Doctor Strange and the Troubled Hero in Fiction

Doctor Strange
Copyright © 2016 by Marvel Studios

I finally got around to seeing Doctor Strange, that great addition in the ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe. While I admit that my interest in the MCU these days only centers around movies featuring a talking raccoon and a literal-minded alien played by Dave Bautista, it’s still nice to see what other stories this saga has to offer. And I must say, Strange definitely stands on its own as a magic-centered storyline.

But as I was watching this movie (and trying to deal with Benedict Cumberbatch doing an American accent), I noticed a neat little storytelling trick that I’d like to explore in detail. Namely, this: how do you make a hero’s flaw part of the story?

You’d be surprised at how difficult it can be to give a modern hero a serious flaw. Most storytellers settle on a traumatic incident, like the loss of a loved one, or they fall back on a general feeling of inadequacy. But in the MCU, we get heroes with personality flaws right off the bat. In Stephen Strange’s case, it’s his arrogance. He’s a brilliant neurosurgeon and he damn well knows it. He’s also more likely to consider how things affect him than he does consider anyone else.

Rewatch the scene where Strange and his love interest Christina are having their last conversation in Act One, right before he finds the lead that sends him on his mystical journey to Kathmandu. Christina’s trying to impress upon him that he’s more than just a skilled surgeon, that life isn’t just about continued success. But Strange refuses to give up, even when it means outspending himself on experimental, unguaranteed treatments to fix his nerve damage. It’s a tense, well-played scene, and it gives us the starting point of his inner and outer journey.

In Act One, Strange only wants one thing: to be healed and to be a success again. In Act Two, when faced with the Ancient One and the truth of how small he is within the multiverse, Strange wants to still be a success, but now it’s in a different field. He learns to deal with his shaking hands and perform real magic, but he still hasn’t corrected his basic flaw. He’s still, for lack of a better term, an arrogant prick.

It isn’t until Act Three, when the villain has all but claimed victory in Hong Kong sanctum, that our hero actually becomes a hero. He puts himself forward in a single act of self-sacrifice, rather than looking for the shortcut and the ego boost. Even when it means (spoilers) locking himself in a recurring loop with an eldritch being outside of time,  Strange puts all his knowledge and skill to use, but he does so for the larger purpose of saving the earth and all its inhabitants. He also makes a deal with said godlike entity, showing a patience and concern that Stephen Strange from Act One would never demonstrate. It’s in this sequence that he proves himself to be the Sorcerer Supreme.

Now, you might say that we can see the same character arc in films like Iron Man and Thor, where we watch those heroes grow from arrogant, boastful prodigies to slightly more humble, world-oriented people. And you’d be right, of course. In that sense, Doctor Strange fits the same character design as them.

But what I find interesting about Strange is that its hero isn’t a playboy billionaire inventor or a Norse god made human. For all his brilliance, Stephen Strange really is human. He has the same gift to learn magic as anyone else, and it’s only by an accident and the patience of a good teacher that he learns to harness it. That same human starting point also makes his arrogance a little sharper by comparison. He’s a good surgeon, but he’s also more self-destructive and dismissive than, say, Tony Stark or Thor might be at the beginning. It’s a kind of a hubris that we can all relate to, even if we don’t really want to see ourselves that way.

Even in an era where we’re inundated with superhero movies and antiheroes in the vein of Walter White and Don Draper, it’s still good to stop and examine what kind of people we’re rooting for and just how they grow as characters onscreen. We don’t simply go, “He’s a gambler!” or “He’s got pride!” The flaw has to be something our heroes wrestle with in the course of their journey. Ideally, it’s something they overcome by the end of their story, even if their tale has a tragic end. When you look past the fireworks and landscape-bending magic shows, this is what you have at the heart of Doctor Strange and I’m glad it’s there.

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Flash Fiction: “The Rainbow Connection”

Today’s story comes to you courtesy from the good folks at Write It Up! in Burbank. I don’t know how it happens, but I got five random prompts that led to this perfect storm of a cute little story.


The Rainbow Connection,

by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 612

The year was 1993. A week after the big Inauguration in DC, a storm hit the nation’s capital. Heavy gray clouds formed a blockade against clear blue skies and sunlight. This armada sent down torrents of relentless raindrops along the entire length of the Mall. No quarter given. No chance for a perky beginning to the Clinton administration. But standing underneath the awning of a grand hotel’s entrance, Sean watched the rain hit and waited for his chance.

It wasn’t too bad, he thought. At least there’d be a rainbow at the end of all this.


Two months earlier. November, post-electoral victory (for some, at least). Sean Vivell sat groaning and restless on his couch, cordless phone pressed against his ear. He couldn’t think, let alone get a word in edgewise, as his mother rattled on about Cousin Jack. About how great he was at the mortgage business. And, really, why couldn’t Sean be more like Jack, she kept asking.

“Okay, Mom… Mom!” Sean flipped the phone over to his other ear. “I have a job. I keep telling you, I’m a paranormal investigat… yes! Yes, it is! It is a real job, okay? I’ve got a leprechaun in my attic and the equivalent of Thor crashing in my garage!”

Sean felt his stomach tighten. Not an uncommon reaction whenever he and his mother spoke. He didn’t mind sharing stupid details like this. No one ever believed him anyway. That came with the job. But the real horror was what would happen if his parents ever found out about his other pastimes. His other day-to-day experience.

As his mom continued her rant in that fine Arizona twang, Sean smelled grits cooking in the kitchen. He heard his boyfriend humming a jaunty tune as he made breakfast. And as much as he’d rather be by his sweetheart’s side, Sean he couldn’t put this conversation off any longer. He’d known it would be a thing to deal with ever since that night running along the Potomac. One weird case, one wrong turn, and the introduction of a familiar dark-haired stranger had been enough to change Sean’s world forever. He’d never been able to close his eyes to the weirdness of the world after that.

“Hey Mom,” he said, “I’m tied up with work here in DC, but I’ll be in your neck of the woods early next year. How about we have dinner? Yeah. Y-yeah, and there’s someone else I’d like you and Dad to meet…”


It wasn’t the pot of gold that Sean brought his parents that surprised them. Although, really, what else did one expect to find at the end of a rainbow? He had that leprechaun O’Malley to thank for this. At least now his folks could finally pay off their house.

It wasn’t even that Sean had decided to bring his boyfriend over for dinner. His mother had always suspected, but said nothing discouraging. Even with the slight shock on his Dad’s face, Sean knew the old man wasn’t about to disown his already unusual child. It was 1993, after all.

What did surprise them, though, was that Sean’s boyfriend was Elvis Presley. Specifically, the reincarnation of 1968-era Elvis, as smooth and sonorous as ever. Sean could hardly believe it himself sometimes. But as he’d learned in his many trips down the Potomac, it was better not to question whatever spacetime warp had caused such people to step into his world. He hoped his parents wouldn’t raise much of a fuss about it either.

After all, who would refuse the rock n’ roll legend for dinner when he greeted them with a wink and said, “Well, thank you very much”?


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Kill la Kill: The Magic’s in What You Wear

Copyright © 2013 by Trigger and Kazuki Nakashima
Copyright © 2013 by Trigger and Kazuki Nakashima

As much as I’m into seinen anime and manga that deals with more mature themes and plots, I’m not above a little high-octane, devil-may-care action and adventure now and then. Sometimes you need a little bit of mayhem like FLCL to balance out the dark twists and drama of something like the Evangelion franchise.

And when I needed something new and exciting to sink my teeth into after trying (and failing) to enjoy Twin Peaks, I found salvation. Its name? Kill la Kill.

Our show takes place in a fictional Japan, where clothing equals power and the elite wear the most prestigious attire, imbued with Life Fibers. We follow the story of a teenager named Ryuko Matoi, who transfers to the prestigious Honnouji Academy to confront Satsuki Kiryuin, its domineering Student Council president, about the identity of her father’s killer. In the course of her search, Ryuko receives a sentient sailor’s uniform called Senketsu, who aids her in her quest to fight Lady Satsuki and her Elite Four. Meanwhile, Ryuko makes both friends and enemies along the way, from the free-spirited Mako Mankanshoku and her family to the aggressive Tsumugu and his allies in the Nudist Beach organization.

Copyright © 2013 by Trigger and Kazuki Nakashima.
Copyright © 2013 by Trigger and Kazuki Nakashima

So what does Kill la Kill have to offer?

Deranged animation in abundance.

If you like seeing the overexaggerated reactions and quirky little stop-action moves associated with anime, then you’ll love this show. Half the deranged animation comes from Ryuko kicking butt with filler enemies and the other is Mako and her family doing anything at all. Sometimes the pacing of this animation is so fast that I have to rewatch a scene just to catch all the little visual gags and shout-outs that the creators put in.

A world built on fashion and glamour.

After the initial clashes between Ryuko and the servants of Lady Satsuki, we delve into the show’s strange mythology of clothing. With bizarre elements like Life Fibers and Goku Uniforms, there’s some justification for seeing fashion as a kind of weapon in its own right. Putting on a Three-Star Goku Uniform or one of the Kamui sailor outfits actually gives characters the power of a god. In this show, the phrase “the clothes make the man” is incredibly literal.

Of course, this also means there’s tons of fanservice, from both men and women. Tons of panty shots, Action Girls running around with the barest amounts of modesty, and shirtless men disrobing in slow motion. You’ve been warned.

Touching moments among the cast of villains.

One thing that surprised me early on in the show was how often we saw things from the point of view of Lady Satsuki and her legion of Club Presidents. Sometimes they were plot-relevant scenes, having to do with the Opponent of the Week or the Life Fibers. At other times, we’re treated to quiet moments of camaraderie, like a flashback of how Satsuki and her right-hand man Sanageyama first met. These little touches do a lot to humanize a cast of otherwise hammy, two-dimensional antagonists. This depth becomes important to the plot later on.

Fight scenes that would make Gurren Lagann proud.

It’s no surprise that this series gets a lot of comparisons to Gurren Lagann, since both the director and writer of that show collaborated again on Kill la Kill. Fight scenes are giant in scale, with massive crater impacts and victory achieved by one’s superior resolve, especially for fighters like the massive Ira Gamagoori. One blade stroke from half of an oversized scissor is all it takes to shred an enemy’s uniform and remove them from the fight in this show. Those moments are designed for maximum comedy and brilliance.

Honestly, I came into this show expecting somehing like Gurren Lagann or FLCL. What I got was something better (though obviously nothing can really top FLCL for sheer insanity in an OVA). I loved the main cast, the epic fights, the random comedy from the Mankanshoku family, and the surreal animation of the final arc. It’s a loud and wild show that will cling to you like a nice suit long after you’ve watched it.

The English dub of Kill la Kill is available through Aniplex and Adult Swim.


Bibliography: Kill la Kill. Directed by Hiroyuki Imaishi. Written by Kazuki Nakashima. Trigger (studio). Aniplex of America (US license). Adult Swim (Toonami). Original run: October 3, 2013 – March 27, 2014.

The Big Idea: Arianne ‘Tex’ Thompson

While I enjoy John Scalzi as an author (thank you, Redshirts), I’m a pretty big fan of his blog, Whatever. In particular, I’ve always enjoyed reading his Big Idea posts, where fellow authors get a little space to put in their own words the inspiration behind their latest novels or other creative projects. More often than not, these kind of posts have been a big help for guys like me looking for something new and interesting to read.

That’s why I wanted to share with you all this great Big Idea by Arianne “Tex” Thompson, whose concept for her debut novel rocked my world this morning. It’s a story that addresses both the issues of introducing magic to the real world and also dealing with historical real-world issues (i.e., racism, class struggles, industrialization, colonialism). I wanted to share her enthusiasm and her keen look into a 19th century world where magic and modernity intersect violently.

So please give her Big Idea a moment of your time and then give her story a chance, too. I know I will!

Whatever

When you introduce magic into a real-world setting, you don’t only have to deal with the problems that magic introduces — you have to deal with the problems that already existed in that real world setting. When Arianne ‘Tex’ Thompson wanted to introduce magic to an American milieu in One Night in Sixes, she took all of those problems into consideration. Here’s how she made it work.

TEX THOMPSON:

All I can say is that it seemed like a good idea at the time.

“I’m tired of Euromedieval fantasy!” I thought. “I’m tired of swords and castles and straight white monocultures. I’m going to write a fantasy about MY country, and MY history, with eleventeen kinds of people rubbing shoulders – like in real life! – and it’s going to be AMAZING.”

And by “amazing”, I must have meant “an absolute landmine of racism, imperialism, slavery and genocide.” Because…

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Flash Fiction: “Final Forest Exam”

You hear a lot about “treehuggers,” but no one ever talks about “predator pals” (no one that I’m aware of, anyway).

This is a prequel to “The Doctor and the Druid” and a sequel to “Fair In Love, But Not In War.”  Enjoy.

Final Forest Exam, by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 925

Child, you are almost ready for your anointment.  You have just one more test to fulfill.”

Mother Nira’s words echoed through her mind as she slid to a halt behind a tree.  Several yards away, the wolf growled.  Kumiko closed her eyes and prayed to Mother Earth that the false herbs she’d dropped would distract the beast.

She didn’t know what she was doing.  From the moment she entered the forest, Kumiko knew she was a failure.  She could never become a true druid.

In her mind’s eye, she saw Mother Nira back at the Solar Shrine.  Gaunt-faced and tall, born as one of the male fey, but she wore the gown and veil of a priestess consecrated to the Great Mother.  Nira had smiled and touched the pointed tips of Kumiko’s ears with drops of holy oil.  The air around them had been filled with the birdsong chants of the Sun Dancers, honoring the gods at daybreak.

“You must not falter, you must not fear,” Nira had said, seeming as tender as Kumiko’s mother and aunts.  “The world is a mirror, child.  Show it fear and it will respond in fear.  Show it love and it will love you back.  Show it courage and it will suffer you bravely.”

Sitting behind an ancient black tree, with a great wolf on her tail, Kumiko didn’t think her wisdom could help her know.

The beast snarled and drew closer.  Kumiko cursed herself for trying to rely on false herbs as a distraction.  She was going to die unless she fought the wolf.  But what druid’s spell could do that?

She could heal a wound, tread silently, swim for miles, and sense the presence of flora and fauna alike.  But she was no battle-mage.  Her sorcery could only deflect.  It’d do nothing to protect her from being ripped limb from limb.

Show it courage and it will suffer you bravely…”

Mother Nira, you’re an old fool, Kumiko thought, falling to her hands and knees.  The Wild didn’t care if you were just or brave.  It just ate and gave birth to things that could be eaten.  Nothing more.

Kumiko wished she could see her family one last time, just to tell them how sorry she was to have failed as a druid.  Her father Lord Yori would be disgraced, as if his sept wasn’t in enough trouble with the Erlking.  She’d make everything worse just by being alive.

I’m already dead, the timid fey realized.  I’m dead and there’s no going back.

Impossibly, that thought calmed her a little.  She turned around and stepped out from behind the tree.

The gray, shaggy-coated wolf snarled when it laid eyes on her.  With a saliva-dripping maw widened, it raced forward on all four legs and leapt for Kumiko’s throat.  The fey tilted her head back, ready for the end.

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered to her family, to Mother Nira.  “Think kindly of me when I’m gone.  Do that for me.”

Her eyes squeezed shut as the wolf’s forepaws slammed into her chest, pinning her onto the dirt.  Kumiko waited for the jaws to tear into her throat and end her miserable life.

It never happened.

Slowly, cautiously, she opened her eyes and stared into the wolf’s terrifying face.

It was looking down at her intently.  The beast’s breath stank of raw meat and fur as it panted.

“Why?” Kumiko asked.  She wondered if Mother Earth would appear in all Her glory and answer.

The wolf gave a short yip.  To Kumiko’s ears, she heard it as a common grunt.  But in the depths of her mind, it sounded completely different.

A voice.  A crude, masculine, unlearned voice.

Because girl says so.

“What?”

The wolf barked and she heard it in her mind as, Girl says think kindly.

“Y-you can understand me?”

Yes.

“How?”

With cantFirst tongue.

Kumiko had heard about Cant.  The language of truth, Mother Nira had called it.  A primordial language known to every beast of the Wild and buried deep inside the mind of every fey.  Only a true druid knew how to rediscover the words of Cant, to commune with all of nature and honor Mother Earth in Her Own Word.

And now Kumiko saw the truth of the matter.  That moment of stillness. She’d been ready to die.  She’d conquered her fear.  She’d opened her deepest self to the jaws of death and shame.

“I am not your enemy,” Kumiko said slowly.  She felt uncomfortable staring into the wolf’s golden eyes, but she owed it that much.  “I am a friend.”

Yes, the wolf whined as it pulled its paws off of her.  FriendAm Teor.

“Teor.”  As she sat up, Kumiko didn’t bother brushing away the dirt from her hair or the saliva in her face.  She looked around at the black forest with new eyes.

It wasn’t threatening anymore.  It just existed.  An extension of the Wild and nothing more.

“Teor,” she said calmly.  “I lost my way.  I must go home.”

The wolf barked and wagged its tail.  Home.  Know your scent.  Follow Teor now.

The fey smiled and, after a moment’s thought, she reached down to scratch the wolf’s neck.  When the canine panted in delight, Kumiko pointed back the way she came.  The wolf barked and led the way.

Somewhere close by, the birds were singing and a squirrel was running up the side of an oak.  Kumiko heard it all, just as she heard Mother Nira saying, “Show it love and it will love you back…”

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