3.26.2008

Back to work!

So Krispy and I have gotten back to work on our baby. These past couple of days, we've done a bit of work on characters—motivations, appearances, abilities, etc.—and we've also gone back and revised a bit so that things make more sense. Sometimes things just end up being too convenient or coincidental, you know? And you don't realize it until it's been sitting there for a while. We decided the story would be better off if two particular characters didn't really know each other after all; we'd planned them to have a casual sort of yeah-I-know-him/her relationship, which has summarily been reduced to oh-yeah-that-person-I've-seen-him/her-around-before status. This didn't really affect things hugely, but it's just one of those little things that has to be done.

We've also been developing a new character because we decided that there needs to be a Revelation, and this character will be, I guess, a sort of plot device to get this Revelation happening. It seems like it may be an uncharacteristically flashy Revelation, but, well, you know, when you're dealing with divine spirits and demigods and gods and emo punks and suchlike and so on, maybe some flashiness now and again is appropriate. They've got their pride too. Boy, do some of them have pride…

Anyway, this character will also serve to heighten tensions, hint towards the existence of our Big Bad Evil (because Big Bad Evil sounds cooler than Big Bad Antagonist), and generally move things along—less a nudge in the right direction than a signpost by the side of the road.

One of our other antagonists is proving a bit difficult (getting into his head and deciding what he would or wouldn't do, and how he'd act and react and why), but I think we've gotten a good grip on him recently, and have come up with some interesting ideas for our big finale. We still need to sort him out more, but Krispy and I are toodling along quite well once again, I think.

3.17.2008

Say No to Author Insertion Fic

Of late, I have been talking to people about books that I read back in the day, which lead me to a topic that, well, kind of drives me up the wall. Call it literary snobbery or even jealousy, but I hate Author Insertion in fiction--probably more than I hate Mary Sue. You could probably put Author Insertion as a subcategory of Mary Sue, which only makes me hate it more, but there you have it.

Let me backtrack and explain exactly what I mean. A Mary Sue in fandom is usually an original character, who is then inserted into whatever fandom and inexplicably loved and adored by all who gaze upon her lovely visage, but especially by the Big Players of the borrowed world. Maybe I shouldn't have used the word "inexplicably" because sometimes the writer does bother to explain just why Mary Sue is so awesome, but when you read it, it sure feels like it's inexplicable. Sometimes it's just bad characterization and development: you're told that Mary is beautiful, that Mary is kind, that Mary is to be pitied to be loved, that she is noble, funny, athletic, etc. etc. ad nauseum. You never really see the evidence to back this up or all the evidence is dumped on you suddenly like being ambushed at the Prom with a bucket of pig's blood.

From the description, you can see that Mary Sue also exists in the realm of original fiction. She (or he, though I'm not sure what the term would be here) may be slightly more difficult to identify because you might not have the tell-tale sign of Main Characters falling all over themselves over her (or him), but she's still lurking around.

This brings us finally to my main point: author insertion in fanfiction and in original fiction, but especially in published original fiction. I'm not talking about writers having a distinctive voice or putting a little bit of themselves in their characters (I mean, they are putting themselves in the character's shoes or becoming the characters in some cases). I'm also not necessarily talking about writers who put a fictionalized version of themselves into a story in order to do some kind of literary soul-searching. I'm talking about a specific kind of author insertion--the Mary Sue kind, where the character in the story isn't just based off of the writer; the character IS the writer albeit very thinly disguised.


It's annoying enough to see this is fanfiction, but it drives me up the wall to see it in published fiction. Why? Because it's being inflicted on the paying public and these people should know/write better than that. Let me give you a general example to avoid singling out anyone and no names of course because I don't kiss and tell. Also, I realize everyone has done things that are/could be embarrassing, and I'd certainly appreciate it if people didn't bring up my transgressions. So I'm going to be discreet.

Main Character of the novel seems to be very much like the writer. S/he shares the same likes and dislikes as the actual writer, looks like the writer (except possibly fictionally airbrushed), shares very similar background history to the writer, and/or has the personality/habits/quirks of the writer. Yeah, yeah, writers may do a bit of superficial matching up of the MC to him/herself to help them get a better grasp on the character, but there's a line that once crossed, I--as the reader--can no longer suspend my disbelief that these similarities are just superficial. Now, I can appreciate a tongue-in-cheek joke like a reference to something the writer did in real life or maybe the MC's favorite book is something the writer's published. It's another thing when the MC does everything the writer's done with the addition of having the zomg-awesome luck of being in the world of the writer's books. The MC is the writer living the dream, having adventure, and hooking the hot Romantic Lead.

Sure we all are guilty of vanity, and hey, who doesn't want to take a romp in the world they've so lovingly created? But does the public have to be subjected to this bit of vanity press?

Joyriding through a new world with the writer at the wheel is great; I mean, that's what we do as readers. We go along with the characters for what is often the ride of their lives, but I don't want to watch the writer go joyriding off on his/her own. It's one thing to invite me into the fantasy. It's another to make me sit and watch you indulge in your own fantasy and go romping off into the sunset with your One True Love.

I don't appreciate being left in the dust.

3.13.2008

Pros of Collaboration 2: The Sequel Post

As Krispy noted previously, we have slowed down a bit. I too place the blame on midterms and the tantalizing approach of Spring Break, though a recent negative reason for the lack of productivity is my potentially ill computer (not virus-ill but hard-drive-making-disturbing-hacksaw-noises-ill) because, as noted previously, we do 98.5% of our plotting via instant messaging and I've had limited internet access these past couple of days.

However, a slowdown in our mad headlong rush towards our novel is not necessarily a bad thing. It provides time to look back over what we've planned and spot plot-holes and inconsistencies. Also, since we have gotten around to some more substantial world-creation, building things from the ground up, and now we have time to explore what we've created and work out some of the finer kinks and details. We get to add to and refine our cast of characters, work on the little details that will show their personalities and motivations, and give them their little quirks and mannerisms that will hopefully make them unique and noteworthy instead of being cardboard cutouts. For this, they need to have backgrounds and reasons for doing things, which are of course not at all mutually exclusive.

Like angst. I abuse the term generally and broadly, but we decided that one character needed a better reason to stick around than the vague one we'd started out with, and so want of reason led to want of angst, and want of angst led to suffering. Things were going just too easy, you know, and we can't have that. (This is frequently how it works when I'm writing solo: I'll decide that things are going just too jolly well for said characters, so it's time to complicate matters and beat them up and add a judicious touch of betrayal, maybe a sprinkle of angst, a dash of guilt or shame, suffering and self-recrimination. Character development calls for a complicated recipe unique to every character, after all.)


Krispy, I believe, is far too disparaging of herself in the previous post. She's a great one for those little details that make our characters into people, and for keeping things reasonably realistic. Like, you know, I'm all for great plot twists and drama-llamas galore and maaaad ideas, and I know that sometimes I get a little too excited (particularly when the sugar-and-caffeine-highs hit late at night) and start blurting out random crazy things, and Krispy is like my combination psych and muse, able to sift through this barrage of semi-lucid images and semi-idiotic plot devices and pan the gold from the gravel. (Not that there's a lot of gold, or even gold every time. Would that there were.) And from these raw nuggets of inspiration and even from these coarser granules of stupidity, she's able to dredge further ideas that are usually great and sometimes brilliant. Pulling a diamond from a pile of pebbles? That's my Krispy.

Our general plan so far has been to just plow through the general story and get that basic outline finished, after which we'll go back and flesh out further and revise and edit and eviscerate and adjust and add all our bells and whistles, our stripes and spots, our fangs and claws, our laser-vision and fireballs, and generally polish it up just fine and dandy, spruce and dashing, and then get down to the actual business of writing it out. We're constantly editing and revising as we go along, too, going back and adding key scenes and inserting new characters. And our antagonists do need quite a bit of rounding out, some spit and elbow grease, polish and varnish and lacquer until they're shining examples of—you know what? I don’t even remember the metaphor I was going for right there. Oh well.

Like Krispy, I have no frelling idea how we're going to go about the writing. I suppose one way to do it would be to split up points of view and scenes and split the characters between us, in which case the difference of voice could be used to an advantage, though that does seem rather limiting as I think there are characters and scenes we'd both like to write. Or we could actually write it together a piece at a time, sending bits back and forth, which seems terribly cumbersome and like it would take forever and a day. Or we could do as we've done in the past and simply write segments and take up where the other leaves off. Or we could do a combination of these things, or work out something new. No idea at this point.

(Krispy, by the way, exaggerates my huge vocabulary, because I'm pretty sure I don't use hugely impressive-sounding and gobbledygookish words in my normal writing. I only toss around words like "defamiliarization" , "dystrophic", and "thalassocracy" in analytic papers in a vain attempt to sound all smartful. And because my professors said to remember them because they were cocktail-party words with which to impress slightly drunken people. And then tell Krispy these big huge words I learned, from which she receives her false impression.)

I fear matching my writing to Krispy's marvelous voice for beauty. Seriously, there are times when she writes and what comes out is as much poetry as prose, be it drama or dialogue. Because, see, when I say "beauty" I don't mean just pretty images, but, like, beautiful prose. Not purple prose, not melodrama, but just quite frankly beautiful writing.

I guess we'll just have to do our best to live up to each other's legacy, Krisp.

3.12.2008

Pros of Collaboration

I really need to stop using the blog for procrastination.

Recently, on the novel plotting front, things have slowed down quite a bit. I blame this mostly on midterms and the teasingly close whiff of Spring Break floating on the air, but I think it is also because we're getting into the nitty gritty of plot and character. We've gotten into the mechanics of the world and the logistics of the organizations involved, which is fun and also very frustrating at times.

This leads me to the pros of collaboration. It's great having Alz to bounce ideas around with and to discuss issues. I tend to take an idea and run with it, thinking I'll figure things out along the way, but this style is perhaps too free-form. It certainly explains how I get writer-blocked so often (I mean, Real Life aside) and also why I have issues finishing stories. My idea tends to be too general or too vague, and then I have to spend a lot of time pondering things. I ponder a lot, let me tell you. It's possibly a reason why I take long showers.


Having a partner changes that because when I don't have an answer, she might, and if neither of us has any idea, we can try to figure it out together. It's kind of the same concept as ranting to your BFF about your woes and asking for their advice.

Alz also writes things out and has been keeping a nice outline/note-sheet for us. This is the most I've ever known about anything I've attempted to write--it's kind of insane--and the most organized. Again, this may explain why I'm such an erratic writer and fickle poetry flirt. I'm aware of this tendency of mine, but I know that having Alz around will keep me disciplined.

I'm not sure what exactly I bring to the table other than general randomness and enthusiasm, but Alz seems to think I'm at least somewhat useful. The point here being that collaboration works when partners complement and support each other and they get things done. I feel that is certainly happening for us as we flesh out events, characters/relationships, and motivations. We're beginning to complicate things too with a few new players, but I think we still need to show the antagonists a bit more love. We also need to make sure certain characters who need to be sympathetic actually are.

The question that looms in the future though is for when we start writing. How are we going to go about with the actual writing, and how are we going to blend our voices? I think the latter will be less difficult than it sounds since I think I'm not a bad mimic (I'm not sure if I should be proud of this or not, but I kind of am?) and I've written a little with Alz before. The issue is that we've only written fun, comical, and completely not serious things together, which is much easier for voice-blending, but we write somewhat differently when we're "serious." At the very least, Alz tends to show more of that giant vocabulary of hers and big words that I may or may not understand appear, and my skills in mimicry don't cover vocabulary like that.

But we'll deal with all that when we reach that bridge.

3.05.2008

Serpentology

Here's another post coming not long after this marvelous one, which beat me to the punch as I've been lazy and mine has been lackadaisically in the making for a week or two. Not that there was any particular time-dictated punch that demands a blog post on serpents and snakes appear within the month of March. Not that I know of, anyway.

The word "serpent" is a loaded one. Sure, it's a synonym for "snake", but the connotation is totally different. "Snake" is a mundane term to describe your basic scaly, legless, carnivorous reptile lacking ears and eyelids and with a penchant for swallowing its prey whole—but "serpent", now, ah, there's a term haloed in mystique and a-shadow in mystery, colored by hints of the supernatural, the religious, the occult.

The serpent is prevalent in religions, folktales, myths, legends, and fairytales across the world. These slithery not-really-beasties are tempters and guardians, gods and demigods, maleficent and beneficent. In contemporary society (yes, yes, U.S.-ethnocentrism fully included in that statement, thank you) the serpent most often gets booted across the line of malignity and is regarded with suspicion, condemned as deceitful, and feared as a symbol of evil.

But why should the snake and serpent attract such fascination? Well, for one thing, there's appearance. There are relatively few limbless creatures found the world over—and most of us find ourselves wondering at some point in our childhood, "How the hell does a snake slither anyway?" This reptile manages mobility despite a lack of arms, legs, fins, wings, pseudopods, tentacles or any other form of appendage. So they're creepy there because they're different, and when things are different, they tend to be scary, or unlikable, or odd, or otherwise negatively regarded. Snakes are obviously low to the ground and thus become associated with lowliness, and they tend to either crush their prey to death or inject them with deadly venom in order to kill them, not to mention the whole swallowing-them-whole thing which is downright disturbing to some people. The striking snake is an image of speed, and since striking snakes are usually the venomous ones, and some snakes are very venomous indeed, it becomes an image associated with the speed of death—and from something so innocuously low to the ground it's easily overlooked.


Snakes are also extremely common throughout the world, unlike platypuses, pandas, and penguins. So being extremely common, weird-looking, possibly extremely deadly, possibly exotically colored or prettily marked, it's no wonder that mythology and the human mind seized upon snakes as intriguing little buggers millennia ago and hasn't relinquished its death-grip since.

Surely the best-known serpent is the Serpent of the Garden of Eden, for "the serpent was more subtile than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made" (Genesis 3:1). This serpent is twined around the Tree of Knowledge and appears solely, it seems, with the intent of seducing Eve to the Dark Side pluck a fruit and eat of its flesh, telling her that "ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil" (Genesis 3:5), thereby bringing about the classical image of the serpent as a symbol of temptation and evil. Technically there is no evidence that the serpent is anything other than a snake—that is to say, later interpretations of the Serpent being a representation of Satan infiltrating the Garden and bringing about Original Sin/the Downfall of Man (or Humankind, if you prefer a more gender-neutral politically-correct term) are just that, later interpretations. The text itself? Doesn't say nuthin' about it bein' the Devil, yo.

(Also, Satan/Lucifer/the Devil is frequently depicted throughout various periods of art as a dragon as well as a serpent. My AP Art History is long behind me, but a great many cathedrals possess statuary depicting various saints or Christ stepping on dragons and/or serpents, representing the conquest of evil. Also, slightly randomly, forked tongues have long been symbolic of deceit and malicious words, hence the term "to speak with a forked tongue" and how the Devil is said by some to have a forked tongue. I seem to recall having heard about tongue-splitting used as a form of torture or punishment meant for those who were caught lying—and a cursory Google search reveals that when Byzantine emperors were overthrown, yes, apparently their tongues were split as a form of torture. Ow. And generally speaking (pun halfway intended), cutting out of the tongue has been an ancient form of punishment in lots of cultures, usually for lying or slander or deceit or the like. Even more ow.)

In Greek mythology, a prominent serpent is the Python, the chthonic guardian of the Oracle of Delphi that was slain by Apollo. There's also the poison-blooded Hydra that grows two heads for every one cut off, slain by Heracles as one of his Twelve Tasks—though the Hydra is less specifically snaky being that it is often depicted as having limbs; the heads, though, are occasionally of the serpentine persuasion, and generally it seems agreed that the Hydra is serpenty or at least dragonish and reptilian. The fire-breathing Chimera is usually pictured as a beast with a lion's head and a goat's head and body and a snake for a tail. There's Echidna, the mother of all monsters (including the Hydra and Chimera), woman from the waist up and coiling thrashing serpent from the waist down; there's also Lamia, originally queen of Libya, who murdered her children and turned into a serpent from the waist down and had the power of prophecy and apparently the ability to temporarily yank her eyes out of her head. And of course we can't forget Medusa, one of the three Gorgons (or in some accounts she is the sole Gorgon), who has serpents springing from her head in place of hair and whose face could turn anyone to stone.

So women + snakes = a winning (evil) combo for the Greeks. But! There are also instances of snakes providing wisdom or otherwise being of aid to humans. According to some versions, blood taken from a Gorgon's left side was lethal poison whereas blood taken from her right side could return the dead back to the living. In some tales, Asclepius, son of Apollo and the most renowned mortal healer of Greek mythology, is given a vial of the Gorgon's life-giving blood which he uses to "cure" the dead (for which later Zeus smites him with a thunderbolt since Hades whined that the souls of the dead were his, his, his, and Ascelpius was stealing them). Asclepius also bore with him a staff twined around with a serpent that would whisper causes of patients' illnesses into his ear. (The Rod of Asclepius is apparently the original medical symbol and not to be confused with the Caduceus, which is a winged rod with two serpents wound about it, though even today it is still being used as a medical symbol.) Zeus eventually put Asclepius in the sky as a constellation, Ophiuchus or "the serpent-bearer". The healer and seer Melampus found a dead mother snake on the road and gave her a proper burial, for which he had his ears licked clean by her grateful offspring so that he could hear and understand the language of animals, enabling him to have all sorts of adventures and garner interesting information.

Moving on to other cultures and societies, there are the naga of Hinduism and Buddhism, which are deities taking the form of huge serpents ("naga" is apparently a transliteration of the Sanskrit word for "snake"). They sometimes appear as a mix of human and serpent and are preyed upon by the bird-god Garuda. And of course there are the naga people of Piers Anthony's Xanth novel series, able to shift forms: fully snake, fully human, or a combination of snake and human (human from the waist up or a human head on a snake's body). In Japanese folklore, serpents and snakes are generally symbolic of jealousy, for there are many tales of women transforming into serpents due to jealousy. (Interestingly, there are extremely few (if any) tales of men transforming into snakes, either on account of jealousy or otherwise. Demons, spirits, and ghosts? Yes. But snakes? No.) The Aztecs worshipped Quetzalcoatl, a feathered serpent, as a god of both sky and creation as well as a patron of knowledge. Another feathered serpent (possibly related/connected to Quetzalcoatl) is Avanyu, a water guardian and storm god of the Native American Tewa people, represented as a horned, feathered serpent. And in Chinese mythology and folktales there are apparently a number of stories featuring snakes, for which I got to essentially sit down for Story Time with Krispy, who recounted a few to me, including one about a snake that a boy raises up from a wee snaky, for which in gratitude it spits up a pearl that brings him wisdom, success, and general happiness in life, until he gives it away as a bribe and has the gall to ask the snake for another, whereupon it bites him to death; and another story about a giant lotus that appears every morning floating on a lake, which people sit on because a wandering monk tells them it's a holy lotus that will take them to the Pure Land—and which in the end turns out to be the mouth of a gigantic serpent that ate all those credulous superstitious people.

Ouroboros, the name generally now given to any depiction of a serpent holding its tail in its mouth, symbolizes eternity, time, cycles, round-and-round the merry-go-round and what have you. The gold ring the sorceress-type Aes Sedai women wear in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series takes this form. A variation of the snake-biting-own-tail is also prominently featured on the cover of the book that Bastian finds in Michael Ende's The Neverending Story, featuring two serpents (one silver, one gold) biting each other's tails; this symbol is also found throughout the story. In Norse mythology, Jormungandr, the World Serpent or Midgard Serpent, is a serpent that gets flung down into the ocean and eventually grows large enough to encircle the world and bite its tail.

In J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter, one of the four Hogwarts Houses is Slytherin (link contains some analysis and may contain mild spoilers up to book five-ish), named after former House-head Salazar Slytherin; its colors are green and silver, it's mascot is a serpent, and according to the article I linked to, J.K.R. purportedly once said somewhere or other that the House is loosely affiliated with the element of water. According to groundskeeper Hagrid, I paraphrase, "There are no wizards gone bad who weren't in Slytherin." Slytherins are widely touted to look out for Number One above all else, and are cunning ends-justify-the-means type of people—and of course provide 85% of the antagonism within the daily academic life of Hogwarts.

And of course there's Parseltongue, the ability to communicate with snakes; notably there are no other animal-communication talents mentioned within the scope of the Harry Potter world, thus singling out snakes as a mysterious (and malign) force. You don't see Voldemort wandering around with a cuddly big-eyed bunny familiar—oh no, he's got a frickin' huge killer serpent named Nagini. Sure, he may have his reasons considering his ties to Slytherin House and all, but in the end the fact remains that he's got an evil snake at his beck and call and is constantly associated with serpents.

There are also basilisks in the Harry Potter world. In European mythology, the basilisk is a creature with a power similar to that of the Greek Gorgon sisters whose gaze could turn humans to stone—accounts vary as to whether the basilisk's gaze kills at a glance or turns to stone. The purported king of serpents, the basilisk tends to be pictured several different ways: a gigantic serpent (fittingly), a cockerel with a snake's tail and teeth (similar to the cockatrice, itself another legendary beastie of the serpentine persuasion, though it's supposed to have wings, unlike the basilisk), and a multi-legged lizard. Basilisks can often be found as minor monsters within the various Final Fantasy games with the power to inflict "petrify" status upon your party members, turning them into stone. (This condition can usually be remedied through the use of several respective items, including the creatively named "remedy" and even more creatively named "soft".)

Speaking of Final Fantasy, a frequent ally/Summon-type monster is Leviathan, who usually takes the form of a gigantic blue serpent and deals tidal waves of usually water-based damage upon enemies. (In Final Fantasy IV, in fact, Leviathan is the King of the Land of Summons.) The term leviathan has its origins as a monstrous sea creature in the Old Testament; there seem to be a number of versions stating that originally God created two leviathans, a male and a female, but that He killed the female to prevent them from procreating and overrunning the world. Very considerate. In the Book of Job, though, Leviathan appears to be a normal ordinary everyday humdrum mundane beastie alongside goats and hawks.

And who can forget evil Grand Vizier Jafar of Disney's Aladdin, whose staff of power is shaped like a cobra. The Vizier himself later takes the form of a gigantic black cobra in order to crush the life out of hapless Aladdin (rather odd that he doesn't just bite Aladdin's head off, swallow him whole, or pump him full of venom, but then again, I guess that wouldn't be acceptable in a Disney movie). Going along with other Disney portrayals of snakes, there's Sir Hiss of Robin Hood, whose power to hypnotize with his eyes is similar to the powers of Medusa and the basilisk; mesmerizing/hypnosis by means of the snake's eyes is also a common theme in general snake myths. Sir Hiss is King Richard's advisor and used his hypnotic powers to send Prince John on a crusade in the first place, thereby exemplifying Sir Hiss's deceitful nature and—you know what, it's a Disney movie and fairly self-explanatory. Same with Disney's version of The Jungle Book with the python Kaa hypnotizing Mowgli and deceiving various characters because he wants to eat the so-called man-cub. (And for the record, The Jungle Book was produced in 1967 while Robin Hood came out in 1973; Kaa and Sir Hiss look basically the same and the googly-stripy eyes they have when hypnotizing are pretty much the same too. Seems like Disney got lazy with their character designing.)

From this mish-mash of mythology and pop culture, we can determine that snakes have gotten a pretty bad rap as the centuries have gone along, and really, things haven't gotten much better. We can also determine that there seems some sort of malign link between serpents and women, if the Greeks, Japanese, and the Bible have anything to say of the matter, to say nothing of the other mythologies and folklore I'm less familiar with. I'm sure there's probably some psychologist or literary analyst out there (not even necessarily Freudian) who says that the serpent is a phallic symbol and something or other about women donning masculine characteristics and transforming monstrously as a physical result and representation of the unnaturalness of women acting like men—but I've said enough already right there. After all, to literary analysts, everything is a phallic symbol. I have this on good authority. More than one of my literature professors has said so. (They really have. In almost exactly those words.)

At least in the past there were some respected serpent deities and snakes were occasionally revered as sources of wisdom and protection, affiliated with earth or water as guardians or patrons of the elements; nowadays in our metropolitan, cosmopolitan world, snakes are relegated to pet stores and zoos and squirmy people going "Eww!" at the sight of them. All right, all right, I exaggerate—somewhat. (I mean, come on, look at this particular example of what this general ill-will and disgust and fear of snakes has birthed: Snakes on a Plane.) But the snake has long since lost that glitter of mystique and taken on a much more ordinary place within contemporary society's mindset as a perhaps mildly exotic creature to be looked at and either admired or loathed simply for existing the way it does. The serpent, along the same line, has taken root in modern imagination as a symbol of evil, deceit, poison or venom, death, and/or destruction, and thus a symbol to be feared and despised.

Krispy and I have done a bit of reading on serpents, as perhaps you can tell. There will be serpents in our collaborative novel. More than one. And they will be not necessarily evil, nor even immensely powerful, nor perhaps live up to mythological or contemporary convention, but they will one and all, in some quality or other, be bad-ass.

3.03.2008

What's in a Name Redux

Now that I'm done dealing with midterms (for the time being), I can make another post about names without feeling guilty. So in honor of having fun and procrastinating (what 2 books I have to finish reading by tomorrow?), I'd like to blog about a few instances of Names Being Important and/or giving another delicious layer to the people they belong to in a few personal areas of interest. But first, let's start off with something a little more dense--namely Shakespeare (he's getting such a shout-out these past few posts).

From Romeo and Juliet, we have this famous passage:
'Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What's Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.
While Juliet is essentially arguing that it is what a thing is or who a person is that matters--not what it/he/she is called--she does not disregard the impact the name nevertheless has. While Romeo's name may not change his "dear perfection," it is his name and all that it represents that makes their love so star-crossed and tragic. The weight of their family names is the biggest obstacle in the way of their love.

Now, on to the fun things. The Harry Potter series has fun multi-layered names that I've enjoyed. These include those that may not have direct "meaning" per se but they evoke the type of person the character's supposed to be. I'll cover a few of these latter type names, but only if time and space permitting (since I ought to be reading). Before I go on though, I must make a token SPOILER ALERT warning for those who haven't read Book 3 and onward and don't want to be spoiled. (Spoiling people who don't want to be spoiled is a big no-no for me since I hate it when it happens to me and would hate to do that to someone else.)


Let's start with Professor Remus Lupin. No, I didn't realize he was a werewolf until the big reveal at the end of Book 3, but in hindsight (which is always 20/20), it couldn't have been more obvious with a name like that. Professor Lupin's entire name cries wolf. His first name, Remus, references the myth of Rome's foundation, in which the twins Romulus and Remus are suckled and raised by a she-wolf. The last name, Lupin, references wolf directly with the root of lup. Lupus is Latin for wolf, the Latin species name for wolf is canis lupus, and loup is French for wolf. You don't understand how much this stuff makes me squee inside.

Then there's the whole Black family. Sirius Black's animagus form is a huge black dog. The black part is a bit of a given, but the other relation is that Sirius, the star, is known as the "Dog Star" as it is located in the constellation Canis Major. It's also the brightest star in the sky, and what is Sirius but the most (in)famous member of the Black family in the storyline's recent years. Sirius' younger brother, Regulus, is also named after a bright star. The star Regulus is located in the Leo constellation, and not only is Regulus the brightest star in the lion constellation, it's the Heart of the Lion. Though it was mostly the clues given in the 5th and 6th books (esp. the RAB bit) that made me believe that Regulus did the right thing in the end, seeing the connections Regulus' name drew helped cement that belief. I mean, Sirius' brother named after the Heart of the Lion--the lion being the symbol of the Gryffindor House, which is where our main protags are from--has to mean something.

There's also the Black sisters, Bellatrix, Narcissa, and Andromeda. Bellatrix and Andromeda continue the Black family tradition of constellation names. Bellatrix is another meaning laden name because it's the name of the 3rd brightest star in the constellation Orion and means "female warrior," and isn't that exactly what Bellatrix is to He Who Must Not be Named? Narcissa, on the other hand, isn't constellation named, but she's a good example of one of those names that "fits" for reasons other than literal meaning. The name references "narcissus," which aside from being a rather pretty white flower is also the name of the Greek youth who fell in love with his own reflection because he was so beautiful. Narcissa, herself, is described as a pale beauty (platinum blonde, blue eyed, fair skinned -- unlike her dark-haired sister Bellatrix and cousins Sirius and Regulus), and while we don't see anything that suggests she's particularly vain, she is what amounts to a wizarding world aristocrat, and there's an air of self-centered snobbery to the old blood.

Moving on from Harry Potter, we enter the world of manga and anime. Briefly, I'd like to note the role of names in Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away (which is a great film by the way) and Kubo Tite's manga/anime Bleach. Name is the key to power, identity, and freedom in Spirited Away. The girl protagonist, Chihiro has most of her name taken from her when she signs a work contract with Yubaba. She is left with a fragment of her name, Sen, to be called by, but she is warned by friends to remember her true name if she wishes to succeed in saving her parents and leaving the spirit world. The boy Haku is apprenticed to Yubaba but cannot leave his apprenticeship or remember who he is/used to be because he has forgotten his real name. Names are the key to unlocking spiritual power for shinigami in Bleach. For the protagonist Ichigo to truly gain the power of his zanpakutou, he has to first learn its name.

The more recent manga/anime hit Death Note (by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata) plays with names as well. The initial draw of the series is the Death Note's cardinal rule: "The human whose name is written in this note shall die." You find out later that you have to know the person's full and true name, as well as what they look like to make it work, but the implication on the importance of names is clear. It's the name rule that really becomes an obstacle for main character Light because his nemesis only goes by nicknames and fake names and famously by the letter 'L.' So there's a lot of playing with the concept of hidden and "true" names.

Then there's the manga/anime Loveless (by Yun Kouga). I can't really do an analysis of this justice, especially since the English Tokyopop release includes a really wonderful essay about the power of words and names in this series, but I need to mention it. It's strange to explain and I've read like 6 volumes and I'm still confused about stuff, but basically, the plot involves these dyads of a 'fighter' and a 'sacrifice.' Battles are conducted between fighter and sacrifice pairs and fought with words that form spells.

Where do names come in? The dyads are paired by name (fighter and sacrifice share the same name), and not just any name; it's a "true" name. We find out in the beginning that main character Ritsuka's brother, Seimei, revealed his true name (Beloved) to Ritsuka before his death. It is this "true name" that designates a fighter to his/her sacrifice, and it is from this shared name that they draw their strength and power. It is what connects them in a deep and spiritual way--like soul mates. Thus, having a pair with unmatched names is not just frowned upon, it's viewed with a fair amount of disgust. And for Ritsuka, who is trying to cope with the loss of his brother, growing up, and figuring out who he is, names take on an especially meaningful role. His "true name" aside (he can't quite make heads or tails of it yet), Ritsuka's struggle to find who he is under the psychological torment he's been subject to since Seimei's death is tied to the name Ritsuka. It's this name--not his "true name"--that he ultimately identifies with and uses to reaffirm to himself who he is. This action is especially significant in the context of Loveless because as mentioned before, words are spells are power in the series.

So in such a world, names perhaps hold the most power of all words and spells.

3.01.2008

On Plausible Villainy

Iago of Shakespeare's Othello is widely touted to be the epitome of villainy. Why? Because he's just so damn evil. The dude's got it down on Othello and wants him to suffer, suffer, suffer, and suffer some more for good measure, and manages to contrive Othello's downfall with a smiling face and everyone's full trust. Why does he do this? Because somebody else got promoted, not him, and Othello gets to take the brunt of the blame. There's not really much reason beyond that given for his absolute hatred of the Moor. Dim-witted Othello trusts Iago completely which fact of course Iago takes shameless advantage of in order to manipulate and betray his "friend", and this is supposed to be why Iago is the quintessential evil villain. And because Shakespeare is revered as such a noble figure within the realm of English literature, and he's been dead for centuries, and scholars say so, it seems to be one of those general "facts" of the academic world.

Iago's kind of one-dimensional if you just take him straight out of the play.

No, seriously. Think about it. Iago haaaaaates Othello and wants to nail his tender bits to the wall and to make him suspicious of and despise his wife so that he'll smother her with a pillow and then feel terribly, terribly guilty about it when she finally dies of it a half-dozen agonized soliloquies and dialogue exchanges or so later. Cassio got promoted instead of Iago, and this fills Iago with vitriolic rage and loathing for Othello's littlest skin particle, never mind the rest of him. Speculation as to why he hates Othello so damn much is all well and good, of course, and ripe pickings for fanfiction (leave the temptation to slash alone, please, oh gods please leave it alone), but within the bounds of the actual play itself—let's face it, there's no real concrete reason given why Iago loathes Othello so much. We're just supposed to concentrate on the fact that Iago feels betrayed, the loathing is there, and now he's acting on what he feels and doing what he does best: being a manipulative bastard. He can gain dimension for possible reasons, and this is where the analysis and interpretation takes place, but there are characters who come off to me as deep and full of inner conflict and motivations and twists and turns of psychology that form an elaborate pretzel-knot, and then there are those who just leave me going double-you-tee-eff. Needless to say, Iago's one of the latter.

An Iago-type villain holds thin water nowadays, having become a stereotype: "You passed me up, so I'm-a kill you, you son of a bitch." I mean, most villains seem to be ambitious and aspiring towards power (for either destructive I'll-show-them-all-and-destroy-the-world or constructive I-can-make-the-world-a-better-place purposes), or because they've got vengeance cooking hot on their brains (this is Iago, who takes it to an extreme), or they lust after fame/infamy, or they're lusting for somebody that they can't have or want to impress, or they're just insane (which though it can be done well is more often used as a cop-out, like the typical oh-it-was-all-just-a-dream trope), or sundry other reasons. But it's a rare villain indeed who exists simply as a plot device of Sheer and Absolute Evil for the Sake of Hating So-and-So For a Reason of Some Kind. I mean, check out the Wikipedia section talking about Iago's possible motives—about the only clear and text-citable reason for hatred is that he was passed up for promotion. (Granted, it's been a while since I've read Othello, but I'm pretty sure I remember Iago having not very many clear reasons for his absolute hatred of Othello.)

Thus there are "evil" villains. But there are also villains who are not so much villains as antagonists, opposing the protagonist without necessarily being what you'd nominally call "evil". Look at the works of Hayao Miyazaki. His films are notorious for having villains who turn out to be not quite so villainous after all—they may not exactly be paragons of pure goodwill and altruism, but they tend to have a decidedly human air of reasonability about them. Check out the invading force in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Lady Eboshi of Princess Mononoke, or Yubaba of Spirited Away. I'll not post spoilers here, but they are human (or have humanizing qualities) as much as they are villains, and they're not pointlessly evil—or even exactly evil at all, since "evil" becomes a matter of perspective. As characters, they come off more multi-dimensional than Iago right off the bat without a great deal of analytical or interpretive work—and to my mind, if you need to work really hard to even identify (much less deconstruct) a villain's motivations and mental workings, then that means you're probably stretching things.

Want an example of a more one-dimensional "evil" villain? Check out Baron Von Rothbart of Mercedes Lackey's The Black Swan. He's a magician with a vendetta against unfaithful women—but why? The blurb on the back of the book says it's because he considers his wife's death some years previously to be the ultimate betrayal, but this isn't mentioned anywhere within the pages of the actual book, and it's a sad, sad day in literary heaven with the analytic angels of fiction weeping tears of blood when we have to turn to the summary on the back of a book in order to figure out character motivations within the story. (I mean, come on—I'm pretty sure the authors frequently have very little or nothing to do with the blurbs on back covers and on the insides of dust jackets, and there's been more than one occasion where the back blurb actually got facts about the story inside wrong.)

But back to Von Rothbart. The only hint we have of this wife's death = ultimate betrayal thing is a brief passage from Von Rothbart's daughter's perspective concerning violets. Yes, violets. Apparently Lady Von Rothbart loved violets (which the daughter Odile vaguely remembers) but there are no longer any violets growing on Von Rothbart's land because he has every patch of flowers found rooted ruthlessly out. (The poor woman doesn't even get a name—by calling her "Lady Von Rothbart" I've already given her more name than she gets in the story.) As far as I recall, that's the sole mention of any kind of wife-related angst, and the only possible hint of motivation for his going out and stalking young women to see if they're unfaithful, transforming them into swans when he finds them cheating on their men, and then kidnapping them away to his estate where they spend their days as swans and their nights as women clad in thin silk dresses. (Personally, I think Von Rothbart is a power-mad pervert with a major fetish for swans and cheating wives and way too much time on his hands, but I sadly have the feeling that my interpretation right there is giving him more character than is really there.)

So what of Krispy and I? We've been working on the "villains" lately. Motivation, background, and personal history, ambitions and deceptions and relationships with other characters. Several times we've had to back up and rethink character structure and motivation, and we're probably going to be zigzagging back and forth for a good while longer yet. Developing a plausible villain is tough work, particularly when there is a surfeit of villainous clich├ęs lurking like potholes to trip up unwary feet. We want more dimension than simply single-minded ambition or a single life-changing tragic incident in the past, and I don't think either of us has brought up madness as a suggested motivational force or excuse for a character's actions. These elements can be present, but they have to be well-done and they can't be reason enough alone—not without turning said characters one-dimensional, or two-dimensional if they're lucky.