Unruly Characters

Characters. When we talk about stories, we tend to talk in terms of what I call the Big Three categories: Setting, Plot and Character. There are as many different ways to build and develop characters as there are writers. Some use sheets, some prefer not to use sheets, some like to write drabbles and scenes with their characters before writing the full story, some like to develop as they go – there are a thousand and one ways to make your characters. Continue reading

Why GMing Teaches You About Decision-Making

As some of you have probably picked up by now, I like gaming.  I was introduced to tabletop roleplaying games when I was about ten, by a group of friends who are still my friends, even probably my best friends, to this day.
It should also surprise nobody that I’m a GM most of the time.  Last time I was a player was a Shadowrun game, and about three sessions in, the GM was lamenting not being able to play.  I mentioned that I prefer GMing anyway, and the deal was sealed.  From then on, I was in the GM’s chair.

I often wish I could encourage more people to GM, actually, especially those with aspirations to being writerfolk.  Because it is truly amazing what you will learn from being in control of the world, but not the characters in it.

Ask any GM to give you a few stories of times their players did the entirely unexpected, and I bet you they could tell you about fifty of them.  I’ve had some doozies in my time, for sure.

One time, I was DMing a DnD 3.5 game, wherein my players were collecting pieces of a mysterious artifact called the Eye of the Druid (shush. I was, like, fifteen).  Here was how it was supposed to go: The players would hear that the object was an old wives’ tale from the wizards’ university in the town.  Then, they’d get overheard by a cult member asking around, and they’d almost get sacrificed, but in the process, find the piece they needed if they escaped.
Here’s what actually went down: Instead of asking where it was, the party asked the wizards for a finding spell, which told them it was at the bottom of the lake.  They then spent a good fifteen minutes trying to convince the wizard to drain the lake so they could get to the piece.

Or the time when one of my players decided the most expedient way to escape slaver was to cast Teleport while jumping into the privy hole … without stopping to check if the shackles he was wearing were magic-cancelling.
You have no idea how hard it was to keep a straight face while he proudly laid out his grand plan to me.

See, stuff like this is why I distrust the idea that I have no control over my characters.  I’ve seen what happens where the person creating the plot doesn’t control the characters in it, and it’s stunts like this.

But it’s not just because of the funny stories that I wish more writers GMed tabletops.  I think it’s a very important exercise in information control.
When I’m talking about this, I’m often tempted to say “the characters take the most logical route”, but that’s not entirely true.  For some players it, is; others like roleplaying illogical characters and then all bets are off.
What’s far more true is “The players will take the route suggested by the information given to them.”
If the piece had been in the lake, rather than in a tunnel under it, that would have been an excellent choice to make.  If my player’s shackles hadn’t been magic-cancelling, his plan would have worked a treat.  With the information they had, my players made very logical choices.  Or, at least, ones that would have gotten them what they wanted, theatrics and pits full of fecal matter aside.

This, ideally, is what your characters should be doing.  I’m not going to say that any decision made by an RPG player is necessarily going to be what a book character ought to be doing (I’m sure we can all name one thing that a player has done that just … no).  But as you get better at GMing, you’ll get better at controlling what information your players get, when, and how.

There are a few levels where a good GM controls what information they give.  The first, and most obvious, is information given straight from GM to player.  One campaign I ran?  I gave the players a map of an island they needed to explore.
The map was very, very wrong.  Almost deceptively so – that is, it got them roughly to the middle of the forest.
We had to stop playing before they realised what I’d done.  This always makes me sad.
The equivalent to this in a book is probably describing places and people.  Choosing words to set up a scene, and then subverting or contradicting them later is quite powerful.  Maybe a character lies about their past to the main character.  That’s all on this level.

The second is a bit subtler, more misdirection than lying.  I didn’t lie to you, you just didn’t ask the right question.
One game, my players were trying to protect a briefcase containing a powerful device.  They asked me if it was still in the room, and intact.  I told them the case looked perfectly fine.
They got out of the headquarters, only to find that their new “friends” had run off, and the case was empty.
The writing equivalent?  Probably something where you set up a perfectly logical explanation for something, and then it turns out to be something different.  Is the main character shy about dgoing topless because in his years of adventuring, he’s collected a whole bevy of scars and cuts, and he doesn’t like people seeing them?  Set that up right, and you can have the audience believing that right up until they learn that no, he’s actually just shy.  Grew up in a household of many sisters who teased him ruthlessly about his buff, manly figure (or perhaps about his lack thereof), or something.  But remember, both options have to be equally logical.

Third, and probably one of the hardest ones to learn, is the art of overshadowing information with other information.  Sometimes it’s just selective hearing – I told that player with the shackles that they had runes on them, but he was more interested in hearing the layout of the room, so I guess he didn’t think to ask about the runes.  I’ve heard it described very well in a DM’s guide: If you lead the characters into a room, and say “There is an old, oak table and a wardrobe with a key still in the lock.  On the oak table is some paper, and an inkpot.  In the inkpot stands a pen with a huge, glossy feather, probably a dyed feather from some tropical bird.  The metal nib extends into a sheath, leading halfway up the feather’s spine, engraved in silver”, then the players are very likely to investigate the pen.  If you meant the pen to be important, that might not be the best way to go.  There’s no suspense in it.  But by the end of that paragraph, did you remember quite as vividly that the wardrobe’s key was still in the lock?  I bet you a significant group of players wouldn’t remember that at all.  If that’s what’s really important, then burying it under the information about the pen might be an excellent way to keep players guessing just that little bit longer.

The great thing about using GMing to hone these skills is feedback in real-time.  You describe a room, and you know exactly whether or not your players caught your veiled references within about thirty seconds, rather than three months, half a novel draft and an editing pass later, when you finally let it out of your hands to a beta reader.  Players will often talk about their thoughts as they go, so you can tell exactly what they did and didn’t notice or remember.
You won’t have the chance to retrofit the story to the plot, either, so you can’t weasel your way out of the stupid decision that way.  More than half the time, I look at what the players did and say “You know, that was disturbingly smart.”  I’d like to see that applied to some fantasy characters sometime.  Might give those cackling villains more of a run for their money.

Treasure Planet: Overthinking Animation

H’okay.  This post actually popped into my head, like, a week ago.  But then, mannequins happened, and there was always something else to write about that seemed more conducive to being written immediately after the event.
This is, in fact, the “different post” referenced in “I Posted This Because Reasons”.

Hold onto your butts, kids, this one’s long.

I watch Treasure Planet fairly often.  Some might call it ‘repeatedly’.  It, is the movie going when I’m studying and don’t want to listen to any of my songs for the umpteen billionth time.  It’s the movie I watch at the end of the day while I drink tea and pretend to be working.  It’s not the only one – the first two Mummy movies, both Hellboy movies, Dead Poet’s Society, Cabin in the Woods and How to Train Your Dragon also hold this honour, but Treasure Planet, until last week, was the only one I had on my computer, so it was the only one that was truly portable, and was just there when I needed it.

In short, it is kind of embarrassing how many times I’ve watched this movie.  Quite honestly, I’m a little bit in awe of how much thought the artists and designers and just everybody put into it.

I’m not talking about the space whales.
I’m not talking about the breathable air in space, or the fact that space apparently has day and night.
I’m not talking about the failures in how gravity works.
I’m not talking about any of the science failures.  Or questions about the society, or the aliens, or the linguistics.

Because yeah, they’re not the best science.  The aesthetics of the show require a few things to be hand-waved, and I’m OK with this.  I mock the ever-loving heck out of it, but I’m OK with it.

No, the bit that really gets me to watch closely is the animation.  Holy crap did they ever put some effort into this.  Like, characters anticipate others’ actions and flinch before the blows or the pain actually hit.  Looking at where the background characters are looking is in some ways more fascinating than the actual plot.  Facial expressions are insanely detailed, and so much information is carried in the minutiae.

Frankly, I could sit down with a video of the movie and point out all the fascinating stuff moment-to-moment, but I’ll relegate that one to annoying the crap out of the people I know in real life, who still seem to stick around me even when I do annoying stuff like that.  There was one scene I desperately wanted to discuss, but it doesn’t work in still image form, so it looks like that won’t be happening.  I’ve had to leave enough stuff out of this already.

Mild spoilers will almost certainly occur – no major plot points will be spoiled, but I’ll be talking about Jim’s character arc (not like you couldn’t have figured out where that was going anyway) and his relationship with Silver (which gets complex), so read on or not as you deem fit.  I’ll try not to write anything you couldn’t hear in a spoiler-less or spoiler-light review.

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Let’s start with Jim at the beginning of the film.  Surface level: Rebellious Teen (TM), from the mullet-rat-tail love child on his head to the oversize jacket and black shirt.
The two robots are immediately recognisable as policemen.  Look at ’em.  Everything down to the shade of blue screams Law-Enforcement.  Look at how their design enhances the shoulders and chest.  They’re polished.  They shine.

But anyone who knows me will by now know that that’s not really enough.  Let’s look at the jacket for a second.  At least, what you can see of it in this picture.
You’ll see it better later, but that thing is huge on him.  It disguses pretty much the shape of everything about him (arms, torso), and he constantly has his hands shoved in his pockets.
It’s basically the best coat possible to hide in.  Look at the difference in posture between him and the policemen.  They’re heads-up-chest-out-shoulders-back.  Classic ‘I am in charge’ pose.  He’s retreated into that coat so far he does turtles proud.  His eyes are down, his shoulders are up.  He is so not in charge of this situation, and he’s not even trying to fake it.  He’s just waiting for it to be over.

Also, the fangirls are going to have my neck for this one, but dude is freaking tiny!  What’s he supposed to be, seventeen?  My maths says seventeen (five years in the prologue thing, twelve year timeskip).  How many seventeen-year-old boys do you know that are a head shorter than their mothers?  And head and shoulders shorter than the weedy professor character?  Just compare the size of the hand on his shoulder to his torso.  I’m pretty sure, had the movie taken a much weirder bent, he could have been that policeman’s shoulder parrot, without too much effort.
Size emphasises power.  That’s why movies use the huge, muscle-bound dude as the intimidating one.  It’s why the Gentle Giant is a subversion of expectations.  In real life, it’s why you get better results talking to a child if you kneel down so you can look them in the eye.  This movie takes this concept, runs with it, and does not let it go.
Jim is always shorter than the other important characters, because he is the underdog.  It means that Silver can be simultaneously a father figure and a legitimate threat.  It means that the Captain always has the psychological advantage when giving him orders.  Threats seem more threatening, and the win seems more satisfying.

Let’s have a look at another picture of Jim, a little further along.

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In this scene, Jim and Dilbert are getting pulled up for mouthing off about the Captain.  Jim is used to getting in trouble.  Dilbert is not.  This is definitely a different scale of trouble than before (‘stop talking’, rather than ‘legal repercussions imminent’).  But still.
So, starting with Arrow.  Again, much bigger than everyone else involved in this picture.  Tall, broad shoulders.  And as if that wasn’t subtle enough, literally made of rock.

Let’s move to Jim.  We already know a little about Jim.  Well, this time he’s not  pulling his turtle impression, but he’s not exactly standing tall, either.  One of Arrow’s hands is holding that shoulder up (and does it amuse anyone else that Arrow literally cannot even fit half his hand on Jim’s shoulder?), but the other is shrinking away from him.  He’s also turning away from Arrow.  And he’s not looking particularly guilty, either – his expression, the hand at his face, say “whoops” more than anything else.  This isn’t humiliating, or confronting for him – it’s just mildly awkward.  He’s learned what not to say in front of Arrow, and yeah, he doesn’t necessarily want to make Arrow mad, but he’s not that bothered.

Dilbert, on the other hand?  He is incredibly uncomfortable right now.  He seems to be caught somewhere between wanting to stand up for himself and being intimidated, so he’s leaning backwards to kind of split the difference.  His arms are up protectively, and even though he’s looking up at Arrow, his face is angled down from where his eyes are actually pointing – classic sign of suspicion or discomfort.  He’s frowning.  He’s also turned to face Arrow, as opposed to Jim’s turning away.  He looks like a man presented with an unfamiliar situation.  He’s getting ready to stand up for himself, but he’s too intimidated to just up and do it.  He’s a bit resentful, possibly a bit angry.

Neither of them do stand up for themselves, but it’s very easy to tell the different reasons.  Jim knows he’s done something wrong, and he knows it’s not worth his time and the possible repercussions to do it.  He’s just waiting for the lecture to be over.  He’s used to this.
Dilbert is too intimidated to defend himself, and unsure of what to do.  One screenshot. Volumes of character.

Before we hit up Jim and Silver, I want to take a brief pit-stop by Dilbert and the Captain, showcasing exactly how one uses height advantages.  Two shots:

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Photo one: Dilbert looms over the Captain, intent on venting his frustration and proving to the Captain that he’s unhappy with being pushed around.  Essentially, he’s trying to gain back a portion of the status or dominance he’s used to having in conversations.

Photo two: Captain stands up, Dilbert is suddenly shorter, he has lost the upper hand.  The argument ends very shortly after, with Dilbert as the beta in the relationship.

Politics of height. Boom.

Right, so let’s dig into the meat of Jim and Silver now, and look a little closer at size differences.

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Jim and Silver first meet.  I’ll cover Jim pretty quickly, then dive right into Silver.

Jim: Head down, eyes down, hand in jacket pocket, other hand hidden by massive sleeves. Turtle mode activated..  When Silver’s standing straight, he doesn’t even reach Silver’s chest.  Shoulders hunched over, perpetual frown right in place.  Again, he’s hiding in his clothes, making himself as small as possible.  I said before that the jacket is huge on him, now you see what I mean.  The sleeves are too long, the shoulders are too broad.  Nothing here that we haven’t looked at already.

Now.  Silver.

First thing I want to say isn’t necessarily in this picture, but it’s worth saying anyway: Silver’s face is basically pudding.  He’s the animator’s squash-and-stretch model come to life and given a funny hat.  This works so much in the animators’ favour, for several reasons, which I won’t list here, but trust me, we’ll be coming back to this.

Now, on to this picture.  He takes up so much space.  He’s leaning back, but it’s a tall lean.  Not like Dilbert’s – it’s a way of taking up even more space.  Everything about his posture is open, too.  Legs apart, shoulders straight, arms to his sides rather than in front of him.  Silver is a character who spreads to fill any space he’s put in.  Here’s the first part of where the putty-face comes in – everything about Silver is big, and that includes his expressions and mannerisms.  Unlike Jim, or even Dilbert, that malleability of his face means that everything can move about as much as the animators need it to, to make him larger than life, without him ever looking ‘unrealistic’ or ‘off-model’.

So now that we’ve got the comparison out of the way, a little bit about how they interact.

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This is a few hours after they meet for the first time.  At this point, Jim really isn’t too sure about Silver, and is still very wrapped up in his rebellious-teenager mindset.  Also, in this scene, or this part of it, Silver is very definitely asserting his dominance.

Height comes in here, though Silver’s not really emphasising that, here.  Actually, that’s quite interesting.  Sure, he’s obviously the one with authority in this scene, but he’s addressing Jim almost eye-to-eye.  It’s actually almost a friendly dominance here (though Jim doesn’t necessarily see it that way).  Silver’s informing Jim that Jim will follow Silver’s orders from now on, but he’s kind of having fun.  It’s a mock display of dominance, it’s not a true expression of authority.  Jim doesn’t necessarily see it this way, but the audience is probably seeing Silver closer to Silver’s ‘real intentions’ than Jim is right now.

So, if he’s not using height to intimidate, what is he using?  Again, he’s taking up way more space, but then, that’s just Silver.  No, he’s actually using personal space here.  He’s poking Jim in the face with fingers thicker than Jim’s arms, speaking right into his face.  Invading personal space is a powerful sign of authority here.

And it’s not the only time Silver uses it to his advantage, when he doesn’t actually have the size advantage.  Picture to follow may contain spoilers.

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So, who’s taller, Silver, or the guy he’s talking to/at?  Absolutely the other guy.  By a significant margin.  Silver is to him as Jim is to Silver.

But who’s in charge?  It’s Silver.  Notice that the other guy is actually making himself taller … but to try and get away from Silver.  Silver’s just getting all up in his personal space and it’s intimidating as heck.  Look at the differences in stances – Silver is grounded, he’s set and square, his stance is strong.  The other guy would probably fall over if Silver shoved him.  He’s ‘on the back foot’, as it were.  He’s not making eye contact with Silver, and his arms are in front of him, protectively.  SIlver is absolutely the dominant one here.

Actually, this is the other place where Silver’s Play-Doh face comes in handy.  Because his face is so malleable, he can shift from quite a soft, paternal vibe to an intimidating, hard vibe without either feeling at odds with his character design.  His character design is whatever the artist needs it to be.

SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT

Jim actually uses this trick against Silver quite late in the movie, too – same difference: he’s shorter, but grounded and stable, while Silver is taller, but visibly unbalanced on his back foot.  I won’t post a picture, because it’s much harder to avoid those if you don’t want spoilers.  Just trust me when I say it’s there.

BACK TO SAFETY.

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This is what happens when Jim and Silver have an actual confrontation.  Silver’s still kind of mocking Jim (facial expression), but this is the best body-language example I found.

Look at Jim.  He’s doing his gosh-darned best to be tall, but he’s just not winning that battle.  It’s not a thing that’s happening for him.

Yes, I derive endless amusement from this.  Shush.

Note how Silver looms here.  Even bent over, he takes up more space.

Jim’s doing his level best, though.  Really, he is.  Poor baby.

So then, we get a heap of scenes in the rest of the movie where Jim and Silver talk on equal terms.
This is what that looks like:

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Here, Silver is consciously trying to make Jim like him.  They’re negotiating, after things have gone wrong.  Silver’s intentionally dropped himself to Jim’s level.  He’s keeping eye contact.  Someone better versed than me in body language can probably tell you more about the hand-on-back thing, but it’s quite a common one used for subtle control.  Ever seen a father walking with a son or daughter, and usher them through a door first with a hand on their back?  It’s both a familiar thing and a dominance/control thing.
As far as my understanding goes at least – feel free to tell me if I’m way off with this one.

Silver’s also in Jim’s space, but he’s not forcing his way into it, he’s actually using it to insinuate friendship.  He’s actually made himself a little lower than Jim, to make Jim feel like he’s in the position of power, and again, very open body language – universal symbol for “trust me”.

This isn’t a true equality, though – this is Silver using these tricks to make friendly with Jim for his own benefit.  What does true equality look like?

Like this.

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There’s no artificial lowering here – Silver is very much still taller.  But that’s not actually an issue.  They’re standing close, but not uncomfortably close.  Open body language, angling towards each other.  Eye contact.  This is a pair of friends talking.

Even though one of the friends is really freaking tiny.

Depowered Hero/ines and why there should be more of them

Greetings,

Welcome to Whimsy and Metaphor.  Instead of an introduction, here’s a blog post, chosen because it’s a big thing, for me, in the media I enjoy and the way I like to construct my own books.

I love depowered heroes and heroines.  That’s pretty much the main gist of this entire post: I love them, and I wish  I could read and watch more of them.

I don’t know what it is, but I’m seeing a whole lot of protagonists in fantasy (but hardly confined to there) who are awesome.  They’re incredibly skilled swordspeople, or musicians, or magic users, or what have you.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind a good, awesome protagonist once in a while (my undying love for Girl Genius and The Name of the Wind prove this), but that’s not all I want to read.

It’s tempting, when writing, to create a protag who’s just cool.  And it’s much easier to have a protag win against the villain because they’re smarter or better or something.  And gosh darn, it’s just satisfying when the villain gets the beating they so richly deserve.  But the problem with these characters is that it’s so hard to make the story appropriately tense.  Sure, you always kind of know that the protagonist will win, but it’s much harder to maintain the illusion that they might lose when they consistently show themselves able to beat nearly any obstacle that comes their way.

The obvious solution to this, if you want to keep your protag’s mad skillz, is to give them harder villains.  This works excellently – power within the story is relative, after all.  But the much more overlooked, in my experience way, is to power down the protag.

In my opinion, fantasy should take more cues from survival or psychological horror.  Horror generally features normal-people protagonists because it’s much easier to convince the audience that the monster is terrifying when it’s orders of magnitude more powerful than the protag.  I suppose there’s also something to be said for the audience being able to identify more with a totally human protag, but I wouldn’t say that’s the only thing.

The main thing that depowered protagonist mean is that the author has absolutely no way to just pull a solution out from nowhere.  There are no previously-undiscovered powers, no divine intervention, and no cool sword trick to get them out of a problem conveniently.  A depowered protagonist is a clever protagonist, who fights smarter, not harder, and is usually resourceful and cunning.  Not that every one is necessarily a genius – some do eventually brute force their way through problems, but damn do they need to work hard for it.

And there’s the crux of it.  A protagonist who needs to work hard for their victory is far more interesting than one who’s just naturally good and only needs to find the right combination of being awesome to save the day.  Give me a happy ending earned with blood, sweat and tears any day. Writing a depowered protagonist is certainly harder, but it’s so much more rewarding at the end.