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Monday, January 16, 2012

The Impact of Variable Variables

          Sounds like a physics article, doesn't it?  Relax.  Unless you're a German Shepard below the age of three, I'm pretty sure I know less about physics than you do.  No, this is about variables in your worldview, or more pointedly, mine.  Several times during my life, there have been sudden changes in my interests.  I used to build plastic models, I used to play wargames, I used to put jigsaw puzzles together, and one day I woke up, and found that what I thought was a life-long interest had evaporated overnight.  That has happened to me recently.  I have found that my 30+ year interest in video games ain't what it used to be, and it has become a chore assembling material for these blog posts, hence my last post suggesting that I might be quitting here.

          Blogging, you see, is a variable in my life; I don't have to do it.  I'm not sharing vital data with the scientific community, and I don't make money from it.  It is an option I can pursue or not, depending on my outlook; it's a variable variable.  I was considering dropping it.  What I'm doing right now, this minute, is using time that I could be putting to use learning to make my harmonica sing, or scouting out a replacement for the Drizzt Do'Urden novels, or interviewing hobbies to fill the position left by the demise of video games.  That's my selfish view:  I don't need this.  However...

          There's always a however, isn't there?  While I'm talking about how I'm bored and don't want to do this anymore (me-me-me-me-me-me), three new followers join me, and I get some nice notes from my regulars about hang in there, don't give up, it'll get better, etc.  All I can take away from this is that people are entertained in some way by what I'm putting up here, and it's true that I do very much enjoy the friendly banter and intelligent discourse, be it about physics or the film treatment of a DC comic character.


          And then there's my son, Axeman.  As I may have mentioned, Axe was in from Colorado last week.  He came without his family, and stayed with us for a week; another variable variable.  I took the week off to hang out with him, and it was fabulous!  We had considered going out to places, and doing "touristy" things, but once he was unloaded from the van, and in the house, he just wanted to soak up being here with us, so it was basically a week in the Hideout.  Axe and I were gaming buddies when he was a child, playing board games and the rudimentary video games that existed back in the day.  We took up right where we left off, playing Gears of War, Left 4 Dead, and Sonar Sub Hunt, he did some runnin' and gunnin' with his sister, Nine, in the Halo universe, and the three of us found time for D&D Heroes and Conflict: Global Terror.  All of this, and we were still able to reminisce by the fire til three in the morning a couple of times.  Bottom line, whatever disease of the funk had its hooks into me ten days ago has been fully dissipated; I'm looking for fun again.  So, while finding a subject that I can cover in enough depth to engage an audience may still be difficult, I intend to continue to put in that work, find those subjects, and enjoy the camaraderie afterward. After all, nothing worth doing is easy, right?

          So first, welcome to new follower Jennifer, of Jennysday.com.  Jenny is a mother of four who draws a comic strip (Jenny's Day) about a working mom making it day to day in a tanking economy.  To my regular readers, this may not seem to be on my radar, but there's more to me than people think, and this is really a well-done endeavor.  Be sure to stop by and say hi.  Encourage the girl, and she may do more...

          Now, as to subject matter, what is something I know that might be interesting to a general audience?  Hopefully, there are any number of things, but today I'm going to look at the underpinnings of literature.  Over the course of a decade, I tried to find commercial success as an author.  Ultimately, I was unable to do so, but I learned a good many things from reading one how-to book after another, and it occurs to me that some of the axioms of writing any dramatic work, from novel to screenplay, might be interesting to anyone who wonders about the scaffolding that underpins the beautiful facade you see on the screen or on the page.  So, here's what's behind those breathtaking works you find on the shelves at Barnes & Noble.

          SPOILER ALERT:  If you think that understanding the formula that a writer uses to create an engrossing story will ruin your enjoyment of books and movies, move on now; I'll see you next week.
If you're okay with that, step into my parlor...

          The first thing required is a premise.  The premise is simply a story about something, be it a girl who works in a flower shop, or a knight setting out to regain a kingdom.  What then makes the story entertaining is its focus on a believable crisis.  Many stories fall flat right here, at the inception.  Some stories are not appropriate for their audiences.  An adventure tale for preteens is not likely to be successful if it contains graphic depictions of brutal murders, nor is a romance likely to be sweet and cuddly if the woman is stalked by a vengeful demon.  The crisis must be a crisis for the lead character in a personal way, and it must be serious enough, bad enough, to force him to concentrate on it for the length of a full novel (or movie). Once you have that riveting event that is going to be the definitive event of their lives, you need to postulate the personalities that are going to drive this epic.


          Flower girl, paladin-knight, or recovering drunk seeking redemption in work at the shelter, the protagonist, or hero, is the driving force of the story.  I have on occasion heard people remark that the villain is often the more interesting character in print and film, and seeing how a hero is constructed will go a long way toward explaining that phenomenon.  Every hero must exist in a "box," and the four walls of that box are morality, courage, competence, and likability.

          He or she must have the morality to know right from wrong, and to always seek to do what is right.  He is human.  He is imperfect.  He will fail, but as long as he continues to risk his own health/wealth/comfort/happiness/life to do what is morally right, he remains sympathetic to the reader.  It can be argued that a too-perfect hero will alienate the reader, as once it is shown that he is never going to mis-step, waver, or be placed in a position of physical or moral jeopardy, he becomes a one-dimension superman (small "s") whose book consists of defeating a series of straw men erected for the purpose of being knocked down by said hero.  This point also addresses courage.

          The hero must have sufficient courage to act against the wrong that is being informed by her morality.  If she doesn't, then she basically fades into the background, becoming the narrator of the true hero's story.  Think of Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories.  Watson, an invalid veteran of the Sepoy Wars, is certainly courageous enough, but it is Holmes who is the doer, and Holmes who the stories are about.  Now, the hero can be frightened out of her mind, but she finds it within herself to do what is necessary anyway.  This makes her more attractive in the eyes of the reader, who is usually an ordinary person who finds a story about an ordinary person rising above her own limitations far more interesting than a faultless super-being dominating a series of clueless villains.  It also raises the question of whether a first-person narrative of heroism can ever overcome the handicap of making the hero come off like one of those pompous asses that we'd all like to punch in the snout from time to time.  Imagine the arrogance had Sherlock Holmes been his own narrator.  Would we hold such statements as, "Of course, no common criminal could hope to cope with my superior intellect, so it was unnecessary to make my trap in any way complex," in as high regard as we do when Watson utters them?

          The hero must be competent enough to act effectively once she does begin to act.  She needn't be a trained SEAL Team operator in order for her to be believable, but to have a girl who has been introduced to us as a cutesy klutz through the first five chapters suddenly scaling a skyscraper is going to throw us out of the story faster than most anything.  She'd better have something in her background that gives her some facility in that area.  Perhaps she was a gymnast early in life, had a bad accident as a teenager, and never returned to the bars, and now she must overcome that fear in order to save her little brother.  An incompetent hero does not necessarily mean a poor story, but it does mean that at best, it's going to be slapstick.  Watch Beverly Hills Ninja to see a classic example.

          Finally, the hero must be likable enough for the reader to identify with him.  A lead character who isn't likable ruins the story completely, at least he does for me.  He becomes an antihero, and while there is a niche market for this genre, I find myself rooting for the villain to put this fool out of his misery.  Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever is an example of this in the world of print.  This "hero" is a leper who is bitter at life because society shuns him for having the disease.  He is struck by a car while crossing a street, and he regains consciousness in a fairly typical fantasy world where the people see him as the return of an ancient hero come to save them from an impending doom.  The trouble is, he remembers the car, thinks he is in a comatose dream, and refuses to willingly take part in any of the activity that will save the world around him.  He does see his way clear to rape his benefactor's daughter fairly early on, and I can't tell you whether it gets any better, because at that point, I put the book to its best possible use by throwing it at a stray cat that was howling outside my window.  For a film example, see Paul Newman in Hombre.

          The villain, by contrast, operates under none of those goody-two-shoes constraints.  He poisons the little elf children on Halloween.  He farts in the air lock.  He tells you what he really thinks, and laughs at your quivering chin while he's doing it.  Every actor, author, and director will tell you what a joy it is to bring a great villain to life, and this is why.  The villain doesn't wear a turtleneck to hide his wine cork-sized wart; he gets a tattoo around it to highlight it.  The only danger is in going too far over the top, and making him a caricature, as is nearly every villain in Dick Tracy and Batman, among other examples.  Actually, the best villains are the most subtle, the ones who don't see themselves as villains at all.  Bankers and securities managers are good examples.  They don't think they're evil, they just want all the money in the world, and are willing to bring down Western civilization to get it.  Some villains aren't really villains at all.  They're just in the way.  The rival for the girl in a romance is one of these.  He's not necessarily a bad guy; you, the reader, just think the other guy would be better for her.

          The confidant is sort of a hero's assistant, though not a "sidekick" in the comic book sense.  The confidant is a combination cheerleader, research assistant, field medic, and lead blocker for the hero.  The pitfall that can ruin the confidant is that he or she is a ready-made crutch for an author of lesser skill, and every time the hero gets into trouble, here comes the confidant strolling down the jungle path with perfect coincidental timing to save the day.  The hero should have to solve the majority of his own problems, and when the confidant is constantly bailing him out, he comes across as weak.  The confidant can narrate the story, which is what Watson does for Holmes, but you don't see it much.  One reason is that it is technically difficult to pull off, but the other is that it tends to remove the reader by a step from the immediacy of the action.  A superbly handled confidant can be that mystical ingredient that lifts an otherwise ordinary story to greatness; a confidant used as a crutch can do just the opposite.

          If the hero has a confidant, what does the villain have?  It's not a trick question.  He has a henchman.  What's the difference?  First of all, a hero has to save the world on his own, while a henchman can do a lot of the villain's dirty work.  The confidant performs out of love, respect, or a recognition of the absolute necessity of the hero's success.  The henchman can be enthusiastic or reluctant, competent or a boob, motivated by admiration, greed, or fear.  The villain may hold his henchman's heart or his family to make him do his bidding.  And of course, the henchman has one piece of motivation that the confidant never has:  He knows if he screws up, the villain will cheerfully make an example of him to keep the minions in line.  I often wonder why anyone would be a henchman out of choice, given the prevalence of lines like, "I'll never fail you again, master!"  "No, you won't."  [Slice!].  It has to be the hope of the villain's demise, which will then leave him in charge of the Evil Empire.

          These four characters are the main group of people whose stories are being told in the book or movie.  There can be up to two more who are part of the story, and who it is important for you to get to know, requiring a longer book/movie, but the rule of thumb is that if you have more than six, then you have more than one book, requiring a sequel or a trilogy.  These characters might be the seer who gives the hero information about the prophecies and powers of the villain who then discovers that they misread the data and now have to somehow notify the hero, who has long since departed on the quest; or it might be the hero's ex, who shows up periodically to help or hinder the flow of the story.  As a rule, they will be complications who show up to interrupt the smooth flow of the hero's plans.  Any number of additional characters may be added, such as informants, witnesses, grocery clerks, and distant relatives, but their backgrounds will not be explored, and they will not lend their voices to any part of the story.

          There are many other aspects of writing a novel or screenplay, be they setting, dialog, action, relationships, but these are how the characters are drawn, and the characters are the bedrock on which the rest of the story stands.  Botch the characters, and there is no writer with enough skill to salvage the narrative, because botched characters equate to reader/viewer disengagement.  Watch with one eye next time you read a book or watch a movie to see how the writer handled his characters.  Observe the quirks and foibles they were given to make them engaging; watch how they interact with each other.  I suspect that you'll find that, even if the story is weak, strong characters will hold your interest, and if the characters are weak, you won't care about the story.  You may have subconsciously known this all along, but now you'll have a pretty good handle on why.

          Or, maybe I've ruined your enjoyment, because now you'll be looking at the scaffolding that holds up the facade of the story.  Some people can't rest until they know how the magician does the trick; others lose their appreciation when they gain the knowledge.  This is why my spoiler alert was worded like it was.  Having read this, you will never again be able to avoid grading the writer's performance.  I hope I adequately conveyed the danger of reading this; if I could have thought of anything more plain, I would have said it.

          So, I'm back, and with something in depth, educational, and hopefully entertaining.  With any luck at all, it might even generate a comment or two.  It seems that rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.  That's happened before.  I'm still here, so rejoice if you enjoy my hijinx; it looks like I'm going to be around for a while.
          I'll see you next week with God-knows-what, but the point is, I'll be back.  Meanwhile, elections are coming.  Vote early, vote often, and whatever you do, THROW THE BASTARDS OUT!

4 comments:

  1. If you're naturally assuming you know less about physics than I do, you're giving me way too much credit

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  2. I really love your whole approach, title and all. Also, the follow through was very intriguing because this entry is also comparable to the way we view the people in our lives.

    Well, I hope that you stick around for awhile seeing how I just started to read you blogs.I did read a bit of "The Wellstone Chronicles" and you are a very talented writer. The best of luck to you! :)

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  3. Dammit, Joe, I'm a comedian, not a scientator!

    Thank you for the kind words, Jenny. Makes me wish you were a literary agent! I do intend to stick around a while longer, though whether I can keep it interesting remains to be seen. It occurs to me, the three of us used to write on a co-op blog. We don't anymore, but it's still up. You can investigate that at www.thetylergang.blogspot.com. Enjoy!

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  4. Welcome, Kristine! I can't tell you how thrilled I am that you found my humble little site interesting enough to follow. I'll have more to say about you and your endeavors in my next post later in the week, but for now, everyone pay her a visit - you won't be sorry!

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