Thursday, October 14, 2021

Supporting Spaghetti

Oh, back again so soon? Well, I guess that’s as much on me as it is on you. But I did have another thought I wanted to bounce off you.

This is something I’ve seen several times in books and in bad B-movies, but it only recently struck me what was actually going on. How the storytellers were twisting things in a really unnatural way to solve a problem. So this may make you (and me) look back at some older posts I’ve done in a slightly different light..

But first, let’s talk about pasta.

I got into cooking during the pandemic. Started watching lots of cooking videos. Trying some things that were kind of new and daring for me. Maybe some of you did too. I’ve found all the prep and cooking kept my mind off other things but still working in creative ways. And now I can make really good stir-fried noodles.

Speaking of noodles, you’ve probably heard of the spaghetti test. When it’s cooked properly and ready to eat, you can throw a strand of spaghetti at the wall and the moisture and starches and, I don’t know, pasta epoxy will make it stick. If it isn’t done cooking yet, it just falls off or does a slow downward tumble like one of those Wacky Wall Walkers.

There’s another phrase you may have heard which grew out of this spaghetti test. “Let’s throw it at the wall and see what sticks.” It shows up a lot in the development stages of all sorts of things. We’ve got thirty ideas and we don’t know which one’s going to work? Well, let’s just do all of them. We throw all the spaghetti at the wall—the whole pot—and everything that sticks is good and ready to go and whatever doesn’t... isn’t. Sound familiar?

I think most of us have tried this sort of blunt, brute force approach on something. I know I’ve rewritten conversations severaltimes to see if it works better with Yakko taking the lead, or Dot, or Wakko, or Phoebe, or... who’s that guy? Let’s see what happens if he takes the lead in this. Same thing with names. Holy crap, Murdoch in Terminus went through sooooo many different names. Sometimes for whole drafts, sometimes just for a page or three. But then I found Murdoch and it was perfect.

Thing is, there’s a weird sort of flipside to this. Or maybe an inverse? Freaky mutant bastard offspring? Anyway, I talked a while back about shotgun art, and I think this is what’s going on here.

Sometimes, in books and movies, we’ll see storytellers who just pile on the characters. One after another after another, many of them with only the thinnest connection to the main plot. It’s the cousin of the best friend of a supporting character in one plot thread. Or, y’know, even less than that. I read one story where we spent two whole chapters with a character who’s only purpose was to bump into one of the main characters in a third chapter. That was it. She served no other purpose in the story except to be that two page delay in his day And, y’know, fill out the page count a bit.

What struck me a few weeks back is when storytellers are doing this—layering on dozens of simple, almost stereotypical characters and conflicts—is they’re taking the spaghetti approach and just throwing everything at the wall. Rather than developing any of these characters or elements to any degree, they’re just giving us lots and lots of quick, shallow ones. I mean why spend time making a complex character when I could just create five characters with only one character trait each? It’s so much less effort, right? I mean, ex-wife, former best friend, alcoholic rival, pregnant woman, aggressive military guy—there’s got to be something there that strikes a chord with my reader, right?

That example I gave up above? The woman who served no purpose except to bump into one of the protagonists? She was late for work. That was it. That was her entire character. I mean, she had a name. She had some dialogue. She had a pet in a tank in her apartment (some kind of lizard, I think). But that was it. The only other thing we knew about her—her alarm didn’t go off, she overslept by almost two hours, and she was late for work. We never learned why her alarm didn’t go off (power outage? forgot to set it? sabotaging pet lizard?). We never learned why she was so tired she overslept by two hours (drastically overworked? got blackout drunk? a wild hookup that left her exhausted?).

Heck, weird as it sounds, we never even found out why being late was a bad thing (on the verge of being fired? abusive boss? big presentation?). We just knew she was late, had to get showered and dressed fast, had to get to work, and that was supposed to be enough for us. Anything else would require more thought about who she was, what she wanted out of life, and what she was actually getting.

And this book had over a dozen characters like her. Seriously. It spent a significant amount of time with people who could be 100% completely summed up with things like “Wakko needs some drugs,” “Dot’s worried about her dog,” or “Yakko is a no-nonsense soldier.” That’s it. That’s all of who they were.

One place you may recognize this from (tis the season after all) is old slasher movies. Okay, and some modern ones. Most of the cast is one note characters with just barely enough depth that we can tell the machete went through them. They’re the bulk filler of the plot. The serious woman. The goofball. The jock. The nice girl. The drunk/ stoner. They just exist to be minor obstacles between our killer and the one or two survivors.

Now, again, the idea is that the reader (or the audience, if this is a B-movie) has to find something more-or-less relatable in these broad stereotypes. I mean... you’ve known somebody who’s late for work before, right? Or was a jock? Or a serious woman? Okay, well... I bet you knew someone who was worried about their dog at some point, right?

I think people do this for two reasons. One is that they’re nervous about creating complex characters. Maybe they don’t think they’ve got the skill to do it, or possibly just not the skill to do it in the number of pages allotted to it. Perhaps they think their plot can’t function with only three or four threads. Or possibly they’re worried about having such a limited number of viewpoints.

I think the other reason is they’re worried about having characters with no traits. Like that woman running the register at the gas station. She doesn’t even have a name tag. She’s just there to sell the protagonist gas and a couple snacks. She’s got no arc or backstory or tragic flaw. That doesn’t seem right. We have to give her something, right? Maybe she could be, I don’t know, late for work or something?

Thing is, no matter what my reasoning is for this flood of one-dimensional characters, this always ends up leading to one of two things. Either we mistake their lack of depth for deliberate avoidance (“Hmmmmmm... why isn’t the writer saying why she was up late last night? Is she the murderer???”) and then we get frustrated when this goes nowhere. Or we recognize these characters don’t actually serve a purpose and get frustrated waiting to go back to someone who’s actually going to affect the plot in some way.

I also think it’s worth noting the three traits of good characters I’ve mentioned here a few dozen times—likable, believable, relatable. And yeah, I’ve also mentioned that supporting characters can sometimes get away with only two of these traits. Catch is, when characters are this flat and undeveloped, they almost always end up unbelievable—their actions and reactions just seem ridiculous because there’s no depth to ground them in. So we’re down one good trait already! Then my shotgun approach means they’re going to be randomly relatable at best, and lots of folks fall back on “snarky jerk” as a default personality, soooooooooooooo... Not a lot going for these folks.

Y’see, Timmy, burying my story in simple characters doesn’t work because it’s forgetting a basic truth of the spaghetti test. All those noodles that didn’t stick to the wall? I don’t sweep them up off the floor and put them back in the pot. The whole point of doing it all was to see what did and didn’t work—to figure out what shouldn’t be in my story.

So said noodles definitely shouldn’t be part of my finished entree.

Everyone gets the food-book metaphor here, right?

Anyway... next time...

Wow. Already halfway through October. I guess next time I could do the obligatory horror post. Or maybe talk about NaNoWriMo? Any preferences?

Either way, go write.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Behind the Mask!

Oddly enough, not a Halloween-themed post. Although... maybe it is. It’s all perspective, I guess.

Since I first started taking this whole writing thing seriously, there’s been a general mindset I’ve seen bubble to the surface once a year or so. Maybe more in some places. It’s the idea that I can’t write about X if I haven’t personally experienced X. Can’t write it well, that’s for sure. If X hasn’t been an integral part of my life at some point or another, I’m just wasting everyone’s time by trying to write about it. Definitely by putting that writing out there. It’s a version of the old “write what you know” superball that gets bounced around. If you’ve never known X, you certainly can’t write about X.

Starting out in the horror community, I’d see this again and again. The folks who’d insist it just wasn’t possible to write horror without a horrific, awful background. You want to write horror? Real horror, not this weak “vampires and demons and zombies” crap? Well you better have fought in a war and had several people killed in front of you. Or had a horribly abusive family. All your pets better be dead, and most of your friends too, and if you’re not dealing with it through life-crippling addiction to something, you’re just a goddamn tourist who has no business in this genre.

Because of this, I’d see some folks get scared off from their chosen genre. Have I experienced real, soul-wrenching love? I mean, really experienced it? Maybe I shouldn’t be writing romance. My parents loved me a lot, I get along well with my brother, and I’ve got a bunch of really cool friends. Maybe I don’t have any business writing horror. And, heck, I’ve never even killed a human being before. I guess murder mysteries really aren’t for me.

At least, that’s what notorious serial killer Sue Grafton always said.

And a friend of mine recently pointed out this is such a pervasive idea that even some readers believe it. There’s no way I could write about a character that awful unless I myself am truly that awful, right? I mean, somebody couldn’t just make that stuff up, right? If one of my characters has sex more than twice, I’m clearly a sex addict (and let’s not even talk about what their chosen sex position says about me). Heck, I think I’ve talked before the weirdness that can happen when you name a character after a family member or friend without thinking about it.

Now, before I go any further... as I mentioned above, this has all been proven wrong again and again. Seriously. Yeah, there’s definitely some horror writers out there who’ve seen some awful stuff and I’ve known one or two folks over the years who’ve written intense erotica as an outlet when, y'know, no other outlet was available. There are some action writers out there who have very intense backgrounds in the military or private security, and a few sci-fi writers with pretty solid scientific credentials.

But I also know a ton of horror writers who had really nice childhoods and now live very happy lives, without a single dismemberment or traumatic beating or other ghastly event in their past or present. I know action writers who haven’t been in a single barfight or high speed chase or gun battle. I know people with no military experience  who write very successful military books. There are more than a few sci-fi writers who haven’t traveled in time or even left earth orbit once. And I know people who write sex scenes in their books who have, if I may be so bold, fairly vanilla sex lives. At least, going off all the pictures one of them showed me. Like, insisted on showing me.

That was a really weird brunch.

Anyway...

I think all of this ties back to a few things I’ve talked about here a few times. So I thought  maybe it’d be worth mentioning a few totally valid ways we can write about things we haven’t actually experienced. For example...

Voice—A big step for all of us is the day we realize midwestern grocery store clerks don’t talk the same way as third-generation bio-apocalypse survivors. Dwarven warrior queens have a different vocabulary than techbro CEOs. And fresh-out-of-grad-school schoolteachers don’t sound the same as battle-hardened Army sergeants. And getting that voice right, knowing how she’d say this vs. how he’d say it vs. how I'd say it is a big step in our growth as writers.

Research—seriously, we live in a freakin’ golden age of resources for writers. I’ve been doing this just long enough that I remember ads in the back of magazines for small press books about what it’s really like to be a doctor or a homicide detective . Or I’d spend hours in the library trying to find pictures of Paris that didn’t involve the Eiffel Tower or a museum. These days, if I need to know something I have access to so many sources. I can find research papers or anecdotal accounts or heck, even actual people who will answer my questions or help me find the answers, and usually tell me some other useful things if I’m paying attention.

Extrapolation-- I’ve never been shot in the knee, but I’ve had the meniscus behind my kneecap rupture (and collapse again and again and again). I’ve never done super heavy drugs but I’ve been very drunk a few times. I’ve never been able to fly, but when I was a kid there was a bridge in my hometown we all used to jump off into the river. Yeah, these experiences aren’t the same, but I can use them as building points. If this registers as a six, what would a nine be like? If it felt like this for ten seconds, what would it feel like after twenty? Or thirty? I stayed conscious here but would that much short out my brain for a few seconds (from pain or pleasure or excessive introduced chemicals)? It’s a basic creativity exercise. 

Empathy—I’ve talked about empathy here a few times, and I have to say once again it’s the most important trait a writer can have. Seriously. It’s what everything here really boils down to. Being able to put myself in someone else’s shoes. I’ve never had a parent die, but I’ve had friends who did. I’ve never served in the military, but I have family who did. I’ve never been married or had kids or burned dinner when someone’s coming over I really want to impress. But I look at my friends and family, I listen to them, I take note of what they’re saying and what they’re not saying, and I try to relate it to things I’ve gone through. I try to imagine how I’d feel in a similar situation, based off my own experiences. And I use some of that in stories.

In fact, let’s take this one step further and address one of the points that started this off. If I’m going to tell someone they can’t write great horror unless they’ve been through awful stuff (like I have)... well, isn’t that kind of implying I don’t have great empathy? I mean, think about it. I’m saying I can only write this because I experienced it, and I’m also admitting I can’t imagine being a person who can write it without experiencing it.

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think that’s something I should be bragging about.

Y’see, Timmy, much like “write what you know,” this mindset assumes people can’t learn or grow or imagine anything. And if I want to be a good writer, I have to be able to do that. I can’t tell myself not to write about bank robbery until I’ve actually tried to rob a bank. Hell, where does that people who write murder mysteries? Or giant robot sci-fi? Or dark period fantasy. I mean, if you haven’t had sex with at least three people from the twelfth century, how do you expect to write medieval romance? I need to understand most writers research things, extrapolate feelings and reactions, get inside their character’s heads, and just try to have an honest sense of what someone else would feel in this situation.

Look, the truth is, if I’m doing my job right, you should feel like all my characters are real people in real situations. The janitor. The nymphomaniac barista. The half-human, reluctant cultist. The little kid with PTSD. The burned-out secret agent trying to forget most of his life. The world-ending cosmic event that they’re all tied up together in. And when we read a description of a real person, when we hear about the believable, relatable aspects of their life, it’s natural for us to assume they’re... well, real.

And the obvious real person is me, the author, telling you this story. So it’s not surprising some people think I must’ve experienced these things firsthand.

But I shouldn’t need to.

Anyway...

Next time, I want to throw a bunch of characters at the wall and see which ones stick.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Saving Dumb Cats

Last week I mentioned an issue I’d seen pop up in the Saturday geekery movies once or thrice. This one also pops up a lot in B-movies, but I’ve seen it more than a few times in books as well. So I thought, hey, here’s another thing to talk about.

So let’s talk about cats and dogs and killing people.

Something I’ve brought up here once or thrice is saving the cat. It’s a screenwriting term, but I think it applies fairly well to all storytelling. Really simply put, it’s when a character does something simple that establishes they’re a good person. Or, at the least, a person we should be rooting for. It tends to come early in the story because saving the cat isn’t about changing our opinion of a character—it’s just about reinforcing it. If we thought they were pretty good... yeah, this just lets us know we had the right idea.

Not, the flipside of this is what I call patting the dog. I’ve talked about this before, too. This is when someone does an equally small, minor thing and it’s supposed to make us look at this character in a whole new light. Saving the cat is about reinforcing an opinion, patting the dog is about completely changing it. Because of this, patting the dog tends to come later in the story—we can’t have new thoughts about a character until we’ve had time to make old thoughts, right?

Now... I mention all that because I wanted to talk about killing supporting or background characters.

How many times in books or movies have we seen the person who stays behind to defuse the bomb? There’s no time and we’ve already admitted it’s next to impossible and everybody else is clear, but god damn it they can do this. Or we know the wendigo is out there and it can mimic human speech and these are its prime hunting hours but god damn it what if that’s really a little kid in the woods? Or we’re sure the whole shelter’s been cleaned out and we can’t contain the fire any longer but god damn it Yakko’s heading back in to make sure we didn’t miss a cat in one of the cages...

And then, y’’know, they die. Doing something brave and noble. But also, like... really, really stupid.

When we see something like this, the storytellers are trying to up the stakes. They know it’s time for someone to die so the audience understands how real the danger/ threat is. But at the same time... I mean, we don’t want to kill one of our main characters, right? And it turns out we haven’t really developed any of our other characters past  “Redhead #2” or “Soldier with Hat” so it won’t mean anything if they die.

Unlessssssssss...

What we’ve all probably tried once or twice is to make the way someone dies get the emotional response. So it’s not so much that we feel for them, it’s that the writer’s created a situation where we’d have an emotional response for anyone who died this way. This is really common in the torture porn subgenre, where it’s not so much about the character as it is what’s being done to the character. No matter who they are, no matter what they’ve done, you have to feel sorry for someone who gets that done to their... well, look, it’s uncomfortable just making this up.

And that’s what a lot of these fake “saving the cat” moments are trying to do. It’s not about creating a character who does something brave or noble or righteous—it’s about creating a situation where anyone would be brave or noble or righteous. If Thanos runs back into that burning building to make sure there weren’t any cats left behind, we’d still go “Wow... almost a complete monster, but at least he tried to save those hypothetical kittens. He didn’t deserve to die like that. Goddamn shame, that’s what it is.”

The big catch, of course, is that these situations still have to make logical sense with everything else going on in my story. Oh, and even a flat stereotype of a character has to behave in ways we understand human beings tend to behave. If “Soldier with Hat” suddenly starts disobeying direct orders, this isn’t a sudden burst of characterization—it’s just someone acting unnaturally. And if they’re doing this in an unnatural situation... well... I can’t be shocked if the whole thing comes across as fake.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with killing characters. I‘ve killed tons of people in my books. Main characters and supporting characters. I don’t know how many background folks who never got a name or more than a word or two of description.

But I have to be honest about the weight these deaths actually bring to my story. Killing “Soldier with Hat” shouldn’t seem inconsequential, but it also shouldn’t be the dramatic linchpin of an entire chapter. The wendigo getting Redhead #2 is bad, yeah, but we can’t pretend it’s as bad as if it got Phoebe. I can’t manipulate deaths into being important or make characters noble and brave after the fact.

If I want these deaths to matter—really matter, in a way that sticks with my readers—I need to actually care about the characters. If I don’t have any investment in them, if I don’t want them to survive, then it doesn’t matter if they survive.

And I’ll look kind of silly for insisting it does.

Next time, I’d like to explain why that guy really doesn’t represent me. Or you.

Until then, go write.