Rogue One: Making Character Death Hurt

I finally saw Star Wars: Rogue One! Yes! Now I get to tear it apart!

 

No, in all seriousness, I loved many things about this movie. The acting was good, the music was good, the action was good. The set design and cinematography make me sad I didn’t see it in theater. This is the most beautiful Star Wars movie yet, and that’s saying something.

 

Even the dialogue, characters, and overall plot are fine. Really, I strongly recommend watching Rogue One, if you haven’t already.

 

If you haven’t yet, I also suggest clicking away from this post, because I’m going to go into full spoilers from here on out. (I’ll also spoil Saving Private Ryan and Guardians of the Galaxy.)

 

This is a long, dense post. You’ve been warned.

 

Like many movies, I find one thing captures my attention to the exclusion of all others. Like Doctor Strange, which I loved despite its many flaws because I could only think about how well it executed its magic, or Ant Man, which I couldn’t enjoy despite it being a fun movie solely because it broke its own rules.

 

In the case of Rogue One, it’s this: I didn’t feel anything when the characters died.

 

This isn’t to say that I didn’t like the characters, didn’t enjoy my time with them. With only a couple of exceptions, the large ensemble cast all stood out and offered memorable moments. For the most part, they had solid motivations, and I believed that they were in this to the end.

 

However, when the dying starts, you need more than that. You need it to hurt.

 

Rogue One had a couple of serious disadvantages on this front. First, it is a large cast. There’s not all that much time to introduce characters and get the audience attached. And second, let’s be honest: most of us went into the movie assuming everyone was going to die by the end.

 

The main failure to counteract the first problem is that our characters only talk about the war. That’s it. There is nothing else, for any of them. There’s only the struggle. Where are the hopes and fears that they have completely separate from the immediate plot?

 

Saving Private Ryan and Guardians of the Galaxy get this right.

 

In Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks’s Captain Miller talks about his wife, and we learn that he used to be a schoolteacher. Matt Damon’s Ryan talks about his brothers. We get a sense of where they’ve come from. They want to go home. See their families again. They mourn the losses of people we never see on screen, and try to make peace with the very real possibility that they are just going to end up as names on a wall.

 

In Guardians of the Galaxy, Drax and Gamora talk about the ways that Thanos has caused them pain. Sure, that’s great. It works for motivation, and gets us to understand and even like the characters. But the scenes that affect me most, particularly on rewatches, are the opening scene in which Peter loses his mom, and when Rocket breaks down crying after the bar fight, tired of others viewing him as a freak (and tired, too, of fearing that they’re right). These moments have little to do with the immediate plot. And yet they make our hearts ache for these characters.

 

One spot where I feel Rogue One succeeded at this was right after the council, when Cassian reveals that he’s haunted by the things he’s done, that it’s become a Sunk Cost Fallacy: “If I quit, I can’t live with myself. The evil I’ve done won’t have been for any greater good.” It’s a moment of vulnerability and pain that, yes, is still centered around the war. But it’s intensely personal. It means something.

 

But every character needs these scenes in order for the movie to work as intended.

 

The Jedi Temple Guardians (Played in half by Donnie Yen! Yes!) have lost their entire purpose in being, their home, and any family and friends they might have had. Obliterated in an instant. And we get a single reaction shot from them. Where’s the scene talking about the food stall on a corner that made their favorite dish? The child that they’d taught to kick a ball properly?

 

K-2SO was built and programmed to serve the Empire. He’s been reprogrammed and repurposed. Where is his worry that his free will means so little, that his very personality is a whim of anyone with the skills to change it? He has a sense of self, so is he afraid of losing that self again?

 

Bodhi Rook, the pilot, defected from the Empire, risking his life and likely the lives of anyone he cared about in order to do what was right. And for that, he got tortured, driven to brink of madness. Is he resentful? Does he doubt that the Alliance is really any better than the Empire?

 

Even Jyn Erso, our star, doesn’t talk too much about her father. Certainly not enough for us to develop an emotional link and sympathize when he’s killed. We’re left to rely on their acting alone to sell the relationship.

 

It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as some of these examples. But step one to making a character feel real to the reader is to give us glimpses of their life outside of the plot.  

 

These things go partially into solving problem two: The savvy viewer goes into Rogue One having written everyone off as dead already. Even without realizing it, this means we have our defenses up. “You won’t get me!” we (or at least I) think, holding back from truly caring about any of these characters so I can save myself the pain of losing them.

 

Making the characters feel real to the viewer is the most essential step. The urge to connect is stronger than the urge to avoid pain in most people. If you can make them real, you can get the viewer to let down their guard, just a little. But that won’t get a story all the way there by itself.

 

The other part to this, which I feel Rogue One completely fails at, is to make the deaths surprising, make them emotionally meaningful.

 

In Rogue One, once the dying starts–too late and too close-together in the story, but we’ll get to that–a pattern is set and never deviated from. Character A accomplishes mission-essential goal, and dies. Character B accomplishes mission-essential goal, and dies. Character C…

 

I understand why they did it. They wanted to make the characters’ deaths feel like they meant something. But here’s where I feel they made a mistake: We don’t need the character’s death to mean something to the plot. We need these deaths to mean something to us.

 

For instance, back to Saving Private Ryan. Out of all the deaths in the movie, the one that really sticks to me is that of Vin Diesel’s character, Private Caparzo. Tom Hanks’s character undoubtedly has the most meaningful death, from a plot perspective. But it’s poor Caparzo, bleeding out in the rain, that makes me feel like I’ve just been punched in the stomach. It feels like a betrayal. Caparzo shows a little compassion, and he dies for it. He fumbles for his weapon, too late for it to help him. His death isn’t heroic. As he’s dying in the rain, it’s other characters who are competent, who are heroic. All that Caparzo has is his heart. But even as he’s dying, he has a lot of it.

 

In Guardians of the Galaxy, we have Groot. Groot’s death should be silly, right? He’s a giant, talking tree, he can only say one phrase. The most meaningful reaction comes from a raccoon with a Brooklyn accent. And yet, “We are Groot” has become a meaningful and enduring line, and the scene itself hardly ever fails to make a viewer tear up. (Marvel ruins it by bringing Groot back immediately, but what are you going to do?)

 

Why do these deaths affect us? What makes them different than any of the half-dozen main character deaths in Rogue One?

 

These deaths work because they surprise us. Sure, we might call that the kindhearted Caparzo, who has no place in this war, might not make it to the end. And certainly, we might figure that Groot would be able to use his regenerative ability to shield the rest of the Guardians. But could we guess that Caparzo would complain about the blood that was now on the letter to his father? Could we guess that Groot would face death with joy, speaking words that cement the family that the Guardians have become?

 

Maybe that’s why the death of K-2SO is the only one that completely works for me. It was surprising that a droid who had to this point been cynical and blase at the prospect of the crew’s deaths chooses to lock the humans away and hold the door. It was surprising and gratifying to see him finally get to wield his blaster. And it was definitely surprising–and a little scary–to see him carry on under a dozen wounds that should have stopped him, in a way that brought the T-800 to mind.

 

And on the other end of the spectrum, we have the rest of the main character deaths. The cycle of success and death, self-sacrifice that never really means much to me as I watch it because it’s utterly impersonal. This cycle actually grew boring, which is something you should never be able to say about main character deaths.

 

They should never have stuffed all of these main character deaths into the last fifteen minutes. Character death has diminishing returns. You can’t rely on sheer volume to make the viewer feel something.

 

Instead, they should have paced the character deaths. When they’re killing characters who have one or two scenes of screen time, they should be killing main characters. Make it feel like anyone can die, not just the wizened mentor and the father-who’s-served-his-purpose. Make us fear for the main characters, and mourn with them.

 

Another mistake they made was copy/pasting the way the characters died. No, I’m not talking about the means with which the Empire killed them (although grenades OP, please nerf). I’m talking about the emotional content of each death.

 

Why are all the deaths in Rogue One bittersweet heroes’ deaths? No one dies a coward, a failure, a victim. Imagine if, instead of having five separate objectives, there were only two. Jyn and Cassian and K-2SO are off accomplishing one, and the rest of the crew are working on the other.

 

Imagine the first character, say Donnie Yen’s Temple Guardian Chirrut, starting toward the switch. He’s repeating the mantra, just as he does in the movie as is. But he gets blasted. Right in front of his comrades.

 

Rook, the pilot, folds in on himself, too traumatized to go on. Perhaps as a call-back to his ongoing fragility after the horrors of war that had led him to defect, and the torture that had driven him to the brink of madness. And yes. Weak, whimpering in the corner of a bunker, Rook dies.

 

Baze, the other Guardian, steps up. He’s clearly terrified of the overwhelming power raised against him. But he walks out into the open, closes his eyes, and repeats his friend’s mantra: I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me.

 

This is a call-back to an earlier scene that should have been, where the friends mourned their home, and Baze confesses to doubting the powers he’s been loyal to for his entire life. In this moment, he’s decided to put his faith in his fallen friend, and walks into danger with nothing but the Force to protect him. He takes glancing hits, but forges on, mantra on his lips. He activates the switch, and he dies.

 

Chirrut’s death is a shock. Rook’s death is sad and kind of pathetic. And Baze’s death has earned the heroism of the moment. Each of those deaths elicits an emotion from the audience. And it makes the sequence dynamic, rather than a loop.

 

The movie has some other flaws kind of related to character death. Wasting characters, and great actors, in particular. Neither Forest Whitaker or Mads Mikkelsen were allowed to do everything they might have and their characters might have, unfortunately.

 

Mostly unrelated to the rest of the post, I was disappointed by Vader’s limited role. They respected the character and didn’t embarrass him, as some other movies might have. But I always had a very different vision for his use in this movie than the one to which they eventually put him.

 

See, in my mind, Vader would have a handful of scenes. And each time he showed up, a main character would die. Each time he was on screen, the movie turned into a slasher flick, essentially. I wanted to have dread in the pit of my stomach at the first notes of his music.

 

Instead, we get a guy who’s just never quite there when he’s needed (through no fault of his own), until the end. The equally glorious and spectacularly stupid ending, where the plans for the Death Star are passed around like the basketball at the end of Space Jam. Vader amazingly keeps up with it by annihilating anyone in his way, but never quite snatches it out of the air using the Force.

 

He is just the right amount of sassy for my liking, though.  

 

I really liked Rogue One. I think I’ll like it even more on future viewings. However, they wanted to be a war movie set in the Star Wars universe, but still wanted it to be upbeat and kinda sappy. I’m not sure you can have both, in this day and age.

 

———————————–

 

Tie for best moment in the movie:

 

Using the Star Destroyers to shatter the shield. So good. So beautiful.

 

Or:

 

“Are you kidding? I’m blind!”

Crash Course on Perspective: Third Limited

This is my second post of three on the subject. Here’s the link to the first post in this series in case you missed it:

https://nathanhalledits.wordpress.com/2016/07/19/crash-course-on-perspective-first-person/

In Third Person Limited, the pronoun used for the character is “he” or “she”. That’s why it’s called Third Person. It’s called Limited because, unlike in Omniscient, we don’t have access to all of the characters’ thoughts at any one time. It’s limited to just the thoughts of the viewpoint character.

So that’s what it is. This is what I feel about it.

Third Limited is the perspective that I would choose if I could only ever write in one of them ever again. Good use of Third Limited is the reason that I write and edit today.

Why do I love it so much?

It’s incredibly versatile. It has many of the advantages of both First Person and Third Omniscient, with few of the drawbacks of either.

It is almost as intimate as First Person, and allows the writer to develop a voice for each PoV character in a way that Omniscient doesn’t. However, unlike in First, Third Limited doesn’t make the writer a slave to that voice. There is a separate, uniform quality to a novel’s prose that allows you to, for instance, describe the city as the character sees it, in greater depth or with more poetry than that character might do themselves.

What it gets from Omniscient is that uniform voice, but it’s also the ability to be in more than one character’s head (without jumping through hoops to do so). However, it allows the reader to really sink into the character in a way that Omniscient can’t easily do. It allows for a more character-driven experience.

This leads me to the thing that Limited can do better than First or Omniscient, and the reason that it’s so important to me. Third Person Limited allows you to write a scene from one character’s perspective, and then switch to a different character for the next scene. It allows you to more easily juggle multiple viewpoints.

The ability to juggle multiple viewpoints allows the writer to tackle large-scale conflicts from multiple sides, each with nearly the same depth and personality as First person would be able to do with one perspective. This changed the face of Fantasy forever.

There are inherent weaknesses to Limited, dangers that a writer has to be aware of.

The first, most common danger is omniscient slips. This is where the writer slips in knowledge that the PoV character couldn’t possibly have. For instance, character A can’t know what character B is thinking or feeling. A could see B’s expression, and make an educated guess. You’re still bound to the rule of First—unless a viewpoint character receives information, the reader can’t have it.

The second danger is infodump. Unlike in First Person, where the character’s voice can often carry infodump well, there is very little leeway for this in Limited. The writer has to be careful to keep information either directly relevant, or at least give the character a good reason to think about the information. It’s much more of a magic trick than in First, because the writer needs to get the information across without having it seem like the purpose for the words is to get the information across.

And the last danger is, Limited can enable a writer to make their story too big. It makes it very easy to scale up the story, but it makes it hard to know when to stop scaling up. If the writer isn’t careful, it can grow difficult for either they or their readers to remember who is where, when, and why—and even harder to remember who knows what.

If you plan to write in Third Person Limited, I’d highly recommend The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. This is the series that made me want to write. It does things with Limited that I’d never seen before, and have rarely seen since. While it gets some largely deserved criticism for slowing down and growing too bloated with PoV characters—there’s that danger I was talking about—it remains one of the greatest achievements of the viewpoint, in my opinion.

As promised, here’s a passage I’ve written using this perspective. It’s…a bit longer.

—————————————————————–

Leaning against the ancient stone wall, Jerin sucked in a breath, and winced at the stitch in his side. The fields in the distance and the untended tall grasses, and the forest beyond, were vibrant, verdant, dancing with wind. He could imagine, in hours to come, the farmers out in the fields. For now, despite the dawn, the town and the fields were still eerily silent.

Jerin slowly reeled in his breathing, and tried to quiet his mind. Would he hear them, before they were upon him?

He pushed the thought down, down into the quiet depths where the Masters had taught him to leave anything that weakened him. There was no time for weakness. No time for fear. He sidled to the corner of the wall and peeked around the corner, down the streets he had run before.

The world was bright enough to sting his eyes, orange from a sky just on the other side of dawn, green from weed-mottled grass, yellow from thatched roofs that poked up over tall white wooden fences. All of it was so deep, so full of color that he could almost reach out and touch it from where he stood.

The fences kept the people safe in their houses, separate from The Road and whatever might travel on it—especially from those that could Pull. The houses were set at odd angles and with odd spaces between, so that he could only see little ways down the street. He might not see them, if they were following, until it was too late.

The Gluttons wouldn’t care if he was afraid. Wouldn’t care if he begged. They wouldn’t care that the Masters had never asked if he wanted to join them. They would only care that he could Pull. That made him dangerous, made him less than an animal, but more, to the Gluttons, it made him food.

Sria

Jerin tucked his head back behind cover, trying to push the name down into the dark. It resurfaced, too buoyant to drown.

Srialleine’s scream breached the surface of his thoughts; her scream, and the sharp, sudden end to it, like the breaking of a branch over a knee. She’d been beside him, laughing, leaf-green eyes sparkling in the campfire’s light, and then she was screaming, and they were on her, all claws and teeth. They had been focused only on her—she had been stronger than he, many times stronger, and years more practiced—and he had run.

He had run.

Pain lanced through memory, jerking him back to the present. He swallowed the acrid taste of blood. The Masters had trained him relentlessly, more so even than they had the others. The throb at his lip didn’t matter beside the renewed focus it brought.

The Nine Edicts demanded that houses outside the cities were staggered, demanded the fences, so as not to aid those who could Pull. The Gluttons couldn’t see through houses any better than Jerin could, but they didn’t use their eyes much during a hunt. It was all smell with them, smell and taste, instinct and hunger. Jerin took a deep breath, careful, quiet, and peered around the corner again.

The breath in his lungs seemed to freeze solid.

Green grasses, blue sky, yellow thatch behind white fences. The grey paved Road, and crawling on it a half-dozen sickly, ashen silhouettes. Smallish, man-shaped but for spiny tails, they scurried with a lithe, predatory grace. Eerily human. And too close for the silence. He should have been able to hear their claws clack on the pavement. Even watching them now, he heard nothing.

Nostrils, flush against their faces, sat between long slits for eyes. Layered, curving fangs kept callous lips in a perpetual rictus, and forked tongues flicked out to taste the air. To taste for him.

His lungs felt swollen in his chest, straining. Carefully, he let the breath out in a slow stream from his nose, mouth tightly shut. As close as they were, they may not smell sweat enough to track him. But could they smell the blood? His eyes stung, but he couldn’t make them look away long enough to blink.

Watching them made his stomach clench. Naked, hairless, skin almost rough enough for scales, all of them that queasy shade of grey. They lacked any ears beyond holes in the sides of their heads. Grotesqueries of humanity, primal and sinuous, always hungry. Male. They were all male. He didn’t know where their females were, but the males were put on the hunt.

Gluttons. These vile things had a name. As feared as they were, they still had a place in the world. Jerim swam in the terror, unmoving against the ancient wall, and weathered a sudden wave of hatred. These things were almost pets to them, to the Veritiers. Cats hunting mice, hunting vermin.

Worse than all of that was the horror of memory. Muscle tearing under serrated teeth, bones snapping from the pressure their jaws could bring to bear. And all the time, there was silence. He had been close enough to smell their unwashed fetor, the stench of rotten meat in their mouths. But he hadn’t heard them. Hadn’t heard her screaming, once they were on her. Sria had watched him, green eyes dripping with terror and pain. All he could do was watch them. All he could do was run.

He watched them now, hand clenched around the edge of the wall. Trembling.

Saliva dripped form gaping maws, trailed in viscous lines to pavement. Long, swaying tails scraped silent against the road, claws making minute scratches. Why didn’t the things make noise?

Blood pulsed in Jerin’s ears, throbbed almost painfully. The colors of grass and sky and thatched roofs pressed in on him in waves. He could make them make noise. Make them scream. In the moments before he finished ripping them apart.

Putting his feet beneath him, he pushed off the wall, back toward the fields and the tall grass and the forest. Yes. He could attack. And die. With another of those breaths through his nose, he checked his belt, the pouch and the half-haft ax hanging from the loop. Hadn’t he been afraid, only a moment ago? Maybe it was still there, buried beneath shame, loathing, and rage. Sria deserved better. She deserved to be avenged. The Gluttons deserved pain for eating her. And Jerin deserved death for leaving her to die.

He managed another step backward, and another, and turned to start toward the tall grass. This wasn’t about what they deserved. This was about the Masters, what he knew, what they needed to hear.

The Hundred Swords had been drawn, and the Defilers were awake.

The price to see them imprisoned had been the end of the world. The crumbling of kingdoms, a devouring chaos that had left the people with a fear of those who could Pull but no memory of why. He refused to think what the price would be now, if the Masters were caught unaware.

The smell warned him. Rancid skin and old carrion. Without thought he fell forward, twisting as he did, pulling the ax free and throwing it in one practiced motion. The ax whistled through the air in a shining arc, and stopped silent in the creature’s skull. The beast didn’t make a sound as it hooked almost upright with the force of the ax’s impact, blood spraying noiselessly against the stones behind it, and then fell limply onto its stomach. The ground shook beneath Jerin’s boots when it landed, but he still heard nothing.

As blood pooled beneath the creature’s ruined head, another of them paced around its fallen comrade. Its head turned to the dead at its side, tongue flicking out, before it turned back to Jerin with a silent snarl, and pounced. Sucking in a breath, Jerin Pulled.

The orange of the morning sky sang in his skin, the green of the grass seeping through his pores. The white fence stood cold and impassive, and the grey pavement lay beneath him, uncaring. Seconds slid by, slow enough to feel them prickling on the hairs along his skin.

Each touch was different. Red was always strongest, a searing pressure, demanding use; that was why the Nine Edicts forbid red. White exuded nothing.

Jerin drank it in, sang with its sweetness. Training had made the next step almost beneath thought. He reached into a blade of grass between himself and the monster. Time snapped back as power flooded the blade, lighting it with the colors of the world.

The blade of grass swelled and shot tall, twisting so that its edge turned to the Glutton. The thing had just enough time for its eyes to focus on the blade before they collided. The blade’s keen edge sliced clean through the monster’s shoulder and into its chest. Fallen, twitching, to the ground, its mouth opened in a whine, but no sound escaped.

The blade stood tall, solid and crystalline, a milky, translucent white beneath the blackness of blood.

Jerin pushed himself to his feet, regaining his breath. Five heartbeats had passed since the first had fallen. Maybe ten. He had to hurry. They wouldn’t have heard his Pulling—it was silent as the Gluttons themselves—but they would smell the blood of their kindred and come running.

Giving the second, still-writhing creature a wide berth, he put a boot on the first monster’s back, pulling the ax free with a sharp jerk. He kept his ax in hand as he hopped down away from the Road, away from town. Tall grasses brushed at his thighs as he sped his pace, almost running.

They would smell the thing’s blood, be able to track it. His breath caught for a moment at the thought, but he made it steady, made himself move. Yes, they would smell their own death on him. It would drive them forward, in fear and rage. It would consume them almost as it had Jerin.

Leaving the Road was a dangerous gamble. There were things in the wilderness, things nearly as dangerous as the Gluttons, and far more numerous. But this way was the Masters. Closer than by the Road. And the Gluttons would be prey in the wild no less than he was.

The sky was brightening, the orange fading to blue, but he soaked up that orange while he could. At dawn he was strong, fueled by the traces of red in the morning sky, the bleeding of the sun.

The wind brought the sweetness of the dark forests ahead, and the grass grew all the way to his waist. It slowed him, but he was glad for it. It would slow the Gluttons even more, would make them almost equal. He was careful of his footing; one stumble, and they would be on him. He didn’t look back, but he could feel them there, in the prickling along his neck.

Moments passed, bringing him closer to the forest’s edge. The tension between his shoulders melted as the trees loomed overhead before him. He let his pace slow a little, to a step he could hold for hours. He would have to, as long as the scent on him drove the Gluttons beyond caution, beyond conditioning.

Conditioning. He’d never taken to the Master’s training as well as the rest. Had never truly learned to bury weakening thoughts. Even now he thought of Sria.

Sria, without a doubt, would have welcomed death, if it got the message to the Masters. But it was wrong. He should have been the one to die for it. She had always been the strongest of them, second in power only to the Masters themselves, had saved more young than anyone from the purges. She was a hero. He was an upstart, brash, foolish. Stubborn. If he hadn’t insisted on stopping, if he hadn’t insisted on the fire—if he hadn’t run—then maybe Sria—

Fire tore through his shoulder, knocking him forward. Instinct rolled him back to his feet, and hurled the ax at the landing creature before him. Even as he watched the thing go down with the ax in its side, he knew he was dead. Cursing himself for a fool, he spun to face the creatures stalking him, and Pulled.

The last traces of orange in the sky bled into his soul. Time drained like honey through a sieve. Jerin threw his hands up, pushing into the grass ahead, and they were radiant, twisting as they shot upward into a fence taller than those surrounding the houses. The creature in the lead tried to jump over the sprouting, crystalline barrier, and took a point in the chest, dangling from it as it grew overhead.

The fence bought him seconds, not nearly enough time to worry about the ax. Jerin glanced at his shoulder as he ran, and grimaced. Long scores along his skin, almost hidden by pooling blood. Not as bad as he’d feared—the needle and thread in his small pack would close the wounds cleanly—but they might be fatal, nonetheless. He drank in the calm blue of the sky, pushing hard.

The wounds from the Gluttons were were a poison, leeching the body’s strength. If he didn’t get away from the pack hunting him in the next few moments, he wouldn’t have the strength to fight them.

Now he looked back often as he trudged toward the forest. He had to reach the Bastion. It was worth his life, was even worth Sria’s. If he died before he reached the Darkroads, her death would be meaningless.

Beyond the tall grasses was a clearing of scrub and dirt, moss and mushrooms, where the trees blocked the sun. He was close.

He could trace the Gluttons in the wavering of the grass around the new wall’s edge. The silence of that movement was eerie, repeated on either side, reconverging behind him. Reaching into the pockets of his bag’s shoulder strap, he retrieved rounded vials, full of bright red dye. If only he could Pull through glass. He pushed forward through the grass, keeping the vials in hand.

Jerim counted breaths. How many did he have before he reached the edge of the grass? How many breaths before they were upon him? How many breaths away from dying? He counted them. Six. Four. Two.

Stumbling as he breached the field’s edge, he spun and threw. The vials shattered, spraying dye in all directions, thick and vibrant enough to sit on the scrub. Jerin let the glistening red fill him until he thought he’d burst.

Heartbeats bled by as he stepped backward, away from the dye and the ground it had stained. Not even breaths until they reached him now. Now he counted heartbeats. Three. Two.

On one he Pulled, sucking in the green and brown and blue, but more than anything sucking in the red. Jerin pushed the power into the dye, into the grass. Time flashed to normal as the dye exploded and the grass burst into flame all along the front line. A dark form broke the line of fire and bounded into the air, pinning him onto his back.

One had gotten by. The thought was frantic, a rat’s thought as a cat snapped it up in its jaw. The field was aflame. Impassible. But one had gotten through, and one was more than enough.

Instinct, beaten into him by the Masters’ training, brought his hands up, up to the leathery sag of the beast’s neck, pushing it to arm’s length. Claws cut long trails of agony in his side, in his arms, and sparked that terrible heaviness wherever they touched. Their claws were dangerous, feeding apathy and exhaustion, but their teeth were death.

The thing pushed down on him, jaws snapping silently, inching closer despite the desperate work of his arms. The stench was on him, making his stomach heave. Drool leaked in a thick line, and he jerked his face away, but it spattered on his cheek, stinging. A cry ripped from Jerin’s throat, but no sound escaped.

Jerin managed a single, powerful shove, and the thing was lifted onto its hind legs, its face far from Jerin’s neck. The Glutton’s claws ripped through leather and wool and skin, biting deep into muscle. Cold agony announced where they scraped ribs.

The heaviness infected his thoughts, made it hard to reason. Hard to care that he was dying. That, without warning, the Defilers would sweep the Masters into the abyss. That the rest of the world would fall without them.

Jerin’s hands faltered, falling at his sides; with a soundless growl, he pushed them back up aginst the creature’s chest. He was too weak. Barely an inconvenience for the thing anymore. The Glutton reared back, claws and teeth and hunger. Death.

Jerin looked down with a cold detachment, watched the blood gush dark and red from wide gashes in his chest. Lethal by themselves. The beast’s mouth opened wide, and started forward, down toward his neck. Jerin didn’t have the strength to fight it. He had no weapons, and nothing to Pull, not close enough to matter, not the right color to do what was needed.

Something inside Jerin shifted, like snapping into place. He couldn’t. It was impossible.

Jerin Pulled.

Blood could not be used to Pull. It was one of the first lessons ingrained in him, before he even truly knew what he was. They’d had him try, again and again over the years of training, as if to make sure that this inability felt as true as the inability to fly. Blood could not be used to Pull.

But power flowed into him now, stabbing hot, scorching away the cold of the wounds, the emptiness. Time stood solid, a thick line of drool drooped halfway to his face, the creature’s eyes open just wide enough to reflect a shadowy image of Jerin’s face. Shock twisted his features, but he felt it as he saw it in the Glutton’s eyes, like it belonged to someone else. It was impossible to Pull from blood, the same as it was impossible to do what he did next.

Without moving his hands from the cold roughness of the creature’s chest, Jerim pushed the power into the Glutton. Time leapt forward.

The explosion drove him into the dark earth hard enough to squeeze the air from his lungs, hard enough to crush his bones. His ears shattered with the enormity of the thunder, and the light seared his eyes shut. Pain grew beyond bearing, beyond knowing. His heart slammed in his chest, a handful of beats from ripping to pieces.

Seconds passed in false silence as the explosion tore through the world. Seconds passed, beyond what he thought he could endure. The fires continued to rage not far away, their color stabbing at him even while blind. The sky fell down on his skin, pressing, throbbing. With a breath that rattled in his chest, he Pulled.

It was impossible to Pull from blood. He knew that to be true. And it was impossible to push that power into thinking creatures—any being it was tried on developed a slow rotting disease, but nothing else. And yet he had done both.

Last, it was impossible to Pull power into himself and keep it. No matter what use he had for it, it would burn out the core of him and leave him smoldering but untouched on the surface. It was impossible to save himself.

As he pushed the power through crumpled veins, into torn muscle and pulverized bones, he cackled bloodily. Flesh knitted, bone set, muscle reattached. Languidly, he soaked up the blue, pouring it into himself, and laughed.

The sun was sinking violet on the horizon when he pushed himself, stumbling, to his feet. The fire had burned wild among the summer grass, still covered the area in seeping smoke. It had driven the Gluttons away or taken them with it. Shedding a leather jerkin and wool tunic too torn and burnt to cover him and finding smooth skin underneath, he smiled. Jerin abandoned his pack and turned to the forests, and the Darkroads beyond.

He had a message to deliver. And questions to ask. The Masters had a lot of explaining to do.

Crash Course on Perspective: First Person

I originally started this post years ago. I though I’d lost it when my computer crashed and burned, but I found it a little while ago, and I guess I’ve finally found the motivation to move forward with it.

Because I’m tackling all three perspectives, I don’t go into a lot of depth on each. This is, like I say, a crash course, rather than an intensive study. If anyone wants a more in-depth approach to one of the three, just let me know!

In the meantime, I’m tacking on a brief passage from each, to demonstrate how I use (and occasionally mangle) the perspective.

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Before I start, what is perspective?

Perspective, also called Point of View, can be looked at as the camera in a movie. It determines where the overall focus is in your story. Is it on one character? Is it on a handful of characters and the story they tie into? Is it on a bunch of characters, the world they’re in, and the story they’re a part of? Deciding on what perspective you’re using can help you choose where your focus will be, and vice versa.

There are three kinds of perspective commonly used in fiction. There’s First Person, which uses I as its pronoun, and Third Omniscient and Third Limited, which both use he or she. I’ll get to the other two in future posts, but for now I’m going to focus on First.

First Person perspective is the most immediate, the most personal. Have you ever seen a scene in a movie that is from the character’s eyes? That is First Person.

First is the most immediate, and the most intimate, viewpoint. You can do things in first that you can’t easily do in one or both of the others. The PoV character can address, manipulate or even lie to the reader. They can directly tell jokes to the reader. The PoV character is a legitimate character, in the way that the perspective in Third usually isn’t. You can build a voice and a character that carries the book in a way that the other perspectives don’t. You can even infodump—within reason.

However, this Point of View is inherently limited. It’s very difficult to tell a story from more than one perspective; while it can be done, it’s usually not worth the trouble. This means two important things. First, if the reader doesn’t like the character, they don’t get to hop to another that they might like better. You have one shot to make them like it. Second, you can only give the reader what the character either experiences directly, or learns about later. If some important event has to happen while the PoV character is somewhere else, then you miss out on the chance to have that happen in-scene.

There’s an important question you’ll want to ask at the outset of writing First. Are we inside the character’s head as events happen? If so, you can’t directly address the audience, or deliver information until the character learns it, or have them comment on the current actions with the hindsight of someone who’s seen the outcome. If we aren’t in the character’s head as events happen, then we must be taking in the character’s words, whether written or spoken, after the fact. If this is the case, then we have to assume that the character is alive, and in a state that they may deliver these words in this way.

As you can see, there are serious pros and cons to First Person.

If you’re planning to write First Person, I’d highly recommend Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz. It’s my favorite single novel ever written, and it shows off the strengths of First Person while deftly working around the weaknesses. If you read it with the use of First in mind, I think there’s a lot it can teach.

Now that I’ve given my bit about what First is and how to use it, here’s what I used it for. Warning: it’s pretty bleak.

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My hands trembled, almost fumbling the cigarette on the way to my lips. Stuck on the steps of the old brick porch, stuck between the cheerful winking of Christmas tree lights spilling from the living room window and the gloom of the sinking winter sun, about all I could do was tremble.

Tremble and smoke.

I pulled the lighter from my coat, trying to snap loose buttons to keep the ratty thing shut, but my hand refused to work the little wheel.

The cold made my veins throb darker, closer to the surface against the back of my hand, and sitting on the porch felt like sitting on the edge of a knife. My breath was a hot fog against a numbed, runny nose. But the cold had nothing to do with it when I dropped the lighter.

If I listened, I could understand the voices stabbing at me from inside. I didn’t want to pay attention. Didn’t want the jumble of noises to suddenly become words, become sentences. I didn’t want to hear what they were saying about me. But my brain was an idiot, and kept right on with the translation.

“Sure, Paul,” Mom said, her words dripping venom. “Keep yelling. That always works.”

Paul took a breath—I could hear it in the pregnant quiet—and the walls shook when he spoke. “Why don’t we just sit down and talk it out, right?” If his words dripped with anything, it was with alcohol. “Like she’s still a child, like she’s not doing this on purpose! Juvenile, Jillian. That’s where she’s headed. And talking isn’t going to—”

“How do you know it won’t?” Mom interrupted. With a shudder, I pulled my hood further forward, and wished the zipper hadn’t busted last March. My aching fingers scrabbled at the step below for the lighter. Paul didn’t like being interrupted. Ever. “Did you try it some time when I was at work? I think that if you actually tried to talk to her—”

“What do you think we should do, Jill? Ground her? So she can steal the car again?” My fingers were back working the wheel of the lighter. Sparking, sparking… “Or take her cell? She can run away again. Who knows? Maybe next time she sleeps with somebody to let her stay with them, we’ll know the guy? How do you like the odds?”

God, finally! I took my first delighted puff of the cigarette, leaning against the wooden banister beside me. It had almost two hours since I’d finished the last one—right before our nice, holiday dinner. Just us family.

Paul had only drank two beers, then, and had only started on the bourbon.

We’d been five minutes away from Mom pulling the chicken out of the oven. Fifteen from her going to take the phone call. Twenty-five from my plate shattering against the wall. My lips curled at the thought of the smears the mashed potatoes must have left. I pulled my fingers under the frayed cuffs—it was starting to feel like the cold was physically squeezing them—I rolled the cigarette across my lips and took another mouthful, letting it out through my nose.

“She promised me she wont do that again…” Mom sounded not quite as sure of herself. Defensive. She was losing. Good for her! Maybe if she was smart, she’d take a dive.

“Did she?” Surprise and mock-relief didn’t sit on Paul’s lips as easily as a bottle. “Well, then. At least we can rest easy there. If only we’d thought to make her promise everything else! “Oh, Mom, I’m so sorry! I promise I won’t get high, break into my school, steal the computers for drug money!” The slur should have made his prissy whine of an imitation funnier.

A few quick, rough puffs shot smoke straight to my brain. Thankfully, every great once and a while, my parents decided to choose their battles. Between taking me to the clinic for gonorrhea and practically strip-searching me for joints, they never did quite find time to bring up the smoking. Thank God. I can only imagine how sanctimonious mom would have gotten about the dangers of freaking smoking.

“I’m tired,” Paul said, almost quietly. If I hadn’t lived under the man’s roof for about two-thirds of sixteen years, I might have felt sorry for him. He sounded sad. Listening to that voice, an outsider could almost believe he’d tried to be a real father. “Jillian, I’m so tired. But you always pull this crap. I always have to be the bad guy.”

“No,” Mom said, her voice just as soft. “Not always. Just when you’re drunk.”

I knew it was coming, but my shoulders still rocked a the sound of a fist making contact. Distinctive, that sound. Impossible to mistake it for anything else, once you’ve heard it a few times. Felt it a few times. My stomach made a funny twist as I heard her hit the floor.

Dropping what was left of the cigarette on the step, I pulled myself up by the banister. I heard Anne’s door creak open, next door, and her head poked out. Looking at her face—like a bulldog, with great hanging jowls, but with eyes glittering in a rabbit’s panic—I gave her an exaggerated nod. She disappeared back into her house.

It usually only took them ten minutes to get here. Sometimes as little as five, but rarely more than fifteen.

I sighed at the wasted half of a cigarette. Then I ground it out beneath my tennis shoe and slipped what was left of the pack out and left it on the banister. The lighter on top would keep it there.

Dear ol’ Dad wouldn’t get a special, free fare ride to the station, an all-expenses-paid stay at the city’s most popular hotel. He’d only got that once, years back, when he was too free with his fists on Mom’s face. Now he was careful. Now all he got was a few minutes in the back of a cruiser while mom swore up and down that we were a sitcom family. Never mind the daughter; she’s a druggie and whore, so who’s surprised she’s a liar, too?

I could have laughed.

I couldn’t leave. I’d promised. And I was tired of sitting out on the steps, listening.

Turning to the screen door, which let out the vague forms of writhing victim and towering, swaying menace, I took a breath of clean, sweet air. Cold, but without sweat, without fear. Ten minutes, maybe fifteen. Then the night would be over, and he’d be done for a week or two. He was always better, afterward. Apologetic. It won’t happen again, it was the booze, yadda yadda. I didn’t so much smile, swinging the screen door open as noisily as a screen door swings, as I sneered.

Ten minutes was easy. I’d learned better than Mom. Know when the hit’s coming, Mom. Know when, know where. Anticipate, and move away. Don’t dodge, don’t try to block. But soften it, and overplay it afterward. He’s drunk. He doesn’t know the difference. I knew the bit well enough to sell it on a late-night infomercial. It had been years since he’d broken anything.

Ten minutes was easy. Two years was hard.

A Crash Course in Horror

Epic Fantasy isn’t my only love in the world of fiction. This post is about another genre that I spend a lot of time and a lot of thought in.

I love the Horror genre. I love to read, or watch, or play stories that are innovative and scary, stories that make me look over my shoulder for hours after I’m finished. During my lifelong love affair with the genre, I’ve picked up a few concepts that should help anyone looking to improve their craft.

Scale is Everything

What’s scarier? A monster ripping through a city? Or a monster locked in a dark room in the basement?

Horror is all about personal connections, and personal threat. As you scale up the threat, you scale down the sense of horror. Sure, it can still be tense, thrilling, and effective. Large-scale terrors can make for great stories (War of the Worlds, Pacific Rim). But they won’t be horrifying.

Subtlety in All Things

This is why a twisted corpse twitching and pulling in a rattling moan is scarier than the same corpse leaping at the screen/character. Leave the audience room to imagine the next moment, and the next. Leave them room to imagine what the monster can and will do. Leave them room to scare themselves.

This goes double when it comes to describing/revealing your monster vs. leaving them mostly hidden in shadow.

Respect Your Audience

It’s not just a Horror story. Don’t let yourself be lazy or generic with those words as comfort. Respect your audience, respect yourself. Build interesting characters who are clever and resourceful and are overwhelmed anyway. Build stories that maybe the characters simply couldn’t have done anything to avoid.

There is more terror in being helpless than in being stupid.

And last but not least…

Find Terror in the Mundane

When I say that, I don’t mean that you should try to make a Horror movie about a killer tire (this is a real thing!). What I mean is, find what is already frightening, and make it horrifying.

Here are two of my favorite mainstays of Horror: A baby monitor, and a mental institution.

Sure, both of these are complete cliches by now. But have you ever thought about why they can continue to be effective in Horror? It’s because, in the case of the monitor, nothing supernatural has to go wrong for something horrifying to happen. And in the case of mental institutions, it’s because horrifying things have already happened in these places. There’s pain, the potential for pain, attached to these things on a fundamental level.

Here’s one of the most terrifying stories I’ve ever read, to demonstrate further. I’ll not say anything else to avoid spoiling, other than that it’s highly disturbing and contains strong language. (http://creepypasta.wikia.com/wiki/Autopilot)

To Sum Up

Use small scale to keep the audience invested in the immediate threat. Use subtlety to build a palpable atmosphere of dread. Respect your audience to keep them attached to the characters and story. And use Horror elements to elevate already-uncomfortable story elements. Together, this will make for a story to keep the audience up at night.

Thanks for reading! What do you think are some fundamental tips for writing Horror? If people are interested, I have a lot more to say on this subject!