Wednesday, September 30, 2015

What Made Falling Skies Come Alive

(Images/gifs all courtesy of Pinterest.)
A long while ago, I found a TV show called Falling Skies. A science-fiction/apocalyptic story where aliens – dubbed "Skitters" by the humans – have taken over. Planet Earth is overrun with this infestation. People are killed, and children are taken alive, harnessed via their spinal column to be controlled by Skitters. Tom Mason, an ordinary university history professor, is caught up in the midst of it all, partnered up with Colonel Weaver and the 2nd Massachusetts. As the plot unfolds and develops over five seasons, we and the 2nd Mass learn that this invasion is a whole lot bigger than just Skitters. They're just the foot soldiers for a bigger being.

Right away, I was hooked. I loved the characters, and I felt invested in them. I found myself laughing out loud, gasping, or making other small sounds of surprise, dismay, etc. I had never really connected with a TV show like I had Falling Skies. Granted, the profanity dampened the enthusiasm, but my attachment to the characters overrode that downside and kept me watching. Now that it's over (sadness :< ), I tried to pinpoint exactly why I felt this way. I couldn't quite figure it out, so I thought I would share aspects of Falling Skies that probably contributed to it. I'll look at some of the characters (and possibly fangirl. You have been warned), the plot itself, and a theme that plays out through the entire show.

****Warning: This post will contain spoilers.****

There are a ton of characters in this show. Some survive the whole way, some don't. But in a way, I grew to like most of them. Even when they grated on my nerves, which I also liked (I will explain this). *coughPopecough* >_>

First off, the Masons. Tom Mason and his sons, Hal, Ben, and Matt. They are an awesome family, each with their own conflicts and arcs. While Anne joins their close-knit circle, I want to focus most on Tom and the boys.

The Masons are very down to earth. When Tom Mason, a nobody university professor, becomes one of the leading figures of the 2nd Mass and ultimately the entire war against the aliens, he doesn't flaunt his new authority. He doesn't act superior. He is humble. He is quick to lay praise upon others. 

His sons learn from his example. They do their part, not bossing others around because their father is the leader around here. Ben, for example, could have easily tried to take a superior stance, as his spikes are an invaluable asset in being able to communicate with Skitters and Espheni overlords. But he doesn't. Ben uses his newfound skills as they are needed. Life even takes priority over these miraculous spikes, when he gives some of them to Maggie to save her life, when the procedure might harm him.

Tom doesn't talk down to his sons, treating them as mere kids. He's not the perfect dad, but more often than not Tom talks to his sons as equals, considering what they have to say and actively wanting to be a part of their lives and knowing their struggles.

The father-son and brother-brother relationships are less than perfect, but neither are they what I think is the overused dysfunctional family system. The Masons can rub each other the wrong way, but they love each other. And the thing I love about this is that they aren't afraid to express it, vocally and by touch. Whenever they pass, Tom almost always pats the shoulders of his sons. He tells them he loves them, and they tell him they love him, whether or not it's in response to their father's words. And I love it because it feels so casual, so a part of them that it's normal to express it, even when they're about to go to war.

The relationships between the brothers is the same. The boys will have the typical sibling squabble. Hal and Ben butt heads over Maggie. But at the end of the day, they still love each other. It's casual, it's a normal part of life for them love each other, and not be the (again, in my own opinion) the overused 24/7 sibling war. They give each other high-fives as one of them comes back from a mission, they talk about girls.

Hal treats his younger brothers as equals, and not annoying kid brothers. Ben doesn't claim superiority for having spikes and being a more important part of the 2nd Mass. Instead, he's humble. Matt grows up with his brothers and as role-models, and soon become as fierce a fighter as they are, but he's not looked down on for being the baby of the family. The Mason boys recognize each other's strengths and weaknesses, and respect their individual strengths and cover for where they lack.

This next one, I think, is mainly for the brothers. They stick up for their family members when other people gossip and slander about them. Even when they themselves are unsure what to believe, they won't tolerate anybody else insulting their family. I cheered when Ben lunged for Pope, fed up with his inability to hold his tongue about Tom. The relief was strong with that scene. ._.

Finally, whatever the case, Tom is still the authority figure in the family. He invests his time into his sons, to teach and to discipline when necessary. They are under his care and authority, but he doesn't abuse it. He is firm when he needs to be, and doesn't try to control them. In season five, Matt shows his father the little book of everything he and others want in the world after the war. Tom tells Matt he'd like him to keep working on the book. I found the wording of that line interesting. It made it clear Tom wasn't making a suggestion, but a command or request. It was something he wanted his son to keep doing.

And now we come to the character who made me despise him, and then gave me feels, then kind of creeped me out. John Pope. He's a scoundrel and not to be trusted, but he has his skills that are useful to the 2nd Massachusetts. He and his mercenary team provide more gunpower for the group, and a bit of reckless abandon to a fight. But while he's gruff, selfish, and arrogant, and knows his way around a kitchen. He knows how to work with spices and foods, and this skill is utilized in the 2nd Mass. He doesn't seem to stay in the niche as the show progresses, but it's an unexpected ability from someone like him. What makes it interesting, though, is that his personality doesn't change when he cooks. He doesn't soften up, but still as annoying as ever. His arrogant tone is now used when talking about food, instead of insulting Tom or anyone else.

What I liked about Pope is that I could feel the exasperation everyone else felt toward him. He bugged me, but not in a bad way. He's annoying as all get out, but that's his character. It's like a "love to hate" kind of deal with this guy, and it's fun. I like him because he's able to actually get on my nerves the same way he does Weaver or Tom or Maggie. Again, I felt an immense sense of relief and "serves you right" when Ben took action against him and his slander. The way Pope can do this to me is, I think, a sign of a good character. But it also took a great actor to convey this attitude. Colin Cunningham does an excellent job of working his character, giving the right amount of swaggering arrogance for people to love to hate John Pope.

Another important thing about Pope is that he is vulnerable. He may seem tough and rugged, but he's as human as anyone else around him. We learn that Pope had kids, giving us an in to the vulnerable place of his character, but it's only mentioned briefly. It wasn't quite enough for me to fully sympathize, as I would forget about this aspect momentarily until the next time it was brought up, his being a jerk smothering the point of sympathy.

But when he meets Sarah, that vulnerable part of him opens up again, and it opens to let her in. We see him find love, his gruff exterior softens just a little for her alone. They connect and grow closer. Pope's vulnerability for Sarah is kicked into overdrive for all to see. When Sarah's life is at risk, he shows a rare moment of "weakness" and panics. He's terrified of losing her, and we see it in his expression, his voice. When he does lose her, we see him grieve. This on the heels of their talking about having a baby, he's lost the bright future he might have had with Sarah, the one person he really opened up to.

Now if you will excuse me. I have shot myself with feels. Again. ._. This is what Pope does to me, people! :<

Now we come to not one character, but a group of characters. We come to the romance. Or whatever the love triangle happened in this show. Thinking on it, it looks crazy, but it was handled well. After Maggie receives some of Ben's spikes, they're connected more strongly than they expected, a weird romantic attraction is developed. Ben had previous feelings for her, but the spikes made them manifest. It scared Maggie until finally she got rid of them. But before that, Hal was angry and conflicted, seeing his brother and the woman he loved seemingly have something going on between them. Naturally, the two brothers clash. There is much drama.

But things slowly settle. Hal begins to accept that this might be how things will be, even though he still loves Maggie. Then he meets Isabella, who seems to come along only as a corner to a new love triangle or Hal's rebound. But when Hal learns Maggie removed her spikes for him, it seems to jolt him to the realization of which girl he loves.

Because of this, there isn't a lot of drama in Hal's new love triangle with Maggie and Isabella. He doesn't really agonize between them like so many other triangles might do. He feels he knows who he wants, but then Isabella makes him question himself. He accepts that Ben and Maggie want each other, but deep down he knows who has his heart, and Maggie's spike removal makes him take action, realizing she's only ever wanted him.

Another thing I liked about this crazy romance field is that Ben and Isabella don't become a thing. One might expect them to find solace in each other, but they don't. Ben doesn't find love at the end of the show. Hal gets engaged and Matt finds a girl he fancies (whether or not it will last is unknown), but Ben is still single. And that's okay. He was hurt that Maggie got rid of the spikes, feeling as if she had thrown away a piece of himself he had revealed to her. But he doesn't hold a grudge. As far as we see, he is happy.

This part isn't directly related to the love triangles, but I found it interesting, and it gave more depth to Maggie's character. She takes Matt's feelings to mind. He's probably had to deal with his older brothers butting heads over Maggie, and she feels partly responsible for any stress this might have placed on Matt. She apologizes to him. It was a very short scene, but it was an unusual interaction between two people who didn't have much interaction, and over a small thing we didn't even see (Matt and any stress the love triangle might have caused).

This scene made the romance more realistic, too. Romantic drama can affect even the people we don't even think about it reaching. We might not have considered what kind of stress Matt might have had. This consideration of Matt's feelings made Maggie more endearing to me. That this kick-butt character would consider the feelings of her boyfriend's kid brother.

While on the subject of romance, there was one brief scene between two characters that I haven't really seen before in other shows. The way the subject of intimacy was handled was unexpected. Of all people, it came from Pope and Sarah. They discussed the subject not for the purpose of pleasure, but for the purpose of having a baby. They wanted that intimacy so they could have a baby. Personally, I was a bit excited that this subject was handled in that way. Whenever the subject of intimacy comes up, often it's for pleasure, either we hear it talked about, or – unfortunately – we get the bedroom scene itself. But in this scene, Pope and Sarah weren't talking about it for pleasure, but for children. While it definitely made the following scenes more emotional, I loved how it was taken in that direction.

Overall, the characters of Falling Skies aren't afraid to be afraid. They don't tell each to cowboy up and ditch fear. They suggest using it. Use it to drive you toward what you're fighting for, what you're afraid to lose. Anne is afraid. Tom is afraid. Pope is afraid. They're all human, and they all show moments of fear. But they don't let it take control. They control it. They take what they fear to lose and make it what they fight to keep.

These and the other characters, I think, played a large part in my enjoyment of the show, but their actors deserve mention as well. The actors need to be able to convey the expressions, the tone of voice, and the gestures of their roles to really make it come alive. The cast of Falling Skies are among the main factors of communicating their characters to make them as real as they can be. The actors for Tom and his boys made their gestures and words of affection casual and natural. The actor for Pope gave him the arrogant swagger. The actress for Anne gave her the expressions of concern and gentle smiles when caring for patients. The actors were given lines and a general personality, but they made the characters come alive on screen with even the smallest details.

Next are various aspects of the plot and its wide array of storylines. The world has been taken over by aliens, but it's a lot deeper than that. We don't find this out until the very end, and it could perhaps have been hinted at or foreshadowed, but it was an interesting and unexpected twist. The Espheni takeover is more personal then anyone ever realized. But while we now understand the anger and hostility of Espheni, how these aliens handle the situation keeps us from becoming too sympathetic toward them.

Related to the Espheni queen, the finale was laid out in an unexpected way. It was simple. There was no big showdown, guns blazing and Skitters everywhere. It was Tom versus the queen. One on one. It shows that the climax doesn't always have to be a huge final battle. It needs to be intense and frantic, a final race for the top. That's exactly what this was. There was urgency during the last moments. Gunpower was not the weapon. It was quick-thinking.

Not all major characters have love at the end of the show. Ben is still single, even after the love triangles. I never felt that he and Maggie were right for each other, and I couldn't think of the type of girl that suited him. I am glad, though, they didn't try to force a girl in him, like they might have easily done with Isabella. Ben and Isabella remain single, and that's okay. Not everybody finds love.

Often, the show makes you wonder what's real and what's not. There will be dream sequences, deceptive visions, to lull characters into a false sense of security. And the best part is, you never know when they start and when they end. You learn to be a little suspicious, always on your toes and trying to identify what is "real or not real." (In the words of Peeta Mellark. ;) )

One theme that was prominent throughout Falling Skies was that if you fight for more than just yourself, fighting becomes more satisfying and purposeful. Tom is the top example of this. He always has something to fight for. His kids, his wife, his friends, the entire world and humanity. That is what he fights for. And because he's fighting for more than just himself, it makes living and fighting so much more worth it. It even makes dying worth it.

Pope is the opposite. He primarily fights for himself. Even with his strengths used for the benefit of the 2nd Mass., Pope can be selfish. He fights, but he fights for himself, and he's never happy with anything, and is stingy with supplies. Life becomes an "every man for himself" scenario. If you can't be useful to him and his crew, then you've got no business hanging around. While he does have some care for the lives lost, to him, their deaths were meaningless, when they died fighting for men like him, for everyone. Fighting to win back freedom. Pope doesn't seem to understand this, and it angers him and isolates him from the mindset Tom has.

These aspects of Falling Skies together, I think, is what made the show so enjoyable to me to watch. I was invested in the story, and these points all helped develop the show to do that for me. Thank you for sticking with me through my collected and more or less "professional" fangirling. :3 If any of you has seen Falling Skies, comment! Tell me your favorite character, or your least favorite. What made you become invested in Falling Skies? :D

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Book Review: Starlighter (Bryan Davis)

In Jason Masters' world, the authorities insist that dragons are things of fable and fantasy. But there are some who believe otherwise, including Jason's family, and Jason's older brother leaves home to find the truth.

In the dragon world of Starlighter, Koren, a human slave, has questions about the procedures carried out there. A lot of things seem unknown, and Koren risks everything to find out.

What they discover instead changes their lives forever.

In the first of the Starlighter series, we are introduced to the characters and both worlds of Major Four and Starlighter. The worldbuilding is unique, as it does have a fantasy/medieval setting, but both have small traces of technology. Jason's world has little, portable tubes in which video messages can be recorded, and panels that can generate light. It felt a little out of place, but it also gave a fantasy world a unique twist.

The plot was kept suspenseful, with questions and very few answers at the start, but as Jason and Koren discover more, so do we. We're left with unanswered questions too, but it makes us want to read the next book. Some of the dialogue from a few characters felt a little out of place. Dialogue from a miner felt too grand, in a way (for lack of a better word). But it was interesting to get glimpses into the teachings of the humans' equivalent of the Bible, seeing what they believed in, and the beliefs of the underground group who refused to believe that dragons were merely myth.

The protagonists, Jason and Koren, are both very different. Koren's belief in the Holy One is firmly rooted, and she strives to put her beliefs to practice. Jason, on the other hand, is still very new in his belief. He believed, but it wasn't the fully fledged belief of his family. Until he sees it with his own eyes, he doesn't entirely believe what his brother believes, but he has a strong sense of justice.

The villains, the dragons, are all different from each other. They are slave masters over the humans, but some of them can be less cruel than others. Some are willing to be a voice of defense for humans on trial. While others are cold and heartless, seeing humans as only beasts of burden. The contrast is represented between Arxad and Magnar, respectively, and both also come with their own interesting character qualities. With Arxad, we're never quite sure whose side he's on while still avoiding too much trouble with dragons. Magnar, while stern and strict, is patient to hear out a fellow dragon, even if he's suspicious. It's an interesting trait in a villain, and it makes him intimidating, yet someone you might be able to approach to hear you out of you catch him in a fairly good mood.

Violence/gore: There is some, but it's not very gory at all. A few characters are burned via dragon fire. Someone is stabbed and has an object removed from under their skin. A character is struck by lightning, and one is shot in the back with a crossbow bolt. A dragon is killed, while it is bloody, it's not in detail. Characters get beat up a bit, handled roughly by dragons or as they fight dragons. One dragon (we don't see it) is blinded by a character's sword.

Profanity: Referenced swearing.

Other: Dragons and a certain degree of magic is prominent in this book, in case any readers feel uneasy about those aspects.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

What I Learned Writing a First Draft (with lots of gifs!)

I completed the first draft of my fantasy novel in the inhuman hours of Saturday morning. I began the venture about four years ago, I think, and today, it was very, very different than what I started with. I've learned a lot, both in the developing of characters and plot as well as the more technical aspects of writing.

Firstly, I have learned that, most likely, nothing will be exactly as you first plan. Things will change. They might change a little, they might completely redesign the plot. For my book, I started out with the POV of a half-elf girl. The characters were all solely from that fantasy world.

However, things began to change. My protagonist and POV changed to a girl from Earth. The general plot and heroine's role remained the same, but it wasn't done changing. The MC's friend became her brother, and my protagonist's role began to change after that. She had a prominent role in the rebellion brewing, but then I began to explore her personality. She was too passive in her actions. So I developed her, got to know her, and she has now gone from a reserved girl to one who will set tents on fire because she's convinced she's right and sass anybody who tries to argue with her. She became borderline wild, but she's still sensitive, and kept her ability to care for others (so far. I haven't edited anything, so who knows what will happen). She's also not taking on a major role in the rebellion. I'm pretty sure my characters would kill her themselves if she was. She's not a passive heroine anymore, but one quite able to make her own decisions and act upon what she believes.

POVs, as pointed out, also change. My POVs have ranged from one to three to two. It's crazy, but as you write and as you get to know the plot and characters, you'll know where people fit in it. Sometimes it's not fun having to redo it. You might miss a certain POV, or dread adding another. But if the change is needed, you'll probably fall in love with your story even more when everything runs smoothly.

Another thing I learned is that characters never, never tell you everything at once. Ever. They're imps like that. They will spring pieces of information at you when you least expect it, maybe even as you're writing them. Sometimes, the information just clicks. It makes sense.

I will approve of this information.
I had this happen. For one example, I was musing over the desires of my characters, and I came to one villain and paused. What did he want? My mind started churning, and suddenly this guy became a bigger villain than I expected. He became the villain my protagonists needed to face. The first villain was still a very prominent villain, but he was someone else's enemy. The other guy was just more sneaky and quiet about his villainy. And as I wrote and developed, his role in the lives of my protagonists became bigger. Even with information that readers might not know about, he became much more deliciously villainous.

Some days, what I write feels like this:
But this scene looks good--no, wait, that's awful too...

Other days it feels like this:
When things click and just make sense. Best. Feeling. Ever. I have done this on the inside.

And still others I hit a wall and feel like this:
Those were frustrating days...

A friend, patient (more or less ;) ) with my ranting about how I was stuck or how awful a scene felt, reminded me it was only a first draft. "First draft," she would tell me. Sometimes in all caps. Sometimes the word draft was dragged out. Rare occasions to the tune of a song from Phantom of the Opera. It's okay if your first draft is a chaotic mess. That's what the editing stage is for. It's great when your writing feels smooth and brilliant, but it's also okay if they don't. First drafts are supposed to be messy.

Music. Music helps a lot. Or it did for me. It kept me focused on writing and not too distracted on other things. I created a playlist for characters, but then I found that music by Peter Hollens really helped me focus. Mood music helped for the scenes I felt needed more than just a collection of songs. For a death scene, I collected sad/emotional music. Yes, I got emotional. Yes, I might have almost cried. I love my darlings. Yes, I do feel bad. But it had to happen, however painful it was to my heart. Music can bring alive the emotion, and hopefully later the scene will convey what both music and words did for you.

I don't. But I also do...But I also don't.

Finally, what I've learned from writing my novel's first draft is that writer friends are really, really important. They can help you out of plot snags or any problems, they can help you explore your characters to understand how they tick. They can point out problems or flaws in anything you might plan. You can bounce your ideas off of them to find those holes. And they're there when you need to rant and ramble about the story thus far. Two of my friends have been this help to me. They've let me bounce ideas off of them. One pointed out to me how a certain action was out of character for my villain. Both of them have been a great help, whether patiently listening to my rambling, or helping me smooth out the snarls, or reminding me that this is supposed to be a chaotic mess with characters running everywhere unsupervised. You both know who you are, and I thank you. :3

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Book Review: Peter and the Starcatchers (Ridley Pearson and Dave Barry)

Peter and his little gang of fellow orphans are shipped off on the Never Land to become slaves. Also on the creaky, slow ship is Molly Aster, a peculiar girl that catches Peter's attention. But something else catches his attention. A mysterious trunk, hidden away under canvas. But Molly is hiding something about it, something important. But when the dread pirate Black Stache gets wind of this treasure, he'll stop at nothing to take it for himself. But the trunk is much more than treasure, and it could change Peter's life forever.

Peter and the Starcatchers has a plot of mystery and high seas adventure. The tension that builds is exciting, making you eager to know what happens next, and who claims the trunk next. The story begins to branch off into several POVs as characters race for the trunk, and the back-and-forth motion the trunk tends to take is amusing (but in a good way), and it makes the tension rise.

Peter is an interesting protagonist. He looks out for his fellows, but he also has a side of him that wants to look out only for himself, at least for a time. But he also risks the wrath of Mr. Slank as he sneaks about the ship in search of decent food for the other orphan boys. He grows to become more aware of their needs and welfare, in a way, when his chances of escape diminish. Part of his development confused me at one point near the end. I didn't understand the why to it, exactly, but he matures under it.

The villain (or one of them) Black Stache is frighteningly clever and ruthless. It makes him scary, but not overly so. It's the kind of scary that a reader might enjoy. The feeling of "oh, he's a creepily good villain." Another villain surprised me, as I didn't quite know he was as twisted a villain as he turned out to be. It was unexpected, but made the tension rise even more.

There were a few moments where the dialogue felt cheesy or cliche when it came to discussing the good and evil that surrounds the trunk and it's starstuff, but it was simple for the story and got the point across. It was an interesting and fun twist to how Peter Pan came to be, setting the stage for the adventures against Captain Hook, partnered with the Lost Boys and his pixie companion. Ironically, Peter grows up in this story, becoming something of the Peter many of us know.


Violence/gore: The boys are cuffed often. A sailor is punished lightly for trying to abandon ship. The natives force a handful of characters over a wall to be eaten by "Mr. Grin." The mermaids bite two of the characters, giving them nasty wounds, and the characters in turn deal harm to the mermaids by shooting one and hitting another over the head. A character is stabbed, and another has his hand cut off.

Profanity: D-word. Referenced swearing.

Sexual content: Black Stache has made a sail out of fabric used for a woman's undergarment, called a brassiere, and the sail is shaped as such (the hardcover edition has an illustration). A mermaid performs mouth-to-mouth on Peter, and he assumes she's just kissing him. Fighting Prawn jokes that his tribe kiss on the lips instead of shaking hands.

Other: Rum is consumed in large quantities by both sailors and pirates.