Relationships Matter

tak and rei

A scene from the new Netflix show Altered Carbon.

As always, Unicorn HQ is a hopping place with house hunting and packing. And when that and our day jobs aren’t intruding, I have been squeezing in some TV. Specifically, this weekend I binged the new Netflix series Altered Carbon. I enjoyed the first six episodes well enough, but it was the final four that really sold me on the show and made me keep watching, explaining in part why this blog is a day late. And, of course, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why, which eats up its own fair share of time.

When 1+1 is > 2

Earlier this week, I was chatting with someone on Tumblr about what we find most engaging in the media we consume and the fiction (fanfic and original) we write. At the end of the day, we agreed that what draws us in are the relationships. When I was younger, I remember thinking that what makes good stories, well, good, are the characters. But as I get older, what I find most compelling are the relationships, not the individual characters. Now, these can be great romances, like say, Emma Woodhouse and Mr. Knightley, but it can be any two characters whose interactions make the story more interesting.

For instance, what changes in episode 7 of Altered Carbon is the introduction of the hero’s sister. (Well, our hero, Kovacs, has flashbacks to his sister, Rei, throughout the first six episodes, but Episode 7 is when their backstory becomes the main story and Rei becomes a character on the show for the remainder of the season.) This sibling relationship got me far more invested in the universe, plot, and protagonist of the show than the whodunit driving the first six episodes. Their childhood, their complicated adult relationship, which I won’t spoil by saying any more about, is the kind of intense connection between characters that keeps me going straight into the next episode.

When 1-1 < 0

What Altered Carbon plans to do in Season 2 will be interesting to see. Given the universe, Kovacs and Rei could easily be or not be in the next season, played either by actors who have already played them or by other actors. (In the Altered Carbon universe, consciousness can be transferred from one body to another body or clone, so for all we know, I could show up playing Kovacs in Season 2.) But I hope the showrunner remembers how exciting the episodes with Kovacs and Rei are. (And frankly, both actors playing Kovacs have great chemistry with Dichen Lachman, so I hope the casting folks keep that in mind, too.)

It’s similar to the hope I also have for Versailles. I think I’ve mentioned before (and if I haven’t, that’s an oversight I’ll fix right now) that Versailles is best when focusing on Louis XIV and his brother, Philippe. I know shows like to mix things up from one season to the next to prevent staleness, but that often leads to getting rid of what works. For instance, Justified is a show that is strong to the end, because no matter what else is going on, that show never forgets that Raylan and Boyd and their antagonistic relationship is the heart of the show. Unlike, say Vikings, which as far as I’m concerned, ended with Season 3 when the relationship that made the show worthwhile, Ragnar and Athelstan, ended.

So, if you’re looking for a quick review of Altered Carbon, I like it. (Maybe some time if I’m bored and/or masochistic, I’ll discuss the whitewashing and violence against women complaints that have been leveled against the show. Or maybe J will; I’ll probably make him watch it at some point.) And why did I like it? All the futuristic, Blade Runner-esque visuals? Meh. Not really. (Although it does look great.) Nope, I like it for Kovacs and Rei, the orphaned brother and sister who I’m far more invested in than I am in knowing who killed some rich dude who can’t really die.

~S

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Still Unmoved

and-yet-i-am-unmoved

Mr. Bennet is unimpressed.

We’re still working on finding a new Unicorn HQ. For a while it looked as if we might have found a house, but negotiations broke down over some problems that were found during inspection, so now we’re looking again. We’ve found another house that we like, but we’re not letting ourselves get too attached until the inspector has had time to look it over and see if there’s some ghastly problem that will cost thousands of dollars to repair. S and I will be talking about where we’re going to put the TV, or how we’re going to arrange the library, but then we will pause and say (often in unicornic unison), “pending inspection.” It’s sort of like knocking on wood.

“It’ll be so nice to have a flat driveway…pending inspection.”
“That shed out back is really cute…pending inspection.”
“I’ll finally have room for my own dedicated writing space…pending inspection.”

That last one—a writing space for S—has been one of her main requirements for our new house. I don’t know how she feels about £500 a year, but she definitely wants a room of her own. She promises to let me in, of course, so it’s not as if she’s just trying to avoid me. But she has found that she writes better and more consistently if she has a space set aside just for writing. It has to be a separate space, removed from the comfy chairs and TV where we spend most of our time. No doubt once we move (pending inspection) and get her new writing room set up, she will blog about it, possibly with pictures.

In the meantime, though, she’s starting a new writing project, and she actually wrote part of the first chapter yesterday while waiting for me to finish teaching classes. I’ll leave it to her to say more about that particular project, though, if she wants to.
As for me, I’m doing prep work for my April Camp NaNo novel. And I’ve been doing some reading, as well. I finished The Magicians, by Lev Grossman. You may recall that S and I have been group-watching the TV show with an online friend. The book was pretty good, though as our friend promised, Quentin is even worse in the book than on the show. He’s just so whiny and self-absorbed.

I’ve also been working my way through Call Me By Your Name. S and I saw the movie last weekend. S had already read the book, but I hadn’t. She and some of her online friends have all been squeeing over how awesome the book is—even more awesome than the movie, apparently. On her recommendation, I decided to give it a try. It’s very good, and the squee is justified. I haven’t quite finished it, because I have to do things like plan classes and grade papers. But hopefully this week I’ll get around to it. And then maybe I’ll start the second book in the Magicians trilogy, if I can just steel myself to endure more Quentin.

J

The Fanny Price of Fantasy

The Magicians - Season 1

Quentin, I’m sorry, but the tests have come back, and the doctors say…you’re a douche.

The weather has been absolutely dismal for the past few days here at Unicorn HQ. I ended up having to cancel some classes. Luckily, S and I made it home just before the ice storm started, and we’ve managed to stay warm while watching the weather. We didn’t have anywhere to go on Saturday, which was lucky, since our city plowed our street and left a pile of snow two feet thick in front of our driveway. Today, we needed to go grocery shopping, and we were just about to suck it up and go shovel our way to the street, when our neighbor came out with his snow blower and did it for us. As a “thank you,” we got him cookies and beer while we were at the store.

Last night, while we were doing our best to stay warm, we started watching The Magicians, the Syfy series based on the books by Lev Grossman. It was a sort-of live watch, along with one of our longtime online friends—the same friend we watched the Shannara Chronicles with, incidentally. It’s always fun to get together, even if just in a virtual sense, and critique a show as you watch it.

I’ve never read the books that the show is based on, and I’d never seen the show before, obviously. All I knew about the series (either the books or the TV show) was that our online friends had complaints about Quentin, the hero. This is a family blog, so I won’t repeat some of what was said about him, but suffice it to say that he was considered a jerk. And not a loveable, endearing jerk, either, like Barney Stinson—the kind who’s actually a decent guy under it all. A complete and genuine jerk who makes you want to throw things at him. Or, more to the point, makes you not want to be around him.

Which is a problem when he’s the center of the show.

Last night, as we were watching, S dubbed Quentin “Fanny Price,” after the heroine of Jane Austen’s worst novel, Mansfield Park. If you’ve never read that book (and if you haven’t, don’t bother), Fanny is a tremendous wet blanket—pretty much the opposite of someone like Emma Woodhouse or Elizabeth Bennet. She’s the least interesting person in the novel, while somehow also being at the center of it. As S and I like to say, she’s a black hole where a heroine should be.

Now, Quentin isn’t quite the same as Fanny. I doubt he’s the sort who would object to amateur theatricals in the home. But he suffers from the very same problem as her, in that he’s surrounded by more interesting people. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem in either case. It’s fine to have a story from the POV of someone who observes the actions of more interesting people around him—think of The Great Gatsby, for example. But Gatsby isn’t trying to be a novel about Nick Carraway, whereas Mansfield Park is trying to be a novel about Fanny Price, and The Magicians is trying to be a show about Quentin Coldwater.

According to our online friend, Quentin is actually worse in the books than on the TV show, so it’s clearly not the fault of the actor or the writers. It’s a fundamental problem of the character. That’s certainly a bold choice. But it’s not necessarily one I would have made.

And yet, we’re still loving the show, and we’re looking forward to watching more of it in the near future. As S said last night, if it weren’t for our complaints about Quentin, the show would actually be too good to live-watch with friends—we’d have nothing to make snarky comments about.

J

Pwning the POV

all your base

Your base has been pwned. (Image from Know Your Meme)

When we first started writing, back when we were scrambling to figure out how novels and series and worldbuilding all worked, I put a little note to myself on the side of a basket I could see from my chair that said “Pwn the POV.” (Definition of “pwned” here. Bless you Urban Dictionary.) Heaven knows I didn’t feel like I was doing much of anything right at that point (and I wasn’t), but I felt what I most needed to address were my characters’ POVs. I may have been doing a lot wrong, but this instinct was absolutely right. So many of my early struggles as a writer could be fixed by understanding my characters’ voices better. And this is something I always push myself to remember, even now.

For instance, writing good setting description is something that doesn’t come naturally to me. At one point, to try and find some guidance on how to do this better, I picked up Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold and began rereading the first chapter. (If my memory is correct, it was this experiment that led to the rule that I’m not allowed to read Joe Abercrombie when I’m writing, because I admire his writing so much it makes me want to give up.) Anyhow, the point is he describes his heroine’s ride to a palace with her brother, interspersing their amusing dialogue with her observations like: “The eastern sky bled out from red to butchered pink.” Monza, being a mercenary, also notes several times the palace’s defensive placement, including: “She spurred round one more steep bend, and the outermost wall of the citadel thrust up ahead of them. A narrow bridge crossed a dizzy ravine to the gatehouse, water sparkling as it fell away beneath. At the far end an archway yawned, welcoming as a grave.” All of this description says as much about Monza as it does the setting. It’s also fantastic foreshadowing, and establishes the tone for the chapter and the book as a whole. All because Abercrombie absolutely owns the POV, how Monza thinks and what she sees.

But not every author manages as well. As I think more about my upcoming epistolary novel, I was interested in reading The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir for my book club. The book consists of journals and letters, and I was hoping to pick up some tips on how to manage the structure. And I suppose I did learn some things not to do. Throughout this story of English women on the WWII home front, I rarely felt as though the POVs rang true. For instance, in a 17 year-old girl’s letter to her best friend, the writer refers to her best friend’s mother as “Mrs. Quail.” Why on earth would the writer simply not have said, “your mother”? And everyone writes their letters and journals as though they are aware this is a novel, which requires heavy doses of what is implied to be exact dialogue. If, perhaps, one character had an affectation that she was writing her journal novelistically, that might have been a clever choice, but most people don’t write correspondence as though it is a Charlotte Bronte novel. And not to badger this poor book too viciously, since it has been much read and well reviewed, but I also have to mention the lack of understanding the character’s mind frame when writing. What 13 year-old girl writes an eloquent, detailed description of her entire day, which ends with her father literally taking a horsewhip to her back? The POVs just aren’t credible to me.

J and I have also been talking about how understanding your characters can make or break plot-heavy television. Now, it might seem as though characters are not the natural focal point of fast-paced, plot-driven TV, but we think a tight handle on character is what made The Vampire Diaries more successful than other shows that attempt to fly through plot at that extreme CW pace J has discussed before. So often I find myself watching plot-heavy shows and wishing the story would slow down and allow the characters to breathe. (The 100 and Versailles are two that come to mind.) And yet, I never find myself wishing The Vampire Diaries would go slower, even though that show manages to squeeze more plot into one season than many do in three. J is actually the one who put his finger on what separates TVD from so many other shows—the main characters are always making the plot happen and doing it in ways clearly recognizable for their character. Damon is always trying to fix some problem, most likely caused by his essential Damon-ness, and doing so in a very Damon-like way. It is never a case of sacrificing character development for plot, because all of that crazy plot is driven by the characters behaving in character. Which also means that not every story can be told at that extreme speed, because not all stories have characters who behave that way. Anyhow, something to think about.

~S

Not Quite Sticking the Landing

Halt and Catch Fire Fall Quote

Well, not fall, exactly, but maybe a little stumble, right there at the end.

It’s been a busy weekend here at Unicorn HQ. The big excitement this weekend was the series finale of Halt and Catch Fire, though that didn’t turn out quite as we had hoped. More on that in a minute. First, the other news. As I’ve mentioned, I’m teaching a new class this semester, and I have to drive almost two hours to do it. That eats up a lot of my Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings. At least S had a chance to do some laundry while I was out, so at least one of us did something productive.

Today we’ve been cleaning around the house. Doing it all at once would just be too depressing, so we’re doing one room a day. Or at least that’s our goal. We haven’t quite been meeting that goal, but it’s still a lovely goal to have, all the same, don’t you think? I certainly do.

Pretty soon we’re going to have start thinking seriously about our NaNoWriMo project again. We developed the outline and the character profiles back during July Camp NaNo, but we haven’t looked at them in a couple months, so we’ll need to review them and talk a bit more about who is going to be responsible for writing which parts. But that can happen another time. Right now we’re resting after cleaning our living room and slowly working our way through a pair of well-deserved Bloody Marys.

When we haven’t been cleaning this morning, we’ve been dissecting the Halt and Catch Fire finale. As I put it to S last night before bed, it was a three star finish to a five star series. It wasn’t horrible, but it certainly could have been better. Last week, S said, “assuming they stick the landing, it will rank as one of our favorite shows of all time.” Well, they didn’t quite crash, but the landing was a bit bumpier than you would hope for.

The scenes between Donna and Cameron were all fine. But there were probably too many of them. And the resolution of their relationship came at the expense of Joe, who basically disappeared for the length of a Bible during the last episode. The Donna/Cameron storyline feels as if it came to a satisfying conclusion. But Joe just wandered off, and when we saw him, he was hanging out with random people we didn’t know and had never met before. Where was his resolution with Donna? With Cameron? With Haley (who could be seen as a surrogate for Gordon)? What we got was a letter written to Haley and read by her to Cameron, which would have been fine if there was going to be another episode after this. And we got a scene of him teaching a class, which would have been a fine place to leave him if there was going to be another season in which he could reconnect to the other two main characters. But this was the end, and it just felt very strange and unsatisfying to leave him there. As S and I decided last night, the show really needed to show him getting a phone call from Cameron, asking for some unspecified help on Donna’s exciting new idea. Just something to assure the viewer that he and Donna and Cameron will continue to have a relationship moving forward, because the heart of the show has always been the relationships between the main characters. It’s a little disappointing that the writers seem to have forgotten that, and right after we’d complemented them on doing it so well last week, too.

So it wasn’t as good as it could have been. But it wasn’t terrible. It certainly wasn’t the last episode of Justified, but at the same time, it wasn’t the last episode of How I Met Your Mother, either. It’s not like it took our love for the show and stomped on it. The bottom line, I suppose, is that we’ll probably still buy the whole series on DVD or Blu-ray. We just might not watch that last episode very often.

J

When Four Is Greater than Fourteen (or Nine)

HaltandCatchFire

The amazing main cast of AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire

So, last night J and I were watching TV. First we watched Halt and Catch Fire on AMC and then flipped over to Ovation for Versailles. Afterwards, we talked. A lot. (I am so tired today. You would not believe.) Versailles is a show I’m particularly attached to, even though I find it incredible frustrating at times, and we discussed what works, what doesn’t, and how we would change the show. (For instance, put Louis and Philippe in a room, and I’m in heaven. Other characters, well, not so much with a lot of them.) On the other hand, we can’t stop talking about how perfect Halt and Catch Fire is. Next Saturday is the two-hour series finale, and assuming they stick the landing, it will rank as one of our favorite shows of all time. So, what makes HaCF different from Versailles?

Joe and Cameron and Gordon and Donna

HaCF never forgets that it’s a show about four people. Yes, there are great insights about the birth of the tech industry, but the first season never scans as an 80s nostalgia show any more than this season reads as the story of the birth of web browsers in the early 90s. Yes, these characters are products of their time, but the show is never about their time; it’s about the four leads. Bos is there (and Toby Huss is listed in the opening credits) to hold Joe, Cameron, Gordon, and Donna together, especially when the story keeps the four characters apart, but the show is always firmly about the main four. Every season sees some new characters added to the cast: Tom in Season 2, Ryan and Diane in Season 3, Katie in Season 4 (as well as the expansion of the roles for Joanie and Haley), but they are only part of the show to enhance the viewer’s knowledge of the main cast. These additional characters never threaten to take over or become some hideous Cousin Oliver.

A good example of the show’s focus on these four characters is the latest episode. One of these lead characters dies at the end of the previous episode, and this entire ep is what happens the day they all go to the deceased character’s home to begin packing. Some shows might take a scene or two for the grief and mundane tasks of those left behind, most likely after a very nicely staged funeral. But HaCF skips the funeral. We are told the service was lovely, and then move on to an entire episode of actually dealing with the death. It’s what this show is about, and why I love it.

MICE

In the terminology outlined by Orson Scott Card in Characters and Viewpoint, HaCF is a Character story. It never tries to be anything other than a Character story, and it does everything it can to be the best Character story possible. Where I think a lot of TV shows (and novels and movies for that matter) go astray is when they don’t understand what kind of story they are telling. I blame Game of Thrones. (And Lord of the Rings, as well.) Sprawling stories with a cast of thousands are the big thing these days. And the ones that work, like GoT and LOTR, work because they are Milieu stories. The cast of GoT is huge, and the individual characters are often amazing and complex, but it’s not a Character story. GoT is the story of Westros. It is a story about place, just as LOTR is the story of Middle-earth. If either of those stories tried to be Character stories, they would be so fundamentally different as to be unrecognizable. Just as HaCF wouldn’t mean nearly as much if it were a Milieu story of the 1980s Austin tech scene.

Louis and…

In terms of MICE, I’m not sure what kind of story Versailles thinks it is. The argument for it being a Milieu story is kind of right there in the title, and the cast is large and ever expanding. (The opening credits of Season 1 lists nine actors, which I think under reports the important characters in the season. For Season 2 it’s been upped to fourteen.) And we certainly spend the majority of our time at the eponymous palace, but if it were truly the story of Versailles, then Season 1 would have been about Louis XIII’s hunting lodge in the woods, and Season 2 about Louis XIV’s expansion, Season 3 Louis XV and the escapades of Madame de Pompadour, and we would eventually wrap up with the French Revolution.

But what if “Versailles” is just code for “Louis”? What if it’s a Character story? In that case, the cast needs to be halved. (In a HaCF shaped show of four main characters and a fifth who ties them together, it would have had a hard focus on Louis, Philippe, Marie-Thérèse, and Liselotte with Bontemps nearby.) If not Character, what if it were an Idea story, which is the structure of most mystery stories? The strongest plot element of Season 1 is certainly the conspiracy against Louis, but in Season 2, the mysteries are the weakest parts. The show could also have been an Event story about the Franco-Dutch Wars. This would certainly require expanding the role of William of Orange, a solid choice considering the best episode of Season 2 consists primarily of Louis and William in a room talking, following one of the most famous battles of that war.

But I don’t know that Versailles picked any of these. The history of this era is ripe for the telling of numerous amazing stories, and yet this show doesn’t seem to have settled on which to tell or how to tell it. This leads to some great characters (truly, I will watch Louis and Philippe in the same room doing or discussing anything) and beautiful moments (the previously mentioned Louis and William scenes, for instance), but it doesn’t lead to as satisfying a whole as I wish.

And so…

I’m not saying Versailles needs to be a Character story to be as good as HaCF, but I am saying it needed to pick the structure right for the story they wanted to tell. And as a writer, this discussion has made me more aware than ever that I must know what my story is about and how best to tell it. This is particularly important as J and I head into NaNoWriMo. We’re tackling the largest story we’ve ever told in a single volume, likely running to over 200,000 words with a huge cast, dozens of locations, and spread over several years and many significant events. Even though I wanted to tell this story because of my fascination with the two leads, I need to remember that I’m really telling an Event story, and while I want to make those two characters (and the rest of the cast) as strong and interesting as possible, I can never lose sight of the Event. This isn’t the novel for endless navel gazing, which isn’t a bad thing if you’re writing a Character story, but that isn’t what I’m writing. And if I start writing that, I’m glad I have J to get me back on track.

~S

Learning All the Wrong Lessons

hot_for_teacher

My homework was never quite like this.

Not that we’re bloodthirsty or anything, but we sure like ourselves a good character death.  We’ve talked here before about when it’s appropriate, and sometimes even necessary, to kill characters.

Just in case you don’t feel like clicking on those links, our three rules for offing a character are as follows:

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 examples we used to show the proper killing of a character was Ned Stark from Game of Thrones.  As S wrote:

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.

So Ned’s death was a great moment in the story, and a great moment in TV.  Unfortunately, as we were watching The 100 this past week, it occurred to us that other shows are learning exactly the wrong lesson from Game of Thrones.  Rather than learning that killing a character can drive the story and provide motivation for the characters, it appears as if the writers of The 100 learned that it’s really cool to just bump off characters randomly for shock value.

In what’s been called the show’s ongoing Hunger Games storyline, characters like Jasper and Roan keep getting killed, not because there’s any logic or justification for it, but seemingly just because the writers want us to think “ZOMG!  They totally killed that guy!”  And then applaud them for their bold storytelling.  The worst part is the violation of the third of our rules: there are zero repercussions for anyone left alive, and in fact the other characters barely remember those who died at all.  But then again, that’s always been a problem for that show.  See, for example, poor old…oh, what’s his name?  It’s on the tip of my tongue.

Oh yes, Finn.

thomas_mcdonell

Remember when he was the love of Clarke’s life?  No?  Well, that’s okay.  Neither does Clarke. 

So that’s what’s been on our mind this week.  In other news, S just finished posting her latest fanfic series, and the feedback from readers has been very good.  So huzzah for her!  And I’m about ten chapters into my latest Myrciaverse book, which might hypothetically be a birthday present for someone who might hypothetically be S.

Yes, we write stories for each other for our birthdays.  It’s the unicorniest thing ever.  So I’ve got to get back to that.  In the meantime, let’s all hope The 100 figures out how to make character deaths count.  I mean, I’m not holding my breath, but it could happen.

J

The Unsinkable S.S. Klaroline

RMS ?Titanic?, 1911.

Pictured: not the S.S. Klaroline

As we’ve mentioned many times before, we enjoy a number of the cheesy fun shows on the CW.  Some of these we never really warmed to, some of them we stopped watching when they got tiresome (I’m looking at you, Flash and Arrow).  But we’ve kept up with Vampire Diaries and The Originals.  Many is the time we’ve been sitting around in the evening, bored and looking for something to do, when S will say to me, “Well, we’ve got vampire shows on the DVR.  Wanna watch them while I fold laundry?”

And I mean no offense when I say that’s pretty much the level of engagement we have had with those two shows recently, particularly Vampire Diaries.  They’re something mildly interesting to have on in the background.  They’re basically our equivalent of old-fashioned daytime soap operas, if you want to think of them that way—something to have on the TV while you dust the living room or peel potatoes for supper.

Even so, Vampire Diaries has been a part of our lives for years now, and we’re sorry to see it go.  I can’t say I thought the finale episode was earth-shatteringly awesome.  It certainly wasn’t like the finale of Justified (as S wrote, the ending of that show was absolutely perfect).  But it fulfilled the basic function of a series finale—wrap up all the storylines in a satisfying way so the viewers think they’ve gotten what they came for.  And don’t do anything to destroy the good will the show has built up, or pull some “clever” slight of hand that makes the viewers feel like they’ve wasted their time.  Some shows find that surprisingly hard to achieve actually.  Think of the last episodes of How I Met Your Mother or Roseanne, for instance.

Our favorite thing about the finale, of course, was that little nod to Klaroline shippers.  I won’t say that S responded to this by letting out an ultrasonic squee of delight and doing a little dance on the couch, but I won’t deny it, either.  We actually saw the episode up at my parents’ house, where we were visiting, and all the way home in the car, every twenty minutes or so, whatever we happened to be talking about, S would turn to me and say, “Oh, and by the way, J?  Klaroline is endgame!”  As S has mentioned before, Klaroline (Klaus Mikaelson and Caroline Forbes) is one of her favorite TV ships.  And as she noted yesterday, it’s the only one on this list she made more than a year and a half ago that has so far ended happily (or at least ended in such a way that we can imagine it ends happily).

So all in all, we’re pretty pleased with how Vampire Diaries turned out.  Now we just need another show to watch while S folds the clothes.

J

Teasing the Inevitable

victoria-and-albert

Gosh, I hope it works out for these two crazy kids.

Tonight is the Oscars.  S and I are going to an Oscar party, though that’s mainly just for the fun of going to a party.  As far as the nominees are concerned, as my dad always likes to say, you can’t begin to plumb the depths of my indifference.  I was just looking at the official site, and in pretty much every category, it’s just movie after movie that I’ve never seen.  We got A Man Called Ove from the library.  And we watched about the first half-hour or so of Captain Fantastic.  And I saw Zootopia on Netflix.  But other than that, I’ve seen nothing.

The truth is that S and I spend a lot more time reading and watching TV anymore than we do watching movies.  Especially movies in the theater.  It’s been a very long time since we’ve gone out for a movie, in fact.  But that’s okay, because there’s so much good TV and so many good books.

Speaking of which, we just got the DVDs of Victoria with Jenna Coleman from the library, and we stayed up a bit later than we should have last night watching the first five episodes.  That took us from Victoria’s accession to her marriage to Albert.  It’s very good, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we finish it today.

At the same time, we’re reading Ethan Frome for S’s classic lit book club.  I’ve read it before, years ago, but S hasn’t.  Thanks to a technical glitch in the Google Books version that she’s been reading, she ended up accidentally skipping the introduction.  (For those of you who have read the book, that’s the frame story, where the narrator meets Ethan Frome and ends up having to stay at his house in a snowstorm.)  So we dug out her tablet and I read it to her while she drove.  And of course it changes the story quite a bit when you start out knowing, even from Ethan’s first appearance in the book, that something awful is going to happen to him.  The question becomes, “How did this happen?”

That’s the same issue faced with historical fiction, like Victoria.  No one with even the slightest knowledge of history has any doubt how things are going to work out between Victoria and Albert.  The facts are well known, and there’s not really any way to create suspense there.

The trick, in both cases, seems to be a focus on the characters.  Both Edith Wharton and the writers of Victoria seem to be concentrating not on trying to create false suspense where suspense is impossible, but rather giving us marvelous and telling little bits of character development.  In other words, rather than focusing on the outcome (What will happen to Ethan Frome?  Who will Victoria marry?), we focus on the internal qualities of the characters—the flaws and strengths that will lead them to this outcome that we already know.

Here, for example, is the third paragraph of the main narrative of Ethan Frome:

The night was perfectly still, and the air so dry and pure that it gave little sensation of cold. The effect produced on Frome was rather of a complete absence of atmosphere, as though nothing less tenuous than ether intervened between the white earth under his feet and the metallic dome overhead. “It’s like being in an exhausted receiver,” he thought. Four or five years earlier he had taken a year’s course at a technological college at Worcester, and dabbled in the laboratory with a friendly professor of physics; and the images supplied by that experience still cropped up, at unexpected moments, through the totally different associations of thought in which he had since been living. His father’s death, and the misfortunes following it, had put a premature end to Ethan’s studies; but though they had not gone far enough to be of much practical use they had fed his fancy and made him aware of huge cloudy meanings behind the daily face of things.

Even before we know why this much younger, healthier Ethan has walked into Starkfield, we know something vitally important about him—he’s a frustrated scholar unhappy with his lot in life.  Similarly, there’s a fantastic scene in episode 5 of Victoria, where Albert’s libertine older brother, Ernest, takes him to a brothel to “educate” him before his marriage.  Albert goes off with one of the prostitutes, but rather than sleep with her, he just talks to her and takes notes on what he should do on his wedding night.  It really explains a lot about the character, and about the kind of relationship we (as viewers who know our history) know we’ll be seeing later on between the queen and her beloved prince consort.

As a writer, I suppose the lesson here is to remember that “how” and “why” are sometimes more important than “what” happened.  If you create interest in your characters, you can make the reader want to keep reading, even when there’s no suspense as to how things are going to end up.

J

All Over But The Wrapping

community-christmas

And of course we still need to decorate our Troy.

A Merry, if premature, Christmas to everyone.  A Happy Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Solstice, as well.  And to our imaginary friends in the Myrciaverse, have a safe and happy Seefest.

S and I went out yesterday and finished up our Christmas shopping, and I have to say I’m impressed at how efficient we were.  We couldn’t leave the house until well after noon, since we had an ice storm Friday night, and we had to clear away the small glacier that had formed on our steep driveway.  But even so, we managed to get all our presents bought in record time, and we got home in time to have a pizza and watch a few episodes of Rectify off the DVR (it’s a really good show, by the way).

We’ve already gotten ourselves a few gifts.  S bought herself some lovely new fountain pens that she’s really enjoying writing with.  Last month, the awesome Municipal Liaison of our local NaNoWriMo group loaned her one of these cute little fountain pens during one of our write-ins, and S loved it so much that she had to go to JetPens and buy herself a bunch of them.  (As an aside, how cool is it that there’s a website where you can order obscure Japanese pens from the States?  For those of you who don’t know, I lived and taught in Japan for three years, and yes, they really do take writing implements and office supplies in general to a whole new level.)

My old slippers had given up the ghost (the insoles had departed), so I got some new ones which are warm and fuzzy, which is really all you want out of a pair of slippers, especially in the winter.

In other news, we’re still revising here, and S is still plugging away at her latest fanfic story (using those awesome new pens, of course).  We might not be able to post quite as regularly over the next few weeks, since we’ll be visiting family.  But don’t worry.  The long, frigid days of January and February are right around the corner, when we’ll be cooped up inside with nothing to do but write and revise!  Isn’t that exciting?  I think so.  (Seriously, though, this is the time of year when S and I always ask ourselves, “Why didn’t we decide to live somewhere warmer?”)

J