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Monday, April 1, 2013

Six Things I Learned (As A Writer) From Dundracon 2013 Part 2

Go here for Part 1

2- A break can make all the difference.  I showed up to Dundracon on a Friday after having done two days of insane housework, writing, and teaching.  In the 48 hours before DDC started, I probably worked 30 of them.  So I was sort of a Cranky McCrankerkins when I got there.  The last thing I really wanted was the stress of being with people.

I love my peeps--even my extended peeps that I don't really get to interact with unless I'm at a convention.  I love seeing that they're okay.  I love talking with them.  I love watching them smile and talk to each other.  And under the right circumstances, I can even be gregarious, outgoing, and moderately charming.

But I'm an introvert.  I need to recharge in a room by myself.  Preferably with a book, but possibly with an HBO series and a computer game.

I enjoyed the Friday night game.  I did.  But I was already over-cooked when I got to con.  When I discovered I had missed the deadline to register for the Saturday DAY game, I was almost relieved.  Both games had robust overflow lists so I didn't even bother.  I slept in.  I spent the day reading.  I played bioshock since I've never played it.

And I was so much better that night for having done it that it was probably one of the best decisions I made that weekend.  The Night on Bald Mountain demon that was threatening to erupt out of my host body instead got a nap and a ba-ba.

3- Redemption is really hard.  My third game was the Mutant Saga game--part seven (of five) in a game that I have played all incarnations but the very first--usually playing something pretty evil.  This game was no exception.  I was handed a character sheet that could not have been more evil if it had instructed me to walk into game picking my teeth with an infant's tibia bone, spit it out when someone looked offended and say, "What?  It's just a Jew."

I was a Nazi necromancer trying to bring back Hitler.

Of course the goals I had on my character sheet were absolutely absurd.  Anyone who has ever been in a LARP would know what the chances are of me getting four other player characters incapacitated in a room with the prized possession of one of the powerhouse good characters (who pretty much had a cohort of the chronicle's longest standing players at his back) was about the same as spontaneously coughing up enough lima bean jello to envelop the entire room, which maybe would have been a more useful power.  So even though I knew I was holding probably one of the most powerful character sheets in the room, I resigned myself to a grisly end.  I would just have to wait to tip my hand.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, I suppose, if you happen to be the ghost of Hitler) a few conversations happened very early in the game and "adjusted the barometer" of my enthusiasm for resurrecting Hitler.  First of all about three people in a row without even knowing that I was German used Hitler as a half joking example of how to fail epically at world domination.  Then someone invoked Godwin's law as how to lose an argument, and like thirty seconds later I went through two different versions of the exact same conversation--one for the eradication of mutants and the other for eugenics.  And well, you know how evil people sort of think they're the good guys?  I was really getting the picture that I wasn't.

It was not the most self affirming evening for the righteousness of the Nazi cause.

When it comes down like a hammer that you are evil and that everyone--EVERYONE-- (including the dude that took over the other timeline with killer monkeys) will stop what they're doing join forces and stop your boss, sometimes maybe you have to admit that you're on the wrong side of history.  On a risk vs. reward scale bringing back the one person that people use to illustrate evil might not be as effective as say....just ruling the damned world oneself.  It became obvious to me that not only were people like me and my buddy the werewolf going to be the first ones against the non-Arian wall, but if there was one thing in the world that everyone was going to agree on it was that Hitler sucked and must never be given power again.

So my character sort of said "So...I guess I'm being a bit of a douche, huh?"

And a few minutes later, we uncovered a plot by someone in the room to destroy all of existence.  So it seemed like even if I wanted to be a total douchecanoe, there was still going to be a doucheaircraftcarrier at the party showing me up.

So instead I threw my hat in with the good guys.  I wanted to rule the world, not blow it up.   How can you eat baby's souls to fuel your dark energies when there's no existence?  You can't, that's how.

The problem was people made my change of heart difficult enough that I actually regretted it.  I spent perhaps an hour of the four hour game frozen by a character named freeze and being grilled by the various characters--most of whom thought I was Puppet Master.  They had (correctly) determined that I was just as evil as fuck, but even when I tried to tell them that okay, yeah, I came here to resurrect Hitler and I'm not a nice guy, but maybe there are bigger fish to fry, they still focused on me anyway.

Unfortunately it screwed them, the universe, and sort of the game.  They couldn't get off me for (like I said) nearly an hour, and there was even some out of character rumination about my past incarnations of evil.  In the end, having half a dozen of the game's most powerful good characters hyperfocused on me allowed the dude who was actually trying to destroy the universe to basically get away with it.

What they didn't know is that I was so frustrated by the end of the hour long "we don't trust you"-a-thon, that the end of the universe and all that was in it actually probably saved them from me doing my best Jack Nicholson impersonation on as many of them as I could take out.  I was being remarkably restrained given how badass this character was to let them keep asking me one question and then putting me back into suspended animation. I kept thinking, "this is what I get for trying to be a good guy?  Fuck this."  RIGHT when I was about to unleash everything I had on their smug, untrusting faces, the time/space continuum collapsed.

More's the pity.

The lesson here for writers' characterizations is twofold.  Both "common enemy" and the "anti-villain" trope are well beloved in fiction, and the usual result is generally acceptance from the intrepid heroes.  Perhaps one skeptic holds out with eyes narrowed dubiously, but generally the person is allowed to join the good guys or the groundwork is set for a change of heart and a dramatic effort at the eleventh hour.  The last thirty years of good vs. evil stories--from science fiction to superheroes--have been replete with attempts to reproduce that moment when the entire movie theater cheered as Darth Vader picked up the Emperor.  (And you can tell me it goes back further, but I'm too much of a nerd to listen.)

The problem is that in most stories, it's way too easy for the established bad guy to do this.  Protagonists trust way, way, way too easily.  If your characters aren't total idiots, they're probably not going to trust that person.  Ever.  Even a little.   And they probably won't team up with anyone just because "the enemy of my enemy is my friend."  They're going to be way too worried about the double cross or the true agenda.

The second (and this is verified over and over again in marriage counseling sessions where major betrayals of trust--like infidelity--have occurred) is that the when there is a genuine effort to be better at something, the frustration of not being trusted can actually eventually cause the person to regret the effort at redemption.  Like most marriages that don't end instantly at the revelation of an affair, it is the cheater who ends up leaving because they feel like they have "paid the toll" but their partner still doesn't trust them.

So when portraying someone who has betrayed "team evil," it might be easier to have everyone getting along after one tense scene, but it's probably not too realistic, and when they don't fall in line and trust, that really needs to eat at the person who gave up everything to switch sides.

However you decide to portray it, if the time space continuum doesn't collapse, redemption should be really, really hard.

Part 3- Arabian Nights.  Backstory isn't the same as biography.

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