The Problem With Stella

Spoiler Alert. Okay? My wife and I are finishing up Orange is the New Black. So I’m here to talk about it. Which means if you’re the kind of person who gets uptight about shows getting spoiled for you, you may want to stop yourself right there. The bridge is out. KNOWLEDGE AHEAD.


Orange is the New Black is doing a lot of interesting things and has a lot of people talking about it. One of those things in particular is the introduction of a new character this season, Stella. (STELLAAAAAAAAAAAAA. Okay, it’s out of my system.) She’s a sort-of-spunky, sort-of-aloof androgynous type with a Bieber haircut and enough ink on her to keep HP in business for a few years, at least. And there’s a lot of buzz about this character, particularly by way of the actor portraying said character, one Ruby Rose.

What’s got people talking about her is the fact that, apparently (and I heard this only secondhand from my wife… research is not really my thing around here, and I trust her sources because she’s a lot smarter than me) miss Rose identifies as female some days and male on others. And yeah, okay, it’s the new hotness to identify as this or that. (Personally, I’m a thirty-something white dude who identifies as that piece of gum you stepped in and tracked all over the floorboards of your car. That’s just how I feel.) But the show has always been pretty stern about its characters being who they are regardless of what you or anybody thinks about it (and especially if you happen to be a dude). The show works because of the personalities represented in it; they’re off-the-wall but somehow believable within the literal four walls the characters are stuck in. So, you know, kudos to the show for including an actor who plays, in real life, by the rules that the show plays by in our heads.

But I’m not here to talk about her identity or her sexuality or her gender-bending or any of that. I’ll leave that to Buzzfeed. (Seriously, they have something like a dozen “articles” about her in the past week.)

What’s bugging me about her is her character’s narrative drift.

See, if OITNB teaches us anything, it’s that you don’t have to like characters in order to care about them. Hell, some of the show’s most memorable, quotable characters are the least likable. A mother who emotionally blackmails another woman over the adoption of her own grandchild? A former socialite who takes to bilking the system and profiting off the perversion of the underbelly of the internet? A prison social worker who’s sometimes got a heart of gold and is sometimes a racist, sexist, insecure piece of sharknado? They all do terrible things, but we care about them because, as twisted as the things they do may be, we understand on some level why they’re doing those things. Daya’s mother knows how hard mothering can be OUTSIDE of prison so she conspires to get her daughter to give up her baby, and hey, why not make a little scratch in the mix? Piper feels betrayed by the world she thought she knew; her values are shattered, so why not embrace her criminal side and profit at the expense of people who are worse off than her? Healey, for all the good he tries to do, is married to a loveless transplant from Russia who emasculates him every chance she gets, so to remind himself he’s a man, sometimes he has to swing his man-parts around and show everybody what a big jerk he can be.

We don’t like them. But we understand them, and that makes us care, even if we’re not necessarily rooting for them. (On that note, does the show even have a protagonist at this point? Maybe it’s Caputo, but it’s hard to tell. Not that that’s stopping anybody from watching.) All these characters, for better or worse, want things, and because we care about the characters, we either want them to get those things in sympathy, or we want them not to get those things out of schadenfreude.

Which brings me to Stella. (STELLAAAAAAAAAA. Okay, last time.) I don’t care about her. At all. She’s been on the show for half a season, and I don’t give one randy sharknado about her. Why?

Because she’s a husk.

A pretty husk. A wrench-in-the-works husk. A will-she-or-won’t-she distraction and world-turner-upside-downer hurricane kind of husk. But she’s like a tree that’s rotted from the inside out, or a wax figure dressed in a thousand-dollar suit. Looks nice on the outside, but looks kinda disgusting or even creepy up close.

As far as I can tell, Stella was drawn up to provide a fork-in-the-road for Piper. She was designed to be pretty and devil-may-care to show the polar (and scornful) opposite of Alex, who has grown haggard and consumed with worry and fear. Where Alex is driven slowly mad by the confines of the prison and the perceived inevitability of her situation (she’s stuck exactly where a man who will in all likelihood kill her knows exactly where she is), Stella is so indifferent to her situation that she’s almost literally untouched and unfazed by it (see the scene where she dries naked in the communal bathroom because the prison’s “harsh towels” are too much for her “sensitive skin”, for example). Stella is a bird on the wind, whereas Alex feels like a sinking stone.

And that’s fine. That’s even great. A nicely-turned dichotomy, a troubling love triangle for Piper, stuck between Alex, with whom she has history and allegiance and yeah, they do it a lot in the showers and stuff; and Stella (STELLAAAAAAAAAA. Sorry), who is mysterious and intriguing and probably does the weird stuff. In bed. That conflict works, and it’s even making people mad. (Which, again, just shows that we care.)

Here’s where it breaks down for me. Alex is a little old and busted this season, but we know why. Piper ratted her out. Got her sent back to prison after she thought she was out. Alex fears that her former boss will have her killed for implicating him when she got sent in. She’s tired. She’s hurt. She’s afraid for her life. Again, we don’t have to like her, but we understand.

But what’s Stella’s story? What makes her so light and carefree? The show doesn’t tell us. Why is she interested in Piper? We don’t know, outside of perhaps a raw physical want-to-bone feeling (which doesn’t necessarily come across, I humbly offer). What is she even in prison for in the first place? These are things the show doesn’t bother to share with us.

All we know about her is that Piper wants to do her, and that’s making problems for her relationship with Alex.

We don’t know what she wants. We don’t know why she does the things she does. So we (or, at least, I) don’t care.

It’s not a deal breaker for the show. It doesn’t make me not want to watch. But for a show that does so many things right with its characters, it feels like a pretty glaring misstep.

Maybe my feelings will change when I see the last episode tonight. But I maintain that, if you’re going to have a character appear for half of season, and that character is going to play a major role in the show, I should at least care about that character a little bit by the end.

Am I overthinking this? Am I wrong? Let me hear it.

A Narrative Sugar Rush

Much of the process of writing is boring. Fun-boring, perhaps, the way that putting together a 1000-piece puzzle is fun if not YEAH LET’S GO FINISH THAT PUZZLE WOOO fun. You spend much of the time silently puzzling out the … puzzles … of how all the little fiddly bits fit together. If I want to have that character jump over a cliff to save his dog later in the novel, how do I foreshadow that moment earlier in the text? If that character has a deathly allergic reaction to oranges in chapter three, can I somehow twist that for the resolution in chapter twenty-seven?  My character seems to want to collect postcards from everywhere she visits by the end of chapter twelve… did I have her collecting the tongues of her vanquished foes instead in chapter eight? Better go back and revisit…

You slog through those moments, creating back story, laying foundations for the future, discovering odd little curiosities about your characters along the way, and meanwhile the story meanders forward not unlike a stream: a little cascade over rocks here, a long slow flow of calm water there, a spontaneous whirling eddy over here (not to be confused with Whirling Eddie, the circus performer)… but stories have a life of their own, and just as a somnambulant stream can turn into a vicious torrent with a summer storm, so too can a story surge to life with the proper impetus.

Like, oh, say, the hero deciding she’s had enough of the idiots around her spouting theoretical scientific mumbo-jumbo about time travel and alternate futures and the dangers of wandering through free-standing space-time portals without observing all applicable safety protocols, then running out of the safehouse she doesn’t believe is actually a safehouse, straight into the cold steel arms of one of the very robots the mad scientist was just warning her about.

Or, you know, something. Purely hypothetical, that. Definitely didn’t just write that in my new novel today, over lunch. Nope. No robots or mad scientists here. What are you looking at? Get away from my non-robot-involving, non-mad-scientist-featuring draft.

I wasn’t planning to write that moment today, but all of a sudden my hero decided she’d had enough of sitting around listening to exposition and decided to blow the story the fargo up by walking out of it (and of course, karmically, [is karmically a word?]) walking right into it.

I’ve enjoyed drafting the new novel, but today I couldn’t stop writing. Just like that moment where you can’t put the book down, I kept saying to myself, just one more sentence. Just one more paragraph. Just see what happens next. And I can’t wait for my next drafting session, wherein I’ll get to find out what does happen to my hero next. Because, while I have the general plot for the story mapped out, her getting captured by robots was not necessarily something I expected. Er, not captured by robots. She was, um. Inconvenienced. By… aphids. In her garden. Tomatoes. Very frustrating. No spoilers here.

But expected or not, I think you have to embrace these little detours when they crop up. Outlines are great, and having the end in mind is a fine way to craft a story, but I firmly believe that stories, like life, have minds of their own, and if authors don’t allow those stories a bit of leeway to stretch their legs and explore the side streets a little bit, well, you miss a lot of the fun along the way.

And, as always, I fully recognize that this particular diversion might suck. It might not work with the narrative as a whole. It might have to get cut completely from the book when I get down to the editing part. The sucky part. The I-want-to-kill-myself-with-white-out part.

But you can fix all that in post, as they say.

For now, it’s time to stop and smell the robots.

Roses. Smell the roses.

No robots here.

*hears the whir of servos*

*goes to investigate*

TheMe (a Quandary)

That’s right, enough screwing around. This post is all about THE ME.  The big ol’ me, in all my… whats that?  Oh.  OHH.

Theme.  *ahem.*

Yeah, I guess that makes more sense.

Now, I’m not here to get all heavy-handed about theme.  I may be an English teacher and a kind-of-avid reader and a self-professed almost-amateur writer, but I don’t think the world or any narrative starts and stops with theme.  Not even a rolling stop.  Not even an oh-I-didn’t-know-that-was-a-stop-sign non-stop.  It’s important, sure.  But there’s more to life than theme.

But not that much more, right?  I mean, for any narrative, there’s a theme.  Any story, any poem, any six-second video of a guy texting and walking into traffic and getting obliterated by a bus has a theme.  Theme bleeds out of the story’s every orifice, it leaks out through the eyes and the nostrils and the earholes like a thick Ebola slurry.  It infuses every chapter, every sentence with its rosy, heady fog.  It’s there and unavoidable, like a screaming baby on a 5-hour flight.  You can’t have literature without it.

But how do you create it?

No, I’m really asking.  How do you craft theme?  Or, maybe more importantly, should you even try?

Theme is bouncing around the inside of my skull thanks to a conversation I had a few nights ago with a friend of mine about a story she wants to write.  Interestingly, she and I come from entirely different schools of storybuilding.  Like, she’s been pondering this idea for weeks if not months, has characters and names and costumes and really specific details of the set mapped out, and I… well, when I have an idea, I get about as far as thinking, “maybe it’d be cool if this thing happened and there was a guy with a thing like that” and then I start writing.  She’s analyzing possibilities and eventualities and the implications of interactions between these two characters and the symbolism of this character’s color scheme and I’m wondering if in my story one of the characters can get away with another fart joke.

So I shared with her my particular thoughs on attempting to convey a grand message through the narrative: it feels wrong.  Or, rather, it feels wrong to start there.  I should further clarify that it feels wrong to start there for me.  I feel as if theme, much like the all-female non-reproductive dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, will find a way.  Like weeds in a garden or mildew in a bathroom, it’s always there, lurking just out of sight, waiting for you to neglect it for a scant moment so that it can spring forth fully formed.  Trying, therefore, to cultivate theme makes about as much sense as trying to grow weeds (not weed, STAY WITH ME PEOPLE).  Why put all that effort into something that’s going to happen anyway?  Isn’t it a waste of my time trying to encourage mildew to grow when I could conceivably be building entirely new bathrooms?

But then I take a moment and I wonder what my story is all about.  I mean what it’s about.  You know, the big about, the one that seems super-important after four or five whiskey sours and you’ve just gotten finished talking about how every speck of dust in the universe is connected to every other speck and THAT’S why the government puts those chemicals in the water, man, to keep us from being absorbed by the cosmic ether, even though that’s obviously the next stage in human evolution.  You know, what my story’s ABOUT, man.  And it’s about sticktoitiveness, it’s about determination and the will to overcome, it’s about magical typewriters and Greek gods and mobsters.  It’s about believing in yourself and accomplishing anything, as George McFly once put it.  Isn’t it?

I mean, that message is there, certainly.  It’s a part of the story like bones are part of a person.  It’ll shine through when the editing and the rewriting and the rebuilding are done.  Right?

But what if it doesn’t?  What if, like the tin man, I forgot to build the heart into this thing, and I’m trying to bring it forth into the world to rust and wander aimlessly following the whims of some tart from Kansas?  Rome wasn’t built in a day.  You can’t build a house without a blueprint unless you don’t much care about trifles like structural integrity or roofs that don’t leak or, you know, functional plumbing (there’s a joke in there somewhere about how my story is total unredeemable sharknado, but I won’t be the guy to make it).  I’m counting on the theme to spring forth like flowers after a spring rain, but I’ve salted the earth with my failure to plan ahead.  To nutshell all this, I suddenly feel a bit silly about professing any sort of “expert-ness” about any of this writing business.

At any rate, I dispensed all this “advice” to her.  Put thoughts of theme aside for now; focus on making the story compelling first and let the theme follow after.  Upon further review, I wonder if I sound like that guy at the party wearing the bellbottoms and insisting that they’re coming back into style.  What, after all, do I know about any of this except that I’m having a heck of a lot of fun giving myself headaches and tearing my hair out over whether this story is ever going to actually work.

So, I’m really asking.  Where does theme come from?  Will it bubble to the surface like a bath fart or does it have to be coaxed out of the darkness like a feral kitten?  Do you have to plan for it for a theme to resonate or does it just happen like water spots on your wineglasses?  What, in short, makes theme work?

A Problem with Profanity

So there’s another problem with the draft.

Maaaybe less of a problem and more of a quandary, if the difference is anything more than semantic.

It’s a problem with language.  A quandary of character.

See, I created this antagonist to be a real bastard.  And to be fair, I think I’ve been successful.  He’s a total jerkface.  A real knee-biter.  Virtually unlikable to everybody in the book except for one, and that one only tolerates him out of some twisted past business relationship… the details don’t matter.  He’s a doodie head.

And I absolutely, 100% believe that each character an author creates is, in some small way or another, an aspect of the author himself (or herself).  I just don’t think there’s any getting around that — pour your heart and soul into the work and, well, you end up with a work that’s full of your heart and your soul, perhaps more literally than you planned.  And this guy is probably me on a morning when the alarm failed to go off and the car door handle broke and the traffic is outrageous and I forgot my badge for work and then I get to work and it turns out to be Saturday.  He’s a grouch and a grump and he snaps at the word go and a big part of what makes him so nasty is that he’s as foul-mouthed as a dog that’s been flossing with roadkill.

And there’s the problem.

No, that’s not the problem.  The language works for the character.  It fits him like a tailored suit.  The problem is, I don’t know if the language fits the book.  And that brings me back to audience.

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m not sure I know who my audience is for this damn thing.  I mean, I do.  It’s people more or less like me, maybe a bit younger.  And as a reader, language doesn’t bother me.  A good profanity-laden rant is good for the soul, and let’s be honest, as much as it amuses me to toss around the sharknados and fargos on the blarg here, they’re no substitute for the real thing when real emotion is on the line.  But I’m probably not most readers.  Maybe it’s a bit cart-before-the-horse, but I’m really worried that the profanity, appropriate as it is for the character, and fun as it is for me to write (and read), is going to alienate potential readers.

So there’s the quandary.  There’s nothing wrong with the character as far as the narrative is concerned (at least, as far as I can tell at this point in the edit), and yet I feel like his harshness might be wrong for the story.  Which, then, is more important — an authentic character or a more widely-appealing story?  Do I scale back his jerk-facery in favor of making him a little bit less off-putting?  Do I think up alternate ways to make the character unlikable? Plant some puppies in his path for him to stomp on, send him to bars to abuse the waitstaff, have him drive really slow in the fast lane?  Or do I leave him just the way he is , potential offended readers be damned?

Nothing to do for the moment, I suppose, but throw it on the pile for Further Future Me to sort through and decide on later.


That Time I Overheard a Jerk in a Restaurant and Learned a Lesson About Writing

It’s odd how one little detail, left out of a situation, can completely change your read on it.  Or, to cut in the opposite direction, how you can think you have a handle on what’s going on, and then you learn something new about what’s happening, and all of a sudden you feel like a horrible sharknadoheel for thinking a certain way, or maybe you feel totally vindicated.

The wife and I went to dinner while the grandparents kept the kids for the evening.  Sidenote: when I say dinner, for us that means we hit the restaurant at about 4:30.  I know, we might as well be geriatrics, but when your kid’s bedtime is at seven, you have to rethink the way you live your life.  So it’s 4:30, and we’re at dinner at a nice little pasta place we like where there’s tacky 90’s stereotypical Italian decor and they serve you way too much food so you eat leftovers for two days afterward.  Because it’s 4:30, we have the place almost to ourselves, so we get served quick and we eat quick, which is nice, because having a two-year-old has left me unable to savor a meal; all I know how to do anymore is shovel foodstuffs into my beak while my mind wanders to the sprout and whether or not he’s likely to get into mortal danger before I can swallow a half-chewed mouthful.  But the kids aren’t there so we actually get to focus on each other and the ambiance, a really rare treat.

I don’t know if it’s my inclination as a writer that makes me such a shameless eavesdropper or if I’m just a jerk, but while we’re at dinner this other couple comes in and I immediately start with the judging.  There’s nothing special to say about her, but he is a paunch-bellied, unshaven slob, and that biases me against him before he opens his mouth.  To be fair, this restaurant isn’t the swankiest of joints, so there’s no dress code, but, come on.  Call me old-fashioned, but if you’re taking your wife / girlfriend / main squeeze to a dinner that’s gonna cost more than ten bucks a plate, maybe don’t dress like you just came from a World of Warcraft marathon session in your mom’s basement?Read More »