What a Character!

Last week, Collin and I went to see a special sneak preview of Doctor Strange. We’re both big fans of the Marvel superheroes. Why? Because they don’t take themselves too seriously. There’s a lot of action in their movies, but also a healthy dose of humor. And their characters are people first, superheroes second. Their movies have some of the best characterization I’ve ever seen. Their heroes are flawed, men and women with questionable pasts, dark sides and emotional issues.

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Dr. Stephen Strange is a brilliant, arrogant neurosurgeon who believes only in himself and his skills as a surgeon–until a career-ending accident puts him on a path to a world he could never have imagined, and a life in which he could save millions rather than one life at a time.

In Captain America: Civil War, the Avengers are divided when a tragic mistake made during a mission causes the deaths of many civilians. It pits genius Tony Stark (Iron Man) against Captain Steve Rogers (Captain America). Tony has daddy issues–he never felt loved by his father, Howard. “My father never told me he loved me, he never even told me he liked me,” he says. By contrast, Steve had a close friendship with Howard back in the ’40s, when Howard assisted Dr. Abraham Erskine in creating Captain America using his super soldier serum for the US  military. Tony remembers hearing Howard talk about Steve over the years, and there’s clear resentment there. For Tony, it’s akin to sibling rivalry. Steve had a relationship with Tony’s father that Tony never had. When Tony discovers that Steve’s best friend, Bucky Barnes–the brainwashed assassin Winter Soldier–killed his father and mother twenty years ago, he realizes their deaths weren’t an accident, as Tony had been led to believe–and that Steve knew the truth.

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Tony is a complex character. He’s always been terrible at relationships, even when he really wanted them to work. He was deeply loved by his mother but felt rejected by his father–a fact that shaped all of his interpersonal connections.

Actor Chris Pratt, who portrays Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Peter Quill, describes the character as “emotionally stunted.” Peter’s mother died when he was just a boy, and he never knew his father. Add to that being abducted by aliens the night his mother died, and it makes sense that Peter would miss the maturity train, so to speak. He grew up a thief, part of a group of intergalactic pirates called Ravagers, but something deep within him yearns to be the hero, the Star-Lord his mother nicknamed him. It takes him twenty-six years to open the package she gave him on her deathbed. She told him not to open it until she was gone. Perhaps somewhere in his subconscious, he doesn’t open it because as long as he doesn’t, she’s not really gone?

Marvel’s got some well-developed villains as well–Loki, for example. The second son of Odin, King of Asgard, he grew up in the shadow of his older brother, Thor, heir to the throne. When he discovers he’s not Odin and Frigga’s biological child, that Odin found him during a battle with the Frost Giants, having been abandoned, left to die, Loki concludes this is why Odin always favored Thor. Even when Loki does his worst, fans relate to him. They get him. When an angry Odin tells him his birthright was to die, the fans feel for Loki.

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Zemo is another interesting bad guy. Having lost his entire family during the Avengers’ battle with Ultron, he seeks revenge. He knows he can’t destroy the Avengers, but with the right push, they can destroy each other. “An empire destroyed from outside can be rebuilt,” he says, “but one that is destroyed from within is dead forever.”

Throughout his quest for revenge, Zemo is seen listening to a voicemail message. It turns out to be the last message he received from his wife before her death.

When I started writing, I was focused on plot. I was young and lacked the life experience to understand the importance of well-developed characters. One editor I knew used to call me “The Master Plotter.”

Now, I prefer more character-driven stories.

Gadgets R Us: The Good, The Bad and the Really Ugly

Our resident techie, Collin, makes sure we always have what we need to keep our life support equipment (you know, smartphones, smart TV, Blu-Ray player, computer, Roku, and tablets) functioning because we can’t live without them.

At least that’s how it feels sometimes.

Most recently, he bought each of us a solar charger to keep our stuff going in the event of a power outage. Had that recent massive solar storm taken out the earth’s power grids and all things tech, it might have killed us.

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At least that’s how it feels sometimes.

When I had trouble navigating my Windows 8 tablet, he got me a Bluetooth mouse. Problem solved.

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But the best find of all came quite by accident. A couple of weeks ago, we spent an afternoon at Five Below. They have some really great stuff–tablet cases, waterproof phone cases…and headphones. Using earphones has always been a problem for me. Once upon a time, I had Bluetooth for my phone. I couldn’t keep it in my ear. I’m still not sure what I was doing wrong. I like earbuds, but they tend to fall out. Again, I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong. Five Below had something I had used a long time ago–large, padded headphones. There was quite an assortment–different brands, a multitude of colors. Collin and I each got two.

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It wasn’t until we got home that I discovered these headphones weren’t just for listening to music and audiobooks–they also worked for talking on the phone. There’s more, but I’ll get back to that discovery in a minute. Here comes the ugly.

For some reason, my entire Audible library had disappeared from my Kindle Fire HD. After a few choice expletives, I got on live chat with an Audible rep. This shows just how desperate I was–I hate chat almost as much as I hate talking on the phone. Both are considered last resort methods of communication in our house. The chat went nowhere, and I was transferred to an Amazon rep, since the problem, they said, was in my Kindle.

The Amazon rep informed me that the problem was that my Kindle had been de-registered. De-registered? I knew that wasn’t possible. I use it every day. I had just downloaded a new Audible book the day before. In fact, I had just gone through the naming process. Yes, for those of you who have never done this, there is a way to name your devices. Most of mine have Minion names, except the Windows tablet. That’s Rocket, so named in honor of the trigger-happy raccoon in Guardians of the Galaxy.

I fired off an angry email to Audible, telling them I did not want to get a phone call. I did not want to chat. I just wanted my audiobooks back on my Kindle–or I would cancel my membership. It wasn’t long before I received an email from a very helpful tech who gave me detailed directions for restoring my library. Collin followed the instructions, and my books were back in minutes.

I know some people are still skeptical about ebooks, but this just made me more certain of my choice. Twenty years ago, I lost 90% of my books, mostly hardcover. It would have cost me a fortune to replace them–which, at the time, I didn’t have. So, my books were gone–until the Kindle came along. My audiobooks may have disappeared from my Kindle, but they were never really lost. I got them back at no further cost to me other than the stress that had my blood pressure shooting into the stratosphere until the problem was resolved.

Now, back to my unexpected headphone discovery. As some of you already know, my new publisher is going to re-release all of my backlist in print and ebook format–but there’s a problem. Most of those books were written on a typewriter, which meant there were no digital copies of the manuscripts. I no longer had the typed copies, either. This meant Collin and I would have to scan the pages and use an OCR program to produce a Word document for the publisher. That’s time-consuming and after full of errors. Or I could retype everything (even more time-consuming). Or I could dictate the text into the computer–where do I begin to explain why that wouldn’t work?

I do most of my writing on my phone or tablets. My phone does have a text-to-speech option, but the results are mixed. As I sat at McDonald’s waiting for Collin yesterday, I started to think. If the headphones worked for the phone, why not for dictation? It was worth a try. I started small, sending Collin a dictated text. It was perfect. As it turns out, my cheapy headphones ($1.99 at Five Below) produce flawless text from my dictation.

This might not take forever, after all.