Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Curse of The Competent Fighter (Why Characters Need To Struggle)

I have a preference, both as a writer and as a reader, for competent heroes. I love characters like John Wick, who set themselves on a course of destruction and won't stop until they've killed their target. Characters like Rambo, who refuse to stay down no matter what you do to them, or Luke Cage who can walk right through a hail of gunfire without so much as slowing.

However, if a character is really good at fighting, it can ironically get really boring to watch them fight. Because unless they're going up against a truly skilled opponent, or someone equal in power to themselves, then the audience knows who's going to win before the first punch is thrown. Unless you've crippled your lead in some way, like poisoning them, wearing them down with several previous fights, or out-and-out doing serious damage to them, then there's just nothing exciting about watching yet another round of goons get their teeth busted in, or catching bullets with their brain pans.

Case in point: The Original Glass Cannon
That doesn't mean you should stop writing stories about ex-special forces badasses, mutant brawlers, and unstoppable assassins. But you need to remember that the action scenes for such characters are the icing, not the cake.

Struggle Matters (And Makes Stories Interesting)

When you write a story, your protagonist has to be up against some kind of challenge. If the difficulty they're facing is something they can deal with rather easily, then where is the tension going to come from?

Let's go back to Luke Cage for a moment. A wronged man out for justice, he gets embroiled in the doings of organized crime in Harlem. However, while Luke's initial brushes with criminals show they're comically outmatched (given that Luke is bulletproof, blade proof, and has super strength), the real question is not, "How is Luke going to beat up these goons?" The real question is how can one man, even one man who's indestructible, fight such a shadowy, entrenched foe? How does he get to the heart of the criminal empire, and rip it out, without breaking the law himself, or getting a bunch of people hurt? How can one rock stop the tide, even if that tide can't hurt him?

The heavy stuff that makes a narrative interesting, you know?
Sure, the bad guys eventually use super weapons that can actually hurt Luke, because this is a comic book, but the point of the story isn't the arms race between criminals and a meta-human enforcer. That's just a framing device for those other issues that make Luke's story more compelling.

Condensed into a single sentence, the lesson here is, "Make your heroes struggle."

You see this in all the great (or even just good) stories with combat-capable protagonists. John Rambo might be a one-man-army, but he cannot put his personal demons into a stranglehold. Shane knows he could cut down the gang of toughs if he chooses, but that as soon as he picks up his guns that his life as a peaceful man will be over. Sam Spade packs a mean right hook, and can shoot with the best of them, but he has to figure out where all the players are before he knows who to hit, and who to threaten.

Now, you need to let your lead take the gloves off a few times throughout the story, both to establish how badass they are, and because it can be satisfying to watch a battlefield hardass do their thing. However, the actions scenes need to establish something that's going on in the story, and move the plot along. Because if a combat does nothing but show off your choreography, then your audience is going to get pretty bored, pretty quick. Worse, it can begin to feel like textual masturbation after a while, and no one wants to see that.

So, to wrap up, you need to make your protagonist work against their strengths in order to make your story feel like there's a challenge. That doesn't mean you need to completely negate those strengths, but you do need to ensure your protagonist's skills or abilities don't let them cake walk to the end goal. They don't need to be bloody and limping, but sometimes that might be just what you need to add a bit of strawberry sauce to your cake to finish it off.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing thoughts. If you liked them, and want to see more, why not support me by heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron? $1 a month is all it takes, and you get free books as a thank you from me. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, now would be a good time to start.

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