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Genre Top 5: Songwriters

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Today Genre Top 5 is one that’s not usually associated with writing, but can lead to a great deal of inspiration- music. Now, I don’t plan to turn this into a list of my favorite bands, but rather songwriters (and their subsequent groups) that have inspired the formation of characters for me. As I’ve said in my music inspiration post, all music has its own type of character, and listening to it can allow a writer to form a person in their mind, just from the subject matter of the song. So today is a list of five extremely personal songwriters who have inspired me, and will hopefully lead you to dig through your music in hopes of creating great characters.

#5 Doug Hopkins (Gin Blossoms)
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I put this writer early on the list because of his relatively short career, but the music he created and is still maintained by the Gin Blossoms today, shows a dark, intelligent, and surprisingly tuneful mind. Hopkins is famous as the original Gin Blossoms guitarist, writing many of their early hits like “Hey Jealousy” and “Found Out About You.” Unfortunately, he suffered from depression and alcoholism, and was eventually forced out of the band by their record label and committed suicide some time later. Ironically, his hook-filled, jangle pop songs often reflect this; beneath its sparkle, “Hey Jealousy” is a man begging an ex to just let him spend the night and try to recapture the days he threw away. Other songs like “Found Out About You” also bury darkness under a strong hook (listen to the song for a tale of a man bemoaning time wasted on an undeserving girl, but then taking a turn into possible revenge), and “Lost Horizons” is a clear reference to Hopkins’ alcoholism (‘drink enough to make this world seem new again’). The Blossoms were never able to recapture Hopkins’ ability after his dismissal, but have kept his themes, touching on regret and isolation in many songs (“Not Only Numb” “My Car”). Still, listening to the Hopkins material is a fascinating look at darkness and pain hidden behind jangling guitars and singalong hooks, and can form the basis for a character hiding their own pain in any number of ways.

#4 Bon Scott- AC/DC

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As a member of AC/DC, Bon Scott was not chosen for his lyrical depth. However, he did make for the immense character he put into his songs and roguish persona he made with them. His main appeal was his lyrical cleverness, being able to piece together phrases to great effect (“she had the body of Venus, with arms!). And while his voice brought a great deal of character to his songs, his lyrics and titles, (“Big Balls,” “Live Wire,” “Ride On,” “The Jack,” ”Highway to Hell,” “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,”) cemented him as a perfect pirate rogue, and a essential listening piece for anyone looking to make that kind of character come alive.

#3 Mike Ness (Social Distortion)

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One of the great underrated songwriters, Mike Ness’s catalogue is a perfect example of anger, growth, shame, love, and defiance. Listening to each album in sequence is literally watching a man grow before your eyes. Early SD songs focused on punk defiance and hatred of the privileged (“Mommy’s Little Monster” “The Creeps,”) but as Ness entered rehab for his crippling heroin addiction, his lyrics touched on regret and perhaps bettering himself (“Prison Bound,” “Ball and Chain,” “Cold Feelings”). He later branched out into the passage of time (“Story of My Life”), acceptance of faults, (“I Was Wrong,”), the difficulties of love (“Footprints on My Ceiling,” “Angel’s Wings,” “Writing On the Wall,”), while still maintaining a healthy level of defiance (“Still Alive,”). Like the best kind of music, it has grown with the audience and paints the picture of a person growing up, and learning how to hold onto what matters, like the best of characters can do.

#2 Bruce Springsteen

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As a Jersey guy, it was a given I’d have to include the Boss on this list. However, his inclusion is far from a location-based bias. Springsteen’s strength as a songwriter is his ability to craft real-life, in-depth characters in his songs. He can compose epic story songs about the boy finally making good (“Rosalita”) the loss of youth and its promises (“The River”), the hopes of the young against hard times (“Badlands,” “The Promised Land,” “Wrecking Ball,”) and how much home is something to escape from and something to find again (“Born to Run,” “My Hometown,”). Every time he writes a song, the listeners finds a touch of a person or an experience they know firsthand, and they feel themselves drawn into the realism. To quote Jon Stewart, “When you listen to Springsteen, you aren’t a loser. You are a character in an epic poem… about losers.” That common thread of realism make Springsteen’s characters people you see everyday, and as such, they are people that you relate to.

#1 Shane McGowan (The Pogues, The Popes)

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My all time favorite and most complicated songwriter. Shane McGowan, leader and songwriter of the first Celtic-punk band, the Pogues, is as much a character as the people in his songs. McGowan’s songs speak of alternating joy and misery. His songs generally have jig ready Irish music, but the lyrics are wrapped in death and rebellion (“Sally MacLennan,” “If I Should Fall From Grace With God,” “The Sunny Side of the Street”). Yet when he writes a ballad or slower song, he can access the mind of an old solider and a young kid (“Pair of Brown Eyes”), his own misery growing up (“The Old Main Drag,” “Boys From the County Hell,” “Dark Streets of London,”) and the most tender, lovelorn lyrics ever committed to music (“Rainy Night in Soho,”). Perhaps nowhere is this dichotomy better realized then his greatest composition, “Fairytale of New York.” In this Christmas song, McGowan captures the realism of an old, worn out couple at Christmas time, regretting their lost years and blaming each other for their failures, yet with a small spark of love still apparent at the end. It’s a rich, memorable, realistic, and gripping tale, filled with two characters that like Springsteen, we can see everyday. But unlike Springsteen, McGowan dives into the darker underbelly, which makes his characters echo and resonate even more.

Genre Top 5: Zombies

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This week, I was intending to continue with my Publishing series, but this particularly entry has required some additional information by an associate with greater experience. Therefore, today I will continue with my Genre Top 5, focusing on a current trend in writing- zombies. While I generally prefer zombie tales to the vampire and werewolf tales of the last few years (I’m looking at you Twilight), this doesn’t mean every zombie story is perfect. Some are little more than rip offs of classic films like Night of the Living Dead, with more gore and splatter then storytelling. What’s worse, many authors don’t try to take the idea of the zombie and infuse it with new ideas, like different settings or even humor. So I’ve list the best of the zombie novels I’ve read, which succeed because of the different takes they give the undead.

5. Hebert West, ReAnimator– H.P. Lovecraft

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I already spoke of this novel in my Horror top five, but its importance as an early tale of the dead rising makes it essential for this list.

4. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies– Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

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This was the first zombie novel I picked up, and I can say all my interest in the books come from this one tale. For literary buffs, it is an adaption of the classic Jane Austen tale, but places the Victorian characters into a minor zombie apocalypse, which has forced the five sisters to undergo intense self-defense training in the far East. However, the story never loses its Victorian feel or manner (the zombies are even referred to as ‘hungry ones’ to make things more civilized) and while Elizabeth Bennett is now resolved to slaughter the zombies of England, the book keeps intact her family’s dilemmas and her complicated courtship of Mr. Darcy. An excellent adaption that makes the classic novel easier to swallow for those not romantically inclined.

3. Night of the Living Trekkies– Kevin David Anderson and Sam Stall

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A zombie story for the sci-fi crowd, this novel makes the zombie plague the result of alien parasites, who rapidly infect the crowd of a Star Trek convention in a Houston hotel. The story is filled with plenty of references for fans (the main character is named Jim Pike, an anagram of two Enterprise captains, and the chapters are named after classic and appropriate Trek episodes), and moves at a quick pace. But what truly makes it work is not just how well the references work, but also the surprising depth behind it. Pike is a Iraq War veteran dealing with severe fears from his time in war; he is terrified of taking responsibility for the lives of others, but is forced to do so (and reignite his Trekkie past) to save his sister and the few human guests left in the hotels. It is a story of personal growth mixed with phasers and brain-eating, and every aspect works brilliantly.

2. Deck Z– Chris Paulson and Matt Solomon

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A historical zombie thriller, this takes the undead aboard the most tragic ship in recent history, the RMS Titanic. Thankfully, this is not a parody of the popular movie, but the tale of a post WWI German scientist who discovers a zombie creating substance that he hides above the ship to keep it from falling into the wrong hands. Unfortunately, an assassin causes the substance to leak and spread about the ship, just as the iceberg comes into view. While the concept alone will likely attract those hoping zombies will eat Celine Dion at some point, the story works because it doesn’t allow itself to delve into parody. The ship and events surrounding it are simply the background for a fast-paced story with enough historical accuracy mixed with zombie plague. Taking real figures like Captain Edward Smith and making them zombie hunters is effective, while the main characters hope to use the substance to cure disease makes him sympathetic and understandable. An excellent seafaring horror tale that James Camereon might’ve wanted to look at.

1. Apocalypse Cow– Michael Logan

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An award winning zombie tale (it is the first recipient of the Terry Pratchett Prize), it focuses on cows and other animals in the UK being infected with a zombie-esque disease that also resembles mad-cow disease. While the premise is certainly silly sounding, the story works because the author expands the idea by having other animals infected (imagine every animal in America suddenly going mad and hungering for flesh). The human characters also work wonderfully, as each one has some relation to the outbreak- a slaughterhouse worker, a rebellious vegan teenager, and a reporter looking for the next big story. Their story mixes in both humor and heartbreak as they attempt to escape to safety while saving and losing members of their families and friends. It feels like a story that’s ready to be turned into a film, and I would eagerly pay money to see that happen.

Genre Top 5: Science Fiction

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With today’s genre, I wanted to explore a realm the generally coincides with my own chosen genre of fantasy, science fiction. In fact, many people often think they two are the same genre- to be clear, fantasy is purely a realm of imagination, with elements and worlds that would never happen in the real world. Science fiction however, is based in science,; while we cannot fly to distant plants or create life from lifelessness yet, there is still the possibility that we may someday through scientific advancements. So in that sense, here are five of my favorite possible scientific scenarios to consider.

#5 Frankenstein- Mary Shelley

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Considered by many to be a horror novel (and it is truly frightening) this still functions as warning about science without morals or foresight. The doctor’s classic story is motivated by a single, unthinking urge to surpass death, largely motivated by the death of his mother. And without any thoughts to the implications, he blindly goes about abusing science to create his ‘man’, only to be repulsed and refuse to accept responsibility for his actions. While there is a spiritual side to the story, it is clearly a case of using science irresponsibly for personal desires, and trying to distance yourself from your failures, a message for any person, regardless of their life pursuits (the Dean Koontz reimagining is also a worthwhile read, as it expands on these themes using modern medical science).

#4 The Martian Chronicles- Ray Bradbury

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A collection of short stories rather then a full novel, this work details various aspects of the Earth migration to Mars. Bradbury takes the age old concept of man exploring the Red Planet, and filters it through every possible viewpoint and scenario. We see the future destruction that could cause man to leave Earth, the beings he finds on the surface of the planet, the things he might leave on Earth, and he very future of humanity. Familiar parts of society are reflected here- the forced relocation of a people, leaving behind “dangerous” materials and books, racism, and man’s failings at improving himself. But throughout it all, Bradbury keeps the material firmly grounded in the idea of fiction, which makes the book a warning about man’s failures, and the things he truly needs to leave behind before exploring the galaxy.

#3 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea- Jules Verne

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Exploring the seas, rather then space, Jules Verne used the concept of ocean exploration and the world’s greatest submarine, to tell the personal story of a man who shunned the world at large. Captain Nemo, builder and commander of the Nautilis, may save the narrator and his crew, but is clearly estranged from the world as a whole, preferring to use the incredible science and discoveries of his voyage to increase his own knowledge, and acts with extreme violence towards the people that shunned him. While science is more of a background feature in this tale, it functions as a reminder that the greatest discoveries are sometimes lost because we turn away or shun those that make them.

#2 The Invisible Man- H.G. Wells

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A tale by the godfather of science fiction, most remember it for the classic film starring Claude Raines. However, the tale itself echoes both Frankenstein and Jekyll and Hyde, telling the story of a tremendous scientific idea that is turned to ruin. The title character is trapped inside his achievement, and forced to work in secret to cure himself, though he is never able to succeed. His frustrations at his failures and his condition eventually push him to the brink of madness, where he performs various criminal acts and evil deeds before he is finally brought down. One of the earliest and best tales of science gone wrong.

#1 The Island of Dr. Moreau- H.G. Wells

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A masterpiece from the sci-fi godfather, this stories is one of the most tragic and frightening examples of both scientific misuse and man’s abuse of natural order. The titular doctor, rejected from the modern world, has surgically altered animals to resemble humans in appearance and intelligence. But he has also made a society where he is worshipped as a god, and he is uncaring of the pain he inflicts on the animals he experiments on. Worse still, he continues to operate because the process is imperfect- the new men slowly regress to their animal states in time. Seeing intelligent beings revert to animal instincts is frightening for people as whole because it is so easy to happen (even the narrator finds it hard to be around humans after what he’s seen). But the novel’s greatest lesson, which has been echoed in stories like Jurassic Park, stays with the reader long after the final page is turned- that just because science can do something, doesn’t mean that it should.

Genre Top Five: Horror

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One thing I’ve always been careful in my blogs on writing or my influences is to be mindful of the tastes of my readers. While I may talk about my influences from comics or music or film, I have to remember how to approach it from the perspective of all types of writers. For example, I pointed out the sense of identity in using music for characters, and how writers can use the basic premise of revenge and obsession in Darkman and The Crow. And while I try to make my blog as universal and helpful as possible, there are still certain areas that I can offer more expertise in then others. As such, I’d like to start offering some influences for writers of specific genres. And to begin with, I’d like to start with the first genre I truly became immersed in- horror. While I have already discussed writers like Stephen King, looking over an author’s entire work is an exhausting task for any aspiring writer. So I’ve spent today’s blog composing a list of my five favorite horror novels, and what makes them essential readings for those that wish to chill the spines of their own readers.

5. Something Wicked This Way Comes– Ray Bradbury

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Ray Bradbury is a writer that has dipped into various types of literature through his short stories, but in this, one of his few official novels, he gave a chilling tale of horror and temptation. Drawing inspiration from the carnival and performers that caused Bradbury to start writing, the story flips the idea over, creating an evil fall carnival run by Mr. Dark, the head of a vampire-like group (the ‘autumn people’) that feed on pain and suffering. What truly makes the story effective is how it is built on temptation- the carnival folk work by twisting around the secret natures and desires of the townspeople, which is hinted at being how they populate their ranks. This is most effective in the case of two main characters- Jim Nightshade, a young boy bereft of a father that longs to be an adult, and Charles Halloway, the library janitor who is feels unable to be a good father due to his age. Bradbury plays with these desires, as well as the very nature of light and dark, building the scene in his usual unique style. That, combined with the classic tale of temptation and desire, makes Something Wicked an excellent study in both the atmosphere and the method of a great horror novel.

4. Herbert West, ReAnimator– H.P. Lovecraft

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One of the earliest American horror writers, H.P. Lovecraft delved into tales of otherworldly beings and worlds that existed both before and beyond humanity. While he is most remembered for his tales of the Elder Gods, this may be the story that perhaps best captures both humanity’s desires and their obsession. The story is the decades long tale of Herbert West, a doctor obsessed with creating a cure for death. He manages to do so, but the formula is consistently unstable, requiring various horrifying experiments that may be regarded as among the first zombie stories. At its core, however, the story is both an exploration of man’s fear of death and his arrogance towards the greater order. The reader is compelled to both fear West’s recklessness and yet hope his success, until his experiments have grown so wild and dangerous that death is preferable to their continuation. It both attracts and repulses the reader, and leaves them with a frightening moral reminder- the truest example of a classic horror tale.

3. The Shining– Stephen King

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While most of us think of Jack Nicholson with an axe when this title is uttered, the tale itself is far more terrifying. King created the ultimate and most violent example of cabin fever ever, with a family taking care of a haunted hotel during the winter in an isolated part of Colorado. But perhaps the most terrifying part of the tale is watching the family torn apart both figuratively and literally. The father is a recovering alcoholic with a violent temper that is slowly pulling both his personal and professional life together. However, the ghosts circumvent the love he feels for his family by playing off his insecurities and weakness for drink. As such, the tale is a family falling apart, a man’s descent into madness, and the ghostly machinations of the dead. Any one of these things alone would be a great story, but all three are woven together in a tale that both frightens and saddens at the same time.

2. The Tell-Tale Heart– Edgar Allan Poe

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Widely known as the first American poet to live solely on his work, Poe wove classic tales of the macabre, as well as dark poetry and detective stories. This particular tale however, is frightening because of it’s universal themes, namely obsession, murder, and guilt. The central character is mad enough to kill a man because of his eye, and arrogant enough to bury him under the floorboards. However, the extreme guilt, brought to life by the auditory hallucination of a beating heart, is enough to destroy his fragile mind and force him to admit his guilt. It is a simple concept, but one every person can understand and has lived through- trying to conceal a wrong-doing, only to have it eat away at you. And the depth in which Poe submerges the tale makes it all the more frightening.

1. Pet Sematary– Stephen King

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While I was reluctant to put two Stephen King pieces in this list, this book has managed to frighten me every time I’ve read it, which no other horror novel has accomplished. The tale clearly takes influence from Herbert West in the idea of repeated, imperfect resurrection, but as with The Shining, King adds a personal touch. His story centers around a family, namely a doctor (devoted to saving lives), and a wife that fears death. While the first resurrection is basically harmless and somewhat motivated by love, it still fills us with dread. And the second, which is a true horror but based in a father’s love, we are again filled with both horror and sadness. After all, what parent wouldn’t risk everything to save their child? What makes the story even more frightening is that King based the child’s death on a near fatal accident involving his own children. It is that personal touch that grounds the Lovecraftian elements of the supernatural burial ground, and makes us both fear and pity these characters, especially the doctor’s last words of “Something got into him. But she’s only been dead a little while.” Those are the words I usually muse on, as I close the book a night and look up at the shadowy ceiling.

Heroes and Villians: Optimus Prime and Megatron

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The main thing that drives a story is conflict. Where between two conflicting ideas, or two conflicting characters, that constant friction and question of who or what is superior is what keeps us going as readers. In writing terms, characters that embody conflict are known as the protagonist (the character trying to achieve something) and the antagonist (the person trying to stop the protagonist from achieving his or her goals). In most stories, this is usually defined as ‘heroes’ and ‘villains.’ While these labels can be either protagonists or antagonists, they are still important concepts to understand as you develop characters. Therefore, I will be starting a list of characters that effectively portray heroes and villains and delve into what makes them work. To begin with, I will start with two enemies that were two of the earliest examples of heroes and villains for my generation- from Transformers, Optimus Prime and Megatron.

Background

Alien robotic life forms from the planet Cybertron, Optimus Prime and Megatron are the leaders of the two dominant robot factions, the heroic Autobots and evil Decepticons. While both characters have existed in several iterations, the common threads are always that Megatron began the Cybertronian Wars, that Optimus rose to stop him, and that they have both led their factions for countless millennia before coming to Earth. As a result, both characters have a complicated history, and know each either almost as well as they know themselves.

The Traits of Good and Evil

Since Transformers is based on a toyline, it’s easy to pain this rivalry as little more then standard ‘good vs. evil.’ And a large part of what makes Optimus and Megatron effective foes that create great conflict is their differences. Optimus is a wise and compassionate leader, who believes all life is sacred and has often sacrificed himself for the well-being of others, both Autobot and human. Megatron is a megalomaniac, convinced of his superiority and willing to sacrifice anyone and anything to achieve total dominance. Their rise to leader status further confirms this- Megatron rose to power through battle and propaganda, while Optimus was chosen as a Prime due to his compassion and desire to protect all life. Their underlying philosophies make for easy conflict and give both a great amount of determination to succeed, which gives viewers a great deal of interest in the stories.

However, the various iterations of the franchise through TV, film, and comic books, has added a great deal of detail and depth to their relationship. In the beginning, Optimius was actually a follower and friend of Megatron, who spoke of creating a better world. However, Optimus was horrified by Megatron’s methods, which led to his eventual rise as leader of the Autobots. This adds touches of pain and betrayal to their relationship; Prime often regrets the loss of Megatron to darkness, commenting that their desire to better existence still links them, and were it not for their individual philosophies, they might still be allies. Megatron generally ignores this, but a recent portrayal in Transformers Prime, where Optimius is given amnesia and believes Megatron to still be an ally, hints that he may miss their former friendship. And despite their different beliefs, both have proven themselves to be strong leaders that value those under their command. While Megatron does not tolerate failure, he will not allow the total loss of his troops, nor any further damage to Cybertron. As such, he has worked with Optimus when such need arose. The degree of ease at which this happens also speaks to their long forgotten bonds, and deepens both the bitterness and former friendship between them.

The Value for Writers

Toys or not, Megatron and Optimus represent perhaps one of the best examples of the tragic enemies. While it is obvious they will never be able to work together, there is enough history and similarity tying them to together to make each blow they land carry a feeling of tragedy. As such, they echo the best trait of heroes and villains- that one should be an opposing reflection of the other- but also move past the basic nature of good vs. evil. These are two beings that share the dream of improving their world and existence in general, beings that were once friend because of that same desire. It was only their different methods that drove them apart, and it is far more likely they could accomplish more together then they have apart. It makes each blow they take from each other feel that much heavier, and make their rivalry that much more engrossing. A writer that can create this kind of epic and heartfelt rivalry between their characters has all the conflict they need to drive their story.

Points of Light: Justice League

Last week, I discussed a comic book movie adaption with The Crow. Comic books have always been a great passion of mine, particularly the work of DC Comics. The company responsible for heroes like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman (collectively referred to the Trinity, due to their status as the first regularly published comic heroes), DC is the oldest comic book publisher in America, and has some of the most iconic heroes and villains in comics today. And while their comic adaptions have ebbed and flowed in acclaim, one particular adaption has been a critical and commercial favorite with fans- Justice League, and its sequel Justice League Unlimited.

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The Story

Based on the long running book, and helmed by Batman: The Animated Series creator Bruce Timm, Justice League is a gathering of the greatest DC heroes (the Trinity, The Flash, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, and Hawkgirl), into a single team working to overcome threats too great for any of the heroes alone. Watching the Earth from the orbiting satellite the Watchtower, the League dealt with threats such as The Injustice League, Mongul, Darkseid, Brainiac, and other classic DC villains, while dealing with betrayal, loss, the stress of working together, and eventually opening the League to a wide range of heroes in Unlimited.

What I Learned: Group Dynamics, Individuality, Depth

Perhaps the greatest strength of Justice League, both in the comics and the show, is its wide array of characters. Even though the heroes had banded together, this was still a group of characters that had very different personalities, and very different approaches to handling situations. While there were the obvious differences in Superman and Batman (one was the public hero who started the League, the other an urban legend who worked the League part-time), there were plenty of friction in the other heroes. Green Lantern was a former Marine, while the Flash was an impulsive jokester. Wonder Woman was a regal and somewhat naïve Amazon, while Hawkgirl was a gritty, hardened alien police officer. All of these issues were addressed at some point during the show’s run, even used at one point to disband the League in a plot by Gorilla Grodd. However, it made the League a stronger team because they not only overcame their differences and learned to work together, they also managed to remain a group of individuals, each with their own views and theories on how to do their job. And as a result, they gained a strong respect for each other, which is shown in one of my favorite scenes from the episode “Hereafter” where Superman is supposedly killed, a fact all but Batman accept.

And there is no stronger team-builder then the scene below, where the Flash is nearly killed.

All of this showed me how to really build the Knights up as a team, but keep them as individuals. They needed to be different, they needed to argue, maybe they even needed to hate each other a little. But because they were all needed, because they couldn’t do the job without each other, they had to learn teamwork, and how to respect what each of them brought to the table.

Beyond character however, Justice League brought something that most don’t associate with comics or animated TV shows- depth. Bruce Timm has said in the past that he thinks of his work as adult shows that children happen to like, and it truly shows. These were characters that could fly, punch though walls, had magic space rings, and millions of dollars in crime-fighting equipment. At first glance this seems primed for kids, but this was nowhere near earlier attempts like Superfriends (made quite clear when a statue of the Wonder Twins was destroyed in one episode). These were characters that despite all their superpowers, still felt like real people with serious problems to deal with. The episode with the dream controlling Dr. Destiny was a great show of this, as several members faced their fears (Superman fearing that he will grow too powerful to interact with humanity, Green Lantern’s fear that he is simply an extension of his ring, or Flash’s fear that his speed will literally push him past people). But the show also dealt with how far someone might go to get back what they lost ( “A Knight of Shadows”), how far the League should go in protecting humanity (“A Better World”), the League’s lives and connections outside of their work (“Comfort and Joy”), gaining and losing everything you’ve ever wanted (“For the Man Who Has Everything”), and one scene of sacrifice from Aquaman that still amazes me that it ever made air.

Damn.

What Writers Can Learn

Justice League might be a cartoon about a comic book, but any writer looking to work on group dynamics would do well to watch this show, or pick up a few books. It also stands as proof that even an idea that seems silly or childish can be portrayed as serious with the proper care and effort. As with my authors spotlights, the best thing I can recommend is to watch the episodes I’ve listed, or almost any episode of the series, to really see these traits in actions. As for the comics themselves, many are adapted from the comic stories (“Hereafter” is based on “The Death Of Superman”, “The Man Who Has Everything” is a classic Alan Moore story), but for comics that were not adapted, I can personally recommend “Tower of Babel,” “Divided We Fall”, “The Tornado’s Path,” and “Pain of the Gods,” all from my favorite run of the series. So head to your local comic store or wherever you get TV from, and check it out. It will help you learn about the most important parts of team building, and at the very least, might push us closer to that Justice League movie.

Points of Light: The Crow

Last week, I said that Points of Light needed to focus on two dark films that inspired me in the creation of my two main characters.  I began with Sam Rami’s Darkman, which provided the torment and loss for Joe, as well as some dark humor and the asthetic of the Knights’ costumes.  Today, I will examine the other dark film and graphic novel, which was a major turning point for the creation of Nightstalker- James O’Barr’s The Crow.

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The Story

The Crow, one of the most famous independent comics of all time, is the story of Eric Draven, a musician killed alongside his girlfriend by a gang of violent street punks.  One year later, Draven is resurrected by a mysterious crow (which according to the film, guides souls to the land of the dead, and occasionally brings them back), dons a black costume and frightening white makeup, and goes out onto the streets to take his revenge on the criminals that destroyed his life.  The film and comic take different approaches- the comic deals far more with the emotional turmoil Draven goes through as he comes to terms with death, while the film focuses more on the acts of revenge he takes against the gang.  Both end with Draven taking the criminal out and returning to the earth to see his girlfriend again, finally accepting his death and the circumstances around it.

What I Learned: Duality, Dark Humor, Inner Turmoil

The Crow is laced with tragedy, and with good reason.  O’Barr wrote the story after his girlfriend was killed in a drunk driving accident coming to pick him up.  O’Barr poured all of his anger and guilt into the pages of the novel, and that all comes across in the movie, which sadly has its own tragedy (actor Brandon Lee was killed during filming due to an accident with an improperly loaded gun).  Regardless, Lee put on a tremendous show of Draven’s inner anger and rage as he took revenge.  What I found amazing however, was that despite his inner anger and turmoil, he still showed traces of humanity and tenderness, especially with his friend from his old life, Sarah.

Even when he finds that Sarah’s mother is with one of the thugs, Draven still takes time to both heal and lecture her on the importance of her child.

This, in a moment, crystalized Nightstalker for me.  While he was someone that was dark and scary and violent, he could still be human, and care about others, even regret the course of action he had to take, despite it’s varying levels of justification.  But when he was violent and scary, he would still bring everything he had to it.  Still, I always appreciate some humor in my heroes, and Draven could pull that off even in his most frightening scenes.

But more then anything, I saw Draven’s inner turmoil and how it was driving him.  He was driven by a desire for revenge, without question, but also so many other things.  He was wracked with guilt that he couldn’t save his girlfriend.  He was tormented by the pain he endured.  And the memories of his past humanity, which he knew he could never have again.  But he never showed any of that to the people he battled against.  All his pain was reserved for moments of solitude, or moments with the few allies he gathered in the time he returned.  It was a unique dynamic to me- someone that buried the pain, but dug it up when he was alone.  It made him human despite all his brutality and anger, and I knew how much Nightstalker would need that.

What Writers Can Learn

Like Darkman, The Crow is an amped up revenge story, but with a different focus.  Reading the comic or seeing the film is a way to see a character shaped by grief and loss; knowing the backstory shows how far a person might want to go to see justice done.  There’s also the moral of accepting death and our own limitations in the sight of it.  Even if the supernatural/superhero elements don’t reflect your own ideas, they are concepts that resonate in some of the greatest works in literature.  If you want to tell a story that deals with death and what it can cause a person to do,  there’s no greater and truer fiction then The Crow.

Points of Light: Terry Brooks

Since I spent last week talking about an author that inspired me, I felt I should continue the trend with another highly influential author. A longtime source of classic fantasy literature, the work of this particular author was what convinced me that Lightrider would even be possible to attempt. This author is the one and only, Terry Brooks.

Points of Light: Terry Brooks

The Man

A writer since high school, Terry Brooks first drew attention in the seventies with his first novel, The Sword of Shannara, above the adventures of the Ohmsford family, last descendants of the Elven house of Shannara in a multi-cultural medieval land reminiscent of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Brooks then turned the novel into a long running series, with each book dealing with a different generation of the Ohmsford family and their allies, usually linked by one of the ancient Druids (first the grim and dark Allannon, then his sucessors) or another character from the previous books. While the series has been a hit, Brooks has also expanded into other series, such as the contemporary fantasies of Kingdom of Landover and Knight of the Word (which has been linked to his Shannara books). Brooks continues to write to this day, currently working on the next volume of Shannara.

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Points of Light: Stephen King

The last few weeks on POL, I’ve discussed some out of the box sources of inspiration, but since this is about a book, I felt this week, I should talk about something more book-related. And so I have decided to use the week to discuss an author whom I can claim as my first writing influence- one of the masters of American horror, Mr. Stephen King.

Points of Light: Stephen King

The Man

Almost everyone has probably heard of at least one story by Stephen King. One of the most popular and bestselling authors of the last forty years, King is primarily known for his horror stories, which range from the supernatural (Pet Sematary, The Shining, Needful Things), to the mundane turned horrific (Cujo, Christine, The Dark Half), to gritty suspense (Dolores Claiborne, Misery). However, King has penned tales of hope, redemption, and the trials of youth (Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Hearts in Atlantis), as well as epic fantasy (The Dark Tower Saga, The Eyes of the Dragon) all spread out over thirty novels, countless short stories, and even some original screenplays. Writing well into his sixties, King remains one of the most successful authors in the world- his work has been turned into various films (though not all successful), and he has received various literary awards over his career.

What I Learned: Description, Themes, Dialogue,

Stephen King was the first serious author I ever read, thanks to my mother’s attempt to wean me from the child’s horror of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series. With the impact King had, it was probably the best thing she ever did for me. What I loved the most about my first King book (Different Seasons, a collection of four novellas) was how much of a picture King painted with his words. Just by having the characters talk, I not only got a clear picture of them, but also the world in which they lived. When Red, the inmate narrator of Shawshank describes his life as the prison’s ‘supplier’, you immediately understand not only him, but the dreary, endlessly routine world in which he lives. And by doing that, King shows another skill- his ability to tie themes into his story without letting them overshadow the tale.

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Points of Light: Dragonlance Chronicles

This week, I’m continuing Points of Light with a look at a source that was so essential to the book, I would never have been able to write it without it. When I started writing, one thing I very much wanted to avoid was creating a sword and shield style fantasy book. Even though I love stories like Lord of the Rings, I felt there wasn’t anything new I could add to this genre, and that having those elements in modern times was far more interesting. However, one such fantasy book series provided such tremendous insight on concept and character that I found myself compelled to use it. That series was the Dragonlance Chronicles, by Track Hickman and Margaret Weis.

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