Great Characters and Why We Love ‘Em

Well, I don’t know. We just do.

There you go – you won’t get many shorter bogs than that.

OK, try this one then if you insist: it’s not for their strengths, it’s for their flaws, their weaknesses, and their quirks. We love ‘em for the things that make them human, even if they’re not.

Here’s one of my favourites, who now graces my study’s wall: Fred Flintstone.

fred flintstone

Fred is loud and loses his temper far too often. He plots to improve his lot, usually ineffectually, but he cares. He cares about his family, his friends. I like to think he’d care about prehistoric climate change too (dino farts!) He’s very much alive, and of course expresses this with his trademark, joyful: ‘Yabba Dabba Doo!’

Here’s another similar character: Homer Simpson. Despite all his many, many faults, Homer loves his family too – well his wide and children. He’s on a different wall: ‘Yabba Dabba D’oh!’

my simpsons

And then there’s Daffy duck (hanging next to Fred now). Daffy doesn’t seem to have much about him, apart from faults. But there is something supremely human about him and his ambitions – and shortcomings. ‘Yabba Dabba Fail.’

Daffy 1972

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The Lost T-shirts of Yesterday

The Danish have an expression for it: ‘never dress yourself in another bird’s feathers’. I think I’ve got that right.

Anyway the principle remains true – don’t nick another person’s work or ideas. I like this; particularly because I once (unintentionally) carried out this heinous act, or perhaps it would be best to say that other people thought I had.

I was reminded about this today because it’s BBC’s 6 Music’s ‘Wear Your Old Band T-shirt To Work Day’ and I used to print T-shirts. It was hardly a mega-business, in fact it was just a way for me to pursue my interest in screen printing by flogging a few to classmates. It was hard to get Stackridge T-shirts at that time, especially featuring Marzo Plod! One of the most popular I produced was of ‘The Crimson King’ – he was the character inside King Crimson’s debut album gatefold sleeve (heady days). Everybody loved this guy (painted by one Barry Godber, a computer programmer who died tragically young shortly after the album was produced).

The Crimson King by Barry Godber - not by me! I never said that!
The Crimson King by Barry Godber – not by me! I never said that!

Even my art teacher liked it – very nice lady but a little ‘old school’ which was ironic as I went to a very new school’. What I didn’t know at the time was that she had thought I’d created the image, not simply nicked it to stick on a T-shirt. I mean, everybody knew King Crimson, right?

I didn’t find this out some years later and I was devastated! I still am. I would never have tried to pass off his work as my own (leaving aside the legality of actually selling T-shirts of somebody else’s work!)

It’s worse when you’re writing comedy, because you hear and make up gags all the time and they get stuck in some spare synapses until at some point you want to use them and you think to yourself: ‘is that mine?’ There’s one great line I’m desperate to use, but I’m convinced it’s not mine, although I can find not trace online and nobody I mention it to has ever heard if before.

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Death of an Imaginary Friend

They have counselling services in place simply for when some hair-gelled bimbo boy leaves a manufactured so-called ‘pop music’ group, so presumably Social Services are on red alert and all A&E leave has been cancelled for the rest of the year now.

Why?

clara rip

Because Clara Oswald has been killed of course. Yes, the Dr Who companion who has to rank among everybody’s top three favourites (Joe Grant and Leela as well, if you’re asking) is no more. She went heroically, she went bravely, but there seems little doubt that she has indeed gone – as the quantum shade plunged through her chest in a most distressing fashion.

And so it’s tough out here in our Clara-less world, because we care about our imaginary friends don’t we? Especially the brave ones killed in the line of duty – still miss you Kate even though Ziva helped make NCIS bearable – they are important to us. Even if a world where random, senseless, lethal violence can now visit you at a music concert or eating in a restaurant, we still care so much about made-up people.

But why?

Why do we mourn the death of an imaginary friend? One could say it’s the writer’s fault. After all, it’s the writer’s job to make us empathise fully with their characters, or at least sympathise or even antipathise (can you antipathise? can now) with them and when they get it right we feel a real sense of loss (or joy) when a character departs. That is why we get so cross when it’s carried out in a cavalier fashion, especially by somebody who had nothing to do with the character’s creation. I didn’t watch Alien 3* for something like 15 years because I had heard that ‘they’ had killed off Newt and Hicks in the opening credits! How dare they?! They weren’t ‘their’ characters to kill off like that and they undermined the pay-off of the marvellous ‘Aliens’ film. And I don’t care if the gril playing Newt was 6 years older and not even acting any more – we have writers to take care of those problems.

You have to be careful how you behave towards your characters because they matter to people. I’m not saying that we all have to be like Arthur Conan Doyle and rescue Holmes from the waters of the Reichenbach Falls because of public demand – that would be wrong. However, Clara is the ‘Impossible Girl’ and who knows how many different versions of her there are out in the galaxy that could usefully bump into the doctor again?

That’s what I’m telling myself anyway. Got to go, I’m late for the counselling service.

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‘So, you’re a writer?’

The man at the fireworks party turns to me and says, ‘so, are you a writer too?’

I was rather taken aback to be honest. I mean, I was here to watch people walking up and down the street dressed up as monks and Romans and such like, while carrying burning torches and banging drums, before going to see a fab firework display (with the burning of a political effigy), not to talk work.

Image Courtesy of Adrian Spinks Photography http://www.asphotoart.co.uk/
Image Courtesy of Adrian Spinks Photography http://www.asphotoart.co.uk/

 

Of course, you can’t stop a writer comparing notes with another writer. So, full of enthusiasm, and beer, I reply:

‘Yes, I am a writer! I write fantasy and comedy now, just got a book out with Harper Voyager. I use to write for radio and TV, for people like Rory Bremner – a lot of political stuff. Plus, stage and now film. How great to meet another writer here, you didn’t do the secret handshake you see, threw me completely!

‘So,’ I say, ‘what do you write?’

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Simultaneous book writing, film writing and plate juggling – differences in script and novel writing.

I am currently writing a book and writing a film, at the same time. Well, not actually physically at the same time. I mean I am not ambidextrous or split-brained in some weird SF grey matter bisection style. I write one on one day, one on another and try not to get too mixed up with the plots. It keeps me fresh and I don’t tire of either and fortunately they are both science fiction (no brain splitting involved mind!) and they are both, sort of coincidentally, adaptations, but going in different directions.

So far so good.

My favourite book cover still waiting for a book
My favourite book cover still waiting for a book

What I do have to watch out for are problems connected with the differences between screenplay and book writing, because of course there are differences. I always try to be aware of these distinctions, but one gaff came to my attention yesterday. I was writing what I thought was a particularly good scene with snappy dialogue going backwards and forwards very nicely when I realised there was a problem. The problem was this: “the snappy dialogue going backwards and forwards very nicely”!

I think it was Alfred Hitchcock who said something along the lines of: “we’ve written the script, now we add the dialogue”. He certainly is quoted as saying: “dialogue should simply be a sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms”. Yoiks! I’d gone into ‘Dialogue Overload’!

There is always a temptation when writing a script, especially when adapting from a book, of taking all the character’s internal thoughts (and when adapting, even material from the written descriptions) and putting it all into people’s mouths. This was what I was doing.

Now, I am not somebody who gets hung up on the “film is a visual medium” malarkey, as far as I’m concerned film is a recording medium and you do what you want and what is appropriate. Sometimes it is right to have scene after scene of characters expressing their thoughts and emotions … and we call them French films. You just need to be aware of what you are doing and consider if this is the time to be doing it because most of the time you won’t be writing a French film, even in France. It wasn’t appropriate for my SF script.

And I looked back and I realised that the scriptwriting was also causing some problems for my novel writing. Book sentences were becoming too terse and too short. Although this is actively encouraged for scriptwriting, where action is usually condensed to a couple of lines per paragraph, such writing can get very wearing for readers when presented in book form. I would argue that it can even be irritating in a spec script, especially if not done really well! Although you can get away with grammatically incorrect, or even incomplete, sentences in a script you need to get proficient in this style of writing and this proficiency isn’t something that comes overnight. I always think you should stick to simple evocative sentences when starting out scriptwriting.

A spec script, in particular, isn’t a shooting script and its first job is to be a pleasurable read to get somebody interested in your story. And although I am a huge fan of the hard-boiled detective style of writing sometimes in a book you should take the opportunity to stretch yourself a bit to produce a sufficient fluent read for your reader.

Time for some rewriting, I do believe.

‘And what about the plate juggling?’ I hear you ask.

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All-Inclusive Holidays in Mordor – not just for the adventurous!

There is not doubt that the growth of Mordor as a holiday destination has been one of the great tourist successes of the Modern Age. With its startling volcanic landscape, and frozen lava fields, Mordor provides a magnificent backdrop for any vacation. The colour scheme is remarkably different from what most of us are used to, yet Mordor has its own stark magnificence, as the ash greys and blacks of the petrified magma contrast with the bright white local buildings and splashes of palm and cactus green.

The writer enjoys a moment of relaxation next to the lava fringed Sea of Nurnen

The resort destinations of the Sea of Núrnen are, of course, the major attractions. Fed by rivers from Ephel Duath and Ered Lithui, which now run clear and true, this startlingly blue inland salty sea is currently much larger than of old and provides a wealth of opportunities for water sports, such as wind surfing and water skiing.

This was our first trip to Mordor and we didn’t know quite what to expect. The larger towns are experiencing some commercialisation, but over all Mordor is still manages to retain its own unique charm. Our hotel was built from local lava bricks and was clean and accommodating. The return of abundant bird life has certainly put an end to the flies that once bothered travellers! We went ‘all-inclusive’ as we weren’t sure about the local cuisine, but we needn’t have worried. The fertile plains of Nurn, with their rich volcanic soils now provide a wide range of staple, as well as exotic, foods. Plus, the Sea of Núrnen provides plenty for the fish-loving gourmet to enjoy!

The locals were exceptionally friendly (a bit different from the past eh?) and from many different backgrounds. The smiling bar goblin was forever mixing up a fantastic range of cocktails – warning they are very strong! Of course many people are simply attracted to Mordor by the warm weather, the sandy beaches and the deep blue sea – and who can blame them? We found a beautiful beach for relaxing on, with a fabulous restaurant close by, where they mixed a marvellous Mordor Punch – perfect for watching the sun set over the distant Ephel Duath range.

Although somewhat surprising, there is little doubt that Mordor has become the chic choice for both the adventurous traveller, and the more sedate holidaymaker. We’re certainly going back again!

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Confessions of a FantasyCon Virgin (Nicely’s going home, he’s going home)

Nicely at Fantasycon2015

Detective Nicely Strongoak has just returned to his spiritual home, as an excited me went back to the University of Nottingham for Fantasycon 2015. Yes, it was here on the Nottingham campus where, after work as an ultrastructural morphologist, I first put down my ideas for the dwarf detective in a modern(ish) fantasy world, on a Apple computer so old it was actually a Pip. And I was now here talking about him.

Officially I was there discussing comedy and fantasy on an excellent panel, with top writers Donna Scott, Frances Hardinge, Steve Jordan, Heather Lindsley and Craig Saunders, and doing a little bit of reading from A DEAD ELF. Unofficially I was getting my first introduction into the current state of fantasy writing in the UK, and very healthy it appears to be.

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