Tag Archives: Percy Jackson

Fill in the blanks

Electrostatic discharge or weapon of the gods?  Lightning #3, Benjamin Stäudinger, Creative Commons license.
Electrostatic discharge or weapon of the gods? Lightning #3, Benjamin Stäudinger, Creative Commons license.

A few weeks ago I was chatting with another writer on Twitter; it was one of those fairly inconsequential, “let’s one-up each other with wisecracks” exchanges until something relatively innocuous happened that has stuck with me since.  He mentioned his dog, and I countered with a response that assumed the canine in question was a he, only to find it was in fact a she.  And I wondered why my brain had made that automatic leap.  Surely I was aware that dogs are manufactured in both male and female varieties, so why did I default to the presumption that this particular dog was a boy?  It reminded me, not in a good way, of the old riddle that starts with a father and son being involved in a car crash.  The father is killed instantly and the boy is critically injured.  He’s taken to the hospital where the doctor on call looks at him and remarks, “I can’t operate on him – he’s my son” and you are supposed to be left scratching your head at the impossibility of the situation – that is, if you’re living in 1952.  In 2013 you know right away that the doctor is the boy’s mother, or that the boy is the child of a same-sex couple.  So, while I wasn’t going to wrack myself with guilt about misjudging the gender of somebody’s dog, it did leave me with larger questions to ponder about how we perceive the world, and the assumptions we use to make the world make sense, if only for a moment.

Human beings have an aversion to ambiguity.  You see this often in the movies we flock to – stories that resolve their plots in a neat and tidy manner with a clear delineation of the good guys and the bad guys.  Nuance here is not a virtue.  Whereas the artier films, while revered by critics and intellectuals, leave larger audiences cold and dissatisfied, to the point of wanting their money back, as if for the investment of that piece of their lives, they feel entitled to a satisfying conclusion.  Ambiguity in these cases is the front door to the house absently left wide open after you’ve left for the day, an insect bite when you don’t have any lotion to put on it and you’re miles from the pharmacy, the missing puzzle piece you swear was in the box when you opened it.  We have an innate need, as Amanda Palmer reminds us, to connect the dots, and when we can’t, it bothers us.  So we provide our own answers, even if they are wildly incorrect.  At least they are answers, the blanks filled in to a satisfactory point for the time being.  Sometimes, those answers prove more creative than the truth, and it’s possible that the aversion to ambiguity is in fact one of the greatest wellsprings to storytelling.  A mystery demands examination and explanation.  Life is like a series of questions on an exam that you must complete regardless of whether or not you’ve studied.  Show your work for full credit.

Despite the willingness of a great majority of us to believe without question in supernatural beings directing both our collective and individual fates, that too is an example of needing an explanation for life’s mysteries, without, ironically, taking things on faith.  Yet even an atheist must, at times, marvel at the sense of imagination revealed in some of these extrapolations, like the richness of the mythology of ancient Greece spinning essentially from an attempt to figure out what lightning was and why it had a tendency to appear along with thunder.  If the Greeks had been okay with lightning just being there and had never bothered to question it, would we have had Zeus, Athena, Aphrodite and the great legends that gave us the Iliad, the Odyssey and so on?  Would said pantheon had arisen had they been able to look up lightning on Wikipedia (or the ancient Athenian stone tablet version of same) and seen that it was “a massive electrostatic discharge between electrically charged regions within clouds, or between a cloud and the Earth’s surface”?  Not sure about you, but Percy Jackson and the Electrostatic Discharge Thief isn’t quite as compelling a title.  There is magic lying hidden in the unknown, the unscientific, the story.

Assumptions in ambiguous situations can of course be wrong, and terribly so.  When we leap to conclusions about a group based on the traits of a few, we’re falling into the trap of the closed-minded, the ostrich with its head buried in the sand.  (Enough bloody human history has been written because of this tendency.)  The ideal approach to any unknown is to enter without preconceptions or expectations and let the details fill themselves in on their own.  But the instinct to grasp at conclusion, while occasionally troublesome, is part of what drives our curiosity about the world, our desperate need to understand why things are a certain way and not another way.  It is what makes us turn pages faster or even peek at the end to find out whether or not the butler did it.  And if the last page has been torn out, we’ll invent our own ending where it was the beautiful scheming mistress of the victim’s cousin’s former roommate.  As long as the mystery remains unresolved, someone will want to posit a solution.  And when the truth is unsatisfying, alternate interpretations will be suggested.  For nature abhors a vacuum.

So, back to the original premise:  why did I assume that the dog was male?  Because it fit the joke I was making, the story I was trying to tell in that place at that time.  It was my interpretation, my truth, in the moment, for the moment.  I recognize, in a most deliciously contradictory manner, that in examining the human relationship with ambiguity, I haven’t fully answered the question.  Instead, to paraphrase a line in The American President, I’ve kinda just left this thing hanging out there, for you to draw your own conclusions.  A propos, however; given the subject matter, it couldn’t really end any other way.  So, your turn.  Fill in the blank: _______________________

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Novelists and central casting

It’s a dream shared by a great number of aspiring novelists; that someday they’ll be sitting in a theater watching their characters buckle their swash on the big screen.  Browse through the interwebs and you’ll locate many an author’s website with a special section devoted to who they’d like to play their heroes and heroines.  I’m not gonna lie, I’ve had this dream myself.  It’s perhaps unorthodox to admit, but I’m more of a movie person than I am a reader.  It probably has to do with the happier memories of childhood; more of them involve sitting on the couch with my dad watching James Bond or The Natural or rewinding that one part in Star Wars where R2-D2 gets zapped by the Jawa and falls on his face to giggle at it for the nineteenth time, than involve hiding under the covers with a flashlight in the wee hours of the morning flipping pages of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or the Black Stallion books.  But we all chart our course toward our dreams in different ways (Tele, you must be influencing me lately with these nautical metaphors I’ve become prone to).  Lately it’s been reading Percy Jackson as a family and noting how much was changed for the adaptation and thinking (blasphemy!) that the screenplay was an improvement.  Novels and movies are both in the business of telling stories, but they are drastically different media and what works in one fails utterly in another (see:  Tolkien purists’ criticism of the changes in the Lord of the Rings movies).

Nicholas Meyer, the director of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, in his excellent DVD commentary for that film, talks about the limitations of certain forms of art:  a painting does not move, a poem has no pictures and so on.  The person experiencing the art has to fill in the rest with his own imagination, his own personality.  Only movies, says Meyer, have the insidious ability to do everything for you.  What does that say about the creative process of someone who writes a novel having been apprenticed largely in cinematic technique?  When I’m writing fiction, I’m going at it from two different angles.  On the one hand I love wordplay and the sound of wit and a phrase well turned.  On the other, when I’m staging a scene I’m picturing it in my mind as though I were directing it.  My first draft involved a lot of mentions of character movement – turning away, turning back towards something else, entries and exits from the stage as though they were actors shuffled about by a beret-wearing and megaphone-wielding auteur in his canvas chair.  I’m basically writing the movie I see in my head, with the dialogue timed the way Aaron Sorkin does it, by speaking it out loud and judging its flow.  (I do write a lot of – and probably too much – dialogue, but, without trying to sound immodest, it’s what I’m good at, and to me, there is no better way for characters to get to know each other and to reveal themselves to the reader.  I almost wrote “audience” there; see how the two media are so irrevocably intermixed in the recesses of my brain?)

I’m much lighter on physical character description, however, and I give just enough to establish those traits that are, in my mind, crucial (you may disagree).  I’d rather that you cast the part yourself.  You probably won’t see my protagonist the same way I see her, and that’s totally fine.  In fact, it’s against my interest as someone who is trying to captivate you with my story to tell you how it should look in your mind, and that your interpretation is dead wrong because I made her up and she’s mine and so are all her subsidiary rights.  You need to be able to claim her too.  With that in mind, I’m happy to let you indulge in your own speculation once I let the story out into the world but I’ll never tell you who I think should play her.  Let’s be mindful of the tale of Anne Rice, who famously blew a gasket when it was announced that Tom Cruise would be playing Lestat in Interview with the Vampire, only to publicly recant and offer Cruise heaps of praise after she saw the actual movie.  Besides, if we ever get that far, authors (unless they’re J.K. Rowling) have zero say in who plays whom.  Often the real world gets in the way anyway – the preferred choice either isn’t interested or isn’t available.  There’s also the possibility that you don’t get your dream cast but you end up with somebody better.  I seem to recall that on Stephenie Meyer’s website years ago she talked about wanting Henry Cavill (the new Superman) to play Edward Cullen; without getting into my opinion of the quality of those movies it’s probably fair to say that no one among the many Twihards of the world was disappointed with landing Robert Pattinson instead.  (Truthfully, had it actually been Cavill they would have lusted over his smoldery-eyed poster just as much.)

What, then, is the point of the preceding rant?  As the chairman of the British “Well Basically” society would say:  well, basically, I think authors and aspiring authors do their readers a disservice when they talk about who they’d like to see play their characters in a hypothetical big screen version.  Even though it’s usually done all in fun, that interpretation gets taken as definitive since it’s coming from the creator, and any ideas the readers and fans might have had, imaginative as they might have been, are immediately supplanted because, you know, the guy who actually made it up has spoken.  It was like when Harry Potter merchandise first hit the shelves and all the kids who had until that point been making their own creations out of spare cloth and construction paper now settled for making their parents buy the officially licensed, made in China plastic crap.

So, in the unlikely event that someone someday wants to make a movie about something I’ve written?  Don’t ask me who I’d cast; my own counsel will I keep on that matter, young padawan.  I’ll be perfectly happy so long as they find a role somewhere for this lady:

berenicesmile

You know, if she’s available and she’s interested.