Wing Miniatures Game by Fantasy Flight has been teasing me for a long time. I’ve tried to keep my attentions elsewhere, but with the excellent review over at Shut Up & Sit Down has nailed the coffin shut on my intentions. Soon, I will be picking up the Starter Set, and I have the feeling I will be fielding the Imperial forces. Despite the fact that we are intended to sympathize and root for the heroic underdog Rebellion, we have to remember that every villain from our perspective is the hero from theirs, and when you get right down to it, the Sith have a point.
The Jedi are held up as paragons of virtue, galactic peacekeepers devoid of emotional attachment and personal ambition. However, if you give them more than a cursory glance, you start to see leaks in this presentation. They say that ‘only a Sith deals in absolutes,’ yet they consider Sith to always be on the wrong side of a battle. Always. No exceptions. An absolute. Makes you think, doesn’t it? There’s also the fact that the Jedi Masters that we find ourselves keying into – Qui-Gon Jinn, Yoda, etc – are often seen as renegades or iconoclastic among other Jedi. Others attempt to adhere to their strict adherence to being emotionless icons of righteousness. Absolute ones at that.
The Sith seem to have a different approach. While many of them do pursue selfish ambitions that result in others getting hurt or the innocent getting suppressed, the general philosophy embraces the strength of independence, free thought, and ambition. It’s certainly true that this sort of thinking can lead to people going down darker paths. However, it can be argued that a path of righteousness can also lead to dark places. Not that Jedi would ever admit this. Sith strike me as more honest in retrospect; the Jedi have good intentions but their strictures can yield rigid minds devoid of mercy as much as they are of emotion. As brutal as some of them can be, they have a point – passion can be every bit as powerful as rigid adherence to strictures, and in some cases, the passionate path is preferable, and not necessarily easier.
For all of the flak Lucas deservedly gets for some of his ill-advised creative decisions, the universe he created is not devoid of merit, and this dichotomy is worth examination. Instead of the naked good/evil conflict we see all too often, in the right hands it can be a crucial examination of the debate between free thought and organized discipline.
It can also be a simple backdrop for laser swords and dogfights in space.
Two mornings after my first trip to the gym in months, my body is still sore. In fact, my left calf muscle (the ‘gastrocnemius ‘ I believe) has a fresh pull in it. It was enough to keep me in bed for a time. So, instead, I’m packing my gym bag and I’m going after work.
I hate going to the gym at night. It’s usually more crowded, more loud, and it can be more difficult to access the equipment I need. The gym I currently attend has just the one squat rack, and if I am going to get back to where I was in terms of my fitness routine and set new goals, I need to get a better handle on my squats. It’s possible I hit the rack a bit too hard on Wednesday, so when I go back tonight, I’ll try to go a bit easier on myself.
We all experience setbacks. Plans get changed, if not thrown into upheaval, when the unexpected happens. We don’t always get all of the information, or process everything correctly, to set things out right the first time. Mistakes are made. Oversights occur. Gaps in knowledge appear and every skillset has some demonstrable weaknesses.
This isn’t something you should punish yourself over.
Life is hard enough without self-deprecation coming into the mix. While it’s important to be salient regarding our own flaws, lest we fall into the trap of thinking ourselves blameless for our plights, berating ourselves for inevitable setbacks is not as important as planning the means to overcome those obstacles. Let’s face it – the problem is still going to be there no matter how much you flog yourself over it. It isn’t going to go away just because you’re laying into yourself to a noticeable degree.
Take the time to note where things went wrong. Understand the causes for the setback. Make yourself aware of these things going forward, if you can, as it may prevent future problems. And deal with what’s in front of you. The words you don’t write because you’re too contrite or too tired will remain unwritten until you write them. There’s no achievement to unlock for feeling sorry for yourself. Forward is the only direction that really matters.
This is another case of me reminding myself of these things at the same time I’m communicating them to others. I can’t pretend to have any authority on this, or much of anything, and I certainly don’t consider myself a success story worth emulating. Still, I do know that I’ve had my share of setbacks, some even self-inflicted. I did manage to survive them, somehow. And on top of everything, there are more in my future. I know this for a fact. Because, last time I checked, I’m a human being. I’m going to fuck up at some point or another.
It doesn’t matter what my intentions were, or how I would have done things differently. What matters, and what always matters, is what will happen next.
A post from last year: updated to reflect the fact that my memories of both Man of Steel and Star Trek: Into Darkness have soured considerably.
I’ve been blogging for years. I’m not sure if you’d call what I’ve done or have been doing successful or not, when it comes to blogging and other areas of my life, but what I keep coming back to is the fact that old stories still have something to tell us. I have no problem, on a fundamental level, with something getting a reboot or a re-imagining, as long as the core of the story remains intact and the talented people telling the story are either plying close to that core or going in an entirely new direction with it.
The problem, as I see it, is that it is far too easy to stick to the old story points and simply apply modern thinking to them, rather than take a tale’s themes or characters or message in a new direction. What really bothers me about the practice is how lazy it seems. If you want to use an old tale or property to tell a story, go for it; all that I would ask is that you do something new with it. Another example would be the difference between Immortals and the Clash of the Titans retread: while Immortals had a little trouble staying on-point with its storytelling, its visual imagination and portrayal of ancient Greece felt unique and striking, while the new Titans felt drab and lackluster on pretty much all fronts. I mean, sure, it was still fun to see Sam Worthington fight giant scorpions, and Liam Neeson was born to play gods, but the thrust of the story felt weak because there was nothing new about it.
As scarce as new ideas tend to be, it’s no wonder that older stories often come up for a rehash now and again. As I’ve said, I’m all about old stories getting told in new ways. The emphasis here is on ‘new’ – a good storyteller should try to do something that hasn’t been done before, or mix things together that haven’t been mixed. Any idiot with a keyboard can bash out a story about a superhero or vampires or old myths – the question is, what makes your story about a superhero or vampires or old myths stand out? What will make people want to read it? Why, at the end of the day, do you have to write it?
With everything that’s been happening, I am more and more aware that it can be extremely difficult to maintain a consistent pace. From running to writing to preparing for life’s next adventure, things seem to be happening in short, irregular bursts, rather than unfolding according to any sort of plan. I keep telling myself that I’m going to do X, or set things up for Y, or be more vigilant regarding Z, but more often than not, I’m just satisfied in getting home and being free from responsibility for at least a couple hours.
A big part of it is, I believe, momentum. Last year at this time, I was working out regularly, pretty much every day, and pushing myself to write more. I’m not sure where all of that energy went, or if it never left and I simply lost my pace of the long, cold winter and the rough road I’ve been on over the last few months. It can be hard to start certain things, like an exercise regimen or an intense artistic endeavor, but I’ve found that once you do get started, it can be equally hard to stop.
There are a lot of things you can do to jump-start your endeavors. An adjustment in sleep or diet can be a good place to start, as can changing your surroundings. Leave what’s holding you back behind, at least for the time being, and let one of your new ideas have some time in the spotlight. You really don’t know how something is going to turn out until you try it, after all, so even if a new project goes nowhere, if it leads to you coming back to something you were struggling with stronger than ever, it will not have been a waste of time.
In fact, time you spend trying to regain momentum is not a waste, either. I’ve never been mountain climbing, but I imagine the same applies. The first few steps up a mountainside are not a waste of time, no matter how deliberate you make your pace to prepare yourself for the climb, take in the scenery, snap photos, or take another inventory. When you’re preparing to run, you may spend time making sure your water, your music, your shoes, everything is in order. Again, not a waste of time. It helps organize your mind to deal with what’s ahead. And it’s likely to make the event even more rewarding.
This is a case of saying it to myself as much as to anyone reading: Don’t give up. Keep trying. Continue to push forward. Even if you’ve stumbled, tripped, or slowed to catch your breath, the race is not over. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. If you’ve lost your pace, don’t worry. You can get it back. Just keep breathing and measure your steps. Before you know it, you’ll be beating your old times and on the road to victory. You just have to want it. You can do it!
I’ve been finding it difficult to write lately. I have a ton of ideas chasing themselves around in my head, projects to complete and new novels to start, yet I’m running into some serious roadblocks. I have to assume that I’m not alone: a lot of writers are pre-occupied with many things, from life events to other endeavors to all sorts of personal issues. You should be writing – we all should – and if you’re not writing, something has to change.
If nothing else, you have to change your scene. A lot of writers have a particular area set aside for their craft. Away from foot traffic, secluded in some way, or just portioned off from the rest of a room, it is their fortress of solitude. When I move, I will be taking my writing desk with me, and it will be in a different corner from my computer desk. Even if it’s just across the room, that separation is crucial.
When life gets tossed into upheaval, it can be difficult to maintain the things that are essential to both our futures and our happiness. There’s a great deal of immediate tasks to deal with when changes occur in life, and not everybody has the same reaction time. To get back to the good places from where we can be productive and happy, sometimes the scene has to change.
I’m going to keep working on getting myself to that place. That’s how I’m going to beat back the dark things and stay on track with my goals.
It’s been two years since I first went off on this particular rant. I’ve updated some text accordingly.
“[A] writing career is about putting a bucket on your head and trying to knock down a brick wall. It’s either you or the wall.”
Reality’s a stone-cold bitch. That’s why I mostly write fiction.
I identify first and foremost as a writer, not necessarily a programmer or a social media guru or mediocre gamer. As such I’ve come to accept several truths about myself.
- Any emotional problems from which I actually suffer will be exacerbated by the short-sighted stubborn sociopathy inherent of being a writer.
- If I take up writing as a full-time profession I am going to dodge debt collectors and utility bills even more than I do now. (Don’t panic, family members, my knees are unbroken and will remain so. I’m just not dining on steak and drinking cognac. More like dining on pasta and drinking cheap pop.)
- The longer I do not write full time and cram writing in whenever I can into the nooks and crannies of a packed schedule, fueled by whatever energy I can spare, the more my writing is going to suffer for it and the less likely I am to get published before I’m facing off against Gandalf and Dumbledore in a long white beard growing competition. Which I’ll win because they’re fictional.
- While writing is an evolutionary process that requires several drafts, torrents of trial and error, and accepting that one’s final effort might still be a flaming pile of poo, processes in the professional world are very different, and being writerly will rarely be tolerated long in the face of clients who want what they want yesterday for less than they want to pay. If you don’t get something right the first time, there’s the door, don’t let it hit you on those fancy pants you thought you were wearing.
- I am never, ever, for as long as I keep breathing, going to give up writing.
Sure, I’ll be miserable more often than not. Who isn’t? I’ve learned to seize and capitalize on my joy when I find it. The smile of a loved one. Pulling off a win in Hearthstone. Meeting fellow geeks in person instead of just over the Tweetsphere. The open road on a sunny day. Enforcing. A decent movie or video game with a coherent story and three-dimensional characters. My mom’s cooking and my dad’s laughter. Good pipe tobacco.
And finishing a story.
That’s the hidden beauty of writing. If you do it right, you get to finish it multiple times. After your first draft, you go back and edit it. And when you get through the edit? Guess what, you finished it. Awesome!
Now go do it again.
Work, edit, revise, cross out, swear, drink, work, write, grind, swear, edit, DING.
In my experience it’s not a case of diminishing returns. The next round of edits might not be as heady in its completion as the last, but it’ll be different and it’ll still be good. And let me tell you, it’s a long hard road to get there.
Even if you do write for a living, you still have to produce. Instead of the aforementioned clients you have looming deadlines, a constant and gnawing doubt that your writing just won’t be good enough and the cold knowledge that at least a dozen younger, hungrier and more talented penjockeys are just waiting for you to fuck up so they can take your place, and your paycheck. Pressure from clients or deadlines or those lean and hungry wolves becomes pressure on you, pound after pound after pound of it, and when you go home at night with even more words unwritten, you’re going to feel every ounce of that pressure on your foolish head, and every word you haven’t written will pile on top, each one an additional gram of concentrated dark-matter suck.
It’s a love affair with someone who never returns you calls when you need them but always calls just when you think you can’t take another day of this tedious, soul-eroding bullshit.
I said earlier I mostly write fiction. This, for example, isn’t ficton. I wouldn’t mind writing more recollections like this, but guess what, I’m not getting paid for it (I could be if somehting hadn’t gone wrong with my ad block, thank you SO much for that, Google Ads). My movie & game reviews, short stories, commentary on geek minutae, Art of Thor series, IT CAME FROM NETFLIX!, the Beginner’s Guide to Westeros? Not a dime. I don’t write any of that because I get paid for it. I do it to entertain those couple dozen of you who cruise by here every day. I do it because I feel I’ve got something to say that hasn’t quite been said this way before.
And yes, I do it because I love it.
It’s in my blood and my bones. It keeps me awake at night more than bills or code or politics or Protoss cheese or ruminations on the Holy Ghost. And since I doubt I’m going to be getting rid of it at this point in my life, I might as well embrace it and make the most of it.
I’m going to suffer more hardship. I might have to move, or change jobs again, or go through some embarassing procedure because I tried to hock my words at passers-by on the train and had made one of the first drafts of my manuscript into what I felt was a fetching kilt (nae trews Jimmy) and a matching hat that may or may not have been styled after those conical straw numbers you see atop badass samurai in Kurosawa movies.
So be it.
Say it with me, writers.
I will not whine.
I will not blubber.
I will not make mewling whimpering cryface pissypants boo-hoo noises.
I will not sing lamentations to my weakness.
I am the Commander of these words.
I am the King of this story.
I am the God of this place.
I am a writer, and I will finish the shit that I started.
Last night was a bit rough. Workday stresses lead to an evening bereft of energy, and then I was awakened at 2 in the morning by a particularly aggressive peal of thunder. I find myself struggling just to write a few hundred words a day, which is never a good thing. I know a realignment is coming in the very near future, and I need to prepare for it, but there’s still frustration I have to deal with.
Anyway. Here’s a Throwback Thursday post from 2010. Some of my early posts were quite unfocused, even downright embarrassing. This isn’t one of them.
I am in the unfortunate position of not getting paid to do what I love.
I know, that doesn’t make me special. A lot of people are passionate about things that are very different from what they do. I doubt that most people that work for, say, Bridgestone or Michelin are passionate about making tires. Your average folks get up in the morning, put on some clothing that allow them to conform to the expectations of peers and coworkers, and commence a commute to some sort of job during the day that pays the bills, keeping the family feed and the lights on.
I’m glad to have people in my life who’ve broken this mold. They do what drives them, what fuels their imaginations and haunts their dreams. I know that sometimes the money that comes in from this lifestyle can be a bit more sporadic than the steady day job paycheck, and that bill collectors sometimes need to be dodged or placated. It might seem glamorous at first, but going for long periods of time with little to no income is no picnic.
I’ve been there. I was unemployed for quite a long time not too long ago. And even now, with this steady job I hold, things easily become strained. The combination of my pay rate with the necessity of supporting what I support takes a toll. But before I degenerate into self-indulgent whining, let me get to my point.
I need to make time to write. You might, as well, and here’s why it’s so important to do.
Nobody else can write what you’re going write.
The original idea, the seed from which your work is going to grow, is all yours. You might look to write it yourself, it might become a collaborative work or you may feel the need to hire a ghost writer. But however you plan to do it, there’s a big yawning gap between shaping the core of your idea and coming up with a finished product that’s capable of being sold. One of the biggest components of that gap is time, and to get across it you need to take time away from other things.
I say, when you get right down to it, sometimes you have to shut the world away. Disconnect the phone. Unplug the television. Turn off the Internet. Yes, believe it or not, you can turn off the Internet! Tweets, blogs, memes and streams will still be there when you’re done. Set goals for yourself, be it to write a few hundred words or a few thousand. Then, stick to those goals. Sometimes I have trouble with this, myself, so I’ll be struggling right along with you.
If you have any other tips on how to make the most of the time you try to set aside to write, please let me know. Because as much as guys like to project a “lone wolf” image, I know that until I reach that point where I can roll out of bed, amble over to the home office and flip on the espresso machine, I’m going to need all the help I can get.
Almost exactly one year since I made this post, I still feel this way. I also feel very tired.
Courtesy Floating Robes
A question that I’ve seen asked of those in my profession is, “How do you know if you’re a writer?”
To answer, let me give you a real-life example of what it feels like.
The last few days have been, for me, alternating exercises in fatigue and frustration. Difficulties I’ve been dealing with for weeks are so tantalizingly close to resolving themselves, and I find myself both wanting to push harder to get the results I’m after and holding back for fear of being a selfish prick. Add the dayjob workload and maintaining things around the apartment, and you get a recipe for wanting to do exactly zero when you finally have a little time to yourself.
This is incredibly frustrating to me because I know that should be my time to write.
Disapproving voices would tell me to write anyway, regardless of how tired or worn out or seethingly furious I might feel. I know. I’m one of those voices. I need to bite that bullet, make more coffee or chai, put on good tunes that shut out the world, and plunge into the word mines. There’s no other way they’re going to get written. It’s down to me, no compromises, no excuses. If I write, I write; if I don’t, I fail.
The gnawing, growling, nigh-constant feeling of irritation at my own inability to maintain high energy levels is how I know I’m a writer. If I cared less about it, if I didn’t have faith in my abilities, I’d cut the stressor from my life and stop worrying about it. But I can’t. I won’t. The need to tell stories and give people the gift of escape to another world, other lives, a new experience or even just some distraction from what’s in front of them is too great to be ignored, set aside, or discarded. The spirit is willing, and angry, and full of notions and dreams. The flesh is weak, and flabbier than I’d like, and smells funny if I don’t bathe often enough.
I’m going to try and turn this around. I can’t be on the bad end of bullshit forever. I’m sharpening my knives and inking my pens.
You can knock me down, sure.
But there’s no way in hell I’m staying down.
Our stories are rife with mythological creatures. The minotaur, the phoenix, the hydra, ogres and fairies and vampires and wizards – the list is exhaustive. While I’m a fan of all of them, writing about some and playing others, there’s yet to be a creature that, in my mind, truly outshines the dragon.
It’s not just that these are giant lizards that can not only fly but also breathe fire (or ice or lightning or toxic gas or acid). The thing that tips dragons over into my mental tray of ‘best things ever’ is the fact that they’re highly intelligent. While the Minotaur rages through the corridors of a labyrinth, and hydras try to feed all of their various heads, dragons often have agendas. Even if that agenda begins and ends with “roll around in enough gold to make Scrooge McDuck jealous.”
This isn’t always the case, of course. At times, dragons are simply smart animals. But intelligence is intelligence. For a case in point, I highly recommend How To Train Your Dragon. Specifically, play close attention to the character of Toothless. Without speaking a word of dialog, Toothless communicates exactly what he’s thinking and how he feels. He moves naturally, like a large lizard would, but he also has the body language and expressions of a very intelligent being. In addition to being a compelling character, and the adorable and unique mascot of an excellent storytelling series, he’s an exemplary dragon.
When it comes to articulate dragons, there are other examples. Draco from Dragonheart is a noble creature, while Smaug from The Hobbit is completely malevolent. Both are ancient and noble, in their own way, both are the last of their kind and both are massive in size with speed that belies their bulk. But while they’re similar in form and function, their characters are very different. Draco is interested in survival, and when presented with an opportunity to make something of himself, he tries to bring out the best in those around him. Smaug, on the other hand, is a creature of pure pride and avarice, reveling in his bountiful lair, and when a certain barrel-rider stumbles in, Smaug toys with it the way a cat toys with a mouse. Draco sees humanoids as both potentially dangerous and capable of better natures; Smaug can only perceive vermin to be exterminated.
Dragons, like our heroes and our villains, come in all shapes and sizes. But they are always fascinating, often beautiful, and terrifying in their core natures. Even exemplars like Toothless and Draco are still powerful, mythical creatures; dragons are true apex predators no matter how they express themselves. That’s part of what make them so interesting. Dragons that feature in the stories that stick with us either defy or indulge in their natures, and in both, they become reflections of ourselves. Like any good characters, they’re people, even if they have scales on. The lens that takes the shape of a dragon is an interesting one, and always will be.
Technically, this is a From the Vault entry. But it’s Thursday! So let’s call it Throwback Thursday instead, just to mix things up. I’ve been running this blog for over five years now. This is an entry from the very early days. Enjoy!
So you’ve written the next great American novel, or at least a Twilight-killer. It sits pristinely on your desk or hard drive and you can’t wait to get it into the hands of the public who are hungry for something new and interesting to take them away from the dark soul-draining mire of everyday life, spinning your words into gold. But there’s something you need to do first.
You need to sell yourself.
Now I don’t mean that it’s time to pull on the fishnet stockings and hit the streets of the nearest slum. No, I mean you need to send the right queries to the right people.
Would You Buy This?
I might go into more detail and give examples on what not to do in a query letter in another Thursday post, but suffice it to say that the old adage of KISS applies – Keep It Simple, Stupid.
- Open with a hook. Introduce a character or situation that you think will drive the work.
- Give a synopsis of the plot. Let the reader of your query know what they’re in for in general, but don’t give away all of your twists & secrets.
- Thank them for the time they’ve taken to read the query.
- Offer them an outline and sample chapters if you’re pitching a book.
- Let them know you’re looking forward to a prompt reply.
Again, I’ll elaborate on these points at another time. Let’s talk about where these queries are going.
The Knife Guy
I have an old edition of the Complete Guide to Novel Writing, and one of the authors describes agents as “knife guys.” Basically, the agent’s job is to cut through the slush piles and red tape of publishing houses, going right to the heart to someone they know on the inside who can help your work see print.
Finding an agent is the most expedient way to get your work published. And by most expedient, I mean that if you get your work accepted, an agent will be more prompt in responding to you than a publisher will be, in most cases. This is because an agent is part writing partner and part mercenary. They understand your need to express yourself and tell your story, and they’re willing to do your dirty work if you pay them enough, usually on commission from your advance & sales. If you win, they win. I’d advise going this route, even though I myself have had zero success in hooking one. Though it has occurred to me I might be fishing in the wrong pond.
Go to the Source
You can, if you prefer, send queries directly to the editors at publishing houses. While this means you don’t have to share your spoils with an agent, it also means it’s much harder for your work to stand out. An agent tends to work face-to-face with publishers, whereas your query letter is one of quite a few that flood into publishing houses on a regular basis.
However, a work that is unique enough or fills a void a publishing house is hungry for might survive the bucket of swamp run-off that is your typical slush pile. Your mileage will vary depending on your genre and the nature of your work. While nobody else on the planet can write exactly in your style on the subject you’ve decided to work with, there might be enough similarities between you and another author that the recipient might decide neither are worth an investment.
Don’t Give Up
Sending queries is a long, thankless, and depressing process. You’re facing entry into a field of entertainment that is crammed with both existing authors looking to continue their careers and new talent frothing at the mouth to get noticed. Know this: you are going to get rejected.
Maybe you’ll get lucky and get a letter of interest within the first wave of your queries. But it’s more likely that you’ll get a bunch of form letters saying that your work isn’t quite what they’re looking for and thanking you for your effort. Try not to think of it as a reflection on your work, but rather an increase in your chances of getting a positive response.
Another book I own, I believe it’s What Color Is Your Parachute? says something about the interview process that applies to sending queries. Your responses are going to look something like this:
NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO YES
That “Yes” will make the mountain of rejections disappear so fast it will make your head spin.
Do It Yourself
You could always try to publish your book yourself, but this is an expensive and time-consuming process and you’re better off writing instead of going through it. Even if it’s just writing & sending more query letters.
Still recovering from my recent travels – in a way, it feels like I’m shaking off the vestiges of sleep and wondering if it was a dream. Anyway, here’s a dip into the past while I work on catching up.
Nothing lasts forever.
It’s a narrative thread woven through many, many stories we tell. Ozymandias talks of great constructs of man all but obliterated by time. A lot of tales are set in times long after the collapse of expansive civilizations. We preserve what we can, but it is impossible to escape what comes for each and every one of us in time.
Death has been personified in many ways. We want to put a face to the inevitability of our end. We struggle to comprehend the finality of it. That there is nothing more in this world for us. No matter what may come after, if there’s more to existence than these mere dimensions we perceive or if there is nothing but silence and oblivion, our hands do no more work, our mouths never make audible sounds again, our eyes fail to see another wonder or another tragedy.
And yet, our stories do not end when we do.
Time will have her way with what we build and the lines we draw between one another. Our imaginations, however, are much more difficult to destroy. In those imaginations, we remember those who’ve left us behind, we tell their stories, we wonder and question and laugh and cry. And when we latch onto something, like the arguments made by the likes of Plato or Aristotle, the teachings of pilgrims from Nazareth or visionaries from Mecca, a tale about fairies or the faux history of the epic struggle of noble houses, the creator of the work lasts even longer in our imaginations. In rare cases, we’re given more than just entertainment and escapism. We are given hope.
I don’t necessarily mean hope for an afterlife or immortality or anything like that. In a general sense, we find hope for a better tomorrow. We know the world will keep turning even if someone we admire or love dies. And if the sun does indeed rise on a new day, maybe we can find, in ourselves and in what we and our loved ones leave behind, whatever it takes to make this day better than the one before.
I have many, many good things to say about Transistor.
I’m processing my thoughts for a review that will go up tomorrow, but my immediate takeaway was that Supergiant Games have done it again. They’ve shown how coherently and completely a story can be told in the medium of video games, with a bare minimum of exposition and dialog. In Transistor, they also demonstrate how effectively one can characterize a silent protagonist through action.
More often than not, silent protagonists are conveyed to us through the reactions of others than anything else. They tend to be blank canvases for the player to project themselves upon. Other characters, mostly in first-person games – Garret in the Thief series, Master Chief from Halo, etc – gain more of their own character from the occasional line of dialog, opting for the taciturn badass mold of protagonist. Not so with Red. Her voice stolen by the Camerata, she cannot speak for herself. But despite being silent, and our protagonist, Red is very much her own character.
Throughout Transistor, Red pulls the titular sword-like device around her as if it’s quite heavy. Yet, she pulls of flourishes with it, tossing it up in the air to catch it as she runs. Her initial pose not only allows her a good range of motion with the weapon, but it can be off-putting to foes: they may think she is too weak to use it effectively, only to be surprised when she enters Turn() to bust some heads. She hums, either along to the music when in Turn() or holding the Transistor, as well as short vocalizations when she sees something in Cloudbank the Transistor wants to tell her (and us) about. Despite the loss of her voice, Red refuses to be completely silent. This is also evident in the terminals scattered throughout the game – the roles of which I will not spoil here. Finally, in the Backdoor hub for the ‘bonus’ portions of the game, there is a hammock, and after using it, Red yawns and dabs at her eyes, a gesture that speaks to someone used to a refined and maybe even posh lifestyle. Her life might have been thrown into upheaval, but Red refuses to let go of herself, allowing time to breathe in the midst of the chaos.
All storytellers, not just video game designers, could benefit from Red’s example. She informs us of who she is through her actions. Nobody tells us that she’s this smart or this stubborn. It comes across in what we are shown. The guys at Supergiant are not in the habit of explaining much of anything in their games at first; players discover more about the world and the characters through play rather than through cutscene. Brevity, it is said, is the soul of wit, and it’s also helpful in conveying a story in the most effective way possible.
If your characters have agency, and you’re allowing them to change and grow as your story progresses, you’re well on your way to this effectiveness. Building on the foundation of agency, you’ll want your characters to come across to your audience through actions, possibly more than words. The more speech you cram into your character’s mouths, the less story you’ll actually be telling. While it is occasionally okay for a character to be long-winded as part of who they are, or needing to explain something to someone else, for the most part, our conversations are relatively short. We do far more than we say. Your characters should be no different.
There are a lot of things to take away from the experience of Transistor, many aspects that other game designers, even for big publishers, would do well to emulate. One of the strongest is this method of conveying character through action. I may reiterate this point in my review, but Red feels like a person, with her own life and thoughts and emotions, and this pulled me even deeper into the experience. It’s powerful storytelling, and in an interactive medium like this, it’s always wonderful to see. Like characters in Journey communicating almost entirely through action, forcing the player to pay attention and forge connections through their own agency, Red takes on a life of her own not just because we have a mouse or thumbsticks to guide her. Her actions show us who she is.
Can you say the same for the characters you’ve created?
Art by Jen Zee
Storytelling is (sometimes literally) my bread and butter. I lean towards games with strong story emphasis. I often value story of spectacle in movies and television. I write stories in the hope they will be enjoyed by others. A question, however, has occurred to me: is it possible for a game or novel or film to have too much story?
I’m not talking about the content of a narrative, per se. Multi-volume epics like A Song of Ice and Fire or The Vampire Chronicles have a lot of story to them. That, however, is the medium of novels. In films and video games, audiences tend to expect more expedient segues into the action. Front-loading the running time of such media with exposition can lead to a negative audience experience.
This isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with a tale that paces itself. 2001: A Space Odyssey may be a long-winded narrative that seems preoccupied with its own visual stylization, but at its core there is a thought-provoking story that is couched purposefully within those images. For all of its run-and-gun presentation, Spec Ops: The Line slowly reveals the thrust of its tale and the true purpose of the narrative without feeling rushed no matter how intense the shooting becomes. Pacing is important to good storytelling, just as important as developed characters, a nice sharp hook, and a payoff that is both satisfactory and leaves the audience hungry for more.
What I mean when I say “too much story” is the aforementioned problem with exposition. A storyteller that feels they have too much story to tell, even if they don’t realize that is their sentiment, will fill their character’s mouths with stilted, expository dialog rather than words that inform relationships, motivations, and emotions related to those characters. The characters in your story should exist for reasons beyond the advancement of the plot. No narrative through-line is so vital that you need to sacrifice your characters’ agency at its altar.
In some types of games, a little expository dialog is inevitable. Role-playing games have NPCs to fill the player or players in on their quests, the world in which they live, and what’s at stake. Even here, though, it’s important to flesh out those NPCs, to give them lives of their own, and make the world come to life for your players. Never forget that the word character is part of the NPC acronym. Like characters in any other narrative, the audience (in this case, players) should be enabled to make connections between and towards these individuals. The more you create these opportunities, the more chances you have for your narrative hooks to sink in nice and deep, and the better the experience will be for those you’ve ensnared.
It’s never enough for your characters to tell the audience or each other how important the story that’s unfolding is supposed to be. At best, this comes off as pretentious; at worst, it makes the entire proceeding drab and uninteresting as well. Man of Steel fell into this trap. It broke what many would consider a cardinal rule: Show, don’t tell. Your narrative is best conveyed through action and well-informed dialog, in subtext and purposeful characters following their motives in rational ways, even if those ways are only rational to them. In narrative fiction, let your characters inform the story; in games, give your players important choices; in both cases, let these variables shape the tale’s path to its outcome, even if you believe you know what that outcome should be.
Even if you outline your tale from start to finish long before you type the first word of the story itself, you should give the appearance of having no idea what will happen next. Hide your structure behind the masks of characters who come to life and events that will be difficult to forget. The more organically your plot points unfold, the less they’ll feel like plot points. Obfuscate the story behind its players; hide the strings upon which your characters dance.
This is merely a baseline guide for narratives, of course. Sometimes, genius comes from showing the strings – Slaughterhouse-Five comes to mind. However, if you feel like your story is mired in something you are unable to discern, try removing the structure from it and letting the characters guide you, rather than the other way around. You may be surprised at what you find; you may find yourself in a situation where you simply had too much story.
“Because I say so.” How many times have we heard that phrase? Parents say it to children. Employers say it to their employees. Unfortunately, writers also say it to their characters. When a character does something that seems entirely unreasonable, or makes a sudden change to their behavior based on little more than impulse, or there is a drastic change in an adaptation between the original character and what we as the audience experience now, it’s because the writer says so. The plot or the writer demands it.
To me, there are few things lazier.
Letting the plot dictate the actions of your characters robs them of their agency. Without agency, your characters become even more difficult for the audience to engage with on a meaningful level. If your audience is disengaged, how are they supposed to care about the story you’re trying to tell? Just like a good Dungeon Master in Dungeons & Dragons acts more like a guide for their players than a dictator, so too does a good writer gently guide their characters rather than imposing themselves upon events, undermining the characters’ wills and reducing their significance.
Even more egregious, to me, is the writer who seems to preserve the agency of a character but railroads them into something that goes against their development for some author-centric reason. If you ever find yourself saying “This character wouldn’t do that” or “Why did this scene happen in this way? It makes no sense for them to do this,” you’ve seen what I’m talking about in action. I’m avoiding specific cases in the name of avoiding spoilers, but that’s what the comments are for! Let’s talk about some of these things, especially ones that piss you off.
We need to be on the lookout for this sort of thing. There’s no excuse for lazy writing. Not even a deadline is an excuse for a story that makes no sense or does not engage us. If you are writing to inform, to inspire, or even just to entertain, it is worth taking the time to get the words right, set the scene just so, and let your characters speak for themselves, rather than cramming words into their mouths that don’t necessarily fit.
Your characters are more than pistons in your story’s engine. Remember that, and your story will be that much better for it.
I am exhausted. Today’s been one of those days where time seems to stretch out like taffy in front of me, and while the amount seems small from one angle, it’s incredibly long from where I am right now. Tomorrow will be different, and better. But for now, here’s an entry from a few years ago that I feel still applies to me today.
There’s a picture of me out there, and I wish I could post it here with these words. It’s of me, at around 8 years old, proudly showing off my Transformers backpack. Optimus Prime, in all of his 80s glory, is ready to stand up and protect my books and Trapper Keepers from anybody trying to subvert my freedom, which is the right of all sentient beings. I knew Prime wasn’t real, but I believed his philosophy to be true.
As you can imagine, I got bullied as a kid.
My peers made fun of me. I actually got beat up once. I probably caused concern from my parents at more than one point. Somewhere along the way I tried to dial down the behavior that was causing such strife, in the name of fitting in. I never really did, and the behavior remains to this day. At this point, it probably isn’t going anywhere.
These days, though, I wonder why ‘fitting in’ is such a big deal.
The people who we remember, the ones we admire, aren’t people who fit in. Galileo, Joan of Arc, Martin Luther, Nikola Tesla, Rosa Parks, Issac Asmiov, Gary Gygax – these are people who refused to fit into the molds cast by the world around them. They sought change. They embraced their natures. And we love them for it.
Why do we demand so much less of ourselves? Are we just lazy?
Let’s face it, fitting in is easy. It requires almost no effort. Just do what everybody else around you is doing. Buzz in time with the rest of the swarm. Contribute to the overall productivity that will bluesky that turnkey solution. There is no ‘i’ in team.
Because they’re all hanging out in imagination. Innovation. Initiative. Plenty of ‘i’s there.
The problem is that imaginative, innovative people might not always channel that energy effectively. There are lots of mixed signals out there that can muck up one’s internal compass. We look for immediate payoffs. Benefits with minimum investment. Bigger bang for our bucks. To get them, we settle. We compromise. We take the safe road.
There isn’t anything wrong with this, in and of itself. It’s good to have certainty. Especially if you’re in a situation where you need to concern yourself with the wellbeing of others as well as yourself, you need to find a middle ground between dangling by your fingertips and keeping your feet on the ground. The nice thing about not being alone in this is the potential for someone to watch out for you, or you for them, as you make your way towards that goal, inch by inch, one foothold at a time.
When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time building LEGOs. And not always with instructions. In fact, I probably spent more time digging my fingers into the big plastic bin, fishing out blocks and assembling them by the blueprints in my head rather than going by established plans. Somewhere along the way, I lost sight of that sort of initiative. I started doing what other people did and were successful at, rather than seeking my own path. I followed well-trod trails around the mountain, rather than looking up and figuring out how I’m going to get all the way up that thing. I’d take a few steps up the incline but then back down when it got hard, because those trails are much easier to follow.
I forgot what it meant to be a kid while still occasionally acting like one.
I’d lament lost time but not consider how better to spend it. I’d rage against my situation and take no steps to change it. I’d experience rejection and loss without using the motivation it was handing me. Kids at their best don’t just cry over scraped knees. They let the pain out, wipe their faces and get up to try again.
At some point, if you’re on top of things and really want to hold onto that initiative, you’ll fail enough that you’ll realize why you’re failing, and instead will begin to succeed. You can’t get there without failing, though. Learning to ride a bike means falling a few times. Ditto traversing the monkey bars. The first few sandcastles you build are going to crumble before your eyes, possibly before you even finish. What matters isn’t necessarily the scrapes, the bruises, the wipeouts. What matters is what we do after they happen.
It’s okay to fail. It’s okay not to fit in. We have to find a way to make the most of those failures, to make not fitting in matter. When we do, the successes mean more, not just because of the failures that lead to it but because we can take full ownership of it. We had the crazy idea. We struggled to make it come to life. We were aware that we’d get odd looks and skepticism. We got to the finish line anyway, and something new and exciting is the result.
That’s reason enough to abandon the set paths. It’s why we remember those luminaries I mentioned. And it’s why, at this point, I’m probably never going to ‘grow up’.
Weeks after seeing it twice, I find myself still thinking about Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Not just because of how its events will change future Marvel movies and TV shows, but also because its writing is so rock-solid. I’ve examined it from multiple angles, like a tourist circling a free-standing work of art in a museum, and while it’s not completely flawless, it’s so good that other comic book movie franchises that will remain nameless should be ashamed of themselves.
One thing that Marvel movies do with surprising adroitness and consistency is deliver characters with depth, nuance, and multiple dimensions. No single member of the Avengers cast feels flat or one-note. The only character who comes close to falling into that trap is Thor, and yet despite his Asgardian gravitas and hyperbole, there’s quite a bit to him. He loves his brother (even if he is adopted), he still revels in fighting, and he has a great deal of compassion for someone who’s primary means of interaction is hitting stuff with a magic hammer. This is even more evident in Thor: The Dark World, where he and Loki are the real highlights of the film and demonstrate that they have both grown as characters. But that’s a horse I’ve ridden before.
Getting back to Cap, I’ve written at length about the character before, and Winter Soldier delivers on a lot of the character’s promise. He is a man out of time, and out of his element, without a concrete villain to fight and ultimately betrayed by those he trusted. While he is learning and adapting to modern life, he is also holding onto his principles and his world-view, which he may personally admit is old-fashioned and even a little hokey. Yet those things are him, part of who he is, and part of what make his character so compelling.
Even more interesting is the character of Natasha Romanov, the Black Widow. Here is someone used to keeping people at arm’s length, lest she add more red to her ledger. We’ve seen her work undercover and in conjunction with a team of super-heroes, but Winter Soldier expands greatly on the other dimensions of her character. We see her expertise in action. We come to understand just how far ahead of the curve she operates. She’s a character who thinks on her feet, takes action in spite of her fear, and gets caught off-guard when people genuinely trust her. The fact that Scarlett Johansson pulls this off through facial expressions and posture as much as she does with dialog and action is just icing on the cake.
Marvel has always had a strong emphasis on interesting characters who are just as much human as they are super-human. Their Cinematic Universe is no different. With Agents of SHIELD going strong, and Guardians of the Galaxy coming this summer, I expect this trend to continue. It’s a very, very good time to be a fan. It’s also quite satisfying to tell people, when asked about good character-building and dialog, to say “You know that movie about the guy wearing the American flag who tosses a shield around? Yeah, watch that, and you’ll see what I mean.”
The Friday 500 returns next week, when I’m not quite so wiped out. In the meantime, let’s talk again about character death in fiction!
When I watch a good television program or film, one with a narrative that builds its characters and takes the plot in ways one might not expect, I feel the dichotomy in me between watcher and writer. In the moment the story is happening, the emotional connections I feel with the characters, if they are written and acted well enough, feel vital and affecting. Afterward, in retrospect, I can observe the direction and outcome of those moments, and fully understand the foundation behind the decisions the writers made as well as postulate where they might be headed.
It’s important to remember that any character in a story can die. It’s all in the manner of how, when, and why. I think ‘why’ might be the most important piece of the puzzle, and I don’t mean the motivations of their in-story killer. The writer, callous and unfeeling as they might seem, should have good reason for offing one of their creations, especially if that creation is well-liked. Knowing this, I think, actually helps in reading stories as well as watching them. Chuck Wendig could easily kill Miriam Black. Jim Butcher’s under no obligation to keep Harry Dresden alive. And we all know how George R.R. Martin feels about the immunity of popular characters to the flashing scythe that is his pen. Character death is one of those writerly decisions that can hang on the fringes of the story, either making the whole thing more tense or dragging the whole thing down.
I’m on my way to Boston for PAX East this morning. While I make my way through several states on what are certain to be lovely roads, have a look at my thoughts on the lines between video game developers and video game players, and what might happen if they get blurred.
I feel we are rapidly approaching what I’ve chosen to dub “the Video Game Singularity”. It’s the point at which the lines between developers and players of video games blurs to the degree that the storytelling experience these games convey is one truly shared between both camps. We’re on our way with RPGs with user mod tools like Skyrim, massively multiplayer experiences and yes, Choose-Your-Own-Adventure tales like the Mass Effect trilogy. Now, things like marketing departments, stratospheric fanatical expectations, and the limitations of current technology will hinder this advent, but it’s sooner than we think.
The Internet’s instant communication and dissemination of information is accelerating the process as we, as gamers, find and refine our voices. While we’ll never be able to excise every single idiot or douchebag from the community, we can minimize their impact while maximizing what matters: our investment in our entertainment. We are patrons, and video games are the art for which we pay.
Games are unquestionably art. Moreover, they a new form of art all their own, with their own traditions, their own classical periods, their own auteurs, their own mavericks. So I pose the question: why do we judge them as works of art extant in other forms when they clearly do not belong there?
Think about it. A movie critic, with little to no exposure to gaming in general, has no basis by which to judge the merits and flaws of BioShock or Killer7 in comparison to Kane and Lynch. By comparison, many gamers who only see a handful of movies may not recognize the reasons why film aficionados praise Citizen Kane or 2001: A Space Odyssey. The two mediums are completely different, and the biggest difference is in the controller held by the player.
From the moment we put our fingers on buttons, sticks, or mice at the start of a game, we have a measure of control over our experience. A well-designed game lets the player feel like they are truly a part of the world they’re being shown, that their choices will help shape the events to come. In a movie or a book, there’s no interaction between the observer and the observed. We experience the narrative the authors want us to experience regardless of whatever decisions we might have made differently. Video games, on the other hand, invite us to make our choices and experience the consequences for better or for worse.
Since players are a part of the building process for the narrative, it could be argued that they have just as much ownership of the story as the developers do. That isn’t to say they should get a cut of the game’s profits, as not everyone can render the iron sights of a gun or the glowing eyes of a dimensional horror-beast as well as a professional, who has to pay for things like training and food. A game done right, however, makes the player feel like a part of its world, and with that comes a certain feeling of entitlement.
That word’s been bandied about quite a bit lately, and to be honest I don’t think gamer entitlement is entirely a bad thing. The problem arises when gamers act like theirs is the only opinion that matters. Gaming is, at its best, a collaborative storytelling experience. Bad games shoulder players out of their narratives with non-interactive cutscenes or features that ruin immersion. Bad gamers scream their heads off whenever things don’t go exactly the way they expect in a given story. “This sucks and so do you” is not as helpful as “I think this sucks and here’s why.”
Not to belabor the point, but you can tell an author or director how much a book or movie sucks in your opinion, and the most you might get is a “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Game developers, however, know their medium is mutable. It can be changed. And if mistakes are made in the process of creating a game that slipped by them or weren’t obvious, they can go back and fix them. Now, the ending of a narrative is not the same as a major clipping issue, games crashing entirely, or an encounter being unreasonably difficult, and not every complaint from the player base is legitimate. And in some cases, the costs in time and money required to make changes to adjust a story even slightly can be entirely too prohibitive. But when there’s truth found in the midst of an outcry, some merit to be discerned from a cavalcade of bitching and moaning, game developers have power other creators of narrative simply don’t have.
The question is: should they exercise it?
Let me put it another way:
Should finished games be considered immutable things like films or novels, set in stone by their creators? Does listening to players and altering the experience after much debate ruin the artistic merit of a given game?
I think the answer to both questions is “no.”
Changing the ending of a novel or film because fans didn’t like it is one thing. Most directors and authors would cite artistic integrity in keeping their tales as they are. There are those who feel game developers should maintain the same standards. That doesn’t seem right to me, though. For one thing, a writer may change an ending if a test reader can cite issues with it, and a director can re-cut their film if focus groups find it difficult to watch without any benefit. Moreover, gaming is so different from every other art form, so involving of the end user of the content, that sooner or later a different set of standards should be observed.
As we approach the Video Game Singularity, it becomes more and more apparent that the old ways of judging those who create the stories we enjoy no longer apply. We are just as responsible for the stories being told through games as the developers are, and while games empower and encourage us to make decisions to alter the outcome, we must realize that our power in that regard is shared with the developers, and is not exclusively our own. By the same token, the onus of integrity does not solely fall on the developers. We, as participants in the story, must also hold ourselves to a standard, in providing constructive criticism, frank examination, and willingness to adapt or compromise when it comes to the narratives we come to love. Only by doing this can we blur that line between gamers and developers. Only by showing this desire to address these stories as living things in which we have a say and for the benefit of which we will work with their original creators will gamers stop coming across as spoiled brats and start to be considered a vital part of the game creation process.
We can stop being seen as mere end-user consumers, and start participating actively in the perpetuation of this art form. To me, that’s exciting and powerful.
I mean, we still have people using racist and homophobic language in the community, but hey, baby steps.
If you don’t know who Chuck Wendig is by now…
First of all, watch this.
Second of all, what the hell is wrong with you?
I’ve worshipped at the Altar of the Terriblemind more than once. It involves sacrifices of coffee, whiskey, tacos, and an outpouring of creative swears while dancing naked under the light of a full moon. While it’s yeilded quite a few fantastic books, which I’ll get to, it’s also given me the sense that I need to kick my writerly ass.
The last few months have been surprisingly stressful at the dayjob, which is perhaps due to extenuating circumstances in my head and diet and whatnot, but that’s not really an excuse. The dayjob only lasts a certain number of hours per day, and I could easily carve out more of the remaining time for writing. Hell, Hearthstone has long queues, as does Heroes of the Storm (waiting on my invite, Blizzard!), World of Warcraft has pauses for travel and queues of its own… and those are just the Blizzard games! I like to write posts like this while watching Crash Course or The Cinema Snob. It’s possible to pour the words into the cracks between the day’s longer hours. I just need to do it more often.
A while back, Chuck posted a photo of where he writes. It’s beautiful. Isolated. A window to the outdoors, a rig for his iPad (disconnected from the Internet, I’d imagine), a place for his coffee. I’m reminded again that not only do I need to make the time, I need to make the space. Sitting here tapping out blog posts isn’t too difficult, writing-wise, but it’s still incredibly easy to be distracted and if I want to get anything done, I need to focus. I must do that more often, just like I should work out more often. I can make all of the excuses I like about the dayjob or my mental/emotional state or what have you, but in the end, the only way to write is to write.
Wendig reminds me of this because, damn, that motherfucker’s prolific. He’s writing novels, novellas, serialized fiction, non-fiction about writing… basically everything a canny genre writer can write to keep writing. He’s got various points of entry if you’re not up on his work, too. Are you into vampires and/or zombies? Read Double Dead. Want a powerful female protagonist? Blackbirds is for you. How about urban fantasy mashed with gripping crime drama? Try The Blue Blazes. Young adult reader looking for something unique? Under The Empyrean Sky might be your bag. Just need advice/a kick in the ass for your own writing? Buy The Kick-Ass Writer already.
See what I mean? Whenever I worry that my ambitions are too “all over the place”, that what I write can’t possibly make it, Chuck reminds me that such thinking is bullshit. All I have to do is get off my ass. Or at least sit my ass down and write.