Accidentally on purpose

Back in April, a friend and I gave a presentation about the latest installment of the Devil May Cry series. We noted that the themes of the game and the language of the ads for it were all about confronting power structures and challenging societal norms, but the main characters were pretty stereotypical: a rough-and-ready male hero and a helpless, innocent damsel-in-distress. We presented this as something of a failure on the part of the creators, but one of the audience members said he was quite sure this had been done intentionally as part of the social commentary.

I had not considered this. I started to feel insecure about my own interpretation. Was I just too dumb to get the joke? However, the more I thought about it, the less sure I was that he was right. It seems a little silly to be talking about definitive rights and wrongs when it comes to individual interpretations, but I felt that my friend and I had some pretty logical reasons for thinking DMC’s characters were the products of laziness rather than cleverness. There was no cage match to decide who was right, but it still got me thinking about how to judge the flaws of various media. At what point can you look at such flaws and say, “Well, they’ve done it on purpose to be clever”? That’s not something I feel comfortable assuming.

Of course, there are times it’s obvious. I read Gentlemen Prefer Blondes over the semester, and even I could see that Anita Loos was using misspellings and a rather atypical form of stream of consciousness to create a gently mocking tone. But what about when it’s not obvious? I suppose I could just say we can all have our own ideas so hooray, let’s move on, but that’s not satisfying. Frankly, it doesn’t even come down to whether I like or dislike the book, game, or movie in question; I loved the DMC reboot and Dante as a character, but I still thought the game failed to depart from the norms it was railing against.

I’m not looking for a magic formula, here. Critiquing media should always be nearly as difficult and unique as creating media, I think, so I’m really just interested in reading other people’s experiences with this. What things have you read, watched, or played that used its own flaws as part of its narrative? What about that particular thing (or things) made you think the mistakes were an intentional part of the commentary rather than being just, well, mistakes?

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It’s so good to be bad

What do all these people have in common?

They all range from mildly attractive to drop-dead gorgeous, depending on your tastes.

And they’re all villains. I love villains. Well-developed, interesting, complex villains, that is.

I know. I’m super original.

Everyone loves well-developed, interesting, complex characters regardless of their status as a hero, villain, or anti-hero. If we learned anything from Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, it’s that villains are just as important (if not more important) to stories as heroes. In many cases, the villain could have been the hero at one point in his or her life; they had the same talent or power, but they were just a little more flawed. They’re just a little more human and a little less super. To me, a good villain is more real and/or relatable than a hero. I think we should give more villains their own stories.

I know of a few such stories. The first one that comes to mind is the manga and anime Death Note. If you don’t know anything about it, I’ll just repeat what everyone said to me before I watched it and tell you it’s a total mindfuck. I’ve only seen one episode of the immensely popular Breaking Bad, but everything I’ve seen, heard, and read tells me Walter White is a villain protagonist. I can’t exactly call Anna Karenina a villainess, but I certainly wouldn’t say she’s a heroine. I’m currently reading (or trying to read) Paradise Lost, and even though epic poetry isn’t my favorite thing ever, Milton’s Satan is incredibly likeable.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but look at the story potential even in that little selection of villains. Chris Hemsworth may be a gorgeous hunk of man, but I’d be way more interested in a movie strictly about Loki than I am in the Thor sequel. Queen Ravenna was a far more compelling character than Snow White in Snow White and the Huntsman, and yes, Charlize Theron is 10 times the actress Kristen Stewart is, but I think the difference was built into the characters. And I would pay SO MUCH THEORETICAL MONEY to see more of Hatsumomo’s story even if I loved Memoirs of a Geisha just the way it was.

Here is where I’d love to get some good, honest-to-God conversation going. Do you like stories whose main characters are a darker shade of gray? If so, how is it done successfully? Do all the characters have to be bad (a hero-less story) and the main character just has to be the most likeable, relatable baddie?

On that note, what do you think makes a villain likeable or relatable enough that readers or viewers can enjoy them or want to spend time with them despite their actions? Which character traits are inexcusable? What was the difference between villains you may have been rooting for just a teensy bit and villains you couldn’t wait to see go down in flames?

I’ve just now realized what’s wrong with Untitled P.O.S. Damn it.

Anyway, I’d like to hear from my readers! I know how I feel about villains, but whether you’re a writer, reader, runner, baker, or candlestick maker, I’d like to hear your opinion on the subject. Even if you don’t have a theory on the subject as a whole, I’m really interested to know who your favorite villain is and what makes them great.

I was on vacation in Spain! Not really.

I have been working on this blog post for weeks. WEEKS. I started some kind of “top 10 characters!” list four times. I tried to find a recently-written excerpt that didn’t make me cringe. There was enough failing going on that one might call it epic failing. I’ve never been a fast writer, but up until this, blog posts have only taken me between two and four hours to put together. I attribute that to a combination of my nit-pickiness and all those distractions I can’t resist, but this is different. If I change tense a few times in this post, it’s because I feel like this is still going on even as I type these very words rather than being a thing of the past.

This has not been a matter of hemming and hawing over my diction or an inability to stay away from Buzzfeed for longer than 30 seconds. It doesn’t even have to do with the fact that it’s been a perfect 70 degrees and sunny lately. This is the utter doldrums. I just have nothing to say.

I think it started when I had one of those paralytic, I-think-this-is-worthless-shit-why-am-I-even-bothering moments regarding Untitled P.O.S. I say “had” like it came and it went but it’s still going on. I should soldier through my doubt and just finish it (it’s only 20K words, for Pete’s sake), right?

Right?

I don’t know.

I’m not one of those people who believe a story is worth something just because someone put time, energy, and love into it. I’ve read plenty of things people have put their best efforts and purest intentions into that have also been complete crap. I’ve never handed anyone back a piece and said, “I think you should go into construction instead,” but I’ve thought it. Cruel? Yeah. But my best friend just sent me a text saying she saw a crow kill a little songbird and start eating it. It’s just a cruel world.

My point is, I don’t want to be taken in by my own fantasies of writing a great story. I don’t want to another person who pours their soul into a book just so a better writer or thinker can tear it to shreds. I’m not afraid of criticism, but I am afraid of writing something that is legitimately, utterly worthless. I’m not afraid to bleed a little in my writing, but it’s hard to make that commitment when you have the sneaking suspicion your characters and themes will do nothing but alienate readers. And even worse, I can’t tell if I’m being the world’s gloomiest, most cynical pessimist, or if I’m just showing good judgment for once.

People are always willing to rush to my defense (against myself) and say, “You’re a good writer! You’re too hard on yourself! You’re overly critical!” I appreciate the vote of confidence, but I already know I can string a sentence together more or less correctly. I can probably put a few of them together and make a paragraph. But that doesn’t mean I have a good story. A grammatically correct story doesn’t equal one worth telling.

I don’t say any of this to suggest anyone should adopt my mindset. It’s crippling and unproductive and generally no fun whatsoever. I say it as a preview to the following revelation and most excellent advice.

*dramatic pause* *slow-motion blink* *dawn breaks over the mountains*

Wait. I don’t have any.

I’m still in the damn doldrums, and beyond that, I’m still not sure whether to keep on this story or look for a new one. How do writers know when to rewrite and edit and rewrite some more and when to start fresh? When do you admit you’ve bitten off more than you can chew and start over with a simple hero or heroine? When do you abandon ship? Is the fact that I’m unsure if the story is worth writing a sign that it isn’t?

Well, anyway. That’s where I’m at. That’s where I’ve been for this long hiatus from the blog. I don’t plan on taking any more breaks in the near future (then again, I didn’t plan this one), but with school starting up again soon I’m thinking it’ll be one post a week. So if I don’t post anything by next Friday, somebody yell at me!

One last thing: I know this is a grumpy-sounding post that doesn’t contribute any positivity to the world. Here is an absurdly fluffy kitteh to clear the air.

Look at how happy and unburdened by bad storytelling she is!

IT’S LIKE SHE’S WEARING LITTLE FLUFFY PANTALOONS. OH LORD.

You can take that Kindle and shove it up your Nook

I hate e-readers. I hate them with a fiery, socially unacceptable hatred. I hate the silent, uninspiring compliance of their screens and I hate their stupid little highlighting and page-marking functions. Given the chance, I would throw every Kindle and Nook in the world into an active volcano and then go back to my cave with my stone spear heads and my woolly mammoth friends.

This concludes this week’s Confessional Thursday.

In all honesty, I try not to rant about it too much. With all the big problems in the world, it’s just not fashionable to fight with people over their preferred reading conduit. I don’t accost e-reading strangers and demand they get their Kindle out of my sight before I actually start a fire with it. I don’t send emails to Barnes and Noble complaining about offensive Nook ads. I may have called my best friend a heathen for considering one, but I swear that was just once.

I love my books, okay? I would spend hours in bookstores if I could, but my friends get bored and the paranoia of looking like a book thief makes me all jumpy. I love bringing a new book home and losing myself for hours in the clean, crisp pages with their new-book smell. I love dog-earing a page or highlighting a line for the first time.

I went through a phase when I tried to keep my books in pristine condition. I didn’t eat or drink while I was reading. I used a bookmark religiously. I didn’t dog-ear pages or underline anything. I got all nervous if anyone else handled my books, like Bilbo Baggins and his plates.

Now that that obnoxious, obsessive phase is over, I don’t mind marking up my books a little. They’re mine, so why shouldn’t they have a little personality? Like Andy writing his name on the bottom of Woody’s boot, it shows somebody cares about them. Somebody spent some time with them.

I didn’t value books quite so much when I was young. I’ve already said I loved to read, but the book as a physical object wasn’t all that important to me. Some of the books from my childhood are missing half their covers or are wrinkled and water-stained from first page to last. Unfortunately, some of the books I man-handled weren’t even mine.

One of my most vivid early memories is my dad reading this copy of The Hobbit to me and my sister. He turned us into fellow Tolkien fans at an early age, and when I was old enough to read I tackled The Hobbit on my own. I don’t remember exactly what I did to it, but from the looks of things, I made reading a not-so-sedentary activity. I don’t know, maybe I literally tackled it? It had a glossy, illustrated dust jacket but I destroyed that beyond all hope of repair as well (I think part of the reason I dislike children so much is because I was such a wretched one myself).

I’ve offered to buy my dad a new copy several times, but he always says no. I’ve never asked why; I just assumed it had sentimental value and I felt even worse for ruining it. The more I think about it, though, the more I wonder if the split binding and broken cover is part of the value.

I feel incredibly self-centered suggesting this, but I wonder if the memory of reading to me and my sister is what makes it special to Dad. I may be way off the mark and it’s special because was a nice gift that he managed to keep in good condition until his wrecking ball of a daughter came along, but I know whenever I look at it I remember being snuggled in his lap and looking at the gorgeous illustrations while he put on a full cast of voices.

How the hell can an e-reader compare to that?

Sure, parents can still read to their kids with a Nook, but no one can tell me it’s the same. You can’t tell me having the physical proof isn’t worth something. You can’t tell me a Kindle, with all its functions and uses, can serve as a tactile, concrete memory trigger with any kind of specificity. Nobody looks at their TV screen and says, “Ah, yes. I remember watching Pocahontas and Homeward Bound on this.” The memories are in the VHS tapes with their bulky plastic covers.

Beyond that emotional appeal to parents, current or future, my reasons hating e-reader aren’t all that substantial. I just don’t understand how the reading experience can carry the same weight without the physical sensation of pages. I don’t see how downloading a 99¢ file can be as special as picking out a book and making it your own. I entertain fantasies of publishing only hard copies of my own books because damn it, I want my words to occupy their own space and exist as their own physical object with its own colors and smells and weight.

“Oh, but they’re so convenient.” WHATEVER.

And yeah, not every book is going to change your life. I own my share of cheap, forgettable stories; reading them on an e-reader probably wouldn’t make them more or less memorable. But most of the time, when I pick up a book, I’m looking for an experience rather than information alone. I’m expecting it to be significant enough to deserve its own space in my house. I really do try not to be cantankerous about it, but it gets under my skin. I don’t like to see books and the people who wrote them lose their value.

Now that I’ve ranted and raved and probably scared off a few readers, I have a question. Since my dad doesn’t want a new copy of The Hobbit, I would like to get the old one repaired. I want to keep the original cover so the memories can live on in the battle scars, but it needs some help. I would like it to hold together without tape, and whether that means it needs to be rebound or resewn or reincarnated, I don’t know. I’ve never had a book repaired or restored and I don’t know where to start beyond Googling “book fixers.” Do any of you have experience with book repair, either as the customer or the repairer? Any advice as to where to send it or where not to send it? I’d really appreciate any suggestions you have!

The goddess needs a slang term for heroin

“When you create stories, you become gods of tiny, intricate dimensions.”             –Metatron, Supernatural

Will somebody please tell my characters I’m the god—er, goddess, whatever—of their tiny, intricate dimension? I don’t think they got the memo.

All joking aside, I do understand that when push comes to shove, I’m in control of the world I create. It may require me to step away from the project for a while, reaffirm my goal for the story, rediscover my characters, but I’m ultimately in charge. I can make characters whatever I want. They can be male, female, sane, crazy, soldiers, attorneys, candlestick makers, anything. Well, maybe in theory.

The problem is, I don’t know the first thing about being a soldier, an attorney, or a candlestick maker. In fact, I don’t know the first thing about most things in the world. My knowledge base of first-hand experience is limited. The only thing I know that most people probably don’t is how it feels to get kicked in the face by a horse. Therefore, writing characters who have done and seen things I haven’t done or seen can be problematic. Exhibit A: drugs.

Embarrassing story time! In the first draft of a short story I wrote for class, I wrote something about a character “snorting crack.” Yeah.

That wasn’t the first time Carly’s lack of drug knowledge was an issue. In my failed NaNo project, one of the first people to die was a drug dealer. My friends and I joked about Googling “street names for heroin” and how I was probably put on a federal watch list (something something NSA something something irony), but even though I got my answers, it didn’t make the scene any more convincing.

There are some things you just can’t Google, but there are some things you may not be able to experience first-hand either. For instance, how do fabulously wealthy people live? Unfortunately, I can’t answer that, and I can’t very well contact someone who lives in the Hamptons and say, “Hey, mind if I hang out with your family for a bit? Just, you know, observe how you interact with each other, what your children are like, maybe take that Aston Martin out for a spin? It’s research for my book.”

Now, if you’ve never done drugs and you’re not fabulously wealthy, my best guesstimate of how drug dealers and rich people act may not seem noticeably out of place to you. However, the guesses will be brutally obvious to someone out there. It could be the deciding factor in whether someone finishes the book or tosses it aside, whether they recommend it to a friend or give it a two-star review. Exhibit B: horses.

I’ve been riding horses since I was four years old. I’ve had just about every kind of trainer out there. I’ve ridden a wide variety of horses. I can clean a stall more efficiently and automatically than I can vacuum a room. Absolutely nothing can pull me out of a story faster than an inaccurate portrayal of horses, and oh boy, are they everywhere. Do not ask me to watch a “horse movie” because, from The Horse Whisperer to Hidalgo, Hollywood does it all wrong. Horses may not be central to video games, but nothing reminds me the game is all fake better than seeing reins connected to browbands. Thankfully, most people who write horse books actually know what they’re talking about, but once in a while you get someone who just wants to throw a riding scene in there and positively butchers it. The point is, the little details you don’t think are important could leave a mighty big impression.

So, if you’re writing something with horses in it, feel free to ask me questions! Since most of you probably aren’t, that’s a useless offer but it stands nonetheless. However, what to do about those things you can’t Google? What if you can’t take lessons? I think the answer is to get interviews.

So here are my questions for all of you writing gods and goddesses. Have you done interviews as research? How do you get them? How do you get attorneys and doctors to take time out of their day to talk to you? How do you ask addicts or victims of crimes questions that could be painful to them? I have yet to do any interviews as part of my research, so I’m curious as to how more experienced people manage it and how well it works.

One more question. Have you used TV shows or movies as “research” and gotten away with it? Obviously I’m not talking about borrowing the physics (or lack thereof) in the The Fast and the Furious, but what about Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of a person with autism in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? Charlize Theron as a serial killer in Monster? Does Hollywood do anything right?

Love stinks

I’m not really a romantic. Maybe I was, some time ago when I was young and naïve. Back in high school, I thought I had a pretty good grip on what “love” was (laugh with me) and it seemed solid and immutable. Now that I’m a jaded old hag, love is a tenuous and often distasteful concept. In real life, romance is an awkward, trial-and-error affair and in the movies it’s predictable and ridiculous. I don’t like characters who give up “everything” for love. I don’t like those “boy meets girl” stories. I don’t sympathize with Romeo and Juliet or Jack and Rose and I can’t stand the people from that blasted epitome of chick flicks, The Notebook. I don’t mind when characters are married, dating, sleeping together, or whatever (a lot of my characters are doing at least one of those things), but I can’t stand romantic ideals. I don’t believe people actually fall in love or “just know” or that anyone completes anyone. And now that I’ve said all this, I’m going to contradict myself.

If I’m going to write a story, I have to fall in the love with the characters.

Male, female, young, old, beautiful, ugly, villains, heroes, whatever. I absolutely have to love my main characters. Since my idea of love is sort of unstable/cynical/different from most people’s, maybe I should just say I have to want to spend time with them. I must want to spend hours and days and maybe years of my life writing their stories down. I have to get to know them, appreciate their flaws, let their emotional ups and downs affect me, and patiently try to figure out what they want and why. That seems similar to how real relationships are supposed to work.

That probably doesn’t sound like a bad thing. If I care about the characters, readers probably will too, right?

Wrong.

At least, I’m pretty sure it’s wrong. After all, I’ve read a lot of stories that didn’t draw me in. I’ve read books that people—sometimes even people I know—have spent years writing and I’ve remained unaffected. Someone cared about those characters and I didn’t give a damn about them, so I can only assume the same holds true for my own characters. So if loving your characters doesn’t guarantee other people will love them, what does it do?

In my case, it’s limiting. Since I love them all, they all have something in common. A lot of people have a “type,” right? We’re drawn toward different external and internal characteristics: blonde or brunette, optimistic or pessimistic, idealistic or realistic, Superman or Batman. And if you’re a hardcore Batman fan, how often can you bring yourself to care about Superman? If you love the Dark Knight’s moral ambiguity, will you appreciate the Big Blue Boy Scout’s sense of righteous justice?

As readers, watchers, and consumers, it’s natural that we have a type. We have favorite genres and subjects and as long as we’re not too stuck in a rut, that’s perfectly okay. However, even though no one has said this to me explicitly, it seems like we’re not supposed to have favorites as writers, makers, and producers.

Maybe the adage “kill your darlings” gave me this impression. Writers are constantly told to edit, chop, cut out anything that doesn’t belong in the story, even if we love it, and to keep or add things that do belong. Sometimes it’s a matter of cutting a paragraph you spent three hours crafting. Sometimes you end up killing a character you wish could’ve lived. Everyone hopes, I assume, that the story they love is also a good story. But can you write a good story you don’t love?

I couldn’t. When I don’t love my characters, it shows. One of the biggest challenges of my current project is disguising my disinterest in certain people, which is an especially daunting task given that the story depends so much on how readers feel about the characters. Sure, I love my main characters, but the antagonists? The minor characters? Can I evoke sympathy, hatred, or admiration for a character I don’t sympathize with, hate, or admire? If I can, I think I’ll have a damn good story. If I can’t, it’ll be an amateurish waste of space on my hard drive. No pressure.

My uncertainty extends beyond this project. Can I make my characters in different stories sufficiently distinct? Am I doomed to write the same characters over and over, just with different names and eye colors? Will their motivations and philosophies always be the same even if their genders or ethnicities are different? Or will I allow the events of the story to organically shape the characters into unique people?

Do you have to love your characters? Does writing a good book require some amount of distance and detachment? Can you break away from your favorite themes for the sake of story? Is that something I should be working toward? Am I way off the mark with this entire theory?

Will work for books

You know, there are tons of books. Sometimes I get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of books—no, even just novels—there are to read. My Twitter feed is full of aspiring authors, most of whom I would love to support by buying a book and giving it a thoughtful review. My Goodreads “to-read” shelf is longer than my “read” shelf. My mental list of books to buy is separated into three categories: “desperately and wildly need,” “want,” and “don’t really want but ought to read.” There are at least five in each category.

As if these lists were not long enough with only previously existing books, people keep writing more. And a lot of these—too many, in fact—are worth reading. On top of this, I a) want to buy books, not borrow them and b) currently have less money in my bank account than my 15-year-old brother does in his pocket. While I haven’t figured out the financial dilemma, I’ve picked five newly released or yet-to-be released books from my “desperately and wildly need” category to share with you.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Photo courtesy of barnesandnoble.com

Photo courtesy of barnesandnoble.com

Truth be told, I have never read anything by Neil Gaiman. I KNOW. Don’t make me feel WORSE. To be perfectly honest, he wasn’t even on my radar until I started following bookish people on Twitter and realized not having read Neil Gaiman was not something to admit to anyone, especially not on your blog where anyone in the world can read it. Anyway, back to the book.

This is one I would pick up for title and cover alone, but the early reviews tell me it’s as gorgeous on the inside as the outside. Kirkus Reviews calls it “poignant and heartbreaking, eloquent and frightening, impeccably rendered,” and Publishers Weekly says it’s a “splendid and subtle modern myth.” June 18 can’t get here soon enough.

Raven Girl by Audrey Niffenegger

Photo courtesy of barnesandnoble.com

Photo courtesy of barnesandnoble.com

Unlike the previous author, I have read two books by Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Traveler’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry). I loved both, and I can’t wait to have a few dollars to buy Raven Girl. This is another cover that would prompt me to buy the book, but if that’s not good enough for you, Booklist says “Niffenegger weds the fabulous with the deeply human in this concentrated, suspenseful fable of unlikely love, a struggle for selfhood, and a dramatic metamorphosis.”

The Blue Blazes by Chuck Wendig

Photo courtesy of barnesandnoble.com

Photo courtesy of barnesandnoble.com

I know, I talk about Chuck Wendig a lot. However, I haven’t read any of his books. I want to read all of them, but here we are again at my empty bank account. Really, though, they all look brilliant and get great reviews; The Blue Blazes just happens to be his most recent. Since his is one of the few blogs I actually read and love on a regular basis, I can only assume I’ll enjoy his books just as thoroughly. Also, as you might’ve guessed from the title of this blog, I’m all about the nitty-gritty, and the nitty-gritty seems to be his specialty.

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

Photo courtesy of barnesandnoble.com

Photo courtesy of barnesandnoble.com

I’ve read both The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns and they are beautiful, heartbreaking stories that stayed with me for days. This latest novel came out May 21 and it has a million billion trillion glowing reviews. I can’t imagine it will be anything less than exquisite.

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

Photo courtesy of barnesandnoble.com

Photo courtesy of barnesandnoble.com

I don’t watch scary movies and I don’t read scary stories, but man, this sounds fantastic. I hate jump-scares and I’m not into the repulsive-creepy-disgusting, but from the reviews I’ve read, this seems like something I could sink my teeth into. Of course, it might require keeping my night-light on for a while (yeah, I really have one) but I think it will be worth it.

Well, there they are, five books I desperately and wildly need and will buy as soon as I have money or borrow as soon as my podunk library gets them in. Which happens first is anyone’s guess. What are some books you’re dying to read? Have you read any of these on my list? Would anyone like to berate me for not having read anything by Neil Gaiman and having the audacity to admit it? Talk to me, people! I love hearing from you.