29 September, 2013

Purpose Built Characters (that we all invent…)

Indonesian Moonshadow  WEB

My Indonesian publisher’s suitably colourful interpretation of the heroic Moonshadow

Humans, especially creative ones, are right into the business of building characters, don’t you think? Let’s be painfully self-honest for a moment: when we create a profile (an image or representation) of ourselves for social media or a personal website, we craft a version of ourselves that we feel we can live with, that maximizes our positives, edits out or plays down our negatives.

Most people know the best angle to be photographed from, how to hold themselves to show off their finest physical traits. In fact it can be argued that from an early age, when we become socially aware, we learn how to fashion the ‘character’ that is us–an idealized caricature – to help us get by, win friends, fit in. Given that social groups can be snobby, exclusive or downright cruel, it’s actually most understandable. We learn to present the ‘me’ that will work best in the situation. It’s about survival.

In the craft of fiction, be it for writing, filmmaking, poetry or animation, we should take this principle further. Into fine, subtle science. Characters that really work for readers and viewers are developed by following certain principles. Each contains a paradox, an irony, if you like, but is not really contradictory.

Firstly, characters must fit the crisis you put them in. No point in writing a tense siege epic with lots of action (as I did in Cybercage) then making the main character a gentle, pacifistic, singing nun. And yet (first paradox) you also don’t want a clichéd, typical, predictable hero in such a situation – please, don’t just do the guy from Die Hard yet again.

Secondly, characters must be stretched, pushed to their limit for maximum drama, yet remain credible, believable, as they rise (or not) to the challenge.

Thirdly, as they make progress, change and evolve, they must still remain true to their core essence, which works if you give them relatable human depth. This also applies to ‘bad guys’ by the way, and is why I made Seamus Roth, the villain in The Stalking Zone, such a vivid character with a complex history. In part, it was to challenge the reader on the whole issue of judging him. Put through the same nightmare, would you, Quintus, would I, be any different?

When characters succeed in engaging readers and viewers, they become enduring; they can be interpreted in art, acted, rebooted, reinvented, many times, and from many different cultural perspectives. A bit like us, really; we can morph ourselves endlessly, at least in the on-line cyber world, experimenting with our identity, our sense of self. And hey, it’s okay. Yes, it’s normal and human.

The ancients did it with statues, the rich have always done it with portraits, many Asian friends of mine do it with manga images of themselves, and much of the western world now does it with Facebook. A humble suggestion: let’s just try to give that character some depth too.  🙂


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24 August, 2013

We have found the enemy and it is us…


No enemies here! Meeting special, seasoned souls in a Chinese village…
(click on the pic to enlarge)

This saying, the exact origin of which is still a matter of debate, often invokes a human journey of discovery and transformation that has proved very dear to storytellers.

We see an echo of it in books and movies at regular intervals. A complex man or woman, gifted but scarred, is sent to an unfamiliar culture to evaluate, exploit or even destroy it. Sent by the so-called good guys.

A stranger in a strange land, they are soon touched by the power, depth, and virtues of that ‘other world’ and end up becoming part of it in a way that ultimately seems to have been their destiny all along. In the more dramatic examples, they change sides and fight their own people, rejecting their birth culture for something more profound that their insights, their specialness, enables them alone to perceive. Hollywood often casts this character as a mature age male American soldier.

John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) in Dances with Wolves (which draws on not only a fine novel but also the earlier A Man Called Horse movies starring Richard Harris) is fated to become a buffalo hunting Native American, hunted in turn by his own people as a mad deserter. Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) in The Last Samurai, hired to help suppress Japan’s Satsuma Rebellion, is seduced by samurai ‘discipline, honour and compassion’ and opts to fight alongside his former enemies to the bitter end. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the disabled former marine in Avatar is coerced into spying on the natives of planet Pandora, but finds love and becomes a legendary hero, along the way helping to drive a ruthless mining-military conglomerate from this unique, symbiotic world.

While writing the Moonshadow series, I decided to assign this classic role to a young, female Japanese orphan…just for something different. 🙂

Snowhawk, a teenage shinobi (professional spy) of great skill and deep personal anger, learns that the brutal clan that raised and trained her are not in fact typical of the spy class. Their sworn enemies, The Grey Light Order, who fielded her rival Moonshadow, are actually the closest thing the ninja world has to real good guys. After encountering Moonshadow on his first mission, Snowhawk sees the chance to defect, triggering what the ninja called Twilight War; a secret death-feud between spy clans where no quarter is given.

Why do people love this story thread so much? I believe it’s because it reflects a deep instinctual knowledge most of us eventually ‘fess up to’: that for humans ‘the truth’ is sometimes a very subjective thing. It’s not an ultimate reality at all but a particular view, formed by upbringing, culture, social pressure or propaganda. We often write ‘The sun rose.’ But of course the fact is, the sun has never moved. The passage of time, and who records (or edits) a history, can render many ‘facts’ quite relative. To me it seems that the real ‘enemy’ is actually human nature, or at least, human ignorance. This is all challenging stuff for writers and readers to explore.

Heroes and villains. Can complex people even be both? Let’s check the mirror. 🙂

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31 January, 2013

An Aussie Scribbler, Anime and Marco Polo


At the Great Wall of China (click to enlarge)


Now what, I hear you say, could possibly connect those three things? And does Kevin Bacon come into this at all?

Late in 2012 I was surprised and delighted to learn that I’d be chosen for an Australia Endeavour Award, enabling me to pursue my dream of studying a whole new genre of storytelling with experts in China. A whirlpool of emotions followed: I felt deeply grateful, humbled, in another way proud, and of course, exhilarated at the prospect of new learning. On two engrossing levels.

The first, undertaking professional development in screenwriting for TV and movie animation with Crane Animation of Guilin, a dynamic young company that’s won awards, sold work to China Central TV network, earned its government’s recognition, and produced engaging work for foreign clients. As a novelist and short story writer, I’d get to be mentored by them in their genre field, plus learn techniques for adapting my existing work to this dazzling medium. What a profound gift!

Learning, extending ourselves throughout life, taking that journey of a thousand miles one step at a time, is surely not only a wonderful privilege but a great source of empowerment.

The second gift of this amazing opportunity would be living awhile in an ancient, complex, bookish culture. The Chinese developed mechanical printing long before Guttenberg. In post-Roman Europe, when my Celtic ancestors still lacked a common tongue, China’s heritage of unified language development, storytelling and poetry was already long and illustrious. In today’s China, a successful author receives the kind of appreciation the west reserves for sporting icons and actors. Why? Because literacy is seen as more valuable than naturally-occurring physical gifts like athleticism or beauty. And anyone can acquire it. It’s recognized as key to understanding life, gaining prosperity, developing true personal stature. Perhaps that’s why Asian students study so hard, perform so well.

With all this in mind, and given my notorious love of Asian history, my mind of course immediately drifts to Marco Polo, who made a far more hazardous journey than mine to China. With his great curiosity and open mind, he learned Chinese ways, served the Great Khan, and ultimately returned  to Europe with tales that educated, inspired, and built cultural bridges across the world. Explorer, warrior and author, his work remains in print in every major language. Now there’s a role model! 🙂

Such storytellers remind us that cultural immersion is a fantastic education all of its own. Potentially mind-expanding, life changing. Most of us, at some point in our lives, can find a way to experience it, even if only short term. Get out and see an ancient part of the world, I say, as a traveller and unmet friend, not just a tourist, and you’ll return richer, bigger. And if you’re genuine about wanting to learn or serve through that experience, there are sometimes ways to get assistance.

Writer-adventurers like Marco Polo, (China) Rudyard Kipling, (India) H. Rider Haggard (Africa) and Lafcardio Hearn (Japan) teach us that ironically, it’s through storytelling –fiction-  that we citizens of the world can learn to appreciate each others’ diverse realities. Good cultural interaction takes nothing away from any nation’s uniqueness, but helps spark dialogue and understanding, smash fear and prejudice born of ignorance, and make our global village, at the end of the day, more harmonious. Hmm…wonder if I could write an animation script that conveys some of this? 🙂

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9 November, 2012

Free Merlin!

Simon Higgins at Merlin's Cave (Wales)

Merlin’s Cave (Cornwall, England)

Of wizards, imagination and, you guessed it, dynamite. 🙂


Imagination is like a muscle; exercise it regularly and it develops tone, power, and performs better, in your chosen art or craft, conversation, even just the way you enjoy life’s humour and ironies. Einstein famously said that imagination was more important than knowledge. Humbly, I wish to add a perspective to that:  since one springs from the other, both really matter.

In 2011, I was knowledge-mining  fascinating places in Europe, gathering research and inspiration for future stories. Including Tintagel in Cornwall, an archaeological site with Dark Ages and Medieval dig sections, linked to the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

Ruined Tintagel Castle perches on a rocky, wind-swept island linked to the mainland by a thin wooden bridge. As an amateur Indiana Jones, I found it a place in which to see, touch and sense an enthralling past I’d enthusiastically read up on. But for me, the site’s mystique deepened when climbing down to the beach below the castle. For there, low tide permitting, waited Merlin’s Cave.

I chanced upon a mature-aged Welshman sitting on a rock, staring out to sea.

‘Are you Merlin?’ I quipped.

‘Nooo,’ he said in that lovely Welsh lilt. ‘Merlin’s in there,’ he motioned at the cave. ‘Why don’t you go say hello?’ I smiled, nodded, readied a torch, and did as he said.

Merlin’s cave has a main gallery which cuts right through the island on which the castle sits, opening onto a rocky cove. But intriguingly, there’s also a narrow fork off to the left which is impassable, blocked by an old rock fall of huge boulders. Seeing it, my fertile –and whimsical- imagination cut in.

The wizard was behind there, trapped, I decided with mock intensity, I could sense it! This had to be the spot where Morgana confined Merlin when she stole his magic, and if I freed him, he’d share his powers with me and, and…I could save the world, or at least become a superhero in a totally awesome medieval outfit.

No doubt this was my destiny. But how to move these boulders?

Pulling a maniacal Jack Black-type face I raised an index finger. ‘Dynamite!’

Now, for the record, I don’t actually endorse laying explosives beneath World Heritage archaeological sites, under any circumstances. No, sigh, not even to free Merlin himself.

Crossing the beach again, I found the Welshman still sitting on his rock. My imagination and twisted sense of humour now fully engaged, I simply couldn’t resist another friendly wise crack.

‘You are Merlin, aren’t you?’ I jibed, smiling. ‘You don’t fool me. I know wizards can shape-shift.’

Delightfully, this charming stranger entered into the spirit of the moment. ‘All right,’ he lilted, pulling a dramatic expression, ‘I admit it!’ He pointed to the cave mouth. ‘I AM Merlin! And when you leave, I’ll vanish, back in there, through my di-mensional portal!’

Utterly outdone! Given his last reference, I was obviously dealing with a Doctor Who fan. And how appropriate, seeing as the show is filmed in Cardiff, where this most excellent Taffy-Merlin probably hailed from.

So here’s the point of this yarn: may fact, be it historical, folkloric or whatever, always provoke imagination. And let’s never forget that imagination is like love, music, art and of course, humour – these are all universal languages, and potential keys to instant rapport between strangers.

What if he really was a time lord? After all, they seem to frequent Wales… 🙂

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