Ralph Breaks more than just the Internet

Ralph Breaks more than just the Internet

***This Post contains Spoilers for Ralph Breaks the Internet***

I loved 2012’s Wreck-it Ralph. It was a near perfect video game movie. Its references weren’t meaningless call outs, but tools to build a colorful, storybook world. It was a writer’s story too, a tight character driven piece of work that understood Ralph and Venellope’s desires and conflicts and weaved them together in a tidy braid. Even if you didn’t like the movie, the craftsmanship was something to appreciate. So, I was expecting to like Ralph Breaks the Internet and I didn’t. I wouldn’t say I disliked it either, I don’t really have any reaction to it other a bland sense of disappointment.

Ralph 2 isn’t bad. The internet world it creates, like the arcade world of the previous film, is a colorful, beautiful place that would be a delight to explore (unlike the real internet, save for gems like this blog of course…please follow). There are charming characters like the search engine Knowsmore, and the pop-up con-artist Double-Dan. I loved the constant costume changes of the Taraji Henson voiced Yesss and the energy she brought to the character was perfect.

The returning cast is just as good. Venellope and Ralph are adorable together, especially as they stumble through the internet lost and naïve. And scenes remain sharp and interesting, like the Disney Princess bit halfway through the film. The ingredients are all there, but the recipe never comes together. The issue is the plot. The problem that brings Ralph and Venellope to the internet essentially gets resolved with little to no effort, or at least little to no conflict. That leaves the movie asking, what are we doing here? What’s the fuel that moves us from scene to scene?

It finds answers, but they feel forced and the final conflict is heavy handed. It boils down to a lack of honest communication between Ralph and Venellope. Ralph unleashes a virus on Venellope’s new game ‘Slaughter Race’ in the hopes of slowing it down so that Venellope will get bored and go back to the arcade with him. It’s selfish for sure, but Ralph doesn’t understand the extent of the virus he unleashes and regrets it almost the second he does it. But, the virus escapes and builds a literal monster out of Ralph’s insecurities.

It’s too much, and a product of the film not having a defined antagonist. Ralph is clingy, but the big bad at the end is really himself? The film didn’t do enough for me to buy into that. I wouldn’t be surprised if an original draft of the movie had Yess as a villain. But maybe the writers thought that making the personification of click culture evil was too preachy or they just found Yesss too much fun to turn evil.

It’s possible they never had any villain planned at all, because the film seems to care less about its plot and more about what new fun internet-thing can it incorporate next? The world building is enjoyable, but it’s not as purposeful as the first film. Ralph and Venellope feel out of place, surrogates, the most easily adaptable Disney property to take this journey. Manic GTA meets Disney Princess musical numbers and creepy Dark webizens are bizarre enough to be entertaining, but Ralph 2 feels more like a series ‘Buzztube’ videos than a story. Much like the internet itself, it’s lesser than its potential.

When something bad happens

When something bad happens to me, the first thing I want to do is write. I want to understand what I’m feeling, I want to express it, to see it. I want to expel every thought and emotion that it stirs into one blank space, vomit it out. And like vomit it’s messy and gross and even if it made me feel better immediately afterwards, I know I’m going to do it again soon.

Emotion, the big, bad emotions: sadness, anger, they are like that to me. They swell searching for an outlet, to cry or to be screamed out, I indulge and for a moment it passes. There’s a rational part of me that feels above these emotions. It can acknowledge that my reactions are self-indulgent or that I’m taking an offense to something that wasn’t attended as such. The rational part can see that these expressions of grief or rage are useless, that it would be better to sit down and plan, map out a response to the trauma or try to fix the problem.

For the longest time it felt like the rational and emotional parts of me were at war. I’d want to sit down and focus on doing something to fix my issue, but the emotion just felt like this bigger, more ravenous thing that craved attention, thrived on it. I would explode in displays of emotion and feel embarrassed afterwards (rarely in public and never to anyone other than close friends or family, I’m from Connecticut, we are biologically incapable of making a ‘scene’). I would always chastise myself for these outbursts, hate myself for them. I used to think that getting in control of my emotions meant not feeling them.

I’ve come to understand that there is no ‘defeating’ a trauma, repeated exposure can dull the effects, planning can sometimes mitigate one. But trauma and rage, cannot be outwitted. Once sparked they will come, and they will storm. The most I can do is accept them, let them happen, analyze my thoughts, know that they will pass and neither encourage them nor feel ashamed of them. And most of all, understand that they will come again; for there is never only one reaction to something horrible. We don’t feel sad for a day, or a week, or a year and then never feel it again. Trauma is like the sea, it’s deep and it comes in waves.

The most surreal moment for me is when the horrible thing has just happened. I often don’t know how to feel. I just have this anxiety. I know it’s going to come, but I don’t feel it yet. I go on walk. I see the world, I experience it intensely. I am never more in the moment then right before the emotion hits, the point where you are cracking, where there is a you that exist before the trauma and a you that exist after it and you have not yet metaphorized. You are still in a world where everything is okay, it’s a Monday, the sun’s out, it’s wet and cold, but those are your only concerns. And yet, you know, you know it’s there, you know the world has changed, a demarcation line has opened in your life. There is the before and there is the after, and you will now live only in the after. You know at some point things will be okay again, that it will be Monday again, and wet and cold, but you are a long way from that moment. And there is nothing you can do but wait.

*Note*: I’m fine, just got some potentially bad news and nothing permanent just wanted to share what I wrote in response  

Fantasy Genre Theory

Fantasy Genre Theory

Fantasy and Sci-fi often get lumped together, and while there’s a lot of cross over between the two genres, both in terms readers and concepts, there is one vital difference. Sci-fi is representation of how we think of the future, while fantasy is often about how we view the past.

Fantasy novels are clearly not history books or even historical fiction (though they do share some DNA). Fantasy isn’t a verbatim retelling of past events, but rather seeks to capture the overall ‘feel of the past’, that’s why so many have magic and fantastical creatures, those things feel realer, or were believed to be realer, in pre-modern times. And while magic and fantastic beasts appear in almost every fantasy novel, they are not the defining element of those worlds. The setting of a fantasy novel is not so much a magical place, but an old one.

One of the reasons Game of Thrones became so popular was that people thought it was a more ‘realistic’ fantasy story. Most of its seasons don’t deal with magic at all, but rather brutal medieval combat and court intrigue. It shows a Hobbesian past where life was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. In part we watch it because of all the nastiness, it intrigues us even though we wouldn’t want to live through it ourselves. It’s a past that we’re grateful to have move beyond.

In contrast Tolkien envisioned a gentler past, his hobbits live simple, pleasant lives, suffering only village gossip and British passive-aggressiveness. War comes, and it is brutal and requires sacrifice, but the lines are clearly drawn: good and evil. The enemy are literal inhuman creations, spurred on by an evil god. Men are mythical heroes, taller and stronger than the simple hobbits who themselves have more in common with the reader than the mankind of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Tolkien’s past is both idyllic and epic, it’s something we feel we’ve lost.

Both Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings speak to the way we view history rather than to any particular period of history itself. And while it’s true that both Middle Earth and Westros invoke some of the more exciting elements of Medieval Britain: knights in full plate, maidens in long gowns, the remnants of a more advance people (the Romans), barbarian invaders, etc. They have as much to do with actual Medieval Britain as Blade Runner’s 2019 Los Angles has to do with modern LA.

Outside of the hobbits, dragons and white walkers Medieval Britain also didn’t have taverns, smoking pipes, sewers, full plate armor (until the very end), banks, or large population centers. Medieval combat rarely involved pitched battles on the field and was mostly castle sieges. Trial by combat was exceedingly rare.

Tolkien’s Hobbits have a lot more in common with 18th and early 19th century British farmers than they do with Medieval peasants. Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law series has Norse style Northmen raiders, but they’re duking it out with Union soldiers who use fencing foils, a technology appearing more than five hundred years after the Vikings. Michael J. Sullivan’s Heir of Novron series takes place in a world of knights and a tyrannical church, but also has early 19th century style ships, with sailors that would have fit in during the Napoleonic wars.

The British Empire itself looms large in most of our Fantasy. The attitudes, manner of speaking and social economics of a great deal of supposedly medieval fantasy worlds instead come from late 19th, and early 20th century Britain. Medieval Britain was poor and splintered, with dozens of ethnic groups and a ruling caste that considered itself more French, or Norman at least, than English. The arrogant western like kingdoms in fantasy who refer to other people as savages and who think of themselves as more advance come from our living memory not our distance past.

None of this is to belittle or attack these works, I’ve enjoyed every series I mentioned here. None of these writers are trying to create a historical place. Their worlds are constructed from a hodgepodge of myth, different historical periods, and imagination. But all of them are trying to conjure the past and when they do so they are speaking to our comprehension of it. The use of so much British empire in our fantasy works shows the impact that the British empire has had on us and how we distinguish our modern selves as people distinctly different than the Imperialist of old.

And as the fantasy genre has spread out it has begun to leave behind both the trappings of Medieval Europe and the attitudes of the British Empire. Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty series takes its inspiration from early Chinese history (as well as the Odyssey, and the Vikings again). S.A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass and Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon both focus on myth and history from the Muslim world, while Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti brings in influence from African history and culture. The expansion of Fantasy genre is an expansion of our understanding of the past, of who’s past has value, and who’s past deserves to be mythologized and critiqued.

As we grow, becoming more multi-culture our fantasy will as well. The genre will ask us to explore new pasts, new combinations, new understandings of where we come from, who we are and who we are not. The past might be the past, but that doesn’t mean it can’t change.

Where do Characters come from and what do they want?

Where do Characters come from and what do they want?

Interesting, complex characters are the most important element of any novel. I will tolerate the most cliched of settings and plots if I love the characters. When writing my own fantasy novel, (which involves the very cliched plot of a kidnapped princess) I sought to create a team of fun characters that I wanted to spend time with and see embark on future adventures. Knee-deep into draft three of my novel, Ghets, I’m not thrilled with my word choices (seriously Matt, you’re using ‘luckily’ again?), but I absolutely love my Ghets team. They feel rounded and interesting and play off each other well.

Creating characters is lot like creating worlds to me. There’s a long germination period where I play around with an idea in my head. I usually have some sort of framework to start with when I sit down to write, and generally can’t track the character’s inception point. Reez, my lead, started with some questions like why not make the lead an orc? Why not an orc woman? and grew from there. Elise the Coward’s backstory was a direct reaction to the macho-mythologizing of the Spartans. But other characters, like Jaques, seemed to emerge ex nihilo. I can’t even remember a time when I was work-shopping them.

Characters follow a truth that has become something of mantra for me and writing: everything is perfect, until it’s real. Meaning, when you’re doing the necessary, fun and frantic work of constructing a character in your head they seem dynamic and stuffed with potential. But then when you start arranging them on the page, you realize you don’t know what they’ll say or how they’ll react. No matter how much time you spend thinking about your characters, you don’t know them until you start writing them.

Writing is a process of creation, re-examination, and change (yes, I couldn’t think of a third ‘tion word), characters follow the same process. They start out one way in the early drafts, and then slowly evolve the more time we spend with them, shaping them, coming to understand them. I would even argue that it’s a good idea to just start with a scene, something you never intend to include in your novel, that’s just your characters doing something together or sitting around talking.

I’m a dialogue guy, so I do a lot of scenes of just talking. But when I first started writing I noticed that a lot of my characters sound alike. To try to find their voice I would play with dialogue, create lists of words they could or couldn’t use, tried to reach outside of my own vocabulary and vocal meter. I tend to ramble, so a lot of my characters did too. I tried to reign that in, create characters that said little or nothing and communicated with expressions and gestures or characters that spoke very precisely.

Character voice is important, it’s one of the few things that can help differentiate characters on the page. Ideally you want each character’s voice to be so unique that the reader can tell who’s speaking by voice alone. But what’s even more important than a character’s voice is a character’s desire.

If you want compelling characters you need to know what they want, and what’s keeping them from getting what they want. A lot of times what your character wants is something immaterial: respect, connection, etc. And also, a lot of times the character themselves might not realize, or be resistant to, their own desire. Ideally as the writer, you should know what your characters are after. Good scenes and good character moments are created when we let characters and their desires drive the plot.

If you get your character’s right they will help you understand your own story better, they’ll guide you as much as you guide them. Readers too will stick through a tough or detailed book if they love the cast. So take your time, play around with them, ask them questions. Figure out how they talk and think and most of all what they really want. It’ll help you figure out what you want from them.

On World Building

On World Building

Hugo award winning author N.K Jemisin was recently on Ezra Kline’s podcast, where she talked about world building and did a world building exercise. It’s a fun and fascinating episode and my fellow fantasy writers should definitely check it out, find it here

Jemisin has a very wholistic approach to world building, starting not just with the geography of her worlds, but with the atmosphere and gravity. After settling on the basics, she zooms in on an ‘element X’ the thing that the work is going to explore and makes the world ‘fantastic’ in some way. In The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms it was enslaved gods, in The Fifth Season it was the earth magicians known as Orogenes.

Jemisin has a masterful talent of taking her ‘element x’ and extrapolating it out. In particular the effect ‘element x’ would have on societies, the way people would react to it and build their cultures around it. She’s a writer who has thought long and hard on her world building process. Listening made me realize that I don’t have as tight grip on how I build worlds.

World building for me has always been fun. I world build on walks while listening to music. I world build at night to try and help me fall asleep. Once I have the energy going and the bare frame of the world, it’s easy and exciting. One thought leads to other; ‘They make their soldiers from a living pit, how do they make the pit? Do they also make living tools?’ And everything just keeps building.

But I realized that I’m much more genre focused in my process, even to a creative detriment, than N.K Jemisin is. Grant it, I’ve only written two novels, (find out more about the good one here!) and one of them is a direct reaction to the High Fantasy genre. But a lot of times when I start my world building I start it from a place of genre knowledge. I look at other people’s work, I write in reaction to them. I think about the tropes I like and want to emulate or explore and what tropes I don’t like and want to subvert. In other words, I don’t approach my worlds so much as worlds to begin with, but rather as stories.

Now as I world build I do start to gravitate away from the confines of genres. The Dairkkul started as a reaction to typically demonic, evil factions in Fantasy stories, but evolved to be their own complex people. Mostly this came from considering their ability to shape life out of Doom Cotta and the problems and moral quandaries that ability created. But even as I started to write the Dairkkul and decide their noble houses I still leaned on my genre knowledge and the overall ‘theme’ I wanted them to exhibit.

In general theme and genre define my worlds more than a logical or focused extrapolation might. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. Ghets is meant to be a playground where I can fool around with fantasy tropes with semi-self-aware characters. And there are always questions that writers can’t answer or even address in their worlds/stories, because it will break them. But I do think that there is something to be gained by throwing genre away.

To create new, interesting worlds, we need to do more than just remix the tropes we love. I’m not saying we should abandon genre completely. Emulating and reacting to other’s work is the foundation of art and it’s good to know of the novels that are similar to your own. But rather than trying to figure out the box we’re writing in, it might be better to start with the world first and then let the natural formation of that world and it’s reaction to element X decide the theme and genre. Maybe for my next work I’ll try it more Jemisin’s way.

My fellow writers, what’s your take? How do you approach world building?

Problems with the ‘The Poppy War’

Problems with the ‘The Poppy War’

I recently finished The Poppy War, by R.F. Kuang. The book’s first half was enjoyable, but it’s second half was frustrating. It encompassed a lot of the problems I see in fantasy novels. The world building was under-cooked, the pacing messy, the villains one dimensional and it’s grimdarkness unearned. Still, there’s something to be learned from it’s unevenness.

*****Spoilers for The Poppy War below******

The Poppy War is a pretty standard fantasy novel. It’s protagonist, Rin, starts off as an orphan and through a combination of hard work and a ferocious will becomes the vengeful avatar of a god. It’s a classic power story, complete with training montages and a special school. The school part is enjoyable and Rin is an interesting protagonist. She starts off normal enough, but shows hints of a power hungry side that threatens to overtake her.

However, once the title ‘Poppy War’ starts? (I’m actually not sure if it is a Poppy War, there were Poppy Wars in the past with the same enemy, but no one calls it anything other than ‘the war’ when it begins,) things quickly fall apart. It’s hard to tell exactly what’s happening, the reader has no sense of scale or the strategic value of any of the cities in play or even the bare geography of the Nikara Empire which Rin is fighting for.

Worse of all is the enemy Rin faces, the Mugen Federation. The Federation is bland and evil. They’re somehow more technically advanced than the Nikara, though we get no details at all about their equipment, fighting style or even their ideology and culture. Really, the only thing we know about them is that they will kill themselves for their emperor and think the Nikara aren’t even human. Oh, and they’re basically Japan.

This another problem with the Poppy War it leans way too hard on real history for its world building. Nikara is very obviously China, Mugen is very obviously Japan, there’s even a very obviously European faction with fair skin and tall ships across the ocean. R.F Kuang talked about how 20th century Chinese history influenced her and boy does it ever show. The opium wars is right there in the title and Kuang uses the details from the rape of Nanking when describing a massacre done by the Federation.

The mining of a real world tragedy to give a dark edge to the story and motivate the hero, didn’t sit right with me. It was so grotesque and hard to get through that it shocked me out of the story. I could dedicate a whole blog post to discussion of using details from a historical tragedy as fodder for your fantasy novel, but outside of it being in poor taste, it’s also not a great narrative device. Going grimdark doesn’t give your story weight, it can have the exact opposite effect, snapping suspension of disbelief. This is what makes tone and tonal consistency so important.

I never really recovered from the massacre and neither did the novel. The pacing became even more hectic and what world building there was frayed with inconsistencies and random betrayals. It all built to what was supposed to be an horrible act of genocide, the complete destruction of the Mugen Federation’s home island and everyone on it. But I didn’t care.

The Federation might as well have been orcs. There’s only one named Federation character and he’s a literal mad scientist, with a white lab coat and everything. (Doesn’t this book take place in medievalish times? Maybe? Another character treats a fucking crossbow like a machine gun, complete with a dull thud when it’s ‘out’.) The genocide fell flat. Mugen was never made to feel real. I didn’t care about it because the writer never did.

In many ways the Poppy War is a story that can’t live up to it’s ambition. It wants to talk about tragedy and sacrifice on a deep level, while also being an engaging action story. Achieving that tonal balance was always going to be difficult and the Poppy War’s bland, over the top antagonists and weak world building couldn’t sustain it. In some ways it asked both too much and too little of the reader. At the one hand we have to read through detailed rape and murder, on the other hand we don’t have to sacrifice anything when the hero burns a whole people away, because they were never described as people to begin with.

The Kingkiller Chronicle and the Problem of Pay Off

The Kingkiller Chronicle and the Problem of Pay Off

I’ve been listening to the audiobooks of Patrick Rothfuss’s The Kingkiller Chronicle recently. The books have something of a ‘geek cool’ rep to them. When they first came out everyone from my favorite webcomic to the dorm DM were gushing about them. And even close to ten years later I bump into people at writing groups, cons and parties that talk about The Kingkiller Chronicle the same way hipsters talk about obscure EPs.

Yet despite the rep and the fact that the book stars a fellow ginger, I simply couldn’t make it through the first one, The Name of the Wind. Even the audiobook with its excellent narration was painful, I would find myself shouting at Kvothe to ‘Get on with it already!’ (My favorite parts were when Kvothe, after doing this rambling, overly clever description, say something like ‘but I’ll spare you the details.’ I would always mutter ‘thanks? But why this time? You certainly didn’t spare them anywhere else!?). The Kingkiller Chronicle is supposed to be a story told over the course of three days, but honestly Kvothe is such a blowhard that it feels like it takes three months.

The Kingkiller Chronicle has a novel framing story. Chronicler, a famous scholar and scribe, hunts down the legendary figure of Kvothe who is in retirement and running an inn with his otherworldly apprentice Bast. Kvothe agrees to tell Chronicler his whole story and help separate what is legend from what is truth. From there the majority of the novels are in first person with Kvothe telling his story, with interludes in the ‘present’ at the Waystone Inn.

Kvothe can be a trying storyteller. He often feels like someone’s overly designed RPG character. He’s a master musician, wizard (though magic doesn’t exist in this world! Though it also totally does), swordsmen and thief. He’s smart, cunning, handsome. He’s a mythical figure that everyone knows about, with thousand of tales that have been repeated over and over again all around the civilized world…and he’s also like under thirty, maybe not even twenty-five.

I’ve always found instant, ultra-competent characters annoying, even more so when they are ultra-competent teenagers, which Kvothe is for the first two books. On top of that he’s melodramatic and tragic when we meet him in ‘the present’ at the Waystone Inn. And none of his tragedy or his skill feels earned when he’s introduced. We’re told Kvothe’s a tragic legendary hero, not shown it. But that’s fine, because Kvothe is going to tell us his story and the truth behind his amazing legacy that everyone can’t stop talking about, the one he even quotes in detail as he begins his tale….

Expect he doesn’t.

The Kingkiller Chronicle’s true sin is one of pacing and pay off. Every event in Kvothe’s life seems to require a hundred pages of in depth detail to get through, even when they’re not that interesting, like the time Kvothe wandered around a fucking woods for months just feeling sad. By the time the first book ends, Kvothe has maybe done one or two things of note and none of the things he specifically talks about when he begins his tale. The second book is more interesting, but it’s still stuffed to the brim with words.

I don’t know how many times Kvothe talks about going over to Eolian to play music, or how many cute but platonic interactions he has with his love interest Denna, or how many times he talks about longing to play the fucking lute, but there are just strenuous pages of this stuff that builds to almost nothing. As someone who has also wrote a five hundred page fantasy novel that I’m sure seems like it goes on forever (Find out more here!), I have a hard time begrudging Rothfuss some of these asides. And I will admit the more I listened, the more I enjoyed Kvothe’s story, mostly because interesting things started happening in the second book, but it is still overrun with chaff.

At the end of one of Kvothe’s episodes (the story is at times very episodic), Kvothe stumbles upon Felurian. Felurian is a Faye creature and is equal parts seductive and frightening. Kvothe ends up in a dual of sorts with her and tricks her in a very folklore- style way. It works, and it’s over pretty quickly and I thought Rothfuss was finally picking up the pace. But then Kvothe stays in the Faye with Felurian for what feels like forever. Pages are spent taking about how he learned to kiss from her and how they wandered around naked. It stretches and stretches, finally something interesting happens again, but rather than having that propel Kvothe to his next adventure he spends some more time with Felurian recovering from the event. Chaff like this swipes the momentum of the story out at the knees.

Rothfuss writing often feels more indulgent than engaging, as if he left too many darlings alive on the page. But even so, I’m listening. I will download the next book whenever it’s finally released. The novel is frustrating because it has potential, not because it’s bad. Kvothe can be clever, some of the details of his world interesting. But Kvoethe should have learned more from those quiet Adem mercenaries than just fighting. As his friend Tempi said, ‘one word can say more than many’.