Wednesday, June 6, 2012

PLOT-DRIVEN VS. CHARACTER-DRIVEN: How to Write the Way I Write, Part 2

Image from Bloodhound issue 7.

That agitated-looking fellow you see up there is Travis Clevenger, the protagonist of my short-lived creator-owned DC Comics series BLOODHOUND (penciled, inked, and colored by the brilliant team of Leonard Kirk, Robin Riggs, and Moose Baumann). That’s the project I mentioned earlier, when I said I was asked to come up with a character who was NOT:
  1. a)a martial artist
  2. b)an expert marksman
  3. c)an ace computer hacker.

That request came after supremely talented and consistently jovial artist Drew Johnson introduced me to Ivan Cohen at DC Comics. Ivan wore a number of different hats at the time, only one of which was “editor,” and he really wasn’t looking for any new projects. But as a favor to Drew, he agreed to talk to me, on the condition that I not bring him a character that had any of the above-mentioned qualities. Apparently he saw a lot of pitches about kung fu sniper hackers.

“Okay,” I thought. “Challenge accepted. I can totally do this.”

That’s when I had a realization that blew my mind a little bit: nothing I had been hired to do up to that point had involved creating a new protagonist.

I had created plenty of villains, sure, and supporting characters, naturally - but protagonists? ...Not so much. This realization, and the work produced because of it, would prove to be something of a turning point in my career.

But let me back up a little. This is a generalization, but there are basically two kinds of stories: character-driven and plot-driven. I’ll address plot-driven first because, for the larger part of my career, that was all I knew how to do.

Coming up with a plot-driven story is pretty straightforward: you think of a situation, or an event, or maybe a whole world that would be cool to write about. Maybe a tornado ravages a small town, or a serial killer escapes from prison and takes a hostage in a pre-school, or humanity discovers that what we thought was reality is just a computer-generated illusion and we’re really all floating in tanks of goo.

If you work in mainstream comics, the problem is more complex, because you still have to come up with a (relatively) original scenario, AND you have to make sure it’s not just like some other story that’s already been done. When you’re writing something for Batman or Superman, for example - characters that have decade upon decade of already-established story material behind them - that’s no easy task.

Once the scenario is solid, it’s time to populate it with characters.

Say you decide that a team of researchers in Antarctica stumbles upon a North Korean outpost, and now some NK soldiers are chasing them, and they get trapped in an ice cave and have to figure out how to escape and not get killed. There’s a scenario.

Let’s put some interesting characters in: how about the lead researcher is a 36-year-old single mother of two who writes travel guides as a sideline and misses her kids desperately whenever she has to be away from them (though they’re staying with her sister, so she trusts that they’re all right). And the second-in-command is a 27-year-old perpetual grad student who taught himself to juggle at age 4 and has a huge, secret crush on the single mom.

Both of those character descriptions will work, so now you’re off to the races, watching the lead researcher and her assistant evade the North Korean soldiers. 

The story comes first here. The plot points are crucial: can they make it across a certain ravine, can they bypass the security system to enter the North Korean compound undetected, can they (if it’s a Michael Bay movie) time the popping of the green smoke just exactly right so that the American helicopter spots them? Action stories are usually plot-driven.

Maybe the assistant will confess his love to the leader and, hey, maybe she’ll even realize she feels the same way about him, so we might be able to work out a happy romantic ending after they beat the soldiers and make it back to civilization.

But if not, well, sometimes it doesn’t matter. The characters inThe Matrix are hardly complex. What do we even know about them? What kind of music does Morpheus listen to? Does Trinity have any hobbies? Tank and Dozer are brothers; what happened to their parents? The movie doesn’t tell you. And it doesn’t really matter. The plot and the setting are what’s important.

Generating story ideas in mainstream comics is hugely plot-driven. You already have the main characters built in, after all. There’s very little to no room for modifying your protagonist. So you come up with a tight spot for Spider-Man to get into and then get out of, plug in the pre-fab hero, and there you have it.

Now we flip the process over and look at stories that are...

This is also pretty straightforward: you create a compelling, fascinating character, and then build a scenario around him or her.

But here’s the problem I realized I was facing after Ivan Cohen asked me for a new character: I had never written a character-driven story before. You know why? Because I had never had to.

In fact, until fairly recently, I wasn’t even sure exactly what constituted a character-driven story - again, because I had never had to come up with one. “I don’t get it,” my thought process went. “You come up with a character first? And then...what? Just watch what he does?” It took a long time for the concept to sink in that fascinating characters can createscenarios.

Also - and this is especially crucial in serialized formats like comic books and TV shows - readers and viewers keep coming back because of characters, not because of plots. When you ask people what they love about Star Trek, invariably you hear things like, “Oh, Captain Kirk! He was awesome!” or “Captain Picard was the greatest!” or “Spock was so $&%#ing cool!” They’re not drawn back again and again because of the plots. They fall in love with the characters.

House is probably the best current example of this. (I say current even though the show just ended, because it’s going to be in syndication forever.) It doesn’t matter what the medical mystery is each week. People watch the show to see what House is going to say or do.

More good examples, I realized, of character-driven stories are sitcoms. Sitcoms are populated (if they’re done right) with very distinct characters, each possessing a well-defined, unique point of view. So you throw a little bit of plot into the middle of a group of interesting characters, and...just watch them react to it.

An entire plot of an episode of “Friends” was “Monica babysits Ross’s kid.” Establish what’s going on, and the rest of the show is how the characters react. A plot from “The Big Bang Theory” was “Leonard doesn’t want an old boyfriend of Penny’s to crash on her couch.” Every character in the cast will have a specific reaction to that situation, and to each other, and there’s your story. Yes, there does have to be a beginning, a middle, and an end with some sort of resolution, and yes, that’s plot, but it’s not what brings people to the show.

One year at Dragon*Con in Atlanta, I found out that Nickelodeon was going to be accepting pitches for new shows on Saturday. It was Friday afternoon when I heard this, and I had exactly nothing prepared that would be appropriate for Nickelodeon, but I took what information there was to be had - they were looking for “character-driven stories” and “squash-splat humor” - and I went back to the hotel room and came up with a property. Or at least I thought I did.

What I pitched to a very nice woman in very nice business attire the next day was something called OOZEBOTS.

Oozebots was about a group of robots designed by an eccentric scientist, that were supposed to be used in heavy industry to do stuff like construct skyscrapers and re-build after natural disasters. But the scientist had to outsource the robots’ construction to an overseas fabricator, and due to a translation error, “titanium” got replaced with “cornstarch.”

So when the robots came back and the scientist opened the crates, what emerged were five sentient robots made of a bizarre, translucent, gelatin-like substance. This production error also affected their personalities, so that they related to each other in much the same way the Three Stooges did.

The Nickelodeon exec listened politely while I stumbled through this (I’ve never been very good at verbal pitches), and then told me that it sounded to her as though what I really wanted out of this was a toy line, not a TV series. “Thanks but no thanks,” she said.

I was baffled; no, it certainly wasn’t the best thing I’d ever come up with, but on one day’s notice, I thought I’d done a decent job of providing a platform for some goofy, irreverent antics with plenty of both “squash” and “splat.” The problem was that I hadn’t bothered giving any of these characters a personality. How exactly did they relate to each other, aside from bonking each other in their squashy little heads?  ...Huh. Good question.

I didn’t deliver on the “character-driven” part of the deal. At all. And now Nickelodeon thinks I’m a dumbass. 

SO! This brings us back to Mr. Travis Clevenger of BLOODHOUND. I had my marching orders: no martial arts, no marksmanship, no hacking.

This was a character to be set in the DC Universe, so I wanted him to be formidable enough to handle himself in a world with lots of extremely good fighters. Therefore...okay, he’s huge. Like professional wrestler huge. Like...TRIPLE H huge. (There’s a reason that Clev, as I decided to call him, looks a lot like Paul Levesque.) And he’s no martial artist, so...he’s a brawler. A low-down, dirty, kick-you-in-the-nuts, jab-you-in-the-eye scrapper who has a favorite pair of brass knuckles.

All right, so how did he get that big? He’s naturally strong...and I’m from the South myself, and know what growing up on a farm can do for the Clev was a farm boy from...Cartersville, Georgia.

But he needs to be dangerous. What if he went to prison? What if he made some kind of horrible mistake, got sent to prison, and got even stronger by lifting weights all the time?

And “dangerous” doesn’t just mean “physically formidable.” He’s a non-powered guy in a world full of superheroes and supervillains, so he’s got to be smart, too. Maybe...maybe I can take a little bit of Vin Diesel’s character in Pitch Black, when he talks about the “animal part” of his brain. Maybe Clev can put himself in the same mental space as the really twisted supervillains. Maybe he tracks them down because he innately understands how they think.

So it would make sense that he gets into law enforcement - that way he gets paid for doing this. All right. I’ve got a big, dangerous, dirty-fighting cop who specializes in tracking down supervillains. But he went to prison - okay, he and his partner must have gotten into something really bad.

Oooh! What if Clev and his partner’s wife were having an affair? Partners are usually close as family, if not closer - what if they’ve known each other a long time - HOLY CRAP, what if one Clev’s partner’s children is actually Clev’s kid?

And then what if Clev’s partner finds out about the affair?

So this big, dangerous cop can track down super-powered criminals, but he’s also involved in some shady dealings with his partner, and having a long-standing affair with his partner’s wife. Then his partner finds out, confronts Clev and tries to kill him, and Clev ends up killing his partner?

Off to prison he goes.

So the story starts with Clev in prison. Okay. Why would he get out of prison? Why, in the DC Universe, with hundreds of superheroes to choose from, would anybody get this particular guy out of prison for any reason?

Because there’s a super-powered killer on the loose, targeting young women...and his latest target is the daughter of Clev’s late partner.

Clev’s daughter.

The story goes on from there, and in spite of himself, Ivan Cohen was hooked. BLOODHOUND got approved by the DC brass and hit the shelves in 2004. The series ran for 10 issues.

And let me tell you: that was the finest comic book writing I’ve ever done. It sold for crap, mainly (I like to believe) because an utter lack of marketing support meant that hardly anybody even knew it existed. But it was something of a critical darling, and when it ended, one reviewer ran a headline: “Bloodhound Canceled, Comics Readers Prove They Have No Taste.” That made me feel pretty good.

I knew Clev better than I’ve known any other character I’ve written, with the protagonist of my original novel series coming in a very close second. I knew what he’d say, what he’d do, and what he’d think in any given situation, and it made the series much richer than any work I’d done before.

As far as I’m concerned, if you have the option, character-driven is the way to go.

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