How do you come up with stories?

A couple of weeks ago, I had a very fantastic (as in, remote from reality) dream: I was a clone of me, created after I was brutally murdered. But I didn’t have my memories; I only knew, academically, what “my” life experience was like, who was important in “my” life, what “I” did and didn’t like. Reconciling this purely academic knowledge with my sense of self and my emotions was taking a toll. I sought rebellion from this version of me whom I didn’t know and yet who was controlling me so thoroughly. I began acting out – doing what I specifically knew “I” would not do, while conversely seeking experience that might help me to understand… well… “me.”

I don’t usually have such vivid, developed dreams, but this is not the first time a story has come to me in my sleep.

Anyways, I took this to a friend of mine and we began to talk about ways I could develop this into a story. I was also considering how I could mold this into an idea I have for our next big game (our clone-space saga). My friend, though, kept asking me “What’s the plot?” – and I kept giving a premise – “She’s trying to reconcile with being a clone.”

When I gave a few more details, they were all world-building and character development-based. None of them really were based on a sequence of events I wanted to present. And I realized: everything I’ve ever written or imagined started with a person and a premise. Then I thought about what the person would do in such a premise and called it a plot. I can’t really envision another way of devising a story. In fact, normally, my first step is creating a character sheet: drawing out the character (whether it’s an illustrated story or not), writing out his/her background and characteristics, and maybe a few key quotes from said character.

She thought I could play around with inverting this structure: thinking of a series of events and letting that inform a character. So far, though, it feels as though I can’t even conceptualize a series of events without knowing the person walking through them.

Creating the Lotus war was probably the closest to this I’ve come, and that’s because Justin was beside me on it – but I still became attached to a Taya-prototype and an Arinnel-prototype even before we knew what the end would be.

So I ask in a spirit of curiosity: any of you out there plot-driven writers? How do you come up with stories?

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Creative Partners

I’ve always been a solo flyer. Back in middle school, I was probably the best drawer in most of my classes. Then Joanna Rodriguez moved into town, and I had to share that title – which was totally fine because she was a delightful girl. Moreover, up until then, my friend who’d moved over from Guam and I were just about the only kids in school who liked anime/manga. So having another girl around – the nerdy, artsy type who like Princess Mononoke and Sailor Moon and who could draw and play on NeoPets with me? Who liked hanging out with boys without necessarily having to like them? Who’d watch Toonami’s line-up of Dragon Ball Z and Gundam Wing? That was frickin’ awesome! It was a girlmance waiting to happen.

We immediately became a trio rather than a duo, and life was good. But dang it! I was just so possessive of “my” ideas. You know… we’d rip off of other cartoons and make our own characters, like ripping of the magical-pet shows of the 90s but with our own little spin. And whenever I found a new show to rip off of, she’d be drawing her characters, too. Man… I wish I had scans of our drawings to show you, but I left them all in my parents’ garage. That’s the beside the point, though; the point is that I’d start to get annoyed that she was “copying” me… even though honestly, I copied some of the things she did too (which she smartly pointed out). I think I eventually put those trifles to rest and we joined forces to create little narratives with our characters and magical animals. We stayed friends for pretty much the rest of school before the normal drift (I was in band, she was in tennis; I was in Block B, she was in Block A, I hung out with Mexicans, she hung out with Asians… what?) and are still on good terms. Heck, we’re Facebook friends! That’s legit! But that was really my first clue that maybe, just maybe *gasp* I was not a team player. For crying out loud, even back in school when I got a group of which I didn’t approve, I’d do the bulk of the work because I didn’t want anyone to mess up “my” project.

I’m getting better at it, because I have to be. Most employers want a “team player.” They want someone who won’t take new ideas or suggestions or discards personally. Friends, too, like to matter, their opinions valued. And the ultimate partnership, marriage, requires teamwork and communication. So what are my tips for working with a creative partner?

1. Communicate, communicate, communicate
Of course this is #1. Of course. You don’t have a team if you don’t talk. You have two (or more) people working on their own solo projects that hopefully converge. I’ve felt that way a number of times myself during this endeavor.
Because I’m mostly in charge of characters and the designing thereof, I sometimes feel out of synch with what Justin’s creating. He’ll show me a level he’s creating, and a little situation he was proud of, and instead of being proud with him, sometimes my reaction is, “I didn’t know you were going to do that.”
Ugh.
The best way to avoid these feelings is frequent and meaningful communication. “What are you working on now?” “What kind of ideas do you have going forward?” “Thinking of any big changes to the outline we had?” Not just asking these questions of each other, but asking them of ourselves and preempting the questions with our partners by bringing it up when possible.
2. Trust your partner
Not only should you cultivate trust in your partners through your project, but you should only partner with someone that you already trust. If you don’t trust this person to reflect the same standard of quality that you expect of yourself, you’ll only spend all of your time looking over their shoulder at their work, and not enough time actually doing your own.
When you divvy up work, divide it in such a way that each person does what plays up to his or her strengths. And when you can admit, “Ok, Justin makes music way better than I ever could,” you may find yourself able to let go of these tasks because of your confidence in your partner’s abilities.
3. Think it as “ours” not “mine”
That’s a bit of an obvious one, but perhaps not easily accomplished. It requires a measure of trust, as discussed above. But when you tie your name in with someone else, don’t think about how the work might affect your reputation. Your partner is an equal part in this venture as you, and both want it to reflect well for future pursuits. Furthermore, if you’re concerned about your partner’s feelings and reputation too, you will be given further impetus to produce quality work. Knowing that the other person feels that same way as you will help allay any anxiety that perhaps the quality is not up to your standard.
4. Write it out
Sometimes, people get into weird “debates” only to find that they actually have been agreeing all along. I don’t know why. Perhaps our diction is unclear, or perhaps we’ve afraid to take too firm a stance on either side of a debate because we don’t want to be offensive but thereby confusing the other person. I’m not sure why it happens, but it’s definitely happened to me. Or perhaps you really do disagree and talking it out is only making the argument heated.
Writing it out gives us clear communication, through which we can’t cut each other off and which we can analyze and re-analyze. We can read, take note, re-read, construct a solid point, choose clear words, and hopefully, through this, can come to a clear agreement.

All of this is easier to say than to actually practice, but that’s why they call it practice. We try and try and try again. Thankfully, Justin and I have trusted each other with a lot more for a lot longer, so this was easier for us. But trust is often hard-won and easily lost, and communication is a simple principle with perhaps more complicated factors (after all, everyone thinks and speaks differently; some are high-context, some are low). But when we view our project as worthwhile, that’s work that we’re willing to put in.

Swapping Out Females?

Justin and I had an interesting debate about the end of our game the other day. We’ve mentioned before that your relationship with either female character affects the outcome of the game, but to what extent has been our debate.

You see, I want a certain outcome for Taya to depend totally on your relationship score with her (I’m going to attempt to write about this while not giving away the end). I think that end, while in some ways not my favorite end… well… in other ways it’s a good ending; yeah, in a larger narrative sense, it is my favorite ending, absolutely and hands-down. It brings around certain plot points to a powerful conclusion that I think is very cool and very moving. Justin feels, though, that having such an ending for Taya necessitates an equal option for Arinnel, too. (Note: this does not mean that you if “choose” or girl or the other the event is triggered; rather, the event is triggered strictly by the number of relationship points you have with the character in question).

I’m going to use a totally fake example with no parallels to the real plot idea so that I can explain it better. Let’s say… if you have a high/low enough level of points with Taya, I want her to… um… get a bunny at the end of the game? A really happy, cute, fluffy little bunny. Because Taya… uh… has had a phobia of bunnies from the beginning of the game, and her getting one just totally rounds out her narrative. Justin feels, though, that if there is the option for Taya to get a bunny depending on your relationship points with her, Arinnel should also have the option to get a bunny… even though she hasn’t exhibited the same feelings toward bunnies. Just for symmetry, and not to show favoritism. By the way, this has nothing to do with babies.

My problem with both girls getting bunnies at the end of the game – which is a huge, game-changing event, really – is that the endings aren’t really different if we do that. It would render the endings the same, your choices won’t really matter; the endings would basically just be a mirror of each other. It’s not crafting a unique storyline based on the traits we’ve imbued into each girl. It’s treating them like stock-characters and plugging them in/out of one story. As much as I’ve made my girls out to be a bit of eye candy, I do agree that it’s time girls stop being just stock characters and start being… heroes, really. Or at least three-dimensional beings – not merely love interests (although yeah, that too).

Now, I’d be happy for Taya to get a bunny and Arinnel to get… a… guinea pig, or something, if Arinnel’s arc includes deep-seated feelings toward the little squealers. That would be fine. An equally important circumstance, although uniquely different to suit the character. That would be cool. It’s just thinking of what Arinnel’s guinea pig would be that’s the problem.

What do you think? Has media been lazy when it comes to developing their female characters, or do you think progress really has been made? Do you think it lessens the value of each character if their only function is to serve a particular purpose for the narrative of the protagonist?

Endings

Because the last season of The Office has made it to Netflix, Justin and I finally got to sit down and watch the finale – and we were thoroughly satisfied. Similarly, Breaking Bad had a completely gratifying conclusion. Cowboy Bebop, of course is probably at the top of many an otaku’s favorite list simply because its ending was so epic and extraordinary and bigger than the series itself.

So what makes for a satisfying ending to any story-telling endeavor? A couple of factors I was able to identify (with spoilers):

1. It stays in the spirit of the entire rest of the work. I cannot be the only person disappointed by the 2004 Battlestar Galactica‘s ending. Why is that? Probably because at first, the series started off as an awesomely epic straight-up science fiction piece, dealing with robots and bombs and traveling through space. The extent of the existential thought challenges was maybe the mortality of the human race, and really making the audience think about whether humans are acting in a way that justifies our existence. The last season just got… weird. It got really metaphysical (which I guess was kind of present through at least the last half of the series) and did strange things with the characters (that whole thing with Starbuck, anyone?). As much as I still like the overall series, the ending didn’t give the final bow it deserved.

While “The Real Folk Blues” parts 1 and 2 may seem out of place with the rest of CBB and the goofiness that preceded the finale, really the episodes serve more as a culmination of the dark little hints dropped throughout the series – and in that way really did maintain the underlying spirit of the show. From the first episode with Spike waiting outside the church to, of course, the classic “Ballad of Fallen Angels” right down to the end, the audience always gets peaks that there’s more to Spike than fun and charisma… and green hair.

2. The characters get what they deserveBreaking Bad is a great example of this. I mean… it was pretty clear very early on that the series ends with Walt dying. One way or another, he dies. I thought it would be in a final act of redemption, and I knew he’d have to make amends with Jesse… but the question was always how.

Although Jack’s White Supremacists weren’t quite the biggest target they’ve ever taken down (I mean… after taking down the guy who took down the entire freaking cartel, what’s left?), they were probably the least moral. Gus Fring, after all, was a business man – and business was business. And many of the others were crazy and burnt from drugs. The White Supremacists seemed to be in their right minds… just really, really bad guys. They killed Andrea just to keep Jesse as a meth slave. Todd shot a kid who probably didn’t really know what he had witnessed when they robbed the train. And did I mention that they kept Jesse as a meth slave? Anyways, with Walt eliminating them and overall saving Jesse from enslavement, I’d say that he reached the highest redemption possible for him before dying.

Back to The Office for a moment, who would argue that Dwight got just what we were hoping for? After years of being the butt of pranks and jokes, years of being utterly devoted to his job but woefully unaware of how his actions reflect on his performance, and years of being lovably obnoxious, Dwight finally gets it. He finally sees himself and realizes that Jim’s not really his enemy. That he likes his co-workers. That Pam’s his best friend who looks out for him and talks to him. That he loves Angela. Pam gets to further her art with not one but two murals. Jim finally gets a job for which he’s not over-qualified. Andy realizes that fame is not all it’s cracked up to be, and finds a real-world job with the school he’s obsessed over for years. Erin meets her parents. Michael Scott gets to show off photos of his kids. Kevin gets fired (but still remains pretty happy). There’s just so much good in that finale, because we’ve watched these characters and we’ve wanted to yell at them and we’ve felt frustrated for them… and now all those things that bothered us are resolved.

And now back around to BSG… what did they do wrong? Okay, gee… EVERYONE married the wrong person. Tyrol never ends up happy; finds out his life was a lie and can’t reconcile with Boomer.

Speaking of Boomer, she never really redeems herself. Yes, she saved Hera… but that’s only after she herself kidnapped the baby and brought her into danger. The thing is, I feel really sorry for Boomer, and that never resolves: she feels like an outcast as a human, finds out she’s a Cylon, then feels like an outcast as a Cylon. She gets killed without justice and then she’s resurrected to find out about that – and that her soul mate got married to her killer. And then a majority of her errors really stem from trying to help the Cylons and humans make peace. I get what they were trying to do with her verses Athena, showing that individual Cylons are different and that experiences shape and mold them as any person. But really? Really, they destroyed a very pitiable character.

Starbuck and Anders and Apollo and Dee… and Billy. That whole mess. I don’t know if they just tried to keep the tension between Starbuck and Apollo going for too long until a coupling just didn’t feel right anymore. Or if they just didn’t want to fall into the normal television trope. But Anders ends up brain dead, Kara’s a ghost… angel thing. Dee commits suicide. Apollo ends up alone. Even Roslin, who did really crappy things throughout the show gets a bittersweet ending. But for three of the characters who made huge sacrifices for the crew and really carried the show… it was just bitter.

3. It ties up loose ends. That one’s pretty commonly recognized. And that’s another one that Breaking Bad accomplished – after all, the question on my mind was: is Jesse ever going to find out the truth about Jane? And he did. The ricin in the socket was recovered and used. Skylar got to hear what she’s always needed to hear.

I’d comment on Lost and how it… you know… didn’t tie up its loose ends. Except I never watched Lost – and after hearing about it’s disappointing end (which I knew was coming) never wanted to. I also abandoned Heroes after the Sylar saga because I knew it’d never be satisfying after that (even the end to that wasn’t great – Peter couldn’t just man-up and defeat Sylar like we all knew he could!)

There are my thoughts on the makings of a great ending. What about you guys? Agree? Disagree on any points or on my takes on any shows? Have some pointers to add?

On Contrivances, Coincidences, and Randomness

Some people feel that coincidences and random events are evidence are weak writing. Perhaps the author knows no other way to resolve plot lines. Perhaps overly-contrived or overly-convenient plot turns or resolutions are cheap or lazy. Or perhaps coincidences and randomness are also reflective of life.

For example: last week, I started working at a new job… except that during that week, I also caught a cold, scraped my car against a truck while changing lanes, then started my period within a span of two days!!!!! (Sorry guys) Talk about a wonderful series of events – and so coincidental too! You know… that so many awful things would happen to me right in a row.

One time, in ninth grade, I heard my cellphone ring tone in my head and that reminded me that I didn’t turn my phone on silent. So I set it to vibrate. And immediately after that, basically as soon as I put it in my pocket, I got a random call from someone who dialed a wrong number, but my teacher never noticed the buzzing. This was also, by the way, the class that was taught by a super-strict former nun who would not have hesitated to take my phone and make me an example.

Further example of coincidences? Okay, middle school… I liked my childhood friend Edward. My girl friend liked Scott, whom I sat next to in every single class. Like EVERY class throughout ALL of middle school. The summer into eighth, I went to Space Camp with a group of classmates and the only person in my sub-group that I knew was Scott. The guy was around me ALL the time. UNTIL I started liking him. And then we went to high school and he had literally the opposite schedule as me.

What I’m saying is, sometimes I feel like I’m on some really advanced version of the Sims and there’s someone manipulating my life events into extremely contrived circumstances.

See what I mean? So is it so strange that in Oliver Twist, some random orphan is adopted by a rich family, only to find out he’s a nephew to that family and thus an heir? Or that Bilbo just happens to find this all-powerful ring, it happens to get passed on to Frodo, who happens to be appointed ring-bearer, and then it gets thrown into Mount Doom thereby saving all of Middle Earth?

Maybe that’s what a great story is: unlikely (and some likely) events aligning themselves just enough to form a cohesive narrative that makes for an engaging read (or watch. Or play through. Or whatever).

In our story, Ren happens to be THE guy. Though he’s young and perhaps relatively inexperienced, he’s selected for an important mission. It is during this mission that he just happens to meet the first elf he’s ever known to speak Human Common (or whatever we decide to name their language). With the language gap closed, their conversation and the trust of someone important to him prove enough to break through potential prejudice and motivate the party to more deeply explore the circumstances surrounding the titular war.

Because without those coincidences, what would this be? It would be some guy, accomplishing what he planned to accomplish, while doing what he was supposed to do. And life often proves to be more interesting than that.

(Although, perhaps critics are talking about events that are not built or led-up to? They want some fore-shadowing? Signs of planning? But sorry, that’s not always so conveniently present in real life either.)

Anyways, what do you think? Do coincidences and random lucky events make a story seem lazy or contrived to you?

Visual Novels vs. RPGs

As someone who has favored writing for my medium in the last several years, it has been an interesting adjustment to making RPGs – especially since we have limits on the type of “cut scenes” we can produce. I find myself wanting to narrate moments in the game. I want to tell how her eyes looked, or how he felt about them, or why they were feeling that way. Thinking those thoughts. Maybe it’s also a little carry over from all the poorly-translated, ultra-girly otome visual novels I’ve been playing. Or maybe there’s really something to it.

Perhaps one of the differences between a novel and an RPG is that a novel seeks to tell a story that happened to someone (at least in many cases). RPGs hope to tell a story that happened to you. So we don’t want to exactly spell out everything that’s running through the protagonist’s head. Ideally, we’d put your character in a situation – and therefore you in a certain mindset – and you can fill in the thoughts behind the protagonist.

Now, as I keep saying, Ren is a pretty developed character. The goal would be, then, to try and think of the most natural responses a player may have to a situation, and utilize them ourselves.

That, I feel, is one of the short-comings of some visual novels: sometimes, they go in a completely different direction than what the player is thinking. It makes me feel like the protagonist is stupid. And it makes me feel kind of stupid for playing the game. The conclusions the protagonist reach seem to be mere plot devices to advance the story in the direction the author needed, rather than true, natural responses to a situation.

However, a plus side to the visual novel is that since there is one story line and because of the audience understanding of the game play (read: limited freedom), it’s much easier to avoid repeating the same exchanges day in and day out. Many RPGs will have only a certain number of things that each character can talk about. It’s a constraint that, to be really honest, I haven’t found it avoided in any RPG I’ve played. After running out of new conversation options, Carth always ends up just repeating “Can I help you?” Even in Harvest Moon, which is completely relationship driven, the girls or townspeople always end up just saying “It sure is a swell day!” (or whatever HM characters say). However, due to a lack of an open-world, with visual novels, the creators can completely limit the conversations of each scene, and in many cases, this is very effective in driving relationship development.

We can map out an entire conversation for each day, or at least for each area you end up playing, planning it by which areas we will guide you toward chronologically. But in the end, you will run out of conversation options, and Taya will end up just repeating “That sure was nice of you” just like Riku and Yuna and Rinoa and Tifa before her. Still, the open-world format makes the repetition a small cost, don’t you agree?

Have you played any visual novels? How does your experience compare to an RPG? What are some virtues of both that you think could cross over?

Reinventing the Elf?

kid elf

One aspect of world-building that I’ve mentioned before is the creation of in-world mythology, or creating the world as mythology. It brings another level of realism when you observe characters and their thoughts on how they came to be, their relationship to their culture, their culture’s place in the world you’re building. Not that this mythology will always make it overtly into the story, but I do believe that having this set in mind when writing helps you, the creator, flesh out the world.

When conceptualizing the different “racial” groups in the world of Genos, the elves and the humans, I actually did not want to use the word “elf.” I was thinking of just calling them the Guardians. To distinguish them from humans, due to the limits of RPG Maker sprite generation, they were always going to have the classic elf ears, but I did want to bring something new to the mythos of the elf.

In many ways, the current mythology of elves, fairies, sprites, etc provide a touch stone for the elves in The Lotus War. They are humanoid beings of long life spans with an affinity toward nature. In many ways, reinventing something as ingrained in our culture as elves is like reinventing the wheel: you may be able to make improvements, maybe make it out of a new material… but it’s still a wheel and an elf is still an elf. (Thanks a lot, Tolkein!)

But here are some of our own personal touches, tell me what you think:

-As you might’ve seen from yesterday’s post, while humans were formed from the ground, elves were produced by plants. Sentience was spurred by the Lotus, a crystal that dropped from the heavens.

mythos
In our mythology, that accounts for the longevity of elves in comparison to humans. Humans were formed from non-life – they have a greater tendency to return to that state. The elves, as beings produced from life have lengthy, almost indefinite natural life spans.

-Elves are not magical. With an inert link to the plant life, they can seem magical to humans – who are technologically apt.

-We strove to make humans and elves somewhat equal – like two different races as opposed to entirely different beings.
For example, while many elves have a wisdom that comes from age and experience, humans have advanced technological skill. While under favorable conditions they are capable of extreme longevity, they are more vulnerable to withering away due to a number of environmental factors, like extreme heat and dehydration. And due to having no immediate limit to life, they live not for an end, but by the moment (let’s see how well we pull that off).

Anyways, those are just the cliff notes. Through just these subtle features, we hope to bring our own flavor to a well-established character type. What do you think? Is there really a way to “reinvent the elf”?