Know Your Medium, Part 2

Previously, I introduced the topic of linguistic relativity—how the choice of “language” affects what concepts are easy to think about.

Another wrinkle of linguistic relativity is that a language affects what you are obliged to think about. For example, when talking about an event in English, we need to consider when it happened (past/present/future tense). Other languages include what’s called evidentiality1: you need to consider how you know about the event; did you see it yourself, or did someone else tell you about it (first/second/etc. hand).

These considerations (what am I forced to convey? what is going to be difficult to convey?) are important when you are trying to tell a story, as the answers are different for a novel than they are for a screenplay.

For example, a common “bad writing” complaint is a book starting with the main character examining themselves in the mirror2 (thus providing a description). The reason this keeps cropping up is that—with only text—it’s not easy to show what a character looks like. Typically, one or two salient features will be mentioned about a character, and the rest will be left to the reader’s imagination3.

In contrast, a scriptwriter would have to tie themselves in some very uncomfortable knots in order to not present a character’s appearance to the audience. It happens the instant the actor emerges. What is difficult is revealing a character’s name. If they are being introduced, that’s easy enough, but there are bound to be characters the protagonist already knows (but the audience doesn’t). Naming is comparatively trivial in a novel.

There’s a deeper significance to this movie-appearance/book-name difference, though, which becomes apparent when it comes to a certain type of twist ending: a character (especially the protagonist) is not be who they have seemed to be. Sometimes, this is accomplished by having the character masked, in the shadows4, or otherwise hidden until a dramatic reveal at the end. This can be very effective if done well, like in the original Metroid game where the main character, bounty hunter Samus Aran, is unexpectedly revealed to be female, smashing players’ preconceptions.

This sort of twist crops up more often in sci-fi/fantasy settings, where hand-waves like “life-like androids”, “clones”, “plastic surgery”, or good old-fashioned “magic” allow for a character to not be who they appear to be. But it’s success is not dependant on the justification (if the rest is done well, the audience are more forgiving). There’s a couple of ways in which the writer can trip themselves up with this trope, which requires some detailed examples.

(Cue spoiler warnings for the films “The Tourist” and “Self/Less”.)

In The Tourist, Johnny Depp’s main character seems to be an everyman caught up in the hunt for a vanished criminal mastermind. Interpol want to catch the baddie. The other crooks want his loot stash. The femme fatale has made everyone think Johnny is the crook (post plastic surgery). After many hijinks, the cops shoot/arrest the other crooks, and Johnny is free to go. But wait! He knows how to get at the crook’s secret safe (he is the criminal mastermind after all), so he gets the money and the leading lady, and lives happily ever after.

Based on the presentation (i.e. the cinematic language), this is a happy ending. Emotionally, we go along with it, because the face we’ve been following/rooting for throughout has won. But when you pause a moment, you feel discomfited: the character you’re attached to is a cunning criminal, who changed his entire appearance to escape the police. This made for an awkward ending.

In Self/Less, old, rich, and ailing Ben Kingsley undergoes a black-market medical procedure to transfer his consciousness to a younger, healthier body (Ryan Reynolds). We follow Ryan as his initial carefree hedonism turns to concern over the weird dreams/flashbacks he starts having (especially when he forgets to take his meds). Eventually, he discovers his new body is not “vat grown”, but originally belonged to someone else, who sold it to pay his family’s debts. Ultimately, Ryan brings down the immoral scientist doing the mind transfers, stops taking the medication (so “Ben Kingsley” fades away), and reunites with his family in traditional hollywood-happy-ending fashion. But wait! Though we’re attached to his face, we know basically nothing about this Ryan Reynolds. Again, there’s something slightly awkward about the ending.

Both movies kind of got away with it (though neither were especially critically successful), but it wouldn’t have worked at all in a novel. There we’re attached to a name, not a face, and it would be more obvious that we’re actually dealing with a different person, but in a movie we’re not obliged to think about that.

The point is to know the medium you’re working in. What is easy? What is hard? What do you need to think about? And most importantly, what do you not need to think about but might trip you up later?

1 Several languages are mentioned in the wikipedia page; the impression I got (which may be inaccurate, I’m no expert on languages) was that a lot of them were from eastern-europe, the middle east, or america.

2 As with all writing “rules”, there are exceptions: Divergent gets away with it, as the scene also reveals details about the world, i.e. that these people restrict the use of mirrors.

3 An interesting example of this cropped up with the casting of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Noma Dumezweni was cast as Hermione, sparking much debate. JK Rowling pointed out that the character’s race was never specified. (Did the author envision Hermione like that to begin with? Your guess is as good as mine.)

4 Easy in a novel, requires lots of tricky lighting to make it work in a movie.

A House Divided

Recently, Rose Red and I watched the film version of Divergent (the first episode in yet another of the currently-popular young-adult dystopia trilogies). I found it interesting, and enjoyable, though a bit on-the-nose in places; I was unsurprised to discover the author was inspired by their Psyc-101 classes at university.

Lest I sound condescending, let me be clear that I mean no disrespect. I certainly haven’t managed to write a best-selling novel that’s been turned into a multi-million dollar Hollywood production, let alone to have done so in my early twenties. My perspective involves somewhat more experience (in life, education, and stories) than the target market for the book, so it’s not surprising it comes across a bit simplisticly.

Anyhow, what I found interesting in Divergent was the concept of “Factions”, which—like the Hogwarts Houses in the Harry Potter series—are defined based on particular personality traits/virtues*.

This [personality-based groups] can be an interesting way of revealing the characters, in terms of showing how they do/don’t fit within a particular group. Indeed, part of the point of Divergent is that people shouldn’t be defined so simply (different situations call for different approaches), which is not addressed in Harry Potter**. In the real world, there are a great many attempts to categorise people’s personalities, though they often involve more than a handful of different types (a well-known example being the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator).

One aspect of any sort of group segregation, another concept from psychology, is “Us vs. Them”. It’s been shown that the mere act of dividing people into groups (regardless of whether the division is systematic or arbitrary) causes them to value in-group individuals (“us”) more than out-group individuals (“them”). Essentially, there’s an instinct to compete (whether the competition is overt or indirect). This is one of the reasons behind the idea of “divide and conquer” (“A house divided will not stand”). For example, in The Hunger Games, the Capitol separated the populace into districts to prevent them working together.

Where this can come across as simplistic is when it becomes clear which groups the author identifies with (would be in, or wishes they would). Regardless of the value of other traits, Gryffindor is the best, and Slytherin’s are all dodgy (if not outright evil). Rose Red was very amused when I commented on the main character of Divergent choosing to leave “Lame Boringville” in favour of “Exciting McAwesomeSauce” (though, having not read the book, I don’t know if that bias comes from the author or the film-makers).

It’s very difficult to achieve, but there is great value and nuance in showing pros and cons to both/all perspectives without significant bias (other than the fact that the protagonist is on one side and the antagonist another).

* In some ways, the factions are better defined by the absence of vices: Abnegation reject Ego, Dauntless reject Fear, Erudite reject Ignorance, Candor reject Falsehood, and Amity reject Aggression.

** For example, Harry is told by the Sorting Hat that he would do well in Slytherin, but this is used to emphasise that he chose one over the other, rather than making a point of showing him using different approaches (“Choice” being a more pertinent motif of the series, as opposed to Divergent’s “Adaptability”).

My Harry Potter is not your Harry Potter

Relating to my previous musings about fanfiction, and the recent short story detailing some post-Hogwarts events, it seems a good time to discuss this idea.

One of things I’ve found interesting about reading fanfiction is seeing different people’s takes on a character. This can even become apparent in seeing fan reactions to new stories/episodes/sequels/etc—some like it, some complain that a character has changed (the more adamant even claiming the writer(s)—in many cases the one(s) who invented the character in the first place—has gotten the character wrong).

You see, for any (significant) character, the writer has probably delved into vast screeds of back-story and analysis that colours how they expect the character to behave. The audience usually doesn’t have access to this information (which is fortunate, as it probably doesn’t make for exciting reading), so will fill in gaps with their own preconceptions, expectations, and assumptions.

We do the same thing with real people. Note that I’m not saying this is wrong; we’d find it much harder to empathise if we didn’t (as we’d have no frame of reference). It’s essentially the “putting yourself in their shoes” idea; the more you know about them, the more accurate the metaphorical shoes will be. It’s another of the sensible cognitive shortcuts that help us deal with the world around us. The only problems arise when the other person’s experience is so different to ours that we make completely wrong assumptions about them, and the only way to correct this is to be aware of the error, and be open to learning something new.

Which can be hard to do, especially if you’re a white male in western society (which keeps telling you you’re the norm), but it’s definitely worth it for the chance to see the world from a new perspective.

Art vs. Craft

Despite the best efforts of the internet at large to proclaim otherwise, most creative works (movies, books, tv shows, video games, etc., though I’ll probably use films as examples for most of this post) are neither the second coming, nor the harbinger of the apocalypse. Where exactly they do fit on that (admittedly broader than generally necessary) continuum is often a matter of judgement.

Yet there is usually plentiful variation in that judgement. Critics rave about a film but audiences hate it (or vice versa). Different critics give wildly different ratings to something. And, at least at some level, we wonder “Why?”. After all, aren’t some things undeniably better than others? (Compare “The Incredibles” to “Catwoman”, for example.) Likewise, it bugs some people that obviously flawed works can become incredibly successful (whether financially or just in popularity) when more polished works can be quickly forgotten.

I think the issue stems from the conflation of the artistic and the technical. You see, in most works, there are a number of elements that are able to be (relatively) objectively assessed: “natural” dialogue; lack of boom mics in shot; clarity of editing. There are also a number of elements that are inherently subjective: mood; interest; coolness*.

The confusion arises because we assess a work on both an intellectual (technical) level and an emotional (artistic) one. Film Crit Hulk explains it very aptly in an essay on “tangible details” (in brief: when we lack the vocabulary/understanding to express why something affects us on an emotional level we instead pick on technical issues which may or may not have any relevance).

If everyone was relating to a work on the same level, there would be less confusion (but this is unlikely to ever happen). Instead we have critics praising the artistic elements of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” and audiences complaining that it’s slow and boring (and I’m inclined to agree with both sides, in this case at least).

Conversely, we have Dan Brown, or the “Twilight” series, being hugely popular/notorious, with possibly as many websites pointing out their flaws as raving over them. Why so popular? Well, erring on the side of generosity, I think they must be doing something right. Sure, they have flaws, some mighty big/obvious ones, but they still manage to be engaging stories (to some readers, at least). Perhaps the complaint shouldn’t be directed at the authors, but at their editors, who lacked the verve to have at the manuscript with a red pen?**

I think this also relates back to my earlier confusion over chapters, in that they straddle the art/craft divide. Where to end a sentence or a paragraph is largely a “craft” decision. Where to end a scene is more an “art” decision. Where to end a chapter could be either (and is used differently by different authors).

* What I’ve found to be a good rule of thumb for quickly distinguishing the two is: technical elements are those that only stand out if done badly. Done well, they should be invisible (i.e. not distracting the audience).

** See also the later works of any author that became widely popular (e.g. the Dune series, Harry Potter), and suddenly the editors/publishers are afraid to be too critical lest their cash-cow jump ship.