Friday, February 27, 2015

Consequences, Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

My sons talked me into watching Expelled this week. It's an hour and a half I'll never get back, so I figured I'd spend more time trying to save everyone else from it.

The acting was so-so, with a few moments that rang true and just as many that were forced, canned, or relied too much on charm rather than honest emotion. As a Theatre Arts major with a directing emphasis, I blame the director (who is also the writer, which explains SO MUCH). The actors were talented enough that they could have pulled off a terrific movie if someone had been there to say "Um, yeah, that didn't quite work, did it? What, exactly, does your character want in this scene? What is he doing right now to try to get it? How does he feel about what he's doing?" Yanno, the basics.

But that wasn't the real problem with the movie.

The real problem was that, from the beginning of the movie to the end of the movie, there was no actual change. No consequences. Nothing got significantly better or worse for anyone, even though several of the characters did Very Bad Things.

Let me explain. No, is too long: Let me sum up:

[Spoiler alert. Or whatever.] Prankster Felix pulls one prank too many and is expelled from high school in the first scene. For the rest of the movie, he pulls one felony after another (breaking and entering, hacking, blackmailing, theft, fraud, forgery, etc) all so that his parents won't find out and send him to the same juvenile prison-slash-school his older brother is already attending.

Along the way, he gets help from his brother who has escaped from the school, hooks up with the beautiful girl who delivers pizza to ex-high school boys during school hours, and discovers that the high school principal is embezzling money from the school fund (what school has $10,000 just sitting around that no one will immediately miss?!!) to support his nightly gambling habit.

Felix uses this information to... blackmail the principal into letting him back into school and lying to Felix's parents about Felix's grades and general progress in his academic career.

At the end of the movie, the principal is still the principal (and, we can assume, will now allow Felix to pull whatever prank he wants, whenever he wants, and will give him all A's for his trouble), Felix is back in school (with a 10-second nod to "gonna try harder"), and his brother is back in the juvie facility. OH, and Felix now has a hot girlfriend. So there's that.

When I complained to my husband about the movie, he naturally brought up Ferris Bueller's Day Off, that classic yarn of teenage invincibility in the face of overbearing adults trying to make the kids Be Good. Overlooking the obviously superior acting, There are several - okay a few - notable differences in the eventual consequences and especially in the overall message.

First, the Beuller movie is super-duper tongue-in-cheek, with overblown concern for Ferris's "illness" and fantastical escapades that intentionally stretch the limits of credulity. The tone in Expelled seems to want viewers to believe this sort of caper could actually happen - even with an "incredibly light sleeper" mother who slumbers on through ringing phones, creaking windows, and even banging drums.

Then there are the relatively minor pranks in Beuller compared to the antics in Expelled. Ferris wants to take a day off of school. Felix wants to destroy the rest of his life. Ferris fakes a sickness. Felix fakes a report card. Ferris lies for a day. Felix lies for a week.

The principal in Beuller is overzealous and crabby, with a mission to catch the trouble-maker Ferris and expose him for his lie. While his quest is commendable by adults everywhere, his personality makes it easy to root against him. This isn't necessarily a good message, but as an antagonist, he works. The principal in Expelled, on the other hand, comes off in several scenes as a stern father trying tough love... but then he loses all credibility and sympathy when he's first revealed to be a gambler and embezzler and then caves to the blackmail. Where the first principal is a kill-joy, the second is a felon. The kill-joy has a truly rotten, slap-stick-pain-filled day. The felon... is frustrated in his plans. Ouch.

Most notably, there is the classic Beuller scene where Cameron destroys his father's Ferrari, and remarks "I can't hide this." Cameron, at least, will have to face his father and admit what he did. There will be change of one sort or another, though we're not told what it will be. By contrast, Felix... destroys his mother's expensive ceramic bowl to create a distraction. He's forced to help clean it up. Yikes.

The climax in Beuller requires him to race home before his mother gets there. The climax in Expelled requires Felix to work a quick bit of theft and blackmail before his mother arrives at the school for her meeting with the principal. The race is thrilling. The blackmail is deeply disturbing.

At the end of the day (which is how long Expelled felt), Ferris Bueller's Day Off promotes light-hearted fun. Expelled promotes doing whatever you want, so long as you keep committing felonies until no one's the wiser.

So here's a tip for writers everywhere: If your characters don't ever have to face consequences for anything they do... don't bother making them do anything. Like with fantasy magic systems, you don't get to create actions and then skip the equal and opposite reactions. Real life has rules, too... even if you don't get caught.

So... Ferris Bueller's Day Off is on Netflix right now. Now that my kids have already seen (and enjoyed, dang them) Expelled, how do you think they'll like the original?

Friday, February 20, 2015

Creating One-Dimensional Villains - in real life and in fiction

I've been fascinated, lately, by reports of public shaming of one sort or another. Several months ago, the Vanity Fair article on Monica Lewinsky....

Be honest: when you read her name, did you Boo and Hiss? Even a little? Just about everyone does. I sure did. I read it, in large part, because of her infamy, and with a doubtful, gleeful eye toward what she could possibly say to redeem herself. It brought me to tears. Tears for her shame and tears for my shame that I was a tiny, crowd-follower part of it.

Monica Lewinsky's very name is synonymous with Every Awful Thing. And, of course, we all have Very Good Reasons for this. After all, she had sexual relations with a married man, didn't she? And not just any married man, oh, no: The President of the United States... who managed to come out of their affair relatively unscathed. When you mention Bill Clinton, it's bad form to connect him to That Woman, lest his wife - the possible Future Ms. President - be humiliated by the reference.

I'm not going to waste a lot of space, here, going on about how completely asinine that imbalance is. I'm not going to expound at length on the relative severity of misconduct in an affair between a young single girl who falls in love with her boss and the married powerful boss who has made promises to love and to cleave and to not sexually or romantically tempt his interns. I'm not going to detail my personal experience that tells me that the other woman is vastly less blameworthy than the oath-breaker husband.

All of that is irrelevant to the real point: in a few months of public outrage, we as a nation turned a well-rounded, talented young woman with a bright future into a one-dimensional villain. A hiss and a byword and the butt of late-night jokes.  We stripped her of the right to have good qualities because her one bad choice was forever going to trump any good quality she might try to muster.

Shame on us.

Now there is a new article about public shaming in the New York Times, and the author has a whole book coming, appropriately entitled So You've Been Publicly Shamed (available for pre-order). In the article (and, presumably, the book, from which the article is excerpted), the author details his experiences with others who were publicly shamed for relatively minor things--like a really bad joke taken out of context and spread throughout the world to the glee of trolls everywhere.

Last week at LTUE, I sat on a couple panels where I got to talk about my decade as a Public Defender. One comment I made more than once was that, when you're building a villain, you really must give him good qualities, too. Genuine ones, that any reader would relate to. I've sat across from murderers and rapists and drug dealers and all manner of society-defined Bad People, and there is hardly a one of them I didn't laugh with. Very, very few of them who didn't have family and friends in their corner, ready to stand up and swear in court that this defendant was, actually, a good person, despite the bad thing he'd done. They are fathers who love their children, mothers who will drop everything to help a friend in need, daughters and brothers and the truest of friends to someone.

And, yet, we as a society want to define everyone by their worst trait and stop the definition there. We don't want to look past that to the goodness that is always present. We bemoan our history of placing scarlet letters on offenders while gleefully slapping digital and rumor-driven red letters everywhere we look.

It's devastating in real life, and awfully boring in fiction. Mustache-twirling, top-hat wearing, love-to-be-eeeviiil villains are the stuff of melodrama. The kind we got off on in grade school. If we're going to grow up as writers or as a society, we need to be better than that.

There are some few troll-chased "villains" who are able to fight back, like my friend Larry Correia, who eventually dubbed himself the International Lord of Hate as a hilarious counter-punch to those who called him everything from a racist to a homophobe. Those who, like Larry, are firmly established on their public platforms with thousands of loyal followers are practically immune to public shaming. The shaming and thick-skin-building process may still hurt at first, but these few manage to eventually almost thrive on attempts to shame them.

Most of us aren't that famous. Most of us don't have hoards of people waiting to build us back up when someone tries to knock us down. Most of us have armies of supporters that are woefully outnumbered when the Society Hive-Mind decides we are Bad People. Most of us wouldn't survive our 15 minutes of infamy if our worst Bad Thing were ever made public.

Plenty enough lives have been destroyed by tiny black marks multiplied hundreds of thousands of times. We've had enough of the pillories and stocks and scarlet letters that deprive us all of the good that our fellow flawed humans might have done if only we'd let them.

Plenty enough fictional villains have perpetuated the fallacy that being bad definitionally excludes all goodness. We've had enough mustache-twirling and evil-for-the-sake-of-evil and antagonists that no good person will ever understand.

Let's grow up, huh? Let's fight badness by empowering "bad" people to slay their own dragons. Let's call off the wasted-earth nuclear air strikes that get launched every time someone makes a hurtful comment. Let's acknowledge that even people who hurt us badly can have qualities that any unbiased person would see as good.

Why do you think we're so addicted to the culture of shame?

Friday, February 13, 2015

Happy Valentines Day!

Tomorrow is my first Valentines Day with my new husband, Nate. We were married in December and are still trying to get used to the married-to-each-other life (it doesn't help that he was traveling for most of the last three weeks).

So you'd think that I'd be focusing on this love all weekend, right?

Instead, I'm enjoying myself with my tribe at LTUE. Because he's awesome, Nate will be joining in the fun for a little bit during the weekend... even though, as an introvert, it's not gonna be much fun for him.

He wins V-Day.

Now to try to figure out a present that will be half-comparable.

I love you, Nate!

Friday, February 6, 2015

Life, the Universe, and Everything 2015

It's that time again! Life, the Universe, and Everything is upon us once more next week, February 12th, 13th, and 14th.

This year, I'm reprising my role as Pitch Master, which basically means I get to hang out with the cool kids and boss people around. Because I'm not fond of leaving well-enough alone, I even talked most of them into expanding the format choices to include group sessions. [By which I mean I asked and they enthusiastically said yes.]

Well, except for Toni Weisskopf, Baen Editor and LTUE's keynote speaker. She's insisting on doing individual outline critiques instead.

And Peter J. Wacks, editor for Word Fire Press. He's insisting on doing a clinic on how to present a pitch.

I told them I didn't think we could handle that much awesomeness, but they were persistent.

In all my spare time, I'll also be on some panels--and I know what you're thinking, here. "What? Why is Robin Ambrose on panels when she hasn't published a lick of SFF? And that's a Very Good Question, with a pretty decent answer: I'm on three panels related to my recently-ended career as a Public Defender:

Thursday at 5:00 pm: Crime: What to get right? with Michaelbrent Collings, Eric James Stone, Al Carlisle, and Eric Swedin

Friday at 3:00 pm: Psyhology of a Serial Killer with Al Carlisle (who is the expert)

Saturday at 12:00 noon: Law Enforcement with James Ganiere and Zachary Hill

I bet you didn't even know I was a Public Defender, did you? Well, good. As it should have been. Because confidentiality. But I still know a thing or two about criminals and the criminal legal process, so LTUE is letting me near a microphone. Fun, huh? :D

I might also be on one or two other panels as a moderator (which means I have some great questions to ask, but no answers), but those are subject to change, so I won't tease you. I'd hate to have you show up and find I'm not there anymore.

So who will be there?