Tuesday, June 16, 2009

C is for Conflict

Emotional conflict, that is. Stories have more resonance when the primary conflict is framed against an internal struggle that the main character is working through. The TV series, Lost, does this beautifully. Every episode focuses on one of the cast members and something from their past life. Some event from their back-story is playing a role in the way they act and the way they make their decisions. Personal conflict is the real driver in any story's tension. It doesn't have to be related to the overall plot, but it does have to be relevant to the character's role in the story. It is the reason why the character lends a hand to resolving the plot (as in the role of a hero), and it is also the reason the character opposes the resolution (as a villain would do).
  • It is the reason why the character behaves as the protagonist
  • It is the reason why the character chooses to become the villain
The real meat of the story isn't in what people do, but why they do it. As a writer using this technique, you can build up to three levels of conflict:
  1. Emotional struggle with some past issue
  2. Character's actions, either as a direct result of the internal emotional struggle, or in finding resolution to these emotions.
  3. The main conflict, which is the story's overall plot.
The emotional conflict can be any intense feeling. It doesn't have to be negative. The list can go on, and on, and on:
  • Curiousity
  • Jealousy
  • Envy
  • Pique
  • Hatred
  • Sexual tension
  • Unrequited love
  • Secret crush
  • Wants
  • Dreams
  • Vision
  • Fear
  • Mystery
  • Reversals
  • Sudden breakthroughs
In my recent short story, Counting Crows, each scene is laced with some kind of emotional tension. Here are some examples:
  1. Opening: Megan challenges Devan to show her something that will make her believe he can do real magic. Ethne comes in, reprimands Devan for neglecting his chores, creating an uncomfortable moment for Megan.
  2. The kitchen fire: Oma nearly burned down the house. Megan is in big trouble. Megan's life taking care of Oma is a huge burden.
  3. Devan comes around: Megan is too busy to pay him notice.
  4. Devan brings Megan a gift: Argument between Megan and her brother. She makes fun of Devan, who overhears.
  5. The priest: Lynet resents him, and she resents Beoden's refusal to let Ethne come and treat her mother.
  6. Megan goes to see Ethne: Ethne's not there, and she has to mend things with Devan, instead.
  7. Ethne and Devan come to look at Oma: Megan can't watch. She goes outside to be with Devan, and they talk about their belief in the afterlife.
I'll close with a little exercise. I'll use the TV show, Lost, because it illustrates my point so well. Here is a link to ABC's website. Click on "Watch Free Episodes," in the upper left. Pick a season, and then pick an episode. If you haven't seen the series, then start out at season 1. As you watch, take note from scene to scene, and pay particular attention to the type of emotional tension and how it drives what each character does.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Villain Makes the Hero

Entertainment Weekly recently did an article on the 20 best villains (April 3, 2009). It sparked my interest, so I decided to do a little research on my own. What I found was very surprising, and I'll share it here with you. My results are based more on gut feel than on actual scientific study. I didn't have access to any survey data, and I don't have any metrics other than how often a particular character appeared in a list, and how close to the top of the list the character appeared. Nevertheless, I think I can safely say who the top three movie villains of all time are.

The number one movie villain of all time has to be The Joker, from DC Comics. As a comic book villain he is absolutely unforgetable. As a character on the silver screen, whether played by Jack Nicholson or by Heath Ledger, he is epic. If the joker isn't numero uno on a list, he is always in the top ten.

Number two would be Hannibal Lecter. Can you say twisted? Anthony Hopkins had only 15 minutes of screen time in Silence of the Lambs, but his execution of that role was instantly seared into the public conciousness.

Number three would be Hans Gruber from Die Hard. You wouldn't believe how many lists he made it onto, and quite a few placed him at number one.

What are the other top villains? Here they are in order of precidence, as best as I could group them:

  • Michael or Vito Corleone, Godfather 1 and 2. I lump these together because one of the Godfather movies appears on most of the lists. "I'm going to make you an offer you can't refuse."
  • Norman Bates, from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. This was the seminal slasher horror movie. Even today, people who have never seen the film recognize references to the shower scene.
  • Jack Torrance, from Stephen King's, The Shining. He isn't number one by any account, but Jack Torrance is on literally every list out there.
  • Auric Goldfinger. I'll have to see this film again (since I don't even remember him). Nevertheless he ranked high on quite a few lists.
  • Count Dracula. Vampires have an enduring allure. Sex, gore, gothic wardrobe, sex, gore, gothic wardrobe.
  • Darth Vader. I really thought Darth Vader would have ranked higher than he did. There were quite a few lists where he didn't even rank.
  • Jaws. I remember the summer this movie came out. EVERYONE saw it. Don't go in the water. I know plenty of people who wouldn't go swimming in the ocean for years, afterwards.
  • HAL 9000. It's creepy way a computer, so trusted by the entire crew, turned on them and systematically began to wipe everyone out. Most people can't stand to watch 2001 a Space Odessy, but nearly everyone knows the quote, "I'm sorry Dave, I can't do that." The servant has risen against the master. The only thing missing is the wicked laugh, bwa-ha-ha-ha-haaaa!
  • The Wicked Witch of the West. I wouldn't have put this on my list in a million years. Her lines are corny, and her character so 1-dimensional, but you'd be surprised at how often she popps up. "I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!"
  • Pazuzu, the demon that possessed the little girl in The Exorcist. There's something about the innocence of a little girl being so completely violated.
  • Katherine Trammell, from Basic Instinct.

Here are the comic book villains (minus The Joker) that most consistently ranked in the top ten:

  • Lex Luthor. He is always in the top 5. As a super-villain, he has no powers. He's the Godfather to the DC Comics universe.
    Venom. A symbiotic suit that makes you turn evil. There is something so cool about seeing Spidey decked out in black. It enhanced his powers considerably, then it made him slowly turn evil.
  • Magneto
  • Jeane Gray, the Dark Phoenix
  • The Green Goblin.

In my opinion, it's the villain that makes the hero. Without Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker would be just another whiny, angst-ridden teenager. Without The Joker, Batman would still be pretty cool, but he wouldn't be nearly as memorable. Serlock Holmes was fairly popular in his own right, but it was Professor Moriarty that made people clamor for more. Last but not least, without Voldemort, Harry Potter would be a mediocre wizard, destined for a life of peaceful anonymity--and J. K. Rowling would be nowhere near as rich as the Queen of England.

So what do I, personally, look for in a villain? My favorites are the ones with good character development and back-story; but most of all, I like a villain that gets away, continually thwarting the hero time and time again. Here is my list of favorites:

  • Darth Vader
  • Voldemort
  • From Fullmetal Alchemist,

    • Scar the vigilante,
    • The seven Homunculi, and their masters, Dante and Hohenheim of Light.

  • The Goauld from Stargate Atlantis
  • From Heroes, the TV series:

    • Sylar from Heroes
    • Mr. Linderman from Heroes

  • Cloney the Sourge from the novel, Redwall. I haven't kept any of the other Redwall books, but Cloney the Scourge is just so awesome.

So that's it. I know, I know, you're probably going to think I missed one or two. Feel free to let me know what you think.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

His Majesty's Dragon

His Majesty's Dragon
Naomi Novik

Time magazing said, "Enthralling reading--like Jane Austen playing Dungeons & Dragons with Eragon's Christopher Paolini." I think the Jane Austin connection is very true to the mark. Austin's books were always about duty and one's place in society, and this book definitely fits that picture.

Did I finish the book? I had no trouble getting through the first two-thirds. Things dragged a bit from there, but picked up again quickly. In all, I had no trouble keeping with it. One star.

Will I read the sequel? Half-star. I do enjoy character-driven stories, but I also like the plot to have a strong focus. I want the hero to have a problem to work on. The story felt like all the action was happening elsewhere, and every now and again would involve the main character. My wife pointed out that this is how most of Austin's stories are. They focus more on the people and the period in history than they do on some cosmic struggle or epic quest. Also, this story had no real villain, unless you count Napoleon--unless you're French, in which case Napoleon is a national hero.

Was the writing good? Some books are satisfying to read even in their mundane parts, while other books bore me and I find myself scanning large sections and skipping page after page. Wish I knew what the difference was. I really like the rythm and the voice that Novik uses. It is very similar to what I try and do, and now that I have an example to follow I probably ought to pick up the sequel--if for no other reason than that alone. Yeah. The writing's good.

Was the story idea interesting? I'm mixed on this. Novik has a thorough knowledge of the British navy and the people of the early 1800's and what the cultured society was like--enough to create a very immersive milleu. That part was very well done. For me as an aspiring writer it really sets the bar. Novik even has names for all the dragon breeds, including names in French for the French breeds. Very imaginative. However, I wasn't convinced about dragons that can talk from the moment they hatch, or that something as large as a passenger jet can only fly at 35 miles per hour (a Cesna will stall at 55 MPH and in a dive tops out at well over 200 MPH). Still, there were never any parts where I found myself thinking that something was totally lame. Half-star.

Was the ending satisfying? Yes. The plot did slowly build up to a major battle, and the resolution was fairly interesting. Full marks on that.

Final verdict: 4 stars.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Diary of a Wimpy Kid
By Jeff Kenny

Five stars. This is a kid's book, but something about the title clicked with me, and I knew it had to be good. The humor has enough of a sophisticated edge that adults will thoroughly relate. My mother-in-law bought this for my son, who is well on his way to being a wimpy kid someday. Greg Heffley, the main character, isn't as hopeless as Napoleon Dynamyte. He's more of an average kid just trying to survive jr. high amid a string of setbacks and reversals. Everything he tries ends up going wrong and blowing up in his face.

Did I finish the book? Yes. I probably shouldn't admit it, but I did it in one afternoon, LMAO.

Will I read the sequel? I think I'll have to go out and buy my son the next one. ;)

Was the writing good? It was rather true to form. People like nerd stories. Everyone remembers how bad things could get in middle school. Everyone can relate. The story itself was kind of episodic, going from one little thing to the next. There wasn't a whole plot, like you'd expect. Thankfully, the story wasn't full of juvinile exaggerations or unrealistic hyperbole.

Was the story idea interesting? You really got into Greg, the main character. It was easy to imagine all the situations he went through. Each story sort of tied into the rest, forming a loose story arc. The cartoons were funny as heck, too.

Was the ending satisfying? A bit of drama evolves near the end when Greg gets his best friend in trouble. The way he works things out ends up being rather hilarious. Very cute.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Binary Fingers

There are 10 kinds of people. Those who understand binary, and those who don't.

Using both hands, most people can only count up to ten. They call it "base ten," but it's really base one--one finger for each numeric value until you run out of fingers at ten. This is the world of the mathemetically impaired. Straightforward, uncomplicated, and adequate for doing math up until you get to the first grade.

I, however, can count up to 1023.


Fingers, it turns out, naturally conform to one of two states: extended (that's a one) or not extended (that's a zero). So, my thumb can be 2^0, my index finger can be 2^1, my middle finger can be 2^2, my ring finger can be 2^4, etc.

Here's a pic where I count up to sixteen. (Note, in computers we use the letters A through F for the numbers 10 through 15--it's a geek thing). If I use all ten of my fingers, I can go up to 2^11 - 1, which is 1023.

When using this technique, I recommend holding your hand low so your fingers point down. That way when you get to 4, people aren't as likely to get offended. Just a little hint.

Converting from binary to decimal is a snap. You only need to remember your powers of two. Here's how you do it.

  • Thumb is 1
  • Index finger is 2
  • Middle finger is 4
  • Ring finger is 8
  • Pinky is 16

You get the idea.

So, to convert from binary to decimal, just add up the fingers that are extended. So, if I have my thumb, index, and middle finger extended, that's 7. If I have my middle finger and my ring finger extended, that's 12 (or A, if you're a geek). If I have all five extended, that's 31.

See how easy it is?

Now for the fun part.

Doing addition in binary is a snap. Here's the basics:

 0      0     1     1
0 + 1 + 0 + 1 +
----- ----- ----- -----
0 1 1 10


Most of this you should still remember from Kindergarten, right? It's 1 + 1 that throws most people. Since we've run out of digits (there being only two), we have to carry over to the next column, and that gives us 10--and no, we don't say "ten", we say "one, zero". This is base two, remember? "ten" doesn't exist. Just get it out of your head.

So if we wanted to add, say 0101 to 1001, we would do it like this (Remember to carry the 1 in the right-most column.)

1001 +


If you really want to get into it, you can use your left pinky as a sign bit, and do negative numbers. This cuts your positive range in half, but you can go from +511 to -512. I recommend using 2's compliment instead of 1's compliment. Addition and subtraction are the same (binary is so cool!). What's more, using Booth's Algorithm, you can do multiplication. Your range for the two operands is limited to -15 to +16 (that's five fingers for each number you want to multiply). Your result will be all ten fingers. For division, it will be in reverse. Your numerator will use all ten fingers, and the denominator will use five.

You will have to have 2's compliment down before Booth's algorithm makes any sense, but it is pretty straightforward. Google it, if you're interested.

Some would argue that memorizing the times tables up to 16 would be easier. That might be true for some people. In computers we make trade-offs like this all the time. We use memory when memory is abundant, and we use algorithms when memory scarce.

Some would argue that it would be faster to just use a calculator.

Calculators are for wusses.