Since one of my irons in the fire (more on that later) is now a fan fiction project, I thought I’d revisit my thoughts on the subject.
That little piece I wrote yesterday for Chuck’s latest challenge is fan fiction. I’m comfortable with that. I don’t think there’s really anything wrong with fan fiction, per se, and I’ve discussed it in the past. I think there’s something wrong with it, though, when it’s done badly.
I know that fan fiction can carry a bit of a stigma. For some, there’s a stereotype attached to it, which I will address. However, we’ve already established that writers are dirty thieves. Fan fiction is work that simply admits to said thievery. It makes no bones about being built around an established IP. And it takes a lot of the grunt work out of writing especially in speculative fiction. The setting, mood, nuances and themes are already established, all the writer has to do is give the characters motivation and voices.
There’s a market for it, as well. You don’t even have to change the names or locations or structure of the established world, as Ben Croshaw did for Mogworld. Timothy Zahn, Peter David, Michael Stackpole, R.A. Salvatore, Weis & Hickman, Diane Duane – these are all authors who have published incredibly successful novels that are, for all intents and purposes, fan fiction. The fact that they have been sanctioned by the creators or even worked into established canon must only be icing on the cake for those authors. It’s why I feel we shouldn’t be ashamed to consider such works as viable forms of fiction.
This doesn’t mean that all fan fiction is good, though. Not by a long shot. The stereotype I alluded to is that of a lonely amateur writer dashing out a story in an established universe where a previously unknown character comes along, changes everything and escapes any sort of repercussions for actions that normally would have them dragged in front of military tribunals. The dreaded Mary Sue phenomenon can make people afraid to even touch fan fiction for fear of being associated with such blatant and odious authorial crutches. Most of the time, if someone is doing this to an IP, they’re doing so while also making full-on assaults on grammar and even spelling. It’s why some people will turn their nose up at the mere mention of the words “fan fiction.”
The thing is, though, nothing is automatically good or automatically bad just because of its associations. Oskar Schindler was associated with the Nazi party but was a good man. The Fantastic Four are associated with the same brand bringing us The Avengers but those movies were pretty bad. By the same token, there’s no need to blanketly declare that fan fiction is evil or even bad. Bad writing is bad writing no matter what it’s based upon, and as long as the criticism is focused on that and not its basis, I say fire away. Just take things on a case by case basis. Start making blanket statements, and the next thing you know, you’re running for public office.
Today I’m going back through my novel draft and changing the perspective of the narrative slightly. I did a quick search for ‘perspective’ and came across this post. With Star Wars: The Force Awakens drawing closer, it seemed appropriate to bring this one back. Enjoy!
Writers: remember that you are writing about people.
Unless you are telling your story from the perspective of an entirely alien race (and good on you for taking on that challenge), you will be portraying events for your audience from the perspective of human beings. More often than not, even animal stories have human points of view: anthropomorphous protagonists are nothing new, from Orwell’s Animal Farm to The Adventures of Milo and Otis. And with that perspective comes the need for thought processes and authentic emotion.
I know there is a lot of entertainment out there that suggests, through one way or another, that the audience turn off their brains. And in some instances, this is fine. When you’re playing DOOM, you’re not necessarily contemplating the greater ramifications of blasting demons in the face with a shotgun. But when the entertainment has human beings, usually capable of higher thought processes, doing things that make no logical sense or have little tangible connection to one another, it can be difficult not to scratch your head in bewilderment. A great number of movies do this: they pace their action in such a way and frame it with such bombast that coherent thought gets overshadowed or lost altogether.
For example, compare Star Trek Into Darkness with Guardians of the Galaxy. Both are relatively light, free-flowing sci-fi action-adventures. Putting aside that the former is a far departure from its original source material, it is serviceable in what it does, and as I said in my review, does enough things right that it rises above the usual level of shallow tripe on which a great deal of in-name-only franchise movies can operate. However, it also sees characters with familiar names acting in ways that defy logical thought and reasoning. Meanwhile, in the latter film, characters operate in consistent ways, following their goals and motivations in what, to them, is a logical chain of reasoning. Their reactions and plans may seem unreasonable to others, but to them, it makes perfect sense. This is because the writers took the time to see things from those perspectives and conveyed their characters in ways that made us believe in them. It can be difficult, at times, to believe that Chris Pine is actually Captain Kirk; it is never a doubt that Chris Pratt is Peter Quill. Oh, excuse me, “Star-Lord”.
The emotional aspect, too, is something that sets Guardians of the Galaxy apart, in that the writing and acting work together so that we feel, rather than are told, what the characters are feeling. Good writing tends to be subtle in that way. Another potential example comes from one of the biggest buzz-worthy events of recent memory.
For a brief moment, we see John Boyega in the teaser trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He is, in fact, the first human we see, and in the moment we see his face, there’s already a lot going on. And I’m not just talking about a new black character in Star Wars (Shock! Alarm! Nerdrage!) or a black stormtrooper (or just a protagonist in stormtrooper armor like his possible spiritual ancestors Luke Skywalker and Han Solo – again, Shock! Alarm! Nerdrage!) being on screen. I’m talking about his face, his manner, the mood of the shot.
Say what you like about JJ Abrams (goodness knows, I have), he has always drawn out great performances from his actors. And in this shot, it looks to me like he’s bringing his A game to Star Wars. For this tiny sliver of time, John gives us a wealth of emotions just from his look and movements. He’s shocked. He’s desperate. He’s scared. He’s covered in sweat, moves with quick, furtive motions, and doesn’t stay in one place very long. As both a moment from the film and an invitation for the audience to become intrigued, it works very well.
What I’m driving at is that, even in science fiction and fantasy, the onus falls on the writers to keep the emotions and motivations real. Let your characters think rationally, provided they aren’t mad for one reason or another. And even then, spend some time in their shoes. Get to know what makes them tick, what makes sense from their perspective, and how they justify their actions. Villains are rarely, if ever, villainous for the sake of villainy. Hell, even the Red Skull in Captain America: The First Avenger had something to prove, even if he went about it in a villainous way and something was said about his true villainy coming out through one thing or another. Giving all of your characters the time and forethought required to have them convey true processes of thought and genuine moments of emotion is essential to writing a story that people will enjoy, and want to read more about. And if you want to be a successful writer, you’re going to want to have your readers coming back for more.
I’m working on overcoming a severe bout of depression. Thank you for being patient. While I keep making steps forward, I continue putting effort into being less of a “selfish diaper-baby” as Ralph would put it. And with a bunch of new Enforcers joining the fold, I have to remind myself that quitting what I love is not the answer to anything. So it’s time this post came back.
I used to be really, really good at quitting.
I can think of several instances in my past where I would be attempting something, run into the first real obstacle, and just give up. I would avoid putting myself in positions where I would have to deal with any major difficulties or consequences. I hate to admit it, but I was something of a coward. While I still remain afraid of screwing up, letting people down, or hurting the feelings of those I care about, I’ve learned that giving up before all alternatives are exhausted yields only more doubt, disappointment, and is generally less favorable than making legitimate efforts.
It feels a bit odd for me to talk about hardships and difficulties when I’m a white cis male in the first world, which is about as privileged as you can get. I’m not really wanting for food, shelter, clothing, or any of the essentials a human being needs. It should be an easy life for me. I’m choosing to make it more difficult by involving myself in the things I choose to be involved in, and in that I am engineering my own defeats. And yet, I know if I simply enjoy my privileges and do not take steps to share what I can with the world around me, I am no better than a day-trader on Wall Street or a corrupt corporate executive. So I try to make the world a better place, and sometimes, the world seems determined to remain terrible.
Case in point: I’ve made the choice to be an Enforcer, part of the PAX volunteer staff, and by extension, I am tangentially connected to Penny Arcade and its creators. Mike (“Gabe”) has a habit of putting his foot in his mouth when it comes to sensitive issues, and this was the case yesterday. He made a comment that was offensive to the transgender community, and the resulting exchange has caused people to call for PAX boycotts and, if I understand the situation correctly, several of my fellow Enforcers have quit in a show of solidarity with those offended by Mike’s comment. They more than likely see Mike’s apology and exchange with Sophie Prell as half-hearted or perfunctory or some other word for insincere.
I for one am willing to give Mike the benefit of the doubt. As I see it, the possibilities are that he makes comments that he thinks are funny and only occasionally gets it right; he puts his foot in his mouth more often than not by tweeting before he thinks; or he’s a deplorable human being through and through. What I have seen and heard of the man leads me to believe that the first two cases are the most likely. Considering his brand is one that is mostly comedic, the first is the logical conclusion for me to draw. Penny Arcade has done a lot for the gaming community, children’s charities, and a more inclusive Internet in general; why would I want to disassociate from that?
Don’t get me wrong. Anybody who feels strongly enough to quit or boycott has my understanding. Not everybody is wired the way I am. And, to be frank, I could be wired completely wrong. I’m willing to consider and even accept that, if presented with sufficient evidence.
But I refuse, to the core of my being, to quit now. Not when I can try to change things for the better.
I know that I can’t change people who don’t want to change. And I know that my words and actions may have zero effect on the people or world around me in general. I accept that. What I will not accept is the idea that I cannot change anything at all on an individual level. I don’t want to muck around with people’s brains to make them what I would consider “better” – each individual is entitled to be and think and feel however they want to be and think and feel. I have no claim to change things within another person’s being by force. That isn’t right.
All I can do, all I want to do, is be the best human individual I can be, engage as often as possible in what I consider to be better behavior, exemplify compassion and understanding for my fellow human beings, and do what I can, small as it may be, to make the world around me a better place. Every person deserves to be treated with respect, and the best way for me to get that idea into the heads of others is to be as respectful as I can with everyone around me, especially strangers. As an Enforcer, I meet thousands of strangers. This, to me, is an excellent way to ensure that I am doing as much as possible to be the change I want to see in the world. I may affect even more if I can get more writing off the ground; time will tell on that score.
But I’m not going to quit either, I’m not going to quit giving people the benefit of the doubt, I’m not going to quit being me, even if I can be overly optimistic and occasionally gullible and something of a stubborn, tactless, somewhat arrogant stinkbrain from time to time.
In honor of the whole “May the 4th” Star Wars-related tomfoolery of the day, I went back to last year and blew the dust off of this post. Enjoy!
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.
In light of Star Wars Celebration and the new teaser for the upcoming film, I thought I’d revisit my thoughts on the first Dark Lord of the Sith to which audiences were introduced. When this post first went up, there were some wonderful comments regarding how this character got railroaded, what the Clone Wars series did to address that, and a powerful aspect of Return of the Jedi. It’s clear we’re ready for a Star Wars film that does its characters and universe true justice. I suppose we’ll find out in December if that’s what we’re actually getting.
My good friend Rick over at Word Asylum brought up some classic villains. What stuck out in his pretty comprehensive top ten list was the presence of one Darth Vader. I was reminded of what he, and Star Wars in general, were like when it was first introduced. I discussed him briefly back when I talked about villainy in general. Let’s go back a bit, however, and examine one of the most iconic bad guys of the big screen a bit more closely.
Rooted as it was in the adventure serials that people like Lucas grew up with, having good and evil somewhat diametrically opposed was par for the course. Good guys were good, bad guys were bad. And they didn’t come badder than Darth Vader. We are introduced to Vader when his stormtroopers blast their way through a Rebel spacecraft, his motivations are clear when he strangles one of the ship’s officers and he’s more than willing to turn his significant strength and wrath against his own people if they question his faith or their orders. You don’t need a manual or novelization to understand Darth Vader. It’s laid out for you on the screen and, surprisingly enough considering later entries in the Star Wars series, it’s shown instead of told. When someone does try to tell instead of show, Vader chokes the bitch. “I find your lack of faith disturbing” is all that need be said.
The Empire Strikes Back
Rick described this as being Vader at “his lowest point, when the Dark Side firmly had him enthralled.” His loyalty and dedication to the Empire has given way this obsession with capturing Luke Skywalker. On the surface, this is a straightforward motivation – Luke humiliated Vader in battle, and Vader wants revenge. He’s willing to strangle anyone, destroy anything, sacrifice entire Star Destroyers and recruit the most insidious of bounty hunters to get what he wants. His villainy takes on a whole new dimension when it’s revealed that his pursuit of the Millenium Falcon is all a ploy to draw Luke out of hiding, and when Luke does appear, Vader goes from being a merely dark villainous presence to a deep and haunting one.
Vader, we discover, is Luke’s father. Beyond his desire to corrupt Luke and seduce him to the Dark Side, Vader wants Luke to join him, work with him and help him build a peaceful, orderly Empire. He wants to establish a true monarchy by deposing Palpatine, becoming Emperor himself and ensuring his son will succeed him and carry on his goals. It’s his way of seeking reconciliation. However, rather than trying to bridge the gap between them, Vader offers to yank Luke over to his side of things. It shows just how far Vader has fallen to the Dark Side, and what happens next is perhaps the greatest moment of storytelling in Star Wars to date.
When Luke chooses to face death rather than join his father, watch Vader closely. Without seeing his face, without saying a word, Vader conveys an emotion that pierces all his Force powers and imposing armor the way blasters never could. Luke breaks Vader’s heart. Not only is this a telling moment in the relationship between father and son, there’s a reveal here even more shocking than that of Luke’s parentage: Darth Vader, a deadly and cunning manipulative bastard of a villain, has a heart to break.
Star Wars never saw anything like this moment again. It shines as the pinnacle of the saga’s power and beyond everything that comes after, for me, it remains untouched.
Return of the Jedi
There’s a huge difference between the Vader in the first two films and the Vader in Jedi. He sounds weary. He’s still driven and loyal, but the wound he suffered on Cloud City still bleeds inside of him. Inside that dark armor wages a battle between the man he wants to be – Luke’s father, someone the boy will admire and want to be with – and the servant of the Empire he has become. When Luke reappears in Vader’s life, he makes another attempt to appeal for the young man’s favor. In response, Luke searches for the smaller side of the internal struggle he feels, the man Vader once was.
Vader as a villain is no less effective in Jedi but his motivations are now far more personal, the sort of things we see in the closing acts of a Greek tragedy. Brought low by his actions, responsible for the deaths of friends and loved ones, Vader must face his own demons and put them to rest even at the expense of his own life. In the process, he finally wins the adoration of his son. The tragedy of his adult life is left far behind as he achieves his redemption. It’s this cycle, falling into darkness only to struggle back to the light regardless of cost, that defines many of Star Wars‘ better tales, such as that of Ulic Qel-Droma.
When the prequels were announced, fans looked forward to seeing what Anakin was like before becoming Vader, discovering the details of his fall and fully understanding the pathos beneath the armor. Instead, we got a whiny, willful, selfish and ill-conceived brat with no real charisma, no redeeming values and little to offer the precious few tangible threads of story laid out by Lucas. By focusing on spectacle and merchandising, Lucas tore out the fangs of his greatest success entirely.
When you have potential like this, you shouldn’t let it go to waste. Take some time to consider the groundwork that’s been laid before you build something new. It’snothard. I hate to keep coming back to this, but if I can throw together something in a weekend that people feel is better structured than a multi-million dollar production, the people that invest that money should be more willing to take a closer look on where their money is actually going.
But that’s just me. I’m a wide-eyed idealist and a starving artist, and for what it’s worth, I miss Darth Vader.