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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.

  • Recent Events

    Last Friday and Saturday I went to the 2D or not 2D animation festival. It was awesome. I got to meet amazing people like Barry Cook and Dean Yeagle and Michel Gange. Of course, my DigiPen professor Tony White was there, seeing as he was hosting the festival in the first place.

    After getting an exclusive first look on Gange’s upcoming game and getting a bunch of stuff signed by him, and watching some fantastic shorts like Chicken Cowboy, and listening to an orchestra at close range (they took up half the big room the final mingle was in) I went back to my car and found a car window and my backpack missing. Whoops.

    Let that be a lesson to everyone: Don’t leave tempting unknowns sitting around where someone may see it. Save yourself some trouble. Now I gotta buy a new backpack, a new sketchbook, and some new charcoal. I feel kinda sorry for the guy who stole it… he risked the law for… well, nothing.

    So I got home, and my good friend tek_hed who’d lent me a Wacom tablet for the past many years, finally needed it back. So I was now tabletless.

    Feeling sorry for myself, and a bit stupid for getting my backpack stolen, I went and ordered a new toy. A 12″ Cintiq. Seeing as it was only $400 more than the $600 for a new tablet, I figured I might as well splurge. Man, this stuff is expensive. It should get here in a week or two.

    But wait, that’s not all!

    I got an email from Rick Simmons, CEO of Virtrium LLC about a press release he was making about my Seawolf dragons..

    I think I’m getting ahead of myself, as I haven’t mentioned the dragons here yet. The dragons link above should explain a bit about them. They’re an avatar available for Second Life that use a bug (that hadn’t been exploited previously) to increase the size of your avatar. I don’t have any size references images or even videos handy, so I’m just going to give a link to an image of the vendor location. The top of the smallest dragon’s head is about as tall as a normal person. If you have Second Life, you can visit the location inworld by clicking this SLurl.

    Oh, and Left 4 Dead came out. Valve’s latest masterpiece, and more proof that finding awesome people and buying them into the company is a very smart idea.

  • Truth and Cheating

    TRUTH! It’s a wonderful thing. Everyone should have some truth in their lives. I’m writing this in the hopes that I can help a few people know what to look for and how to categorize it. Things made a lot more sense to me after thinking about it this way. But as I’m going to point out… my truth may not be your truth.

    Truth comes in three levels.

    1. Personal Truth. A personal truth is something that is truthful for you and only you. For example, I can get pretty bad heartburn if I eat the wrong things. True for me, but some people have been fortunate enough to never have heartburn.

    2. Social Truth. A social truth is a rule, law, or consequence put into place by a social structure, usually to assist with keeping things orderly and manageable. Traffic laws keep people safe on the roads. If you didn’t stay on the correct side of the road or stay under (or at least near) the speed limit, then dangerous things might result, for you or someone else.

    3. Universal Truth. Universal truth is something that’s true for everyone. And not just for people, for anything, anywhere. Light travels at a certain speed. Sound travels at another. Gravity works off a certain mathematical formula. And etc.

    Now let me dig a little deeper on these, and illustrate some common communication problems these help clear up.

    Elevating a truth offends people. This is just a general rule, of course. But if you take a personal truth, and apply it socially or universally, you’re essentially imposing a rule on someone else that they may not believe in.

    A common example of this is churches. Churches, like it or not, can only be empirically proven as social truths. Personally, I believe that the truths my church teachers are all the way up at universal truth. But if I present it that way to someone who doesn’t agree, I can easily offend them. By leaving it at the personal or social level, a discussion can actually happen.

    And when I talk about social levels, I mean limited social levels. If you’re dealing with national social beliefs and speaking as an American to a Briton, and the Briton insists that cars must drive on the left side of the road, then ur doin it rong. You’ve crossed the social truth boundaries and they no longer apply. Same goes with religious discussions. Social truths should only be applied for people that are a member of that society.

    Essentially, the biggest problem I see with religious, political, and other discussions that end up offending and resulting in yelling is that people upgrade their personal or social truths to apply to other people’s personal, social, or even universal truths.

    Now the title includes “cheating.” This is my favorite part.

    Truth seems to have two parts to it. Action and consequence, and limitations. Social truths tend to be punishment based, so they’re more action and consequence. Personal truths have action and consequence, but they’re also heavily limitation based. There are things people simply cannot do, such as fly, or run faster than a few miles per hour.

    But let’s talk about limitations. For example, I cannot lift five tons. It’s too friggin’ heavy. But, if I apply all sorts of mechanical lever and pulley knowledge (or just get a big tractor) then I can do it no problem.

    Cheating in life means bypassing limitations defined by truth. The Belgariad has a fun recurring theme, where a master sorcerer gets offended when people say things are impossible. I’m much the same way.

    I’m currently working on a project in Second Life. It defies truths, or limitations, set in place when the program was created. I’ve shown it to some friends that are familiar with Second Life. They look at it, and they watch it work, and then when I’m done demonstrating it I ask them a simple question, “is what just happened possible?” Having just watched the demonstration, currently looking at it with their own eyes, they invariably answer “No.” A truth was established, and it was cheated. It’s a wonderful and exciting feeling to do so.

    I’ll (hopefully) give more info on that project within a week.

  • DreamKeepers Happenings

    For those of you that don’t know, I’m really big on webcomics. I have several that I read regularly, and odds are I’ve at least heard of it if it’s worth mentioning.

    A while back, I came across a webcomic called DreamKeepers. It was cute, funny, entertaining, well drawn, and all around neat.

    One of the things I hate about webcomics is when they give you like five pages and then they’re all “Oh, HA! You thought this was a free comic! No, we just put five pages of our published comic online. Now you should buy it.”

    Another solution, which I find much better, is the route that Digger took. You get two hundred and eighty five comics, and then you have to pay to see the rest. BUT, if you’re good with schedules, you can see the current page every day. I would much prefer if there was some large gap in the middle that was moving, so you could keep reading you’d just be behind. But it’s a lot less evil than just putting up a couple pages.

    The least evil solution I’ve seen, which is why I purchased DreamKeepers when I’ve never purchased a dead-tree version of a webcomic before, was that not only did it offer a small sample of the book version (19 pages) but it has a pre-book webcomic that’s updated weekly.

    Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to read the DreamKeeper’s physical comic book. It arrived and my mom saw it. She said, “Hey, I wasn’t allowed to have comic books when I was a kid,” took it, and walked off, thumbing through it. Based on the webcomic, I have no doubts about its quality.

    In other news, I still need to post my past grades. I don’t even know when the last time I posted them was. And I don’t know if I’ve posted my upcoming fall schedule, either.

    I will make a post when my Seawolf project is finished for Second Life, though. If I haven’t mentioned it, I make Boats with a friend. We’re working on something else now, though, but have been careful not to make the information public and only gotten the opinion of close friends and professionals. It’s really, really, really awesome though. Really.

  • Drawing on the Brain

    This is a modified repost of a comment on colonelwolf’s DA Journal.

    My summer assignment for DigiPen, which was due the first day of class, was to draw 800 sketches. They didn’t have a theme thing like this, but instead wanted us to draw real objects.

    Apparently drawing is a global skill. That is, much like riding a bicycle, once you learn to pump the pedals, turn the handlebars, use the brakes, and keep your balance, you’ve learned the global skill that emcompases all of these and is called, “riding a bicycle.”

    The global skill of drawing is made up of the following skills:

    -The perception of edges
    -The perception of spaces
    -The perception of relationships
    -The perception of lights and shadows
    -The perception of the gestalt

    Edges is simple. Where two things meet, or where an object meets a “negative space,” you have an edeg.

    Spaces are a little more complicated. Best way is probably to take a chair with curved armrests and look at it from the side. The armrests make a loop where there’s no chair — basically a hole in the chair. That hole is negative space. Rather than trying to draw the edge of the armrest, try drawing the edge of the negative space inside the hole. You can do the same thing for the outside of the chair itself. And you can do this for things like a face — the shape of an eye can be drawn by drawing the outer edge of the whites of the eye, or the outside edge.

    Relationships are easy, but sometimes difficult for people to comprehend. Imagine you’re standing in a hallway, and you have a friend directly in front of you. Now imagine you have another friend at the end of the hall. What is the size of each of their heads? “About the same,” right? No, actually. The friend at the end of the hall is tiny. Depending on the length of the hall, the entirety of your distant friend could be smaller than your close friend’s head.

    Relationships also deals with angles. There are two absolute angles: horizontal, and vertical. If you’re trying to draw an edge of a real object, hold up your pencil vertically or horizontally and see what kind of trianglish shape it makes against that edge. Remember the shape, and put it on your paper. You can also do that with sizes and distances, measuring how far up the pencil it goes compared to another part of what you’re looking at.

    Lights and Shadows, in their simplest form, have four elements. You have “cast shadows”, which is when an object blocks a light source and casts a shadow onto another object or the ground. These are usually the darkest shadows. You also have “crest shadows”, which are the object blocking light from itself. (ie, the back of an egg is darker than the lit side) “Highlights” are where the light shines directly on an object and makes that part brighter. The last, “reflected light,” is most often seen in crest shadows. It’s where the light reflects off the ground or other objects and lights up the object again. If you shine a light at an angle on an egg and pay attention to the crest shadow, you’ll notice that it’s not all a smooth crest shadow, as the light reflects back onto it.

    The last skill, gestalt, means “the whole picture.” I’ve mostly ignored it, because apparently it’s a “self-taught” skill that naturally occurs when all the other skills are learned.

    Beyond these drawing skills that make up the global skill of drawing are two advanced skills:

    -Drawing from memory
    -Drawing from imagination

    I find this order interesting, because most people start on “drawing from imagination,” which the author of the book I took all this from, Betty Edwards, says is the last and highest/hardest skill.

    If you’re intersted in the book at all, it’s called The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. It’s a third edition book. You’ll want the third, as the first two apparently aren’t near as organized. And hopefully you can get past her condescending tone, her severe bias against both the English language and any “left brain” activity, such as math or basically anything involving sequential or linear activities, and her ramblings that seem completely disjointed and unnecessary. I’d recommend the book for what it teaches, not what it says.

    Anyway, from DigiPen’s courses, memory and imagination aren’t even going to be handled the first year. We may start practicing it the second year. Then again, I could just be misreading or misremembering the class descriptions because it’s convenient to say such a thing.

  • Just Around the Bend

    I’m going to DigiPen, right? Yeah, I can’t really forget that anymore. I’ll be entering their Bacehlor of Fine Arts in Production Animation degree (hereafter referred to as “BFA” when needed).

    The summer assignment before one enters the BFA program is to fill up a 100 page sketchbook. I won’t bore you with the exact details of the instructions, but it involves drawing no less than 800 sketches. So there I was, at last Friday, and I had approximately half the assignment done. Ok… maybe closer to a third. I sat down and did the math — because, after all, I almost entered the Bacehlor of Science in Real Time Interactive Simulation degree (hereafter referred to as “RTIS” when needed) and sitting down and doing the math is second nature to me.

    The math was not very happy. It said it would take me about 45 and one half hours to do all the work involved. As many of you know, I happen to be a Mormon (aka LDS), and one of our creeds is to observe the Sabbath, which means no school work on Sunday. Also, each day has 24 hours in it. Exclude Sunday, and you have what’s left of Friday, Saturday, and Monday. School starts on Tuesday, so there’s not too much hope of getting stuff done on that day.

    The math is simple. Saturday + Monday = 48. Add the six hours left of Friday and that’s 54. Subtract the 45.5 it takes to get the work done, and you have 8 hours and 30 minutes I can sleep for those three days.

    Here I am, on Sunday, and my eyes hurt if I look in a direction too fast, and my hand aches. BUT! I am on schedule for getting the homework done on Monday. I had no idea drawing could be this fun.

    So what’s school going to be like when I actually get in? Well, the BFA has only existed for two years so far, so one’s actually graduated yet. But a couple students entering their third year were kind enough to talk about it to us newbies a little. They said 80 hours a week is an “easy” week. And the worst is finals and midterms, where we’ll be working around 160 hours a week. Just so you know, there are 168 hours in a week.

    School starts in two days, I’ve got over 200 sketches left, plus color exercises. I’m going to enjoy today, resting my eyes and hand, and prepare to work my hide off tomorrow.

    Oh, did I mention there’s also a 50 page sketchbook due every week at DigiPen? For the first couple weeks, at least. It goes up from there.

  • The Chronicles of Naria

    A while back when I was waiting six hours at the DMV to renew my tabs I decided to browse a book store and found “The Chronicles of Naria”. This book had been recommended to me, and it was going to be a movie soon, so I decided to read it.

    During my trip to Utah I managed to read most of the seven books in the series, and I recently finished off the last book. Just wanted to mention that this is an excellent book, and I have no faith that Hollywood, with their movie mentality, is going to do the book the justice it deserves. I highly recommend reading the series before watching the movie, as the movie will likely dull the experience of the book very much.