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Knowing Where You’re Headed: Harry Potter, Star Wars and BSG

I’ve been patently neglectful of this blog for the last few months; didn’t even realize until I logged in a few days ago that my last post was from mid-October. However, there are a few posts I’ve been meaning to get to for some weeks now, so I’m cautiously resolving to undertake a blogging revival in the New Year (we’ll see how long that sticks :)) To jump-start the process, I figured I’d talk about the creative pursuit that’s been consuming my time for the last 3 months: outlining.

If you’re a regular visitor to this space, you know that I’ve been working on the first book in a long series for the last 3 1/2 years (give or take). Last summer, I was still bold enough to say aloud that I was hoping to have my book in a state to be shopped around by the end of 2015 (haha. Ha.); even by the beginning of October, I was feeling cautiously optimistic about getting through a draft by year’s end. And then I hit a block. A scene that I’d thought was plotted solidly enough to write itself completely fell apart. All the plot building blocks that were balanced on the outcome of that scene started to tremble; I saw in a flash that I wasn’t quite sure why those bits of plot were important to my protagonist’s story, or how they were going to play out in the next book and the one after that. Warily, I took a step back and forced myself to take a hard look at the rest of 2015: two lengthy out-of-state trips, three major holidays, and quite a bit of Life Stuff that needed to be cleaned up and organized before the new year. And I decided it was time to shift gears.

So since the end of October, I’ve not added a word to my novel-in-progress. Instead, I’ve been sitting down with the fragments of loosely-plotted notions that gave this series its genesis starting almost a decade ago, and the very vague outline I drafted 3 or 4 years back, and going through the arduous process of trying to make it all fit together in a way that feels right.

I’m not going to pretend I’ve enjoyed every minute of it; in fact, I’m writing this post after a morning banging my head against a map and culture that I’m only now realizing needs a lot more development if I’m actually expecting to set a book in that place. But overall, the process has been extraordinarily rewarding. I’ve always thought of this series as comprising three sequential trilogies; the first two are now plotted and framed in a way that really makes me happy. Each individual book has an arc, framed by a few strong story questions; each trilogy has an overarching question and issue that needs to be resolved; and each piece contributes to the larger journey I want the protagonist to take. After almost 2 years grubbing in the trenches of scene-by-scene minutiae, it’s been a breath of fresh air to step back and look at everything from 10,000 feet up. When I encounter a sticky piece of plot, it’s refreshing beyond words to be able to step back from it and say “hmm… would this work better if I changed something all the way back in Book 4?” Which I can do, without consequence, because Book 4 has not passed under anyone else’s eyes at this point; there are no legions of fans devoted to things having played out in a particular way.

As opposed to, for instance, the fans who heard Leia Organa’s claim to remember her real mother, as “very beautiful, kind, but sad,” despite (as the prequels later established) Padme Amidala’s having died when her children were literally minutes old.

Of course, the media-analysis sites that I entertain myself with have had maybe more than an average amount of conversation around Star Wars continuity in the last few months (on that subject, yes, I’ve seen The Force Awakens; yes, I plan to say something about it here, probably in another couple days). I’ve followed that discussion with particular interest given my own project of the moment, but this isn’t a new issue for me. I think about it every time I consume a new series, as I try to figure out how much the creator(s) planned ahead of time and how much is invented on the road. And thus we come to my examination of the three series mentioned in the title of this post: Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Ronald D. Moore’s reimagined Battlestar Galactica  (potential spoilers for all three series follow, though not for The Force Awakens).

First things first: I’ve consumed and enjoyed all 3 of these stories, and I fully admit that all of them have their problems. But I also think they serve as an interesting trio to look at when considering the relative virtues of outlining, retconning, and free-floating storytelling.

To all appearances, Harry Potter is on one end of the spectrum as far as planning goes. While not all of the ideas from JK Rowling’s original sketch for the series ended up in the books (see this interview, where she talks about doing a “hostage swap” in deciding which characters wouldn’t survive the series), she does a masterful job of laying out small details that become consequential later. Many people remember the first mention of Sirius Black on Page 14 of Sorcerer’s Stone; for me, the moment that brought home Rowling’s finesse with details was when I went rummaging back through Half-Blood Prince descriptions of the clutter in the Room of Requirement searching for something that might be the Sword of Gryffindor. There are swords, of course, but none of them are Gryffindor’s: however, there’s also this.

Seizing the chipped bust of an ugly old warlock… he stood it on top of the cupboard… [and] perched a dusty old wig and a tarnished tiara on the statue’s head… (P527)

That tiara, of course, is Rowena Ravenclaw’s diadem, and one of Voldemort’s horcruxes. Just tossed casually into the mix. The only other series easily brought to my mind that shows this level of forethought is Babylon 5, and that show was explicitly conceived by its creator as a novel for television with a clear beginning, middle and end.

If JK Rowling started out with a destination in mind and stayed more or less on the same path to get herself there, George Lucas seems to have taken a different tack. It’s generally accepted by Star Wars fans that when A New Hope was released in 1977, Lucas had not yet decided that Luke and Leia were siblings or even that Vader was Luke’s father (thus the clumsy ret-conning that has to happen in Return of the Jedi when Obi-Wan explains that his account of Anakin’s fate “was true… from a certain point of view.”) Then, of course, there is the disconnect between the prequels and the original trilogy. While the quote from Leia about remembering her mother is probably the most-often cited example, the one that caught me was in this review by Tor.com’s Ava Jarvis recounting her experience of watching A New Hope for the first time after having seen the prequels:

I definitely believe that the prequels did more damage than not to the original trilogy—and that damage isn’t limited to the sudden appearance of the idea of a mitochondria midi-chlorian driven Force, the wrong most often cited by fans. The cracks go deeper than that—including making the final confrontation between Darth Vader and Obi-Wan feel stilted, in a way it wouldn’t have had there been actual passion and concern and, yes, chemistry between the two.

After watching A New Hope for the first time in a long time, and doing so for the first time with Revenge of the Sith fresh in my brain, I can’t help but agree with her point. Even in their stilted interactions in the prequels, Obi-Wan and Anakin can be believed to have genuine affection for one another, and as far as the audience knows, the last time they saw one another was on Mustafar, after Obi-Wan had cut Anakin down and left him to die. With that reality in mind, seeing them calmly circle each other in the corridor on the Death Star, fighting without so much as a flicker of emotion, feels… well, it feels funny, to say the least.

Obviously, Lucas’s story has been presented to the world over a much longer time frame than Rowling’s (38 years, so far, compared to 8), and serialized stories’ changing their details from one installment to the next is nothing new. But even so, it still seems to me like the better storytelling choice is not to change course mid-stream; once you’ve set a piece of your history in place and shaped other aspects of the tale around it, and gotten readers and viewers invested in that history, that piece ought to stay put. Even if it proves inconvenient for you later.

Of course, there’s another way of dealing with inconvenient plot details, and that’s the strategy employed by Battlestar Galactica‘s Ronald D. Moore when he realized he’d misnumbered the humanoid Cylons (with one of the “many copies” models being identified #8, presumably leaving the “final five” as 7, 9, 10, 11, and 12). Moore wrote a few lines into one episode mentioning a 13th model, “Daniel,” that had been scrapped early on in mass production (and thus, viewers were led to assume, was not counted as part of the set), and then was startled when fans leapt on this new character as a source of potential answers to the show’s many unanswered questions. Desperate for some damage control, Moore released an official statement through his podcast saying that “[Daniel] is not part of the plan for the end of the show.”

In the first interview linked above, Moore also notes that he didn’t really start thinking about how he wanted the show to end until he was developing the fourth season. Given that the show introduces its first mysteries in its miniseries, and nearly every over-arching plot (Kara Thrace’s uniqueness, the identity of the “final five” Cylon models, the destiny of Hera Agathon) is embedded in some sort of mystery, this style of plotting seems like a risk, to put it mildly. Perhaps it’s not surprising that many fans rated this ending among the worst in science fiction TV history.

I know that many writers don’t like outlines, and I know that serialized fiction has succeeded for a long time and in many media with writers not worrying too much about an overarching plan for their stories. However, when I write, I try to tell stories that I would enjoy as a reader; and comparing my experience of these three series just leaves me more convinced than ever that I’m taking the right approach. So I may not get back to writing for another couple weeks — but when I do, I will know where my protagonist ends, and how he gets there. And I think I’ll tell a better story because of it.

Dumbledore’s Other Army: Orientation and Sexuality in Genre Fiction

In the second of my posts on representation in genre fiction, I’ve decided to tackle the visibility (or lack thereof) of LGBT characters in fantasy and sci-fi. This post contains one significant spoiler for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as well as relatively smaller spoilers for several other shows/books (most notably the new BSG and Babylon 5).

In some respects, it seems like the visibility of queer characters in genre fiction is improving faster than for some other underrepresented groups. I’ve read several books in the last few months that feature major gay or lesbian characters whose same-sex attractions are not the only relevant aspect of their identity (most notably Daryl Gregory’s Afterparty, reviewed here). There are some noteworthy queer characters in genre TV shows, too. The one that’s caught my attention most recently is Willow Rosenberg from Buffy, who even gets to be PG-sexual with her girlfriends on screen (a relatively big deal for the early 2000s), and there’s also Susan Ivanova from Babylon 5; these characters are especially notable for being bisexual (in action if not in label).

Of course, there are Jacqueline Carey’s Terre D’Ange books, focused on a culture where the expected default is bisexuality. And even the new edition of D&D jumped on the bandwagon a few weeks ago, including a paragraph in its chapter on character creation explicitly encouraging players to think about “how your character does or does not conform to the broader culture’s expectations of sex, gender, and sexual behavior… You don’t need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender.”

So, queer folk have a presence in the SF/F canon, and it seems to slowly be growing.

And yet.

  • When Game of Thrones showed Renly Baratheon and Loras Tyrell being openly sexual on-screen, many of fans raised voices in protest, saying that “they totally weren’t gay in the books” (reminiscent of the fan outrage when Rue and Cinna from The Hunger Games were played by black actors in the movies, in keeping with Suzanne Collins’ description of them in the books). Although GRRM has publicly stated that these characters are indeed supposed to be in a relationship, allusions to it in the text are always relatively subtle.
  • The new Battlestar Galactica has one “openly” gay character in its relatively large cast (and her sexuality is only discussed in the bonus TV movie): the tough-as-nails admiral Helena Cain, whose memorable actions include ordering the shooting of conscripts’ families to force their compliance. I agree with those who’ve said elsewhere that there’s no intrinsic problem with giving underrepresented identities to characters who do questionable things; having a particular group appear in your story only as saints and martyrs causes its own problems. But when the only member of a group appearing in the story spends most of their time doing questionable things… well, that makes me go hmm. BSG does have a second character, Felix Gaeta, who’s been officially identified as bisexual — but the scenes where he’s shown to be in a relationship with another man appear in a series of “webisodes” that aren’t included on the DVD box set or otherwise available to latecomers to the show. In fact, as far as viewers of the DVDs are concerned, Gaeta is altogether relationship-less.

In that vein, we could also talk about Dumbledore. Or Gobber the Belch from How to Train Your Dragon 2. These characters have been revealed by their creators to be gay… but it’s after-the-fact. Or outside the scope of the movies and books where they appeared. Good for the creators for giving some thought to representation… but not good enough.

Some people will continue to argue that “of course” series like these will be subtle with their representation of LGBT characters, because they’re designed for children and queer characters have no place in children’s fiction. But as this article from io9 points out, even children’s stories are full of references to love and romance. Nearly every Disney movie has boy-meets-girl or girl-meets-boy as its central theme. And as LGBT activists argue when talking about queer life in the “real world,” the question of who people love, date, and daydream about filters into many more aspects of life than just what happens in the bedroom.

Love interests are a central part of the stories we tell, regardless of what age those stories are aimed at. Short films like this one and this one are a step in the right direction, but if the rest of us are serious about making our sf/f worlds look more like the real world, there need to be more queer characters in our fiction who talk about their lives. Video game writer Anthony Burch wrote a great post on this, where he said in part:

I’ve been told once or twice that the bisexual or gay characters I wrote for Borderlands 2 were arbitrary and forced. This is one hundred percent true. I did not have any particular stories to tell about human sexuality — I just randomly chose a few characters and decided that they weren’t heterosexual. I had no “reason” to do so other than the belief that a cast of sexually diverse characters is better than a sexually homogenous one. Did it hurt the story? Maybe. Maybe it feels arbitrary that certain female characters mention their wives, or that certain male characters just happen to have several occasions to mention their boyfriends. … On the upside, though… while arbitrarily diverse casts might make the story worse, they make [the] world better. Not the in-fiction world, either; I mean, you know, the world. The actual one. The one you and I are in. Real life.”

Genre fiction is supposed to be about playing with wild and crazy ideas. When the real world  is consumed by the debate over whether boys should be able to marry boys, I think we as genre writers have some obligation to think about making it happen.