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Archive for the month “May, 2013”

Romance in First Empress

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One of the troubles I’m finding with writing romance is that there is very little that can be said or done that hasn’t been said or done before. I have thus come to the conclusion that I’m simply not experienced enough a fiction writer to adequately and believably portray romantic drama. While there will be romances between various characters in First Empress, I have no intent of making any of these vital to the central conflicts.

In fact, I think in general, I’m not going to go out of my way to create much in the way of romantic drama—sexual tension, absolutely, but romantic drama, not really. Drama and arguments between couples always feel very cliche to me, and I don’t know how to make them not cliche. And as such tension and conflict are not necessary to advance the story, I see no reason to bother with it. Likely there will be assorted love scenes over the course of the story—how explicit those will be I haven’t decided yet.

By way of examples, Ronnius—the queen’s steward—and his wife, Tanna, marry only a few chapters into the story, and were sneaking around behind their families’ backs to be together well before the story even begins, and thus there’s no real need for extra drama. Similarly, I opted to have Captain Vola‘s marriage to General Derron, the queen’s military adviser, be a healthy marriage. Pella, the four-armed girl and Zahnia‘s best friend, eventually marries a very talented Deaf sculptor. I like the idea of him being Deaf because the image of a four-armed woman using a sign language delights me to no end. One of the tragedies of Zahnia’s character is that because she doesn’t age, she essentially is stuck in the body of a nine-year-old until she dies. Because of this, romance is a pleasure denied to her. She’ll never develop the hormones necessary for sexual enjoyment. And while sex is by no means necessary for a healthy romantic relationship, I think Zahnia is justified in her discomfort with the idea of kissing and cuddling with someone who is comfortable kissing and cuddling a nine-year-old.

The romance most central to the overall story is that of the Queen Viarraluca and her handmaid Elissa. When first setting out to write First Empress, I knew going in that one of the tragedies of “immortal” mortals is that everyone they care about must eventually die while they go on alone. From the very start I’d intended for Viarra to have a true love who she must inevitably watch die. I had two or three potential characters in mind, initially considering giving her sort of a “Prince Albert” figure—someone who not only functions as a lover, but as a teacher and mentor. I eventually abandoned this idea, however, because the situation of Viarra suddenly assuming the throne, then having to fight a war two chapters later required a greater amount of independence in her character than what made sense if she was dependent on some mentor to help her make these decisions.

It was when I was fleshing out Elissa’s character that I discovered the handmaid’s private lust for her queen. While it was unintended, a lot of things clicked into place for me at that point. Granted, in my later stories Viarra marries and has children with various men over the centuries, but there’s absolutely no reason why her first love couldn’t be a woman. More than anything, I want readers to view the Queen and handmaid’s relationship as sweet and beautiful. I don’t want their love to be seen as lewd or salacious. I hope that readers will admire them, cheer for them as they stay strong through difficult times, and mourn with them as Elissa ultimately passes on and Viarra must go on without her.

The background that I’ve set up for my leading couple is that Elissa was a slave taken from the north as a girl and given at seven years old to the five-year-old Princess Viarraluca. As the little princess has only brothers, Elissa almost immediately becomes the closest she has to a sister. The intelligent and precocious Viarra even secretly teaches Elissa how to read and write. While I haven’t fully decided on all of the circumstances surrounding their mutual attraction, I did decide a while back that it works better for them to have acted upon and established their feelings for each other prior to the beginning of the story. Though I don’t reveal it right away, Viarra and Elissa are already lovers when the prologue starts. I simply decided that even if I am capable of writing a convincing “coming out” scene between them, it wouldn’t add anything new to either character and would most likely distract from the rest of the story.

I establish early on that Elissa is not pretty. She’s skinny and plain—about as humble a human being as can exist without her being self-deprecating. I don’t think Elissa completely understands why Queen Viarra returns her affection, but the handmaid dutifully and modestly serves her beloved majesty in all things—lovemaking included. And while her modesty occasionally affects her judgment, I see Elissa as being reasonably intelligent. I think I kind of want readers to view the handmaid as being basically average in all things save humility—here she is clearly above average in all ways. I also want it to say a lot about Viarra’s character that she’ll reserve her deepest affection for this humble, skinny, plain slave woman, when the queen could have almost any man or woman in the kingdom.

The following scene is part of a conversation between the Queen and two of her other handmaids. While I have a tender, pillow-talk scene between Viarra and Elissa that I could have excerpted for the blog, I felt this chat did a better job of illustrating the Queen’s feelings for the handmaid, despite that Elissa is not present. In the scene, Viarra puts Gwynnet, one of the other handmaids, in her place for copping a superior attitude on learning of Elissa and the Queen’s liaisons.

Gods dammit, little fiend,” her majesty swore as Corsair leapt, claws out, from her lap to her shoulder, once again seeking her shiny earring. “Gwynnet, would you take this little monster from me for a while?” She held Corsair out to her at arm’s length. “Last time I wear earrings around you,” she told the troublesome kitten.

Corsair squirmed irritably and squeaked in protest as Gwynnet took him from her majesty’s hands. “I suppose I was just surprised to learn that you and Elissa were lovers,” Gwynnet ventured as she sat down, attempting to calm the annoyed kitten. “It’s just that she’s not…” she hesitated, trying to find the right words.

“Beautiful?” her majesty suggested. “Vivacious? My intellectual equal?”

“That wasn’t what I was going to suggest,” Gwynnet said, half in protest, half in embarrassment.

“No, but I could tell you were thinking it,” the queen replied. “And you’re not incorrect. But I’ve never met anyone like Elissa. On top of being the most loyal human being I’ve known, she’s the most humble and self-sacrificing. She serves me unquestioningly for no other reason than that she loves me. She asks no reward for her services, and in fact gets embarrassed and uncomfortable with any reward I offer. And she genuinely believes I can do anything I put my mind to. Her devotion is gratifying, yet humbling at the same time. Elissa drives me to prove to myself that I’m worthy of that devotion—without even realizing she’s doing it. I can’t imagine a better friend, lover, and confidante.”

Gwynnet stared down at the kitten on her lap, feeling humbled by the queen’s words.

Across the Peloponnese

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A while back, mostly for the heck of it, I was browsing ModDB.com just to see what kinds of modifications people had designed for games that I own. One of the best-looking I found was a Peloponnesian War mod for Battle for Middle-Earth II, of all games. I downloaded what they had and was really impressed with what they’d done, but I was disappointed at how little they’d done. Only the Spartans had been completed as a playable team. It was a beautiful mod, but it never made it to Beta because of apparent personnel conflicts with the designers. I remember laughing while reading the comments on the mod and seeing the debates about Sparta versus Athens. The most hilarious part was that the Spartan supporters, on the whole, were clearly the less educated and had the most misspellings and the poorest grammar, while the Athens side, again, on the whole, were clearly the more literate and articulate. While I’m sure it was a case of morons who thought 300 was an awesome movie versus people who actually study history, it was kind of a refreshing metaphor for the two main cities in the conflict itself.

But the fact that the debate was going on at all amused me to no end.

I always root for Athens when I read Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War. I mean, I know that [Spoiler Alert] Athens loses in the end, but I dislike everything the Spartans stood for and tend only to root for them when against Darius (much the way I only root for the Jets when they play the Patriots). And I agree with many historians that Athens could likely have prevailed had they not gotten spanked so badly in that ill-advised siege against Syracuse. (F***ing Alcibiades. I hope when the rat-bastard got to Hades, his punishment was an eternity being beaten with a bicycle chain by Pericles. I don’t care that bicycles didn’t exist back then.) I’ve studied the aftermath of the war and know a bit about the Spartan misrule of Greece following the fall of Athens’s empire. Makes it easy to root for Philip of Macedon when he takes over a couple generations later.

Recently, my excitement about the upcoming release of Total War: Rome II has been tempered somewhat by the announcement that they’re releasing Sparta as a playable faction in one of the DLC. My trouble is that since, historically speaking, Sparta hadn’t been a power-player for over 200 years leading up to the rise of the SPQR, releasing Sparta as a faction is a bald-faced attempt to pander to the masses of wankers who think they know everything about Ancient Greece just because they watched 300 once for every Spartan.

As I discussed in a previous post, when studying Ancient Greece, it’s important to keep in mind that the Greeks didn’t have a concept of “good versus evil”—at least not as we think of it. Our concept of “good and evil” is a modern evolution of the Judeo-Christian concepts of moral correctness. It continues to surprise me how many people don’t get that these concepts are newer and less universal than they realize. During Ancient Greek times, Christianity didn’t exist and Judaism was only practiced by this little, backwater kingdom bordering on Ancient Phoenicia. (I’m always amazed at how many people ignore the time frame on this.)

The closest the Greeks had to a concept of “good versus evil” was actually much closer to “order versus chaos.” Orderliness, civilization, intellectualism—Greek-ness (Hellenism)—were all valued as “good” by the Greeks, while disorderliness, brutishness, emotionalism—barbarism—were all considered “bad” (not necessarily “evil”). What intrigues me is that one of the key cultural conflicts between the Spartans and Athenians was their respective definitions of the concept of “order.” The Spartans saw order as being achieved through military might and physical prowess. To them, the Athenians were of the foppish persuasion, pursuing frivolous intellectual activities. Meanwhile, the Athenians saw order as being achieved through intellectual pursuits, such as law and philosophy. To them, the Spartans were brutes and thugs—the jocks of the ancient world, really—a city of meat-heads with a lot of muscle and a certain predatory cunning, but no real ability to rationalize.

Honestly, I agree with the Athenians.

If one takes the time to pick apart the battle of Thermopylae, it’s not hard to realize that Sparta’s presence in the fight was fairly unnecessary. Firstly, there were more than just Leonidas’s three hundred Spartans present. According to Herodotus, there were well over 5,000 Greeks present at the battle (though other sources suggest a higher number. And even on the third day when they discovered they’d been outflanked and most of the army retreated, around 1,100 soldiers from Thespiae and Thebes stayed to defend the pass to the death.

Secondly, a smaller army using a bottleneck to stop a larger army was hardly a new and original tactic even in Leonidas’s day. The Greeks had been clogging their mountain passes with spearmen for centuries, and I rather doubt they were the first to try it. Additionally, I doubt that Persia had never encountered such a tactic before. I don’t have the extensive research that other historians have, but I suspect that the true problem lay in the fact that the Persians were used to unclogging bottlenecks by raining curtains of arrow fire upon the defenders. Against eastern spearmen, this would have worked perfectly, as they generally had no armor and only weak shields. Because the Greek hoplites had heavy shields and as good of armor as existed at the time, the arrows were thus rendered useless. I posit that any group of hoplites could have held that pass against the Persian army.

I think it’s also important to realize that the entire defense could have come crashing down much sooner had it not been for the intervention of Themistocles and the Athenian navy. Had the Persians managed to move their navy behind the Greek lines to disembark troops, they could have surrounded the defenders and overwhelmed them on the first day. Had Themistocles (who was far more BAMF in his way than Leonidas could have hoped to be) and his fleet not held the Persians off for those three days, there would have been no Athens, no Sparta, and no Greece. Democracy would have suffered sudden-infant-death syndrome and the foundation of western culture and history would never have come to be.

So anyway, rant over. Go Athens.

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Further reading:
The Histories, by Herodotus
The Peloponnesian War, by Thucydides
Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, Thomas Cahill

*My* Grammar Rant

A friend posted something from Grammarly’s page on Facebook that really set me off for some reason. It was a picture that read “Please do not say ‘supposably’ when you mean ‘supposedly.'” I mean, really? How pedantic can you get? I’ve never seen anyone write it that way, so clearly Grammarly is trashing on someone’s pronunciation. Obviously, they know what the person means when they say it, so why make them feel like crap over it? I want to have a measure of respect for outfits like Grammarly—for the sake of clarity and professionalism, I think it’s important to have a strong understanding of grammar and how it can work to your advantage or disadvantage. But I hate it when these self-appointed “grammar experts” get uptight about trivialities. I’ve yet to see how they are helping the situation by being anal retentive about someone else’s pronunciation. In fact, I find it to be counter-productive, as it tends to turn people off toward grammar and usage.

I find it kind of sad, really. But it’s not unlike those people who balk about how signs in stores should read “10 items or fewer” instead of “10 items or less.” Sure, I know the technical distinction: when modifying a noun phrase that can have a number attached, use fewer, when modifying a noun phrase that can’t have a number attached, use less. But clearly the reader can understand what the sign means, so why bother even pointing it out?

As a system, grammar and language is entirely arbitrary and abstract. Verily, the only part of any language (except Sign Language) that is not abstract is onomatopoeia. When using a sound to represent an object, or a color, or an idea, or an action, it has to be abstract. (That’s one of the neat things about Sign Languages is that they are able to symbolically represent things like objects and actions.) And outside of hieroglyphics, written language is completely abstract.

Part of me always wants to rebelliously fight back against such grammatical pedantry by deliberately splitting infinitives or finding prepositions to end sentences with. There’s something satisfying about making grammar snobs twitch.

Movie Review: Jurassic Park in 3D

My brothers and I went and saw Jurassic Park in 3D last night. The reason I went was because the film meant a lot to me as a kid and I didn’t get to see it in the theaters the first time around. My folks decided it would be too scary for us and so we didn’t get to see it until about a year later when staying overnight with some friends. I do, however, have the distinction of being one of very few people who read the Michael Crichton novel before seeing the movie. So at least I’ve got that going for me.

One conclusion I came to was that films that weren’t originally filmed with 3D viewing in mind don’t tend to translate well to 3D. One of the constant troubles with Jurassic Park in 3D was the multiple levels of foreground. The best example of this was the foliage between the characters and audience in the jungle scenes. In general, it’s best to keep from having things like branches, leaves, and other foliage in the way of your characters because they tend to be visually distracting. Jurassic Park breaks this rule constantly in order to create a foresty atmosphere or to heighten the tension when a character is being stalked—thus many scenes have leaves and branches in the way, blurred out to keep the audience focused on the characters and situation. In 3D, however, this translates to a lot of blurry leaves in the audience’s faces, distracting from the rest of the scene.

The characters, I think for the most part have aged well. Lex and Tim, the two kids, I actually found to be a lot cooler that I remembered them being. Lex (Ariana Richards) in particular I remember hating as a kid because she screamed a lot, but watching again last night, she didn’t really come across as the quintessential screaming-girl character from the quintessential action film. In fact, she didn’t really scream all that much, and there was a certain, almost comedic timing to her screams. Similarly, I appreciate Laura Dern’s lack of screaming throughout the film. Other than the one chase scene where she screams “shit” a lot, she isn’t much of a screamer. As there is little I detest in an action or horror film character than a constant screamer, I gained a new appreciation for certain aspects of Spielberg’s vision of Jurassic Park‘s characters.

A couple years ago, when I was teaching a freshman composition class, I gave an assignment that required students to take a particular film and write two reviews of it, each geared toward a different audience. For the sample paper I wrote two reviews of Jurassic Park, one from the standpoint of someone who enjoys any kind of action/adventure movie and one from the standpoint of a viewer who read the novel and was expecting more of a scientific thriller. While I still enjoy the movie, writing a negative review from the standpoint of a Michael Crichton die-hard was kind of a fun exercise. Here’s a copy of the negative film review:

Leave it to Steven Spielberg to turn Michael Crichton’s gripping scientific thriller into a by-the-numbers action/adventure story. Despite top-of-the-line CGI-rendered special effects by ILM and outstanding casting by Spielberg’s people, in many ways the movie remains “Indiana Jones meets Land of the Lost.”

In particular, the director’s decision to cast Sam Neil’s character, Dr. Alan Grant, as a kid-hater forced to protect two frightened pre-teens comes across as a fairly hackneyed plot-device. While this does stay true to the original story in that Dr. Grant does get stranded with Tim and Lex for a large part of the novel, making him a kid-hater who needs to be reformed over the course of the movie doesn’t really add anything to his character, nor to the overall conflict of the story. Instead it merely succeeds in creating a few laughs early on and a touching scene aboard the escape helicopter at the end. For the rest of the film, this aspect of his character is conveniently forgotten as he and the kids spend most of the film either screaming and running from the T-Rex or wandering aimlessly through the jungle.

The relationship between Dern and Neil’s characters is another unnecessary plot-device that fails to add any conflict or substance to the film. Indeed, their relationship as teacher and grad student in the book comes across as more sincere and heart-felt than their alleged romance in the movie.

Despite all of this, the basic premise behind the novel remains true: the discovery of an astonishing new technique for cloning dino DNA leads to its reckless plan to capitalize on this discovery by turning it into a theme park for families. Yet the helpless terror that the characters face when the illusion of control crumbles before them is never really achieved in the film. Certainly, there are a number of intense chase scenes and battles between giant reptiles, but the focus on relationships between characters are clichéd and distracting enough to prevent the film from becoming the epic thriller it could have been.

While deviations from plot and characters are typically necessary when turning a story from novel into movie, the feel-good adventure movie that is Jurassic Park utterly fails to deliver Crichton’s terrifying vision of cloning gone bad on a secluded island in the Pacific Ocean.

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