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Is Social Media A Necessary Evil?

Courtesy andrebarcinski.blogfolha.uol.com.br

Social media, and our means of interfacing with it, continues to grow. From evolving platforms like Fourspring becoming Swarm, to applications proliferating all over phones and tablets, it feels almost like an infiltration. Lives have been changed because of social media, even damaged. It could be argued that social media does more harm than good. But is that really the case?

Digial delivery systems for media, be they stories or critiques or commentary or something entirely new, require unique methods of finding audiences by their very nature. Most up-and-coming content creators do not have the capital to line up advertising budgets. Success and failure depends almost entirely on word of mouth. The nature of the Internet, and by extension, social media, means that those words can be transmitted to a multitude of ears far more efficiently and quickly than normal modes of conversation. 140 characters may not sound like much, but with persistence and the right timing, they can be just as effective as the biggest billboards lining a superhighway.

There’s also the fact that social media allows people to remain in touch over very long distances and through shifting circumstances. Moreso than phone or emails, social media allows for immediate connections, and immediate feedback. That’s part of its power, and a big portion of its curse. You can’t take back what you say, especially on social media. The more you try to cover up or remove, the worse things look for you. Just ask any number of the independent game developers that try to make negative reviews of their games go away.

In the end, social media is a tool. For connectivity, for promotion, for information – it is a means to an end. Those ends can and do vary from person to person, from goal to goal. It is difficult for me to believe that any permutation of social media was created with any sort of malicious or damaging intent. Like so many things on the Internet, we’re talking about about information. Information, if you’ll pardon the old cliche, is power. The uses and abuses of that power are their own animals. Social media itself is not to blame. I cannot subscribe to that interpretation.

That said, it can impede things. It can distract, detract, and even disrupt. Sometimes, stepping away from the whole mess is the correct course of action. I don’t think anybody can or should be blamed for making that decision. However, for all of its flaws, all of the dust-ups and all of the feet finding their way into mouths, social media is not the enemy. I find it hard to believe that a tool that keeps people connected, spreads unfiltered information, and allows for new breeds of entertainment to find voices they wouldn’t otherwise, has something inherently wrong with it. I know some would call social media a ‘necessary evil’. But I am not sold on the ‘evil’ part.

Bring Out Your Dead

Courtesy HBO & GRRM

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.

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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?

500 Words on Marvel

Courtesy Ms Sackhoff's Twitter

As I write this, San Diego Comic-Con, arguably one of the biggest gatherings of so-called ‘geeks’ or ‘nerds’ in his hemisphere, is taking place. The Marvel panel is, I believe, tomorrow, and there are likely to be announcements as to what is coming up for the studio behind The Avengers and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. I have this feeling of both excitement and trepidation. As much as I like what Marvel has done and is doing, I have some fears about the future.

Guardians of the Galaxy looks amazing. I’m intrigued by the implications of the plot being developed for Avengers: Age of Ultron. And the mere mention of a Doctor Strange film might elicit what can only be described as a ‘squee’ from Yours Truly. But in the midst of all of this, I have yet to see Marvel do something to truly push them into the forefront when it comes to universal appeal in excellent entertainment.

Marvel needs a solo female lead.

There are a few female characters that have shown well-rounded characterization: Pepper Potts, Natasha Romanoff, Maria Hill, Melinda May, etc. But none of them have carried their own story yet. In this, and pretty much this alone, Marvel and DC have something in common. While DC is still struggling to carve out its own identity, as they try keep pace with Marvel as well as emerging from the shadow of Nolan’s bat, Marvel distinguishes itself in almost every other regard.

This is also an issue when it comes to characters of color, but with the Falcon being such a breakout star in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and The Black Panther all but confirmed, I feel it’s been more addressed than the issue of a solo female lead. I would love to see it happen. And I would dearly love for it to be Captain Marvel.

Carol Danvers is one of my favorite ladies of Marvel. Kelly Sue Deconnick’s take on her in particular is an absolute delight. Despite being imbued with superpowers and having worked in the male-oriented military for so long, Carol is still very much her own woman, and a very human character. The image above, envisioning the incomparable Katee Sackhoff as Carol, fills me with hope. I know it may be a long shot – Fiege and company have yet to really address things – but the idea remains.

Another idea occurs: what if Doctor Strange was female?

While we’re talking about dream casting, if Strange remains male, I’d love to see Oded Fehr play the role. He has charisma, gravitas, and he breaks the mold of stereotypical white male protagonism. However, a female Strange would be excellent. Can you imagine a Sorceress Supreme battling cosmic forces that break the minds of lesser humans?

And what about Gina Torres or Aisha Tyler as She-Hulk? Think about it.

This is all speculation, but honestly, Marvel needs this. DC would have no hope of catching up.

Until Orci & Kurtzman write Iron Man Into Darkness, Make Mine Marvel!

The Lived-In Universe

Couretsy LucasArts

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?

Connect Your Characters

Courtesy Netflix

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.