Tuesday, October 15, 2019
Humor, Tragedy and the Dynamic Story (Part Five)
"I know what it's like to lose. To feel so desperately that you're right, yet fail nonetheless. It's frightening, turns the legs to jelly. I ask you, to what end? Dread it... run away from it... destiny arrives all the same. And now it's here--or should I say, I am."
Part Five: Resolve and Conflict
This post won't be too long (at least, not compared to my others), but I think it'd be good to break this concept into two parts; villains and heroes.
I think it's easier to emphasize these points with antagonists / villains, so we'll talk about their side of the discussion first.
If it wasn't obvious already we're going to talk about Thanos a bit, but also several other fictional characters.
The first thing to note is that, even though I mentioned villains, most of the time, these characters won't actually be villains--just antagonists. In my Villains post, we talked about the major difference between villains and antagonists / obstacles, which is simply that villains are evil while antagonists aren't evil but are the bad guys of the story anyway.
It's the reason why we get mustache-twirling villains who are bad just for the sake of being bad and have the depth of a puddle. It's also why we get stereotypical and unfrightening baddies with goons who fail to create any real tension whatsoever.
Cliche is the death of innovation; that doesn't automatically mean that any story with any cliches in it is bad, but the more saturated a story is with cliches, the more the story suffers.
The opposite is also true; if any of you have seen Season 8 of Game of Thrones, or The Last Jedi, you probably saw how trying to "subvert expectations" can lead to some pretty crappy story-telling. Trying too hard to surprise the reader with cheap gimmicks is just as bad, if not worse, than writing empty cliches in at every opportunity. Or you could pull a Hannah Montana and have the best of both worlds like Cassandra Clare to create a real shit show.
But that's not actually the focal point of this discussion, in fact I plan on going into much more detail about that in the final installment of this blog series in the next post. Right now we're focusing on the anecdote to all these ailments; characters with unwavering resolve. Now it's easy to say that, but what does a character with unwavering resolve look like in practice?
Many of you have probably already seen a million-and-one video essays and blog posts about Infinity War and Thanos in general, so maybe it's a bad idea writing about that topic, but I'm probably the only one who's going to bring The Dark Tower, Don Quixote, Wall-E and others into that discussion, so now that you know what my special twist is (surprise, it's the stuff I usually talk about!), you've got to see my unique and bona fide interpretation of it all.
So what makes a character like Thanos different than, say, your typical doomsday villain?
Before we continue I'd like to redirect your attention to this hilarious Reddit thread where they try to create the most generic villain possible.
Highlights include but are not limited to:
According to OP, the cliche villain dresses in all black, acts mysterious, and smiles smugly as he kicks puppies.
Some other things about him (or her, but let's face it, the cliche villain is a him):
Lives in a volcano or evil lair with a prison full of capable fighters who could easily be released with a lever, has easily accessible armories full of weapons and supplies, and an obvious self-destruct function that, once initiated, can't be undone, except by the competent hacking skills / bomb defusing skills of the MC who will conveniently stop the explosion 1 second before the timer ends.
He also says things like, "You're not so different, you and I," and the protagonist always comes back with, "I'm nothing like you! I don't kick puppies!"
The cliche villain kills a disposable villain to prove how ruthless he is; he has a monster that he keeps as a pet, a glorious mustache for caressing that's suspiciously well-groomed, a laughably bad imitation of a European or Russian accent, and locks the MC in an easily-escapable torture chamber with only one guard because reasons. Once the MC escapes and goes to confront the Bad Guy™, he spins around dramatically in his swivel chair while stroking a fat fluffy cat and laughing maniacally. Twenty guards / goons rush in, but of course he has them stand down and he himself stands up, walking in circles and monologuing about his evil plan, telling the protagonist everything he needs to know to defeat him but assuming he'll fail because he totally has him in his grasp and can say goodbye to his family and loved ones that he had his goons kidnap while the protagonist was busy.
But what makes Thanos so interesting as the antagonist?
I can summarize it in one simple phrase; he isn't just a person, he's a force of nature.
Whether your character is a hero or antagonist, or anti-hero in many cases, they need to be, as Thanos so eloquently put it, "Inevitable."
This is the type of character that dominates every scene they're in. When they walk into a room, they are the only thing that matters in that moment. When you can have a character with that much raw presence, they almost become inhuman and ascend to something else. To these characters, everything and everyone else is just a means to an end.
Your character needs to be like a mudslide; they don't trouble themselves with everything else that's going on in the world, they just come out of nowhere and flatten everything in their path. An unstoppable force of nature stripped of anything else.
Just watch this one short scene from Infinity War:
Notice how unreactive and collected Thanos is during the entire encounter.
When Quill points a gun at his face and threatens to blow his brains out, he's unmoving. When he turns the gun onto Thanos's own daughter, he just calmly stands there and calls his bluff. And even when Quill finally pulls the trigger, Thanos makes it so that only bubbles come out, smiles and says, "I like you," before disappearing back into the portal.
That is how you make a terrifying antagonist.
Thanos doesn't need to react to everything around him because it's the other way around; everyone else reacts to him.
To best demonstrate this point, take a character like Thanos and put them in some imaginary situation. Odds are that no matter what scenario you put them in, they're relatively unphased.
Now this just doesn't apply to villains; you can just as easily apply it to your protag or antihero and it will still work.
A phenomenal example of this is Roland in the Dark Tower series. Roland is the protagonist of the series, but in many ways he's like Thanos. He seeks only the Dark Tower and will do literally anything to get to it.
This also leads to some questionable behavior for a protagonist to be doing, such as throwing a child into a chasm to his death, but you know, whatever.
Wait a second, Thanos also threw a child--his child-- to her death at the bottom of a chasm!
The secret to writing a good character is having them throw some kid--or their kid, any kid, really--into a chasm to their death! That was the secret all along!
Alright, Gamora isn't a child, but when someone asks, "Does Thanos have any kids?" you'd say, "Why yes, Gamora and that robot-thing played by Karen Gillan," which clearly qualifies this logic.
Now, the thing is that if you want to use this tactic in a humorous way, you can make your character a "resolve" character, but make their end-goal something utterly stupid or, better yet, so ambiguous that even they don't know what they're looking for.
A small but funny example of this is in Fallout 4 when you meet a dumb mutant who's on a quest for "The milk of human kindness," which he thinks, according to Macbeth, will make him superior to his peers.
A more exaggerated example from the same game comes from a mod called "50 Ways to Die at Nick's," in which he brainwashes a group of super mutants into literally worshiping comic book characters, convincing them that the comic books they're reading are fact, not fiction, and that his enemies are the villains from the comic books they've been reading. He uses this to make an army of super-powered mutants that will obey his every command without a shadow of a doubt, killing and brutally murdering Nick's enemies for him because he told them that they're communist villains trying to interfere with their favorite super heroes.
Obviously, if I haven't mentioned it enough on this blog already, Don Quixote is another example, only his madness is one unique only to him, and so no other character can completely understand his juxtaposition.
Although I will steer away from Don Quixote for a moment because I've already mentioned him so many times in previous posts, and because I intend to have a section in the next post going more into that so there's no need for it here.
The thing with the "resolve character" is that it can work for literally any character of your choosing, and it allows you to bypass some writing rules if you enjoy cheating a little.
You see, one common writing rule is to write "dynamic characters," and as nice as a little wisdom-nugget as it is, a more accurate way to phrase it would be, "Write characters that evolve over time."
This means that every (recurring) character should evolve over the course of the story, especially the main character.
However, resolve characters completely shatter this rule.
With resolve characters, the characters stay exactly the same throughout the entire story, and the only thing that changes about them is the nuances of their disposition. Resolve characters are timeless; they exist solely as a sort of manifestation of whatever their belief is.
Thanos is the same throughout all of the stories he's been in, never actually changing but, rather, simply getting closer to or farther from his goal.
The same can be said about Roland from the Dark Tower series; while he is the protagonist, not the antagonist like Thanos, he is still a resolve character who will do anything to reach his goal. His emotions evolve over the course of the story, but he as a whole doesn't actually change. Just like at the start of the massive saga, he is just as determined to do anything to get to the Dark Tower in the last book as he is in the first, and while he did grow close to his new companions, he still wouldn't let them get in the way of his one singular life purpose.
With resolve characters, the characters aren't dynamic, but the story is. You take a character with unyielding fervor and resolve and put them in a variety of different and interesting situations, and in each new situation you place this character in, you're further developing their nuances and exploring their character deeper.
So even if you think you have Don Quixote or Thanos or Roland completely pegged, and can confidently say what they would do in X situation, it's only because you haven't seen them in every possible scenario, and in reality it's much harder to guess what they would do; but then, when it's revealed how they would act, you can't help but think it's perfectly aligned with their character, and blame yourself for not guessing the obvious.
That is the nature of resolve characters, and how you can make a story dynamic by using--not just dynamic characters--but static characters in changing situations.
Hope that gave you some insight into this unique concept, it's a lot of fun talking about these sort of characters.
At any rate, I'm excited to see what this idea yields and love seeing these types of characters in books, so maybe by starting a discussion about it, we can one day see this become a canon trend and not some obscure thing that I could only apply to 3 characters.
may all your cups of tea be your cup of tea,
and I'll see you in the next post.