Happy Thanksgiving

This year, I am thankful for opportunity and knowledge, for art and life, as every year.  I am thankful for the public school system, for teachers and medical professionals, for flannel toddler jammies and organic free range turkey.

I am thankful for wine, and family, and butter.  I am thankful that I live in a country that allows me the freedom to both enjoy the trappings of a holiday while intellectually disagreeing with the moral rectitude of its history.  I am thankful for the teaching justice of diversity, and for the enduring power of friendship.

I am thankful for books, and the smell of leaves on the grass, and for the music of the seasons.  I am thankful for Roomba vaccum robots, which entertain cats and children alike.  I am thankful for the Internet, font of dubious curiosities that it is.

I am thankful for New England and its rolling, new-ancient realms, for the scent of brine on the seashore and conifer in the mountains.

I am thankful for brotherhood, and equality, and artisan jams.

I am thankful for the Cheese Shop of Salem and autumnal adventure, and for the quiet tenacity of the 99 percent.  I am thankful for steampunk serials and glitchy code, for Ikea furniture and bar carts, for self-watering planters and Cook’s Illustrated and shallow field camera lenses.

But mostly I am thankful for him, and for her, and for us.  Always.

The Story Is Always About the Characters

I’ve been known to defend certain aspects of the Star Wars prequels.  Not because I think that they’re good films overall, but because there are certain parts of them, mostly involving setting, action, or small character quirks, that struck me as belonging in the Star Wars canon.  That is to say, certain aspects of the films, such as parts of Ewan MacGregor’s performance as Obi Wan, jibe with my own internal vision of the backstory of that character.  They seem to fit.  They seem like glimpses into what the prequels might have been had they been written and directed by someone who actually cared about Star Wars.

io9’s recent look back at Attack of the Clones pretty much sums up my feelings on that movie, in a way I’ve never really been able to express very well myself.  In short, they describe Clones as being, for the most part, just as bad as we all remember, a storytelling failure not redeemed by the one or two good moments of fan service we see on screen.

The message I really take from their review, however, is one I’ve been struggling to elucidate for some time: that the failure of Episode II and, by extension, the Star Wars prequels as a whole, is a failure of character.  The prequels prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that no amount of intriguing world-building, beautiful production design, or stunning action sequences can save a story that fails to bring its characters to life.

So wait, Jim.  Step back a minute.  What you’re saying here, really, is that character is important to storytelling?  Big reveal, dude.  You’re really jumping the shark, here.

Yes, what I’m saying is that character is important–vital–to storytelling.  But you already knew that.  What I think is interesting is finding such a great example of a story that should have worked, that had everything going for it, every reason to work, but completely screwed the pooch when it came time to deliver.

Sure, George Lucas had the burden of decades of fan expectations to deal with.  Yes, that’s a lot of pressure.  But what people often forget is that Lucas made the movies he wanted to make.  He’s never responded well to criticism of the prequels, and generally speaks dismissively of Star Wars fans.  He’s the kind of filmmaker who’s more concerned with how things look than how things feel.  To him, the saga is a soap opera, and he filmed it like one: a story purportedly about passion and heartbreak and betrayal that nonetheless fails almost completely to deliver the pathos of any of those emotions.

What Lucas wanted is what we got: a throwback to the sci-fi adventure serials of his youth, peppered with just enough superficial emotional motivation to propel the plot of the adventure forward.  It’s something that’s appealing to children, but not to adults, who crave real character arcs.

Had he endeavored to see it from the perspective of the people who enjoyed the original movies, he would have (or should have) realized that the films he was making couldn’t possibly have worked.

-Anakin-and-Padme-anakin-and-padme-31435845-813-1500
These are our passion faces.

Take io9’s example of the romantic relationship between Padme and Anakin:

As forced and muddled as the courtship between Anakin and Padme is, it’s obviously an essential piece of the overall puzzle of Star Wars. It’s a nice thing to see, but it’s just handled so terribly. “You are in my very soul tormenting me?” Really? It just sounds like robots talking. And why are you guys eating pears with forks and knives?

It i handled terribly.  The romantic scenes between Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman should be used in film school as an example of a lack of chemistry.  The actors are woodenly delivering lines, having been sapped by the bad writing and the directing of any emotional motivation to make the scene work.

Padme Amidala is supposed to be the entire reason Anakin Skywalker falls to the dark side.  At the very least, she is the proximate cause: his desire to save her from the death he envisions is the turning point for his character.  In order for that to make sense, for it to play for the audience, we have to believe it.  We have to buy that he loves her so much that he can’t imagine a world without her in it.  That unlike the average person dealing with the idea of loss, Skywalker sees the power to prevent it, and falls into the trap.  He falls to the dark side with the best intentions, but in this case, those intentions never really make any sense, because from the standpoint of the character as he’s portrayed on screen, the audience has absolutely no reason to believe that he actually believes any of it.  The viewer can’t buy what you can’t sell.

Plot and character may be unavoidably intertwined with most stories, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t have the plot serve the characters rather than the other way around.

Writing character is a question of empathy: can you, as the writer, put yourself in the shoes of the character you’re writing, so that the character’s emotional responses to the stimuli around them come off as fully realized.  There’s no substitute for running a character through the filter of real human emotion.

There may be some writers out there who can create authentic seeming characters completely dispassionately, but if there are I don’t know of them.  If you can’t see the world through your character’s eyes, at least imaginatively, and feel at least a small flicker of what they must be feeling in the situation you’ve placed them in, then you’re not doing your job as a writer.

And that’s where Lucas failed as a writer with the prequels: he couldn’t sell the defining relationship.  As io9 puts it:

Then it happens. The biggest leap in the history of Star Wars. On the brink of death, Padme confesses her love for Anakin. It’s so out of left field, even in the movie the character of Anakin is surprised to hear it. “I truly, deeply, love you,” she says. Too bad we barely get that sense before that. I couldn’t help but laugh that Lucas made the decision to have Anakin act so shocked. It almost feels like an admission he wasn’t sure how to get the characters to this point, but had to, and here it is.

You might be able to get away with the equivalent of “And then something happens” when it comes to plot, but you’ll never get away with it with character.  The beauty of fiction is that you can get the reader, or the viewer, to believe and accept almost anything if you can sell the characters’ responses to those stories.  If the characters clearly believe it, if they act and think and feel in a way that reflects humanity and emotional logic, then your reader won’t have any trouble suspending their disbelief when it comes to interstellar spaceships or unlikely plot developments.  The reverse is not true.

The story is always about the characters.

Interview with Gabrielle de Cuir

36439d9Last week, the audiobook edition of Exile: The Book of Ever (#1) came out, narrated by the wonderful Gabrielle de Cuir and produced by Skyboat Media, the production company behind the Hugo Award-winning Lightspeed magazine podcast and many other wonderful books in the genre and out of it.

Gabrielle was kind enough to take some time out of her busy schedule to answer a few interview questions about herself and the recording process.  She also sent along a great clip of her recording a piece of Exile, which you can watch below!

Tell us a little about yourself and your background. 

I’m a native Californian, but grew up in Rome and have travelled extensively because my father was an Oscar-winning film designer and he always took the family with him on his cinematic adventures. I currently live and thrive in Los Angeles. I attended UCLA and received my degree there in Theatre Arts.

How did you get started narrating audiobooks?

I started in this business as an abridger; when I started doing this a decade ago, most books had to be cut down to fit onto four cassettes. Editing Anna Karenina down to four cassettes was quite a challenge! It also was an invaluable learning process as to what is essential in a story and what is fluff. Then, the company I worked for went out of business, and I hung out a shingle as a narrator. I couldn’t afford to pay anyone else! (The truth is I have a tremendously strong acting and performing background in theatre.) 

How do you choose your projects?

I need to connect at some emotional or intellectual level with the material. And my tastes are varied. I look for books with poetic flow, sharp humor or a variety of accents and characters. Some books have all of these; some just have one quality or another. Exile attracted me because of Ever’s personality and point of view. Stories with a strong point of view are acting gold.

Does your own interest in the subject matter of the book in question matter?

Not really. My job as an effective narrator is to channel author intent; to “midwife” the book, supporting it where I can and being a catalyst between the author and the listener, without getting in the way. 

Tell us a little bit about the recording process itself.  Where do you start? What’s your studio like?  Do you record all the way through and worry about errors in postproduction, or do you do a lot of stopping and starting?

I start by doing a thorough scan of the book. I know that sounds contradictory, but there are not enough hours of the day for me to read and rehearse every word of the book. I look for the story arc; whether the book is going to need a lot of pronunciation research. I determine who the main characters are; whether there are particular accents indicated. When recording begins, we at Skyboat Studios work with a director, for accuracy and also to allow the narrator to fully “perform” the audiobook. Industry demands have forced many actors to work alone in their studios, doing both the narration and the editing as they go. This can be fine for some books, but not, in my opinion for novels with many characters. If a book is estimated at ten hours finished, for example, it will usually take twice that long to record in the studio (i.e., twenty hours).

Audiobook narrators generally don’t record more than four or five hours a day, because the vocal chords can only stand so much stress. So, a ten-hour book might take up to a week to record. So, I start reading. The director stops me when he/she hears an error.

I take tea breaks every hour or so to keep hydrated. The director marks the script for my editor. When we have finished recording the book, we send the director’s pages and the audiofiles to the editor. He does his magic by editing out all the flubs and noises.

Were there any memorable moments recording Exile?  What was it like living with the book in so much detail for so long?

I loved all the instances where Ever’s power made itself apparent; I would try to actually feel the tingling she felt as I narrated it. (I know that sounds a bit New Agey, but, hey, I’m all alone in the booth; I’m allowed!) I found the dialogue scenes between Jared and Ever to flow very easily; I truly felt they made a great pair in the adventures.

Creating Thayne was the most challenging with his “inner voice” and his transformations. It’s heaven living in a whole world., so different from our own. James has created a complete universe, and it was a joy spending time there every day of the recordings!

Thanks so much to Gabrielle and the crew at Skyboat Media!

The audiobook of Exile: The Book of Ever (#1) is available now at Audible.com.