Friday, September 26, 2014

Put Me In Your Book!

And if you interrupt me writing, your character will die.
Reading how other writers create their characters or write their books is always interesting to me.  Many authors are more visual than I am: they see the scenes and images of their story in their heads, they have exact depictions of their characters, down to being able to find photos online to show.  And many times, they base characters on someone specific.

Often, this sort of character design will be based on people that the writer knows.  Friends, family, lovers, childhood school mates, and so on are remembered and planted into books.  Their personalities and behavior are mined for details to give to characters, enhancing their believability and depth.

This can be done as a tribute or a sign of respect, but it also can be used as a weapon.  More than one author has put people they particularly dislike or that have recently annoyed them into books, then done horrible things to that character.  Its a sort of revenge by proxy; I can't hurt you but I can feed you to the Tarrasque in my D&D module.

Its a useful device, because real people will have sometimes unexpected qualities.  I've dealt with people who have really annoying traits, yet are still very lovable and charismatic.  I've dealt with others who are very charming and smooth but were extremely unlikable.  So taking people like that and putting them into your stories can create fascinating characters.

Sometimes I read where someone asked an author to be put in a book - some kickstarters even offer putting high donors into a book.  Usually this isn't a good idea, unless you are very broad minded and willing to see an author do mean things to you.

I'm glad nobody ever has asked me to do that.  Because I don't write that way; I don't use people as characters.  Instead, all the experiences and memories and little ideas that occur as I go through life go into storage in my head and grow in there.  Then when I write, the ideas pour out onto the page.

So people do show up in my books, but subconsciously, and mixed with other people.  One aspect might stick in my memory and appear in a guard or a mage, or some other character.  But there's no deliberate use of specific people, and I don't know if I could do it well in any case.

But it is a valuable skill, to people watch, to listen to conversations, to examine the personality and behavior of people you know.  By doing so, you can grow to understand what makes them who they are, and how to craft characters that are as believable and interestingly varied as real human beings.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Re-Imaginations and Rip-Offs

Don't be too literal
One of my favorite authors is Loren Estleman, and he wrote a book called Sudden Country that is an old west/frontier version of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island set in Dakota Territory.  It took me a few chapters to catch on to what he was doing, but I really enjoyed it after that, seeing how he was going to work it out in a new setting.

This is something I have plans to do - and indeed did do with one of my books, but you have to look close to find it!  I have ideas for books such as the Mel Gibson film Payback (its self a remake of an earlier James Coburn movie called Point Blank) set in the wild west, or the Dashiell Hammett classic Red Harvest re-imagined as a fantasy.

This kind of thing can be very interesting and fun.  Red Harvest alone has been remade a half dozen times in various settings (Yojimbo - Feudal Japan, A Fist Full Of Dollars - old west, Last Man Standing - 30's gangsters, etc).  O Brother Where Art Thou is a re-imagining of Homer's Odyssey.  It happens less often in books, as authors are very prickly about their work being rewritten and readers as well as critics are very critical of such an effort, but it happens.  Estleman's wife was concerned that Sudden Country was too literal a re-imagining, and almost a rip off.

And that's the concern.  Because the line between homage and just flat plagiarism or ripping an author off is pretty fine.  Doing your reimagining of the Narnia books can very easily get you into copyright problems, and you run the danger of angering plenty of fans.  And finding that line where you are coming up with something new instead of just fan fiction or rebooting a book can be difficult.

If you do a scene-for-scene copy of an existing book, that's too literal and direct.  Nobody will take it seriously unless they've never heard of the book and then they might think you're brilliant.  Even a more broad re-imagining is difficult, as true fans may become very upset at what you've done.

Say you like the film Captain Phillips and decide you'd like to write a book based on that, but set it in the 1600s on the Spanish Main.  That's going to fit in well, pirates and all, but if you just depict exactly the same events in the same order with slightly different clothing and technology, you've not written an homate or a re-imaginging, you've just ripped off the original book.

But if you change main characters, shift the perspective of the book, jumble events around somewhat, and add in other minor subplots, you have a different, but related story.  The key is breaking down the story you want to write to its most basic skeleton: merchant ship captured by pirates, captain  uses tricks to delay the pirates, and the ship is rescued.

With that skeleton you can start to build on the story.  In the 1600s nobody has a radio, so he could use the flag signalling system to pretend to be talking to ships over the horizon from the pirates' perspective (this actually was used and worked in the age of sail several times).  Instead of being captured and taken to shore, the pirates could capture the ship and try to sail it to a nearby island for looting and pillaging.  Instead of being the SEALs who rescue the ship, perhaps its a shipwrecked English warship crew and captain on the other side of the island that contacts the merchant ship, and so on.

Other minor subplots can be added; what if the crew slipped some expensive personal items for sale at the port of call into the hold and the captain didn't know; the crewmen might be irrational and stupid to protect their money.  What if the captain doesn't have the confidence of his crew and has to earn their trust.  What if a storm hits, on and on.  Adding these kind of details and shifting others turns the basic skeleton of the story into a new one, while retaining aspects of what you liked in the basic story.

In space no one can hear your accent
The question must be asked though: is this a valid thing to do?  Are you less of an author for taking other plots and sketches, then adapting them to your own story instead of coming up with your own?  To a certain extent, there's nothing new under the sun.  Nobody, anywhere, is coming up with a totally fresh new story that hasn't been done before by the millions who came before over the eons of human storytelling.  Your brilliant inspiration was already used by some guy telling stories around a campfire 3000 years ago.  And that's fine.

Because its what you do with a story that makes it matter, the idea is just that: an idea.  Your writing skills and perspective, your "voice" and the world you create will make that idea into a story that is yours alone.

So using an existing sketch or idea (I want to write a fantasy version of Gone With The Wind!  I have an idea for a Sci Fi High Noon - wait, that's been done with Outland) to create a new novel is not as crass or silly as it might seem.  To a certain extent all of us are derivative of what we've read, seen, and heard before.  What we write is an extension of our consciousness, memories, education, and experiences and that necessarily includes books and stories we've heard before.

Its just a matter of making it yours instead of simply repackaging it slightly and putting your name on it.  Once you've turned the story into your own, you can proudly say you have actually written a book, not vaguely changed some details with a new cover.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Books Into Films: The Ones That Worked

"Man, this would make an incredible movie!"

Not pictured: snake girl dying like a butterfly in the snow
Movies made from books almost always disappoint. There is an inevitable loss of the sensibility and richness of a well-written book when it is transformed into film, and almost always some of the story is left out either due to the impossibility to translate to a new media or problems with length. Often when you see a movie made from a book, it is just awful. More rarely, it is tolerable because of something the movie brings to add to the story, usually visuals, that a book cannot.

Sometimes, however, movies will result in something as good or even better than the original writing. Sometimes the translation to motion pictures lifts a written work to a new, better level and captures something the words could not, or translates a story into something superior. So here's my list of books that actually resulted in good movies (based on movies I've actually seen and books I've read).

First, movies that ended up better than the books, and why I think so:
Blade Runner - While Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was an interesting book, it was very long and aimless with a very strange main plot, while the movie was powerful, on target, and incredible. The original release, not the weaker director's cut.
Bridge on the River Kwai - Good book, better movie because it was easier to visualize what was being done, and the element of the British commander trying to save the bridge was more powerful than how the book ended.
Guns of Navarone - Again, good book, but the movie was actually superior by trimming out some of the extra material.
Out of Sight - Took the great Elmore story and made it even more compelling and interesting. The attraction between the two characters made more sense in the movie than the book.
Get Shorty - This was the Elmore story most closely following the book than any other (and they've made a lot), and it ended up funnier and the sequence where Ray Bones gets caught made more sense in the movie than the book.
2001: A Space Odyssey - This book is confusing and bizarre, as was the movie, but at least the movie made a little more sense and the visuals helped a bit.
Last of the Mohicans - I know Cooper is a classic writer, but I can't stand his incredibly overwrought prose, he's very difficult to read.
These are movies that, although often different, were the equal of the books they tried to adapt and turn into film:
To Kill a Mockingbird
Where Eagles Dare
Maltese Falcon
Fellowship of the Rings
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
Hunt for the Red October
The Fly (original)
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
Jaws
Sin City
Andromeda Strain
The Name of the Rose
And for good measure, here are a few failures that people think are great, movies that are beloved yet weren't as good as the books, and why:
The Big Sleep - The added sub plot of a love story between the two main characters was well written but did not fit the book.  They were great scenes, just not great for that story.
Wizard of Oz - Great movie, but it left out so much and missed so much of the original book's intent and message to children that it ends up lacking.
The Two Towers - Don't even get me started. This was so wretched I have a hard time even watching The Fellowship of the Rings now, which I loved. So many ghastly, needless, and hateful violations of Tolkien's story it was unwatchable trash.  Return of the King worked better, but was still heavily flawed.  Just not as much as The Two Towers. 
Jurassic Park - "I know this, it's Unix!" The little girl was actually more annoying and useless in the book, but the movie just blew off some of the best ideas and scenes in the book. Also too heavily stamped with Spielberg's manipulative directorial tricks.
Harry Potter movies after the first - the books got too long, so they had to leave more and more out and ultimately lost much of the charm and wonder although they are still entertaining movies on their own
There are a lot of other movies from books that have been made, such as Die Hard, Shawshank Redemption, Mambo Kings, and The Color of Money that I haven't read so I can't put on a list like this.