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 24, 2012

The B Story

            Okay, one day late.  But I can blame it on a food coma…

            So, true story.  I watched the season three premiere of The X-Files with Rick Springfield.  Yep, that Rick Springfield.  He of “Jessie’s Girl.”
            I was dayplaying on a show called High Tide, and for that day’s filming the production had rented two big hotel suites in downtown San Diego.  My friend Alice worked on the show, and she and I were debating if we’d finish filming in time to catch the premiere ofThe X-Files that night.  We were huge fans, after all, and there was no Tivo or DVR at this point in ancient history.  I’m not even sure I owned a working VCR at the time.
            Then the locations manager pointed out the obvious—we were in a hotel suite that had three televisions in it.  Big televisions!  If we promised to keep a low profile, we could just stay late and watch in style.
            No, you perverts.  We were just friends.  In fact, I was friends with her boyfriend.
            Anyway, after wrap we flopped down on the king-sized bed, turned on the television, and prepared to find out what happened to Mulder in that half-buried train car that had been set on fire by the Cigarette-Smoking Man (remember that cliffhanger?).  And while we were waiting for the show to begin, Rick Springfield wandered in.  Yeah, that sounds crazy, but he was the star of High Tide, so the chances of him showing up weren’t that unlikely.  Rick climbed onto the bed between me and Alice and asked what was on.  We explained the X-Files premiere was about to start.  Rick confessed he hadn’t seen any episodes. 
            Now, in all fairness to him, it wasn’t THE X-FILES yet, it was still that geeky cult show on Fox.  Another thing Rick didn’t realize was that Alice and I were those cult geeks and we took The X-Files very seriously.  Very, very seriously.  It wasn’t uncommon for her and her boyfriend Greg to have folks over to watch episodes.  And one firm rule was that you did not talk during the show, because nobody wanted to miss anything.
            Needless to say, less than a minute into the episode Rick turned to Alice and asked who the Cigarette-Smoking Man was.  Alice shhhhushhed him.  Another minute passed before he asked about the setting.  She shhhhushhed him again and gave him a little slap on the arm.  Agent Scully showed up and he asked something else.  This is when I first backhanded him on the arm.  Not hard, but enough to emphasize Alice’s shhhhushhing.  She smacked him again at his next question.  I hit him on the one after that and we shhhhushhed him at the same time.
            So, aside from shameless name-dropping, what’s the point of this story?
            The point is that it’s very hard for someone to get into any tale that’s focusing more on the B story than the A story.
            As the name implies, the A story is the priority.  The A-Team.  Section A seating.  Getting an A on a paper.  The A story is the main focus of my particular tale, be it novel or screenplay.   If I pick up a copy of  The Hunger Games, the back cover’s going to tell me it’s about a girl fighting for her life in an arena as part of a decades-old tribute.  The A story is what should be most important, and it’s where I want the reader’s attention focused most of the time.
            The B story, of course, is secondary.  It’s the subplot or maybe a parallel story that just doesn’t have the weight or repercussions of the main story.  Maybe the supporting characters are dealing with something.  Perhaps it’s the main characters dealing with a less-important or less-pressing issue.  Or it might even be a bit more important than what they’re dealing with right now, but they still have to finish dealing with this issue right now.  Again, in The Hunger Gamesbooks, Katniss is torn between two boys she has strong feelings for.  But this doesn’t override the fact that she’s fighting for her life in a deathmatch.  There’s also a strong political element to the story, but this also lurks in the background rather than demanding attention.
            All seems pretty straightforward, yes?
            Now, I mentioned up above that the A story is where I want my readers to be focused.  It’s where I should be focusing, too.  However, in a lot of genre stuff—books, television, comics—the B story can get too powerful.  As the writers, sometimes we get too concerned with this big universe we’re building and all the back story and set ups and reveals that are going to come somewhere down the line.  And when we do this, we start to forget the A story—what’s going on right now.
            Now, we all understand that eventually the B story catches up with the A story and overwhelms it.  It becomes the A story, and probably a few new B stories have developed in the meantime.  This is the point where people start telling you “Well, you’ve got to watch it from the beginning if you want to understand what’s going on.” With an ongoing series—books or television—this almost becomes unavoidable.  Many long-running series eventually hit the point where people can no longer jump in, because all those setups are paying off and questions are being answered.  If you pick up the third book in the Hunger Games series, it’s pretty much all about the politics… and I can pretty much guarantee you won’t understand any of it if you haven’t read the first two books.  LOST didn’t pick up a lot of new viewers in season five.   Neither did Supernatural in season nine.  Not many people decided to start reading Game of Thrones with the fourth book.
            The question is, why would I want to start a story at this point?  Why begin at a place where most people are going to immediately feel alienated?  What benefit do I get by structuring a story in such a way that people immediately think it should be structured another way?
            This is a recurring problem I see again and again.  Some writers get so involved with their elaborate B stories that they forget they need to be telling an A story.  There’s tons of flashbacks to cool stuff that happened months ago or mysterious hints about things to come… but nothing’s going on in the here and now.  I’ve seen stories that focus on people who are essentially supporting characters in the story.  Not in a clever, Mary Reilly way—where Dr. Jekyll’s housemaid is the main character and the events in his home are the backdrop—but in a very boring way where the focus of our attention isn’t doing anything while other folks do all the cool stuff.
           That’s a good analogy, actually.  My A story is to my B story as my main characters are to my supporting characters.  In the same way that any character needs a real reason to be part of your story, a plot line needs a reason to exist, too.  If my A story serves no purpose except to be what I’m referencing the B story from… well, I really don’t need an A story, do I?  I should just be telling the B story as the A story.
            Y’see, Timmy, your A story should always be what’s going on right now.  Your B story, as the name implies, is secondary.  It hangs out in the background.  It doesn’t do as much.  It’s not as important, because it’s the B story.  If it was important, it would be the A story.
            So figure out which story you’re telling.  And tell it.
            Next time, I’d like to talk about subtlety and a very obscure old movie called Chain Gang.
            Until then, go write.