Smaller Stakes, Smaller Villains, Bigger Impact

Like many people, I have the shows I watch on a regular basis. New ones are constantly popping up, American Horror Story: Coven (which crapped out a bit in the last fifteen minutes but otherwise was great) or Almost Human (which I really want to love but am having trouble) are a couple examples. Then there are my standards, the ones I’ve been watching for years. Breaking Bad was one of those, Walking Dead is another. The one that always sneaks up on me though, and probably gives me the most satisfaction when it comes, is Justified.

At first, I just didn’t care for it. Its arcs didn’t make any sense, it meandered and rambled all over the place, and just seemed to be about rednecks with single digits of teeth murdering and coniving over small scale matters. Over the years though, it has gotten much better. The second season was amazing, and each subsequent season (while not as good in my opinion) has brought certain things in spades. Part of that though, was that as it expanded the world and introduced characters, those small scale matters, these small players, made more sense.

That’s what it really has going for it. Timothy Olyphant is great, steadily building up this lethal, unstoppable badass persona, but what really makes it are the villains and the world they live in.

That’s the reason season two is my favorite. Mags Bennet was a familiar style of villain, a terrifying matriarch who rules her territory like a rabid Mama Bear, but to an extent we’ve never seen and with a flair of character that has made Margo Martindale (who is also great in The Americans) one of my favorite actresses. Mags and her sons are coolly efficient while still being hillybilly sociopaths. Mags is known by everyone in the community, looked on like a grandmother and a mom, yet feared just as much. All while running a legitimate business, a lucrative illegitimate one, and negotiating an underhanded deal with the only entity everyone agreed was evil. Yet they never push her into full gangster, she always has that maternal side with Loretta and her oldest son. His death, and Loretta leaving, is what finally pushes her over into full despair and forces her to give up.

The reason the third season is my next favorite, you have three said villains. Boyd, of

course, who I’ll get to in a minute but it also introduced Quarles (a true sexual sadist and gangster from Detroit) and Limehouse. God, I love Limehouse. An aside on this, you realize that’s this guy, right??? Yep, the same guy who wielded a machete to freaking chop of a guy’s arm is in fact my best, good friend Bubba. The reason I love Limehouse is because he has a very ellaborate code of how he’s going to do things, all while fiercely protecting his people and the community he’s built in Noble’s Holler (which is an Appalachian pronunciation of Hollow, which is a valley, knowledge is power!). Him and his are pretty much the first, and only, black people to show up (aside from Rachel) and are probably the closest knit community in the show. His Holler exists outside of the sphere of Harlan county, playing neutral in their politics and criminal activities, and actually taking advantage of that position by being a bank and resource for information.

Brilliant!

And all throughout this, you have the big cheese villain of them all, the drug-running, gun-toting, hillbilly wordsmith joker, Boyd Crowder. I don’t even know if he’s the villain anymore, he’s such an integral part to the show. I am challenged to think of another occasion in which I saw a villain, or any character, have such an organic growth. He started out almost a conman, wrangling up Arians to create trouble so he could rob banks. His soul motivation was money and what was in Ava’s pants. He’s been ally and enemy, played every side imaginable, constantly grown to value and despise different elements of his world. He’s a mystery, incredibly conniving, yet relatable. Oh, and let’s not forget dangerous. The only reason he hasn’t killed Raylan is because they’re equal opposing forces. They’ll get around to it, believe you me.

In the end, what I think makes the villains of the show so great, are their stakes. In the past couple seasons we’ve involved Detroit and national drug trade that has upped things, but even then things are kept to a very small sphere of influence with very intimate stakes. People in the show are fighting and murdering over money that would be small in another show, yet is incredibly important in this world. They’re fighting over relationships and pasts that go back to the Civil War, working within the constraints of culture that are literally bread into its people. It’s these more intimate stakes that make the show. Until recently, you didn’t have a cop fighting national or international drug cartels or even criminal organizations that directly hurt their own community. It wasn’t about an overarching threat, it was about people and homes. Even when they bring in “foreign” threats such as the Detroit gangsters, you see them outwitted, outgunned, and outmanned by hillfolk and small, local players. They perfectly leverage that sense of home town, of the small community. I know it’s not a Southern thing only, it’s more of a rural thing, but being a Southerner, I understand it. This is their home, their community. They own it, they protect it.

Good luck to anyone who wants to take it.

Mass Effect 3 Rewrite

I…I don’t think I ever wrote about the ending of Mass Effect 3.

Huh.

I didn’t just sit up in bed and think that. Forbes had a post detailing a fan’s 118,000 word rewrite of Mass effect 3. To give you an idea, Sorcerer Rising is right around 125,000 words. Anyway, it is available as a PDF, a ridiculously large PDF, and does a really interesting job of bringing it to a similar, but different, conclusion.

I’ll admit, I’m still torn over the ending. On one side, I want to respect the creator’s right to end their creative work however the wish. On the other, I think that same creator does have the responsibility to fulfill the promise they’ve made to their fans. And, frankly, if you were expecting a yee-haw, kick all them aliens to hell, go back and marry your alien princess (totally would have married Tali), well, you were going to be disappointed. It hadn’t built up to a happy ending really. It was just too big of an issue.

That said, the DARKNESS that was the third game was very different in tone and truly failed to take advantage of all the things that’d been built up in the first two. All the characters from the previous games were very formulaic one off visits and I hated, absolutely fucking hated, building the catalyst. It was a facebook game, filled with boring, grayish numbers. The only exception I really see to this is how you approached the Geth and the Quarians. I also did enjoy seeing Jack again, especially since I hated her in 2.

There is a certain promise given in any creative work. I’m in the midst of creating it with my work. You’re going to have certain expectations for Virgil and his world. Sometimes, I will…violate those expectations, to say the least. For the most part though, I want to be a steward of that good will. I want you to enjoy my work, in other words. I don’t know a lot of people that enjoyed Mass Effect 3. There are many works that aren’t supposed to be enjoyed, Schindler’s List come to mind, but was Mass Effect really one of those? I don’t think it needed to be that dark, I was all about marrying my alien princess and sending the aliens to hell.

Let me give a point of comparison on this. I enjoyed Mass Effect, bought it when it first came out but never beat it. The second one was completely off my radar until they started releasing videos on how the classes would work, at which point I got interested. I bought it, beat it in a week, went back and beat the first one, then beat it like five more times.

Seriously. I love Mass Effect 2. It could do no wrong. If they would release DLC chapters outlining a whole new third game on the second’s model, would buy em’ in a second. Anyway, I’ve only beat Mass Effect 3 once. I tried going through a second time with a different class and it was kind of a slog getting through the story and the bs side quests. I spent most of my time in the multiplayer, which I was actually a really big fan of. Spent more time doing that than I did playing COD: Ghosts.

That’s a bit of a different conversation though.

In the end, I felt like the ending was a bad move. It left a bad taste in my mouth for the franchise. This is where business meets art, and in this case both really fall on that side for the ending. It left a good majority of the players, reader, viewers, disappointed and hurt the product as a whole. Sure, people bought the patches meant to soften the bitterness of the ending, but I’ll bet you would have made more with another game without this ending than with the DLC that repaired it. And the real expectation that failed was the cookie cutter nature of it. It felt like fan fic. I hate to see a good ending, a bad ending, and a neutral, hate it even more when none of them took into account any of the individual decisions we made with characters, side quests, or major plot points. And for those that say that all the Mass Effects always funneled down into that single ending, well, they had to with 1 and 2. Those were going to have sequels and you couldn’t make a completely different story to facilitate multiple endings. But this was the end. This was the one opportunity to branch in as varied and multiple endings as you wanted.

It was lazy.

I want to blame this on EA, but I don’t think that’s fair. EA had Bioware during Mass Effect 2 as well.

Like I said, I’m still torn.

Maybe they were being artsy and it went over everyone’s head…

Chock Full of Monsters

I’m trying not to dedicate a lot of my time to TV, but I like to keep a stock of television shows ready to be watched when getting ready for work or while eating. My TV habits are much more eclectic than my book tastes (which are fantasy, pure and simple) but what came as a surprise was American Horror Story: Coven.

Coven tells the story of a sort of Homicidal Hogwarts for Witches down in New Orleans. That was such a fun sentence to type. The story revolves around a conflict between this Coven and Marie Laveau, a voodoo queen who has long been in conflict with the largely white (skin, not magic) group of witches. There are a lot of race issues behind their conflict but also seems to be based on beliefs about magic and tradition as well.

That all works really well, but what has been so damn fun is the little detours the show has taken, the wild elements it’s introduced. I don’t want to spoil the story or where it’s gone but it has involved everything from the aforementioned voodoo and witchcraft (both of which are some truly epic takes on) to ghosts, serial killers, and monsters. Even with all this though, from what I understand they’re actually holding back when compared to last season.

I want to discuss both of these approaches, because, odd as it sounds, this is something really close to my heart.

If you’ve read Sorcerer Rising, or anything I’ve written, you’ll see that I love monsters. The various flavors of lore and myth are what drove me to fantasy and why I love stories like the Dresden Files or Fables. I always wanted to include these elements in my own work and why I ended up making the world I did. Some I make up as I go along, others I draw from real world tales. I have plans (or have done things) encompassing everything from wizards and sorcerers to witches and voodoo, demonology and pantheons to dragons and djinn. You name it, I either already have a plan for it to be incorporated in my world or want it to be.

Seriously, if you have any myths, legends, tales, stories, feel free to send them to me. I’ll talk about it here and somehow those elements will be absorbed into my world. Not that I want to take anyone’s ideas, please God, don’t send me your ideas, but if you have resources on fairy tales or mythology (from and and every religion or culture), I’m totally game to hear about them.

Anyway, Coven does a real good job of steadily and slowly expanding beyond its core idea (witchcraft) to encompass other themes (ghosts of musical serial killers and undercover, corporate backed, witch hunting spies).

You can go too far with this though. A big complaint of the second season was that it was just too damn much. These are the elements I know of from a friend: ghosts, psychotics, nazi doctors, aliens, demons, possessed nuns/priests, serial killers, and I think witchcraft. I can’t remember all the particulars and I didn’t want to look it up, but that’s a lot. The more you add to a story, the easier it is for it to wear thin. Individually, all those things are great, but if it dilutes the story than it can be a negative. Your goal is not only to have everything sum up well, you want it to be exponential, to give something that is greater than the sum of its parts. If you include too much it actually starts to detract and what could be wonderful on its own, or combined in the right way, actually ends up being worse than the sum of its parts.

With my own work, it’s something I’ve had to watch. I have a strong tendency to solve story roadblocks with fantastical elements and I almost never walk into an action scene or a Big Moment knowing what form the arcane critter is going to be. There are over a dozen instances where a one off thing that I threw out there to provide conflict ended up developing into a full document in my world bible. I have one clear example in my head that started as a basic, random encounter and is now just one member of a full blown civilization and global player in Virgil’s world. Part of doing that is preparing you, my reader, to expect that sort of thing. That’s the tone of my stories and of my world. It’s big place, filled with races and players and hundreds of magics and cultures.

Part of the what I like about this is the richness it loans the world, the sense of authenticity. In the case of Coven I have to go back to the Axeman because I didn’t see it coming and it is fucking great. A good seven or eight episodes in, they introduced the murdered ghost of a sax playing, jazz band serial killer who preyed upon the women of New Orleans in the twenties. The class of witches from that time drew him into a trap and murdered him and he has haunted their house ever since. The guy they got playing him is fantastic, smooth and creepy and suave all at the same time, and whenever he’s on screen they play a saxaphone in the background. Even though it was completely random, not foreshadowed, and totally out of nowhere, he has been such a fantastic source of conflict that moved the story forward and fleshed out their world. The perfect use of a random fantastical element.

It’s good to see a show go hogwild on its world like this, makes me think that maybe I’m doing something right.

And hopefully I’ll have a few more monsters for ya’ll soon.

 

Project Update

I wanted to give a quick update on some of the things I’ve been working on.

The second story of Virgil McDane, DITF (you’re not supposed to know what that stands for) is coming along well and I am shooing for an early May deadline. That should be more than enough time to get everything completed, get it to readers, and make last minute edits. It also will give me time to get a cover together. I am doing something different than last time, so we’ll see how that goes. Details will be announced as soon as I have them.

I am quite happy with the way the second one is coming. There are some very rough parts that need to be completed, some plot holes filled in, and a general tightening, but it has been a lot of fun to write and I think will be a lot of fun to read. It’s a very different situation for Virgil than Sorcerer Rising, but retains the over the top quality I’ve tried to bring to his world. If you thought Sorcerer Rising had a lot of monsters, too many supernatural things to pop up, well, you haven’t seen anything yet.

I am also working on another project. This is my first attempt at fleshing out Virgil’s world and it’s an idea I’ve had for quite some time. It’s set in the world of Virgil McDane but set hundreds of years prior, encompassing a whole different situation and cast of characters. I think it will be longer than a short story, maybe even my first novella, but either way I want it done and published by the end of January.

I was serious when I said I wanted to write a ton this year. My dream goal would be to have DITF published this year, as well as a third and fourth Virgil McDane novel, with at least a dozen short stories and a few novellas. I’ve implemented a new schedule for my writing and the only thing I’m not really sure about is the fourth novel this year. Everything else is at least remotely possible.

Looking forward to giving it a shot though.