Thursday, July 28, 2016

Good is Good or Good is Bad?

Relatable is the holy word when it comes to making good characters. A good character is always relatable in some way.

There should always be something about the character that we get. We get why Batman seeks to keep criminals (who were the death of his parents) from hurting people. We get how Tony Stark can turn to women and drink in his low moments. We get how Belle would do anything to save her father from imprisonment in the Beast's castle. Even if these characters make choices we would not, we get where they're coming from because they are driven by the same sort of things that drive us. There's something about the character that we relate to because it's something we too experience. That's relatability.

The problem of a character with no flaws is a problem of relatability. The logic is if a character has no flaws, they are not relatable--because nobody is perfect.

We've all seen them: the characters with no flaws who seem perfect in every way. They always know what to do in a situation. They always beat the bad guys without breaking a sweat. They never have issues with relationships or tension between other characters. Everybody likes them. They never find themselves in moral dilemmas because they always know the right thing to do--and they always do the right thing.

Arguments have been going on for years over whether characters may or may not fall into this category.

For instance, look at the arguments surrounding Superman. Many criticize Superman for being too morally pure, too overpowered, and too perfect. When DC's own website claims "Superman has super-everything," one has to wonder what could ever pose a challenge ("Superman").

But fans argue that those who criticize Superman are completely ignoring his weaknesses. (He does indeed have weaknesses, including red stars, magic-based attacks [and there are a lot of mages in the DCU], dirty tactics such as using innocents as human shields, and of course the iconic Kryptonite.) Fans also point out that many who criticize Superman are just hopping on the bandwagon and really have no idea who Superman is or what he stands for.

In fact, one Superman fan explains that the real draw of Superman is, well, that very goodness that he stands for:
The most impressive thing about Clark’s powers isn’t that he’s ridiculously strong. It’s his self-restraint and control over his abilities. This is a man who could sneeze the Earth into oblivion, but he does the harder thing. He controls himself and fights for the greater good. In a world filled with corruption, terrible people and such, Superman chooses to see the good in humanity and fight for its survival. What’s wrong with that? He’s a superhero. (Nya-El)
Nya points out that in this day and age, "people tend to root for the villains or fall in love with the anti-hero archetype." That's probably what causes many people to criticize characters that are just straight-up good: characters like Cap or Supes who were raised on patriotism and doing the right thing no matter the personal cost. The iconic, classic traits of being a hero. But many believe that "represents an outdated idealism" (Nya-El).

Many also criticized Captain America of being "too goody-goody" when the first Avengers movie debuted. But it was this very "outdated idealism" that one of my friends actually liked the most about Cap.

My friend explained that he was tired of all the anti-heroes and grit he'd seen time and time again. He found Captain American to be refreshing because he was, for once, a hero that was "just good for the sake of being good." Cap didn't have any pretense. He was genuine. He also didn't have some major glaring character flaw like Stark's alcoholism or Batman's tortured angst. He was just plain ol' good. Straightforward. Uncomplicated. Seeking justice because it was right.

But are these kinds of characters too perfect? Are they unrealistic? Are they unrelatable?

Many (even fans) say that Superman is naturally unrelatable because, well, he's a hyper-powered alien living in a world that couldn't possibly understand him. But I think that's a pretty callous and over-simplifying way of looking at it. That's like saying that two English-speaking people from different countries could never understand each other on a deep level just because they come from two different worlds. Sure, it'd be hard. There might be some parts of each other they'll never really "get" due to cultural differences that have no "exact translation." But two very different people can still understand one another. Even in the case of an alien and a human being, how many movies have we seen where there's even just one aspect that they recognize in each other and use to relate to one another? E.T. just wants to go home. Even a little boy who seems to have nothing in common with him can understand that.

And as soon as you've found even a sliver of common ground, you've found some basis for relatability.

I personally think the word "relatable" gets thrown around too much. And I think people don't really realize what they mean when they say it. Heck, I'm guilty of that, myself.

But I think when people complain that a morally good character like Cap or Supes is "unrealistic" and "unrelatable," I think they're only giving that character a cursory glance. They're not looking deeper, to the struggles these characters actually have. Sure, Superman has incredible powers; but he has to constantly make the choice not to use his powers to kill every opponent that comes against him. Even Batman has said multiple times that killing villains is the easier choice (Batman: Under the Red Hood).

Those against morally good characters also believe that if a character consistently chooses to do good is inherently bad writing. They argue it's unrealistic; nobody would really act that way. But this is ignoring the fact that there are real heroes out there every day, choosing to do the right thing. It's also ignoring the fact that realism isn't the end-all, be-all goal of every character in every story. Sometimes we need characters bigger than us to teach us how to lead better lives.

They're also ignoring the fact that whether a character is "too good" is often a matter of opinion rather than hard-and-fast fact. There's an entire spectrum of what constitutes "good" behavior and choices, and it's very subjective whether a flaw is "big enough" of a flaw to make the character flawed and therefore relatable. In fact, I've found myself liking or disliking different iterations of Superman just based on these spectrums.

In the end, we're probably never going to stop arguing whether a character was too morally good or too perfect. That's because different people have different ways of looking at the world. Some people think that a person doing good is the rarity rather than the norm. Some people think it's totally possible for people to consistently do good, which is why we need "goody-goody" characters--to remind us that we can be better.

So how much is too much good? We may never know. What it really boils down to is your personal tastes, your worldview.

(And which is better, Marvel or DC.)

---
Works Cited

Batman: Under the Red Hood. Dir. Brandon Vietti. Perf. Bruce Greenwood, Jensen Ackles, John DiMaggio. Warner Bros. Entertainment, 2010. YouTube. 20 May 2010. Web. 28 July 2016. <https://youtu.be/7kscfb9XzPs?>. 

"Magic." DC Database. Wikia, 28 July 2015. Web. 28 July 2016.  

"Mary Sue." TV Tropes. N.p., 18 Feb. 2016. Web. 28 July 2016. 

Nya-El. "Defending Superman." Blerds Online. N.p., 19 Mar. 2016. Web. 28 July 2016. 

"Superman." DC Comics. Warner Bros. Entertainment, 23 May 2016. Web. 28 July 2016.    

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Six Aspects of a Story: What the Heck is "Style"?

We've come to it at last: the sixth and final aspect of what makes up a story. We've looked at the concept, characters, dialogue, setting, and plot/pacing. Now let's go into styles.

Style is one of the things that makes stories about the same thing so different. How many stories can you think of that center around the telling (and retelling and re-retelling) of Cinderella? Yet each one of them is different in some way. Sure, they might have different characters or a different setting, but the thing that sets them apart the most is the style.

Style is the way a story is presented.

This varies depending on the medium of a story, whether it's a book, TV show, radio drama, graphic novel, etc. Different media will have different tools they use to establish the style. For instance, movies and TV shows can use camera angles, color palettes, and sound to establish style. Books, of course, won't have that. However, books use narration all the way through; and a narrator's voice establishes style in a way that would be awkward for movies or TV shows to maintain over long periods of time. Books also allow the writer to do unique things with the way they arrange words on a page which movies, TV shows, and radio shows could never do.

There's really two kinds of styles: a storyteller's trademark style, as well as the style of an individual story. When people say "I like/dislike that writer's style," they're commenting on the storyteller's overall trademark style: the way they often handle style in the stories they produce. Many writers do it so long that they have certain methods they use over and over again, and this works almost like a thumbprint. Their style is so distinctive and they've replicated it so much that people can identify a work as theirs just by looking at the style.

Some writers purposefully use different styles (or at least change up parts of their style) depending on the story they're creating. These individual story styles always work to establish something about just that story. Sometimes they're even opposites of the writer's typical "trademark style" to give in-the-know audiences a little unexpected jolt and say something about the story itself.

An individual style's main purpose is to tell us what kind of a story it is. This is also called aesthetic(s). It gives us a "sense" about the story, whether it's colors used or the kind of music played or the word choice of the dialogue.


I'll be talking about both "kinds" of styles today.


Movies, TV Shows, and Other Visual Media

You hear movie-buffs talk about it all the time: a director's style. The camera angles, the lenses, the scene-framing, the way the scenes transition--all these and more are tools directors use to tell their stories, things that can vary from one style to another. Often a director will make choices that are similar across their various movies; this results in people being able to pick out that director's style.

Some directors will film and edit to make the style jarring, disjointed, and flashy. Some will make action scenes blurry and difficult to make out details to get the audience to feel as if they're really in the middle of the fight. Some will opt for lots of close-up shots. Some will keep the camera far away, almost detached.

I don't know much about film theory, so I won't go into detail about which methods establish what kinds of styles (there are entire schools dedicated to that), but regardless of the style, the director always makes conscious choices that tell the story a certain way. The style establishes the overall aesthetic of the story as well as the atmosphere of each scene.

Obviously this means that style is incredibly important. It not only tells you what kind of a story you're in for when the tale opens up, it also helps guide you to feel a certain way while watching each particular scene.

Audio Media

One very important thing that contributes to audio-based media and movies is music. Music is essential to set up an aesthetic and style of the story. Music tells us what kind of a story this will be, what we should feel during a certain scene, what the setting is like, and much more.

Music can also tell stories just by itself. The rising crescendos and sorrowful minor notes can help us imagine stories in our head of what the song might be conveying.

Other tools for an audio story's style are voices and sound effects. Sound effects (both editing sounds and the sounds chosen and produced by a Foley artist) are huge contributions to the story's style. For instance, a story with supernatural elements may have distorted, eerie sounds and effects. Voice actors' performances may establish what kind of character they play, but their vocalization choices also affect the overall style of the story. This is why many audio projects have directors just for the voice actors.

Books, Magazines, and Written Media

Books and other forms of written media have both the hardest and the most simple time with style compared to any other media. They have almost no tools to work with when compared to movies. After all, a traditional book doesn't have a soundtrack. There are very little to no pictures, and forget about moving images. For most novels, there's nothing to establish the style except for words. Not even spoken words and tones--just written words.

This means that the writer can use the way the words look to their advantage, though. Poets do this far more than prose, but it means that in the extreme case, writers could specifically choose words based on what letters they wanted to appear the most to give their writing a certain feel, a certain style.

Writers can also use paragraph or sentence length to establish a style. One thing I often utilize in my style is short paragraphs--sometimes only single words--to build up drama and emphasize certain concepts, thoughts, or emotions. Sentence length also goes a long way in establishing a style: long, rambling sentences can indicate a writer is trying to establish something is boring or a slower pace. Short, choppy sentences make the reader feel like the action is happening at break-neck speeds.

Just like directors, novelists also rely on transitions to help establish their style. Do they cut to the next scene quickly? Do they "fade" from one image to a related one in another scene at another locale? Transitions tell you a lot about the writer as well as what kind of a story you're reading.

Aspects of a Story

Style is the way a story is presented. It's vital to a story. It establishes both what kind of a story you're enjoying as well as how the story wants you to feel in any given moment. It tells where the story is taking place or whether something unusual or supernatural is happening. Style can be very subtle or very loud and pronounced.

But either way, style is just as important as any other aspect of story. Whether it's the characters that populate the setting or the way they talk, whether it's what hooks the audience or what keeps them watching, or whether it's how the writer presents the story--they're all vital aspects of a story.

The really amazing stories are those that acknowledge those aspects and master all of them.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Six Aspects of a Story: What the Heck is "Plot"?

We've gone over concept, characters, dialogue, and setting. Today, we'll go over one of the biggest story aspects: plot and pacing.

I say biggest because plot and pacing include all of the aspects we've talked about so far. Plot is the events that make up a story--the concept taking form through the actions and dialogue of the characters within the setting. Pacing is the order of those events, with all its ups and downs. This is why I put plot and pacing together as one aspect; to me, they're two sides of the same coin.

"Bigger" also means that there's a lot more moving parts. The writer will probably spend more time developing plot and pacing than any other aspect. After all, plots can go any number of ways. That's how stories can be so different from one another. Will the story end on a happy note? A sad one? And yet, we don't just read stories for the destination, the ending--we read them for the journey, too--meaning that every step of the plot and pacing need to be entertaining.

This is why plot and pacing is one of the most difficult aspects to discuss. There's just too much ground you could potentially cover, all depending on what kind of a story we're discussing.

Plots aren't one-size-fits all. There's no one single "right" way to write a plot. It depends on what sort of story the writer is trying to tell. But there are plenty of sub-par ways to write a plot!

Build-Up, Steady Climb, Big Moment, Tie It All Together

A useful diagram I remember my English 101 professor drilling into our heads was Freytag's Triangle. According to Richard Hodaly, this simple diagram shows the progression of every plot ever ("Literary Terms: Freytag's Triangle").

Freytag's Triangle says it in a lot fewer words, but let me try and give you my interpretation:

A story always begins with an introduction of some sort. Even if the audience is dropped right in the middle of the action, it's still an introduction. We're introduced to a character or characters, or we're introduced to the setting of the book. We may even be given the concept of the story right away or a nibble of the plot we're about to experience. This is the build-up phase. The writer is building up the setting, the characters, the plot.

Then there's the biggest portion of the plot, all the stuff in the middle. This is the series of events that leads the character from the beginning (introduction) phase toward achieving their goal (or, I suppose, failing to achieve it) at the end. There's lots of little ups and downs in the middle of a book: getting closer to solving the mystery, only for another curve in the investigation to leave the detective feeling like he's back to square one. The protagonist seems to take one step forward and one step back. We wonder if she'll ever succeed (Bollinger, "Redefining Freytag's Pyramid for the New Millennium" [sic]).

Then comes the climax, the most exciting point in the story, when everything comes to a head. The knight duels the evil wizard to the death. The FBI agent finally has the perpetrator cornered. The big battle, the ultimate showdown, the thrilling resolution--finally occurs.

After that, it's all downhill. The big confrontation is resolved. The writer (hopefully!) ties up all the loose ends. Sometimes we're given an epilogue showing what happened to some of the characters, and then the story's over.

That's the order a plot will go in, but what's important to keep in mind while the plot's still rolling?

Focus

The most important thing is for a writer to, well, stay focused on the story's main focus! The story's main focus is the main conflict: the protagonist's struggle to obtain their goal.

All the events--every plot element--should be about this main conflict. Each plot element should either 1) explain something about the world, 2) establish who the characters are, 3) bring the main character closer to their goal, or 4) push them further away from it. If a plot element isn't doing any one of these things, it probably needs to be cut.

In fact, writers still need to be wary even if a plot element is establishing something about the world or characters. The writer needs to ask themselves if this plot element is actually helping the audience understand more about the main conflict... or if it's superfluous. That's a big danger for subplots.

What about Subplots?

Subplots are off-shoots of the bigger story, plots that are secondary to the main conflict.

It's true that many subplots don't directly advance the main conflict. Each subplot has its own conflict, its own protagonist, and its own antagonizing forces. But subplots can still support the main conflict. In fact, they should!

Supporting the main conflict can take many forms. The subplot might develop a character the protagonist interacts with frequently (like an ally or an enemy). A subplot could also tie into the main conflict, making it easier or more complicated for the protagonist to achieve their goal. If a subplot ties into the main conflict in some way, it often makes the subplot much more interesting and much more powerful--which also makes the overall plot that much more interesting!

It seems to go without saying that subplots shouldn't detract from the main conflict, but writers plunge into this pitfall all the time. When the subplot has nothing to do with the main conflict, the audience will quickly get frustrated. I've seen viewers drop a show altogether because the plot has Become fixated on minor characters. And of course they'd be upset; they feel like the writer is wasting their time! They began watching the show for the protagonist's struggle, not to watch the supporting cast for the next twenty episodes.

And heaven forbid the writer stick an unrelated subplot in the middle of a really interesting point in the main conflict!

But even if the subplots tie into the main conflict and DON'T spend time on extraneous things, writers still might fall prey to another subplot issue. Writers have to make sure their subplots aren't stealing the spotlight. Interesting subplots are great, but they shouldn't be way cooler than the main conflict 99% of the time. Then the audience will lose interest in the protagonist and the "meat" of the story!

I have to admit, I struggle with this one. One dramatic solution to a show-stealing subplot is to change it to the main focus of the story! But many writers can't make such a large commitment midway through their project. The key to avoid this altogether is some good ol' pre-planning. Find the best part of the story and run with it! Always make your main conflict the most interesting one.

Pacing

Pacing is all about balancing high-action points and calmer, low-action moments. Writers need to be able to get a feel for the pace of their story, because just like plot, there's no one-size-fits-all answer for pace. Some writers can do this instinctively, but all writers benefit from a read-through by an outside party. Other readers will spot things that no writer will pick up on.

The most straightforward pacing issues are also the two pacing extremes--the story is either dragging or rushed. On paper, these are easy fixes. If the story's dragging, insert an action sequence to spice things up. If the story is rushed, slow it down by taking more time to explain the setting, throwing in more character interactions, or slipping in a mystery for the audience to puzzle over.

Some audiences think they dislike scenes that aren't action-packed, but that probably means they haven't seen a well-written calm moment! A character uncovering his long-lost past can be just as exciting as him being chased by gun-toting thugs. Just because characters aren't in a high-action moment doesn't mean that the scene has to be boring! Some of my favorite moments, in fact, are character development moments during low-action scenes.

Finding the right balance of high-octane and resting scenes is hard. Writing wouldn't be considered an art if it were easy! But finding the correct balance and choosing the best events that lead up to a satisfying conclusion is the key to writing a healthy pace, a satisfying plot, and a great story.

And all three of those things will be written a certain way, with a certain flair, with a certain kind of voice. A specific sort of style, you could say.

Check in next time for the final entry on the Six Aspects of a Story, Style! Thanks for reading!

---
Hodaly, Richard. "Literary Terms: Freytag's Triangle." PC Wordsmiths. Wordpress, 24 Jan. 2013. Web. 21 July 2016.

Bollinger, Jordan. "Redefining Freytag's Pyramid for the New Millennium" [sic]. Drawing on the Right Side of My Brain. Blogger, 11 June 2012. Web. 21 July 2016.

...And also lectures from Professor Frank Coffman. I wouldn't know half the stuff I do now if it weren't for you, Professor Coffman!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Excerpt - Titans Together: "First Contact"

Taking a break from the Six Aspects of a Story for today to post a snippet of some old writing of mine. This one is from 2013.

I love superheroes. And I also love to roleplay, which is basically just a fancy way to collaborate on stories. I managed to enjoy these two loves at once through roleplays based on DC's animated television series Teen Titans.

My very first Teen Titans roleplay found my cheery alien, Rynfyre, on a team of other teenaged supers. They'd regularly save the day and make friends along the way. The team leader was another friend's character, Ozida "Roxer" Foraza. This roleplay went through many iterations, but eventually, like all things, it died.

But several years later, I found a way to bring back some of my favorite characters thanks to another friend's forum (called Titans Together). Since I was sorely missing Roxer and Ryn's interactions, I actually made Roxer myself just for the Titans Together forum.

The following was one of a few different scenes I wrote with just the two of them. In it, Rynfyre and Roxer speak to each other for the first time in years since Roxer mysteriously vanished.

I'll be back with more Aspect talk this Thursday. Thanks for your patience, and hope you enjoy this excerpt!


The comm began to buzz almost immediately after she walked out the door. Rynfyre snatched it up reflexively. She was about to say: "I apologize for the delay, Beastgirl. I am on my way back now."

But it wasn't Beastgirl's voice on the other side, and the voice it was made her freeze. "Hey, Ryn, are you there?"

She nearly dropped the comm. With shaking hands, she held it up to her chin with both hands. "Roxer..." Tears sprang into her eyes. "Is that you?"

"Ryn." His voice relaxed. "Man, I can't believe it. It's so weird to hear your voice again."

"As it is yours." She swallowed to keep the tears of joy back. "Wh-where are you?"

"I'm safe. I'm at a Titan's house. Couple of your friends, Beastgirl and Katie."

Rynfyre quickened her pace. "You are? That is wonderful!" She paused a moment, contemplating if she should ask what she really wished to know. What if he didn't react well, like Static had? "So... what have you been doing all this time?" It hadn't come out as subtle as she had hoped.

On the other line, Roxer hesitated. "Just got back to the States. What about you?"

She felt guilty at the answer she had to provide. It proved she had not been here when the Titans needed her most. "I was in Europe with another team of super-powered ones. But I... I had no idea how badly things had gone here with the Brotherhood."

"Ah. Yeah." Roxer was silent for a moment.

"Roxer...?"

"Yeah?"

"Why did you leave? Where did you go? We all thought... We thought you were taken by Graiv. Or the Brotherhood."

Roxer was quiet for a while. He sighed, and there was a shuffle in the background. "I... couldn't get in contact with you guys. I'm really sorry, Ryn. I didn't mean to get you scared."

Rynfyre paused, considering his words. "Were you performing tasks for the Justice League?"

"Yeah. Something like that."

She sighed and relaxed. "I am... I am glad you were unharmed, then."

Roxer quickly changed the subject. "Heard from any of the others?"

"I have tried. Pix is with me now. Well, not with me presently, but we came back together to investigate the distress signal from a few days prior."

"Oh." He sounded... confused?

"...You did not hear the signal?" Rynfyre blinked.

"I... No, I didn't."

"Oh."

A lengthy pause in the conversation.

"Ryn, it's... it's good to hear you again."

She smiled. Despite their conversation prior, she was overjoyed to hear from him as well. "It is good to hear from you, as well. When can I meet with you? You are at Beastgirl and Katie's home, correct?"

"Yeah. Hey, we gotta meet up ASAP. I just gotta do some stuff first though.--But as soon as I'm done," he reassured quickly, "I'm coming to meet you. You didn't tell me where you're staying."

Rynfyre chuckled. "If I knew, I would tell you. I am on my way to see the Founders. I suppose I shall be staying with them until we can find more permanent lodging for those of us who have returned."

"That's good." Roxer paused. "Man, I missed the old base. I wonder if it's still standing..."

Rynfyre nodded sadly, forgetting he could not see her.

"We had so much trouble in there, huh?"

Rynfyre laughed. "But we got out of it just as quickly! Our team was good at that."

"Yeah..." Roxer sighed contentedly. "Hey, you remember that one time I challenged Pix to a Super Smash Bros competition?"

"And instead of using the game, you both used your own real weapons in the rafters of the tower?" Rynfyre laughed. "I was not sure who was scolding you both more, Yun or Artemis!"

"Yeah, that was like the only thing those two agreed on, huh?"

"Indeed!" The teammates shared a laugh. Several other reminiscing stories followed. There was the one where Allan had gone a little too far with caring for the Tower plants and they had been forced to battle man-eating gardenias, or the argument Kyoto and Static had about who had the better tiger. Or the time that Rynfyre could have sworn she'd caught Yun and Artemis kissing when the team was on the run from Graiv. But after a while, Roxer told Rynfyre he should probably go.

"It's a borrowed comm anyway. I'm probably draining her batteries, haha."

Rynfyre smiled. "Then I will see you soon."

"Yeah. Definitely." He paused. "Take care, Ryn. Be careful out there. I'll see ya soon."

"Farewell, Roxer. I will."

Click.

---
Photo by Edan Cohen. Originally posted on Unsplash.com.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Six Aspects of a Story: What the Heck is a "Setting"?

So far, we've gone over three of the six aspects of a story. We've defined a story's concept and looked at ways to write good characters and good dialogue. Today, we're going to be looking at another key story aspect, the story's Setting.

The Place

A setting includes where a story takes place, which means not only the specific cities and locales the characters travel to, but also the world overall. Is it set in our world, the real world? Is it set in an original fantasy realm? Is it set in a previously-existing fictional universe? (This is most common for fanfiction.)

Naturally the world has a huge impact on the story. Plot-shaping elements like politics are going to work differently depending on if it's real-life Earth versus a fantasy realm. Characters may act differently due to different cultures, and their dialogue will be different, too. Just think of how strange Old English sounds to us now!

However, specific locations the characters visit throughout the story are important, too. Individual locations can move the plot forward (if it's a location key to a character's backstory), provide atmosphere (very important for character development moments), or even provide situations that create important plot points. Think of a canyon that allows the villains to ambush the main character, or the villain's impregnable fortress which has two discreet entrances the protagonist discovers.

Having different locations makes the story more interesting and keeps things from getting stale. It provides a new locale to catch the audience's attention. That's not to say that characters need to constantly be on the move, but it's nice to see a good balance. Remaining in one place for too long is a risk: the location itself just might start dragging down the plot.

This was one of my biggest complaints with season three of the show Falling Skies. In seasons one and two, the characters were relatively nomadic, staying at one location for multiple episodes until they were inevitably forced to find a new base. This resulted in several episodes of traveling plus a few different "bases," each designed differently. It established a good balance of remaining in a location just long enough to get familiar with it, and, when we finally established a good sense of how the base was set up, they'd move to a new location before things got boring.

By contrast, during season three, the cast remained at the same base--a location that was boring and literally gray. Concrete walls, concrete buildings, gray ground. Even though they ventured out of the city on multiple occasions, they were constantly returning to the same washed-out city. It made the plot feel like it was never really moving forward despite things happening because the base location was so stale and bland.

The Time

The setting isn't just where a story takes place; it's also when the story takes place. After all, a story takes on a whole different flavor if it's taking place in the Medieval time period versus the American War for Independence. The time a story takes place affects the culture, which in turn affects how characters talk, how characters interact, and things characters may or may not do.

Admittedly, the time a story takes place often makes a bigger difference if the setting is in our world versus most fantasy worlds. After all, most fantasy fiction universes don't change all that much despite thousands upon thousands of years passing. Compare that to our world, which has undergone a huge transformation between 1900 and 2000--just one single century!

That doesn't mean time has no effect on the fantasy genre. Consider the thousands of years of Middle Earth's history that occurred long before Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy took place. All these historic events helped shape the world into what it is when Frodo sets out on his journey; so much so that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings--stories only separated by about fifty in-universe years--are completely different tales just because of the times each take place. Much like how a story set in our "real world" would be a much different story if it were set in 1016 instead of 2016, Tolkien's trilogy would be quite different if it were set in a different time in his universe.

Setting as Concept

I mentioned before that the setting of a story can actually work as the story's concept. This is the case whenever the hook, what draws people to the story, is the setting itself. Often these worlds are particularly beautiful or have a culture that is interesting and unique.

I would argue that one of my favorite games, Final Fantasy X, has a setting concept. The setting is an island country collectively called Spira. Spira is a gorgeous place with scenery varying from wide grassy plains to snowy mountain peaks to tropical islands. The inhabitants are highly religious and are ruled by the head religious figures, the Maesters. In fact, the plot revolves around a pilgrimage, and one of the most important supporting characters is a key religious figure, essentially a priestess.

I mean, when your world basically looks like this, who wouldn't get hooked?

The setting can be the hook that draws in audiences and gets them interested in a tale, or it can act like a character in and of itself.

Setting as Character

The setting can sometimes act like a character. This is common in stories where the conflict is man versus nature--where there's no real "bad guy," but the story is one of surviving the trials that nature throws at the protagonist.

The setting can also act as a character if the world itself is alive or sentient in some way. Think of the folk tales of the entire world sitting on the back of a swimming turtle, or a Mother Nature-type character.

Setting is one of the most forgiving story aspects. It's hard to go wrong with picking a setting for a story. Stories can take place in an almost limitless pallet of settings. A story can actually dramatically change just depending on where and when it takes place, even if the characters remain the same. Setting is just as important as the characters that inhabit the world. The setting "sets" the stage for the characters' actions, giving them a place to act and react: which results in the pacing and plot... which we'll talk about next! Thanks for reading, and I'll see you then!

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Photo attribution (in order of appearance):

Prague, Czech Republic by Martin Kníže.

Dayton, United States by Alex Grodkiewicz.

By Dmitrii Vaccinium.

Italy by Carissa Gan.

By Iren Petrova.

All originally posted on Unsplash.com.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Six Aspects of a Story: What the Heck is "Dialogue"?

Welcome back to the halfway point of the six aspects of a story! So far we've examined a story's concept, kinds of characters, and aspects of a well-written character. Today, we're going to be looking at the next aspect of a story...

Dialogue

Ahh, dialogue. My nemesis.

Writing dialogue sucks. Have I said that already? I did? Darn. Well, writing dialogue sucks. Or maybe I just suck at writing dialogue.

Either way, it's hard for me.

Dialogue is the fancy word for what characters say. Seems simple enough, right? Just make your characters talk and BAM! Dialogue's happening.

The problem, which I've also highlighted before, is that it's not just as simple as opening your mouth up and spewing out words. Or rather, if you want good dialogue, it shouldn't be.

The Purpose

Good dialogue should accomplish a few things:

It should establish who's talking. Great dialogue will make use of word choice, turn of phrase, and even sometimes dialect to make it obvious who's talking. In the case of books, a writer shouldn't even have to tell a reader who's talking. The reader should know just by what's being said.

Good dialogue should tell us something about the character. What's their personality? What do they think about this issue, this weather, this person? Where did they grow up? What age range are they?

Good dialogue should sound realistic. It's got to sound like something people would actually say...

...Annnnd it shouldn't sound too realistic. As Robert McKee points out in his book Story, audiences don't want to see as many "um's" and "uh's" as we say in real life. He says it should sound like talking while still being polished enough for so it flows well.

And sometimes, dialogue has yet another job: move the plot along while avoiding a boring information dump--or, if you want the fancier term, exposition dump.

Needless to say, dialogue has to balance a lot of things that are tricky to balance and hard to get right. That's what makes dialogue particularly difficult to write well.

No Rambling Allowed!

It took me a while to learn just why dialogue needs to be balanced and why good writers avoid an exposition dump. Then it hit me in the form of every technobabble scene in every movie and TV show.

Am I the only one who goes glossy-eyed and wandering-brained as soon as the tech-guy starts spouting mumbo-jumbo? Really, even if my life depended on it, I still couldn't repeat just how he plans to hack into the nation's security grid. I get lost in the ramble.

Rambling is easy to write, but it's (almost always) terrible dialogue.

Sure, it's easy to tell the audience in a long, rambling monologue how the dark wizard came to power thanks to a centuries' long plot and is currently trying to capture the four children of prophecy to prevent them from foiling his plans--

But let's face it, I think I'm the only person on the planet who will still be interested once the ramble is done. And even if everyone's still (for some reason) paying attention, they might have gotten lost or confused along the way.

Writing isn't like oral storytelling, where you can gauge how an audience is reacting, in real time, to what you're saying. With writing, you can't change things on the fly while your story's being presented. So you need to make sure information, if characters need to give it, is in smaller pieces so people catch what's going on. It's got to be kept short, simple, and to-the-point. Better yet, it needs to be all those things and funny. Or clever. Or witty. Or suspenseful. Or mysterious. Basically anything in order to keep the audience enthralled--and thus engaged. It shows the writer's pretty dang good at what they do.

And it makes me, as the spectator, want to pay more attention.

Can I Do?

The weird thing about writing dialogue is that often the best advice is, "Don't have them say anything."

"Show, don't tell." "Show, don't tell." "Show, don't tell." Whoever first said that should've made sure they copyrighted it, because they'd be rolling in the dough right now. That ancient writing adage is just as true for dialogue specifically as it is for storytelling in general.

If you can get away with revealing something important about the plot, the setting, a character, or whatever without having a character yak about it, it's powerful. It's more memorable. And it makes your story a better one.

Quiet moments are often powerful ones.

So if I'm planning on having a character tell the audience about something, I always ask myself: Can I do something instead of just telling them? Sometimes the answer is no. Some things need to be said. But often--

Less Is More

Another writing adage that should've been copyrighted or trademarked or whatever the appropriate terminology is.

Don't be wordy. Wordy isn't good. I mean, I know my blog is wordy, but... do as I say, not as I do!

The less characters say, the more powerful each of their words become. Going back to the "No Rambling" rule, the audience will stop paying attention if they know the characters aren't saying much.

For example, I really enjoy the game Final Fantasy XIV, but I acknowledge it has its flaws. One of the biggest offenders is the excessive amounts of dialogue. You'd think you're playing a text-based adventure. Even the most minor quest will have NPCs gushing words at you as if they're a hole-riddled dike. At first, I enjoyed the quaint Old English-inspired way the characters spoke, so I'd eagerly read all the dialogue. But as I took on quest after quest, listening to NPCs babble about things that had no bearing on the story and very little point, I just stopped paying attention.

Writers neeeeever want their audience to stop paying attention.

...Until More is More

Okay, I guess I should never say never. Some writers have actually used long-winded dialogue to their advantage, as in the case of the first game in the Five Nights at Freddy's series. In the game, you play as a newly-hired part-time security guard. Your coworker, the day-shift guy, calls you at the start of your shift every night to give you the run-down. But his first few calls are so rambling and seem so pointless that you instinctively begin to drown him out.

That is until you instantly die a few minutes in and realize he's eventually feeding you key information you need to know in order to play the game. Or rather, survive the game.

That's rambling with a purpose.

There's always room for rule-breaking in storytelling, as long as you're doing it for a good reason. The important thing is that careful planning went into the design, just like writing good characters.

Can't Live Without It

Dialogue is a tough balancing act, but it also performs important tasks in a story. The fact is, most stories wouldn't exist without putting words in characters' mouths. And even though it's got to be short, sweet, and to-the-point, it doesn't mean it needs to be dry, either.

Snappy, interesting dialogue can take relatively boring characters and launch them into the spotlight. It can speed up a scene that would ordinarily be a snore-fest. It can tell us more about characters we haven't spent much time with. It can also introduce juicy plot points we may never have known if we hadn't overheard that conversation.

In short, I gotta suck it up and writer better dialogue. Because without it, my books will suck.

On the plus side, next we're going to be talking about an aspect I find much easier: Setting! Thanks for stopping by, and hope you stay tuned.

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Photo Attribution (in order of appearance):

By Gerd Altmann. Originally posted on Pixabay.com.

By Patrick Pilz. Originally posted on Unsplash.com.

By Shamim Nakhai. Originally posted on Unsplash.com.

By Yoni Kaplan-Nadel. Originally posted on Unsplash.com.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Six Aspects of a Story: What the Heck is a "Character"? Pt. 2

Okay, okay. So we talked a bit about characters last time. We know the difference between major and minor characters. We also know that we can classify them as round or flat, depending on how much they change throughout a story (if at all). But what makes a good character?

Art is by nature a very subjective thing, so if you ask ten people "Is this a good character?" you're bound to get ten different responses. Some people may think a character is good or not just based on their own tastes. Nothing wrong with that at all. But there is also some objective standards, too. This means that although not all well-written characters may be considered "good," all good characters are well-written.

As I mentioned Tuesday, a well-written character will be well thought-out. They'll be well-developed specifically for their story. What do I mean by well-developed? What parts of a character need to be well-thought out to get them on the path to being a good character? Well, here's some of the things I look for...

Action

Characters need to do things.


This might seem obvious--of course characters can't just stand around twiddling their thumbs. But I've caught myself creating passive characters more times than I'd like to admit.

Passive characters are the ones that don't go out and do things on their own. Rather than changing the world, they just let things happen to them. They don't act or decide anything; in fact, the closest they get to acting is reacting to things that happen to them. This may still sound harmless--in fact, in my Acting 101 class, they constantly drilled that "Acting is reacting." But how interesting would this situation be:

The main character, Sara, is a twenty-something living at home until her parents finally kick her out of the house. Rather than go out and get a job, Sara just stays at home. Her bills start to pile up, and eventually the landlord evicts Sara. Sara lives the rest of her life on the streets.

Okay, that's an exaggerated example. But is it really much different from this one?

The main character, Sara, is a young girl living in a small village. One day, bandits attack the village, kill Sara's parents, and burn down her house. A neighbor finds Sara among the charred wreckage and raises her as his own. Then, years later, a messenger comes to their house and takes Sara away to serve in an army to fight the bandits who destroyed Sara's village. Sara floats through training and eventually becomes a soldier who marches against the bandits because those are her orders.

In both cases, Sara shows no initiative.

That's fine for the beginning of a story. For example, in the second example, Sara can't do much in the beginning of the tale; she's too young. And even once characters are old enough to have their own adventures, a protagonist often initially refuses to join the cause ("The Call to Adventure," as it's called in Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces), but eventually, they come to their senses and go. They do. They choose.

Characters need to do things. That's their purpose in a story. They need to make choices about how their lives are going to turn out or what they're going to pursue. They can't just float through the story always letting things happen to them.

A character that takes action and makes choices--even if it's choices to run from responsibility--is way better than a character that only passively reacts to situations.

Purpose

The greatest stories have a purpose to every detail, and characters are one of the most important details in a story! Every character should have a distinct purpose in your story, even if it's a small purpose.

For example, in the anime Attack on Titan (Shingeki no Kyojin), one of the protagonist's squad-mates, Marco, dies early on in the show. Despite having relatively little screen time, his death makes a huge impact on his best friend, another trainee named Jean.

Up until this point, Jean has been proud, self-centered, and openly cowardly, proclaiming that he'll use his natural talent to gain a coveted position deep inside the city to protect himself from the dangerous frontlines. But seeing Marco's dead body shakes Jean to the core.

Rather than mocking the protagonist Eren for his seemingly suicidal desire to throw himself into the thick of the fight, Jean begins to understand that Eren isn't motivated by glory or a mad suicidal bend. Rather, Eren (and now Jean) are motivated to fight because of what they've lost.

Without Marco, Jean would have never transformation from a self-centered jerk to an empathetic brother in arms. Initiating Jean's character arc was Marco's purpose in the story.

Arc

Character arcs are one of my favorite things about stories (and about writing). A character arc is basically a road map of how a character changes throughout a story--where they start and where they end, and everything they go through in-between.


A character that undergoes a really dramatic or poignant character arc is almost always up there on my list of good characters.

Like Jean, characters can turn from selfish and standoffish to empathetic and understanding. They can transform from cowards into courageous warriors. They can grow from children into adults. Or sometimes a character can transform from good and wholesome into dark and cruel! Regardless of the arc, characters who change are really fascinating. As I mentioned on Tuesday, we as an audience love to see characters change because we relate to that. We know that we change all the time because of our life experiences, too.

Characters with powerful or meaningful arcs require a lot of planning and time. Lots of things affect a character's arc, including other characters, natural disasters, unforeseen tragedies, and more. A writer has to coordinate all these sorts of things in order to produce the kind of change they'd like to see in their characters. (Even though sometimes characters may write their arcs all on their own!)

Major characters that don't undergo an arc are often boring. They stagnate because they refuse to change. That's not what you want for a character with a lot of screen time!

Interest

Good characters will always generate interest--they'll just be really interesting to watch! Whether it's because a character is changing (character arc) or because of the kind of person they are, good characters stand out in some way. They might be really funny. They might interact with other characters in entertaining ways. They might be really quirky or unusual. They might even shatter a lot of our expectations as the audience.

Even minor characters should always pop with life and color. They should be interesting in some way to set them apart from any other characters the audience has seen before!

Reality

Interesting characters are great to write and fun to watch, but you also need to balance quirkiness out with a dose of reality. Good characters are ones that are so three-dimensional, they don't even feel like characters at all. They seem like they could be people you could really meet.

The most boring characters are the ones that are defined by only one thing--a stereotype, an archetype, a personality trait, or even a like or dislike. If a character is really just one thing, they won't be interesting, and they certainly won't be realistic. I love to play Harvest Moon games, in which you play a farmer looking for a future spouse. But why would I want to marry a guy who only ever talks about fishing? And although I'm sure he'd be concerned for my well-being, if I were to marry a doctor in real life, would he really only ever talk about health?

Good characters are real ones, and real people are multi-faceted. They're not just one personality trait or emotion; they're a big mixture of interests, experiences, emotions, interpretations, and actions/reactions. Real people also aren't perfect; they're messy. Which brings me to...

Flaws


Characters that have no flaws aren't interesting, realistic, or good. They're not fun to watch; they're just boring and annoying. This has been a longtime complaint about Superman for a lot of comic book fans: not only does the Man of Steel seem impossible to beat, he also has the personality of an infallible god, some argue. Even if his only physical weakness is Kryptonite, Supes just doesn't seem to have any personality flaws at all.

It can be hard for a writer to put flaws onto a character. It's easy to worry people won't like your character if they're a jerk. And there is certainly a fine line to walk; if your character starts murdering puppies for no reason, a lot of the audience probably won't like him.

But if a character has no flaws, they won't seem like a real person at all. Not only is that not interesting, we as the audience are turned off because there's nothing to connect us to that character. We have nothing in common with them. They aren't relatable.

But characters that have something--or a lot of somethings--they don't do well or right? Now that's relatable. Tony Stark is blunt and downright rude. Roxas from Kingdom Hearts struggles with anger and blames an innocent person on his situation. Mabel of Gravity Falls always has her head in the clouds. Flaws take what could be a boring character and make them more of a person.

The less your character seems like a character, and the more they seem like a person... that's the mark of a good, well-written character.

And just as important as the character themselves is the things they say. Check out What the Heck is "Dialogue" here.

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Photos originally posted on Unsplash.com. Credit in order:

By Alex Wong

By Usamah Khan

By Ryan Hafey

d(4)

For Him, To Him

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Six Aspects of a Story: What the Heck is a "Character"? Pt. 1

Hey all! Welcome back to the six aspects that make up a story. These aspects go across all sorts of media, whether it be movies, books, television series, video games, or even oral stories! If you missed the introduction to this series, or if you'd like a refresher on the first aspect (Concept), click here!

This week, we're going to be looking at the second aspect: Characters.

Characters

Characters can be major or minor, round or flat. But what's the difference? And what makes for a really good character? And, for that matter, how do you define a character that's "good"?

Major vs. Minor

When I was first starting writing, I used to get confused by this terminology all the time. I thought calling characters "major" or "minor" was saying how important they were or whether they were good characters or not. Minor characters had to be bad, right? So I wanted all my characters in my books to be major ones! Needless to say, my earlier drafts tended to have a stuffed cast and tortured backstories for each one. Yikes!

Obviously there was a flaw in my thinking system. But you can't blame someone for getting confused by the writing lingo.

While major characters do more for the plot, it doesn't necessarily make them more important--or better! In fact, there have been plenty of minor characters I've found far better than the major characters, either because they were more interesting, better-written, or just downright more entertaining to watch.

If we look at stories overall like a stage play, a Major Character would be one with the bulk of the lines and stage time. They're the ones who really make stuff happen--or at least the ones that the story focuses on the most.

Major characters are the ones in the "foreground" of a story, like these two dancers.

One mark of a good major character is that they actively make stuff happen (rather than always letting stuff happen to them and only reacting to it)--but we'll talk about that more later. Protagonists, or main characters, are always going to be major characters, because they're the characters the story focuses on the most. A protagonist's job is to give us a glimpse into their world, so we spend a lot of time with them.

Usually the other major characters are closely connected to the protagonist, such as their main group of friends or the trusty allies that accompany them on their quest.

Allies are often major characters.

One character guaranteed to also be a major character is the protagonist's biggest rival, the Antagonist. The antagonist is the one who's trying their hardest to fight against whatever the protagonist is trying to do. Is the protagonist trying to survive? The antagonist is trying to kill them. Is the protagonist trying to rob a bank? The antagonist is trying to protect the bank's assets. The antagonist may be "the bad guy," but they're always a major character!

Minor Characters, by contrast, are the characters who don't have a laundry list of things to do in the story. You'll often only meet a minor character once, and that briefly. That doesn't mean they're not important, though! If a story's a good one, then every character you meet will be important in their own way. It is true that a minor character's role, however, isn't as far-reaching, big-picture, or all-encompassing as that of major characters. They'll often be introduced just long enough to nudge the major characters in the right direction, and then they'll disappear forever.

But sometimes minor characters can turn into major characters over the course of a story! This is more likely to happen if the story is a long-running series. For example, one of the characters in the video game series Kingdom Hearts was originally slated to be a minor character with appearances in only two of the eight games. But as it turned out, the creators enjoyed the character so much, they chose not to kill him off during this second appearance (Kingdom Hearts Wiki, "Axel")! He has since undergone a significant character arc and has quickly risen to major character status.

Sometimes it can be hard to distinguish between major and minor characters, especially if the story has a complicated plot and a big cast of characters. Often, in order to distinguish between the two, I'll ask, "Does this character do something to further the overall plot of the storyline? Does this character show up more than once, or are they mentioned later on in the story, even if they don't make another physical appearance?" If the answer to any of those is yes, you're looking at what I'd classify as a major character.

What do you think--major or minor character?

Round vs. Flat

This is another confusing-sounding pair of terms, mostly because you'll see them used in differing ways depending on the context.

Put most simply, a round character is one that changes over the course of the story; a flat character is one that does not.

However, I've also seen writers and reviewers use these terms more often in critiquing a story rather than using it to classify characters. That's because some people also use round and flat to describe how well (or how poorly) a character was written. If a character generally seems boring and stereotypical, people may refer to them as a "flat character"--as opposed to three-dimensional, interesting, or intriguing characters: "round characters."

With the second definition, you never want any of your characters to seem flat. Even the characters with the smallest parts in your story should pop with life and color. They shouldn't feel like a character (more on that later, too).

With the first definition, either major or minor characters could be flat--and it wouldn't necessarily be bad. Sometimes a character refuses to change throughout the story. When that character is a protagonist, it's usually to make a point--usually a negative one--about how it's important not to stagnate and to allow life to mold us into different people. Minor characters are almost often flat characters in this sense, since it's very hard for them to change over the short period of time we see them.

Although it's possible, it can be tricky to write a major character that refuses to change. It's very easy for these characters to come across as stiff or boring. We as an audience really enjoy seeing a character change in some way--even if it's a change for the worse! It highlights the fact that we as humans are constantly undergoing some change, even if it's outside ourselves, and how those changes can affect who we are or how we act.

So What Makes a Good Character?

Major or minor, round or flat, it's still hard to say either of those is a recipe for a "good" character. Whether a character is major or minor really has no influence on whether a character is good or not; it just defines what their role is in the story. And if you go with the interpretation that round and flat define whether a character changes or not, that's not particularly helpful, either.

So what does make a good character?

The answer is often going to vary from person to person, but in general, almost all good characters are well-written. This means that the writer is skilled at their craft; they have a lot of practice and experience and know how to make a good story. They've spent a good amount of time both honing their craft and designing their characters. A well-written character will be well thought-out. They'll fit with the story (or ironically stand out).

So how do you make a well-written character, or how can you learn to spot the really good characters? Well, unfortunately, I think I've talked your ear off long enough today. You'll have to check out part two to find out!

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"Ballet" and "Teamwork" by Skeeze. Originally posted on Pixabay.com.

Photo of village by Thong Vo. Originally posted on Unsplash.com.

"Axel." Kingdom Hearts Wiki. Square Enix Independent Wiki Alliance, 9 June 2016. Web. 05 July 2016.