Tag Archives: Serenity

But What Is A Strong Female Protagonist?

I write a lot about strong female characters here, heck, it was my first post. It’s still something I really care about, seeing how often it pops up in my blog posts here. I’ve got a small list of characters I bring up often: Black Widow, Captain Marvel, Chloe Frazer, Katniss Everdeen, Zoë Washburne, etc.

Thing is, it’s easy to conflate the idea of a strong female characters with that of a woman who kicks ass. When we compare Katniss from The Hunger Games to Bella Swan from Twilight the former is clearly the stronger character. When asked why the easy answer is that she does stuff, herein taking charge and fighting. So does Captain Marvel. And Arya Stark.

We see this particularly in areas which already have a history of relegating women to the back burner, like video games or the action adventure genre. Damsels meant to be saved by strong men, the voice of reason, or to be relegated to being a person of support. Thus being promoted to action hero seems like quite the step up.

So comes the masculinization of women, where women are placed in male roles and can do everything a man can. The new question that comes with this is whether they’re losing depth because they’re becoming less of a woman. After all, they’re pushing for violence, a ‘masculine’ way of problem solving, instead of finding non-violent means of conflict-resolution, like manipulation. But assuming a strong female character must be good in combat is a flawed idea. Women – people – don’t have to go around kicking ass to be a strong character.

Take Zoë and Inara from Firefly, both arguably strong female characters. The former, Serenity’s tough-as-nails first mate, is badass in the more masculine way. Inara, however, wielding diplomacy, is as strong without being masculinized. She’s strong on her own terms, kicking proverbial ass without having to carry a weapon.

So which portrayal is more feministic? Both masculinizing women and confining them to feminine traits run contrary to feminism since it genders a set of actions and traits. Is Zoë stronger since she’s nearly indistinguishable from a man? Or is it Inara, who fights in a more ‘feminine’ sphere.

So now what? Women are, surprise, people; people are, also surprise, different. And people do different things. To say that a man can succeed as a character in both action and drama genres but a woman only truly succeeds if she’s placed in a drama is a terrifyingly narrow view. If we want to advance the role of women in fiction, we can’t limit them to certain roles. We need women doing everything.

This is one of the reasons I love Game of Thrones. There’s a great deal of variety to the roles women play, and a lot of them are wonderfully well written. Ygritte the Wildling archer and Margaery the politicking queen-to-be are very different women and both great characters. Yet neither would work in the other’s roles; they’re strong on their own terms and in their own ways. You can’t discredit Margaery because she’s worming her way to the top of the political sphere because she’s not running around with a sword, likewise with Ygritte for being an archer rather than a politician. This show, known for the HBO-iness of its content, displays a great deal of nuance and variety with its women. Sure, some are problematic and shallow, but there remains the potential for a woman to be strong and badass, no matter her position.

To return to the comparison of Zoë and Inara in Firefly, we need to accept both as strong women because choosing one over the other would confine the ways in which a female character could be strong. Kaylee, the mechanic, though she’s neither forceful nor a fighter, can hold her own and adds necessary element to the crew. Even River, who more often than not seems to fulfill the role of damsel, is fully realized and not just a shadowy archetype.

There is a danger in making all female characters masculine, but the same could be said of making all female characters the same kind of anything; we need women portrayed in every field. Soldiers, spies, engineers, doctors, and so on. A truly inclusive media should be just that: inclusive.

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Why I (seldom) Write About Ships

I grew up on a ship. I also like writing.

Now, these two should go hand-in-hand. Write about living on a ship, it’s what you know! But then, who lives on a ship. No one would believe that. So I write science fiction. Because it’s easier to believe folks living on a spaceship than on a real ship. Less time explaining stuff. Also, I really like science fiction.

But, and I do get asked this, why don’t I write about a real ship instead? After all, then I can reap the prestige literary fiction. Why do I waste my talents/history on science fiction?

Because, surprisingly, living on a ship is actually quite boring. Yes, you travel, but that’s hardly unique (you could do the same in a bus or plane). The actual parts of living on a ship are terribly routine. You wake up, go to school (or work, but I went to school), come home, read, homework, video games, eat, whatever, sleep. Whether we were in Sierra Leone or Barbados, that’s what we did. Life is life.

So what is it then that makes living on a ship special? Relationships. Bonds. The sense of a weird sort of family formed by virtue of having no one else.

Like in Firefly. I’ve found that show to be the most honest take on life on a ship. Sure, my ship was lacking in the fugitive doctors and smuggling part, but there was certainly that sense of community. On the show Jayne may antagonize Kaylee, but when the chips are down he’s as ready to protect her as the captain. Serenity’s crew has a decided “we’re in this together no matter what” mentality. Sometimes it touches on the idea of family, but, as cemented by Mal’s speech at the end of Serenity, it’s about making a home. You want a story about life on a ship? About what makes life on the ship special? Look at Firefly and Serenity.

But that feels pretty obvious, y’know, Serenity is a ship, of course it’s going to have parallels. What about when there’s no ship?

Well, this might explain one of the many reasons why I love Chuck. Over the series, Team Bartowski and the other characters slowly come together to form, well, a crew of sorts. Even though the lot of them don’t always get along, they’ve formed a sort of family. Yeah, it’s very similar to my example from Firefly above, but it’s that idea again. For much of the series Casey doesn’t even like Chuck, but again, will come through for him when it counts; as will the others for him. Everyone has this forged bond with each other. That’s the essence of life on a ship.

Sure, there’s the incredible sublime feeling of being in the middle of the ocean at night, the ship’s running lights extended less than a stone’s throw away; but it’s nothing that can’t be transported elsewhere or substituted. Because that’s just setting, it’s not the interesting part.

I suppose that’s one reason I love writing science fiction; it gives me liberty. If I want to explore the idea of home I can add a plot device that threatens it. Could be, say, a mysterious box that shows an alternate world. Wanna stress the bond between the Captain and his Bosun? Arrest one of them. There’s a great freedom in a world where you get to make the rules.

Not to say I don’t put everything in science fiction. One of my short stories I’m the most proud of is set in a small town (though there’s a ship in a character’s past) and the screenplay I’m working on with my brother is set in the real world, though on a boat. But the former is about coming home and the latter is about an adventure. Writing about a ship in and of itself is boring. It’d like be writing about everyday life in the suburbs or a city or anywhere.

But writing about home, about family, about leaving? That’s interesting. So I seldom set my writing aboard an actual ship; but I always write about life on a ship.

 

Writer’s Note: Yeah, did something this week. Something almost…bloggy. Stuff in this vein may show up again; for now it’ll have the tag ‘bloggish.’

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Heroic Motivation

I’m gonna do something a little different this week. A few weeks ago I wrote a post as a sounding board for a Research Paper I had to write for a class. Now I figured “hey, why don’t I post that research paper?” So I am. It’s much longer than a usual post (nearly 5 times as long), but I feel like it’s one of the best things I’ve written. So here it is, in all it’s A-, MLA-ish glory:

Heroes. There’s no such thing.” So says Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin in Iron Man 3 as he threatens the titular hero and, to an extent, the villain is right. Lately, heroes, particularly in adventure narratives, have taken a turn for the unheroic. Where once there were heroes like Luke Skywalker or Frodo Baggins who, through and through, were good to the core, now heroes are of a murkier sort. Even Iron Man is not a clear cut hero. In the past, protagonists were motivated to do their heroics simply because it was good. They were the good guys; the prince saves the princess and slays the dragon because he’s good and the dragon is evil. But time went on and fiction began to explore princes who weren’t so clean cut, heroes who weren’t good for the sake of good. Yet these protagonists remained heroes; they would still ultimately rise up to do the right thing and save the day (even if saving the day had little effect on the outside world). So what is it that motivates these protagonists who aren’t strictly heroes to heroism? Perhaps it would do to examine reluctant heroes from books, movies, video games, and television as diverse as Pi Patel, Tony Stark, Nathan Drake, and Malcolm Reynolds in the hopes of finding some commonality between them. What drives characters who are ordinary teenagers, irresponsible playboys, selfish treasure hunters, or lawless rebels to acts of heroism?

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With Regards To Motivation

I have a research paper I should be writing. I also have a stack of books near me ranging from On Free Choice and The Will by Saint Augustine, Iron Man and Philosophy, Campbell’s The Hero with A Thousand Faces, Finding Serenity, The Existential Joss Whedon, my own annotated copy of Life of Pi, The Philosophy of Joss Whedon, and a few others too. These are what people in academia call ‘sources’. I think I know what I’ll be writing about, but I’m not quite sure yet.

So, once again, I’ll be writing an essay (that’s not a rant) to hone in on it.

One of the ‘texts’ (a fancy word for story, apparently) I’ll be looking at is Uncharted 2. Because I love said game and the class is called ‘Adventure Narratives’ so it must be done. I wanna explore the tension of Nathan Drake between the two women: Chloe Frazer and Elena Fisher. No, not the love triangle, but rather how they represent his inner conflict. Chloe, who’ll pursue her goal with a keen sense of self-preservation versus Elena, who’s sense of justice overrides everything else. They represent Nate’s struggle to choose between what’s smart and what’s right. It’s fascinating, really, a layer of depth you wouldn’t expect in a video game. Ultimately, Nate chooses to do what’s right, to follow his duty.

(Note: Elena and Chloe are far more interesting than just representing Nate’s duality. But that’ll be in an essay for Games 101)

So maybe I’ll write about the duality of man/the hero, how the hero must choose between right and wrong. Interesting, but let’s read further.

In Christopher Robichaud’s essay “Can Iron Man Atone For Tony Stark’s Wrongs” he explores the duality of Tony Stark and Iron Man. Tony Stark was the one who screwed up his life and put weapons in the hands of criminals. Iron Man is the one fighting to make things right. Iron Man is an atoner; he does the hero thing to try and redeem who he was as Tony Stark. There’s his motivation, and that’s why he does what he does.

Wait. So maybe instead of looking at the tension, let’s ask why an adventure hero does what they do.

In Life of Pi (which is a book I read for this class, and I must include one from the reading list), Pi tries his best to stay a moral man adrift in the lifeboat because he’s a religious man three times over. His motivation is to please God, to serve him even when things look bleak.

Swell. Now let’s look at Firefly, because this is my research paper and if I want to write about Firefly for class then I damn well will. K. Dale Koontz wrote the book Faith and Choice in the Works of Joss Whedon which is proving to be a fascinating read that I’d like to give a proper look at when I’m not hunting for sources. In it he explores Mal’s faith and morality, exploring why he does what he does. In becomes apparent that after Mal’s loss of faith at Serenity Valley, the man chooses to rely only on himself and his crew. Threaten them, you threaten him (see Ariel, 1.09). But why? Koontz believes that underneath his calloused shell, Mal has a wealth of love for his ship and crew. It’s love that makes Mal take action, it’s love that drives him. This is driven home at the end of Serenity, when Mal tells River what the first rule of flying is: “Love. You can learn all the math in the ‘Verse, but you take a boat in the air that you don’t love, she’ll shake you off just as sure as the turning of the worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down, tells you she’s hurtin’ ‘fore she keens. Makes her a home.” (Whedon) Love is at the core of Mal.

But does this motivation of love apply to the others too? Pi’s religious reverence is certainly fueled by a love for God, so love is there too. That’s an easy one.

Nathan Drake chooses to do what’s right perhaps out of a love for Elena and her sense of justice. We see this echoed in Drake’s Deception when he apologizes for letting her down. His love for her means he wants to do what’s right by her. Hence his going after Lazarevic and being the hero, like what she would do.

It’s with Tony Stark that things get hairy. Or does it? In the film Iron Man, he saves the day at last when he stops caring solely about himself and is willing to love his fellow man.

So I guess it’s love, love of something more than oneself that motivates heroes to, well, be heroes.

Now let’s write this paper.

Btw, I have a new video. Check it out here.

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Earn Your Ending

Did you see Warm Bodies? Because you really should. It’s a great movie (and has zombies). And I mean a really great movie. We’re talking that sucker gets added to my BluRay collection the day it comes out.

Of course, the comparisons to Zombieland are inevitable and rightly so: both have the same ‘genre’ and tone: zombie films with a level of comedy and romance. It’s their themes, however, that set them apart. Warm Bodies is overflowing with heart. See, Warm Bodies decides to set aside the dark and somber mood oft considered a prerequisite for a zombie film and instead gives it a blast of life and hope.

Warm Bodies has a legitimately happy ending. Not like I Am Legend or Zombieland but a real happy ending. Even though things got dark, even though sometimes it looked almost hopeless and the world was coming down, they still got their happy ending. A real happy ending, not the “the world’s gone to hell but they have each other” ending, a proper happy ending.

It’s the same sort of ending you find in Paperman or The Princess Bride or Star Wars. That sense that there’s good in the world, that it can be found no matter what. But more than that it’s the sense that what’s wrong can be set right, that happy endings exist.

Sometimes the idealistic happy ending doesn’t work. I love Serenity, but that movie’s ending is more bittersweet than happy. It’s not bad: good stories don’t need happy endings. Sam said it best in the film adaption of The Two Towers when he tells Frodo about the stories that really mattered. They’ve got darkness and fear, but they’ve got heroes too, the ones who keep going even when things look bleak. But good wins and there’s hope. The Lord of the Rings embodies this so well. Aragorn and the rest are fighting a hopeless battle against the forces of Mordor, Frodo and Sam are struggling to get to Mount Doom. But the Ring gets destroyed and good wins.

What’s important is that the characters earn their ending. They can’t have it just given to them like in fairytales, they have to fight for it! The guy in Paperman could have given up and gone back to his life, Westley could have not rescued Buttercup. Mal could have aimed to behave. But they didn’t and we get the story, we get the ending that leaves us hopeful. We see them prevail, we seem them fight for it.

In order for an ending to provide the appropriate catharsis there needs to be a a something at stake. It doesn’t have to be life threatening: look at Paperman. If we hadn’t seen the guy’s dull job and his boredom with normalcy we wouldn’t have cared about him trying to win the girl. Knowing that he’s tired of life as is, knowing that he wants this break. Furthermore, if we hadn’t seen him fail and fail again we wouldn’t have wanted him to succeed as much. All this makes the happy ending worth it.

I first read Life of Pi seven years ago and now I’m reading it again for school. At the end of Part One, right as the family gets set to sail to America, author Yann Martel takes a break from Pi’s story to return to the metanarrative of Martel listening to Pi tell his story. Martel recounts him running into Pi’s son and shortly after seeing Pi holding his daughter with all the love a father can muster. At this point in the story we don’t know what happened to Pi, just that it was something terrible that haunts him to the present. But we get this glimpse of him with his young daughter and it’s here that Martel writes one of the most important lines in book:

“This story has a happy ending.”

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Why Science Fiction

Science Fiction is a setting (not a genre) that frequently gets written off and ignored because it’s deemed inept to deal with more serious topics. But science fiction has leave to deal with heavy subjects in a way ‘regular’ fiction only wishes it could. Science fiction – good science fiction – has and will always be about people.

The world will change, but people will always stay the same. People will always want to control, people will always want more, people will always want love, people will always yearn for adventure, and people will always want to find home. It doesn’t matter if it’s the 17th, 21st, or 26th century: people don’t change. The best science fiction examines humanity – consciously or not – in ways that other fiction can not.

Ender’s Game can easily be looked at as just another story about mankind repelling alien invaders. We’ve got the buggers/formics poised to destroy humanity and the only hope lies in the kid named Ender Wiggen. But it goes beyond that: it looks at the idea of empathy (and the lack of it) as a tool and a weapon. It is Ender’s immense capacity for empathy that makes him an excellent leader and brilliant tactician, but it’s his ability to withhold it that makes him a brutal opponent. His empathy endears Bean, Alai, Petra and others to him, his brutality puts a very permanent end to his victimization. It’s this ability of his that allows him to understand his utterly alien enemy and defeat them, but ultimately come to love them. Because he understood them he could love them with all his innocence.

Ordinary fiction would spend too much time trying to explain how and justifying why child soldiers were being trained the way the International Fleet trains Ender and friends. The concept of an enemy so completely unknown, so plain inhuman would feel terribly contrived in conventional fiction. In Ender’s Game we go with it because it’s the setting. We get the innocence of a child and truly alien enemy. Why? Science fiction.

Everyone dreams. Everyone wants to escape. Inception gives us a world where we can escape into our dreams. Yes, there are practical uses for this (typically of the espionage and thieving variety), but what would we really do with this technology? Would we would run from the world and its problems into our dreams, into dreams where everything is how and as we want? Christopher Nolan examines the concept of being able to escape in this fashion and the questions of reality that ensue. If our dreams are better than life would we not chose to stay in that world? What would reality mean then? What would we do?

In Inception we see people running from reality and trying to create their own. It’s what we do in our daydreams and it’s what we do when we go to the movies. But in the world of this movie it’s something they can do on a whim. Some people hide in them, some people will use them, and some simply remain unaware. It’s on the humanity within the story that science fiction thrives. We see people act and can’t help but to wonder whether we, like Cobb’s wife, would just want to live in our imaginary world.

Finally; Serenity. The idea presented in Joss Whedon’s film is the question of control. Of course, we’ve heard stories about totalitarian governments clamping down on freedom and forcing them to behave. But it’s in this setting that the Alliance has not only the will but the ability to truly control their population. If free will and the capacity to make choice is taken out of the human equation what then remains?

Science fiction allows us to explore the idea in a world where it’s possible. Because we’ve agreed to believe that the technology exists we can see the implications. Serenity asks what would people would do if they found a world without choice. Five hundred years in the future we will still aim to misbehave: especially if misbehaving is the right thing to do. Set against a backdrop of spaceships and planets is the story of an artificial family just trying to live their lives and find some semblance of home.

So why science fiction? The setting lets us create worlds where the impossible is just a part of life. This impossible factor lets us ask what people would then do. District 9 asked the question of aliens and segregation, Alien created a unique horror film, Jurassic Park demonstrated the fallacies of playing god. Sure, the setting can be seen as just a vehicle for a parable, but it’s a world where imagination runs wild.

Good science fiction is about the people in the world. It’s a simple concept: the world will change but people will stay the same.

Plus, science fiction is just so friggin’ fun.

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Perilous Tension

Tension tends to drive a story forward. Well, tension and characters. But this is about tension (which relates to characters). Anyway, one source of tension, especially in movies that can be classified as action and adventure, is peril. Everybody loves peril. We see our characters and we ask ourselves “dude, what happens next?”

And that, dear reader, is an excellent question.

See, depending on your personal literary philosophy it’s wondering either who will die or how they’ll get out of it.

Who will die, or, Anyone Can Die, as the beloved website TVTropes.org christens it, is a way of causing tension that’s become somewhat common. The idea is that if you kill off main characters it starts to raise the stakes. The logic is if anyone can die then, well, anyone can die. You, as the audience, eagerly wait to find out who will live, hoping to the writers it’s not your favorite character.

Lost pulled this off magnificently. Deft character development through flashbacks and establishing moments quickly created strong characters who we cared about. But since this was Lost, characters no matter how important, had the chance to die, especially/mostly in the first couple seasons and again towards the end. You began to genuinely fear for your favorite character’s life. There was tension, and the pay off was immense.

Of course, this can go horribly wrong. One look at the travesty that was Heroes after the first season and, well, there it is. At some point they figured that a good way to maintain interest was to threaten the death of main characters. Of course, this would work so much better if these characters hadn’t been twisted beyond recognition. If we don’t care about the character anymore, well, we won’t really give half a crap if they die. The ultimate failing of any work of literature is when the audience doesn’t care. When a character we care about dies amongst those we don’t, we start to grow numb.

The other, less lethal, source of perilous tension, is wondering how our heroes will survive. This is the ideal convention for high adventure. We know Nathan Drake won’t die as he runs from a collapsing ruin. Luke, Han, and Leia will escape from the Death Star and defeat the Empire. In Star Wars it’s not about fretting over who’ll survive, it’s about watching them get through it. The trash compactor won’t close on them, we know that; but how do they get out of it? That’s the hook. The story’s an adventure: we want to see our heroes succeed! In an interview, Timothy Zahn (arguably the best writer the Star Wars Expanded Universe has seen) said: “For me, [entertaining fiction] means watching engaging characters I care about get into and out of dangerous predicaments, working and thinking together in order to defeat the bad guys.” He goes on to defend the idea of Plot Armor, saying that if he wanted the realistic anyone-can-die tension, he’d just turn on the news. This is an adventure.

But, like Anyone Can Die, this isn’t without flaws. Done poorly and there’s no tension since you’re convinced no one will die. You find yourself wishing they’ll just shut up and get on with the plot and stop fretting over a death that won’t happen. C’mon Emmerich, we all know you won’t kill off the littlest cancer patient, move on already! When the back of your mind isn’t saying “you’ve got this, almost there!” or “but what if…?”, then the tension’s gone and interest starts to fade.

There’s a moment in The Avengers when we’re left wondering about a character’s fate. The scene is brief, and everything in you screams survival, and yet, due to proper build up, you’re still wondering “they won’t, but, wait, what if…?” Then we get a magnificent bout of comic relief and it’s all resolved. The tension was there and quickly offset by relief. Of course, this tension wouldn’t have been possible without a significant death earlier (and our heroes’ reaction to it).

This is somewhat typical of the writer/director Joss Whedon. From what I’ve seen by him (Firefly/Serenity, Dr. Horrible [I intend to start watching Buffy over the summer]), it’s something of a trademark of his. Kill characters, but still maintain that feeling of high adventure. In Serenity, characters died, catching you out of left field and raising the stakes for the climax. Because even though you’re almost completely sure those big damn heroes will make it out alive, the doubt is there in the back of your mind. You want to see how they make it out of this impossible scenario, but you also can’t help but to worry about their survival. It’s a blend of both literary philosophies, working together.

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter which philosophy is adopted, so long as it’s done well. Or you could always take the third option and take the middle road. Again, the thing is to do it right. Tension’s primary purpose in a work of literature is to get you invested. Tension makes you care about what happens next. So pick your brand of tension and run with it. Kill off your characters or pull them out of certain death. Just make sure we care.

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