Sunday, 27 March 2016

Am I missing something? (Part 1)

So, as you may have gathered from previous posts, I love good stories. However, that then begs the question; what, to me, makes a good story? In previous posts I've touched upon well written characters, so this time I want to compare stories with similar themes and/or premises. The catch here is I'm going to pick one story I liked, and one I disliked, and try to explore the reasons why one worked for me and the other didn't, despite their similarities.

Once again I'm going to look at different media, including books, video games, and film. First I'll focus on books (Part 1 and 2), then video games (Part 3 and 4), and finally film (Part 5).

To outline what's to come:

Part 1: Lord of the Rings vs. The Books of Pellinor

Part 2: Percy Jackson vs. Harry Potter

Part 3: Tomb Radier vs. Uncharted

Part 4: Bayonetta vs. Devil May Cry

Part 5: Wall-E vs. The Lorax

Disclaimer: These are just my personal opinions, and I'm sure the flaws in my arguments will be pointed out and thrown in my face, however just because *I* think something is not very good, that doesn't mean others have to agree. If you like something I don't, wonderful! Variety is the spice of life, after all.



A controversial one to start with, especially as the latter was actually inspired by the former! But this is a question that always intrigued me. As a writer of fantasy myself, why have I never gotten along with the founding father of the genre? It's not like I'm anti-Tolkein either; I enjoyed the Hobbit (just don't speak about the film(s) in my presence). But these books I just couldn't get into, and for various reasons...


This is something that I have a very strong opinion about. Yes, Tolkein lived through World War 2 which left a huge impact on him (and art in general), but his generalized denigration of the human race has persisted so deep that I've become completely sick of it. Sci-fi is very guilty of this as well. From elves of the deep woods to far-flung aliens in the darkest reaches of space, of course they must be better than us mere humans! And not only from a technological standpoint (which I could deal with), but from a moral standpoint.

As a doctor I've seen the nasty things people are capable of, but I've also seen the wonders people can achieve as well. We can be very resourceful and skilled when backed into corners. Hence, I didn't like how 'men' are portrayed as weak, inferior to the other races, and needing 'guidance'. Perhaps it's just my belief that we have more control over our own situation that we sometimes believe, and the tension between having an internal or external locus of control (which is something Tolkein explores; I just don't agree with his eventual outcome).

On the other hand, Croggon's take on the subject is a lot more morally grey. People are capable of good and bad things, and both are not mutually exclusive, either. Even the 'good' characters make questionable choices, and good people can be pushed into doing terrible things (her third book, The Crow, is a particularly dark example of this).

However, she doesn't need to split her world into races to show this, and rather shows problems with diversity within a race (Saliman's black skin, for example, and Maerad's gender). Croggon's portrayal is much more sympathetic, and for me, hits closer to home. It's much more horrifying to see a normal person brainwashed into doing something unspeakable, rather than just 'because they were evil'.


I will admit this is a slightly cheap shot, as it's probably more an effect of what came after LOTR as so many tried to 'copy' the master style. I'm sure if I'd read LOTR when it came out I'd not have this particular qualm against it.


The medieval fantasy setting has become something of a rut. Forget the progress of technology, let's have random magic and leave it at that! Who needs working pluming, or proper irrigation, or complex architecture (though Sauron got his money's worth with that tower...)

It's something barely ever commented upon, and for me, it makes the setting stagnant. It gives the impression that a) society exists in a vacuum and is never pressured to adapt to surroundings and b) there is never any impetus for change. I appreciate the story is not supposed to be a treatise on how the characters worked to increase agriculture yields, and the spread of Sauron's army would've put a damper on progress, but it would be nice to see hints of it. Heck, even watching the enemy army develop more powerful technologies would've been good, as war is actually quite a stimulus for technological advancement.

Croggon's books are not that much different in this aspect, but because she's worked in an interesting magic system, it's possible to see magic and technology working in harmony. She takes time to show how normal people live, so we get an idea of how Bards (the magic-capable people in her world) use their powers to make day to day life easier, and further their own technology. Again, while I wouldn't say these books do tonnes better than LOTR, it just seems to bother me less here.


So a lot of older media (and let's face it, a lot of newer media too) tend to over-represent males and under-represent females. The main quest with Frodo has all-male Hobbits, a male wizard, a male warrior, a male dwarf, a male elf, etc etc...and while there are female characters, they're not really crucial to the main plot, and are quite outnumbered by their male counterparts. Even when there are dire city sieges, with little to no hope of any victory, none of the women are given any opportunity to fight.

This is usually met with the 'but that's what it was like in those days, women didn't do anything!' excuse, which, as historical research has proven many times, is not true. Women did plenty; they just weren't recognised for it and so were written out. Again, part of this is a result of LOTR being a product of its time, and it's not that the women who do appear have terrible roles. It's just a bit more of them would've been nice. Women played a very large and active role in both World Wars, so it's not like Tolkein was lost for examples.

Croggon of course goes the whole hog and makes the protagonist a girl (but then if you know the author at all, this shouldn't be a surprise). But she doesn't stop there; there's a whole host of female characters who appear both as allies and enemies. This allows for a much better representation of the female spectrum, because (as most of modern YA will attest) having just one female character means you have to shove conflicting traits. She can't be docile, she's an action heroine, but she can't be too masculine so needs feminine appearances, etc etc. And it's not like there's a sparsity of men in exchange; Cadvan plays just as an important role as Maerad, and so does (spoiler: her brother Hem as well).


So, it seems I prefer the Books of Pellinor because...they're written with a more modern mindset, I guess? It also doesn't rely on the traditional fantasy races (elves, dwarves, orcs etc, which I just don't like outright no matter how they're written) and uses actual ethnicities instead. And while I can appreciate the enormous impact Tolkein's works had (and still have) on the genre, it's just not for me. Born in the wrong era, I think!

Stay tuned for the next part, where I pit the Percy Jackson series against Harry Potter!

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Top Media That Influenced Me (Part Two)

Top Ten Media That Influence Me Part Two

Everyone takes inspiration from something, and I'm no exception. It can be interesting to delve back and see what media have left a lasting impact on me, and so that's exactly what I've done. So, prepare yourself for a blast from the past as I explore the media that have left the biggest impression on me and continue to inspire. This is  Part Two- for Part One click here.

Eternal Darkness

This was the first game I played on the Nintendo Gamecube, and it really opened my eyes to what great storytelling should be about. The game is a time-sprawling horror epic, spanning all of human history, where ancient evil strives to resurrect itself through a corrupted Roman soldier. You experience the story through the eyes of Alexandra Roivas, living in the present time as she reads the Tome of Eternal Darkness, a fiendish book which has recorded 'true history'.

At the time I played this game I was starting to venture into my own original writing, but I was getting quite stuck in terms of scope and premise. I'd read quite a few YA novels and been disappointed in that the stakes and plot never seemed that big. This game however tore through all of that. I loved the whole 'hidden unwritten history' angle, the various historical settings and the brilliant (if not particularly diverse) cast. I'd never been much of a fan for H.P. Lovecraft or horror, but the depth of story and intrigue really gripped me and it's definitely my biggest source of inspiration to date.

Final Fantasy XII

I played this game quite a while after its initial release. I knew pretty much nothing about it, but I had played previous Final Fantasy games (VIII and IX) and enjoyed them, so I thought I'd give it a go. Like most Final Fantasy plots, it's complex and winding, but it touches on a lot of interesting themes. You follow the story through the eyes of Vaan, who is not actually the protagonist but is a bystander who gets dragged along for the ride when he joins the rebellion to free his home town from Empire rule.

Having a story framed like this, while it did cause some upset to a lot of players, I thought was really intriguing. It felt more engrossing in a way; I as a player was being taken along this epic journey as a viewer rather than a protagonist, so I could pay more attention to what was going on. I enjoyed the themes about fate versus free will, the weight of difficult choices and how small actions can have a bigger impact. Again, I also liked the worldbuilding which was comfortably past stagnant sword 'n sorcery but not right into uber advanced sci-fi. This aspect has again had an influence on my Azaria series in terms of how I envision the technology and landscape, and its deeper theme of being in control of your own destiny has filtered through to my (currently on hold) first novel, The Zodiac Hunters.

Madoka Magica

This is a lot more recent an influence than the others, in that I only watched it last year, but it certainly left an impact. Don't let the pretty colours fool you! It's a dark, more tragic take on the traditional magical girl genre, following a girl named Madoka and her friends. They are offered a single wish from a strange being called Kyubey so they can gain powers to defeat evil Witches, but the implications are more far-reaching than they could ever know.

So I'm a big fan of subversions/ deconstruction in media- that is, when a typical story trope or stereotype is twisted around- and while Madoka isn't a true subversion it's still fascinating. It explores and takes a very jaded view of the ideals behind gaining magical/ super powers and how they are used. I enjoyed the characters' perspectives too, and as morbid as it sounds, watching them unravel was really engrossing! Most of the main characters slowly find their idealism crumbling around them, and end up losing faith in that which they most strongly believed in. It inspired some thoughts as to my own characters and how sometimes it can be more interesting to watch negative character development.

Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra

While these are two separate shows, they're of the same continuity so I've lumped them together, as each of them taught me several things. Avatar: The Last Airbender follows the journey of Aang, the last airbender, who must restore peace to the world and take on his role as Avatar, the one who brings the nations together in balance. Legend of Korra follows on from that, as Korra is the Avatar to follow Aang, but her character, personality and journey is very, very different!

Avatar was another piece of media I didn't watch when it was released, although I'd heard lots of positive things about it. Eventually I got around to watching it, and didn't regret it. I can find pretty much zero fault with this series, at least in terms of story-telling. Everything, from the pacing, the setting, the characters and their development and the balance of comedy with serious moments just fits so well. Granted I never really liked Aang's design (blue arrows, really?), but the series showed me how with careful planning everything can just fall into place.

Oddly enough, Korra isn't quite as 'perfect' particularly in terms of pacing (thanks to behind the scenes problems and issues regarding whether the series would continue after the first season), and yet I find this series a lot more interesting. The creators took more risks, not all of which worked, but the darker themes, improved character designs (Korra is much more impressive than Aang ever could be!) and shorter plot arcs were more fascinating to watch. While it does have pacing issues and underdeveloped characters (my biggest gripe is with Asami who was sorely under-used), it still comes off strong and certainly has more to offer than the original series.

So, while Avatar showed me the importance of good pacing and how smaller stories can tie in with an overall main arc, Korra showed me the importance of strong, flawed characters and how this contributes to much more fascinating character development.

Tales of Symphonia

This was the first I ever played, and it really blew out the water everything I'd come to expect from Japanese RPGs. This game followed the adventures of a boy named Lloyd, whose best friend Colette, the 'Chosen One', is about to embark on an important journey to restore prosperity to their world, as the life-force of the planet is being drained and abused. Little does he know that he's about to get involved in matters much worse, where he'll discover the truth about the laws that really govern his world.

Until this point in terms of RPGs I'd only played Final Fantasy, which tended to be more traditional in its presentation. So when I played this game, which totally deconstructed my most loathed plot archetype (the 'Chosen One'), introduced the concept of fantasy racism, and had many more twists and turns than could be considered reasonable even for a JRPG, it ticked all the boxes for me. The story and setting were amazing, the characters intriguing, and the gameplay wasn't half bad either. This was the first game where I really sympathised with the villain, as his motives were solid, even if his execution of said motives was questionable. It showed me the importance of humanising an antagonist, to make them more real and to provide a better foil to the protagonist. I still think this game's story is just perfect in almost every aspect, and it's given me a yardstick to measure my own plots against! 

So there you have it. Perhaps surprisingly as a writer I haven't taken a lot of inspiration from books, but it just goes to show that good storytelling can be found in any media.

What other media have inspired you? I'd love to know!

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Top Media That Influenced Me (Part One)

Everyone takes inspiration from something, and I'm no exception. It can be interesting to delve back and see what media have left a lasting impact on me, and so that's exactly what I've done. So, prepare yourself for a blast from the past as I explore the media that have left the biggest impression on me and continue to inspire.

Sonic the Hedgehog

The very first piece of media that I ever became a fan of, and that's going back some years! In case you've been living under a rock for the last 20 years, Sonic is a speedy blue hedgehog, who along with his (now quite extensive) cast of companions goes against the evil Dr. Eggman who wants to take over the world with his ingenious robotic creations.

Our family bought a SEGA Mega Drive (Genesis) for Christmas of 1993, and Sonic 1 was packaged with it. Of course, only being 7 years old, I was pretty terrible at it and often cried that I'd never get past the second level, but persistance and practice paid off. I went on to get the other Sonic games and they became a staple. I also enjoyed the cartoons, and those were what led me to joining my first fandom when we got the internet a few years later.

Soon after, I entered the wonderful crazy world of fan fiction, igniting a newfound love for writing. Stuffing every story with fan characters, finding weak reasons to change personalities, but not quite stooping to the level of Mary Sue, I still have them and I get a good laugh reading through the silly plots. 'Trying too hard' is putting it mildly!

I'm not really a part of the Sonic fandom now (I found other things more interesting as time want on), but I still enjoy (most) of the newer games and I'm always interested in what new antics the blue hedgehog gets up to these days.


This was the first anime I ever watched, way back when I was an impressionable teenager. I watched the dub on Fox Kids, and it became the second fandom I ever joined online. Basically, the Earth is under attack from an unknown mysterious alien race, who have super powerful mecha generals leading the assault. However, one of them, only known as Blade, goes renegade and fights on behalf of the Earth. He joins a group called the Space Knights, and the anime follows their role in the war and uncovering Blade's mysterious past.

Looking back, I do wonder what captivated me about the series, since it's a sci-fi mecha anime, which I wouldn't usually touch with a ten-foot barge pole. I guess the characters stuck with me. Blade is your typical broody stoic male lead with tragic backstory, and the Space Knights have their own little quirks (names after the '/' are the Japanese names, back when anime dubs took a lot of liberties with the source material): Ringo/ Noel the cocky pilot, Tina/ Milly the computer wiz, Mac/ Honda the Scottish mechanic and his partner Maggie/ Levin [yes he/she underwent a gender change] the crack engineer, Star/ Aki the aptly named navigator, and their fearless Commander Jamison /Freeman.

I have to say it's really lost its appeal over the years and it has dated fairly badly (those damned stereotypical gender roles and all that), but at the time it sparked off more fanfiction and also fanart. While it seems embarrassing now, I can't deny the role it had in shaping my writing!

Shinzo/ Mushrambo

A quaint little anime I watched on TV, not longer after Teknoman in fact. It was the next 
fandom I jumped into. The show follows the journey of a girl named Yakumo, who is put into suspended animation by her father during a war with humans and their own genetically engineered creatures called Enterrans. She awakens 500 years into the future, and accompanied by the hot-headed Enterran Mushra, the more subdued Saago and the money-minded cat Kutall, makes her journey to Shinzo, where she can hopefully restore peace between humans and Enterrans.

I enjoyed this show, with its unique character designs and fun characters. I even borrowed the name of one of its antagonists for my Chronicles of Azaria series (granted it is a cool name). It also inspired more fanfiction and fanart (big surprise?), and was perhaps the last fandom I was fairly active in.

Sorceror Stabber Orphen

This was the first 'authentic' anime I saw (i.e. I bought the original on DVD and watched it that way, rather than as a mangled dub on TV). I was first introduced to it via image searches on the internet, and I was obsessed with this bandana-wearing, leather-clad sorceror who seemed to have a bit of a fetish for this incredibly detailed demonic sword. The story follows Orphen, a sorceror on the run as he tracks down the dangerous dragon Bloody August. He gains some companions along the way and we learn about his involvement with the dragon and his true goal.

So it was Orphen's design that grabbed me most. My initial designs of my first original character borrowed quite heavily from him, in fact. The anime itself I enjoyed immensely; the worldbuilding and setting was great, the story was intriguing and the characters were fun. Orphen was yet another broody hero (but not so stoic and with a more dry sense of humour), Majic his bumbling apprentice, and Cleo the fiesty noblewoman/ occasional swordsman. The show also balanced its comedic moments with the more serious ones, giving it a strong overall tone.

I haven't watched it in a while but I will definitely make time to do so, as it still holds its intrigue and I still like the aesthetic appeal. While it didn't inspire me to join its fandom, it did get my brain ticking over how I wanted my own original ideas to be presented, so it's definitely had a huge impact.

Romeo x Juliet

I came to be introduced to this quite a bit later than the above three. Similar to Orphen, I was drawn to the beautiful art-style when I was looking for new anime to watch. I was never much a fan of Shakespeare's original play, but the thought of a fantasy style setting with Juliet playing the lead made me sit up. And I was not disappointed!

The story is basically a retelling of the classic, but as said, it's with Juliet as the protagonist and Romeo as HER love interest. She has had to hide from her true heritage due to the brutal murder of her entire family when she was a child. When Juliet comes of age, however, the truth is revealed, and loyalists to her family push her to lead them against the vicious Prince Montague who staged the slaughter of the Capulets all those years ago to seize power.

The presentation of this anime is simple breath-taking, and it lent a lot for the worldbuilding of my Chronicles of Azaria series. I also liked the characters a lot, who were given much more personality and flaws, and it was refreshing to see a love story with a female lead who actually had an important role in the main plot. It helped me realise the importance of having strong characters, which make their relationships with each other more real.

Find out about the other media that influenced me in Part 2...