Review of the Week–Incredibles 2

Well, I know that a lot of you out there–and myself as well–have waited for the release of the movie I’m reviewing this week for 15 years, and I’m happy to say that for the most part, we were well-rewarded for our patience. It’s time to grab your favorite superhero costume (but preferably one without a cape) and take a look at Incredibles 2!

Pretty much ignoring the large gap between films (you can check out my thoughts on the first one here), Incredibles 2 starts off right where the first movie left us, with the Parr family engaged in battle with their latest supervillain threat, the Underminer. When their attempt to apprehend the bad guy goes south, however, it turns into yet another public relations disaster for the government, resulting in the Superhero Relocation Program being shut down and the family out of options. But as luck would have it, they’re approached by a wealthy philanthropist and superhero fan who wants to make heroes legal again–with Helen, a.k.a. Elastigirl, leading the charge. As Bob struggles with adjusting to being a stay-at-home dad and sitting on the sidelines, Helen campaigns for superhero rights until she encounters the Screenslaver–a shadowy figure using hypnosis technology bent on keeping supers illegal for good. Screenslaver’s evil plans end up putting the entire family in jeopardy once again, and once again they only way they’re going to stop him is by joining forces–and making some new friends.

Right off, I have to say that Incredibles 2 does a great job recapturing the fun and spirit of the original movie. The magic is definitely still there, and it even adds a few new quirks by introducing other supers outside the Parr family (other than Frozone, who still remains a major fixture of course), and taking some shots at other elemental tropes of superhero culture. Just like the famous “no capes” speech in the first movie, I thought some of the ideas put forward here–like a cost-benefit analysis of superheroes–was both humorous and made a lot of sense when you think about it. Once again, Incredibles 2 challenges some of our preconceived notions about heroes in a way that DC and Marvel just don’t do. The idea that Elastigirl should be the face of the superhero rights movement because her power set is far less destructive than that of her husband or children was something I’d just never thought about, but is perfectly logical. Hats off once again to director Brad Bird for having the vision to talk about these things.

On that subject, I loved how the female characters took center stage in Incredibles 2 as well. Sure, in The Incredibles all the characters got their moment in the spotlight, but let’s face it, it was a male-dominated film, with Bob and Dash being the primary characters of note. The roles were interestingly reversed in Incredibles 2, with Bob being forced to sit out and hold down the fort at home while Helen got the lion’s share of the action scenes. Given all the controversy and conversation today about the treatment women receive in society, I thought a movie focused on female characters–especially female superheroes, who don’t get as much attention as they should–was quite timely and well-done. It even tackled the sometimes-controversial issue of the stay-at-home dad, too, and I really understood Bob’s struggle with being happy for his wife while also feeling a bit left out and abandoned. But the good news was he really pulled it together in the end. It would have been too easy to just say Bob was a failure of a parent until Helen came back to clean up his mess and save the day, but instead we saw him really put in the extra effort to become just as effective a parent as she was. Nice to see the harmful stereotypes avoided in this case, on both sides.

While Helen was pretty much the central character of the film, Violet also got plenty of time in center stage after only being a truly effectual hero for about half of the first movie. We saw a lot of personal growth in her character in Incredibles 2 and I liked it a lot. She’s more confident with her powers, but still faces the same personal issues after her love interest Tony gets mind-wiped and she’s back to square one with him. The whole incident brought her and Bob closer together, and I thought it was a nice touch too. The first movie built her hero confidence, and this movie built her human confidence. I just thought it was very well handled and another nice touch.

I will admit that I had some issues with the movie, though–one of them having to do with characters. Does anyone know why Dash was in this movie? Like, at all? I don’t think I can name a single truly significant thing he did to move the plot forward, except for maybe steal the Incredibile, which anyone could really have done. With all the growth the other characters got in the film, I was really hoping Dash would get thrown a bone at some point, but he seemed curiously left out of the main storyline, barely got to show off his powers, and appeared to be pretty much an inconvenient afterthought who just got dragged wherever the action was. It was a little disappointing. I mean, come on: the baby got more screen time than him! Although granted, Jack-Jack’s wild powers gave the story the hint of absurdity and levity that it kind of needed.

This was a much darker movie than The Incredibles really, but of course not so dark that you wouldn’t want kids to see it. It’s still a family film, but the themes are a lot headier and the goals set higher than the first movie–and I’m sorry to say that at times Incredibles 2 buckles under the weight of everything it was trying to do because it was just trying to do way, way too much. The one ball I can really target as being dropped here was the villain. Compared to the larger-than-life, gleefully evil fanboy villain Syndrome from the first film, Screenslaver failed to live up to my expectations and just wan’t anywhere close to as compelling or interesting. Part of this was because the bad guy lacked any kind of genuine connection to the main characters–a condition for forming the most meaningful antagonists in my view. Otherwise, why should the audience care about them when they’re just an obstacle and not a person, too? The idea of creating a villain that could be anyone, anywhere, at any time was an interesting one, but as DeVoe from The Flash Season Four could probably tell you, it just doesn’t work out in practice when you don’t have a face for your bad guy. Audiences can’t connect with that.

And can anyone explain the evil plan here to me? I kind of understood the broad strokes, and as the movie’s going on you certainly aren’t compelled to think about it too much, but afterward it made less and less sense the more I picked it apart and the logic crumbles under scrutiny. The reveal of Evelyn Deavor as the true face of Screenslaver wasn’t even a surprise to me–I saw it coming a mile away and I bet everyone else did, too–and she didn’t have enough personality to really make me care anyway. It was just a very meh part of the movie. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: a story is only as good as its villain. And compared to Syndrome’s over-the-top but brilliantly simple plan from the first film, Incredibles 2 failed to live up to my lofty expectations.

My Rating: 7/10

Maybe I’m rating it a little harshly here, but the fact is I just wouldn’t want to rewatch Incredibles 2 over and over again like I do the original movie: it’s a little too ambitious and bites off more than it can chew, and a few elements of the story just fall flat on their face upon closer scrutiny. That said, I think the creators of the film were deliberately trying to go all-out and top themselves, and in other aspects (like the strong female leads and discussion of family issues), it succeeded in following its predecessor’s footsteps and improving upon them. I wouldn’t say Incredibles 2 is necessarily incredible, but it’s still pretty good, and if you liked the first one, odds are you’ll think the follow-up is a pretty fun ride worthy of the name.

Advertisements

Review of the Week–Arrested Development

Hi everyone, and welcome to another Review of the Week column! My apologies for skipping last week: it’s a busy time of year for me, and I haven’t been getting out to see new movies or had nearly as much time to check out new TV shows as I’d like. That said, I finally managed to finish something the other day, and I decided I could finally talk about it with all of you. It’s a full review of one of my favorite sitcoms (and overall TV shows) of all time.

NARRATOR VOICE: It’s Arrested Development.

Arrested Development focuses on the Bluths, a wealthy family of California socialites who face a series of scandals on their way to financial ruin, from shady business dealings to political missteps and even “light treason”. The series follows Michael, the middle child of the family and the only one close to a responsible adult in the bunch, as he deals with the various schemes and slip-ups of his mother and father, his two brothers, his sister, his brother-in-law, and his own son and niece as the family careens its way from catastrophe to catastrophe and he struggles to keep them all together.

To look at Arrested Development properly, I think you have to break it down by eras of the show—for those unfamiliar, it ran on Fox for three years before being cancelled in 2006, and was then revived by Netflix in 2013 for a fourth season. Since then, the fourth season has gone through a re-release in 2018, along with the first half of a new fifth season this year as well.

Okay, now that that’s out of the way…

Let’s just get one thing straight right now: Seasons 1 to 3 of Arrested Development are pure comedy gold. I don’t say that very often because comedies are so hard to objectively evaluate. You can talk all you want about what makes them funny and how closely they adhere to the established “rules” of comedy, but someone else may just not find them funny. But in a lot of ways I think this show blazed some new trails in sitcoms that other shows eventually followed and has set trends, but still remained unique on its own. The narrator who regularly points out contradictions to the audience and breaks the fourth wall with his explanations of the conflicting Bluth family schemes are dry, witty, and always hilarious. The characters themselves are wacky, loony, and perversely awful for the most part, but that’s what sets Arrested Development apart from old-school sitcoms like Happy Days: the laughs aren’t based on good people getting into unfortunate situations, they’re based on bad people getting their comeuppance from making poor decisions. And even still, you want them to succeed. You like them, even in spite of yourself, for their flaws—of which there are oh so many—and the fact that they’re just so funny. They don’t care what anyone else thinks, and at the oddest and most random times they’ll show flashes of humanity that prove they’re not just caricatures, but real people after all. There’s some genuinely uplifting moments in the show overall, even if they’re sparingly interspersed with many more cringe-worthy ones.

In addition, this show isn’t just going for cheap laughs. The humor is intelligent, earned, and comes from some impressively complex storytelling. I mean, to have this much stuff going on at the same time, for it all to make sense and allow viewers to keep it straight, and for things to converge at times as humorously and perfectly as they do, requires a genius amount of simplicity mixed with thoughtful writing, and I can really appreciate that. The story plays on simple human qualities like greed, selfishness, and self-esteem, and takes them in complex and wild tangents that usually come together at the last minute with hilarious consequences. Nothing happens by accident. Every event is important and carefully calibrated to matter within the context of the larger story. Arrested Development is very much a thinking person’s comedy, and the beauty of it is that except in a few cases, the characters themselves usually go on their way never realizing anything went wrong or was amiss—but we as viewers know, and their continued obliviousness is one of the most charming features of the show.

I could go on all day talking about how much I love the characters in the show too, because they’re all acted so perfectly and all so indispensable—the performances are pitch-perfect, and no one character could be cut out without the audience feeling their loss. Which was why Season 4, when it was originally released, was such a huge disappointment to me—only one character per episode? What is this? Where are my Bluths? I understand that the showrunners were trying to spice things up by doing something different and focusing on each individual character and their own development alone, but without the other characters it just didn’t work. There was no one to temper their own flaws and rein them in, and no familial interplay or verbal sparring that was the trademark of the original series and brought out most of the humor. It’s like some of the humor was still there, but the heart and soul of the show that I loved was gone.

Personally, I hated it. I told everyone I knew to ignore it. Which is why I was so happy to hear Season 4 had been remixed and rereleased this year so as to feature all the characters together again. And to be fair, despite some choppy editing and a few times where I got a little confused about the story—that narrator really had to work overtime—Fateful Consequences was much better than the original season. And to be fair, the brand-new Season 5 was also an improvement as it brought all the Bluths concretely back together again and took the show back to its roots somewhat as the family members struggled for control of their company and with their own internal power dynamics.

Still, though, I had some issues with it. The new seasons, in my opinion, just haven’t quite recaptured the deep yet harmless fun of the original series. The storyline has gotten so convoluted at this point as the writers keep feeling the need to outdo themselves that every episode now requires a recap at the beginning to explain what’s already happened. The side characters have lost some of their charm—sure, the old ones like Lucille 2 and Barry Zuckercorn are still great, but the new ones like Rebel Alley and Herbert Love distinctly failed to impress as I question their roles and importance to the story, as well as their humor value. They’re just not that funny. The whole show has started to buckle under the pressure of so many narratives and motives clashing that it’s begun to fold into itself and spiral down the drain of self-questioning its own relevance. It’s too in its own head, and I can barely even follow it anymore. The aging of some young characters like George Michael and Maeby also hasn’t helped—they can’t help that they’re getting older, but some of their childlike innocence that made the early years so charming has started to wear off, and they’re acting just like the depraved adults now unfortunately.

I’m also somewhat upset about the treatment Michael’s character has gotten recently—starting in Season 4, it seemed like there was a real effort by the writers to bring down Michael to everyone else’s level because they deemed him “too good” to be a realistic person. Let’s be clear—Michael was far from perfect, but compared to the rest of his family he was the classic comedy straight man, and the long-suffering fundamentally good guy we were all rooting for. As his respectable straight man role sort of evaporated and more of his own bad qualities were brought out—and those of his son as well—I started to feel like the core of the show, which has always been Michael’s attempts to do right by people and his loving relationship with his son, has been put on the rocks, and not in a good way. If you were looking for ways to make the show funnier, I don’t think that trashing the few actually likeable characters is the way to do it. Overall, I guess you couldn’t say there’s a ton of character development either. Arrested Development sees the Bluth family members change in various subtle ways, but they always fundamentally remain the same and usually revert to their old ways in times of crisis. The development part of the equation really comes into the changing power dynamics in the family—who’s on top in this particular episode or season and what they do with the power they’re given. The whole narrator’s breaking of the fourth wall thing isn’t for everyone—even in shows like House of Cards that make extensive use of this gimmick, it tends to get old after a while, and I’m feeling like Arrested Development is no exception. In summary, it feels like the show just isn’t aging well with time, and maybe a definitive ending sooner rather than later might be called for.

My Rating: 

Seasons 1-3: 9/10

Seasons 4-5: 7/10

While it’s stumbled a bit since its 2013 reboot and lost some of the simple brilliance and charm that made it what it is, the fact is that Arrested Development is still a very funny, very influential show, and it continues to be better and funnier than most other things on TV. You have to admire the writing skill that goes into crafting these complex storylines, and creating characters that are so fundamentally unlikeable and yet so human that we love them anyway—or just love to hate them.

Ask a Writer #9

Welcome to another “Ask a Writer” blog post! Today I’ll be addressing a question posed by a certain hot and vivacious redheaded friend of mine from Twitter having to do with character and story creation. She asks:

@J_L_PIPPEN: Do you find that some negative and positive events and experiences in your life have affected or changed the relatability of your writing? For example having something happen to you that changes the way you understand or describe your characters?

The short answer is absolutely, yes. The longer answer is a bit more complicated, and while the fundamentals of my story and characters probably haven’t changed in significant ways due to my own personal experiences–I try to keep reality out of my fiction if at all possible!–there are a couple of characters and plot elements that I have changed based on what’s been happening in my life recently, and not so recently.

Those of you who know me well probably have a sense that I’ve struggled a lot with my self-worth and self-confidence for my entire life, probably to the point where I could be classified as having some form of depression. I’ve never called it that because it feels disingenuous to people who really have crippling depression they suffer with daily, which isn’t what I have. Most of the time I’m fine. But there will be days, sometimes several in a row, where I’ll feel down and hopeless and alone and question why I bother writing or even getting out of bed in the morning. These things usually pass quickly though and I’m back to being all right again. I’ve never felt the need to seek professional help for it–until last year, which let’s just say was a pretty rough one for me personally. I was stressed and depressed to the point where I felt like I just needed someone to talk to–and it did help. Truly. I’d advise anyone who’s feeling that way to do the same.

Anyway, one of the things I’ve always been good at, from a very young age, is that when I’m stressed or angry or sad or depressed or anything like that at all, I tend to mask how I’m feeling with humor. I make jokes, other people laugh, and I feel better about myself. I’ve more than once been compared to fictional characters like Hawkeye Pierce from MASH–who in fairness probably is a lot like me. And from what I’ve learned over the past several years, a lot of people who are professionally funny for a living are some of the most unhappy, tortured souls alive. It’s sad, but true. RIP Robin Williams, for one. So I identify with them in a way.

Those feelings of inadequacy and not belonging and the humor I conjured up to protect myself and hide what I was really thinking served as my initial inspiration for the character of Jack Ferguson–for those of you who don’t know, the hero of Camp Ferguson and more recently the sequel, Jack Ferguson Strikes Back. I embellished a bit because I wanted the contrast to be more stark here. At first glance Jack is everything I wish I could be, as he’s super-smooth, cool, and likable–if somewhat clueless and mischievous–and above all, supremely funny. He dishes out the vast majority of the funny lines in the series and is an expert prankster. Over the course of the story, though, you start to see through the cracks in Jack’s seemingly bulletproof armor–he had an unhappy childhood in and out of numerous foster homes, and never knew his parents save for a traumatizing meeting with a father who didn’t want him (I assure you, IN NO WAY a reflection of my life!). That encounter started him down a spiral of self-loathing and self-destructive depression which he only managed to overcome by entirely reinventing himself as a happy-go-lucky, carefree practical joker with no depth to him at all–the only way he wants other people to see him because he thinks no one would like him anymore if they knew the truth. In a way, he’s still self-destructive, just in ways that seem light-hearted and fun, as he focuses on cracking jokes and making people like him, and cares nothing for academics or traditional measures of success in life. You start to get a sense that he was always an outcast and isn’t quite as popular as you think he is. He reacts to the slightest bit of responsibility with disdain, disgust, and outright rebellion. I’m sure a psychologist would have a field day with him, if they could get him to sit still and focus long enough or stop him from accidentally brainwashing them into mindlessly liking him from the mind magic that’s leaking out his ears.

Jack is my occasional struggle with depressive feelings taken to extremes, and a lot of what went into creating him are things that I’ve felt for my entire life. My more recent experiences have certainly helped though, especially in terms of Jack’s rejection of authority in the second book–I’ve never seen myself as a particularly good leader, and am much more content to work as part of a team rather than head it up. Again, looking at extreme reactions, Jack rebels against the notion that he’s special and has some responsibility to bear because deep down, he doesn’t want to be special–he just wants to be accepted and “normal” like everyone else. It’s something I’ve always felt too, but am just starting to get over and accept as part of who I am. Needless to say I’m much happier for it at this point–but Jack still struggles on. It’s kind of the whole point of his character arc, but I don’t want to give too much away right now. So I wouldn’t say those things have changed Jack much, but they’ve definitely deepened my understanding of him as a character and people in general who face these kinds of issues.

I’ll also give you an example of something recent that absolutely did change my story: the whole concept of the “Resistance” movement, especially among women and politicians. I don’t want to make this post about politics, so please don’t make it that. But from the first moment that thousands of women took to streets across the nation to march in the past year or so, I was fascinated by this new drive people seem to have found and the revived language and imagery of things from history like the civil rights crusade or the women’s suffrage movement. My work in progress, Jack Ferguson Strikes Back, was beginning to be outlined at the time, and was going to be all about how the scouts of Camp Prospero deal with a new leader who’s actually a competent, genuinely evil villain with plans that could hurt a lot of people. Compared to their previous boss and bad guy, who was mean, intolerant, and cruel, but in the end a bumbling moron who wasn’t a truly credible threat, the new scoutmaster would require an entirely different approach, and probably wouldn’t stand for the public campaign of undermining and insubordination that the old one had. She’d be much more likely to follow through on her threats and crack down viciously if necessary to keep the scouts in line. With current political discourse focusing a lot on subjects like the violation of societal norms, budding authoritarianism around the world, and resistance to both these things, I conceived of a scout-lead resistance movement against the new scoutmaster–an idea that’s ended up forming the backbone of the story.

As I’m still in the process of writing, I’m not sure how deep into the well of resistance imagery I want to go–I mean, it’s all over the new cover I drew for the book. Do I want to go in all the way and have my characters start an underground Free France-type organization? I sort of did that with the creation of the resistance group the Bunkhouse Boys (which also existed prior to this story in my fictional world). Do I want something less formal, like a bunch of people meeting around a campfire? I’m trying to figure that out in a way that’s organic, but maybe also entertaining and a bit funny while still being tasteful and respectful of the theme. But resistance is definitely going to be a key theme of the book going forward.

On the same subject, the large numbers of women speaking out today about their poor treatment in the workplace and otherwise gave me a push into making my main female character Tessa a bit more of an outspoken feminist. Sure, she’s had those tendencies ever since she was first introduced in Camp Ferguson, but the sequel sees her taking this activism to a whole new level as she becomes the default head of the Camp Prospero resistance–a job which brings out a new kind of social justice warrior side to her character that plays nicely with the no-nonsense, confident, and fair attitude she’s always had. She’s usually the one who offers the contemporary social commentary in the story that keeps its fictional characters and events in touch with what we’re seeing right now in the news, and I think she’s quite a good fit for it. It’s brought new depth to her as well that I think she needed, and I feel really good about being able to bring to an already strong female character.

I hope this has given you a little insight into how more current events may have shaped my characters and writing! I don’t think you should ever be afraid to work the real world into your fiction in general–it just makes it more real to the audience and will make you seem relevant. Go for it!

Review of the Week–Shenanigans at South

It’s been a while since I actually talked about a book for my Review of the Week, mostly because it takes me such a long time to get around to reading or actually finish any book outside of my own writing these days. But for your consideration today I’ve got a pretty quick, fun, and more kid-friendly read that I’m happy to say one of my own friends published!

The big selling point of Shenanigans at South is really that, as the book’s profile on Amazon points out, it was written and developed with extensive input and help from actual young students–something that clearly shows through both with the tone of the piece and choice of subject matter. It draws direct comparisons to compilations of short children’s stories with a slight central theme like Loius Sachar’s immortal Sideways Stories from Wayside School, a book that I loved in my childhood and really influenced my own writing style and tastes in humor. The book follows the adventures of a particular fictional class of youngsters and the zany antics of both their classmates and the so-called “adults” in the room in a somewhat surrealistic school where doors can run away it you don’t watch them, children can switch bodies, and cats want to take over by hypnotizing everyone.

The comparison is a very apt and well-earned one, too. I laughed almost as often reading Shenanigans at South as I did on the old Wayside School series, although maybe a bit less because I’m older now than I was back then. The style is a dead-on match, where the ludicrous and bizarre things that happen are all played with a completely straight faced deadpan approach, aside from the occasional wink to the reader. While it’s tough to step out of the shadow of such an established children’s author as Sachar, this book really does a good job of setting up its own distinct universe and characters, who all have their own quirks and are quite well-formed. It’s one of those stories where the kids clearly have more common sense than the adults, and it’s often humorous how the children are the only ones who seem to question the strange things that happen around them while their teachers just accept them as normal. I guess it’s a pretty good metaphor for growing up, really.

Some of my favorite stories included “The Magic Principal”, in which the title character magically vanishes and reappears somewhere else every time a student says his name–wreaking havoc with his schedule–“Door Monitor”, where the classroom title of door monitor is revealed to be vital as doors can run away if you don’t watch them carefully, and “It’s the Thought That Counts”, where the ambiguous and contradictory nature of the title phrase is on full display. Some are far more kid-focused than others–“The Booger Cycle”, for example, is something I think little children would find hilarious, but did admittedly turn my stomach a bit–and some are more high-concept and lofty, like “Multiplication” and “Two Hour Delay”, which really capture a good deal of the surrealist tendencies of the story, but I think it all combines to strike a pretty good balance.

Again, it really does show that kids had a big hand in helping to write this, although as a consequence at times–either due to inside jokes between the writer and his students or other elements we’re not privy to as an audience–a couple stories like “The Class Swallower” just left me scratching my head because I’m not sure I got it. In addition, a few of the stories stretch out over two and even three chapters in a row. I’m all for making short stories longer, but in this case I worry that the transition could confuse some readers, especially the younger ones. That said, the quality of the stories themselves certainly didn’t suffer for it–the ones that were longer deserved to be so because they probably couldn’t be boiled down into a few pages like the others. All in all, it was a very good mix of styles and stories that made for a light and fun read even as a so-called adult. And I very much admire the efforts of the author to get ideas from students about what they would want to read at their age and include it in as coherent a way as possible. It faltered a couple of times, but more often than not was wildly successful in entertaining me.

My Rating: 9/10

If you’ve got young kids–especially ones who’ve loved the Wayside School books–Shenanigans at South was basically tailor-made for them, and maybe for you as well. If you enjoy surreal humor in the style of Monty Python, Louis Sachar, or cartoons like Ed, Edd, n’ Eddy, you’ll probably love this book. It’s a quick, great, fun read for people of all ages that was developed in a truly unique way I think is deserving of a lot of praise and recognition. A fine job by everyone involved! Is it too much to ask for a graphic novel?

Ask a Writer #8

Welcome back to my “Ask a Writer” blog segment! This week’s topic actually wasn’t a question directly posed to me, but rather to the entire Twitter community, and it just so happened to really catch my attention.

@reagancolbert97: Okay, big question for you more experienced writers. I love describing characters exactly how I see them, but what about describing race/ethnicity? What have you learned or done in your own works? Thanks!

I’m going to begin addressing this tricky question with a little disclaimer: I am a white, straight male, so I obviously can’t pretend to speak for anyone outside that identity bubble or really have an intimate sense of what goes on in their day to day lives. I accept this and know this to be true.

Anyway…

Like most other people I’m sure, I’ve always felt a lot of pressure to include diverse characters in my books, from different races to sexual orientations. I feel like it’s only fair to try and make sure a lot of different types of people get represented in my writing, as long as the nature of the story doesn’t specifically prevent it. But also, as again I’m sure many people do, I feel uncomfortable at times writing a female character, or writing a person of color, or a gay character, or anything else outside my immediate knowledge. I’m worried that I’ll be too stereotypical, I won’t do that group justice, or worse still, that I’ll offend people. I really try to avoid this in my everyday life, and I try just as hard to avoid it in my writing. And so to be honest, I do struggle with it at times, but I think I’ve sort of managed to find my way.

Let’s use my most recently published work, Camp Ferguson, as an example. I conceived of the characters in the story long before I thought up the plot, and had their personalities fully-formed in my head before I even started writing. But aside from a select few of them, what they physically looked like, or what their sexual preferences were, wasn’t at all decided. I knew what I wanted them to be like, just not how they would look. Full disclosure: most of the primary characters are white, like myself, including my main character Jack, his love interest Tessa (who naturally has to be straight then), and my villains Drake and Scoutmaster Hasselberry. Those were the characters I had images for in my head previously, and I knew exactly how I imagined they’d look. Maybe I should feel guilty about this. Maybe I shouldn’t. I don’t know.

The others, I wasn’t so sure about, so I considered how I could best throw in a little variety without seeming too concerned about it or not concerned enough. Leo, the prankster character–is there any reason he couldn’t be Asian? No, not really (and personally I feel Asian people especially are criminally underrepresented in fiction)–so that’s what he became. Quentin, the kind but indecisive troop leader–any reason he couldn’t be black? Again, not really. And Lucas, my antisocial genius–I wanted to make sure at least one character had a sexuality other than straight, so could I make him gay? Sure, why not? And the more I thought about them in this new light, the more the characters grew on me, and I could finally visualize them as the fully-realized characters they are.

I know at this point some people might accuse me of being insensitive by just slapping some token characters of different identities into my story. But please believe me when I say that, whether it was a good idea or not in the end, I did it with the best of intentions. I really wanted the cast, as I said before, to represent a lot of different demographics, and I made an honest effort to do so. I guess you can be the judge of whether my approach was right or wrong–hopefully after you’ve at least read my book! It’s on Amazon, by the way.

I should also add that because I specifically wanted to avoid stereotyping, especially harmful stereotypes, another element of my approach was not to dwell to much on the identity of the characters after I had established them. The fact that Leo is Asian or that Lucas is gay is certainly an element of who they are, and they do occasionally come into play in the story, but they don’t define who the characters are by themselves. Could Quentin, for example, be concerned about the way fellow people of color are treated? Of course, and I’m sure he is at times. It just doesn’t come up in the context of the story. Maybe I’m assuming a lot of things about people who don’t actually exist, except when I put them down on paper, but I like to think that really good characters have more dimension to them than even what their writers are able to spell out. But on the other hand, Tessa has quite the feminist streak that does frequently come out when the male characters in the story talk down to her or don’t take her seriously. In the context of a military-style boot camp, I’m sorry to say that I do think that situation probably comes up a fair bit in real life, and so it was very important to include in the story and show a strong female character standing up for herself and fighting the good fight–I mean, she can basically kick anyone else’s ass in the book.

Hopefully as you can see, I’ve tried to take a really good-faith approach with creating characters of different races and identities. Those elements of a person’s identity certainly help make them who they are, but I like to think they’re not totally defined by them. Whether they’re white or black, gay or straight, I think that at their core all people are still just human beings with many of the same fundamental problems and insecurities, trying to get by as best they can. So that’s how I approach it: just treat them like any other person. It’s kind of how I try to live my life, too.

As for describing race itself in writing…that’s even more challenging. Honestly I’m not sure I do a very good job. There’s certain ways of describing people’s appearance and/or race–you know what they are–that just bottom-line aren’t acceptable, and I do always keep that in mind, especially when I’m writing. Aside from my introduction of characters where I actually go into great pains to describe their appearance, I don’t bring it up all that often in the rest of the book, except for an occasional reference here and there to maybe remind people or talk about a situation they’re in. For example, if I’m talking about Quentin, I refer to his having dark skin a couple of times (sweat beading on the dark skin of his forehead), and frankly I don’t think I really bring up Leo’s being Asian much at all. Lucas’s attraction to men does come up a few times just in passing (mostly because he has an unrequited crush a bit on Jack), but it doesn’t become super-plot relevant until my third planned book in the series, when–SPOILER ALERT–I finally give him a partner.

But like I said, I struggle with this issue, a lot, and I’m under no illusions that my way of approaching it is the right one, or the only one. It’s just the one that I chose to try to respect all people and represent them. If I can give another example–that of my upcoming TBA sequel to my first book, The Showstopper! (also on Amazon!), I’ve been seriously stymied in my development of it because it takes place in the 1930s in New Orleans, and at least some of it is going to focus on the treatment of the black populace in those times. Needless to say, the 1930s weren’t the most enlightened time, and bad stuff happened frequently due to racism (not that it still doesn’t, just saying), so glossing over that would feel wrong to me. I just don’t know how to address it without coming off as insensitive or misrepresenting. I have a feeling some research is in order, but I don’t know if even studying the history of the period will be enough to make me comfortable. In addition, I’d like to include a character who’s a female Secret Service agent at the time–already breaking a lot of barriers–and also bisexual. Having known some people who identify this way, I feel like I’m at least a little educated on the subject, but to place that identity in the time period of the 1930s poses its own challenges. Do I portray her as completely unrestrained and unapologetic about who she is–which is my first reaction? It would be kind of awesome. But on the other hand, would that be at all realistic? I’m not sure. Hence my dilemma.

I hope that maybe this blog post has informed you a little bit about my choices in writing in terms of race and sexuality–and not made me look like a total jerk or idiot in the process. It’s a tough element of a story to wrestle with, but I do the best I can.

Ask a Writer #7

Sorry it’s been a little while, but welcome back to another Ask a Writer blog post! Today’s question might cover some familiar territory, but it actually references a bit of writer slang I’ve seen thrown around on Twitter a lot and have never directly addressed.

@may_davenport: Are you a pantser or a planner?

Okay, so first of all, for the uninitiated who may be reading this, let me attempt to clear up what’s being asked here. The idea is that when you’re writing a book, there are two types of people: one is a “pantser”, an allusion to a “fly by the seat of your pants” style whereby the writer doesn’t have a lot of established ideas about a story and simply makes up much of it as they go along, going where the story and their natural course of writing takes them. In comparison, the second type of person is a “planner”: someone who makes a detailed outline of a story (or maybe just a given chapter) before they ever start writing it, with a hard, set mapping of what’s going to happen when, characters involved, events, details, dialogue, etcetera.

Obviously the two styles each have their own pluses and minuses. Personally, I’ve always felt a bit nervous when I sit down to write, no matter how prepared I am, so the idea of just having a completely blank page in front of me would make me very uncomfortable indeed. That said, I also believe that some degree of spontaneity is necessary in a good story, and a lot of the best ideas I have simply come to me as I’m writing. By contrast, I also have a lot of good ideas randomly during the day that I’ll jot down so I don’t forget them and later on think of where best I can slot them into a given story, if they work at all. Or maybe I’ll save it for a different book altogether. Either way, I am most definitely a note-taker–always have been, always will be. If I don’t write something down, I’ll forget it and be kicking myself for the next week for not doing it. I also do have a love of organizing things (or if you ask my mother, a lack thereof–trust me, I have my own definition of “organization” at work here), and I like to have something established in my head when writing–a list of goals, for example, or ideas for the given chapter I’m working on.

Based on all of this, I’m not sure I can truly answer the question–I guess I’m a little of both, really. So a “planser” if you will?

If you look at any given in-progress manuscript of mine, you’ll find under the chapter name (provided I’ve established one yet) a probably short list of goals, developments, events, and other things that I’ve determined need to happen at this point in the story. I’m trying to see if I can fit them all in convincingly and in a reasonable amount of space. Take this one from my current WIP, “Jack Ferguson Strikes Back”, for example (SPOILER ALERT!)

Chapter 8: Outlaw Country

Barstowe meets with Drake and encourages him to switch sides—he is unsure of what to do 

Drake conscripts Lucas and Danny into helping him go back in time to recover the Dragon Sword using the Closet—ends up in frontier town on site of camp in the 1800s 

Finds Dragon Sword under care of the pioneers, who are also pacifist wizards—encounters a relative of Tessa and of himself, who is the nicest man in town and is ripped off by everyone

When town is attacked by outlaws, Drake uses the artifact to defend them, but ends up absorbing its power into himself without realizing it

Influences his relative to start ripping people off and being generally evil 

Rest of the group forces him to give up the sword—Drake realizes they don’t trust him 

ALSO: Establish Drake’s love of country music

So there you have it: that’s what most of my chapters look like before they’re written. I’m not sure if that makes me a plotter by definition–I was always under the impression that a plotter would have a bit more details in their outline than that, or plan a whole book out in advance which I don’t really do. My outlines, such as they are, are constantly changing as I rework storylines, reconsider what characters need to be involved where, and add elements from previous chapters that didn’t quite fit. Also, as you can probably tell, I don’t plan for dialogue most of the time–unless I have a particularly good line or funny joke that I write down because I need to use and want to remember, I want my characters’ conversation to flow naturally, and making it up on the spot tends to help with that. In short, action scenes and big plot details–yes, I take notes. Conversation and dialogue–normally not.

So does that make me a pantser or a planner? I don’t know. I’d say I’m somewhere in between when all’s said and done, but I had to pick one label or the other, I’d lean on the side of pantser probably. But different things work for different people! Whatever makes your book the best it can be.

Review of the Week–Solo: A Star Wars Story

As a tried and true Star Wars fanatic, I couldn’t in good conscience miss the premiere of the latest installment in the fantasy/sci-fi saga, even if I was justifiably nervous about the quality of what was to come. So this week, I’m bringing you my thoughts on Solo: A Star Wars Story.

Everyone who’s seen Star Wars movies knows the lovable rogue Han Solo, but where did he come from, and what events shaped him into the person we know? Solo endeavors to answer that question, detailing young urchin Han’s life growing up on the mean streets of Corellia and dreaming of escape with his childhood sweetheart Qi’ra. Looking to explore the universe, Han find himself forced to leave Qi’ra behind as he first joins the Imperial Navy, and then abandons the pointless fighting for a life of crime with his new mentor Tobias Beckett. Selling himself as the best pilot in the galaxy, Han falls in with a rough crew and gets in over his head–leading to his seeking help from future friend Lando Calrissian and his ship, the legendary Millennium Falcon, for one last big score that will make all their problems disappear. But Han still has a lot to learn, including that in the wild, wild west of the galactic wilderness, the cardinal rule to live by is: trust no one.

I went into Solo with very mixed feelings–as much as I like Han Solo, how will an additional movie just focused on him give me something I couldn’t have guessed before? It all felt slightly unnecessary. Also, there were stories of terrible acting performances by the leads that necessitated extensive reshoots during production–rumors that I’m glad to say were greatly exaggerated, even if the movie as a whole was ultimately forgettable.

First off, the cast. For all my reservations, Alden Ehrenreich does a pretty good job of playing a young Harrison Ford–the portrayal isn’t as spot-on as others I’ve seen in the past (like Josh Brolin’s young Agent K in Men in Black 3), but it’s solid nonetheless and I enjoyed watching him to his thing. The swagger, confidence, and cheeky cracks are all there, even if this version of Han is a bit more wet behind the ears, trusting, and idealistic than the disillusioned rebel we meet in A New Hope. Old Han would never have let the rebels get away with the money in the end–he would probably have just kept it for himself, something I found a bit out of character for the Solo I’m used to. Not perfect, but definitely entertaining.

While other side characters like Beckett (Woody Harrelson is predictably solid, if not great) the rabble-rousing droid L3 (wonderful job by Phoebe Waller-Bridge creating this hilarious firebrand of a character), and of course Chewbacca (seriously, how do you really screw Chewie up?) were good as well, the breakout star of the film was Donald Glover’s take on young Lando–as I suspected before even seeing him on screen. Glover is one of the most talented young actors of our generation, and he plays Billy Dee Williams’ mannerisms, voice patterns, and quirks to a tee here. He’s basically the same guy we met in The Empire Strikes Back except younger, and we get even a little more depth from him here, even if it’s not especially lasting.

Where the movie falls flat is, shockingly, Game of Thrones‘ Emilia Clarke, who plays Qi’ra. I was just never sold on her character overall because there’s no real chemistry between her and Ehrenreich and we’re just not told enough about her for me to truly feel like I care what happens to her. Her betrayal at the end of the movie may have surprised Han, but let’s be honest–the whole thing was telegraphed such that I could see it coming a mile away. She didn’t really emote, wasn’t that captivating when she was in the picture, and in the end her role as a love interest kind of fell flat for me. If the point was to show her as a bit heartless and ambitious, then that’s all well and good, but I have to at least care about her a little bit, and I’m not sure I did here.

Addressing the story, what we see here is an often exciting and fun ride, but one that, again, doesn’t actually add all that much to the Star Wars universe when you sit back and think about it. How much of this could you not have just guessed by looking at who Han Solo is in the original movies? It feels like Disney felt the pressure to go for a cash-grab by making a movie about the single most beloved character in Star Wars, for no reason other than, well, why not? Everything makes sense for the most part and there aren’t that many plot holes to speak of, but things come off as just slightly too generic and hollow for me as a sci-fi action/adventure flick–definitely good, but well short of the greatness I think it could easily have achieved. But on a side note, the big surprise cameo by Darth Maul at the end went a long way toward locating this in the Star Wars universe and making its story relevant–watch the TV series Rebels for more on how it ties in. Is it too much to ask for for more Maul appearances?

I think my lack of feeling from Solo also comes from its failure to differentiate itself from past Star Wars movies. I had the same problem with the much better-received Rogue One–for all its bluster and feinted attempts at making itself stand out from what came before, these stand-alone Star Wars stories just aren’t as good as the trilogies. It’s mostly because Disney plays it way too safe and keeps their directors’ desires to be different in careful check so they don’t stray from the general feel-good, family-friendly entertainment Disney is known for. Rogue One could easily had been Inglorious Basterds in space–a dark and gritty take on Star Wars with bloodshed and violence galore, as well as flawed, troubled characters, to illustrate that the conflict between the Rebels and the Empire isn’t all fun and games, but in the end it settled for a slightly darker than normal but mostly typical Star Wars movie. Solo was the same–for all its billing as a space western and what I was expecting that would entail, it wasn’t a western at all, or even a heist movie in-genre like Marvel’s awesome Ant-Man. It was just more good-time Star Wars fun when it could have been so much more.

My Rating: 7/10

Look, Solo isn’t bad at all: it’s just nothing close to what I hoped it would be, and it failed to truly break away from the pack of Star Wars movies and give us something new. As a result, it was a fun and undoubtedly wild ride, but one that felt pretty predictable and overall was forgettable. If you want some sci-fi fun within a familiar universe, you’ll probably like it. But if you’re feeling more adventurous and hoping for a movie that pushes boundaries or blazes new trails, you’re out of luck. Oh well. Let’s just hope that upcoming Boba Fett movie can take the lead on that front!