This week’s The World Of … takes a look at The Push Chronicles and how the book series tackles deconstructing and reconstructing the superhero genre. Also, I get in some more (fortunately on-topic!) gripes about Batman v Superman!
Today’s Plot and Motivation was inspired by something I’ve noticed has been a major theme with many of my other articles: character agency. If it’s something that has been a part of a multitude of other writing articles, then it has to be important enough to address on it’s own. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, character agency is the appearance that any particular character in a piece has control over his/her actions.
Now, on the surface, the very concept may seem odd. How can a fictional character have any control over anything? Obviously, yes, the author has ultimate control over and is responsible for the situations the characters find themselves in and their reactions to that. However, your readers shouldn’t view it that way. You should be able to create sufficient suspension of disbelief so that the readers don’t think ‘man, what is the author going to do with these folks next?’. Instead, they should be thinking ‘how will the hero figure a way out of this predicament the villain has placed her in?’. If you haven’t created that investment in the characters and generated that important appearance of character agency, you run the strong risk of loosing that suspension of disbelief.
Generating character agency requires attention on many levels of the story. First and foremost is good characterization. If the readers can’t relate to and understand the motivations of your characters, they will never believe them capable of making decisions in the first place. A character with no personality has no motivation to make a decision at all, cutting out agency before we’ve even begun.
Flowing from that, the plot and scenes you create need to allow for the expression of that agency. If every scene is railroaded from moment to moment, the characters have no agency because they can make no choices. Strangely, it is often a bad idea to allow the choices of the characters to control the entire plot. If they are never challenged, thwarted, or countermanded in their decisions at any point, you can break the suspension of disbelief in the other direction. No one makes it through life completely on their own decisions.
A final important point of character agency is that the characters should be able to take the initiative in decision making. This may seem a fine point to make, but if you take a character who mechanically moves through the plot only making the decisions put to him by other characters or forced upon him by the environment doesn’t show any real agency. He/she is simply reacting to the environment. A character with agency also acts upon his environment and is an active participant in your story.
The ultimate point is that even the most spineless or weak-willed person has beliefs and makes decisions, both reactive and independent. Even if they are thwarted in those decisions, the fact that they make them is important to creating fully realized characters your readers will be happy to invest in and follow through your stories.
With the second edition of my first books in the process of getting out the door and the editing wrapping up on the second round, I’ve been spending a fair chunk of time setting up the finale to my two trilogies. That’s led me to spend time thinking about plotting, motivations, and the associated tropes with them. I want there to be some hard choices made by the protagonists in both series on the course to the finale, to up the tension both for the characters and the readers, so my mind turned to death and danger in regards to the cast as a means of increasing that tension. I’ve talked about the idea of death as motivation before, so I decided to write about my thoughts on the classic trope of the Damsel (or Dude) in Distress.
Now, you may be saying, ‘Now, wait, shouldn’t this be a Looking at Character article? The Damsel in Distress is a stock character, not a trope.’ and to that I respond, ‘HA! Most Damsels (or Dudes) in Distress aren’t characters, they are plot devices!”. In fact, that is the main problem with their use in media: Male or female, the D-in-D trope turns a potentially compelling character into an object. A prize to be fought over, a piece of property to be reclaimed, however you want to look at it, the character is clearly objectified. Why dignify the D-in-D by calling it a character when all it is is a plot device?
If you are willing to make that concession and identify the problem of the trope being in the objectification, you’re still left with an important problem. The fact is that the plot action defined by the trope (putting a loved one of the protagonist in jeopardy) might make logical sense in line with the motivations and abilities of the antagonist at work. Why not use the most logical course of action in regards to the antagonists when to do otherwise could risk breaking the suspension of disbelief?
I think one way to help elevate the D-in-D trope out of the objectification gutter (someplace neither men or women need to be tossed into) is to present the incident and it’s after-effects without destroying the agency of the character put into harm’s way. Even a simple passage as the protagonist finding the signs of an extended struggle from a kidnapping and evidence of escape attempts later can add some dignity and agency back to the D-in-D. Another important point is to emphasize and flesh out not only the D-in-D-to-be before hand, but to emphasize the motivations of the protagonist outside of the obvious ones caused by this trope. The distress caused to the Dude or Damsel should NOT be the sole motivation of the protagonist or else it further enhances the objectification caused by this trope.
Those are just a few ideas as to ways to make the D-in-D trope a bit more palatable. Of course, the best way to avoid that pitfall is simply to find better and more complex ways to provide motivation for the protagonist and tension to the conflicts, but if you can’t, your duty as a writer is to find as many ways as possible to reduce the objectification caused by the trope and try to raise it beyond mere rote recitation of the story device as we so often see. Fill out those motivations and characterizations and make sure never to fully deprive your characters of their agency. Once the illusion of free will is shattered for the reader and they can see the rails on which the story runs, you can be sure they are a thousand times more likely to simply put the book down for some other kind of media.
Do you have any more ideas about how to use distress to characters as part of the plot without reducing them to objects? Do you disagree with any of my ideas? All debate is good, so feel free to speak up in the comments below!
I write a lot of action scenes. Consider that, no matter the potential depth for narrative and character development, the genres I write in also demand a lot of action and direct conflict. One series of books is set in the superhero genre, a classification that can have entire comic book issues devoted to an extended action sequence, and the other is grounded in professional wrestling, a sport entirely about ‘let’s you and him fight!’. Certainly, I try to twist those genres and interject plenty of discussion, introspection, and character-building moments, but who am I to deny the fans of the genres I write in one of the things they expect? After four novels of action scenes, I think I’m starting to get a handle on it enough to talk about it in a more analytical sense. Today’s musings are part of that analysis. Specifically, what I want to talk about today is just how much detail and length should a writer devote to the action sequences in his book.
I think the first thing to note is that action isn’t always a direct physical conflict (though it often is). Moments of intense conflict where not a single punch is thrown can be a fulfilling form of action in and of itself, be it an emotion-laden argument between two lovers or a seemingly polite duel of wits between two enemies fought over a pleasant meal. Though much of my focus in this post is about physical action, you can transpose some of these ideas to other forms of action with minimal adjustments.
With that established, when contemplating how to approach an action scene, an author should consider how important this scene is to the overall plot. Is there any critical narrative or character impact in the scene or is it simply a minor plot point? The more important the scene is, the more length and detail should be devoted to it. While this seems really obvious, the fact is that it is easy to get carried away. Writing action scenes can be fun, after all, and it’s easy to invest yourself too much into lovingly detailing out every minor scrap you can find. Doing that, though, just bloats your scenes and bores the reader. Action has to lead to consequence or it’s wasted pages and the depth of that consequence should equal the length of the scene.
If you follow the traditional curve of a strong initial hook, then rising action to climax, the curve alone can provide a barometer of how deep you should make each sequence. The detail and strength of an action sequence should pretty closely map it’s position on the curve. Feel free to start an action novel with a bang, using a strongly written action sequence to start the book, then ramp down, using gradually swelling bits of action to lead to a showstopping climax. Again, this seems pretty logical, but if an author doesn’t properly structure the story, they can wind up fatiguing the reader with out-of-place intense sequences, leading them to just be, well, tired and burned-out by the actual climax. Left with a feeling of ‘what could possibly top that’, their suspension of disbelief can break and they may not buy into the importance of the true climax of the book.
If these main points seem to be saying the same thing in different ways, they are to a degree. The main rule of thumb should always be ‘importance = intensity’. No matter the type of conflict, the intensity of the action should never overstep the scene’s importance. Never use the genre as an excuse to overstuff your works with excess scenes and wordy baggage. This applies as much to a mystery or a disaster yarn as much as to a martial arts action novel. In a mystery, for instance, don’t waste excessive pages on the questioning of a minor witness that adds little to the unravelling or obfuscation of the ultimate mystery. That’s a waste of action as much as a two-chapter fight scene with a shoplifter in a superhero book.
How do you approach action in your own works? Do you see the action inherent in conflict that isn’t purely physical? Do you treat that conflict in a similar way as physical ones or do you approach them on a different level? Start the conversation in the comment section!
Looking at Character is going to be the first of several semi-regular categories of my starved authorial ramblings and is going to concentrate on various character tropes and archetypes, both ‘good’ and ‘bad’, looking at the pitfalls and uses of each. As with all my musings, the thoughts and ideas shown here are purely based on my own experiences and ideas. Take them as the opinions they are and feel free to dispute them. Disagreement is the basis of discussion, after all.
The first subject of this feature is the ‘Load’. Named quite literally, the Load is a helpless character (at least in comparison to the conflicts of the majority of the story or to the main characters) who, despite this, not only is deeply involved with the story but is essential to either the main characters or to the solution of the conflict of the piece. The Load is a vital person, but is a burden on the main characters. The Load generates plot points not through their action, but their helplessness, sometimes tied into a nature as a MacGuffin. Often, the Load develops as a character over the course of the piece, proving their worth and rising to the situation, but this isn’t always the case. Sometimes they just remain a burden on everyone around them. Common examples include some portrayals of children, the ‘bumbling sidekick’ from superhero lore, or the ‘person of prophecy’ who has some vital purpose but has no actual power as is seen in some fantasy works.
I think it’s important to note that what makes the Load a load is often how the author writes a character. For instance, take two fantasy stories with a ‘person of prophecy’, like I mentioned above. In both pieces, the character has no unusual abilities outside of their importance to the prophecy compared to the other protagonists. However, this person is only the Load in the first story, where all he/she is capable of in danger is hiding, freezing, and crying. Outside of danger, he/she is equally a burden, showing no appreciable skills at all. In the second story, simple characterization turns the Load into something else: he/she had been a farmer before picked by prophecy, let’s say, and, while not helpful in a fight, their knowledge of the land and homegrown common sense prove an important balance for the group. One is a Load, the other is something else.
Does this mean that the Load is always a bad thing? Well, no. Not always. There are some characters that would, realistically, be a Load in most situations. Take a protagonist who has an infant child and is forced to bring he/she with them on their adventure. The infant can’t fend for themselves and must be constantly protected from danger. He/she may be the Load, but can still provide valuable characterization. A Load can provide an interesting foil in a story, provided they are well characterized and dealt with realistically, which often means, at times, they may not be a total burden on the protagonists.
The Load can become an annoyance to readers, however, when dealt with unrealistically. If the author continually creates contrived situations to keep the Load around or to keep the Load useless, the reader’s patience will wear thin quickly. Even worse, an author may make a mistake of combining a Load, poor characterization, and common racial, ethnic, social, or gender stereotypes to form a truly insulting character, one that makes the reader just put it down in disgust. Remember, as an author, everything you write makes a statement about yourself and creating a ‘lazy, useless ethnic sidekick’ to add to your story makes very unfortunate implications about your character. Don’t do it!
I think the best way to handle a Load is to take a nuanced approach, something I will often say about any character trope or archetype. These archetypes come to the fore because they hold certain truths about human nature and resonate with readers. If you use any of them too strongly without a gentle touch and fleshed-out personalities, however, you will bludgeon your readers so excessively you overwhelm that subtle resonance and break their suspension of disbelief.
What do you think about including a Load in a piece of fiction? What other good or bad points might there be to their use as a story element? Is it possible that the Load is an artifact of a more blunt and stereotypical writing style and doesn’t have a place in more nuanced modern literature? Let me know in the comments!