Posts Tagged ‘writing’
I really like Avatar: The Last Airbender. Aang’s story is solid, and the core cast all get great moments like Katara’s “The Painted Lady”, Toph’s “The Blind Bandit” and Sokka’s “Sokka’s Master”. Even Zuko’s arc works really well. It’s not a perfect show, and it has its weak episodes like many shows, but for every beach party episode, there’s a gem like “The Boiling Rock”. For every facepalming moment like the musical hippies, there are great character moments like Sokka reflexively covering Toph on a crashing airship or Iroh counseling a mugger. There are even really great subtle worldbuilding touches like the trains in Ba Sing Se. (And oh, Iroh’s Tale.)
It’s one of the very few series that I have on DVD, in the august company of DuckTales, Stargate SG-1 and MacGyver (classics, all, and though also cursed with the occasional stinker episode, the good far outweighs the bad).
So, when it came to the sequel Avatar series, Legend of Korra, I was really looking forward to seeing some cool new ‘bending tricks or even combo uses (like Chrono Trigger’s team-up Tech attacks) for the magic in that world. I thought it would be great to see how technological advancements might happen in a world with magic, and how the two might compete and cooperate. The world really has a ton of rich potential.
Unfortunately, I wound up disappointed with the characters, writing and meta manipulations of the series creators. The animation is often great, and the flashback two-parter in Book 2 where we see the origin of the Avatar is really, really fine work. I’ve had a hard time putting my finger on a lot of what bothered me, though, until I stumbled across this Tumblr:
It’s true that there’s no shortage of criticism and nitpickery online, but almost every single entry I’ve read over there resonates with concerns I have with the series. This one is perhaps the best place to start, though, looking at it through my perspective as an aspiring writer and experienced artist, since it underlines the backbone of the trouble; the creative staff. (See also: the Star Wars “prequel” films, and how a rein-free Lucas squandered some of his goodwill credit.)
My single biggest complaint with Korra is that there is so much wasted potential. The bad writing and character assassinations throughout are like a persistent cough, but the lost opportunities are really what bug me. The series really could have tackled things ranging from social considerations of magic (one of the stronger themes in the series, but undermined by Amon’s big reveal), the importance of spirituality in the Avatar world, liberty vs. the State (OK, Book 3’s baddies were mostly well done), nascent dictators and assorted other considerations in a world where magic is relatively common but with wildly differing power levels.
There’s so much there to mine, but no, we got relationship drama, disjointed storytelling, burned bridges, relationship drama, character assassination, pointless drama, character assassination of the previous series’ characters, and relationship drama. There were certainly high points, so the series isn’t devoid of value, but it could have been so much more.
One other big thing that bothers me is something that seems to be a concern in a lot of popular media. Once the creators start engaging an audience, things can often go sour. Far too many little beats in Korra came across as either fanservice or trolling that it became less of a legend and more of a performance art experience. Maybe that’s fine for what some people want, but I think that the Avatar world deserved better. There’s certainly a good reason to be aware of your audience, but I think there needs to be a barrier there, or else the creative work suffers.
I think I can still recommend Book 1 of Korra’s Legend, but really, it’s best just to go watch Aang’s Airbender stories.
Edited to add: I ran into another Tumblr that reminded me that the group dynamic was better in Season 1, Bolin was better, and man, they really needed to make a team work like Aang’s crew. They never really did that well at all in Korra. They could have, but failed.
Man… that’s really the downer of all this. It could have been so much better.
Edited again to add: This article from Larry Correia is a great fisking of a monumentally dumb article that shows some of the mentality that I think pervaded Korra’s story. Maybe not at first, but it seeped in as the authors engaged with the most rabid segments of the audience and catered to sociopolitical quirks of today instead of staying true to their own story. To be sure, every work is a “product of its time” in ways small and great, but when a work of fiction becomes less about its own interesting story and more about preaching a Message, it falls apart. This was the problem with Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land‘s third act, for example.
Aang’s journey was internally consistent (mostly, and notably, the Message episodes were the weakest), Korra’s was a mess of Messages and fourth-wall pressures, suffering from undue external influences. It’s a good case study in what not to do, in many ways.
This should have posted on Martin Luther King Jr.’s holiday. Sorry, I’ve been busy.
I believe that games are uniquely and exquisitely suited to explore content of character, since games, as a medium, are all about choice. That’s the nature of an interactive medium. It saddens and disappoints me that so many discussions of character in games begin and end at the character creation screen, with a Politically Correct checklist and identity politics.
Games as a medium deserve better. Gamers deserve better.
One of the things I do when I have a minute to spare, but can’t do much but think, say, while waiting at a traffic light, is to ponder a fictional setting that I’ve been puttering around with for years. I think about pieces of that world, characters in it, historical events, magical mechanics, whatever seems most interesting at the moment. I’ve written some of it down, and I’ve structured some of it into a series of stories I’d like to tell, and a lot of art I’d like to do.
Sometimes I find it helpful to share my creative process, if only because it forces me to think about it, and possibly refine it. If you all can get something out of my meanderings, hey, that’s a bonus.
This time, I want to write about Geistflies.
These little guys, to be precise, or at least, a fictional variant:
Fireflies (or lightning bugs, as some call them) are mostly harmless, but have a certain visual charm on dark nights where their lights show up. As with so many other weird phenomena, they are ripe for fictional explanations. We know today that fireflies glow thanks to chemical reactions, but a less informed populace might invent other reasons for the glow. Sometimes these reasons are based in evidence and observation, sometimes they are pure whimsy. Often, there’s a bit of both involved, especially if location is important and patterns show up.
And as is so often the case, reality can be weirder than fiction anyway. Take, for example, the weird story of the “Angel’s Glow” from the U.S. Civil War. Some Civil War soldiers had wounds that glowed in the dark. Weird, crazy stuff. That article is just outlining a theory still, but a reasonable one. And yet, to a delirious soldier in the field, would bioluminescent hitchhiker bacteria be the first thought?
Anyway, I designed that Geistfly Swarm card for some friends a couple years back (which actually is why I started digging into card design, which led to the Tinker Decks and Tinker Dice). I just used a photo from a quick online search and ran with it to mock up graphic design concepts. The text is really just official looking gibberish I made up so it looked like a card from an actual game, and I did the rest of the graphic design, experimenting with visuals. The title of the card, “Geistfly Swarm” was just part of this creative tinkering… but it’s a name that has stuck in my mind since then. It was just an experiment with making an interesting sounding name, sort of like my mild fascination with alliteration, but there’s something interesting happening there.
One, it rolls off the tongue well, with a pair of vowel sounds that echo each other in the two syllables. There’s a lyrical quality to the term. This lyricism can inform the genesis of the term, culturally speaking, and how it’s applied in society in the novel setting. Perhaps the whimsy involved means that it’s largely used as a children’s story term. Perhaps, though, like the Grimm Brothers stories, there’s a dark secret at its heart, and it’s been candy coated by the pretty sounds over the years.
Two, it’s a mishmash of two languages, German and English. What sort of culture would use such a mix? Would anyone try to be more grammatically correct and call them “ghostflies”? What effect would that have?
Three, what if there are two species involved? Regular fireflies, where the term is used much as we would today, and then the geistflies? What would differentiate the species? Color? Behavior? Location? Mechanics?
…and so I decided that geistflies are an offshoot of normal fireflies. They live in my world that has magic, sometimes wild and powerful, sometimes regimented and almost baked down to a science. This particular bug, the geistfly, doesn’t light up for the same reasons as the firefly. No, these geistflies react to magic and light up purely as a matter of physiology and its reaction and proximity to magic.
That relatively simple idea sparks a new series of questions, then:
Can they be used as detectors? Do they have different reactions to different “flavors” of magic? Where do they live? Can they be domesticated? What is their life cycle, and are they only sensitive to magic when they are adults? Do they feed on magic? How do they interact with magic users or “spells”?
Where does their energy come from to light up?
That one spawns even more questions, like “if they tap into the surrounding magic, how would that affect their behavior?” or “if lighting up drains their own energy, would that mean they avoid magic instinctively purely as a survival mechanism?”, and answers to those would modify the answers to other questions, like using them as detectors.
Or maybe this one: Why are they called geistflies? Have they been linked to ghosts? Are they most prevalent around battlefields, creepy old buildings or graveyards? They aren’t exactly pyreflies, but maybe there are echoes in there somewhere?
I haven’t decided on answers to all of these, and really, it’s possible to dive down the rabbit hole and chase a lot of different aspects of these questions and their implications. To me, that’s one of the great parts of creative writing and worldbuilding. I love asking and answering those questions, and finding out how different ideas play off of each other.
This is also why I love games, where some of that incredible potential can be given to players, making for all sorts of interesting effects.
I’ll work geistflies into the stories somehow. Even little things like this, the details that aren’t the spine of adventure, but rather the spice, are sometimes extremely useful and even important.
P.S. I just ran into this today:
There’s a lot you can pull from real life weirdness for fictional worldbuilding.
I’m an animator. I’m a writer. I’m an artist. I’m a math and science geek. I’m a gamer and a game designer. I do a lot of creative things, and always wish I could do more. My interests are varied and my skillset rather “MacGyverish”, and I work at a fairly small company, so I don’t really focus on animation, but it’s what I earned my college degree in. En route, I took many classes that required many papers to be written, and a handful of creative writing courses. Much of what I ran into there was either dry and boring or trippy hippy artsy fartsy nonsense, but it was at least good practice.
So… this NaNoWriMo thing. I’ve known about it for years, but I’m always too busy. This year, I’m actually even more busy than I’ve ever been. Still, I have a lot of novel ideas rattling around in my skull, and some of them really need to escape and see if they can’t spread their wings a little. I’m sort of not really committing to anything, but I’m going to spend a bit of time writing a novel skeleton, if not a novel itself. The thing is, there’s an interesting effect that I’ve noticed in my own writing that correlates really well to my animation. I think that the animator’s Illusion of Life can apply to writing as well.
There’s a difference between “straight ahead” animation and “frame to frame” animation, or keyframe animation. I’ve done traditional hand animation and computer animation. I specialize in the latter, but enjoy both. In both, straight ahead animation tends to produce a more lively, chaotic sort of feel, where the characters and action builds on itself and inertia carries the day. Keyframe animation is much better when certain story beats or timing points need to be honored, and it’s especially useful for things like walk cycles and other sort of motions that game development uses (I presently work in games, though I’d love to animate for feature films). Keyframing is also one of the major things that computer animation can leverage, since the computer can calculate the interim frames between keys, instead of needing an army of inbetweeners, as hand-drawn animation needs. There’s still artistry in making the bezier-like animation curves carry weight and timing well, since computer interpolation is pretty dry and mathematical, so it’s not really a magic “Animate Awesome” button, but computer animation uses keyframing very frequently, simply because it’s good at it. (And looking at those curves should give you an idea of how knowing math and physics are important to animation.)
Anyway, I’ve been thinking in similar terms for the novels I’d like to write. There are “story beats” that I’d like to hit, character moments I’ve written mentally that I’d like to work in, and other assorted vignettes that I’ve worked more on than others. It’s a sort of mental tapestry of ideas, themes, events and moments that I’d like to commit to paper. It’s not so much a bullet-pointed outline as it is a sketch. A sort of “concept art” for the story I’d like to write, a rough mental image that can be built into something stronger. I’ve tightened the art a bit here and there, and left some other pieces loose so that they can be reworked as the whole thing comes into focus.
Interestingly, there’s a bit of what I wrote about here going on, too, where certain bits and bobs of detail can intimate other details, and ultimately, there really is a lot I can leave up to the reader. It’s very much like a painting, in a way, where the novel has to carry enough detail and interest to let the reader fill in the gaps. The interesting thing is that I think this applies in the creative process, too, where I hit the high points, the key frames, if you will, of my story, and then go back and fill in the gaps as necessary, but find ways to leave other gaps open for the reader.
As I’ve been writing this, then, in bits and pieces over the years, I do parts, the vignettes, in “straight ahead writing”, but I use those vignettes, those “fixed points in time“, as key frames to hang the larger story on. It’s a relatively fluid approach, not unlike working from a sketch to a fully realized painting. Like figure drawing, It’s important to nail down a good sketch, understanding the skeletal structure, musculature, physics and such, before going on to finish a piece. Some elements can be done in a relatively straightforward manner, and other things might need to be left in the air, and in many ways, the whole piece gets attention over time, instead of just drawing a head, polishing it to a shine, then doing shoulders and so on. More than once, I’ve seen students do that sort of thing in figure drawing sessions, and then they are surprised when they run out of room at the bottom of the paper for the legs of the model. The piece really works best when considered as a whole from the outset, even if some of the process winds up being really straightforward, like rendering a face or a hand.
I know, it’s a bit of a stretch, writing about how visual art creative principles inform my writing, and all without using much in the way of visuals to underscore the idea (though the links I’ve included have good visuals). Still, I thought it might prove useful to try to illustrate how these principles of creativity can bleed between disciplines, and how learning in one sphere can enhance another. I’ve long believed that, like the basic physiology of neurons, creativity and intelligence grow as you start making connections between individual building blocks of your palette. If you want to have a rich imagination, you really should be inquisitive and explore. Learn as much as you can. Find things that allow you to reframe an idea in a way that you haven’t looked at it before, and it will help you understand what you’re looking at. Look for the connections and look for the different perspectives.
And then commit it to paper. I sketch most often with a ballpoint pen. It forces me to either roll with the mistakes or do it right in the first place. It’s an emboldening process, ultimately, even though mistakes are inevitable. Funny how often that’s true.
Dice can be useful to randomize letters, say, when you’re making a cipher, or trying to write fantasy or science fiction proper names. Ojmwrgm, the pirate, for example.
Unless you’re trying for something like Drizzt. Or any other name requiring a Q, U, V, X, Y or Z. This is just a 20-sided die, after all. (Though they keep the C, K and S, when they could have left out the C as redundant. English is weird.)
It looks like Professor Beej‘s Birthright novel’s Kickstarter project has reached its funding goal. Of course, while there’s momentum, the good Professor has extended a new mini-goal to pay for some more sweet cover art.
If you haven’t investigated Birthright yet, it’s a perfect time to do so. Professor Beej wrote this article on it a while back, and he has other commentary over at his site.
For what it’s worth, I chipped in on the Kickstarter, but even before that, Beej let me read a bit of his earlier draft for the book. While I didn’t have much time to read it, I was left itching for more. It’s interesting, well written, and is curiously founded on a conceptual conceit distilled directly from games. I’m really looking forward to the final book and whatever else Beej winds up doing with his pocket universe(s).