Monthly Archives: February 2010

Oddity of the Week

Nothing much odd happened this week, so here’s an adamant, if unusual, opinion in the healthcare debate.  She sure looks resolute.

Check out Huffington Post’s whole gallery here.

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Jayne Cobb

"I'll kill a man in a fair fight. Or if I think he's gonna start a fair fight. Or if he bothers me. Or if there's a woman. Or if I'm gettin' paid. Mostly when I'm gettin' paid."

[Warning: Firefly spoilers to follow. But if you haven’t seen Firefly yet, why are you reading this article? For that matter, if you haven’t seen Firefly yet, why are you doing anything other than watching Firefly?]

As Jordan and I finish Dollhouse, I’m inclined to say something about Joss Whedon’s well-loved other show, Firefly. Writing a review of Firefly seems like a silly exercise at this point, so instead I thought I’d talk about an oft-overlooked but interesting bit of characterization: Jayne Cobb.

Jayne is Serenity’s tough guy. Mal says that he handles “public relations,” which stands for cracking skulls and shooting everything that moves. It’s not a job that calls for gentility, and Jayne doesn’t display any. His loves are guns, girls, and booze, and his speech patterns and personal habits are as coarse as you’d imagine.

Another director would have handled Jayne one of two ways, both of which treat him as a developing character. First, he might be the traitor: the character who, in the last episode, does something unredeemable and becomes a villain. Second, he might turn out to be a jerk with a heart of gold. There would be a Day in the Limelight episode dedicated to him where he saves kids from a burning orphanage or something and we learn that deep down, he’s really a nice guy after all. At the very least, he would have one undeniably positive trait, such as liking kittens.

Joss Whedon doesn’t go either direction. He’s potentially ready to double-cross the crew if he gets a good enough offer, but he never actually double-crosses the crew (although he does try to get Simon and River turned in at one point). He has his softer moments, like the pensive look he gets when Kaylee has been shot and her life is in danger, but they’re always subtle and balanced out by his completely selfish actions. He isn’t a jerk with a heart of gold–he’s just a regular jerk.

And yet he’s adorable, whether he’s combing a prostitute’s hair, affectionately naming his favorite gun Vera, or wearing a “cunning” hat his mother made for him. He never even comes across as unlikable (from the audience’s perspective; the rest of the crew might have a different opinion), let alone villainous. He does become the butt of plenty of jokes (“My days of not respecting you are definitely coming to a middle,” says Mal), but always in a good-natured way.

"A man walks down the street in that hat, people know he's not afraid of anything." -Wash

Jayne does get his own Day in the Limelight: “Jaynestown,” where they land in a small town that reveres him as a hero. Still, it isn’t played quite the way you’d expect. A standard episode of this sort would be Jayne’s chance to do something heroic and redeem his usual behavior, or even to have the epiphany that finally makes him into a good person. In this episode, we do see the best parts of his character–but it turns out that isn’t saying much. He fumbles to put together some words to say to the adoring mudders, but he also takes full advantage of the whiskey and women available to him. At the end, he struggles with why someone would take a shotgun blast for him. He just can’t figure it out. Any epiphany he had was a very minor one.

Several Firefly characters are unusual in the way they walk the line between the standard archetypes: Zoe as a rare Action Girl whose gender is not constantly emphasized; Kaylee as a Wrench Wench with a strong feminine side. Still, I think Jayne’s carefully constructed combination of likability and a lack of redeeming traits makes him a very unique member of the cast.

By the way, if you like Jayne’s hat, you can buy one or knit your own.

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Pictures from the Firefly Wiki.

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Character-Driven Stories and Other Rules of Writing

My uncle, who is a wine appreciator, is amused by the “red wine with meat, white wine with fish” rule generally applied by those of us who don’t know anything about wine. The rule is probably generally true and a good start for beginners, but it’s such a drastic oversimplification that you’d be greatly diminishing the overall experience by forcing yourself to adhere to it, not to mention missing the opportunity to share a bottle of wine with friends at dinner because one of them ordered fish instead of red meat.

I think that beginning writers are often taught rules like this: ones that appear to be good rules to people who don’t yet have a strong understanding of the nuances of the craft, but are actually hobblingly narrow and consequently ignored as often as not by experienced writers, who understand the principles behind the rules, but also know why they don’t always apply.

For instance, in school you were probably taught not to use the passive voice. I recall middle school classes teaching passive voice as an actual grammar mistake, along with comma splices and pronoun-antecedent disagreement. I also recall my beginning German class protesting learning the German passive voice on the grounds that you’re never supposed to use the passive voice anyway. I now know that passive voice isn’t a grammar mistake at all, but merely a sentence structure that is used far more frequently than it should be. By moving the person performing the act from the subject of the sentence to the indirect object, it tends to make writing more dull, so it should be used infrequently–but there are times when it’s not only appropriate, but the best way to communicate the idea.

Then there’s the ubiquitous “show, don’t tell.” This one gets hammered into peoples’ heads in every fiction workshop ever held: Always describe what’s happening! Never just say that it happened! Perhaps this is just my personal style coming through, but I’ve never had trouble showing what’s going on. I have trouble telling. I can narrate through the heroine’s fateful meeting with the mysterious stranger who turns out to be a cyborg just fine, but then I get hung up describing her drive home afterwards.

The fact is that there are things that happen in any story that would be completely dull to describe. People go to work, do chores, and commute. You can skip these parts, but often they require a mention or else you risk making your story feel like a hopscotch from one relevant moment to the next. If your book covers any significant period of time, you need to be able to generally describe what went on over a week or a month without resorting to a blow-by-blow account. I’ve come to appreciate writers who can transition seamlessly between detailed showing and general telling while keeping the author engaged with both.

The final rule I’d like to discuss is character-driven stories.  This is the most difficult one because it seems like such a sensible guideline.  Not using passive voice is something kids learn at school; “show, don’t tell” is taught to beginning fiction writers; but writing character-driven, rather than plot-driven, stories is a rule that even experienced writers are encouraged to follow religiously.

Briefly, a plot-driven story is one where the story advances based on stuff happening: A war breaks out, aliens invade, a rich relative dies, and so on.  The main characters didn’t cause the main events of the book, although the meat of the story consists of their reaction to them.

A character-driven story, on the other hand, is carried along by the characters’ actions.  It may be kicked off by a profession of love or some other unexpected action; as other characters react, they cause the next plot event, and so on.

There are plenty of reasons why the latter is generally favored.  The former can easily become a story that moves “at the speed of plot,” where characters seem unable to accomplish anything because they have to wait for the next plot event to happen (think horror movies where no one leaves or calls the police).  Characters can be shoehorned into doing things they would never actually  do (such as a pacifist character killing someone) because the plot requires it.  And finally, some major blunders, such as the deus ex machina, can only occur in plot-driven stories.

However, character-driven stories are not the silver bullet that vanquishes bad storytelling.  These stories do, after all, still have plots, and those plots can still be poorly designed.  The shoehorning problem is actually more pervasive in character-driven stories, where the character needs to perform the action to keep the story going, than in plot-driven ones, where the plot keeps marching on regardless of what the character does.  Consider poorly written romances where the hero awkwardly switches from hating the heroine to falling in love with her, or improbably chooses the ugly-duckling girl next door instead of the diva he’s seemed to prefer all along: the plot is completely character-driven, but the character is acting against his own characterization.

There are a couple of other reasons why I’m skeptical of the character-driven rule.  First, it introduces a bias towards certain genres.  It’s far easier to make a romance or a realistic-fiction drama character driven than an epic or a science fiction tale, making the rule feel almost like a sneaky way for critics to reinforce their existing bias against primarily plot-driven genres.  Second, it can lead to pigeonholing stories instead of actually critiquing them.  One can simply say “This story is plot-driven” and consider that a sufficient explanation of why it doesn’t work, rather than properly dissecting the cliches, cardboard characters, and other problems that are actually plaguing the story.

In fact it’s difficult to divide books into character-driven and plot-driven categories, because virtually every story has elements of both.  Consider Great Expectations.  Pip is always falling into circumstances outside his control, a sign of a pl0t-driven story, but the circumstances are themselves caused by other characters in the story (mainly Magwitch and Miss Havisham), although this fact is not always immediately apparent.  It’s also common for a primarily character-driven story to be initiated by a plot-driven event.  An example would be One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: while the story is mainly driven by the interactions between McMurphy, Nurse Ratched, and the other patients, the initial circumstance of McMurphy being sent to the mental hospital is a plot-driven event.

To summarize, none of these rules are exactly wrong.  In fact, each of them is probably true the majority of the time, and a story that used no passive voice, consistently showed instead of telling, and was completely character-driven would likely be an engaging work to read.  However, a good writer needs to be able to see beyond these rules.  The end goal is not to write while skillfully applying the rules, but rather to write well, whether that involves following the rules or not.

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Time for Some Auto Industry Schadenfreude

GM says Hummer’s days are over.  Aww, but now how are people going to overcompensate?

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The Legality of Graffiti

Did you know that graffiti is a felony? It’s not only illegal, but it ranks right up there with murder. Los Angeles is trying to pass a measure against allowing street artists to gather in groups–even without evidence of illegal activity. To me, this is one of those cases where the legal system needs to get its temperature taken, because something doesn’t make sense.

Of course there are reasons why graffiti should be against the law. Yes, poor little old ladies cry themselves to sleep because their houses got tagged again after they just painted them. But the force with which the law cracks down on graffiti is vastly disproportionate to the actual badness of the act: after all, graffiti, especially on public structures like freeways, neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. Explanations of why graffiti is so bad never seem very convincing:

First, graffiti is a drain on your tax dollars. Funds that could be used for schools, roads, parks and other community improvements are used for graffiti clean up. Second, graffiti decreases a resident’s feeling of safety in a community. Neighborhoods with graffiti see a decrease in property values and loss of business growth and tourism. Finally, graffiti sends a signal that nobody cares, which attracts other forms of crime and street delinquency to the neighborhood. –City of San Antonio

I’ll grant the third point, but the graffiti itself doesn’t cost money–it’s the city’s desire to keep getting rid of it that costs. Similarly, I think the decreased sense of safety is due in large part to law enforcement’s exaggeration of its terrible motivations and consequences, leaving people to imagine that those hard-to-read letters must spell out some gang sign or racial slur, rather than, as is most commonly the case, the initials of a crew of street artists (COA, one that I’ve seen pretty often, stands for “Crime Or Art?”).

The last point is a paraphrase of the Fixing Broken Windows theory, a justification of zero-tolerance policies. I’m generally not a fan of this unprovable theory, but in the case of graffiti it seems particularly unjustified. Yes, letting some graffiti slide will probably lead to more graffiti, but it’s a big leap to conclude that graffiti will inevitably lead to other crimes as well, and I defy anyone to provide an example that can’t be explained by the correlation/causation fallacy.

Anti-graffiti programs make it sound like something out of the deepest pit of Hell:

There are four types of graffiti – tagging, satanic/hate, gang, and generic (non-threatening messages like “Bobby loves Suzy” or “Class of 2000”). –City of San Antonio

Satanic graffiti gets a category to itself? I’ve never seen so much as a pentagram so far. And there’s no category for political/activist (street artist Shepard Fairey created the Obama “Hope” poster), nor for artistic (pictures drawn for their aesthetic value)? It’s pretty obvious that the City of San Antonio made up those categories to make graffiti seem as heinous as possible.

Signs to look for:

  • Blood-shot eyes from being out all night tagging and being exposed to toxic fumes from markers and paint –City of Sacramento

That’s not a graffiti artist. That’s the Eye of Sauron.

So what’s going on here?

There’s an element of racism, ageism, and classism. Laws are passed by well-off older white people, and that’s not who does graffiti. But I don’t think that is the main factor at work here.

I think the main problem is simply that lawmakers are so far disconnected from graffiti artists that they can’t comprehend why they do what they do or how to either discourage or redirect their efforts. This shows up the worst when the government tries to work with the artists. Take the beautiful, beautiful case of Wadebridge, Cornwall, where the city council erected a blank wall for graffiti artists to use instead of defacing other property. What happened next? See for yourself.

Notice the reaction. The police sergeant who built it fumes, “But it is now going to cost the taxpayer, as we will have to crime it, investigate it and paint over it.”

Wait, they’re going to paint over what got put on the graffiti wall? And not just in a “Ha, ha, very funny” sense, but they’re actually investigating it as a crime? How is it even possible to vandalize a graffiti wall, short of knocking it down? The message wasn’t profane, gang-related, or even really hateful. Why would anyone write on the wall if it was just going to get censored? And, if graffiti on the wall runs the risk of being a crime, why would anyone tag the wall instead of somewhere else?

There are some suspicious details, too. The artist “sneaked behind a security fence.” Why was there a security fence around the graffiti wall? The stodgy police sergeant adds, “To paint graffiti on the wall and remain anonymous shows this person has no courage.” Isn’t anonymity a standard part of graffiti art? Artists were probably supposed to register, submit a proposal, and get it approved by the city council before putting anything on the wall. At any rate, this wall and the restrictions necessary to paint on it without getting prosecuted are obviously the opposite of the freedom and self-expression so fundamental to street art.

Perhaps graffiti is one of those cases where we just need to step back and take a deep breath. Calm down. Yes, there are negative aspects to the activity, but let’s stop reacting like they’re eating babies or something.

UPDATE:  Jordan pointed out that there was a security fence because the wall was not yet open.  Okay, but I’m betting that, even if the wall were legally open for use when it was tagged, there would still be the same hissy fit.

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Image by LA’s CBS crew, found here.

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Top 10 Reasons Men Should Not Be Ordained

This list has been wandering around the Internet for some time, posted by Christian bloggers like Eugene Cho who are questioning the church’s traditional gender restrictions.  I’m reposting it because I think it illustrates the core of the complementarian/egalitarian dichotomy.  Also, it’s hilarious.

10. A man’s place is in the army.

9. The pastoral duties of men who have children might distract them from the responsibility of being a parent.

8. The physique of men indicates that they are more suited to such tasks as chopping down trees and wrestling mountain lions. It would be “unnatural” for them to do ministerial tasks.

7. Man was created before woman, obviously as a prototype. Thus, they represent an experiment rather than the crowning achievement of creation.

6. Men are too emotional to be priests or pastors. Their conduct at football and basketball games demonstrates this.

5. Some men are handsome, and this will distract women worshipers.

4. Pastors need to nurture their congregations. But this is not a traditional male role. Throughout history, women have been recognized as not only more skilled than men at nurturing, but also more fervently attracted to it. This makes them the obvious choice for ordination.

3. Men are prone to violence. No really masculine man wants to settle disputes except by fighting about them. Thus they would be poor role models as well as dangerously unstable in positions of leadership.

2. The New Testament tells us that Jesus was betrayed by a man. His lack of faith and ensuing punishment remind us of the subordinated position that all men should take.

1. Men can still be involved in church activities, even without being ordained. They can sweep sidewalks, repair the church roof, and perhaps even lead the song service on Father’s Day. By confining themselves to such traditional male roles, they can still be vitally important in the life of the church.

#5.  Am I right, ladies?

Before the trolls descend on me, as they have with depressing regularity on everyone who posts this list, let me explain what we can learn from it.

Everything we believe as Christians has a Biblical reason and a logical reason.  The former is what the Bible says, and the latter is the part where we apply our own brain cells to make sure that we’re interpreting it correctly.  Fans of Biblical inerrancy may object to the latter, but everyone uses it.  It’s why Christians don’t keep kosher, for instance.  More on this later; it’s certainly a topic worthy of a full post.

In the gender discussion, complementarians are unquestionably on stronger ground with the Biblical reasons.  However, egalitarians have the upper hand with the logical reasons.  The Bible seems to say pretty clearly that women shouldn’t be church leaders–but when you try to use real-life logic to reach the same conclusion, you can’t come up with anything more substantial than lists like these.

So how do we resolve the problem when the Bible apparently tells us to do things for no good reason?  If you know, make sure to tell me.

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Oddity of the Week

Ah, South Carolina, the state that makes parody irrelevant because nothing could be sillier than what they’re already doing.

They are now requiring that terrorist groups seeking to overthrow the government…register.  With the government.  Or face fines and jail time.

The full code is here.

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