Musical Month Week 2: Pierre & Natasha

I want to start this post with a slight disclaimer. I think a lot of parts of this analysis are a bit self-indulgent on my part. I think in many cases analysis of things we love can often fall to self-indulgence due to the fact that the things we love very often connect to ourselves in a personal way. I don’t think it’s unusual or detrimental to an analysis to feel a personal connection, but I also think it can make it difficult to see opposing sides of an analysis.

So, wordy apologies aside, I want to talk about Natasha and Pierre. I want to talk about them both individually but I mostly want to talk about their relationship. This analysis will mostly focus on four songs – “No One Else,” “Dust and Ashes,” “Pierre,” and finally, and most importantly “Pierre & Natasha.” So, let’s break this down.

Part 1: Natasha

At the beginning of the musical, Natasha is defined by her youth. It’s the first thing the audience learns of her – she is young, she is in love. In “No One Else,” this idea is expanded upon even further. In a sweeping ballad, Natasha declares her love for her absent fiance.

While the audience could definitely take note of her passion, they might also take notice of her innocence. Consider her repetition of “I love you,” as if in childish glee over the new adult emotion she feels. Or when she expresses her want to “put her arms ’round her knees,” “squeezing as tight as possible,” and “flying away”. Or, maybe most notably, her naive wish that Andrey will suddenly appear, “sitting in the drawing room” and she’s only missing him because she “forgot” he was there.

Ultimately, while the audience might be charmed by Natasha’s love for Andrey, it’s hard to ignore the fact that she loves him without a hint of realism. In a way, that’s admirable, but as the musical progresses, it becomes obvious that it’s detrimental.

As Natasha is caught up with Anatole, it’s clear that her passion for Andrey was fueled more by childlike glee than actual adult emotion. Throughout the musical, she continues to make uninformed decisions, getting involved with a dishonest man, nearly eloping, and then almost committing suicide. While Natasha’s idealism in “No One Else” is beautiful and touching, it is also ultimately hollow.

One could blame Natasha for rushing into things, but in a way the blame could also be put on the world she lives in. She is young, after all. Her marriage to Andrey was not her own decision, and although she was willing to convince herself that she loved him, swept up in the idealism of being a wife, it was ultimately grounded in very few of her own decisions. Similarly, Andrey’s disappearance to fight in a war is out of Natasha’s hands. So is her whirlwind romance with Anatole, who repeatedly is the one to make the plans, up to where he almost whisks her away on a troika. She is repeatedly a victim of her society and those around her, using her for their own ends.

So, by the time of “Pierre & Natasha,” Natasha has had her innocence and naivete beaten out of her. While she certainly deserves some of the blame, it is obvious that the mistakes of others have been pinned to her, bringing great shame to her name.

Part 2: Pierre

Unlike most of his fellow characters, Pierre is not explained with a short little word and phrase. Instead, Pierre gets an entire song, aptly named “Pierre,” to explain his mentality at the beginning of the musical.

Essentially, Pierre is a man unsatisfied with his current life. He feels as though he has declined in his age. He constantly compares himself to Andrey, feeling as though Andrey’s choice to go to war makes him a better man. In comparison, Pierre views his life as too quiet, too sedentary. The rest of the cast appears to see him as a sad, yet generally good-hearted old man. (Interestingly, Pierre doesn’t really seem that much older than the rest of the cast, at least not physically. Regardless, he gets referred to as the old man a lot.)

However, we also are introduced to Pierre’s romantic life, or the lack thereof. While he is married, his wife, Helene, clearly doesn’t love him. The two of them argue, and refer to each other only as “wife” and “husband.” In addition, Helene’s romances with many other men (and probably also women, let’s be honest) is pretty much common knowledge to the rest of the cast. Pierre only briefly touches on this situation in “Pierre,” when he remarks that “the women they all pity me / because I’m married / but not in love / frozen at the center.”

It’s not until Pierre almost dies in a duel with Dolokhov that we get to hear his true feelings on romance. In “Dust and Ashes,” Pierre comes to the conclusion that the only reason he feels compelled to stay alive is that he still hasn’t fallen in love. He hypothesizes that only through love (romantic love, mind you) can one find divinity.

Pierre, Natasha, and Marriage

So it’s easy to draw comparisons between Natasha and Pierre. Both seem to put a lot of stock into romantic love. For both, it’s their downfall, the main source of their pain and dissatisfaction with their life. But I want to take a look at what part of romance has caused them such grief, because I don’t think you can argue that it’s simply romance as a whole. No, it’s marriage.

Think about it. Pierre is stuck in a loveless marriage, and it’s that marriage that is preventing him from being able to find love, and by extension, divinity. Natasha, on the other hand, is controlled by her impending marriage to Andrey. When she’s finally convinced to act on her “own terms” without worrying about that marriage, she’s caught up with Anatole and ruins her life by trying to elope with him. It’s not love or romance, it’s marriage specifically that is causing both characters such trauma.

In addition, I’d be willing to make this analysis even more specific. It may not just be marriage that is causing both characters problems, it may be the idea that marriage and romance are the same thing. Natasha’s seemingly endless passion for Andrey is actually not at all lasting, and goes away as soon as Anatole becomes a more present option for marriage. And then it’s her haste to marry Anatole that ruins her life. In both cases, her longing to marry both of these men is mistaken as romantic feeling.

On the other hand, we don’t really know why Pierre married Helene. Though, once again, their marriage by no means equals romance.

So, with that in mind, I want to look at “Pierre & Natasha,” the last song I’ll be analyzing. In this song, after Andrey has firmly rejected Natasha, so Pierre tries to comfort her. However, the conversation that takes place starts to say a lot more about their relationship with one another.

First of all, I want to point out that in War and Peace, Natasha and Pierre were good friends when they were younger. This song draws attention to that friendship early on, when Natasha refers to him as “Peter Kirilovich,” and he corrects her, wanting her to call him “Pierre.” Not only does this show he feels comfortable enough with her to be on a first-name basis, but “Kirilovich” was also his former last name, before his now-deceased father allowed him to take on the name “Bezhukov.” It shows that she knew him during a time before now, when they were both young and idealistic. It’s a sign of familiarity and friendship.

Another point to draw attention to is Pierre’s question to Natasha about Anatole, and her response:

[PIERRE]
But I should like to know one thing
Did you love—
Did you love that bad man?

[NATASHA]
Don’t call him bad
But I don’t know, I don’t know at all

Natasha doesn’t know now whether she ever loved Anatole, and I think this goes to show my point earlier about her confusing marriage and romance. Now that Anatole is firmly not a candidate for marriage, Natasha isn’t sure whether or not she ever truly loved him, or was more excited for the possibility of their wedding.

After this exchange, Natasha breaks down into tears, and Pierre, at this sight, also begins to cry. Despite the fact that Pierre tries to “despise her” for what she’s done, he cannot help but feel for her on a personal level. Again, the audience is shown the connection the two of them share on an emotional level.

He promises her that they do not need to speak of the situation with Andrey again, and says “But one thing I beg of you, consider me your friend / And if you ever need help, or simply to open your heart to someone / Not now, but when your mind is clear / Think of me.” Repeatedly it’s the friendship and close emotional connection Natasha and Pierre share that is brought up. Neither expressly declares a grand, sweeping passion for one another, but it’s made abundantly clear that they care deeply for one another. Even after Natasha tries to say she doesn’t deserve his care after the things she has done, the music cuts out and Pierre delivers the one spoken line in the entire musical:

[PIERRE]
If I were not myself
But the brightest, handsomest
Best man on earth
And if I were free—
I would get down on my knees this minute
And ask you for your hand
And for your love

And yes, you read that right, Pierre heavily implies that he wishes to marry Natasha. Remember how I said that marriage and romance in this play are intertwined in the minds of the characters? It’s this line that confirms what the audience may have been suspecting this whole time – Pierre loves Natasha romantically.

But here’s the thing. Pierre can’t marry Natasha. He’s a married man, she’s disgraced and shamed, “unmarriable.”

Still, this doesn’t seem to sadden either Natasha or Pierre. In fact, it leads Natasha to “weep tears of gratitude / tears of joy / tears of thanks” and to leave the room “smiling.” Pierre too weeps some “tears of joy” of his own, and leaves the room to deliver the final, hopeful number of the musical.

So what does this all mean for their relationship? Well, I don’t think it’s an accident that the couple that cannot even consider marriage is the one that seems the most happy with the idea of their love for one another. Plus, it’s the couple whose platonic love for one another that gets their happily ever after, in a sense.

Pierre’s declaration of love for Natasha is a microcosm of what makes their relationship work. Unlike the rest of the musical, sung grandly with beautiful language, he states his love for her frankly with no music in the background. It’s not grand, but it’s earnest and well-thought-out.

And so what do we take away from Pierre and Natasha’s relationship? The kind of romance that lasts and brings happiness can only exist on a foundation of friendship and shared emotional connection. It has very little to do with passion or grand gestures or traditional marriages.

We don’t get to see what comes of Pierre and Natasha, but I think the audience nonetheless leaves the theater (or the YouTube playlist) satisfied, knowing that the too have found a real love. Platonic, romantic, lasting, and happy.

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A Sparkling Personality Type

I’d like to think of myself as a purely scientific person all the time. I wish I could say I always listen to facts and only facts… but listen, I love personality tests.

And I know there’s a lot to be said about the legitimacy of a test that claims to understand your entire life and personality through only a few questions. I know personality quizzes tend to pull off their eerie accuracy through making sweeping, vague statements that almost anyone can relate to. That’s how completely unscientific classifications like horoscopes work, but it’s more or less how more specific personality tests operate as well.

Still… I can’t help but love them.

A few days ago, I was hanging out in my dorm floor’s lounge when my business school roommate announced she was taking the Myers-Briggs personality test for a class. This sparked a conversation throughout the lounge as everyone took the test for themselves and excitedly shared their results.

The Myers-Briggs personality test creates an overview of how a person interacts with the world. It involves four categories of two possibilities each. You can either be an Introvert (I) or an Extravert (E) which determines whether you focus on your inner world or your outer world, Sensing (S) or Intuition (N) which determines whether you’re satisfied with basic information or you prefer to interpret it for yourself, Thinking (T) or Feeling (F) which determines if you approach problems emotionally or logically first, and finally Judging (J) or Perceiving (P) which determines whether you prefer to have decisions made for you or prefer to make decisions yourself. I had already taken the test years before and gotten the result of INFJ (Introvert, Intuition, Feeling, Judging).

I retook the test to the same result and found myself shocked at the incredible accuracy of the ensuing description. How did they know so much about my life, my world-view, my relationships, my goals?

Well… it’s a detailed test. But it also made me think about personality tests in general and how despite their sometimes shaky scientific merit, there’s still something valuable about them.

See, I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about myself. I assume it’s a college thing, to start thinking about the person you want to be and the life you want to live, but I think those thoughts also lead to having to think about your current life. I’ve made a lot of realizations about myself in the last two years or so that have brought all nineteen years of my life into clarity. I imagine that process will most likely continue for the rest of my life.

But it’s not an easy process. I think you become so used to the way your own brain works that it’s hard to step out of it, per se, and look at it critically. The fact that it’s taken me so long to figure out some fundamental things about myself speaks to this difficulty.

So I think there’s something to these personality quizzes. As much as they may not be the most scientific thing in existence, they do provide a pretty easy avenue to talking about yourself. It’s much easier to identify yourself as an INFJ, or a Virgo, or a Ravenclaw than someone with a lot of empathy, or someone who likes to have control over every situation, or someone who is more comfortable with books than with people.

It’s hard to sit down with other people and talk about yourself seriously – you’ve gotta overcome that modesty barrier, and you’ve gotta be brave and vulnerable. But when you’re talking in fun categories, in personality types, it takes down these barriers somewhat.

I mean, I could see that firsthand that night in the lounge. We excitedly shared deep details about how our minds work, how we view relationships and goals. I learned a lot of personal detail about the people on my floor, and it was fascinating and beautiful.

And it was all inspired by a personality test – a collection of four letters. And in that moment I was convinced that even if personality tests aren’t always based in facts, they’re still an excellent tool for self-reflection and self-discovery. And isn’t that a unique and useful thing worth celebrating?

The Death of a Pony

Recently, I’ve found myself doing what I thought I’d never do again – playing a browser-based pet game.

That’s right, gape in shock and awe at all the time I’ve spent recently on Lioden and Tattered Weave, two games featuring cute, multicolored animals to raise and train.

These sort of games are definitely, definitely not new for me. My parents and old friends can attest to how much time I used to spend on games like Neopets, Webkinz, Howrse, and the topic of this post: Ponystars.

Usually I like to try and draw some sort of philosophical or analytical point in these posts, but to be honest, I want this post to commemorate a community that was really important to me years ago that now no longer exists. I don’t really have any kind of deeper point to this other than a chance to remember how important it was to me back in the day.

Nowadays, a Google search for Ponystars will probably pull up a few scattered news articles about its untimely demise at the hands of copyright law as well some broken links from “girl gaming” websites. There’s a Facebook group remembering the site, but it hasn’t been updated in a long, long time. Google Images pulls up a few pictures of the ponies and screenshots of the website back when it was still up and running. But no one really talks about it anymore and that makes me kind of sad, honestly.

I joined Ponystars back in 2009, when I was ten years old. I was a horse-obsessed kid back then, even though I had never really ridden horses. I was raised on My Little Pony. I loved animals. So Ponystars appealed to me immediately. A website that lets me raise and breed multi-colored pastel ponies? Uh, yes please.

My first pony was a winged air pony named Magenta. She had, as her name suggests, a magenta coat, blue eyes, and a green mane. Later in life I gave her a little tattoo on her butt cutiemark-style of a rainbow-and-music-note design. In the rich story I made up in my head around my ponies, she was a beautiful and lively queen of her herd.

Her king was a horned earth pony named Ice Blizzard, all blue with brown eyes. I was delighted to discover they bred to produce lots of cute purple ponies (my favorite color.)

The breeding quickly became one of my favorite aspects of the game. You could breed two pony parents together and their coat, mane, and eye colors became the range of colors their offspring’s coat, mane, and eye colors could be. I would give these ponies long, elaborate names, often inspired by songs or book quotes.

(Off the top of my head, I remember one cream colored, blue-maned air pony named “Lost in Space with Nothing but a Few Cream Puffs and My Dignity, Sort Of.” I couldn’t make that one up if I tried.)

Another obsession of mine in the breeding aspect of the game was breeding for “glitches.”

When you begin the game, you roll for your first pony by designing their parents. You pick their coat, mane, and eye colors by setting the RGB values. You could pick from a color picker, but for a short time early in the site’s history, you could also just type the numerical RGB values in directly. And while that’s all fine and good, it allowed for some… er… interesting experiments.

Some enterprising early users used this creator to create ponies with colors wildly outside of the RGB range. Some, called “Plitches,” had RGB values of higher than the standard 255, 255, 255 maximum. They usually appeared bright red or orange, but in rarer cases could appear black, white, or green. “Glitches,” on the other hand, were rarer still, and had values lower than 0,0,0. Their color ranges varied much more wildly than Plitches did, which made them ultimately more valuable.

Eventually, the glitch was fixed and ponies were no longer able to be created with these impossible color ranges, but the ponies that had already been created remained, and people learned how to breed more. The easiest way was to breed two glitched parents together, but even in that case it was rare that their glitched colors would pass on to their offspring. It was also possible to breed an all black pony (0,0,0) to a glitched pony to create glitched offspring, but that was even more rare and difficult.

I can’t remember if I ever successfully bred my own glitched pony, but I certainly spent a lot of the in-game currency on buying them from other users. They were my prized possessions.

Another aspect of the game that convinced me to sink real-life money was the customization options. There existed hundreds of “traits” in the game – little clothing items you could buy and dress up your pony with. These items ranged from accessories, to special coats, manes, hooves, backgrounds, and props the pony could be displayed with. Most of these items could only be bought for the special paid currency, so I convinced my parents to buy me gift cards for them on many occasions. I took pride in customizing my ponies, matching colors and styles and tweaking them until they were just right.

Was the amount of money I spent on this doomed game a total waste? Oh yes, absolutely.

However, I think through all the breeding and customization of those pretty, pretty ponies, it was the community that kept me coming back. The website had a large, populated forum for discussing the game with other users. People would use these forums not only to chat but also to run contests, giveaways, and even tiny in-game businesses – selling items and ponies to other users. I spent hours and hours on these forums – probably more time than I spent on the actual website.

However, the biggest aspect of the community came in the special Ponystars IRC, or Internet Relay Chat. It was a website-sponsored instant messaging website, and there I spent a ton of time chatting with people not only about the website, but about life.

It’s strange, to me, looking back on these days. I’ve never really been the sort of person to have Internet friends, but my time on Ponystars was the only exception. I knew the regulars of the IRC like I knew real-life friends. We had inside jokes. We helped each other out with customization and naming advice. We held giveaways. We talked about our lives.

And you know the weirdest part? A ton of those people were way, way older than me. And not in a creepy, internet predator way. I mean, a lot of my closest friends on this website were teenagers, or college-aged, or even parents with children! I remember often being the youngest in the group chat, and being praised for my maturity.

Nowadays that sends off all sorts of creeper bells in my head, but back in the day I didn’t worry about it. We were all connected in our love of our pastel ponies. (I mean, granted, there was no sharing of personal information, since we all tended to go by our usernames and there were rules against sharing anything else that might be incriminating, but still.)

And then, after a few years, Ponystars was struck by a litany of copyright claims from another, similar website called PonyIsland, and the website was unceremoniously closed down for good. I remember saving pictures of all of my favorite ponies, and mourning their loss with the other members of my little IRC community.

I looked for those pictures in the process of creating this post, but to my dismay, I couldn’t find them. I imagine they’re probably rotting in a dusty corner of one of my Mom’s old laptops. And I still sometimes stop and wonder what happened to all those people I used to talk to so regularly. Where are they now? What sort of lives do they leave? Do they remember me, gillystar45, young in age but “mature?”

I’d love to talk to some of them again. Maybe that’s the point of this post, But it’s a long shot. The more realistic purpose is to pay homage to a personally important, dearly departed website.

Will I ever find another pet website quite like Ponystars? Probably not. But then again, I’ll never be that same horse-obsessed ten-year-old girl. But I can still remember those days, full of pastel prettiness and a unique community.

Writing Advice (For Mortals)

When I first heard about the controversy surrounding the previously-unknown YA novel Handbook for Mortals, I was immediately engrossed in a tale that seemed to constantly outdo itself in juicy, dramatic twists and turns. It would take an entire separate blog post to parse the dense threads of intrigue involved in this story, so I instead urge you to read the link I provided to contextualize today’s blog post.

And while yes, it would be fun to provide my amusement on just how deep this story goes, or how incredibly disgusting I find its author and its publishing company, I feel as though you can probably draw your own conclusions on those topics. What I instead intend is to use some of the awful writing in this terrible book as a sort of “What Not to Do” of sorts for newcomers to writing.

Now, I do need to say that I have not read this book. And, unless I find a free version, I will not read this book. I don’t really want to support this author and this publishing company. That being said, I will try not to judge the book by anything other than what is contained in the two excerpts I will be using.

(But, honestly, if I do end up judging the book by something beyond the excerpts… I still think I’ll sleep well tonight.)

The excerpts I will be using are pasted below. Both are passages from early on in the book, used mainly as description of the book’s main character and first-person narrator, Zade.

 

So, What’s the Problem with it?

While I think it’s pretty obvious that these two passages are written in a… let’s say… juvenile manner, it may be difficult to parse what exactly makes them sound so cringe-worthy.

So, let’s start with what’s wrong with these passages.

Slow and Lengthy Loses Everythinng

I think the first problem to discuss is the incredible length of both of these passages. Combined, these two passages probably equal about a normal novel-page of text. All things considered, that’s a pretty sizable amount of story we’re talking about. Sure, it’s not a whole chapter, but you could still expect a reader to spend a few minutes with this text.

Normally, as a writer, your biggest mission is to get people to keep reading. Most authors attempt to grab a hold of their readers by constantly presenting them with story beats to keep them interested and paying attention. For that reason, it’s important that every paragraph has a purpose. For some paragraphs, that purpose is to move the story forward, while other serve to provide exposition on important characters and settings.

These paragraphs, as I mentioned above, serve to give the reader a feel for the character of Zade by telling the readers what she looks like and how she relates to her environment. But it does so with the least amount of efficiency possible.

See, pretend you’re a reader who just wants to read a paranormal romance that topped the New York Times bestseller list for… a bit. You picked up “Handbook for Mortals” with an expectation that there will be a cool, magical storyline or intriguing romance. Either way, you’ll want things to happen as soon as possible, to progress towards either of these possibilities. And yet, in this entire page’s worth of text… neither of these things happen.

So what really happens in either of these chunks of text? Zade does some hair pushing and… she looks a bit at the sky? In nearly a page’s worth of text the story does not move a single inch forward. That’s a pretty good way to get your readers to put the book down immediately.

And sure, one might argue that, even as nothing has happened, the reader has still gotten a sense of the sort of person she is, but the thing is, well…

The First Person Problem

Zade is the narrator of this story. Every part of the novel will contain her own personal opinions on the world around her. For this reason, it’s more or less pointless to take this time to make her stop and comment on the weather of all things. The fact that she’s a little offbeat and out-of-place in her hometown is a fact that can be more naturally and efficiently revealed by having her do anything other than just stand there and wax poetic on the weather.

And what’s more, having Zade come out and say these things about herself violates suspension of disbelief. For those unfamiliar with the term – suspension of disbelief refers to the sort-of pact between a creator of media and the consumers. While consumers acknowledge that the thing they are consuming is a work of fiction, and therefore will not necessarily adhere to the rules of the real world, the creator of the media must adhere to some rules of the fictional world, though these rules might not be grounded in reality.

In this case, the breaking of this suspension of disbelief comes in the simple fact that we are given access to a person’s thoughts in the form of Zade’s first-person narration. As such, the narration should, more or less, conform to what a normal person’s thought process would sound like. There’s no in-universe explanation for why Zade would constantly think about her own appearance and personality in such an explanatory way, and so the illusion is broken. The readers know that Zade is only thinking these things to provide exposition, and thus the prose becomes false-sounding and not believable.

Everything, All at Once

Another problem afflicting these two passages is the sheer density of information being thrown at the reader. I mentioned before that this passage is too lengthy, but it’s also too dense in information.

In most cases, it doesn’t matter what the protagonist’s hair color or body type is. It may be worth it to mention physical traits of each character in passing, but long, overly-detailed descriptions are boring, and ultimately don’t help the reader understand the characters any more than a quick, simple description would.

This is because, in most cases, readers are forming their own mental image of what a character looks like. Just because a reader isn’t told the exact curvature of the protagonist’s body doesn’t mean the reader is picturing a floating head in their mind when they think of a character. It’s more efficient, and often overall better to allow readers to form their own mental images of characters and settings, only providing a few select descriptions where appropriate to guide their views.

In addition, as I mentioned above, spelling out Zade’s “quirky” personality so blatantly violates the classic rule of “show don’t tell.” There’s no need to blatantly tell readers this. It only adds to the information dump and will be ultimately unnecessary since personality information is always better shown through the character’s interactions with other characters and their surroundings.

So How Do We Improve?

So I’ve torn this passage down. How do we build it back up? Let’s take it step-by-step.

Just… Like… Chill

The problems both with length and with information density can be solved by simply… cutting all of this out. Almost the entirety of both of these excerpts could very easily be cut and would probably improve the natural flow of prose a ton.

“But then,” you ask, “How will readers know this important physical and characteristic information about the protagonist?”

Well… simple. Take this information and spread it throughout the regular story beats. Instead of slowing down and taking the time to describe everything about Zade all at once, allow the physical and personality characteristics to come up as they become necessary to the plot. It’s okay to mention little things about Zade in this scene where she jumps off the front porch, but don’t dump everything on the readers at once.

Perhaps, have another character mention her brightly colored hair? Or comment on how she’s changed the color recently, perhaps with a note of incredulousness? This could very easily lead not only to the physical information on Zade’s hair color, but also might allude to the way she doesn’t quite fit into her community.

Have a little trust in your readers not to melt into a puddle of confusion if they aren’t given all the information right off the bat. Just chill! Let the story reveal information naturally.

A Note on First-Person

I also think some of the problems of this prose could be solved by looking into some of the inherent difficulties that come along with first-person prose.

First of all, exposition is already kind of a difficult thing to integrate naturally into text. It’s hard to justify explaining important key details of the setting or characters without running into problems of suspension of disbelief. But these problems are compounded when you’re dealing with a first-person narrator. Because you’re more or less in the head of a character, reading their thoughts, it’s hard to justify the character thinking of things they should already know innately about their world, their comrades and enemies, and themselves.

So you run into a problem. How do you divulge this information to a reader without making your character seem like some sort of odd amnesiac?

One way is to put your character into totally new situations, so their inner narration commenting on the obvious makes logical sense, since they have just as much experience in the situation as the readers would. However, this doesn’t always work out for every story.

Another way involves allowing some information to remain vague. This can be a toss up as far as positives and negatives. On one hand, you don’t worry about suspension of disbelief and you also allow for some intrigue as the readers want to find out more about your world. However, on the other hand, you risk confusing readers. Really, it’s up for you to decide. Personally, I think a balance between intriguing and confusing can be struck, but it’s not always simple.

Or, you could consider a third-person narration instead. I understand the reason why first-person narrations are so popular. They can often create a very emotional and personal tone for a story. But they don’t always work out, especially for those stories that involve a lot of world building. Understand that first person doesn’t work for every story, and be open to experimenting from different perspectives.

A Final Note on Characterization

While I already said that I’ve never read Handbook for Mortals and I can’t comment on Zade’s character throughout the entire story, some parts of these two excerpts make me think that her characterization is probably a bit… er… flat.

This is a pretty common issue in juvenile fiction, but it is a little troubling in a story written by a grown, published author.

First of all, her character seems hinged on a lie that having personality quirks is something that only a few select people have. She speaks as if loving thunderstorms or coloring her hair is something that no one in the world has ever done. And that’s simply not true. So these statements that seem to be trying to make her character seem out-of-place and odd kind of fall flat.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make a character special and different from those around her. (I mean, dang, she’s the protagonist. It’s not exactly a crazy thing to want.) But it’s important to ensure that the traits you’re saying make your character special are actually special. It’s that suspension of disbelief thing again – you can’t just say liking thunderstorms or coloring your hair is a crazy thing unless you make it clear that in your fictional world, these traits have an actual reason to seem out-of-place.

As it is, it seems Zade is living in a world similar to our own, a place where many people enjoy adverse weather or hair dye. Now, a world where these traits are uncommon could very well be a fictional world that the author wants to create. However, if this is the case, they need to make it clear from the get-go that this is a different world with different values we’re dealing with.

And so these are the ways that Handbook for Mortals could, in theory, be improved. There’s a lot of other problematic aspects in these excerpts (and most likely in the rest of the book) that could be improved, but I hope the select few things I have discussed in this blog post could turn this honestly terrible book into a learning experience. Take my advice and take this as a huge example of what not to do.

Either way though, happy writing! And remember… Zade does not have a thigh gap. (She does not! How could you even think that???)

 

In Defense of Happy Endings

I think, nowadays, media has forgotten the appeal of a happy ending.

There’s a certain clamor nowadays for gritty realism in fiction. For violence, for heartbreak, for bittersweet endings.

It’s not exactly a earth-shattering revelation to say that this clamor comes from our own often dark, violent, bittersweet world. But I feel in the same vein, stories that aren’t like that often get cut down for being too unrealistic. We live in a world where optimistic media is seen as unrealistic and avoided as such.

Isn’t that depressing? It is to me.

I think it’s easy to forget in the wash of gritty realism and horror and dark reimaginings that the very heart of media is to provide escape from the gritty, dark horrors of real life. While I do acknowledge that one form of escapism is to focus on the struggles of a fictional world with fictional characters as opposed to our own very real struggles, it still becomes a little disheartening to see how often we forget the simple escapism of a happy ending.

I make this post in defense of happy endings because I feel like too often they’re seen as cop-outs. I’ve seen series like Game of Thrones, for example, touted as good because the author has the “vision” and “gall” to allow his characters to die.

And yeah, okay, there’s merit in that. But I want to argue that authors who let their characters live happy lives can be just as meaningful, just as intriguing.

Take, for example, the incredible finale episode of “The Adventure Zone.”

I’ve talked at length about “The Adventure Zone,” or TAZ, in an earlier post as well as its creators in yet another post, but the finale was good enough for me to want to come back to these boys and their incredible Dungeons and Dragons podcast once again.

(I’m going to try to keep spoilers light in this post for those who haven’t gotten the chance to listen to this podcast, but considering the nature of this post, I imagine I will still spoil some things. Take this opportunity to go listen to it. Really. Do it. I know I’ve said this before, but just do it, you won’t regret it.)

TAZ is, at its heart, an optimistic story. It’s a goofy, lighthearted adventure with an ending that, after the big bombastic boss battle, is a joyous wedding between two side characters and the peaceful resolution of all three of the main character’s arcs.

But this is not an ending that comes after episodes of happy nothingness. No, on the contrary, TAZ is  the story of an unstoppable force slowly consuming the world. It is a story of how power can corrupt. It is a story of how even those with the best of intentions make mistakes.

TAZ very well could have ended with a negative tone. Or, it could have even gone along with many similar stories and ended on a bittersweet note. But no, Griffin McElroy chose to end his tale in the most unabashedly, steadfastly happy way possible.

And honestly? It was more powerful for it.

 

What made its unabashedly happy ending satisfying? What made the joy feel so absolutely earned, so gorgeously meaningful?

Well, even from the beginning, despite the struggles the characters face, it was pretty clear from early on that TAZ was going to be a story of people banding together in the face of evil. Even as the villain seemed to be an unstoppable, all-consuming force of destruction, instead of taking the easy route and creating drama via lots of failure, Griffin McElroy focuses on how his characters struggle and succeed instead.

That, I think, is an incredible microcosm of what makes happy endings so meaningful in my eyes.

It’s easy to create intrigue by allowing characters to ultimately fail. Sad stories with bittersweet endings can be memorable for the emotions they cause. But I think it’s more difficult but ultimately more rewarding to convincingly allow characters to win. That’s why TAZ worked so well. I often asked myself throughout the course of the podcast just how the characters could possibly triumph over their enemies. Knowing the optimistic tone of the story, I knew they probably would, but just how they would manage it kept me intrigued through all 69 episodes of the podcast.

I feel like stories with sad tones and sad endings don’t allow this kind of intrigue to exist. If you know from the start the characters will fail, there’s no reason to root for them. And sure, this can be an interesting dynamic in some stories, but I don’t think it’s the only or even the better way to build drama.

Plus, there’s a definite need for happy endings in the sad world we live in. Maybe “realism” is good in small doses, but I don’t think there’s any reason why optimism in media is a bad or “unrealistic” thing. And even if it is unrealistic, it’s fiction! Why can’t we have a little fun in our media now and again?

So there’s a good reason to allow your characters to live happily ever after. It builds drama through struggle and serves as a bit of light in an often dark world.

The end.

 

 

A Lyrical Analysis of “Pork Soda”

Well, look at the time! Looks it’s time for another lyrical analysis.

Yep, I did this once before, and it ended up being a really fun little stretch of my analytical muscles. It was really only a matter of time before I came back with yet another song to meticulously dissect because what’s more fun than that? Nothing, obviously.

Like last time, I come to you with a song that has really struck me for its incredibly deep and clever writing. However, this time the lyrics are a little bit more ambiguous. As with all analytical readings, this is simply my own opinion of what the lyrics mean. Your interpretation or the actual interpretation could be wildly different! And that’s okay.

Glass Animals’ “How to Be a Human Being” is an album already filled with, er, unusually-written songs. They certainly like to stick to an off-kilter style, but it’s also a goldmine for interesting lyrical readings. “Pork Soda” is my personal favorite of the bunch, both musically and lyrically. Despite its bouncy, goofy sound and lyrics, it’s a surprisingly sad song about loss and confusion. Sounds like a good time! Let’s get to it!

(Also, just to let you know, I will be addressing the… unique title. Don’t worry. We’ll get there.)

“Somewhere in South End when you were fun
You took my hand and you made me run”
We begin the song with a flashback, tipped off to the listener via the past-tense language and also the light vagueness of it all. We’re not exactly where this scene takes place, just “somewhere.”
So, yeah, it’s vague, but what information can we glean from this line? A lot of information, actually. First of all, we know something has happened to the relationship between the speaker and the person they’re speaking of. After all, they’re speaking of this person being fun… in the past tense. Clearly something has gone down.
In addition, we can perhaps assume a few things about the relationship based on how the speaker points out the subject of the song being the one to take their hand and make them run. It suggests a sort of childlike innocence, yes, just two children running and holding hands, but also that the speaker was not the one driving the relationship.
“Up past the prison to the seafront
You climbed the cliff edge and took the plunge”

It’s no accident where the speaker is taken to by the subject of the song. Past the prison suggests freedom, bypassing a common symbol of restraint, opting to run instead to the seafront to dive off a cliff. It’s a wild disregard for safety, plunging forward with the backdrop of the crashing sea.

It suggests a lack of care, a enthusiastic yet ultimately doomed plunge.

If you’re wondering, yes, this is very meaningful for the rest of the song.

“Why can’t we laugh now like we did then?
How come I see you and ache instead?”

One of the biggest motifs of this song is the constant questions the speaker asks. However, for all the questions, there is a distinct lack of answers.

I think, beyond that, these lines more or less speak for themselves. The innocent, excitable relationship that once existed between the speaker and the subject of the song is gone now. They don’t laugh like they used to, and now all the speaker feels is a hollow ache.

“How come you only look pleased in bed?
Let’s climb the cliff edge and jump again”

The first line here is the only line thus far that has suggested anything other than a platonic relationship between the speaker and subject. I think this is important. It suggests that the relationship between the speaker and the subject was once very rooted in friendship, a friendship built, judging by the first lines, on a childlike sense of adventure. Now, however, the only time the speaker sees the same happiness in their partner is when they’re having sex. It’s a wild change from what once was, also connecting perhaps to an overall loss of innocence.

The speaker wishes to go back to the simple times, however even their wish seems ultimately futile, since it only suggests they plunge off the cliff face again. The speaker seems to acknowledge that even if they were to recapture the reckless joy their relationship once had, it would still end up failing, falling.

“Pineapples are in my head
(Pineapples are in my head)
Got nobody ‘cos I’m brain dead
(Got nobody ‘cos I’m brain dead)”

These are the lines that sparked my interest in looking into this song’s meaning and lyrics as a whole. What do they mean?

Well, nothing. They mean nothing at all. And that’s what’s important. This once close relationship is drifting apart, and the speaker can’t figure out why. Nothing seems to make sense. These nonsense lines portray the confusion and lack of distinct reason behind the end of this relationship.

I also think the last line “Got nobody cos’ I’m brain dead” expresses a lot of personal frustration the speaker has with themselves. It’s been suggested that it was the subject of the song that tended to lead in their relationship, but now that they’re no longer invested, the speaker is left feeling dumb. They feel they can’t take charge now and express their sadness over the end of the relationship, perhaps because they never had power in the first place.

“Somebody said that I’m a fuckin’ slum
Don’t know that I belong”

These next few lines start to spiral into each other, and I think they perhaps mirror the thought process of the speaker, slowly spiraling into despair over their lack of power to fix this relationship that’s so important to them.

These two lines further the idea from the lines before, that the speaker feels powerless and lonely. They feel they don’t belong anymore, and can’t do anything about it. I think it’s interesting, though, that this information is attributed to an unnamed “somebody.” I wonder if perhaps that “somebody” represents the paranoia of the speaker, thinking everyone around them can see how pathetic they look. This may suggest self-confidence issues in the speaker in the wake of this failed relationship.

“Maybe you’re fucking dumb
Maybe I’m just a bum”

Here the speaker considers blaming the end of the relationship on the subject of the song, but instead returns back to those same self-conscious thoughts from before. I think this even further proves that these lines represent a thought spiral, chaotically contradicting each other and changing on the drop of a dime.

“Maybe you’re fucking scum
Don’t you go psycho chum”

Now we return to hatred of the subject of the song. You’ll see once again, though, that the tone of the speaker’s thoughts changes in the next lines.

I want to take special note of the second line though, calling the subject “chum.” I think this once again connects to how heavily based in friendship it seems this relationship used to be. Now, though, the person is so unrecognizable from the friend and lover they once had, the speaker calls them “psycho.”

“I want you for the world
I want you all the time
(Stop!)”

And yet, it’s clear the speaker still really loves the subject of the song. These two lines are the first to really agree with each other, but it’s here that the speaker cuts off their own thoughts with a “stop!” It’s clear that these two thoughts are the most painful for the speaker to consider. The fact that they still love the person they’ve drifted apart from is something they cannot even allow themselves to think. So, the “spiral” stops abruptly, and the song fades into instrumentals for a bit, as if resetting, before getting back to the chorus.

“Pineapples are in my head
(when you were fun)
Got nobody ‘cos I’m brain dead
(you made me run)
Pineapples are in my head
(to the seafront)
Got nobody ‘cos I’m brain dead
(she took the plunge)”

Once more we return to the confusing and meaningless end of a relationship, but now we have a repetition of some earlier lines. There is one difference now, though, and that’s that the speaker refers to the subject for the first time in third person. It very clearly signifies a disconnect between the speaker and the subject. They’ve removed themselves from the scene of the subject plunging off the cliff, passively describing it as their confusing, muddled thoughts repeat.

So, how is our speaker coping with the loss? By removing themselves fully from any past connection. And how well does that go? Well…

“5000 footsteps in your wet dress
Back to the house with your arms around my neck”

…Not very well, it seems. The lyrics lurch unceremoniously into another flashback. It’s pretty vague. Why is her dress wet? Where did they come from? It’s left up to the audience to interpret. However, the lack of information suggests that, to the speaker, this scene needs no set-up. It’s ingrained in their mind. They don’t need to remember the exact details, just the feelings of the subject’s arms around their neck and her damp clothing.

“We drank pork soda with tangled legs
I won’t forget how you looked at me then”

And hey, I said I’d explain the title! Here it is. “Pork Soda” seems to be a reference to these happy memories the speaker shares with the subject. It’s a weird detail, for sure, but unforgettable. It suggests that this relationship, for the speaker, is too strange and also simultaneously comforting to forget. Even through their confusion and their sadness and their attempts to demonize or remove themselves from their past lover, this memory remains.

It’s no coincidence that this memory is the first lyric that has suggested any returning affection from the subject to the speaker, either. This memory is a memory of love, what once was.

(Also, as a side note, according to Dave Bayley of Glass Animals, the title came from a woman he met with a tattoo that said “Pork Soda.” It was apparently a reference to a pork dish made with coke. I can attest that pork cooked with a can of coke in a crock pot is DELICIOUS, and I assume that is the dish the tattoo referred to.)

“I know I’m no sweet prince of love
Those times when we got drunk”

And this happy memory triggers yet another spiral of thoughts, but this one actually goes somewhere. We start with the speaker justifying their own flaws in the relationship, calling out how they weren’t exactly the most romantic person. In addition, it seems that getting drunk was something they did a lot, which harkens back to all that earlier recklessness in the relationship we discussed.

“Maybe Jamaica rum
Maybe some Jonnie Dub
Maybe you still think of us
Phone buzz, and still I jump”

Our speaker gets sidetracked a bit with the memories of those drunken times, but eventually jolts back into the present. They suggest that there’s still a part of them that hopes the subject will change their mind, which leads every phone buzz to make them jump, hoping it’ll be the subject calling to reignite the relationship.

“Why don’t I say it then?
I want you all the time”

And we return to the motif of questions, but now the question is to the speaker themselves. They wonder why they can’t just tell the subject how they still love her and want to be with her.

“Why can’t we laugh now like we did then?
How come I see you and ache instead?
How come you only look pleased in bed?
Let’s climb the cliff edge and jump again”

And thus, we return to these questions. Unfortunately, as I mentioned above, there are no answers. Our speaker is left to continuously fight these repeating thoughts with no end in sight.

“Pineapples are in my head
(Pineapples are in my head)
Got nobody ‘cos I’m brain dead
(Got nobody ‘cos I’m brain dead)
Pineapples are in my head
(Pineapples are in my head)
Got nobody ‘cos I’m brain dead
(Got nobody ‘cos I’m brain dead)”

And we are left with that lingering sense of confusion and lack of meaning.

This is a really tragic song about a special, loving relationship ending for no real reason. But the way it communicates that confusion – through nonsensical lyrics as well as the off-kilter instrumentation – is really fascinating to me. I hope you enjoyed this analysis as much as I enjoyed writing it.

And hey, maybe next time I’ll do a happier song!

(But probably not.)

 

Character Spotlight: Owain, Hero of Ages

Defining an all-time favorite anything is not an easy task. I know this to be true from experience. Picking a favorite song, favorite book, favorite movie, favorite artist, etc etc etc is nearly impossible. The pool is too big. I love too many songs and books and movies and artists and etc to choose just one that is, all around, the best.

However, there is one category for which I can pick one definitive favorite without a hint of hesitation.

My favorite fictional character ever in anything is Owain from the Fire Emblem series.

That’s a bold statement, I know. Even if you’re not familiar with the character, you may be wondering how he can be so good that he is the definitive best in any series. How can one character possibly rise above so many other great characters I love to claim the throne as the best?

Well… that’s a complicated question, and one I hope to answer in this post. So come with me and let us explore what makes humble Owain, hero of ages, such a fantastic and deep character.

Meet Owain

Owain first appeared in Fire Emblem: Awakening, the revival of the near-dying Fire Emblem series. His role in this game is pretty small. (In fact, his role in both games he appears in is small.)

Owain is one of the many future children the player is able to unlock over the course of the game. He is available for recruitment once the player marries his mother, Lissa, to any one of her potential marriage candidates. He starts out a myrmidon with a slight affinity for magic from his mother, but nothing about his recruitment or role in the game sets him apart from the rest of the recruitable children.

He’s completely unnecessary to the plot of the game. The player could, feasibly and easily, go through it without recruiting him at all.

Now this isn’t terribly uncommon. Only one of the recruitable children is required to finish the game, and that’s Lucina. All the rest are simply add-ons, fun little rewards for playing with the support system in the game. And yet, for Owain, this detail is incredibly important to what makes his character work so well. Keep it in mind.

From first impressions, Owain is a ridiculous character. He’s over-dramatic. He yells dumb catchphrases and pretends he’s an unstoppable and legendary hero. He gives weapons flashy and superfluous names. He claims to have an “unquenchable bloodlust” and a magical sword hand that constantly aches for battle.

The game makes no secret of the fact that Owain is delusional. Other characters treat him like a joke, and he constantly fails to do the things he claims to be able to do. For all intents and purposes, the audience is encouraged to consider Owain a comic relief character and to not take him seriously.

This too is not unusual for Fire Emblem. Fire Emblem is a game that requires a lot of unique characters for the game mechanics of assembling and commanding an army of heroes to work. And in order to ensure the player is able to remember details about as many of these characters as possible, they tend to all have some sort of memorable schtick and not much else to their characters on the surface. This is a topic I’ll probably end up going into in more depth in another post, but basically Owain is just a weird quirky goofball in a whole army of weird, quirky goofballs.

Yes, Owain is completely ordinary for Fire Emblem. Like all the other filler units in the game, he sticks to his schtick. He’s got some decent fighting stats but he’s overall unnecessary to completing the game.

So what makes him special, exactly?

He’s Not Special…

There’s some other information about Owain I didn’t tell you and it’s this – Owain, no matter who his mother Lissa gets married to, is of royal blood.

This is not a shocking statement. His mother is a princess, the younger sister of the main character and eventual king, Chrom. Because of this, he is also a member of the Exalted bloodline, the bloodline around which the story revolves.

Both Chrom and Lucina, (that one child I mentioned earlier who is necessary to complete the game) have character arcs that rely heavily on the fact that they are of Exalted blood. It makes them royal, but it also gives them special story powers – the ability to slay the Big Bad™, Grima.

Lissa’s character also revolves around her Exalted blood. Almost all members of the bloodline get a characteristic birthmark somewhere on their body. On Chrom, it’s on his tastefully exposed shoulder. On Lucina, it’s in her eye. On Emmeryn, Chrom and Lissa’s elder sister, it’s on her forehead. However, Lissa never got hers, and her anxiety over this fact is an important part of her character, and something that is brought up as a point of self-consciousness for her.

Although it’s apparently not unheard of for a member of the Exalted bloodline to never get their brand of the Exalt, for Lissa it means she’s unsure of whether or not she is actually a legitimate royal. For all she knows, she could be a bastard child. The only way for her to know for sure is to hope that one day her descendants inherit the mark.

And thus, lo and behold, enter Owain. If you’re wondering, yes, he does have the mark of the Exalt on his arm, proving definitively that Lissa is actually a member of the royal bloodline. This fact is established early on as one of the reasons Lissa is so close to her son. His very existence proves her legitimacy and puts one of her worst fears to rest.

So that’s cool and all, and it’s definitely one of the reasons why I like Owain so much, but there’s something else about Owain’s blood that makes his character so deep and fascinating.

…Yet Special-ness Flows Through Him

So this Exalted blood, right? It’s a big deal. Like I mentioned before, the two mainest of the main characters have their special main character powers because of this bloodline they belong to. And as the son of the now-proven-legitimate princess Lissa, Owain also shares this blood.

And yet… Owain is not even close to a main character.

He has the blood, he has the brand, but Owain is the only member of this bloodline to not make it into the main cast of characters.

So, think about it. You’re Owain. You’re a prince. You belong to a bloodline of incredible warriors, warriors with the power to slay a giant dragon made of malice and pure evil. Your very existence proves to your mother that she belongs to this bloodline as well.

And yet, you don’t play a main role in the slaying of the Big Bad™ at all.

Don’t you think that would be a little disheartening? To know that your mother, your cousin, and your uncle all played a huge role in the slaying of a legendary beast and the saving of your world because of the very same blood you also possess and yet you aren’t a part of it at all?

Wouldn’t it make you want to be a part of it?

And Thus, Theatrics.

So, taking all this information into account, let’s take a look at Owain’s personality, his schtick, one more time.

He’s overdramatic. He’s a ham. He demands attention. He’s delusional. He pretends to possess a great and unique power, one he can barely control. Well, you don’t have to even wonder where this behavior comes from. As the one member of the exalted bloodline not to play a direct role in the plot of the game, it makes sense why he puts on such a show.

His entire family is composed of legendary heroes, and so Owain pretends to be one.

With this connection, everything about Owain’s character makes perfect sense. Of course he would have a reason to put on theatrics constantly. He has an entire bloodline to live up to. It even works on a more meta game level. Not only in-universe is Owain not a “main character” but he is also literally not a main character in the actual game. His character works both in-universe and out-of-universe and that is cool.

But Wait! There’s More

But of course, Awakening wasn’t the last time we saw Owain. He made another appearance in Fates under the moniker “Odin.” Once more, Owain was not a main character, but he was a normal unit this time, with his own child unit, Ophelia.

I think of the three Awakening kids that got teleported into Fates, Owain got the most interesting character development. While, yes, he’s still the goofy comic relief character from Awakening, there’s a certain maturity to his character that wasn’t there before.

There are two reasons for this slight growth of character. The first one is that Owain, for the first time, is special in regards to the game. He was teleported into this new world for the express purpose of helping them. He and his companions are the only characters with this duty, and while they don’t ultimately end up playing that huge of a role in the plot of Fates, I think the idea is that Owain, for the first time, is a special hero. A hero of time, sacrificing his home and family to help a group of strangers. It’s definitely a reason for him to feel for the first time that his charades might have some actual heroic backup to them.

The second reason is his daughter, Ophelia. Ophelia shares a lot of similarities with her father in that she too has a theatrical personality and likes talking about her secret hidden powers. But unlike her father, Ophelia is not really pretending when she talks about her legendary abilities – she believes in them wholeheartedly.

Where Owain was aware of his normalcy and used theatrics to hide his embarrassment over it, Ophelia only knows her father as a legendary hero, and as an extension, only knows her bloodline as one of magic and heroics. Ophelia is like what Owain would be if he was a main character, or at least was unaware of his relative unimportance as compared to his family members.

So, in that way, their interactions become very fascinating when taking a look at Owain’s character. It does a lot to confirm what I already suspected about his mindset in Awakening. He seems reluctant to crush Ophelia’s dreams, and goes along with her tirades with the same enthusiasm as she, but when it comes to telling her about his actual home, he seems sad and unusually reserved. It really adds a level of depth and growth to his character that I appreciate.

In Summation

Owain is just… a really excellent example of how a side character can be given depth without having to go into too much explicit detail. And that’s why, I think, I can so easily call him my favorite character. I’ve always been attached to side characters, and too often I see them pushed to the side and not given the depth and development they deserve.

And while, yes, I don’t think Owain’s development is probably entirely on purpose by the people behind Fire Emblem, regardless, I believe he stands as a lovely example that side characters can work on multiple levels.

And with that, I leave Owain. For now. But who knows when my analysis hand will twitch again…