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By Samuel Stoddard


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Monday, December 8, 2008

Happy 11th birthday, RinkWorks!

In recognition of the occasion, I figured I'd take a brief look at both the past and the (immediate) future of RinkWorks. First, the past:

Times have changed. In some ways, it seems like no time has passed at all. In other ways, it feels like a lifetime ago. When RinkWorks was born, I was single and still in school. Clinton was President, and the twin towers of the World Trade Center still stood. People still had floppy disks and land lines. It took hours to download a low-quality movie trailer from the Internet.

How silly is the above paragraph? I mean, honestly, what kind of a "back in my day" story is it if you're saying things like "It took hours to download a low-quality movie trailer from the Internet"? Computers themselves are not very old. Cars were invented less than one lifetime ago, for crying out loud. And yet -- and yet! -- the world has nevertheless changed dramatically just since RinkWorks was a gleam in my eye.

I was 23, then. The general public had only been aware of the Internet for a couple of years. (1995 was when I saw my first web site address outside the world of academia.) When I discovered the Internet in 1991, my first year at college, a world opened up to me, but I had no idea just how rich that world was. The Internet was, ultimately, what I had been searching for all along. I am an entertainer at heart. My hobbies centered on creating entertainment ever since I was old enough to have hobbies. When my parents bought their first computer, it wasn't long before I was cranking out games, most of which nobody but an occasional family member ever played. I craved an audience more than I can say, but the absence of an audience didn't stop me.

The Internet gave me an audience. RinkWorks was born. Yahoo caught onto it back when Yahoo was the primary way any web site got traffic. The hit counts boggled my mind. Eleven years later, they still do.

Today, the web is scarcely recognizable from its 1997 self. I used to get grateful emails from people thanking me for not loading up my site with cumbersome graphics that take a long time to load. Today, web sites are even more overloaded with cumbersome graphics, but nobody complains. Connection speeds and CPU power can handle them.

More significantly, the way in which we browse the web has changed. The web used to be primarily a repository of information. Now it's a facilitator of communication. "Surfing" the web doesn't automatically imply "lurking" any more. If you say you're "on the web," the assumption is that you're in view -- in contact with others who are also "on the web."

How has this changed content-based sites? Most of them have, at minimum, "comments" sections at the end of all their pages, in addition to the separate forum areas. The sites that have really exploded are the social networking sites, where you can create your own space on the web and link it up with the spaces of all your friends. Geocities and Tripod have fallen by the wayside. Facebook and MySpace (essentially the same things, but with content management and social networking tools) have taken over.

Through it all, RinkWorks has remained more or less the same. We do have an enduring and wonderful and close community of regulars in RinkChat. But the bulk of the site itself is still very much a repository of content that's low on the clutter of graphics and animation and sound and whizbang doodads. I like it that way. Even in 1997, RinkWorks' aliased feature logos were backward and quaint and...well, nostalgic, if nostalgia for "the old days of the web" could have possibly existed in 1997. Sometimes newer is better. But content is king. Nothing is more frustrating than a site that looks great and has nothing useful whatsoever.

Some of RinkWorks' backwardness, though, is a byproduct of where my interest lies. I'm personally much more interested in creating new content than keeping the look-and-feel current. Ok, so if I invested a month redesigning the site to look all sleek and flashy, maybe it would attract some new visitors. But would that make either you or me happy? Perhaps. But not as happy as a month of new content would.

But wait a minute, you say. What new content?

It's true. RinkWorks has slowed down in the last two years. I looked at the RinkWorks Timeline the other day and realized, to my profound disappointment, that there aren't any 2008 entries, and 2007 only had two entries, one of which was the end of something, rather than the beginning. Although I've certainly been working on new stuff for the last two years, how come you can't see that? It's as frustrating to me as anybody.

The good news is that there are big things right around the corner. I've spent almost all of 2008 on a huge new project that I am now delighted to say is all done. It will be released in early January. Let me say up front that it will actually not be free content. I'll be offering something for sale, something I'm personally more excited about than I can even tell you. It represents a true labor of love, something that's caught my fancy in a way no project has in a long time. I'm excited for you all to be able to read about it in January, even if you ultimately decide not to buy in.

I remain committed, however, to keeping the bulk of RinkWorks' content free of charge. That includes my next major project, which is already well underway. It'll take several more months to complete, but the good news is that I'm going to start rolling it out before it's done and update it with new content as I go. That means RinkWorks is going to have regular content updates, multiple per week, throughout most of 2009. I expect to open the new feature in February or March of 2009, by which time I should have been able to build up a good-sized backlog of content.

Both of these new projects are things I've not really done before. I think that's one reason the flow of new content has slowed since 2005: I got burned out doing the new Adventure Games Live and The Role-Player's Vault games I have in progress. I still hope to return to them eventually, but the control I have of where my creative impulses take me is not complete.

In the meantime, however, I am testing a new Adventure Games Live game that someone else has written. With luck, that will be out early in 2009. I'll also be starting this year's Academy Awards Predictions Game within the next week or two.

Finally, in February I'll be running the sixth Ultimate Bot Tournament. If you're not a regular in RinkChat, you may not know what that is. The RinkChat bots are basically RinkWorks' best-kept secret. They're a suite of some 30+ games that can be played in the chat room. They're intended to be multiplayer games, but some work well as solitaire, too. I say they're RinkWorks' best-kept secret because in spite of having had all the development time, playtesting, and refinement as the best of RinkWorks' other games, I've never particularly advertised them outside of RinkChat itself.

The bot games can be played at any time, but periodically over the last couple years I have held tournaments, which involve playing all the bot games over several evenings and keeping a running tally of the scores. Besides the games themselves, the tournaments also include an element of storytelling. The last one, for example, had the equivalent of old-fashioned vaudeville skits as "half-time" shows. The two before that each had an ongoing serial storyline that unfolded during the games.

If you would like to participate in the next Ultimate Bot Tournament, take a look at the Ultimate Bot Tournaments page, which has some information about them, including actual transcripts of the tournament sessions, so you can see how they played out. You might also want to drop into RinkChat and try some of the bots out ahead of time.

The next tournament will, as I say, take place this February, but the exact dates are to be determined. I'll post an announcement on the main RinkWorks page when I know.

The broad conclusion here is that while RinkWorks has slowed down on new content for the last couple years, it is still going strong, and I think that will be reflected over the next few months when three, possibly four major new things will happen (not counting Stupid Day 2009 and the next Academy Awards Predictions Game). Stay tuned.

Friday, June 6, 2008

We get fairly regular email in response to The Fantasy Novelist's Exam, mostly from people who don't understand what we're getting at. Once in a while, we get a well-reasoned response, and I think this is probably the most intelligent and thoughtful we've ever gotten. I'll post my reply in a future entry.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Another great letter to add to the discussion which began with the March 21 entry:

Monday, May 12, 2008

And still the discussion of faces and fiction, which began in the March 21 entry below, continues.

Yes, that's the same Stephen K., and nice job relating The Rink to this discussion.

Further thoughts on this topic soon to follow.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Some good responses came in concerning my March 21 entry, which was about developing characters in fiction by drawing inspiration from studying real people's faces. I'd like to reprint portions of a few of these letters here.

Francis G.'s comment about Holstein cows reminded me of a phrase we repeat to the point of cliche around the unfamiliar: "They all look the same." If you aren't a dog person, you're not likely to be able to tell one golden retriever from another, while a breeder is going to be able to differentiate them visually in an instant. I am a dog person, but that doesn't help me differentiate, say, one monkey from another. They all look the same. It all boils down to what we've trained our minds to perceive visually. The remarkable power of the visual cortex is that we can train it to recognize similar but distinct things.

But our perception of human faces normally goes far beyond mere differentiation. As Gahalyn says in her letter, it extends to drawing inferences about character, which can be subtle and highly nuanced. I agree that there is something "at least some merit" to the relation of faces to character, although of course this process is highly subject to error -- particularly when we see still photographs of human faces, rather than a face as it exists over time. A photograph can capture a face with an expression that was never meant to be seen in isolation but rather as part of a moving expression in time. We've all had bad photographs taken of us -- mid-blink, for example -- that make us look like idiots.

There's a passage in the mystery novel Thrones, Dominations, by Dorothy L. Sayers and Jill Paton Walsh, wherein the recurring character Harriet Vane muses on the difference between photography and painting in their capture of the human face. A photograph captures a single moment in time, which is both more truthful and more misleading. It is truthful in that it captures reality for that single instant; misleading in that it presents that moment to us in a way that robs it of its context in time. A painting of a human face, on the other hand, is a composite of that face over time. If a model sits for a few hours for a portrait, the portrait may not wind up looking like the real face ever did in any single instant, and yet in some sense it may be more truthful, because it will show how that face is perceived by another human being.

Whether paintings or photographs, how much contemplation do we put in faces? How much collective manpower has been spent thinking about the Mona Lisa? Countless scholars have tried to unravel the mystery of her smile. What's she thinking about? We just can't help ourselves. We see that face, and our brains automatically get to work trying to divine what it tells us about her. Whether the mystery is solvable or not is hardly the point. The point is that we, as human beings, are compelled by the fabric of our beings to try.

As a film fanatic, I am fond of the studies the Russian director Sergei Eisenstein and his colleagues made into the theory of editing. A shot of a face is shown, followed by a plate of food. Audiences are asked what the man is feeling. Well, he's feeling hungry. Now a shot of a face is shown, followed by a woman in a coffin. A different audience is asked what the man is feeling. Well, he's in mourning. Finally, a shot of a face is shown, followed by a girl at play. A third audience is asked what the man is feeling. Well, he's feeling joy.

The catch is that the shot of the face is the same in all three cases. Besides what this tells us about the power of editing in film, it tells us a lot about how much our brains use context, as opposed to the actual physical appearance of a human face, to infer what it tells us about that person. I have no doubt that if the Mona Lisa had been painted in such a way that we could see what she was looking at, there wouldn't be nearly the aura of mystery about her smile.

It does, however, make sense that we could draw some inferences about people's faces without context. If we see a face that is clearly frowning, we can infer that it is the face of a grumpy person. Maybe we just caught that person on a bad day, and normally he's a jolly soul. But I would not be surprised to learn that our brains' facial processing skills are sufficiently developed as to be able to subconsciously notice whether a face is so accustomed to frowning as to have more sharply developed frown lines than someone simply having an off day.

That said, it is still an error-prone process. I would advise caution about making inferences about people's character from their faces. People surprise us all the time. Somebody looks like they're one type of person and wind up being another. The point of the creative exercise I described in my March 21 entry, though, is that it doesn't matter if you're right or not. The point is to leverage the fact that human faces are so evocative to us and can inspire interesting and nuanced character development even if that character development winds up being wholly inaccurate.

Friday, March 21, 2008

I had a surprisingly rewarding email exchange with someone today about The Fantasy Novelist's Exam. It began with someone upbraiding Dave and myself for being so cynical as to write an exam that dismissed virtually every work ever written in the fantasy genre. We get emails like this fairly regularly. What's unpredictable is the reaction we get when we respond and explain that the exam is a work of humor and, while it is based on an underlying truth, shouldn't be taken seriously. Some people remain upset, while others are apologetic. The person I responded to today was not only apologetic but turned right around and asked me how to help him make his own fantasy undertaking unique.

I wrote back, intending to offer some generic advice, but in the course of doing so, some recent knowledge and experience came together in my mind to form some ideas for creating story characters that I haven't seen suggested before. I'd like to offer them here, in the hopes that others might benefit from them, or better yet expand on them. I'll be happy to post any interesting email responses I receive about this article in future journal entries.

Essentially the questions I was asked were (1) How can I create interesting original fantasy races and have them be interesting and evocative to the reader? and (2) How can I make a storyline unique when seemingly everything has been done before?

What I want to talk about here flowed out of my answers for both of these questions, so I'll summarize my answers to these questions here. First, how do you create interesting fantasy races that are original? Fantasy today is overburdened with the same old elves and dwarves and stuff, and a lot of the stories that don't specifically use "elves" and "dwarves" do so under other names. Sometimes the new names aren't even that different. A recent fantasy series by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman is set in a world of "humans, elves, dwarves, and orken." There's no good reason for this. There is all kinds of room for wholly original races. Essentially all you're doing when you create a new race is distorting humans in some way. But humans have so many qualities, each of which can individually be distorted in many different ways. There's really no need to reuse "shorter, fatter, hairier, and live underground" (dwarves) and "slender and pretty and graceful and magical and long-lived" (elves) and "ugly, slobbery, primitive, and violent" (orcs) over and over.

There are physical characteristics (color, shape, anatomy, function) and societal characteristics (class hierarchy, government, coming of age ritual, technological advancement, history, family values, moral values, etiquette, and countless others) and so on that can define a race of people. There are all kinds of ways to come up with combinations of characteristics that don't resemble stereotypical fantasy races, and if your writing is descriptive and thorough, they will come alive for your readers in a wonderful, vibrant way. Sure, it's more work than simply throwing out the word "dwarf," and making use of the preconceptions your readers will have. But you don't want to limit yourself to your readers' preconceptions. You want to create something your readers don't already know all about.

(One pitfall of creating new races, by the way, is to create them so they're all homogenous. It's kind of frustrating when you get a race of creatures that all fall under one government, have one set of beliefs, one set of traditions, and function as one country.)

But my big question is, why does there have to be a bunch of different races anyhow? It's not really races themselves that are interesting so much as the individuals you're telling the story about. Having your characters come from and/or encounter different races with different cultures is one great way of setting up epic conflicts, but human beings are plenty diverse enough on their own to do this without other types of creatures as well. I'm not saying it's bad to have different races; I just think it shouldn't be an automatic obligatory thing. What counts is the story of the individual characters. And that leads into my main point. But first, an answer to the second question.

How can a story be made unique when it seems like all possible storylines have been done before?

They have all been done before. You may have heard it said that there are only 20 different plots that exist in any form of storytelling. Some people say 7 plots. Some say 35. I don't think I've ever heard the same number twice, actually. But everyone seems to agree that it's a shockingly small number. Like, "the coming of age story" is one such plot. And "boy meets girl, loses girl, gets girl" is a plot. And so on. You pretty much can't write an original basic plot and shouldn't try.

You can make your story unique in a few different ways, by combining multiple basic plots together in different ways, setting them in unique worlds, and so on. This is good to try to do, but honestly I think the way that makes it or breaks it for just about any story is the specific characters you tell those stories with.

Now we finally get to what I want to talk about, which is that people are essentially only interested in one thing: people. Our interest in people unites everyone from bookish anthropologists to celebrity gossip addicts. We're fascinated by ourselves. It is said, quite truthfully, that movies transformed from a technological novelty to a universally popular entertainment medium the instant the close-up was invented, which allowed us to look intimately into other human faces without being scrutinized in turn.

I can't really think of any story in any genre in any medium that doesn't depend on its audience caring about the characters. Even braindead action movies work best when it matters to us if the hero can outrun that explosion or not.

So what's the secret to creating characters people care about? I think there are two components to that, which at first may seem self-contradictory. One, they must have universal thoughts and feelings. Two, they must have distinct and unique personalities.

Universal thoughts and feelings provide a way for us to relate to the characters. They need to have the passions, insecurities, hopes, fears, loves, and dreams we all have. There isn't anyone here that can't relate to a fear of rejection by our peers, a desire for romance, or an ambition to achieve, for instance. There are many other possibilities. Others may not be relevant for us personally -- the worries of parenthood, the loss of a loved one, etc -- but which are still ingrained enough in the human psyche that we can all relate anyhow. If we can relate, we can care.

As for a distinct and unique personality, hey, out of the thousands of people each of us gets to know during our lifetimes, do any two ever have the exact same personality? Even two people with an unusual amount in common could not be mistaken for each other. Different people are always going to react differently to different things. We all have different moods, emotions, peeves, talents, capacities, and charisma. We affect each other in different ways. If your characters are distinct enough, your readers will recognize those characters as real people and come to care about them.

Essentially, we come to care about everybody we get to know well. That's the way we work as human beings. It's very unusual to come to know people on a personal level and not care about them. Even if it's a negative form of caring, it's still caring. If you absolutely despise someone, that's not ambivalence.

It's this combination of the universal and the unique that, at the very least, interests me personally. It's hard to do this in a work of fiction, but certainly quite doable. I've heard different authors suggest different ways to go about this. Terry Brooks suggests doing a lot of daydreaming. Just imagining your characters in different situations and trying to discover and understand how they'll react. Those imagined situations need not have anything to do with your actual story. It's just a way to get to know your characters that may or may not work for you.

Now here's an idea for character creation that I've never seen suggested by anyone else. I stumbled upon it by accident, as a result of a frivolous exercise in RinkChat, and I discovered that it worked wonders for my own personal efforts of creating unique fictional characters.

There's a very silly site called People upload pictures of themselves to it, and they get displayed to the site's visitors, and they rate your portrait in terms of physical attractiveness from 1 to 10. Never mind the reason the pictures are there. The fact that there are thousands of pictures of all kinds of people there is what's important. If you go to the main page, you'll see a randomly selected portrait. Refresh the page, and you'll get another. If you wish, you can narrow down the pictures you see by sex and/or age.

Now here's what I suggest. Refresh the page until you find a portrait that has some character to it -- something that's evocative for you. Then just stare at it and contemplate it for a while. Imagine what that person is like in real life. A good facial expression can evoke all kinds of personality traits. Perceive what those are and expand on them. It doesn't matter whether what you come up with is accurate to the real person you're looking at. This exercise is about stimulating your imagination. Imagine what that person might be like.

As I said, I wound up doing this as part of a larger exercise that was both frivolous and improvisational, but the results it gave me were wonderfully, unbelievably fruitful in terms of creating interesting fictional characters.

Since doing so, I've put a lot of thought into why it worked out so well. I learned recently a bit about the human brain's power for processing faces -- which is tremendous, if you think about it. Virtually all human faces have the exact same set of basic characteristics: two eyes, a nose, a mouth. Forehead, cheekbones, chin. Two ears. There's not much to differentiate one face from another, and yet we can look at a human face and just about instantly tell whether it's a face we know or not. It's amazing enough that we can instantly recognize people we know very well. But consider how often you can look at a face and know, "I've seen this person before. Where was it...?" And if you finally figure it out, it might be someone you've only ever seen once before. We can even do this with faces we see in pictures. Can you even count how many actors you can see in a bit part in a movie or a TV show and think, "Oh, that guy," without knowing his name or what you saw him in before?

I recently learned more about why this is. The visual cortex is an absolutely humongous part of the human brain, and the "facial recognition" area is the largest part of the visual cortex. Basically what that means is our brains have tremendous natural processing power for perceiving faces and making inferences about them. It's also why we can see things that only vaguely resemble faces and see them as faces. We see faces in clouds, in the random swirls of polished marble, in the way mold grows on old bread. The movie Cars wasn't the first time anybody thought that the front of a car looked like a human face. IHOP serves smiley face pancakes, which is just pancakes with a couple of amorphous dots and a semicircle of whipped cream, and yet the image is unmistakable.

With all that processing power we have for processing human faces and drawing inferences from them about emotions and character, why not leverage that when you set about creating fictional characters? Find some faces and set your imagination loose on them.

One thing I noticed when I tried this myself was how different the characters I created were. I've long held the opinion that any and all characters an author creates are necessarily a composite of the author's own attributes and opposites of the author's own attributes. To put this in simplistic terms, if I, as the author, have a short temper and a love of the outdoors, then the characters I create are either going to be unusually quick or unusually slow to anger, and have a particular love or hate of the outdoors. In other words, every characteristic of a character an author creates is either in harmony or direct opposition with the author's own personality.

This seemed to be true in my own writing, and it stood to reason. If I, as the author, care strongly about some particular thing, it is likely that I will find inspiration in having a character who also cares strongly about that particular thing, one way or another. Similarly, it is unlikely that I am going to find great inspiration in creating a character that feels strongly one way or the other about something I myself don't care about at all.

Since attempting the exercise described above, I somehow wound up creating characters I care about that I don't particularly recognize myself in. Starting with actual pictures of other human beings, rather than my own imagination, freed me to draw from other places to build my characters. I still share with them the universal feelings we all share. But in terms of personality, they aren't all necessarily incarnations or reactions to myself.

Which makes perfect sense. Every single day of our lives, our brains are processing other human faces and making inferences about them that may or may not directly relate to ourselves. We may still find the ones that relate to ourselves more interesting. But I think a broader range of characters can be assembled into a story if our imaginations are allowed to roam beyond our own personal identities.

As I said when I started this, I'd be interested in hearing from anyone who can elaborate on these thoughts, either with hard psychological knowledge or further speculation. I'd also be very interested in hearing from anyone who attempts the exercise I've suggested above and gotten interesting results out of it, one way or another.

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