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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Where do you get your characters from?

   
Author Topic: Where do you get your characters from?
Tank1982
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Was just sitting here watching one of my favorite shows when I thought about how much I'd like to write a story about one of the characters, to make him (or her) mine and take him through the lands of my imagination.

Where do you get your characters from? I know for me, a lot of my characters are pastiches of actors and popular figures who I admire. In the end, I guess they're all me though(because even if they are copies, they're copies reimagined from my brain... but what do I know?).

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extrinsic
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My characters are selected and developed from their congruence to events and settings. I evaluate for gender, age, ethnicity, social and financial status, spiritual and cultural belief systems, milieu, and era when I develop characters, the settings they are influenced by and the events that they react to or cause.

Part of my character audition process involves answering the context and texture questions of who, when, and where; why, what, and how. Several of the more appreciable features for characters I develop is traits of personality, behavior, and causal action-reaction, stimuli-response, and cause-effect: different approaches to essentially identical event sequences.

For me, developing character identity is inseparable from developing settings and events' identities, particualrly their degrees of intensity. On the other hand, that characters, settings, and events be epic in the sense of larger than life in meaningful ways, not per se epic in the sense of narrative length, nor epic in the sense of grandiose.

Subtly epic characters, settings, and events are exquisite.

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Reziac
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I don't actually think about it. They just wander in and make themselves at home (or occasionally slap me upside the head and demand a part). I used to do character sheets but found that too limiting (some of what was preordained eventually failed to fit); now, they develop however they will, and each becomes very much his own person without troubling to consult me. [Big Grin]

The flipside is that often they can't be arsed to inform me of what they've been up to, either. Frex, twenty years I've been working with my MC, and only last year did I discover one of his expert skills (a skill that makes perfect sense given his background, but the topic had not previously come up).

Learn by doing, we do. [Wink]

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MattLeo
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I don't think it makes any difference where you get your characters, as long as you work on them so that they seem real and individuals, not retreads. This'll probably be controversial, but I see nothing wrong with starting out writing a story about Captain Kirk as played by Bill Shatner as long as the character ends up being someone else.

That said, I don't work that way, and frankly can't imagine working that way. I don't understand the appeal of writing fan-fiction, although I have nothing against it.

What happens for me is that I get the basic idea for the story, and the characters evolve to meet the needs of the story. Then at some point a character comes to life and starts to warp the story around himself.

Last year I had the idea of crossing the classic late 30s Hollywood screwball comedy with the golden age space opera of the same era. The basics of the plot were pretty much from a standard Hollywood template: a woman discovers that her ex-husband is getting remarried (to a dreadful, presumably sexually frigid pill) and comic mayhem ensues. I decided to make her a heroic space captain returning from a voyage of exploration.

Since romance wasn't my usual thing I wrote a pitch for the piece and sent it to a writer friend who does genre romances. She immediately wrote back with a single piece of advice: make sure my heroine was young and beautiful. This shows how well this friend knew me, because I'd deliberately held back my secret plan for Captain Kate to be middle-aged and plain. But my friend succeeded in convincing me that my romantic heroine had to be young and beautiful for the story to succeed.

This presented me with a number of logical problems which drove a lot of the development of the character and her backstory. The biggest problem was this: a character who is brave, clever, accomplished, young and beautiful is going to have things mighty easy. A protagonist has got to have a cross to bear, ideally a heavy one. So I decided to give her the worst handicap I could imagine: I made her overbearing, insensitive and socially clueless; the kind of person who always speaks bluntly and takes others at face value because she doesn't understand socially necessary white lies. She has a penchant for alienating people.

Since she can't take her behavioral cues from others, she governs her behavior by a set of inflexible rules and standards. Usually this amounts to petty pig-headedness, but it can also be admirable, in situations where normal people would be swayed by wanting to please others.

At that point I had her dialog sound. She tends to speak in rapid, staccato sentence fragments, punctuated with a lot of casual expletives. But when she's angry she sounds a lot more fluent, sometimes even eloquent. As usual, once I had the character's voice that signaled a switch to a more intuitive mode; things about Kate just started showing up on their own.

This is a little different than the way a lot of people try to write character-based stories. They come up with a elaborate backstory for a cast of characters then see what happens when the characters are thrown together. For me the story starts with a situation, and there's a sudden boiling point where I have access to the character's background and behavioral quirks.

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Denevius
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All of my best characters are based on people I know from real life. It's just easier that way to start off with something authentic. Their way of speaking and their mannerisms, their beliefs, their pasts,the hopes for their futures.

It's a cliche', but I do more listening than talking, and I'm always stealing stories from those around me. Things that happened to the person in question, or their sibling, or their friend, or a co-worker. I suppose to use a melodramatic metaphor, reality around me is the narrative I derive fan-fiction from.

This method has been the foundation of almost everything I write since I was 19.

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Tank1982
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Thank you all for your imput.
@extrinsic You're absolutely right. With any story, if you change one of those who, what, when, where, why or hows then it would lead to an entirely different character and story. I remember reading somewhere that when it comes to magic or tehnology in a fiction, if it's taken out and there's still a story then it doesn't belong. What you're talking about might be parallel to that.

@Reziac Isn't that so interesting. There are literally people living in our heads... Sell maybe not literally... I dunno. The more I think about it now, I guess I do a combination of what you all are saying. Some characters are copies with my twist on it. Others are made specifically for the situation. And still some spawn from the ether.

@MattLeo Definitely agree with you on writing fan fiction, though I'm guilty of it once or twice. What I've moved into doing, if I really wanted Kirk, is instead of a starship, I put him on a horse. Something I've been thinking about for a while is: what if I take all the top dogs from the films, books, and shows I like, and put them all together in the same setting? What if I take Rick Grimes and the governor from The Walking Dead, Brad Pit's Jesse James, Walter White from Breakig Bad, and Sharon Stone's character from Casino and put them all on a boat in the middle of the ocean? I think it'd be fun to figure out and discover what happens.
I really love how you tailored your character and evolved her for the story. You did a good job at showing how her mannerisms and traits came about and effect her psychologically.

@Denevius Now you have me wondering: are all of my characters just me? Maybe they're all different aspects of me.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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There are those who believe that even the real people we think we know who exist outside of ourselves are actually only made up of our own perceptions of them. (I hope that made sense.)

We can't really know anyone else (for that matter, do we really know ourselves?), so what we think we know about someone is really only the person we have created in our own minds to represent that person. And as we interact with them, we may have to adapt the person in our minds to fit the way the real person talks or acts.

So even if you create a character based on someone real, you are actually basing that character on your perception of the real person. And if you tweak that perception enough, or combine it with your perception of another real person, you can come up with a "new" creation entirely.

And yes, according to this way of thinking, everyone is actually an aspect of yourself, because you have created your perception of each other real person out of your own understandings of them, and when you get right down to it, those are aspects of you.

Again, I hope all of that made sense.

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by Tank1982:
@extrinsic You're absolutely right. With any story, if you change one of those who, what, when, where, why or hows then it would lead to an entirely different character and story. I remember reading somewhere that when it comes to magic or tehnology in a fiction, if it's taken out and there's still a story then it doesn't belong. What you're talking about might be parallel to that.

That principle, though some writers take it as law, is on one hand valid about any narrative feature. A belief that the demands of plot require that all and sundry tie into a cohesive, singular action has been around since Plato and espoused by Aristotle as fundamental. Challengers of plot's tyranny point to acclaimed narratives that do not fit traditional models. Short stories in particular may sustain a so-called plotless narrative, lacking or short on antagonsism, causation, and tension, but not exclusive to short fiction. Many long fiction examples are also described as plotless.

The literary world has a consensus group that labels a narrative with fantastical magic or technology features that don't tie into plot as speculative fiction. The term meant that long before it came to be used for describing any and all fantastical fiction.

The principle known as authenticating a narrative may depend to a large degree on features that might not tie into plot. Realism and Modernism's nod to Realism especially depend on seemingly nonessential features for developing verisimilitude. Not realism in the sense of realistic real-world portrayals, but as developed narratives that immerse readers in the seeming exotic and intense reality of fictional or creative nonfictional settings, characters, and events.

Modernism, like Realism's versimilar features, especially narrator effacement, is one of the main departures from traditional narrative voices of narrator omniscience and commentary common to traditional Romanticism in terms of technique. One other main departure is the degree of poetic justice propoganda declined for Realism. One of the main constituents of modern Romanticism takes verisimilitude to the degree of Realism and Modernism's but perpetuates poetic justice; that is, the meaningful self-sacrifice or "good" for the greater good is rewarded and self-serving wickeness or "bad" or "evil" detractions from the greater good are punished.

Punishment of wicked characters is often set up early on, prepositioned like a Chekhov's Gun. A first character to die off or be lost is one who commits the earliest self-serving wickedness. A central villain or wicked nemesis or antagonist's self-serving conduct escalates over the course of an action, then, as an outcome, is served a proportionate degree of poetic justice.

[ December 02, 2013, 11:10 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Crystal Stevens
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<<What happens for me is that I get the basic idea for the story, and the characters evolve to meet the needs of the story. Then at some point a character comes to life and starts to warp the story around himself.>>

The above quote from Matt Leo's post pretty much sums up how my characters evolve. I start with a story idea, decide what kind of characters would be involved with that idea, and then go from there.

Some of my story ideas come from watching movies or reading books. Some from real life situations, too. But my story becomes nothing like the book or the movie and follows a completely different track. Only once the idea is developed do I think about my characters and then let the story evolve from that.

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extrinsic
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I think a chasm distinguishing struggling writers from acclaimed writers lies in the degree of characters' similarity to a given writer. Of course, anyone may be capable of heinous behaviors under challenging circumstances, as equally as noble behaviors.

Stepping outside the box, though, and into others' shoes is a quality of artful character development useful for developing rounded characters, no matter if they are meant to be protagonists, villains, nemeses, or sympathetic antiheroes or antagonists. However, a less than fully developed, two-dimensional, mysterious villain or antagonist may symbolize an intangible, immaterial, abstract, or ideal circumstance.

A revelation narrative might have a mysterious, two-dimensional protagonist symbolizing unknowable circumstances as well. The epic meaning of the protagonist, as in larger than life, might supersede fully-realized character development. Or perhaps most exquisitely, fully-realized mysterious protagonist character development may unfold as an action unfolds. From mysterious to known, that is a character transformation, and an underlying organizing principle that could parallel plot as a central organizing feature.

[ December 02, 2013, 11:04 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Reziac
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quote:
Originally posted by Tank1982:
@extrinsic You're absolutely right. With any story, if you change one of those who, what, when, where, why or hows then it would lead to an entirely different character and story. I remember reading somewhere that when it comes to magic or technology in a fiction, if it's taken out and there's still a story then it doesn't belong. What you're talking about might be parallel to that.

I disagree with this. If you take out the element of magic or technology, that may alter the story, but if your story is so dependent on that one thing that without it there is NO story, that artificial constraint will be visible to experienced readers, and it will feel like a prop.

I've dragged this old tale out a time or two before, but here it is again:

I write character-driven space opera. One day I had a conversation about it with George Clayton Johnson (co-author of Logan's Run) and he asked me, "What makes it SF?" And I said, "Nothing. It could just as easily be a medieval fantasy." -- Turn planets into villages, starships into horses, and telepathy/telekinesis into magic, and nothing really changes for the people and what happens to them. I've thought about actually doing that, just to see how it turns out. Remove all those elements entirely, and it could still be the same story (tho the balance of individual power struggles might change somewhat). But remove the overarching villain? Nope, then the underforce that drives current events would either be absent, or taken over by someone else with different motivations.

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extrinsic
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Reziac,

I think that several differing views are in play here. One that believes fantastical features must have plot relevance; one that believes substitutions of real-world features for fantastical features and vice versa is innovative, and one that believes features must only be credible or not at all relevant to plot.

The first, that fantastical features must be relevant to plot only demands that fantastical features influence plot development, not that they be central. A magic milieu solely showing magic practices has little or no character development and, hence, little to no personal appeal. It would be a documentary akin to a craft how-to, like a recipe book, woodworking techniques, chemistry textbook, or automobile owner's manual, etc. Character development is essential for narrative purposes though, being one of the fundamental kernels of narrative. Without event, character, and setting development, a written-word or audiovisual composition is some other composition type than narrative.

If fantastical features don't in some accessible way influence plot, at least character actions and reactions, they might be superfluous but not necessarily nonessential. Magical Realism, for example: without miraculous circumstances taken as everyday occurrences and everyday circumstances taken as miraculous occurrences, though they are kernel conventions of the genre and not per se essential in terms of exacting plot expectations, would the action be as dramatic and appealing? Probably not. Those are powerful appeals of Magical Realism.

A swarm of no-see-ums, white gnats, sparkling in sunlight is a magically mystic sight, perhaps spiritually meaningful, and spiritually influential for the observer. On the other hand, communing with dearly loved departed ones or religious spirits in the form or real or imagined ghostly apparations is a commonplace expectation in many cultures. It is miracluous seeming if not actually, though taken as common place within a Magical Realism narrative contexture.

In the sense that plot orients around transformation, neither unique nor everyday miracles need take place. They may, however, develop character and at least setting's milieu aspects. Either or both of which influence antagonism, causation, and tension: plot fundamentals. These are the senses of a feature's, fantastical or otherwise, essentialness to plot: influence upon event, character, and setting developments for the sake of dramatic appeals, which could need only be tension's empathy features, sharing similar spiritual, paranormal, or other fantastical belief or vicarious wish fulfillment cultural or mystical code values.

[ December 02, 2013, 12:27 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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MattLeo
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Using real people as templates for characters is no guarantee that those characters will be interesting. It's not even a guarantee that they'll seem real, because our perceptions of others are corrupted by our selfish biases. This is particularly true of self-inserts. There's no *intrinsic* reason a self-insert can't work, the problem is that most people aren't brutally honest enough to write about themselves convincingly.

I expect there must be quite a bit of J.D. Salinger in Holden Caulfield, but Salinger doesn't stint on the unflattering bits. Holden's defining characteristic is his abhorrence of "phoniness", but Salinger makes Holden the biggest phony in the book. Sometimes Holden deceives people not out of self-interest, nor out of pleasure, but simply out of habit. That makes Holden a tragic character; his genius is unappreciated by those around him, but that's his own fault because he constantly lies about who he is.

This bears on something I think protagonists in particular often lack: agency. It's usually not very satisfying just watching things happen to a protagonist; he needs to take actions that drive the story. Even if the final outcome is ironic frustration, the protagonists usually needs to have a hand in bringing that result about.

I think agency is an often overlooked ingredient in character credibility. If a character simply sits around reacting to things, that's an invitation to the reader to question those reactions. But if the protagonist's actions shape the action of a story, and meet a minimal standard of plausibility, I believe that readers are likely to shift from a deductive mode of thought (what will the character do next?) to an inductive mode (why did the character just do that?). That enlists the reader's imagination more in creating the character than explaining the character's backstory in painful detail would.

I think this bears on extrinsic's point about protagonists who are something of a cipher. We don't need a ten thousand word prologue explaining where Shane got his mad gunslinger skilz and why he'll probably stand up for the underdog homesteaders. We don't have to de-mystify Shane, we only have to show him in action for him to become credible and interesting.

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Denevius
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quote:
Using real people as templates for characters is no guarantee that those characters will be interesting.
This is true. However, it's a greater guarantee that you'll have something to write about.

Plenty of people have seeds of great ideas that never take off, because it's one thing to write a really interesting premise, or a really interesting first 13 lines. But when you flip the page and you have all that blank space staring back at you, it can be really intimidating. Lots of people have problems finishing short stories, or completing novels.

I don't.

The chapter I'm writing now, 'Dragon', is about the novel's pedophile. Is the man from real life I'm writing about a pedo? God, I hope not!

But the person in question has a little shop across the street from the school I work at. He's outside it every morning and every afternoon. I've seen him through the window riding his bike sometimes around the block. I know his eyes, which seem thinner than most Koreans. I'm guessing he never had the popular eye surgery here flipping his eyelids. I see him when I'm walking up the hill to the school's front gate. I know the way he dresses, wearing basically the same thing every day. I know the way he moves. I know his son, who's in third grade.

Now, at a certain point in writing this novel, I needed to create a pedophile. Why did I choose him? Maybe convenience, though I could have used someone else from real life.

But there's something about this guy that strikes me curious and fits the role. He doesn't own a mart (small food store). I can't tell what type of store it is that he owns, as it's always dark inside. But he sells candy, and he's usually surrounded by the kids at my school. Sometimes his door is open and he's outside, and they're swarming around him. Sometimes his door is closed, and I see kids going in and out of this dim room.

When I was growing up, they always told us: "Beware of strangers offering candy."

So on the one hand, if you work across the street from an elementary school, it makes perfect sense to sell candy to kids. On the other, if you're a pedo who works across the street from an elementary school, it makes perfect sense to sell candy to kids. If this was a woman, one of the kid's mothers doing this, I probably wouldn't think twice, and I'd have to go mining reality elsewhere for my pedophile. But this is a man, a neighborhood man to be sure, but a man nevertheless, who has a lot of unsupervised access to children. Read the news enough and you know that most child molestation occurs with someone the kid knows.

I base characters on real life people, but obviously I'm not writing non-fiction. It's no memoir. Besides saying 'Hello', I've never spoken to this guy, but he has to speak in the chapter. I don't know his name, so I gave him one. I don't know what else he sells in his store, so I conjured a mart, which I'm familiar with.

But when I need them, I have words to fill my blank page. Yes, like any natural resource you're using, they have to be felled, like trees, or mined, like coal. They have to be refined, like oil, or molded, like clay. They have to be shaped, and reshaped over and over again until what it once was is hard to see from what it is now. Unless, of course, I tell you.

This method has been the foundation of all of my writing over more than a decade, and it has yielded some of my most successful fiction. If you want to quibble over what *is* reality, that's fine. Then I'm using the perception of my mental construction of reality to construct the perception of reality in the minds of readers.

I suppose a fresh reading of Jean Baudrillard's "Simulacra and Simulation" is necessary now to make sense of it all.

[ December 02, 2013, 05:23 PM: Message edited by: Denevius ]

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Robert Nowall
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Usually a large bit of myself, a dash of someone or somebody, and the rest just suggested by the situation. Or at least that's what I tell myself.
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rstegman
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With the exception of my Waxy Dragon stories, where the character came first from something else and developed from there,
all my stories have the scene or situation first, and then I develop the character to fit the scene or situation. I have a story that had gone to the publisher and was sent back with the basic complaint of why did she do any of that. I had not developed my character enough in the beginning to explain what was going on.
Another story I have THE END on also needs more character development.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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quote:
Originally posted by Crystal Stevens:
Some of my story ideas come from watching movies or reading books. Some from real life situations, too. But my story becomes nothing like the book or the movie and follows a completely different track. Only once the idea is developed do I think about my characters and then let the story evolve from that.

I remember reading about an author who was extremely prolific, and when asked how he was able to come up with so many different plots and story ideas, he replied that every time he read a book he'd stop at what might be called "turning points" in the book and figure out how he'd write the rest of the book from that point. Since his ideas were his, his endings usually didn't match what the book author came up with. A particularly complex book could have several "turning points" and could give him several different plots.

So drawing from someone else's work in this way is totally legit. It's also fine to take a book that failed you in some way and tell your own version of the story and how it should have worked. With your own characters and settings and so on, of course.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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quote:
Originally posted by Reziac:
I write character-driven space opera. One day I had a conversation about it with George Clayton Johnson (co-author of Logan's Run) and he asked me, "What makes it SF?" And I said, "Nothing. It could just as easily be a medieval fantasy." -- Turn planets into villages, starships into horses, and telepathy/telekinesis into magic, and nothing really changes for the people and what happens to them. I've thought about actually doing that, just to see how it turns out. Remove all those elements entirely, and it could still be the same story (tho the balance of individual power struggles might change somewhat). But remove the overarching villain? Nope, then the underforce that drives current events would either be absent, or taken over by someone else with different motivations.

This reminds me of an article I wrote years ago, in response to the frequent claim by critics that STAR WARS was "a western in space." I tried to "translate" the elements of that first movie into a "western" setting, and it really did not translate well.

I ended up deciding that what I'd managed to do was more along the lines of "space opera in the old west" and it reminded me of the original tv series WILD WILD WEST, which would probably be called "steampunk" now.

STAR WARS did not work as a "western in space," however.

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extrinsic
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I view the Star Wars epic, in all senses of the term, as an Eastern epic akin to the Seven Samuri. Many Western epics, Western narrative genre and cultural codes, also reimagine Eastern epics for appeals to Western sensibilities. The Discussing Published Books & Hooks forum discussion about the film Pacific Rim illustrates to a degree the difficulty of cultural artifact adaptation from an Eastern to a Western sensibility. Is bushido code translatably accessible for Western mass culture audiences? If it's Westernized maybe.
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InarticulateBabbler
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"Schenectady. There's a swell Idea Service in Schenectady; and every week I send 'em twenty-five bucks; and every week they send me a fresh six-pack of ideas." -- Harlan Ellison

Just had to.

I usually find a name that resonates with me, first. Once I have that, I find where--in my mind's eye--he or she feels right. Then I write a vignette to experiment and discover what I can about his character and the others who appear. Then, when I'm onto something, I start thinking about plot. Then, I write a simple plot and set the characters on the road there.

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Reziac
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quote:
Originally posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury:
This reminds me of an article I wrote years ago, in response to the frequent claim by critics that STAR WARS was "a western in space." I tried to "translate" the elements of that first movie into a "western" setting, and it really did not translate well.

Interesting. And makes me wonder if sometimes such a translation only works one way. Frex, maybe you could turn a western into Star Wars, but you can't turn Star Wars into a western.
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babooher
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I always thought Star Wars was fantasy. You have your knight who must venture to the evil fortress to save the damsel. You got your bad wizard, your good wizard. Yup, fantasy.
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rstegman
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Star Wars is not space western.

It is in the classification of science fantasy.
It would take a whole lot of work to remove the science, but one could have it entirely on a fantasy world -- islands instead of worlds, magical creations rather than robots, a change of weapons. The magic is already there.

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Robert Nowall
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At the time, it reminded me of a typical Planet Stories story, but with a lot less sex and violence. Now I see elements of John Ford westerns and Howard Hawks westerns, Howard Hawks movies in general, elements of pirate movies, some pseudo-1960s philosophical musings (at a minimum in the first entry of the series), a specific scene inspired by Leni Riefenstahl, probably more influences I haven't thought of, all given a science fiction gloss.

It's said that the basic plot was inspired by Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress---this samauri attempts to take a princess to where she'll be safe, while these two idiots tag along in their wake. It's a good movie, but anyone who goes in expecting something like Star Wars will be bitterly disillusioned...

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Reziac
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quote:
Originally posted by rstegman:
Star Wars is not space western.

It is in the classification of science fantasy.
It would take a whole lot of work to remove the science, but one could have it entirely on a fantasy world -- islands instead of worlds, magical creations rather than robots, a change of weapons. The magic is already there.

That's where I'd put it too. Its 'magic' is in that same fuzzy area as telepathy/telekinesis, but it has the same function, socially and personally. Goes to show the depth of the overlap in SF and F.
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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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quote:
Originally posted by InarticulateBabbler:
I usually find a name that resonates with me, first. Once I have that, I find where--in my mind's eye--he or she feels right. Then I write a vignette to experiment and discover what I can about his character and the others who appear. Then, when I'm onto something, I start thinking about plot. Then, I write a simple plot and set the characters on the road there.

Something I like to do when developing my characters is picture whom I'd like to play the part in a movie of my story. Selecting actors, with known faces and personalities based on characters they have played, helps to develop and "gel" the characters in my mind.

But then, I like to try to "cast" characters in books that I read, as well. (A long time ago, I picked a cast for LORD OF THE RINGS, and I chose Elijah Wood for Frodo and John Rhys-Davies for Gimli years before Peter Jackson did.)

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InarticulateBabbler
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Kathleen, I can't do that: cast characters based on actors. This is what happens: I think James Purefoy would be perfect for my medieval werewolf hunter. Then I start writing it with that in mind. And then I see him play Joe Carroll and suddenly my werewolf hunter becomes very manipulative, and dark.) I don't want to cast anyone in the role, it's a suit for me to hop into and explore. I want to feel the character. There was a time, when I first started coming here, that I was looking at the craft like trying to write the movie I imagined, but now, I am enjoying living vicariously.
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rstegman
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The difference between science fantasy and fantasy is that science fantasy has an explanation for the magic.


I had created my waxy dragon character as a bulletin board character. I decided to write her in a story and instantly her character changed.
A short while ago, I read all the little short stories I wrote about my Waxy Dragon story. She changed over the series of some 60 stories, only about half way did her character start gelling into something I like.
The character I have Waxy as in the stories now getting published has changed even more.

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MattLeo
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Well, the reason STAR WARS is not a western in any way shape or form is that it lacks the element of the frontier. The western story is about that brief moment in time when the forces of civilization (i.e. *colonization) encounter the wild. That expanded westward like a wavefront, so you can write a "western" about any place in the US by choosing the decade. The western story is about a hero who belongs to the past clearing the way for his own demise. That's why the iconic ending is the hero riding off into the sunset.

The cantina in Star Wars is an homage to western movie bars, but it's only superficially "western". Tatooine is a totally different kind of historical milieu. Being relatively lawless it supports certain western movie motifs (aboriginal raids, gunfights) but it doesn't support a true western story. It mainly functions as a place for Luke to come from.

As for science fantasy vs. science fiction, if having an explanation for the stupendous things in a story is the dividing line, there's relatively little true science fiction. Fred Hoyle's work. Poul Anderson's TAU ZERO and Asimov's NIGHTFALL. The difference in science fantasy vs. science fiction is that the miraculous in science fiction is ASSUMED to have a rational explanation. I'd say science fantasy combines miraculous things that have a rational explanation with miraculous things that don't have a rational explanation. Fantasy, on the other hand, does not include rationally explicable elements which exceed the general capabilities of modern technology. Swords and spurs, yes. Airplanes and computers, fine. FTL and quantum-thingamajig energy sources, no -- then you're into sci-fi or science fantasy.

This is what ruined the Star Wars franchise for many people: Lucas' attempt to de-mystify the Star Wars universe while maintaining fairy tale motifs that don't make sense in a presumed-scientific world (e.g. "the chosen one"). It amounted to an abortive genre shift.

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Robert Nowall
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There really isn't any "true" science fiction---there's a lot of very different work lumped under the marketing category of "science fiction." The name itself came from its connections with the science magazines of the 1920s---probably Popular Mechanics would be the closest to them that's still around today---but the new-born genre absorbed several competing threads of writing (Wells and Verne, Burroughs come to mind), and soon had factions that, essentially, repudiated what was being written by those bound to other factions.

Writing something that adheres to "hard science" in all respects is difficult---and often puzzling to the casual reader. And it often defeats the writer's plot contrivances (say, an un-worked-out faster-than-light ship depositing someone on a strange new world).

Meanwhile the field absorbed traditions and tropes from other genres. Westerns provided a certain amount of "how you handle adventure writing." They used to call it the "Bat Durston" kind of SF, or "call a rabbit a smeerp"---substitute a few terms and you've got SF. And a lot of fine work has been done in it, even if some hold that kind of SF in contempt.

*****

I remembered one other influence on Star Wars---the spaceship-fights are influenced by assorted "war in the air" movies, mostly the World War II ones, down to the way the spacecrafts move around (in a vacuum).

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Denevius
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quote:
Writing something that adheres to "hard science" in all respects is difficult---and often puzzling to the casual reader.
I was always into fantasy growing up, and my earliest foray into scifi, Stanislaw Lem's "Tales of Prix the Pilot", turned me off the genre for several years more until my mid 20s. I think of that as 'hard science', and that type of science is difficult to understand. When I was younger, I didn't want to feel like I needed to take a class in order to understand a story.

A lot of books I've seen listed as scifi, I consider speculative fiction with a futuristic narrative. Ursula K. LeGuinn's "The Left Hand of Darkness", Philip K. Dick's "Ubik". I feel more comfortable calling Asmiov's "I, Robot" proper science fiction.

As for movies, it's a bit of a tough call. "Star Wars" is futuristic, but it's not exactly heavy on science. "2001: A Space Odyssey", however, is quite techie. Movies are meant to entertain wide audiences, and in this day and age when they're marketed overseas, they need to be as graspable as possible. Unless it's an indie movie with a small budget like "Primer", another flick I consider proper scifi, it's probably not going to require much mental effort to consume.

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Robert Nowall
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quote:
"Star Wars" is futuristic, but it's not exactly heavy on science.
None at all, offhand. Maybe anti-science ("Trust the Force") if it's anything at all.
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legolasgalactica
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Frankly, I'm astonished at the rigidity of author's views and understanding of genres. Honestly, I had never heard of some apparently popular ones until I came to Hatrack (although I had read some from those genres without knowing it.

My reading is all broken down into SciFi (Techy stuff whether it's real science or not) Fantasy (magic and adventure) and some other basic ones. There have been a few that are hard to place for me, like: Clive cussler (which for me touches fantasy, has a lot of science, filled with James bond action and some mystery) or star wars which I would place solidly in the science fiction AND fantasy camps.

[ December 08, 2013, 02:58 AM: Message edited by: legolasgalactica ]

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Reziac
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quote:
Originally posted by legolasgalactica:
Frankly, I'm astonished at the rigidity of author's views and understanding of genres.

Same here. Might be that I just don't care all that much, so long as I enjoy reading it, and I'm no longer interested in marketing distinctions or nerdy nitpickery. Tho IMO a lot of the newer subgenres aren't really SF/F at all, but rather romance or gumshoe with a thin veneer of SF/F.
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MattLeo
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Suppose you were to pick up a book in a store's sci-fi section that had a cover that looked like hard sci-fi, but it turned out to be a Harlequin style genre romance with no actual sci-fi in it. Would you say, "gee, I should just try to enjoy this story for what it is," or would you return it to the store for a refund?

That's why we have genres -- to stock books on certain shelves for the convenience of customers looking for a particular reading experience. Both hard sci-fi and genre romance are equally valid reader experiences, but they tend to appeal to distinct audiences.

The problem is that "reader experience" is largely non-conscious. A traditional fantasy reader picks up a high fantasy novel because he wants to read a story with elves and wizards in it. But he has *other* expectations too. Not just the obvious ones about Good and Evil, he 's got subtle assumptions about how character choices and actions should be imbued with inherent meaning and significance.

If you put the right furniture into a novel, you can get it on whatever bookstore shelf you want, but it may violate those subtle expectations. George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series does this. It has all the right epic fantasy furniture, but the logic of the story is not that of an epic fantasy. The actions of the characters in SoI&F have no significance beyond their impact on the charcters personal plans. Martin writes fantasy with an existentialist viewpoint rather than the natural law viewpoint of Tolkien or Lewis.

You can violate the readers' non-conscious genre expectations, and if (like Martin) you do it well enough, you'll redefine that genre for some of those readers. But you'll disappoint others. On the other hand, you can expand the scope of a genre while staying within the conventions of the genre, the way TRUE GRIT works as a straight-up western and also as a satire at the same time.

I'm not advocating slavishly following genre expectations, nor mindlessly breaking them. The point is not to be rigid, but to make conscious decisions with what you are going to do about reader expectations. I once asked a famous kung-fu master what sets apart a true master from just any expert. "A true master," he said, "does nothing by accident."

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rstegman
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In characterization and genres, The way I learned it a long time ago (I think I am missing a category) , is that

HARD SCIENCE FICTION is where the science is the story, and the characters are added to carry the story along.

SOFT SCIENCE FICTION is where the character is the story and the science is essential to the story.

SCIENCE FANTASY is magic based, but where science is key to the background. The magic usually have something that resembles scientific explanations.

FANTASY is where there is no attempt to give a scientific explanation to the magic.

Generally any story written about the future is science fiction. One could write a story that happens tomorrow, but the time it takes to write it, edit it, get it published, it would be a past story. Getting a story far enough in to the future to be relevant when it is published, causes most stories to happen years or decades in the future.
Of course, placing stories in the far far future, makes anything possible. One can utterly escape the connection with modern reality. parallel worlds and alternate histories become easy once one escapes the bonds of local time and place.

My science fiction stories usually don't happen within easy reach of our present technology or time period.
A while back, I did a series of discussions that showed that we could "easily" build and launch interstellar colony ships within a century. I concluded that the only reason to do so, though, was to evacuate the planet due to an upcoming disaster.
A series of steps of colonies building colony ships would make a good percent of science fiction stories possible.

My two cents.

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Merlion-Emrys
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I'm not a super big fan of genre labels. To me they are nothing more than a general shorthand to allow a general idea of a story's content to be communicated.

In my own mind, I mostly tend to think of stuff in terms of "contains fantastical/speculative content" and "doesn't."

I think the really big issues with genres come in two major instances-one is all the little sub genres and sub-sub categories and the arguments over which one(s) a particular work is or isn't. To many people, for example, High Fantasy, Sword and Sorcery, Epic Fantasy etc are all basically the same thing but with Sword and Sorcery especially many have a much more specific idea of what that means.
The major sub-aspect of this has to do with the Scale of Science Fiction Hardness-debate over what constitutes "hard" science fiction and the relative hardness or softness of a particular work.

The second issue comes into play with stuff that combines, crosses or defies genres. I don't really see how or why a story belonging to more than one genre at once is a problem, but from what I hear I guess publishers and agents insist on a single one. Kind of funny since most book stores have Fantasy and Science fiction contained in a single section with just a / between the names but...
I think Star Wars falls into this category-as far as I am concerned, it is both Science Fiction and Fantasy. It has advanced technology, extraterrestrial biological intelligences, interplanetary travel etc, while also having magic and spiritual concepts and phenomena.

Of course it is true that "genres" have aspects or expectations aside from content in terms of structure and various other harder to define aspects but I think this is where the idea of "genre" largely breaks down and where I feel it is...ill-advised, when searching for a certain reading experience to go based entirely on "the furniture", since many stories with similar furnishings may have very different styles, structures and themes. I think this has only become more and more true with the passage of time and the fact that there are more and more storytellers who may want to use the "high fantasy" furnishings made popular by Tolkien, for example, but whose stories are not going to have the same or even similar internal logic or worldviews.


"Horror" is a good example of this, being an emotion and not a genre, but turned into a genre consisting primarily of modern-setting stories with negative supernatural elements intruding on consensus reality or occasionally stories of fringe human derangement without speculative elements. However many stories contain "horror" elements but, for instance, if the story is in a pre-industrial setting it will be "fantasy" even if its basically identical to a Stephen King story or whatever.

So in the end, "genre" is well and good for a very broad guideline but in the end, much like people, each story must be discerned individually.

[ December 09, 2013, 02:34 PM: Message edited by: Merlion-Emrys ]

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Denevius
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quote:
If you put the right furniture into a novel, you can get it on whatever bookstore shelf you want, but it may violate those subtle expectations. George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series does this. It has all the right epic fantasy furniture, but the logic of the story is not that of an epic fantasy. The actions of the characters in SoI&F have no significance beyond their impact on the charcters personal plans. Martin writes fantasy with an existentialist viewpoint rather than the natural law viewpoint of Tolkien or Lewis.
Martin's narratives are bleak, aren't they? I hadn't really thought of labeling it as existentialist, but now that you have, yeah, that makes sense. I'm on Book 3, and I keep wondering how much further I'll go in the series. When I was younger, I used to eat up fantasy like this, but now.

The writing in Book I was quite good, but there was a noticeable decline in craft in Book II, which has been exacerbated in Book III to the point of mental wincing. I noticed on Amazon that Book IV has the lowest rating of the previous three, which makes me hesitate. Some of these long, drawn out series can get really bad towards the end where you up seriously regretting going forward. The last long series I read, Reality Dysfunction, was six books long, and by book three, I couldn't believe it was the same author. By book four, the prose was painful. Book five and six, I did a *lot* of skimming just to know how it ended.

And that ending made me want to weep in frustration at all the time I'd wasted getting that far.

As for genre, I agree with this sentiment:

quote:
Suppose you were to pick up a book in a store's sci-fi section that had a cover that looked like hard sci-fi, but it turned out to be a Harlequin style genre romance with no actual sci-fi in it. Would you say, "gee, I should just try to enjoy this story for what it is," or would you return it to the store for a refund?
In life I like to know what I'm getting, particularly when I'm spending my money on it, and that's whether with books, or movies, or food, or medical care, or what have you. I don't want to just wander into a doctor's office and say, "Cure me." I want to know what type of doctor I'm going to, I want to know what they specialize in, I want to know what others think of them.

Same thing with music. I got asked the other day what type of music I enjoy the most, and I answered 'dream pop'. It's a very specific kind of music which helps set it apart for regular pop, or dance pop, or trance, or new age. All of these genres of music have a little bit in common, but there's also distinct differences that separate them.

Genres are a way of talking about fiction. When you're trying to have a dialog with someone about writing, or books, it helps to have the necessary verbiage so that everything isn't left to generalization. To me, this makes the conversation more interesting.

Or, someone could ask you what you enjoy writing/reading, and you can say, "Fantasy". And they're like, "Well, what kind of fantasy", and you're like, "Fantasy fantasy". Then shrug your shoulders and walk off.

That works too, and I kind of understand. I hate sports, and I despise sport talk. Sometimes I'll be with a group of guys who start talking about basketball, or football (both American and European), or baseball, and the conversation goes on and on. And I'm sitting to myself thinking, "Look, you're just playing with a ball. Sometimes you're outside, sometimes inside, but it's not magic."

But when you're passionate about something, you enjoy breaking it down in your head. Suddenly, it's not just fantasy anymore, or horror. Layers build upon layers as you ruminate upon it, and I think that's fairly typical of anything and everything you're interested in.

There's a saying for it, right? Talking shop. You can do that about cars, about politics, about science, about whatever you've spent a considerable amount of time engaging in and life. I fenced for five years, and sometimes after practice we'd meet for food and drinks and almost always talking lengthily about fencing.

It's just kind of human nature. Different styles, different techniques, different genres.

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Reziac
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quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:

If you put the right furniture into a novel, you can get it on whatever bookstore shelf you want, but it may violate those subtle expectations. George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series does this. It has all the right epic fantasy furniture, but the logic of the story is not that of an epic fantasy. The actions of the characters in SoI&F have no significance beyond their impact on the charcters personal plans.

Hmmm. I see it more as the "for want of a nail" approach. The actions of the characters are changing their world in ways still somewhat disguised by all the overt conflict. I think we haven't seen more than a hint of the consequences as yet.
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MattLeo
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Discussions of genre always remind me of the zen story about the finger pointing the way to the moon. Genres *are* obviously somewhat arbitrary in their definition, but that doesn't mean that they're pointless, even from a craft standpoint. For example mysteries are full of cross-purpose character motivation and reader indirection, lessons that can be applied to any kind of story.

I don't think you can draw a sharp ontological distinction between fantasy and horror based on story structure, tropes or conventions, but I think horror as a separate genre is worth some study. What makes a horror story a horror story is that it stands or falls by its ability to elicit the emotional state of horror. I think that probably makes horror the most difficult genre to write a minimally acceptable story in. To make a minimally acceptable horror story, you have to elicit a specific emotional response from the reader. That's immensely more challenging than writing down your daydreams. Obviously once you've developed the ability to achieve this, you can use that skill in any other kind of story.

There's a lot of bad horror, usually the result of authors bolting horror-ish tropes into a story without understanding precisely the effect they're trying to achieve. Horror isn't fear, or suspense, or revulsion, although it's related to all these things. Horror is an uncanny fascination.

One of the most sublime and simple moments of horror I've read is from John Bellairs' sole adult fantasy, THE FACE IN THE FROST, in which the protagonist goes down to the cellar draw some beer and is spooked by a cloak hanging on a peg:

quote:
He looked absently around the cellar as he waited for the pitcher to fill, and suddenly his eye was caught by the fluttering of an old cloak hanging on a wooden peg. And in that instant Prospero got the odd notion that the cloak was not his, and might not be a cloak at all. He stared intently at it as the fluttering of the garment became more agitated. And then it turned to meet him. With empty flopping arms it floated across the cellar floor, swaying in a sickening nightmare rhythm.

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Merlion-Emrys
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quote:
Discussions of genre always remind me of the zen story about the finger pointing the way to the moon. Genres *are* obviously somewhat arbitrary in their definition, but that doesn't mean that they're pointless, even from a craft standpoint. For example mysteries are full of cross-purpose character motivation and reader indirection, lessons that can be applied to any kind of story.
A better way, I think, to put what I mean is thus: to me, other than the "furniture" most of the things..."conventions", structural stuff all of that, that many people associate with "genre" exist entirely independent of genre. And can be studied independently of it...although its probably true that certain genres are more likely to give you examples of certain things to study. But I don't consider any of those things what makes a genre itself...Fantasy isn't Fantasy by way of being a Quest story for example. On the other hand, a story with magic is pretty much going to be Fantasy whatever else it may be (although this gets a little odd for me, since I actually believe in magic) just as a story with organisms from another planet or interplanetary space travel or immortality drugs is going to be Science Fiction, whatever else it may or may not be.


quote:
I don't think you can draw a sharp ontological distinction between fantasy and horror based on story structure, tropes or conventions
I would say the opposite...the ontology is where they are the same (both Fantasy and most of what is called Horror contain elements of the supernatural, or to extend the comparison to Science Fiction as well, some sort of biological or technological weirdness) and the structure and conventions, and also very much the setting are where they are different.

Most Fantasy has dangerous monsters or something of the kind. So does a large amount of Horror. The big differences usually are, the Horror will be modern setting, won't have any sort of, or minimal amounts of, positive supernatural forces or beings to counteract the monsters, and its at best a 50/50 as to whether the monsters or the "heroes" win.

That's an oversimplification of course but I think it outlines a lot of what lies between Fantasy/Science Fiction and "Horror" as marketing categories and in the minds of a significant number of readers and most especially movie goers.

However for my own personal purposes the distinctions are largely meaningless as I tend to evaluate individual stories rather than categories.


quote:
What makes a horror story a horror story is that it stands or falls by its ability to elicit the emotional state of horror. I think that probably makes horror the most difficult genre to write a minimally acceptable story in.
Hmmm that's very interesting. I don't think I've ever heard that sentiment before. For most of the time I've been writing I've held a sort of opposite opinion, if a little broader; I've always considered "darker" works (which encompasses other things than outright "horror", but certainly does encompass that) to be considerably easier than "brighter" more optimistic works. Although I think some of it has to do with plotting as well...outside of horror, and especially within most forms of fantasy (the two genres I primarily write in) the expectation is for a goal, complications in getting the goal, and the hero(s) "winning" in some fashion. Which for me is more complex than horror where things often basically just go from bad to worse. In horror there is less need for "balance" between the "sides"; typically the "bad guys" are at an extreme advantage and the "good guys" the opposite.


Also, I don't think eliciting a fear response (which is what most people are looking for out of anything labeled "horror") is necessarily terribly difficult. But maybe we should address that...


quote:
Horror is an uncanny fascination.
I don't honestly think this is what John Q Public thinks of when they hear the word "horror" and even less so when they think of a "horror" story or movie. Its a synonym for fear and revulsion and also maybe moral outrage (the horrors of the Holocaust for example.) What you mean, if you mean what I think you mean, IS related to that to...Lovecraft called it "terror" but someone else did call it "horror." I personally agree with Stephen King, there are perhaps 3 or 4 levels or types of this sort of thing, the "gross out" level, the danger type basic fear, be it of physical, mental or emotional harm or wrongness and then that highest level that Lovecraft called "terror" which related to the Unknown and can sometimes wind around like an Oroboros to become one with Awe and Wonder.

I don't see the first ones as being especially difficult to create in an average person...the last one can be.

Although I do think Horror is an area where filmakers really have the advantage...its is very VERY easy to scare people with images and/or sounds (or lack thereof.)

Upon reflection, I think that in some ways, what I've said about "genres" in general may almost be reversed for Horror. Horror may well be a set of conventions, approaches, structures and stylistic elements all geared toward creating one sort of fear-revulsion-danger-awe type response or another, irrespective of content or "furniture."
Horror is probably also the "genre" within which "sub genres" make the most sense and often refer to structures and such. You've got Slasher, supernatural or otherwise, Creature horror which can be supernatural or biological/scientific, Ghost/Haunting stories, Lovecraftian Cosmic Horror etc.


quote:
There's a lot of bad horror, usually the result of authors bolting horror-ish tropes into a story without understanding precisely the effect they're trying to achieve.

Well, I don't really believe in "bad" art. Especially in terms of movies, there is a lot of horror that's consider "bad" or B-Movie material...but is still much-beloved and quite effective. I will say however that horror is probably more than usually subject to the closest thing that exists in my mind to bad art; media that is created merely as a product, which its creator(s) don't actually care about and exists only to be sold.
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MattLeo
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quote:
I don't honestly think this is what John Q Public thinks of when they hear the word "horror" and even less so when they think of a "horror" story or movie.
Which is why when John Q Public tries his hand at writing his own horror story the result is so often crude. Alice jabbing a rusty nail into Bob's eye is revolting, but it's not horrifying -- at least not in a way you can sustain for more than a few thousand words. Alice *longing* to jab a rusty nail into Bob's eye is something you can milk for an entire novel. Or better yet, you could have Bob longing for Alice to do it. The deed itself might be a horrific climax to the story, but you can't sustain horror by doing something like that over and over again.

Raising the gore bar helps, but even that loses its fascination fairly quickly. That's one reason why SoI&F went downhill for me after the first book. By book 3 my reaction to someone having his nipple cut off with a knife isn't horror, it's "ho hum."

As for the alleged advantage of moviemakers in scaring audiences, a few days spent with Mystery Science Theater 3000 will disabuse you of that notion. Getting a good look at a monster has a powerfully de-mystifying effect, which is why those cheesy old monster movies aren't particularly scary.

It's a truism among moviemakers that the monster you don't see is more effective than one you do. The movie ALIEN is particularly clever about this. It not only avoids over-exposing the monster, it has the monster transform as it matures so we can never get habituated to it. That, and the sexually loaded imagery, give the alien its uncanny fascination.

Now *I* happen to believe there is such as things as bad art. Not only is there bad art, there's *bad* bad art and *good* bad art. Bad art in general is art that fails to achieve its aims. *Bad* bad art is art that fails to move you at all.

Movies like PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE are *good* bad art. They don't evoke the reactions they seek, but they are moving in a way that very few movies are. It's more than just funny; there's an almost Noh theater-like effect. It's the pathos of an artist wrestling with aspirations beyond his technical grasp. Crude PLAN 9 may be, but it isn't unimaginative or cynically lazy, things which produce *bad* bad art.

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Merlion-Emrys
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quote:
Which is why when John Q Public tries his hand at writing his own horror story the result is so often crude.
Crude according to who? You realize of course that to many people horror and crude are synonymous concepts. And wait, aren't we supposed to be writing for John Q Public, AKA the largest possible audience? And weren't we all that at some point or other?

My point is, "an uncanny fascination" is not THE definition of Horror, it isn't a dictionary definition of it and it isn't one that's going to be used by most people. This is why horror movies are often colloquially referred to as "scary" movies.

That doesn't mean that the "higher" or "finer" forms, the ones that are harder to pin down and have elements of awe and fascination aren't horror as well. It just means that things that are traditionally frightening and/or revolting are as well.


quote:
Alice *longing* to jab a rusty nail into Bob's eye is something you can milk for an entire novel. Or better yet, you could have Bob longing for Alice to do it. The deed itself might be a horrific climax to the story, but you can't sustain horror by doing something like that over and over again.

Raising the gore bar helps, but even that loses its fascination fairly quickly. That's one reason why SoI&F went downhill for me after the first book. By book 3 my reaction to someone having his nipple cut off with a knife isn't horror, it's "ho hum."

Oh certainly true. This is why even most horror that's big on gore and shocks doesn't totally, solely rely on that...and stories or films that do rely solely on gory, disgusting, disturbing or transgressive things as basically their sole content aren't really precisely horror and tend to sort of become something else, though I'm not quite sure what.

I think sometimes it can have to do with motivations. Any story may involve a torture scene but in many cases, its going to be an interrogation or something similar. In a horror work however, either you're going to have someone being tortured and they don't know why and that in itself is scary or they are being tortured and they do know why...and often the reason is simply the one doing it enjoys inflicting pain which is also scary in itself.


quote:
As for the alleged advantage of moviemakers in scaring audiences, a few days spent with Mystery Science Theater 3000 will disabuse you of that notion. Getting a good look at a monster has a powerfully de-mystifying effect, which is why those cheesy old monster movies aren't particularly scary.
My parents, who grew up on those movies, would disagree with you.

Also, it isn't a notion...it is what is absolutely true for me, and is also true for others I know. I have read a lot of horror, and I have watched a lot of horror. I have enjoyed both enormously but the times I've actually been SCARED by reading horror are pretty few, while the times I've been scared watching it are numerous. Everyone is different of course.


quote:
It's a truism among moviemakers that the monster you don't see is more effective than one you do.
Among writers as well. Stephen King talks extensively about "opening the door" or not in Danse Macabre. None of that is exactly what I meant anyway but it is connected...he talks about how he himself generally flings the door open, even knowing that what is on the other side will usually be less frightening than what the reader (or viewer) had in their mind (however, that doesn't mean it isn't frightening.) He says that Lovecraft would open the door, but only a crack...and that leads me to one of the things I think films have an advantage in.

What is half seen, or partially seen...or not seen at all. Or in some cases, what is seen by the audience but not by the character...something that can be done in literature, but which, I feel, is more difficult and less effective.
Lighting and angles can do wonders to make even unassuming things quite frightening, let alone monstrous or bizarre ones.

The second and biggest thing is also the thing that's usually most frightening for me, the "Uncanny Valley." Full-blown monsters are rarely particularly scary to me (unless they are enormous and in or under water but that's a whole other story). The Alien in Alien, for example, is never particularly frightening to me. On the contrary, I've always loved monsters, and from my perspective, something like the Xenomorph isn't really much more frightening than a lion or a tiger...it looks different, but in a way that's simply unrecognizable, and like a lion presents only a purely physical threat.
Uncanny Valley stuff though...things that are almost normal, and yet definitely wrong...usually, specifically, things that look human, but distorted. Faces in particular have this effect, at least for me. The faces of the ghost-girls victims in the Ring, for example, are absolutely and utterly horrifying to me and bothered me for days after I saw the movie.
I can't remember a single time that has happened to me, in that way, from anything I've read. You can describe a distorted face or an almost-human-but-not-right figure all you want but at least for me...and I don't think I am alone at all...actually seeing it is a bit different.


All that being said, I do think that, actually garden-variety fear and dread aside, literature may have an edge in evoking Lovecraft's concept of "terror", of the cosmic fear of the unknown. Ideas can be scary, and I think that for that reason, the thing about NOT showing/describing the whatever-it-is may actually be MORE true for a writer than a filmaker and its also why I think horror literature in which the threat is more than a physical danger, is something that threatens your sanity, your identity or, for lack of a better term, your eternity, is going to be more effective than those that are more purely physical threats or where the fear is based on appearances or visuals.


quote:
Now *I* happen to believe there is such as things as bad art. Not only is there bad art, there's *bad* bad art and *good* bad art. Bad art in general is art that fails to achieve its aims.
But, because art is inherently subjective, any piece of art is going to achieve its aims for at least some people...and is also, inevitably, going to fail to achieve its aims for some others.

So, either it is not "bad" (and possibly not "good" either, but merely has whatever qualities it has) or the opinions of one side or the other are simply "wrong"... I am not willing to accept the idea that some peoples opinions, on a subjective matter, are simply better than other peoples. It's incorrect, and also leads, in my view, down a slippery slope of elitism.


quote:
*Bad* bad art is art that fails to move you at all.

Movies like PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE are *good* bad art. They don't evoke the reactions they seek, but they are moving in a way that very few movies are.

But...seeing as how most art has as, often a primary but certainly at least a second goal, entertaining or moving people on some level...and since every work of art will be enjoyed by, entertain or move at least some people...and not others...we're back at that question of who is right and who is wrong. And back, I feel, at the conclusion that art is simply art and the "bad" and "good" of it exists within the mind and viewpoint of each person that experiences it.


The closest I ever come to seeing any creative work as "bad" is stuff like, for example, many Sci Fi Channel original movies which, to me, feel as though they are simply a product that was rattled off an assembly line to be sold, not something that a person or people loved and enjoyed and put real thought and intent to.

Even then I can't say for sure, since I don't know the minds of those involved, thats just how it feels to me.

[ December 09, 2013, 09:40 PM: Message edited by: Merlion-Emrys ]

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extrinsic
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Speaking of made for television horror films, note how their horror features develop from liminal spaces, ignoble characters, and what viewers know beforehand from prepositioned scene developments and what viewers bring to the performance from their life's and film viewing experiences.

The self-serving, vein, blonde cheerleader attacked by the chainsaw wielding maniac is a common motif. Likewise, the tall, dark, and handsome quarterback bully is a ripe target for mayhem and murder. This is poetic justice. A hero or heroine is noble, compassionate, cooperative, self-sacrficing, brave, tolerant, understanding and rewarded by surviving hardship. An ignoble character suffers the consequences of self-serving wickedness.

Liminal spaces and times are places and moments where and when overlapping boundaries transition. Midnight is the witching moment when the old day ends and the new day begins, and nighttime dark. Noontime rarely is portrayed as a horror liminal time because it is the full light of day, though it is when morning ends and afternoon begins.

Basements and attics are liminal spaces, transitions between spatial boundaries, underground or underworld and above living spaces or overworld, respectively. Staircases, elevators, and escalators are liminal spaces, transition zones between below and above. Doorways and windows are liminal spaces, between a known space and an unknown for the moment other space. Sometimes horror is on the other side waiting; sometimes horror comes in from the other side.

Horror comes in two identities, like humor: visceral and psychological. Gratuitous visceral motifs turn stale without the psychological identity though. The psychological motifs derive from what audiences learn and know beforehand or bring. Psychological patterns and sequences are similar to narrative's plot organizing principles--prepositioning is essential, using both tangible and intangible motifs.

A tangible motif like a prepositioned news report that escapees from the local puzzle factory are out and about airs one morning in a beginning act. An intangible motif like the escapees only strike in the dark, when teenage love interests are looking for quiet places to meet. These kinds of narratives, horror especially, are message driven. Don't go out after dark. Don't go to out of the way places. Don't engage in unsupervised premarital romance. Faithless, respectless romance will cause harm. And so on.

Horror conventions are folkloric, too. Which whatever conventions any given narrative deploys, they are nonetheless cultural or spiritual, or both, conventions adopted and adapted to a timely dramatic moment at hand.

Part of the dissatisfaction of less than artful made for television films comes from their overt lesson, caution, correction, castigation, and control intents, which challenge willing suspension of disbelief for savvy audiences. Younger, less sophisticated audiences are vulnerable to the persusasions of less artfully misdirected rhetoric. Older, more sophisticated audiences see through the transparent persuasions.

You can go out at night into the wilderness and enjoy submarine races along the River Iniquity without much fear a homicidal maniac will spray you and your love interest with submachine gun pellets. Don't tell the kids.

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Merlion-Emrys
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Just for the record, I wasn't actually specifically talking about made for TV horror movies at the end there. I was talking about the majority of movies the Sci Fi Channel makes...well, mostly the more recent ones, they used to do stuff like the Dune one and all that actually seemed like there was thought in it.

And my main problem with them comes from my perception at least that they're just market commodities. I don't get the sense anyone involved in them cared about them or put creative thought into their making...if anything lack of a message is part of the trouble.

What you say is true though of a lot of horror...many horror stories are essentially "moral" in nature and usually have some sort of lesson to teach.
That's become somewhat less true in recent years though and there have always been other streams within horror.

And yes psychology is almost always big in horror regardless of type.

I wonder if America will ever produce a horror film again that isn't a remake of a Japanese movie, or one from the 80s...

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extrinsic
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I wouldn't say whoever at Syfy is especially enlightened about product acquisition. More so that their budget and screening parameters limit their product caliber. Syfy debuted with blockbuster franchises. Budget realities reined in their exuberance. No coincidence they target younger audiences. That's where their advertising markets pointed them.

Syfy is plagued by a dearth of quality caliber product at budget prices. Not that quality product is simple to develop, but that quality product costs more, production values as well as artistic appeals. Supply and demand curve places scarce high caliber in big demand and draws more revenue investment. And quality product is challenging to develop. I don't believe an adequate supply of quality product developers exists in any creative marketplace. If they did, a new high bar would be set anyway. Syfy, though, is a breeding ground for up and coming product developers. Some make the next cognitive leap on their Poet's Journeys, many don't.

New horror narratives are difficult to develop. The marketplace culture suffers from monumental audience skepticism. Willing suspension of disbelief challenges compel many audiences to challenge and question narrative premises at present that weren't considerations in the past. Audiences generally are more savvy and sophisticated today.

By golly, that extended fight scene is unbelievable. No one can sustain that amount of exertion and punishment for that long. No way military spacecraft operate in orbit like aeroplanes. Those tubers the fleeing hero ate raw are toxic. That six shooter couldn't possibly fire several dozen shots without reloading. Medieval hospitality was unpleasant. I could go on at great length about the manifold minor inconsistencies of contemporary narratives. I'd rather overlook them so I can enjoy at least interpreting the creative process if not the narrative itself.

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Denevius
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quote:
New horror narratives are difficult to develop. The marketplace culture suffers from monumental audience skepticism. Willing suspension of disbelief challenges compel many audiences to challenge and question narrative premises at present that weren't considerations in the past. Audiences generally are more savvy and sophisticated today.
Horror movies seem more popular today than ever before. Aren't they like, on the sixth or seventh "Paranormal Activity"? And the eight or ninth "Saw". They wouldn't keep releasing these films if they weren't profitable, or had an audience. And I think it's a combination of why people watch them. Movie goers are willing to suspend their disbelief, but I feel that part of the appeal of these movies is to also laugh at the absurdity of characters and plot. "Cabin in the Woods" took a novel approach to highlighting the inherent flaws of the genre.

The last good horror movie I saw was "Skeleton Key", and I think it took a page from "Blair Witch Project" and went for subtle over overt. Same thing with the first "Paranormal Activity", which wasn't awful. I haven't seen the rest of them. I haven't seen the rest of the "Saw" franchise either, but the first one had it's moments of potentially possible. Kind of like the first "Hostel".

Horror is just too easy to do badly, and most of what I've seen or read isn't very compelling. But horror aficionado's are a significant enough percentage of the population, so there'll never be any lack of an audience for those who try their hand at the genre. On a lot of critiquing sites, horror seems more popular than scifi or fantasy sometimes, and there's a lot of eJournals dedicated to it.

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