The Problem With Star Wars

StarWarsMoviePoster1977Star Wars has been a phenomenally popular movie franchise. The original Star Wars came out in 1977 and was an instant success. But when I first watched it, I was not impressed. My first impression was that it was the King Arthur legend in outer space. Even at the age of 14 I had expectations of my science fiction adventures. We all have a sense of a good story when we see one. But when I first saw Star Wars, there were things missing. Let’s look at one of the flaws of Star Wars and why the film has endured despite it.

The Elements of Good Storytelling

At Agile Writers, we follow the basic pattern of the Hero’s Journey as laid out by Joseph Campbell in his seminal work The Hero With a Thousand Faces:

  • The Hero starts out in his ordinary world
  • Something happens that upsets the hero’s world
  • And he is cast into an unfamiliar world
  • Where he makes new friends, enemies, and overcomes trials
  • After overcoming a major crisis
  • The hero returns to his ordinary world, with a lesson learned.

What Star Wars is Lacking

Star Wars follows this pattern nearly to a tee. However, one thing lacking is the lesson learned. What is it that Luke understands about the universe that he didn’t understand at the beginning?

Luke starts out with what we call a “Missing Inner Quality.” He lacks confidence. In the end, he acquires this confidence when he trusts in the Force. So we have to ask ourselves, is this the message of this film? Is this the lesson learned?

If so, then the lesson learned is that we should all trust in the Force to resolve our issues. But the Force is a fictional element of a fictional galaxy, long ago and far away. This is not a message that any of us can use.

Alternatively, you might argue that the point of Star Wars is that we should trust in some higher power. But that doesn’t really seem to be the message that George Lucas was attempting to impart. We don’t really see Luke or any other character giving praise and credit to the higher power. Using the Force in the final scenes of the film is merely the device that signifies Luke has overcome his lack of confidence and has found a new confidence in the Force.

Why Star Wars is Popular

What Star Wars does right is the use of archetypes in story telling. These are fundamental character types that all humans seem to recognize intrinsically. The archetypes Star Wars employs are:

  • The young hero (Luke)
  • The damsel in distress (Leia)
  • The comic sidekicks (R2D2 & C3PO)
  • The rascal (Han)
  • The mentor (Obi Wan)
  • The villain (Darth Vader)

When we see these elements combined in the right ways, we are instantly engrossed in the story. You can see them employed over and over again in storytelling. Look at The Karate Kid, The Wizard of Oz, and The Matrix.

When George Lucas created his story, he consulted Joseph Campbell on the use of these mythical archetypes. He got this right. He got it so right that he was able to build an empire from this one story, and overcome a critical flaw.

The Serial and Roller Coaster Rides

Lucas based the structure of Star Wars, in part, on the serial movie shorts of his youth. Serials like Flash Gordon, for example, were episodic and often began with a recap of previous episodes. So, also, does Star Wars begin with an opening scroll.

These action/adventure stories were designed to thrill and excite young movie goers. They weren’t meant to teach a deep lesson. The idea was to pull the viewer in and keep them coming  back for more in subsequent releases. As such, they are very much roller coaster rides.

At Agile Writers, I warn writers away from writing roller coaster rides. When you begin your story, you are entering into a contract with the reader. That contract is that you promise if the reader hangs in there with you, you will deliver a story with a point to it. If the reader gets to the end of the story and there is no point, they will wonder why they spent the time and money on your story.

Have a Message

Roller coaster rides are fun. They are nice once in a while. However, as a beginning writer, I advise you to have a message to impart upon your reader. You have an opinion about the world we live in. You have a unique perspective about this world. Draw upon your unique experiences to craft a story that imparts a message to your readers that will enrich and engage them. That is the ultimate point of story.

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Avatars: Your Ideal Reader

imagesRecently at Agile Writers the topic of what is “allowed” in certain genres came up. In particular, a couple writers are working on Christian Inspirational fiction and wondered what words or topics were taboo.

In that genre, readers are very sensitive to words that are perceived as “swear” words. Our own Cat Brennan related a story of how a Christian writer had a villain who had a foul mouth. The writer allowed only one swear in to the text. But when a bookseller found that word he called and complained bitterly to the publisher. The publisher then recalled all the books and removed the offending word.

This is an example of how you, as the writer, regardless of your genre, need to know your audience. You need to know what language your audience will be willing and able to read. You also need to know the conventions of the genre and the expectations of your readers.

I recommend to my writers that they create an ideal reader. The “ideal reader” is an idealized representation of the person most likely to read your book. Steven King, for example, claims that he writes with his wife in mind. He reasons that if she likes it, others will too. His wife then, is his ideal reader.

So, to figure out who the ideal reader is, think about the age, gender, educational level and expectations of the person reading your book. When I ask new Agile Writers who will read their book, almost invariably they answer “everyone!” But of course, not everyone will want to read your book. A book that appeals to a 12-year-old girl likely will not appeal to a 65-year-old man. It *can* happen, but it’s not likely. And as a writer, you can’t be expected to write a book that appeals to everyone.

So consider the age of the reader. If you’re writing a cozy mystery, you’re likely aiming at an older person: perhaps in their 50s or 60s. If you’re writing a young adult dystopian novel, you’re probably going to want to appeal to 12- to 15-year olds.

Gender is also a good identifier for your ideal writer. If you’re writing a spy/espionage thriller – you’re likely going to appeal to a male audience. And if you’re writing a romance novel, you’re book is probably going to appeal to women.

If this sounds like stereotyping, it is. And in this case, it’s not a bad thing. These are not negative stereotypes. This is knowing your demographic and writing to please them. You’re not telling a woman that she cannot read or enjoy your cold-war thriller. It’s just that the majority of your readers are likely to be men. And so, you’ll want to keep them in mind as you write your work.

I encourage writers to go an extra step in this process and create an “avatar” of their ideal reader. An avatar is an outward representation of a hidden concept. The word comes from the Sanskrit meaing “to descend”. It used to represent Hindu gods who came to Earth and needed an Earthly visage for people to see. In modern terms, people use “avatars” as pictures or cartoons that represent them on Facebook or in chat rooms. These are simple images that represent their true selves.

In the case of writers, an avatar is a stock photo of someone who represents their ideal reader. I tell my writers to create a full backstory for their ideal reader, and go onto the internet and Google search for an image that looks like their ideal reader.

For example, Cat is working on a Christian Inspirational cozy mystery. Her ideal reader might be a woman in her 50s to 60s who bakes, sews, quilts, and knits. I’d give this woman a name, say, “Melinda.” Melinda lives in the midwest and has three children and two grandchildren. I’d then ask Cat to go onto the internet and find a picture of this ideal reader to act as her avatar. Finally, Cat should print the picture out and tape it next to her computer screen so that she can keep her ideal reader in mind as she writes.

Keeping your reader in mind is an important part of writing your novel. Choosing an ideal reader will help you to make the right word choices, cultural references, and situations that will resonate with your readers. And having an avatar – or picture – of your ideal reader will keep you on-track as you write that first draft.

Plumbing the Depths of Your Own Life

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In a recent chapter of Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies for Fun and Profit he talked about a phenomenon he calls “burning the raft at both ends.” By which he means, consuming one’s own life experiences in the service of one’s writing. According to Block, you can use up your life. You can run out of experiences. You can write through your life faster than you can live it.

I’m vested in believing he is wrong about this.

I write from my own life. Maybe it’s because I come out of a poetic tradition. Or maybe I was drawn to confessional poetry, in particular, out of a compulsion to use my own life experiences in the service of my writing.

Part of gaining skill in writing has been learning how to do this more skillfully—to take the emotional kernel, the essence of my own experiences, and of the social and psychological realities I know intimately, and allow that essence to sprout circumstances for my characters that are not so easily traceable to my own life. In part, I do this to avoid libel charges, sure. But I also do it—like most writers—to protect the innocent, or at least the loved.

But as I have expounded before, I write as one vehicle toward self-knowledge. Writing without explicit self-examination is impossible for me.

I happen to believe that human beings are infinitely complex. That the material in any one human life is inexhaustible and ever-deepening. I was listening to a podcast by the New York Public Library yesterday. In it the novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard seeks to dispel the rumors that people with good childhoods can’t be writers. That well-adjusted, ordinary folk have nothing to write about. He describes himself as such a person who was lucky enough—and as a writer unlucky enough—to have supportive, well-adjusted parents and no major traumas. And he talks about learning, through the works of such writers as Flannery O’Connor, that every human life is engaging and interesting if you zoom in close enough.

Frankly, I don’t trust writers who claim not to write from their own experience. Maybe they don’t write from their own experience in such an obvious way. Maybe they use persona. Maybe they write science fiction or supernatural horror or murder mystery. Maybe they haven’t  personally experienced taking someone’s life but their hero is a serial killer. I would argue that even that person is writing from their own experience—maybe from their Jungian shadow side—maybe it’s unconscious. But to write that character in a compelling way they must be in touch with the human impulse to violence (whether expressed or unexpressed) in themselves. We each have it, after all.

We each have the capacity for all human emotions and psychological experiences. The entirety of your novel must spring from your own mind, which has been shaped by your experiences. That’s part of the mystery of writing. Somehow all of that stuff is in you. “You contain multitudes,” as Walt Whitman said.

So can you burn the raft entirely before you reach the shore? I would argue that you cannot. You have no choice but to keep living while you are writing. The raft keeps getting built as you are burning it. And as you refine your craft, perhaps you are also refining your attention, and you will see things in your life you never saw before. And they will be revealed to you through the act of writing itself.

What do you think, Agile Writers? Feel free to make a case for the opposite in the comments below!

Developing Secondary Characters

group-people-silhouetteThe Agile Writers approach to writing a novel focuses clearly around the hero figure and their story. But, the more you step into the world of your hero, the more you recognize the need for fully developed secondary characters.

The hero can only have as much depth as his or her world, after all. So, while deliberate strategies for fleshing out secondary characters are not built into the Agile Writer method currently, we had a lively discussion around this topic at a recent meeting. Some important quandaries emerged from our discussion:

How do you develop your secondary characters? How do you create a compelling Villain or Enemy of your Hero? How do you ensure that the Villain doesn’t “steal the show” and become the most interesting character in your book? How do you create a Hero that evokes emotional investment on the part of the reader? When is the appropriate time in the writing process to attend to developing the secondary characters?

The Storyboarding process at Agile Writers is already very thorough and takes most writers between two and four months to complete. Adding more work on the front-end of the writing process might cross over into unhelpfulness at some point. After all, people come to the group because they want to write, not spend forever planning. New writers could easily lose steam if it takes too long to get to the writing process itself.

For me, the issue of developing my secondary characters came up organically in the early days of writing my second draft. I was happy with the plot of my novel, but felt like some depth was still lacking. The story needed more voices, perspectives and subplots. I wanted it to feel richer, more vivid, more compelling, and easier for a reader to become immersed in.

The solution, for me, was focusing more attention on some of my secondary characters, especially the Villain. Much of my story up to that point was told from the vantage point of my hero. After all, it is her story. But she seemed too self-aware too early in the novel. I needed the perspectives of other characters to communicate some things about my hero that maybe she didn’t even recognize about herself.

Part of creating an amply flawed hero is the limitations that this necessarily sets on the character’s understanding, especially in the first half to 2/3 of the novel. They have a somewhat flat perspective at times because of their own, very necessary, limitations. You need other characters to fill in the picture for the reader. Otherwise, you err on the side of an omniscient hero, who “knows too much too soon” or a novel that lacks richness because of the main character’s limitations.

The first scenario, where the hero is too savvy too soon, results in a terribly flat character arch. There’s no room for the hero to grow if they are already so wise at the beginning of the story.

The second danger, a novel lacking richness because of the hero’s limited perspective, makes for a boring book. The reader quickly tires of the hero’s limited scope. They may put the book down because of its lack of sophistication.

As for how to create compelling characters, we agreed on a few key ingredients. Backstories are imperative. Show where your characters come from to give us a sense of who they are. Also, complicate them. Perfect angels and inhumane devils are boring characters. You need a hero with flaws and a villain with some admirable qualities, even if they are destructive and have ill-intentions. It is also important, we all agreed, to keep the hero as the most compelling character of the story. The reader is following the hero’s journey. It’s their growth, their motivations that are the engine behind your plot.

As for the timing, I found the start of my first macro-editing to be the perfect time to revisit my secondary characters and give them some depth. I already had a plot that was entirely motivated by my hero’s journey, so there was no danger of the arch of the story getting muddied by secondary characters. And I had learned enough about the secondary characters through writing my first draft that I could easily flesh out their backstories and personalities.

But, everyone’s writing process is a little different. How have you handled rounding out secondary characters?