Monday, April 20, 2015

Why "Unbroken" Had a Fantastic Message

Last night I sat down with my family and cats and laptop and watched a rented copy of the recent movie Unbroken. It was a three-time Oscar nominee, was directed by Angelina Jolie, wasn't rated R (ugh, everything is rated R), and we'd also heard that it had a Christian message, but we had no clue how. So we gave it a shot.
Here's the IMDB blurb:
After a near-fatal plane crash in WWII, Olympian Louis Zamperini spends a harrowing 47 days in a raft with two fellow crewmen before he's caught by the Japanese navy and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp.
That isn't too much to go on, is it? If any of you know much about WWII, you know that the Japanese prisoner-of-war camps were extremely cruel places to be.  This is portrayed in several heart-wrenching scenes of Unbroken. The officer in charge of the camp, known to the prisoners as "the bird," was particularly awful. He'd call Louis his friend, then have the other prisoners beat him up. I think he was a bit psycho.
Anyhow. I loved this movie for everything! We could all connect with Louis just about right from the start of the movie, it showed the war camps in horrifying clarity, and I could feel the tension of waiting for a rescue with the men on the life rafts. The whole thing was wonderfully put together and it made me tear up (which is quite the accomplishment, even if I don't actually shed a tear).
The movie ended with a few sentences about what Louis Zamperini did in the rest of his life, after WWII. And let me tell you - that was the most incredible part of the entire story.
Think about this: you spend two hours watching a guy you really do care about getting beaten up and beaten up on top of the last beating up, then standing up and carrying on, getting to know other prisoners, getting hope waved in his face, staying strong despite horrible treatment, getting taunted and hit again by a psychotic officer. And he just keeps getting back up and keeping on going. Finally, the movie ends, and sentences come onto the screen complete with pictures of the real Louis Zamperini about how he has PTSD, but finally fulfilled his dream of running in the Olympics at some 80 years old as a torch bearer - in Japan. About how he went and met with all his Japanese captors, except the Bird, who was the only one who refused to see him. About how he got married. About how he decided that forgiveness was the way forward after the war, and not revenge.
Louis Zamperini, at age 80, ran a leg in the torch run for the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, not far from the POW camp where he'd been found
Forgiveness. Can you imagine forgiving people who'd done nothing but beat you down for years? And not only you, but your countrymen, your allies, your friends? Can you imagine forgiving the people who'd killed plenty of other prisoners? I can't. But Louis Zamperini did. And you know why? Because he was motivated by his faith. Seriously, it even said that in the end of the movie (which is miraculous in and of itself that secular movie-makers even mention Christianity in a neutral light). He told God, when stranded in a life raft, that if He saved Louis Louis would dedicate the rest of his life to God. So Louis Zamperini did, and because of that he was able to do what most people would consider impossible. Forgive. It's one of the main messages of Christianity, and I am so pleased that that message was mentioned in even one small sentence in a movie targeted to a secular audience.

Have you seen Unbroken? What did you think? Did it move you too? What was your favorite scene? Tell me in the comments!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Book Review: Incarceron by Catherine Fisher

I took a little trip into a new subgenre a week or so ago and read Incarceron, a steampunk novel. At first it was slow going because I could only read the copy at the bookstore, but then I got it from the library and I flew through it.
Here is the blurb from Goodreads:
Incarceron -- a futuristic prison, sealed from view, where the descendants of the original prisoners live in a dark world torn by rivalry and savagery. It is a terrifying mix of high technology -- a living building which pervades the novel as an ever-watchful, ever-vengeful character, and a typical medieval torture chamber -- chains, great halls, dungeons. A young prisoner, Finn, has haunting visions of an earlier life, and cannot believe he was born here and has always been here. In the outer world, Claudia, daughter of the Warden of Incarceron, is trapped in her own form of prison -- a futuristic world constructed beautifully to look like a past era, an imminent marriage she dreads. She knows nothing of Incarceron, except that it exists. But there comes a moment when Finn, inside Incarceron, and Claudia, outside, simultaneously find a device -- a crystal key, through which they can talk to each other. And so the plan for Finn's escape is born ... 
I don't even know where to begin. Hmmm . . . which part did I like the most?

Claudia is the female main character, the daughter of Incarceron's stony warden and betrothed to the prince heir. Her world is sculpted to look like (from what I could gather) Edwardian era England (think Pride & Prejudice, Emma, Jane Eyre, etc.) but in reality it is a very advanced society. She lives in a world that is literally not what it seems. But she is awesome because she's strong - not in a macho way, either. Just strong in resolve, courage, intelligence, will, and moral character. She is a character you can really root for, because even though she's adopted the stony expression of her father and doesn't really have any friends. she has a good heart. She doesn't like the idea of court conspiracies but resolves to deal with them. She hates the idea of being part of a plan to assassinate *ehem* certain members of the court. She saves her father despite their icy relationship. She uncovers intrigues and handles all the dirty people around her firmly and decisively. 
So yes. I like her. She is a girl after my own heart.

Finn is . . . interesting. I'm not really quite sure how to describe him. He came across to other characters as silent and severe, but the book revealed that he felt a little unstable mentally because of his visions and wasn't very confident in himself. It was a good contrast. One that created a lot of character depth. And contrary to the tough confident exterior he presented to everyone, he really cared about people - the Maestra, Keiro, Attia - even if he hadn't been given a reason to. And that made him really likable as a protagonist. The selflessness and fear of mental instability combined with the uncaring exterior was so lovable. *squeezes Finn in hugs*

The prison was basically a character in and of itself (which is fantastic set design). It was diverse, forbidding, dangerous, and mysterious. SO MANY SECRETS. We didn't know where it was, we didn't know how to get in, we didn't know how to get out, we didn't know how large it was, we didn't know how many people were in it, WE DIDN'T KNOW MUCH OF ANYTHING, REALLY. But that was fine because it made the setting alive.

There were secrets everywhere. We didn't know who the characters really were until well into the novel, we didn't know what Incarceron really was, we didn't know the details of Saphiqque, we didn't know what had happened to Giles, we didn't know what Finn's past really was, we didn't know if we could trust Keiro, we didn't know if Evian was telling the truth, we didn't know we didn't know we didn't know. And it was glorious because despite that the world building and character development and setting and plot were all perfectly done.

Other Random Things to Love
Jared was wonderful and kind and smart. The warden was surprisingly mutli-dimensional. The queen was creepy. I loved to hate the prince. The world was awesome because it was like Star Wars tech was being hidden under Pride and Prejudice. Plus the very name of the novel and the prison is just the coolest.
It's good and cool and you'll like it. So go read it!

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Why Character Chats are Awesome

If you've never done a character chat, then you're missing out.
What is a character chat? It is when you and any number of other authors choose a character (or two, or three) each, throw them all into an imaginary place/situation, and watch how they all interact with characters written by other people in worlds not their own.
So for instance, if I was character chatting with one other person and we agreed to use only one character each, we'd each choose one of our own characters and hold a conversation as our characters. I'd speak as say, Nitri, and the other author would speak as her character. It's like a role-playing game.
Usually these things are done online via messaging systems such as Google+ Hangouts or Facebook Messaging, but I've also participated in a character chat done over Google Docs. Some chats are just conversations taking place in featureless rooms, some are set up in a specific location with a setting that the characters can interact with, some are life-and-death situations that the authors just dump their characters into. The possibilities are really limitless.
I got the original image from here.
Personally I think character chatting in one of the best ways to help flesh out your characters. Why?

You have to think about what speech patterns set your character apart from the others in the chat. By just looking at the text, could you identify which character was your own by what he said?Also sometimes the character's speech patterns come out naturally in the chat, which is incredibly helpful. I was character chatting using Nitri the other night and realized that one of his favorite phrases was "I would have thought . . ." It was giving the other character in the chat (a very snarky charrie) way too many opportunities to make fun of Nitri's potential for intelligent thought.
Basically, this is how Nitri got a smack-down. He wasn't very happy.
You see how your character reacts to insults. Maybe it is just my characters but they often start off the chats by arguing with the others. If this happens, you get to see how your character uses insults, how much he can take before snapping, how he snaps, etc. This is also important because it forces us to think, "is this my character talking? Or is it me?" That distinction is very important and you're forced to think about it in a character chat.
Questions you wouldn't have thought of get asked. Other people often have questions to ask your characters or about your characters that you never would have thought of. Some of these come out in character chats and get you thinking about how your character would answer. It's like a character interview, except you're forced to think fast and produce an answer.
The diversity between the characters can be staggering. Different authors, different story lines, and different worlds all collide when you throw together a few character from totally different stories. This mix-up creates very interesting conversations and very interesting conflicts. Sometimes you have to better think through something in the world you've made up in order to have your character explain it to another who has never heard of it before. Also, you may end up with a court jester trying to hold a conversation with a over-protective dad. You never know what could happen, and watching your character squirm trying to figure out how to deal with the weirdness if not only informative, but incredibly entertaining.
Just watch the drama unfold from above and feel free to laugh.
You may end up with a new OTP. This has happened. Authors stick their characters together and liking happens, totally unplanned. Sometimes this can be problematic, as they don't have their new soul mate in their world. But it can also give you an idea of how your character reacts in romantic situations, giving you more information to write with.
Basically, anything you want to know about a character, you can learn via a character chat. 
Also, it is incredibly entertaining. Especially when insults start flying. If you've never done one, or need to know one of your characters better, find a friend or someone in a writer's group or any author at all and go set one up. It'll be fun!

Have you ever done a character chat? What do you like about them? How do you start them off? Personally I like to throw my character down from the sky like comets that don't burn. They often land quite awkwardly. *cue evil author laughter* But seriously, tell me about your character chatting experiences down in the comments.
Also, I apologize for any typos in this post. I was rather rushed while writing it.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Beautiful People #8: Sibling Edition

Beautiful People is here again! I tried out this linkup last month and it was fun, and I needed something to post about, so it is back again! The linkup is hosted by Cait @ PaperFury and Sky @ Further Up and Further In. Click on either of those links to check the linkup out.
Last Beautiful People I did, I focused on my pair of twins, Ace and Mara. For the sake of not boring you guys, I won't go over them again (even though I love them to bits and would go on about them forever). Instead, I'm switching to my Camp NaNoWriMo revision WIP, Taken, and its dynamic thieving duo, Tyv and Nitri. They're not actually siblings but they act like brothers, so it's good enough.
"Tyv" by Annika Smith
"Nitri" by Annika Smith

1. What is the first memory they have of each other?
Nitri's is minutes earlier than Tyv's. He spotted Tyv being attacked by two adult thieves, and stepped in to save Tyv's life. That's where Tyv's recollection starts. Then Nitri (being Nitri), turned the fact that he was able to fight off two men away single-handedly to threaten Tyv into paying him a tribute. At the time, Tyv was twelve and Nitri was fifteen.

2. Describe their relationship in 3 words.
Got your back.

3. What kinds of things do they like to do together?
Hang out in the abandoned inn, Tyv whittling while Nitri plays his flute. They also enjoy a unhealthy amount of banter.
Tyv and Nitri bantering from chapter 1 of Taken by Annika Smith

4. What was their biggest fight?
Since they actually started acting like siblings? When Tyv first brought Ambyr back to the abandoned inn. Neither Tyv or Nitri really knew anything about her, apart from that she was an orphan living with her abusive uncle. Nitri wasn't too happy that Tyv had given away where they stayed to a strange girl. Then it was made worse when Tyv revealed he'd promised to protect her. Nitri didn't want to "waste" the resources on who he thought would be a useless addition to their team. Tyv managed to keep Nitri from killing both Ambyr and Tyv himself, and with time as Ambyr proved herself useful Nitri let it go.

5. How far would they go to save each other?
They would both die for each other, if the other's life was immediately threatened. Both are pretty pragmatic, though, so they wouldn't risk their own lives in say, a rescue attempt that turned into a fight, unless the other's life was at immediate risk. That being said, Nitri doesn't seem to care too much about threat of death, so he may be more prone to a hot-headed charge than Tyv would be.

6. What are their pet peeves about each other?
Nitri thinks Tyv is way too serious and cautious. Surprisingly, though, the main issue he has with Tyv is that Tyv is taller than he is, despite being two or three years younger. He's always been the leader of their duo, but he's slightly on the shorter side. He doesn't like the picture that presents.
Tyv, on the other hand, is mainly annoyed by how cavalier Nitri is. He wishes Nitri would be cautious every now and then instead of throwing himself into danger (and therefore dragging Tyv into danger with him).

7. What are their favorite things about each other?
Tyv appreciates Nitri's ability to joke around, in addition to his skill as a ruthless fighter. He is a little awed by how easily Nitri interacts with people of all kinds (usually to fool them). Nitri, for his part, values Tyv as a reliable fighter and for his natural ability to intimidate others with his nigh-perpetual scowl and height. He also loves the challenge of trying to get Tyv to crack a smile.

8. What traits do they share? Mannerisms, clothing, quirks, looks, etc?
They fight in a very similar fashion, since it was Nitri who taught Tyv, and both use a pair of knives as weapons. They both roll their eyes a lot, though Nitri is much more expressive. Tyv picked up on Nitri's smirk. They both have black hair, but Tyv's is more like a raven's wing black and Nitri's is more like pitch. Since they're not even from the same nation they don't share too much in appearance apart from that.

9. Who has the strongest personality?
They both have very strong personalities, but I'm going to say Nitri just because his is so much more noticeable. Tyv is extremely reserved and stoic and serious, but Nitri is all over the place. Dramatics, rage, vanity, wit - it is all out in the open.

10. How does their relationship change throughout your story? 
Most of the change happens on Nitri's part. Once they get to Kampen, and Nitri realizes what Tyv's background is, Nitri gets paranoid that Tyv is going to leave him, so distrusts him and thinks negatively of him (even though Tyv never gave any indication of abandoning Nitri). They do resolve it in time, but Nitri remains slightly suspicious that Tyv will decide that "the grass is greener on the other side." Nitri develops a dislike for a new major person in Tyv's life, thinking that he is going to be replaced by said new person. The dislike is returned and it traps Tyv in the role of a frustrated mediator.

As I said, I've been working more with these two because of Camp NaNoWriMo. They've been making me laugh.

Do you have any siblings in your story? Any characters who act like siblings? Did you do the Beautiful People linkup this month? Leave a comment! 

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Power of Sacrifice

Think of the sacrifices portrayed in books and movies. They make you feel, don't they? The selfless desire to protect someone above yourself? I think it is one of the most touching actions a character can take.

(Warning: spoilers for Star Wars, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Thor: The Dark World, and Star Trek: Into Darkness).

Think of how Obi-Wan Kenobi died in Star Wars: A New Hope to allow Luke and Leia and Han and Chewie time to escape. Or how Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows walked into the Forbidden Forest to give himself up to Voldemort so that his friends and classmates could live. Or Kirk in Star Trek: Into Darkness going into the radioactive zone of the Enterprise to fix the ship, knowing that the radiation would kill him even if he did manage to fix the ship and save his crew. Or even how Loki in Thor: The Dark World threw himself over Jane to protect her.
Because admit it, we all died a little bit during that scene.
(End spoilers).

Sacrifice is a huge theme in storytelling. And is it any wonder why? When someone acts so selflessly we can't help but love them, no matter what else they have done. They don't even have to die for the sacrifice to be meaningful (ahem, I once more point to the Loki example).
But what is sacrifice? gives a few definitions, but the ones we're talking about are these: "noun: the surrender or destruction of something prized or desirable for the sake of something considered as having a higher or more pressing claim," and "verb: to surrender or give up, or permit injury or disadvantage to, for the sake of something else." The kind of sacrifice which is most touching is selfless sacrifice, when someone gives up something precious to himself for the sake of someone else. Obviously, the highest level of selfless sacrifice would be when someone gives up his life for someone else. A villain could die for someone and we'd feel for him - we may have hated him before but we would now love him.

(More spoilers for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows).

A perfect example of this is Severus Snape in the last Harry Potter book. We all hated his guts for the entire series. Even when we found out some of his backstory, we probably would have still disliked him. We would have gone, "well yeah, he had reasons for what he did but he's still a jerk." Why didn't we? Because he died.
He was so dedicated to his cause (fight Voldemort, protect Harry Potter, etc.) that he was willing to die for it. He died for love. It was through his death that we saw that he wasn't entirely a jerk; he loved Lily, he loved Harry in his own mean way, he loved the light side. And we never would have known all that if he hadn't died for it.
Because of his sacrificial death, Snape is now one of the most loved characters in the Harry Potter series. He's my favorite character, for goodness's sake!
As if this scene wasn't enough to make me cry.
(End spoilers).

But small sacrifices made by characters impact us too. Aladdin in Disney's, well, Aladdin, makes us all love him after he gives up the bread he stole to two little hungry kids. Most of us had probably already liked Aladdin because of his recklessness and snarky singing. But when he gave the kids the bread, sacrificing his own meal, he did more than make us like him - he made us love him. Abu was the same - at first we were disappointed because it seemed he was going to be selfish and keep the bread to himself, but eventually he gave it up (although grudgingly). And then we loved Abu too.
Because that scene was adorable.
The fact is, selflessness is one of the most admirable traits around. So even if a character is ill-tempered and moody, chances are we'll like him if he makes a few selfless sacrifices.

Now, of course, this post is actually inspired by Easter. This weekend I'm celebrating, along with millions? billions? of other Christians around the world, the ultimate sacrifice ever made. Jesus Christ gave his life for me and you and everyone else on this planet some two thousand years ago. But His sacrifice didn't only have meaning in that moment He died - it is still what saves us from our own sin and its consequences. His was the best sacrifice ever made!
And if you know the Gospel, then you know that His death wasn't the end of the story. He's alive, with his Father in heaven, telling God that we no longer have to die for our sin because He died in our place. Hallelujah, He is risen!
The full Gospel story can be read one of the Gospel books in the New Testament of the Bible: Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.
Happy Easter!

Has anyone in your life every sacrificed something for you? How did it feel? Have you ever used sacrifice to make a character more likable? Are there any characters in your favorite books or movies who made sacrifices you found admirable? Are you celebrating Easter for the same reason I am? Tell me in the comments.