I can't really come up with a better title. Sue me. It's more about authorial treatment of characters than the fine nitty-gritty of characterization.
- It is inexplicable to me that any of the people reading A Song of Ice and Fire actually give a damn about the characters. I mean, it's basically torture porn, it might as well be Saw VI except instead of a hamfisted healthcare revenge fantasy as its tissue-thin excuse-plot, it's a hamfisted revenge fantasy against people who dare to have a different political structure than Martin's society. Why do you even bother to give a damn about characters who are that doomed?
The whole thing should come crashing into the Eight Deadly Words, not least because Martin obviously said them himself, about his own characters. I think much of the acclaim for the books is something like Battered Woman's Syndrome, or perhaps akin to the Sunk Cost Fallacy—Martin's dreck is essentially emotional abuse and requires a great deal of effort just to slog through. People don't like to admit that they subjected themselves to abuse or wasted a lot of time and energy, so they delude themselves.
There's also the Puritan/"subversive" angle, of course, where its very unpleasantness makes it "challenging" and "truthful"—therefore it lets them assuage their neurotic guilt over reading fiction (or reading "genre" instead of "literary"). No, seriously, read the praise for the series sometime; "Oh, this is a frivolous entertainment, but it's okay because it's also self-improvement!" is the subtext running through just about all of it.
- It's always amusing to me when Marvel fanboys claim Marvel is better because its characters are "complex" and "multidimensional", because what they mean is "I am so emotionally dead inside and incapable of empathy that I mistake anyone who doesn't act like a Jerry Springer guest for a mannequin."
I mean, seriously, Scott Summers' uncontrollable powers, angsty backstory, perpetually dying love-interests, and being related to every third person in the universe: Captain Atom, Bruce Wayne, Kyle Rayner, and Damian Wayne all have one of those issues apiece. Because DC doesn't think that "characterization" means "make them a ball of ridiculous soap-opera angst". But Marvel does. Because, they say, that makes the character more relatable. Am I crazy or did they just insult you?
Also, a setting that involves Wolverine, Apocalypse, Mr. Sinister, and the Hulk doesn't get to accuse another setting of being overpowered, especially not when the other setting contains its powerhouses so much more gracefully.
- I was reading a thing about how to write female characters, for male (screen)writers. One of the points was that female characters tend to fall in love more quickly and define themselves by their relationships more, and also more likely to seek comfort. This is chalked up to Hollywood not seeing women as equal to men, rather than, y'know, 50 million years of the evolution of all non-lemur primates.
But on the other hand, it's interesting, because that's much less the case in Japanese stuff. The relationship part, I mean—Japanese men are about 12 times as "strong silent type" as American ones. But think about manga characters: a lot of guys define themselves by their relationship to particular girls. It can be love, like in Magico or Nisekoi, or partners like in Soul Eater or Slayers, or master-servant like Hayate the Combat Butler or Monster Princess. But these men's universes revolve around the women in their lives.
Of course, a part of it is that Japanese culture tends to define people by their relationships (or else tautologically—they say "I am myself" more often than anyone except a Hopi god). It also probably didn't hurt that a major component of their conception of masculinity is a class of people who defined themselves by who they worked for ("samurai" literally means "vassal").
- The derps at io9—a Gawker site, so any day they don't eat from a bottle with a skull on it is a personal triumph—were discussing character names that they don't like, because, apparently, everyone reading books will assume that the character will act like some other character with the same name. Because as we all know, that one person you know who makes a big deal out of any news report where people have the same names as an acquaintance is totally normal, and not an idiot at all. Although then again, Gawker site—perhaps in the circles they stumble around in, gape-mouthed and rusty-zippered, that sort of behavior is unremarkable.
Also, though, what if you are deliberately drawing a connection, not just as an homage but in-story? One of the characters in my werewolf story was the original of Carmilla—the rationale is that LeFanu got ahold of some accounts of her and, assuming it was just a bit of folklore, based a story on it. Now, admittedly, I didn't name her "Carmilla", since it's, y' know, not a real name; at first she was named Karmille (she's German, remember), and then, when the fact that's not a real name either started to bug me, I remembered that (spoiler for a book that went public domain in 1948 at the latest) Carmilla's not her real name, "Mircalla" is. So I decided to give her the name "Marzella", the German form of "Marcella" (which leads me, by the way, to conclude that those people who ship the Vampire Queen with Princess Bubblegum may not be completely off-base).
Speaking of Carmilla, did you know she's the same thing as Freddy Krueger?
- Joss Whedon's perpetually-quoted "Why do you write such strong female characters? Because you're still asking that question" exchange...never really happened. He was scoring rhetorical points in a conversation where he acted out the other side, and also, sorta, complaining about the one-note nature of a one-note narrative he was very largely responsible for. Which hypocrisy is, admittedly, pretty much par for the course for Mr. "I'm totally a legit feminist even though my female characters get abused as much as John Norman's".
But it's sorta funny, because Whedon is the poster man-child for what gets called out here, that "strong female characters" are at least as flat and one-dimensional as "damsels in distress" were, only they have crazy-awesome Mary Sue abilities. And while damsels in distress were getting rescued by princes played by Clark Gable, "strong female characters" wind up with guys who need to be rescued by them, played by Shia LeBeouf (that's pretty much that last link in a nutshell, though you should read it anyway).
Seriously, consider. Whedon probably would say that he's "subverting"...something or other...by his male characters always being morons, weaklings, man-children, and asses (when they're not cannibals, rapists, or human-traffickers, I mean...although then again he whitewashes human-trafficking). But since his female characters are utter paragons, and you can only get so much mileage out of lesbianism outside of a niche market, nearly all the romance in his work is, ipso facto, the story of a woman settling for a man who is completely beneath her. I'm pretty sure there has been a SNAFU somewhere, if that's supposed to be feminism.
- Not unrelated to that thing about Martin, above, my younger sister (not the older one) had an interesting point the other day. Namely, if you make a big deal out of "anyone can die", why will anybody mind much when they do? Whereas, as she pointed out, when Cedric Diggory dies in the fourth Harry Potter (that is not a spoiler, that book came out when Bill Clinton was still president), you're shocked, because nobody had died before that.
See, if your whole story is set up so death doesn't mean anything, death...won't...mean...anything. And, uh, fiction kind of needs for the things that happen in it to have meaning, there's a reason the PoMo buzzword for "imposed meaning" is "narrative". Fundamentally, the big flaw in "dark" fantasy is not its puerile gutter-wallowing or politically-motivated distortion of its (claimed) historical models (those just make it complete garbage). Fundamentally the big flaw, the one that invalidates the endeavor itself, is that the genre undercuts the very concept of a story.
- On a similar note to that Marvel business, I think the whole idea of "flawed characters" as usually presented is because people don't get their Mary Sue fanfics out of their system before they start to write, thus they need to be warned off. But the opposite flaw, the anti-Sue, the character loaded down with soap-opera/daytime talk show sleazy baggage, is a far more common problem in this culture of ours. Watched Burn Notice or Law & Order or, really, anything? We can't even have spy fiction or cop shows that don't ultimately derive from people's unhappy childhoods. Hopping on the "it worked for Evangelion" bandwagon a little late, aren't we, America?
Again, the only people who think having a bunch of Jerry Springer flaws makes a character "relatable" or "realistic" are the people who don't understand that Jerry Springer guests are sideshow freaks—do you complain that the women in fiction don't have beards and the men have hands instead of flippers?
- And again, as I have said other times on this here blog, it's not an RPG. You don't need to take flaws to balance out your perks. RPGs need game balance, so nobody hogs the GM's time and makes the other people at the table feel left out. But there's only one player at the table in non-interactive fiction, imaginary people aren't going to feel left out when only a few of them get to have awesome superpowers.
Also, it's actually relatively new, as an idea, that games need balance, or at least that kind of balance. I was reading an article, where the writer points out how utterly different an approach the first two editions of AD&D took. In those, if you've got over a certain point in your most important stat ("prime requisite", because Gygax liked to talk like Jeeves)—i.e., if you're already favored by the dice—you advance faster.
Basically what Gygax was modeling with that rule was what the book "Outliers" is about—the guy who catches more breaks is going to keep catching breaks. Does that make the person who catches those breaks less worthy of our interest, as a character in narrative? Every sports figure in history has benefited from some of those breaks, we sure don't seem to mind making them the protagonists of our movies.
- The big problem, I think, the thing I could've made the theme of a whole blog post if I were better at writing nonfiction, is that there is an idea abroad in the land that you shouldn't like your characters, that you should hurt your characters. Now, admittedly, sometimes artistry is hurt by the author being squeamish, and not putting the characters through the actual events of the story; but people interpret the adage as meaning that you should actively dislike your characters, and strive to make them miserable. Because the only legitimate story is one where the characters are miserable!
Now the question is, who the shit wants to read about that? If you're not writing characters you like, what's going to make me like them enough to read your story? There's also the issue that throwing in a bunch of misery and angst and horror is, pure and simple, puerile, juvenile, adolescent; I used to write stuff not unlike Martin (minus his chronological blackface minstrelsy), and then I went into the 11th grade. My brother's in his high school's creative writing club, and my (younger) sister sometimes helps out there, since she substitute-teaches at his school all the time. The stories the club members write are heavy on the misery.
Adults know a bit more about the real troubles of this world and see no need to invent further ones for their fiction, without a damn good narrative reason. Kindly remember the words of the last director of the Grand Guignol.
I couldn't find the full text of this except as a crummy OCRed .txt file, so I'm putting it here for the reference of mankind. It was collected in On Anything.
by Hilaire Belloc
Irony is that form of jest in which we ridicule a second person in the presence of a third. It is most complete when the second person is most ignorant of our intention, the third person most alive to it. Irony exists and is full even when the second person thus attacked is alone in suffering the attack, and irony exists and is full when the third person is restricted to our own expectant selves or even to God who made us and in whom is mirrored the universal truth of things. Irony enjoys an exuberant life, whether the second person so attacked is universal and the third as restricted as can be; or whether the second person so attacked is particular and singular, and the third person, the onlooker and the audience, comprehends the whole world.
It is in the intention of irony that it should do good, because it is of the nature of irony that it should avenge the truth. I say "avenge" because irony would not be irony were it not destined to inflict a fatal, or at least a grievous, wound. There is not in irony any measure of pity for the enemy, though irony could not exist without some vast motive of pity for a victim in whose defence it was aroused. Irony is a sword, and must be used as a sword. It has this quality about it, that, like some faery sword, it cannot be used with any propriety save in God's purpose; and those who have been the most expert swordsmen, when they take a wrong reward for their service, or use that weapon for an unworthy end, find it fail in their hands. Nay, like any faery sword, in hands that use it unworthily it will disappear. And the history of Letters is full of men who, tempted by this or by that, by money or by ease, or by random friendship, or by some appetite lower than the hunger and thirst after justice, have found their old strong irony grow limp and fruitless after they had sold their souls.
Irony, therefore, is unknown in those societies where the love of ease dominates all men. It is most powerful in those societies which are by their temper military. You will find irony treated angrily, as though it were an acid or a poison, where men love ease. And you will find it merely ignored when men have wholly lost the sense of justice. In such societies it retires from the realm of letters to that more powerful sphere in which divine vengeance and divine necessity have their action over things; and many such a society no longer capable of producing or of appreciating irony when it proceeds from the mouth or the pen of a man, learn it most dreadfully in the catastrophes of war. To the young, the pure, and the ingenuous, irony must always appear to have in it a quality of something evil, and so it has, for, as I have said, it is a sword to wound. It is so directly the product or reflex of evil that, though it can never be used, nay, can hardly exist, save in the chastisement of evil, yet irony always carries with it some reflections of the bad spirit against which it was directed. How false it is to say that vengeance and the hatred the evil men are in themselves evil, all human history can prove. Nay, but for irony in the last times of a decline no breath of health would remain to man. Nevertheless, as it is called into being by evil things, it works in an evil light. It suggests most powerfully the evil against which it is directed, and those innocent of evil shun so terrible an instrument.
Alone of the powers of expression possessed by the human spirit wherewith to defend right against wrong, irony is invulnerable, and alone of those powers it can always strike. Nor is anything invulnerable against it save that death of the intelligence which comes so shortly before the death of the society suffering it, that there is no need in the interval to attack the evil of that society or attempt to remedy it; for when stupidity come upon a State all is over.
A happy world, such as the world of children, o any society of men who have still preserved the general health of the soul, such a society as may be found in many mountain valleys, needs none of this salt for the curing and the preservation of morals. But even where men have so protected primal virtue, old men, old proverbs, dim records of past misfortunes leave some savour of irony in the traditions of the tribe. And irony is proved native to the scheme of things and not of its own self unnatural or rebellious by the manner in which the mere course of human happenings is perpetually filled with it. A dreadful irony is present when a man, having heard of the death of a friend, receives later his living letter posted from far off before that death. There is irony when, every defence having been made against some natural accident, that accident yet enters by another gate unsuspected to man. There is an irony in every unfulfilled prophecy and in every lengthy and worthless calculation. No man having purchased an honour defends unpurchased honour without the spirit of irony surrounding all his words. No man praises courage being himself but a rhetorician, or praises justice being himself a lawyer or a magistrate, without some savour of irony in the air of his audience, and it may be presumed without too much phantasy that spirits equal and undisturbed and of a high intelligence can see in every action of human life save the most holy an irony as strong as that which inhabits the tragedies of the great poets. There is a last use for irony, or rather a last aspect of it which this general irony of Nature, and of Nature's God, suggests: I mean that irony which can only appear in the letters of a country when corruption has gone so far that the mere truth is vivid with ironical power.
For there comes a time—it is brief, as must be all final moments of decay—but there comes a time in the moral disruption of a State when the mere utterance of a plain truth laboriously concealed by hypocrisy, denied by contemporary falsehood, and forgotten in the moral lethargy of the populace, takes upon itself an ironical quality more powerful than any elaboration of special ironies could have taken in the past. Some truth too widely put aside and quietly thrust forward, a detail in general conversation about a powerful man strikes, in such societies, exactly like the point of a spear. Blood flows: and the blood is drawn by irony. Yet was here no act nor any fabric of words. Mere testimony to the truth was enough: and this should prove that irony is in touch with the divine and is a minister to truth. In such awful moments in the history of a State that which makes the dreadful jest is not the jester, but the eternal principle of truth itself. That which is jested at is the whole texture of the universal society upon which the truth falls, and for the audience, for the third person who shall see the jest at the second person's expense, there is present nothing less than the power by which truth is of such effect among men.
No man possessed of irony and using it has lived happily; nor has any man possessing it and using it died without having done great good to his fellows and secured a singular advantage to his own soul.
- Been playing my brother's Phoenix Wright games. I really hate the localization—these people are almost wastefully Japanese, yet they've all been renamed for no good reason. I mean, nobody surnamed "Fey" is the kind of spirit-medium that "Maya" (or rather Mayoi) is. And while we've got spirit-mediums over here, they tend to speak languages where metals are actually "flint + adjective" and "town" actually means "many houses" (also they're mostly male, wise-women are a Eurasian thing).
But interestingly, these games have made me appreciate the "innocent till proven guilty" thing. See, the games seem to use the Continental justice system, which contrary to the Anglo caricature isn't "guilty till proven innocent" but "you have to prove everything". Unfortunately, that does make defense much harder (hence the caricature), because while you can't convict someone without evidence, you also can't let them go without making just as much of a case.
- In my last post, I said that the "long defeat" conceit of Tolkien is not Christian, but pagan. Not Catholic, anyway; it is, admittedly, also Calvinist, mostly because the only way Calvinism is more Christian than Islam or Manichaeism is that it didn't happen to jettison the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation.
Seriously, where did Tolkien get that strange idea that there's anything Catholic about viewing the world like that? Chesterton knew better:
The difference between Puritanism and Catholicism is not about whether some priestly word or gesture is significant and sacred. It is about whether any word or gesture is significant and sacred. To the Catholic every other daily act is dramatic dedication to the service of good or of evil. To the Calvinist no act can have that sort of solemnity, because the person doing it has been dedicated from eternity, and is merely filling up his time until the crack of doom. The difference is something subtler than plum-puddings or private theatricals; the difference is that to a Christian of my kind this short earthly life is intensely thrilling and precious; to a Calvinist like Mr. Shaw it is confessedly automatic and uninteresting. To me these threescore years and ten are the battle. To the Fabian Calvinist (by his own confession) they are only a long procession of the victors in laurels and the vanquished in chains.Arguably the worst thing for the Church in the last five or six centuries has been our habit of identifying Catholicism with our various classicist fetishes, claiming everything from Diocletian's political theory to Aristotle's physics as identical with the faith delivered to the saints.
—What's Wrong with the World, "The Calvinism of Today"
- There's a Chinese superstition that tigers will make the sound of a baby crying to lure humans closer. I say superstition because we've never actually heard a tiger do that. But...margays do do it to other primates. So maybe there are tigers that can do it, too? Or were, anyway, tigers are pretty much extinct in East Asia.
Jaguars and pumas are also alleged to make the sounds of monkeys, according to the natives of some of the places where they live. In case you wondered why they don't ever mimic humans, the way tigers were said to do, well, humans and tigers have been living together for the last hundred millennia or so—and that's just modern humans, in some places tigers may've shared territory with other members of Homo at least as far back as 600,000 years. Jaguars have only shared range with humans for about 20,000.
- In my neverending perfectionism, I was wondering if I could maybe rewrite my stuff so zled ships use spin-gravity—they're spherical, remember, and it sorta looks like the metric patching they use for an engine would preclude using a space-time topology artificial gravity (that is, "for realsies" art-grav). I thought I might have them have a "stationary" outer shell, and an inner habitat section that rotates. I could put cool descriptions of how they get into the rotating section, and maybe have their little two man attack-ships be weightless (metric patching means there's no acceleration, and they're strapped in anyway).
But I crunched the numbers, using SpinCalc, and to get the zled equivalent of one G (their surface gravity is 8% higher than ours), the rotating section would have to be, at minimum, 241.445 m in diameter. In other words, the inner section of one of their ships would have to be half the diameter of a space station designed to house 10,000 people (it's also the same diameter as St. Peter's Square, which has sufficient standing-room for upwards of 100,000 people).
I think I'm just gonna leave it like I have it, and have them have figured out a way to create topological artificial gravity while their metric patching drive operates. Hey, we barely know anything about spacetime geometry; it's only just over a century that we even knew there was such a thing.
- Disney's Princess and the Frog incorporates elements not found in the French version of the fairy tale—but that are found in the Russian version. Facilier? Yeah, he's Kaschey the Deathless; his "friends on the other side" are presumably on the other side of the thrice-nine lands, in the thrice-tenth kingdom. Mama Odie? Yeah, AKA Baba Yaga—"money ain't got no soul", and therefore she has no incentive to eat it. (Incidentally the sea-witch in the Little Mermaid, both Anderson's "original" and the Disney one, is also Baba Yaga—or her Czech equivalent, Ježibaba, anyway, since Anderson is basically retelling the same story Dvořák was retelling in his opera "Rusalka". Only Hastrman/Vodník, the lake-god, serving the function of Triton/the unnamed sea-king in Anderson, is the freaking boogieman.)
I don't really mind Disney retelling a pan-European fairy tale as American black New Orleans Creole. Even if it is basically mid-90s race-tokenism whose attempt at being inclusive seems to involve randomly changing the ethnicities of the protagonists of exclusively European stories—see also a certain HBO show. Or, well, I wouldn't mind, if Disney were not doing their damnedest to hush up a genuine piece of authentic Creole culture that they already produced, purely due to pressure from illiterate folklore-Lysenkoist PCniks. Namely? Song. Of. The. South. All real Creole fairy-tales, kiddies. Br'er Rabbit? Yeah, they call him Compère Lapin ("Rabbit who has the same godparents") in the original versions—when they don't call him "Ñombar", the Wolof word for "hare" (with maybe some other kinship term?), because guess what the Senegalese trickster figure is. And Br'er Wolf? Originally a hyena named Bouki.
- You know how House and L and Monk and to a certain extent Goren in Criminal Intent are all basically Sherlock Holmes? They are, if you didn't know. Anyway, I was thinking, is there anyone based on Hercule Poirot or Father Brown?
And then it occurred to me, in a way, Shawn Spencer is kinda Poirot, what with the disarming shenanigans and the extremely dramatic reveals. And as for Father Brown, well, if you think about it, his method and character, secularized, basically gives you Columbo.
- I realized, Prometheus' attempt to save Alien's plausibility, by chalking the evolutionarily impossible traits of xenomorphs up to being an engineered bio-weapon, actually undercuts the whole point of the series. The point of Alien, after all, is that it's a cold heartless cosmos out there, in which humans don't matter—we're just the caterpillars these wasps lay their eggs in. It's sorta Lovecraft-lite, or what Nietzsche would've called "Dionysian" (i.e., "the acknowledgement, restricted to mystical ecstasies, that nihilism is true", as opposed to Apollonian, "the pretense that nihilism is false, necessary to conduct ordinary life").
But Prometheus voids all that, by making the whole thing the work of the Engineers. And the Engineers look human for a reason: they made us. The original's point was "the cosmos has so little regard for you that it might as well be actively malevolent, see, here's a monster that's just as natural as a dog", but the point of Prometheus is "that which made you is actively malevolent, and it made the monsters out of hatred for you".
If that sounds familiar, it should: once again, it's Gnosticism, with the Engineers as the Demiurge. From the first film to the chronologically last prequel is an intellectual and artistic degeneration worse than the one that brought the series from Aliens to Alien Resurrection.
- That element of a hostile creator in Gnosticism, by the bye, is probably due to Gnosticism originating in Mesopotamia (and its presence in Greek myth probably has the same source, the Greeks having been influenced by the Hittites, the only other Indo-Europeans who have that element). Mesopotamian mythology is basically derived from the Sumerian mythos, with Semitic or Indo-European gods tacked on all willy-nilly.
That's the problem, see, because the Sumerian gods created mankind as a labor-saving device, and they're quick to slap down any humans who forget their place (see also Zeus's attitude toward "hubris", which, again, not present in Hindu, Celtic, German, or Slavic myth). There's a reason the ancient astronaut theorists use Sumer as the basis when the "ancient aliens" are supposed to be hostile—so the fact Prometheus used that goofball device is, it turns out, no accident.