Using Stereotypes

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Jeremy T. Hetzel (c) 2011

I have been playing The Division a lot lately. The game is based on you being a sleeper agent who is to bring order to NYC after a designer virus wipes out about 90% of the population.

NYC is broken up into districts, and each district has a coordinator. This coordinator gives missions. For the most part, you hang out with them for about five minutes of dialogue throughout a couple hours of clearing their district of evil. Then you move on.

In any line of fiction, these people would be forgotten quickly as nearly anonymous NPCs. The characters would all blend together, basically be the same person, and we would all move on and forget them.

However, Ubisoft and the dozen developers and publisher who were involved in this game made a very smart move. They played off stereotypes to create slightly over the top personas that I still remember.

The first coordinator was a soccer mom. “I think this is going to be dangerous, hun, but I’m sure you can handle it.” Then just amplify the worrying about you but believing you’ll do your best by 100%. You could hear the “I owned a minivan and went to soccer games for my kids” in her tone.

Then there was an action movie actor. “Dude, when this thing blows over, you’ll have to talk to my agent. I mean, if he’s still alive. He probably isn’t. So I guess we’ll have to make our own movie without help. But you would be so awesome to act beside.” He was such a tool.

Let’s not forget the zen master. “There is imbalance and a disconnect. Actually literally a disconnect. Someone took down one of our communication relays. Go spread some karma.”

Each coordinator was an over the top stereotype, and that made the character stick. It made it so I could immediately create a concept in my head of who that person was, and though there may have been some deviation at times, overall I knew what I was getting. And it was hilarious.

In your own writing, how many bartenders (or ultimately the role of information broker) do you have? Whether they’re at a space station, in a wooden tavern, or in a downtown bar, how often are those bartenders interchangeable? I try to distinguish them, but it’s difficult. By making them over the top, Ubisoft succeeded in making each of these otherwise anonymous characters pop.

Let’s look at Song of Ice and Fire. Catelyn Stark goes into a tavern where there’s a woman that she remembers as a child. The woman ate a fruit that made her teeth red. Always red. She was an obnoxiously nosy woman. I remember her. She lasted a full ten pages. She was a stereotype of the nosy neighbor.

Stereotypes often exist because of some truth. The soccer mom exists. I get they each have nuances, not all soccer moms are the same, but in five minutes of dialogue you don’t have time for nuances. In ten pages you don’t have time for nuances.

Now don’t take this as me saying everyone fits in those stereotypes. I’m simply stating that if you have a character who will not show up often and will be easy to forget, find a mold, cast him, change a couple things, and plop that person onto a page.

What I am saying is we understand stereotypes. We can create a full image with very little information. Use it. It’s an excellent way to convey a lot of information about a character in a very short period of time.

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?

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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.”

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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?

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Allegories: The Ups and Downs

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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.

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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.

Character and Location Driven Stories

I recently played The Witcher 3 and Elder Scrolls Online. I discovered in my playing two very different and awesome ways to tell a story.

The Witcher 3 enticed me with character based stories. The major plot lines were all moved through an assortment of supporting characters. As you continued their story, you got closer to your end goal. When you finished the main story surrounding the support character you had a personal plot line which gave the relationship some closure.

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Usually you were hanging with people. But sometimes you were a lonely mountain.

ESO went a different direction, likely due to the MMORPG aspect. You went from one locale to the next. At each one you were to unravel an issue. Sometimes you fought a war to take or defend a point. Other times there were plagues, spirits, and other oddities to deal with.

Both forms of anchoring gives an easy format to follow as a writer and reader. You can easily trace your story arcs, where they begin and where they end. Readers have easier cues to see the flow of the plot. When you set all conflict for an arc to move along one character or place, it allows better focus.

In The Witcher 3, character based stories hooked us from one person to the next in a hunt for Ciri, a sort of adopted daughter to Geralt, our protagonist. Geralt had to hunt support characters down. Most of them Geralt knew from past adventures, which were hinted at from time to time. After doing a search quest, there was usually some personal favor which occurred. After that, Geralt was given information on Ciri. At this point, Geralt could move on, never to look at that support character again, or he could go back and finish a final personal quest to give the relationship some closure, or provide a little entertainment.

As with anything, there are strengths and weaknesses. For the strength, you get attached to one support character. We get to learn their fears, desires, and wants by the quests they give and the solutions they come up with (or not). The support character’s motives can take them far and wide, so it is easy to change setting. Finally, it gives the opportunity to have your protagonist deal wish issues they would otherwise ignore or not run into. Motivations to keep the protagonist can be money, love, compassion, hostages, information, or any number of other incentives which a support character can provide.

The weaknesses consist of you are very heavily basing the story on a single support character at a time. Other support characters will come in and out, but really we are investing in the one with agency, and any others are in and out with a shrug. The protagonist can be overshadowed as the drive for the story is handed over to someone else. If the support character is flat, you’ve dedicated a lot of time and effort into their tale, and the reader will not stick around.

In ESO, you went into a location and dealt with an issue. As an MMORPG, it requires you to be tied to a place in order to gain levels before forcing you on. To make the game less of a grind, and feel less like you were chasing quest icons, there were locations you ventured into where you resolved some plot. This could be going into a town and discovering some plague. In the next town, you help a temple that is dealing with the ramifications of the fact it’s a zombie plague. You find a cure, then go on to put an end to the organization that created the plague. Each location had its own plot arc leading into the major story.

The advantages consist of you create empathy for a region instead of one character. People are tied into events greater than a single person which allows you to see more politics over a larger scope. More often than not, when a story is revolving around a setting, the character is there to change that location. The character also has significantly more agency as far as how they’re going to deal with the issue, or if they’ll even just walk away and let the location to its fate.

On the flip side, there is the issue of mobility. Your character isn’t going anywhere, so your setting better be interesting, much in the same way the support character above had to be interesting. It can be harder creating a driving force if there is a line of setting based arcs. Home town only works for one location, which is fine if they will be in that one location forever. After that, money or virtue can be excellent motivators. By focusing on a setting, there is the possibility of ignoring people. Make sure you still have a strong protagonist and support cast.

These are just a few of the possibilities. There are plenty more pros and cons, along with countless ways to tell a story, but it was fascinating to see the two very blatant ways these franchises approached storytelling.

Villainize Yourself

I know. Villainize isn’t a word. Stay with me on this.

The other day I was conjuring a story based on my own wishes to find a woman. A very specific woman. You haven’t done wish fulfillment in your writing? Stop judging. It started with the prince dismissing all the other women in court and longingly looking over the horizon, where she was coming up the path. He made all the arrangements for a happily-ever-after and the couple got married. She was soon after locked up and the prince became a tyrant, keeping an eye on all she did.

What? Prince Charming doesn’t lock away Sleeping Beauty! I was horrified. I would never do that. But it’s amazing what those feelings of fear, loss, despair, and even desperation bring to the forefront when thinking up a neat (fantasy) story that went from romantic wedding to domestic abuse. I had become a villain in my story and it made me very uncomfortable.

These people exist in the world, the ones who actually go through it. Stories are all over about the guy who is charming, gets his wife to marry him, and then is the slob on the couch that smacks her around in front of the kids. Sometimes you’ll think that or some other horrible plot. You won’t act on it (I hope), but you might imagine it. I had a friend who wanted to rip out a guy’s nipple piercings and gouge his eyes out with it. He would never do it, and if you ever met him he’s the nicest guy in the world.

And when you think it, that’s one thing. But when you write it, you’re making it real. You’re making an alternate you real, and that can be very disconcerting because it’s so personal, instead of far flung and fictional.

Who wouldn't use their peasants as a footrest? Fable 3 concept art.
Who wouldn’t use their peasants as a footrest? Fable 3 concept art.

Backtracking to my story, once I was beyond the initial revulsion, I realized something about that inner thought, about my dark garden blossoming forbidden (and felony level) fruit. It’s okay to write about it. It’s okay to portray me in that manner. Because we are all gray, neither good nor bad, and we will write best what we understand and feel. We will write best when it’s something we desire, whether or not our morals and societal norms stop us. It’s okay for you to conjure up your dark thoughts. It is much easier emotionally to pick up a newspaper and hit the freakish things others do in those pages than to reflect on what we would do if our conscious didn’t get in the way, but it won’t be nearly as true when you commit words to paper.

What I’m trying to tell you is delve into your inner bad guy. Release your Hyde, and let him roam the streets. Would she sleep around? Would he urinate on pets as they walked by? Would she do experiments on people to see what it takes to break bone? Would he become a serial killer, curious how long he can remain ahead of the police? Maybe I’m just exposing my psyche for all of you to judge, but I’m fairly confident we all have our dark thoughts. Those thoughts we hide deep in the shadows of our mind, hoping we don’t have to face them. Well face them and profit off them. Writing is from your brain, so use it all.

That got dark. I need a shower. And I’m going to write a story about a man urinating on pets being walked in the park. Have you had characters make you squeamish because they hit close to your less than flattering attributes? How do you use yourself in your stories? Do you think I’m entirely wrong on this, and why?

What was the point of that!? Cutting the Fluff

We all have read the passage that afterwards we’re left scratching our heads going, “Why do I care?” It didn’t tell us anything new about the character. It didn’t give us new insight into the plot. Nothing we didn’t already realize was revealed about the setting. Ultimately the entire point of the scene was to give a few thousand more words to the word count. Maybe it’s only two or three paragraphs of fluff that did nothing for us. What is the point of these writing moments?

There isn’t one. It is meaningless fluff that is just to make a book longer and it should be cut down alike a character overstaying their welcome. I would use examples, but I would feel horribly guilty of pointing a finger at an author I truly think is talented and you all have your personal favorites anyway.

All rights reserved ArenaNet
All rights reserved ArenaNet

I urge you to make sure everything is with purpose and that anything which is only there to elongate your word count is slashed out. Think of it as an appendix which has already exploded in your novel and it’s just festering. As a surgeon, cut it out and move on. Here is my suggestion on how to do this, though ultimately we all have our own way.

Look into your scenes. Did you reveal something about the story that hadn’t been before, or are you cementing a truth that the readers are coming so close to realizing? Perhaps there’s a picture on a desk, but half of the photo is ripped out. The character asks why, but the scene consists of the boss trying to change the subject, focusing on a more mundane piece of information we already knew. Have some mystery or truth shown in your scenes so that the reader feels involved, like they are trying to figure out a mystery of some sort, or trying to predict what will happen. It makes the reader involved.

Was there an event which didn’t happen as expected, and now the main character is challenged to overcome a phobia? This would allow us to see where the character is as far as his flaws and if he is overcoming them. In this case, really any characterization is great. We might find the depravities of the bad guy, find out the hero isn’t amazing, learn that the sidekick has a dark secret, and so on. Make sure we learn something about a character and that if there is a challenge, it is unique to them. There may be a few mundane events throughout a scene, but make the meat of it important.

Did the scene show there are poisonous frogs in the swamp which gave off a sweet taste, luring in prey? Now we know of a danger that could play into the future. When we learn about the setting, we can look to the future or even the present as to what’s happening. When you see a military camp, or that there are countless mercenaries in a region, we have a very different feel of the direction of the story than if we see an idyllic village full of artists and happy, fat villagers.

All rights reserved NCSoft
All rights reserved NCSoft

Find a book you love. Read through it. Dissect every scene for what it told us and what it revealed. Even a chase should reveal something other than our protagonist nearly died. It could reveal the setting (or utilize setting which had already been revealed previously), show the abilities or thoughts of the protagonist, or make it more obvious the villain really does have an incredible amount of resources at his disposal. However, by the third chase scene we get it and it’s just boring.

Once you’ve done that, analyze your own writing. If you’re in the works, look at each scene and mark down why you need that scene. What has it shown and what did it do for the book? Do this for characters and settings as well. I’ve had characters fuse because I just didn’t need the extra character and the two were pretty much playing the same role.

So get to work and cut out the fat! Make your novel lean and mean and it’ll attract more readers, be more concise, and just be a cleaner and easier to read story over all.