Archive for May, 2013

Good vs. Evil, Good vs. Good, Evil vs. Evil (Part 1)

Here are some of my favorite fictional evil people:

1. Good vs. Evil: Jerry Lundegard is a car salesman with money trouble. He embezzles from his employer, who happens to be his father-in-law, and attempts to make right this misstep by arranging a fake kidnapping of his wife. The plan is to use the ransom money to cover up the money problem.

Jerry never takes responsibility for his wrongdoings. He blames circumstances for whatever goes wrong in his life. He does not want to do evil. He only wants to cut a few corners so that he can fix this little problem he has. If he could just fix this little problem, everyone would be happy, and everyone would like him. Even his father-in-law. Jerry is insecure, deceptive, arrogant, and naive. This last quality, the naiveté, becomes the major driver of the gore and horror that ensues.

William H. Macy rocketed into my pantheon of acting gods with his portrayal of Jerry in Fargo (1996). We see the increasingly desperate turning of wheels in his mind as Jerry is confronted by the heroic Sheriff Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand). I loved watching Jerry writhe in this battle of good vs. evil. We have a touch of empathy for him…but only to a point. Then Good must out Evil, and Jerry must have his comeuppance.

2. Good vs. Good: In comedy, everything is just a misunderstanding and all will be well in the end. Nonetheless, even comedies have their occasional true villains. Tammy Swanson, a.k.a. Tammy Two (played by Megan Mullally), is an evil library director in territorial battle with Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) in Parks & Recreation. She is amoral, power-mad, and arrogant. She wields a frightening sexual power over ex-husband Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman). To me, the single funniest thing about Tammy is that she is a library director, offering Leslie opportunity to make snarky and hilarious anti-library comments, and demonstrating there is a little bit of Tammy in Leslie. The most evil thing about Tammy, however, is not that she wants to steal Leslie’s beloved Lot 48 for a new library branch, but what she does to Ron…particularly what she does to his hair. Tammy has the ability to make Ron be not-himself, and exercises this power without remorse, thereby placing herself in direct opposition to the spirit of the show, which celebrates the potential of everyone to become their best selves.

In comedy, evil lacks potency, overcome as it is by all the good intentions that surrounds it. Its attempts to upset the order of the comedic universe backfire, and all is good.

3. Bad vs. Bad: It’s a tie between Walter White of Breaking Bad, and Cersei Lannister of Game of Thrones.

Walter (Bryan Cranston), like car salesman Jerry, begins by needing just to cut a few corners…for the greater good, of course. His position is a sympathetic one, at least initially. He is dying of lung cancer. He is a high school chemistry teacher with not a lot of money, has a special needs son, and they are a one-income family–wife Skyler stays at home to see to Walter Jr.’s needs. The diagnosis is a death sentence; Walter only wants his family to be taken care of after he’s gone. He has expertise in chemistry, and so he’ll just cook a little meth, make some money, and die having accomplished his goal.

Walter is pulled into the monstrous evil of the Albuquerque-to-Mexico drug scene, but he is not overwhelmed by it. On the contrary, he finds himself growing into his new enterprise.  He sees himself as smarter and quicker than those he deals with. He is a massive control-freak. He becomes addicted to his new-found power. As the seasons progress, one moral boundary after the other falls, and we see just how evil a “good” person can become. But Walter isn’t “good.” He didn’t “break bad.” He always was bad, infected with a frustrating, thwarted psyche, just waiting for an opportunity. Indeed, a professional career counselor couldn’t have picked a better field to display his aptitudes and interests.

I also love to watch Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) on Game of Thrones. The character is born into a culture of violence and sexism, where a highborn woman is someone to use for the forging of political ties, through marriage, where perhaps she may wield influence, but perhaps not. Every female character in this saga has to deal with slightly different circumstances, is afforded slightly different opportunities, and makes slightly different choices, based on her character and her talents.

Cersei is ruthless. She is smart, but as her horrible father tells her, not as smart as she thinks. She is expected to marry when told. She does marry one man, but has her children by another, her twin brother, Jamie. She thinks she knows everything there is to know, but she is willfully ignorant of quite a bit. She is unable to see beyond her own prejudices. Something of an atheist, she simply doesn’t believe in the monsters beyond the wall. She is likewise in thrall to her hideous son, Jeffrey. As with Jerry in Fargo, I love to watch the wheels turn in her head as she struggles to keep control, but is constantly blindsided by evil that is smarter and quicker than she.

Next post, I’ll throw out some of my favorite heroes.

"Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before." -- Mae West

“Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before.” — Mae West

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Keeping It Moving

In a previous post which I will not look up and tag, I believe I cited some advice from writer Laurel Winter, who (and I’m going to go for a paraphrase here) said she made a point to work on her project every day, no matter what else was going on, no matter if all she could do was two sentences. Two sentences, she said, was her minimum. Two sentences was enough to keep that project in her mind, to keep the flow going. And, when she had more time, she could thereby avoid the “…awkward getting-reacquainted time…” required to pick up a project after a long break.

Good advice. Keep the flow going, and–in a mixture of metaphors–you’ll keep the pot simmering on that back burner. Metaphor #3: I think of a shark who never rests but is always swimming. A quick Google check indicates that thing about sharks perpetually on the move isn’t entirely true, but it’s a great image. Keep moving, keep the flow going, and keep the pot gently burbling.

Keeping it moving (or gently burbling) is necessary to keeping one’s attention, and I’m speaking of writer, not the reader. Nothing will ever appear before the reader unless it first makes it past the writer. If the writer becomes disengaged from her own work, the work will wander and fizzle.

I set aside two hours a day to work on my novel. If I am prevented from doing two hours, I do an hour and a half. Can’t do an hour and a half? Do an hour…and so forth. No day exists when I cannot do two sentences.

Let’s make that two paragraphs. No day exists when I cannot do two paragraphs. I can do something else as well: I can give myself my next assignment. Before I set down the work, I can look at the next two paragraphs and think about what might be next. I don’t actually have to compose them, I need only toss them in the burbling pot. When I return after a day, they will be at least partially cooked.

The alternative to keeping it moving is to get stuck. Getting stuck puts one at risk for writer’s block. When I am stuck (in the middle of my second paragraph?) I need to find a way to get moving again.

There’s no magic answer, but there are tricks. There are things I can do that are not unlike shaking out my arm when it’s numb from being slept on wrong. There’s nothing perfect or precise.

If I have a problem moving forward, what is the problem? Why am I stuck? Let’s say I need to get my character to the moon, but I want him to have a different reason for going there than the plot turn that actually happens. The reason I currently have for his going there seems stupid, leading me to feel like a Bad Plotter. In another situation, I suddenly realize I am not a biologist and my alien biology is therefore really stupid. I do not believe in my own science. My alien needs to be in more scenes, but I keep avoiding talking about it. I keep writing scenes where the characters seem to be in denial about the alien in the center of the room. Or…I’m tired and impatient. I want to get to action and dialog, but need to set up the scene first. I don’t want to set up the scene. It’s boring. It’s hard. I don’t seem to be able to imagine anything, and can’t seem to describe anything. The sun was shining. Her eyes were blue. I am a Lazy Writer and there is No Hope For Me.

In the third situation, being stuck on description, I simply close my eyes. I relax. I let the movie in my brain roll. I open my eyes and quickly write down anything I see, hear, feel, or smell. I do not judge the quality or appropriateness of what I write. I think as little as possible, except to prompt myself to remember to include all the senses, not just what I see. (Just out of scene, a spigot opens, a shark swims, and a pot simmers.)

In the case of the I-don’t-know-my-science-from-squat problem, I have resources. I can do research, and I can ask a biologist. I know some, as it happens. Find out what I need to know. Or sometimes, the very lack of knowledge can give me a whole new idea. My alien in the middle of the room? Hey, that sounds like a great SF absurdist play! Maybe I can work that into my story. (Just out of scene, a fish comes out of the spigot, the shark eats it, and an octopus jumps into the stew.)

Plot problems are usually easier than they look. There are always choices, different paths one can take, especially if–as in my example–I know where I’m going, i.e., the moon. If my character has no good reason for going to the moon, well, maybe he’s kidnapped. Why not? (The water scalds, the shark is arrested, and the pot boils over. The paths keep diverging.) Once it’s down on paper, I can trust the boiling-over pot to know what should go in it, and what should not.

My stories all flow better than the Santa Ana River.

My stories all flow better than the Santa Ana River.

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Conflicts With Conflict

Conflict is the heart of any story, and the driver of all plots within the story. Conflict–which many of us like to avoid in our daily lives–is what we eagerly seek out in fiction, both as writers and as consumers. Conflict can be anything from a tear in the fabric of space-time that threatens to swallow up all of reality (Dr. Who) to over-done women carrying a grudge over how someone dissed someone else (Real Housewives of Wherever, Shahs of Sunset*).

In the case of the latter, I become impatient. I want to tell the self-involved dummies to get over themselves and pay attention to what matters in life. In the case of the former, I also become impatient, because a conflict that’s too big can also become tedious. Dr. Who fell into this for a while. I mean, come on. You know reality isn’t going to go up in a puff of smoke. What would happen to the show, then? So why keep making that the arc of the season? Can’t we just have some fun adventure?

Conflict is a matter of scale. The Doctor is a Time Lord able to travel through space and time in the Tardis. He has his wits and a magic screwdriver. The most satisfying of the stories are neither to big nor too small for his persona. My favorite this season so far is “The Rings of Akhaten,” where a child is saved from sacrifice. That was lovely. On the other end of the spectrum, I became so very weary last season of the tedious and portentous story lines of the Doctor’s death, and the whole mess with Amy Pond, River Song, and Rory. I simply didn’t buy any of it.

Conflict is also a matter of perspective and depth. Generic makes my eyes glaze over. The oft-repeated advice to the writer, “Begin with a character with a problem…” makes my mind go numb. I need to begin with something specific, be it large or small. More accurately, two or three things come together, and then two or three things are added, and so forth. In the masterpiece that is Mad Men, we spend most of the first season collecting and arranging these specific pieces, i.e. characters in a quite specific time and place. I remember being unimpressed with the first episode I watched, in which Peggy starts work, Joan struts around like an office queen bee, and Don drinks and smokes and screws around. It seemed a bland period piece, until toward the end of the first season, when the real characters emerge from the carefully crafted images that era demanded. From that point on, the series has been driven seamlessly by character conflict. Twist and turn goes the plot, but it manages to both shock and  be inevitable.

Conflict is a matter of quality. Does exploration of this fictional conflict somehow enlighten and inform me on the subject of the human condition? Does it seem real? If not, I see it as a waste of time. This is my general gripe against recent literary fiction, that it seems to be about nothing. (And not in the Seinfeld sense, the show the that pretended to be about nothing but in fact was about everything.) Quality conflict moves me. It makes me laugh, it makes me cry, it makes me want to talk about it to others who have watched or read it. It is highly subjective. What matters to some, doesn’t to others.

While avoiding conflict in life whenever possible, I indulge my addiction with several doses daily of the fictional variety. I’m reading two books now, The New Moon’s Arms, by Nalo Hopkinson, and Cyroburn, by Lois McMaster Bujold. On the TV front, I am watching Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Doctor Who, Parks & Recreation, CommunityMr. Selfridge, and EastEnders. I haven’t seen a movie in months, but I have seen three stage plays in recent weeks, two of which were excellent and which I will name here: The Whale, by Samuel D. Hunter, and The Parisian Woman, by Beau Willimon. I’m finding Mr. Selfridge a bit conflict-lite, a bit contrived, but I’m soldiering on with it anyway. EastEnders is a British soap opera. Many of its conflicts are stupid, but it is fun to make fun of.

I love being addicted to conflict and to have so many opportunities to get all drugged up with it every day. I love the conflict with self and family in the Hopkinson novel and the Hunter play. I love the disparate social and political commentary of Bujold, Parks & Rec, and Community. I love the very different kinds of heroism shown in Dr. Who, in Bujold, and in Game of Thrones. I love the anthropological and psychological dissection of the Willimon play and of Mad Men.

It’s a lot going on. I’ve had a bit of a problem lately in that I cannot help visualizing Peter Dinklage as Miles Vorkosigan, even though I know darned well Miles is not a little person. The wit, swagger, and toughness of the two characters of Tyrion and Miles bear comparison, somehow.

One more interesting note about fictional conflict: Even when I have real conflict in my life (and no one can avoid it completely) I still need the approximate same daily dose of the fictional variety. The difference is, during rough times, I focus on the resolution. Fiction does such a better job of resolution than real life does.

Inherent conflict: First, I will admonish you. Then I will offer you a barrel of flowers. How are you supposed to feel?

Inherent conflict: First, I will admonish you. Then I will offer you a barrel of flowers. How are you supposed to feel?

*I am treating Reality TV as fiction. Please tell me it is.

Photo: Speculative Martha

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