Drawing inspiration from video games (Part 2)

Hello internet!

In Tuesday’s post, I talked about how video games can be fertile ground for inspiring your own writing. Today I’m going to talk about how you can adapt your in-game experiences into unique stories which can stand on their own legs outside of the context of the game world.

My motivation for wanting to talk about this is that I feel like there might be a lot of imaginative gamers and writers out there who love coming up with their own complex internal narratives while they’re playing through video games, and then get frustrated because they feel like they can’t turn those narratives into written story material without it being fan fiction, set in a pre-existing universe. If that’s the case, then I hope I can prove otherwise, by taking you through the sort of process that I go through when a video game inspires me to write something original.

So I’m going to give you an example of an in-game event that inspired me to write something, and then describe how I might go through the process of removing it from the game world and adapting it into a story. I’m going to stick with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, for the sake of continuity.

I’ve played a lot of different characters on Skyrim, including a stealthy assassin and an erudite Argonian fire-mage who liked to try and find diplomatic solutions to his problems. But I wanted my latest character to be more of a classical warrior hero, drawing on headstrong figures from epic poetry, like Beowulf and Odysseus. So I created Throdnar, a full-blooded Nord with a strong sword-arm and very few motivations beyond the acquisition of treasure and personal glory…

Throdnar 1

…who got spotted by a hungry dragon while I was trying to get a decent screenshot of him…

Throdnar 2

…and ended up getting the flesh charred from his bones.

Throdnar 4

I won’t be adapting that particular episode into prose any time soon. Throdnar probably wouldn’t want his embarrassing defeat to be remembered in song and stories. He’d probably prefer to be memorialised in tales of his cunning and warrior prowess.

Usually, the kind of incidents that inspire me to want to write stories are a lot less exciting than being burned to death by a dragon. While I was playing a few days ago, I accepted a fairly simple bounty contract to kill a giant who’d been eating local livestock. I stole a horse, rode out to the giant’s camp, and used a technique that I like to call “giant-baiting” to wear down the giant’s health with a bow and arrow, riding away from him on horseback and leading him on a merry chase, until he was dead and I could ride back to collect my bounty.

For those interested, it works a little like this:

Throdnar 5

Step 1) Shoot a giant and incur his wrath.

Throdnar 6

Step 2) Gallop away, pursued by a giant.

Throdnar 7

Step 3) Stop, turn, and shoot the giant, enraging him further, but slightly lowering his health

Throdnar 8

Step 4) Gallop away, pursued by a giant…

And so on until the giant is dead, never allowing the giant to catch up and hit you with his club, however tempting it might be to linger and get off two or three arrows each time you stop.

Already here I’ve invented something that isn’t actually an inherent part of the game, which I can then use in one of my own stories.  I have no idea if other players use the same technique (but if you’re a regular Skyrim player and you hadn’t tried this yet, it’s a great way of getting your hands on a lot of mammoth tusks). Giant-baiting is just something that I’ve come up with while playing in Skyrim’s sandbox, so I can insert the term, and the technique, into a fantasy world of my own creation. If my fantasy world has giants who prey off the land and steal livestock, then I can imagine that giant-baiting is a practiced rural way of life, like poaching or deer-stalking. I can extrapolate that it’s an art with seasoned practitioners who know all of the best ways of doing it without getting themselves killed. An old giant-baiter is necessarily a good giant-baiter because he’s avoided being squashed into jelly by an angry giant. That’s quite a good basis for a character, and I certainly enjoy imbuing Throdnar with those characteristics when I’m baiting giants in the game. I can imagine the thoughts going through his head, the calculations of a veteran giant-baiter doing what he does best.

But it wasn’t actually the giant-baiting that inspired me to write a story. Believe it or not, it was the part before the giant-baiting, where I had to steal a horse.

I could have bought a horse, but that didn’t seem like the sort of thing that Throdnar would do. He seemed like the sort of cunning adventurer who would prefer to steal a horse and pay off his bounty later. But more than that, I’d have preferred to have the option to try and work out a deal with the groom at the stable – I’d have liked it if Throdnar could use his wits and his sharp tongue to steal a horse without just crudely making off with it in broad daylight. I wanted him to be able to say “I’m doing the Jarl’s work and going to hunt down that giant that’s been eating livestock – can I borrow a horse and leave 500 gold with you as insurance that I’ll bring it back?”  Whether or not I brought it back would have been another question. But it was one of those instances where my options were limited by the game’s programming, because that wasn’t a dialogue option I could choose. There’s almost certainly a mod that I could download if I wanted to have that kind of option in game, but that’s not the point. My frustration with the game’s limited options didn’t make me want to alter the game world, it made me want to write a story where a character could have that kind of conversation. So I started writing.

I didn’t want to write a piece of Skyrim fan-fiction, so I needed to strip the world away and create a new setting for this scenario to happen in. That meant changing things like place names, environmental conditions, the general aesthetic of the world, and anything else I could think of to distance myself from Skyrim and make me feel as though this story was happening inside a world that I’d created.

One thing that I decided to change right away – simply because it was easy to do so – was the animal involved. Why have my character steal a horse when they could be stealing something more interesting?

My first thought was some sort of unicorn, and a brief internet research session revealed that historical legends about the unicorn might have been based on a real-life extinct species of megafauna called the elasmotherium.

Elasmotherium
I speculate that ‘elasmotherium’ means ‘hairy rhino of death’ in latin

I thought that it looked pretty cool – I can definitely imagine it domesticated, saddled up, and turned into a formidable beast-of-war, especially with that horn – but I didn’t think “elasmotherium” was the kind of name that would be used in everyday conversation by hardy Northern giant-baiters in a medieval fantasy setting, so I dug deeper and found out that the elasmotherium might also have been the inspiration for a mythical Russian beast called the indrik.  “Indrik” has a nice ring to it, and a brief Google revealed that it hasn’t been widely used in any other popular fantasy media – only for one card in Magic: The Gathering. So I felt safe using it.

So now I was writing a story about Throdnar using his wits to trick a groom into giving him an indrik for half of what it was worth. But what else could I change, to really make it feel like I was creating my own story, set in a world of my own creation?

I decided that my story was going to take place in a bleaker Dark Age fantasy world rather than a generic medieval setting. That meant downgrading technology: replacing brick-built houses with mud bricks and drystone walls. Remembering to make sure that Throdnar only used weapons and tools that had been invented by the time of the 8th or 9th century. The landscape that I’d been riding over in Skyrim was a craggy plateau of rocks and hot springs. I decided to set my story in a forbidding moorland, with rolling hills covered in bracken and goarse. And to fit the bleaker setting, I decided to change the weather. Here, I drew on another encounter that I’d had in Skyrim – I rode out to clear an abandoned fort that had been occupied by bandits, and rain had started falling in sheets by the time I found them. I remembered fighting them in the driving rain and ending up standing my ground in a deep pool, whirling my horse around in the water and hacking down at the bandits as they tried to attack me. That had been a dramatic fight, and I decided to steal the weather, applying it to my fight with the giant, which had happened while the in-game weather was bright and sunny.

Finally, I wanted to make sure that I depicted giants in an original way. Giants in Skyrim are dull creatures who don’t seem to have human levels of intelligence, and they spend a lot of their time herding mammoths. One easy way of differentiating my giants was to cut the mammoth-herding aspect, and I also decided to make my giant a little more cunning. I’d already decided that Throdnar is a warrior who likes to rely on his brains as well as his brawn, so I wanted to give him a more challenging opponent who could match his wits.

I also changed the outcome of the fight. But to find out more about that, you’ll have to come back on Sunday, when I’m planning to post at least part of the story.

I hope this post has given you an insight into what I do when I’m inspired to adapt my video-game experiences into prose. And my assignment for you today is go and try it yourself! I wish you happy gaming, full of moments that you can harvest and insert into your stories.

Drawing inspiration from video games (Part 1)

Hello, internet!

Cards on the table: I completely forgot that this week was my week here on The Art of Writing. As such, I’ve prepared absolutely no material for you, and I’m going to be making it up pretty much as I go along. I feel a little like Gromit, the anthropomorphic dog in the treasured British clay-animation film Wallace & Gromit in the Wrong Trousers, speeding along on an electric train and laying track hurriedly in front of me as I go, as illustrated in this helpful gif.

giphy

Hopefully it will be a fun experiment for both of us.

One thing I have been doing a lot of in the last week is playing video games, so let’s riff off that to start with, and talk about how video games can inspire really good writing.

Before I delve into what I’ve been playing, and how it’s been influencing my writing, I want to quickly discard any stigma surrounding video games. Some people might scoff at the suggestion that writers of literature have anything to learn from the story-telling, worldbuilding, or characterisation of interactive entertainment like video games, but I couldn’t disagree more. I think there’s a general scepticism towards video games among the same demographic who are sceptical of genre literature (the industry term, sometimes used unkindly, for sci-fi, and fantasy, and anything which isn’t ‘serious’ literature).  I know I’m in friendly territory here, among my fellow nerds. None of you are likely to think less of any piece of media just because it contains dragons and challenges your imagination by taking place in a fantasy world. But some people baulk at video games just the same way they baulk at Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings, and that saddens me a little. Art doesn’t implicitly lose value because it relies on fantastical tropes instead of the tropes and hallmarks of ‘mainstream’ literary fiction. Stories aren’t inherently less complex or robust because they’re being told through the medium of an interactive video game. Writing doesn’t inherently lose value if it draws inspiration from video games or shares a lot of stylistic elements. Perhaps I’m stating the obvious, but there are some people who still don’t see video games as a valid medium for artful storytelling. And I am sad for them, because they’re missing out. Not just on some great art, but on some lush material which can be mined for inspiration.

Writers can choose how much they want their gaming life to influence their writing, and whether they want to disguise their influences or make them explicitly obvious. If you love a video game world enough to want to write stories within that universe, there’s nothing stopping you, and your stories don’t lose any value just because they’re set in a pre-existing universe. A close friend of mine has been writing some excellent fiction set in the Mass Effect universe and posting it online for fans of the series to enjoy, and I’ve been reading it with relish, even though I wasn’t a fan of Mass Effect when I started. (Although, binge-gamer than I am, I have since played through the first two games of the series and enjoyed them both tremendously).

Nathaniel is unlikely to make any money from this particular story, but that’s not why he’s writing it. Not all art is intended for publication, and once again, it doesn’t necessarily lose any value as a story just because it’s available freely on the internet. But if you’re planning to publish your writing and adapt your gaming experiences into your own fantasy world, then it’s probably a good idea to distance yourself from your influences: lest ye fall foul of the thin line between emulation and plagiarism.

That becomes a lot easier when you’re drawing inspiration from an open-world game. Recently, I’ve been playing my favourite video game, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. It’s now five years old, so I’m not going to bother with a belated review. Suffice to say I adore playing it, which I’ve been doing sporadically since 2013, but I have yet to complete it, so packed is it with excellent content. My fondness for Skyrim is perhaps best illustrated by measuring the slightly destructive influence that it has had on my life: it became my favourite form of procrastination during my third year of university, and was instrumental in the deterioration of at least one romantic relationship. I regret neither of these things. I spent my evenings reading books of magical lore in my study at the College of Winterhold when I should have been reading about seventeenth-century economics for an upcoming exam. By night, I crawled through ancient catacombs in the darkest bowels of Nirn, destroying undead wights and uholy Draugr with the righteous purity of cleansing fire. As the sun rose outside, I fought with fearsome Dragon Priests on storm-wrought mountaintops, because their aspect seemed less daunting than the hardships of writing my dissertation. When I play Skyrim, I have private little adventures, and then I’m often inspired to write about them.

If I adapted my adventures into prose word-for-word, using the same name for every character and location, depicting events in the very same order, then I would be committing plagarism. But that’s never what I’m inspired to do. The important thing with roleplaying games is that you can take away the role-playing element and leave the game itself behind. Role-playing games are designed to provide you with a bare skeleton that serves as a scaffold for your adventures: they give you the building blocks of a story, and you can assemble them however you want. As I’m playing through the story that the developers have created,  I’m imagining the thoughts and feelings of my character and the other characters that they encounter. I’m wondering what might be different if the events were happening outside the confines of a pre-programmed environment. Sometimes, even with a vast open-world game like Skyrim, I’m raging at the limited choices that the game allows. I’m thinking “if I had control of this story, my character wouldn’t be picking any of these options” – and at that point, my interpretation of the player character has become something separate from the game itself. It’s become something that I can extract from the game and insert into my own writing.

I’m sure that many gamers do the same thing when they’re playing a role-playing game, especially if they also happen to be writers. I can guarantee that your experience as a player – your interpretation of the game’s events – will vary dramatically from the experiences and interpretations of any other player. Your character’s progress through the game world, the story that you decided to create in the sandbox that the game provided, is unique, and it belongs to you. And that’s where you stop plagiarising and start creating your own content. You’re drawing your inspiration out of your gaming experiences like a sword being drawn out of a forge, which you can then temper over time, refolding and reheating until it’s become something that’s entirely yours.

I’m running out of room here, and I still haven’t got to my point – so I think I’m going to elaborate on this over the course of the week, and put it into action for you to watch. Come back on Thursday to see how I go about adapting my in-game experiences into prose. Then on Sunday I’ll actually post a short story that I’ve adapted from in-game events.

In the meantime, I suppose I’d better log into Steam and gather some more in-game experiences that I can adapt. Purely for research purposes, you understand…

 

Book review: the long way to a small angry planet

Hello, internet!

I have decided to write a brief book review for you today. The book is called the long way to a small angry planet. It is by Becky Chambers. And in my humble opinion, it is very good.

the long way to a small angry planet

If I was forced at gunpoint to describe it through references to other pieces of science fiction then I’d say that it’s like a mixture between Firefly and Mass Effect, but that doesn’t really do it justice, and I’d much rather pitch it to you on it’s own two feet. The story revolves around a young human woman named Rosemary who has fled her former life to sign up with a tunnelling ship called the Wayfarer, crewed by a wonderfully diverse mix of nuanced characters who make their living by punching wormholes through the fabric of space. They live in a future where humans have abandoned Earth and spread out among the stars, in a vibrant galaxy where they aren’t major players on the galactic stage. Humans live in colony ships or cling to life on barren moons, and they have to take work where they can get it, which is where the book gets it’s cowboyish Firefly feel. Shortly after Rosemary arrives, the crew are offered a once-in-a-lifetime oppurtunity, creating a tunnel that will lead to a remote planet near the centre of the galaxy. The job is dangerous, but if they succeed, they’ll be rich, and they’ll be helping to put humanity on the map.

Nothing about that premise might seem particularly original or revolutionary, but the execution makes the long way to a small angry planet different from any other science fiction book that I’ve ever read, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. Chambers has been long-listed for the Bailey’s Prize, and I think she’s entirely deserving of it.

I think it’s the focus on characters which makes the long way to a small angry planet so enjoyable. There aren’t any dramatic starship battles or space-western gunfights in Chambers’ book, because there don’t need to be. The galaxy that she describes is a precarious one full of wars and fragile alliances, but any violence occurs ‘off-screen’, as something that happens to other ships in other parts of the galaxy. We’re free to just observe the crew, learning about their daily lives, their eccentricities, their aspirations and their hidden pasts. I grew attached to them very quickly, and was perfectly content with just being a fly on the wall of their ship, allowing the narrative to progress at its own leisurely pace. They move from one job to the next, skirting danger, finding love and friendship on the planets where they stop along the way, and laying the groundwork for a heart-wrenching conclusion which had me up until three in the morning. The characters are well-rounded and entirely believable, and they come across as everyday heroes: working to overcome their flaws and banish their fears, showing extraordinary compassion for one another, and retaining their identities as ordinary people who enjoy doing ordinary things, like eating ice-cream, going to concerts, playing video games, visiting their parents, and enjoying recreational substances (especially in the case of the Wayfarer’s engineers, who are strong contenders for being my two favourite characters).

But the sense of compassion that I got from this book extends beyond the main cast of characters. Chambers has created a universe full of colourful alien species that manage to inhabit the ideal middle ground of being truly alien without alienating the reader. They are convincingly otherworldly, with deliciously weird anatomies and plenty of complicated cultural practices that must be navigated by the main characters, but they are still very ‘human’ in their behaviour. I’m sure that they themselves would be offended by that suggestion, but it is testament to Chambers’ writing ability, and the scope of her creative vision, that they can be so alien and so human at the same time. These aliens have their own flaws and virtues that are instantly recognisable to humans, despite having so many traits that require acclimatisation, both to human readers of Chambers’ book and to the human characters within the story. Watching different species struggling to navigate each other’s idiosyncrasies is actually one of the most interesting and endearing parts of the book. Chambers hasn’t created a callous dystopia or a utopian paradise, but rather a middle-ground with elements of both, where the majority of sapient lifeforms try their best to cooperate and overcome their cultural differences, without resorting to violence.

Tor has described the long way to a small angry planet as a story that‘will restore your faith in science fiction (specifically) and humanity (in general)’, and that’s exactly what it did for me. Chambers has written a refreshing new piece of science fiction, in a well-thought out and nuanced universe, which has the confidence to ask you to come along for a ride. It makes me encouraged about writing my own science fiction. Some people seem to think that ‘big universe’ science fiction can’t follow the same old formulae anymore without being tired and stale, but Chambers shows that you can absolutely write an engaging piece of science fiction which follows the same old format in a fun new way. The long way to a small angry planet has all of the traditional elements of a crew, a ship, a large interstellar political union, a diverse menagerie of fascinating alien races, and a healthy dose of convincing pseudoscience, but it is still a very palatable, enjoyable, and original story. Chambers serves it up like one the delicacies made by the Wayfarer’s enigmatic cook, gathering staple foodstuffs from the homeworlds of his crew and preparing them in a bold new way in which they have never been prepared before.

Putting your talent to good use: on adjusting your expectations and putting your nose to the grindstone

Hello, internet! Tom here. 

It is, once again, my turn to entertain you for a week here on The Art of Writing. It’s been a while since my last post, and I have to confess that my writing hasn’t been going very well in the interim. I feel a little disingenuous dishing out writing advice when I’m not doing much writing myself, but writing a blog post can be a good of way of solving your own problems as well as helping other people with theirs. So today’s post is going to look at why we sometimes find it hard to write, and how we can get past that. 

The German novelist Thomas Mann once wrote that “A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” I entirely agree with him. I have always wanted to be a writer, I have had a talent for writing since I was ten or eleven years old, and I have honed that talent over time to the point where I consider some examples of my writing to be quite good. I still can’t think of anything else that fills me with the same passion as writing, or anything that I want to do more than creating entire worlds and using those worlds as the backdrops for entertaining stories. But none of that means that I am ‘a good writer’, because our definition of a writer must be ‘a person who writes’, and our definition of a good writer must be ‘a person who writes a lot’. I do not write a lot. For someone who would like to write for a living, I am extremely good at avoiding writing, and there’s an obvious problem there. If we went to a party and met someone who said that they wanted to be a rock star, but then we found out that they hadn’t played their guitar for weeks or written any music in the last few months, then we’d smile and nod and walk away and find someone else with whom to quietly share our scepticism about the aspiring rock star’s artistic ambitions. That person at the party is us, if we spend months without writing anything and still go around considering ourselves to be writers. 

I have a fairly uncompromising view of what constitutes a writer. I think a writer is a person who writes about 3,000 words a week (or preferably more), even if their cat just died or their significant other is hurling breakable objects at them or they’re suffering from an advanced case of gout. I do not meet this definition. I went through a period last year of reliably writing 3,000 words a week, but now I barely manage 500, and I don’t have a cat, or an angry spouse, or even a mild case of gout (that I know of). I fall well short of my own estimations of how much a writer should write, and I feel horribly guilty about it. But that is how much I think a writer should ideally write: or perhaps that’s how much I’d have to write every week to really feel like I deserved to go around calling myself a writer.

You may disagree with me. You may think that “writers” are writers because of destiny and cosmic predisposition, and that you can be a “writer” on some indelible vocational level even if you don’t write anything on a regular basis. If you think that, then keep reading. 

There are legitimate mitigating circumstances in which aspiring writers might be forgiven for not meeting my definition (although that doesn’t stop them from not meeting it). Selayna, my fellow blogger, has a crazy schedule and works much harder than I do. If she wanted to write 3,000 words a week then she’d have to do it all during the weekend. Some authors do that, but I’d rather Selayna was using the weekend to get some rest and talk to her loved ones and do whatever it is that normal people do during the weekend when they don’t have writing ambitions. 

Unlike Selayna, I have plenty of free time. My own circumstances leave me with no excuse not to write, and I am left wondering why – if I truly want to be a writer – I find it so difficult to get into a productive, reliable writing routine?

In an attempt to answer this question, I read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.

War of Art

Pressfield wrote The Legend of Bagger Vance and moved on to write epic works of military historical fiction, several of which are on the reading list at US military colleges. He also writes self-help books, and The Art of War: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, is a self-help book targeted specifically at struggling writers.

I have a deep-grained and inherent scepticism of self-help books, especially when other people recommend them to me, but in Pressfield’s case I can definitely advocate that you should get yourself a copy. The first read-through left me feeling energized and optimistic, and if you’re feeling discouraged or poorly motivated as a writer then you can open it to any page for an instant self-esteem boost or kick in the ass. He also writes a lot about the concept of ‘Resistance’ – that force that sometimes makes it so hard for us to get around to doing the things we want to do. He writes, “the more important a call or action is to the soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it”. 

The War of Art made me think a lot about how I’m viewing my writing, and how I’m viewing myself as a writer. Pressfield places a lot of stress on the differences between an amateur writer and a professional. An amateur has different habits, different ideas of what success will look like, and different levels of emotional investment. The key lesson I’ve taken away from his book is that it’s a mistake to get too personally invested in what I’m writing. That may sound surprising, but it makes a lot of sense once you think about it.

Pressfield doesn’t necessarily think that we should aspire to define ourselves as writers. He thinks that we should simply be people who write stuff, and publish it, and don’t allow our writing to get tangled up in our own personal aspirations. He writes that, as professional writers:

“we do not overidentify with our jobs. We may take pride in our work, we may stay late and come in on weekends, but we recognise that we are not our job descriptions. The amateur,on the other hand, overidentifies with his avocation, his artistic aspiration. He defines himself by it. He is a musician, a painter, a playwright…the amateur composer will never write his symphony because he is overly invested in its success and overterrified of its failure. The amateur takes it so seriously it paralyzes him.”

That paragraph really made me think about how I’ve been approaching my writing. I have absolutely been paralysed by my writing, because I have absolutely been ‘overidentifying with my avocation’. That surprised me when I realised it. I had considered myself an uncompromising pragmatist, who didn’t subscribe to any ideas that writing was ‘in my blood’ or that I was a ‘writer by nature’. Yet here I was allowing my own aspirations and dreams and fears to prevent me from putting words on the page. Succeeding as a writer has seemed so important to me for so long that it has stopped me from actually writing, because I was scared that I wouldn’t be good enough to succeed: a Catch 22 scenario that would, inevitably, lead to me not succeeding or writing anything.

For myself and other writers like me, I think the key to avoiding that paralysis is just to sidestep it, face the facts, and redefine success. In my pursuit of success as a writer, I’ve acquired enough experience and skills to become decent at writing, but I have also allowed the pursuit of success – and fear of failure – to hold me back. I think the trick is to forget about success or failure, exit that mindset, and find a good use for the skills I’ve gained: almost as if I’m giving up on ‘being a writer’ and just writing something instead. I can try to write the next great fantasy series, allowing my personal aspirations and delusions of grandeur and sense of self-worth to get wrapped up in what I’m writing, and allowing them to paralyse me. Or I can roll up my sleeves and put my talent to good use, writing readable B-list fantasy books that will bring home the bacon. That seems a lot more achievable, and a lot less stressful. 

Punisher, Deadpool, and the Ups and Downs of Antiheroes

I’ve written about antiheroes before on this blog, about how their character motivations affect their actions and how their moral ambiguity can show us what we value as an audience and a culture. But lately I’ve been writing about a specific comic book antihero named Deadpool and why, despite all the recent hype, I don’t really think he’s that great of a character. In my last post I mentioned how I can’t really root for Deadpool much, because he’s not fighting for a good reason, but only for money and fun.

“But wait!” you say. “Deadpool is more of an antihero anyway! Isn’t that what he’s supposed to be like? Not every character has to be a completely moral hero. You can like him even though he’s morally ambiguous.”

Yes, and I do like a lot of morally ambiguous characters. As a comic book fan, I still enjoy and am often fascinated by the adventures of grim antiheroes such as Wolverine, the Punisher, and Rorschach. I also really enjoy(ed) shows like Breaking Bad and its successor, Better Call Saul, which feature protagonists who definitely walk the moral line and in many ways become worse as they go along. In the literary realm (which I majored in), I love the stories of authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, who frequently treat the theme of moral ambiguity and often feature heavily flawed protagonists. And yet I’m still not a huge supporter of Deadpool. Why?

Deadpool vs Punisher
Art by Steve Dillon from Deadpool #54 published by Marvel comics. Image taken from user lukesuperior on Flickr Creative Commons.

In my analysis, there are two different types of morally ambiguous characters. Or, characters who we would label as “antiheroes” are considered such for one of two different reasons. There may be some overlap or some in-between now and again, but I think these two categories encompass quite a few “antihero” characters.

The first type of character has high ideals and goals (morally, philosophically, etc.), but they become antiheroes because they use morally questionable methods. They have good goals, intentions, and motivations, but maybe not good actions. This is the standard “chaotic good” character. I would posit that Wolverine, Punisher, and Rorschach all fit into this category, and even Batman sometimes does depending on how he’s written. They believe in fighting evil, but they use violence, brutality, and even lethal force to achieve that end. Even Walter White seems to fit this description, at least toward the beginning of his transformation; he has noble goals (providing for his family) but they lead him to evil actions (dealing drugs). For more on this type of character, see my previous post about monomania, or an obsessive goal that would lead someone to do almost anything, no matter how drastic or immoral, to achieve it. Personally, I find this type of character quite fascinating and compelling, because I like to see their determination and just how far they’ll go to carry out their mission.

The second type of antihero has no such noble goals or high ideals; they are antiheroes because they only serve their own interests without actively trying to commit either good or evil. This type of character is often labeled as “chaotic neutral,” or maybe even “true neutral.” Characters of this sort would include Han Solo when the audience first meets him in Star Wars, as a lone(ish) smuggler without much altruism. In discussing the show Heroes with some friends, I’ve placed Noah Bennet in the first category and Nathan Petrelli in this second, self-serving group.

This is also the category where I’d place Deadpool. He’s commonly labeled as a mercenary, so we know that he’s not supposed to fight for much of anything besides his own gain. In many iterations (although I listed some exceptions in my last post), he just fights for money, for fun, for personal vendettas, or for his own depraved, insane reasons. Personally, I don’t find this type of character nearly as interesting, because they tend to lack a strong or clear motivation. Unlike those rigidly determined characters I mentioned above, they just kind of meander and get into random adventures and do whatever feels best to them at the time. They lack a compelling reason to fight or for the audience to root for them.

Some people tell me, “if you object to Deadpool’s mature content, then you must only like morally good characters.” That’s not really true, but I do tend to favor characters who have good intentions. Even when their actions are severely flawed like in the examples above, I’m drawn in by their determination and by the inherent conflict between their motives and actions.

On the other hand, when a character has a less compelling motivation, I have to ask myself why I should even be rooting for him. If Deadpool is just killing people for money, then why should I support him over his enemies? Why should I care if he wins or loses? And for me, the answer is that I really don’t.

It’s often been said of writing fiction that desire plus obstacle equals story. In other words, give a character a strong desire, place obstacles in the way of that desire, and you have conflict, which is the basis of story. You have something happening that audiences will find interesting. But what happens if you take away that strong desire and throw in a halfhearted character who doesn’t care enough to take almost anything seriously? Where does the conflict come from then? Where is the compulsion? I think a lot of it gets lost.

Now, I’ve been saying that this preference is my own personal opinion. Maybe it’s just me and some people can enjoy the second kind of character without much motivation. But I think there’s a solid case in stories for the first kind (chaotic good) being better than the second kind (neutral).

HanSolo
Harrison Ford as Han Solo in Star Wars. Image taken from Wikipedia. Fair use.

You know why? Because Han Solo didn’t stay morally neutral for very long before he gained some more development and started fighting for a cause bigger than himself. And because even Deadpool, traditionally an amoral mercenary in the comics, has been altered for his huge film debut. In the movie, he’s not taking a hit on someone just for money–he’s trying to take revenge on someone who ruined his life. Yes, Deadpool is fighting against a bad guy, doing at least some form of good, and giving him an actual compelling character motivation! While he’s still a very flawed character certainly, this mission of his seems to place him more in the first category than the second. Filmmakers know that, for a big action movie, there needs to be a clear antagonist and a clear reason to root for the protagonist over that other person. They know that the antihero with a good(ish) mission is a lot more interesting than the antihero who just aimlessly does his own thing.

So that’s why I find the Punisher and others a lot more interesting than I find Deadpool. That’s why I have a hard time really rooting for Deadpool very often in the comics. But if I’m saying that the film version of Deadpool is closer to the kind of character I like, then why is it that I’m still not too excited about the film? Wait for my next post to find out.

What do you think? Is there really a huge distinction between different kinds of antiheroes? Who are your favorite antiheroes, and why do you find them compelling? Post your thoughts below.

 

Life Interrupted

Grandma and Grandpa’s 60th wedding anniversary was next weekend. There were people coming in to celebrate 60 years of love. A menu was created, the food was purchased and stored in the freezer. My aunt was asking for advice on a van, since she liked their van and wanted to know the pros and cons. There was wiring being done on their house by Grandpa. There were plans to go out and eat with people for the next two weeks. That’s simply how they rolled. Last Wednesday, they were preparing to go to Ash Wednesday service. Grandpa had to drive as Grandma’s been deteriorating from Parkinson’s. It’s a horrible disease, and those who have seen it know how debilitating it can be. Her mind is still good, but her mobility is hampered more and more.

Grandpa went upstairs to get changed. It would be quick, they would make it to church on time, and he had a nice outfit picked. After twenty minutes upstairs, Grandma called for him and received no response. She, very likely, struggled up the stairs. Grandpa was unresponsive. She proceeded to struggle back down the stairs, as her cell phone was downstairs, where she called my aunt.

We received text messages and phone calls halfway through our own Ash Wednesday service. By the time we were out and I saw the text that Grandpa had collapsed, then called my aunt, she stunned us with the news Grandpa was dead. She said passed, but as a writer words have a certain levity to them. Passed doesn’t do justice what happens at the end of life. Dead does.

I was to go to Utah the next morning for a writer’s convention. The plan was after church to do laundry, hang out with mom and dad, and be to bed by nine, since I had to be up around four. I nearly did not go. I definitely did not bring the clothes I was thinking I would. Due to the grace of Mom, I ended up with clean clothes at all.

Grandpa wasn’t supposed to die. His shoulder gave him problems, he was slowing down, but he still was filled with vigor at 83. There were countless plans surrounding him and his life, and no one expected the phone call. There were no health issues.

Suddenly my brothers were flying or driving in with their families. One of them expected to drive in next week for the celebration of marriage. Neither of them expected to come back home for the mourning of a death.

Life ends abruptly. Not always. My other Grandpa suffered for years from numerous diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, to the point he was basically incoherent for the final stretch. There were no plans made into the future, and every day we showed up to the nursing home and he was still breathing was a bonus. But how many people in our novels die that death?

When I was sitting in Grandma and Grandpa’s living room with Grandma going through all the reasons he couldn’t be dead, when plans were made and cancelled because of death, when I heard of the project which were happening and would not be neglected, I realized something about death, something I never realized because I’ve never before been in a house with a dead body that so immensely affected me.

Death leaves threads which are unfinished.

How often do characters going into battle have no tomorrow? A Victorian novel where two characters duel in the morning, but they have no plans for lunch later on. A teen about to be on the receiving end of a slasher flick doesn’t do their homework, unless we want them to be doing their homework when the horror starts. Even those who walk onto the battlefield. Our soldiers have families at home. They plan on seeing those families. Leave is planned out in order to visit them, sometimes during important events. Maybe it’s as simple as a planned poker game that evening, even though they are aware they are going into an encounter shortly.

People don’t plan to die. Make plans as if they will survive.

Bran, in A Game of Thrones, has an entire chapter on how he has planned out his life. Then he is pushed out a window and falls to become a cripple. His plans are interrupted.

Ned plans on exposing the incest of Jaime and Cersei, until they catch him. Then he simply plans on making it home to his family, hiding in Winterfell, and taking care of his kids. Both of these plans are decapitated when Ned loses his head in a rash decision by Joffrey. Not only that, but it was for naught. By Clash of Kings everyone knows of the incest anyway.

In H.P. Lovecraft, often his characters do not plan out anything beyond the terror inducing events of the present. The men go into a cave with no thought of tomorrow, a guaranty to their own mortality. While I still love his writing, why wouldn’t the man researching a hidden horror in a crypt make plans to return to the surface, writing fanciful notes from the psych-ward he would so justly deserve?

When a healthy character is about to die, especially in an epic where tomorrow matters, have them make plans. It makes it more real. It makes us understand. We recall that death strikes at any time, and the reaper does not care what we wanted to do tomorrow. It takes us all the same.

The rest of the week will consist of information from the writer’s conference, which was a blast. Today, however, having been the funeral, this is what slapped me in the face.

grandpa

In memory of Grandpa, who gave countless virtues and blessings to his daughters, grandchildren, and even great grandchildren. Who taught us faith, an even temper, and a determined approach to this world. You were taken by a thief in the night, but you’ve left behind so many great reminders as to the amazing man you were. I miss and love you, Grandpa. Until we meet again.

The Siege of Gordul Nor, Part 3

Hello, internet!

It is Sunday, and here is the final piece of my latest story that I’m going to share with you. I’ve written more of it, and may share the rest with you in future posts, but for now, this is all you’re getting. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it.


Crimea Barricade Corpse

Stealth had worked tolerably well for them so far. It had stopped them from being picked off by sharpshooters as they crossed the wasteland, or gunned down dead in open ground as they climbed the last fifty yards towards the enemy’s positions. They covered the last few yards on their bellies, but stealth was only useful up to a point, and they reached that point as soon as they reached the enemy fortifications. The barricades were mostly wicker cages, shovelled full of rocks, sand and mud, then set down in rows and stacked four high, just like the concordium’s fortifications on the other side of the valley. They could stop bullets or even cannonballs, but they were also fairly easy for Bournclough to climb over, by clinging to the wickerwork and jamming his toes between the different rows of baskets. Mogget followed him, and the nob came behind them once he’d seen how it was done.

The time for stealth was behind them. Bournclough reached down to shake hands with Mogget, then vaulted over the barricade, not advertising his presence with a yelp or a cry. He landed on his feet, gripping the barrel of his musketoon in both hands and wielding it like a club, the way he wielded it whenever he actually needed to kill someone. He was in a small, well-lit battery with earthworks on all sides and four orcs in the middle, sitting around a tripod stove and cooking something that smelled of moss. All that mattered to begin with was that one of them had their back to him. He raised his musket above his head and brought it down again with a hoarse shout. There was a steel plate screwed to the butt of his musket for just such bludgeonwork, and the edge of it came down a little below the orc’s pony-tail, cracking his skull like an egg. The orc tensed, shuddered, then fell off his stool.

The other three were already scrambling to their feet, horking and grunting in surprise. They weren’t dressed in the fur or leather strips of tundra orcs, but the black frogging and shako hats of the Malign Emperor’s artillery regiments. That might have meant that they weren’t carrying cleavers, until one of them proved himself to be a traditionalist, reaching to his belt and pulling out a nasty-looking butcher’s knife the length of Bournclough’s arm. All three of the brutes were twice Bournclough’s height, and they all looked ready to kill him, but Mister Cleaver looked the most like he could do it. He bared his fangs, flared his nostril slits, and stared down at Bournclough with hateful yellow eyes. He snarled something in Orcish, and the other two stepped back a little, letting Mister Cleaver have his fun.

Bournclough tested his grip, ready to try and swing his musket down to knock the knife out of Mister Cleaver’s hands, but he knew it would be awkward. A musketoon with delusions of being a club wasn’t an especially good weapon for parrying with. Mister Cleaver kicked over the stove to give himself some room, spilling the orc’s broth into the dirt, and he was about to lunge at Bournclough across the fire when Mogget came sailing over the barricade and landed on top of him. They fell to the ground in a tangled heap.

One of the other orcs used the moment to lunge at Bournclough, trying to drag him down as well, but Bournclough swung his musket once again and caught the side of the orc’s face with a categorical thud. The orc cried out and stumbled back against the barricade, not dead but barely conscious, holding his face in his hands. Bournclough glanced over at Mogget and saw him kneeling on top of Mister Cleaver, driving his own dirk knife repeatedly into the orc’s chest with both hands.

Then it was over, as quickly as it had begun. Gildersleigh leapt off the barricade with his curved officer’s cutlass raised over his head, and brought it down clumsily across the chest of the last orc, stumbling as he landed. It was clumsy, but Bournclough heard the sound of metal parting flesh. The blow drove the orc down to his knees, with the blade stuck somewhere in his shoulder. They remained that way for a while, Gildersleigh clutching the hilt of his sword very tightly and starting at the orc with wild eyes, not sure what to do next. The orc stared back, choking. They looked equally surprised.

“Go on, lad, finish it!” Mogget hissed, forgetting the officer’s rank.

Bournclough hadn’t really thought about how young the nob was, until then. He couldn’t have been more than five and twenty. Taking pity, he set down his musket, prised the sword from Gildersleigh’s grip, and drew it back, feeling it grind along the underside of the orc’s collarbone. If it had been a straight broadsword then he could have made a nice clean cut to the heart, but it was a sabre. Only good for slashing. He sighed, then raised the sword in both hands and brought it down at an angle through the orc’s neck.

Black blood hissed and the orc fell forwards, and then the three of them were the only ones alive in the battery, with the possible exception of the orc who Bournclough had clubbed around the side of the head. He’d wake up with a powerful headache, if he woke up at all.

“Well, sir,” said Bournclough, after a moment. “Is this close enough?”

Gildersleigh returned from somewhere far away. He looked around, and seemed almost surprised to see the three great cannons sitting behind him on their carriages.

“Yes, Colour Bournclough,” Gildersleigh replied, in a faltering voice. He stopped to wipe his mouth on the cuff of his jacket. “I believe this will suffice.

 

The Siege of Gordul Nor, Part 2

Hello, internet!

I hope you all enjoyed Tuesday’s instalment of my ongoing story, The Siege of Gordul Nor.  Without any further ado, I present part two – and I hope that you’ll come back on Sunday for the finale!


 

Crimea Barricade Corpse

“I wouldn’t advise that, sir,” Bournclough managed to articulate, after several moments of stunned silence.

“Nonsense!” said the nob. He was still inspecting the parapet of the trench with a glint of zeal in his eyes. “I shall only be making a quick inspection. I can’t imagine that I’ll come to any great harm.”

Bournclough shared a look with Corporal Mogget. There wasn’t much that could distract Mogget from his rollups for more than five seconds, but this nob was managing it.

“Well,” Bournclough began, in the gentle voice used to explain things to officers. “Not to tell you your own business, sir, but wouldn’t it answer better to take a look during the day? Safe and sound behind our lines, like? With a spyglass?”

“Oh I’ve already done that, Colour Sergeant,” the nob laughed. “But I need to get a close look at the enemy cannon, and I should hardly think that they’ll be keen to let me do that in broad daylight. I must approach their lines under the cover of darkness.”

Bournclough fell dumb again. He returned his pipe to his mouth, but it had gone out. If this nob was mad enough to want to visit the enemy positions at night then he would be better off going west to the Gavilonian lines and finding one of their all-elf companies, the somnambules who could cross the mud without leaving a footprint or making a sound. But the nob seemed to have every intention of going by himself. Bournclough watched wordlessly as the engineering officer retrieved a fur-lined cloak from a sort of satchel that hung at his waist, shook the cloak out to its full length, and swept it over his shoulders. Once it was tied, he peered away down the trench.

“I believe the approach line is that way, isn’t it?”

Bournclough could think of two answers to the nob’s question. The first was “yes sir, and are there any valuables you’d like to leave with us for safekeeping so we can flog them on the sly for drinking money when you don’t come back?” It was the question that Mogget wanted him to ask. But when he looked at this bright-eyed, cheery, innocent nob, he didn’t quite have the heart to ask it.

It was a funny thing. He’d always assumed that his conscience was something that he’d misplace after he spent long enough in the army. But he’d been in the army a long time, and his conscience had stuck with him like a stubborn case of gout.

He steeled himself, wondered what he was doing, and asked the other question.

“Yes, sir. Would you like company, sir? Can’t let you go off by yourself, now. Might lose your way.”

Just for a moment, the nob looked surprised. Then he looked cheery again. “How thoughtful of you to offer, Colour Sergeant. Let’s not waste a moment. The night won’t last forever!”

The nob started off towards the approach line, careful not to step on any more of Bournclough’s men. The men watched him go, and then Bournclough felt their eyes turn on him.

“Stay warm, boys,” he said, because he couldn’t think of anything else to say in the circumstances. He fastened his cloak around his shoulders and swung his pack onto his back, bearing the weight as well as any man despite the fact that the pack was almost as large as him. He emptied his pipe and tucked it into his belt. Then he picked up his musketoon and checked the flint.

Dry as a bone.

He’d been hoping that he might have to replace it, because that would have given him one more thing to do before he had to set off after the nob. But he’d exhausted his options. He wriggled his moustache, sniffed, and set off down the trench.

He’d only managed to take two steps before someone said “Sarge.”

Bournclough stopped, and turned around. It was Mogget. The skinny corporal rose to his feet and sighed, casting the glowing dog-end of his rollup down into a puddle. “If you’re going then I suppose I’m going too, aren’t I?”

Bournclough snorted with humourless laughter. “Not if you don’t fancy it.”

The corporal shrugged. “Well I’ve just thrown my light in a puddle, haven’t I? Might as well come with you now.”

Bournclough smiled. “Truer words, Pat…”

“Oh sod off. Let’s get after him before I come to my senses.”


 

They crossed the valley as quietly as they could, listening for each other’s movements to avoid losing each other, and trusting Bournclough’s sense that they were heading in the right direction. It was hard to get lost as long as they kept going uphill. The land rose unevenly towards the hill where the defenders of Gordul Nor built their great redoubt, and the ground underfoot was strewn with loose rock, blasted clods of soil, and the hundreds of cannonballs fired by both sides almost every day for the past three months. There were bodies too. Bournclough saw grey hands emerging from the soil, a lone boot still containing a substance that had once been a foot. He had to grab hold of the webbing on Mogget’s back to stop him from sticking his boot through the gaping chest of a dead elf. The elf lay there in his powder blue Gavilonian tailcoat, looking pale and forlorn in the way that only a dead elf could. Elves always looked like they were in a painting, even when they’d been festering on a frozen hillside for three weeks. Bournclough felt oddly jealous.

“Must have copped it in that last assault,” Bournclough muttered.

“Yeah,” Mogget muttered back, “him and half the 34th.”

Bournclough hoped it wouldn’t be his regiment that was picked to lose half its men in the next attack. As far as he knew, the concordium had landed in Myrmogosh with the plan of marching straight into Gordul Nor and sending a polite note to the Malign Emperor, suggesting that he could have the city back without a fuss if he agreed to give up some of his favourite hobbies, such as slaughtering the penitent and sending back the limbs of ambassadors enclosed in rusty hunting traps. Bournclough didn’t know whether the Malign Emperor would be quick to accept that arrangement, but the plan hadn’t got that far yet. Gordul Nor still stood. The city fell away to the north, protected by heavy batteries that stopped the concordium’s ships from sailing into the harbour, which meant it was the infantry’s job to attack by land. So far they hadn’t had much luck. The old High Elf ruins had been turned into a fortress, with guns that overlooked the valley, defended by legions of orcs and a good few regiments of Pyromanian riflemen. Bournclough didn’t want to see another attack go as badly as the last one. If this engineer nob took a good look at the enemy cannon, maybe it would help to make the next attack go better. That was why he was out here risking his hide. That was what he told himself as they neared the orc lines.

He knew that they were getting close when the stone head of an old elf king appeared out of the gloom, one cheek submerged in dirt, his free eye pleading for some good soul to set him to rights again. Stone heads meant they’d reached the ruins. And sure enough, a little way uphill of them, Bournclough saw the first of the enemy batteries. Stones steps rose to the lowest tier of the old elf temple, where mounds of rock, earth, and straw had been thrown up as a barricade among the fallen columns. Bournclough could hear nasal voices from the other side. Hideous faces flickered in the dim light of a hanging lantern, but they weren’t the faces of men or orcs. Bournclough had been fighting orcs for long enough to know that all of their cannon were cast with dragon’s teeth or demon’s eyes, grinning as they belched fire and rained down shot upon their enemies. These were the cannon that the nob wanted to see.

The nob was crouching next to Bournclough, peering over the ear of the fallen king. He hadn’t spoken once since they crept out into the valley, but now he took an intake of breath, and whispered, “How close can we get?”

Bournclough glanced at Mogget, then back at the nob.

“How close would you like to get, sir?”

The Siege of Gordul Nor, Part 1

Hello, internet!

I have a story for you today, but I’d like to begin my post by offering massive congratulations to Tobias, who – if you didn’t see his post yesterday – is expecting a baby! I wish his whole family several metric British tonnes of health and happiness.

Now! Down to business: I am writing stories set in a new fantasy world at the moment, and I thought I’d try some of them out on you. So this week you’re getting three instalments of a short story which I’m provisionally calling ‘The Siege of Gordul Nor’. I hope you all enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.


Crimea Barricade Corpse

Bournclough had figured out that if he kept every muscle in his body clenched as tight as a drum, he could stop himself from shivering. And if he stopped himself from shivering, that stopped his teeth from chattering, which meant he could smoke his pipe without biting through it. Thus he sat, on an upturned crate stamped POWDER, DRY FOOT, INFANTRY, with his greatcloak draped backwards over his folded arms and his pipe clamped in his mouth, warming the crags of his face with a healthy glow whenever he took a draw from it. He was firmly ensconced in the blind end of a trench, with soggy wicker ramparts doing their best to keep back the mud on either side, and he wasn’t intending to let man, dwarf, elf or beast move him from the spot for the night’s duration. No. 4 Company would be turning out at dawn as their relief. After he’d had a quick word with Colour Purding and handed over possession of the upturned crate, Bournclough would make his way straight back to his billet, where he was looking forward to sleeping until lunchtime, if not later. Then when dusk came around again, he’d march right back out and plant his arse back down in the exact same spot.

This routine had been repeating itself for nigh-on three months, ever since the army reached Gordul Nor and started digging siege lines. Bournclough’s company always got the night watch, and he knew full well why. It got him riled up, sensing the lads around him in the dark every night, shivering from the cold. They squatted all the way down the length of the trench, muttering to themselves, boiling tea, trading smokables, coughing the damp out of their lungs, still on duty when they should by rights have been asleep on their bedrolls. Just because he’d the had the bad fortune to be born with a bit of Broonie blood in him, people thought that he could see in the dark, and these lads suffered. “Put Bimhead’s company on piquet,” the major had said. “He’s got that twerg sergeant, send him out. I’ll say this for twergs, they’re bloody useful for night excursions, if not much else.”

The arrangement suited their lieutenant very well. He turned up each evening to nod his head when they stood to, saying “Carry on, Colour Sergeant” with a very dignified bearing, then turning on his heel and making straight for the mess tent, to keep the sherry decanter company until the small hours. It suited Bournclough to a point, as well. He could deal with officers who were drunks and wasters. They didn’t stop him from running the company the way he liked. It was the interfering sorts that he couldn’t stand.  Or worse, the ones who tried to be heroes. The safest thing for that sort of officer was a bayonet in the back before they got anywhere near the enemy.

He got the sudden sensation that there was someone new in their trench. He couldn’t see in the dark, despite what the major thought, but he did have a bit of the old Broonie sense. Even when it was dark and when the company had fallen silent, he could still sense the lads around him. Still knew where they were, could still avoid stepping on them like everyone else did as they stumbled down the trench in the dark. But it also worked like a barometer. He got a pang in his chest, or a quirk in his eyebrow that drew his attention to something, as though he was being tugged on a fishing hook. Now his thoughts were being drawn towards the communications trench that led up from the rear lines. Someone was approaching. Bournclough watched the opening with patient focus.

His senses proved to be less than necessary. The new arrival nearly tripped over Private Burrows as they entered the trench, and Burrows drove them away with a torrent of abuse. Bournclough could see vague shapes in the dark, and could feel that there was somebody approaching him, getting closer.

“Hullo!” said the new arrival.

He sounded like a nob. Cut-glass accent. College boy, Bournclough thought. Nobs like this didn’t come strolling down to the siege lines just to say “hullo.” There was almost certainly something that he wanted. Bournclough, and the rest of the company, waited silently to see what it was.

When the answer wasn’t forthcoming, Bournclough reached up to twist the key on a naphtha lantern that was hanging above his head. He turned up the heat, casting the trench in a dull green glow and revealing the features of the men who were squatting nearby. Most of them had features which looked better in dim light, but not the nob. He was all cheekbones and wispy hair. Bright eyes and pale skin. He was young, but tall. He looked like he might be trouble.

The nob managed to figure out that Bournclough was in change, and smiled. He covered the last few steps towards him, walking confidently over the duckboard floor of the trench, and avoiding getting his boots any dirtier than they already were. He reached Bournclough and extended his hand.

“Gildersleigh,” said the nob.

Bournclough’s eyebrows crept up into his hat. He stared at the nob’s outstretched hand, then up into his face, and took his time doing it, sucking thoughtfully on his pipe. But the nob had that kind of friendliness that didn’t know when to give up and go home. Eventually Bournclough relented, and shifted himself forward off his perch, hitching his cloak over one shoulder and standing to his full height. Which was roughly half the full height of this Gildersleigh character.

He offered his own hand, far rougher than Gildersleigh’s and wrapped in sweatsoaked bandages for warmth.

“Colour Bournclough,” he grumbled.

“Well,” the nob smiled, “it’s a distinct pleasure to meet you, Colour Sergeant Bournclough.”

The nob reached down and shook Bournclough’s hand companionably. He didn’t seem to mind the bandages, and he actually seemed sincerely pleased. Corporal Mogget snorted under his breath.

“…and you, sir,” Bournclough said, then cleared his throat, feeling embarrassed on the nob’s behalf.

There was a long silence.

“Cold, isn’t it?” said the nob, trying civility once again.

“We hadn’t noticed,” said a scornful voice from somewhere further down the trench. It was probably Corporal Mogget once again. Bournclough chose not to reprimand him. The nob was wearing the uniform of a lieutenant in the Royal Engineers, so unless he’d stolen the togs from somewhere, he’d probably just come from the rear lines of the siege camp, where the engineers had set up their tents around a nice warm steam engine that they’d brought ashore from one of the ships in the harbour. Mogget had a right to be jealous.

“We’re the Egremontshires,” said Bournclough. “Second battalion, number three company. If you want Lieutenant Bimhead, he’s, er, well…”

He nodded his head westward, to where the regimental mess tent was pitched behind the safety of the earthworks. The nob must have passed it on his way down, must have seen the glare of candles from inside and heard the clamour of the regiment’s subalterns banging the table, drinking their way through their private supplies of wine and brandy.

“Er, no, I don’t want Lieutenant Bimhead,” said Gildersleigh. “I shan’t think that I will need to bother him for any reason.”

“…oh,” said Bournclough, feeling confused. “Then, er…how can we help you, sir?”

“Oh!” Gildersleigh smiled, and looked up at the edge of the trench. “It’s very kind of you to offer, but I was just thinking of going out by myself and taking a look at the enemy’s positions.”

There was an even longer silence.

“…oh.”


 

Marvel vs. Star Wars: Dawn of Justice

In my last couple of posts, I’ve been dealing with the idea of originality in storytelling. It’s a huge idea, and I certainly don’t expect to uncover all the answers here, even as I’m wrapping up this three-part series. But it’s an idea that audiences (of books, movies, etc.) often pick up on quite a bit, whether positively or negatively, and so a serious writer should know how to address it to.

I looked at two recent blockbuster movies, neither of which is admittedly terribly original: first Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and then Marvel’s Ant-Man. I’ve argued that both films share significant parallels with the first film in their respective franchises (the original Star Wars and 2008’s Iron Man). And yet, while it’s a fine line and I may be nit-picking at the details just a bit, I still feel like one of the two films is simply following a formula in the way that much fiction does, while the other is more of an outright rehash of its predecessor. Is this a legitimate analysis? Let’s see if we can find out.

Of course, it’s true that very few films or stories these days are completely original. As a book I regard quite highly observes, “there is nothing new under the sun.” And as many people before me have stated, most stories are just combinations of old elements in a new or different way. I have found this to be true as a reader, a moviegoer, a student of literature, and as a creative writer. Universal concepts such as the hero’s journey and the monomyth work themselves and their familiar tropes into nearly every story, or at least into action movies with major elements like heroic quests, good versus evil, etc.  I don’t deny that these elements show up pretty strongly in the Star Wars galaxy, the Marvel universe, and quite a few other places too.

Also, as I mentioned last time, Marvel admittedly has a proven formula that works, and most of their movies stick to it to some degree or another. They have a similar lighthearted tone, similar themes of saving the world from evil threats, and similar plot structures where the hero and his allies have to overcome impossible odds together (I say “his” because none of the Marvel Cinematic Universe solo films have featured a female main character…yet).

And while these elements are all significant parts of the movie, that may be where the similarities end. The settings of each are vastly different, ranging from modern-day America to deep space, from World War II to mythical realms. The same goes for the protagonists who inhabit each setting. Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, and Captain America all have vastly different personalities and backgrounds, and Ant-Man’s is different from all of theirs as well. Although they face similar obstacles and overcome similar crises, the characters are each distinct and unique. In this sense, I might posit that the formula Marvel has become known for is comparable to the hero’s journey itself. They both refer to a certain set of tropes and plot structures, but those elements can be applied to nearly any type of hero in any type of setting. In that sense, one could argue that Ant-Man and the other Marvel movies copy elements from a certain common formula, but not necessarily from each other.

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Cover for Marvel Premiere #48, featuring Ant-Man. Image from Flickr Creative Commons.

Also, one should remember that the Marvel movies are based on comic-book source material. There are a lot of vastly different characters in the comic book universe (all with a much more complicated history than any you’ll see onscreen), and so there’s quite a bit of material to draw from. That’s why, while Ant-Man featured Scott Lang as the main character, it also included Hank Pym, who in the comics was the original Ant-Man, and other characters who are recognizable to a comics fan like me, such as the Wasp and Cassie Lang (yes, even the little girl in the movie eventually becomes a superhero of her own). So does the comics background make the movies more original? No, not really, but it does mean that the movies draw elements from an outside source rather than directly ripping off each other. They have a wide range of source material to draw from because the comics have been going on for so long, and they can include characters and elements that aren’t necessarily central to the same plot formula that keeps recurring in merely the movies.

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Movie poster from Star Wars, 1977. Image from Wikipedia. Fair use.

But, all of that being said about the Marvel movies, I still maintain that The Force Awakens was, to a large extent, a rehash of the original Star Wars, A New Hope. To reiterate, that doesn’t mean that I couldn’t enjoy the movie on some level, but just that it felt somewhat lacking in depth and ambition. It didn’t copy merely a formula such as the hero’s journey, but it copied one particular movie very directly. There was a desert planet that looked like Tattooine, but totally wasn’t Tattooine! And a planet-destroying weapon that’s kind of like the Death Star, but oh, it’s completely different from the Death Star! And Rey, while an interesting and compelling character so far, is to a large extent a female version of Luke Skywalker. I don’t want to give away too many details or spoilers, but see my last few posts for further details on how closely the two films and their plots mirror each other. In many ways it seems to me that they should have just called it A New A New Hope.

So yes, I am concluding that Ant-Man was a good (or at least better) kind of predictable, while The Force Awakens was more of a rehash than it should have been. Maybe I’m just splitting hairs here, as neither movie was completely original, and both fell into the category of “fun, but not amazingly awesome” for me. Of course, an ideal story, a truly memorable and groundbreaking one, might be more original than either one. But keep this difference in mind as you write. Audiences will usually accept it more or less if you follow a time-tested pattern such as the hero’s journey, but not necessarily if you borrow too heavily from one work in particular, like The Force Awakens did to A New Hope. (Then again, The Force Awakens is still proving to be amazingly successful at the box office, so despite the criticisms from a sizeable group of viewers, it’s clear a lot of people are still quite willing to accept it).

Finally, I’ll leave you with a quote about originality to ponder in your own writing. And though it’s a lofty ideal to reach, maybe this will help. C.S. Lewis says: “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”