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New eBook Release: When Ai Met Yu

After being published in five parts on my own blog, it's time for this story to come to a wider audience. My first attempts at both a re...

Monday, 23 January 2017

The Problem of the Picaresque

The picaresque novel, and its derivatives both foreign and domestic such as the Phantom Thief and Superhero genres, are an incredible source for stories and characters, more so as they're often added to and expanded through the contributions of multiple authors across many decades. But there's a core problem with this genre that I've come across when trying to write in it, and it's a problem best portrayed in two phrase that's are both quotes from other works, and terms used in fields as varied as science and tech to scholarly literature and nature: constants and variables, momentum and stasis.

First, what is picaresque fiction, and why does it sit in the same boat as things like the Superhero genre. Well, the basic form of the picaresque novel is, according to scholars, a first-person memoir-like narrative where the mainly static main cast go on a long series of separate yet interconnected adventures without a central plot and - in many cases - get into trouble with the local authorities or some other powerful figure. Examples of the picaresque extend as far back as the anonymously authored Lazarillo de Tormes, considered by many to be the genesis of the genre, and continue through Voltaire's Candide and Fielding's The History of Tome Jones. Journey to the West by Wu Cheng'en also falls into this genre. The picaresque can also be seen in the works of Marvel and DC Comics among others, with dozens if not hundreds of adventures revolving around generally unchanging characters: examples from both major companies range from Fantastic Four and Spider-Man to Batman and Justice League. In Manga, where its equivalent is the "Phantom Thief" story, you have too many to count, from Sailor Moon to Ghost Hunt and beyond. Versions in television range from the standard sitcom (Friends, The Last of the Summer Wine) to more serious fair (Firefly, Doctor Who). In video games, things are either too short for or move away from such styles in favour of telling a single quest-like narrative; the most prominent incarnations in gaming I've seen are Final Fantasy X-2, Persona 5, the Sly Cooper series, and the Gravity Rush duology. Apart from Sly Cooper, none of these strictly follow the pure picaresque format but instead borrow extensively from it.

A theme astute readers will notice about many the above written works is that they're critical works that caused minor or major controversy when they were published as they took shots at aspects of the establishment both religious and secular, along with other aspects of humanity such as its morality and the concept of blind faith. I've tried writing within this genre a few times now, and all but once I've been faced with a difficult problem, which as I said above can best be described by the phrases "constants and variables, momentum and stasis". The thing about a lot of picaresque work, from the classics to more modern examples, are that they lack the push for a central narrative and strong characters that have taken their rightful place on the peak of the literary mound. This is a style that I also choose to use as I greatly enjoy focusing on characters. The picaresque work takes the emphasis of character and narrative in favour of its shifting setting and subsequent deconstruction of the aspects of life and society.

And now for the very issue that I've described above. As to "constants and variables", it's the fact that while the same cast of characters remain, the settings change to an often drastic degree. While settings shift in stories, the picaresque format calls for this more than most, and leaves limited room for the great ensemble casts that many authors revel in. The second issue, which I defined as "momentum and stasis", is that while the story is about movement, nothing seems to change. The character development is often cut out or at least greatly reduced, either through the use of the first-person narrative or through the very nature of the story's fast pace and focus on events over character.

I've tried twice to create something around what I thought was the picaresque format, using one woman outlaw's adventures to tell a story, with a man in the law as her on-off nemesis and her going on daring heists and other jobs in her own quest for answers. It was part Phantom Thief/picaresque, part action hero, part sci-fi; I called it Calabaja, a simplified and slightly altered romanization of the Hindi word "Chaalabaaj" or "Trickster". But both times I tried, it fell flat. The first time, it was a combination of being too busy, a lack of skill at that point, and the fact that what I wanted to do ended up conflating with the Superhero genre, which I personally dislike as a genre - the stories are often overly simple, the morality overly straightforward, the drama overly forced, the exposition generally boring, and the way the major publishers treat their characters as commodities mean their development (if any) if often uneven and unfair to them. When I wrote something vaguely picaresque, I didn't even realise I was doing it and I wasn't following most of its conventions. However, in succeeding with that project, I also caused my next attempt at Calabaja to fail as I realised I was just trying to do the same kind of thing over again. As this is something I endeavour not to do, I shelved it. Who knows, I may never finish it.

Of course, there are many works falling within the picaresque genre that don't conform to all its tropes. Voltaire's Candide is actually one of these, as it sees the characters grow and change to a degree, and it acts as a deconstruction of the genre along with being a part of it. Kim, the seminal novel by Rudyard Kipling, uses elements from the genre as a backdrop for a story of espionage within the workings of the Great Game. There are also those who use the picaresque format and give it a new spin whether playful or dark, such as the Russian-authored novellas featuring the character Ostap Bender, Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat, and Jack Vance's Dying Earth series. American author Gene Wolf has made his career out of genre bending, with picaresque being among many he has experimented with.

The picaresque is a strange beast indeed. One the one hand, you're tempted and charmed along the route of the errant vigilante. On the other, you're dragged into a mire of tropes and complications that transform a narrative into something that can't work. Either way, it's a genre many enjoy around the world in many forms both old and new. And it maybe a genre I myself will tackle, when I'm certain enough in my skills and broad enough in my knowledge of the world to make such a story work. Until then, I read, and enjoy...

Monday, 16 January 2017

Let there be Fire (for that scene, anyway)!

Flame is one of the accomplishments associated with both untamed nature and man's accomplishments. Man's discovery of fire was an important part of establishing ourselves as the world's dominant species. This history and association means, in addition to fire's very nature as a transitory element that appears seemingly from nowhere, means that it's become used in many ways within stories. These stories range from the most ancient myths to modern yarns, with accompanying variations in quality and length.

Human reverence of flame is also a part of stories, and has its roots in ancient religion. In Zoroastianism, a sacred natural flame within a temple is the subject of worship. The Roman sect who worshiped the goddess Vesta is also notable for their eternal tending of a sacred flame at the heart of their temple. This theme of a sacred flame tended by a religious sect is nothing new in fiction, but it doesn't solely originate there - examples from real religions and faiths from Eurasia exist. Flame is an almost inevitable addition to stories involving dragons, which ranges from books to films to games. In books, dragons come in all shapes and sizes, more so than the visual arts. I guess the mind's eye still has an advantage against the work of visual effect designers and CGI animators. Eastern fiction is not so limited for dragons, as fire breathers are not typically present in the folklore of the region. Something that also suggests fire is a desert setting, such as for books and films inspired by Near Eastern fiction such as A Thousand And One Nights. A single spark of flame might not feature, but there's still an impression of heat and flame through the climate and environment.

As with my previous post, I'll be referring to the work of Japanese film maker Akira Kurosawa. He was noted for his use of environmental effects in scenes to exemplify mood. Fire was no exception to this, as he used it more than once in his work. The instance I'll be calling out at from Ran. Having seen the error of splitting his dominion between his two favoured sons, old daimyo Hidetora retakes one of the castles, but an allied force storms the castle, killing everyone inside and setting the castle ablaze. The now-wizened, traumatized and soon-deranged Hidetora walks from his burning palace as the two armies line his exit, a blank stare on his face as the castle behind him is consumed in smoke and flame. Another scene that uses flames to emphasise the mood is the first Spider-Man film from 2002; Spider-Man is tricked by Green Goblin into entering a burning building, and the smoldering animosity and tense situation is reflected in the flaming scenery. This may be two examples, but I think they're notable uses of this common environmental effect; the use of flame can exemplify an emotion that some character is feeling, or a symbol of change that will mean things are never the same again. There are minor instances of fire being a potent symbol - any volcano-based picture, the tense hunter-v-hunted scenes in the original Alien, the pyre that signals the end of many lives at the end of The Fall of the Roman Empire.

Video games use fire for many things, and adding impact to scenes is one of them. The level from Uncharted 3 where protagonist Nathan must escape a burning house is notable, but there are also instances like the "Fire Temple" from Ocarina of Time, even the opening of Tomb Raider Underworld. The one even the most casual gamer is likely to remember is the famous scene from Final Fantasy VII, when the SOLDIER Sephiroth, having been driven insane by the revelations of his origins, has set the town of Nibelheim ablaze and butchered its inhabitants - we see him surrounded by flame, immortalised for all of time as a vision of twisted evil. All of these above range in purpose from mechanical to thematic, but they all share a purpose - fire and flame exemplifies tension, captures a mood, and signals great change in a way other environmental elements can't.

Of course, this is just my view, and there's plenty of other instances where flame and fire is used to good effect. If you wish, please comment below and describe what you think is the best instance of this most hypnotic of environmental effects.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Time, the Weather and the Mood

Weather conditions and scenery form a basic part of what makes each scene in a story. Be it nighttime, daytime, raining, scorching, snowing... Weather and time can help create an impression without the need for excessive exposition from characters or even the need for any kind of dialogue recap of events. This style is generally used within the visual arts, as books have the necessary leeway to have such descriptions from the narration, whether they're a third-person presence or one of the characters in first person.

The basic principle is simple. You want to communicate in the shortest space of time what the general mood is, either in the story or with the characters. This can lead to being liberal with the nature of weather and time, but that's something else entirely. It's a different element to camera angles, which can also be used to emphasise mood for characters and the general story. A basic example: it's a downer part of the story, and your characters are in a sour mood, or perhaps you're showing the villain's triumphant tirade - the most likely scenario would be that it's nighttime and probably raining, or at least clouded or threatening a storm.

Western films and television don't seem to use it as much as they used to, especially with the recent trend for an off-grey filter which is applied to stories that are prone to use these effects (melodramas, detective stories, fantasy/sci-fi). But where it is used, it's worth noting. In The Fall of the Roman Empire, the final scenes show the  Rome and the unhinged Commodus bathed in glorious sunlight in the Forum, contrasting directly with the tragic scenes which have unfolded so far and continue to do so. Something from the superhero genre that springs to mind is Spider Man 3. A key scene during the second half is when Parker realises he is being suborned by the symbiote, and sits on the spire of a church while a storm and rain surrounds him. As Parker struggles to tear off the symbiote, Eddie Brook comes for solace down below and becomes the symbiote's latest host. The surrounding storm emphasises the dark subject matter of this scene - however, this scene can feel gratuitous more than emotional if you're not invested in the film. Rain is a wonderful mood maker, and its use during the 1990s version of Godzilla creates an omnipresent dimness, and finally sorrow at the wondrous beast's ultimate fate. The blazing sun is also an inseparable element from Westerns ranging from The Magnificent Seven to , throwing into sharp relief everything that's happening.

One of the few singular masters of this in film is Akira Kurosawa, whose camera angles and juxtaposition of movement to stillness makes all of his movies contenders for being cinematic masterpieces in both Japan and internationally. From his black and white era, Yojimbo is the most entertaining and accessible of his movies from the period, but if you're willing there are other films such as Seven Samurai and  - Yojimbo's mood is exemplified by its setting of a dusty village torn apart by rival gangs, while nighttime scenes emphasise the darker or more covert parts of the story. Other parts of his work  also use weather to good effect (such as the swing scene from Ikiru or the rain falling around the Rajomon gate). One of the best examples, if not the best example of this from color pictures is Ran, which also plays with the concept of surroundings and contrast, adding further depth to Kurosawa's work. The burning sun exemplifies the fallen Daimyo's descent into madness and the growing animosity between his suns and the neighboring Daimyo.

In video games, weather and times of day are used similarly and perhaps more liberally to convey story and character mood. Dishonored uses weather as an indicator of the character's moral alignment and their effect on the world, while Heavy Rain uses rain in copious amounts as both a story device and indication of the sorrowful mood. A less well known but still effective use of rain and damp in darkness is the sixth level of Tomb Raider Legend. Darkened scenes illuminated by fire are more than frequent, and often accompany sombre scenes - the party resting in Final Fantasy X, XIII and XV, the tense talk between Koudelka and Edward in Koudelka, and multiple scenes in Drakengard 3 and the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot. Fire can be used to greater effect than other weather effects. In fact, it's so interesting to see its wider scope and general use in storytelling that I think I'll make that the subject of my next post!

I couldn't possibly list every single use of these elements in every film and video game and book, but I've picked out the ones that stood out to me. I don't always think these tricks of scenery and weather - they can come off as cheap of cliche. But I think they're worth mentioning as something that form a part of every story's cinematic, imaginary and artistic DNA.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Where's the Toilet?

This is a shorter than usual post, and an odd title, but bear with me. Tell me, when you're in the middle of a grand adventure, trekking across an amazing and terrifying landscape, what's the thing you forget? The sword that is needed to destroy the possessed Archdeacon, a companion, or... Ah, yes. A break behind a bush because you haven't gone in months. This conceit of storytelling - that heroes on a major quest within fantasy of sci-fi universes don't actually need to go to the loo - is something everyone has struggled with from time to time, and has become something of a joke of the genre.

There are logical reasons why such events aren't put into the prose. First, there's the fact that a reader wants to get on with the story, so you don't really want a description of how your protagonist needed to duck behind a bush because... of business. You want more scenery, more action, more character, more story events, not a detour into the bog. Indeed, time constraints in a book, film, TV programme or video game is the biggest issue faced when you want to include this detail. You might also want to convey a character's inhuman nature by them not needing to avail themselves of such facilities.

However, there is also a good reason why it should be there. It humanises characters in a way so many other little tricks and approaches fail at. It could also be used to bring some much-needed levity into a darker narrative - it's remarkable seeing or reading about the local knight needing to undo parts of his armour to relieve himself. Not the kind of "toilet" humour to make you curl up in your seat, but the kind of gentle or even witty humour that the best comedy plays host to.

Now there is one major element that many might overlook both in writing and in reading; assuming that someone might take such necessary human bodily functions as a norm that doesn't need to happen in the least. But even the scope of such underground imaginings has limits. With notable exceptions that make me nod my head and say "they did that right", I don't see instances in science fiction or fantasy where the heroes have digestive upsets from something they've eaten, or the usual problems you might get from needing to drink from a river for example. Basic realities of such journeys or other similar circumstances that make up an interesting piece of many an explorer's take are often casually forgotten in books. Then there are scenes which take place in a domestic setting, where you would expect that - it's nowhere to be found, not even a mention or reminder or an instance being caught short.

On the whole, while such things may seem like unnecessary or gratuitous detail, they can be a great way of bringing a story down to earth. Yes, this person is the most powerful Mage/Star pilot/warrior/ect. in the story, but they had something that severely disagreed with them and had to be taken off duty due to a severe bout of diarrhea. This is mostly delegated to injury or some exotic/commonplace virus rather than this most common of human ailments. But they can also trip up a story, and therein lies the humour of this most frequent conscious or unconscious omission from fiction; can you imagine Frodo Baggins struggling to find somewhere to do his business in the middle of the Dead Marshes? Unless that bread stuff was more magical than we thought...

OH! I nearly forgot. Happy new year, to everyone!