October 3, 2019

Default Heroes

Just a few quick thoughts this week. Well, not super-quick. It’s a simple idea, but it might take a bit to explain.
As some of you may know, I have a habit of watching B-movies on the weekend, and often tweet out my thoughts and critiques of them while I build up my armies of little toy soldiers. I recently had a brief epiphany about a common problem they have, and it’s a problem I’ve also seen in books, comics… really, in pretty much every form of storytelling.  And it kinda grows off something I’ve talked about before.

A common problem in B-movies (but as I said, it shows up in all story formats) is trying to figure out who I’m supposed to be rooting for. The story gives us protagonists who are dull, completely unrelatable, offensive, or just plain annoying. Heck, sometimes it’s not an “or” situation but an “and”—the storytellers double down on just how bad a lead character that can have, on several levels.

And I find myself wondering how this happened. How did the storytellers settle on that person as their protagonist?  They don’t hit any of the benchmarks of being a hero—either in the protagonist or heroic sense. They’re not even a good character in a general sense. So why are we spending all our time with them?

Which is, I realized, the key problem.

When we end up with protagonists like this, it’s the storytellers falling back to default mode. We’re not making any changes or adjustments of our own, we’re just going to pick up the story and run with it as-is.  It’s factory-settings storytelling, so to speak.

For example, our protagonist should be the character we spend the most time with, right? Well, we’re spending the most time with, uhhhhh, that guy. So he must be our protagonist, right? Yeah, definitely our hero. I mean, there’ve been six chapters about him so far.

But there’s more to someone being my protagonist than just awkwardly being the center of attention. They have to be an active part of the story. Really, they need to be the active part, because if I’m focusing on them it’s their story.  And, seriously, why would I focus on them if there was another character doing more to drive the plot forward? If somebody else is doing more, it’s probably their story and I should really be focused on them.

And even that’s just the nuts and bolts structural stuff. There’s still all those stories where it’s assumed just because Wakko is our hero-by-default that everything he does is automatically, well, heroic. Every line of dialogue he speaks and every action he takes must be good because its the hero speaking/taking them. That’s the very definition of the hero, right—what they do is flawless and heroic!

But again… there’s more to it than that. To be a good hero, someone needs to be a good character. Sure, they can have some flaws, but they should have some strengths, too. As A. Lee Martinez once pointed out, there’s more to be being a good person than just not being a bad person. In the same way, there’s more to being the hero than just not being the person in the background.

Y’see Timmy, the default settings can work, but there’s nothing special about them. In fact, they’re usually not that great. Adequate at best.

And we all want to be better than adequate, right?

Oh, and hey– next weekend is the Dystopian Bookclub (a.k.a. We’re All Gonna Die!) at the Last Bookstore in LA. We’re reading Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler, and if you start soon you could have it done in time to join us for wine and snacks and interesting discussion.

Next time, I want to go over some numbers with you.

Until then… go write.

March 21, 2019 / 4 Comments

Not Just Heroic…

Trying something a little new with the formatting here. Please make your comments/ thanks/ complaints in the space down below.

Anyway, looking at the calendar, it’s getting to that season where I blather on about superheroes again.

Or maybe superpowers.

Or both. They’re kinda related after all.

As some of the book covers displayed on this page suggest, superheroes are kinda my jam. Have been for years and years now. I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on the subject, but I feel safe saying my knowledge level is in the higher percentiles. I thought about these stories a lot as a kid growing up and, in a way, even more since I’ve moved into this odd career of “professional storyteller.” It’s a topic I can blather on about a lot.

As I’m about to demonstrate…

One thing I’ve noticed in some corners is a bad habit people have of labeling a lot of things “superhero” stories, because that title carries a lot of weight. About twenty billion dollars worth, if we go off the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not exactly a bad weight to have hanging on your shoulders.


I think it’s worth noting that there are a lot of differences between a superhero story and a story about people with superpowers.  They are not the same thing.  Not remotely.  And if I try to do one while using the devices and tropes of another… well, I’m going to mess with people’s expectations.  Which usually leads to a disappointed audience.

Now, granted, none of what I’m spouting here is formal rules set down by tenured professors or doctoral candidates.  If we just look at a lot of fiction, though, we’ll see that this idea’s been around for ages.  Superhero stories and superpowers stories have always been two very different animals.

So, what are some of those differences?

Let’s break ‘em down…

First off, superpowers do not automatically equal superheroes. We can all agree on that, right?  CarrieBlackbirds. Limitless. Girl Like A Bomb. Glass. Stranger Things. All of these stories feature people with superhuman abilities.

But are any of these superhero stories? Not really.  Just having some sort of superpower doesn’t automatically make someone heroic. Heck, in a couple of those stories the person with the powers is arguably the villain.

And that brings me to my second point (one of the big ones). Heroics depend very much on motivation. The same action can be heroic in one situation, almost cowardly or bully-ish in another. Or maybe it’s just an action. We all do things on a daily basis that are personally motivated, and maybe even a bit challenging, but it doesn’t make them heroic, right? A superhero story’s almost always defined by a character who makes a conscious decision to use their powers for a wider goal that may not benefit them (and often doesn’t). Obvious as it may sound… superheroes act heroically.

And just to be clear, when I’m speaking about heroic actions…  Don’t confuse heroic actions (i.e. actions that are brave and selfless and pure of heart) with the actions of our hero (i.e. actions taken by the protagonist). Just because he or she’s the hero of the story doesn’t mean all their actions are automatically heroic. Make sense?


When we read stories about super-powered folks, though, they’re almost always more personal and intimate. Dare I say… a little selfish. In these stories, people are doing things much more for themselves than for any sort of greater good. It’s not that they’re evil, it’s just that the plot concerns them first and maybe the world second or third.  If at all.

Another common point of confusion here is doing the right thing for the wrong reason. Is Yakko taking down the bad guy because it’s the right thing to do… or just to get revenge? Is Dot stopping the bomb to save thousands of innocents… or just to save her friends who are handcuffed to it? Is Wakko fighting the Automata Society to end their reign of terror… or just so they’ll stop coming after him?

A third point (strongly related to the last one) is that superhero stories tend to be about public use of powers and abilities. They’re about people who’ve decided to use their abilities to help others, and they get seen doing it. This public nature also means they deal with public reactions of one kind or another. Sometimes they’re loved, sometimes they’re feared and hated.

I’ll note a lot of stories that are just about folks with superpowers tend to involve hiding abilities. Keeping things secret from the world at large. In the same way their motives are personal, their actions tend to be a lot more low-key and behind the scenes. In fact, when abilities get revealed in a superpowers story, it’s almost always a cause for panic.

That flows nicely into point number four. The abilities in superhero stories tend to be much more extreme. Phoebe’s not just strong, she’s throwing-cars-down-the-street strong. Wakko doesn’t just move things with his mind, he can throw cars down the street with his mind. Dot doesn’t just start fires, she can throw fireballs that blast cars down the street.

You get the point. Superhero stories involve throwing a lot of cars around.

But when a story’s just about someone with superpowers, we tend to see a lot more limits on those abilities. Not always (Dark City and The Lathe of Heaven come to mind), but most of the time they seem to be much more grounded in reality.  A little easier to rationalize, at least. Side effects and odd handicaps are much more common.

And for our fifth and final point, let’s talk about the elephant in the superhero room. The costume. The outfit that hides our hero’s secret identity from the world.

I wouldn’t say a costume/ secret identity is absolutely necessary, but I do think it creates a lot of odd situations in my story if there isn’t one. If everyone knows who Yakko is, then they know who Yakko’s friends and family are.  They can find out where he lives and shops and eats. If he’s not using a secret identity, he’s either aiming for a very solitary life or he’s painting a lot of targets on people and places.

One other aspect of this a friend of mine once brought up (he’s one of the writers on the new Pet Semetary movie (shameless plug)) is that a superhero often becomes an identity unto themselves. They’re iconic symbols, and not necessarily tied to the people who first created them. Spider-Man, Batman, Ms. Marvel, Superman, Captain America, the Flash… all of these superhero identites have had multiple people behind them.

Compare all of that to a story about superpowers, where secret identities almost never come up because… well, like I mentioned in point three, nobody knows about them. I don’t have to hide my identity when I teleport because I do everything I can to make sure nobody finds out I can teleport. So the people in these stories tend to wear… well, street clothes. They never duck into a phone booth to change before using their powers in public because—again—they almost never use their powers in public.

Okay, for our sixth and final-for-reals-now point, let me add this. The setting matters a lot in these stories, too. If I’m just telling a story about superpowers, they’re almost always set in the real world. Or, at least, a world indistinguishable from the real world to the casual viewer. Because if they weren’t, it’d imply having superpowers wasn’t that impressive. Being telepathic in the sci-fi world of the Federation—a coalition of hundreds of alien races with unique abilities– is checking a box on a recruitment form. Being telepathic in a documentary about 1940’s Paris, though… that’s freakin’ amazing.

Superhero stories, though, tend to take place in worlds that are already fantastic. They’re already pre-loaded with amazing things. Consider the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Aliens are real and publicly known. Magic is real and publicly known. Cyborgs.  Androids. Inhumans. Demons. People fly! Lots of people! This is not the world outside anyone’s window.

Now, again, this is not a set of iron-clad guidelines. I have not defended my thesis or gone through rigorous peer review. This is just forty-odd years of observation paired with forty-odd years of thinking about how stories are told. And, as I often say, there’s always going to be exceptions. So if I’ve got a superhero who doesn’t wear a costume or a super-powered person who’s acting very heroically, it doesn’t mean my whole story’s about to collapse.

But maybe I should run my story of super-powered beings through this list and just see what side of things they fall on. Does most of it line up with the kind of story I want to tell? Is the label I’m putting on it—and the expectations that label will bring—going to match up with what my story delivers?

Because if it doesn’t… maybe I’m writing the wrong thing.

Next time, I’d like to quickly revisit an old favorite before heading off to Wondercon for the weekend.

Until then… go write!

February 1, 2018 / 1 Comment

Origin Stories

            So, I wanted to talk about why things get started for a bit.
            Motives are my character’s core reason for doing something.  They’re the answer to the question “why is this story happening?” I’ve mentioned once or thrice before the issues that crop up when my character isn’t so much motivated as dragged along into a story.
            It’s not unusual to have motives shift a bit in a book, but in shorter formats (screenplays or short stories) they tend to be pretty focused.  Sometimes I’m hiding a character’s motives from my audience, but they still need to be there.   As the writer, I need to know why someone’s doing something.  Because my motives are going to a key when it comes to what kind of story I’m telling.
            No, seriously. 
            For example, it’s tough to do a revenge thriller when my heroine’s goals are world peace.  Try to figure out a way that could work.  It’s tough to solve a mystery when my protagonist’s big goal is to go the prom with the quarterback.  Likewise, if the only reason I’m fighting the dark Uberlord who’s enslaved New York is to save my niece… that’s not exactly heroic.  When I’m fighting for me—my family, my purposes, my revenge—that’s just personal.
            Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to superheroes.
            I’ve blathered on about superheroes a few times, and one of the major stumbling points I see a lot is when someone with a non-heroic motivation is crammed into the superhero genre.  It creates a stumbling block.  One phrase you may have heard before is “doing the right thing for the wrong reasons,” and I think this is what confuses people.  The end result is the same, even though we took two very different paths to get there… so the two paths must be the same, right?
            Hey, look—here’s an example.
            Years ago I worked on a pretty awful superhero show.  This was before anyone believed you could do costumes without camp, and it hit a lot of stumbles.  The biggest ongoing one was the main character’s motive for putting on this super-powered suit and fighting crime.
            Well, actually, that was part of it right there.  He didn’t fight crime.  Most of the time he just settled scores.  He, his friends, or his family would get drawn into some struggle and he’d put on the suit to get them out.  And… that was kind of it.  Once or thrice someone would show up specifically to challenge him and he went out to fight them. Hell, one time the suit’s creator had to actually talk him out of using the suit to get even with someone who’d shoved him in a club. 
            No, dead serious on that.  One episode started with the hero being kind of arrogant, getting pushed aside, and then deciding to use a state-of-the-art weapons system to show that other guy who’s boss…
            Like I said, it was a pretty awful show.
            But you should be able to see the problem here.  No matter how often they tried to insist this guy was a hero, even with the times he stopped an actual super-villain or monster, his motives were always personal.  Bordering on selfish, really.  He wasn’t heroic because his motives weren’t heroic.  He cared about himself, his circle of friends… and that was pretty much it.  No dealing with muggers, corner drug dealers, any of that.
            To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with personal goals, but I need to be clear how this paints my character in the bigger scheme of things.  Yeah, going up against a street gang is great, but if the only reason I’m doing it is to protect my friends and family… this isn’t about heroism.  It’s just personal.  When Bryan Mills (Taken) goes up against European gangs and white slavers and crushes a lot of their organization, he’s not doing it to make the world a better place.  He’s also not trying to help the hundreds of other families these people have hurt.  He’s just doing it to get his daughter back.  That’s it.  So if I’m doing this and trying to make him look like some great heroic figure for doing it… my story’s probably going to stumble.
            Another important point.  With a lot of these personal motives, they have to end.  Killing the gang member who killed my sister—that’s vengeance.  We get it.  Killing some random guy from another gang because he dresses kinda like the guy who killed my sister… well, that sounds a bit wrong, doesn’t it?  If Mills just kept killing various European gangsters long after his daughter was safe at home… well, this is leaning into serial killer territory now.
            Heck, even trying to recreate those personal circumstances seems weird.  The Taken movies got progressively more convoluted as they kept coming up with reasons for Mills to use his particular set of skills. The old Deathwish films just devolved into unintentional comedy, they were so ridiculous.  Stretching out this kind of personal motive either becomes laughable or disturbing.  Or both.
            Y’see Timmy, it’s really hard to have someone be a hero, in that larger sense, if they’re doing things for personal reasons.  They can be the hero of my story, sure, but not a hero in the “heroism” sense.  One of the reasons Wonder Woman was such a standout superhero movie is  because from the beginning of the story she was 100%  doing this for a greater cause. She was going to head out into the world so she could find (and kill) Ares, thus ending WWI and saving millions of lives.  Her mother didn’t want her to go.  Steve didn’t want her to go.  Honestly, it’s not even like she wants to leave her home behind.  But she sees it as her responsibility to do this, to go out and save total strangers from this faceless threat.
            That’s pretty much what being a hero is.
            Next time, it’s contest season, so I wanted to toss out a quick screenwriting tip.
            Until then, go write.