Last week, I wrote a giant post that was highly critical of one writing habit.
And I did so . . . after endeavoring to be more positive on this blog.
I definitely don’t want to delete that post, cause it’s full of criticisms I stand by (I will always think it’s bad when logic takes center stage in any Rule of Cool story, not just anime [although popular anime is usually fueled by the Rule], because the resulting logic is often terrible).
However, I will balance the criticism by talking about a writing habit I absolutely love in another hammy, Rule of Cool story.
Today we’re talking about making your protagonist vulnerable . . . with The Mandalorian!
The Paradox of Realistic Danger
A big hurdle for popular fiction writers is presenting believable danger to their audience.
To be clear, I don’t think it’s something any particular writer struggles with; it’s just an issue for the entire genre. People watching a show will see a protagonist flung into extreme danger, a-a-a-and commercial break.
Eyes usually go half-lidded. “Uh huh. I’m sure Batwoman is going to die in Season 1, Episode 4.”
Unless you’re a kid (or reading / watching Game of Thrones), the excitement doesn’t come from the belief that your protagonist could actually die. The excitement comes from wondering, “How are they gonna get outta this one?”
But, naturally, excitement only really comes from that question . . . if the audience can’t easily predict the answer.
In modern entertainment there’s an extreme bent toward the untouchable badass. The perfect hero who kick flips off a rocket or dodges the giant sword by sliding under it, only the very end of a single lock of their hair cut by the blade (in slow motion). There are IP’s that do this intentionally to great effect (One Punch Man is a fun example), but more often than not the goal of the perfect badass is to sate power fantasy.
The thing is, whenever danger is concerned, perfect badass stories are extremely predictable. If an invincible superhero walks into a warehouse full of thugs, danger doesn’t come into play at all; the enjoyment in that scene is derived from watching the hero kick ass. But, at this point, there are only so many new, inventive ways for that hero to kick ass. I’m sure an argument can be made that there are actually a ton.
But even if there are, the end result of that warehouse scene is always the same. The perfect hero beats the shit out of everyone without breaking a sweat. End scene.
But . . . what if it wasn’t always that easy?
What if a story staring a badass protagonist . . . showed that, at the very least, that protagonist had to struggle to get by?
In my opinion, that wouldn’t just make the story way better, it would force the writer to be more creative.
The Vulnerable Mandalorian
I expected The Mandalorian to be a non-stop montage of slow-motion dodging, tacticool trick shots, and shaky cam.
I thought it was going to be a massively boring, masturbatory look at a fan-favorite character (because I assumed the Mandalorian in question was Boba Fett).
I’m so glad I was surprised.
In episode 1 of The Mandalorian, the Mandalorian is [not a spoiler] searching for a bounty. Naturally [also not a spoiler], there are complications. You know that there’s no way the protagonist is going to die in episode 1 . . . but the danger he finds himself in is so intense that you might actually blink. You might actually say, “I really have no idea how the hell he’s getting out of this.”
And that’s probably because, 10 minutes previous, your badass, strong-silent-type protagonist . . . [minor spoiler] almost died.
Yeah–in the pilot, the writers included a scene where the Mandalorian absolutely would’ve been killed had someone else not intervened. And, to be clear, he didn’t just nearly die; he nearly died in a way that would’ve been extremely embarrassing for a perfect badass. Was that the show suggesting its protagonist might actually die? Hell no.
But it was the show saying, loud and clear, “This perfect badass ain’t perfect.”
With that one scene, a balance was struck. The Mandalorian is great at killing things and tracking bounties. He looks really cool and his armor is super strong.
But he is not invincible.
In fact, even in moments when the Mandalorian does survive a confrontation, he’s lost his armor as a result, or has gone out of his way to say, “My armor only protected me from this range,” making it clear that it’s extremely dangerous to be a bounty hunter in the Outer Rim.
And that not only makes the show more exciting and interesting (the Mandalorian has been defeated a few times now and almost died maybe thrice?), but it establishes rules that force its writing team to be more creative, which is always a good thing in my opinion.
See, if the Mandalorian was invincible, then they’d be stuck writing scenes where he just walks into a room, lets people shoot at him, and then headshots all of them. There would be zero danger, and the writing team would fall into the same pitfall as others writing perfect badasses: trying to make them kill or beat up all 18 thugs in a way that’s actually new and interesting.
As is, with the Mandalorian being vulnerable, the writers definitely have more rules to stick to (i.e. “the Mandalorian can’t survive a point blank shot from a sniper rifle”), but that forces them to get more creative, which makes for a more unique, interesting story.
How? Prime example: in one episode, the Mandalorian’s armor gets completely destroyed. It’s a trade off from another confrontation where definitely he would’ve died. If the writers had just gone the easiest route possible, he would’ve killed his opponent with no problem and come out without a scratch. A level below that (but still totally unrealistic): He would’ve had a hard time with that opponent, getting knocked around, but the damage would’ve been limited to typical, Hollywood “fight dirt,” as I call it; his armor would’ve looked dirty to convey that he was beaten up, but a few minutes later, he would be functionally back to tip-top shape. As it was presented, however, with him losing his armor, following the rule that it couldn’t protect him from anything, the writers were forced to create some way he gets that armor back.
Thus the scenes at the Mandalorian Forge. Which, ya know, if you haven’t seen the show, just know that they’re cool worldbuilding moments, used to convey things about Mandalorian culture but also the social setting of the story.
Now, I can’t pretend that the writing team thought of all of this in the order I’ve presented, but I do think that, had the Mandalorian just been another perfect badass, the likelihood that we would’ve gotten those forge scenes would’ve been significantly less.
And, to me, that trade off wouldn’t have been worth it at all.
In fact, blanket statement here: trading creativity to appease power fantasy is never, ever worth it in my book.
All I Can Really Say Is Give It a Shot
This is another one of those points when I have to stop and clarify that, hey, I’m not a published novelist. The ideas stated here are just my ideas about writing, which I at least try to do every day. I cannot say “perfect badasses suck and no one likes them” because that isn’t true. Full disclosure: I’ve absolutely written a perfect badass character before and she’s one of my favorites.
But I can and will say, hey, if you’re struggling to write a story with a super powerful protagonist–if you don’t feel like the danger in their adventure is ever really palpable, and the end product feels silly–why not try dialing back that protagonist’s powers? You don’t have to make them all-the-way vulnerable, but maybe you can establish rules for what their armor / powers / knowledge can and can’t handle.
To be clear, I’m not saying to give them kryptonite, cause that is an easy solution used so often that it’s also wildly predictable. I’m saying . . . maybe don’t make them impervious to bullets, and don’t make them perfectly, unrealistically able to dodge them either.
At the very least, I promise it’ll make it easier for you to create genuine suspense in your WIP.
Well, that’s it for this one. Excited to be putting out two in a row. I have a backlog of posts to write, some of which I was extremely excited for, but never got around to because of the day job and my WIP. I’m hoping to circumnavigate the persistent end-of-year depression I always go through, so I’ll keep working posts into my schedule.
Still waiting on replies for short stories I sent out, but I did start writing a new Sci-Fi short as well. Of course, it’s another dark one (Black Mirror really opened up the floodgates for me). I’ll do an update post next week to share what the year has been like and lay down plans for 2020.
Anyway, thank you for passing by and giving this post a read. If you’d like to see more, you can give me a follow with the button to the left side of the screen, and if you have any thoughts, I’d love to hear them.