Further Thoughts on Character Development in Writing & Life

  • by Gitabushi

Recently, I wrote this piece to praise a book that I found to be extremely useful in both writing and life.

I’ve been thinking about it more, and I think the book misses on two points, when it comes to writing.

First, it insists that the misbelief your character is clinging to should be the cause of an imminent problem that the main character can no longer ignore.  Having thought about it a few more days in the context of my own planned story, I think this might not be necessary.

In my own case, the main character wants to gain some local fame for another talent, in hopes that he will then be popular, and being popular, he will get his friends back.  This is a misbelief, but I think he could actually go his whole life without this being a crippling misunderstanding.  Moreover, I want this story to start when he’s 16, for a number of reasons, and I just don’t see how this misbelief could be a crisis at that age.

Instead, the talent that he finds (magic-based martial arts) is going to cause the crisis, as he catches the attention of powers that guard the magic jealously.

Likewise, Luke’s belief that he is stuck in a backwater of the Galaxy and that an exciting adventure is what he wants is what actually kinda keeps him from dying immediately at the hands of the Empire. It is a misbelief, but it drives the story and it is actually his hubris (in combination with a friend realizing that Friendship is Magic) that saves the Rebellion from destruction.

OMG. Star Wars is a My Little Pony movie.

I’m going to forget I ever said that.

The second problem is perhaps not a real problem.

The assertion of the book is that every story should be a character story on some level. On first reading, I found that compelling, and embraced it.  But with another few days’ of thought and trying out this hypothesis on books and movies I’ve enjoyed, I think I’ve thought of at least one exception:

“13 Hours: the Secret Soldiers of Benghazi”

13 hours poster
“13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” Promotional Poster

This was a very compelling and moving story, and not just because it was a visual spectacle.  We *knew* the outcome, and it was still worth watching.

But there wasn’t any misbelief on display by the main character.

In fact, I could point out that the movie has some significant problems in its storytelling.  In retrospect, the main character isn’t the main character, and really isn’t much of a protagonist.  He does his job, but he never really makes any choices (the main character should be the person who has the most freedom to choose/act, and has the most impact from his choices/actions).  That story would probably have been even more compelling if told from Rone’s perspective, or even Tonto’s.  Or the CIA Mission Chief.

And maybe it is still a good story because it is a true story. Dunno. I need to think on it a little more.

Another exception is “10 Cloverfield Lane”.  I think that is a good story, but the misbelief that drives the story is not the main character’s.  But the main character *is* the one whose choices and actions drive the story.  It’s a very good story.

Interestingly, “Orcs!” (2011) *is* a story where a main character has to confront a misbelief that has been holding him back his entire life to that point.  This thought is going to inspire another post.  Just sayin’

Anyway, if the point of the writing book was not that everyone story must be a character story, but rather that it is just one excellent and time-tested way to develop a compelling and memorable story, well, I can’t argue with that.

So to the extent that I said that every story *is* a character story, I’m wrong. There are plenty of good stories that don’t focus on character development.

However, if your story idea is just “meh”, or if, like me, you find your stories bogging down and lacking in drive, you should still consider using the character development elements of “misbelief” and “resistance to change until forced by life to do it” to supercharge your writing.  Making your story a character story can’t be wrong, it just might not be 100% necessary.

But in life, I think the point is character development: yours. The point of the writing book is that people usually don’t change until circumstances in life force them into a costly re-evaluation of their paradigms, and that we tell stories to give people a chance to make changes in their lives *before* their misbeliefs force a crisis.  So as you read the book to help your writing, consider your own beliefs, and your own troubles in life, and try to identify which are the misbeliefs causing your troubles.  You might be able to make a change and have a better life before the troubles become disasters.

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Writing Breakthrough. And Life. But Also Writing

  • by Gitabushi

I subscribed to Book Bub.  Every day they send me reduced price and free digital downloads.  A lot of the books are crap, but hey: free ebooks!  Every once in a while, a cheap book will catch my attention.

choice

And so it was that I decided to buy

“Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere)”

I can’t tell you everything about the book, because that would be stealing from the author.

See, I’ve been writing, and studying writing, for a long time. I know lots of the techniques, in theory: Start with an opening that grabs the reader, format your story based on its type in the MICE categorization (Milieu, Idea, Character, Event), escalate the stakes, etc.

But these are all techniques to make writing better. None of these things really helped me understand how to *write*.

And, sure, you can just come up with a character, and an idea, and keep adding words until you resolve the problem and it’s around novel length.  You might actually end up with something good that way.  Many people have done it.

But that’s not the way to bet. And you’d be taking your chances on catching that lightning in a bottle again on subsequent novels.

So for me, I have a dozen story ideas. I can come up with a story idea a week, and have no idea how to develop it. I’ve got a character, a theme, an idea, and a hook. And it goes nowhere.

Moreover, I want to write a story that moves people. I want to write a good *story*, not just a narrative in which cool things happen.

This book gave me the key.

What’s more interesting, is it added a significant point to my personal life philosophy, and particularly helpful in trying to teach/raise/mentor my kids.

That concept is: everyone has misbeliefs.  Everyone has events in their past that they learned the wrong lesson, and they held onto it, and when it was challenged, they continued to follow the misbelief even though it was no longer appropriate, but they continued to survive, and to their psyche, that proved it worked so they clung to it even more tightly.

Everyone has these issues.

Everyone.

And that’s what makes a good story so compelling. We are hard-wired to resist change. We only change when we have no other choice, when we realize that continuing on our present course will cause disaster. And while we hopefully can think our way through the future minefields and change before we need to simply because we have the wisdom to see it will improve our lives, most of the time we just don’t.

It takes a traumatic event, one in which our old coping mechanism will clearly make the trauma into a disaster, before we finally admit that maybe, just maybe, we should change.

A compelling story lets us live that traumatic event vicariously.  It helps us learn lessons without having to go through the pain ourselves.

This book teaches you to ask questions, and how to find the choice morsels that will supercharge your stories that are hidden in the answers you give. It encourages writing exercises that will unlock depths in your characters.

I haven’t even finished the book, and I haven’t even done the exercises, and a short story that has been stuck for months is now unstuck, and the character is now vivid and lifelike, and has reasons to act.

It also has enriched my ideas for my first novel. I knew the protagonist wanted to be more well-known/popular in his school for something besides being a good impressionist/mimic. And from there, he finds magic-based martial arts.

But from this book, I learned/decided that just a few years earlier, he had a group of good friends, and he thought he was the center of it, but then the one popular friend moved away and the group fell apart, to the point that some of his friends were now rivals and enemies. So he has the misbelief that if he just becomes more popular, he will have friends again, and maybe even get his old gang back together.  And he thinks having an admirable skill will make him popular.

Instead, he needs to realize that magic has a cost, and popularity is elusive and not based on talent. It is his struggle against this reality that will drive much of the plot forward, including bullying of and by various former friends, and becoming a bully in trying to stop bullying.

And this is just from reading through the book, without actually doing the brainstorming and writing of specific past events that help you finalize these decisions.

The thing is, all these elements were already present in my head.  But I didn’t know how they fit together in the protagonist to drive the story.  Now I do.

And now I have additional reasonable arguments to convince my kids that although they crave being loved for who they are, trying to teach them more advanced adult standards isn’t rejecting who they are, but helping them overcome and eliminate their misbeliefs before they become a crisis.

The additional reason I’m convinced this is the key I’ve been searching for is in reading books, watching TV shows, etc., I can *see* how the misbeliefs and coping strategies of characters drive the narrative in great stories as diverse as the Man in the High Castle (first two seasons), Groundhog Day, Star Wars, Chuck, Flash Forward, the Mucker, a buttload of Terry Pratchett books, etc.  In fact, the reason the Man in the High Castle Season 3 isn’t as good as the first two seasons is that they’ve gotten away from that character depth and drive that they had earlier.  Now, pretty much only John Smith has that arc, and the series is the worse for it.  But still pretty good.  It’s why Orphan Black got boring.  It’s why The Walking Dead lost its way. It’s why The Walking Dead was so compelling.

I got the book for $1.99.  I probably wouldn’t have bought it for $10.  But having purchased it, I think this book is well worth the full price.  Highly recommended. For your personal understanding of life and yourself, as well as to boost your writing.

Big Post of Magic Rules, SF vs F Categorizations, and Anything Else I Can Cram in Here

  • by Gitabushi

This morning (establishing a temporal anchor that will be overtaken by events soon), my good friend and compatriot Emily30Red (soon to be known as Kikanshabushi) posted these categorizations on twitter:

And:

Those a pretty good definitions/categorizations as far as they go.  She developed them herself from her own readings and analysis, so they are organic and original.

I have a slightly different take, because my set of readings are different, and my analysis comes from a different brain (naturally).  For instance, I think Fantasy is also about what makes us human, but from the opposite direction than Science Fiction.  To me, they are both speculative fiction because speculative fiction is grouped by the question “What does it mean to be human?”, as explored through “What if humans were in this sort of society, or encountered that scenario of events?”

So with that common starting point for speculative fiction, I divide SF from F thusly:

Science Fiction is about normal people doing great things, and Fantasy is about extraordinary people chasing mundane goals.  There are probably lots of holes you can drive through with that formulation (for example, Frodo is nothing special, but achieves a great success through sheer, dogged determination, which fits more under Science Fiction), but I think it works fairly well for a rough starting point to divide the two.

But another difference is the way the fantastical elements are handled.

This is something I’m a stickler about.

Arthur C. Clarke famously ruined everything by saying, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

I say “ruined everything” because he’s not technically wrong: if you can find a previously-unencountered tribe deep in the amazon, and show them some technology, they’ll freak out as if it is magic, because it is beyond their ken.  In contrast, a 2-year-old exposed to amazing tech will take it for granted, like the baby that thinks a magazine is a broken iPad:

So his formulation is already of limited utility, unless you happen to have some primitive tribes hanging around.  And it ruins everything for writers, because no, significantly-advanced technology is not indistinguishable from magic. To the reader, maybe. But to the writer, they must be handled differently.

Go read this.  Then come back.

And then, I guess you should read the post he was responding to, here. And at this point, maybe the lesson is I repeat myself, because I had forgotten that I had already slagged Clarke for his 3rd Law.

And while you’re at it, might as well read this, too, because I think it captures what my thoughts were on genre early on, before refining the views with challenges.

In fact, you could probably stop there and not miss anything.  However, the value in this continuing post (if there is one), is to sum up some of these views, and go deeper into the difference between magic and technology (in my arrogant opinion).

At one point in my running battle with PCBushi, I referred to magic & tech as furniture, as in, the term gun people use to refer to the things that change the appearance of a firearm without changing its function.  PCBushi correctly countered that another way to put it is like a skin on an app or character.

At one level, technology and magic are like that. This is particularly true in video games or roleplaying games or superheros.  If you blast the bad guy, does it matter whether it is a laser blast or a mana blast? Not really.

Maybe it doesn’t matter much to the reader/audience, either.  No one cares what the tech is behind lightsabers in Star Wars, and you can go round and round arguing whether the Force is magic wielded by Space Wizards or psionics, and it doesn’t matter. It’s just a skin for power.

Except as a writer, it does matter. And to the audience, perhaps it should matter, too, because Lucas doesn’t seem to really be clear what they war, and he made a bunch of missteps as a result.  From my formulation above, Star Wars got worse when it changed from an ordinary farm boy using the exercise of a talent to defeat an Empire to Space Wizards trying to reunite an estranged family.  I.e, a normal person doing great things through effort => special people dealing with normal life problems.

So what makes the difference? How the power is handled.

Orson Scott Card teaches in How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy that magic must have a cost to make it be interesting in your story.  I think that’s correct, but I don’t think Card really goes far enough, or explains it well enough.  I have the hubris to think I can.

My notion is that fantasy is about great people (special people, uniquely-powered people) doing mundane things.  To the extent this is correct, it is an exploration of what it means to be human, because it shows that even great people deal with normal life problems.  Magic is part of that, because it is magic that sets them apart, and magic must have limitations and a cost to make the story make sense.

This is because if there are no limitations or costs, everyone will have it, and then what’s the story exploring?  A story where everyone had the ability to make wishes come true would probably be a boring story.  But a story where only the protagonist (or perhaps, only the antagonist) had this power…now that creates some interesting opportunities for drama.

The counter to this argument is possibly: well, technology has a cost, too. It’s just the cost was paid in development, or in the expense (not everyone can afford body modifications that include hardwired reflexes?).  But that counter doesn’t work for me.  Televisions provide a communication ability that would be magic to a primitive culture, but what cost is there to the average person in the US?  It’s factored into life.  US cultural statistics went from Zero Anywhere to how many families have one to how many per family.

So while the difference between fantasy and science fiction settings may just be a skin, technology should be something everyone in your science fiction world should have, pretty much without any significant cost or sacrifice.  What makes the story in science fiction, then, is how the main character uses that technology differently to resolve the central problem of the story.

Example, Larry Niven wrote Neutron Star, a story that included an alien-made indestructible spaceship. Magic! Except that anyone with enough money can have one, and so the main character is given one to explore a scientific phenomenon and discover the answer to a mystery.  The answer to that mystery is actually an application of a scientific principle regarding gravity and orbital mechanics. Thus, it is a Hard SF story, despite the potentially magic elements.

Magic, in contrast, should have a cost, or a sacrifice, or a limit of some kind.  Not just everyone should walk around your story with magic.

So you have to consider the nature of your magic.  Is it something anyone can have with enough effort, but to perhaps varying levels of skill?  Compare to playing guitar or basketball.  Literally anyone of sound/whole body can play guitar or basketball.  What makes a basketball or guitar wizard is the years of study put into it…although someone with greater talent may achieve that mastery with less relative effort than someone else with less talent but more drive.  And voila! you might have a story right there.

But mostly not.  In most fantasy stories, the magic character is just special, and it often isn’t explained.  Harry Potter was just a wizard. He had to work to get better at it, but either you had magic or you were a muggle.

The Force started as a talent.  Before the family bloodline storyline entered in later, Obi-Wan Kenobi had no reason to think Luke might not be able to do the Force.  It was something to be taught, and you could take it as far as the combination of your own talent, teaching, and effort took you.  Everyone had some measure of it, but most just didn’t even try to develop it, possibly because most didn’t have the talent or interest to gain any real facility with it.  Like guitar.

But then it changed to a power that ran in the family.  Because Luke had it, and Leia was his twin sister, she has it, too. As did their dad.  As will their kids, if they have it.  I haven’t paid much attention to the reboot sequels, but apparently Rey blows up the blood theory…except that she thinks she’s Luke’s kid because of her power with the force, which just tends to reinforce the “ability by blood only” theory, just her parents were a previously-unknown Force-enabled bloodline.

One theory about magic (to the extent there can be something theoretical about something completely unreal and made up) is that magic should be calibrated so the cost/sacrifice is just slightly greater than the the amount of effort it would take to achieve that goal through mundane means.  So if you want a million dollars, the magic it takes to get it with a snap of fingers should have a cost/sacrifice just slightly greater than it would take to compete for a good college and complete a difficult major and work the drudgery job for enough years to get that million dollars.  The interest would then be why this person wants the money now, instead of putting in the normal effort. What does that say about his character, good or bad? It should always be a slightly higher cost then the mundane path, to balance out the immediacy of the magic.  But this is just a theory of a way to balance magic. I don’t know if I read it somewhere (was it Card?  I haven’t read that how-to book in over a decade) or if it is my own sense of proportion.  But let me know if you try it.

However, that theory aside, this goes back to Emily’s view of Fantasy: what does it do to the Self if you have power beyond that of the people around you?  What if you can snap your fingers and have a benefit or a good that would take others years of hard work to achieve, if ever?  Character questions are absolutely about self, the corruption of unique power is absolutely a common theme in Fantasy, in contrast to the SF common theme of overcoming due to unique force of will (which is how Beowulf survives in Neutron Star, btw).

So to sum up: magic should provide benefits that allow the avoidance of effort. As such, magic ability should be unique and have a cost, or it will be imbalanced in your story, and probably damage the enjoyment of the reader.  The exact same power can appear in science fiction, but the focus is different: the focus is on the unique application of an ability that anyone else could do, but doesn’t; or the focus is on the unique determination of the individual to overcome, in a high-tech world where everyone has pretty much the same physical ability and powers.

The lesson to you is (should be?) that if you are considering including a power or ability in your story, consider whether you want it to be unique or common.  If unique, you might want to write it as a fantasy.  If common, you might want to write it as a science fiction story.  And then further subdivide from there.

You don’t have to do this, of course.  But I’d be interested to hear from those who did, and had it work; those who did, and had it not work (and why); those who didn’t start with this decision and eventually realized they were writing the wrong sort of story; and those who didn’t start with this decision and made it work (not just a random/happy accident).

 

 

 

A Few More Thoughts on Writing

  • by Gitabushi

I *think* I have it all put together now.

flat lay photo of hands typing on a typewriter
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

I’m not sure how I got here, exactly.  Big influences were Lawrence Block’s books on writing, “Telling Lies for Fun and Profit” and “Spider, Spin Me a Web,” and Orson Scott Card’s “How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy.”  So maybe you need those as background to find the following advice helpful. I hope not, or else this post will be a waste of your time.

The first key was The Plot Machine.

Oh, boy, does it make plotting machine-like.  The heart of a good story is a person overcoming obstacles to succeed. Or, if you want to write a cautionary tale, a person failing to overcome obstacles (most likely personal flaws) and failing horribly.

I used to think that once I thought of an interesting starting point, that I had a story idea.

But my failure point was always getting to the climax of the book.  And I’d read something like CJ Cherryh’s Morgaine Cycle, and see someone go against their demonstrated character to do something heroic, and get ALL THE FEELZ, and I’d wonder how I could ever write something equally surprising-yet-plausible-in-hindsight that could move someone.

So the Plot Machine recommends starting with the climax of the book, and then writing backwards from there, adding in the obstacles, then setting up the problem, then writing the final resolution.

And to heighten the tension to make the climax of the story better, you make sure you have a a false climax where it looks like everything is going to work out, and then everything goes wrong and it looks everything is going to fail.  But then the hero resolves their fatal flaw, and succeeds.  It makes the story seem worthwhile to read and enjoy and remember.

It makes sense.

But then a friend (who will hopefully be soon joining the blog) pointed out something else in a story idea I was explaining: what is the emotional conflict between the characters I had?

They were in opposition, so of course there was some inherent emotional conflict, but I had described them as friends, so how did the main character feel about winning the conflict?

Boom.  That’s a great point.  That’s one of the ways you can give your reader ALL the feelz.

I dunno. I claim to have it figured out now, but I have no time/energy to write.  So you can take all that with  grain of salt.  Or we can talk it out in the comment section.

But if nothing else, I thought I’d point out a few books that I’m considering buying next.  But I need to finish two stories before I do, because the point will be to make my writing better.  If I buy them and read them before writing anything, I’m just finding another excuse to put off writing.

Still, here are the ones I’m considering:

“How to Write Pulp Fiction,” by James Scott Bell (who has a number of How to Write books).

“Elements of Fiction Writing: Conflict and Suspense,” also by James Scott Bell.  This one seems interesting based on the “start writing from the Second Act” recommendation of the Plot Machine.

And finally, a book I’ve purchased but haven’t read yet, “Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere).”

If you have writing figured out, or if you merely think you have writing figured out, what are the key elements for you?

Plotting: A Suggestion

  • by Gitabushi

I recently “purchased” (it was free) and started reading an e-book on how to plot.

“The Plot Machine: Design Better Stories Faster,” by Dale Kutzera

For the most, it was worth what I paid for it.  Many of the points it made were obvious to anyone who has done any reading at all, much less writing.  Several other points were among the first, and most basic, techniques any writing book will mention.

Since it was free, I didn’t expect much from the book.  Even if free, there is still a time cost, and I invested that cost to get some additional insight into how to effectively plot a novel.

One point it made changed my viewpoint, and I think will have a deep and profound impact on my writing.

The book pointed out that while a novel is more complex that a short story, both should follow the Three Act format. In this format, the First Act is setting up all the pieces. The Third Act is resolving all the conflicts and returning all the pieces to their resting places.

The book says the Second Act: *that’s* what makes or breaks a story.

What makes a story good is what obstacles have been placed in the path of the protagonist, and how the protagonist resolves them. These obstacles make a memorable story. This is where most of the action occurs.  This is where the protagonist’s character is honed or revealed.

The book when on to explain that, in fact, it is the Second Act that defines your characters.  You want to put them through hell to make an interesting story, but they need a *reason* to go through the hell instead of just giving up.  They need a *reason* to be in the position to go through that hell.

As such, deciding on the conflict first can make it clear who your character should be. And deciding the conflict first makes it more obvious how to make the resolution more dramatic and effective.

Okay, maybe I’m reaching with this by embracing the book’s suggestion. Maybe it won’t work for you to write the conflict first. Maybe it won’t end up working for me to write the conflict first.

But too many of my stories have foundered when they reached the conflict stage.  I had a great beginning. I had a decent ending. I couldn’t get through the middle. Too often, the conflict didn’t match the motivations I established at the beginning. Or the method of overcoming obstacles didn’t match the character I established at the beginning.

You could say that this just because I write poorly, and I’d have a hard time arguing that. On the other hand, I think of a character and a starting point, and think I have a story idea.  Perhaps, instead, I should think of the conflict a character is going to go through, and think I have a story idea.

Looking at this from a different direction: I love twisty, complex plotting.  I have a “story idea” right now that I want to turn into a twisty, complex plot.  So I’ve come up with all my main characters, the universe, the starting motivations, and now I want to add complexity.  I can’t really get started on it. I can’t figure out how to put these characters into seemingly no-win situations where they have to dismantle the Destruction Engine piece by piece to avoid their destruction and win the story.

My plan was to start writing and add complexity.

I now think a better idea is to start with a complex, seemingly no-win situation and write backwards, figuring out how the protagonist got into this situation.

For example, I’ve been watching a few Chinese Spy/Suspense television serials.

In one, Protagonist 1 is drawn into the spy world to work for the Chinese Nationalists (who are resisting the Japanese occupation), and from there, gets drawn into being a Communist spy inside the Nationalist organization…because of the temporary partnership to resist the Chinese.  His older brother (Protagonist 2) is a collaborator working with the Japanese government…but is actually a Nationalist spy working to undermine the Japanese, and is Protagonist 1’s superior in the National spy organization. At one point, Protagonist 1 is given the order to assassinate his older brother, Protagonist 2, for being too effective as a collaborator. He didn’t know at that point that not only his older brother a Nationalist spy, but the order itself came *from* his older brother (who, having ordered it, knows how to avoid it, but it helps him gain additional credibility with the Japanese). When it is all over, however, Protagonist 1 learns that his older brother is actually his superior in the *Communist* spy ring that’s inside the Nationalist spy ring that’s resisting the Japanese.  He’s been acting according to his training and character, but he’s been moved around like a chess piece, based on his older brother knowing him, and being his superior two layers deep.

weizhuangzhe2

I don’t think you can build in that sort of complexity as you go.  I think you have to start with that incredible situation, and then work backwards, adding layers to the complexity as you move earlier in the story.

In another, the protagonist is just a normal Nationalist officer in what seems to be a National Guard/Reservist unit.. They are getting ready to go to the front line to fight the Japanese. His unit’s commander is out of action while recovering from surgery, and the 2nd-in-command is leading a cabal of the top few officers to surrender and collaborate with the Japanese.  The traitor has one week to do it, before the Commander recovers and returns to duty. A junior officer (not the protagonist) discovered this, and formed a group of officers and NCOs to resist (the Iron Fists). The protagonist joins, making 30 in all, and they are set to meet at 9pm on a certain date.

At 8:30pm on that day, the protagonist is getting ready to leave for the meeting when the 2nd-in-command traitor locks the HQ down. He then orders the protagonist to lead the arrest of the 30 cadre members who are mutinying. Meanwhile, the Iron Fist group, lacking two members, decides to start the meeting with the 28 who are present.

The protagonist arrives on the scene, and tries to make noise to alert the Iron Fists inside. It doesn’t work. With no other choice, he leads the charge. But the first thing he does is shoot out the light. With the lights out, he trips a few of the capturing force, throws a bench out the window to help the Iron Fists escape, etc. But it is all for naught, all 28 are captured.

The traitor officer knows two people didn’t arrive, and knows the protagonist did some weird stuff. Plus, there’s another officer who isn’t in his cabal. So he sets the 2nd officer to torture a confession out of the protagonist. The 2nd officer is, of course, the 30th Iron Fist (who was also locked up in the HQ building and couldn’t go to the meeting, and so was spared). He finds out that the protagonist was Iron Fist #29, and vows to help him.

But the issue facing them both is, “Who betrayed the Iron Fists?”  All 28 in captivity are executed within a day (to silence them), so Iron Fist #30 begins to suspect the protagonist, despite the protagonist being Iron First #29.

The Traitor officer has two military representatives in custody, one Nationalist and one Communist.  He finally decides (for a couple of reasons not worth explaining now) that *they* are the two missing Iron Fists, and so stops worrying about the protagonist and the other officer.  Except these two officers aren’t part of his cabal, so he doesn’t completely trust them.

To strengthen his position, he decides to get a hostage: the Commander’s mother. So he sends a team to escort her from her home (a day away) to his location.  He puts the protagonist in charge, sets the 2nd officer to watch him, sends one of his cabal officers along to watch them both, and sends along the two military representatives as hostages. They will go near a Japanese stronghold, and the cabal officer will give the Japanese the two military representative hostages to seal the deal that allows the traitor cabal to deliver the entire unit to the Japanese.

So along the way, the protagonist is trying to help the two military representatives escape without letting the other officers know he is doing it. At the same time, Iron Fist #30 officer is trying to help them escape, but not letting the other officers know he is doing it, and doesn’t see the protagonist doing anything to help, which deepens his suspicion that the protagonist betrayed the Iron Fists.

Everything that happens puts the protagonist in a no-win situation.  If he does anything to help get the word out, the cabal officer will kill him as a traitor. If he works too hard to follow his orders, the unit will be handed over the Japanese, and he betrays his fellow Iron Fists.  But when he helps the military representatives escape, he can only help by throwing some things through the window to them, and pre-positioning some escape aids, which they attribute to Iron Fist #30 who was actually able to make contact with them and tell them he was going to help them escape.

I hope that’s clear.  It’s pretty twisty to watch, and hard to explain. Basically, because the protagonist is trying to remain undercover, all his very risky attempts to help get attributed to other officer, so he is still considered a traitor by the people he supports, yet if he is any more overt, the cabal officer will kill him.

Again, I don’t think you could add in this complexity as you go.  The best way to write this (I think) is to start with a no-win situation: your protagonist is in a situation where if he acts overtly, he is killed; if he doesn’t act overtly, he betrays his principles.  What does he do? He tries to act *covertly*, right?  So how can we make those efforts not help? Add in another person who gets credit for it, *and* that person suspects him.  Okay, what kind of person would have the freedom to act *and* be in a position to matter in this sort of betrayal drama? A young officer who is the Commander’s favorite, highly principled and motivated.

Then  you just add in misunderstandings from there, working backward.

Well, time to see if it works.  I’ll report back in a later post, either way.

 

 

“Cultural Appropriation” in Fiction

Let me start by saying that I find the concept of “cultural appropriation” itself to be wrongheaded, foolish, and kind of absurd. It assigns some kind of collective ownership of the nebulous basket of language, tradition, customs, food, clothing, fashion, and all kinds of other ill-defined elements that supposedly belong to a given people.

Nevermind the fact that peoples and nations interbreed and change and that cultures develop and assimilate and adapt.

And who is supposed to arbitrate these transgressions? If one single Chinese person indicts me for enjoying their dim sum, am I guilty of creating a problematic situation?

Does it matter that another Chinese person rules that it’s ok for me to eat dim sum, but that I may not make it myself? Or that a third, more rational native doesn’t give a crap?

Does it change the calculus when the majority of a country or culture like having their culture appropriated (the real term is “appreciated”)? I can tell you from my time living in Japan and consuming Japanese media that the people over there are flattered and pleased when foreigners try on kimono, or dress up as a popular anime character, or take an interest in  Japanese language, lore, history, whatever.

It’s ridiculous to think cultures should be treated like private (group) property.

And so I was disappointed when I was listening to an otherwise quite interesting discussion of an old weird tale yesterday, and the speakers posed the question of whether a white man writing about a black protagonist was cultural appropriation.

Really?

Thankfully they were gracious enough to rule that this was not the case – after all, the white (racist) narrator was really who the story was about.

I’ve gotta say, I find it quite troubling and a bit confusing, how such big fans of speculative fiction could conceivably buy into the idea of cultural appropriation, especially when it comes to the fiction they read.

Scifi and Fantasy are full of stories about aliens and other non-human beings. But they’re not real, so I guess this is in-bounds. Well, women write male characters and men write female characters. Should this gender appropriation be pooh-poohed?

Is Captain Blood cultural appropriation, because it sees an Irish protagonist written by an Italian author? Or is this okay because they’re both white ethnicities? Do “White People” all get lumped together into one culture?

Is Othello problematic because its noble Moorish (often portrayed as African) hero was written by a white Christian?

Should books written by White People only feature white characters? If you think so, it sounds like you’re ready to nix an awful lot of cool SFF and other great literature. And why? Because a few emotionally unstable people have nothing worse in life to worry about than some white dude writing a story about a black guy?

51isW1RdvyL._SX308_BO1,204,203,200_51oo82fc0kl-_aa300_Zorro

(Whoops – forget that last one – he’s one of those white hispanics!)

Are Japanese manga and anime highly problematic for featuring so many Caucasian characters?

And if you answer “yes” to all these questions, or even if your response is more nuanced or qualified, what’s the solution? Do we need a tribunal to determine which cases are acceptable and which are “problematic,” and then to rule on a remediation?

It’s such a silly piece of business. I’d be tempted to ignore it if I didn’t see the idea as such a threat to creativity and freedom of expression. Of course no one’s talking about outlawing cultural appropriation, but if it’s such a bad thing, I could imagine things moving in that direction in some quarters, someday. And really is there much practical difference between outlawing something and drubbing it out of polite society?

-Bushi

bushi