Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Some Assembly Required: pt4

5: Villains Are People, Too
Serenity

“Funny thing about black and white. You mix it together and you get grey. And it doesn't matter how much white you try and put back in, you're never gonna get anything but grey.” Angel (the series)

Writing a compelling villain is actually pretty simple: you give his goal, motivation and conflict the same respect as you would the hero's.

Don't believe me? Let's look at The Operative from Serenity (yeah, I'm looking at a lot of stuff from this film. But its such an awesome film). His goal is much clearer than Mal's. He is single minded in its pursuit. And let's face it: it's not really a terrible goal. He doesn't want world domination or even fame and glory. He wants to find a dangerous criminal and dispose of her.

At least, that's what he believes (remember what I said about belief being a big theme in Serenity?). And my god does he believe it. “I believe in something that is greater than myself. A better world. A world without sin.” (he doesn’t know about Miranda; he doesn’t care about the specifics: “It’s not my place to ask.”) That's his motivation.

And as for conflict? He’s so focused on this belief that he can’t see the wider picture. He's so focused that he doesn't even have a name, just a job description. When faced with the reality of Miranda, and the culpability of the Alliance, his belief fails. When Mal says he’ll kill him if he sees him again, The Operative replies: “There is nothing left to see.”

(of course, what helps is having an actor like Chiwetel Ejiofor in this role: he has more dignity in his little finger than Nathan Fillion, much as I love him, has in his whole body).

Whereas what does Mal have to believe in? What motivates him? Nothing, and more nothing. It's only after he learns the truth of Miranda that he knows what he has to do. Having an enemy in The Operative is really the only thing that makes Mal into a hero.


6. In It For The Long Haul
Buffy the Vampire Slayer

97 episodes can change a man.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Some Assembly Required: Pt3

4. The I in Team
Firefly/Serenity, The Avengers

“The process of creating characters is creating differences.” Whedon, Serenity: The Official Visual Companion

(Incidentally, you should all get that book. It has a really comprehensive interview with Joss, and little snipped from the actors and creative teams, loads of notes on music, design, world-building etc, production sketches, concepts and photos, and the whole shooting script. Oh yes.)

 How a character connects with others can tell you a lot about how him. Take Mal from Firefly: he seems quite a bitter, miserable loner, but he's chosen to live in close quarters with eight other people. Some of them tell you quite a lot about Mal--we're back in the realm of theme and motif here.

Take his interactions with Kaylee. If Mal was really the bitter loner he's pretending to be, he wouldn't give Kaylee the time of day. But it's impossible to dislike Kaylee: warm, friendly, vulnerable, kind-hearted Kaylee. Only a monster could hate her. And Mal isn't a monster. Mal likes Kaylee. He's capable of softer emotions.

Or how about Zoe? Why does this intelligent, capable woman, who is completely at peace with herself and happy in her marriage, choose to follow Mal to the raggedy edge of the world? Well, she was his second in command during the war. And Mal, who has been abandoned by his cause--although the way he tells it, you'd think it was the other way around--still inspires this loyalty in her. The respect he and Zoe have for each other shows you his honour as a soldier, and how worthy of respect he still is.

Similar things can be said for Shepherd Book, who represents Mal's conscience and the spirituality Mal would like to pretend he doesn't have (belief being quite a big theme in Serenity). But when it comes to River, the tables are turned. River is what Mal is frightened of: the darkness in himself he doesn't want to confront. Mal might think he's a badass, but he's frightened of becoming truly evil (as an aside, look at the similar way River and the Reavers are presented, right down to their names).

Or look at Jayne: he's Mal without these connections. He has little conscience or honour.

* * * 

We can also look at The Avengers for an example of how connections between characters tell you more about how they see themselves. For me, the best scenes in the movie are the ones on the ship when the Avengers interact and their egos rub up against each other. This tells you a lot about them: most especially Tony Stark.

Stark gets on really well with Bruce Banner (the Hulk) and has some respect for Thor, but not at all with Steve Rogers (Captain America). Why do you think that is?

Well, what does Stark respect? Intelligence. He's got lots of it. Control. He's learning about that.
What doesn't he like? Authority. The Establishment. Taking orders.

Banner is good at the things Stark likes. Rogers, he's better at the stuff Stark finds it hard to respect. That's why Banner gets invited to come and play at Stark Towers, whereas Rogers gets ridiculed.

An audience member (was it you, Mary Behre?) also pointed out that Stark is a man with Daddy issue--boy howdy does he have them!--and Captain America is his father's creation. Now that's going to be a blow to Stark's ego.

Speaking of ego, notice how after that first big fight, Stark gets on okay with Thor? His ego allows him to think of himself as an equal with someone who is a GOD. That right there tells you most of what you need to know about Tony Stark!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Some Assembly Requiered: Pt2

So, yesterday I shared some notes from my Joss Whedon workshop about introducing character cues very quickly. Today it's going to be Conflict and Subtext.

2. I Love You, But...
Dr Horrible, Buffy, Firefly

The main thing I realised when working on this section was how the best conflict isn' just A and B having opposite goals: it's about A having conflict inside herself which is stopping her from getting what she wants or deserves.

For instance: Dr Horrible has two goals. He wants to join the Evil League of Evil, and he wants Penny to fall in love with him. These two things are in direct opposition (Penny is most definitely a Good Person), so to achieve one he must give up the other.

In Buffy, the conflict between Angel and Buffy seems simple: he's a vampire, she's the Slayer. But he has a soul, et cetera, so she can actually be with him! Although, hold on. His soul is the result of a curse. And the terms of that curse (God only knows why) are that it will be broken if he ever achieves happiness. Therefore, Angel can never make Buffy happy because he can never be happy himself.

In Firefly, the most interesting relationship is between Mal & Inara. Now, since Whedon deals heavily in metaphor and theme, the best way to understand Mal & Inara's conflict is by what they represent. Mal stands for Independence (both the cause during the war, and the general concept). But Inara represents the Alliance, which is Mal's enemy.

Mal and Inara both like and desire each other, but they can't respect each other. The thing is that Inara respects the freedom of independence (why is she on Mal's ship, instead of in the bosom of the Alliance where she was raised and rightfully belongs?), and that Mal respects the enlightenment and emancipation that Inara enjoys...but not the Alliance which gave it to her. He can't respect her for representing something he hates. Mal, like Angel, doesn't really want to be happy.

At the end of Serenity, however, there are hints that they might both just be starting to think about...well, getting over themselves.


3. Don't Talk About What You're Talking About
Serenity

Back to Mal & Inara again. There's a wonderful scene in the middle of the film Serenity during which Mal & Inara talk via video link, and absolutely every line has a second meaning.

<iframe width="960" height="720" src="//www.youtube.com/embed/K-wqzI_H7JQ" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>

Now, bear in mind what I said about metaphor and theme. Mal is represented by the ship Serenity, and vice versa (freedom, flying under the radar, a slightly beaten-about and obsolete machine that nevertheless keeps flying). Inara, as discussed, represents the Alliance and all its good points: education, enlightenment, feminism. Inara is always beautifully dressed and beautifully polite. Mal sets no store by appearances. He's (probably) not even wearing pants.

So what are they saying here?

  • Mal enquires after Inara's world, and she replies that it's autumn. Autumn is when things die.
  • He asks if she's still at the Training House: he's asking how her allegiance to the Alliance is going.
  • In one of my favourite sections of dialogue, Mal mentions a trunk full of 'stuff' Inara left, and promises he never looked through it. Now, we all know he did. And we all know she intended him to (Joss Whedon even said that she left all her best-smelling stuff on purpose). Neither of them wants to forget the other.
Of course, in plot terms this scene has another purpose. We know they're being watched by the rest of the crew, but very soon after we realise they're being watched by someone else too (and they both know it).

So what the scene needs to do is impart the information about this--in yet another subtext-y way) but Whedon goes further and adds in another layer of characterisation. Don't forget, this is the first time we've seen these two interacting. This scene tells you most of what you need to know about how they feel about each other.

That's it for today! Oh...and that thing I mentioned the other day, about the only direct piece of information imparted in the first 3.45 minutes of Dr Horrible? It's this: "My nemesis is Captain Hammer." Didja guess it?

Tomorrow, I'll be back with some notes on Character Connections and Villains.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Some Assembly Required: A Whedonite's Guide to Characterisation Pt1

So a few people who attended my workshop at the RT Booklovers Convention in May asked me if I'd putup a few notes. These are just that--a few notes--since I'd like to be able to present the workshop again some day, and if you've all drunk the milk then how will I sell the...cow...no, wait, what?

Anyway. Here's the first couple of points:

1. Be a Sketch Artist:
Dr Horrible's Sing-Along-Blog
Tells you everything you need 
to know in the first 
3 minutes and 45 seconds.
If you're writing short-form stories, i.e. short stories, novellas, Harlequin books, you don't have a lot of time to convey character. Here's how to tell the reader what they're dealing with very quickly.

(NB, this is a transcript. You should watch it for the full effect)

0.06
DR. HORRIBLE’S SING-ALONG BLOG
0.10
Ah hahahaha! Ah ha haaaa! A haaaa!
0.25
So that’s, you know... coming along. I’m working with a vocal coach. Strengthening the “ahhaa”. A lot of guys ignore the laugh, and that’s about standards. 
0.35
I mean, if you’re going to get into the Evil League of Evil you HAVE to have a memorable laugh. I mean do you think Bad Horse didn’t work on his whinny? His terrible... death... whinny...
0.52
No response, BTW, from the League yet but my application is strong this year. A letter of condemnation from the deputy mayor. That’s gotta have some weight, so, fingers crossed.
Emails! 2SLY4U writes: “Hey genius...” Wow. Sarcasm. That’s ORIGINAL. 
1.27
“Where are the gold bars you were supposed to pull out of that bank vault with your trans-matter ray? Obviously it failed or it would be in the papers.”
Well, no, they’re not going to say anything in the press. But BEHOLD. Transported from there to here.
1.37
The molecules tend to shift in the trans-matter... um...event, but, they were transported IN BAR FORM and they clearly were...
2.05
And by the way it’s not about making money. It’s about TAKING money. Destroying the status-quo because the “status” is not “quo”. The world is a mess and I just need to...rule it. I’m gonna... that smells like cumin.
So, Trans-matter is 75% AND more importantly the Freeze-Ray is almost up. This is the one. Stops time.Freeze-ray. Tell your friends.
2.40
We have... OH! Here’s one from our good friend Johnny Snow. “Dr. Horrible. I see you are once again afraid to do battle with your nemesis. I waited at Dooley Park for 45 minutes...”
2.59
OK. Dude. You’re NOT my nemesis. My nemesis is Captain Hammer. Captain Hammer, corporate tool. He dislocated my shoulder. Again. Last week. Look, I’m just trying to change the world, OK? I don’t have time for a grudge match with every poser in a parka.
3.21
Besides, there’s kids in that park, so...
3.45
Here’s one from DeadNotSleeping. “Long time watcher, first time writing...” Blah blah blah. “You always say on your blog that you will show her the way, show her you are a true villain. Who is ‘her’ and does she even know that you’re...”
Okay, now what have we learned from that, class? How about Dr Horrible's goals, motivation, conflict, background, setting, and general character cues. We know he wants to be a supervillain but isn't very good at it, that he lives in a world of superheroes and one of them is his nemesis, and that he has a romantic interest. In under four minutes.

Oh...and we get that it's funny, too.

Here is where the reader makes assumptions about the book they've just picked up.
Use the opening scenes of your story to cue the reader in to the most important things about your character and their world.
What's important to him? What does he want, what does he hate, what's stopping him from getting it? What kind of story are you telling? Is there anything you want to plant here that you're later going to turn on its head?
Avoid the "As you know, Bob," style of exposition. Only one piece of information was delivered directly in that clip. Tune in on Wednesday and I'll tell you which one!