Saturday, August 31, 2013

Deceitful Dystopias: The Lack of Anger in Among the Betrayed

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Sometimes a book gets under your skin. The words make you angry so that you want to hurl the hardcover across the wall. Or quickly delete your library loan from the Kindle and pray that you never read another word of it again. Even worse, when you vent your anger, you find yourself losing friends because of your opinion, and at the best they gently chide you for misreading the book and trying to look at the big picture.

That happened to me three times this summer, with three different books. I am only going to talk about the last book, because it was the only one that inspired organized anger. The Gospel According to Christ triggered a more visceral reaction, one that does not translate into coherent words, and I simply do not get the appeal behind Game of Thrones and the complex world it presents, at least not enough for a blog post. Also, I don't want to get sucked into having to look at it as part of an encompassing story, because then I will get no writing done.

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Margaret Peterson Haddix's Shadow Children series focuses on a future where parents can only have two kids. Doesn't sound so bad, does it? Not for the so-called titular characters, third-born boys and girls who have to hide from the Government. The Government deems that third-born children deprive the world of much-needed food, despite banning certain farming practices for no reason and will kill any "ex-nays" that they find. 

I do not deny that the books are well-written. Each book has a fast-paced story. No, my concern is deception, and how the supposed heroes use deception in one book, Among the Betrayed.

SPOILER WARNING: If you have not read the books, do not read more. This mainly concerns Among the BetrayedThe Hunger GamesV for Vendetta and Ender's Game

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Dystopia novels need deception. Governments need to trick individuals into believing a particular mindset, like that choices are a bad idea or that books deserve bonfires, after all. Fighting for the truth becomes a difficult battle, especially if said governments use torture and brainwashing to smoke out potential rebellion. 

When heroes' allies use deception, to trick them however, the heroes usually get angry. No one likes a liar, let alone a liar who's supposed to be your friend. More importantly, no hero wants to become a pawn. By definition, heroes have to take charge of the plot and undergo a great change. In addition, they usually get tricked into doing horrible things, like murdering a horde of aliens, or made to suffer horrible things to undergo character development. This spoiler quote from Ender's Game sums it up best:

"I didn't want to kill them at all. I didn't want to kill anybody! I'm not a killer . . . you made me do it, you tricked me into it!" He was crying. He was out of control. 

"Of course we tricked you into it. That's the whole point," Graff said. "It had to be a trick, or you couldn't have done it." 

(Card 298)
Among the Betrayed has the most extreme form of child-friendly deception, to see if a thirteen-year old girl was willing to sell out illegal children to the government. Nina Idi committed no crime, but a would-be boyfriend betrayed her. She's given a plea deal in prison to gain other illegal children's trust to save her own life. Once she refuses to act on that deal, after 150 pages of not going one way or the other, the "hating" man who offers the plea deal reveals that she can live, that he's on her side.

Nina does not get angry when she learns about the test. She does not even suffer emotional trauma or trust issue afterwards. She thanks everyone involved, adult and child, for giving her a "second chance" after thinking her a traitor. She's able to forgive the "hating man" for putting her through months of fear just to see if she would sell out shadow children, and this is his defense when she asks why she should trust him:

"Nina, we live in complicated times . . . Don't you see how muddy everyone's intentions get, how people end up doing the wrong things for the right reasons, and the right things for the wrong reasons-and all any of us can do is try our hardest and have faith that somehow, someday, it will all work out?"
(Peterson Haddix 152)

Aside from the abstract terms used to describe the hating man's actions, he does not believe that what he did was wrong. He does say Nina did not deserve to get arrested, but he had made the call at the book's beginning. He uses the term "we" instead of "I" and feels entitled to engaging in deception to save hundreds of children's lives. He takes no responsibility for her suffering, only for her salvation. 

Television Tropes has a term for this issue: He Who Fights Monsters. As the page describes, "Something has happened to our Fallen Hero: his village was destroyedhis friends killedhis puppy roasted on an open spithis bike stolen, whatever. All that matters is that It's Personal, and he feels that the law just isn't suitable enough (or has become too corrupt and ignorant) to be of any use to him in settling the matter. Oh, sure, he'll justify his actions by claiming that it's Justice he's after, not vengeance, but anyone with half a brain can easily see that he's out for revenge... unfortunately, we can also see that the more he hunts the cause of his woes, on the — something that our "hero" is too blinded by his single-minded goal to realize."

Heroes don't always make easy decisions. Sometimes they have to act like their worst foes, or their allies have to do the dirty work. But a good story explores how they come to those decisions, to emulate the monsters that they battle. 

Most dystopian works acknowledge moral ambiguity when heroes engage in deception. The Hunger Games calls out any rebel or rebel leader who will sacrifice children for a cause. V for Vendetta shows that the path to stripping someone of fear will have said person hating you for at least a few minutes, and revealing bitterness about the ordeal, even if they learn.  Ender's Game has Colonel Graff admitting that what he did to Ender, making him a war general at the age of twelve, borders on the unethical, even though his actions may have saved the human race and he doesn't even give Ender a therapist to cope with the trauma of having murdered millions. The reader can decide in these works if the heroes' allies did the right thing, if the hero can atone for these actions.

Among the Betrayed offers no such view into the truth. The test itself has cool, emotionless logic to it. That cool logic translates into fear, death threats, and low food supplies. Even if the participants had good intentions and meant no true harm, their actions made them verge on the line that separates them from the apparently useless and deadly Government. 

The hating man does not acknowledge that he interrogated a thirteen-year old girl and put her through rigorous motions to identify her as a criminal. He does not acknowledge that by imitating the government's popular methods of interrogation, as a double agent, that he became as bad as its worst Population Police. He merely uses the excuse above that one cannot really identify people's intentions in such a paranoid era, and Nina never brings up the issue again. What's more, all of the participants seem to agree with the hating man's methods, with only one asserting that Nina was trustworthy. 

The second issue that I have, in addition to the He Who Fights Monsters issue, is Nina's forgiveness and ability to move on. In the beginning she feels angry, betrayed and desperate to try anything to live. She's a thirteen-year old ingĂ©nue who loved the wrong boy. Throughout the story she bonds with the children she was supposed to betray, and could have ended her suffering at any point by revealing the plea deal offered. She does not express frustration over that latter point, instead accepting that she has grown into a person who can let go of hatred while doing the right thing. 

The lack of anger seems implausible. In fiction anger has its place as a form of release. In real life the emotion is destructive, poisoning. Writing about a child punching another is different from an actual blow being released. While no one physically injures Nina in the story or tortures her, they all treat her as an enemy in one chapter and then pick corn with her in the next. Her ability to still trust comes up, but some closure could have been welcome, an acknowledgement that putting a girl through emotional stress.

Once again, Among the Betrayed is not a terrible book. It's in fact well-written, fast-paced and a thrill to read at night. I admire Margaret Peterson Haddix's ability to tell a terrible story about kids dying for an arbitrary government. What irks me is the lack of anger, of righteous fury that should spur the characters forward. Perhaps if the book had received several extra chapters, I would have been able to chart Nina's growth better and to receive more closure. 

The lesson from this: allow your characters to get angry, even if it obstructs your story's point. Especially in a tale with deception, remember this phrase:

"Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me."

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Do not fool the reader. Show your characters, old and young, as human beings. Allow them to express righteous indignation. Let them call out the heroes for not acting heroic.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Amateur Detective List

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In honor of Storydam's blog post on writing list posts, and to commemorate the next Heather Wells mystery coming out in September, I'm writing a list on what to do if you plan to become the next Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple. The Evil Overlord List inspired this, as well as notes on how Nancy Drew always got in over her head. 

Note: this list does not apply to fictional detectives. Also, do read the Evil Overlord List so you get an idea of what to expect. 

1. I will always carry a Taser, cellphone with police on speed dial, Swiss Army knife, and mace when investigating dangerous suspects. 

2. I will take a course in lockpicking and untying knots and stay updated on the newest bolts.

3. I will exercise ever day and study a form of martial arts. Reduces the stress associated with detective work and keeps me safe in case of emergency.

3a. Martial arts will not protect against guns one hundred percent of the time. 

4. Policemen are my friends, except when they are corrupt. I will not antagonizea policeman.

4a. If a policeman is corrupt, inept, or unable to ask the right questions, I will not insult their intelligence or willingness to take bribes. Instead, I will search for a reliable cop or detective on the police payroll and seek his or her assistance.

5.  When interrogating a suspect, I will not accuse him of murder, burglary, or the crime for which I suspect them. Not only do I lack the law degree and lawyer's stamina to do so, if the person is a suspect then he will probably threaten me or my loved ones.

6. I will take acting classes at my local community college in case the situation arises to go undercover or snoop into a forbidden territory. If I am an overweight resident hall assistant, I will know how to fake being a drunk sorority freshman.

7. I am not above using legal firearms. The key word is LEGAL. Guns kill, but legal adults can apply for a license and shooting lessons. I will teach myself how to aim or how to disarm my opponent.

8. Detectives don't let friends become damsels or dudes in distress. Only take a friend along who is versed in martial arts or LEGAL firearms. 

9. Drugs are dangerous. Drug dealers and drug lords are dangerous no matter what their age. I will treat them the way you would treat a rabid raccoon. I will not confront them head on unless a loved one is in danger.

10. If I suspect someone of being a stalker, or stalking a suspect, I will not underestimate them like Heather Wells did.

11. I will not take bribes, or weaken in the face of temptation.

12. I will always trust my instincts.

12a. I will only voice my instincts with evidence.

13. Sometimes there is no evidence. I will keep looking until there is.

14. I will act within the law to the best of my abilities.

15. If I love being a detective, I will temp for a real private investigator and learn the ropes of the business. And I will not ask questions, only learn from the best. 

16. I will not appear like an idiot or the detective who cried wolf.

17. I will always fight for justice. Even if it means putting away a good friend for a crime he has committed. Even if it means turning away a good job offer.

18. Once more, I will trust my instincts

18a. No matter what.

Friday, August 9, 2013

The Dry-Eyed Stoic: How We Lose Sympathy With Crying Heroes

In fiction, characters suffer. They have to suffer, or we wouldn't read their stories. They face inner demons, terrifying minotaurs and personal losses. Heroes have to make hard choices, sometimes choosing the lesser of two evils or working with an antagonist they'd rather throw off the cliff.

Sometimes the suffering becomes too much. The hero just wants a tub of ice-cream, five hours in front of the TV, and sobbing time. Lots of sobbing time, with someone offering shoulder pats or even a hug at awkward moments.

"Big whoop," we say and wrinkle our noses. "Go back and fight that monster. Finish the mission." 

Readers view crying as a weakness, in classic literature, or as a sign of breaking down and giving up. This dates back to Homer's Odyssey, in which the title character's son, Prince Telekamhos, loses a crowd's sympathy when he expresses his grief and rage about suitors invading his home:

"He spoke in anger, bursting into tears,
As he threw his scepter onto the ground.
The crowd was motionless with pity"
(The Odyssey, Book 2, 87-90)

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"Pity" is the key word here; Telemakhos at the age of twenty can technically become king, but he has to prove himself as a leader. By displaying unbridled emotion, he shows immaturity that the crowd cannot support, and the suitors take the time to defend themselves. Only his father Odysseus, who rarely breaks down during the story and is a mean warrior, can return and use excessive violence on the suitors. By "excessive," I mean slaughtering each and every last one for attempting to hit on his wife, threaten his son and heir, and usurp the throne of Ithaca.

Still, we seem to have a prejudice against heroes showing weakness even when they have legitimate reasons for doing so, or when they go through so much suffering. People did not like the fifth Harry Potter book, for example, because they found Harry moody and angry at everyone. They forget that only a few months before Harry saw Voldemort murder a decent Hogwarts kid because said kid was in the way, got cut up for blood, had to fight a man a hundred years older than him, and saw his parents return as echoing ghosts to protect him from the Dark Lord. And then, after returning to Hogwarts, where he's supposed to be safe, a teacher he trusts betrays him and reveals how deep the plot went; then the Prime Minister of Magic refuses to believe the threat, despite the fact that Harry's traumatized.

Not enough? Consider the early Disney heroines. Most of them are criticized for not being strong women, which they aren't, I admit, or being flat characters. The male protagonists, excluding Dumbo, Pinocchio and Simba, rarely shed a tear, because they are usually grown men. But we have to examine the context as well:

Edit: most of the Disney images came from Fanpop, and thus were not reproduced. I have instead linked to them in their paragraphs to give proper credit and so that you can see them.

Snow White is thirteen years old and a servant in her own household. She doesn't even feel dressed enough to welcome her dream prince, because of her rags and shyness. Let's see, stepmother tries to kill her with an assassin, she's lost in the woods and frightened after said assassin spares her life, and she no longer has a home or a friend. Cue the rabbits, deer and birds!

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Cinderella puts up with a lot and still finds joy in her life. She's a servant and the younger of three stepsisters, based on what her stepmother says, and all she wants is one night out, to be like other girls and to get a chance to dress up. Her stepmother weighs the odds against her with lots of housework and no time to fix together her dress. Cinderella accepts that she can't go, then explodes in joy when seeing her mother's gown made over. Oh happy day, with pink and pigtails! Surely now she can have her night out and meet the prince!
Then   . . . her stepmother goads the other two sisters into tearing apart this treasured hand-me down, leaving Cinderella standing in a heap of ripped fabric. Any girl would burst into tears, even a cheerful one who's borne her siblings' tantrums and bad-tempered cat.

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Alice has an excuse: she's ten years old, and she cried in the original Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. She also breaks down later in the film when she cannot exit Wonderland and its irritating nonsense.

There is no screencap of Wendy from Peter Pan, because Wendy shed a single tear. A single tear. While walking the plank and thinking Peter was dead. This after getting kidnapped and having every female in Neverland trying to kill her or seduce Peter.

We have exceptions to context, however. Sleeping Beauty is the flattest character to come from Disney. I won't deny that. But she has probably heard the tale of the murderous spindle, and up to her sixteenth birthday she has lived a normal life as a peasant girl. Then she meets a guy, invites him to her house, and finds out she is a cursed princess, betrothed to a prince. Her crying is more "why can't I have what I want on my birthday?" then "oh my god, I am going to get killed by a pointy object and why couldn't we wait another day to return to the castle, so that destiny won't happen!"

In other words, Aurora never had control over her life, except for the sixteen years she had as a peasant girl. She was doomed the minute Maleficent arrived on the scene. So there's a legitimate reason to break down, right before the evil fairy pricks her finger with a spindle.

The Rescuers gave us Penny, another little girl in a bad situation. Orphaned, kidnapped and taken to the southeastern swamps where she has to risk her life to get a prized diamond. Running away has not worked, thanks to her kidnapper's prized alligators, but she still prays that someone will help her.

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Ariel has several moments. She verges on tears when singing "Part of Your World" but only breaks down when Triton destroys her grotto, her sanctuary and Prince Eric statue which probably would have kept her in the ocean. We don't see her tears, interestingly enough, till Ursula hypnotizes Eric into forgetting about Ariel, and then we have a worthy cry-fest that only lasts until Scuttle conveys some important information.

Belle just bargained with the Beast to stay in his castle forever in her father's place, and she wasn't even able to say goodbye. She has just lost her old life and has decided to stay with a furry, bad-tempered monster. Can anyone blame her for bringing on the waterworks?

Note that she and Ariel are the first princesses to shed actual tears on screen. Not the head tucked into shoulders position that hides the reddened face, although Belle does that later when she's alone in her room instead of out in public.

Jasmine tries to run away from the Palace, meets a helpful street rat and gets him arrested. For "kidnapping" her, when he saved her hand from a mean apple seller. Not only did a nice person die, as far as she knows, but he did it because she knew so little about the marketplace or hiding her identity. We  viewers know that Aladdin isn't dead, despite the Cave of Wonders, but Jasmine doesn't. And she doesn't find out till the very end of the movie, after a spectacular magic carpet ride.

Mulan has just disgraced her family, twice. She cannot play the part of a Chinese maiden. Her father plans to battle despite being old and tells her she needs to find her place. After a few hours of sobbing in the rain, she makes up her mind to take his place. Then she sheds a few tears after the army finds out she's a woman, only putting them away when Mushu manages to comfort her, and when she realizes that China is still in danger.

We see a noted difference here. Instead of cute birds and sidekicks, or a fairy godmother coming to cheer the heroine up, she decides to take action. Actions that have serious consequences in terms of breaking the law and developing her character. When she gets caught, and don't chide me because she had to get caught, it's part of the narrative, she suffers further dishonor. Because Mulan doesn't give up, however, and strives to do what's right even if it's against the law-- saving China with a few fireworks and cross-dressing comrades-- she earns her father's respect, after expecting to come home and disappoint him.

As the years passed, Disney realized that a crying spell, however pertinent and realistic, would not win them brownie points. When they revived the Princess Genre, they made sure that tears were sparse.

In Princess and the Frog, Tiana has quit her day job, in hopes of making a down payment on a building to own her restaurant and live her daddy's dream. But New Orleans racism and finances hit her hard, and she is rock bottom despite the gown. Yet, as we can see, no tears. Not a single one. The rest of the movie continues in that fashion, with Ti suffering further disappointments and reminded how her father never achieved his dream.

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Rapunzel, like Cinderella, puts up with a lot. She has an emotionally abusive mother who depends on her glowing hair, cannot step a foot outside her tower, and believes that she is frail. This despite her mean skills with a frying pan.
She only cries when her boyfriend dies, and she's unable to heal him, watching him stop breathing in her arms. They only include the tear because it was in the original fairy tale, and because said tear saves his life.
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Merida from Brave is the exception to this Disney trend, but she's a Pixar princess. Pixar plays with the "girl crumpled in a heap while sobbing her heart out" many times, including this nugget. Merida's mother, the Queen, has just burned her bow to a crisp and doesn't get that Merida played by the rules to win her own. hand. But does she whimper in her room for this? No, she gets on her horse and rides off, only stopping the sobbing when said horse throws her. The other two times that she tries involve no sidekicks comforting her; when locked in the tapestry room while her dad is hunting her bear mum, she decides to take action and attempt to mend the bond. The second time, the queen comforts her, and the tears become happy.  
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I'm not saying that Disney is heading in the wrong direction; it seems, however, that the company caters to the audience's taste of a strong, independent woman who keeps going even and refuses to cry at her lowest point. Because we hate the crying, it has to go.

I disagree with that fact. Heroes have to suffer to reach their goals. Sometimes they need that ice cream and give hours in front of the TV, because they get broken. They go through too much. They lose their prized possessions or loved ones in the heat of battle.

Allow our heroes to cry, please. Especially if they are girls. Let's have actual tears that spur the heroines to action, so that they don't need comfort or a plot device from a cute little critter, and so that they can keep the story moving.

Let's offer them Ben and Jerry's and reruns of I Love Lucy for a few hours. Then we can tell them to turn off the waterworks.