My Thoughts On Unfulfilled Romantic Sub-Plots In Fiction

2015 Artwork Unfulfilled romantic sub plots article

Although this is an article about writing and storytelling, I’m probably going to end up talking about TV shows and LGBT stuff for most of this article. There’s a good reason for this and I hope that it becomes obvious. But, I should probably point out now that this article will contain some SPOILERS for seasons three to five of “Supernatural”.

Anyway, a while before I wrote this article, I was randomly looking at online articles about an excellent American horror/fantasy TV show I’ve been watching on and off on DVD over the past couple of months called “Supernatural“.

If you’ve never seen this show before, it’s a series that is initially about two brothers (Sam and Dean) who travel around America and solve various scary paranormal mysteries. However, from about the third or fourth season onwards, it gradually becomes more of a fantasy/thriller series about Sam and Dean’s attempts to prevent the apocalypse from happening.

When I was reading articles about this show, I learnt that there’s actually an academic word for situations in stories where it’s clear that there isn’t a romantic relationship between two characters (who are the same sex) and, yet, the story also keeps dropping tantalising hints that there might be something between these two characters.

“Supernatural” is absolutely crammed with this kind of stuff, partially as a result of having several extremely attractive male characters in the main cast (eg: Sam, Castiel, and Dean ).

In fact, the show itself even contains a few knowing in-jokes about people who write romantic fan fiction about Sam and Dean, despite the fact that they’re supposed to be brothers in the TV show.

Then there’s the fact that one episode from season four revolves around Sam and Dean trying to catch a siren-like creature who plays on men’s desires in order to trick them into murdering people.

This siren often appears as various beautiful women throughout most of the episode, but when the siren appears to Dean – it takes the form of a slightly good-looking male FBI agent, instead of one of the many beautiful woman Dean often tries to chat up.

But, of course, when it’s revealed that this particular character is the siren – the siren quickly points out that it took this form because it knew that Dean secretly desired a better travelling companion than Sam and that – of course – nothing romantic was involved.

I’ve read some opinion articles on the internet which argue that these kinds of storylines are a bad thing. And, I can sort of understand why some people might think this – after all, these shows are trying to attract a LGBT audience, without actually including any proper LGBT content (lest it “offend” more narrow-minded members of the audience who are horrified by the idea that they might see a romantic storyline that they can’t connect with emotionally ).

It can also be said that these kinds of stories are, in their own way, inherently unsatisfying and disappointing.

I can also see the argument that most of the shows that include these storylines usually aren’t as coy when it comes to depicting straight romances (“Supernatural” certainly isn’t), so it’s kind of a double standard.

It also kind of plays into the old-fashioned idea that gay, lesbian and bi romances are too “shocking” to show, whereas straight romance is a perfectly “normal” thing.

But, on the other hand, there’s also something wonderful – in the literal sense of the word– about these types of stories. After all, they invite the audience to use their own imaginations – and, well, any romance that takes place in the audience’s imaginations is probably far more romantic than anything that actors could depict on a screen. Plus, unlike countless boring on-screen romances, these kinds of storylines give the romantic parts of the show a frisson of mystery and intrigue.

Most importantly, whilst these kinds of storylines might annoy some gay or lesbian members of the audience, they’re an absolute godsend to bi audiences.

Since there are hardly any bi characters on TV, even the subtlest hint that a character may have an interest in both men and women can be an extremely liberating and fascinating thing.

Not only that, I’d also argue that these kinds of storylines aren’t exactly an exclusively LGBT thing – I mean, just look at “The X-Files“. Throughout the entire show, there’s a – mostly – unfulfilled romantic tension between Mulder and Scully.

Likewise, in what I’ve seen of a show called “The West Wing“, there’s a long-running unfulfilled romance between at least two of the straight characters (eg: Josh and Donna).

In a way, these kinds of storylines are “fan service” done right. There’s plenty of romantic content for members of the audience who enjoy it, but the romantic aspects of the show don’t get in the way of the actual story itself. If you aren’t interested in the romantic parts of the show, then they’re subtle enough to be easily ignored. But if you are interested in them, then they’re still very noticeable.

I guess that the trick to including these kinds of romantic subtexts in a story is to apply them in a more equal way. In other words, if you’re going to include unfulfilled LGBT romance, then include unfulfilled straight romance too. If you’re going to explicitly show straight romance, then do the same for LGBT romance too. Or, even better, actually include a few openly bi characters in your story.

But, at the same time, there’s often only usually room for one or two romantic sub-plots in a story – so, there shouldn’t really be any “rules” here. Just go for whatever works best in the context of your story.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

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Today’s Art ( 21st September 2015)

Well, I’d been meaning to make some “Supernatural” fan art for a while and, whilst I’d originally planned to make a slightly more realistic and “serious” painting of Sam and Dean – this hilariously adorable idea suddenly popped into my mind and I just had to paint it.

Since this is fan art, this painting is NOT released under a Creative Commons Licence of any kind.

"Fan Art - Supernatural - Sam And Dean" By C. A. Brown

“Fan Art – Supernatural – Sam And Dean” By C. A. Brown

Three Basic Tips For Writing Paranormal Detective Stories

2015 Artwork Paranormal Detective fiction article sketch

If there’s one thing that I like almost as much as sci-fi detective stories, it’s paranormal detective stories. Although there are some great examples of this genre on TV, one of the best written examples of it that I’ve ever seen have probably been Mike Carey’s “Felix Castor” novels.

These are a series of hardboiled detective novels about a paranormal detective called Felix Castor who mostly works in London. He wears a greatcoat, carries a small flute (don’t ask) and often finds himself involved in various ghostly and demonic mysteries. It’s been about five years since I’ve read one of these books, so I can only vaguely remember a few scenes from them – but they’re really cool.

Likewise, the comedy comic that I posted here late last month and earlier this month is sort of a paranormal detective comic. Although, to be fair, it’s a ludicrously contrived (albeit morbidly amusing) one. If anything, it’s a ‘so bad that it’s good’ parody of the genre, I guess.

Anyway, since I’ve seen and read a few things in this genre – I thought that I might be able to offer a few very basic tips about how to write these kinds of stories:

1) Be consistent: Just because your paranormal detective story features things that are outside the realms of science and human knowledge doesn’t give you carte blanche to do whatever you want. In other words, you need to set yourself and your characters some rules before you begin your story. You also need to show your readers what these rules are.

For example, if you’re writing a story about a vengeful ghost that emerges from people’s bathtubs and frightens them to death – then you need to make sure that this ghost only emerges from bathtubs during your story (eg: it can’t suddenly appear in a mirror or anything like that). You also need to work out why it haunts people’s bathtubs.

In addition to this, you need to work out whether the ghost can only emerge from bathtubs that are connected to the plumbing system or whether it can also emerge from the abandoned bathtubs at the local dump. Likewise, you also need to work out whether covering up a bathtub will stop the ghost from emerging, or just make it angry.

All of the supernatural parts of your story must follow something at least resembling a clear and consistent set of rules.

This might sound like a strange thing, but even in a story about ghosts, demons etc… your audience will expect a certain level of “realism”. In other words, they need to know how all of the paranormal elements of your story work – so that they can have a good chance of solving the mystery themselves before they get to the end of your story.

Yes, you can leave things mysterious near the beginning of your story but – at some point- your main character (and, by extension, your readers) must know what rules the supernatural evil in your story has to follow. If you fail to do this, then your story will end up being slightly contrived and your readers may feel cheated.

2) Use your imagination: Yes, if you want to, you can research folklore and mythology about supernatural events in order to give your story more “realism”. But, at the same time, if your readers are familiar with the genre and have seen countless other things that are based on mythology and folklore, then your story might be very predictable.

For example, if you’re writing a story about vampires – then everyone knows that vampires bite people’s necks and that they can be repelled by garlic and, sometimes, religious symbols. Most people also know that vampires usually burst into flames when they’re exposed to sunlight (except Dracula – seriously, look it up).

In other words, if your detective finds a dead body with two fang marks on it’s neck, then it’s a good bet that a vampire was responsible. There isn’t really much of a mystery here (other than which vampire was responsible).

So, if you want your story to be interesting – then you need to use your imagination and come up with a whole new set of rules that the supernatural things in your story have to follow. You can either create new rules for familiar things (this has been done more times than I can count in the vampire genre) or you can just invent a totally new type of monster.

But, regardless of what you do, you need to use your imagination.

3) Characters: At the end of the day, people read paranormal detective stories as much for the characters as they do for the mystery itself.

Since, by definition, the mystery in a paranormal detective story is unrealistic – your audience will have less of a chance to guess the solution before your characters uncover it. This means that the mystery itself is less of an attraction than it might be in a “conventional” detective story.

So, you need to make up for this by making sure that your main characters are interesting enough to make your readers want to hang out with them for the duration of your story. For example, if you’re writing from a first-person perspective, then you need to give your detective an interesting narrative voice and perhaps even a cynical sense of humour.

But, whatever you do, don’t make your characters boring.

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Sorry for such a basic article, but I hope it was useful 🙂

Why You Should Make Your Characters Fans of Something

2015 Artwork Make your characters fans article sketch

Although this is a fairly short article about a really sneaky (if somewhat basic) technique you can use to add extra depth to the characters in your comic or novel quickly, I’m going to have to start by talking about music and TV shows for a while. As usual, there’s (sort of) a good reason for this.

Anyway, as I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been watching the first season of a TV show called “Supernatural” on DVD recently. This is a show about two twentysomething brothers who travel across America, both in search of their missing father and to solve various paranormal mysteries in the small towns that they visit.

Why am I mentioning this show yet again? Well, one of the interesting things about the show is that Dean (the older brother) is a fan of classic rock and always insists on listening to it whenever the brothers drive between towns. Initially, I thought that the show’s creators included this either as an excuse to include lots of vaguely cool background music or because they were classic rock fans themselves.

Then, the night before writing this article, I realised that this creative choice was actually a lot smarter than I’d first thought. After all, as a twentysomething myself, I can only think of maybe one or two people of my own age that I knew growing up who really liked classic rock.

Even though my own tastes in 1980s-90s metal, punk and gothic music are somewhere towards the older end of the spectrum (seriously, many of my favourite musicians are either a similar age to my parents or older than my parents), even I was never really that interested in classic rock from the 70s. Twentysomethings who are massive classic rock fans exist, but they’re kind of rare.

So, why did the creators of “Supernatural” decide to make Dean a classic rock fan? Very early in the series, it’s mentioned that – unlike his younger brother- Dean was very close to his father when he was growing up. In fact, he was probably more like his father’s second-in-command than his son.

So, it makes sense that he probably didn’t have time to discover new bands and probably just ended up liking the same music that his father listened to. By default, his musical tastes were the same as his father’s.

Now that is an example of extremely clever, if somewhat subtle, characterisation.

It’s a fact that pretty much everyone is a fan of something. Everyone has their own favourite movies, musicians, authors, games, foods etc… and these things often reflect something about either who we are, how we see ourselves or who we want to be.

So, why should it be any different for your characters? You can include a lot of subtle details about your characters’ personalities, backstories and worldview simply by either mentioning or showing what they happen to be a fan of.

Even if you’re nervous about copyright (although I’m not a lawyer, mere references to things and prose descriptions of things aren’t really covered by copyright. Just don’t quote any song lyrics or anything like that), it’s still a good idea to come up with convincingly realistic fictitious bands/movies/ TV shows for your characters to be fans of, in order to both make your characters more realistic (after all, everyone is a fan of something) or to give them more characterisation.

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Sorry for the short article, but I hope it was useful 🙂

Good Horror Stories Are Mystery Stories

2015 Artwork Horror Stories Are Mystery Stories Sketch

Although this is an article about writing genuinely scary horror fiction and/or comics, I’m going to have to start by talking about TV shows (again) for a while. There’s a good reason for this that I hope will become clear after a couple of paragraphs.

Anyway, as I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been watching an American TV series called “Supernatural” recently. This is a TV show about two brothers who travel across America to search for their missing father and, along the way, they often end up investigating various malevolent paranormal phenomena that they encounter (eg: vengeful ghosts, evil creatures, ancient curses etc…).

Since “Supernatural” is the first proper horror-related thing that I’ve watched for a while, I eventually asked myself “Why are the first eight episodes of this particular show so scary, when other horror-related shows I’ve seen in the past usually only have one or two genuinely scary episodes every season?

Although I worked out a lot of reasons for this, I also realised a universal truth about the horror genre and – more importantly – what makes a horror story frightening.

That truth is that “A good horror story is also a mystery story”.

Genuinely scary horror stories often rely on one of the most primitive fears known to humanity – the fear of the unknown. This fear is behind a lot of common fears – such as a fear of the dark (since you can’t see what may be lurking in it) and, most commonly of all, the fear of death (since no-one knows for certain what, if anything, awaits everyone after death).

The unknown is a powerful thing for the simple reason that our imaginations often have to “fill the gap” and make sense of something we know nothing about. If there’s even a hint of danger, then our imaginations are probably going to assume the absolute worst due to thousands of millennia of evolved survival instincts (I’m not a neuroscientist, so I don’t know the exact details of how or why this works – but I can make a good guess).

We all know that a mysterious abandoned house in a horror movie we’re watching on TV will not pose any direct threat to us, but the parts of our brains that evolved many thousands of years ago to protect us from actual genuine danger can’t always quite make that distinction (after all, prehistoric people didn’t have TVs). So, parts of our brains see this and think “DANGER!“. Voila! We are scared by something that doesn’t actually endanger us.

But, in addition to this, people are naturally curious. This is another one of our ancient natural instincts that has served us well – I mean, you wouldn’t be reading this on a computer if it wasn’t for several centuries of natural human curiosity about physics, mathematics, chemistry and electricity. Curiosity is also another natural instinct that horror writers can use to their advantage.

Whilst the unknown might be frightening, it’s also absolutely fascinating. After all, we have to make the unknown known.

In other words, whilst one part of our brain is shouting “DANGER!“, another part of our brain is shouting “FIND OUT MORE!” And, it is in the tension between these two parts of our minds that genuinely scary horror can be found.

To use a classic example, this is why – when we watch part of a horror movie that absolutely terrifies us – we usually won’t just turn it off and refuse to watch more.

Instead, we’ll usually cover our eyes, but still peek at the screen occasionally (and, yes, I’ve done this at least once when watching “Supernatural”). Two ancient parts of our brains are vying for dominance and this tension adds extra drama to something that is already frightening.

So, if you’re writing a horror story or making a horror comic, then don’t make the mistake of telling your audience everything early in the story. Leave things mysterious until later in the story. Your readers will be terrified by these mysterious things, but they’ll also instinctively want to know more about them…

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Returning To The Horror Genre – A Ramble

Yay! Obscure movie reference! Of course, the sad thing is that the last time I watched this movie was over a DECADE ago! (If you can't guess which film it is, I'll mention it at the end of this article).

Yay! Obscure movie reference! Of course, the sad thing is that the last time I watched this movie was over a DECADE ago! (If you can’t guess which film it is, I’ll mention it at the end of this article).

Although this is a rambling article about reintroducing yourself to genres of fiction that you’ve abandoned for one reason or another, I’m going to have to start by talking about TV shows, movies and myself for quite a while.

There’s (sort of) a good reason for this which I hope will become apparent to you later. But, if you don’t want to read this, then just skip to the last few paragraphs (where I boldly state the obvious).

Anyway, a while back I discovered an American TV show called “Supernatural“. Since the DVD boxsets of the first two seasons were going cheap second-hand and I’d read that it was the closest modern equivalent to “The X-Files”, I had to check it out.

I’d expected it to be a paranormal mystery series (with some horror elements) but what I didn’t expect was that it was an actual honest-to-god horror series.

Seriously, even the pilot episode is basically a forty-minute long Hollywood-quality horror movie. This caught me by surprise because it made me wonder “when was the last time I actually watched a proper horror movie?

It took me a while to work out the answer, but it’s been about a year and a half. Likewise, it’s probably been about a year and a half since I read a vaguely decent horror novel (a book called “Dead Space: Martyr” By B. K.Evenson, if anyone is interested).

In that moment, I fully realised just how much I’d abandoned the horror genre in recent years.

You see, back when I was a teenager, horror was one of my favourite genres. I used to eagerly read old second-hand splatterpunk novels from the 70s, 80s and 90s. I used to scour charity shops for anything by Shaun Hutson, James Herbert or Clive Barker. Or, failing that, I’d go for any book with a suitably gruesome or gloomy picture on the cover.

I used to eagerly record notorious horror movies on VHS when they were shown on TV (since I looked too young to lie about my age convincingly enough to buy most of them on video) and, on a holiday to France when I was about fourteen or fifteen, I stocked up on American zombie movies on DVD after learning that the French have a commendably laid-back attitude to film censorship.

Even in my late teens and early twenties, I made a point of seeing almost all of the “Saw” movies at the cinema. In fact, the only “Saw” movie I haven’t seen at the cinema was the very first one.

When I was younger, horror was cool, horror was rebellious, horror was dramatic and horror was cathartic. And, yet, now that I’m in my mid-late twenties – I’ve pretty much abandoned my beloved horror genre.

Sure, I still pay lip service to liking the horror genre on an occasional basis – but I seem to have moved away from enjoying proper frightening horror stories, games and movies.

Maybe this is just a sign that my tastes are changing, or maybe it’s an unconscionable dereliction of one the most crucially formative genres of my creative imagination? After all, one of the reasons I got interested in writing fiction when I was a teenager was because I wanted to write horror stories like Shaun Hutson did.

Anyway, this made me think about how to get back into genres that you’ve since abandoned. Sometimes this isn’t a particularly difficult thing to do, since you can just pick up where you left off. But, if you’ve been away for a while, it can be difficult to re-create the sense of enthusiasm you once had.

So, I guess that the best way to get back into a genre that you’ve abandoned is to do it gradually. To start off with more mainstream and/or less intense examples of the genre (eg: I might currently find “Supernatural” to be a genuinely scary TV show, but my teenage self would have probably just laughed at it and/or wondered why there wasn’t more blood and guts) and to gradually work your way back up to the things that you used to enjoy.

To give you another example of what I mean – I used to write a lot of horror fiction when I was younger and, even after I lost interest in writing fiction, I still enjoyed the idea of making horror comics.

But, since I’ve been away from the horror genre for such a long time, my more recent horror comics tend to be more comedic than frightening. But at least they’re loosely-related to the horror genre.

Either that, or you could just re-visit the books/movies/ games etc.. that you used to like and go on from there. I guess that the important thing is just to return to the genre.

(And, if anyone is still wondering about the movie reference earlier – it’s based on the alternate ending to “Army Of Darkness”. Interestingly, when I bought this film on an ex-rental VHS when I was 14, it contained this ending instead of the “proper” ending).

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂