A Plea for Reason in Sci-Fi/Fantasy “Discrimination”

Edit: November 2, 2013: Don’t like what’s said on this post? Fine by me. But if you choose to mistake maturity for being “oblivious,” then there’s not much I can do to help you. I could go off on another rant, but I’ll defer to Brad Stine on this one.

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Lately I’ve been seeing quite a few accusations of discrimination being flung around the sci-fi/fantasy community. Mainly, it focuses on the fact that many of the writers are white males portraying white male protagonists.

Sorry, what? I must have forgotten to change my race and/or gender before I embarked on writing sci-fi and fantasy. My bad.

Forget about telling me that my “white privilege” is showing or I’m “mansplaining” things to you. I’m addressing you all as human beings, created as equals in the image of God — no more and no less. Look, can everyone quit the mud-slinging for five minutes and just admit this for what it is? If sci-fi and fantasy have somehow been overwhelmed by white, male protagonists/authors (and to a certain extent, that is true), that doesn’t mean it’s racist or sexist. It’s just boring. Well, it’s boring if skin color and gender of the protagonist(s) are a huge deal and determine the quality of a story.

I’m not arguing to keep things the way they are. By all means, let’s start increasing the variety of characters. But it’s nowhere near as important as crafting a good story and fascinating characters to drive it. Aren’t those the basics?

Honestly, I don’t care what the author or character’s race or sex is. I just want the story and the people it’s about to be interesting. In my experience, the only people who have cared a great deal about things the author and character cannot help, like their melanin content or chromosomes, belong to one of two types:

  • Those not-too-common actual racists or sexists — immature people who try to ruin others’ experience with science fiction and fantasy by belittling their race or gender (though I have hardly met any of them)
  • Equally immature people with notes from their classes in race studies or gender studies constantly on the brain, worrying about different types of humans and whether they are “represented” equally among authors or characters, and who think an under-representation of any group is a miscarriage of justice that MUST be addressed (I have met plenty of these, and would rather hope to not run into them again)

Last time I checked, writing classes and books didn’t have much to say on the subject of race or even gender, though that could easily change in the Age of Political Correctness. I don’t care one bit that Avatar: The Last Airbender or The Legend of Korra hardly have any “white” characters. I don’t care that Korra is a girl. I love both series, because the characters are well-developed, and the stories are amazing. And the fight scenes are mind-bogglingly awesome. That too.

But I also don’t care that many of the other stories I love, from Star Wars to Lord of the Rings to Jurassic Park, happen to have a lot of white, male characters driving the story. Because those are exactly the traits of human beings no one should be making a big deal about. What was that Martin Luther King, Jr. said, about people being judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin (or the arrangement of their chromosomes, for that matter)?

Female protagonists are supposed to have strength of one kind or another and be proactive, not because they’re female, but because they’re the protagonists. That’s why. There’s nothing in the chief character’s sex that robs him/her of the need to be decisive and proactive. No one except for the aforementioned groups is going to care how light or dark an author’s or character’s skin is. Most of us just want a great story, featuring interesting people and created by someone who knows what they’re doing.

Now can we please get back to having fun, writing the best fiction we can and sharing it with the world? Thanks for your time.

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Playing to Your Strengths: On Bigotry and Storytelling

A lot of authors have been taking a stance against bigotry among authors, especially against misogyny. Chuck Wendig is the only one I can think of right now, but I’m sure there are others. More power to them! And yet, I have to wonder, out of honest curiosity (here I’m responding to item 19 in Wendig’s article): When it comes to diversifying in our writing, are we going to let writers play to their strengths, or insist that they have to crawl up and join the cool kids at the cutting edge of “social progress” (which is of course infallible and never overdoes anything)? If they stay where they are, does that afford us the right to kick sand in their faces?

Here’s one example. I love it when books and stories have strong female protagonists. In fact, that’s one reason I have no objections to Tauriel, the new female Elf character who’s going to be in the next Hobbit movie. And why the heck should I object? Strong female characters are awesome. It’s true, men get the spotlight too often. Women ought to make more decisions as characters, be more fleshed-out like the human beings (or elves/fairies/aliens…you get the idea) they are, fight in more battles, and affect the plot more than just being a prize for a man to win. When a book includes a female character who is, you know, a person, I celebrate. Break out the Guinness and firecrackers!

However, that doesn’t mean I’m only going to read stories with strong women, nor does it mean I “have to” only encourage authors who include them. An author may indeed be the “god” controlling everything on the page. And sometimes a god should be allowed to focus on male characters, not only female ones. You won’t get me to throw out my copy of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World because only men get to climb the prehistoric plateau and shoot at Pterodactyls, while the women are manipulative, liable to scream, barely figure into the story, and stay in England.

Wendig and others seem to regard authors as the deities who control pages, yet these are strange deities if they must keep up with what bloggers insist they must do. What if the author (male or female) doesn’t write a strong female protagonist into their work because they feel utterly unqualified to develop that sort of character? Does that make them misogynist, or behind the times? Does their inability to develop a take-charge female character indicate a weakness in their writing? If it is indeed a problem, do they have to fix it right freaking now, lest they be branded a bigot?

Does it make someone a homophobe if they don’t/won’t write about gay characters? Is an author racist if all of their protagonists are white? Do they hate Irishmen if there’s nary a brogue to flavor the dialogue?

The answer that should be obvious is “not necessarily.” The decisions a writer makes rarely — if ever — betray a person’s opinion. (And deconstructionism should be locked deep in the ice of Hell’s ninth circle for saying otherwise) Even when they do state their personal opinions, readers keep using said opinions to write them off. I’ve seen people declare with straight faces that they will not read any of Orson Scott Card’s fiction because they hate his stance on gay marriage.

Really? You’re choosing to care that deeply about what one writer thinks? Whatever. I’m still going to read his books, and love them.

Aren’t you supposed to let yourself get sucked into the story? Suspend your disbelief, and as long as the author has done a good job, the story should be all that matters to you. If you’re mainly worried that the author’s not checking off little boxes for what “must” be in today’s fiction, or you disregard their work because of differing personal opinions, you’ve already failed as a reader.

I’d rather someone roll up their sleeves and tell a great story, regardless of their stance on the controversial subject du jour, and regardless of the genders/races/creeds of their characters. Even when the bigotry is real and overt (e.g. the racism in H.P. Lovecraft’s tales), there is still potential for great fiction. I consider it a deep injustice whenever a good storyteller is vilified because their opinions aren’t PC enough for the popular crowd.

The First Six Paragraphs of My Book

I realized I’ve done a lot of talking about writing, and the writing writers who write about writing. Did I mention it involves writing? Well, that’s enough of that. Not writing in general. Just writing about writing. Let’s go back to storytelling! I’m resuming a journey back to the dragons and engraved swords, the buildings of high beauty and strange color — the beautiful things that drew me to writing in the first place.

Time to throw some specificity into the recipe. I’m sharing what are currently the first six paragraphs of my novel in progress. If you’ve got a work in progress as well, I invite you to share the first six paragraphs in a blog post of your own.

These words are completely open to suggestion and critique. If you’ve got something to say, feel free to comment or email. As if I even need to say this, but copyright belongs to me. Obviously. Hope you enjoy it!

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Heavy eyelids opened at a hint of light. The young man’s sight was unfocused, as if underwater, and his body burned. Every movement ground his nerves like a file. He tried to moan, but his sore throat only permitted a gurgle. A blanket’s weight pressed on him. He could make out the walls of a small room and murky shapes of furniture. His only illumination filtered through a window to his right.

Memories were scattered and fragmented, retreating like a swarm of moths when he tried to grasp them. At first he thought it was just a dream. But the blanket’s itching fibers scratched him too coarsely, the sore muscles hurt too much. Where was he? How did he come here?

The young man couldn’t even remember his name.

Heavy footsteps pounded from behind a door at the room’s other side, a door as tall and black as death itself.

His heartbeat rushed. He stumbled around the corners of his brain, probing for clues, for any inkling that could remind him who might be outside. Still the moths fluttered about, turning to dust and forgotten as soon as he caught them. The footsteps receded, leaving him in silence again.

Then his mind grabbed hold of something, tiny and fragile. A name, the most familiar name to him. Josh. Yes, that sounded like it ought to be his name. Josh…Kingston, he thought. My name is Joshua Richard Kingston.

Tolkien vs. Jackson: An Open Letter to Orson Scott Card

Sigh. All right, one more Tolkien related post before it’s back to business as usual. I swear. Just one.

Orson Scott Card is one of my favorite authors. I admit to not having read a lot of his work, though. I do remember reading The Memory of Earth, Ender’s Game, and a few of his short stories, as well as a truckload of essays he publishes in the Rhino Times. His writing advice is solid. I like the way he says things.

But that makes it all the more disappointing when he keeps harping on a particular issue. Every time I’ve seen him refer to Tolkien’s body of work, he feels compelled to throw a tantrum that Jackson “ruined” Lord of the Rings as he brought it to the silver screen. And now the same accusation has been flung against the first Hobbit movie. These films do happen to be my favorites of all time, but that is not why I’m disappointed in his Grumpy Old Man routine; it’s the fact that he keeps going back to it, like the proverbial canine returning to its regurgitated meal.

I don’t expect him to pay me any attention. He’s a big-time, talented writer, and here’s little me, shaking my head on the sidelines. But someone needed to say this, and I didn’t see anyone else calling him out for it. So, without further ado:

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Dear Mr. Card,

We get it. You like to attribute movies you don’t appreciate to dumb Hollywood executives and incompetent directors, following the wrong formulas taught in screenwriting classes. I have heard this complaint over and over and over again. But does it really apply to Jackson’s accomplishment?

I remember from one of the DVD featurettes a teary-eyed John Rhys-Davies — who played Gimli, and was therefore heavily involved in the trilogy’s production — giving his thanks to the whole crew and cast, saying of their love and dedication to bringing Tolkien’s work to the screen, “You won’t find that in LA.” If there is any big-budget movie series that wasn’t subjected to the all-too-common incompetence and cynicism of Hollywood, it was the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Everything from the dialogue to the props was crafted with the care of a historical epic and the passion of people who had been in love with Middle Earth all their lives. And now The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey brings us another movie that is a similarly excellent labor of love from the same people. Even that doesn’t stop you from parroting the myth that The Hobbit was padded out into a trilogy purely for financial reasons. And doesn’t the accusation of padding fly in the face with the complaint that so many “vital” parts of the trilogy were cut out from Lord of the Rings? Too short, then too long. Are you going to have your cake or eat it?

I understand that you appreciate Tolkien in a very particular way, and have spent decades enjoying the story as only you could enjoy it. And maybe the differences between the original books and Jackson’s interpretation felt like a betrayal to the vision you had cultivated and examined and appreciated for so many years. But that should be a matter that is stated once or twice, and then left alone for the opinion and private reaction that it is. It gets under people’s skin when you go back to the same complaint time and time again.

Take as an example the Scouring of the Shire. How Peter Jackson changed the ending made it work better as a movie, even if the book’s ending worked perfectly as a novel. If he’d kept the Scouring of the Shire at the end of Return of the King, it would have dragged out the story past the central conflict: the danger and destruction of the Ring. Which, again, works fine in the story’s original form, but drags a movie out even more than the myriad endings we already got. I would have left the theater disappointed and more than a little upset.

Granted, I have learned much about storytelling since then, and am in more of a position to appreciate the Scouring of the Shire and what Tolkien was accomplishing with it, but even now that is all I can do: appreciate it. Not love it. Not find it quickening my imagination. And it undeniably would be a frustrating, dour note to conclude a movie on. But because Jackson left the Shire blessedly intact, I walked out of that theater elated, thinking “This is what I want to do with my life. I want to be a fantasy writer.”

Some of us were inspired toward fantasy, toward becoming writers, toward the wonders and treasures of Tolkien’s world, because of Jackson and company’s tireless efforts. I should know; I’m one of them. And in honesty, ever since I read the trilogy and The Hobbit, and then saw the movies, I admit to liking Jackson’s Middle Earth even more than Tolkien’s. That’s partly because of personal taste, and partly because of the necessary differences between novels and movies. I’m beginning to think that it isn’t Hollywood’s fault, but yours that it has taken so long for an Ender’s Game movie to finally get made. Clearly you don’t get along well with the movie business and have been far too lacking in cooperation or trust with people who care about storytelling just as much as you do, only in a different medium.

A writer of your talent and sophistication dragging out the same misguided complaints amounts to little more than eloquent trolling. I will still be reading your work, but will stay firmly within your fiction, where I don’t have to hear this bellyaching anymore. And I do look forward to seeing Ender’s Game in theaters, hoping I don’t find myself saying it was a violent betrayal of your own novel. Because I’ve had my fill of writers saying movies ruin the books they’re based on, and don’t want to fall into the same trap.

With sincerest regards,

John K. Patterson

The Three Essentials for Character Development

Whatever else a writer seeks to do with their work, the thing readers will care about the most are your characters. I have, rather strangely, been building up everything else and have found the process of making my own make-believe world and plot so fascinating, I could easily forget the characters themselves, and why their particular stories mattered. Thus my fiction tends to be…not exactly cold, but half-thawed and waiting for an oven’s heat. It is in characters, their suffering and clashing personalities and heartfelt needs and desires, where fiction finds its true potency.

Here are three questions I have slowly been learning to ask, the three most essential questions for the most essential reason to write fiction. If you do nothing else to deepen your own characters, ask these questions and answer them in as much detail as you can:

1. What makes them winsome or likable, or at least interesting?

2. What are their flaws?

3. Why should your readers care about them and where their story goes?

Answer these, and you are off to a good start on making your characters come to life. They will start to get more relatable, more understandable, and become a way for author and reader to connect in a profound way. They will form the core of a story that matters, a story that goes somewhere and gets us invested.

“The Hunger Games” and Understated Violence

…In which I rant some more about academic/critical theories being applied to popular stories. Proceed at your own risk.
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This is a continuation from a previous post, discussing the importance of social commentary in The Hunger Games, both book and movie. Here, I’d like to focus on the role violence played in the cinematic version.
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The violence was considerably toned down in the film, and still that wasn’t enough for the people who apparently think children should never be told the world is often a cruel, violent place. During the saddest death scene in the whole story I had tears in my eyes, but that incredible moment was almost ruined for me. All because some grandma was sitting with her family right in front of me, and she just had to say, “Tsk. That’s barbaric!” You don’t say? Didn’t anyone tell her Hunger Games has quite the body count? This also reinforces Shepherd Book’s observation in Firefly that there is a special circle of Hell reserved for child molesters and people who talk at the theater.
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But I’m not addressing the people who balk at “too much” violence in the movie. This is for those who don’t think there was enough. For that all-important social commentary, you understand. Some of the film’s reviewers, including the person I was responding to earlier, seem to regard the movie as not being violent enough to have any lasting impact or to communicate the horror of the novel’s story and get a point across.
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I’ve said it before and I will say it again: a movie doesn’t need to rely on social commentary to be excellent, important, or memorable. In fact, that commentary, rather like excessive CGI, can become a crutch for a movie to lean on. It will be emphasized to hide a lackluster story, and distracts from a great one.
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Does Games have something to say about violence and how we have come to view it? Yes, it does. The book and film do an excellent job of pointing out how we have gotten desensitized to it and crave corpses for the heightened drama (and as far as I’m concerned, it seems to leave anything further up to the reader/viewer). But my position is that this statement makes up a small part of the whole, rather than being the primary reason we should pay attention to The Hunger Games. If a story is treated mainly as an excuse for academic thought exercises, the experience is diluted, like deconstructing the jokes of a comedian while he’s on stage, and pontificating about what jokes mean to the human condition.
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Even if the main/strongest point of The Hunger Games was to hold up a mirror to a violence-obsessed culture, do we actually need buckets of gore and lingering death scenes for the movie or book to give a satisfying commentary?
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Even if I’m full of crap and Games is mainly meant to comment on something after all, I still challenge the idea that the movie soft-petals its inherent violence. Look at the audience Suzanne Collins was speaking to, and the limitations of media that is read vs. media that is watched. The Hunger Games and its sequels are very much young adult fiction, or at least they fell quite snugly into the YA market. Violence in the books is probably about as far as YA can go right now (please correct me if you know of YA books with much more carnage than these). And given the lower tolerance for explicit violence when it comes to the MPAA, I understand that they wanted less blood shown in the movie, so the main fans could come and see it.
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But a counter-intuitive side effect of this toning down is that the horror of the titular Games is highlighted, not dulled. Violence is being described and commented on, but through what isn’t shown, almost like the use of deep shadow in a painting. The movie’s cutting away from most of the carnage works brilliantly — not because it supposedly panders to a younger audience, but because it leaves that carnage to your imagination.
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This isn’t the same kind of underdone violence you’ll see in the X-Men movies or the Mummy remake, where people get stabbed quite brutally, but not a single drop of blood is seen when the blade is drawn out. In Games, the judicious application of quick cuts showing splatters of blood and corpses in the background contributes heavily to a visual telling of the story. It’s one of the classic tensions between novels and filmmaking. Novels get it right when they spell out enough of what’s happening for the reader to picture it; powerful films go much farther when they don’t show most of the violence — or save a full view of the man-eating shark for the climax. Either way, the audience’s imagination is being put to work. So how the novel and movie handle the story’s violence is expressed in an ideal way for each medium, making for a strong novel and a strong movie.
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All right, I think that’s my last post on The Hunger Games, at least until I finally read Catching Fire. Any discussion, objections, or questions would be most welcome. Thanks for your time.

Satire is Overrated: A Response to John Seel’s Take on “The Hunger Games”

All right, here’s my totally arrogant, opinionated rant about something I’m not well-educated in.

A number of critics have said social commentary was lost in translation from the novel The Hunger Games, to the movie.

Both are, in my opinion, equally excellent renditions of the same story in different mediums. But apparently, the story is not valuable or important enough for certain critics to take the movie seriously (or even the book, with literary critics). Not until it has social commentary, clinging to any novel/movie/music/work of art that gets noticed enough to be “culturally significant,” like a remora on the underbelly of a shark. And John Seel has let us know his opinion about what the movie leaves out:

http://www.cardus.ca/blog/2012/04/when-reality-overwhelms-satire-what-the-hunger-games-reveals/

To be frank, I have a hard time thinking the book relied so heavily on satire. I’ll admit, I’m biased. My brain perceives the specific characters and situations of a story as the most important elements. Anything the author is trying to tell me, or the philosophy they worked with, doesn’t readily or immediately sink in (except in instances of annoying preachiness), because I’m too busy enjoying the story. I don’t pick up much social commentary, preferring to look at the strengths or weaknesses of the book itself. I couldn’t care less whether the author had something Deep or Important to say, as long as they don’t whack me over the head with it.

If a story is meant mainly to be a satire (or satire is its most important aspect), I lose interest. Storytelling can tell us about life, but it seems to be most effective when it’s not merely mocking a defect in society or human nature. For that reason, satire looks less important if you are telling a great tale; great stories are havens for subtlety and specificity. Satire is defined as “A literary composition, in verse or prose, in which human folly and vice are held up to scorn, derision, or ridicule.” So when you realize a work is a satire, you start to hear the derisive laughter echoing over the pages, and that is a massive turn-off for me.

The thing about The Hunger Games is that the novel and movie work spectacularly outside of the realm of social commentary. There is a lot of resonance with big themes and trends in society in Katniss’s story (reality TV, entertainment’s callous attitude to violence, etc.), but you’re always focused on her situation, rather than anything Collins may have been trying to sell you. In fact, I don’t think Collins was trying to sell anything beyond a great book. To call it a satire, in my opinion, is to allude to such a little part of the novel/movie as to make the contention nearly meaningless.

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So, finally, here’s my stronger-worded response to Seel:

In honesty, I have to say that satire doesn’t have as much value as Seel thinks it does, particularly regarding The Hunger Games. It’s a crutch that takes away the full impact of a story that can stand on its own legs. There are better ways to inspire moral outrage, if that’s your endgame, such as tackling a subject with complete seriousness and levelheadedness. How jaded are you if you need to mock a bad situation before you’re inspired to stand against it?

John Seel demands too much from the movie adaptation. And frankly, he asks too much of the book itself. The power of this novel comes from the remarkable storytelling, from the moral complexity of Katniss’s situation and decisions (I look forward to seeing how that plays out in the other two novels, which I have yet to read).

Maybe I missed the full impact of a latent satire in the book. However, it beggars belief that “satire” should be the most important point of a book that doesn’t rely on sermonizing. The Hunger Games, in book or movie form, would have been ruined had our ears picked up the clumsy scrape of a soapbox being dragged into the limelight.

This is what happens when a critic sees social commentary as more important than the story itself. The characters, the series of events they’re caught up in, what that teaches us about human nature – they are all brought down to mere tools for a cause. Hunger Games then becomes a means to an end for a schizophrenic culture to pat itself on the back and reassure itself that its moral vision is clear. “Who cares about Katniss, or Peeta, or Rue, or Haymitch, when you have a villainous dictatorship to spitefully laugh at?”

By the way, if Suzanne Collins’s “cultural satire,” intended or otherwise, was half as important to the story as Seel thinks it was, I would love to know how it got left out of the movie. She was, after all, a producer, and the studio took her seriously enough to let her have final approval on a lot of decisions. Don’t you think the “real point” of the book would have been manifested if satire really was so foundational to The Hunger Games?

The more I hear critics speak of social commentary in a novel or movie, the more convinced I become that it’s a vague concept which spackles Significance onto a story they really want to like (as if the story itself isn’t good enough). Satire may have a place in fiction. But not nearly so prominent as it is given now. If you want to know how I feel about most social commentary as pointed out by literary academics, you can consult the South Park episode “The Tale of Scrotie McBoogerballs.”