Monday, April 23, 2012

Writing/Gaming - New Faces, Same World

Good morning everyone.

Today's suggested blog topic comes from Jeremy Morgan, and for his suggestion, he gets my endless thanks, since he suggested the following topic:

 Inventing an interesting character in an existing setting. Writers working with canon and players doing backstory

Now before I get started on this, I need to disclaim something, just for the sake of balance and fairness.

I am not a fan of fan-fiction. I find it sort of like writing with training wheels on, because the person who wants to be a writer is playing around with other people's established pieces, moving them in different ways that may entirely be contrary to how the writer wanted things to play out. When this happens (I'm looking at you, shippers), you're basically lamenting that things didn't work out the way you wanted, so you're going to make it happen your way.

Here's the fundamental issue with that - you're not the original author. And that means a lot of things. You may lack the author's particular talent for stringing words together, you may lack knowledge the author has held back, you may even lack the necessary skill to write effectively and evocatively. But, you say, I make up for it by finally making sure that protagonist gets a kiss from the female sidekick. 

There's something to be said for having that tension and not paying it off. Tension aside, if you're taking characters and exploring space just as an exercise to write sexual words and images (I had no idea that so many characters from my beloved TV shows were into intense BDSM, by the way), then go masturbate or have some sex or something - you don't need to express YOUR urges through someone else's characters. 

As for creating backstory, again, I point to the very large truth that "Those aren't your characters" and "Sometimes, you're better off not knowing." Yes I get it, you feel this insatiable drive to know what happened during The Great Hiatus, or in the years before the Battle of Yavin, or just after the Verse finds out about Reavers....but that's not your sandbox. You have literally your choice of any other sandbox of your own design, you don't need to play it so safe by rocking out with that other guy's shovel and bucket. 

Okay, maybe yes, you can tell a better story than the prequels. But that's for another day. I've said my thing, let's talk how this gets done.

Gamers, you're going first.

Tables Are Freedom
Look, I don't know if you know this, but for the most part, we're not all gathered around your game table with your group whenever it is you play. You don't have to justify, rationalize or explain why you've elected to hack the Care Bears into Pathfinder or why you've bodged Operation Dumbo Drop with Risk Legacy and Settlers of Cattan.You did that, some of us won't get it, but you did it for your group for your reasons. Awesome. If people have a good time, more power to you.

To hack a game, you have to declare the constants, and give yourself a framework of what you're going to operate within. Maybe you'll take the time period from this game, the character creation system of that game and add the.....combat system from that third game. The beauty of this is that so long as you don't get the lofty idea that you can sell this idea and don't want to contend with the legal headaches, you're free and clear to do so.

There's just something about games that lends them to deconstruction for the sake of enjoyment. I think that's a conceit that writing doesn't have.

Now writers, let's get more critical.

The 4-Hack
Writers, here's my quick and dirty hacking trick. There are four main things you can change in a story:
* Characters
* Location
* Plot
* Time

Characters' traits can be changed. Where the story takes place can be changed. How the story proceeds can be changed. When the story occurs can be changed.

Here's the trick - if you change 1, the other 3 remain the same. If you change 2, the other 2 not only remain the same, but become reinforced. Don't change more than 2 if you want to consider keeping to whatever source material you have.

Let's look at some examples:

Hound of the Baskervilles (it's on my shelf)
Characters -- Holmes and Watson
Location -- The Moors
Plot -- There's a ghost dog and dead bodies
Time -- The Victorian Era

If we change the time and plot, we get the BBC's Sherlock. If we change the Location and the Time, it's practically indistinguishable from any other mystery pastiche.

Characters - Hamlet, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern
Location - Danish Castle
Plot - Hamlet's dad is dead, his mother's a tart and he's a sad panda
Time - Ye Olde Times

Most often the Time gets changed, usually to something more modern. Occasionally this also means the location changes, often to a city like Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles or New York.

Now Jeremy's question though asks not about using existing characters, but creating his own within someone else's canon.

Character creation in fiction, Jeremy, happens the same way whether we're dropping that character into a world of our own design, or a world you snagged from someone else, but there are red flags.

1. If your character is better defined than the native characters, you're going to encounter dissonance and static from within the world, and the character is going to feel out of place and limited. -- Imagine Han Solo in....GI Joe. Or Indiana Jones in....the Teletubbies. Yes, I'm using extremist examples, but I'm hoping that it makes the point clear -- if one character is more/better defined than those around them, the others either feel flat or the defined character feels ostracized, put off and out of place (if you're going for a one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other vibe, then this might be the best road to take)

2. If you character's motivations exists outside the scope of the world's offerings, that character is going to feel out of place. Remember the Transformers cartoon, how they all wanted Energon cubes, and everybody knew it? Remember the Transformers movie where they...didn't want that, but suddenly everyone was just cool with sentient vehicle-aliens (who happen to look like Earth vehicles, which no one questioned)? For a character to pursue something that a world might not offer, you get a fish out of water (see....the most recent Thor or Captain America). The challenge there is to reconcile that desire and modify the character accordingly.

3. If the character is too insular, or too internally motivated, there's not as much room for growth as you think. Let's imagine you're making a miser.......Scrooge, for instance. If you look at Scrooge, and you identify the flaw "greed", then his only logical arc (the only way to grow the character) is along that 'greed' track. It would make very little sense for Scrooge to suddenly develop a need for thrills or crime-solving while he was being altruistic. Wrapping a character too tightly around one idea means that before you can introduce other concepts, you have to get loose from that first tether.

With canon as a timeline, you're hemming yourself into a chronology. If I want to tell a story about what occurs between Temple of Doom and Raiders of the Lost Ark, I am held to operating within those years.

And, on a side note, operating within that world and that time as well. It's the mid-1930s, Indy isn't about to Google up the info on some lost city, nor is he going to make dinner reservations via Open Table....

The Rules
Rule 1 - Understand that accepting a chronology may also mean you accept a location and all the mechanics/knowledge of that era (see above)
Rule 2- Understand that accepting a chronology and canon gives you fixed points (don't get all snippy with me Doctor Who fans, you know what I'm trying to say here), between which you operate. - So that story of what happens to Greg Smith, Harry Potter's unmentioned friend, can't too radically intersect with the events of Goblet of Fire...because Greg Smith isn't in Goblet of Fire.
Rule 3 - Understand that because of those fixed points, it is unrealistic and impractical to make radical changes to existing characters - let's say you want to give Luke Skywalker more lightsabers before Empire Strikes Back: Is he going to just lose them when the movie starts, or worse, forget that he even had them?

So Jeremy, your short answer is - it depends on how closely you want to hold onto canon and how much respect you want to pay it. If it's just a template, something to put a flavor in your mouth so you can create something new, that's okay, but at that point, you might as well develop your own thing entirely. If you hoist it up on the pedestal, then treat it with care, because someone worked really hard on it (unless you're going to redo the Star Wars prequels, at which point, go nuts) and they deserve some kudos.

Hope that helps.

Happy writing.