Dangerous Stereotypes: The Alpha Male

I’m going to tackle some stereotypes present in modern fiction that I think are dangerous when used irresponsibly.  Any entries part of this series will be labeled as “Dangerous Stereotypes.” You can read previous entries in this series, which discuss the Scientist and Bad Boy stereotypes.

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Every culture has certain expectations of how people are supposed to behave. Sometimes these social rules apply across the board, but others are gender-specific, and this is reflected in our media. While a lot of scrutiny is given to the short stick that women get instead of proper representation in books, films, and video games, less attention has been paid to the toxic masculinity that pervades so much modern media.

John Carter of Mars carrying Princess Dejah Thoris

When you picture the hero of a story, especially in science fiction or fantasy, what do you see? Chances are the kind of man that comes to mind is someone tall, physically fit or imposing, and who can win a fight with style, even if violence isn’t their first choice. Many are handsome, cocky, reckless, often abrasive, and tend to fill the leadership role with a sense of natural ease. They are almost always heterosexual playboys, exuding a charisma that draws women to their bed and encourages other men to either follow their lead or to become their competitor. Some prime examples of this archetype can be found in Captain Kirk from Star Trek, John Carter from the Barsoom novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, any incarnation of James Bond, the half-demon Inuyasha from the manga by Rumiko Takahashi, and mythic idols like Thor and Robin Hood. Even heroes who start off shy, awkward, nerdy, or reluctant, like Harry Potter and Peter Parker, eventually become independent leaders and warriors thanks to their adventures. Expressions of emotion, empathy, or sensitivity are often shown as weaknesses to be hidden behind a wall of witty banter, arrogance, or stoicism. It is the stereotypical Alpha Male who always comes out on top.

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Not a Legend, Not a Flop – A Review of King Arthur

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Another film review from the Penn-Mar Literary Critics! Many thanks to Avellina for joining me on this venture into Arthurian legend.

Be advised that this entry contains spoilers!

I will not pretend that King Arthur: Legend of the Sword was a good movie. It was average at best, mediocre at worst. It managed to be better than Beowulf or Dracula Untold but did not reach the level of Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. And yet, to my surprise, I rather enjoyed it.

King Arthur is a popcorn film, a Pacific Rim in the fantasy genre. It focuses on CGI action and glib character moments rather than the deeper tales of good and evil. It has the look of such epic films in many respects, (the production values are quite good) but lacks something vital that keeps it from true greatness. Well, actually, it lacks a lot of things. It’s filled with internal inconsistencies, plot holes the size of Miami, a magic system with no real rules, an over-emphasis on action that looks good rather than what makes sense, gratuitous CGI, inability to really distinguish between characters (especially the women), and a tragic, almost criminal under-use of Jude Law.
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Permutations of the Soul

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“Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”

— Jedi Master Yoda, from The Empire Strikes Back

 

Souls permeate fantasy. You find them everywhere. In books like the Vlad Taltos series; in movies like Crimson Peak; in television shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer; in video games like Jade Empire; in anime like Soul Eater; and manga like Fullmetal Alchemist. Even if souls are not the focus of the story, it is almost always assumed that souls exist. In some universes, all living things have souls, while in others only sentient races have them. In a few, only humanity is granted this unique ability to transcend oblivion.

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Holding Pattern

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Well, I finished my book.

Actually, I finished it about a month ago.

Yup.

Yeah, I know, I’m not exactly jumping up and down with joy. If anything, I’ve been rather subdued about it. Not sure why. I mean, Courting the Moon is the culmination of two years of work. That’s nothing to sneeze at. But while I feel a certain amount of satisfaction, I’m not experiencing anything close to “joy.”  Maybe it’s because the worry about not finishing was gone by the time April rolled around, and without that tension, it was a forgone conclusion. Maybe it’s because I know I still have plenty of other projects waiting in the wings, namely Ravens and Roses. Or maybe I’m mentally burnt out and just don’t want to think about it anymore.

I haven’t written anything for weeks.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. I reread my draft of Ravens and Roses, which pleased me because what I had still held up after being neglected for so long, but it also made me sigh because now I can see just how far I have to go for it to be finished. And I suppose I have been writing a little bit. I’ve started writing down scenes for the Star Wars fanfic that’s been circulating in my head literally since I was thirteen. But that’s about it.

Some random news pieces:

–  I went to see Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 and liked it.
–  I got to go to Free Comic Book Day for the first time, albeit in the evening so most of the events were over, but that was fine with me; I don’t care much for crowds.
–  But these days, most of my brain has been consumed with watching The Clone Wars in chronological order in the hopes of actually finishing the series this time. (When I started watching it a year or two ago, I stopped midway through Season 3, and for some inexplicable reason never went back to it until now.)

While part of me feels a little guilty for not working on the synopsis for Courting the Moon, or researching agents, or continuing work on Ravens and Roses… another part of me says, “To hell with it; I’m going to veg.” (Being stricken with allergies doesn’t help with the brain-fog either.) Of course, a writer’s mind is never truly still. Even when we seem to be passively engaged with something like television or a movie, we are absorbing more story ideas and elements, adding them to the primordial ooze that is our brains.

So I think for now I will go ahead and gorge myself on Star Wars until I feel ready to tackle writing again.

Star Wars: The Death of a Universe

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The first “grown up” books I ever read from the Star Wars Expanded Universe.

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While perusing my shelves trying to decide what to read (no easy task, I can assure you), my eyes landed on my collection of Star Wars books. Over the years I’ve acquired quite a few, many of which I originally read as library books and later added to my personal collection. Jedi Apprentice.  Galaxy of Fear. The Jedi Academy Trilogy. The Thrawn Trilogy. X-Wing: Rogue Squadron. The Young Jedi Knights series. Many of these I haven’t read in years. And as I gazed at them, recalling fond memories of reading those stories, a melancholy feeling overwhelmed me.

Because these stories don’t officially exist anymore.

Now, I’m going to state right up front that I completely understand the decision to make anything created before April 2014 no longer canon. (This of course excludes the six main films and The Clone Wars TV series and movie.) Although the Star Wars Expanded Universe (EU) did its best to avoid contradicting itself (and managed it far better than poor Star Trek did), I can understand why, in the interest of creative freedom, Disney and Lucasfilm didn’t want to be shackled to the expectations and events presented in the EU. While some additions to the EU are absolutely amazing, like the characters of Admiral Thrawn and Mara Jade, others are… shall we say… far less desirable. (I’m looking at you, New Jedi Order.)

So, I get it. I really do. But I don’t always have to like it.
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Live Action Beauty and the Beast: A Review

(Click image for source)

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I try not to get excited about new movies and this is why. I love the original animated Disney Beauty & the Beast (which I have mentioned before in my Favored Fairytales entry on the subject). But I also love the idea of a Beauty humanizing a Beast in general. It’s such a compelling story, so I was looking forward to seeing a live action adaptation. I was curious to see how they would play the story, what kind of depth would be imparted to the characters, a new spin on a “tale as old as time.”

What I got was an often inferior carbon copy of the original animated version.

I cannot express how much this disappoints me. Don’t get me wrong; the movie isn’t bad per se. I don’t feel like I should demand my money back or that I wasted my time. It’s competently done. The singing (for the most part) is good, the CGI passable, the sets rich and ornate (albeit over-Baroqued), the costumes were pretty, and I enjoyed the talking furniture. There are some good moments between Belle and her father, both Gaston and LeFou were entertaining, and some of the plot holes from the animated film were explained (like how Gaston knew where the castle was, what happened to Belle’s mother, and why everyone didn’t seem to know that a giant, impossible-to-miss castle was sitting within a day’s ride of the village).

But.

There were so many things they could have done to enrich the characters, to deepen the story, that were missed. What depth the animated version had was mostly lost in the translation to live action, and what backstory there was felt pasted in as an afterthought rather than integrated into the film.

While I could go on at length pointing out all the flaws of the film (which others have done in great detail), I want to focus on three main points whose poor execution crippled the live action film:
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On Melodrama

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(click image for source)

The word “melodrama” has taken a rather sorry turn in modern usage. Today, if someone or something is called “melodramatic” it is viewed as “over the top” in a bad, silly, or unbelieveable way. It suggests a lack of subtlety or character or a firm relationship with reality. Generally, if someone calls your work “melodramatic,” it isn’t a compliment. (And yet the word “dramatic” hasn’t quite descended to the same depths as its longer cousin.)

This saddens me, because in the classical sense, I love melodramas. The work of Dickens or the Brontë sisters and even Jane Austen can be called melodramas because they appeal to emotion and are sensationalized to heighten those feelings. So many of my favorite stories are technically melodramas, from Little Dorrit and Jane Eyre to more modern incarnations like Ripper Street and Doctor Who. (The argument could be made that these are technically dramas, but I personally feel like “drama” is just short for “good melodrama.”)

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Chipping Away At the Mountainside

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Imagine that you have a lump of stone. It may be a very pretty stone. It may have fascinating gradations in texture or color. It may have an interesting suggestion of shape or form. But ultimately it’s still just a lump of stone. You have to sand and grind and chip away at it until it becomes something recognizable without destroying the whole thing in the process.

I’m finding that this is rather what editing a book is like. This is the first time in my life that I’ve gotten this deep into the process of Writing (with a capital W), so this is all new to me. Of course, I’ve got several books on how to edit, but as usual I just plowed ahead and tried figuring out how to do it on my own without reading any of them. I suppose that’s not entirely unexpected; each writer has their own way of doing things after all. So I wanted share how I’ve personally proceeded with the writing process on this book. Obviously my way isn’t the only way and I doubt it’s the best or most efficient way. But at least it’s an example of one possible path that you can take.

So, this is how the last 16 months spent with All’s Fair have gone:

close-up-chisel

(click image for source)

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Emotional Somersaults

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On the day before Valentine’s Day, take a moment to reflect on your relationship with your writing. If you’ve written for any length of time, you’ve probably noticed that there are good days and bad days. There are days when you love your novel, your short story, your screenplay, your work, both in general and specific to the project at hand. Everything falls into place, almost effortlessly, and you ride a tide of euphoria and bliss. Those are the days when you can’t imagine being anything other than a writer.

Then there are days, often many long, hard, dark days, where you hate your work. You hate the process. You feel the plot is generic, the characters lifeless, the words boring, and the entire enterprise both fruitless and trite. Every writer dreads such days, and all too often those days overshadow all of the good. At those times, you feel like a failure, like you are wasting your time, your life, chipping away at some impossible dream. Those are the days when you feel it would be better to be anything except a writer.

I’m here to tell you that those feelings are normal. It’s normal to go through these emotional somersaults. It’s normal to have periods of fierce pride and joy countered by times of terror and self-doubt. Sometimes all it takes is a day or two away from the desk to walk, dance, read, and get reacquainted with the spark that set us on this artistic journey in the first place. But no matter how you feel, you must come back. You must return to the desk, to the paper and pen, to the screen and keyboard. No relationship is without its difficulties and low points, especially not one as fraught with intimacy as the one between a writer and their work. Remember that no night, no shadow, and no storm lasts forever.

Do not give into despair.

Return.
Continue.
Persevere.

Love the work.
Love thyself.

Temporal Frameworks

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"Creation of Time" by Max Mitenkov

“Creation of Time” by Max Mitenkov

They say that timing is everything. While it may vary in prominence and importance for a story, it’s always a good idea for a writer to know how long it takes for things to happen. Having the ages of characters and timeline of events written down and referenced periodically during the rewriting process will help you maintain both continuity and pacing.

Note that I said, “during the rewriting process.” Timelines and continuity checks are part of the many cycles of editing. Unless you are one of those ultra-detailed planners who lays all of the groundwork before picking up a pen, a timeline isn’t something you should be using until after at least the first draft is complete.

For example, when I write, I usually have a month or so of planning where I pull together a basic plot line, character descriptions, and overall tone of the work. In the character descriptions, I put at least an estimate of how old they are supposed to be. This can fluctuate later, but usually only within a few years of the initial age-setting. As I write my first draft, I have a rough idea of how much time passes between events. It’s a day or two from their initial meeting to their first fight, a week until their marriage, a few hours until that important breakfast, and they spend two or three months in this locale. These aren’t set in stone, nor do they have to be 100% accurate at this stage. In Draft 1, it doesn’t matter so much if I say it only took a week to travel 200 miles on foot or something like that. All I need are estimates, if that, to give a basic temporal framework.
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