Monday, July 29, 2019

I was on a podcast.

This weekend I appeared on The Troubadour Podcast with Kirk Barbera, tireless defender of romanticism. Thanks to Kirk for having me on!

Now that the dust from the final season has settled, we discussed the Game of Thrones series in its entirety, and whether the show runners get a bad rap for the later seasons.

So, do the fans have it wrong? See what you think.

Monday, May 20, 2019

On Portraying Real Evil: Ted Bundy and Bonnie and Clyde

How should we treat evil in fiction, especially the evil acts of real historical figures? Should we avoid humanizing these villains out of fear of romanticizing or downplaying their horrific crimes? This is the question that struck me over this weekend watching two Netflix Originals. The Highwaymen covers the manhunt for the celebrated bank robbers and murderers Bonnie and Clyde. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile focuses on the relationship between the less-celebrated serial killer Ted Bundy and his long-time girlfriend Liz Kendall.

In Extremely Wicked, Ted Bundy’s crimes remain unseen, mentioned only secondhand in news reports or during his trial. Zac Efron’s Bundy is always charming and sympathetic, if overconfident. But that, too would come across as endearing if one came in with no prior knowledge. 

The audience’s familiarity with his crimes does most of the work conveying the unsettling notion that this is a man who has done unspeakable evil. The only acknowledgment the film gives of his crimes is his glib confession to Liz in the very final minutes of the film. I was left with the feeling that this was the story as Bundy himself would have it told.

In contrast, Highwaymen is a refreshing and, in my opinion, more accurate take on the murderous Bonnie and Clyde than the unduly romantic and sympathetic treatment given in the more famous 1967 film starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. In Highwaymen, Bonnie and Clyde can hardly be described as characters. Their faces are never shown except when riddled with bullets. Most of what we see is the bloody aftermath of their crimes. The shots that do include them are either of their shoes, their car, or a Tommy Gun, Browning Automatic Rifle, or shotgun, usually spraying lead at unsuspecting passersby or police who get in their way. 

The evidence of their humanity is second-hand, from accounts from their childhood friend, from Clyde Barrow's father telling of Clyde's path into criminality beginning with police overreaction over a stolen chicken. But beyond these vignettes, the couple are a force of evil, true villains that the audience is unable to empathize with. One of the protagonists says it explicitly: "those kids you grew up with aren't human anymore." 

This is a common notion today, that evil is not human. As an example, Jimmy Fallon was criticized for “humanizing” Donald Trump, the current embodiment of evil for The Resistance. Well, I hate to break it to you: Donald Trump is human. Hillary Clinton is human.

Democrats, Republicans, Labour, Conservative, Socialists and Fascists, Hitler and Stalin, all human. Efforts to dehumanize our villains only deny us the ability to confront not only their evil, but the capacity for evil in all of us. 

As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, victim of Stalin’s gulags, writes: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being ...”

The approach taken by Highwaymen works in this case, but only because of the audience’s broader familiarity with the romantic tragedy of Bonnie and Clyde and its sympathetic portrayal of the murderous couple. 

But fiction is most powerful when it leads us to empathize, as opposed sympathize, with the our most hated villains, while still unblinkingly confronting the suffering and horror of which they, and by extension, humanity, are capable.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Lowering the Stakes - The Battle of Winterfell


The Night King is dead. Long live the Night King.

And with that, the claim I was backing for the Iron Throne has been snuffed out of existence.

Being Game of Thrones, it probably should have had more main character death, but the show has been steadily straying into the mainstream, and that should surprise no one. The Battle of Winterfell, though blurry and absent of strategic or tactical leadership, was indeed epic. It hit all the right emotional and pacing notes. The tension took off from the first shot and never let up. And the music was FANTASTIC.

It was the as good an end to the series as anyone could hope for.

Wait, that wasn’t the end? We’re only halfway through the season?

Let’s talk about stakes and storytelling. In narrative structure it is generally a good idea to move from low stakes to high stakes, steadily raising the stakes as it goes on. But after defeating the greatest threat to the world of men, we will watch our “heroes” go on to bicker over who can impose their rule on the poor beleaguered peasants of the Westeros.

Some people have argued that Game of Thrones was always about the THRONES, that the White Walkers and their army of wights were never meant to be the main villains. This take misses that the very first scene of the series is the coming threat of Winter. Not only that, multiple times we are shown that when it comes between the Iron Throne and the threat of the Night King, the threat of the Night King is more important. And now with the ultimate threat dealt with, it’s hard to see how Cersei is little more than a mop up effort.

I think that this anticlimactic result could have been avoided even allowing for the destruction of the Night King. I'm sure you can think of better ways, but here is one:

What if Cersei sent a token force to Winterfell, keeping her word? What if, at the climax of the battle, when all is won, Lannister soldiers assassinate, oh I don’t know, pick one of Dany, Jon Snow, or Sansa – or if they are too precious to you (this is GAME OF THRONES, what is wrong with you?) someone who would die protecting them – Jorah, Brienne, The Hound.

Even if Cersei is not as great a threat, that would at least push the conflict forward and give us a fresh reason to hate her. As it stands now, she doesn’t seem all that bad - especially when you compare her to villains already defeated.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Is it Dystopia?

Someone asked me the other day if my current work in progress is set in a dystopia. My knee-jerk response was that dystopias aren’t my thing. In fact, I think I unconsciously viewed the term as somewhat of a pejorative.

Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy classic novels like 1984 and Brave New World. But I see them as rich and interesting thought experiments, a brilliant way to convey particular ideas. But to me, dystopian settings are necessarily hyperbolic caricatures. The author pushes the extreme beyond the point where disbelief can be suspended.

In Fahrenheit 451, firemen start fires instead of putting them out. The entire setting is built around this concept, with fireproof material dominating the homes and businesses as a way to excise the necessity of fire departments as we know them. In 1984, a single party dominates all aspects of life – words and news and history, making crimes of thought itself. In Atlas Shrugged, the overreaching regulatory state seeks to freeze the economy in place, outlawing any increase or reductions of production, employment, or prices.

These situations are extreme by design. Orwell, Bradbury, and Rand were seeking to make a point about their own societies by building fun house mirror versions of them. What they were not doing was immersing the readers into rich, extensive and believable worlds of their own creations. When I write my settings, I want to explore the trade-offs, the realistic pros and cons that might arise in the challenges of my settings.

In my view of dystopia, the thought experiment overrides that.

But then I looked into all of the stories that have been given the the label “dystopian.”

These include titles such as Snow Crash and Ender’s Game – stories that could hardly be seen as mere* backdrop for thought experiment. There is some good and some bad about each of these settings, and neither push their premises into absurdity. (*Note that each of the dystopias I mention holds more prestige than either Snow Crash or Ender’s Game.)

The entire category is apparently something of a debate. There is even a popular hashtag asking the question: #IsItDystopia

So what do you think? Does any sufficiently grim future count as “dystopian”? Or does it require something more extreme?

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Site Redesign

I've been wanting to do this for a while, but didn't think it was too pressing since I have mostly been focusing on Once Upon a Time in the Heavens. But now that Book I is coming to a close soon, I wanted to reconfigure this site into a blog format.

If you click around you may notice that the full version of Court of Shadows is no longer available. That is because CoS is going through significant rewrites, which I plan to publish in print. I'm keeping the first five chapters up. They have remained largely the unchanged.

If for some reason you weren't able to read Court of Shadows version 1.0 and you feel robbed, shoot me a message and I'll gladly to email it to you.