They’re the Same Character!

They’re the Same Character!
Rogue
Low res image used for review purposes. All images here used for character study purposes under fair use doctrine.

I was talking to a student about narratives recently, and the topic of characters, story arch and Star Wars came up.

The student affirmed that he hated Rey, but really liked the main character from Rogue One.

Those were his words.

“What’s her name?” I asked.

The student looked at me blankly.

“How can you say you like a character you can’t even name?”

Comedic interaction aside, a classmate looked up her name, Jyn Erso. During some good natured back and forth, I asserted that Jyn and Rey are, in fact, pretty much the same character. You can hate both, but you can’t hate one and love the other. They are pretty much the same character.

Let’s just start with the simple biometric data: Both actresses (and therefore characters) are shorter (less than 5’9″). Only four inches separate them. Both have dark hair. They have the same build (healthyceleb.com says they’re exactly the sam weight). They both have lighter eye colors (green and hazel). So they do, in fact, look very similar.

Now let’s look at the character’s specifically.  Both were abandoned by their parents.  Both have a serious investment in their familial legacy/origin. Both are incredibly skilled in their craft and seemingly learn at alarming rates. Both are witty. Both are prone to “rage” moments.

downloadSeriously folks, @me on this. Heck, I can line up Rise and Rouge One plot point for plot point if you want in terms of their arch:

  1. Establish abandonment.
  2. Establish isolation.
  3. Introduce impact character who brings them to the rebellion/alliance.
  4. Character inspires large level action against threat.
  5. Character get’s captured/pinned down.
  6. Character faces idiotic odds.

The only actual difference between the two is that only one lived.

I suppose one could argue Rey’s arc is more complete, but ironically that’s the thing everyone (I talk to) disputes about why this trilogy is bad.

So I leave it to you wonderful readers. Assertion: Rey and Jyn are pretty much the same drn character. Agree or disagree?

Thanks for reading,

Matt

Star Wars: Fact and Feeling.

Star Wars: Fact and Feeling.

I’m going to limit this to about 1,000 words. Since the official movie poster for Episode IX, I’ve seen a lot of comments. I have my own feelings and opinions on the matter. You are all welcome to your opinions and feelings, but I just can’t sit down and listen to opinions stated as fact. I’ve already talked about how unfair the criticism for Star Wars is.

Instead of just ranting (this is absolutely a rant, it’s simply not limited to ranting), I decided to address some of the comments I saw about the poster and the movies in general and supply the facts. If you hate the movie, you hate it. However, if the reasons you hate it are simply not true, then why do you hate it? Let’s begin:

Palpatine portraitComment: “Palpatine’s return undermine’s Anakin’s sacrifice.”  This is only true if Anakin died to kill Palpatine. He didn’t. Anakin didn’t sacrifice himself to kill Palpatine. He’s motivation and goal was to save his son.  Remember? Remember Luke crying in agony for his father to help him? I do. It happened during the movie many people are screaming was ruined by this current trilogy. But if Palpatine’s death was the objective, Luke’s life was optional.  Therefore, if saving Luke’s life was the objective, the death of Palpatine was, in fact, optional. The fact that his death was a bonus may be a bit of a bummer, but it in no way undercuts Anakin’s sacrifice because the cause for which he died is still true. Luke lived. Also, we’re jumping the gun on the whole, Palpatine is alive thing aren’t we? Is Palpatine “alive?” Remember, this was the Sith Lord of Sith Lords here people. He even told Anakin a “more rounded view” (or something close to it) was necessary. Couldn’t this just be a Force ghost the same way Obi-Wan operated? What part of the original cannon trilogy provides any sort of rule stating a Sith Lord can’t. In fact, that same original trilogy proves they can. Anakin (redeemed or not) was still a Sith Lord, and he returned as a Force Ghost.  Frankly, I’m surprised we haven’t seen him yet. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Anakin appear before Rey.  So, you can hate the movie if you want, but you can’t hate it for undermining Anakin’s sacrifice because Luke lived.

Comment: “Rey is a Mary Sue.”  SIGH!  First off, people who don’t do this for a living really shouldn’t use terms they don’t understand. A novice calling any character a Mary Sue is like a fast food junkie walking into a five-star restaurant and calling the chef a Gordon Ramsey ripoff.   So, before we can bust this myth, we need to first define what a Mary Sue is. A Mary Sue is a female characters who is depicted as unrealistically lacking in flaws or weaknesses. There’s a simple per se counter to this comment, but I’m going to hold off on that. Let’s start with a more nebulous argument. “Lacking in Flaws.” Rey is absolutely overeager. That overeagerness gets her into several bouts of trouble. This flaw causes conflict, and some of that conflict doesn’t happen without that flaw. Examples? She reaches straight for the dark side of the force like a 2-year-old reaches for a pot on a hot stove. Right after doing that, she goes behind Luke’s back (another flaw) to do it again. Why? Well for yet another flaw. She’s overly invested on her heritage.  The whole “who are her parents” thing is still unresolved because BAD GUYS LIE! Kylo is a seriously POOR source of information. But assuming that statement (not fact) from Kylo is true, the entirety of the first two movies are hinged on Rey desperately seeking her parents. This truth is so pivotal, the possibility that her parents abandoned her (abandonment issues, also a flaw) tempts her to side with Kylo.  Some of you may argue that’s pretty thin.  Ok. So let’s talk about the whole “and weakness.”

SnokeMaybe while I was on the edge of my seat worried she might die, I missed the part where Rey broke Snoke’s hold of her and chopped of his head while she quoted Shakespeare and developed an entirely new connection to the force. I mean, I could have missed that. I saw the movie twice in a row, and maybe I wasn’t paying attention like the rest of the people who helped the movie profit $477.5 million just so they could turn around and bash it. But I could have SWORN that Rey was helpless as a kitten while Snoke mocked her and laughed at her. I would have testified in court that Kylo had to save her. But I guess I just fell asleep and dreamt that scene because everyone else seems to want to ignore that and call her a Mary Sue because they read an article on Reddit and they’re suddenly qualified to use terms they don’t understand.

While I have another hundred or so words, I have to stop somewhere, and this is a good point. Listen, you can feel however you want about Star Wars. But if those feelings are based on ignorance of a term or a perspective that changes the original series, aren’t you guilty of doing the very thing you claim to be mad about? I just had to provide a bit of perspective on some pretty toxic language I’ve seen out there. Yes, you have a right to speak. I’m doing so now, but it hurts me as a creator to see something get this much outrage. I mean, I’ve talked to fellow creators about books and decisions I hate. There’s one popular author I’ll never read because of a Star Wars book he read. But I don’t bash him every opportunity I get. I don’t have time. So instead of investing time in your day bashing something you don’t like (for reasons I don’t think make a whit of sense), why not just go watch something you do like?

Thanks for reading,

Matt

 

The Curse of Greatness

The Curse of Greatness

Greetings all,

I thought I might take a moment to discuss a topic near and dear to me. I love stories. They’re just so amazing, and each one is special for it’s own reason. But what happens when someone truly creates something exceptional? A trend I’m noticing these days is that the greater a creation someone has, the more demand that artist is to create something greater, but that’s not a consistent measurement for any number of reasons. Lately, I’ve seen a number of people talk about how awful something is. I’d be in the middle of asking why they didn’t like it, and, inevitably, the other person would say something like, “His first book was so much better!”

OHHHHhhhhh! You’re not evaluating this story on it’s own merit, you’re comparing it to something else. Is it a completely unreasonable thing? Maybe not. I mean, every author and artist I know truly wants the next project to be better than the last. But I don’t know that I’d want to be judged on my last work, especially if I were ever lucky enough to create something amazing.

So what I’m going to do is look at a few projects to hopefully show what I mean.

downloadThe Star Wars saga: This might honestly be the most beloved story of all time. Even people who hate Star Wars (like, from 1980-something and beyond) still know it. They still get the jokes and memes. The original trilogy was lightning in a bottle. It does so many things well, and it hit people and culture at a perfect point in history. Here’s my statement though, no follow up, ever, could hope to hold up against it. First, we’ve had some 30 years to romanticize that story. We grew up, loving it, watching it, and reaffirming our love for it.

I don’t have statistics to measure this, but I’d be willing to bet money a guy is more likely to meet and marry a second wife before he’d be willing to let anyone touch is beloved Star Wars. Bold statement right? Is it? God forbid, if I lost Julie, I’d be devastated. I love her. I truly believe God made her just for me in the same way he made Eve for Adam.  Still, I’ve already asked her to try and find someone new if I die, and, after time, I might find someone new for myself. But whoever I meet, I’d meet and get to know on an individual level. How fair would this hypothetical situation be if I compared my second wife to Julie? Even more, people don’t really even consider it. Sure, they may recognize things or appreciate things that remind them of their original spouse, but they don’t hold the previous spouse against  the current one.

But make a prequel movie that doesn’t meet the twenty years of expectations I’ve placed on it, and we’ll riot. Make a sequel that doesn’t line up with my fan theory, and I’ll start a petition demanding Disney retcon the movie, and then I’ll lose my stuff because the director lacked the courage to stand behind his conviction of starting an original story line. This isn’t opinion, search #StarWars on social media and look at the hate. My sons actually said, “The sequels ruined Star Wars.”

Star_Wars_The_Last_Jedi.jpgThat gave me pause. “Did you even watch it?”

“Yes.”

“Did you like it?”

“Yeah.”

“Then how did it ruin it?”

“My teacher said so.”

First off, my kids are supposed to be learning skills, not being force fed your own personal opinion on art and cultural issues, teachers. No my sons are TAUGHT to hate a thing just because they want to fit in. (Tangent over.)

Here’s my point. You can say you like Star Wars, or you can hate it. But I wonder, if we had someone watch Episode 8, and make sure that person never saw the originals. What would that person think?  What would happen if we watched that movie just for that movie? Is it a part of a whole, sure, but fans today are measuring against decades of romanticized expectations and anticipation. Disney doesn’t stand a chance. I’m not saying 8 was the greatest ever, but it’s nowhere near the worst, and no amount of Jar Jar Binx can honestly ruin A New Hope.

So why talk about this? Am I trying to justify 8 vs the other episodes? No, like Disney, I don’t stand a chance. Neither does 9. Fans have chosen to love or hate that movie already, and they’ll love it or hate it regardless of the content because they’ve chosen to love it or hate it. It’s like politics. I could say the most hateful things, do the most horrible stuff in accordance to anyone’s opinions, but if I label myself a republican, republicans everywhere love me. Do the SAME stuff, and label myself a democrat and democrats everywhere will embrace me. It’s honestly the same with these transcendent works.

Harry_Potter_Cursed_Child_PlayThe Cursed Child: People everywhere are pretty polarized about this story as well.  I loved it. Now, fans didn’t have the same amount of time to romanticize this story, and I’ve noticed the dissatisfaction is way down. Do a survey, and I’d bet money those who hate it are those who grew up with Harry. I mean that literally. If they started it at 12 and finished it at 20-something, they probably hate Child.  Find those older readers who were more discerning and less impressionable, and at the very least I bet money that group will have a much more standard Bell curve.  Why do they like Beasts? They went away from all those main characters.  Why don’t they like Grimwald? They made editorial decisions on Dumbledore.  The only real way to stay in a universe and not get flack would be to  create a new story with new characters who don’t alter or affect the ones people fell in love with. Solo might be the most hated Star Wars movie (maybe).  But Solo doesn’t stand a chance. We love Han, and if the Han we see doesn’t fit into our romanticized view, we hate him. Frankly, no one can meet your romanticized view of a character.

So I fear ever writing that transcendent story. Because people forget what it means to truly create something transcendent. It’s notable specifically because it’s unique and original. I think a lot of directors, writers, and creators are unfairly held to a transcendent standard, and it takes away one’s ability to simply enjoy a story on it’s own merit.

books-1245690_960_720I very carefully didn’t give too many opinions on what I thought of these things because that’s my point. There is not fair comparison. There is no fair opinion. The very nature of an opinion is based on emotion and thought more than any measurable standard. I challenge readers and viewers to think about this the next time you watch or read something. I’ve seen things I didn’t enjoy as much. My wife asked if I’d watch a remake of Krull or a sequel.  I’d probably see the sequel, but I’d have to work very hard not to be unreasonable. I’ve had decades to imagine how I thought the story would go. My life as a writer even began with my work to pen a sequel to the story. So anyone else’s vision would just be insulting to me on a personal level because of my own filter and not because of the actual work, which really isn’t fair.

What are your thoughts? Do you agree? Do you disagree? I’d really like to have a civil discussion on this.

Thanks for reading,

Matt

Animorecon: A Weekend of Cool Cosplay

Animorecon: A Weekend of Cool Cosplay

Greetings all,

Last week, I had the chance to attend the first convention on my 2018 tour. I just wanted to share the pictures I grabbed of some of the amazing cosplay I saw. It was a fun event. It was far smaller, and events in DC and Baltimore at the time added a challenge. I did manage to sell a few books. One reader (Hi Sierra!), bought The Journals of Bob Drifter on Saturday. Sunday afternoon she approached me to playfully berate me for certain sad things that happened in the book. She’d already gotten halfway through it in a single day. You can’t put a price tag on that kind of feeling.

So the weekend became more about talking to cool people and getting some nice pictures.  So, without further delay, check them out!

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This was probably the most detailed and elaborate cosplay I found.  Well, maybe not the MOST in the convention, but it was one of my favorites.

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  1. Naruto is awesome.
  2. Hinata was always underrated.

 

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Red hair is one of the most attractive qualities I can think of, so I’m partial to Brave and The Little Mermaid.  So when I saw this excellent cosplay, I asked for a picture and behaved myself.

 

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I was a fan of the Hercules and Zena series. I honestly kind of miss them. So any time I see the cosplay, I feel a ton of nostalgia.

 

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This was actually an original, custom made outfit. I was so impressed, I asked for a photo.  She was also kind enough to buy a copy of my book!

 

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This was the first all-out cosplay I saw. The detail was amazing.

 

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There are those who feel Boba Fett was overplayed. I am not among them. So any Mandalorian is cool in my book.

 

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  1. Naruto is awesome!
  2. I knew who Tobi was right away, I can can identify a witness to that prediction.

 

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I might go so far as to say The Last Airbender was the best cartoon I’ve ever seen. Such a wonderful, complete, concise story.

 

It was absolutely fun.  I want to thank everyone I met, every one who stopped to take a photo with me, and everyone who gave a little-known indie author a chance.  Please, if you purchased and read either of my books, no matter what you thought of it, leave  review on Amazon, Goodreads or both. Feedback is invaluable.  Whatever you do, know that I appreciate you. I enjoy meeting you all.

Thanks for reading,

Matt

Ripping off the Best to be the Best

Ripping off the Best to be the Best

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On occasion, I’ll stand in front of my students and discuss the problems I’ve faced in writing or in the Navy.  I’ll tell them about challenges with how I approach a story or how I deal with something when I struggle.

I look at these young men and women, hold my head up high, and say, “I cheat.”

If one looks around enough, they tend to see the same things happen over and again.  I don’t get as angry when people say, “there are no original stories,” anymore.  Oh, those who say that have poor english skills, but that’s because that’s not what they necessarily mean.  Usually, they’re talking about plots.  The originality should be the voice and vision of the author.

When I tell my students that I cheat, I wasn’t talking about violating the UCMJ or even academic standards.  I was simply expressing that I make every effort to learn from others so I don’t make the same mistakes.  That’s one of the reasons so many of my blogs focus on my mistakes.  There are a lot of people trying to make their mark in the world, and I don’t want them falling for the same tricks I’ve fallen for.  I don’t want them making the same mistakes I make.

hobo-826057_960_720I also like to take inspiration.  One of my favorite things is to put stories in an imaginary blender and see what original concepts come out.  I’m currently doing a read-through of an upcoming book, 1,200.  The glimmer moment (idea) came from a story I was covering for the Navy.  You see, there were (at that time) 1,200 homeless veterans in the city of San Diego.  So I took that actual issue and ran with it.  Remember that blender I told you about?  One thing that always seems too convenient to me (though I do it, too) is the arrival of the Mentor or Impact Character.  (Sometimes one man fills the same role.)

A little boy makes some glass disappear, and here comes a giant to explain the boy’s a wizard.

A farm boy buys some droids, and they just happen to belong to the man who can teach him about the Force.

There’s a million of them.

For the most part in my life, I’ve been blessed.  I’ve had some amazing mentors in my life, but I’ve also had to figure a few things out on my own.  So when I was brainstorming for 1,200, thinking about how to make this more interesting, I took away the mentor.  What an original idea!

blender-297110_960_720No it isn’t.  I TOTALLY stole that from The Great American Hero.  It’s about a guy who finds a super suit, but it doesn’t have any instructions.  I’m not even going to lie.  I applied an interesting concept in a different way.  So when my main character (whose name is probably going to change) discovered his powers, he was on his own.  This book is less dark than Caught, but still much darker than Journals.  So I took a concept, and made it my own.  I do it all the time.  And even if the plot police shine a light in my face, I’ll tell them, “Yeah, I did it! And I’d do it again!”

Heck, I think about what I can steal all the time.  I even steal from my day job.  We teach our Sailors about host nation sensitivities and cultural concerns.  The Navy takes great care to make sure its Sailors understand we’re representatives of our country and how to be good guests in all of the countries we visit.  This is true even in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other nations we’ve operated in.  The Navy knows it’s Sailors must be better people than those we’re there to protect others from.  That means we have to train our Sailors in what to think about.  I was about half-way through preparing that lesson plan a few years back when I realized it’s no different than what an author has to think about when worldbuilding.  Academic concerns lead me to hold back the majority of the list, but a few include cultural values and religion.  I’ve even mentored a few Sailors who want to be authors on this concept.

I steal from other authors.  I do not plagiarize.  If a magic system does something interesting, I file it away in my mental file cabinet.   The concept to New Utopia was heavily inspired by Valley of the Wind.  The trick is more about how you apply it.

QUICK SHOT 2011
Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Matthew Leistikow, assigned to Fleet Combat Camera Group Pacific, leads Sailors in a wedge patrol formation during patrol familiarization as part of the Fleet Combat Camera Group Pacific Summer Quick Shot 2011. Quick Shot is a semi-annual field training exercise intended to train combat camera personnel to operate in a combat environment. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class David A. Brandenburg/Released)

As I sit and look at 1,200, there’s a LOT of work I have to do.  I’m glad the Brown Pipers are enjoying it, but I still think there are some genuine issues to work out.  (If you remember my blog on discover writing, 1,200 is one of the last two books I wrote by discovery writing. Sure, I had some idea where I was going, but I didn’t outline at all.)   But the concept is working pretty well.

There are video blogs out there who explain a lot of your all-time favorite movies and songs are, in fact, not the original tales you thought they were.

What do I steal?

Parts of a concept:  I may not take the entire premise, but I do look for an element that fascinates me.

Fantasy elements:  I was going to say I steal magic systems, and I steal those, but then I realized I steal pretty much any ONE aspect of fantasy element if the mood suits me.

Elements of characters:  I wrote about this in my blog about character development.

What don’t I steal?

Entire plot lines:  Valley of the Wind inspired New Utopia, but New Utopia is built around a few separate issues.    Though others do this (and it’s not illegal or unethical), I don’t.  I don’t because I’d be too tempted to draw more and more from the source of said inspiration.  For instance, I borrowed the concept of the magic system in New Utopia from Mistborn.  It’s different enough, but I keep a very stern hold of myself.  I only take small parts.

lego-516559_960_720Let’s talk about blending again.  I mentioned it above, and this is something I do in pretty much every stage of life and writing.  I steal all of these great things, and then I take them all apart and put them back together like a Lego hodgepodge creation of my very own.  I don’t actually know where I got the technique from, but I haven’t seen anyone who approaches it quite that way.  So maybe that’s the one original thing I bring.  I’m not saying I’m the only one who steals, I’m just saying that’s my particular twist on burglary.  If you do it the same way, let me know.

Thanks for reading,

Matt

The (Hopefully Decreasing) Divide Between Science Fiction and Fantasy

The (Hopefully Decreasing) Divide Between Science Fiction and Fantasy

Big Break Studios posted a blog recently about genre busting, and that got me thinking about the interesting divide between science fiction and fantasy.

tardisFantasy and science fiction fans have an oddly antagonistic side.  I think part of this is due to what makes fantasy and science fiction fun.  Who was the best Doctor? Which craft would win in a race? Which craft would win in a fight? Which character would win in a fight?

It wasn’t until I really started finding my stride as an author that I noticed this strange habit of fans of one genre not appreciating the other. How big is it? How prevalent? I don’t know, big enough to notice? Anecdotally, for every fan I hear that screams at the other genre, I hear another that just enjoys a good story. The inspiration from this post is that the very fact that these two genres aren’t more closely linked surprises me.

So I thought I’d sit down and talk about the largest areas of contention.  NOTE: All of this is anecdotal, I’m curious if anyone has a more analytical example.

Possible vs Impossible: The Science in Science Fiction.

mathematics-1509559_960_720Speculative science is the heart of any science fiction novel. A science fiction writer is bound by unwritten contract between himself and his readers (I’m a guy, so I’m using the male personal pronoun). Things have to have rules. There must be an explanation for how, scientifically, this story is plausible.  I actually FIRST encountered this in high school science. The teacher was quite admit about disproving any and every science fiction movie out there. As he continued to dispute each movie, I couldn’t help but realize he must have ACTUALLY watched them. Weather he did that just to disprove it or enjoy it is really more of a personal issue, but the point is he watched them. Brandon Sanderson mentioned a discussion he’d had on a panel regarding magic systems and then released his “Laws” on magic.  This brings me to the point of contention:

Science fiction fans want a plausible, scientific reason to justify the possibility of the story. Fantasy fans want a sense of wonder. Feel free to argue and debate this point, but I’ve already said this evidence is anecdotal and these opinions are mine. It’s also my opinion that the reason science fiction fans demand plausibility is the very fact that they want to believe this story could happen. One (fantasy) is about escape where the other (scifi) is about hope.  (And let the debate on that assertion begin).

I don’t really care about this particular sticking point, as I believe both genres do what matters most: They show readers who they can be, if only…If only we strive to travel the stars, we could learn so much more. If only, to me, means nothing more than, “when we.”

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I know neither of this are either of the ships I mentioned, but I fear copyright in some cases.

Try this experiment:  Go to a convention. Find a pair arguing about weather the Falcon could beat the Enterprise in a space battle.  Go to them and explain it doesn’t matter because a team of dragon riders from Pern could take them both down at the same time. Before they get going. Make sure you specify that these “dragons” are in reality nothing more than genetically enhanced alien lizards that evolved through cloning and gene modifications.  Call this your control group.

Then, go do the same thing with another pair of fans, but don’t explain the genetic modification tools.  Try not to laugh as this pair of individuals debating the military characteristics of non-existent spacecraft looks you in the eyes and says, “it doesn’t matter because dragons aren’t real.”  I’ve done this experiment, but I failed to avoid laughing. I’m sometimes a petty person.

cat-1299082_960_720Most of the derision I see across these genres comes from that particular fissure in the genre planet. A few authors are doing fantastic things, and that’s inspired me. What if fantasy authors worked a little harder to make their magic plausible? What if science fiction authors worried a little less about how possible things are? I have two projects in the works that I think pay tribute to both genres. They’re primarily fantasy in terms of marketing but when I can explain something scientifically, I do. The magic systems in each project (Perception of War, the series Sojourn in Despair comes from, is one of them) is fairly hard (if you subscribe to Sanderson’s First Law).

I think there’s a trick to that though. That trick is commitment to your core genre. You want to avoid Deus Ex Machina whenever possible. A story that ends on an overly convenient plot device, regardless of genre, isn’t going to go over well with the fans.  But this divide I’m discussing, I think, comes more from this assertion:

Fantasy fans are more willing to suspend disbelief than science fiction fans.

So, if you’re writing fantasy, I wouldn’t recommend taking three chapters to dissect your magic system right up front. Fantasy readers usually stop at, “Guy can fly.” It’s wonderful to weave in a few explanations of powers as the story progresses, especially if that ability is going to be the key to saving the universe (see Sanderson’s First Law). Science fiction fans demand more details. They’ll want to understand how things are possible sooner, and are therefore more willing to accept large data chunks in the story early on, (accept and larger are dangerously unspecific terms).

What are your thoughts? Which side of the line do you fall under?  Also, I meant what I said. A wing of dragon riders of Pern, and I’d argue a single dragon like Ruth or Mnementh could take out both starships. Seriously.

Thanks for reading,

Matt

Weaving Plots: A Way to Add Dimension to Characters

Weaving Plots: A Way to Add Dimension to Characters

compass-626077_960_720I’ve been reading a lot about plotting on blogs, and that always gets me thinking about characters with dimension.  I’m not honestly sure if there is a distinction in this term from depth, but I feel like there is because what I’m talking about today has more to do with plots than traits.

One day I’ll walk you all through how I develop characters.  I started one way, added a few things, twisted them around and landed at my process on character development.  I might have even touched on it here and there already, but while I’d like to give you one place to go for my method of development, I want to focus on plotting.

So let’s start with how I learn everything, utter failure.  I’ve said it a lot.  Failure is great.  It’s wonderful.  Oh, it never FEELS very good, but it’s still important.  I quite literally have scars on my body.  Each one (I promise I’m not exaggerating) was preceded by me saying, “This is gonna be AWESOME!” and then I hurt myself.

The first completed manuscript I wrote was AWESOME! (and by that I mean awful, and has since left me emotionally scared).  There are many reasons for this, but looking at this deep red line across the soul of my inner author, I think the biggest problem I had was that my characters each only had one plot, and those plots were all secondary to the overall plot.  People just don’t work that way.

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She was a freshman then (her eyes were shut in the image I took of us when I was teaching her to drive).  But this is me and The Junior on one of my vacations.  I’m so proud of the fact that she takes after her uncle.

Think about your day?  What do you do?  Even if you break your day down into “Go to work,” “Come home,” and “Go to bed,” that wouldn’t come close to describing your day.  As I write this, I’m on vacation with my family.  One of my elder nieces, (she whom I call “The Junior,” who also happens to be an awful lot like her uncle) and I had the chance to sit down.  I haven’t seen her in a year.

“So what’s been going on?”

“Not much,” she answered.

I went on to explain that I seriously doubt nothing much happened over the course of the year I’ve been unable to really sit down and talk.  Oh, social media and cell phones allow for the highlights, but I wanted the directors cut edition of The Junior’s life.

caught-finalThat got me thinking about my editor’s comments regarding my Fourth Draft of Caught.  We were discussing a lot of arcs and he told me “readers expect more in fiction.”  You see, even now, Caught is very cinematic in structure and prose.  I did that by choice, and I may pay the price when it comes to sales and reviews, but I desperately needed something faster after writing The Journals of Bob Drifter.  That doesn’t mean I ignored my editor.  In fact, I feel a lot more satisfaction with this Fifth Draft.

So how do I do it?  In short, I remember people do more than one thing a day.  Heck, sometimes people do more than one thing at a time (sort of, but don’t throw research disproving multitasking at me).

There are a lot of plots out there.  Some also call them structures.  Others call them arcs.  Quintessential Editor did a few blogs about them recently.

I didn’t really do this with Journals or Caught.  I’ve been doing it ever since.  What I do now is plot each character before I combine all of those plots into one outline.  I keep aware of what opportunities arise, and I’m not afraid to let them unfold.  This is where those dimension comes into play.  Let’s do an exercise:

smugglerThink of a character.  Need help?  Okay.  I’m going to flip a coin.  Heads for man.

*flips coin*  (I do this whenever gender isn’t a large concern.  I even did this with my main character in my seventh book).

TAILS…Woman it is.

How old is she?  More importantly, what does she want?  Well, since I’m here visiting The Junior, let’s start with what she wants.  She wants to go to college and study theater.  (See…I told you she was a lot like her uncle!) Sorry…I think VERY fast.   What just happened is a lot like my process.  I flipped a coin, determined a gender.  The gender got me thinking about someone I love.  I took that real struggle, multiplied it by the power of “Fantasy” and got this:

A Young Girl wishes to become a Mistress of Transformation.  Why?  To what end?   When I talk about character development, I’ll go into more detail, but I like showing you HOW I think.  Anyway.  I have my first plot.  Because I tend to subscribe to Sanderson’s online lectures, I call this particular plot a “travelogue.”  Why?  Because she wants to go to transformation school.   Where Frodo had to get to Mount Doom, from a macro perspective you have a character who is in one place (high school) and wants to get to another (college).

This can even be what I call the “main plot.”  However, on her way to becoming a college student, there’s more that happens.  She has to earn money.  She has to gain references.  She has friends in high school that she may leave.  She has to confront the Administer of Admissions. (I’m seriously developing a plot as I do this, I welcome you to do the same.)

Each of those other objectives are plots in and of themselves.  They’re side stories occurred on the way to the main objective.

wizard_of_ozNow let’s take an easier, better-known case study.  Wizard of Oz.  Would we care NEARLY as much for Dorothy if she told Scarecrow, “Thanks for the directions,” and moved along on her way?  She could have.  The Tin Man is an even better example.   Some subplots (at least for me) are discovered.  (Oh crap, my character wouldn’t just leave some poor tin dude sitting there frozen…well…I guess this book’s going to get a little bigger while I work this out.)  Others are plots you see coming.   (Well, the Wizard isn’t just going to jump to help her.)

My point is, you want your character to have many plots and objectives.  They may all arise as part of a single goal, but life isn’t that easy, so fiction shouldn’t be.  What sort of plots are out there?  Well, again, I put a LOT of stock in Sanderson’s online lectures, so I’ll just share that website with you here.   Brilliant teacher though I think he is, I know there’s more info out there, so please share it in the comments below.

Here are a few case studies:  (This is how I learn best, so I hope it helps you).

Wizard of Oz

Ender’s Game

I Am Not a Serial Killer

Star Wars

tatooineMost of those are best sellers or easily remembered, so forgive me if I don’t link to them.  My point is, if you watch this, do so with a pen and pad.  Write down the “events.”  When I teach my students, I teach them to break their features down into what I call the “Guy Does” test.  Break each event down into a subject-verb-object sentence.

Jawas Show Up

Uncle Buys Droids

Luke Sees Message

Droid Runs Away.

Keep going.  When you do this, you see the progression of your story.  You can reverse engineer each mini plot in what’s already been dissected to bits in terms of The Heroes’s Journey (the main plot of Star Wars).

If you dissect your character’s plot and only have one thing.  It’s not going to feel real to your reader.  Every character should be the main character in his or her own mind.  Anime does this VERY well.  Thinking about each goal and how the steps to achieve those goals will force new plots will help you create stories that have more dimension.  More dimension (in my arrogant opinion) means a better story.

Thanks for reading,

Matt

Character Qualities: How to Analyze Characters and Use Their Qualities to Your Advantage

Character Qualities:  How to Analyze Characters and Use Their Qualities to Your Advantage

So I read a blog from Quintessential Editor a few days ago in which we discussed character or conflict.  He and I may (I’m actually not sure) disagree on what makes a book great.  I’ll vote character every time, and I have my reasons, but the blog inspired me to offer my view on what turns out to be how I evaluate characters.

wx-wordpressbanner-wdtrophy2016I love Writing Excuses.  It’s a great podcast, and they did a podcast a few years ago (back when I had the luxury of listening every week) that helped me understand why I like books.  I’ve said it a few times.  I like sympathetic, proactive characters.  The podcast to which I’m referring is the one on character sliders.  In it, they discuss how to evaluate characters by Sympathy, Competency, and Proactivity.

I’ll let you listen to the podcast for the explanation because they’re awesome, hugely successful authors, and I’m an Indie guy trying to find my way in the world.  I will make one argument.

Sanderson explains that Sympathy is the “how likable a character is.”  He’s my Yoda in every regard, but I don’t know that’s true.  I think Sympathy (at least to me) is how strongly I feel about the character.  Whatever the emotion, if I feel it strongly, I’m drawn to the character.  The formula works regardless, but I see sympathy as “strength of emotional reaction” and not strictly “likable.”

Caught CoverWhat I thought I could add or build from this wonderful tool was how to use it when writing a book.  I don’t see this as a character development tool myself.  Rather, I try to anticipate how readers will see the character.  I’m editing Caught still, so I’d like to use Sal.  In the previous draft, he was proactive and sympathetic.

My editor and I disagreed on his arc.  What I wish I’d argued then is that he wasn’t actually very competent.  He tried several times and several ways to do something before he gained more power.  His argument, in the interest of being fair, was that Sal struggled and failed so many times, and never reacted to those failures.

I kept this in mind while revising.  I kept in in mind while writing for the other characters as well.  I want my readers to say two things when they read my books.  “I (feel strongly) about his characters” and “they’re always moving.”  I hope they hate the characters I want them to hate, and I hope they love the characters I mean for them to love, but as long as they feel strongly, I feel I’ve succeeded.

So how do you do this?  Well, I’m sure there’s a lot of ways, but this is my own spin.  At each major plot point (for me, this is when I check my outline), look at your character and see how the plot point might have effected each of these traits.  Every time a character fails, he or she seems less competent.  Some fans hate incompetent characters.  I’m actually not one of them.

newsletter-naruto3Case study:  Naruto is a moron.  He’s a goof, who’s just winging it.  He can’t do a single normal jutsu and really only has the one major trick.  But look at how hard he works!  Look at how much he cares about his comrades?  Look at how he struggles to maintain his bonds.  In fact, each time he wins, it’s usually DESPITE his competence.  Still, if he NEVER learned anything, he’d eventually get boring.  So at certain points, he becomes ever so much less stupid.  This is how we see his progression as a character. Don’t mistake progression as moving forward.

 

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Art by Seamas Gallagher.  Image used as a character study.

Case study:  Rand al’Thor is one of my favorite characters ever.  In fact, I’d like to compare him to Ichigo from Bleach.  I feel Rand works more because there’s more progression.  Ichigo gets more powerful.  He’s competent, proactive and sympathetic, and he never really changes.  Rand becomes all the more compelling because as he becomes more powerful (and we’ll have to discuss something soon), he becomes more isolated and less sympathetic.  So you see, he devolves in sympathy as he evolves in power.

Is power a slider?  For me it is.  Because competence, to me, is the character’s success rate.  But there are several characters who win a lot, but still don’t feel very powerful.  The first that comes to mind is Ender Wiggin.  He’s incredibly sympathetic, competent, and proactive.  But none of that matters because he’s supposed to fight an alien race that the human race has feared for generations.     Power is a factor in a lot of things, and conflict can be the gauge by which you measure it.  So why do I consider it a slider? Because it can be used as a source of conflict in itself, not just a resolution to conflict.

CoverRevealNow that I’ve done a few case studies, let’s turn that microscope on myself.  While writing Bob, I was very concerned about the first act because the conflict is subtle.  Most reviews regard the first act as the best, which makes me feel good I didn’t cut it from the book.  In the first act, Bob is sympathetic and proactive.  His proactivity is what causes the conflict.  Police notice him, and now he has to evade them.  He’s not very competent.  He doesn’t know anything about his job.  He doesn’t know how to avoid police.  He’s not even very good at covering his tracks.   This leads to the climax of part one.

When I got to Part 2, I checked up on Bob’s sliders.  Sympathy 100%  Proactivity 100%  Competence: 30% (I’m probably being nice).  Power 50%.  This might surprise people.  While Bob talks about how “useless” his powers are, he’s still comparatively more powerful than most of the characters in Part 1.  In Part 2, I introduce Grimm.  Now he’s very competent, very proactive.  How sympathetic is he?  I HOPE readers say they hate him, but I can’t pretend to know.   There’s hardly any feedback on him though, so that leads me to believe I miscalculated here.  So he’s not sympathetic at all.  (otherwise, readers would have said something about him by now).  I can learn from this.  But what he DOES do, is make Bob seem LESS powerful.  That also makes him seem LESS competent.  So the progress for Bob is actually devolving and not evolving.

grimIn Part 3, I make Bob more competent.  I do this by showing him learn.  I had to bring in the “mentor” archetype.  I had to give Bob a few wins.  This made it so when he got to the final conflict, he looked like he stood a chance.

That’s how I use the sliders.  If I ever felt like my sympathy or proactivity values were slipping, I adjusted for it.  I encourage authors to do these checks. When you hand the book to beta readers, ask them to send a chapter by chapter evaluation using whatever sliders you use to evaluate the character, then compare those to your own assessment.  If they’re the same, I’d say you’re doing it right.  If they’re different, that’s when it’s time to find out what you’re missing.

I’ve never really cared much for competent characters.  They bore me.  Oh there are a lot of characters that I love that are ALSO competent, but for my money, if a character doesn’t make me feel and isn’t doing anything, I hate the story.  That doesn’t mean EVERYONE will.  Know your genre.

woman-1428067_960_720That leads me to my last point.  The Mary Sue character.  Corey would be awesome and tell you where that term came from, I just learned it an moved on.  (The difference between a gardner and an architect if I’ve ever seen one).    A Mary Sue is a character that is the most compelling, most powerful, most proactive, most competent character ever.  Dear God, do I hate those characters.  I argue that if a character is too powerful and too competent, the sympathy bar naturally slides down for me.  It’s a risk writers take.  But here’s my twist:

Mary Sues don’t happen when all the bars are maxed; they happen when all the bars are equal.

I get this from photography. I picked up that wonderful skill in the Navy, and I’ll love it for the rest of my life.  In terms of light, if you have equal values of red, blue, and green, you get gray.  You can have 20% of each, or 100% of each.  (Zero..well..then you don’t have any color, so that’s black, which, according to Batman is a very, very, very, dark gray).    I find characters feel like Mary Sues when all values are equal, no matter those values.

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Image pulled from a Forbes article.  Oddly enough, it disputes that she is a Mary Sue.  Image and article used for case study with accompanying alternative opinion.

Character study:  Rey.  She’s not that sympathetic.  Really.  She’s just out there in the desert chilling.  You LEARN to care for her, but that’s not the first hour of the movie I saw.  She’s competent, but everyone but me remembers how she got captured (like a chump) and messed up the doors (like a fool) when they were first aboard the Falcon.  If I evaluate Rey right after meeting Han, I’d say she’d measure out at: Sympathy 10% Competence 10% Power 10% and Proactivity 10%.  Remember, Finn is the one who gets her to move.  She wanted to go home through the first half of the movie.

Her arc SEEMS Suish (trademark M.L.S. Weech) because she processes equally across all sliders throughout the movie.  She gains more power and competence.  This makes her more proactive and sympathetic.  I love the movie. I don’t mind Rey, but I don’t love her either, because she essentially sat around the desert until someone forced her to move, and even then she didn’t do much until she got captured.  Watch the movie, let me know if you think I’m wrong.

So that’s it.  Try it on your book.  Toss me a few character studies.  Let’s make a game of it.  Until then, thanks for reading.

Matt