Let’s Talk About – “Uncanny Mess Realism” in Worldbuilding

Welcome back! Or Happy . . . First Time Here? Uh . . .

Welcome!

Holy shit, I’m never trying to write a normal intro ever again.

Today, I wanted to get back to writer talk. I have an important life update I’ll drop on you guys, but nothing crazy . . . Well, it is crazy, but not in a bad way or a great way. It can wait.

Especially because a really good topic came to me in my weekly zoom call with other writers last Saturday.

How to use a very specific type of realistic complexity in worldbuilding.

As I brought it up to my writing buddies, I realized, Maybe this isn’t a facet of worldbuilding everyone thinks about?

To put it simply, it’s the messy, microcosm-riddled complexity of both in-world institutions and pre-story timelines.

I took a week and tried doing some research about this topic, but I was only able to turn up a bunch of basic worldbuilding tips. Which means no one (from what I saw) has talked about this before. I’m choosing to believe that’s because I’m just obsessing over miniscule facets of writing again. But whatever.

I’d like to point out that I didn’t create this concept. I learned it from watching a DM on Twitch ages ago; Adam Koebel, who possibly still DM’s for the Rollplay D&D channel, used to do worldbuilding sessions for the games he ran and after watching a few, this one aspect of his approach to worldbuilding stood out to me. I don’t remember him calling special attention to it or naming it, but I’ve come to think of it as . . .

Uncanny Mess Realism

Okay. Hear me out.

Your basic worldbuilding for the guards in a Fantasy city is this:

The guards in this city are servants of the king and they ride horses from the stables at the castle’s guardhouse.

Uncanny Mess worldbuilding for the guards in a Fantasy city is this:

The guards in this city were a mercenary faction that was employed so long by the kingdom that they were folded into the military 300 years ago (which is why they’re called “the Wolves” [I dunno–it’s 3am] and why their coat of arms is the kingdom’s sigil with a full moon behind it. Among the Wolves, there are two pretty distinct mindsets–those who love the kingdom (who grew up here or came here because they heard stories of it and are content to protect it) and those who want to be Wolves because they have “Wolf’s blood” in their family line or grew up on stories about the sell swords (and who don’t care nearly as much about the kingdom and its citizens). Also, they use horses from three different stables–Lockley’s, West End, and Minish, which are all on retainer with the king. A normal person can still buy or rent horses from those stables, but their warhorses are technically property of the crown, shared by the Wolves when necessary. Yeah, the previous queen used the castle stables to outfit the Wolves, but the current king loves horses, so the castle stables are full of his personal stock.

Basic worldbuilding for a company that makes androids is this:

Android Co. [3:30am now] makes androids in its facility in Silicon Valley! They sell androids at their fancy chain stores, and even though they are the only android manufacturer in the world, their androids are incredibly high tech and basically human.

Uncanny Mess worldbuilding for a company that makes androids looks like this:

Android Co., like the 5 other major android manufacturers, gets a lot of their parts from third party manufacturers. Considering, for example, the highest quality processors come from one company and heat sinks come from another, they have a bunch of contracts with a lot of third party firms who ship parts to their factories. Even after you take into account proprietary technology, their androids are still about 40% identical to every other android on the market. Android Co.’s major claim to fame is the hyper realistic synthetic skin they use on their products, but even that is a commissioned variant from the same firm who sells to everyone because they make the best, least creepy-looking synthetic parts.

What I’m trying to get at here is that, in the real world, organizations and institutions are very messy.

If you go to the bear enclosure at your local zoo, and you see the one brown bear you’ve always seen there, who now has *gasp* an adorable bear cub with them, the temptation is go, “Aww! He/She had a baby!?” But, in reality, that cub was possibly brought in from another zoo or a sanctuary. In fact, if you’re not particularly keen on the bears, maybe you don’t even notice that the one brown bear you’ve always seen is a totally different bear–that yours was moved to a different zoo and a new one was brought in and you’re 30 feet away and can’t tell regardless.

Okay, it’s starting to sound like I’m roasting your ability to identify bears from 30 feet away, but no–what we’re focusing on here is that zoos 100% operate like that. All organizations do.

A security firm orders their uniforms from one local outfitter that buys shirts from a different company that mass produces them. Every pizza place in New York uses boxes that don’t advertise their pizzeria. I don’t know why, but clearly, there’s some needlessly complicated reason why that happens.

That complexity is just the way organizations actually work. They are these messy chimeras of intentions, business decisions, and contracts that are constantly changing. And making the organizations in your fictional worlds operate in this way will make them weirdly realistic.

If that is something you want to do.

As always, whether to use this approach depends entirely on what you want to do with your story. I build organizations like this in my stories for the same reason that I do pre-story timelines for my characters–it just adds potential fuel to my work and sometimes influences the entire story in important ways.

Another thing to keep in mind: organizations can be as Uncannily Messy as you want. Android Co. can purchase 100% of their parts from other manufacturers and have them assembled by a contractor. Or they can ship in 10% of their parts, the rest all proprietary, made in a massive complex of factories in Canada. Obviously, all of this is your call and subject to whatever facet of realism you think fits.

But I will add that . . .

Uncanny Mess Can Also
Be Applied to Character Timelines

Obviously, Uncanny Mess is a beast of timelines; in all of the example above, it is a tool I used to flesh out the timelines of different organizations.

However, even though a character isn’t assembled at a bunch of different factories, their pasts can definitely be that complex.

Which I only say because, was I was younger, the reflex was always to be like, “And before this character walked into the plot, he was a knight. He grew up in this town, became a knight, fought in the Old War, and now he’s old. A-a-a-a-and done.”

But, really, that knight’s history should be, “He grew up in this town. Maybe right when its trade in–oh man . . . Okay. Wait. I have to come up with what they traded in. Fish? Okay. Wait. So I guess he was a fisherman’s son? Maybe that affects how he talks? Did he hate fishing? Maybe that’s why he became a knight? Or wait . . . Maybe he loved fishing but he had to leave that town anyway? Maybe he, like, fell in love with someone in the big city, but had to become a knight to gain the status necessary to marry him/her? Okay. Whatever. He was a fisherman until he was 16. Then he went on a trip with his family to the big city, maybe to deliver a bunch of fish, and that’s when he met–wait! . . . How did he get to the big city? Was it on a ship? His family probably didn’t own it, so was it a merchant’s vessel, commissioned by the king?”

I mean, look, you don’t have to be as crazy as I am when it comes to designing characters’ pasts, but the potential to find some interesting facet of a character is always somewhere back there. There could be an experience he has on that ship that inspires him to become a knight–anything from getting to see different ports to living through a pirate raid, thwarted by a royal vessel full of knights.

Again, none of this is essential. In fact, there’s a very real chance that going back and entertaining all of this for a story you’re already writing would just be detrimental.

But if you feel like your characters aren’t round enough–if you aren’t sure about their motivations or what story you want to tell through them, maybe give their past a second look.

And if you’re writing an intrigue story centered around some organization and you’re having a hard time figuring out the pieces of the plot, maybe take a second look at that organization’s past.

And make an absolute mess of all of it.

~~~

Well, that was fun.

If you’re new here, I post in this web zone every Sunday. And I’m going to try to start posting as early in the day as I possibly can, because I’ve realized that by the time I’m posting every Sunday (usually at night), I’ve always missed a spike in visitation. So I tell people to stop by, and they do–to find nothing. I feel really bad about that, so I will officially start aiming for 12am on Sundays.

So, stop by next Sunday! Or, if you would rather just avoid all of this scheduling BS, you could always follow me here (a button on the left sidebar on desktop and the top right menu on mobile) so my posts can get emailed to you.

Either way, thanks for reading. I am flirting with the idea of making audio recordings of these posts–but that’s going to rely heavily on how easy it is for me to read them/the cost of apps and equipment. If it’s not too bad, I’m throwin’ the stimmy at it.

Anyway, until next time, take care, stay safe, and hug your cats! Just a full-on hug. Unless they’d hate that–LOL. Bye!

Let’s Talk About – My Writer Quirks

So, if there’s one thing my writing group has exposed to me by accident, it’s my collection of what I think of as “Writer Quirks”: illogical standards / habits that dictate how and what I write.

I mean, I knew they were there, but some of them have been discovered by my writing group, so I’m thinking about them more this weekend.

And, since I woke up to some serious snowfall, I thought ‘why not just take a chill snow day and talk about my Quirks–the things that make me the weird writer I am?’

Yeah. Yeah, that could be fun and chill, so let’s do it.

Number 1 – I love writing in inclement weather.

There’s something about rain in particular that gets the creative juices flowing for me.

And, to be totally honest . . . I think it’s because of Jurassic Park.

Please don’t tease me, but one of the first stories I wrote was about me and my cousins trapped in my old apartment with my cats, who’d become Velociraptor-sized for some mysterious reason.

I was, like, 10 and had just seen Jurassic Park, so cut me some slack.

Anyway, yes, that movie was massively influential for me, so whenever it rains (like it did in the T-Rex scene), the urge to write hits really hard.

And, even if it isn’t raining, I can find an ambient rain sounds video on YouTube, put on headphones, and just go.

Number 2 – I love mustache-twirling villains.

Despite evidence to the contrary on this site, I do love villains. But not the misunderstood, “morally ascendant” ones.

No, I love obviously evil mustache-twirlers.

Like, the more ‘comically evil visual cues’ they toss out at first glance, the better. Is that villain in a black leather coat? Great. Is that villain in a black leather trench coat with shades on, and eyes that are burning so fucking red you can see them through the shades? Fucking glorious.

Paramount among them (obviously) is Albert Wesker as he appeared in Resident Evil 5, where he takes “obviously evil” to the ultra max.

Like, “Guys . . . I don’t want to jump to conclusions here, but . . . I think this guy is evil?”

Making him look like a stern, Aryan man was not enough; he had to be a stern, Aryan Terminator in (what looks like) head-to-toe snake skin.

It’s just so over-the-top. I love it.

Number 3 – I love writing outside
(but I hate writing at coffee shops).

I know–I should hand in my Writer Card right now.

But, seriously, I must have missed the window where it was comfortable to write in a coffee shop.

Because, every time I try, the “You can only sit for 30 minutes while eating” sign blares at me. Or the overhead music does. Or there’s a group in the corner, laughing and talking loudly about whatever. Or there are the people around me, working on/looking at who-knows-what on their computers (porn being a very real option from the Starbucks stories I’ve heard). And, real talk, that mystery of “What are they working on/looking at?” emboldens people to just stare at your computer screen while you write; seriously, the last time I wrote at a Starbucks, the woman sitting next to me went zero-fucks and openly started reading what I was writing.

Yeah. Thanks–I’m good.

However, I do like writing pretty much anywhere else outdoors–the more secluded, the better.

And this all came from my first NaNoWriMo, where I discovery-wrote Memory in different spots all over New York. The first post in that series, (which I called 30 Days of NaNoWriMo) starts at home (which was not the plan), but what followed was a fun, 30-day romp where I searched for places I could viably write, ending with the Cloisters. And I think that romp ruined me forever. I can (and still do) write from home, but I will almost always write more enthusiastically outside.

Unless it’s at a coffee shop.

Number 4 – I was heavily inspired by
Samus Aran from Metroid.

I’ve probably talked about this on here before, but a major influence for my strong female protagonists was Samus Aran. In particular, the above diagram from the Super Metroid Nintendo Player’s Guide.

My Samus is and always will be 6’3” and 200 lbs.

That said, Samus is only one side of the “Strong Female Character” spectrum; on the other side is Mabel Pines, who I’ve wanted to write an entire post about for a while. For now, suffice it to say that I love Samus for being a strong woman who’s massive, imposing, and badass . . . and I also love Mabel Pines for being a strong woman who’s nerdy, boy-thirsty, and hilarious.

Samus was an awesome gateway for me and I will always love her, but it’s important to say that she is not the end-all example of what a strong woman is.

Number 5 – FFVI made me want to write Fantasy.
FFVII guaranteed I’d never write anything else.

I was massively inspired by Jurassic Park, but my desire to write awesome stuff was forever turned from “no-frills American action movie” to “Fantasy” when I played Final Fantasy VI for the first time.

The Magitek Armor (made weird and fluid by the art of Yoshitaka Amano), the presence of fae-like Espers (who were not simple analogues of traditional deities), the variety of characters (who reach into pretty much every extreme a crew can have [from a spunky kid to a weary old man]), and the 11th hour twist that the villain succeeds in destroying the world (and you have to fight through the aftermath) made me irrevocably invested in Fantasy’s potential to be unique.

But I didn’t really understand Fantasy’s range until I played Final Fantasy VII.

I don’t want to rant about that game, so I’ll just say that it was the first time I experienced a Fantasy story set in a modern city.

And, as a kid growing up in the Bronx, the idea that a Fantasy story could be based in a modern city–that the slums under a giant city could be the starting point for an adventure with otherworldly monsters and magic–blew my goddamn mind.

I wouldn’t trade the bizarre potential and impossible range of Fantasy for the world.

Number 6 – I have a special designation for music
I want to write stories for–“righteous.”

Last thing–I take crazy amounts of inspiration from music, which I think a lot of us do.

However, I often find songs I want to write for. And, at some point, I started thinking of those songs as “righteous.”

I don’t know how this “righteous song” thing started, but most of the time, those songs will never fit into any of my WIP’s. For example, “Spectre” by Radiohead is the intro theme for a story I am not writing. What is that story? No idea, but I want to write something that fits “Spectre” so badly, and I don’t know why. It just triggers a part of my brain and evokes emotions that I really want to make into a story. I used imagine it as the theme for Aixa the Hexcaster, but it doesn’t fit Aixa’s tone either, so it will forever float as the intro theme for . . . something in my brain.

Once in a blue moon though, the visceral muse of certain songs does inspire entire stories; “Time’s Scar,” from the intro to Chrono Cross, is directly responsible for The Hand and the Tempest, the big project I’m working on after Memory. I heard that song in high school and created an entire story from it. Well, I was in high school, so really, I imagined a CG intro for a story, and then, 15 years later, made that CG intro into a workable plot, but still, if a = b, and b = c, then something-something-math.

~~~

Okay. it is now the late afternoon, so I’m going to clean up what I have and post this. I hope everyone is doing well, and if you liked this post, I’ll be posting again next Sunday . . . or Monday, depending on how insane next week is. I’m potentially landing a freelancing contract, so I will either be bummed but relaxed next week, or happy but wild-eyed and hyperventilating from the effort of making a design project perfect.

Either way, stay safe, enjoy the rest of your day, and eat your oatmeal.

. . .

I started eating oatmeal again recently and found that my old man taste buds think it’s delicious, so I’m on that kick now . . . Anyway, bye!

Let’s Talk About – The Anatomy of a Good Crew

A while back, I was talking with a friend and fellow writer about a future project. While describing it, I called it a “Team story,” and then squinted.

“Is there a better word for that? Like, a story where your characters are one team?”

And I don’t remember if I stopped trying to explain or she cut me off, but she answered, “An ensemble cast. You’re talking about an ensemble cast.”

And I remember thinking, “Is that what I’m talking about?” In the moment I was just like, “Sure,” but I kept thinking about it for a while because, in typical bureaucrat fashion, I wanted to find the perfect heading to sort my ideas under and I knew it wasn’t “ensemble cast.”

Because Game of Thrones has an ensemble cast, but it is not a story about a united team.

Something like Friends, however, does star an ensemble cast while also presenting those characters as one, cohesive unit for the audience to love.

And it’s the latter part–the team part–that I was trying to get at. I now have two future projects that are going to require a balanced team with interesting dynamics, and because my life this week has been steeped in Star Wars, I’ve been thinking a lot about highly dynamic, synergetic teams.

Or–as I have ultimately, lazily classified them in my head–crews.

So let’s talk about them.

Not whether they’re good or bad, but just what I’m learning from looking at / remembering a few standout examples.

What I’ve Learned About Crews (So Far)

If ever there was a franchise that lived off of it’s crews, it’s Star Wars.

Seriously, part of the reason The Mandalorian feels so fresh is because it’s the only popular Star Wars story that doesn’t have a crew.

Anyway, let’s get into it:

  1. Smaller crews feel clean, and give everyone time to shine, but large crews are totally possible if you make them super charming. By my count, there were 8-9 people on the Serenity, but Joss Whedon made all of them super lovable and interesting anyway, in part by all of them unique Specializations and Plot Functions.
  2. Every member of a crew needs to have a Specialization (pilot, mechanic, fighter, lockpicker, etc.) but they also need to serve a Plot Function (comic relief, responsibility anchor, protagonist).
  3. Specializations vary depending on what you’re writing, but when it comes to Plot Functions, memorable crews usually seem to have the following:
    1. A Protagonist who usually has to learn to become good at their Specialization or learn a different skill entirely. Luke and Aang are prime examples of protagonists learning Specializations as parts of their arcs. On the other hand, Peter Quill from Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t learn anything–he’s just good at a handful of things and has emotional arcs instead.
    2. A Responsibility Anchor who steps in to keep the plot moving in the right direction. Princess Leia and Gamora are really popular standouts, but Kanan Jarrus from Star Wars: Rebels and Cere Junda from *deep breath* Star Wars: Jedi: Fallen Order are the two I experienced the most this week.
    3. A Romantic Interest. Not gonna go in-depth here.
    4. Comic Relief. Also not gonna go in-depth here. But I will point out that there’s almost always more than one comic relief in a good crew.
    5. The Muscle. The usually gentle, often giant who’s going to crack their knuckles and walk into a bunch of enemies and come back fine. Familiar examples are Chewie and Groot. Significantly different examples are Toph Beifong from Avatar, River Tam from Firefly, and Nightsister Merrin from Fallen Order who, and this is true, is my waifu. I am a grown man who never once said anyone anywhere was his waifu because I didn’t get it, but now I get it.
    6. A Scrappy Person. This is a weird one, but there’s often a person who’s . . . bad at fighting even though they want to be good at it? Or who often need saving. Classic example, even though it doesn’t seem like it at first: Han. Yes, he will chase Stormtroopers down a hallway, firing his blaster, but he’ll be back in 3 seconds, running from a hangarful of them. Sokka is another example.
    7. Someone who doesn’t speak Common or who is hard to understand for some other reason. I know this is weird, but it’s real. It’s obviously nonessential, but you can put in characters who don’t speak Common. They’ll just need another character to answer all of their questions in Common, thus translating, and they’ll need to emote well. And I have to take a moment here to remind everyone that the crew of the Millennium Falcon has two–fucking two–characters audiences love even though they can’t understand anything they’re saying. To this day, that blows my mind. Aside from R2 and Chewie, Groot is one of my favorites.
    8. The heart of the team–an Emotional Anchor. Someone caring to keep the team together by helping them solve differences, the single greatest example of which is Steven from Steven Universe.
    9. And finally, a cute companion! Also obviously nonessential, but so adorable when they’re done right. Like Appa! And I would say BB-8 if he wasn’t attached to a series of films that wound up being one of the most disappointing trilogies of all time.
  4. As you’ve probably noticed, those nine Functions are not limited to one character each, or even one per crew. Your Protagonist might also be the Scrappy Person, like Ezra Bridger from Rebels. Your muscle might not speak Common, like Groot. You might, like Guardians, have three separate characters who could all count as the Muscle. Making that composition–and playing with it–is one of the major parts of making a crew.
  5. But the other major part is making sure that your composition has characters who all feel unique from each other but also have good chemistry. They should have different, maybe even conflicting personalities, but they also need to be able to engage with each other in a way that’s entertaining. If two of your characters are stuck in the same room together and you can’t write an interesting or fun scene with them, something’s wrong.

Two Crews That Didn’t Work for Me

I’m still trying to be more positive on here, but I do have to point out the two crews I didn’t find interesting (and explain why).

The crew of the Ghost on Star Wars: Rebels.

I watched 6 or 7 episodes of Rebels while working on my computer, and I ultimately wasn’t hooked for a few reasons. The reason related to this post: the crew was split into two extremes.

On one hand, you had Ezra, Zeb, and Chopper who were always bickering and playing pranks on each other.

On the other hand, you had Hera, Sabine, and Kanan who were all super capable and professional.

I’m sure the show gets better, but the team chemistry just wasn’t there. Everyone had good Specializations, their Plot Functions were super clear, and they all looked unique from each other, but they all felt like they were sharing two personalities, so I ultimately had to bail.

The crew of the Mantis in Jedi: Fallen Order.

Now, I’m ending here with a crew most people haven’t experienced because it comes with a lesson.

Pictured above is the entire crew. From left to right, it’s BD-1, a little droid who specializes as the hacker and can’t speak Common. Next is Greez, the pilot and comic relief. Then there’s Cere Junda, the Designated Plot-Driver and secondary hacker. Cal is our redheaded Protagonist. And last is Nightsister Merrin, who’s arguably the Muscle (because Cal would be, but she’s a space witch who saves his life a ton) and is also, believe it or not from this picture, more Comic Relief.

So what’s the lesson here?

Never have one member of the crew join super late in the story.

Nightsister Merrin doesn’t join the Mantis until insanely late in the game. Seriously, she joined my crew last night, after, like, 20 hours of playtime. Which is bizarre because . . .

. . . this crew is not complete without her.

This is not a waifu joke; seriously, dialogue in the Mantis was so boring before she joined.

For 20+ hours, cutscenes with the crew were extremely one-note. Cal was goal-oriented, Cere was goal-oriented, BD-1 was goal-oriented, and Greez, while charming, just followed orders and complained. Very quickly, everyone believed in and supported each other, so there was just nothing to look forward to in their interactions. Even a mid-game semi-twist with Cere didn’t throw off the “we have to keep fighting for what’s right” vibe.

After Merrin, dialogue is likely to take a weird turn when she asks things like, “What Empire?” because she grew up on Dathomir and has no idea the First Galactic Empire even exists. When Cere asks her about her magic, Greez might compare it to the time he ate a huge steak to win a prize, and Merrin might say–against all odds and in perfect, non-combative monotone, “Yes. My magic is exactly like eating steak.”

And just . . . h’oh my God! They have chemistry now! How? How did the one extra character make the most boring crew ever so much fun? I want to actually listen to their dialogue now. And even though I assumed the crew of the Mantis was a safe, corporate decision for 20+ hours, I now feel like I’m playing the main writer’s head canon crew that they’ve been nursing since Revenge of the Sith. And I actually want a sequel for this game I never thought I’d like (which, btw, if you haven’t played Fallen Order and you’re looking for a decent Souls-like, it’s way better than it has any right to be [just put it on max difficulty and prepare to die]).

But, look, whatever. I’m sure I’ll turn on that game in a little bit and Merrin will immediately peace out or Cal will die, but the lesson I took from that experience (aside from never ever bury one of your crew members at the end of your story–why would you ever do that???) is this: there is a very fine line between an incredibly boring crew and a super fantastic one. You can be off by just one character.

There is no formula here–at least not one that I’m aware of. You can play fast and loose with your character’s Specializations and Functions, and you should to make sure they, as a whole, are unique.

But, the worst thing you can do with your crew is make them boring. And you make them boring by making their interactions uninteresting.

As always, I have to add the extra disclaimer that I am just a man, not a professional. I don’t know the ins and outs of making a compelling team of characters.

But hey, it can’t hurt to talk about it.

~~~

Apologies for getting this one out late, but I was working through my observations as I wrote them here.

If you enjoyed, you can always feel free to drop me a like or follow.

But either way, it’s 4AM and I need to go pass out.

Take care, and, always be secure in the fact that if you’ve already eaten one cookie, a second cookie will not kill you. Goodnight!

Let’s Talk About – Iconic Characters

Man, being able to breathe is amazing, isn’t it?

Like, I woke up today and didn’t immediately look at the news. Isn’t that wild? I just woke up, drew in a breath, exhaled it, and then did that again a few times without being afraid, and holy shit, isn’t that weird?

Anyway, hi and welcome back.

Of the topics I wanted to talk about for a while is the idea of the Iconic Character, in part because I find the concept interesting, but also because I’ve been working on a Fantasy novel that does the Iconic Character thing and I only just realized it recently.

To be clear, I’m not being the smarmiest asshole on planet Earth like, “My character in the novel I’m writing is iconic. Hmyeah.”

What I mean is, my current WIP fits into the Iconic Character archetype.

And, before I move on, let me just explain that really quick.

The Iconic Character Archetype

Any story that is at least partially carried by a character the audience wants to see being the best at whatever they do.

So, basically, 99% of cape comics.

And a ton of movie protagonists (James Bond, the Terminator) and antagonists (Jason Vorhees, the Terminator).

Also, TV protagonists, like House (who jumps to mind immediately), and the Mandalorian (who banks entirely on being from the same space culture as Boba Fett, a Star Wars character people have been obsessing over since 1978).

But, really, the example who’s been around the most in my life (and thus the one I’m most tired of) is Batman. People buy Batman comics and go see Batman movies because they want to see him being Batman. And, I don’t want to dwell on this, but I do feel like he’s the perfect example because he’s often super flat as a character; people do not go see a Batman movie to see Bruce Wayne handle a difficult, personal situation–they go to see him beat the shit out of a bunch of criminals in a warehouse.

The thing is . . . the majority of these characters are very well established. Like Batman, the Doctor has been around for decades. Which is really why I wanted to bring this up: the single, simple question:

Is trying to write a new Iconic Character
the worst idea ever?

I didn’t do it on purpose; I just had the idea for a story, wrote an entire first draft, and then got way deep into a rewrite before realizing my protagonist would be vying for a spot among these pop culture titans (not House).

I mean, obviously, there wouldn’t be any Iconic Characters if new ones never broke through. But . . . a lot of them don’t? Especially in the remake/reboot/sequel-obsessed Hollywood of 2020, which has us all set to watch Batman’s parent’s get killed on the silver screen for the <checks watch> 298751853265275th time.

So I wound up asking myself, “Is this just the worst idea ever?” I seriously don’t have another character like Memory–she is the only fighty badass I intend to write–so should I just . . . not?

To be clear, I have a ton of faith in my girl; Memory is a ninja-assassin-bureaucrat who’s also a cyborg or maybe a goddess (the stories people whisper about the Lord Sun’s Shadows are wildly conflicting).

But I’ve had a lot of faith about a lot of things that didn’t ultimately work out well.

And the Iconic Character is really an all-faith play; you think your character is so awesome that you put them out there.

So, is writing a story that focuses on a badass character just a terrible idea?

I . . . Don’t Think So?

On one hand, it’s wrong to say it’s a terrible idea to write about anything (aside from really obviously bad shit, like Proud Boys writing about how Hitler wasn’t really a bad guy).

But on the other, holy shit is this dangerous.

It’s a lot to bank an entire story on a character’s badassedness. And, look, there’s a lot to Memory aside from Memory. There are other characters, other arcs, weird settings, etc.

But I am still going to have to do a ton of work to make sure her perspective is as unique and intriguing as I want it to be.

And, I guess if there’s any advice I could fashion out of this experience, it’s that: make sure that your Iconic Character is unique. If they’re just a reskin of Superman, they will get massively outshone when standing next to him.

But also, if you think you have something unique, keep working on it.

Thats what I’m going to do.

I’m very cautiously optimistic. I am at whatever level of DEFCON writers fall into when they develop a novel for practice (let’s say Danger Level Hot Pink). I am not assuming that Memory will get published.

But I am still working on it.

Because the best thing we can all do is keep putting in the time.

Keep fighting. Never give up.

~~~

Thanks for stopping by for this weird chain of consciousness. The nice thing about Memory is that I’m part of a writing group now with a two close friends who are giving me a bunch of feedback about it. I’m still just writing it for practice (trying to prepe my process for a follow up that I have a lot more faith inl, but I’ve also never had as much faith in Memory.

Anyway, if you’d like to be notified when I post again, it’s next Sunday (I usually post on Sundays). But if you’d like a straight up reminder emailed to you, you can always follow The House of Error via the buttons to the left on PC and the top-right menu on mobile.

Until next week, breathe easy, folks.

Let’s Talk About – The Responsibility of the Writer

Star Wars: Squadrons just came out.

That was the impetus for this post.

I mean, I’ve felt like I needed to talk about what I think of as “the Responsibility of the Writer” for a while now, but Squadrons triggered me.

Because, based on promo videos, I thought it was another Star Wars game that let us play as redeemable, likable space nazis, and my reaction was, “The world does not fucking need likable space nazis in anything we watch, read, or play.” And, again, yeah, I get it–that game isn’t actually about stormtroopers.

But holy shit 2020 has been long…

A few weeks back, in my post about how much I hate Proxy Racist characters, I made the point that modern American society just does not need a feel-good revenge plot for a racist villain from an 80’s film. In fact, I feel like it’s irresponsible to write any story from a racist’s perspective in 2020, no matter how positively it portrays minority characters.

Because stories from the perspective of those minorities are infinitely more uplifting and undoubtedly what the world needs more right now.

I still stand by that. And I still stand by the idea that it is our responsibility as authors to make that change possible where we can (i.e. I’m going to write about Latinx and Afro-Latino characters because I’m an Afro-Latino who grew up in a Puerto Rican family).

But since that post, I’ve felt a nagging need to clarify . . .

. . . that this is not the “WRITE LIKE THIS OR ELSE” blog. I don’t want to make demands, and I never want to say a static “You cannot write this!”

But I do want to say that if you do write certain things, you absolutely need to frame them responsibly. And if you shirk that responsibility, you might be contributing to a wide range of societal problems, even if you think you’re not.

Because all media does have an impact on society. We, as writers, do have power over it.

The power to normalize ideas.

Trends become common thought, and yield results–good and bad. On the innocuous side, there are the obvious creative trends, like the magic school stories that came after Harry Potter, a much needed continued exploration of an environment we all loved. On the bad side, there’s the nationwide, decades-long trend for mean-but-morally-ascendant-bad boy-protagonists . . . that normalized selfish assholes, and, at the very least, put us on the path to Trump.

What I’m saying is, we can write whatever we want, but we need to start being responsible about how we write those things and what ideas we’re normalizing with them.

The Responsibility of the Writer

If I had to define the responsibility, it would be as follows:

It is the writer’s responsibility to handle risky content with care so as to not foster and uplift horrible ideas. If it is impossible to frame a story in a way that is healthy, the writer should instead frame it in such a way that is is very clearly unhealthy without glorifying that toxicity. In cases where the content is too hot, never ever present the story from an unhealthy perspective; while you absolutely still have the freedom to write from that unhealthy perspective, doing so means you’re outing yourself as a terrible person.

You can write a story from a villain’s perspective, but you should:

A) Not actually make them a fucking racist, a misogynist, an unapologetic serial killer, a violent criminal, etc. in a plot that gives them zero motivation and/or uplifts them for doing terrible shit. This includes the bog-standard, bad boy protagonist who murders people, but–for example–hates liars, which every other character in the plot turns out to be (as if that double standard is realistic in the goddamn slightest).

If for some reason you have to write about a really terrible person, then–

B) Make it extremely clear that they’re monsters by taking the checks and balances further; actively have characters call them out for the terrible shit they’re doing and don’t use the swelling music, set design, or plot to undermine that criticism, even if the protagonist ignores it. Give your reader an unfiltered view of them; a reminder that, “Hey, in case you forgot, the shit they’re doing is actually bad.”

You can write the YA story about the toxic relationship, but you should:

A) Make your protagonist totally aware that it’s toxic and trying to get out of it, maybe ending the novel with the relief of escaping that kind of abusive relationship. Or–

B) At least have one goddamn character point out how toxic the protagonist’s relationship is in an exchange the reader cannot glance over. Make them aware that your boyfriend isn’t supposed to treat you like absolute shit all the time. Because selling a fucking book isn’t more important than empowering young women, you fucking leeches.

Sorry. The toxic bad boy trope just . . . really pisses me off because of how manipulative and ubiquitous it is. Like, some day, I want to have kids, and the idea that my daughter will get her hands on a YA novel with a toxic relationship, and assume she’s supposed to literally deify a pushy little shithead, already pisses me off.

But moving on.

You can write the story about racism, but you should:

A) Never write it from the negative perspective. Write either from the perspective of the victim, or, at worst, the perspective of someone who used to be racist. Because crossing your arms, huffing, declaring that “This is a free country!” and writing an actual racist who says racist things means you’re just a fucking racist.

Or–

B) Nope. There is no “or.” Again, the topic’s too hot, so never write it from the negative perspective.

With all of that said, I get that not all stories are this clean cut. In fact . . .

Most Stories Can’t Be This Clean Cut

Many of the best ones aren’t. In fact, many of my favorites aren’t.

But, in my experience, all of the best risky fiction at least tries to be responsible.

Joker is an example of a villain’s story that at least tries to be responsible. It intentionally teeters between evocative / tragic and scary / murderer for the entire movie to build tension, and then goes full “he’s a monster” at the end because it’s supposed to (although the mystique of the Joker, as an iconic character who’s had a ton of iterations, makes the crescendo weirdly triumphant anyway when it re-e-e-e-eally shouldn’t be).

In contrast, absolute garbage, guilty pleasure media is usually significantly less responsible:

In Venom, our protagonist, Eddie, bonds to a higher power, Venom, which talks in his head about how badly it wants to kill people. Eddie agrees to follow that voice’s orders (because it tells him it will kill him if he doesn’t), and then, via his willingness to serve, he’s rewarded with the ability to kill and eat whoever he wants . . . which the plot frames as a su-u-u-u-uper cool thing. There’s even a plot line where the higher power is slowly eating away at Eddie from the inside and that plot line never gets resolved, like the message is “Don’t ask questions! Just keep doing what you’re told!” It almost watches like fascist propaganda.

Meanwhile, the toxic relationship trope at least seems hugely popular in Romance across all media. Shows like You and 365 Days made the rounds at my job when they came out, with the one coworker demanding I watch You (and, yeah, literally demanding because she was a monstrous asshole), and the YA trope is the angry, raven-haired Once-Ler who negs the protagonist every chance he gets.

What I’m trying to say here is, once again, I’m not making demands. I’m not telling you what you can and cannot write.

I’m just begging you to please be responsible.

To acknowledge that your story might have the power to influence the way someone sees the world.

Please wield that power well.

~~~

I’m still hesitant to put this out there. Probably because, at this point, I’m just tired of stoking the totally unreasonable, determinedly close-minded First Amendment Bear.

But . . . I do think this needs to be said. Or, rather, I need to say it. It feels like we’ve been completely careless with our power to normalize ideas for ages, and now, in 2020, we have to acknowledge that lack of care comes with consequences that we need to consider in our own work and see in others.

By which, of course, I mean to say fuck Venom and don’t go see Venom 2.

If you enjoyed this post and want to be notified when I post again, you can find a “Follow” button on the red bar on the left side of your screen on PC, or the drop down menu on the upper right on mobile.

Until next time, take care and stay safe.

Let’s Talk About – That Nostalgic FOBU

It turns out the board game I’ve been working on is very similar to a game that already exists, called Nemesis.

They aren’t identical, which is the great thing; I spent so much time over the last few years working on my game, Voidsong, that I’d be legitimately depressed if it was accidentally identical to another game that already existed.

But man, that did not stop me from getting hit hard by the FOBU (fear of being unoriginal) when I tried Nemesis with friends.

Me: “Oh. Oh, I pick . . . my win condition. Weird. That’s . . . totally something I have in my game. Whatever. Cool.”

*5 minutes later*

A Friend: “So then, yeah, play continues with each player taking a turn, but then, in the next round, you go first Louis, because–“

Me: “The first person in the turn order moves to the next person in the order every round to ensure the one player doesn’t maintain an unfair advantage and also I put that system in my game last year and WHAT IS HAPPENING!?”

Okay, I didn’t actually say it like that.

In the moment, I was actually like, “Hmm. Okay,” because understated horror is my signature move.

But I came away from that play session shaken regardless.

Not because I thought Nemesis and Voidsong were too similar; they’re tonally, visually, and emotionally very different, and I my game is much simpler, with major differences in gameplay where it counts.

But the FOBU from my high school days came back with such a goddamn fury.

The Olde Fear

Do you remember it? You, the writer reading this right now, do you remember being a kid and somehow being insanely derivative of, let’s say, Final Fantasy VII (just to use myself as an example)? And that fear being super paradoxical because, simultaneously, you were actually being 100% derivative of something else (Castlevania for me!)?

Man, those were the fucking days. When, like, these wasn’t a tonal through line to be seen for a thousand miles and no actual writing ever got done. Motherfuckers out here like, “I got this real dope story I’m working on. No, I can’t tell you anything about it.”

It was just so strange to be yanked back to that headspace again, for the first time in 20 years. To say, “Omfg, this game has an advancing turn order, just like I do in my game,” while also being aware, in the background, that I totally just adopted that advancing turn order from one of the many other board games that have it.

It took me a bit to get over it, which was strange too, but . . .

The Nostalgia of It Was Weirdly . . . Comforting?

Because there’s something just nice and liberating about realizing that you aren’t the writing genius that you think you are when you’re 15.

I remember just never talking to anyone about any of my writing projects because I was so sure they would steal all of my ideas . . . that I’d stolen from other places.

I talk a lot about what makes a writer good, and I don’t know if this is one of those things, but it definitely feels like it is.

Because . . . Well, quick story:

There was one time I was at a party and another writer talked to me about how they wanted to combine magic and technology in their WIP. I remember nodding, gesturing with my drink (the subtle half-cheers that translates in Partysign to “affirmative”). And, at the same time I was thinking, Should I talk about the Fantasy book I finished a few years ago that has technology in it just to make conversation?

Whether or not I inhaled to bring that up doesn’t matter, because the other writer kept talking about his idea, which is fine; I generally like to just listen when someone’s talking about their WIP because I know how rare it is to get that opportunity to idea-vent to another writer (someone you know actually cares instead of the usual person who asks about your story and then tunes out in 3 seconds).

Which, of course, made it so strange some time later, after I let that friend read my WIP, and one of his comments was a loosely veiled, “You did technology and magic, like my thing.”

Like, “Motherfucker, excuse me?”

I didn’t say that in the moment. I mean, in those moments, the best you can do is blink, say, “Uh huh,” and think, “I thought of combining technology and magic 15 years ago, when I played Final Fantasy III, in which technology and magic being forced together was important to the plot.” Or, “Did you really think you invented the idea of combining technology and magic?”

And, also, you think, “I’m so glad I’m past that phase.”

I’m so glad I made it past the point where I’m concerned with what my peers are writing. The point where I think so highly of myself and so little of them that I worry about them stealing my ideas.

I’m so glad that I acknowledge the enormous gap between inspiration and plagiarism, automatically course-correcting away from things that have been done and just focusing on the story I want to tell, trusting it’s going to be original because of that totally personal, uniquely bizarre spin I have to put on all of my works in progress (the same way every writer does).

I guess what I’m trying to say here is, if you don’t experience that FOBU anymore, then, oh man, wasn’t it funny when you were young and it was always there?

And, just in case you are still concerned about it: a person totally wrote a fanfiction of Harry Potter, another person wrote a fanfiction for that fanfiction, they both changed names around, and they’re both rich now. Ambition to be original is great and it’s a cornerstone of making your work yours.

But, at the same time, if you’re concerned about it at all, then . . .

. . . real talk: you’re already fine.

~~~

I just had to take a week to reminisce. If you enjoyed this post and you’d like to be notified when I post again, or–and this is super important–if you didn’t know it was called FOBU until this post, well, you can follow me (via the buttons to the left of the screen on PC or in the menu on the upper right on mobile) for more mind-blowing infolike that in the future.

I have no idea what I’m going to talk about next week, but with any luck, it’ll be the side project I’ve been working on since forever (that keeps getting pushed back with new hurdles different sites are making me jump through).

Regardless though, until next time, take care and stay safe.

Let’s Talk About: The Emperor’s Pistol

I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art this past Wednesday.

It was the beginning of a new trend I’ve started of just getting out of the house. Maybe it’s in celebration of finishing the edit of Memory.

More likely, it’s just an intense desire to be out having fun when I have the freedom to do so. In particular, I’m trying to go out with friends more often — trying to work my life into a legitimate TV show with a full cast of characters.

Because of course I have to think of them as a cast of characters.

Whatever, the point is, I wanted to head to the Met . . . because, back in February, when I started posting on here every day, I mentioned wanting to go there and write about it.

Not just because it’s an awesome museum that I genuinely get lost in every time I visit.

But because it’s where I, as a kid, had an epiphany that made me the writer I am today.

And that epiphany centers on this:

TheEmperorsPistol

Yes, it’s a gun. Nothing could seem more crass, I know, but bear with me.

This is a pistol made for Emperor Charles V by Peter Peck, a maker of watches and guns, back in the 1500’s.

It is, as you can clearly see . . . absolutely insane with detail. The etchings. The detailing on its curved grip. I have no idea how functional this thing could’ve been.

But, when I was young, I didn’t care about that.

Because, when I first saw this gun, all it did was confuse me.

Much in the same way that it’s confusing the first time you find out that Batman didn’t start with Christian Bale, Michael Keaton, or even Adam West.

“Wait . . . There were guns before the guns I’ve seen my whole life?

“But . . . we have them now.”

For whatever reason, it felt like some kind of cosmic betrayal. Like the world was messing with me. Not only had we had them, but they were actually beautiful hundreds of years ago, “when they were way harder to make . . . How does that even work?”

The answer was something that stuck with me. Something that’s prevalent in all of my work, whether I want it to be or not.

It’s the knowledge that I don’t know everything. That I, as a human being, am inherently stupid and limited in my ability to perceive the world around me. The past — the eternal majority of human existence — is a thing I can only know snippets about if someone else I don’t know compiled information about it for everyone — before I was born.

My knowledge, I discovered that day, is the sum of the scattered things I can try to learn about the past . . . and my own stupid, human assumptions.

Like that there weren’t guns hundreds of years ago.

This is the reason why I think about what’s happening 10 feet below me sometimes. With no provocation, I sometimes try to imagine what’s happening 10 feet below me — at home, on the street, or wherever there’s solid ground — and I realize that I have no idea. There is, in fact, no way I can ever know exactly what’s happening 10 feet below me. Unless a) I’m falling, or b) I’m in one of those boats with a glass bottom, to which I argue, a) Oh shit! I’m falling!?, and b) Oooh. Are there sharks?

This 10 feet down talk also applies to you — right now. Apologies if you’re paranoid, but the caveat is that you don’t have to worry what’s going on down there. If you’re in an apartment, it’s someone else’s apartment 10 feet down — none of your business. If you’re in a private house, the cat’s down there, maybe, and that’s none of your business either — even if they’re clawing up the furniture. That’s their night and you’re not a part of it, because you’re up here, reading this post.

The point is . . . our thoughts aren’t unique. Our ideas aren’t original.

When I looked at that gun, I had the first spark of the realization that humanity had not started with me. And I wasn’t the pinnacle of it.

And, despite how all of this sounds . . . I thought that was amazing.

The idea that fantasy could be more complicated — that humanity hundreds of years ago had already been more complex than I thought — blew my mind.

And that freedom — to make things complicated — is at the center of everything I write.

And, of course, I use it to promote the notion that we, as humans, aren’t perfect and all-knowing. Because that idea is beautiful and fascinating to me. It’s humbling.

And it’s reassuring to know that I don’t know everything.

And I never, ever can.

~~~

It’s 2AM and I . . . really need to get to sleep, so I’m going to keep this short. Thank you again for reading. I know this one got here at the end of the week too, but I’m going to keep trying to balance work, writing, and my personal life in the non-stop Spider-Man dance that is my life. I’m actually considering taking a break from the blog again just to get my handful of projects into submissions, but we’ll see what happens.

Anyway, my name is Louis Santiago, and I’m a fantasy writer based in the Bronx. My short story, “Aixa the Hexcaster,” was published last year in Mirror Dance Fantasy. However, I’m still very much learning about the writing process — still trying to figure it out — which means posting here every week, even though I make absolutely no money from it. So, if you like what you read here and feel up to getting updates by email — a new post from me delivered right to your inbox — then please hit the Follow button at the bottom of this page. Because, even though all I get from this site is emotional support, that support means the world to me.

Thank you just for passing by, and, as always, write well.

 

Let’s Talk About: Endgames

Ages ago, I spoke to a friend about “endgames.”

He blinked. “What do you mean? Like, when you can play the credit roll during a video game?”

“No. It’s just a term of mine, used for an ending that’s really . . . like, well done.”

I don’t remember how he replied or how the rest of my explanation went, but I remember his eyes narrowing.

Because it was ages ago and I wasn’t making sense, horrible as I was (and still am) at talking to people in person.

What I should’ve said was, “Endgames are endings for anything — movies, games, novels especially — that are given a ton of gravity and romance.

“In my mind, these endings lock you in; a good endgame starts well before whatever story you’re playing or reading has ended — and, by sheer will of its awesomeness, it keeps you watching/reading/playing, everything else be damned.”

At the time, I’d offered the end of Super Metroid as an example; the moment you reach Tourian and start destroying metroids (particularly the moment you reach the hatchling), there’s no going back.

And, now, I suppose that’s the best definition of “endgame”: a well-executed conclusion, beginning well before the credit roll or final page, from which there is no return, as the endgame is perfectly crafted to keep you playing/watching/reading.

As opposed to a normal ending: a final boss and a credit roll for a video game, a simple conclusion for a movie, a traditional climax and epilogue for a novel.

For a movie example, I can’t help being a predictable, millennial, comic book jackass and pointing to The Avengers. I haven’t seen that movie in years, but the 40-minute invasion of New York is a clear example of a movie endgame. The invasion is (arguably?) the best part of the movie, providing a ton of awesome moments that keep you watching straight through.

For a video game example, Breath of the Wild has a super epic endgame that starts when you venture into Hyrule Castle, finally ready to fight the Calamity. This one goes the full mile though; there’s unique music, journals around the castle — even a gameplay element that isn’t used anywhere else in the game. It’s a weird one because you can walk away from it, but it’s extremely hard to do so once you’re in it, and that’s what endgames are all about.

For a fiction example though, I won’t provide one great example . . .

. . . because I’d rather point out that, seriously, awesome endgames are . . . everywhere in fantasy.

Remember reading Harry Potter? Remember getting to the last 100 pages of any of those books and just . . . not being able to stop?

Or maybe you’ve read Abhorsen by Garth Nix? Ya know, the last installment of a really awesome YA fantasy series, the endgame of which has 100 pages that span 10 minutes of in-story time? And it’s amazing?

Seriously, I don’t know if it’s just easier to make awesome endgames for novels (if hooking readers for hundreds of pages at the end is second nature for writers), but I feel like endgames are a key feature of a great fantasy novel.

Because — to be clear — I’ve read general fiction novels that didn’t lose anything by not having endgames. I’m not, by any means, saying that Pride and Prejudice actually needed a final showdown with goddamn zombies.

But, when I write fantasy, with the aim of making it entertaining and actiony (my short stories are always dramatic, it turns out, so not those), I always feel like endgames are essential.

Because I’m a man who just wants to write something awesome. And, I don’t know a better way to do that than by taking all of the beats of a story and tying them to tons of non-stop catharsis at the very end. That at least seems like an awesome way to end a fun fantasy novel — every time.

Unless, of course, you do an endgame poorly.

And, I mean, let’s be real here: I’ve absolutely written a terrible endgame.

How? Well, I don’t remember how long it was, but I can say for sure that the endgame in War of Exiles was way, way too long.

In the same way that Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater had a terrible endgame because it was way, way too long. Trying to make an endgame feel epic is all fine, but it’s super easy to over-stuff your endgame, making it a bloated mess (cause, seriously, why was there an escort quest at the end of Snake Eater? Why!?).

So, I guess I’m saying . . . here’s to this phenomenon that I love — so much that I made up a term for it. I’ve loved and studied endgames in all media for a long time, and I think that they’re worth examining as a writing technique on their own.

At the very least, consider this: the next time you watch, play, or read something that has a really awesome conclusion that was given a ton of love and majesty, maybe just stop and think about how much you loved it. And why.

~~~

And so it was that Louis Santiago’s blog became “LetsTalkAbout.com.”

Seriously, I’m itching to get back to other series, particularly Writer’s Workshop and Let’s Make, so look for those in the weeks to come.

For now though, thank you for reading. I’ve been meaning to write about endgames on here for a really long time, and I hope this post adds a little complexity to how you think of conclusions in general.

For anyone new to the site, my name is Louis Santiago, and I’m a fantasy writer based in the Bronx. My short story, “Aixa the Hexcaster,” was published last year in Mirror Dance Fantasy. However, I’m still very much learning about the writing process–still trying to figure it out–which means posting here every week, even though I make absolutely no money from it. So, if you like what you read here and feel up to getting updates by email – a new post from me delivered right to your inbox – then please hit the Follow button at the bottom of this page. Because, even though all I get from this site is emotional support, that support means the world to me.

But, either way, thank you again just for stopping by. And, as always, write well.

Let’s Talk About: The Everything’s Great Threshold

I started watching Parks and Recreation recently. As a man who’s genuinely terrible at keeping up with television, I’ve had this show on my Netflix list for as long as I’ve had Netflix.

Parks and Rec follows a familiar curve. Season 1 wasn’t great, very obviously lifting its joke climate from The Office. In season 2, the show finds its own identity and becomes way, way better.

But, by season 6 . . . it’s exhausting to watch.

Why? Well, that’s what I decided to make this post about. Because it’s exhausting for a reason that I’d never experienced before.

Everything . . . is just perfect.

In its earlier seasons, Parks and Rec had a lot of entertaining conflict. Budding romances that viewers wanted to see happen, goals that the department was trying to complete, setbacks for a cast of fun characters to figure out together.

By season 6, however, it’s a nonstop thrill ride of pretty much everything going well. There is one major set back for the protagonist, but, within two episodes, it’s like it never happened.

And, maybe I’m a pessimist . . . but that kind of optimism is just . . . so boring.

And it’s cloying; I’ve seen things go well for people in real life — long streaks of good times — and that’s fine, but I’ve never had to watch friends on TV, high-fiving and constantly talk about how much they love making out with each other.

I mean, sure, you can blame this on the fact that Parks and Rec wasn’t designed to be binge-watched on a streaming service. It was written to provide spaced-out doses of good vibes on NBC.

But it’s still tedious watching episode after episode of everything going great and being perfect for everyone. The cast is split up into neat, perfect pairings that fall in love very easily — sometimes unbelievably. The main characters are just rolling in job promotions — that they often turn down because they’re already so happy.

I mean . . . fuck’s sake. So far, there have been no normal weddings on this show; every wedding on Parks and Rec has been a cute, surprise wedding. Not “most of them” — literally all three of them have been surprise weddings. Every single one. Because every single couple that’s gotten married on this show loved each other so much that they just had to get married “tonight!”

Couples don’t fight; they disagree with each other, but the disagreements are always easily resolved. Which is weird because, in early seasons, relationship problems endured — as they do in real lie — instead of neatly fizzling out.

Near the end, babies start happening, and I actually sighed when one husband decided he really wanted babies . . . on the same day that his wife — in another part of Indiana and unable to reach him by phone — found out she was pregnant.

Wow. The magic of everything being unrealistically perfect.

It almost feels . . . contrived somehow.

I write this, and I think, “Well, they just wanted to write a really uplifting show by making it absurdly optimistic.”

But the question becomes . . . isn’t that just boring for everyone?

Because good stories revolve around good conflict.

And, I understand that there is still conflict and motivation in later seasons of Parks and Rec — because you can’t have a story without conflict — but, I guess what I’m trying to say here is . . . there is a ceiling to positivity in fiction. A point at which it becomes impossible to care about a group of characters, because they’re routinely handed victories.

I’m calling it the Everything’s Great Threshold, and it’s going in my personal, writing rulebook.

  • Too much positivity — to the extent of magically-timed solutions to your characters’ problems — kills any tension a story could possibly have.

Or, in other words, when everything is perfect, small problems become challenges — and challenges aren’t real problems.

When said by a character whose life is perfect, “We have to put together this benefit dinner on short notice!” is not a problem. It’s a challenge.

When said by a character who’s struggling to do their job well — someone who has already gotten a warning that they’re up for review, for example — “We have to put together this benefit dinner on short notice!” is pure hell. It’s intimidating, nerve-wracking, and, when it’s resolved, for better or worse, it yields a much better emotional pay-off.

At least that’s how I feel. Granted, I’m just an amateur who’s only had one short story published.

But, hey, life doesn’t just throw victories at you.

~~~

Keeping it short and sweet for today. It feels good to get back to writing theory though; this site has been more of a journal recently.

But, hey, for anyone who was enjoying the journaling, just know that I got through the first chapter of Memory this week, finally fixing the problems I’d had with it before. I’m going to continue editing the rest of the novel, making sure everything works with the new intro, but the point is, I’ll actually be submitting again really soon, and that feels awesome.

Anyway, thank you for reading. For anyone new to the site, my name is Louis Santiago, and I’m a fantasy writer based in the Bronx. My short story, “Aixa the Hexcaster,” was published last year in Mirror Dance Fantasy. However, I’m still very much learning about the writing process–still trying to figure it out–which means posting here every week, even though I make absolutely no money from it. So, if you like what you read here and feel up to getting updates by email – a new post from me delivered right to your inbox – then please hit the Follow button at the bottom of this page. Because, even though all I get from this site is emotional support, that support means the world to me.

Either way, thank you again just for stopping by. And, as always, write well.

 

Let’s Talk About: The Term “Mary Sue”

So, the trailer for The Last Jedi is out, and it doesn’t look like it follows Empire’s plot, which is super exciting for me. I’m eager see more of Finn and Rey . . . and I’m also just ready for a Star Wars movie I like. My reasons for disliking Rogue One could easily be a post on their own, so I’ll just tuck that rant somewhere safe–save it for another time.

Instead, I want to talk about the phenomenon that’s chased Rey around for the past year and a half.

The internet’s weird idea that she’s a Mary Sue.

Now . . . Let me start this by saying that I genuinely hate how the term “Mary Sue” is used.

Mostly from the angle of a wordsmith.

“Mary Sue” suffers from Literally Syndrome;  it has lost all of its meaning in the swirling toilet bowl of comments sections everywhere.

Currently, it’s been dumbed down to mean “an overly capable female protagonist.”

And that is absolute, utter bullshit. Because there shouldn’t be a skill-ceiling for female protagonists to make men feel safer and more relevant. And, without a doubt, men are trying to feel safer when they argue that a strong female character is a Mary Sue.

Regardless, “Mary Sue” has a definition that’s useful. It’s not flattering, but it makes sense and should persist as a term we can use–not as the go-to invective of the internet’s manlings.

My definition: “A Mary Sue is a female character in fanfiction who acts as very obvious wish fulfillment for a female, amateur author, in a variety of ways (acting as a paramour for a beloved character, being unrealistically perfect at all things, single-handedly saving the day, etc.).”

The thing I hate about that definition is that it’s not gender neutral, which doesn’t make sense; there are absolutely male Mary Sue’s, but, aside from “Gary Sue” and “Marty Sue” just sounding weird and terrible, I’ve most often seen Marty’s used as counterpoint to the “overly capable female protagonist” definition for Mary’s.

Which means that I’ve seen the comments section where people are screaming “Rey is a Mary Sue!” and other people are screaming, “Then Batman is a Marty Sue!”

And, oh man, for fuck’s sake, neither of them are Sue’s. Both of them are protagonists of long-running, mainstream franchises. Neither of them are characters created for the wish fulfillment of an amateur author.

You know who is a Mary? Deboora Solo, Han Solo’s long lost sister, who’s a better Jedi than Luke, a better pilot than her brother, and able to tear off robot’s arms faster than Chewie ever could. Good ol’ Deboora, created by Debbie Reynolds from down the street!

You know who’s a Marty? Jacen Wayne, Bruce’s illegitimate son, born and raised in secret by (fuck, I don’t know) . . . vampires! So he’s like Batman, but younger, stronger, and cooler, with a popped collar! And he was created by Jason Bertenberger! . . . Suprise, surprise.

The point is, Mary Sue’s surrogates are embarrassing, and they suck–they’re a bad habit of amateur writers–but they’re also a real phenomenon, and they deserve a good term.

But, alas–hark–I can already hear manlings chiming in, “No, I’m not done! Your definition is lacking! Mary Sue’s are obvious wish fulfillment–that’s all! And Rey? She’s obvious wish fulfillment for women!”

To which I say, “Holy shit, dude. Welcome to what a fucking protagonist is.”

“Oh my God. I just checked the encyclopedia, and, yo, it turns out escapism was the whole goddamn point of fiction–the entire time. Whodathunkit!?”

Phew . . . Okay. Breathing now.

Apologies. I try to keep a cool head and not get insulting about things here–I really do. However, the new generation–the part of it that I’m seeing (which is the “Let’s defend a YouTuber’s right to be a deluded racist!” part) enrages me. The world is full of people who say whatever offensive shit they want and then shout others down when they react. It makes me sad. For a while there, it seemed like humanity was actually figuring itself out–becoming better. But we weren’t. We were just silently getting worse the entire time.

Regardless, what I’m trying to say is, “an overly capable protagonist” is basically synonymous with “a protagonist” in most stories. In fact, unless it’s a drama, the protagonist of a story is always more capable, cunning, and/or charming than every other character. From Rey and Batman all the way back to Hercules being impossibly strong and handsome as he completed his Twelve Labors.

Denying that–and weakening our lexicon–for the sake of protesting a strong character, is ridiculous and embarrassing.

~~~

Man . . . I was working some stuff out with this one, huh? Whatever. I said something I needed to say. And, hopefully, some day, I’ll be popular enough that this’ll actually catch on. Sure, I’ll probably also get death threats, but eh.

Thank you for reading. Hopefully, I’ve given you ammunition for the perpetually burning flame wars of nerdom. I know I got pretty intense with this one, but it’ll be worth it if I gave anyone food for thought.

My name is Louis Santiago, and I’m a fantasy writer based in the Bronx. My short story, “Aixa the Hexcaster,” was published last year in Mirror Dance Fantasy. However, I’m still very much learning about the writing process–still trying to figure it out, which means posting here every week, even though I make absolutely no money from it. So, if you like what you read here and feel up to getting updates by email – a new post from me delivered right to your inbox – then please hit the Follow button at the bottom of this page. Because, even though all I get from this site is emotional support, that support means the world to me.

Regardless, thank you just for stopping by. And, as always, write well.