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Why I (seldom) Write About Ships

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Nov 30 2013 · 184 views

Essays, Not Rants! 089: Why I (seldom) Write About Ships
 
I grew up on a ship. I also like writing.
 
Now, these two should go hand-in-hand. Write about living on a ship, it’s what you know! But then, who lives on a ship. No one would believe that. So I write science fiction. Because it’s easier to believe folks living on a spaceship than on a real ship. Less time explaining stuff. Also, I really like science fiction.
 
But, and I do get asked this, why don’t I write about a real ship instead? After all, then I can reap the prestige literary fiction. Why do I waste my talents/history on science fiction?
 
Because, surprisingly, living on a ship is actually quite boring. Yes, you travel, but that’s hardly unique (you could do the same in a bus or plane). The actual parts of living on a ship are terribly routine. You wake up, go to school (or work, but I went to school), come home, read, homework, video games, eat, whatever, sleep. Whether we were in Sierra Leone or Barbados, that’s what we did. Life is life.
 
So what is it then that makes living on a ship special? Relationships. Bonds. The sense of a weird sort of family formed by virtue of having no one else.
 
Like in Firefly. I’ve found that show to be the most honest take on life on a ship. Sure, my ship was lacking in the fugitive doctors and smuggling part, but there was certainly that sense of community. On the show Jayne may antagonize Kaylee, but when the chips are down he’s as ready to protect her as the captain. Serenity’s crew has a decided “we’re in this together no matter what” mentality. Sometimes it touches on the idea of family, but, as cemented by Mal’s speech at the end of Serenity, it’s about making a home. You want a story about life on a ship? About what makes life on the ship special? Look at Firefly and Serenity.
 
But that feels pretty obvious, y’know, Serenity is a ship, of course it’s going to have parallels. What about when there’s no ship?
Well, this might explain one of the many reasons why I love Chuck. Over the series, Team Bartowski and the other characters slowly come together to form, well, a crew of sorts. Even though the lot of them don’t always get along, they’ve formed a sort of family. Yeah, it’s very similar to my example from Firefly above, but it’s that idea again. For much of the series Casey doesn’t even like Chuck, but again, will come through for him when it counts; as will the others for him. Everyone has this forged bond with each other. That’s the essence of life on a ship.
 
Sure, there’s the incredible sublime feeling of being in the middle of the ocean at night, the ship’s running lights extended less than a stone’s throw away; but it’s nothing that can’t be transported elsewhere or substituted. Because that’s just setting, it’s not the interesting part.
 
I suppose that’s one reason I love writing science fiction; it gives me liberty. If I want to explore the idea of home I can add a plot device that threatens it. Could be, say, a mysterious box that shows an alternate world. Wanna stress the bond between the Captain and his Bosun? Arrest one of them. There’s a great freedom in a world where you get to make the rules.
Not to say I don’t put everything in science fiction. One of my short stories I’m the most proud of is set in a small town (though there’s a ship in a character’s past) and the screenplay I’m working on with my brother is set in the real world, though on a boat. But the former is about coming home and the latter is about an adventure. Writing about a ship in and of itself is boring. It’d like be writing about everyday life in the suburbs or a city or anywhere.
 
But writing about home, about family, about leaving? That’s interesting. So I seldom set my writing aboard an actual ship; but I always write about life on a ship.
 
 
Writer’s Note: Yeah, did something this week. Something almost...bloggy. Stuff in this vein may show up again.


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Little Things

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Nov 23 2013 · 137 views

Essays, Not Rants! 088: Little Things
 
The biggest difference between fiction and reality is that the former is not real. Duh. Ergo, one of the greatest challenges of fiction is making it seem real. Doesn’t matter if it’s Star Wars, Pacific Rim, or Chuck; it’s gotta feel realistic. Lived in, real.
 
The crew behind Star Wars, Pacific Rim, and the film adaption of The Lord of the Rings achieved this through set design. There are tiny, almost unnoticeable details all over the movie. The ships in Star Wars are old and worn; the Jaegers in Pacific Rim show signs of years of use. Compare to being told that the heroes in Pacific Rim had been fighting the Kaiju for over a decade but everything looked bright as new. We wouldn’t buy the history nearly as well as when we can see it for ourselves. It’s the same principle as in writing: show, don’t tell.
 
Take the simple example of the presence of the kill markings on some of the Jaegers in Pacific Rim. We don’t have any context for that, just that Striker Eureka has seen its share of combat prior to the film. It’s never elaborated on, nor is attention ever directed at it; it’s just there for the audience to see. It’s a little detail that gives a great deal of history and context for the story. Hardly anything would be lost without details like that, but its presence belies much.
 
The same thing can be found in characters’ dialogue. Sure, the world may be (partially or entirely) fictional for us, but not for the characters. Unlike us, they know the world, and, as such, should talk about it as if they do. Some of my favorite examples of this comes from the original Star Wars. When we first meet Han Solo he boasts about making the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs. What the heck is a Kessel Run? We don’t know, but Han does (and Luke the farmboy acts like he does too). At one point Leia mentions Dantooine, Obi Wan says something about some ‘Clone Wars.’ What I love is that we don’t know what any of these things are, but the characters talk about them fluidly, as well as someone in our world would discuss London or Atlanta. It makes it all feel that much more real.
 
But that's just the world. Characters have history too. They know people, and they know people a certain way. Let’s look at Chuck, because I love that show and am rewatching it. Whenever Chuck refers to his old friend Bryce, it’s most commonly as ‘Bryce Larkin from Connecticut.’ Let’s look at the fact that ‘from Connecticut’ is in it. It’s just two added words, but all of a sudden Bryce is given a home and we learn that he’s from somewhere. It also gives us a measure of context, seeing as it implies that Bryce was from outside Chuck’s usual world (that is, California).
 
You can see this in The Avengers, when Black Widow and Hawkeye mention Budapest, or Summer’s exes in (500) Days of Summer. The usage of specifics (Budapest, Charlie) lend credence to their past and make it more real.
 
These little things in movies (and television, books, video games; everything, really) wouldn’t really be missed if they weren’t there, but when they are they help immensely.


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Good Female Protagonists Revisited

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Nov 16 2013 · 173 views

Essays, Not Rants! 087: Good Female Protagonists Revisited
 
This blog's inception came about a year-and-a-half ago due to an essay (not a rant) about Katniss of The Hunger Games and other strong female characters. In light of the fact that we're once again a week away from the release of a movie about Katniss Everdeen, I figure, hey, let's look at this subject yet again. And again.
 
Strong female characters are strong characters. Period. There's no special checklist that needs to be applied to women characters. There aren't any set of traits that a female character must or cannot embody, just as there aren't for male characters. To suggest otherwise is not only kinda dumb, but also robs characters of the incredible depth that real people have.
 
So, essentially, a woman in fiction doesn't have to be out kicking butt to be a strong character. I think this is something we get mixed up a lot. We suspect that Katniss is stronger than Bella Swan because Katniss can shoot stuff with a bow when, as I've said before, it's rather because Katniss has agency and is active in pursuing her goals.
 
Firefly is another strong example of this. Compare Zoë and Kaylee. Zoë's ex-military and frequently joins the captain in fighting bad guys. Kaylee is a mechanic and freezes up when she's handed a gun. Gut reaction could be to say that Kaylee is a dull, cliché character. Yet anyone who’s watched the show will quickly realize that Kaylee is as well developed as Zoë.
 
How? Because Kaylee’s an interesting person, plain and simple. As a character she has her own quirks, she has her own agency, she’s her own person. What makes Kaylee interesting is that she’s a layered, developed character. She’s someone you feel like you could have a full conversation with, even if taken out of her setting.
 
Agents of SHIELD is another great example of this. I talked about this a few weeks ago, though with regards to non-combatant characters in general being given their moment. It excels with its female characters too. Skye and Simmons are both fleshed out and interesting enough characters, even though they aren’t out actively fighting. Furthermore, they aren’t treated patronizingly. They aren’t those moments where the plot almost conspires to create a situation where the character would be proven right or put in a very I-told-you-so moment, almost elevating her above the others. (It’s interesting to note that while Skye falls victim to patronization on occasion, it’s due to her hacktavist nature rather than based on her being a woman)
 
A lot of the women in Game of Thrones are also well-developed, even the ones who aren’t swinging swords. Sansa Stark, who’s basically a prisoner-of-war, would be very easy to come off as being very damsel-y. Yet she’s still a cool character, we can see that she’s not meekly complying with everything but instead has her own agenda, however powerless she can be.
 
So what’s the point of this? Shockingly, women are people too. A strong female character doesn’t have to be out kicking butt (see Salt for evidence of how it can go wrong), just be an interesting person. For every Katniss and Black Widow we need a Sansa and Simmons. Keep things interesting, y’know?


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Once Again on SHIELD

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Nov 09 2013 · 163 views

Essays, Not Rants! 086: Once Again On SHIELD
 
Yep. I’m talking about this show again. Because it’s great and I don’t have much time to watch new movies (besides The Dark World) or read or play much video games. So we’re talking about Agents of SHIELD again.
 
The show started strong and since then has steadily improved in itself. Characters have been fleshed out, dynamics enhanced, and it's proved itself capable with taking on different sorts of plots. What's even better is that all of this is usually done together, rather than individually.
 
See, it's easy to do these one at a time. When How I Met Your Mother does a high-concept episode it's usually at the expense of characterization. This isn't necessarily bad, there's nothing wrong with a plot-powered episode in a show that's usually very character driven. Shows like Community and Lost occasionally mix new concepts with character growth (see “Remedial Chaos Theory” and “The Constant”), but beyond that mixes are few and far between.
 
SHIELD is one of them. The most recent, "F.Z.Z.T.," dispenses with the usual good-guys-fighting-bad-guys typical of shows like this in favor of a far more internal conflict, one that can't be shot at. What's remarkable is that the writers take this in stride, maintaining high tension throughout an episode where the action could be described as "they science stuff."
 
Not only was it well done, but the plot allowed for some fantastic character moments. With the conflict science based, we were able to see Ward grapple with being powerless. Similarly, it allowed the show to further explore the dynamic of Fitz and Simmons. Prior they'd been presented as two parts of a whole, albeit two parts with a few contrasts. "F.Z.Z.T." explored those contrasts, really highlighting not only what makes them individuals, but also why they work together. It's a character study facilitated by a shift in the nature of the conflict.
 
The best character moment, however, is probably Coulson's. With a relatively quiet threat, we're able to see more of Coulson's character. When he comforts a firefighter we begin to see the consequences his death had on him. When Simmons is at risk we his his steadfast devotion to saving his team. And lastly, his own doubts about himself show is another side of him. He becomes far more deep and we, as an audience, are informed that there is baggage there to be worked out. And baggage makes for good television.
 
"F.Z.Z.T." is another step forward for Agents of SHIELD for so many reasons. Characters are stronger, humor hits more, and the drama's more dramatic. I was excited when the show first aired, now I'm thrilled with where this show is going.
 


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Two More Hours

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Nov 02 2013 · 223 views

Essays, Not Rants! 085: Two More Hours
 
The book Ender's Game is near to my heart. I listed it as my favorite book on my college apps years ago (in lieu of The Lord of the Rings — too cliché). I've read it at three different stages of my life: in high school, in the army (during basic training and later as a corporal), and for class during my freshman year of university. What I'm saying is I love the book. Not just because it's about kid-soldiers saving the world, but because it explores questions of warfare, empathy, and trauma.
 
See, Ender's Game is a two-headed beast. You have the story of Ender, the child chosen to save the world. The novel follows him from earth through his trials at Battle School and on to Command School. We see him grow and excel in this environment, triumphing despite the odds being stacked catastrophically against him.
Alongside that it’s a story about a boy forced to deal with isolation and detachment; Ender never has the luxury of friends. Ender’s Game is also about a boy being molded into the weapon at the cost of his psyche and the effect it has on him and those around him. As the novel comes to a close it becomes a story about PTSD and atonement.
 
So it was with cautious hope that I saw the film of the book Thursday night. It wasn't bad; it touched on the themes and hit on many of the book's highlights. But it was too short. It’s really hard to condense all of that into a single movie. Which brings me to the greats flaw of the film of Ender’s Game: It needed two movies.
 
The movie desperately needed more time, another beat in Battle School, another beat in Command School, and another at the end. Ender’s Game is on of the few books that really needed two movies to tell its story.
 
That’s the main criticism I can levy against the film. The cast was exceptional, Harrison Ford as Graff in particular. Some of the script was a little wonky, but never enough to drag down the rest. The visuals were beautiful (though I would have done something different camera-wise in the Battle Room). The movie was great, just too short.
 
Which just might make it that much more painful. It’s easy to hate a movie that’s just plain shoddy (See: The Last Airbender) or fails to capture the spirit of the book (See: BBC’s The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe). Then it’s easy; the movie felt nothing like the book, missed the point, and sucked. In those cases you laugh off the movie figuring, hey, they tried, whatever.
 
Ender’s Game came so close as a movie. It had all the pieces it needed for a great adaption. Everything was freaking there, the movie had it all. And it was great, for that. But it needed the chance to breathe. It needed the time to get into Ender’s isolation, to explore Dragon Army, to explore the consequences of his decisions. We needed two movies!
 
Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the movie. I almost cheered when we met Bean and later Petra. Every one of Graff’s scenes was an absolute blast (Ford was able to capture Graff’s severity and warmth like no other). It was great; it just needed more time. What makes it more painful is that if someone ever tries again in the future, the parts will no longer be here. We won’t be able to have Harrison Ford as Graff again nor many of the other people involved.
 
Ender’s Game is by no means a bad movie, great even; but it came this close to being incredible. Movie’s worth a watch, but definitely read the book.





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josh

twenty-three


grew up on a ship


studies Storytelling

at New York University


frequently found writing in a coffee shop, behind a camera, or mixing alcohol and video games

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