Today I want to discuss one of the most difficult aspects of writing- getting your point across. Writing means making a statement through your story, whether it be personal, social, or moral. Fantasies can be about courage and finding yourself, sci-fi can be about human potential and what we can or can’t do. But whatever your point, getting it to your audience is vital. Not doing enough or doing too much can ruin the impact of your story and unfortunately, it’s something even the best writers can do wrong.
In most cases, subtlety is the best course of action. The moral should never overtake the story, because the story should be how the moral is expressed. But overplaying the moral can also cause the story to be one sided and making the story one sided. A recent example is the second animated adaption of The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss. Both adaptations tell Seuss’s tale of the dangers of deforestation and greed, but the first takes a moment to humanize the antagonist Onceler, giving him moments of regret for his actions. The story even has him make a strong argument against the Lorax, reminding him that shutting down his factory would put people out of work, a point the Lorax concedes. This causes the viewer to think more objectively and question the lessons of the story. But in the more recent adaption, this is ignored for a more pro-eco stance, which save for one moment of balance, paints all industry as bad and all nature as good, which weakens the argument and makes the message feel preachy.
But at the same time, subtly can be difficult as well. While it may not bash readers over the head with the moral, the point can sometimes be lost. A personal example come from the Mel Brook Wild West satire Blazing Saddles. The film is chock full of shots at racism, Western films, and Hollywood, while still throwing random moments of insanity (a man punches a horse. Really). One example is how the black sheriff first rides into town, which stuns the townsfolk into silence. However, they quickly recover and pull their guns on the sheriff. The irony of course, is that the people couldn’t defend themselves from bandits, but are all armed enough to kill a black man. This is a clever point, but flew over my head for many years. Another example is George Orwell’s Animal Farm, one of my favorite satires of all time. The tale is a point by point example of the rise and fall of communism acted out through barnyard animals. But it does require some knowledge of such a government to really be accurate. Still, these examples are less of a problem then overstating and can be either fun to discover or encourage further exploration.
So what can a writer do to get a moral across? For starters, never write it in a way that talks down to your audience. Teaching is one thing, demeaning is another, and only one of them works. And try to see more then one side of your moral. If you can’t put your idea against scrutiny, it’s not worth defending. Take the time to show the opposition, and what makes sense about it. It will make your moral stronger for defending and hopefully make a better case. Finally, DON”T LET IT OVERSHADOW THE STORY. The story is meant to highlight the moral- it can’t become you on a soapbox screaming your belief to the world.
Greetings once again. Today, I wanted to expand on something I’ve discussed earlier- writing good female characters. Since my first blog on this subject, I have mused further on some of the more popular ‘female-led’ films, and examples I’ve seen from reviews on different films. One thing has jumped out at me each time and that is what I wanted to talk about today- the cliché of the female lead.
Last time, I discussed how writers struggle to write a female character out of fear of making a ‘Mary-Sue’ (a perfect and unrelatable character). However, there is another problem for writers emerging. The old saying is that there are only about ten actual stories and we have simply been writing variations on them for centuries. And granted, readers can often predict a story’s arc within the first five minutes. But this is truly nothing new, and has been used in countless stories for both genders. So why is it a problem now?
Because these arcs are praised as pushing boundaries simply because women are the ones doing it. But in truth, these clichés are not new angles for women and they are simply placed into them because it makes appear strong and dynamic, but in truth makes them dull and familiar at best, or degrading at worst. And as a result, they can drag the story down with them. One example of this is the film Brave. This exemplifies the ‘rebel’ as lead character Merida is a Scottish princess that loves the outdoors, hates conventions, and continually argues with her mother about her royal duties. While Merida might stand out as a girl that wants to make her own way, her journey and motivation is a tired story that has been echoed in countless princesses before. Even watching it, I could predict her inevitable fight with her mother, the results that would force them to look at each other’s views and eventually reconcile, both having learned from each. The recent adaption of The Hobbit is another example, as the creators literally made up the elf Tauriel (who is basically a female reflection of Leogolas) because they wanted a romantic triangle; yet another storyline we have seen and been bored by. But they needed a female audience for the film.
Putting women through a story that men have gone through and calling it revolutionary is simply misleading. Inserting one to attract audiences and create meaningless drama is worse. These stories advocate that because the female lead at the forefront, ‘this old story is new now because a WOMAN is doing it.’ In other words, no woman has been different before, no woman has not wanted to go against the norm, and any woman that does is to be revered and praised. And inserting one for no reason then having a ‘tough girl’ that creates romantic tensions means that woman in adventure stories only exist as prizes for men to fight over. Promoting these as a move forward or even as good additions is wrong and dangerous- it insults the women that have done great things against societal norms in the past, paints them into corners, and makes them just another target group to hit.
To bring things up to date, the better thing for promoters, and for writers, is to simply present their story as a story, and let the genders be meaningless. By doing this, it says that this story is familiar to men and women, and both genders are equal because neither one has any impact on the story. In other words writers, if you sell your female lead as simply being a woman or inserting because you think you have to, then you’re just hiding a tired story that you couldn’t make interesting or begging for approval. And if you do that, you should just put your pen down now.
Welcome back. Last week, I discussed being different as a writer to stand out, and the difficulties involved. In doing so, I mentioned one of my favorite types of films, horror-comedies, and how they stand out by going against the grain to make people alternately laugh and scream. Since these films stand out as excellent examples of being different, I would like to spend today going over a few of my favorites, to show how to blend two very unlikely genres together.
What is it
As you might infer, a horror comedy mixes the premise of a horror film with comedic moments. To be clear, films like Scary Movie don’t count, as they are satirizing the horror genre. Real horror comedies treat both areas with respect, giving both frightening moments and comedy equal footing. This can be a difficult concept, as making horror humoruous can be a disaster in straight horror films (see Nightmare on Elm 6, which involves Freddy Kreuger making oneliners and rolling a bed of spikes out for a falling man to land on, ala’ Bugs Bunny). Small moments can work, such as Jason Voorhees’ sleeping bag kill, but to make an entire film with the two require a lot of planning.
Arguably one of the greatest horror comedies ever made, Tremors is the story of a desolate Nevada town attacked by huge worm like monsters called Graboids that eat anything that causes seismic vibrations. The film is full of frightening buildup, such a man on a telephone who died of dehydration rather then come down and face the monsters. The Graboids attacks are also full of suspense and blood, as every step the characters take could be into a Graboid attack. However, the characters bring a good amount of humor to the mix- the heroes are two handymen that are relatable, sarcastic, and just intelligent enough to fight the monsters. The real comedic gem however, is Burt, a paranoid gun nut that is fully prepared for WWIII and uses his home’s immense firearm supply to fight off a Graboid attack. The scene of Burt and his wife going through at least twenty guns to kill the rampaging monster adds the perfect blend of humor to this monstrous situation.
Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil
A recent entry into the field, this is a film that is deceptively clever, as it reverses the classic scenario of college kids on vacation vs. murderous hillbillies. Here, the two titular hillbillies are genuinely good people, while the college kids are shallow, prejudice and judge solely on appearance. This leads to a long series of misunderstandings, which generally end with the kids being the architects of their own destruction, albeit with ridiculous methods (watch the woodchipper scene. That’s the best way to sum it up). However, the movie still keeps things frightening enough with an insane, murderous college boy, filled with a hatred of hillbillies that goes after the heroes with all the passion of Leatherface.
Fright Night (2011)
Based of a 1980’s horror film, this modern retelling pushes the film into the comedic with a pair of excellent performances. While the main story of a vampire moving in next door is kept, and given much more gore, suspense, and death, the film is balanced thanks to the humor of Christopher Mintz-Plasse as a vampire hunter teenager turned wisecracking bloodsucker, and David Tennant as a David Blaine style Las Vegas goth ‘magician’ that is knowledgeable but drunk on fame, guilt, and initial cowardice. Their work balances the horror aspects and makes the film entertaining and well done on both fronts.
A film that expertly builds on a common fear (spiders) and still manages to add some humor. This films focuses on a doctor moving into a new town that is slowly overrun with hybrid spiders birthed from a deadly South American breed. The townsfolk are slow to deal with the threat but when it becomes overwhelming, it is easy to be creeped out (the queen spider is the size of a baseball mitt). And the scene of spiders swarming over a house is horror enough for most viewers. However, the film is balanced by the light tone of the ‘new doctor’ story and by John Goodman’s performance as a less then intelligent but fully trained exterminator.
Easily the most disgusting film on this list, this is the tale of a space parasite that infects a West Virginia town with brain slugs that turn victims into drooling zombies, or into raw-meat eating breeders for more slugs. The film alternates between moments of extreme gore (a man literally being slit from belly to forehead) and humor (the incompetent mayor ranting about not getting his Mr. Pib soda after a monster attack). Much of this comes from the excellent performance of Nathan Filion as the sheriff, as well as the ungodly makeup used to create the mutated human hosts. There is even a well told love story thrown into the mix, but nothing feels forced and the film flows well, creating a slimy but enjoyably so good time.
In general, horror-comedies are played for entertainment, which is certainly true. However, when done well, they manage to speak to two strong impulses in readers- our desires to be both scared and be made to laugh. These are powerful impulses that require expert care to both be sated. So if you have any sort of genre-mixing story in your head, watch some of these films and see just how much goes into balancing two opposing forces in one story.
On a seperate note, I will be part of an author showcase this week at the Plainfield NJ Public Library from 2-4. Stop by if your in the area to talk and pick up a book.
Greetings once again. Today, I want to discuss an aspect of writing that can prove both a blessing and a curse- being different. There are generally two schools of thought when it comes to popular writing; you can follow the trends, or you can do something against it. In general, it’s considered better to be different, as the large number of failed Harry Potter knockoff adaptations has shown in the last few years. But if you do want to be different, there are certain concepts that must be understood and observed; including one central rule- being different is not the same as being good.
Being different can have many meanings. The most identifiable one might be going against a popular trend, which can have positive and negative results. Being different will make you stand out, and may please an audience that is unhappy with the current trend. But it also means you must work harder to get your work out, since it is unlikely to please the masses at first. This was generally the approach I took with Lightrider- despite advice from others, I had no desire to write another young-adult fantasy story or supernatural romance; I desired to write something that might be enjoyed by those audiences, but more adult sensibilities (for example, an unknowing adult hero instead of a child ‘messiah’ figure). That question of what should be different is vital, as it will decide the tone, feel, and general ‘being’ of your book.
As to what they can be, it can be anything from character roles to tone. For example, horror comedies such as Tremors or Arachnophobia stand out because even though they are scary, they have several humorous moments to balance them out. Gremlins especially took advantage of this by having several frightening Gremlins that still managed to be funny through their behavior, or the classic movie theatre scene where they sing along to “Heigh-Ho” from Snow White. Characters can also benefit from being different- a classic example would be Shylock from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Shakespeare’s presentation of Shylock as a villainous Jew is accurate for the time period. However, Shakespeare also has Shylock comment on his status, bemoaning that his actions are only what people expect of him, and that he has little choice but to follow society’s beliefs. Indeed, his forced conversion at the end makes it hard not to feel sympathetic to his plight. A more modern example would be The Dude from The Big Lebowski- a character that has no purpose, skills, or direction, but is the central character due to his innate coolness, lackadaisical attitude, and wit. This is a character that should be a side character at best, but the film focuses on him with hilarious and even dramatic results.
With all that said, there are two things that link these varied tones and characters- purpose and logic. Simply having these differences to simply to just make them different, even if it doesn’t need it, destroys any real meaning those differences might have caused. One example could be Tim Burton’s remake of Alice in Wonderland. This version removes the ‘wild road trip’ element and replaces it with a traditional ‘chosen one’ story. While this does make the film stand out, it also takes a more fluid and unpredictable story, and replaces it with a more standard one, which despite the oddcap moments, simply feels rehashed and tired. I have also had the character concept explored by my ongoing personal arguments with friends over Disney’s Frozen (which I promise to stop citing).
In this argument, I took the stance that Elsa, the antagonist of the story (but not the villain), is a sympathetic character until the point where she lets her fear prevent her from even trying to undo the damage she caused. My friend’s point was how this made her different from previous Disney heroines in that she was not the perky princess that was gung-ho about solving problems (a role filled by her sister). I concede that point, but by giving her that difference, Elsa ironically embodies the worst trait of Disney Princesses- the ‘locked in a tower’ syndrome. By not wanting to even try to help, Elsa is now someone sitting in a room alone, waiting for someone else to solve her problem for her. Her difference makes her less of a character and more of an obstacle to overcome, while giving the audience a character they should avoid becoming rather then someone they should emulate. So in trying to be different, they created a character that not only loses audience sympathy but creates a negative role model in the Twilight mold of a girl that must BE helped because she will never do so on her own.
Being different can be a tremendous boon to writers. It allows them to come up with ideas and concepts that allow for their own freedoms. However, it can make them work harder to push their ideas, and being different can be mistaken for being good. Writers need to remember that if they have a different idea, they need to flesh it out and make sure that it brings something that works because of clear, well thought out ideas. Being different only works if it brings us something good- a broccoli-crème donut is different, but how many people would really want it?
Greetings once again and welcome to the blog. Last week’s discussion of Discworld and all its fantastical nature caused me to reflect on another element of fantasy- magic. While not all fantasy stories have this directly, there is usually a hint of it or it is part of the reader’s suspension of disbelief. However, magic is often portrayed as the ‘answer’ to various questions in these novels. This is understandable since magic is undefined and can really do anything. However, stories that use magic do need to have rules that define it, or magic simply becomes another dues ex machina.
Magic in Books
Because magic is imaginary, it can be bent to serve many forms. Wizards and sorcerers generally can use magic for anything they desire, or there are specific types of magic (fire-magic, for example) that can do certain things but not solve all problems. It also serves a difficult balance of not always needing to be explained. For example, if Merlin the wizard casts a spell, we accept whatever he does because he is Merlin and an established wizard. But at the same time, if a character was somehow affected by, let’s say, a healing spell, and then developed the ability to stop time, then we are left wondering why a spell would have such a different reaction on this person. An example of this kind of magic comes from a parody from The Simpsons, in which actress Lucy Lawless responds to fan questions with “A wizard did it’. This causes issues because it makes magic a blanket answer that also means that it has no rules and can answer a question without establishing why.
Many books do establish severe rules for magic. In the Dragonlance Chronicles, it is explained that magic requires not only innate talent, but perfect recitation and writing of spells. The use of magic also drains the user, until he or she must rest and regain their strength. This explains why wizards do not take over the world with their power. There are also divisions in the ranks- three distinct orders that focus on good, neutrality, and evil. While they are different, all orders are bound to magic and its preservation, and will work together when the need arises. However, not all examples of magic are so heavily regulated. Many fairy tales use magic in simpler ways that do not require a lot of detail. We can all remember the witches of Sleeping Beauty and Beauty and the Beast that could use magic. But since these characters are generally established to have power by designation alone and use it for evil, an in depth explanation is not required. However, this example proves that simply having magic is not enough.
This brings me to one of the reasons I chose to do this blog- a series of discussions I have had with a friend over Disney’s Frozen, which is based on the fairy tale of the Snow Queen. While I generally liked the film, I was disappointed that no explanation was given for the cryokinetic powers of Queen Elsa. When I brought up this point, my friend countered that this was clearly a magic land (as it had trolls that used magic) and that I was overthinking the matter. While that may be true, I still found this blanket answer an issue, as the trolls do not show the powers Elsa displays nor do her parents (nor do they have an encounter prior to Elsa’s birth that would explain it, as seen in the film’s predecessor Tangled). It paints magic as random and unpredictable and while it is conceivable that any of the reasons I mentioned might have happened, it is a blow to the film to not show them, especially as Tangled managed to do so in a two minute segment. Because while magic can do anything, it requires proper logic and rules behind to function, or it simply becomes the tool of a lazy writer to explain without actually explaining. And that is something no magic wand can wave away.
On a side note, I will be hosting a book signing at the Westfield NJ Town Bookstore this Saturday from 2-4. If you are in the area, stop by, meet me, and pick up a great book.
Greetings once again. I apologize for my recent absence, as work and personal matters kept me away last week. However, part of that time was also spent examining a rich writing source that I wish to discuss today. That is the work of British fantasy writer Terry Pratchett- the novels of Discworld.
Discworld is an epic series of novels based in the realm of Discword, a flat, disc-shaped planet that sits on the back of four giant elephants, that travel through space on the back of a giant turtle. Despite the fantastical setting, the world is generally based on Victorian England, albeit with the additions of magic, wizards, and other fantastical elements. Unlike most fantasy novels, Discworld does not focus on a singular character or group of characters (though there are repeat characters and multi book arcs). Instead, each story generally stands apart, usually connected only by the realm itself. As such, Pratchett uses the books as satire, mocking not only fantasy novels themselves, but also elements of the real world, though serious elements do inject themselves as needed.
What Writers Can Learn: World-Building, Satire
Since the realm of Discworld is generally the connecting element for these novels, readers are given an extensive view of a world being built. Readers are shown a variety of cities, such as Ankh-Morpork, which house a wizard university and a variety of Guilds (from Musicians to Assassins). There are also numerous supernatural creatures from vampires to the Tooth Fairy and the Soul Cake Duck ( a play on a British holiday that fills the role of the Easter Bunny). Gods are also portrayed, as well as figures close in power like the Universal Auditors.
However, the great part of these novels are the satire involved. Pratchett uses the books to take excellent shots at the modern world, from rock and roll (Soul Music) to the advancement of technology (Reaper Man) However, the greatest pieces come from the character of Death. While portrayed traditionally, the Death of Discworld is less grim then other depictions. He is effective at his job, but continually fascinated with humanity, and far more compassionate then other versions. As such, his outsider perspective allows for a great deal of satire towards human behavior.
For example, in Reaper Man, where Death is fired for showing compassion (as he has adopted a human daughter), he is forced to find work on a farm. There, he forms a bond with the farmer owner and reveals in being able to form relationships. However, he is aware that a new Death is being formed, which eventually takes over a harvesting machines that threatens to put Death out of a job. Death must literally battle this new, uncaring Death before arguing to his superior (the God Azrael) that Death must care, or else it does not exist and there is only oblivion (a nod towards the metaphor of the knowledgeable farmer and the buyer who doesn’t care about the harvest). At the same time, the universal imbalance forces the wizards to battle a life form built up from the extra life energy, that feeds on cities and eventually forms into a shopping mall (hopefully this satire requires no explanation).
Hogfather, which focuses on the Discworld equivalent of Christmas, is another example. The Hogfather (Santa) goes missing, which forces Death to take up the role to continue human belief. Though the novel, Pratchett not only satirizes Christmas (as the Hogfather is the current version of a bloody god worshipped in the winter to bring back the sun,), but through Death, how humans interact with it. Death is puzzled by watching children pretending to be sweet and innocent to get more presents, and how adults are more interested in selling then giving. He also is saddened by the story of how a child is given a handmade toy rather then a store version and still acts greedily, rather then accepting the more meaningful toy. At one point, Death even rescues a little match girl (ala Hans Christian Anderson) from the cold, despite arguments that her death is a traditional part of the season, so that people will be grateful for what they have. Yet at the same time, Pratchett makes the point that the Hogfather is important because without belief in a small seasonal being, children will grow up unable to accept belief in larger matters that have no physical evidence (justice, mercy, universal order).
Discworld goes far beyond the novels mentioned here and expand their satire with other characters including Death’s extended family. They stand as an enjoyable and hilarious fantasy story that alwas manages to carry a strong satirical message. Writers should take note not only of the world creation, but at the novels’ ability to hide potent messages inside humor and a ridiculous fantasy world. And for anyone who feels this is impossible, keep in mind that Pratchett who is still writing, suffers from Alzhiemers (treatments have kept most of his mental functions, but he must now dictate his works). Hopefully, the imagination he has shown is enough to inspire other worlds from writers; perhaps even on the backs of flying squirrels.
Welcome back to the blog. Over the last two weeks, I’ve spoken on two major character types, heroes and villains. Both types are different and have various types that gravitate towards their designations for different reasons. And it is precisely those reasons that bring us to today’s entry. While these characters might all be different, the re is one thing that unites them all and that writers must understand- Motivation.
What It Is
Simply put, motivation is the reason why any character does anything. A person doesn’t suddenly wake up and decide to travel or learn to be an architect; nor does a hero or villain. Obviously these motivations differ in the case of hero and villain- the hero is generally out to redeem or save, while the villain is out to conquer or destroy. However, what these characters do has to fit their character and be true to their central being. Otherwise, their actions will not make sense. These motivations can also be altered or subtle, depending on the character involved.
This is a common motivator which can apply to either hero or villain. A character that feels wronged obviously feels a desire to makes things right. However, their perspective will determine what they do, and how far they will go to achieve it. Professional wrestler Mick Foley was able to use this motivation for his character during his days in Extreme Championship Wrestling. Foley, who has stated that he feels a heel (villain) must believe their actions are justified, was angered by a sign in the audience that read “Cane Dewey,” a reference to Foley’s son and the Singapore Cane incident of the 90’s. Angered by this, and by his belief that the ECW fans were overly demanding and caused wrestlers to attempt dangerous moves to appease them, Foley became a villain, drawing on his real-life feelings to denounce ECW and its fans, while promoting the company’s rival, World Championship Wrestling.
Being the Hero
Despite the title, this motivation can work for both types. Many people have the desire to be admired and respected by the world; in sort, to have ‘hero-worship.’ This can cause them to go on various ventures to achieve this. DC Comic’s Booster Gold time traveled from the future with various weapons to become a famous hero in today’s age, but underwent great personal growth to achieve this. But there is a flip side, as in Pixar’s The Incredibles. Syndrome, the villain of the film, is so obsessed with being a hero that he kills several heroes to create an ultimate fighting robot which he then plans to unleash and ‘stop’, therefore being seen as a hero.
This is a somewhat vague motivation, but that can allow it to be shaped in many ways. Obviously a villain can act in a way that fulfills their own desires (Scar’s murder of his brother to become king, in the Lion King, General Kang destroys his own Chancellor to prevent peace in Star Trek VI) but heroes often do the same. The difference is that heroes usually start out with one motivation, but see it change into another that shows character growth. For example, Han Solo begins Star Wars simply out for profit and leaves before the final battle. However, he returns and saves the day, showing how his motivations have changed due to his experiences. Regardless of the reasoning, this type of motivation is excellent for showing character traits and expanding on them, hence its popularity among writers.
There are countless ways to motivate a character, but as stated before, the motivation must always be appropriate for the character. Syndrome wanted to be a hero BECAUSE he had been rejected by his idol. Han Solo came back BECAUSE of his experience and BECAUSE he was not really a bad person. And Mick Foley went on to do tremendous work in ECW BECAUSE he was legitimately angry and convened those feelings to his audience. BECAUSE is the question every writer has to ask when discovering their characters. Because if they can’t answer it, why would the readers try to?
*Special Announcement* I will be having a pair of book signings next month, first at the Westfield Town Book Store on 3/8 in Westfield NJ, and at the Plainfield NJ Public Library on 3/22. If you’re in the area, don’t hesitate to stop by, grabbing a signed copy, and talking a bit about writing.
Welcome back to the blog. As mentioned last week, there are many ways for a writer to present a villain. However, none of these types matter if there is no one to meet the villain head on. For that, writers need to be able to form a hero as complex and detailed as the villain they oppose.
How To Be Good
As mentioned last week, conflict is the center of all stories, and having characters as opposing forces is the most common approach to this. These characters are the antagonist and protagonist, but neither term applies only to hero or villain, merely to differentiate between the main character and his/her opposite. However, these characters most have essential differences, or else the conflict is weak and the story will fail. And above all else, they must appear as or become equals or their conflict will fall apart. One such example comes from a wrestling stable, World Championship Wrestling’s New World Order. The NWO began as a dominant invading group, but as more and more joined, the heroic forces dwindled until fans were unable to believe that any could defeat the NWO and fans lost interest in the group. So equality is as vital as conflict, which comes into play with many heroic examples.
The Rookie/Unlikely Hero
A classic example, a rookie hero is someone that at first glance, seems too inexperienced or unskilled to be of any use. However, this character, who often will have personal doubts as well, will demonstrate qualities, generally leadership or know-how, that show he or she has the potential to rise up and defeat the far superior forces. This is a classic example due to the easy-to-root-for underdog quality, and can be cited in Star Wars (Luke Skywalker) and Shawn Of The Dead (Shawn). Sports films often take this route as well, but can have the opposing force be another team or player and/or personal or social issues (Rudy, 42)
This type of hero can be the most intriguing type for a writer to explore. These types of heroes usually strive to do the right thing, but face inner turmoil and conflict due to their past, their actions, or what those actions cost. As a result, the reader, who has had experience with conflict, relates to them better, and watches and hopes for them to overcome their conflict and find peace. As this character is genuinely relatable and also easy to root for, examples can be seen in mainstream characters like Spider-Man to less well known characters, such as Tanis Half-Elven of the Dragonlance Chronicles.
Another common type of hero, this is usually a villain that is seeking to recant for past endeavors. However, redemption can take different forms. It can be a desire to make up for previous inaction, or a situation in which the characters regrets not acting differently. This desire often informs the character’s action, causing them to act in a way that mirrors their inner desire to be redeemed. Again, Spider-Man is a good example, as his superhero career stems from his inaction at stopping a criminal that later killed his Uncle Ben. Many comic characters have similar motives; it has been argued that Batman’s agenda stems from being unable to save his parents as a child. But many other examples exist, such as Boromir from Lord of the Rings, who briefly takes on these characteristics when he is possessed by the Ring and dies saving others. A somewhat arguable example is Death from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, who becomes more and more enamored of humanity, to the point where he becomes a Santa Claus like figure in order to maintain human belief and maintain existence.
A personal favorite, and one that somewhat blurs the line between villain and hero, this is a character that has heroic goals but goes about them in a less then heroic manner. But as this character has a goal that readers can sympathize with, and usually a tragic even to set it all into motion, their actions manage to be more morally gray then evil. Some are still considered to be classic heroes, like Batman, who fights crime with fear and intimidation. Check out my pieces on The Crow and Darkman for more in depth looks at classic anti-heroes.
The ideas of heroes and villains both carry a story when done properly. For a hero to work, he or she must be identifiable and relatable to the reader. The types listed above work because the reader can understand them, whether it be their need for redemption or the anger that pushes them towards a darker justice. But no matter their reasoning, when done well, they are epic symbols that stand up to face the evil figure that waits for them on the other side of the page. But there is one further thing that can define these characters, which we will get into next week.
Welcome back to the blog. Last week’s piece on the nature of show largely came about due to seeing other writers struggle with that concept. As such, I’ve done some musing on other essential concepts of writing that I see young writers struggle with. So today, I want to discuss an essential concept of storytelling that can be a problem for many writers- the villain.
Making The Bad Guy Look Good
The main driving force of any story is conflict. And while many stories have that conflict in different ways (internal, conflict with an environment), the villain is the most common force to create conflict. Many writers confuse the villain with the atagonist, or opposing force to the main character (protagonist). While this is often true, the terms are not exclusive, and writers can focus on the villain as the protagonist with ease. But regardless, a villain must create conflict with the hero or opposing force. To make this effective, a writer has several options to craft a memorable villain
Some of the most striking villains maintain their opposition by still having similarities to their opposite number. However, the villain in this case functions as a road not taken, a vision of the hero if they had made different choices and become evil. A classic example is Venom and Spider-Man; aside from their similar designs and powers, their civilian lives are close to identical. Both are photojournalists, but while Peter Parker is honest, Eddie Brock falsifies his story, which leads to his eventual firing. At the same time, Brock’s powers as Venom are derived from an alien costume previously worn by Parker. While the suit caused Parker to nearly turn to the dark side and reject it, Brock embraced it, becoming a full evil reflection and a reminder to Spider Man of the dangers of the dark side.
This is a type of villain that works by not being seen. He or she will be in charge of a great power; an army, magic, or even a ruling government. While the hero may struggle against various evil figures, all of them will be subservient to a far greater evil, which the hero must battle towards. Usually, this villain is kept in mystery, allowing the hero and reader to speculate on just who and what this person might be. Excellent examples of this are the Emperor from Star War or Fire Lord Ozai from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Both were characters that largely worked from the shadows (at least in the original Star Wars Trilogy) and while acknowledged as the driving force of evil, kept hidden from the audience, until they finally emerged to prove that all the evil attributed to them was justified.
This is a villain that can be a treasure trove for writers. A best friend is a character that to the outside world, is trustworthy and good, but has a dark secret that will cause them to betray everyone. However, just how that happens is a wide range of options. The writer can present their betrayal as a shock, or show it to the reader and no one else. Writers can also use these characters to create twists, by keeping the villain a mystery or even through the use of red herrings (characters designed to throw the reader off course). And once the revelation is complete, the writer can then explore the drama of having a trusted person betray his or her comrades. There have been many examples of this throughout literature, but a more recent example comes from Disney’s recent animated film Frozen. This film not only makes use of a red herring, but the reveal of its villain is not only unexpected and hurtful, but upon a second viewing of the film, all the details of the turn are given in subtle hints that effectively tricked the viewer.
The most obvious type of villain. This is a character that simply put, is everything the hero is not. This can be shown in many ways- old vs. young, kindness vs. ruthlessness, normal vs. magic. However, there are other twists as well, especially if there is an aspect of the villain that the hero could benefit from. For example, a hero could be doubtful of themselves, while the villain is convinced of their superiority. By having the hero defeat the villain, the hero gains self-confidence while the villain is punished for arrogance. There are many other versions, but for a few good examples, check out Frodo Baggins vs. Sauron from Lord of the Rings, Delta House vs. Omega House in Animal House, and Optimus Prime vs. Megatron from Transformers.
Of course, a villain is only as good as the hero they face. But don’t worry, dawn is coming next week.
Greetings and welcome back to the blog. Today I return to active status with a commentary on a very basic aspect of writing, yet one that many writers struggle with early on. I chose to comment on this after reading works from my fellow writers and finding them having a hard time with it. This aspect is the simple rule of show, don’t tell.
What It Is
Imagine the ending of Old Yeller; the tragic scene where the boy is forced to kill his beloved dog, now gone rabid. This is an iconic scene of film history, a scene which never fails to bring tears to the eyes of those who watch it. Now, imagine that scene re-imagined, in which everything happens the same, but the boy turns to the camera and cries to the audience as he acts, “THIS IS SAD! I FEEL SO SAD RIGHT NOW!” Granted, this is an exaggeration, but this is the basic concept of show don’t tell- the idea of allowing the reader to interpret what they see or read, rather then spelling it out for them.
What Writers Should Know
One thing to stress is that while show don’t tell is important, it is not all consuming. Certain scenes, such as dramatic events or important moments can certainly be expanded upon, because it heightens the sense of drama and story for the readers. It can be the difference between a scene being described as a swordfight, when it is in truth…
However, the issue with many new writers is feeling they need to do this for every scene. While important scenes need to be painted clearly, many writers over do this for fear of not getting their point across. Everything is described too much- the scenery, the motives, and worse, the character’s motivation. Like the Yeller scene above, writers may simply tell the readers what the characters are thinking and feeling, rather then letting their actions speak for them. Or they will overdo scenery and slow the story down. This not only hurts the story, but the reader as well. To a degree, reading and even watching are mental exercises. The audience needs to be challenged slightly, or else they will not learn to appreciate the experience.
One of my greatest experiences in reading and viewing was knowing enough to guess a character’s motivation and use them predict what will happen in the story. But this was only because I read stories that did not tell me everything and forced me to think and anticipate how events might play out. Denying viewers this will make them feel as though the story is overburdened, or that they are reading something far too simple for them. It is the same reason that stories with subtle villains are far more revered then stories with obvious ones- both are important but stories that make a viewer guess engross us more.
What Writers Can Do
Simply put, writers need to know when and how to show. As I mentioned, a major scene should be described fully. But spending as much time describing a kitchen as the Gates of Hell is a waste of time. Scenery must never overtake character or story. And writers need to have faith that the actions described are effective at molding character and motivations. Remember, the reader is smart enough to interpret a scene, if you are careful. But no reader wants to be told what to feel or what something means. So for a final example, I leave you with a recent example of breaking this rule. Below is an original scene from Return of the Jedi, in which the evil Darth Vader watches the Emperor torture his son….
And here is the version George Lucas put into the recent blu-ray re-release.
See what I mean?