Saturday, 20 August 2016

Everyone's a hero in their own story

Contains spoilers

One piece of advice I remember being given when I started writing seriously was to be scrupulous in ensuring your protagonist's actions are driven by character, but when it comes to your antagonist, anything goes.  Action derives from character; how your hero reacts to his predicament is determined by his strengths, weaknesses, foibles, knowledge, superstitions, physical abilities, history, and so forth.  What makes your lemming the one that walks away from the cliff edge?

The antagonist's job is to provide those predicaments; we don't stop to ask for consistency or justification; our focus is on the hero through whose eyes we'll follow the action.  If anything, an antagonist who acts with a cocktail of quasi-omniscience, semi-omnipotence, and unhinged irrationality makes for a pretty good baddie.

The truth is that you have a great deal more wriggle room with your antagonist; he is, after all, the one whose job it is to throw chairs in the way of the hero, but it helps enormously if your antagonist's actions also have some kind of twisted internal logic.  However, all too often, the baddie just seems to be there to give the hero something to push up or show off against, leading to such classics as:

"Do you really expect me to talk?"
"No, Mr Bond, I expect you to DIE."

If that was really Goldfinger's aim then would he really have constructed some homoerotic laser (or, in the book, circular saw)?  No, he would have just shot the bastard there and then, if not earlier.  The whole thing was really for the story's benefit first, and the character's second, if at all.

Let's compare and contrast one recent undeserving sci-if classic - The Hunger Games - with one recent unrecognised classic - Wool by Hugh Howey.  Both are set in a post-apocalyptic America, both with society splintered, albeit with very different levels of awareness of each other.  Both have strong heroines who butt up against the social order itself.

I'm not so interested here in contrasting Katniss with Juliette.  Rather, let's think about how much sense the initiatives engineered by society for keeping them in their place make.  Because, I think, each falls foul of the 'they wouldn't really do that' test, albeit at very different ends of the spectrum, which means that one, but only one, can be rescued via 'would they?'.

Firstly, Wool.  As a preliminary step prior to a preconceived holocaust of the mutually assured destruction-type, the American people take to fifty or so huge silos, buried one hundred and fifty storeys deep.  Over centuries memories of the world-that-was, the other silos even, are lost, except to the controlling elite.  Each silo becomes a self-contained universe with nobody beyond; anybody who says or thinks differently is sent to 'clean' the sensors that give a view of the dead surface in a suit with a deliberately shortened life.

Does it make sense?  Well, it's not the most obvious solution to sedition, but troublemakers need to be got rid of.  I was surprised, given that there are more twists in the story than in the strings of that kite you stuffed to the back of the loft last summer, that the air outside didn't turn out to be breathable, but that being the case, 'cleaning' offers a very visible way of demonstrating the toxicity of the world beyond the silo.

What makes less sense, however, is admitting that there's a world outside without making it an aim to ever leave the silo.  Why give people dreams if you're determined to quash them?  To quote James, If I hadn't seen such riches I could live with being poor.  A nonsense, but a necessary nonsense in order to tell a great story.

I'll take it as read that you know how the Hunger Games works.  Again, the purpose of the Games is to humiliate the twelve remaining districts defeated by The Capitol.   Obviously there's a lot of gladiators in Ancient Rome going on here, both in terms of the political relationship between ruler and slave-states, and the resulting human blood sport.

So, your President Snow's predecessor.  Your blood's up and you want a way to keep your defeated territories under the cosh and on their knees.  Do you invent The Hunger Games?

No.  At least, not as described.

The very last thing you would do is allow resistance to centre on any martyr or hero-figure.  So, forget all those parades and interviews and fancy frocks.  You want to dehumanise, not create a cult of personality.  Remind them that the victor is of a different standing - think of the British in India, or America's relationship with its Native Americans.  A single man - Ghandi - had a lot to do with the ending of the Raj.  When people bay for blood it must be the blood of animals, or at least a lower caste of humans; under no circumstance must they think there but for the grace of god...

As for selecting children, no.  Not out of squeamishness, but because it makes you look weak.  Spartacus was made an example of because he was the strongest the slaves could muster, but still not strong enough for the might of Rome.  That was the message.

A lottery?  No.  Give the districts the pain of selecting their own tributes.  Make them offer up their best, with punishments for the districts with the weakest representatives.  Make the comfort, if not survival, of the district dependent on the Games.  Make the districts themselves snuff out any thoughts of resistance.

If you are going to have a lottery, what about the substitution rule?  Ludicrous.  Districts will either select the best (unlikely in reality given the odds of winning are slight and there doesn't seem to be anything in it for the district itself) or, more probably, some cripple whose family have been persuaded to sacrifice for better rations.  So you're faced with the prospect of the games resembling Todd Hayne's Freaks.  Not pretty.

Getting more food for having more entries in the lottery?  Hello?  The aim is to keep them enfeebled.  If everybody puts in for more food then the odds don't really change.  Ultimately all you've done is give aid and succour to people you're trying to quash and you still get two tributes per district.  Smart.  Not.

The Hunger Games also fails in large part to a question of scale.  Wool's conceit may be nonsensical, but it's nonsensical in a way that chimes with our experience of bureaucracy.  It's the sort of thing governments do.  The Hunger Games is so ill-conceived and on a society-defining scale too, that it topples over on the weight of it's own idiocy.  It is also actually self-defeating, in danger of creating the martyr figure that will bring about the revolution.

Much more seriously, in Wool, once you accept the premise, all the characters act  more consistently and believably and, well... in character than in The Hunger Games.  The Hunger Games exist as an irritant, like pre-holiday jabs.  Nobody suggests rebelling in the face of such evil.  Katniss and the other tributes act throughout as though there's a danger of being knocked out of an inter-schools hockey tournament, not of imminent bloody death.

Katniss is written as an everywoman.  She's us, the character we can empathetically drop into for the ride; so you can't argue the Games are so ingrained in her society they are simply blindly accepted, because we the reader can't accept them so easily.  We can't accept them at face value, so neither should our heroine.

The irritation is that there is a good story trying to get out of The Hunger Games; it's eminently fixable.  Firstly, learn from Spartacus.  Make Katniss the rebel, the troublemaker who needs to be dealt with - her hunting trips beyond the wire give ample reason in a world where people are subjugated through lack of food.  Have her fight against depersonalisation as she becomes a gladiator for others' entertainment.  Put her under duress - most of her actions and decisions actually make more sense - sorry, delete 'more' - if she had to fight to avoid bad things happening to the people she loves.  And don't change the ending - winning, but on her terms.

Oh, and maybe not make the standard of writing that of a hack writer's movie novelisation.

I may even write it myself.

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