Tag Archives: opinion

What the World Needs Now (Is a Shining Hero)

Have you noticed how many superhero movies there are at the moment?

Over the last couple of years we’ve had The Green Hornet, Thor, X-Men: First Class, Green Lantern, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Captain America, Ghost Rider, The Avengers, The Amazing Spiderman, and The Dark Knight Rises. Over the coming year we have more to look forward to: Dredd 3D, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Fantastic Four, Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, and Thor: The Dark World. Plus probably more that my cursory web search didn’t turn up.

Almost all these movies are eagerly anticipated, not just by the comic-loving geek crowd, but by the world at large. Have you ever wondered why? What makes superhero movies “so hot” right now?

Certainly, superheroes aren’t new.  Comic book heroes have been around for almost 100 years now. And look at any culture’s history and mythology and you’ll find examples of non-spandex-wearing superheroes. Robin Hood may not have been able to fly, but he had a costume, a secret base, and a mandate to help the common folk against the unjust, corrupt ruling class. Compare the story of Robin Hood to that of any modern superhero and you’ll likely find more similarities than differences.

I wonder whether the current fascination with superheroes is based on our feelings about the world we live in. Are we, as common people, looking for a hero? Do we feel helpless, voiceless, and in need of protection from an unjust, corrupt society? Are we drawn to stories of heroism because we need that type of story in our lives right now; because we need to feel that there is a powerful force for good hiding amongst the news stories of lying, corruption, and injustice?

Thinking about superhero movies always reminds me of my first superhero movie. Back in 1986, when I was ten years old, I was introduced to a superhero movie that (I have to admit) is still my favourite: The Return of Captain Invincible.

You’ve probably never heard of it.

Apparently camp, B-grade, musical comedies about superheroes weren’t all that popular in 1983. Especially when they were made in Australia. So if you’re not one of the 25 people in the world who’ve seen this movie, let me give you a brief summary:

Captain Invincible (Alan Arkin) was a hero to the American people in WWII, but at the end of the war he found himself the subject of a congressional investigation and accused of being a closet communist (because he wore a red cape). Rather than face charges of flying without a licence, impersonating a military officer, and wearing underwear in public, he disappeared from the public eye.

Thirty years later (when the movie begins), Captain Invincible is an alcoholic living on the streets of Sydney, Australia. When his arch-nemesis, Evil Mr Midnight (Christopher Lee) re-emerges, steals a hypno-ray, and unleashes his evil plan, the US government hunts down Captain Invincible and asks him to return.

One of the great (and cheesy) aspects of this movie are the songs. Early in the movie, the President of the United States calls together his Chiefs of Staff and demands they come up with a means of beating Mr Midnight. All the suggestions hinge on some large-scale military action. This is the President’s response:

(Warning: The first 60 seconds are NSFW. Skip to 1:01 if you’re concerned about bad language.)

You know what the current spate of superhero films tells me? What the world needs now is a shining hero.

But where do we find one? Who stands for truth and justice and courage in the world today?

Our politicians are regularly exposed as liars, our sports stars are accused of using drugs, our music stars are arrested for drunk driving or theft, and Reality TV stars are pregnant at 17, yell abuse at family and friends, and glorify antisocial behaviour. We hear stories about doctors committing murder, police officers committing crimes, and church officials committing sins of the flesh.

But no matter how jaded and cynical we feel, there are still heroes in the world. In fact, they may be closer than you think.

Have you seen this picture? It turned up on my Facebook news feed a few days ago, but it’s at least a year old.

This boy last his father in the crowd, and was scared and freaked out until he saw The Flash and Wonder Woman. He went up to The Flash and asked for help, because he recognised him.

I don’t know the full story behind the picture, and all my internet searching failed to turn up anything more than the information above. But in my imagination it went something like this:

Joe Average isn’t a hero. He curses and drinks on occasions. He tells the odd lie, and maybe he even downloads movies or music illegally or take stationery home from work. Occasionally he dresses up as his favourite heroes for conventions, not because he thinks he is a hero, but because he wants to pay tribute to a character he loves.

On a normal day, Joe Average may not have even noticed a little boy, lost and crying for his Dad. And if he did, he would have “done the right thing” and taken the child to a nearby cop or the registration desk. But on this day… Well, on this day he wasn’t just Joe Average. On this day he was dressed as The Flash. And, more importantly, in the child’s eyes he was The Flash.

And The Flash would never let a child down. The Flash would be a hero. Even if it was difficult. Even it was time-consuming. Even if it was inconvenient. So Joe Average did what any hero would do: he helped the little boy find his father.

Joe Average may not have saved any lives or defeated any arch villains, but in the eyes of that child and that father, he’s a hero. All because he was wearing a fancy red suit.

What would you do if you saw someone who needed help? Would it be different if you were dressed like a hero?

Imagine what the world would be like if everyone behaved as though they were dressed in shiny red spandex, ready to leap into action and save the day. Imagine what would happen if we stopped looking for other people to step up and be a hero and instead we looked to ourselves. Imagine if we acted as though underneath our clothes there was a superhero costume just waiting to be revealed.

What the world needs now is a shining hero.

Imagine if it was you.

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Filed under Opinion, The Inner Geek

The Best Parenting Advice Ever

Photo by Bjorn HermansThe moment you fall pregnant with your first child, it starts. The advice. Advice on feeding and burping and sleeping routines. Advice on discipline and suitable activities and schooling. Advice on everything that may or may not ever come up as a parent.

Some of the advice is welcome. Some of the advice is solicited. But a lot of the advice is thrust on you whether you want it or not.

(My personal favourite type is the advice offered by random strangers in the supermarket who also feel they have a constitutional right to touch a pregnant woman’s belly without asking first.)

In the six years since my first pregnancy, I’ve received hundreds of pieces of parenting advice — some useful, some profound, and some downright stupid. So it’s somewhat ironic that the best parenting advice I ever received was neither advice nor about parenting.

It was a story about a cat.

A family came home from the pet shop with a brand new kitten. They played with it, helped it get settled in, and then left it to explore the house. A few hours later, they heard a strange sound — almost like something tearing.

Dad followed the sound. The new kitten was sharpening his claws on the back of the couch. “No you don’t!” he said. “There’s no using the furniture as a scratching pole!” Then he picked up the kitten and put it outside.

“That’ll teach him,” Dad said.

And it certainly did. To this day, the cat scratches the back of the couch every time he wants to go outside.

Children are a lot like animals — they learn a lot more from what you DO than from what you SAY.

Make sure you’re teaching your children what you think you’re teaching your children.

Because a twenty minute lecture on the importance of reading means nothing if they never see you pick up a book.

 

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Filed under Life With Kids, Opinion

Writing about Sex, Religion and Politics

When I was a teenager, someone gave me the advice that I should never talk in public about sex, religion, or politics. I remember thinking, “But, why? They’re the most interesting things to talk about!”

Now that I’m older, I realise that I answered my own question. The reason we’re generally advised not to talk about these things (especially with strangers) is exactly because they’re interesting. They’re the topics that we all think about, care about, and have passionate and steadfast opinions on. They’re the things that start arguments, feuds, and wars.

And they’re exactly the things that, as fiction writers, we should be making sure we include in our books.

Possibly everyone else already knows this. Possibly I’m so late to this particular party that everyone else has already packed up and gone home, and there’s just a few scattered Solo cups left scattered around the furniture. Nevertheless.

Sex

Sex is one of the most fundamental of human needs. From the time puberty hits, we think about it on a regular (if not daily or even hourly) basis. I’m not suggesting we all need to embrace our inner E.L. James, rather that we need to remember that sex, and the search for it, is a driving force on human behaviour.

There’s a lot more to sex than the physical act, of course. There’s love, romance, intimacy, vulnerability, heartbreak, attraction, affection, unrequited feelings, and all the trials and tribulations that come with a relationship as it grows or falters. Regardless of what genre you’re writing, these are things to consider. In real life, we’re all influenced by these things every day — and our characters need to be influenced by them just as strongly.

Even my five year-old son wants to know the name of the girl he’s going to marry!

Religion

Religion is not just about a Church or a God, religion is about a system of beliefs. Your religion defines you in ways you don’t even realise. Your moral code is probably borrowed from your religion. Your values and priorities and prejudices are influenced by your religion. Your entire world-view is affected by your religion. So it’s important our character also have religion.

It doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic, or Protestant, or some other flavour of Christian. It doesn’t matter if you’re Jewish or Muslim or Heathen or Buddhist or Pagan or Jedi. Whatever your religion, it colours your viewpoint and affects your life.

And to the first person to say, “I don’t have a religion, I’m an Atheist”, I have this to say: Your Atheism colours your viewpoint and affects your life.

Your characters should be affected by their religious beliefs. You never have to actually state what they are, or what religion they follow, or if they follow any kind of religion at all. But I can almost guarantee that if you don’t consciously consider your character’s religious beliefs, they will automatically take action based on your own religion. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is something to be aware of.

So while you may not specifically be writing about religion, the very fact you’re writing about people means that religion will feature — if only as background noise.

(As a note: religion may change significantly over time, but setting your novel in the far, far future doesn’t mean there is no religion. People want something to believe in. People need something to believe in. Perhaps in your world that isn’t a God or Gods. Perhaps it’s science or a system of government or a TV show. But it will be something. Better that you decide what that something is.)

Politics

Politics: Who gets what, when and how.

If you want to have an uncomfortable evening, try starting up a conversation about politics with someone who disagrees with your point of view. Or, for even more awkward moments, try sitting at a table where two people argue back and forth about the relative merits of political parties, policies, or procedures. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been there and done that, and I’d prefer to avoid it in the future.

We all get passionate about some aspect of politics. For some of us, we’re passionate about who should be leading the country. For others, we’re passionate about how the government should be spending our tax money. For still others, our passions go into overdrive when we hear about school curriculum changes or healthcare reform. There’s something that hits you right in the passion-bone.

But in this context, I’m not just talking about the politics of governing a country. I’m talking about who gets what, when and how. Who gets to learn magic? When is a 3rd tier Septacorn permitted to try for a promotion to 2nd tier? How do you get an invitation to the coolest party ever so you can hit on the girl of your dreams?

Politics don’t just exist in the capital. There’s office politics, social politics, schoolyard politics, and in the case of spec fiction, often supernatural politics to consider.

Unless your character is in charge of the world, s/he will inevitably run up against politics. Someone else controls who gets what, when and how. That’s either going to help or hinder your character. Either way, it will play a part in their thoughts, feelings, passions, and story.

 

“Don’t talk about sex, religion or politics.”

It may be good advice for social settings, but it’s terrible advice for a writer.

Talk about it. Talk about it a lot.

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Narrative Structure: Breathe In, Breathe Out

Much like Stephen Watkins, I don’t like giving writing advice. I am, on the other hand, happy to talk about the way I write, the tips and tricks I’ve learned, and my opinion on anything from crime writing in the 1930s to the future of ebooks. (That doesn’t mean I’m always right, of course, it just means I’m opinionated.) So that’s how I found myself writing about Proactive vs Reactive characters last week.

I’m really glad that people found it useful reading, and I was delighted to have as many comments as I did. Amongst the comments was this statement from Ben Trube:

I’m struggling with breathers and where to drop into the action in my current revision right now, and would love to see an expansion on that theme.

So, because I’m opinionated I care, this week I will again be sharing my opinion on an aspect of writing.

First: Learn about narrative structure. There are a number of different ways to structure a story, and I’d suggest reading about all of them. (Although they all really break down to: Stuff happens, then it gets worse, then it seems to get better but really gets even more worser, then it ends either well or badly.) Some structures will suit you better as a writer, some will suit this story better than that story, and some you’ll read about and promptly forget because you think they’re stupid.

As a starting place, allow me to recommend Janice Hardy’s post explaining the Three Act Structure. You can find it in two parts: here and here. (Plus, Chuck Wendig just posted 25 Things You Should Know About Story Structure. How convenient!)

Second: Find a way to think about narrative structure that works for you.

I can’t tell you what will work for you, but I can tell you what works for me. If my method appeals to you, use it. If not, please don’t tell me I suck — just move on and find something  else you like. And feel free to share it with all of us.

I like to think of a story as a living thing. A good story, whether it’s a book, movie, episodic TV show, joke, comic books, computer game, or roleplaying games, should have a life of its own. It should breathe.

And that’s how you work out where to put your rising tension, and where to give everyone a break.

Breathe in; breathe out; breathe in; breathe out.

What’s do you do when you’re startled or stressed? You breathe in.

What do you do when you have a moment to rest or relax? You breathe out.

A good story will breathe. There will be conflict, tension and surprises (breathing in), and there will be quiet moments to plan, recover, and celebrate (breathing out).

Do you know what happens if you keep breathing in without pausing to breathe out? Me neither. But I suspect either your lungs explode or you have a heart attack. Neither is good. If every scene is full of tension and suspense, and the poor characters never have a chance to catch their breaths, your readers won’t either. If your reader is exhausted by halfway through your book, what do you think the chance is that s/he will finish it?

Do you know what happens if you keep breathing out without breathing back in? You pass out. In life, your body is starved of oxygen. In reading, your mind is starved of excitement. But whether your reader is dying of suffocation or boredom, s/he is probably not going to leave your book unfinished.

Now, the rhythm of every book is not going to be the same. The breathing of a thriller is going to be very different to that of a sweet, coming-of-age story. So, how do you (or really, how do I) make sure the story is breathing at the pace it should?

  1. Write the book. Keep this in mind while you’re writing if you like, but get your first draft on paper. This is more useful for revising.
  2. Make a list of all the scenes in your story.
  3. Note next to each one either “in” or “out”.
  4. Look at the pattern. Are there a whole string of ins or outs? Is the flow different at the beginning to the end? Is there anywhere that you think inserting an extra breath in or out would improve the flow of the story?
  5. (Optional — I do this, but my sanity is sometimes questionable.) Breathe, following the pattern of your book. See how you feel — are there any places where you’re breathing in too much without respite? Are there any places where you find that you don’t have enough breath to breathe out for as long as you’re supposed to? Also, don’t hyperventilate unless you’ve got a paper bag handy.

Note: I came up with this method while running roleplaying games. When you’re crafting a story with a group of people, you have the opportunity to watch their facial expressions and body language with each new character, plot point and twist that you reveal. After a while, I realised that I could tell when I needed to arc up the tension or introduce some down-time just by taking note of the players’ breathing and the set of their shoulders.

It took quite a bit of experimentation to get it right — but that’s what you do with a group of friends, right? Experiment on them?

When writing, there’s no “instant audience”, and no way to easily tell how the tension will affect a reader. It took me a while to put together this breathe in; breathe out method of tracking scenes, but it’s worked well so far.

What do you think? Does this sound interesting, or just plain insane?

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Are your Characters Reactive or Proactive?

Over the last few weeks I’ve been beta reading a YA novel for a good writer friend of mine. After reading the first few of chapters, I  come to the conclusion that I didn’t like the protagonist. In fact, my dislike was such that, if I were reading for enjoyment only, I would have put the book down. My first thought was that the character needed to be made more likeable. However, as I read on, I realised that my response was unfair. And by the time I reached the end of the book, I had come to the conclusion that I was wrong to suggest that the character should be changed in any way.

Did I come to love the character? No. Not at all.

But I did realise why I didn’t like the character.

The protagonist of this purposely unnamed book is purely reactive. The character at no point takes charge, develops a plan, or takes any action that isn’t directly prompted by another character. And, put simply, I don’t like purely reactive characters any more than I like purely reactive people. But that’s not to say that reactive characters are bad. There are plenty of stories with reactive (or even passive) protagonists, and the “passive character takes control of her own life” trope is a very familiar one. It’s just not one that I personally enjoy.

But my enjoyment, or lack thereof, is not a stain on the writing in this YA novel. The protagonist is consistent throughout the story, has a distinctive voice, and is so authentic that I’m pretty sure this person is living their own life in an alternate dimension somewhere. (Or possibly New Zealand.) And, really, isn’t that what we’re all aiming for with our characters: consistency, distinctiveness and authenticity?

My dislike of the character was purely subjective. It’s not up to the author to change the character to suit me.  The only reason the author should consider making any changes is if the intention was to have a proactive rather than reactive character. 

As a writer, sometimes it’s hard to see our characters the same way other people see them. To us, they’re perfect works of art, even more endearing for their faults and flaws. And it can be hard to tell whether they’re being proactive or reactive when there’s a mad slasher or serial killer hunting down all their friends and family (mwah ha ha ha ha!). So, here are some questions you may like to consider if you’d like to determine where in the reactive-proactive spectrum your character fits.

What is your character’s goal before the story starts?

We all know that we should start a story as close to the action as possible, right? But we also all know that if we start too close to the action (in media res, as it were), there’s a chance we’ll alienate readers who have no reason to care whether our young Jedi is captured and tortured by the Empire. So what is your character like in his normal life?

If he’s sitting around waiting to see what life throw at him, or he spends all his time following in the footsteps of his friends and family, or is drifting aimlessly through life without a goal or plan (apparently waiting for a story to begin), there’s a pretty good chance he’s more reactive than proactive.

But if the character is working to achieve a goal, whether or not it’s story-related, he’s more likely to be a proactive character.

Note: This goal doesn’t have to be something big like “to save the world” (or even “to destroy the world”). It could be something as simple as “to get good grades so I can get into college” or “to be the prettiest girl at the Prom” or “to hit the target at the firing range”. The key here is that the character is taking action to achieve his goal, not waiting for it to happen through divine intervention or good old-fashioned luck.

What does your character do during down-time?

Almost every novel has it: down-time. That moment between the adrenalin-fuelled car chase and the point where the slasher leaps out of the tree-line and drags the protagonist’s boyfriend into the undergrowth. It’s a chance for the characters (and the reader) to take a deep breath and process everything that’s just happened. It’s often the point where characters share information, or plot their next move, or take advantage of the lull in death-dealing to “celebrate the wonder of life”. (Cue the sleazy electric guitar.)

So, how does your character behave in the lull? If she takes the opportunity to sit quietly and cry, or goes along with someone else’s suggestion, or her entire plan revolves around waiting to see what happens next, she’s probably a reactive character.

A proactive character is likely to be the one leading the conversation, making plans that include the theme (if not the words) “the best defence is a good offense”, or even taking the opportunity to return to her pre-story goals: “Yes, I know there’s a mad slasher out there. But if I don’t cleanse and moisturise every day, Laura Pringle will look hotter than me at the dance and I’ll never live it down!”

How does your character make choices?

A good story always involves hard choices. Perhaps they don’t seem hard from the outside, but in the character’s mind, they’re huge: “Do I go to the D&D Convention with my friends like I do every year, or go to the Country Club with my cousin in the hopes that I’ll see the girl of my dreams?”  Sometimes the choices are life-altering. Sometimes they’re story-altering. And sometimes they seem to have no bearing on the story… until they do. “Wait, you mean if I’d chosen Strawberry topping, you wouldn’t have torched my car? Damn it! I don’t even like chocolate!” So, when faced with a decision, how does your character decide?

A reactive character is more likely to do what’s “easiest” or “more immediate”. If choosing between two love interests, the reactive character will go with the one in front of him right now. Or the one who tries the hardest to woo him. Or the one that his friends tell him he should go with. Alternately, he won’t make a choice at all — at least, not until he’s either forced to do so by outside events (“Declare your undying love for me, or I’ll start drowning kittens! “) or one of the options is removed (“Now that Laura is dead, you have to love me!”).

A proactive character will make a choice. It may not be the right choice (and often isn’t), but it’s a choice nonetheless: “I’ve considered my options and have decided that I’m really in love with the evil, but incredibly sexy, vampire, and not the sweet girl-next-door who’s always been there for me. How could anything possibly go wrong?”

How does your character resolve the story?

At the end of the book, the plot and character arcs should (ideally) all tie themselves up into a delightful little thing we call a “resolution”, leaving minimal loose threads hanging around for people to trip over. This generally comes straight after the final conflict (or climax) of the story. So, what’s your character’s role in all of this?

A) What do you mean “role”? She’s too busy hiding behind the cupboard desperately hoping the police arrived in time to save her from the pushy hat-salesman to actually do anything. 

B) Her role is to get captured so the antagonist can give his well-prepared monologue. Then she begs for her life, but the antagonist ignores her. Then her boyfriend/the police show up and save her, capturing the bad guy and high-fiving each other all the while. But it’s not really a plan, it’s just what happens.

C) It depends. What does everyone else think her role should be?

D) Fed up with being chased around the College Campus like a rat through a maze, she plots out a Scooby-Doo-esque trap, using herself as bait, and lures the bad guy into an abandoned warehouse where she drops a cage on him, coats him in honey, and releases the dogs with bees in their mouths. Sadly it all goes horribly wrong and the dogs end up being stung by honey-coated bees, but it’s the thought that counts. And then she confronts him mano-a-womano.

Hint: Only one of these is proactive. And it’s even better if you can tie in your proactive character’s starting goal with the final confrontation: “See, I am the prettiest girl here! Take that Magic Mirror!”

In Conclusion…

I’m not saying that proactive characters are better than reactive characters. (Although I am saying that I subjectively prefer proactive characters.) Just make sure that the character that ends up on paper is the same one that runs around screaming obscenities inside your head.

Oh… is that just me?

Leave me your comments, thoughts, or random abuse (if you disagree with me).

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Jacket Blurbs: Too much, too little, or just right?

While everyone else seems to be making New Year’s Resolutions or preparing themselves for another party, I spent today finishing the book I was reading, so I could add it to the list of books I read in 2011.

Sad but true.

So I just finished reading Bleak History by John Shirley. I grabbed this book from the library on the strength of the statement: “John Shirley is co-screenwriter of the cult film The Crow.” To be honest, I didn’t even read the jacket copy. I just read that statement on the book cover, along with a blurb from Clive Barker, and figured I’d like the book.

It was only after was about halfway through that I read the back of the book.

As far as Gabriel Bleak is concerned, talking to the dead is just another way of making a living. It gives him the competitive edge to survive as a bounty hunter, or “skip tracer”, in the psychic minefield known as New York City. Unfortunately, his gift also makes him a prime target. A top-secret division of Homeland Security has been monitoring the recent emergence of human supernaturals, with Gabriel Bleak being the strongest on record. If they control Gabriel, they’ll gain access to the Hidden — the entity-based energy field that connects all life on Earth. But Gabriel’s got other ideas. With a growing underground movement called the Shadow Community — and an uneasy alliance of spirits, elementals, and other beings — Gabriel’s about to face the greatest demonic uprising since the Dark Ages. But this time, history is not going to repeat itself. This time, the future is Bleak. Gabriel Bleak.

If I’d read this before I started reading the book, I would have had certain expectations.

  1. Gabriel Bleak would utilise dead people (ghosts) regularly in his line of work.
  2. It would be widely known that Gabriel Bleak is the strongest “human supernatural” recorded, if not by Gabriel himself, then certainly by other major characters.
  3. Early in the book, it would become clear that the bad guys want to control Gabriel in order to access the Hidden.
  4. Gabriel would be aware of this threat, and would join forces with the Shadow Community (and other creatures) to quell a demonic uprising.

But here’s the thing.

  1. Gabriel Bleak doesn’t use ghosts in his line of work. Ever. Although he does (on occasion) talk to them, it’s only to tell them to move along.
  2. I don’t think it’s ever mentioned that Gabriel Bleak is the strongest “human supernatural” on record. It is implied, but that only happens about 2/3 of the way through the book. Prior to that, he’s just another dude with super powers who happens to be the protagonist.
  3. Gabriel spends the majority of the book trying to work out what’s going on, and avoiding the bad guys without any clue why they’re so interested in him. This tidbit of information is finally revealed on about page 340. There’s 370 pages in the book.
  4. As above, Gabriel spends most of the time just trying to survive. The Shadow Community try to recruit him, not the other way around. And even the demonic uprising isn’t revealed until the final 60 pages.

So, my question is this: Why provide information on the jacket copy that is either (a) incorrect, or (b) a major reveal at the end of the book? Is it because it helps to know this information before you start reading? (Otherwise, you have no idea why Gabriel’s being hunted at all.) Or is it to make the book sound more appealing?

Sure, if the blurb read: “Gabriel Bleak is just another guy with supernatural powers. But now he’s being hunted down by a division of Homeland Security.”, that would be too little information. It’s not appealing, it’s not enticing, and it’s not going to sell books.

But revealing one of the final reveals of the book feels to me like it’s too much.

What do you think? Would you rather too much or too little info in the jacket copy? And what do you consider to be “just right”?

** Note: This is not a review of the book itself, which I quite enjoyed. This is just a review of the back cover copy.

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