Category Archives: on writing

Defining literary structure

This is excerpted from my upcoming article in Game Wrap Magazine, volume 2– “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy” about the tension between narrative design and player autonomy. I pulled this part out because it’s applies structure in all storytelling forms, not just larps.

One of the tools storytellers use to shape narrative is structure. Structure in this case refers to the design of the order, manner, and pacing of events making up the story and the relationships of those events to each other. Narrative is at its fundamental level about change— starting with a thesis, confronting it with its antithesis, and seeing the new synthesis that results. Structure is an important tool for storytellers to choose and arrange events in order to create, control, and facilitate that change.

In much of literature, structure falls into a traditional form. The circumstances are established in a setup, after which a triggering change, the inciting event, propels the protagonist into challenging new situations. As the protagonist struggles to achieve their goals in the face of unexpected obstacles, the tension of the situation is increased by the rising action and its addition of complications. Ultimately, the action builds to the highest point of confrontation, the climax, where the hero faces their greatest challenge, and the changes they have undergone are tested to see if they are sufficient to overcome. This point is usually the most intense action of the story. After this, the tension ratchets down as the consequences of the climax are unpacked, at least to some degree, in the falling action. Finally, we are left with the resolution, which tells us the new status quo, to contrast with the way things were in the beginning.

This pattern of structure is so prevalent in storytelling because of how well it presents conflict and response to conflict in order to prompt development, growth, and change. It offers a steady buildup of the level of challenge in a manner that increases tension and our investment in the stakes of the conflict — the more struggle a goal entails, the more important achieving it becomes — while eventually providing satisfaction by offering a resolution.

Beyond this simple ordering of events, it offers the storyteller the tools to figure out how and at what speed the events should occur in relation to each other to achieve the best effect. By using this framework as a guide, the storyteller can determine at what point of the emotional journey they would like their audience to have reached at any given moment. The teller can then decide how to shape each event in relation to the other events to achieve the desired effect. If the tension needs to go up, intense actions can occur all in quick succession. If the intensity is increasing too fast, the plot-driving moments can occur on a smaller scale, or be spaced farther apart. So the curation of the occurrence of events in the story allows for the best release of information, timing of events, and measured building of tension.

But the key part of that is that curation. To utilize structure to best effect, it requires design— intentional choices made in what events occur when, with specific desired effects in mind. For events to have the greatest impact on the course of the story and, the development of the characters, they can’t just happen in any order or in any relation to each other; story events don’t build properly upon one another or deliver their full effect when they occur in a completely uncontrolled way. For example, iIf you are unraveling a mystery, part of the appeal is acquiring each clue and encountering each complication in turn, with the opportunity to piece everything together and examine the picture step by step as it develops. If all the clues and secrets come together too immediately, the solution feels anticlimactic. If you are on a quest, the challenge of testing your mettle against obstacle and rising to the occasion to achieve your end is a huge part of the fun. If the ultimate prize is simply handed to you, the experience is short-circuited. Even if a character grows too much too easily, without any personal effort or cost, it feels cheap and unrealistic. Indeed, since goals become more important the harder you have to work for them, and easy achievements feel smaller than difficult ones, any resolution that comes too easily or too soon is going to feel less satisfying.


Toolbox theory of storytelling

In the last several years of my becoming more of a serious writer, I’ve developed a particular system to think about it. I’ve found that whenever approaching a craft, it helps my brain a lot to think of it in terms of a series of concepts with specific definitions associated with certain purposes. I believe that crucial to understanding how something is done well is simply to be able to identify all the inherent parts and what they’re doing in whatever piece you’re examining. And knowing how to put those concepts into practice effectively enables a person to perform the art well.

For instance, I’ve always believed the reason why the French approach to cooking became so pervasive is because they did so much to define the concepts in an identifiable way and systematized their functions. This enabled a commonly understood language, which allowed for discussion between practitioners to relate to each other, instructors to communicate ideas to students, and culinarians to analyze what they observed in practice. I find this defining of the various concepts and giving them corresponding names to be really useful in identifying and quantifying the practice of an art, so this is the approach I take in my work with writing– in analyzing it, in making it, and in teaching it.

Others may disagree, but I think when developing a piece of narrative art, the first thing to do is build the substance of it. This may be the result of my particular biases– I freely admit this is influenced by my personal conviction that storytelling is a highly-considered design process, and coming from a drama background the necessity of STRUCTURING a story always seems paramount –but I tend to believe you need to know what your story is going to be about and what’s going to happen in it before you should be worrying about how you’re going to depict it. In other words, I usually suggest with any writing, figure out the substance of WHAT you want to say before you figure out HOW you want to say it.

So to do this, I like to think of the elements of storytelling as a toolbox full of tools that have closely defined functions that can perform particular jobs. In understanding what those tools are, you can understand what you can use them for, and therefore have the best possible control over the resulting effect their utilization has on your story. Knowing what the province of that tool is allows you to ask the right questions that will lead you to the appropriate design choice.

Let’s take point of view as an example. Point of view can be divided, of course, into first person, second person, and third person point of view; we’re all familiar with those. “I am experiencing story,” versus “You are experiencing this story” versus “They are experiencing this story.” But how do we describe all the things point of view encompasses? To get really precise, I like to break it down into Perspective, Bias, and Filter, each with a definition that enables you to focus on a small aspects of the storytelling that POV can affect.

Perspective deals with the nature of the narrator’s identity, and all attendant features of what information they are physically able to take in. What is possible for them to know? What is possible for them to experience? The guy in the mailroom can’t know what happened in the company’s executive boardroom. The girl who doesn’t speak Spanish can’t tell you what the Spanish-speaking people around her are saying. A human being can’t know everything that ever happened in the whole world. So these people can’t tell us even if they wanted to. But the CEO, a native Spaniard, and an omnisicient narrator could. So the point of observation of that storyteller matters in what information is even possible for the reader to get.

Bias is what I use to describe how the narrator naturally interprets the information they take in. These are not their conscious views on the info, but the stuff that occurs to them automatically because of the assumptions that come from the way their experiences shaped them. A native earthling may compare the strange aliens to birds because that’s the closest frame of reference they have. An abuse victim may view any conflict at all as a potential danger. A novice horseman may interpret a horse’s violent reaction as a sign of aggression rather than fear. This colors their narration without their realizing it.

Filter, then, is what that narrator consciously chooses to mention or not mention. A person who suffered a trauma in the past may remember every moment but declare they don’t want to talk about it. A morally questionable person may leave out details of their actions so that their behavior doesn’t seem as repugnant. This shapes their narration because of their choices of what to say and what to leave out.

So, when you think about point of view being made up of what is possible to know, what is slanted about that knowledge, and what of that knowledge is presented or withheld, now you have more refines axes to consider how point of view is used in a given piece, and how you can make use of point of view in your own writing. Again, this level of precision prompts questions– what information do I need possible? In that case, what sort of narrator is in a position to provide it? That sort of thing.

I put this to the test recently, when I assigned a midterm in my literature class. I asked my students to choose one of three possible premises for a story, and then make a series of design choices as to how that story might play out in utilization of the various narrative tools we’d studied in the class. I found that a lot of them had much better ability to decide on meaningful storytelling choices because they knew what each tool’s function was. They could choose strong conflicts because they knew that conflict was supposed to provide a struggle for that character that was specifically challenging to the ways in which that character was currently deficient, and would have to grow and change in order to manage. They could choose effective settings because they knew setting provided context for the events based on time, location, and continuity of the universe. A lot of them who never thought they had the capacity to tell a story were better able to because the tool’s definitions let them ask the right questions– what would be the toughest thing for this character in particular? What did they need to develop in order to manage this challenge? Where were they going to end up once they’d grown that new strength? I took that as vindication that this approach works, not just as a working style and analytical process as it’s been for me, but also as an effective way to teach writing and literary analysis to people who don’t know how to do it.


The skill in imitation

One somewhat controversial thing I believe about writing is that it’s very good to be able to imitate other writers’ styles. Other writers and scholars thereof might disagree, failing to see any practical application for it, and protesting that it’s more important to refine and develop your own unique voice rather than trying to copy someone else’s. (You often hear that argument when people denigrate the writing of fan fiction.) But I maintain it’s not only good practice, it’s actually a skill worth having for its own sake.

Voice is an important aspect of writing, as it influences mood, feel, tone, and style. But I think an author shouldn’t necessarily be limited, or limit themselves, to only one. As nice and useful as it can be to have a signature style, I think it’s good to be able to adapt your writing to sound different for different pieces, or even for establishing different characters. If you don’t find some way to be flexible that way, you run the risk of making everything sound the same no matter the feel of the piece you may be going for– or worse, you make everything sound like you, which I find to be a sign of immature work. So imitating the sound of other writers’ styles and voices is an exercise in developing your flexibility. It requires you to stretch yourself beyond your natural impulses or current artistics strengths in order to create something that sounds like someone else’s work, which broadens the possibilities for what you’re capable of depicting. It gives you more control over the voice you give any one project, and enables a wider variety of feels and effects you can impart to your work.

This for me ties into the appeal of fan fiction. I know not everybody is this way, but both when I’m reading and writing fan fiction, I’m looking for more of the story I already love, with more of the things I love about it. So I’m drawn to pieces that stylistically capture the soul of the original. That also means that when I’m writing it myself, that’s what I’m shooting for– something that believably feels like it could be part of what’s canon. So I make a special effort to study and emulate the way the original material is written in my fic. The best job I ever did at this was with my piece for the BBC radio comedy Cabin Pressure. I wrote basically a script for an additional episode of the series which, after the fashion of its idiosyncratic episode titling system, I called “San Tropez”. Cabin Pressure has a very specific, British style of humor with characters who have highly distinctive voices, and I worked very hard to capture them. If I may say so, I’m really proud of how good a job I did. I’ve gotten a number of comments from readers saying I nailed the style and voices exactly, and that it’s both funny and extremely in character.

But not only do I think it’s just good practice for increasing flexibility in other projects. I think it’s actually a useful skill in its own right. For collaborative projects, particularly ones that run for a while and have teams of writers, being able to fit in with the “house style” is essential. I have dreams of someday writing for television, and writers’ rooms have to have some degree of cohesion to make all the episodes feel consistent with each other. People tend to notice when the “voice” or “style” of a television show gets inconsistent or deviates from what is established, and reactions are usually disapproving. Sometimes it’s even at fault for what people describe as Seasonal Rot. In that case it would be a necessity for me to be able to adapt to a certain voice that may or may not naturally be mine.

So it’s more than just an amusing little “party trick” for writers of fan fiction. It’s actually a powerful developmental tool for a writer to expand their toolkit, and sometimes even demanded by a collaborative situation to keep the pieces all cohesive. So I like challenging myself to play in someone else’s sandbox every now and then.


“Relating” versus “connecting” to a story

Something I find myself dealing with a lot when examining how people are affected by storytelling, and what powers that storytelling has to affect us, the concept of “relating” to something comes up a lot. Note that by “relating” I specifically mean that identification process– NOT just what I would call the process of “connection,” the larger and more general ability to find some way to emotionally engage with the story. Relating to a story is a way to connect with it, one of many. But a lot of readers’ greatest source of engagement is being able to personally identify in some way. They relate back something in the story to something that is already understood or meaningful to them, which gives it an emotional resonance and a sense of investment. 

Now, it isn’t a bad thing to experience the feeling of relating to something, or enjoy it when you do. But I feel it’s the most basic, even most unsophisticated, level of engagement with the story– “am I able to bring it back to myself?” The real problem is when somebody can’t get into a story because of the absence of that personal identification. It turns what should be an broadening experience into a narcissistic one. Because to me that demonstrates a failure of empathy. True empathy allows for a person to step outside themselves and conceive of feelings and experiences that may have nothing to do with them. If you can’t care about, understand, or get interested in something that doesn’t remind you of you, you are not only seriously limiting yourself, you’re indulging in a gross form of self-centeredness. That’s where we get the dumb ideas like “boys don’t like stories about girls” or “white people won’t watch films about people of color,” which are dangerous and damaging, not to mention reinforcing of white supremacy and patriarchy. 

As a teacher, I want to encourage students to be able to find a more sophisticated form of connection– to engage with literature in a way that builds empathy. Asking people how they relate to the tale is perhaps a good basic starter way to get them to extend their emotions, but unless they move past that at some point, they’re missing out on the greatest power that storytelling has– the ability to give understanding about situations outside your own.


Choices of the Author, Death of the Author, and Something in between…

When it comes to literary interpretation, I have a few concepts I use as guides for understanding the meaning of a work. Since I got into some discussions where people didn’t necessarily see the delineations I did, I thought I’d talk about some of the concepts I use to make it clear how I approach things– specifically as regards the impact of design.

By “design” I mean the choices the artist made in putting the piece together that creates some effect on the audience. In writing, the storyteller begins with a theoretical “blank page,” and anything that makes it onto that page had to be put there. The level of thought or intention behind each thing may be variable, but still the writer had to decide to include it or else it wouldn’t be there. That means it had the potential to be done for a particular reason, because of the effect it would create in the audience experiencing it. Authors rarely approach their work with zero intention, so there is almost always at least SOMETHING they included specifically for the effect they hoped it would create.

This makes up the first level I think you can analyze on– taking into account the author’s plans, choices, and efforts. The creator decides they would like to imbue a particular meaning in the work and makes design choices that are designed to achieve that effect. It’s not the be all and end all, of course, but these are important if only because they shape the final product; in their absence, you would not have the work as you know it. Now, jsut because the writer meant to put something into a story doesn’t mean they succeeded. They have have failed, in whatever way for whatever reason. But the intentions still matter, because of how they influence what choices are made in the design.

On the other end of the spectrum is of course Death of the Author– where once an artist has finished a work, they have no further influence over its meaning, and whatever the audience sees in it is legitimately present. Personally I use a limited version of this in interpretation. This is a very necessary perspective, as you cannot influence the way an audience experiences your work, so what it brings out of them in response is always important no matter what the intended effect was. I tell my students that whatever you can justify with a line of reasoning, you can legitimately say you see in the piece. I tend to draw a line, however, when things are so far beyond the scope of the creator’s possible perspective, or when the reading requires so much extrapolation as to be completely removed from the text. For example, I doubt Shakespeare has much to do with ideas on artificial intelligence, given the subject matter of his plays and the period of history he comes from. But still, I believe the way an audience experiences a work is always relevant to examining it.

Most people are familiar with those two lines of thinking. But I also think there’s something in between. Not just things the author intended, nor what rises from the audience’s experience– but also what got in there through the author’s actions but in the absence of intention, or sometimes even awareness. This comes from the idea that no one is one hundred percent self-aware and may do things without realizing, or at least without realizing why. As this is true in our everday lives, so is it true in the making of our creative work. Writers can do this with how they design things and gets results that may not have been intended, but were still demonstrable results form the writer’s choices.

Here’s an example. Say a writer is including a father character in their work. This writer had a dad who was kind of a jerk, but doesn’t realize that this was a quality unique to their father in particular. Unconsciously, the writer has generalized this to all fathers. So, when the writer goes to write a father in their story, he incorporates the jerk qualities without intending to write a jerk, because they don’t see that in their mind, “jerk” and “father” are inextricably bound. This results in a character who is readably a jerk, and whose jerk qualities demonstrably rose from the choices the writer made, but NOT because the writer meant to create a jerk.

This may seem like a pointless distinction, but I think it’s important– because both the writer’s choices AND the audience’s perceptions are important. This extra shade of classification helps for better understanding of how stories are made, and what factors create the meaning and power of a story. The better we understand that, the better we understand how stories affect us, and how to build stories with the power to do so.


Roberts’s theory of lit crit

In teaching literature classes, I can’t help but approach my lesson planning from my personal theory of how to analyze literature. I go by a few guiding principles, which I will try to articulate here:

1. Intent is not everything

Generally, I believe in the theory of Death of the Author. This is the idea that once a piece of written work has been finished, the author’s intention for what they meant the work doesn’t dictate the meaning. They can’t whisper over the shoulder of the audience member, so whatever the audience finds in the experience of the work is legitimate.

2. Intent is not nothing.

Despite what I just mentioned, I would not go so far as to as to say the author’s intention does not matter. I believe that even though the maker’s intention is not the last word on the matter, the work would not have come out the way it did had the maker approached it with a different intention. So I think their plans must be taken into account, if not take as gospel.

3. The story must be taken as its own serious universe.

Most serious analysis requires at least some level of treating the characters and world in the story as if they were as full and complete as the real world. The discovery of real meaning is cut off if one dismisses aspects of it as “not complete,” “just a story,” that sort of thing. For example, a character may seem inscrutable if you dismiss them as not a complete person, but in that case it’s better to evaluate based on what could possibly be true of a person who evidences those behaviors of traits.

4. Writers are human and make mistakes.

Despite the previous, I also think it’s important to remember that writers make mistakes and have weaknesses. It is possible to decide that something in a work was not well-made and therefore doesn’t accomplish great meaning or art. Writers are human, even the masters are not infallible. This is important because then one can analyze what might have worked better or more effectively in a given example.

5. A work should be taken for what it is.

Each work should be taken on its own terms. What is it trying to be? What are the standards that apply to it? If one does not engage with a piece on the level it’s intended, one invites misinterpretation or intellectually dishonest critique. Ask if a piece is a good example of what it is, not a bad example of something entirely different.

6. No art is exempt from critique.

Again, possibly despite the previous, any work can be judged and examined for quality and significance. It should be taken as the kind of art that it is, but that doesn’t mean you can’t see if it’s a worthy example of whatever it’s trying to be. This should not be dismissed as “taking something too seriously.”

~~~

These are kind of contradictory, but it’s in the interest of balance. There are of course other critical approaches, but these are the bones of mine, and it’s a place for my students to start if they’re new to the process.


Murder magnet

As a consumer and producer of adventure and mystery stories, there’s a certain trope that always gets on my nerves. When you’re doing case-based storytelling, when “working a case” provides the climactic structure, there needs to be some mechanism to bring the affair to the detective figure’s attention. There’s a certain way of handling that which really makes me roll my eyes– the one where too many of the mysteries arise because the detective just stumbles over them, usually because someone within their life sphere is the victim.

I know why so many writers use this. By making the victims of the crime at hand have some connection to the detective, the writer is able to crank the stakes up by means of the detective’s personal investment. It’s an easy way to create more interest in the case, by leveraging the interest the audience already has in the leads.

This annoys me for several reasons. First, I think it involves too much coincidence. How many investigation-worthy crimes can one person possibly have happen in their greater circle of acquaintance? It’s just not believable that intriguing mysteries just fall into their laps by happenstance all the time. And when the typical crime the detective tackles is murder, it becomes even more absurd. What is causing this ridiculously high murder rate? Is the detective just a death magnet, with every person even peripherally linked to them suddenly likely to meet a grisly premature end? Nobody would associate with that character or that character’s friends for fear for their life!

In my own work, I try to stay aware of this. The Mrs. Hawking stories work under a case system, but I mostly have clients come to her with their problems for her to solve. She may occasionally stumble over something, or go seeking it out, but it must be used sparingly. And I have to be extra careful if anything happens to people the leads know. That will properly utilize the impact of a case with personal connection to the heroes without wearing out the trope and pushing it past the bounds of believability.


The relative importance of tone

Tone tends to be very important to me when it comes to whether or not I can become absorbed in a given piece of media. By tone, I mean the overall feeling and vibe a piece gives off, plus the attitude they take towards their story or subject matter. Embracing the right tone for the right story is something I care very deeply about, and can make the difference between obtaining my buy-in to the tale you’re telling or shutting out my sympathy completely.

This can have an even more significant effect when I’m already invested in a property. For example, contributing to my notorious pickiness about fan fiction is that if I feel a fic has a tone that doesn’t fit properly with the original, I usually cannot get into it at all. I guess it doesn’t necessarily have to reproduce the same tone exactly, but unless it feels compatible, it just doesn’t work for me. Similarly, in a series, if later installments go too far off the tone, or embrace a tone that doesn’t gel with earlier ones, I get skeptical and put off.

Recently I experienced this most strongly (at least in the anticipation) of Guardians of the Galaxy. The Marvel movies have generally had a light tone that was not SO frivolous as to cut off drama, which I’ve always thought worked for them. When Guardians was announced, I was seriously doubting that it was going to work in context with the rest of the series. It pushed the boundaries of the silliness and weirdness allowed by the series, and I thought it was going to be really ATONAL, disrupting the vibe the world had established. I was surprised to find that Guardians worked, even with the tone shift, probably mostly because it wasn’t quite as exaggerated as I thought it would be, and because it existed at such a remove from the other stories, a literal galaxy away.

I am still doubtful of when the Guardians stuff bleeds into the already-established-on-Earth stuff. I still don’t quite buy the notion of Rocket Raccoon existing in the same universe as Jessica Jones. Though to be honest, Daredevil and Jessica Jones are a fair bit darker than the films ever got, which is a tone shift of another kind. I guess when I get dramatically invested, I’m more likely to buy things getting a bit darker than getting sillier. That may just be my personal bias.

But it’s something to think about in my own work. It occurred me to that maybe my silly Woodhouse parody larp Woodplum House could be part of the Breaking History universe, except that it’s REALLY out there tonally from the rest, and that gave me pause. Again, it was weird thinking of that and Mrs. Hawking existing in the same world and theoretically being able to meet. Okay, I think she’s dead by the 1920s, but that’s beside the point. Hell, I’m even slightly worried about how the Hawking stories are going to take a slightly darker turn with the second trilogy. I don’t want to go all grimdark even so, and I don’t want to alienated people who liked the tone of the first set. I have to tell the story I have to tell– just as any writer does –but it’s one more of the many things to take into consideration when you’re taking on the challenge of serializing.


A work by any other name

I’ve always struggled with choosing titles for my written work. A lot rides on a title, so I have have standards for them that I’ve never been that good at meeting. They are the symbol of and the reference by which the work is known, so it should appropriate and worth to represent piece’s soul and quality.

A title needs many things. It must be easy to say and remember. It needs to sound good, with the right ring to be appealing. It can’t be too generic, or it won’t seem special to that story or stick in people’s minds. And it needs to really sum up the work it stands for, in a quick, catchy way. That’s a pretty tall order! Which is why I find it so challenging to come up with titles I’m satisfied with.

I tend to default to naming my stories after their protagonist. It’s often the easiest way to come up with a short, punchy, indicative title that sounds okay. I do choose pretty good character names, so at least they have a ring to them. “Mrs. Hawking,” for example. But they’re definitely on the obvious rather than the clever end of things.

The sort of titles that impress me most are those that use a non-literal idea that somehow represents the spirit of the story. Like, if you know what idea the title represents, you can see how that idea represents something important to the piece. The closest I’ve ever come to that sort of memetic title is “Base Instruments,” the name of Mrs. Hawking part three. A major theme of that story is people whose grandest ambitions and purposes demand perfection, but they are forced to confront the fact that human imperfections will always limit them. But, as Mrs. Hawking says, “Our instruments are base ones, but they are all God gives us for the task.”

Generally I’m not a fan of the “title drop” in the dialogue. It was supposedly a feature of the traditional “well-made” plays, like “Sometimes I feel like a cat on a hot tin roof!” But I usually find it so awkward and self-conscious, like it grinds the story’s momentum to a halt as it takes you out of the flow. But I included that because most of my early readers didn’t see the title’s relevance without it, and I think that phrasing keeps it a bit more of a natural piece of dialogue than if I just reproduced the actual construction in the name.

I also tend to like titles with a slight note of irony, I find. It’s usually not obvious, but I like knowing that the ones I pick both represent the story and yet also hint at an important conflict in their inaccuracy, if you know what I mean. All the Mrs. Hawking titles have this. “Mrs. Hawking” is the protagonist’s name, but identifying her in terms of her marriage is in no way accurate to the person that she is. “Vivat Regina” is a patriotic expression means “Long live the queen,” but the hero of that story strongly disapproves of the queen and all she stands for. And as I said, “Base Instruments,” refers to human limitations compromising the perfection of enterprise, but still the people confronting this truth possess truly exquisite instruments nonetheless.

The best one I’ve ever come up with— as is often the case with this piece, I find —is in my opinion “Adonis.” Punchy, evocative, representative, mellifluous, recognizable, and with that delicious undertone of irony. Adonis refers to our protagonist Aidan, and yet it doesn’t— it refers to an artificial personality that was forced on him, one that he resents, and stands for the major problem of his life. That’s a lot to ask from a single word, and yet it achieves all that. It’s good enough that I have no idea what to call the subsequent installments of the story, because I don’t know what else could ever be as good.

Bernie also recently brought up the issue of titles not just for individual works but for series. They present an additional level of challenge, because they have to sum up an entire collection of stories. With my own, I tend to default to the title of the first work, referring to them as “the Mrs. Hawking series” or “the Adonis trilogy.” The only good one I’ve ever devised is “Breaking History,” the collective name I gave to everything within my greater historical fiction universe, which includes the Hawking stories, the collection around The Stand, and the greater Fairfield family.

Some random titles I admire, ignoring those named explicitly for their protagonist or for the obvious setting. Game of Thrones is excellent, definitely better than the series name, so I’m not surprised that the TV adaptation chose to go with that rather than A Song of Ice and Fire. Halo, for the video game, is one of the most exquisite titles I’ve ever encountered for any creative work ever. I do not like puns, however, which cuts out a huge chunk of possibilities. I haven’t watched Orphan Black, so I don’t know if it’s representative, but just on ring alone that’s fantastic. Boardwalk Empire is great. Lost is super punchy. I rarely like long titles, except as a joke about how long they are. Hark, a Vagrant!, the comic by Kate Beaton, I always loved for its specific bizarre awkwardness. So I can appreciate things outside my box. But I’m so particular about it, and the way they strike my ear can really influence my impression of the work.


How Bojack Horseman is revolutionizing the Unlikeable Tortured Protagonist

You may have heard me talk of a weird little Netflix show about anthropomorphic animals that’s been getting a bit of press lately by the name of “Bojack Horseman.” More than once I’ve heard people express bewilderment at the appeal of an odd little work like this cartoon, and I confess I was there myself when I first heard of it. But after sticking it out to the end, (and several more times through after that) I am not only a convert, I am here to evangelize on its behalf. “Bojack Horseman” is my vote for most compelling show currently on television, and that’s because of how it portrays the “unlikeable tortured protagonist” in a way that no previous example has ever managed.

Created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the show is on the surface a cartoon critique of the celebrity world and culture using anthropomorphic animals, centering around a washed-up Bob Saget-style sitcom actor who happens to be a horse. From that description it hardly seems a fresh setup, but its true magic is within the story that setting is used to tell. The show juxtaposes extreme cartoon absurdity for the sake of humor with dark, character-driven storytelling that studies a fascinating anti-heroic character that you both judge and sympathize with, to a level you wouldn’t have believed possible.

On the surface, particularly in the first few episodes before the plot arc kicks in, Bojack appears to be not much different from your typical Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist. He seems characterized by qualities that at this point have been played out as comedic flaws— crass, drunk, and morbidly self-absorbed. On top of that, he is massively privileged, a mega-rich Hollywood actor who, despite being a horse, is of a background that implies being White and Upperclass. And, as we did with fellows like Don Draper, we soon find out that Bojack hates himself.

The TV landscape recently has been saturated with these kinds of protagonists— privileged white men whose pain adds fascinating dimension to their otherwise fairly exciting lives. Don Draper was a miserable unwanted child trying to hide his true self, but damn if he didn’t look sexy kicking down doors in impeccable suits while women threw themselves at him. Walter White was a bitterly disappointed man cruelly used by fate, but his adventures in the meth game sure gave him a lot of adventure and control back. I think as a culture we’ve become a little bored with this, as we’ve burned out on feeling sorry for sad dudes who can’t get it together when so many of us have fewer advantages and significantly less sexy lives.

The difference, however, is in how the facts of Bojack’s condition are presented to us. Bojack’s behavior whips across the punish-lavish axis in a sick cycle, from self-flagellating when he hates himself to self-indulging from when he feels sorry for himself. While one of the most accurate depictions of a certain kind of depression ever committed to TV, it also comes off as more than a little gross. But this very quality is what saves the show from being just a portrait of an unlikeable, over-privileged sad sack unable to appreciate what he has. Rather than trying to depict this as sympathetic in any way, on the contrary, the narrative never stops judging him.

There’s an old chestnut that says a writer should never judge their characters, but this story is richer for the creators ignoring that. When Bojack screws up, when he makes a truly destructive or even deplorable choice, the writing never asks you to see those actions as anything other than what they are. The results is it gives the viewer the breathing room to both castigate Bojack and find some understanding for him. He is obsessed with the notion that he’s broken somehow, that his inherent badness can never be changed or overcome, so why not do bad things if he’s bad anyway? But even as this provides a reason we are able to understand for why Bojack makes terrible choices again and again, it never asks us to find that an acceptable excuse.

What this gives us is a notion of accountability for Bojack. Despite the brilliance of both their shows, Don Draper and Walter White were not allowed a lot of room for any real growth or change. That’s partially the nature of the serial storytelling form, where you cannot drift too far from your premise without losing your audience. But it gets tiresome after a while watching these guys make the same mistakes over and over again. On top of that, Don and Walter very rarely ever saw real, true consequences for their actions. The important people in their lives put up with their antics, eventually forgave and came back to them, or at least came to a place of peace with them.

Bojack, however, is subjected to the consequences of being a massive self-centered dick. He is not granted forgiveness every time he asks for it, his bridges do get burned, and he has to live with the repercussions of the stupid choices he makes. Not only does this feel more real, it also has an effect on his character, driving him to try new things if he ever wants to change his life. Though he fails and regresses, through it all, there’s a sense of two steps forward, one step back, that makes him a little less contemptible. Bojack is not strong, so he breaks in the face of great adversity. But the fact that he pits himself against that adversity despite his weakness makes him more interesting to watch.

Finally, the show strikes the right balance between keeping his life interesting without excessively glamorizing it. When we watch Don and Walter, there is always a sense of envy at how cool Don is, or the excitement of Walter’s life, which undermines the message that these men are truly suffering. But you never for a moment wish you were Bojack, not for all the Secretariat movies, houses in the hills, or impulse-buy restaurants in the world. From his abusive childhood, to the hollowness of his accomplishments, to the way he’s so widely regarded as a joke even at the height of his career, there’s a genuineness to his misery that makes the notion of his self-loathing believable. It’s made even more poignant when we see flashes of the character in his youth, before the real grossness set in.

This is perhaps the great tragedy, and the great brilliance, of the show—once, Bojack was a genuinely nice guy, trying to do his best, who cared about other people and was working VERY hard to escape being the kind of bad person he felt like he was doomed to be. It makes seeing him lose that battle actually rather heartbreaking, and you find yourself actually holding out hope that he will find some way to get better. Because you know he did once put in that effort, you are driven to pity this man, even as you never want to absolve him. And if there’s not one moment a season— usually in the end of the eleventh episode —where you find yourself yelling at the screen, begging Bojack to not to shipwreck himself on the rocks of his own self-loathing, well, I don’t know what kind of person you are.

That’s a hell of a lot more than you ever expected from a thirty-minute cartoon about a horse.