So, if it hasn't been already been made clear from other comments I've made, I really enjoy talking about writing. Both in terms of specifically talking about my own work, talking about other works I've read, and talking about the writing process as a whole. And while there is a writing channel on the discord for it, I feel like it's a shame to have such discussion lost to the distant archives of a distant channel, so here's a thread for it.
Anyway, I'm going to start with my general thesis on storytelling as a whole.
Stories are about conflict.
And of this conflict, the vast majority of this conflict is character vs character. Now, most isn't all; you can have conflict with outside, impersonal forces (whether animals, the environment, or simply a hard task they're trying to finish), and also internal conflict, where someone's almost at war with themself over a difficult decision, involving multiple things they really do (or don't) want. And these are also great things to have with a story, and can work perfectly well, they're just harder (at least for me) to set up and execute than character vs character conflict. So I'm going to focus on that.
Now, when it comes to conflict between characters, setting it up ties into how I approach characterization in the first place. Every character, in every scene, should have some goal they're working towards. And I don't mean a grand goal like "Resolve the incident" or "Romance <insert touhou here>", I mean a short-term goal that ties into those larger goals. Conflict comes from having multiple characters with different goals, each pushing for what they want. Even if characters are on the same side in the context of the larger story, if their immediate goals are different, you still get conflict. As a bonus, if you understand what a character's goals are, it becomes a lot easier to write their actions.
Another nice thing is that this conflict-driven model of storytelling can work for any type of story, from dramatic to romance to slice of life. Marisa could be fighting Patchouli because Remilia started an incident, or they could be fighting because she's "borrowing" books again. You could write the exact same fight, with the exact same combatants, settings, and even danmaku, almost bullet for bullet... and yet the scene could still fit into almost any genre depending on the goals involved.
On the flip side, one way in which scenes can be difficult or boring to write is if there's not enough conflict involved. One common culprit of this is what I like to call "Yes man" conversations. Suppose you have a bunch of characters who are on the same team, but were out doing different things (accomplishing smaller story-relevant goals), and you need to get them on the same page for the big climactic team-up. It makes sense for them to all meet up, catch everyone up on recent events, and then move on to the big conflict.
But there's a slight problem with that. What do they even talk about? Rehashing the scenes you just went through is boring. Planning is all well and good, but even with a little problem-solving thrown in, it often boils down to "Why not do this?", "Oh yeah, that's smart," and the conversation just kind of dies. It doesn't feel right to have the big pre-showdown meeting be a thousand words, and yet there's almost nothing to talk about.
To give a concrete example, suppose that Reimu, Marisa, and Alice, having figured out the culprit behind the story's incident, need to plan the final attack on the Scarlet Devil Mansion. You've got some ideas for the fight scenes you want to have, and you decide that you as an author want to set it up so the climax ends up with Marisa magic duels Patchy before stumbling upon Flandre, while Alice pits her dolls against Sakuya's timestop and Reimu takes on Remilia. (Along with Meiling getting smacked around as the first strike because haha, poor china.)
Except... trying to write the conversation where they actually decide that feels forced, boring, and unsatisfying. (If you don't see it, by all means, treat it as a writing prompt and try your hand at it.) Sometimes you can skip past it (the good old "unspoken plan guarantee"), but other times that's not really an option, especially if you need some crucial detail to come to light in the conversation itself.
The problem here is that every character in the conversation has the exact same goal: "Attack the SDM and resolve the incident." You might have planned out future conflict for the actual battles, but the story's not there yet, and this specific scene has no conflict involved! The good news is, this can be changed by giving your characters a little additional motivation.
For instance, let's say that Marisa really wants to "borrow" a few more books from Patchy, and whatever else she can liberate while the mansion's stronger defenders are occupied. As a result, she really wants a plan where she can peel off and loot the mansion while Reimu's stuck in the thick of the fighting. But at the same time, Alice wants to keep an eye on Marisa, but not because she's worried or cares about her, or anything! And Reimu is just generally pissed off and just wants them all to pull off a full frontal assault on the mansion, tactics and subtlety be damned.
All of a sudden, the "plan the assault" scene is so much easier to write, because everyone's got their own goal. (Again, try it as a writing prompt if you don't believe me.) Even though they're on the same side, they still have conflict, because they're all trying to make the plan fit their personal goals, and those goals are mutually exclusive. The extra layer of motives gives them something to argue for, as well as more room to play around in the conversation and explore character dynamics.
In short, when writing a scene, first figure out what the goals (both long term and immediate) are for each character. The more different goals you have, the more conflict you get. And if you don't have anything, then add a little more detail to those characters to create that conflict. It doesn't need to be serious; it could be one character teasing another about a crush, or an argument about who lasted longer the last time Suika drank everyone under the table. But conflict brings life to the story, and any scene without it will end up feeling flat.
As an aside, it's also possible for goals to change mid-scene, if the information available or the character's emotional state changes enough. This is more common with smaller goals (going back to the SDM assault planning example, maybe Alice decides that Marisa is a jerk and she doesn't actually care what happens to her, SO THERE!), but it could also happen to a major goal with a shocking enough reveal.
I think it’s a fine idea to have a thread about writing. It’s an interesting conversation to have.
>Stories are about conflict. This seems altogether too reductionist to me. That isn’t to say that conflict isn’t an important or, perhaps, the most important part to a story but I feel like there’s too many qualifying asterisks or instances “yes, but…” to accept it uncritically. I’ll say that there’s a lot of contrast and framing that complements conflict, among other things, and leave it clumsily and imperfectly at that, because I think what you use to explain yourself is more interesting to dissect right now.
>the vast majority of this conflict is character vs character A hard disagree from me there. This is certainly true of something like one of the touhou video games, but that’s because it’s necessarily adversarial to function as a game. It is also true in various pieces of media and particularly of styles of media but it is far from a universal truth. Though it’s clear from the rest of what you’re saying that you’re not exactly limiting yourself to simple “man vs man” type conflicts, I’d still say that you’re limiting yourself to a very small part of storytelling.
I do not put this forward as a call towards authority, tradition, or even majority taste, but I encourage you to think of examples of fiction and literature in general that have stuck with you personally and with society at large. Internal conflict, conflict with society/expectations, destiny/nature, etc are indeed the majority of the conflict among the corpus of civilization. This is not to say that character conflict isn’t important or also not there in those works but that they are not really what they are about nor do they necessarily contribute in major fashion to how the plot develops. Think about how most of their scenes/chapters develop. Read passages of books that you like. Often it is the narrator and/or the protagonist that set the tone and how plot progresses with their perception and reaction driving development more than the goals of others.
I hesitate to name actual examples of works because I know tastes and exposure vary and that it may cause the conversation to veer into a useless example-counter-example type exchange. I can expand on this if asked, though.
It’s also rare to have a large cast being prominent all at once because it gets difficult for the reader to keep track of too much information. A lot of omissions happen and things are glossed over or left open to interpretation. A scene as in your example might well be just following one or two characters with the others engaging in auxiliary roles and being differentiated from a group or the general action as needed. If it is important to explore their own experiences then what books often do is to switch perspective and break up the progression of scenes. I’ll get back to a more general comment in an instant.
But at this point I’ll step back and say that for the purposes of THP, it may definitely seem that what you’ve said is central; many of the stories are showcases for the characters or even slice-of-life and thus seems reasonable that character vs character conflict may be favored. But this seems to me more as a byproduct of the types of stories many have chose to write here—possibly even a recurring habit in in fanfiction—rather than an immutable truth and universal starting point. I think that the serialized tendencies of the works here also lead to favoring that perspective—the urge to feel like “something” is always happening is something I can relate to.
It is certainly reasonable to keep in mind that characters have their own objectives and personalities but this does not necessarily need to translate into what is understood as conflict in narrative.
But well, I’d suggest that perhaps it is better to reframe this discussion in the first place. Think about why you’re writing the scene and what happens in it. In the example with all those characters, is it important to show all of them doing something? What does that contribute to the plot, tone, characterization etc? I think that it’s more important to try to have only what you need to have to tell the story you want and omit scenes or moments that don’t work in the first place.
If it feels contrived to have the characters all coming to this one point that you think is necessary, then maybe take a step back and rethink what you’re doing. Ideally, you’d want to have that figured out well in advance, as you’re thinking up the story. It doesn’t have to be a concrete event either but also can be a state the characters/world find themselves in or something along those lines.
I could go on but it strikes me like maybe this post may come off like I’m disagreeing excessively or talking at cross-purposes (especially with regards to what conflict means) when that isn’t the intent. To be clear, I will restate that I agree that it’s useful to think about characters and their motivations when writing though my own development from there on is less deterministic and more advisory, something to refer back to as things progress. That said, I hope this post is at least food for thought even if I feel like I did a bad job of explaining myself in detail or persuasively. There’s a lot that I could say about my own writing experience as well as things that I’ve enjoyed reading but that will have to wait until another post whenever I can organize my thoughts.
Lost Soul!K7yo62LHdE2023/06/16 (Fri) 16:54No. 16992▼
>>16991 Fair points. It might be a bit of exaggeration to say that conflict is the only thing stories are about, but I do think there's a case to be made that conflict is really the lifeblood of the story. I think the other half of it is that I'm using a much wider definition of conflict than you'd use for normal discussion. Two people quibbling over where to have dinner isn't something you'd really call "conflict", but I consider it such from a writing perspective.
Anyway, to move on to a new topic, I'm going to talk about one of the most common failings I see in writing, and that's the power fantasy.
Have you ever read a story where the main character(s) can seemingly do no wrong? Typically the story premise is something along the lines of "<Main Character> has a different power than usual, how will this change things?", or "What if <so and so> was the one in the place of <Main Character>, what then?". This is not an inherently bad premise, mind. A bit obvious, but the idea of a setting changing in dramatic ways through changing one small detail can be an interesting one to explore. The problem here is in the execution, because ninety percent of the time, the way in which the setting changes is that the main character(s) effortlessly bulldoze their way through every antagonistic force in the setting.
I don't actually see this one as much on THP, so instead I'm going to look at a different fandom: Worm.
For those unfamiliar, Worm is basically a grim and gritty superhero setting. There's a large number of moderately successful villainous gangs, a handful of complete monsters roaming around, and the heroic government has corruption lurking beneath the surface. The main character (Taylor) is, for most of the story, a villain who wanted to be a hero, and comes into conflict with pretty much all of those elements at one point or another.
And for the record, in canon, Taylor is wildly successful. Her team and friends manage to make it through everything through a remarkable string of victories and largely intact. But here's the important thing. It's pretty much never a flawless victory. Taylor's successes in battle are largely counterbalanced by failures and compromises elsewhere.
For example, early on she joins a villainous team with the idea of feeding the heroes information on said team and their boss. However, even as she's very much successful with that team, this has other consequences for her: The secrets she's keeping with her dad result in an argument that ends with her moving out and cutting contact. The damage she's done to the heroes leave her flat out branded as a villain, and stuck with said new team.
In short, her actions have consequences, and she has to deal with the consequences of those actions. Throughout the story there end up being three main things Taylor cares about: Her team, her city, and being a hero, and she never gets to have all three at the same time. (To be fair, the city mostly isn't her fault.) And if you look at the cast as a whole, some die, some get traumatized, one in particular just kind of snaps, and in general, bad things happen to sympathetic characters.
And the reason I bring all of this up is because when you look at most fanworks of Worm, you don't see any of these mixed or pyrrhic victories. The average Worm fanwork treats the problems of the setting as a checklist.
[-] Defeat the Empire (local gang 1) [-] Defeat the ABB (local gang 2) [-] Defeat Coil (local gang 3) [-] Defeat the Merchants, clean up the city (local gang 4) [-] Find Taylor whatever love interest you want her to have (personal goal 1) [-] Fix Taylor's relationship with her dad (personal goal 2) [-] Bring hilariously humiliating justice to the trio that bullied Taylor in school (personal goal 3) [-] Become a locally, then nationally renowned hero/villain/whatever you feel like (personal goal 4) [-] Expose or redeem the corrupt elements within the PRT/heroes [-] That one mentally troubled hero who snapped in canon? They get medical care or some kind of subtle conversational hint that just happens to solve their issues. [-] Defeat the Slaughterhouse 9 (Monster group 1) [-] Defeat the Endbringers (Monster group 2) [-] Deal with Cauldron (Well-intentioned group that tried to save the world in the worst way possible) [-] Accomplish Cauldron's main goal (defeating Monster 3, who shall remain unnamed) without any of the struggle or moral ambiguity they had. [-] Ride off into the sunset, having singlehandedly saved the world and defeated all of the setting's problems, both major and minor, while also maintaining the moral high ground and vastly improving your personal life.
You probably got the idea of where the list was going well before the halfway point, right? Nothing bad is ever allowed to happen. The main character will never fail, they will always find a way through the antagonist of the chapter, and will always reach a complete victory. This is why I call these stories power fantasies. If every single situation works out perfectly for the main character(s), that's a power fantasy.. The problem is, this sort of story has consequences.
The first problem is that your protagonist, however unwittingly, has become a Mary Sue. When everything they do ends perfectly, they've become functionally perfect, even if people within the story don't treat them that way. This also means that you can almost instantly judge how good or terrible of a fate a character will have based on how they treat the main protagonist.
The second problem is that there's no tension to the story. Why would the reader be worried about what happens to the characters when it's been proven time and time again that nothing bad will ever happen? Sure, the next villain might look imposing, but he'll be dismantled just as quickly as the last six.
The third problem is that your story has no potential for character growth. Character growth happens through overcoming flaws, and a flaw that never results in negative consequences is a flaw in name only. The only sort of "character development" that happens in these stories is that everyone becomes the happiest, most successful version of themselves, quickly overcoming their canon hang-ups, all thanks to a helpful nudge from the perfect protagonist. With the exception of those that the protagonist/author have decided don't deserve happiness, those will get appropriately punished (on the scale from humiliation to "fate worse than death"), while still maintaining the protagonist's moral superiority.
To steal a bit of writing advice from Jim Butcher: The death knell for any story is when the reader says "I don't care what happens to these characters." The combination of anticipation and worry regarding what's going to happen a character next is a large part of what makes stories worth reading. The reader wants to know what will happen next, and how the character will deal with it. A power fantasy ruins that, because you know the answers to those questions without even needing to read it. You know exactly who's going to get their happily ever after, and who's going to end up dead or worse. And while there might be some moments that are legitimately entertaining or cool, there will never be any dramatic tension, any genuine worry, or any of the catharsis of a hard-fought victory.
In short, the story has descended to the level of a comic book. You know Superman is going to save the day, the only real question is how. (I'm actually not being fair to the comic books here. For example, Spider-man is well known for having a complete mess of a personal life, which is noticeably more in the way of conflict than most power fantasies have.)
Basically, what I'm trying to get at here is that if you want to have any sort of dramatic tension in your story, there has to be real concern that your characters will fail, and that means that sometimes your characters need to fail at goals that matter to them. Everyone wants to write those big dramatic scenes where their favorite character pulls out all the stops and gets a resounding victory... but the more of those scenes you write, the less meaningful each victory is. The power fantasy is the logical conclusion of this, where every scene is a complete victory, and all of them feel inevitable, and thus meaningless.
Anyway, speaking of writing advice from Jim Butcher, this post (specifically the bit under the SETBACK heading) is pretty relevant. Read it if you want an idea of how not writing complete victories works in practice. https://jimbutcher.livejournal.com/2647.html
I enjoy power fantasy stories, but don't agree that the genre inevitably descends into Mary Suedom. The essence of a power fantasy story is that it transcends the conventional limitations of our flawed and boring existence in a way that brings continuous, moment-to-moment satisfaction. A power fantasy protagonist need not be a Mary Sue if their continued victories are a result of an increased understanding of both themselves and how their power/intelligence/skill relates to the ever evolving conflict around them.
Problems(such as the Mary Sue thing) only arise when these victories are disproportionate or unrelated to the protagonist's wealth of new experiences, and start to feel unexplained, undeserved, or unrealistic.
An example of this would the The Perfect Run. We know that the immortal, time-travelling protagonist Ryan Romano can(and does) win against any manner of conflict placed before him, thus there are zero stakes in the majority of his fights. That, however, is not the focus of the narrative. The focus of the story is the theatrical, 'in the moment' ways Ryan's larger-than-life persona interacts with the cast of mortals around him, and how those interactions recontextualize the narrative in new and interesting ways. The journey is more important than the destination, so to speak.
Again, I'm mostly speaking in generalities here. It is possible to do a power fantasy well, but I don't think you can write it in the same way you would a normal story. Which is to say, you can't really get dramatic tension in a story where the protagonist is continually successful. Despite the story supposedly having continually increasing stakes (due to the power levels constantly increasing, sometimes exponentially), it feels like there's no stakes, because there is no point at which the reader really believes Dark Overlord Tyrant Elder God #23 is going to be any more successful at conquering/destroying the world than his predecessors, even if he does have a very nice Annihilation Cannon.
Now, you can still have a story, and even a good story despite your protagonist effortlessly winning every fight. One Punch Man would be the classic example, though I haven't seen enough of it to comment too much on it. So instead, I'll use my personal favorite power fantasy style story, which is It Gets Worse by Ack (https://www.fanfiction.net/s/11651073/1/It-Gets-Worse).
Here, the gimmick is that Taylor is given an alternate power that is essentially the perfect weaponization of the butterfly effect. Any threat to her whatsoever is completely obliterated by a series of "coincidences" (in one case including literal anvils with Looney Tunes levels of targeting), and it's established early on that this power trumps literally everything with no effort on her part.
However, the complete lack of opposition and dramatic tension is actually a strength of the story, because it plays everything for comedy instead. Watching established villains make detailed plans (that would be perfectly competent ideas in a normal story) and watching them get completely destroyed actually works pretty well. Instead of anticipating possible defeat and drawing tension from that, I instead was anticipating the resulting spectacle and found myself satisfied.
It wasn't a "deep" or "meaningful" story in any sense you might use those words... but it was a fun read, and for some stories, that's enough.
With all that said though, while you can have a power fantasy or an overpowered protagonist and still tell a decent story, I'd argue that you have to recognize that's what you're doing and replan the story accordingly. Your standard dramatic adventure story (which is what a lot of unintentional power fantasies were trying to be), draw their tension and drama from fear of the protagonist failing. And in a power fantasy, that fear really isn't there.
Basically, in a standard story, the question that your story is trying to answer is "Will the protgaonist accomplish <Really important goal>?" But when it comes to a power fantasy, the answer to that question is yes. There is no uncertainty there. So instead, you have to substitute it with something slightly different, such as "How will the protagonist accomplish <Really important goal>?" or "What else will happen in the course of the protagonist accomplishing <Really important goal>?"
Like >>17000 points out, time loop stories are another vehicle where can work, because almost every time loop story features the protagonist making the most of their endless time and resources to conquer every obstacle and ascend to borderline godhood... but again, the interest of the story comes from a different place. "Will the character succeed" is no longer the question, because the answer is always "Yes, eventually." Instead, it's more like a video game where you get to explore every route and see every last line of dialogue. Depending on the decisions made for each loop, any given character might see their role change from stranger to teacher to enemy to close friend or even a lover. Seeing the different sides of all these characters is something I really enjoy in time loop stories, and there's a bit of sadness attached to it, given that it will all reset when the loop does.
Anyway, to talk about works that I've personally found really meaningful as a writer or reader...
I'll start with my personal favorite books of all time: The Lord of the Rings. I pretty much couldn't put these down when I first read them, and got through all three books over the span of three afternoons. And what's interesting is that they work in an entirely different way to almost every single other story I've enjoyed.
It is extremely common for stories to have the fate of the world at stake. One of the first important realizations for me as a writer is that upping the stakes does not automatically make the story better. Despite the fact that having high stakes and than increasing them mid-story is an important and useful storytelling technique, it turns out that having the stakes too high is actually a weakness. Firstly because you can't meaningfully raise them any more. If the fate of the world is already at stake, does it really make any difference to anyone involved if that becomes the fate of the galaxy, or of the multiverse? And the second because you need plausible deniability as a writer. If the stakes are the lives of a couple of people, the reader can believe that the protagonists might fail. Maybe one of them dies in the process or something. If the stakes are every possible universe that might exist literally ever... well, nobody believes the story is going to close with "And then Galactus ate the whole multiverse, and nothing ever existed ever again, THE END."
This isn't to say high stakes are a bad thing, but by and large, I care more about the characters than I do about the stakes they're fighting for. I don't care so much about the Empire or the Rebellion, I want to see what happens to Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. In Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, the stakes for the wider world can vary (from "will barely notice" to "will literally end the world if they lose"), but most of the books have similar levels of dramatic tension for me because I'm invested for the sake of Harry Dresden and the small handful of allies and innocents he's fighting to save. Basically, you can't expect me to care more about a conflict just because the fate of the world is riding on it.
... except Lord of the Rings does. The sense of scale in Lord of the Rings is spectacular. It really feels like every desperate skirmish and dramatic battle is for the sake of the Third Age ending in something other than Sauron's darkness. And while I do care about what happens to Frodo Baggins, or Gandalf, I actually care more about what happens to the One Ring, to Gondor and Rivendell and the Shire.
This is, straight up, the exception to the rule for me. Despite it being my favorite book series, by a fairly wide margin, I don't try to emulate it in my own writing. It breaks so many of the rules of writing that I understand. Basically every evil character in the plot can be summed up by "Generic evil" or "Formerly good, now corrupted into generic evil." While no character is badly written, no character is actually that interesting on their own. Gandalf is the mysterious wizard, Aragorn's the hidden but righteous king, Boromir's the arrogant warrior, the four hobbits are essentially plucky commoners, Legolas is an elf, and so on...
And then I read the books, and none of that matters. It doesn't just work, it works brilliantly. And despite having read it a dozen times, I'm not even sure I understand why it works so well. It's the only book I've read where I've actually cared more about the plot than the characters. The world of Middle Earth is simply alive and active and of a grand scale, in a way that no other fictional world has ever pulled off. Lord of the Rings is an epic story, and while I've seen plenty of other stories try to be that, I haven't seen a single other one match it in sense of scale. It's good vs evil, writ large, and I have no idea how Tolkien did it.
I mean, it should really say something about these books that not only have I memorized some of the poetry... I've memorized poetry in a fictional language!
A Elbereth, Gilthoniel, Sileveren penna miriel, o menel aglar elenath, Gilthoniel, A Elbereth
Of course, there are other works I've really enjoyed, but Lord of the Rings is in a tier of its own for me... and I think this is enough fanboying for one reply.
>>17001 >Your standard dramatic adventure story draws its tension and drama from fear of the protagonist failing. This was a fairly important thing to make explicit, I think. Oftentimes it's assumed that this is the only way a reader may be kept interested, and that simply isn't true. In fact I tend to check out of stories which sustain themselves primarily around the teasing of "stakes"; that is, bad outcomes that must simply be avoided; conversely, I tend to welcome stories that feature complex and proactive "play", or that effectively establish a world of moving parts outside the myopia of the "central conflict", even if it might undermine the plausibility of the "stakes".
It's interesting that you mention the Lord of the Rings, because I seem to have enjoyed it for quite the contrary reasons when I first read it a few years ago. As menacing as the War of the Ring may have been, it ultimately struck me as a last gasp of sorts; immense in the present moment but itself dwarfed by greater strokes of history long past; and it was this tremendous tapestry of grandeur and decline everywhere in the background - some of it even, like Tom Bombadil, still infamously blithe - that gave the necessary dignity to this world that was to be placed under threat. And though, again contrarily, I'm typically unmoved by "character stories", I found Theoden in particular among the most compelling that I've ever read; serving almost as a microcosm of the books as a whole.
Maybe it's telling that the poem that sticks out most in my mind is rather the Rohirric, nearly identical in its opening line with its Old English inspiration:
>Where now the horse and the rider? >Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago?
Both are elegies; foregone conclusions, in other words. Yet they compel me precisely because I don't really care about what happens, or even why, so much as as how it happens and what that means. And if that is a death-knell, well, I am perfectly happy to go on enjoying my stories with the immortal company of the posthumous.
Lost Soul!K7yo62LHdE2023/06/20 (Tue) 22:33No. 17003▼
>It's interesting that you mention the Lord of the Rings, because I seem to have enjoyed it for quite the contrary reasons when I first read it a few years ago. As menacing as the War of the Ring may have been, it ultimately struck me as a last gasp of sorts; immense in the present moment but itself dwarfed by greater strokes of history long past; and it was this tremendous tapestry of grandeur and decline everywhere in the background - some of it even, like Tom Bombadil, still infamously blithe - that gave the necessary dignity to this world that was to be placed under threat.
This is actually another point I loved about Lord of the Rings. The fact that in-universe, this isn't even the greatest threat, it's just a shadow compared to past threats, makes the universe seem even bigger. The way the elves are portrayed as wonderful, fair, and yet simultaneously so far diminished from what they used to be... Middle Earth is full of these points of context, and I think it really adds to the world. For those less familiar:
-) Most of the elves have already gone West, and those that remain are only really hanging on because of the three rings. No matter how the third age ends, the time of the elves goes with it. When the books finish and the third age ends, the bearers of the three rings of the elves sail west. Which, not coincidentally, include the leaders of both Rivendell and Lothlorien.
-) Gondor used to be a much larger nation, with the capital of Osgilath and two towers. One of those towers was captured by Mordor, and Osgilath is now a ruin and a battleground. Now it's a much smaller nation centered around Minas Tirith. On a similar note, Rohan actually used to be part of Gondor, but they gave the land away because they couldn't politically keep hold of it, and better to have it as an ally nation than conquered by barbarians.
-) The ents are also in decline. They were never many, they had not increased, and they straight up lost the ent-wives, so barring a major change, there's never going to be any more of them.
-) It's a pretty major plot point that the Last Alliance of Elves and Men was enough to defeat Sauron by pure force of military arms before... but that it would never again be possible. Even though Sauron is actually less strong now than he was then, the free peoples have diminished more. And even aside from that, the elves and men will never be peers in that sense again. The elves are diminishing, while the age of men is at hand.
-) Speaking of Sauron, he was merely a servant of the core evil of the First Age, Morgoth. An important servant, but still very much a lesser evil. It's noted how the Last Alliance of Elves and Men was reminiscent of the forces that defeated Morgoth once and for all... and yet not so many, nor so fair as that original army. To take another one of the monsters in the setting Shelob, the giant spider, is simply the last child of Ungoliant, a far worse monster. The dragons are another thing that were diminished, with no dragon still remaining being able to melt one of the rings of power in its fire.
And what does this proof of decline do? It makes a space for things like Tom Bombadil, who holds an almost effortless power over Old Man Willow and barrow-wights, and who is the only character in the entire story to be completely unaffected by the One Ring. He's a living breathing artifact of an earlier age. It's not his story, but that doesn't change the fact that he's far greater than most of the being in this story, despite his less-than-serious nature.
And more importantly, every time you see a moment of the glory of the elves, or of the men of the west, you see both how wonderful the thing itself is, and you're reminded of what used to be. And wonder at what might have been, if Numenor had not fallen, or if Sauron had not corrupted the rings. It all adds this layer of bittersweetness to even the triumphs of the story, and the world is all the stronger for it. For all the Free Peoples struggle to do, and largely succeed in accomplishing, there's some damage that cannot be undone. That things, even wonderful things, eventually come to an end, and sometimes the best thing to do is gracefully accept it.
Lost Soul!K7yo62LHdE2023/07/05 (Wed) 14:34No. 17004▼
Let's talk a little about characterization. This is an important topic, simply because people are willing to forgive the plot meandering around if they like the characters involved. But if people dislike or worse, don't care about your characters, it doesn't matter how interesting the plot might be, few readers will stick around to see it through. In short, the vast majority and stories live and die by their characterization.
There's a lot that goes into making a character. I think you can roughly divide the details of character creation into five sections: Background, personality, goals, appearance, and abilities.
It's important to note that while these are all separate categories, they're also all interconnected. To take a simple (if cliche) example, a tragedy in someone's past (background) could very well have given them a scar (appearance), lingering trauma (personality), landed them in a wheelchair (abilities), and given them a strong desire for revenge (goals). This doesn't need to be the case for every detail, obviously. If you decide your character should have freckles, the freckles don't need an origin story! And a lot of times these connections never get explored on-screen. The main character will probably get all of his stuff pulled into the light, but there just isn't time to explore why your twelfth side character's childhood trauma made him hate clowns and always sleep with a nightlight.
(It's worth noting that Worm is a good example of this interplay. Part of the setting is that in order to get superpowers, you have to have some terrible tragedy, called a trigger event, in your backstory, and your powers depend in large part on the nature of your trigger event, addressing the cause in sort of a monkey's paw fashion. For instance, one kid's father was dying of cancer, and he desperately wanted a little more time with him, so he got the power to temporarily freeze objects in time. As such, by the nature of the setting, most of the characters have that connection between their powers, background, appearance (through their hero/villain costume) and often their personality as well.)
The reason I bring up the idea of these connections is because it's a useful way to help in creating a character. A lot of times you'll have an idea for certain aspects of a character but not others. For instance, maybe your main character needs to have a childhood friend that later falls away and becomes a rival or villain. You can then ask yourself "Well, what made them friends in the first place? What broke that friendship? How'd the character change over time?" I find writing is often like putting together a puzzle in this way. One piece lead to the next, and while it doesn't completely narrow things down, restricting the possibilities actually makes it far easier to choose.
Anyway, back to the categories real quick. Of the five, appearance is the least important. The main goal of that is to have an image that'll stick in the reader's mind so the story is easier to visualize. And while there's a lot that can be said for symbolism, and having memorable designs, in written media, that's a lot less important. Doubly so for fan works, where everyone already knows what Reimu looks like anyway.
A character's abilities are important, but it's easy to over-focus on them. Because while they're usually the most important thing to the plot (in most genres, anyway), a character's abilities tell you what they can do, not who they are as a person. An important test regarding characterization is to ask whether there's still anything interesting about the character if they get depowered. If the answer is no, then you don't have a character, you have a plot device. (There is a place for such things, naturally. Sometimes you really just want an evil alien or giant robot to beat up on, and characterization isn't the point. However, if they're supposed to have more than half a dozen lines of dialogue, then odds are you want them to have some actual character.)
This brings us to the big three. Background, Personality, and Goals. And I list them this way, because they're essentially Past, Present, and Future for the character. The Background is quite literally what happened to the character in the past, the Personality tells you what the character is like in the present, and the Goals are what the character wants for the future. The causal links here are far stronger: The character wants what they wants because of who they are, and what's happened to them in the past. A character's goals tell you something about their personality, and their backstory usually goes some way to explaining it.
Again, these are rules that can be broken. Sometimes you just get psychos who were raised perfectly well, sometimes people with tragic backstories are inexplicably cheerful anyway. Here's the thing. Characters are people. And people are just a little self-contradictory. A lot of times they'll say something and honestly mean it, but then you look at what they actually do in a given situation and it turns out to be quite different.
The reason this self-contradiction is important is that it makes the character feel more real. The average person is a long way away from the person they'd like to be, and I'd wager still a good distance away from the person they think they are. It's very easy for someone to think of themselves as more hardworking, more kind, more virtuous than they are... or for a specific type of personality, it can go in reverse and they might actually think worse of themselves than they really are. (You know the sort. The kind of person who bemoans how terrible they are and bad at everything while being in the top 10% of the class.)
I think this is really more of an art than a science. If you lay down hard and fast rules and have the characters follow them at all times, you risk them becoming one-dimensional stereotypes. The berserker who always files into a rage, the unfailingly calm and polite servant, the grumpy and disillusioned old man... having stereotypes is by no mean a bad thing, but having characters that reduce to just those stereotypes usually is. And if you find yourself with a character who's doing that, who feels like they're just a role, then ask yourself: What, given the character's backstory, personality, and goals, would be enough to make them break character? Is there someone the berserker would hold back his rage in front of? What extent would make the polite servant snap, or at least snark back? What would win an honest smile out of that grumpy old man? And most importantly, how can you show, or at least hint at these depths on-screen?
It doesn't have to be much, but a little can go a long way. For instance, suppose you have a character who's a reckless thrill-seeker, the kind that just finds the most exciting thing he can and jumps into it. And then he gets the chance to explore a deep and dark cave, and he hesitates, just a bit. You see him clutching his flashlight with a white-knuckled grip, he swallows a couple times, he's actually not the first one to enter... He still insists he's totally excited and this will be the best thing and the story's going to be great, but just by giving him that fear and showing it in the story, you now have a character with a little more detail, who feels a little more real.
(One of the classic examples of this is the "pet the dog" trope, where the villain has a moment to show some small kindness to a subordinate/civillian/animal. It doesn't stop them from being the evil force the hero needs to stop, but it humanizes them a little, and shows that they're more than just that evil force.)
And that's pretty much how I build my characters. Their goals and "role" (that is, the stereotype they're closest to), are usually defined by the needs of the story, the personality is chosen to best play off the characters they'll interact with, and the backstory is used to fill in the gaps, so to speak. Sometimes the chain of causality works in a different order (for instance, when I need to craft a character from my main character's backstory), but that's how I come up with the character skeleton, so to speak, and then I use these sorts of small details and inconsistencies to flesh them out.
As for coming up with the details... honestly, I just try to write and see what happens. To borrow from my own story, this is how I ended up with Greg liking card tricks and stage magic, or Sumireko having tried (and been bad at) poker, or the relentlessly-petty-yet-still-somehow-functional dynamic between Sumireko and Nitori. The nice thing about these smaller details is that they're usually not relevant to any of the larger plot elements you're trying to carry out, so you're free to pick whatever would best suit the current scene. And as long as you keep in mind any previous details you've revealed and keep it all internally consistent, I find it works reasonably well. (Plus, waiting a while and throwing out references to those small details you mentioned earlier is always a fun callback.)
In the end, I have to disclaimer this even more heavily than my previous posts in that this is far from the only way to do characterization: It's merely what I do, and it works well enough for me.