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Friday, July 20, 2012

Fantasy World-building Insights from Police Dramas

Crockett & Tubbs:
Two heroes indelibly burned into my brain.

Aspiring Science Fiction and Fantasy novelists tend to study the novels of their published counterparts when constructing their worlds.  Writing teachers often promote this as the best way to construct worlds that will draw readers in.  This view makes sense, as TV shows and movies involve a different working process than that of the traditional novelist.  Yet other mediums and genres offer insights into the intricacies that make a society not just function, but survive the constant, daily barrage of change.  In my opinion, would-be World-builders should study all mediums of art, as they seek to master the skills necessary to become published authors. 

Police Dramas portray the constant, necessary fight to protect society from the activities of groups and individuals that, if left unchecked, would lead to its collapse.  In the 1980s, two TV shows that portrayed this fight were “Miami Vice” and “Hunter.”  "Miami Vice" showed the insidious way that drugs can infect all levels of society and aspects of a culture, whether their source filters down from civic leadership or rises from street dealers.  “Hunter” displayed the vigilance necessary to protect citizens in all walks of life from predators who prey on the weak and the successful.  Both shows proved popular with viewers during their broadcast runs.  Yet each was as different from the other as baseball and cheese, and left vastly different legacies.   Why? 

“Miami Vice” initially won viewers with its looks, style, and sound, but the show faltered in later seasons, and completely fell apart during its fifth.  Meanwhile, “Hunter” slowly climbed the rankings to become a mainstay of NBC’s lineup.  From a dismal 65th in the Nielsen rankings for Season One, the show reached the top thirty by its third, and lasted seven years.  An attempt to reboot "Miami Vice" in the cinemas failed. "Hunter" prompted several reunion movies, and nearly spawned a sequel series.  

Hunter & McCall:
Two heroes winning their way into my heart.

Despite the way “Miami Vice” wowed us, the show proved unsustainable once its novelty had worn off.  It also suffered from drastic changes in oversight.  After the first season of "Hunter," Steven J. Cannell kept a watchful eye on the series, but steered his mentor Roy Huggins into his former role as Executive Producer.  Huggins labored hard to refine his series' characters, style and identity.  Initially, Hunter's fellow police officers disliked his violent methods and disregard of the rules.  In later seasons, Hunter's character and actions were softened.  Nor did his fellow police trust him, as he came from a Mafia family.  Huggins dropped that aspect of Hunter’s history.  The catch phrase “Works for me” and the music video segments were also discarded.  Huggins replaced these discordant elements by building the chemistry between Hunter and his partner Dee Dee McCall.  What emerged was a traditional police drama, but one of the most memorable partnerships in TV history.

As a would-be SF and Fantasy writer, what "Hunter" teaches me is that I shouldn’t worry about delivering a groundbreaking novel the first time out.  What will prove more important, at least for the longevity of my career, is to continually build on my strengths while addressing (not hiding from) my weaknesses.  To seek to add substance to my worlds with each successive story, while not losing my unique voice or style.  Bestselling author Kevin J. Anderson says that, with each new book or series, he tries to evaluate the areas he needs to improve as a writer, and then address those issues in that story.  Coming from such a prolific and successful author, this sounds like good advice.

TV shows from other genres thus offer the aspiring author valuable insights.  “Miami Vice,” while a magnet for the latest music, fashion, and styles, was also an expensive show to produce.  When it fell in the Nielsen rankings, the series was dropped as quickly as Sci-Fi shows that also cost a lot to produce.  This suggests that stories built chiefly on style, regardless of how popular they initially seem, cannot endure.  In my own writing career, I hope to emulate authors like Kevin J. Anderson, Steven J. Cannell, and Roy Huggins.  I want to create substance: stories that will not just wow you, but will last.

Writing substantively (and, I hope, stylishly),
Dragon Dave

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