Sunday, October 14, 2012

Farewell to Twilight, and some parting advice

Well, that explosion of literary diarrhea’s finally behind me. I can’t tell you what a relief it is, knowing I can finally burn the books and never have to subject myself to Bella and Edward without the protective barrier of Rifftrax again.

Maybe to finally close the book (literally) we can go off on some of the lessons we’ve learned. Aspiring authors and overenthusiastic fans alike, take note.

Don’t make characters invincible just because you can.

Once upon a time, there was a show called Samurai Jack, about a samurai warrior who tries to defeat a being of pure evil but during their battle is thrown into a future where the evil being’s already taken over the world. As the theme song informs us, he’s “gotta get back, back to the past, Samurai Jack,” in order to keep this dystopian world from coming about.

While I thought the show suffered some for giving the character a goal he can never achieve or it would automatically end the show, it made for some pretty good viewing. And before it came out, the creator pointed out in behind-the-scenes stuff how you could look at the hero and see the bad guys getting their licks in sometimes too, with all the cuts, bleeding and torn clothing. “Weaknesses make the character stronger,” he said.

Meyer probably heard that herself somewhere, but lacked the wherewithal to do anything with it. Thing is, if you give your characters weaknesses but never work those weaknesses into the story, they don’t count. And no, New Moon, the one time we see a vampire lose their cool, doesn’t count either because once that’s over still nothing’s been done to account for that happening in the future. Perhaps because it never happens again.

After reading all those books, I can only come to the conclusion that Meyer was talking solely about how her vampires are more ridiculously powerful than other people's, and it had nothing to do with the characters' morality or how they decide to use their powers, or even the story purposes of giving characters great abilities, but bothering to give them obstacles that are still challenging.

This just makes it even worse with how Meyer has all these characters with all these awesome abilities, and appears to have them just so they can have them. There’s really no reason for the Cullens to be vampires instead of just incredibly pretty and rich, other than because it means they’ll stay the way they are forever. Edward hardly ever uses his awesome abilities for anything except stalking Bella and sneaking into her room without her dad knowing.

Would you watch a show or read a comic about Superman staying home and watching TV, and think that was cool? One that takes itself as seriously as Twilight does?

So basically it seemed like Meyer wrote awesomely-powerful beings as her main cast, then couldn’t think (or couldn’t bear to write) anything about them putting those powers to interesting use. Why have them have powers if that’s what you’re going to do? The way she writes it she’s basically saying “My characters are so much more awesome than you and your friends and everybody else’s characters. They’re so awesome they don’t have to prove it.”

Work for that happy ending.

I don’t care what you say Meyer, you aren’t writing for babies. Your heroes get raped, break the law, have sex  and dismember people multiple times. If this were a TV show it would air after ten. You’re writing for an old enough audience that your characters need to be seen expending some amount of effort to receive their reward.

The main character doesn’t have to move heaven and Earth to deserve a satisfying end to their experience. But they need to do something. Take for example Luke Skywalker. He’s one of the first guys I and many people think of when they imagine heroes and characters willing to fight the good fight.

But for all the hardships he endures, all the skills and discipline he gains in his fight against the Empire and his graduation to Jedi Knight, how much does he really contribute to the happy ending in Return of the Jedi? He doesn’t kill the bad guy or destroy the villains’ doomsday weapon. Darth Vader and Lando did those.

Yet, he did something pretty big and something he’d been hoping to do for a long time, which was to redeem his father. By refusing to choose evil, he reminded Darth Vader that once he was a good guy too, and helped him become a good guy again. He can go on to help fight the remnants of the Empire and restore the Jedi order knowing bad people can change.

Nobody earned anything in the Twilight series, it just came to them magically, especially in Bella’s case. When the Cullens fought James they had him ridiculously outnumbered, and when Edward killed Victoria he was fighting some vague idea of a person who’d never gotten the chance to show how badass they were. When some amount of effort is demonstrated to achieve a goal, like running to stop Edward from exposing himself, it’s usually something that never would’ve become a problem in the first place if the cast had two brain cells to rub together.

This goes hand-in-hand with making your threats real. I’ve seen fans say critics of the books were stupid for complaining that the vampires aren’t scary enough because Twilight isn’t horror, it’s romance. Which would make sense if not for how every single book had supernatural creatures locked in deadly combat (or with threat of same hanging over their heads) because of wanting to kill the narrator for one reason or another. It may not be in its usual genre, but it’s the only thing driving what passes for a plot in these books. You still gotta make that work, if you’re going to use it as often as Meyer does.

If you’re going to say something, know what the hell you’re talking about.

Some years ago I was in one of those Half-Price Books stores and was going through a rack of surplus computer games when I found one about a bar where time travelers and aliens are as likely to walk in for looking for a beer as anybody. It was about going on a bunch of different little adventures, each of which explored something about the human condition.

That game was of course Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon, based on the short story anthology and its various sequels and spinoffs. I’d rather you read these yourself than I try to explain them to you, but basically they’re stories of the fantastic which are both very humorous and very poignant. The bar seems to be some kind of magnet for people in need of help, and the stories into their conditions and how the patrons help them out really show you that Robinson knows what he’s talking about.

Another thing it has that would’ve helped Twilight out immensely is being willing to call out even characters we’re supposed to like as being dumb and childish. And in the main Callahan's story where that shows up, it also has the characters explore the reasons to look down on the human race. But those reasons are because of what huge assholes we can be, not because we're not as good as a species the author made up (whose physical superiority only amplified their ability to be complete shitheads, so I'm not sure what Steph was even trying to say).

I don’t need to say Stephenie Meyer has no idea how to write a sympathetic character in the first place, let alone how to write intelligently on matters psychological or strategic. Or comparing her drivel to the classics. Oh sure, she writes a perfectly believable set of angst-ridden, self-righteous teenagers, but most of them aren’t supposed to be.

A corollary to this is “have someone whose opinion you trust, who isn’t afraid to tell you something you did sucks.” There are lots of ways to become an expert at something. Study. Practice. But learning from your mistakes in the area is one of the best.

Choose a focus.

I’m going to pick kind of an odd example here, which is the book Ready Player One. It’s about people hunting for a huge cash prize inside of a giant online role-playing game. And I’m probably going to offend somebody by saying the focus really wasn’t on the plot or the obstacles the main characters overcame.

That’s because the plot’s about a bunch of spunky underdogs standing up to two-dimensionally evil corporate bullies. That’s the same plot as Ernest Goes to Camp. And the tests to advance in the search are things you can’t realize that well with just the written word, because they’re things like beating old videogames and reciting the lines from a geek movie. Sure, Art3mis was an interesting character, but I still think the romance subplot feels tacked on.

But that’s okay, because the plot was mainly an excuse to wallow in 80’s pop culture anyway. That was its focus. The setting was simply a handy means of doing so.

(Just for the record, Raideen doesn’t “clutch” its “signature golden bow.” It’s built right into the arm. Yes, that bugged me. And yes, that only proves I’m the kind of person the book was written for)

It’s hard to say what the focus is in Meyer’s work, because she doesn’t seem to actually focus on anything. The romantic scenes are lifeless and it’s not until right up at the very end that Eddie and Bella actually seem to be enjoying their relationship at all. And the vampires coming to kill them can’t be the focus, because all that stuff happens as far away from Bella as it’s possible to get. When we finally have a confrontation with the Volturi, these most terrifying of opponents are driven away by logic below the kind you’d see on a high school debate team.

If you think you’re writing about a scary, paranormal side of the world we know, read some Dresden Files or watch some Garo and think again.

I’ve used that series as an example so many times, there’s no need for more examples now.

If you’re unable or unwilling to show things central to your premise, your premise is broken. End of story.

In closing, I wish to beg the forgiveness of Spider Robinson, Jim Butcher, Genndy Tartakovsky, Ernest Cline and anyone else whose work I ever mentioned in the same thought as Twilight (even George Lucas. At least the early stuff). Even though it’s almost guaranteed to be because I was saying why it was better.

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