So some of you might have noticed that there’s been no Broken Wing updates lately, and there’s a really good reason for that: Our boy James Pantuso has been trying to balance between going to school and finishing up a handful of other artist gigs that can go into his portfolio without making him seem like a crazy person. (“Why do you have so many pictures of robots punching each other in the face?!”)
But recently James received an assignment in class to produce a stand-alone eight page graphic novel, and he asked me if we could do it Broken Wing-related, and further asked me to write it. Given that it’s a short subject, I figured I’d write down my process in case anybody else happened to find that sort of thing interesting.
So because this is a school project, I told James that I wanted to take a relative backseat in terms of the general story arc and whatnot. My plan was that James could plot the whole thing out and I would just throw the dialogue and composition in to make it look a little more interesting on paper. James, on the other hand, gave me the go ahead to do whatever I felt was best, however not before adding this suggestion:
“we could do like.. a prototype frame, blasting a bunch of shit and it could be the pilot describing and relishing in the power of it”
So we’re gonna do that. Not that exactly, but we’re going to use that as our baseline because the man gets what the man wants.
The thing about James’ suggestion is that it doesn’t really have an arc to it. There’s no plot, no point A to begin at or a point B to end up at. Instead we’ve been given a general feel: The idea that our main character has acquired and relishes in the new power that he’s received.
That means we need to do some brainstorming. The first thing I do when I’m in a brainstorming situation like this is I look at the stuff that we already know. This sounds really dumb and obvious, but I think it’ll seem less stupid in a second.
So we know that at some point our main character is going to receive a new Frame (giant fighting robot) and that it’s going to be fucking sweet. What’s more, for him to be “blasting a bunch of shit” it’s going to require that he end up in a fight. There’s the obvious stuff out of the way.
There’s less obvious stuff that we know as well, though. We know that in order to be ‘relishing’ in newly acquired power that our protagonist has to originally be coming from a place of weakness, at least relative to the power found in a giant fighting robot. We know that our protagonist has combat experience, and we know that he’s intelligent enough to apply it to the piloting system of a giant fighting robot. We know that he has violent tendencies.
These begin to paint a picture of who it is we’re dealing with here. We’ve got a smart, violent, weak guy. That doesn’t paint a very flattering picture for our protagonist, in fact he sounds like on the “good guy/bad guy” spectrum that he falls pretty deep into the “bad guy” side. And that’s fine! It’s great to write about bad guys from time to time, especially in the short form. With a reader that’s not too invested in your character you can place the emphasis on an unrepentant villain without exhausting anybody emotionally or mentally.
So if we revise James’ suggestion to include these new details, it now reads something like this:
A weak villain acquires a prototype Frame and blasts a bunch of shit while relishing in the power he’s received.
That’s a little better in terms of plot. We have a point A and we’ve sort of got a point B, although it sounds more like we’re going to end before we see this whole thing reach a complete conclusion.
What we’re really missing now is motivation. Why is our protagonist (which remember means “main character” and not “hero.” You can have a protagonist who is a villain) going to the trouble of acquiring more power?
Going back to the last article I wrote, this was a major problem in Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest. At no point did anybody bother to answer the big looming question of why the villains were going to all this trouble. Why pit two kingdoms against each other? To sow discontent? Land acquisition? It’s never really explained in the definite sense.
And we want to avoid that. Admittedly, it’s a little easier to be forgiving in such a short-form work, but we want to avoid that because it’s super annoying. So let’s talk motivation.
Looking at traditionally “bad guy” motivations for acquiring power, a lot of the time it’s because they’ve got some kind of chip on their shoulder. There’s not usually anything to protect, which is a traditionally “good guy” motivation, which leaves the selfish ones: Revenge, ego, etc.
A character being selfish in acquiring power doesn’t mean that he has to be one-dimensional, though, and along that line I feel like explanations of ego or “he’s just an asshole,” are pretty reductive. So in the interests of keeping this article going let’s pick revenge.
Revenge is easy; it’s something that everybody understands and provided that what causes the desire for revenge is horrible enough it instantly puts the reader in the corner of your protagonist. Revenge is easy to root for, and it only gets easier as the justification gets more and more horrible.
So what causes our weak villain to want revenge? Usually it’s the result of some kind of great injustice – death, loss, the Cubs winning the World Series – something really horrible that personally affects the protagonist and lowers his metaphorical value as a person. If you can combine them all into one big ball of “fuck you” then it’s even better. So let’s do that.
The Cubs (currently) don’t exist within the Broken Wing universe which means that we’re going to have to settle for death and loss. Our protagonist isn’t dead which means that the death has to be someone he cares about, likely a close family member of some kind: A wife, a father, a brother or sister, something like that.
This next part you’re just going to have to trust me on: Readers place more value on relationships involving someone of the opposite gender. It’s an antiquated belief, but if you have to choose between a brother dying or a sister dying and your main character is male, the sister is going to have more “oomph” than the brother. Likewise if the mother dies instead of the father. I actually don’t know about a husband versus a wife (again assuming our protagonist is male) because, frankly, homosexual relationships don’t get represented very often. Hm.
To be honest, eight pages for a school project isn’t the appropriate place to push a progressive social agenda, so we’re going to keep things heterosexual. Given this information we have to choose between a wife, a sister, and a mother.
It is at this point in the article that a funny thing happened.
It turned out, unfortunately, that James needed this script quite a bit faster than I’d initially believed, which (equally unfortunately) meant that less thought had to be put into it in the interest of expediency. No worries, these things happen.
So instead of the eight-or-so pages I was planning, in which we’d be able to get into our main character’s female companion, the script got pared down to a svelte six with the woman relegated to a background character with no dialogue who (quite abruptly) dies in a fire. Which is a shame, but as I mentioned earlier, the pages of a school project are not where one generally makes groundbreaking social commentary, so that’s fine.
There are advantages to the short-form anyway. For example, the script calls for our main character to acquire a prototype Frame. How does he do that? Well, in the script, in what we might call a montage of his descent into insanity, we simply smash cut to him standing in front of said Frame surrounded by bodies. The reader is therefore expected to make their own assumptions as to his skill level and technique in dispatching armed guards.
The reason it’s okay to gloss over these small details is because with such a compact format we need to free up as much space to tell the current story rather than anything superfluous. An inexperienced man taking out a military base’s worth of people in pursuit of a prototype giant fighting robot is a raucous adventure all in and of itself, but it’s not the one we’re looking to put on display. So we just have to show the readers the aftermath. Because we’re only shown it in one or two panels it’s in the brain and then out again without most readers stopping to go “Now wait a second…” You see these sorts of tricks applied in scriptwriting all the time.
Anyway, that will be enough for now. Next week (Assuming that the Calgary Expo doesn’t kill me) I’ll be writing another companion article to this one discussing how we got the specific details hammered out after the baseline was established. Until then though, if you can make it to the Expo, come say hello! And if not, I hope you have an equally fantastic weekend anyway.
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Scott Watmough has many strong opinions about many things that he knows very little about. They're usually about video games.