Tag Archives: writing

A Real Swell Guy

Let’s talk about Chuck, because it’s a fantastic show that you should watch if you haven’t. And not just ‘cuz Chuck and I are basically the same person, but because it’s a well put together show with a lot of fun stories and great characters.

But those characters are a big reason. You’ve got Chuck and his two spy handlers and their dynamic and interactions, but they’re not who this is post is about.

This post it about one of the supporting characters: Captain Awesome (or Devon Woodcomb as he’s actually named and sometimes called). Awesome is Chuck’s sisters’s boyfriend-then-husband who, in earlier seasons, lives with Chuck and his sister, Ellie). He’s a cardiothoracic surgeon who enjoys adventure sports, and flossing. He’s plain awesome.

Which makes for a great contrast with the protagonist, Chuck, especially at the top of the series. Chuck didn’t finish college, doesn’t have a girlfriend, and is stuck in a dead end job. His life is going nowhere. Awesome is everything Chuck is not.

Awesome, as a character, was conceived by the writers as “the worst possible person for Chuck to come home too.” And he is, in a way; he’s the one with his life together, he’s everything Chuck is not which accentuates just how much of a loser Chuck feels he is. So as a storytelling device, Awesome works well, perfectly.

It would be really easy for the show to just stop there. Leave Devon as a bit of a caricature who pops in to a scene as his awesome self and leaves shortly after. Alternately, Captain Awesome could be a major jerk. He’s fully aware of how great he is, so the writers could really have pushed the Mister Perfect angle and made him utterly insufferable. If they did that Chuck would have had an antagonist whenever he came home: here’s this guy who not only has his life together but has everything going for him and he will remind you of it at any moment, especially if it helps bring you down. So bam, between tension at his day job, all the fun and games of being a spy, and Devon waiting at home; Chuck’s life is rife for conflict.

Yet, fortunately, Captain Awesome is not remotely like that.

Instead of being huge pain, Devon is instead one of the most genuinely nice guys, well, ever. For example, when asked by Jeff, one of Chuck’s deadbeat coworkers at the BuyMore, if Awesome’s ever had a dream that’s never come true, Devon thinks a beat before simply saying no. Again, this is one of those scenes where he could come off as conceited, but its the sincerity with which he says it that helps you love him. He’s just a good guy who, even though things have always gone right for him, is willing to help anyone else. Though he’s never had a dream not come true, Devon offers Jeff a (potentially disastrous) chance for his to come true. Devon’s written earnestly and is a wonderful character on the show. If the main characters of Chuck made Captain Planet, he’d have the Power of Heart.

I cannot stress enough how fine a line the characterization of Captain Awesome walks. He could have become someone we’d desperately want Chuck to punch in the face, or even just a total pushover who gets walked over by everyone else. It says a lot about the writing and Ryan McPartlin’s performance that he feels plain genuine. They could have deconstructed the character, or maybe given him a dark backstory (think Rich of Community’s “Beginner Pottery”), but instead they had him, well, as him; as someone too perfect to hate or be hated. Captain Awesome as a whole says a lot about the caliber of characterization on Chuck. They were able to take characters who, by all accounts, should have been one note but make them interesting. Devon is one of them and, man, he’s just a real swell guy.

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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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Awesome Non-Combatants

During my idle perusal of the vast wastes of internet I came across a review of this past week’s episode of Agents of SHIELD. What caught my interest was one of the reviewer’s criticisms: there were still too many techie-type characters who couldn’t fight. And that that was lame and frustrating.

Now, besides wrong, I find this criticism fascinating. Because yes, it is interesting to see an action-orientated show where half of the main cast aren’t able to actively fight bad guys. What often happens instead is we get only one of these characters who gets overshadowed by everyone else. When done poorly, this can get to the point that we wonder why they’re even one of the main characters. Yet there’s an obligation to have these sorts in a story. After all, not everyone in real life runs around guns blazing. Paramilitary groups and ships’ crews need their support teams. So they’re there, and that’s about it. But when written well, like I think Fitz and Simmons of SHIELD are, they can become great, interesting characters in their own right and add another dynamic to their story.

Let’s look at Fitz and Simmons further for a second. No, they don’t fight, in fact, they’re pretty adamant about avoiding combat. They’re scientists! Yet the show still keeps them vital to the team. In the pilot it was Fitz who engineered Coulson’s nonlethal third option, for example. Skye too, the other non-combatant, holds her own too, be it through hacking or sweet-talking. Point is, they do stuff! They’re cool! And, rather than having one Science Guy to do all the sciencing we have a team of three splitting the load.

We see the idea of vital non-combatants in another show Joss Whedon worked on: Firefly. Kaylee, Simon, and some of the others don’t do much fighting, but they’re still made to feel useful through how they’re written. The show’s plots aren’t always (and seldom solely) of the “we’re in a tight spot, let’s shoot our way out” variety. Instead, we’re given a variety of plots where sometimes mechanicing or doctoring is the best solution. Yeah, it’s harder to write, but when it works it makes each character feel that much more needed.

Pacific Rim did it too, with the scientist characters of Newt and Gottlieb. They’re interesting enough as they are, clearly, and they also want to help with the cancellation of the apocalypse. No, they aren’t pilot Jaegers and fighting Kaiju firsthand, but, as Newt puts it, he wants to be a rockstar. And later on he and Gottlieb are given their chance and proceed to get the information needed to save the day. The film’s written well enough that their moment doesn’t feel awkwardly worked in or just tacked on. Furthermore, it ties in to the movie’s theme of everyone having a part to play in saving the world, even the nerds.

There’s an interesting misconception that a strong character has to be a badass. Ergo a strong female character has to be out doing something adventurous and can’t be one who stays home. Yet a character like that can still be terribly boring (see: Salt) and a character can be stay in the castle yet still be terribly interesting (see: Cersei Lannister). The strength of a character isn’t judged by the amount of ass they can kick but that they’re both interesting and vital. It’s up to good writing to ensure that characters feel needed and interesting throughout a story.

So by all means, keep Fitz, Simmons, and Skye inept at combat, just keep writing them as interesting, legitimate characters.

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In Defense of Fan Fiction

I’ve written my share of fan fiction. Be it about Star Wars, Bionicle adventures, or Mega Man stories; trust me: I’ve written my fanfics. Thing is, that was years ago. I’ve hardly done anything remotely fan fictiony (be it an animation or a piece of writing) in years.

I guess I grew out of it; I wanted to make my own worlds and not lean on someone else’s work as a basis. I wanted my stories to be mine and independent. Of course, I still read the Star Wars Expanded Universe, where science fiction writers have their go at continuing or adding stories to the Star Wars ‘verse. Sure, it’s official fan fiction but it’s cool stories, yeah?

Arguably the best writer for the Expanded Universe is Timothy Zahn. His Heir To The Empire Trilogy is not only a fantastic piece of fiction, but it legitimately feels like a Star Wars story. It doesn’t seem like a random piece of science fiction with Star Wars elements but rather like another movie. It has the same feeling of adventure and space opera, and, best of all, the characters actually sound like the characters. They act like them and speak like them; Zahn wonderfully captures the essence of the main characters. He also introduces new characters as well as a new villain; his trilogy is a whole new story while staying true to the originals.

So yes, I’m using Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars novels as the epitome of fan fiction. Granted, they get approved and vetted by the bigwigs at LucasFilm, but at they’re heart they’re pretty much fan fiction. And dang good ones.

See, it’s easy to get fan fiction wrong. You could write a story that sounds like just another story with characters from some franchise tacked on. Taking nuanced characters and stereotyping them isn’t good writing. Changing the way the world works for the sake of your story, well, can be done right, but often winds up feeling unnecessary. Look, worlds need rules, so if you’re playing in someone else’s world, play by their rules lest you wind up making your own world. If your fan fiction hardly seems like it’s a part of the world, might as well make your own, yeah?

One of the main reasons I stopped writing fan fiction was ‘cuz, well, it wasn’t my own world. Anything I wrote would only be well received by people of the fandom. It wasn’t accesible and all that. More so, it felt lazy. I wasn’t making my own characters, I wasn’t doing my own world building. So I stopped.

Thing is, fan fiction (if done right) can be a challenge. You’re playing in someone else’s world; with someone else’s characters. Are you up to being able to capture both the world and the characters? TV writers do the same thing: they didn’t come up with the world but it’s their job to write the episodes. It’s a challenge, no doubt to fit your writing style and dialogue to another. For all the flak fan fiction gets, it can be a remarkable writing exercise. It’s also useful if you want to just get started writing something and don’t want to have to do all the research and all normally required. So yeah, if you’re lazy and just want to write, fan fiction is a valid outlet.

Why am I writing a post about fan fiction? Simple, I’m starting work on an Uncharted one. Yeah, I know; I’m a nerd who needs justification. I want to write an adventure story, so why not use one of my favorite video games? I’m doing historical research and really want the challenge of trying to capture the spirit of the story and characters.

So yeah. Fan fiction.

Writer’s Note: Apologies again for another shorter/lackluster post; I’m now in Morocco on a school trip. Yes. That is my excuse. Again. Now let me go get shawarma.

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Throwing Burritos

One of my courses this semester at NYU is one on Science Fiction. In this particular class we had read and were discussing Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? One of us commented about how Rachael pushing the goat off the building reminded him of that scene in Anchorman where Baxter gets punted off the bridge.

The discussion continued, and someone mentioned that in Anchorman, Baxter gets punted off the bridge because Ron throws a burrito at a biker; so what was the proverbial burrito thrown that made Rachael defenestrate that goat? Not just what was her motivation, but what interaction with Deckard pissed her off enough (if she indeed was pissed off)? Our homework was to begin work on our short stories, getting to the point where we throw this proverbial burrito.

So what exactly is throwing the burrito? It’s a catalyst for a sequence of events. Not necessarily the catalyst, but one nonetheless.

Like when Pippin knocks over the bucket in Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring. Because of that we get the chase through the mines and Gandalf’s duel with the Balrog. Sending the bucket clamoring down the well sets up the entire act.

A good story will often have many burritos being thrown around. Take Metal Gear Solid. The initial burrito is when Snake gets involuntarily reinstated to neutralize the terrorist threat at Shadow Moses. He gets another burrito thrown at him when he realizes that there is a nuclear-capable Metal Gear that the terrorists intend to use. Oh, and the terrorists are ex-special forces. And Snake’s old friend is now a cyborg ninja. And the villain’s his brother. And Snake’s got a virus in him.

You don’t get all these reveals at once: it takes several hours of gameplay. Each burrito is progressively thrown at the player in a way that rather than being overwhelmed, we find ourselves being drawn further and further in to the story. Metal Gear Solid steadily throws burritos at you, each one setting up another conflict or another reveal. We need these burritos to keep us invested. And it works: Metal Gear Solid is a fantastically paced/structured story that you can’t stop playing. Even when it’s 1am and you have work in the morning.

But there’s a point where there are just too many burritos flying around. The third Pirates of the Caribbean movie, At World’s End, has a lot of burritos flying around. We have three, maybe four protagonists each with their own crazy gambits. Barbossa double crosses Jack to get the Pearl back because Jack figured the pirate king should be Elizabeth who double crossed Sao Feng (only she didn’t mean to) who double crossed Will who in turn double crossed Jack. Sort of. It seems like every few minutes we get another burrito thrown at us inspiring yet another sequence of events. And some of these burritos hardly add anything to the plot. It winds up hectic and it’s terribly easy to get lost in the chaos.

Alternately you could get lost in the fun which still yields a plenty enjoyable movie, so, y’know, there’s that.

Sometimes, the best stories have almost no burritos.Lost In Translation is a beautiful movie that progresses slowly and steadily. The burritos were thrown before hand (Bob took an advertising gig, Charlotte followed her husband to Tokyo). The whole thing’s been set in motion; there’re no big reveals or twists, no accelerations. We’re just watching life happen.

Call it pacing or structure; it’s vital. Don’t throw enough burritos and the audience starts checking their watches. Throw too many burritos and you lose the audience. The story just has to have the right serving size.

Or you could always just eat that burrito.

 

Also: buy my book In Transit!

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Red Pills

So y’know how there’ll be this story but there’s this one break from reality? The one thing that makes this world just a little different from the normal one?  It’s pretty much the foundation of the story; the one pill that the audience has to swallow to make the whole story digestible.

If we can believe that ‘reality’ is really just a virtual construct and the real real world is a dystopian post-apocalyptic wasteland ruled by machines, The Matrix makes perfect sense. Since the world is virtual, running on walls and dodging bullets seems natural. Like Neo, we’ve gotta swallow that red pill and enter this world.

Or Harry Potter where  there’s a secret society of wizards and witches and other magical people living right under our Muggle noses. If we can believe that, then the Ministry of Magic, Centaurs, and all the rest fit right in.

An audience’s willing suspension of disbelief is vital to a story. If they don’t buy it, they won’t invest. A lack of investment means they won’t care about it. And that’s terrible.

So how do audiences swallow this pill?

Well, a little bit of grounding helps a lot. Iron Man establishes Tony Stark as being a genius within the first fifteen-odd minutes of the film. With that in mind, it’s not hard to believe that he could build an Arc Reactor and a suit of powered armor in a cave with a box of scraps. It’s been established that he’s outrageously intelligent, so we buy it. When we see his garage/workshop we see that he has a couple of robot assistants with a limited amount of AI. Though this (and Jarvis, and his holographic workspace) is well beyond 2008 technology, we accept it because not only of how intelligent Tony is, but with the lack of focus he gives it. It’s simply there, it’s part of his world. Since it’s normal for him, it’s normal for us.

There is a limit, of course. In Iron Man 2 they filmed a scene where the Tony and Pepper’s jet flew in the upper atmosphere, where gravity no longer affected them. It’s no big deal for them. Ultimately, Jon Favreau and crew chose to cut the scene as it wound up being just too much. Introducing the idea of a jet essentially going into space would have been one piece of tech too much in a movie with AI and powered armor. It would have shattered the suspension of disbelief. There’s a limit to how much you can give the audience.

The Mass Effect games’ fantastic technology is all explained by the titular mass effect. It’s a fairly basic concept (currents applied to the mysterious Element Zero will either increase or decrease an object’s mass) that allows for faster than light travel, artificial gravity, and all that. Add some mysterious ancient technology and bam! Humanity joins the galactic community and gets caught up to speed with the other races.

It’s not another world (like Star Wars) or flung way in the future (Halo, Firefly, or Star Trek), but it’s believable because of the simple technological conceit they present. Furthermore, the idea of mass effects is not only exhaustively fleshed out in the game’s databank (encyclopedia) but is internally consistent. It has its limits: mass effect fields can do a lot but they aren’t magic. All this keeps it believable.

So we have movies with basic conceits: cursed treasure exists in Pirates of the Caribbean, the zombie apocalypse finally happened in Zombieland, Back to the Future asks you to believe that if you hit 88 miles per hour you will see some serious …stuff, in Up we believe a house can fly. It’s that doorway into the world.

Of course, like all things, it’s not set in stone. Sometimes you can just say the Earth was demolished for a hyperspace bypass and if you make it fun enough we’ll play along. Because sometimes the only rules you really need is the rule of of fun; so you can have Scott Pilgrim do battle with the psychic-powered vegan or Westley and Buttercup fight a Rodent of Unusual Size. These movies are fun, serious logic need not apply.

Unless, y’know, you break one of the rules you’ve already set up in your world. Then bam goes our suspension of disbelief.

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Worlds Need Rules

I like writing. No, not just my weekly essay (which is certainly not a rant), but fiction. Sometimes I write stuff grounded firmly in this world, but I really enjoy building worlds of fantasy or science fiction. I’ve got a science fiction side project I like to fiddle with here and there and I run a fantasy RPG with some friends. For both of these I’ve made intricate worlds with some semblance of a history and culture. But just as important as the setting of a story is the exact nature of the world. Any ‘magical’ force, be it mystical or scientific, needs rules to go with it.
Mass Effect is set several centuries in the future, after humanity has made contact with not only the technology of an ancient race that came before but with the various alien species that populate the world today. How does this work? The titular mass effect fields that can increase or decrease the mass of a volume of space time. This technology allows usual science fiction tropes like shields, faster-than-light travel, and artificial gravity; or provides mundane justifications like how buildings can be so tall or preventing spaceships from being hit by space debris.
What makes this so wonderful isn’t just the encyclopedia’s worth of pseudo-science, it’s that everything within the universe adheres to this rules. Because of this we can’t have, say, a ship the size of the Normandy obliterating a planet. No matter how much you’d want to chalk it up to a mass effect field, the rules of the universe prevent it. The writers have their rules to limit the extent of their technology in the world. So long as they don’t supersede these rules, the universe works.
Harry Potter is about magic. Simple. You say a spell (or do it silently if you’re good enough) and magic happens. Feeling lazy? Accio remote!* Someone’s making you really mad? Avada Kadavra. Of course, that means you really do mean it and have created a very permanent solution to what was probably a very minor problem, you overreacting overreactor. But want to make yourself immortal, or make someone love you? No can do. That’s the rules of the universe.
Prior to writing the books, J.K. Rowling spent years detailing exactly how magic would work in her world. She had to set limits and rules on just how it worked. Something couldn’t come from nothing, for example. The world still has to function, magic or not.
*Yes, I know wizards don’t use remotes. Relax.
The ‘physics’ of bending are established fairly early in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Like how benders need the element to control it (except for firebenders who channel their own chi into fire). That’s the main rule and anything that the characters do follows that paradigm. Were Katara to suddenly conjure up a burst of water in a desert our suspension of disbelief would be broken. Not because she can control water, but because the show broke their own rules.
We like to get lost in other worlds. But we need these worlds to be believable. This doesn’t mean whatever phlebotinum or plot device you have must be ‘realistic’ or particularly grounded in reality, it means that if you say something is a certain way, than that is the way it must be. We, the audience, will willing suspend our disbelief so long as the fantastical element remains internally consistent. Call it Aristotle’s Law Of Identity or Magic A is magic A, it’s the foundation of a believable world.
And if we can’t believe it then we won’t be invested.

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