Monthly Archives: February 2014
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.