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Friday, April 26, 2019

Humor, Tragedy and the Dynamic Story (Part Two)

 “When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”

― Don Quixote

Part Two: Inner Turmoil

So I totally failed my "post every 2 days" goal, but that's not gonna stop me from picking up where I left off today. In the last post we talked about anti-heroes and non-heroic protagonists, but I'd like to expand on that by introducing a new concept; inner turmoil.

When I talk about inner turmoil, I'm not referring to tragedy. Tragedy comes as the result of external forces, or a massive failure of some sort, while turmoil is more of a chronic condition. I'm not trying to make it out that protagonists have to be miserable all the time, but that some level of turmoil exists. It's vital that it fluctuates, that at their peak they feel at ease and sanguine; but if your character is to be compelling, and their journey is to have any bearing on the reader, they have to suffer at least a little. It doesn't always have to be depressing or anything, it can be small things like in Wall-E when the ship takes off with Eva on it. (I keep coming back to Wall-E because it's so precious and I love it.)

One of my favorite booktubers is an author named Jenna Moreci, and while it certainly wasn't perfect, her book The Savior's Champion is the best example of a troubled protagonist I can think of. Her book Eve: The Awakening is also very good but I think TSC is definitely where she hit her stride. I won't spoil anything, but her character Tobias is a great underdog and the story just keeps chewing him up and spitting him out.

Now there is one thing we need to establish before we go any further- the dynamic between external conflict and internal conflict.

While one could try to argue that stories like TSC and Shield Hero are examples of external conflict- not internal- they're actually both.

While it is possible to have a character full of inner turmoil for no external reasons, that usually isn't very compelling unless you came up with something incredibly original that no one has ever thought of before.

This means that there has to be a relationship between the external troubles of the world and the way the character responds to them internally.

One of my favorite ways to create inner conflict is by forcing the protagonist to do something horrible with the consequence of not taking action being even worse.

Having your character do something that they really don't want to only because they're told they have to isn't good enough. Even if all of your characters insist that X action is important and that the protagonist has to do it, that's not a good reason. The simple solution is to force them to with factors beyond their control.

The best, most simple example of this is in Avatar: The Last Airbender during the Library episode. If you haven't seen Avatar, this is a mild spoiler, but I won't say what happens afterwards so if you ever decide to sit down and watch it the outcome will still be a mystery.

In Avatar S2 episode 10, they begin a search for an absolutely massive library containing information about the Fire Nation, when they discover that the entire thing is buried in sand except for the little tower on top, and they climb the little stone tower to descend into the library.
While they go inside the buried library to search for information about the war, the blind earthbender Toph stays behind to watch the main character's companion animal, a giant flying bison named Appa.

But while they're inside the library, two things happen simultaneously.

They break the trust of the spirit guarding the library, and he decides to sink the entire building all the way below the sand to bury them all; and while this is happening, thugs ambush Aang's bison Appa and drag him away to sell him to whatever nobleman or butcher will buy him.

Toph, who is blind, realizes that the library is sinking while everyone else is still inside, and roots her feet in sand and tries to keep the library from sinking with her earthbending.

But as soon as she gets a grip on the tower and slows down the sinking, the sand thugs approach from behind and start binding Appa in ropes in a muzzle, tying him down and talking about what they'll do with him.

Toph yells "Don't make me put this down!" and drops the tower for a few seconds to try and fight them off, but the building immediately starts sinking rapidly and she has to grab the tower again before it's completely buried in sand.
And then we see this heartbreaking moment where she has to stand there and do nothing as these people muzzle Appa and drag him away to some butcher or zoo where they'll sell him, and she just cries and whimpers, "I'm sorry, Appa...." as they take him right out from under her.

This was an amazing story-telling device because the two things happening simultaneously created this. If the library wasn't sinking, she could have fought them off, and if the library started sinking but there were no thugs, she could hold the tower up without any other issues.

But because both of these things occurred at the same time, she had no choice but to let them take Appa because the alternative- everyone inside the building being buried alive- would be even worse.

What's great about this method is that it's completely show-don't-tell. I have a problem with stories that tell the main character that they have to do X or Y will happen, but in The Last Airbender and many other good stories, we see that creating an external conflict where two or more things are happening simultaneously is the best way to force the character's hand and make them take action on their own conviction.

Another thing is that this scene was visceral. Normally when there's a big moment in a story where the protagonist has to make a hard choice, there's a big buildup to that decision and its implications, but there was no build-up or warning to this. We had no way of knowing that the spirit would sink the library as soon as they entered, and we had no way of knowing that Toph would be left to keep it from sinking while sandbenders kidnapped Appa right in front of her. It just came out of nowhere, yet it wasn't random or unrealistic. A lot of times writers and scriptwriters will try to throw in something random or retcon something in to create a dilemma (I'm guilty of this in ASH) but this scene didn't come across that way at all; we already knew the sandbenders were kind of scummy and were eyeing Appa earlier, and we knew the library was partially buried in sand, so when this scene happens it feels sudden and knee-jerk but not unrealistic or unreasonable.

While the setup is external, the situation creates inner turmoil because Toph has to stand by and do nothing while the sandbenders kidnap Appa. This is a simple example because there's only two options- save Appa and let the library sink or save the building and let them take Appa- but other stories do this in more complicated and nuanced ways.

I mentioned that Wake Up, Sir! by Jonathan Ames was one of my favorite books and that's mostly because it's a master of the nuanced inner conflict. This is because the main character overthinks everything, and even though the story itself doesn't provide all that much external conflict, it only takes the slightest bit of external resistance for the protagonist to be completely thrown spiraling into confusion and strife, and I love it. It's not completely generating internal conflict from thin air, but it's very resourceful at making conflict from things you wouldn't normally think about.

But the thing with inner conflict is that it can't be constant. There has to be highs and lows, good times and bad, and we need to experience them both equally in order to appreciate the other. You can't relate to the bad times if there's no good times, and if there's only good times we won't appreciate anything the protagonist has and neither will they. In other words, the protagonist should have something taken away from them.

Of course it doesn't just have to be the protagonist- when Appa is kidnapped in ATLA, Toph was just as hurt as Aang was, even though it was his animal companion that was taken and he's the main character.

This is an oversimplified example, but The Emperor's New Groove is a great template to use. He starts off as the king, or emperor if you want to be specific, and is turned into a llama and loses everything he had.

Of course, that's ultimately a good thing and his humbling experience is what makes him better to the villagers, but to him it just sucked.

A more serious example is Shield Hero (spoilers!). In Rising of the Shield Hero, Naofumi is summoned as the Shield Hero, meaning he can only use a shield and it's literally impossible for him to wield another weapon. All seems alright though, because each of the cardinal heroes gets to start with a group of capable adventurers who can fight alongside them, but then, because this show loves torturing Naofumi, not a single person voluntarily joins him. When he makes a big commotion out of it, a girl named Myne volunteers to join him, but of course she's just one person and all the other heroes get a large group of adventurers, but it's better than nothing.

Myne is cute, and she's nice to Naofumi, and she helps him get his basic abilities down with the shield and they buy a bunch of expensive high-quality gear together. Things are looking up for him.

But then, he wakes up in the inn to discover he'd been robbed, and all of his money, armor and equipment was gone- except for the shield, which can't be separated from his arm- and when he goes to the guards to alert them about the theft, they strip him and take him away in chains. They throw him to the ground in front of the king while Myne hides behind the guards, sobbing and crying that he raped her.

This is all unprovoked; he was nothing but good the entire first episode, and it ends with a false rape accusation and all of his equipment and money being stolen. He was already in a bad position with being the Shield Hero, meaning he can only fight with a shield, but it's infinitely worse by the end of the first episode, because now he has nothing, no companions to help him fight, no money or gear, and his reputation is ruined and the shop keepers and inns refuse to serve him because they think he's a sexual predator.

"Begone, thot!" the anime.
Now, this is all external, but it sets up everything else that will happen in the show including the internal conflict. Because of this single, devastating event, Naofumi goes from this wide-eyed, hopeful 20-year-old to a bitter, distrustful pessimist who doesn't trust anyone and won't hesitate to take advantage of others to give himself leverage over them. You could say in many ways he becomes an asshole in the second episode, but it's hard not to justify his mentality after what happened to him.

But even though he's kind of a jerk, we get to see the inner conflict he has and the resentment he's built up towards the kingdom for summoning him against his will and tearing him down the way they did. And the shop owners and innkeepers continue to refuse him service, and people continue to spread nasty rumors about him, and he continues to resent them. But this creates an internal conflict when he meets characters that actually do care about him and want what's best for him, because he's become so calloused by that first episode that he'll turn away anyone he thinks has suspect motives.

A similar example in ATLA would be Zuko. While it's not quite as extreme as Shield Hero, Zuko from Avatar goes through a similar experience.

His father never loved him and his sister Azula was always the favorite child, and when he spoke out against a general during a war meeting, he- a 13-year-old-boy- was told he would have to duel.

Zuko was willing to try to fight the general in a 1v1 duel, but when he arrived he discovered that he would be facing his own father, because, as the show put it, "When Zuko spoke out against the general, he thought it would be the general he would be fighting, but because he spoke out against the general at his father's war meeting, it was his father who he had disrespected."

When Zuko sees it's his father who showed up to duel him and not the general he argued with, he kneels down and begs for forgiveness, refusing to fight his father Ozai.
But Ozai tells him that he will learn respect one way or another, and when Zuko still refuses to fight, he horribly burns off a portion of his face and banishes him from the country.

He has nothing but a small ship and his uncle Iroh to keep him company, and a promise that if he captures the most powerful man in the world- the Avatar- that he can come back to his homeland.
Having everything he knew taken away from him when he was just a child, and being permanently, literally scarred, he becomes obsessed with capturing the Avatar and returning home a hero.

But even that is taken away from him when others from his homeland- like his sister Azula and his direct rival, Commander Zhao, take what little he has. Zhao tries to assassinate him by detonating his ship while he's still in it, and when he somehow survives his own sister tries to take him captive as a prisoner to stand trial in his homeland.

The situation puts him in a position where everything he knows and everything he wants are at odds with each other. What he wants is the Avatar, so that he can return to his homeland a hero, but no one in his homeland wants him. His own people and family banished him and tried to have him killed and imprisoned, and he goes through this struggle where he doesn't know what to do because his life goal goes against his own self-preservation and the way his own kind are treating him. They treat him like a traitor for not letting them imprison and kill him, and it reaches a point where he is so sick of being called a traitor for no reason that he actually does become one and joins forces with the protagonists.

And the whole thing with Zuko is that he's one of the villains in the first half of the show, but he is the way he is because of his turmoil and inner conflict, not because he's inherently evil. It's important that every character- good and bad- has inner conflict driving them, because even bad guys need to be human and fleshed-out. The thing with Zuko is that we hated what he was doing but felt sorry for him as a person. He wasn't evil, just confused and misguided and full of resentment and rage. But it's fantastic that the show was able to take a character like Zuko and give him a compelling redemption arc where he not only stops being the bad guy, but becomes a pivotal part of the MC's success. 

If you leave this read with anything, it's that there is a dichotomy between external situations and internal conflict, and that these things do not exist in a vacuum independently from each other, rather they rely on each other to keep the characters and plot going.

You need the external forces of the world you've built to shape the character you're working with, to set off a series of internal struggles that will drive them deeper into the thick of it.

As always,

may all your cups of tea be your cup of tea,

and I'll see you in the next post.

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