Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Rewards and NPCs

Hi gang! A proper post today, a rarity in these dark and troubling times. Why are they dark and troubling? Well, to be honest, it seems our awards systems are broken, and while a full post on the state of SF when it comes to shortlists like Clarke and Hugo will have to wait for another time, reading Strange Horizons' review of the Clarke shortlist brought out a very disappointing fact to me.

Many writers still don't seem to realize how important side characters are. The NPCs of the story: the shopkeeper, the army general, the kid from down the street. The love interest! The mentor! The "Non-Protagonist Characters."

I'm especially going to talk about the love interest today, because it's still sadly clear that many male authors don't know how or why women fall in love with men. I certainly don't understand how anyone could love me but that doesn't stop me from understanding the concept. The Clarke list, of which I have only read Dark Eden seems to be full of them. The relationship in Dark Eden is at least somewhat plausible, but it doesn't really fit here because the love interest is also a protagonist, though a clearly secondary one. But many of the other relationships in the Clarke books, and in many other SF (especially the sort of "adventure" SF or post-apoc) novels seem to be based on the idea that the protagonist has "won" the love of that character.

Video games are not books, and you do not write a video game like a book. But at the same time, you do. A video game, for our sakes in this conversation specifically an RPG (though that is a loose, loose label now)  is written for an audience of one, and is written so that the player feels engaged and that their actions have a driving affect in the world of the game. You want to reward them when they do good things so that they will want to do more good things or cool things. The player should feel so invested in the story and in completing all the things you have offered as rewards that they will go through tremendous hurdles to accomplish their goals. After all, that's the game. (The gameplay has to be fun, too, but a bad story can ruin even a fun game.)

When you're writing a book, you are writing to an audience of one, but there's no interactivity. The protagonist of the story is no longer directly controlled by the audience; their actions are set regardless of whether the reader turns the pages or not. But whether or not you have gameplay and interactivity, you still have rewards. The reader is supposed to feel invested in the character and begin to empathize with them as you follow them along their journey. In this way, they aren't playing, but they are expending effort, and you need to reward them.

Here's where we come back to NPCs. They're almost always the reward. Sure, the hero finds the sword or their parent's lost amulet or that old letter or whatever, but the most satisfying rewards are those that involve human relationships. What better than true love and happiness as a reward?

Many books like to provide a love interest as either a goal ("Your princess is in another castle"), a sidekick or (I believe more rarely) as antagonists. Any way you have them, their eventual true love, the culmination of their relationship, is often as or more important than the resolution of the plot.

(I think Neil Gaiman likes to end romances in his books because it's like killing the protagonist, but without the killing the protagonist part. You get the same emotional punch, but you can write a sequel. *cough cough* Graveyard Book *cough cough*)

It's all well and good to have love be a reward for the protagonist for his/her trials and tribulations, but that love interest needs to be actually interested and interesting. What I see far too often is an attractive but tough woman "who wants it her way" who ends up submitting herself to the male protagonist because he's just so heroically great. It's a clear indication of a boy trying to write a woman, but still not actually self-aware of what misogyny really is, and how much of it is in their own perspectives. Worse are the women who are just there to be a sex reward, who don't save themselves or make their own decisions or actually really exist. They are cardboard cutouts of women with (if the author is at least descriptive) plush breasts and fleshlights installed.

Other NPCs are often cartoon cutouts that follow the PC around that the writer thinks the story needs: the comic relief, the hard-ass boss, even the antagonist is often just a cartoon. It's so critical to remember that every character is their own person. If you are writing a book and trying to make it real, fill it with real people. Real people can smell fake people a mile away. That's why it's actually difficult to pass a Turing test. People are filled with emotional complexities and contradictions, and those can all work to your advantage, but only if you know the people you are writing. When you focus solely on your PC and surround them with foil-thin foils that turn into presents once the PC gets far enough into the story, you lose out.

A good relationship can make or ruin a story. Take the movie Lockout, which I like to call "Escape from Space." It is an old story, so much so that they made this movie previously, with Escape from New York, and Escape from LA and Save the President's daughter, Studly "America" McMan. You  knew pretty much every single plot point that was going to occur in this movie right from the beginning. The science was risible, and the action only decent. But what saved this movie was character acting and the relationship between the manly hero and the president's daughter. The characters all had their own motivations and were allowed to act on them, even the deranged psychopath. The romance between the hero and the Pres' daughter doesn't climax onscreen, but it is implied afterwords in an actual, healthy manner. If this movie had had good science and an original plot, it would have been incredible. As it was, it was enjoyable.

It takes more than a plot and a protagonist to make a story. It takes a world. It takes people.

Friday, April 19, 2013

#FridayReview #8: 2312

Well guys, it's arrived. The review of the Hugo-nominated 2312, by Kim Stanley Robinson. I have to say, I was really excited to write this one, but now, to be honest, I haven't even finished the book. And at this point, it doesn't matter what the ending is. I'm honestly not even going to give it the big text this time.

Okay fine, I will.

by Kim Stanley Robinson

2312 takes place around the year 2312, and starts strongly hinting that some shit goes down in that year, but has not yet in the character's lives. He never specifies what date it is in the book, mostly for good reason, since a day and date mean little between Earth, Mars and Saturn. The setting of the book is quite excellent: a climate ravaged and poverty stricken Earth held down by ancient traditions and primitive beliefs and greed still remains the dominant power in a fully-populated solar system. Mars is terraformed and independent, Venus is being terraformed by a mostly Chinese population, Saturn and Jupiter and their moons are independent as planetary leagues, and all the major iron-nickel asteroids have been hollowed out as giant terrariums to hold the lost biospheres of destroyed Earth.

Oh and there's some jazz about quantum computers called qubes that all spacers have but few have implanted; they're "totally not sentient" i.e. totally are, and are super intelligent and powerful but supposedly harmless and slaved to humans.

There are two major plots and two major POV (there's a third semi-major POV that reminds me of the comic relief POV I had to throw away in the first draft of Leylined because he didn't fit and was just there to add fluff) and to tell you the truth, I don't even care about them anymore. KSR certainly doesn't seem to. His characters certainly don't. I don't ever see them caring. They just do things and go places and see stuff for KSR to describe, which, don't get me wrong, is cool. He is a descriptive master, and the solar system he has created is really beautiful and interesting, and real. The future he describes is one that seems totally plausible!

For a little background, KSR wrote a trilogy of novels about terraforming mars called Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars, and they ruled. They were great political dramas about planetary independence, the old world, and climate change, while having sweet hard sci fi about terraforming a planet.

And he used a lot of big words. He uses a lot of big words in 2312, too. A lot of them my Kindle dictionary doesn't even know. Fortunately, I know many of them, but there are still quite a few that I don't. 

This is a political book, too. Very political, and very derogatory of our planet's current administrations and cultures, and how we treat the planet and are just setting future generations of Earthlings up for a big ass shitshow. And you know what? I agree with it, all of it. This book jives with my personal political beliefs almost to a tee (except about qubes). It illustrates a universe I think is totally awesome and interesting. I should love this book. This should be my favourite book of last year, hands down. But you know what?

I haven't even finished it. It's too boring. It is too boring. I can't read it quickly enough! It's like molasses in my brain. There were about 20 straight pages of WALKING THROUGH A TUNNEL while that POV pondered the iterative versus the pseudoiterative life. And then they just get out through a happy coincidence, and nothing else bad happens to them.

Honestly, I got fed up at 70% and just put it down because the moment that should have been dramatic as fuck was like "okay whatever now this junk happens." Somehow, the dramatic situations he creates are transformed into piles of grey sludge by the narrative and his POVs.

Remember the two main plots I talked about? One is fixing Earth, and the other is "dealing with the qube problem." There was a single chapter devoted to the qube plot in this 70%, and I have the feeling it's going to blow up soon, but I can't bring myself to go any further. It's boring. It's stale. This book isn't telling a story, it's making a point. A point I agree with, but one that's made so staidly and obtusely that I can't even bring myself to support it.

Even if the last 30% of this book is a dramatic pulse pounding adventure, it's not worth it. It's bad writing. There are full chapters that are just X went here, X did this X saw that X did this X saw that X saw this thing which I will now describe in detail with full history for 2000 words. X goes somewhere else. Many people offering advice to writers say to cut down on the dialogue; people don't talk that much. This book cuts down on it to a point where these people may as well be mute. One of the POVs fell in love with the other POV and I couldn't even tell, his emotional state is so bland. The other POV is crazy, but when she really has a psychological break, you're never in her head. When you are, she's just a whiny girl, even though she's supposed to be something like 130 years old, and a super famous professional.

This book makes some good points about how we treat our world, and illustrates the potential for human expansion and the power we have to change our world and others. It is an "important" book. It is a "good hard sci-fi" book. That's why it got nominated for a Hugo. But I wouldn't tell a first-time scifi reader to read this book. Honestly, I wouldn't recommend this book to anyone who hasn't read KSR before, or isn't a heavy Stephen Baxter fanatic. And even then, that recommendation would come with caveats. Number one of which is: it's boring as hell, and farily badly written from a directorial standpoint. His actual mastery of the English language is not under question. But dramatic vision for this book is sorely lacking. The exciting things that do happen are like battles in LOTR -- briefly mentioned and often little more than a paragraph long.

I'm going to for real finish this book sometime, and I'll let you know if the ending changed anything for me, but right now, I'm going to read something else.

ONE WORD REVIEW: YAWN                                                                                      B/W/D: WAIT

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Emotional Points of View

I'm reading 2312, by Kim Stanley Robinson (my full review will be this Friday) but something in it is bugging me, and it drove me to write this post. That is the subject of using multi-POV with extreme emotional states. I have noticed that KSR seems to switch POVs when his characters enter their most extreme emotional states. Whenever you are in their head, they are calm. But if they freak out, you are likely to see it from a companion character. Most of the chapters so far (halfway through) are in fact duo POV chapters, which is an interesting device, but in this case I feel it's being underused.

When you're writing in third person past, you're a little more disconnected than say, first person present. But that disconnectedness offers benefits, and there are really few limitations on what kind of emotional depth you can reach with third person. This is especially true for books where the characters spend a lot of time thinking and you spend a lot of time in their stream-of-consciousness, like 2312. There's no reason why you should feel disconnected from the characters just because you use their name instead of "I."

In particular, I feel strongly that we should experience a range of emotions from our characters within their points of view, especially the extremes. One character in the 2312 in particular feels, if not completely sane then at least functioning when I'm in her head, and rarely does crazy things, but almost as soon as you switch POV she starts acting like a wild animal and doing insane things or constantly moaning. I'm not sure if this is purposeful; if it is, I haven't figured out the reason.

You don't want to have every character in your book wildly swinging back and forth between the full range of emotions like they're auditioning for some satirical director, nobody wants that. Your characters don't have to express every emotion, either; if nobody in the book experiences suicidal tendencies I'm not going to throw it away, but if they do I should be in their head for it. If they're a main POV, of course. And of course I can already think of reasons why you would break this rule, but I think setting this as the default is a good line to take. If you want to have one character rescuing another and have that help them change something about themselves, great. That puts a new focus and direction for the scene, and it's on the POV. That's different from having a POV observe another POV going nuts, and learn nothing from it nor do nothing about it. That other POV is still the focus of that scene, and you're just providing meaningless distance.

I don't think this is a widespread problem, but it's a specific one, and I think it matters. We're reading books to be transported in all our senses, and that includes emotion. Unless it's important to the plot, we shouldn't just see extremes, we should experience them.

Friday, April 5, 2013

#FridayReview #6: The Emotion Thesaurus

I'm going to do something different with this #FridayReview and that's to review something that isn't entertainment! This is a blog about writing, after all. So if you feel like your book is filled with nodding, grunting, scowling neanderthals, then you'll understand why I went out and bought:

 By Becca Puglisi and Angela Ackerman

The Emotion Thesaurus is what it says it is. It's a thesaurus filled with emotions. But it's more than your generic thesaurus -- it gives you a breakdown of all the traits associated with certain emotions, be they physical tics or internal cues such has hammering heartbeats. They're all in a modern human context, since that's the most widely applicable cross-genre, but there's a few in here that provide a good basis for imagining alien or animal responses. 

Each emotion links to the aggravated or subdued versions of itself, such as something like Anger-Rage-Annoyance. Not every emotion you can think of is in here -- for example I couldn't find exasperated, but there's enough that you'll find one close to it, and get some inspiration from the cues within. 

The power of emotion can't be understated, and the introduction does a good example of some some show vs. tell texts. There's some good advice to be found in this book, and I actually wished there was more of it before I actually got to the thesaurus part. After reading through the thing (it's about as long as some short novels!) I definitely know there's a lot I need to go back and work on in my WIP. 

There are times, of course, where it is appropriate to say "X felt thusly" or "X was [emotion]." Sometimes that's all there is to it! Sometimes it can be more powerful to just say "I'm pissed" than to describe a whole set of pissed-offedness symptoms. But that's only if you've previously established what happens when that character is pissed. You know how they feel, you know what happens. If you've never written anything else about that character being pissed off, then you shouldn't be using it.

The Emotion Thesaurus is a great tool to help you define your character's unique traits. Everyone reacts differently to different emotions, and so should your characters, unless it matters to the plot. There's nothing worse than reading a story where almost every character is just a copy of the other one. Making unique characters is one of the best things about RPGs, and therefore about writing. I'm not going to call this book "essential" but it is something I keep nearby (just like the rest of my library). After all, not everyone nods to say yes.

ONE WORD REVIEW: USEFUL                                                        B/W/D: BUY IF YOU WANNA