Tag Archives: musing

The skill in imitation

One somewhat controversial thing I believe about writing is that it’s very good to be able to imitate other writers’ styles. Other writers and scholars thereof might disagree, failing to see any practical application for it, and protesting that it’s more important to refine and develop your own unique voice rather than trying to copy someone else’s. (You often hear that argument when people denigrate the writing of fan fiction.) But I maintain it’s not only good practice, it’s actually a skill worth having for its own sake.

Voice is an important aspect of writing, as it influences mood, feel, tone, and style. But I think an author shouldn’t necessarily be limited, or limit themselves, to only one. As nice and useful as it can be to have a signature style, I think it’s good to be able to adapt your writing to sound different for different pieces, or even for establishing different characters. If you don’t find some way to be flexible that way, you run the risk of making everything sound the same no matter the feel of the piece you may be going for– or worse, you make everything sound like you, which I find to be a sign of immature work. So imitating the sound of other writers’ styles and voices is an exercise in developing your flexibility. It requires you to stretch yourself beyond your natural impulses or current artistics strengths in order to create something that sounds like someone else’s work, which broadens the possibilities for what you’re capable of depicting. It gives you more control over the voice you give any one project, and enables a wider variety of feels and effects you can impart to your work.

This for me ties into the appeal of fan fiction. I know not everybody is this way, but both when I’m reading and writing fan fiction, I’m looking for more of the story I already love, with more of the things I love about it. So I’m drawn to pieces that stylistically capture the soul of the original. That also means that when I’m writing it myself, that’s what I’m shooting for– something that believably feels like it could be part of what’s canon. So I make a special effort to study and emulate the way the original material is written in my fic. The best job I ever did at this was with my piece for the BBC radio comedy Cabin Pressure. I wrote basically a script for an additional episode of the series which, after the fashion of its idiosyncratic episode titling system, I called “San Tropez”. Cabin Pressure has a very specific, British style of humor with characters who have highly distinctive voices, and I worked very hard to capture them. If I may say so, I’m really proud of how good a job I did. I’ve gotten a number of comments from readers saying I nailed the style and voices exactly, and that it’s both funny and extremely in character.

But not only do I think it’s just good practice for increasing flexibility in other projects. I think it’s actually a useful skill in its own right. For collaborative projects, particularly ones that run for a while and have teams of writers, being able to fit in with the “house style” is essential. I have dreams of someday writing for television, and writers’ rooms have to have some degree of cohesion to make all the episodes feel consistent with each other. People tend to notice when the “voice” or “style” of a television show gets inconsistent or deviates from what is established, and reactions are usually disapproving. Sometimes it’s even at fault for what people describe as Seasonal Rot. In that case it would be a necessity for me to be able to adapt to a certain voice that may or may not naturally be mine.

So it’s more than just an amusing little “party trick” for writers of fan fiction. It’s actually a powerful developmental tool for a writer to expand their toolkit, and sometimes even demanded by a collaborative situation to keep the pieces all cohesive. So I like challenging myself to play in someone else’s sandbox every now and then.

Choices of the Author, Death of the Author, and Something in between…

When it comes to literary interpretation, I have a few concepts I use as guides for understanding the meaning of a work. Since I got into some discussions where people didn’t necessarily see the delineations I did, I thought I’d talk about some of the concepts I use to make it clear how I approach things– specifically as regards the impact of design.

By “design” I mean the choices the artist made in putting the piece together that creates some effect on the audience. In writing, the storyteller begins with a theoretical “blank page,” and anything that makes it onto that page had to be put there. The level of thought or intention behind each thing may be variable, but still the writer had to decide to include it or else it wouldn’t be there. That means it had the potential to be done for a particular reason, because of the effect it would create in the audience experiencing it. Authors rarely approach their work with zero intention, so there is almost always at least SOMETHING they included specifically for the effect they hoped it would create.

This makes up the first level I think you can analyze on– taking into account the author’s plans, choices, and efforts. The creator decides they would like to imbue a particular meaning in the work and makes design choices that are designed to achieve that effect. It’s not the be all and end all, of course, but these are important if only because they shape the final product; in their absence, you would not have the work as you know it. Now, jsut because the writer meant to put something into a story doesn’t mean they succeeded. They have have failed, in whatever way for whatever reason. But the intentions still matter, because of how they influence what choices are made in the design.

On the other end of the spectrum is of course Death of the Author– where once an artist has finished a work, they have no further influence over its meaning, and whatever the audience sees in it is legitimately present. Personally I use a limited version of this in interpretation. This is a very necessary perspective, as you cannot influence the way an audience experiences your work, so what it brings out of them in response is always important no matter what the intended effect was. I tell my students that whatever you can justify with a line of reasoning, you can legitimately say you see in the piece. I tend to draw a line, however, when things are so far beyond the scope of the creator’s possible perspective, or when the reading requires so much extrapolation as to be completely removed from the text. For example, I doubt Shakespeare has much to do with ideas on artificial intelligence, given the subject matter of his plays and the period of history he comes from. But still, I believe the way an audience experiences a work is always relevant to examining it.

Most people are familiar with those two lines of thinking. But I also think there’s something in between. Not just things the author intended, nor what rises from the audience’s experience– but also what got in there through the author’s actions but in the absence of intention, or sometimes even awareness. This comes from the idea that no one is one hundred percent self-aware and may do things without realizing, or at least without realizing why. As this is true in our everday lives, so is it true in the making of our creative work. Writers can do this with how they design things and gets results that may not have been intended, but were still demonstrable results form the writer’s choices.

Here’s an example. Say a writer is including a father character in their work. This writer had a dad who was kind of a jerk, but doesn’t realize that this was a quality unique to their father in particular. Unconsciously, the writer has generalized this to all fathers. So, when the writer goes to write a father in their story, he incorporates the jerk qualities without intending to write a jerk, because they don’t see that in their mind, “jerk” and “father” are inextricably bound. This results in a character who is readably a jerk, and whose jerk qualities demonstrably rose from the choices the writer made, but NOT because the writer meant to create a jerk.

This may seem like a pointless distinction, but I think it’s important– because both the writer’s choices AND the audience’s perceptions are important. This extra shade of classification helps for better understanding of how stories are made, and what factors create the meaning and power of a story. The better we understand that, the better we understand how stories affect us, and how to build stories with the power to do so.

The relative importance of tone

Tone tends to be very important to me when it comes to whether or not I can become absorbed in a given piece of media. By tone, I mean the overall feeling and vibe a piece gives off, plus the attitude they take towards their story or subject matter. Embracing the right tone for the right story is something I care very deeply about, and can make the difference between obtaining my buy-in to the tale you’re telling or shutting out my sympathy completely.

This can have an even more significant effect when I’m already invested in a property. For example, contributing to my notorious pickiness about fan fiction is that if I feel a fic has a tone that doesn’t fit properly with the original, I usually cannot get into it at all. I guess it doesn’t necessarily have to reproduce the same tone exactly, but unless it feels compatible, it just doesn’t work for me. Similarly, in a series, if later installments go too far off the tone, or embrace a tone that doesn’t gel with earlier ones, I get skeptical and put off.

Recently I experienced this most strongly (at least in the anticipation) of Guardians of the Galaxy. The Marvel movies have generally had a light tone that was not SO frivolous as to cut off drama, which I’ve always thought worked for them. When Guardians was announced, I was seriously doubting that it was going to work in context with the rest of the series. It pushed the boundaries of the silliness and weirdness allowed by the series, and I thought it was going to be really ATONAL, disrupting the vibe the world had established. I was surprised to find that Guardians worked, even with the tone shift, probably mostly because it wasn’t quite as exaggerated as I thought it would be, and because it existed at such a remove from the other stories, a literal galaxy away.

I am still doubtful of when the Guardians stuff bleeds into the already-established-on-Earth stuff. I still don’t quite buy the notion of Rocket Raccoon existing in the same universe as Jessica Jones. Though to be honest, Daredevil and Jessica Jones are a fair bit darker than the films ever got, which is a tone shift of another kind. I guess when I get dramatically invested, I’m more likely to buy things getting a bit darker than getting sillier. That may just be my personal bias.

But it’s something to think about in my own work. It occurred me to that maybe my silly Woodhouse parody larp Woodplum House could be part of the Breaking History universe, except that it’s REALLY out there tonally from the rest, and that gave me pause. Again, it was weird thinking of that and Mrs. Hawking existing in the same world and theoretically being able to meet. Okay, I think she’s dead by the 1920s, but that’s beside the point. Hell, I’m even slightly worried about how the Hawking stories are going to take a slightly darker turn with the second trilogy. I don’t want to go all grimdark even so, and I don’t want to alienated people who liked the tone of the first set. I have to tell the story I have to tell– just as any writer does –but it’s one more of the many things to take into consideration when you’re taking on the challenge of serializing.

That je ne sais quoi

In Mad Men, a television show that I would not say I like but still totally fascinates me, a recurring theme is the idea that things either ARE, or they AREN’T, the notion that some stuff just doesn’t have that je ne sais quoi to make it what it is supposed to be. An example that recurs is the state of the Draper marriage, which to all surface appearances looks like the perfect idealized union of the 1960s, but in reality is fundamentally and fatally flawed within. Another example is when the advertising client Pepsi requests a shot-by-shot imitation of Ann-Margret singing Bye Bye Birdie, and the resulting imitation seems to have all the details of the original but for some reason none of the charm. It is, in keeping with the cynical attitude of the series, a rather bleak view, giving the implication that such things are immune to effort, growth, or development to become what they are trying to be. But even if you do reject the notion, as I do, that things can never improve or become what they are striving to be with effort or practice, there is still the ineffable factor to be considered that makes somethings different from other things. There is often something that we cannot quite put our finger on, sometimes an unquantifiable quality that can influence how we see, view, or experience a given thing.

I find this concept to be relevant when critiquing or even just experiencing art. Because art is to such a large degree subjective, despite the presence of rules of thumb that provide guidelines for what sort of artistic expression tends to be the most effective or moving, there will always be the matter of what appeals to individual taste and what does not. Or sometimes there can even be an unnameable reason why people like something even though it is qualitatively similar to something they dislike. If you have a piece of art that works, it almost does not matter what rules it breaks. The rules exist to help us figure out what works, but they are the means to the end of creating a reaction in the audience. If that reaction is caused anyway, adherence to rules is ancillary. There are many pieces of art that do not seem to conform to what we consider to be objectively good, but still managed to be good because they for whatever reason work on the audience.

When your primary medium is drama, as mine is, this can be especially present. A piece of drama is meant to be experienced beyond simply what the dramatist rights on the page. If a piece “plays well,” it often creates quite a different effect on the audience than when simply experiencing it through reading it and applying conventional literary assessment. Sometimes the difference is quantifiable, but sometimes it is very hard to pin down what is making the difference. And often it is completely subjective, a total matter of taste.

In interpretive pieces, like plays and screenplays, which require collaboration between numerous other artists in order to be fully realized, the other contributors may be that additional factor. Plenty of times, a dramatic work is rescued by the presence of a talented or charismatic actor, or a weak actor sinks even a good script. But even what makes a good or likable actor is hard to pin down. Generally we like people who are pretty and expressive. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and we each can see meaning in different things depending on our perspective. Sometimes we bring our own baggage to things, where an emotional response in us drives us to bring our own meaning that’s not necessarily being offered by the “text.” Betty Draper, to continue with the Mad Men example, reminds me of a lot of personal issues, so even though the actress is generally considered to be on the flat side, I find her compelling and fascinating even when perhaps objectively she is not. By contrast, I find Scarlett Johansson so wooden that any character played by her is immediately contaminated in my eyes, whereas plenty of other people don’t have nearly so much problem with her.

It’s tough to nail down things that can vary from person to person. I just know we can’t rely on hoping the audience will pick up the slack in our work, because we can never precisely predict what will speak to people and what won’t.

How Bojack Horseman is revolutionizing the Unlikeable Tortured Protagonist

You may have heard me talk of a weird little Netflix show about anthropomorphic animals that’s been getting a bit of press lately by the name of “Bojack Horseman.” More than once I’ve heard people express bewilderment at the appeal of an odd little work like this cartoon, and I confess I was there myself when I first heard of it. But after sticking it out to the end, (and several more times through after that) I am not only a convert, I am here to evangelize on its behalf. “Bojack Horseman” is my vote for most compelling show currently on television, and that’s because of how it portrays the “unlikeable tortured protagonist” in a way that no previous example has ever managed.

Created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the show is on the surface a cartoon critique of the celebrity world and culture using anthropomorphic animals, centering around a washed-up Bob Saget-style sitcom actor who happens to be a horse. From that description it hardly seems a fresh setup, but its true magic is within the story that setting is used to tell. The show juxtaposes extreme cartoon absurdity for the sake of humor with dark, character-driven storytelling that studies a fascinating anti-heroic character that you both judge and sympathize with, to a level you wouldn’t have believed possible.

On the surface, particularly in the first few episodes before the plot arc kicks in, Bojack appears to be not much different from your typical Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist. He seems characterized by qualities that at this point have been played out as comedic flaws— crass, drunk, and morbidly self-absorbed. On top of that, he is massively privileged, a mega-rich Hollywood actor who, despite being a horse, is of a background that implies being White and Upperclass. And, as we did with fellows like Don Draper, we soon find out that Bojack hates himself.

The TV landscape recently has been saturated with these kinds of protagonists— privileged white men whose pain adds fascinating dimension to their otherwise fairly exciting lives. Don Draper was a miserable unwanted child trying to hide his true self, but damn if he didn’t look sexy kicking down doors in impeccable suits while women threw themselves at him. Walter White was a bitterly disappointed man cruelly used by fate, but his adventures in the meth game sure gave him a lot of adventure and control back. I think as a culture we’ve become a little bored with this, as we’ve burned out on feeling sorry for sad dudes who can’t get it together when so many of us have fewer advantages and significantly less sexy lives.

The difference, however, is in how the facts of Bojack’s condition are presented to us. Bojack’s behavior whips across the punish-lavish axis in a sick cycle, from self-flagellating when he hates himself to self-indulging from when he feels sorry for himself. While one of the most accurate depictions of a certain kind of depression ever committed to TV, it also comes off as more than a little gross. But this very quality is what saves the show from being just a portrait of an unlikeable, over-privileged sad sack unable to appreciate what he has. Rather than trying to depict this as sympathetic in any way, on the contrary, the narrative never stops judging him.

There’s an old chestnut that says a writer should never judge their characters, but this story is richer for the creators ignoring that. When Bojack screws up, when he makes a truly destructive or even deplorable choice, the writing never asks you to see those actions as anything other than what they are. The results is it gives the viewer the breathing room to both castigate Bojack and find some understanding for him. He is obsessed with the notion that he’s broken somehow, that his inherent badness can never be changed or overcome, so why not do bad things if he’s bad anyway? But even as this provides a reason we are able to understand for why Bojack makes terrible choices again and again, it never asks us to find that an acceptable excuse.

What this gives us is a notion of accountability for Bojack. Despite the brilliance of both their shows, Don Draper and Walter White were not allowed a lot of room for any real growth or change. That’s partially the nature of the serial storytelling form, where you cannot drift too far from your premise without losing your audience. But it gets tiresome after a while watching these guys make the same mistakes over and over again. On top of that, Don and Walter very rarely ever saw real, true consequences for their actions. The important people in their lives put up with their antics, eventually forgave and came back to them, or at least came to a place of peace with them.

Bojack, however, is subjected to the consequences of being a massive self-centered dick. He is not granted forgiveness every time he asks for it, his bridges do get burned, and he has to live with the repercussions of the stupid choices he makes. Not only does this feel more real, it also has an effect on his character, driving him to try new things if he ever wants to change his life. Though he fails and regresses, through it all, there’s a sense of two steps forward, one step back, that makes him a little less contemptible. Bojack is not strong, so he breaks in the face of great adversity. But the fact that he pits himself against that adversity despite his weakness makes him more interesting to watch.

Finally, the show strikes the right balance between keeping his life interesting without excessively glamorizing it. When we watch Don and Walter, there is always a sense of envy at how cool Don is, or the excitement of Walter’s life, which undermines the message that these men are truly suffering. But you never for a moment wish you were Bojack, not for all the Secretariat movies, houses in the hills, or impulse-buy restaurants in the world. From his abusive childhood, to the hollowness of his accomplishments, to the way he’s so widely regarded as a joke even at the height of his career, there’s a genuineness to his misery that makes the notion of his self-loathing believable. It’s made even more poignant when we see flashes of the character in his youth, before the real grossness set in.

This is perhaps the great tragedy, and the great brilliance, of the show—once, Bojack was a genuinely nice guy, trying to do his best, who cared about other people and was working VERY hard to escape being the kind of bad person he felt like he was doomed to be. It makes seeing him lose that battle actually rather heartbreaking, and you find yourself actually holding out hope that he will find some way to get better. Because you know he did once put in that effort, you are driven to pity this man, even as you never want to absolve him. And if there’s not one moment a season— usually in the end of the eleventh episode —where you find yourself yelling at the screen, begging Bojack to not to shipwreck himself on the rocks of his own self-loathing, well, I don’t know what kind of person you are.

That’s a hell of a lot more than you ever expected from a thirty-minute cartoon about a horse.

On art snobbery

I like to say I try not to be an art snob. I’m sure people have laughed at me for that, as unfortunately I have a problem with coming off as snobby in life in general. But what I mean by that is that I try to judge art by its own merits, rather than by features that are measures of nature rather than quality. Genre, medium, and audience all create their own standards, and I make an effort to judge a piece by the standards it was designed to exist within. I’m not perfect about this; unfortunately I have my biases. I have zero interest in gross-out comedies, for example, and would be hard pressed to believe you can create a truly artful example of one. But I hate when people say that something is automatically a lesser piece of art just because it was, for example, aimed at children, or because it’s in a particular form. I think you can make powerful and technically accomplished macaroni art if you do it right.

By that same token, I try not to deify any particular form. I don’t think this is a big problem for most people or for most art forms, but occasionally you get somebody who sticks up for a much-maligned form by talking about it as if it has an inherent value that it automatically grants to any work in that medium. The best example I can think of that is fan fiction. Fan fiction is so often an so unfairly a whipping boy that a lot of people say its inherent populist and community-building features are automatically elevating. Personally I think it’s possible to both approve of the spirit a concept fosters even if you don’t really like the resulting examples it generates. I love that fan fiction has things like a lower barrier to creativity and a way of inspiring people to personal expression, but honestly I don’t really have the taste for the kinds of fanwork that avenue tends to produce. But I think you need to be able to separate quality from personal taste. Something can be good even if you don’t like it, and you can like something that isn’t good.

Art, man. It’s complicated.

The proper application of the literary critique “fridging”

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve decided to take a break from Tumblr. The negativity has started to actively stress me out, and it troubles me how hard it is to talk about anything nuanced on there. The phenomenon of backlash exists in response to actual problems in additions to attempts to deal with those problems. Because of this, in an environment like Tumblr responses tend to get extreme, and it’s hard to critique those responses without sounding like you’re just trying to dismantle or silence the greivance behind them.

So here on my own blog, I want to talk about the literary concept of “fridging.” This is an extremely useful idea for critiquing the way certain characters are killed in a dehumanizing way. But recently it seems that the use of the term has crept outward to be applied to any instance of “problematic character death” in a given piece of media. Its actual definition is narrower than that, and while I definitely think it’s worthwhile to discuss all problematic killings of characters, I don’t think it’s a good idea to dilute the meaning of a useful term to make it less precise.

The term “fridging” comes from a concept coined by Gail Simone called “Women in Refrigerators” Syndrome, drawn from when Green Lantern’s girlfriend Alex Curran was murdered and her body stuffed in to a refrigerator. Simone argued that in having Alex be horribly victimized totally without agency of her own for no other reason order to motivate Green Lantern to act and grow emotionally, the character was dehumanized and objectified. It’s especially problematic because the most frequent instance of this was a female victim motivating a male hero, which means that the female character is always the one dehumanized and devalued.

But just because a death is problematic, that does not mean that it is necessarily an instance of fridging. The key factors are, in my opinion, the objectification coming from the lack of personal agency in whatever lead to the character’s death, and the subjugation of her personal significance in using the death purely as a motivating force for another, usually male, character.

That is the precise definition of fridging. It is NOT necessarily fridging, for example, to kill a woman, a gender-variant character, a member of a racial, sexual, or religious minority, or any other marginalized group. The term is not meant to address issues of “reduction or compromise of representation.” That is a totally worthy and important thing to talk about, but I think it needs its own term for precision’s sake. I believe that it’s important to identify the exact nature of problems because each one may require a different solution.

Personally, I believe there IS a problem in media with racial and sexual minority characters having a disproportionately high death rate. I think at its base it’s another stemming from the Problem of the Protagonist, which is my personal critical theory (someday dissertations will be written on it 😝) that because we tend so strongly to have White Straight Men as our protagonists, all supporting and peripheral characters are designed with and given narrative trajectory in relation to his White Straight Manness, which boxes them into certain limitations.

For example, if our hero is a WSM, by definition our only options for non-white, non-straight, and non-male characters are in the supporting cast. Our hero is usually not an option for killing off, so we have to turn to the supporting cast to find somebody to die, which means that if we increase the likelihood of picking one of our non-white, non-straight, non-male people. Because a straight male protagonist’s love interest must be a woman, high stakes may demand that as the most important person to him she must be at risk– which suggests that the woman has to die. Or maybe we can’t kill someone as important as his love interest, who is often of the same race as the protagonist, so if we have any non-white characters they’re usually not her– so it becomes more likely that we’ll kill one of them. And of course both of these lovers are likely straight, which makes it more likely to push one of the queer supporting characters into the line of fire.

Do you see where I’m going with this? It’s not necessarily that we think our non-majority characters are less human than our white straight dudes. It’s that because we’ve placed white straight dude at the center of the story, the more closely entwined a character is with our planned trajectory for him, the harder it becomes for our narrative to function without them. Because the more unlike him a character becomes, the farther away they usually get positioned, which makes them more expendable to kill. This is a real problem, and objectifying in its own way. The problem is not that they are without agency, the problem is that they’re considered expendable to the narrative.

It needs its own term, though I’m not sure what. I want to say “Peripheral Expendability,” but that puts the emphasis on their Supporting Character status more than their non-majority status. “Minority Expendability”? I don’t know, something like that.

But back to fridging, which is SPECIFICALLY about lack of agency. The reason this blurring of the definition of fridging annoys me is because it denies the agency of characters who die because they made active choices. I think it’s MUCH more humanizing to write diverse characters who can take actions that have terrible personal consequences than it is to never allow them to make the same dramatic choices as their mainstream fellows. Yes, if you’re developing a pattern of only having your racial and sexual minorities make the ultimate heroic sacrifice, you’ve got a problem. But you’re not solving the problem of fridging just by keeping those characters from dying. You’re solving the problem when you allow them to have agency and examine their struggles for their own sake, not just for how they affect other characters whose journeys you’ve decided are more important.

So, the murder of a superhero’s helpless mother to motivate him to take on the mask and cape? “Women in Refrigerators.” The black guy or lesbian who choses to heroically sacrifice themself to save the group, instead of any one of the likely more numerous white and/or straight characters? “Minority Expendability” or whatever. I think it’s an important distinction, because each issue is solved differently.

A side note– a contributing dimension I would identify, even though I’m not sure if it was part of Simone’s original definition, is when there is a dearth of onscreen presence of the killed character before death, preventing her from speaking for or representing herself in any way, contributing to the functional lack of agency. I don’t think that’s a NECESSARY factor of whether or not a character is fridged, but when it happens I think it definitely intensifies the problem. Honestly, even if we’re informed they actively made a choice that brought about their death, I think the fact that they get zero screen time to speak for themselves makes it still count as a Fridging.

On writing comedy

As I have occasionally mentioned before on this blog, I don’t think I’m the most talented when it comes to writing comedy. I like to think of myself as a fairly witty person, who can make you laugh with a clever remark in conversation now and again. But when it comes to coming up with real jokes or funny lines, that’s more the province of other writers. In my writing program, I thought of genuinely funny stuff as much more the province of my friend and boss Bill Pendergast, or how Julie Weinberg had such a knack for dark comedy.

Still, I certainly enjoy it for its own sake, but even moreso, I like it as a way to add balance and lightness to a heavier narrative. I’ve always felt that even really serious drama needs something to keep it from going into the territory of “grimdark.” So, even though it’s not always easy for me, I am endeavoring to get better at it so that I can effectively include it in my own work.

My favorite comedy of all time is probably Frasier, which I thought managed to be extremely funny while still maintaining a level of intellectualism, narrative and character integrity, and did not resort to tired or offensive stereotyping in jokes. I’m very inspired by the style of comedy therein with its level of wit and cleverness. I’ve also been watching Cheers, which happens to be the series from which Frasier spun off, and is considered to be a required text for anyone who hopes to write comedy. Honestly I find Cheers to be a bit dated and not nearly as funny as Frasier, nor does it have anywhere near the dramatic integrity, but it has a heart and charm to it that inspired countless humor pieces that came after it. I’m hoping to learn from examples like these.

The funniest thing I ever wrote is probably The Late Mrs. Chadwick, my most performed ten-minute play. The main joke, the resolute refusal to compromise stiff-upper-lip British manners, is one that plays to my strengths. I was pleased to find at the recent staged reading of Vivat Regina that pretty much all the jokes played, and in fact were some of the audience’s favorite parts of the piece.

Most recently I’ve been working on a silly little side project, a fan fiction for Cabin Pressure, a BBC radio comedy that I find extremely funny. I started it just to have a little low-pressure positive feedback on something, and I’m determined not to stress about it, but I have been making an effort to make it not only funny, but as much in the style of the source material as possible. It has a particular kind of dry British humor that is very distinctive. I do find myself struggling to come up with bits and gags. I’m positive it’s not as funny as any of the originals, but I do think I’ve managed to capture the characters’ unique voices. Some commenters have even said things to that effect; my favorite so far was the one who said if the creator John Finnemore retired, they’d tune in if I were the replacement! 🙂 That’s encouraging. But I know I still need more practice. Like any aspect of writing, you got to put in the work!

The Problem of the Protagonist

As media critics we are bored and fed up with many of the racist, misogynist, and queerphobic storytelling tropes we see taken for granted in mass media. Men motivated by dead women and daddy issues. Women killed to further the emotional arc of a man. Women needing to be rescued. Queer people getting killed off quickly. People of color existing only to help the white lead grow. The list of these and things like them goes on.

A lot of people attribute this to a disposability of these people in the minds of writers, and in many cases that’s absolutely true. (Steven fucking Moffatt comes to mind. :-P) I do think that everybody is at least a little bit racist and sexist and queer-phobic because of the society we live in; nobody escapes it, we’ve just all got to do the best we can to overcome it at all times. While there are definitely prejudiced people who indulge their biases blatantly and without effort to correct, I also believe there are many people for whom, due to the fact that it’s the result of subtle cultural ingraining, it is not conscious. It’s easy to absorb from our fucked-up media that white straight men are the “neutral,” the one that anybody can identify with and step into the place of, something we often want for our protagonists. That doesn’t make it any better, but I think it does mean those people are more likely to be open to learning better and working in the future not to make the same mistakes.

So in many other cases, I tend to think the biased treatment of non-protagonist characters comes not necessarily from a disbelief in the inherent humanity of women or racial and sexual minorities. It’s a side effect of having most of our protagonists be straight white men.

When you write a story, everything tends to spin out from the protagonist. People rarely start from circumstances and then design a person to center things around. When you end up with a straight white male hero, everything else becomes designed in relation to him. Because white people tend to come from white families, his parents and siblings are probably white too, so if you include them, you get more white people. Because straight people form romantic attachments to people of the opposite gender, his love interest has to be a woman. Because you already have a protagonist, even if you DO decide to include more diverse characters in addition, they HAVE to be subordinate in importance to the story because the most important role is already filled. It’s not necessarily that this theoretical writer don’t think people of color, queer people, or non-male people are interesting or that they’re unwilling to write about them— it’s that some of the logical consequences of the white straight male protagonist screw everything up.

Then, moving on from there, I can also see why those secondary characters end up getting killed or otherwise imperiled for the sake of the story. In drama, the stakes must be high. The protagonist must have a strong, compelling motivation to make them go through the maximum amount of struggle and the most intense emotional journey. Often the most powerful and relatable way is to put their loved ones in danger, because it is a fairly universal human experience to want to protect those you love and suffer as they suffer. This means family, friends, romantic interests—who as we have established are dictated in relation to what makes sense for the protagonist —end up on that chopping block for the emotional weight. This gives us fridging and the resultant dehumanization and marginalization.

I saw this a lot in grad school. When somebody else wrote a story led by women, or people of color, or queer people, there was no real trouble on their part to invest in it, to believe that these people could be active or have stories worth telling. But when they told stories pulled from their own brains, they defaulted to white straight dudes, surrounded by other white straight dudes.

Now, I’m not saying that’s okay or that makes it not so bad. Far from it, there is something INTENSELY problematic with the idea that only WSM can be active or heroic or deserve to have their story at the center. But I do believe puzzling out why things happen is valuable, as when you attack the cause you might have a better chance of fixing the issue. And I tend to believe that people default to these WSM protagonists because they’ve been taught that the highest number of people can relate to them, and then all the other problems spin out from there.

So I think we as artists need to make a real effort to have different protagonists. Because every choice you make on them will ripple out into the rest of the story. So changing the center will change every spoke in the wheel. I know when I have even made the simple choice of having my protagonists be women (Mrs. Hawking is a great example) the tropes of the story are flipped just by the female character being the most important actor. If you think about it, it’s a relatively easy fix. We just have to change one character, and it helps the rest fall into place. 🙂

Sex in my writing

I don’t write about sex much. I don’t know if those of you who have read much of my work have noticed that, but I tend not to deal with it very often. To be frank, I think there’s something approaching a prudishness in a lot of my writing— not a lot of exploration of sexuality, not much drug use, few truly crude behaviors. I don’t even like my characters too swear too much. A lot of it’s just taste. I think dialogue’s more interesting when people don’t swear all the time, I’m a bit put off by human grossness. Those are just things I am not all that interested in exploring in my writing.

But I get a bit funny when it comes to writing about sex and sexuality. I have no DISTASTE for it the way I do with that other stuff. I feel like it’s an interesting and important part of most characters, something that could really add drama and dimension and intensity to stories. I can talk about sex with friends in person. But for some reason– maybe it’s an immaturity, a silly hangup –I get nervous, even embarrassed, when I trying to write about it.

I have a weird impulse to worry, “What would my parents think if they saw this?” Which is stupid, for several reasons— not least of which because I only have one parent anymore —a silly thing for an adult to be concerned over. I also worry that the way I try to depict it won’t work the way I intend it to. Like somebody will read it and think I’m a freak for thinking that’s how you depict sexuality and eroticism. “What the hell was that?” “It was supposed to be sexy.” “That’s not sexy. That’s weird. And you’re weird.”

I ran into that challenge with Bernie and my Adonis screenplay. I don’t think sexuality ever played a bigger part in my work than in this story. A major theme is flipping the typical hetero power dynamic, and a big goal for that was to write a romantic relationship with a slowly growing sexual dimension to it that people would actually find hot. And with my nervousness that was challenging. It was made worse for the fact that I was using a lot of things I personally find hot to accomplish it. My muse for much of the project was Chris Evans, given my extreme attraction to him with the Captain America presentation— blond, smooth, and huge with muscle. So writing my lead character Aidan, the titular Adonis, to be played by him was a starting point. And naturally when I was looking for ways to express my characters’ attraction to him, I referenced how I experienced my own.

Sex is personal and idiosyncratic. Even when there’s nothing really wrong with how you relate to or experience sex, it’s not always something you want everybody to know about. People might not get it if it’s too different from their own way. This made me feel particularly vulnerable— like, what if you thought I was a weirdo for things that were actually representative of me? Or what if I just didn’t get the job done as an artist depicting sexiness and it came off as clunky and awkward and now you knew way more about me than you wanted to for your trouble? A lot of the time I would feel shy as I was writing and then sort of pull back from the depiction for fear that if I got too specific, or too detailed, or too whatever, it would just be uncomfortable rather than sexy or furthering to the story. Or what if you read too much into a lot of the ways in which sexuality plays out in the story, particularly the problematic ones, and got uncomfortable because you suspected those things were representative of me? That one was particularly worrisome to me. You might find something a little disturbing in the fact that the man I modeled to be my physical ideal I wrote to be a multiple sexual trauma victim, which in certain instances plays out onscreen. I want that to be a circumstance driving the emotional arc of my story, not to come off like the author’s weird rape kink.

The truth is, if you care, what I mostly drew from myself for the various depictions of sexuality in Adonis is how I experience intense physical attraction. In this story I wanted to both celebrate and elevate the female gaze, as well as highlight the dangers of investing too much power into the mere concept of gaze. When it came to the former, I tried to depict the way I feel awe of extreme beauty, the somewhat fallacious but poetic attribution of some great deeper meaning to that beauty, the indulgent, rhapsodic cherishing of each quality in turn. When it came to the latter, I worked in the threat of that attraction to push out rational thought, the tipping over from appreciation into objectification, and the encroachment of a possessiveness that comes from the impulse to self-aggrandizement. Female gaze is my pet feminist issue, so I’ve given a lot of thought to deconstructing it, particularly how it expresses in myself. I joked a lot about how awesome it was to be able to claim looking at hot photos of Chris Evans as research. But I am being a hundred percent serious when I say that when I felt blocked, experiencing what my attraction to him felt like would help me figure out the right words to embody such a reaction for the story. I flatter myself that I think it gave the exploration of female gaze some real power.

It can be scary to put too much of yourself into your art. When people criticize it or don’t like it, it feels like a personal attack. But oftentimes that personal element can make something more complete, genuine, or powerful. So you have to be willing to open yourself up to that vulnerability. I hope it improved my work here, though it was definitely not an easy thing to do.