Tag: characters (page 1 of 3)

Ballad of the Doomguy

I’ve been playing a lot of 2016’s DOOM lately. It hearkens back to the shooters of my youth. There’s a lot of catharsis in blasting demons with cool weapons and punching them in the face. The levels are large and they reward exploration with opportunities to customize your preferred blasting methods and adorable figurines. Perhaps most of all, for me, it showcases some fantastic storytelling and a wonderful way to leverage a silent protagonist.

The data logs you find on everything from the UAC’s methodology to data on the demonic minions you’re exterminating are very well-written. They, like the upgrade tokens, are fun bonuses. You can get all of the story you need, though, just from the brief in-game interactions and the Doomguy’s emoting. From the start, you get a sense of your avatar’s personality, without him uttering a single line of dialog.

In brief: explorers discovered an odd geological rift on Mars that was spewing a fascinating form of energy. The Union Aerospace Corporation’s CEO, Samuel Hayden — imagine the love child of Scott Pruitt and Elon Musk who downloaded himself into a cybernetic body — went into leveraging this resource to solve an energy crisis back on Earth. The EPA can’t file lawsuits if you’re exploiting a natural resource on another planet, right? Right. And Argent Energy rendered nuclear power and fossil fuels obsolete overnight. Hayden didn’t count on his head researcher being a covert cultist who discovered the energy was coming from Hell, and talked to demons about some sort of shady deal. Next thing you know, the UAC facility is getting worked over in the style of the colony from Aliens, and Hayden is trying to figure out how to maintain profits when all of his workers are dying horribly.

Enter the Doomguy.

Our hero hates demons with a fiery passion, and was put on ice after the last time he somehow made Hell worse, at least for its demonic denizens. He wakes up in one of the UAC’s isolated labs, find his iconic armor after smashing some zombified UAC folks with his bare hands, and realizes there’s a demonic invasion afoot. Hayden contacts him right away, figuring the Doomguy can clean the place up and get the energy production back on track.

It takes about 5 seconds for the Doomguy to communicate he’s not down for being a corporate stooge.

The monitor with which Hayden contacts our hero gets smashed to the floor. Moments later, in the elevator to Mars’s surface, Hayden tries again, giving some spiel through another monitor about “the greater good”. That monitor gets a solid, indignant punch.

I can’t tell you how much I love this.

Characterization in video games can be difficult, especially in shooters. Halo’s Master Chief is your stereotypically stoic one-man army in power armor. Most of the Call of Duty protagonists tend to be walking talking recruitment campaigns for modern military organizations. Other bullet-dispensing avatars whoop and wisecrack their way through the bad guys, kicking ass and looking for a fresh pack of bubble gum.

Doomguy’s just here to smash demons and give middle fingers to corporate America while he’s at it.

On top of the pretty obvious disdain he has for the UAC, the Doomguy’s got a sense of humor. When you find the collectibles, there’s a fantastic little sting of classic DOOM music as the hero looks the figurine over. But when you find one that’s the same coloration as your current incarnation, the Doomguy gives it a fistbump. The scion of anti-demon violence and masculine badassery fistbumps a figurine.

And then there’s this little Terminator 2 Easter Egg, when the Doomguy takes a bad step and falls into molten metal:

The developers could have easily just left the Doomguy as an angry psychopathic killing machine. But they didn’t. He has a sense of humor. There are glimmers of knowing self-awareness. And when confronted with the notion that smashing all of the UAC’s work will plunge the Earth into a new energy crisis, the Doomguy shows himself to be a person with conviction, weighing that reality with the fact that demonic invasions are literally the worst thing. Hayden doesn’t agree; the Doomguy doesn’t care. Demons are bad. Sure, making life difficult on Earth is bad, but it’s still life. Better to worry about the prices of your utilities than an Imp eating your face, right? Right.

Video games are mediums of visual storytelling. They’re made for showing, rather than telling. And 2016’s DOOM does this beautifully. I think that these moments, and the data logs, keep me playing just as much as the action and exploration. Fast-paced shooting is one thing; being compelled to see the next bit of story is icing on the cake. It’s a glorious storytelling experience on top of a visceral exercise in catharsis.

I love story-based games. My next solo gaming project is Witcher 3, which will be very different but, from what I understand, rich in its own storytelling. I’m just as invested in the lore of Overwatch as I am its game balance and being a better Reinhardt. But I’ll probably be coming back to DOOM now and again. There are harder difficulties, arcade modes, classic maps, challenges… there’s a lot there, and not just in terms of ammunition and well-designed enemies.

The ballad of the Doomguy is a work of pulse-pounding death metal punctuated by shotgun blasts and breaking bones, but its melody is one of those sprawling lyrical epics about one man standing against a tide of darkness. It’s Beowulf with a BFG.

And I am, as the kids say, so here for it.

Admiration for an Admiral

“No one is immune from failure. All have tasted the bitterness of defeat and disappointment. A warrior must not dwell on that failure, but must learn from it and continue on.”

I’m trying to think of a villainous character that has affected me as thoroughly and deeply as Star Wars‘ Grand Admiral Mitth’raw’nuruodo.

Writing villains seems deceptively easy. Give them a plan of conquest, add some mustache-twirling or overtly abusive behavior, make them cruel to underlings, plant petards on which to hoist them. Wipe your hands, done and dusted.

Not so with Thrawn. Yes, he’s diabolical in thought. He’s ruthless in executed action. He’s the direct and diametric opposite of our heroes.

But, especially in the “new canon” — the Rebels animated series and especially his origin novel by the inimitable Timothy Zahn — there’s something admirable about the admiral.

The Empire, in Star Wars, is just as much a stand-in for Nazi Germany as Sauron is a stand-in for the Kaiser, or Adolf Hitler. It is a brutal, xenophobic regime, dedicated to a ‘purity’ within the galaxy and the utter destruction of unrestricted thought and the usage of power, not for its own sake, but for altruism and introspection. The Empire is always looking without, never within, and assaulting the opposition and the misunderstood with seething hatred and disgusting self-congratulation.

And hither comes Thrawn, an alien, a warrior, and seemingly, the last thing the Empire would want.

Thrawn is a free thinker. He is just as much a philosopher as a tactician. He is aware of how clever he is, but he applies that cleverness to his goals, which is always the defeat of his enemy. He has his moments of weakness, and of failure, but he uses those moments as lessons to be applied to future encounters. He respects his enemies. He despises incompetence and foolishness in his would-be peers. In an Empire full of hotheads, egomanics, and demagogues, he is cool, measured, respectful, meticulous, and, in species as well as thought, alien.

I find these qualities admirable, and I wonder: is he truly villainous?

Yes, he works for the villains. Yes, he exhibits ruthlessness towards the heroes. Yes, he employs occasionally brutal tactics to achieve his desired goals — which, as befits a warrior, is the destruction of his enemies.

But does he do these things out of malice? Blind hatred? Ignorant, projected rage?

No. He wages war because he’s good at it, he finds it a fascinating application of his abilities, and, in the end, he likes it.

Not inflicting pain, mind you. He’d much rather defeat an enemy expediently, demonstrate that they will lose, and offer them a chance to surrender and save lives. He is an artist, his medium is warfare, and his materials are the ships, troops, and officers at his command. He’s loyal, dedicated, charismatic, and cool under fire. He has the wherewithal to admit to mistakes he makes, admire his opponents, and do whatever is in his power to improve himself and those around him for the betterment of all.

Aren’t these qualities we often find in protagonists, in heroes?

We don’t really attribute honor, introspection, and respect for others to the Empire, or the Nazis for that matter. More often than not, it is those we admire and those cast as positive protagonists in our stories that exhibit such qualities. And, according to Zahn in the new canon novel, Thrawn may indeed be more than just another villainous tool in the Emperor’s arsenal. I’ll put this bit behind a spoiler tag.


Thrawn explains to the Emperor that he was exiled from the Chiss Ascendancy due to his use of pre-emptive strikes. This is a lie. The Chiss sent Thrawn as a scout, to suss out the Empire’s abilities and strengths and evaluate them as potential allies in battling threats from deeper within the Unknown Regions. This is a huge risk for Thrawn: if he is caught or killed, he will be unable to relay anything to his true superiors. That, to me, is a heroic undertaking. By the same token, he shows a great deal of trust in Eli Vanto, sending the human officer to the Chiss as a contingency a calamity befalling Thrawn personally. A friend and confidant, Vanto can inform the Chiss of a great many things, and bridge the gap between the galactic powers if Thrawn is unable to do so.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m biased towards antagonists who favor brains and cunning over brawn and bluster. Maybe I’m just seeing what I want to see; there are aspects of Thrawn that personally speak to me. The same way that Sherlock Holmes or Tyrion Lannister are characters who rely on cleverness and discernment to achieve their goals, Thrawn is defined by his brilliant mind and careful application of deduction and strategy. I know I could use more of that in my life.

Either way, I’ll be sad if the last season of Rebels is the end of Thrawn’s story. He’s mentioned in Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath trilogy (now available in paperback, go buy some books), but his fate is left ambiguous. It’s unclear to me, in the end, if Thrawn is truly a villain, but in this case, he’s certainly cast as one.

But not all those cast as villains truly allow evil to fester in their hearts.

I would like to think that if Thrawn truly feels emotions like hate, he can examine, disassemble, and reorient those energies. His few moments of anger are still incredibly restrained by Imperial standards, and it shows a quality of character rarely seen among the one-dimensional jackbooted thugs around him. It speaks to someone who is more than the sum of their parts, more than the mere sketch of the role into which they are cast.

And, in the end, who among us isn’t more than they seem or are reported to be?

Characters And Choices

Courtesy Focus Pictures

There are times when the simple route is an appealing one. Our protagonist characters make good decisions, and good things happen. We project ourselves into the lives of our heroes, orienting ourselves towards making brave, clear-cut decisions that yield beneficial results for everyone involved. It keeps the narrative straightforward and our protagonists squeaky clean.

If you’ve spent any amount of time in the real world, you know things are never that simple.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which if you haven’t seen, you should do yourself a favor and find to watch. There are no big bad villains to face, no world-ending threats, not even anything I’d call massively contrived, save for the science at the heart of the conflict. Still, you can overlook the contrivance because of the film’s focus on its characters, the choices they make, and the regrets that emerge as a result of those choices.

People face hard choices every day. Decisions need to be made in the name of survival, protecting those most precious, and preserving one’s self in the face of negative emotions, aberrant thoughts, or unwanted influences. People wrestle with their own demons in an invisible war that only manifests in their choices, and in the casualties left behind, in broken hearts and scarred souls. Not everybody comes out unscathed. Sometimes, nobody wins at all.

Your characters should not be any different.

The best characters, the one that truly engage with an audience, are identifiable as people, rather than ciphers or caricatures. And people make hard choices. People make mistakes. People pursue lines of flawed logic. And people can be corrected, adjust their courses, and try to make better choices in the future. It can be painful. It can be costly. It can haunt people.

The more you show this, the better your story will be.

Your characters don’t have to be perfect. Their choices don’t have to be perfect, either. It isn’t just slaying monsters or saving worlds that make our characters great; sometimes, overcoming one’s own obstacles and insecurities is more heroic than any of those great deeds. Let your characters confess their weaknesses. Let your characters accept responsibility for transgressions. And let your characters forgive those they care about who’ve wronged them. It will make the audience think, nod, cheer, and maybe even find a piece of themselves within the narrative that they can take home.

They’re your characters. The choice is yours.

From The Vault: Let Your Characters Speak

I’ve been completely off of my rhythm for the last few days. I’m trying to get back on track and focus up on the important tasks in front of me. While I do, here’s a piece on showing and not telling.

“Because I say so.” How many times have we heard that phrase? Parents say it to children. Employers say it to their employees. Unfortunately, writers also say it to their characters. When a character does something that seems entirely unreasonable, or makes a sudden change to their behavior based on little more than impulse, or there is a drastic change in an adaptation between the original character and what we as the audience experience now, it’s because the writer says so. The plot or the writer demands it.

To me, there are few things lazier.

Letting the plot dictate the actions of your characters robs them of their agency. Without agency, your characters become even more difficult for the audience to engage with on a meaningful level. If your audience is disengaged, how are they supposed to care about the story you’re trying to tell? Just like a good Dungeon Master in Dungeons & Dragons acts more like a guide for their players than a dictator, so too does a good writer gently guide their characters rather than imposing themselves upon events, undermining the characters’ wills and reducing their significance.

Even more egregious, to me, is the writer who seems to preserve the agency of a character but railroads them into something that goes against their development for some author-centric reason. If you ever find yourself saying “This character wouldn’t do that” or “Why did this scene happen in this way? It makes no sense for them to do this,” you’ve seen what I’m talking about in action. I’m avoiding specific cases in the name of avoiding spoilers, but that’s what the comments are for! Let’s talk about some of these things, especially ones that piss you off.

We need to be on the lookout for this sort of thing. There’s no excuse for lazy writing. Not even a deadline is an excuse for a story that makes no sense or does not engage us. If you are writing to inform, to inspire, or even just to entertain, it is worth taking the time to get the words right, set the scene just so, and let your characters speak for themselves, rather than cramming words into their mouths that don’t necessarily fit.

Your characters are more than pistons in your story’s engine. Remember that, and your story will be that much better for it.

Concerning Clearly Communicating Characters

With the exception of nature documentaries, or very oddly esoteric works, narrative entertainment is driven by characters. Characters, more often than not, communicate with one another through dialog. Time and time again, especially in films, we see this dialog become murky, bogged down, or unnecessarily obtuse. Unless it is completely essential to your plot, or the character themselves, your characters should communicate clearly with one another.

Sometimes characters will have difficulty communicating as part of their nature. Their world-view may be skewed or a mental condition may color how they see and relate to others. These characters can make for important, powerful stories about human nature. But the bulk of the problematic characters that come to mind when I talk about expository dialog and the like are not saddled with psychological or personality disorders that affect their speech or outlook. Most of them are just badly written. Dialog drives so much – why waste it on exposition or clarification unless it is absolutely necessary?

One particularly egregious violation of good taste in dialog is “the pronoun game”. One character makes a comment about what’s happening but, instead of naming names, they use an ambiguous pronouns. The other character has to ask for clarification, which is then easily or dramatically given. It’s a waste of the audience’s time, especially if we have already met the party to whom the first character is referring.

There is one sort-of exception to this rule that I can think of – a heist tale. If you’re spinning a yarn where you want your protagonists to be particularly clever, it can be useful to provide the setup for the caper, cut to the action, and have them recount elements of it afterward, so that what seems to be very fortuitous timing is seen instead as excellent forethought and careful planning. From highly stylized films like Ocean’s Eleven to works of written fiction such as Jim Butcher’s Skin Game, this method is proven to work in this case. But I really can’t think of any others.

It is just as true for this storytelling challenge as most others: the best way to tell your story is through action, not exposition. Let characters show, rather than tell, what is happening in their minds and all around them. History and motivation should become evident in when and how they act, rather than providing a dry, plodding dossier through expositional dialog. Your characters drive your story – don’t let their dialog drive it into the ground.

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