A Call To Arms

I remember when I started this blog a few years ago. I had no precise idea what the purpose of it would be or the range of topics I might cover.

It’s since evolved. To some extent.

One of my earliest posts focused on common writing tendencies — encountered in as much published writing as editing clients’ “books to be” — that bothered me. Like, actually bugged me enough to write about it publicly.

Lately, I’ve been coming across a number of articles (and other things) regarding The Craft that I found useful. Today, I’ll highlight a few of them that I feel are worth your time. I’ll also touch on a couple of the writing terms mentioned that might need some extrapolation.

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Let’s start things off with discussing the use of vulgarities, profanities, swear words. There’s a gentleman whose posts have garnered some steam in the NaNoWriMo group Facebook Group,occasionally circulating amongst us aspiring writers with varying degrees of opposition or acceptance. I, for one, rather enjoyed both what he had to say and the manner in which he conveyed it – that is, with extreme profanity.

The words of John Hartness in these two articles, Five Reasons You Won’t Make it as a Writer and Why Your Self-Published Book Looks Like A Pile Of Ass And Won’t Ever Make You Any Money come off as unsurprisingly irate. I imagine they are written as much to dissuade the dissuadable as to encourage the competent. If one were to read these articles and these articles alone, one could quickly and easily surmise that the anger boiling in this man’s belly is like the stomach acid of a sarlacc.

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Any would-be writer would do well to read these two articles simply on the basis of knowing what’s going on out there; whether or not Hartness’ words are news to you is besides the point. If you find yourself discouraged, then perhaps indeed you must rethink your path. While not in agreement with everything he says and I’m not exactly endorsing him, I will make one quote that I believe in:

“…I’ve spent my life in the arts. Theatre and writing are how I’ve made my living, at least tangentially, since I got out of college. I’ve spoken to many high school theatre kids and I’ve always told them the same thing – if there is anything else in the world that will make you happy, please go do that. This (theatre and writing) is a lonely, bizarre, world-destroying, soul-crushing business where you accept rejection as the norm and the tiniest bit of encouragement is like the first rainbow after Noah docked that fucking ark.

A life in the arts will destroy your health, relationships, and any hope of routinely seeing sunlight. It is not a career, it is a calling, it is an addiction, it is my church. If you can imagine yourself doing anything else – go do that. Save yourself the suffering. …”

But, as has been pointed out by both unknown commentators and even some of my peers, he isn’t saying anything particularly original in these articles. His use of excessive profanity is meant to be attention-grabbing (you will indeed notice a shameless plug for his own work somewhere between the fucks he doesn’t give) but I will say I learned something.

One thing that stood out to me is his mentioning of the passive voice, something I learned about from Steven King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft many years before writing this post, and have since endeavored to reduce it’s usage whenever possible. I do, however, often enough forget the terminology used to describe the passive voice, and why it’s sub-optimal. I, for one, am in the camp that using it does indeed weaken your writing. I also did not know there was term for what’s known as “filter words,” which I’ll talk about in a moment.

A colleague of mine wrote a post in response to John Hartness’ articles I linked, talking specifically about the use of vulgar language in blogs. You can find Joy’s post here – she, too makes a solid point.

 

The Passive Voice 

So what exactly is the passive voice? Perhaps it is best to demonstrate. passive 02

Passive Voice: Tired and blood dripping from the blade, and the sword was gripped by John.

It was, eh? Well, we can glean easily enough that this was a night in the Simple Past tense, but that’s not quite what is meant by a passive voice; it is passive in the sense that stuff happens to the thing, rather than the thing doing something. Compare that with:

Active Voice: Tired from the fight, John gripped his sword, blood dripping from the blade.

The active voice, even in this very rudimentary example, so
unds noticeably more immediate. Stuff’s happening now, and has a more urgent energy to the imagery you paint in your mind. The passive voice is especially damaging to faster-paced action scenes. Also, there’s this nifty trick…

 

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Not sure? Take the example I provided a moment ago:

Tired and blood dripping from the blade, the sword was gripped by John.

[by John] can easily be replaced with [by zombies]. Anything that was written in the passive voice can be capped off with [by zombies]. Or, conversely:

Tired and blood dripping from his blade, John was gripped by zombies.

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What I have read, and what I do,  to avoid this is simply omit the usage of the word “was” as much as possible. Nowadays I see it mostly as a sort of ‘word inefficiency,’ and sometimes, at its worst, I see it as downright lazy. At first, I was ruthless about cutting it out of my prose, because I found strengthened my writing. If you don’t allow yourself to use the word “was,” you force yourself to reconstruct the entire sentence. More often than not, the result turned out to be more expressive and articulate.

I suggest you attempt the same, but one must always strike a balance. I’ll let it slip occasionally, but very rarely in straight-up prose — and when it comes to character dialog, well, they say whatever they say (‘cuz real folks don’t much cotton to grammar).

A final words (at least in this post) in regards to the passive voice from are none other than the King himself.

“[One] of my pet peeves [has] to do with the most basic level of writing, and I want to get [it] off my chest before we move along. Verbs come in two types, active and passive. With an active verb, the subject of the sentence is doing something. With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence. The subject is just letting it happen. You should avoid the passive voice. I’m not the only one who says so; you can find the same advice in The Elements of Style.

Messrs. Strunk and White don’t speculate as to why so many writers are attracted to passive verbs, but I’m willing to; I think timid writers like them for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe.

You can find the long version of Stephen King talking about the passive voice here. And if you’re unfamiliar with Stephen King to any degree, you’ll soon learn that he’s not particularly afraid of using profanity and cutting through the bullshit to make a point.

There are loads of articles with similar advice and similar links. Yet we frequently encounter the Passive Voice, and I cannot help but agree with the King in the above quote. We each have our stages, and our paths; perhaps once I was a timid writer but I wouldn’t ascribe to such a label these days. I have restraints, sure, and there are certain topics that make me downright uncomfortable to write about. My stance on profanity is that if it helps further the point of the topic (or if a character is speaking, it does more than just “adultify the tone”), then have fun.

If you’re one of those types who either don’t yet see “the big deal” with the Passive Voice or who have otherwise staked out a tent in the camp of people who believe that people can write whatever they want, then please understand that I see you’re point.

I just heartily disagree with it.

I’ll get into a list of tips and tricks of the Craft that I follow in a future post. Until then, consider these things when writing and revising.

Happy writing!

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Today’s musical number recommendation comes from Yoko Kanno and the Seatbelts, the work of whom I fondly came to love while watching Cowboy Bebop. As of January 2016 (some weeks before this post) I managed to, at long last, watch the series in its entirety. Cowboy Bebop my responsible for my interest in soft Jazz.

 

The Influence Map

Improving your writing should be an ongoing effort.

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It’s easy enough to find writing advice online, ranging from drafting the so-called perfect scene to 297 Words to omit. While much of it is sound advice, it is often difficult to find advice that is at your level, whatever level that may be. From learning how to cut out over-used phrases (for instance, my characters tend to shrug, snort, and raise their eyebrows often) to understanding how to seed information throughout your story as opposed to performing an InfoDump (very common in Fantasy and Science/Speculative Fiction), or even simply challenging yourself by going through your draft to cut out the words “was” and most any adverb (-ly words) … mercilessly.

Following even just the guidelines I just mentioned:

  • The rough scheme of how to construct a scene
  • Omission of words that serve as useless padding
  • Awareness of one’s own tendencies
  • Seeding information (avoiding InfoDumps)
  • Restructuring sentences (but not necessarily all) to avoid using an -ly adverb or the word “was”

…Following even just that, I am confident the majority of would-be writers will see an improvement in their prose.

But what if that isn’t enough?

After all, once you’ve mastered the art of storytelling (which, as I said, is an ongoing process and as such mastery is a matter of subjective opinion), what if the story itself you’re trying to tell is downright not engaging? What if you’ve spent months-worth of hours crafting and inventing a world, but the story in which it takes place just isn’t all that interesting?

There is no formula for an effective story, as Andrew Stanton says in his awesome Ted Talk, but there are clues. I have heard his points reinforced by other writers, such as those found on the Writing Excuses Podcast.

I share these with you now to cover any bases, for those of you unfamiliar with these links and methods. But to be honest, I have researched all of these things before (which is not to say I mastered the aforementioned techniques, but I feel I’ve got a good handle on them), and I was looking for something more.

That’s where mentors come into play.

If you are someone I want to say lucky enough to have yourself a mentor, no matter the field, this is a boon for your career. If you meet someone who does what you want to do, has what you want to have, and they are willing to take time out of their life to show you the in’s and outs of this, that is a magical, special thing.

However the majority of us do not have such a person in our lives. And as it turns out for me, personally, most of the writers I admire are dead. But I, too, am lucky to some degree, for the most powerful research tool in the largest library in history is readily available as well as readily taken for granted.

I discovered another Ted Talk, Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon (he has a book of the same name). Watch this video.

Following the idea presented in the TED Talk, I drew up my own Influence Map. This is the result after a few hours:

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A web like this makes sense to me, as a visually-oriented person, as opposed to, say, a spreadsheet or a simple list of names.

For the more technically minded, we can see from this beautiful and half-chipped white board more than a few familiar names. You can see that Isaac Asimov (specifically Foundations) and Frank Herbert’s Dune were each inspired mostly by … well, science and history. The same goes for George R. R. Martin, the works of whom I have criticized thoroughly in the past, yet I cannot deny he has had an influence on me.

Many Go-To-Influences include Robert E. Howard (Conan the Barbarian) and J.R.R. Tolkien, whose writings get put into the same rough genre yet differ greatly from each other. I’ve never been a direct fan of Tolkien (never read LotR, only The Hobbit), and Howard’s writing style had a profound effect on me — years ago, when I started taking my writing seriously. Names like Roger Zelazney come up often as well.

Yet there are those inspirations for certain pieces and by certain authors that I may never be able to unearth. Cory J. Herndon wrote the first Ravnica books, novelizations for a particular setting in the Magic: The Gathering trading card game. He’s been relatively quiet since then, and like many of the MTG novels, creativity is doubtless involved, but for the most part, writers have the same recurring theme going on within the confines of a premade setting. Novelizations of a trading card game are, after all, promotional material at best.

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Lorwyn, one of nearly a dozen canonized worlds (planes) under the Magic: The Gathering multiverse.

Yet several of the MTG books stand as extremely influential for me, not least of which the Ravnica series by Herndon. Among a few other writers, he is unfortunately one of those whose background and influences I could not dig up.

And then, somewhere to the side next to “MTG Books” I’ve got Final Fantasy 6, Final Fantasy 7, and Neon Genesis Evangelion. Where the Japanese creators of those geek-culture phenomena got their ideas is not so easily discovered. Granted, those were video games and an anime series — a team effort, with different members contributing different things. I would give up my legs for a translated transcript of those brainstorming sessions.

I would recommend the Influence Map exercise to anyone, regardless of what branch of creativity from which you sprout. Who inspires you? Who inspires(inspired) them? And who inspired *that* one?

Consider reading and learning from those books.

Happy writing!

 

 

Top Five Items of Nostalgia

Nostalgia is something that, as a creative and critic, I’ve learned to address as a powerful element. It’s something that heavily affects what we like, and as such it’s very important to recognize it when criticizing or judging anything. There goes the old statement: “They don’t make games/music/movies/swords like they used to,” and “The classics were the best.”

I guess that makes the definition of classic “Something that didn’t suck enough for people to forget about it.”

This can be said in regards to any media, and there’s some interesting psychology behind why people, as they age, look fondly on their younger years. Often enough, to the disdain of the current era. Part of this is the Nostalgia Factor, something I’ve touched on more than once, particularly when I’m talking about music.

Here I’ve compiled a list of particularly powerful nostalgia items for yours truly, though not all of them are necessarily physical. Each of these has a memory attached, and there is a reason they each have such a strong hold on those little neural synapses in the memory part of my thinking-organ.

1) The ThunderCats

hooooooNow before I get started, let me make it clear that it’s not the entirety of the ThunderCats that I loved, or even remembered. To be honest, I had only seen three or four episodes – tops – mostly on account of my family not having access to television until I’d grown into other media.

When I mention the Thunder Cats, what evocative imagery springs to mind? Spandex-clad bodybuilders in 80’s hair, no doubt, but for me it was one, specific episode that I’ll never forget. I had watched an episode named “Trouble in Time” again and again on account of it being the only VHS available at the nearest video-rental, a small mom & pop place about ten miles away from my the old family warren.

For those of you whipper-snappers reaching for the Google Translate button, “80’s hair” means really big and radical tresses, a VHS is what we used before .avi and .mpeg files existed, and a mom & pop was a store where people bought things before your corporate masters infiltrated the minutia of daily life.

Or something else that supposedly ages well.

Here we see Tygra, aged like a fine bottle of Sean Connery.

This episode of ThunderCats thoroughly messed with my perception of the world. One of the characters, Tygra, wanders into a chasm and finds himself rapidly aging, and we later discover this place to be known as the Caves of Time. Inside its barren corridors, Tygra comes across the bones of less fortunate organisms that also ventured here, and by the time he realizes he needs to get the hell out of dodge, he’s already emaciated, going gray, and quickly losing his ability to walk back out.

To this day, I generally don’t go underground for a variety of other reasons, but one can count this as something of a pivotal element in my formative years, shaping a sense of caution in me that no doubt kept me alive while living in the woods of Upstate New York.

2) The Last Unicorn

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Sound advice. Also applicable to JCPenny salesmen.

While I count The Dark Crystal and Conan the Barbarian as my top fantasy movies, The Last Unicorn will forever hold a special place in my heart.

This story is gorgeous, and the Rankin/Bass animated production — which happens to also be the studio behind The ThunderCats — is full of wonderful quotes, atypical (AKA memorable) characters, and music that echoes through the decades. This is the story of a unicorn, the *last* one in fact, gasp, who sets out on a quest to find out what happened to all the others, and it is an adventure indeed. She meets friends, encounters other mythological creatures, and inadvertently gets turned into a human — a hugely traumatic event, since one of the first things she exclaims after regaining consciousness is:

“I can feel this body dying around me!”

Based on the novel by Peter S. Beagle, this story has its childish comedy, the occasionally awkward voice-acting (with a star-studded cast, actually, including Jeff Bridges and Christopher Lee), and tons of excellent, quotable, unexpectedly wise moments. A particularly unforgettable moment for me comes out of Schmendrick the Magician:

“There are no happy endings, because nothing ends.”

Dan Avidan (a musician who also goes by the name of Danny Sexbang of Ninja Sex Party), does a thoroughly awesome and respectful job covering the Last Unicorn song.

3) Street Fighter and the SNES

Unabashedly teaching me that it’s okay to hit girls so long as they hit (kick) you in the face first.

It should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with my writing that videogames had a profound affect on my upbringing and my perceptions as a kid. I’ve spent numerous posts praising and applauding specific titles for their qualities as media; the enjoyment derived from adventuring, the immersion of the story arcs, the euphoria of their soundtracks.

But one distinct memory stays with me from the beginning, as it was the gateway drug of games for me.

When I was a sprout no older than six, my older brother (nearly double may age at that time) took me to a local Mexican food place called Taco Juan’s. Those of you familiar with Woodstock, NY might recall the place, but at that age the cuisine concerned me about as little as the lifting of US Trade Sanctions with China that same year.

No, there were arcade machines in the back room, and when my older brother showed me these magical machines, I watched with wide eyes as he chose a character and beat the tar out of people.

snesA short though undetermined amount of time later (however I’m inclined to think it was that same year), the Super Nintendo hit the shelves of North America. Having almost no idea what it was as my brother unboxed it at home, I stared in wonder as the T.V. flickered on and Super Mario World rolled across the screen, in all it’s vibrant primary-color glory.

“You know the best part?” my brother said to me. Wide-eyed, I shook my head. He grinned. “You don’t have to put quarters in it.”

mindblownWhen something blows your mind at age six or seven, few experiences compare ever after. And it did, of course, begin a long career in gaming.

4) Transformers: The Movie

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You got the touch.

Another animated film that seriously shaped the way I saw things, Transformers: The Movie came into my life despite my having watched almost none of the original Transformers series.

The movie itself is something of a season finale, a full-length feature film of higher-quality-than-the-industry-produced episodes of a series, and as such there were moments when characters died, early on, that really had little impact on me. More loyal fans might gasp to see characters like Ironhide and Optimus Prime (yes, Optimus) get gunned down.

gunnedOh, did I spoil it for you? The movie’s been out since 1986.

Optimus DIES in like the first fifteen minutes.

What makes this movie really stand out, though, is the antagonist, the Greater Scope Villain. An artificial planet by the name of Unicron, the theme song of whom is badass. Just hearing those first couple notes in the opening remind us that in the cold void of the universe, there always lurks the potential for a foe greater than anything we’ve ever imagined. This has profoundly affected the arc of one of my own novel projects, as well as had me looking to the stars whenever I hear about humans having a war dispute over which religion is more peaceful.

Unicron is an artificial planet that seems to focus on devouring other planets, and possesses strength and abilities far beyond that of the transformers, both Autobot and Decepticon alike. Bonus points for unfolding into a massive transformer himself, suggesting either a common origin or that, perhaps, all great non-organic intelligences eventually evolve into something transformative.

This movie showcases some of the best things to come out of the 80s: wicked story premises, screaming hair metal, and another use for term matrix before 1999 came around.

5) Aliens (Xenomorphs)

We weren’t a rich family, but I did have a collection of action figures accumulated in part for myself, as well as hand-me-downs. Toys came in different phases, and while LEGO, Definitely Dinosaurs and even Stone Protectors occupied a lot of my time as a kid, one line of toys stood out from all the others in how badass they were.

Gorilla_Alien_kenner_comicThese toys where the very definition of action figure to me. Unlike a lot of T.V. shows and product lines created with the very specific intention of selling toys, the concept of these particular aliens came around long before anyone made toys for ’em. Every figure had a unique effect to it, sometimes imaginative and sometimes simplistic, but all of them different. And there were a lot.

Between soft rubber heads that could be filled with water (to be squeezed, imitating the creature spitting acid), pressing a button on a figure’s back with your thumb to flap its wings, or even just a little spring-powered mechanism that, when released, would send a harmless, bouncy projectile to rain DEVASTATION on the enemy, these things were rad.

Not only were they fun in and of themselves, but each came with a mini-comic packaged alongside it, along with some manner of ‘flavor.’ The Space Marines came with weapons, the Aliens came with a translucent facehugger of a corresponding color, and together, with all the mini-comics, a rather extensive story could be pieced together. Impressive for a line of media that stands completely apart from (or perhaps alternate/parallel to) the storylines of the movies.

A number of models were not available in the far-off toy stores back in the day, before the age of internet-ordering, so I had doubles of the Gorilla Alien and, I think, three Scorpion Aliens, but only ever one of any other kind. Add to that the fact that they would release a model that was identical in all ways except the color of the plastic they poured into a mold.

That’s nothing new as far as toy lines are concerned, but as I kid, when I first came to understand that the tan and copper Cougar Alien was the exact same thing as the black and silver Panther Alien, I think the first seeds of doubt and distrust toward large toy companies were planted.

Be that as it may, I always loved them (though I had my favorites) if handed one now – twenty plus years later – my hands would readily and easily find the old latches and buttons cleverly hidden on their backs.

They were, for all their parasitic tendencies, very polite.

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MUOM: The Quinotaur

 

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Welcome to the first of a new series attempt: The Monthly Underated and Obscure Monster (MUOM).

In this post and future ones like it, I’ll endeavor to bring what appears to be a largely unknown and underrated monster from cultures around the world forth, in an attempt to give some stage space to mythical creatures that ought to have some more attention.

Popular fantasy is so oversaturated with things like unicorns, griffins/gryphons — I won’t even get started on the humanoid ones dwarves and elves, which I hate  — and, of course, the star of all fantasy stories, the dragon. With all these creatures (deservedly) hogging the spotlight, it’s all too easy to overlook some really imaginative and wild things that appear elsewhere in the world.

First up, November’s MUOM: The Quinotaur.

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For those familiar with minotaurs – and I posit that most of you are – yes, there is something rather bullish about the quinotaur that has nothing to do with the stock market.

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In other news, one of my favorite and influential minotaur depictions, from Time Bandits (1982).

 

The quinotaur, on the other hand, originates from Frankish mythology, a branch of culture that I find thoroughly unexplored. To that end, it’s extremely difficult to find any imagery of this beast, let alone gif-able movie depictions.

The quinotaur is an aquatic beast, known apparently for siring the line of Merovingian kings back in the 5th Century (though first mention of the quinotaur comes from The Chronicle of Fredegar, a manuscript that detailed myths and culture back in Frankish Gaul). To catch you up, the people we call the Franks were valiant opposers of the Roman Empire, labeled as a Germanic tribe that roamed the lands along the River Rhine. They are the ancestors of — you guessed it — folks living in what we now call France.
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According to the wikipedia entry, there is speculation on the naming of the creature, specifically whether the name was coined by the original (unknown) author, or if it was translated from the Frankish word into Latin.

Quin, such as seen in quintet or quintuplet, meaning five, and -taur meaning bull, comes to roughly mean “five-bull” or “bull-five.” This has been interpreted as a bull with five horns, but as I write this I could – in spite of the earliest known sketch – suggest a bull with five anything; five heads, five tails, or five dicks.

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No, seriously, it is up to interpretation, and considering the mythology surrounding how the quinotaur is held to be responsibly for siring the Merovingian Dynasty, well, one could say anything goes, as ancient mythology can and has been considerably less tame than what I’m suggesting.

The five-horn thing seems to be the most readily accepted though, as far as Google Images suggests anyway. In my humble research I did uncover concept art for a game out there called Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends, where an attempt at a “fresh new take” on the quinotaur appears.

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Evidently they abandoned the whole aquatic aspect of the creature, and built up on the bullish five-horn traits. You can find more of Jasen Gillen’s awesome concept art in his online gallery.

I have a super soft spot for concept art, particularly that concerning landscapes and mythical creatures. I cannot say whether or not these quinotaurs appear in Rise of Legends, or any other of Big Huge Games’ titles, as this concept art is apparently dated at the same year of the game’s release. It could be for an expansion in the works or a discarded idea (as many concepts are) for all I know.

That particular interpretation aside, what we have in the quinotaur is a largely obscure, enigmatic creature the likes of which I can only compare to the currently accepted modern-interpretation of the capricorn. It is a peculiar monster that may have common connections to ancient Greek fertility rituals, as the bull is often associated with such things — though the ancient Greeks are not alone in that.

Got a suggestion for the next MUOM? Are there any obscure creatures you thoroughly enjoy but think deserve more love? Let me know what you think!

Top 5 Sword Fights in Fantasy Films

Sword fights are awesome.

They’re a top draw when it comes to fantasy, as the sword symbolizes ye olde times.To many they symbolize honor, chivalry, and good old fashioned adventure.

While fiction and film have certainly romanticized what is essentially a glorified death knife, there remains a special place in the minds of many for the respect held toward those who’ve mastered (or at least look like they have mastered) a trusty blade. Even though they DO NOT make a *SHING* sound when drawn from the scabbard.

The following is a short list of the top sword-fight scenes in fantasy films. However, a few rules are to be followed for this specific list:

  • *must use swords – that means Martial Arts are for another list
  • *must have a fantasy element to the story
  • *non-animated scenes/characters (sorry Anime). That also rules out a couple of my other favorites from videogames — so that, too, will have to make another list someday

Also, to add some depth in measuring the value of these fights, I’m implementing a scale for various aspects of each fight. They go as follows:

Badassery/Tension: 1 to 5
Efficiency/Choreography of Fight: 1 to 5
Fun Factor: 1 to 5
Style: 1 to 5

They shouldn’t need much explanation. The Badassery/Tension scale is meant to measure how much fear we feel for the characters, how serious the situation is, how high the stakes are. Efficiency/Choreography means how believable the fight is — too often are sword fights flashy and silly. The Fun Factor is for the overall enjoyment of the action — the environment in which the combatants are fighting, why they’re fighting, and (rarely) the banter.

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  • The Princess Bride

This is a classic, light-fantasy movie adored by generations. Since 1987 sick little boys have had their grandfathers come into their room and show them this movie about unforgettable characters, chocolate-coated miracles, and true love. No really, if this movie is on your “I’ll get to it list,” you have homework.

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The first fight scene, between Inigo Montoya and The Man in Black, is one as much of banter as of blades, and for tha reason the Fun Factor and Style ratings are high up there. The movie itself is a bit dated, with a score that sounds like it was performed on a synth keyboard (something not unusual for movies of the age, I mean, come on, man, it was the 80s) and an environment that is obviously the confines of a stage — all ends up detracting a bit from the Tension/Badassery as well as Choreography scores, but not unsatisfactorily so. The fight is still great – just not for actual fighting itself.

Badassery/Tension: 2 |  Efficiency/Choreography of Fight: 2 | Fun Factor: 5 | Style: 4

  • Troy

So Troy gets a bad rap for its extensive list of historical inaccuracies, plenty of which can be looked up in a heartbeat. The artistic liberties taken with putting together this movie, in addition to it largely being based on a myth, makes for adequate Fantasy criteria if you ask me. I still count it among my most enjoyed Ancient War movies on account of the excellent soundtrack and good action, but fewer moments are as memorable to me as the opening fight between Nimbled-Footed Achilles and Boagrius the Lacking a Title.

A v B

The fight is actually a bit unsatisfying in it’s own Ong Bak or Raiders of the Lost Ark sort of way, but that adds heavily to the scores since it’s something of a bold move in cinema to show a fight like this. There was something of a buildup regarding the prowess of each character, though not much — it’s all in the music, and of course anyone who’s heard of Achilles before and that whole near-invulnerability thing. This fight gets a high score in three of the elements and a low in one for the same reason: it’s over too fast. The situation is tense thanks to the music, the (ahem) strike is wicked, the style is unique, but it’s over in a fraction of the time of the build-up.

Badassery/Tension: 4 |  Efficiency/Choreography of Fight: 5 | Fun Factor: 1 | Style: 4

  • The 13th Warrior

Back in the olden days, when it was acceptable to cast a man of Spanish descent as an Arab, The 13th Warrior took us on a largely unbelievable journey from the sands of the Mediterranean to twelve days north of Hopeless and a few degrees south of Freezing to Death. If you’re into Vikings squinting their eyes at monotheists and fighting off bearskin-wearing Neanderthals, then this movie is for you.

H v A

There are a number of good fights to be had in this flick, but my most memorable is fight between the character Hergerd the Joyous and Angus the Red-Haired Giant. This fight ranks in the top-five because there is serious tension in the air — by the time this fight rolls around, we’ve long-since come to utterly adore Hergerd, and as it turns out the fight is all part of scheme. What it lacks in style it makes up in efficiency, and the actual purpose of the fight makes the result all the sweeter.

Badassery/Tension: 5 |  Efficiency/Choreography of Fight: 4 | Fun Factor: 3 | Style: 2

 

  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail

And you thought that first Monty Python reference was just for fun. No way, the fight between King Arthur and the Black Knight goes into the mix because it’s downright unforgettable. Like much of the movie, it’s ridiculous, and that is the point.

KA v BN

 

The tension is pretty much non-existent – the contrast of dramatic music and King Arthur’s calm, self-assured expression results in us having pretty much no fear for the character, and the choreography is expectedly silly as well. However, I never would have thought that seeing someone dismembered would be so funny, and as a child when first viewing this I was rolling on the floor. The fact that movie producers who attempt to do something similar to this will immediately be accused for paying homage or outright plagiarism, which maxes out the style score.

Badassery/Tension: 1 |  Efficiency/Choreography of Fight: 2 | Fun Factor: 5 | Style: 5

  • Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl

I can still remember seeing this in theaters. I was nearly free of High School and had heard very little this Johnny Depp guy, though at the time I was rather familiar with the work of Hans Zimmer (the film’s music composer, considered among the best in the industry). There is a subtle use of melody and rhythm during the, to me, most remarkable fight in the movie and one of the most coolest fights in cinema.

J v W

There’s a lot of stuff happening here. As an audience, we’re not quite sure whether Jack is someone to root for, while at the same time William is painted as the Goody Goody hero, but the class of character between the two makes for an interesting dynamic. What we have is more or less a conflict between agents of Order and Chaos. There’s something animalistic about Jack Sparrow when juxtaposed to Will Turner, even something vaguely sexual in the manner he wields his sword – which no doubt helped get the fan-girls all riled up.

Between the music, the choreography – timed well to the music – the time spent to have us already invested in the characters, the end result is a fight that, while not exactly remarkable, ends up being really really enjoyable to watch.

Badassery/Tension: 5 |  Efficiency/Choreography of Fight: 5 | Fun Factor: 4 | Style: 3

 

*** Honorable Mentions ***

  • Star Wars Episode 4 and Episode 1

As much as the Star Wars “Prequels” has something of an infamous reputation, there’s something about the concept of the Duel of the Fates showdown that’s a lot deeper than I perceived it on my first viewing. The outcome of the fight between Qui Gon Jin and Darth Maul – essentially a battle over what would essentially happen to the young and impressionable Anakin Skywalker, could have quite possibly altered the the timelines of Star Wars saga. Personally, I like to think that Darth Maul might have gained stewardship of Anakin, and perhaps a Reverse Darth Vader might have been produced as a result.

  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe 2004

I actually am not actually particularly fond of this movie. I am, however, hugely admiring of the source material, and I grew up on a 1979 animation of the same name. That doesn’t detract from my appreciation of the swordplay in the most modern adaptation. Jadis is an interesting character, though she’s a bit one-dimensional (she’s a children’s book villain, what do you expect), and part of this is shown in the duel between Jadis and Peter during the ending battle scene. She’s got style, she’s got finesse, she’s got skill — too bad she hasn’t Fuzzy Jesus on her side.

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Got your favorite sword-fight scenes not listed here? Let me know in the comments, I’m always open to exploring new stuff.

In the future: Top 5 Martial Arts Fights, Top Five Sword Fights (animated) and others!

Two Opposing Crime Comedies

It is interesting to have a specified niche genre of dark crime comedy. These are the sorts of stories that take us into the underworld of criminal affairs, where the threat of death (or worse) seems to be a rather prevalent theme, yet things are light-hearted enough where we laugh most of the time.

Easily enough, morbid topics are flipped into funny ones.

fc64a43b176b81970da1d47ddc2b56c1I recently watched Snatch for the first time, as well as my second viewing of Pulp Fiction. Let us discuss and compare the successes and failures of these films as stories.

In terms of gritty scenes too-insane to actually be considered plausibly real, both these movies have both in abundance. As viewers, we’re not only put in at position to see things from the perspectives of criminals, but actually relate to them. After all, criminals are also human beings, however coked up or cold blooded or greed-driven they may be, with motivations and (sometimes) personalities. The more interesting characters are the ones whom you come to “know,” and end up rooting for — despite them being one of a slew of bad guys.

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If you watch this movie for the first time, place bets on which of these is the good guy.

As something of a novice Tarantino viewer, I actually know next-to-nothing about Guy Ritchie (Snatch), though some light research showed he directed the more recent Sherlock Holmes films with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law.

The movies were OKAY.

Setting aside their other works, though, comparing Pulp Fiction and Snatch as standalone films shows more than a few things in common, yet they manage to stand apart.

Both films are, of course, crime thrillers. Both feature the perspectives of a rather extensive cast, each interwoven in the overall story arc. There’re quite a few moments of morbid comedy (also known as black or dark comedy), leaving us smiling and laughing at the utter misfortune of more than a few characters. Perhaps most of all, both flicks have a rigged boxing match as one of its central plot elements.

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Certainly there are significant differences between the two movies as well — the narrative style contrasts quite a bit, with Pulp Fiction doing the whole “show don’t tell” thing, while Snatch does a helluva lotta telling. Turkish, one of the two “good guys” (the best among the criminals to which we can relate and root for, I suppose) of Snatch, also plays the part the occasional narrator. Hearing Jason Stathom spoonfeed us plot and character details is a stylistic choice, I’m thoroughly aware, and as I endeavor to consume more and more varied media, I’ve been slowly coming to the conclusion that British films really enjoy their protagonist-narration.

Pulp Fiction, conversely, has no narration at all, but there is no lack of talking. I know I referred to Pulp Fiction as doing a lot of showing, not telling, and this can be done despite the preponderance of dialog. Tarantino movies tend to have profound or, at the very least, above-average ambitions when it comes to what characters say to each other. People in his films – Pulp Fiction being no exception – talk like complex, intelligent adults, bringing up concepts, debates, and philosophies that I wish I could have on a casual basis.

13-Pulp-Fiction-quotes

This makes for interesting characters in between action scenes, and let me tell you, the action and tension in both these movies is great, but action can only take a story so far. If nobody cares about the characters it doesn’t matter what happens to them — and we care about characters who stand out, whether it’s through profound dialog or otherwise.

Certainly in some cases, the utter lack of dialog can make a character. Take Clive Owen’s performance in The Bourne Identity. He barely says a goddamn word but gets a lot of screen time, and we really get the impression of what kind of person he’s like.

clive assassinBack to Snatch, it’s a fun movie, and it was one of those movies I’d heard of more than ten years ago and finally got around to seeing. An old high-school friend went so far as to say it was the best movie ever, but then we know how teenagers are prone to hyperbole. Regardless, an aura of mystery always surrounded the title; what could such a movie with such a peculiar name have that could make it someone’s “all time favorite”?

To put it simply, after ten years of not seeing it, I finally did, and I’m not really sure what the big deal is. The overall story arc feels incomplete, almost as though the budget ran out before filming (even editing) was completed. Like I said, though, it’s fun — the characters are fun, and yes there’re great bits of dialog to be found as well, but by the time the credits abruptly rolled, I found myself throwing my arms in the air.

What, precisely, was the point of this?

Pulp Fiction, with its nonlinear storytelling (something of a Tarantinoism, so I’ve heard), memorable characters and extremely quotable moments, stands quite apart. A character is seen shot dead, and it’s much to my disappointment (and, presumably, that of the audience), as we’ve come to enjoy him, or at minimum get to know him, thoroughly. Then the story jumps back in time, and we get one final scene with him — it’s almost as though the writers of Pulp Fiction enjoyed John Travolta’s character too much to let him just be killed off.

I’ve yet to watch a Tarantino film that I didn’t enjoy, though their roughness sometimes leaves me a little worn. I end up saying things to myself such as “I won’t be seeing that again any time soon.” But then again, I’ve been feeling a bit in the mood for some Kill Bill. post-19458-Quentin-Tarantino-Game-of-Thro-mRur

Importance of Gender in Fiction

Sexuality and gender in writing brings up a whole pile of subtopics. Each come with its set of obstacles – some more subtle than others. This post is an attempt to make some observations, ask some questions, and perhaps incite questions of your own.

As easy as it is to get into the tirade of how ridiculous ‘feminine’ armor is depicted in fantasy media, that is not what this post is about. I already touched on that in why I hate elves.

No really, chill.

There, settled.

A peer in my writing group once raised a question about changing the gender of one or more of her characters. The question concerned how the characters related to the audience, and this is not an unusual question when crafting any kind of story.

The agents always ask: “To which demographic are we marketing this?” and the fellow-writers will ask “To whom are you writing this – a specific group or yourself?” Then the philosowriters may ask: “If there was no such thing as gender, would your story still make sense?”

It is no secret as to whom the majority of games and movies of the fantasy genre are aimed.

men-vs-women-armor

I’ve reached the point where the amount I’m turned on is directly proportional to the practicality witnessed.

Setting that madness aside, gender plays a role in how we relate (or don’t) to characters, certainly, because as much as the feminists — the real kind of feminism, which preaches equality — will have you believe otherwise, there are some differences between the sexes that can cause barriers.

At least in the context of relating to fake people in a book.

I like to ask the question, “Does the gender of the character have anything to do with the story?” Like, if s/he is a male, does that make whatever job their holding more or less believable? If s/he is a female, does that put her motivations in question?

Unless your character is a lumberjack with a heavy interest in, I don’t know, cars or something (whatever the hell it is men find interesting), it might stretch the imagination to find this character to in fact be a lumberjane.

If the answer is no, and you can apparently swap the gender of a character without any major plot implications, then why are they that gender in the first place?

As for me, I ended up facing this question about three years ago, in my own writing. I realized the Novel Project that I’d been working on had something of a preponderance of male characters. An obvious side-effect of…

  • being a male writer
  • the setting/occupations of the PoV characters
  • stereotypes of the genre and age (medieval-esque fantasy)

Those of you who know me moderately well might recall my insistence on referring to myself as a fantasist, and while there’s no shortage of heroines in that genre (gods, sometimes it feels over saturated with them), the question boils down to “WHY is the character [insert_gender_here]?”

The following is an excerpt from an article at Cracked.com, concerning the way in which women are portrayed even by one of the currently eminent fantasy author, George R. R. Martin.

“…Right now I’m reading a book from mega-selling fantasy author George R. R. Martin. The following is a passage where he is writing from the point of view of a woman — always a tough thing for men to do. The girl is on her way to a key confrontation, and the narrator describes it thusly:

“When she went to the stables, she wore faded sandsilk pants and woven grass sandals. Her small breasts moved freely beneath a painted Dothraki vest …”

That’s written from the woman’s point of view. Yes, when a male writes a female, he assumes that she spends every moment thinking about the size of her breasts and what they are doing. “Janet walked her boobs across the city square. ‘I can see them staring at my boobs,’ she thought, boobily.” He assumes that women are thinking of themselves the same way we think of them.”

In my manuscript, I ended up changing one of my pivotal PoV characters from male to female mostly out of a desire for a balance in the cast, but also as something of a challenge.

In the first writings, Zayne was an old man, but by the time any readers would meet the elder I had since swapped him out for an old woman. This not only meant formatting the manuscript a bit (like changing all the [he said]’s to [she said]’s), but forced me to reconsider why he was a man in the first place.

Turns out there was no particular reason for having him of a male persuasion, and as a double-bonus I found Zayne’s character significantly more fun to write. A snarky, quick-witted and vengeful old crone comes as something of a comical surprise to other characters (and, I hope, readers as well) when the stereotype for a grandmotherly-looking old lady – the likes of whom might be expected to be pulling freshly baked cookies out of an oven or serving hot sweet tea – is turned on its head.

queen

I find both the character and the performance of the Queen of Thorns to be hugely inspiring. Been a long time since I saw her last playing Lady Holiday in the Great Muppet Caper.

Overall, Zayne’s personality did not change much after the transition, and I’ve always thought it liberating (as well as an active challenge) to write a character of the opposing gender. If anything, she evolved, because it opened doors to her personality that I hadn’t considered before.

WHY did she give up prospects of marrying in favor of a career as an ambitious merchant? WHY does she view the women of her culture as weak and dependent for seeking nothing more than to adorn themselves like hens hoping to be plucked?

Back to the question. Should a character’s gender be reconsidered in an effort to make them more ‘relateable’ to your intended audience?

Perhaps. Though, I’ve found that over the course of my literary adventures the question of whether the character was male or female didn’t really influence whether I liked them or what they did or said was convincingly possible. If Tyrion Lannister were a snide, pint-sized woman, or if Illidan and Malfurion Stormrage were twin sisters instead of brothers, I wonder whether they would be as interesting to me back in the day?

Though I will admit that Conana the Barbarian doesn’t really work for me.

Zula, on the other hand, was a unique and special kind of badass in Conan the Destroyer.

Zula, on the other hand, was a unique and special kind of badass in Conan the Destroyer.. This is a great example of a canonically male character being swapped for a female portrayal.

Unless the character is talking about something exclusively in the realm of the feminine (such as, say, childbirth), or perhaps the social pressures present in the story affect the character’s demeanor and, by extension, the plot direction of the story arc…then I am inclined to say that the gender doesn’t really matter.

So I say, choose the gender that you feel works best for who the characters are, not who you’re trying to sell it to.

Therefore, I encourage you all, as much as myself, to ask yourself why. Why is a character a particular gender in your story?

Did you have it planned? Did it ‘just happen’ as lots of creatives like to claim? Was it the product of perhaps unlabeled, subconscious stereotypes? Or perhaps some other, specific reason?