#lessonslearned in #writing #fiction from #RobertMcKee & #StarWars: there are consequences to shoddy #worldbuilding. Part 4: #sidelining strong #villains of the #story for the sake of #razzledazzle #cliché.

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Happy Monday, one and all! Yes, I know I’m a day late, but I’ve got the best of reasons: I got to spend ALL of Friday with Blondie at her Parent Visitation Day. No calls from the boys’ principal this time. Just me sharing hugs and silly faces with Blondie during her classes and scribbling “Captain Poop” on the name slot of her Spelling Test because I’m mature like that.

It was worth putting off the pile of grading and my interactions with you all because when you’ve got little loves in your life, you’ve got to make every hug count.

So, now that the brunt of grading has been completed and I’ve successfully ignored all calls to substitute teach in this county, let’s wrap up our look at The Force Awakens and prepare for our shift into The Last Jedi with a little talk about villains.

As far as Disney’s sequel Star Wars trilogy is concerned, I consider the villains to be at their strongest in The Force Awakens because they had the most potential here. Each villain has a unique look, sense of purpose in body language, and dialogue that consistently carries the story along. Each had a strong mix of elements that could leave lasting impressions on readers.

THE PRINCIPLE OF ANTAGONISM: A protagonist and his story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them.

Robert McKee

A big reason Episodes I-VI are still loved today is the cast of antagonists. Darth Vader was other-worldly with his powers and costume, yet impossibly human when he tells Luke he’s his father. The Emperor, a specter of white skin beneath a black hood, didn’t just carry power in his Force lightning, but in his voice, his speeches chipping away at Luke’s hope until the final showdown when Vader finds redemption in saving his son. The prequels take those two villains and re-cast them as protagonists, revealing the roads taken that transform Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader and Senator Palpatine into…well okay, Palpatine was also evil in the prequels, but he wore the good-guy disguise. We were still watching that transformation of shedding the good-guy pretense and becoming the Emperor.

In both trilogies, there were transformations at work. The heroes were growing, yes, but so were the villains, and THAT is just as important if not moreso.

Rather than spending your creativity trying to invent likable, attractive aspects of protagonist and world, build the negative side to create a chain reaction that pays off naturally and honestly on the positive dimensions.

Robert McKee

In any story, there must be a clear sense of cause and effect: if the hero does something, that’ll ripple over to the villain in X way. If the villain does something, it’s going to impact hero like Y. Audiences are quickly bored with a villain that simply twirls his mustaches and goes right on with the same schemes that tried and failed before.

Much as we all love Snidely Whiplash’s mustaches, the whole take-the-girl-to-the-tracks-thing gets real old real fast.

Let’s break our four primary villains down and see what could have–should have–been.

Captain Phasma

A female storm trooper of authority–something audiences had not yet seen in Star Wars. Phasma had a cold-blooded voice and towering presence that could make anyone run for cover. The actress’ screen time in Game of Thrones proved she was capable of combat and other feats of bad-assery, so audiences expected to see some wicked work done by this daunting leader of First Order troops.

But it’s awfully hard to effectively show how bad-ass you are when you’re not even in the story for two whole minutes.

No joke. These are all her scenes in the first film.

For a character that looks like she should have plenty of conflict potential with Finn, the Storm Trooper Turned Good, we get practically nothing. The character is relegated to a few snippets of dialogue and a bit of fan service with the “trash compactor.”

Supreme Leader Snoke

Ah, the character that bred a thousand fan theories… Snoke’s hardly in the film–like Emperor Palpatine, Snoke only appears in hologram communication in this first film. Like Phasma, Snoke looks good. The towering projection of him dominates not only the villains of the film showing who’s in charge, but looms over audiences, too, freaking them out with his deformities twisted by shadows and ghostly light. Kylo Ren and General Hux are both eager for his approval, which adds an extra layer of conflict among the antagonists.

Not bad, right? A bunch of yes-men in uniforms quickly makes for dull viewing. Intrigue in the ranks is a great way to sneak in extra plot twists, shifts in power, etc. Mystery never hurts, either. This Snoke guy must be pretty powerful if he heads The First Order (wherever they came from), and if he’s trained Kylo Ren in the ways of the Dark Side, he’s got to be a powerful Force user, too. As much as I hate seeing too many Mystery Boxes in one film, JJ Abrams knew what he was doing in planting just enough information about Snoke to intrigue audiences and keep them talking about a character who’s only on screen for a few minutes.

General Hux

Just as Vader had a very old Peter Cushing (I mean, Grand Moff Tarkin. Look, I only knew him as Peter Cushing even as a kid, okay? Peter Cushing was AWESOME and don’t let anyone tell you different.), Kylo Ren had a military counterpart that worked with him as much as he worked against him. The General Hux character of Force Awakens is sharp, curt, quick to please his Supreme Leader as he is to put down anyone beneath him. Ambition oozes from his body language and dialogue, especially in his speech to the troops.

The more powerful and complex the forces of antagonism opposing the character, the more completely realized…story must become.

Robert McKee

Again, there is potential here. This is a character that feeds on power, thrives on stepping over the masses groveling at his feet. General Hux is no Force user, but he has forces of thousands at his command. Should a character like he choose to clash with one like Kylo Ren and/or even Snoke, there could be some fascinating political theater here. He’s a powerful speaker, for instance–he could persuade legions to follow him. Trick troops into thinking they’re carrying out Snoke’s commands. Pit lower-ranked commanders against one another. This general looked and sounded capable of all of this. Had the movies followed through on these established traits, they would have had some mischievously tricky plot threads to bind audiences to future stories.

Kylo Ren

For those who don’t know, Kylo Ren was born Ben Solo, the son of Han Solo and Leia Organa. In The Force Awakens, Ren is seen not to revere not his parents, but his grandfather, Darth Vader. For him, the temptation is from The Light, not Dark Side. He led other Padawans to become The Knights of Ren and destroy Luke Skywalker’s Jedi Temple and almost killed Luke Skywalker in the process. Some of this echoes the character arc of the now non-canonical Jacen Solo of several Star Wars novels, son of Han and Leia, TWIN BROTHER of sister Jaina who starts as his ally and ends his enemy.

Empathetic means “like me.” Deep within the protagonist the audience recognizes a certain shared humanity.

Robert McKee

So, so many of us have fought against that “which is in our blood,” have struggled to be anything BUT our parents, yearned to be something bigger than ourselves. More than any other character, it is Kylo Ren with whom audiences connect. No one condones his determination to remain on the Dark Side, but audiences fight for his redemption, even here, because they know who his parents are. Even after Kylo Ren kills his own father, audiences know there is “good in him” like Luke knew there was good in Vader. Audiences want to see this character succeed–not as a villain, but as a villain-turned-good.

So.

What went wrong?

Death Star 3.0, for starters.

Flawed and false storytelling is forced to substitute spectacle for substance, trickery for truth. Weak stories, desperate to hold audience attention, degenerate into multimillion-dollar razzle-dazzle demo reels.

Robert McKee

The dissonance is subtle at first, but it swells quickly. For all the hype over Captain Phasma, it occurs to us in her last scene with Finn that she’s hardly done anything throughout the story. For all the booming threats from Hux, he becomes inept when he himself is faced with a threat. For all the “Ye GODS” Force-wielding moments Kylo Ren has early in the film, by movie’s end he can barely duel Rey, who’s never held a lightsaber in her life.

But the worst offender by far is that Starkiller Base. You and I know it as Death Star 3.0 because that is PRECISELY what it f’ing is.

What Abrams and/or Disney thought could be pulled with this stunt, I do not know. George Lucas succeeded with his reveal in the first Star Wars because it hadn’t been done before.

Thus begins the required “I have a bad feeling about this” line to be uttered in many, many, MANY more movies to come…

Even the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi feels redundant, but because Emperor Palpatine is on board, audiences are willing to set aside the déjà vu and see how this new conflict unfolds.

“But look!” Disney seems to say. “This time it’s a whoooole planet and it can blow up a bunch of planets at once! It’s bigger, better, more blastier than ever!”

Yuh huh. No it’s not.

Cliché is at the root of audience dissatisfaction, and like a plague spread through ignorance, it now infects all story media… The cause of this worldwide epidemic is simple and clear; the source of all clichés can be traced to one thing and one thing alone: The writer does not know the world of his story.

Robert McKee

All four villains in The Force Awakens had the potential to become something special in the Star Wars universe. Each had characteristics and made choices that affected a protagonist, creating promising conflict for the upcoming films. Had Disney’s “creative team” followed the antagonists’ choices to the logical next step, they could have given audiences thrilling adventures with minimal cases of déjà vu.

But Disney wasn’t about making something new, at least not with The Force Awakens. They wanted something that would ignite the nostalgia in my generation and engage my generation’s children to invest their time, money, and Christmas lists in whatever Disney slapped the Star Wars seal on. I have no doubt that JJ Abrams and any other director involved with Star Wars sincerely enjoys the classic adventures in the galaxy far, far away. But the potential of their Mystery Boxes, villains, and heroes was crushed beneath the demands of The Mouse’s Committee.

Heed this, writers, and heed it well. When a writer doesn’t take time to explore the potential of his own story-world, instead choosing to depend on what is considered “a sure thing” in the publishing industry, a writer ends up no only disappointing audiences but his own storytelling spirit. Never is this clearer when an antagonist’s traits are altered, choices limited, or ambitions doused for the sake of a trend or gimmick. As author Michael Scott once told me:

I have always believed that for the hero to be successful, the villain has to be their equal…I always try to write the villains as the heroes of their own stories.

Do not damage the potential of your own story’s villain for the sake of pleasing some committee. Know your story. Know what drives the Dark so that you may better create its counterpart in the Light. If you ignore one, the other’s arc will burn to inconsequential ash.

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

We’ll see if I can get Blondie to say what she’s been up to, Miss “I want to write book reviews on my own website!” xxxxx I’ve also got some choice words about the state of literacy in Wisconsin, few of them good.

Or we might just talk about mental health. Or music. Frankly my mind’s so fried from grading I’m amazed this post got written.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#Writing #Music: Lalo Schifrin

“Mommy, play Harry’s hot dog song again!”

“Yeah, Mommy. Play it!”

I may roll my eyes, but I concede. Every kid’s going to have their favorite song about hot dogs, right?

Not what you were expecting, I wager. But that sax will set Bash a’boppin’ every time. Even Biff’s  bear-friends Mel and Grand-Père will dance to this tune.

(For the record, Blondie is tolerant, but would prefer her sweet pop songs. Or AC/DC. 7 going on 17, I swear…)

If there must be a song about hot dogs in my house, then I’m glad it’s by one of the smoothest bad-ass composers of the twentieth century,  Lalo Schifrin.

This man is a living institution, a game-changer. He started composing in the 1950s and hasn’t stopped since. Seriously, this man is STILL writing music. He’s created for television shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E.  and Mission: Impossiblefilms like Cool Hand Luke and Kelley’s HeroesHis score tears down the road with Steve McQueen in Bullitt. When Bruce Lee kicks ass in Enter the Dragon, Schrifin’s kickin’ it right along with him. When Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan go after the mob, Schifrin is…hang on, he did ALL the Rush Hour movies?

thSo I’m not talking about those. I want to look at two quintessential themes from a quintessential action film: Dirty Harry.

Though Schifrin supposedly scored four of the five films (I have a very stubborn conspiracy theory about Dead Pool, but I shan’t bore you with it here), the groundwork themes are to be found here, in the first film. Not only does Schifrin capture both environment and hero in Dirty Harry’s theme, but also madness and villain in Scorpio’s.

Let’s look at Dirty Harry first.

“Mommy, is this Charlie Brown music?” Biff asks every time this is on. I was stumped at first, but then realized Biff’s actually making a pretty decent genre connection: Vince Guaraldi’s compositions for the Peanuts specials are jazz in nature. Schifrin uses what Nick Redman defines as “urban jazz-funk.” Percussion is the star here, with the bass guitar a close second. The snare and bongos weave a layered energy throughout the theme–feet walking, cars honking, countless rhythms confined to this one hard space. The strings change the mood beautifully too, from the uneasiness of the violins to the steady groove of the basses and cellos. My favorite moment, though, is just around the 3:00 minute mark, when all falls away but the bongo and keyboard while Dirty Harry takes in the crime scene. For all the raw energies moving through the city, this halt to stop and think under a soft harmony makes me wonder if there’s more to this gritty cop than meets the eye.

With Scorpio, it’s aaaaall about what’s going on inside him.

Just listen to that first minute: deliciously unnerving. The whining effect that makes your ears twitch, the off-beat percussion–THIS, the percussion, is one of my favorite elements. Scorpio has no definable rhythm. He moves, he waits, he watches victims, he waits. The percussion only grows when he’s chosen a victim.

And the voice–oh, that voice! My daughter hates this song because the singer freaks her out. The singer’s sweet dissonance calls out like a siren for Scorpio to make his next kill; hell, you see that gleeful pleasure on his face when he chooses his next victim for a sniper shot.

But then comes the fuzz petal and bass, and a steady percussion announces a new rhythm: there’s law on the scene. The voices multiply and swell as Scorpio runs. The track climaxes with, of all things, a shaker. Lalo Schifrin makes a shaker sound totally bad-ass. Who else can do that? No one, I say!

Even actor Andrew Robinson, who played Scorpio, understood the power of Schifrin’s music. In one documentary (watched by Bo, who watches any and every documentary about favorite films), Robinson described meeting Schrifin by chance and thanking him for “making that character memorable,” and thereby giving Robinson a career. Robinson’s portrayal is powerful, yes, but the sirens, the drums, the guitar–they bear witness to the Scorpio’s outsides AND insides without any extra visuals. We feel this villain’s psychotic nature thanks to Schifrin.

We feel the city’s neon grit thanks to Schifrin.

We feel the hero’s inner calm amidst blood splatter and shell casings thanks to Schifrin.

Some stories require fun whimsy, or epic sweeping beauty, or the quiet dance of curious love. But for the streets of rundown hot dog stands, pawn shops, and ma-and-pa groceries, for the tattered scroungers and their shopping carts of cans, for the hunter flicking his cigarette into the gutter outside the alley where they, the notorious they are known to hang out….for the streets stained with the fluids of human and machine…

Look no further for inspiration than Lalo Schifrin.

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#lessons Learned from #GarthEnnis and @DarickR: #Write #Heroes Who Know No Odds.

We’ve all read, have maybe even written, the Hero Against Insurmountable Odds. There’s usually an evil army involved, a small band of good ragamuffins, a touch of something magic or uber-powerful, and KABLAM! Good guys win–with a death or two–but Victory! Woohoo!

But I’m not here to talk about the heroes against typical maniacal-laughter-evil.

I’m talking about the hero against Monsters. Monsters so many of us know too damn well in our childhood nights, in our present nightmares.

And no one carves such a moment like Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson in The Boys.the_boys1-e1305121951979

The Boys was a comics series that ran in the mid-2000s and remains the only series Bo and I read together. In fact, we would take turns with the kids just so the other could read the latest issue. Then, with kids in bed, we would talk, giddy with awe and fascination over how screwed up this world is, but so bloody true at the same time. We couldn’t wait to see the villainy behind the villainy. We both cried at the series’ climax. I would love to do a few more posts to study character development here, because there is just…damn, it’s GOOD.

But you have to be prepared for it. The premise for the world itself is simple:

What if superheroes had no morals?

Everything we know in this reality’s superhero mythos gets turned on its head with that question. The super “heroes” in The Boys are nothing but publicity stunts, but these are genetically modified publicity stunts: these “heroes” and “villains” have all the powers, but this time, all their “battles” and such are planned by the corporation that owns them.

The Boys are those that keep the corporation and “supes,” as they’re called, from decimating the planet.

Hughie is the newest member, and whose perspective is used to tell this arc. His girlfriend dies during a “fight” between two supes whose lightning speed leads to Hughie’s girlfriend being crushed against a wall, her arms still in Hughie’s hands. The corporation tries to buy his silence.

He refuses.

So Butcher, leader of The Boys, picks him up, modifies him, and puts him to work.

6203292One such adventure involves infiltrating the G-Men after one of their original members commits a public suicide. As you may have guessed, the G-Men is Ennis and Robertson’s version of the X-Men. And like the X-Men, there are gobs of different G groups, all of which give their humble beginnings to John Godolkin, the Professor Xavier of the G-Men. Like the X-Men, the G-Men are sold to the public as outcasts and runaways, taken under Godolkin’s wing to become a strong fighting force, a family spanning generations. And family they are: there are the adult groups, the teen group G-Wiz, and even a child group, Pre-Wiz.

That child group is nothing but six-year-olds.

Hughie and The Boys uncover the G-Men’s orphan ploy is just a cover: Godolkin literally  plucks children off the streets, modifies them, and turns them into “heroes.”

And his sexual playthings.

And the sexual playthings for other G-Men.

If one member dares speak of anything to anyone, they are killed by a fellow G-Man. Period.

This happens, and viciously too, to the teenager telling Hughie and The Boys. A G-Man transports himself into the scene just long enough to drive his fist through the boy’s skull–“Silence is golden!”

The Boys turn, and there stands every member of every G group.

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Hughie’s horrified. As you can see, the other members of The Boys are not. They’re sizing up the situation, and yeah–it’s pretty grave.

When the leader Butcher is prepared to leave, Hughie turns, sees the body of the boy…

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That moment. That right there. Hughie’s one guy. One guy against dozens upon dozens of supes. He knows what they’re capable of.

And he doesn’t care.

Because he’s going to kill himself some fucking monsters.

I still remember reading this for the first time, and bawling. Pull off the costumes, and this is one soul up against the child molesters who always get off, who are believed perfect, wonderful, amazing. There’s no way one soul can stand against such a force.

But that soul stands against them anyway. He doesn’t give a piss if he stands alone. He just knows that he’s standing, dammit, and taking down whomever he can with him.

That. That, is a hero readers will root for to the very last page of the very last story.

Not just the Hero Against Insurmountable Odds.

But the Hero Against the Monsters We Know.