The Orphan Principle

The Orphan Principle

My mom is pretty candid with her opinions about my books. After she read The Fish Fox Boys she was really supportive. And then in that special way that mothers do, she hemmed a little bit and hawed the following: “… NOT A WHOLE LOT OF MOTHERS IN THE BOOK.”

And I shrugged and said, “Well, obviously.”

But it’s partially untrue as there are matronly characters present in my quaint little novelette– Franny, who takes her name from my IRL Grandmother to whom the piece is dedicated (OH STOP IT, ME! TOO CUTE! SHUCKS!) and of course the Mother Bearoon (the nuclear mutated conglomeration of a bear and a raccoon and aptly named to boot).

But there’s a trope in fiction, primarily in YA oriented genres, that the primary children in most stories are orphans. Harry Potter is the first example that leaps to mind. In thrillers, you have Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places. Because this isn’t relegated to literature alone, Zelda: Ocarina of Time follows suit. Batman AND Superman. And Spiderman, now that I think about it. Fuck me, most super heroes, actually. Each character from the addictive goddamn shonen anime series One Piece? Orphans. Little orphan Annie, the Chronicles of Narnia, hell, even Game of Thrones by the end of the Red Wedding (too soon?). Oh yeah, and Luke fuckin’ Skywalker.

It’s an ongoing trope that seemingly verges on self-parody and there’s been discussion as to why the hell this storytelling format exists and why it’s so pervasive in children’s entertainment. There’s a Lithub article by Liz Moore called “Why Do We Write About Orphans So Much” that I found poking around this concept. Moore’s got some pretty good insight on why it matters in a character-driven sense:

…the pain of the orphan occupies a place of precedence among all other types of pain, feels instinctively true, and makes writing about orphans tempting for a novelist.

It’s hard to argue with that logic. After all, Harry “Big Slytherin” Potter (and you thought there wouldn’t be any dick jokes in a post that started with a charming story about my mother, shame on you) has to confront his parent’s death various times through his journey and his acceptance into a famial structure at Hogwarts and at the Weasleys completes his character’s needs. Skywalker’s shit gets all fucked up when he finds out that his dad’s the biggest bastard of all time, Batman flashes back to a fuckin’ rose or some pearls or whatever every time he pours a bowl of cereal in the morning and… you get it.

But I think there’s a more practical explanation (and I might even go as far as to say that all of that Freudian family psychology might have been found in writing exploration after the fact). In the recent episode of The Self Publishing Show, James Blatch offers that it might be a children’s power fantasy of being able to handle adult responsibilities, which is probably true, but Hutchinson lays down the neccessary pragmatism of the trope:

Get rid of the parents in chapter one. Find a way to get the parents out of it so the children can’t just get mum and dad to sort everything out. And then put them in a difficult situation. It’s the same thing writing any genre or any age group, you put your character in a difficult situation and you remove any kind of support for them. It’s exactly the same for children’s books, your characters just happen to be children, so you need to get the parents out of the way so they don’t fix everything.

To make these kind of stories work structurally, they need to start out from a place where traditional family consequences and safety nets are absent. I call it the Orphan Principle. Ron Weasely has a family and you know what? His magic power is that he’s NICE. Without the cursed orphan Godhead as his best friend and main character, the books would be called Ron Weasley: A Bumbling Academic of Little Consequence Who’s Good at Wizard’s Chess Which is Actually Just Kind of Chess, Fuck’s Sake. Batman would be called A Rich and Entitled Twerp Who Should Stop Doing Ninja Shit Outside and Do His Homework, Fuck’s Sake. If Superman came down with his whole family intact, his dad would be Superman who would take care of all the bullshit and he would be like that egg-sucking Superboy who wore a leather jacket despite obviously not being punk (Obviously the Invincibles is great and works in the subversion of the trope). 

Does this mean in order to write a story that you need to kill off the parents every time? Of course not. You just need to get them out of the way. Steven Spielberg accomplishes this in his latchkey kids classic, The Goonies, by having working-class parents simply go to work. Or they’re moving or something. It doesn’t matter, the movie’s not about them, it’s about the kids and they are fo-sho out of the way the entire film.

A better example might be how Stranger Things handles things. The writers cleverly split the Adults and Children protagonists into two parties (three, including the teens) with their own interesting plotlines. The adults are alive and kicking and holding down the B Plot, while the dork children helm the A Plot. The teenagers carry the C Plot, which is mostly about kissing or something gross like that (I wanna say that girl, uh, B…Bart… Banana went missing?). All plotlines intertwine by the season’s end and it never feels forced or hokey. The children characters get all of the adventurous independence that comes from their absent parents and the adults characters carry the emotional weight to a satisfying conclusion. And I guess the teenagers, also with absent parents who are involved with the scary shit, are like, “Hey, you ever hear about this sex thing? Ha! Wouldn’t it be crazy if sex was like, I don’t know, like just a funny thing we– huh? Barbara who?”

Point being it’s not always necessary to orphan your kids to establish a starting point of conflict– but it is damned convenient. What is necessary, parents or no, is that those characters are free from support so that they may overcome the conflicts they encounter.

 

If you’d like to read a YA book featuring orphans that ISN’T a bummer, The Fish Boys: Part One is a great place to start. It’s a post-nuclear fairytale following the adventures ore_cover_smallf three idiot-savant inventors as they traverse the wasteland and it is available to purchase in paperback and Kindle here.

 

Tale as Old as Time

Tale as Old as Time

I haven’t seen the remake of Beauty and the Beast. Not for any moralistic reasons (although if there was one, it’d be that it’s not gay enough) but because movies are expensive until they settle into the more financially accessible venues of second-run theaters.

But I will say that Beauty and the Beast is my favorite non-The Great Mouse Detective animated film Disney has produced. While The Little Mermaid has perhaps the most perfectly paced story of the 90’s Disney Renaissance (because I guess we just throw that word now like rice at a wedding), it was Beauty that fully captured a full spectrum of perspectives– think how many songs are actually sung by Belle? Or the Beast? The animated film is fully fleshed out emotionally by outsiders examining the simple love plot at the heart of the story.

That’s the immediate reason why I’d say Beauty is superior to a lot of other Disney films, but there’s some folkloric magic inside that movie that isn’t so apparent– and it’s an element that connects it to Disney’s earlier ventures of animating established fairy tales:

Beauty and the Beast is Blue Beard.

For all you cultureless heathens out there, Blue Beard is the fairy tale of a young woman who marries a count or whatever. He’s a rich dude with a blue beard who’s had many wives over the years, all of whom have disappeared under rather dubious circumstances.

Fun fact: while blue beards existed in the way-way back, red flags did not.

Anywhatsit, this gal is given everything she desires– nice clothes, good food, bitchin’ jewelry, radical skateboarding half-pipes, you name it– with the one exception that she couldn’t enter this one door. After some filler, you better know that she opens that door. Inside is all of the dismembered corpses of Blue Beard’s former spouses. Blue Beard catches her in the act and draws his sword, about to slice his young wife into skirt steak– but oh! She protests! And depending on the version either her brother or some strapping young knight hears her screaming and comes along and stabs Blue Beard until he’s nothing but pudding. It’s a happy, gruesome ending.

The Disney version is arguably a little different.

The basic buildings blocks are all still there though: a pretty, possibly naïve, young girl is imprisoned in a castle (I’m not even going to make the grim comparison with marriage here), she’s given every comfort personified furniture can give her (“Be… our… GUEST…”), but she’s forbidden to enter a particular room (and when she does, Big Bad Beastie Boy flies into a rage. Just not a decapitation-happy one).

The deviations from the fairy tale are actually pretty clever: the forbidden room doesn’t contain a bunch of corpses, but a wilting magical rose symbolic of Beast Bro’s incapability to love. And there’s some overlap there with the rudimentary tale– a room full of dead wives sends a pretty direct message that Blue Beard has the wrong idea of what it’s like to commit. But the greater idea is that this is about control– both Blue Beard and Beasty Bitty Boom Boom are angry because a woman went against their wishes. The former reacts violently, whereas the latter learns how to let go– ultimately letting Belle leave the castle.

Aww.

The shining knight in armor also turns out to be a huge piece of douche-gristle who assumes the maiden needs saving and attempts to kill the monster despite the lady’s protestations. It’s just a great piece of contextual fairy tale irony. Gaston dies a fairly gruesome death (for a kid’s movie) while the monster gets the girl. That’d be like if Grendel killed Beowulf and hooked up with a Scandinavian princess on Beowulf’s grave.

It’s also a good study of how to take basic storytelling principles and turn them on their head. Fairytales have rules to them– they had to, because they were a spoken tradition sang drunkenly at parties. Rules are a lot easier to remember than details (which you can just make up on the spot) and Beauty‘s an excellent example of changing around a few details to better suit the story for a modern audience, while keeping the primary code intact.

And you might be saying, “The Little Mermaid was a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale and they changed a lot of stuff!”

To which I would say, “While that is true, Anderson was more of a Victorian-aged author of short-stories that resembled fairy tales, but didn’t have quite the spoken traditionalism behind his work– which isn’t a bad thing. He did what Disney did. I would also like to mention that Anderson’s The Little Mermaid culminates in the mermaid committing suicide and, while that’s totally metal for a story about fish-women, there wasn’t any room for Anderson’s knack for sadism during Bush’s America. Now please leave, Straw Man, I’m sure you have to go startle some birds off a cornfield.”

Beauty and the Beast is just a solid example of spinning an old story in a way that’s easily digestible. It’s able to sublimate Blue Beard‘s more gruesome details with romantic flourishes such that it becomes something almost unrecognizable from it’s predecessor. And that’s essentially the goal of writing fiction, isn’t it? Finding opportunities for novelty in a story that’s been told a million times over? In that way, despite being a story about some hot nerd nursing a burning loin for a bear-demon, Beauty and the Beast succeeds creatively.

Could be gayer, though.

 

Reading Media Narratives

Reading Media Narratives

Disclaimer: I’m ignorant about a lot things. Here’s the things I’ll admit to: I dropped political science in college, not because I didn’t find it interesting but because I never showed up to the Friday discussions of International Politics. (This would be why I also failed The Philosophy of Love and Sex. Oops.)  I dropped the journalism major because I failed Economics 101. (A writer who’s irresponsible with money? What kind of monkey shine is this?) I’ve also never made a quiche and don’t want to know how.

But I’m trying to understand how narrative works. We all know the basic structure, right? You have a beginning, a middle, and an end. You know what recent political slogan also shares those qualities? “Make America Great Again.” It presupposes that America was once great, it’s currently not, and will be great once more because of us. Simple. Unifying. Four words, even. It doesn’t track as well with “I’m with her,” which is inherently divisive, because if you’re not with her, you’re against her, a message cemented by the “deplorables” gaff. Hillary Clinton’s response to MAGA was “America is already great,” which is probably better stated as “America’s better than it’s ever been, statistically,” as the former doesn’t contain a story, just an ending– which apparently translated to half the country as no change.

Political and media narratives generally don’t share this three act structure– they are always written in the middle of things, without time to contextualize history or put a neatly wrapped bow on top of it. That happens after the fact, when history is canonized. These stories are written now.

It’s interesting to see it from a fiction writer’s perspective. Because we know, or are struggling to realize, that every story has a different set of triplets embedded within each of their narrative wombs. Every story has a Hero, a Villain, and (oftentimes forgotten) a Victim.

That might be why the most enduring religious (and political, it its own way) narrative of western culture is of Jesus Christ. Not only is there a Beginning (Bethlehem, three kings, shiny star, manger), a Middle (proselytizing, gathering disciples, miracles, crucifixion) and an End (resurrection, Heaven, legacy of Christianity) but the HVV trinity is also soundly in place: There’s a Hero (Jesus), a Villain (Original sin, or Satan, or Rome), and a Victim (the poor, the sick, the lame, the oppressed). This parabola and narrative conflict has been carefully crafted over centuries of canonization.

Ok. The most maligned and divisive phrase you’re going to hear for the next four years is “That’s how Trump got elected.” Without adding to that garbage fire of vitriol, I’m going to try and extrapolate Trump’s campaign message using the HVV dynamic, while also adding, in political narratives, no one will ever claim to be the villain, while claiming to be the victim is viewed as politically weak.

Trump’s campaign universe had all three characters in a neat package:

The Hero (Himself, tremendously), the Villain (The corrupt, backstabbing government insiders), and the Victim (The working class people who feel their diminishing industries have been forgotten).

Versus Clinton’s:

The Hero(es) (Clinton, women everywhere), the Villain (Trump), and The Victim (…)

That last box is left a little blank, although there were many possibilities to fill it– Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women, claimed Mexican immigrants were rapists, that Muslims were dangerous, that stop and frisk policies aren’t biased against POC, that prisoners of war were losers, you name a demographic, he– in no uncertain terms– victimized them.

Which ended up as footnotes in the debates, if brought up at all. We saw play out a game of intense political chess. Politically, she can’t shift women over from the Hero slot to the Victim role (whereas Trump, somehow, did by bringing out the women that claimed Bill Clinton had sexually harassed). Her immigration stance was relatively soft and seen as hypocritical in the shadow of Obama’s mass deportations, while any discussion about Muslims was either deferred to the Middle East as America’s Eyes and Ears, or avoided in an effort to escape the goddamn Benghazi trials. When BLM was brought up, specifically when police brutality in black communities was addressed, Clinton went for the nuanced approach that we’re all a bit racist (statistically true) opposed to Trump’s proclamation of Law and Order— because she probably would’ve backed herself in a corner taking a more aggressive approach due to her Super Predator comments.

Sidenote: Clinton’s verbiage is interesting to me because it’s similar to how I instinctively write certain scenes: Exposition, Dialogue, Exposition, EXTREME LANGUAGE CONTRARY TO THE PREVIOUS EXPOSITION TO INDICATE A SHIFT IN VALUE, Expository endcap. It’s clear that Hillary Clinton is a reader. Trump’s language is interesting to me because it’s entirely made of extreme language, in short, obscene outbursts. Kind of like LA Confidential.

Where was I? Clinton’s Victim eluded.

She let the Villain speak for himself, which to be fair, seemed like a reasonable thing to do. To her credit, Clinton appears to be a very sensible person and believed that voters would see through Trump’s narrative (and over 3 million more people did, but we’re not going into that right now), but, in retrospect, by not allowing Trump to speak for himself, he gained a firmer grasp of that narrative with a broader platform and doubled down.

Let’s get away from the election. It’s over. It was disheartening, divisive and an ugly cartoon. And it’s over.

So let’s move on to how the media, now that it’s not encumbered by the election, is now encumbered by DJ Trump’s Presidency.

Again, these narratives exist in the middle, always, and also contain the three character structure of Hero, Villain, and Victim.

On the left, this time, the Victims take the center stage because there are so many people legitimately effected by the rapid-fire executive actions of the last two weeks: Women seeking healthcare at NGO’s outside of the US, Muslims from 7 specific non-terroristic countries, Green card holders, members of the LGBTQ community, Native communities that don’t want their water poisoned, Californians who subsist on nothing but avocados, peaceful protestors, federally funded science programs, lower class individuals who can’t afford healthcare, and a hell of a lot more that I can’t remember because of the executive order blitzkrieg (the violent flurry of which might be a political strategy in and of itself– like a missile released with chaff to distract enemy fire).

The villains are obvious: Trump himself, Steve Bannon, Jeff Sessions, Betsy DeVos, Sean Spicer, it goes on. The Heroes come and go. Sometimes it’s Bernie, sometimes it’s Elizabeth Warren, but as of yet no solid figure has emerged.

In conservative media circles, it takes a little detective work to figure out the moving parts. The Hero is still Trump because he’s following through with his campaign promises. The Villain role has shifted directly to Muslims, immigrants, the companies and states that oppose the muslim ban, and leftist protestors. The Victim, this time, are harassed police and business owners.

That’s if the Victim is pointed out at all. Using the Victim role while in a seat of power is generally unwise. But there’s usually an implicit Victim and it took me forever to figure it out because it’s also a misdirection. Check out this Tweet:

screen-shot-2017-01-30-at-9-13-11-am

In a discussion that didn’t include Veterans at all, this tweet focuses its empathy towards that demographic because without a Victim, the story isn’t complete. Sometimes you have to force it. Like when Kellyanne Conway invents a massacre to justify the traveling ban. Or #Pizzagate. Or like this:

bloodtwitter

Dick Spencer is carefully assuming the role in an to attempt to make his white supremacist movement appear sympathetic and oppressed– going so far as Alt-Righters (otherwise known as nazis) goad liberals into punching them at protests. They want that video to go viral because it confirms their notion that liberals are a hypocritically violent and ironically intolerant. In other words, it villainizes liberals.

I figure it’s important to practice deconstructing media narratives now, because not only is there a good chance that the White House press corps will be primarily Breitbart affiliates within a couple of months, but also if you want to have a perspective changing dialogue, it’s key to identify which characters are in their narrative. If you can’t understand their ideology, you can at least understand their story.

So when informing yourself on current events, regardless of your political views, ask yourself the following questions:

Who’s the Hero, Villain, and (most importantly) Victim? 

Why are they portrayed this way?

Where does this story fall into the broader narrative being told?

Good luck out there.

Zelda as a Writing Tool

Zelda as a Writing Tool

My last post was about tapping into a mental state to encourage an improvisational approach to writing fiction. I don’t want to give the impression that writing fiction doesn’t take a whole helluva lotta consideration of organization and presentation or forethought.

What I am proposing is that there’s some mental shorthand you can use to make story telling fundamentals a little more intuitive. I learned this through the necessity of being a borderline criminally disorganized person.

What I mean by mental shorthand is a concept you can feel and visualize in your mind in place of a quantifiable, rigid set of rules. Think of it as a nemonic device for the fundamentals.

Let’s start with narrative structure. Fiction demands you pay attention to this. It’s one of the hardest things to grok (especially after you’ve written a complete work) and it takes reading piles of books and scrutinizing their organization with the intensity of a serial killer. If you don’t know where to start, I highly recommend revisiting Shakespeare (5 Act structure) because all of his work is separated neatly into acts and because you won’t be able to understand 70% of what’s being said, you’re more likely to feel how a scene plays out instead of relying on what information is being shared.

There are far better pieces on the basic elements of a story (if you aren’t familiar with The Hero’s Journey, or The Rules of Fairy Tales, or the Act Structure give those links a read. Sorry that the fairy tale link is so crappy. Best I could do.)

So, what serves as good mental forehand for story structure? What about, say, the game design of a dungeon from The Legend of Zelda? (Nerd alert: I’ll be in the cafeteria trading rock collections if anyone wants to give me a justified ass-kicking.) There’s no denying that by any reasonable standard, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is nearly a perfect video game. I like to use it as an example, because I’ve played through it so many times, I can mentally pass through almost every dungeon to the point that I can give somebody a pretty thorough walk through over the phone while I’m cooking dinner. Maybe your mental shorthand, or fundamental allegory, is a movie, or a painting, or a concept album. Maybe it’s a sick skate video. Maybe you’ve got it in your blood. Me? Zelda.

Let’s break down a Zelda dungeon.

  1. You enter and familiarize yourself with the atmosphere, and are given the task to complete the dungeon.
  2. You encounter enemies and puzzles of increasing difficulty
  3. You get to a point where you cannot continue without a specific tool
  4. You fight a mini-boss and receive the special item
  5. You utilize this special item to defeat and complete harder enemies and puzzles.
  6. You face and defeat the boss in an epic battle of Man v Monster
  7. The Dungeon resolves, you get a heart container and a piece of the plot is revealed

What the game designers knew is that they are driving a story through the format of game. They knew that that having the puzzles that you can’t solve without the item don’t have a place in the beginning. There needs to be build. They knew that you can’t have the mini-boss in the beginning or after the final boss battle. They knew that situations need to be developed such that the player gets better at the game before offering new challenges. they know that they have to offer rewards and they know where and when to place them. That’s what creates the story of a hero overcoming gradual conflicts.

Now let’s write a quick and dirty mystery plot with a few switcharoos.

  1. A detective is tasked with solving a murder of a senator.
  2. There are interests, I don’t know, The White House, that don’t want the case solved
  3. The detective loses a fist fight with another gumshoe
  4. Suspecting his rival for the murder, our hero follows him and learns that while he’s innocent in the murder, he’d been hired by The White House to jam up his investigation.
  5. Our hero throws this information in the President’s face, threatening to contact the newspapers and the President backs off
  6. Free from misdirection, the detective solves the murder. The Senator’s cat did it or something.
  7. The Detective leaves and contemplates the events of the story, inquiring for meaning in a bleak and cynical world.

It’s not a great story, but you can see how the beats match up to the break down of the dungeon. You can also apply this to the micro level in individual scenes to make sure that the scene stays active. I confess I’m not always on point with this, largely in part because I think it’s funny to let a scene sit awkwardly for an extra beat and have characters argue with each other before proceeding (which is still conflict, so hey).

I bring this up because making charts and lists and spreadsheets is tedious work and if you, like me, are something of an improvisationalist, then it’s a lot easier to feel out your written world in terms of something familiar and fun instead of clinical and boring.

There’s a good chance you’ll have to make a chart or timeline anyway. But that shouldn’t mean you should rob yourself of fun methods in your toolbox. Enjoying writing and producing working fiction needn’t be mutually exclusive.

Hi there! Are you here to see my wicked rock collection?