Always Be Afraid

Netflix – the great timesink of our era. I’ll admit that I don’t watch much with the eight bucks a month it costs me but shows like Trollhunters certainly make it worthwhile. I’ll also admit that when I heard about a kid’s show written by Guillermo del Toro I had about the same hopes as I had for a bedtime story by M. Night Shyalaman, which was not a whole lot. But I watched it all the same as it came well recommended and I was pleasantly surprised.

Long story short, Jim Lake is a kid in high school who finds an amulet that lets him turn into the Trollhunter, a sort of U.S. Marshall for trolls, those weird looking guys who turn into rock if they’re touched by sunlight. Jim is the first non-troll to be accepted by the amulet and gain the powers of the Trollhunter, which amount to summoning a suit of armor and sword composed of daylight and deadly to trolls, and he joins with a couple of trolls, Blinky and AARGH, and his friend Toby to keep trolls safe while trying to keep the amulet out of the hands of trolls who are up to no good.

Jim’s story is sadly typical for kids his age: No father, mother working too hard to keep the household together, crush on a girl he doesn’t know how to approach and no role model to work off of. Well, except for Mr. Strickler, one of the teachers at school, and maybe Blinky, the troll in charge of teaching him the lore of the trollhunters. But life was hard enough without mystical amulets and bloodthirsty troll generals chasing wherever he goes.

So let’s talk about stuff in a spoilery fashion.

Trollhunters has the potential to be a very generic tale. A couple of things set it apart from other young adult stories of this stripe. First, Jim’s relationship with his mother is very well developed and rings true. Jim cares for his mother and tries to take up as much of the slack as he can even as she tries to be two parents at once. It’s sweet and sad at the same time. The one disappointment in this is that Jim doesn’t share his new job with his mom like he does with his friend Toby and, when she eventually does find out about it, a plot contrivance wipes her memory soon after. I liked the dynamic between the two when Jim was struggling to make his mom see how important his place in the troll world was and she was struggling to let him do what she knew made him whole. Taking it out of play so quickly felt cheap.

Mr. Strickler fixes one of the problems many YA tales have – good villains. We watch him ascend from a lackey to a legitimate player in the power struggle in the troll kingdoms through ruthlessness and cunning. The show is replete with clever dialog for him, especially after Jim learns who he is and Strickler starts giving him warnings in coded language in public. There’s a brilliant scene where he visits Jim and his mother (still in the dark at the time) at their home for dinner. He spars with Jim, verbally and physically, all while both dance around Barbara out of a mutual desire to keep her in the dark. It’s one of the best moments in the whole show.

Finally there’s Blinky, the wonky, many-eyed troll that teaches Jim the ropes. He’s a different kind of mentor figure, eccentric and intellectual without ever being distant or unapproachable. Too often today intelligence is associated with emotional dysfunction. Blinky is a an emotionally functional but very smart troll, full of sage advice and strategic insight. He’s not a brave troll himself, nor does he have the strength to fight in the first place. He’s more of a Merlin to Jim’s Arthur, on hand with books, wise words and the fix when social situations pose a problem, but rarely taking a hand in fights.

Speaking of Merlin, one of the most interesting parts of Trollhunters is the lore of the world. Jim’s amulet is activated with the phrase, “For the glory of Merlin, Daylight is mine to command!” This touch of Arthurian lore adds an interesting twist to the show. After all, the Lady of the Lake made Arthur a king so what does that say about Jim Lake? Or about his father?

There’s lots of other fun bits of lore scattered about, like the way we learn how to defeat the ultimate bad guy or the troll facts Blinky is always sharing out. But my favorite has to be the first rule of trollhunting: Always be afraid. Frank Hubbard sneered at fear as a weakness, del Toro reminds us it’s something that can help us so long as we don’t let it control us. That kind of simple, practical and time tested life advice is the foundation of every story in Trollhunters and it’s hard not to love the story for it.


Trademarked Victory

Let’s talk about free speech and offense. Specifically in the case of Matal v. Tam, an interesting case decided by the US Supreme Court this week. (Yes, for one in this blog’s life we are topical.) The details of the case are a little bizarre but important to the issues of today’s discussion. There was a band. All of the band members were of far Eastern descent. “Asian” if you will. They chose to call their band The Slants. And the US Trademark and Patent Office refused to grant them a trademark on their band name as it was generally considered an insult to people of certain backgrounds.

Namely those of Asian descent.

There’s all kinds of think pieces out there on this issue. I don’t care about them. I want to talk about The Slants. Why did they choose to name their band with a derogatory brand?

Well for starters there’s this fairly comprehensive post on the band’s website giving their reasoning in full. But if you want it in brief they saw a word and they chose to claim it. Three quick quotes of note:

“For too long, people of color and the LGBTQ community have been prime targets under Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, simply because we believe in the deliberate disarmament of toxic language and symbols.”

“Music is the best way we know how to drive social change: it overcomes social barriers in a way that mob-mentality and fear-based political rhetoric never can.”

“There will always be villainous characters in a free society but we cannot be so blinded in our desire to punish them that we are willing to bear the cost of that cost on the backs of the marginalized.”

Co-opting insults is a great American tradition that predates the Declaration of Independence. The song “Yankee Doodle” was an insulting ditty British troops used to sing to insult the Massachusetts colonists, characterizing them as backward hicks with no idea of what good culture or right living was. The colonists, fully aware of the insults, promised that by the time Massachusetts was done with them the British would be dancing to the tune. On 19 October, 1781, General George Washington accepted General Charles Cornwallis’ surrender. The British troops were piped out to the tune of “Yankee Doodle”.

An insult became a reminder of how the Americans were worthy of respect.

The Slants claim their band name is an attempt to do much the same – although they haven’t cited this particular example to my knowledge. The band wants to break the power of an association – rather than let “slant” be an insult they seek to make it the name of a great band. If they do well then the pejorative nature of the word will quickly fade into the shadows of their musical legacy and if they don’t what is really harmed by their trying? With EPs like The Band That Must Not Be Named the band is showing they at least understand that they need a towering legacy and I say let them try for it. Their music is a little bubblegum for my tastes but I’m sure it has a market and they should have every chance to find it and achieve their goals.

But there are people who don’t like this. Example. In a nutshell this argument boils down to, “People who say mean words about groups who have rough histories hurt those groups like they had run them over with a car full of burning crosses.”

The question I have for these people is, if the power of an insult can be broken, isn’t the long term value of trying such a thing more important than any short term harm the attempt might cause? And even if it fails, should the very act of trying to reinterpret an insult a sign that the community doesn’t need to be coddled by you? Rather than trying to dictate what people can and can’t say, why not let them argue the thing out on their own so they can learn and grow, rather than trying to keep them depended on you so the mean words don’t hurt them.

Fortunately for The Slants, and anyone who hopes to create in America, the Supreme Court sided with Simon Tam and said the band could have their name and the US Patent and Trademark Office cannot stand in their way.

Art and communication are predicated on our taking symbols like words or images and assigning meaning to them. One of the greatest undertakings an artist or communicator can attempt is putting a new meaning to one of these symbols. The undertaking would have so much less value, would do so much less for the human condition, if we couldn’t use that process to change horrible things into delightful things. What would there be left to do? Change delightful things into delightful things? Or worse, turn delightful things into boring things.

The Slants have set their hands to a noble undertaking – turning a horrible thing into a thing of joy. It’s something we should all aspire to. Can they actually do it? I have my doubts, but that’s not what matters. What matters is what they make of it. You’ve earned your chance, boys. Make the most of it.

Boutique Writing

These days the idea of having something made for you is becoming more and more popular. Artisanal beer, boutique clothes and Etsy handicrafts are very popular with consumers. Writing has always had a certain aspect of hand craftsmanship in the care and effort put into any good piece of writing. But the modern era has turned mass communications from a very narrow field into something anyone with an Internet connection can do. Communication, once a very personal activity, has become one of the most impersonal things we do.

On top of that, writing a story is a bit of a selfish endeavor. It requires you to sit down and work out exactly what you want to say, how you want things to happen, then polish every bit of it until you are satisfied. It’s personal and creative and, while those are things common in boutiques, it’s not necessarily a process easily shared. How would you even go about making money off of it?

Well, recently the website Patreon has come to prominence in many Internet based creative circles. The service is basically a cross between subscription billing and crowdsourcing, allowing a creator and his (or her) audience to receive support directly from whatever audience is interested in his or her work and communicate directly with that audience. There’s not many writers supporting themselves on Patreon, partly because not many writers support themselves by writing at all but partly because writing doesn’t mesh well with the Patreon format.

Or, more accurately, the Patreon format doesn’t mesh well with the average writer.

You see, Patreon is essentially a digital storefront, a place where people can sidle on in and belly up to the counter and chat with their favorite artists. Being on Patreon is a bit like being a portrait artist on a boardwalk in a tourist trap. You sit, you draw, you chat up anyone who comes close. The only difference is where in the process they pay you. But most writers, myself included, are introverts who spend most of our communicative energy on whatever we trying to write. And we’re a touch on the secretive side. Yes, workshopping a writing project is important to making it the best it can be. But at the same time, revealing a lot about your story to your audience ahead of time isn’t a good way to tell stories. And letting your audience influence your story too much is a good way to loose the distinctive voice and style that attracted them in the first place.

Then there’s spoiler culture. Where a comic artist – a very common breed of Patreon user – might be able to showcase covers or character design work without revealing too much about a story, a writer doesn’t have that kind of work on hand. Character bios or plot outlines are going to give a lot about your story away and audiences these days are trained to despise that kind of thing. Patreon for writers can’t be a spoiler hub but the service screams for some kind of reward to share with your audience in exchange for following you. Yes, above and beyond what you already do.

Some have suggested having multiple ongoing storylines that your Patreon supporters can vote to advance but I know that personally I’d have a hard time producing the best quality story I could if what I wrote was at the whims of the audience and likely always changing. Plus I would imagine your supporters would ebb and flow depending on whether you were advancing the story they wanted at any given time. Viable? Maybe for some but not many and certainly not me.

Writing advice is very common on the Internet, I give it away free as do many others, so that’s not the greatest way to carry on a dialog with your audience. There might be a market for people interested in editing but that is very time consuming…

Is boutique writing a viable way for a writer to make a living? It doesn’t seem like it is right now, not because the infrastructure isn’t there but because the craft hasn’t evolved to meet the possibility. In the future it might become one. I haven’t cracked the question yet, and I’m not in any hurry to experiment, but if you figure something out be sure to share with me. I’d love to hear it.

Two Strings and a Clockwork Orange

Kubo and the Two Strings is a wonderfully written and animated movie that I found profoundly disturbing. I want to talk about what I loved about it but I also want to talk about what bothered me and in order to do the second part I’m going to have to get into major spoilers. Like, discussing how Kubo finally defeated his villain and what the fallout of that was. You’ve been warned.

Let me start with the basics. Kubo is a kid missing his dad and his mom isn’t always there, mentally speaking. He can also control paper by playing music on his shamisen (a Japanese instrument vaguely like a banjo) and he’s missing an eye that his grandfather, the Moon King, stole from him when he was a baby. Naturally, the plot kicks off when Kubo’s grandfather discovers where his grandson has been hiding all these years.

Kubo leaves his mother and, with the help of Monkey, a guardian statue turned real, and Beetle, an anthropomorphic beetle who claims to know Kubo’s father somehow and lost his memories to the Moon King, the boy must collect the three pieces of a legendary suit of armor and defeat his grandfather.

When Kubo is slow and meandering it’s still pretty good. When the story moves then it’s great. I particularly liked the character moments between Monkey, Beetle and Kubo. The three aren’t together long before it becomes clear that these are the parents Kubo never had – quite literally as the Monkey contains the fragment of his mother’s soul that was lacking in her for so long and the Beetle is Kubo’s father, transformed and rendered amnesiac by the Moon King’s power. The bristly but unified way Kubo’s parents act before they realize this fact makes their odd couple romance plainly obvious to the audience while not shoving in our face. I also appreciate the fact that, even when they don’t know who the other is, there’s never any competition between the two or any attempt on the screenwriter’s part to make one look better than the other.

Beetle is focused on goals, finishing Kubo’s quest and making him strong and independent. Monkey focuses on keeping him safe and provided for. It’s a pleasing dynamic and conflict in it comes very naturally and is resolved in equally satisfying ways. More movie families should be written like this one.

The Moon King was an interesting but underdeveloped character. His sense of personal perfection was an understandable driving force and I liked the symbolism of his taking Kubo’s eyes to represent his trying to blind him to the value of others. His winding up with the eye he took from Kubo replacing one of his blind eyes was a nice touch.

My one gripe with the writing is how obvious they made it that the momentos from Kubo’s parents – a lock of hair from his mother and his father’s bowstring – would form new strings for the shamisen after Kubo broke the old ones. I think it would have bothered me less if he hadn’t broken his instruments strings until after he had both momentos or if the old strings hadn’t broken at all and replacing them had been a necessary part of his working his final magic. Or, y’know, if that little plot element hadn’t been spoiled in the title of the movie.

So yeah, the movie was written great and animated in a fun and distinct way which I found beautiful and expressive but can’t really explain well in writing. (I know, I know, I got one job…) All that said, why did the movie disturb me?

Because it’s a kids film and it portrays A Clockwork Orange as a recipe for utopian paradise. Let me explain.

In addition to giving his grandfather his left eye, Kubo also brainwashes the Moon King. After Kubo works his final magic the Moon King has no memories, just like Kubo’s father in beetle form. So Kubo tell the Moon King he is a man of compassion and kindness. The movie has established Kubo as a great storyteller and entertainer and Kubo turns his abilities to convincing the Moon King he’s never been anything but a kind old grandfather in a small village and said village joins in the scam. This leads directly to the film’s “happy ending”.

“The stories we tell ourselves” is a running theme through Kubo and, as a storyteller myself, I kind of understand what they’re saying. Seeing our life as a story is a tool to help us make some sense of it. We could look at it that way and draw some solace from that fact, I have no problem with that notion so long as we keep in mind that we’re not the entirety of the story but a part of a much larger story unfolding all around us. That philosophical rabbit hole is not where we’re going today.

What bothers me about the ending of Kubo and the Two Strings is that Kubo stole his grandfather’s story by force, just as the Moon King stole from Kubo’s father and mother. Worse, Kubo replaced the Moon King’s identity with a lie. Sure, the story glosses that over with a happy ending but Kubo’s solution is nothing of the kind. Lies always get found out and, no matter how well intentioned they might be, the destroy trust between the liar and the victim. If the Moon King was an implacable and dangerous foe before being violated in such a way what will he be after the deception comes to light? Kubo didn’t tell a story to help someone know themselves, he told them a story to hide the truth from them and in doing so he let down the author’s first duty, to his audience.

Worse, the Moon King’s entire purpose in the story was undermined. Instead of being confronted with his shortcomings by Kubo’s stronger character the Moon King was just swept under a rug, he was never given the chance to overcome the villain he was nor did his villainy destroy him. He’s never confronted by how his lack of compassion would destroy him and he’s poorer for it, as are we the audience.

Ultimately, while Kubo and the Two Strings does a great job showing us it’s characters and their struggles the only thing I can take away from the tale is this: Kubo’s flawed human compassion was no better than the Moon King’s lack of compassion. What was needed was a story of perfect compassion.


The willing suspension of disbelief is something every author counts on. So here’s a quick thought experiment: How much disbelief are you willing to suspend when you’re in the audience? And what are the things that test your suspension when you’re consuming media? I’m not just talking about the things that actually take you out of a story but anything that piques your interest even if you put it aside for the sake of enjoying the story. Odds are there are more things in the typical story than you think. The mind tends to gloss over these things but they’re still there and if you want to be a good writer you need to train yourself to catch them in other people’s writing if you’re going to have a chance of catching them in your own.

Unfortunately a lot of looking for unbelievability is a matter of feel. It’s a very subjective field, which may prompt you to ask why authors bother tracking it. The simple fact is that anything that can help you figure out your audience is worthwhile. When trying to work out what’s believable and what’s not it’s a good idea to ask friends and family for help. While not the best source of feedback for your own work; when examining general culture they can be a real benefit to you so take as much advantage of them as you can.

“Try it until you get it” isn’t the most helpful advice so here are a few examples of the kinds of things to look for as you try and figure out what might stretch believability without breaking it.

The Man Without Fear. People who can’t get scared are a bit of a trope in geek circles, the most prominent examples are probably the Green Lanterns of DC Comics and the paladins Gary Gygax put into Dungeons and Dragons. Both are very simple in concept – no matter the situation they don’t get scared – but there’s not anyone like that in real life (outside of people with severe mental disorders). I’ve noticed that people who haven’t spent a great deal of time exposed to the trope tend to find it a bit of a stretch. Sure, there could be people like that but they’d kind of be freaks, right? This is a pretty good example of what to look out for.

The Omnidisciplinary Scientist. You know how smart scientists or engineers on TV seem to be able to figure out just about anything by looking at it for two or three seconds? Yeah, that’s what we’re talking about here. Any given discipline of science requires years of study and work just to get the basics. No one, not even Einstein, has the level of genius these characters portray. It stretches belief but it’s convenient for the story and most people will just let it go.

Chronically Clumsy. This trope shows up in a lot of low quality comedy. As the name suggests it involves someone who’s chronically clumsy constantly making a mess of things. Not only does it get old fast it starts to raise questions about the clumsy person’s friends. Like, why don’t they learn? Again, not a deal breaker on its own. But when stacked with a dozen other unbelievable things… well, it can be a deal breaker.

If you read or watch or listen to a lot of the critics out there you’ll find it’s the little things that are often the breaking point. A work can go from mediocre to bad simply because a single thing jumped out and got under their skin, somehow becoming emblematic of all the unbelievable things in your work. Sometime just cutting one of those things is enough to make the difference.

Of course there are other ways to make your audience accept things that are totally unbelievable and using the right methods might still let you get away with your original vision. Like believability itself, your mileage may vary.

The Rule of Cool. This rule basically states that an audience is more willing to forgive something that looks cools but is unbelievable. Pretty much any action movie made since the 80s is an example of this as most of the physics and fighting in those films wouldn’t work in real life and doesn’t stand up to scrutiny but never seems to bother audiences. Of course not everyone likes action movies so it’s important to know your audience but this rule is still very useful.

The Rule of Funny. Even more subjective than the rule of cool, the rule of funny says that audiences will play along with your unbelievable things if they are funny. Most romantic comedies do this when they put two totally different people with different social circles and life choices in some bizzare situation that results in a relationship forming. No, it wouldn’t happen but it makes for funny situations so we forgive it.

The Fridge. Fridge tropes all revolve around the audience being too tied up in what’s going on in a story to catch on to something else the author is doing. This works really well in some situations but counting on the audience being distracted from unbelievable elements of your story is a risky move. Not only do audiences have different attention spans, if something is outright impossible it tends to show through. Don’t count on this working for anything other than minor story elements.

It’s important to keep track of what it is in your story that defies belief. Not because such elements are inherently bad, but because too many of them can lose your audience. Audiences are rare and valuable things and should not be taken lightly, so don’t burden their credulity willy nilly. Keep track of the unbelievable things in your story and make sure they’re serving the plot. Then, if necessary, employ the tricks of the trade to make your impossible things palatable.

All this requires you to have some sense of your audience going in. None of the techniques for obscuring impossibilities are a substitute for audience understanding because without it you won’t be able to get a handle on what they’ll find outrageous in the first place. So get out there and start finding out what people won’t believe.