Kind of a goofy title.  Hopefully it’ll make sense in a few minutes.
            Hey, did you know today is the 50th anniversary of Star Trek?  Yep, the original series premiered fifty years ago today (tonight, really).  “The Man Trap,” the one with the salt vampire.
            May we always boldly go where no one has gone before…
            If you follow me on Twitter, you know I often spend my weekends watching a half-dozen or so B- or openly awful movies while working on toy soldiers or tanks or something. And I often tweet out little bits of advice when I see a storytelling screw up that should’ve been easily avoided. They’re more frustrating in film, because it means someone had the screenplay sitting right there in front of them before this messed-up scene was put on film. And yet… they still put it on film.
            And sometimes the screw-ups are so bad, so overwhelming, that all I can do is drink…
            A recent awful film I saw hit on a really big problem I’ve seen a few people wrestle with. To be honest, I wrestled with it on my oft-mentioned book, The Suffering Map.  And when I realized what I’d been doing, not only did I feel like an idiot, but I realized that book might be salvageable someday after all.
            With a certain amount of rewrites.
            What am I talking about?
             A few weeks back I was watching a movie that was probably going for the idea of a goofy, somewhat inept hero with much more capable friends. Think of Jack Burton in Big Trouble In Little China or even, to a lesser extent, Shaun in Shaun of the Dead.  Alas, that’s a very tricky balance to pull off, and this writer/director didn’t have the skill or experience to do it.

            Instead, the “hero” came across as kind of sleazy (almost stalkery) and completely useless.  I mean, seriously, this guy barely worked as bait for the monsters.

            Meanwhile, the cute bartender (who liked him because… well, it was in the script, I guess) is well-trained with firearms, has a plan, stays calm under pressure… and keeps getting regulated to reaction shots and wide shots of the supporting character.  Except for one or two scenes, she’s almost a background character.
            And then, at the end, the hero sweeps her off her feet.  After the world’s been saved by someone else.  No, a third person altogether, not either one of them.
            That movie killed half a bottle of rum.  One of the big bottles.
            Example two.
            In my early drafts of The Suffering Map, my main character, Rob, pretty much dominated the book.  There were some good supporting characters in Sondra, Miguel, Levi Gulliver and his ravens, and my villain, Bareback (a shameless Cenobite rip-off in those first three or four drafts), but Rob was easily 70-75% of the book.
            When I finally made a serious revision, one of the big changes was giving more time to Sondra. Really, the story involved her almost as much as Rob, and she had her own arc that I’d all but skimmed over because… well, he was my main character, right?
            By the next big revision (the last one) the novel was pretty much split clean between them.  But it still wasn’t quite right, and—as I’ve mentioned before—it was rejected a few times.  It was around this time that I finally trunked it.  Well, cyber-trunked it.
            Y’see, Timmy, both of these stories suffered from the same problem—not being aware of who should be the main character.  They’re not focusing on the heroic, active person—the person who’s actually making choices and doing things. And learning from those choices and changing because of them. What I came to realize was that Rob shouldn’t be the main character of The Suffering Map—Sondra should be.  She was more active, she was more interesting, and she had a serious arc.  Really, the book was her story.  Which I knew, but I was so stuck in the headspace of it being Rob’s story that I didn’t recognize the actual hero.
            The bad movie did the same thing.  It only took a few moments of mental re-plotting to see how much stronger and more entertaining the film would be if it had been focused on the bartender.  She was smart, clever, willing to take charge… all the stuff we want and need in a main character.
            Granted, it’s always possible to bend or break those rules, but—as I mentioned above—it’s not an easy thing to do, and probably not something to attempt without a lot of serious experience.
            I also think it’s worth addressing the elephant in the room.  In both of these examples, the better lead, the one shunted to the side, was a woman.  This isn’t always going to be the case, but I also didn’t want to gloss over it. 
            For me, it came down to The Suffering Map being my first all-out serious attempt at a novel.  I was worried I didn’t have the skill to pull off a female lead, and at the time I was right. But as I kept rewriting it over the years, and Sondra became a better character, I developed those skills. Alas, as I mentioned above, it still took me a while to get past the idea of “Rob is the main character.”
            In the bad movie… well, I don’t know what they were thinking.  I wasn’t there.  It’s possible, as I mentioned above, they went for a goofy hero with better sidekicks and really messed up the balance.  Or maybe they just planned on her as a love interest, put in a lot of character traits thinking it’d be cool to have a love interest who wasn’t just window dressing, and couldn’t register the fact that they’d made this supporting character into a far better protagonist than their lead. We’ll never know.  All I can say is that it was far from the movie’s only problem, and no one should ever watch it without a serious amount of alcohol on standby.
            But back to our topic…
            If I’m doing a story with a good-sized cast of characters, it may be worth taking a moment to look at the story from a few different points of view.  Maybe that clever thing I’m trying to do with my main character isn’t working.  Maybe she’s the main character.  Or that guy.  Or that person in the coat over there.  My goal as a writer should be to tell the most interesting story possible, and sometimes… that might not be the story I started with.
            Next time, I’d like to blather on a bit about where you’ve decided to write.
            Until then… go write.
November 13, 2015

Beware… The Mosquito!

            Okay, first, please forgive me for some shameless pandering…
            Somehow, my book The Fold was nominated for best sci-fi book of 2015 over at Goodreads.  I don’t know how. I don’t even go to Goodreads. 
            Regardless, it was nominated and made it to the semi-final round, which ends on Saturday.  So if you happen to be reading this and didn’t read anything better this year (like, say, Armada or The Water Knife—both also in the running), I’d appreciate it if you could hop over to Goodreads and cast a vote for The Fold.
            Sorry about all that.  Kind of annoying, wasn’t it?
            Anyway, this week I want to talk about annoying things. To be exact I want to talk about mosquitoes.  I’ve seen a lot of them lately.
            A mosquito is the frustrating, you-want-to-slap-them character who shows up in books or movies.  That man or woman who simply cannot take a hint or get a clue, no matter how hard the other characters hit them with one.  Usually the mosquito won’t shut up.  Ever.  No matter what.  Plus, it’s a safe bet if someone tells them not to do something, that will be the very next thing they do.
            They’re just… well, they’re annoying as hell.
            Worse yet, the mosquitoes never acknowledge the problems they’re causing.  They leave shattered plans, damaged treasures, and unachieved goals in their wake—almost never their own—and often don’t grasp why it’s such a big deal.  Was that important?  Don’t get so worked up.
            And… wow, when the mosquito is the main character?
            By the way, this is just my name for this type of character.  Don’t expect to find the term “mosquito” in use anywhere else until I put out my how-to book on writing—Storytelling-the Ed Wood Method! Also, I may come up with a better term before the end of this post.
            Now, this is just my thinking, but I feel there are two big reasons mosquitoes get annoying so fast in stories.  One is that… well, they aren’t good characters.  I don’t mean this in the sense of poorly written or imagined, just that they aren’t the kind of characters people like to read about or follow.  I’ve mentioned a few times here that good characters have to be likeable, relatable, and believable.  As we just said, mosquitoes aren’t likeable—they’re annoying.  That’s why they’re mosquitoes.  They’re also not relatable, because nobody thinks they’re this kind of person, which means no one will identify with them. Think about it—the most talkative, clueless person you know doesn’t think they’re talkative or clueless.  So right off the bat, a mosquito is failing two of the three basic criteria for a good character.
            The other reason mosquitoes are annoying in a story is because they violate the rule of three.  It’s a term I’ve brought up here once or thrice in the past.  It usually applies to screenwriting, but you can find it in books, too.  At its core, the rule of three tells us that if something keeps getting mentioned, it’s important to the plot or story.  If it wasn’t important, it wouldn’t be mentioned three times. 
            Simple, yes?  I’ve mentioned something similar with names.  If I make a point of telling you the waiter’s name, he must be important to the story somehow.  A bare bones version of this would be the popular adage of Chekov’s Rifle, which says if we see a phaser rifle on the bridge in Act One, it should be set to overload and kill someone in act three.  If something is in my story, there’s a reason for it being there.
            I see a lot of mosquitoes buzz around and around… but they don’t actually do anything.  Their buzzing doesn’t distract the bad guy at a key moment.  Their failure to follow instructions doesn’t save the day. Their refusal to admit fault doesn’t give a vital clue. What little they do contribute could easily be done by someone else.  Anyone else.
            They’re just annoying. 
            Y’see, Timmy, when a character has such a defining trait that doesn’t pay off somehow, we end up wondering why said character’s even here.  Why did I put someone in my story that nobody likes or relates to?  That serves no purpose?
            That being said… what are some good reasons to have a mosquito in my story?
            Contrast—Sometimes I start off writing a character as a mosquito so they can go through a transformation.  That’s a basic character arc, to start one way, change somehow, and end up as someone a bit different. In Hot Fuzz, Constable Danny Butterman is a mosquito.  He’s the screw-up, chattering cop that type-A police officer Nicholas Angel is partnered with.  Through the course of the film, though, Danny learns to take his responsibilities as a police officer more seriously, and by the end of the story he’s grown up a bit and become a different kind of cop.  In this case, the character starts annoying so they have room to grow.
            We’re All Thinking It—Every now and then, somebody needs to lay the cards on the table. Maybe say some things other characters don’t want to hear. And my mosquito can do this, since they’re usually talking non-stop anyway.  Vince Vaughn has played this character a few times, like in Made when he points out to his friend Bobby (Jon Faverau) that everybody knows Bobby’s would-be girlfriend is sleeping with their boss.  In Love & Other Drugs, Jamie’s little brother Josh pretty much gives a monologue about how eye-opening it was to have sex with someone he didn’t care about, and how up until now he’d really envied his big brother but now he kind of pities him.
            In the same way, if I’ve already got a mosquito, they can beat the audience to asking questions and pointing things out.  This can calm some nitpicky readers and help carry the suspension of disbelief.  On The Flash, Cisco’s tendency to babble makes it more acceptable that he’s constantly coming up with super-villain codenames for the metahumans he and his friends fight.   As with many things, though, this is something I want to be cautious with.  This should be a tool, not part of my core structure.
            Breaking Points—Sometimes the mosquito uses their annoyance to their own benefit.  “The Ransom of Red Chief,” Ruthless People, and The Ref all use the idea of kidnappers stuck dealing with a mosquito.  In The Usual Suspects, Verbal Gint’s nonstop babbling make it hard for the police to catch small holes in his story.
            It’s worth pointing out, though, that in all of these examples, the mosquito is the antagonist of the story.  Not necessarily the villain, but definitely the antagonist.  They start off with them as the victim, but our sympathies slowly shift to the other characters—they’re the ones we’re identifying with and relating to.
            Fast friends—Okay, I was tempted not to mention this one, but… what the hell.  I’m trusting you to use this responsibly.
            Sometimes we need to introduce a character just to kill them off.  The problem is that it’s really hard to have any sympathy for a character we’ve only known for seven or eight pages.  In this case, a mosquito can work because… well, if they’re talking non-stop they have to talk about something, right?  Family, goals, television shows, dirty jokes—there’s any number of things this character can spew out.  The reader can have a reason to like them and before the character gets annoying BANG they’re dead, just like that.
            The thing is… I can only do this rarely.  Once a book is almost too much.  More like once every two or three books.  The moment I start to overuse this, it becomes a cheap gag—the sort of thing done in bad horror movies and SyFy films from the Asylum.
            Keep in mind, there are other ways to make a mosquito acceptable, too.  The important thing is that I have a reason for giving my character such an abrasive trait.  If I don’t… it’s going to be really challenging for me to keep my readers interested.
            And writing is challenging enough as it is without making it harder for no reason.
            Next time, let’s take this storytelling thing on the road.
            Until then, go write.