Zootopia

(So. It’s spring break. Two-week-late post, and somehow by the end it’s all aboard the angst train again?)

Two Sundays ago, I mobbed with a small group of MIT furries to watch Zootopia, the recent highly-reputed Disney movie.

(Before anything else, first there were the previews. I was impressed that every single one of them — there were six or so — was about an upcoming movie featuring anthropomorphic animals front and center. Let me see if I can remember all of them… in no particular order, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Secret Life of Pets, The Jungle Book, Storks, Finding Dory, and Ice Age: Collision Course. edit: Oh, also Angry Birds. Wow, I said, they know their audience.)

I went into the movie with a vague impression that Zootopia was more adult-oriented than most Disney films — not in the naughty way, but in general making a lot of jokes and invoking a lot of parallels that I think only adults might have the experience to get. My suspicions were confirmed a few lines into the movie, where there was a joke about taxes I cracked up at but can’t imagine that children a few years younger would have found funny. If you the reader haven’t watched it, I hope that was vague enough not to ruin the start for you.

(To be fair — and, uh, some parts of the internet are kind of big on this fact — the film also at one point enters a nudist colony. Fortunately (?), Animals Lack Attributes.)

Humor aside, I think the movie also deals with some weighty and nuanced themes, ones that would take more life experience to fully appreciate than the themes of most Disney movies. The social commentary is very clear. Possibly bordering on too blatant for my tastes — even though the whole movie is kind of Funny Talking Animals, there are some animal species for which it’s really easy to guess which human demographic groups they might be symbolizing, to the point where I can already imagine the other side of the debate. You won’t need a PhD in literature to figure out the parallels; you wouldn’t even need an AP English Literature class. But, I think, it still works. It’s like Animal Farm on training wheels.

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More Fiction (Part 2.5)

This is not Part 3. It’s just two things I thought of tacking on to part 2.

What can I say? Part 2s are easy blog post fodder; Part 2 appendixes are even easier.

  • One, there’s one other wall I run into often during those rare attempts when I get motivated enough to try to write a story: naming characters is hard. At least, it provides an excellent motivational roadblock whenever I even consider committing a story to paper, a point before I’ve actually written anything at which I think “maybe I should give up and go on Facebook instead” and proceed to do so. Aggh. And I think there’s more than one reason for this:

    • I have trouble coming up with names to some degree. Sure, it’s easy to browse BabyNames.com and look for choices, but a lot of the names there are really weird and contemplating them for every unimportant character kind of rips me out of the immersed mindset.
    • Reading great stories in English class and elsewhere may have gotten me feeling like every name ought to be a deep meaningful allusion, or at least pun fodder. I feel like I will regret it if I write a story and, a few months and/or chapters down the road, realize I missed a better name or the name I chose has some undesirable connotations in context or provides an atmosphere-ruining coincidence.
    • But I think the real kicker is simply that some part of me is terrified of the awkwardness of giving a character the same name as anybody I know, because then they might read the story and wonder if the character is somehow based on them. And too many of the names that I consider common enough to not lure readers off into looking for hidden meanings are used up that way. This is obviously worst if the character is an antagonist. But it seems just as awkward if the character is a protagonist in accord with everything I’ve written, i.e. a paper-thin character blatantly created for escapist purposes. I am already kind of terrified I might ever meet anybody with the same name as one of my mentally established characters even though I haven’t actually written anything about him. And there’s a well-established convention of not reusing a first name in a work, so this gets even harder with every work; I’m just as worried, what if somebody thinks this character is related to the other character in that story I wrote in second grade? Oh no!!

      It’s like not reusing variable names in a programming language where everything is in the same scope. Positively nightmarish.

      And I actually discovered some evidence this is a thing in my past: I found some stories I wrote in 2004. They are possibly the most extreme exemplification of Write What You Know imaginable: the main character, Michael, goes to school and makes friends. That’s all.

      Illustration courtesy Brian2004

      Illustration courtesy Brian2004

      I kind of want to share these stories, but fast-forward a few years and you’ll see that a classmate named Michael entered my grade and we stayed in the same grade until we graduated.

      Hi, Michael. You’re probably not reading this, but the character I created in 2004 is not in any way based on or inspired by you, especially not this image. And unlike later in this post where I name a character after myself, I’m not being sarcastic, really.

      See, this is awkward.

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More Fiction (Part 2)

Part 1 was here. This is still part of the daily posting streak I have openly committed to and standard disclaimers still apply. Just as in my original post, back to the flip side — let’s see what I have to do to write fiction to my own satisfaction. And this time I have a guide: the list I made in the first part of this post. Could I create fiction I would enjoy reading?

1: I enjoy calling things before they happen…

2: …I also enjoy the Reveal for questions when the author has done something clever I didn’t catch…

Well, obviously, I can’t predict things in my own plot. But I can develop riddles in the plot, set up expectations and drop subtle clues and use Chekhov’s Tropes. Can I?

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More Fiction (Part 1)

I’m going to do it again! I’m going to break a post into parts to milk it for the daily posting streak. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

This is mostly a self-analysis post though.

WARNING: This post contains many, many TVTropes links. If you are like me and need to be productive but are liable to being sucked into TVTropes, maybe you should find a way to commit to not clicking on any of these links, or just stop reading. The obligatory xkcd is kind of long and also featured on one of the TVTropes links I’ve already made, so I’m not going to embed it.

I blogged about this before in 2013 — how I felt that the analysis trained into me by English class was dulling my ability to appreciate and write the types of fiction I really enjoyed. After thinking about it I realized the mismatch goes deeper than that. Because the things I seek the most in fiction are escapism and entertainment. I like simple fiction with obvious (though maybe not that obvious) Aesops and extreme economy of characters via making all the reveals being of the form “X and Y are the same person” (which does not quite seem to be a trope but may be an occurrence of Connected All Along, with the most famous subtrope being Luke, I Am Your Father (which is a misquote!), and is also one common Stock Epileptic Tree, so maybe this isn’t the best example), because not only are such reveals fun, they make the plot simpler. What can I say, it works.

The qualities of being thought-provoking or heartwarming are only bonuses for me; needless complexity in the number of characters or plots is a strict negative. Sorry, I don’t want to spend effort trying to remember which person is which and how a hundred different storylines relate to each other if they don’t build to a convincing, cohesive, and awesome Reveal, and often not even then. And I like closure, so I feel pretty miserable when writers resolve a long-awaited plot point just to add a bunch more. Because of this I am ambivalent about long book series; most of my favorite works of fiction have come in long series but starting a new one always gives me Commitment Anxiety. Even when there’s closure, when I finish an immersive movie or book I’m always left kind of disoriented, like I’ve just been lifted out of a deep pool and have to readjust to breathing and seeing the world from the perspective of a normal person on land. I like when I’m reading good fiction, but I don’t like going through withdrawal symptoms. If I want to read complicated open-ended events, I’ll go read a history textbook, because at least the trivia might come up useful some day; if I want tough problems I’ll just look at real life and think about the possibility of college debt and having to find a job and everything. (If it wasn’t obvious yet, this is why I hyperbolically hate on Game of Thrones often.) Even worse than all of this is multiple paragraphs full of scenery and nothing else, unless of course parts or maybe all of the scenery are Chekhov’s Guns.

Some part of me is embarrassed to admit this because I’ve been educated for so long about deep literature that makes social commentary or reveals an inner evil of humanity or whatever. But then again, I don’t really need an education to appreciate the simple, fun fiction I apparently do.

So: there are a lot of famous classics or mainstream works I can’t really enjoy too much, or in some cases, at all. And yet, sometimes a random story or webcomic will appear and I just won’t be able to stop reading. Why? I decided to try making a list of things I like in fiction:

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