Author Archives: mary

Black and White vs Grey Part 2: The Grey Camp

In my last article I wrote about a particular audience of readers whom I called the “black and white team.” These readers enjoy stories where clearly defined heroes and villains face off in battles of good vs. evil. These stories can feature complex interplay between the heroes (and also between the villains), but in the end, there is never any question as to which side is “good”, and which is “bad”. Facing off against the “black and white” team is the “grey camp,” who are looking for something different from their fiction.

I first encountered the “grey camp” as a group of people who’d watched a cartoon series and realized that they sympathized with the villains moreso than the heroes! To their minds, the villains were strong, assertive, independent and persistent, whereas the heroes were passive, forever reacting to the villains instead of taking their own initiative, chastened by their leader if they went off on their own. Small moments of dialogue and animation showed hints of affection between the villainous characters, indicating that the villains just might have a “life” outside of fighting the heroes.

This fandom’s “grey camp” hoped for more fiction that would develop the villains as rounded characters.. They argued that fans could care about the “bad guys” as much as they cared about the heroes. As it turns out, some of the ongoing fiction has begun presenting the villains as characters with conflicting beliefs, legitimate grievances, and admirable traits of their own.

These stories provide a challenge in that the protagonist must have enough positive traits for the reader to be interested in her and care about her actions, but she also must be “villainous” enough to be a credible member of the “enemy” side. I think about “All Quiet on the Western Front,” a novel where the main character is a German soldier in the First World War. Originally written in German, the translation into English allowed English readers to see the conflict “through enemy eyes.” In other cases, the protagonists may do “bad” things, but the enemies they are fighting are worse, and therefore readers feel good about cheering for these anti-heroes.

Taken one step further, the “grey camp’s” stories can go beyond the good guy/bad guy dichotomy to show complex situations where two sides, both with positive and negative aspects, are set against one another. Or, the hero might find herself with an ally who behaves in ways she finds disturbing or immoral. These stories challenge the reader to see issues from different points of view. They illustrate how upbringing, beliefs, personality traits, and life experience can affect a person’s interpretations. Characters may experience the same event, but draw wholly different conclusions from the result. Protagonists suffer from flaws and sometimes behave badly; antagonists show courage, loyalty, and friendship. Characters, and readers, sometimes wonder which side is right, and why?

Writing the “grey camp” can be very challenging, and I will devote the next article to some of its pitfalls while providing suggestions and techniques.

Black and White vs Grey, Part 1: The Black and White Team

 

I’ve seen heated debates in more than one fandom about the proper role of the story’s villains. The more I see of these arguments, the more I feel that one side isn’t “more right” than the other; it’s a case of two different audiences, each looking for something different from their fiction. This article grew into a trilogy where I’ll take a look at each side of the antagonist debate and examine the different techniques for writing each type.

One of the teams in the villain debate is looking for stories with black and white morality. They want heroes who are heroic; sometimes role models, but more often, wish-fulfillment figures. These are characters who do what the reader likes to fantasize that she could do if she were stronger, richer, a spy, a sorceress. The reader would like to be the hero. The villain, therefore, must be very villainous. There is a sense of security in knowing for a fact that the villain is bad and the hero is justified in whatever measures she might need to take in order to bring him down.

This isn’t to say that the antagonist has no reasons for his actions, nor does it force him to become a cartoon villain who does what he does purely for love of evil (or hatred of goodness). The villain might represent a different political ideology (a dictator, a terrorist, a Nazi,). He might be a criminal. He might be a social deviant. He might covet the hero’s love interest, or be jealous of the hero, or be motivated by some other negative personality trait such as greed or selfishness. He might well have a reason for doing what he does, but it’s a reason the reader can clearly recognize as “bad.”

The opposing camp argues that the “black and white team” are looking for a story that isn’t realistic. When villains are rotten to the core, there is none of the messiness of real life-no innocents hurt, no unjust actions taken, no questioning one’s behaviour, no devil’s compromises. Taken to extremes, the plot can be very simplistic: good guys trounce bad guys and the reign of “justice” is assured.

However, those in the “black and white team” aren’t looking for nitty-gritty reality: they’re looking for escapism. They want to relax and enjoy a story where they’re assured that they know what’s going on and who to cheer for. They get their pleasure from feeling a connection to the hero, hating the villain, and following the hero through to her victory. A well-written “black and white team” story will entertain while it fulfills the reader’s fantasy.

What kind of villain should authors write? First and foremost, the kind that suits the story. There is nothing “wrong” with the black-and-white team; they are an audience willing to buy the fiction that delivers what they’re looking for.

If you’re writing “black and white team,” make sure your hero has qualities that readers would enjoy fantasizing about, emulating, or sympathizing with. Avoid cartoon villainy by giving your villain a reason for his behaviour; be careful not to take him too far over the top into gratuitous acts of evil for evil’s sake. Create the kind of villain your audience will love to hate, and they will cheer as your hero takes him down.

Characterization and the Zen of Little Ponies

 

The new My Little Pony show, “Friendship is Magic,” has attracted a significant number of adult viewers, including adult men. Video posts on Youtube are laced with comments such as “why am I watching this pony show-and liking it?”

Characterization.

The previous direct-to-DVD cartoons promoting the third generation of ponies were mediocre and forgettable. Giving a character a catchphrase might make that pony stand out, but it doesn’t generate interest or affection; “Pinkie Pie loves parties!” is hardly a personality. “Friendship is Magic” took a different approach.

Pinkie Pie still loves parties, but this trait is turned up to eleven, creating a kooky, eccentric prankster with a gift for making people laugh-and a struggle to get people to take her seriously when danger threatens.

Perhaps the greatest strength of “Friendship is Magic” is that each of the six core pony characters have flaws that are logical evolutions of their personalities.

Applejack is honest and hardworking, but stubborn to a fault. Rainbow Dash is brave, athletic, talented…and tends to brag about her abilities. Twilight Sparkle is intelligent and magically gifted and spends so much time studying in her library that she struggles with ordinary social interaction. Fluttershy is gentle, kind and timid, with a gift for working with animals and a surprising backbone of steel. Rarity sidesteps the stereotypical fashionable, stuck-up, “popular girl” by being a skilled fashion designer with a generous heart. Yet despite being so different from each other, these six ponies are the best of friends.

Friendship, however, is not always free of conflict and here is where characterization spawns plot. Flaws and personality clashes cause tensions that can create problems-or exacerbate already tense situations. What happens when the two most athletic ponies-Applejack and Rainbow Dash-find themselves competing against one another, when Applejack’s stubbornness clashes with Rainbow Dash’s ego? What happens when “rough and tumble” Applejack and “prim and proper” Rarity start driving each other nuts-and are forced into close proximity? What happens when Fluttershy is the only person who can stand up for her friends? What happens when Twilight Sparkle fears that showing everyone just how gifted she is will make her look like a braggart?

The visually distinctive character designs don’t hurt, nor does the expressive animation, but in the end it comes down to characterization. Much of the show’s humour comes in watching these strong personalities bounce off each other, and with such a variety of characters it’s easy to recognize a bit of yourself in at least one of them. The characters are appealing, engaging, and actively relating with one another-for better and for worse-and it’s this dynamism that makes viewers care about them, and find entertainment value in watching them. Entertainment value sufficient to make grown men watch this pony show, and like it.