Accidentally on purpose

Back in April, a friend and I gave a presentation about the latest installment of the Devil May Cry series. We noted that the themes of the game and the language of the ads for it were all about confronting power structures and challenging societal norms, but the main characters were pretty stereotypical: a rough-and-ready male hero and a helpless, innocent damsel-in-distress. We presented this as something of a failure on the part of the creators, but one of the audience members said he was quite sure this had been done intentionally as part of the social commentary.

I had not considered this. I started to feel insecure about my own interpretation. Was I just too dumb to get the joke? However, the more I thought about it, the less sure I was that he was right. It seems a little silly to be talking about definitive rights and wrongs when it comes to individual interpretations, but I felt that my friend and I had some pretty logical reasons for thinking DMC’s characters were the products of laziness rather than cleverness. There was no cage match to decide who was right, but it still got me thinking about how to judge the flaws of various media. At what point can you look at such flaws and say, “Well, they’ve done it on purpose to be clever”? That’s not something I feel comfortable assuming.

Of course, there are times it’s obvious. I read Gentlemen Prefer Blondes over the semester, and even I could see that Anita Loos was using misspellings and a rather atypical form of stream of consciousness to create a gently mocking tone. But what about when it’s not obvious? I suppose I could just say we can all have our own ideas so hooray, let’s move on, but that’s not satisfying. Frankly, it doesn’t even come down to whether I like or dislike the book, game, or movie in question; I loved the DMC reboot and Dante as a character, but I still thought the game failed to depart from the norms it was railing against.

I’m not looking for a magic formula, here. Critiquing media should always be nearly as difficult and unique as creating media, I think, so I’m really just interested in reading other people’s experiences with this. What things have you read, watched, or played that used its own flaws as part of its narrative? What about that particular thing (or things) made you think the mistakes were an intentional part of the commentary rather than being just, well, mistakes?

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Love stinks

I’m not really a romantic. Maybe I was, some time ago when I was young and naïve. Back in high school, I thought I had a pretty good grip on what “love” was (laugh with me) and it seemed solid and immutable. Now that I’m a jaded old hag, love is a tenuous and often distasteful concept. In real life, romance is an awkward, trial-and-error affair and in the movies it’s predictable and ridiculous. I don’t like characters who give up “everything” for love. I don’t like those “boy meets girl” stories. I don’t sympathize with Romeo and Juliet or Jack and Rose and I can’t stand the people from that blasted epitome of chick flicks, The Notebook. I don’t mind when characters are married, dating, sleeping together, or whatever (a lot of my characters are doing at least one of those things), but I can’t stand romantic ideals. I don’t believe people actually fall in love or “just know” or that anyone completes anyone. And now that I’ve said all this, I’m going to contradict myself.

If I’m going to write a story, I have to fall in the love with the characters.

Male, female, young, old, beautiful, ugly, villains, heroes, whatever. I absolutely have to love my main characters. Since my idea of love is sort of unstable/cynical/different from most people’s, maybe I should just say I have to want to spend time with them. I must want to spend hours and days and maybe years of my life writing their stories down. I have to get to know them, appreciate their flaws, let their emotional ups and downs affect me, and patiently try to figure out what they want and why. That seems similar to how real relationships are supposed to work.

That probably doesn’t sound like a bad thing. If I care about the characters, readers probably will too, right?

Wrong.

At least, I’m pretty sure it’s wrong. After all, I’ve read a lot of stories that didn’t draw me in. I’ve read books that people—sometimes even people I know—have spent years writing and I’ve remained unaffected. Someone cared about those characters and I didn’t give a damn about them, so I can only assume the same holds true for my own characters. So if loving your characters doesn’t guarantee other people will love them, what does it do?

In my case, it’s limiting. Since I love them all, they all have something in common. A lot of people have a “type,” right? We’re drawn toward different external and internal characteristics: blonde or brunette, optimistic or pessimistic, idealistic or realistic, Superman or Batman. And if you’re a hardcore Batman fan, how often can you bring yourself to care about Superman? If you love the Dark Knight’s moral ambiguity, will you appreciate the Big Blue Boy Scout’s sense of righteous justice?

As readers, watchers, and consumers, it’s natural that we have a type. We have favorite genres and subjects and as long as we’re not too stuck in a rut, that’s perfectly okay. However, even though no one has said this to me explicitly, it seems like we’re not supposed to have favorites as writers, makers, and producers.

Maybe the adage “kill your darlings” gave me this impression. Writers are constantly told to edit, chop, cut out anything that doesn’t belong in the story, even if we love it, and to keep or add things that do belong. Sometimes it’s a matter of cutting a paragraph you spent three hours crafting. Sometimes you end up killing a character you wish could’ve lived. Everyone hopes, I assume, that the story they love is also a good story. But can you write a good story you don’t love?

I couldn’t. When I don’t love my characters, it shows. One of the biggest challenges of my current project is disguising my disinterest in certain people, which is an especially daunting task given that the story depends so much on how readers feel about the characters. Sure, I love my main characters, but the antagonists? The minor characters? Can I evoke sympathy, hatred, or admiration for a character I don’t sympathize with, hate, or admire? If I can, I think I’ll have a damn good story. If I can’t, it’ll be an amateurish waste of space on my hard drive. No pressure.

My uncertainty extends beyond this project. Can I make my characters in different stories sufficiently distinct? Am I doomed to write the same characters over and over, just with different names and eye colors? Will their motivations and philosophies always be the same even if their genders or ethnicities are different? Or will I allow the events of the story to organically shape the characters into unique people?

Do you have to love your characters? Does writing a good book require some amount of distance and detachment? Can you break away from your favorite themes for the sake of story? Is that something I should be working toward? Am I way off the mark with this entire theory?