This week, I find myself in the unique position of watching current events that further two previous topics of mine. Marvel recently announced changes to two of its major characters- giving the title of Captain America to African-American hero the Falcon and that the title of Thor will be carried by a woman. These announcements have been met with much speculation, including accusations of race and gender baiting. While I cannot give a definitive answer to that debate, I would like to examine them as they relate to my earlier discussions on race and gender in writing.
To begin, we should first establish exactly how these changes are coming about. For Cap, Steve Rogers has had the super-solider serum drained out of him, and is no longer able to function as Captain America. As such, he has assumed a strategic role and given the mantle to Sam Wilson, aka the Falcon, a former sidekick and long time friend of the Captain. Of the two changes, this one is less of an obvious ‘baiting’. Unlike DC’s move to create diversity by placing Teen Titan Cyborg in the Justice League (despite his having no previous association or status with the group), Sam Wilson has been a part of the C.A. mythos for years, and has operated as a protégé to Rogers for almost as long. Beyond former sidekick Bucky Barnes, there are few else who could hold the shield of the Captain. As for his skin color, I again state that Wilson is a hero in his own right with a well established history that gives him credibility. Also, the C.A. mythos have already established Isaiah Bradley as the ‘black Captain America’, the lone survivor of early American tests to recreate the super-solider serum on black soldiers (who died as a result and were kept secret). Therefore, placing Sam as the new Cap becomes more meaningful then learning that the previous ‘black Cap’ carried shame as well as pride with him.
Thor’s change is more difficult to determine. As of this writing, the story calls for Thor to become unworthy of his hammer, which will be taken up by a female character. As this change has just been announced, no successor or method has been named. This makes it more difficult to judge; Cap’s succession contained true to form reasoning and a protégé taking up the costume. Without knowing how or why these changes occur, or who will take up the hammer, I cannot judge it accurately. However, based on what is known thus far, this change has more of a ‘baiting’ feel to it. While Cap’s mantle can be passed down, Thor is a mythological figure and is the ‘god’ of thunder. Unless his personality is also placed with the new Thor (unlikely), this new Thor could very easily seem a pretender and inexperienced. Also, while there has always been call for diversity in comics, I doubt that women find draping a woman in the guise and identity of a male hero is much of an improvement. Still, too little is known to make a proper evaluation; but since Marvel did a good job pulling off Loki’s temporary gender change, there is still a possibility this could work.
So what do we take from this? Is this a chance to update and adapt heroes or simply a ploy to increase readership? In honesty, I do feel this falls under a ploy. Despite the logic behind the Falcon’s ascension, and the too-early nature of Thor, I simply don’t believe Marvel would permanently alter two of its largest properties. One simply needs to look at Superior Spider-Man (in which Dr. Octopus temporarily took over the mind and body of Spider-Man) and how its run returned Peter Parker to the front just in time for “Amazing Spider-Man 2”. By the time the next Marvel film with Cap and/or Thor rolls out, I think things will have reverted. So what do we take from it as writers? First, how well Cap’s story not only follows logic and history, but how it also keeps skin color at the back- this is someone that proven himself, and just happens to be a minority. Second, how simply dressing an opposite gender character in an established identity may not be diversity as much as marketing. And third, that writers still need to watch how and why they create minority and female characters, because all this controversy clearly says there are still issues attached to it.
Welcome back to Composing the Trilogy. Today, we discuss the final piece of the puzzle- the last entry.
Coming to the End
The purpose of the final entry is to wrap up the story and solve the conflicts that plague the characters. That alone can make it difficult to write, since you have had two previous entries to build up the ending. It’s certainly not impossible, but it can be a daunting task. This is also where your previous planning can come into play. The more you know how things are ending, the better a picture you have of a complete, complex, and satisfying ending. Ending on a ‘blind note’ can have serious consequences, such as the case of Godfather Part III. This final entry was not originally planned, but written and filmed to fulfill studio desire and pay the debt of director Francis Ford Coppola’s previous film bomb One From the Heart. As such, it is widely regarded as the weakest of the three films, as even Coppola admitted the previous two films had said all he wanted to say.
So assuming you have planned out a full trilogy from the beginning, you are prepared to avoid this problem. However, you still need to bring a proper close to your story. Some stories, usually fantasy, end with a final, climatic battle between the established rival forces. Star Wars does this well, as we see Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker clash for the final time. But it also brings in other elements that can be used for a finale, the end of growth and redemption. Luke completes his training, resists the temptation of the dark side, and become a full Jedi. Vader, who has hinted at being torn between his son and evil master, redeems his character by saving his son and killing his master. To add more to the finale, Vader dies soon after, adding more poignancy to his redemption, and officially making Luke the last living Jedi. As for further battle example, look no further then Return of the King, which treats audiences the last battles of a war that will either end our characters or make them heroes, as well as determine the kingship of Aragorn.
At the same time, things can be added to the final entry to give it more heft. However, these additions must be made carefully, or they may distract from the film. Many jokes have been made about the teddy-bear Ewoks of Return of the Jedi, largely about their readiness for toys. And Return of the King suffers from a multitude of false endings that turn excitement in a desire for the film to be over. Besides, readers are more likely to want to see resolution of characters and themes, not a multude of new things. So when making additions, keep it simple and short.
And now we’ve reached the end. How do you end it? That part is up to you. It can be as simple as Sam coming home, or as joyous as a galaxy wide celebration. It can be as poignant as a peaceful death, or as empty as a man dying alone, having nothing left to care about. But above the ending must be true to what’s come before, and it must be something that you know is right. Because if you don’t know that at the end, then you’ve wasted three books.
Welcome to the second part of Composing the Trilogy. At this point, you should have used the first part to establish your characters, plot, rules, and initial universe. Now, you work on continuing the story you set up, as well as expanding the characters and unversed you’ve started.
Keeping the Flow
The main goal of the second entry of a trilogy is to show growth and development. There are many ways to do this- for example, the conflict of the previous story can be expanded upon. This is seen in Back to the Future, which moves from ensuring Marty’s creation in the past, to his success in the future and then maintaining the present. This opens up different goals and conflicts while staying true to the central themes and idea present in the first entry. However, new conflicts can also be introduced. Most superhero films have a rotating cast of villains and when done well, they can add to the hero’s development. The Sam Rami Spider-Man films do a fine job of, as Peter has personal connections to his first villain, Norman Osbourne/The Green Goblin. However, in the second, he ends up in a similar conflict with Otto Octavius/Dr. Octopus. But in this case, Peter has a stronger connection with Otto, have befriended him beforehand, and is even able to redeem the villain at the end. Better still, Peter is able to use that redemption to solidify his own character growth and development. Finally, character is also a valuable way to show development, as in Godfather Part II which shows Michael Corleone’s abandonment of his young, moral self and his tragic move into crime and the Mafia.
Another use of the second entry is to raise the stakes, and make things bigger then they were in the first movie. Examples can be seen in The Two Towers, where the quest of returning the Ring becomes more perilous- Mordor is closer, evil is spreading across the land, and people are suffering. Star Wars also does this, as Empire Strikes Back shows the tribulations of the suffering rebellion and Luke Skywalker’s Jedi training. But this also opens up another possibility- adding more dark elements. This can help to make the story more memorable then the often lighter first act, as well as build excitement for the next entry. To again quote Empire, the film ends with the loss of Luke’s hand and the revelation of his parentage, Han Solo frozen in carbonite and in transit to Jabba the Hutt, and a reeling Rebel Alliance. The stakes are high for the sequel (which despite the teddy bears, managed to meet them).
In conclusion, the second entry must be about expansion, either through characters, the outside world, goals, or a combination of the three. Any less simply makes it an imitation of the first. But as Amazing Spider-Man 2 taught us, making everything bigger cannot override the story or the characters; writers must balance spectacle with storytelling, or they can never reach the final entry.
In recent months, I’ve been hard at work editing, re-arranging, and submitting materials for the next entry of Lightrider. But as I’ve been working on it, I realized how much work goes into writing what will eventually be a trilogy, and how daunting it can seem to first time writers who have an idea they just can’t do in one book. Therefore, today is the start of a multi-week entry entitled Composing the Trilogy, where I will discuss each part of a trilogy and how it works. And as such, let’s begin in the best place…
The first part of a trilogy is the most important. This is where the author sets up themes, characters, and a series of events that will go for two more entries. As such, there needs to be an amount of prep work done beforehand. The overall theme and story are vital. There is a reason famous trilogies deal with such large ideas as revolution or the effects of time- they have to fill a great deal of space whether in film or literature. Probably the best example is the Godfather trilogy, which deals with a single mafia family over several decades. In it, we are shown a rise to power, the cost of said power, corruption, betrayal, death, and loss of family. These are ideas that need proper care and time to be told well, and a trilogy is the perfect place to do it. Not only do the themes lend themselves to lenthgy storytelling, but they are enough to help fill not only the first entry in the tale, but future entries as well. One final tip should also be to try imagine as much of the story as possible- a clear final ending can lead to a much clearer vision.
Characters need to be sketched out, but in a way that they can grow and change as the story goes on. It can be good to have a character with a simple ‘design’ such as brave, or upbeat, and then put that character into different situations to see how well they react. Star Wars is a good example- Luke Skywalker begins as an impatient, green farmhand, but as the story progresses, we see acts of bravery and a willingness to learn, as well as the first hints of him accepting the greater power of the Force, which is a large part of his growth throughout the trilogy.
But the endings are also important. What happens in the first part must leave enough impact to continue throughout two more entries, so a certain amount of thread must be left hanging. There are many different ways to do this, but the most common are endings that solve a current problem but show another on the horizon, or the open-ended ending- the story would be acceptable as a stand-alone, but there is still enough material to continue forward if the need arises. Again, the original Star Wars follows the open-ended path, but films like Lord of the Rings generally leave endings where the viewer knows more is coming.
Having followed these plans, you should be able to compose at least the first part of your trilogy. However, this leaves two more pieces to compose, the first of which we’ll discuss next time.
One aspect of writing is being able to fit all the pieces together. Whatever type of story you have, each section needs to flow into the next, to feel organic and real. But writers need be wary of connecting the dots too well.
The reason this causes a problem harkens back to the old adage, which I’ve mentioned before, that mankind has been retelling the same basic stories for years. While this might not be entirely true, there are certainly examples of familiar stories. A slasher film, for example, can often hit the same plot points in different films. Or a romantic comedy about certain types of people, or even a dramatic sports story. Because of the familiarity we have with these archetypes, we can often predict what is going to happen next.
So why is this bad? Because it makes the stories boring. While writers need a story to fit together, they need to find new ways to bring the pieces together, or the audience will be bored. We’ve all been to a theatre where someone starts yelling out plot points which turn out to be true. It also tends to pop up more in sequels- I happen to be a horror fan and have watched the first four installments of Friday the 13th. The first one does an excellent job setting up the formula of summer camp, sexy teens and stabbing, and the second continues and adds to the story. However, the third and fourth are not truly connected to the first two, and simply repeat the story without adding anything to it. This makes them fell dull and perfunctory, and rob them of any sense of tension and suspense. Even successes can be guilty of this- the first Eragon novel contains several points familiar to Star Wars and Lord Of The Rings fans, while one of my favorites, the Sword of Shannara, often reads like a condensed version of LOTR.
So what can be done to avoid this? One of my strongest endorsements to writers has always been to study the genre they want to write in, and learn how it works. However, understanding how it works also means you understand how it can be tinkered with. Writers need to find twists and little tweaks that can make a tired story seem different. For example, Silence of the Lambs is a classic serial killer drama, but its most memorable character is Hannibal Lector, another killer that manages to gain the reader’s respect, fear, and even a degree of sympathy. That makes the story stand out, because we find ourselves intrigued by Lector as well as the murder. Many of the great Twilight Zone episodes also do this, such as the classic “The Monsters are Due on Maple St.” where strange power outages cause the neighbors of a middle America street to turn on each other in paranoia. However, instead of an overly shameful or preachy ending, we see the outages are a test by aliens, who are testing how easy it will be to divide mankind and take over. This leaves us not only shamed by our collective distrust and paranoia, but also aware of how dangerous it can be. And that leaves a lot more impact then connecting dots to form a cat.
In the recent weeks, I’ve seen my post on women in literature get quite a few comments, for which I thank the readers involved. But this interest also sparked my thoughts in another direction and another group that has issues being represented in the media. What is this group? Minorities.
One of the things I always intended with Lightrider was to have a Japanese-American hero, partially due to my interest and admiration for the culture, my desire to not write another ‘great white’ hero, and lastly, because I wanted to give my audience an Asian lead that was not focused on his nationality, like Jackie Chan and Jet Li (though both men have tremendous talent, American audiences tend to value them in set roles that limit their undervalued dramatic ability). However, I also noticed another trend in media around me as I was writing. Many publications had begun to emphasize minorities in their work, but in ways that seemed forced and politically correct. Understand, I am all for widening the scope of the media and showing the full range of the world’s peoples. But I detest doing so in a way that is meant to show sensitivity and inclusion.
The first media I noticed this in was comics, specifically DC and Justice League. As a company with a history stretching back to the 30’s, DC has had many accusations of racial issues, such a Justice League founded by seven white men and a woman, or saddling characters with names like Black Lightning. And of course, the Superfriends and their allies, Apache Chief, Black Vulcan, El Dorado, and Samurai. Yeah, really, just Samurai. While some of this can be excluded as part of the time of publication, it does lock DC into problems as people have a traditional view of the JLA that is predominantly white. DC has often tried to correct this, with varying degrees of success. But one that struck me was the revelation that Green Lantern Kyle Raynor’s discovery that his absentee father was Hispanic. This of course, made Raynor Hispanic but seemed like a backtrack way to say that the JLA had ALWAYS been inclusive since Raynor joined. A more recent one comes from the New 52 reboot, which features Cyborg as a founding member of the League. While Cyborg is a well-respected character and a great example of a hero that happens to be a minority, it seems like another way to rewrite history to make the League seem more open and inclusive.
Ironically, Justice League as a show is a much better example of inclusion. When first aired, some fans complained about the replacing classic GL Hal Jordan with John Stewart and the inclusion of Hawkgirl, voiced by Cuban-American actress Maria Canals Barrera. Some argued that these characters/modifications were included to force diversity onto the team, and give it more of a United Nations feel. However, both characters became integral to the show with barely a whisper of their status, save a nod in an episode focusing on imaginary Silver Age heroes.
So in conclusion, how does a writer write minority characters? It’s really a two-sided answer. One, ask yourself if it really makes a difference. If being black or Asian or Hispanic is actually important and crucial to your character as a whole, then do it. Don’t do it for political correctness. Second, if that’s the case then simply don’t focus on it. Never write these characters to expressly show their diversity, unless it can benefit their character somehow. These are PEOPLE not STATISTICS, and deserve to be treated as such. And you are a WRITER, not a PANDERER. Your work must stand on it’s own, and that means working to create characters that are not entrapped by the color of their skin.
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?