Writing tip: Beat up your Heroes

Author William Faulkner once said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” While some writers (like George R. R. Martin) may take this literally, I personally doubt that Mr. Faulkner meant to imply that you should send all your heroes to an early grave. No, he more likely meant that writers should not be afraid to abandon ideas, even their favorite ones.

When I write, I have many ideas that I personally love but make for bad storytelling. A lot of them involve my protagonists. Mainly, I don’t like to see my main characters get hurt. Well, a little hurt maybe – but not devastatingly crushed. While I’m sure my protagonists appreciate this – as much as any imaginary person can – it can make for a boring story.

In my last blog post, I talked about the unlikely hero character archetype. This person is always the last the reader expects to see saving the day. David defeats the giant Goliath with his wits and a well-placed stone. Well, imagine David didn’t fight a giant. What if he instead fought a middle-sized, slightly overweight man named Gerald? Suddenly the victory isn’t so fantastic.

This gets to the heart of today’s writing lesson: While you maybe shouldn’t kill all your darlings, don’t be afraid to beat them (emotionally or physically) to a bloody pulp.

Raising the stakes

Beating up your protagonist raises the stakes. David is fighting a man – not just any man, a giant – not just any giant – a warrior – not just any warrior, an undefeated warrior, someone everyone else is absolutely terrified of. At every increase of Goliath, David’s struggle seems more hopeless. However, it is making the reader that much more invested in the story. Beating an unbeaten warrior giant sounds a lot more interesting than getting the best of middle-aged Gerald.

setting stakes writing
Adventure stories are often in “exotic” locations because these are seen as more dangerous. The stakes are higher than say, an American city, where most people live in relative comfort.

Let me use a more personal example:

Throughout my blog you’re going to see a lot of criticism of my own writing, well let me begin with The Dreamcatchers. While I am overall pleased with my first effort, I won’t pretend it is perfect. In Dreamcatchers, the main villain is a night terror named Incubus. He’s a dangerous dude.

As a reader, you know this because he badly injures the protagonist early on, poisoning and nearly crippling him. In addition, he wins the next two encounters that he and the protagonist have. This sets up a final confrontation where it is unlikely that the protagonist (Vakarian) will win on his own.

While all this is great, part of me wished I had Incubus win more. One of the difficult aspects of The Dreamcatchers is that we never see the “real” world. Our main human character, Tony, is always asleep. Therefore it is difficult to see how Incubus is really threatening him – outside of disrupting his sleep patterns. I attempted to combat this problem by including a prologue where we see another human character suffer direct, substantial complications from a night terror attack.

Was it enough to raise the stakes? I’m not sure. I hope so. It is one of the issues I hope to address more in The Night Terrors.

Since my main human character was a child – and the book is young adult – part of me wanted to shield him from a life-and-death struggle, but this is not conducive to great writing. Look at the Harry Potter series: Aimed at (and starring) children, these books feature death, maiming, and a whole lot of broken limbs. I remember always feeling like Harry and his friends were in real danger – and that is what made their victories all the more incredible and satisfying.

To put it in simple terms: Your characters can’t get up if they don’t fall. While a stagger is less painful, it is also less interesting to read about.

Establishing a strong threat

Your protagonist isn’t the only one who benefits from a bruising plot line. One of the chief problems I see with villains today is that many of them are not very threatening. The conflict, especially in a lot of children’s entertainment, is often in stalemate – with the heroes achieving many more victories than the villains.

A huge example of this is the original Transformers cartoon. It opens with a grim situation: The war is practically over and the Autobots have all but lost. Their home planet – Cybertron – lies in the hands of the Decepticons. Megatron has more people, resources, and strategic locations. Despite this, he loses every single episode.

Megatron villain writing
While Megatron still served his purpose (and his design plus Frank Welker’s voice acting made him popular), he was never really that intimidating. Before the animated movie, Megatron didn’t have many victories.

Suddenly Megatron doesn’t seem threatening. He’s cool – yes – but competent? He keeps a second-in-command who literally betrays him every third episode. Megatron is a victim of bad writing. He is never winning the situation because the heroes aren’t having any real challenges.

In contrast, the Megatron in Beast Wars wins every major struggle up to the end. This is made more impressive by the fact that he doesn’t have the resources of his predecessor, nor the manpower.

If you want to write a strong villain, they have to win at least 66% of the time. Not only does this make them a serious threat, it also makes it that much more satisfying when the hero prevails.

Producing a satisfying climax

A lot of this ties into plot structure. Here is the classic plot outline:

plot-outline-1

As you can see, everything builds to the climax. The higher that point is, the more satisfying it will feel to the reader. Everything in a story is functionally in service to the climax. All of the hero’s trials and failures make that final moment – that point of either victory or defeat – all the more meaningful.

If you haven’t truly endangered your protagonist in some way then expect this moment to hit without its full impact. If you’ve written a story about a relationship for instance, but we never doubt that it will end, then the moment of salvation will come off as less of a “YES!” and more of a “Oh yeah, makes sense…”

Again, in order to pick themselves up, the protagonist must fall, albeit not always literally.

Then and Now: Beast Wars

I know it’s been a while (health concerns are problematic) but I would like to break back into this website. To that end I was having a conversation not long ago with someone close to me. She remarked that she was out of current shows to watch and was looking into finding something new. I suggest a show called Beast Wars, an old program that I grew up with (1996-1999). I then wondered at the recommendation. Sure, I had loved the show as a kid but how does it hold up now? There are many things I enjoyed back then that I would not recommend to peers today. The question becomes: does Beast Wars hold up? Short answer: yeah. Longer answer:

For those who may not be familiar, Beast Wars (titled Beasties in its native Canada) was a computer-generated sequel to the 1984 show, Transformers. Yes, the same property that Michael Bay has been turning into crappy blockbusters for the past six years. While the first series dealt with the war between Autobots and Decepticons (two machine races who transformed into cars and planes respectively), Beast Wars dealt with a much smaller conflict set in future. This time we got Maximals and Predacons (pretty much Autobots and Decepticons) at war on a strange, Earth-like alien planet. Oh, and this time they turned into animals instead of cars: awesome.

So why am I recommending this show? Not for the animation, I’ll tell you that right now. While Beast Wars was ambitious in its day, the style has not held up (it’s been nearly twenty years). Here is some idea of what I’m talking about:

It’s not horrible but certain things (namely shadows) are lacking. Really the animators should be praised, it’s just old technology at this point.

Luckily the look got better as the show progressed. Seasons two and three show noticeable improvements over season one.

Anyway, the look isn’t why you should watch it, although it does have something to do with it. Let me explain why Beast Wars was made: to sell toys. That’s the honest answer. Same reason the first Transformers series began back in the 1980s. However, Transformers was traditionally animated and there was no budget increase when they wanted to bring in another transformer. The result: there are a lot of robots on that show.  A privilege that Beast Wars did not enjoy. Another transformer meant another 3D model and that took a lot of money to animate. So Beast Wars was forced to have a much smaller cast and that turned out wonderful.

Why: because fewer characters meant stronger characters. They only had a few robots to work with so every character on that show was fully flushed out with motivations and traits. Everyone felt different and not because they turned into a different beastie but because they thought differently.

Every form of every Maximal who was in the series. It's not a huge cast but it is a strong one.
Every form of every Maximal who was in the series. It’s not a huge cast but it is a strong one.

Head writers Bob Forward and Larry G. DiTillio deserve most of the praise. They were given essentially full control of the show and created a tight-knit story with characters and consequences. Beast Wars blessedly has more plot than just Maximal=good and Predacon=bad. There is a complete story told throughout the three season arch that doesn’t leave much in the way of dangling plot threads.

Strong points include characters such as Megatron (the Predacon leader), Tarantulas (the Predacon mad scientist) and Dinobot (Maximal version of Hamlet). The alien plot line also provides an additional level of intrigue as well as a break from the Maximal-Predacon conflict. Episodes to check out: “Code of Hero” (best episode of the series), and “Transmutate”. Personally I’m also a big fan of the bizarre romance between Silverbolt and  Blackarachnia.

Yeah they're both robots. Yeah one is the knight in shining armor while the other is a villainous back-stabbing widow. Yeah they're on opposite sides. It's still a better love story than Twilight.
Yeah they’re both robots. Yeah one is the knight in shining armor while the other is a villainous back-stabbing widow. Yeah they’re on opposite sides. It’s still a better love story than Twilight.

Season one is the weak point of the show. It looks better on re-watching but the consequence hasn’t entered the series yet. What do I mean by consequence: people die in this show. Don’t get used to your favorite character because odds are they are not going to survive the series. For an animated children’s show back in the 1990s, this was a crazy development.

Is it the best show ever made: not even close. Still there is enough in Beast Wars to make it a show worth watching. I recommend it to anyone out there looking for a fun story that doesn’t require a ton of thought. This show isn’t super serious (it’s about robots that turn into animals) but it does have a heart and more importantly, a brain.

In addition, I should mention the sequel series, Beast Machines. I’m not really going to talk about it – it is not nearly as well remembered as its predecessor, and for good reason. Also there are two sequel series that were produced solely in Japan (Beast Wars II and Beast Wars Neo) but approach those at your own risk.

Due to the show's success, Beast Wars has inspired a wealth of graphic novels and specials that have continued the story. Sadly there has still been no true successor in terms of a television show.
Due to the show’s success, Beast Wars has inspired a wealth of graphic novels and specials that have continued the story. Sadly there has still been no true successor in terms of a television show.

When Good Guys go Bad: Poor Scriptwriting

With the summer blockbuster season in full swing, a recent trend has become apparent: this is an off year. While releases like Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness and Man of Steel haven’t been critically panned (although Man of Steel only enjoys a 56 on Rotten Tomatoes and a 55 on Metacritic), the reaction from fans has been less flattering. For me personally, both Man of Steel and Iron Man 3 have been disappointing mixed bags with more to say against than in favor. I still stand by Star Trek Into Darkness as a simple yet enjoyable Star Trek movie. But this article is not about how I feel about summer films, this article aims to look at what is usually a weakness in the blockbuster genre overall: the writing. There’s a lot of areas here we could discuss. Bad writing ruins films by creating plot holes, cringe-worthy dialogue and nonsensical character action. Let’s talk about that last point.

Nonsensical character action is, quite simply, when someone in a movie does something that the audience doesn’t believe he or she would do. Whether it goes against the source material (which nearly every big budget movie has these days) or whether it defies an earlier scene in the movie, these are actions that just don’t make a heck of a lot of sense. I’m going to go into a few examples that will illustrate my point. Warning: there will be minor Man of Steel spoilers to follow. But let’s not start with a Superman movie… let’s start with a Michael Bay movie!

I will never understand how his name isn't as poisonous to the box office as M. Night Shyamalan's is.
I will never understand how his name isn’t as poisonous to the box office as M. Night Shyamalan’s is.

I almost feel that this is an unfair jab. If you’re paying to see a Michael Bay, you’re not paying for the script… at least he and his marketing have been honest about that aspect. For those of you out there who may not know the man pictured above, Michael Bay is the director behind blockbusters like the Transformers trilogy, the two Bad Boys movies, Pearl HarborArmageddon and The Island. He’s done others but that’s enough to get the idea. Let’s talk about those Transformers movies, in particular something that annoyed me in all three films:

Besides this guy.
Besides this guy.

Anyone familiar with the Transformers universe knows that the Autobots are the heroic good guys and the Decepticons are the evil, horrible, villains. The Autobots, lead by Optimus Prime, are valiant and peace loving while Megatron and his Decepticons would push puppies in front of buses. This is established in both the lore and the movies (I’m giving the movies credit for something). Yet in the movies, while the dialogue establishes this, the action paints a different picture.

The decepticons take autobot prisoners in Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Patrick Dempsey's character is the one who suggests killing them.
The decepticons take autobot prisoners in Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Patrick Dempsey’s character is the one who suggests killing them.

Wait, the decepticons are taking prisoners? That’s actually really nice of them, you know, given they’re at war with the autobots and everything. Maybe they have some honor after all. Well, I’m sure if the decepticons are this generous than the autobots are even greater pillars of morality.

Nope.
Nope.

The autobots kill the decepticons every chance they get. Not just kill either but in most cases tear to pieces. Watch those movies again (if you can) and observe just how brutal Optimus Prime and his heroic autobots are. It kinda adds an underlying sinister element to their characters when the good guy (who constantly professes to be good) is a lot more savage than the bad guy. But again, poking fun at a Michael Bay script is easy. Let’s go after George Lucas instead.

In this instance, I’m going to discuss two scenes in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Let me say up front: I like this movie. Is it perfect: NOOOOOO (inside Star Wars humor there), but it’s still enjoyable and a lot of it really works. Here’s something that didn’t: remember when Anakin killed Count Dooku? He just executes him as a prisoner. This is huge, it is a giant step in Anakin’s fall to the dark side. Jedi don’t kill, they take prisoners whenever possible. Except when it’s this guy:

General_Grievous_(Qymaen_jai_Sheelal)

I know what you’re saying. Yes, I have thought way too much about this… but you’re reading it so what does that say about you?

Anyway, so Obi-Wan kills General Grievous and I personally don’t have a problem with that scene. Grievous poses a lethal threat and is about to kill Obi-Wan so it is in self defense. The Jedi seem to be cool with that. I have problems with all the scenes leading up to the confrontation. When Obi-Wan speaks to the council, and when they are speaking to each other, it becomes very clear that “taking prisoners” is not what they have in mind.

“If he does not give up his emergency powers after the destruction of Grievous, then he should be removed from office.”

That’s said by everyone’s favorite cone-head Jedi, Ki-Adi-Mundi (never mind how I know his name). At this point, Obi-Wan has only “made contact” with Grievous so… he should be trying to secure him as a prisoner, right? A whole part of this movie is how Anakin falls to the dark side by being too eager to kill. Seems like the Jedi Council is bloodthirsty too. Maybe the emperor had a point about them.

It’s a small thing but that’s just it. It’s one line of script: fix it before spending millions of dollars.

Last but not least, Man of Steel. As this is a new release I won’t say much here (I could, there is definitely a lot to say on this movie). Let’s go with those trailers, especially the newest ones. You see Superman fighting General Zod in a city. Looks really cool right? That city is full of people. Superman: the man of steel, the protector of humanity, has no problem with collateral damage in this film. He throws Zod through buildings in a city the audience knows to still be populated (the film makes sure to show this).

Disregard buildings and acquire cape.
That’s a lot of devastation in the background.

Again, what makes it worse is that one of the main theme’s of the film is Superman’s morality. How he will do anything to protect the people of Earth from an alien, super-powered, threat. Is he just not getting the irony in that? I know Superman isn’t supposed to be the smartest hero on the block but come on.

If you want to see a film that encompasses Superman's morality and character in a much more competent way, check out this movie instead.
If you want to see a film that encompasses Superman’s morality and character in a much more competent way, check out this movie instead.

So why is this such a common problem? Effects shots sell tickets. That’s the simple answer. That’s what people want to see in their summer blockbusters, right? Right. Because when it works, it’s awesome. When it doesn’t… blockbusters don’t have much to fall back on if they’re not enjoyable. I put this one on the scriptwriters and the directors. Movies shouldn’t be made for the sake of cool scenes, they should be able to work cool scenes into a great movie.

Christopher Nolan: putting cool scenes in great movies since 2000.
Christopher Nolan: putting cool scenes in great movies since 2000.

Thoughts? Comments? Am I full of it or onto something? Let me know now in the feedback section of this article.