Thursday, September 8, 2016

That One Over... No, THAT One, There

            Kind of a goofy title.  Hopefully it’ll make sense in a few minutes.
            Hey, did you know today is the 50th anniversary of Star Trek?  Yep, the original series premiered fifty years ago today (tonight, really).  "The Man Trap," the one with the salt vampire.
            May we always boldly go where no one has gone before...
            Anyway...
            If you follow me on Twitter, you know I often spend my weekends watching a half-dozen or so B- or openly awful movies while working on toy soldiers or tanks or something. And I often tweet out little bits of advice when I see a storytelling screw up that should’ve been easily avoided. They’re more frustrating in film, because it means someone had the screenplay sitting right there in front of them before this messed-up scene was put on film. And yet... they still put it on film.
            And sometimes the screw-ups are so bad, so overwhelming, that all I can do is drink...
            A recent awful film I saw hit on a really big problem I’ve seen a few people wrestle with. To be honest, I wrestled with it on my oft-mentioned book, The Suffering Map.  And when I realized what I’d been doing, not only did I feel like an idiot, but I realized that book might be salvageable someday after all.
            With a certain amount of rewrites.
            What am I talking about?
             A few weeks back I was watching a movie that was probably going for the idea of a goofy, somewhat inept hero with much more capable friends. Think of Jack Burton in Big Trouble In Little China or even, to a lesser extent, Shaun in Shaun of the Dead.  Alas, that’s a very tricky balance to pull off, and this writer/director didn’t have the skill or experience to do it.
            Instead, the “hero” came across as kind of sleazy (almost stalkery) and completely useless.  I mean, seriously, this guy barely worked as bait for the monsters.
            Meanwhile, the cute bartender (who liked him because... well, it was in the script, I guess) is well-trained with firearms, has a plan, stays calm under pressure... and keeps getting regulated to reaction shots and wide shots of the supporting character.  Except for one or two scenes, she’s almost a background character.
            And then, at the end, the hero sweeps her off her feet.  After the world’s been saved by someone else.  No, a third person altogether, not either one of them.
            That movie killed half a bottle of rum.  One of the big bottles.
            Anyway...
            Example two.
            In my early drafts of The Suffering Map, my main character, Rob, pretty much dominated the book.  There were some good supporting characters in Sondra, Miguel, Levi Gulliver and his ravens, and my villain, Bareback (a shameless Cenobite rip-off in those first three or four drafts), but Rob was easily 70-75% of the book.
            When I finally made a serious revision, one of the big changes was giving more time to Sondra. Really, the story involved her almost as much as Rob, and she had her own arc that I’d all but skimmed over because... well, he was my main character, right?
            By the next big revision (the last one) the novel was pretty much split clean between them.  But it still wasn’t quite right, and—as I’ve mentioned before—it was rejected a few times.  It was around this time that I finally trunked it.  Well, cyber-trunked it.
            Y’see, Timmy, both of these stories suffered from the same problem—not being aware of who should be the main character.  They’re not focusing on the heroic, active person—the person who’s actually making choices and doing things. And learning from those choices and changing because of them. What I came to realize was that Rob shouldn’t be the main character of The Suffering Map—Sondra should be.  She was more active, she was more interesting, and she had a serious arc.  Really, the book was her story.  Which I knew, but I was so stuck in the headspace of it being Rob’s story that I didn’t recognize the actual hero.
            The bad movie did the same thing.  It only took a few moments of mental re-plotting to see how much stronger and more entertaining the film would be if it had been focused on the bartender.  She was smart, clever, willing to take charge... all the stuff we want and need in a main character.
            Granted, it’s always possible to bend or break those rules, but—as I mentioned above—it’s not an easy thing to do, and probably not something to attempt without a lot of serious experience.
            I also think it’s worth addressing the elephant in the room.  In both of these examples, the better lead, the one shunted to the side, was a woman.  This isn’t always going to be the case, but I also didn’t want to gloss over it. 
            For me, it came down to The Suffering Map being my first all-out serious attempt at a novel.  I was worried I didn’t have the skill to pull off a female lead, and at the time I was right. But as I kept rewriting it over the years, and Sondra became a better character, I developed those skills. Alas, as I mentioned above, it still took me a while to get past the idea of “Rob is the main character.”
            In the bad movie... well, I don’t know what they were thinking.  I wasn’t there.  It’s possible, as I mentioned above, they went for a goofy hero with better sidekicks and really messed up the balance.  Or maybe they just planned on her as a love interest, put in a lot of character traits thinking it’d be cool to have a love interest who wasn’t just window dressing, and couldn’t register the fact that they’d made this supporting character into a far better protagonist than their lead. We’ll never know.  All I can say is that it was far from the movie’s only problem, and no one should ever watch it without a serious amount of alcohol on standby.
            But back to our topic...
            If I’m doing a story with a good-sized cast of characters, it may be worth taking a moment to look at the story from a few different points of view.  Maybe that clever thing I’m trying to do with my main character isn’t working.  Maybe she’s the main character.  Or that guy.  Or that person in the coat over there.  My goal as a writer should be to tell the most interesting story possible, and sometimes... that might not be the story I started with.
            Next time, I’d like to blather on a bit about where you’ve decided to write.
            Until then... go write.

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