Archive for category Character Thoughts

Not Understanding

Disney has announced their first official princess of Polynesian descent. Yes, I watched and loved Lilo and Stitch, too. But she’s not one of the official Disney Princesses. This new character, Moana, will be the first official Disney Princess of Polynesian descent, and this is a big deal. An extremely big deal. An extremely big deal that I don’t understand in the least.

Not the Disney Princess thing. Alright, I sort of don’t understand that either. Like is Tinkerbell a princess, or is that a different thing? And why was there a period between when Brave came out and when Merida became an official Princess. Or why the two main characters from Frozen aren’t yet official Princesses. Or why Kida from Atlantis doesn’t count. Is it because only three people saw Atlantis? I’m sure I’ll learn these things over the next few years and still not understand them. But that’s not what I’m talking about.

I mean I don’t understand why it’s a big deal. Wait wait wait, stay with me. I don’t mean that in the dismissive way the internet typically means it. I mean, simply, that it’s impossible for me to understand it. It’s impossible because I’m a white male living in the United States of America. I have grown up in a culture that is based around me. My likes, my experiences, my interests. I am in all the media, television, movies.

I am Legion.

Which means I can’t possible understand what it’s like to be unrepresented in media. What it’s like to not see a face that looks like mine. Only…more attractive. When a movie starring a non white male fails, it’s because the movie going public doesn’t want to see a female lead. Or an African-American lead. Or an Asian-American lead. Or…anything that makes the lead not a white male. But no one has ever, or likely ever will, suggest that a movie failed because people don’t want to see a white male lead.

This is privilege. It’s not something I’m proud of, but it’s something that I have in bushels. I can’t escape it. I’ve had times where I’ve ripped over it without seeing it coming. I can’t get rid of it. All I can hope to do is be aware of it.

However, while I can’t possibly understand it, I’m glad to see Disney making this move. I’ve seen some accusation of tokenism, but any increased inclusion must start somewhere. So now we’ve seen a Native American princess, a Middle Eastern princess, an African-American princess, an Asian princess (yes, I get that it’s problematic trying to represent all Asian cultures with a single character), and next is a Polynesian princess.

And I know this is a big deal because, with only one piece of unofficial artwork released then retracted by Disney, there is already a proliferation of fan art on the internet.

There are people out there who have been unrepresented, or underrepresented, in film. And now they’re gaining that representation, they’re finally getting a chance to shine. Perhaps the closest I can come is when a fringe hobby or interest of mine makes its way into a movie. But I know that’s not exactly it. There’s a difference in being excited that a character in a movie is also interested in curling, and a character in a movie who looks like me.

While I can’t understand what it’s like to be suddenly represented in the media, I can understand that this is making people happy. Specifically, it’s making little girls happy. As a daddy to a little girl, I know what a great joy it is to see her happy. I will bend over backwards, do whatever it takes. With this movie, Disney is making little girls happy. Which means it’s making the mommies and daddies of those little girls happy. And that’s a net positive in the world. And a net positive that opens up narrative possibilities for the company at the same time. It’s a win for everyone, except those unfortunate grumpy souls who see inclusion as a zero sum game.

I doubt there will be a future where more and wider demographic groups won’t understand a lack of representation. Though that doesn’t mean it’s not a noble goal to work towards.

I just hope the movie is good.

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Four Humors in The Avengers

I’m working on my next Ace Double review, so it’s going to be a longer post that requires extra time.  So a quick post today.  Finally saw the Avengers, and what I suspected before I went to the movie was confirmed by the movie itself.  There are four superheros, there are four humors, and they map quite well.

  1. Choleric.  The natural leader.  Captain America.  His own movie was subtitled “The First Avenger,” and he’s the one giving orders when the group is actually working together.
  2. Phlegmatic.  The emotional follower.  Bruce Banner.  It’s hard to assign a personality to the Hulk, but Banner is chock-a-block with personality quirks.  Which is why everyone is raving over the portrayal of the character.
  3. Melancholic.  The introvert.  Thor.  The natural outsider, being the only of the four not from Earth, he’s accustomed to being self reliant and independent.
  4. Sanguine.  The fun one.  Iron Man.  He’s the easiest of the four to pin down, he’s the charismatic one.  The billionaire, playboy, genius, philanthropist.  Those are all sides of the sanguine personality.

It’s interesting, I’ve seen comparisons of the movie to Lord of the Rings, and there is the same fellowship of nine characters.  The listed four, plus the SHIELD characters: Hawkeye, Black Widow, Nick Fury, Phil Coulson, and Maria Hill.  In this analogy, I supposed the superheroes would be the four hobbits, most of the SHIELD characters would be the other members of the Fellowship, and Nick Fury would be Gandalf, the overarching Choleric who brings them all together.  I’m sure someone much more versed in film deconstruction could really pull this apart in-depth, but I’ve got my other post to focus on.

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Walking Dead, Can We Talk?

Spoiler warning: While I can’t say for certain which episodes I’ll be spoiling, I’ve watched through the March 4 episode, Judge, Jury, Executioner.  If you’ve not watched that far and you continue beyond this point, then I hold no sympathies if you are spoiled about anything.

You have been warned.

I’m not here to talk to you about Dale dying.  It fit the episode nicely to kill off the moral center of the survivor’s group right when they’re debating if morality still applies.  I’m going to miss the character, but I also applaud you for recognizing that in a post zombie apocalypse world, folks’ll die.  And sometimes we’ll meet characters and never see them again, not knowing whether they’re alive or dead, like Morgan and Duane from the beginning of the first season.  It’s our second death among the original survivors this season, with a third rumored (and spoiled excessively online) before the season comes to a close.  I hope you never lose that willingness, because that’s part of what horror should be, that feeling that none of the characters is safe.  Even a little girl who would be safe in any other story.

No, I’m here to talk with you about something else.  I’m here to talk about Rick’s descent towards the dark side.  Well, no, that’s the wrong way of putting it.  It wasn’t a descent into the dark side, it was a rather sudden arrival in the dark side.  Much of your last two episodes are about a new survivor named Randall from a nebulous group of Others, who may or may not have a mysterious list of Rick’s band and walk through the woods barefoot carrying teddy bears.  When Randall impales himself on a decorative fence, Rick makes the humanitarian decision to bring him back to the farm rather than letting zombies devour him.  Then he spends most of two episodes thinking up any number of plans to kill him.  Drive him 18 miles out and leave him with his hands and feet bound, clear zombie bait.  When that fails, hang him.  When that’s too inhumane, shoot him in the head.

Who is this Rick?

Look, I understand the need to present questions of moral ambiguity in this situation.  I’ve finally started watching Battlestar Galactica, and there’s been all sorts of weighing sacrifice versus survival just in the opening three-hour miniseries.  I’m okay with a show that explores those questions, gets all dark, and really makes me think about what I would do in a given situation.  So what’s my problem with Rick?  I think it’s that he’s not President Roslin, whose hard choices define her character.  No.  He’s Anakin Skywalker.  A character who we are introduced to through his valor that who makes a sharp transition to darkness.

You did this well once.  His name is Shane.  I’ve watched him take step after step towards the dark side until he’s suddenly blowing Otis’s knees out to provide the zombies a nice meal so he can get away.  Here’s the difference.  I’m with Shane.  I followed him every step along the way.  Each time he made a decision, I’ve thought “yeah, I probably would have done the same,” even as I realize it’s dragging him farther and farther from norms of morality.  Even in that scene with Otis…yeah, I might have done the same.  He didn’t know Otis that well, he’s trying to save Carl’s life, and it’s likely that otherwise Otis, Shane, and Carl would all die.  One life to save two.  It’s brutal, but I can understand it.

Rick?  I’m not on board with that descent.  It was so rapid, and not based on any series of logical steps.  That’s what makes him Anakin.  He snaps, and one day he’s wiping out sand people, or spearheading the torture and cold-blooded murder of a kid who has really done nothing to threaten the group.  Yes, an argument can be made that he’s listening too much to Shane, he’s too concerned that he needs to be seen as a more forceful leader for the group.  But you did that already.  Remember?  When he puts a bullet in the head of zombie Sophia?  That was him stepping up into a more protective leader for our band of misfit survivors.

This is an over correction that doesn’t feel in character, and wasn’t preceded by a series of decisions that, while not necessarily logical, might at least be understandable.  That’s the central need whenever a character we the audience are meant to identify with commits acts we can’t.  I got it with Shane.  I didn’t with Rick.  And that’s left me turned off, even while you’ve corrected for a lot of the problems I had with the first half of the season.  I notice that next week’s episode is called “Better Angels,” and I hope that’s a good sign.  I don’t need Rick to be a paragon of virtuous thoughts and deeds.  That’s not the point.  I just need him to be a character whose motivations I understand, especially when they result in dramatic changes in the character.  Go nuts with your dynamic characters, it’s what I want out of your show, just fewer of these wild and unexplained mood swings would be awesome.

Now lets get back out there and kick some zombie butt.

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A Writer Reviews: Lord of the Rings (pt3)

The Return of the Sanguine

For those who missed the first two parts (part 1, part 2) I have divided the 10 main characters in the Lord of the Rings into the four temperaments, shown how characters who share a supposed temperament may share almost nothing else in terms of what actually makes them a character, and now I’m going to look at just the three Sanguine characters, and the differences in their character arcs through the movies.  Today it’s Gollum, Gimli, and Pippin.

The Sanguine, to recap, is the hot-blooded character, a character of passions and desires, and who let these control his or her personality.  When I broke down the Scooby gang back in part 1, the Sanguines were Shaggy and Scooby.  The Sanguine character will frequently, but not always, be the comic relief within a story.  Certainly one of the Sanguine characters in Lord of the Rings, Gollum, is anything but a comic relief character, serving instead as the primary antagonist to Frodo’s quest to throw the Ring into Mount Doom.  The Sanguine can be an effective opposing force for the story, especially if his or her blindered devotion is working directly against the hero of the tale.  Many comic super villains end up firmly in the Sanguine category.  Joker, I’m looking at you.  In the end it depends on the depths a character is willing to plumb to win his or her desire.

In terms of straight comic relief let us, with some regret, turn to Gimli.  I suppose it’s easy to make the dwarf the butt of jokes, I just hope there’s less of a dwarf-tossing running gag in the Hobbit films, especially given just how many dwarves there will be.  Most of the dissatisfaction I, and others, had with the movies revolved around Gimli turning into a series of running gags.  Dwarf tossing, corpse counting, throwing out complaints about whatever situations they were in.  Then he just fades away at the end of the movie, no mention of his fate, he’s the only character who is really left open-ended by the whole thing.  Which is a shame.  It’s an easy trap to fall into with the Sanguine, however, it’s one of the easier characters to play just for their archetype, then when no longer needed, to be discard.  The Sanguine is occasionally the character killed off to prove that Shit Just Got Real.  Or allowed to fade away when it’s time for the grownups to take charge.  The Sanguine comic relief will never solve a problem, except by accident.  It’s really a shame this is who Gimli was turned into.

On the flip side we’ve got the Sanguine’s ability to evolve, which can turn them into a very powerful character within a narrative.  And here is where we get to Peregrin Took.  Who doesn’t love the line “fool of a Took”?  It’s fun to say, and it’s fantastic when delivered with the gravitas of Sir Ian McKellen.  He can be counted on to be the classic Sanguine through the first movie, wanting to stop to eat, delighted that beer comes in pints in Bree, not thinking and giving Frodo’s identity away, knocking the skeleton into the well in Moria to alert the Fellowship’s presence to the orcs in Moria.  The first moment that we see something more from Pippin is when he asks Treebeard to take them to the west of Fangorn Forest, forcing the Ents into war against Isengard, but we still see his impetuous nature when he goes diving for the palantir, ultimately looks into it, and finally drafts himself into service in Gondor.  It’s this series of three events, coupled with being pulled away from Merry, that forces Pippin’s evolution as a character and pushes him away from the Sanguine.

What he becomes is hard to say.  There are elements of both the Melancholy and Choleric to the new Pippin.  In the end we don’t get to see enough of Pippin within the movies.  Within the books, he unquestionably becomes the Choleric, taking his place as the Thain of the Shire.  It makes his evolution a much stronger statement, as he needed to do some growing up to assume his ancestral title.  In the movies, it still makes him easily my favorite character.  The more I watch the movies, the more I see that the trip into Mordor is Sam’s story, not Frodo’s, and the rest of the Fellowship is Pippin’s story, not Aragorn’s.  They are the interesting characters for how changed Pippin is when he comes home, and how unchanged Sam is.  In fact, Sam is a study in how a character not changing can still be very satisfying, but I’ve really talked about these movies for long enough already.

So let’s sum up, and let’s do so quicker than the movies themselves.  The four temperaments can be a great way of approaching your characters and making sure they have unique roles within a group dynamic.  Characters of the same temperament do not have to respond to situations in the same way.  The Sanguine can be an extremely versatile character, but has pitfalls when used solely as comic relief.  With that, I can now put these movies on a boat sailing away with the elves, and look forward to looking back with The Hobbit later this year.

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A Writer Reviews: Lord of the Rings (pt2)

The Two Cholerics

Last time on A Writer Reviews I talked about the four temperaments, then pigeonholed the 10 main characters of Lord of the Rings (the Fellowship plus Gollum) into these categories:

  • Choleric (leaders): Aragorn, Merry
  • Phlegmatic (followers): Samwise, Legolas
  • Melancholic (loaners): Gandalf, Boromir, Frodo
  • Sanguine (wild-cards): Pippin, Gollum, Gimli

This time we’re going to look at the distinctions made between characters who share a broad temperament but are still quite different, and for this we’re going to look at the two bile-based temperaments, the yellow bile Cholerics and the black bile Melancholics.

We’re getting down to archetypes here.  When we’ve got just four broad categories to fit characters into, a wide diversity is going to end up in each of these pigeon holes.  Archetypes are fine, they’re wonderful, they’re absolutely fantastic.  They exist for a reason, and readers respond to them.  However, a character needs to be more than just the sum of their archetypes, and as writers we need to keep in mind how characters of both similar and dissimilar archetypes will react to each other.  This is the essential ingredient in creating both friendships and conflicts within a story.

Let’s start with our two Cholerics.  I made the obvious pick of Aragorn and the somewhat less obvious pick of Merry when picking who the Choleric characters are within the story.  Merry isn’t given many opportunities to actually lead, but remember I’ve only called the Choleric a “leader” as a short hand.  It’s more about drive, passion, and the ability to make those quick decisions on the fly.  Yesterday I cited the example of Merry making the call for the hobbits to escape the Nazgul via the ferry, but he also takes a clear leadership role when we’re down to just he and Pippin in Orcish captivity and in Fangorn forest.  His is an interesting leadership, as he’s the one willing to take the reins when no one else is, but he’s fully willing to defer to another when presented with an option.  Put Aragorn into the formula, and he allows Pippin’s Sanguine nature to rub off on him.  This is important.  Anytime that a story has more than one natural leader in it, there will either need to be that moment of deferral or that moment of confrontation.  There is a very short confrontation when the hobbits first meet Aragorn, and the real moment of deferral happens the morning after Bree when Merry pulls Pipping along when it’s clear Aragorn is not going to stop for every hobbit meal.

In a sense, we’ve got a natural leader, and a reluctant leader.  Both are Choleric, but one never strays while the other is more than happy to experiment with being a Sanguine when the moment is opportune to do so.

Among our Melancholic types, we see a broader range of characters.  We have an energetic Melancholic, able to lead men while still fitting many of the paradigms, in Galdalf.  We have a Melancholic whose thoughtful introversion scales all the way to scheming in Boromir.  And we’ve got our miserable Melancholic who can hardly bear the burden placed on his life in Frodo.  We see two of the three overcome their base natures.  Boromir ultimately backs off when given the opportunity to snatch the ring.  Gandalf acts as the military leader at the battle of Minis Tirith.  Frodo never really does.  Even after his burden is lifted, he lives alone, and joins the elves, leaving Middle Earth.  Which is fine.  Having a character overcome their Melancholic nature can be a fantastic plot device for a story, but it isn’t a necessary one.

The problem comes with just how heavily to play the Melancholic.  This is where we get into my issues with the movie.  Two of our Melancholics are given bigger personalities.  Gandalf is the great wizard, older than the ages, plyer of magic and in many ways the architect of everything that happens in the story.  Boromir is scheming to get the ring away from Frodo.  Frodo is…depressed.  With the exception of the scene right after he’s released by Faramir he spends the entire time from the beginning of the second movie through the destruction of the Ring in a deep blue funk about how miserable he is with the path he’s been forced to take.  This.  Gets.  Tedious.  A character cannot be defined solely by his temperament, but needs some other depth or trait, especially a character nearly so introspective as a Melancholic.

So we have our temperaments, but we’ve got our layers on top of them.  We have two leaders, but one is a destined king of men while another is a hobbit who only takes the lead when no one else is going to.  We have our loaners, but one is willing to lead men, one is a schemer, and one is our overly introspective lead.

However, people change.  Characters are dynamic.  And a character who may start in one pigeonhole may end up in another.  Which is what I’ll look at tomorrow with The Return of the Sanguine.

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A Writer Reviews: Lord of the Rings (pt1)

Part One: The Fellowship of the Humors

I’d like to retread ground I’ve walked on before.  Nearly a year ago I talked briefly about using the four humors when putting together a quarter of character within a narrative structure, using a Cracked After Hours video as a basis.  At the time the concept was a new one to me, but I’ve been looking at it more and more in the months since, especially after discovering that my wife and I had accidentally created four point of view characters for our current novel that map perfectly to the four humors.

Let’s do a quick recap of the four humors, or four temperaments, for those who not aware of them.  It all started with out of date notions of psychology, explanations of human behavior in terms of the balance and imbalance of the four primary bodily fluids: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile.  This gave rise to four primary temperaments based on which of these essential humors was most in control of a given person.  Blood was sanguine, phlegm was phlegmatic, yellow bile was choleric, and black bile was melancholic.  While our understanding of bodily organs and our various internal fluids has evolved (at the time, blood was associated with the liver) and humorism no longer holds sway in psychology or medicine, the concept of the four temperaments has held on within fiction.  It’s the basis of an immediately recognizable quartet of individuals.

The sanguine individual tends to be an impulsive pleasure seeker who, in an extreme, might even be hedonistic.  We actually have a phrase in English that dates to this old four humors explanation of temperament, “hot blooded.”  The choleric individual tends to be ambitious and will take charge of a group and be its leader.  The melancholic individual tends to be a loaner, a perfectionist, and may even be a fatalist when taken to the extreme.  The phlegmatic individual is accepting, loving, and often a willing follower.

To oversimplify it within team dynamics, we have the choleric leader, the phlegmatic side kick, the melancholic outcast, and the sanguine comic relief.  This is a vast over simplification.  For one, the phlegmatic may not always be the choleric’s side kick, and the sanguine can be tragic as often as comic.  However, these simplified designations are helpful when considering just what role the four have within a group, and how it creates the classic group dynamic we’re accustomed to.  It’s one we even see starting in childhood.  Within the Scooby Doo stories, Fred is choleric, Daphne is phlegmatic, Velma is melancholic, and both Shaggy and Scooby (who are basically one character anyway) are sanguine.

This is a fantastic construct because it creates characters with natural in-built conflicts, and characters that viewers will be able to map themselves on to based on their own tendencies.

Let’s look at the Lord of the Rings.  This is a rather more complex series of groups that are constantly breaking apart and reforming.  At points there are just two characters together, at points there are as many as nine between the formation of the Fellowship and Gandalf falling in Moria.  But I’m going to break it down into two groups, based largely on the period between the fall of Gandalf and the breaking of the Fellowship.  They’re easy groups.  We’ve got the hobbits, and we’ve got the non-hobbits.  Among the non-hobbits we’ve got Aragorn as the clear choleric leader, Boromir as the dour melancholic who wants the ring for his own purposes, phlegmatic Legolas who makes only one active decision in the entire trilogy and serves otherwise as body-guard and ass kicker, and sanguine Gimli, turned into classic comic relief for the purposes of the movies.

The hobbits are a little more difficult.  It’s easy to consider Frodo the leader as he’s our protagonist through the movie (well, Sam actually is, but that’s another discussion), but he’s almost a textbook example of the melancholic, both within the temperamental definition, and the more modern idea of melancholy.  He’s the one who breaks the Fellowship by setting out on his own, and spends most of three movies bemoaning how unfair the world is.  Sam is the easy one to peg, he’s the phlegmatic follower.  At no point does he ever do anything but.  This even leads to my biggest disappointment in the movies, the moment when Sam briefly hesitates in giving the Ring back to Frodo.  In the book there’s no hesitation, as his devotion to Frodo is stronger than anything, even the allure of the Ring.  That leaves Merry and Pippin, who are so often “Merry and Pippin” that it’s easy to overlook them as their own characters, but that’s unfair.  Merry, even though he’s on the adventure to help Frodo, is actually the choleric, which doesn’t have to be synonymous with leader.  But he does take the lead at several key point, especially when the hobbits are fleeing toward the ferry.  Pippin is the sanguine, though he actually goes through more evolution than any other character.  At the beginning, he’s the one complaining that Aragorn isn’t aware of second breakfast, brunch, tea, lunch, or any of the other hobbit meals.  This rash nature ultimately gets him in trouble when he just has to look into the Palantir.  This also becomes the defining moment for his character arc, but that’s another topic.

There’s two wild cards: Gollum and Gandalf.  Gollum is easy, he’s a hot-blooded, single-minded sanguine, through and through (ignoring the split personality).  Gandalf is harder.  It’s easy to say, as with Frodo, that he must be choleric because he’s a leader.  But he’s also the one character who is the most at ease on his own within the story.  Thus, I would actually peg him as a melancholic, as he’s a loan wolf often concerned with the larger fate of the world.

That means within the story we get the following groups:

  • Full set of each (the Hobbits leaving the Shire)
  • 3 Melancholics, 2 Sanguines, 2 Cholerics, and 2 Phlegmatics (the Fellowship)
  • Melancholic, Sanguine, Phlegmatic (Frodo and Sam heading to Mordor, and led by Gollum)
  • Choleric and Sanguine (Merry and Pippin, luring the Ents to war)
  • Sanguine, Phlegmatic, Choleric (The remains of the Fellowship, trying to save Merry and Pippin, and getting into every major battle)
  • Full quartet (Gandalf rejoining the above group in Fangorn)
  • Melancholic and Sanguine (Gandalf and Pippin setting off with the Palantir)

These personalities lead entirely to the dynamic within each group.  It makes the trudge of Sam and Frodo rather tedious, as there’s no leadership qualities in any of the characters, so the Melancholic is bemoaning his fate, the Phlegmatic is commiserating, and the Sanguine is plotting his take down of the other two.  It makes the adventures of Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli throwaway fun, as there’s nothing to really ground the group, which is why their adventures of body counting can transcend to the frankly silly.  Merry and Pippin?  Ah, that’s a little more complicated, and something I’ll talk about on Wednesday.

Now that we’ve pigeonholed everyone into four categories, and I’m already well over 1000 words, I’m going to turn this post into its own three part epic.  Tomorrow I’m going to look at how different characters within each of the four temperaments can be from one another.

Part Two: The Two Cholerics (Coming tomorrow)

Part Three: The Return of the Sanguine (Coming Wednesday)

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A Writer Reviews: Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

Before I start talking about this in terms of writing and character development, I’m going to say if you’ve only seen Dr. Horrible online, through Netflix, on iTunes, anything like that…track down the DVD.  Commentary, The Musical is a full length…well, musical commentary track that is value added and then some.

I’ve been meaning to talk about Dr. Horrible in one of these Writer Reviews bits.  I always figured when I did I would explore the nature of the protagonist and antagonist versus the hero and villain of the story.  That’s legitimately interesting with Dr. Horrible, which does the villain-as-protagonist twist that was later the heart of Despicable Me and Megamind, but without taking the villain-becomes-hero redemption route.  Instead, Dr. Horrible is a fantastic example of a protagonist with two conflicting, and actively contradictory, goals.

I was playing around with these while putting together an exercise on dissecting plots for my writers group.  Dr. Horrible has two main plot lines, which for the exercise I deemed as the “Dr. Horrible” plot and the “Billy” plot, with each of the main character’s personas taking the role of protagonist, and Captain Hammer being the antagonist.  Let’s just do a quick breakdown for those who might not remember the entirety of each plot, using the seven step plot break-down I talked about two weeks ago.  These are my own suggestions for the points, so you may disagree with them and the will be spoiler filled.

Dr. Horrible wants to join the Evil League of Evil.  That’s his hook, and that’s where the story starts, reading viewer email and talking about his transmatter and freeze rays.  Plot Turn 1 comes when he gets a letter from Bad Horse saying he is under evaluation for membership.  Pinch 1 occurs during the Wonderflonium heist, which is interrupted by introduced nemesis Captain Hammer.  Even though he succeeds, the intervention complicates his path to ELE membership.  The midpoint is the second Bad Horse letter, announcing that he’s been unsuccessful in his membership and now must kill someone to get in, it’s the first point of transition from merely felonious to willingly murderous.  Pinch 2, rather than being an all-is-lost moment, is actually a high point during the song “Brand New Day” when Dr. Horrible realizes that Captain Hammer will be his victim.  Plot Turn 2 comes with the creation of the death ray and the accidental death of Penny, which leads to the conclusion as Dr. Horrible rides roughshod over the city and joins the League.

Billy is infatuated with Penny, the cute redhead at the laundromat, and his hook is the opening song “My Freeze Ray.”  Plot Turn 1 happens as he is preparing for the Wonderflonium heist (seriously, Wonderflonium is a fun word to write) when Penny recognizes him and talks to him about creating a shelter.  Pinch 1 has Penny swooning for Captain Hammer after he apparently saves her life.  In the midpoint Penny and Billy are now “laundry buddies” sharing frozen yogurt and talking about their lives, they even nearly kiss at one moment.  Pinch 2, all is lost, happens when Captain Hammer comes to the laundromat, recognizes Billy as Dr. Horrible, and announces that he’s going to keep dating Penny out of spite.  “These are not the hammer.”  Plot Turn 2, now this is the interesting part.  The moment where Billy has everything he needs to win over Penny’s heart, he doesn’t know it.  It’s the point where she walks off stage disgusted that Captain Hammer is discussing their love life and isn’t nearly as interested in the homeless as he seems.  Sadly, because Joss Whedon will rip your heart out every damn time, he doesn’t know this so the conclusion has her dead in his arms, her last words being “Captain Hammer will save us.”

The first important turning point of the story happens at Plot Turn 1 for the Billy storyline, which is appropriate.  Plot Turn 1 is that moment where we’re done introducing the characters and we need to give them a story to take part in.  Our villainous hero in Dr. Horrible has a moment after his first actual conversation with Penny where he considers whether he should go after her, or whether to continue with the heist and experience his other Plot Turn.  The choices are directly in conflict with each other, and he needs a moment to make a conscious choice between the two plots.  It’s that moment where he can choose whether to abandon evil and go after Penny, or where he can continue with his plan.  This comes to a head at the end of Act Two when Pinch 2 for each plot run headlong into each other.  When he has to confront Captain Hammer discussing what parts of his anatomy are, and are not, the hammer, he is again presented with a choice of how to go forward.  However, he doesn’t recognize it as a choice, and instead decides the murder of Captain Hammer will achieve both goals, certain Penny will love him when she gets a “shiny new Australia.”  The fact that he’s hiding behind a curtain when Plot Turn 2 happens for the Billy plot drives the point home.

Conflicting goals make characters interesting.  How they handle them is important.  In Dr. Horrible our main character has with two goals that I think a lot of young men in the target audience can understand: the desire to be a super villain and the desire to date Felicia Day.  Or is that just me?  Anyway, when it comes to conflicting goals like these, there are three possible outcomes to conflicting goals.  First is that the character, through trying to achieve both, achieves neither and learns a lesson in the process.  Second is that the character is forced, whether consciously or unconsciously, to give up one goal in favor of the other, and learns a lesson in the process.  The third is that the character gets to eat his cake and have it to, the conflicting goals through some device deconflict, and the character really learns nothing in the process.

Dr. Horrible is interesting because he has convinced himself that he is working towards the third instance.  Lots of characters, and people, presented with this sort of choice likely to do the same, to rationalize their decisions as being in the best interest of both goals.  It’s what makes the ultimately downfall of the Billy plot line so heart-rending, because he has convinced himself that his actions are building towards happy endings for both personas, though we as an audience are less naïve in thinking socially progressive Penny will agree that a world run by Dr. Horrible is the cure for societal ills.  He never recognized the moment that he chose one plot over to the others.  We can, we the audience know the tragedy that he is walking into.  In part because we’re trained that characters can’t have everything they ever wanted.  That everything won’t be fine.  Because that’s ultimately uninteresting.  There’s nothing of humanity in that answer.

Alright, that’s not entirely fair.  Characters do occasionally get to eat their cake and have it, too.  Not because they’re trying to.  It has to be that though choosing one goal they find another path to their lost goal.  Then they’ve grown and learned, and gotten a pretty nifty reward in the process.  It’s the character who is certain, as Dr. Horrible is, that his two goals are one in the same and can be achieved through the same grand act, who must learn through pain and suffering.

Characters need choices.  They need big choices.  They need conflicting options.  They need two doors, the lady and the tiger, and a requirement to choose one and never open the other.  They can have several shots at the same choice, but they need to either act consistently, as Dr. Horrible did, or have a good reason for changing.  And I won’t go so far as to say they have to be punished for their choices, but the choice cannot lack repercussions.  Some moment that drives home that they chose, and that their choice had implications.  It’s a moment to add depth to the character, and to give them a shot at some genuine emotion.  They have, after all, walked away from something that they wanted, something that motivated them for a good portion of the story, and the audience isn’t going to buy it if the character looks at what happen and they don’t feel…

…a thing.

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Homework Assignment

Quick post just to put my money where my mouth is.  I’ve made a few tweets today talking about the protagonist and antagonist in The Prestige.  These came about because I’ve been exploring the Hollywood Formula as a way to add depth to my writing, and because I love the movie.  In part because it’s so challenging to figure out just who the protagonist and antagonist are.  I was discussing it with my wife last night, and I believe she’s gotten it exactly right, so we’ll likely be rewatching this weekend with an eye towards the theory, and to pick out who the relationship character is in this theory.

I’m going to put a break in here because, while shame on you if you haven’t seen it yet, the protagonist/antagonist theory involves a very big plot spoiler.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Props as Details

I spent a chunk of time this weekend gun shopping.  Oh, not for myself mind you.  Rather I was gun shopping for one of the two main characters of Nickajack, which meant a lot of time looking at the odd assortment of guns available in the 1860s.

Most of the gun innovations of the 1860s were moving towards guns that could fire multiple shots without reloading.  Frankly, it’s part of what made the Civil War that much more devastating in terms of lives lost: one man with one gun could injure, maim, or kill so many more people than he could with a muzzle-loading musket, or any of the firearms used during the War of 1812 or Napoleonic Wars.  Oh, there were plenty of one shot, reload weapons, but repeaters were showing up as handguns, and Gatling was inventing his machine guns.

The repeater on the right is called a harmonica gun due to the distinctive nature of the steel slide.  Each chamber was individually loaded, but it had the advantages that, once loaded, the gun was good for up to ten shots, and slides could be pre-loaded to allow the shooter quick access to a further ten shots without slowing down.  The slide would be automatically advanced as part of the cocking action of the gun, so it really was ten consecutive shots available quite quickly.  These were unusual, more experimental multiple-shot sidearms.  The issue is the gun can’t really remain loaded in a holster due to its ungainly shape, so there is some initial time lost in loading the slide into the gun before the first shot.  So it’s an interesting looking sidearm, but ultimately impractical for someone who needs to fire off a shot with only a moment’s notice.

Only slightly more useful were pepper-box guns, where a series of barrels would rotate into place rather than slide across the gun.  They have the advantage of being or a more uniform shape, allowing for easier portage, but depending on the number of barrels they could quickly become ungainly for other reasons.  They were more of a transitional form to a more modern revolver that featured multiple shots in a cylinder at the base of the barrel, the guns that Colt was selling starting in the 1850s.

It occurred to me, while looking at these guns, that a selection really said a lot about the character.  Balancing the flaws of the guns, the popularity of designs, and the usefulness, I quickly discounted both the harmonica and the pepper-box, even though each would be visually interesting.  They just didn’t fit the character.  He’s far more practical, which in the 1860s meant one of two guns: the derringer or the Colt.  Derringers were popular among gamblers and assassins.  Most infamously, a Philadelphia Deringer (there is a distinction between one and two r’s) was the choice of John Wilkes Booth for the assassination of Lincoln.  Their size made them easily portable, but they maxed out at two shots, and really were intended more for immediate personal defense.

And while the character engages in an occasional card game, he isn’t primarily a gambler.

And so the Colt Navy it is.  It was a massively popular sidearm during and after the Civil War, and really is more the kind of gun for someone who wants to be seen drawing a gun.  He would

In the end, the choice wasn’t influenced by what looked the coolest, or what gun I always enjoy seeing show up on Antiques Roadshow or any of the storage locker shows my wife and I are hooked on.  The choice needs to be informed by the character, it needs to be the gun he would choose for practical purposes, not the gun I would choose as the most visually dynamic bit of set dressing.  And that really ties into everything about a character.  Wardrobe and “props” are an extension of a character and his personality.  They are a part of his choices, his attitude, and his past, so they serve to round out a character.  I’ll keep this in mind going forward, and avoid making choices just because they “look cool.”


They’re Not Real

I’m going to tread into what might be dangerous territory here, but I’ve been emboldened by Maureen Johnson.  She’s been blogging throughout Nanowrimo, taking questions, and dispensing wisdom about various writing related topics.

I’ve seen this before.  The writer who talks about their characters as real people.  Who personifies them outside of the novel.  Who says that the characters insist on doing certain things, going certain directions, not following instructions.  When I’m at a convention, I make note of panelists who are doing this.  I have not, to this point, avoided a panel because of this type of talk, but I have used it as a tiebreaker between two equally intriguing panels (often necessary, as the best panels of the day are inevitable opposite each other).

I know that, when cornered, any writer who talks this way will, as the questioner in the Auntie MJ post, readily admit that their characters are fictional.  Well, there might be a small minority out there who are having legitimate problems with the lines between reality and fiction, but that’s not a subject for now…or ever in this blog.

I fully recognize the moment in the writing process these writers are talking about.  I appreciate that moment.  I love that moment.  It’s the moment where the story starts to flow so organically that each sentence, each paragraph, each word becomes something you aren’t thinking about.  They’re just something you know.  Something that is flowing forth and becoming effortless prose.  I’ve been there very few times, but the times that I am have been some of the better writing experiences of my life.

During that moment it’s easy to think of the book as an organic thing, a life force using the writer as a conduit for existing.  But those moments pass.  And in the end, it’s just the writer, and I think it’s selling him or herself short to deflect the inspiration, deflect the achievements off onto some other force.  That was all you writing.  Take a bow, pat yourself on the back, and then get back to the process.

Because, ya know, even among some fellow writers you’re going to encounter eye rolls when you talk about your characters like they’re real people.  When talking to non-writers, it’s the kind of behavior that is right up there with conspicuously writing in a Starbucks (future post: why I sometimes write in Starbucks, even having just said that).

That’s it, really.  That’s all I wanted to say.  Rant over.  Feel free to now tell me how I’m wrong, or how I’ve disrespected your writing style.


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