Tag Archive: characterization


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Everyone knows that Night of the Living Dead is an iconic piece of cinema that paralleled the Red Scare and fears of communism slowly surrounding and consuming us. You see, when zombies first arrived, they had meaning. They were a symbol of something truly horrifying. They were a symbol of a threat against the democratic way of life. Let’s explore, briefly, what I mean.

Zombies, or undead – or whatever you decide to call them – began as slow moving and weak reanimations of those we once knew. It was easy to see them coming. It was easy to avoid them. They were very weak, and in order to break through those windows and doors had to repeatedly bang on them, weakening them until they could break through. If you encountered one, it was easy to avoid it, but if you encountered a hundred, it was much more difficult. This mirrored how people felt about communism.

Communism spread through communists. It spread slowly. You could easily identify a communist. Their words were not very strong, but repeatedly hearing them eventually wore down people’s own ideas about the importance of democracy. Communists were not random strangers from other countries, either. No, they were people you knew. They were people like sweet old Mrs. Adelman who feeds the neighborhood cats. They were people like Bill at the auto store. They weren’t exactly the same as before, but you knew them. They were familiar. You had a bond with them in some way. If there was one communist, you could avoid them. One hundred were not so easy to avoid.

I bring this up because zombies once had substance. Zombies once represented a real societal fear in our culture. I implore you to review all the books, movies, and games you have recently played, watched or read which involve zombies. Think of what those zombies represented in those stories. Mostly, the zombies are some overt representation of the Man vs. Nature conflict. They attempt to add a psychological depth to a story where there may be one. After all, how can you logically make a young boy shoot his mother, or a father shoot his only son? How can you stir up those emotions that accompany the struggle of watching a family member succumb to zombieism without zombies? Well, this is my point. It’s always possible to do those things. What zombies do is make it easy to do that.

My point is this: Zombies are LAZY.

Let’s look at some modern examples. The Walking Dead is one of the most popular shows on television right now. Based off of a highly acclaimed comic book serial, the show is loved by all, particularly apocalypse planners and zombie enthusiasts. It depicts a post-apocalyptic world where rival human factions struggle to survive in a world full of “Walkers” – the undead remnants of the past society that make nature suddenly more dangerous. Forget actual nature which, if given the chance to reclaim itself, would be drastically more dangerous. No, humans without minds are the greatest natural threat in the world. That is the message zombies are meant to portray. That is not the message they are often used to portray.

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In the show (and comic), the zombies serve very specific purposes. They are a constant environmental threat and conflict, of course, but in terms of plot, they serve a few specific functions. One of those functions is to serve as motivation for the characters to keep moving from place to place. If they stay in one place too long, the walkers find them. Another is to prevent them from doing something, or from following a direct path. (The quickest way into the city is through this tunnel? Well, Walkers hang out in tunnels, we can’t go in there. Let’s go all the way around.) And the final purpose they serve is to kill people off. Zombies kill people. That’s kind of their thing.

So why do I care? Well, as I said, zombies are lazy. Zombies also make plot boring. Let’s review the first plot purpose I mentioned: forcing characters to move. Simply saying “there are zombies and they need to avoid them” is simple. There are countless other reasons people could be nomadic. Perhaps there is a nomadic human faction that threatens them? Perhaps they are searching for something specific? Perhaps the rain is poisonous and they need to move away from storm clouds? There are a million possibilities and then a million more.

The issue with all off these options is that each one needs its own explanation. Each one needs a background, each one needs a dynamic story arc of its own. If they are being pursued by an enemy factions, who is leading this faction, why are they pursuing them? Are they going to kill them, torture them, capture them? Why? Is that faction all evil, or does it just have an evil leader(s)?

If they are seeking something then what are they seeking? Why are they seeking it? Where did it come from? Who found out about it? How does each member of the group feel about it? Is anyone else seeking it?

If the rain is poisonous, then what poisoned it? What are the effects of the poison rain? How does it affect the wildlife? What was done to try to fix it? What can save them from the rain’s poison? How do they get clean drinking water?

Now, with zombies, you can have the same questions. Where did the zombies come from? How can they be stopped? What are their main threats? However, you ask these questions once. They apply to every situation. You can’t go through a tunnel because of the zombies? Well, you already know all about the zombies. You can’t stay in one place too long because of the zombies? Doesn’t bring up any new questions. You can’t go through a tunnel because the poisonous rainwater is pooling inside? Or perhaps the poison rainwater has caused poisoned plants/animals to grow in the tunnel. This brings up new questions about why the water is pooling, why the animals are becoming poisonous, etc.

Using zombies is a lazy trick. It makes you complacent to not think of any new or interesting plot points for your story. Let’s look at the popular video game The Last of Us. This game follows a man and a young girl who many believe is the cure for zombieism. The zombies in the game pose a constant environmental hazard, but don’t really add much to the plot. They help drive the plot, because the whole idea is to try to stop the zombie disease, but they themselves aren’t pivotal to the plot. The disease could literally be anything, really.

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In the story you are introduced to three different kinds of zombies, each with different qualities. These zombies are spread out among the abandoned places of the world, and you must make your way through them to safety. However, the zombies don’t add to the plot. What adds to the plot are the gangs and cults you interact with. Sure, the zombies add a scare factor and intensity to the game that the humans may not, but they do not add to the story or the character development. The other human characters do that.

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If you are a young writer and you are thinking of having a zombie story, I urge you to think about why you want it to be a zombie story. Do you like zombies and don’t give a crap about any of this because zombies are cool? If so, go for it. Plenty of people like zombies because they’re zombies. However, if you want a more literary approach, consider replacing your zombies with some more complicated element. Take the time to think about what you want your characters to experience and craft a challenge that will lead them to that result. Don’t just use zombies as the default challenge for your entire book.

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Literature has been a part of the human experience since humans could first tell stories. It has also shifted greatly throughout the centuries – decades even. What constitutes good literature now may not have been considered good ten years ago, or a hundred years ago. Over time, however, new literary mediums have emerged.

It began with the oral tradition. Then it turned to drawing. A series of images would depict a story. Then it turned to writing and as language developed, words became more complex. Eventually, pictures were strung together and words added to them, creating motion pictures. Soon, these pictures became interactive, responding to inputs by a living person. Video games were born. The war for quality literature only grew more complex.

There is always debate over what constitutes literature. I am of the belief that any genre and any medium is literature. The quality of said literature is always up for debate, but I will not argue that it is not literature. I will, however, say that the different mediums have different goals.

Writing, for instance, serves to make the reader think. They must read the words, understand them, and visualize. They must then be able to figure out what is happening. It is when wording and language are most important and could mean the difference between a dull character and an exciting one; a flat story and a wild ride. Movies are different. They remove the words. They take much of the interpretive work out of the piece. They show you what is happening. Therefore, they can worry less about tiny details and more about the big picture. However, they have a pacing concern. How fast is the story going and is the character and plot development logical at that pace? They also have the issue of logic. It’s easy to just make something happen in a movie without anyone really thinking if it makes sense at the time. A book does not have that luxury. Everything needs to be explained, to some degree, so the reader believes what they are reading.

We also have comics, which are a combination of various forms of media into its own unique area. Comics have the luxury of being both read and looked at. The artist and writer can tell a story with both words and images. Therefore, symbolism in drawing and realism in dialogue are key elements to comic books and graphic novels.

However, the newest medium would certainly be video games. Video games are an interesting collection of the previous mediums in that they can include all of them as well as add another. You can have video games that utilize a lot of still art, comic art, writing, and videos. In the advent of video games, they were not so complex. They were simple ideas and weren’t capable of being very complex. However, now that we have much more complex systems of gaming, games are often discussed by gamers in terms of their story.

Role Playing Games, or RPG’s, are often the most literary of the games. The premise is that the player takes the role of one of the characters in some sort of epic. They see their character develop and change as they react to the things happening around them. More recent games allow the player to make decisions that directly affect what happens in the storyline. This gives the player a more immersed feeling.

But there are people who swear up and down that video games cannot possibly have literary value. I like to disagree. Intensely. I like to begin with the purpose of literature. There are quite a few, depending on how ambitious the creator was. Some literature is meant to teach a lesson. Some is meant to make commentary. Some is meant to make the consumer forget about their world and live in another for a short while. They do these things by utilizing literary elements such as imagery, symbolism, characterization, plot, and others. If you, like I, think that that is the most important part of literature, then you must argue that video games can be literature.

There are, of course, examples of terrible literature in any medium. Video games are no exception.

I just find it baffling when people say video games cannot be literature. Take for instance the Dragon Age series. It is a fantasy story set in a fantasy world. There are some people who claim that Fantasy and Science fiction cannot be literature, but to them I laugh the hardest. (In my humble opinion, Fantasy and Science Fiction are the most capable of being effective literature since there are less boundaries to respect in terms of realism). Good fantasy stories require world-building. A well-built world will parallel our own in many ways. It is what allows the creator to make comments on our world using their work. Dragon Age has one of the most well developed worlds I’ve experienced. It is filled with mystery, political intrigue, and interesting characters. It has a rich and well developed history with diverse cultures, religious beliefs, and political systems. The stories follow the themes we see so regularly in our society, such as political corruption, misdirection, cover ups, and ignorance. They help teach that, though you may be on a specific journey, those you interact with are on their own journeys. You must interact with everyone’s journey, and that may change yours.

How is a story like the Lord of the Rings all that different from the Catcher in the Rye? It really isn’t. We have our main character(s) on a journey to accomplish a task. The tasks may be different, but they are tasks. As they work toward those goals, they interact with other people. Those people either make their quest easier or harder. In the end, there are many failures and successes, and by the time they achieve their goal, they have done it in a way they never thought possible.

My question is: Since the message is the same, why does the packaging really matter? Why does it matter if one is set in an imaginary place while the other is set in a fictionalized American city? It doesn’t.

Now that I’ve gone on a tirade about fantasy being literature, I can return to the topic at hand. Video games clearly share many of the same elements of other forms of media, but add an interactive part that helps consumers to internalize the messages. So, I leave it here for your opinion: Can video games be literature?

It’s not news to anyone that when we see women wearing medieval type body armor, this armor virtually always includes two breast shaped protrusions. Often, this armor not only accentuates the female’s breasts, it often provides little to no actual protection. I mentioned this topic briefly when discussing the changes to Thor. Check it out if you’re interested in my feelings on the hero’s gender change.

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Note the above image of a female warrior. This is not atypical. The woman is meant to look like an intimidating foe. However, her outfit is completely impractical. She’s wielding a sword, which means she intends to be in a close fight. Any actual warrior heading into a close quarters fight would want some protection. Depending on their skill level, they may opt for lighter, weaker, or more flexible armor. However, they will always go for the most coverage with whatever they have. Unless they need to do something very specific and armor would interfere with that. Also, they would be sure to cover their vital parts. The upper chest would definitely be covered, because an arrow could easily hit them there and kill them. Their back would be defended, because they can’t see what’s behind them. Their legs would be covered because even a shallow cut could make it more difficult for them to move or escape an enemy. She would have her hair up so an enemy couldn’t grab it. However, this woman’s outfit attempts none of that. She wouldn’t even wear this under a suit of armor, for reason’s I’ll explain later. What this image is doing is presenting her as a sexual image for the male audience of the fantasy genre. The most common occurrence of this sort of outfit is in the fantasy and sci-fi genre of video games, but that’s because there are markedly fewer movies of the same type released per year. To think that millions of boys and men are seeing images very similar to this one on a daily basis is sort of terrifying.

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This image is a little different. This woman is at least covered. Only that small circle in the center of her chest is revealed. Wait… what? This is another common trend for women in fantasy. They are all armored up; except for one spot that just so happens to show off their bodacious cleavage. This wouldn’t be an issue if no actual warrior would ever actually do that. Why would you cover yourself up just to leave your 1-hit-kill spot open? I don’t think women are so proud of their cleavage that they are willing to show it off to the enemies they are killing,especially when it leaves them open to instant kill. Also, I would comment on the single left sided pauldron we see here, but this isn’t an issue with women’s armor. This is an issue with armor in general. Single pauldrons were used by horseback knights using lances and spears to defend their non-weapon bearing arm. With a shield, this pauldron created a virtual barricade between the knight and their target. This became a trend for non-horseback warriors in media. I’m not entirely sure why, but I believe it has to do with Final Fantasy. Square Enix loves to make asymmetrical character designs. Many of these involve the characters having only one pauldron, usually on their non-dominant arm. This could have utility for a foot soldier, though there are better ways to protect yourself and keep mobility on the ground. It’s more of an artistic choice than a practical one, which in these situations is fine as long as they aren’t trying to treat it like its practical.

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This picture is just one of the many images of women in body armor that is both impractical and impossible. These images are perpetuating a sort of male fantasy that is unhealthy. There are three things I’m going to focus on here. The first is how the breastplate perfectly wraps around the woman’s breasts. It also looks to be just covering where one would expect to see a nipple. There are a few problems with his. The first is that nobody wears armor immediately on their body. They have something under it, generally some sort of shirt. This woman clearly has nothing under her breastplate. This would cause irritation of the skin, and would quickly lead to problems, most likely infections. The next thing that isn’t proper about this armor is that it fits her breasts perfectly. The cups were the exact right size and produce that perfect ball shape. Even if its acting in a push-up bra fashion, that makes no sense. No warrior would be like “I’m going to kill some people in a battle for my kingdom/freedom/justice/etc., better wear my push-up breastplate. Gotta look busty in this battle.” It would probably be more like “great, what do I do with these things?”

The second big issue with this breastplate is how it hugs her skin so tightly. This would severely restrict her mobility since twisting her body could cause the breastplate to grind on her skin. This might also just stop her from twisting all together. Armor causes the body to move in the confines of its shape. If it is shaped exactly like your body, you cannot move much. It also acts to accentuate her body shape.

The final issue with this armor is that it exposes almost half of her torso. Her upper torso is completely unprotected, leaving her heart and lungs vulnerable to an arrow. The armor also reveals a section of her midriff. This is dangerous for many reasons. Whereas this allows her some bending movement forward and back, this is a way for her to potentially stab herself in the stomach. The bottom of the armor is pointed. Imagine she needs to bend over suddenly. That point goes right into her abdomen. Ouch.

Her legs are also terribly unprotected, but that was discussed already. The clothes over her crotch could be an artistic move. However, it would be more realistic to wear a tabard of your kingdom’s symbol, or have the symbol on your armor, rather than have a cloth hanging from your belt which could easily be tripped over or grabbed. This is something that is common in general warriors as well. I believe that it started with the undershirts or tabards that people wore under their armor were longer than the armor and ended up handing down below the armor. They probably ended up getting scrunched between the legs as we often see. However, designers have started just putting them between the legs, essentially ignoring any idea that they are part of a larger garment. That’s just speculation, though. I’m no art historian.

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These two women share many similarities with the above woman, so I won’t repeat myself. The most notable thing here is that the parts that are unprotected are the sexualized parts. The one on the left has essentially no protection on her bottom. This paints the image of a strong woman whose sexuality is open and vulnerable. Her breasts are pushed up, but at least her armor is supported over her shoulders, which is something the previous woman lacked. This will give her more freedom of movement while ensuring her armor didn’t just fall off for being loose. The woman on the right has much more armor, but her modesty is not kept. Her breasts, stomach, and upper thighs are revealed and vulnerable. Again, her breasts are exposed, as is a perfect shot at her heart.

 

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This is probably the closest thing we have so far to a normal piece of armor. This is from the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. This female warrior is wearing Daedric Armor, the best heavy armor in the game. It covers her as it would any man, except for one thing. It’s got beast protrusions. Why is this a problem? Well, I will answer that question with a question: When women play sports, what do they wear on their breasts, generally? The correct answer is a sports bra. Sometimes they don’t wear a sports bra and end up wrapping their chest. Why do they do either of those things? To push their breasts close to their body and keep them there. This helps them with balance and coordination. This prevents larger breasts from hitting into the arms or getting in the way of whatever they are doing. Similarly, women in fictional fantasy world would have the same concerns. Their breasts would not be out of their body much. They wouldn’t be using those breast protrusions even if they were actually in the armor. In real life, breast protrusions would end up being a hindrance. They would reduce the range of motion of the arms, perhaps drastically depending on the size. If a woman didn’t have her breasts wrapped, and instead was wearing a normal bra or something, they would more than likely get pinched between the armor and her skin. Often, warriors will wear a mail shirt underneath their armor. This mail shirt would effectively make the breast protrusions useless. If she were to fall onto her chest, the base of the protrusions would press into her chest (think of what happens if you press a glass cup against your body. Now have someone do it with a bucket and all of their body weight. Exactly.) CHEST ARMOR SHOULD NOT HAVE BREASTS.

 

Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of instances of women wearing realistic, era-relevant armor. Historically speaking, there weren’t too many practical uses for female armor, so this is a work in progress. However, I am fully aware that these designers are fully capable of figuring this out. They are aware that these are impractical armor designs. They chose to put these women in these suits of armor to sexualize them. This removes the idea that these women are actually capable warriors and suggests they are just there as eye candy. Despite what many would claim, this is the way the mind views it.  The image below is a great example of what a woman in armor should look like. This is also from Skyrim. Comment below with some really great or really terrible examples of women in armor.

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I was bored and nostalgic yesterday. I decided to watch Wall-E again. When Wall-E was first released, I was completely enamored. I loved the lack of dialogue, the effects which are probably still the best animation Disney/Pixar has ever done, and the overall story. I loved Wall-E, because he was this cute, lonely little creature (robot) who gets thrust into this huge conspiracy that is way beyond him. It is also a massive political commentary on human waste and consumption. It shows the terrible things that can happen when we get greedy, like the destruction of our planet, and the increase of sedentary lifestyles. Laziness, gluttony, all that fun stuff. However, where this film truly shines is its female characters. All of the characters were strong and well developed, even the robots, but I write about female characters.

I guess that’s a lie, because I’m going to start by talking about Wall-E.

Wall-E is completely unexceptional. He’s not too smart, doesn’t have a variety of skills, and sort of just bumbles through the movie. However, this makes him a strong character because, although he isn’t your normal, garden variety hero type, he’s still the hero. He has a strong personality that you immediately fall in love with, and you’re rooting for him the whole time. His unrequited affection for EVE makes you root for him even more, because you know that he’s the underdog, and you want him to win. He saves the day not for the girl, but because it’s the right thing to do. He just wants to help, and he knows that getting that plant in the holodeck will help. He knows the Auto-Pilot is the bad guy, and that EVE and the Captain are the good guys. He’s just a good person (yes, I’m saying person) who is willing to sacrifice a lot for these people he literally just met. Or hasn’t even met.

Mary is the one of the humans on the ship. While Wall-E is trying to get to EVE, he turns off Mary’s chair, which makes her pay attention to the world around her. She doesn’t want to go back. She loves the Axiom and begins exploring immediately. She eventually meets John, who Wall-E woke up earlier. This is the main reason I like her so much. Although John was “awake” longer than Mary was, Mary ended up being the leader. She takes John to all of the places on the ship she likes, and introduces him to the world. They start a romance because they’re the only two people on the ship besides the Captain who aren’t sitting zombified in their chairs (Again, social commentary). However, she is the initiator and leader of the duo. John, who isn’t any less able than Mary, defers to her judgment, because he respects her as a person. Even at the end, she’s the one who grabs John while he’s falling and then let’s go to protect the children. She is the epitome of a strong female character because she used all of her feminine traits and was still able to do all of that.

EVE is our main female protagonist. We meet EVE, the Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator, when she is deployed on Earth in the city that Wall-E lives in. He’s immediately enamored by her because she’s something that isn’t garbage or a cockroach. However, she shows immediately that she’s no pushover. She packs a nice energy cannon on her arm which she uses pretty indiscriminately. She at first seems to just be another robot with no personality, but we quickly learn that she has a large range of emotions. She is patient, but still has a temper, as evidenced by the tantrum she throws when after searching for a long time she finds no plants. She destroys a whole line of Buy-n-Large tankers just out of frustration. She shows early on that she’s not a woman to be trifled with. She also shows a great dedication to her duty and her position. There is nothing wrong with this. As the movie progresses, she reveals more of her personality. Rather than grabbing the plant and putting it in the Holodeck, she saves the humans from getting crushed. Despite immediately bringing the plant to the captain after reclaiming it, she and Wall-E dance in space (which inspires Mary and John to explore the ship!). She’s the perfect combination of duty and honor. She’s caring and strong. She’s the leader between her and Wall-E, and she constantly feels the need to protect him.

 

Why don’t we have more characters like Mary and EVE? They show that women can fill the same roles as men, and still be feminine. They show that men can be heroes and not be the main actor in an event. Wall-E saves the day, but none of that would have mattered if EVE wasn’t there. They had to work together. This movie shows us that all people, regardless of gender, race (in this case, robot or human), ability (as shown by the “malfunctioning” robots who help save the day with their “disabilities”), and past (as evidenced by Mary and john, despite being zombified by their chairs), can work together to change the world. Plus, neither character is sexualized in any way. They get by on their own merits. We need more movies like this. We need more characters like this.

 

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In my time at college, I was focusing on a lot of topics related to feminism. We were working on sexual assault awareness campaigns for men, mostly, but I was, of course, exposed to a lot of feminist media that extended from the topic. I since identify as a feminist, though I assert that I have my own personal idea behind feminism. It mostly revolves around having accurate and healthy depictions of women in popular media including books, movies, and video games. I understand that true feminism is not an attack on men, nor it is trying to remove and rights from men. I consider women to be partners in my life, and therefore I expect them to be portrayed in the same light in media. This is often not the case. I always like to make a point that if women are 51% of the population and most likely a similar percentage of the people in the average person’s life, then why do books and movies often only have only one or two really strong female characters? I’ve been doing some digging, and anyone out there who knows anything about writing is that all the “research” is in mostly blogs. In college I read almost every issue of Writer’s Digest, and I don’t believe they ever touched on this fundamental issue in this field. Here are some articles I found that I think are useful for writers:

On Writing Strong Female Characters 

How Not to Write Female Characters

We’re losing all our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome

 

These all cover a series qualities and characteristics that make any character a good character. For some reason, when writing female characters, writes often forget that they are actually people. The industry immediately thinks that a character is male, regardless of if they are aware of it or not. Men need motivations and goals and quirks while women often need to just be there. There is often a subconscious objectification of these characters, particularly in movies and video games and comics. Contemporary fiction is probably the most progressive about this, but usually subsects, particularly science fiction and fantasy, are far worse. The female often serves as a reward for the male protagonist when he wins the story, serves as a way to motivate him to succeed, or is just there for a sexual aspect. Men are never put into this category, because we expect them to be the protagonist and be important. Even in romance and lush novels.

The saddest part is that we have to read and write articles about how to write a female character when it’s literally no different from a male character. It’s just so ingrained in us to not think of women as characters unless we teach ourselves that they are.