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Tag Archives: serialized storytelling

(Writing) Marvels of Character

Entertainment 150One of the benefits of holding myself to a regular writing schedule is being able to quickly identify the things I should be working on. The first couple of chapters of THE CULT OF MAXIMUS feel a little boring to me, and that’s mostly because my main character — Officer Thomas Beck — is so inert as a protagonist. I had initially envisioned him as someone who was “Indiana nice,” to steal a phrase from a friend — polite to a fault, treating the “if you don’t have anything nice to say‚Ķ” adage as a life-or-death value, but being fairly judgemental inside his own head. The events of the story would identify that as a problem and force him to speak up about the things he felt; he’d then have to actually engage with the world, become a part of it in a way he mistakenly believes he shouldn’t in order to be a good police officer. In some ways, it’s a lesson that’s top of mind for me right now.

But in the first couple of chapters, Thomas is a little…quiet and reactive. He’s observant, but writing the act of observation doesn’t really offer us any insight into his character — how he thinks and feels. It’s something that I’ve been focusing on in chapter three, and when I rewrite the first two for general consumption that is definitely the thing that I’ll be focusing on; that and seeding themes and events happening later in the story here.

It’s clear to me now that the “discovery” style of writing didn’t quite work for this story — that isn’t to say I won’t try it for another, but with a long-form project like this you have to at least have *something* pinned down. If not your character, then the plot, and if not your plot, then a solid world, or a theme, or something you really want to say.

Since characterization has emerged as a big deal for me, I’ve been paying closer attention to it in the stories I’m reading or watching, too. It’s struck me that Marvel comics and their cinematic universe excel at this — being able to create, communicate and maintain distinct and engaging characters across the board.

The husband and I recently finished the first season of Daredevil, the first entry into their “Hell’s Kitchen” corner of the shared universe with Netflix. It’s an astonishing series that draws a dangerous and shadowy world over thirteen episodes, fully populated with wonderful, mesmerizing characters. My favorite TV shows are often a series of conversations between two people with distinct points of view and a sharp wit; Daredevil‘s characters may not be the lightest in the world, but oh man are they earnest. Every single one of them enter a scene with clearly-drawn desires, and the stakes for them are increasingly high through each episode. They’re earnest, good at communicating, and incredibly strong-willed. Looking at them, you understand who they are and why they want the things they do.

This treatment doesn’t stop at the heroes — Matt Murdock, his partner Foggy Nelson and their assistant Karen Page. Wilson Fisk has emerged as one of the best villains I’ve seen on television in a long time, thanks to the incredible attention paid to his inner world by the writers’ room. Vincent D’Onofrio gives a hell of a performance, too. His character journey is utterly fascinating as we learn who he is, how he made himself from who he was, and who he thinks himself to be. He’s a truly tragic figure who is also incredibly dangerous.

Daredevil has taught me a lot about how characters are shaped by what they say, what they do, and how they say and do it. I love it for that, and I can’t wait to take that lesson to my writing.

Meanwhile, Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD is about to wrap up their third season later this month and I’ve been enjoying the hell out of that as well. I know a lot of folks sampled it through a comparatively slow first twelve or thirteen episodes, but the events of Captain America: Winter Soldier kick-started it into a higher gear that it hasn’t slowed from for the remainder of its run. The series is now focused on the Inhuman corner of the Marvel cinematic universe, all while constantly reshuffling the deck when it comes to SHIELD and its nemesis organization, HYDRA.

What Agents does particularly well is balancing a pretty brisk plot with deep characterization, making really effective use of limited screen time for its massive cast. Each scene between its characters does multiple things — often expanding, progressing or revealing a character’s motivation while also establishing another link in the plot’s chain. When someone makes a choice, you understand what it means for them to do that AND know how it’s been forced by circumstances AND wonder how it changes the direction of consequences for everyone involved. The sense of forward momentum creates this complex, unpredictable world that’s forever evolving; you see how Coulson and his crew are forced to change in order to keep up, and the toll that takes on everyone. Even more impressive, the protagonists aren’t solely reactive; their experiences give them this drive to enact these missions or change their views enough that they make pro-active (or rash) choices that are understandable, even relatable, but clearly mistakes.

Agents of SHIELD is a great marriage of character work and tight plotting in an ensemble cast. There’s almost no weak link in the show, and that’s really impressive for a story of its scope. I can take that lesson to THE CULT OF MAXIMUS, too — now that we’re nearly finished with the establishment of the characters and the world, I can use the show as something of a template for how the action moves forward, and how it’s formed by the inextricable threads of character and plot.

I’m genuinely grateful to be living in this Golden Age of Television — learning how to tell engaging, complicated stories in an episodic format has developed into a really great art, and watching the work of people who are really good at it helps me with my personal storytelling development.

How about you lovely writers? Are there shows that have storytelling aspects that have influenced you bunches? Which stories have you used for inspiration or lessons in how to deepen your own craft?

 

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Pathfinding Problems

Gaming 150I’m in the relatively early stages of Book 2 of my Pathfinder campaign. So far, the group has uncovered the existence of a war between shadow cults that have been slowly but steadily engulfing the civilized world. After beating back the cult that plans to do the most damage and forming an uneasy alliance with the other one, they’ve been travelling around the kingdom of Elsinore surveying the damage done to other towns and warning those in power about the fight that’s been brought to their doorstep.

The first “book” of the game was a success, I thought. There were a number of great character moments, some truly memorable sessions and the characters ended up quite empowered by their experiences. The second book started off with an intriguing hook that took advantage of one of my player’s shaky schedule — we swapped out his previous character with one that opened up a different aspect of the game and made it easy for the player to miss a game or two if he had to. Thankfully, that wasn’t necessary; and it turns out that the new character has introduced a few interesting wrinkles in the party dynamics.

But the past few games have been misses, which have thrown me into a crisis of confidence. New mysteries aren’t clicking well, encounters expose flaws in my game master abilities and my understanding of the system, and the momentum of the story has suffered because of that. What was meant to be a highlight of the game so far has turned out to be kind of a mire. I’ve written myself into quicksand and I’m struggling to write my way out of it.

Not that I would compare my writing to that of the Lost staff, but I imagine they must have felt like they were in the same situation when people started to complain about the dip in quality between seasons 1 and 2. You can’t keep doing the same thing you’ve been doing, but at the same time the expansion of the mythology isn’t as entertaining as you thought it would be. What do you do in that instance? Do you walk it back? Do you scrap what you’ve planned and find a new way to connect the pieces that have already shown? What can you do to right a story that’s gone off the rails when you can’t go back and retcon easily?

I’m faced with that dilemma. I’m in the middle of a failure with my game, and I’m trying to figure out how to fix it. My players are amazing, down to a man, and I want to provide a story worthy of them. That hasn’t happened for a little while, so it’s time to take a step back and regroup.

This has happened before in other games. Usually what happens is my crisis of confidence gets worse and worse until I freak out and let the game fall apart. I’m sure this admission is a reassuring one to my players, if they’re out there reading this. But this time it feels like things aren’t out of my control; I can still step in and fix this.

It’s all a matter of realizing what works, what doesn’t, what to keep or change or discard. I’ve learned that telling a story through gaming is quite different from just writing it down. Your players are variables who take the story in all kinds of new directions that are often so much better than what you could have come up with on your own. Capitalizing on that is almost never a bad thing; integrating bits and pieces that intrigue your players into the main narrative elevates the character’s stories and the over-arcing plot. If a wrinkle that you’ve introduced lands with a thud, it’s all right to simply, tidily address it and move on.

In my particular case, I think it might be a good idea to simplify and clarify the narrative. Learn what the players and their characters are most interested in and work with that. And for goodness’ sake, learn how to deal with the Pathfinder system so I can either make sure the rules work with the story or at least get them out of the way so I can do what I want to do. One of my biggest mistakes starting out is making the assumption that Pathfinder is almost exactly like D&D 3.5 with a few minor changes. It differs in many surprising ways, and I’d do well to get my hang of the system.

So that’s my project as it concerns the Chronicles of Oak’s Home — simplify the story, make sure the characters (and their players) are re-invested in it, and gain control of a system that I didn’t know as well as I thought I did. Piece of cake, right?

Maybe not. Then again, maybe the problems in the game aren’t as bad as I think they are — I do tend to harsh on my own stuff quite a bit. But it’s not unmanageable, and that’s worth noting here. This is the first time I’ve encountered this problem, took a deep breath, and kept my head. Things aren’t working out the way that I’d like them to. What can I do to course correct? With a cool head, you can bring any ongoing story back from the brink — Lost, Fringe, The Newsroom and Supernatural have all bounced back from weak seasons with some of their strongest work. Those are the shows I’ll look to for inspiration. And maybe Heroes for a lesson on what not to do.

 
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Posted by on September 9, 2013 in RPGs, Writing

 

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