February 14, 2019 · 8:08 am
I spent my 2017 academic year picking a fight with Joseph Campbell and his blithe assumption that The Hero can only ever be a dude. Well, as my focus shifts from Heroes to Tricksters, the same issues crop up. The most famous mythological Tricksters discussed in the field and in popular culture tend to come from the following list: Norse Loki, Greek Hermes, West African Anansi, Polynesian Maui, and various versions of the archetype that appear in Native American mythology in the form of the Coyote, Raven, and Hare characters. These are all Trickster gods rather than goddesses. Lewis Hyde—whose book Trickster Makes This World I’ve quoted a few times in this series—quite confidently declared that “All the standard tricksters are male”. And, in a broad sense, he’s correct. But does this need to be the case? There are plenty of folks—including one particular writer I’ll be looking at today—who say “c’mon, my guy” and disagree. Continue reading →
February 9, 2017 · 12:40 am
[This is a post about spoilers. It will contain spoilers]
Remember when Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince first came out, and yelling “Snape kills Dumbledore!” being something like an evil meme? Something you would yell to ruin people’s lives, an attack reserved for the most devious of tricksters or most obnoxious of bullies? Wasn’t that a wild time? Do we still, collectively, feel that way about the tricky and weird business of “spoilers”? Continue reading →
August 28, 2014 · 12:21 am
You ever come across a character with all the guise of furniture? They get walked all over, used to push the plot along, and could easily be replaced by an attractive lamp and have it not affect the story. I think, understandably, we’re quick to notice and damn these types because it’s irritating to read or watch a character that only exists to get shoved around, or to shove forward the development of the plot or other characters. However, we mustn’t confuse the characters’ actual traits and role in the cast with the way they’re being written. A character with a passive personality is not necessarily a doormat, nor is one in a love interest role doomed only to be a love interest. It all comes down, to borrow phrasing from this post, to the respect and power they’re given by the narrative.
Margaret Schroeder, who remains the best thing about my brief watch of Boardwalk Empire, immediately seemed like a damsel pushover the first time I saw her. She was an abused housewife just trying to do right by everybody even if they pushed her around, her own passive nature and kindness getting the better of her. Until, of course, Nucky has her asshole husband framed and murdered, and sets her up with a job, a better angle in life and eventually a position as love interest to the main character (him. Of course). She still seemed unable to do anything for herself if she wasn’t nudged in that direction by other characters, namely her doting love interest, with whom she kind of filled the role of She Who Will Bring Out His Good Side.
But, Margaret grows over the first season and comes out of her shell, the resilience and kindness we see exhibited with her children mixing with her developing charisma and ability to Play The Game, all the while going into a tiny crisis of morals while trying to get the best lot in life for her and her family. So, Margaret’s plotline is intrinsically tied to Nucky, and if he hadn’t been interested in her none of it would have happened, but even with her position as love interest she manages not to be reduced to furniture. Continue reading →
June 5, 2014 · 12:05 am
Everyone loves an unscrupulous rogue. Our pop culture features entire space fleets worth of bounty hunters, enough hired guns to fill an armoury and a half, armadas of pirates and assassins everywhere; there are whole creeds of the buggers. It’s an assassination fascination. What exactly draws us to these dangerous and unlawful archetypes? Surely, by all logic, we shouldn’t sympathise or hold such an interest in people—fictional or otherwise—who could and would kill or bundle us off to our enemies if someone paid them to.
Though, as previously discussed, everyone loves a villain, and people deliberately disobeying the laws and moral values we’ve had ingrained in us are fascinating to watch precisely because they’re so removed from the everyday life we lead and the stuff that we ourselves would do. Then again, the fictional mercenary manages to be wrangled into a sympathetic kind of person a good two thirds of the time. It’s amazing how often hired killers or thugs can be turned into the heroes (or at least the enjoyable protagonists) of the stories we love. Maybe, even before we discover a potential tragic bloodstained backstory, we feel an immediate connection with someone on the other side of the law, since it immediately makes them an underdog—especially if The Law is evil and scary, like the Alliance in Firefly, and our rouges-for-hire are imbued with a much better sense of humour and badass coats. It’s pretty easy to start tugging the strings and make us switch our traditional notions of who to root for.
Of course, there are plenty of terrifying and genuinely villainous assassin and hunter characters about, but it’s interesting to note how fond we are of taking this career umbrella—killing, harming and evading the law and everyday morals for money, something most of us audience-folk would find unthinkable—and turning them into lovable good guys. Hell, they’re even the stars of comedies. Think Grosse Point Blank for romance, about a hired gun at his awkward high school reunion. Think Cowboy Bebop for a flatshare comedy: essentially about a group of clashing characters crammed into a small space(ship) and forced to work together with various episodic hijinks along the way. The basis for any dramedy, except that it grabs your attention by promising two out of five of these conflicting roomies to be bounty hunters, con artists and ex-killers (the other two, for reference, are a fluffy-haired hacker and a corgi). Continue reading →
March 6, 2014 · 12:06 am
Ah, the old dilemma: when you’re making up characters to propel or occupy your story, you want the audience to like them. Otherwise no one’s going to care enough to read or watch it. But how does one generate affection for people that aren’t real? Writers and scholars the world over have puzzled at this since the craft began. Of course, some of them just didn’t care and gave us outrageously unlikeable characters, some managed to strike the seam of gold between their words and the audience’s empathy, and some found a way towards both. Maybe the trick is not to worry about it too much.
I consider this after seeing a blog post floating around the ol’ Tumblr, discussing A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones’ Cersei, specifically her book characterisation vs her TV characterisation and how the fluctuations in them were going to make one of the biggest moments in the upcoming story fall flat. Book Cersei is much more volcanic, they argued, and much more of a sexual being than the TV series shows, which is going to make it awkward when she’s (minor spoilers) called out, shamed and generally stripped of her manipulative powers. What have they got to strip her of if they haven’t demonstrated these traits in the first place, leaving the show’s version of Cersei as a much softer and more likeable person? A commenter suggested that the head writers (affectionately called ‘D & D’) didn’t know how to make a character likeable without begging the audience for sympathy.
It certainly worked in the case of Daenerys, who quite plainly suffered through most of the first season, making it all the more uplifting when she rose to power and is now having a jolly time setting fire to people who try and oppose or abuse her. Pre-dragons, Daenerys is a teenaged girl sold into wifehood/slavery in an unfamiliar race, with a douchebag brother and a sense of resilience her only companions. Despite Cersei’s own qualms with her arranged marriage, penchant for revenge and other parallels you might scratch out between the two queens, there’s a clear difference that makes one immediately more ‘likeable’ than the other. Daenerys is an underdog, the stomped-on that we are all hardwired to support because we’d hate to see ourselves in that position. Cersei is the one who stomps on people (daintily and seductively), so naturally we’re less inclined to like her.
Yet the world overflows with Cersei fans, and fans of villains and terrible characters in general. Do writers really need to beg for sympathy to make people fall in love with bad guys? Continue reading →
December 12, 2013 · 12:10 am
Except when they don’t
Hush little audience don’t you cry, you knew your favourite character was going to die…
Well, that’s an unnerving little lullaby isn’t it? The fact is, the author giveth and the author taketh away, and the characters and worlds creative professionals breathe life into are often at risk of having that life sucked right back out of it. Yes, friends and loved ones, I’m talking about character deaths again. An excessive amount, or a lack thereof, both of which seem to be trending across popular TV series at current, and both of which have some iffy implications.
Game of Thrones, for example, has by now a stellar reputation for sticking an axe into everyone you love, or, in less weepy terms, its writer assigning no contractual immortality to the ‘good guys’. One of the most popular anime series at the moment, Attack on Titan, runs a similar operation, as does the Fate franchise which has spent the better part of this year putting my heart through a pepper grinder. Supernatural is not much better. In the sphere of YA The Hunger Games and Harry Potter are well worthy of note, with fans everywhere lamenting the loss of their favourites in whatever context. Suzanne, George, J.K. and their kind have earned their place in the hearts of many as the harbingers of doom.
On the other end of the spectrum we have Steven Moffat, who, as much discussed in the wake of Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary special, has a general aversion to actually killing characters off. Which is fine, on one level, since not every series has to contain a warzone’s worth of death if it’s not actually set in a warzone. But what our champ the Moff does is fake out deaths; kill Rory and bring him back so many times it becomes a running joke, displace people in time so they pass away quietly off-screen, or just smack the literal giant reset button and make everything okay again. As a side note, there is an actual website where you can press a ‘make everything okay’ button, which is really cute, but as a writing technique it’s… rather dicey.
There he goes again
At one end of the tightrope, you have Game of Thrones watchers joking that they’re hesitant to get attached to new characters since they’ll probably just get killed off, at the other, all tension and sense of fear for the Doctor and his crew is pretty much evaporated due to their writers’ discomfort with the idea of killing anyone permanently. Neither of these is really a position your show wants to be in. Continue reading →
Filed under Things We Need to Stop Doing
Tagged as A Song of Ice and Fire, Agents of S.H.I.E.LD, Day of the Doctor, Doctor Who, Fate franchise, Fate/Stay Night, Fate/Zero, Game of Thrones, Joss Whedon, Marvel Cinematic Universe, Shingeki no Kyojin, Steven Moffat, Supernatural, The Avengers
August 22, 2013 · 1:09 am
This is actually kind of a serious post so the puns in the title are quite facetious. Still, one can never resist, and comedy and tragedy are so often two sides of the same coin.
Fiction can be dark, it can be confronting, and it can be full of horror and violence and issues that people would rather not think about. Some of our society’s favourite books and films are the ones full of death, misery, war, psychological trauma, violent prejudice and sexual abuse. They are horrible things, but they are present in humanity, unfortunately, and so they appear in our art. This does not suit everyone, understandably so.
Question of the week, then: should we shy away from these ugly societal issues for our audience’s peace of mind? On the one hand, no, absolutely not. Fiction is a canvas for expression and so it should, at its most powerful, shock, evoke emotion, and perturb. But it’s not all about literary merit, though works that handle dark topics are often critically hailed (and very popular)—as well as creating empathetic and fantastically dark pieces of fiction, having these themes in literature can bring them to light where they wouldn’t have been otherwise.
Seeing sensitive topics in books can educate and raise awareness to the more sheltered audience members that didn’t even know they existed (i.e. me, reading half the YA section at my high school library and having my quiet little mind blown), and start conversations about these important issues where they wouldn’t have arisen otherwise.
This is why there is so much backlash against banning books, especially the practice of keeping texts with touchy or ‘adult’ themes out of school courses. I went to a dialogue at a writer’s festival with Justine Larbalestier, Libba Bray and her husband the literary agent, all of whom agreed that the term ‘adult themes’ was a product from the back end of a bull. They asked, what are adult themes? Taxes? Politics? Supposedly dark and mature elements like sexuality, violence, drugs, mental health and emotional development are all just human themes, products of life on the earth we have. Continue reading →
August 8, 2013 · 12:16 am
In fictional worlds of boundless possibility and imagination, why are they so often riddled with the prejudices of the real one?
Fantasy and science fiction have a serious problem where it comes to equal representation… which, from my humble point of view, is offensive first of all but mostly just bizarre. I mean, the definition of fantasy is that anything is possible, and science fiction shows us a world that we can strive towards in the future. So why are we so limited to the thought processes of the modern (and the not-so-modern) world?
The most obvious example of this is that fantasy worlds are commonly very, very white. This is a topic of much discussion all over the Intertubes and beyond, and a pretty prickly issue. It’s also really weird if you think about it. If the world itself is completely made up, you can do whatever you wish with it. You can have floating mountains and creatures with six heads and people turning each other into frogs. Your main characters could live in a world covered in volcanoes or hanging over the cliff to different portals of existence, your fantasy landscape designed with any level of implausible ridiculousness in mind. The same goes for the people who populate it… yet most of them seem to look overtly European.
Well, there is some solid reasoning behind this: first of all, if you make your world and its populace too bizarre it won’t be relatable and it will be more difficult for your audience to connect with, whether through a question of empathy or just them going “This is silly” and tossing the book aside. This, and a combination of the infinite inspiration lying wait in history, leads to the Fantasy Counterpart Culture, fantastical or alien civilisations with traits we can recognise in societies that exist or have existed in the real world.
The most common example is the fantasy landscape based on Medieval Europe. This is basically Tolkien’s doing, when it comes down to it, seeing as The Lord of the Rings and company were the first books to really make the fantasy genre cool, and thus authors that followed have looked to their master for example. The fantasy archetypes that we’re comfortably and stereotypically used to all come from Tolkien, from the landscape to the Orcs to the armour to the big dangerous faceless force of evil.
And that’s okay. Let it never be said that The Lord of the Rings isn’t amazing. However, with everyone following Tolkien’s archetype we’ve ended up with a market swamped in Europe-esque fantasy worlds, leaving things suspended in a rather absurdly Caucasian persuasion. Continue reading →
Filed under Fun with Isms
Tagged as A Song of Ice and Fire, Avatar, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Earthsea, fantasy, Firefly, Game of Thrones, J.R.R Tolkein, media representation, racism, science fiction, Star Trek, The Lord of the Rings, Ursula Le Guinn
July 11, 2013 · 12:33 am
You all know the story—a world-innocent but slightly bored peasant boy gets swept into an adventure to save his people. How’s he going to do it? He’s just an everyman, after all, the most relatable archetype out there, that of the well-meaning but gormless youth. However he might protest, however, he really has little to no say in it—he has to go on the adventure and defeat this evil, because destiny dictates he’s the only one who can.
What am I talking about here? Star Wars? The Arthurian legends? Buffy the Vampire Slayer? It doesn’t matter. The idea of the fated hero is older than print, present in everything from Greek theatre to modern sitcoms. But the question that I pose to you is thus: is the concept a bit worn out?
After all, the thing about destiny is that you know what’s going to happen. As if the definition wasn’t enough, we have the added bonus that a lot of these plots march along a certain previously laid-out path, that of The Hero’s Journey. Joseph Campbell was the first to nut this out in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces and if you follow your nose you’ll see it guiding adventurers all across the spectrum of literature.
It starts with our ordinary hero, our relatable everydude, in their ordinary home town, somewhat dissatisfied with their predictable life. Suddenly, in crashes some sort of bizarre happenstance that ignites the plot. Maybe a mysterious girl falls from the sky, or maybe they find a hidden treasure, or maybe some sort of mystical, pun-making wizard appears and calls them to adventure.
The Hero can’t just rush off into the story, however—for whatever reason, be it their loyalty to home or their honour or their wobbly knees, they must refuse the call. In spite of this, they’re going to get roped into the fray anyway, like in the aforementioned and formula-perfect Star Wars, where Obi Wan points out that Luke’s really got nothing better to do than come with him and face the adventure he was born for since his house and family are now on fire.
Does destiny really say I have to carry your Muppet ass around?
Continue reading →
Filed under Archetypes and Genre
Tagged as A Song of Ice and Fire, Brave, destiny, Fate franchise, Fate/Stay Night, Fate/Zero, Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, Joseph Campbell, Pixar, Star Wars, The Hero's Journey, The Three Doors
June 13, 2013 · 12:59 am
[Hello friends. This post has the word ‘dying’ in the title. Spoilers abound beyond this point.]
Within fiction there are certain codes, ingrained enough in our collective psyche that, hypothetically, if we were to end up stranded in a made-up world, we as geeks and fiction aficionados (I wonder if anyone just rocked back in their chair and went “Ooooooh, that’s where her blog name is from!” ?), we’d sort of know what to do to stay alive.
Because let’s be frank, the fantasy world is a dangerous place, filled with high drama, magic and robots, and overseen by the cackling form of some distant author. And you know those people are crazy. You also know, however, that you’ll make it to the end of your adventure if you’re lucky enough to be the hero. Right? Simply act your good-est and you’ll be fine, since the good guys always win, and they certainly always last until the end.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that may not be the case—in many story worlds, it seems to be the go-to to spectacularly kill off the most quintessentially good characters within. Every time you make a heartfelt mention of honour, justice or chivalry, you may just be stepping closer to your untimely and dramatic demise. Continue reading →
Filed under How To
Tagged as A Song of Ice and Fire, Catelyn Stark, Dying in Fiction, Eddard Stark, Fate franchise, Fate/Zero, Game of Thrones, Puella Magi Madoka Magica, red wedding, Robb Stark, tragedy