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Save JJ Abrams and Star Wars: The Force Awakens I don’t think any director or film has had such a weight on their shoulders or such ardent fans to please. To say Fantastic Beasts had a lot to live up to would be an understatement. The Potter books and films have changed the world. Returning Potter Director David Yates had a task and a half on his hands, so too did JK Rowling who takes script writing reins here (and for the subsequent four installments).
And did they pull it off?
The familiar Potter soundtrack plays as the Warner Bros logo hovers forward through dark clouds… The opening sequence is slightly ambiguous, giving way to the familiar montage of Daily Prophet headlines about a dark wizard. But not the dark wizard we’re all familiar with. Grindelwald takes over bad-guy duties from Voldemort for this franchise and even though he doesn’t yet take centre stage, his menacing presence conjures some solid atmosphere.
Atmosphere is what David Yates does best, and the foreboding he brought to the final four Potter films is evident from the first few seconds of Fantastic Beasts. But Yates also brought style and awe to his Potter films and he doesn’t hold back on either with Fantastic Beasts. Every scene is rich in detail, most of which isn’t spotted until second or third viewings. The 1920’s New York setting is a big change from the epic landscapes and castle corridors of Hogwarts that we’re used to, but it’s just as compelling and makes Rowling’s world seem that much more real and sprawling.
Eddie Redmayne had a tough responsibility too, taking over protagonist duties from Harry, Ron and Hermione and having to carry what is essentially an origin story for the Fantasic Beasts series. Redmayne himself can’t be faulted. Newt Scamander is awkward, bumbling, avoiding eye contact and generally rubbing people up the wrong way, more Sherlock Holmes than Harry Potter. But at times Scamander doesn’t feel like the protagonist, mostly going along with what is happening rather than forwarding the plot. The other actors and their characters suffer the same, taking a step back so the world-building, plot and set-up can all be handled. The characters will be fleshed out in the next installment, but for now they’re not as compelling as Harry, Ron and Hermione. Where Rowling’s script does excel is in how contemporary it’s morals are. There are more than a few allusions to the divisions of today’s society, the prejudices and political turmoil and despite it’s period setting, Fantastic Beasts is never old-fashioned.
For all its awesome special effects and spectacle, slick directing and great acting, Fantastic Beasts is not perfect. Rowling’s script is sharp when it comes to dialogue, but a bit thin in story. The first film was always going to be more about set-up than story, and it is the case here. A slow first half and a slump in the middle throw the pacing off, and there is never a clear main plot to invest in. Gathering up the escaped Fantastic Beasts offers plenty of chances for great set pieces (Scamander’s imitation of a mating ritual, a chase sequence in a department store among a memorable dozen) but it isn’t strong enough to be the bones of a film. The various other sub-plots are interesting but, can at times feel all over the place and until the final, massively impressive, climax Fantastic Beasts is as scatterbrained as it’s main character.
But in that impressive climax, with a twist that I didn’t see coming and which I defy anyone to guess beforehand, and Yates’ pitch-perfect directing, the stunning CGI and photography, Fantastic Beasts does deliver a prequel worthy of the Potter films. Fans will be grinning at foreshadowings and at the mere joy of being back in the Wizarding World and newcomers may be a little confused but will find plenty of enjoyment.
Fantastic Beasts is not perfect, but neither were any of the Potter films. It had a tough task of setting up a world, story and characters, and overall… it pulled it off and promises great things for future installments.
Have you seen Fantastic Beasts yet? What did you think?
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Avengers: Age of Ultron review
Sequels to movies are like sequels to books. Sometimes they’re not as good. Sometimes they’re just as good. And sometimes they’re better.
Joss Whedon had a crazy task on his hands with bettering The Avengers (or Avengers Assemble for those of us in the UK). It was a tough ask to deliver a sequel that could top the epicness of The Avengers. But… Whedon and the team managed it—and then some.
Age of Ultron doesn’t just rival its predecessor, it knocks it out of the park and keeps on knocking it out of the atmosphere. It’s that good.
Age of Ultron is a different movie to The Avengers, the team are already assembled, they know each other, and the opening sequence as they break into a fortress to retrieve (don’t worry, no spoilers here)… Whedon makes sure we know that the Avengers are now a fully working team. And that is the core of the movie. How do the Avengers work together. The plot has many more strands than the first movie. There is more going on (which is set up for the next instalment). But the main focus of the story is the Avengers working together, and how they hold up when someone is trying to break them apart from the inside.
As well as that Whedon delivers another ‘earth at stake’ scale disaster with Ultron at its centre. Is Ultron a villain worthy to rival Loki? Hard to say, but Ultron is definitely a worthy adversary. And with James Spader’s awesome voice-work and motion capture behind the CGI, Ultron isn’t just a robot.
Like in The Avengers, Whedon balances the Avengers well, giving each of them separate stories, but allotting them (mostly) equal screen time. Hawkeye and Black Widow get a more solid story this time around, and through new additions to the cast (Quicksilver and his sister the Scarlet Witch) we get to find out (again, no spoilers in how) more about the Avengers past… maybe even their futures…
Whedon’s trademark humour is on fine from once again, and all of the characters, even minor ones (and the villains) get more than one witty one-liner. The plot is much more complex than in The Avengers, the world, story, characters all feel more solid. More strands are introduced and the movie feels much more substantial than the Avengers (which had a solid plot too, which tells you how good Age of Ultron’s plot is). Things are resolved, and things are left unanswered, ready for the next (two-parter) instalment, Infinity War.
The CGI is as high-quality as with all Marvel movies, but while there explosions and fight sequences aplenty, the CGI is mixed with enough real sets and physical effects to not be distracting. Whedon’s direction is all but faultless. There’s no choppy editing to make action sequences impossible to understand and the pace is relentless when it needs to be and a little steadier when the story is about the characters. And for a story about the potential annihilation of Earth, Whedon (on script duty as well as directing) makes sure the characters are the focus of the movie.
Overall, Age of Ultron is possible the best Marvel movie so far. Everything we’ve come to expect is present and correct: action, pace, humour, explosions—but Whedon and the team inject enough originality and make this different enough from The Avengers that it never feels like we’re watching the first movie with a few bits added. The only, tiny, fault is the soundtrack. The main Avengers theme that ran through the first movie and made action sequences more gripping isn’t used enough this time around. I didn’t leave the cinema humming the theme tune like I did last time—but I did leave with a huge grin on my face and feeling pretty damn satisfied.
Avengers Age of Ultron is out now in the UK, and hits cinemas May 1st in the US.
10 Ways to Develop Characters…
I didn’t used to focus on character development when I wrote. I concentrated on action and cool set pieces. I didn’t used to care if characters were well-developed in the books I read either. But I read a few books where the characters were really strong, and I realised that character development was pretty important.
I wanted to write well-developed characters. Characters who felt real, who you could look up to or imagine being mates with. But I wasn’t sure how to do it. So I read some more. And I learned some more.
Character development is hard to get right—I’m not even sure if I’ve got it right yet, probably not. I didn’t want to develop my characters through exposition/info-dumping or just by their appearances, so I looked at the characters who were well-developed in books and tried to figure out how the authors had done it.
A few of the ways I learned to develop characters are listed below…
Katniss Everdeen is a good example of this. Suzanne Collins sends her into the Hunger Games and we see how she copes with surviving. Her character changes when she’s tested—she becomes harder and more ruthless. Give a character something to work for and they’ll change.
Give them choices to make
Which choices a character makes can also define and change them. Are they willing to sacrifice themselves? Do they put others before themselves? It doesn’t have to be a choice that big either. If a character stays and fights, they’re brave or foolish or both, if they run they’re cowardly or wise or both. Choices can determine character and personality.
See how they cope with physical pain. Does it make them stronger, ormake them give up? Or if it’s emotional hurt, how do they react if they’re family or friends are harmed or taken away? How they react to pain will also determine a character and personality.
Give them friends
Giving a character friends focuses more on shaping a character’s personality. It helps to develop they interact with other people, how they speak to them. You can also play around with how loyal a character is to their friends and what they’re willing to sacrifice/do for them. Does a character care more about their friends than themselves?
Give them enemies
Harry Potter is a good example of how an enemy defines/develops a character. JK Rowling made Harry and Voldemort similar in many ways. At some points we weren’t sure if Harry was turning into Voldemort—this happens literally as the stories progress. Seeing how Harry reacts to this develops his character. At first he’s disgusted, but then he becomes almost like Frodo and the One Ring. Harry craves the memories and power being connected to Voldemort offers. But in the end he doesn’t want to become like Voldemort and he fights against their connection. This shows strength of character, a development of character.
I used to hate writing dialogue. It was always stilted and unnatural. Then I realised that I was trying too hard. Letting dialogue come naturally worked better for me. I looked, listened to how people spoke in real life, and what they spoke about and translated that into my own writing. Dialogue determines a voice, and a voice is an important part of a character. Are they sarcastic, and what does that say about them? Are they blunt or miserable or talkative? Dialogue helps to figure out a character’s personality, and letting it come naturally is the best way to do that.
Does a character have a mental illness, if so how does that affect them? It’s one example, but a mental illness gives you the opportunity to see how a character copes with it, whether it beats them or makes them stronger. It could be something smaller, too. Do they like comic books or cars, do they have a high IQ or a magical power? A quirk can make characters disparate, and that’s a good thing. But just the quirk alone isn’t enough. Play around with how a character deals with their quirk and it may help to develop character.
This is one of the main ways I develop character, and I try not to do it with exposition. Flashbacks work well. Has something happened in the character’s past that set them on the path their on? If someone they loved died, has that stayed with them, does it determine what they’re doing? Are they getting revenge for something in their past, or trying to make up for mistakes they’ve made? Or are they running from their past?
This could tie in with a character’s history. A good example is Katniss Everdeen. Her goal is to take down the capitol and kill President Snow, but it’s also to keep her family safe. This goal runs through the entire Hunger Games series, and the two goals—being both similar and different—define Katniss’s character. She is damaged by the games, but she wants to stay strong so she can achieve her goals and protect her family.
How a character works to achieve their goals also helps to develop them. What lengths will they go to get what they want? Who or what do they sacrifice on the way?
Let them come naturally
This is probably the most important point, because it impacts everything else. I used to try too hard with characters. At one point I listed things about them, but they didn’t seem as real when I started writing about them. Listing their personality traits, appearance etc. can work for some. But I found it limiting. Letting a character come naturally can work. Don’t try to force them.
There are probably many more ways to develop character, but the above are the ones I try to keep in mind when writing, and the ones I’ve picked up from books. Well-developed characters make a story better; they give a reader something to identify with. We follow a story when we read a book, but it’s really the characters we follow. So the more developed and real the characters are the better, right?
How do you develop characters? It’ll be cool to see if anyone agrees or disagrees with the ways above, or has any other ways they develop characters…
Characters who can’t catch a break…
I put many of my characters through the wars—sometimes literally. I don’t think I’ve written a story where at least two of the characters don’t suffer serious bodily or emotional injury. I’m not if that’s because I enjoy it, or because it helps to develop a character. Probably somewhere in between. Because stacking the odds against a character, putting them through battles and torturing them can be a good way of changing/developing/testing a character.
There are plenty of characters who get a tough time of it. A few of the one’s who get particularly hard done by are listed below.
Potter is probably one of the unluckiest characters in fiction. He loses friends and family, almost dies a dozen times himself, and has a destiny he can’t escape from, an enemy who will stop at nothing, all while he has the fate of an entire world resting on his shoulders.
Harry uses everything he’s lost to put in perspective the decision he has to make. And in the end it pays off.
Like Potter, Percy Jackson has a destiny, and it’s just as heavy on his shoulders as Potters. Percy Jackson loses friends and family too, and has enemies and monsters pursuing him pretty much the entire way through the five-book (plus spin-offs) series. He gets thrown around and stabbed and bitten in almost every chapter of every book.
Again, like Potter, Percy comes through everything by using his suffering to fuel his fight against his enemy.
Valkyrie Cain/Stephanie Edgley (Skulduggery Pleasant)
Derek Landy’s books are known for their action and fight sequences, and most of them involve Valkyrie/Stephanie. She gets stabbed, kicked, punched. In one book she is experimented on. In the later books she joins Potter and Jackson and has a destiny that predicts she will one day destroy the world. She loses friends and family along the way.
I’ve still got one more book to read in the series, but so far, Valkyrie’s suffering has only resulted in more suffering.
Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games)
Katniss Everdeen goes through the Hunger Games twice, then she’s pulled into a rebellion against the government. Shefinds an enemy in President Snow; all while becoming the symbol of the rebellion and having the fate of an entire country on her shoulders.
Katniss uses the suffering of the games to fuel her fight against the capitol.
The Baudelaires (A Series of Unfortunate Events)
Count Olaf. There’s not much else to add. But as well as him, the orphans face off against other enemies at every turn–and leeches. What they go through is summed up well by the series title. A Series of Unfortunate Events—hard to think of a more apt title.
It’s hard to see what benefit the Baudelaires suffering has… Bringing them… closer… together?
John Cleaver (I am Not a Serial Killer, and the sequels)
As well as battling his own psychopathic tendencies, and urges to torture and kill people, John has to face off against a new threat/killer/supernatural being in each of the three (so far) books. As well as suffering some losses which I won’t spoil for anyone who hasn’t read, or got that far in the series yet.
But what he goes through helps him deal with his tendencies.
There are many more characters who get pushed to their limits in stories, it would need half a dozen blog posts to list the characters who suffer in A Game of Thrones and the rest of the Song of Fire and Ice series. But the characters suffer, for the most part, for a reason and it always results in their character changing or achieving something because of their suffering.
Can anyone think of any other character/characters who can’t catch a break?
Bruiser/Brewster can take away the pain and injuries of people he cares about. Literally. He lives with his uncle and brother, isolating himself. But then he starts to get close to Bronte, and her family and finds it harder and harder to isolate himself. But his ability doesn’t just change him; it changes the people who know about it…
Neal Shusterman is fast becoming one of my favourite authors. Unwind and Unwholly were some of the most gripping YA science fiction I’ve read and Everlost is creepy and original. Bruiser is the first standalone Shusterman book I’ve read, and the fantasy/sci-fi elements are more subtle than his other books.
Bruiser is a solid book. As with all of Shusterman’s books the strongest element of Bruiser is the characters. Like Unwind, the story is separated into multiple perspectives, with a first person, present tense voice for each. Some books don’t pull it off, but Shusterman proves some can.
Each of the character voices are distinct and realistic and it’s easy to believe that these people could be real. One of the characters, Bruiser, speaks through poems and while it’s well-done and original, I didn’t enjoy these chapters as much as the ones where the other characters narrate. Its uncanny how accurately Shusterman gets the voice of a little kid right—Cody, Bruiser’s younger brother, sounds like a real kid.
The story/plot is why this book doesn’t get a full five rating. The plot isn’t strong enough. It might be personal, other readers probably see it differently, but I wanted to see more of Bruiser’s/Brewster’s gift, and what it could mean if the government took advantage of it. But Shusterman goes more subtle than that, and smaller, showing how Bruiser’s ability to absorb injury and emotions affects a small family.
The writing is top quality, as usual, and the pacing is fast despite not all that much happening. This isn’t a big novel like some of Shusterman’s other books. It’s set in a small town, with a relatively small cast of characters, and it stays that way. The possibilities of Bruiser’s abilities getting into the wrong hands are touched on, but never developed. And that works for the story, which is more about character and family. I would’ve liked more action and to see the bigger picture, but many readers will likely feel differently.
The story and characters are developed enough that I didn’t mind the lack of action, which also didn’t affect how fast this novel moves. The conclusion is ambiguous, but not a cliff-hanger and despite the questions it leaves it’s still a satisfying ending.
Overall, this is a solid book with solid characters, quality writing, great pace and some of the most realistic characters I’ve ever read.
Highly, highly recommended.
Has anyone else read any books where the characters are believable? And what are your opinions on books split into multiple perspectives?
The first book in the Penryn and the End of Days series didn’t appeal to me at first—I expected another paranormal romance. I haven’t read Twilight, and I wasn’t about to read a book about angels. But then I found out that Sam Raimi (director of the Spider-Man movies and The Evil Dead) was developing the movie and it persuaded me to give the book a shot.
I’m glad I did.
Angelfall defied my expectations. It was more like a Rick Riordan, Percy Jackson book than a paranormal romance (but for those who don’t mind romance, this book probably has enough to satisfy you). Action at every turn, a lightning pace, some solid characters, weird creatures, humour, and an intriguing set up for the rest of the series.
After Angelfall, the sequel made it onto my to-read list.
Unfortunately, what I expected wasn’t what I got. Not exactly. The second book is twice the length of the first book, yet half as much happens as in the first book. Some call it second-book syndrome and World After suffers from it. There isn’t a lot of plot and though I like action, this book felt like a string of pointless action set pieces. Characters stumble from one fight sequence to the next without there being any real motive behind it.
I wanted to learn more about the Angels’ agenda—it is expanded on, but vaguely to the point that it might as well not exist at all—and more about the coming war. Second books should progress the plot, develop the story arc, but World After does neither of those things.
The writing is as strong as the first book. Ee knows how to generate pace and the action sequences are plenty and well-written. I sped through this book, despite not always enjoying it. Penryn is a tough protagonist, and the romance is fortunately light. Ee also writes horror well, and she doesn’t shy away from describing the gritty, violent details.
The world-building is well done and the settings have an eerie, desolate atmosphere. The flashbacks provided through Penryn’s connection to Raffe’s sword are also interesting, if underdeveloped. It’d be cool to learn more about the Angel’s world, where they came from.
Overall, this is a fast-paced, action-packed second book, but it feels thin despite it’s length. There’s little to no plot and the story isn’t as gripping as Angelfall. Ee’s writing style is addictive and sharp, though Penryn’s voice sounds younger than she’s supposed to be at times. The horror and action is constant and helps boost the rating. But the action and pace aren’t enough to make up for the fact that little happens in this book.
Sometimes it’s good to not know where a series is going. But at this point I’m a bit confused. This series is a trilogy, so I hope Ee can wrap everything up in End of Days and deliver a more satisfying sequel to Angelfall.
Recommended, but some may find it disappointing in comparison to book 1.
Thanks to Hodder and Stoughton for the free copy I received through Goodreads.
Has anyone else been disappointed in a sequel, only for the next installment to make up for it? I’m still on the lookout for solid superhero fiction too, so if anyone has any suggestions I’d appreciate them…
Recommended, but some may find it disappointing.