Life of a Stick


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  • Story Lessons from a Hero

    I recently finished watching the TV series Heroes. I’ve always been a fan of superhuman abilities — flying, shapeshifting, super strength. Seeing a world and its stories with these concepts was interesting, especially since it had a “real world” touch on it.

    This blog post is specifically about what I learned about writing and story/character design from the series. Mostly because of the parts I didn’t like, and the parts that were downright painful to watch.

    First, the character’s motivations.

    Often times, the character’s goals and motivations were unclear. From what I can tell, they were trying to make the characters more “human.” The evil was done for good reasons, the good could do bad things. But most of the time it came off to me as characters being indecisive or flip-flopping.

    I previously wrote a blog post about How To Make Goals Work For You. The point of the post was to say that every action people make has a goal or reason behind it, whether the person making the choice is aware of what their goals are or not.

    In the real world, people’s goals flop. Often they don’t have a solid vision on what it is they want at all times. They fall prey to temptation, they change their mind on a whim. Not everyone is like that, but it’s something that happens in real life. It’s not something you see often in movies and stories — unless it’s specifically portrayed as such — because it’s confusing and makes it difficult to understand the person. I had trouble understanding a lot of the characters early on because their motivations weren’t explained and kept changing.

    To reiterate, the lesson here is simple. A character needs clear motivations and goals. We need to know what they’re fighting for. Their goal may even be to find a goal, or to stay with a goal they want. Without that, the story turns bland and lifeless.

    Deliberate missing goals? With secondary characters, the main bad guy, or if you’ve got a dozen main characters? Keeping a few a mystery is fun and interesting. Gives you more to reveal later. But it needs to be a deliberate choice, and it needs to be designed so it works.

    Second, goal depth.

    If someone has a goal they don’t want others to be aware of — they’re trying to hide their goal — they do an action that works with multiple goals in mind. You then need to see multiple actions of theirs in order to cross-reference what their actual goals are.

    Let’s say there are three levels of motivation/goals that a character may have: Surface, Underlying, and Secret.

    A surface goal is exactly what it appears to be — a very obvious goal. Someone is hungry, they go and buy a burger.

    An underlying goal is something that’s not so obvious. Someone is hungry, so they grab some peanuts to snack on. But they’re allergic to peanuts, so their underlying goal could be attention, suicide, or whatever else the writer thinks is interesting enough to write into the story.

    A secret goal is where you end up with twists in the story, as a secret goal is never properly revealed until it’s too late (or just in time, if it’s a happy ending).

    Third, communication and intelligence.

    Many parts of Heroes felt like the writers said, “this event needs to happen,” and then they threw a couple characters together to interact, and made sure they didn’t say just what needed to be said to resolve their conflict, and had them fight or separate on poor terms.

    It was downright painful to watch.

    A single sentence could have solved everything, but the character would say everything but what needed to be said.

    This problem plagues Walking Dead even more than it plagues Heroes. It makes perfect sense in Walking Dead — it’s dripping with emotion, and emotion can cloud logic and result in some bad choices. You’ve also got the aspect of children, or simply low intelligence players. But in Heroes people aren’t trying to survive in a hopeless situation, they’re being heroes. Most of them are educated, skilled adults that are failing to accomplish basic communication.

    That kind of thing may work for other people, but it’s idiocy to me, and ruins my enjoyment. It breaks the fourth wall as the motivations of the writers, rather than the characters, becomes visible.

    Lastly, revealing information to the viewer.

    While not specifically a lesson learned from Heroes, when dealing with characters and their underlying or secret goals, then what parts you show to the viewer, and when you show them, becomes very important in order to tell a good story.

    The writer’s goal, in my opinion, is to entertain two classes of people. Those that appreciate what’s visible immediately on the surface, and those that enjoy digging deeper.

    The surface goals are things you can’t avoid showing. They’re the ones that tell the story. But a pattern of surface goals can point to an underlying goal a character may have. Internal motivations that people can notice. Hints can even be sprinkled about to make it a little more obvious when it needs to be.

    And your friend who shouts, “I knew it!” when the twist happens, but you had no idea anything like that was going to happen? He’s the guy who enjoys solving puzzles. Believe it or not, you were watching two different movies.


  • Be Paranoid, But Not Too Paranoid

    When I was young, my mother would give me a lot of advice that was quite normal. Don’t talk to strangers, don’t wander off alone, etc. She also gave me advice that was a little more extreme, but could still be considered within the bounds of normal, such as not telling anyone how much money you make. I also picked up other things form her, such as worrying about what random people I don’t know might think of me if I do certain actions or say certain things.

    In short, I was raised to be paranoid.

    I want to be clear what paranoia is. Paranoia is an action. It inspires you to do things. Fear is the opposite emotion. Fear stops you from acting. If you’re fearful of a building, you don’t go into it. If you’re paranoid of a building, you don’t go into it without a bulletproof vest, rubber soled shoes, and informing your next of kin.

    I like to think of paranoia in the same terms as absolute zero. As far as science can tell, there is no (yet known) maximum temperature, but the minimum temperature is currently believed to be 0 Kelvin (about -460 Fahrenheit, and -270 Celcius). The same applies for paranoia, with carelessness on the absolute low end of the scale.

    The scale of paranoia looks like this to me:

    Extreme paranoia  <-----------|-----------o  Complete Carelessness
                              Caution

    The guy who goes to the store and leaves his engine running and the car door open is further to the right, near careless, and the guy who sets up The Club, takes out his stereo, locks the doors, and sets the car alarm is deeper in the side of paranoia.

    But while you can have an absolute lowest level of carelessness where you simply can’t take any less precautions, you cannot reach the upper maximum of paranoia. Just ask any paranoid network administrator whether he has enough backup copies of his data.

    As we can see in this example, a certain amount of caution is useful. Simply bringing the car keys with you makes it more difficult for someone to steal your car. Locking the door prevents them from being able to rummage through your car’s interior, and so on.

    However, we all know someone who takes it too far. There’s a reason the word “paranoid” is not a word with positive connotations.

    So how far is too far? The answer contains two parts.

    The first is society norms.

    If you’re out in the country, locking your car or even taking the keys with you is probably not a major concern. You may even be mocked (politely) for being paranoid if you lock your car while visiting a country relative.

    However, parking in Seattle is well known and documented as not being as safe. You’re encouraged to lock your car, and put any valuables in the trunk. (People are less likely to break into a car if they can’t see the valuables.)

    The second is risk assessment.

    If you’re out in the country and know that there’s still a slight chance, however small, that someone could steal your car, you may still lock it despite friendly mocking.

    But if you’re in a big city and your car is dirty and damaged, and you’re only going into a store for five minutes, you may not even bother locking it.

    So, in the end, how much paranoia is too much, and how much is just being cautious?

    Let’s talk about hoarding real quick. If you’ve seen the television show Hoarders, you’re familiar with some of the crazy things that people can stockpile. But what’s the difference between a collector and a hoarder? Someone may have thousands of coins or stamps or soda bottles, but still be a collector and not a hoarder.

    I believe the difference is organization. If your collection does not affect your daily life, you’re a collector. If it does, you’re hoarding. Affecting your daily life means that you need to walk around or over things, you’re unable to access floors and counters and tables, etc.

    The same principle of disrupting your daily life applies to paranoia. If you can push one button and immediately have 15 offsite backups of your data, that’s simply being cautious. Very, very cautious. However, if you spend hours every week burning DVDs and mailing them to a dozen safety deposit boxes across the globe, that’s paranoia.

    So remember kids: Spend enough time to keep yourself safe from things that can hurt you, but don’t waste your life trying to protect yourself from things you don’t even know will happen. Sometimes it’s better to pick up the broken pieces once every couple years than it is to spend an hour every day preventing it from being broken.



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