Friday, December 29, 2006

Some other things for your bag of tricks...!

Consider this more of a catch-all entry for some interesting tricks you may want to try sometime. After this, I’ll get serious about characters…

Irony: Regardless of the dictionary definition, “irony” iswhen something happens that comes as a surprise, but you’ve managed to earn it. Unlike a bad movie, where the plot twist is put in there just to have a plot twist (such as the murderer being someone completely out of left field, or a psycho killer that couldn’t have done it in the first place due to logistics reasons), irony can be something real fun for the reader and writer. The best example is probably MD Geist, where a person that acts like a villain, but you expect to come around, well, doesn’t.

The point here is that you need to “earn” your irony. Throw in some subtle (or not-so-subtle) clues at the beginning, and then just leave them alone. Towards the end, spring it. If it’s been done right, it will come across as great. Never have a plot twist just for the sake of having a plot twist, or your readers will cry foul, and you’ll not be very liked in the community afterwards (especially if it involves doing something nasty to a well-loved character!).

Dramatic Irony: People love knowing things that others don’t, and this is the ultimate expression of that. Dramatic irony is when the audience knows something that the characters don’t. In essence, there are two kinds here: The first is when characters reveal information that other characters don’t know. For example, the villain’s plans or a piece of vital information. In this version, the other characters act without knowledge of that information, usually to their sorrow (such as being in the middle of an ambush or if the information was vital). The readers know the information, and squirm because they know what’s going to happen, and can’t warn anyone that can do something about it.

The second version is when none of the characters know something that the player’s do. The usual variation of this is when clues are laid out on how to solve a problem, but the characters don’t put it together because they lack the reader’s perspective. Eventually (and hopefully) the characters will start putting it together, but the readers will be so smug until then.

Prophecy: In this case, I’m actually not referring to the usual twenty-seven verses of clues to the future that the characters need to unravel. I’m actually referring to showing the end results of something that happens in the story before the story actually gets going. For example, showing gravestones and characters that are scarred, and then going back to the past, where the story is just starting. Besides throwing a somber mood over everything, you’ll find that some readers will get fanatic, especially if one of the doomed characters becomes really popular. I’d hate to be the author that did that, but it can make for some interesting reading…

Parallel Narration: Although it’s usually used in flashbacks, it can add some interesting suspense or humor to something going on. The basic idea is that, as something is going on, you provide a narrative from other characters. Note: Not the usual caption-style, where the writer tries to explain something, but where you show something going, and a character describes what is happening. The character supplies added information, as well as describing what’s going on. It may sound redundant, but it works; it comes across as a mix of campfire story-telling and confessional. It works really well as part of a flashback, especially when a character is revealing a major secret.

For suspense purposes, it works well when the character is describing what should be happening, but the plan goes slightly awry. For example, the character says, “They should be reaching the door right about now. Good thing there weren’t any guards.” Of course, the group being described is heading into an obvious ambush (readers can see the bad guys in the shadows). In essence, the situation that the character is describing is about to go south, the character can’t do anything about, and there will soon be major issues to deal with.

If you want to try it for comedy, the narration has to be 75% accurate. That is, although the basics are there in the narration, it’s describing a mission that’s completely different. The classic example is when the narrator is describing a super-serious spy mission, but the actual action is more like a trip to the mall: “There was a frenzied melee, from which I barely survived!” sounds all nice and scary, but not when it’s describing a sale in a clothing store.

Acting Appropriately Stupid: For those few that really need an example: You ever see a person head off alone to check something out in a movie, and then die horribly? No matter how prideful a person is, walking into almost-certain death without back-up would probably not be a strong possibility. However, you need those occasional moments; they’re fun to do, incredibly dramatic, and can create some great visuals. Yeah, it may sound really, really bad, but it is one of those reasons that some people get into comics in the first place…

Normal Human Reactions: It may sound silly, but remember that you need your characters to react normally in some situations. If something happens, remember that it can be fun for the characters to react as they normally would, not as your plot demands that they do. I’m considering those moments when everyone glares at another character, or something embarrassing happens and they laugh at a character, or when the camera is supposed to off moments happen (walking with the girl in a park, for example).

If these are done right, they come off as unscripted and really cool; if done poorly, they come off as contrived and just annoying. So practice a few times before you try to pull one off, or your fan base will desert you…

But what about the baby plots?

Okay, creating a big plot is easy. You define a conflict big enough to get everyone involved, and then just figure out how everyone fits into it. Subplots, however, are harder.

A subplot doesn’t usually involve more than two or three characters; just because a number of characters may know of it, doesn’t mean that they are involved. However, let’s cover ourselves by pointing that there are numerous kinds of subplots, and one is the plot’s subplot (yeah, the plot can have its own subplots); however, I’m going to leave that one alone for a little bit, okay? The major kinds of subplots are side-trip subplots, conflict resolution, romantic subplots, and running gags.

Side-trip subplots are usually only seen in long-running comics. The basic idea is that occasionally you need a break from the plot, and so one or more of the characters are sent on a personal quest, even if that personal quest is just to get a great tan. This gives everyone a chance to blow off some steam, and just try something new. In regular comics, they would be considered one-shots and limited series; in webcomics, they are considered “intermissions”. Nip and Tuck has some great examples, as do most of the better comic books. If you want to see a great quest subplot, track down X-Men (old series) #247, where the X-guys go and try to get drunk in Australia, but end up saving the world from an invasion (they were making fun of DC’s Invasion maxi-series, which needed to be made fun of). Other examples of quest subplots are from TV shows; you know, the episodes which have little to do with the regular plot, but nonetheless showcase one character and is usually done either more dramatically than the rest of the series, or, more likely, more humorously? Yeah, that one. They’re great to do when it’s getting too serious or too silly, and you need a break. Just mentioning it, as it’s done so rarely, but making sure that you don’t trip over it when it does show up.

Conflict resolution is when the character is allowed to resolve his personal conflict, but in such a way that it doesn’t affect the plot directly. These can be highly useful when you want to highlight just why someone is part of the plot, or what they offer to the team, but can’t figure out how to make them part of the plot proper. As long as they involve the theme of the plot, they should be okay. If, on the other hand, you just want to have fun with the character, wait until you hit a point where the comic needs to take a break from the main action, and involve the character in a side-trip.

You should always have at least one romantic subplot. Obviously, a romantic subplot involves at least two of the characters, and may involve more of them (such as the dreaded romantic triangles). The basic concept is that they tend to draw in readers by promising sex, even if does just tease it, and, well, is arguably realistic, as it’s just a matter of time before someone would fall in love. In shojo manga, they are pretty much mandatory (girls love romance, and it’s part of the wish fulfillment represented by such characters); in shonen manga, however, the romantic subplot may either be severely downplayed, or be replaced by a relationship that’s based on hero-worship, or may even feature a same-sex relationship. Just have fun with it; even if it degenerates into a love cube, they tend to add to conflicts, as well as make for some interesting denouements.

Running gags are a very weird kind of subplot. Some actually involve plotting, others are just interesting scenes strung together. Some are even just quirky observations. Nonetheless, they do need to be noted. The best kind of running gags are when you use them to break up the pace a bit, and put them towards the front, so that they add to character development. Others can add that special “UMPH!” to the finale, as a character that has, for example, been trying to do something all during the plot, keeps getting frustrated because he just about but not quite nails it, and then manages to do it at the end. These are usually sex-based (such as in “Porky’s”, where Peewee is doing his level best to lose his virginity, but fails horribly several times, until he loses it in the movie’s final scenes), but can be tied to the plot as well (the major invention that the mad scientist keeps getting wrong gives the good guys a major advantage when he finally gets it right), or can be a source of frustration for the readers (for example, having a character’s major secret not reveal itself, but nonetheless constantly being brought up; of course, revealing at the end makes the reveal so much sweeter!). Just remember to have fun with it, and remember to not let it get in the way of the real plot.

Hopefully, that gives you some other stuff to use when you plot your comic. If not, why not? Yeesh…

Ready to fight?

[I’m going to eschew the classical conflicts. They may be useful in English class or in literary discussions, but we need to look at them from a writer’s perspective.]

In simplistic terms, a conflict is what the main issue of a given character; it’s what he’s trying to solve or deal with. As far as the story is concerned, all conflicts should tie into the theme.

You are going to have various conflicts going on. Obviously, you will have some sort of exterior conflict that overarches all other conflicts; individual conflicts need to be defined in terms of the big exterior conflict. War, or other competition, is popular for this purpose because, well, they are easy to get everyone into. Consider war for a moment: It involves all the characters, and aligns them into two or more teams. It becomes really easy to determine who is allied with who, and it helps simplify work for the writer.

Same with competitions, however, competitions allow you to break down the big sides into individual teams, and complicate things a bit. After all, you can go crazy defining allies and competitors, even aligning them into meta-teams, and it can get really weird really quick. For example, you can have a lot of teams that come from various countries/cities/villages, and the teams from those villages are aligned together. You can have a team from one country ally with a team from another country in order to help nail a third team from either a completely different country, or from one of the two countries already mentioned. Even with just four teams from a country, and three countries, you can have endless possible conflicts.

Another possibility is to have something that forces everyone to work together, like a natural disaster, a bigger enemy, or even just something (like getting caught on a ship in a storm) that forces them together. You can still have one (or more) sides working to use the emergency to off one of the sides, or even weaken another side for an easy kill afterwards, but they need to work together for the duration of the emergency.

However, each character needs to have at least one defining conflict, preferably an interior one. For example, are they having a crisis of personal faith? Problems with (annoying/missing/dead) parents? Trying to learn how to use new abilities? Not sure if they can handle the stress of the situation? Have an ability that can kill them if used, and thus afraid to use it? Heck, afraid of losing their humanity? How about trying to fall in love? Or even not sure if they belong to the group in question?

You’ll find that most inner conflicts are faith or confidence related. Most people are not sure of themselves on some level, and writers are definitely in that group, and so it’s easy to relate to. You need to realize that a conflict is created by wanting something that they lack; figure out what the missing element is, and that’s your conflict.

And bear in mind that even your antagonists need conflicts as well. Sure, Dread Overlord Deathmate wants to take over the multiverse, but why? If he wants to destroy it, don’t just leave it at that; why does he want to destroy it? Maybe he fell in love with someone long ago, and wants to commit suicide so he can forget her, but can’t bring himself to commit suicide, but if he tries to destroy the multiverse, someone may succeed at killing him (thus committing suicide by proxy). Obviously, overcoming that grief or getting killed is his conflict. Lesser villains obviously have smaller conflicts.

Conflicts tend to make your character more three-dimensional; after all, they may have really cool powers and skills, and even a function, but they need the conflict to make them even more human. They also help you write them, as you now have a way to link them to the plot (a conflict makes their involvement necessary, so that they can resolve their conflict), as well as something to do with that character (if you ever get writer’s block, you can just look at any unresolved conflicts, and look at ways to at least partially resolve them).

In short, conflicts not only make your life easier, but they make sure that you keep readers...

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Hey! It's time for characters!

Okay, remember how I said you needed to wait on developing the plot before worrying about characters? The reason is simple: It’s easier to make characters when you know where they will fit.

Think about that for a moment. When you create the characters first, you are stuck with the characters that you have created. You’ll almost feel guilty about throwing a character out. If you find that you don’t need a character, you’ll try to write that character in, no matter what damage you will do to the plot. On the other hand, if you wait until the plot has been developed, you’ll know exactly what characters you need, which makes designing them a bit easier.

Another consideration is that by looking at the plot, you’ll see some characters jump out at you as needed that you hadn’t considered. Even better, you’ll be able to see where you need minor characters that you didn’t think about when designing the characters in the first place.

Keep in mind that you can always change the plot; it’s hardly immutable. However, the plot gives you an excellent skeleton on which to place your story. If you decide that a minor character would be fun to have a romance with, or otherwise need to give him more lines, so to speak, go ahead; plug into the plot and see what happens. If nothing else, the romance can either end up helping later on, thus bridging a potential plot gap, or add a more organic feel to the comic.

By setting up the plot, you’ve also decided how dark or light the story will be, and your characters can be designed accordingly. And, since your plot only dictates the basics of the characters, you can design full backstories for them. Had you designed the characters first, then you would have been meshing in all sorts of strange backgrounds without much care how they really connected.

Oh, and don’t be stuck by some silly arbitrary number when you create characters. It’s easy to say that you need X characters per Y pages; that’s hogwash. Just realize that there is a balance that needs to be struck: The fewer characters you have, the more you can explore their backgrounds, but they also need to be far more capable (after all, they’ll be needing to do more). On the other hand, if you have a larger cast, you may not be able to explore their backgrounds as much, but you can also have more fun, you don’t need to worry about consistency as much, and you don’t need massively able characters (which means that the combats won’t last as long).

In short, by doing the plot first you save yourself some grief later on. And that can be a great thing when you have some world-spanning epic you are debating…

So...What does it look like all strung together?

Okay, so what does this all look like together?

Let me show you with a quicky script for Sex Percussion:

Okay, I need a quick script; this is your basic “fill in the intermission” piece. So, figure 10-15 pages. I also need something that isn’t epic; something light or different from the norm will do nicely. I decided to something that’s a straight contest of wills.

It should be no surprise that Simon is my favorite. So…something with him. I figure something that involves Donal is probably also a wise idea, and it would be nice to explore Simon’s backstory a bit. Okay, I’m playing with the shonen-ai (man-on-man love, but with relationships) angle a bit with those two, so I need something that expands on that. At the same time, I’ve established that Simon comes from a tribe of shape-shifters (were-lynx, specifically), and that he’s basically a breeder. So, if he wants to explore a gay relationship, he needs to probably get some time off.

Now, since he is based of a World Of Darkness character I run, I have an interesting solution: There is a rite called “Nala’s Boon to Kin”, whereby a Kinfolk character can ask his kin for a favor, but he needs to needs to do a favor for three of them. Thus, I have my conflict (Man vs. Culture) and Theme (What would you do for love?). I need it simple, so I figure two of them will have him nail poachers, and the third will make him do it in a loincloth. Each one of them gives him a tattoo that will fade when he completes the assignment.

Now, I need a twist. What if the poachers are together, guiding another person through the woods. That other person is the actual challenge, and Simon will need to defeat him in order to get back to civilization. Heck, let’s make that other person a werewolf; Simon is a purely mental city boy character, so a purely physical woodlands character will be a nice challenge, especially as the action happens in the woods. I also decide that there will be three poachers, and the werewolf.

Oh yeah, I need two act breaks: I figure I want to end an up-note, so the first act and third act need to be rising up, and that makes the second act need to be falling down. So, the first act break will be when the werewolf reveals itself, and the second act break will be when Simon realizes that he can fight back.

So, summing up:

Plot: Simon needs to complete three mini-quests so that he can spend a year with Donal. Theme: What would you do for love? Act Break I: Werewolf shows up Act Break II: Simon figures that he can fight back.

I then set up the following plot:

Flashback: Night w/three werekitties painting tatoos on Simon. They giggle as they him their quests Current: Simon stalks the group, waiting his chance One hunter sets up camp as the others continue The camp and the hunter are swallowed by the earth Two hunters stop to enjoy a spring as the other decides to fish The fisherman is surrounded by fish The fish attack, pushing him into the river where he is eaten The other two start to dress One falls, a spear in his back The other hunter glares at Simon as one of his tatoos fades

**The hunter shifts to Crinos** (Act Break I) Simon is not happy The werewolf charges Simon dodges, but is scratched nonetheless The werewolf throws a punch Simon tosses it, landing the werewolf in a snowbank Simon runs The werewolf smiles and runs after him

**Simon casts two spells as he runs, but doesn't complete them** (Act Break II) The werewolf traps Simon in a canyon Simon completes the spells as the werewolf leaps Simon teleports to the top of the canyon as an avalanche fills the canyon Simon smiles, until he sees the werewolf crawling out Simon frowns The werewolf shakes it off, sees Simon, and smiles Simon pulls a gun from his medicine bag, loads a clip, and shoots The werewolf falls as another tatoo fades Later: Simon delivers four hairs to the werekitties and another tatoo fades Even later: Simon is in a hot tub w/Donal

Okay…The plot is now set up. But what about the characters?