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Archive for the category “Literature”

The next socially-acceptable prejudice

Here is a list of reasons why on various occasions one or more people have looked at me like I’m the most ignorant and/or evil person on earth (no particular order):

  • I’m Catholic
  • I think applesauce is the best pancake/waffle topping ever
  • I find no redeeming value in rap music
  • I think split infinitives, sentence fragments, and Oxford commas kick ass
  • I don’t believe that religion and science are irreconcilable
  • I feel like American Sign Language follows a far more logical and efficient structure than spoken English
  • There was nothing predictable, inevitable, or cyclical about the fall (or rise) of the Roman Empire
  • I don’t particularly object to the idea of same-sex marriage
  • I fail to see M-dashes as an effective replacement for parentheses in prose
  • I believe the path to heaven has everything to do with one’s treatment of other people and next to nothing to do with strict adherence to the Bible

I’ve never been persecuted for any of these beliefs and opinions, per se, but I can think of at least three people who won’t talk to me ever again because I’ve expressed one or more of these in their presence. (And to be fair, there are people who’ve admitted that they like me better for several of these opinions.) It is very likely that I’ll have one or more readers who will stop reading before finishing the above list. And it is similarly likely that I’ll have one or more readers who will attempt to argue with one or more of the above points in their comments.

It was the “Catholic” part that got me the nastiest look from a friend of a friend during a book discussion group a few years ago. She gave me a fairly cold glare, then refused to look at me the rest of the night. As for the guy who gave me a funny look over the ASL thing, dude didn’t know there was more to Sign Language than the alphabet and was a firm believer maintaining the purity of the English language. I expect he’d have been more appalled by my thoughts on split infinitives and sentence fragments.

I’m a big enough man to acknowledge, however, that I haven’t always been a believer in several of the above beliefs and viewpoints. These are all views that I’ve come to throughout my life’s experiences, and I’m not afraid to admit that any of the above views may change just as my life experiences change. As an example: until just a few years ago, I was opposed to gay marriage. It was having the opportunity to get to know a few gay people and talk to them that helped change my attitude. I had the chance to finally learn that they’re not at all like the TV stereotypes—that for the most part they’re just regular people who happen to be in love with someone of the same gender.

On the other hand, my negative opinion of rap music hasn’t improved at all over the years. I disliked all forms of rap in the ’80s, ’90s, ’00s, and still today—despite multiple efforts to acquire a taste for it because my friends were into it.

The trouble I’m seeing is that we seem to live in an American society where the most popular (most socially acceptable, really) reason to hate someone is because of their viewpoints—because their life’s experiences have led them to see things differently from how we see them. We seem to have this assumption that if someone who disagrees with us knew and had experienced the same things we know and have experienced, they would see things exactly the same way we see them. (And we do this despite the fact that we can all think of times in our lives when we’ve changed our stance on a viewpoint after gaining new information and a new understanding of the belief.) I find this to be a lazy assumption to make, as, for all we know, we might see things from the other person’s perspective if we shared their knowledge and experiences.

It troubles me further that every dispute seems to get reduced to a matter of good versus evil (or at least good versus ignorant). And it doesn’t have to even be about something particularly important. In the Total War: Rome 2 forums, I continuously see people call each other “f—ing retards” over whether or not Spartan hoplites could take Roman legionaries. Discussion forums in general have become the most verbally abusive places on the internet. I think that because these are not face-to-face arguments, there’s less sense of accountability for how we address each other, and thus people put less thought into the fact that there are living, breathing, thinking people who are seeing and reading their words. I’ve seen both pro- and anti-gun-control advocates declare that anyone on the other side of the debate “needs to be shot.” Similarly, I’ve seen anti-death-penalty folks tell the pro-death-penalty folks to go kill themselves and pro-lifers wish pro-choicers’ parents had gotten an abortion.

I mean, seriously? 

It’s unfortunate that so few of the people on either side of the above arguments ever attempt to understand where the people on the opposing side are coming from. They say to ‘never compromise on your beliefs,’ but I honestly have a lot of respect for people who are willing to compromise—willing to acknowledge merit in the opinions and viewpoints of those who disagree with them, rather than dismiss them as “part of the problem.”

New blog launch!

Just launched my new blog, it’s at http://heroineimages.wordpress.com/. Spent the afternoon putting together the new blog and writing the ‘about,’ ‘introduction,’ and ‘links’ as well as the first post. It’s based on my previous two entries about commenting on women fantasy characters in smart, practical attire. (See previous discussions here and here.)

As I’m still learning how to build a blog and learning WordPress’s system, please feel free to offer feedback on the page itself as well as the individual posts. And please enjoy.

New Blog Idea

My previous blog post about sartorially smart heroines gave me an idea for a new blog. I’ll go ahead and toss this out there just to get any kind of feedback and advice on my idea.

There are a lot of image blogs and galleries out there that celebrate the smartly dressed heroine in various sci-fi, fantasy, steampunk, anime, modern adventure, etc. Fuck Yeah, Women in Armor, Shield Maidens, and Armored Women, are all very good ones, and I occasionally check up on Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor in hopes that it will start updating again. While these blogs feature amazing images of paintings, drawings, even photos of women characters in effective adventuring apparel, I find them to be sadly short on commentary and explanation as to why these are useful and effective outfits.

My idea is to start a new blog here on WordPress to offer commentary to go along with the images. I plan to discuss why I find particular outfits to be effective: what works in terms of protectiveness, utilitarianism, story (if applicable), setting, environment, character role, thematic appropriateness, and genre appropriateness. As such, I intend to focus mainly on the outfit, rather than the character herself—when character comes into play, it will be in terms of how the outfit helps her complete her particular role. As in, if I decide to offer a commentary on Princess Leia’s commando gear from Return of the Jedi, it will be for the sake of the uniform’s function on their intended mission, rather than, say, a contrast with her slave-girl costume from Jabba’s Palace.

My plan is to start out by offering a couple posts per week just to see if it creates any kind of interest from readers. If there is enough interest and demand, I may try to up that to 3–4 times per week. We’ll see what happens. What does everyone think on this idea? Please offer any thoughts, questions, or suggestions, or even just a ‘like’ if you think it’s a useful idea.

Sartorially Smart Heroines

Ouch

Source: Deviant Artist LuckyFK

I’m a big fan of smartly-dressed heroines. Of these, there are far too few in fantasy-adventure stories. Like the unfortunate elf maiden above, there are far too many women characters in fantasy stories who wear armor and apparel that would get them killed under most combat circumstances. Too many Amazon warriors in chain-mail bikinis and elf sorceresses in lingerie-ish robes of +3 sexiness. Video and computer game makers are especially guilty of this, choosing to market their product to the pocket-mining demographic so common among gamers. And it’s hard to fault their marketing overmuch—boobs make money. But, realistically, armor that covers as much as the average bikini won’t keep the busty Amazon’s insides inside, nor will the sorceress’s frilly robes hold up for the average forest trek or dungeon crawl. And, believe it or not, there are some of us who prefer realism in our fantasy.

This isn’t to say that the armor and apparel has to be historically accurate. Just because a story is a “medieval fantasy” doesn’t place it under any obligation to be historically faithful to the Middle Ages. If it’s a period piece, that’s different: I hope the writers, filmmakers, game makers, etc do what they can to make the piece as historically accurate as they know how. But a medieval fantasy story should be able to include whatever adventuring apparel it wants so long as its (a) thematically appropriate for the genre, (b) protects what needs protecting, and (c) suits the character’s quest/mission/role.

Do I have criteria for what is acceptable versus unacceptable? Not really. Every adventuress’s situation is different depending on her mission, environment, fantasy world, type of enemy, and fantasy genre. The lady knight is going to choose a different armor depending on if she’s leading men-at-arms or scouting for brigands. The steampunk sniper will want different camouflage whether she’s hiding in the city, desert, forest, or mountains. And the intergalactic huntress will need a different type of armor for combating rail-gun-toting battle droids than she will for giant beetles that bleed acid. I rather doubt that any of these ladies will journey out clad in beachwear or formal, evening attire.

Here are examples of fantasy adventuring apparel that I find very effective:

LotRO Ladies

Lord of the Rings Online ladies. Left to right: Captain, Hunter, Champion, Burglar. Screenshots taken from game play.

One of the big shout outs I’ll give to Lord of the Rings Online is that it does a very good job of keeping the Heroes and Heroines of Eriador well protected. The costuming is more customizable than any action RPG I’ve encountered, but other than the occasional noble’s dress or elvish gown, all of the attire is appropriate for the standard adventuress in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The dwarven plate mail is somewhat bulky (Champion) and the elf armor in general borders on overly ornate (Burglar), but I feel like in both cases the armor is protective as well as practical for any character who expects to be in the thick of the action.

I see this as a direct contrast to games like World of Warcraft where high-level shoulder armor is the size of Volkswagens, or Rift where the fronts of some of the armor are open almost to the poor girl’s bush. Whether it’s ridiculously massive or ridiculously sexualized armor, I tend to be leery of games, comics, etc that typically feature women warriors in impractical armor. Sadly, as medieval fantasy-adventure goes, few games are consistent as far as protectiveness in women’s armor. Dragon Age and Neverwinter Nights are generally okay, outfit-wise, but ones like the Guild Wars and Elder Scrolls games are fairly hit-and-miss.

Another form of impractical armor that is being smacked down more and more often of late is boob-plate. And with good reason. Sculpted cleavage essentially functions as a wedge positioned next to the warrior’s sternum, and thus receives most of the force of any blow she takes to the chest. It wasn’t something that I paid close attention to until recently, but after reading a couple articles on the structural problems with sculpted women’s breastplates, it’s hard for me to not take this into consideration.

Of course, not all adventuring apparel is armor. (I mean, if you think about it, the only use for armor is protection from physical attacks. It doesn’t protect from the heat or the cold, it’s often heavy and cumbersome, and typically a bitch to try to sleep in.) Adventuresses such as pirates, sorceresses, scouts, and rogues often adventure without armor and manage to get the job done. The important part is that these outfits fit the character’s particular role.

And none of this is to say that women characters can’t end up in a fight wearing less-than-practical attire. Sometimes adventure catches heroines unprepared and they have to save the world in their street clothes, evening gown, or bathrobe. Sometimes enemy insurgents start a riot during a parade and the Lady General must help quell it in her officer’s cuirass with the sculpted breastplate. Or the healer gets abducted in her sleep and has to break out of the enemy dungeon in her nighty. Or orcs attack the town while the Paladin is in her bath and she’s forced to battle the unwashed hordes wearing a towel. I mean, armor and many other types of adventuring apparel take time to don and sometimes even the most prepared heroines don’t get the chance to prep their battledress, so I don’t think this is impossible to realistically portray in a story. But I feel like in most scenarios when a competent woman fighter is prepping for the coming adventure, her clothing and travel attire will be the first thing she considers before stepping out her door. To assume otherwise is kind of insulting to competent heroines everywhere.

I’ll leave off with one of my favorite cartoons on the topic:

There are so many thing wrong with that outfit...

By Grace Vibbert (Milesent) for SCA.

Quick examples of smartly-dressed heroines in webcomics (in my opinion, anyway):

Also, here’s a quick list great articles, image galleries, and blog posts I found on the topic:

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

Book Review: Roman Conquests, Macedonia and Greece

Using a Barnes and Noble gift card I got for Christmas, several weeks ago I ordered Philip Matyszak’s Roman Conquests: Macedonia and Greece, published in 2009. I finished reading Friday afternoon and decided to type up a quick review for the blog and for anyone interested in the history. Doctor Matyszak ranks among my favorite contemporary historians on Ancient Greece and Rome (perhaps second only to Adrian Goldsworthy) and is author of such texts as Ancient Rome on 5 Denarii a Day and Legionary: The Roman Soldier’s (Unofficial) Manual. I’ve long been curious about the Roman conquest of Greece and Macedonia if for no other reason than that these are so often glossed over in comparison to other Roman conquests like Carthage, Gaul, and Britannia. While I’ve read bits and pieces of these campaigns in Plutarch and Livy, as well as modern historians such as Goldsworthy, this is the first volume I’ve encountered that dealt specifically and solely with the wars against Macedon and the more classical Greek city-states.

phalanx

Image courtesy Creative Assembly’s Rome: Total War

One trait I genuinely appreciate in Matyszak’s writing, in this book as well as his previous texts I’ve read, is that he has a very effective style of narration. It has the feel of someone telling a story, rather than some formal, academic style. He writes like someone who wants to create interest in his topic, rather than some academic who is writing strictly for an academic audience. The language is relaxed and accessible, making it easy to follow for folks outside the history field. In addition, Doctor Matyszak isn’t afraid to make light of the historical figures, cultures, or fighting styles with occasional pithy comments, observations, and comparisons. More than once he calls out various generals and statesmen on both sides of the conflict for treachery, miscommunications, bad decisions, or plain incompetence. He early on refers to Greek politics as a “snake pit” and gives constant examples throughout the book to reinforce the analogy. Indeed, the deliciously underhanded infighting amongst the many factions involved in this conflict was likely my favorite aspect of the book. Back-biting political f***ery at it’s finest.

In terms of scholarship, I greatly appreciate Doctor Matyszak’s fairly neutral stance on the right and wrong of these Roman conquests. At no point does he attempt to justify the battles, death, and conquest in terms of pro- or anti-imperialist sentiment as so many scholars have done since Edward Gibbon. Nor does Matyszak attempt to impose the framework of modern, Judeo-Christian morality upon a people who existed before Christianity. When he does explain possible reasons for the brutal actions of the Romans or Macedonians, he does so on their terms. Yes, the Romans were a brutal people. But it was a brutal reality in which they existed. Yes, the took slaves. Yes, they murdered surrendering soldiers. Yes, they burned cities and killed innocents. But guess what: so did everyone else for thousands of years before them.

If I have any issue with Macedonia and Greece—and this is entirely a personal preference—I’d have liked to see more maps. The text does include seven maps of the areas of interest within Macedon and Greece at the beginning, as well as a section of full-color visuals in the center. But when reading and researching military campaigns, I prefer to have visuals spread throughout the text, especially maps of the terrain and diagrams of significant battles. Additionally, I’d have liked somewhat more detailed descriptions of some of the battles that Matyszak glossed over in his efforts to focus on the politics and the effects of these battles. But, again, this is more of a preference than an actual objection.

All in all, I found Doctor Matyszak’s book to be well written and well researched. I definitely recommend it to anyone with an interest in ancient or military history.

Writers as Murderers

Several months ago, I got into an interesting, if brief, conversation on the message boards for one of my favorite webcomics. There was a bit of speculation going on over whether the comic’s writer was going to kill off one of her characters’ adorable little brother and sister. My initial comment was that she was foreshadowing in order to do one of the following: “(a) kill Vinny’s family or (b) merely make us paranoid that she’s going to kill Vinny’s family or (c) make us think she’s trying to make us paranoid so we’ll let our guard down while she kills Vinny’s family.” To which another user replied “The line between ‘writer’ and ‘murderer’ just… got a whole lot less definitive?” To which I replied, “As a student of both literature and composition, I can assure you that ‘writer’ and ‘murderer’ are hardly mutually exclusive occupations.”*

The conversation got me thinking about occasions where I felt profoundly affected by deaths of characters I liked in books, movies, etc. I can think of several times off the top of my head when I felt out of sorts after reading or watching the death of a particular character. I had to put down and walk away from Frank Herbert’s Dune for a while after Duncan Idaho was killed buying time for Paul and Lady Jessica to escape. He wasn’t a super-important character to begin with, but I kept expecting him to claim a bigger role in the narrative, particularly after he rescued them in the first place. And suddenly he’s dead, admittedly taking down a number of bad guys with him. Similarly, I stalled in seeing Joss Whedon’s Serenity for a long time because I’d heard that he kills two of the crew members. And since I really liked all of the crew, I didn’t want to find out who they were. When I finally saw it, I kinda figured Shepard Book would be one of the casualties, but like most fans I was caught completely off guard by Washburn’s sudden death. I remember feeling kind of rattled when it happened, then feeling kind of hollow for the rest of the movie.

I haven’t read any Shakespeare in several years, but he was notorious for killing off his more likeable characters. I recall reading Romeo and Juliet for the first time back in high school. The story quite nearly wrecked my view of Shakespeare forever, and for certain set it back by several years. (Why do high schools use R&J to introduce students to Shakey, anyhow? Or Hamlet? Or Macbeth? Why not start with something fun and uplifting like Twelfth Night or with a lot of action like Henry V? Do the curriculum designers really think teenagers are going to connect with all that death and drama? May rant on this in a future post.) Mercutio was about the only character I liked from the story–and of course he’s the first character to die. Leaving aside the fact that I had no way of knowing that this is standard operating procedure for Shakey, I recall being slightly rattled and rather annoyed by the loss of the one character I liked and felt any connection with.

Perhaps a better example is Boromir from the Lord of the Rings. I don’t recall having much opinion of him when I read the books. He was just kind of present the whole time. He traveled with the Fellowship for the entirety of Fellowship of the Ring, but he didn’t seem to play  a very large part in their travels. Considering his largest contribution to the story was trying to take the ring from Frodo, then getting killed by orcs, I wasn’t overly affected by his death. In the film however, not only did they give him a larger and more impactful part, but they cast Sean Bean in the role. I’m a longtime fan of Sean Bean and think he’s the most underrated tough-guy actor in the movie industry. His Boromir went from being a cardboard cutout whose only part in the story was a negative one, to a tragic hero worthy of Homer or Sophocles. Boromir essentially gets portrayed as the epic hero who has saved his people from their foes on many occasions–kicked ass and took names against the best that the Enemy has to offer. His only weakness being his desire to protect his people–a weakness which the ring exploits. In the novel, his name comes up in some of the fights scenes, but in the film he’s in the middle of the action, dishing out the damage like the a true son of Gondor should. And where the novel never actually shows us his ultimate fight scene, moviegoers get to see him lay to waste Uruk after Uruk even while mortally wounded and bleeding. I can almost visualize Hector of Troy giving him a fist-bump in the afterlife. It was a death scene that touched me. I don’t recall that I cried watching Aragorn kiss the top of his head as he lay him back against the tree, but I remember getting goosebumps over how well the scene was done.

But I think the time I was most affected by the deaths of likeable characters was reading Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, based on the 1959 murders of the Clutter family near Holcomb, Kansas. Admittedly, the fact that it’s a true story of violent and senseless murders might have colored my opinion a bit, but I felt sick reading the chapters where he introduces the victims. I loved the characters and his descriptions of the lives they led, but felt sick because I knew from the cover that this lovely family of wonderful characters was going to die. Mr and Mrs Clutter reminded me of any number of couples my parents are friends with. The antics of Kenyon, the younger brother, reminded me a great deal of stories about some of my uncles when they were teenagers. And the daughter, Nancy, was described as exactly the kind of girl I was attracted to in high school. Capote’s descriptions made me hate the killers before they were even introduced in the story.**

I don’t recall if I’ve said anything in the blog, but I am writing a novel that’s been bouncing around in my head for several years. It’s a fantasy/adventure story based on an off-handed comment that a former classmate made in one of our graduate courses, and last fall I finally started putting it to paper. I don’t know how long it will be or if anything big will come of it, but it’s been a fun project so far. As I’m typing this, I’ve got the prologue and chapters 1-5, am working on chs 6-7, and have various other scenes typed up for later in the book. I’ve wondered on occasion how readers might react if I killed particular characters from the story. A friend made me promise that I wouldn’t kill off Ryla, the young heroine, halfway through the story–which was an easy promise to make, as I hadn’t intended to anyway. But occasionally I’ve asked myself how my heroine and readers would respond if I killed one of her mentor figures, such as the old scout who teaches her to hunt, track, and shoot or the ex-mercenary who teaches her to use big swords. The sheer number of choices I could make when writing this novel is almost paralyzing, as such I’ve constantly rethought and re-rethought where I’m going with the story. As a fiction writer here’s a certain feeling of egotistical godliness that comes from knowing that I not only control the lives, situations, and emotions of my characters, but the emotions of my readers as well. I’m starting to learn that this is a very difficult privilege not to want to abuse.

I won’t lie, I’ve been rough on Ryla in these first few chapters, and don’t look to let up on her anytime soon. She loses the person she cares about most in the first couple chapters, and will likely lose others she cares about along the way. Similarly, she narrowly escapes a rape attempt in chapter 3 after getting slapped around and molested by the would-be rapists–and again, this likely won’t be the most dangerous situation she finds herself over the course of the story. My brother made the comment, “you must not like this girl. You’re awful mean to her.” But that isn’t the case at all. I honestly really like my young protagonist, and genuinely care about her and what happens to her. But at the same time I enjoy seeing how she deals with the emotional trauma and mortal danger. I like seeing how strong she is emotionally and constitutionally, and I love watching her overcome and grow from these horrible experiences. In the same way I want my readers to hurt for her, to sympathize with her plight, and to root for her as she overcomes the emotional obstacles and various dangers I place in her path. And I think the most potent of emotional obstacles is for her to watch those she cares about succumb to these same dangers she’s facing.

As I type out this thought process, I have to wonder, is this at all similar to the thoughts other writers have when they decide if, when, and how to kill their characters?

A sketch I did of Ryla, the young heroine from my story. Not happy with every element of the drawing, but I’m super pleased at how the pleated skirt came out.

*Opening conversation from the discussion comments at Amya Chronicles, comic #189.

**I can’t recommend In Cold Blood. It’s very descriptive and very well written, but I felt like Capote focused on the wrong characters. There were so many interesting characters and situations he could have focused on in the town’s reaction to the tragedy and from the search for the killers. Instead he focused most heavily on the killers themselves, who I had no sympathy for nor interest in. A pair of bed wetters who’re mad at the world because they were abused as children don’t get my sympathy when they use it as an excuse to kill innocent people.

Writing Talking

I tend to recall creative writing courses being less helpful than I’d have liked them to be. I took two of them as an undergraduate: an intro-level and an advanced. I liked the teacher for the advanced course well enough, but the prof for the intro class had kind of an east-coast liberal mentality that irked my Idaho farm-kid upbringing. The classes focused on ‘literary’ fiction. Within the first few weeks I determined ‘literary’ means ‘dry and depressing.’ I also found it to be kind of a hypocritical genre of writing in that writers who think of themselves as ‘literary’ tend to look down their noses at other genres of writing as being conventional and formulaic, when literary fiction has its own set of conventions and formulas.

I felt out of my element in both classes for various reasons, and the dry subject matter did nothing to help my mood. Very little of what was written in either class was uplifting by any measure. A couple stories featured murders. A couple more featured suicides. And one featured a murder/suicide. And that’s just the students’ stories, don’t get me started about the assigned readings. I learned also that creative writing students tend to view each other as potential competition, and thus get very defensive about their writing and offensive toward others’. (Writers can be an insecure lot. Me included.) This isn’t to say that I learned nothing from my classmates. There were several very talented writers in those classes, but I learned far more from their example than from their advice.

I think the best example of things that wrecked my respect for modern literary conventions was their opposition to using dialect in narration and character dialogue. Dialect is awesome. I love both reading and writing it. It gives a regional feel to the story, whether it’s being used by the narrator to establish scene or by characters to establish background. I did a simple experiment with dialect in a pseudo-medieval story for the intro class, trying to give a rural family of characters a rustic feel by replacing my with me and you and your with ye. The story included lines like ‘May I check ye bandages?’ and ‘Me father wishes to speak with ye.’ Apparently, that’s where I went wrong. My classmates trashed on it, indicating that it was distracting and made the family inconsistent with the other characters. One smug literature major dismissed it as cliche and infantile. The teacher said it was ‘over the top’–that it was different enough from the rest of the writing to distract readers from the story.

I was wise enough not to use dialect in the advanced class, but one of my classmates did, to a similar response. His story featured a Chinese immigrant who was still trying to master the conglomerative mess that is the English language. He went all-out with the dialect, using wery for very and swapping pronunciation of the ls and rs in the words. It was freaking awesome–some of the best use of dialect I’ve seen since Mark Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” I loved it, and said so in my response. I got some strange looks from the other critiquers when I said that it was great and that I enjoy reading stories written in dialect. They trashed on it, much like my classmates from the intro course did with my dialectical experiment. What they dismissed as ‘distracting,’ ‘stereotypical,’ and ‘bordering on ethnocentric’ really brought the character to life for me. It made him relatable, so that I sympathized not only with his struggles in the story, but his struggles with the English language as well.

I’m still scratching my head as to why use of dialect is considered ‘nonliterary.’ As a genre that prides itself on realism and descriptivism, wouldn’t literary fiction writers want their characters to sound like they’re from particular parts of the world? Sure, I’ve read bad dialect on occasion–Clarence Mulford is the first that comes to mind, and his isn’t badly written so much as painfully cliche. But there’ve been many famous writers of the literary canon who write beautiful and believable dialect, but for whatever reason, many modern literary writers who try to employ it get criticized for it’s use. I have to wonder if it’s one of those things where one famous writer or self-proclaimed expert said it should be avoided, and suddenly all writers who can’t think for themselves eliminate their use of it altogether. Kind of like when Strunk and White said to avoid using passive voice, or when Stephen King said ‘adverbs are not your friend’ and their mindless followers start going out of their way not use passive voice and adverbs.

Writers can be such conformists sometimes. Emerson would be ashamed.

Anyway, all this reminds me of a joke. How to talk like a hillbilly:
Hillbilly 1: M R ducks.
Hillbilly 2: M R not ducks.
Hillbilly 1: M R 2 ducks.
Hillbilly 2: naw, M R not ducks.
Hillbilly 1: S A R 2 ducks. C M wangs?
Hillbilly 2: L I B, M R ducks.

Picking at Movies’ Nits

I used to take great offense to the many film and television productions that don’t stay faithful to their source material–such as books or historical events/people or even previous film renditions of the screenplay. For a long time I was one of those people who felt the need to nitpick every movie I watch that’s based on something else–and to a degree, I think I took a certain amount of pride in being in a position to make such criticisms. Verily, it was like I saw it as my duty to find and point out every time a movie deviated from its source. While I like to think I’ve freed myself from that kind of negativity, even now I occasionally catch myself unconsciously picking nits and have to remind myself to just enjoy the !@#$ing movie.

The Lord of the Rings movies might be the first set of films where their deviations from the source material didn’t really bother me. I felt like, for the most part, Peter Jackson’s omissions were surgical–cutting out a lot of dead weight that would have slowed the pace of the film–and, again for the most part, his additions to the film helped bring out a better understanding of the characters and situation. I felt, for example, that enlarging Arwen’s part in the flick helped gave her character depth and relatability.* (I mean, in the books, she’s just kind of… present–I think she has one line of dialogue in the entire trilogy.) Similarly, the omission of scenes like Tom Bombadil’s forest and the Barrow Downs and Gan-Bury-Gan’s tribe really broke the pace of the story in Tolkien’s books, and I felt, both then and now, that removing them from the films was justifiable.

I believe it was seeing Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that did most change of attitude toward accuracy in movies. I went in to the theater expecting it to have little in common with Douglas Adams’s wacky sci-fi series–and thus found myself pleasantly surprised at what they did get right. While Sam Rockwell’s Zaphod Beeblebrox was a bit over-the-top, I enjoyed the movie and wasn’t overly bothered by the many deviations from Adams’s original vision of the story. I thought Martin Freeman’s portrayal of Arthur Dent was hilariously effective, and Warwick Davis and Alan Rickman were awesome as body actor and voice of Marvin the Robot. Plus, this was my first experience with Zooey Deschanel, who is delightful in everything she does. And I wasn’t particularly bothered by the scenes the directors added, as I felt they kept with the overall spirit of the story (and largely were additions Douglas Adams made when he wrote the screenplay).

From a standpoint of events and chronology, HBO’s Rome was only moderately historically accurate. As a lover of Caesar’s Commentaries and an avid reader of Adrian Goldsworthy’s studies, it wasn’t hard to go through and spot the historical deviations. I’m sure this would have bugged me years ago. I mean Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus were rival centurions briefly mentioned in the Commentaries, but the film makes Pullo a legionary, subordinate to Vorenus and makes both of them key figures in the cataclysmic events leading up to the fall of the Roman Republic. Similarly, almost nothing is known about Octavian’s mother, Atia, but in the film she’s a key character and a central, moving force to the events surrounding the civil war, Caesar’s assassination, and Octavian’s rise to Emperor of Rome. But what it lacks in accuracy, I feel it more than makes up for in brutal honesty. It tells tales of people from all levels of Roman society and the dirty, violent reality they lived in. And I feel does so with respect for the characters and their culture and time period. And, unlike many film representations of the ancient Romans, doesn’t carry a bunch of heavy-handed, anti-imperialist undertones.

I’ve discovered that, in general, I tend to enjoy movies better since my change of attitude. I’m sure I enjoyed Kingdom of Heaven and Gladiator much more than than I would have had I seen them a few years previous. When The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe came out in 2005, I thought it was delightful and very well done–despite several of my colleagues’ arguments to the contrary. Master and Commander: Far Side of the World, was immeasurably better than the novel Far Side of the World, a god-awful story by the otherwise incredible Patrick O’Brien. I’m one of few people who read the novel Jurassic Park before seeing the film, but find that I don’t like Spielberg’s vision any less than Crichton’s. I haven’t completely forgiven George Lucas, but I think I tend to be less hard on the Star Wars prequels than I used to be. And, now that I think of it, Disney’s animated films are seldom faithful to the stories, novels, fairytales, and folklore they’re based on, but on the whole I enjoy those as well.

This isn’t to say that I’ll tolerate just any such change to a story. There are plenty of films that I’ll likely never see again because of how they deviated from an original storyline. The first movie that comes to mind is the 2004 movie Troy (or Brad Pitt and the Giant Toga Party, as I once heard it called). And while I haven’t seen 300 in it’s entirety, I’ve seen enough to know that I don’t want to see the rest as it’ll just make me mad. The Fantastic Four movies were hardly accurate to the source comics, though that’s hardly the only thing that makes them bad movies.

I feel like so long as the production treats the source with respect and makes the change for reasons beyond making it appeal to modern audiences, it’s a change that I can rationalize. And, honestly, if someone is that bothered by deviations from historical fact, they should probably never read Shakespeare’s many wildly inaccurate historical plays.

*The only issue I had with the way they added Arwen to the LotR films was that they had her replace Glorfindel–easily the most badass of the surviving elves. I mean, dude rode a Balrog down a cliffside in the Silmarillion; I’d like to see Orlando Bloom top that!

The Good, the Bad, and the Mythology

I’ve been studying Greek Mythology off and on since about the sixth grade. While I haven’t taken classes on it and only own a few mythology books, these stories remain important to me and led to my interest in Ancient Greek history, which led to my interest in Ancient Roman history. But for much of the time I’ve studied mythology, there was always something that bothered me about modern representations of ancient myths. It was something I couldn’t explain, but it was a trait that all of these representations had in common. From movies to young adult books to computer and video games, there was an inexplicable common thread they all had that I could never pin down, but that bugged me to no end because it made the stories feel wrong.

Several years ago, I finally figured out what was bugging me. It’s the fact that pretty much all of these movies, books, and games were treating these myths as ‘good versus evil’ conflicts. This vexes me because the Ancient Greeks didn’t think in terms of good versus evil–this dichotomy is largely a Judeo/Christian construct. On close analysis, none of the gods were inherently good nor evil. All of them were capable of benevolent acts of compassion and spiteful acts of disproportionate revenge. Even the Titans–who’ve become popular villains in mythology-based computer and video games the past fifteen years–were essentially trying to protect themselves from the threat that the Olympians posed to their rule.

I think the most common modern misrepresentation is when movies make Hades synonymous with Satan (I’m looking at you, Disney…). In truth, of Kronos’s three sons, Hades was probably the least ignoble. Sure, he was kind of a hard-nosed bastard to heroes like Heracles, Theseus, and Orpheus when they entered his realm, but these uppity mortals were trespassing on his turf. Hades’s only truly villainous act, at least that I can find, was his abduction of Demeter’s daughter, Persephone. Yes, it was against her will, certainly, but in the end he was willing to work out a compromise with the surface gods, and, to the best of my knowledge, remained faithful to her ever afterwords. How many maidens were similarly abducted by wise and benevolent Zeus? And how many of these abductees did he bother to protect from the wrath of the ever-vengeful Hera? And yet, Hades is the villain?

Being somewhat naive at the time, I had genuinely high hopes for the movie Troy when it hit theaters in 2004. Homer’s Iliad is one of my favorite pieces of literature, and I was stoked to get to see a large-scale film representation of it. The key reason I love the Iliad is that there were good guys and bad guys on both sides of the conflict. The Trojans and the Achaean Greeks were two hot-headed powerhouses with legitimate grievances against the other. It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but I don’t recall that Homer tried to establish who was right or wrong in this fight. Highest among the changes that bugged me about Troy was that the Greeks were quite clearly depicted as the bad guys–as being in the wrong. Agamemnon, who was merely power-hungry and had to be talked out of withdrawing in Homer’s version, became genuinely sinister and obsessed with taking the city. Similarly, Homer portrayed Menelaus as being genuinely conflicted over whether or not to kill Helen or take her back, yet the film depicts him as resolute in breaking Helen’s neck. While the duels in Troy were well done and the battle scenes were suitably epic, the film’s constant misrepresentation of the conflict continues to color my opinion of the movie.

I’ve heard arguments that by reducing these stories to good versus evil, modern storytellers are trying to help the myths appeal to modern audiences. My response is duh, what else could they stand to gain from mutating the mythology. My issue is that–on top of disrespecting the storytelling skills of the original authors and the cultures they represented–modern writers, movie makers, etc are missing out on the opportunity to tell far more interesting, nuanced stories about heroic, tragic, ultimately human characters, be they gods or mortals.

Thracian Centaur

Another image I drew for my godson. For this one I took an Angus McBride painting of a Pict on horseback and drew him as a centaur.

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