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Composing the Trilogy: Part 1

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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 Beginning

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.

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Writing a Minority Character

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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.

Motivation, Or Why In the Hell Characters Do Things

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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.

Revenge/Retribution

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.

Personal Desire

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.

What Makes a Hero

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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)

Conflicted Figure

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.

Redemption-Seeker

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.

Anti-Hero

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.

Heroes and Villians: Optimus Prime and Megatron

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The main thing that drives a story is conflict. Where between two conflicting ideas, or two conflicting characters, that constant friction and question of who or what is superior is what keeps us going as readers. In writing terms, characters that embody conflict are known as the protagonist (the character trying to achieve something) and the antagonist (the person trying to stop the protagonist from achieving his or her goals). In most stories, this is usually defined as ‘heroes’ and ‘villains.’ While these labels can be either protagonists or antagonists, they are still important concepts to understand as you develop characters. Therefore, I will be starting a list of characters that effectively portray heroes and villains and delve into what makes them work. To begin with, I will start with two enemies that were two of the earliest examples of heroes and villains for my generation- from Transformers, Optimus Prime and Megatron.

Background

Alien robotic life forms from the planet Cybertron, Optimus Prime and Megatron are the leaders of the two dominant robot factions, the heroic Autobots and evil Decepticons. While both characters have existed in several iterations, the common threads are always that Megatron began the Cybertronian Wars, that Optimus rose to stop him, and that they have both led their factions for countless millennia before coming to Earth. As a result, both characters have a complicated history, and know each either almost as well as they know themselves.

The Traits of Good and Evil

Since Transformers is based on a toyline, it’s easy to pain this rivalry as little more then standard ‘good vs. evil.’ And a large part of what makes Optimus and Megatron effective foes that create great conflict is their differences. Optimus is a wise and compassionate leader, who believes all life is sacred and has often sacrificed himself for the well-being of others, both Autobot and human. Megatron is a megalomaniac, convinced of his superiority and willing to sacrifice anyone and anything to achieve total dominance. Their rise to leader status further confirms this- Megatron rose to power through battle and propaganda, while Optimus was chosen as a Prime due to his compassion and desire to protect all life. Their underlying philosophies make for easy conflict and give both a great amount of determination to succeed, which gives viewers a great deal of interest in the stories.

However, the various iterations of the franchise through TV, film, and comic books, has added a great deal of detail and depth to their relationship. In the beginning, Optimius was actually a follower and friend of Megatron, who spoke of creating a better world. However, Optimus was horrified by Megatron’s methods, which led to his eventual rise as leader of the Autobots. This adds touches of pain and betrayal to their relationship; Prime often regrets the loss of Megatron to darkness, commenting that their desire to better existence still links them, and were it not for their individual philosophies, they might still be allies. Megatron generally ignores this, but a recent portrayal in Transformers Prime, where Optimius is given amnesia and believes Megatron to still be an ally, hints that he may miss their former friendship. And despite their different beliefs, both have proven themselves to be strong leaders that value those under their command. While Megatron does not tolerate failure, he will not allow the total loss of his troops, nor any further damage to Cybertron. As such, he has worked with Optimus when such need arose. The degree of ease at which this happens also speaks to their long forgotten bonds, and deepens both the bitterness and former friendship between them.

The Value for Writers

Toys or not, Megatron and Optimus represent perhaps one of the best examples of the tragic enemies. While it is obvious they will never be able to work together, there is enough history and similarity tying them to together to make each blow they land carry a feeling of tragedy. As such, they echo the best trait of heroes and villains- that one should be an opposing reflection of the other- but also move past the basic nature of good vs. evil. These are two beings that share the dream of improving their world and existence in general, beings that were once friend because of that same desire. It was only their different methods that drove them apart, and it is far more likely they could accomplish more together then they have apart. It makes each blow they take from each other feel that much heavier, and make their rivalry that much more engrossing. A writer that can create this kind of epic and heartfelt rivalry between their characters has all the conflict they need to drive their story.