Marvel vs. Star Wars: Dawn of Justice

In my last couple of posts, I’ve been dealing with the idea of originality in storytelling. It’s a huge idea, and I certainly don’t expect to uncover all the answers here, even as I’m wrapping up this three-part series. But it’s an idea that audiences (of books, movies, etc.) often pick up on quite a bit, whether positively or negatively, and so a serious writer should know how to address it to.

I looked at two recent blockbuster movies, neither of which is admittedly terribly original: first Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and then Marvel’s Ant-Man. I’ve argued that both films share significant parallels with the first film in their respective franchises (the original Star Wars and 2008’s Iron Man). And yet, while it’s a fine line and I may be nit-picking at the details just a bit, I still feel like one of the two films is simply following a formula in the way that much fiction does, while the other is more of an outright rehash of its predecessor. Is this a legitimate analysis? Let’s see if we can find out.

Of course, it’s true that very few films or stories these days are completely original. As a book I regard quite highly observes, “there is nothing new under the sun.” And as many people before me have stated, most stories are just combinations of old elements in a new or different way. I have found this to be true as a reader, a moviegoer, a student of literature, and as a creative writer. Universal concepts such as the hero’s journey and the monomyth work themselves and their familiar tropes into nearly every story, or at least into action movies with major elements like heroic quests, good versus evil, etc.  I don’t deny that these elements show up pretty strongly in the Star Wars galaxy, the Marvel universe, and quite a few other places too.

Also, as I mentioned last time, Marvel admittedly has a proven formula that works, and most of their movies stick to it to some degree or another. They have a similar lighthearted tone, similar themes of saving the world from evil threats, and similar plot structures where the hero and his allies have to overcome impossible odds together (I say “his” because none of the Marvel Cinematic Universe solo films have featured a female main character…yet).

And while these elements are all significant parts of the movie, that may be where the similarities end. The settings of each are vastly different, ranging from modern-day America to deep space, from World War II to mythical realms. The same goes for the protagonists who inhabit each setting. Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, and Captain America all have vastly different personalities and backgrounds, and Ant-Man’s is different from all of theirs as well. Although they face similar obstacles and overcome similar crises, the characters are each distinct and unique. In this sense, I might posit that the formula Marvel has become known for is comparable to the hero’s journey itself. They both refer to a certain set of tropes and plot structures, but those elements can be applied to nearly any type of hero in any type of setting. In that sense, one could argue that Ant-Man and the other Marvel movies copy elements from a certain common formula, but not necessarily from each other.

Cover for Marvel Premiere #48, featuring Ant-Man. Image from Flickr Creative Commons.

Also, one should remember that the Marvel movies are based on comic-book source material. There are a lot of vastly different characters in the comic book universe (all with a much more complicated history than any you’ll see onscreen), and so there’s quite a bit of material to draw from. That’s why, while Ant-Man featured Scott Lang as the main character, it also included Hank Pym, who in the comics was the original Ant-Man, and other characters who are recognizable to a comics fan like me, such as the Wasp and Cassie Lang (yes, even the little girl in the movie eventually becomes a superhero of her own). So does the comics background make the movies more original? No, not really, but it does mean that the movies draw elements from an outside source rather than directly ripping off each other. They have a wide range of source material to draw from because the comics have been going on for so long, and they can include characters and elements that aren’t necessarily central to the same plot formula that keeps recurring in merely the movies.

Movie poster from Star Wars, 1977. Image from Wikipedia. Fair use.

But, all of that being said about the Marvel movies, I still maintain that The Force Awakens was, to a large extent, a rehash of the original Star Wars, A New Hope. To reiterate, that doesn’t mean that I couldn’t enjoy the movie on some level, but just that it felt somewhat lacking in depth and ambition. It didn’t copy merely a formula such as the hero’s journey, but it copied one particular movie very directly. There was a desert planet that looked like Tattooine, but totally wasn’t Tattooine! And a planet-destroying weapon that’s kind of like the Death Star, but oh, it’s completely different from the Death Star! And Rey, while an interesting and compelling character so far, is to a large extent a female version of Luke Skywalker. I don’t want to give away too many details or spoilers, but see my last few posts for further details on how closely the two films and their plots mirror each other. In many ways it seems to me that they should have just called it A New A New Hope.

So yes, I am concluding that Ant-Man was a good (or at least better) kind of predictable, while The Force Awakens was more of a rehash than it should have been. Maybe I’m just splitting hairs here, as neither movie was completely original, and both fell into the category of “fun, but not amazingly awesome” for me. Of course, an ideal story, a truly memorable and groundbreaking one, might be more original than either one. But keep this difference in mind as you write. Audiences will usually accept it more or less if you follow a time-tested pattern such as the hero’s journey, but not necessarily if you borrow too heavily from one work in particular, like The Force Awakens did to A New Hope. (Then again, The Force Awakens is still proving to be amazingly successful at the box office, so despite the criticisms from a sizeable group of viewers, it’s clear a lot of people are still quite willing to accept it).

Finally, I’ll leave you with a quote about originality to ponder in your own writing. And though it’s a lofty ideal to reach, maybe this will help. C.S. Lewis says: “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”

Nothing New Under the Sun: The Franchise Awakens


Theatrical poster for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Image from Wikipedia. Fair use.

Now that I’ve got your attention by name-dropping the biggest and most record-breaking film on the market right now, I’m going to be talking a bit about the film Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. There’s a lot I could say on the film, both good and bad, and since much of it has already been said throughout the many circles of the blogosphere, I’m certainly not going to try to give an exhaustive, in-depth analysis here.

Actually, I’m going to take it back a bit and try to get a broader look at some things, such as general storytelling principles and the concept of an ongoing franchise that has a lot of continuity to deal with. About a year ago, when advertising for the film first began in full force, I wrote a post about it on my personal blog. I was a tad skeptical, but cautiously optimistic, because I’ve been a fan of all things Star Wars for so long–not merely the movies, but also the numerous books, comics, and other media that had been created subsequently by various authors to flesh out the story more and further expand this universe. My post argued that, even though the new movies weren’t drawing from the existing source material and were straying from the wealth of books and other stories that I loved, I would still enjoy the films as long as they told good and creative stories of their own. (The original post I’m speaking of can be read at this link–and, since it was written a year before the movie came out, it is 100% spoiler free.)

One fan’s collection of the very best Star Wars books (which are pretty much any written by Timothy Zahn). Image taken from user Sarah Thrawn on Flickr Creative Commons.

Well, like many fans, I saw the film on opening weekend (and again after that). And, true to what I said above, I did enjoy it. But that’s about all. I liked it well enough to see it a couple of times as a fun event with friends, but I didn’t really love it quite as much as I may have anticipated. And there may be a few reasons for that, including the fact that I had some pretty major parts spoiled for me (thanks, internet jerks). But now that the initial hype has begun to settle down and my opinion has solidified more, I think it’s because–as many people have claimed before me–The Force Awakens was not a very original film on the whole.

If you’re a fan of Star Wars and have talked to anyone about the new film, then you may have heard some people claim that it’s not a very original film, reusing many plot and character elements from the first Star Wars film back in 1977 (not to mention many concepts that appeared in the books but were somewhat changed or mixed around for the onscreen version). Some harsher critics have even used terms like “rehash” or “rip-off” to describe the film. And, while I did enjoy the film on the surface and for the few hours of exciting escapism it gave me, I find myself agreeing at least somewhat with those critics who say that the film was lacking in originality and thus somewhat lacking in depth. (For a fuller and mostly-accurate explanation of how The Force Awakens recycles things from A New Hope, click here–but this link DOES CONTAIN SPOILERS, so beware!)

This common complaint about the film’s lack of originality raises some interesting questions for us, both as audiences and as writers. Questions such as: does a work of fiction have to be completely original in order to be good? Wasn’t it good that J.J. Abrams tried to recreate the feel of the original trilogy, since that’s what a lot of fans wanted? Or would it have been better for him to take a new creative direction with the franchise? Is it even possible to be completely original anymore? Aren’t most stories just new combinations of old elements in different ways anyway? Where do you draw the line between appropriately borrowing from the ideas of previous works and completely ripping them off? How much true originality and creativity is it really possible for us to muster and channel into our writing?

These are questions that I hope to explore further in my upcoming posts for the rest of the week, as they relate to both Star Wars and other massively popular fictional franchises. I hope you’ll join me then. In the meantime, if you need some food for thought, chew on the questions above and feel free to voice your opinion in the comments section below.


On Star Wars: Incomplete Plot Hooks

Note: Might there be Star Wars spoilers ahead? Yes. Yes there are. If you haven’t seen it, or you don’t care, move along.

I saw Force Awakens on opening day. I didn’t plan on it. I planned on seeing it in two weeks on a Tuesday morning when no one was there, but some friends screwed up ordering tickets, so there I was, 10:55pm, at a movie theater two hours from my house, with meetings in the morning the following morning. I got home at three, slept until seven, and off I went. Because Star Wars. I’m actually now a massive fanboy. I didn’t see that coming.

Back on point. The one thing that caught me about the movie was the beginning was very jarring. We had some characters darting around with a sense of purpose, but I had no idea that purpose. There was the most daring pilot of the rebels, or New Republic, and I’d never seen him before. There was some scary guy with a lightsaber. There was a girl on Tatooine Jakku doing cool things in a downed star destroyer from some battle we have no clue about. There was a Storm Trooper who was black, when they’re all supposed to be clones of Jango Fett (so more Hispanic), and the Storm Trooper wasn’t sure if what he was doing was right. I mean, what Storm Trooper takes off his helmet and freaks out when one of his brothers dies? That and there was a woman Storm Trooper. I mean, maybe the galaxy reached the point our society did today and surgery is cool. Secretly Jango Fett wanted to be a woman, and that just came out more with that person, who am I to judge?

By the end of the movie, we’re still wondering who Rey is, where Sloke came from, if Ren is a Sith or just a dark Force user (there is a marked difference, even though it’s likely just semantics to give reason for there to be more than two dark Force users at a time, even though it really is eschewing everything Darth Bane rallied for because it led to the near utter destruction of the Sith thousands of years previous to the movies), why did Luke run away, where did Luke go, etc.

I wasn’t used to this. I wasn’t used to there being a dozen questions asked and two answered. I know the books set up some of the ground work for the movie, but remove the books. Take the movies as themselves.

Harry Potter wrapped up the current questions and conflicts with a nice ribbon. By the end, the only real outstanding question of any movie or book was, “How will Voldemort strike next year?”

Game of Thrones wraps up the current story line, while leading into the next with the final few chapters. They even make it very clear which stories are going to linger and which are urgent, and you can expect anything urgent to be finished at the end. It also started nice and slow, with calm introductions into the world of Westeros.

I wondered how Force Awakens got away with it. Who thought that was a good idea? I enjoyed it, but most audiences would stare in bewilderment. All these thoughts were running through my head when I popped in A New Hope.

I read the introduction, still wondering about those dangling plot inquiries. You know the opening scroll doesn’t really tell you a lot?

Suddenly there are two sides shooting each other, one obviously better equipped (though for anyone claiming the new Storm Troopers are worse than the old, I beg you to revisit them). There’s some creepy guy in a black outfit that’s just walking through the chaos. There are two droids who are at odds with the chaos going around them. There’s a cute woman who is recording something, suddenly the droids are jettisoned to Jakku Tatooine, and I’m staring at it in awe, with every movie reinforcing this feeling.

Why did I notice it for the first time now, when looking at it as if I had seen it with no notice? My entire life I knew Luke, Han, Leia, C3-P0, R2-D2. I knew why Darth Vader was on that ship, what a Death Star was, and that Obi Wan was an old hermit. I knew about Tusken Raiders. I talked to my mom about it after my epiphany, and she reinforced it. The first day they sat in those theaters to see the over hyped space fantasy that was Star Wars, they had no flipping clue what was going on. But it was awesome.

Force Awakens perfectly captures the ridiculous over the top sci fi action, with disregard to all things science about the fiction, as well as giving us a hundred questions, answering twenty every movie, and giving us another ten to worry about. While bucking the new trend, it was totally giving itself over to what it once was, and I admired the heck out of it when I realized what they were doing. It was a beautiful cacophony, one I respect Disney and Abrams for committing to, instead of what the prequels were.

It’s a fascinating tool that most stories don’t use. Leave mystery. Ask questions that aren’t answered. Not to the point of annoyance, and don’t gloss over a scene that’s about to happen just to save it’s mystique. That’s stupid. It makes no sense to give us a PoV character, and then deprive us of information they would know, then jump out and say, “Surprise, this is what happened back then that you should obviously already know!”

Still, give us questions, and don’t always give us obvious answers, or answers at all. At least not until the third book.

Attack run

Hello, internet!

The week has flown by and this will be my last post for a while, but I leave you with an excerpt from a story.

I’ve been reading Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan, and I was planning to write a review of that…but then I went to see Star Wars, and it made me feel like a kid again. It also inspired me to write some fan fiction.

There will be NO SPOILERS in this post: my story doesn’t involve any of the characters or events of the movie. I was just inspired to write something set in the wider Star Wars universe – specifically something involving X-Wings – and I hope that you enjoy this brief extract.

Attack run


“That big cruiser isn’t gonna blow itself up, Amber Leader.”

“Nah, we’ll have to give it a hand,” said Kad, flipping the bank of poorly-wired automotivator switches above her head. “Lock S-Foils in attack position.”

She heard her ship’s wings parting on either side of her cockpit and the magnetic thump as they locked into place, a sound which never got less satisfying no matter how many times she heard it.  She did a quick spot-check to make sure her wingmates had complied. Some of the cocky young roosters in her flock seemed to think that keeping their intercoolers closed and overheating their engines was a smart way of getting more yaw control out of their ships, instead of just a smart way of starting a fire under their asses, which was what it was. It looked like nobody was deliberately trying to get themselves blown up, today. That made a nice change. She craned her neck to look at Amber 2 on her starboard hindquarter – she saw Orta’s stern face behind his controls – and Amber 3 to port. Worlo waved his three-pronged hand and she waved back, grinning through the blistered heat distortions in her canopy.

“Seven-thousand kilometres,” said Orta, in his gruff command voice. “We should be entering their sensor range….now.”

“Copy, Amber 2,” Kad said. Sure enough, her scopes lit up, and her ears picked up an oscillating whine from the low-band interference of the imperial commscan. She dialled up her ship’s shields to compensate, bleeding a little more power from the engines. It diminished the interference, but there was nothing she could do to mask her ship’s presence. The impies had one big Bellator cruiser in orbit over Quiberos, flanked by two of the old outmoded Imperial class destroyers that Kad – and every other pilot in the Resistance – was so familiar with. They were antiquated, but all three of them had multispectral sensors. Unless the Living Force had acted in Kad’s favour for once and compelled the sensor crews on all three ships to go for a bathroom break at the same time, there was no hope of a stealthy approach.

“Let’s stay nice and wide, no bunching up,” she said, surprised at the steady caution in her voice.  When had she gotten old enough that she could give orders and sound like she knew what she was doing?

The plan that was formulating in her head had more than its share of risks. They were only supposed to be at Quiberos to take out the relay station on the second moon, so that Grand Moff Lektor’s splinter faction couldn’t use it for whatever foul purposes they probably wanted to use it for. Going toe-to-toe with an imperial battlecruiser hadn’t been part of the mission briefing. But even two destroyers was a pretty weak escort for a Bellator class. Kad wasn’t the kind of pilot who’d pass up an opportunity to put a big hulking capital ship out of commission. They were strategic targets, she told herself. It wasn’t just that she wanted to watch it burn.

“Ochre Leader, wait until we’ve started our run, then split off and hit the destroyers. Amber Squadron, follow my lead.”

“Copy, Amber Leader.”

“Copy, Ochre Squadron standing by.”

“Can we really take down a cruiser that big..?” asked a quiet voice, in her ear. It was Emran. He probably didn’t know that his receiver was on.

“Hustle up, Amber 5,” she said. “Just do what we did at the Battle of Fondor and this’ll be a piece of cake.”

“Uh, copy, Amber Leader,” Emran mumbled.

After a short silence, Kad heard a cut-glass Eriaduan accent pour through the commlink like poison honey. “Need I remind you that I was flying a TIE interceptor at the Battle of Fondor?”

“Okay,” she rolled her eyes, “Everyone apart from Whilf, do what you did at the Battle of Fondor.”

“Well what should I do?” Whilf replied, with an audible grin.

Kad scoffed, or laughed, she wasn’t sure. “You should shut up and cover my six, is what you should do.” she said.

“Copy, Amber Leader,” Whilf said, with a singsong chuckle.

EZ-9 made a series of suggestive squeaks and burbles, which somehow sounded as though he was nudging Kad in the ribs with one elbow. Easy had been trying to set her up with Whilf for as long as she could remember.

“One of these days, Easy,” Kad said, “I’m gonna take that silver spoon out of his mouth and shove it right up his starboard coolant intake…”

Easy made a shocked squawking sound. Which was good. Kad didn’t want to think about what her love=life had come to if even her astro droid was trying to play matchmaker.

“Besides, he’s half my age.”

Easy conceded cheerfully on that point.

“Hey!” she said, reproachfully.

“Closing to two thousand kilometres,” said Orta. All other considerations fled from Kad’s mind.

“Here we go…” she said.

Art – “X-Wing – Engage”  by ChaosHour on Deviantart


Short Story: Lakebed

Hello, internet!

None of my usual meandering thoughtpieces this week. Instead, I present a short story!  The original idea was actually based on Tobias’ story prompt from yesterday – the idea of magic versus science – but in the execution, I never actually got as far as introducing magic. Perhaps I’ll post the next instalment some time in the future. Enjoy!


underwater starship

Putting the Canyon Diver on the bottom of a lake really hadn’t been the best start to Maz’s day.

After she’d checked herself for broken bones and made sure that the cockpit was still watertight, she’d spent nearly an hour trying to cold-start the TC drive and put the spark of life back into her engines, swearing at the Canyon Diver in four different languages and fighting with the ignition switches until her thumbs were raw. She only gave up hope when the batteries ran dry and the cockpit lights cut out, plunging her into abject darkness. She heard the fading whine of the atmospheric reconditioner cycling down, and she knew that she was totally fucked.

Pragmatically, she only had about fifteen minutes before she ran out of air. She sat for a long moment with her boots on the pedals and her hands on the control columns, staring into the abyss, until a voice in her head told her that she was going to have to leave the ship behind if she wanted to live. Her bones screamed in protest. But what were the alternatives? She was half-buried in lakebed muck under fifty feet of water, with no power and no oxygen. There was an emergency beacon in her survival kit, but if she set it off, she’d only attract the same Seven Systems cruiser that shot her down in the first place. She wasn’t much of a martyr, but being captured would only lead to her being handed over to the praetorians. Oxygen deprivation would be a far more comfortable death.

With no power, there was only one way out. She managed to make her hands unclench from the controls, then to unbuckle her harness, and grope beneath her seat for the survival kit. She tried not to think about what she was doing. Or about how long she’d owned the Canyon Diver. Or about how it had been a gift from Hera, to apologise for a row they’d had, a few weeks before Hera got herself killed. Or about how it had saved her life twenty times over since then, even though she didn’t fly it half as well as Hera ever did. The little ship’s bright blue hull had acquired a lot more scratches, dents, pockmarks and plasma burns since Maz became its pilot.

She was biting back tears by the time she got the survival kit open, but she managed not to cry or vomit. There would be plenty of time for crying and vomiting once she wasn’t at the bottom of a lake.

The kit folded out into pouches and strips of webbing, which she slipped awkwardly over her shoulders, hitting her elbow against the Canyon Diver’s canopy in the process. It made her stomach clench to think that she’d never hit her elbow on that canopy ever again. Unless she did it in the last five minutes, which was more plausible than she cared to admit.

Once the kit was fastened up she reached to her hip and pulled out her Aegis multitool from its holster, taking comfort from its pebble smoothness against her hand. The status light flashed, casting the whole cockpit in a momentary green light, to show that the biolock recognised her DNA. She thanked the Sisters for that small mercy. Now would have been a terrible time for her Aegis to break.

The first thing she did was to switch on the tools’ flashlight setting. Light returned, white and blinding. Once she’d blinked away the afterimage from her retinas, she moved the light over the small panel of analogue instruments on the control bank. The lake had been broiling around her when the Canyon Diver plunged into it, still hot from its descent through the atmosphere, but now the water temperature was dropping again. Once she was out she’d have to get on dry land and warm herself up as quickly as possible.

But first she had to get there. Which meant getting outside the ship. The water pressure outside the hull wasn’t registering as high enough to crush her to death or break any ribs, but it would be too great for her to open any of the hatches. She had to equalise the pressure first. And she could only think of one way to do that, off the top of her head.

If she thought of another, more sensible way, sometime later, she was going to feel really stupid.

She ran her thumb over the controls on her Aegis to activate the tool’s photon maser setting. Then she took a few deep breaths, looked around the Cave Diver for the last time, and thought about Hera.

Hera had been an awful, wonderful human being. Maz hated her, most of all for getting herself killed.

Maz aimed the Aegis, squeezed the trigger, and blew a giant hole in the canopy. Part of her imagined that she was shooting Hera. But then frigid water hit her in the face like a five-tonne block of ice.

Bad guys are people too

Hello internet,

I’ve been on a bit of a Star Wars binge recently


Yes, yes, we established that two weeks ago. Keep up.

Anyway, it’s probably just because of the new trailers coming out for The Force Awakens and Battlefront – but I’m hyped. I’ve been a Star Wars fan since 2003, when I was ten years old and the original Clone Wars cartoon (not the CGI series) was airing in five-minute shorts between other shows on Cartoon Network. At the time, I thought it was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen in my entire life. It was produced by Genndy Tartakovksy, who also produced Samurai Jack, and it had the same pacing style and the same gorgeous animation. Minimalist but seamlessly functional, with as little exposition as possible, focusing on sharp bursts of action broken up by long periods of quiet suspense, with casual acts of badassery thrown in, and interjections of funny dialogue. Looking back, it was probably a big influence on my writing style. Except I need to learn to be a bit more economical with my exposition.

I can highly recommend watching it. It’s all on YouTube, and it puts the CGI follow-up series to shame. (And it is, so far, the only media from the Star Wars universe to feature high-velocity speeder bike jousting.)

But this post wasn’t supposed to be about Clone Wars. I watched the series again this week, as well as playing through some of my old favourite Star Wars video games and watching the original film trilogy, and I enjoyed them as much as ever.

I’ve harboured secret desires to be a Jedi ever since I first saw Obi Wan Kenobi leaping off that speeder bike, but one of the things that’s always fascinated me about the Star Wars universe is the minor characters. Particularly, in the original movies, the officers and starship crews of the Imperial Navy. Maybe it’s just superb acting from one or two minor actors, but I’ve always found them to be quite tragic characters, in their own way. I’m thinking mainly of Admiral Piett and Commander Jerjerrod. You remember Commander Jerjerrod?


In their minds, they’re serving their emperor, bringing order and justice to a galaxy which is full of “scum and villainy” even by the appraisal of Master Kenobi, who’s apparently the most philosophically enlightened being in the entire universe, given his power to become one with the living force and appear as a glowy blue ghost. The opening scrawl of Episode IV denounces the Galactic Empire categorically as “evil”, but it probably doesn’t seem like an evil organisation to the men who work for it. The Old Republic was more democratic, but it was also more corrupt: corruption which has been swept away by the New Order. Under the empire, does the galaxy still have the problem of huge militarised corporations laying siege to planets which won’t agree to exploitative trading rights, while the politicians – many of them with Trade Federation credits in their pockets – bicker over an appropriate response? Is slavery still common practice on the outer rim worlds? It doesn’t seem like it, from what we see in the original trilogy.

I’m not trying to make the case that the empire are the good guys (even though I do always play as the empire on Battlefront 2 and Empire at War). They did, after all, perpetuate genocide on a planetary scale. And more importantly, they’re supposed to be the bad guys. That’s their function in the story. But what I like is that not every servant of the Galactic Empire actually seems like a ‘bad guy’. Palpatine’s supposed to be maleficence given form, and I’m prepared to believe that he has a core group of supporters and agents whose motivations are wholly evil. But the wider empire must be held together by billions of front-line officers who think that they’re the good guys, or else they wouldn’t get out of bed every morning, pull on their jackboots, and report for duty. For people like Piett and Jerjerrod, the empire probably seems like a breath of fresh air, and Palpatine probably seems like a hero: a reformer who finally made sure that the galactic government had the ability to end corruption and exercise real power to end slavery and other shady practices on the outer rim worlds.

My point – and yes, I do actually have one – is that as writers of any genre, it’s important (and often very rewarding) to make sure that the ‘bad guys’ aren’t uniformly evil. Even if they’re the ones wearing evil uniforms. A multifaceted presentation of any large group is always better than a flat, uniform depiction, but that’s particularly true when you’re dealing with a large organisation or empire that serves as the antagonist in your story. I get bored very quickly if the “good guys” in a story are all morally upstanding paragons of virtue – in Star Wars, we have figures like Han Solo to prevent that from happening – but I get disinterested even more quickly if the “bad guys” are carbon-copy evil scumbags from the emperor of the galaxy all the way down to the lowliest stormtrooper. Shades of grey are always more believable, and more entertaining. Misplaced loyalty from fundamentally honourable characters can be very compelling. Particularly if those characters start to suspect that they might be on the wrong side of history.

This is what I like about Piett and Jerjerrod, and to a lesser extent the regular officers on the command bridge of Darth Vader’s star destroyer, who look up from their stations in terror whenever he billows past. Not only do they seem like semi-decent human beings (or, at least, we never see them do anything outright evil without it seeming like they’re conflicted about it), but when we see them come into close contact with the leaders of the empire – Darth Vader, and the Emperor himself – we see that their loyalties begin to waver. They begin to wonder whether they want to be on the same side as people who are willing to commit such foul acts. In any story that depicts people fighting for a cause that they believe in, I’m always interested to see people stop and question their loyalties.

So I have a writing challenge for you, this week. Go and read whatever story you’re writing, or one you’ve already written. Look at the “bad guys”, whoever they are, whether they’re an evil interplanetary empire or just one person who serves as your book’s primary antagonist. Remain conscious of their motivations, and ask yourself whether they’re certain of what they’re doing. Is certainty realistic? Look at the good guys as well. Could you improve your story by making them more doubtful of their actions? I’d love to hear what you think, in the comments!

“She’s My What?!”: Discovering Character Relationships

Yeah, you know where this is going.
Yeah, you know where this is going.

Character dynamics are a tricky business. I was working on my novel earlier, and I had two characters, who hadn’t previously interacted, about to meet. As I wrote the lead-in, there was something…off about the character whose point of view I was writing from. I couldn’t quite figure out what it was, but beneath his annoyed scowl and general irreverent attitude towards the situation he was currently in, something strange was going on. Rather than try to figure it out, I decided to keep writing and just see what happened. The scene progressed, the door opened, the two characters came face-to-face, and my narrator took in his first impressions of her, and then I suddenly tuned back in at the moment he was thinking “…because she’s my sister.”

Wait, what?

Nothing has ever stopped me dead in my tracks during a writing spree as much as that little revelation did. Were it not for the fact that I never wrote any sexual tension into their relationship, I am certain that my stupefaction would have rivaled that of George Lucas when he suddenly realized 3/4 of the way through filming The Empire Strikes Back that the male and female leads were siblings.

“Really, guys?” I grumbled in an attractively sulky manner while still maintaining an air of authoritative pique. “You couldn’t have told me this earlier?”

Both of them shrugged, smirked, and told me it was on a need-to-know basis and I didn’t need to know until they officially met on the page. Brats.

Stop smirking, guys.
Stop smirking, guys.

Anyways, the point is that not knowing every detail of your characters’ relationships with each other isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When I visualized both of these characters, they had a strictly businesslike interaction based on their duties and social interactions within their caste. The moment they met on paper, though, the relationship changed and there’s now some really interesting tension that adds depth to both of them…and, as I realized while I was working on the next chapter, not only fixes a plot problem I’d been worrying over, but also, through their interactions, revealed a great deal more about the social hierarchies and history of the society than even I was aware of, and I’d been working on world-building for months at that point. As weird or annoying as it may be when you randomly discover such important information as family or relationship connections that far into writing (I’d hit just over 10,000 words at that point), and even if it turns some of your plot ideas upside down (which it did for me), letting some of your character relationships develop naturally and reveal themselves to you on their own can be both fun and beneficial for your story. Since this incident, I’ve had one more surprise familial connection jump up out of nowhere between to highly unlikely characters, but again, it’s solved more problems than it’s caused, and it’s been quite an adventure  figuring out all the political, social, and interpersonal ramifications of this new relationship. If you have any stories of similar discoveries, I’d love to hear about them! In the meantime, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go figure out how my main characters are going to react to this latest tabloidesque revelation.

Sunday Picture Post

Well, I hope that all of you are having a great weekend! I don’t actually watch much television any more, but when I do I am continually surprised at how asinine commercials have become. I find it continually amazing that they are so thoroughly painful. Anyway, as you know, we like to take Sundays off, but I went and found you this, hope you enjoy it… …it’s Star Wars:


The Power of Parody

Hello! I’m Sam, and this is my first post for The Art of Writing. I’ve loved writing in many forms (stories, poems, or whatever I’m in the mood for) ever since I was little, and I still try to practice it pretty regularly to this day. When I’m not writing, I’m taking classes toward an M.A. in English, reading a whole lot, and secretly fighting crime in dark alleyways at night (but don’t tell anyone). If you like what you see here and want to read more from me, you can find my personal blog and more info here.

But now that I’ve introduced myself, I’m afraid I have a confession to make.

I’ve got to admit, I haven’t actually been writing much fiction lately.

It’s not because I don’t love writing fiction. I truly do enjoy it when I get to do it. I have several story ideas and novels in my head that I hope to finish writing and/or editing one day. But, for a variety of reasons, it seems that I’ve gravitated away from fiction in recent years to focus more on articles, blog posts, and other forms of shorter creative non-fiction (such as the one you’re reading right now). So when I was asked to contribute to a blog about writing fiction, I didn’t really know at first what I would write about.

“I don’t have much recent experience to draw from,” I said to myself. “I really haven’t been writing much fiction lately except for…except…”

This poster was created by Jef Castro of Entertainment Weekly, based on Patton Oswalt's monologue from Parks and Recreation.
Poster created by Jef Castro of Entertainment Weekly, based on Patton Oswalt’s monologue from Parks and Recreation

And then I remembered the one fictional work that I have been working on sporadically: a parody mash-up co-written with two friends, in which we basically decided to see just how many different fandoms and references we could combine and simultaneously poke fun at in the span of one epic tale (or trilogy). It’s a quirky, over-the-top, very tongue-in-cheek amalgamation of Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Super Mario Bros., Batman, Doctor Who, classic literature, and much, much more.

Now, being a blatant rip-off of quite a few other works, this story of course is not what most of us would call “serious” fiction, and it’s hardly “literary” by anyone’s standards. This supposed subpar quality is inherent to works of parody, or at least to people’s common connotations about them. But that’s no reason for either readers or authors to completely write off parodies as insignificant or juvenile. After all, any story, even a parody, still has to be good by a certain standard of judgment; it still has to conform more or less to certain criteria, adhere to common conventions of fiction, and accomplish what it sets out to do as a story.

For someone who hopes to write more serious or original fiction, writing a parody can be a good way to gain some easy practice. Here are a few reasons why:

  •  Tropes and conventions are exaggerated. Parody is a good way to explore and play with common tropes or conventions in fiction, since they’re intentionally exaggerated and ridiculed in parody. In fact, it’s not uncommon for some parodies to include metahumor and directly announce the plot points they’re following or the sort of work they’re poking fun at. If you’re writing a parody, you don’t have to be subtle; you can go over the top and be painfully obvious with plot points and character development. If you’re in the experimental stage of writing fiction, this overt use of story components may help you to more concretely map out the narrative elements that make up a legitimately good story.
  •  Parodies are fun, not serious. As mentioned above, nobody expects parodies to be brilliant, profound works of fiction that will endure in the canon of literature for generations. They’re inherently meant to be lighthearted and fun in tone and by nature do not take themselves as seriously as other works might. These qualities take a lot of pressure off of you as the writer! You don’t have to come up with something original or groundbreaking when you’re writing a parody; you can rearrange existing elements of a story, or combine those elements with your own ideas that may or may not be fully fleshed out yet. Overall, you can let loose and relax just a bit. You can write something just to write, or to get into the habit of writing, without caring overmuch about how good or literary it is. You have the freedom to try different things out and see what works and what doesn’t. You can just play around and have fun!
  • An illustration of Mark Twain, printed by the Washington Times in 1907, reprinting the Philadelphia Inquirer
    Illustration of Mark Twain, printed by the Washington Times in 1907, reprinting the Philadelphia Inquirer

    Parodies still carry some weight. Even though parodies are for fun and not “serious,” don’t make the mistake of thinking that they’re less important or worthwhile pieces of fiction, or that you can make a good one with just a halfhearted effort. An enjoyable parody isn’t just haphazard elements strewn together; it still has familiar characters and a functioning story with a beginning, middle, and end. It should also have a good amount of humor and wit, cleverly satirizing certain conventions with varying degrees of subtlety. Even classic authors such as Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain relied heavily on satire, on pointing out and exaggerating the flaws in institutions or certain types of literature. Well-made, entertaining parodies must do this to some extent as well. To use another example, I also wrote another parody in recent memory, a Christmastime poem blatantly imitating Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I largely filled it up with jokes, laughs, and cultural references, but I also based it on my own real-life experiences and tried to at least touch on a legitimate moral about the importance of family and fellowship. Even though it was lighthearted and fun, it wasn’t completely meaningless or devoid of serious significance. If you’re truly dedicated to writing fiction and serious about wanting to hone your craft and skills as a writer, then you’ll still put your best thought and effort and personal feeling into it at all times, even if you’re just practicing with a parody.

So, if you have the misfortune to be visited by writer’s block in the near future, or if you’re like me and you haven’t been able to find the opportunities for “serious” fiction lately, then I encourage you to try writing a parody of your favorite book, movie, or TV show. Figure out what sort of plot and character formula makes that story work, and play that up a lot in your parody. But also look for the flaws or ridiculous aspects in the work you’re imitating and be sure to exaggerate those for comedic effect. Consider what messages your use of satire will send, overtly or subtly, about the work or genre you’re imitating, or about life and the world as a whole. Don’t be afraid to play around and see what works for you, and as you continue to write, try to notice how your own storytelling style begins to develop and differ from that of the original author. Use this time and this opportunity to hone your skill and your own unique voice. And in the midst of it all, don’t forget to have some fun!

Characters and their quirks

I sent out my manuscript for reading and when it returned I wept a little. I honestly debated printing it out physically just to light it on fire. I like symbolism.

One of the comments I received in the early pages was that my characters had moments of life, but then they fell flat. They merged together into one, like clay that wasn’t thrown in the kiln before putting it near other sculptures, so the clay went back together, returning to a natural form.

This led me to soul search in an attempt to figure out how to make each character unique. Obviously there is dialogue, but I’m still tackling this. At the moment, I have each character gaining some sort of pattern they repeat, whether it’s a word or phrase they say at least once a scene (“Old sport” from Jay Gatsby) or sentence structure (“…the dark side of the Force are they” from Yoda). I’m sure there are other ways to individualize dialogue better, and I’m researching currently.

However, right now I’m focusing on character quirks. Quirks are weird habits which bring the character to life. We all have quirks, even our pets have quirks. The cat that acts like a dog. The tiger that plays well with a lion and bear. The man who took a vow of silence. The woman who spits on all her plates for a final polish. I’ve created a character sheet, and below “merits” and “flaws” there is now “quirks”.

Look pretty and smell pretty? Sauron doesn't stand a chance.
Look pretty and smell pretty? Sauron doesn’t stand a chance.

Gimli and Legolas had their friendship, despite racial differences. It showed up in games, despite violent situations. In Pokemon (I know, now we’re talking some high fantasy literature) Ash cannot for the life of him think out a move. He will always take the hardest path. In Frozen, Anna is doomed to awkwardness. Kristoff is doomed to talk to himself and eat carrots from the mouth of a reindeer.

Quirks make us remember. They make us relate. If you write a character who gets chronic bloody noses, my dad and I will understand that character. After last night my bed looks like a scene from CSI. Perhaps you will relate to Kessem, my character who loathes the sound of dripping water. We can nearly all relate to the kid who refuses to listen to his parents. A few of us can relate to the kid who refuses to admit he listens, but ultimately does what he’s told in his own time and way. Perhaps it’s the way a dame in a speak easy always smokes with her left hand, though she does everything else with her right.

My challenge to you is go out of your way to find quirks people have. Discover your own. I bet you have at least five. I bleed like a faucet, play Pokemon, enjoy cartoons as a grown man, have a personal library, and make horrible puns. I’m only grazing the surface. Remember, quirks aren’t necessarily huge, they’re just things that are odd compared to the society we live in. While I surround myself with cartoon-watching, Pokemon-playing friends, it’s still rare.

Once you’ve done that, make sure to consciously tack them onto each and every character you conjure. Put a side note area for quirks and throw it in there. If you already know what it is, that’s great. It’s a character you obviously already love and have brought to life. That character is making the rest jealous. Practice equality. Give them all quirks.

Also, if you have a particular place you found good for learning dialogue tricks, please post them down below. That’s my next area to work on for the edits and I could use some aid. Might write about that next time based on what I find and what everyone helps me find.

Finally, I know it’s a day late, but for those in the states, blessed Memorial Day. For anyone in any democratic country, remember your warriors who fight and die for the rights we assume and take for granted every day. I’m not saying we’re horrible, it’s just we can’t possibly understand what it is to live in these other countries without having actually been there. So enjoy.