Sunday, January 27, 2008

Just your typical everyday hero - Stardust

I really enjoy the creative mind of Neil Gaiman. I haven't had a chance to read his graphic novel work, but I've enjoyed most of his novels and short story compilations. However, I've noticed something odd about his longer fiction - he seems to use a very plain main character.

Take the hero Tristan Thorn from "Stardust" for example. He's a young man who grew up in a little village. He goes off on an adventure to the Fairy world to find a fallen star. Along the way he runs into all kinds of strange and amazing characters, has some pretty interesting adventures and actually finds the star. The story itself is great.

Tristan is pretty bland. He's naive and while he isn't stupid, he isn't the quickest fellow in the room. Other than that, his personality is pretty vanilla. Now I'm not saying that a main character always has to be quirky or anything, but he has to have a little more depth to him. Luke Skywalker, who isn't the most amazing of main characters, had more personality and drew you to him a bit better than Tristan.

It's possible that Gaiman did this on purpose. Maybe he wants the reader to put themselves into the role of the main character, and to do that, he make the character as neutral as possible (something that also seemed to happen in "American Gods").

In the end, Tristan's low key character was a minus to the overall book. I loved the world and adventures Gaiman created, but I was never really invested in Tristan as a character. As a result, the book never pulled me in completely.

What do you think of Tristan's character? Do you think a bland character can hurt a book? Do you think an bland every-man type character is something a writer does on purpose?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

We don’t Suspect a thing - Suspicion

Alfred Hitchcock is known as the master of suspense. This title has been earned from his numerous films outlining murders, the macabre and mystery. Of course he also directed a film named "Suspicion" staring Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine.

There is an interesting combination of things that makes this movie live up to it's title. Cary Grant is perfectly cast. He had already been playing the suave playboy for a number of films. So when you see him in this movie, you are immediately drawn into his charming and somewhat roguish qualities - just like Joan Fontaine is. As the movie progresses you begin to suspect that Grant may not be all that he appears. The casting is a masterstroke because the audience already likes Grant before he even shows up on the screen. In addition Grant plays the part with an expert balance of charm and darkness. You are kept off base the entire film, not knowing for certain if he is lovable or just plain evil.

To play off of him, and to draw in the audience is Joan Fontaine. She is the naive woman, who keeps seeing just enough to keep her suspicious but not enough to condemn her husband. Her innocence makes her a likable character but also allows the audience to feel superior to her - we know what's really going on... don't we?

In addition to the characters Hitchcock uses excellent light and shadows, and clever black and white photography to keep the suspense going. If you haven't had a chance to see the film, check it out and see just what techniques Hitchcock uses.

What movies, books or television series have you seen that execute suspense perfectly... or what have you experienced that tried hard, but never seemed to pull it off?

Sunday, January 6, 2008

What’s in a Name? - Wizard’s First Rule

After finishing Terry Goodkind's "Wizard's First Rule" I wondered about names in fantasy stories. There seems to be an unspoken rule that you aren't reading fantasy or sci-fi without running into some strange name you can hardly pronounce. In fact the more Xs Ys and Qs the better.

Take the king of fantasy for instance, "The Lord of the Rings". Whacked out names abound: Frodo, Aragorn, Saruman, Shelob, Gimli and Legolas. The thing is, Tolkien was a linguist and he made sure that his names had some kind of meaning behind them. Maybe that's why they seem to ring true and not seem so darn silly.

On the other end is one of my favorite Mystery Science Theater films, "Cave Dwellers". In this fantasy epic, our barbarian hero Ator has his life story revealed in flash back. Suddenly a ton of stupid sounding names and places are dumped on the audience. You can't help but laugh.

Somewhere in between is Terry Goodkind. His main character in "Wizard's First Rule" is named Richard. It's plain and easy to remember. In fact it reminded me of those fairy tales where the main youth was named Jack. He soon runs into Kahlan, a good old fashioned fantasy name. One that I kept reading as Callahan for some odd reason. You've got a wizard named Zedd. A villainous woman named Denna. Another wizard named Giller, and his little helper Rachel. And looming over them all the evil Darken Rahl.

This odd mix is really hit and miss. Normal names like Richard and Rachel stand out among the Gillers and Zedds. Then there's Darken Rahl, possibly the goofiest name for a villain in a long time. Rahl is a nasty piece of work as far as villains go, but his name really robs him of power. If Goodkind had just called him Rahl (and many characters do call him that) it would have been better.

This got me to thinking about these stories in general, what is the best course of action with names. Do you stick with Richard and Rachel? Do you get creative and work a name that no normal human can pronounce like Quxyrx? Or do you start creating your own names in a middle ground but fully aware that your "wicked cool" name may sound really goofy to a reader's ears?