Friday, May 28, 2010

Ghost Ghost Ghost Placenta!

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I've got this story idea kicking around my head and I want to know what you think of it. Here we go:

The basic premise of magic in the setting is this: there are two branches of magic, both of them deeply intertwined, but with one of them clearly superior to the other. The first is known as "Foundation," and is basically training in psychic powers. The Foundation is normally quite weak and inflexible, but can be an important asset nonetheless. With the Foundation, a magician can move small objects with his mind, exert some control over his own biological processes, and communicate with others telepathically. The greater your skill in the Foundation, the more open you are to the Foundation's power; a master of the Foundation can be killed with the Foundation's powers alone, but the most he can do to a normal human is give him a headache or some bad dreams. Most importantly, anyone can study the Foundation, and many do. It isn't at all unlikely to come across a simple farmer who can calm his sheep by concentrating at them or talk to his sons and daughters over great distances.

The second branch of magic is dependent upon something called the Fetch, and understanding the Fetch requires a little understanding of the world's mythology. In this world, the only real difference between living and unliving matter is the presence of a soul. Souls come from a mysterious place beyond the world, and are largely immune to magical interference.

Now, when you were still inside your mother's body, you had two bodies connected by a narrow cord - you and your placenta (your placenta and you; two pals, together again!). In this world, your placenta had its own soul, its own animating spark. When you were born, that spark died and returned to wherever it came. Are placental souls only used to usher new life into the world? If it's lucky, will it get to be person next time? Are placental souls working off some crime? Nobody knows, and it isn't really important to the story. What is important is that if your mother keeps a part of the placenta or umbilical cord, preserving it, and performs a small ritual worshiping the placental soul, then the soul might stick around, becoming an invisible and intangible familiar spirit, a Fetch.

With the help of a Fetch, you can do real magic. Rains of fire, bolts of lightning, prophecies and curses; the world is your (magical) oyster. The more you worship your Fetch, the more and more expensive sacrifices you make for its well-being, the more powerful it becomes, and the more powerful you become. Learning to use the Foundation also helps, as you are better able to communicate with your Fetch.

Of course, the downside is that your disembodied twin isn't necessarily a good person. In fact, lacking a body means that it lacks basic human feelings. A well-treated Fetch linked to a basically moral person will learn to ape that person's morals, possibly without really understanding them, but a bastard's Fetch will quickly grow into a real sociopath.

By the way, wacky and gross as it is, the whole ghost placenta thing reflects some real world beliefs (by the way, that article is really neat and you should read it). Go figure.

Before I leave it at a "well, what do you think?" I'd like to give you an idea of where I'm going with my particular story. For that, I need to give you one more piece of mythology.

In magical circles, identical twins are considered bad luck, because they share a placenta, and therefore, a Fetch. They can also use each other's Fetch-tokens (the dried umbilical cord that lets you access your Fetch's powers). This spiritual mingling creates a bit of cultural panic, and there are lots of stories of identical twins fighting over their shared Fetch, killing each other for the Fetch-token when one of them loses hers, driving their Fetches mad with their rivalries, and generally fucking shit up.

However, for the unscrupulous, the birth of identical twins is a huge opportunity. You see, if you murder one of the twins at birth - usually the weaker twin, since before modern medicine one twin was almost always smaller and sicklier - keep a strip of its flesh, braid it with the surviving twin's umbilical token, and perform a worship ritual that names the placental ghost and the dead twin as one being, you can coax the two spirits into becoming one uberFetch, a must-have for evil Emperors everywhere!

This piece of dark magic is the heart of my story, and from here it flows pretty naturally. An evil king (frustrated because he was born during a civil dispute in his country and the midwife didn't have time to keep a piece of the afterbirth, thus dooming him to a life without magic, a disadvantageous marriage to the princess of a neighboring backwater, and a life of obscurity) is blessed with twins and tries to go through with the Evil Ritual of the UberFetch (tm). His wife, the princess of the neighboring less magical kingdom he was forced to marry, balks and spirits the doomed twin away with his own umbilical token.

I think you can see where this is going. The queen is imprisoned on some trumped-up charge, the evil king raises his son evil until he's powerful enough to murder parliament and the two of them can live high on the hog and plan an invasion of the kingdom that disinherited Dad for not being magical enough to inherit his father's magocracy. The land is blighted by oppressive laws demanding that everyone worship the evil twin's Fetch, which increases its power significantly.

In the meanwhile, the good twin grows up to become a freedom fighter, drawing on the same Fetch for power, until the brothers are drawn into a climactic confrontation that certainly can't be evited (because it's, you know, inevitable... I'll be here all week; try to deal).

The real lifeblood of the story, though is good and evil. Is dad evil because he wanted to kill an infant for power? Is bro evil because he wants to take the power he still has and lead his nation to martial greatness? Is Our Hero good because he wants peace and freedom? Most importantly, can he teach his shared Fetch to favor his point of view, because in the final battle, the Fetch's favor is what's going to decide who wins and who loses.

What the story is really about is philosophy, good and evil, and how to distinguish between them intellectually. When you lack a body - as the Fetch does - to give you a gut "good" and "bad" feeling when you think about helping or hurting people, what do good and evil mean, if anything?

The story is also about family, especially the ambitious, controlling, and dysfunctional kind that Our Hero will find himself thrust into. One thing I'm considering is that nobody in the story really wants to kill any of the other major actors. Now that he's too grown up to kill for power, Evil Dad doesn't really want to murder his son. He just wants to rule the world through his son(s) and punish the people who humiliated him; is that really so bad? Evil Brother actually kind of likes the idea of having a twin. Imprisoned Mom is just kind of pitiful and terrified that her sons are going to kill each other. She loves both of them fiercely even though she's alienated from one of them and hasn't seen the other since he was an infant.

* * *

I'm going to post some questions below. These are the questions I really want answered, though of course, I'm eager to read whatever you might want to write.
  • Where's the suck? What potential pitfalls (or pratfalls) am I missing in this concept?
  • What are some of the other potential consequences for this magical system? I've already got that magic is a very female thing, that mothers and midwives decide who to give magic to, but what else might happen?
  • What possibilities do you see in the plot? I've asked you where the suck might be hiding, but I also want to hear where you see the cool.

* * *

By the way, because I want to write this some day, I'm going to repost the Creative Commons license I use for this blog. That is, just a reminder: you can repost anything you want, as long as you give me credit and don't try to sell it, but please don't take my idea. I like it and want to use it someday. I want to be able to use this blog to talk about my creative process, but I don't want to get scooped because of it. If my ramblings here today have inspired you, just drop me a line and we'll hash it out, make sure your idea and mine aren't too close together. I'm not claiming to be the owner of placenta ghost magic, as I linked above, that's a thought as old as human civilization.

So, just a reminder:

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

This is For the Abigail...

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Who's having a hard day.

"But Mommy, I just want to see what's in there!"

"It's not safe," Jean Ponds insisted, clutching the fork to her breast. Her son had been only seconds away from inserting it into the wall socket. She wondered if her heart would ever start hammering. She knew the current wasn't enough to seriously injure Thomas, but still...

"Charlie at school says it doesn't hurt. Charlie at school says it just tickles!"

Jean put her hands on her hips. "Now, Thomas Robert Ponds, what have I told you about believing silly things your friends at school tell you? Just because some boy at school tells you it's so doesn't mean it's so, you know that!"

"I know," Thomas kicked at the floor with his shoe and wouldn't meet his mother's eyes.

After sending Thomas to his room - minus his fork - Jean made a note to make a call this evening. Mr. Hume ought to know what his son was up to.

If you're one of those silly folks who need to "context," check out my last post. Otherwise, enjoy.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Lost Lost

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Since many other bloggers I read are taking some time to comment on the Lost finale, I figure I may as well jump on that boat. Lost bookended a very interesting time in my life - my post-college, pre-career struggles - and has been a very important show to me. I've enjoyed this show a lot, and the finale was striking.

Unlike Lost, my blog doesn't thrive on suspense, so I'm going to put you out of whatever misery you might be in and tell you right off the bat: I liked the Lost finale. I thought it was a fitting conclusion to a great series, and I'm happy to have watched.

Of course, that doesn't mean I have nothing to say about it.

If you haven't seen the Lost finale yet, now might be a good time to stop reading...

* * *

In my opinion, the finale of Lost had to do three things to be successful. Firstly, it had to resolve mysteries. Not all the mysteries, of course, but at least a few of them. Enough. A significant portion of Lost's following want to know the truth of the Island, of the sideways-world, of Jacob and Smoke Monster, and so on. Secondly, the Lost finale had to resolve plot threads. No story is complete without doors closing. Finally, the Lost finale had to bring character arcs to satisfying conclusions. We had to see the characters grow, change, and complete their growth as new and stronger people. For me, at least, this is the meat and potatoes of fiction.

For easier reading, I'm going to divide these three imperatives up and tackle them one at a time. Watch me go.

Resolution Mysteriis

If you get that, you're as big a nerd as I am.

With regards to this imperative, the Lost finale failed, though not spectacularly. While a great deal of important information was revealed in the closing moments of the series, most of the revelations were "content free." By that, I mean that the show failed to take a stand on what the most important things actually were, instead cloaking the truth in profound-sounding... well... bullshit. I don't want to hear that "the light" is "everything good." I want something a little more juicy. Is it God? A conduit to God? The fire brought to us by Prometheus? Some other legend the writers of Lost want to mine, mangle, or invent? Similarly, Smoke Monster's "absolute evil" was meaningless. Why is he absolutely evil? What is he? Is he an angry ghost? An angry god? A giant lizard?

Ok, probably not that last one.

On the other hand, the choice not to answer the series's many (many, many) ancillary questions is a fine one. I don't really need to know why Walt is special, why Dharma brought polar bears, or why Desmond is the radiation-proof man. Some mysteries can stay mysteries.

For me, the Lost finale failed to resolve its mysteries because it failed to resolve its most important mysteries satisfyingly, instead falling back on bland explanations that failed to add anything to the story.

All Good Plots...

Here, Lost did a reasonably good job. By the end of the series, all the doors that need to be closed are closed. The Island is saved, Smoke Monster is vanquished, and all is right with the world. There are a lot of things we don't ever find out - the legacy of the show's mid-series fuzziness - but they are all things I can live without knowing.

I'll also grant that the final episode threw me some curveballs that I loved. Hurley as the new Jacob, with Ben as his second? Brilliant! Killing the Island to render Smoke Monster mortal so that Kate could kill him, then putting the Island's butt-plug back in to revive it? Wonderful!

The only thing I wish the finale had give me more of was a sense of how the survivors' lives worked out in the end. How did Claire and Kate negotiate co-parenting Aaron (and did they, as the Abigail suggest, eventually... you know... get it on)? Did Desmond in fact die in bed as an ancient gentleman surrounded by a horde of radiation-proof grandchildren? How the hell did Richard integrate himself with the modern world? However, I respect the writers' choices. A story has to end some time, and that means somewhere, something has to go unsaid.

Ultimately, I don't have much to say about this imperative because there isn't much to say. The stories ended, most of them with panache. Moving on.

Ending with Character

My opinion on this imperative is longer, more complicated, and intensely spoilery, so read on at your own risk.

I actually liked the sideways-world-is-heaven's-antechamber angle because I enjoyed the opportunity to see the characters resolving their issues in a way that their lives had made impossible in the real world. Especially in the case of characters like Ben, where the character simultaneously resolved his issues in the real world - in Ben's case, actually becoming the kind of man for whom life as a benevolent schoolteacher is the resolution and absolution he needs - and in the alternate world. The way the two lives, so different, gradually intersected and melded was generally well-paced and compelling.

I am also a goober. I liked seeing Boone and Shannon again. I liked Hurley's reaction to Anna-Lucia. I liked Desmond as a hardened reality terrorist. I liked that the relationship that recalled Kate's memory was her friendship with Claire and love of Aaron. I was amused at the ecumenical yet compelling vision of the afterlife that Lost presented in its final moments.

Where's the bad? For some characters, the emotional resolution of the sideways world was working against some seriously poor decisions earlier in the series, and a two and a half hour finale can only do so much against more than one hundred hours of story. For those characters, the afterlife redemption angle fell flat. Jack, for example, has bored me for a long time, and in the final episode he rang only slightly truer. Sayid's emotional and narrative boat sailed long ago, and his awkward "Nadia is my unrequited love except wow Shannon is cute" plot, conflicting wildly with his content-free evil infection, failed to do anything but annoy me.

I will also concede, as some friends have pointed out, that the struggles and victories of the sideways world fell flat against the reality of... well... it's unreality. And, there's not much I can say to that. I liked the sideways world plot, but I do agree that giving it a touch of unreality rendered it a little cheap.

So Lost's emotional conclusions were part win and part fail. In the end, however, they were mostly win.

* * *

My theory to wrap up the Island plot? The Island is the axis mundi, the Eliadian pillar of creation, the place where divinity descends and man's prayers ascend. With the pillar broken, the world is in serious peril, because the relationship between the material and the divine will fall entirely out of whack.

Of course - and again, this is Eliade - the divine is perilous. It's dangerous to touch the light at the heart of the world. That's why the stations are all so dangerous, that's why only Desmond can survive in the heart of the Island, and that's why the Smoke Monster was born when someone who was unclean and unchosen came to the axis mundi with hate in his (unconscious) heart.

Better than the "bright light" at the heart of the Island, right?

In my version of Lost, Shannon didn't die until much later, completely eclipsing Nadia, and making Sayid's infection a lot more significant. Also in my version, Jack wasn't a wooden stand-in of an actor playing a boring character. And Hurley got the girl in real life. And there was more Vincent. As almost always, with anything I didn't write, there are things I'd do differently.

Clearly they should have hired the Abigail and I to write their show for them, but I'm digressing. In my mind, Lost's finale was a more than adequate conclusion to a show I have enjoyed, and will miss.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

So Sue Me

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I don't know where all this interest in the Mary Sue phenomenon is suddenly coming from. Clearly everyone in the world of fantastic fiction is reading this blog (... and not commenting... and masking their presence from Google Analytics... and... ah, whatever). Anyway, Marie Brennan, author of the brain-tickling Driftwood stories (and other things that I haven't experienced myself), has weighed in as well in a recent Science Fiction & Fantasy Novelists (.com) post.

Brennan's take? Basically, the concept of a Mary Sue is complicated and definitely smells of misogynistic prejudice, but it's a bad idea to write a character who alienates and bores your audience. I won't repeat Brennan's argument here, though. What you really should do is read it for yourself.

Maybe I should start a podcast. People listen to podcasts...

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Re: Sue, 2

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My friend Jon (currently staying the week with the Abigail and I) just pointed out this neat Salon article about the Mary Sue phenomenon. Salon's main point? Mary Sueism is bad because it's self-indulgent and therefore alienating to the reader. Writing is about communication, and you don't want to leave the reader feeling like an outsider to your self-congratulatory story.

In case you haven't noticed, I think it's a neat article, agree with it, and think you should read it, too.

Interestingly, the article points out several iterations of Sue I hadn't thought of, including "blameless survivor of vicious divorce Sue" and "balding and middle aged yet irresistibly sexy Sue." The latter I've always had some sympathy for - being male and therefore perhaps one day doomed to male pattern baldness - but the former has always annoyed me. I even saw it in an otherwise nifty Escape Pod story once.

Anyway, I will leave you with these thoughts and an article to read, for now.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

In Offense of Sues

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Other potential titles for this post could include "Defining my Terms, Bitch" or more aggressively, "Why I Hate Mary Sue." The first, however, is either mildly offensive or an in-joke, depending on how long you've known me in real life ("substantiate your data, bitch!") and the second really is too aggressive. I'm going to use Miss Haitch's post as a jumping-off point, but I really have nothing against her (him? zhe? dog? hooray for the internet!) and actually find a lot of the post's points interesting and compelling.

In said post, Miss Haitch comes to the defense of the oft-hated Mary Sue. Her argument is that the very idea of a Mary Sue is misogynistic. The title is less frequently applied to male characters than to female (true) and can imply that outrageously awesome women are an unrealistic rarity (also true). She also talks about how a culture of bullying and shaming surrounds the idea of Mary Sue, something I - who have almost never written fanfiction - know nothing about; I have to admit, though, that it sounds plausible. She closes with a description of the awesome characters in her real life and how they could be summarized and dismissed as "Sues."

And oddly, that's where she loses me.

What I think Miss Haitch is missing is that there is a literary dimension to Mary Sue being a bad thing. You can't just something bad and redefine it as something good, however problematic the bad thing might be. Mary Sues aren't just misunderstood but awesome, female characters. They are characters who are so awesome as to be flat, whose overwrought greatness deforms the world around them, whose bright light conceals the fact that they are as complex and nuanced as a lightbulb... and about as hollow.

Rather than heap on the hate, I'm going to go ahead and actually define my term (bitch). In the land of the Burning Zeppelin, what is a Mary Sue?

For me, a Sue is a character who is perfect and special to the point that it hurts my ability to suspend disbelief and enjoy the story. Such characters are distinguished by their flawlessness, a degree of style-violating absurdity, and the moral flatness of their surroundings.

A Mary Sue Has No Flaws

Flaws make a character interesting. Mistakes are generally more fascinating than mishaps. Mary Sues have neither. Either they always make the right decision, or their mistakes always turn out
to be good decisions in disguise. He never leaves his cell phone on when sneaking into the alien sky city. She never forgets to lock her car door. He can't remember the last time he misplaced something important. She's never let a friend down in her life. When he developes an irrational dislike for someone, it's always for bad guys (more on that later).

What this really comes down to is that Mary Sues are emotionally and narratively flat, and therefore, meaningless. They don't have inner struggles. Their passions don't overwhelm their good sense - except when it makes them romantic and striking, and then, it always turns out for the best. Mary Sues don't make moral choices, they just exist.

A Mary Sue Breaks His Universe

This point is a little roundabout, so bear with me (rar!)

In roleplaying, we have a term that is related to "Mary Sue": Unique and Beautiful Snowflake (UBS for short). UBSs are distinguished by being special, unique, and entirely one-of-a-kind, and violating the rules of their setting to do so. The first magic user after a thousand years of mundanity, the only man to do magic in a world of wizard-chicks, the orc who wants to civilize his people and bring them into a brighter future, the woman who does that special kind of magic no one else can do, the vampire with a conscience and a soul (ok, maybe that last isn't a UBS any more - there's enough of that dude to start a baseball league). Almost all Mary Sues are Unique and Beautiful Snowflakes, but not all Unique and Beautiful Snowflakes are Mary Sues. The juncture of the two - the place where a UBS can be awesome and a Sue never is - is where this concept lives.

Those Unique and Beautiful concepts I listed above? They're all awesome. They may break the rules of their settings, but if they do so in a way that is in line with their setting's general themes, they do so in a way that produces an excellent story. The first good orc, the last male mage, the only X-mancer... in the right world, these people could be awesome. In fact, several of the blurbs above are inspired by highly successful novels that I've loved. The key phrase above, however is "if they do so in a way that is in line with their setting's general themes." If they don't, they're not just UBSs, they're Sues.

Mary Sues have cinematic good luck and don't make mistakes in worlds of grit and sorrow. Mary Sues have special epic talents in worlds with unbreakable rules. Mary Sues have fluttering capes and hair in worlds without wind. They don't stand out because they're awesome... they stand out because they don't fit.

A Mary Sue is Morally Flat

This concept is related to the two above, but surpasses them. To explain it, I'm going to quote myself:

"In these books, everyone who opposes Yelena and her interests turns out to be an utterly despicable person with a taste for rape, domination, torture, rape, murder, and rape (note the repetition of 'rape'). With one exception, everyone who takes a disliking for Yelena turns out to be in league with the villains."

Real people have erring moral senses. We like people who turn out to be bad for us and we fail to hit it off with people who turn out to be great, decent, wonderful folks. We have characters from our complicated pasts and things we hate about ourselves that we project onto people around us, making them players in our own private psychodramas. It's not bad, it's just human.

Not so with Sues. When a Sue dislikes someone, it's because she's a bad, bad, bad woman. When someone dislikes a Sue, it's because he's a bad, bad, bad man.

The phenomenon goes deeper, however.

Mary Sues live in a world devoid of moral complexity. For a Sue, the choices are always easy - in fact, they aren't choices at all - and the Sue is always right. A Sue's opponents are always bad, his allies are always good, and you can always tell the difference between them.

Usually because of how they react to the Sue.

In conclusion, a Mary Sue is a character of singular moral flatness who violates the stylistic underpinnings of his world. He's always right, he never makes choices, and compared to the rest of his world, he just doesn't make sense.

For me, a Sue is always indicative of lazy or immature writing. It's easy to slap a bunch of good qualities together with some nominal flaws, give it a name, and cut it loose. It's much harder - and much more rewarding - to make someone who is real, flawed, interesting, and sympathetic. It's much harder - and much more interesting - to write your main character making terrible mistakes and maintain the audience's sympathy. In general, it's a good idea to reject everything that makes a Sue a Sue and write something good and interesting.

And Haitch? I don't think your friend, your sister, or your girlfriend are Sues. They sound like good people to me; they certainly don't violate the stylistic underpinnings of the world I live in. So nothing personal, ok?

* * *

I'm not going to follow this up with provocative questions because I think I've probably been provocative enough. I'm just going to close with this: I LIKE COMMENTS. If you're out there reading this, I promise I'll even respond.

[bear image courtesy of Peter Macdonald; like my blog, it's all Creative Commons and stuff]