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Long Overdue Life Update August 26, 2018

I knew I hadn't posted on this blog in a while, but I didn't know it had been seven months. Egads. Where did the time go?

I know the answer to that, and I'll tell you.

1. I became a homeowner.

Watercolor of my house
A watercolor of what my house will look like after we get around to painting the exterior.

In April, Sweetie and I bought a house. The process was long and stressful, especially since we tackled some hefty renovations right off the bat: installing bamboo floors, replacing a bathtub and surround, repainting the interior, and tearing up two decks and a concrete patio in the backyard.

We thought things would settle down once the renovations were out of the way and we moved in. Nope. Now that we're living here, the projects never end. There are still eight windows without curtains, three rooms with white walls, and one door lying in the middle of the living room...not to mention the many basic maintenance tasks required to prevent the house from flooding, burning, or exploding.

Don't get me wrong—I love my house more than I've ever loved a 1700 square-foot inanimate object before. It just takes a lot of work. Constantly.

Until now I felt like an "adult imposter," a woman who has been legally of age for more than a decade but was secretly an adolescent inside. But now that I'm more likely to spend a Saturday afternoon at Home Depot or Lowe's than at Macy's or Kohl's, I feel I can call myself an adult proper.

2. I joined Wattpad.

With all of the stress of buying the house, I put the visual novel on hold. When you're staying up until 2 a.m. smearing mortar over cement board, there's not nearly enough time or energy left over for developing a video game.

Instead, in the free hours remaining after caulking joints and sewing curtains, I've been working on a fun story and posting it on Wattpad. Despite its sadly justified reputation for rampant poorly spelled self-insert One Direction fan fiction, Wattpad also has many talented writers who are serious about creating and sharing quality stories. You just have to dig through a lot of erotica about 20-year-old billionaire CEOs to find them.

Last May I wrote a couple of posts referring to a modernization of Pride and Prejudice that I disliked because it destroyed the story structure of the original and was insufferably preachy. The weekend after reading that book, I wrote an outline for a modernization of P&P that did preserve the story, while also giving Elizabeth Bennet the agency she lacked in 1813.

I knew the novel wouldn't be viable commercially because retellings of Jane Austen novels are so overdone, and there's nothing "sexy" about my version like...

  • "It takes place at an elite private school. Elizabeth Bennet is a poor scholarship student and Darcy is her prom date!" (See: Prom and Prejudice)
  • "It's a gender-swapped Christmas-themed romp. Elizabeth is a glamorous Manhattanite and Darcy is a Midwestern carpenter who distrusts city girls!" (See: Pride and Prejudice and Mistletoe)
  • "It's literally the copy/pasted original, only with added scenes in which Elizabeth and Darcy are zombie hunters!" (See: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies)

No, my version is simply a low-key somewhat-faithful retelling with no glitz, no holiday cheer, and no supernatural horrors. No agent or editor would ever go for it. And so I filed away the outline as a mere exercise.

But the story continued to run through my head while driving to and from work each day, doing chores, and other moments of mental idleness. I decided to write and post it for free on the Internet, with no expectation of making money from it. And thus, Lizzie Bennet's Diary was born.

Lizzie Bennet's Diary
The "cover art" for Lizzie Bennet's Diary, using a photo by Rosie Ann

The other day I read in this NY Times article that seeking payment for activities decreases both motivation and creativity. When children are paid for drawing, they draw less than children who aren't paid. When adults are rewarded for solving a complex problem, their solutions are less innovative than those of adults who don't expect rewards.

Anecdotally, I noticed that when I was trying to get published, my intrinsic enjoyment of writing was smothered by the stress of trying to make money from it, and I discarded fun story ideas that excited me in favor of risk-averse "sellable" ones. No more! I'd rather have a day job that pays the bills for the rest of my life than become a Real Author who churns out marketing-department-approved paperbacks.

Unlike those days when I dreaded writing because I feared it was all a waste of time, now I happily write one chapter a week and post on Wattpad on Sundays. I have a handful of regular readers, and I stick to the schedule not just for them, but because the "deadlines" prevent me from becoming too obsessively perfectionist about my work. The project is supposed to be fun, not Nobel Prize worthy.

3. I have too many hobbies.

Writing is the hobby I prioritize first, but I have other casual ones too.

I design and sew clothes.

Pokemon Dress - Front   Pokemon Dress - Back   Pokemon Dress with Cat
A dress made out of an XL boys t-shirt from Goodwill. It still had the tag from the department store on it!

I bake breads and cakes.

Chiffon Cake   Chiffon Strawberry Shortcake
Chiffon cake served with strawberries and whipped topping

I play piano.

I wish I had infinite copies of myself so I could dedicate more time to all of these hobbies. Unfortunately I don't, so I dabble a little in each one every week.

And so time flies by, and I don't necessarily get around to documenting it all. I don't know how the Intagram generation does it. Taking a single photo of myself is a big to-do, and publishing a single blog post like this requires several hours of effort spread over many days. Updating the library's social media accounts at work is torturous enough. Every time I have to log in to Twitter and Facebook to post something informative yet humorous, I think, "Who would do this willingly?!"

Where Are All the Complex Female Characters? January 13, 2018

Last night Sweetie and I saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I felt nervous while handing over my hard-earned $20 for tickets, because Sweetie told me the reviews are highly polarized. Critics call The Last Jedi the best movie in the Star Wars franchise. On the other hand, half of the audience members on Rotten Tomatoes say it's a slap in the face to Star Wars fans.

So I went into the theater bracing myself for a three-hour-long advertisement for porg toys, filled with gratuitous explosions and bad jokes.

Porg toy

To my great surprise, I landed on the side of the critics. While there were many gratuitous explosions, and the porg gags were tiresome, my dominant feeling when the credits rolled was, "Unbelievable, a new Star Wars movie actually made my heart hurt."

That hasn't happened to me since The Empire Strikes Back. After those three cheesy prequels, the transparently fanbase-pandering Force Awakens, and the edgy-for-the-sake-of-edginess Rogue One, I'd thought it would never happen again.

(Avast, there be spoilers ahead!)

The character arcs of Kylo Ren and Luke Skywalker were affecting enough to make me overlook the porg commercials, the unfunny wisecracks, and the poor storytelling choices (i.e., let's not talk about that admiral who withheld vital information from her crew for no rational reason other than to give Poe his dramatic moments). The twisted soulmate relationship between the confused heroine and the conflicted villain was brilliant. Luke Skywalker was never a perfect hero, and I was delighted that he didn't simply become the ever-wise Obi-Wan who dashes in with a lightsaber and saves the day.

I have only two primary criticisms. The first is expressed well by the author of this article: "The Last Jedi came thrillingly close to upending Star Wars–but lost its nerve." The movie flirts with showing the moral ambiguity of rebellion and the tragic consequences of using violence in the name of good, but in the end it chickens out and delivers the safe, comforting Aesop that "light is good, dark is bad."

Though the story is inherently tragic, the creators buried as much of the heartbreak as they could to preserve the "fun" tone of the movie. Kylo Ren and Luke Skywalker are the only characters whose personalities and actions are affected by guilt and grief. Everyone else shrugs off the deaths of their friends and skips away to their fighter pods armed with predictable quips.

My other criticism is not shared by the author of that article. The heroine, Rey, is a boring and passive character.

Despite the best efforts of the actress to give her depth, Rey is ultimately a Mary Sue wearing the costume of a Strong Female Character. Her motivations are nonexistent and her inner conflicts, if you can call them "conflicts," are banal. When you compare her as a protagonist to Luke Skywalker in the original trilogy, the difference is striking.

What was Luke's motivation for finding Yoda? He wanted to live up to the heroic legend of his father and take down the empire that brutally murdered his family.

What is Rey's motivation for finding Luke? The rebels told her to. And, uh...some sort of power inside her is "awake" and she's scared.

What does Luke see when he confronts the dark side of the Force on Dagobah? A vision of himself as the embodiment of evil.

What does Rey see when the darkness under the island sucks her in? A vision of herself snapping her fingers a couple of times, because it's a cool visual effect.

How does Luke become a master Jedi? Through gruelling training and self-sacrifice born of a desperation to save the people he loves.

How does Rey become the Last Jedi? She picks up a lightsaber and instantly turns into a goddess who can handily defeat the next Sith Lord and telepathically lift whole rockslides.

Rey was a tragic waste of potential. Her backstory set her up to be truly interesting. As a young girl, she was sold into slavery, and she lived a lonely and miserable life. Yet, somehow, she grows up to be a nice and helpful hero. Where is her rage at the world? Where's her hidden anger against herself for being too weak and cowardly to escape? Where's her resentment against the imperial rulers who allow their supposed citizens to live under systematic cruelty?

Instead of being drawn to the dark side because it "calls to her," Rey could have been lured by the promise of a power she could use for good. She could have been tempted to harness the dark side to stop the endless fighting, and to shape a new utopian galaxy where no children like her will endure exploitation and abuse. Instead of seeing Kylo Ren's outstretched hand and Byronic pleading eyes and deciding, "Oh, no, darkness is bad," she could have struggled to make her decision. She could have been an actual person instead of a perfect heroine.

Rey is only one example of a broader problem with the characterization of women in works of fiction. Every book and movie made today features a "strong" female heroine, but it's still rare to find a complex one.

Imperfect heroines are unlikeable.

While anyone can rattle off dozens of examples of imperfect male heroes and antiheroes, it's a tough task to come up with the names of famous heroines who are less than perfect. They're all smart, resourceful, pretty, and righteous; they capture the hearts of every handsome man and always do the right thing.

"Nu-uh," people say, "There's Katniss in The Hunger Games, and Tris in Divergent, and Katsa in Graceling, and tons of other ones." And what supposedly makes these heroines complex? They have chips on their shoulders. That's it.

Do they struggle with depression and cling too tightly to childhood fantasies, like Quentin Coldwater in The Magicians? Are they addicted to opioids and feel compelled to alienate the people around them, like Gregory House in House?

Of course not, because having a flaw any bigger than a cool sassy attitude, and/or an inability to decide which handsome man they want to marry, would make a heroine unlikeable.

Female characters typically fall into three categories: perfect heroine, reviled villain, and blameless misunderstood victim. When a female character who is supposed to be a heroine strays too far from perfection, the audience instantly despises her. If a heroine makes bad decisions, like Rebecca Bloomwood in Confessions of a Shopaholic, reviewers rant that she's sooo stupid and they can't stand her. If the character has violent or manipulative tendencies, like Amy Dunne in Gone Girl, journalists rage at the author for spreading "misogynist fantasies about how women act."

Every heroine represents every woman.

I've never seen a journalist complain that Patrick Bateman in American Psycho spreads "misandrist fantasies about how men act." I've never heard a peep about self-destructive playboy Tony Stark's many bad decisions in the Iron Man movies. Everyone loves insufferable jerks like Gregory House.

Why do people enjoy screwed-up male characters, but they react so negatively when the character is a woman instead? Because Patrick Bateman, Tony Stark, and Gregory House are all seen as individuals. Everyone knows that's not what all men are like.

Female characters, on the other hand, supposedly represent the author's attitude about all women everywhere.

This tacit belief might stem from our long history of under-representation of women in fiction. Until very recently, it was common for Hollywood movies to star only one token female in a sea of men.

Movie posters showing many male actors and only one female actor

In a September 2017 interview for Glamour magazine, Reese Witherspoon recounted...

"I remember, 15 years ago, being a young actress and starting to audition for movies in L.A. There were always a lot of young women waiting in the green room for their shot at the one part there was for a girl in any given movie. Because that's all there was—one part. As I got some of those parts, I would arrive on set to realize I was the only girl with a speaking part."

That one girl with a speaking part represented the entire female audience. She was always smart, spunky, attractive, kind, and supportive, because that is how all women are supposed to be.

Because this is what we're used to, when we see a female on the screen or in a book, we instinctively think of her as the girl who represents everything the writer believes about women. If she's an irresponsible shopaholic, we rail, "That's an outdated stereotype!" If she's a manipulative psycho, we scream, "That's not what we're like at all!"

I hope we can soon move past this knee-jerk reaction and recognize that deeply flawed female characters are characters, not universal representations of womanhood. By insisting that all female characters must be strong and smart and perfect, and that anything else is offensive, audiences persuade creators to stick to Mary Sues like Rey, instead of developing memorable heroines like the one Rey could have been.

The Underutilized Potential of Visual Novels October 8, 2017

When I decided to turn my wuxia trilogy into a visual novel series, I immediately started on it the way I begin every creative endeavor: research. I found lists of recommended visual novels and read about them, surveyed all of the visual novels sold on Steam, and purchased a few to play through myself.

To my surprise, I found the visual novel industry is seriously disappointing.

The visual novel medium has MASSIVE potential to be awesome. But instead of capitalizing on that potential, developers put out mediocre games that are less innovative and engaging than static printed graphic and prose novels.

Disappointment #1: They're written as if they're plain old books.

The whole point of visual novels is that they're visual. They're supposed to use both pictures and words to convey a story more effectively than either can alone. Yet many visual novels are nothing more than plain, boring old books with some pretty pictures.

For example, the words describe scenes that pictures already show.

Picture of a sunset with the words, 'I sighed, and found myself looking up at the darkening sky. The sun was beginning to set.'

Or the words describe scenes that pictures should have shown.

Picture of a Kyoto alley with the words, 'I could hear the ronin beg for his life as he stumbled back. The person in the blue coat said nothing, just stepped forward, his sword raised.'

Not only do these games fail to show their stories with pictures, they don't even show them with words. They tell, tell, tell.

In Hakuoki, the writers don't show a boy's changing feelings towards the heroine through his dialog and actions. Instead, the heroine helpfully informs the audience that he seems interested in her.

Picture of a Hakuoki character with the words, 'His eyes narrowed as he stared at me, as though I'd suddenly become more interesting.'

And instead of showing the audience the heroine is tense through her tone and nervous habits, the heroine simply says, "I found myself depressed and tense."

Background picture of Kyoto with the words, 'Small wonder, then, that I worried for my father's safety. My mind would concoct horrible possibilities and I inevitably found myself depressed and tense.

(Side note: Yes, this heroine "finds herself" doing things frequently, as if she wanders through life in a daze and realizes only during rare lucid moments, "Ah, I'm looking up at the sky!" I didn't make it very far into the game, but I like to think a twist at the end reveals the reason she's always "finding herself" in the middle of actions, instead of simply doing them, is that she was possessed by a mind-controlling demon the whole time.)

Disappointment #2: They suffer from Oprah Syndrome.

Sometimes the telling takes a different form. In Hotel Dusk, the script shows at the sentence and scene levels, but it tells at the structural level. The game itself doesn't have any plot to speak of, and all of the drama comes from characters literally standing still and telling their stories in the past tense.

In Hotel Dusk, Helen asks Kyle, 'Would you lend your ear to a sad and shameful story?'

In "dating sim" type visual novels, the player character chooses which hot guy or gal to pursue from a harem of potential love interests. Each romance typically ends with a climactic scene of the chosen partner delivering a teary-eyed confession about a difficult childhood, a tragic loss, and/or trauma-induced insecurities...and this is the full extent of the "story."

In Katawa Shoujo, Hanako tells her story: 'The fire happened when I was eight years old. It was night, and we were sleeping when it started.'

In other words, the stories in these visual novels play out like episodes of Oprah. The affable protagonist talks to the audience for a bit, then interviews some people who sit on a sound stage and bare their souls.

Why is Oprah Syndrome so common in visual novels? I have a few theories.

Most visual novels were made in Japan.

Most Americans have never heard of visual novels. The medium is much more popular in East Asia, particularly in Japan. If you Google "best visual novels," all of the results will be lists of exclusively Asian titles with art in a stereotypical anime style.

East Asian storytelling is different from Western storytelling in many ways. In American TV shows, scenes are zippy and full of motion. The most dramatic moments are short and exciting, with a lot of shouting, passionate kissing, and/or gun-waving.

In Japanese, Chinese, and Korean TV shows, there are few guns and very few kisses (maybe one or two per series). Instead, the characters do a lot of talking. The most dramatic scenes are often long emotional monologues by actors literally sitting still on a sound stage. When Sweetie and I watched Father Is Strange over the summer, we groaned whenever we saw Father and Mother sit down together, because we knew the next five minutes would be yet another discussion of their feelings.

Most visual novels were made by small teams with tiny budgets.

Big developers with money don't make visual novels. They make epic space operas, NFL simulators, deliberately addictive mobile games, and zombie apocalypse shoot 'em ups. Visual novels are made by quirky small studios, or even by lone hobbyists with big dreams.

Words are cheap and easy to type. Art is expensive and requires a lot of time and effort to create. So it's tempting for a small developer with a limited budget to write a ton of words illustrated by a few static pictures of characters with different facial expressions. Quality storytelling and fully illustrated scenes would require much more work, which costs money if you need to hire someone else to do it.

Visual novel protagonists are usually blank slates.

Because developers want players to immerse themselves in the games, protagonists often have little to no character. They're stock characters with genre-standard personalities, bare-bones life stories, and bland or outright customizeable facial features.

The choice to make an "everyman" protagonist makes sense for fighting and adventure games, but it hobbles visual novels. Good stories need active protagonists with goals to chase and flaws to overcome. If you create a totally blank protagonist, all of the drama has to come from the other characters. Then you end up with Oprah episodes.

Disappointment #3: The stories are purely "on rails."

In theory, visual novels offer players the opportunity to explore story worlds and shape them through their choices. But in reality, many visual novels out there are very linear and don't allow players to play.

"Find the Trigger" Rails

In some games, player choice is a halfhearted illusion. You can run around the map all you want, but nothing meaningful will happen until you stumble onto the one and only story path.

For example, in Hotel Dusk you can roam freely through the hotel in every chapter, but the plot will progress only if you move to certain places, pick up certain items, and/or find certain people to talk to. I wasted a lot of time skulking up and down empty halls, knocking on all the doors, trying to figure out what the game wanted me to do to progress. Eventually I gave up playing in earnest and found a walk-through that would tell me where I had to go to trigger the next scripted conversation.

"Branch of No Return" Rails

In "branching storyline" type games, players are often sent down rigid paths based on one or two choices. For a hypothetical example, if the player chooses to bake cookies with Vampire A instead of planting flowers with Vampire B, she is then destined to marry Vampire A and can't even get to know Vampire B for the rest of that play-through.

In the most frustrating games, innocuous choices force players onto dead-end branches, and there's nothing they can do about it. E.g., merely choosing to go to the kitchen instead of the garden will seal the unwitting player's fate with Vampire A. I will be forever sour about the time I innocently agreed with the school nurse's suggestion to get more exercise in Katawa Shoujo, unaware that I was committing myself to a branch of no return.

The school nurse asks the hero to be more serious about exercising in Katawa Shoujo

Does this look like a life-defining choice to you?!

My Ideal Visual Novel

My ideal visual novel is fun, emotionally engaging, and frustration-free, without any of the disappointments above.

The protagonist should participate actively in the story.

The logic for having a blank, mute protagonist doesn't apply to visual novels. In most types of games, mechanics are more important than story; players will tolerate laughable dialog and nonsensical plots as long as they have fun.

But in visual novels, the story is the fun. And to craft a fun story, you must have a protagonist who protags.

The player should be able to explore the entire story in one play-through.

I don't know why visual novel developers think "one bazillion unique endings!" is a strong marketing point. There's nothing fun about fast-forwarding through a game a bazillion times. It's fun to play a game once...maybe twice. After that, most people get bored and move on to something new.

The standard "branching" structure of visual novels today is so stale, players don't even play them for real. They consult charts that show "How to get all bazillion endings" and abuse save files to navigate the known branches. After the first playthrough, they're probably not even reading the story. They're just collecting the endings for 100% completion.

The branching formula also means players who attempt to play without a chart will most likely trigger a disappointing ending. They'll like Vampire B best, but they'll somehow end up marrying that jerk Vampire C or leaping off a cliff with that idiot Vampire F instead. If every story were accessible in one playthrough, and a player could hand a Kleenex tissue to Vampire F without consenting to leap off a cliff with him, this wouldn't be a problem.

The player should be able to go anywhere and find a story waiting.

Writers are accustomed to thinking of stories linearly. Plot Point A at Setting X causes Plot Point B at Setting Y, which leads inevitably to Plot Point C at Setting Z. After all, causal relationships between plot points make the difference between a story vs. stuff that happens.

This poses a problem for writing visual novels, because players might want to zip straight to Setting Y instead of visiting Setting X first. That's why visual novel developers tend to force players onto frustrating "Find the Trigger Rails"—because Plot Point B at Setting Y wouldn't make any sense if Plot Point A didn't happen first.

However, there are solutions other than very obvious rails. The key to creating a game that feels open, but still has a great story with a proper plot, is to write more than one story.

Examples:

  • In MMOs like Final Fantasy XI, there are many epic adventures to choose from. Once you start a storyline you do have to accomplish tasks in a certain order to progress, but you can always run off and do something else too.
  • In modern RPGs like Xenoblade Chronicles, the main story is linear, but the experience of playing through it is very open. The player can run around to many places and find NPCs offering "side quests" that play out in mini-stories.

If you offer parallel threads like this, the game won't feel like a tedious exercise in "finding the right door to knock on." Players can follow the story that starts in Setting X and ends in Setting Z, but they can also discover a story that starts in Setting Y and ends in Setting X. Going to the settings "out of order" won't be a complete waste of time.

The player's choices should influence the story in a logical way.

This one should be obvious, right? If a player makes a choice in a game, it should have a logical outcome. There's no reason why anyone would create a game in which actions and their effects would be totally arbitrary and nonsensical.

And yet they do.

I think writers of visual novels get so caught up in the weeds of building branches and defining "flags," they lose sight of what players will logically expect to happen when they make choices. The writers think, "We need a flag that puts the player down the Emi path. Oh, this part where the school nurse asks the hero to exercise more works, because Emi is the Sporty Spice." They don't think, "What choice would players make if they want to go down the Emi path?"

To conclude, here is a short excerpt from chapter 127 of the Chinese webtoon Wo Jia Dashi Xiong Naozi You Keng, by an artist who shares my sentiments.

Chapter 127 of Wo Jia Dashi Xiong Naozi You Keng