Sympathy for the Devilishly Handsome

The outline for my next story is moving along, and as soon as I finish grading my next batch of papers, I think I’m going to start on my character profiles.  And as it happens, I have already spotted a potential problem: my main POV character is handsome, smart, funny, and romantically successful.  Oh, and he’s a pretty powerful wizard, too.  And also a famous general.  And of course in our fictional ‘verse, the fact that he’s a wizard means he’s gifted with nearly eternal youth, as well.

You can probably already spot the potential difficulty.  If I’m not careful, the reader is going to absolutely hate this guy.

On the drive into work this morning, S and I were discussing something similar, in the context of our new favorite show, The 100.  At what point does a character become so incredibly awesome that the viewer (or reader) stops being impressed and starts thinking, “Oh, come on.  Give me a break”?  I don’t think the writers on that show have crossed that line with Clarke yet, but they have occasionally danced awfully close to it.  When readers run across a character like this, sooner or later, someone is going to accuse the character of being a “Mary Sue” (or Gary Stu, in the case of my main POV character).  As a shorthand for various sins of characterization, I suppose that’s fine, though as TV Tropes points out, the term has been stretched to the point that it’s hard to say exactly what it means anymore.

In general, though, I think the term “Mary Sue” implies a kind of wish-fulfillment on the part of the creator that isn’t really present in the case of my hero.  (For the sake of convenience, let’s call him Phil, though that’s not really his name in the story.)  I’m not writing a story about Phil because I wish I could be like him, but because there’s a particular moment in his life that I want to explore.

“Oh, sure you don’t want to be him,” the cynical reader sneers.  “You’re only writing this story because you wish you could be as awesome as Phil.”  Honestly, I’m not.  But I can’t just tell the reader that.  I can only show it in the way I write the story.  Execution, as always, is everything.

So how am I going to make Phil sympathetic?  Well, basically I’m going to do the same sorts of things that make any character sympathetic, but I have to be more careful than usual, lest the reader think I’m making a Mary Sue or a Creator’s Pet.  Here’s what I’m planning to do:

1) Disrupt his perfect life as soon as possible.  I’m not going to let him wallow around in his awesomeness.  In the very first chapter, he’s going to get raked over the coals by his boss, the emperor.  Sure, he might have been a bit self-satisfied and overconfident in the past, but almost from the very beginning of my story, he’s going to be worried about losing his job (and possibly his life).

2) Give him serious doubts and conflicts.  I don’t want to give too many spoilers, but the main conflict of the story is between Phil and an old friend of his.  The emperor wants the old friend dead, and Phil doesn’t want to do it, even though he also doesn’t want to annoy the emperor.

3) Make him “Save the Cat.”  He’s loyal to his friends.  And he’s kind to people when he doesn’t have to be.  One of the other (minor) POV characters is, shall we say, his new assistant.  Even though this assistant doesn’t really know what he’s doing, and even though there’s nothing that Phil actually needs from him, Phil is nice to him.

4) Keep him from getting everything he wants.  Phil is going to start the story believing he can balance his different loyalties and obligations.  He’s going to think he can keep the emperor happy without having to kill his old friend.  He’s going to discover that he can’t.  He’s going to make choices that make people mad.  Which leads to….

5) Make sure not everyone likes him.  His awesomeness isn’t self-evident to everyone.  There are people (including POV characters) who disagree with him and dislike him.  Over the course of the story, he’s going to lose friendships and disappoint people who admire him.  When he makes a hard decision, people aren’t just going to pat him on the back and congratulate him on his gutsy call; there will be people who think he screwed up.

Oh, and if at all possible….

6) Make him funny.  Just like in real life, you can put up with a lot from a character if he makes you laugh.

Hopefully the end result will be a character the reader likes and sympathizes with, in spite of his magical powers and flawless dark good looks.  It’s still a risk, though.  S and I love the title character of Jane Austen’s Emma, who is famously “handsome, clever, and rich,” but we know people with excellent literary taste who can’t stand her.  Oh well.  At least in my case I’m going to have seven other POV characters.  If readers can’t stand Phil, maybe they’ll find one of the other people to identify with.



Top 10 Ways to Not Get Any Writing Done

1) Research
Three hours on Wikipedia is totally work, and if anyone tells you otherwise they are clearly the kind of person who doesn’t know the difference between a merlon and an embrasure.

2) Organize
Doing all that research is useless if you can’t find it later. Let a trained information professional assure you that proper organization requires folders within folders, labels, a dozen different colored highlighters, and fancy binders you spent two hours in Office Max selecting.

3) Read
Successful writers read good writers. Doing it to the exclusion of everything else for a week is simply steeping one’s self in quality writing.

4) Make a Playlist
The right music makes the soul soar into the rarefied air where the best writers live with their stellar prose. And while you’re compiling the perfect playlist, watching hours of fanvids on YouTube provides tons of inspiration.

5) Watch a Movie
There’s that thing they do in that one movie that’s just like what you want to do in your novel. Watching the movie will totally get you on the right track.

6) Watch Some TV
Preferably, this should be done at least a complete season at a time, otherwise you don’t see the arcs that will influence your masterpiece.

7) Talk about Writing
It doesn’t matter that you don’t have anything concrete to discuss because you haven’t written anything. Abstract theorizing is what keeps academia in business, after all.

8) Scrub the Floor
Really, it’s been too long, and putting it off another afternoon so you can write is downright unsanitary.

9) Check Twitter
You’re just keeping an eye on your brand on social media, and your rant about how much the weather sucks is precisely what your followers are looking for from an aspiring novelist.

10) Blog
In a perfect scenario, the blog should be an easily assembled list that doesn’t tax your prose writing abilities; you need to save your best stuff for your novel.


You’ll Never Arc Alone

An unpleasant Third Act surprise.

An unpleasant Third Act surprise.

I’m working on the outline for my next project, and it’s going to be pretty complex.  S and I love NaNoWriMo, of course, but after writing a bunch of NaNo-length novels (i.e. about 50,000 words), I feel like trying something a bit longer again.  My NaNo novels usually have two POV characters.  This new book I’m working on will have 60 chapters from eight different points of view, and it will be somewhere around 150,000 words long.  That’s a lot of plot to keep track of, and a lot of characters who need their own, individual storylines.

When you introduce the reader to a character—particularly a POV character—you’re making a promise: “This guy is important.”  More than that, there is what Blake Snyder refers to as “the Covenant of the Arc” in Save the Cat.  You are promising the reader that this guy is going to do something interesting, or is going to change in some interesting way.  You’re promising an arc, in other words.  That’s fairly straightforward when it comes to the hero; his arc is the plot of the story, after all.  If you’ve forgotten to give him an arc, you’ve got serious problems.  But what about minor characters?

The Monomyth model
One way to craft a minor character’s arc is to take one of the common models of character development and apply it to the handful of scenes where the character appears.   If we were talking about the story’s hero or heroine, each one of these points might represent multiple scenes and dozens of pages.  But for a minor character, you can just have one scene for each stage of the arc.  The number of stages in your arc depends on how many scenes this minor character will show up in.  If, for example, the minor character shows up 8 times, you could try to make each one of those scenes correspond to a stage of Phil Cousineau’s “Hero’s Journey

If the minor character shows up even fewer than eight times, you can try to apply one of the more popular models for plot outlines, like the classic Three-Act Structure, so that your minor character at least has a intro, a midpoint, and a climax.  There are other models, though.  Two that I’ve tried using on my latest outline are the 5-act Shakespearean structure and the 4-act structure from My Story Can Beat Up Your Story.

The Shakespearean model
Obviously the five acts traditionally cover the entire play, but I’m using them to represent the stages in the development of one of my minor POV characters.  The first chapter from his point of view introduces him and shows his conflicts, problems, and goals.  In his second chapter, he meets people who are trying to stop him.  The third time he shows up, the conflict reaches its height, and he has it out with one of the people who is picking on him.  In his fourth chapter, we see the fallout from that fight.  And in his fifth chapter, he has a final showdown in which he proves that he’s learned something.

The Story Beat-up model
Another model that I’m experimenting with for my minor characters is the 4-part plot structure used by Jeffery Alan Schechter in My Story Can Beat Up Your Story.  Basically, he turns the classic 3-act structure into 4 parts by splitting the second act in the middle.  And each one of these four parts, he says, corresponds to a character archetype: Orphan, Wanderer, Warrior, Martyr.

When the character is an Orphan, according to Schechter, he is alone and out of place.  When he is a Wanderer, he is trying to move toward his goal, but can’t quite get there yet.  Then, at the midpoint of the story, he becomes a Warrior; in other words, he takes charge and becomes active.  Finally, in the last act, as a Martyr, he shows that he is willing to sacrifice in order to achieve his goal.

In Schechter’s book, he gives lots of examples, showing how to use this structure for an entire movie script.  In my latest outline, though, I’m using it to give me an idea of what to do with minor characters who only show up a few times.

Here’s an example.  Let’s imagine a story in which Bob and Susan are the main characters.  They have the main storyline; the story is THEIR story.  And the story will end when they live happily ever after, or die tragically in a blimp accident, or whatever.  But let’s imagine a minor character in their story: a bartender they both know named Steve.  Maybe he’s the bartender in the place where they meet for lunch.  Maybe he’s only going to appear four times in the whole story.  So how can we make sure Steve has his own arc?

Steve as Orphan (alone and out of his element):  Bob and Susan meet at the bar, and we’ll assume their story has been going on for a while now.  This scene might be twenty or thirty pages into the book.  It’s only important to Steve, because this is the first time we see him.  They say hello to him, indicate that they know him, and we discover that Steve hates his job and his manager is a jerk.

Steve as Wanderer (trying to figure out how to move forward, but not successful yet): Bob and Susan’s romance has progressed.  They’ve had a few ups and downs, and maybe twenty or thirty more pages have passed.  They go to the zoo on a date, and lo and behold, they run into Steve there.  He’s looking glum and explains he’s been applying for a job there, but he doesn’t think he’ll get it.  His great dream is being a zoologist, but he never finished his degree.

Steve as Warrior (becoming active, taking charge): The story goes on, and Bob and Susan’s romance has reached a crisis.  Bob desperately needs help (perhaps a ride to the airport or something), and the only person he can turn to is Steve.  And because Steve has failed to get a new job, he’s still at the bar, right where Bob can find him.  Steve tells his nasty boss to shove it, drives Bob to the airport, and Bob goes off toward his happy ending with Susan (or their tragic blimp crash).

Steve as Martyr (showing what he’s learned and that he’s willing to give up something): At the end of the story, Steve realizes life is too short to be stuck in a job he hates.  At Bob and Susan’s wedding (or their funeral, if they died on that blimp), he announces he has quit his job.  He’s foregoing safety and stability, and going back to school to finish his PhD, so he can study marmosets in the wild, just like he always dreamed.

So there we go; Steve only appeared four times in the whole book, but he had a little storyline all his own.  When you follow these models, like Schechter’s four-act structure, or the five-act Shakespearean structure, or the eight-act Hero’s Journey, it becomes a little easier to see what the minor characters should be doing.  They’re not just standing around, passively watching the main characters; they’re acting independently and naturally as part of their own small story.  They aren’t the main focus of the novel, of course, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have an arc of their own.


Picture This

The 100 Set starry night

One of Clarke’s drawings on The 100.

It’s time for me to just admit that the CW has somehow stolen my soul, and even though I think Arrow is my favorite show on the network (even if it’s not having its best season), the show that has me thinking is The 100. When discussing the show with a friend, she specifically brought up the significance of a location referred to as the Art Supply Store, and jokingly, I said I should unearth my latent academic and write a paper about it. Somehow, she decided it shouldn’t be a joke, and when I mentioned it to some other fans of the show, the next thing I knew, I was committed to writing something on this topic. (Although this is definitely a blog, not an academic paper.) So, for those of you who don’t watch The 100, the basic premise is explained here. If you don’t mind spoilers, read on, although know you might find this all more than a little head scratching. If you do watch the show, make sure you’ve seen at least through Season 2 Episode 8.

So, what is the Art Supply Store? Literally, it’s some family’s fallout shelter that they never made it to before nuclear war wiped out most of the earth’s population. For the viewer, it’s a touchstone for the character arc of Finn, who begins the series as a slightly reckless free spirit but transforms into a man making decisions he’s ill-suited to make, and unsurprisingly, does not always make them well.

At first the Art Supply Store is significant to Finn as the source of pencils he can give to Clarke, who is an artist (and clearly his love interest). It is a place that allows him to show love, and he wants to keep it exclusively for him and Clarke. But its secrecy is sacrificed when Finn and Clarke need to hide Charlotte, a confused twelve year-old girl who has just confessed to murder in front of an angry mob. When the three arrive, it marks the first time the viewer has seen the location, and one is immediately struck by its hominess. Considering these characters were born and raised on a space station, their lives rationed and regulated, this simple haven marks the first place they have ever had to call their own and feel safe from those who want to control their lives, whether it be the government back on the Ark or the tyrannical mob on earth.

Sadly, things don’t turn out well for Charlotte or the 100’s ongoing attempts to contact the Ark to let those left in space know the earth in habitable. Depressed, angry, and descending into hopeless, Finn returns to the security of the Art Supply Store. Clarke follows him, and they spend their one night together. The Art Supply Store now takes on an air of perfect happiness and freedom, but happiness has a way of fading and freedom becoming more difficult than anticipated.

At this point, Finn and Clarke are slowly becoming part of the ruling class of the 100 and starting to have responsibilities beyond what they choose themselves. As this part of their lives complicates, so does their relationship. Someone else from the Ark makes it to earth, and who should it be but Finn’s girlfriend, Raven (who Clarke knows nothing about until Raven gives Finn a very enthusiastic and affectionate hello). Both of these changes in circumstance are seen at once when Clarke and Raven go to the Art Supply Store together. They go hoping to find parts for Raven to repair a radio, which they do, but that’s only important for the plot. Taking Raven to their haven shows that Finn and Clarke are bringing Raven into their circle, but it’s also where Raven, sharp girl that she is, begins to suspect there’s something going on between Finn and Clarke. For the remainder of Season 1, Finn and Clarke, along with Raven, firmly enter the center of power among the 100, forcing them into responsibilities none of them at 17 or 18 are especially equipped to deal with. Meanwhile, their personal lives hang in limbo.

The return to the Art Supply Store in Season 2 clearly delineates the differences between Season 1 Finn, the anti-gun idealist looking for a safe place away from those in power, and who he has become. He now has power and a gun, and he brings Bellamy, the one character who has always been an unquestioned leader among the 100, as well as two others of the 100, to the Art Supply Store. Why are they there? To interrogate a prisoner who might know where Clarke and another 47 of the original 100 are being held captive. The Art Supply Store no longer signifies safety and freedom, but the difficult and brutal responsibilities of leadership. Finn doesn’t hesitate to beat and threaten the prisoner, and once he has the information he wants (or thinks he wants—the prisoner is lying), he executes the prisoner while the others are still debating what should be done. It’s the remorselessness Finn shows in this moment, in the place where he protected an innocent girl and made love with Clarke that so starkly shows the change in him. Granted, at this point, the Art Supply Store is known only to Finn, Clarke, and Raven, making it an ideal place for an interrogation, but it was not the only location available to Finn, Bellamy, and the others. (I’ve never been entirely clear on The 100 geography, but I don’t think the dropship, the group’s original camp, is terribly far away.) Yet taking the prisoner to the Art Supply Store shows better than any other location could Finn’s change from peace-preaching outsider to ruthless member of the inner circle.

If the viewer ever hoped there might be a chance for Finn to return to the nonviolent man Clarke fell in love with from the executioner he has become, the final trip to the Art Supply Store crushes that hope. At this point, Finn has followed the prisoner’s false information and in the process massacred 18 unarmed civilians. Nearly literally, the corpse of the prisoner is between them now. When given power, Finn turned to murder, and while Clarke is responsible for a fair share of deaths as well, hers have always been either mercy killings or in battle. Finn has tarnished their sanctuary with misused power and become someone other than the person she loved. “I don’t even know who you are anymore,” she tells him. His response? “Neither do I.” And then Clarke speaks the last words the viewer has heard uttered in the Art Supply Store: “What have we become?”

The answer to that question, particularly for Finn, can be answered by watching the five instances characters go to the Art Supply Store. Finn has transformed from idealist to killer, a person who first brought someone to the Art Supply Store to keep her safe, but then used that space for torture and murder. With it so closely mirroring Finn’s character development, I hope the writers retire the Art Supply Store—its greater purpose than simply being a set has been fully realized.


Don’t Fear the Reaper, Part 2


You can’t kill Indy, can you?

In our last post we talked a little about how we decide when it’s appropriate to kill a character. You could scroll down a little and read the original post, but just briefly, here are the three criteria we use:

1) Would it be intellectually dishonest not to kill the character?

2) Is it dramatically the right choice?

3) Does the character dying have interesting repercussions for those left alive?

One of the problems with killing a beloved character is that the downside is immediately apparent—you feel bad, and if you’re doing it right, the reader feels bad, too. These three questions help focus the mind on the potential benefits of killing the character, as well as the potential dangers of leaving him alive.

If you allow pity to stay your hand, and you let a character live when he ought to have died, you run into three problems, each of which corresponds to one of the three questions.

1) If you let your character live when it’s intellectually dishonest to do so, your character will develop obvious plot armor, and the reader or viewer will no longer believe the character is ever in jeopardy. We both love Vampire Diaries, but since pretty much every major character has died and been brought back to life, death has rather lost its sting on that show. No matter how hard the writers try to convince the viewers that this time, for once, a character might TOTALLY DIE FOR REALS, the viewers’ reaction is to shrug and think, “Meh, he’ll be back next episode.” The other side of the same coin, as noted in our last post, is that your bad guys lose credibility. If an important good guy doesn’t get killed every once in a while, the villains start to look incompetent. Even the most diehard Star Wars fan, when re-watching the original movie, snickers a little when Obi-Wan tells Luke, “Only Imperial Stormtroopers are so precise,” since we know Stormtroopers can’t hit the broad side of a bantha stable. When the Empire’s elite first blast their way into the Tantive IV, they’re awesome and frightening. By Return of the Jedi, when they’re getting their plastoid-armored butts handed to them by teddy bears, they’ve lost any semblance of menace.

2) If you let a character live when it would have helped the story to let him die, then you obviously run the risk of not moving the plot forward, and of having a superfluous character. In other words, your story treads water, with this character just sitting there, taking up narrative space, doing the same things he’s always done. For example, we are fans of the Harry Potter books and movies, but let’s face it; for much of that series, Harry is the brave one, Hermione is the smart one, and Ron is…present. There are a number of places where Rowling could have killed off Ron, starting all the way back with the chess match at the end of the first book (though that admittedly might have been a bit too dark that early in the series). There would have been tears and drama, the series would have moved forward, and Ron’s place could have been taken by Neville and/or Luna, who are frankly much more interesting characters, anyway.

3) If you let your character live when it would have made other characters more interesting, then obviously you lose an opportunity for character development. If a mentor sticks around too long, for example, the reader/viewer will wonder why the hero, rather than the more skillful, more experienced mentor, is the one taking on the villain. The best example of this involves a character neither of us wants to see dead, and a movie that has lots and lots of other problems: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Shia LaBeouf’s character was clearly supposed to be the new, up-and-coming hero. But the audience never warmed to him. This was for a host of reasons, of course, but looming over them all was the simple fact that as long as Indiana Jones himself was there, no one was going to care what “Mutt Williams” did. (One hopes the people making the new Star Wars sequels have learned this lesson).

Here’s an example of how we apply our three criteria in practice. In one of our novels, there’s a character we’ll call Susan. (Names and genders may have been changed here; we still entertain hopes of getting all these books published someday, and we don’t want to give massive spoilers.) Susan is a fun character, sexy and hilarious. She is also a romantic interest/mentor/surrogate mother figure for the hero, Bob. (Yes, they have a very complicated relationship.) At a certain point in the story, we had always planned on killing off Susan, but when it came time to do it, we were reluctant to pull the trigger (or plunge the knife, rather).

So we went through the three questions.

1) Was it intellectually dishonest to let her live? Yes. This was a war story, after all. And while we had accumulated a vast pile of dead red-shirts, and while some of these red-shirts had died in very sad and moving scenes, we hadn’t killed a major character yet. It strained credibility to imagine that Bob, our hero, could keep going on these deadly dangerous missions and never once lose someone he genuinely cared about. Moreover, we had spent a lot of time establishing that Susan is particularly brave and daring. She routinely does the sorts of things that ought to get her killed, and Bob often worries for her safety. Having set all that up, it would have been a cop-out to not have Susan’s luck run out sooner or later.

2) Did it make sense, dramatically, for her to die? Yes. We had an outline for the rest of the story, and most of the plot from then on was supposed to be driven by Bob’s desire to get revenge for Susan’s death. The person who kills Susan also turns out to be the major antagonist for the second half of the story, so if we had let Susan live, we would have lost that deeper, more personal motivation for our hero to fight the antagonist. In addition, Susan is a romantic interest for Bob. Killing Susan helped resolve an on-again, off-again love triangle, which would have gotten pretty old if we had tried to spin it out for the rest of the story.

3) Were there interesting repercussions for the surviving characters? Yes, yes—a thousand times, yes! As noted above, Susan’s death drives our hero’s actions for the rest of the story. It forces Bob to grow and prompts some soul-searching on his part, particularly after his attempts at revenge end up getting another of his best friends killed. It helps resolve his messy love live, as well. Finally, as we head to the climax of the story, the final apocalyptic showdown between our hero and the bad guys, Bob is firmly in charge of the good guys. He’s an active protagonist, making the decisions that drive the plot forward. If Susan were alive, the reader would naturally wonder why Susan wasn’t there. And if Susan were there, our hero would naturally defer to his old commander and beloved mentor. So we had to get Susan out of the way.

When we considered Susan’s fate in light of those three questions, it was obvious that she had to go. sniff Poor Susan. At least we have the comfort of knowing that she died to make a better novel.

To sum it all up, there are much worse things than death for a character—like becoming boring or pointless. Or worst of all, becoming an actual roadblock to the plot, preventing the hero from moving forward and developing. Let your characters go out on a high note, rather than keeping them around until the reader is grumbling, “Why is this guy still here?” Don’t be afraid of killing characters that you like. You’re just saving them from the indignity of becoming characters that you hate.

J and S

Don’t Fear the Reaper

ned stark

   Sean Bean: Patron Saint of Dead Characters

As mentioned last week, we’re currently excited about the CW show The 100. Back at the mid-season finale, the show killed off a member of the main cast (who we particularly like), so we’ve naturally been thinking about when it’s a good idea and when it’s not to kill a character and how you ought to go about doing it. We won’t mention the specifics of the death on The 100, because it still falls under the statute of limitation for spoilers, as it were, but we agree that the show handled it really well. As much as we will miss the character and the cast member, it solidly hit the Three Keys to Offing the Ones You Love.

1) Would it be intellectually dishonest not to kill the character?

Would you have to twist the plot in unbelievable knots to keep the character alive? Would it make your villains look weak and ineffectual? Is death, in other words, the logical outcome of where you have taken the story?

2) Is it dramatically the right choice?

A continuation of the first question, does the story gain by the death of the character and the way in which you kill the character? Which leads to…

3) Does the character dying have interesting repercussions for those left alive?

If you can kill a character and the rest of the characters don’t seem a whit different because of it, there’s a fundamentally bigger problem. Still, thinking about the interesting possibilities for the characters going forward can help make the often difficult decision to kill a character a little easier.

So, examples. Obviously there are spoilers below, but we’ve decided Julius Caesar, Battlestar Galactica, and A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones are fair game. Still, if you haven’t read/seen any of these and don’t want spoiled, consider yourself warned.

Julius Caesar

To the surprise of generations of schoolchildren, the title character dies at the beginning of the third act (out of five, of course). But that’s because he’s not actually the protagonist of the story; Brutus is. Moreover, you know he has to die because, well, it’s based on a true story, and as far as we know, that’s how the real Gaius Julius Caesar died. If Shakespeare had made Brutus and the other conspirators have a change of heart, or if his Caesar somehow recovered from his wounds, the audience would be sitting there thinking, “Wait, he’s supposed to die, isn’t he?” It simply wouldn’t be credible for him to live.

Killing Caesar in the third act is the right choice dramatically, as well, because as previously noted, it’s actually a play about Brutus, not Caesar. If the assassination were in Act IV or V, then the consequences of Brutus’s decision to help kill his friend would have to be wrapped up in only one or two scenes, rather than half the play. The repercussions of Caesar’s death drive the plot for the rest of the play.  In fact, if he doesn’t die, you don’t have a play at all.

Battlestar Galactica

Plenty of people die during the run of this show, but two deaths stick out as being especially problematic: Callie and Starbuck.

Problem number one with Callie’s death is that it made everyone watching happy. In fact, until we asked a friend, we couldn’t even remember why she had been killed. This very much falls under “fundamentally bigger problem.” Her death didn’t need to happen, but was manufactured as a fan service so that the rest of the characters could go forward without having an annoying character getting in their way. She started off the series as a perfectly fine bit player the writers seemed to let get out of control somewhere along the way.

Starbuck is an even bigger problem. She began the show as a fan favorite of everyone who didn’t have trouble getting over Starbuck being a woman. Then near the end of the third season, she went insane for no reason and “killed” herself. The characters left behind seemed to be in something of a muddle without her, so at least her “death” had some impact. Until the writers undercut any drama her “death” caused by bringing her back to life. Sort of. Starbuck’s “death” reeked of poorly planned shock value that didn’t bear any relation to the character or the plot.

A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones

George RR Martin may be responsible for more character deaths than any writer in history, so it’s unsurprising that sometimes he’s been successful, and sometimes made questionable decisions. His two most famous provide an example of each.

We are not fans of the Red Wedding; let’s just get that out of the way. Looking at the 3 Keys, it fits the first, mostly—it is intellectually honest that Walder Frey would kill Robb Stark. Or at least try. Robb and his men have proven themselves sufficiently badass that had Robb lived, we would have bought it. And dramatically, it is quite a moment, but it’s the last interesting dramatic moment in the series for us, because who cares how it effects the characters left behind? Who cares who wins the game of thrones? We, the readers (and viewers), were invested in the Starks winning, and when Robb dies, we don’t care anymore. And other than the Lannisters having one less thing to worry about and Arya sailing off to Braavos, how much do any of the characters care that Robb Stark is dead?

But you can’t say the same of Ned Stark’s death. This is how to kill a character. It would be incredibly dishonest and make the mighty Lannisters look incredibly weak if Ned Stark fails to die. And the drama in that moment is heart wrenching. Plus, so much of what matters in the moment of his death is how it will change the lives of his children, most importantly Robb. Everything about Ned Stark’s death accomplishes precisely what a writer (and reader/viewer) hopes it will.

~J and S

BSG’s Less Classy, but More Fun, Little Sister


I feel like this post should open with about a dozen disclaimers, prefaces, and warnings. It’s a different sort of post for us, and because there’s going to be some honest opinions expressed about TV shows, I’m bound to offend someone. But why waste time explaining myself when I can just dive in and confuse and anger people, right?

So, let’s talk about The 100, yet another CW show that has drawn me into its web. Yep. I already watched four CW shows before diving into this one over the weekend, and when I say “dive in,” I mean between Friday after work and going to bed Sunday night, we watched all thirteen episodes of Season 1 and the first seven episodes of Season 2. CW shows are somehow like crack to me.

For those unfamiliar with the show, it’s a post-apocalyptic story that doesn’t especially break any new ground in the genre, but does a pretty darn good job with the well-worn tropes and story beats. Our tale takes place 97 years after a nuclear war left the world uninhabitable, or so the survivors on international space stations believe. These folks brought together all of the various space stations to form the Ark, and their long-term goal is to make it back to earth, once the radiation levels are low enough. But it turns out the Ark’s life support isn’t going to last as long as they thought with the number of people aboard. So they decide to do what any sensible people would do–prematurely send 100 juvenile prisoners back to earth to see if maybe they can live down there already after all. (Why juvenile prisoners? There are no adult prisoners. If you’re over 18 and commit a crime, you’re “floated” out the airlock.)

Turns out that not only is earth habitable, but inhabited. Our criminal teens run into primitive Grounders, who seem to be managing pretty well. Except for the Reapers, completely insane men with a thirst for violence and blood. Oh, and, there just might be some more folks lurking, but I don’t want to give everything away.

Does any of this sound familiar? Sure. The Reapers are so reminiscent of Reavers from Firefly/Serenity, J and I threw out more than one quote, being the good Browncoats we are. And there’s a strong Hunger Games vibe happening all over the place. And, of course, Joss Whedon and Suzanne Collins had their own inspirations, and so on, and so forth. But what I really keep coming back to while watching The 100 is Battlestar Galactica.

I think the first show J and I ever devoured together was BSG, slamming the first 2 seasons in pretty much record time. And those first two seasons hold their own against any two seasons of any other show I’ve ever watched. The last two seasons, well, now isn’t the time. Actually, it might be a little bit, because what made BSG classier but less fun than The 100 is exacerbated in the final two seasons. BSG began with a fantastic premise, executed with stellar writing and plotting featuring a talented central cast. And the look. It still looks so good, which always played a big part in what made it a far classier show than the SciFi Channel had any right to manage.

But what makes it less fun is also what at first drew so many people to the show. It didn’t flinch from the big questions and actions had consequences. Well, until the show started doing nothing but looking at the big questions while certain characters developed plot armor, and consequences no longer applied to them. (Yeah, Helo, I mean you.)

But so far The 100 is balancing these same aspects nicely, and occasionally slipping in some humor. Should some people be sacrificed to save more lives? Who should live? Do committing certain acts mean you no longer deserve to survive? All of these were tackled on BSG, but The 100 incorporates them into the story without dwelling on them and making them the story. Now, some viewers will surely prefer their scifi to be about Important Questions, but I like the way The 100 integrates soapy storylines much better than BSG ever did. Additionally, The 100 looks at the issues and forces consequences on characters without bring everything else to a halt. In fact, I’m pretty sure that fast pacing and refusal to belabor any plot point is the CW’s specific brand of crack, and I’ll hit that pipe every time.

And having now completely caught up with The 100, I need to go weep quietly because the show insists even characters I love suffer when they do bad things. The most recent few eps were a little less fun and a bit more sad, but I still appreciate the fact the show doesn’t allow that to come across as taking itself too seriously.