Watching What You Read

Here’s a question.

Is your literary taste the same as your taste in other forms of entertainment?

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen I recently threw in the towel on steampunk. The thing is, steam-powered machines, Victorian settings, and time travel are all AWESOME. But visually, when I’m reading it on the page, I just can’t make sense of it. A steampunk movie or TV show though? Yes, please.

Film-making and novel writing are two different art forms, and both excel in different areas. For me, I almost always prefer to read literary fiction and magical realism than to see their film and television equivalents. Other genres, specifically urban fantasy, high fantasy, and noir/detective stories, are personal favorites, but only when I’m watching them on screen. It’s not a stretch to say that novelists are more cerebral and film-makers are more visual, so I prefer to let the experts offer me the best interpretation of a story based on what matters most in that story. *Note: There are always exceptions on both sides.

So what about you? Any gamers out there love the new [insert popular video game here], but hate the high-octane movies that cater to you? Romance fans who roll your eyes at chick flicks? Members of the Sylvester Stallone Fan Club who can’t stand reading thrillers?

Tell me in the comments what you yawn your way through in one medium, but get completely absorbed by in another.

Non-Literary Characters

While this blog is generally for the literary-minded, I’ve been thinking lately about characters that are written for the screen, rather than the page. Specifically, for the small screen, because I think we’d be here until the end of time trying to pin down the greatest characters in film. Anyway, I like T.V. My appreciation for a good story and strong characters is not limited to novels; in fact, sometimes I prefer to sit down and witness some truly great television writing instead. (Likewise, sometimes I watch marathons of What Not to Wear, but that’s a story for another time.)
I don’t know if you all have been noticing this, but in recent years, the quality of T.V. shows has gone way up. Shows like The Sopranos, Mad Men, Lost, The West Wing, My So-Called Life, and Firefly are (and in some unfortunate cases, were) the equivalents of literary fiction. They have depth, complexity, character development, suspense, familiarity, and they do not shy away from heightened dialogue or ideas. Also, like with a novel, you cannot start in the middle.
Speaking more specifically to the characters themselves, I’ve been trying to figure out who I think are the greatest T.V. characters of all-time. I hate coming up with “greatest” lists because everything is so subjective, so I bring you my top five favorite characters (who I secretly consider the best):
5) Ted Baxter, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I know, this is before my time. But, in my opinion, The Mary Tyler Moore Show was way ahead of its time, so it all balances out. Without Ted Baxter, I don’t think we’d have nearly the number of lovable oafs on T.V. as there are today. Since Ted may have been responsible for Phil Dunphy (Modern Family), then for that reason alone, he must be acknowledged.
4) George Constanza, Seinfeld. My love of George ended around season six or seven when I thought he became too cartoonishly evil, but the early years of George represented a perfect combination of New York neurosis and immaturity. He’s not person you’d necessarily like in real life, but you love him from the safe distance behind the camera.
3) Milhouse Van Houten, The Simpsons. With The Simpsons, it’s hard to pick just one. Sure, Homer might be considered the “best,” but Milhouse, much like in his life in Springfield, is vastly underrated and under-appreciated. Inspiration for children of divorced parents and to anyone who’s ever known the pain of unrequited romance (and friendship), Milhouse just wants to be loved. And he is, by me. “Everything’s coming up Milhouse!” indeed.
2) The Mayor, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. Yes, he was only on for one season and he wasn’t a principal player. Choosing a “best” character from what I consider the “best” show is a bit like choosing my favorite child, but, to me, Mayor Richard Wilkins III was such an amazingly crafted character. The ultimate villain, an instrument of pure evil, and the square father figure who reminds you that good hygiene and manners never hurt anyone. Of Mr. Whedon’s many (many!) brilliant characters, I am always most impressed by The Mayor.

1) Brian Krakow, My So-Called Life. Brian, Brian, Brian. Is there a better character in the history of television? He’s the boy next door who you don’t really want to end up with the girl after all. He’s hardly the lovable nerd, but he can’t be called totally manipulative either because half the time he’s just too clueless. Brian is funny, sad, misunderstood, and real. He’s just, in a word, perfect.

 

Honorable mentions: Liz Lemon, 30 Rock and Sue Sylvester, Glee. These women may be different in personality, but they have this in common: they are strong, funny, and driven, and there need to be more women on T.V. like them.

 

I notice a theme in my most beloved characters. They are all people who are a little bit sad, a little bit hard to like, and impossible not to love. Complexity and originality are the keys of creating strong, memorable characters. How do you approach building your characters in your own work? Are there certain T.V. characters you use as inspiration?

Breaking Up Isn’t Hard to Do

Remember when the biggest media story ever was the Tiger Woods sex scandal? I know, who can even remember back that far, right? It feels like weeks ago.

More recently, our (well, my) attention has been focused on NBC. Unlike the Tiger thing, I actually care about this one. I know I’m usually book gal, but truth be told, I can be just as passionate about television. I get invested in characters and plots the same way I would about those in a novel (hello, Lost anyone?) I’m also an avid follower of all things pop culture, oftentimes regardless of whether I even care (e.g. winners of American Idol and losers of Jersey Shore, despite never watching either show). So, I’ve been staying up until the A.M. fanatically changing the channel from one monologue to the next, seeing who can rip NBC apart in the most clever and biting way. As with most things, Letterman wins.

Now, NBC has always been my favorite network, which contributes to my particular interest in this saga. Growing up, we watched Days of our Lives, not All My Children. Tom Brokaw rather than Rather. Today instead of GMA. You get the picture. NBC also had the best shows, invented Must-See TV, and has that catchy little three-tone jingle.

But, things have taken a turn for NBC. Aside from this current debacle, they recently canceled Southland, which will no doubt gain even more critical acclaim and viewers now that it’s on cable, and has relied on The Office and 30 Rock to provide all of their comedy needs, even though both shows garner the same exact audience. (Where is NBC’s equivalent to Modern Family or Glee?) Perhaps they are trying to relive their glory days by returning Jay Leno to The Tonight Show, but what worked in the past clearly is not working for them anymore.

I agree with Conan that moving the time slot would be a disgrace to the historic show’s legacy, but mostly I just want to see it (and Conan) stay put because it’s the right thing to do. Conan put in his time while Jay Leno (who’s never been funny and has probably always been a dick) made The Tonight Show a bland, horribly unfunny mess. NBC rightfully broke up with Jay for someone younger and all-around better, but they got scared. Yes, Jay didn’t ignite the same passion he used to (well, did he ever?), but Conan is a fiery redhead who unleashed Triumph and the Masturbating Bear onto America… surely the over-50 crowd (that oh-so-coveted demographic) will be much more comfortable with Jay.

So much like the way Conan is getting dumped by NBC, I think it’s time for me to sever ties with the network. Despite our history, this is just not the same network I fell in love with. But, I do wonder why NBC won’t cut the cord with Leno. Does he secretly own the network? Does he have their children locked in the basement? None of it makes any sense.

While Conan is clearly being treated unfairly, he is still coming out the winner of this mess. Jay, through his actions, has most likely alienated the majority of any audience who’d follow him back to 11:30 and has made himself the most hated man in late night. I’d love to see Conan and Jimmy Kimmel (who is inexplicably on at midnight) work out an 11:30-1:30 deal on ABC. After all, there is no greater victory in a breakup than knowing you kept your cool under the pressure, moved on with some grace, and ended up with a better partner (and better network) than your ex.

Unlikeable Heroes… and Villains

This week I watched Glee (obviously) and was thoroughly entertained as always until something awful happened. Without getting into specifics in case it is still saved on your Tivo, I will just say this: THEY ARE TRYING TO HUMANIZE SUE SYLVESTER!
If you don’t watch Glee (sigh…), then all you need to know is this: Who was once the perfect villain is now developing a “softer” side which makes me want to scream. Whether in literature or on screen, sometimes people are just mean. Jeff Lindsay, author of the Dexter  novels, recently touched on this in Entertainment Weekly, saying “My Dexter pretends to be nice. [TV’s] Dexter is trying to become nice.” And it’s true – TV Dexter now has a family and a conscience – and for what? So people can relate to the serial killer main character? 

Now, I’m all for creating dimensions in your characters. In fact, they need complexity in order for a reader to remain interested in their story. However, if I may turn the conversation back to where it started, with television, let me say that some of the better shows on television right now (other than Glee) are Arrested Development (in our hearts!), The Office, House, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. And they all feature unlikeable characters. We root for Michael Scott despite his insensitivity and cluelessness. We secretly want to be members of the Bluth family. We are Dr. House. 

This trend was perfected, and therefore started, by Seinfeld, whose characters were so selfish and trapped in their inabilities to show common decency, that they were imprisoned for it. And yet. We LOVE them. They are not characters who we want to date in real life, or even have as our close friends, but we love them.  

OK, so why do we love them? For me, it’s because in real life, in adulthood anyway, there is rarely “character development” in the day-to-day. If a tragedy befalls you or your circumstances change in ways that you have to keep up with, then it is natural to alter a piece of your personality (if not your whole being). That means that if you write a story in which your character must change by the end, then I’m sorry to tell you that that is what you must do. 

This is actually something the boyfriend and I have discussed recently. One of our favorite jokes at the moment is mocking the new Sandra Bullock movie, The Blind Side. Specifically, this dialogue:

Woman: “You’re changing that boy’s life.”
Sandra: “No, he’s changing mine.” 

Not all changes need to be that dramatic (and preferably not so poorly written). In life, changes take time and are not usually so declarative. Be subtle in your writing, but remember that if your story is more character-driven than it is plot-driven, chances are there won’t be any huge internal changes by the end anyway. In the way that a Jane Austen wedding scene makes one question the couple’s future happiness, characters like Nick Hornby’s ever-adolescent men “change” by reluctantly accepting society’s expectations.  

While keeping in mind that not everyone needs a Carrie Bradshaw “and suddenly I realized” moment, don’t be afraid to create some unlikeable characters either. Sometimes they can be the most interesting characters to read, whether protagonists or, for example, the walking embodiment of evil. Don’t feel obligated to “TV Dexter-ize them” unless you think it will better serve your narrative. Or, as the BF put it while we were discussing this, “If a character is a rapist, do we necessarily have to know why he’s a rapist?” 

An example of this that comes to mind is Push, the bully, in the Stanley Elkin short story, A Poetics for Bullies. He is by no means a rapist or murderer, but who’s to say he won’t grow up to be one? Push narrates, opening with: “I’m Push, the bully, and what I hate are new kids and sissies, dumb kids and smart, rich kids, poor kids, kids who wear glasses, talk funny, show off, patrol boys and wise guys, and kids who pass pencils and water the plants – and cripples, especially cripples.” 

Elkin gives us glimpses as to why and how Push is the way he is, but he never implies “and this is why you should feel bad for him.” He just is what he is, and not to ruin it, but he doesn’t exactly become a better person in the end. And yet. We care. And even if he doesn’t want us to, we end up loving him.