Tag Archives: creative process

When (And When Not) To Listen To Fan Backlash

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In Hollywood, there’s somewhat of a paradox when it comes to ego. You need to have a certain amount of arrogance to believe you can make the kinds of movies that fans, critics, and executives who love swimming in pools of cash all love. At the same time, you also need to be humble enough to know when your ideas are crap.

I’ve been writing almost daily since I was 15-years-old. I’m humble enough to know that I’ve written some pretty crappy things in that time. However, I’m also arrogant enough to believe that I have many great stories to tell, some of which I put in my novels and some of which I put in sexy short stories.

It’s a bit easier for someone like me because I’m not a famous director, artist, or novelist just yet. I can still walk down the street without body guards and not be harassed by fans or stalkers. For someone like Rian Johnson, though, I imagine it takes a very different blend of arrogance and humility to navigate the creative process.

I’m sure that blend has been more erratic than usual for the past several months for Mr. Johnson. There’s already a sizable contingent of Star Wars fans who see him the same way Batman fans see Joel Shumacher after “Batman and Robin.” To say fans had mixed reactions to “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” would be the most polite way of saying that these have been the most difficult times for those fans since the days of Jar Jar Binks.

While I made my sentiments on the movie clear last year, I don’t deny that fans have some legitimate gripes about the movie. There are indeed times when it feels like the movie is trying to push an agenda and it doesn’t push it very well. There are also fairly sizable plot holes that are difficult to overlook, which may also reflect some creative upheavals that occurred behind the scenes.

Regardless of how you feel about “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” or the criticism surrounding it, there’s no denying that it had issues. That was going to happen, regardless of how the movie turned out. However, it’s the way Mr. Johnson reacted to those issues that’s most revealing here. It’s also somewhat of a lesson in both arrogance and humility.

Since the film’s release, Rian Johnson hasn’t been willfully ignorant about fan criticisms. To his credit, he hasn’t resorted to name-calling or scoffing. He’s been fairly diplomatic, for the most part. In an interview with Business Insider, this was his primary response.

Having been a “Star Wars” fan my whole life, and having spent most of my life on the other side of the curb and in that fandom, it softens the blow a little bit.

I’m aware through my own experience that, first of all, the fans are so passionate, they care so deeply — sometimes they care very violently at me on Twitter. But it’s because they care about these things, and it hurts when you’re expecting something specific and you don’t get it from something that you love. It always hurts, so I don’t take it personally if a fan reacts negatively and lashes out on me on Twitter. That’s fine. It’s my job to be there for that. Like you said, every fan has a list of stuff they want a “Star Wars” movie to be and they don’t want a “Star Wars” movie to be. You’re going to find very few fans out there whose lists line up.

And I also know the same way the original movies were personal for Lucas. Lucas never made a “Star Wars” movie by sitting down and thinking, “What do the fans want to see?” And I knew if I wrote wondering what the fans would want, as tempting as that is, it wouldn’t work, because people would still be shouting at me, “F— you, you ruined ‘Star Wars,'” and I would make a bad movie. And ultimately, that’s the one thing nobody wants.

And let me just add that 80-90% of the reaction I’ve gotten from Twitter has been really lovely. There’s been a lot of joy and love from fans. When I talk about the negative stuff, that’s not the full picture of the fans at all.

While I agree with most of what Mr. Johnson said, it’s the bold parts that I find most questionable. It’s at that point where Mr. Johnson goes from being diplomatic to showing signs of the kind of arrogance that undercuts criticism, as a whole.

First off, the idea that George Lucas never made the original “Star Wars” with fans in mind is an unfair comparison. For one, that movie had no fan base to build from and no fans to please. Moreover, Lucas purposefully employed the kind of hero’s journey narrative that had been pleasing fans for centuries. The fact that Luke Skywalker’s story fits Joseph Campbell’s heroic archetype to the letter is not a coincidence.

Secondly, the passions of fans aren’t just built around wanting to see more light saber battles and/or Princess Leia in a bikini. Fans may be unruly and unreasonable at times, but they are the ones that make franchises like Star Wars so successful. They’re the ones who wait in line at the theaters, dress up at comic cons, and spark heated discussions on message boards.

The fans matter is what I’m saying. When there’s an obvious disparity between what the fans are saying and what critics are saying, then there are clearly larger forces at work that go beyond fans being petty. That’s when backlash becomes more than just complaining.

It’s one thing for a handful of fans to overly scrutinize a movie. It’s quite another when there’s a large contingent of fans express a wide variety of concerns, ranging from agenda-pushing to real gaps in the plot. That kind of variety implies that there were missteps beyond not making clear whether Han or Greedo shoot first.

When the criticisms don’t have to get that petty, it’s usually a sign that you should grit your teeth, thicken your skin, and sift through the anger and outrage to see what didn’t work in the final product. Doing so doesn’t mean admitting that you’re a bad director or artist. It just means that you’re willing to take in criticism and learn from it.

Rian Johnson, as well-mannered as he has been since “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” came out, never gives the impression that he, an admitted fan, took the criticisms of fans too seriously. It was akin to getting information from a test screening and completely throwing it out, something movies often do at their own peril.

It’s one thing to have a vision that you want to see through. I certainly felt that way when I wrote some of my novels. It’s quite another when that vision becomes so rigid that you stop listening to people trying to tell you that parts of it are flawed. Mr. Johnson seemed to ignore those flaws while listening to those who told him what he wanted to hear. Being a successful Hollywood type, that’s kind of unavoidable.

That’s also why maintaining a sense of humility is so important. I never assume that a vision that I have for a novel or short story is inherently flawless. In fact, I work under the assumption that it’s crap and needs refinement. The creative process itself is always ongoing and anyone who isn’t trying to improve their craft is dooming themselves to stagnation. Listening to fans, even annoying ones, is part of that process.

Now, I don’t know Rian Johnson and won’t pretend to understand the kind of pressure he faced from Disney to make “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” another billion-dollar hit. I also won’t pretend to understand what it feels like to see all sorts of hateful comments about how he ruined an iconic franchise. That takes thick skin that not a lot of people have.

However, when there’s an obvious disconnect between your vision and the sentiments of fans, one that is backed up by more than a handful of mean tweets, then ignoring the backlash is one of the worst things you can do. Trolls can be mean, but at a certain point, blaming trolls is no more credible than blaming the Illuminati.

If there’s a lesson to be learned from “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and Rian Johnson, it’s that there are times when backlash is an unavoidable part of the creative process and there are times when it’s a sign that there’s a flaw in that process. The signs were there for Mr. Johnson. He chose to ignore them in the name of pursuing his own vision and arrogantly believing that it would work.

That arrogance isn’t necessarily a bad thing in terms of creativity, but it is a major risk and the fan backlash implies that the risk didn’t entirely pay off. J. J. Abrams played it safe in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” sticking to the tried and true formula that the original trilogy made so iconic. While it also had its share of criticism, it was minor and narrow compared to what Mr. Johnson got with “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”

The fact that J. J. Abrams is coming back to direct the next Star Wars movie is another sign that there was more than just trolling behind the backlash surrounding “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” While I still enjoyed the movie, personally, I believe the movie would’ve benefited by listening to the fans.

For Mr. Johnson and Mr. Abrams, I don’t envy the difficult position they’re in, having to direct the path of such an iconic franchise. However, if I could offer them any feedback whatsoever, it would be this. Fans are usually pretty forgiving. If Star Wars fans can forgive Jar Jar Binks, then they can forgive the flaws in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” It just takes one solid story that reminds fans why they love Star Wars in the first place.

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Filed under Celebrities and Celebrity Culture, movies, Star Wars

The Reasons And Excuses Of Character Development

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Think about your favorite character. Whether it’s Superman, King Arthur, or Christian Grey, think about what made that character tick. Why did they do what they do? How did they go about doing it? What was it about those traits that made them your favorite character?

These questions and whatever answers you give, however basic or kinky they might be, is the hot iron from which great characters are forged. You could have the greatest story since the Iliad. You could have a plot so great that Shakespeare himself would lick the dirt off your feet and say it tastes like candy. It still won’t work if the characters aren’t well-developed, compelling, and iconic.

In fact, being a great character can help them endure piss poor plots and come out unscathed. Superman is the most iconic hero of the 20th century and he was once in a comic where he made a sex tape with someone else’s wife. I swear I’m not making that up. See Action Comics #592 and #593. Who else but Superman could come out of that and remain iconic?

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I celebrate the power of great characters because they are, by far, one of the hardest parts in the creative process. As an aspiring erotica/romance writer, I can attest that this part of crafting a novel is more demanding than tongue kissing a lizard after dental surgery. I probably three times as much energy on crafting the characters compared to the overall plot.

This brings me back to the concept of reasons versus excuses. I said in my first post about the concept that it would apply to erotica/romance novels. I may have an excessive fondness of superhero comics, football, and beer, but I’m a man of my word.

Think back to your favorite characters again and apply that concept to their actions, emotions, and motivations? How many of those traits qualify as reasons? How many of them qualify as excuses? How many are a little of both? If the answers are all over the place, then that’s further proof that the character is compelling and well-developed.

That should be abundantly clear because a great character is like an explorer on a journey with no GPS and a map with gravy stains on it. A lousy character is a glorified rat in a maze whose soul purpose is getting to the cheese. One is inherently more interesting than the other and unless you’re also a rat, you know which is which.

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I’ve learned in my own experience with character development that you can’t have characters completely driven by excuses. That would give them the maturity of a 7-year-old on a toy store. You also can’t have them driven completely by reason either. That would make them as bland as robot with no personality or sex appeal.

Great characters, no matter what the genre or style, have a potent blend of reasons and excuses. Soldiers and warriors like those in Greek or Chinese myths are driven by duty. Those are tangible reasons. They’re also driven by more obscure concepts like honor, hubris, and ambition.

Then, you have characters who are students, parents, lovers, cowboys, business tycoons, athletes, and even prostitutes, like in my novel, “The Escort and the Gigolo.” They have reasons that are tangible and useful for doing what they do. They go to class because they’re students. They practice for a big game because they’re an aspiring athlete. They have sex with a lonely housewife because they’re paid to do so.

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When it comes to excuses, that’s where the complexity really expands. Excuses help explain why someone is a certain type of student, a certain style of athlete, or a certain kind of prostitute. Not all students, soldiers, and prostitutes are the same. They have different motivations for doing what they do. They have just as many motivations for why they do it.

Sure, a student is a student because they have to be, but that same student could be an overachiever because they want to be the next Elon Musk. That’s both an ambitious dream and an excuse, but it’s also helps guide the character. Not every student wants to be the next Elon Musk so the way this character conducts themselves will be distinct.

With respect to erotica/romance, the blend of reasons and excuses gets a lot more potent, not to mention sexy. As hard as it is to create compelling characters with the right mix of reasons and excuses, creating two compelling characters and having them hook up in a believable way is just adding more moving parts to a machine that can blow up in your face if you let it.

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Any story can just have two random people come together and have sex. That’s basically the plot of every porno ever made. However, porn isn’t crafted with the aim of telling compelling stories or crafting elaborate plots. It’s designed solely to make other people horny on the most basic level. Erotica/romance has to be ten times more elaborate while still making people horny. It’s a hell of a juggling act to say the least.

Take two characters from my book, “Skin Deep.” Ben Prescott and Mary Williams are the primary romance in the story. They both have similar reasons for wanting to be together. They’re both functional, non-sociopath humans. They seek connection, intimacy, and understanding with others. They able console one another when they’re in difficult, vulnerable situations.

Those reasons help make their chemistry believable. Beyond the reasons, though, the excuses add more layers to that chemistry. Ben was not that attractive at the start of the story. He didn’t have a lot of confidence. He’d basically accepted that Mary, who is described in the book as “a young Carmen Electra,” is way out of his league.

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On Mary’s side of things, she knows she’s attractive. She knows she’s popular. She’s not with Ben in the beginning because she feels as though she should be dating the kinds of meathead guys that beautiful women are supposed to date. It’s an excuse because it’s built on a shallow assumption. Even though others around her completely understand and accept it, that doesn’t make it less of an excuse.

Later in the book, without getting too deep into spoiler territory since I do want people to buy it, there are some cold, inescapable reasons that essentially force them to re-evaluate how they feel about each other. They make excuses to avoid it. They make other excuses to embrace it. In the end, though, it makes for some pretty passionate moments.

The process of developing that romance was not easy. It had a lot of moving parts, a lot of moving targets, and a lot of graphic nudity. That only made it more satisfying when I completed the story. That’s another thing about crafting great characters with a solid blend of reasons and excuses. When you feel you’ve made one, you feel like you just got to polish the shine on Jennifer Lawrence’s ass. It’s a great feeling.

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With my upcoming book, “Passion Relapse,” which comes out on April 18th, I feel I’ve created two strong characters who come together for all the right reasons with all the right excuses. I made it a point to make sure that the way they come together and how they come together feels genuine. I hope those that read it are as satisfied at the end as I was when I completed it. If you can keep your pants on, then consider that a bonus.

Whether you’re writing your own novels, crafting your own erotica/romances, or just celebrating your favorite fictional characters, understanding their reasons and excuses can go a long way towards appreciating them even more. It also ensures that when they hook up with someone whose just as compelling, it’ll be that much sexier.

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