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A Question on Horror at Icon 2016

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Icon 2016, the yearly science fiction and fantasy convention, took place this year on 18-20/10. This year my participation was relatively modest, partly due to circumstances and largely due to my delusion that I could get some writing done during the holiday. Consequently I only attended about four events, one of them a panel on dark fantasy with guest of honor Charles Stross, alongside Rani Graff and Ehud Maimon, moderated by Didi Chanoch.

There’s something curious about attending a lecture or panel by an author whose works you’ve never read. On the one hand, I’ve been attending Israeli SFF conventions for years, and it’s important to me to look for the events that won’t be here next year. Anything involving a guest of honor certainly qualifies. I still find myself astonished now and then that our local conventions keep managing to lure international guests, year after year. On the other hand, I always feel a little self-conscious, listening and participating, when I lack the basic context of familiarity with the author’s work.

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Earn It – a Meditation for Person of Interest’s Apocalyptic Graduation

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This is a story of how Person of Interest worked three long seasons to earn its surveillance dystopia, when other shows of the genre failed to show their work.

poi best
Season 2 poster showing Finch, Reese, Carter and Fusco.

This week, Person of Interest returns to the screens for its fifth and final season. After a four season emotional roller-coaster, fans are eager but understandably apprehensive about the conclusion. No one promised us a happy end. In fact, as the show wore on, it became clear that its premise, which initially relied on crime drama with a thin dusting of ambiguous sci-fi, had become radically transformed. Viewers entering the fourth season now knew that the show’s world presents a freshly budding dystopia dominated by a conscious and independent artificial intelligence.

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Writing Disability: Be Specific, Be Thorough, Do Your Research

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Diversity and representation have been climbing up the public agenda of late. When it comes to writing disabled characters, there are a few recurring pitfalls that I’d like to address.

Be Specific

You want to write a disabled character. First, you need to know what their disability is. “In a wheelchair” is not a disability. A wheelchair is a mobility aid, one of several different kinds available to the mobility-impaired. That’s your character, by the way. Did you mean, perhaps, that your character is paraplegic? Paralysis due to traumatic spinal injury is, again, one of many conditions that require or warrant the use of a wheelchair. Are you certain that you want your character to be paraplegic? True, this is the thing that most abled people think about (or avoid thinking about) when conjuring the mental image of a wheelchair. However, it is far from the only reason for someone to use a wheelchair.

Using a wheelchair does not necessarily mean the user has no use of their legs at all. Wheelchairs and mobility scooters (more on that later) are of use to people with a variety of conditions, such as neural or muscular illnesses, chronic pain conditions, or fatigue. Consider a character with a genetic condition like muscular dystrophy. How does their experience differ from that of someone who lost their mobility abruptly, such as through traumatic injury? Consider what their condition says about your character’s age or background, for example polio. Consider the many possible causes of limb amputation, from shrapnel to cancer to gangrene.

Be Thorough

Pay some mind to how your character’s condition affects aspects of their lives other than mobility. A syndromic illness will usually affect multiple systems, something which also bears remembering when writing about impaired senses like Deafness (for discussion of whether Deafness is considered a disability, see elsewhere). It may also affect the character cognitively, mentally and emotionally. A traumatic injury can cause damage to internal organs, or visible scarring, both of which will affect your character in ways impossible to ignore.

If you intend to write about a character who’s paraplegic, stop and take a minute to be honest with yourself. Are you willing to address all parts of your character’s life? Or are you too squeamish to consider that what affects the legs’ mobility might also affect functions like bladder control and erections? Your story might never address details like a character getting their catheter changed, but as a writer you need to know at least twice as much about your story as what is written on the page. Characters have relationships, some of them romantic or sexual. Are you going to think about how your character’s sexual expression is affected by their body, or will you be content to leave sex to be the elephant in the room?

Do Your Research

Disability also has social aspects. If your character’s disability is physical and visible, it affects the way they are treated by literally everyone they meet. This is where, once more, research is a writer’s best friend. Don’t expect to be able to write an authentic personal experience based on a series of dry medical or technological details. Once you’ve done your research into the physical symptomatology and the technical functions of whatever devices you character relies on, it’s time to get personal. If you need to know what it’s like to live as a veteran who lost both legs to an IED, you should probably be asking an actual veteran about it.

People read and people write and people can speak for themselves. The internet, aside from being full of porn, also has literally thousands of articles by disabled writers, blog festivals on disability, online magazines and organizational newsletters dedicated to specific conditions or constellations of conditions. You might gain important technical information from medical sites written by doctors and other practitioners (including, for example, psychotherapists, counselors and social workers), but there’s no substitute for reading the personal experience of a disabled writer, in their own words. Learn to differentiate between what’s written from an internal perspective versus the external point-of-view, for example that of a parent or caretaker.

An important note: if you are yourself abled, and not closely connected to a disabled friend or relative, you may still maintain an impression that society on the whole tends to people with disabilities because of their weakness. Depending on how far your research ranges, you may be surprised to learn of the micro-aggressions that PWD experience on a daily basis, or horrified to discover how common an occurrence caretaker abuse is, and how high the attendant murder statistics are. I’d say prepare yourself in advance, but you really can’t. Deal with it as best you can and remember to take your coping needs outwards, in accordance with the circle of support (comfort in, dump out).

Notes

A word on mobility scooters: they are just as useful and just as necessary as wheelchairs are. Generally they get a bad rap. For some reason they are considered less legitimate as a means of ambulation for people with mobility impairments. Some people seem to consider them as indulgences for people too fat and lazy to walk on their own. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Necessary disclaimers: I am far from an expert on all things disability (if there is such a thing). I’m not a doctor or a health-care professional, and I am not truly a disability rights activists. Though I’m not abled, I’m also not myself a wheelchair-user. I am, however, a writer, and I rely on what I observe around me in terms of writing trends. This is just a small taste of what I’ve noticed. I could have written thousands of words more, and I might yet write some of those.

The reason I focused so much on paralysis and mobility impairment is because wheelchairs are the visible face of disability, so to speak. They are within our line of sight, and that makes them sticky to misconceptions and shallow ideas stemming from lazy writing and lack of research. This is not meant to discourage people from writing disabled characters into their stories, quite the opposite. Considering the ideas I presented here is meant to encourage you to create whole, organic characters who incorporate disability as part of, but not their entire, identity.

This essay is not an encyclopedia; it’s barely an introduction. I hope, however, that it has given its readers some food for thought, for engaging with their own writing as well as the media they consume.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth

The Depowering of Barbara Gordon

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Oracle
Barbara Gordon as Oracle (image via multiversitycomics.com)

This is the story of how DC comics depowered Barbara Gordon.

For twenty five years, Barbara Gordon played the role of Oracle, a master-hacker and world-class information broken, leader of the Birds of Prey and a revolving roster of superheroines, and one of the smartest people in the DC universe. This Oracle persona was developed by John Ostrander and Kim Yale after her spine injury in the famous (or notorious) storyline The Killing Joke. This storyline was rightly criticized for treating Batgirl as a prop in a story that focused on the relationship between Batman and the Joker. The Killing Joke is commonly included in lists of “fridgings”, brutal plots visited on female characters, for the purpose of providing motivation for male characters.

The double standard is driven home when compared to the Knightfall storyline of 1993, where Batman has his spine broken by the supervillain Bane. Bruce Wayne is briefly replaced as Batman but, to no one’s surprise, he quickly becomes magically healed and resumes activity as the one and only Dark Knight in perpetuity. Barbara Gordon remained paraplegic. She also remained a master hacker and information broker, and developed a dedicated following of fans in her incarnation as leader of the Birds of Prey.

It’s not easy to find positive representation of disabled characters, let alone specifically paraplegic characters. Paralysis seems to strike most people as being beyond tragic. Paraplegic characters are often described as “wheelchair-bound” and relegated to pity porn. Or else cured, magically or otherwise. Oracle was an unusual example in that she manifested a journey of recovery. Not always explicitly, but Barbara Gordon’s inner world was one in which a spinal cord injury didn’t end her life or strip it from meaning, didn’t make her unwhole, or less-than.

I wouldn’t say that her spinal injury was the best thing that ever happened to Barbara Gordon, as I’ve heard some fans say. But maybe that’s because I think the coupling between her paralysis and her career as Oracle is entirely optional. A long string of writers put their minds into making the ex-Batgirl into something new and marvelous, and Oracle is flat-out one of the best characters in the DC universe. For twenty-five years Babs was a global-level player and for the last four years she’s been a street-level fighter.

Babs was rebooted in the New 52 and returned unceremoniously to being a character defined by not being Batman. The rebooted Black Canary in the rebooted Birds of Prey offered her a spot on the team that she built and she used to run. Kicked back to a cutesy adolescent story of social media and artisanal microbreweries, Batgirl’s Babs taps on a smartphone and uses Instagram to track low-rent villains where her adult counterpart used to run an entire farm of military-grade servers. Drawn in an art style that makes her look barely fifteen, obsessing over fashion and dating, she blends in with a dozen other post-Buffy superheroines.

Oracle was one of a kind.

Throughout the process of supposedly correcting the injustice represented by the Killing Joke storyline, the reversion to a Batgirl persona was treated as automatic. After all, if Babs can walk, why wouldn’t she want to return to a world of high kicks and spandex unitards? None of the writers seemed to consider that it was possible for Babs to be a top-tier mastermind without losing the use of her legs. Oracle is unquestionably a more powerful character than Batgirl could ever be. If DC is determined to give us a superhero world where injuries have zero consequences, at least they could do us the courtesy of not undoing the character development that these injuries provided.

Well and good for Batman to be stuck in eternal stasis as a thirty-five year old emotionally stunted manchild. He’s too iconic to ever experience any lasting character development. But Babs Gordon is not Bruce Wayne, and it’s grossly unfair for her to be relegated to glorified teen sidekick to preserve a non-existent continuity. Selling red-haired Batgirl action figures is not a good enough reason to depower one of the most compelling intellectual superheroes in the modern age. Leave the Batgirl mantle to some teenage girl on her first hero gig. Babs Gordon has bigger fish to fry.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth

Every Hero Needs a Villain (Not a Supergirl Review)

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Poor Supergirl. She never can seem to settle on a proper supporting cast of her very own. Sure, all comics superheroes go through endless permutations — power changes, costume changes, forgettable one-off villains — but always there is some sort of baseline to come back to. Always there is at least a mentor, or best friend, or love interest that recurs in every incarnation. And always, always a nemesis. A hero that doesn’t manage to establish a proper rogues gallery is bound to falter.

Supergirl, in her capacity as a spin-off hero, has a tendency to inherit Superman’s cast-offs. Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing, characters can grow and change and develop new roles in the mythology, when discharged from their role as third-tier Superman hangers-on. A few years ago, pre-New 52 when I was still following the ongoing Supergirl title, this was done to moderately good effect with Lana Lang. As an ex-love interest, the Superman comics didn’t really have room for her. Unfortunately, I was never really sold on the connection between them, and why Lana would specifically seek Kara out.

Other characters from that run stuck better, it seems. The Supergirl TV show has a couple of original supporting cast, but is replete with third-tier Superman characters, as well as ambiguous Checkmate-aligned Maxwell Lord. Side note: having Maxwell Lord in Supergirl and then notcrossing over with Legends of Tomorrow would be a crying shame. Still, it seems like the creators of the show are intent on keeping Kara firmly connected to the Superman mythos, while situating her in her own hometown with her own concerns.

I’m glad to see Kara getting a robust TV presence, even if the themes are lightweight and the dialogue is clunky. Granted, my enjoyment of the show — or any contemporary Supergirl comics — will always be capped by my own unnecessarily specific ideas for exactly what Supergirl should be. Of course, that point is largely moot, since the most recent iteration of Kara Zor-El had her ongoing title cancelled some time last spring. Not that I’m terribly worried, DC has the good sense to make sure that they have something on the shelves ready for fans of the show to pick up. Probably.

But the depth-problem is that each new volume (the most recent being the sixth) will have its own set of writers and artists sweeping in to “redefine” the character, without anyone having any idea of what exists at her core. Except me, obviously. All that means is that different iterations will have wildly different approaches. Of course, most comics superheroes go through this, but when Superman starts wearing T-shirts and punching people, everybody and their cryo-frozen cousin has an opinion on whether or not this is the “real” Superman.

The core of the problem, I think, is that very few Supergirl writers seem to have started out as readers. The TV show, curiously, might finally be an exception to this. If I had to guess, I’d say there’s at least one person in that writers’ room that read and enjoyed the Sterling Gates run — my own favorite, incidentally. Despite many flaws. Ultimately, comics continuity and the snarls that come with it are part and parcel of forming a superhero mythos, and they need to be formed out of an amalgam of more than one writer’s ideas about who Kara Zor-El really is.

The core idea behind the TV show, aside from Supergirl’s ongoing efforts to achieve an independent reputation, seems to be that Kara, unlike Clark, actually remembers Krypton. This, I think, is a good start. How it progresses remains to be seen.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth

How to Get Away with Characters Making Terrible Decisions

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The best thing about How to Get Away with Murder is Viola Davis.(1) The second best thing about HTGAWM is that it is a show about smart people making stupid decisions. I might have mentioned this is one of my favorite characterization themes. Annalise is brilliant from the start, shown to be both creative and ruthless in her problem solving abilities. She habitually takes the most difficult cases and prides herself on being able to turn around desperate situations.

In keeping with the traditional characterization, her emotional intelligence is commensurately low. When it comes to her personal life, she consistently makes poor decisions, which are then followed by increasingly messy consequences. The downwards spiral of snap decisions leading to spit-and-bubblegum solutions has defined the first half of the second season… even more than the first season, I think. She is a character designed to respond well in a crisis, and the first season mostly showcased her as such.

Last season, Annalise served as a shadow mentor and protector to her students, and her responses to their actions were alarming, but considered. And ultimately effective. The finale reveal showing Rebecca’s fate was actually the first hint that in this second season, Annalise’s direct, immediate decision-making style would increasingly backfire and lead her (and her students) deeper into trouble.

Instead of making cold, calculated choices and paying a personal price for them, she makes dubious gut-directed choices which are doomed to fail. A ruthless choice is coming up with a plan to frame her lover for her husband’s murder. It threw her personal life into chaos, but achieved its intended purpose — diverting suspicion from the people actually responsible for his death. Season two Annalise skips over the ruthless to the outrageously stupid, as the mid-season finale shows her instructing her student to shoot her.

There’s no question that Annalise Keating is meant to be seen as a smart character. She’s a highly successful lawyer and law professor. She has an impressive education and an illustrious career. Within the confines of the show’s sensationalistic reality, she is shown to dominate the courts she argues in and continually sways people to her opinion, even against their better judgment. Her force of personality inspires intense loyalty from her subordinates. Now, midway through the second season, all her strengths have turned to weaknesses, until even that inspired devotion can be turned into equally intense hate.

It’s painful but fascinating to watch. Annalise is a living, breathing trainwreck of a woman. Watching her life fall apart around her, in consequence of her own increasingly erratic actions, it’s hard to know whether to root for or against her. Or just sit back and watch the disaster unfold.

(1) I may have teared up just a little when I found out she would be playing the incomparable Amanda Waller for DC’s Suicide Squad movie.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth

Antagonists and the Pivotal Choice

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I’ve been thinking again on the dilemma of villains.

Common wisdom has it that every story needs a central conflict. Conflicts come in many varieties, and certainly are not restricted to individual antagonists. All the same, most of the stories we see in mass media are structured around the opposition of a protagonist and an antagonist, although not all antagonists can be termed villains. A villain can easily be considered as a special category of antagonist.

So, if your hero is not struggling against the impersonal forces of fate, technology, or the universe, sooner or later you will find yourself writing a villain, and villains require motivations. Finding the right motivation for your hero can be tricky, but finding one for your villain can be downright grueling. There are so many angles to consider! Does your mythology rely on black-and-white morality? How cynical or idealistic is your story meant to be? Should the villain be sympathetic at all, whether to the heroes or to the reader? The theme of the story should also be considered. Sometimes, the right motivation for the villain is one which complements the hero’s journey.

As much as the classic supervillainish antagonists have their own unique flair, modern storytelling leans strongly in favor of an antagonist who is at least potentially sympathetic, from a certain point of view. A story with gray morality can’t flourish unless the reader can consider that they, under certain circumstances, might have acted as the antagonists did, made the same choices they made. This is the pitfall that trips up most self-styled gray morality stories. In many of these stories, heroes are overtaken by anti-heroes, but the villains, if anything, become even more abhorrent.

Conversely, some stories spend so much time building up the humanity of their antagonists, that either the writer or the readers can’t bear to leave them as villains. The villain then becomes a hero, and a new villain is required to replace them, this one often falling into the same trap or the one mentioned above. In longer, ongoing works there then forms a kind of villainy treadmill that the writer has to race on, or in shared universes, the reviled revolving door of morality.

How, then, to balance the need to keep villains human and relatable, while still keeping them locked into an antagonistic narrative role? In order to maintain narrative conflict there is required at least a single point of friction, a major philosophical, moral or personal difference that sets the heroes and villains apart. Ostensibly, the most common variation on this point is the idea of ends justifying the means, where an antagonist will be working to the same ends as the hero, but much more inclined to slip into morally-dubious tactics. It’s a hit-and-miss writing trick that can come off as authentic or stale, depending on the writer’s talent and the story’s circumstances.

Writing relatable villains always runs the risk of readers relating to them more than they do to the heroes. This is especially true in cases as above, where any given reader may regard the heroes as naïve or even cowardly, all from accepting more readily the premise of the villain’s viewpoint. ‘How far are you willing to go?‘ is one of the questions most difficult to answer on behalf of your readers – and in general.

Sometimes writers will use a fork in the road plot to show the reader a glimpse of who the hero might have been, if their circumstances were less heroic. Forming the villain into the hero’s shadow archetype not only makes both characters more human and relatable, it also draws a crisp outline of villainous intent. A narratively simple way of following through on this would be to differentiate the characters by the circumstances of their upbringing. A popular approach, especially as it reflects on the writer’s own society, and creative point of origin.

Origins can provide a powerful, socially originated foil that blocks the villain from reforming, or joining the side of the heroes. For a more introspective story, a psychological motivation can serve as a similar obstacle that checks the villain and returns them to their rightful narrative position. An impulse, a moment’s carelessness, a snap decision gone wrong, any of these can set a character on the path to darkness. One decision leads to another and so an antagonist of circumstance becomes a villain of choice. The critical juncture in this anatomy is the single bad decision that sets the course of events.

A writer’s job is to force their characters into difficult decisions. With the pivotal choice, a character is forced into making a momentous decision under adverse conditions ranging from ignorance to a poor temper. With perfect control over the circumstances, a writer can position their characters in a vantage that exploits their fatal flaws and natural myopia. A character’s actions in the aftermath of their pivotal choice can determine their course as a hero or a villain.

Ideally, a pivotal choice flies under the radar and can only be readily identified in retrospect. The trick, then, is to circumvent a thoughtful, considered, deliberate course of action. Instead of thinking through one’s options and selecting the best available solutions, one’s actions are informed by the deepest biases, most unexamined heuristics. If the source of all plot comes from putting characters in situations they don’t know how to deal with, it’s the conflicts they don’t even realize they’re in which reveal their weakest aspects.

The aftermath of the pivotal choice determines what sort of villain you’re working with. If the consequences are dire enough, from a moral point of view, you can find your character snared into a loop of escalating violence, whether by social disapproval or by their own guilty conscience. If the pivotal choice is buried deep enough in the past, drowned in years of resentment and vengefulness, it no longer matters how innocuous or comprehensible the original inciting act really was. The weight of years of hostility and brutality rests on every action, and redemption or forgiveness become an unreasonable expectation.

A particularly clear variation on this formula is common in murder mysteries. A character witnesses a crime, or causes a deadly accident, or for some other reason believes themselves to be prime suspects of a murder that has no yet been discovered. In their effort to protect themselves from the veil of suspicion – real or imagined, probable or far-fetched – they end up committing crimes far worse than the initial decision that set the snowball rolling. However innocent they might have been at first, they are still rightfully culpable for the murder of the witness or the detective who was about to reveal their crime.

The pivotal choice is a character device with infinite possible permutations. It can be as clear or as subtle as the story requires, it can leave an opening for redemption or more completely damn the character in question. The biggest trick of it, I think, is discovering the foil that could lead to such an ill-fated decision, without making the character appear foolish to the reader.

After all, there’s nothing worse than a stupid villain.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth.