Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Everblue. Examining Clara.

This is definitely one of my favourite webcomics. Every page is beautifully worked over and the author, Michael Sexton has some of the best lighting and rain effects I've seen in any webcomic short of Romantically Post-Apocalyptic. Sorry Michael! But go take a look, those buggers put some incredible vfx stuff into theirs. It just takes the cake!

If you haven't heard of either. Go check them out.

They're both gorgeous, and inspire me every time I visit their sites. I am rarely inspired these days. When you've met as many amazing people as I have, the bar gets set pretty high.

Aaaanyway. Enough plugging. Let's get to business.

The first two pieces originally posted can be found here:

I think I've said about as much as I can say about Shar so far.

Side note: If you want a summary of the Shar critique. It's neatly summed up in a short conversation between two fans:

dredogastus f: His words are so cultivated and reasonable. Why do I have a premonition of pain & death?

Emma: Because he’s bald, has an evil goatee, and wears big spiky metal gloves?
 Just a thought.

Michael, you were doomed the moment you gave him a goatee...

So we'll move onto the next few characters. In particular, I want to touch on a topic that's very very subtle, but powerfully insidious.

It's got to do with human psychology, society, and the messages in media. So please bear with me while I try to break my way through this, it's a difficult one. A very difficult one. 

I'm going to pinpoint Clara for this, because she's the closest to the point.

The best point to tackle this is to start unpacking the victim mentality behind a seer character. Clara's not appeared much, and I've read through the comic several times to make sure I didn't miss the obvious details. Where does my time come from you ask? When you start rendering several million poly scenes, you'll find out. Protip, leave four threads so your system isn't locked down. If you don't have four threads to spare, what the heck are you doing renders like that for?

Sorry, the 3D geeks will get that.

Back to Clara. I'm not going to go out and accuse Michael of making her a victim. This is just how she's being portrayed at the moment. And just to be clear. I haven't missed the moments of silent defiance that she shows Shar from the moment we first meet her. Michael's no idiot, some of this stuff is incredibly subtle. Read through the comic again if you haven't already, pay close attention to the details. He puts a lot in them.

The first reference we get to Clara is on Page 22 of Chapter 2.

The first time we see her is a very very neat little cameo on Page 40 of Chapter 1. There's a shivering Ring reference in there somewhere, I swear. It's more than a little bit creepy. The next page makes this rather obvious.

First impressions are important. Especially in stories. Frequently, however, it's not because it sets an iconic or otherwise opening, but rather, establishes where the readers will automatically allocate them.

Shar, who is more directly introduced on the same page Clara is, is a case in point in that. See the little conversation earlier in this article. The next page is where the comments pick up on his place in the storyline and Michael's 'I'm trying to make him a bit different from the usual bad guy' point.

How is Clara introduced? She's a Seer, and she's not responding to 'suggestion'. I don't know what that means in the context of this world. But it's vaguely ominous. Shar's answer is direct. "Crush her." Well. He doesn't say that directly. But it's implied.

This brief exchange points to a number of different bits and pieces about these characters. And this isn't to read to much into it, I'm merely trying to establish just how much a reader will subliminally get from conversation details.

Clara is clearly defiant. She doesn't like her captors. And she is briefly talked about in the letter earlier in the story, where her sight is noted to be erratic because of her youth. It also makes the note that Seers are hard to come by, so this is a rare ability she has. Which likely means that she enjoys a certain amount of privileged status. This hasn't stopped her from being treated as a slave/prisoner/captive.

Here's the deal though. This is not unusual for Seer characters. Clara is treated like a victim, and while she shows a strength of character by her defiance, Shar's calm answer tells us that it's a wasted effort. The petulant screams of a child against an unfair world.

Oh man this is hard. I know what it's like to put so much into a world and story and have someone tear into it. I have a world I've been building for ten years, with many, many stories within. And I can literally see effort and time bleeding off of your pages, and artwork. You've spent a lot of time thinking about this world. It's actually painful for me to try to voice these details, and try to explain in the simplest and best way I can why they're important. And why you should think about them. Because if I fail, I'll have wasted my time, and yours. But more to the point, I will not have communicated something of value that could help uplift something further than it already is. You're one of the lucky few that I don't have several of my characters scream at for having your characters do clearly stupid things. A few of them are going "Awwww... That's sweet. Ten bucks says she gets her heart broken twice." though. So kudos for that. It doesn't happen very often at all.

Unintentionally or not, you've set them both up as archetypes that are very common for the characters they play. As a writer, you definitely want to take things deeper, but that's easier said then done.

Let's delve into archetypes for a moment. Perhaps the first thing I will lay on the table is the fact that archetypes are inherently neutral concepts. They're used sub-consciously by our minds to help us process the huge amounts of information we all receive on a daily basis in an efficient and effective manner. They're essentially perfectly ordinary concepts, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with them.

Cliches are there for a reason, and it's not whether there are cliches in a story, it's how they're used. And to use them properly, you must understand where they originate from, and why they ended up that way. To create something unique from something common, you must first understand why it is common.

This rule of the thumb applies to writing, film and art in general. For instance, in film, to understand minimalism, first, you must understand classic film. Understand classical film, and you can then truly appreciate what makes up minimalism.

Clara should by all rights be a very powerful character. She comes from a powerful bloodline and she has a very useful ability. But she is instead a victim of what I will assume are circumstances beyond her control. Or what you decided were. But why have you put her in this position in the first place? Is it so she can rebel at a crucial moment and save the day? Is it so you can have that tormented seer theme underpinning the narrative, and allow the antagonists to find our main characters? Or is it another reason related to keeping the conflict between the characters running, and the bad guys on their tail? Why is she in that specific status? Why isn't she Shar's sidekick? Why hasn't Shar tried to convince her to join him properly? Or if he has. Why did it fail?

Consider these questions within the framework of archetypes. What overall world view are you presenting to your readers in this character? What is their impression of her? What does this say about her powers and how she uses them?

These may seem over the top, but the reason I'm getting you to think in these lines is to start unpacking the subtle hints that underlie a story. The stuff that we do automatically. See there's nothing wrong with archetypes. They're unavoidable. It's how they're used that's important. Understanding that readers will lump your characters into certain frames of mind will allow you to push their perspectives, underline points you want to make or themes you want to explore, or simply create huge plot twists.

We automatically frame your world and characters. When you know that, you can exploit, or abuse that. Short stories do this regularly. They will establish the world, characters and plot quickly. And the readers will familiarise themselves with what they believe to be the main concept at play. They'll root for the main character, gain empathy with them and whatever else.
Then, just before the end, the writer will take the hood off the reader's eyes and show them a shifted, or completely new, perspective. This usually blows us out of the water. We never see it coming, but looking back, we realise it was hinted at all along.

This is sometimes done through direct perspective control, we only see things through one characters eyes and learn things that they would learn. Other times however, it's done through establishing the story along very familiar cliches, so the readers automatically set themselves in a comfortable routine.

Are you starting to see where I'm going here?

When you understand your archetypes, and how your readers are receiving your characters. Then you can really start to play with their perceptions as the story develops. You know your characters, we don't. Everybody, especially in real life, is put into little boxes by the people who meet them. Complex people blow the lids off these boxes every now and then with something completely out of character; some don't, because they really are their stereotype. You can make points with your characters without them actually saying a thing. All they need to do is do something that does not fit the established image we have of them. You can push themes through these perceptions, and you can create epic plot twists through these perceptions. All subliminally.

This is both the beauty and the danger. If you don't understand what you're dealing with, you will push a world view about something that is detrimental. Archetypes are specific subsections of certain world views. This is why Japanese archetypes are so different from western archetypes. Because their world view is different.

Archetypes are not exclusively world views, but delve deeper into what makes up a specific archetype and you will find one. This concept occasionally appears in scholarly examinations of various things. Where the scholar involved will rip into a particular piece of literature and media and point out just how dangerous the underlying impressions it gives out are.

Oh yeah. Also. Just to be clear, we're moving on from Archetypes now. I think you understand what I'm talking about. The psychology involved in this next bit is almost exactly the same, only now it directly involves a presentation of world views.

This kind of psychology is the same psychology that's involved in propaganda and brainwashing. I'm not saying your comic is either. It's not. But the stuff I'm about to talk about is directly related to those areas of psychology.

As we walk through life, we are presented with the world view of our host country. We are, from birth, subtly brainwashed to see the world in certain ways. This is wrong, this is right. That's evil, this is cute, that action is ok, you probably shouldn't touch the stove. Human brains learn from pattern recognition, (there are lots of different learning methods, however pattern recognition is how babies learn things like talking and so on. I may be wrong on this, so anybody who knows a lot about this, feel free to contradict me.) and this allows us to fit in with the larger pattern that is society as a whole. We're taught to recognise certain signs and feedback, how to correctly interact with people and how to not do so. We give off subtle signals to people, whether we know it or not, and these are generated by what society teaches us. Pick Up Artists, while generally looked down on for very good reason, are simply people who understand how to read and game these patterns. How to see the signals, and influence the impressions others gain of them, directly or indirectly.

Every one of us who creates a story, writes something, paints something and so forth, is putting out a specific world view. Usually their own. Whether they want to or not.

My critique of Clara is not that she falls into an archetype or is what is typically found in a character like hers. That was the introduction so you understand where I'm coming from.

No. It's that the world view you present from her is a victim mentality. "I'm stuck, there's nothing I can do, so I might as well roll with the punches, give in and see what comes." It's that annoying "I have a diagnosed syndrome. So there's nothing I can do about it." mentality.

I should put out a disclaimer here on in. I have moderate to severe hearing loss. Without my hearing aids, what I hear sounds like what you might hear if you were wearing a pair of industrial mufflers. I have had that since I was a baby, and I have never considered it a disability. Despite the fact that it should have severely limited my ability to understand and speak languages, and therefore my schooling ability. Indeed, it should have severely affected my ability to interact with people at all. It's not uncommon for me to hear you speaking and not understand a word you say. What has happened however is quite the opposite of what people like me have shown to be the norm. Education wise, I've always been close to top of the class, and I interact with people regularly with ease. To the point where I usually have to point out that I have a hearing loss before they realise it; this is despite the fact that my hearing aids are deliberately not hidden at all. I don't say that to brag. I've always considered it a normal thing in my life and never really thought of it as something to surmount. I just surmounted it automatically. The reason I bring that up is to simply point out that I understand what it's like to have a qualified medical condition that should technically seriously affect your quality of life in several areas.

It's this victim mentality that I want to target, because it's one that presents a world view that we are incapable of doing anything in overwhelmingly antagonistic circumstances. Clara clearly can't break out of her prison, and her attempts to undermine her 'captors' by refusing to help them has just led her to receiving a terrible punishment that she hates or can't endure.

That's fine. Her solution though, is to give in, rather than treat it as a problem to be solved. She hides and capitulates rather than trying to overcome it through other means.And no, her doing something dangerous at the last moment and perhaps killing or overturning Shar doesn't count. That doesn't change the fact that the rest of the time she gives off this overwhelming victim mentality.

A perfect example of a process she might do is what Seta does with Luna towards the end of the 3 chapter. He is tasked with a terrible deed, and he has very little choice because his personal convictions won't let him. So he goes through with it, but undermines Shar's orders by forcing Luna to do exactly what he wants her to do, escape. All the while following orders to the letter. This is the opposite world view to what Clara displays. Seta cannot be accused of being a victim, because he simply does not have that mentality. She can fight by directly undermining what she's ordered to do.

Now, we haven't seen much of Clara, so I can't say a whole lot about her personality above and beyond what is immediately presented. However, there is a further element I would like to throw out there.

Consider now, how her storyline can present different, deep deep elements. She's in a perfect position to have a powerful and emotionally moving redemption plotline. She's in a truly dark world, fighting against an oppression that won't allow her to escape. She hones her abilities with those bandages, enhancing her Sight, so she can use it better, while using it for something she does not like. Were she a real live person, she would quickly become jaded and cynical. Hard because experience has taught her that being soft does you no favours. But the world will grind her down inside. Even though outside it might appear to be going well. She can see things others can't see, and knows things so many others don't know, but she can't do anything about them. I would be surprised if this didn't grate on her slowly over time. This is a specific plotline I'm offering here, I'm not saying you must take it, I'm offering food for thought. That is all.

With that line of thought, you can take her deep into the world of human pain at one of the extremes of a specific type of apathy. A world where despite everything you do and know, you are powerless to change what is most important to you. Where your memories are a graveyard of broken dreams that have died over, and over, and over. Each death stealing a little bit of your soul with it. So that you find after a time that you barely have anything left. So that you scream into the darkness and only hear the vanishing sound of your own voice, without even the echoes to mock you.

The answer to that world view, the one where, against all of it, the character pushes deep, and somehow refuses to give in. Bootstrapping their life one day at a time, crawling from their abyss. Their answer to life's unwavering apathy towards them is a grand 'Fuck you. I will not give in.' The answer to that world view requires one to dig deep into the darkness of human minds, hearts and thoughts and come up with an answer that we can understand intuitively as one that is a truth. Not some trite moment of heroism or realisation, or god forbid - deus ex machina; but rather a deep soul searching that the characters goes through; where they reach answers to fundamental questions through painful trial and error, screams and dogged perseverence. So that you can have them look back eventually and have them realise how far they've come, and even though they've got so far left, at least they can go. I did it.

I found joy.

Or peace.

Or love.

The list goes on. But I think perhaps that you begin to understand what I'm talking about. And how you can use our perspectives, archetypes and world views against us. To teach lessons that strike deep into our hearts and stay there.

Next time. Maytag, and the little we know about your world's dominant tyranny/monarchy. And the above thoughts a little more.

Enjoy. May this find you well.

1 comment:

  1. "See there's nothing wrong with archetypes. They're unavoidable. It's how they're used that's important."

    "Then, just before the end, the writer will take the hood off the reader's eyes and show them a shifted, or completely new, perspective. This usually blows us out of the water. We never see it coming, but looking back, we realise it was hinted at all along."
    Have you played NieR?