Way back in my formative years of writing, I spent an inordinate amount of time on several Redwall fan-sites that had vibrant roleplaying communities, which basically meant that we wrote up various characters and spent hours upon hours writing stories together, featuring all our characters. Naturally there was much discussion regarding what constituted a “good” character, and cliches in particular were frowned upon. In fact, saying someone’s character was a Mary Sue (or, for male characters, a Gary Stu) was one of the worst insults anyone could give.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, it is generally used to describe a fictional character* who is “portrayed as unrealistically free of weakness”. Understandably, these sorts of characters could be particularly annoying to encounter when writing with others– if Agent John B. Awesome is single-handedly destroying any and all opponents and completing all mission objectives, it doesn’t leave a lot of other room for anyone writing more balanced characters to develop their writing or explore the bits of story that can only come about when the characters encounter things they can’t handle. As a young kid who desperately wanted to be accepted, this meant that I tended to avoid that ditch so hard that I ran straight into the other one: truly boring characters. You know. The ones who aren’t exceptional in any way. The ones who aren’t special or amazing or fun. The ones that no one wants to read about. Or write about. Dun-dun-dun-dun…
Fortunately, it’s really difficult to write boring characters for any great length of time. You’ll either give up writing completely, or you’ll wise up and start writing more interesting characters. The key word there being “more”. It’s not a switch you flip and overnight you suddenly have it figured out. Rather, it’s a skill that needs practice. Lots. And. Lots. Of. Practice.
For me, this often means that I’ll start writing a character who is more interesting (to me, at the very least), only to run up against a whole brick wall of “but wait! They can’t be too cool or they’ll be a bad character.” Which, rationally, I realize is just plain false. Luke Skywalker is pretty darn cool. So is Aragorn. And Edmund Dantes. And Darrow (Red Rising). And Vin (Mistborn). And the list goes on. These characters are known and loved precisely because of how “cool” they are**, and all they manage to accomplish despite terrible odds and their own personal demons. And it’s that last bit that’s the most important– these characters have to strive and fight and scratch and claw to get where they want to go, and that’s what makes them so compelling.
In short, the answer to avoiding cliched and over-powerful characters isn’t found so much in making them smaller, but rather in making their obstacles bigger.
* Specifically, the term is often used to describe a female character, hence the variations listed above, but certainly it can be a valid complaint for any poorly written character.
** Obviously, a huge oversimplification. But the point stands.
One of my favorite tropes has got to be the one where something or someone that was lost and/or destroyed comes back. Sometimes it happens just in time. Sometimes it’s what lets the heroes know that they might have a fighting chance after all. Sometimes it’s one of the heroes themselves that returns. Whatever it is, it’s the sort of thing that gives me chills.
Given the nature of this, there’s going to be some spoilers in the following for Mass Effect 2, Pacific Rim, and the Lord of the Rings. Nothing too major, but if you haven’t read/played/watched, consider yourselves warned!
In Mass Effect, it’s that moment near the beginning of the second game when Commander Shepard gets the Normandy SR2– along with Joker. After the shock of the game’s prologue, which involved the destruction of the Normandy SR1 (which you grow deeply attached to in the first game), along with the death of Shepard him/herself and the scattering of the surviving crew, getting your first indication that the resurrected Shepard might actually have a few familiar things to hold onto in their continuing quest to save the galaxy is a powerful moment.
It’s a very similar scene in Pacific Rim when the rebuilt Gipsy Danger is revealed both to Raleigh in the audience. The last time Raleigh saw Gipsy Danger was in the battle where his brother and copilot was killed and the Jaeger itself was badly damaged. Because the movie has been following Raleigh so closely up to this point, it’s impossible not to catch some of the emotions that Raleigh himself feels at seeing the giant mech again.
Last, but certainly not least, in the Lord of the Rings we have the turning point in the battle at Helm’s Deep, when Gandalf returns with Eomer in tow. I should point out here that the version of this that I personally found most moving is actually the movie version. In the books, it’s a different commander who arrives with Gandalf, as Eomer is already in Helm’s Deep with the others. In the movies, though, it’s the very fact that Eomer was exiled that made it so powerful. Well. That and the gorgeous cinematography as our heroes’ reinforcements arrive from the east on the dawn of the third day.
At first blush, it might not seem like the third example fits with the others all that well, but let me try to explain. In all of these, we have something strong, working for good, that was broken. The Normandy was destroyed. Gipsy Danger was damaged badly enough to put it out of commission. Eomer, despite his loyalty to his king, was forced into exile because of Wormtongue’s machinations. And then, despite all odds, they come back. A new, better Normandy is built and returned to Shepard’s command. Gipsy Danger is repaired and piloted again to save the world. Gandalf brings Eomer back to save the lives of his king (and uncle!) and his people. And it all happened when the audience wasn’t quite expecting it. Or maybe, when the audience wasn’t quite daring to hope for it, because it seemed too impossible. And that, I think, is part of what makes this such a strong storytelling technique.
As a Christian, I find it impossible not to connect this to Christ’s death and resurrection as well. We have the loss in the crucifixion, followed by the period of hopelessness and sorrow and uncertainty about how things were going to go forward. And then he came back. And it wasn’t the end after all.
There’s something beautiful about the liminal. I think it’s why we are so fascinated by sunrises and sunsets, and why the twilight and predawn hours have a magic to them. I think it’s why we mark the solstices and the equinoxes, and why the first flower of spring and the first snowflake at the end of fall are so much more exciting than all the others that follow after them. And, perhaps, its why so many myths and legends involve the things and places between.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines liminal as “of, relating to, or being an intermediate state, phase, or condition”. Or, in simpler terms: “in-between, transitional”. Way back in college, I remember one of my English professors expounding on how the concept played a significant part in the writings of a specific poet (possibly William Blake?), but for the life of me, I can’t remember exactly what she told us. What I do remember is that the concept didn’t seem to make much sense to me back then, but it must have stuck in my head, because here we are. (That being said, if any of you reading this happen to actually remember what is only flitting around the edges of my memory, please, please share your knowledge in the comments below. I will be forever grateful.)
Most people will be familiar with what Heraclitus said, that “the only constant is change”, and this might begin to offer an explanation for our fascination with the things between. These liminal things are, after all, the closest thing we have to an incarnation of change itself. Summer days may stretch on, each one hot and bright and seemingly the same, but then comes one a little cooler, a little crisper, and the leaves that once were all bright green begin to fade to yellow. And time moves on.
Or maybe it’s something simpler. Maybe the value lies in the fact that these things are, by their nature, somewhat scarce. Night and day both last for hours, but dawn and dusk are much shorter and neither day nor night, despite sharing some similarities with both. There are many humans, and many seals, but only some seals are selkies, with the ability to shed their skins and walk about in human form.
Or maybe these things catch our attention for some other reason, and I’m only grasping at straws. Whatever the reason, though, its hard to deny that they do fascinate us. Why else are there selkies and centaurs and werewolves? Or why else do things happen at the stroke of midnight and the first light of morning?
P.S. Hi everyone! It’s… ah… been a while. Please forgive my sudden and unannounced hiatus. I’m still alive, and really excited to be back. Also, I’m in the middle of Camp NaNoWriMo again, which has been incredibly helpful in the realm of yanking me back towards a daily writing habit. Even if I’m nowhere near my stated goal. Ah, well. I’ll have to catch that white whale another day. (Or buckle down and bump up that wordcount. One or the other.)
Either way, I’ll be back next week with more ramblings. Or excerpts!
As you might have noticed if you’ve read any of the excerpts and stories from Tanner and Miranda’s adventures, Miranda is unapologetic and tends not to waffle. As you may have noticed from reading pretty much any of my blog posts… I am not. Certainly not to the same degree, at least. We can read more into that later. For now, I’ll just add that this makes writing from Miranda’s perspective (which I’m doing– I swear!) occasionally tricky, particularly when I’m out of practice (which I definitely am). My prose keeps ending up with extra words that I would say, and Miranda never would, and I end up glaring at my screen and deleting the offending phrases, only to realize that I still haven’t said what I need to say. I know I should just accept the rough draftiness of it and just push through, content to ruthlessly chop out said phrases later, but the part of me that wants to go slow and get it “right” the first time is still winning out.
As an EMT, I’ll ask my patients what day it is (among other things) in order to gauge how oriented they are. The irony of this, of course, is that most of the time I’m not one hundred percent sure myself. Part of that is the weird schedule I keep– no Monday through Friday work for me. Part of that is the weird timelessness that has come about with all the lockdowns etc. during the pandemic. And, sure, part of it is the truth that I haven’t felt all that tethered to exactly what day of the week it is since finishing college. Then again, it’s been even worse for the last few weeks as my schedule shifted temporarily during the holidays.
Every so often, though, it extends beyond that, and I’ll catch myself wondering what time of year it is. Usually after I accidentally listen to a Christmas song in July or watch some movie that is decidedly set in the summer while it’s still January in the real world. In the past I’ve blamed this on the fact that I grew up with four proper seasons, suggesting that living in California without them has low-key tilted my internal clock. But at this point, I can honestly say that I could see myself momentarily forgetting what season it is even if a blizzard was raging outside, so there’s that.
There’s no deeper meaning to any of this that I want to draw out. I just find it interesting and vaguely amusing. Does anyone else catch themselves forgetting what day, month, or year it is?
It’s safe to say that 2020 has been a difficult year for a lot of us, which often makes it easier to dwell on the bad than the good. And while ignoring the things that made it hard is ultimately unhealthy and unhelpful, ignoring the bright spots is hardly any better. But instead of looking back at all the things I can’t wait to get rid of and forget, I’d like to take a couple minutes to remember some of the things I enjoyed this year. Particularly, as this is a shamelessly nerdy and story-obsessed blog, I’d like to share a few of the books, TV shows, etc. that I enjoyed the most.
So! In no particular order, here are some of my favorites from 2020.
Favorite game: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
Yes, I’m aware that Black Flag has been out for years. And yes, this is the first time I’ve played it. I’ve wanted to play it since I first found out about it, but this year was the first time I got the chance. And I loved it just as much as I thought I would. I mean, really. What’s not to love about sailing all around the Caribbean with your own ship, firing epic broadsides at any who get in your way? And then running like heck when, inevitably, you tick off the pirate hunters and they come after you with MUCH BIGGER SHIPS. Blame it on years of roleplaying as a wildcat pirate on a Redwall fansite or whatever else. This game was just as much fun as I hoped, and probably even more.
Favorite book (first-time read): Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
I was introduced to the Oxford Time Travel books several years ago via the utterly fantastic and hysterically funny To Say Nothing of the Dog, which I can and do heartily recommend. Set alternately during the Black Death and the near future, Doomsday Book is just as well written, but has a very different and understandably grimmer tone. That being said, Willis does a fantastic job of balancing that sometimes difficult subject matter with some wonderful humor, and this is easily one of the best books I’ve read in some time. This is definitely one for the re-read stack.
Favorite book (re-read): Have His Carcase by Dorothy Sayers
The Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries by Dorothy Sayers have always been some of my favorites, in part because of growing up watching various TV adaptations, particularly the BBC version with Edward Petherbridge, but it’s been several years since I’ve read them. And they’re even better than I remembered, probably in part because I’ve matured enough to have a greater appreciation for their brilliance. My choice for favorite re-read was between Have His Carcase and Murder Must Advertise, but ultimately Carcase won out because it was the one with both Lord Peter and Harriet Vane, and the banter and the back-and-forth between the two is unmatched.
The Many Deaths of the Black Company – Glen Cook
The Temeraire series – Naomi Novik
The Country Clubs Murders (series) – Julie Mulhern
The Honor Harrington series – David Weber
Favorite TV show (new): The Mandalorian
I mean, really… was it even a question? Baby Yoda, Western-feel, Star Wars at its best. I’m wary of over-hyping things to their detriment, but for me, Mandalorian absolutely lives up to the hype.
Honorable Mention: The Witcher
Okay. So maybe it was a question. Deadpan monster slayer Geralt of Rivia can give even Mando a run for his money.
Favorite TV show (re-watch): Fringe
Ah, Fringe. One of my favorite shows ever, thanks to the characters and the fantastic actors who portray them. Peter and Olivia forever. (For more thoughtful discussion of why I like the series so much, check out this post from earlier this year!)
What about you all? What were your favorite books, movies, and shows from this year? Any I missed?
There’s a couple reasons for that, one of which being the devastating attacks that Azerbaijan made on Artsakh, resulting in the loss of swaths of historically and ethnically Armenian land and the displacement of tens of thousands of Artsakhtsis in the middle of COVID-19 and with winter on its way. It’s not a good situation, and it’s made worse by the fact that it seems like most of the world is turning the other way and pretending that it’s not happening. Actually, to that end, if you’d like to know more about what’s going on, please feel free to click the Contact button up above and drop me a line. I’d be more than happy to share what I know.
Aside from that, it’s mostly just been 2020 being its mangy, feral self. Which is to say, I’m tired– and once I fell out of the habit of updating every week, getting back in was… difficult. But I’m back now, and looking forward to getting back into the proper swing of things.
One last thing, maybe the most important. Advent is always one of my favorite times of year, but this year it seems particularly powerful. Christ didn’t come because everything was fine, but because it wasn’t, and the fact that this year has been so hard for so many of us doesn’t change that. And that is deeply comforting.
The whisper of my breath filled my helmet. Its odor mixed with the smell of my sweat and complete exhaustion. The faint fog of it clung to the inside of the face shield, dimming my view, though not so much that I could pretend that the scorched control panel in front of me would ever function again. I stared at it anyway and delayed making the comm back to the ship. Maybe if I didn’t say anything it would stop being true.
My comm chirped in my ear anyway, and I sighed. So much for that idea. “Go ahead,” I answered.
My husband’s voice came crackling over the connection. “What’s the bad news, Alice?”
“The gate’s shot,” I said. “Doesn’t look like we’re making it home for dinner.”
Or ever. But we both knew that.
“Copy,” he said, and then went quiet.
And we mourned.
We’d known it would happen, that it was the only likely outcome. We’d run the scenarios. We’d looked at every other possibility when the wormhole opened, anything that could save our galaxy without stranding us in this one. We’d tried a dozen different things, only to have them fail one way or another— because the theory wasn’t sound, because the tech just couldn’t handle it, because time ran out. The fact that the radiation from the other side was harmless until it reacted with the radiation from our own galaxy didn’t mean a thing. It was a quirk of nature, but deadly all the same. And in the end, this was our only option: fly through ourselves and set things right.
Close the gate. Save the galaxy.
Get back through if you can. But that’s not the primary objective.
I closed my eyes and let myself hang there, floating in the vacuum at the end of my tether while the greater part of myself insisted that there must be a way out, if only we kept on looking. It offered up all the cliches: we’d come so far, we’d done so much, it couldn’t end this way.
But that’s only true in a certain kind of story.
My comm chirped again, and I opened my eyes. The control panel was still there, still destroyed. The gate pylon was still inert, still damaged far beyond our means to repair. The expanse of a foreign galaxy still stretched out infinitely in every direction, and I couldn’t bring myself to look at it.
I shook my head, as if that was enough to clear it. It worked well enough. “I’m here.”
“I’m ready to bring you back inside. Whenever you’re ready.”
“Copy that. I’m ready now.” A pause, and then I added my quiet thanks.
It didn’t take long to haul me in at the end of the tether. The fastenings on the belt of my suit pulled taut and the pylon sank away and out of reach. I watched it and only it until my feet touched down on the airlock floor; the strange stars would cause me too much pain.
Gray, my husband, pulled open the door and met me as soon as the airlock finished cycling. I leaned into his chest, let his arms wrap around me, let him hold me. I breathed in his scent, the last remnants of his deodorant and his sweat and the unique smell that only belonged to him.
“I don’t want to be stuck here,” I whispered, though the words hardly made it past the knot that had grown in my throat. “I don’t want this to be the end.”
“It’s not,” he murmured, his lips pressed against my hair. “It’s not.”
It was a platitude. An empty, hopeless platitude. A flash of rage passed through my brain, all violence and panic and gut-deep wrath. I stiffened, chewing on the words of a dozen different diatribes that rose up from my chest. Only the simplest came out.
“It is. It is.” I pushed away. “The pylon’s dead. The control is dead. Our galaxy is ten million light years away, and even if our ship could cross that distance, we’d be eons dead before it brought us home. And so would everyone we’ve ever loved. We knew it when we volunteered. We knew it and we came anyway.”
“So we find another way,” said Gray.
“There is no other way!” I choked out the words and hissed them past my teeth. “That’s why we said goodbye.”
We both retreated to our own ends of our little ship, our fifty yard prison, me to the engine room, him to the bridge. I drowned myself in a dozen mindless repairs, all the little things that wear apart with everyday use, all the things our mission had stressed to a breaking point. The work was simple, and my hands knew their tasks. Each problem was the sort of thing I’d solved a thousand times before. Each thing fixed was a salve to my thrashing mind, though only when I kept my fears at bay. I didn’t worry how Gray spent his hours.
A day passed. Another followed. We came together at meals— sometimes— but didn’t speak. We slept in the same room, but not with each other. He wanted us to talk, but I had no words to say anything that mattered.
We stayed at the pylon longer than we needed to, until I’d fixed everything on the ship that I could possibly fix and a few more things besides. We might have never moved, but while the ship’s stores were well-stocked, they would not last forever. Better we move on now, while the choice was ours to make and not desperation’s.
Find a planet. Refill our stocks of food and water and medicine and fuel, whatever we could find. Keep floating on.
I saved the location of the pylon into the computer before we left. I wasn’t sure why. The thing hadn’t shown any indication that it would or could return to life. But it seemed the thing to do.
Or maybe I just couldn’t bring myself to let it slip away forever.
In a week, the worst of my grief dulled to a different, deeper sort of pain. A resignation. Or a sort of healing, if a twisted, tender scar is healing. But I began to speak again, and chose to forgive or forget my husband’s well-meant hope and optimism. It hardly seemed important now, as the pylon fell farther and farther behind, and our daily life revolved more and more around survival and less and less around thoughts of getting home.
We found planets and moons and asteroids that held what we needed. Sometimes it was just scraps, the barest bits to keep us going. Sometimes it was more, or almost everything. Sometimes when we sat together on the bridge and the scan came back with its promises of life and riches we would exchange a look.
“We could stay,” I might say. “Scuttle the ship, make a home.”
And Gray might think, might ponder, might muse. “Maybe the next planet. The sunlight here is wrong.”
And so we wouldn’t. We would land and fill our stores, and then we’d leave and fly back to the endless stars. And we’d whispers to each other that we still might find some way back to our other home, safe in the knowledge that it could never happen.
Until it did, on a rocky moon that should have only offered us a little fuel, but showed us an ancient, alien colony instead. A colony like the one we’d found in our first galaxy. A colony that held the tech that we’d been studying when the wormhole opened and the whole of creation began to crumble.
We stared down at it through the viewport, as if our naked eyes could see the empty buildings. Three years had passed. A thousand days. Grief and terror had faded and given way to mere exhaustion and routine. And then somewhere, somehow, exhaustion had yielded to curiosity and the giddiness that came with the knowledge that an entire galaxy was at our fingertips, all full of things no one had ever seen. And there was nothing at all to stand between us and a million new discoveries but our own decisions.
“You were right,” I said. “There is a way.”
Gray remained quiet for a long, long while. “I guess there is,” he said. “But we said goodbye.”
And so we left the ruins to themselves, staying only long enough to refill our stores of fuel and choose our next coordinates. By habit, I almost saved the location of the tiny moon to the computer before we left, but a thought stopped my hand. Gray saw me and shook his head, and I let the void swallow the coordinates instead. The galaxy was bigger without them.
On occasion, I have been known to draw maps for stories I never actually write, if for no other reason than it being part of the world-building process that I particularly enjoy. The irony, of course, is that I don’t always manage to draw them for the stories I do write. Don’t ask me why. I’m sure I have no idea.
(Though. I should probably figure it out at some point, since I have been told by reliable sources that my track record on writing consistent and believable travel is… less than stellar.)
But, that’s beside the point. The point, such as it is, is that I’ve actually managed to scribble something together as a visual representation of the Verdant colony. It’s all heavily subject to change, of course, but even in this state it’s already helped solidify some ideas for the Tanner and Miranda stories, including giving me a better plan for an overarching and coherent story arc between stories.
What I mean is that I’m actually pretty excited.
So! Without further ado, I give you the current map of Verdant.
At the best of times, I am not the most patient of people. This was not the best of times. I was cold, wet, and hungry. I was tired– exhausted, even. I had watched a weekend that was supposed to be a welcome shred of rest go from bad to worse to something so unfathomably, irredeemably ridiculous that I could feel the hysteric laughter bubbling up the back of my throat. If someone said I looked like I was at the end of my rope, I would inform them that my rope had snapped sometime last week. Or I’d just cut to the chase and bite their head off.
Sometimes it’s just fun to write Miranda. Okay, scratch that. It’s usually a whole lot of fun to write Miranda. And the bit above is no exception. There’s a certain catharsis to getting inside her head when she’s about ready to start (or finish?) a fight, and if you said that might reveal more about me than anything else, I’d smile and shrug and admit that you’re probably right. And then I’d remind you that that’s half of what makes it so much fun.