Extreme Graphic Content! Deadpool vs. The Revenant

Let’s be honest. We probably all enjoy some stories or media that are not completely tame. Whether your taste is for moderate action violence, excessive blood and gore, or maybe some passionate moments that go further than some would be comfortable with, not everything we take in is 100% family friendly. Nor should it be, for as we get older and become more discerning we can hopefully come to appreciate books or movies that may have more mature content and themes without being negatively affected. But how far is too far? As readers, viewers, or writers, where do we draw the line when it comes to sensitive content or topics?

Deadpool_poster 2
Theatrical poster for Deadpool (2o16). Image taken from Wikipedia. Fair use.

This is a very complex question, and obviously there isn’t one simple blanket answer that works for everyone. But it’s a question that I want to explore today. And, in keeping with my last couple of posts, I’ll use the recent superhero blockbuster film Deadpool–rated R for excessive violence, strong language, and some nudity–as an example. I’ve seen a lot of controversy going around the internet about this movie. But as both a Christian and a comic book fan, I have friends in both camps and everywhere in between, some claiming “THIS MOVIE IS FILTHY AND NOBODY SHOULD SEE IT!” while others retort, “THIS MOVIE IS AWESOME AND EVERYONE SHOULD SEE IT!” So should you see Deadpool or shouldn’t you? And why?

First, a disclaimer. Being a Christian, my moral beliefs will naturally affect my perceptions of this movie to some extent, and not everyone may share my views. Still, I believe that the question of mature content in a story is not just a religious or moral issue, but often a question of good storytelling quality as well. Through studying English at a Christian university, I’ve had the opportunity to formulate my views on this topic fairly well, but I believe some of these principles I’m going to mention can be relevant to any audience of movies or stories, regardless of beliefs.

Anyway, I’m part of a Facebook group for Christians to discuss movies and pop culture, and Deadpool‘s release nearly started a civil war between two opposing camps. But someone there recently had a good question. They asked, basically, “is it hypocritical for some of us to be hating on Deadpool while still enjoying movies like The Revenant? Both have very graphic, violent, and mature content. Is it okay to support one but not the other? Where should we draw the line?” And here was my response:

“I have a certain philosophy that I use for almost all art/media/culture these days. Taking a lot of English and writing classes at a Christian college helped me a lot with this. My belief is this: in regards to content in movies, etc., WHAT is portrayed is not as important as HOW it is portrayed. There can be quite a bit of dark or violent content, but the way it’s portrayed or the overall message can be either positive or negative.
For example: The Revenant contains very many graphic scenes, but I think it does a decent job of showing the consequences of those things. It shows how violence, rape, etc. only lead to more hatred and brokenness. It portrays those things but does not glorify them; it shows them as ugly, which they are. And [SPOILER ALERT] the protagonist makes a positive climactic decision in the end, so I think that helped it to have a *slightly* more positive and uplifting tone and theme overall.
On the other hand, the Deadpool movie (at least, based on what it looks like from the trailers) contains lots of violence and sex, but tries to pass them off as fun and funny. It glorifies evil behaviors for cheap entertainment. It takes serious topics that should be treated with reverence and makes them into a joke. This is a major part of why I generally do not enjoy or support Deadpool (whether in comics or movies).
If it helps, ask yourself this question for almost any media you encounter. Think about not just the content being portrayed, but how the overall theme and tone portray it. Even the Bible contains some very graphic descriptions of violence and sex, but it doesn’t portray those things in a positive way. Those are my thoughts at least.”

The_Revenant_2015_film_poster
Theatrical poster for The Revenant (2015). Image taken from Wikipedia. Fair use.

I have watched and enjoyed The Revenant, but admittedly have chosen not to watch Deadpool (at least not until maybe I can rent it on DVD). So I could be wrong about this movie. Maybe there is some deep purpose or relevant plot to it that I’ve missed out on so far. But, based on what I’ve seen and heard, it sure doesn’t seem that way. It seems like, “hey, let’s throw in a nude scene in a strip club just so we can put in more sex and give it an R rating! And don’t forget to make tasteless jokes against people while violently murdering them!” It uses violence, sex, and death not for well-crafted story or for thought-provoking discussion, but simply for cheap entertainment and laughs. And that’s why, both as a Christian and as a discerning consumer of media and culture, I can’t really give my approval to this movie.

But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the Deadpool film seems to be like this. Because, as I’ve alluded to in my last few posts, the Deadpool comics are largely the same. With perhaps some exceptions depending on the writer and the direction of the story, they fill their pages with mature, sometimes disturbing content on sensitive topics, and write it all off as a joke and a cool action-y comic for the kids.

I’ve noticed this tendency in Deadpool a number of times, but one particular instance was more disturbing than the rest. In one story arc, Deadpool decided that he had nothing to live for and wanted to die. But due to his healing powers, death does not come easily for him. So we got three whole issues about Deadpool trying to trick the Hulk into killing him. In other words, Deadpool exploited someone else (with what could be considered a mental condition) in his attempt to commit suicide, and the whole thing was made to look like a fun, funny, action-packed jaunt between two brightly colored superheroes, complete with witty dialogue and everything. Were these comics more violent than normal ones? Did they have too much bad language or sexual content? No, not really. But they took some very serious topics that affect a lot of real people–mental illness and suicide–and tried to turn them into slapstick mindless entertainment. I had to consider after that story whether or not I was really comfortable still reading Deadpool. And, while I do still read his comics occasionally, sometimes I’m still not sure.

For readers and viewers of stories, being able to discern the message behind the content–the “how” and “why” instead of just the “what”–is essential to understanding both the purpose and quality of the work. But consider this principle as creative writers, too. Including mature content or serious themes in your work is not wrong, but there’s definitely a right and a wrong way to do it. What messages will you take into your mind by what you read, watch, and listen to? And what messages will you send out to the world by what you write?

 

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.

 

Why I’m NOT Excited about Deadpool

Deadpool! Theaters, audiences, and social media posts have been abuzz lately with the newest Marvel superhero to hit the big screen. But aside from the normal hype about the action and laughs, the Deadpool movie has also gotten lots of attention–both positive and negative–for being R-rated due to violence, nudity, and excessive language. While the superhero genre was once thought to be good family-friendly fun for kids, that is certainly not the case with this offbeat, over-the-top antihero, leading to high praise and enjoyment from some longtime fans and harsh criticism from others.

As a longtime comic book fan among other fans who usually flock faithfully to each new superhero film, mine is an unpopular opinion, or at least so it seems in my circle of friends. But, while admitting that I haven’t actually seen the Deadpool movie yet (and probably won’t at least until I can rent it on DVD), I must admit that I’m not excited about or in favor of this one. People say it’s a very faithful representation of the character in the comics–but guess what? I don’t really like Deadpool much in the comics either. And I’d like to tell you why. Do my moral convictions and objections to mature content have something to do with it? Probably. But I think it goes beyond that into the realm of good storytelling and character development as well. Allow me to explain.

Deadpool-cover
Art from X-Men: Battle of the Atom #1. Art by David Lopez. Image taken from Wikipedia. Fair use.

It’s a generally accepted rule of fiction that a protagonist has to be likeable in some way in order to garner the support of the audience. I even had one friend posit that “likeable” was not the criterion so much as “fascinating”; even if we don’t “like” the character per se, we as the audience have to find them compelling and interesting enough to care about for some reason or another. Feel free to form your own opinions, but I don’t see this quality much in Deadpool.

When I read a superhero comic book (which I do a lot), I’m looking for a reason to root for the hero, to think that he’s in some way the “good guy” (even if he’s a flawed character) and that he’s justified in fighting his enemies. But with Deadpool being a mercenary, commonly labeled as the “merc with the mouth,” I don’t get that sense of compelling support for a character. He’s only a mercenary, so he’s not fighting for some good or noble cause; a lot of times he’s just doing his own thing and fighting others for money or for fun. Therefore, I wonder, why should I root for him over his enemies? What makes him better or more likeable than the people he fights? Why should I care whether he wins or loses? I often can’t answer these questions with Deadpool.

Some people criticize me for this, saying that I must only like morally ideal characters such as Superman and Captain America. That criticism is simply not true, because I do often appreciate a certain kind of antihero; I find characters like Wolverine, the Punisher, and Rorschach all fascinating, despite or perhaps because of their moral ambiguity (more on this point later). But my thinking is that, if the character isn’t going to be morally good, then there’s got to be some other quality instead that makes them likeable or compelling to the audience. And, while some disagree, I still don’t really find that with Deadpool.

24781427042_f828d218bf_n
Promotional image of Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool in the 2016 film. Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons user canburak.

In internet arguments (some specifically in preparation for this blog post), I’ve asked my friends to explain to me what exactly they find appealing or likeable about Deadpool’s character. I haven’t gotten a very compelling answer (in my opinion). A lot of people say they like him primarily because he’s violent, crazy, crass, and crude. And that simply just doesn’t hold much appeal for me. While I admit that I sometimes enjoy Deadpool’s pop culture references and metahumor (even I don’t completely hate the character, although I do think he’s vastly overrated), I usually don’t enjoy crude jokes when they’re there just for cheap laughs and no story purpose. And I don’t really see much purpose or compelling character depth in an insane guy who just likes to shoot things for money or for fun. That kind of character could easily be a villain (such as the Joker or Carnage), but again I ask, why should I root for them as a hero? What deep or complex quality in this character’s psyche is supposed to make me root for him or support him in his random misadventures? For the most part, I haven’t found one.

“But wait!” you may say. “Deadpool actually is a complex character with a complex psychological disorder! And he actually is a hero sometimes!” To that, I would begrudgingly admit that you have a point, and after some recent social media discussions with friends, I’ve concluded that it largely depends on who’s writing Deadpool at the time. The thing about comics characters is that they change creative hands quite frequently, and so their portrayals aren’t always as consistent as some of us would like to think. For example, due to the recent Deadpool ongoing series beginning in 2012, I’ve developed a somewhat greater appreciation for him than I previously had. Among other reasons, the writers gave Deadpool both a wife and a long-lost daughter, two reasons for him to genuinely try to be more of a hero. And I was like, “Yes! Finally he has something interesting to fight for other than just money and tacos! Finally there’s a reason for me to care about his character a little bit!” I’ve also heard some people claim that Deadpool was a much more complex character following his initial creation in the ’90s, but that he got watered down when his popularity grew in the late 2000s. I can’t really speak to that personally, as I didn’t follow Deadpool much until around 2008, but it may be true that Deadpool’s history has had some deep character moments that I’m not familiar with.

However, when I say that I don’t care for Deadpool much, I’m talking about what has, for better or for worse, become the most common portrayal of Deadpool these days. And from what I’ve read and seen, I don’t think that’s the one who has a lot of deep character moments. Rather, it’s just the one who is known for, “YEAH! VIOLENCE AND SEX AND CHIMICHANGAS AND INSANITY FOR ABSOLUTELY NO STORY PURPOSE BUT JUST FOR RANDOM FUN!” It seems that whatever potential Deadpool may have for compelling plots or complex character development too often gets lost under the banal banner of utter ridiculousness that appeals only to the entertainment of our basest appetites. And, while I could be wrong, having not seen the movie yet, the trailers and reviews lead me to believe that this is the same version of Deadpool that has been translated to film.

This is why, from a storytelling perspective, I’m really not a big fan of Deadpool, or at least not the Deadpool we most commonly see. In my next few posts later this week, I plan to continue this discussion. I’d like to elaborate on why I like some antiheroes but still don’t like Deadpool (told you that was coming), and then on why I can appreciate some other very mature movies without appreciating Deadpool.

Do you agree or disagree? Is there more to Deadpool’s character that I haven’t considered and still should? Let me know in the comments.

 

Predictably Fun: The Success of Superheroes

In my last post earlier this week, I started trying to tackle some pretty big questions of originality in fiction writing. I looked at the recent success of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which, though enjoyable, lacked originality and seemed to recycle many elements from the original Star Wars. Today I’d like to explore the same ideas but in a slightly different genre of story, one that is also immensely popular despite some potentially legitimate claims of unoriginality. And it’s one of my favorite genres too. I’m talking about superhero movies, specifically the ones made by Marvel.

Before we begin, I’ll admit my personal bias. I love superheroes and superhero films. Even the mediocre ones are still enjoyable to me on some level, and it has to be pretty bad for me to actively dislike it (but trust me, there are some bad ones out there). While I love Star Wars as well, I do have to admit that Star Wars is probably my second-favorite fandom–after superheroes. So with the exponential popularity of Marvel movies over the last several years, I’ve had quite a lot to enjoy.

Iron Man poster
Theatrical poster for Iron Man (2008). Image from Wikipedia. Fair use.

But I can certainly understand why, from a perspective of an outsider who doesn’t love all of those characters as much as I do, the movies may seem to follow a similar or predictable formula. If you’re unfamiliar, you can find a pretty decent summary of that formula here. This type of movie may have seemed fresh and innovative when Iron Man introduced the Marvel Cinematic Universe back in 2008, but eight years later, it’s been done and redone a number of times.

 

Consider the Ant-Man, Marvel’s most recent big blockbuster from August. (Interestingly, I almost typed “bug blockbuster” there, but I guess that would have also been accurate.) The film was, in my opinion, a lot of fun and a well-made story for what it was. But it was also very predictable, at least to someone like me who has watched quite a few action and superhero films over time. The good guy overcame his challenges and figured out how to be a hero in the end, even when it seemed like there was no hope left. The bad guy was fairly one-dimensional and was pretty obviously the bad guy from the beginning without much subtlety. The whole film was laced with Marvel’s trademark blend of flashy action sequences and witty humor and dialogue. I won’t say that it lacked character development, but the characters and the relationships it did build were familiar too from a number of other works of fiction–the ex-con looking for redemption, the older mentor figure and his estranged daughter, the maniacal businessman-turned-supervillain, the goofy friends who provide comic relief. Etc. (Not to mention the fact that Ant-Man is a science expert who gets his powers from a scientific suit. Now where have we seen that before?)

Ant-Man_poster
Theatrical poster for Ant-Man (2015). Image from Wikipedia. Fair use.

Of course, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Ant-Man is exactly like all the other Marvel movies. Each hero and their backgrounds and personalities are different enough to make them distinct, ranging from a billionaire scientist hotshot-turned-hero, to a legendary god come down to earth, to the idealistic super-soldier back from the past. The film version of Ant-Man is a little different from them all in that he’s a former criminal, a down-on-his-luck ordinary guy trying to support his family, who ends up becoming a superhero. The individual characters and settings are different in each movie, and of course team films like The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy shake up the dynamic somewhat too. But still, I must admit that by and large the Marvel movies are getting similar and predictable in terms of plot structure and overall tone.

 

So then, what’s the missing element? What is it that makes Ant-Man and similar films so enjoyable still, even though they’re so formulaic? And why do I appreciate one type of movie despite its unoriginality, but still look with a critical eye on recycled plots like that of The Force Awakens? Is it just because I happen to like superheroes a little bit more than space operas? Or is it because TFA was hyped up so much more that unoriginality on its part felt like a letdown in comparison? Maybe. But maybe there’s something more objective in the content of each story, too.

I’m honestly not sure exactly what that would be yet, but maybe I can figure it out in my next post later this week. And if I can, then I’m sure there will be some important applications for us as writers as well when it comes to originality and borrowing from other works.

 

 

 

 

Allegories: The Ups and Downs

Cruciblecover
Cover of The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Image taken from Wikipedia. Fair use.

Lately I’ve been reading Arthur Miller‘s classic play The Crucible with my 11th grade Honors students, and I’m loving the experience. Reading it aloud in class with them has reminded me of when I first discovered the play as an 11th grade student myself, and its powerful characters with strong moral themes still resonate with me today. In fact, I tend to get so caught up in the action of the play, in the brilliant character dynamics and the almost otherworldly setting of early Puritan America, that I almost forget a few things. I forget that the play was written much later than it takes place—within the last century rather than in the 1600s—and that the author wrote it as an allegory for the social and political climate of his own time.

Now, why would I gloss over such an important historical detail, and one that is well established as the greatest influence for the writing of the play? Maybe it’s because allegories get a bad rap sometimes—and, sometimes, they deserve it. Oftentimes, when we think of allegories, what comes to mind is childish fairy tales with thinly veiled symbolism and much too didactic moral messages. I am reminded of stories like the Chronicles of Narnia—a series which, though I enjoy and respect it to a great degree, is understandably considered by some readers obvious and simplistic in its symbolism. Of course, I’m also reminded of some of my own science fiction and fantasy writings from five or more years ago that I kind of cringe to remember, because the Christian symbolism was similarly thinly veiled and rather unoriginal. (Heck, I know someone in a Christian writers’ community who even used the word “allegories” in the title of an independently published graphic novel. It’s like some authors aren’t even trying to hide it.)

The point is that allegories are sometimes looked down upon these days, because when they’re too obvious, they can come across as preachy and pretentious—a moral message disguised as a work of fiction rather than a genuine creative work itself. I saw an internet article once that, when poking fun at heavy-handed symbolism in a popular contemporary novel, jokingly called the author “C.S. Lewis.” And that got me thinking. First, my English major nature thought things like, “Well, if you think C.S. Lewis’ symbolism was so heavy-handed, then maybe you should go read ‘Young Goodman Brown‘ by Nathaniel Hawthorne and be glad for C.S. Lewis. And if you think that’s too much, then you should go read The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, in which pretty much every character’s name equates to some moral concept like ‘Charity’ or ‘Despair’ or ‘Faithless.’ But once I let my snarky English major side calm down a bit, I got to thinking, “well, aren’t there right and wrong ways to do symbolism and allegories in ways that today’s audiences will accept?”

And the answer is that, of course, there are. After all (though I personally haven’t seen it yet), wasn’t there recently a very popular movie in which the characters were just living embodiments of emotion? And aren’t some of the superheroes I like, the Green Lanterns and their multi-colored associates, based largely on the same thing, harnessing their powers from will or fear or hope and rage?

It’s not that symbolism—or direct thematic conveyances of emotion—are entirely shunned in today’s culture. It’s just that those elements have to be coupled with others, too—like good characters and a good story, which every compelling work of fiction should have anyway.

I remember writing a paper on the allegorical nature of The Faerie Queene, and how it (or at least the part we read in class, because the whole thing is super long) is pretty much just a Christian knight battling monsters who represent different sins, and using supernatural help to overcome them. My professor recommended a book called The Allegorical Temper, which I ended up citing in my paper. I don’t have exact quotes handy anymore, but the author’s consensus was that allegories only work if they’re stories as well. They shouldn’t be only moral messages, but they should be able to function on two levels, as messages conveyed through a good story. If a character represents an idea, then the character shouldn’t completely disappear into that idea; they should still be a well-developed, fleshed out character who is enjoyable and compelling to read about, like any other character should be. Then whatever underlying messages are present may still come through, but without overpowering the story for what it’s supposed to be.

Animal Farm
Copy of Animal Farm by George Orwell. Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

In hindsight, I’m not sure I can say that The Faerie Queene meets that goal particularly well. Obviously, more than a few direct allegories have been good enough to make their way into the classic canon of literature, and yet they vary in how much they actually tell a story beyond just the allegory. I recently started rereading George Orwell‘s Animal Farm because I’ll be teaching it too later in the year. Of course, my memory may be flawed because I haven’t read it in a decade, but I seem to remember the symbolism in that book being fairly thinly-veiled as well. Different animals correspond directly to different people or social classes involved in the Russian revolution, and the plot is narration-heavy without a lot of room for extra character development. The anti-totalitarian theme—a political message if not necessarily a moral one—comes through very directly, and the entire story seems to be there to serve that theme.

But again, consider The Crucible. It’s well known that Arthur Miller wrote it as a caution against the militant McCarthyism sweeping through 1950s America. Thus, the judges conducting the Salem witch trials within the text of the play are analogous to the anti-Communist courts of Miller’s era, and the town of Salem can be seen as a warning against America following a similar path. But that’s about it. That’s where the allegories end. John Proctor, the main hero of the story, doesn’t directly represent goodness or sin or anything like that. He’s a well-developed, realistic character with both good and bad traits, who just acts in accordance with his personality based on the events of the story. Abigail Williams, the main antagonist, isn’t directly representative of any one person or philosophy in Miller’s time. She’s just the villain, acting on evil motives but not on the author’s determination to drive home a moral point. The characters have lives and stories of their own that stretch beyond the text of the page and can exist independently of the author’s anti-McCarthyist sentiment.

To summarize: if you’re ever trying to write an allegory, or any story with an above-average amount of symbolism, know how to do it well. Include your symbolism and the themes and meanings you want it to represent, but don’t lose sight of writing a good story beyond that. Develop your plot and characters first and foremost so that the deeper messages can really come through in an engaging, compelling, and powerful way.

Bad guys are people too

Hello internet,

I’ve been on a bit of a Star Wars binge recently

Neeeeerd

Yes, yes, we established that two weeks ago. Keep up.

Anyway, it’s probably just because of the new trailers coming out for The Force Awakens and Battlefront – but I’m hyped. I’ve been a Star Wars fan since 2003, when I was ten years old and the original Clone Wars cartoon (not the CGI series) was airing in five-minute shorts between other shows on Cartoon Network. At the time, I thought it was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen in my entire life. It was produced by Genndy Tartakovksy, who also produced Samurai Jack, and it had the same pacing style and the same gorgeous animation. Minimalist but seamlessly functional, with as little exposition as possible, focusing on sharp bursts of action broken up by long periods of quiet suspense, with casual acts of badassery thrown in, and interjections of funny dialogue. Looking back, it was probably a big influence on my writing style. Except I need to learn to be a bit more economical with my exposition.

I can highly recommend watching it. It’s all on YouTube, and it puts the CGI follow-up series to shame. (And it is, so far, the only media from the Star Wars universe to feature high-velocity speeder bike jousting.)

But this post wasn’t supposed to be about Clone Wars. I watched the series again this week, as well as playing through some of my old favourite Star Wars video games and watching the original film trilogy, and I enjoyed them as much as ever.

I’ve harboured secret desires to be a Jedi ever since I first saw Obi Wan Kenobi leaping off that speeder bike, but one of the things that’s always fascinated me about the Star Wars universe is the minor characters. Particularly, in the original movies, the officers and starship crews of the Imperial Navy. Maybe it’s just superb acting from one or two minor actors, but I’ve always found them to be quite tragic characters, in their own way. I’m thinking mainly of Admiral Piett and Commander Jerjerrod. You remember Commander Jerjerrod?

Jerjerrod

In their minds, they’re serving their emperor, bringing order and justice to a galaxy which is full of “scum and villainy” even by the appraisal of Master Kenobi, who’s apparently the most philosophically enlightened being in the entire universe, given his power to become one with the living force and appear as a glowy blue ghost. The opening scrawl of Episode IV denounces the Galactic Empire categorically as “evil”, but it probably doesn’t seem like an evil organisation to the men who work for it. The Old Republic was more democratic, but it was also more corrupt: corruption which has been swept away by the New Order. Under the empire, does the galaxy still have the problem of huge militarised corporations laying siege to planets which won’t agree to exploitative trading rights, while the politicians – many of them with Trade Federation credits in their pockets – bicker over an appropriate response? Is slavery still common practice on the outer rim worlds? It doesn’t seem like it, from what we see in the original trilogy.

I’m not trying to make the case that the empire are the good guys (even though I do always play as the empire on Battlefront 2 and Empire at War). They did, after all, perpetuate genocide on a planetary scale. And more importantly, they’re supposed to be the bad guys. That’s their function in the story. But what I like is that not every servant of the Galactic Empire actually seems like a ‘bad guy’. Palpatine’s supposed to be maleficence given form, and I’m prepared to believe that he has a core group of supporters and agents whose motivations are wholly evil. But the wider empire must be held together by billions of front-line officers who think that they’re the good guys, or else they wouldn’t get out of bed every morning, pull on their jackboots, and report for duty. For people like Piett and Jerjerrod, the empire probably seems like a breath of fresh air, and Palpatine probably seems like a hero: a reformer who finally made sure that the galactic government had the ability to end corruption and exercise real power to end slavery and other shady practices on the outer rim worlds.

My point – and yes, I do actually have one – is that as writers of any genre, it’s important (and often very rewarding) to make sure that the ‘bad guys’ aren’t uniformly evil. Even if they’re the ones wearing evil uniforms. A multifaceted presentation of any large group is always better than a flat, uniform depiction, but that’s particularly true when you’re dealing with a large organisation or empire that serves as the antagonist in your story. I get bored very quickly if the “good guys” in a story are all morally upstanding paragons of virtue – in Star Wars, we have figures like Han Solo to prevent that from happening – but I get disinterested even more quickly if the “bad guys” are carbon-copy evil scumbags from the emperor of the galaxy all the way down to the lowliest stormtrooper. Shades of grey are always more believable, and more entertaining. Misplaced loyalty from fundamentally honourable characters can be very compelling. Particularly if those characters start to suspect that they might be on the wrong side of history.

This is what I like about Piett and Jerjerrod, and to a lesser extent the regular officers on the command bridge of Darth Vader’s star destroyer, who look up from their stations in terror whenever he billows past. Not only do they seem like semi-decent human beings (or, at least, we never see them do anything outright evil without it seeming like they’re conflicted about it), but when we see them come into close contact with the leaders of the empire – Darth Vader, and the Emperor himself – we see that their loyalties begin to waver. They begin to wonder whether they want to be on the same side as people who are willing to commit such foul acts. In any story that depicts people fighting for a cause that they believe in, I’m always interested to see people stop and question their loyalties.

So I have a writing challenge for you, this week. Go and read whatever story you’re writing, or one you’ve already written. Look at the “bad guys”, whoever they are, whether they’re an evil interplanetary empire or just one person who serves as your book’s primary antagonist. Remain conscious of their motivations, and ask yourself whether they’re certain of what they’re doing. Is certainty realistic? Look at the good guys as well. Could you improve your story by making them more doubtful of their actions? I’d love to hear what you think, in the comments!

Just Say “No”

Procrastinating Panda is Procrastinating.
Procrastinating Panda is procrastinating.

The Procrastinating Panda pretty much sums up the fact that I’m currently avoiding the paper I’m supposed to be working on for a graduate class. Before I succumb to the panda’s call and take a nap, though, I think I’ll leave you with a writing exercise that I’m totally stealing from my creative writing class in undergrad.

Our class had been reading up on using dialogue to build character when we came to a section in our book called “no” dialogue. According to the authors of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, “Tension and drama are heightened when characters are constantly (in one form or another) saying no to each other” (Burroway & Stuckey-French 82).

So, with this idea in mind, here’s the prompt: take 10-15 minutes to write a scene where two characters do nothing but say “no” to each other. This criteria can be met in more than one way—for example, you could have one character ask a question that the other never actually answers.

Have at it, and feel free to share your work in the comments section! 🙂

Exposition: How Low Can You Go?

Theatrical poster for Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Fair use.
Theatrical poster for Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Fair use.

This past summer, a phenomenon of cinematic glory crashed onto the big screen and took moviegoers everywhere by storm. Reviving a thirty-year-old franchise with all the action and visual effects of today, Mad Max: Fury Road impressed action movie fans all over the country with its stunning visuals, tough action heroes, and high-speed car chases across a futuristic dystopian landscape. Critics and fans alike lauded the film for providing a solid, compelling, and thoroughly exciting action movie. Among other things, one praise I heard of the film more than once was for how well it told a story and dived right into the action from the start without getting bogged down in too much exposition. In any case, many viewers began holding Fury Road up as the new standard of what action movies should be like.

Once I saw the movie, I liked it too. But I do intentionally say “liked” rather than “loved.” Now, I like fast cars, big fights, and visually appealing women as much as the next guy, so I certainly enjoyed the movie–but it still seemed to me that something was lacking in this film. As an English major (now an English teacher) and a lover of stories, I tend to be a big fan of well-thought-out plots and well-developed characters. So, while some of my friends praised Fury Road for being able to function successfully on so little exposition, I personally could have used a little more in that area. Despite the film’s many good points and overall fun quality, its sparse explanations about the details of the story or the characters kept it, to me, in the range of “good” rather than “great.”

And I thought I was the only one who felt like that, until, in a forum I’m part of, someone else called the film “an insult to dialogue and story craft” and “a 2-hour ADD music video” (and a heated Facebook debate ensued, as must always be the case with internet opinions). While such reviews seemed a little harsh for my tastes, I have to admit that I do see some truth in these criticisms.

Theatrical poster for Mad Max (1979). Fair use.
Theatrical poster for Mad Max (1979). Fair use.

Like I said, I’m a story guy by nature, so I may be biased and my standards may be a little higher than most. In fact, I can admittedly be quite the stickler for continuity. So much so that, before I went to the movie theater and watched Fury Road, I spent the summer tracking down the previous three Mad Max films from the ’70s and ’80s and watched those, in order, too. (Also, a friend had recommended them to me, so they were on my to-watch list for a while, even before I knew about the new one.) And the very first one did give me a decent amount of that exposition and character development that I like. It showed Max’s descent from an upright police officer in a corrupt world to a morally ambiguous antihero struggling for his own survival. It showed where he came from and how he got to where he was. Personally, this exposition helps me to appreciate the action more. If I’ve invested in the character a little bit and gotten to know where they come from, then I’ll care more once that character is thrust into a high-speed chase with cars and guns and explosions. Otherwise, if I don’t know the character quite as well, scenes like that tend to feel like mindless, over-the-top action, the sort that would make Michael Bay proud.

But the next three Mad Max movies, including Fury Road, seemed a lot less story-based to me. They usually fling Max into another adventure with some other group of people in this post-apocalyptic world, but they don’t provide much info on the society or the characters other than Max. And even Max’s character doesn’t develop much past where we left him at the end of the first film. Admittedly, Fury Road did have the compelling character of Furiosa, who I’d argue was really the heroine of the story and definitely wins the Strong Female Character of the film award. But, for a movie titled “Mad Max,” we actually got very little information about Max or where he came from. In fact, he didn’t even do much in his own movie; it felt more like he was just along for the ride on Furiosa’s adventure. I couldn’t help but wonder, had I not watched the first film first, would I even know or understand who Max was at all?

Furthermore, we never learned much about the film’s villain, other than that he’s a tough-looking bad guy who rules a dystopian civilization. Personally, I could have used just a few more details to help me care about the characters more and know where the story was going. It wouldn’t have to be much; just some well-placed verbal introductions at the beginning or scattered throughout the film to identify the characters and give me a little more insight into this world and the heroic quest. But Fury Road seemed rather sparse in that area.

If you’ve ever written a story before, then you’ve probably dealt with exposition, even if you didn’t know the official name for it. “Exposition” is what we call the setup of the story, the basic background details–who the characters are, where they come from, what the hero’s main plot or quest will be, and whatever other information will be necessary to understanding the story. Authors often give exposition toward the beginning of a story, but sometimes it can be spaced out or revealed over time to add suspense and dramatic effect. But, like most aspects of writing, exposition can be tricky to do well and there’s definitely a balance to be found.

Almost all stories need at least some exposition to get by and function in such a way that the reader understands them. However, too much exposition all at once can get tedious and boring. That’s why people have begun to complain about so many reboots and origin stories in superhero movies. It can feel like an “infodump” that detracts from the main action of the story, and it can easily lose a reader who isn’t invested already. Still, too little exposition can make it difficult for readers to get to know the characters fully or to learn about the world you’ve placed them in. It can really detract from those details that make your story and your characters unique.

So where should the line be drawn between exposition and action? How little is too little before the story gets lost in all the flashy visuals and the plot becomes largely generic and indiscernible? I admit that the standard is very subjective, and it often depends on the individual work, as well as the individual reader or viewer. But, despite the film’s several enjoyable qualities, I can’t laud Fury Road as being my ultimate standard for action movies, because I think it could have benefited a lot from just a little more exposition.

What do you think? Do you prefer stories with more or less exposition? What kind do you like to read? What kind do you like to write? As a writer, how do you balance the need for exposition with the main action of the story and keep the reader’s attention through it all?

Discuss in the comments below. Thanks for reading.

Surprise Me!

Not Today
I would tell you to read the BuzzFeed post where I found this, but it is full of spoilers and written by people who advocate NOT reading George R.R. Martin’s books.

I really hate spoilers.

As my roommate can attest to, if I get so much of a whiff of something that’s going to happen in one of my television shows, there’s a pretty good chance my entire week will be ruined. This happened with Once Upon A Time back when the show was in its prime: (Spoiler Alert) I was forced into watching an episode that referenced Rumpelstiltskin as Henry’s grandfather, and I seriously considered abstaining from the show altogether.

Although the spoiler I just mentioned was a significant one, my enjoyment level significantly goes down if I know even the smallest detail of a story. Even if I’d normally be moved to tears by a particularly poignant scene, if I know it’s coming I just shrug and say, “Okay, what’s next?”

I think the main reason that I hate spoilers is because I want to be surprised.

Despite this need to have stories surprise me, though, I often wonder how much the stories I write actually surprise my readers. The key to crafting works that surprise your readers, according to several books about fiction writing, is that you first surprise yourself—a statement that I’ve always found difficult to put into practice.

Buy it. Read it. Trust me.
Buy it. Read it. Trust me.

I’m not a crazy person (okay, that’s debatable). I haven’t quite gotten the hang of breathing life into the characters of my stories in such a way that allows them to run rampant in my mind. They don’t live inside my head, and they stubbornly refuse to tell me what happens next in their stories. So, how exactly am I supposed to “surprise” myself if I’m the only one writing the story?

The only answer I’ve been able to find lies in the creation of lifelike, fully developed characters who have distinct wants and desires. According to the authors of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, one of the keys to writing good fiction is to have protagonists who “want, and want intensely” (Burroway and Stuckey-French 251). If your characters aren’t striving for something, there’s nothing propelling them to action—and characters are the source of action, of plot.

Once you’ve managed to create characters who act (and react) realistically based on their wants and desires, the plot in a sense makes itself.

A Quick Guide to Monomania

You may have heard before someone describe the basic formula for writing fiction. It goes something like this: “desire plus obstacle equals conflict.” In other words, when you take a character, give them a motivation or goal to work toward, and then put challenges in their way, then you’ve got the makings of a story.

Of course there are many more elements that go into fiction, but this formula gets pretty close to the core essentials. Overall, plots are (or should be) driven by characters and their desires or goals. This is true in most stories, but it’s even truer whenever a character has monomania.

“Monomania” is a fancy literary term that refers to an extreme, overarching obsession that a character has. “Mono” means one and “mania” is a craze or obsession, meaning that any character with monomania is crazed or obsessed about just one thing, just one goal. These characters will go to extreme lengths and do whatever it takes to reach this goal–or die trying. While perceptions can differ from one author to another, monomania is often portrayed as a negative thing. The idea is that having such an all-consuming obsession is unhealthy and can lead to disastrous consequences for that character or others.

Moby-DickIn classic literature, the term is often used in reference to Herman Melville‘s Moby-Dick. In fact, the book’s narrator frequently and directly refers to Captain Ahab’s unrelenting pursuit of the whale as monomaniacal. Nathaniel Hawthorne, a contemporary of Melville’s, also uses monomania in several of his stories, from Hollingsworth’s well-intentioned but misguided plan for social reform in The Blithedale Romance, to several short stories (“The Birthmark,” “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” and more) featuring obsessed scientists who place their mad experiments above even human life. One of the last papers I wrote in grad school argued that this same monomania also appeared in the lesser-known novel Wieland, where the main character’s twisted religious fervor leads him to commit horrendous acts. In hindsight, I might also be able to argue that one of my favorite novels, The Great Gatsby, reflects monomania in the protagonist’s quest for the woman he loves and perfect life he has always dreamed of (but I’d better not get started on Gatsby now or I could probably go on and on).

Walter WhiteThis theme of unhealthy, unrelenting obsession shows up in pop culture, too. Think of the recent television masterpiece Breaking Bad. Walt’s goal to provide financially for his family is initially a noble one, but over time his obsession and determination in his goal lead him to make a number of moral compromises and horrible choices that end disastrously for both him and the ones he loves.

Personally, I’m a huge fan of Marvel comics and superheroes, and I’ve even seen monomania show up in a number of different ways there. With the cyclical, ongoing nature of comics, writers have to shake things up once in a while to keep the characters interesting. Therefore, even among the main heroes or “good guys,” there have been several instances of a driven, obsessed hero taking a good goal too far and becoming (at least temporarily) a morally ambiguous antihero. For example:

  • Civil_War_7In the Civil War story arc (soon to be a major motion picture), Iron Man seeks peace and order through government registration of superhumans, but he has to turn on his allies and make hard decisions in order to carry out his goal.
  • Cyclops has long fought for equal rights for mutants, but in Avengers vs. X-Men and subsequent stories, he becomes an extremist for this goal, much like his former enemy Magneto.
  • In World War Hulk, the Hulk threatened the entire world in misguided revenge on allies who had exiled him into space.
  • Recently in New Avengers, Mr. Fantastic has been leading a covert team whose mission is to save the Earth–by destroying other alternate Earths that threaten our own existence.
  • Daredevil tried to protect his city with force by taking control of a clan of ninja assassins, but he reaped the consequences in the Shadowland story and crossed a line he never had before.
  • In Superior Spider-Man, Spider-Man‘s body was possessed by Doctor Octopus‘s brain (yeah, I know comics are weird. You just have to roll with it sometimes). The result was an ambiguous antihero who also tried to protect New York, but with extreme brutal force and by any means necessary.

Hopefully now you get the idea of monomania and obsession in fiction, the kind that makes ordinary characters into fascinating and compelling (if sometimes misguided and evil) ones who will stop at nothing to achieve their goals.

But what does all this mean for us as writers?

It means that you now have an excellent formula for creating an intriguing story! Yes, it’s true that desire plus obstacle equals conflict. But what happens when you increase that desire a hundredfold to make it a driving, all-consuming obsession? You get a monomaniacal character who, despite any deep character flaws they may have, has an unbreakable will that can drive the story forward past any obstacles that you as the writer throw in their way.

So why don’t you try it out? Create a new character and give them a goal. Have them want nothing else in the world more badly than they want that one goal. Now write a story where things get in the way of that goal and see how your character deals with it. What will they do? How will things turn out? What kind of toll will it take on your character? What will be the cost of their obsessive actions? You may be surprised at the developments that come and at the epic conflicts that result.