Thursday, December 18, 2014

Bulletproof

            A simple, straightforward title for this week.
            I was talking with my dentist a few weeks back about new television shows (he’s very chill that way) and we brought up... well, I’ll be polite and not mention it by name.  He was interested to see where this show went.  I’d already predicted a bunch of issues it would need to overcome which it instead chose to embrace fully.
            Allow me to explain.
            I’m going to create a series from scratch here (although I’m sure some of you will figure out what I’m referring to pretty quick).  Let’s say I’m doing a show called Young Revolutionaries.  It’s going to be an early-twenties George Washington at university (probably Penn State—that was around then, right?) with early-twenties John Adams and early-twenties Thomas Jefferson and mid-twenties Ben Franklin.  There’s also mid-twenties Martha Dandridge who George has an undeclared love for, her sexy designer friend Betsy, and that creepy mid-twenties kid, Benedict, who just lurks around classrooms a lot eavesdropping on people.
photo: Kat Bardot
            Here’s a few quick episode ideas.  What if George gets in trouble during ROTC (that was around then, right?) for chopping down that cherry tree and is told he’ll never be an officer?  Maybe he even resigns from the Army.  Or maybe Thomas injures his hand in a duel over the honor of foreign exchange student Sally Hemings (that’s more or less correct, right?) and now he may never write anything again.  And Ben can have a small breakdown from exam stress and decide he’s giving up on his science/history/philosophy degree and going to be a baker.  Or what if Martha decides she’s in love with Benedict and decides to marry him.  And when John finds out and tries to stop them from eloping, Benedict shoots him. We could end season one with young John Adams bleeding out in his log cabin.
            (Also, I apologize in advance—by putting this out onto the internet there’s a good chance this show just went into development at Fox or the CW.  Hopefully I’ll at least gets a “created by” credit when it premieres next fall).
            So... what do you think of Young Revolutionaries so far?  Sound like a bunch of solid episodes, yes?  Lots of dramatic potential?
            Even if you’re reading this from somewhere in Europe, you’ve probably already spotted a few holes in my story plans.
            It’s tough to build drama when we already know a lot of details about where the story’s going.  I can’t get anxious about whether or not George and Martha get together when I already know they get together.  There’s a bit of mild interest how it’s going to happen, sure, but the truth is, because I’m replaying history, this isn’t the first time this has happened.  And things lose our interest when they get repeated.  That’s just the way of the world.  The movie I’m glued to the first time I see it eventually becomes the movie I’ve got on in the background while I’m working on little toy soldiers or something.
            Likewise, it’s hard to build up drama by using incidents that I know are nullified by later events.  George Washington doesn’t just become an officer, he becomes a full general, and me trying to imply this isn’t going to happen is kind of silly.  We know Jefferson’s going to write a ton of stuff.  John Adams isn’t going to die, either.  Heck, he won’t even have any lasting scars or side-effects from that gunshot.  The bullet could’ve just bounced off him for all the effect it actually had on things.
            And bulletproof characters are boring. 
            So let’s think about Young Revolutionaries again.  George Washington won’t catch a bullet.  Ben Franklin definitely won’t.  Neither will Martha.  Or Thomas.  Or Betsy.  Even Sally’s pretty safe.
            What can I really do with this series?  Not much.  It’s pretty much just narrative thumb-twiddling as my plot drags along to the points we all know it’s going to hit. That it has to hit, really, because we all know the story.
           Y’see, Timmy, if my characters can’t be put at risk, it’s tough to give them any sort of interesting challenge.  I can’t have many cool twists to their story if I already know how the story goes and how it ultimately ends.  And it’s tough for my readers to relate to a character who’s going against...well, established character.   There’s just not much for me to do.  It’s very similar to an issue I’ve mentioned a few times before—the characters who are prepared for any and everything.
            This is one of the big reasons I’m against prequels.  Not as some hard-fast rule, but I think it’s extremely rare that they’re worth the effort (either reading them or writing them).  It just tends to be a melodramatic re-hashing of events that ultimately lead... well, right were we knew they were leading all along.
            Now, I’d mentioned this “bulletproof” idea to a friend and he made the point that, well, isn’t this true of almost any series character?  Marvel isn’t going to kill off Iron Man any time soon, and DC probably doesn’t have a Batman obituary waiting in a drawer. Odds are pretty good Jack Reacher’s not taking a bullet in the head anytime soon.  I feel safe saying Kate Beckett won’t be losing an arm in this season’s Castle finale. 
            We all understand these characters have an aura of safety around them, so to speak.  So does this mean all series characters are bulletproof? Are all these stories destined to be rote melodrama?
            Well, no.  Let’s look at something like, say, The Sixth Gun (one of my personal favorites right now).  Odds are writer Cullen Bunn isn’t going to kill off Drake Sinclair or Becky Montcrief anytime soon.  But it doesn’t mean he won’t and can’t.  None of us know what’s happening in issue fifty.  Or sixty.  Or one hundred.  Even if we can be relatively safe in assuming they’re relatively safe... well, there’s still a chance Bunn could pull a Joss Whedon or J.K. Rowling on us and suddenly kill one of his main characters.  We can feel pretty safe... but we don’t really know for sure.
            And there is a world of possibility in that little gap of certainty
            But if Bunn decides to flash back to what Sinclair was doing five years ago... well, we all know he didn’t die in a gunfight after a poker game.  So hinting that he might is kind of a waste of time.  Same thing if he says he’s moving to Asia and never coming back.  It’s just more thumb-twiddling until we get back to the real story.
            Again, I’m not saying this kind of prequel storytelling can’t work.  But it is very, very difficult to do it well.  A lot tougher than many Hollywood executives seem to think.  And it’s choosing to do an inherently limited idea when I could be doing one where anything could happen.  One that’s moving forward, not treading water.
            Next time...
            Well it had to happen.  Next Thursday is Christmas.  And the Thursday after that is New Year’s.  Some folks believe this only happens every 2342 years, and other folks have looked at a calendar before. 
            Whichever camp you happen to fall in (I don’t judge...much), I probably won’t be posting on either day.  But I’ll probably drop my usual year-end summary here sometime before January.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

On the Cover of a Magazine...

            As promised, two in one week.  Both with clever titles.
            So, want to know an easy way to boost the hits on your website or Twitter account?  Post a sentence along the lines of this...
            Wakko slammed a fresh clip into his pistol and got back to spraying lead across the street.
             I’m sure several of you already see the problem, yes?  I used clip instead of magazine.  Well, here’s the catch...
            Yes, as usual here, there’s a catch.
            At the risk of angering a lot of folks... If I ever feel the need to correct someone about this, I’m probably not a good writer.  Seriously.  I would say nine times out of ten when I see other would-be-writers make this complaint...they’re wrong.
            (And I say would-be because that does seem to be where a good three-quarters of the comments come from—newbies intent on explaining to established writers where they messed up)
            Now, I’m sure a few folks are already leaping down to the comments to tell me I’m wrong.  There is a difference between a magazine and a clip.  And it matters! 
            To those people I have one thing to say.
            Paintbrushes.
            You heard me.
            Remember Bob Ross, the happy painter on PBS with the bushy hair?  Even if you never actually saw his show, he’s such an iconic part of Americana you probably know him.  Heck, it wouldn’t surprise me if there’s a large number of people outside the US who can identify him.
            Bob Ross could paint a gorgeous landscape in under half an hour and make it look easy.  He did it with an array of paints, a few specialized tools, and maybe six or seven different brushes.
            Name three of them.
            Any three brushes he used.  Or any painter uses.  Go.
            I’m sure a lot of you thought of the fan brush.  Then maybe smiled and thought of the happy brush.  Maybe... wasn’t there an angled one, like a... a wedge, or something? 
            But even then... their actual names?  No clue.
            That’s not really surprising, of course.  I’m willing to bet most of us here have never done more than dabble in painting.  It’s not our field of specialty, so we don’t know a lot of the specific terms.  We just know the brushes on sight or maybe by the names we’ve given them or heard a few times.  Like the happy brush.
            In a similar manner, if my characters don’t know anything about weapons, it wouldn’t be unusual for them to not understand the difference between a magazine and a clip (or between a Sig and a Glock, or a broadsword and a longsword, or...).  They’d just go off what they remember from television and movies, or maybe some novels they read.  Sure, Yakko the former black ops guy would know, but Wakko the homemaker?  Odds are, he’s going to call that thing full of bullets a clip. Just like Mr. T did on The A-Team.
            Y’see, Timmy, all those people muttering about magazines vs. clips—they’re not wrong about terminology. They’re just focused on the wrong thing (one might even say it's an empathy issue).  The important question here is not which term is factually correct, it's which term should be used in my story,  We’re not writing textbooks, after all, we’re writing fiction.  And one of the bigger lessons to learn in fiction is that sometimes my characters will get things wrong. They’re not going to know everything.  Because characters who know everything tend to be very boring and wooden.
            If I had to guess why some people get so adamant about this—and I’ll try to tread lightly here—I’d think it’s because firearms are a divisive subject.  They tend to divide people politically, ethically, and even socially.  And this can cloud a writer’s view of things in both directions.  Some folks don’t want to make a stupid libtard mistake.  Others don’t want to listen to some crazy, overbearing gun nut.
            But, as I mentioned earlier this week, this isn’t the real world—it’s fiction.  If I want to keep my point of view consistent, I’m going to have some characters who load their pistols with clips.  Maybe a lot of them. And, yes, also some who know it's called a magazine.
            Next time, I’d like to keep talking about characters and gunslingers a  bit by talking about bulletproof people.
            Until then, go write.

Monday, December 8, 2014

There Are Those Who Call Me...

            So very sorry about missing last week.  I was juggling a few things, time slipped away from me, and suddenly it was Saturday and somebody hadn’t updated things here.  Past me, I’ve discovered, can be a real lazy bastard sometimes.
            To make up for this, I’m going to do two shorter posts and put them both up this week.  Just some quick, easy tips.  I’m sure future me won’t mind writing them.
Not this Doug
            Anyway...
            I read a book a while ago about a character named Doug.  Good solid name.  That’s how the book referred to him.  Doug.
            Except to his parents.  They were only in the first two chapters, and they called him Douglas.  But even then, he thought of himself as Doug and that’s what he was called for the rest of the book.
            Although every now and then he was “the short guy” or “the short man” to break things up a bit.  Which is understandable.  Using someone’s name over and over and over again gets boring fast.  So once or twice on a page he’d be the short guy.  Or the short man.
            Except... there was a character, Jay, who’d been friends with Doug for years, and whenever they spoke Jay would always refer to Doug as “wingman.”  “Hey, wingman, grab me a drink while you’re up.” 
            Except... there was another character, an older one, who had met Doug briefly years ago (a friend of his parents).  At the time, Doug had been four and playing in a mud puddle.  So this guy kept referring to Doug as “the dirty kid.”  “Hey, dirty kid, what’s up?”  “The dirty kid said you might stop by.”
            Now, it’s understandable why people do this.  Over the course of our lives, most of us accumulate a number of names and nicknames and titles.  Most of my friends call me Pete, but I have a fair amount who call me Peter, as do most folks who don’t know me as well.  There’s also a bunch of family terms (son, brother, uncle, cousin) that different people use for me.  There’s also a number of folks who just refer to me by my last name.  For almost fifteen years I was regularly called Peter Props.  An early experiment with facial hair had a few mindless jocks referring me Goat-boy for two years of high school.  Heck, a woman in my college fencing class started calling me Hamlet and stuck with it for the whole time I knew her. 
            And there are more names past that.  We all end up with them.  That’s just life.
            But we’re not talking about real life.  We’re talking about fiction.  Two different animals.  I’d never use all these names consistently for myself, or for a character in one of my stories.  This is a variation on a problem I’ve mentioned before, usually in regards to screenwriting--the dump truck.  It’s a ton of names that I’m throwing at the reader for no real reason.  That’s just going to get confusing, and confusion breaks the flow.
            Think of Agents of SHIELD, where many characters have codenames (the Cavalry, Mockingbird, Hawkeye).  Nine times out of ten, though, if a name is used, it’s just their given one (Melinda May, Bobbi, Clint).  Because it’s less confusing that way.  It's the same in my Ex-Heroes books, where everyone has secret identities
            Y’see, Timmy, it’s okay to reference some of these things, but they shouldn’t be fighting with the name I’ve chosen to use for my character.  I may have a rich history written up for my character Eli, which includes a few names he’s collected, but I’m only going to use what’s relevant for my story.
            Next time, this Thursday, I shall continue things at this fast clip.
            Until then... well, come on.  You should know by now.