Thursday, March 27, 2014

New York’s Hottest Club is Stufft

             Pop culture reference.  Long overdue.
            This is overdue, too.  Many thanks for your patience while I was away last week.  ConDor was lots of fun, got to speak with some great people, and even ended up with a few ideas for future ranty blog posts.
            Speaking of which...
            I blabbered on a while back about the bad habit of sticking absolutely everything into a story—the kitchen sink approach to storytelling, if you will.  If I’m writing a historical story, it’s crammed full of historical events and people.  If it’s a sci-fi story, I make sure every single person, place, and thing has a sci-fi, high-tech twist.  When I do this, it can get distracting really fast as my reader is buried in facts and details that really have nothing to do with my actual story.
            Sometimes, writers do this with their characters.  They give them lots of elements and defining points.  Lots of them.  Again, the kitchen sink approach.
            For example, I could make Yakko a guy from the backwoods of Maine and constantly reference his sheltered New England upbringing.   And he’s also a Piggers fan (go Piggers!) who’ll cheer/ defend/ quote/ relate things to the Piggers at every chance he gets.  Oh, and he’s also a ninja who studied for twenty years in Japan before returning to America.
            Now, in and of themselves, none of these are bad character elements.  Being the fish out of water isn’t far from being the ignorant stranger.  Ninjas are cool.  Lots of folks love the Piggers.
            But if Yakko’s ninja skills are never going to be necessary to further the plot—or even just to deal with an action set piece—maybe they’re not such a great character element after all.  If his devout love of the Piggers is irrelevant to the story, maybe I shouldn’t spend forty or fifty pages on it.  And if I could switch his background from rural Maine to suburban Texas with no repercussions, maybe it’s not that much of a character trait.  Again, none of these are inherently bad elements, but I really should spend time on an aspect of Yakko’s personality or backstory that has an affect on the story. 
            And if he doesn’t have an aspect that affects the story... well, why is he there?  Sure, he cracks some funny jokes and other characters bounce some dialogue off him.  Maybe he even throws a key punch during a fight. 
            But in the long run, does Yakko do anything that another character couldn’t do?  What makes him unique?  Why is he here and not Wakko or Dot?
            I see a lot of this, I hate to say, in genre material.  Fantasy.  Urban fantasy.  Sci-fi.  Writers add in lots and lots of stuff to show how their world is different from other fictional ones.  And they do the same thing with their characters.  No one is just human.  They’re all sorcerers, telepaths, half-zombies, androids, paladins, and time traveling prophets.  But four out of five times this is just a label that’s been slapped on them as an attempt at characterization.  None of these traits are relevant in any way.
            For example...
            I read a story recently where one of the characters, a very small woman, turned out to be a female leprechaun.  Kind of makes sense—little leprechauns have to come from somewhere, right?  Whenever she got worked up (in any sense) her eyes and hair would turn green and she’d get a sparkly rainbow aura.  Halfway through the story she’s bitten by a vampire and becomes one herself.  So now she’s a vampire leprechaun.  No, I’m not joking.  She’d even change into a green bat.  And eventually she dies when she can’t find cover at sunrise.
            This all sounds kind of cool, yeah, but the thing is... none of this had any affect on the story. Not a single bit.  Her leprechaun abilities didn’t do anything.  Her vampire abilities didn’t do anything.  The combination of them didn’t do anything. 
            In fact, the biggest effect on the story was a four page discussion over drinks about being a leprechaun, followed by an interesting scene (see above) back at the protagonist’s apartment, and then many references to the fact that she was now one of the undead, and an undead leprechaun at that.  Heck, sunrise happened during a big fight scene, so she just could’ve been killed by one of the evil plant people.  If she’d just been a small woman the story would’ve progressed almost exactly the same, just with more time and space to give her some... well, useful traits.  And she would’ve been a lot more relatable
            If I had to give this a name, I’d call it the Stefon Factor.  If you’re not familiar with Stefon, the overly-enthusiastic club promoter from Saturday Night Live, he tends to talk about clubs that are filled with... well, oddities.  Lots of oddities.  In his own words, “This club has everything!”  But the truth is he rarely talks about the clubs themselves.  They just get defined by the patrons (which, granted, was part of the joke).
            Y'see, Timmy, in the same way a pile of random story points don't automatically add up to an interesting story, a handful of assorted character elements doesn't always result in a worthwhile character.  When I’m creating a character, his or her traits should have an effect on the story.  As I’ve mentioned before, every superhero group has a strong guy because at some point they need a strong guy.  And if my story has a vampire leprechaun, then at some point things should come to a dead halt if I don’t have the powers  of a vampire leprechaun to call on.
            Now, let me give you a more positive example...
            There’s an old Martin Caidin book called Cyborg which inspired a much more well-known television show called The Six Million Dollar Man.  Now, this may sound kind of obvious, but the entire book is about the fact that Colonel Steve Austin has been loaded full of bionic parts after a plane crash.  He goes on a couple of missions which would be nigh-impossible without his cybernetics.  The story also focuses on Austin coming to grips with the fact that his government has turned him into a Frankenstein’s Monster, that almost half of his body isn’t him anymore.   If he wasn’t a bionic man, none of this would work.  The plot would struggle and his character arc would be nonexistent.  It’s not just a random label—the whole book hinges on the fact that he’s a cyborg.
            So give your characters relevant traits.  Make them necessary to your story.  Because if they aren’t... why are they there?
            Next time, a few quick thoughts on dating.
            Until then, go write.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Plucking the Black Bird

            Very sorry for missing a week.  And a day.  I’m really trying to get this draft done before I have a bunch of late spring/ early summer cons.  Like next week, when I'll be at ConDor in San Diego...
            Anyway, for today’s rant... a little storytelling history lesson.
           I’m sure most of you reading this are familiar with the classic film Satan Met a Lady.  It’s adapted from a novel, something Hollywood really did a lot of at the time (thank God that phase is over).  The story focuses on a pair of detectives who take on a simple missing persons case and  find themselves in a complicated web of double and triple-crosses involving a bunch of murderous collectors and mercenaries searching for a priceless artifact lost since the Crusades.  One of the detectives is killed and the other one ends up playing a dangerous game, bluffing the assorted treasure hunters while he tries to figure out who he can trust and how far he can trust them.
            Not ringing any bells?
            No, of course not.  Nobody ever remembers the originals, just the remake.  The third remake, in this case.  But at least this time Warner Brothers decided to stick with the title of the book—The Maltese Falcon.
            Alas, there was a slight problem... 
            The Maltese Falcon is a story chock full of adultery, violent crime, seduction, backstabbing, womanizing, and more than a sprinkling of (gasp!) homosexuality.  Today these all seem like good, wholesome American values and activities, I know.  In the early 1940s, though...
            Y’see, when Warner Brothers decided to film their now-legendary remake, Hollywood was operating under an incredibly restrictive set of rules called the Hays Code.  One way to think of it would be that the Code was Prohibition for the film industry.  It put severe and very strict limits on what could be shown or spoken about in a movie.  Swearing was not allowed, especially taking the Lord’s name in vain.  Same with drugs in pretty much any form.  Blood and violence had to be minimal.  There was a list of crimes you could only show in very specific ways (including arson, prostitution, theft, smuggling, murder, sabotage, and more).  Nudity—even suggested nudity—was right out. 
            Also, films had to be morally upright.  People had to be good or bad—no gray areas or questionable ethics.  The good guys always won, the bad guys always got what was coming to them.  No one insulted the church or the flag or anyone else’s flag.  This was not a time of moral conundrums.  Y’know, like whether or not white and black people should date...
            The thing is, though, in the end, the Hays Code really did make The Maltese Falcon a better movie... just not in the way the censors expected. 
            Unable to use graphic images or even mention certain topics out loud—such as Spade’s affair with Archer’s wife, Joe Cairo’s homosexuality, or even the extent of Gutman’s ruthlessness—the writers and filmmakers were forced to rely much more on subtlety, subtext, and implied action.  Several major events happened off-camera.  Some of the relationships are revealed in a few carefully chosen words.
            (also, fun fact—Elisha Cook Jr., the actor who played Gutman’s hired gunslinger, Wilmer, was later cast as Captain Kirk’s lawyer on one of the original episodes of Star Trek.  No, seriously. Check it out...)
            You might remember a few months back I mentioned a movie from the same era that did something similar.  Chain Gang had two rival reporters discussing whether or not they were going to blow off a court case they were covering and go have a nooner.  The woman eventually shot the man down.  Except all they really did was talk about how certain the outcome of the case was and order lunch.
            What am I getting at?
            One of my favorite shows right now, Person of Interest, recently made an interesting distinction between two of the lead characters.  Mr. Reese, the former black-ops-turned CIA assassin-turned-avenging angel, is the team’s scalpel.  Miss Shaw, the sociopathic former NSA killer, is their hammer.  This was a big moment in a somewhat uneven third season, because it finally nailed down what role each of them filled. As their employer points out, there are times you need a hammer, but there are far more times you should use a scalpel.
            These days, there’s a lot of freedom for writers.  No one telling them what works or what doesn’t.  Very little is considered taboo.  Because of this, I think, I see a lot of folks who rely on the hammer.  They’ll show all the gore.  In fact, they’ll dial the gore up to eleven.  And the sex.  Same with violence.  If I may tread on sensitive ground, rape gets used as a hammer quite often in fiction—it’s a blunt, graphic act that gets an equally blunt reaction from the reader and other characters.
            There are many times the hammer works.  The hammer tends to get an immediate emotional response.  The downside to it is that after three or four hammer blows, my target’s just not going to be feeling that much.  The very extreme nature of it means I can’t keep hammering forever without reducing things to mush.
            That’s why we have the scalpel, and why it’s good to fall back on it now and then.  Anyone can swing a hammer, but there’s a reason surgeons have several years of training before they’re set loose in an operating room.  If someone knows what they’re doing with a scalpel, well, they can keep getting a reaction out of you... pretty much forever.
            See that?  That was a scalpel moment.  I just left the implications there for you to figure out.  And the thoughts and images that cut through your mind were so much worse than anything I could’ve described.
            Y’see, Timmy, if I can train myself to use a scalpel instead of always falling back on the sledgehammer, it’s going to give my writing much more variety and depth.  It’s also going to make my readers feel smart, because the scalpel depends on them doing a lot of the work.  And they’ll like that.  Honest.
            So here’s my challenge.  Next time you sit down to write (which will either be later today or first thing tomorrow, yes?), make a point of using the scalpel.  If your story calls for a sex scene, go out of your way not to describe body parts or sounds.  If there’s a moment of gruesome horror, see what happens when you don’t use blood and gore.  If it’s a romantic conversation, try not talking about anything romantic.  See where it gets you.
            Next time, I’d like to talk about New York’s hottest club—Stufft.
            Until then, go write.
            With a scalpel.