Friday, September 22, 2017

Hitting The Fan

            Running a little late this week. Sorry.
            Truth be told, I don’t have a ton of time so this is going to be a bit short. So’s next week, honestly. Right now I’m trying to do a bunch of pre-publicity stuff for the release of Paradox Bound next week, and next week is... well, four signing events with about five hundred miles between them, plus some other stuff, plus getting ready to go to New York Comic Con..
            I’m going to be busy, okay?
            Plus, I have a bad habit of over-preparing for things. A holdover from being dirt poor.  I just assume everything bad is going to happen and try to cover all my bases.
           Of course, inevitably, the bad thing is something I didn’t plan for. I mean, if I’d planned for it, it wouldn’t be that bad, right?  It might be annoying, a minor obstacle at best, but it’d be tough to think of it as some kind of crisis.
            I wanted to talk today about the moment in a story when things go wrong and our characters suddenly have to depend on their wits to make it through.  They’re in a position they didn’t intend to be in.  I’m a big believer in that moment.  I think it’s what seperates a lot of average-to-good stories from great ones.
           Let’s use a heist as an example.  We’ve all read a good heist story (or at least seen one of the Ocean’s Eleven movies).  In a heist, we usually see our heroes and/or heroines go through lots and lots of planning, working out every detail. They know when the guards change shift, how long the elevators take, how much weight sets off the pressure plates, and more.
            But then—always—something goes wrong.  There’s a new alarm system.  They’ve changed the guard rotation.  There’s a power outage before our power outage—one we’re not in control of!—and Jake doesn’t know!  How’s he going to get out of there?!
            This is the moment we grow to love characters. When they have to think fast to get themselves out of a tricky situation.  When they’ve got to do something they weren’t prepared to do.
            Now, on the flipside of this... there’s a show I’ve been watching, and I really want to like it. It’s got a lot of elements I usually enjoy.  But nothing ever goes wrong for them.  I mean, they’ll hit problems.  Have thing they need to deal with.  Sometimes major adversaries to overcome.
            But again and again, they’d hit a problem, figure out what they needed to do in order to beat it... and that would work.  I need to do this.  I did this.  The end.
            Sounds kind of unsatisfying, doesn’t it?
            Spoilers—it was.
            This all ties back to something I’ve mentioned here before.  When someone’s so over-prepared that nothing’s a challenge, my story is boring.  My characters aren’t being pushed in any way, so it diminishes whatever’s driving the plot.
            Likewise, if my characters barely even need to be prepared and nothing’s a challenge... well, then my story’s still boring,  It might even be more boring.  Because now, no matter what this week’s crisis was, it’s clearly something that takes minimal effort to deal with.
            And let me take a quick minute to clarify something about effort.  Effort doesn’t just mean gritting my teeth and sweating.  If we know the hatch Wakko needs to open weighs three hundred pounds and he heeeeeeeaaaaaves it open, that’s just planning to do something strenuous.  What we’re talking about is when Wakko goes to heave open that three hundred pound hatch... and somebody padlocked it since yesterday when he scouted the place.  And he’s still only got ninety seconds to get it open before the zombie horde reaches us.
            That’s going to take some effort.
            And impress the hell out of my readers when Wakko does it.
            Speaking of readers, hopefully I’ll see some of you next week during my crazy California signing tour.  Or next weekend at NYCC.
            Until then... go write.
            And put some effort into it.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

One Last Reminder

            Hey, so... next week I start touring up and down California, plus a little trip out to the east coast for New York Comic Con.  If I’m going to be near you, please stop by and say hello—there’s still time to reserve a copy at your local book store.
            And if I’m not going to be near you... well, most of these stores take orders and ship. Some of them even ship internationally!  Give them a call, request something for enscribbling, and you can still have a personalized copy in your hands in just a few days.
            And there’ll still be blog posts next week.  They just might be a little shorter, that’s all.
            Hope to see you soon.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Choo-Choo-Choose You II: The Last Starfighter

            I posted a link to last week’s rant over on my Facebook fan page, and somebody asked a question about it.  And I started answering there, but then I realized it’d be better over here. And then (as I was scrawling my response in the comment section) I realized it’d work even better as a quickie Tuesday post.
            So... the question.

            I'm curious how you view Alex Rogan's arc in "The Last Starfighter". It seems to violate your rule about chosen ones not getting invested in the other world. As a character arc, it was pretty believable to me, 

            A fair point.  I tried to make this clear, but I can see where it might not be.  Two points from Ravenclaw for that one.
            Okay, I hate that I have to refer to this but...
            In his various musings on story, Joseph Campbell has a step—“rejecting the call.” At first glance it seems like it’s a rebuttal of my “not getting invested” point, but it's not. Y'see, rejecting the call happens much earlier in the plot. In The Matrix, for example, it's Neo refusing to trust Morpheus when they first talk on the phone (and getting arrested). In The Force Awakens, it's Rey insisting she can't leave Jakku and has to stay behind. And here, in The Last Starfighter, it's Alex learning about aliens, the KoDan Armada, the head-crushing bad guy, and saying “nope, nope, nope—take me home!”
            But really, how long does that refusal last?  In any of these cases? Alex is home for all of... what, an hour?  Two?—before he realizes he has to go back.
            One of the thing about investment is that it takes time. In-story it takes even more time.  When a plot dives head-first into action on page one, it doesn’t mean much because we don’t know who these people are. And how often do we roll our eyes when a story tries to convince us of “love at first sight”...?
            When someone refuses to get invested and walks away, that happens later in the story.  In the particularly bad movie that sparked that rant, the chosen one walked away over an hour into the movie.  Within the movie, weeks had passed, weeks of people training this guy as the chosen one.
            In a way, this is a lot like the difference between saving the cat and patting the dog.  The isolated acts themselves look very much the same, but they’re different because of when they happen in my story and what they’re trying to accomplish.  Refusing the call is a character thing.  It’s a believable response to being shown a bigger world, or a bigger destiny, and it helps ground our suddenly-overwhelmed protagonist and make them more believable.
            But refusing to be invested is just a cheap attempt to build tension.  It undercuts any character growth that’s happened and makes the reader/audience question if this character can really be trusted. Which really sucks if the character is my long-heralded chosen one protagonist.
            In short, it makes my story worse.
            Next time, character stuff. For real.
            And, hey—two weeks from today I’ll be at Borderlands in San Francisco with my brand-shiny-new second hardcover, Paradox Bound. Give ‘em a call, reserve a copy, and come say “hi!”
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

I Choo-Choo-Choose You!

            Pop culture reference. Just a decade or two old.
            Hey, speaking of pop culture, if you’ve lived on the Earth at any point this century, you’ve probably heard of a type of narrative called a chosen one story. They’ve been around in books and movies for, well, many decades, but over the past ten years or so this particular sub-genre has become kinda popular.
            On the off chance you haven’t been on Earth that long (in which case you have a spectacular story of your own to tell), a chosen one story is about a regular—often less-than-regular, somewhat sub-average and  outcast—person who comes to find out they have a grand destiny. Sometimes they’ve been prophesied, other times they just happen to fill a long-unfilled void.  King Arthur was a chosen one, as was Perseus.  On the more modern side , there’s also Neo, Buffy Summers, Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, Percy Jackson, Beatrice Prior... just to name a few.
            Seriously, just a few.  This has become a ridiculously common thread in books and movies.  Most of them tend to lean toward fantasy and young adult.  Not all, but enough that it’s worth mentioning. 
            And a lot of them, to be blunt, aren’t that good. Oh, there were some amazing ones up front, but as more and more writers dove at this popular sub-genre, we ended up getting more and more folks who... well, just didn’t get it. Nowadays, you’ll see a lot of agents and editors on their homepages or on Twitter, all more or less begging writers not to send them any chosen one stories.
            During a recent bout of Saturday geekery, I stumbled across a chosen one movie.  It had a lot of problems, and almost all of them circled around the idea that our main character was supposed to be some sort of chosen one. I say supposed to because... well, he was kinda awful at it.  On a bunch of levels.
            Let’s talk about a couple of them.
            So, some ways in which my chosen one might kinda suck...

--A chosen one who doesn’t do anything
            This is an issue for any main character, but it tends to really stand out with a chosen one.  I’ve seen far too many of these stories (including that recent one) where the chosen one is the least active character—in any sense. The entire supporting cast is doing all the work, making all the decisions, sharing all the information and my chosen one is doing... nothing.
            I’ve mentioned this sort of thing before. If I can swap out a character for a dufflebag full of towels and nothing would change in my story... maybe I don’t need that character. If all they are is something to hand off, protect, give orders to... I probably need to develop them more.  And have them be a little more active.

--A chosen one who doesn’t do anything anyone else couldn’t do
            This is kinda-sorta related to the last one.  I’ve seen more than a couple chosen ones who, when all’s said and done, just aren’t all that special.  It’s like if I said Jeff was the chosen one because he can mix drinks.  Are we living in some horrible mixerless dystopia? Are there no more shot glasses so nobody can measure anything? 
            You laugh, sure, but I’ve seen chosen ones who are “special” for far less then that.
            If my chosen one just needs to put a key in a lock, pick up a stone, or flip a few switches... my readers are going to wonder why nobody else could’ve done this.  If they need to read a page from a book, have blonde hair, steal a coin, or enter a password... there really isn’t anything that special about them.  These are all things anyone can do.  If someone’s been chosen for a great destiny, my readers (or audience) are going to expect that it’s, well... great.  Definitely not mediocre or mundane.

--A chosen one whose “gift” is ridiculously specific to the threat they face
            Okay, this is a tricky one.  Sometimes, in an attempt to make things more believable by having them very toned down, a storyteller end up with a chosen one who has an extremely specific gift or ability. For example, if Dot has a complete immunity to radiation in the 395-405 nanometer wavelengths... which happens to be the exact frequency of the laser weapons used by the alien battle robots.  Or maybe the evil dictator is famous for killing his enemies with a specific variant of cyanide... a specific variant that Yakko’s completely resistant to after a bizarre childhood accident.
            I know, these sound kinda ridiculous.  But this sort of thing crops up again and again.  The writer gives the chosen one a very narrow-focus ability, and that narrow range is exactly what the protagonist needs.
            In a way, it’s kind of like when characters suddenly, for no reason, start preparing for a crisis that doesn't exist.  And now, when a crisis does suddenly happen two months later... Phew, good thing my character spent those two months stockpiling food, weapons, ammunition, batteries, medical supplies, solar cells...
            When I do this, I’ve removed all sense of a challenge and also damaged the willing suspension of disbelief.  Yeah, it would’ve been hard to believe that Yakko is immune to all poisons, but not as hard as it is to believe he happens to be immune to the very specific one he needs to be. It doesn’t feel like destiny, it feels like I created a flimsy coincidence to get myself out of a corner.
            Look at it this way.  If the threat didn’t exist, would this gift make our chosen one special in any way?  Or would it seem like a really weird character trait I added on for no reason?          

--A chosen one who doesn’t become invested in this other world  
            This is a biggie.  It’s rare, but I want to talk about it because it can kill a whole story.  I mean, bang, dead, tossed across the room.
            Most chosen one tales involve the idea of another world or society existing alongside our main one, often in complete secrecy.  Wizarding worlds, cabals of rebel freedom fighters, supernatural beings, and secret conspiracies are all fairly common    Our chosen one often serves as a bridge between these two worlds, both for other characters and for my readers.  And they’re usually the chosen one because they’re either going to save that world or, alternately, bring it down and save ours.
            Another key aspect of these stories is there’s almost always a moment of doubt. Some point where Yakko doesn’t believe he’s the chosen one, or maybe Phoebe just doesn’t believe in him anymore.  It’s when my protagonist suddenly realizes they could just walk away from all this.
            But they don’t.
            The Oracle told Neo he wasn’t the One.  The various ministers, and even Voldemort, give Harry a bunch of chances to just walk away and stop fighting.  How many times did Katniss toy with the idea of just running away to live in the woods?
            And yet... none of them did.
            In the especially bad chosen one story I saw recently, the protagonist was destined to stop a cruel, murderous overlord. But then a few things went wrong. And the love interest said “Maybe you’re not the chosen one after all,” and someone else said “You should just go.”
            So he did.  The chosen one just left and went back to his old life.  Started pulling the nine-to-five again as if nothing had happened.  Never looked back once until the others came looking for him again.
            Does that sound like a hero anyone’s going to root for?
            Y’see, Timmy, one of the key things here is that my character needs to care about this struggle past how it involves them. They need to care about the crisis and the people involved in it. Really, their role as the chosen one needs to be secondary.

            And that’s that.  Four ways my chosen one might not be the best choice for a character.
            Speaking of which, next time I may talk about characters a little more.
            Oh, and this Sunday is the Writers Coffeehouse.  Noon to three at Dark Delicaices in Burbank. Stop by and see how eloquent I sound when I have to talk about this stuff on the fly.
            Until then... go write.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

A Few Quick Things of Note

            Is one of these near you? You should preorder a copy of Paradox Bound! And then I’ll magically appear and tell funny stories and scribble in it for you.

            No, really...