Empty Calories – Problems with Narrative in Cinema and Television – Part 3

Part 3 – Iron Man 3 or Why Character Motivation is Important

 

The third film in the Iron Man trilogy, Iron Man 3, is perhaps the most egregious in terms of the narrative convenience over-riding any attempt at nuance or agreeing with the facts and themes as established in the diegesis.  Given the numerous plot holes and narrative inconsistencies, it is also the hardest to re-create a semblance of consistency in without rewriting vast swathes of the narrative.  However, the major sections of the film establish that Tony is experiencing PTSD following the events of invasion of New York in Avengers.  He is obsessively creating new suits of armour with increasingly specialist functions and abilities.  Aldrich Killian, meanwhile, is a research scientist who suffers from villain-itis and the need to enact a completely ludicrous, over-the-top, sure to fail, overly complicated, scheme which makes no sense, has massive holes, and the goals of which could easily have been achieved by setting a lab up in a different country.  But sure, creating a fake terrorist group to threaten the president so that you could then capture War Machine in order to kidnap the President, execute him on TV so that the Vice President could become president and change a law so that you could run experiments on humans… it is a plan.   Not a good one.  But it is a plan.  Alternatively, he could have set up a lab in a country that didn’t have those laws, or not allowed the subjects of the experiment to freely wander around without supervision, or, especially as he is apparently a murdering psychopath, simply killed the subjects of the experiment so that he could move on to the next batch.

 

Ignoring the genuine mess of the plot and the gaping plot holes, there are three main points that could be altered to create a more seamless, more heroic, film that would fit with Tony’s character arc as developed by the first two Iron Man films, and the repercussions of the Avengers film.

Iron Man 3

The first concerns the treatment of the Extremis soldiers.  This is perhaps the most egregious example in Iron Man 3 in terms of forgetting or ignoring what was established at the beginning of the film in favour of a simplistic, overly reductive, action set piece, and, consequently, unintentionally casts Tony as a psychopath.  The film is at pains to show Tony uncovering the mystery of the Extremis soldiers and shows them to be victims of Killian’s experiments.  Let me repeat that, they are victims.  Wounded veterans.  Killian takes wounded military veterans and experiments on them leading to them exploding uncontrollably when they cannot ‘regulate’.  There is no suggestion anywhere in the film that the Extremis procedure leads to mental instability, personality changes, violent fits, or anything of that sort.  So the film presents these wounded armed forces veterans undergoing an experimental procedure to regrow limbs, in effect, they have been promised a ‘cure’ for their battle wounds, and not informed about the consequences.  This is a classic example of an evil scientist taking advantage of good, honourable soldiers, and using them as guinea pigs.  They are victims of Killian’s unethical experiments with an unfinished and unproven procedure, and who have no control over what happens to them.   Yet, for no apparent reason and without any explanation, these victims suddenly become psychopathic, murdering, mindless, aggressive, evil foot soldiers for Killian in the third act whom Tony, Rhodey, and the Jarvis controlled suits are allowed to execute without any moral qualms.  Nothing in the film even hints at why we should change from regarding them as unknowing victims and pawns of Killian’s unethical and unscrupulous experiments that take advantage of them, to seeing them as psychopathic, disposable, foot soldiers, who can be killed by soulless AI controlled murder machines, with only a light hearted quip, and no remorse, on the part of our ostensible hero.

 

Oddly enough, this point is once again easily correctable with an exceptionally minor change to the script.  If the film had established those soldiers undergoing the procedure as being ‘bad’ from the start, this would not be as significant a hurdle that needed to be overcome.  The action set piece at the end would not need rewritten in order to ‘save’ the victims, but could, at least according to Hollywood logic, carry on with simply executing bad guys without any moral qualms.  Instead of these being wounded veterans who presumably (for all the audience knows) have sterling service records and were wounded in the course of protecting America, especially as this is implied when Tony meets the mother of one of the ex-soldiers, they could have been the dregs of the Armed services.  Soldiers who were part of a secret, unethical, kill squad, or soldiers who had been imprisoned for war crimes, or any number of corrupt military or paramilitary types to whom Killian makes an offer exchanging superpowers in exchange for service.  They didn’t have to be wounded veterans with whom the audience would expectedly build sympathy for.  By simply revealing these Extremis soldiers to have been evil or villainous from the start the audience is not left wondering why they are suddenly all evil.

 

Alternatively, if the discussion of Extremis included dialogue that suggested a side-effect of the treatment was some sort of psychosis or change to the personality of those treated (making them aggressive, violent, and irrational), then they could still be seen as both victims, and as a danger that needed to be addressed.  As with Vanko in Iron Man 2, and Stane in Iron Man, there are several minor ways the representation could have been tweaked, with minimal interference with the scenes and story structure as established, that would have established a rationale for the villains, addressed Tony’s character arc, and supported a more consistent thematic story.  If they had been altered by the treatment, then we again could have had the heroes feeling resigned that there was no way to save them.  This would make Killian’s villainy all the more apparent as he turned good soldiers into evil monsters.  Tony and Rhodey could lament that there was nothing more they could do, and this would frame them as heroes having to make the tough choice.  Again, this was a chance to elevate their heroism instead of making it simply about killing mindless, nameless, featureless, CGI monsters with little or no emotional impact.

 

The treatment of the Extremis soldiers is made more egregious by the short, throwaway reference made in the concluding scenes of the film to ‘curing’ Pepper Potts a few days later.  As a result, this film portrays innocent military veterans, who have been experimented on and then turning villainous for no reason, being executed, when all it took for Tony to develop a cure for their condition was a couple of days thinking about it and caring enough about one of the victims.  A resequencing of the events could have seen Tony’s army of suits fitted with tranquiliser darts filled with the miraculous ‘cure’ for Extremis, thus the fight sequence could still have occurred, but this time, the victims of Killian’s experiments could have been saved.  By adding that all it took to cure Pepper was a few days, we, the audience, are immediately confronted with the thought that these soldiers died needlessly and in the name of expedience and Tony’s selfishness.  If Pepper’s ‘cure’ had been put off, and the audience were told that Tony had found a way to stabilise it and was searching for a cure, that would have been an easier pill to swallow.  As it stands, you only get cured if you are a friend or loved one of a hero.

 

While killing villains instead of incapacitating or capturing them and making them face justice has become a staple of action films, and we have all become somewhat numb to the ethical problems of slaughtering ‘enemies’, and the fact that action heroes exhibit all the tendencies of psychopaths and are rewarded from it, this film actually includes a moment that emphasises this problematic tendency.  The last significant plot point of the film that raises significant ethical questions, and again contradicts the character arc of Tony’s journey, concerns how he dispatches the guards at the Mandarin’s compound.

 

Bereft of his suit, technology, and superior weaponry, Tony knuckles down and improvises a set of weapons in order to take down the Mandarin (and by that we assume kill) in revenge for destroying his house and injuring his girlfriend.  Admittedly his reasoning could have been to protect America, but the film plays heavily on Tony’s inaction until his own personal property is destroyed and the vendetta becomes personal to him.  So once again the film inadvertently highlights that Tony is not a hero, and it is only revenge that motivates him to get involved, thus emphasising his selfishness and narcissism.  Again, sidestepping plot holes here, Tony improvises a series of weapons and then infiltrates the Mandarin’s compound.

 

At this juncture there has been no indication that the guards protecting the Mandarin’s compound are evil.  They are in causal dress, not uniforms or military tactical gear, and Tony has uncovered no information that these men are terrorists or evil, or, in fact, are involved in the Mandarin’s plans.  In fact, one of the guards, in what we assume is meant to be a moment of levity, surrenders and runs away as he doesn’t like working for the Mandarin and thinks they are ‘weird’.  Admittedly, none of the other guards get a chance to do this as Tony murders them all.  Long gone is any reference to Tony forsaking weapons and seeking to defend the world, to cover it in a suit of armour.  There is portrayed as straightforward vengeance, although the film would have you believe that this is justified and heroic.

 

Just to emphasise this point, one of the guards surrenders and runs away when given a chance because he is not a terrorist, he just works as private security for a presumably rich but very strange client, and has no idea what that client does.  If one of the guards feels that way, would not others?  Consistently we are encouraged to see the narrative solely from Tony’s perspective.  This focalisation ignores the fact that each of the other characters, even Nameless Surrender Guard, also have a perspective.  For all the audience knows, this could be a simple private security firm, that has done nothing wrong, and thinks that they are protecting a slightly odd cult leader, or wealthy foreigner.  Nothing presented in the film suggests that these initial guards are terrorists or willing participants in Killian’s plans.  Yet, Tony kills several of them with impunity, it is never mentioned that he faced charges for murder, or was even investigated for this.   At best this gives the impression that Tony is now careless as to whether or not someone is a bad guy, at worst it reaffirms that Tony is, in fact, a sociopath.

 

A very simple remedy to this problem would have been to have the guards dressed in tactical combat gear and removing the moment in which one of them surrenders.  That, at least, would have given the illusion that they were paramilitary or active combatants. That they were probably committed to the ‘cause’, and that Tony could be justified in shooting first and asking questions later.  Alternatively, a simple bit of dialogue between the guards as Tony is creeping up on them could have revealed that they were all part of the Mandarin plot and worked directly for Killian.  A further alternative would have been when Jarvis is giving Tony the location of the base it could have mentioned that the base has a number of heavily armed guards, and that they match some of the individuals that attacked the house.  While none of these alterations directly change the fact that Tony murders a number of people in cold blood while on an assassination mission, it at least provides a moral fig leaf to hide the worst of the sociopathic tendencies from the audience.

 

This was an effort to try to use minimal correction to remove issues specifically related to character motivation, thematic consistency, and to preserve character development and character arcs without rewriting the entire films.  To correct plot holes and all the narrative contrivances would require much more significant changes and would radically alter the films and storylines, and would be, in effect, creating entirely new films.  From these very minor changes, and admittedly they are not perfect and do not address a number of the plot holes and narrative contrivances found in the films, you can see how the theme, tone, and subtext of the films was ignored, and how character motivation and psychological realism were contradicted or dismissed, in favour of spectacle, action set pieces, and the need for simplistic black and white characterisation.  In effect, the film makers appear to have assumed that audiences would not be smart enough to spot the flaws in the narratives because they were dazzled by pretty special effects, and that audiences do not care about the ethics of their heroes.  It is easy to blame this on bad writing, but given that Executive Producers, Producers, Directors, Writers, and even certain Actors, can have a significant impact on scripts and story arcs, it is impossible to know if any of these issues were raised and over-ruled, or who made the decision to have characters behave in certain ways.  We don’t know if explanatory scenes were left on the cutting room floor because the editor or the director needed to trim time and didn’t realise that those moments were the ones that filled out the narrative beyond empty spectacle, or ethically compromised visions of their heroes.  We don’t know if there were rewrites due to actors being unavailable due to scheduling.  We don’t know if any number of external or internal production factors dictated changes.  What we do know is that the narratives as produced missed opportunities to correct simple errors leaving the films less than they could have been, more confused than they could have been, and far less rewarding to watch.

 

 

Empty Calories – Problems with Narrative in Cinema and Television – Part 2

Part 2 – Iron Man 2 or Why Character Motivation is Important

During Iron Man 2 there are a number of issues set up that, over the course of the film, the audience is slowly let in on, as pertaining to Tony’s character.  He is slowly being poisoned by the arc reactor in his chest and is dying.  He is concerned about legacy (both his and his father’s).  He fears for the future of his company.  He is also concerned about who will take over the mantle of Iron Man once he is dead.  This fear of the future, and review of the mistakes of the past, is an acceleration and extension of the previous film’s emphasis on Tony changing his ways, rejecting being a weapon manufacturer, and wanting to see a better future.  In all, it makes a lot of sense as it continues the themes of the first film in a natural and logical progression.  However, Tony’s actions in the film, particularly with regard to Ivan Vanko, the ostensible villain, seem to run counter to the established character motivation and contradict the subtext and context developed in both Iron Man and this film.  This forms the crux of where the established subtext and character motivation are ignored in favour of narrative convenience, just as with Jackson’s use of Arwen in LotR.  The important point here is to remember that although much of Tony’s state of mind is revealed over the course of the film, it is meant to be present in his character from the start.

Iron Man 2

Before getting into the details of this, let us first consider who Ivan Vanko is and how he is presented in the film.  As the MCU films clearly have no difficulty in taking inspiration from the comics but have no desire to adapt specifics or storylines faithfully and are perfectly happy to change, subvert, invert, or discard aspects at will, we don’t need to consider the comic history of the ‘villain’.  This is solely focused on the character created in the film.    Vanko is presented as the angry, bereaved son of a brilliant scientist who co-invented the arc reactor with Stark’s father, Howard Stark.  Yet, where Howard became a multi-billionaire, Vanko’s father was denied any sort of monetary recompense for the invention, thrown out of the country, and died in penury.  Vanko himself is dirty, poor, and Russian.  His hair is lank and greasy, his skin covered in tattoos, and his teeth aren’t the pearly pieces of perfection that are flashed in Tony’s well practiced smirks.  Apparently that is all we need as an audience to believe that he is a polar opposite (at least visibly) to Tony, and that is enough to establish him as a villain.  However, he has a justifiable reason for ‘revenge’ (which is usually the motivating factor for a superhero origin).  His father was not recognised as the co-inventor of the arc reactor, and has been written out of the history books.  He didn’t receive even a fraction of the money that Stark’s father received.  So we are presented with an origin story that in many ways mimics Tony’s journey in the first film.  With minimal equipment he designs and builds an amazingly powerful weapon, just like Tony, from scratch, using and refining the arc technology.  He is doing it, not out of a need or desire for money, but to right a wrong, at least as he sees it.  Again, the traditional revenge motivation of a hero origin and that closely mimics Ton’s own origin in Iron Man.

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Empty Calories – Problems with Narrative in Cinema and Television – Part 1

Part 1 – Iron Man or Why Character Motivation is Important

 

Psychologically understandable character motivation within narratives has not always been prevalent in storytelling, especially as it ties to underlying themes.  One need only read The Three Musketeers to see plot contrivance trump psychological realism when d’Artagnan immediately forsakes his hithertofore, lifelong held belief that Cardinal Richelieu is a good man because some random guy in a bar tells him so.  It is a volte-face of such extreme that most modern readers would get whiplash and cry foul.  Psychological realism was not necessarily the style of narrative at the time, so contemporary audiences were fine with it, the fact that it promoted the plot was more than enough justification for that moment.  For the modern audience, however, we tend to expect a much greater deal of psychological realism (or believability) in our narratives.  Yet, there seems to be an increasing trend that when it comes to modern narratives that we are far more willing to accept plot convenience, or at least to acquiesce to plot convenience, as a more dominant factor than psychological realism, coherency of narrative subtext, or agreement with theme.  In fact, we seem far more willing to forgive completely insane character decisions for the sake of visuals, aesthetics, or some plot driven reason.  But plot, story, and character, are held together by subtext, motivation, and themes, and when they are ignored, contradicted, or circumvented (none of which is the same as subverted) the resulting story often feels shallow, hollow, and empty, as if it is bereft of true substance.  This can be across whole narratives, but often we can see it most clearly in specific scenes within a narrative that speak to the bigger problem.

 

A prime example of this can be seen in Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring in the scene with Arwen, Frodo, the Black Riders, and the Ford of Bruinen at Rivendell.  In the book, Arwen is not present.  Aragorn and the hobbits are met by the elf lord, Glorfindel.  Glorfindel gives Frodo his horse and sends him riding toward Rivendell via the Ford of Bruinen.  Pursued by the Riders, Frodo is injured, weakened, and constantly tempted by the One Ring.  He makes it over the river and faces off against the Riders.  They tempt him.  The Ring tempts him.  But even in his weakened state, even with his wound from the evil Morgul knife, and even with the power of the Ring calling him, Frodo refuses them.  He shows courage, stoutness of heart, and fortitude.  Frodo falls to the ground, just as the river rises up and washes the Riders away.  It is arguably for this reason, his strength of character, that the Council of Elrond agree to let Frodo journey into Mordor accompanied by the rest of the Fellowship.

LotR Banner

In the film version of this scene, Frodo (badly injured with a Morgul knife) is unceremoniously dumped over Arwen’s saddle.  Arwen then carries him, much like a sack of potatoes, pursued by the Riders.  She then crosses the river with Frodo barely conscious, and presumably a bit bruised and battered from the ride.  When the Riders approach, Arwen refuses their temptation with the slightly clumsy line, “If you want him, come and claim him.” Arwen then summons the power of the river, the waters of the river rise up, and the Riders are washed away.  End scene.

 

Substituting Glorfindel with Arwen makes little difference to the story.  In fact, the earlier animated adaptation substituted Glorfindel with Legolas, and that made sense as one elf lord is pretty much the same as another, especially when Glorfindel isn’t really in the rest of the story, so you might as well use the one that is going to be there for the next thousand pages.  But what the animated adaption kept was Frodo riding away from the Riders on his own.  The reason for this is that this was the important part of the encounter.  Frodo refused the Riders and the Ring at his weakest, on his own, injured, with no support, and no protector.  He demonstrated his strength of character and proved himself to be a trustworthy ringbearer.  Unfortunately the Jackson adaptation completely misses this point.  If anything, following Jackson’s scene, the Council of Elrond should have sent Arwen on the quest (with or without Frodo… perhaps in a large sack slung over the back of her horse).   For all of Jackson’s attention to detail in adapting The Lord of the Rings, he seemingly missed the entire point of this scene.

 

Why would Elrond, Gandalf, Aragorn, Boromir, Legolas, and Gimli support Frodo’s quest when thus far all he has done to their knowledge has either been to use the Ring and get stabbed on Weathertop, or be rescued like a sack of potatoes by an elf?  There is absolutely no reason to trust in Frodo or believe him capable of this quest at this juncture.  He has demonstrated no fortitude, no judgement, no agency, no power, and in fact had to be rescued in the first place because he was tempted by the Ring.  The characters are forced into this decision for plot reasons, not for any sort of narrative consistency, psychological realism, or earned status.

 

But to reiterate, this is not a problem with Arwen’s inclusion in the scene, as Arwen, Glorfindel, or Legolas, could all have been in the scene, but rather how she has been used, and how that ignores the subtext, theme, and underlying motivation that was in place in the original scene.  She completely robs Frodo of his agency and his power in that crucial moment.  If Arwen saved Frodo and was then included in the Fellowship this would be less of a problem in this specific sense, but that may create other issues, notably completely changing the make-up of the Fellowship.  Although, if she replaced Legolas and performed the same function, that would have been easier to explain than why Frodo is allowed to go in the first place.

 

So what we have here is a cinematic sequence, that looks great, that flows well, that is a fine action set piece, but that completely undermines the entire subtext of the scene and removes the major reason that anyone would trust Frodo to go on the quest in any capacity, let alone as the Ringbearer.  It ignores psychological realism in the characters involved in the Council.  It ignores the theme of the books and story that the strength of the individual, no matter what their background, can be enough to fight evil and change the world.  Jackson obviously had reasons for inserting Arwen at this juncture, but those reasons had nothing to do with character motivation or the necessary subtext created in that moment.

 

Character motivation and subtext can be a powerful tool in storytelling as it makes the narrative more compelling, more immersive, and more verisimilitudinous.  When directors, producers, writers, and production teams ignore the subtext and the characters’ motivations, that is when we find ourselves viewing something that can feel jarring or wildly inconsistent (depending on the severity of the infraction).  Viewers may not always realise why they feel that a character’s actions are out of place, or may not be able to exactly pinpoint why certain scenes felt unfulfilling.  But viewers are very vocal at expressing dissatisfaction when the finished narrative has not fulfilled their expectations.  So it is interesting that many filmic narratives and television shows seem to completely exclude the notions of subtext, character arc, psychological realism, and theme, when they are ostensibly trying to craft something that will please viewers.

 

Take the Iron Man trilogy.  Few would complain about Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Tony Stark.  He seems to effortlessly portray a spoiled, narcissistic, genius, playboy and translate that to onscreen entertainment.  He has demonstrated time and time again that he also can portray the nuance of character on screen, and is occasionally given the opportunity to do so within Marvel’s juggernaut franchise.  But if we consider the character arcs created by the Iron Man trilogy (and the Avengers film that occurred between IM 2 and IM 3) we get to something of a stumbling block in which the character motivation seemingly vacillates and wavers for little apparent reason, themes get randomly changed mid-text, and the subtext strikes a strange discordant note across individual films and when viewed as a trilogy.

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In the first, Iron Man, leaving aside the problematic timing of Obadiah Stane, for no apparent reason, wanting to have Tony killed, Tony goes through a transformative arc.  He realises his weapons that he naively thought were being used to ‘protect’ American soldiers were actually being used to kill people.  For a genius that is a bit of a blind spot that is hard to swallow, but we will gamely soldier on.  As the film progresses he moves from a purveyor of weapons to wanting to protect.  He creates a suit of armour that will allow himto rescue people, to stop the bad guys, and to be a hero.  Okay, so he kills a few people, but they were bad guys and they shot first, or were holding hostages.  Oh, and he leaves a man to be torn apart by a mob.  But… yay for the good guys, I guess.  He could have arrested them, captured them, deposited them at the army base, incapacitated them and sent the co-ordinates to the allied forces, etc. etc. but vigilante justice is a problematic type of heroism that is wildly and widely promoted in the MCU, and Hollywood in general, as being good, just, and heroic.  No need to get into the double standards applied by heroes to important characters, and to the nameless chaff foot soldiers who can be incinerated with impunity, or the relative morality that is turned on and off like a switch when it is convenient.

 

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History Repeating: A return of violent machismo to Fantasy and Science Fiction

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Image above shamelessly stolen from Mark Lawrence’s Blog

History Repeating: A Return of Violent Machismo to Fantasy and Science Fiction

At the 35th Annual Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts (ICFA) in Orlando, March 2014, Stephen R. Donaldson, as a guest on a discussion panel, raised a concern about the apparent rise of violence, nihilism, cynicism, and darkness in modern genre fantasy writing.  In particular he singled out what is most commonly referred to as ‘grimdark’, a sub-genre of fantasy popularised and exemplified by authors such as Joe Abercrombie, Mark Lawrence and George R.R. Martin.  Although I should mention that he did not explicitly name those authors.

The common (mis)understanding of grimdark is that it is fantasy writing that eschews the tropes of hero, heroic quest and the simplistic morality of good winning out over evil, in favour of a much darker, more cynical fantasy world which is generally graphically and explicitly violent, morally bankrupt (or at the least deeply flawed), and celebrates the dirt, darkness and grittiness of the world.  Heroic characters are replaced by violent, sociopathic, immoral or amoral protagonists, who are not so much anti-heroes as villains but on a side less villainous than the other.  Good and evil have been replaced by evil and slightly less evil.  In many ways a fairly accurate rendering of what the news presents us with on a daily basis, on the hour, every hour.

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Time for a (lack of) Change: The Passage of Time in Fantasyland.

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Show me a written history that makes sense, and I will show you true fiction. 

Crone, Toll the Hounds

 

This paper was intended to be a brief look at some of the temporal anomalies that occur in genre fantasy writing and using Steven Erikson’s Malazan Books to illustrate different approaches to solving these issues.

However over the course of researching this I realised that this issue was a great deal more complicated and far reaching than I had originally thought and therefore this paper has become more of a series of questions rather than an attempt to illustrate the answers.

In essence however it is an attempt to show that suspension of disbelief is not enough, there must be a rationality and coherency present for a fantasy world to truly function and captivate.  In fact a world must be internally coherent as well as rationally consistent in order for suspension of disbelief to function effectively.  And the treatment of time is one of the major elements whereby fantasy fails to be rational.

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Illustrating a Dream: An analysis of the art of storytelling in Gaiman and Vess’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

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This paper is a brief look at some aspects of The Sandman, in particular issue 19 “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”[1].  For any here who don’t know about The Sandman, it was a series of monthly comic books which ran from Dec ‘88 until the last issue in March ‘96.  However most of us will be more familiar with their current incarnation as a series of 10 graphic novels.  Published by DC Comics, under their Vertigo label, these groundbreaking comics have received critical acclaim, cult following as well as some degree of literary scrutiny.  While the various issues were all written by Neil Gaiman, a number of different artists were employed to illustrate the stories.  Although the term ‘illustrate’ is problematic as this paper will address.

The purpose of this paper is to examine the comic in terms of the meta-narrative and ideas of multiple and parallel realities and how this achieved through both textual referencing and the use of the art.  In particular how the art itself not only illustrates the text but is an added dimension to the narrative and supplies its own coded information for the reader.  As an additional note I owe a great deal of this paper to Jo Sanders’ article in Extrapolation on a similar topic in relation to this issue.

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So You Want To Be A Dragon Slayer? Character Generation in RPGs and Genre Fantasy

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So You Want To Be A Dragon Slayer?  Character Generation in RPGs and Genre Fantasy

The relationship between Fantasy literature and Role Playing Games is well known but is often overlooked and at times misunderstood.  Many consider fantasy literature to be the inspiration behind or inspiration of RPGs and overlook the reciprocal nature of this relationship.  I am hoping that this paper will show how the use of RPG conventions and processes can be used as a basic analytical tool when it comes to understanding and analysing fantasy narratives.

So let us begin with a very brief breakdown of my terminology; Genre fantasy, RPGs or roleplaying games and series fantasy.

Genre fantasy is perhaps the most ambiguous of the three, even if it is bandied about frequently, and we all tend to understand it in our own way. In the Encyclopedia of Fantasy Clute and Grant lay out a few guiding terms in order to define this ethereal concept.  The first is that there is a secondary world where magic exists or can exist, for example Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Feist’s Midkemia, and Brooks’ Shannara.  The world is usually populated by several different races and tribes that may or may not be magical, Elves, Dwarves, Trolls and Orcs for example in addition to humans.  The narratives usually correspond to recognisable sub-genres of fantasy such as high fantasy, epic fantasy and sword and sorcery.   But really those terms are often just as vague or misleading as genre fantasy itself.  To use an analogy, genre fantasy is as wide and varied as Science Fiction, we know it when we see it, but there are so many variants and sub-sets that an overarching definition eludes us.  I am using it to mean typical examples of what we generally call fantasy, for example books by Gemmell, Feist, Jordan, and Goodkind.

RPGs then.  We run into similar problems of scope here too. Roleplaying games can be as different from each other as genres of fiction can be.  Their game mechanics can vary enormously as do their settings, aims and objectives.  However like genre fantasy some general concepts can be found which can be used to describe a lot of, if not all, RPGs.  They usually involve the creation of a player character, who has defined physical and mental characteristics, who then engages with other player characters in a scenario created and managed by a Gamesmaster GM or Dungeonmaster DM.  The players ‘play’ through the scenarios, solving puzzles, defeating foes and accrue experience points or XP and riches which then allow them to develop their character further and get better equipment.  The scenarios are usually set in a gameworld which is different to our own and quite often resembles the secondary world setting found in genre fantasy.  To keep things simple I will be referring to fantasy rpgs when I use the term rpg.

A brief look at fantasy RPGs then.  They come in various forms, Pen and Paper or D20 traditional role-playing games.  Things like Dungeons and Dragons and its many offspring.  Well known and wide spread, Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance are examples of the AD&D approach to gaming.  Computer and console games, ranging from Sony’s Final Fantasy series, through Nintendo’s Zelda all the way back to D&D based games like Baldur’s Gate.  They vary in form and content and can be puzzle based, hack and slash, action adventure or a combination of all these things.  They usually have some sort of overarching narrative that can be as intricate or sparse as the game developer thinks will sell.  Varying from a thin plot to excuse monster slaying, to an intricate narrative that is more like an interactive novel.  There are also the MMORPGs or Massively Multiplayer Online Role Play Games, of which World of Warcraft is a leading example (with over 10 million subscribers as of January this year).  Again these games focus on players creating a character and joining other characters on quests and adventures in order to gain experience and wealth.

The third term, series fantasy, admittedly from Wikipedia, is useful here.  Series fantasy is basically a genre fantasy narrative which utilises an RPG gameworld as its secondary world, so we could rename it Gaming Fantasy to give it an air of credibility.  As such it would appear to be the closest type of genre fantasy to role-play gaming.  It tends to be more simplistic in nature than other sub-genres of fantasy and relies extensively on quest narrative and adventure stories.  Of all the types of genre fantasy, series fantasy seems to be the clearest example of what we call the fantasy template.  That of fantasy by numbers.  We can map out narrative events with a Proppian approach to narrative, we can deconstruct characters using Jungian Archetypes (like the trickster, the wise old man etc.) and because of its connection to the rpg world, we can use the rpg to breakdown many of the incidentals of the story not covered by the approaches above.

However something to bear in mind about Series fantasy is that although it is intrinsically linked to RPGs and these novels number in the hundreds and sell by the thousand.  There is something of a chicken and the egg problem here.  Some fantasy novels have inspired the creation of RPGs, which then in turn inspire more novels in the series, which in turn inspire more games set in and out of the series, as well as some RPGs have inspired novels which inspire the gamers which can lead to more novels and so on.

So why am I proposing to use RPG gaming conventions for genre fantasy analysis and not just series fantasy.  Well the answer to that is basically that the interrelationship between RPGs and fantasy is a great deal more extensive than many of us suppose.  It can influence how we think about fantasy.

So on to the conventions of RPGs and my point.  I want to look at some very specific aspects of RPGs and those are generally all concerned with character creation.  In particular the statistical breakdown, physical description and language of weaponry.

So let’s pretend we are the hero who has to go slay a dragon. It can be a tough job so a group of friends to help us out is likely to be useful, therefore some sort of quest group should be formed.  So who do we need first?  Knocking on the dragon’s front door seems to be a slightly foolhardy plan, and fantasy wisdom dictates that every dragon’s lair has a secret entrance.  So we need someone to find the secret entrance to its lair, and then guide us through a booby trapped dungeon before we can reach the dragon.  We therefore need a sneaky burglary expert or ‘thief’ to locate the secret entrance, disarm the traps, and pick the locks of the inevitably locked secret doors and treasure chests the dragon’s loot will be in.

Sneaky McStab – Thief Extraordinaire

So what sort of things does the thief need to have?  Or, in gaming terms, what attributes must he have.

Well strength isn’t a huge concern, he doesn’t have to be Atlas, but we don’t want a wimp either, so he needs a reasonable amount.

Dexterity must be high so that he can pick locks and disarm trip wires etc., he should also be able to scale walls and lower a rope down for the rest of us so dexterity is a priority.

We don’t want him dieing from the first wound he takes and as he lives in the rough and tumble world of the professional thief he will need to be a little hardy and so we will put at least a few points into constitution.

On to the mental characteristics.  Well he doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist so he doesn’t need huge levels of intelligence, but we would like him to be able to lace his own boots and to be able to work out which items have the greatest value to a fence, so he needs some street smarts and a bit of numeracy.

Wisdom and thieves don’t necessarily go together, but some level of commonsense would be nice, such as enough to realise that picking up the golden idol on the pedestal might be a bad idea until after you have checked for the pressure pad.

So that leaves charisma.  Well this can be important if he is the kind of thief that relies on cons and scams but a dislikable thief can be just as useful to a dragon slayer, we won’t be trying to convince the dragon to invest in a pyramid scheme.  So it is a personal choice but hardly a necessity.

He should be fairly flexible and acrobatic so in broad terms a younger character is probably best, but there aren’t many elderly thieves out there regardless.

Now we have to get him ready for battle.  Well he can’t wear plate mail as it isn’t really conducive to climbing, sneaking around and generally being stealthy.  Chainmail is a possibility but it might limit his manoeuvrability and possibly make too much noise.  So we will probably settle on leather armour as it is flexible, durable and doesn’t clank. Due to the fact that he will be hiding in shadows and dark crevices we should probably use dark leather, blacks and dark browns rather than something in the oxblood or bright yellow suede range.

What weapons should he have?  Well as a stealthy guy he probably will be sneaking up on people so daggers would be useful, maybe a short sword in case someone fights back.  Big swords and shields would probably get in the way of sneaking through airshafts so let’s avoid them.  Maybe a small bow or crossbow if he needs to take out a sentry from afar, but the bigger versions would be impractical for the same reason as the shields and longswords.

Now we will probably want a wizard too, in case of magical traps that the thief can’t disarm, and in case we have to lob a fireball at the inevitable mob of hench-monsters in the dragon’s employ.

Professor Fireball – Grumpy Wizard

Well we want a good one, so they will need to older and have plenty of experience as well as years of research and practice to make them powerful, not one straight out of wizard grad school.  We also want them to be versatile and know lots of different spells in order to defeat the predictably insurmountable obstacles in our way.  Therefore they will have to be very intelligent and have a good memory.

However we are not expecting them to lug around a lot of equipment or loot so they don’t have to be particularly strong. Nor are we expecting them to shimmy up a craggy rock face or walk across a tightrope to reach a ledge so they don’t have to be particularly dextrous.

We don’t want them to faint at the first sign of blood but we don’t expect them to get into fist fights so they don’t have to be hugely hardy.

We would like them to be wise but as long as they know all the spells and do what we tell them who cares if they think it is a bad idea?  But as they are messing with the forces of nature some wisdom is probably a good idea.

In terms of charisma, well once again it is a matter of whether or not you mind working with a boring unsociable wizard or want one to go out drinking with afterwards.

In terms of armour, magic, like lots of other forms of energy finds metal to be a great conductor, so a lot of armour is right out unless we want an extra crispy mage.  Also, as he is slightly older, leather might chafe a little so we will just let him wear his robes.  He won’t be doing much hand to hand fighting in any case so he may as well be comfortable.  He might carry a ritual dagger for one spell or another but really we will be relying on his spells rather than his ability to hit people.  He can always bring his big walking stick to bash heads with if he is feeling particularly vigorous.

Now, while we are busy being heroic and generally championy we need a bodyguard to look after the others and to take on incidental minions.

Tank the Meatshield – ‘If it moves, hit it with a rock’

We want him to be able to break heads and take names so he is going to have to be tough, hard as nails as well as strong as an ox.  We need someone to do most of the heavy lifting, dragon hoarded gold isn’t light you know.

We would like him to be co-ordinated enough that he won’t accidentally kill us whilst he is dispatching nameless minions 7 and 8, so a bit of dexterity would be welcome.

In terms of wisdom and intelligence as long as he can obey simple commands like ‘kill them not us’ and doesn’t have to be told not to eat the yellow snow we are ok.

Anyway, I would prefer a bodyguard who spent all his time practicing killing things than one who slacked off in order to read Shakespeare and who likes to debate post-Cartesian philosophy.

As for charisma, we need him to be an unstoppable killing machine not spokesperson for the wayward orc home.

As he is going to be slaughtering hundreds of the evil fantasy equivalent of red shirts he is going to need as much armour as he can wear, preferably inch thick metal.  He is also going to need big heavy weapons that are not going to break after a dozen fights.

Ok so that is the core of our support group; Sneaky McStab, Professor Fireball and Tank the Meat Shield.  Basically the point of this was to show that by defining the role that the character needed to fill to make our quest successful we basically ended up with the stereotypical fantasy group.  And this of course is pretty much the way some rpgs work.

This is the list of steps you take to create a character in the RPG Baldur’s Gate, and apart from the very superficial starting points the first major decision is class, and everything then follows that decision, from what armour they can wear, what weapons they can use and what skills they have.  Of course a hard core gamer might decide to play a stupid wizard, a weak warrior or a clumsy thief, but it can be a bit hard to progress through the game if your character is bad at his job.

So now we have seen how you build these characters from the ground up let’s apply this type of analysis to David Gemmel’s Waylander, which is a well known and popular genre fantasy novel, to see if it can work in the opposite direction.

The initial descriptions of Waylander highlight some important characteristics.

The man was tall and broad-shouldered and a black leather cloak was drawn about him.  (P.11)

From twin sheaths he produced two black-bladed knives. (P.12)

So perhaps the first thing to pick out here is the fact that he is “Tall and Broad Shouldered”, this is perhaps the stereotypical way to describe a warrior hero type.  It carries connotations of health, athleticism and strength.

But more important in this sentence is the black cloak.  Now standard fantasy semiotics would suggest that because the cloak is black this is going to be an evil character, but in terms of RPGs we can draw something more interesting out.  The fact that the cloak is made of leather suggests that the cloak is a practical garment, it serves a function.  Now this is because it is not made of velvet, or silk or some other decorative fabric, this is a hard wearing, protective and water-proof garment making it useful.

The fact that it is black suggests that the character is some sort of shady character, now it could be an aesthetic choice to have a black cloak, however as it is a functional garment the dark colour would suggest a practical purpose.  And one of these purposes would be to help the character hide in shadows and darkness.  This then would make the reader think that this character is some sort of warrior thief type.

Now the second description also reaffirms this.  He draws two black bladed knives.  Again the black would suggest ‘bad guy’ but it is more than that.  The blades of the daggers have been blackened to reduce their reflective properties.  Again apart from a strange aesthetic choice, the obvious reason for this is that they are to be stealth weapons, used to sneak up on someone in the dark and stab them.  Added to that is the fantasy idea that daggers or knives are dishonourable weapons, that is you don’t tend to challenge someone to a knife fight, you would duel with swords.  So daggers are quick, dirty wounding weapons used to incapacitate and then kill without mercy or honour.  Lastly in this is the fact that he draws two knives, so fighting with two weapons at the same time, suggesting he is ambidextrous and very competent.  So in RPG terms, a high dexterity score and signifier of a rogue class.
Swiftly the newcomer swept his cloak over one shoulder and lifted his right arm. A black bolt tore into the chest of the nearest man, a second entered the belly of a burly warrior with upraised sword. The stranger dropped the small double crossbow and lightly leapt back. (p.12)

This passage illustrates Waylander’s favourite weapon, a small double crossbow.  This is light and easily concealed, a perfect weapon for a rogue class.  Also unlike the noble longbow, which is usually romanticised, the crossbow is the fantasy equivalent of a hand gun, a point and shoot weapon that anyone can use without a lot of training.  It has a dirty reputation historically as it allowed untrained peasants to take down heavily armoured knights, although this example is far less powerful, has a reduced range but is no less deadly.  Oh and once again the crossbow and its bolts are black, so the dual evil and concealability issues rising.

Waylander is also wearing leathers and a partial chainmail shirt.  This again would suggest that he is a rogue character armoured for speed and agility rather than an out and out fight.

The man’s eyes were narrowed in concentration, but the priest noted that they were extraordinarily dark, deep sable-brown with flashing gold flecks. The warrior was unshaven, and the beard around his chin was speckled with grey. (P.13)

The first was a dark-haired warrior of a type she was coming to know too well; his face was hard, his eyes harder. (P.23)

In terms of his physical description, Waylander is dark haired, with dark brown almost black eyes.  With eyes being windows to the soul we can see how this easily reflects his dark status.  However they are also flecked with gold which would suggest that there is still something good, pure and precious in that darkness, leading to the possibility of redemption.  Also his dark beard shot with grey confirms this idea of darkness with a chance of light, and also lets you know he is not a young man.

Interestingly, as Waylander embarks on his redemptive quest he picks up some short swords (black handled and with black scabbards to be fair) and these add some air of nobility to his character whilst staying true to his roguish background.

So a combination of fantasy semiotics and rpg based analysis yields a great deal of information long before the author divulges secret dark past of his character.