Sunday, January 13, 2013

Fear Mythos Reviews

Summon Bigger Fool returns, with a new focus.

In addition to reviewing whatever I feel like, I'll be trying to do semi-regular reviews of Fear Mythos works. These will not be gentle reviews. Negatives will be brought up and discussed very bluntly. But they are not mean reviews. They are meant to provide constructive criticism and give others a better understanding of the way stories work, not to tear down blogs that I'm not particularly fond of.

Stay tuned for the first installment.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

On Exposition

Those of you who read my earlier post entitled "On Narrative Structure" will hopefully remember that a story is divided, in its simplest form, into five parts: exposition (also known as introduction), rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement. Each of these five parts is vital to the story. It is almost impossible to find any kind of narrative which eschews one of them and doesn't leave the audience feeling unsatisfied.

This particular post, however, is about a specific one of those five parts: the exposition. Specifically, it's about how to provide your reader with the necessary exposition to allow them to get into the story without boring them.

So. Let's begin.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Sympathy and the Anti-Hero

Okay, people, now that I've been over the basics of how to characterize your cast, how to structure a narrative, and how to test to make sure that both of those are sound, it's time to get into the nitty-gritty of how to do this well.

You see, it doesn't matter if your main character is well-rounded and dynamic, or if your plot is well-structured and tight, if these things do not engage the audience. The point of any work of fiction is, after all, to entertain. That is, first and foremost, your goal. This is why I am a fan of OH GOD THE RAPTURE IS BURNING, despite the fact that there are several things that I don't like about it. It's not a perfect work of fiction. Far from it (and this isn't a slam against you, Jordan; none of us are good enough as writers, myself included, to create a perfect work). But it is consistently entertaining, because it doesn't take itself too seriously. Even at its lowest moments, you can usually get a laugh out of it. It's engaging. We want to know what happens next.

That's the key point, you see. You have to make the audience want to know what happens next. So this post is going to go over one of the most reliable ways to do that: constructing a sympathetic protagonist.

I'm sure that you've all read my Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides review (which was really more of a rant). It was, after all, only the very last post here. Anyway, you might remember that one of my chief complaints with the film was that Jack Sparrow is not a sympathetic or engaging protagonist. Not only is he a flat, static character, his motivation is to achieve something that the audience either doesn't care about or actively wants him to fail at. Jack Sparrow is not an effective protagonist. He does not engage the audience. He does not make you want to see what happens next.

Jack is, therefore, an example of a failed attempt at creating an anti-hero.

There are, you see, really only two types of heroes in fiction: the hero and the anti-hero. Most works of fiction have one of these as their protagonist. Those that don't are usually told from the point of view of a villain, but those are a separate style of work that I'll cover in a later post; this topic is more than varied enough without bringing villainous protagonists into the mix.

Your protagonist is obviously the most important character in your work, as I've talked about in earlier posts. It's important that the audience cares about them. The easiest way to do this is to make them into a hero or anti-hero, trying to do what's right. If someone is clearly fighting for good, then the audience has sympathy for them and some investment in what they're trying to do. Everybody likes to see justice done and the evil overlord defeated, followed by parades and medals.

But the choice between having a hero (also referred to as an ideal hero) protagonist and an anti-hero protagonist is an important one. Let me illustrate:

The Hero
The Anti-Hero

Superman is a paragon of justice, with an incorruptible sense of right and wrong and the power to enforce it. He has an unflinching ethical code, refusing to work outside the law and always doing his best to uphold it.

Batman, on the other hand, lacks Superman's powers. He's not a pushover, but he's not superhuman. Beyond that, he's not nice or sweet, and he works outside what the law would deem "justice", taking down criminals that the police refuse to attack.

It isn't just a matter of upholding the law versus circumventing it when necessary that decides whether or not a character is an anti-hero, however. There's more to it than that.

You see, in literature, the term "hero" is rather more rigidly defined than in popular usage. A hero is someone who is genuinely good and nice, incorruptible, always standing up for what's right, never using unnecessary force, defending the little man without any promise or expectation of reward or recognition, and so on. Beyond that, he has the power to do these things.

An "anti-hero" isn't just a darker and edgier hero. In literature, an anti-hero is anyone who lacks the attributes of a hero, and yet is still good. They may be ineffectual, play it fast and loose with their moral code, be less than kind to those they help, use a little bit more force than necessary (or even kill), going outside what many members of their society would consider legal, ethical, or maybe even moral, and so on. And yet, through all of this, they are still a good guy. They're still a hero. They're just not the archetypical hero.

For another example of an anti-hero, look at Frodo Baggins of The Lord of the Rings. Frodo is not a skilled fighter. He is not incorruptible. He doesn't know much about the world that he's venturing into. And yet he is, unquestionably, a good guy. He's kind, decent, and shouldering the burden of a quest that many would consider to be too great for him so that no one else has to suffer through it. He is an anti-hero, not because he's dark or edgy, but because he's human (well, hobbit). Almost every protagonist in modern fiction is an anti-hero, whether they are referred to as such in common discussion or not.

For another example of a "traditional" hero, look at Aragorn, from the same trilogy. Aragorn is upstanding, skilled, incorruptible, knowledgeable, and so on. He upholds the law - or, more accurately, fights with honor - in a situation that would be much easier for him if he didn't (for example, releasing the army of the dead from their bonds following the battle of Minas Tirith when he could really, really have used their help at the Black Gate, all because he promised). He is an archetypical hero.

Why did I give these two examples? Well, I think that it's important to illustrate that not all ideal heroes are invincible paragons of sweetness and light. Aragorn isn't mean, but he certainly isn't the nicest character in the series. It's also important to illustrate that anti-heroes aren't necessarily dark and edgy amoral sociopaths. Frodo is one of the kindest, most decent characters in the series.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Fool Reviews Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

drink up, me hearties

Hello, everyone, and welcome to another installment of The Fool Reviews. Today, we're going to be looking at the latest installment in the well-known Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, On Stranger Tides.

Now, before we begin, I think it's important to establish that I am a big fan of the first three movies. I don't pretend that they're perfect. In fact, I consider both Dead Man's Chest and At World's End to be pretty damn terrible. But they're guilty pleasures to me, because, despite all the terribly confused mythology, awful pacing, groan-inducing attempts at humor, and the lackluster acting of Keira Knightley, there are good movies buried under there. They shine through in places, and I enjoy the hell out of those scenes. I can take the rest of the stupid for those few moments that match the sheer fun of the first film.

Which brings me to my next point. The highlight of all three of the first movies, in my opinion, was not Jack Sparrow. As the comic-relief-slash-deuteragonist of the first film, I found him engaging, but far from capable of carrying the movie on his own. No. To me, the greatest, most enduring character of the Pirates franchise is Captain Barbossa.

Look at this guy. This guy is fucking brilliant. This guy is pirate fiction incarnate. He's commanding. He's charismatic. He's an antagonist that never loses that threatening, menacing edge even when he undergoes a heel face turn. He's a magnificent bastard that basically carried the entire original trilogy. Geoffrey Rush is brilliant in this role. He's actually one of my favorite film characters of all time, and the ending of the second movie, when he comes walking out of the back of Tia Dalma's shack with his apple, had me grinning from ear to ear because I love this guy.

And yet, even though Rush is reprising his role in this movie, and Knightley has jumped ship, I did not have high hopes for On Stranger Tides. Rush is a great actor, and his character is a ton of fun to watch, but even he couldn't salvage the third installment. With the film under a new director and bringing in a mostly all-new cast, I couldn't see this being anything more than a train wreck, particularly given the setup it got at the end of the last movie.

And oh, boy, was I ever right. This is the only movie I have ever seen that actually competes with 2012 for the top spot on my personal "Most Hated Films" list. I despise this movie. 

So let's get this over with.

The Acid Test

So, since I've been going on about characterization and narrative structure for the last few posts, I figured it's time to tell you one of the most basic things that you can use to test your story to see if it meets all the requirements of having an actual narrative and characters, rather than a bunch of things that happen and props for them to happen to.

This is the acid test for writing.

It's very simple, really: remove something from your story. Does this substantially change the narrative? If so, then congratulations. That part of your story has passed the acid test. It is integral to the plot, and needs to be there.

The exact details of how to apply the acid test can vary, of course. When applying it to characters, you can just remove them from the story, but that will change how things go in most cases. That really only shows whether or not your character is a plot device. To tell whether or not your character is a character,  have them switch roles or dialogue with another character. Are they essentially interchangeable? Can you swap out dialogue between the two characters and not be able to tell the difference? Are the two characters able to fulfill the same roles in the story without any changes to their personalities? If they can, then they have failed the acid test. They're interchangeable and therefore not distinct characters.

When applying the acid test to events within the story, just remove the occurrence entirely. Do your characters get attacked by bandits? Have the bandit attack never occur. Does the story have to be changed substantially in order to accommodate this alteration? If not, then the event is unnecessary, and has failed the acid test.

This is, of course, just a rule of thumb. It is neither the best nor the most reliable way to test your story. For example, the acid test only really applies to the main cast, and only reliably so to rounded characters. Flat characters, due to their lack of depth, can fulfill almost any role easily and still have a point in the story. Certain characters might be designed to be simple plot devices. The fact that two characters are similar does not automatically mean that they're unnecessary to the story. And so on. Events within the story might not be strictly necessary to advance the plot, but might provide our characters with a little bit more development or the like.

Ultimately, only you can decide whether or not a character or event is necessary for your story. The acid test is only meant to give you a rule-of-thumb means of judging things offhand. It's a tool, to be used as needed and discarded when not.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Basics of Characterization

Since I've been going over the basics of narrative structure and writing techniques for the past few posts, I figured it's about time that I get to one of the more difficult parts of writing a story: turning your characters from names and appearances into actual characters.

Firstly, let's look at the different types of characters. No, I don't mean antagonists and protagonists. I mean static characters, dynamic characters, flat characters, and rounded characters.

Static characters are characters that remain the same over the course of a story. Dynamic characters are the opposite: characters that change over the course of a story. This doesn't necessarily mean physical changes, such as growing older. Those are some of the most superficial changes that a character can go through, really. Rather, it most often refers to emotional and personal changes.

Flat characters are characters with only one or two defining traits. They are, for all intents and purposes, cardboard cutouts. Or, going back to my first post, they're mannequins with names painted on them. Rounded characters are characters with depth and personality to them, with complex motivations and more to them than a few simple traits.

Now, here's the most important thing to understand: none of these character types are bad. It's incredibly difficult, in fact, to find any work of fiction that doesn't include at least one example of each. Just because static characters don't change doesn't mean that they don't have a purpose. Just because flat characters have little in the way of personality doesn't mean that they can't be useful. You just have to keep in mind that each type of character has a specific role in the story.

Let's look at an example story to get an idea.

Since I've already used Terry Pratchett's novel Guards! Guards! as an example in a previous post, let's go back to that. For those of you who don't know, Guards! Guards! is a fantasy-satire novel about the Night Watch of a fantasy city named Ankh-Morpork. The Night Watch is made up of the city's absolute bottom-of-the-barrel worst. They're not criminals. They're just considered utterly worthless by society. During the time of the story, the Night Watch has dwindled to four members. These are:

  • Captain Sam Vimes, the story's protagonist, a dynamic, rounded character
  • Lance-Constable Carrot Ironfoundersson, the story's deuteragonist, a flat, dynamic character
  • Sergeant Fred Colon, a flat, static character
  • Corporal Nobby Nobbs, a flat, static character
Let's break down how each of the character attribute combinations works here.

Vimes is the story's protagonist. He is the most important character, and thus the one that the audience will be spending the most time watching. As such, it's important that he be interesting to read about, and that he isn't a paper-thin caricature that the reader can't take seriously. Being a dynamic character makes him more interesting to read about, since we want to know how he's going to end up. He goes from being a bitter, cynical alcoholic who just wants to be ignored to... a bitter, cynical alcoholic who has decided that upholding the law is the most important thing in his life. He's also a rounded character. He isn't just shown to be bitter and cynical for no reason. We see why he's so jaded and miserable: he was once a wide-eyed idealist who had his dreams of being a well-respected upholder of the right crushed by the realities of life in a city as rife with corruption as Ankh-Morpork, but he retains his moral compass despite everything and does his best to do the right thing.

Carrot is an interesting case. He begins the story as a flat character, being the wide-eyed idealist whose only real purpose is to uphold the law despite everything and thus reawaken Vimes' idealistic side. However, he is also dynamic. He grows over the course of the story - and the series as a whole - becoming less of the naïve idiot and more of a charismatic paragon who knows full well that people are jerks, but chooses to give them all the benefit of the doubt anyway. As such, his dynamic side eventually turns him into a rounded character. This suits his role as deuteragonist perfectly. As the second most important character in the story, it isn't necessary for him to be as fleshed-out as Vimes, but he does get a good deal of character development as things go on.

Colon and Nobby are the simplest out of the four main characters to analyze. They're a flat, static characters. They have a handful of defining characteristics which give them their role in the plot, and they never step outside them (in this book, at least). And, as they are largely present to provide comic relief, this suits their roles perfectly.

So, to get a look at the final type of character, let's look at another cast member: Lord Havelock Vetinari, Patrician and semi-benevolent dictator of Ankh-Morkpork. Vetinari is a rounded, static character. He has complex motivations, desires, and many hidden depths, but his character is largely set and unchanging throughout the series. This suits his role in the series perfectly as well. Vetinari is an ever-present force in the series, and interacts with a great many characters. As such, he has to be complex and believable. But he isn't a main character himself, and his main motivation - to keep Ankh-Morpork running as smoothly as possible - is constant and logical. He has the ability to achieve that objective without any kind of substantial alteration to his personality or methods, so he doesn't need any character changes in order to make him work. 

You might still be wondering why anyone would ever use static, flat characters. They are, after all, by definition, flat, and never going to get rounded out, so why would you put them in your story when they're just going to get ridiculed for being shallow? Why not make all of your characters as deep and complex as possible, and show how they all grow as a. result of the events of the story?

Simple. The law of conservation of detail.

It's an easy principle that every writer should familiarize themselves with. Your readers don't have an infinite ability to absorb information, and you don't have infinite time in which to give them that information. There's only so much that they can absorb, and only so much that you can put out. As such, any detail which you give in regards to the story, whether regarding a character's personality or anything else, should be important to the story. 

You might argue that it's best to put as many details into the work as possible regardless, because this will help to bring the world of the story to life. Well, you're wrong.

That's pretty much all there is to it. Too many details can drown a work of fiction in a mire of pointless exposition. No one cares about the diner waitress' long and tragic backstory full of crushed dreams and broken lives when her only purpose in the story is to take the main characters' orders and deliver them coffee. Telling the readers too much about her takes time away from what you should be focusing on.

Besides that, certain character types stop working if you try to explore them too deeply. The comedic sociopath archetype, for example (Belkar from The Order of the Stick leaps to mind), stops being funny if you give the sociopath in question an in-depth backstory explaining how their abusive childhood led to their perpetuating the cycle in the present day. 

Look at your characters and determine the absolute bare minimum of personality and development that they require to function within the story. Generally, your protagonist should be both rounded and dynamic, since the story will be focusing most on them and their personal journey, and flat, static characters are useful as bit players and supporting cast (but not as the protagonist, deuteragonist, or antagonist, as those characters usually require more depth), but other than that, things are wide open. It's up to you to determine what character traits to use depending on what type of story you want to tell. 

Once you've determined what type of character you're creating, though, it's important that you go about creating them in the right way. Many works of fiction, not just blogs, begin by having their main character talk about things that they like: their favorite color, what type of music they listen to, what clothes they wear, what they look like, et cetera.


This is one of the most common mistakes that writers make, and one of those most perpetuated by those who try to teach the craft. It is extraordinarily bad characterization technique, and yet many works that purport to tell you how to create intriguing and engaging characters will tell you to begin by deciding on these basic characteristics. 

But these characteristics aren't actually important to who the character is. They don't tell us anything about their personality, really. It's just data. People consider things like this to be central to a character, but in reality, these are some of the most superficial aspects of your character's personality. And, again, this falls into the trap of violating conservation of detail. How much of this information is actually relevant to the story? Anything that you write that is not relevant to the story is boring. Reading about people describing their favorite band, color, food, and the like is boring. Mind-numbingly so. It's made all the more so because the reader knows this is pointless. Yes, in real life, people will post this kind of stuff on their blogs, but this is not real life. You do not have to start out by painting your main character as a boring, mind-numbingly uninteresting fan of music genre X.

These things are much less important than your character's defining personality traits. Are they kind? Bitter? Arrogant? Humble? Idealistic? Cynical? A hero? A coward? Those are the most important things about your character. Those are the things we want to know about them. Those are the things you should be telling us - but not in that way.

If at all possible, avoid any type of expository dump at all. This is another key point of storytelling: show, don't tell. Show us who your character is by having them do things. Have them react to situations rather than just telling us what they would do if something interesting happened.

Going back to the Guards! Guards! example, when Vimes is characterized, we don't get any kind of opening exposition dump regarding his character. Instead, we see it. He's blind stinking drunk in an alley, narrating to himself in crime-noir fashion about how the city is a woman: you love her, but she kicks you in the teeth, but you come back anyway, because she's all yours, all you have, even in her gutters...

Then, when it comes time for Vimes to reveal his true moral beliefs, we don't get told that he's made a decision to stand up against the corrupt officials. We see him doing so, pushing hard to get people to accept that the dragon is still alive to the point of losing his badge - and then carrying on regardless, upholding the law because he was always an officer of the law, and not the city.

Rather than telling us what your character is like, show us. Have things happen to them so that we can see how they react. That tells us more about the character than a week's worth of pointless posts regarding food and pets can ever do, and in a much more interesting fashion. It both tells us about the character and keeps the plot going so that people don't get bored.

Remember: it is always better to show us something about your character than to tell us about it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

On Narrative Structure

This is something that I've been thinking about for a while, and I think that it's important to say, particularly with regards to my audience who write blogs for the Fear mythos. In a blog, it is important to have a story.

This isn't meant to condescend to anyone, or to insult people for blogs that they've written. It's not to say that people don't understand the basics of this stuff already, because I'm sure that most of you do. But I'm going to start from the beginning so that you can follow my logic step-by-step and really understand what I'm trying to say.

So. Let's begin.