August 17, 2018 / 1 Comment

Last-To-Be Chosen Ones

            Day late.  Sorry.  Still recovering from the move.  It’s just this sort of ongoing project…
            Anyway, an idea crossed my mind recently and—after batting it around for a bit—I thought it might be worth sharing with all of you.
            A while back I talked a bit about a certain type of character—the chosen one.  That lucky person pretty much preordained for a great destiny.  Sometimes literally preordained.  Ancient scrolls and prophecies aren’t that uncommon, although there are also legendary parents and preternatural skills to take into account.
            The most common beginning for such a story is, after a chapter or two establishing their completely normal and mundane life, somebody shows up to collect said chosen one and whisk them off to that amazing destiny we were just talking about.
            And that’s kinda the bit I want to talk about.
            I think it’s very important to note that our chosen one’s story doesn’t begin because of some overwhelming threat.  It’s almost always for simpler reasons.  They’re finally the right age.  They found the hidden room.  They inherited that special book or locket or sword.
            You might be able to find an exception to this rule, sure, but let’s go over a few popular examples…
            Buffy Summers doesn’t receive her Slayer calling because the Master is rising in Sunnydale—the last Slayer died and she inherited the power.  That’s it.
            Harry Potter isn’t brought to Hogwarts to fight Voldemort—he’s only brought cause it’s his birthday and he’s old enough to start classes.
            Katniss doesn’t take her sister’s place to become the symbol of the resistance—she just happens to be successful in the Hunger Games in the right way at the right time.
            Luke doesn’t join the Rebellion to blow up the Death Star.
            Rey didn’t join the resistance to fight Kylo Ren.
            Jay didn’t join the MIB to stop an Arcturian Battle Cruiser.
            I think the reason for this is that if X is this overwhelming threat… all these training montages and bonding moments are going to seem like a horrible waste of time.  “Wow, Phoebe’s the chosen one—the one who was foreseen—who will save us from the murderous threat of the Yakkonator.  Even now it closes in on our city of three million people, ready to drain their blood and harvest their souls. But first… you need to practice your footwork for a few days.  Also, you and Wakko need to figure out how to be better partners—in every sense.  Focus on that for a bit.”
            One of the big tricks to a successful chosen one story is that it’s really two parallel stories.  It’s about Phoebe discovering her destiny/parentage/abilities, yeah, but it’s also about our heroes discovering, oh, crap, it looks like the Yakkonator is waking up now, not in 2021.

            These threads need to stay separate so they can each develop on their own.  Phoebe needs that time to train and grow as a character, because if all we need to do is toss a nineteen year old Banana Republic clerk in front of the Yakkonator—trained or not—to fulfill her destiny, then the Yakkonator isn’t much of a threat, is it? And if she absolutely needs training but the Sacred Order of Antiyakkination waited until the last possible minute to bring her into the fold… seriously, what’s wrong with these guys?  If you’re trying to fit six years of training into six days, maybe you just could’ve started six years ago?  These people just look stupid now.  And if she needs those years of training but pulls it off in days… well, aren’t we back at that first example again?

            So when I’m plotting out a great destiny to for my chosen one, I need to remember not to tie them immediately to that destiny.  Give them space to grow.  Maybe not hit them up with that ultimate evil in the first hour or two.
            Everyone’ll have more fun with it that way.
            Next time, I’d like to encourage you to take a few deep breaths.
            Until then… go write.
            I posted a link to last week’s rant over on my Facebook fan page, and somebody asked a question about it.  And I started answering there, but then I realized it’d be better over here. And then (as I was scrawling my response in the comment section) I realized it’d work even better as a quickie Tuesday post.
            So… the question.
            I’m curious how you view Alex Rogan’s arc in “The Last Starfighter”. It seems to violate your rule about chosen ones not getting invested in the other world. As a character arc, it was pretty believable to me, 
            A fair point.  I tried to make this clear, but I can see where it might not be.  Two points from Ravenclaw for that one.
            Okay, I hate that I have to refer to this but…
            In his various musings on story, Joseph Campbell has a step—“rejecting the call.” At first glance it seems like it’s a rebuttal of my “not getting invested” point, but it’s not. Y’see, rejecting the call happens much earlier in the plot. In The Matrix, for example, it’s Neo refusing to trust Morpheus when they first talk on the phone (and getting arrested). In The Force Awakens, it’s Rey insisting she can’t leave Jakku and has to stay behind. And here, in The Last Starfighter, it’s Alex learning about aliens, the KoDan Armada, the head-crushing bad guy, and saying “nope, nope, nope—take me home!”
            But really, how long does that refusal last?  In any of these cases? Alex is home for all of… what, an hour?  Two?—before he realizes he has to go back.
            One of the thing about investment is that it takes time. In-story it takes even more time.  When a plot dives head-first into action on page one, it doesn’t mean much because we don’t know who these people are. And how often do we roll our eyes when a story tries to convince us of “love at first sight”…?
            When someone refuses to get invested and walks away, that happens later in the story.  In the particularly bad movie that sparked that rant, the chosen one walked away over an hour into the movie.  Within the movie, weeks had passed, weeks of people training this guy as the chosen one.
            In a way, this is a lot like the difference between saving the cat and patting the dog.  The isolated acts themselves look very much the same, but they’re different because of when they happen in my story and what they’re trying to accomplish.  Refusing the call is a character thing.  It’s a believable response to being shown a bigger world, or a bigger destiny, and it helps ground our suddenly-overwhelmed protagonist and make them more believable.
            But refusing to be invested is just a cheap attempt to build tension.  It undercuts any character growth that’s happened and makes the reader/audience question if this character can really be trusted. Which really sucks if the character is my long-heralded chosen one protagonist.
            In short, it makes my story worse.
            Next time, character stuff. For real.
            And, hey—two weeks from today I’ll be at Borderlands in San Francisco with my brand-shiny-new second hardcover, Paradox Bound. Give ‘em a call, reserve a copy, and come say “hi!”
            Until then, go write.
September 7, 2017 / 1 Comment

I Choo-Choo-Choose You!

            Pop culture reference. Just a decade or two old.
            Hey, speaking of pop culture, if you’ve lived on the Earth at any point this century, you’ve probably heard of a type of narrative called a chosen one story. They’ve been around in books and movies for, well, many decades, but over the past ten years or so this particular sub-genre has become kinda popular.
            On the off chance you haven’t been on Earth that long (in which case you have a spectacular story of your own to tell), a chosen one story is about a regular—often less-than-regular, somewhat sub-average and  outcast—person who comes to find out they have a grand destiny. Sometimes they’ve been prophesied, other times they just happen to fill a long-unfilled void.  King Arthur was a chosen one, as was Perseus.  On the more modern side , there’s also Neo, Buffy Summers, Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, Percy Jackson, Beatrice Prior… just to name a few.
            Seriously, just a few.  This has become a ridiculously common thread in books and movies.  Most of them tend to lean toward fantasy and young adult.  Not all, but enough that it’s worth mentioning. 
            And a lot of them, to be blunt, aren’t that good. Oh, there were some amazing ones up front, but as more and more writers dove at this popular sub-genre, we ended up getting more and more folks who… well, just didn’t get it. Nowadays, you’ll see a lot of agents and editors on their homepages or on Twitter, all more or less begging writers not to send them any chosen one stories.
            During a recent bout of Saturday geekery, I stumbled across a chosen one movie.  It had a lot of problems, and almost all of them circled around the idea that our main character was supposed to be some sort of chosen one. I say supposed to because… well, he was kinda awful at it.  On a bunch of levels.
            Let’s talk about a couple of them.
            So, some ways in which my chosen one might kinda suck…
–A chosen one who doesn’t do anything
            This is an issue for any main character, but it tends to really stand out with a chosen one.  I’ve seen far too many of these stories (including that recent one) where the chosen one is the least active character—in any sense. The entire supporting cast is doing all the work, making all the decisions, sharing all the information and my chosen one is doing… nothing.
            I’ve mentioned this sort of thing before. If I can swap out a character for a dufflebag full of towels and nothing would change in my story… maybe I don’t need that character. If all they are is something to hand off, protect, give orders to… I probably need to develop them more.  And have them be a little more active.
–A chosen one who doesn’t do anything anyone else couldn’t do
            This is kinda-sorta related to the last one.  I’ve seen more than a couple chosen ones who, when all’s said and done, just aren’t all that special.  It’s like if I said Jeff was the chosen one because he can mix drinks.  Are we living in some horrible mixerless dystopia? Are there no more shot glasses so nobody can measure anything? 
            You laugh, sure, but I’ve seen chosen ones who are “special” for far less then that.
            If my chosen one just needs to put a key in a lock, pick up a stone, or flip a few switches… my readers are going to wonder why nobody else could’ve done this.  If they need to read a page from a book, have blonde hair, steal a coin, or enter a password… there really isn’t anything that special about them.  These are all things anyone can do.  If someone’s been chosen for a great destiny, my readers (or audience) are going to expect that it’s, well… great.  Definitely not mediocre or mundane.
–A chosen one whose “gift” is ridiculously specific to the threat they face
            Okay, this is a tricky one.  Sometimes, in an attempt to make things more believable by having them very toned down, a storyteller end up with a chosen one who has an extremely specific gift or ability. For example, if Dot has a complete immunity to radiation in the 395-405 nanometer wavelengths… which happens to be the exact frequency of the laser weapons used by the alien battle robots.  Or maybe the evil dictator is famous for killing his enemies with a specific variant of cyanide… a specific variant that Yakko’s completely resistant to after a bizarre childhood accident.
            I know, these sound kinda ridiculous.  But this sort of thing crops up again and again.  The writer gives the chosen one a very narrow-focus ability, and that narrow range is exactly what the protagonist needs.
            In a way, it’s kind of like when characters suddenly, for no reason, start preparing for a crisis that doesn’t exist.  And now, when a crisis does suddenly happen two months later… Phew, good thing my character spent those two months stockpiling food, weapons, ammunition, batteries, medical supplies, solar cells…
            When I do this, I’ve removed all sense of a challenge and also damaged the willing suspension of disbelief.  Yeah, it would’ve been hard to believe that Yakko is immune to all poisons, but not as hard as it is to believe he happens to be immune to the very specific one he needs to be. It doesn’t feel like destiny, it feels like I created a flimsy coincidence to get myself out of a corner.
            Look at it this way.  If the threat didn’t exist, would this gift make our chosen one special in any way?  Or would it seem like a really weird character trait I added on for no reason?          
–A chosen one who doesn’t become invested in this other world  
            This is a biggie.  It’s rare, but I want to talk about it because it can kill a whole story.  I mean, bang, dead, tossed across the room.
            Most chosen one tales involve the idea of another world or society existing alongside our main one, often in complete secrecy.  Wizarding worlds, cabals of rebel freedom fighters, supernatural beings, and secret conspiracies are all fairly common    Our chosen one often serves as a bridge between these two worlds, both for other characters and for my readers.  And they’re usually the chosen one because they’re either going to save that world or, alternately, bring it down and save ours.
            Another key aspect of these stories is there’s almost always a moment of doubt. Some point where Yakko doesn’t believe he’s the chosen one, or maybe Phoebe just doesn’t believe in him anymore.  It’s when my protagonist suddenly realizes they could just walk away from all this.
            But they don’t.
            The Oracle told Neo he wasn’t the One.  The various ministers, and even Voldemort, give Harry a bunch of chances to just walk away and stop fighting.  How many times did Katniss toy with the idea of just running away to live in the woods?
            And yet… none of them did.
            In the especially bad chosen one story I saw recently, the protagonist was destined to stop a cruel, murderous overlord. But then a few things went wrong. And the love interest said “Maybe you’re not the chosen one after all,” and someone else said “You should just go.”
            So he did.  The chosen one just left and went back to his old life.  Started pulling the nine-to-five again as if nothing had happened.  Never looked back once until the others came looking for him again.
            Does that sound like a hero anyone’s going to root for?
            Y’see, Timmy, one of the key things here is that my character needs to care about this struggle past how it involves them. They need to care about the crisis and the people involved in it. Really, their role as the chosen one needs to be secondary.

            And that’s that.  Four ways my chosen one might not be the best choice for a character.

            Speaking of which, next time I may talk about characters a little more.
            Oh, and this Sunday is the Writers Coffeehouse.  Noon to three at Dark Delicaices in Burbank. Stop by and see how eloquent I sound when I have to talk about this stuff on the fly.
            Until then… go write.
November 5, 2015 / 2 Comments

Do Something

             Remember, remember, the fifth of November…
            So, at the risk of possibly getting some grumbly comments, I wanted to talk for a little bit about a new buzzword I see popping up more and more often.  Agency.  Journalists and critics are latching onto it to talk about characters (often women and people of color, but I’ve seen it applied to characters of all genders and races). Like so many buzzwords, though, I rarely see it defined by the folks using it.
            Which, of course, makes it easier for them to use…
            This is a bit misleading, though. Agency isn’t a new word. It’s actually a fairly old sociology term (from the Enlightenment) that’s migrated into literature.  Well, migrated’s a bit misleading, too.  Maybe it was chloroformed and woke up tied to a chair, unsure what it was doing here.
            In a sociological and philosophical sense, agency refers, in simple terms, to free will. Can a person make their own choices and affect the world around them?  How much does the world or society they exist in constrain that ability to make choices? Does it cancel out free will altogether, or just the appearance of free will?  Is there a point where I no longer have free will?
            While this is fascinating stuff to debate over drinks, it doesn’t really have anything to do with literature.  As I’ve mentioned in the past, when I’m writing, I’m more or less the god of this little world I’m creating.  And I’m a micro-managing god, too.  None of the characters move, speak, or have a single thought without my say-so.  There is no free will. Zero.  Because I’m creating all of it.  Every sentence, every idea, every word, every punctuation mark.  It all comes from me.
            Okay, in all fairness, some of the punctuation comes from my beta-readers and copyeditor.
            When critics and literary pundits talk about characters having agency, at the core they’re talking about something we’ve addressed here many times. A a writer, I need to make my readers believe these characters are people who are having an actual effect on the story.  My characters shouldn’t be window dressing, they need to do things.  If I’m going to make a point of Wakko or Yakko or Dot being in my story, then there should be an actual reason they’re in the story.
            I read a book a while back that was your standard “chosen one shall save us” sort of thing.  A young girl—we’ll call her Phoebe—discovers her birthright and powers, must go into hiding, has to fight off enemies she didn’t know she had, needs to learn how to harness and direct her abilities.  We’ve all seen this a few dozen times at this point, right?
            Except… well, Phoebe didn’t really do anything.  She didn’t discover her powers, she learned about them from her parents.  She didn’t decide to go into hiding, she was told to go—pretty much forced.  There were two guardians who fought off the enemies for her (one actually sacrificed himself so she could get away).  Hell, when Phoebe finally got to the Tabernacle and began to train, people were even walking her through that.  She just kind of stood around looking dazed and confused.  Phoebe didn’t make an actual, independent decision about something until page 114.
            Not exactly inspirational, that chosen one.  In fact, for those first 113 pages Phoebe could’ve been a duffelbag full of towels all the other characters were handing off to one another.  She just didn’t do anything.
            Y’see, Timmy, my characters need to face challenges and need to respond to them.  They should make choices—ones that are consistent with who they are.  They need to be active, with their own thoughts and opinions.  And they should have a real affect on how the story plays out.
            Here’s a simple test we can perform.  Let’s say I scribble out a two or three page summary of my current novel or story or screenplay (choose which one applies to you).  I want to be as thorough as possible without changing how I’m telling the story.  So I put all the introductions, reveals, explanations, and so on in the same order they appear in the book.  Make sense?
            Okay, so let’s look at this.  What characters did I mention? Which ones did I skip over?  Reading through my summary, I mention Eli, Harry, Zeke, Theo, and Fifteen.  I don’t mention Eli’s childhood friends by name, the bus driver, the cashier, or the cigarette man.  That’s because they’re all supporting and background characters.  By nature of the beast, they should be a little more… well, two dimensional.  They’re the stepping stones and redshirts of our story, so we’re not going to focus on them too much.
           So let’s look at the characters we made a point of mentioning and naming.  These should all be important to the story, right?  Every one of them is key somehow.
            Now, take one of them out.
            If these are actual characters who are supporting the plot and making things happen, my story should fall apart without them.  If Dot can step in and immediately pick up the slack from Wakko’s absence… well, he can’t have been that important to things.  If nothing at all changes when Yakko vanishes, he definitely wasn’t important.  And if they’re not important, if they’re not having an effect… I really need to ask myself why they’re here.
            So do great stuff with your characters.  By having them do stuff.
            Next time… I’d like to talk about the bug problem.

            Until then, go write.