Thursday, January 13, 2011

If Someone Asks if You’re a God...

Pop culture reference. First of the year...

Wow. Last week’s little rant must’ve struck a chord with folks. Almost double the usual number of hits. Hopefully it was the right chord.

Anyway...

One term that comes up a lot in gaming is "balance." It’s important that the rules are fair and equal from all directions. No one player should have an inherent superiority to any other. Advantages in one area should come with disadvantages in another. And the players should have a fair chance against the odds themselves. If there’s only a 1-in-20 chance of this little piece of wargear working, it should be pretty darn impressive that 5% of the time it does.

Another term that comes up a lot in gaming is “broken.” It’s when a set of rules are so far our of balance that no one wants to play in that section of the game or against that particular piece of wargear. It’s just no fun to go into something knowing you’ve got no chance of success, one way or the other.

So, what does this have to do with being a god? More to the case, what does it have to do with writing?

Well, stories need to be balanced, too. We want characters to have a chance at achieving their goals, but we also want them to face a challenge getting there. If the story leans too far one way or the other, it becomes pointless.

If the antagonist is all-powerful, then the hero never has a chance. That’s boring as hell. There might be a few dramatic moments, if the writer really knows what they’re doing, but probably not. How long would you be willing to watch me stand in a field trying to will myself to levitate? We all know it’s not going to happen, so I’m betting not that long.

Keep in mind, the antagonist doesn’t have to be a guy (or gal) in body armor and a black cape. The high school jock, the bank officer, the evil drill sergeant, the abusive boss, even society in general-- any of these can be the antagonist. And, again, if there’s no chance whatsoever of beating the antagonist, this story is not going to hold a lot of people’s interest.

I’d also point out that beating the antagonist doesn’t mean defeating them utterly. But as far as this main character is concerned, they have to have a chance to succeed at their particular goals. No chance means no interest.

The flipside of this is also true. If your main character has absolutely no chance of being defeated, that’s not very interesting either. Not many people are going to pay to see Mike Tyson pound on some nine year olds, and I guarantee the ones who do aren’t going for the fight. Would you pay to read a novel that’s all about someone who’s hungry and then they go out to dinner? Want to place any bets on Stephen Hawking solving third grade math homework?

Characters with godlike abilities aren’t interesting because they never get challenged. The reader (or audience) never gets the sense that there’s any sort of danger or threat. In which case, the whole story just became as interesting as me getting a glass of Diet Pepsi.
Consider The Matrix. It turns out Neo is a god, yes, but we only discover this in the last five minutes of the movie. Same with John Murdoch in Dark City. By the time they become all-powerful, the story’s pretty much over and we just get a few hints of what they’re going to do with their newfound godhood. In fact, when The Matrix turned out to be a huge success and they had to make sequel films, one of the first things the Wachowski Brothers did was try to scale back Neo’s abilities and say they were never as great as implied in the first film. Oh, he’s still powerful, yeah, but he’s no god. He’s a bit stronger, he can fly... but that’s about it.

Didn’t really help those sequels, though, did it?

This is, as a note, one of the problems many comic book writers have had with Superman over the years. How do you pose a believable threat to a hero who’s faster and stronger than anyone, and completely invulnerable to boot? A few writers, John Byrne probably chief among them, tried scaling the Kent boy way back, but other writers soon had the dial turned up past eleven again.

(Fun fact-- Kryptonite wasn’t created to solve this problem. It was invented by the writers of the Superman radio show when their lead actor came down with laryngitis. They needed a way to explain why Superman didn’t appear in four episodes, so they had a kryptonite meteor hit the Daily Planet building without anyone noticing and end up in the same storage room Clark used to change. Bam--four episodes of the Man of Steel coughing feebly.)

There’s also another downside to nigh-omnipotent characters. Gods are boring as hell. They’re very tough to relate to, and if people can’t relate to characters there’s not going to be much in the story for them to invest in. Good characters have needs and desires and flaws, but godlike powers tend to nullify most of those things. All I need to do is snap my fingers and the Diet Pepsi is here. I didn’t even need to get out of my chair for it.

I read a script a few years back that was about two gods pinwheeling back and forth through history and assuming different identities in different times in an attempt to influence the development of mankind as part of some... I don’t know. A game? A random bet? A function of the universe? It was never made clear, but I can tell you I was bored out of my skull by page ten. If I wasn’t getting paid to read it cover to cover, I would’ve tossed it right then.

When Don Payne wrote his script for Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, he knew there was no way a giant in Teletubby-colored space armor was going to work on screen and come across as a threat. Rather than try to make Galactus relatable (and diminishing him in the process), Don turned the Devourer of Worlds into an inhuman, completely unrelatable thing-- a monstrous, nebulous entity--and in doing so he kept the idea that this was something too powerful to imagine. People give Don a lot of crap for that script, but they ignore that he did a ton of stuff right (seriously--this film is loaded with plot elements lifted right out of Stan Lee’s stories).

If you’ve got an insanely powerful character in one of your stories, take another look at her or him. Do they need to be that strong? Wouldn’t they be more interesting with feet of clay? Maybe even a whole leg of clay? Isn’t your story going to be a bit more interesting if success and failure both seem like viable outcomes?

I think it would. But that’s just me.

Next week I’d like to revisit last week’s post and go into another idea from that online conversation.

Until then, go write.

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