Archive for the ‘fantasy’ Category

The Boy and the Beast is a 2015 anime fantasy film written and directed by Mamoru Hosada. [Spoiler alert!] I really enjoyed this film, and I suspect anyone who appreciated Spirited Away will as well. The protagonist, a young boy named Kyūta, runs away from his mother’s family after her untimely death. Angry at his family, and especially his absent father, Kyūta ends up on the streets until he accepts an unusual offer and ends up in the world of the beasts, Jūtengai.

Kyūta’s rebelliousness is matched by the rough and tumble attitude of Kumatetsu, a maverick beast who takes him on as his apprentice. At first, Kumatetsu  is a horrible master and teacher. Together, it’s next to impossible either of them will succeed—but with the right encouragement and perseverance, they both begin to improve. Later, when Kyūta rediscovers the human world, he becomes torn between his need to learn new things and grow while coming to grips with the loose threads and old wounds of his past.

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I found the characters delightful—rich and various—with a simplicity and innocence similar to those in Hayao Miyazaki’s works. The animation quality is superb, and the story moves quickly, interspersing action with humor, introduction of new characters, and plenty of unexpected directions. The film delivers entertainment with lessons about growing up, forgiveness, selflessness and caring.

While I normally prefer the Japanese audio, for those watching with younger kids who can’t keep up with subtitles, the English-dubbed version was nicely done (as a side note: there is one scene with graphic violence that may disturb some younger children). Overall, highly recommended for anime fans and families!

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Gantz: 0 is a Japanese, CGI anime movie based on the original manga series Gantz [Note: spoilers ahead!]. I ran into Gantz: 0 on Netflix, not having heard anything about it previously. I had read some of the manga years ago and seen the live-action version (2010), so I decided to give this film version a go. I’m glad I did! Normally, I avoid CGI animation which has traditionally suffered from uncanny valley syndrome (creepy vibe of animation that comes close to human realism but falls short in a bad way). Early attempts like the Final Fantasy films (2001, 2005), The Polar Express (2004), and Beowulf (2007) had soured me on CGI for “realistic” mainstream films (admittedly it’s been a better fit for children’s films), but at the same time, I knew video game CGI effects and animation in general were advancing all the time. Gantz: 0 showcases the best CGI characters I’ve witnessed yet. While still noticeably animated, the characters have just enough expression that I managed to skip over the valley and achieve that much sought after “suspension of disbelief” despite some persistent manikin-like attributes—artificial posture and body motion (do people really sway like that?), skin textures, physics-defying hair, and the compulsory well-endowed female characters (how much animator time has been devoted to the physics of breasts?).

Plot and character borrow minimally from the original, more complex and slow-to-unfold manga storyline (skipping the multiple “game” rounds, learning about the rules and how to survive and what Gantz is), but the film preserves the core of the series—people resurrected to fight aliens, or in this film—supernatural monsters. There isn’t much in the way of character development. The hero, Masaru Kato, does heroic things mainly because he’s the hero. Inexplicably, all the veteran warriors with the high-level weaponry are killed off. With the help of his friends (and one not-so-friendly kid with homicidal tendencies), Kato prevails in the end despite his apparent lack of skills. The morals seem to be self-sacrifice is the trait most worthy of admiration and teamwork can trump badassery.pedmc1a

Despite its shortcomings, Gantz: 0 delivers over-the-top effects in true Japanese anime/manga style with full-on craziness and mayhem captured in eye-popping CGI detail. IMO, the creativity on display here puts many Hollywood special effects juggernauts like Pacific Rim or Godzilla (2014 reboot) to shame. Bodies, lighting, and scenery are amazingly rendered. It’s clear digital animation is steadily gaining on its live-action counter-part. I expect in 5-10 years the two forms may be nearly indistinguishable. In any case, the monsters steal the show in Gantz: 0—horrors brought to life from Japanese folklore—you can tell the animators went all out in this respect.

I enjoyed this film and would definitely watch more if the Gantz: 0 team ever decides to tell more stories from the Gantz universe. As a tangent, I’d like to suggest they also take on one of my favorite series—Berserk. I think their style would fit perfectly with Berserk’s medieval knights-and-monsters carnage. I can only hope!

 

I love beginnings! They unspool almost without effort from my brain. So much mystery with just a few words. Momentous events can be implied with a few lines description. Captivating characters step through a doorway radiating promise. What I hate (ok, perhaps hate is too strong a word)… what I cringe away from are endings. Those black holes at the end of my plot outlines that sit there like gaping craters. They’re hard to dealpicture-110-300x186 with those craters of emptiness, or worse, of weak plot I keep telling myself is good enough (writer’s instinct: listen, you fool, before it’s too late—that’s Swiss cheese you’ve written! It’s rotten through and through). There are quite a few books and movies out there that suffer from this syndrome. Why? Because writing a good ending isn’t easy. No, in today’s world of jaded readers and audiences suckled on amazing stories, it’s damn near impossible.

So what, I wondered (for the nth time), makes a good ending? With that question in mind, I began to jot down a list of my favorite stories and some notes about what made their endings stand out (I considered both final endings and endings of key plot sequences). Next, I divided them into ending components, and this is what I came up with (spoiler alert!):

Components of Great Endings:

Unexpected revelation (URn):

Wizard of Earth Sea: enemy revealed as something unexpected (Ged’s death).

Game of Thrones: Hodor’s big reveal. This is also another excellent example of tricking the reader, where the clue is laid down early on and becomes so routine the reader overlooks it until the final revelation when it all makes sense.

Unexpected ally (UA):

The Diamond Age: The main character is kidnapped, raped, fights her way out, and is rescued by the mouse army the reader thought was only imaginary.

Lord of the Rings [Helm’s Deep], Game of Thrones [battle at King’s Landing], Count Zero, Watership Down: hold off superior army, allies arrive to counter-attack [brought by one of the characters].

Conan the Barbarian: Arnold is almost overwhelmed by his enemy, but a Valkyrie (lover back from dead), intercedes, allowing Arnold to regain his footing and win the fight.

Beserk: rescue by the Skull Knight during “The Eclipse”.

Star Wars IV: Han returns to give Luke a hand right when he needs it most.

Note: to avoid a deus ex machina situation, the allies can’t make it too easy for the protagonist who should still struggle to overcome the problem.

Unexpected reversal (URl):

Blade Runner: Protagonist (Harrison Ford) faces final enemy, Roy (Rutger Hauer), cannot defeat him, yet Roy saves the protagonist’s life. Important note: in the very end, Roy gains a transcending appreciation for life, and thus, his saving his enemy’s life in understandable despite being unexpected.

Trickery (Trick):

Hunt for Red October: Sean Connery fakes the destruction of his Russian submarine so he can defect without hurting his crew while still maintaining the intel value of the stolen sub to the Americans.

Conan the Barbarian: initial phase of final battle using decoys to distract enemy soldiers.

Roadwarrior: in a change of heart, drives fuel tanker that turns out to be a decoy.

Almost Famous:  Penny Lane tricks Russel and viewer into thinking she sent Russel to meet her, only to find she really sent him to meet the protagonist.

Somewhat similar: Silence of the Lambs: viewer is tricked into thinking agents are coming to rescue the protagonist at the correct house, but it’s not the correct house. Just when she could really use the help, she’s on her own.

Note: there are two forms of trickery: fooling the antagonist and/or the reader/audience. In either case, the trick has to be clever and plausible.

Failure instead of success (FIS):

The protagonist must either succeed or fail, and failure isn’t an option. Or is it? This binary choice is a tough one for authors. LOTR solved it with a 3rd party (Gollum) and the ring’s evil, corrupting influence.  The ring defeats Frodo only for Gollum to take ring and unwittingly complete mission. It works because Gollum’s behavior is completely plausible having been laid down over the entire trilogy and its precursor, The Hobbit.

Endurance (End):

Wizard of Earth Sea: Ged pursues enemy to final confrontation (turns from fleeing to pursuing: hunted becomes hunter: courage).

The Road: enduring many travails, the protagonist finally dies (self-sacrifice in a sense) but first gets his son to safety.

True Detective: the first protagonist is stabbed by the big bad (seemingly mortally), but counter-attacks anyway, enough so protagonist #2 can assist, #1 kills big bad before he can kill #2.

Enemy Secret Weakness (ESW):

LOTR [final battle at Black Gate] and Star Wars IV and VI: attack superior enemy [but enemy has secret weakness that is exploited], enemy destroyed.

Sacrifice (SAC):

The Mission:  Robert De Niro sacrifices himself to save the village.

Harry Potter (end of last book): Harry sacrifices himself, but lives on to defeat enemy.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: Aslan sacrifices himself then is reborn and defeats enemy.

Hero Goes Alone (HGA):

The Man from Snowy River: the protagonist goes over cliff when no one else would, captures wild herd and clears his name.

Ripley in Aliens. It’s just her against the Queen.

Enemies Unite (EU):

The Storm Riders: Rival protagonists unite to defeat big bad who had manipulated them and betrayed them.

Endings can also be rated by various criteria. I’ve come up with five:

  • Difficulty (for the protagonist): I notice this a lot with stories I critique: beginning writers make things too easy for their protagonist. It’s almost as if they identify with their character so strongly, they can’t bear for anything bad to happen to them. I always advise they get over this tendancy and start throwing obstacles in their protagonist’s path. Unless the hero earns his/her victory, it won’t generate much enthusiasm from the reader.
  • Plausibility: Hollywood films are full of unbelievable plot devices, deus ex machina situations, or plots that just don’t make sense. An audience’s suspension of disbelief only goes so far.
  • Unexpectedness: everyone loves to be surprised. It’s a big part of the entertainment experience. While not easy to accomplish, it’s worth it (IMO) for an author to spend a lot of time making sure their story has some surprises in store.
  • Resolution: some stories have too much of this, others not enough. While every question doesn’t need to be answered, enough should be answered so the reader feels a sense of closure at the end.
  • Contribution (of the protagonist): It seems obvious the protagonist should do the most towards resolving the story’s major problem, but that’s not the case in some stories.

Using these criteria, I rated some stories. The results are completely subjective, but it allowed me to think more clearly about why I liked the endings of some stories, but not others.

plot-criteria-table

To take it even further, I used my ratings to create the figure below. Ideally, a story should be as close to the outer edges of the pentagon as possible.

 

plot-pentagram

The Greatest Endings:

In the final analysis, I find the greatest endings often:

  1. Combine more than one of the components above.
  2. Are nested like Matryoshka dolls, one surprise and/or escalation opens within/after another.
  3. Are complex and nuanced—some joy and some pain, some victory, but also some loss (you see where I’m going with this).
  4. Surprise the reader/audience. The unexpected is essential, but more difficult to pull off well as time goes on and audiences become more savvy. Surprises must (IMO) have their groundwork laid out well in advance, so the unexpected event makes immediate sense and doesn’t come off as a badly-done twist ending.

Tips for Developing Your Endings:

  1. Warning (advice gained the hard way): if you don’t have at least a rough idea of your ending as you write, you’re likely to end up having to do some major re-writing by the time you’re done. Having to do those re-writes is probably healthy for the story at that point, but if you can avoid re-writing in the first place, I’m all for it.
  2. Think of an ending for your story. Odds are your first idea is trite, simplistic, too easy for the protagonist(s), and uninspiring (I speak from personal experience). What now? Think of another ending. Then another, another, and more. To make it easier, start tearing apart every assumption about your plot, every turning point, every fork in the road. If they steal a ship, what if they build it instead? If the aliens can’t speak English, what if they know Japanese? Take your plot endings and “break” them, twist them, reverse them, etc. Besides the fun of morphing old, tired ideas into something new, it’s a great way to force yourself to expand your thinking. Theodore Sturgeon put it well when he suggested writers “Ask the next question, and the one that follows that, and the one that follows that.” While you can apply this process at any point in your writing, I think it’s especially useful for plotting endings, whether it’s the end of your book or just an important scene.
  3. Make a table or list of the ending components in your book or series (see example below) for each character arc and/or major plot. This will at least force you to think through the various endings. Are you using the same ending components too many times? If so, this is a quick way to see that early on when you can easily rethink the plot.

ending-table

  1. Don’t feel you can’t use a plot device just because it’s already been used. It may even be true, as some say, that no new plots exist. What you want is to use that plot device in your way, putting your own unique style, spin, or stamp on it. That’s really the one thing you have people will value the most—you (see, even that advice is trite!).

And here we are,

The End

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I love being caught up in a “new” series on Netflix. In this case, said series is Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a British alt-history/fantasy TV miniseries based on a best-selling novel by Susanna Clarke (Alert! Mild spoilers ahead). Set in 19th-century England, the series’ premise is English magic has been gone from the land for some 300 years after the departure of the Raven King. Since that time, only street magicians and charlatans have been in evidence. The series opens as the only living magician in England, Mr. Norrell (played by Eddie Marsan), decides to make himself known to the public with the ultimate goal of making English magic respectable. Just his stated goal was enough to perk my ears with memories of the Weasley brothers’ antics at Hogwarts. Might more mischief be afoot in this series? I suspected it would. Conflict arises when it turns out Norrell is not the only, living, English magician. There is another, Mr. Strange (Bertie Carvel), who seeks to become Norrell’s pupil.

Television - Strange and Norrell

Although I’ve only watched a handful of episodes so far, I’ve already noticed more than enough instances of excellent storytelling. For starters, the series juxtaposes its two protagonists perfectly: Strange is a natural magician—a prodigy of the magical arts for whom magic comes without much effort. Indeed, Strange becomes a magician almost by accident (or so it would seem). Strange is handsome, curious, and adventurous, whereas Norrell is a serious, gnome-like man who has worked in obscurity for decades  studying every book of magic he can lay his hands on. Where Strange is bold, Norrell is timid. Where Strange is loving, Norrell is asocial, preferring the company of his precious books. However, Norrell is also quietly proficient, calculating, and committed to his goal even if others are hurt in the process. He has the qualifications of a villain, but a more subtle one than I typically encounter.

Another aspect of this series I admire is how it eschews the usual coupling of magic and secrecy. There is no prohibition against use of magic in front of muggles here—these magicians cast spells publically, to the extent they are recruited by the government and Strange is enlisted in the war effort. His magical acts prove decisive in the war between England and France, although in unexpected ways. The magic itself utilizes enough special effects to seem well done IMO, but is also presented in clever ways such as a card trick gone peculiar in the first episode.

Extra villainy is provided by a malevolent fairy (Marc Warren) reminiscent of David Bowie’s goblin king (minus the cod piece and tights). The rest of the cast shine as well, including a head butler, Stephen (Ariyon Bakare), whose impeccable manners are put to the test when he is tricked into serving the fairy king, and a convincing rogue, John Childermass (Enzo Cilenti), who succeeds in adding a sinister element.

Finally, for those who miss Hogwarts, there is a sub-plot to establish a school of magic. Let’s hope it succeeds!

Now that Game of Thrones Season 6 has concluded, I’ve been reading various articles and their comments, some of which accuse various characters of being flat, including Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, and Ramsay Bolton. These complaints about flat characters got me thinking—what makes a character deep?jon snow

Cardboard characters are easy to spot. They usually have few or no lines of dialogue, we don’t learn much about them, and they rarely surprise us. But of course, they’re necessary for any story—not everyone can be fleshed out in detail. The problem is when main characters come across as flat, shallow, and predictable.

But what exactly gives a good character depth? An intricate backstory? Flashbacks to their childhood? Interesting quirks? Strong motivations? Being unpredictable? Deep dives into personal angst? Maybe what people really mean by flat characters is that they’re just not Birdy13that interesting. A character can be deep, intricately detailed, and still be boring. Maybe some of today’s jaded, cliché-hardened readers just aren’t interested in characters unless they offer something new.

Examples of rich, deep characters might be: Birdy and Al from the film Birdy, where we learn about Birdy as a child, then a soldier, both experiences informing his current status as a mental patient. In The Wire, we experience characters at home, at work, and during the often more telling time spent in between. The Station Agent starring Peter Dinklage is good example. True Detective Season 1 is another, in my opinion.

I seem to have more non-genre examples of good characterization. For genre examples, Ged in a Wizard of Earthsea comes to mind. The first novel follows Ged from birth, to station01his education in magic and adulthood, to his quest to remedy a terrible mistake. We get to witness his maturation. I’d also point to Gutts and Griffith in Berserk as a great example of well-developed characters. Dragonsong is another. But really, how deep are the characters in Lord of the Rings? To me, Frodo seems to develop along the journey, but I never got the sense of any great depth in him as a character. I feel the same way about Gandalf—we never learn what his favorite breakfast is, or how his mother treated him, or whether he experienced loss in his childhood. And that’s okay. Obviously Frodo and frodoGandalf are beloved by readers across the world, myself included. Perhaps in genre fiction, plot and setting and ideas can trump characterization. My own fiction is primarily idea-driven. I develop the ideas first, and characters and settings spring up to bring the ideas to life. Is it reasonable to expect deep characters in genre fiction where the primary goal is to convey new ideas and/or entertain?

Putting that question aside, how many deep characters are enough in a story? Readers seem to want everyone to be deep, but is that realistic from an author’s standpoint? Without going into logistics of writing, it’s just not possible for every character to be deep. So the question becomes—who do you develop? Who needs what amount of depth? Is there some golden percentage of your characters (10%) or criteria (anyone who cries must have a backstory)? Or is it just a magician’s trick of creating characters with a believable veneer? The answer is almost certainly Goldilocks-esque, and maybe I’ll figure it out one of these days. I will let everyone know when I do.

For my first novel, I winged it in terms of character development. My characters evolved in my mind as the writing progressed, their backgrounds becoming richer as I needed them berserkto be, but that kind of recursive writing, going back and rethinking and editing, in loops, seemed inefficient. So for my new novel series, I decided to try a new approach which is, I’m sure, old hat to many writers: develop character backgrounds before I start to write. This is no trivial task in my case. I’m currently developing at least 13 main characters, but there will probably be more as the story unfolds from mind to page. It’s a slow process getting to know someone who doesn’t exist yet—deciding who will be cardboard and who will have a soul. Gradually, my characters have gained vitality until now they’re ready to  jump onto the page before I’ve even written a single page of narrative (not counting the extensive notes I’ve accumulated).

Resources I’m using include character templates (I’ve mashed together several from the interweb). I also recommend The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes and The Negative Trait Thesaurus and A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws, both by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. I’ve gone as far as describing (succinctly) some of my characters’ childhoods, adolescences, and early adulthoods. Some peculiarities of mine true-detective-season-1-episode-7I’ve noticed: Appearance: I have a problem describing how my characters look—their appearance doesn’t stick in my mind, apparently visual descriptions have little relevance for me. It’s more the flavor of their personalities I feel as I write. Names: monikers have always seemed important to me, although I can’t say why. I like foreign or made-up names, and I’ve spent far too much time searching baby name sites and phone books for just the right name for a particular character. Other times, a made-up name just pops into my mind.

Will this characterization-in-advance approach result in stale writing with the characters pre-fixed, unable to change? I hope not. I don’t think so. New story material has already begun to radiate from these newborn people, leading in unanticipated directions. It’s as if I’m seeing the story before I write it or at least its precursor. So far, I’m enjoying the process, even if it is slow, and I highly recommend it—take the time to develop your characters before setting out on the journey with them—it seems better than hitting the road with strangers.

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An entire people sleep until their dying solar system can be resurrected. Only one guardian remains. When thieves arrive to steal the planet’s last chance for survival, can they be stopped?

Short story.

Get your copy here: http://www.amazon.com/Thieves-Long-Dark-Daniel-Swenson-ebook/dp/B00MGFM8C0/

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What if the Greek gods were alive today living among us in obscurity? Hades spends his time inventing new diseases. Zeus is a homeless wanderer. The other gods live on following their own unique inclinations. When one god comes up with a new plan, who will sign on?

Short story.

Get your copy here: http://www.amazon.com/Belly-Universe-Daniel-P-Swenson-ebook/dp/B00MGTH3FS/