Jurassic World and Suspension of Disbelief

I finally got my chance to watch Jurassic World this week, and I came away thinking about Writing Excuses. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s a podcast that has, I think, some of the best writerly advice out there. They did a post a couple years ago, with Patrick Rothfuss, on suspension of disbelief. He made a lot of great points about how it’s not actually about having all your facts straight. Audiences will often forgive factual errors, and often not even notice them*. What they really need to believe a story is verisimilitude. The characters and the world need to feel believable. If the audience gets a sense that the story is true, they won’t care too much whether or not it is correct. Jurassic World illustrates this perfectly.

But before I get to that, here’s a brief spoiler free review of the movie. I liked it. I think people who like dinosaurs and Chris Pratt will also like it, because those things went well together. There, how that’s out of the way, on to the object lesson.

Patrick Rothfuss was the big star of that episode, in my opinion, but the other point that really stuck with me came from Mary Robinette Kowal. She pointed out how there’s this popular story that convinces us all, with no explanation, that there is a magical undersea kingdom and also talking fish. It’s called The Little Mermaid. Because “mermaid” is right there in the title, we all know right away that if we want the emotional payoff that the story promises, we need to accept mermaids, so we voluntarily do. In other words, don’t hide the most implausible part of the story. If your premise needs it to be there, put it front and center. The audience will do the work of believing for you.

Jurassic Park had an absurd premise. We figured out how to clone dinosaurs. The scientific explanation for how we got their DNA was flimsy, but we had all chosen to accept it, in exchange for a movie where dinosaurs run around and eat people. It was totally worth it. Jurassic World had an even harder sell. On top of that absurd and easily acceptable premise, it also had to convince us that the park’s owners would be so idiotic as to reopen the park again, and also genetically engineer a super-dinosaur. This is more difficult to believe. The original film merely violated laws of nature, which we humans have a rather adversarial relationship with anyway. The new one is violating common sense.

However, once again the tactic of putting their biggest stretch front and center worked to its advantage. I do know people, and I know that often they fail to use their common sense. There have been projects that cost human lives before, and often the machine of progress and financial profit just ground on ahead. As time passes, people sometimes forget past tragedies. The trailers gave me lots of time to think about how this might apply to Jurassic Park, sorry, Jurassic World. I went in theaters willing to believe that this was what had happened, that dangers aside the promise of profit was eventually too much to resist. Still, my suspension of disbelief was in a precarious balance.

Personally, I think they handled it spectacularly. They never gave me a scene explaining how the park had been reopened. That’s good. I didn’t need or want one. I was willing to believe it had happened, and by leaving the precise events to my imagination they ensured I would come up with something that I would find plausible. What I really needed to believe was characters who acted like the kind of people who would work at Jurassic World. I got it.

I particularly liked the personality of the CEO, Masrani. His personality was similar to Hammond’s, and some people didn’t like that, as it felt like a retread, but I honestly thought it served a purpose. We are told Hammond personally gave him the park on his deathbed, after securing a promise to take good care of it and use it to remind people of how big the world is. I did have trouble believing that Hammond would really let the park reopen after what he went through, but I can see him thinking, “look, when I die somebody will use the technology and reopen the park. The least I can do is put that power in the right hands.” Masrani seemed like the kind of person Hammond would trust.

There were other details that made the park itself work. I liked how the people pushing for the big engineered dinosaur weren’t cardboard figures slobbering over money. They also talked about progress and keeping costs covered and staying ahead. One of the protagonists, Claire, talked worriedly about “customer satisfaction holding steady in the low 90s.” I liked that. It reminded me of all the real bosses I’ve looked at who are always afraid that doing well isn’t good enough. The rides and education centers were exactly like what a dinosaur zoo amusement park would be. The way Owen Grady, Chris Pratt’s character, interacted with the dinosaurs felt true to how animal handlers really interact with wild and dangerous animals, at least based on everything I know.

So for about two thirds of the movie, my disbelief was well and truly suspended, especially when they gave me an explanation for all the super-dino’s abilities. Then, for me at least, they fumbled it. Ending spoilers from here on.

The final fight with the dinosaurs was cool, but a little too neat. While watching it, I liked it, but it seemed to break some things about the world that had been established. Primarily this was that the velociraptors, who had been established to have a complex, animalistic and ambiguous relationship with Owen, suddenly became canine-loyal, willing to fight a larger animal to the death for him when earlier it seemed they were perfectly willing to turn on him. Also, the film was too tidy in how it made all the big scary dinosaurs show up for the last scene. This was something else that came up in the podcast. There’s a fine art to wrapping things up, but not so tidily that you remind people there’s a writer behind this. When the dinosaur I had almost forgotten about showed up, I definitely remembered there was a writer.

But once again, none of this was really insurmountable for me. You know the part of the story that really broke my suspension of disbelief? The part where the leads got together.

The main complaint I’ve heard for this movie is that the characters were a little flat, even by action movie standards. Most of the way through it, I thought this was unfair. I liked all of them, and I thought they got as much development as the Mad Max characters. Then came the gratuitous kissing, and I realized the problem. It wasn’t the lack of development, it was that they developed the characters and then broke it.

They tried to set up Claire and Owen as opposites. They did a great job. Claire was tidy, controlled and not great with people because she’s more comfortable with data and schedules. Owen was also not great with people, but you got the sense that was because he likes animals better. He’s rough, outdoorsy, and honestly has standards of personal hygiene that gross Claire out.

Of course, when the crisis hits, they find a way to work together, but you know how in Mad Max, Max and Furiosa come to trust each other but don’t get together in any romantic way? Those writers got that the two aren’t the same.

The thing about “opposites attract” is that it happens when both people see something in the other that they appreciate, that balances their own traits. My boyfriend is a lot of extroverted, outgoing and dominant than me. I like the way he takes me out of my comfort zone. He likes the way I slow down and introspect. If one of us was always pressuring the other to be different, this wouldn’t work. Claire and Owen never really have a moment where they see the value in the other’s of view. Their relationship is not going to last once the adrenaline wears off. Of all the implausible things in the movie, that was the one I couldn’t get over.

*Accuracy itself is an interesting topic. I might have to use that for an upcoming post.

Mad Max and the Damsels Who Do Things

I saw Mad Max a couple nights ago, and I got at least two blogs worth of thoughts out of it. My overall impression of this movie was that it not perfect, but I enjoyed it and if you’re in the mood for a lot of good action scenes you will probably love it.

(major spoilers avoided, but beginning and subplot spoilers ahead)

One thing that stood out to me was how many of the characters, specifically the protagonists, were women. In fact all but two of the good guys were female. Charlize Theron was absolutely terrific as Imperator Furiosa, a badass hero who really wasn’t written as a Female Action Hero TM, but just a complete all around boss who happened to be female. Eventually she is joined by other characters who are fabulous and heroic and happened to be women. Then there were five damsels in distress, whose escape early on kickstarted the plot.

The trope of damsels in distress is a sticky one. The damsel exists to be victimized, but then her victimization is not explored from her perspective. Instead, it is in the story to set up an end trophy for the hero, with the implications of a traumatized wife never explored, nor the question of whether his possession of her constitutes salvation or just a different kind of prison. Played straight, it can’t avoid being incredibly sexist. However, Mad Max subverts the damsel trope in ways that are both obvious and subtle.

The most obvious subversion I have already mentioned. The damsels do not sit around waiting to be rescued at the end of the movie. They start the plot themselves by breaking free together. I’ve seen other examples of this, but in this film it felt particularly appropriate because of what they were escaping from.

The damsel in distress trope is highly objectifying. It effectively turns a human being into a living MacGuffin*. The villain of the movie, Immortan Joe, is also highly objectifying. The beginning scenes set his world up as one where humans are regularly treated and used as machines, as cannon fodder, as cattle, even as living blood bags. The girls are his breeder concubines, and when they leave they write on the walls, over and over again, that they are not things.

In too many movies, this promising start would end there. The hero would enter the film and it would once again center all around him. The girls would not emerge as real characters. However, this does not happen.

To begin with, they do have individual personalities, and small subplots to themselves. The Splendid  Angharad is the leader, brave and aristocratic, and fully willing to sacrifice herself for the rest of the group. Toast the Knowing…

Okay, I have to take a break to acknowledge the weirdness of the names in this movie. Because they are all collectively so weird, it sort of works, in that they feel like they all belong to a world where naming practices have changed radically. Still, I have to ask what kind of drugs or drinking game aided the invention of these names? Anyway…

Toast the Knowing is quiet, and as such is the hardest to pin down, but she is the one who is able to handle guns, not fire them but load them and identify which bullets go with which weapons. In several scenes she reiterates their goal of finding “the green place,” which suggests to me that she is highly focused. Capable is the most compassionate, the kind of person who can look into an enemy’s eyes and see someone vulnerable, maybe in need of a second chance. The Dag’s suffering has made her fierce. She is delighted when she finds a mentor among the other female characters. Cheedo the Fragile lives up to her name. She is the most frightened and the most tempted to surrender. Typically she is seen standing behind or under the arm of another character. This makes her the most classical damsel in distress of the five, but when the time comes to be brave she finds her courage.

I liked that they were individualized, because it made an interesting counterpoint to the villain’s objectification. He treats them as inhuman, as women valuable only for being beautiful and fertile, but the writers and actresses take steps to remind us that they are people. On top of that, I loved the way they continued to be worked into action scenes as the plot continued. Letting them scream in the backseats would have been bland and expected, but the expected subversion, letting them all be action heroes, would also be cheap. It would reaffirm that the only kind of person worth being in an action movie is a stunt master, and would also be unrealistic given their background. And yes, I realize I’m talking realism in a movie which features an electric guitar that’s also a flamethrower.

But what happens is a kind of realism that is appropriate even in a movie so self-indulgently absurd as this one. They don’t become magical shots or martial artists just for the convenience of the plot, but they continue to find ways to help the characters who are actual warriors. Sometimes it’s loading guns in the backseat, sometimes it’s doing something incredibly brave that I won’t mention because spoilers, and sometimes it’s just defying genre expectations by bracing themselves in the background and not screaming. Honestly, these damsels scream less than in any other movie of its type that I have ever seen. It’s because they are brave, they knew what they were getting into, and they understand that when the action heroes with actual action hero training are stunt driving, dodging bullets and solving Inconvenient Equipment Malfunction #37, probably more noise is not what the situation calls for.

The point is, whether by action or by consciously chosen inaction, these characters participate in their own escape from beginning to end. This wasn’t heavy handed, but it still felt like the result of deliberate action taken by the creators to not do what they were condemning the villain for doing. Damsels or not, they weren’t going to erase these characters’ humanity, or their agency in their own story.


*A common trope in which something exists not to influence the story directly, but spur others to action by being desirable; the letters of mark in Casablanca, the diamonds in Notorious, the quest objects in the Indiana Jones movies, etc.

Silent Themes

King Lear begins with two fathers choosing to trust the wrong child. Lear asks his daughters to proclaim their love for him. He falls for his two older daughters’ obvious flattery and is offended by Cordelia’s honest response, which is essentially, “I love you about as much as daughters are supposed to love fathers.” He disinherits Cordelia and banishes her, which is the first sign that he is going insane. Then, in the subplot, Edmund, bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester, tricks his father into turning on his legitimate son. Edgar, the good son, escapes only by disguising himself as a mad beggar. We have two families, two deceptions, two cases of someone loyal being cast out, and two examples of insanity. As the two plots collide and complications pile up, the story keeps returning to those elements; loyalty, lies, family, misplaced trust, and madness. Nobody states in unambiguous terms what lesson we are supposed to glean from the tragedy, yet the story feels like it has a point.

Watership Down has the same feel. It tells the story of several rabbits running away from their happy home, because one of them has had a vision of its’ imminent destruction. Rabbits as a species are in perpetual danger; from their perspective, nearly everything that moves is a potential predator. As the runaway rabbits seek their own haven, they encounter two other warrens who have found security through some kind of dark deal. One consents to be hunted selectively by a human, because that human keeps all other predators out. The other is ruled by what we would call a sadistic dictator. The protagonists reject both options, instead using their myths of El-ahrairah, the clever rabbit chief, as a model. With cooperation, innovation and a little trickery, they create their own warren, which is both safe and free. Is the book about how to be a great leader, or the relationship between our art, our culture and our quality of life, or an illustration of the idea that to trade freedom for security is to lose both? It’s all of the above, and none of the above. The book is clearly telling you something about fear, society, security and mythology, as the structure of the story hinges on all of those things, but how you put that into a lesson relevant to your own life is entirely up to you.

As I’ve written before, discussed themes make their themes obvious by having the characters debate them, while obscured themes make elements of the story ambiguous, which forces the reader to think about what the story might mean and choose their own theme. Neither type, however, can be well written unless they are built on a foundation of silent themes, while a silent theme can be effective without the window dressing of discussed or obscured themes. Silent themes are simply a well-written story’s habit of returning to a collection of emotions and ideas, particularly when a major character is introduced or an important development in the plot takes place.

The point of a story, after all, is not to sell you on an idea. If this was the point of stories, they would not be an art form, but a clever way of lecturing people. There would be no point in calling a story propaganda, because all stories would be propaganda. The primary role a theme plays is not to convince the audience but to connect them to the story. We don’t enjoy the story that goes, “I was hungry but I had no food, so I went to the story to buy bread, ham and lettuce, and then I made myself a sandwich.” It is technically a story. It has a beginning, middle and end, it has a conflict and a resolution and a character, but it is boring, because it is so insignificant. We care about stories that are about love or revenge or justice or exploration or one of those other deep, powerful ideas. Ideas, though immaterial, are fundamental to the experience of being human, and so they have the power to connect a story about Ancient Egyptian royalty to the mind of a sysadmin in Atlanta.

Not only do stories without well-constructed silent themes fail to interest us, they also confuse us, because their absence makes stories feel disorderly. The characters cease to feel like they belong in the same story with the rest of the cast, or with the setting, or the even the events. We can struggle to remember a sequence of events that are perfectly logical, but thematically unconnected, but when a series of events are thematically poignant, we can accept plot holes, or even fail to notice them.

The Amazing Spider-Man is an example of a film that lost a lot of its audience because it lacked a strong theme. I don’t mean to pick on that movie, because there are far worse stories out there, but in fact part of why I want to dissect it is because unlike many stories I could discuss, this one really almost had it. It had many good scenes and some great acting, but it still failed to grab widespread interest. Also, director Mark Webb made my job easier by stating his intended theme in an interview. Referring to Dr. Connor, he said, “He’s the literal embodiment of the theme of the movie, which is we all have a missing piece. He has no arm. Peter has no parents, and he fills that void with Spider-Man.”

Peter Parker loses family, Dr. Connors lost his arm, so Webb’s theme is “loss.” Now, that is a fundamental experience, but it’s also so general it lacks a certain poignancy. He might as well say the theme of his movie is that “something bad happened to a couple of my characters.” To make a thematically interesting film he needed more ideas, and if you squint at the movie very hard, you can see the outlines of the story they might have written. You could say that both characters try to go to absurd lengths to recover what they have lost, both claim initially that what they are doing is for the good of society in general but really they are only being self-serving, and that Dr. Connors fails because he doesn’t break out of being self-serving, while Peter transforms his grief into real heroism. That combines loss, resilience, grief and responsibility into a thematically powerful story, but it’s not the story they wrote.

First, Dr. Connors, for all his problems, doesn’t come across as self-serving. He does seem genuinely interested in saving the world, and while I have problems with his attitude, the tone of his early scenes suggests I wasn’t supposed to interpret him as a self-hating ableist, but as a real philanthropist. Next, he isn’t transformed by his pain into a monster; he’s transformed by magical comic book science juice. If he had been motivated to try it on himself for selfish reasons, that theme might have worked, but context makes his motivations seem entirely altruistic, and the emergence of the Lizard feels like dumb bad luck. Also, being a scientist who is paid to come up with cool scientific ways to cure diseases is not an “extreme length” in the same way that “dresses up like a spider and hunts criminals” is. One of those is something that normal people do, if we define normal to include people who are intelligent and well-educated and successful in getting a job in their field, and the other is pretty definitely not. The biggest problem with all of these differences is that they aren’t even opposite. If they contrasted each other, it would be almost as good as if they mirrored each other, but they way they’re portrayed Dr. Connors and Peter aren’t night and day.  They’re like carrot seeds and applesauce; just similar enough and just different enough that they truly have nothing to do with each other. On top of that, no other character experiences profound loss, with the exception of Aunt May, who loses Uncle Ben but is such a minor character she almost counts as part of the setting, so the whole idea of “everyone has a missing piece” never went from the director’s mind to the actual film.

So that’s one way to fail to have a good silent theme; pick up one idea once or twice and then drop it for the rest of the story. Stories can also have the opposite problem. They can lean so heavily on the same expression of the same idea that the story feels internally repetitive, as if the author is ripping off their own work while they are still writing it. The last several seasons of Supernatural have had this problem. Sam and Dean have had the same conversation about how the other is dealing with the stress and trauma of being a hunter so often that when the conversation starts you can finish it for them. Just because you need to constantly revisit a theme throughout a story, that doesn’t mean you should repeat yourself. Each return should look at a new facet of it, or represent the next step in a progression of thoughts, or combine it with another of the story’s themes, or somehow express it in a new way. As in most things, craftsmanship is in the balancing of these two extremes, and finding the spot that is right for your personal work of art.

One of the things that is both fun and frustrating about this exploration is that the more I think about this subject, the more thoughts I have. I don’t feel like I’m finishing this post so much as giving up on it, on the grounds that if I wrote down everything I am thinking I would have a post so massive absolutely nobody would read it. To anyone who has read this far, thank you, very much. Next month I’m going to get back to my Screwtape Letters series and try to, if not wrap it up, at least put a serious dent in what is left over.

How to Write Gender; a Trans Man’s Perspective

As someone who has lived on both sides of the gender binary, and mucked about in the murky swamp of the genderqueer, here is my carefully considered, foolproof, all-encompassing and patent-pending method for writing a character who is not your own gender; write a well rounded character, and then supply the appropriate pronouns.

Yeah, on second thoughts I can’t actually patent that, now can I?

Writers get hung up on gender a lot. Women assume they can’t write men, men assume they can’t write women, and if you even consider writing a non-binary character you’re a very rare breed (a breed so rare I’m going to ignore it for the rest of this post. I do so not without guilt). For the most part, though, concerned writers are over-complicating what they have to do. They’ve heard that men don’t cry, that women can’t stop talking, that one gender is obsessed with cars and the other is obsessed with shoes, and they feel they have to shoehorn every stereotype into this character. At the same time, they don’t want to seem to be writing a stereotype. Their creativity is blocked by these contradictory intents, and as artists they want to be creating compelling, vivid characters, which neither cliches nor social obligations to be PC can inspire them to create.

How many people never defy any gender stereotypes? I can’t think of anyone. The most feminine person I can think of, my mother, likes action movies more than almost anyone else in my family. The most masculine person I can think of is my boyfriend. As the previous sentence indicates, he’s gay. When I think of well written male and characters, the same thing is true. Penny from The Big Bang Theory is a gossipy, emotional shopaholic, who also loves beer and football games and prioritizes her career over romance. Marshall Erikson from How I Met Your Mother is a big softy who harbors a secret love of fruity cocktails. Boys are supposed to be brave and stalwart, particularly around the creepy crawlies, so they can come rescue their girlfriends from the snake on the porch and the spider in the bathroom. Indiana Jones loses his shit around snakes.

As a trans person I tend to think of your gender as your core identity, and not any of the traits or biology conventionally associated with it. I came to this conclusion because for years, I was studying gender, trying to find a way to justify my feeling that I was a boy. I tried doing it by finding a checklist of gendered traits and putting all checks on the male side. The checklist failed because not only couldn’t I do it, but nobody I knew could. Everybody I knew deviated from what men and women were supposed to be by at least one trait. Then I tried making it a game of averages. I was male because I had a crucial level of masculine traits. Again, I failed, because I knew of both women who were more masculine than me, and men who were more feminine than me, none of them uncomfortable with their birth sex. Then I tried to find some cluster of essential traits that made somebody a boy or a girl. Again, I failed. Even biology doesn’t work, and not just because of trans people. Is a woman who has had a double mastectomy less female? Even at the level of hormones and chromosomes, some people have intersex conditions with very subtle external effects, so they live most of their lives unaware they are XXY, or that their bodies produce an unusual amount of estrogen or testosterone. Are you going to tell them they are wrong to keep on considering themselves male or female? As far as I’m concerned, all you need to be male is to say you are male, and all you need to be female is to say you are female. That goes for real people, and fictional characters.

Are there differences between the genders? It’s a controversial question, but I’m going to say yes. Studies show measurable, statistical differences. Are they biological or cultural? I’m not going to touch this one, as scientists contradict each other wildly, and both can produce evidence supporting their claims. What is consistent, however, is that the differences measured, whatever their origin, are overlapping bell curves, not distinct columns. Your aim isn’t to write only characters who exist at the exact peak of the bell curve, but to write human beings, and human beings exist in every gendery combination imaginable. So if you feel like you know about a rough, masculine sort of person, don’t worry about your inability to write convincing dialog about manicures. Write a rough, masculine, wouldn’t be caught dead in a dress girl, and tell an interesting story about what it’s like to be her.

Now, there is one important difference between men and women that is absolutely relevant to your writing. They live with different social expectations. I did once read a draft of a story where a classic “bad boy” type character was given the redeeming excuse of “that’s just how he was socialized. Everybody expected him to be a troublemaker so he was.” Then the writer abruptly decided this character was going to be female, but with the exact same backstory and excuses… you can’t use “male socialization” as the reason for why a female character is the way she is, unless you’re setting it in a world where the gender stereotypes are reversed.

Then again, that story was published and moderately successful, so maybe that’s just me. I also know there are some people who think that shouldn’t

Regardless, the social rules of gender change by time, culture, class and family, and every individual responds differently to their society. Scout Finch is not Scarlett O’Hara. Jane Eyre is not Mina Harker. Dean Winchester is not Sam Winchester. The only advice I can give is to be aware of it. Research if you are writing an environment outside of your experience, and if you are writing in a familiar environment, practice your observational skills. The only tools you need to write a good character of any gender are the ones you need to write any character, and the most essential one is seeing your character not as a collection of traits, but as a person.