Posts Tagged ‘Joss Whedon’

Could it possibly be that His penis got diseases from a Chumash tribe is the greatest line in the history of musical theater?

Think about it.

~ Ian

(Joss Whedon, et al., “Walk Through the Fire”)

So, because I recently finished watching all twelve seasons of Buffy and Angel, I thought I’d try out Dollhouse. You know, the Joss Whedon show that everyone says is apparently terrible and stupid.

And I was shocked. It turns out that Dollhouse isn’t a bad show. It’s not Firefly or Buffy, not by a long shot, but it’s a well-written, well-acted present-day science fiction show with an interesting premise that is a world away from the predictable reality-show sludge that dominates the airwaves in these times.

So what gives? Is everything that geeks apparently know wrong? Is Final Fantasy VII really a terrible game? Is Avatar actually a good movie? Could it be that Piers Anthony is actually a really talented and original writer?

I don’t know what is right or what is wrong anymore. GOOD JOB, DOLLHOUSE.

~ Ian

Can’t sleep.

Browsing internet.

Come across this.

Smile.

I have a happy.

~ Ian

(Joss Whedon: “Ballad of Serenity”)

I think this is all the evidence I need as for why the man is my fucking hero.

(Warning: This post contains spoilers for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Buffy Season Eight comics. You have been warned. ~ Ian)

One thing that I did this summer was watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

All seven seasons, in its entirety.

Mostly because I’d seen episodes here and there, but never watched the whole thing all the way through. But when I did, then WOW. BtVS is a show that needs to be watched in its entirety to really get the whole scope of the thing. The growth of the characters is incredible. Buffy goes from a sixteen-year-old girl with not many concerns beyond parties, clothes, and boys to a woman who commands an army of Slayers. Willow goes from an awkward, shy teen to a cool college student with a werewolf boyfriend to a lesbian wicca to a world-destroying supervillain and finally to a woman at peace with herself and the world. Even minor characters, like Jonathan and Harmony, have their own character arcs. The whole series could be used as a textbook for writing long, sustained narratives where the world goes through real and fundamental change.

Because I’d watched all of Buffy, a friend lent me the Season Eight comics, because I wanted to read them. I’d been expecting for them to be collected in the trade paperback editions, because that’s what I’m used to. I’m the wait-for-the-trades guy. I don’t read comics monthly– I buy books and read a year’s worth of story in one big gulp.

I was wrong. These were the individual issues, kept in neat plastic sleeves. And there are differences between reading the comics in trade paperback form and reading them in monthly format.

Specifically, I’m talking about letter columns.

Now, in one issue (I think it was issue #12), Buffy has sex with another Slayer under her command. All Slayers are female in BtVS, for those of you who are completely unfamiliar with the mythos.

So, Buffy had gay sex.

This wasn’t a big deal for me. Yeah, Buffy had no inclination towards liking girls before. But it’s not too uncommon for women (especially young women) to be more flexible with their sexual orientation than men. And even so, sexual orientation isn’t a binary thing: it’s a continuum. I self-identify as straight, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been attracted to men before.

For the people in the letter column in the following issue, though, this was more of an issue.

No, scratch that. They lost all their shit.

“BUFFY WAS A ROLE MODEL FOR YOUNG WOMEN!!!!!!!!!!!” they screamed. “HOW COULD YOU TURN HER GAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! MY DAUGHTER LOVES BUFFY, AND NOW I CAN’T LET HER SEE THIS COMIC LEST SHE SUDDENLY BECOME A LESBIAN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! WHY ARE YOU PROMOTING ALTERNATE LIFESTYLES???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

You know. Standard-issue homophobia.

This made me think for a moment. Mara, one of the main characters in The Lotus Imperiate, my current pet project, is a lesbian, in a relationship with another woman when the story starts. I realize that I’m walking a delicate balance while creating Mara. There’s a danger, when straight writers create gay characters, that they become too one-dimensional, with nothing more to their character than their sexual orientation. Furthermore, when straight guys write lesbian relationships, there’s the danger of making the relationship too eroticized– basically, creating straight-guy lesbian fantasies. Neither of which are things I want to do with Mara.

However, I hadn’t considered the perils of depicting gay characters– any gay characters– in fiction before. For some people, any whiff of gayness in their protagonists locks up their brain, making them think, “Nope! Not gonna read that!”

I thought about, when The Lotus Imperiate gets published, receiving angry letters from homophobic bigots. I thought of getting into horrible arguments with them. I thought about the fact that I’d be cutting off a whole section of my audience. At the very least, I’d never get blurbed by Orson Scott Card.

Do I really want to bring all that chaos down on me? I thought. Can I handle that kind of pressure?

That’s when I realized something. Something that I think is the root of good art.

If you fail to give your audience a strong emotional reaction– any reaction– you have failed as an artist.

It doesn’t matter what those emotions are. It could be love, it could be hate, it could be anger or grief or joy. Whatever the reaction is, you succeed as an artist if you stimulate your audience’s emotions.

And speaking honestly as a writer and a creator, I’d rather have a thousand people buy my book and either feel warm ecstatic love or blood-spitting hatred for it than have a million people buy it and feel generally okay about it. Because even if my book sells a million copies, it won’t do me any good unless there are some people who care about the world and the story I’ve created.

Go ahead, artists. Piss people off. Make them squirm. Make them feel.

Just don’t bore them.

~ Ian

So I got just back from seeing The Avengers with a couple of friends.

There’s an equation that I think about a lot, actually: it basically states that satisfaction=reality/expectation. I use this equation all the time: basically, I find that if you don’t expect too much from something, the satisfaction you derive from it goes up immensely.

I had incredibly high expectations for this movie.

Considering how satisfied I was with it, that just goes to show you what the reality was like.

OKAY. IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THIS MOVIE GO SEE IT RIGHT NOW. I’M NOT KIDDING. DO IT. DO IT NOW WAAAAGLBLAGLAGLAGLAGL

For one thing, it’s directed by Joss Whedon. And this movie is distinctly a Whedon film. It’s got snark. It’s got funny one-liners. The dialogue sparkles– and there’s humor all throughout this movie.

But what made Whedon such an incredible choice for The Avengers was the fact that it’s an ensemble cast. And if Whedon can do something well, then it’s write ensemble casts.

I mean, think about it. All the movies leading up to this one were basically one-man shows. You get a movie called Iron Man, you expect Iron Man to be running the whole plot. There’s not much to it. He’s the main character. He’s the star of the show.

There was no main character in The Avengers. It was completely and utterly an ensemble cast.

And if you think that’s easy to do, then you haven’t tried.

Look at Whedon’s previous filmography. Like FireflyFirefly would never work if it had just one main character. The interactions of the characters drive the plot entirely. Or Buffy. Granted, there’s a main character in Buffy, but all the other characters are just as critical to the plot as Buffy is.

So it is with this movie. It would be easy to have Captain America or Iron Man run the whole show here. I mean, Captain America is the leader of the Avengers, and Iron Man is played by Robert Downey Jr., so any other writer would have probably made them the main character.

That’s not how Joss Whedon wrote the The Avengers, though. The story is entirely driven by the interactions of the characters. And (without going into too many spoilers) the Avengers are almost totally dysfunctional. You have six strong, powerful personalities clashing here. The interpersonal conflicts between the main characters are just as interesting as (if not more than) the “main” conflict against Loki and a shit-ton of aliens.

But what I think I love the most from The Avengers is the fact that Black Widow is as interesting and well-drawn a character as any of the boys. If you look at the typical female characters in superhero movies, you get love interests, victims, and eye-candy window-dressing types. Black Widow is none of those things (although, don’t get me wrong– Scarlett Johansson is totally easy on the eyes). She’s a female character who contributes as much to the plot as any other member of The Avengers. Even moreso, in fact, than other members of the team (I’m thinking specifically of Thor here).

To see a complex, interesting female character in a Joss Whedon production is hardly a shock, of course. But to see it in a superhero film, in a genre that’s at best pandering and at worst blatantly misogynist… it’s incredible. I wish more screenwriters and comics writers could take a page from Whedon’s book.

So yeah. The Avengers. It’s everything I hoped for and more.

Go see it. You’ll love it.

final score: five aerodynamically-improbable flying aircraft carriers out of five

~ Ian

  • The Dragon Age: Origins soundtrack. The songs are all utterly beautiful– ESPECIALLY “I Am The One (Dark Fantasy Version)”. It’s one of the best songs from a video game ever– I don’t see why some gamers want to go back to the era of chiptunes.
  • Multiplayer in SSX. The rest of the game is underwhelming (more thoughts on that later) but the online play is pure candy. 
  • Feed Dump. This may actually be my favorite LoadingReadyRun production– and it has a run for its money, considering how much I also love CommodoreHustle and GPLP. 
  • The fact that I’m going to see The Avengers tomorrow. JOSS WHEDON WHERE ARE YOU WHEN I NEED YOU. 
  • Gregory Benford’s novel Timescape. It’s really rare that a hard SF novel has ever made me care about the characters, and when it does, it’s always impressive. 
  • Neil Gaiman’s short stories. Okay, okay, I love them anytime. But struggling with “Cassandra” has made me realize that it’s not always easy to make a short story as effortless and unforced as Gaiman can do it. 
  • The McHenry Library at UCSC. Seriously– my time at college would be much more boring if it weren’t for that library. 
And that’s all for today. I have things to do. 
Love,
~ Ian

WHAT TIME IS IT

OH SNAP

IT’S

CREATIVE

WRITING

WEDNESDAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY

I’m in a hurry today, so I don’t have much time to do a lengthy blog post. In the meantime, though, here’s a poem that I wrote about geekery, and being a geek (mainly to practice working with evocative imagery, but still).

Happy Wednesday, wherever you are.

~ Ian

Geekery

In my head there are…

Albino princes with vampire swords, black and rune-carved

Moving catlike through worlds of burgundy and topaz and dark green

Cimmerian warriors, mightily-thewed

And tentacled terrors rising up

From the deeps of the Pacific

Bringing darkness from their house at great R’lyeh.

And there are blondes in graveyards, waiting for nightfall

And square-jawed space cowboys piloting ships named after insects

Saying, “You can’t take the sky from me”

As they pull their sixguns and fire

And lab-coated supervillians

Who just can’t get a break

Pining for the redhead down at the corner laundromat.

And then there are knights and wizards and dragons and imps

And Swords-of-the-Morning and Mountains-That-Ride

And dark riders, thundering down a green country road,

Black towers silhouetted against the baleful sky

A small bright star poking through the clouds,

Light and high beauty beyond reach.

And did I tell you about the millions of people

The bat-people and cat-people and arachnid-boys

The glorious gods riding down Midwestern highways

And dwarves and kender, space marines and scientists

Sky-pirates in their airships patrolling the heavens

And magical schoolgirls, and cyborg policewomen,

Alchemist brothers, questing for their lost bodies.

And there are fair princesses and fat plumbers,

Crazed computers and test subjects,

And beautiful women in suits of power armor

Flying their gunships across the starlit sky.

Oh, the people that live inside my head.

And have you ever wondered about all the places

The planets and realms and galaxies and cities

The bright flags that fly from the battlements

Of the White City, the Dyson Spheres and generation starships

And glorious skyscrapers, art-deco and gleaming

At the edge of the ocean, sunrise kindling them

To towers of fire.

In my head I hold a million people,

A million worlds and a million stories.

An entire multiverse lies within my mind.

And that is why, though the world is gray and dreary,

And I am bound by mundane and pale flesh

To sorry reality, I still keep going

Because to stop going would be to lose these worlds

The future, the past, the never-there-was and the never-could-be

Fading like fog on the ocean in morning.

And that is why

You will never bring me down.

It’s probably no surprise to many that I love Firefly.

Yes, the series has its weak points. Yes, there are worldbuilding inconsistencies and nonsensical retcons and meaningless character deaths (mostly in Serenity, which is a movie I love, despite its flaws). In fact, quite a few people I know despise Firefly.

To which I ask them: why?

Firefly is/was/will forever be a beautiful show– definitely one of the high points of science fiction in the early 21st century. Not because of the acting, or the set design, or the SFX, or the writing, or anything else. (Admittedly, all of those things are great.)

It’s because Firefly, both in its individual episodes and as a (semi-)whole series, is simply one of the best stories ever.

I love Firefly so much that I’m even willing to make a fool of myself on the internet for it.

Observe:

You know… this is probably the first picture of myself that I've put up on Axolotl Ceviche. Huh. First time for everything.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say: everything I need to know about writing, I learned from Firefly.

Let’s step into the TARDIS for a moment and go back to 2003.

I was eleven. The Iraq War was just beginning. The top song was “In Da Club” by 50 Cent (for reasons which I cannot fathom).

I had just begun my first novel.

And I’ll go right ahead and say it: it sucked. It sucked major ass.

It took me a while to understand why this book sucked, but I didn’t realize it until years later:

My main characters didn’t have any agency. They were led around the world map on a generic fantasy quest. The plot had a rhythm as unchanging as the seasons: they would walk some, and then FIGHT; walk some, and then FIGHT; walk, fight; walk, fight; walkfightwalkfightwaaaaaaaaagh.

In fact, I’ll go so far as to say it: my characters were led around the world by the plot. The PLOT was all I had in mind when I wrote my first novel, and I neglected everything else. Like many newbie writers, I had confused “plot” with “story”.

Now, I’ll admit: plot is important. It’s the engine that drives the whole story. But it’s not everything. You can’t drive from New York to Los Angeles with just an engine. You need a chassis, wheels, a fuel tank, a way to steer, a way to go faster and stop, seats, cupholders, a good navigation system, all of those.

The plot is the engine, but the car is made of story.

There are so many other things that make up a story than plot. Worldbuilding. Dramatic tension. Backstory. Humor.

And, maybe most importantly…

Characters.

Because my characters were being led around by the plot, they didn’t have any agency. They never had a point when they had to make a choice– instead, they simply did what the plot said they had to do.

This is because I had failed to appreciate the first rule of good writing…

COMMANDMENT THE FIRST: THY CHARACTERS SHALL DRIVE THE PLOT, AND THE PLOT SHALL NOT DRIVE THY CHARACTERS.

I don’t think I really understood that, though, until I saw Firefly. In “Serenity” (the pilot episode, not the movie), Mal makes crucial decisions that influence the plot from that point forward. When the Alliance commands him to give up Simon and River, he has to make a choice between getting paid a reward and Kaylee’s life. Later on, his decision to land on Whitefall and do business with Patience, a woman he has a not-so-good history with, forces the crew of Serenity into three completely separate but interlocking climaxes. And that final moment of the episode, where Simon and Dobson the Fed are in a standoff, it’s Mal who steps onto the ship, pulls his gun, and in one lightning-fast movement, shoots Dobson in the head.

Or, look at other episodes: in “Shindig”, everything is going fine until Mal’s hubris and his semi-unrequited passion for Inara lead him to assault her date, putting him directly into the main plot of the episode (Mal gets into a swordfight!). Or when he throws Niska’s henchman into the engine of Serenity in “The Train Job”, leading straight into the events of “War Stories” (and indirectly to “Objects in Space”). Hell, it’s not just Mal who gets to make important choices– just look at Jayne’s role in “Ariel” and “Jaynestown”, or Zoe’s in “War Stories”, or Inara’s in “Trash”, or Simon’s in “Safe”.

In all these cases, one thing is clear: it’s the characters’ choices that matter. It’s not the plot pulling the trigger at the end of “Serenity”– it’s Mal. The characters’ choices mean something in the world of Firefly, and that’s what makes their stories so interesting. Because they make a difference. Because, through their actions, they influence the plot and the world.

Of course, there’s also the fact that we care about the characters in Firefly. Which brings me to rule two:

COMMANDMENT THE SECOND: THOU SHALT MAKE CHARACTERS WORTH CARING ABOUT.

When I wrote my first novel, all the characters fell into the same basic roles as any other crappy Tolkien ripoff: The Reluctant Orphan With A Destiny. The Powerful Wizard Who Has Nothing Better To Do Than Mentor The Reluctant Orphan. The Annoying Sidekick. The Tough Girl With A Heart Of Gold. The Wise Dwarf Warrior. The Angry Dwarf Warrior. The Warriors Who Follow The Hero Around For Some Reason, I Guess. The Beautiful Warrior Elf Chick. The Douchebag King, Symbol Of The Oppressive Old Order. The Nubile Princess, Symbol Of Budding Female Sexuality. The EVIL BAD GUY OF EVILLY EVIL, Symbol Of DARKITY DARK-DARKNESS.

You don’t care about these people. Do you know why? Because they’re not people. They’re archetypes. You already know all about them. You’ve seen them a million times before.

Looking at characters from Firefly, though…

Well, let’s just take one. The Hero of Canton, the Man They Call Jayne.

Looking at Jayne Cobb for the first time, we assume he falls into the Brutal Tough Guy role. But he really doesn’t. He is tough, and not very bright. He has a slightly sadistic streak, as is evidenced by the way he tortures Dobson in the pilot. He’s greedy, too– as is evidenced by his attempt to sell Simon and River out to the Alliance in “Ariel”. And he loves weapons– mostly guns and knives.

But this isn’t all there is to the Man They Call Jayne. He has relationships with the other characters. He looks to Mal as a leader, even as sort of a big brother figure. Mal is the only one Jayne goes to for advice on heroism at the end of “Jaynestown”, at a point when Jayne seems to be at his lowest. And Jayne even wants to be like Mal– in the Serenity graphic novels, it’s revealed that Jayne wants to someday be the captain of his own ship. He cultivates an adversarial relationship with Simon, and seems to be a little afraid of River. He lifts weights with Shepherd Book in the later episodes– a bit of an odd relationship, there, between the preacher and the thug. And there are even hints that he has a bit of a thing for Kaylee.

We know that Jayne has a softer side, too. He names his guns– witness his lady-friend “Vera”. He corresponds with, and receives gifts from, his mother– apparently even sending money home to her. He lusts after women, even if he never kisses them on the mouth. He even has fears. Jayne is terrified of Reavers, and the mere mention of their name is enough to send him into a panic. (While this primarily serves a story purpose– if the biggest, baddest dude on Serenity is afraid of Reavers, well then, they must be terrifying!– the fact that he believes in Reavers is an indication as to his cultural background, since it’s shown that Simon, from the big cities of the Core, doesn’t believe in them at first.)

Like I said. You can’t sum Jayne Cobb up with just a pithy, short sentence. He’s not just a bloodthirsty thug; he’s Jayne Cobb. He’s not an archetype; he’s a character.

People care about characters. They don’t care about archetypes.

COMMANDMENT THE THIRD: READERS CARE NOT ABOUT THOSE WITH NOTHING TO GAIN.

SIMON

(smiles)

Are you always this sentimental?

MAL

Had a good day.

SIMON
You had the Alliance on you, criminals
and savages… half the people on the
ship have been shot or wounded
including yourself, and you’re
harboring known fugitives.

Mal looks out at the black sky.

MAL

We’re still flying.

SIMON

That’s not much.

Mal answers, almost to himself:

MAL

It’s enough.

People want characters they like to succeed. That’s a plain truth.

But what does that really mean?

I think that it isn’t actually about success. I think people want their favorite characters’ successes to mean something. They want their characters to profit somehow– either monetarily, or spiritually, or romantically, or simply by somehow having changed their lives for the better.

And do you know what? It’s hard to do that when your characters already have everything.

I didn’t know this when I started writing. To be fair, most newbie fantasy and sf writers don’t. They assume that their story must be about kings and archmages, starship captains and space emperors.

But kings and starship captains already have everything. If they lose the fight they’re in, then yeah, they lose a lot. But if they win, then they don’t get any noticeably richer. They’re already rich. They don’t gain more power– they’re already in command.

The crew of Serenity aren’t like that. They don’t have power– they’re nobodies. They have nearly nothing. They just scrape by on whatever jobs they can do, never really getting any richer, doing what they can to survive.

And you know what? This makes them more interesting.

We don’t just want Mal, Zoe, Jayne, Simon, River, and the rest to succeed. We care deeply about the outcome.

This is because people with nothing to lose are more interesting than people with nothing to gain.

I could go on forever about story theory and how Firefly is awesome, but I’m sure that this post is going on for way too long. I have a few geeky posts coming up in the future, about Doctor Who and Game of Thrones and other things, so keep watching this space. Happy Thursday, and I’ll see you later.

Love,

~ Ian

P.S. This selection of dialogue from Firefly is ©Twentieth Century Fox. Just letting you know. ~ Ian