Archive | August, 2017

Badassery Part 2: The Measure of a Mook

14 Aug

I’ll start off with saying that it’s difficult to define where to draw the lines, because fantasy is full of characters who can exceed human limitations. I’m not going to lecture you on what people are capable of, if you’re reading this you have the internet and can learn all about what a fit and healthy person is capable.

Mooks can be either villainous henchmen or cops you need to generically lose so Batman steps up. Obviously, the type of mook depends on the subcategory – the requirements of a ninja are different than that of a Viking raider, and depending on what your group is, once you have a team of elites, being better than just about everyone might be the status quo. Point being, sometimes you need a group who can be interchangeable – when you call 911 because your house is being robbed, I’m not sure if anyone says, “And make sure the cop has excellent listening skills!”

But if you want to make your band memorable, you should probably develop a bit of time making them different beyond their personalities.

I often use rangers in the series I’m working on, and I figure it’s a good group to reference. In this context, they’re woodsy folk whose order came from a military model, but over time have been amalgamated into a territorial police force. They do a variety of different tasks: beyond law enforcement, they deliver messages and supplies, maintain various trails, and can back up other agencies as necessary.

So the obvious skills would be nature survival – if the weather turns bad, they need to find shelter, find sustenance if supplies run thin (hunting and foraging) and orienteering. Other common skills would be horsemanship and maintenance, archery, as well as passing literacy for your common grunt. When they get into the higher ranks, there’s more administrative duties, as well as specialist training; it’s not uncommon for the child of a ranger to accompany their parent, work odd jobs in the stables, apprentice and pick up a specific skill, such as shoeing horses, do odd delivery jobs as they get a little older, become a ranger for most of their adulthood, then “retire” back to working the stables if they sustain a chronic injury.

I have dozens of these guys, and making them interchangeable would be boring as a writer, let alone as a reader. Beyond their sparkling personalities, I usually start to differentiate them based on what their past. For instance, one of my young recruits, Keefe, is the nephew of a ranger, and therefore before he begins has an idea as to what the job entails – he never states whether or not he ever went with his uncle or worked in the stables as a youth, but it’s implied he understands some of what the more experienced rangers are doing and he picks things up the fastest. When he starts out, he isn’t particularly good at anything, but his insider knowledge helps him give pointers to his friend. Vincent, who grew up knowing Keefe and started at the same time, is the son of a lumberjack. He is quite a bit stronger than Keefe, but he’s not as good with some seemingly nominal skills – he doesn’t like riding horses initially, and is more interested in learning weapons than learning some of the survival skills. As these two develop in their careers, there’s a marked difference between two characters of the same age of similar class and background, and I haven’t told you who’s the introvert or their main character flaws. One might argue that Keefe sounds like he’s better off in this situation. Vincent’s background can imply a different but still useful skillset – lumberjacks work in the woods, afterall, and so while he wouldn’t inherently know as much as Keefe, he might know more than say, a third character – I’ll use the MC, Rain – who is a little older, but from a very different part of the world. Because he grew up in a very different climate, other characters have to help him with things locals would automatically know, and out of all of them, he’s the most vulnerable to the elements. He’s not the guy you come looking to if you were to need a specific question answered about trying to get a shelter erected in a blizzard, but both younger characters would be behind him if they were having trouble with their horses or a fight was imminent. Again – you know nothing of their personalities.

I’ll talk about “Specialists” here because I think there’s plenty to talk about when we get to Part 3: Elites. Specialists would be characters who perform a certain function. In a larger setting, they might be non-combatants but, in a smaller setting, sometimes your bands tend to be more self-reliant.

In the commentary of Riddick, Katie Sackhoff talks about her character needing to have a reason why she’s with the group of mercenaries. She’s designated as a sniper, so it can explain why, if a character is a seeming token, especially in a brutal world, why she’s kept around or ranks higher than another character. Although Riddick’s technically worth more dead, her boss wants words with him first (additionally, he’s swiped a part necessary for their ship to leave the hostile planet) since Riddick is identified as highly dangerous, it shows that her boss is the sort of man who’s got the types of tranquilizers necessary to keep him from doing the up close and personal stuff that is his trademark.

Identifying a given character as important at a task can add a dynamic if said needs to be accomplished but the usual character can’t do it. Let’s go back to my rangers: Rain’s the fighter, but in this instance, he’s sustained injuries so he can’t defend the group like he normally would. It heightens the drama as say, Vincent, who was keen for it, saw what fighting is really like, and is struggling with doing something that not only scares him, he might find it repugnant. Juxtapose any guilt, even misguided, that Rain got hurt because he hesitated last time. What would be easy for Rain might be nearly impossible for Vincent. Tell me, as a reader, what do you find more interesting?

Let’s finish off with some mook-on-mook action. Our three above rangers have been captured, by let’s say some robber bandits, and they’re outnumbered and taken back to the jolly camp of ne’er-do-wells. They’ve identified Rain as the fighter, and Vincent, well, the guy looks strong, but they went and underestimated Keefe, so while Rain and Vincent are kept locked and under guard, Keefe is kept lightly chained and forced to do work around the camp, much to some stereotypical jeering because I’m being lazy.

Keefe is effectively the non-combat protagonist I talked about in the previous post. Assuming one of his captors gives him a sword and goads him into fighting, the reality is that short of Keefe revealing he was a wizard all along, fighting isn’t going to get him out of his situation. Let’s look at the skills Keefe has: The odds of him freeing the other two are slim to none by himself, but if he escapes, he can go get help. In this example, I haven’t established whether or not he can pick locks, so it would be a saving butt-pull for him to unchain himself or suddenly have a wide set of improbable ninja skills. If he lets the robbers know he’s competent, he’s going to get just as guarded as the other two, so he might play dumb to his advantage. I’ve established Keefe knows his foraging – and while I’ve never established him as a truffle hunter, I’ll bet you he knows certain mushrooms that definitely shouldn’t go in the soup pot.  This can totally backfire;  if someone figures this out they might force Keefe or someone he cares about to eat the soup. This example is all about thinking of creative ways of solving problems. You know your characters, I know if Keefe tries to seduce the robber’s daughter, it will end poorly (although given his character, that still wouldn’t be a deterrent). The minute that Keefe gets free he goes back to standard mook –but if I want the reader to sympathize with Keefe, he’s best off being proactive when the situation allows it, whether that’s sneaking Vincent a weapon or leaving marks on a tree while he “tends to nature” to tell other rangers where they’re going, the reader will probably recognize that the character did what they could, based on the situation. Keefe joining the bandits might be a plot twist or lazy writing, depending on how it’s handled.

So all and all – sometimes you just need a generic force and, let’s be honest, not all teams are the same. But taking the time to develop how this force’s skill set might differ, might help you utilize small details to make your crews seem not only authentic, but relatable.

Badassery Part 1: The Non-Combat Protagonist

10 Aug

I first started to write when I was fairly young – I loved sport and was competitive. This, combined with a love of pulp-novels and adventure movies, probably made me write characters who, were capable of a variety of physical activity.

After I got my BA, I studied firefighting and paramedicine, and, while I’ll attest to the limitations of my own body (Chronic R ankle injury, yo) it has made my suspension of disbelief really fail really fast. I’m that jerk who kind of accepts that most people get CPR wrong in the movies, and whenever I see violence on screen, I am looking for mechanism of injury and start speculating what injuries are likely.

And, with the market as competitive as it is, I often watch movies and notice how we’re told that a character isn’t only cool – they’re badass. My main issue? It effectively becomes beating up Worf. I’m not saying you can’t have characters who are extremely powerful, but that means as a writer, I need to come up with characters that are even more badass, or make the threat to the character something that can’t be handled via physical prowess.

So how do we keep in mind character struggles, especially when genres such as science fiction, horror and fantasy involve characters that can be much stronger than average?

To me, the answer to how to create dynamic struggles with a very powerful character is considering how to solve a problem when you can’t punch your way through it. Obviously, one could argue that the use of superior technology is in the role of a combatant (in other words, if I give regular Joe a tank with training, and the best swordsman on the planet is across a field, their fight is a little one sided). Making your characters a force to be reckoned with but making their struggle real is gonna be split into several parts, and I’m going to start with “lightweights” – these would be characters most would assume no to light threat, followed by a standard mook, then the Uber Warriors. Feel free to nitpick and argue, because I am a firm believer in tactics over raw power. I believe most humans throughout historical conflict died from infection and, no matter how much of a magnificent creature you are, you and I are still prone to dying from minute concentrations of chemicals, heat exposure, and lots of stuff is poisonous. Look up “Carfentanyl” and how much is needed to tank one of us.

I’ll also point out the average human being, even if they are pacifists – is capable of fighting back. This is about a character who recognizes that, all things being fair, they’re likely to lose against a regular human being, let alone a hero amongst heroes. This might be because they’re very young or old, or they might have a disability or relatively weak.

Take this into consideration if you’re writing about individuals you would never consider physical if you were to place them in the population as a whole. Pretend, in a pre-cell phone era, we have a group of urbanite retirees out hiking, and their rough-and-tumble tour-guide gets injured in a rock slide, blocking the fastest route back to help. Someone has to go get help, so they’ll probably chose from amongst themselves the individual best suited to make the journey while the rest make camp and wait for help. They’d probably pick someone with orienteering skills or in the best shape physically, but if they’re in a very specific area, they might pick the person who is the most familiar with the type of terrain. They might argue about if the individual should go around the long way, compromising the injured guide as time takes its effect, or if they have the skill and equipment to repel down and go directly for help, knowing that if anything happens to the person going, they’ll have more than one injured person to contend with.

How does this relate to the speculative fiction genre? Especially when we have superheroes who need kryptonite for there to be drama? Perhaps there’s an extremely famous version in one of fantasy’s best examples: Hobbits.

You don’t have to save kingdoms and destroy ancient evils to prove your species is capable of accomplishing great tasks, but let’s be honest: If somehow you were to invoke trial by combat and allowed to pick any fictional character to defend you, and you probably wouldn’t pick any of Tolkien’s hobbits as your first choice. I’m not saying you couldn’t write a hobbit who was a powerhouse, but even this hypothetical character would probably recognize that his reach and jump isn’t as good as the average sized human.

One of the strengths of a hobbit is that they’re seen as not a threat, that allows them to go unnoticed – much to the detriment of Dark Lords everywhere. So for us, the battle seems like a physical impossibility. For the hobbits – even the journey is that much longer with shorter legs. But, not only are they capable, they are able to triumph because they hold onto what is good and just longer than humans might. Pretend, for instance, that another character took the ring from the council of Elrond, and for argument’s sake, they’ve got a hobbit-like constitution in terms of being corrupted by it. Virtually every other character at the council would be likely to slay golem or not be listened to by Faramir. Because they have strength, they might better rely on it rather than Frodo taking it seriously about destroying it the way he was told.

My character of Naguset from Tower of Obsidian plays in this theme. She’s a young Miq’Mac woman who was kidnapped and kept in slavery, she’s underweight and her value is as a guide. The aforementioned Tower was designed to defeat warriors and sorcerers. One of my MCs, Aaron, is let’s just say, as strong as a normal mook can get. The son of a blacksmith who became a man-at-arms, you don’t get to be either of those if you can’t open a jar of pickles. Aaron’s reliance on his strength got him into trouble more than once, and ultimately his going at things head first was useful in some instances, but ultimately failed him in getting the sword he needed to challenge the immortals of the tower. Naguset, by contrast, was able to perform a difficult swimming task and injured one of the dragons (albeit in human form) because he assumed she was helpless, whereas Aaron was incapacitated and left to starve to death. Stabbing someone when they’re not expecting it is hardly honorable, but given the character was going to Do Bad Things to her, Sir Wellington’s Rules of Fisticuffs need not apply.

A non-combatant specialist can be more than helpful – their help might be vital in a struggle. An obvious character who might be tagging along in a war might be an engineer who recognizes structural weaknesses in fortresses or an individual who builds siege weapons. In Suzanne Collins’ Catching Fire, we’re introduced to Beetee, who won his Hunger Games by electrocuting his opponents. One of the most influential characters in A Song of Ice and Fire, Petyr Baelish, fell in love with Catalyn Tully and, when she was betrothed to Brandon Stark, he challenged him for her hand. Petyr was badly beaten, and realized from that young age he wasn’t going to win by fighting his enemies directly, so he manipulated others to his will to accomplish what he wanted, creating a wonderful Machiavellian manipulator. Characters like Beetee and Peter would die if they tried to act out directly, but because they were able to utilize other means, they become extraordinarily lethal. Molly Grue from Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn comes across as excess baggage – but she proves to be brave, loyal and fierce, learning the secrets of Haggard’s Castle and giving Prince Lyr the words he needs to face the Red Bull.

I don’t want this blog to get much longer, so I’ll wrap it up with a final thought. Am I off the mark? Does writing a non-combatant character change the way, as writers, a physically powerful character addresses the plot? Not all plots are physical, but we’ll get into that more on the next post.