A Writing Thought from ‘Victoria’

I’ve started watching ‘Victoria’ recently. It’s pretty good; very well acted, very well designed, so decent writing. It definitely gets overly melodramatic at times, not to mention on the nose, sometimes overdoes the sneering jerkiness of the ‘bad’ characters (I would be very surprised to find that the real King Leopold would actually talk down to Victoria in the way he does here), and it’s clearly trying hard to be the next ‘Downton Abbey,’ but the story of Queen Victoria and her reign is more than interesting enough to keep things going.

Now, I’m only about three or four episodes in, but there was an incident in the last episode I watched that stood out to me. Victoria and Albert (when she’s still trying to make up her mind if she wants to marry him) are walking on the grounds of Windsor when Victoria’s dog Dash gets caught in a snare. Albert takes charge and tends to the dog, which leads…somehow to him shouting at her about the state of the poor, during which the dog is pretty much completely forgotten.

This kind of encapsulates what I think is a problem with a lot of contemporary stories: they focus on the wrong thing. They’re always diverting from the really interesting stuff, like nobility, virtue, courage, and character and getting bogged down in a boring morass of ‘issues.’ But in fiction, even historical fiction, the important thing isn’t the larger issues in the world of the story, but the individual characters and how they react. The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, but they are the substance of the story. Now, the most interesting thing about this scene is not the plight of the poor in early Victorian London. As far as that goes…well, it’s not exactly a pressing issue for us the viewers at this point. It matters only insofar as it reflects upon Victoria, Albert, and the other characters.

So, we have a scene where Victoria’s beloved dog is injured and Albert takes charge to help. The focus of this scene needs to be on Albert’s actions and Victoria’s reactions to it; he is stepping up to help Victoria in something that has nothing to do with her status as Queen, but is vitally important to her as a person. This shows they are on the same wavelength, that she can rely on him to care for her as a woman and not just as a monarch. But then, out of nowhere, they suddenly turn it to an argument about social justice solely to gin up some patently artificial conflict, while the poor dog is literally forgotten.

Let me be clear: it’s perfectly acceptable to have Albert and Victoria clash over matters of the poor. But not in that scene or at that time. It doesn’t fit what’s going on, the reactions aren’t natural, and, frankly, it’s disappointing. To take a really quite interesting and emotionally on-point scene and turn it to boilerplate social justice talk is like reading a story with a really imaginative and creative opening paragraph that suddenly turns into a political essay. It isn’t interesting to hear another tired variation of how the rich girl doesn’t know how the other half lives; it is interesting to see the ruler of the most powerful nation on Earth crying over her hurt dog and watch her princely paramour ripping the sleeve off of his shirt to bandage its leg. That’s got some dramatic meat to it, some romantic weight and encapsulates a lot into very little. In a word, it makes for a good story. Albert and Victoria shouting at each other about the underclass does not make for a good story.

So, my point is that, when telling stories, it’s the characters who are interesting; the larger surrounding issues are important only insofar as they reflect upon the characters. That, and you should know when and how to fit your de rigueur blow-up argument between the romantic leads into the story so that it neither feels forced nor leaves an injured puppy dog forgotten on the ground.



Brief Thoughts on Danny Phantom


Danny Phantom is one of those shows that I’d heard a lot of people praising, so recently I watched through it. The story is of a kid who gets ghost-like powers and uses them to fight ghost monsters, while trying to maintain his normal life. So, very similar to Spider-Man. That’s fine; I have no problem with standard set-ups, especially for superhero storylines, in fact I prefer them. Overall, though, I thought it was just okay: not bad, but not really all that good either. It’s frustrating, because I really wanted to like it more than I did, and I can see that the potential was there to make a really fantastic show instead of something rather standard (kind of like Frozen, now that I think about it).

Maybe I’m just spoiled from watching Phineas and Ferb, Milo Murphy, and My Little Pony one after the other, not to mention coming off of Spectacular Spider-ManAvatar the Last Airbender, and the whole DCAU. My standards for animated TV shows are really high right now. But, even so, I wasn’t all that impressed. The characters, with one or two exceptions, weren’t all that interesting or well-developed, the gags were pretty standard, and the plotting was kinda weak. The animation was pretty lame too; very standard Nickelodeon ‘sharp angles, ugly backgrounds, wonky movements.’

And there was some standard PC shibboleths, like the boilerplate feminism, environmentalism, goofy stupid father character, that kind of stuff (though the father at least got some good redeeming moments). One episode flat out made me angry: it was a really stupid, feminist anti-beauty-contest deal with dosage of anti-Medieval snobbery. I haven’t hated a cartoon episode that much in a long time.

That said, the show was pretty good overall; the set-up’s creative and the hero’s powers are very cool. There are some good relationships (especially between the hero and his love interest), and the main villain is great for the most part (he gets a really lame ending, though). I laughed a fair amount (I especially liked a character called ‘The Box Ghost’ who was so minor a threat that his wanted poster read “$2.50 or Best Offer”). There are some really good episodes. I really liked one two-parter featuring the hero’s evil future self. Basically, I’m not sorry I watched it, but I don’t think I would watch it again.

One of my biggest problem with it is that I think it could have been a LOT better if it had been less standard. Like, if they had a more original animation style, more development on the ghosts and the ghost world, made it a little spookier and more gothic, and took things a bit more seriously and didn’t go for the joke quite so often. I’m working on my MLP video review right now, and one of the things I mention is that that show takes itself fairly seriously, in that the characters all act like what they’re doing is important and that they really care about the outcome. There are a lot of jokes, but we always feel like there’s something at stake and that it really matters what happens (even when it’s something as simple as deciding who to take to a party, the fact that it’s clearly important to the characters keeps us engaged). Now, of course the characters on Danny Phantom care about what’s happening and they do get serious at times, but they go for the joke much too often, and a lot of the time it just feels like a lark.

Again, for a show about ghosts, there’s very little atmosphere to it. The haunted house that Phineas and Ferb made to scare Isabella felt more gothic than almost everything here. The colors are too stark, the lighting is too uniform, and the angles too sharp to create any kind of spooky feelings. Yeah, it’s for kids so you don’t want it too scary, but it should be at least atmospheric. There are some exceptions, like there’s an abandoned hospital in one episode that’s pretty good, and a decent Halloween-centered episode that had some good imagery, but for the most part the design wastes the premise. It’s a story about a kid who is half-ghost, whose best friend is a goth; this should be like Saturday-morning Tim Burton instead of just bland, normal cartoon superhero.

Speaking of which, there’s another thing, something I’ve noticed in a lot of stories, which is the self-styled ‘independent, individualist’ characters who are actually completely standard. So, a bit of a big deal is made about how ‘different’ the female lead is, when actually…she’s just a Goth. As a general rule, if your persona has its own subculture, it’s not a sign of your extreme individuality. Now, she’s not a bad character, and like I say I liked the relationship with her and the hero (the idea of a goth chick falling for a ghost is great, though they didn’t really play up that angle much), but the idea that she’s some kind of extreme individualist or drastically original character is just silly. I see that a lot in fiction (and in real life), where ‘daring and original’ generally means ‘might have been daring and original about fifty years ago.’ Like, one of the marks of her individuality is that she’s a vegetarian. Um…how shocking?

Now, compare this with a character like Melissa from Milo Murphy’s Law.

She actually is a very unique and individual character. She’s a stellar student who has “a tremendous portion of my self-esteem wrapped up in my grade point average,” but has such a strong personality that she’ll just tell people to give her money and they do it. She’s sarcastic and highly capable, but is completely unathletic, forgetful of everyday things, and is absolutely terrified of roller-coasters. Her stated career goal is ‘Journalist / Queen of the Universe,’ and she’s memorized the blood type of every US President. So, she’s at once a valedictorian in the making and a junior-high crime boss (though one of the heroes). But there’s not a big deal made of her being ‘different:’ actually, she’s the popular one of the group. You see, she doesn’t have to talk about being highly individual; she just is.

So, Danny Phantom was okay, but just okay. I really liked the premise and I think it could have been a great show with different art direction and stronger writing, but what we actually got is something just above average.


Writing Only Leads to More Writing

My goal at the moment is to write a sellable essay every day. Initially I was worried about whether I’d have enough material, but then I quickly discovered that essays are like bacteria: they multiply and divide exponentially!

So, I was working on a piece about Jimmy Stewart for CatholicMatch. While making my point, a phrase came to mind: “the gifts of manhood.” That naturally raised the question “well, what are those? Mightn’t people be interested in reading about that?” So, I marked that down as another essay. Before that I did a piece on the need to respect all art forms, which led to an idea about the difference between ‘higher and lower’ and ‘better and worse,’ which then led to an idea about equality and inequality. So, two possible essays right there!

I don’t buy the canard “war only breeds more war” (that would explain the endless Civil Wars that have rocked the US and the repeated wars with Japan and Germany after WWII), but it seems writing only breeds more writing.

Great Humor, Great Morals, and Why Having Your Heroine Be a Music Box for an Episode Makes for Good Writing

So, this week’s episode of My Little Pony was pretty fantastic (full disclosure: I actually saw it a week or so ago. You see, since FiM is produced in Vancouver, Canadian audiences get to see episodes up to two or even three weeks before the rest of us. The magic of the internet, however, allows some leeway to this). It was pretty much everything the show does best; strong writing, great characterization, solid moral lessons, and some fantastic humor. Season Seven has been mostly strong so far, about on par with the previous season, but I think A Royal Problem is the best one since the season premier.

Among the many, many reasons to love My Little Pony is the fact that it remains remarkably creative, even in its seventh season. Just as an example, this episode had Twilight magically project herself into a music box so as to keep in touch with Starlight on her first mission. So, we have our protagonist as a tiny, mechanical ballerina for most of the episode: who would even think of something like that? This leads to a lot of great gags (“I’m here if you want to talk. Or listen to music!”), culminating in a frustrated Starlight chucking the music box – Twilight and all – into a drawer.

Even better, it’s a gag that fits within the established universe (Twilight’s already projected herself into a book and talked to someone as an illustration a few seasons back) and serves only to enhance what made the character funny in the first place (Twilight’s freak outs are always hilarious, but when she’s a three-inch golden ballerina figure, the fun is doubled). The humor builds on the character and doesn’t feel forced, even in such a ridiculous situation.

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“The one and only thing that I am here to bring is music!”

Finally, from a story perspective, this device also serves the purpose of 1). Giving Starlight someone to talk to, 2). Keeping Twilight involved in the story, and 3). Emphasizing why Starlight, of all ponies, was the best choice for this particular mission even as it seems to be spiraling out of control, and 4). Providing a means to showcase Starlight’s second-guessing and self-doubts, furthering her character development.

All that from what is, at best, a tertiary element in the episode.

Oh, and speaking of great morals, the episode’s climax involves Princess Celestia coming face-to-face with the manifestation of her own darkest desires and temptations. This creature (called ‘Daybreaker’) declares herself to be “everything you want to be” and taunts Celestia with the fact that she could quite literally do anything, if only she stopped caring about other people so much, especially her sister.

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The Mare Mystique

So, a strong female character is rebuked for not making the most of her abilities and is told she can “have it all” (the phrase is actually used) if she would only forget about her obligations to her family, nation, and morality. Said character’s triumph comes in forcibly rejecting this temptation. All in an episode about appreciating the different roles we all play in the world and not assuming you have it worse than anyone else.

Man, this show is awesome.

Another Illustration

Another way of demonstrating my idea from the last post: the ‘Princess and the Dragon’ motif (Chesterton used this to describe melodrama in Charles Dickens).

Phase One: meet the princess. The hero encounters the princess and falls in love with her. But he cannot court her because there is some kind of threat over hanging her or some kind of obstacle in the way of their relationship.

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Phase Two: the Dragon Emerges. Now the threat manifests itself. The ‘princess’ may be forever removed from the hero’s reach. Desperate measures are required, because if he fails, he will lose his true love for all time.

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Phase Three: the Marriage. The hero has successfully slain the dragon, removing the threat to his beloved and destroying the obstacle that kept her from him. He is now free to marry her and live happily ever after.

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A hopeless courtship, through a desperate battle, to finally claiming his true love against all odds. That is the pattern of melodrama.

Three Phases of a Good Story

Great stories, or at least a certain kind of story, work by proceeding along the following path: from false order through disorder to true order.

Before I go any further, I’m by no means an expert; this is just my personal observations and ideas, for whatever those are worth, presented for consideration.

As I said, false order through disorder to true order. What do I mean by that?

A story starts in apparent peace: things seem good, or at least tolerable. The community is intact, its institutions standing firm. Yet there is a problem; the protagonist’s life is, in fact, built upon sand. The problem is not immediately before us, but sneaks in, as it were, from around the edges. The community is in fact threatened or undermined by secret or exterior forces.

Then comes disorder. The threat manifests itself, no longer being hidden, but open. The institutions crumble or prove impotent and the protagonist is thrown upon his own resources. It no longer becomes possible to restore the integrity of the community from within, but requires unusual effort and atypical behavior to solve the problem.

Finally, the problem is solved and true order is established. The threat that undermined the apparent order has been removed, the fault lines have been filled, and the institutions are reestablished, having been purged of their impurities.

To take an example: consider the Harry Potter series (Spoilers ahead). We begin with false order: the wizarding world seems a wonderful, magical place; a haven from the stultifying world of the Dursleys. It is where Harry’s friends and interests all reside. There are threats, but they are external: Voldemort is in hiding and his followers have to act by cunning and secrecy. The institutions stand firm: Hogwarts, the Ministry, and so on all seem strong and safe.

Yet even now there is hidden disorder, not only in the continuing threat of Voldemort, but also in the structure of the wizarding community itself, which we begin to understand is rife with corruption and bigotry.

Then comes disorder. Voldemort returns. The Ministry is torn by corruption. Hogwarts becomes, not the triumphant heart of the wizarding world, but a fortress under siege. Harry and his friends are increasingly forced to work outside the normal patterns of behavior and even outside the law. Finally the community collapses entirely with the fall of the Ministry and Harry becomes an outlaw, culminating in a full-on battle royale.

But, at the end, true order is restored. Voldemort and his followers are defeated, the wizarding community is rebuilt on more humane grounds, having been partially purged of its imperfections by the war, and Harry and his friends take their place as hardworking citizens. The wizarding world is what it was supposed to be from the beginning.

Another example: Pride and Prejudice (again, spoilers). We meet the Bennet family, things are in a semblance of order. The family is not especially happy (with an ill-matched parental pair and three “very silly” youngest sisters), but they are respectable, reasonably well-off, and the household bumps along well enough. They are an integral part of the community and are generally well-liked and respected among their neighbors. Yet, this pleasant existence is built on a foundation of sand, as Mr. Bennet’s estate is entailed on the male line, and the family has no son. Once he dies, the estate will pass to his obnoxious cousin and the fate of his daughters will be shaky indeed. Thus, one of them has to marry. But this brings us to the other faultline under the Bennet household: the fact that at least half of it is very stupid, thoughtless, and ill-bred. When Jane, the eldest and prettiest of the daughters, falls in love with a rich and easy-going man, the rudeness and stupidity of her mother and younger sisters cause the man’s friends to quietly remove him from her company.

So, the Bennet daughters have to marry, but the foolishness of their mother and of some of their sisters make it unlikely. At the same time, there’s the hidden danger of Mr. Wickham; a charming, but completely amoral young man who has lately become acquainted with the young ladies.

Then comes disorder: Lydia, the youngest daughter, elopes with Wickham and lives with him for a time without marrying him. This threatens to cast the Bennet’s out of all society forever, and certainly to dash their hopes of marrying well. In the face of this threat, ordinary concerns fall by the wayside. Mr. Bennet rushes to London in a wrath, and, unbeknownst to him, so does Mr. Darcy: the fabulously rich, but socially-awkward young man who has fallen in love with Elizabeth, the second eldest Bennet daughter, and who is Wickham’s old enemy. Darcy hunts up and down London, dealing with the lowest kind of scum, until he traps his enemy and, to save the Bennets, takes him under his financial protection under the condition that he marry Lydia.

Finally comes true order: Jane and Elizabeth, against all odds, marry the men who have always loved them, being thus set up for life and ensuring the family fortunes forever. The threat of the entail is destroyed, Wickham is effectively neutralized, and the insipidity of Mrs. Bennet no longer matters.

A final example: Toy Story (still Spoilers). At first, everything seems idyllic. Woody is Andy’s favorite toy and the de-facto leader of the bedroom. He’s respected by his friends, and, apart from some minor bickering, they all get along fine.

But there is a hidden fault line in the arrangement, and it comes from Woody himself: he’s become so used to his exalted position that he doesn’t really know how to live without it. Unfortunately for him, that question is forced on him when Andy become infatuated with Buzz Lightyear, a flashy new action figure.

For a while, the community holds, though in a strained form. Then Woody’s jealousy leads him to go too far, sparking a crisis that drags both him and Buzz far from the safety and familiarity of the bedroom and threatens them both with destruction. Woody’s personal failures have brought disorder into his life and the lives of all his friends.

The only way they can restore order turns out to involve not only facing their own flaws, but also breaking the rules of being a toy. At the beginning, part of the life of a toy means returning to your proper place and freezing whenever a human comes near. Now, however, they not only break that rule but actually show their ability to move and speak. The institutions of the toy community will no longer avail them and they have to look to their own resources to restore order.

Finally comes true order: Woody has learned his lesson, he and Buzz have reconciled, and the toy community is stronger than ever, with no more fear of being replaced. The faults that threatened the stability of the community have been identified and corrected.

This pattern obviously doesn’t play out everywhere, but I come across it more often than not. It’s very useful in terms of reader investment; the first phase gives us a chance to get to know the world and see that it is something worth preserving. It makes us care. We care about the wizarding world because, with Harry, we see it as a fun, glorious escape from the boring and humdrum world of the every day. We care about the Bennet family because we like Elizabeth and Jane and we sense the real love that exists between the sisters and their worthiness to come through in the end. We care about Woody because we see how much Andy loves him and vice-versa and because we sympathize with the fear of being displaced by someone else.

The second phase threatens the thing we’ve come to love. The wizarding world might be turned into a nightmare and all the colorful characters destroyed. The Bennet family may be ruined forever and the beautiful, worthy elder sisters condemned to a life of spinsterhood. Woody and Buzz might be lost forever, depriving a nice little boy of his two favorite toys. The threats have become real and require our protagonists to stretch themselves and grow in order to escape. It rests on them to avert the disaster and save the thing we love.

Finally is the satisfaction of true order: having passed through the storm, our heroes are permitted to come to rest in a world freed from the threats that destroyed their initial contentment. Harry and his friends grow up, marry, and raise their own families in a world freed from the dangers they had to face. Elizabeth and Jane each end up with a wonderful man who not only loves her passionately, but who is wealthy enough to support the rest of the family if need be. Woody and Buzz become friends and assume joint leadership over the other toys, who have learned from their experience and no longer fear being replaced. The thing we love has been preserved, and we are assured that it won’t be threatened again, at least not in the same way. The problem has been solved, the community restored. All is right with the world.

The Real Writer vs. The Wannabe

Larry Correia, pulp-writer extraordinaire and one of my secret writing mentors, takes on another article by “the Guardian’s village idiot,” Damien Walters, which means it’s time to pop some corn and settle in to be entertained.

Some background: Mr. Walters is a contributor for the U.K. paper ‘The Guardian’ and self-styled professional writer. Not that he’s actually sold anything, but he gets a grant from the U.K. government to work on a novel. Judging by his Guardian output, Her Majesty’s Government is getting cheated again.

Meanwhile, Mr. Correia is a New York Times bestselling author with about a dozen novels published and many more under contract who ranks in the top 1% of authors in terms of the royalties he makes. His works include the rocking-good-fun Monster Hunter International series and the insanely-awesome Grimnoir Chronicles (which is basically the X-Men set in an alternate 1930s).

Mr. Walters periodically takes it upon himself to lecture Mr. Correia on what it means to be a successful writer, which is rather like if I tried to give, say, Chuck Norris advice on how to be a successful martial artist, except that I wouldn’t adopt a sneeringly dismissive tone and would actually try to research the subject first. Reading Mr. Correia’s replies are like watching a killer whale whacking a seal into the air over and over again.

Interpretive Re-Enactment

For example (Mr. Walters is in italics, Mr. Correia is in bold)

If you find meaning in straight-to-video Dolph Lundgren films, then Larry Correia’s novels will be your kind of read.

Wait… Is he comparing me to Dolph Lundgren, the ripped 160 IQ chemical engineer, turned Red Mother F****** Scorpion, Ivan “I Will Break You” Drago, and all around bad ass… as an insult? 

In fact, much of the Monster Hunter series relies rather heavily on people the hero doesn’t like turning into monsters … so he can shoot them.

Another lie, but it just demonstrates that Damien merely skimmed the first chapter so he could fake a review.

The bit about the series relying heavily on people the hero doesn’t like turning into monsters so he can shoot them? I found out about this article when somebody shared it to the MHI fan page on Facebook. Nobody there could think of any other cases over five books where somebody the hero didn’t like turned into a monster so he could shoot them. The closest anyone could think of was the opposite happening.

You know what they say about assumptions, Damien? They say when you in particular make them you’re probably going to be wrong, because you’re a dope.

Speaking of assumptions, this is the same guy who published that I was a sexist/racist/homophobe, who when confronted for evidence, then crowd sourced a witch hunt of all my copious political writings to find something bad I’d said. And the best thing they could come up with was my teaching free self-defense classes to women (so they could shoot rapists in the face) was “victim blaming”. 

By all means, read the whole thing. This is what happens when a wannabe writer tries to attack the real deal. Content warning, though: Mr. Correia does not mince words (this is the guy whose books include a scene involving werewolf-zombies and a giant snowblower: you do the math whether he’s appropriate for sensitive readers or not).