Jun 28, 2012

Endings Matter

Endings are often terribly underrated. This is a particular bugbear of mine, and I keep coming back to it. I cannot stress enough how vital it is to make sure the ending is something special. I've heard the argument that "it's the journey, not the destination, which matters." That's all well and good, and I agree that the journey is also far more important than people realise. However a great journey must have a worthy ending. If a writer has to fight every page of the way to keep the reader engaged, they have to work all the harder to reward the reader with a satisfying finish.

Whatculture! posted an article the other day about the new Extended Cut DLC for Mass Effect 3, and the importance of endings. I won't go into a discussion on Mass Effect 3, but I will say that this article perfectly captures the required elements of a good ending.

Too often, people think that the end of a story is just when the final challenge is overcome. Sauron is destroyed. Luke blows up the Death Star. Superman turns back time and saves the day. That's only part of it. Also important are how the hero's experiences have changed them and empowered them to overcome the threat. What is it about the hero's journey that has made them the one who can do what needs to be done, and what does it tell us about them that they achieved their goal in that specific way?

Frodo failed in his task. He gave in to the One Ring and it was only Gollum's intervention which sealed the Ring's destruction. Evil is destroyed by evil. Sauron undone by greed just as he attempted to fulfil his own greed.

Luke trusts in the power that lies within him, seeing past how "impossible" the shot is. He puts his faith in a power few people understand and is rewarded.

Superman's love for Lois drives him to an extreme act. In direct violation of his father's instructions, he pushed his powers beyond anything he previously thought possible because even though he has saved hundreds of thousands of lives, it's not enough if it means he has to live without her.

These are what make an ending memorable and worthwhile. It doesn't matter if the hero beats the villain in a swordfight. We know the hero is going to win. On some basic, unconscious level, we understand that most stories end with the villain defeated. What matters is the method, the motivation, the intention, the cost and the reward. If the reader doesn't get these, or they're not relevant to the story up to now, the story fails. There is no purpose to an ending that simply causes the story to stop.

Let's talk. What are some of your favourite endings? Do you think they fit the description I've given here?

Jun 26, 2012

What Attracts People to Tabletop RPGs

A little while ago I spoke about roleplaying games. Specifically, tabletop roleplaying games, as opposed to video games. I wanted to talk about what attracts people, and what attracted me, to tabletop roleplaying.

At its core, roleplaying is escapist fantasy. One of the hooks generally used in many rpg books is that you get to tell your own story and be the hero. If there was ever a moment when you wanted a character in a book or movie to do something differently, this was your chance to make that happen. That appealed to the budding writer in me, as well as the childish part that didn't want to grow up. This was like making up stories with action figures, only even adults were doing it. The promise of getting to make up these stories with my friends, all the way into adulthood and beyond, was very tempting to my 14 year-old self.

It's safe to say that there are a lot of very creative people dedicated to the hobby. Many gamers I know also have a range of artistic talents, from music to acting and writing. I think the nature of roleplaying as another outlet for that creative energy is a strong draw for a lot of people. I've seen people's creativity flourish as they spend time with their gaming group.

Depending on the specific set of rules for a given game, and the personal tastes of each group, there can be more encouraged than just creativity. Most roleplaying games, particularly older ones or those designed in a more traditional style, have some strategic and problem-solving element. Whether it's working out the math of a character's abilities or figuring out battle tactics, there's plenty to keep the analytic part of the brain busy.

Of course, like many fringe hobbies, roleplaying can be attractive to people who don't do so well socially. It's a place where they can be the hero they can't be in real life, saving the day while hanging out with people just like themselves. This is not a bad thing. Speaking as one of those kids who grew up with few friends, never good at sport, never quite good enough in school to be top of the class, this hobby gave me a place to belong. I mentioned in my previous post how roleplaying isn't competetive. Now, I'm not an advocate of all activities having an "everybody wins" attitude. I think competition is healthy and children need to learn a reward system for hard work. However, it can be nice, when you're introverted and have trouble standing up for yourself, to have something where you're not going to be judged, where you're welcomed for who you are and everyone's there just to have some fun.

The social nature of tabletop gaming played a large part in my own development. The more I ran games and the more I saw people enjoying them, the more confident I became. With the right group, it can be a nurturing, positive environment. I've watched people go from being shy and uncertain to bubbly and assertive, not from the game itself, but from using the game as a way of breaking the ice in a social group. Once you've used some silly voices, pretended to slay a dragon or traded witty banter with an elf, you tend to come out of yourself a bit, and that carries over into other social situations with your gaming group. It's good for people, teenagers especially, to feel comfortable enough to be themselves around their friends.

I've found that, as gamers grow older, the social aspect becomes even more important. When there are so many things that need our attention as adults, it's great to have something to get your friends around a table to share some food and forget that you're meant to be a grown-up for a few hours.

Jun 21, 2012

4 Year Anniversary

My wife and I were married on a grey, rainy afternoon this day four years ago. I hadn't slept properly. I was so nervous I couldn't eat. And I have no idea why. We'd been actively planning the day for over a year, and talking one way or another for almost the full seven years we'd been together.

That was the day I felt whole. My wife is my best friend in the world. We share every aspect of our lives and still will spend hours just talking about whatever crosses our mind.

We've had a crazy four years. We've been to New York and Italy. We've seen friends get married and start families of their own. We bought our first house. We had and lost a son, which was a trial by fire I wouldn't wish on anyone, but which I know has left us stronger.

Last year I got a book deal for my first novel, realising a dream I've had all my life. Earlier this year I completed the edits on my second to make it ready for submission. I'm now working on my third, planning to hold on to this dream now that it's in my hands. It's an exciting journey I'm on, the most important one in my life besides trying to start a family. As happy as I'm going to be when Locked Within launches later this year, I know it wouldn't mean nearly as much without Jen there by my side.

Happy anniversary, babe. In the wonderfully 80s words of Starship:

Jun 19, 2012

Denial of Sexism

Over the last few weeks certain circles of the internet have been blazing with talk about a Kickstarter for a project called Tropes vs Women in Video Games, by Anita Sarkeesian. Anita runs a blog called Feminist Frequency which talks about various issues related to sexual equality and often posts videos analysing movies for their treatment of women.

She wanted, simply, to research a topic, and share what she found. In return for this she has received, and continues to receive, a barrage of frankly disgusting comments ranging from childish insults to serious sexual harrassment and threats. I won't repeat any of what's been said here. Both the links above will take you to where you can read about what Anita has endured. Many of the comments are NSFW and even left me dumbstruck by their volume and level of abuse. I don't shock easily, so you have been warned.

I've since spent some time reading up on other cases of sexual harrassment within video game culture. One particularly well-written article on Shattersnipe discusses the idea of rape-culture in gaming and links to several shocking examples of easily the mistreatment of women is filed away, either as "not a real problem" or "just a necessary part of the game." There's also a follow up post here.

Firstly, I've been a gamer now, both a casual video game player and a very committed tabletop roleplayer, for close to twenty years. I'm a proud, card-carrying geek. Many of my closest and oldest friends are gamers. It's a culture I've felt to be safe and welcoming. For the most part. Like all subcultures it has its darker side, and it's not at all pretty. I've seen cliques, elitism and sexism. I've been guilty of it myself. I've made sexist jokes and made light of sexual harrassment plenty of times. I used to tell myself it was okay to do it around certain people, that I didn't mean anything by it.

But here's the thing. Even if I don't mean it, I'm still creating an environment where someone in my company could feel insecure, or where a passerby could here my comments and take them at face value. I'm creating an atmosphere of normalcy and mundanity for sexual abuse. I believe in freedom of speach, and the right to disagree, but I also believe that words have power. We have to be aware of the effect we can have on our environment, because it's not always obvious. Just because a group of guys say they respect women and would never harm one, that doesn't help much if some poor girl has to listen to them joke about her making sandwiches while they play video games with hypersexualised female characters and read comic books that have started to borderline on soft-core porn. It can still make people unformfortable. Denying that or criticising someone for pointing it out is nothing but willful ignorance. Can you enjoy playing video games where you have sex with hookers then kill them to get your money back? Or reading comics where Starfire gets bored if she talks to a man for too long without sleeping with him? Of course you can. Just don't be surprised if someone finds it offensive, and don't dare criticise or attack someone for expressing that discomfort.

Our society blames the victim. A guy gets mugged, it's his own fault for walking in that part of town. A kid gets bullied, it's his own fault for not telling an adult. A girl gets raped, it's her down fault for dressing like that. Now it seems like the people simply trying to point out the problem are targets as well. Everyone seems to be fair game except the people actually making abusive comments or threatening rape and murder. And no-one wants to admit that they're part of a culture which does objectify women in ways it never would do to a man.

I've talked several times about how men in film and television have become the acceptable targets for any number of things which, if done to women for laughs the same way they are for men, would incite public outcry. But that doesn't mean we can simply ignore how video games and comic books depict women, any more than the fact that adults sometimes get punched means we can ignore child abuse. People with this attitude of "I know another problem which you're not addressing, so your argument is invalid" need to grow up. They're just trying to avoid facing the issue, probably because they're scared of what they'll find if they look hard enough.

This is a really serious issue for me. As a writer, I want to portray strong characters who stand against forces of darkness and fight for what's right. I want to show men and women, side by side. I don't want to stumble into the pit of cultural influences encouraging me to show women a certain way. So I remain vigilant against myself, because I'm human and I'm flawed. I'll make mistakes along the way, but what's important is that I can own those mistakes and try to do better next time.

Jun 14, 2012

Defining Werewolves

The other day I talked about how I chose to define vampires in the setting of my novel, Locked Within. That post actually became something I wasn't expecting, and I thought it would be interesting to look at another classic monster and how you can make sure it fits in your own writing.

The werewolf is perhaps and older myth than the vampire. Many cultures have tales of animalistic shapeshifters, with a variety of different desires. Typically they are bestial, at least in their animal form, and prey on humans and other animals. In some stories the transformation is ruled by the phases of the moon. In others it is a voluntary act. Some werewolves retain their human intelligence, while others have their minds overridden by animal urges.

Whatever the details, the werewolf has long been a metaphor for the struggle between the civilised, ordered side of humanity, and the primal, passionate instincts we must so often resist. This is similar to how the vampire, in the 19th century, represented a dangerous sexuality and rejection of social rules.

In fact, there has long been a strong connection between vampires and werewolves. Vampires have frequently been depicted with the same shape-shifting powers as werewolves, and often share their vulnerability to silver. Some folklore even suggests that slain werewolves can rise as vampires, or that those who die in sin can rise as blood-drinking wolves.

It may be this folkloric connection which has led to the popular links between the two in mainstream fiction over the last several years. Movies such as Underworld and Van Helsing depict very strong links between them, as does the Twilight series. Unfortunately, many of these simply reduce the werewolf to nothing more than a badass monster for the vampires to fight, and don't really take the time to explore what purpose werewolves serve in having a place in the story.

As of yet, there are no werewolves in the setting of Locked Within. Neither the first book, nor any of the books I have planned, feature werewolves. That said, there are shapeshifters of a sort, and some do play important roles. If I were to apply my thinking on vampires to werewolves, this is how I would apply them in my setting.

The first and most important question to ask is whether they are immortal or not. In some cases, werewolves are functionally immortal. If werewolves are immortal, they would be potential members of the Council of Chains, who all want to live forever. So far I've kept the Council thematically focused on forms of undeath and deals with demons, very much a choice made by the individual. I like the idea of werewolves not choosing to be what they are, so I'll keep them mortal.

So being mortals with an element of the supernatural in them, should they be possible allies of the reborn, those who draw strength from their past lives? It's certainly possible that a reborn could have been a werewolf in a past life. Werewolves are pretty dangerous when they change, and would probably need places to go to be locked up on a full moon so they don't harm innocents. So reborn Conclaves would make good save havens for them.

Still, I need to decide what causes werewolves to exist. I've always liked the idea that lycanthropy is a curse, so I'll say that the first werewolves were men punished for some crime, ideally violent. Perhaps people who killed an innocent in the heat of rage, leaving family and friends distraught? Their victims' loved ones call upon the gods to enact revenge, which results in the killer becoming a werewolf and killing their own family and loved ones. Of course, the kinds of gods who would do this are capricious, and would delight in seeing such a curse spread, so the bite of a werewolf will infect any who survive it, and cause the violence in their heart to overcome them. The only cure for the condition is to treat the victim with wolfsbane before they make their first kill and hope that they can control their savage instincts long enough to make it through the next full moon without transforming.

To make things interesting, and keep from werewolves being "the good guys," I think that some werewolves come to relish their new form, and embrace the curse. They join up with rogue bands of magic-users and warriors, or pledge themselves to one of the many spirits, demons, or gods who seek to gain influence and power in our world.

Overall, werewolves are, forgive me, wild cards. They are simply individuals dealing with a particular curse in many different ways. They're not super-powered action heroes. In fact, most probably see little benefit in their condition, unless they are given a way to control their transformations, which nearly always requires loyalty to a powerful supernatural creature, whose goals might not be entirely noble.

There we have it. Werewolves as they would appear in The Memory Chronicles. As I said, they don't make an appearance so far, and I'm currently working on book 3 of the series. Still, I kind of like this write-up, so I may have a minor character or two show up as werewolves.

Jun 12, 2012

Using and Defining Vampires in Your Work

For over a hundred years, the vampire reigned as the pinnacle of horror, the greatest and most evil of monsters. Today they're fodder for action heroes or objects of teenage desire.

It used to be that a movie could boast a vampire as the villain and audiences would flock to see the dangerous, alluring creature opposed and defeated by those mortals who refused to remain its prey. It was a big deal. Vampires were stronger than us, faster, and could resist incredible injury from all but a select few methods. You had to be smart to kill a vampire. You had to wait for the right moment, trick the beast into making a mistake.

Nowadays vampires are mocked for what they've become.

And you know what? That saddens me.

My first novel sprang from an idea in my very young mind. I grew up watching The Lost Boys and Fright Night. I decided I wanted to write stuff like that. My hero, Nathan Shepherd, started out as a loner vampire hunter who happened to drag several neighbours into a battle against a vampire and was forced to accept their help to defeat it. He's come a long way and evolved into something entirely new, but the fact remains that some of my strongest inspirations for books have come from vampires.

I've spoken about this before, but the fact remains I still have hope that vampires can become accepted as villains again. Not to say that I think every vampire should be a heartless monster, but I'd like to see vampires evolve beyond being a random monster for heroes to kill or depicted as something automatically superior to humans and presented as a romantic conquest. Neither of these depictions really look at what it means to be a vampire. They don't seem to have much to say about why they were chosen as features of the setting or what their purpose is.

Taking my own work as an example, one of the core conflicts in the Memory Chronicles series is between two ideologies. One says that we are born, live, die, and are reborn again, but remain the same essential being throughout. The other says that only memories are passed on, like the impression of a pen underneath the page you were writing on. This other faction fears death and seeks immortality. So, being arguably the most famous form of immortality, I decided that vampires would exist in this world and play a role as minor antagonists.

Why minor? Well, since vampires burn in sunlight, that means they're only at their most effective at night. Not great for acting as footsoldiers or any kind of public face for a front company. I also considered why someone would choose to be a vampire when there could be many other ways to live forever.

For one thing, it's easy to do. A vampire drains a person to the point of death, then feeds them their own blood in return. No spells, no drawn-out rituals. They're an easy way into the immortal world. They're also a lot more aestheticall pleasing than some other creatures, who might live forever, but still suffer decay and rotting flesh. My setting does have other ways to live forever and retain a human appearance, but they're complicated, costly, and often reserved only for those who have undergone trials to earn such power.

So it occurred to me that the people who want to become vampires are likely to be impatient, vain. They want immortality, and they get to have super powers as a bonus. That kind of person isn't given to successful advancement within an organisation over periods of centuries, not against more calcuating and patient rivals.

This led me to also consider the nature of how vampires feed. Most interpretations of vampires show an almost narcotic effect when they drink blood. However for the most part they still hunt individual people, instead of, say, keeping one person captive for weeks on end, feeding from them. So I figured that the hunt must be important somehow. And it hit me. If vampires remain confined to night-time activity, can't enjoy food or drink and all the other pursuits of humanity, what have they got to live for? Adrenaline.

The thrill of the hunt keeps vampires going. It's why they grab people off the street, or choose to seduce someone before feeding. The rush is not from the blood itself, but from the game they play to acquire it. This gave me a nice lead into how older vampires behave. Eventually, the thrill of simply chasing someone down a street will dwindle. The vampire needs to move on to bigger things. After a century or so of partying it up, the vampire moves into politics and social maneuvering. Acquiring more resources, outwitting rivals and snaring old enemies become the new hunt. At this stage, the vampire is old and powerful, at their most dangerous. This is the kind of vampire that will become a real problem for Nathan Shepherd in later books.

Do you ever consider how setting and role should influence the portrayal of particular character types? Do you think the vampire can be saved as an icon of horror? Do you think it should be left aside and forgotten?

Jun 7, 2012

Confessions of a Former Pantser

I started work on the third novel in my series, The Memory Chronicles, the other day. Like I've done in the past, I dove straight in with just the vaguest idea of the overal story in my head, pieced together from what I've imagined it being over the last year or two. Unfortunately, that wasn't enough this time.

I've found that, lately, I've been less and less willing to just charge through a new WIP with so little preparation. Perhaps it's a sign of the lessons I learned while editing Locked Within, but I feel much more comfortable now when I have some outline of how my story is going to play out. Something more than having a climax and a few set-pieces in my head.

So I sat down and started planning out the different plot points for the book. I've got about the first quarter of the book planned in summary, and it feels great to have it done. Part of me, the old pantser who wants to get things done, complains that it's not "really writing," but it feels good that I can see the skeleton of the book take shape and know that this will help me reduce the amount of re-writing needed when I move on to edits.

Of course, what kills me is that I can't share any of what I have planned yet, as it'll just give away all the fun! Gah! Where are my beta readers...?

So have any of you recently changed how you approach new projects?

Jun 5, 2012

What is Roleplaying?

I thought I'd share a little of myself today and talk about my favourite hobby. Roleplaying games and those who play them are often painted in a poor light in the media and in fiction. I know a lot of people reading this blog may never have heard of gaming or roleplaying, and many who have will probably only have seen it depicted as something teenage boys do in the basement when other kids are out playing sports. That stereotype, however, is pretty harmless. It's when people start to think these games are actually dangerous that problems creep in.

You see, back in the Eighties, roleplaying games were targetted by certain ultra-conservative groups in America. It became associated with devil-worship and cults. Some even claimed that the highest-ranking members of the cult believed they could discover real magical spells hidden in the pages of Dungeons and Dragons.

Repeat after me: "Fakus Latinus!"
Well, I've been playing tabletop roleplaying games, or RPGs, since I was 14. In that time, I'll admit, I've met some socially inept people. But I have never met anyone who believed that rolling dice on a table and saying "I use my fireball on the troll" taught them how to speak to the devil and curse people.

So now we're clear on what roleplaying is not, let's look at what it is. First some definitions. Gaming is the broad term for playing a wide range of hobby games, from board games, to wargames, to card games. Roleplaying is one kind of gaming, and involves a group of people, usually sat around a table, who take part in a sort of shared storytelling. It's like a combination of playing cops and robbers and telling stories around a campfire. Most games tend to involve 3-6 people. One night of playing is called a session, and a series of sessions using the same characters and following an overall story is called a campaign.

Most of these players take on the role of a character. So you might have one person playing a knight, another playing a thief, and another playing a wizard. These are called Player Characters, or PCs, and each player acts out their role, like improvised theatre.

One of the players, instead of having just one character to play, is called the Game Master, or GM. Some games have different terms like Storyteller or Referee. It's the GM's job to act out the roles of all the other characters in the game, called Non-Player Characters or NPCs. The GM also comes up with a story for the PCs to experience. They're a combination of scriptwriter and director, playing the villain of the story and the people that the PCs must help or oppose to defeat the villain.

Each RPG has its own set of rules, which exist to define the abilities of the characters in the game. Dice are rolled to determine whether or not a player succeeds at a particular task, sort of like how in some boardgames you roll dice to see how far you move.

This is like Christmas morning to me
That's pretty much it. Different games have their own niche areas and genres. There are games for Lord of the Rings-style fantasy, police procedurals, historical settings, science-fiction, ancient myth, and horror. Many games are even licenced to use popular movies and books like Star Wars or The Dresden Files as their settings. Each group of players will have their favourites.

It's a fun, social hobby that encourages creativity and co-operation. One of the most common first questions about roleplaying games is "how do you know who wins?" But roleplaying games aren't typically competetive. You "win" by everyone having a good time.

The stereotype of the socially awkward nerd in his parents' basement obviously has some element of truth. Roleplaying games do attract teens who have difficulty in other social situations. Every hobby has people who reinforce negative clich├ęs. But I've got several very large circles of friends, and most are gamers of one kind or another. They include PhD students, teachers, engineers, medical professionals, accountants, other writers, people who run their own businesses, even a member of the police. All in all, gamers are pretty normal people, we just got into a different set of activities when we were younger than other kids our age. There are definitely worse things to catch your kids doing than rolling dice and pretending to slay dragons.