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.

Unbelievable

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.

Genrely Speaking: Horror

Some people love getting scared, particularly when they know they’re actually totally safe. Full disclosure: I’m not one of them. But this isn’t the first time I’ve tried to tackle a genre I’m not a fan of so today I want to look at the modern horror story, something cinema has simply dubbed “horror” though it’s a bit different from traditional ghost stories or scary campfire stories.

Horror relies on tricks of production in setting it’s scenes and drawing readers in much more than most genres. Consider the impact of music in films like Halloween or the eerie claustrophobia of the handheld camera in The Blair Witch Project (the original). Edgar Allen Poe, mastery of written horror, achieved a similar restricted and unreliable point of view using first person narrators in most of his famous horror stories.

That said, these flourishes are not the pillars that hold up this aesthetic genre. Rather, those hallmarks are:

  1. A sense of isolation. It’s very hard to feel scared in a group of people. Even strangers provide a sense of camaraderie and empathy for most people that builds confidence and helps you avoid horror. So characters must become isolated from those around them in some way before we can get truly scared for them. Poe’s stories almost never mention characters outside the immediate circumstances. The Evil Dead puts it’s characters in an isolated cabin far from civilization that they wind up stranded in due to circumstances. It Follows achieves isolation by making it’s monster visible only to the person it afflicts, leaving the victim alone with the creature even in crowds.
  2. The threat of death. And actual death. Horror requires us to be well and truly scared for the characters in order to work. Death is the most effective threat there is, period. Even horror stories that aren’t chock full of actual death pile death symbolism onto their stories. The unnatural appearance that drives the apprentice to kill his master in The Tell-Tale Heart, the way the girl’s head spins entirely around in The Exorcist, the deaths of the crew in Alien, all of these make it clear to us that the stakes are real.
  3. The unknown. Things we understand are not as scary as those we don’t. Consider the contrast between Alien and Aliens. At first Ripley and company didn’t know what a xenomorph was, what would work against them and what wouldn’t. When Ripley killed the alien and escaped only to face xenomorphs again in a new context the xenomorphs are not presented in the same way as before. While Aliens is certainly a thriller it’s not a horror story like Alien is because the weird biology and full shape of the aliens are known to Ripley and us, the mystery that’s half the horror is gone. This is why so many horror stories have supernatural monsters in them – these creatures can operate by their own rules, rules the audience won’t know until the story tells them, keeping us jumping as we try and figure out what is going to happen next.

What are the weaknesses of the horror genre? The biggest weakness of horror is that it’s grown very trope reliant and characters often make decisions purely because they serve the plot. Going places alone, being dismissive of supernatural forces that have proven their potency and malevolence, these are things that no person with even a passing knowledge of pop culture would do but horror story characters routinely indulge in. This can leave the audience very frustrated with the story and is one of the primary reasons I can’t stand the genre most of the time.

Another weakness is the need to provide the unknown. It’s very easy to wind up with contradictory events that are never explained or previous things known about what characters are facing getting undone just to provide new “mystery” about what’s happening. This is a particular problem in long running horror franchises.

Finally the threat of death hanging over every character means many writers never bother to develop the characters who are dying so their deaths can wind up feeling meaningless and lacking impact. This also makes it easy to pick out who’s going to live just by looking for the well developed character or two. Kind of undercuts the suspense which, in turn, is half of horror.

What are the strengths of the horror genre? As said in the opening, the thrill of something scary happening to someone who’s safe is very powerful. Poe’s horrific stories also provided a glimpse into the worst side of humanity from a place of safety, a benefit I’ve advocated for previously.

Good horror is also a great place to find good examples of narrative tension, story pacing and great villain ascendancies.

Personally I don’t plan on tackling horror in any of my writing and I’ve no desire to dig through the pulpy backlog of “classic” horror. But I’ve read Poe and I do know two things. The best horror has a razor sharp understanding of human nature and refines every step of its tales with the single minded focus of the master craftsman. If those are skills you need examples of you can find them elsewhere but I wouldn’t fault you for seeking them in the horror genre either.

Reading List, Part Five

Out of the Silent Planet, by C.S. Lewis

Genre(s): Science Fiction

Sequels: First in a trilogy

Out of the Silent Planet is the beginning of Lewis’ greatest series of novels. While Narnia may be his best known franchise those who’s exposure to his fiction ends there are truly missing out. (His greatest single novel is undoubtedly Til We Have Faces, which is a topic for another time.) Oddly enough this story started as a sort of dare between Lewis and his good friend J.R.R. Tolkien where Lewis was to write a spacefaring story and Tolkien a time traveling one. Sadly, Tolkien’s story doesn’t exist in it’s entirety. But Out of the Silent Planet does and it’s pretty good.

Dr. Elwin Ransom, a character loosely based on Tolkien, is a student of languages who attempts to help a person he sees being abducted but winds up an abductee himself. A few drugs later he finds himself in a spaceship headed towards Mars. Once on planet Ransom escapes his captors and makes contact with the locals, setting in motion a long trip to meet the guardian of the planet and a deeper understanding of the solar system.

While Out of the Silent Planet is not the most exciting or gripping book on it’s own it does serve as the foundation for the trilogy. Perelandra, the sequel is arguably the best and well worth struggling through the slower parts of Silent Planet. After all, where else can you read about Not-Quite-Tolkien fighting hand to hand with the devil incarnate? That Hideous Strength combines the high concepts of the first two books with a sense of foreboding and suspense that you won’t get anywhere else in Lewis’ writing. All three books are well worth the read.

Lost Triumph, by Tom Carhart

Genre(s): Military History, Nonfiction

The third day of the Battle of Gettysburg is a mystery to many. The almost invincible Confederate General Robert E. Lee sent a division under the command of Major General George Pickett into the teeth of Major General George Meade’s Union positions. After a short, desperate contest Pickett’s men fell back, broken and bleeding. Many people believe that the Confederacy was defeated that day and the furthest point the charge reached is often called the high watermark of the Confederacy. The mystery of the day is simple.

Why would a general of Lee’s quality send his men into what almost everyone agreed was certain defeat?

There’s no answer on record, of course. But in this book Carhart suggests what he may have been attempting. Lost Triumph is divided into two basic sections. The first explores Lee, his command philosophy and his relations with his generals. Lee was Commandant at the West Point Military Academy for a time before the Civil War and his curriculum and later real life victories all point to certain strategies he believed most effective and Carhart sketches how Pickett’s attack might have been part of a greater scheme to break the back of the Union army.

The second half of the book is a gripping account of the other things occurring at Gettysburg just before and during Pickett’s Charge. It tells the story of Major General J.E.B. Stuart, leader of the Invincibles, the Confederacy’s most famous cavalry division, and how they tried to round the Union flank. And it tells how they, and possibly all of Lee’s plans, were undone by a combination of superior weaponry, dedicated fighting and gallant leadership.

Lee’s trust in Stuart was legendary and Stuart’s trust in his own men was equally strong. The Army of Northern Virginia thought them capable of anything, hence the nickname Invincibles. It would make sense that the second half of Lee’s plan, if any grander plan existed, would fall to Stuart’s cavalry. Ironically, that unfounded confidence would lead to their defeat by a brigade of the Union cavalry that Confederate horsemen thought so little of.

A brigade led by Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer.

Court of the Air, by Stephen Hunt

Genre(s): Fantasy, Steam Punk

Sequels: Five novels and a few short stories

The Kingdom of Jackals, the Republic with a King, is one of the preeminent nations in its world. They have the Royal Aerostatic Navy, one of the world’s only working democracies and a culture stretching back centuries. For all that, it’s not a great place for the likes of Molly Templar, a young girl who keeps finding the people around her dead. Someone’s out to get her and even with the help of an internationally recognized archaeologist, a thinking machine and a retired smuggler she may not make it to see another day.

Oliver Brooks had it pretty easy until his uncle was murdered and someone tried to pin the death on him. Now he’s on the run with an agent of Jackal’s most secret police force – the Court of the Air, who look down from above the clouds and will judge all they see, even those beyond the law.

Problem is, something’s rotten in the good Kingdom of Jackals and even the Court is blind to it. Only Molly has the key to saving the nation but the poor girl just wants to write books. If she and Oliver can’t rally their friends, figure out the secrets of the Court and set things right disaster looms as enough power to lock the world in a new Ice Age lays just beyond the grasp of a madman.

Hunt’s stories are crazy trips with just about every idea he can get his hands on thrown into the stew. Steam powered robots walk side by side with political commentary and the threat of a pantheon of gods that worship other gods. While none of the commentary is particularly deep and the characters are sometimes a little flat there’s enough pulpy nonsense here to make for a riproaring good time.

Cobra, by Timothy Zahn

Genre(s): Science Fiction

Sequels: A good ten so far, with more coming

Yes, I love just about everything this guy writes.

Cobra is the story of Johnny Moreau, who joins an elite supersoldier unit called the COBRAs, gaining nearly unbreakable bones, motorized joints and a computer that runs it all and gives him a near-inhuman reaction speed and precision of movement. It’s also not your average war story.

In the typical book of this type we’d follow the protagonist through training and onto the field until he’d won a few significant victories and we were left waiting for the sequel.

Johnny’s war ends in victory by the end of the first act.

The problem is, the computer that controls Cobra’s combat reflexes cannot be reprogrammed (by design, to make them impossible to subvert that way) and can’t be removed without basically crippling them. Cobras are the lethal killing machines the people needed but they can’t stop being those machines after the war is over. Thus the Dominion of Man is left with a conundrum – what to do with these people no one quite trusts with their safety but who still deserve to be treated as heroes?

While not a groundbreaking book, Cobra offers an interesting take on the cost of war and how the future is unlikely to change it. Not everything has an easy solution and Cobra doesn’t offer those either. But it does show that, difficult though it may be, those solutions are worth looking for.

Dave Barry in Cyberspace, by Dave Barry

Genre(s): Humor, Satire, Nonfiction

Pulitzer Prize winning satirist Dave Barry once wrote a book about computers. This was in 1996, back when the DOS prompt was still a thing. I know you kids don’t know what that is, but suffice it to say we didn’t just poke pictures on a screen and have computers do what we want. We had to work to waste time on our computers.

In this book Barry goes on a romp through all the different ways we’ve complicated our lives using technology and it’s well worth the price of admission. Beginning from the destruction of the 1890 census – the first such census to use computing technology as part of the tabulation of data – Barry shows how the computer has not been our friend. It’s just another wild creature that humanity needs to beat into submission, one face slamming into the keyboard at a time.

Whether you’re looking for an amusing history of computers two decades ago or just want to relive the halcyon days of BAD COMMAND OR FILENAME then this is a book that you’ll love.

The Emotional and Physical Cores

The quest for believable characters is a long and arduous one, full of false leads, difficult lessons and special cases. One such case is the so-called “strong female character.” While what that phrase implies specifically varies from person to person in general it refers to a character who shows the fortitude and strength of character frequently portrayed in cinema by the likes of John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart or Jimmy Stewart. Except these characters should be female.

It’s a lofty goal to show as many different characters as possible living life with strong convictions and personal integrity and I wholeheartedly agree that women should portray this as well as men. However, many stories that set out to create a strong female character overlook a concept we’re going to call the physical and emotional cores of the story and that hamstrings their attempt to tell a good story with a strong character at the center. Let’s start by talking about what I mean by physical and emotional cores.

Each story tends to have a a physical and emotional embodiment. Another way to think of the physical embodiment is as the part of the story where action takes place and the emotional embodiment is where the story tries to make you feel something. Most good stories tend to have characters act more in one or the other of these areas to make those characters clearly defined. Yes, this is unrealistic but it tends to lead to better storytelling overall.

The two characters who best embodies the themes of the story carry the emotional and physical cores of the story.

For example, in the Disney classic Sleeping Beauty the emotional core rests with Princess Aurora, who’s feelings of isolation and desires to see the wider world define the emotional tenor of most of the film. The physical core rests with Prince Phillip, who finds Aurora in the forest and takes her to experience new things. He also takes center stage in the battle against Maleficent in the third act, another moment of peak physical storytelling.

It’s important to have the two cores in proximity to each other at moments of importance as they tend to draw one another out into sharp relief and lead to some of the best moments in a story. It’s Phillip and Aurora’s meeting that sparks their resolution to resist their arranged marriages (even though said betrothals are to each other, which they don’t know at the time). It’s also the catharsis of their reunion that makes the climax of the movie hit us square in the feels.

The problem is, if both the physical and the emotional cores are in a single character it can be hard to see how they’re impacting each other. Look at any shoddy piece of fiction and you’ll see unclear motives and hard to understand actions. That can happen for a lot of reasons but sometimes it’s just because one character is carrying too much of the story. Like any real person your characters sometimes need to step back and take a break, breath and let ideas settle. A character can’t do that if they have to carry both halves of a story.

At the same time, it’s the way the two cores impact each other, the emotional and physical character influencing each other with their different goals and needs, that makes the important moments impactful. If both cores are in one character that tension is missing.

How does that relate back to writing “strong female characters”?

Well, in the typical story women carry the emotional core and most people who set out to write strong female characters just take the physical core and hand it to their female character as well resulting in exactly the problem we just discussed. If we want a female character who carries the physical core – and this is typically what people mean by “strong female characters”, many characters have carried the emotional cores of their stories and been plenty strong but that’s not the point – if we want a female character who carries the physical core then we have to put the emotional core somewhere else.

A great example of this is the much more recent Disney film Frozen, where Anna embodies the physical core, climbing the mountain to find her sister and struggling with a slowly debilitating curse, while Elsa embodies the emotional core, struggling with self doubt and self loathing while struggling to maintain emotional distance from those around her.

Another is the animated 1990’s film Ghost in the Shell, where the Major embodies the physical aspect, taking most of the highly kinetic action scenes for herself while her partner, Batou, while still having action beats, mostly serves as a sounding board for her philosophical musings and an emotional tether to the humanity she fears she’s left behind. Where Motoko is mostly an emotional cypher Batou takes it upon himself to feel embarrassed by her lack of modesty and grieve when she is wounded.

Whether or not you’re interested in the mythical “strong female character” understanding where the physical and emotional components of your story lies is important. Don’t make the mistake of thinking your story is missing one or the other of the sides, either. The best action heroes tend to be grounded by family and friends and Harrison Ford still punched someone out in Sabrina. No matter what your story is, knowing who goes where in these equations is going to help you construct a better narrative.