Digression Girl

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Hunger can be terrifying, whether it’s what it drives you to do or what it drives others to do to you.

Cannibalism, fully in the sense and definition of one eating one’s own species, is an ancient taboo and probably one of the oldest horrors thrown about. And for those of us in nations or regions with regular access to food of some sort for the majority of our lives, it’s an unimaginable sin often attributed to “those” people who aren’t as “evolved” as the rest of us. In a way, this disdain crosses the species line and can tinge some rhetoric of individual vegetarians or vegans on how they regard others of broader diets.

But I ask you, and them: what do you know of hunger? Real hunger? Ever-present and mind-gnawing hunger? FIght-or-flight primal survival mode hunger? Not being hangry, or not having your blood sugar crash, but absolute, genuine, hair-graying hunger? Because that is the hunger that lies at the base of terror and nightmare that is cannibalism. It’s not the crazed psychopath frothing for human flesh because the neighbor’s parakeet told him to do it or else his blood would dry up in his veins, but the average, everyday person in dire circumstances driven to the brink of desperation, and with little to no other options to pursue in a desperate attempt to survive.

Because such realities have been in this nation and other nations at various times, often due to bad weather or harvests. A successive wave of bad luck for agriculture could wipe out small communities, whereas large events harrowed nations and regions. I will not provide links in this post, but I can say running a simple Google search (whether image or all) on “1920s Russian famine” will generate shocking images that have been committed to film. The event it is part of is the greater upheaval and food instability that underlie the establishment of the Soviet Union; an event that was used as background to explain what made Dr. Hannibal Lecter into Hannibal the Cannibal. The fact that it’s not commonly taught or gone over in detail is, perhaps in part of the shame of it having occurred in the first place, but perhaps a self-inflicted piece of denial by a society that lived on after it (much like, say, the members of the white community who perpetrated the Tulsa race massacre).

It is a dreadful reality that has occurred, and may yet still occur despite many efforts to prevent it, whether at home or abroad. And it all starts with addressing the reality of what is there to eat when the default, reliable and expected staples are not?

For me, the term “delicacy” in cuisine equals “horrible tasting food ate to avoid starvation.” Snails are not an immediate choice for a meal, especially compared to fruit, gathered nuts and berries or nutrient-rich animal flesh. But when there’s not a single thing available except for snails, it’s suddenly an interesting menu option. And it’s often pursued because, if we’re not alone, we know that desperation may make us consider the horrible specialty menu reading us over at the same time. There’s lots of old cartoons showing anthropomorphic castaways looking over their companions as prime dining, but the unfunny undercurrent of the joke is the reality it reflects.

The raw shock and horror of the experience in real life is best shown in that iconic work, Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors. Horrid as it is to phrase this next sentence in this way, but it is, in effect, a best-case scenario of doing what must be done to survive. There’s no drawing of lots, no desperate pleas to be spared, no ugly fights for life, and no morbid rending of still-warm freshly-dead flesh to satiate the maddened state survival instincts triggered in the attacker. Think more of the horror of the film Ravenous and its 1840s America context, loaded with nods to the Donner Party and Alferd Packer.

Finally, to really reach into what I would argue is one of the most conceptually frightening horror films of all time, and its various reinterpretations and additional performances, I would like to touch on the mondo film genre and its voyeuristic observation and judgment of cultures other than our own, and how it spawned the cannibal film. The most infamous of these films is Cannibal Holocaust, with its real animal suffering and stunts that left anyone but the performers wonder if actual violence and crimes were committed to the cast. The most recent of these is Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno. But, ultimately, both focus on outsiders breaching or invading an isolated community only to fall prey to that community (for justified or unjustified reasons). And, cannibalism is an aspect of these fictional tribes’ isolated culture surviving and thriving, with the acts, beliefs and methods used becoming required rituals to keep the community going.

Though the cannibal films and mondo films pack a punch, these are works created by snobs meant to shock and astonish a bunch of other snobs using bigoted shorthand, and still dehumanize the other even when the other has been humanized; in Cannibal Holocaust the foreigners get what they deserve, but the fact that the natives still did what they did is a statement about the natives in its own right.

This ultimately brings me to the film franchise I’m going to talk about, which has a new release on Netflix: the Texas Chain Saw Massacre (TCM).

As a kid growing up in a part of Texas not that far away from what terrain was shown in the film, it scares me. Not scared, but scares me still. Why would some 70s slasher flick do that to me? Because it’s not just some 70’s slasher flick. It’s not some escaped murderous lunatic carving up people in his old neighborhood, it’s not a vengeful mother or son punishing the selfish and wicked along with any other unfortunate present. It’s not some Grand Guignol for the masses. It’s a horror story unfolding before our eyes which has been firmly rooted in the time of its creation, allowing it to very easily be mistaken to be found footage or a performance of a very real event that occurred recently.

There are several entries into this particular film franchise, but I am specifically going to focus on the original film. The reboot/restart sequels like the 3D one or anything else like that all sort of miss the point and try delivering into the “monster mythology” of the family or its most recognizable boy, and thus demote Leatherface into yet another common slasher film killer. And, from my initial viewing of the Netflix offering, my original plans to review the new film fell by the wayside as I realized that this new release also misses the points and powers of the original film, and feels like it’s merely trying to capitalize on the nostalgia success that the latest Halloween films have enjoyed.

As many reviewers and critics have noted before, TCM is a gruesome fairy tale of old: Hansel and Gretel stumble across the old witch’s house and almost get gobbled up. Or rather, the band of youths foolishly go astray and fall victim to the mad and cruel bandits dwelling not far. That isn’t the actual plot, but the beats are there and resonate with the audience. It’s a “happy” ending since there’s a survivor, but that’s the only “happy” aspect of the story. To understand the full weight of forces that created the cannibal clan, we need to look at the 1970s, as well as some key events before then. Madness plays a role in this story, but not to the garish degree of extravagance that drama likes to crank it up to for a “memorable performance.”

Before TCM was made, America was shocked to its core by the actions of one Mr. Ed Gein of Plainfield, Wisconsin, in 1957. You may Google search him and his crimes, which included murder, mutilation, and graverobbing, and find more pictures that you would have ever known to have existed. His madness and crimes inspired the book Psycho, which in turn inspired the film Psycho, which in turn generated a lot of material on crazed killers and unhealthy familial relationships and the like. Add on to this time the ghoulish fascination of serial murder cases, like the Cleveland Torso killer or Ted Bundy, and you have the pot of imagination bubbling in America at the time.

Around the time of TCM, the nation was facing the decline of the Vietnam War, as well as economic woes and downturns that struck everywhere: the promise and prosperity of those propaganda-tastic golden 50s had dissolved, technology and its advances were winnowing jobs through innovation and automation, and conflict in the Middle East, itself a legacy of decades-prior colonialism and decades-current Cold War scheming, impacted fuel supplies and prices, leaving lines of customers waiting at the gas pumps (sound familiar?). Throw on top of this the withering death of small communities after their economic arteries were severed with the broad cutting pass of the new U.S. Interstate Highway system (oddly echoing the “train company bypassing the town” trope once more), and then you’ll see where our ogres of old may lair.

For the younger readers who may not have gotten this in the first pass, a summary for thee: Imagine growing up in a rural farm community, and have been part of the community for generations. Community stories and memory can recollect bad weather events or famines or scandals or moments when the Civil War or Great War or whatever war hit home. Like many generations of old, families tended to stick to family businesses, and all were ill-prepared to leave the community and find a niche elsewhere. Now, as the youngest members of the family, you are watching the way of life known by your family crumble away one way or another. The glory days of the past are too far gone to try and catch them again, and doing what you’re good at isn’t enough to keep money in your pocket, and then at some point, food on the table. You know doing it yourself isn’t an option, because you don’t have the land or the skill or the bout of luck that would have let you be a farmer, much less let any of your ancestors be farmers. Raising and selling livestock was the way of the town, and jobs linked to that are the only means to make your way in the town.

You’re not homeless, since you have the family household to live in, but it isn’t worth much and can’t offer much to move elsewhere and start again, so selling the home means homelessness. Maybe back in the day the family had livestock and land to sell, but misfortune and whatnot already drove the family to sell those things off long ago. And, the big drive a couple of decades ago was to get bodies out of the fields and into the factories, so you did along with your family. But, nowadays, because costs are bad and measures must be made, the factory starts to invest in technology rather than training workers, and old jobs start to fall by the wayside. Skilled killers and butchers aren’t needed as much anymore at the slaughterhouse thanks to automation and more efficient and safe meat processing procedures.

So now, trapped in a soon-to-be-ghost town, sheltered under the only home you’ve known, and rendered useless to the community by time and technology–a community that didn’t always welcome or accept you and your family in the first place–you’re driven to do anything to survive, even if that anything is a bit unthinkable.

However, how unthinkable really is it? A bunch of hollering and squealing comes out a pig just the same as a chicken or a bull–they just wriggle around differently. Death is part of life, too–that piece of fruit on the table is just as dead as that strip of bacon, and they both came from something that was alive not that long ago. The only difference is that the piece of fruit couldn’t run away or scream. The screaming and the killing doesn’t bother you, because that’s just life on the farm or on the old job. It’s been going on ever since the time of the Bible, and it’s just how life is.

So you start to do what you’re going to do. You pick off people that those around these parts aren’t going to miss–drifters, lost travelers, escaped criminals, and the like. And lo and behold, it works out. There’s food on the table again. But there’s always lean times when it comes to hunting and farming, so it’s best to stock your larder for when those days come around, like when there aren’t as many travelers or there’s lawmen sniffing about. What’s the point of those lawmen, anyway? They didn’t keep the slaughterhouse from firing all of those people, or arrested them when they failed to pay any severance or pension. The law’s always been hard on the family, and they don’t care to deal with you at all if they had a choice.

And by mercy, it’s working. In fact, you’ve got so much that you have a hard time keeping it from spoiling. What can be done? Well, sell it to anyone else who’s hungry? You just don’t waste good food. Don’t have to tell anybody the secret recipe. Heck, if they come back for more, then they’re no better than you. You can sell off all that other stuff that’s left behind, too, after keeping the things you like.

And, then, what do you know? A gas shortage. Sure it means that you can’t sell gas and make money that way, but it makes it easier to go harvest.

Though the description I used above uses “harvest” instead of “hunt” or “kill,” the vocabulary doesn’t really matter much–the deed is the same regardless of the word used to describe it. And this perspective, from what I can intuit, maps onto the minds of the cannibal family members in TCM. There’s suggestion of incest in the family (but not confirmed), but that detail would reinforce the idea that the family is an outcast family in a small, declining community. Desperation and abuse and unchecked mental health issues hang on the family like the skin on their bones. And then, with that troubling foundation, throw in the existential crisis of unemployment and starvation.  It’s not just another bad year, but the end. The well is dry, and the family can’t just up and leave like everyone else is doing. This is home, and they’ve been through too much to abandon it now.

The family does what it knows and what it can to survive, but built on a flawed logic driven to further extremes out of desperation. In the original film, the family consists of three grandsons and a grandfather: an end to a family line. All three grandsons have some degree of mental issues, based on whatever reason (once again, incest being an inferreed reason), their respective ages also reflecting their respective instability.

The Cook is the “sane” face of the family, who maintains a facade that allows victims to be drawn in. He’s also able to voice reason and play individuals’ natures against themselves, such as him advising to keep away from the old farm near the family home. He knows a well-placed “you oughta not do that” is enough to get some to do something they’re inclined to do anyway. However, he’s not able to slaughter the livestock like his brothers, and he has issues with having his authority being respected, resulting to violence and abuse to maintain the household.

The Hitchhiker is a polar opposite of the Cook: young, wild, unpredictable, and unaware of how his behaviors are off-putting to others. He’s the irresponsible bratty younger brother who always clashes with the eldest. However, he is one of the most capable of the killers, and shows a genuine love of his work and of the craft. He’s also the kid who plays with his food, torments the livestock as it awaits its slaughter, and a morbid artist who crafts and sculpts with the dead. We learn that the scenes of desecration in the graveyard at the opening of the film is his handiwork. He’s more cunning than we are led to initially believe, but his energy and mania often overwhelm him and lead him to act impulsively.

Finally, there is Leatherface, the iconic killer of the film. He is not some massive wall of menace terrorizing individuals, but a large young man with deformities and severe developmental issues raised in a horrible environment. After Leatherface kills Jerry in the family home, we are provided a closer look at him, and it’s clear that he has Hutchinson’s teeth, a classic indicator of congenital syphilis.

From The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Copyright Legendary Entertianment.

He is the one who does any actual killing in the film, and he continues to do the work he knows, but with a different species of livestock. This massive menace is easily dominated by the other two brothers, and he fulfills certain roles that the family lacks by literally assuming a new mask to fit the role. The mask we initially see is a work mask, worn when he slaughters victims. The next mask, that of an old lady, is when he works as a domestic, preparing meals and getting the house in order for dinner. Finally, the pretty lady mask that he wears at dinner echoes the Southern tradition of dressing up for dinner, showing that tradition and doing things as they’re supposed to be done is how he was raised.

In fact, I’d argue that when Leatherface does what he is supposed to do and how he’s supposed to do it, he succeeds. The first youth, Kirk, is killed with a hammer blow, just like how a farmer may lure in a hog to be slaughtered. Then, when Pam is caught and put on the meathook, it’s not any different than catching a loose animal so it can be dealt with later. And finally, when Jerry stumbles into the house, Leatherface dispatches the intruder in defense of his home. Three quick kills that were successful and done the way they should’ve been done.

It isn’t until after Jerry is killed that things start to go wrong for Leatherface. He is realizing that there may be more people coming to the house to look for their friends, and the prospect whets his appetite. In his mind, he’s being clever by laying in wait outside of the house and ambushing anyone who comes along. He also thinks that if he uses the chainsaw instead of a hammer, he’ll wound them so that they can’t run away, or possibly that he can butcher them on the spot and not have to clean up a mess in the kitchen again.

The only reason why this ambush is successful is because there’s an impaired victim present: Franklin, the wheelchair-bound brother of final girl Sally. Whereas Sally can easily run away, Franklin, in a wheelchair not made for going through the wilderness, is just an easy target to be disemboweled by Leatherface’s chainsaw. Sally flees, and she ultimately escapes because she’s able to outrun Leatherface and go somewhere that has been made out of bounds for him: his older brother’s gas station. He suspects that he’s going to be in trouble, so he hurries home to put away the meat of his recent kill, as well as get the house ready for dinnertime.

Leatherface’s fears are proven right: the Cook returns home with the escaped girl in tow and starts berating both brothers for their mistakes. It reinforces that if he doesn’t do as he’s been told, then bad things are going to happen. This repeats itself with the final scene where a feeble Grandpa is given the honors of killing Sally. Excited by stories of Grandpa’s efficiency as a slaughterer in his prime, the family manically watches as his weak form tries and tries again to strike a killing blow. But this time, it is the manic impatience and overexcitement of the Hitchhiker that leads him to try to take the hammer and do it, resulting in the intended victim gaining an opportunity to escape.

Both younger brothers pursue after the victim, Leatherface with his chainsaw behind the thin, wild and wiry Hitchhiker flailing about with a straight razor. While the Hitchhiker is able to get close and grab a hold of her hair, he has abandoned any sense of his surroundings and stumbles out into the path of an oncoming 18-wheeler. In a morbid way, the wicked little boy ran out into traffic to catch the escaped little animal he was busy torturing, and he died as a result.

Leatherface, on the other hand, is still a formidable threat and in full attack mode. He’s able to scare off the trucker who tries to help, and he causes both to flee. However, he fails to account for the possibility of someone being able to fight back, and is caught off-guard when the trucker hurls a wrench at Leatherface’s head. Leatherface’s poor choice of weapon literally comes back to bite him, wounding his leg and impairing his ability to catch the loose prey. His failure and frustration is palpable in the tantrum dance he has with a running chainsaw that serves as the final scene of the film.

The film is full of instances of things going wrong and warnings. The astrology references, not trusting intuition over altruism, the unheeded advice, and even the disobeyed orders of the Cook all lead to a disastrous end. And, of course, the ultimate taboo of cannibalism overarches the film. And there are such veins of thought that creep into the mondo films and cannibal films of the time: what would one expect but such horrible things to happen there?

In essence, rural Texas becomes the American stand-in for the untamed wilderness full of savages. It’s a trope used to disparage indigenous peoples for centuries, and now its focus has been placed on the isolated rural folk of our nation. A place that tends to trend more conservative than urban areas, and whose values and practices seem outdated or even cruel in comparison. This phenomena of rural savagery crops up in other media, whether the pagan practices of The Wicker Man and Midsommar, or the grim stonings featured in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” or in countless other pieces such as the classic Two Thousand Maniacs! or  Kevin Smith’s Red State.

However, TCM departs from the rest of this rural horror genre because it’s about the actions of a lone family driven to desperation, though out of sight and thus out of mind for the world at large. It does not have an entire community participating in the act, as in The Wicker Man or Two Thousand Maniacs!, since the dying community is part of the problem anyway for the outcast family in TCM. It’s not a condemnation of rural America, but a dreaded light shining on the evils possible there. However, though the family does wicked things, there’s no indication that they’ve been wicked from the outset, like many tales of Sawney Beane and his family of inbred cannibal bandits. In fact, I’d argue that Sawney Beane is better represented in The Hills Have Eyes rather than TCM, but that’s a whole other discussion.

The rural isolation of the family allows for dysfunction in the family to flourish and fester for generations. The rural nature of the community enables the family to stay out of sight and keep to their business because it’s what’s expected within the community: keep to one’s own business to stay neighborly. Then, the stresses of job loss through a changing economy and the trend of vanishing small communities through innovation and technological progress pile on top of these bad variables and create the perfect storm for the dreaded horror that is the TCM family to take shape. And it’s the desperation felt from experiencing true bone-gnawing hunger that drives the extreme actions taken by the family in the film. These murders were for survival.

And that’s the key to the horror of TCM. It’s about survival; necessary evils. Imagine what America would be like if it went through a famine like the ones that wracked the fledgling Soviet Union. The rural Americans are Americans like every other American, but their realities and circumstances are very different from those in suburban or urban centers. Options are limited. Regulation seems to come from afar and just serves to hamper one’s ability to get by. In short, any American family could have wound up becoming Leatherface’s family. The only difference is that it isn’t some massive apocalypse like a zombie pandemic or a global blight that drove the family to get to this point, but everyday events and circumstances that can occur in our everyday world.

Think of the global warming issue: this issue can lead to food insecurity in the future, and societal instability as a result. But the problem of global warming is not abandoning meat as a food source in an effort to reduce emissions. In fact, that would be a historically poor choice for humanity, because it assumes that agricultural food sources will always be reliable and never sparse or lost. The Irish Potato Famine should stand as a key monument to why an omnivorous diet is the optimal diet. And, though the desire to be a localvore is admirable, that is built on the assumption that being a localvore is possible. Even pre-industrial communities traded food and fare, and didn’t limit themselves to “local” produce. In fact, it was vital to survival that food trade and transportation was possible because of potential food loss due to disaster, famine, drought, disease, war, or any number of reasons.

The “ethical diets” of today are, to be blunt, snobbery. I am not discounting individuals adopting a diet that’s best for their health, but rather those who praise their diet over the dietary practices of others. Their assumptions are based on countless unseen networks and advances in agriculture that makes their “ethical” diet possible. Just a handful of serious compromises to these systems could negate those diets as viable options altogether. Food access and abundance is great, but it desensitizes people to the actual struggle that is getting and maintaining a regular food source, much less a specific type of food source.

The “ethical diets” also fail to genuinely consider the diverse array of dietary needs that are out there. I’m not just talking about kosher or halal foods, nor foods lacking particular allergens. I’m talking about health issues that render people unable to eat particular foods at all. As much as going meatless might be a good idea for my health, a lot of the meat-substitute options out there that are palatable to me are bad for me due to my thyroid issues. So what about me? Get used to eating unenjoyable food for the sake of everyone else for the rest of your existence? Is that the answer for everyone who faces certain food challenges because they are the few instead of the many? How about saying that to a parent whose child has to ensure these dietary restrictions?

And, in the end, it all doesn’t matter because nature can lay low human achievement, pride, technology, and confidence in a literal heartbeat. If global warming renders conditions for agriculture worse, then it won’t matter if we reduced our meat intake because we’d have starved to death waiting for all that plant food intake that didn’t flourish and grow enough to feed us. Delicacies would still be around, but the euphemisms would fall away and the practicality and necessity laid bare. Our thriving era would be gone, and the era of surviving would be back face-to-face with us again, as it was for several generations beforehand.

That is the pragmatic terror of hunger, which TCM works with so well. It’s seeing the predatory stare of the person across the table from you, no different from that of a slavering wolf or lion. It’s the possibility that we may revert to a stage like that ourselves in the name of survival, and then become so accustomed to it that we no longer bother questioning why we do it or if we should still do it. By having the family be abusive and inbred and insane we minimize the humanity of the family, and do our best to otherize them in a blatant effort of denial. It’s not the self-aware shame shown regarding the cannibalism in Snowpiercer. It’s gone well beyond past acceptance into the dreaded realm of commonplace regularity. It’s not just you seeing yourself in the beast, but the beast seeing itself in you. And the beast killing and eating you anyway.

(Actual screenshot from my game. And yes, I LOVE my character!)

I love The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. I really do. But Elden Ring brings a whole new level of awesome to fantasy open-world games, along with the patented “Soulborne” style and difficulty! It’s more approachable than Dark Souls 3 was for new players and gives you a lot of options to play with but make no mistake: this isn’t an RPG that is going to hold your hand, and it expects you to WORK. Thankfully, the “work” is an absolute blast!

Let’s get the basics out of the way:

  • Does the game live up to the hype?

YES! It’s one of the best games I’ve ever played, and I’ve been playing video games since Pong was the best game available to gamers. I don’t want to make a guide or ruin anything about this game, though I am going to follow this up with a quick set of tips that YouTubers and gaming sites don’t want to tell you about this game. But I will say this: if you have the money to buy this game, DO IT. I’ve sunk in over 40 hours in a single weekend and feel like I’m still only scratching the surface!

Every location feels crafted, enemy types vary wildly from each other, and you never really reach a point where can just run on autopilot. You’re constantly engaged in this game, trying to piece together where to go, what you want to do, or what you’re trying to solve.

  • Is the game hard?

YES! But it’s not an insurmountable kind of hard. Instead, the difficulty is tied to your ability as a player to recognize what is presented in front of you and understand what options you have available. For instance, a mounted boss on horseback in the open world is a hard opponent, especially at the start of the game. In your bag of tricks, you have stealth to creep around, a horse to run away, and possibly a vast arsenal of spells, tools, weapons, and abilities to craft a battle plan. The choice is yours as to what you want to do.

There are many encounters I skipped in order to explore the world; in doing so, I found a lot of great weapons, spells, Ashes of War, (which tie special techniques to weapons; trust me, it’s amazing), and then I’d level up some, too. When I came back to earlier parts of the game, I was a wrecking machine on some of those early bosses!

A great example of how the difficulty adjusts to you is the map. Genre staples like map markers, directional pointers, or location pips on a compass are not given automatically. You have to find the map for the area you are in to see details, and on your map, you can place your own markers and location beacons to keep track of important places, quests, and NPCS. But the game doesn’t do it all for you. It’s harder than if it did, but not necessarily difficult because you can take more into your own hands.

Same thing with quests; Elden Ring may give you a line of dialogue about where a NPC is located for your quest; then that NPC might die. (This actually happened to me.) If you had a paper and pen handy and made notes about what they said, you’re good to go. If not, you might struggle to remember what that tip was.

  • How is the combat?

Flexible! If you’re a gamer who loves melee and has fast reflexes, you can put together playstyle that works to your strengths, making a melee damage dealer. On the other hand, if you’re like me and terrible at timing dodges and swordplay, you put together a ranged playstyle of bows, spells, incantations, and Ashes of War, (techniques) that let you dish out damage from a distance. There are a plethora of tools at your disposal, and you’ll likely find yourself, (like I did) experimenting and changing depending on where you are and what you’re fighting, even if you have a preferred style and flavor. This makes the game much more engaging than the, “lather, rinse, repeat” of many games with fixed combat systems.

  • Is it really Dark Souls + Open World?

YES! It’s very well done, and it makes me wonder why previous Dark Souls games didn’t include jump buttons and open maps. From Software NAILED IT!

The world is BIG. Spatially, it’s not nearly as large as something like Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, but I think it’s way better crafted in terms of entertaining complexity.  Due to the plot, the world is in the process of breaking, which means that many of the environments on the map are multi-level. Getting from one place to another isn’t as easy as just walking a straight line. But it’s crafted in such a way that you get used to exploring, and as you explore, you find a lot of hidden things naturally. Trying to find a way up a cliff face may lead you to a hidden door or dungeon. Checking out some building may have you finding an elevator that takes you to an underground city.

And just like other Soulsborne games, the team is the best in the business on showing a world that is bright and gorgeous on the surface but falling apart or rotting beneath. Many of the previews for the game show just the first area; believe me when I say that decrepit, poison filled areas or places strewn with rot, disease, or decay are to be found just like places of serene beauty.

(Exploring one area may give you a glimpse of a horryfingly difficult and dangerous secret area; instead of turning you off, it gets you revved up to figure out how to get there.)
(Pictures do not do the beauty of this game justice. It is a gorgeous fantasy world, and yes, you can get into that castle!)
  • Is it hard to know what to do or where to go?

YES… and a little NO.

This time around, the developers try to give you a little more guidance and hints on how to complete the game and complete particular quests. That said, there is a LOT that is hidden in this game!!! You will stumble onto some of the secrets on your own, while others might completely slip past.

I say, don’t be afraid of wrong turns or going off the beaten path. There are actually a lot of times your ‘wrong turn’ actually puts you in a place to see something you can’t get to you yet, but tantalizes you into trying to figure out how. I had a glorious moment tackling an underground city; at one point, I could look off in the distance to something I couldn’t reach and saw a single figure standing on a ledge. It wasn’t till hours later I unlocked a teleport gateway on a different part of the world map that took me to that spot I couldn’t see. It was an amazing feeling, and the game is full of these surprises!

There will eventually be a ton of guides written about this game, but I think every first run for every player should be one where they only look at guides if they are seriously stuck. For the most part, the game gives you the essentials, if you follow the clues the devs have left for you.

  • Should I buy this game?

This game is phenomenal. If you like open world, if you like Dark Souls, or if you just like games with RPG elements, this game is for you!

I love Skyrim to death due to how it is approachable, fun, and customizable through mods, which have given the game a life far beyond what should have been expected. Elden Ring is Skyrim for masochists: it doesn’t hand you everything on a silver platter, enemies don’t scale to your level, and a lot more is in your hands. But that said, the highs you get from figuring out a quest, putting a plan together to defeat a boss, or finding something new and unexpected is way higher as well.

Last night, I went to the edge of the map, saw something weird, and found a way to platform down a cliff face and fight the hardest Golem I’ve found in the game yet. Just getting down there was challenge that lead to my death multiple times, and the Golem fight was ungodly difficult. But, my reward for beating him, (other than PRIDE), was a new Ashes of War that was very cool. There were no outward signs anything was there initially; I looked at a particular spot though a magnifying glass my character has from multiple locations. Then I died a LOT testing whether there was a way down, and then died more when I found the Golem. But I had an enormous swell of pride and ton of fun from the experience, because I felt like in a game loaded with secrets, this one feels like it’s just mine.  

The game is FULL of these. This is a 100% recommend! Buy this game!

I was going to work a lyric from a Slayer song in at some point. But, I’m going more archaic with the image. Obviously, I’m not rooting for the Romans on this one.
Image from the British Historical Games Society website.

Due to the situation unfolding in Europe, I couldn’t help but think of the complex nature of war. Though we, as human beings, prefer a simple narrative of “us good, them bad” in such matters, reality doesn’t permit such clear-cut narratives. Many films on war show a broad view on the issue, from patriotic boosting fare that riles up the populace to fight the good fight, to the horrid nightmare that is warfare and the complex issues that ultimately lead to human beings to kill other human beings because what they wear or say leads us to believe they are a threat to us and our way of life because our side says so.

By the way, in absolutely no way am I making light of war, or the damage and devastation it creates as a result. I have my opinions on the real world issues, which are not favorable for a particular small bald autocrat, but I am not going to go into depth about that here. Also, to be honest, wargaming is the field that spawned roleplaying games, so addressing this topic is apropos to the medium, regardless of the current state of world affairs.

A fictional franchise that does touch on and depict these issues well is the animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars. It shows the details of the event that the prequel Star Wars films only hint at and bookend, and for events that get pretty serious, it does a great job. The clear-cut good guy/bad guy narrative can’t be trusted, especially for the audience who knows that it’s all an elaborate scheme orchestrated by Darth Sidious/Chancellor Palpatine. We see heroic and noble Separatists and vile Republic members. We see neutral parties that get pulled into the fight despite their best efforts, all due to their own past issues and opportunists who exploit the conflict. We are given a way to reconcile how the clone troopers execute Order 66 without negating the likable qualities they displayed throughout the series.

On the other hand, we also have Star Wars: Rebels and Star Wars: The Bad Batch to show us how things are during the Dark Times, when the war has ended but the struggle has begun, and how the seeds of rebellion were initially planted during the Clone Wars. That, along with the film Rogue One, provides a great view of the steps that needed to be taken to carry on the insurgency, and how different personalities and attitudes led to factions and conflict, as well as the measures taken to ensure the Empire’s dominance. We can also see what led to the “downgrade” of troopers from the Clone Wars era to the original trilogy era.

I mention this because, as usual, this is all great fodder for a game or campaign idea. Though the source material genre may vary from the examples I referred to, it doesn’t take much to sort out the core elements and apply them to the design of an adventure or a campaign setting for TTRPGs. There have been plenty of instances and elements where conflict has occurred in our own history that it’s not unreasonable to apply them to an adventure or campaign. But, there are some key points that you need to address if you choose to employ this element. I’m going to provide examples using a generic fantasy/D&D-style as I explore and elaborate on these questions.

Who is involved in the conflict?

Who are the belligerents involved in the conflict? Are they two powerful nations? Two large tribes? A massive free-for-all conflict in a region in order to secure power and resources? Is there anyone abstaining from joining the conflict for various reasons, such as neutrality, trade, stability, or the like? Are there any alliances or old rivalries that come into play?

For example, let’s say our conflict is between two large factions: an alliance between humans, goblins, and orcs (the Auburn Armies: AA), and another alliance between humans, elves, and dwarves (the Cerulean Concord: CC). The giants, gnomes, halflings, and one other human nation in the region refrains from joining the conflict, and have allied to maintain their neutrality (the Detached Dominions: DD). Furthermore, a neighboring human nation outside the immediate region is watching from the sidelines, trying to determine what side to back if their sovereignty is ever threatened by the conflict (the Beryl Barony: BB).

What is the conflict over?

Why are the belligerents fighting? Is it over a long-standing issue? Issues of sovereignty? A misunderstanding gone horribly wrong? A belief or prejudice? Predicated by a disaster? A mixture of the above?

The AA consists of expansionist and power-hungry groups that want to gain territory and conquer more lands. The human nation in the AA also stoked the long-held grudges of its goblin and orc allies against the dwarves and elves, and those humans who support them. Furthermore, a succession of droughts and natural disasters have pushed the goblins and orcs to the brink, and they are desperate for survival.

The CC, on the other hand, has tried diplomacy and other avenues to avert conflict, but the AA has been intent on causing conflict. The DD hopes that by staying out of the conflict they may keep their independence regardless if the AA conquered their neighbors or if the CC drove the invaders back. The BB simply is waiting to see how the situation develops.

What led up to the conflict?

Is this conflict a result of long-standing tensions that finally boiled over? Is it a sudden change of the state of affairs, brought about by a power shift in the region? Is it an attempt (or another attempt) at one group’s aspirations of empire? Has there been growing unrest in the region over the past years or decades?

As noted before, the goblins and orcs of the AA suffered years of drought and natural disasters, disrupting their normal means of subsistence. While they tended to raid each other as well as any neighbors before in times of scarcity, the widespread scarcity in their region means that they have to look beyond their lands for a solution.

Meanwhile, the human nation of the AA has an aging despotic ruler who seized power after the death of the last legitimate sovereign. This leader wants to establish a strong legacy for himself, and wants to be in a position of dominance in order to enable his groomed successor to effortlessly ascend to the throne, while ensuring the public accepts this change and rejects the underlying rebellion trying to restore the heir of the legitimate sovereign back to the throne.

In the regions of the CC, the elves were facing inner conflict due to a faction of isolationists urging them to withdraw from the world in order to protect themselves. The dwarves are eager for conflict since they are tired of the raids on their trade caravans and aggressive actions by the AA. The humans of the CC are responding to raids by the AA on their border settlements, and news of atrocities committed in these attacks.

How do those outside the conflict view it?

Are they nervous that the conflict will spill over into their lands? Are they waiting for the right moment to join the fight themselves? Do they want to remain neutral, but are being pressured by one or more sides to join a particular side of the conflict?

With our example, the DD are nervous about invasion by the AA, but they are also nervous about being punished by the CC if the DD determines to side with the AA. Therefore, they are purposefully acting as neutral parties, focusing on fair and even trade between both sides. As a result, a lot of agents of both sides are in the DD, trying to either perform espionage on the enemy or persuade the leadership of various factions in the DD to get them to join the conflict on their side.

The BB, on the other hand, officially is uninvolved in the conflict, but sees it as an opportunity for improved relations with the CC. Their leader plans to potentially join the conflict on the side of the CC when it is in danger of succumbing to the AA forces. First off, the BB hopes to be seen as saviors of the CC, and secondly, they hope such a good reputation may enable stronger alliances between the two and even potential unification of their respective lands (all under the crown of the BB, of course).

Who’s winning the conflict? Who’s losing the conflict? What does “win” and “loss” mean?

Is one side clearly dominant over the other? Is it a stalemate? Will it be a quick conquest, or take several seasons or years for the conflict to resolve itself? Is it a multigenerational conflict, akin to the Hundred Years’ War? What does victory and defeat look like for each side involved?

Currently, the AA and CC are in a stalemate, stuck at key points along the frontline at critical junctions. The most notable area along the frontline is a major river crossing and trading hub that provides access to the interior of both nations. The once independent city-state that straddles that river is now a no-man’s land, with sorties frequently being made to gain or regain ground by each side. Said city-state was also once a member of the DD, but before it could establish itself as neutral ground it was attacked by the AA in an effort to seize control of this critical juncture.

What could turn the tables of the conflict at the point you’re starting at?

Could more forces joining the fight tip the scales of the conflict? Would a sudden game-changer, like a natural disaster or the surprising outcome of a key battle, disrupt the projected outcome of the conflict? Is such a game-changer possible or highly unlikely? Could such a game-changer be fulfilled by a small group, such as the players in your game?

The BB joining the battle could radically change the outcome of the conflict. As it stands, they are predisposed to align with the CC, though they are not directly threatened by the AA and see involvement in the conflict purely as a self-enrichment strategy at the moment. However, little do they know that the AA is near completion on its plans to gain the allegiance of the giants from the DD, and that the AA plans to have their giant allies attack the CC on their distant border with the BB. Furthermore, the BB has been “granted” as a gift to the giants by the AA as part of this deal. The revelation of this plot may cause the BB to enter the conflict earlier than planned, and even have the CC consider the lands of the DD as a future threat if they are not dealt with quickly. As such, the CC is seeking freelance operatives to go to the DD and find out what the AA is planning, and thwart it if they can.

What will the status quo be after the conflict ends?

Will things go back to normal, or will a new normal be established? Will there be any retaliation? Could the seeds for a future conflict be planted by the outcome of this current conflict?

Supposing that the players are successful in their task, they are able to relate to the CC the secret plans of the AA to gain an alliance with the giants of the DD, and the plans to allow the giants to take over the BB in the process. Upon discovering this, the BB enters the conflict on the side of the CC. Furthermore, the players also discover that the giants are not all behind the betrayal, but a growing faction within them was plotting to seize power and lead the giants into war. The players help the giants expose this plot, deal with the faction, and then get the giants, as well as the rest of the DD, to fully back and support the CC.

Continued action leads to the driving motivations of the goblins and orcs in the conflict, and a concerted effort to provide aid and treat prisoners of war and conquered territory kindly and fairly helps establish a movement among the goblins and orcs to switch sides. Now, the human nation of the AA is outmatched, and is driven to extreme measures to grab at victory. The end result is the ultimate conquest of the human nation of the AA by the allied forces of the BB and CC. As part of the peace process, lands taken from the goblins and orcs decades ago by the AA are given back to them, and a new ruler, legitimate by rules of succession but more inclined to peaceful relations with the CC and BB, takes the throne.

However, the grassroots movement present in the AA who was trying to install a more direct in line candidate to the throne does not approve of the “puppet ruler” installed under the “guidance” of the BB and CC. This force, along with bitter belligerents still angry at the loss of the war plot to seize power, and then get revenge against the orcs and goblins who betrayed them, the giants who lied to them, and the allied forces who defeated them.

The relations between the BB and CC are formalized, and the union between the human nations is strengthened by the marriage of the crown prince of CC to the crown princess of BB, since the unfortunate death of the crown prince of BB during the war. The conflict reminded the elves why staying involved in the affairs of the world is important, and the dwarves gained new trade partners in the orcs and goblins.

However, there is unrest in the lands of the victors as well. Old prejudices are exploited by scheming folk in an effort to empower themselves. Some speak of the unwillingness of the halflings and gnomes of the DD to enter the conflict, and suspicion of them grows. The human nation of the DD tries to rehabilitate its image, though growing pressure to join the young human empire evolving out of the BB and CC is present, especially as a way to show loyalty after the conflict.

All of these questions are meant to provide guidance for using this idea for narrative purposes. It can be rather simple or extremely complex, based on how much you want to delve into the theme or topic.

Google Image: Until Dawn

I recently played a horror-interactive game by Supermassive Games called House of Ashes. I have another one of their older horror-interactive games, Until Dawn (which came out in around 2015). I had started to play Until Dawn a couple of years ago, but never finished because I would make a choice and end up regretting it, so I would then re-start from the beginning (I can’t be the only person to do something like that. . .right??). Doing this eventually led me to never finishing it, plus I also realized I’m quite a big baby when playing horror games (yet I love horror movies ironically) and get easily spooked.

However, after playing House of Ashes, it made me think of how I never finished Until Dawn. I decided I would try again, because after all I made it through House of Ashes without getting too spooked. Until Dawn is Supermassive Games’ masterpiece. I’m not saying this game is flawless (sometimes camera angles can be annoying and controls cumbersome), but having come out about seven years ago, the visuals, musical score, and aesthetics still hold up very well (it’s a beautiful looking and sounding game). The story is engrossing and the way it unfolds is excellent, the pacing is very well done. I felt as if I was part of the story. There were all these little ‘a-ha’ moments and things that I didn’t catch when I first tried to play this game. For example, I didn’t correlate Josh’s descent into madness with the breakdown of Dr. Hill’s office. As Josh unravels during the progress of the game, you slowly see the façade of the office come apart. It’s these little touches that add to the believability of the overall story as well as to Josh’s mental disturbance. Or what those bursts of fire were about in the prologue of the game, which you find out how it ties into a character you discover later in the game.

Another great aspect is how the game weaves all the stories, side and main, together. You think you know exactly what happened in the past and what is transpiring in the present, only to find out the story is much larger and complicated than you realized. What you thought happened wasn’t quite what you thought it to be and what is transpiring in the present is even more horrifying than you imagined it to be. It’s chef’s kiss deliciously perfect. I’d like to take a moment to talk about the characters in the game. Supermassive Games did an excellent job in creating characters you can love and hate. While one could rightly argue that the bases of the characters fall into the stereotypical teen horror trope, I’d argue that’s what made these characters great. I mean it’s so easy to write off Mike as a jokester jock that is only after one thing. Yet, he absolutely comes through in the clutch during the game and redeems himself. He became one of my favorite characters to play. I will say that Emily doesn’t stray from her base characterization no matter what, anyone who’s played the game knows exactly what I’m talking about (if she perishes you won’t exactly shed any tears).

What else makes this game great to play? Having the ability to make life altering choices with very real consequences. By having the various choices in your hands to make (many times in split seconds—talk about pressure!), you realize how easy it is to do many of the things people complain about (such as making foolish decisions that could get you or someone in the group killed) in many horror/slasher movies. I found myself saying out loud, quite a few times, “Ugh, WHY did I make THAT choice?!” Every decision you make has a consequence of some kind, even the small and seemingly innocuous ones, can cost you dearly.

While there were jump scares galore, with quick time events that made my heart palpitate, I’m glad I re-visited Until Dawn. It was a fun, creepy game as well as story to play and experience. The choices one can make are enough to give about six different possible endings, which gives this game some good re-playability. Anyone who hasn’t played Until Dawn and likes horror games, I would recommend this game, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. For the best gameplay experience, play at night in the dark. . .

Google Image: Until Dawn–I See You

Wise Man’s Grandchild is the epitome of a Gary Stu star and story. It’s been hilarious to me how the “Mary Sue” label has caught on so strongly and become such a bone of contention with many fans, reviewers, and critics over the last few years, especially when reviewing what comes out of Hollywood. Characters like Rey from the Sequel Trilogy of Star Wars are frequently labeled as a Mary Sue (and rightfully so, though not as extreme as this), but in many of those debates the core concept of how a Mary Sue is defined always comes up. And usually, it’s right around the same time that one person criticizes the other that they, “just don’t like female characters.” It’s funny because the whole joke behind a Mary Sue is that you knew one right when you saw one, and you could easily pick apart why. In more modern writing, some characters accidentally end up sharing a lot of Mary Sue/Gary Stu traits, which is what causes the debates because we might not be 100% sure whether the author intended the character to be so outrageous or not.

This is why Wise Man’s Grandchild is a wonderful example of a trashy anime story, character, and plot that can be explicitly used as a roadmap of a Mary Sue/Gary Stu at near full potency!  There are a lot of characters that have Mary Sue/Gary Stu traits and story elements, but WMG has so many of them so blatantly, I’m finding it’s a great example of how NOT to write a good story and show exactly why many viewers like myself find the Mary Sue/Gary Stu trope so annoying. AND YES, that means male characters can absolutely be criticized and being male “Mary Sues.”

Wise Man’s Grandchild is an “isekai” (“another world”) anime, which is a sub-genre of anime that is usually rife with Mary Sue/Gary Stu characters and traits. The better anime in this genre simply have a flawed protagonist enter this new world and struggle inside of it. The worse ones bring the character over and make them overpowered (nothing is a challenge), saintly (the hero never makes mistakes or shows bad traits), flawless (they have no viable flaws or are given flaws that have no consequence), and everyone loves them. Even then, there can be a spectrum of better to worse on how this is executed.

Wise Man’s Grandchild gets a full, “BINGO!” by hitting ALL of these in the most extreme fashion! The protagonist, Shin Wolfard (who was a rank-and-file nobody in our world), is reborn into this new world as a god-tier protagonist where the world is his oyster. In this new world he becomes the foster grandchild to two of the most powerful wizards who ever lived (one is a battlemage, the other is an enchanter), which of course means he grows up learning how to do magic better than anyone else, INCLUDING the foster grandparents. He’s a genius fighter (because of course he is) who picks up how to fight in a flash and is trained by one of the best warriors ever, who now struggles to beat this kid now that he is 15.

S-Rank is the top rank for wizards and fighters, but of course, Shin is BEYOND S-Rank, and continually proves it by creating new magic that has never existed before and beating down the enemies of the show so easily that he says “he was surprised at how weak they were” or how he “was holding back.”  Don’t worry though; he’s also an enchanter who can make any enchanted gear imaginable that is instantly a national treasure (not my words; that’s STRAIGHT FROM THE ANIME) and his mere existence can cause a world wide problem due to how strong and amazing everything he enchants is. Not to mention is nuclear-level magic spells, which not even the people who trained him match!

But of course, our boy isn’t just a fighter, he’s also a lover. It’s love at first sight for main female protagonist Sizillien, who has had lines of men trying to win her hand in marriage her whole life, but of course falls instantly in love with Shin as he saves her and her best friend from bandits the minute he drops into town. Why does she love him? Well, everyone does except the bad guys, so the real question is, “why should Shin love her?” In true Gary Stu style, it’s not because any real chemistry between them: it’s all about magical love at first sight. Honestly though, it’s actually because of the Gary Stu magic of, “she’s the best, so he gets the best, and she’s mostly just a hot accessory there to remind everyone how cool Shin is for landing her.”

In true Gary Stu fashion, the Gary Stu needs more ways to stand out from the normies, so Shin is enrolled into a magic academy (despite being better than all the teachers), trains all of his new-found friends in magic (better than the teachers do), and ends up with a very large pep squad of characters who are immediately forgettable because their only function in the plot is to point out how amazing and awesome Shin is.

I wish I was making this up, but that’s actually exactly what happens. None of the side characters do anything of real significance, because that’s Shin’s job to do everything. That school I mentioned? A few episodes in we never see him taking any classes; it only existed as a plot device for him to meet his entourage so HE could train them in magic.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “He’s has to have some kind of flaw, right?!” Yes, the author gave him the flaw of being “naïve.” What does this mean? He doesn’t realize how awesome he is but, thankfully, the entire story is loaded with characters who’ll let him know. Along with the Mary Sue trait of “being clumsy”, this version of being naive doesn’t actually cause Shin any problems with real, lasting consequences, and instead, is used as a doorway to show off how amazing he is. “I didn’t KNOW I was the only one who could do this kind of magic!” “I though EVERYONE could do this amazing thing that I do!” It’s laughable in the extreme, but an amazing example of how to give a character a flaw that isn’t actually a flaw at all; when debates rage about Rey in the Sequel Trilogy, this a core concept that a flaw or failure are meaningless unless the character suffers or someone else suffers due to their actions, or that their mistake is proven to have been wrong. If you don’t have that second part, it only shows a wrong intention, not a true mistake.

Needless to say, this anime was terrible. The main character is never in any danger, there is no point to most of the side characters except to point out how awesome Shin is, and the romance element to the story is boring, because both characters instantly fell in love with each other and are perfect people with no real flaws. Well, except for being clueless to each other’s feelings.

If you’re looking for a story that can give you everything you need to spot a Mary Sue or Gary Stu, then Wise Man’s Grandchild is a perfect pick. It’s a grade “D” anime, but it’s an “S-Rank” example of how to write the Gary Stu tropes!

Where do I start? The Characters, The Plot, or the Setting?!

There is no hard-and-fast rule here; typically, one of the three will spark your imagination as you daydream and then the other two follow.

Nothing is tougher when you’re trying to write than knowing where to start. Where do the good ideas come from? How do I make sure someone else didn’t have the same idea? How do I ensure I didn’t copy someone else? Where do I even start with my own story?

I want to talk a bit about idea generation, because frankly, if you’re don’t have ideas about things to write, you’re probably not going to be a good writer. So where do they come from?

Well, typically, our imaginations tend to run wild based on what inspires us, and thankfully, that usually can be honed down to three story elements as well. Usually, the story we’re dreaming about has a genesis in one of three places: you had an idea about a character you thought would be fun to make, a plot you wanted to see a character move through, or a setting you dreamed up that you think would make a fun sandbox to play in.

Obviously, it’s not so cut-and-dry; usually when you’re inspired, all three of these have crossover. But to start honing in on making a story, it’s not a bad idea to pick the place that is inspiring you the most and starting there.

For instance, when I was trying to write my first book, the first thing I was thinking about was writing a super hero fiction my way with a very positive story arc, so the plot came first. As I dove deeper into it, the characters and setting started to form. Then I had to come up with a setting that supported super heroes and super villains in the way that I wanted, and then from there, I created a history for that world and the heroes/villains that inhabited it. It was the, “super hero saves the day!” plot that started the idea genesis for everything else, like who my main heroine was going to be, what villain would be right to fight them, and how the setting enabled people to have super power and super battles.

But for something like a fantasy, it might be the character that comes first:

I might see a picture like this and be completely inspired to create a character, story, and plot around this visual image. I happen to LOVE this image and artwork, (I wish I knew the artist!), and even though I may not immediately have a plot and setting in mind, the image gives me a launching board with the character. I see a Paladin, marching forward; he looks to me like a working-man’s hero. He’s not rich, his armor has seen better days, but he’s determined to try to save one more life if he can. He wears his armor like a second skin, and doesn’t even have a horse or a pack. So from there, generating the story around the character: what would lead a person to arriving at what we see in this picture? Why doesn’t he have a horse or nicer looking armor? Why is he determined to march forward, even though he’s alone?

Sometimes it’s a genre or setting that tickles your fancy first:

I loved the Shadowrun games, and that inspired me to want to try writing a cyberpunk short story. For me, that story started with the setting: a cyberpunk future on a space station near Jupiter. And because of the setting, I decided the story would be about a futuristic heist and the competition between two hackers involved in the theft, who have to learn to work together despite being each other’s biggest rivals.


Ultimately, whatever is inspiring you about this particular piece is where that seed should start growing from, and where you start mapping out everything else.

The key here, no matter where you start, is CURIOUSITY. Get curious about your own idea! What drives this character? Why would this setting have magic/science/or X fantastic element in it? How does the plot put two people in conflict when A believes this, and B believes this?

The more curious you get and the more questions you ask the further you start developing that seed of an idea into something more substantial. For my super hero story, it didn’t take me long to drill down from my initial plot idea to having a heroine with super speed, a world that had super heroes since the 1940’s, a history for that setting, and a good villain. It’s because curiosity drives discovery, and discovery powers imagination!

If you don’t know where to start, but you have even a single idea, GET CURIOUS, ask question, and you’ll start being able to develop that idea. It doesn’t matter what excites you about that initial story idea or where it comes from, (plot, setting, or character), it only matters that it DOES excite you and makes you curious to discover more. The more you discover for yourself, the more story you’ll start to develop!

We have seen countless heroes and villains grace the comic pages in an array of eye-popping costumes but have you ever questioned why artists have picked those colours in particular?

Comics Alliance introduces us to the idea of colour theory which – in its most basic form – states heroes wear bright colours such as yellow, red and blue whereas villains dress in duller colours like black and grey.

And there are certainly many examples of where this theory checks out. Just take a look at Spiderman compared to Tombstone or Hunk Norvock compared to the Flash.

But hold on. I can also equally list examples where this theory doesn’t support the notion that heroes’ costumes are bright like a beacon of justice. Both Black Canary and Storm excellently model darker customs yet their hero status is not questioned.

 Whereas Joker and Krang’s villainy is unshakeable.

Visually makes the point that although black is the traditional choice for villains it can be used to illustrate a hero has a dark backstory. (I haven’t read or watched much of Black Canary and Storm’s story so I am unsure if it is applicable to these examples but it certainly applies to heroes such as Batman).

Furthermore, a lot of variations of Joker’s customs incorporate purples and greens which Visually claims are colours used for both “Classic Villains” and “Toxic Villains”. These two categories can easily be applied to Joker.

To explain Krang’s colour choices I’m going to backtrack to Comic Alliance whose infographic reveals yellow can imply safety and red can signify boldness. If we think about it, Krang lives in a humanoid machine to navigate our world, without it he’d be pretty helpless. He often makes rash decisions which on occasion can be arguably bold so perhaps that was the rationale behind choosing those colours for him.

So if colour theory isn’t a strict rule when it comes to dressing heroes and villains what is?

Jesse Schedeen advises artists that their characters should be both simple and striking.

“As long as you pay careful attention to color balance and shapes, you can design a terrific costume”  

Plus, with the rise of digital comics writers and artist can now reach a worldwide audience which might have not been as prevalent in the Golden Age of Comics. Colour symbolism varies from country to country, for example: two popular superhero colours (red and yellow) have rather negative connotations in different cultures.

In British culture yellow is usually associated with happiness whereas in France its associated with jealousy. Likewise red, which is can imply courage, determination and boldness in my culture, is actually linked to mourning in South Africa. I believe this demonstrates that you cannot just slap on a colour on your character and hope it will convey their virtues or evil natures. Which leads me onto the next point of consideration when designing a hero or villain.

The world in which your characters live.

If we think about it, would Batman dedicate his entire existence to protecting a Snapdragon styled Gotham?

Could our heroines from W.I.T.C.H really do battle in a Charlie Adlard’s Walking Dead universe?

The answer to both is NO!

The mismatch between the heroes’ environments, their story’s tone and their outfits would be a visual catastrophe. To contrast colour palettes in such a dramatic way is very difficult and I think there is a reason why there aren’t many comics out there that even attempt this. 

Now you know why heroes and villains were originally assigned their dazzling colours. Colour theory is a good tool for comic book creators to use as a starting point but as they say: rules were made to be broken. And as comics have become more accessible and there being more diversity amongst the creators our heroes and villains’ attire is only going to get even more fabulous! 

The concept of Joker’s “super-sanity” was first mentioned in the classic Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean back in 1989 and comes as a “diagnosis” by an Arkham psychologist who is obviously both unreliable and not good at her job—she tried to cure Two-Face by giving him objects that allow for more than two choices, including playing cards. The coin is not Harvey’s pathology, it is a tool he uses to express it. His pathology stems from his disfigurement splitting his face in two. We aren’t supposed to take her at her word. The very diagnosis is the first red flag that she isn’t playing with a full deck—perhaps it’s the one she gave to Two-Face.

And when Batman queries her about how her approach has impacted the Joker, she launches into her diagnosis, stating among her psychobabble that he may be super sane, then follows up by stating Joker recreates himself every morning, to explain why his M.O. changes so often. This is not how a super sane person would behave, but that’s okay because in the study of psychology “super sanity” is not a thing.

©DC Comics 1989

Before we break this as down in understanding of what Morrison was getting at, let’s look at the final line of the previous paragraph “super sanity is not a thing.” But then, neither are Joker, Batman, and the rest. These are fictional characters in a world similar to the real world, but with people who fly and wear flashy outfits. Because it is fiction, some will argue it does not matter if super sanity is real. And they have a point–but it all breaks in the dialogue when the doctor presents super sanity as something not seen before. She undercuts her diagnosis herself. Please don’t armchair diagnose people in the real world with a diagnosis that doesn’t exist in this world. The closest we have is borderline personality disorder, but that is a far cry from super sanity.

Further, Joker is as old as Batman publication-wise. His changing person is not different than how other long-lived characters have changed over the years. Joker doesn’t recreate who he is daily, but evolves over time based on story needs, writers, and different eras.

Reading the entire storyline, by the end this character’s judgement must be called into question, even if the somewhat contradictory and nonsensical explanation of Joker’s “condition” isn’t enough. In the increasing number of psychologists/psychiatrists who have fallen under Joker’s sway, Dr. Adam’s may be the earliest example. The evidence of how insipid this speech is can be found in any comic arc that involves Joker. He does not “reinvent” himself daily and if he did that would undermine the Dr. Adam’s preceding claim. He maintains the same persona and approach for years, he is never shown in issue #Aa of an arc with one personality, and then in issue #Ab he has another, and so on in a sequential story arc. Joker has had different M.O.s and different personalities as dictated by the era in comic books: The pre-Wertham era; the post-Wertham, Comics Code Authority era; the ultra-violent, pouch-heavy, screw the CCA era; and the brand new century era, to name a few. I haven’t found anyplace where Morrison has said “Yeah, Joker is, like, super sane! That’s totally the takeaway I wanted for readers.” There may, indeed, be something like that out there, and I will welcome a link in the Comments to such a piece if it is out there. But that will remain the writer’s opinion, not an actual diagnosis.

So, where do I get off taking this down with such confidence? Sorry, but here comes some background/credentials; I promise not to do this again unless absolutely necessary. I have been reading comic books since I was a kid—in fact, my first job was at a local used book/direct-to-market store, and I took my pay in back issues. This enabled me to gain a solid background in the major comic book characters going as far back as the early 1940s in some cases. While working on my MA in Lit my area of critical theory was psychological theory: Jung, Freud, a lot of work on James Joyce. For much of the last two decades I have worked in a field dedicated to psychological assessment design; I managed a professional resource imprint for a well-known publisher (that owned the assessment division); and the closest people in my life are psychologists of every stripe.

This means three things:

  1. I have seen my fair share of Joker stories,
  2. I am experienced in the interpretation and unpacking of literary works, and
  3. I know from crazy (and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, editions III-V).

Simply and starkly put, “super sanity” thing is not a real psychological condition. As it is used by Morrison’s Dr. Adams, she seems to be saying Joker is a step beyond a sociopath. Sociopaths recognize right from wrong, but don’t care. High functioning sociopaths may become very successful in life. Being a sociopath doesn’t mean you are a killer. But killers are more likely to be sociopaths. They know what their culture deems right and wrong. They know there are consequences to their actions. But they are neither constrained by it nor let it get in their way of doing what they want. However, they do care if they get caught, so they learn to act “normal” and they take steps (even ineffective ones) not to get caught. Many are even able to learn to convincingly fake empathy for short bursts.

As I understand the term “super sanity” used by Dr. Adams and legions of fans and journalists in reference to the Joker, he truly does not give a ripe fig if he is caught, if he is jailed, or who he hurts, because to him not only are our cultural norms constructs rather than an innate human trait, they enable our brains to filter out things we can’t handle. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer the people of Sunnydale live on a freaking Hellmouth. Weird things happen all the time. But weird things can’t be real. Therefore, the population has become extremely good at rationalizing the supernatural as a trick of light, or masks, or mass delusion caused by a gas leak. The Joker would spend about 2 minutes in Sunnydale and think “Huh, Vampires. This could be interesting.” His “impairment” is that he lost that innate ability most people have that unconsciously and instinctively forces a veneer of order on the constant and unrelenting chaos we all experience daily and filter out in order to continue to function. If Joker saw a man walking on water, he would not think “He must be God” and get religion. He would just think, “huh, look at that guy walking on water. Neat. I wonder if he can breathe down there” and then would proceed to try to hold the guy under water to see. If the man drowned, Joker would say, “Guess not, where’s my hat?” If the guy didn’t drown, Joker would say, “Guess so, where’s my hat?” (Note: Joker at no point in this scenario had a hat, but that would be utterly beside the point.)

I suspect the acceptance of the idea that the Joker is “super sane” stems from the increasing acceptance over the years that the Joker is a reflection of Batman, and that Batman is hyper-rational. To be Batman’s twisted reflection, Joker must be something other than hyper-rational, as rationality is too often at odds with reality. I think then, rather than “super sane” it would be better to describe Joker in this situation as “arational.” Yes, I made that up, but similar to “amoral,” it is an absence of rationality—whether an act is rational or irrational is a non-issue. Things just “are” with no rhyme or reason, which is how it works for someone who is arational. In this construct he is pushing Batman to go beyond hyper-rationality to being free of the constructs of what is rational and what is not.

As a comic book reader and lover, I call BS because:

  1. This takes the idea of an eternal struggle with an enemy or rival to unneeded lengths—you get a bit of this at times with Superman and Lex Luthor, especially since Lex had been playing at being a hero for some time; no one says Clark and Lex are mirrors or halves of a whole. Opposites, yes, but not intrinsically linked. We like there to be some connection, a twist in a road, a shared past, something that makes superheroes and villains focus on each other, but really it is mostly geography.
  2. The Joker is a nutball, and in most of his appearances since the late 60s/early 70s, he became a darker character when compared to who he is from about the mid-50s through the 60s; he was more a shtick-villain than a dangerous one—he is more analogous to Superman’s Mr. Mxyzptlk if Mr. Mxyzptlk had a TBI that wiped out impulse control, than he is to Lex Luthor.
  3. Not knowing exactly what goes on in his squishy brain is part of the fun and part of why we don’t need to know his name or who he was before he fell into the vat of crazy at ACE Chemicals. Essentially, he was just a rando bad guy who fell into a vat of chemicals that changed his skin, his hair, his body, and clearly, his brain. And that happened because Batman was chasing him when he fell.

Batman played a direct role in the guy who may have been the leader of the Red Hood gang, or a patsy for the RH gang, becoming the Joker. Is it so odd Joker would attach himself to the man who facilitated his birth? Alternately loving him as his creator in this new life and hating him as his creator of this new life that made it impossible to return to any normal life? Does he need more than that? He is insane and has Borderline Personality characteristics. His reinventions aren’t reinventions; over time he associates with different forces and people, for whom he is a refractive mirror. He could have been someone who already was struggling BPD or some other mild or latent mental disorder(s) (such as schizoaffective disorder, dissociative personality disorder, or any number of potential diagnoses, but for now let’s stick with BDP) before he went into that toxic vat of amniotic chemicals, and what emerged was twisted and mutated not just in body but in mind. He was a new, different being, as far from the man in the red hood as Frankenstein’s monster was from the component parts used to create the new body for the stolen, pickled, dead brain to drive. But unlike that particular monster, the underlying mental architecture of the original man was still functioning and was the foundation the Joker is built upon, ultimately atrophying from disuse, but still echoing through Joker’s basic processing chip; for instance, if before he had borderline personality disorder tendencies, now instead of adopting the traits of his peer group, Joker wants the only peer he recognizes (Batman) to adopt his traits.

But because the original underlying BPD remains and Joker changes over time, based on associations. You could argue, in fact, he is actually super insane—that the chemicals released every potential disorder at once—the Joker is a sociopathic, narcissistic, bipolar (see War of Jokes and Riddles), OCD, schizophrenic, dissociative, multiple personality, compartmentalized, approach-avoidant, delusional, oedipal . . . and so on, all at once and that would make as much sense (or more) than super sane. Batman is, in a twisted way, the Joker’s father, and Joker sees the Robins as siblings taking Daddy’s attention, and he can’t have that. That is why he HATES the Robins, and the first one most of all, because Daddy loves them. Joker’s sprees are a toddler’s shrill demand for his parent’s attention.

Or maybe the Joker is really Bat-Mite, another 5th Dimensional Imp like Mr. Mxyzptlk. Or something like . . .

©DC Comics

Thanks for reading! I hope to hear from you in the comments section. Other views are welcome, but keep things civil!

Let’s look at some examples and I’ll explain.

Aliens

The Long Kiss Goodnight

Point of No Return/La Femme Nikita

The River Wild

This is probably going to be the first of several essays on this topic, so we’re starting with the basics. Let’s work out the common threads here. All of the women in these films:

  • have intense skill sets and expertise
  • are courageous
  • embrace having men in their lives, like husbands, fathers, mentors, or friends, and value them as well
  • don’t let go of their desires for relationships or possibly even kids
  • have needs and wants that they accept must be sought out in other characters, including men

The key here is a simple word: “AND”.

  • “She’s a woman AND a spy.”
  • “She’s a mother AND a pilot.”
  • “She’s a soldier AND motherly.”
  • “She’s independent, BUT can give/ask/want help from men/others” (a slightly different form of “AND” that negates a solo trait using “BUT“)
  • “She’s tough, AND accepts that with help/training/support, she can be tougher”

As a writer, by using “and” you’re going to open up creative avenues as to HOW that character can be both characteristics simultaneously.

The problem with many modern writers is that they think in terms of “either/or.” They want a strong, female character but lean so hard into their definition of strong that they leave out almost anything from the feminine category, thinking (erroneously) that by mixing in classic feminine traits, like wanting male relationships, make characters weak. In reality, it’s by combining both in a realistic way that you end up with a great character.

For instance, Ripley in Aliens is survivor AND she’s also been a mother. That means she doesn’t hate men and opens up a door for some subtext and innuendos when working with a good looking guy like Hicks.

They are in an intense survival situation, but they are smiling at each other, ribbing each other a little bit, and show that they trust each other. This is a classic example of combining femininity with being a badass by using “AND”. Many modern writers would want her to be so strong that she just picks up the gun and can instantly shoot, or make someone like Hicks less competent than he is shown being in the film, or make him entirely submissive to her instead of working like a team. This duo is a classic though, because at the heart of Ripley is a character who can be tough AND need other people.

In The Long Kiss Goodnight, Sam/Charlie does a lot of action scenes (even saving the legendary Samuel L. Jackson a few times), but at the end of the film we see that when comparing her old life to her new life, she chooses the new one–with the addition that she’s still a badass who can kill a housefly by throwing a knife. At the end of the film visual cues are used really well to show this. They put her in a similar outfit to what she was wearing as a housewife earlier, but with some tweaks: She’s less buttoned down, a little sexier, (showing more leg), and is more confident. It’s a merged version of Samantha’s long dress and Charlie’s black & white motif to become a third form that incorporates both. I like this wardrobe choice a lot because it subtly shows Sam’s “AND.”

The magic of this moment is that she’s choosing her very loving, accepting, salt-of-the-earth husband and her life with him and their daughter over going back to being a spy. She actually likes and appreciates their love and shows that it’s okay for a top-flight assassin to want monogamy, family, and simple life. She is a killer, but she’s loved, appreciated, and unjudged by her family, which she finds out suits her just fine.


How do you make a badass female character without rejecting her femininity? Can she still be “feminine while being a badass?

Essentially, you’re just combining elements. If femininity was in Column A, and being a badass was in Column B, then you combine a bit of Column A with a bit of Column B to get what you’re looking for. Most of the time, that can be enough to make a really fun, compelling, and likable character.

But if this character is your lead, let me invite you to take it a step further. Here’s the secret to some next level writing: because you’re mixing elements, don’t be afraid to let the mixture create conflict. Conflict is the driving force of a good story, and internal character conflict can be some of the best fuel for that engine.

Let’s talk about The River Wild for a second to dive a little more into conflict.

Yes, the plot of the film is that two bank robbers are trying to escape the law by using the river, and need to force Gail to become their guide to get away; that hostage situation is the conflict that drives the action and momentum of the film. But the driving force behind WHY we care about what happens to Gail and WHY we want to see her get the better of Wade and WHY we want to see her patch things up with her husband is because of the inner conflicts she has going on. She starts the film in a failing marriage, fighting against her age and wondering if she’s made the right choices or needs to consider things like divorce. This generates internal conflict when she meets bad boy Wade, whose flirting makes her feeling young and attractive. She’s forced to ask herself tough questions, like how to be true to yourself while accepting compromise? How do you learn to change, or see when you’ve changed too much? Gail’s conflict between her husband and Wade also pluck at the strings of humanity and womanhood. This adds layers to this thriller beyond just the physical action, and makes Gail more relatable as a woman and a hero.

In The Long Kiss Goodnight, Charlie’s memories of her old life come back to her, creating MASSIVE conflict. In her old life, she felt free, powerful, untied, and in control. Her life post-amnesia as a “schoolmarm” feels stifling and restrictive, which is most visibly seen with her angst towards her daughter. It’s not until she can reconcile both halves of her life that she finds a way to be both a super spy AND a mom.

The inner conflict she has between her two lives are an identity crisis because she feels the two are mutually exclusive–she can only be one OR the other (that classic trap!). Seeing a third option where she accepts both sides and gets to have it all is the rewarding end of the journey. She can just be exactly who she is and be loved by her new family, even though they know her past as a spy/assassin. She can bake muffins AND kick ass and can enjoy that she knows how to do both.

The Ace Black Movie Blog: Movie Review: Point Of No Return (1993)

Point of No Return, (the American version of, La Femme Nikita), has a beautifully simple inner conflict with Nina: she craves freedom more than anything, but throughout the film is constantly trapped: first by drugs and crime, then by the government agency, then by her job of being a spy, and then finally, her entire past. It’s this desire to be free and be herself that draws us to the character. Through her journey, she discovers the joys of being a badass AND being a charming, attractive lady, which makes her grow as a person. However, she can’t exist as either while feeling trapped, which is why her two main relationships, (with her boyfriend and her handler), are so deeply complex. Both men love her free spirit and eventually accept that for her to be happy, she’ll also need to be free… even if it means being free from both of them. It’s an action thriller that hinges around the audience connecting to the character because of the “AND” which joins “Spy AND Woman”, but her character arc is defined by her search for personal freedom.


Women make for awesome characters! Lean into femininity and what that means for your character. Some women love getting dressed to the nines in heels and makeup; some enjoy being a stay-at-home mom. Neither is any more or less feminine than the other. Choose what’s right for your character, then mix in the “badass” elements you want to use. As you do that, pay attention to some of the conflicts that may cause the character, and if you see a good thread, don’t be afraid to run with it! The only thing I recommend avoiding is trying to aim so much for badass that you lose the best parts of femininity along the way. Motherhood kicks ass. Most men love having a woman they can brag about in their lives, especially when that woman makes googly eyes back at them. When in doubt, try to find the “AND!”

Image courtesy of A Plague Tale: Innocence

Well, after coming down with the current COVID plague this past Thursday, and well into the course of medicines for combatting it, I couldn’t help but think of disease. It’s an omnipresent threat of an omnimorphous sort, but it has captured the fear and imagination of humanity for centuries. Zombies, vampires, werebeasts, berserks, and several other things that corrupt and destroy us have been taken from the generic “curse” category into the realm of virus or parasite or pathogen or genetic trait with the progress of medical knowledge over the years. But at its root is the core fear: the unseen attacker that can kill, corrupt, or destroy us, and we have little to no means to stop it.

Such threats evidently lurk in the lost lairs and decrepit dungeons in fantasy realms, but we may not really think of them compared to diabolical traps or deadly denizens stalking the depths. Gygax made sure to include such environmental hazards, whether oozes, molds, fungal spores, various things drawn to decay and rot, and even some more typical threats like greedy scavengers or angered dead. Greed and the hope of discovering the long-lost were enough motive for some to explore such dangerous places, though it’s just as likely now that many may avoid such dangerous places for fear of much effort and risk with little to no reward.

If anything, I think such abandoned wastes are ideal for initiating new players to the game (in some fashion), because it provides the challenge of adventure, but can surprise with the unexpected challenge for those who don’t think ahead of what could face them. Sure, they may be armored up and have that crossbow at the ready for a bandit ambush, but they may be simply thwarted by steep, moss-encrusted stairs slicked with dew spiraling down into the depths of an ancient ruin where a few poor unfortunates may have rushed into seeking solace from a fierce storm (or the aforementioned bandits). So what about the rope, hammer and pitons needed to provide a somewhat better descent down the stairs, as well as a means of ascent with any survivors?

And what about light sources? Or medical aid for any injured? Food? Orientation gear (if available, even)? Is there a timeline (or a deadline) involved with this expedition? All of these things add up, and then to throw the threat of exposure to a potentially deadly substance on top of that makes it all the more challenging. And, in a fantasy realm like D&D or the like, unless you have access to enough magic to keep you sanitized, you definitely aren’t going to stumble across a handy-dandy eyewash station in the depths nearby that colony of spore-spewing fungi you just stumbled blindly into.

(Oh yeah—what about the call of nature?)

I also think that our access to healthcare and sanitation shapes our views of illness and disease. There’s reasons why drinking from public water sources was a no-go for so long, and why drinking small beer or table wine was even a thing. The craze for raw milk or unprocessed foods sounds appealing until one considers the reasons why mass sanitation and pasteurization of food products took place at all. The safe assumptions of having access to safe food, water, or anything else for that matter cannot be taken at all. And that dimension is an added layer of challenge to exploring the grimy depths of a long-abandoned dump.

One of the terrors of disease and the unsanitized past is that it’s a harsh reminder not of what we’ve avoided, but of where we once were. Socialogically, this can be just as uncomfortable to consider as biologically—that we ourselves ar enot that far off from ancestors whose actions we deem as reprehensible. And, just as scary, if it weren’t for modern progress, we’d have to face the horror of high infant mortality, death by diseases now easily countered, and a great measure of more uncertaintly than we’ve ever known before.

I hear this discussed a lot and used in many YouTube Videos, articles, and reviews when talking about fiction, usually in conjunction with how “believable” either the story was or the character involved. So what exactly IS “Plot Armor”, and why is it so important to understand?

Let’s start with some basics: At some point in writing about characters, especially heroes, they are going to have to use their wits, their guts, and their skills to save the day. Good writers manage to make it all seem plausible… and as the audience, we suspend our disbelief. This is typically when we don’t see “plot armor” be apparent around a character because the method the character used to get through their jam made sense according to the setting and what we know of the character.

However, when circumstances in the plot seem to bend in order to get the character through their jam, it becomes obvious that the writer is protecting the character; when it’s done BADLY though, we can’t suspend our disbelief. The plot armor is so obvious that it takes us OUT of the experience, and we might become resentful for it.

For instance, this is Arnold in “Commando”:

He’s one guy with no support, cover, camouflage, body armor, or cover of darkness. He’s fighting about 300 trained soldiers with automatic weapons, and he’s mowing them down, while none of these soldiers hit him… ever. This is a good example of plot armor that was so overused in 80’s action films that even if it got a pass then, it typically gets a big eyeroll now. This is a signature example of “plot armor”, when there is no logical reason for this to work and suddenly, all the supposedly somewhat capable soldiers who are also firing guns can’t seem to land a single hit.

This is Rey in “The Force Awakens”:

She’s been captured by the villains, the First Order, and because the writers want her to escape, she’s suddenly pulls off a Jedi Mind Trick… despite never having even heard of one before. For references, that would be like spontaneously developing the knowledge on how to pull off a perfect jump spin kick, weave an expertly crafted rug, or solve complex algebra when you’ve only ever heard of martial arts, rug weaving, and numbers.

We had six movies that pounded into the audience that people could be Force Sensitive, but that mastery of The Force required training and hard work, even for exceptionally powerful or talented pupils. That makes this scene stick out in a really bad way as a contrivance to get Rey out of her predicament.

This character only got shot or wounded in the shoulder, which means they are hardly hurt, it’s not life threatening, and they can keep going.

Strangely, this is so common in TV and Film that people don’t even post pictures of it on the internet. But I’m sure you can think of many, many, MANY examples. This is an example of plot armor that is so common it almost never rings a bell for the audience or takes them out of their suspension because we are conditioned to give it a pass. Except, of course, to people who have been seriously wounded in the shoulder, who roll their eyes and shake their head. Or if you’re me, because I’m seriously critical of that writing technique.

I think of it as, “the Hollywood Shoulder Wound,” which is almost a universal cop out in fiction writing to “wound” your character so that they still seem mortal, yet somehow are still okay. That’s not true to life at all, but it’s so ingrained in fiction we actually suspend our disbelief and give it a pass… even when we probably shouldn’t.

(Note: If you’re going to wound your character, please try not to make it a shoulder wound. Be more creative.)


Plot armor falls into a few different categories:

  • The situation, circumstance, event, or device that would normally kill a character in reality… now does not.
  • The laws of the universe bend to give this character success when otherwise, they would fail. Extreme luck can be an example of this. (Think: Hitting things to make them work.)
  • The characters spontaneously generate skill or expertise that they normally would not, should not, or could not have in order for the plot to keep moving forward.

These are just a few examples. Bad guys who were shown as ruthless suddenly become incompetent, or mobs of goons who wait around to fight the good guy one-on-one, or seemingly are taken out by some crazy circumstance.

One of my favorites is, “hitting it to make it work”.

Mary McFly famously headbutts the steering wheel of the DeLorean out of frustration at that end of the film when it won’t start… and suddenly, it does. Headbutts don’t typically fix mechanical issues.

Another one is when a non-expert diffuses a bomb, lands a plane, or delivers a baby. Some of these things *might* be possible, but in each situation, we’re demanding a lot from the audience in terms of their suspension of disbelief.


Most video game characters are layered in plot armor. Mostly because they have to be; video games are about trial-and-error, combined with a fantasy of being in that character’s situation or shoes. Instantly dying and not being able to continue playing the game is a serious bummer, so plot armor is typically built-in to keep the player going despite the circumstances. So, plot armor when tied to gameplay mechanics typically are usually acceptable to make the game more interesting or keep a more exciting pace.

Regenerating health? Shields? Super Strength? Super Durability? Yeah… we pretty much just run with it.

A lot of modern fiction revolves around the “super” hero: Someone who, despite the odds, manages to overcome what’s ahead of them. Video Games tend to have a lot of plot armor baked in that is easy to understand, so I like bringing it up as a way to show that not all plot armor is bad; the key difference is whether the armor the writers have given the character(s) is BELIEVABLE to the setting the story is taking place in. Even video games have their fair share of missing the mark and screwing it up, and it’s typically for the same reason a TV show, movie, or novel might fail: He writer(s) take too big a leap in logic and simply push the character through a bad moment in the plot by protecting the character from what should have ended their story.


A little bit of plot armor isn’t a bad thing. Batman getting the stuffing beat out of him in a comic book and in the next issue, patrolling the streets of Gotham with only a little wear-and-tear helps the story and fits the genre. But Batman finding out a way to punch out a god? Now we’re really pushing it, especially if that character is known for fighting insane people in Gotham, not invincible extra-terrestrials with the power to destroy planets.

If you’re writing your story, stick to what is believable to the setting. Obi-Wan needs to save Luke in a bar fight because Luke doesn’t know how to fight, AND because protecting Luke is exactly what a kind, older mentor would do for his new pupil. Rey escaping captivity in the most hardened facility in the universe by herself, using Force powers she never even knew existed, with no explanation as to how is pushing it, and the audience will likely take the wrong kind of notice.


Let’s wrap this up and summarize: Plot armor is a mixed bag. As a writer or audience member, there’s a certain amount of suspension of disbelief that we should adhere to when writing or viewing fiction. That’s all part of the fun.

Plot armor really only becomes “bad” when it’s used really badly and no matter how much you suspend your disbelief, you still can’t justify what you’re watching.

As a gamer and a Star Wars fan, I have always enjoyed RPGs set in the Galaxy Far, Far Away. I have played two radically different versions of such games, and I have my own opinions and takes on what does and doesn’t work with each form of the game. I haven’t really got into the latest version of a Star Wars RPG from Fantasy Flight games, but I am not enamored of what I have seen of it, for reasons which I will discuss later in this post.

The West End Games RPG is the first notable licensed version of the beloved franchise. It uses a simple system of points to determine the values held in a number of attributes, and in certain skills based off those attributes, sort of like GURPS. It also relies on using only typical six-sided dice (or as commonly known in gaming circles, d6). However, the values are all labeled as the number of dice assigned to each value, with any modifier added after: 2D, 3D+1, etc. Obviously, a character with a skill at 3D+1 would roll three six-sided dice and add one to the total. Overall, it’s an easy system.

However, this system is not as kind to characters who aren’t just human, primarily because the pool of points has preassigned minimums and maximums for characters of certain species, like Wookiees and Rodians. In addition, the Force is treated as additional add-on attributes with their own skills that require development, so that it’s very possible for someone Strong in the Force to be weak in mundane, everyday ways. Also, Force-using characters proved to become much more powerful than non-Force-using characters, and this created a two-tier aspect of the game. In a way, it’s true to the source material, but it also comes off leaving non-Force-using characters as a bit second-fiddle to the one with the lightsaber.

Also, built into the WEG RPG is assumptions disproved by later movies and media in the franchise: Wookiees were said to not be Force-sensitive, but EU materials allowed for it, Lucas was against it, and now the canon character of Gurgi the Wookiee youngling exists. Furthermore, it was assumed being Force-sensitive was a requirement to use a lightsaber safely, much less at all, but General Grievous, as well as the Mandalorian wielders of the Darksaber have disproved this assumption as well. And, in some instances, handfuls of d6 dice could potentially be rolled with some developed characters.

The next notable attempt of a RPG for Star Wars was done by Wizards of the Coast (of Magic: The Gathering and editions 3+ of Dungeons & Dragons fame, and in essence was a modified version of the D&D system for Star Wars (which, actually, was more in line to their d20 Modern d20 game system). Instead of elves and dwarves, it was Wookiees and Twi’leks and Ewoks and the like. Instead of fighters, rogues, clerics, and wizards, it was Scoundrels, Jedi, Soldiers, Nobles, and Scouts (and even Technicians in earlier versions). The game included prestige classes—classes that only a higher-level character of a certain class or class combination could take. These prestige classes included roles like Jedi Knights and Masters, Sith apprentices and masters, officers, gunslingers, bounty hunters, ace pilots, independent droids, and the like. The Saga edition of the d20 Star Wars game simplified a few things, and sort of field-tested a few elements that would appear in the 4th edition of D&D years later.

I personally liked the Saga edition of the WotC Star Wars RPG, though it did get mechanically cumbersome in comparison to some other games at higher levels, especially newer games like 5th ed. D&D. Also, the limitations on using Force powers, though making sense in a game balance sort of way, didn’t help with trying to replicate the potential and ability of using the Force like it was in the source media. Whereas a version of Darth Sidious could use his Force Lightning more than once or twice in a battle, it wasn’t the constant, overpowering barrage of at-will use as could be seen in the films, TV shows, and other media.

The Fantasy Flight game is actually three different games: it is, the best way I can say, built much like the World of Darkness games, where the central “theme” of the game determines the varieties of characters that you can possibly play in each of them: a Vampire, a Werewolf, a Ghost, a Mage, etc. But instead, the three games focus on three different aspects of the setting individually: as a member of the Rebel Alliance, like Leia; a fringe-dwelling scoundrel or outsider, like Han; or a Force-sensitive, like Luke.

This is okay if you’re playing a bunch of characters like Han and his ilk, or members of the Rebel Alliance like Leia, or even a group of Force-sensitives like the Jedi before the Empire. But though the systems are compatible and the like, the fact that it’s three separate games and their associated materials required to basically replicate the broad mix present in the original movie, much less the movies and media that follow afterward, is daunting. It is quite an expenditure to get all of that material, review it all, and use it all to pull off the great possibility of play for a game set in the Star Wars setting. The fact that using custom dice for the game makes it easiest to play, though, technically you can use non-standard polyhedral dice to play and just interpret the rolls on a chart, adds injury on top of injury.

Each system has its perks, quirks, and flaws, and I would say one of the biggest challenges of making a RPG based on a narrative media franchise is the narrative element: the characters do and achieve what they do for the purposes of the story. In gaming, that’s called railroading and many dislike it since it effectively has players go through set motions to reach a predetermined outcome, usually.

However, to capture the “feel” of the franchise, some things need to be, well, fudged, to allow that. Having your stalwart band of Rebels get wiped out by a squad of Imperial Stormtroopers due to lucky dice rolls by them and bad dice rolls by you doesn’t feel as action-packed heroic as some of the scenes from the films. But such things can happen in a RPG. I would make some recommendations for a new incarnation of the game.

While the d6-only system of WEG’s RPG makes it rather accessible to beginning players, the accumulation of d6s for character abilities and the like can get into the realm of the ridiculous (or at least, looking back, it did for certain aspects of the game). And the d20 system of the WotC RPG was D&D customized for Star Wars, it was an earlier iteration of the game that could’ve used some improvement. There is a fan-based adaptation of 5th edition D&D for Star Wars, but that more or less maps the D&D classes into Star Wars-themed analogs, which isn’t what I’d go for with such a game. However, the math behind the 5th ed. D&D system is definitely something I’d advocate, and it’d serve as a current and familiar backbone for what I would have a Star Wars RPG be like.

First off, I would use the core system of 5th ed. D&D, including experience point-based level advancement, ability scores, ability score increases at fixed levels of advancement (or Feat special abilities taken in lieu of ability score increases as an option), and the like. The list of skill, tool, and weapon proficiencies would be stripped down and simple.

As for the various species and droids of the setting, I would have a more freeform model akin to that used in the Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything sourcebook, where a character gets a +1 to one ability score of choice and a +2 to another ability score of choice, along with a special ability or free skill, tool, or weapon proficiency, and other unique genetically-based species traits and modifiers (such as Wookiees being physically unable to speak languages other than their own, though they can understand them, for example). There’d also be a formula for creating a custom species, so as to allow for rapid creation of a new species for the players’ game, or a useful means of codifying a new or unique species featured briefly in the franchise. Droids played by players would be more akin to the Independent Droids of earlier versions of the game, and thus not be as restrained as an off-the-line model of droid that would have a monster stat block.

The classes are where a key diversion will come into play. In this version of the game, there would only be a few base classes: Scholar, Fringer, Soldier, and Adept. Each of these base classes would have multiple archetypes that the class could select. Furthermore, the ability to multiclass would be easier in this version of the game than in regular 5th ed. D&D, due to the prominent examples from the franchise: Luke would have begun as a simple Fringer who then switched over to Adept once he began his tutelage under Obi-Wan Kenobi and later Yoda, for example. Characters with connections, resources, knowledge, and social skills would be Scholars (so Leia and maybe Lando as a charming gambler); Fringers would be characters who lived on the edges of the galaxy or society, as well as criminal or less-than-legal sorts; Soldiers would cover troopers, guards, (traditional) Mandalorians, insurgents, and several other sorts of combatants; and finally the Adept would be the catch-all for any sort of Force User, such as Jedi, Sith, the Bendu, Dathomir witches, and even the shamans of simpler cultures like the Ewoks.

I would not go down the rabbit hole of getting specific with the Jedi into subclasses like Jedi Guardian, Jedi Consular, Sith assassin, and the like, because those roles really limit the character. They are fine for stat blocks of non-player characters or opponents who don’t grow and change, but I’d argue that the principal characters of the film do grow and change: Luke may have been a Jedi Guardian-like character at first, but the older mentor Luke was closer to Yoda than Obi-Wan at the end. Therefore, allowing the characters to grow and develop their abilities as they grow and mature would be best.

As for magic, or rather, the Force, I would have a tiered system of Force powers that could do more as the character grew in power and knowledge. For example, telekinesis is a fundamental Force power; easier tasks lift or push things with no problem, and can be simply done at will. However, moving rocks, ships, opponents, or other such things exerts more effort, and demands more mastery of the Force. In this sense, I’d use something akin to spell slots–the power can do more if used at a greater intensity, like throw a starfighter or lift and Force choke an opponent.

However, some uses, like Force choking, would incur a dark side cost. This cost would remain unless the character atones and refrains from using the Dark Side further; though to be fair, using the Dark Side makes it easier to use the more powerful and hostile aspects of a Force power, which in turn makes the user grow closer to the Dark Side, and so on.

Like 5th ed. D&D, backgrounds would be available and provide useful perks outside of combat: Noble, Gambler, Farmer, Smuggler, Bounty Hunter, Officer, Crack Pilot, Pirate, Jedi, Sith, Dathomir Witch, Seperatist Guerilla, etc.

The Sidekick rules from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything would be available, especially to ease solo play or a small group. Here characters like droids, alien compatriots (ala Chewbacca), lieutenants, and the like could be created and played, and assist players in the game without an overwhelming number of characters to manage.

Starship battles would be something covered in the rules as well, though I think what rules are used should be well thought out for tabletop wargaming akin to Star Wars Armada or the like. The complexity level of the rules should vary, as well, depending if the battle is conducted on a table with tokens or miniatures in detail, or is more open and loose for playing via the theater of the mind. If anything, I would say the ship would have base statistics that can be augmented by the character’s base proficiency bonus and relevant ability score (as a vehicle or tool is treated in 5th ed. D&D). Each ship would have hit points, and its armor class would be a mix of speed, agility, durability of the ship, and shielding; I’d suggest boosting power to the shields would be activating an ability that grants temporary hit points or the like.

Now, there really wouldn’t be anything akin to magic items, per se, though unique Force artifacts, well-made items, and the like may have a bonus to them: the lightsabers Jedi and other Force users builds for themselves would fit into this category, as would true Beskar Manadalorian armor and weapons, customized blasters, or the like. Special technological items like medical kits and the like would roughly stand in for healing potions and the like.

And of course, opponents and creatures would be akin to monsters, and have monster stat blocks for those elements. Legendary or mythic opponents, like Darth Vader or Darth Sidious, would be extremely challenging opponents with unique abilities that enable them to deal with multiple opponents at once.

My argument for this is that it uses a simple, easy-to-learn system that’s already popular thanks to the current edition of the game, and it can build on the continuing interest in the franchise thanks to the numerous projects pending release on Disney+ in the near future. However, it won’t be so tightly based on the source game system that it removes the ability to make a diverse array of characters as depicted in the franchise itself.

There is said to be a new game from Asmodee’s Edge Studio, though nothing new has been added on that front, and the official site just promotes the Fantasy Flight Games version. This wouldn’t be that much of an issue to me if it weren’t for the appearance of less of the FFG materials on shelves. I’m not sure if there’s going to be an actual game or effectively a 2.0 version of the FFG RPG that unifies the three themed games into one system.

The releases on Disney+ for Star Wars are just one reason why an official licensed Star Wars RPG should be available for play. The pending release of Star Wars: Eclipse game, set in the High Republic era, should only stoke the interest and desire for Star Wars more on top of the Disney+ shows. However, my take is only one of a myriad of possibilities; I’d definitely like to hear what other fellow Star Wars and RPG fans would have to say on the subject.

NIX is getting all her stuff set up.

For the time being, you can watch this introduction video she made for us!

As an artist, preparation plays a vital role in her work. It reduces errors, prevents re-work, and shortens activities.

Who doesn’t like an efficient workflow? It’s just practical!

Great workflows enables you to make quicker, smarter decisions, and it empowers you to be more productive and agile.

And if you’re able to finish your tasks a lot earlier than you have to, you feel more confident and fulfilled leaving you with so much time to do anything you want.

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Obviously, everyone has probably seen or heard of the TV show, “The Walking Dead”, based on the original comic. But not many people have likely read the comic, which is a shame. It ended a while ago, and I finally had a chance to read through it and get to the utterly fantastic ending.

But as I read through the series, (especially the ending), I realized that Robert Kirkman is actually brilliant as a writer: The Walking Dead was never about Zombies, it’s about something much bigger. The end of “The Walking Dead” comic book brings into focus what the series is actually all about: Rick Grimes carrying the light of civilization through the end of modern society into the dawn of a new one.

This is why all the villains of the series in reflect the different stages of mankind’s fall and express different views on what the “new” society in the Apocalypse needs to be; the main villains, Shane, The Governor, Terminus, Negan, etc. all depict how society becomes more brutal and violent as they leave civility behind. The zombies are the catalyst to civilization’s fall, but the real struggle in the series is about how the survivors choose to deal with the zombies, each other, and moving forward.

Rick Grimes, as a former lawman and deep believer in order being necessary for civilization, becomes the main sail for society to become civil again. He’s not perfect, he makes mistakes, but the journey of the series is mainly to establish that without at least one man, (the right man), trying to keep hope, dignity, order, and civility alive, the Zombie Apocalypse would likely have ended the light humanity has under civilization.

The new civilization that we see spring up has safety, schools, law, art, and has become so ‘safe’ that despite zombies still being a threat, it’s just a normal part of life, and society finally has started to move forward again.

The Zombie problem never goes away. It is the new normal that when people die, their body reanimates. However, the Apocalypse where zombies are a threat to all humanity does indeed end, and civilization begins anew.

The series actually makes a great case that it is not the zombies that ended civilization: they were a catalyst to opening the floodgates on our baser impulses and pushed the survivors of the old world to near-barbarism. However, civilization managed to stay alive through Rick Grimes and his communities, and most certainly his efforts. Running with the theme in The Walking Dead that the biggest threat isn’t the Walkers, but the surviving humans, we see the series end confirming exactly that; it takes effort and faith to not just be, “The Walking Dead”.

I’m not trying to bag on the show at all, and there are a few seasons of it that I really love. But I think both stories are more interesting to the audience when you see the big picture: it’s not a series about just grinding through situations against zombies. The scope of the tale is much broader: it’s about humanity and civilization, and what it actually means to have both.

Once I had read the ending, the slog of particular chapters and situations disappeared into a sense of satisfaction. There is a happy ending to the series, though not every character gets there, and it’s not by making all the zombies go away. It’s actually about re-establishing that light of a free society. If you like good stories, I highly recommend it!

Bad endings may show anything from a cautionary tale, a story of a villainous protagonist getting their just desserts, or an expression of a cynical writer/director’s vision of nihilism they are trying to express through their story.

Fallen
Nightmare Alley
Requiem for a Dream

I’m not really a fan of ‘bad endings’, to be honest. By bad, I mean endings to stories where the bad guy seems to win, the good guys fail, or everything we see as a struggle ends up looking pointless. But some can be well done and entertaining, and sometimes you can even take home a good lesson about pride, hubris, envy, or any number of human pitfalls.

In the three types I mentioned at the start, usually the writer is trying to convey a personal stance through the fiction:

  1. The Morality Tale – “Don’t do this/Doing this will be bad for you in the end!” – (Requiem for a Dream)
  2. The Villain Gets Their Comeuppance – “You can only be evil and stay one step ahead for so long, but eventually, everyone trips up and gets their just desserts.” (Nightmare Alley)
  3. The Cautionary Tale – “Evil succeeds when good men do nothing”/ ”Evil succeeds if good men don’t do enough.” (Fallen)
  4. And to a lesser extent, Nihilism – “Everything is pointless”.

Typically, the Morality Tale is a way for the author to warn the audience: cheaters never prosper, liars eventually get caught, that sort of thing. The bad ending here usually helps demonstrate why noble virtues like honesty, trust, friendship, loyalty, and forgiveness would have likely saved the day or redeemed a character; but by being selfish or evil, the ending became a bad one.

For the Villain getting their comeuppance, I see this the most when the protagonist of the story is actually evil, or the villain of the tale. Nightmare Alley is a good example of a film where you’re following a murderer who learns to be become a con artist and escalates their crimes. The ‘bad’ ending for the film is actually the character’s negative acts bringing them down to a terrible low. It’s not presented in a way for us to revel in it, but it certainly plucks a chord that maybe this character made this bed and now has to lie in it.

For the Cautionary Tale, like “Fallen”, we actually follow a hero who is doing the right thing and almost stops the villain. The problem in the film that in warns us about is that he has to fight this villain virtually alone. Very few believe the central character, and even though he comes up with a daring, gutsy plan to bring down the bad guy, (and it almost works!), the ending serves to remind us that the real strength of the villain is that most of the ‘good’ people in the world were on the sidelines disbelieving and doing nothing. It’s a bad ending, and a stark reminder to keep an open mind, examine the evidence, and maybe believe in things we can’t necessarily see or understand; one good man sometimes isn’t enough to stop evil in its tracks.

Nihilism is, (for me), the most frustrating. This one also can be just a long, dark ride to a dark place that the writer wants to write about, like addiction, cheating, murder, etc. In those cases, the author might be exorcising some of their own demons and negative experiences. Or, they might be writing a dark tale because they wanted to write a tale where the ending was ultimately futile, pointless, or empty to make their personal point about why struggling gets you nowhere, or even just makes things worse.

The Butterfly Effect

Like I said, I’m not wild about movies with bad endings. Some people might find them cathartic or interesting, and sometimes, (if they’re well done), they can be. Ultimately, it comes down to what the writer is trying to say, and why. It might be a message for you, (the audience), or a way for them to shout out their own struggles or demons and get paid for it. All I can really say is, if you don’t like movies with bad endings, you’re not alone, and sometimes, it’s worth reading the reviews and skipping the movie if you think it’s going to bring you down. On the other hand, some movies have terrific “bad” endings; but usually, (for me), the bad ending is about learning a lesson over expressing nihilism.

Using a bad ending has to be a specific choice, and I find that it’s best used with a positive spin. However, as writers, every tool is at your disposal, and that means every ending is, too. It’s up to you as a writer to determine what you think is best for your story and for your audience. Word to the wise: if you go for a bad ending, be sure to do it well: all your basics with plot, characters, setting, and the story arc have to be iron clad. If people aren’t going to finish your story on an upbeat note, then you at least need to have them so impressed with how the tale was written that they still feel satisfied for having gone on the ride.  

There is absolutely a time and a place to have all your main characters in a story get along. However, just like in real life, human beings don’t always mesh right away: we typically call this, “friction”. This actually can become a powerful, (and FUN!) writing tool to use when creating your stories! Too many times new writers want their characters to be ‘liked’ so much that they avoid putting them into confrontation with the other characters around them, or from giving them flaws that make agitating to the audience. However, that’s where the magic can be, so understanding how it works and reviewing a few methods can seriously spice up your next project!

My favorite trope for friction is the “Buddy Cop” scenario. I think movies like Lethal Weapon are the gold standard to study to see how to craft that recipe.

Lethal Weapon

But before I dive in, just be aware that the “Buddy Cop” trope is my favorite to use, but it’s not the only one by a longshot. We all know the circumstances of how two people who don’t like each other end up tolerating each other long enough to work together. In fact, many of these tropes intersect with each other!

  • The Enemy of My Enemy is My Friend” – I LOVE this one: two people have to team up because there is something worse for them to fight, and likely both will die if they don’t combine forces. (Ex: Blade 2)
Blade 2
  • “Mutual Purpose” – “We both want the same thing. Mostly.” Mutual Purpose just means both parties having intersecting desires; they may have a lot that isn’t in common, but it’s that slim intersection that is going to push them to cooperate, if only temporarily. (Ex: Predator 2 – both men want to find the Predator.)
Predator 2
  • “Quid Pro Quo” – You do this for me, I do this for you. Simple enough; even if they hate each other, they need each other, because each person has something the other wants.
48 Hours
  • “Keep Your Friends Close, and Your Enemies Closer”: I love this one; you’re really only working with the person you hate because you KNOW they will try to backstab you the first chance they get. So you keep them close to try to see it coming and turn the tables.
Firefly, Episode 1
Thor: Ragnarok

All of these are great ways to get two people/parties that could even hate each other to cooperate, because it’s within each party’s individual interest to do so. For now. 😀


  • Buddy Cop

Why I love this trope the best is pretty simple: you can combine two people with vastly different personalities together into an effective team without losing what makes each one individually interesting. At the same time, we can show how the two individuals can become even better as a team!

The Nice Guys
21 Jump Street
Men In Black
Bad Boys/ The Rock
Rush Hour

The more different they are, the better it works when they overcome those differences and start to work as a team.

How does it work? Well, it’s basically a recipe:

  • Take two vastly differing characters
  • Give them each some good qualities and bad qualities
  • Put them in a high stakes/high risk scenario
  • Make the plot demand that each one has particular skills that contribute to the success of their joint mission
  • Start with distrust between the two characters and “growing pains”, but give them time to see the value in what the other person does
  • Then, finish off by each character learning something and growing due to the other

Yes, the characters may hate each other, but they must each have some slack in their character that allows them room to make compromises. This can be because a character has enough self-awareness that they know they lack a skill or ability, or because they intellectually know the other character has something they need.

Both characters, to some extent, never need to like each other, but should RESPECT each other, up to a point. They might betray each other during the story or at the end, but while they are working together, writing in why both characters are willing to play along is important. That keeps the audience invested, even if both characters double cross each other at the end. If you use a positive method, like Buddy Cop story telling, the payoff becomes how the two move from hating each other to friendship.

So, while I am going to reference the latest release of the Spider-Man film franchise, not to mention some Disney+ shows and upcoming MCU films, I will try to avoid spoilers. However, if you are hypersensitive about spoilers, be forewarned.

Spider-Man: No Way Home is a great film. I loved how it acknowledged the past and the many differences between the franchises and the comics, much less delving into the complexities of the multiverse on a more grounded level, rather than from the lofty heights of beings like Loki and Dr. Strange. It explains why certain things unfolded as they did in the MCU logically—technically, the MCU is how it is, before and now, because it’s all Kang’s fault—but it gives an out for all of the quirks and disconnects that have occurred in the various film series by various companies, as well as reminders of exactly the same thing that’s occurred in the comics.

It reminds us that things change, but remain the same. With the Marvel films, there is a world that matches with the comics, along with countless worlds that don’t. There’s a world where Dolph Lundgren’s Punisher is the Punisher, as well as the Thomas Jane version, the Ray Stevenson version and the Jon Bernthal version. It’s a green light for all stories for all of these characters and their myriad media expressions. It’s also an unspoken license for fans to craft their own fanfic using these characters.

If you will, it reminds us of the magic of fiction—anything can happen. If it’s told in an engaging or entertaining way, it could become popular and persist beyond its origins—the Fifty Shades works took off, despite beginning as Twilight fanfic, as have the Mithgar works of Dennis L. McKiernan gone beyond their inceptions as sequels to Tolkien’s works. And fiction allows for the impossible to take place, whether it’s having various beloved versions of a character meet themselves or having the barriers of time swept away to allow for meetings not possible in the real world (like, for example, having the Jackman Wolverine join up with the First Class X-Men to assist the just before-Infinity War Avengers in saving the world and rescuing the Fox Fantastic Four from Kang, Loki, and Dr. Doom, with the Netflix Defenders, Nic Cage Ghost Rider, Agents of SHIELD, and Deadpool showing up as various cameos).

I’m curious to see if DC will try something like this on the big screen (because technically they’ve already done it on the small screen with their CW series), but that’s be tricky since I’d argue it’d feel rushed for the DC films while it was good timing as it was done with the CW shows (as it was with the DCAU).

As we head into 2022, I am excited to see how the limitless potential of this narrative method is tapped to tell new tales for the many multiverses of Marvel, much less the sagas from a Galaxy Far, Far Away or any other franchise.

There has been some talk about some of the recent releases for 5th ed. Dungeons and Dragons, such as The Wild Beyond the Witchlight and Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos. The former begins in a traveling carnival run by fey folk, and leads into adventures within the setting‘s realm of faerie. The latter is based in a wondrous school of magic and the dealings going on there, derived from a Magic: The Gathering release which in turn harkens back to a particular set of works by Rowling.

Compared to the dungeon-delving or planar traveling of other D&D releases, these releases have generated a bit of skepticism by certain sections of the fanbase. Notably, from what I’ve observed, it’s due to a shift from just action-heavy resolution of problems, with the all-too common combat encounters, to possible resolutions without any combat. And, in the case of Strixhaven, the incorporation of the mundane and routine as plot elements: classes, studying, extracurriculars, work, relationships, and the like. What’s so heroic and fantastical about that?

For one, I think that it’s a smart move to show how D&D can be used in a variety of story styles and settings, especially beyond the familiar tropes of sword and sorcery-style adventures. Many other supplements, current and past, released addressed other settings or styles that went beyond the fantastic medieval milieu: the magical tech of Eberron and Ravnica; the mythic and classic Greco-themed realm of Theros; the horror-steeped setting of Ravenloft; the apocalyptic weirdness of Dark Sun; the game of nations that was Birthright; the Tolkien-like war between the forces good and evil, but with more dragons, in Dragonlance; the plane-crossing exoticism of Planescape; the magical space fantasy of Spelljammer; and others.

Both the novel and the familiar appeal to an audience. Not every film out there is an action-packed blockbuster. Think of the appeal held by films like The Godfather, Animal House, The Breakfast Club, A Christmas Story, and so many others. They tap on things that we know or know of, if not experienced in some form or fashion. Blowing up the bad guy isn’t the goal of the narrative—it’s successfully navigating in the world they’re a part of. And that’s the appeal for an audience: to see it unfold for characters they connect to or even potentially see as proxies for themselves.

For some D&D players, their characters aren’t just pieces on a playing field—they’re defined beings. They’re characters that they’re invested in, just like any character from literature or film that they’ve made a connection to. And that’s something that is due recognition. The character is a character, and not just a specific piece on the playing field, much less an optimized piece on the playing field for that particular game. And living vicariously through that character can manifest in many ways, and not just some Grand Theft Auto-style rampage stealing and assaulting anyone and anything you feel like at the time.

If anything, it really is living up to the possibility of doing anything through the medium of a roleplaying game. Other games have used or created mechanics suited for their setting or genre, and some try to be all things to all players. However, I think it’s good that D&D is shown to demonstrate this diverse play style, rather than just saying that it’s capable of, yet not really showcasing this quality itself. I’m not asking for the game to be all things under the sun for everyone, but ultimately, I always appreciate the show of potential and application in ways that I or others may not have thought of.

Three Simple Starter Steps: ground the character in the setting, have them know their place in the fiction, and don’t work backwards.

(property of Larian Studios)

GROUND THE CHARACTER IN THE SETTING:

This is one of the first big mistakes for writers who end up making a Mary Sue: the character they make may end up ridiculously overpowered, or a better term, “out of balance”, with the rules of the setting.

Internal consistency is important in writing, and when it goes astray, people notice. Aragorn pulling out an AK-47 and mowing down orcs at the end of Lord of the Rings would be really out of place for the setting, as would watching Frodo power up to God-Tier Frodo and blowing up the Earth.

(Property of Toei Animation)

Closer to the mark, if we saw a character like Faramir show up to the battle wielding some magic ring we’d never heard of, one that wasn’t forged like the rings of power but gave him invincibility on the battlefield, we’d have something that really sticks out in the setting because magic rings were exceedingly rare and what they could do had already been loosely defined.

So when writing your fanfic character, stick to what is believable in the setting you’re writing in. You can have cool skills, powers, and abilities, but they should be on par with what the setting already provides.

KNOW THEIR PLACE IN THE FICTION

(property of Disney Studios)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer had a terrific episode tackling the Mary Stu/Gary Stu trope called, “Superstar”, where a nothing side character cast a spell and was suddenly the most important person on the planet. The Slayer, (Buffy) and her team looked to him for advice on how to tackle threats, the military sub-contracted him to help in the Initiative, he was a pro-basketball player, and pretty much anything great in the world was re-written so that he was responsible for it.

I call this episode a “Must-Watch!” because it nails this problem with Mary Sues taking over the fiction from the primary characters so obviously that you can dissect the rest of the trope from there.

Essentially, in a fanfic, you want your character to be part of the universe, but that means letting the heroes of that universe still do what they are set to do. If anything, a fanfic character is essentially a guest star to the setting: they might have one important play to make in the overall game, but they aren’t the quarterback of the team and shouldn’t be doing everything better than the stars.

I like to say that characters should know their place in the fiction, because not every character is the lead, and not every character is the chorus. But you don’t have much of a show unless you, the writer, know which is which.

If you’re trying to avoid a Mary Sue lead character, you still just watch out for same problem: if the universe seems to re-write itself so that the lead character continually remains the center of attention even when the setting and plot should say otherwise, then your character is likely shifting away from being a lead to being a Mary Sue.

DON’T WORK BACKWARDS:

Boy, this drives me nuts. Okay, so you want to write a cool character who does a lot of cool things like the characters you admire. You see the cool things they do, like the bomb pictured above, and try to emulate it. There’s is a lot of light, a big noise, and a big fiery cloud, so you try to re-create that in your own special way for your story.

Except…

What I pictured above isn’t a bomb. It’s an EXPLOSION, what happens AFTER a bomb goes off. This is a bomb:

Doesn’t look quite as attractive, does it? But this took a lot of thought and a lot of work to make, and it’s when the bomb goes off that you get the explosion I pictured first.

This is the problem with a lot of writers: they see the explosion, or think about the explosion they want, and try to write that, instead of starting with the bomb. What I described usually ends up with a writer trying to copy someone else’s work, hoping to get the same effect; or they are trying to copy the original work with a few extra tweaks. It usually falls flat on its face because the person doing the copying has no idea about the work that went into the original to get the desired effect or how it was applied to get the outcome. The second writer is trying to skip to the end without realizing that what made the explosion possible needed to be expertly crafted.

Starting with the bomb means carefully planning THE PURPOSE of the bomb, how best to achieve that purpose, and then putting a ton of thought into how to create it and deliver it. It means you have to spend analyzing, planning, researching, designing, and then implementing the character.

THAT is where you need to start as a writer. You’re trying to build a bomb in the hopes that the makes a big boom that the audience will love:

… and not destroy everything around it.

When you’re writing your characters, it’s like building a bomb: you have to decide if it’s a firework, a nuke, a grenade, a breaching charge, or mining dynamite. You have to know what you want that bomb to DO, and design towards that. If you don’t know what parts of the character will make it into a nuke instead of a mining charge, then you need to slow down, do your research, figure out what ingredients you do need, and then build.

Take anger, for instance. Anger can be fueled by guilt, shame, fear, trauma, helplessness, victimization, righteousness, justice, and just about anything other than indifference. Each of these comes with potentially very different backstories, motivations, and developmental arcs as to how they got angry and what they are looking to do to relieve that anger. A character who fuels their anger with self-righteousness and justice is different from an angry character lashing out due to being traumatized, even though they both externally may look angry.

Don’t work backwards by looking at someone else’s explosion and trying to write the explosion. You may not know all the work the author did, but you CAN know what you’re putting into your work.

If you build the bomb correctly, the explosion will happen naturally as the bomb fulfills its purpose! The explosion is the byproduct, not the starting point. Believe in your ability to craft good work, do your due diligence, and craft your character to fulfill a need in the story.


You can create some amazing, special characters for your own fictions. But remember the three key rules:

  • Ground the character in the setting. If it doesn’t work in the setting it doesn’t work for your character.
  • Know their place in the fiction. They are a part of the story, but not the center of that universe.
  • Don’t work backwards. Don’t write the explosion; you need to build the bomb. If you build the bomb correctly, you’ll get the explosion you want as a result.

If you do, you’ll have a much better chance of not making a Mary Sue!

Avoiding the Mary Sue: Three Simple Starter Steps

This drives me nuts in a lot of modern writing: people make broad assumptions or believe old stereotypes that end up hurting their writing.

If your assumptions are based in stereotypes, then I’d say it will hamper your ability to write good fiction. And sadly, many people make assumptions all the time.

ASSUMPTIONS IN WRITING:

This may seem pretty obvious, but it’ll catch you off-guard. Many stereotypes and tropes that are so commonly absorbed you write it before you even think about it.

  • Shooting a car’s gas tank will make it explode
  • You can pull a grenade’s pin out with your teeth/grenades make very big explosions
  • Computer hacking is near-instantaneous and is done by “Hollywood geeks” which are typically models with glasses and scruffy dudes in hoodies
  • Nerdy dudes wear glasses and are super skinny
  • Opposites attract/hookers with a heart of gold/the bad boy a woman can fix, etc.

Wait, did you think I was going to talk about racial stereotypes and use those for my examples first? Well, that was an assumption, too. See how easy they are to have and make?

Stereotypes like these are driven by writers trying to use shorthand and shortcuts. Worse, these stereotypes become so widely prevalent that they continually get reinforced in Hollywood casting.

This is one of the reasons why pieces that dip deeply into these kinds of shortcuts can garner a lot of flak from critics and audiences. Everyone wants to be entertained, but if the shortcuts you’re taking draw too much focus from the audience, you’re actually derailing the piece.

I’m not saying some of these can’t be done well, but many of them can be done very, very poorly. And now I am going to include racial assumptions in the mix, too. If you’re writing a book, do you feel the need to champion a particular type of person and design them in such a way as to paint them in a particular light? If so, you’ve just walked into a minefield where you will likely be making a lot of assumptions and playing into stereotypes; you just may swap one set for another.

For instance: “I want to make a strong, female character!”

Oh boy. This is the writing minefield of our time, because immediately your brain needs to make assumptions to figure out what “strong” is supposed to mean in relation to “female.” “Strong” means different things to different people. What typically happens when you play into this type of thinking is that you reach for an unconscious stereotype of what “strong” means to you, or what you WANT it to mean in this story. That’s how we end up characters that are caricatures of something else. Captain Marvel was a good example: trying to write a strong, female character here ended up with a hotshot who was virtually unchallenged by anything in the entire movie. The only person she cared about was an old buddy of hers and her daughter, but had no real internal struggle or strong motivation towards any particular goal.

Compare her to the gold standard, Ellen Ripley in Aliens: Ellen is extremely vulnerable and terrified of going back to face the xenomorph, and does so reluctantly. After a slew of marines die and her ward gets captured, she makes the decision to try to rescue the lone survivor of the colony; it doesn’t take a genius to put together that she’s developed a strong motherly bond AND is doing for Newt what no one was able to do for her: come to her rescue.

Ellen IS a strong character because she overcomes her inner fears and doubts as well as defeating her opponents using wit and guile. Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel was written to be strong, but ends up looking really weak, because there’s nothing to really latch onto or care about with her character. She’s never really in danger, she doesn’t have a personal flaw or fear to overcome, and the climax of the film is really just shooting fish in a barrel.

By “assuming” what a strong, female character should be, Captain Marvel becomes a cartoon cut out of a character who actually did struggle in the comics: she struggled with being taken seriously, with losing friends and mentors, with a rape, with losing her powers to Rogue, with alcoholism, and more; yet still showed up to be hero when danger came knocking.

In contrast, Ellen Ripley was just written as a character who had serious fears and issues that she made a choice to face again. By allowing the character to form a bond with Newt after having lost her own child due to age and time, we get one of the most kicks “strong” elements of writing you can ever have: “MOTHERHOOD.” Do NOT mess with Mama Bear!!! That’s a universal human understanding about females which is why it worked so well.


ASSUMPTIONS IN PERFORMING:

Robert Downey Jr. Tropic Thunder
“I’m the dude, playing the dude, disguised as another dude!”

I do need to make a sidebar here: actors perform what writers have written, but it can be just as dangerous for actors to make assumptions while crafting their performance as it is for writers putting ink on the page.

Let’s just jump right into this: as an actor, you don’t want to make assumptions about how “black,” “white,” “male,” “female,” “rich,” “poor,” “Kingly,” “desperate” (or really any descriptor) function. When you try to “play black,” you’re going to head right to stereotypes.

Characters need to be crafted and based in a certain level of realism.

You want to play with the character’s point of view, their experiences, and their actions, but don’t make assumptions about what these are arbitrarily.

Avery Brooks didn’t play “Ben Sisko” as a “black man,” he just played with how Ben was a father, a leader, a religious figure, and a Starfleet officer in regards to character’s history and the interactions that character has with other characters.

That’s “acting.” And Avery Brooks is an amazing actor!

Don’t assume. If you’re playing a blind man, don’t “play blind” and walk around with your hands out. Put a blindfold on for a while, talk to some blind people, read a book about how people who have been blinded adjust, etc. Do some research and work, and then play off of that.

Even though I’m mentioning this from the view of a performer, writers should take note as well. Nothing helps your writing more than experience and research.


ASSUMPTIONS YOU CAN MAKE AS A WISE WRITER OR PERFORMER:

One of the best examples is John Krasinski in “The Office,” putting his foot down about NOT having the character of Jim cheat on Pam by kissing Cathy.

Krasinki’s instincts told him this was a bad idea, and he fought the writer on it. He’s said in interviews it’s the only time he put his foot down during the filming of the show, and I agree 100% that he was right, and the writer was wrong.

The writer thought the writing for Jim to this point was leading the audience towards believing Jim could cheat on Pam with Cathy.

But John, with all the work, circumstances, and POV of “Jim” at the time, made the assumption that “Jim” wouldn’t actually cheat on Pam that way, considering the history and recent events of the two characters. This included all his time performing with Jenna Fischer, all the feedback he has gotten from fans, and his instincts about how the audience would react to Jim’s infidelity.

Now, this obviously became a debate and in terms of writing, it certainly would have added drama, but it wouldn’t have played well with the audience. John correctly assumed the audience would hate it, and I fully believe he was right. There comes a point where the actor playing the role should develop through their character work and time performing the role, a sense of what that character would or not do under particular circumstances. This is called, “justification”; I hotly debate this as a performer and a writer. Some people believe that whatever the writer writes, the actor must perform. They treat the script as if it were gospel from God himself, and think that performers should just accept it and find a way to justify internally whatever it is the writer had their characters do.

I don’t believe that. There is such a thing as “Bad Writing,” and writers can make very poor choices that anyone outside their own head could tell them is unjustifiable given the circumstances; it’s at these times a performer like Krasinski, who has career and future wrapped up in this role, needs to speak up. I’m not saying that actors should be constantly looking to change lines, but when there is this much on the line, they should speak up.

So there is a performance and writing note to be had here:

  • Just because it adds more drama doesn’t mean it’s a good for the audience. Don’t assume that just because you’ve opened a door in your writing that you’ve hit all the right notes to ensure that the audience wants to go into through it.
  • Just because you’re the actor and not the writer doesn’t mean the actor doesn’t have a say in how the character is performed; the character is a combination of the writing and the performance. Because it’s a collaborative art, sometimes you need to speak up about the assumptions people are making about the character, especially if you think they’re going the wrong way.

If only more writers were more willing to listen to their actors about the assumptions they are making.

And of course, the reverse can happen as well; an actor wanting to portray Hamlet as though he’s a character on the Holodeck of the U.S.S. Enterprise from Star Trek: The Next Generation when the entire production and cast are playing the setting straight is a probably going to stick out like a sore thumb. Not every instinct is a good one that should be pursued, and as a writer, director, or performer, you’re going to have to be ready to explain, justify, and defend your decisions with logic, reason, and passion.

So to wrap up: Research, experience, and humility are your best friends in the arts. Don’t assume; get the facts, get experience, and then start your crafting! The payoff in the work is always worth it! Audiences crave experiences that help them escape, and authenticity unlocks a lot of doors to the imagination!