Thursday, February 28, 2013

What Do You Have Against Parents, Urban Fantasy Writers?

I watch, read, and occasionally listen to a lot of urban fantasy. It’s enough so that I’ve kind of started to notice a trend. By which I mean, I’ve noticed a lot of trends. This one hit me over the head with all the subtlety of a brick made out of hammers.

No urban fantasy hero or heroine has a functional family. Well, okay, maybe one or two. But they are strong outliers.

Why is that? Isn’t that weirdly specific? It’s like Disney’s vendetta against mothers. While I completely understand that some of the characters would be parentless or bogged in unpleasant family situations because the plot needed them to, it’s getting kind of weird.

I mean, Harry Dresden’s parents are both dead. He was raised by his uncle, who is also now dead. Connor Grey’s parents are pretty much never mentioned (at least not in the first four books). He has no siblings that I know of (yet). Elena Michaels is an only child, and I don’t recall much about her parents. Nothing important, anyway.

Buffy’s parents are divorced, Willow’s parents ignore her, Xander’s are abusive, and Giles’ have disowned him. Oh, and Cordelia’s parents buy her off with presents, Angel’s were also abusive, and Tara’s tried to convince her that she was an evil demon. Literally the only character with a stable childhood environment is Spike. Spike.

Or take Teen Wolf. Scott’s parents are divorced and his father is implied to be abusive. Stile’s mother died of cancer. Both their remaining parents work all the time (though are very loving). Derek’s whole family is dead. Isaac’s mother is gone, his father was abusive, and his older brother is dead. Erica and Boyd’s parents are clearly neglectful, since they let their kids hang out with a creepy older guy at the abandoned subway station for days on end. Allison has two parents, but they’re both crazy, sooo…

And, of course, we can’t forget Supernatural or Harry Potter (which is, for the purposes of this article, urban fantasy). Dean and Sam’s parents are both dead, their grandparents are dead, their cousins are dead, and they’ve both died more times than Kenny on South Park. In Dean’s case, yes, literally. And not only are Harry’s parents dead, but by the end of the seventh book, literally everyone they were friends with or even talked to at school is dead.

What. The. Hell?

Okay, from a literary standpoint, it does make sense to give the gritty hero or heroine of an urban fantasy franchise a rather fraught background. It makes the stakes higher if the hero doesn’t have a strong emotional support network to fall back on in times of stress. I totally get why some writers would do that.

The doomed Winchesters.
But everybody? Come on guys, someone needs to be a little more creative here! (Speaking of which, major props to Amber Benson for leaving Calliope’s parents alive in her Death’s Daughter series. Fight the power!).

More than this, though, I feel like the great urban fantasy vendetta against families has to do with the nature of the material. It’s about monsters and magic and the scary things under the bed. Having family around for our characters tends to lessen the impact.

Think about it. When you were little, if you were a monster fearer like I was (I had two big windows in my room that faced out onto a forest – my fears were pretty standard), your parents were the ultimate safety. As long as they were in the room, nothing could hurt you. Again, I generalize, but you get the point.

In urban fantasy, we need our heroes to be scared. We need them backed into a corner, forced up against impossible odds, and we need them to be in danger. We absolutely cannot have their parents popping up and making everything better. Even for a minute.

Urban fantasy that’s set in a high school or other environment has the additional logistical problem of needing teenaged characters who can go out at all hours of the night without being punished or even really noticed. It’s easiest for the writers to just give them all crappy homelives. Maybe they want to explain too why the characters choose to creep around graveyards at night. It’s to avoid going home.

Or, if the parents do show up, which they do sometimes, we can’t have them be the actual solution. Either they know nothing about the supernatural and are really more of a hindrance than anything, or they’re actively working against the plot and must be avoided at all costs. Sometimes, both.

So, yeah, I get why urban fantasy heroes have little to no family or healthy relationships. But I still think it’s wrong.

Look, human beings are social creatures. We thrive in community with each other. This doesn’t mean we can’t be scared together. And it really doesn’t mean that any hero whose parents are still around/functional is a whimpering momma’s boy. What it means is that you should try harder to write interesting characters.

Just because it isn’t easy to write an urban fantasy hero with a strong support network doesn’t mean it can’t be done, and it definitely doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. It can and should. Yes, by getting rid of the family ties we heighten the stakes, but we also cheapen the drama. It’s usually the first step down an escalation of badness (or the slide of suck, as I called it in another article), from which there is no return.

I hold out real hope for an urban fantasy family that doesn’t splinter. Where the writer doesn’t bow to the obvious and discount the parents. And where the convenience of absent and dead parents doesn’t outweigh the story potential of adult characters in an urban fantasy world.

As a sidenote, Spike's backstory is hilarious.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Heart of a Queen Is the Heart of a Servant (Merlin)

If you’re a massive Lord of the Rings fan (like me), then there’s a phrase that’s always ringing around your head somewhere when you hear someone talk about royalty: “The hands of a king are the hands of a healer.” It’s from Return of the King, and it’s actually how Aragorn is identified as the true king of Gondor. 

When he appears, he has been in the fight and on the battlefield, but he takes some time out to go to the Houses of Healing and help Merry and Eowyn, who were both greatly wounded while battling the Witch King.

Aragorn goes to them and painstakingly heals them. It’s hard to explain, but basically the book makes it clear that he was the only one who could have saved them, and he did. While there, one of the healing women, Ioreth, realizes what this means, and freaks the crap out. For pretty good reason, too. Gondor hasn’t had a king in centuries, and here’s Aragorn, just popping in for a quick heal in between battles.

Anyway, that is not the point of our little chat today. Not exactly.

It’s more that I want to talk about the corollary to that point. You see, if the hands of the king are the hands of a healer, which seems well and good to me, then what about the queen? What’s she all about?

If you read the title of this article, then I think you can guess.

The heart of a queen is the heart of a servant. I don’t mean any old queen, of course. There are bad queens and wrong queens and mean fairy-tale queens. And of course, aging, flamboyant queens. But when I say queen, what I really mean is Queen. That innate idea of royalty that resides inside us. Plato’s ideal form of Queen-ness, if you want to get all philosophical.

What I mean is, Guinevere from Merlin.

Merlin was (sob!) a BBC drama about the early years of the Arthurian legend. Before Arthur was king, before Morgana was evil, and before Merlin was an epic wizard. It takes a lot of liberties with the story, but there isn’t a lot of story to begin with, so you don’t mind much. Basically, all the characters you know and love are in their early twenties, and hijinks abound.

There are, however, some radical departures. For starters, Arthur (Bradley James) here is well aware of his royal heritage. He is son of King Uther (Anthony Stewart Head, aka Giles), and being groomed for rule. Also in the house is the Lady Morgana (Katie McGrath), who is King Uther’s ward and Arthur’s probable future wife. Oh, and Guinevere (Angel Coulby), Morgana’s maid.

Have some Gwaine. Just because.
Yup. You heard that right. Guinevere, or Gwen as she’s more usually called in this world, is Morgana’s servant. She’s also black. I like this show.

Anyhow, there’s a whole thing about Merlin (Colin Morgan) coming to town and saving Arthur’s life and becoming his manservant, and also how magic is outlawed, and everyone is always trying to kill the Pendragon family, but what we’re really concerned with here is Gwen. She is a servant, and she becomes queen.


Well, the obvious answer is that Arthur falls in love with her. And man is that a long and slow process. Arthur, who believes strongly in the traditional paths to power and has long since accustomed himself to marrying someone for politics, is very slow to realize that he has feelings for Gwen. Gwen, who usually thinks Arthur is a prat (rightly), is even more reluctant to give in.

Plus there’s the whole thing where Gwen’s mistress is slowly going insane and trying to kill everyone, and Gwen’s best friend (Merlin) is about as helpful as a chainsaw on an inflatable raft.

When it comes down to it, though, the reason Arthur falls for Gwen is really simple: her heart.

Gwen isn’t a servant because she has to be. I mean, she is at first, when she’s working for Morgana, because her family just isn’t that well off. Her mother has passed away, her father is a blacksmith, and her brother seems to have run off and found trouble (we later meet him, and man did he meet trouble). Gwen works double duty taking care of a noblewoman and her father, and she never really complains. She even trains Merlin in how to be a servant without stressing about it.

You could say this is bad writing, but there’s really something more going on. When Morgana finally drops the shoe and shows how nuts she is, Gwen doesn’t quietly retreat from the castle, or find some other job, or even let Arthur pay her to genteely retire (like he tries to). Nope, she sticks around, serving and helping out. Arthur tries to promote her, but she keeps on serving. Why? Because she likes to. Because helping people makes her happy.

There’s an immediate instinct with people to assume that they always have an agenda. That they want something. Morgana sees that in Gwen. Hating the idea of a commoner sitting on “her” throne, Morgana insists that Gwen is only interested in Arthur and power. But that isn’t true. Gwen likes helping people, and she believes in standing up for what’s right. She also doesn’t think that Arthur will remember to do the right thing if left alone (again, rightly), and decides that the best place for her to be is by his side, even as a servant.

I really, really don’t have that kind of humility. Or dedication. Or, well, anything. But I want to.

Gwen is a great Queen because she has a great heart. She truly believes in people, in the importance of them and the good they can do. When she betrays Arthur, she does so unwillingly, and when she returns, she keeps her head held high. She is a Queen beloved by her people because she truly cares about them, and because she was one of them.

I truly believe that this is important.

There’s a saying I’ve always liked a lot: “The best leader is the one who doesn’t want to but does it anyway.” I mean, it’s not always true, but it says something really important. The most effective, most effecting leaders are the ones who don’t necessarily want the power of leadership, but do want to effect change. The ones who believe in what they’re doing enough to do it even if no one follows them.

Gwen doesn’t want power, she doesn’t want glory, and she doesn’t need riches. What she wants is to make Camelot great, just, and good. If she has to clean chamberpots to do it, she will.

That is what I want from my leaders. The hands of a healer and the heart of a servant.

I would also like a fabulous crown, if anyone is taking notes.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Boondock Saints Missed the Point

Okay, confession time! I really really really love Boondock Saints, the ultra-violent, only slightly plotted, female-character devoid, foul-mouthed low-budget action fantasy that came out about fifteen years ago.

I mean, I really love it. So much.

I first saw it when I was sixteen, and it blew me away. For those of you who didn’t pretty much watch this on repeat in college (it was oddly popular at the time), Boondock Saints is a shoot-em-up fairytale, about a pair of Irish twins (Norman Reedus and Sean Patrick Flanery) who get a calling from God to kill every gangster and general criminal in Boston.

They are pursued by an unusual FBI agent (Willem Defoe, in arguably his best role ever), who can’t decide if he agrees with them or not. Oh, and they have a friend named Rocco, who is literally there because he was the director’s best friend and is an okay addition to the story but the worst ever addition to the already terrible sequel.

Seriously. Don’t watch the sequel. Learn from my bad life choices. Just say no.

Oh, and Billy Connolly plays a fellow hitman, aka their (SPOILER ALERT FOR A FIFTEEN YEAR OLD MOVIE) father.

It’s weird, it’s profane, it’s violent, and I love it. Oh, and it has violence against cats (accidental). Probably shouldn’t watch it if you’re at all sensitive to, well, anything.

I don’t plan on just talking about how much I like this movie, however. Because while I do like it (a lot), I also have a deep and meaningful problem with the film. Namely, that it’s wrong. About everything.

The crux of the movie is that Murphy and Connor, good Irish boys who call their mother and work in a meat-packing plant, get arrested on St. Patrick’s Day for beating up some Russian mobsters. Those mobsters came to them for payback, and the boys killed them (in very creative ways that included a toilet and a high rooftop). They spend a night in jail and are released on self-defense, but before they go, they get a mission from God.

It says, and I quote, “And Shepherds we shall be, for Thee, my Lord, for Thee. Power hath descended forth from Thy hand, that our feet may swiftly carry out Thy commands. So we shall flow a river forth to Thee, and teeming with souls shall it ever be. In nomeni Patri et Fili, Spiritus Sancti.” (I did that from memory. I’m not proud of it.)

Anyway, after this, they find out that they can take out some Russian mobsters, and the whole story goes from there. That’s the important thing, though. They believe that God told them to do this, and that by doing it, they are doing it in his name. And that is so incredibly wrong.

I don’t mean to turn this into a big political or religious debate, but it’s pretty clear-cut in the New Testament that God isn’t really into the vengeance business anymore. When Peter tries to defend his God from arrest and death, said God (Jesus), tells him to put away his sword. Because the thing we’re supposed to understand now is that no one soul is more important than another.

Okay, that’s a little deep, so I’m going to unpack it. (And then I’ll explain what the heck it has to do with this movie, don’t worry!).

In the Old Testament, God was all about the smiting. That’s pretty clear. He had laws, and those who did not follow the laws were fair game. 

However, in the New Testament, it’s a totally different story. The laws are abolished, and the only laws left are simple. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Okay, in this context, “neighbor” means “everyone.”

Christianity is a proselytizing religion. By that I mean that it is a religion founded on the importance of converting other people to itself. We’re told on and on throughout the NT that the whole point of this is to bring everyone and their sister closer to God, so that they may stand in full communion with him. Which is nice, right?

Well, the part where it gets uncomfortable for most of us is when the Bible makes it excruciatingly clear that we don’t get to pick whom we tell the good news to. At all. Ever. That’s literally the whole point of the story of Jonah. It doesn’t matter if the people in question are baby-eating Nickelback fans, we are to share it with them.

Which means something very radical: we don’t get to prioritize one life over another.

If you truly believe the gospel (which it’s debatable that the boys in Boondock Saints do, but bear with me), then you have no Biblical foundation for condemning the wicked to protect the innocent. In fact, you have a duty and obligation to pursue the hearts of the wicked.

And, furthermore, killing them before they have a chance to repent is literally the worst thing you can do to them.

Do you see the problem now?

Yes, Jesus did ask his followers to “flow a river forth to Thee, and teeming with souls shall it ever be.” But I am absolutely positive that he did not intend there to be murder.

I understand that Boondock Saints isn’t a high-minded religious movie, or a documentary. It’s a piece of silly masculine fantasy, and it’s very enjoyable. I get that I might be “over-reacting”. But, I don’t think I am.

This is something very important to me. It’s my faith, and it’s my Bible that they’re bastardizing. Really, what they’re doing is worse. They are deliberately misinterpreting the Gospels and misleading their audience. Killing evil people is the easy answer. Loving them is the right one.

So while I can watch Boondock Saints and enjoy it, I just want you to know that there is no scriptural basis for that crap. None. At all. And the idea that there might be is genuinely offensive.

And the sequel is terrible.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Yeah, Martha Is Good (Doctor Who)

When it comes to the hierarchy of Doctor Who companions, especially nuWho, Martha Jones tends to get lost in the shuffle. She’s not hated, like Rose sometimes is, or adored, like Rose sometimes is too. She’s not a champion for everyone, like Donna, or just freakishly adorable, like Oswin. She isn’t the Doctor’s best friend, like Amy, or blatantly nonplussed by the whole time-travel thing like Rory. 

And she isn’t Jack Harkness-y, like Jack Harkness, or perpetually undergoing an identity crisis, like Mickey (who I do actually love).

Nope, Martha (played by the excellent Freema Agyeman) is just good. Just plain good.

Allow me to explain.

Okay, for starters, I straight up refuse to explain what Doctor Who is again. If you really don’t know, I recommend Wikipedia. But I warn you, it’s a long article.

Martha was the Doctor’s companion in the rather lackluster third season of the new series. She followed after the aforementioned polarizing Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), whose departure from the show at the end of season two was pretty generally devastating. Martha was the show’s, and the Doctor’s, rebound girl. And as such, we never really got to enjoy how awesome she is.

In start contrast to nearly every single other companion of nuWho (the revived series that came back on the air in 2005 after sixteen years of cancellation), Martha Jones is not at a loss for her life. She’s actually incredibly motivated. She’s a medical resident at a top hospital in London. She’s upper middle class, brilliant, and incredibly brave. When the hospital where she works is transported to the Moon as the result of an alien police standoff (not one of their easier episodes to explain), Martha handles the whole thing with grace, wit, and dignity.

She’s a great help to the Doctor, managing to find clues that can solve the problem, and throws herself willingly and ably into the world of aliens and kooky space problems. She’s not lost, she’s just looking to explore a little.

Unfortunately for her, and I do truly believe the writers did her a disservice here, Martha gets a crush on the Doctor. I mean, it’s understandable I guess (not a huge fan of Tennant, but whatevs). He is the Doctor. But after two seasons of out and out romance with Rose, the fans weren’t ready for the Doctor to move on.

And neither was he. When I say that Martha was the Doctor’s rebound, I mean that incredibly literally. He takes her to planets he visited with Rose. He calls her Rose by accident. He talks about how much better it would be if Rose were here. In one of my favorite lines of series three, when they run into Jack and he asks about Rose, Martha says, “Oh, of course she’s blonde!”

But here’s the catch: Martha is awesome. I mean really, really awesome. She’s a truly spectacular person. As my evidence, I present the two-part season finale (actually three parts, but I’m ignoring the first one – shhh).

In this finale, the Doctor runs into his old frenemy, the Master, literally at the end of the Universe. The Master thinks he’s human, until he doesn’t anymore, and when he regenerates and remembers who he is, he freaks out and goes back in time to our time to run for Prime Minister and mess up everything. He also steals the TARDIS and calls the Doctor a few names.

Back in our time, the Master makes Martha, Jack and the Doctor outcasts and hunts them. He then releases a deadly plague of angry alien orb-things to destroy and enslave the Earth. He puts Jack (who cannot die) under constant torture. The Doctor he keeps as his pet. But Martha escapes. She teleports back down to an Earth in flames, and just starts walking.

It’s really that scene that gets me. Martha’s entire family has been captured by the Master. The only people she can think of to get the world out of this mess are captured or dead. She has nowhere to turn. And she starts walking.

I’m being totally honest here, I’m pretty sure I would not have done that.

It doesn’t stop there, either. The next episode zaps us a year into the future. Earth is mostly destroyed, the Master is building an army of warheads to declare war on the Universe, and everyone she loves is still in captivity. But Martha’s still going.

In fact, she’s going better than ever. Instead of becoming hardened by all the tragedy, Martha actually looks more beautiful than ever. She’s not cynical, she’s determined. She’s literally walked across the entire world, dodging aliens and patrols and the Master’s minions. She goes places no one else will dare, and she just keeps going.

And then she gets captured.

Actually, that’s not even a fair assessment of the situation. She more gives herself up. They have the block surrounded, but the minions in question don’t actually know what Martha looks like. She could hide. The people she’s with are perfectly willing to hide her. In fact, she’s such an important figure to the resistance, that you know they would all rather die than give her up.

Which is why she walks boldly into a street filled with guns and basically says, “Take me to your leader.”

Holy crap.

Now, the rest of the episode is all about the cunning scheme she and the Doctor came up with (and it gets a bit silly towards the end), but the real beauty is, well, Martha. You see, we find out that she walked the entire Earth, risking life and limb, not to get a weapon, or foster a violent rebellion, or even trying to escape. Nope. She did it all to spread a message of hope.

I can’t imagine being that brave on a good day, so it’s incredible to me to imagine doing it simply to talk to people and tell them about my hope. It is crazy. Flat out nuts. Insane.

I want that.

This is why I get so upset when people diss Martha, or, worse, forget her. Yes, all the other companions are great too, but Martha didn’t get to walk away from her problems. She wasn’t running alongside the Doctor. No, she saved the world in his place. And she did it without guns, or anger, or even a car. She told people about hope, and it saved the world.

And then, in the end, she decided to finish her residency, take care of her family, and live her life on Earth. Not because she couldn’t hack it in space. Because she didn’t have to. She’d already proved she could hack anything put in front of her. Martha Jones has nothing to prove.

I want that.

I love youuuuuuu!