2015: 10 Things That Are Inspiring My Writing

Even though the year isn’t over yet, I’m so excited about the things that are exhilarating me and moving my writing forward that I just had to share them (note: no real spoilers here, just a few lines of non-revealing dialogue) —

#1 — Hannibal

Hopefully season three isn’t the end, but if it was — what an ending!  I can’t even count all the ways this series awes me and makes me jealous.  It is more beautifully shot and designed, more intellectual, and has more intimate relationships than almost any series I have even seen.  I did feel like they lingered on the beauty a tiny bit long in the beginning of the season but  once they picked up the pace they were incredible.  This is one of those shows that has changed me and will be with me forever.  I want to make things this rich, this thoughtful, this surprising.

Hannibal Lecter: Killing must feel good to God, too. He does it all the time, and are we not created in God’s image?

Will Graham: Depends on who you ask.

 

#2 — Mad Max: Fury Road

The trailers looked so exciting, so balls-to-the-wall, so over the top that finally seeing the feature-length film had to be a letdown.

ONE WOULD THINK.

Instead, Fury Road managed to not only hold onto that excitement and craziness for two solid hours but it also added in a great plot, strong characters, and the best female hero the genre had seen since Sarah Conner.  And finding out that — on Amazon.com — silver spray edible cake frosting is ‘often bought with Mad Max: Fury Road’ has restored my faith in humanity.

Nux: If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die historic on the fury road!

 

#3 — Nate Ruess / Grand Romantic

I’ve really enjoyed Fun.  Now their lead singer’s new album has become one of my favorites of the year.  He has this emotive, beautiful, lilting voice and it just screams ‘story’ to me.  ‘Brightside‘ especially makes me want to write another love story.

Cause there’s just something about you my love
Something in the way you comb your hair
And fall apart at the seams

 

#4 — Friday Night Lights / Season 3

Aww FNL.  I started this series last year and have been waiting about six months between seasons.  I got past season 2 (the truncated sophomoric stumble) and watched FNL regain its footing and rise again like an eagle (or a panther) in full glory in season 3.

I love, love, love these characters.  I don’t care about football.  I don’t care about teenagers’ love lives.  I don’t care about small town politics.  But I care about everyone, and every second, of Friday Night Lights.

Tami: I love that about you.

Coach Taylor: What? That I can’t make a decision to save my life?

Tami: No. That you make the decision with such a conscience. What other coach would think like that? I think it’s because you’re a teacher first. You–you are a molder of men. And I find that admirable, and I find that very sexy.

 

#5 — Daredevil

I’m only halfway through this one, and yet have been blown away again and again by the writing and the visuals.  The use of light — greens and yellows and neon words shattered among the darkness of an endless night turn the hero’s blindness and growing heroism into a physical landscape.  And the introduction of the Kingpin rates among the best, and most surprising, entrances by a villain in TV history.  I believe Netflix has not only met the quality standards set forth by the Marvel movies, but in many ways it has eclipsed them.

Ben Urich: There are no heroes, no villains. Just people with different agendas.

 

6# — Jim Kroft / Journeys #1 & #2

How Jim Kroft isn’t famous yet I cannot say, but I’m sure he’s on his way.  ‘Journeys’ 1 & 2 are beautiful, imaginative, heartbreaking, and hopeful.  ‘Break For the Light’ is a perfect anthem for reaching for your true desires, but ‘Beijing Morning‘ is the one that breaks my heart every time.

Days may come and the days may go
Sometimes the demon is taking hold
I want the courage to make these steps
To walk from error and regret

 

#7 — The Unusuals

“You should watch ‘The Unusuals’.”  I kept hearing some version of that from my sister, again and again, over the last few years.  She’d seen it when it first came on, while I sometimes avoid new shows till I know if they’ll last.  Terrible, I know.  Well, this show didn’t last beyond its first season but it doesn’t matter, in one season it created more memorable characters, moments, and stories than many shows do given a decade.  Come for Jeremy Renner, and stay for the dialogue — heartbreaking in one moment and gut-busting in the next.  My only regret is that I didn’t see it sooner.

Det. Shraeger: I swear, if you took all the time that men wasted thinking about the female breast throughout history, there’d only be enough time to read a magazine.

Det. Walsh: What, like Juggs or Maxim?

Det. Shraeger: Yeah, you’re adorable.

 

#8 — Far From the Madding Crowd

O-M-G.  I’m not usually someone who goes gushy for love stories.  I really enjoy them, but only the well-done ones.  So I’d been aware of this movie because I love that 1800s English setting but I wasn’t sure if it was for me.  Then my friend and fellow writer Jill Hartmann-Roberts saw it and suggested we go see it together. Wow!  What a story.

There’s just something about the moments here, seconds when the light hits two people who were going about their lives, unites them in a pure second of love or lust or hate — and then the world spins on but each’s life is changed, almost ruined, because of that profound pause.  All the actors are great here, and the scenery is SO beautiful.

Bathsheba Everdene: From now on you have a mistress, not a master. It is my intention to astonish you all.

 

#9 — Dragon Age Inquistion

Bioware’s ‘Dragon Age’ series is one of my favorite sagas in video games.  ‘Dragon Age 2’ may always have the edge because, for me, it was like living and making choices inside an HBO drama — the characters were that well-written.  And you never forget your first Fenris romance!

That said, DR3 lived up to the hype and then some, with an unbelievably open world and an even better combat system.  It was the grandeur of the journey though, that caught me up most.  I don’t spend a lot of time gaming, and it can be easy for me to play around in an open world and then lose interest (see every Bethesda title ever [still enjoyed them!]).  DR3 seemed made to stop that from happening.  It united the expansive world of ‘Dragon Age 1’ with the climatic plotting of DR2, making you and your character change and grow along the way (one can feel the beats of Joseph Campbell — ‘and here the hero crosses the threshold’).  Havor, my Qunari warrior, progressed from captive to hero to leader of men — and found himself a flirty mage named Dorian along the way.  Not a bad for a hero’s journey.

Solas: I am surprised you do not practice blood magic, Dorian. Is it not popular in Tevinter?
Dorian: While we’re sharing surprises, you’ve done a lot less dancing naked in the moonlight than expected.
Solas: Tevinter lore about elves remains accurate as always.
Dorian: I wanted to see you make flowers bloom with your song, just once.

 

#10 — Chappie

‘Chappie’ is ten pounds of crazy in a five pound bag but, for me, it works.  Is it a drama?  A comedy?  An action movie?  It’s all these and more.  At its heart is Sharlto Copley — amazing and visionary — as the lead character.  Chappie learns and grows throughout the movie and since much of his ‘childhood’ is spent with hoodlums, the movie is both an indictment of violence amid poverty and an example of the power of love and family even in the worst of situations.

And it’s laugh-out-loud funny.

And filled with great action.

The best way to put it is: it’s a Neill Blomkamp story and — for some of us — that’s an awesome thing.

 

And still to come —

  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  • 007’s Spectre
  • The Martian
  • Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs movie
  • Crimson Peak

. . . and more.

Even though there haven’t been a ton of things to inspire me this year, the ones that have are off the charts!  If you have a second, tell me one of your current inspirations.

After all, this list could always use a Part 2 . . .

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What Inspires You Most?

When I saw author Rob White‘s list of books that have influenced his writing most (in no particular order), I knew I had to make my own list.  And I encourage you to do the same.

Whether you’re a painter, writer, musician, etc, the way you create today probably owes a lot to something you read or saw or heard along the way.

Now, this isn’t a favorites list, that would be a little different, but these are the books that are influencing how & what I write right now —

  1. The Lord of the Rings — Frodo the hobbit joins a fellowship of heroes to destroy a powerful ring.  One book to rule them all (sorry).  I’ve only been able to read it once, but for me, LOTR is a lot of what I want to create: magic, great characters who interact in interesting ways, probably the deepest fantasy world ever created (or at least one of the best) and most of all, a world that extends far beyond the main story and makes you think there’s always another tale to be told.  And beautiful descriptions.
  2. Pride & Prejudice — Lizzy spars with the wealthy Mr. Darcy as she and her sisters try to find good husbands.  Not only am I writing a novel very much inspired by Jane Austen right now, Society & Civility, but I have become more and more in awe of P&P’s plotting over time.  It’s such a wonderful escalation.  And Lizzy Bennet is still one of the best heroes in English fiction.
  3. Remains of the Day — A butler finds himself on his first vacation in years — a road trip to a special destination.  There is something about the way the lead character, and his world, is so tightly wound and constructed (no surprise how other covers show a pocket watch).  I think the idea that, in the end, we may be jailers of our own lives and that our personalities may be our final prison is an intriguing one.
  4. Fruits Basket — Orphan Tohru Honda comes to live with boys cursed to transform into the animals of the Chinese zodiac — whenever they are hugged by members of the opposite sex!   This manga is 23 books long (the story is rather like a multi-year TV series) and has a cast of over 20 main characters.  I reread it this spring and it was one of the highlights of my year.  More characters means more of a balancing act, but the payoff is wonderful and you watch the characters interact and grow.  Great ending.
  5. Misery — A writer is saved after a car accident by his ‘biggest fan’.  Too bad she’s crazy.  This was always one of my favorite Stephen Kings books (and I read a lot of them as a teenager) but it was only rereading it after becoming a grown writer that I really was taken in.  Perfect plotting, intense drama, and one of the greatest villains of all time.
  6. About a Boy — Will is an adult with lots of money, no job, and no responsibilities.  But everything changes when he meets serious, 12 y.o. Marcus, and they begin to become friends.  Love Nick Hornby, and High Fidelity or Slam could be here instead but AAB captures funny dialogue, great details, and real life problems and solutions (and not-so-solutions) in an easy-to-read, winning way.  Love the way the leads trade viewpoint chapters.
  7. Mystic River — Three childhood friends are reunited when one’s daughter goes missing; the other two are a cop and a suspect.  The story’s great but it all comes down to the lines; I’ve often thought Dennis Lehane could do more in six words than other people could do in a paragraph.
    “Dave watched him standing up at the bar, chatting with one of the old dockworkers as he waited for his drinks, Dave thinking the guys in here knew what it was to be men. Men without doubts, men who never questioned the rightness of their own actions, men who weren’t confused by the world or what was expected of them in it.”
  8. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — Poor Arthur Dent awakens just in time to see Earth destroyed; luckily, his wacky space adventures are only beginning.  There was a time in my youth when Hitchhiker’s and Dave Barry books were the thing when it came to humor.  I even stopped reading Dave for a while because I thought he was influencing me too much.  That influence is lessened now, but Hitchhiker’s still casts a long shadow.  Even though most of my writing isn’t pure comedy, this novel still speaks very strongly to me.
  9. Maurice — Maurice is a proper early 20th century English gentleman, perfectly made for society in all ways, except one –he is gay.  I recently told my sister that I feel like there’s somewhere where I’m always reading this book (or watching its movie) even while the main me is talking, working, and living my life.  It’s had that big of an impact on me.  To me, it is just about the perfect love story, but it’s also about figuring out who you are and what you stand for.  A lot of my characters have a Maurice-like journey.
  10. The Secret Garden — Orphaned Mary is brought to live on an English estate and discovers the titular wonderland.  I kind of get chills just looking at this cover — this is why the book is here, even though I read it so long ago (and really, Alice in Wonderland should be here too).  This book is about place, and growth, and discovering friends in the most unlikely of places.  But in the end, I always just really wanted to be in that wild, forgotten, beautiful garden, and even now my writing continues the search for the mysterious and the extraordinary.
  11. The Great Gatsby — Nick comes from the midwest to New York and soon meets the enigmatic Jay Gatsby, a man of many friends — and secrets.  This is a bonus entry because I forgot it the first time I did the list.  Still just about my favorite kind of writing on a sentence level.  “Angry, and half in love with her, and tremendously sorry, I turned away.” WTF!  That’s just sensational writing.

And in the end, that’s what resonates with me most — fantastic stories, characters, and lines that make me a little jealous — and a lot inspired.  So who’s inspiring you?

Summer Movies: What Happened to Happy?

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

I love dark, complex movies.  I’m a big fan of cable TV anti heroes.  I think hiring Bryan Singer, the director of that clever little drama The Usual Suspects to direct the big budget superhero movie The X-Men was a masterstroke, and popcorn movies have been the better for it since then.

And yet.

While I’ll always love The Dark Knight trilogy and all the other descendants of the mutants, two movies this year have made me quite mad (and sad) by going super-dark (death of a main character) in what was otherwise a very fun, pretty light ‘good time’.

‘Good times’ used to be what summer movies were all about.  They were somewhat brainless (as a whole) and their characters usually lacking, but the whole idea was to pull yourself out of the heat for a couple of hours (that’s two, modern directors, just 120 minutes please) munch of some fun snacks, watch things blow up, and generally not think too hard.  To me the quintessential summer movies were the back-to-back years of Will Smith — Independence Day (1996) and Men in Black (1997).  Fun, sweet, and giving you no reason in the world to cry.  Oh, Mad Men it was not, but then, Mad Men hadn’t been invented yet.

Then in 2000 The X-Men came along.  Along with The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The X-Men helped swing the pendulum back toward quality, director-driven action and adventure movies, like those of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, and away from the increasingly dumbed-down cops-running-with-guns-towards-aliens cinema of the late 80s and 90s.

The other things these two early 2000s film ushered in was a massive resurgence in fantasy.  Aliens had been big, but now anything under the sun was possible, from frying someone with a lightening bolt to using one ring to rule them all.  And in the hands of a new generation of indie film artiste, these movies (largely) were the best of both worlds — big beautiful spectacle with a surprisingly satisfying, very human center.

Now though, I wonder if the pendulum hasn’t swung too far.  Directors are now pushing the ‘realism’  of life into summer movies not just by having flawed characters and complex situations, but by actually, actively seeking to make their audiences sad and possibility heartbroken.  There’s a great piece of writing advice (I wish I could remember who said it) that goes — ‘You can tell the reader the world is good or that the world is bad, but not that the world is shit.’  To me, this means you can look at the mud or the stars, and you can show corruption and death and sorrow, but within an ethos, within a frame.  The feeling should be that even if this character’s life has gone terribly wrong, somewhere out there, someone is still having a good life.

The ‘Life is shit’ mentality sort of shows that all always comes to naught, good deeds are always rewarded with unjust desserts, and everything we love always dies.  And I feel these happy, popcorn movies, are starting to be more about pain and loss than about fun and adventure.  I’m all for dark dramas that leave you spent and shaking, wiping tears from your eyes.

Requiem For a Dream — don’t go into this one expecting a lot of laughs

But with movies that are sold (in their advertising) as fun, light, or family-friendly, I don’t expect to need to use my popcorn bucket to catch my tears.  Exceptions are when an entire movie hinges on a death, say The Lion King, though that film’s message is certainly not ‘Life is shit’.  The Dark Knight movies were sold as adult tales and everything in their aesthetic told us that death and loss could be part of the package.  Now, they weren’t ‘feel-good’ movies, but never promised they would be.

Perhaps to me that’s the greater sin — not the sadness and death, but the unexpected nature of it.  In both of the movies that disappointed me this year, I had thought earlier in the films ‘This is the best movie ever! (or at least for the year).”  They were funny, light-hearted, clever, romantic, and exciting — and then they both did unforgivable things.  The ‘Life is shit’ option.  Oh, sometimes life is shit, people die, and there isn’t always a happy ending (at least for a while).  But isn’t that more of an exploration for a drama to cover?

The thing is, these disappointments weren’t just good movies, they were potentially great movies.  And for some people, they are great still.  But for me and a lot of others, we won’t be able to enjoy them as fully as we’d hoped.  When Diane Disney, Walt’s little daughter saw Bambi for the first time, she was upset by the death of Bambi’s mother.  Walt told her that was just what happened in the story.  “No Daddy,” she said, “You could have made her live.”

In the end, great power does come with great responsibility.  Dark storytelling brings a level of reality to fantastical summer fare and summer films return the favor by bringing popularity and high stakes to human drama.  But for this writer, I just keep thinking ‘You could have made them live’.

The Prisoner of Azkaban — dark done right. Thanks Alfonso Cuarón!

 

Awesome Day #3 — Finishing a book

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Yesterday was day #3 of my 8 day ‘stay-cation’.  Except for going to see X-men (it was great!), I spent the rest of the day working on my novel Fall Street.  It’s not done yet, but it’s getting closer.

As a writer, there’s a special feeling as you get toward the end of a book, perhaps a little like what a parent feels when their child graduates high school.  You’re excited for them and their future, and yet you’ll miss this early time in which you discovered who they were and helped mold them into the thing they’d become.

Fall Street is about a 15 year old girl growing up in 1950s America.  Her views and beliefs change after she unexpectedly befriends the most popular guy in school, Tommy Delano, and through him, she gets to know John Rainhorse, the only Native American boy in town.  A lot of trouble ensues but Claire never loses her sense of humor or her desire to see the world become a more tolerant place.

Yesterday I was re-reading it and making notes on this draft.  I’m a failure as a writer though (!) because I feel I should be making bigger changes but I love it just the way it is 🙂  Oh well, I did polish it a lot over the years I was writing it.  Of yes — years.  I wrote the first chapter in 2004, then just kept coming back to it now and then, whenever the mood hit me, till I finished it last year.  So excited!  In fact, I’m off to reread the last ten pages now . . .

Here’s a little except — 

I could still feel John’s hand upon my neck, even though we’d parted a half hour ago.  I ask again, “So you really don’t think it’s wrong?”

Tommy was slicking back his hair.  He shook his head, seemingly a little puzzled.  “He’s been my best friend for three years.  I don’t know why it doesn’t bother me, his skin.  I just kind of stopped seeing it.

‘You know, this one time in church, the preacher told a story about these two women who did everything alike — breakfast at the same thing, eggs, everything.  And they both loved gardening.  Same . . . Shovels, everything.  The times they liked to work—  It went on like this.  But they liked different petunia colors or something.  And so they were bitter enemies, and they fought all the time, and then one day God came down to them — ’cause God came do that in stories — and God came down to them and said ’If you have everything else in the world in common, why are you fighting over this one thing?  And they became best friends.  I’m kind of like that petunia woman.  What’s color matter in the end?”

Oh my God, did Tommy Delano just make my parents look like idiots?

 

A Writer’s ‘Most Enjoyable’ TV Shows List

I put the question of this ‘top ten’ to my sister, with the stipulation of ‘most enjoyable’.  The reason was not to exclude hard-to-watch dramas but rather to alleviate the fears that one would have in creating a BEST list.  So this is really about my favorites, not the ones I believe should be on display in the Smithsonian or that we should force schoolchildren to watch.

WARNING: Tiny spoilers within.

And so without further ado —

The Nominees

(basically shows I’d seen at least one season of and could imagine making it into the top ten)

Parks and Rec

The Sarah Conner Chronicles

30 Rock

Quantum Leap

Royal Pains

Simpsons

X-Files

Justified

Deadwood

Glee

The Vampire Diaries

Nip/Tuck

The West Wing

True Blood

Boardwalk Empire

The Glee Project

Spongebob Squarepants

American Dad

Family Guy

Rocky & Bullwinkle

Being Human

House

Life on Mars (UK)

Life on Mars (US)

Sherlock (Granada)

Sherlock (BBC)

Doctor Who

Mad Men

Walking Dead

Breaking Bad

South Park

Lost

Firefly

Buffy: The Vampire Slayer

My So-Called Life

24

Freaks and Geeks

Coupling (BBC)

American Horror Story

Girls

And now, the WINNERS —

No. 15 —Mad Men

Mad Men has been a giant influence for years now, from the amazing characters like Peggy, Don, and Pete, to its beautiful, restrained look at a bygone era.  Its only not higher on my list because it’s become too restrained for my case — I just want to have my favorite characters in the same room talking about things that matter and yes, I’ve watched for hours waiting for Pete and Peggy to talk to each other.

No. 14 — Justified

An odd choice, since I’ve only seen the first two seasons so far, but the quality of dialogue and the acting is transfixing.  “I don’t think of myself as an angry man.”  “Raylan, you’re the angriest man I’ve ever known.”  Shivers.

No. 13 — Nip/Tuck

Now with this one, I’ve only seen the first few seasons but I’ll never forget them.  This show is classic Ryan Murphy — funny, daring, heartfelt, cold, warm, and with lines and characters you can’t stop thinking about.  Other Murphy shows just missed the cut.  Christian is a character for the ages, and the way he’s subverted by his experiences makes you rethink human nature.  He’s a bit like a Damon Salvatore as explored by Ryan Murphy — to which I say ‘Oh hell yes!’

No. 12 — Life on Mars (UK)

This is one of those perfect series, a phrase that you rarely hear on TV.  The American version was good too — but this one’s great.  This is another era done right; its version of the ‘70s is letting it all hang out, with the clothes and lingo taking a back seat to the sexism, racism, and the police’s occasional brutality.  But at the heart of all that is a hero who wants to get home and wants to discover the childhood (and father) he never really had.  Heartbreaking and awesome — can you dig it?

No. 11 — Sherlock (BBC)

Another near-perfect series.  I had my doubts about this one (and had always only been a light Sherlock Holmes fan) and yet it’s been fantastic, shaking the source material up and turning two of our best British actors loose to charm the pants off the audience.  The creators said they only do three episodes every few years because they want to only have the highest quality of writing — and it shows.

Sherlock Holmes: Punch me in the face!

Dr. John Watson: Punch you?

Sherlock Holmes: Yes, punch me in the face! Didn’t you hear me?

Dr. John Watson: I always hear “Punch me in the face” when you’re speaking but it’s usually subtext.

No. 10 — Doctor Who

Doctor Who is the ‘It’s so fluffy!’ line from Despicable Me turned into a series: you simply can’t deny that much excitement, passion, and joy.  It makes you glad such things exist in the world.  And yet it has a profound heart, and a real understanding of humanity that makes this such a long-running favorite.  The Doctor loves the human race in a way we ourselves often can’t, and yet at the end of the day he must stand apart from the things he loves.  Also, probably the best idea ever for a TV show.

No. 9 — Lost

This is my love it/hate it entry.  The series went on a bit long, I abhorred ‘sideways world’ and yet . . .  Great writing makes me say, “Oh!  I’m so jealous — I wish I’d written that!” And I went around all the time I was watching seasons 2 and 3 thinking that.  It wasn’t perfect, but man, it was on SO much of the time, and it brought adventure and mystery to the small screen in a way I’d never seen before or since.

No. 8 — The West Wing

I just started watching this show this year and it’s already made the top ten.  I mean, come on!  How couldn’t it?  It’s Lincoln meets The Social Network.  The characters (and actors) are some of the best ever put together (and they are so often together, in the same room talking about important things).  And the story lines make you remember what HBO made you forget: that great dramas don’t need violence and sex to have truly great drama.  This show has actually made me a better person who cares more about her world.

No. 7 — Spongebob Squarepants

‘Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?’ And so starts some of the funniest, sharpest writing anywhere on TV (I recommend seasons 2 and 3 for maximum laughs).  Spongebob must be a spiritual sibling to the Doctor, because they both live life to the fullest.  The number of quotes that are still spoken daily by me attests to its staying power.  “I’m ready!  I’m ready!’

No. 6 — My So-Called Life

This show was a couple of spots higher and I had to move it closer to number one.  I had heard about it for years and figured I’d like it, but it was just such a perfect dream of character, identity, growing up, and remaining a child that I liked it even more than I thought I would.  And that last scene with Brian — wow — it pretty much influences me (and my writing of Fall Street) to this day.

No. 5 — Firefly

This is the perfect Joss Whedon show in my mind (I’ve only seen one season of Buffy so that might change).  It has it all — super original characters, a great setting, well plotted episodes, and the best funny dialogue written possibly ever.  Come for the charming captain, and stay for his shiny crew.

No. 4 — The Vampire Diaries

I know, I know.  Believe me, I get it.  For a long, long time I never watched a Vampire Diaries even though I like Jane Austin, romantic comedies, and supernatural stories.  I figured it would be vapid, dumb, cruel, and just about guys walking around with their shirts off all the time.  On top of that, I hadn’t thought Ian Somerhalder was that great on ‘Lost’, so who would want to see him as a lead?  How wrong I was.  The Vampire Diaries turned out to be a perfectly plotted show which teases you AND builds over each season.  It is that rarest network show that is going somewhere with its lead characters.  And Elena is a Harry Potter not a Bella and her friends and family mean everything to her.  And Ian?  He blows the doors off the place as Damon and makes him one of the most compelling, most misunderstood anti-heroes in modern television.  Even if he does walk around with his shirt off a lot.

No. 3 — The Simpsons

I did a list like this many years ago and The Simpsons was number one — it says a lot that I watch it much less now and yet it still looms so large.  The show would win awards from me based only on the volume of great TV it’s given — the sheer number of lines, gags, and firsts make it the great elder statesman of today’s cartoon families.  Don’t like The Simpsons?  “Release the hounds!”

No.2 — Deadwood

Some people started with the Sopranos or OZ as their gateway drug into cable drama.  For me, it was Deadwood.  I knew it as ‘That show that won awards and everyone was always cursing’.  Then I sat down with the first season DVD and was awestruck — this was TV, not as I’d grown up with it (TV comedies and stalwart 10:00 pm dramas), but exciting, masterful, and so funny.  Not every story line later on was a winner, yet still, taken together I never saw a world like Deadwood, SD, and never again have met people like Al, Jane, or Trixie.

No. 1 — True Blood

Once upon a time all I knew of Alan Ball was American Beauty and all I knew of the Sookie Stackhouse mysteries was their bright, cartoony covers on book shelves.  Then all that changed.  Bon Temps and its residents came into my heart full force and the romance, humor, humanity, and magic of the place can never be forgotten.  When I watch True Blood (I’ve only seen through season 4) I see so many great things that I want to learn to do in my own stories — and having a kick-butt heroine like Sookie is at the top of the list.

It’s worth clicking on to read it 😉

“You Can’t Get Firefly by Rebooting Bonanza.”

My sister Sarah said the above quote and I thought it was so true.

We live in a swirling media storm of sequels, re-boots, re-imaginings, prequels, adaptations, updates, and spin-offs.  Our summer movie slates are full of sequels and three-quells and our fall movie schedules are full of play and book adaptations.  The new season of TV brings spin-offs of popular shows and a new take on 1820’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

First off, the pros: there is a lot to be said for stories and characters so popular that they last year after year and the demand is still there.  Arthur Conan Doyle famously tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes but Holmes was so popular that he was brought back and continues to this day in a series of blockbuster movies and two (!) TV shows.  The world is better for his continued presence.

And if you love a book series like Harry Potter then of course it’s fun to see it brought to life as a movie.  And lot of my favorite movies are from older material, from Pride & Prejudice to The Avengers.

But what you are getting is a predefined quantity, be it for good or ill.  A beloved book series should come across largely unchanged as a movie, and a ‘re-invention’ of a ‘50s TV series may lose the charm without gaining anything new.

Honestly, most of my favorite movies and shows are originals.  There has been much made of the ‘non-success’ of some of this summer’s original movies like Pacific Rim and After Earth, but the failure of sequels and spin-offs is more insidious and harder to point out.

Sequels often make a little more money and get a little more coverage but they are broken just as often — that speaks to bad writing, which crosses all borders.  Even good takes though, have one powerful missing ingredient — the power to make us see something we’re never seen before.

I just finished watching season one of Girls and I’m sure it draws on many old shows but it was very exciting as a viewer to have no idea where it was going.  Most every convention was turned on its head brilliantly by the end of the season and Lana Dunham’s fresh voice kept me tuning in.

Which brings me to the final point, in the end it’s not about where a premise originated from, it’s about how fresh those ideas and the voice telling them is.  Imagine in your mind an actual story-teller, up on a stage, his voice hoarse and worn-out as he treads over the story he’s told to this same group a hundred times.  Now imagine a ‘fresh voice’ speaking up out of the crowd, then walking up to the stage and telling the same stories of love and lose, of hope and heartbreak that mankind has been telling since the dawn of time — but this time the story feels different, the characters arrest you, and the plot zigged right when you thought it would zag.   It was truly like nothing you’d even seen before.

All that and they juggled baby geese.

Female Characters — Why God, Why Is It So Hard?

I am a woman.  I have an amazing sister who’s a woman.  My mother was one of my biggest influences.  I believe woman can do anything and people are a lot more alike than they are different.

SO, WHY ARE FEMALE CHARACTERS STILL SUCH A CHALLENGE TO WRITE?

I’ve thought alot about this question and I believe these are the reasons (for me) —

  • There are still many more examples of great male characters
  • There are more examples of lousy female characters
  • The white male character is the ultimate ‘blank slate’ on which to write your character and their defects without censure or double-guessing yourself

So, in the first of a continuing series, we’ll explore writing women.  Today, we’ll look at my personal experience.

Now, in my early writing years, I had a couple of female characters at the center of stories, but they tended to be either the ‘normal’ person surrounded by more interesting weirdos or the ‘girlfriend’.  I’m pretty sure none passed the Bechdel test, which states a work passes a gender bias test if there are at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man.  Not because they talked about men a lot, but because my one female character would look kind of crazy talking to herself.

At First Glance

The problem wasn’t that I didn’t want to write interesting women characters.  Instead, I tended to think of an exciting situation first, THEN imagine who wound the clock at the end of the world, say.  And I would think of great, complex, charming characters I’d seen and maybe my hero would be a little bit of a lot of characters I’d admired — but most of those amazing roles were men.  So my hero would take form as a man (honestly a John Cusack-type nine times out of ten in the early years).

Break Through

When I started my first novel, Other Gods (and mostly left behind screenplays and short stories), I still didn’t have any female leads.  But I did have a charmer, and a more full and interesting character, in Maurice’s girlfriend Selena.  She hadn’t been intended, she and Maurice just met in one scene and it brought out interesting things in both of them.  And I really didn’t intend the Vengier.  She’s an insane warrior who sees the future.  She’s sort of a spiritual relative to Asajj Ventress from Star Wars: Clone Wars, though she was written many years before I saw that series (and I didn’t know her last name till right now — how interesting is the similarity?).  The Vengier was hardly female, because she was hardly human — she doesn’t have to be great while dealing with a boyfriend, family, or regular desires — but she is a female character and an interesting one, and as such was my first big win in this arena.

A Change is Going to Come

Finally, I started having more interesting female leads.  I think the first time I did this was when I started thinking about a sequel for Other Gods.  There were two young men, mere bit players in the first book, that I sensed would play a larger role in the second.  And then one day I realised  that one of them, the more interesting one who actually became the lead of the book, was a woman.  I wish I could remember the particulars — I think I just had one too many brown-haired boys — but none the less, on that day my first full female character came into being.

Today

Now I have a lot of women running around (both my third and forth novels, which I’m working on simultaneously, have female heroes), but it’s still hard, harder than it should be.  One trick I’ve learned is to, early on in the storytelling process when I’m just thinking about the story and haven’t written anything down, flip the character’s gender.  I know, it goes against my organic take on character development, but I have to do it.  At to least try and see if it works, if it’s better, more true to the character.  Give it a shot yourself.  Because there’s way too few great woman characters out there still, particularly in sci-fi / fantasy.

I believe it’s getting better, both for my own writing and the world at large, but it’s still a damn shame to me that, in my fantasy Spark of Madness, I find it much easier and more interesting to write Roch’s story than his twin sister’s — and she’s the hero.

Let’s all work to add more messed-up, crazy, wonderful female characters to the world so the next generation of writers doesn’t even know what we’re talking about.

Next time we’ll look at the best (and worse) female characters for inspiration, and then the tips and tricks to make your own female characters amazing.

How to Make Your Characters Come Alive

deadwood (1)

I love everything about writing.  I love words, I love plots, but above all — I love characters.

Now, the picture above may be cheating a little bit, because some (or most) of the characters on Deadwood were based on real people.  But that doesn’t matter.  I defy you to find a more well-rounded, intriguing, and original group (I’m sure there’s many, I just love Deadwood!).  And whether you’re making up characters from scratch (like I do) or are inspired to write a secret alt life for Henry VIII, in the end your characters belong to you (not history) and it’s up to you to bring them to life.  Now for me, I’ve been doing this long enough that they really do come alive and talk by themselves after you’ve muddled around with them in your brain for weeks and months and years.  But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some important ideas to help you long your way —

How to Build a Living, Breathing Character

  • No matter how fantastical the set-up, remember it’s the character’s regular, real world.

Especially in fantasy, writers imagine a world where everyone rides pegasi and communicates through music.  Great, but then they imagine their hero is a bounty hunter, a fighting master, and secret heir to the throne.  And then they stop, at least character-wise, as if, ‘Hey, it’s not real life — we got pegasi here for gosh sakes! — do you want him to be an accountant?’  No, but I want his life to feel as real as your accountant’s.  I don’t mind if he’s all these things if I believe this is his real life, day to day.  What’s his family like?  What does he want out of life in the future?  Has he ever killed a man?  Or bruised his little pinky fighting?  It may be crazy to us, but it’s his normalcy.

  • Make a mess(-y life)

Speaking of that family, why not give him one?  The orphan/loner will always be popular, but people can really connect to him having a family, no make how close or distant they are.  Give him overdue bills, break his nose (Chinatown), make him a secret writer of terrible poetry.  You may want clean lines in your story, but consider mussing up your hero a little bit — they’ll be the better for it.

  • Get inspired

For me, music is the number one way I build character.  I’ll hear a song that makes me think of a scene, or a character, and then I add that song to a playlist of the novel.  Pinterest is another way to start building up a character.  Great TVs, movies, and books (and games!) also will inspire your characters, abet indirectly.

  •  Have conversations

Some writers like to interview their characters.  I don’t do that but I often like to play out scenes (scenes I may or may not use) just to hear what they say, and what they do when backed into a corner.  In the beginning, you’ll feel like you’re just putting words in their mouths but then one day they’ll say something wrong, unexpected, and even offensive. STOP.  Take a deep breath.  And then let them do the thing you didn’t want them to do — this is the beginning of a great character.

  • Remember this quote —

Shrek: For your information, there’s a lot more to ogres than people think.

Donkey: Example?

Shrek: Example… uh… ogres are like onions!

[holds up an onion, which Donkey sniffs]

Donkey: They stink?

Shrek: Yes… No!

Donkey: Oh, they make you cry?

Shrek: No!

Donkey: Oh, you leave ’em out in the sun, they get all brown, start sproutin’ little white hairs…

Shrek: [peels an onion] NO! Layers. Onions have layers. Ogres have layers. Onions have layers. You get it? We both have layers.

[walks off]

Donkey: Oh, you both have LAYERS. Oh. You know, not everybody like onions. What about cake? Everybody loves cake!

Shrek: I don’t care what everyone else likes! Ogres are not like cakes.

Donkey: You know what ELSE everybody likes? Parfaits! Have you ever met a person, you say, “Let’s get some parfait,” they say, “Hell no, I don’t like no parfait”? Parfaits are delicious!

Shrek: NO! You dense, irritating, miniature beast of burden! Ogres are like onions! End of story! Bye-bye! See ya later.

Donkey: Parfait’s gotta be the most delicious thing on the whole damn planet!

Now, I included it because I was going the say that great characters have layers, but I think it’s actually a great example of character in of itself.  These kinds of heroes do come out of looking deeper at your characters — if Shrek was just a mean orge, he might not be funny, or introspective.  And donkey may be a dense, irritating, miniature beast of burden, but he also has a very cheery outlook on life and is a hero in the making himself.

But how do you get there?  I don’t think there’s any short-cuts (sorry!), nor magic tricks, but luckily YOU don’t need them.  You’ve already been researching the human experience on Earth for many years — just think about what you’d do in that character’s place, when confronted by that criminal, or when kissed by that boy.  Actor Rupert Graves when discussing Maurice said that actors play a game called ‘I’m Not ____, But If I Was …’  Do that.  ‘I’m not Sherlock, but if I was …’  ‘I’m not gay, but if I was …’

In the end, I think the two sins that cause most of the character-related grief in this world are just not thinking very long about your characters and making them (never MAKE them do anything) act in ways that further your story but don’t seem related to anything you or your friends would ever do.  Characters are supposed to be larger than life sometimes, but it is Indiana Jone’s fear of snakes — and love for his father — that makes him a living, breathing character.