Genrely Speaking: Superhero Literature

This is a genre. Seriously.

Superheroes are big right now and writing novels about them has slowly started to gain ground as writers interested in telling their own superheroic stories have realized just how difficult it is to break into the comic publishing industries. The two big comic publishing houses are reluctant to throw resources behind unknown characters/authors and the process of printing comic books, which the American market expects to come in color, is very expensive for smaller/independent publishers so not many new titles get started that way, either.

That pretty much leaves writers wanting to dig into superheroes but with no artistic skill of their own two options – find an artist willing to work with them and pursue the webcomic route or write a novel. Artists willing to work on these kinds of independent projects are hard to come by so we’re seeing more and more superhero literature turning up. To be fair, novels are capable of many things comic books are not and authors may also be drawn to that. So what are the signifiers of superhero literature?

  1. Superheroes. Or at the very least people with the powers of superheroes, going the whole nine yards and including costumes, codenames and the like is optional although the best examples of the genre that I’ve seen find very good reasons to include both (particularly Marion G. Harmon’s excellent series Wearing the Cape). Note that these characters do not have to be at the center of the story, they just have to be present. Carrie Vaughn’s End of the Golden Age features a completely normal protagonist and is probably the best-written example of the genre I’ve read.
  2. A strong emphasis on physical conflict. A direct influence of the genre’s original incarnation, superheroes have always been a bit of a power fantasy and the ultimate fulfillment of that fantasy is being able to stand up to danger in the most direct way possible. Whether it’s stopping a tsunami or battling a supervillain expect superhero fiction to have the protagonist right there on the scene, facing the opposition with their bare hands and whatever powers at their disposal.
  3. Analysis of the emotional and long-term consequences of the conflicts the protagonist are caught up in. This is what really sets the genre apart from comic books. Producing comic panels that accurately convey subtler nuances of emotion is difficult, as is having enough text space to really delve into a character’s psyche. Raw text allows much more depth to be explored and is much cheaper to produce. This is not a license for satire, the story must take the superheroics of its characters absolutely seriously and show people reacting to them in authentic ways. When it does, superhero literature is at its best.

What are the weaknesses of superhero literature? Setting aside the inherent ridiculousness of the concept the genre has a strong emphasis on sensationalism and wish fulfillment that, when not handled well, can make it feel very juvenile. Of the three points listed above #3 is the most important in making the story work – if the emotional depth or realistic look at consequences is missing then the willing suspension of disbelief will quickly fall apart for all but the most hardcore audiences – who are probably all reading comic books and not that interested in pure text.

Which is the genre’s other weakness. Superhero literature is for those who like the abstract idea of superheroes but have never found that idea taken in a direction they care for by most comics publishers. It’s not likely to be a point of contact between book lovers and comic lovers and we’re not likely to ever see a series of novels focusing on big name properties like Superman or Iron Man simply because those characters’ stories are already being told in another medium that fans like better.

What are the strengths of superhero literature? There are a lot of serious questions the idea of superheroes would raise in any society. Few of those serious questions are addressed in comics and, when they are, the constraints of the medium (25-40 pages of story a month in most cases) can really cramp comics ability to answer them. While some titles, like Irredeemable, have tangled with the these ideas a little and the upcoming Batman vs. Superman promises some of the same the societal implications of superheroes that are a running subtheme in Wearing the Cape, no other medium can go as deep as a novel.

Also, while superheroes are often presented to audiences as role models what exactly that means for people when those role models come up short is rarely addressed in comics. Both End of the Golden Age and Alex Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible offer interesting insight into what trying to be a heroic role model might cost heroes shouldering the mantle of role model – and those who love them.

Superhero literature is a very young genre, the youngest we’ve tackled so far, and as such there’s a lot to be desired in it. That said it does show promise in taking a very popular kind of story of the era and making it something a little deeper and more challenging. All in all, well worth a look every now and then to see how it’s developing.

The Whole Story is More Than You Think

So here’s a post I’ve been thinking a lot about writing but so far put off. Once upon a time I wrote a post about nonfiction writing and the kinds of techniques a fiction writer can sharpen while writing real life events. I’ve been thinking about a follow-up based on some real life journalism I’ve seen in the last year or so but I’ve been struggling with how to approach it. After much deliberation I’ve decided that the direct approach is best and here we are. Today let’s talk about what fiction writers can learn from the recent failings of professional journalism. In particular I want to look at three cases where the press screwed up, what the consequences of that failing was and how writers (nonfiction and fiction) can avoid their mistakes and the related outcomes.

The stories of note for today are: The beginnings of #GamerGate, the Stephanopolous/Clinton Foundation situation and the Rolling Stone UVA article. Some of you may just want to stop now, since these are touchy subjects. That’s fine. But I think there are good lessons to find here and as writers we shouldn’t be afraid to look at them. Some of you have no idea what I’m talking about. That’s fine too. I’ll try and get you up to date.

That disclaimer given, let’s get started. #GamerGate started about a year ago, when long running murmurs about collusion and conflicts of interest in video game journalism broke into fullblown Twitter and Blogosphere rioting. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the accusation that a journalist had written articles praising the work of a game developer he was romantically involved with – without giving the public any indication of the relationship between them.

Now before we go any further – I am aware that #GamerGate has been tied to some harassment and a lot of critics and commentators in the video gaming world have been critical of those who use the hashtag (ironically their critical behavior is hard to differentiate from the things they decry in #GamerGate). Personally, I’m not interested in parsing all of that out. Far too much of the debate has turned into an us vs. them kind of a thing. Thousands of words could be used on talking about the good and bad things tied to each side of the movement but my main point here is about what sparked the outrage in the first place – conflict of interest.

Directly related is the Stephanopolous revelation. In short, George Stephanopoulos donated money to the Clinton Foundation and then proceeded to do numerous stories involving Hillary Clinton during the previous presidential election without notifying his employer (ABC) or the public. Once again, this is conflict of interest.

For those who don’t know, conflict of interest in journalism happens whenever someone has a connection to a story that could cause them to omit facts damaging to one side of a story (or worse, alter facts to make that side look better). Now in many cases conflict of interest is easy to deal with – usually just mentioning that the reporter is connected to one side of a story or the other in some way is considered enough courtesy to the audience. For instance, whenever a TV news story covers the parent company that owns them it’s considered good form to mention that connection. Most members of the audience will then know to read a little closer between the lines – most people (even journalists!) will hesitate to speak badly about their employers in a public forum so the story may bear further scrutiny. Discerning how much scrutiny is needed and where more information might be acquired is a responsibility that falls to the audience but letting the public know about the conflict of interest is the responsibility of the journalist.

In some cases, though, the stakes are too high and the format unsuited for a simple disclaimer to be sufficient. For example, George Stephanopoulos was slated to moderate a presidential debate on ABC. Given that Hillary Clinton is a candidate in that election and there is a real possibility that Stephanopoulos might go easy on her, or in some other way favor her in the proceedings, he was asked to recuse himself, stepping away from the proceedings and, to his credit, he agreed to do so.

Now the UVA case is much nastier than the other two in pretty much every respect. A Rolling Stone reporter named Sabrina Erdley wrote an article where she told the story of a woman, identified only by a pseudonym, who claimed to have been gang raped at a frat party. But almost as soon as the story came out the fraternity involved, Phi Kappa Psi, began bringing forward evidence that debunked the story. Huge amounts of damage was done all around – to Rolling Stone, UVA and fraternities everywhere. Sabrina Erdley’s errors in reporting is simple. She didn’t ask for the whole story.

Erdley didn’t talk to anyone from Phi Kappa Psi and in doing so ignored basic journalistic procedures. She never gave them a chance to defend themselves and also didn’t thoroughly check her facts. The result was a discredited story, a hit to the reputation of the press in general and Rolling Stone in particular and huge damage to the status of the University of Virginia and the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity.

In all three cases we see that a failure of journalistic standards resulted in damage to the reputation of the journalists involved and the profession as a whole and furor was kicked up which obscured very real issues beyond the journalistic foul-ups. So, with that lovely journey through the failings of the press behind us, what are the lessons to be learned?

The first and most important is that personal viewpoint is a part of the story. For the gaming press and George Stephanopoulos the problem was that they didn’t talk about their personal biases. Now for fiction writers that may seem like an odd point to bring up. After all, fiction authors aren’t writing about themselves they are writing about fictional characters (except for those few times real people come up).

Problem is, fiction writers are striving for verisimilitude and they won’t get it if their characters don’t also have biases and preferences that are clear to the readers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read stories where the main character was consistently portrayed as near sainthood, impartially moving through the other characters and dispensing judgments surely meant to appear reasonable and fair but, to me, appeared very biased and strange. This undercuts the credibility of the character and your credibility as a writer. Far better to have a clearly biased character who struggles with or embraces their biases in front of the audience than try and pretend there’s no bias in your story. (There always will be. It’s human nature.)

How much and in what way you demonstrate that bias is going to depend on a lot of factors. Is your story told first person or third person? Is it comedic or dramatic? What’s the best time to reveal these biases? These are questions that you will have to answer over time but one good way to find guidelines is to reread stories you loved looking for moments when the biases of protagonists or other central characters you loved were revealed. Chances are there will be patterns for you to study and learn from.

Now you, the author, also have a bias but that’s actually a lot easier to deal with. A quick Forward at the beginning of your tale is usually enough to put it out in the open and let the audience get on with it.

Where #GamerGate and Stephanopolous were examples of the person telling the story leaving parts of themselves out of it, Erdley’s failure in the UVA story resulted from the author not telling both sides both sides. At first glance not telling both sides of a story would seem like its irrelevant to fiction since most fiction has a protagonist who’s story you’re telling and that should be the sum of it, right?

No.

Tell me, what do math and writing fiction have in common? Those who do them are expected to show their work. At least when it’s intended for the consumption of others.

Audiences have been trained to expect a distinct cause and effect relationship for events and character motivations in fiction. That’s not realistic but, oddly enough, if it’s not there then people start to find things unrealistic – just one of many odd contradictions in the art form. In the case of the conflict between protagonist and antagonist, in order for it to feel truly well developed the audience must be able to see it from both sides. The antagonist has to have a chance to make his or her or its case in some way. That may be through a scientist explaining the cause of a natural disaster, a monologuing speech by a villain to another character or just in a flashback to the circumstances that started the antagonist on his personal path. It can come in any number of ways but if the audience doesn’t get that look at the antagonist’s side of the story then your story is failing.

Like several things we’ve looked at this summer the necessity of telling the whole story boils down to the nature of fiction as a deliberate attempt to provoke a response from the audience but, at the same time, not let the audience know they are being manipulated with a specific result in mind. This is a very difficult result to achieve. One way to keep their suspicions low is to tell the whole story, completely examining both protagonist and antagonist, their biases and viewpoints, and let the audience draw their own conclusions. Which is ultimately what they’re going to do anyways, so why get in their way?

Putting that much work into a story is scary and hard, since you have to closely examine stuff that’s pretty potent. But if you don’t your audience will catch onto the fact that you’re messing with them and the blowback can be intense. Not as intense as in the examples we’ve glanced at today – the stakes are much lower in fiction after all – but intense none the less. If you value your story it’s worth the work to avoid it, in fiction and in journalism.

Mid August Update

Hello all! It’s been a while since the ol’ blog went down to one post a week and I thought I’d bring you up to speed on where things stand. Party because August was when I promised to have an updated and partly because I’m vacationing this week and an update was a short thing to squeeze in before I left.

My future plans go like this: Continue doing one post a week for the rest of the year but switch to fiction instead of essays starting in September.

Yes, I’ve finally gotten tired of rambling about general writing ideas but editing the Sumter novels and work on the infamous Other Projects (everyone has them!) is still eating a bunch of my time. At the same time the fiction fairy visited me recently and I have ideas for a novella and other stuff floating around in my brain. So after two more posts on writing stuff I’ve been considering for a while we’re going to start on something I like to call The Antisocial Network. Currently planned as a novella, I hope to have this completed in four to six weeks. The Antisocial Network is a stand-alone work, not connected to any of the fiction I’ve written so far and may or may not turn out to be a work of satire. Stay tuned on that count.

If you’d rather see fiction based on stuff I’ve already written then worry not! The crew of the salvage submarine Erin’s Dream has consistently drawn the strongest reader response and I’ve been wanting to do another story about them for a while, it’s just taken some time to pin down good story ideas and assemble them into something cohesive. So after The Antisocial Network wraps up I hope to start on a story called Fish Out of Water and show you a little bit of what life is like in a former penal colony on the bottom of the ocean. If you want something to tide you over until then I strongly suggest rereading Emergency Surface and Code Red (Parts One and Two), as Fish Out of Water will be a direct sequel to those two short stories.

But for the moment I plan to enjoy the beach for as long as I can. See you next week!

Writing Men: Charlie Brown

My last two Writing Men segments where I sat down and analyzed the application of male writing techniques in actual characters I started by introducing the character. I’m not going to do that this time because Charlie Brown is one of the most well-established comic strip characters in existence, in part because Charles Schultz was a genius and in part because Charlie Brown owns Snoopy, everyone’s favorite beagle. If, by some inconceivable circumstance, you don’t know who he is (yet still understand written English) you can read Peanuts, Schultz’ life work, here.

While Schultz’s Peanuts has many characters, some of whom are arguably more recognizable than Charlie Brown (namely Snoopy and Woodstock), Charlie Brown is undoubtedly the main character and he’s an interesting study in writing a male character for two reasons. First, he undergoes little noticeable character arc beyond a few small changes in his characterization in the first couple of years as Schultz nailed down exactly what roles he wanted everyone in the cast to fill. Second, Charlie Brown is a perennial failure.

It is that second attribute that makes studying Charlie Brown as a well written man so interesting. He never wins baseball games. He never gets the girl – or even gets within talking distance most times! Not even his own dog respects him. Yet he is, in his own way, iconic.

Now before we begin, I know that Charlie Brown is technically somewhere between six and eight years old. But one of the things that makes Peanuts brilliant is that its characters, while technically young, are also ageless in the issues they confront. None of the problems these “kids” face ever really go away, we just pretend that we’re over them and hope no one calls us out on the act. So I think analyzing them is a valid move. I also recognize that daily comic strips like Peanuts rarely have cohesive stories or overarching narratives. But Peanuts was written for over fifty years by a single man – there’s a level of clear, single minded character building in it that you will find nowhere else.

So what distinctly masculine traits define Charlie Brown?

Well the biggest one has to be his objective – Charlie Brown wants to be successful. Whether it’s at baseball, kite flying or romance, Charlie Brown wants to succeed. Not succeed well, per se, just succeed. Win one baseball game. Keep his kite out of the tree. Talk to the redheaded girl. While Charlie Brown is too young to have a clear idea of what succeeding at these things will do for him he definitely knows that they are things he wants to succeed at. Success will make him feel better about himself and make him look better in the eyes of others and this is definitely something he wants.

The second most notable masculine behavior of Charlie Brown is how much time he spends alone. Before the baseball game, trying to work out a strategy. After the game, lamenting his loss and trying to figure out why. At lunch, staring at the redheaded girl in agony, thinking of and rejecting hundred of different ways to approach her. Few characters spend more time in analytical self-reflection than Charlie Brown and none I can think of are as likable while doing it. Yes, most of his time alone is very self-critical but perhaps that’s to be expected – he so rarely succeeds.

His existence in a perpetual failstate lets him show an unusual side of compartmentalization. While Charlie Brown fails frequently he’s often accused of never learning – he’s always optimistic about his chances the next time around. I’m not sure this is fair. It’s true that Charlie Brown fails at the same task repeatedly but he never fails in quite the same way, showing incredible persistence as he locks away the pain of previous failures and presses forward towards his goal once again. Of course in it’s own way it also shows the two-edged nature of compartmentalization. Charlie Brown does have to suffer failure over and over again, after all. But then, I wonder, is that really any worse than simply living with one failure you never followed up on your entire life?

Axioms and sacrifice are not common parts of Charlie Brown’s life, one of the few concessions to his young age, but we do see him loyally putting up with a great deal of grief from his friends and even his dog simply because they are the people in his neighborhood who he expects to live much of his life around (at least for the next few years). The biggest gap in his character is a lack of a mentor. While Charlie Brown speaks of his father in very admiring terms Schutz’ approach to writing the strip precluded putting actual adults in the picture so there was very little chance for such a character to show up in Charlie Brown’s life.

Taken on the whole Charlie Brown is an excellent male character, one who manages to hit all the notes we can reasonably expect in a way that makes him fun and memorable. He also shows that male stereotypes and writing men don’t have to be the same thing. Very little about Charlie Brown is typical of male characters – he’s a timid, shy, naïve loser who’s best efforts towards success have left him at the bottom of the heap. At the same time he’s a man who sticks to his principles and who’s friends can’t bring themselves to turn their backs on him, no matter how frustrating he can be, because of the strength of his character. Just because his story unfolded at the top speed of four panels a day doesn’t mean he’s not a great example of how to write men.