Thursday, April 18, 2013

Game of Thrones vs. Vikings

Game of Thrones is currently the biggest Juggernaut on air.  It’s got massive backing, a rabid fanbase, and it’s the most illegally downloaded show out there.  This is all while being on HBO, which you have to pay to watch. 

Meanwhile, Vikings is on the History Channel and sorta slides in after The Bible because the History Channel doesn't want to come down solidly on one side of religion or the other.

Why am I comparing them?  Well, partially because presenting at the East Central Indiana Social Media Group took a lot of time out of reading time this week, partially because a lot of people are going to anyway.  It’s like Buffy and Charmed, you can’t NOT compare them, even if you don’t want to.

Both shows are historical dramas in the dung ages and focus on kings, battles, religion, and morally grey characters.  They’re visually similar, both having a Grey Filter for a lot of shots.  They both have actors you've probably seen somewhere else.

So, which is better?  Let’s find out.  I’ll split this into four categories: Characters, Story, Addiction, and The Prestige.
"I'm not questioning your honor, Lord Janos. I'm denying its existence."
If we go in terms of quantity, Game of Thrones has more.  Dear gods, Game of Thrones has more.  Tyrion, Arya, John Snow, Robb, Lady Stark, Daenerys Targaryen, Stannis Baratheon, Theon Greyjoy, Sam, and that’s just the main characters.  I probably forgot some.  Each has their own individual plotlines. 

John Snow
Robb Stark
Lady Stark
Meanwhile, Vikings is more focused on Ragnar, the guile-hero, who’s clearly the main character, but his Nakama definitely gets their own screen time.  Athelstan, Lagertha, Rollo, Floki, Ragnar’s kids, even some of the villains get their own arcs.  The characters aren’t all as likeable, and only one is female, but since there’s LESS of them we get to know them much better.  It’s hard to judge characters, so I’ll give them stars out of five for how interested I am in their arc.

Earl Haraldson
While I care a lot about Tyrion, Arya and Daenerys, because funny, cool and dragons, respectively, the Starks don’t interest me much and I’m ready for Theon and Stannis to just go away.  Sam is only interesting because I’ve heard he does cool things in like, three books from now.
Meanwhile, I’m really interested in all of the focus characters from Vikings, because they all raise interesting questions.  I’m most excited about Athelstan, because he’s questioning his religion and it’s fascinating to watch it play out.  Point to Vikings.

"We're going to see Floki."
"Like the Mad God?"
"Not exactly."
"How's he different?"
"...he's not a god."

Second verse, same as the first.  Game of Thrones has approximately ALL of the plots.  John Snow is up north getting involved with the wildlings who are marshaling for war with the White Walkers who are chasing Sam to the Wall which is north of the ruins of Winterfell where the Starks lived until they started waging war to rescue their sisters who are captives of oh gods no.  If you really want to know, watch the show or watch this video.

Meanwhile, Vikings has a few plots, most of them subtle things (Rollo trying to become Earl, Athelstan’s conversion) but most things center around Ragnar’s progression from nobody to hero to outcast to Earl to…who knows what, and his conflict with Earl Haraldson. 

That said, Vikings has a fairly simple plot, whereas Game of Thrones has…all of the plots (no really, all of them) and still manages to tell good stories.  It takes a long time, but they CAN make the plots work, even if it’ll be about four years before they actually resolve most of them. That said, each season some of the plots do get resolved satisfyingly.  And I’ll admit, I’m more interested in seeing what happens to all the characters in Game of Thrones because, well, Dragons vs. Sorcerers vs. Zombies vs. Armies vs. Shapeshifters vs. Tyrion Lannister  So, in the end, Point to Game of Thrones.

Athelstan: "There is a time to sow, a time to reap. A time to
heal and...and a time to kill."
Ragnar: "Sometimes your God sounds like one of ours."
This comes down to which do I want to watch more as the weeks go on.  As it stands, I want to watch Vikings more, every time.  You’d think Game of Thrones, because of all the cliffhangers, but no.  That’s the trouble with having nine (or more, hell, I totally forgot Sansa and Jeoffry) characters to keep track of, half of them will be in peril at the end of the episode INEVITABLY.  (Oh and also Bran, he’s got a separate plotline too.  Christ!)  Because I know there’s going to be a cliffhanger and probably no satisfying ending, and because I’ll often forget which of four cliffhangers happened first. 

Meanwhile with Vikings, each episode ends with either a single cliffhanger or with conflicts mounting, but having a stasis, however uneasy, at the end of each episode.  Also, the character development is slow and interesting, and I want to see how things will change and if there’ll be a big payoff.  I’ve mentioned Athelstan the Monk.  Ragnar’s slave, friend, and almost lover, he has a fascinating and slow building arc towards possibly converting from Christianity to Paganism.  It’s fascinating and treated with subtlety, and they show a lot of reasons why he would apart from just loneliness and separation from others of his own faith.  Right now, that’s what I most want to see played out over the week.  So, point to Vikings.

"There is one thign we say to Death:
'Not Today.'"
The Prestige
The Prestige is which show delivers the goods.  Essentially it’s judging which exotic dancer manages to flash its gussets better.  While on the Point to Game of Thrones.

Sorry, Vikings.  I love you, but you don’t have Dragons or Zomibes.  And while I’m delighted by your frequent use of the mythology I hold most dear, there’s still only so much you’re going to do on a lesser budget with only so many characters.  That said, Vikings is quite enjoyable to watch, both in terms of visuals and story.  I’m always glad to see what Floki is up to, and I need more Lagertha like I need my shower in the morning.

But in the end, Game of Thrones is more magnificent and will probably last longer.  It’s also more memetic.  You see “House Lannister” shirts all over the place, or shirts with a squid that read “We do not Sow” and I’ve heard my neighbors shouting “THE KING IN THE NORTH!” at all hours of the night.  So, this Point goes to Game of Thrones.

As you’ve noticed, now the points are even.  In the end, they’re both great shows.  Vikings is personal and fun, whereas Game of Thrones is big and Epic and Flashy.  Both deliver different things and have different reasons to exist.  I’d say watch both of them, you’ve got nothing to lose.  But if you have to choose which to watch as it airs, watch Vikings, because it needs viewers.  Even if it does have a second season.  

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Let me Clear my Throat by Elena Pasarello - Review

A marvelous read all the way through, Elena Passarello’s first book, Let Me Clear My Throat is a charming and enlightening read all the way through.  The book comprises a series of short essays on the human voice, its limits, failings, and potential to soar. Each essay is well placed and contains a variety of thoroughly well researched essays on the subject of voice and what it means

"The voice of war  can turn gossip into
nicknames, dialogue into mythology."
The book is divided into three sections, Screaming Memes, Tips on Popular Singing, and The Thrown.   Screaming Memes goes into subjects such as the Wilhelm Scream, the Rebel Yell, and the "BYAH" that ended Howard Dean’s presidential race.  I’ll admit this first section was my favorite, particularly the last chapter, Harpy, which details Passarello’s loss of voice that drove her to victory at the Stella Screaming Competition, viewable here.  The essay is the first personal essay in the book, and feels very intimate.  We really understand where Passarello is coming from, and after all this radiant description of the human voice that she cares so much about, the idea of someone losing theirs seems repugnant.

Tips on Popular Singing’s “Space Oddity” delivers possibly the best possible commentary on the launch of the Golden Record on the Voyager Probe:

"Once the Voyager Probe was loaded with telemetry modulation units and spectrometers, we then made the decision to attach human voices to the contraption's flanks. And we added not just the voices of our leaders, but singing voices, including [Chuck Berry's "Johnny B Goode."] This is what beats out speeches and formulae and IBM The Ring Cycle.  According to NASA and Carl Sagan (and me) this is what the universe wants to hear.
Which is another way of saying that we have more faith in popular music than anything else on the planet."

Her insights into various popular singers, from the rise and fall of the Castrati to Judy Garland to the crows outside her window paint a vibrant portrait of music over the years, and had me scrambling to update my iTunes with an impressive variety of music.

The Thrown is a bit harder to summarize.  I suppose you could say it’s simply meditations on the human voice, what it means to us and why it matters so much to Passarello. This section is more freeform, and more fascinating for it.  It’s conclusion, an account of a Ventriloquist Dummy’s search for a voice all its own, is surreal and insightful all at once. 

Passarello impresses me by pulling off that trick that made me fall in love with Up Jumps the Devil, the trick of compressing sound into words.  From a scream that “Cuts a big yellow gash in the air” to an ‘Eew’ that skips out perfectly like a smooth stone across the audience, the visual, textural feeling of sound comes through magnificently.  I definitely advise reading this book with a computer handy, so you can listen to each song Passarello mentions, so that you can have the experience of nodding, as you read her words, and say “Yes.  Yes, those words are exactly the right ones for what I’m hearing.” 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The DM's Notebook: Using D&D for Creative Writing: ~Publishing and Skill DCs~

So I've been thinking for a while about the way the Dungeons and Dragons RPG, in its trappings and mechanics, has some really useful applications for Creative Writing.  The Dungeon Master's Notebook is a series of  to organize such thoughts. 

Dungeon Master's Notebook: Publishing and Skill DCs

This week over in Literary Citizenship we’re writing Query Letters, and in Screenwriting we’re discussing genre.  Near as I can suss it, it's easier to get things published when your story has less StuffStuff, here defined as ‘things that deviate from the norm,’ includes Superpowers, Aliens, Different Time Periods, GLBT Romance, and many other things.  Getting something published with Stuff is much harder than a work without Stuff.  It’s a bit like a skill’s DC.

DC, in Dungeons and Dragons, means the Difficulty Challenge.  There's a different DC for every Skill.  (Climbing, Crafting Potions, Linguistics, etc) and a player must roll1 to surpass the challenge.  Say it’s a Perception Challenge.  A character rolls to see if they can hear a bow being drawn in the forest.  The DC is 25.  Two players roll, add skill ranks, and get a 27 and a 31.  The third only gets a 17, and fails to hear the bow. 

Conditional Modifiers
Through a closed door
Roaring Tempest
Target is invisible
Creature making the check is asleep
Now, DC 25 is under normal conditions.  Say that there’s a battle raging.  The DC goes up by +1 per 10 feet away.   It goes up by +10 for every foot of Wall in the way.  That seems to be how it works in publishing, the more Stuff, the more the DC goes up.

Say you’re submitting your story to QuirkyUnafiliatedIndependentPress (QUIP) and SeriousLiteraryUniversallyRespectedPress (SLURP).  Now, QUIP likes a lot of stuff, but they’re not well known.  The base DC is only about 14.  Any sufficiently mid-level writer can make that DC.   But SLURP is harder to get into, because they’re very prestigious.  That DC is 25, fairly high.  You’d have to roll well AND be pretty high level.   But wait!

Let’s say your story is about a man in a polyamorous triad who dies and comes back as a ghost to take care of the child his girlfriend is having while helping his girlfriend and boyfriend fix their relationship.2  The DC goes up, because your story has the following Stuff.

Heavy GLBT themes

Now the DCs are 22 for QUIP and a rather high 33 for SLURP.  However, QUIP likes weird, genre-queer stories.  The DC only goes up by half for the Ghost, and doesn’t change at all because QUIP is run by sufficiently advanced liberals.  The DC to get your story into QUIP is only 18.  A good cover letter and writing talent and boom, they publish your ghost story.3

The trick to getting published is finding somewhere with a baseline DC you think you can beat and giving them something that doesn’t raise the DC too much.  (Although, it still has to be a good story. That's probably the most important thing for writing.  You have to be able to write.)

Previous Notes: Ability Scores, Random Encounter Tables