Thursday, October 27, 2011

Blaming the Victim

            I’ve finally switched over to the new Blogger format.  A bit torn on it, myself.  Please let me know if you like it or not, because I can duplicate the old style, it just takes a bit of work. 
            Halloween is upon us, which means it’s time for me to do something horror-related here on the ranty blog.  It’s a topic I’ve touched on once or thrice before.  This time I thought I’d put a slightly different spin on it.
            As some of you know, I spent last weekend up at ZomBCon in Seattle.  It was eye-opening in several ways, and one of those ways (like any decent convention) was the people in costume.  There were a lot of fantastic zombies and related beasties, but there were also a lot of zombie fighters—people with miniguns and machetes and body armor.  Heck, one of my fellow Permuted Press authors, Eloise J. Knapp, showed up dressed to kill.  Not in the fun way.
            A lot of horror tends to focus on the enemy.  My zombies are different from your zombies.  Your vampires are different than my vampires.  Neither of our axe-wielding, demonically-possessed psychopaths are like her axe-wielding, demonically-possessed psychopath.  Horror can be broken down into many  different sub-genres, just like sci-fi, comedy, or other art forms like sculpting or painting.  Being labeled "horror" doesn't mean Frankenstein is anything like The Descent, and neither of them resembles Paranormal Activity VII.
            What I want to talk about, though, are the victims.  Different types of antagonists define a story, true, but the same holds for the protagonist.  While A vs. B makes one type of story, A vs. C is something different and D vs. G is another world altogether.  So recognizing what type of characters I’m writing about can help me define what kind of story I’m writing, which helps me market it.  If I tell an editor it's not torture porn when it plainly is, at the best I’m going to get rejected.  At the worst, they'll remember me as "that idiot" when my next piece of work crosses their desk—even if I’ve fixed my mistakes since then.
            Here’s a few types of horror stories and the people you often find in them.

Supernatural stories
            Not talking about the television show, mind you. 
            The characters tend to be average folks in most supernatural stories.  They’re not idiots, but they’re not millionaire Nobel winners or retired assassins. Almost universally, the main character of a supernatural story rarely comes to harm.  They’ll need clean underwear, maybe have to dye their hair back to its natural color, and they probably won’t sleep well for a few months or years.  Physically, however, they tend to come out okay.  There might be some mental scarring, but that’s about it.  If anyone suffers in a supernatural story it's usually the bad guy or a supporting character.  Often, though, people have died in the past.

Slasher stories
            These tales feature teenagers and young adults as their victim of choice.  Lots of teenagers, out of which two at most might survive.  A few people over the age of twenty-five may catch a machete, but ever since John Carpenter made the original Halloween (and it was horribly misunderstood and copied by dozens of filmmakers) it’s pretty much set in stone who the victims are in this sub-genre.
            A key difference between slashers and torture porn stories (see below) is that the victims here have a chance to escape.  It’s rare for the victim to die without hope or warning in a slasher film.  There’s often a chase or at least a struggle.  We get the sense that if Phoebe didn’t trip over that tree root or if Wakko hadn’t stopped to “deal with this guy” they might’ve gotten away.  Heck if Dot just could’ve run a little faster she would’ve made it to the car and relative safety.

Monster stories
            A monster story is about an unstoppable creature.  Godzilla is a monster, in a very obvious sense, but so is Freddy Kruger (in his later films), a zombie horde, and the alien in Alien.  I think the reason Jason X is so reviled by fans of the franchise is that the filmmakers turned it into a monster movie, not a slasher film like the ones before it.
            As such, the focus of a monster story is usually to get away from the threat.  Yeah, most horror movies involve running away.  In a monster story, though, it’s immediately self-evident this is the best choice of action.  Monster stories can have a lot of survivors because the monster, by its nature, is kind of attacking randomly.  It never gets personal for them.  The characters in a monster story are almost bystanders, swept up in the events and sometimes just left to watch from the sidelines.

Giant Evil stories
            In these stories the characters are usually pathetic pawns at best, helpless victims at worst (well, from their point of view).  Giant evil stories are close to monster stories in that the antagonistis just overwhelming.  There are two big differences, though.  One is there’s no way for characters to escape giant evil.  It’s everywhere.  Two is that giant evil rarely has a face.  It may have minions or manifestations, but often it isn’t something characters can “find,” if that makes sense.
            The characters in giant evil stories tend to be older and smarter.  They’re not hormone-crazed teens, but very educated adults with a bit of life-wisdom under their belts.  In my opinion, it’s because a large part of the horror here is realizing just how overwhelming the force against them is.  It’s something a younger character usually isn’t quite up to grasping because they don’t have as much of a world to overturn.

            Thrillers tend to focus on just one or two characters rather than a larger cast, so when people die they tend to be supporting characters or nameless folks in the background.  A thriller is about what could happen, not what does happen, so the big threats have to stay looming.  While characters in a thriller tend to be more active in a general sense, for the most part they’re reacting to the sinister plots and machinations going on around them.

Adventure Horror stories
            To paraphrase from Hellboy, adventure horror is where the good guys bump back.  While these stories may use a lot of tropes from the other subgenres, the key element to these stories is that the characters aren’t victims—they’re actively fighting back from the start.  Not in a dumb, facing-off-against-Jason-Voorhees-with-a-baseball-bat way, but in a heavily-armed-armored-and-prepared way that has a degree of success. 
            It can still go bad for them (and often does), but these characters get to inflict some damage and live to tell the tale.  For a while, anyway. 

Torture porn
            A key element to torture porn is the victim is almost always helpless.  By the time the characters know what’s going on (no matter how obvious it is to the reader) they’re already bound and drugged.  They’re completely alone or vastly outnumbered.  Unlike a slasher film (see above) there’s no question in these stories that the victim is not going to get away.  That hope isn't here, because that's not what these stories are about.
            Torture porn walks a delicate line with its characters.  If they’re bland and interchangeable, what happens to them is kind of meaningless.  When was the last time you shed a tear for that broken chair in your back alley?  However if we know these characters too well then their torture really does become truly unbearable and horrific to the point that it isn’t remotely entertaining.  We cheer when people get killed in the Saw movies, but not when they’re killed in Schindler’s List.

            I’ll also make the observation that characters tend to be one type or the other.  It’s very rare to see such a dramatic character shift that Phoebe goes from being the complete victim to completely kick-ass.  As has been said to death, the seeds are always there.  Ripley may not gear up until the end of Aliens, but there are plenty of reminders all through it that she’s just as capable and resilient as any of the Colonial Marines—including the fact that she’s the only survivor of the first movie.  When someone changes too much without any motivation they become inconsistent, and an inconsistent character’s a sure way to end up in that big pile on the left.
            So, dwell on these points while you're munching on the ill-gotten gains you score while trick-or-treating with your candy beard.  Yeah, all of you with kids, you know what I'm talking about.
            Next time, I’ve been going back and forth about what I want to do.  I might just give a random quick tip.  Or maybe I’ll talk about going back and forth.
            Have a Happy Halloween.  Don't forget to write.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

God is My Co-Writer

So, a few years back one of my friends read for a religious-themed screenplay contest. And, when it got to the point that he was pulling his hair out, I pitched in and read a few scripts for him (I owed him money, anyway). It exposed me to a lot of stories about God, Jesus, various members of the heavenly host, and—to be terribly honest—a lot of really bigoted, small-minded people. Not all of them, by a long shot, but enough that it’s worth mentioning, unfortunately.

Two weeks back I asked for ideas, and one fellow (stand up and wave, Matthew) suggested the idea of approaching God, or any god, in a story. How can you do it without annoying readers while still doing justice to your chosen almighty?

And then, by yet another odd coincidence, on one of my favorite message boards, a few of us were recently batting around the film The Adjustment Bureau, which, in the big picture, is about... well, guess.

First off, a few grammar and spelling points. If we’re talking about the Judeo-Christo-Islamic deity, it’s always God. Capital G. This also holds if you choose to call him the Lord. It doesn’t matter if you or your character are an atheist or agnostic or whatever—this isn’t a religious point, it’s just standard, accepted spelling. This deity is considered the definitive article and as such his (if I may be so presumptuous) name is always capitalized. It’s a proper noun. The same goes for the Bible. If you’re referring to the religious text that encompasses the old and new testament, it’s the Bible. You only use lower case when you’re speaking about a generic book of absolute fact, like if I tell you that Stephen King’s Danse Macabre is my bible.
And, really, if you’re going to write about Biblical-era tales, check out the MLA Handbook, because there are a bunch of unique grammar and spelling rules that apply to these names.

All of which leads to point two. I’m not talking specifically about God in this week’s rant, because a lot of the folks reading this are just as interested in Greek gods, Norse gods, Egyptian gods, Chinese demons, and cosmic entities from beyond time. But when it comes to stories, they all deal with a lot of the same issues.

Now, speaking of definitive articles, I’d like to start with an analogy...

In Danse Macabre, King tells a wonderful story about hearing William F. Nolan (the writer behind Logan’s Run and the legendary Trilogy of Terror films) talk at a convention. Nolan explained horror in terms of a closet at the end of the hall in a creepy, old house. Maybe the hero or heroine can hear something bumping around in there from anywhere in the house, and every now and then it thumps as whatever it is in there knocks an item off a hanger or tips a box off a shelf. As he or she gets closer, perhaps they can hear it scratching on the inside of the closet door. Endless scratching, scratching, scratching...

Finally, despite all our silent urgings, the character reaches out, turns the knob, and yanks open the door to reveal a ten-foot tall cockroach!!!

Thing is, even with the screams and the hissing and the mood music blaring, it’s kind of a relief to see that oversized bug. A ten-foot cockroach is pretty scary, no question about it, but a twenty-foot cockroach... man, I don’t know about you but that’d make me wet my pants pretty quick. It’s kind of a defense mechanism. Once I know what X is, I can imagine a scarier Y and X is reduced by comparison.

In the same way that naming the unknown horror lessens it, deities are lessened by defining them. When a writer tries to explain or show the scope of a god’s power, more often than not they’re really just establishing the god’s limits. If you tell me your god burns with the light of a hundred suns, I can say mine burns with the light of a thousand. If yours is a thousand feet tall and moves mountains, mine is ten-thousand feet tall and moves continents. The more the writer tries to show me, the easier it is for me to imagine something bigger and better (or nastier).

A great example of this is The Omen. No, the original. We shall not mention the remake here. Without giving away too much (although, why don’t you know this story already?), The Omen is about a diplomat who adopts a little boy. The boy, Damien, might be the Antichrist. I say “might” because... well, the movie actually makes you wonder. There are definitely people who think he’s the Antichrist. There sure are a lot of accidents and disturbing events that circle around the little boy. But the thing is... he never does anything. His eyes never glow, he never speaks in a deep, stentorian voice, he doesn’t shoot flames or lightning from his hands. Damien comes across as nigh-omnipotent because it seems completely effortless for him to get to anyone, anywhere—and that what makes him all the more terrifying. Because he doesn’t actively do anything, how’s anyone supposed to stop him? And what will happen when he does start being active?

Y’see, Timmy, defining something in any way automatically minimizes it, because the moment it’s been defined we can think of something bigger. Think of the little kid who yells, “infinity” and immediately gets countered with “infinity-plus-one!”

That’s why it’s always best to leave such omnipotent beings in the shadows rather than dragging them out into the light.  By their very nature, they're vast, undefinable beings.  Thus, the moment they get any sort of definition they're being lessened.

So, here’s a few quick thoughts for including a deity in your story.

Don’t—The simplest thing to do. Is a personal appearance really required for this story to work? The members of Congress have a big effect on my life, but I’ve never seen a single one of them in person. Heck, the only messages I’ve gotten from them have been spam emails and robocalls. But it doesn’t mean they aren’t there influencing aspects of my existence, and it doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be impressed if one of their aides gave me a call to chat about something. Which leads nicely to...

Minions—Gods of any type are impossible to fight, so including them on either side of the story equation really unbalances things. But I believe someone could beat cultists or demons or maybe even an angel. These are the beings my characters should be encountering. Remember, you can almost never get to the CEO because there’s a wall of flunkies, advisors, junior execs, and bodyguards in the way.

Silence is Golden—They used this one way back in It’s A Wonderful Life, when Clarence the angel would have one-sided conversations with the sky. Neil Gaiman did it in both The Sandman and the wonderful Good Omens (with Terry Prachett). Kevin Smith did it in Dogma. Mere mortals can’t hear the voice of God and expect to survive, so the Lord speaks through a number of mediums... or not at all. Keep in mind, to pull this off—especially the one sided conversation—your dialogue needs to be sharp and you can’t fall back on clumsy devices like repeating everything the silent person says just to make it clear what your god hates.

Comedy—People are a lot more willing to accept divine intervention (of one kind or another) if it has a comedy element. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s because when the writer’s not taking the matter seriously, it’s hard for people to have serious complaints. That’s why George Burns and Christopher Moore get away with mocking the man upstairs and The Last Temptation of Christ gets months of picketing. But this tone has to spread through your whole story. You can’t have your deity be the only source of comedy, because then you’re mocking him or her in the bad way.

Minimal Miracles—D’you ever hear the old saying about being so tough you don’t need to fight to prove it? More to the point, have you ever watched a movie where the bad-ass hero just fights and fights and fights and fights and fights? It gets boring, no matter how often he wins. Your omnipotent beings shouldn’t be expressing their power just to prove they can, because that power will start to get boring and take all the challenge out of the story one way or another. If everybody who dies gets brought back to life, what are people even fighting for?

Simply put... gods are the ultimate “less is more” when it comes to writing. The more a god—or demon, or cosmic entity—gets defined, the easier it is to name god-plus-one.

Next week... well, I’m going to miss next week. I’m one of the guests at ZomBCon up in Seattle. But when I come back, I’m sure I’ll have all sorts of scary and horrific things to talk about.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

This Should Be Obvious...

I’m a bit under the gun right now, so I don’t have time to rant on and on like I normally do. But I wanted to toss out something for this week.

The late Michael Crichton has a book called Travels which is more or less an autobiography of his early life. How he entered (and eventually left) medical school, selling his first few novels, and getting involved in the great, grinding machine of Hollywood. It’s a bit dry at points, but there’s some pretty interesting stuff in there. Including a fun story about how he once almost killed Sean Connery with a speeding train. Also how he and his girlfriend were molested by an elephant while camping in Africa.

If those last two sentences don’t make you want to buy that book, you have no real business being here.

For our purposes today, though, the important thing is a piece of writing advice young Michael got from his dad. If you want to know the full story behind it, again, grab the book. I’ll give you the short form.

Be very careful when you use the word obvious or its adverbial kissing cousin, obviously. It’s one of those words that should always get a second look in fiction, nonfiction, email, random message board posts, and so on.

If something isn’t obvious, it sounds arrogant to say it is. Think of all those times you’ve asked someone a question and they’ve answered you with “Isn’t it obvious?” If it was obvious we wouldn’t’ve asked the question (actual or implied). What the speaker or narrator is saying is, effectively, “I know I’m way smarter than you idiots and want to gloat about it.” So, if this is the situation, don’t use the word obvious, because the character or narrator in question is going to look like a jerk.

Unless, of course, the character saying so is supposed to be a jerk.

On the flipside, if something really is obvious, then you still don’t need the word. Things that are obvious are... well, obvious. The sky is blue. Sugar is sweet. Ninjas are cool. Expensive things cost money. Oxford is a good school. Nazis are bad. Colonel Hans Landa is very bad. Car crashes hurt, especially if you’re outside the car. All these things are, in fact, obvious to everyone, so it’s just wasted words for a writer to tell us so.

Try it. Use the “Find” feature to look for obvious or obviously in your latest manuscript and see how often you really need it.

Except for that one guy from Pod Six. He needs it. He’s a jerk.

Next time, by request and also by a series of conversations, let’s have a little talk about God and other gods.

Until then, go write.