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.
Phillip Pullman has published an article expressing his dislike of stories in the present tense. He makes some good points about some of the limitations of present tense, which I feel extend to some of the limitations of first person perspective. But that’s a subject for another post. What came to mind even as I read the article was that this is coming from a man who called the Chronicles of Narnia “religious propaganda.”
The Narnia books do not mention any of the following things: God, prayer, Jesus, religion, the bible, the pope, the church, atheism, Satan, mass, the eucharist or anything directly having to do with to any actual faith. Yes, many of stories are directly inspired by Bible stories, but this is perfectly understandable. Lewis had become interested in Christianity at the time he wrote the series — he was recently converted in fact, if I’m not mistaken — and as a writer, you write what you know. THAT’S NOT WHAT PROPAGANDA IS. […]
PULLMAN, on the other hand, has no problem whatsoever putting things in his books like: “For all of [the Church’s] history… it’s tried to suppress and control every natural impulse. And when it can’t control them, it cuts them out” — “That’s what the Church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling” — “The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake.” Now please, please, do not take this to mean that I am either defending or denouncing these lines in the book. […] My only point is this: Phillip Pullman, you are a hypocrite. You don’t accuse someone of writing propaganda, especially when they haven’t, and then turn around and write your own propaganda in response.
This is a very particular and irksome example of one of the biggest problems I have with some authors out there, and one I take pains to avoid when I can — the problem of author insertion.
In Pullman’s case, the themes and story elements of His Dark Materials are rooted in this denouncement of the church, every church, as an evil, soul-crushing monolithic organization that exists to serve itself first and foremost. While there are some churches out there that fall into this category, there are also political parties, so-called ‘news’ organizations, businesses, social groups and gaming companies that are just as guilty of existing solely for their own sake rather than working or seeking harmony with the community at large. When these things are brought to light in a work of non-fiction, an expose or a historical account, it’s fascinating stuff that lays foundations for thoughtful debate, or at least an entertaining argument. When inserted into fiction, it’s propaganda.
Now, as Matthew pointed out, we write what we know. Some of us don’t like certain political, religious, philosophical or sociological points of view, and like it or not it’s going to come out in your work. That’s okay. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about making a deliberate and concerted effort to push certain views through the mouths of your characters to the expense of moving the story along or allowing those characters to grow in their own ways. I’m talking sacrificing interesting character-building conversational dialog for overt preaching to the reader. I’m talking about making sure your characters don’t turn into Brian the dog from Family Guy.
Remember when Brian was just the intelligent, sarcastic foil to Peter’s oafish blundering? Those were the days…
These are casing of taking “You write what you know” to the extreme. But some authors go further than that. Some go so far as to write not just what they know, but who they are. And since this is fiction we’re talking about, you can be certain they’re writing who they want to be.
You know where I’m going with this, right? As if the image I slapped up top wasn’t a big giveaway. I’m going to quickly touch on three particularly egregious examples of author insertion, starting with what I feel is the least and working my way up to what really pisses me off.
A lot has been said about the style and substance of Dan Brown. But one thing that sticks out for some is the mere presence of protagonist Robert Langdon. Smart, reasonably attractive, athletic, able to succeed regardless of odds with only a minimum of personal investiture, risk and negative consequences — I can’t think of an art or history major who wouldn’t mind being in the situations he’s thrust into with that sort of setup and their vast acumen of knowledge. And more often than not, coupled with a love interest who is head over heels for them at first sight. Now, to be fair, Langdon’s perfection is somewhat downplayed in the films and the first novel, Angels & Demons. But from what I understand, it’s pretty common for Brown to cast his heroes in this same mold.
From a character standpoint, Bella Swan is also smart, reasonably attractive, athletic and able to succeed regardless of odds with only a minimum of personal investiture, risk and negative consequences. She’s also existing in a series of stories inspired by a dream experienced by author Stephenie Meyer. Now, in this dream world, being stalked by a killer is the basis of a life-long desirable relationship. Killers sparkle in the sunlight. The heroine onto whom many of the young readers project themselves is pursuing (and pursued by) a character who has all of the personality of an empty can of Coke and all the trappings of an abusive boyfriend or husband. A lot has already been said about the unforunate implications of this series, like this excellent essay by Cleolinda Jones.
As disturbingly close to the author as Bella might be, though, let me bring to your attention one of the biggest examples of this phenomenon: Rhonin, a character from Warcraft created by Richard A. Knaak. Nowhere else in that universe is there a character who is not only an archmage but also a skilled swordsman and handy with a crossbow to boot. Friend to gods, admired and respected by villains, married to a hot elf chick and father to half-elf twins who are, according to Knaak, the only two in existence despite the fact other half-elves have been in the game since Burning Crusade — the list goes on. And when Knaak can’t come up with adequate explanations as to why this character is so singular, powerful, well-respected and devastatingly handsome, he creates other characters to prop that character up who are just as inexplicably perfect as Rhonin.
I hope I’m making my point. This is bad writing. These are bad characters. They’ve come to life as a result of an author putting too much of themselves into their work. If you want your work to succeed, in my humble opinion, you need to make some effort to keep yourself out of it.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a film that’s difficult to put into a genre. Its central story is, at first glance, a romance. A great deal of the dialog is comedic. But how many romantic comedies do you know where the conflicts are resolved through kung-fu matches? And how many kung-fu battles have you seen in a movie that include running scores, power-ups and visible sound effects? The term “something for everybody” gets bandied about a great deal, but Scott Pilgrim just might fit that bill. The problem with having so many of these elements in a film, however, is that some elements don’t get as much time as they should.
That isn’t to say this movie is bad. This movie is far from bad. This movie, in fact, is very good, and you should go see it if you haven’t already.
Scott Pilgrim. Age: 22. Rating: Awesome.
Based on the acclaimed series of graphic novels by Brian Lee O’Malley, the eponymous Scott Pilgrim is a Canadian bass player who’s unashamedly between jobs, dating a high schooler and mooching off of his gay roommate Wallace, who tolerates Scott because it’s fun to watch him squirm when discomforting things happen to him. Scott’s precious little life takes an unexpected turn when a mysterious girl named Ramona Flowers skates through his dreams. Drawn to Ramona’s mature and world-weary personality, Scott encounters more than he bargained for when he is attacked by Ramona’s evil exes. Like Mega Man needing to defeat a series of Robot Masters to restore order in the world, Scott Pilgrim needs to defeat a series of super-powered individuals to get what he wants. Luckily, despite being a slacker and a dweeb, Scott’s also the best fighter in the province. As for what he wants, let’s take a look at Scott as he’s depicted in the film.
Let me make this perfectly clear: if you pass up on this movie because you don’t like Michael Cera, you are making a mistake. It’s not that I don’t understand where the ire against Cera comes from. Previously, in romantic comedies, he’s cast in the role of the screenwriter’s projection of the ‘right guy’ for the girl. You know what I mean, the sensitive, quiet, intelligent and otherwise marginalized young man who’s so much better for the girl than the large, attractive, macho jerks she tends to date – a Marty Stu, if you will. Now, while Ramona has dated some jerks, and Scott is somewhat sensitive and quiet… he’s also, himself, a jerk. He knows he’s sensitive but he uses that sensitivity to milk those around him for sympathy. His intelligence is applied to remaining as free from responsibility as possible. He exists in a personal space that I think a lot of young men of my generation, including myself, have at one point or another: the militant refusal to grow up. In a way, the ‘final boss’ in the story is the kind of person Scott could become if he’s not careful – a pretentious, self-centered, smirking and completely slimy hipster douchebag.
+2 versus critics.
Meeting Ramona (very well played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead) doesn’t just change Scott’s life because he has to fight to the death in order to date her. The message she conveys to Scott and, by extension, those of us in the audience who live or have lived in that aforementioned Neverland in our heads, is as necessary as it is harsh. “You’re not Peter Pan. You have to grow up. You need to get over yourself. If you can stop being self-absorbed and self-aggrandizing you can let the good things about yourself shine through and speak for themselves; otherwise, you’re going to turn into something you hate.” Ramona also presents us with a personification of the sort of things we deal with when we get to know somebody. Their past, the people they’ve loved and lost, the mistakes they’ve made that haunt them; this ‘baggage’ doesn’t just sit around. It’s active and nearly constant, trying to keep us out of the moment and pulling us back into the past. While ultimately the battle Scott needs to have is with himself for his own sake, he also needs to be willing to fight past Ramona’s baggage in order to be a part of her future.
Now, when you get right down to it, all of this unsubtle metaphorical self-examination occurs under a surface of retro gaming references, genuinely funny comedy, a slew of callbacks to the graphic novels and some really memorable performances. Kieran Culkin’s come out of nowhere to own the role of Wallace, Scott’s smirking roommate who acts as something of a mentor. The League of Evil Exes seems to have come to life directly from O’Malley’s pages, and Chris Evans and Brandon Routh in particular seem to be having a great deal of fun in their roles, which I found quite amusing personally as I tend to think of them as Captain America and Superman, respectively. And I will admit, when the dual cameo shows up at the end of Scott’s fight with a particular evil ex, I went into full fanboy mode. I’ll say nothing more for fear of spoilers.
So here’s a picture of Sex Bob-Omb instead.
It’s not a perfect movie. Condensing six novel-length parts of a narrative into a two-hour movie means things are going to get trimmed, watered and reduced down. A few of the characters are robbed of some of their development, and even Scott’s growth towards the end is somewhat truncated compared to how it occurs in the books. Now, the books were still in production when the film started shooting, so the last third overall is different from the source material. However, I think a lot of the people who still didn’t feel any sympathy whatsoever towards Scott at the end might have been buoyed up by some of those missing experiences. Not that Scott or any protagonist necessarily needs to be 100% sympathetic in order to carry a story – in fact, Scott’s jerkass behavior in the beginning and middle of the movie drives home his need to get over himself all the more, and holds up that rather uncomfortable mirror to those of us who’ve been there.
In spite of its flaws, I really liked Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Director Edgar Wright, the man who brought us Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, really makes the visuals pop off of the screen and worked with O’Malley to ensure the characters that do get developed do so in a well-paced arc that shows their complexity and their humanity. There’s a lot of great music throughout the movie, the visual style is a quirky flavor of awesome, the dialog is smart and the fights all have a great deal of energy. The video game rules by which Scott Pilgrim’s Toronto operates go unexplained but, really, we don’t need to understand why Scott has a Pee Bar or where he stashes all of those coins after a fight. When the ex leaves him more than 2.40 Canadian, that is.
Stuff I Liked: I’ve yet to see an Edgar Wright film I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed. Michael Cera acquits himself well with a very faithful and very good Scott Pilgrim. The messages in this movie are necessary to our generation and rather clearly conveyed under all the trappings of indie rock and 8-bit kung fu. Stuff I Didn’t Like: A lot of the characters – Kim Pine, Stephen Stills, Envy Adams and Stacey Pilgrim, to name just a few – feel a little underdeveloped. The metaphors aren’t terribly subtle. I expected Scott to have a little more smirking self-confidence at first to more closely follow his arc in the books, but this is a minor quibble. And I really didn’t like how people went to see The Expendables or Eat, Pray, Love instead of this film. America, I am disappoint. Stuff I Loved: The music. The fights. The fact that Toronto is actually playing Toronto instead of standing in for America. Ramona, Wallace, Knives and the League of Evil Exes. The playful, retro and refreshing visual aesthetic. This exchange:
Young Neil: “What’re you doing?” Scott: “Getting a life.”
Bottom Line: Go see this movie. I plan on buying it on DVD when it comes out. Brian Lee O’Malley, Edgar Wright, this great cast and a hard-working crew have labored to produce something fresh, original and fun while other studios churn out the cinematic equivalent of a corner convenience store hot dog. You know, the ones that have been sitting under heating lamps for at least four hours? Ew. See Scott Pilgrim vs. The World instead of the other stuff that’s out there. Trust me. You will not be disappointed.
There used to be a time when I let things slide. Mediocrity would slip right by me and I wouldn’t even notice. Or maybe I’d wave at it. My point is, I didn’t have standards. What I did was good, regardless of how good it actually was.
Looking back, I shouldn’t have been surprised that my first attempt at a novel got so many rejections. For one, I now know that rejections are good. They show you’re doing something. But more importantly, it was crap. It was predictable. It wasn’t written all that well and I didn’t go to the pains I go to now to revise and edit things. I had help in the second go-round, sure, but it still wasn’t all that great.
I know, now, that the problem might be that I spend too much time revising. Trying to get my work to be perfect could consume all of my time. It’s not going to be perfect. It’ll never be perfect. The idea will be to get it to a point of “good enough to not suck.”
I approach role-playing in games the same way. I used to let myself get away with things like “my character is the son of a god” or “ye olde powerful dragons blessed me with immortality.” I realize now how silly, unnecessary and downright juvenile those ideas are, and I’ve ranted about it at length.
Like my manuscripts, I’m worried about my characters being good enough to not suck. This pertains to both their backstories and how I play the game. It’s a lot easier to avoid cognitive dissonance when the tank of the party messes up a pull and wipes the group, when their character’s description has them being a beautiful, all-powerful, liked by everyone and lust object of all NPCs Mary Sue. “So you’ve seduced the Queen of the Dragons and kicked the Lich King’s ass in single combat, but can’t keep the aggro in the first pull of this dungeon. Right.”
Maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe this is coming off as me being a bit of a dick. I know this is stuff some people don’t want to hear. They don’t like the notion of somebody disliking their special little snowflake of an on-line avatar. And I might get told that not sharing my knowledge with others who don’t have as much experience as I do with this sort of thing is rude, even mean.
But sitting down across from a struggling writer and helping them get a better idea of how to frame their narrative, breathe life into their characters and have the plot make sense is one thing. Dealing with strangers who can’t be bothered to use proper fucking punctuation is another.
Maybe it’s pretentious to have standards. Maybe I’m a mean-spirited puppy-kicking old man for not wanting to waste my time being forced to role-play with people who fail at it. Maybe I’m going to while away the rest of my life mumbling to myself as I pore over the 137th draft of my manuscript because I don’t feel it’s good enough, yet, and I assume everything I do sucks.
I’ve touched on this briefly in this post and must once again point you fine folks in the direction of Warcraft Sues to give you an idea of what the hell I’m talking about. I’m going to rant a bit, and that means there’ll be some naughty words. Consider the cut below the metaphorical covering of your delicate ears if you are so inclined. If you think you can handle a couple curses directed at people who really deserve it, read on.
Also, this rant is not directed at anybody in particular. I will not be naming names or showing descriptions. This is just me, in general, pissed off at what I feel is bad role-playing.
Listen. I know playing a blood elf makes me one of the ‘pretty boys’ of the Horde. I know that the race in general tends towards arrogance, selfishness and vanity. And I know that we’re going to get a bit of stick on that basis alone, no matter how much we as individuals might try to break those stereotypes.
You fucking sparkling snowflakes are not making this any easier.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, let me explain what I mean. In World of Warcraft you take on the role of a character who might not be human. You could be an orc, or a troll. You can be a towering minotaur, an ageless elf, a festering yet sentient zombie or a goat-person from space. These characters have special abilities, and as you gain experience you also gain more power.
Some people feel the need to add extra layers to this setup. It’s not enough to just be a proud dwarven warrior or a disenfranchised elf or an ambulatory soccer ball “eager and precocious” gnome. No, some people feel they also need to be half-dragon half-vampire demon slayers “cursed” with lycanthropy. Seriously, I’ve seen people pulling that, and this is a mild example.
And not only do these morons dump piles of crap on top of their characters, they feel the need to broadcast it every chance they get. They could be standing on the main thoroughfare of a city, which is locked in combat with a particular group of dragons bent on the destabilization if not destruction of the world, and declare to anybody within earshot that they are a member of that selfsame group of dragons. Palm, meet face.
This affliction upon my chosen hobby is serious, but it isn’t terminal. There are ways we can fix this.
How, you ask?
Leave The Poor NPCs Alone
I will admit, I used to be bad about this myself. I used to play a character who was, in essence, a demigod. Moving to Warcraft from EverQuest watered him down quite a bit and helped me realize how pretentious it was of me to make assumptions about characters I’ve had no hand in creating. I think it’s safe to say I grew out of that phase.
When I see somebody saying their character is “this NPC’s master of siege warfare” or “that NPC’s hidden illegitimate son”, however, I rage just a bit. Sure, not everybody has realized how foolish that is, or even how it sounds. Yeah, people are entitled to playing whatever fantasy they want.
I have just as much right to pointing out how much it sucks. Seriously, you couldn’t come up with anything more original? Is it so hard to put one or two or a hundred degrees of separation between you and a particular canon character? Don’t you like heroes that come out of nowhere, from humble beginnings, and have to work their way towards greatness rather than being born into it?
That’s one thing I like about WoW’s achievements and some of the titles you can earn along with them. The key word in that sentence is “earned.” Things that are earned tend to mean more than things that are inherited, especially if you’ve only inherited them due to a lack of imagination. Do what you can to tell a story that, for the most part, leaves the poor NPCs alone.
Especially death knights. You people are special enough already. Your character, already a special something, let’s say an Oreo, has been given an extra layer of power and backstory by being raised by the Lich King and subsequently freed from his malevolent control. You are now an Oreo that’s been deep-fried. YOU CAN STOP THERE. You don’t also need to be a special sparkling vampire or a shapechanging dragon princess or dating the Banshee Queen or anything like that. ESPECIALLY YOU BLOOD ELF DEATH KNIGHTS. KNOCK IT OFF ALREADY.
Strippers Aren’t Automatically Naked
Things have more excitement and generate more interest when something is left to the imagination. A dancer approaching her audience in a gentleman’s club usually has something on, even if it’s designed to be removed very quickly. She’s not just bare for all to see right from the off. There’s something to look forward to, a feeling of the unknown, a touch of mystique.
In other words, do NOT dump your character’s entire life story and all of their secrets into a description box.
For one thing, it’s an area labelled “description” because it should have a description in it. Not a detailed explanation of why it’s totally plausible why you’re the bastard butt-baby of the human king and the orc warchief. Not a listing of all your character’s plans and motivations. And while listing a theme song by title and artist may be appropriate, laying out all of the lyrics of that song is not. Stop it.
I’ve let a paragraph or two of description run away with me in the past. I’ll admit it. I’m not trying to say I’m perfect and all of you suck. I’m saying that we all suck, but we can change that. When you get called on a description being too wordy or too revealing or too face-palmingly awful, change it. Don’t get butthurt, don’t point out how Knaak or Metzen said this or that or the other, just change it. It and you will be better for the experience.
While we’re on the subject, stop talking about how much you hate paladins when you’re surrounded by fucking paladins. You’re a magic-user, Intelligence is likely your highest stat, you’re supposed to be smart.
Grammar And Spelling: They’re Not Just For School Anymore
For Thor’s sake, people, this is basic stuff. I know not everybody has English as a first language, and now and again I’ll see a dangling participle or a sentence ending with a preposition. That’s okay. It happens.
But when I see people consistently and blatantly failing to capitalize and punctuate their sentences properly, my vision goes red. It is not that hard to hit Shift when you start a sentence. It’s even easier to press the period or question mark when you end one. Otherwise, how the hell am I supposed to tell how the conversation is flowing? You’re making me burn extra lean tissue on your sentences and it is pissing me off.
Even worse is the use of abbreviations in-character. A solemn declaration such as “You have no idea to whom you are speaking” loses some of its gravitas when it comes out “Shut up before I break ur face, u no nothing ((just kidding LOL))”. If your character is supposed to be eloquent, make an effort to type that way. Not every sentence you type has to be grammatically correct, in fact I’m sure several I’ve banged out just now aren’t, but can you at least make an effort to make this stuff coherent?
I think I’ve said my piece for now. Play me out, Mr. Durden.
You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else. … You’re not your class. You’re not how much gold you have in the bank. You’re not the mount you ride. You’re not the contents of your flag description. You’re not your fucking Sue. You’re the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.