And the Winner Is….

Recently I was having a chat with a friend about writing and he brought up an interesting anecdote, he said that when the writer Grant Morrison was writing Doom Patrol (a comic he was famous for transforming during the 90’s) he had an odd writing rule: 9 times out of 10 when there was a fight the heroes would just win instantly and the story would move on.

Seems like an odd rule at first, doesn’t it? I mean, this was a Superhero book, which means that technically it’s about superpowered wrestling as the heroes bash each other around in power-fantasy escapades. To just have the heroes win the fight right away goes against not only the genre (it seems), but seems to kill a lot of the fun of wondering who will win! (Of course, one will assume Morrison didn’t tell anybody about this rule until his multi-year run on the book was over!)

But, there was a method to his madness, and it’s one I can now appreciate as a writer myself. The reason he did this was because he wanted to focus on the dramatic aspects of the book, he didn’t want it to be about superhero fights (which, when you’re wielding the powers of a god should be pretty quick!) but wanted it to be about the events that led up to that conflict. The conflict between the Doom Patrol and their opponents was a battle of wits, not strength. Once the power was applied to the right place the fight was already over, it was just about the characters finding that right place!

When he mentions this concept, I responded that I was intimately familiar with this style of writing because of my own focus on audio drama. One of the shows that inspired me to produce audio drama was Superman, the original “transcription features” (their fancy name for radioplays) that ran from the 1930’s to the 1950’s. In the majority of Superman’s adventures there are no superpowered beings at all! And while radio Superman might be a little less powerful than his comics counterpart he’s still likely one of the most powerful beings in his world.

So how do you write interesting stories about a guy like that for 20+ years? How can you keep the suspense going and threaten him? (Keep in mind, Kryptonite was a later invention, it didn’t exist for most of his radio run!) The answer is that the stories were never about Superman fighting people (although he did this a fair bit too), they were about him figuring out who to hit! As soon as Superman figured out exactly who the bad guy was (usually in the last chapter of a multi-part serial, right as they’re about to kill Superman’s companions for the story) then the story was effectively over. Superman would burst in, save the day, and the story would rapidly reach it’s conclusion.

The focus of the stories then was not the defeat of the villain then, but the mystery of unravelling the villain’s plans and learning how he was defeated. It’s much like a police story in a way, the police characters have the power to defeat the criminals, they just need to figure out who the criminals are and prove it before they can apply their authority-given powers. The drama is in watching them pin down the criminals, not in the takedown. (Whereas in a typical superhero comic, the story is a preamble to the real focus- the takedown.)

Anyways, to bring this all together, the reason I bring this up is because it really does apply to writing for audio in a big way. While it’s possible to do audio action-adventure stories with big fights and climactic battles (and I say this having done them many times, and seen some good examples of them being done) audio is just not a medium that lends itself to that style of storytelling. Those big long dramatic battles are very much a visual creature, be it in video or narratives, and without something to work with beyond just sound the audience can very easily become lost or bored.

This can make audio storytelling very hard sometimes, especially for a generation raised on visual adventures and drawn-out battles in their media entertainment. Sometimes when I write I find myself having to rethink my pacing because I’m pacing it for a visual storytelling not audio. I’ve also had to look to other genres outside of action-adventure genres to figure out how to make up for the loss of the action visuals in my stories. (Like Superman OTR writers did, I’ve been studying works of mystery and suspense to learn their techniques and how I can apply them better to adventure stories.)

The Needs of the Villain Outweigh the needs of the Hero

I was just having an online chat with a friend about a story he’s writing, and when I asked about why the villain in the story did what he did the answer was what I characterized as “hating cats because they’re not dogs”. It was a motivation, but it wasn’t one that the audience was likely to be able to identify with.

Someone once wrote that a good villain should be one the audience understands, and I agree. I think that in order to make villain anything more than “I’m evil!” you need to make them come alive in some way, and make the audience understand them. The audience shouldn’t (generally) like them, mind you, but they should understand clearly where this character is coming from. It makes them solid in the audience’s head, and gives the audience something more to work with in terms of making the character come alive.

One of the simplest ways to do this is to make the villain’s motivations based on good old-fashioned human needs. They’re things that everyone has, so they’re things that everyone can relate to on some level. If you want a quick list of them, the best place to look is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs, a chart which shows the basic requirements that Maslow believed all humans need to feel safe and secure in their lives. Maslow believed when one of these needs it out of sync or not being fulfilled it caused mental illness or other issued in the person. I think to take it another way- the desire to fulfill these needs can be seen as a motivation for a great many of the things that humans do, and it’s these unfulfilled desires that drive us.

Many villains are actually following twisted or extreme examples of the desire to fulfill these needs. Let’s take a look at a few…

DarthVader- Safety/Security, he was trying to preserve the security and peace of the people in his own twisted way.

Sauron- Power, but power as a means to Safety/Security.

Lex Luthor- Power, but again Power to Luthor seems to be about Esteem, he doesn’t just want to beat Superman, he wants the world to respect him.

Orochimaru- Safety, he’s afraid of death and is desperately looking for a way to avoid it. He’s also trying to become more powerful to overcome his enemies who threaten his Safety.

Now, this doesn’t mean the villans can or should have only one motivation, but there is usually a core motivation which drives them in what they do. Once you as the writer know what that motivation is, the villains should generally write themselves. This is important because a hero is often judged by their villains as much as they are by what they do.