Monday, September 3, 2007

Themes, YA, and Random Con Ruminations

I don't even know if "ruminations" is a word right now; I'm fried enough to actually think I can write a decent blog post, so here goes.

I just got home from a weekend at Dragon*Con, one of the biggest sci-fi/fantasy/horror/kitchen sink conventions in at least the Western Hemisphere. It was so much fun, and I was really having some post-con depression earlier today, when, on the way home, we stopped at a Subway and I realized that I couldn't strike up a conversation with the person next to me in line nearly as easily. At the con, I once had a ten-minute discussion about dice with a nice lady while waiting for the elevator.

Oh my gosh, the elevator. There were eight of them in my hotel, and from 9:30 in the morning to 11:00 or so at night, they were jam-packed. That was the only place I ever really saw people get cranky. Most of the time, though, the elevators were just fun; there's a sense of comradery that comes from waiting twenty minutes for an elevator and then riding it up eight floors before you can go down to the lobby twenty-two floors down. You don't even worry about whether it's an "up" or "down" elevator. Rule 1 od Dragon*Con: An elevator with an open door is a good elevator.

(Rule 2: Extra space for you is always a plus.)

One particularly fun elevator ride was one in which I was the last person who could possibly fit (as one of the smaller people there, this happened fairly often), and this was on the lobby level. The elevator then proceeded to stop at every single floor. I think the lowest level any of us was going to was 18.

So, to dissuade people from trying to fit, we tried out a set of Elevator Evasionary Tactics (or EET for short. Incidentally, EETing was more common than eating, because between panels and trying to catch the elevator to your next panel, you did not have time.). These included crowding the door to make it look more full when it opened, simultaneously exhaling as the doors opened, and turning our backs to the door. Great fun, great people.

I went to a lot of the writer's track panels (mostly because I knew how to get to them - the con was spread across three hotels in downtown Atlanta, and these were not easy-to-navigate hotels as a rule) and listened in to a lot of great discussions, but I think I got the most about storytelling from the panel on the show Fullmetal Alchemist.

(I don't care if you're sick to death of me talking about it; I will keep talking about it until each and every one of you has watched it. There are a lot of mediocre shows, and quite a few good shows, but there are some shows that transcend, to quote the single panelist, Vic Mignogna, voice of the title character. You think he's just saying that because he worked on it? He's not giving panels on the other eighty shows he's done.)

A girl in a Final Fantasy costume right in front of me asked Vic if there was one question he kept hoping people would ask, and what was his answer to it. He responded that there was a question that had been asked some time before, "If you could sum up Fullmetal Alchemist in one word, what would it be?" He said that he'd asked the audience and got a lot of wonderful, relevant words - "family," "love," "power," "hope" - but then someone managed to hit it right on the head.


The whole premise of the show is that (to quote the opening) humankind cannot gain anything without first giving something in return. To obtain, something of equal value must be lost. ... In those days, we really believed that to be the world's one, and only, truth.

There's a certain element of power in any theme if it's used well (my other favorites are those of family and betrayal) but this has a different quality to it. It can send chills down anyone's spine. Everyone knows, however distantly, what sacrifice means. And as Vic said, it's sacrifice that separates the villains from the heroes. The heroes sacrifice themselves, in some way, to help others. The villains (quite literally, in this case) sacrifice others to help themselves.

That's powerful.

I'm currently suffering the misfortune of being stuck in a freshman Literature and Composition class, and we all know what Lit/Comp teachers are like: a theme is a message that the story tells you (or rams down your throat), a moral. Don't live above your means, always tell the truth, yadda yadda yadda. I'm sorry, but last time I checked, that was called a message. Or a moral. I'm interested; am I the only one that thinks that "theme" is something less cut-and-dried? You tell me.

As a last note (because I did mention it in the post title) I went to a panel this morning in the YA Lit track. The topic was Utopias and Dystopias, and the conversation was fantastic (as was the panel--Scott Westerfeld, for the win!), but one thing Scott said really stuck with me, and I think it's an important thing to think about for anyone writing YA.

"It's one of the functions of parents to make sure their kids don't end up in a YA novel."

We'd begun discussing how the removal of children from their parents is one of the hallmarks (or at least creation factors) of a utopian/dystopian society. When you think about it, though, it holds true for most YA; there has to be a mechanism for getting parents out of the way so that the kids can go on their adventures. Something to keep in mind.

I'll be back with pictures as soon as I sift through the 84 I took for the good ones - though my entire family was there, the camera case ended up being my purse for the weekend. Just enough room for camera, keys, and money. Perfect.

I really need some sleep. Or caffeine. I'm not picky.


Ink Johnson said...


And when do we get the notes on the panel? Mmm?

Wes said...

Twice now I've been at D*Con, and I've yet to ride the famed elevators.

*shakes head*

Interesting observations from Vic Mignona. 'Sacrifice' as the theme of FMA accords well with my own -incomplete - rememberances of the show (as I said at the "Funny" panel, I've never seen it the whole way through, and it's been a while even at that). Specifically the sacrifices of Ed and Al (at first to save their mother, and then later to save each other) and of Roy (giving up his dream to be Fuhrer in order to stop the Homunculus King Bradly).

And it is a powerful theme; I don't think there is one that resonates so completely and universaly throughout human history. It's as if we understand, on almost instictive level, the truth of "no greater love".

Or maybe we simply find resonance in even the crudest picture of "by His stripes we are healed".

Interesting on another level that Vic should identify 'sacrifice' as the theme of FMA: he is a fellow Christian.

I think you might be on to something with regards to themes and morals, though I think also that they are a bit more entertwined than that. Say, rather, that a 'moral' is an applicable lesson, such as "cook chicken until 165F" or "don't throw rocks at grumpy dragons", while the theme is the philosophic foundation which affords the moral a firm place to stand. For instance, a moral of "Sometimes you've got to think of the greater good!" doesn't hold up very well without an underlying theme of 'sacrifice' or (better) 'self-sacrifice' as a virtue.

Perhaps one should say that the 'theme' of a story is what allows the writer to present the 'moral' as a good thing.