Categories
character legacy

Fifty and fighty

All right, first things first.

I turned 50 years old today.

I think I’m finally letting go of my hopes of being a child prodigy.

But I’m still here, still giving it a go, and that’ll do.

That’ll do.

So what am I doing in my fifty-first year?

For one thing, I’m still trying to learn new tricks, even when it comes to writing. I’m in the prep-and-research phase of a new novel project, and I’m doing something I’ve never done before – planning.

…okay, I haven’t actually planned the book’s title yet, but let’s called it Piledriver as a shorthand for now.

Raven’s Blood and the Obituarist novellas were all written the same way – I sat down with a premise, an opening scene, a finale to aim towards and some ideas for bits in the middle, and then haphazardly wrote my way into the story until I got to the end, which may or may not have resembled the ending I’d originally envisioned. I’m not going to abandon that approach, ‘cos it aligns nicely with my laziness creative instincts, but it’s high time I gave the whole plotting and outlining business a try.

But first, characters. Piledriver has an ensemble cast of, mighty fuck, twenty-four characters, all of whom need to be unique and clearly distinct from the others. How am I going to manage this Herculean task and (frankly, stupidly over-large) cast?

With a character stack.

The stack contains 24 index cards, each showing the core information of a specific character. Let’s zoom in on the most complete one, which is for the book/series’ main protagonist.

The important points you can immediately tell:

  • this is a book about professional wrestlers
  • yes, I’ve named the main character Jack Fetch
  • yes, he’s Jack the Giantkiller, wrestling is not a world of subtlety
  • my handwriting is fucking atrocious
  • I haven’t worked out some of the details yet

(Why is there a B in the top right corner? I’m gonna keep that detail under wraps for the moment.)

Other cards are sketchier still – no-one else has a name yet, and things like gimmicks, style and persona are mostly vacant. But the joy of the stack is that I can just grab a card and fill in a detail when it occurs to me. Some of those will get nailed down during the outlining, others as I write, and this will help me keep things consistent. Another positive of using physical cards is that I can also pin them to a corkboard to map out relationships, group them into factions, spot who needs some screen time and (eventually) array them for a big ol’ tournament.

I might have so much fun doing that that I don’t bother writing the book. We’ll see.

Anyway, that’s how I’m kicking things off in my life as an Official Old Dude. Check back in occasionally over the next 365 days to see how the planning (or indeed writing) of Piledriver is progressing.

For now, though, bugger doing any more work tonight.
Come on, it’s my birthday.

Categories
character do a D&D games story

So you wanna do a D&D (part 3)

And the saga continues!

(I know I said I’d maintain this series of posts on a fortnightly basis, but if you think about it, 16 days is the same as 15+1 days which is the same as 14 days, and also the world’s on fire and time isn’t real.)

We’re back talking about D&D stories, and how you can start creating D&D stories if you want to get into the NEW HAWTNESS of pretending to be an elf warlock over Discord, and how different D&D-like games will tweak the settings of a ‘D&D story’ while still delivering an experience that’s about the same as D&D, oh no I said D&D too many times, D&D has lost all meaning, what’s a D&D, I D&D you in the face, D&D is in yr base killing yr doods.

D&D set us up the bomb

*HARD RESET* okay we’re good now

The first post in this series outlined some elements of the typical D&D story; the second added tone to that mix and looked at some alternative games that are cheaper or that adjust some of those setting knobs.

Speaking of knobs…

Characters, created

Characters are at the heart of nearly every story and roleplaying game. Not all of them, mind you – Jorge Luis Borges wrote incredible stories with no characters in them, and there are some fascinating games about crafting histories and drawing maps – but fun, engaging characters are what we want 99.9% of the time.

Modern D&D characters are larger-than-life heroes; even if individual games initially position them as neophytes or bumbling naifs, they rapidly become tough and competent, ready to take on dragons, demons, liches and other Big Bads.

However, a lot of people seem to want games that are ‘gritty’ and ‘realistic’ (whatever those terms mean), which means the primary adjustment many fantasy RPGs make is dialling down the competence of characters. Some of them also re-calibrate to tell more stories that are better suited to such characters; others throw Joe Blow against the same array of dragons, demons, liches etc., because heroism is only ‘genuine’ if characters are totally outmatched or whatever.

Not my style, personally; if I want to tell a story about more-or-less regular folks (who nonetheless have swords and fireballs), I want that story to have a similarly constrained scope.

Beyond the Wall: Such as this absolutely brilliant game, which couples the simplicity of older D&D rules with modern ideas about shared setting creation to tell stories of heroic teens defending their village from unnatural danger, with a tone more like Susan Cooper or Lloyd Alexander than Gary Gygax. It’s superb, it’s simple, it’s cheap – of all the games I’ve looked at, this is the one everyone should investigate.

Warhammer Fantasy RPG: Heroic teens too, well, heroic? How about playing a ratcatcher, failed student, ferryman or a bloke who hands out racist pamphlets in the pub? Long divorced from the miniatures games, the Warhammer RPG created its own legacy of grimy British humour, Holy Roman Empire aesthetics and reasonably simple mechanics. If you like your fantasy grubby and your names groanworthy, this is for you.

The One Ring: Of course, if you want smaller-than-life characters, you can’t go past hobbits. Of all the RPG adaptations of Tolkien’s books, I think this one comes closest to evoking the tone of the setting and its characters, with systems that make a simple burglar or scholar feel engaging and important but also limited and grounded. Sadly this game’s in Limbo at the moment due to licence changes; you can’t buy it digitally, but physical copies are still out there if you want to try it.

So okay, that’s three games that constrain characters and keep them grounded. Are there games that go more larger-than-life than D&D?

13th Age: There are, and this bad boy is my personal favourite (see my current campaign for details). 13th Age couples over-the-top cinematic action with broad, sweeping characters-influencing-setting rules, in a gonzo world stuffed full of fantasy tropes that doesn’t stop for breath long enough to acknowledge its ridiculousness. It’s not the best at explaining itself, and it’s definitely aimed at those who enjoy the game part of role-playing games, which makes it a bit inaccessible for newcomers, but not so much that you couldn’t have fun with it. Give me a yell if you get stuck; I’ll come help.

Rules complexity

On that last note, the game part of these games is simultaneously the best and worst part – or perhaps the most-and-least accessible part. Rules define characters and make actions concrete; they’re also a bunch of numbers/systems that constrain imagination. Some folks like that, some tolerate it, some bounce off and never come back to RPGs again.

Rules obviously shape game-stories in significant ways; they define what’s possible and what’s not (or at least what’s technically not possible, until you all agree to say that it is). Rules complexity also shapes story because it determines a level of detail; the more defined and specific the rule, the more defined and specific the manifestation of that rule in the story. If your alchemy rules require 10 difficult steps for brewing a potion, stories take shape around taking those steps; if the rules just ask for one dice roll and a bit of narrative colour, the story is going to be about the outcome and not the process.

The current (5th) edition of D&D is moderately complex; the 2nd was less so, the 3rd more so, the 4th put its complexity in a different place. There aren’t a lot of contemporary fantasy games that are more complex; that’s not what the market wants these days. But there are plenty of games that are less complex, and if you want something that gets out of the way so you can explore the story, here are two solid options that do that in slightly different ways.

Tiny Dungeon: Perhaps the epitome of the get-out-of-the-way philosophy, this game has a simple 1/2/3 dice system and imposes little structure during play, to the point where I personally find it a bit hollow. The game also comes with a lot of sample settings and tweaks; whether that’s useful depends on whether those ideas grab you. Its real strength is immediacy – you can create a character in about 5 minutes by picking 3-4 choices from a list, and then just start playing. That’s a powerful thing, especially for players that don’t as yet have concrete ideas.

Quest: The new kid in town, Quest has been gaining attention thanks to its accessible writing, whimsical and inclusive artstyle, emphasis on character and very solid marketing campaign. Its strength is its narrative focus – it asks players and GMs to define characters and stories primarily using bits of text and imagery rather than numbers. But that also means players need a strong vision and concrete ideas coming in, which can be a lot to ask when you’re new to this whole thing.

Of these two, I think Quest is more fun and interesting, but it’s more work up front; Tiny Dungeon isn’t as engaging, but you can get started on a moment’s notice. Consider what works for you.

…or just use D&D if you want

And what works for you may well be D&D after all – and that’s great.

These other games all alter the stories and flow of D&D-style fantasy in useful and worthwhile ways. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make those alterations using D&D, so long as you’re willing to put the work in and make changes to the way the game plays at your table.

Want D&D characters to be more grounded? Present them with realistic problems and difficult challenges. Want them heroic? Do the opposite, and present stories that emphasise the fantastic. You can ignore external problems to focus on emotion, you can make the tone as gritty or cinematic or silly as you like; you can simplify the game rules by just ignoring the ones you don’t like. You can even get cheaper or free versions of D&D if you want to save money and don’t mind missing out on the glossy hardcovers. You do you.

Ultimately, games like these are tools for shared storytelling. Each tool has its strengths and weaknesses, but what really dictates the success of that shared creation is the enthusiasm and creativity of those working together to craft it. If everyone at the table wants to have fun creating a D&D story, the D&D/not-D&D game involved is the least important step in reaching that goal.

Places to go, faces to punch

Is there more to talk about when it comes to D&D stories? Yes, because you need a context for those stories – a world of fantastic places to visit, dangerous adversaries to thwart and relationships to explore.

You need a setting. And we’ll talk about that next time.

Categories
blogging character games reading

Lockdown Reloaded

Greetings from Melbourne.
Ain’t this fun?

*takes long pull from bottle of bourbon*
*looks out into the darkness*

Well, looks like we’ll be stuck here for a while. May as well catch up, maybe talk about some lockdown reads.

Speaking of lockdown reads, sales of The Obituarist 3 are… like, okay? Good? Bad? I don’t know, I just work here.

Let me add up the data – looks like 21 copies sold (on Amazon and Smashwords) since launch in early May, which means about… 40 Aussie bucks in revenue? As opposed to the $450 I spent on editing and cover design?

Yeah, well, so it goes. It’s a good book, but its market is limited. (Possibly just to people who know me.) I could probably generate more sales if I did more promotion, but we’re in the middle of a pandemic and a global struggle to confront systemic institutional racism. No-one needs me distracting people from what really matters by tweeting about a book.

It’s written, it’s out there, people will find it. Maybe tell your friends about the series if they want lockdown reads. That’s enough marketing from me.

(I really should update the site page, though. Maybe next week.)

And speaking of lockdown reads, let’s talk about games. Games that involve reading and writing (so educational)!

Thousand Year Old Vampire is a solo journaling RPG by Tim Hutchings, and if you’re like me-from-last-month then that concept might need a little unpacking.

The game presents a conceptual framework – you’re a vampire that lives so long that they can’t retain their memories – and then provides you with a large series of writing prompts (most of which have mechanical impacts as well). Rolling dice to navigate through the prompts, you write journal entries to record events while also translating that into your vampire’s unstable set of memories. Eventually you reach an ending, and have an epistolary narrative that you can read, share or just think about when you want to be sad.

While accurate, that description glosses over two key points:

  1. This game is brilliant, with a fantastic mix of simple mechanisms and evocative prompts that constantly push you to generate dark, emotionally engaging stories.
  2. This game makes writing fun, something I generally find inconceivable. My playthrough, telling the story of the fallen Ukrainian nun Penelopa, was some of the most playful joy I’ve gained from my own writing in maybe a decade.

Whether you’re a writer or a gamer (or both), there’s so much here to direct your creativity into fascinating stories while also enjoying solo lockdown fun. The PDF is cheap; the print book is apparently gorgeous but will cost you a mortgage payment in shipping right now. You do you – just make sure to pick it up.

And speaking of lockdown reads, let’s talk about a TV show, yes I know that’s a terrible segue.

I finally started watching She-Ra and the Princesses of Power on Netflix, and it’s as good as people have been saying for the last couple of years – a smart, savvy, energetic science-fantasy cartoon that never takes itself too lightly or too seriously, and is just crammed full of awesome teenage girl characters demonstrating agency.

(The plotting and worldbuilding is maybe a little uneven at times, but that is not why you watch a show like this.)

From a YA writer’s point-of-view, the most compelling part of the show is the way it establishes and develops character. The foundation of She-Ra‘s characterisation is love and friendship – presented not just as a positive force, but also as something that can go bad, fall short or distract from what matters. Everything in the show has its foundation in that core, and it’s an amazing demonstration of how you can use the common emotional understandings of your (largely teenage) audience as a way to express complexities and tensions that that audience will connect with.

Also, it’s pretty queer. And we need more queer TV.

Go binge this over a couple of weekends while you’re bouncing around lockdown – there’s a lot to learn from it and a lot of feelings to be felt. And goddamnit, I would die for Scorpia. She just wants to be loved.

And speaking of lockdown reads (shut up okay), how about you don’t read that self-serving bullshit screed that JK Rowling and a gaggle of alt-right fuck-knuckles published last week, whinging about cancel culture?

Here’s this blog’s position on all that:

‘Cancel culture’ is just what privileged people call ‘facing the consequences of my actions’ or possibly ‘being criticised because I used my power and influence to yell my fuckin’ garbage opinions all over the internet’.

Boo fuckin’ hoo, JK; go spew your transphobic white noise into the bowlful of £100 bills you have for breakfast every morning.

One of the few positives to this unending trash fire we now live in is that as the boundaries of polite society fall into the abyss, more and more people are looking around and saying, ‘wait, no, FUCK THIS SHIT, I won’t have it any more’, and calling people out on how they contribute to the problem. Whether it’s Rowling being hateful trash, Warren Ellis being a serial predator upon and betrayer of women (something I’m pretty fuckin’ upset about) or, I dunno, the entire corrupt system of police power and control in the world’s most powerful nation, we’ve had enough. Get in the fuckin’ bin with you.

Here’s a mission statement: if I ever get into a position where I a) have power and b) abuse it, y’all have my permission to cancel me harder and faster than Australia’s Naughtiest Home Videos.

…not that that seems likely if I don’t write more books.

*takes long drag on cigarette*
*coughs up a lung, throws half-finished cancer stick in the bin*

I should probably do that, then.

Stay safe, friends.

Categories
character ghost raven obituarist writing

Skin deep

One notable thing about the 2010s is how many popular concepts from the 20th century are getting a revival. Some of those popular things are bad, like measles and Nazism. Others are good, like D&D and audio drama.

Let’s focus on the good for the moment. It’s a great time for RPG actual play podcasts, also known as ‘let’s listen to total strangers playing D&D for two hours as if that’s somehow entertaining rather than torturous’.

1000% accurate depiction of ‘Critical Role’

I kid, I kid. I used to think listening to other people roleplay was incomprehensible, but now an embarrassingly large proportion of my podcast playlist is taken up with AP ‘casts. They’re a good way to learn how other players/GMs approach games, after all – and god help me, the best of them are entertaining.

(The worst… look, it’s real easy to unsubscribe to a bad podcast 2 minutes after starting it.)

The successful ‘casts also have big fan followings – again, a concept none of us thought was possible or sane back in the day. The people, they LOVE listening to the D&D. They tweet about it. They tumble it. They patron it.

Anyway, if you check out social media activity around AP casts, or indeed any other form of audio drama/comedy/etc., the number one thing that comes through is that listeners, desperately, desperately want to know what these characters look like.

And that baffles me.

The thing I find least interesting, the thing I skip over in any book, the fast-forward-or-fuck-it-delete-the-whole-thing trigger in any audio medium… it’s what people look like. It’s descriptions of clothing. Of facial features. Of ohfuckmedead hair colour. Tell me about the character’s ringlets and freckles and I’m putting down the book/’cast in favour of strong drink.

Look, I get it. I know I’m wrong. I’m the weird one here. It’s utterly natural for human beings, a species that (mostly) uses sight as their primary way of perceiving all of existence, to want that sense reflected in their fiction.

But fuuuuuuuuuck it bores me.

I blame Raymond Chandler, as I often do. He taught me that you could describe characters through metaphor and simile without ever specifying what colour pants they were wearing. Consider lines like:

From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.

He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake.

She had eyes like strange sins.

(Yes, I know Chandler described people more thoroughly at other times, and even what they were wearing. Don’t blow up my spot, I’m on a roll.)

I read lines like that at an impressionable age, too young or dumb to register Chandler’s misanthropy, misogyny, homophobia or general shittiness as a person, and they stuck with me. To the point where I struggle to engage with any prose or audio that takes the time to spell out all the details, and to where I look at fanart and clamourings for ‘official’ artwork of podcast characters as some kind of missive from an alternate reality that I would prefer not to visit, thank you.

The principle holds true in my writing. The best description I ever wrote of a character was ‘He had a face like a stab’. That suggests not only what the character looks like (sort of), it speaks to his personality and attitude – and to the personality and thought processes of the narrator that described him.

(I abandoned the project that included that description. But I swear I’ll use it again someday.)

But here’s the thing, and the reason why this is a blog post rather than a grumpy tweet – I realise this might be a problem. That readers – the readers I want to obtain and retain – like knowing what people look like. Especially in YA fiction, which I have decided to keep plugging away at like a punch-drunk bantamweight too concussed to know when to quit.

(Hmm. Might keep that Chandlerism too.)

So with Raven’s Blood, I started working on describing characters more. I’m not sure I succeeded. But as I start planning the next, hopefully final revision pass through that MS in a hope of finding it a home, and indeed to start writing the next novel, descriptions – of characters, clothing, places – are something I’m trying to focus on. And to find some middle ground between a five-word simile and a page-long then I looked in the mirror and listed all of my cute identifying traits monologue. Surely I can manage that.

(As for The Obituarist series… Kendall Barber’s skinny, bald and missing some fingers. And honestly I’m not sure he’s that skinny any more, 5-6 years on. I couldn’t tell you any more than that, and I hope you don’t ask.)

So that’s where my head is right now. Chime in with a comment if you’re so inclined. How important are visual descriptions or depictions to you? Do you feel the need to imagine what characters look like? And what kind of descriptive shorthand (if any) works for you?

BORING PRODUCTIVITY UPDATE: We moved house in the long gap between this post and the last, and I took a lot of concentration-destroying painkillers to cope with a knee injury.

But now we’re settled, I’m (mostly) off the drugs and walking straight, and I’m past the halfway mark on The Obituarist III. Which is proving to have a remarkable number of scenes in which Kendall is just wandering around without pants on.

Don’t blame me. I’m just a vessel for his truth.

Categories
character story wrestling

Plot, character, piledrivers

So I’ve been talking about how pro wrestling is a great space for communicating character and story through action – but talk is cheap. What does that actually mean? How do you use ten minutes of sweaty grappling and backflips to define a character, and what kind of stories can you tell through that platform?

The answer is – more than you might think.

I was going to wrap up this series of pro wrestling posts tonight and get back to beating myself up for my lack of productivity, but I kept finding new stuff to write about (and distracted by other stuff, which is why this Monday night post is going up on Friday night) – so let’s assume this is (at least) a two-part post and use part one to set some foundations, with a look at something everyone already knows about – World Wrestling Entertainment/WWE (and also NXT) – and what lessons might be learned.

WWE-logoEven if you’ve never seen a match in your life, you know about WWE; they’re a multi-billion dollar company, the single biggest wrestling organisation in the world. They have two big weekly shows (Raw and Smackdown) on regular TV, monthly pay-per-view events (even bigger shows) and their own $10-a-month wrasslin’ Netflix with more shows than I care to contemplate. The WWE Network is also the home of NXT, their ‘developmental’ offshoot where new performers build their skills/discipline before graduating to the main roster; just as importantly, it’s where they build an audience so that anyone cares about that graduation.

Tonal change is hard

03A lot of folks I follow on Twitter, or who make podcasts I enjoy, are really into the current WWE promotion, or more directly into NXT, and that background interest is probably what drew me back to the sport after a decade away. It’s kind of sad, then, that I find their current product, well… kind of boring. Compared to the flash, speed and silliness of the Attitude Era (late 90s-early 00s), or even the mid-2000s, the current WWE/NXT style of wrestling is more low-key and PG-rated. The focus is on mat-based wrestling, with a mix of technical grappling and strength/power moves – there’s very little aerial wrestling, use of weapons/tools or straight-up brawling. In many ways it’s a ‘purer’ form of wrestling, but I can’t help but miss table/ladder/chair matches. (Lesson: when you set a tone early on, it’s more difficult to bring that tone down and retain readers than it is to raise the stakes and escalate.)

Risk aversion is sensible but boring

The other big change is in the attitude of the corporation, which has come to really emphasise the ‘professional’ in pro wrestling. WWE is a  big, big business, and they don’t want to jeopardise that business by relying on unpredictable, idiosyncratic wrestlers with their own style or ideas about things are meant to work. The result, to my biased eye, is a growing homogeneity among the wrestlers, who are all drawing from the same set of moves and character concepts – moves and concepts largely chosen by an external group of coaches, managers and marketers – rather than bringing their own individual style and flair. And I get that, because you want a reliable and commercially viable product, and for your staff to be safe from injury due to unpredictable circumstances, but it makes it hard for me to tell many of them apart, or to care which one of them wins the day. (Lesson: you don’t have to play it safe, and you can depict any kind of character doing any kind of thing. SO DO THAT. Leave the homogeneity for the real world.)

Stick to the schtick

A lot of character development in WWE comes through visual flags – a wrestler always dresses a certain way, has a specific entrance, uses identifiable gestures. Similarly, every wrestler has signature moves and catchphrases that they’ll use in almost every match and promo – things that reinforce the character in your mind, that make them memorable even if you can’t connect that memory to a specific action or event. That’s a technique that’s very powerful in visual media, but can also be tapped in prose storytelling. (Lesson: set out simple, short signifiers for a character like a piece of clothing, a phrase or even a radical haircut, something you can describe in five words, and drop them into scenes so that readers get that instant bit of connection.)

Enzo_Colin_07312014ca_873-406214323

Use all your tools – but use them properly

WWE make heavy use of promos, vignettes, backstage skits, brief interviews and other non-match showcases to build character, but their in-ring character development is a bit lacking; the current product doesn’t do much to showcase agendas, motivations or unique traits once the bell rings to start the fight. Almost all of that comes before and after, which is maybe the main reason I find their stuff a bit dull right now. Still, all of that developmental material works in building character nuance and substance. What doesn’t work is when the announce team just tell you a character is awesome, even when you can see that they’re a bit shit. WWE have been doing that for years, and if anything it’s even more distancing and annoying now that the video quality is so good and you can see mediocre characters underwhelm you in HD. (Lesson: character can come from lots of interactions and presentations, big or small – but keep the focus on what characters do, and don’t forget about ‘show, don’t tell’, okay?)

We don’t talk about the weird stuff any more

WWE’s storylines used to have a few weird and strange elements, but that’s largely been excised these days. Modern storylines revolve around professional rivalries for belts and prime roster positions, which bring larger paycheques and more merch opportunities. In other words, they’re wrestling stories about wrestling; the business is about the business. That has potential for metatextual shenanigans, but they’re rarely explored, and the end result is a storytelling environment that leaves me kind of cold. At the same time, the rare inclusion of a new element – a personal grudge, a lapsed friendship, a reflection of external factors – is just enough to stand out and get my interest, even if it’s never anything as over-the-top as the Undertaker fighting Kane in the fires of Hell. (Lesson: it’s good to set a baseline of realism, but staying there is kind of boring; look for ways to make stories be about more than their own immediate, sensible and predictable contexts.)

Undertaker_vs_Kane_in_the_inferno_match_on_Raw_February_22_1999_crop_exact

Good pacing makes up for many sins

The thing that WWE really understands these days, after decades of experimentation, is the rhythm of action storytelling – the pacing skeleton that supports all manner of wrestling meat. A standard WWE feud starts just after a pay-per-view, with hostilities rising between two wrestlers; at the next PPV they either settle things (short arc) or the situations escalates (medium arc). There’s a consistent, engaging build with peaks and troughs, highs and lows – something that gets you pumped and then lets you cool off. Matches are the same; the rise and fall of energy and spotlight in a WWE show is so crisp you could graph it. (Well, usually; I hear the recent SummerSlam PPV was 6 hours long, peaked too soon and burned the audience out by the halfway mark.) (Lesson: knowing the rhythm and flow of fights and stories is more than half the battle of conveying both effectively.)

I signed up for a free month of the WWE Network; that subscription renewed today, and that’s fine, but that’ll do. That gives me time to watch some of the ancillary shows (Breaking Ground is intriguing) and the Cruiserweight Classic, which is my kind of flippy-skippy wrestling, and maybe to take a few more notes on Raw and Smackdown. After that, I think I’ll be happy enough to let it lie. WWE have their own thing, and it works very well for their audience, but I’m okay with not marking out for them any more.

Who do I mark out for? And plunder for storytelling ideas?

Let’s find out next time.

Categories
character games genre story worldbuilding writing

Guild Wars 2 – the storytelling dos and don’ts (part 2)

Last week I started talking about Guild Wars 2, not because it’s a fun game (it is) but because it’s an interesting object lesson in the use of storytelling techniques. I wrote about 1300 words about that, and I can only assume that I stunned all of you into silence with my brilliance ‘cos no-one offered even a single comment on it. Should I ask someone to rewrite my essay?

Well, prepared to be driven permanently mute as I continue to write even more on the topic of story, character and high-level armour drops!

(Also, this was meant to be finished and posted on Sunday night, but the Comedy Festival is chewing up my time and spitting out minutes and limbs.)

(And they’re not even my limbs. Not sure where they come from. Damned creepy, really.)

Choices matter

Throughout your personal story in GW2 you get called on to choose between two or three courses of action, which dictate what the next chunk of narrative will be. That’s excellent game design because it actively engages the player, making them feel that they’re an active participant in the story – even though some choices are weighted pretty heavily towards one more interesting option. (“Well, you could disguise yourself as a minotaur or do LAH LAH LAH NOT LISTENING HAND ME THE HORNS AND SUPERGLUE.”) In fiction you get that engagement by presenting the main character – the reader’s window into the story – with choices to make. Make your main character an active participant in their own story and the reader will follow suit.

…even when they don’t

On the other hand, choices need to be meaningful, and the ones in GW2 aren’t. Sure, they determine which mission you tackle next, but the end point of that mission lines you up to the pre-determined outcome and next stage the same as the alternative would. The game has a path, and your choices just determine which bits of scenery you set fire to along the way. In a story, choices need to be genuine decision points that shape outcomes and have permanent consequences, or else there’s no point writing about them. And as part of that, some of the most interesting decisions are the bad ones, the ones that don’t work out and push the story further into conflict. Go crazy with those.

Voice defines character

A key element of GW2 is that your character speaks, generally in conversational cut scenes – and the most important part of that is that your character develops a distinct voice. No, not voice acting, but a style and tone all their own, from the patient Sylvari to the belligerent Charr to the egotistical Norn. Each character expresses personality through their words as well as their deeds, and that’s vital for any kind of fiction as well. It’s also something you notice when it falls away, as it does in GW2 as multiple plot directions collapse into one, taking with them your character’s distinct voice – so don’t do that. Maintain character voice, even when the plot takes the character in a new direction.

At this point, I feel I should show you my character. His name is Cadmus and he is a Sylvari Guardian and he is level 80 and he fights with a sword and torch and he made all his own armour and he is very awesome and okay I’ll shut up now PS he is boss.

gw002

Fuck lore

I blame Bioware for the trend of emphasising the rich, detailed backstory of their game worlds by littering their games with infodumps and books/scrolls/datapads that you find and reach and squint at instead of actually playing the game. GW2 has plenty of backstory, but rarely stops to tell you about it – it shows you, usually by sending you on missions where history pops up, says hello and stabs you in the face. Short on exposition and long on action/character, GW2’s history leeches into you by osmosis rather than study, and that is a fine lesson to bring to your fiction. Stay focused in the here and now, let your characters discover history organically, and throw out just enough to provide context before moving on.

Genre is a big tent

If you’re looking for purist, traditional fantasy, GW2 is not for you. This is a world featuring giant Vikings, inquisitive plant-people, horned cat-folk undergoing an industrial revolution and a race of freckled gnomish mad scientists with robots and lasers. Add to that pistols, aqualungs, airships, battle armour, dozens of sentient races (most of them bad), anachronisms aplenty and wide swathes of horror and you get a take on fantasy that is anything but traditional. And that’s a good thing. Genre is vast, it contains multitudes, and purity is past its use-by date. Never feel hemmed in by what a genre is ‘supposed’ to contain – put in the things you want to include and the genre will swell to fit.

A consistent tone? What’s that?

Mind you, the problem with a big tent is that you might fill it with boxes, open them all at once and find that they don’t play well together. GW2 tries to present a series, often tragic tone within its main storyline, especially in the third act, but then destabilises that by getting you to enter an 8-bit computer game or fight the terrible Marxist-Leninist mole people in various pun-based locations. It’s hard to have feels when giggles are just a few minutes behind, and hard to maintain a tone of desperate urgency when you can just wander off and ignore the plot for a week while you gather armour bits. Any idea can be serious or silly, calm or critical depending on how you treat it, so long as you pick a tone early on and stick with it. If you’re going to be a purist anywhere in your own work, it should be tone – find your level ASAP and stay there to the end.

Pictures are worth a thousand etcetera

The visual world of GW2 is both rich and very carefully crafted, so that whenever you look around you know where you are. Every location has its own feel, from the sedate human kingdoms to the once-drowned-now-risen wastelands of Orr. Architecture is similarly distinct – you instantly know the cubic, gravity-defying ziggurats of the Asura from the dark satanic mills of the Charr and the re-purposed shipwreck-buildings of Lion’s Arch. Making everything distinct means that everything has instantly-identifiable flavour, embedding players in the world. Writers don’t get to play with visuals (well, most of us don’t), but we have other tools – word choices, prose rhythm, dialect, adjectives and more. Just as you give every character a voice, try to give every location and scene its own voice too; it makes the stories within them all the richer.

Exploration isn’t necessarily story

That said, if all you’re doing is looking at the scenery or exploring the intricacies of how the Shamu-Shamu people make purple whaleskin booties, your story isn’t going anywhere. GW2 encourages exploration with various tools, including the thrill of discovery and the lure of XP and treasure drops, but the story gets put on hold while you check out the landscape. Do you want to put your story on hold while people are actually, you know, reading your story? I thought not. As with lore, position the rich tapestry of your world front and centre by making characters run right through it, showing its colours and complexity for a second and then getting on with things. Story is movement. Always keep moving.

I could probably come up with half-a-dozen more object lessons, but it’s late and this essay is already long enough.

Let’s close by saying this. There was a time where prose was the Only Important Way of telling stories. That time is the distant past. These days there are lots of ways of getting a story into the reader’s head and heart, from games to graphic novels to epic poetry to multi-part interactive fiction experiments on Twitter. I’ve been talking about Guild Wars 2, but I could have drawn similar lessons from pretty much game, any movie, any (mostly) well-crafted piece of storytelling.

Everything you take in can teach you how to tell stories, whether by example or as a don’t-do-this object lesson. Keep your eyes peeled and your mind open, and you can learn from any of them. All of them. And make your stories better in the process.

Also, I’m patrickoduffy.3067 on Jade Quarry server, looking for groups to tackle the lower-level dungeons and maybe a guild to join. Send me a tell. I’ve got your back.

Categories
character games genre story worldbuilding writing

Guild Wars 2 – the storytelling dos and don’ts (part 1)

Look, I make excuse after excuse about why Raven’s Blood is taking longer than expected, and many of those are more-or-less true, but here’s the real reason – I’ve been playing the shit out of Guild Wars 2 for like the last four months.

I have an addictive personality, and MMOs scratch that itch harder than Wolverine with shingles. Which is a terrible metaphor, I know.

Anyway, I’ve been wasting a lot of time on exploring Tyria, fighting elder dragons and experimenting with various ingredient combinations to level up my cooking skills. And something that’s become clear to me is that GW2 is a game based heavily around story, character and exploration, and that it uses some interesting techniques to get those elements across while still delivering lots of action and fights. So, much like I did with Batman: Arkham City last year, I’d like to look at how Guild Wars 2 uses the tools in the storytelling chest to make something that’s more than just whacking digital pinatas for imaginary gold – and how sometimes it uses those tools well and sometimes not.

See, it wasn’t just four months of wasted time; it was research.

Arc after arc, raise after raise

The structure of GW2 is a classic zero-to-hero tale, but one that’s remarkably coherent and well-structured. The core storyline is broken in regular chapters, each of which reaches a natural end point that segues neatly into the next arc, and each of which raises the overall stakes. You start off as just another adventurer, fighting bandits or in a rivalry with mad scientists, and by the end you’re spearheading the battle against the great dragons and their unending army of the undead in order to save the world. And that progression is largely smooth and unbroken; you can always look back and think that it makes sense that you wound up where you are. The pattern of establish a status quo / upend it / fix it / establish a new status quo where the stakes are higher / repeat is the meat and drink of storytelling; it’s always worth considering as your main course.

But keep those doggies moving 

The thing about that arc-to-arc movement is that it doesn’t give you much room to breathe between arcs, or else you lose momentum and don’t make the transition smoothly. Time elapsing in the narrative is fine; time elapsing for the audience is problematic. GW2 does the usual keying of  events to levels and places, and most of the time you gain the requisite experience for the next mission in the process of getting to the location – but not always. A number of times I found myself coming up short and needing to potter around someplace else to gain a level or two, which bled away a lot of the urgency of the storyline.  In your storytelling, don’t give characters unnecessary downtime between arcs – if time has to pass, it’s better to start the next chapter with ‘Six months later’ than to blow a whole chapter describing how nothing important happens for a while.

Character is at the heart of story

It doesn’t matter how rich the backstory and environment of your world is if there’s no-one for us to experience it through. GW2 does a great job of basing everything that happens around your character and their actions. All the plot-important events are instanced, so you don’t see all the other players doing exactly the same mission, and fully-voiced cutscenes bookend each event so that your character is actually interacting with NPCs and shaping the narrative rather than just being given a checklist of objectives. Over the course of 80 levels, I became not just invested in my character’s XP and bitchin’ armour choices but in his personality – a great achievement for an MMO, and the primary thing you want to achieve in your fiction. Do it the same way – build the story around your character and then let personality emerge from action and dialogue.

But your POV might be from the story’s kidney

GW2 positions your character as central, but not as the primary plot-driver; that role is taken up by various characters in the story arcs, with you as their lieutenant/assistant/main legbreaker. Doing so is understandable – you need NPCs to give you missions to drive play – but it still ends up with you being secondary in someone else’s stories. While it’s possible to make this work in a story (such as in the first few of Glen Cook’s Black Company novels), it’s more likely to leave readers feeling that they’re missing out on the story or reading about a less-interesting character. So if you’re going to place your main character outside the absolute centre of your story, make sure that their own story is at least as interesting that what’s going on front and centre.

Situations create narrative

GW2 largely eschews the traditional quest-journal approach of most MMOs in favour of a network of events that are married to locations and situations. Some are static; you enter an area and there are problems that are immediate and obvious (eel-men preying on wrecked ships, unexploded bombs in an orchard, uppity polar bears etc); just by wandering around and interacting with the environment you complete the event. Others are dynamic, suddenly starting up and bringing change into the scene – and some of those are links in a chain of events that change with consequences. If bandits attack a water pipe, you can try to fight them off; if you fail, the pipe is blown up and now you have to help repair it. This gives everything a feeling of import and weight; the world changes with you, even if only for a little while, and other players will be affected by your deeds. This is the kind of feeling you want to impart to events in your fiction. The best stories are not  just handed down from on high; they emerge naturally from reactions to a situation, they shape the actions of characters and are shaped in turn, and the consequences that follow the event meaningfully changes the narrative.

Sometimes that narrative is a bit dull

When a situation calls for a variety of actions – combat, puzzle solving, interaction, chopping down trees or whatever – then it’s engaging on several levels. When it just involves attacking an indeterminate number of monsters using the same two weapons for ten minutes… not so much. GW2’s static and dynamic events are a mix of the inspired (especially when you end up putting on disguises and changing form), the serviceable and the just-hit-enough-things-until-it’s-over, which is as quotidian as it gets for a video game. Over in the writing world, you should probably try to avoid the quotidian, because those are situations that don’t have tension, conflict or emotional resonance, and the narratives and consequences that emerge from them just aren’t interesting. Of course, ‘quotidian’ isn’t the same as ‘ordinary’; lots of normal human interactions are charged with conflict and meaning, and can give rise to powerful stories. But situations that only allow for limited character actions, that don’t matter in the overall storyline, that don’t present more than cosmetic consequences… it doesn’t matter if your story’s set in Melbourne, Metropolis or Moria, that bit of it’s going to be dull. Skip it.

Okay, we’re well over 1000 words at this stage, this post is two days late and I’m only half-finished, so I’m breaking this in half. Come back next weekend for part two, which will be at least as exciting and educational as this one.

Plus I’ll add some screenshots of my character. He looks boss.

Categories
character writing

Five things I’ve learned about dialogue

I’m not good at dialogue.

There, I said it. Although not as well as other authors would.

Anyway, I’ve struggled with dialogue ever since I started writing, and because of that I keep writing it, because if I leave it alone I’ll never get better at it.  I’m still not great with it, but I have learned something from my mistakes, and in the spirit of sharing, education and group hugging, I’ve got a list of five lessons here for your edification.

Lesson Zero, of course, is never to use the word ‘edification’ in your dialogue. Ahem.

Realistic dialogue isn’t interesting; interesting dialogue isn’t realistic

You know how normal people speak? We errm and ahh and mumble, we pause for breathe at inconvenient times, we repeat ourselves, we start every sentence with ‘Um, actually’, we repeat ourselves… all of these things are genuine and realistic ways of portraying human speech. And they are boring as shit to read. Worse than boring, they’re irritating; they’re like little clusters of birdshit clogging up the page and stopping the reader getting to the part of the dialogue that’s actually entertaining or that carries the story.

My big sin here was starting most of Kendall’s dialogue in The Obituarist with ‘Well,’. I had reasons – sometimes it showed that he’s thinking up what he says as he says it, sometimes it let me negate or undercut what someone else had said, but mostly I did it because that’s how people speak. Okay, that’s how I speak. Fortunately, my editor pulled me up on that and made me take it out, and the book is the stronger for it.

The dialogue that sticks in your memory or powerfully depicts character isn’t the realistic stuff, it’s the dialogue that you wish actual human beings would speak. No-one swears like Chuck Wendig’s Miriam Black or gibbers like Hunter S. Thompson’s Doctor Gonzo, but those characters (and other like them) have a voice that stays with the reader and draws them into the story. Their artificiality is engaging; they remind us that we’re reading fiction and are allowed to stretch our imaginations. Even realistic, character-based narratives benefit from interestingly unrealistic dialogue, because you can use the conceit of the voice as a counterpoint to the groundedness of the characters and story.

So cut out the umms and skip the tonal padding; crazy moon-talk puts bums on seats.

Small talk equals bore talk

The other thing real people do is talk about things that don’t matter that much – the weather, what we did on the weekend, the proud/shameful acts of Local Sports Team #7 and so on. This is normal and it serves a purpose; it’s a way of setting up a shared space in which we can then be comfortable talking about more important things. Small talk is a social safety net.

But small talk in a narrative needs to be bludgeoned to death and thrown in a lime pit; it’s boring, and worse than that it doesn’t move the plot along. I’m not saying every single word in your story needs to be 100% vital, but it should play some purpose for the reader; small talk only plays a purpose for the characters, and they don’t need to feel safe because they’re not real. I made this mistake in some of my early Hunter RPG writing, which was presented as in-character material like tape recordings. I used small talk and chit-chat to give context, but the material didn’t need it; again, my editor removed the worst excesses and set me straight.

Along these lines, the best point to come into a dialogue scene is after it’s started, not just after the chit-chat but just as/after someone said the most vital/heinous/meaningful thing. The best place to leave the scene is as soon as possible, just after the important stuff’s been said and people have started reacting to it and someone somewhere is going to throw a punch or have a baby or both at the same time. Jump right in, jump right out, hit it and split it – because you grab the reader at the height of their engagement in what’s happening and then transfer that energy to the next phase of the story. Make them do the work for once. Lazy buggers.

Dialogue isn’t action

When you jump in late and out early from a dialogue scene, you bookend the talking with action – and this is important, because talking isn’t action. And I don’t just mean it’s not a fist fight or a car chase, I mean it’s not an avenue by which things happen; dialogue is not the place where things change. It often comes just before that change, of course, and might be the impetus for that change – but the change is still what characters do, not what they say, even in the most internally-focused story.

There are two parts to this lesson. The obvious one is not to make dialogue the resolution of a story or plotline; don’t end the scene with people just talking and then move on. That leaves the reader hanging and wondering what actually happens next, and not in a good way; it’s all windup and no payoff. Even if the aftermath of dialogue is just a person walking out of the room, that can still pack a punch; the words have an effect and the situation/person has changed.  So long as the action is tethered to the dialogue in a meaningful way, the transition will be satisfying.

The second part is that, since dialogue isn’t action, you may want to include some action in the scene to keep the energy levels up. Two people sitting and talking can be riveting on stage, but in print it’s just line after line of he said/she said, and visual monotony can creep in. To avoid that, have characters move around and do things – drink wine, kick chairs, shoot ninjas, whatever. You can reinforce talk and action by having them be different aspects of the same thing; alternatively, you can have people do one thing while saying another, arguing about custody rights while operating killer drones on a cyber-battlefield. That contrast builds a dissonant tension if you do it right, and maybe lets you sneak in metaphorical parallels if you’re one of those writers who is smarter than me.

Dialogue is sorta kinda like action

Okay, I lied. There is one way that dialogue is like action, and that’s pacing. Just as an action scene can catch the reader and propel them breathless through the chapter, so too can quick back-and-forth banter. Hell, you don’t even need that; any dialogue that’s reasonably snappy will speed readers through a scene, if only because there are fewer words on the page. That’s the mechanistic element that’s easy to forget; dialogue reads fast, and talking chews up pagecount more than description.

On the flip side, if you want to slow the pace down, you can do that with dialogue too. A slow, thoughtful conversation where characters speak in paragraphs rather than sentences can take up more mental space for the reader than anything else, because we’re less likely to skip through dialogue looking for pertinent information, which we’ll often do with description. That said, this is tricky, because slow, thoughtful conversations are often kind of boring. So maybe don’t do this too often; better to intersperse dialogue with description or (yet again) action for a speed-up-slow-down-push-me-pull-you rhythm.

This also means that if you write a book with no dialogue, minimal dialogue, or that gets away from the quotation mark style of speech to something more abstract – which is what I did with Hotel Flamingo – you lose a major pacing mechanism from your writer’s toolbox. If you’re a good writer, you can make do without it – but be aware of what you’re giving up before you start, lest you get halfway through and realise you need it after all.

Give major characters a distinctive voice, but not an accent, because accents are bullshit

Some advice manuals say to give every character a distinct voice, but I say that’s not necessary. Sometimes it’s okay for a minor character to sound like another minor character, as long as they’re in separate scenes. Making everyone unique is a) hard, b) unnecessary, c) potentially overwhelming for the reader who has to juggle all these voices in their head.

But for major or recurring characters, it’s really good to give them a signature of some kind, a mannerism or style that tags them in the reader’s memory and reinforces personality. I used a few of these in The Obituarist, such as Samosa’s habit of saying ‘bro’ or Grayson’s snarky politeness, and I think I pulled those off pretty well. A specific inflection, a occasionally-used phrase, a tendency to inflect every statement like a question; little things say a lot and make them memorable.

A little goes a long way, mind you. D-Block’s vocal mannerisms in The Obituarist go too far, and looking back I wish I’d cut them down by about 50%. That would still have given him a unique voice, been less wearying to read, and might have said more about his character by implying that it was a deliberate affectation, rather than just being ‘street’.

Accents, though, are the work of Satan; they are the leavings of Mephistopheles’ slush pile. Unless you are Irvine Welsh and plan to your whole novel in dialect – and if you are Irvine Welsh, mate, thanks a lot for Trainspotting – then accents are just trying too fucking hard and making your character vomit unreadable chains of gibberletters onto the page that the reader has to decipher every damn time until eventually they give up and go back to the TV, where at least the accents might have subtitles.

Comics are so very, very bad for this. We’ve suffered through like thirty years of Chris Claremont sticking an indeterminate Southern accent on Rogue, whose drawl has stretched so far that it’s hard to tell whether she’s just a Foghorn Leghorn caricature of a real Mississippian or whether the poor girl has an acquired brain injury from all those times she got punched in the head by the Juggernaut.

Of course she hooked up with Gambit. It’s like duelling diphthongs down at the Crossroads.

Accents drown out the meaning and the tone of dialogue, overwhelming the flavour like rancid cheese oozing all over a subtle lemon sorbet. They’re cheap, they’re stupid, they’re distracting and they’re clumsy. And if you’re using them to communicate a character’s cultural or ethnic background, well, then they may even be kinda racist. Or not even kinda.

So don’t use ’em, bro.

Folks, this has been a collection of five things I’ve learned as a reader and a writer. I hope you found them useful. If you did, please say so – if enough people enjoyed this I may do another set on a different topic in future. And if you disagree on any point, possibly because you are Chris Claremont – and if so, Chris, what was up with putting all the female X-characters in bondage outfits time after time? – then you should also leave a comment and say so.

We could start a dialogue OH SNAP YOU SEE WHAT I DID THERE

Categories
character writing

Character goals – a COMPilation of elements

‘Strong characters need strong goals’

This is one of those truisms of writing that sounds sensible and useful until you actually scratch at it a bit, and realise that it doesn’t actually tell you what a strong goal is or how to come up with one that makes sense for your character.

(Things that are true are not always useful; things that are useful are not always true.)

But I was thinking this week about characters and goals (mostly ‘cos I was thinking about World of Darkness roleplaying, but it applies to writing as well), and I’ve maybe come up with a trio of idea that combine to making a powerful goal for a character, one that can drive stories and inspire authors.

So what, then, makes for a good character goal? Well, I call it my compilation of elements, because all three start with ‘comp’. Cheesy, yes, but easy to remember!

Compelling

The goal must be something urgent, something that compels the character to work towards it actively and right away. Part of this is having the goal be something that emotionally yanks at the character, so that ignoring it to do something else is unthinkable. Revenge is a good example of this, as is a burning need to seek justice (they’re not quite the same thing). But the time element is also important; a good goal can’t be shelved indefinitely. Perhaps it has to be completed before the opportunity is lost  (the murderer must be caught before he escapes the country), or perhaps the goal just won’t mean anything to the character if it’s not achieved right away. There’s room for a goal that can be put aside for a brief period – particularly if the delay gives the character a much-needed advantage, such as an ally or information – but it has to draw the character back even harder after the break.

Complicated

A goal that is easy to achieve is a boring one, and one that doesn’t drive a narrative. A good goal takes work to achieve, and not simple work at that. There needs to be obstacles in the way, conflicts to overcome, multiple stages that need to be achieved. All of this complication requires the character to work hard at things and to approach things from multiple angles – a goal that is difficult, but is achieved simply by killing lots and lots and lots of dudes, is a goal that won’t keep readers’ interest. (The best narrative video games understand this – they stretch player skill in multiple areas at different times to progress towards the end.) Complications allow you to bring in other story elements, like additional characters and plotlines – and most importantly, complications give you lots of ways to introduce different kinds of conflict. Because, as we all know, stories run on conflict.

You can kill dudes, Ezio, but now you must BAKE!

Completable

And in the end, the goal has to be something the character can achieve – they can get to a point where they think ‘yes, I’ve done it, I can stop now.’ (That doesn’t mean that they have to achieve the goal – tragedy and anticlimax are wonderful things – but it has to be something they could have achieved if things hadn’t gone wrong.) There need to be milestones along the way to keep the character’s momentum going, and there needs to be a concrete, definable end state. Vague, open-ended goals like ‘gain power and wealth’ don’t keep propelling the narrative and maintain reader attention; eventually they lose momentum and peter out. Similarly, the emotional power behind a compelling goal slowly evaporates if the goal isn’t achievable; it loses meaning, and the ability to care goes with it. Paint a target on your story, point your character at it, and let it explode when he/she hits the bullseye.

(Many thanks to Jeb Darsh for suggesting ‘completable’ rather than ‘concrete’ when I was trialling these ideas on Twitter.)

Now, you may look at that list and think ‘well, hang on, I can think of some strong characters that aren’t driven by goals that match that.’

Well, of course you can, because this list ain’t the perfect be-all end-all ULTIMATE SECRET of writing; if I could come up with that, I’d be injecting liquid money into my eye sockets rather than writing blog posts. There are certainly other ways to come up with good character goals; this is one pattern, but every writer finds their own way.

It’s also important to remember, though, that not every strong character needs a strong goal. Goals are important in stories that are driven by character choices and actions, but that’s only one kind of story. Event-driven stories often feature reactive characters, who respond to external needs rather than internal forces, and those stories are just as interesting and powerful. Characters with weaker, vaguer goals are also better suited to open-ended narratives, such as ongoing serials. Comics are a great example; Batman has a goal (to avenge his parent’s deaths and fight crime in Gotham), but it’s not an achievable one or one that must utterly consume him, if only because he has to stop every now and then to help the Justice League fight Starro or something.

But even in these narratives, you can include smaller subgoals, and in turn give the reactive character a more active role for a time. ‘Fight crime’ is too vague and too unachievable; ‘uncover and defeat the Court of Owls’ is a lot more solid and puts Batman into the driver’s seat of a specific storyline. And again, including all three elements – compelling, complicated, completable – makes that subgoal engaging and exciting for the period in which it drives the larger narrative.

So that’s my guide to the basics of a strong character-goal. Work out those three elements at the start of your story and you should have enough steam in the engine to power you all the way to the end.

Do you have a different approach? Let’s talk about it in the comments! Come on, people, let’s share.

Categories
character story superheroes

Faster than a speeding narrative

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Superman, and specifically thinking about how to write Superman stories.

Which, let me be clear, is not something I tend to do very often. I am Batman-man, after all, and while I’ve always been perfectly happy that Superman exists I’ve rarely been all that interested in reading about him. Good character, but not my favourite.

But the last few years have seen Superman appear in many stories that get the character very wrong, and these things irritate me when I read them. Worse, those wrongheaded approaches get enshrined into continuity as ‘definitive’ stories and interpretations, and the stories that follow take their cues from these flawed sources.

And now we have a belligerent, ‘edgy’ Superman who is alienated from humanity, quick to lash out in anger and willing to dismember and decapitate his enemies. Yes, that actually happened in the new Justice League title, because what we’d always wanted to see was the world’s greatest hero tear aliens into bloody shreds. Kids love it!

Everything about this is terrible. EVERYTHING.

So I feel the urge to pontificate on how to write Superman. Which is not difficult, despite what people say – hell, it’s so simple that even a schmuck who has no comics writing experience whatsoever can see it. Because there is an elemental purity to Superman, the first and most important superhero, and that purity shines through like yellow sunlight through green fog.

Many of the changes seem to come from the oft-repeated ‘conventional wisdom’ that Superman is a hard character to write, or to relate to, for two reasons:

  1. His enormous physical power makes it difficult to challenge him
  2. His morality is simplistic and makes him emotionally uninteresting

The interesting thing about these arguments is that they are both stupid – or, more precisely, both backwards. They position the two greatest opportunities in writing the character as problems. They are Bizarro reasons that am make perfect sense me am love eating ground glass.

Here’s the thing about ‘challenging’ characters – that’s not how writing a story works. Writers don’t ‘challenge’ characters, because the setup and the outcome of the story (or scene) are determined by the writer in the first place. There’s no challenge, there’s no uncertainty, there’s no rolling dice to see if the hero or villain win this month. Instead, you need to approach things in terms of conflict.

What are the stakes? What are the conditions? What does the character want? What can/will they do to achieve it? What do they need to overcome? What are the consequences of success and/or failure? These are the fundamental questions a writer needs to consider, and they are the questions that shape stories – and that determine what kind of stories work for a character.

So when someone talks about Superman being ‘too powerful’, that speaks to a problem with the stakes and conditions, not the character itself. A story about Superman catching a car thief isn’t going to work because the stakes and the consequences don’t match the character, not because he’s ‘too powerful’. And anyway, we’ve seen that story before, right?

Instead of a problem, think of Superman’s abilities as an opportunity. Superman’s physical power does not exist to let him overcome conflicts, it exists to allow him to engage in conflicts – the more amazing and over-the-top the better. His power level allows you to open up immense conceptual space and come up with magnificently impossible situations. Suns should be exploding, continents should be liquefying  dimensions should be tearing asunder. You have a chance to make up something amazing when you write Superman – do that, rather than, I dunno, have him walk slowly across America while lecturing poor people about how they shouldn’t commit crimes.

The other thing about going balls-out in the imagination stakes is that it means creating antagonists who can also operate on that level. Again, this is something some writers see as a constraint (they really wanted to make that car thief the bad guy) and I see as an opportunity, because it means the power levels cancel out and put the focus on personality. When that playing field is leavened – or, more correctly, equally heightened – what carries the day is not physical power but courage, determination and humanity. Superman doesn’t win because he is strong; he wins because he is brave, kind, inspirational and selfless. He wins because of that simplistic morality that is the other major complaint about the character, because the heart is the most powerful muscle of all. 

And here’s the thing about ‘simplistic morality’ – fuck your cynicism, human goodness is real.

Yes, we are flawed, but we can work to overcome those flaws, and we do so every day. I see people striving to help others every day, in whatever way they can – and for most of us those are small ways, sure, but we still try. We can be terrible to each other, but we don’t have to be. And in Superman – in the lightning that Siegel and Shuster captured in 1938 – we can imagine what simple human goodness could do if given the ability to act. Superman does not refute the notion that power corrupts; he refutes the notion that power must corrupt.

Some people think that’s old-fashioned. I think it’s beautiful.

Certainly there is room for that moral strength to be tested – that, in the end, is the most exciting part of any conflict involving Superman, because exploding suns are all well and good but we need something human to connect to. The point is, though, that there’s a difference between it being questioned and being subverted or mocked; between it being a source of conflict or a source of failure. Stories where Superman wonders whether torture can be justified (the animated feature Superman vs the Elite), where Jonathan Kent hires a branding consultant to design the S-shield (Superman: Earth One) or where his power alienates him from humanity and makes him feel superior (Kill Bill, of all things) utterly miss the point of the character. Superman gives us something utterly human to aspire to; he tells us that goodness can come from our genes, our upbringing or our innate character. That humanity is not something to be overcome, despite what Nietzsche said.

Alright, enough of my ranting and italics. Where does this get us?

Well, if we work from these principles, we can see that Superman stories should embrace the impossible, putting him at the start into situations no normal person could survive or perhaps even understand. He’s not blase or jaded by the situation, but nor is he cowed. His powers let him engage with those impossible situations, while his moral strength allows him to overcome the conflict facing him – the alchemical wedding of Super and Man.

For my money, the perfect Superman story that illustrates all of this is not All-Star Superman, although that is one of the finest Superman stories ever told; it gets everything right, but puts too much of its focus on other characters and situations. Instead, I’d like to nominate another Grant Morrison piece, Superman Beyond, a tie-in to the unfairly maligned Final Crisis.

In it, Superman is recruited by the interdimensional Monitors of Nil to battle a threat that could end the entire multiverse. But the Monitors’ bleedship crashes in Limbo, a wasteland between realities populated by forgotten superheroes, a place where stories go to die. When Mandrakk, the Dark Monitor, comes to tear Limbo apart and destroy all realities, Superman rallies the forgotten heroes to fight back while he travels outside reality to the Monitors’ home. There he takes control of a giant thought-robot to fight Mandrakk, unleashing the conceptual power of his own story to overcome the metatextual erasure of reality, finally casting the vampire Monitor into the Overvoid before flying back to his own reality with a single drop of infinite energy in his mouth that he uses to save Lois Lane’s life.

That probably all sounds a bit crazy put like that, and it must be said that coherency is not a hallmark of Final Crisis, but the majestic inventiveness and scale of the story make it wonderful. It’s a story where Superman must battle threats not just to humanity or one universe but to the very concept of universes, where he has to accept the idea that his life and everything he knows is on some level fictional but still worth fighting for, where he needs to place faith in alternate universe versions of himself (even in the evil one), and where in the end he is motivated to give it everything he has by his love for his wife.

Also, parts of the story were in 3D, special glasses and all.

Fuck. Yeah.

That’s how you write Superman,

Look, I’ve been talking in the specific about Superman here, but in the end this all applies to any powerful or competent character. Actually, strike that – it applies to any character, at least one interesting enough to write about. Because it’s always important to ask the right questions when writing about conflicts, and it’s always important to let the character’s personality be involved in how that conflict plays out. It’s just that it’s easier to expound at length (great, great length) on those points when I have a blue-and-red example to attach to them.

So take three axioms from this:

  1. Any character trait, negative or positive, can be used to shape the parameters of a conflict.
  2. Any character trait, negative or positive, can be used to shape the outcome of a conflict.
  3. You can (and probably should) use completely different traits to shape parameters and outcome.

And those apply to heat vision, intellect, juggling skill or just particularly tight pants.

Or indeed no pants. Let’s see Superman fight that.