Favorite Protagonists – Yuna from Final Fantasy X.

It’s been a while, but I’ve decided to continue the series of posts about my favorite protagonists. You can read my post about Severus Snape, The Doctor, Sephiroth and Raymond Reddington.

Today, I want to talk about another protagonist I love dearly – Yuna from Final Fantasy X. And no, I will not mention Final Fantasy X-2, even  though I played it. For me, the story was finished with the ending of Final Fantasy X, and that’s how it will stay.

Yuna from Final Fantasy X (property of Square Enix)
Yuna from Final Fantasy X (property of Square Enix)

Now, those of you who played this game might object and say that Tidus is the real protagonist of FFX, not Yuna. I beg to differ. Yes, it’s very much Tidus’s story and we discover the world of Spira through his eyes. But it’s also Yuna’s story, because everything Tidus does revolves around her quest to defeat Sin and bring the much needed Calm to Spira. Everywhere she goes, he follows. She calls the shots in this journey.

I must admit that Yuna is one of my favorite characters, because she is so unlike what is usually considered a kickass heroine. She is not a fighter, for one. She specializes on healing and support magic, letting her stronger companions do the attacking. And if they need additional fire power, she can ask one of her Summons for help. She is not a bubbly happy silly girl like Rikku either. In fact, she is the most subdued and level-headed from all the women in the party.

In fact, she comes across as kind of bland and boring at the beginning of the game. When I saw her during my first playthrough, I thought, “Oh great, another damsel in distress that Tidus will have to constantly save throughout the game.” Oh boy was I wrong.

Under that shy and non-conflictual exterior hides a will of steel, an endless well of courage and an unwavering moral compass.  Yuna is the glue that keeps the group of ragtag adventurers together. And she doesn’t need saving, even when Tidus thinks otherwise, like during that famous wedding scene, when they rush to her rescue all guns blazing only to discover that she already had a backup plan. I laughed so hard at Tidus’s face when she told him, “Don’t worry, I have wings.” and just jumped off the tower.

I also loved her whole backstory and her motivation. She is a Summoner. Summoners are respected and worshiped in Spira, and for good reason. During the Calm, their duty is to perform the ritual sending of souls to the Farplane. It’s an important duty, because without that souls will linger on Spira and eventually come to resent the living and turn into monsters.

Sin from Final Fantasy X (property of Square Enix)
Sin from Final Fantasy X (property of Square Enix)

But this is not why the Summoners are so revered. When the Calm ends and Sin comes to terrorize Spira again, they are the only ones who can defeat him and bring another Calm. A Summoner wishing to challenge Sin has to undertake a pilgrimage through all the temples of Spira to gain the support of all the Aeons. Once they accomplish that, their journey lays into the ruined city of Zanarkand to obtain the Final Aeon and be able to defeat Sin and gain the title of Grand Summoner.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Just a sight-seeing journey through the beautiful land of Spira with an epic battle at the end. That’s what Tidus thinks at first too… Only there is a reason why the title of Grand Summoner can only be awarded posthumously. Only the Final Aeon can defeat Sin, but it kills the Summoner in the process as well.

This little revelation shines a whole new light on Yuna’s character. She knows that her journey is one way only. She is well aware that death awaits her at the end. But she chooses to step on this path and see it through no matter what. Not for glory, not for fame, not for respect, but for the people of Spira. Yuna chooses to sacrifice her own life to grant her world another 10-20 years of Calm. Even when she is declared a heretic and excommunicated by the Temples, when she loses the support of the people she wants to save, she still presses on…

I fight for Spira. The people long for the Calm. I can give it to them. It’s all I can give. Defeating Sin, ending pain… this I can do.  

Yuna from Final Fantasy X.

And she never feels sorry for herself or cries about her life. In fact, she goes out of her way to help others and cheer her companions up when they feel down, even though for her this journey is one big farewell to the world she loves so much.

For me, Yuna is the perfect example of inner strength. She might not carry a kickass sword or unleash waves of fire upon enemies, but she never breaks, no matter how hard her life gets. She is also the perfect example of a female character who has agency. She doesn’t just let the current carry her through the story, she swims with it (and even against it in the end) instead. She makes her own decisions and chooses her own path.

The Sending Ritual.
The Sending Ritual.

I would really like to see more characters like Yuna in books and movies, but for some reason her type is extremely rare.

Dark Star by Oliver Langmead.

Stars: 5 out of 5.

Dark Star is one of the strangest books I’ve read in a while. It’s written entirely in epic verse, even though the story it tells is more reminiscent of a noir movie than an epic ballade. I admit that this format was rather off-putting at first. I almost closed the book when I saw it. I’m glad I didn’t.

This book is like a dark vortex – it moves slowly at first, luring you with a false sense of security, then sucks you in faster than a whirlpool. Once you start reading, you cannot put it down. And the epic verse gives this story a fascinating depth as well: the format doesn’t allow for wasted words, so the author has to make all of them count. As a result, they have a bigger impact on the reader, highlighting the story like the beam of a good flashlight. Once I started reading it, I simply couldn’t put it down.

Vox is a world of eternal darkness, a planet revolving around a start that’s just a dark hole in the sky, absorbing all light. The city of Vox is powered by three Hearts that had been taken out of the starships that had crashed on this inhospitable world. Light is a precious commodity in this world. People could kill for a functioning lightbulb. And light is growing dimmer and dimmer with each passing year, so it’s no surprise that when one of the Hearts is stolen, the city is plunged into chaos.

But for Inspector Virgil Yorke, the theft of the Heart is not as important as the discovery of a dead girl with so much light in her veins that she glows brighter than any lightbulb even in death. And he will investigate the circumstances of her death with the tenacity of a pit-bull, especially since everyone in the precinct wants this death to be swept under the rug…

It’s rare for me to write a raving review for a book. It seems like no matter how much I enjoy a story lately, I can’t help but find some flaws in it that dampen my enthusiasm. Dark Star is the rare exception to that rule. There is absolutely nothing I can critique here. I loved every single world of this strange epic poem.

I loved Yorke. He is broken. He is hopeless. He is drowning in darkness and haunted by his own ghosts just as Vox is drowning in the non-light of its dark star with light-starved people haunting its streets. He is the best possible guide through this dark world. No wonder that his first name is Virgil. Like Dante’s Virgil, he is leading the reader through his own version of dark hell, and you can’t help but stick for the ride, because no matter how broken and disenchanted Yorke is, he is also very human.  I liked him. I understood him. I empathized with him. And I knew that even if he found out who had killed Vivian North and why, it would not change his own circumstances.

Yes, Dark Star does not have a happy ending, not entirely. It just brings a little bit of light and maybe some peace to the tortured souls of Vox before the end. And allows Virgil Yorke to finally let go of his ghosts…

Do you want to read a wonderful book with a profound story that touches you? That reads like a song, a strange and haunting melody that will stay with you long after you close the book, like the memory of light in a dark room? Then pick up Dark Star. Don’t let the unusual format put you off. This is a must read and re-read in my books.

PS. I received and advanced copy of this book courtesy of NetGalley.

Final Fantasy VII – They are coming back.

Last week, I came across the following trailer on my Facebook wall and, at first, I couldn’t believe my eyes. This is something that I had dreamed about ever since Sony came up with Playstation 3, and it will finally become a reality, after almost 20 years.

Now I have a confession to make.  Final Fantasy VII is one of my favorite games of all times, and certainly my favorite amongst all of the Final Fantasy games (with Final Fantasy X coming close second).

I still remember the first time I played it. I had just graduated from high school and started my first year in college along with three of my high school friends. We were extremely busy with studies and all of us also worked part time to pay for school, but we had a rule: we always met on Saturday nights to spend time together. Since we were broke college students, we rarely went out. We met at my place instead, because I was the only one who had moved out of my parents’ house at that time. I was also the only one to own a Playstation.

We would play table top RPG games or watch TV, or just talk about the books we read, things we did during the week. And sometimes we would play games. I remember that I picked up Final Fantasy VII in a second hand game store in 1998 almost as an afterthought. I had never heard of the Final Fantasy series before, or never played a JRPG game. It was cheap and we had ran out of games to play on Saturday nights, so into the bag it went.

Needless to say that we were hooked from the very first Saturday night, my friends and I. I don’t think any other game had managed to absorb us so completely before (and very few did after). We would spend the whole evening playing, then the rest of the week talking about it and discussing boss strategies, best places to level those pesky materia, which equipment was best for which character and so on and so forth. We spend a lot of wonderful hours together drinking tea or wine when we could afford it, eating whatever we could cook and discovering the wonderfully complex story of Cloud and company…

I have played many games since then, and I have replayed Final Fantasy VII several times as well and it never gets boring. I love the world. I love the story this game tells. I love all the characters, even if I’m not a very big fan of Cloud. And I will always be grateful to Squaresoft for creating the most wonderful antagonist of all times – Sephiroth. I even wrote a whole blog post about him about a year ago, if you want to check it out.

So when I think about this game, I think about wonderfully detailed characters and an amazing plot, but also hours of laughter and good times I spent with my best friends. So yes, I’m excited about FF7 coming back, even if my friends are a continent away now and living their own lives. I can’t wait to play it. I’ll even buy a PS4 just for that.

But I am also a bit scared of this new take on a game I love, because Square Enix announced that it wouldn’t just be a remastering of the original game, but a remake. Remake means new vision. Remake means telling the story in a different way and often changing it to fit this new vision. What if I start playing this new Final Fantasy VII and absolutely hate what they’ve done with the story? Would it taint my love for the characters and the story of the original as well? So I will be waiting for this release with an equal part of excitement and fear, and hope for the best… and wish that I could gather all of my friends around my PS4 and TV one more time and share this game with them like in the good old times.

The Shadow Revolution: Crown & Key 1 by Clay Griffith, Susan Griffith.

Stars: 2.5 out of 5.

This is the first book in a new series and as such, it has the thankless task of introducing a brand new world and new characters while keeping it interesting with a good plot. Because of that, I always try to be more lenient when reading and reviewing them.

All in all, The Shadow Revolution was an entertaining read. The plot moved along at a steady pace with the right balance of action and explanation to keep it interesting but also give the reader time to breathe between action-packed scenes.

I liked the two main protagonists as well. Simon Archer is a spell-casting scribe as well as a dandy, well known in the upper society circles for his romantic conquests. Kate Anstruther is an alchemist as well as a true lady who never loses her composure even in the heat of battle.  It was interesting to see those two very different people try and work together and slowly move from grudging mutual respect to admiration and then even affection.

However, that’s where the good ends and the problems start. There isn’t much to say about the supporting characters, which was disappointing. I almost felt like they were a collection of stereotypes.

Nick Barker, Simon’s mentor and friend, prefers getting drunk in a pub than risking his life battling the things that go bump in the night. It’s hinted that he is powerful and rather old, but nothing in his behavior throughout the book really shows that.

Then we have Imogen, Kate’s younger sister, who is a carbon copy of one of the air-headed sisters from Pride and Prejudice. She is rebellious against the control her sister has over her life and sure of her own feminine powers over men at the beginning of the book, then vulnerable, driven mad and otherwise useless for the rest of the book. Basically, Imogen gets fridged just to drive Kate’s character development and involvement in the whole story, which is a cheap move, in my opinion.

Malcolm MacFarlane is another walking stereotype – a Scottish monster-hunter who embodies all the tropes about Scotsmen that I hate. He is loud, he is rude, he is boorish and uneducated, oh, and he has a short temper. Really? I’ve lived a year in Edinburgh, I can assure you that not all Scottish people are like that. In fact, most of them are not. It’s like saying that all Russians are drunks, or that all French wear berets and those ridiculous striped sweaters. I call that lazy worldbuilding.

Speaking of worldbuilding, it’s next to non-existent. I know that it’s hard to find the right balance in a book between showing the reader this new world the author has created and not boring them to death with info dumps, but the authors went into another extreme – they put no world building whatsoever.  It feels like they decided that just indicating that their story takes place in Victorian London is enough. Well, it’s not.

The world is a jumbled mess in this book. We have Victorian Society. We have magicians. We have werewolves. We have other creatures. But how all that works, we have no idea. The authors didn’t deem it important to explain the rules of their own world. So there are scribes and alchemists and other kinds of magicians, but what kinds? How do they differ? How do they coexist? No clue. There are brief mentions of an Order of mages that existed before, but is gone now, other than that – nothing.  I don’t need long info dumps. I’m more than willing to stick along for the ride and progressively discover more about the world, but I need at least some breadcrumbs to keep me going. I need to understand the rules to still be interested in the story. Here, I felt like the characters were just running through cardboard decoration, not a living breathing world.

As I said at the beginning, this is the first book in a series, so I’m willing to give it the benefit of doubt. Hopefully the next one will flesh out this world a bit more. If not, I don’t think I’ll stick with this series.

PS. I received an advanced copy of this book courtesy of NetGalley in exchange for a honest review.

 

We all have 20/20 Hindsight… and that’s good for editing.

Editing

You have all heard the phrase “We all have 20/20 hindsight,” right? Well, today I want to tell you that when it comes to editing your work, that’s a very good thing.

I don’t know about you, but my experience with a first draft is a lot like stumbling through a forest at night with only a flashlight and a hand-drawn map. Lots of flailing about in the dark, tripping over protruding roots and falling face first into ant hills. By the time I get to the end of the draft, I feel like I had a boxing match with an angry bear.

I mean, unless you outline every single scene in your story and never deviate from the plan, you will always get some good and some rather nasty surprises along the way.

Like I know that I need to get my protagonist from point A to point B but I have no clue what would even make her want to go to B, because B is a rather horrible place. So I come up with some lukewarm conflict or justification that doesn’t really work (and I know it doesn’t work), but at least has the merit of getting my character where I want her to go. I plot it on the page like a big brown smear and move on. Because I need to keep the story going and it will come to a grinding halt if I start agonizing over that turd I created for too long.

Or when your plot suddenly makes a twist and takes you into uncharted territory, and you wave your little flashlight around, but all you see are trees, and you think, “Well f^%k, now what?”

good-luck-road-sign

Or when you can’t get the character’s motivation just right no matter how hard you try…

You have to learn to look past all those bumps on the road and press towards the end because otherwise you will never finish your story. And that’s okay. Put that half-baked plot point in there and keep on going, because once you are done with your first draft and are ready to edit the monster, you’ll benefit from the famous 20/20 hindsight.

Now that you see the big picture and you know how your story ends, you can go back and determine which parts don’t work towards that goal. And I can assure you, that they will stick out like a sore thumb now that they are part of something bigger and you’ve gained some perspective.

Looking at your character’s arc, you will suddenly have the revelation you needed about what really made him move from that point A to that point B. And it’s not the lukewarm justification you had concocted in your first draft, but something so visceral that your character runs to that point B screaming, terrified that he won’t get there in time.

Let me share with you something that happened to me this weekend. I was editing Chapter 12 of my novel Of Broken Things, notably a pivotal conversation between two of my protagonists. Protagonist 1 needs to persuade protagonist 2 that she needs to master her paranormal ability, but she’s always been reluctant to do so, because she is afraid of the power it gives her over other people and considers it evil. In the first draft, I came up with the justification that since they were locked in a research facility, their life was valuable only as long as they showed promising results. It worked, but it never felt quite right.

When I came back to that scene Saturday, armed with my 20/20 hindsight, I found a much better argument that fits into the way Protagonist 1 thinks perfectly. It was never about the lab and the experiments, because they had already decided to escape and were working on a plan. But Protagonist 2 ability turned out to be essential to the success of that plan and would help them avoid recapture afterwards. Something I didn’t know when I first wrote that scene, but that I know now. It’s a small shift in focus, but it makes her subsequent success and failures seem more critical to the reader, because the stakes are much higher.

So I think that 20/20 hindsight is a super power that we writers have and we should never hesitate to use it. After all, what other profession can say, “Wait, that didn’t work out exactly like planned. Let’s go back and redo it.” We can. Every time we edit our draft, we go back in time and change the past. We are like superheroes!

All these heroes belong to Marvel.
All these heroes belong to Marvel.

Anyway, I guess what I wanted to say with this post is don’t be scared to make mistakes when you write, as long as you apply your super powers to fix them later. The first draft of anything is shit, but we have the power to transform it into a masterpiece. All it takes is hard work and perseverance.

Jabberwocky by Theodore Singer.

Stars 2 out of 5.

 

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review, and I really wanted to like this story more than I did.

The premise sounded interesting enough: A young man decides to undertake an epic quest which had been passed from father to son for 500 years. The quest is to find and kill the fantastic beast called Jabberwocky. Even though he has never been further away from home than a 2 days travel distance, he is enthusiastic about what he believes to be the biggest adventure of his life. He will encounter many strange and fantastical creatures on his journey and realize that his quest is not as much about a mystical monster, but about discovering his own worth.

So yes, this had the potential to be a very good tale of self-discovery where the hero, young and idealistic in the beginning of the story, slowly grows up and becomes a real man. Unfortunately, the realization fell short of my expectations.

I feel like a need to put a disclaimer here. I love stories with a strong and memorable voice. If the protagonist doesn’t jump from the page and straight into my head in the first chapter, chances are that I won’t finish the book. Unfortunately, Jabberwocky has no voice.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, it’s well written. The descriptions are beautiful and often even nostalgic. It feels though, that the author sometimes gets carried away by the strange places he is describing and the action slacks off. It’s a short novella, but I had to force myself not to skip ahead in some passages.

My problem is that I couldn’t empathize with Astreus. I couldn’t “see” him. Even after I finished the story, he remained a faceless name for me. It’s hard to follow a character you don’t care about.

I think the main reason for this is that the writing is too formal and indifferent shall I say? The author uses exactly the same voice to describe the city of cats and the island of immortals. But in the first place, Astreus just spends some time helping a cat in exchange for information on the Jabberwocky, whereas on the island, he encounters his first love and his first betrayal that almost brings him to suicide. Where is the passion and the desperation of this? I felt absolutely nothing.

My other problem is that the dialogues feel stilled and staged. Once again, everybody Astreus encounters talks the same, whether it’s a cat or an old noble who spent most of his life locked in his castle. A highly educated cat with a passion for chess cannot use the same words and phrases as a noble who barely knows how to read and write.

It’s a quick read and I liked exploring some of the places the author’s vivid imagination has created, but the novella would have been much more enjoyable if the writing had a bit more “life” to it.

Kill your Darlings.

Editing

I will be elbow deep in revisions of my novel Of Broken Things, my sci-fi murder mystery which started as a love story, for at least the next couple of months, so expect to see some blog post about editing, starting with this one.

Today, I want to share with you a story that, in my opinion, is the perfect example of why it’s essential to kill your darlings when editing. And by that I don’t mean murdering your favorite characters in a particularly gruesome way. No, it means not being afraid to cut out and rewrite (or sometimes delete entirely) some scenes that you like, because they don’t work with the flow of the story. This, my friends, is the hardest and the most heartbreaking part of the editing process.

But let’s go back to the story I wanted to tell.

About a year ago, a writer I know finished his first novel and decided to get it published. He sent his manuscripts to several big publishers (yes, he decided to bypass the search for an agent process and submitted directly to the publishers), but none of them seemed interested. After doing this for several months and receiving several rejections as well as some negative feedback, he decided to seek the opinion of his peers and sent his manuscript to several beta readers. Yes, he probably should have done that before submitting to publishers, but he had been certain that the book was perfectly publishable.

The beta readers came back with the verdict that the story needed a lot of work before it was anywhere near publishable. All of them were unanimous in their assessment that the beginning needed to be scrapped in its entirety. Let me tell you why.

The story opens with a prologue which begins with the words “Dear reader, imagine a world where…” and is followed by several pages of backstory and worldbuilding. All of which is presented info-dump style. Then Chapter one starts with four paragraphs describing the weather and the scenery. So about 16 pages in, we still don’t know who the protagonist is or what the story is about. I don’t know about you, but I would have closed the book and moved on to the next one by that point.

The betas told this author, “Scrap the prologue. Find a way to integrate that information into the story in smaller bites. Introduce your protagonist early on. Start with the action.”

The author refused to change anything. His answer was, “But I like those scenes at they are!”

kill-your-darlings

He was so attached to his words that he couldn’t see any flaws in his story. He didn’t t want to kill his darlings…

As far as I can tell, he hasn’t editing his book yet and still tries to send it to publishers as is. Unsuccessfully, so far. Moreover, he is so fixated on getting this story published that he hasn’t written anything new since.

I realize that it’s one of the hardest things we have to do as writers. My heart bleeds when I have to scrap a scene I had fun writing, but it’s a necessary evil to make the story better. So when editing, I try to always keep in mind the following considerations:

 

  1. No word is set in stone.

I agree with Ernest Hemingway when he says that the first draft of everything is shit. So I set off writing any story with full knowledge that 99% of the words I put on the page will be changed during revision. I try not to get too attached to them, which is also rather liberating because I don’t have to agonize over clunky dialogue or lack of description and setting at that point; I just need to put the entire story on paper and reach the end.

There are passages that I love when I first write them, of course. But if I realize that they don’t really work with the rest of the story, I don’t hesitate to change them or ax them entirely upon editing.

 

  1. Every scene must add value to the story.

I think one of the mistakes most of us make when we write down our story is that we get too attached to a particular scene and don’t want to change it later. Like that author with his prologue.

What we must remember is that those scenes are part of something bigger, aka the story we want to tell. And the story must always take precedence over a scene, no matter how much we like it.

So when I edit a scene, I always ask myself: Does this scene move the story forward? It is important for character development? Can the same effect be achieved by adding a few paragraphs to other scenes? If the scene doesn’t meet those criteria, I don’t hesitate to take it out or cannibalize it for material to add elsewhere.

For example, yesterday I removed about 700 words worth of dialogue where my characters discuss the military structure of their world. I had tremendous fun researching and writing that scene, but it brought absolutely nothing to the story. Sure, it added to the worldbuilding, but knowing about the military structure had no impact on the story. So out of the window it went.

revision angst

  1. It’s all about the readers.

That’s the hardest lesson of all, I think. Ultimately, we don’t write stories for ourselves, not if we want them published and read at least. We write them for the enjoyment of our readers.

If a reader tells you, “I loved your story! I couldn’t put it down! What other stories do you have for sale?” that’s when you know you’ve done it right, no matter how many darlings you had to kill in the process.