Case Studies: The Atticus Finch Guide to Writing Lawful Good

Case Studies: The Atticus Finch Guide to Writing Lawful Good

(Standard spoiler disclaimer this week applies to Man of Steel and To Kill a Mockingbirdthe book, not the movie, although pictures are from the movie because I like to be confusing)

Last week, we used Captain America to look at how it’s possible to make the Boy Scout character not be an insufferable pill.  But this week, I want to take it further.  Conventional wisdom in the writing world says, quite simply, that saints are boring.  But is it possible to take the Lawful Good character and make them just as complex, as compelling, as great as any damaged and brooding anti-hero?  Set your wayback machine to high school, boys and girls, because Atticus Finch is in the house.

I never had to read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school, actually.  I took American Literature in tandem with American History, which was an awesome way to contextualize what we were reading but meant that we didn’t get the opportunity to stop and linger on the books as much.  So I’m probably a little late to this party, what with the huge amount of criticism already out there on this deserved classic.  But as always, I’m looking at these things from the perspective of a writer.  I think there are some very useful lessons that you can apply to your own characters to really push them to the next level.

Define his values

What does it mean to be a good man?

Okay, this is kind of an unfairly broad question.  After all, there are several great works of art, bodies of philosophy, and even entire institutions that grapple with it and can’t always come up with an answer.  As the author, you don’t necessarily have to take a stance on this one way or another.

However, your oh-so-heroic hero?  He probably has a pretty good working definition.

This is one of the reasons I’ve never really connected to the character of Superman.  He mainly seems to be a good guy by virtue of opposing the bad guys, and defining a character solely in the context of something else makes it difficult to connect to the character himself.  He’s boring not necessarily because it’s so difficult to put him in over his head or because he’s too perfect, but because I never get a sense of who he is as a person, of why the stuff that he does matters to him.  Generic goodness isn’t enough.  You have to get specific.

Atticus Finch’s chief virtues are compassion and empathy, and much of the book deals with him trying to hold to these virtues himself and trying to instill them in his children.  This philosophy bookends the story: when trying to convince Scout to keep going to school early on, he says, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from their point of view — until you climb into their skin and walk around in it.”  Then when putting her to bed at the very end, he reminds her, “Most people are [nice], Scout, when you finally see them.”  It’s not merely about being kind, it’s about understanding why someone is deserving of kindness.  He treats people with dignity because he sees them as they see themselves, from the Cunninghams and their refusal of charity to Mrs. Dubose and the pain of her final illness.

To-Kill-a-Mockingbird-MovieVirtue is a somewhat flexible thing, frequently more of a social construct than an absolute truth.  To our eyes, Atticus is a good father: attentive, encouraging, stoic but unquestionably devoted.  But what he’s giving his children is not seen as a “normal” upbringing, and he frequently has to defend himself to family and neighbors as “doing the best he can.”  He even second-guesses himself a few times, like when he tries to explain the family legacy to Jem and Scout.  The struggle between his parental instincts and society’s expectations generates conflict without really getting anyone’s hands dirty.

Of course, things can’t stay that tidy…

Challenge those values

There was a very disappointing moment in Man of Steel for me.  Okay, there were a lot of disappointing moments in Man of Steel for me, but I’m talking about one in particular right now.  Like many other contemporary versions of familiar stories, Man of Steel gives the villain, General Zod, a sympathetic motivation: he was bred to protect Krypton and only wants to restore his people.  So far, so good.  He poses the ethical dilemma to Superman — save the people of his birth, or of his adopted home?  Supes considers for all of two seconds before choosing the latter.

Now, it’s not like he got it wrong, but that’s kind of the point.  The movie might allow you to sympathize with Zod, but it pushes him right back into cartoon villain territory so you aren’t tempted to agree with him.  I see way too many of these cake-or-death softballs, where the hero gets faced with a choice that isn’t really a choice.  He’s the good guy, so he’s right.  End of discussion.

For the most part, Atticus Finch is right about the world, as well.  A mob backs down when a little girl forces them to realize that the man they’re planning to attack is a father.  The Black community recognizes that he tried to save Tom Robinson, even though he failed.  Scout gets her final moment of clarity on the Radley porch where she sees her childhood through Boo’s eyes.  Repeatedly throughout the story, having empathy makes the interactions between people easier.

But empathy isn’t always the answer, and there are two significant points where it fails, with tragic consequences.  Tom Robinson’s sympathy for Mayella Ewell is directly responsible for his downfall.  On the stand, his pity is damning, because how could any Negro think himself in a position to feel sorry for any white person?  As for Atticus, his belief that everyone is ultimately decent leads him to underestimate Bob Ewell as a threat.  If not for the intervention of Boo Radley, this misjudgment would have cost his children their lives.  The fact that showing compassion is the right thing to do doesn’t mean that it’s without risk.

What is your hero willing to risk for what he believes?  And — the more interesting question for my money — what isn’t he willing to risk?  Not everyone weights their own values equally, and when they come into conflict, it forces that person to choose one over the other.  Atticus hates guns, but when a rabid dog threatens his neighborhood, he still pulls the trigger.  He takes Tom Robinson’s case explicitly because he can’t choose his reputation over his conscience.  The scene where Atticus keeps vigil over Tom’s cell pits several of these factors against each other: he has no qualms about putting his own personal safety on the line, but when he realizes that his children might have to watch, or might even get hurt themselves, that’s when he shows fear.  And again during Tom’s trial, right at the moment that Atticus has pinned everything on, he’s willing to walk away (at least temporarily) because his children might be in trouble.  There’s a clear hierarchy of the things he values.

full_bgThis question of risk is one of the reasons Man of Steel didn’t work for me.  I didn’t feel like Superman had any skin in the game, like there was any personal cost of failure.  Yeah, billions of lives and all, but that’s a statistic.  It’s also hard to think that he’s that concerned about human life as a general concept given his role in the destruction of Metropolis (not to mention it’s hard for the audience to care when it was apparently rebuilt pretty much overnight).  With all the flashbacks, there’s nothing that ever backs up Jonathan Kent’s fears that horrible things will happen if Clark reveals himself, so when he’s willing to die rather than risk exposing his son, it just feels pointless instead of tragic.

Doing the right thing — knowing what the right thing even is — is frequently difficult in real life, and thus it should be in fiction.  It’s somewhat rocky territory for the writer because we’re pushing away from the safe shores of easy answers and into ambiguity, but don’t shy away from it.  This hearkens back to that tricky “show, don’t tell” chestnut.  Don’t just tell us what the character believes in; make him prove it.

Temper the idealism

I keep coming back to Superman because he’s kind of the archetype for this paladin sort of character.  And I’m sure that some of you are just itching to get to the comments, so you can tell me all about why Man of Steel isn’t really a fair representation of the character, and how other writers have handled him and made him more interesting and blah blah blah fanboycakes.  But I think the failings of this most recent incarnation show exactly how difficult it can be to reconcile this sort of character with such a jaded world.  So it’s tempting to shove him into broody angstdom, but there are other ways to strike the balance.

To Kill a Mockingbird gets accused of being somewhat saccharine, but it’s surprisingly unromantic when you get down to it.  After all, no matter how badass a lawyer Atticus is, he can’t overcome the deeply ingrained racial prejudice of his time, and he doesn’t even get to try for an appeal because Tom commits suicide by prison guard first.  If this were a fairy tale sort of story, Boo Radley’s heroism would make him a cherished family friend and would be enough to conquer whatever issues kept him shut in his house all those years.  But it’s not a fairy tale, and Scout never sees him again.  For all its idealism, it doesn’t flinch away from the harshness of reality.

The other important thing to remember is that, while Atticus Finch is definitely the most significant character and the main driver of the story, he’s not the protagonist.  That’s his daughter Scout, who’s also the narrator.  She’s a much more capricious character, which relieves Atticus of some of the burden of carrying the drama.  Scout doesn’t understand him and is sometimes critical of things like his age and his habits, and her perspective keeps things more interesting than if we spent the whole time in Atticus’s head.

Hopefully all of this gives you some things to try if you get stumped by a squeaky clean character, and perhaps a new appreciation for the old crap they made you read in high school.  Sometimes it’s more relevant than you’d think.

Case Studies: Of Fairy Tales and Face Biting

Case Studies: Of Fairy Tales and Face Biting

(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters)

Let’s do some character analysis, shall we?  Today I’d like to take a crack at one of my favorite movies, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.  Sidebar: I don’t mean “favorite” in an ironic sense or as a guilty pleasure.  I unabashedly adore this movie, and I don’t care how low its Metacritic score is.  People seemed to dismiss it as an action B-movie, missing the key fact that it’s produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay.  It’s horror comedy, and while it might not be as outright funny as Shaun of the Dead or Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, its humor derives from its over-the-top cartoonishness, from its gleeful anachronisms and hyper-violence.  I’ve seen it compared to “Itchy and Scratchy,” which is pretty accurate.  You don’t have to think it’s a great movie (I mean, you’d be wrong, but you’re entitled to that), just make sure you’re judging it by the correct metrics.

Our titular heroes aren’t particularly deep or complex.  They had a traumatic childhood encounter with a witch, and now they go around exacting messy revenge on the whole species.  Aside from the intriguing brother-sister dynamic, just your standard Caucasian brunette stoic badasses, right?  Yet I find myself rather fascinated by Gretel.  At first glance, she seems like she’s cut from the standard Strong Female Character template.  She’s introduced as an adult by coolly taking charge of the situation, and when her authority is challenged:


And yet the headbutt is a rather unusual move for the textbook SFC.  Using it doesn’t require any particular training, finesse, control, skill, or any of the things that you normally associate with a great fighter–just raw force and a disregard for your own safety.

When we see a woman in melee combat, she’s usually a martial artist, employing moves that require just as much grace as strength or skill.  There’s quite a lot of overlap between dancing and fighting, but it’s especially true for female fighters.  Even when issuing a beatdown, the heroine remains aesthetically pleasing.

But there is nothing elegant about Gretel.  She’s a pure brawler, as befits her backstory of learning to fight through experience rather than formal training.  When she punches, she’s not mainly using her arm; instead, she sticks her arm straight out and swings her whole torso, an awkward move that provides power at the expense of accuracy.  Gretel’s character is not, in any sense, about looking pretty.  Oh sure, Gemma Arterton is gorgeous, and she spends the movie in these cleavagetastic bodices and tight leather pants.  She also spends most of the movie positively covered in grime, gore, and every filth imaginable.  Gretel is not here to impress you–she’s here to bite your fucking face off.


Not a figure of speech.

Gretel also doesn’t have many of the traits of a great fighter, because, well, she’s not actually that great.  Oh, she’s not a Faux Action Girl by any means.  The woman will bring the pain, no question.  But watch the movie again, and really watch her fight scenes.  She’s solid with a weapon, but in hand-to-hand, she just holds her own and never really gets the better of anyone.  Her main assets in combat are her quick thinking and tenacity–she gets the absolute shit kicked out of her, yet keeps getting back up.  Since she works as part of a tag team and most of her fights seem to be battles of attrition, that’s all she needs.  She’s merely competent, which paradoxically makes her rather extraordinary.  After all, how often do you see male action heroes who are just reasonably good at fighting, and when’s the last time you’ve seen a female fighter in a primary combat role who’s anything less than the best of the best?

I think I’m so drawn to Gretel for the simple reason that I’ve never seen anything quite like her before.  In an SFF landscape filled with action heroines who seem to have graduated from the same dojo, she’s a crass, scrappy knuckle sandwich of fresh air.  Really, it doesn’t take that much to create a new spin on something.  In this case, all you really needed was the fight choreographer.

Case Studies: Where to Start Your Novel

Case Studies: Where to Start Your Novel

(Standard spoiler warning applies to Chalice.  Additional disclaimer: I’m working off an uncorrected galley I scored a while back at San Diego Comic-Con.  One of these days I need to pick up a final version and see if anything’s different, but if I say something that makes you go, “Where the hell is she getting that?  It’s nowhere in the book!”, that’s why.)

You guys, I’ve become kind of addicted to Twitter live-slush.  On #tenqueries and its endless variations (I think the search function on my Tweetdeck is considering a restraining order), agents, editors, and contest readers go through and very briefly give their reactions to submissions.  Even before I started my own querying process, I found the cross-section of submissions and general consensus about what works and what doesn’t utterly fascinating.

Naturally, you start to see patterns crop up.  One I’ve been seeing a lot of, especially on the contest circuit, is the novel that starts in the wrong place.  It makes sense that this is a major stumbling block: slush readers go through a LOT of openings, and the sheer volume of submissions means they can’t allow much time to get hooked.  (Before you go complaining about the unfairness of it all, readers do the same thing.)

But this can also be murky water for a writer.  What does it mean to start in the wrong place?  What if you have a story whose relevant action covers years, generations, or longer?  What’s the balance between diving in and providing necessary exposition?

I just re-read Chalice by Robin McKinley for roughly the dozenth time, and I think it might provide some useful insight.  Here’s a basic recap of the story in chronological order (I assume you’ve read it if you’ve made it this far because I am really not kidding about these spoiler warnings):

In this world, the land is basically alive, tended by a Fisher King and council (at the head of which are the Master and the Chalice).  The old Master of Willowlands had two sons, the older careless and irresponsible and the younger more deeply invested in the land.  When the eldest becomes Master, the two clash to the point where the younger is sent away to become a priest of Fire.  The older brother proceeds to run roughshod over his land and his people, holding debauched parties and letting Willowlands literally fall apart.  One of these parties ends in a fire that kills several members of the household, including the Master and Chalice.  The role of Chalice passes to Mirasol, a beekeeper who received no training for her new powers, and a few months later, the younger brother returns from the Fire to become the new Master.  But he is no longer human, and his people fear and mistrust him.  Just as they’re all starting to get a handle on things, the Overlord names a new Heir, who almost immediately issues a challenge for the Mastership.

It’s complicated, to say the least, covering nearly a decade.  From this perspective, it seems difficult to find a way in that will immediately engage the reader and not drown them in history, politics, and mythology.  The point McKinley chooses as an opening might initially seem odd: the first scene shows the ex-Fire priest arriving to take his place as Master, an event that occurs less than a year before the end of the overall story.  And it’s not a How We Got Here scene, either, that frequently obnoxious tactic where a flash-forward to something actually interesting serves as a prologue to hide a slow beginning; action proceeds in a roughly linear fashion from this late entry.  Yet it’s exactly the right place to start.

So how do we know that this is where the novel properly begins?  After all, conventional wisdom says that the story should start with the pivotal moment of change for the hero, and our protagonist Mirasol has been Chalice for months at the novel’s start.  No, here we employ a different technique: to see where to begin, you have to look to the end.

The climax of the novel is the duel between Master and Heir.  The result is treated as a foregone conclusion, since the Master is still more flame than man and cannot lift a sword.  However, Mirasol’s bees intervene, swarming both men, stinging the Heir to death and restoring the Master to human.  (This last bit is never adequately explained, beyond the implicit “It’s a fairy tale, just go with it.”)  It ends with Master and Chalice standing shabby but victorious, having secured Willowlands and resolving to see it fully healed.

So the climax helps us determine the shape of the story (and not just the plot, meaning the stuff I described a couple of paragraphs back): it’s about Mirasol and the Master’s struggle to fit into the roles they’ve been unexpectedly and unsuitably thrust into, driven by their love and loyalty for their land and for each other.  The plot is about the restoration of Willowlands, but the story is about them, so naturally the first scene is their first meeting.  For bonus points, it also gives us a bookend, which is a favorite device of mine.  On each end of the novel, we have the Master and Chalice (along with the Grand Seneschal, next in command behind them) observing a complex and important ritual in front of the Master’s house; the beginning sees the three exhausted, uncertain, and impossibly distant from each other, but by the end, they are firmly united and hopeful for the future.

But then, what about the rest of the story?  All the stuff that came before that first meeting?  That’s the “roughly linear” part I mentioned earlier.  Though it seems like an awful lot of ground to cover, it’s really limited to two extended flashbacks: Mirasol first encountering the power of the Chalice, and the episode with her sealing up a fissure in a field.  This latter serves to neatly illustrate her time as Chalice with no Master, showing her inexperience and the instability of the land, condensing several months of the story.  As for the fatal accident and the history that led up to it, that’s all laid out in conversations between various characters throughout the novel.  The information is interwoven when needed, once we’re already invested and grounded in this world and its people.

Now, I don’t know what McKinley’s writing process was on this novel, whether she saw its structure from the beginning or had to tease it out over several drafts.  She had a few decades of experience by this point, so she may well have just walked in, knocked it out, dropped the mic, and walked out.  But for the rest of us, especially the pantsers, it’s something that takes time, perspective, and above all revision to find.  This is why I don’t bother to break myself of the execrable habit of starting the first draft with a character waking up.  It’s like doing vocal warm-ups before a concert: essential for me, but tedious and clunky for the audience, so damn good thing they don’t see that part, innit?  It’s only once I’ve gotten all the way through that I can see what the opening needs to accomplish and how to make that happen.

If you’re getting feedback that your story starts in the wrong place, take a step back and look at the big picture.  What story are you trying to tell?  What’s it all leading up to?  Once you find the thread that is going to take you all the way through to the end, it’s easier to trace it back to its beginning–that’s where you start your novel.

Case Studies: The Awesomes and Twisty Twists of Twisting

Case Studies: The Awesomes and Twisty Twists of Twisting

(Standard spoiler warning applies to season 1 of The Awesomes.)

I’ve not been doing much in the way of reading or writing lately, because my brain has been a tepid, unseasoned bowl of oatmeal that’s just shy of congealing.  In lieu of actually accomplishing anything yesterday, I watched the entire run of The Awesomes, Hulu’s excellent animated comedy about a team of powerful but unbalanced superheroes.  If you have not done so yourself, get over to Hulu immediately, you silly person.  There are only 14 half-hour episodes to date, it won’t take you that long.

Back?  Great!  Let’s spoil the shit out of some twists.

I have to admit, the big reveal of the mole perplexed me.  At the end of “Pageant” when Malocchio takes a call from his daughter, the cut back to her side of the conversation is accompanied by a tense music sting and dramatic close-ups.  My reaction was, “Wait, were we not supposed to know this?”

Seen here: Drama

Seen here: Drama

I may not be the best representative of this experience, since I am a TV Tropes search index that walks and talks in a rough approximation of a human woman.  But still, I feel like a good twist is really difficult to pull off.  You have to provide enough setup so that it doesn’t feel like an ass pull, but if there’s too much, it’s easily guessed by the viewer.

In this case, there’s honestly so much setup to Hotwire’s real identity that I’m not sure it should even qualify as a twist.  It’s abundantly clear that there’s something shady about her, as early as “Baby Got Backstory” when she can’t keep details straight and declines to go into a flashback.  Even in the pilot, Concierge points out that they don’t know anything about her history and background, when she’s fully researched all other members of the team.  If you haven’t picked it up by then, they pretty much come out and say it in the parallel world.  To recap, the Awesomes get zapped to an opposite world where heroes are villains and vice versa.  In this world, Malocchio is actually Benocchio, a hero who’s lost his sight.  He mentions that Hotwire’s voice sounds familiar and that he’s lost his daughter.  Then, near the end:

Hotwire: Your daughter…  She saved the day.

Benocchio: She was your opposite, yes?

Hotwire: Yes.

Benocchio: So that means–

Prock cuts in and drags Hotwire away, so we don’t find out what realization Benocchio just had.  Except we don’t actually need him to explain it, right?  The only real way his revelation could have been phrased is, “You are a villain because she was a hero,” or possibly, “You are the daughter of my opposite,” and they’d set up enough to confirm that before the interruption.  If Parallel Hotwire is Parallel Malocchio’s daughter, by the transitive property, we already know all we need to know.  There’s nothing more to reveal to the audience.

Of course, that makes it all about the dramatic irony.  Indeed, the conflict of “Pageant” centers around Prock’s suppression of his instincts and continued trust of Hotwire, juxtaposed with both Muscleman’s growing mistrust and Hotwire’s snooping.  Since Prock is our main protagonist and viewpoint character (as evidenced by the fact that we stay with him whenever he stops time), his being in love with a traitor is a major driving force of the story.  When he’s around for the revelations, the drama-heightening cues of cliffhangers and musical stings and camera angles all make sense.

But I’m still stuck on that one phone call.  Prock isn’t in that scene, so those dramatic cues aren’t meant to convey his emotional and mental state.  They’re purely for the audience, an audience that isn’t remotely surprised if they’ve been even half-awake up to this point.  Is this merely a misstep?  An overplaying of the hand?  Or is it something else?  It’s worth noting that The Awesomes is a comedy, so perhaps undermining the dramatic reveal is part of the joke, although the show is not particularly meta.

Perhaps the biggest lesson to be taken from all this is that you can’t depend on the big reveal.  The plotline of Hotwire torn between two loyalties and Prock blinded by his feelings, it all still works even if you see it coming.  A lot of stories bank so much on that A-HA moment that they forget to have it make sense.  (I’d make the Shyamalan joke here, but I don’t think it even needs to be said anymore.)   Certainly manipulation of the audience’s emotions and expectations is a big part of the game, but the audience isn’t a uniform entity.  Some will be way ahead of you because of spoilers or TV Tropes addiction, some will be lagging behind because they weren’t paying attention or ate paint chips as a child or whatever.  The story has to engage on multiple fronts, so that if some of them falter, it doesn’t bring the whole thing down.

Case Studies: Megamind and Fridge Logic

Case Studies: Megamind and Fridge Logic

(Standard spoiler warning applies to Megamind.)

Megamind is one of those movies that I think was really hindered by its marketing, and specifically the desire to be overly coy.  The impression that I got from the ad campaign was of a generic superhero movie, except the focus is on the villain.  Interesting, but not terribly riveting, especially since it came out right around the same time as Despicable Me, a supervillain movie that at least had a clear premise.

But I caught it on cable a while back, and was impressed.  See, they wanted so badly to push the whole “Hey, Brad Pitt’s a superhero” angle that they held back the most compelling detail: he dies ten minutes in.  What looks like a generic superhero movie actually has a fascinating and largely unexplored premise: what happens when the villain wins?

Anyway, it’s a really good movie, and for a while it entered my sleepy-time rotation.  (I need background noise in order to fall asleep, so a nice, familiar movie often fits the bill.)  When you watch a movie over and over again every night, you tend to notice certain things.

To rewind a bit: One of the things this movie handles really well is its gadgets.  None of this James Bondy one-and-done nonsense where the cool gadget serves precisely one purpose and then disappears.  Instead, there are two or three of Megamind’s (Will Ferrell) inventions that reappear throughout the film and drive the action.  One of these in particular is the watch pictured above, which generates a perfect disguise, including height, build, and voice.

Megamind uses the watch to escape prison at the beginning, then to disguise himself as Bernard, a curator at the Metro Man Museum, to avoid being caught in his pajamas by Roxanne Ritchi (Tina Fey).  He ends up pursuing a relationship with Roxanne in the Bernard disguise… but still voiced by Will Ferrell, even though the few lines of dialogue that Bernard speaks as himself are provided by Ben Stiller.

This, of course, opens up a bunch of plot holes.  Why did the voice duplication fail that one time?  How did Roxanne, who’s been kidnapped by Megamind repeatedly, not only fail to notice the change in Bernard’s voice (after all, she spoke to the real one almost immediately before he’s replaced by Megamind), but place it?  And hell, wouldn’t the real Bernard have been reported missing at some point, and wouldn’t Roxanne as a reporter have gotten wind of that?  Noticing one inconsistency opens the door for a bunch of others, and starts to pull down the delicate house of cards that comprises any story.

Of course, there’s a very good extranarrative reason for this: without a consistent voice actor, it might be harder for the audience to track the character’s growth throughout the film.  But my point, and a good takeaway for writers, is that extranarrative reasons aren’t enough.  It has to work within the narrative as well.

It wouldn’t have been that hard, in this case.  Have Will Ferrell voice both characters.  Have someone comment that Bernard’s voice changed.  Have Roxanne mention that he sounds kind of familiar, but dismiss the thought.  With this, as with a lot of similar cases, half a moment’s acknowledgment would have been enough to smooth it over.

Obviously, this is a minor thing.  I didn’t notice it at all until after repeated viewings of the film, and it doesn’t prevent me from enjoying it.  (That’s what makes it fridge logic–the kind of thing that only occurs to you much later–as opposed to a plot hole that immediately jolts you out of the story.)  But I think that minor inconsistencies like this are what prevents a good movie (or book, or play, or comic) from becoming a great one.  Granted, getting caught up in trying to create something “great” is a dangerous trap that prevents creators from actually finishing their stuff, but learning to recognize these little nuances is a big part of how you develop your instinct for what makes a story work.

Case Studies: Saving the world. You know, if that’s what you want.

Case Studies: Saving the world. You know, if that’s what you want.

I’m currently deep in rewrites, doing a final spit-shine and consistency check so I can hit my deadline for getting queries out.  Which means no time to write a new post.  I rewarded myself for having a productive few days by purchasing Wreck-It Ralph, because I am a toddler who needs to be bribed through adulthood.  So here’s a post about that lovely little movie resurrected from the old blog.  Standard spoiler warning applies.


Let’s be honest, there’s no way I wasn’t going to like Wreck-It Ralph.  I was raised on a combination of Disney movies and video games.  (There were parents somewhere in there, too, I think.)  (Kidding, Mom.)  From the very first trailers, I was stoked.  Having just gotten back from seeing it as a reward for finishing NaNoWriMo, I not only enjoyed it, but I think it’s one of those movies that every writer should see.  There are a few movies that should be required viewing because they illustrate very important concepts, and Wreck-It Ralph is practically a textbook for two vitally important, and very difficult, elements of storytelling:

Stakes and Motivation

Ralph (John C. Reilly) is the villain of a game called Fix-It Felix Jr.  He’s tired of being unappreciated and neglected by the other residents of his game, so when one of them tells him that he can join them in the penthouse when he gets a medal of his own, he leaves to do just that.  He earns his medal in a realistic shooter called Hero’s Duty, but crashes into a candy-colored racing game Sugar Rush and gets it stolen by Vanellope (Sarah Silverman).  Finding his game out of order and in danger of being shut off without its villain, Felix (Jack McBrayer) goes off in search of him, teaming up with Calhoun (Jane Lynch) from the FPS.

In this setup, we have four major characters, each with a very clear motivation:

Ralph wants respect and companionship.

Vanellope wants to become a real racer.

Felix wants to bring Ralph back.

Calhoun wants to stop the dangerous cybug that escaped into Sugar Rush with Ralph.

Motivation is one of the most important things about writing a character, because their one motivation needs to define everything they do.  There can be other countervailing pressures, but the most compelling characters have a single goal that informs every choice they make.

But it’s not enough to want something; there has to be some reason that it’s important.  Janet Reid, who runs the brilliant blog Query Shark (which should also be required reading for anyone looking to get published, by the way), boils down the essence of a good query/pitch to three elements:

  1. Who’s the main character?
  2. What choice do they have to make?
  3. What are the consequences of making or not making that choice?

It’s that third element, the stakes, that a lot of people struggle with.  How do you make your readers care about this goal as much as your character does?  You have to show what’s at stake.

Each character in this movie has not only very clear stakes, but stakes that run a huge gamut in scope.  To wit:

If Ralph fails, his life will never improve.

If Vanellope fails, she can never be chosen as a player avatar.

If Felix fails, his home will be destroyed.

If Calhoun fails, the cybugs will overrun the entire arcade.

So many writers fall into the trap of thinking that high stakes must mean life-or-death, earth-shattering kaboom sort of situations.  Not that those aren’t really high stakes, but things get kind of dull if those are the only stories out there, you know?  The beauty of Wreck-It Ralph is how these stakes intertwine and escalate.  The climax centers around getting Vanellope safely across the finish line, even as the cybugs start swarming.  Critically, the focus always remains on the personal stakes: Ralph has to find a way to stop the cybugs not to save everyone, since they’re able to evacuate all of the other residents, but to save Vanellope, who is unable to leave.  Indeed, Ralph makes several difficult choices throughout the course of the movie, and all of them are tied to the other characters’ motives and stakes.

Oh, and don’t forget your villain!  Remember, villains are characters who want important things just like everyone else.  Villains who are bad just for evil’s sake stop being interesting around the time you turn 4 or 5 and discover that people don’t work like that.  Within his game, Ralph is trying to destroy the apartments because he wants his land back.  In the larger story, King Candy (Alan Tudyk) is concerned that Vanellope’s glitch will get their game turned off if she’s allowed to race.  Granted, the ol’ King’s not entirely honest about his motives, but that’s okay.  What’s important is that he acts in a manner that’s consistent and understandable, even when it crosses into the unsympathetic.  Remember, he’s the hero of his own game.  The villain’s motivations have to feel just as authentic as everyone else’s.  They’re only really scary when you know exactly why they’ll stop at nothing to get what they want; that is, when you understand what’s at stake for them.

There are other reasons I think that Wreck-It Ralph is a very good and very enjoyable movie (and those aren’t always the same thing).  But there are movies once in a while that you should not only just watch, but take notes on, analyze, take apart, find out what makes them tick.  I think this is one of those.  There’s a lot to learn about character development here, and about the way your characters should be the ones driving the story.