Posts Tagged ‘Sequence 08: Stories I Love’


Ensemble Cast Assemble!

When you have a single, major character, your choice of protagonist and throughline plot is obvious. However, when you bring in other major, high-powered characters into play, they all compete for attention and control of the story. While ensemble casts bring their own host of problems, they also have the potential for intricate and powerful plots. If done well.

One of my favorite ensemble cast stories is Marvel’s The Avengers. Writer and director Joss Whedon had a lot of challenges to balance to make the story work. First, Whedon had to create a story that honored decades of rich comic book history. In the weeks leading up to the release there was a lot of speculation if the movie would live up to fan expectations or if he would be buried in an avalanche of nerd rage. Secondly, he was responsible for closing Phase I of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Avengers needed to both tie up what had been done before and launch the franchise to the next level. Finally, most of the characters in the movie were played by big-name actors and actresses, all of whom brought their own quirks, personalities, and storytelling philosophies to the project. He had to manage all their visions of what the movie should be while also staying true to his own intent.

Difficult, but not impossible for a writer of his skill. And he did it awesomely.

Writing a successful ensemble cast story isn’t only a matter of managing competing demands, but also knowing how to use those cross purposes to make the story stronger. Though each member of the Avengers agreed that Loki needed to be stopped, they each had their own views on how exactly that should happen. There was no one protagonist, but rather each character played a spectrum of story roles. Sometimes they acted as protagonist, as companion, as contagonist, and even sometimes as antagonist to one another. The Avengers wasn’t a single plot, but rather the union of several character journeys woven into a single story. It’s an extremely difficult balance to pull off.

The key to Whedon’s success is that he didn’t write a movie about superheroes. Rather, he treated each character as a person first and a hero second. Their personality was more important to their journey than their power. Furthermore, he let them conflict and bicker with one another, make mistakes, and pursue their own ends at the expense of the common goal. Then he gave them all a reason to put aside their differences and unite behind a single purpose. That decision, the choice to put the needs of the individual aside for the needs of the world, was the turning point both for many of the characters and the story as a whole. It transformed them from a band of individual heroes into a unified ensemble cast, the Avengers.


Truely Alien in Motivation

Science fiction is filled with encounters with intelligent alien species, and yet many of them still feel distinctly human. I think that’s because we tend to project ourselves on our environment. After all, we find faces in the knots and grain patterns of a piece of wood, we anthropomorphize animals, and we describe machines using gender specific pronouns. It makes sense then that we would also impose human traits on our alien characters.

However, alien-ness should be more than a matter of skin dye, cosmetic contacts, and prosthetics. If we as writers truly want to write alien characters, we need to ensure that we consider their thought patterns, motivations, and perceptions. One writer that I feel has done this very well is Jack Campbell.

Campbell’s world is a mix of military SF and space opera. At the series commencement, humanity has become a space faring race and has already colonized many stars local to our branch of the Milky Way. As humans are wont to do, various star systems have formed interstellar political units that war with one another and vie for territory. While it at first appears that there are no aliens in Campbell’s books, it is later revealed that a group of human-occupied stars actually abuts the territory of a hostile race of aliens codenamed the “Enigma race.”

At first, I was skeptical about Campbell’s aliens as he seemed to be heavily relying on the mysterious, hostile alien trope. However, as the story continued and he revealed more about the Enigmas, it began to make more sense. The Enigma race is characterized by their obsessive need for privacy. They’d rather commit mass suicide by blowing up their ships than allow humans to get a glimpse at them and their technology. It also makes perfect sense then why they are so hostile towards their ever-curious human neighbors. Our very natures are directly opposed to their primary motivation!

Campbell goes on to introduce his characters and readers to two more alien species, the hostile Kicks and the friendly Dancers. Being a prey species that has risen to dominance, the Kicks are suicidally aggressive towards any species they view as a potential predator. On the other hand, the Dancers are master engineers and are obsessed with finding and honoring patterns. While each of the four races - human, Enigma, Kick, and Dancer - significantly vary from one another physically, they also are distinctly different in their motivations and perceptions of the universe. I respect how diligent Campbell is in ensuring that each species’ actions and reactions are consistent with their guiding motivations.

As writers, we rely on empathy to form a bond between our reader and the story we are telling. It’s one of our greatest assets. However, this tendency to find connection can also be a trap. Sometimes we want to intentionally make our alien characters distinctly non-human. However, we can’t rely on physical differences. We must ensure that they are also alien in their thoughts, behaviors, and motivations.


Ned Stark, You Noble Fool!

George RR Martin has earned a reputation for being modern fantasy’s serial killer. Personally I don’t view it as a negative. After all, the passion and grief that his readers experience at the death of a beloved character is a testament to his skill. Furthermore, I would argue against the accusations of random or unjustified deaths, especially for the major characters. Though fate may be cruel in Martin’s world, most of the major characters’ deaths are a direct result of their own mistakes or the agency of another character.

The death of Eddard Stark at the end of the first book/season is a great example. Ned is introduced to us as the obvious good guy of the series. Quite possibly the only one. He is characterized by his sense of nobility, duty, and kindness in a world filled with the cruel and vindictive. Additionally, his storyline centers on finding truth and justice. In Martin’s grimdark world, is it any wonder that we bond with such an obviously good man?

However, Eddard has a fatal flaw. Hubris. He trusts that others will act with honor, even when they are demonstrably dishonorable. My God man! Little Finger has admitted to you, explicitly, that he is a power hungry schemer, that he still has the hots for your wife, and that he is not to be trusted. And you are surprised when he betrays you? You find out that Cersei Lannister orchestrated the assassination of the last Hand of the King when he found out the secret of Joffrey’s birth, and yet you tell her that you know? How do you expect her to react to the news that you are going to put her children at risk? Ultimately, it wasn’t chance, fate, or even Joffrey’s cruelty that lead to Ed Stark’s execution. It was his own fatal flaw that got him killed.

So now that I’ve shown that Eddard Stark’s death wasn’t random, was it unjustified? I think not. For one, it was a direct product of character agency. Secondly, it increased the agency of many of the other characters. Ned’s death launched each of the Stark children into their own story lines, propelling them from idleness to action. Finally, Ned’s death was a legitimately good twist. I, like most everyone else, had expected Ned to be the main character for the series. In fact, George RR Martin has gone on the record stating that was his intent. However, Martin didn’t want to tell that kind of story, so he killed Ned. Ned’s death was surprising, story appropriate, and the obvious conclusion in hind sight. Hence, a good twist.

Despite his reputation, I don’t think that Martin kills major characters on a whim. Nor does he do so simply for shock value. He has good story reasons for his choices, something that I think too few recognize. So next time you feel righteous nerd rage at the death of your favorite GoT character, check to see if they brought it on themselves.


The Power of a Mist Cloak

As a species, humans tend to be very vision centric. I think that’s precisely why most young writers tend lean too heavily on visual descriptions in their early works. If we want to fully immerse our readers, we need to show them all of what our PoVs experience. Not just sight, but smell, taste, touch, and the dozens of other ways we perceive our world.

However, once most writers realize the power of sensory immersion, they often go overboard with the descriptions they use. Understandable, but too much detail is easily overwhelming, or even worse, boring. Instead writers must learn how to identify the strongest visual elements the story offers and then combine them with the subtle details that bring the scene to life. You don’t need to describe everything, just the right things. Knowing which elements are key takes practice and experience, both as a writer and as an avid reader.

Brandon Sanderson is one of my favorite authors because he has a gift for building entire worlds from a handful of excellent visual elements. One of my favorites is the mist cloak from his Mistborn series.

Vin in Mistcloak

Vin from the Mistborn Adventure Game. Art by Ben McSweeney

The idea of a cloak made of individual tassels that float and flow like tendrils of mist has a very strong visual appeal. It’s easy to picture and it stuck with me. However, it also provides an opportunity to bring in other senses. Through his language as he described Vin’s experiences and adventures, Sanderson had me imagining the rough, home spun feel of the fabric against my skin, the dragging weight of the cloak while it streamed out behind me, and the sound the cloth made as the strips rubbed against one another. By engaging those other senses, Sanderson ensured that the cloak became much more real to my mind.

Additionally, Sanderson has used that strong visual element as fodder for his marketing and branding efforts. Tor’s cover artist was able to use the mist cloak to create attention grabbing covers.

By tying the same visuals into his website, give aways, and the Mistborn Adventure Game, Sanderson thoroughly branded the IP and established consistency within the Mistborn world.

However, the fact that he was able to create such a vivid visual element also captured his readers’ imagination. I’ve seen dozens of pieces of fan art featuring the mist cloak, and it’s a common accessory for cosplayers who want to show their love for Sanderson’s works. By choosing the right visual element and working to make it real for his readers, Sanderson has reaped untold free advertising.

Everyone talks about how strong nerd rage is, but what they don’t realize is that nerd love is even more powerful. All you need is to give them something to feed that their imaginations, something to sew or draw, and they’ll take it and run with it. Quite powerful for a few tassels of cloth sewed into a cloak, eh?


Wilson Fisk — The Man and the Monster

** WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS for Daredevil Season 1**

Though there is a time and a place for cackling, mustache twirling villainy, modern audiences have become increasingly sophisticated in their tastes. Monochromatic evil is no longer accepted as a valid explanation of motivation. Rather, we want our storytellers to spend as much time developing their antagonists as they do the protagonists. It makes the conflict more interesting and the characters that much more real.

In the beginning of the recent Netflix adaptation of Daredevil, Wilson Fisk is a shadow villain. We see the results of his actions and meet people who talk about him with fear and respect, but don’t see the man himself until part way through the series. In fact, it takes several episodes for us to even learn his name, and the man who tells us promptly kills himself rather than facing the consequences of his “betrayal.” By that point in the series, Wilson Fisk is plenty intimidating and clearly the big bad. The writers could have easily ridden this buildup to characterize their villain. However, they did something much more clever and difficult. They made us like him.

In the next few episodes, we actually got to know Wilson Fisk directly. What we observed contrasted with his fearsome reputation. We saw that he was intelligent, well spoken, thoughtful, charismatic, and courteous. We watched his slightly awkward attempts to woo an artist and saw how desperately he wanted her to love him back. The writers showed us how dark his childhood had been, and his actions began to make more and more sense. Sure, we saw him give orders that were ruthless and illegal, but the intent was good, right? He wanted to save the city that he loved. I knew he was the bad guy, but found myself wanting a redemption story for him.

That was, of course, until he crushed a man’s skull in a moment of peak. It wasn’t just the brutality. After all Matthew Murdock, the series hero, also spends most of the story dealing with is rage and violent impulses. What makes one a hero and the other a villain is that Murdock constantly questions his actions and motivations. Fisk, on the other hand, finishes brutally murdering Anatoly Ranskahov and then quickly reverts to his calm, rational, and well-spoken self. He has absolutely no guilt from his actions.

In many ways, a villain that we can understand and empathize with is even scarier than the mustache twirling variety. They get into our heads. I empathized with Wilson Fisk. I wanted him to succeed and be redeemed. However, he gave into his fatal flaw of rage and let it rule his actions. He let the evil win. Had he not been so well rounded, it would have been a footnote in the series. However, because the writers took the time to build my empathy with the character, it felt tragic and terrible.


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