Monthly Archives: September 2012

The Hero and the Antihero

The Avengers came out on BluRay (and DVD, but I’m a BluRay person) on Tuesday. Naturally, I have it. Now, stop your groaning: this isn’t another post just about how good that movie is. Well, okay, it kinda is, but not only. Trust me.

See, Iron Man and Captain America embody two distinct archetypes. Cap’s the hero, Iron Man’s the antihero. But neither Steve Rogers nor Tony Stark fall into the abyss of dull stereotypes.

Typically, these stereotypes are just the archetype in fancy clothes. Rather than getting an actual character we’re treated to the hero who believes that he must do good because it is good and good is what he does (because it’s good). The villain is an evil man who does evil because he enjoys the evility of evil. These aren’t characters. These are crappy plot devices dressed up as characters.

Compare Steve Rogers in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He’s introduced in his movie as a genuinely good guy. He wants to become a soldier not to go on a Nazi killing-spree but rather because he doesn’t like bullies. He’s earnest, he’s good. In The Avengers he’s still that really nice guy. When he meets Bruce Banner he dismisses the monstrosity of the Hulk due to Banner’s intelligence. They want him, not the monster, and so Steve treats him as the scientist.

It’d be easy for Cap to become dull and uninteresting or, worse yet, corny. But he doesn’t because he’s got a character to him. He’s interesting, he has his ideals that go beyond good for the sake of good.

Tony Stark serves as his foil. The hero who’s not all that heroic isn’t exactly rare these days (a hero hero [like Cap] is hard to find instead). Tony wins us over due to his charm and, again, the fact that he has depth. When presented with the truth about his weapons he decides it’s time to fight back. He fights his own demons to keep up the hero thing.

He’s not glib and sarcastic just because it’s ‘cool’. Like Steve Rogers, he has a background to it all. Tony Stark is a man who bears the traits typical of the antihero, rather than being an antihero with a personality painted on.

So we have these two fully realized archetypes. Now what?

Now comes the fun part! What happens when the hero and the antihero collide? When idealism and cynicism meet, what do we have?

Tony and Steve butt heads in The Avengers. Whether it’s Tony messing with Bruce, Steve’s militaristic attitude to losing a soldier or anything in between, they seldom see quite eye to eye. It’s the interplay and clash between the two outlooks (and archetypes) that we find so interesting. A good deal of both characters’ arcs is spent on them reconciling their differences to work as a team (along with the rest of the Avengers). The payoff is, of course, getting to watch Captain America and Iron Man work together. And it means so much more because of the characters and the interplay of archetypes.

The thing about archetypes is they’re universal. Star Wars gives us Luke and Han. Luke’s the wide eyed idealist of a farm boy who yearns to save the world. Han’s the cynical smuggler who’s been across the galaxy a few times over. When presented with saving the princess Luke leaps to the call. Han opts to stay out of trouble until the prospect of payment emerges. Again: hero and antihero.

Luke and Han’s different views and personalities lend a humanizing aspect to the fantastic adventures. It’s not overt and not the focus, but it adds and help defines both characters. We have characters built on archetypes interacting and driving the story. Furthermore, over the trilogy both characters develop: Han gets his dose of heroism and Luke his darkness.

Sometimes both archetypes can be embodied in one character. Take Nathan Drake from Uncharted. Sure, he wisecracks, makes fun of everything, and happily insult his ex-partner-in-crime. But he’s also the guy who’ll risk his neck to save his friends and face a madman to save the world (berating himself the whole time). Within Drake we have an antihero with the core of a hero. It’s the internal tension between two archetypes that gives us a lot the character and heart in the stories.

Archetypes. Yay. Like most every trope/tool in literature/fiction, they can be used fantastically or wind up being sheer crap. Don’t think that sticking a hero, antihero, optimistic bruiser, angry stoic, atoner, and ace will elevate the piece. It’s about fleshing them out, making them interact, and, most importantly, making them interesting.

Normally, anyway.

 

Also: buy my book In Transit! There are characters who embody archetypes in it too! And they’re interesting too!

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No Home from War

I’m in college now, and one of the things you do in college is write essays. Every now and then one of these essays (which are certainly not rants) have a similar thread to the ones I post here.

So I have an assignment to look at a contemporary depiction of a soldier’s return home in light of a classical work of literature. Said paper is underway.

I’m taking Ulysses as my example, or Odysseus as he’s known in The Odyssey. But the man I want is Ulysses from The Divine Comedy (or as everyone who’s not a literary snob calls it: Dante’s Inferno). See, in the Inferno Dante meets Ulysses in hell.

After the ten year long Trojan war (y’know, Helen, Achilles, the Trojan Horse and all that) and the ten year journey back (cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis, his own trip to the underworld, etc) Ulysses finally returned home to his wife and son.

Finally.

Thing is, as Ulysses tells Dante, that wasn’t enough for him anymore. He couldn’t sit still. Despite how much he loved his family and kingdom he couldn’t resist that call of adventure, to return to the seas.

And so he does. He assembles his crew once more for a final push, one last hurrah. It’s an epic adventure, crossing seas uncharted and finding lands unknown. But the sea overcomes them and their ship sinks and, as Ulysses tells it, that was it.

Ulysses couldn’t go home.

 My contemporary example is The Hurt Locker: Sergeant First Class William James is an EOD technician in Iraq. He’s really good at what he does. Really good.

Then, as the film draws towards its close, his tour comes to an end and he goes home. He’s home with his wife, shopping for groceries. Told to get cereal he’s suddenly overwhelmed by choice. This isn’t what he’s been trained for. He’s a weapon: a machine forged to diffuse bombs. Choosing cereal and shopping are as foreign to him as planting a C4 charge would be to his wife.

He confesses to his infant son that he doesn’t love much, and the one thing he thinks he loves is war. Bomb disposal. So he returns to the battlefield and starts his next tour.

So what’s this theme? This irrepressible call of battle? Why couldn’t life go back to normal?

It’s because they changed. The people who went off to war are not the same who returned. They have skill sets refined for warfare, some of which are not easily translated into civilian life and many of which have no equivalent. Suddenly they feel useless. Like the world they worked so hard to save has no space for them. Shooting bad guys is easy, coping with everyday life is something else entirely.

In Ender’s Game Ender saves the world from the alien invasion. But for him to return to earth would ignite a political storm. So he heads out into space to help start a colony. But even then, life as a mayor/governor is not enough for him. Ender leaves the colony for another, using relativity to stay young as the world ages around him. He cannot stay still: normal life is foreign to him.

Raiden, the player character for most of the second Metal Gear Solid game Sons of LIberty supposedly got his happy ending with his girlfriend at the end of the game. The soldier has beat the bad guy, saved the world, now he rides off into the sunset, right?

In the chronological sequel Guns of the Patriots, however, we find that it’s not the case. During the interim between games Raiden tried to settle down with his girlfriend and live a normal life. But he couldn’t. His almost-forgotten past as a child soldier haunts him and he grows distant and eventually leaves to find a war.

Because there’s always another war, another fight. These people don’t come home. Some, like Raiden and Ulysses, have been at war for so long that that is all they know. Others, like Sergeant James, get off on war: it’s their drug, it’s what they do. There’s no rest for them, because for them rest is torment.

It’s a question we see posed not just in fiction but in reality: once you’ve been through hell where do you go?

 

Also: buy my book In Transit! There are characters who aren’t sure about home in it too!

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Everyone’s Got A Story

If you meet me in person, chances are at some point I’ll ask you what’s your story. Who you are. What brought you from wherever you’re from to where you are what now. Because whatever the reason, it’s your story and tells a good amount about you.

So naturally, when I watch/play/read something, I’m looking for a character’s story. What made them who they are? Sometimes, you don’t need a particularly deep story (Dr Horrible wants to be inducted into the Evil League of Evil, Captain Hammer is going to stop him. Easy), and sometimes just a few hints along the way tells you everything (Russell’s dad isn’t around much, Han Solo made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs).

But sometimes it benefits us to know more about the character. To know why they are who they are.

Lost went super in-depth. Every episode (at least in the first few seasons) followed a character’s life before the Island. We learnt about Charlie’s struggle with failure and his desire to be able to do something right and why Eko sought redemption so fervently. We were introduced to Locke, the broken man who wants to show the world wrong.

We get to see the defining moments in their lives. We find out why Sawyer is so desperate to be hated, yet also why he will leap to protect someone else. No action is out of character for them since we know them so well. It’s because of the sheer amount of their backstory that we feel like we know them so well. We have their stories.

Similarly, How I Met Your Mother, tells us the story of the group through the narrator and flashbacks within flashbacks (and sometimes within more flashbacks). We learn how the met each other and how they became the pseudo-family that they are. It’s their story, the boyfriends and girlfriends, the wedding(s), the deaths, and the births. We know Ted and friends as well as our own because we’ve learned their story.

The trend of finding out a character’s story is one taken up by the recent Marvel films. In Iron Man and Captain America (and The Amazing Spider-Man too) we’re introduced to them as Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, and Peter Parker first.

Steve Rogers is the scrawny kid from Brooklyn with an indomitable spirit. We learn why he’s a hero before he becomes Captain America. For us, Steve’s story is enough to draw us in. We’ve seen where he comes from, before the serum, now show us where it ends. Had we met Steve as Captain America and just had hints about him being a skinny idealistic kid, it just wouldn’t be the same.

Uncharted 3 has a flashback too, to Nathan Drake as a teenager. He’s this orphan boy who’s somewhat lost, seeking adventure and wandering around. He meets Sully and we see where their bond came from. That bond then becomes the core of the story, and we care because we saw where it came from.

Then shows like Community or Firefly just hint around their backstories. Telling us key events but also hinting that these people are more than just skin deep. References are made in the Halo games to Master Chief’s prior exploits, To Kill A Mockingbird mentions that Atticus Finch has skills and a past that his children may never know. Hawkeye and Black Widow had quite the adventure in Budapest, Fezzik might have fought gangs for charity. Sometimes we don’t need to know what their stories are, just that they have them.

When we meet a character we want there to be more than just what we see. A good storyteller often has a biography filled with things we’ll never see and maybe just get a passing reference to. But it’s the mere existence — which will usually come out in the story — that helps make them real.

Point is: everyone’s got a story. So if it works for the plot (and it doesn’t always!), tell us. Tease us. Help us get to know them and make us want to follow them to the end of their journey.

Also: buy my book In Transit! Support aspiring authors with characters who have some pretty cool stories!

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A Series Of Arcs

I decided to sit down and watch some old How I Met Your Mother episodes once, and by old I mean Season One. It was weird to watch since everyone was well, so different from where they are in the more recent seasons. It’s jarring in light of where they end up.

This, of course, is one of the great things about TV shows: character development. When you have a couple dozen episodes per season you can spend a lot more time with the protagonists and working out who they are.

Now, character development in this case is different from a character arc. A character arc is more often seen in movies, like Carl going from grumpy old man to loving surrogate-grandfather in Up, or Columbus deciding to actually step up and be a hero in Zombieland, or Scott learning the power of self-respect and becoming a decent human being in Scott Pilgrim VS The World. Arc’s are a character getting from a to b.

Development, on the other hand (or at least as I’m using it) is where a character goes from a to b to c to d. It’s a series of arcs, one after another. It also takes time and is often far more nuanced than in a movie.

Let’s take Sokka from Avatar: The Last Airbender. He starts off as the skeptic in the party (Team Avatar, that is), and proves very useful as our exposition man. As the series progresses, Sokka loses his skepticism (to point b), finds his place as the idea man/tactician of the group (point c) and eventually the de facto leader of Team Avatar (point d). It takes all three seasons for him to get to that point. The Sokka of Book One is wildly different from the Sokka we see at the end. It takes time for him to get there.

Similarly, Zuko in the same series has his own very complex character development. He’s introduced as a selfish antagonist hellbent on capturing the Avatar. Within the first season we come to know him and his relationship with his uncle. Through it we’re given hints that beneath his exterior he does have traits worth redeeming.

Come Book Two we see him grow in his own right to be an honorable, if still mildly maligned, young man. He eventually rejects the call of the light side and winds up starting Book Three with everything he ever wanted from the beginning. In light of what’s happened to him, though, he decides it’s not worth it and finally switches sides. Even then it still takes time for him to become a proper hero. It’s a convoluted, bumpy arc of redemption, but all the more rewarding for it.

Stories of redemption tend to benefit most from the format. Sawyer, in Lost, started out as the guy no one liked. Over time we found out that he didn’t want any one to like him because, as far as he was concerned, no one ought to like him. As the story goes on he becomes a sympathetic character to us and, through a con on the part of a friend, ends up ingratiating himself to the other survivors (see episode “Left Behind”).

Later on, Sawyer quite literally faces his personal demons. That done, he can progress from his original arc (a vengeful man haunted by his past) to what’s next in store for him. Sawyer becomes a protector of the others and, eventually, a man who just wants to live life as it is. It’s a marked change from the selfish prick the series started out with.

Video Games can do this too. Ezio Auditore of Assassin’s Creed II is introduced as a bit of a brat. Granted, he’s seventeen, but he’s not the best guy you’ll find. His family gets wrongly executed and he finds himself thrust into a world of espionage and conspiracy he didn’t know existed. Ezio is forced to grow. He gains responsibility, takes up the mantle of an Assassin, and by the second sequel (Assassin’s Creed: Revelations ) is radically different from where he started out from.

It’s not just one arc, though, it’s a bunch of small ones and moments that tell us not only who he is but who he’s becoming.

That’s the hallmark of character development: those little moments along the way that show us where a character is. It could be Sokka guiding the blind Toph onto a boat or Sawyer running through a gauntlet of gunfire as he carries Claire to safety. It could be Willow deciding she doesn’t need the ghost sheet outfit anymore or Jayne sliding the cup of booze across the table at Simon.

It’s those moments where you look at characters and realize that wow, they’ve changed. And you hardly noticed while it was happening.

 

Also: buy my book In Transit! It’s a collection of short stories however, so no epic character arcs.

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Imply, Don’t Show

Every aspiring writer is at one point treated to the ancient adage of “show, don’t tell”. The idea is that rather than telling us that Sam is an impressive diplomat, it works better if the writer describes her being a great diplomat. It gets boring (and annoying) if a writer keeps on saying that a character is a certain way but never actually shows them acting according to said characterization.

That’s well and good for characterization, but what about for plot points and events? Or scares and other monstrosities?

A lot of the time tension and interest is raised more by what you don’t see than what you actually do. The viewer’s imagination is far less limited than a special effects budget or the creativity of the art department. See, your imagination is fantastic at creating a tailor-made horror for you. You just need the implication.

The original Predator from 1987 is an excellent example of how tension can be heightened by simply not seeing the ‘monster’. For most of the film we watch Dutch’s squad get killed by some unknown creature. Tension keeps rising as we wonder just who or what this is. We finally see the Predator himself as the climax approaches, but by then his reputation as a masterful killer (with a tendency to rip people’s skulls and spines from their body) has already been well established. Since we’ve been shown what he’s capable of his appearance is now the embodiment of our anxiety.

Had we seen the Predator raging into view at the start, yes, we’d still be intimidated, but we wouldn’t have the amazingly high tension that makes the movie so good. It’s worth mentioning that in the 2010 sequel Predators, the titular Predators are barely glimpsed at first, but before long we see them in full. We already know what a Predator looks like, no sense in putting us through the same beats again.

Cloverfield did it too, to a different effect. In most monster-attacks-city films we watch the spectacle from the point of view of people in power (mayors, generals, ace fighter pilots, etc) or the littlest cancer patient. In this film it’s just a small group of survivors trying desperately to keep that prize status. We don’t get any good shots of the monster (until the very end) but we do see the destruction and the characters’ responses.

It’s an intense film, thanks not just to the shaky cam point of view, but also due to the fact that we’re never sure just what it is they’re running from (and that anyone can die). Though the monster itself isn’t a particularly terrible abomination, we’ve already had a good ride by the time we see it..

This extends to other mediums, too. Video games, for example. Now, I’m not a player of survival horror games, so I’m ignoring that genre. In Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, Nathan Drake finds himself on a mysterious island long since deserted by its Spanish settlers. He encounters a trap like other ancient ones only not made from wood but the wreckage of his recently-crashed plane. An antagonist says that his men have been disappearing in the jungle. We see strange footprints in the jungle and we encounter bodies strewn up on traps.

Drake finds himself exploring underground catacombs and at last the monsters are revealed: cursed zombies. Or something. But now the game, like Predator, switches gears from the tension of the unknown to shooting your way to safety. Uncharted used implication when it needed that sort of tension and switched back to normal combat tension after the former dissipated.

So we can use implication to invoke a form of terror or tension, but it can also be used to keep interest alive. Lost made use of reaction shots and frequently hid just what it was the characters saw and forced us to rely on their descriptions or reaction. It accentuated the mystery of the show. We got our share of apprehension as we waited for the camera to show just what it is Jack saw. Sometimes we’d get to see just what it was, sometimes not. But the point was that there was something out there that could change something; something that caused that character to react the way they did.

Like everything in Lost, it wasn’t so important what the item/reveal was, just the way the character reacted. Nonetheless, the implication served its purpose and keeps you glued to the serial.

Implication is another tool in a storyteller’s toolbox. Really not much more to say than that. Tensions tend to run higher when we don’t know what it is we’re afraid of/interested in, but have enough hints and clues to know that we should be.

The trick is, of course, to be careful that we don’t wind up with a massive let down. ‘cause that, well, that pretty much sucks.

Also: buy my book In Transit! Support aspiring authors who sometimes use implication (but not in that book)!

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