October 18, 2013

The Tin Dog

            Pop culture reference, long overdue.  Hopefully you get it.  If not… you’re missing out.
            If you’ve followed this collection of ramblings for a while, you know that I worked in the film industry for a number of years before I stepped away to start writing about it.  In that time I worked on a lot of television, but also did some low budget movies.  And as time went on, something became very clear to me, and once I realized this it changed my attitude a lot.  And I came to realize you could always spot inexperienced (or plain ignorant) people on set by this lack of clarity.
            Y’see, every member of the crew—for at least for one moment every day—is the most important person on set.  Not just the actors and the director and the assistant directors—everyone.  The makeup artists, the dolly grip, the on-set dresser, the clapper-loader, the assistant prop master, and even the production assistants.  At some point during a given day, they will be the most important person on set for one reason or another.
            What’s the proof of this, you ask?
            Well, the film industry is focused on money.  For all the stories you hear about Hollywood wasting money on things, the truth is most producers squeeze every penny they can out of a film shoot.  If someone doesn’t need to be on set—and drawing a paycheck—they just wouldn’t be there.  Their job would’ve been eliminated or rolled into someone else’s.  Or sometimes just handed off to a production assistant, or even an intern.  It’s a regular thing on film sets to have temporary crew members who work a day or two, then vanish until they’re needed again. 
            If they don’t need to be there… they’re not there.
            Now, I gave you that little insight so I could tell you this story.
            Back in the early ‘90s the X-Men were taking off and mutant characters were the flavor of the decade at Marvel.  Every new character was a mutant.  Any old character who’d never had a specific origin became a mutant.  Needless to say, most of these new creations were tissue-thin with nothing interesting about them except their random power or ability.
            One of those characters was a guy named Guido.  He was a very over-muscled, bespectacled guy with super-strength who’d originally been created as a bodyguard (mutant, of course) for another character (mutant, of course).  Guido ended up on the new, government-sponsored X-Force team (in the same-titled comic written by Peter David) and he was there when the team was introduced at a press conference.
            Problem was, Guido never picked a code-name.  Their NSA liaison couldn’t exactly introduce Havok, Polaris, Quicksilver, Wolfsbane, Multiple Man, and… Guido.  Confusion ensued for a moment, during which Guido wandered out on stage in his uniform, seven feet tall and about eight feet wide.  And one of the reporters at the press conference said..
            “Wow!  He must be the strong guy.  Every group’s got a strong guy, it must be him.”
            To which Guido grinned and proudly announced, “Yes, that’s me.  I’m Strong Guy!”
            Much giggling ensued.  For about two years.
            Anyway, there’s a keen little observation there, and it’s why I used this comic book as my example.  Almost every superhero team doeshave a strong guy because, at some point or another, every team needs a strong guy.  X-Force needed Guido.  The Avengers needed the Hulk.  The crew of Serenity needed Jane.  SG-1 needed Tylk.  You can trace this all the way back to Grimms’ Fairy Tales, when a wandering man would gather a group of friends who were fast, keen-eyed, sharp-hearing… or extremely strong.

            And, much like the film crews, these groups have a strong guy because at some point they’re going  to need a strong guy.  The whole point of having someone like the Hulk on your team is that eventually there’s going to be some kind of giant space war-snake that needs to be taken out with one punch.  If I wasn’t going to have going to have a key moment like that, I wouldn’t bother to include a strong guy.  

            This doesn’t just hold for the strong guy, of course.  It holds for all the characters.  If I’m going to have a super-smart, deductive character in my story, there needs to be an intellectual problem for him or her to solve.  If I’m going to write in the greatest sniper in the world, at some point something’s going to need to get shot with pinpoint accuracy. 
            Is this all starting to make sense now?
            Simply put, characters need a reason to be in my story.  Sure, there’s always going to be those nameless folks there to bulk up the mob, fill in the ranks, or just serve as cannon fodder. Thing is, though, I shouldn’t be putting a lot of effort into someone who isn’t actually going to be doing anything.  All my characters should be propelling the plot and/or story forward.  If they’re just standing around not affecting anything… why am do I have them there?
            If Yakko’s just standing around not taking part in anything, odds are he’s going to get in the way.  We’ve all dealt with people like that, right?  The ones who just stop moving in the middle of a walkway or stand in front of a door.  They’re just hindering everyone else from getting things done, and the common response to them is anger or frustration.
            I’ve mentioned a bad habit before, the tendency to name every single character in a story or screenplay.  That idea has a lot of ties with this one.  Naming someone is a clue that this person is going to be important one way or another and that the reader might want to keep track of them.  So when I’m giving names to the waitress, the security guard, the cab driver, the homeless guy in the alley, and the woman jogging by the diner… well, it’s going to cause chaos in the reader’s head because they’re going to assume all these people are important somehow.  It’s the character equivalent of Chekhov’s phaser on the mantle.
           Then it’s going to cause frustration because none of them are doing anything.  They’re just standing around (or sitting, or jogging by outside), getting in the way of the story.  They’re wasting time and space that could be spent on the plot or on developing the characters who are actually doing something. And my readers are going to resent them for that.  And resent me.
            One last example.  The title one, in fact.
            When Russell Davies relaunched Doctor Who for the 21st Century, fans were almost instantly united on one point.  Mickey Smith was the most useless recurring character ever.  He was introduced as the on-again-off-again (mostly off) boyfriend of Rose, the Doctor’s companion, and for a year and a half that’s all he was.  He showed up, moped, grumbled, and then got left behind again as Rose and the Doctor took off for new adventures.  He had no personality and no real purpose.
            But in the second season, something happened.  Mickey realized he had no purpose.  He decided to stop standing around and to become part of the story.  In fact, after a few episodes Mickey even decided he needed to have his own story, one that didn’t involve Rose and the Doctor.  The next time we saw him, Mickey had become a confident, dimension-hopping resistance fighter.  And at that point, we couldn’t wait until the next time we saw him.
            Mickey went from annoyance to cool, just like that.  He was so cool that he turned down an offer from Torchwood and became a freelance alien hunter.  Hell, in the end Mickey hooked up with one of the Doctor’s other companions, Martha Jones, and we all knew she was way cooler that Rose.
            No, come on.  Admit it.  Martha was cooler than Rose.
            Y’see, Timmy, there needs to be a reason for a character to be in my story.  At some point, just for a moment, they need to be the most important person in the story, the one who’s making things happen.  If they don’t do that—if they don’t advance things somehow—they shouldn’t be there.
            Next time… well, I’m taking Halloween off, so next time I’ll get to the scary stuff a little early.
            Until then, go write.
June 10, 2010 / 2 Comments

Lifts and Supports

Perverts. Your minds always go there, don’t they?

By the way, I’d like to take this moment to note that this marks my 100th post on this here ranty blog. Who would’ve ever guessed I’d have this much to say about writing. Well, without it devolving into incoherent jabbering and a lot of gestures.


There’s a comic book writer/ novelist/ screenwriter by the name of Peter David. If you’re reading this and haven’t heard of him, I highly recommend hitting Borders or Amazon and grabbing one or three samples of his work. The man knows how to write characters like no one else.

In one of the early issues of his run on the comic X-Factor, David had someone make the keen observation that every super-hero group has a strong guy. The immediate joke was to explain the huge muscle-bound guy on the team (who was then inspired to adopt the codename “Strong Guy”), but there’s a larger point to be made with this.

Every superhero group has a strong guy because at some point they need a strong guy. As a writer, the reason you have a character who can bench press 90 tons is because at some point in the story there will be a Sherman Tank that needs throwing, a house-sized boulder that needs to be shifted, or a giant ninja-robot between your team and their ultimate goal. You put the strong guy on the team because you’re going to give him a chance to show off his strength.

This has been an enduring theme in literature for centuries. The mismatched team where every member eventually becomes necessary. You’ve probably heard some variation on the classic fairy tale about the six friends. A young man sets out to perform some tasks so he can win the hand of a princess. During his journeys he becomes friends with the fastest man in the world, the strongest man in the world, the hungriest man in the world, the man with the sharpest vision in the world, and so on. Oddly enough, to complete his tasks the young man needs someone who is incredibly fast, strong, hungry, etc. Charles McKeown and Terry Gilliam adapted this tale, by the way, and called it The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.

Now, there’s a simple corollary to this I’m sure most of you have already figured out. If there isn’t something for the strong guy to do, you shouldn’t have a strong guy on your team. You’ll notice few superhero groups include someone who can blink at amazing speed. None of the variations of the Grimm’s fairy tale feature someone who can shoe oxen better than anyone else in the world. In no version of the Ocean’s 11 films do they make a point of getting a great pastry chef on their team (although I freely admit I never saw the last one so… maybe they did). These people all may be fascinating in their own way, but they don’t really contribute anything to the particular story being told. High-speed blinking may be superhuman and somewhat interesting, but it’s also kind of useless when you’re saving the world from Galactus.

Thing is, this little observation holds for every character, not just ones in genre stories. If the character isn’t doing anything and doesn’t contribute, why are they there? As the name implies, a supporting character should be helping to hold things up. Not big things–that’s what your main characters are for–but they’re bearing the load around the perimeter and on the edges. They keep the tone balanced, give the main characters a sounding board for ideas and exposition, and help sustain the suspension of disbelief. If you’ll pardon my saying it, they’re the ones keeping it real.

A good chunk of the time, though, a supporting character get stuck into a story for the wrong reasons. Often it’s because the writer has seen a similar character in a similar story, so said writer just wedges a rough copy of that character into their own story. It doesn’t matter if this character does anything or not, there’s just this unspoken assumption they have to be there. A lot of comic-relief characters come about this way. Fledgling comedy writers stick in the goofy sidekick or wild neighbor because comedies always have a goofy sidekick or wild neighbor. Zorro, the Green Hornet, and Batman all have helpful manservants, so I should stick one into my adaptations of Doctor Fate, right?

Y’see, Timmy, much like the golden rule, just because something works in your story doesn’t mean it’s going to work in my story. This is especially true of the characters. I can’t just cram a random person into my novel or screenplay because there’s a good chance they don’t mesh with the story or the existing characters. Forcing them in means they’re unnatural, which usually means they’ve just become unbelievable characters within the scope of this story. Why would Phoebe and Dot possibly be friends when they’re complete opposites in every way? How could a bumbler like Yakko have possibly made it onto this elite squad of high-tech thieves? Why would dark ninja overlord Wakko allow someone like me (or worse, me as played by Rob Schneider) to stumble along behind him on his mission of vengeance? There has to be a reason for a supporting character to be in your story, otherwise they’re just eating up words and pages that should be spent on your main characters.

Speaking of which, a follow up problem is when main characters take a backseat to the supporting characters. We’re following Wakko for the whole manuscript, but suddenly at the end Chicken Boo dashes in and defuses the bomb, gets the girl, or lands the plane. To be terribly honest, I did this myself in the first two drafts of Ex-Heroes. It wasn’t St. George that beat the monster in the end, but a guy on the walls of the Mount named Ilya. It was still a fun, cool scene, but what I’d effectively done with it was made my hero useless. He didn’t save the day–some regular guy with a rifle did. Not impossible, but also not what this story was about.

Main characters do the main things. Supporting characters do lesser things. In the movie Aliens, Corporal Hicks survives and helps Ripley and Newt escape the hiveworld because he’s a main character. Vice versa, he’s a main character because he survives and helps Ripley and Newt escape the hiveworld. Aliens doesn’t focus on Frost or Apone or even Vasquez because they’re the lesser characters. One of the reason we can tell this is because they die early on in the story.

It sounds a bit like circular logic, I admit. However, don’t look at it from the story point of view (where it’s confusing) but from the storytelling point of view. If Hicks wasn’t the main character, why would he survive over someone else? Why would he succeed where others fail? I’m not a good storyteller if the focus of my tale isn’t about the people who survive and succeed (assuming anyone does survive this particular story).

Dan Abnett has a habit of introducing characters in his Gaunt’s Ghosts series, giving us a name and a thumbnail description, showing them in a few action scenes, and then killing them. Why? Because the Ghosts are fighting a war. They’re almost constantly wrapped up in one battle or another, and, awful as it is to say, it’s not a believable war when only the bad guys die. Abnett introduces these secondary characters–and then often shoots them in the head– to remind the reader how brutal life is on the battlefield. Even the sci-fi battlefield of the future.

Next time around, on a somewhat similar note, I’d like to prattle on about your story. The one you want to tell.

Until then, go write.