Posts Tagged ‘character development’

With the emergence of escape room experiences in 2007 and their rising popularity among the worldwide populace (hell, I have a sister who does them all the time with her boyfriend), it was probably inevitable that a film would be made based on them. Especially seeing as the concept isn’t exactly owned by any particular company or anything. Of course, a film like this would also be compared to the Saw films and Cube (the former I never liked, the latter I only heard of today). Are the comparisons valid? And is the film any good on its own?

Escape Room follows three individuals–quiet physics student Zoey, stock boy Ben, high-powered stockbroker Jason–as they are joined by three others–Army veteran Amanda, trucker Mike, and escape-room nut Danny–after being invited to attend a special escape room experience with a cash prize of ten-thousand dollars. Problem is, the escape rooms are designed to be able to actually kill people, and it will push the participants to the brink physically and mentally. And not all of them will make it out alive.

For starters, this film is very well-done visually. Every set is made to look as real as possible. Also, boxes are present throughout the film, reinforcing the film’s theme. The escape rooms themselves are very clever in their layout and their traps. The latter two, by the way, are where the film’s tension comes from, and the tension is strong. You’re always wondering, where the next trap will be triggered, what will it lead to. And when it does show, whoo-boy is it hard to look away while the characters try to save themselves and move onto the next room. Add a decent focus on showing who these characters are and how the rooms challenge them, and it’s easy to get drawn in.

Plus, no torture porn! I hated the first Saw film because I saw no point in all that excessive gore and torture, and haven’t seen the sequels because of it. Glad to see they didn’t go that route with Escape Room, though they easily could’ve.

The film does have a couple issues. While the characters are given enough time to develop on screen, the reveals of their traumatic pasts is told more than shown. And while telling might work in a novel, in a film it’s better to show. I also would’ve liked Nik Dodani’s character Danny to be given more screen time (though that might be because I saw myself and people I know in him). And the final scene of the movie does feel like it was tacked on with the hopes of generating a sequel (which I could see happening if the film does well, though the team behind it would have to really work to make the sequel as good or as tense as the original). You could’ve easily ended the film one scene before and with a slight tweak made it a perfect storybook ending.

But all in all, if you want a film involving puzzles and life-or-death situations but you prefer tension, character development and storytelling over gore and torture porn, this might be the film for you. On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m going to give Escape Room a solid 4. Leave the kids at home* and get ready for an armrest-clenching thriller.

*Seriously, leave the kids at home. One woman in the row behind me brought her four year old son and I heard him whispering (and possibly crying in fear) more than once during the film. Lady, what are you doing bringing a four year old to a PG-13 film that’s just a bit of blood and a few swear words short of an R rating? You want him to grow up traumatized? Either get a babysitter or wait six months for the film to hit DVD! You’ll survive if you don’t see the film because you have a kid who takes priority!

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Slender Man has been one of the most talked-about fictional figures to be created in the past ten years. It seems that it was inevitable that a major film adaptation of the character would come out, though nine years after the character’s introduction and two or three years after his peak in popularity seems later than I’d expect. But since the film’s trailer came out, there’s been a lot of discussion on the film, not just whether it would be any good or if it was too late for a Slender Man film, but also if there should even be a film based on the character. I won’t touch on that last subject (that’s something for a post for another day), but I can answer the first two.

Starting with if the film is any good, I’m going to say I have the same feelings towards Slender Man as I did to The Forest: a concept with great potential, but an execution with poor payoff.

Based on the famous Internet boogeyman, Slender Man follows four teen girls who find an online video that’s supposed to summon the titular entity. Soon after, they start getting sick and having nightmares. When one disappears, the remaining three realize that something is afoot, that they are being watched and stalked by an entity alluded to in folklore and on the Internet by a variety of names. And it won’t leave them alone.

The problems with this movie are numerous. For one thing, this movie is excessively trope-filled. And while we horror nuts love our tropes, we like them done with a little style, or a bit of love, or even some subversion. And we never like the film to be so trope-filled that it’s hitting us over the head with them. None of that love is here, and thus the tropes ring hollow. In addition, the film fails to build an atmosphere. Watching the film, I didn’t feel creeped out or terrified as I might have with another film. I just felt neutral the whole time, even when they are trying to scare me with disturbing footage (again, in another film this might have been terrifying). When you have a horror film filled with hollow tropes and no atmosphere, that doesn’t bode well for said horror film.

On top of that, the characters are pretty flat. It’s almost like they have variations of the one generic teen girl personality. I know you only have so much time to build personalities in a film that focuses on scaring the shit out of you, but you could literally shift these girls into each other’s roles, and it wouldn’t make much of a difference.

And finally, there are plot threads that are left hanging. They just present some threads, and never wrap them up. I left the theater with a lot of questions: what happened to that one girl we last saw looking out a window? Is the character Wren a preacher’s kid? Shouldn’t that matter more to her character? What happened to that one dude? We kind of just forgot about him.

Such potential for this character. And they wasted it with his first official film outing.

So yeah, Slender Man doesn’t have that much going for it. Does it have any good points? Well, the actors are decent. They’re not given much to work with, but what they do with it is pretty good. There are a few effective jump scares. And for all its faults, the film seems to have some respect for the Slender Man character and mythology. They really tried to incorporate as much as they could of the mythology into the film, and it shows.

But other than that, this film is poorly written and overly-reliant on tropes, with uninteresting characters and a lot of plot threads that just don’t get resolved. On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m giving Slender Man a 1. If you want a horror film based off a popular folklore character, there has to be better than this.* In the meantime, I would skip this one. And hope the next time a film about a creepypasta character is made, it’s done a lot better than this.

And as for whether it was too late for a Slender Man movie, I don’t think so. There’s always an opportunity to make an old story or idea new and relevant again (look at last year’s It, for example). I just feel that Slender Man was too reliant on the character’s past popularity and thus didn’t put that much work into making a good movie. If they had, this could’ve been something awesome, rather than a pointless piece of commercial fluff trying to make a buck off of something popular. Like The Angry Birds Movie.**

*Hell, there’s a better Slender Man film out there! You see, this is the first official Slender Man film, with the permission and blessing of the copyright holders over the character (yeah, he’s not as public domain as I thought he was). There was one a few years ago made without permission, a found footage film also called Slender Man that I honestly enjoyed more than this. It wasn’t the most amazing thing, but it was a good deal better than this piece of crap. Too bad it wasn’t official, because I prefer it over this one.

**Or the Friday the 13th remake. Okay, that’s not commercial fluff, that’s just another crap film that takes a great horror character and does everything wrong with him. And until something better is produced to remove the stain, I’LL NEVER STOP HATING ON IT!!!

From left to right: Sailor Mercury, Sailor Mars, Sailor Moon, Sailor Jupiter, and Sailor Venus.

I’ve been wanting to do this a long time, especially after the post about my favorite manga series did unexpectedly well. Just had to have the right timing. And as this weekend is the first of two Sailor Moon movie screenings,* I figured now would be a good time to discuss one of my favorite anime of all time, Sailor Moon. What it is, why it’s great, and what it means to me personally. There’s a chance that very few people are interested in that, but I’ve often been surprised by what gets read the most on this blog, so who knows? Perhaps you’re as interested in why a 25-year-old horror writer holds a debt to Sailor Moon as I am.

So if you’re somehow unaware of what I’m talking about, Sailor Moon is a Japanese media franchise that started off with a manga by Naoko Takeuchi and has since seen several different adaptations, the most enduring and popular of which is the anime that ran from 1992-1997. Stories vary slightly from iteration to iteration,** but the basic structure across all, especially the anime, involves a 14-year-old teenager named Usagi Tsukino who learns from a talking cat that she is a guardian with special powers bestowed upon her by the moon who must gather allies, find a mysterious princess and her magic gem, and stop dark forces from taking over the world. Thus she becomes Sailor Moon (the Sailor part referring to her superhero outfit being based on the sailor-style school uniform), a magical warrior dedicated to love and justice.

And if you’re unfamiliar with the show, just based on that description and the photo above, you might think that this is the silliest premise ever. And I’ll admit, you’re  not wrong. It is kind of a silly show at times, and not without its problems. Most episodes were formulaic monster-of-the-week stories with the characters discovering a scheme by the enemy of the season and destroying a monster. There was also a lot of reused animations, which was typical for a lot of anime from the 90’s (and today, to a degree). And let’s face it, the main character Usagi Tsukino/Sailor Moon isn’t your ordinary protagonist. She starts out as only caring about sleeping, eating, relaxing and finding a cute boyfriend. Fighting evil is the last thing she wants to do!

Oh, and this show was also being made simultaneously the manga. So while the former took cues from the latter, it often had to make drastic changes and that occasionally led to glaring storytelling issues. (*cough* rainbow crystals? *cough*)

Usagi Tsukino, aka Sailor Moon. Goofy as heck, but a heart and the capacity to grow braver with every episode.

But despite all that, there’s quite a number of things that this anime has going for that. For one thing, the characters: in the 1980s, female characters were in animated shows were either just “the girl” (ex. Smurfette or Arcee) or they all existed to sell toys and didn’t have very distinct personalities from one another (ex. the original My Little Pony). But Sailor Moon was special as each of its female leads had very distinct personalities: Usagi/Sailor Moon is goofy but kindhearted; Ami/Sailor Mercury is smart and bookish; Rei/Sailor Mars is a hotheaded but empathetic psychic; Makoto/Sailor Jupiter is a strong-willed fighter with a passion for baking and gardening; and Minako/Sailor Venus is a fun-loving but ambitious girl and a skilled warrior. Not only that, but throughout the series, the characters would have individual episodes devoted to their growth where they worked on overcoming their flaws and issues. Even Sailor Moon, who always retained her goofiness throughout the series, became a strong leader and fighter who wouldn’t hesitate to fight to protect the world she loves. This ended up creating a mix of role models that people like me growing up could look up to and identify with on a number of levels.

There’s also the fact that this show was hugely empowering for a number of kids back in the day. On the one level, it is highly feminist in its portrayal of its female leads. They are able to fight off their enemies while still retaining their personalities and femininity, and the show doesn’t make a huge deal out of it (like they would if characters regularly shouted “Girl Power!” or something). Even if the male lead of the show often helped out and stepped in during a pinch, it was still the ladies doing the main fighting. That’s really amazing. And on another level, you have regular teenagers saving the world from forces that are cosmic in their power. When you consider the other big superhero shows at the time were shows like Batman or Superman, that’s big. I mean, one’s a billionaire and the other’s an alien. How many kids growing up with those shows were either of those? And then you had Sailor Moon, with ordinary teens, teens we already looked up to, being chosen to be superheros. Do you know how inspirational that could be to kids back then?

And those are just a couple of reasons this show has been so enduring and beloved. It’s also been noted for being very LGBT-progressive at a time when that wasn’t usual; for pumping new life into the magical girl genre of anime that’s still flowing today; for influencing a number of shows, including the American hits Steven Universe and Star vs the Forces of Evil; and so much more. It’s no wonder that the show has endured and continues to find new fans.***

Sailor Moon and Luna Funko Pop dolls. There are good reasons why I bought them, and why I hope to buy more someday.

And as I said, I owe this series a huge debt. Sailor Moon is still one of my favorite anime ever. I identified with many of the characters, and Sailor Moon herself made a big impact on me. She wasn’t hero material at all when she started out, but over the course of the series she truly became a hero. That’s a character arc I still include in my own stories (Zahara Bakur from Reborn City, anyone?). Not to mention this show helped plant the seeds of feminism in my young mind.

And you know what else? I still find reasons to love this show to this day. Just a couple of months ago, this show gave me a pep talk when I was feeling a little disenchanted with writing. It was quite powerful, and it reignited my love for storytelling again. If a show that’s older than me can do that, then I’m glad I still watch it all these years.

To sum up this monster of a blog post, Sailor Moon is just an awesome show, and it isn’t hard to see why it endures to this day. And if you’re at all interested, I highly recommend checking the anime out, or any of the other incarnations out there.  You never know. You may get out of it something special like I did all those years ago.

Are you or have you been a fan of Sailor Moon? What did/do you like about it?

That’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. Thanks for reading this long post of mine. I hope you liked it. Maybe someday I’ll write more posts about anime I love. Would you like that? If so, let me know. And until next time, pleasant nightmares.

*The first two films get screened in theaters this Saturday, and a special and the third movie is next Saturday. Probably won’t surprise you that I have tickets for both.

**And I’m sorry I won’t discuss those here. Perhaps I’ll discuss some of the other adaptations another day.

***Especially with more faithful translations. Back in the 90’s when I found the show, it was heavily edited to make it more geared towards American kids, because that’s what you did with anime in the 90’s. While I still have fond memories of that edited version, I’m glad that nowadays you can get the anime without all those silly edits or American character names. It feels more pure that way, and endears it more to new fans.

You know, for a little while now, I’ve been pondering something. I’ve heard a lot of people refer to certain stories as “slow burns.” Heck, I even called my friend/colleague Pat Bertram’s book Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare a slow burn mystery when I reviewed it on Amazon (and I highly recommend you read it, BTW). But what exactly makes a story a “slow burn?” Sadly, searching in Google didn’t pull up a lot of information, and I needed a short break from working on Rose (which is going great, BTW), so I thought I’d share my observations on the matter.

So what is a slow burn story? Well, to put it simply, it’s a story that doesn’t try to rush itself or keep escalating things as the story goes on. Instead, the story takes its time getting to the story’s resolution, using an intriguing set up, good characters and character development, and little bumps in the excitement levels to keep readers invested in the story. A good example of a slow burn would be a romance that, instead of having the characters hook up within the first half of the story and then showing them struggle to stay together, or having the characters finally confess and kiss at the end of the story after a number of travails, the story takes its time establishing these characters, the development of their relationship, and then showing the hook up, all without any big drama or too huge plot twists.

Getting an idea for them yet? And you’re probably familiar with a lot of these stories, even if you don’t know it. Many of these slow burn stories are pretty calm for up to the first two-thirds, with little intervals during that time that ramp up the excitement for a brief period, before they have an explosive final third (not always but often). A good example of this is The Shining, both the book and the movie. Unlike other King stories like It, where things are big and scary from the very beginning, The Shining takes its time building things up. It lays the groundwork, showing us these very real characters and their struggles, the isolation they feel, and the true nature of the Overlook. On that final one, King really takes his time. We get brief glimpses of the truth of the hotel, and each glimpse gets nastier every time, but it’s not until the final third that things really hit a head and things become truly exciting.

Another facet I’ve noticed about slow burns (the ones I’ve come across, anyway) is that there’s a sort of reluctance on the parts of the characters. In The Shining, none of the three main characters want to be in the hotel, but they all have to be so they can survive as a family, and it’s with a certain reluctance that the characters, especially Jack, acknowledge that there’s something seriously wrong with the hotel they can’t handle and that they have to get the hell out of Dodge. Dracula is often described as a slow burn, especially in the novel and in the Nosferatu adaptations, and without a doubt the characters are reluctant to be in the machinations of a centuries-old vampire. And in Pat’s novel Madame ZeeZee, the first-person narrator is very much reluctant at first to look into the strange events that occur at the titular character’s dance studio. It’s only as things progress that she finds herself really looking into things.

So that’s slow burns for you. But how do you write them? If I had to guess, I’d think it would have to do with moderation, specifically moderating the amount of excitement in the story. With most other stories, the norm is to build the excitement until the climax of the story when things get really explosive. But with a slow burn, it’s more like you’re doing a mostly flat Richter scale graph with only slight bumps here and there until the very end when things get super exciting (if you decide to write the story that way, that is). Doing that might take some practice, however, so I would recommend doing that practice and just allowing yourself to get good at them. Don’t get upset if you’re not good at it at first; we all start somewhere, don’t we?

In the meantime, if you’d like to read some good slow burns to get a good idea for them, here are some of the ones I’d recommend: The Shining by Stephen King; See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt (see my review of that novel here); HEX by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (see my review of that here); Final Girls by Riley Sager (see my review for that here); and of course Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare by Pat Bertram, which I reviewed on Amazon. All of them are excellent slow burns, and I can’t recommend them enough. Definitely check them out if you’re curious.

What observations have you made about slow burn stories?

Which slow burns have you read recently? Would you recommend them?

I’ve just published my first article of the year on the site Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors. This time, it’s Backstory isn’t Character, and is in response to some things I’ve seen recently in various works of fiction. That problem, as you can tell from the title, is writers thinking a backstory is the same as having a character with a fully-rounded personality. Um, no it isn’t. And in this article, I discuss why that is and how to avoid it in fiction you write, so make sure to check it out if you’re interested.

In addition, I highly encourage you to check out Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors in full. It is a great website to get advice on writing, editing, publishing and marketing effectively as an independent writer, and it is absolutely free. It’s from authors, by authors, and for authors. Check it out and see for yourself what an excellent resource it is.

So I’ve been working on the outline for a new novel that I plan to write for National Novel Writing Month in November (I know, it’s early for that, but I need to work on something original because I’ve been doing nonstop editing since last NaNoWriMo, and if I don’t work on something new before I work on Rose I’m going to scream). And while I’ve been working on it, building the story chapter by chapter, I had the feeling that there was something missing from the story.

About two nights ago, I hit across what was missing. It was personal problems! Good horror stories often deal with issues that the characters are dealing with both internally and in their own lives! In great horror stories like Cujo and the novel I read and reviewed the other day, the main characters are trying to keep their families alive in some state and not lose their livelihoods in addition to trying to survive rabid dogs or a haunted house. In the TV series Supernatural (which I’ve been binging on lately, it’s so good!), in addition to dealing with evil entities and the oncoming Apocalypse, the protagonists Sam and Dean Winchester have to deal with the fact that they’re brothers, with all the issues that family can have when living and working in proximity, and then some.

And I don’t do enough of that exploring–or indicate that I will be doing that sort of exploring–in the outline for this new project. Which is actually a very big issue if I think about it.

There are several reasons why this is. One is having these personal issues helps the audience identify with the characters. Everybody has problems, and seeing people with relatable issues in their life–recent loss, money troubles, relationship issues, addiction, etc.–even if they’re just characters in a story, make people feel for them. In American Horror Story: Asylum, the character of Lana Winters is thrown into Briarcliff as a patient because she’s a lesbian. We of the present day know she was born that way and there’s nothing wrong with her, but back then, the LGBT community was seen by many as immoral or insane, and faced all sorts of discrimination. This immediately makes her a lot more sympathetic to us than if she was just a regular ambitious reporter, and helps draw us into the story as well as makes us identify with the characters.

Another reason creators explore these deep, personal issues in horror fiction, even when you’ve got everything from ghosts to serial killers to aliens to vampires and everything in-between, is that it keeps the characters interesting and the audience interested. Going back to Supernatural, what would the show be like if each episode was about the Winchester brothers facing a new monster and defeating it, plus a few quips? Well sure, it’d be entertaining for a while, but with no change in that formula things would’ve gotten stale probably ten seasons ago. Part of the draw is seeing these two very-different brothers go through ups and downs in their relationships, figuring out right and wrong in a world full of grey areas and just trying to be good people and good to each other at the end of the day, in addition to stopping the end of the world and all the things that go bump in the night.

And third, we writers like to explore these characters, their problems and traumas, and how the characters deal with them over the course of the story. Some good examples of this come from my own work. If you’ve read Reborn City, you know that protgonist Zahara Bakur doesn’t really start out as heroine material. She’s as far from a Wonder Woman as you cn get. But through the story, I explore both the problems she deals with as a Muslim gangster in an environment that isn’t very nice to Muslims and Zahara’s doubts and fears. And I love doing that, I love watching characters like Zahara grow from someone whom you’d never expect to be a hero to someone whom you’d willingly follow into a tricky situation.

So yeah, exploring personal problems with our characters, whatever those problems are, is definitely something we authors do a lot of. And I need to do it more with this new project I’m working on, even if I’m not picking it up again until September or October. Actually,I’m a little surprised I’m not doing more exploration. There’s a whole big problem with the protagonist’s relationship with another character–let’s just say they shouldn’t be an item for a very good reason–and I’m so not exploiting that enough. I really have to explore how this relationship could mess with the characters while at the same time something evil is attacking the town.

In fact, I’m going to get on that right now. Wish me luck, my Followers of Fear. Hopefully by the time I’m done going over this outline, it’ll be as good as it needs to be for November.

So last night, with no Wi-Fi to distract me (and someone won’t be coming by to fix that until tomorrow, dammit), and with only a few chapters left, I managed to finish up the second draft of Laura Horn, the novel I’ve been editing these past couple of months. This is actually rather extraordinary, because if you remember when I first started talking about editing LH, I was worried that certain elements of the story wouldn’t hold up and I would have to rewrite the whole thing.

Now, if you haven’t heard of LH on this blog yet, it’s a novel I wrote in my third year of college about a girl with a very dark past who becomes involved entrapped in a terrible conspiracy when she comes across some information certain powerful people would kill to keep hidden. It’s got some false-accusation-by-powerful-folks elements, a little Die Hard in the last act, and it all centers around a deeply-troubled teenage girl. Sounds a little crazy, right? And that’s why I worried I would have to rewrite it, so it sounded a little less crazy.

But I decided to try and edit it, see if this story was still salvageable in some form. And over the next couple of months, I found myself pleasantly surprised. Turns out, the story was much more salvageable than I thought. I just had to change certain details, such as how these powerful people try to isolate my main character (big thing in this story, believe me), combine a whole bunch of chapters (I think six chapters were smashed together to make longer chapters that flowed better), chuck out two chapters that were unnecessary after detail changes or were extraneous upon second read, and a few other details here and there. The result was a much better second draft, and I still managed to keep a lot of the details and plot points I wanted to keep. Not bad for a few months’ work.

I also noticed some interesting stuff with the second draft. For instance, there’s the page and word counts: with the first draft, the page count (using 8.5″ x 11″ MS Word pages, using 12-point Times New Roman font) was 356 pages and 94,774 words. Meanwhile, the second draft had 334 pages and 98,498 words. Now take a second look at those numbers. If there are less pages, why are there more words in the second draft?

Well, I’ve been thinking on that, and I think it has partly to do with how my writing style has evolved since I wrote the first draft of LH. As well as changing how I construct the sentences I use to tell my stories, I’ve come to try and limit how much dialogue I use and try to do more introspection. Now, dialogue is important for any story, but it can quickly fill up a page while leaving a lot of blank space. And in Laura Horn, I found that some of that page-filling dialogue was unneeded, especially after some of the chapters from the first draft were combined or cut out of the second draft.

And in place of this dialogue, I ended up putting in a lot more introspective segments, the kind where the characters are looking deep into themselves, figuring out things or reflecting on situations through their own unique lenses. Those segments use a lot of words, and fill up a page while leaving less blank space than before. That explains why there’s less pages but more words (and I have a feeling that this difference may show up even more in the third draft when I get around to that).

So now that I’ve finished the second draft, what’s next for Laura Horn? Well, as always I’ll put it aside for now so when I start a new draft, I can look at it with fresh eyes. And I will need those fresh eyes, since there are a few things even with the second draft I would like to change: I still think I could put in a bit more introspective stuff and get rid of unneeded portions of dialogue. I also wonder if I could bring out more of Laura’s personality earlier in the story and make her more relatable. There are also some portions near the end which are a little melodramatic, and there are places where I feel I could do more to make the reader believe what is happening. We’ll see what happens when I get into that third draft.

In the meantime, I’ll take a look at a few of the short stories for my new collection Teenage Wasteland and polish them up a bit before starting a third draft of my novel/senior thesis Rose. I’ll also be working on the final draft of Video Rage with an editor I’ve contracted to work with, so all those who have been waiting desperately for the sequel to Reborn City can calm down now because I’ll hopefully have that book out later this year. And I’d like to have enough time to do some research for a novel I want to write this November for NaNoWriMo. So yeah, I’ll be busy, and I’m not even getting into the things that normally occupy my life outside of writing.

But hey, I wouldn’t have it any other way, would I? Wish me luck, my Followers of Fear, because I’m going to try accomplish a lot this year, and I’m going to be blogging about it the whole damn way.