Sometimes you want the story to be a touching romance, but you also want the love interest to be a total jerkass with no redeeming traits. That’s a clashing set of storytelling choices, and it’s a problem many authors struggle with. Should the story be light and funny, or should there be gritty sword fights? Is this villain scrappy and sympathetic or powerful and threatening? This week, we talk about how Storytellers can make the critical choices and decide what’s most important to them.
Generously transcribed by Viviana. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. With your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.[Opening Music]
Oren: And welcome everyone to another episode of Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren, with me today is
Oren: So, I have a story idea and I want it to be set in the future. I want there to be advanced lasers and super powerful vehicles, like big mechs and stuff. But, I also want all the battles to be fought with metal swords and armor from medieval times. And, I want it to be gritty and realistic. I’ve hired you two as editors, so you just need to tell me how I can do that without cutting anything.
Chris and Wes: (Laughs)
Oren: Welcome to my world!
Chris and Wes: (Laughs)
Wes: We’re gonna have to introduce some kind of new hyper steel so that those swords have characteristics allowing them to cut through anything.
Chris: But like, it hurts you every time you wear it. That’s why it’s gritty.
Wes: And everything is powered by fossil fuels, so it’s extra smokey and everybody has cancer.
Chris: Your super steel is rusting.
Oren: Gasoline powered alarm clock.
Oren: Today, we’re talking about what I’ve labeled ‘clashing story choices’, which is what happens when an author wants two or more things that just don’t go together and create problems. Sometimes these are plot problems, sometimes they are setting problems that tend to become plot problems, and sometimes they’re like, mood and tone mismatches. And, eventually something’s gotta give. Question is what, and what do you do when this happens, other than, you know, make your editor cry?
Oren: I mean, admittedly, a reasonable goal, so.
Chris: I’ve definitely run into a lot of stories where the writer wants a lot of things that each eliminate a source of tension. It’s like, ‘I want a utopian setting and I want perfect characters’, and it’s like, ‘Hey, but the tension has to come from somewhere, so where is it gonna come from?’
Oren: Right, or like, ‘I want it to be grim and dark and gory, but I also like want my characters to be fine after each fight scene. I don’t want them to be permanently messed up because that would ruin the fantasy for me.’
Chris: Or, how about the opposite? This is one of my favorites. ‘We want something to be rare or uncommon or some group of people to be rare or uncommon, but we also want to either kill a lot of them or destroy a lot of them for drama’.
Chris: Let me give some examples. This one is just kind of funny. The weirdest one is in Teen Wolf with Satomi’s pack and just magical creatures in general. We have a masquerade setting and the ideas that only a few people are magical, and they’re not that common. We find out belatedly there’s another werewolf pack, which is weird.
Oren: Where has that pack been this whole time?
Chris: Right! And they can sense each other’s presence. They can tell, and it’s a big deal when there’s other werewolves nearby. So, even being like, ‘Hey, do you know that there’s this pack here all along?’ is weird. But, one of the reasons they do it is they’re setting up for a plot where they have assassins coming and killing magical creatures. And that’s the plot of season four. For that to be tense, they want the assassins to actually succeed in killing a whole bunch of magical creatures, so now we just need tons of them to dispose of. And it turns out Satomi’s pack is really big.
Chris: Like, really big, and their explanation is that they’re all pacifists and that’s why they can’t defend themselves. Wow, It’s a mess.
Oren: I hate everything about Satomi’s pack, becayse it’s super huge when every other werewolf pack we’ve encountered has been like, six at most. Six is big, and there seemed to be like, 50 of these guys at least. We see like a screen full of bodies of them at one point, and they’re still not all dead, ‘cause that’s basically what the show likes to do with them is kill them, which is another reason I hate this pack is just like, they were introduced to kill, and most of them, we never meet before they become corpses.
Chris: The other contradiction of course is that Satomi herself is so good at fighting, she can Matrix dodge.
Oren: That’s the other thing I hate about them is that they’re pacifists in a super violent urban fantasy world, which just makes them seem very silly, but then Satomi is a huge badass. Do you not see how this is helping you survive? Satomi, maybe teach the huge badassness to the rest of your pack, so they aren’t constantly dying!
Wes: And that also just adds conflicting messaging because they didn’t have to be pacifists for that, and the message that comes across is, ‘Oh, you’re a pacifist? You’re dead. You’re first on the hit list’ (Laughs). And it’s just like, I’m sorry, there’s value in pacifism and you’re throwing it away for what?
Oren: I had a QA about that recently about portraying pacifism and like, pacifism in the real world is often very valuable. Pacifists get a huge bad rep. Creating a scenario where like, in this world you have to defend yourself from regular monster attacks and then saying, ‘Oh yeah. And they’re pacifists, and then they all died’. That just feel disrespectful to actual pacifists who often put a lot on the line for their beliefs, right? Yeah, I didn’t like. I also really hated how Satomi is one of the only prominent non-white characters in the show. Like, not the only one, but certainly one of the few. And, she seemed cool, but like, they didn’t know what to do with her, so she died off screen.
Chris: This is a weird pattern that we get with characters who are, marginalized- often it’s just women, but it could be people of color- where writers now realize that if they make those characters pathetic, that’s going to look bad, so they make them badass, but they still don’t want to let them actually have roles in the plot. And, Teen Wolf has a serious problem with this, where they kept killing off women and adding more white guys to the cast.
Oren: Instead of making their core characters, people of color or women- sometimes women, there are a few women in the core cast who actually matter, but they’re all white women- what they would sometimes do is introduce a cool new character, and sometimes they even put them on the main cast, like Kira, and then they have nothing to do with her. Then she just unceremoniously leaves at the end of the season. I guess she’s gone now, and then we hear that the actress doesn’t want to go back for the movie and I’m like, ‘I wonder why!’
Chris: And the contradiction there is we want our stories to be more diverse, but we don’t wanna give up anything. We want the white guy to have just as big of a role as he had before, but we also want to somehow implement diversity.
Oren: There are a couple of different ways that I often recommend clients try to deal with this problem. The first option is to just live with the dissonance that these contradictions create. It’s not a big deal and fixing it would be too hard, so, okay, we can leave it. With Satomi’s pack, I would say that was the wrong choice. I’m willing to go with something like Battle Star, where they have the contradiction of needing like a bunch of fighters, but constantly blowing them up.
Chris: That was the other one I was gonna mention, and Voyager. They want to have fighters or shuttles be significant, but they also just wanna destroy them for drama every time.
Oren: Voyager is a little different, because Voyager doesn’t have to blow up shuttles every episode, they just choose to do that because it was an easy way of generating drama. Whereas I would say that if Battlestar Galatica– which is a show about space combat- if they didn’t lose at least some vipers sometimes, it would just lose all tension. You know, in that context, it’s not the worst problem. So, you might be able to get away with that. In the Satomi case, you need to fix it. This is a huge issue. You can either try to come up with a clever solution, basically, finesing the problem so that you don’t have to change any of your core desires, but it will still work. Or you can make a bigger revision and give up one of the things that’s causing the problem. And in the case of Satomi’s pack, I think they could probably have made it work, if they had A, scaled down the whole thing. Teen Wolf has a huge problem. It only needs to kill a small number of people and it decides instead to have like a big massacre. They don’t just do that with Satomi’s pack. They also have like a huge massacre in the hospital and I think there’s a massacre at a game at one point and it’s like, this is too many people dying, Teen Wolf. There’s just no way this isn’t being noticed.
Chris: There’s just a lot of like, almost a one-up-manship in film where it’s like, everything’s gotta be bigger and more dramatic. And a lot of times the solution to these problems is to make less mean more. Have fewer people die. Get to know them a little better. You don’t have to get know them really well, but maybe make those deaths feel more significant. And have fewer people die instead of just tons of insignificant people all the time. Now, Teen Wolf is a pretty high tension show and I think their goal was to be like, ‘Oh, look at all of these cool assassins’, but to show how cool they are, each assassin’s gotta kill somebody. There’s a big question of our eyes are bigger than our stomach there. Right? Are we creating problems that are too big for the story to realistically handle in the space that it has? And you know, obviously season four of Teen Wolf did not pull that off.
Oren: I think, and it’s been a while since I’ve seen season four now, but I think that they probably could have made it work with fewer deaths. I don’t think that many characters or that many creatures needed to die to get up to the point across that there are a bunch of assassins in town. You could take out the idea of them being pacifists, that really has no bearing on anything, and you could just say that they recently arrived in town and that would fix a lot of the problems. ‘Cause there’s this other thing they have where they say that some of the older characters were like personal good friends with Satomi and y’all didn’t think of, I don’t know, asking her for help in seasons one through three? In that situation, I think it was probably possible to employ some clever solutions and fix the problem without like a serious revamp of the basic concepts. Of course, that’s more complicated because it’s a TV show, which has a lot of constraints other than just what ever the writers feel like writing. So it’s hard to say exactly. You know, without having been in the room, but that’s my guess.
Oren: The problem with clever solutions is sometimes you just have a situation where to explain the thing that you’re trying to explain, you have to create even more things that need to be explained, then that becomes its own problem, or then you try to explain those and it just becomes a spiral of ever-adding explanations. And before long you have overburdened your reader trying to justify how these inherently contradictory things can both be true. And, a good example of that is this novel. I read recently that I’ve written about in a few articles now called The Wizard Hunters by Martha Wells, Martha Wells of Murderbot. Murderbot’s great. This book, not so much. And this book has this problem where the protagonist’s country is at war with a mysterious enemy. And they’re super mysterious, we don’t know anything about them. It’s like, ‘Okay, that’s cool. Gotta find out about this mysterious enemy’. But then, we find out that they’ve been at war for three years and it’s like, how can they be at war for three years without knowing anything about the enemy?
Oren: And the reason Wells wants that is because she wants there to be war culture where everyone’s like, ‘Yep, another bombing raid. We’ve been through this before’, and we need a reason for the main character to hate the bad guys. So this is like kind of built into the start of the story. And so to explain this weird contradiction, she makes the bad guys, basically invincible to try to explain how we’ve never captured any of them, we’ve never gotten any of their stuff or overheard any of their communications. It’s ‘cause they’re invincible. They have super mega death magic that destroys everything and their airships are invulnerable to harm. How has this war been going on for three years? How did they not just immediately win? And you can see how this causes a problem, right? Then you have to explain how they didn’t just immediately win. The explanations can potentially go on forever in that way.
Chris: We’ve talked a lot about the masquerade and there are potential explanations, very narrow ones for the masquerade, but a lot of cases, you just leave it alone. Leave it alone and try not to poke it too much. Try not to call attention to it. Another one with a really hard premise is The City in the Middle of the Night. We talked about that book. This is like the Martha Wells book, but worse because the premise instead is that these humans and this alien race can’t communicate with each other, even though the alien race is not supposed to be just antagonistic. I mean, they are, they’re just not supposed to be. They’re not even at odds with each other, it’s like the miscommunication plot, but scaled up. Yeah, there’s not a whole lot of explanations you can come up with.
Oren: The only way we could possibly communicate is to forcibly alter a human to make them part alien. It’s okay, they were fine with it afterwards, but like, we weren’t really asking.
Chris and Wes: (Laughs)
Oren: Have these aliens never read a sci-fi novel? Just, start tapping out prime numbers and that will get across that you’re intelligent, and then you go from there and it’s like, it’s not fast, it takes a while to develop communication when you have no shared vocabulary, but you can do it. Humans have done it.
Chris: Another trope I’ve seen is to start communication, you just repeat what the other person does. Show that you can acknowledge their actions and replicate them. And that’s a very noticeable thing. It’s very doable for two intelligent species to communicate, even if they have nothing in common.
Oren: Especially when you have like a lot of time, it might be a little different if there was like a really urgent, ‘We need to talk right now, we don’t have time to develop a shared language’, but, there’s no rush, right? They’ve been on this planet for a long time and whatever the problems that they’re worried about, those aren’t gonna be critical for another long time.
Wes: Of course they did realize, though, that the biggest barrier to communicating with them is the fact that those aliens are so dang tasty.
Chris and Oren: (Laughs)
Wes: There is the part too though, where, one of the side characters who was raised in, like, I don’t know, like a motorcycle gang- it wasn’t a motorcycle gang, but some kind of roving caravan group- got wiped out by the aliens because they picked the wrong flowers on a volcano. So like, they’re clearly capable of violence, but they choose to be eaten because they’re just waiting for the right person to come along to genetically alter.
Oren: Oh, I hated that part.
Chris: According to the author, no! Just, they really tried, but they just had no choice. They didn’t try anything else, of course. But they still had no choice. It was both the first and the last resort.
Oren: I really hated that premise of like, ‘Yeah, we’re super powerful, and we could defend ourselves from you very easily, but we’ve just chosen not to, for some reason’.
Wes: Yeah. Having to convey information in that, like they alter the main character’s body and the main character has to basicallydo kind of like a psychic, like rape on other people to convey this message for the aliens. Which is also a really weird way to bring about information in a story.
Oren: I mean, it was very gross. I don’t know, at this point, if we’re at clashing ideas anymore, so much as just things I didn’t like about that book, but yes!
Chris: Clearly what the writer wanted was to make it so that was the only way to communicate. It might not be so much of clashing goals as that’s not a feasible process.
Wes: It provides like kind of a clash in mood in an otherwise-
Chris: Yeah, it was very Lovecraft.
Wes: Anytime that shows up is gonna really mess with things.
Chris: That book had a lot of different aesthetics. So it was almost like random was its aesthetic.
Oren: Clashing mood or clashing aesthetics is a very common way that this manifests, and it’s also kind of harder to deal with, ‘cause I’ve been talking about plot and setting. Things that are tangible, that have like an obvious effect that you can more easily change. Take something like Vox Machina, the cartoon series based off of the Critical Roll campaign, that show has a very serious problem where it desperately wants to be very dark and serious and have combat be brutal and bloody and gruesome. And even the main characters often get really serious wounds in combat, but then they’re always fine in the next scene. And I don’t know if that’s a hold over from the D&D mechanics of like, “Well, we’re all at one hit point. Time for a long rest’, or if that was just the way that the show was written. And then on top of that, they also have things like the characters are constantly making ribald jokes. So many dick jokes in that cartoon.
Chris: ‘Cause it’s role players who do that kind of thing, but it’s hard for other people to take the story seriously when that’s happening.
Oren: When you have like five or six friends who know each other, sitting around a table, you’re gonna have a lot of goofing off because you’re friends, hopefully. That’s just how role-playing games are. But it doesn’t really translate super well to any other medium. You typically don’t want your main characters goofing off when the NPC they’re supposed to be rescuing is getting tortured. Maybe go save him so he doesn’t get tortured.
Chris: If you’re watching an actual role-play. If you’re in the audience and you’re watching people play D&D and actually seeing that, or like if you’re watching a streamer and the streamer’s goofing off, you’re basically in the same medium. Improv theatre is also super goofy and also has lots of goofing off. That’s kind of part of the humor of it. But when we get to a story that’s been planned in advance, its not going to undercut its own drama by making dick jokes.
Oren: Or at least it shouldn’t. Apparently, it will
Chris and Wes: (Laughs)
Oren: And there isn’t really a clever solution to this one. I guess in theory, you could try to go the full nine miles and make it a dark comedy. Those do exist. That’s hard. The secret sauce on that is something I don’t know, Vox Machina is not a dark comedy, right. It’s a story that is sometimes comedic and sometimes dark. So in that case, you just kind of have to decide what it is you want. And in Vox Machina’s case, I think that they should have picked the fun jokes, ‘cuase that’s the stuff everyone loved from the campaign and made the rest of the story a little bit less dark.None of the plot events have to change, although you maybe should change some of them for unrelated reasons. When they fight, maybe not have Percy shoot a guy’s hand off with his gun, just as a thought.
Chris: Not have gratuitous violence?
Oren: Maybe not have them, like, you know, shrivel up into bleeding raisins when they get attacked by some ghosts and then be completely fine in the next scene. The ghost can attack them in some other way, guys.
Chris: We’re talking about gratuitous violence, because they’re trying to make each moment impactful, but they’re doing it to the point where none of it matters. And it just, again, feels gratuitous. One of my favorites when it comes to contradictory choices is shows that want the protagonist to be guilty, but not.
Oren: (Laughs) Yeah, that’s great.
Chris: They want them to do something wrong, but then they don’t actually want them to do something wrong or be any less likable at all. Sometimes it’s cuz they just want morally complex plots, but they don’t want the protagonist to do anything that people could disagree with. Sometimes they want antagonists to hate the protagonist or want revenge on them, but they can’t create any reason that somebody would realistically want revenge for, because the main, character’s not supposed to do anything wrong. So some examples of this one, Star Trek: Discovery, we have this whole thing with Michael in the beginning where we blame her for causing this war she just didn’t cause I mean, we saw everything go down. We can just plain old sea that she just didn’t create a war. She just didn’t do it. She tried to mutiny, but the mutiny failed, so it didn’t have any effect, but then we have all this drama later about, ‘The mutiny caused the war’
Oren: You started the war. I have a hard enough time believing that anyone would care about Burnham if she had started this war. And rather than just hating the Clingons, but she didn’t even, like, what are you talking about?
Chris: In the Orville, there’s an episode where they get on board this ship of people that are heading to destroy a colony that has thousands of people on it. So they’re gonna go murder thousands of people, and because there’s only two people aboard their ship, their only option is to change environmental controls, which would just kill everybody on the ship, but they do painstaking work to make sure that the children on the ship are okay. But then afterwards, you know, one of the adults survives and the writers just let her get the last word in. Like, ‘You should be ashamed. We’re gonna, those kids are gonna grow up hating you!’. You are gonna kill thousands of colonists, I don’t-
Oren: How dare you!
Chris: How dare you! I have to say, once you pay attention to who gets the last word in a scene, it’s impossible to go back.
Wes and Oren: (Laughs)
Oren: Yeah. Plus it’s also based on the character’s reactions, right? Like when that one alien lady is like, ‘They’ll grow up to hate you, you did a bad thing today’, the human characters aren’t like, ‘Whatever. Okay. That’s silly’, they’re like, ‘Oh, this is very serious. This is a thing we should take seriously’. That’s clearly the message that the creator wants me to have. All right, I got your message, man. It’s bad, but I got it.
Chris: Okay. It’s this character that has the zinger. There’s even, I think it’s a Mel Brooks film where the characters go back and forth each trying to get the last line
Chris and Wes: (Laughs)
Chris: And a more recent example of this is in The Batman.
Oren: Yeah, I love The Batman! I actually do, unironically.I liked that movie way more than I expected to, but there is one part that is just where Ridler has taken down the most powerful elites in Gotham society ‘cause they’re all super evil and corrupt, and Batman is kind of inadvertently helping him because they’re sort of frenemies in this movie, which is my favorite part. But then the Ridler reveals, ‘One of the people on my list of super evil guys is Thomas Wayne!’, Bruce Wayne’s dad. And of course, Thomas Wayne is dead by this point, but whatever, what did he do? Well, he had a reporter killed cause that reporter was really an asshole and was trying to drag his wife through the mud for having mental health problems. And it’s like, all right, murder is probably not the right reaction to that, but I can’t help, but kind of feel sympathetic for Thomas Wayne anyway, but regardless Batman is like, ‘Oh no, this rocks, my whole world view of who I am and who my father was’. And then he finds out from Alfred, actually, no, none of that was true. He just wanted the reporter intimidated. And when the mob killed the reporter anyway, Thomas Wayne was gonna turn himself in and confess the whole thing. So he was killed to stop that from happening.
Chris: Why did you do all of this just to take it back?
Oren: You didn’t even need Bruce Wayne to do something bad in this scenario, it was his dad!
Chris: Have him have to deal with a legacy that is not as great as he wants. Why not do that?
Oren: Do you think that I’m gonna apply Thomas Wayne’s actions like generationally to Bruce?
Chris and Wes: (Laughs)
Oren: And be like, ‘Well, I can’t like Bruce anymore because his dad had the world’s worst reporter killed. It’s like, I don’t think that’s how people would react.
Chris: I think it’s the 2009 Star Trek where the antagonist wants to get revenge on Spock for trying to help, but failing.
Wes: Yes, that’s right.
Oren: That’s another case where there isn’t really a clever solution. You just have to decide which one you want. Just as an example, cause we’ve been talking a lot about stories that made this mistake, I wanna highlight a story where they actually did the right thing, and we don’t often know this because you don’t usually know the editing history of a published story or a movie, but thanks to cool YouTube videos- the one that I’m thinking of is called “How Star Wars was saved in the edit”- we know about how they edited the rough cut of the first Star Wars movie. And one of the big things they changed was that we originally had a several scenes of Luke just kind of farting around on Tatooine before the droids show up. I can only assume that was in there because Lucas wanted to show what Luke’s life on Tatooine was like. You can see why he would maybe want that to like establish how drab and boring it is and why Luke might want an adventure or something like that. But it was too successful, it was boring, it was bad, it was hurting the movie and it wasn’t working. And so, they took it out and the movie is much better without those scenes.
Oren: So I think with that, we are going to call this episode to a close.
Chris: If the Mythcreants podcast is worth at least a dollar to you, please become a patron! You can go to patreon.com/mythcreants or mythcreants.com/support.
Oren: And speaking of which, I want to thank a few of the patrons we already have. First we have Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber, he’s an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.[Closing Music]
Chris: This has been the Mythcreants podcast. Opening-closing theme, “The Princess Who Saved Herself” by Jonathan Colton.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?