Added

I’ve added a “revised” version of my post “Size Does Matter” as a permanent page on the blog under the title “Finishing your Radioplays”, which you can find on the page list for those who are interested.

Pathos-R-Us

Continuing my little “villain themed” line of posts (this should be the last one, honest!) I’ve thought of another major advantage to not having “villains” but having “opposing characters”- Pathos. I mean, think about it- your job as a writer is to play with your audience’s emotions and tell them a good entertaining story. If instead of having “bad guys” you simply have a large group of characters who don’t agree with each other all the time then you’ve suddenly got many times the opportunities to make the audience feel something. Watching a character they admire fall into the villain role can be much more entertaining sometimes than watching a hero rise.

Now, of course this isn’t always necessary or desirable- it all depends on the effect you’re trying to create within your audience.  Stock villains may in fact be the best choice for short pieces- like 1-shot stories and audio dramas for example, where you simply don’t have the time to really characterize the antagonists and it’s not really worth the effort. Also, if you plan to kill off your antagonists before the end of the story you have to think through how you want your audience to react to that death, and what they’re supposed to get out of it.

For example, a standard writer’s trick is to give characters who will die some strong negative traits that distance them from the audience as “others”, then when the character dies the audience members will think “good, they deserved it” rather than spending time pitying them or be saddened by their deaths. A quick example- yesterday I was listening to an episode of the OTR show Suspense! called Bloodbath, and in that show a group of men find a Uranium mine deep in the jungle. When they find it, they’re discussing how rich they’ll get selling it, and one character chips in with something like- “and we’ll make the USA the most powerful country on Earth!”, to which another character replies “the USA? Who says we’ll only sell to them!” Wanna guess who will die horribly before the end of the story? And when he does, the audience (or at least the American audience) will cheer, because he lost his right to live when he proposed working against the good ole USA in their minds. He does other bad things too (it’s a fun listen, go ahead!) but the point is that those are the first words that come out of his mouth, and they make it so the audience both dislikes him and considers him less than human.

But, back to my point- I guess what I’m trying to say is simply that if you have twice the heroes, you have twice the drama as well. ^__^ Watching a hero beat a villain is nowhere near as fun as watching two heroes go at it, knowing each of them may in fact be right, and wanting both to win!

At What Price Evil?

Y’no, I’m getting really sick of evil.

A strange thing to say for someone who loves romantic (in the old meaning) stories as much as I do, and a strange statement in general that I should probably explain.

Recently I’ve been consuming a lot of media (Dune, Dae Jang Geum, JuMong) that has had a few clear things in common- the key thing being that the characters in the stories all have clear motivations, and there are no “evil” people in any of them. (I even marveled at that to my wife recently, how I couldn’t find a single evil character in the entire cast of JuMong. It really shocked me!) Even the worst antagonists are clearly motivated people who do what they believe is necessary and while they might be ruthless at times, they are by no means “bad” or “evil” people per-se. (Even Barron Harkonen in Dune is a character I’ve come to respect and even admire to a point.)

As a result of this recent media diet (which has also taught me the true nature of court intrigue, but that’s another discussion) something that has bothered me for a while has gone from annoying to grating- evil characters, or perhaps evil in general. Why is it that every Western-style Fantasy story has to be about the great nebulous evil which threatens the land? Is it just because Tolkien set a standard that everyone else feels compelled to follow? Or maybe the result of the Comics Code (and the Broadcast Standards and Practices for TV) which basically meant that from the 1950’s until the 1980’s in comics (and 1980’s-Now in Children’s TV) you couldn’t actually give a villain anything resembling a motivation. Two whole generations grew up on shallow crap as a result of these rules, where villains were watered down characteritures of pure evil as opposed to other people with thoughts, goals and reasons.

I guess the reason this pisses me off so much is because I’ve had my eyes opened to how much deeper and more interesting antagonists are who are just other people. Watching the interplay between different royal houses or different factions within single organizations is so much more fulifilling that anything resembling “good versus evil” has to offer.  Sure, “good versus evil” stories have their place and can be a lot of fun, but watching different and well motivated intelligent characters face off with each other and struggle through their own movtivations and values has so much more to offer.

Any kid can write “Hero versus Evil” stories, it’s almost a form of “Man versus Nature” in a way, but “Man versus Man” and “Man versus Himself” have just so much more to offer. No more “he wants to kill all life on earth for fun” or “he wants everyone to feel the pain the world caused him teen angst” please! How about some other plots!

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.

Size Does Matter- Finishing your Audio Drama

Something that bugs me a little which I see all the time on the Voice Acting Alliance (and less frequently in the general Audio Drama community)  is people starting series that 90% of the time they will never finish.

I know on the VAA they’re a bunch of youth for the most part and they want to emulate their favorite anime/manga- which of course means there will be a zillion episodes as it snakes out over time. But, when they discover how hard being a writer/producer is, and how hard it is to keep all their voice actors for a long period of time, they often balk at the growing project difficulties and get frustrated and overwhelmed. End result is- what may even be a promising story never gets past 2 or 3 episodes before the whole thing collapses into obscurity. This isn’t fair to the voice actors who have put their time into the project, or the listeners who also invested their time into listening to the episodes that came out.

A lot of this could be avoided however if they just did a little future planning and actually throught their projects through instead of just jumping in guns blazing. So, in the interest of helping the future audio drama producers I present a list of tips to help keep projects under control and see them finished:

1) Write the whole thing before you even start casting it. Yes, it will be difficult, and yes, you’ll want to cast the first episode as soon as you write the “final” word, but nothing could be better for your project than to actually have all the scripts ready and done.

  • It lets you understand the whole story so you can edit and change before it hits production.
  • It eliminates delays for things such as writer’s block.
  • It lets you edit.
  • It lets you cast for the whole thing at once, and receive lines for the whole thing at once (if you so choose) so there’s no worries about actors disappearing forever in a few months.
  • It lets you time out the release of the project and helps keep it manageable- this helps to build a larger audience.
  • And did I mention it lets you go back and edit?

2) Set yourself goals and reach them. One of the things that most kills first-time producers is the workload- a first they get in there enthusiastically as producers but by the time they hit the second or third episode the fun is gone and the drudgery of hard work is all that remains. Suddenly playing on the X-Box or spending time with friends is a whole lot more important, especially when they’re looking at an ever growing project of unknown length. This too is easy enough to fix-

  • Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Especially for first-time projects, don’t write anything over 6 episodes, and have an ending at the end of those six episodes. (Even if it’s just the ending for that first initial story/story arc.) This way when you reach the end of those six episodes (which also make it easier to write) you can decide whether to move on to another project or keep going with this one- but the key point is you finished your project and didn’t leave your audience hanging.
  • Let the Pilot show the way. In the TV business they used to (and occasionally still do) do this thing called a Pilot, wherein they make a TV “movie” to test how audiences like something before they produce a full series to follow it. They’ve done this for over 40 years, and there is a reason they do this- it works! It lets them set up for the series, and tell a single story with these characters to learn what works and what doesn’t. (And if something doesn’t work, it gets changed when it becomes a full series!) Do a pilot for your audio drama- it can be one 30 minute show, or six 15 minute shows telling a single story, but tell a single complete story using your characters first before you launch into a larger epic series.
  • Don’t write unlimited series. If/when you do a full series, break your production slate down into smaller arcs/chunks to keep things under control. For audio drama I personally recommend working in blocks of six to ten episodes, but do not to go above 10 episodes a season. If you do a monthly show this gives you 2 months of break/production time a year, and even if you don’t follow a set schedule this will probably be the point where you (and possibly your audience) could use a bit of a rest before moving on to the next block of episodes. This also gives you the opportunity to do more than one series at a time.

3) Don’t have more than Two different incomplete series at a time. I know a lot of writer/producers are creative ADD types (which is why this whole article is needed) and once they start one project it’s easy for them to get distracted by something new and want to start another one. This is where discipline comes into play. Each unfinished script/project you have around greatly increases the chances of the other scripts/projects not being finished, and it can go up exponentially with each new project you add to the pile. So you need to avoid starting new projects until one of the others is “finished”. (Note- here “finished” can mean all scripts are written for the current season/set, not necessarily that the whole project is finished.) You can plan for future projects, take notes, sketch characters or whatever you do for pre-production, but then set those notes aside until you need them later.

4) The right format for the right project. There are, generally speaking, three formats for shows.

  1. Episodic (self contained)- In this format each episode is a self-contained story that begins and ends within the episode itself with generally no outside connections to a larger story.  (Examples- most old time radio shows, CSI, Star Trek, Law and Order, Stargate)
  2. Episodic (semi-serialized)- Each episode contains a complete (or semi-complete) story story inside itself, but is also part of a larger ongoing story that slowly plays out over a story arc. (Examples- Most anime, most J-Drama, New Doctor Who, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Smallville, Battlestar Galactica 2.0.)
  3. Serialized- Each episode is simply a part of a larger story, and while there might be story-arcs most stories aren’t finished within a single episode. These are like chapters in a book. (Examples- Most manga, LOST, HEROES)

When a writer is planning their projects they need to think carefully about the kind of story they want to tell and then find the format which best suits their story. Traditionally Audio Drama has been done in the pure episodic format where each story needed to stand on it’s own, and many who continue the traditions of Old Time Radio have followed this format. It doesn’t have to be that way however, and (inspired mostly by Anime and Manga) some newer producers are exploring Serialized and Semi-Serialized formats.

All of these formats are good, and have their advantages and disadvantages (enough to fill a whole other article), but the key here is to consider what type of story and style best suits you as a writer/producer. Some writer/producers can do Serialized with their eyes closed, but can’t do Episodic to save their lives. Some stories work great in Episodic format (Detective stories, for example) but are much harder/trickier to do in full Serialized format because that’s just not how those stories are structured. (Whereas, interpersonal dramas flourish in Serialized and Semi-Serial formats since it lets the story play out over a large canvas.)

Final Personal Thoughts:

When I first started to do Audio Drama I wasn’t sure if I could manage it, so I wrote a pilot for my Little Gou adventures (Little Gou and the Emperor’s Cousin) so that I could see how it all worked. It was a simple self-contained story and if that was all there was to Little Gou’s adventures I felt I could live with it. When that worked out, I wrote some more stories- another pilot (D-Ranger), another episode of Little Gou, and a semi-serialized adventure series called Team Iron Angel. (10 episodes in length, which were supposed to be 12 minutes each, but quickly ballooned out into something like 20 minutes each.) I enjoyed doing Little Gou, so I kept writing more of his adventures, and Team Iron Angel was an ongoing project so I dropped D-Ranger (at the time) since I felt it would be too much to handle more than Two ongoing projects. So I had one regular semi-serialized project, and one semi-regular episodic project to alternate between, and I found it worked pretty well for me creatively and personally.

When I had both of those projects finished, I started Twin Stars, and even though I was experienced and knew what I was in for I still did a pilot for Twin Stars (notice that Episode One is 95% self contained, this is why) just in case some part of it didn’t work out on the production end. I also planned Twin Stars to clearly be 8 epsiodes a season, and plotted out the first book in detail before I began work on it to make sure I didn’t run into any writing roadblocks on the way. (Which still happened, but were about “how” to do things, rather than “what to do”.) This let me get Twin Stars out on an (almost) uninterrupted monthly schedule, and built my reputation as both a writer and producer, while still having time to work on some other projects on the side.

I think the reason I dislike unfinished projects the most is that I feel cheated by them- I put the time and effort into listening to the story and learning the characters, and then the producer hasn’t bothered to put up their half of the bargain by finishing the story. Think of producing like a contract between three groups- the Producer makes a contract with the Actors to use their talents well, the Actors make a contract with the Producer to gain exposure and experience, and the Producer makes a contract with the Audience to entertain the Audience in trade for the Audience taking the time to listen to that story. As you can see, the Producer is involved with all three of these contracts, and they need to live up to them- this is a lot of responsibility, so Producers need to consider that before they run off producing shows without thinking of how it will affect the other groups involved.

A Canary named Conan

Recently Broken Sea Audio has been forced to take down their growing collection of Conan audio drama and audiobook readings by Conan Properties Incorporated, a company which claims to own and manage the rights to the character of Conan the Barbarian. You can read more about this here.

Now while this sucks for Broken Sea, it also brings up a point I’ve been making about Fanworks for a while- they’re a risky business. Bill Hollweg and his crew put ungodly amounts of effort into Conan, being huge fans of the series, and spent possibly hundreds of hours working on Conan-related projects. (They naturally wanted the Conan fanworks they did to be top knotch, which they were!)  Now, just like that, it’s been pulled out from under them and all that work has disappeared into the ether. So to all of you considering putting all your efforts into fanworks- it can and could happen to you too.

Rob