Sunday, June 28, 2015

Scrivener Adventures Part 1

A while back I heard about a panel at a local library called “Technology for Writers” or some such. No more information than that was provided, but it sounded interesting enough, so I went, and I’m very glad that I did. It was given by Steve Beisner, a writer and self-professed tech guy. His presentation touched on different writing programs and on the importance of backing up your data, but focused on Scrivener. I had experimented with the trial version of Scrivener before, but had a problem really cracking the UI and figuring out what it could do. In his presentation, Steve went through it with us. He showed how the program could split a manuscript up into chapters and even scenes, while still keeping everything in one document. It makes large projects much easier to navigate.

The panel came at a perfect time for me. I do write straight-forward one-off stories now and again, but my passion lies in elaborate and expansive shared-universe monstrosities. As you can imagine, it’s been a challenge keeping all that stuff organized using spreadsheets and layers of folders.  Then BOOM there’s this panel where a solution is laid out in front of me. I bought Scrivener that very night after the panel. While I haven’t spent a ton of time in the program yet, it has proved very useful. I can’t imagine going back to switching between Word documents. 

Everything pertaining to a certain universe – completed stories, novel outlines, comic scripts, character information sheets, artwork, reference photos, etc… – has been uploaded into a single Scrivener project. Inside the project, documents themselves can act as folders for other documents in a tiered list. You can apply searchable tags to everything, view multiple documents side by side, and customize the icons for each document. I downloaded a set of space icons and use them to differentiate between my notes on fictional solar systems, planets, and individual moons. Gas giant planets have mini Jupiter icons, habitable worlds have Earth icons, and so on. I’m not exactly sure how useful that will be, but it looks nice and makes me happy.

A big question, though, is how much Scrivener can handle. Could it hold multiple completed novels and an on-going comic series in a single project? Will the program start chugging on me when I have a project containing thousands of pages of text? I hope it’s robust enough to handle those things, but I expect it probably isn’t. It’s designed to be writer’s workstation while working on a single novel. Some writers apparently have a separate Scrivener project for their universe bible, and create other projects for each book. That’s a solution, I guess, but I’ll just be switching between windows all over again. I want EVERYTHING in one place. I’m excited to continue exploring the program further and really test its limits. I’ll keep you posted.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Juggling Characters

-This is a re-post of a guest article I wrote for the blog quite a while back.-

Hello, ladies and gents. There are a lot of things that I’ve learned about writing since starting my serial Static Breaker. In this snazzy post I’ll be covering one of those topics just for you: juggling characters.

My series has a single POV character, but he’s usually hanging out with a couple of friends. It can sometimes be challenging to juggle more than two characters together in a scene. Below are some tricks that I’ve found useful.

1)      Give them a reason to be there – Don’t have secondary characters tag along just because. Why should they be in your story if they don’t make it better? Your characters should earn their place. Secondary characters need skills that can help the main character proceed. If they’re just in the background, and don’t contribute, take them out. Don’t make them the star of the show, but give them their own time to shine. Design problems that make them a necessary part of the team.

2)      Give them something to do – Standing still is boring. Your characters shouldn’t be talking heads. Make them a physical part of each scene. Have them interact with the environment. Even if they’re sleeping in the background, you can have them snore and mumble to themselves. Maybe have them roll off of the bed. Simply tagging “he said, she said” over and over gets repetitive real fast. Try something like: Craig kneeled in front of the rusty oven and pulled it open. It creaked loudly. “How long do you think it’s been since someone lived here?”

3)      Give them a voice – Don’t have them all speak the same. Try to make them identifiable just from the way they speak. Get rid of your voice and find theirs. They should all contribute something different to a conversation. Do they have quirks? Favorite phrases? How often do they use contractions? Are they casual? Proper? If something crazy happens, how do they react? Do they use similes a lot? Do they exaggerate?

4)      Give them attitude – Yes-men are boring. Give your supporting characters opinions and emotions of their own. Drama is exciting. Supporting characters can still show dissent. Don’t be afraid to let them argue and even fight. They should also have their own motivation. Why are they doing what they’re doing? Why be there at all?

5)      Give them nuance – One-note characters are boring. If the goofy guy is always the same kind of goofy in every situation, he’s a caricature, not a character. Everyone gets sad and angry at certain times, even if it’s rare. Everyone has their vulnerabilities. Also, humans are especially skilled at holding two conflicting thoughts in their head at once. Show the real breadth of their personality.

By keeping each of these things in mind, your supporting characters will work to reinforce your main characters and bring your story to life. Your readers won’t be confused by who’s who or why they’re there. This isn’t all there is to know about juggling characters, of course, so go explore in your own writing. If you come up with any other tips, let me know.

Friday, April 3, 2015

What's Wrong with Destiny

I’m a giant Bungie fan. I own almost every Halo game and I’ve read most of the books. I’ve played over ten thousand Halo multiplayer matches online. Since Destiny’s announcement, I soaked up every bit of information I could find. I waited years for it with bated breath. Now Destiny has been out for over six months. And… meh.

I mean, it’s a good game, even a great game. I’m sure I’ve put over a hundred hours into it. The mechanics are tight and nuanced. There’s a lot to enjoy, but something’s holding it back. If you take the formula for a hit like Halo, then add persistent player progression, open-world exploration, upgradeable loot, and friggin’ raids, you’d think that would make for an even better game. And you’d be right, it totally would.

But that’s not what happened. You see, there are lots of things that could improve destiny – more loot, varied quests, raid matchmaking, better chat option, etc… – but the major problem is a fundamental flaw in the design philosophy that Bungie’s using. The problem is CONTROL.

My junior year of high school was my first year at a new school after moving into the mountains of Colorado. The kids there weren’t very friendly to new arrivals, so all of my best friends were over Xbox Live. I played with them nearly every day for a year. That whole time, we played primarily custom games. Instead of jumping into the standard matchmaking gametypes, we played our own: psychoslayer (only shotguns, no shields), Valerorama (*named after a friend* snipers only, no shields), classic zombies (where you actually had to switch teams after death). We did everything you could imagine in that game. We experimented and explored. Later, when Forge was introduced to the series, you could customize maps, or even create your own from scratch. Possibilities exploded. Every subsequent Halo game since Combat Evolved has added more options and customization into the mix.

In Destiny, custom games don’t exist. You either play PvP in one of the few Bungie-created playlists, or not at all. They’ve taken years of developed customization which fostered experimentation and community, and thrown it out the window. The feeling of micromanagement pervades the PvE, as well. Playing Destiny is like being dropped into a beautiful theme park with all the coolest new rides but you’re strapped into a straightjacket and led around on a leash. Bungie is paranoid you’ll break something if you’re allowed to really play with it. And to be fair, we absolutely will, but that’s the fun of it! The most exciting thing you’ll do Destiny is trying to glitch the raids. Thriving communities are born from freedom of choice, not restrictions. Minecraft wouldn’t have been such a success if you were limited to breaking 50 blocks a day.

I haven’t played Destiny in about a month now, and neither have most of my friends. We were all diehard at the start. Now the only real way to progress our high level characters is to play the second raid, which we can only get rewards from twice a week. The more you progress, the narrower your path gets.

A new expansion comes out in a few months, and there are even more after that. I’ll play them all. But if Destiny doesn’t change in a fundamental way, it’ll never reach its full potential. *Sad face*

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Marginalization of Women in Kingsman: The Secret Service

Obviously – SPOILERS AHEAD. I try not to be too specific, but some major plot points are mentioned.

Also, I have not read the Mark Miller/Dave Gibbons comic, The Secret Service, on which Kingsman is based. This post is about the film only.

I thoroughly enjoyed Kingsman: the Secret Service. It was clear while watching it that the creators had one major goal – to entertain – and they succeeded. From the start it burst onto the screen with a brash energy that’s rare. It is irreverent fun that moves fast and hits hard. It goes out of its way to break conventions and divert clichés. The whole thing is a play on spy movie tropes. Unfortunately, something holds it back, and it’s the way it treats women. There are three female characters that have an effect on the story: the main character’s mother, the Big Bad’s henchwoman, and an agent recruit.

The mother is a victim of an abusive criminal husband. She’s there to give the main character his angsty background and his motivation to stand up for people. She also provides a personal stake for the main character when the bad guy enacts his evil plan. That all makes sense, and the portrayal of an abusive relationship is pretty accurate, but she’s never characterized. She’s only shown as a victim. She’s just a big ol’ damsel.

The henchwoman is a deadly, vaguely-ethnic, exotic vixen cliché. She’s super badass – wicked bladed leg prostheses! – but is given no real motivation, desires, or background. She just kills whoever her boss tells her to without question. To be fair, she’s based on the classic henchman, and none of them were well-characterized, but so much of the rest of this movie feels very modern. It seems like the only thing that isn’t modern is the portrayal of women.

The recruit that the main character befriends in training has the biggest female role in the movie. She’s quite capable, but very plain, and second in everything to the MC (main character). The only exception is when she passes the final test to actually win the rank of agent, beating the MC, but it’s really just a twisted trick that only shows she is more easily manipulated than the MC. In the climax of the movie, she’s put on the backburner; relegated to pressing a button to shoot down a satellite instead of actually helping with the final raid on the bad guy’s lair. Apparently, ovaries exclude one from ridiculous hyper-violent action scenes. That is, unless you’re a sexy evil chick with katana feet.

Kingsman has all the three bad female clichés: damsel, evil vixen, and pretty sidekick. Wait, did I say three? I left something out. Don’t forget the sex trophy!

This is the part that bothered me the most. Toward the end of the movie, the MC comes across a European princess that has been imprisoned by the bad guy since she stood up to him earlier in the movie. She actually shows herself to be strong-willed character in that earlier scene, which was nice. When the MC comes across her trapped in a cell, she’s been in there for a week at least, probably more like several months. I don’t really remember. Anyway, when he encounters her in her cell, their encounter goes something like this.

Princess: “If you get me out of here, I’ll do anything.”

MC: “Really, anything?”

Princess: “Anything.”

MC: “Alright then. Just let me go save the world, and I’ll be right back.”

Princess: “If you save the world, I’ll let you put it in my ass.”

What the ACTUAL fuck? Keep in mind, this exchange happens minutes after they meet, and the princess has been kidnapped and locked away, with the possibility of being murdered. Everything seems consensual, which is a plus, I guess. The Princess is the one who brings it up. But it’s so unrealistic it hurts. Ugh. THEN, after the climax (of the movie), in which the world is indeed saved, the MC returns to the Princess’s cell with a bottle of wine and a smirk. He opens the door and she invites him into the CELL she has been IMPRISONED in. Things get steamy, there’s a close-up on her naked ass, and the movie goes to credits. Seriously.

I haven’t even brought up the issue of race yet. One little thing that I just happened to notice was that the only people of color in the movie who were impactful characters were the BAD GUYS. The good guys were all whiter than a polar bear plastered with mayonnaise.

Now, if one or two of these things were in the movie, it wouldn’t be a big deal, but they pile up to become a major problem with this story. If you’re going to very obviously play on old tropes of a certain genre, and of movies in general, why would you ignore the tropes that work against women and people of color? At one point, the Big Bad says “This isn’t that kind of movie,” when referring to bloviating and giving the heroes a chance to escape, insinuating that this is fresher and smarter than what you’re used to. But when it comes to marginalizing female characters, it isn’t smarter at all, it’s exactly that kind of movie.