Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Importance of Empathy with Characters

 When one is an author it is necessary to have characters and possibly Loads And Loads Of Characters. To effectively write these characters you need to be empathic to them; to know their personality and mindset. This will enable you to write actions that are true to their character. The trick is that these actions may seem illogical to you personally, but make sense to the character.

I often see a lack of empathy on Tvtropes. Tropers passing judgement on characters for being stupid or whatever. The problem is, they're doing this from their own mindset and their own prespective. This leads to a dissonance because the character's actions make sense to them (and their writer) but they don't make sense to the Tvtroper.


There's a quote from Tolkien's The Hobbit that directly addresses this. It's during Biblo's riddle game with Gollum. It goes along the lines of "It is easy for you, sitting in your room, to answer these riddles but for Bilbo" it is more diffcult. Bilbo is alone, in a dark cave, far from from home and right next to a creature that's moments away from eating him. The person reading The Hobbit is likely doing so in more comfortable/less threatening circumstances. Thus, Bilbo will reasonably have a harder time thinking straight and thus solving the riddles (and coming up with new ones) than the reader.


There's also a scene from the X-Men film series. In "First Class" Charles tries to convince Erik to show mecy to their enemies by saying that they're "just following orders". For a holocaust survivor, this is not a valid argument, to say the least. A viewer is left wondering, if Charles is such a highly educated man, telepathically picked Erik's life history out of his mind earlier in the film, and has shown great insight and ability to get along with others in the movie, why does he make such a blunder? I read the answer on Tvtropes.

As much as it has bitching and complaining, it also possesses a hoard of insight into characters because many tropes demonstrate this kind of empathy. They figure out why the characters do the things they do. The answer in this case is because Erik is wearing an anti-telepathy helmet. Charles has been a telepath since he was nine and so he grew up with this power. It's how he relates to others and now, for the first time in his life, it's unavaliable. It's like blindfolding someone and asking them to move around in their home. They may have lived in it for years, but without their sight, they stumble because they're not used to the sensory deprivation. This is ontop of the high stress situation and a tremendously painful experience Charles went through moments prior (anyone else who has seen the movie knows what I'm talking about). Thus, he blunders and viewers call him an idiot and other things.

You might be thinking-what's the point? If the characters acting in character means my reader can't relate to them, then shouldn't I avoid that? After all, if they can't identify with these characters, then surely no one will read my book! No, you shouldn't dismiss character empathy and especially not for some fool's errand as "character identification".  If characters don't act in character than you don't have characters. What you have are puppets for an invisible puppeteer (i.e. the author). This is worse.

For one thing it ruins immersion. If characters don't act like real people (or as they are presented) then the reader is reminded that they are not real and the situation is not real. This can cause them to stop caring and Tvtropes calls that scenario Eight Deadly Words because the reader has lost interest in your work.
For a second thing, if characters are not driving your plot then your plot is driving your characters. This leads to all sorts of bad stuff like As Strong As They Need To Be, Character Derailment, Idiot Ball, Poor Communication Kills, etc. It's snark bait. I've seen on twitter, on tvtropes and in other places.
Finally, why character identification is a fool's errand. Even if you were writing for a single person, and based a character on them, they might miss it. They could instead look to another character. Now consider an audience that could be thousands of more. Their opinions will be as scattered as the stars in the sky. Furthermore, you could write to group A but misinterpret and offend; you could instead attract group B and be unaware of this.  By making someone identifiable, you do harm to your characters and leave out parts of your audience. It's best to focus on your characters and making them the best they can be then trying to guess your audience.

The characters must act consistently and to do that you as an author need empathy for them.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Journey to the West (A long overdue review)

I finally finished Journey to the West the other day. At over 3,000 pages across four volumes, it's quite a journey in and of itself. I will examine plot, characters and polish before assigning a grade.

This is a review of the novel as a whole. I might do something more specific at a later date.

 PLOT

The novel itself is basically two stories. First is the Rise and Fall of the Monkey King and the second is Xuanzang's journey to fetch scriptures from Thunder Monastery.

The Rise and Fall of Monkey is like a Protagonists Journey to Villain. It starts off with Stone Monkey becoming the Handsome Monkey King and going on adventures to protect his kingdom from threats, up to and including death-by-old-age. Then he gets so full of himself he attacks gods and rebels against heaven. In the end this villain is defeated.

The plot is quick, fast paced and constantly escalates. The method by which Monkey becomes so powerful makes sense. The series of events that lead to him trapped under Five Elements Mountain is driven by character decisions. It can stand alone as a complete story. Naturally, Monkey fans want to see him get out from under that rock but it can stand alone.

The rest of the novel is Xuanzang's journey to fetch scriptures. It has an interesting start. There's this Dante's Inferno thing as part of the set up and there's also how Xuanzang gets involved in the quest and then how he recruits his three disciples. Then it's basically filler until they reach Thunder Monastery.

The Pilgrims encounter demons that want to eat/seduce Xuanzang and Monkey has to rescue him. Usually, he has to seek help from other deities instead of simply smashing everything in his path. There's occasional variations, like helping a kingdom from an unrelated demon scheme, problems with humans, or a Broken Bridge.

I like the ending. It's a good ending, with closure and such.

CHARACTERS
Because there is No Antagonist, the only developed main characters here are the pilgrims themselves.

Xuanzang is basically a walking plot device because he takes no action other than starting the journey and placing the headband on Monkey's head. Monkey could jump back and forth between Thunder Monastery and Tang capital twenty times with ease but Xuanzang is mortal and cannot ride on clouds so he has to go the long and hard way. He gets captured to involve the Pilgrims in the affairs of demons along the way and insists on helping everyone (even if they're a demon in disguise), thus providing the excuse to delay the Journey.
If the other three characters in your cast are criminal demons, then it's necessary to have somebody like this but he could stand to be more like a true Good Shepherd and less like a jerkass.

Monkey is like a Trope Maker or something for general shonen anime heroes: he's rude, arrogant, and defeats enemies by beating them senseless with his superior martial arts but he is also driven by a kind heart that wants to protect his subjects. In addition, he is an old and cunning trickster. Many of his victories rely on sneaking around gathering Intel and then devising a strategy to overcome his opponent's advantages. He also knows more about Buddhist teachings than his own master, who was raised a Buddhist monk.

Pig is basically a sidekick type character. He makes wisecracks, helps the hero in small ways, and gets captured occasionally.

There isn't much to say about Friar Sand (or the dragon prince/horse for that matter).

POLISH

When you're translating over 3,000 pages of Chinese into English, there's bound to be some typos. I only found a couple, which is admirable on the part of the translator.

Trickster Eric Novels gives Journey to the West a B+

Click here for the next book review (A review request): The Dark Communion

Click here for the previous book review (a review request): God's Forge

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Answering review request: "God's Forge"

Patrick Dorsey asked me to read his novel, "God's Forge". It is a dramatization of the night that the Knight Templar headquarters was sacked and the order dissolved. I will examine plot, characters and polish and then assign a grade.

PLOT

The plot's conflict is basically for a group of Templar knights to escape the order's headquarters in Paris when it is sieged by King Philip IV. However, there are other threads: Andre carrying a special package, numerous scenes with the king alone, the string of humiliations suffered by the Templar grandmaster, and a whore's own machinations. Interwoven with all of these is cutbacks to the Fall of Acre to the Saracens. While all of these are interesting enough on their own, mixing them all together is a pain. The main plotline is bloated and bogged down with the minor ones, and the minor ones feel underdeveloped.

This is a dramatization of the historical event in place of an original story. Anyone that knows the basic story of the Templars (Powerful soldiers of God, sacked in one knight, and may or may not have found the Holy Grail and disappeared to somewhere else) will not be surprised by the events taking place. It is an interesting dramatization (not as dry as a straight-forward fact-based historical record, for instance) but a dramatization it remains. I would have liked to focus on the events afterwards.

There are too many coincidences for me to ignore. A couple is realistic because real life is full of chances and accidents. In here there are too many: 1.) A courier with a special something just happens to arrive at the Templar Grand Temple within minutes of King Philip's siege, 2.) One knight plans to leave the temple as soon as his horse gives birth, which happens also within a few minutes of leaving the temple. 3.) A squire drops armor in the small time frame between the start of the siege and before the arrests begin, which is why William has any allies at all. 4.) Out of all of Paris, the Templars stumble upon a blacksmith abusing a whore who leads them to a tavern where 5.) A royal guard captain just happens to share the same room as them. 6.) After avoiding the main force of this royal captain, the Templars stumble into three stranglers who were taking a piss. 7.) When Listette is looking for the Templars, she stumbles into three soldiers she's on bad terms with; just these three out of the entire company that were maimed but not killed by the Templars.

There's an abandoned plot thread about mid-book. The Templars realize the moral and social rot of the city they're posted in and decide to save souls in Christendom before going back to the Holy Land. They determine this is why The Lord allowed them to lose the Holy Land to the Muslims; they need to "get their own house in order first". It's not directly stated if their later actions are tied to this, but given the fact that they are God's Army, it is not out of the question.

Finally, I don't understand why the grandmaster gave up without a fight. If the goal was to distract King Philip then certainly a fight in the front gate would hold attention there and pull forces away from the back. If nothing else, the king wouldn't be thinking about "rounding up fugitives" and instead about "take the citadel!"

The ending is fantastic. As you can tell by now I have problems with the body of the plot but the ending is fantastic. It is a falling action kind of tone, it has closure, and it complies with the historical record while at the same time, not quite as dismal.

CHARACTERS

Characters are diverse. The Templar fugitives are like a microcosms of the Templars themselves. There is William the veteran Knight in Shinning Armor, Andre the na├»ve and noble newbie, Etienne whose just a unforged squire, Odo the Cool Old Guy, the contrasting Francesco with his age and dogmatism and Armande who is here just to wash away his excommunication. You have the full range of experience, idealism/cynicism, and the belief what it means to be part of God's army.

Lisette is a complicated character. She's a street walker and proud of it, but only because her family disowned her for being raped. She tells William she had no choice in terms of profession but when he mentions becoming a nun, she says such a thing wouldn't suit her. Whether or not she knew of this specific nunnery order before or after she became a whore would mean the difference between hypocrisy and a "too far gone" mentality.

There's also an interesting split between the villains. King Philip doesn't appear to have anything against the Templars pre say. He just needs to make "his beloved France solvent again" and the Templars appear to be his best shot. Imbert the head inquisitor, genuinely believes that he is an instrument of God in weeding out corruption and that the Templars, as an organization, are corrupt. He is willing to make exceptions for individual members, provided they confess and seek reconciliation, of course. Lower down the chain, you have officers motivated by a variety of selfish things: money, lust, success, recognition etc.

As you can see, I am much more favorable to the character than I am to the plot itself. The individual scenes are better: well written, character driven, etc. The problem is the larger picture.

POLISH

I spotted a couple spelling errors. It's nothing major.
If there's a reason for the inclusion of the Acre plotline, after the action prologue, I don't see it.
There's some good history stuff in here and a glossary of references so that's nice for history buffs like me.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "God's Forge" a C+

Click here for the next book review (which was not a request): Journey to the West
Click here for the previous review (Also not a request): Young Miss Holmes casebook 1-2

Thursday, November 6, 2014

It's Not about the "If" it's about the "How"

Will the brave knight slay the dragon and rescue the princess? The answer to that is a single word: Yes or No.
How will the brave knight slay the dragon and rescue the princess? Now that is an interesting question. I could write a story based on that.

This post is about the importance of the "HOW" in a story, at the expense of the "IF". By this I mean, that whether or not the protagonist succeeds in what ever endeavor they set themselves to or what conflict they have to overcome is not as important as the conflict itself. It's like that old saying "It's the Journey that counts."

"Happily ever after" is as boring as "rocks fall, everyone dies". Furthermore, they are short and endings. While necessary to complete a story, they are not what the writer should be focusing on and/or stressing out about. I don't know anyone who picks up a book simply to see the ending, and skipping to the ending is likely to be confusing because you won't have the frame of reference to make sense of it. As an example, I will use the anime BACCANO!. The first episode spoils every single plot point of the main storyline in the first few minutes, but unless you know who these characters are and what's going on, it won't mean anything to you. The appeal of the series is watching the shenanigans that lead up to that point.

Readers are savvy. On Tvtropes, we have numerous tropes describing this predictability: The Good Guys Always Win, Underdogs Never Lose, Third Act Misunderstanding and Break Up Make Up Scenario. It takes a great deal of skill to legitimately make them think that the secret agent will perish in the death trap, or the hero will be killed by his arch enemy, etc. Whether then base the tension of your story on whether or not the Good Guys win or the underdogs win the big game or the two leads hooking up, focus on the struggle to get to that point.

For another example, I will use the light novel and anime "No Game No Life". The two leads are a brother-sister team calling themselves "Blank". They begin the show as a gamer of god-like skill and their motto is "Blank Never Loses". The appeal of the show is not in the tension of whether or not they will win or lose (though there is plenty of that) but rather it's in the cleverness of their strategy and the frequent humor (also, the animation is gorgeous). If the point was simply for them to win, it would get old quickly. Thus, there is more to it.

Another example is the manga and anime "Hellsing". Here I'm specifically referring to "Hellsing Ultimate". The "hero" of this story is the brutal vampire Alucard who works for the Hellsing Organization in killing supernatural threats like ghouls and other vampires. There is no tension in Alcuard's fights at all. He outclasses all of his opponents so much that the question is not "will he win?" but "how bloody and creative will he make his opponent's death?" He has to be absent for most of the series' climax because otherwise there is no doubt he would quickly resolve it. Thus, you get to the see the other, less powerful, heroes being awesome.


One final example from one of my favorite fan fiction authors will due to prove my point. "Brave New World" by Ri2 has the most generic of premises: A couple of heroes journey to find mystical trinkets to stop an evil organization from destroying the world. What makes this fiction special is happens within the context of that premise. There are astounding twists and turns, uproarious funny events, and a tremendous amount of original world building. None of this has more than tangential relation to the premise. Most of the time it's there for Leo, resident Genre Savvy nerd, to make fun of for being generic. At times it feels like an excuse plot.   
 
When writing your stories I encourage you to keep these examples in mind.