Thursday, December 14, 2017

Autistic Characters In Fiction

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Spectrums Magazine.

Fictional characters with autism-like traits have been around for quite a while. Some of the more prominent examples include Ray Babbitt (RainMan, 1988), Tommy Westphall (St.Elsewhere, 1983-1988), and Christopher Boone (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, 2003).

But recently, not only have these kinds of characters become more commonplace, they’ve also begun to explicitly identify themselves as being on the autism spectrum. One of the first was Max Braverman (Parenthood, 2010-2015). He was followed, just within the past year alone, by Christian Wolff (The Accountant), the latest incarnation of Billy Cranston aka the Blue Ranger (PowerRangers), Julia (Sesame Street), Theo (Thomas the Tank Engine), Sam Gardner (Atypical), and Shaun Murphy (The Good Doctor).

Personally, I think that this trend is terrific. “Representation” is kind of a buzzword these days, but that doesn’t make it any less important. People – kids, especially – need to see reflections of themselves portrayed in a positive, respectful, and accurate manner in the media they consume. It helps encourage self-acceptance, self-esteem, and a belief that they, too, can become the heroes of their own stories.

It also encourages acceptance from others. When people see fictional characters with autism, or from any group of society that is underrepresented in popular culture, it becomes more “normal” to see them in real life, especially when those characters are three-dimensional and not just there as a token or plot device. Life influences art, but it works the other way too.

The fact that these characters are actually identified as autistic is important as well. The aforementioned examples of those who were not - along with others like Sheldon Cooper (The Big Bang Theory), Spencer Reid (Criminal Minds), and Gil Grissom (CSI) - were good starts, but letting the audience know that your character is on the spectrum (without beating them over the head with it) helps to get the message across in an even stronger fashion. For those who haven’t had any prior connection to the autism community, they can now make the mental associations that, hopefully, will lead to an increase in understanding and acceptance. And for those who are themselves on the spectrum, they can take a little more pride in knowing - rather than guessing - that yes, this character may share similar characteristics with them.

Now, are these portrayals perfect? Of course not. I’ve seen a lot of divided opinions in the autism community about these shows and movies, with some lauding the inclusion and praising the performances while others take exception to what they feel are unrealistic stereotypes, e.g., the characters’ savant-like natures or their robotic mannerisms. In general, a lot of the positive reactions seem to come from those who aren’t on the spectrum themselves, while those that are on the spectrum appear to be a bit more critical. This is certainly a cause for concern.

There also remains a disproportionate amount of female characters on the spectrum, with only Julia – a Muppet – as the prime example (there was Sonya Cross from The Bridge, but, like with the example of Sheldon Cooper, the show never explicitly stated that she had autism). Books have a few more characters, like Caitlin Smith (Mockingbird) and Ginny Selvaggio (The Kitchen Daughter), but there is still a way to go. I’ve read that the male-to-female ratio of people diagnosed with autism is somewhere around 3-to-1 or 4-to-1, so we really should be seeing more autistic female characters.

Improvement can also be made with regards to casting actors who are on the spectrum in real life in roles that are specifically written as autistic. I understand the challenges inherent in finding the right people for the right parts as well as the pressure to make sure your movie or television show is profitable (Paddy Considine, an English actor on the spectrum, would probably have made a terrific Christian Wolff in The Accountant, but, as of this writing, Ben Affleck is the bigger box office name). Still, though, it would be nice to see some more advancement made on this front. Autistic actor Mickey Rowe was cast as Christopher Boone in the stage adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, so that’s a good step.

Despite all of these issues, I feel that, overall, things are definitely moving in the right direction. It’s hard – impossible, even - to please everyone, but the fact that we are even having these discussions in the first place is what leads to progress. My hope is that writers and creators will learn from the feedback they receive and use that to make improvements going forward.

I urge everyone reading this to check out some of the recent examples of autistic characters if you haven’t done so already. Not only to see how they are portrayed – I feel that most of them are well-done, although you may form your own opinion – but also because your support will help show the producers of these shows and movies that there is an audience for what they are doing, and in turn, they’ll keep going and make more. And more representation with input from the autistic community can only be a positive thing.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Felicity And Fireflower Watch The Avengers: Infinity War Trailer

'Sup. It's me again - Felicity Smith. Brian just finished something he calls "the first draft of Volume Four" (no idea what that is) so he decided to take the week off from writing stuff. Which is why I'm here. Anyhoo, since I now have complete creative control over my guest posts - mwuahaha! - I decided to invite my friend Fireflower over to watch (okay, rewatch, I've already seen it like a hundred times) the trailer for Avengers: Infinity War. Let the good times roll.
Felicity: Okay, you're gonna love this.
Fireflower: Is this more of the "television" phenomenon you showed me a few Earth months ago?
Felicity: No, this is more like the Star Wars thing we were talking about back in May. Except that it's not the whole movie, it's just a trailer.
Fireflower: What, exactly, is a "trailer"?
Felicity: It's like a preview of the movie. Here, we'll watch it and you'll see what I'm talking about. (presses play)
Fireflower: So who are these individuals?
Felicity: They're the Avengers. A group of super-powered people, kinda like the Wavemaker Order.
Fireflower: What do they avenge?
Felicity: You know, that's actually a good question. They're not so much "Avengers" as they are..."Protectors," I guess. Or maybe "Defenders," but there's another group with that name. I dunno, I think "Avengers" probably just sounds cooler.
Fireflower: I see. Why does that one particular Avenger have a light in his forehead?
Felicity: That's Vision. The light in his head is the Mind Stone. It's one of the Infinity Gems.
Fireflower: Is it like the Songshell?
Felicity: Sort of. Just keep watching.
Fireflower: Are all of these people Avengers?
Felicity: Most of them. The long-haired dude holding the blue cube and the bald purple guy with the big chin aren't.
Fireflower: They are the adversaries, then?
Felicity: The purple guy, definitely. Longhair used to be, but now we're not completely sure. He's kind of like Darkeye, in a way.
Fireflower: Oh my. It appears as if Vision is having his Mind Stone extracted in a very painful manner. I assume the purple man wants to use it for some evil purpose?
Felicity: You're catching on. That's basically the whole plot of this story - Thanos, the purple dude, is trying to collect all the Infinity Gems so he can become omnipotent.
Fireflower: How many of these gems are there?
Felicity: Six. The blue cube is actually another one of them.
Fireflower: And the Avengers are trying to stop him from collecting them all?
Felicity: Yup. Pretty straightforward.
Fireflower: Since this is a story, I assume they will be successful?
Felicity: Well, maybe not. There's gonna be another movie after this one, so there's a chance that Thanos will get all the gems first, just to make things more interesting.
Fireflower: Oh - so you do not know what, exactly, is going to transpire.
Felicity: I don't. I mean, he gets them all in the original comic version, but sometimes they change stuff up for the movies. We'll just have to wait 'til it comes out next May.
Fireflower: I am looking forward to it.
Felicity: Right? I can't wait.
Fireflower: Well, thank you, Felicity, for -
Felicity: Hold on, it's not done yet.
Fireflower: Oh?
Felicity: There's one more scene.
Fireflower: Wait - those of them looks like she is from Spectraland!
Felicity: I know! That's Gamora.
Fireflower: And the one standing next to her resembles a Six States citizen!
Felicity: That's Mantis.
Fireflower: Are they...?
Felicity: No. That would've been really cool, though.
Fireflower: Perhaps one day someone could create some stories based on all of the adventures that we, ourselves, have had.
Felicity: Yeah, maybe.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Volume Four Status Update: Draft One Is Done

Yup, you heard right. The first draft of Joel Suzuki, Volume Four is officially complete. At the moment it's clocking in at a robust 77,000+ words, which - based on past experience - should grow to be around 80,000 (i.e., about 320 pages) by the time it's finalized. Woohoo!
May or may not be the actual ending of Volume Four
So right now I'm just going to let it bake for a little while before I come back to it in a few days. After that I'll do some more revisions and cleanups, and then once I have a "Draft 1-A" prepared (probably in a couple of months or so) I'll send that off to my editor for her to savagely rip apart - um, I mean, offer some gentle feedback after lots of careful and sensitive deliberation (Hi Susan!).

Once that part of the process is complete, I'll settle into full-on rewriting mode, which should take somewhere around 6-8 months. Or maybe less. Or maybe more! Either way, the target launch date for Volume Four is April 2019, so I'm still right on schedule.

And what, exactly, is Volume Four about, you ask? Well, let me tell you. Or not! Suffice it to say that there is a time travel element to it (which I previously disclosed) and that the storyline will also be getting progressively darker, a development that was promised here and here. If the first three books in the series were borderline PG/PG-13 (maybe sort of a PG-11 1/2), then this one definitely falls on the PG-13 side of things. There's still no swearing, mind you (Joel hates swearing), but it's sort of like what Goblet of Fire was to the first three Harry Potter books. Uh huh, yeah, you know what I'm talking about.

Anyway, I'll be disclosing more details in the weeks and months to come, so keep tuning in to this space for the latest updates. And if you haven't starting reading the Joel Suzuki series yet (gasp!), you can catch up right here:

Joel Suzuki, Volume One: Secret of the Songshell
Joel Suzuki, Volume Two: Mystery of the Moonfire
Joel Suzuki, Volume Three: Legend of the Loudstone

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Mahalo! Plus, Small Business Saturday

Today I would like to give thanks to all of you who have supported the Joel Suzuki series, Second Player Score, and, most of all, Autism Empowerment. Whether you're a newcomer to the cause or have been with us since day one, believe me when I say that your efforts, contributions, purchases, and fandom have been and will continue to be greatly and sincerely appreciated.
Anyway, regardless of what you're doing today (eating turkey? watching football? both?) and tomorrow (waking up early to buy socks?), come on down to Vintage Books this Saturday to do some of your holiday shopping. It's all part of Small Business Saturday, and there's a great slate of local authors lined up for the day, including yours truly along with To Catch a Killer author Sheryl Scarborough from 1:30-3:00pm. There will also be giveaways, drawings, swag, cookies, and cats, so hope to see you there!

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Movie Roundup: Special MCU Edition

Don't tell anyone, but I spent a portion of last week in a secret Avengers facility located somewhere in southern Nevada. I underwent a rigorous training program that tested the limits of my endurance and skill. It was intense, but when it was over, I emerged with my official Avengers Agent certification.
As part of my initial duties, I have been directed to rank the existing Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies in order, going from my least to most favorite, and to disclose that information to you. Bear in mind that these are just my personal opinions and that they may not match up with yours (in fact, I'm pretty sure they won't). So here we go, and remember: there may be spoilers.

#17 - The Incredible Hulk

I actually haven't seen this one in a while. Maybe I should give it another chance. The thing with MCU movies, though, is that they're all decent at the very least, so the ones at the bottom of my list are still better than a lot of other stuff. I do wish they had some kind of in-universe explanation for why Ed Norton turned into Mark Ruffalo.

#16 - Thor

I found this one to be rather slow and dull, but it's actually better when viewed retrospectively through the lenses of its sequels (see below).

#15 - Iron Man 2

I didn't think this one was as bad as some people say, but hey, I had to fill this slot with something. The final battle scene was kind of anticlimactic, I'll give you that.

#14 - Doctor Strange

Awesome visual effects make up for some uneven pacing and the occasional flat joke. The climax battle was cool.

#13 - Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

I can hear you all gasping from here. "How dare you rank this movie so low!" Again, it's like when you have a really awesome professional sports team whose backups are better than other team's starters.

#12 - Thor: The Dark World

Like Iron Man 2, I actually liked this one more than most people. I often find myself watching it all the way through when it comes on TV.

#11 - Iron Man

Like The Incredible Hulk, I haven't seen this one in a while either, but I do recall liking it a lot.

#10 - Avengers: Age of Ultron

A bit cluttered, this one actually gets better upon repeated viewings as I started to understand more and more about what the heck was going on (during my first viewing, I thought the Hulk's rampage was a Scarlet Witch-induced vision).

#9 - Guardians of the Galaxy

I can hear you all gasping from here. "How dare you rank this movie so low!" Again, it's like the Legend of Zelda games, where even their fifth-best iteration is still better than most other games out there.

#8 - Captain America: The First Avenger

I can do this all day.

#7 - Captain America: Civil War

This one was kind of cluttered (just like Age of Ultron), but the airport fight scene makes up for everything.

#6 - Iron Man 3

My favorite of the three Iron Men (obviously) and the only MCU theme song that I can consistently hum from memory even after not having heard it for a while.

#5 - Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Like The Dark World, I often watch this one all the way through when it comes on TV, even if I've already seen it not too long ago.

#4 - Thor: Ragnarok

Hilarious and colorful, this one puts an awesome bow on the Thor trilogy and actually elevates its predecessors. I'll have more thoughts on it in the next official Movie Roundup post in January.

#3 - Spider-Man: Homecoming

The best Spider-Man movie to date. Yes, even better than Spider-Man 2.

#2 - Ant-Man

Surprise! I bet you had forgotten about this one as you were reading through this list. I love this movie - it's the only MCU film that makes me tear up (as in watery eyes, not rip-tear-Hulk smash). I think I have some personal bias, though, being a single dad with a daughter.

#1 - Avengers

A pitch-perfect ensemble film, chock-full of memorable one-liners ("It seems to run on some form of electricity!" "Puny god." "Then shawarma after." And so on.)

Can't wait to see where Black Panther, Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Captain Marvel, and the fourth Avengers film end up in this list.

What does your list look like?

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Band Names: A Public Service Announcement

'Ello, Marshall Byle here. I'm the lead singer and guitarist of the Grammy Award-winning rock band Biledriver. I'm sure you've heard of us. If not, go on and read these books, they'll tell you all about us. 
I'm here today to talk about band names. Names are important. Especially the name of your band. Your band's name can be the difference between stadium-level rock stardom and never getting out of your bloody basement.

The best band names:

1. Are unique combinations of short and simple words
2. Communicate your sound and/or identity
3. Have some personal meaning for the band members, so it doesn't sound like you all sat down at the corner pub and spent the night coming up with a contrived but unique combination of short and simple words

Here are some examples of band names that I consider to be among the best in all of rock 'n' roll:

- Soundgarden. A unique combination of short and simple words that reflects the band's straightforward, no-frills approach. Also, the name was inspired by a sculpture in Seattle. Perfect.

- Mudhoney. The name alone just sounds like grunge, don't it? It also has that cool assonance thing going on as well. And as the crowning touch, it actually came from a Russ Meyer film.

- Guns N' Roses. Such a rock 'n' roll name. And it was just a combination of two previous bands, L.A. Guns and Hollywood Rose, so it's free of pretension. Mostly.

- Radiohead. Again, two short and simple words, taken from a Talking Heads song.

- Nine Inch Nails. I don't care much for the three separate words deal, but at least each word is short, not like "Second Player Score" or whatever. And it really conveys the image of the band.

- Biledriver. Of course, the absolute best name in rock, hands down.

There are others, of course, but I think you get my meaning by now. I could also list examples of terrible band names, but I have to see most of those blokes at concert festivals and award ceremonies, so I won't go there. Not today, anyway.

So if you're starting up a new band, keep my advice in mind, and maybe one day I'll see you in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 

Thursday, November 2, 2017

NaNoWriMo, or How The Sight Was Born

It's November, which means that it's NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month! For those of you who aren't familiar with it, NaNoWriMo is an annual event where people attempt to write an entire 50,000-word manuscript between November 1st and November 30th.
Now, for me, just the thought of writing 50,000 words in thirty days makes me want to tear what's left of my hair out and hide in my room until January, but every year, more and more hardy souls attempt to perform this incredible feat. Some well-known books have even emerged out of it, like Wool by Hugh Howey and Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell.

I will admit that while I was still in the plotting stages for Volume One, I briefly toyed with the idea of trying to write it during the 2010 NaNoWriMo, so I picked up a book called Book in a Month: the Fool-Proof System for Writing a Novel in 30 Days by Dr. Victoria Lynn Schmidt. It was packed full of good ideas and systems, but because of my personal idiosyncrasies, I wasn't quite able to apply it to my own project (I ended up writing the initial draft of Volume One in a little over four months, starting from Christmas Day 2010 and ending on April 30, 2011).

There was one great thing that resulted from my purchase of Dr. Schmidt's book, however. When my son first took a look at its cover, he immediately - like, within one second of glancing at the book - noticed an error that I (and the book's cover designer, apparently?) had completely glossed over. Even after he pointed it out to me, it took a few moments before it actually registered in my brain. That event was the inspiration for the Sight, which, as readers of the Joel Suzuki series know, is Joel's ability to recognize tiny details that most other people seem to miss. On Earth, it's good for things like video games, Easter egg hunts, and Where's Waldo books, but on Spectraland, it's one of the special powers that allows Joel to save the day.

Take a look at the picture above. Can you spot what I'm talking about?