How The Legend of Korra Let Me Down

| Friday, June 29, 2012
Today's Tune: Kiss With A Fist

The following post will contain SUPER MASSIVE SPOILERS for both the original Avatar: The Last Airbender series and its followup, The Legend of Korra. Also, this post will be super long. YE HAVE BEEN FOREWARNED AND STUFF.

When I heard Nickelodeon was bringing back the Avatar universe for a brand new series, I was ridiculously excited. Avatar: The Last Airbender was one of the most beautiful, entertaining, and best characterized television series I'd ever seen. I anticipated the pilot of The Legend of Korra with a ridiculous fervor, and you might recall that I wrote a lengthy post about the first two episodes, what they might mean for the perception of female protagonists, and excitement for the development of the series.

In a few aspects, the first book of the new series contained the things I'd been hoping for. More great characters to love (LIN BEIFONG FOR PRESIDENT OF ALL THINGS), an interesting and updated setting that maintained the charm of the original, gorgeous animation, and fight scenes that absolutely blew me away.

Unfortunately, as the series progressed, I began to worry. The original series was an epic, sprawling thing with a grand quest and lots of character development over the course of months/years, as is typical of many Middle Grade fantasies. With this new series, the creators decided to go a very different direction -- a much smaller-scale setting (no traveling for months across the entire world), a more immediate threat, an aged-up cast, and a much shorter timeline (important events happen within days or weeks, rather than months). The season was originally intended as a 12-episode mini-series, rather than the usual 20-some episode season, so the storyline was written to be wrapped up by the end of Episode 12. Where the original series took three entire seasons to prepare the Avatar for the final showdown with The Big Bad, this series had to take it on right away.

All of these factors combined in a way that didn't give quite the same level of world-and-character building the original series had, which might have been okay if they'd spun it the right way. But then the romance struck.

The original series was not without its romantic subplots. Hardly! There were several. All of the major characters experienced crushes, or dated. There were a number of kisses and even some implied sexuality. The fandom, myself included, LOVED it, and the creators enjoyed relentlessly trolling us with the will-they-won't-they-who-will-end-up-with-who giddiness of it all. The creators and writers clearly took note of this fact and decided to up the ante and include a substantial romantic subplot throughout the first season of Korra.

Sadly, it fell woefully, terribly flat.

What went wrong? Why did a large portion of the fandom (myself included) have such an adverse reaction to the inclusion of the romantic plot between Korra and Mako? Well, to start, it felt to me that the writers were trying to recreate the much-beloved pairing of Zuko and Katara, but it didn't work at all. Although Korra is Water Tribe, her personality far more closely matches Sokka's physically-inclined bull-headedness than Katara's emotion and empathy. Likewise, Mako can't pull off tortured jerk like Zuko can. The potential backstory was there -- protective big brother who lost his parents young and had to make a life for himself and his younger brother -- but it wasn't developed enough to make me feel that Mako's occasional jerkass behavior was understandable. Zuko had to go through extensive character development and growth (BEST CHARACTER ARC OF ALL TIME I MEAN REALLY) before his motivations became understandable, even admirable. Mako didn't have that.

In fact, the place I felt this series stumbled the most was in character development. There just wasn't enough time dedicated to getting to know the characters' personalities as there was in the original. Some characters had an easily accessible personality (Bolin, Tenzin), while others were more stoic and difficult to get to know. In addition, characterization was spotty -- a character would display an interesting trait, only to have it forgotten about by the next episode. This may be improved upon in the next season. We'll see. Korra's characterization in particular bothered me. I liked the consistency of her physicality and hot-headedness, and that she was allowed some vulnerability -- she felt scared, she worried she'd fail. However, I just didn't buy her strong personality matched up against Mako's rather bland characterization. I couldn't get invested in their relationship because I didn't understand what attracted her to him beyond... his being a cute pro bender? Who was kind of a giant jerk to her the first time he met her? And a few times after that? And cheated on his girlfriend with her...? I don't know.

And then came the love triangle. I think this may have been the franchise's first legitimate love triangle (square)? I mean, there was some cross-crushing going on in the original, and a few of the major players dated multiple characters, but as far as I remember, there was nothing like the Mako-Korra-Bolin shenanigans. On that note, KORRA. Y U NO LIKE BOLIN INSTEAD. I almost (ALMOST. ALMOST.) can't blame teen boys for thinking that girls don't go for the nice guy they actually have something in common with. It's like writers intentionally write in a funny, cool guy who actually has a lot of chemistry with the protagonist, and then they go LOL NOPE SHE'S GONNA GO WITH THE HOT-BUT-BORING GUY, occasionally committing character assassination in the process (JACOB BLACK, I AM SO SORRY SHE MADE YOU DO THOSE THINGS).

See also: Asami got crapped on a whole lot. Why. I am incredibly grateful to the writers for giving us this really cool lady with amazing style and fabulous makeup who's also a whiz with the vehicles and completely not a jerk in any way whatsoever. This could have so easily gone over into "make Korra's rival for Mako's affection a stereotypical stupid/mean girl," but Asami is remarkably amazing. And for being genuinely nice and skilled and really awesome she gets... a boyfriend who cheats on her and loses her only remaining family and her home and basically life as she knew it. I MEAN REALLY. I ASK YOU.

As much as I absolutely LOATHE admitting this because I really wanted something more out of this new series, it really felt like The Legend of Korra fell into a lot of traps that YA often finds itself stuck in. The romantic subplot didn't feel organic and it took over valuable story/character time. The supposedly "meant to be" couple didn't seem to click (why do they like each other exactly...?). I mean, Korra had a lot of amazing qualities and I could totally see people being all over that, but Mako's reason for liking her was... I don't know, she's the Avatar and when she was kidnapped he worried about her? Or something? And her reason for liking him... I still don't know. But then they're in love? And they're talking about their non-relationship when there are waaaaaay more pressing things going on? I mean, sure, I am all for making out when you think shit's about to get real, but MAKO. YOU HAVE AN AWESOMESAUCE GIRLFRIEND. AT LEAST GO BREAK UP WITH HER FIRST I MEAN WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING. I am supposed to get butterflies when you kiss. THERE ARE NO BUTTERFLIES ANYWHERE IN MY VICINITY. GUYS. GUYS. WHERE ARE THE BUTTERFLIES.

Okay I'm done wharrgarbling about the romance now. Now I will blather about the finale because COME OOONNNNNN.

When I watched the original Avatar series, one of the things I loved the most was the way that show broke my heart and amped up the stakes with real emotional crescendos that were not easily fixed. At the end of Book 2, Aang almost dies, and in the process, he's blocked from accessing the Avatar state -- his primary source of power. It takes all of Book 3 for him to figure out how to deal with this and unlock it again. He's forced to go through a lot of introspection and deal with being an Avatar without his full power. There's some criticism of the original series finale being a bit of a Deux Ex Machina, and I get that, but at the same time, I thought it worked because it felt EARNED. Aang had paid his dues and he deserved the big showdown.

The finale of Korra, however... hhhhnnnngggg. It's one big magical Band-Aid. There were some BIG losses this season. Lin, who should still be President of All the Things, lost her bending in a heart-wrenching moment of sacrifice. Korra! Our heroine! Our Avatar! Lost most of her bending, too. These are really huge, emotional moments. So much of who they are and their sense of power and worth is tied to their bending. How would they deal with that? What kind of personal journey would they have to go on to rediscover who they are and how they fit into the world now?

OH RIGHT, NONE. BECAUSE THE AVATAR STATE CAN UNDO ALL OF THAT RIGHT AWAY. That's it! There's no growth or change or dealing with the loss. No denouement or resolution or time to absorb what happened. All better now! Like it never happened! Do not even get me started on Korra's sudden ability to access her spiritual side and immediately master the Avatar State. WHEN EXACTLY DID SHE LEARN TO DO THIS, WRITERS. Did she even train with Tenzin anymore after about the halfway point?

I whine about this all the time, but that's because an ending like this can just ruin a story for me: YOUR CHARACTERS MUST EARN THEIR ENDING. You can't just take it all back. You can't bring all the dead characters back to life, you can't shove the bad guy off a pier without a proper climax, and YOU CAN'T USE A MAGICAL BAND-AID TO RESTORE EVERYTHING TO ITS ORIGINAL STATE. AAAARGH.

Also: so, what's going on with all the unrest the non-benders were experiencing at the hands of the benders again? Are all their legitimate complaints brushed under the rug now that Amon is out of the picture? The Triads get to go terrorize innocent shopkeepers again? SEE THIS PLOT THREAD? DANGLING. I was really disappointed in this turn. The original series was so good at inclusion and portraying oppression in a really interesting way, and it felt like all of that took a backseat to more kissy-face time for Mako and Korra. This is a big deal! These people were ready to go to war because they felt oppressed! We're really just going to leave that there? I honest-to-goodness hope that they're planning on exploring that storyline more in the next season.

I realize I just went on a giant screed, but it's coming from a place of love. I'm so disappointed BECAUSE I love this show so much. Or rather, I loved the initial promise and potential of it. I love that Korra is undoubtedly female, but still displays incredible strength. I love the music, the animation, the choreography. I love the humor and adventure. I loved the promise those initial seeds of story planted. I only wish they'd come to fruition in a way that didn't feel like a hasty wrap-up. Korra was originally intended to be a 12-episode mini-series, and I know that. I know that it was entirely possible that there would be no additional seasons after this one, and they needed an ending that would satisfy their target audience, despite its implausibility. But I wanted MORE out of those episodes.

And, damn it, I hate that this is going to end up as one more example in the many examples of how a poorly executed romantic subplot can screw with the entire feel of a story. These writers can write butterfly-inducing, adorable romance. I know they can. I've seen them do it. I don't know if this was an attempt to appeal to the large female viewership or what, but seriously. STORY FIRST. Most of all, I'm pissed that people will use this as a reason to bash female protagonists and their wacky little girl hijinks like nonsensical lovey-dovey junk. DISPLEASED.

A note: you should also go read this blog post for a more in-depth exploration of the exact plot points that fell flat, the misused story structure, and more.

So, to end, here's my wishlist for Book 2.

1) If you're going to include the romance, pleasegodplease build the characterization up more and make me believe it.
2) Revisit the non-bending movement and explore their very valid concerns.
3) More Lin. Lin forever. Tenzin can be there too.
4) Throw Asami a bone. I mean really.
5) More Pabu and Naga hijinks.
6) More incredible fight scenes those are good keep them kthx.
8) More Sokka memories. All of the Sokka memories. Toph too. And Zuko. Just bring the GAang back okay.
9) Real stakes and struggles, dudes. No easy fixes.
10) More jokes. I like jokes. Episode dedicated to Bolin, maybe?

Yeah. So, these are all my Korra feels. Despite all of this, it was still thrilling to see more of the Avatar world and I loved a lot of it. There were times I felt genuine tension, sorrow, and joy. I'll continue watching in the hopes of feeling more.

So. Your thoughts?

Disney-Pixar's BRAVE: The Good & the Not-So-Good

| Wednesday, June 27, 2012
Today's Tune: Children

On the tail of my last post about the female-centric relationship at the heart of Disney-Pixar's Brave, I wanted to expand and discuss a few of the things I liked about the film... and a few of the things I found lacking. I decided to start with one of my favorite elements of the film and again affirm that I enjoyed it as a whole, because too often criticism of a piece of media is seen as disapproval or dislike of that media. And that's not true. Some of my very favorite books and films feature problematic elements, and I know that. Even so, that doesn't mean the film is BAD or that I think NO ONE SHOULD WATCH IT. In fact, it means that despite its flaws, I STILL REALLY LIKED IT. But I am an analytical reader and viewer. It's part of my reading/viewing style to mentally break down a film and examine its implications and themes.

Also, there will be a few minor spoilers in this post, but nothing that will spoil any major plot elements for you.


To briefly rehash Monday's post, one of my favorite parts about Brave is the relationship between the main character (Merida) and her mother (Elinor). It's a familiar struggle between what the mother views as an admirable life and what the daughter wants to do differently. I think it's telling that I immediately latched on to this relationship because of the fact that it is SO UNBELIEVABLY RARE to see a major blockbuster film release with a primary focus on a female-centric relationship. The portrayal isn't perfect -- as I mentioned, it's a very familiar trope -- but even so, it's a stirring story of a mother and daughter learning to appreciate one another and grow in their relationship. And I can't help but love that. Family stuff punches me right in the gut, what can I say.

Likewise, I enjoyed the warmth and humor of the film, as well as the gorgeous animation. And the music omggggg. Sucker for anything Celtic.

All of that said, I wasn't as blown away as I wanted to be. Some of the themes felt surprisingly one-note. @phirephoenix sent me a link to this blog post, which hits on a number of the struggles I was having very well. I won't rewrite that post, but suffice to say I was also bothered by what felt like a pretty small-scale scope of "girl does some pretty neat stuff and then ends up back in almost exactly the same role she had before she left." I mean, compare to something like How To Train Your Dragon, where the hero starts the story on the bottom rung of the ladder and finishes not only a seasoned hero, but also changes the entire structure of his society (not Pixar, but still comparable).

While I truly enjoyed Merida and Elinor's interactions, I couldn't help but notice that despite this female-centric storyline, there really weren't many other female characters of note. There's the witch, who's portrayed as either silly/bumbling or intentionally deceptive based on how you choose to read the character, and the servant/nurse character, Maudie, who barely speaks throughout the film apart from some unintelligible gibbering. There are a few unnamed female servants who drift about, but outside this, the cast is almost entirely male.

And let's talk about the male cast, shall we? Very stereotypically male, including large prides and the constant need to physically fight and one-up each other. Most, if not all, are portrayed as mischievous fools who can't speak articulately or control their tempers. They seem constantly on the verge of declaring war on one another until Elinor or Merida come along to calm their shit down. One might view this as a "feminist" (har har) portrayal of silly men who need women to come clean up their mess, but in reality, it's damaging to both sexes. Elinor has hints of overpowering shrew who emasculated her husband ("yes dear!"), and men are once again portrayed as brainless apes who can't help their silly man ways. And this may seem solely belittling to men (which, I mean, it is), but it also encourages the belief of "boys will be boys," as though men don't know better or can't help behaving boorishly or wanting to drink and fight and bone all the time. It excuses them of responsibility. It's just in their nature!

Merida is a somewhat stereotypical tomboy, which is another trope we see often -- she likes to shoot arrows and let her messy mane flow in the wind! She hates all of her mother's "lady lessons!" She doesn't want to think about marriage and boys, ugh! And look, I don't really have a problem with this trope in general. I've been known to use this trope. I've also been known to use the trope of a girl butting against the more archaically gendered role her mother set for her. However, I think it's important to be careful not to belittle the feminine when we examine a trope like this. If we're not careful, it's really easy to imply that anything "ladies" do is pointless. No, it's not right for a mother to force her daughter to go against her nature or marry without consent. But likewise, it's not really okay for the daughter to bash her mother's role as a more traditional homemaker unchecked. Most of the mothers in storylines such as these are doing the best they can with the lot they were dealt in life. I do feel that Brave at least attempted to let the women come to an understanding and see one another's point of view. We don't really see Merida admitting that her mother's form of femininity can be a good thing, but it's somewhat implied.

As mentioned in the blog post I linked earlier, there were issues with the lack of additional themes and the fact that nothing *really* changes in Merida's life except that she perhaps has a better bond with her mother and a little more freedom in her choices. For all the talk of "changing your fate," there's not much in the way of actual fate-changing. Despite this, I do continue to admire the mother-daughter relationship that comprises the heart of the film.

Additionally, I appreciated that during the final showdown of the film's climax, both ladies got their chance to shine and save the day. I also really liked Merida's relationship with her father, King Fergus. I wish he hadn't locked her up "for her own good" at one point, but overall, I thought their relationship was very sweet and supportive. He doesn't try to force her to act a certain way. He appreciates her adventurer's spirit and gifts her with her first bow. He jokes with her about her supposed suitors and the silliness of the ritual. And all the while, I never got the impression that he was treating her "like a boy" or that he wished she were a son. I liked that Merida's decision about the betrothal ritual was supported by the male suitors. All good things.

At the end of the day, I did really enjoy Brave, though I do wish the filmmakers had reached still further in creating a more layered story. I eagerly await the day when there are more than a scant handful of meaningful female characters who have relationships with one another outside of the context of men. I look forward to seeing portrayals of femininity as strong and interesting in its own right. I do think there's a seed of something great in the center of Brave, I only wish it had been cultivated a little more. While I liked this film a whole lot, I think my go-to animated film with a heartfelt female relationship remains Lilo & Stitch.

Have you seen Brave yet? What did you think?

Female-Centric Relationships

| Monday, June 25, 2012
Today's Tune: Many Moons

If you've followed my blog for a while (or any blog that occasionally/often talks about feminism and pop culture), you've probably heard of the Bechdel Test. If you have not, here's the gist: the representation of women in film is generally lacking, and this phenomenon can be observed through a three-step "test" for any film. 1) Does the film have at least two NAMED female characters? 2) Do the female characters talk TO EACH OTHER for more than a few seconds? 3) About something OTHER THAN A MAN/BOY?

The Bechdel Test is not a foolproof way to determine whether a film is good or feminist, but it is a way to observe a noticeable pattern in the way women are portrayed in film. Similar tests can be conducted around race and sexuality.

Books are, thankfully, somewhat different, as they often rely more heavily on dialogue and character building than a 90-minute film. Even so, we can still witness a similar pattern emerging, particularly in romance. And yes, a romance is primarily about THE ROMANCE, but even so, female characters can still be seen talking about something other than their angst over whether Super Hot Boy likes them or not.

My point in all this is leading up to the fact that I saw Disney's Brave this weekend, and I found it to be generally beautifully animated and entertaining. However, my favorite part of the film was Disney's divergence from their usually romance-centric Disney Princess films and bringing a female-centric relationship (mother-daughter) to the forefront.

It's unfortunate that it feels so rare to see a real, genuine relationship between mothers and daughters or sisters and female friends without a film or book being relegated to the eye-rollingly othered "women's fiction" or "chick flicks." It seems men are allowed films where they bond and get to be bros without dissecting their relationships with women to death, and this is accepted as normal and interesting. But if there aren't any penises involved? OMG women's issues.

I would love to see more relationships between women and girls explored in a larger variety of ways. I would also love a romance between two women. Given the wide breadth of YA fiction with female protagonists, it's amazing how often the female relationships are relegated to such tired tropes as Emotionally Absent Mother, Prissy Holier-Than-Thou Sister, Blonde Cheerleader Bitch Who Hates Protagonist, "Quirky" Best Friend Who Protagonist Forgets About Almost Immediately, etc.

Women and girls spend so much of their lives being taught that femaleness is boring, inferior, and silly. This is so engrained in them that many, myself included, go through a phase of "girls are so totally stupid and I just can't relate to them AT ALL despite being one myself and I just get along with dudes waaaaaay better because they are less catty/vapid/high-maintenance/insert stereotype about femininity here." We're taught to relate to one another in the context of men. Is this woman going to get in my way of male validation? Are men going to prefer her because she's pretty or funny or whatever? Is she single or taken, and should I help her find a man or be glad she won't get in the way of finding mine?

This comes across in the way we write female characters. Our protagonist is the preferred character, so she's a "down to earth," sweet, unhateable girl. Maybe she has a best friend, but that best friend is boy-crazy or selfish or just doesn't get what the protagonist is going through. She can't talk to her mom because her mom is never around. Her sister's a giant jerkface. There's some asshole girl at school who is SO JEALOUS OF HOW AWESOME THE PROTAGONIST IS and always has to take her down a peg or flirt with her love interest. They're empty filler relationships.

Maybe we could aim to round out these female relationships a little more. I'm not suggesting that we make all the women perfect and the best of friends at all times. I'm suggesting that we examine the relationships in our own lives a little more closely. It's likely that we all have women in our lives for whom we care a great deal. Why do women like that so rarely make it into our stories? Cute boys are all well and good (and fun to read about), but our mothers have been there since before we were born. Our sisters grew up beside us. Our friends are the ones who remember our birthday and sing us songs about rocket dogs to cheer us up on bad days.

What's your favorite female relationship from a book you've read?

Taking "Writing Revenge" Too Far

| Wednesday, June 20, 2012
Today's Tune: The Only Place

You've probably heard of the Revenge Query/Revenge Submission, but if you haven't, here's the general idea: when you're querying or submitting your work and you receive a rejection, part of your coping mechanism is to immediately send out another query/submission. It keeps you active and is kind of a mental "Oh yeah, you don't want my book? Fine, maybe the next person will. THAT'LL SHOW YOU."

I have mixed feelings about the Revenge Query. When I was querying, I definitely partook in sending out fresh queries in response to rejection, but I thought of it less as "revenge" and more as keeping the ball rolling and reminding myself I had other options. I think that's a healthy way to look at it. And I'd be 100% Grade-A Liar if I pretended I never felt disappointed or cranky about certain rejections, and that I never had moments of "Yeah, well, I'M GOING TO MAKE IT SOMEDAY SO THERE." Those feelings are natural. Of course we all feel sad and cheated and maybe even angry when we shoot so hard for something and no one seems to care. So, if it helps people cope to privately think "You'll be sorry when the next agent picks me up" and then send another query, I think they should.

My mixed feelings on the issue come in when this stops being a private coping mechanism and instead turns into actual agent/editor bashing. I think sometimes it's difficult for us to understand how this can't be personal because it IS so personal to us. The business side of the publishing industry can really suck that way. It can be infuriating when a book we think is total schlock gets picked up for six figures and movie deals and bestseller-dom and lots of media attention and etc. etc. etc. while we're sitting here like WHAT THE HELL. Sometimes it's a money game, and that's the unfortunate place where art and business meet. You can't make and distribute good art unless you have money.

It seems like many aspiring authors cut their "coping revenge" with such a heavy dose of bitterness over the unfair aspects of the industry that it becomes an actual desire for revenge. It becomes okay to call this agent a bitch for rejecting you, or that editor a tasteless money-grubbing fool, or to otherwise demonize the publishing gatekeepers. They become a faceless devil shoveling money into the fire-filled maw of a bloated industry, and it becomes acceptable to think of them as heartless, greedy jerks. And you know, I imagine there really are some heartless, greedy jerks in this industry, because they're in every industry. However, most of them got into publishing because there's nothing they love more than quality literature. They want to give the public good books. Unfortunately, good books aren't free to produce.

There's nothing wrong with deciding that you don't like the way this system works and deciding to try it on your own. That's fair. Just try not to make that decision because you want to stick it to someone. You're not proving anything to anyone by saying SCREW YOU, YOU'LL BE SORRY and doing your own thing. They're not maliciously out to get you, even if it might feel like that sometimes. People seem to operate under the age-old trope that if you make yourself successful, all the people who never gave you a chance will suddenly see the error of their ways, gnash their teeth, and beg you to forgive them for their stupidity. That doesn't happen. Those people are not going to cry themselves to sleep at night because they "lost" you. You're not going to make them sorry. All you'll be doing is holding on to a lot of anger and negativity.

So yes, if it helps you feel better to have a moment of "grrr" followed by a Revenge Query, do that. Just don't let those Revenge Queries turn into actual revenge and eternal bitterness. Hope for success and happiness, not groveling and vengeance.

What do you think, guys? Do you feel like writers can take the "Revenge Query" too far?

The Stories Just for Me

| Monday, June 18, 2012
Today's Tune: Tha Mo Ghaol Air Aird A' Chuain

I write a lot about writing. I think a lot about writing. I write a lot... I write a lot.

As much as I love, live, breathe, and bleed words, sometimes I feel like I'm drowning in them. Well not so much the words themselves as the simultaneous promise and pressure of the words. It feels like I'm floating beneath the surface, holding my breath and waiting for the right moment to break.

Writing for yourself is a whole different world than writing with the goal of public consumption. They're both very personal, but one is safe and the other isn't. One is in your control, and the other is completely wild. In the wild, your hands aren't the only ones shaping the world. There are other hands, and hands guiding those hands, and even more hands that would grab and lift or tear and burn, for good reasons and bad reasons and no reason at all.

So it's important for me to come up for air, to gasp and look around and remember the stories I used to build just for myself. The way I used to sink into music and watch the colors swirling in my head. To dream and continue building upon that dream throughout the day. To experience things and feel the physical sensation of pressing it into my memory.

To watch the boats sailing across the bay and imagine what life must be like for the people living on those pinninsulas.

To find a reason not to be super grouchy when I have to get up at 6AM, especially when that reason is happy face balloons.

To wonder if this is modern art or just some creepy thing someone left for hikers to find because they thought it'd be funny.

To want to know the rest of this story.

And to imagine the adventures of Super Freesia, who saves the world by making everything smell super good.

Or, you know, just remembering that I can still be a writer even when I'm not thinking about writing 100% of the time.

Hayao Miyazaki, Spirited Away, & Atypical Antagonists

| Friday, June 15, 2012
Today's Tune: Howl's Moving Castle Theme

Speaking of out-of-the-box antagonists... let's talk about Hayao Miyazaki! Because AWESOME.

You may or may not be familiar with Miyazaki by name, but more likely than not, if you pay attention to anime or animation in general, you've probably heard of at least one of his films. You'd recognize his style in an instant. He's the director/writer/animator behind such films as Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle, Ponyo, Princess Mononoke, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, Castle in the Sky... the list goes on.

Miyazaki is a very creative and progressive filmmaker. His passions are clear in his films -- anti-war, pro-environmentalism, feminism, finding one's inner strength. He has a habit of creating powerful girl and woman characters, and all of his protagonists experience wonderful character arcs. We often see characters who are immature, whiny, self-centered, or meek grow into passionate, strong, more mature individuals over the course of the film. His style often captures a sense of childlike wonder about the world, even if the underlying theme is growing up.

But let's talk about Miyazaki's antagonists, because they tie into Wednesday's post.

If you're familiar with his body of work, you'll notice there's rarely an obvious "bad guy." There are certainly characters who are kind of assholes, or monsters, or people who make bad choices. Overwhelmingly, however, Miyazaki chooses to focus on atypical antagonists, like industry at the cost of war or destruction of the environment. If a villain does exist, they are nuanced and rarely (if ever) 100% evil. More often than not, the "bad guys" are simply selfish -- a very human trait, and one any of us could fall victim to.

Spoilers ahead! Using the film Spirited Away as an example, we can parse out individual characters who could potentially serve as antagonist, but the true antagonist all along is Chihiro/Sen herself. She must overcome her own pessimism and immaturity to help the beings around her. But this internal struggle is substantiated by outside opposing forces that advance the plot and help her get to the place she needs to be.

First and most obviously, there's Yubaba, the "bad" witch who runs the bathhouse. She's mean and selfish, and she treats her servants (Sen included) poorly. Even so, Yubaba is driven by greed and control, not "evil." She's a business owner who enjoys money and luxury, and she does what she feels she must to achieve her ends. She may delight in turning people into pigs a little too much, but she's not without motivation.

Next we have Haku, whose motivations are unclear until later in the film. Is he Yubaba's henchman? Did he set Sen up? Or is there something more sinister guiding his actions? I won't spoil the big twist here, but he's a complicated individual.

Then there's No-Face, a creature who develops an unhealthy obsession around Sen and is driven mad by the luxury of the bathhouse. In the end, he's not portrayed as evil, but merely sick. Sen shows him compassion and befriends him, realizing that he's lonely.

And then there's Zeniba, another witch whose motivations are unclear at first. Does she mean to harm Sen and her friend, or was it all a big misunderstanding?

Many of these characters could be argued as potential villains, but really, they're just characters serving as an external opposing force for Sen. Their goal isn't to specifically impede her, and they often help her find her way and achieve level after level of character development. This story isn't about black and white, right and wrong, good versus evil. It's just a flat-out good story full of multi-faceted characters.

Miyazaki's approach is just one of the many ways to view a story from a different angle. Every character, "good" or "bad," should have a motivation. Most of the time, the story is bigger than one girl and the witch who steals her name. Miyazaki shows us time and time again how we can find opposition from multiple sources, and those sources don't always have to go "mwa ha ha ha!"


The Other Antagonists

| Wednesday, June 13, 2012
Today's Tune: Ghost

Let's talk antagonists, shall we?

People get confused about antagonists. A lot of writers operate under the misconception that "antagonist" is synonymous with "bad guy" or "evil villain." In many stories, this is true. The antagonist is the dasterdly, scheming, cruel, murderous creep whose primary goal seems to be getting in the way of the protagonist's Quest For Awesome.

Really, an antagonist is just any person (or thing, or force) that opposes the protagonist's goal in the story. If the protagonist wants to save their dad or end a war, the antagonist is whatever is standing in the way of accomplishing that goal. Sure, it can be an evil dictator or an evil step-mother or an evil rabid space monkey, but it can also be more subtle or complex than that. The truly great antagonists of literature are more than just a sweet pencil mustache. Although those things are fun to twirl.

Here are a few alternate antagonists that your protagonist could come up against.

The Foil - This is a character who has opposing qualities to the protagonist, and sometimes an opposing goal. However, they don't have to be super villainous or determined to watch the world burn. A foil can host multiple layers. It's especially effective when the protagonist's own life or personality aspects are mirrored in the foil, albeit in a darker way. Where the protagonist is hot-headed, the foil is cold and analytical. Or the protagonist cares a great deal for their loved ones, and the foil has lost the people the love, which causes them to become vengeful. It's the same trait, and if the reader thinks about it, they might be able to see how even the hero of the story could get to that point if they lost all the people they loved.

The Well-Intentioned - It can be pretty easy to write someone who's just mean or just sociopathic or just empty inside. There's not much to a character like that. They just like pain and/or are disconnected from empathy. That's it. A more difficult antagonist to tackle is the antagonist who honestly believes they're doing the right thing. They don't intend to cause pain, but they feel backed into a corner. And they struggle with it.

The Metaphorical Beast - In some stories, you'll find a creature evolves to become the antagonist. But it's clear this is no ordinary bear or dragon -- this beast represents the bestial part of the protagonist, or something they've lost. The beast poses a definite physical and mental threat, but there's even more at stake. By slaying their white whale, what will the protagonist overcome? Will they destroy themselves in the process?

Mother Nature - Sometimes the antagonist is Nature itself. A storm tears the town apart. A series of earthquakes threaten the protagonist's family. A blizzard will kill them unless they find shelter and sustenance. Like the metaphorical beast, inclement weather often plays into a larger theme within the story. Weather alone can be pretty boring if left to its own devices, so this antagonist has to be spun just the right way to be effective.

Mankind - Like Mother Nature, Man can be an antagonist. Or rather, the things mankind creates. All the stories where the main obstacle is war, or cannibalistic corporations, or the slow death of humanity because the environment is dying... sometimes we create the bad guy ourselves.

The Supernatural - This is the catch-all category for all your zombie apocalypses and faceless demon armies. Usually these sorts of ambiguous supernatural creatures are substantiated with one of the other antagonists on this list, because by themselves, they're not all that interesting. Unless you spin them the right way, of course. Some authors select one primary focal point to represent what they're up against -- the super-fast zombie, the weretiger with the limp.

The Protagonist - Yes, the protagonist can be their own worst enemy. This choice is often used in connection with another external factor, but eventually the protagonist realizes they weren't struggling against something else this whole time, not really. They were always struggling against themselves. This can be something as simple as learning to believe in themselves, or as complex as having to literally face themselves at the final showdown. Maybe it's about overcoming grief, or facing a piece of themselves that they're not ready to face. Maybe they're becoming the thing they're supposed to be fighting against.

Remember, stories can have more than one antagonist. Many do. Do you have a favorite antagonist? Why? Tell us about them in comments!

THE RAVEN BOYS book trailer

| Monday, June 11, 2012
I have a heckuva headache today, so the blog's getting the ol' neglect. Sorry! But here's the animated book trailer for THE RAVEN BOYS.

Infected (flash fiction)

| Friday, June 8, 2012
Today's Tune: Sex Ball

It happens because the pen sticking out of his pocket catches on my book bag. One moment, I'm alone in the river of people flowing across the quad from one class to the next, and then my bag is torn and my palms are stung by pavement. He's flat on his back next to me, laughing. His skateboard flies off into the crowd and is promptly covered in swears and kicked back.

"What the hell?" I add to the din as I pick one of my badges up off the ground. "BREATHE," it calls up to me in big block letters. It's hard to do that just now.

"I'm sorry," he gasps, grinning at me. There's gravel stuck to the side of his face. He smells like sweat and coconut. "You okay?"

"No." I shove scattered objects into my bag, not even checking to see if they're actually mine. "This bag was supposed to last me another year."

He's still on his back. One hand goes behind his head, the other holds his skateboard against his side. The rest of him is completely unperturbed by all the people who have to step over his sprawled legs. "Don't we have chem lab together?"

I glare at him. He does look vaguely familiar. A flash of red against his skin draws my eye.

"You're bleeding." I touch his arm gingerly, blood coming away on my fingers.

"You're a planet," he says.

I drop my hand. "Wow. Really. You crash into me and call me a planet. That's the response you have for me?"

He sits up. "No, see, I'm a planet, too. We're all planets."

"I think you hit your head."

"It's this theory I have. We're all the center of our own private universe, right?"

I cross my arms. "You do know that a planet isn't the center of the universe, right? I thought you said we had science together."

He continues as if I hadn't interrupted. "Adventurous planets, the ones that can't be bound to their own lonely universes, find other large bodies in other universes, and they collide and make space dust. Or something. You know what I'm saying?"

"I don't have any idea what you're saying. I think maybe you should take astronomy next semester."

"Okay." He beams into my face, then uses his skateboard for leverage to haul himself off the ground. I take his hand, my wounded pride and skinned knees appreciating that he offered. But only a little.

"Nice running into you. Literally." He twists his hat around and claps me on the arm. "I'll see you in lab. Maybe you can tell me more about the things I don't know."

When he pushes off, I look at my fingers. They're still wet with drops of his blood. As I watch, my skin tastes it, pulls it in through my pores. Warmth spreads up my arm and the sense of him winds around the cords of my sinews. When the warmth reaches my face, my head fills with whispers. They're inquisitive, interested. Hopeful.

I look after him. He raises his hand in a lazy half wave before the crowd swallows him whole.

My bag's still torn, but I find I care less than I did a moment ago. The whispers grow louder, turning into a pleasant hum.

I know better than to touch their blood. Mom's warnings bubble up beneath the humming. I know I've been infected. Some small trace of him will pulse through my veins forever.

Somehow, I'm okay with that.

That Whole Research Thing

| Wednesday, June 6, 2012
Today's Tune: Fast Asleep

My fabulous reader-dudes: you should definitely check out today's song, because it is by my friend's band and it is also REALLY GOOD. If you are into soulful, folksy rock, go listen. Go. This is me shoo'ing you. As long as you come back afterward.

Welcome back! So, I requested blog topics on Twitter last night, and @LynneSchmidt suggested "favorite things to research, or ways you like to do research." And so a blog post was born.

I'm going to admit this off the bat: I love to do research. In fact, it's very easy for me to get sucked into researching things to the point where it's one o'clock in the morning and I'm like, "Oh crap, I was going to actually write a chapter today. WHOOPS." Thus, before we even talk about what and how I like to research, let's start with a tip: don't use research as an excuse to delay actually putting words to the page. It's pretty easy to spend hours surfing the 'net and then pat yourself on the back for "working on your writing." RESIST.

Anyway, I feel a little goofy admitting that I do the vast majority of my research online. I even use Wikipedia. I know, I know. WIKIPEDIA, GROSS. But this is the thing: I write fiction. And while I want my fiction (particularly my science fiction) to make sense and be believable, I don't like binding myself too closely to pure, unadulterated FACTS. Which absolutely does not mean that I don't take my research seriously, it just means that I don't take it so seriously that I tie my hands to the real world with no wiggle room. I do, after all, write speculative fiction.

That said, I don't like to get things completely wrong. It's embarrassing. I like to sound like I know what I'm talking about by actually knowing what I'm talking about. When I set my story in a real place, I like to know where things are located, what neighborhoods my characters would live in, what they'd do for fun, etc. I like to have a grounding in reality, because it helps me feel like I can more accurately elaborate on it without completely botching something.

While writing TTH, I found myself doing a lot of research. Since it's a historical sci-fi novel based in real Old Chicago, I found myself perusing a lot of old maps, picking my art historian friend's brain about the style of dress and society mannerisms of the time, and looking up real people and places that existed back then. I wanted my world to feel as realistic as possible because I felt it'd add another layer of believability to the less-than-believable elements. And even though TTH relies on a hefty dose of applied phlebotinum, I still found myself researching everything from botany to electric eels to battery power. In my current WIP, I'm doing a lot of research on the symptoms of severe dehydration and the hunting habits of piranhas. Don't ask.

I suppose I approach research much in the same way I approach writing -- I like to have a solid base knowledge so that I'm aware of what I can change without making a complete mess of things. I write consciously and think a lot about choices before I make them. And yes, some of the changes I make might rub purists the wrong way, but that's okay with me. The important thing is that I feel like I'm in control of my work, and research helps me do that.

Some of my favorite sources of research, you ask? Well, I can't recommend utilizing your friends and family enough. Everyone has a unique perspective to bring to the table, and if I'm tackling something I'm not 100% sure about, you better believe I ask about their experiences and opinions. I've unnerved my dad more than once with my medical questions, I'm sure. University websites and libraries are also a wealth of information. I research nearly everything that comes into my head. If I have a question, I investigate. And you'd be amazed what you can find while Googling something like "fables about missing hearts."

In my mind, there's no such thing as too much knowledge. I research way more than I can ever include in a novel, but then the knowledge is THERE. I can pull on it at any time, file it away for future projects, or just be content in knowing a little bit more about the world.

How do you do your research, reader-pals?

P.S. - Here's a picture of Chris Hemsworth because @amparo_ortiz suggested I write a blog post about him, too.

YA Pride Month

| Monday, June 4, 2012
Okay first: you guys, trailer for The Perks of Being a Wallflower, omgggggg.

Next: Malinda Lo has declared June 2012 YA Pride Month, during which we celebrate GLBT young adult literature and characters. You should absolutely follow along to read the interviews, essays, giveaways, and more she'll be hosting this month. Her essays are always incredibly thought-provoking.

There remains an unfortunate lack of GLBT characters represented in YA, but especially main characters. We hope to see that shift over the coming years. In the meantime, let's discuss some of our favorite books featuring GLBT characters. I've been reading Graceling and Fire by Kristin Cashore, which features a few fantastic GLBT secondary characters. I appreciate Cashore's approach to sexuality, which is very sex-positive and mostly shame-free. I'm also, admittedly, a big fan of Malinda Lo's own Ash -- a lesbian retelling of Cinderella.

What are some of your favorite YA novels featuring GLBT characters? Bonus points if the main character is GLBT!

Breaking Down: "The Body," Buffy the Vampire Slayer

| Friday, June 1, 2012
Today's Tune: Funeral Dress

In case you don't follow Mark Watches, let me explain the inspiration for this post: Mark is currently watching the entirety of Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the first time, and yesterday's episode was "The Body." If you are unfamiliar with the show or that episode, I'm going to be spoiling it bigtime in this post. Just so you know. Also, you might consider watching the episode. It's routinely lauded as one of the best episodes of television ever filmed, and is an excellent exploration of death and grief.

That said, let me also forewarn you that it can be very difficult to watch, especially if you've lost a parent. I have not, but I have lost close friends, and I can tell you that you will almost certainly see some of what you went through reflected in this episode in some way. It's for this reason that I wanted to explore the episode today and talk about how it captures the emotion and pain of death so well.

A poorly written death scene can destroy the momentum of a novel and nullify what should be an incredibly emotional moment. At worst, it can be unintentionally comical. Think of (ugh I hate even typing it) Episode 3 of Star Wars, in which Padme dies of a "broken heart" and Anakin responds to the news of her death with his infamous, emotionless "NOOOOOOOOOO." You do not want that. Ever.

It's incredibly easy to substitute melodrama for realistic emotion. Hair pulling, screaming "no" to the heavens, declaring you will join your love in the black abyss, et cetera. While an intense meltdown is a very realistic reaction to the news of death, the audience needs to feel the emotion, not be distracted by the focus on over-the-top, cheesy cliches.

Here's how the episode "The Body" created one of the most visceral fictional portrayals of death and grieving written in modern memory.

The death is incredibly personal and final. The character who dies is the protagonist's mother, who the audience has come to know and love over the course of many episodes. In the previous episode, before Buffy finds her dead, she is portrayed as bright, vivacious, full of life. The stark contrast of her alone and cold is shocking, as death often is. This is a death that matters. And it is a death that Buffy, who routinely saves lives, never could have prevented. A natural death, with no chance of resurrection. There are no outs or do-overs here. Dead is dead.

The mental and emotional state of the title character is portrayed through careful writing and direction choices. The detail and nuance featured here are impressive. I've read many a death scene where I couldn't get a grasp on the protagonist's state of mind because they're too distant, or melodramatic, or the scene is structured awkwardly. Here, we see the decisions of the writers and directors to portray Buffy's shock, grief, and sorrow. The camera follows her closely to indicate her panic. Her voice flickers in and out like a little girl's. Once it's verified that her mother is truly dead, we see her pull inside herself and watch the world slow. She stares at the phone for several seconds before calling her Watcher. The distant sound of people and life is far away, strange. She doesn't look the paramedic in the face as he speaks to her, but lets her eyes focus on her mother instead. She vomits, then places a paper towel over it and stares. Everything is so muted.

All these small details convey the numbness and horror she feels. Obviously the film medium offers options we can't recreate on the page, but we have other options available to us. Have you ever been through this? What are your memories? What are the things you focused on? How did the world feel? In college, a friend of mine died. I remember the shock of finding out, of my brain not processing the information right away. I said something stupid. I hugged my friend. Sobs felt yanked from my belly. I stared at random objects for what felt like hours. Time lost meaning. My heart throbbed in my chest like it was afraid it was next.

A variety of reactions and metaphors for grief are conveyed through the various characters. We have Willow, who's at a complete loss about what to do or how to be there for her friend when she feels so messed up. Tara, who's been through the death of her mother and understands on some level what it's like. Xander, who's angry and needs someone to blame, something to do to make it right. Anya, an ex-immortal being who's facing the death of someone she liked for the first time and is in turn exploring her own mortality. Dawn, who has the loud, screaming, denying reaction. Buffy, who moves from viewing the body as her mother to seeing it as only a body and knowing her mother is really and truly gone.

All of these characters are displaying realistic, personal reactions to this loss, and yet each response is a larger metaphor to the storyline as a whole. They are trapped inside their own grief, trying to be together while inexplicably being forced apart, because you can't share your grief. It's yours alone.

Life moves on. Nothing grinds to a halt. When we're faced with a loss, we often can't understand why the world doesn't just STOP. Doesn't it know this person we cared about isn't here to see it? That they will never see that bright sunlight, or hear those children playing, or be happy or sad or scared again? Many writers allow a death to halt the narrative. That's not the way it works. You still get parking tickets. Vampires still attack. The world doesn't care that you're mourning. It's a painful thing to realize.

The protagonist's hopes and inner doubts leak through. We see an image of her mother during the holidays, smiling and serving an enormous meal. Cut to her lifeless body. Buffy imagines a miracle recovery, which the audience hopes for as well, but it's not reality. She hears the doctor telling her that her mother didn't feel any pain, and her own mind fills in "I have to lie to make you feel better." Her mindframe continues to break through throughout the episode, reminding us that even as she's putting on a brave face, she's broken inside.

The isolation is shown, rather than told. The characters stand awkwardly apart, even when they're together. The silences are prolonged, uncomfortable. The humor is there, but the usual spirit behind it is weak. All of this is compiled with the metaphor about negative space around objects from Dawn's art class. No one says they feel alone, but they are. They're all alone, even when they're not. And no one is portrayed as more alone than Buffy's mother, who is so far beyond their reach that she's essentially become the negative space between them.

For these reasons, this episode stands out in the narratives about death. YA literature is well-known for its "dead parents" tropes, and they do become fairly tired. It's important to figure out how to make the audience care when a character dies, for them to feel that loss as if they're the protagonist.

Are there death scenes that have struck home for you? What were they, and why do you feel they hit you so hard?


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