Monday, May 20, 2019

Podcast Episode 10: More Fun with Jonathan Auxier

Hi, guys, long time no see! Here we are with a new Podcast episode! Special Guest Jonathan Auxier returns to the podcast to give us some pushback for our last three episodes! It’s a good one! Exclamation point!

I also had some follow-up thoughts for those of you that have listened to it. Have you listened to it yet? Good, here we go: Jonathan points out that the Rank-Raglan 22-step structure wraps around to overlay on top of itself, with the hero going through the first 11 steps while the villain goes through the last 11. As I edited the episode, I wondered if that was true of Harry Potter, and it is true with Voldemort to a certain extent, but where it really applies is not to the villain but to the mentor, Dumbledore. Harry meets most of the first 11 steps while his mentor meets all but one of the back 11.

12. Marries a princess (often daughter of predecessor): This is obviously the one that fits the least since, as we later found out, he’s gay, but basically the princess is Hogwarts itself.
13. Becomes king: He’s offered leadership of the whole wizarding world but chooses to just rule the school.
14. For a time he reigns uneventfully: For many years.
15. He prescribes laws: He also chairs the Wizengamot.
16. Later loses favor with gods or his subjects: People are constantly plotting against him in the books.
17. Driven from throne and city: He gets fired in books 2 and 5.
18. Meets with mysterious death: Seemingly killed by his follower, but there’s more to it.
19. Often at the top of a hill: He’s atop a tower.
20. His children, if any, do not succeed him: He’s childless, his killer takes his place.
21. His body is not buried: He is laid in an above ground tomb, which is later raided and desecrated.
22. Has one or more holy sepulchers or tombs: See above.

I thought that was neat!


Jonathan Auxier said...

Thanks for letting me crash the party! You and James are both so brilliant about story that listening to the pair of you makes us all a bit smarter.

Anonymous said...

please do one for GoT now that it's over.

Matt Bird said...

James didn't watch it!

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Glad to hear you guys again!

The OODA loop technique could be the tool of the antagonist. The antagonist floods the protagonist’s life with crisis after crisis, keeping the protagonist from being able to plan ahead. As this feels like a lot of people’s daily lives, imagine the fist-pumping in the audience when the protagonist ignores one or more of the latest crises, thereby breaking the loop, and then forces the antagonist to dance to their tune instead. “You make my life a nightmare of crazy? No, I make YOUR LIFE a NIGHTMARE OF CRAZY!”

It’s what we all dream about.

Well, I do.

The “passive protagonist” discussion was great, and the insight that the more we’re in the head of the protagonist, emotional reactions can serve as “actions” is a good one.

Take The Handmaid’s Tale. The protagonist’s passivity is necessary. She can’t make choices because she lives in a society that took them away from her; doing so is the purpose of that society. Other people make her choices for her. Yet Offred’s enforced passivity strikes sparks in the reader, because she doesn’t want to be passive and we know it. We see her frustrations, we live in her head. Her passivity is not a character flaw, it’s a circumstance.

Also, the book spends huge portions of its time worldbuilding, which means that we need a passive protagonist. We don’t want someone to get in the way of our learning about that world. The midpoint of the novel is where the worldbuilding changes; the Republic of Gilead’s façade of perfect control starts to crack. The first half makes that world seem stronger and stronger, the second half reveals the rot behind the front, showing how the zealots’ plans failed in the face of reality. The book ends with a coda that’s a masterpiece of dark humor. (God, I love that book. Atwood’s a damned genius.)

This logic could apply to Harry Potter and others as well. When passivity is forced by circumstance, it’s not the same as a character who doesn’t want to do anything. Harry Potter wanted out, he just couldn’t see an exit. We can relate.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Notes on “The Forever Train” or “Next Station: Death” or “The Fourth Rail” or whatever you call it:

People, with rare exceptions, are highly resistant to killing people. Even with the promise of Grand Ultimate Power dangled before them, it’s not going to be easy to make it happen. How you get the characters past their innate revulsion at killing will determine the type of story you’re telling. You could go realistic, wherein the people ride the train for days and days without killing, people dying of dehydration, then one person decides “hell with it” and exhausted mayhem breaks out, alliances form, treachery and pain follow. Or you could use the “crazy person” cheat and say that one of the people just so happens to be one inch away from being a crazy killer anyway, or already is one, so the murders can begin right away of the slasher-film sort. Or you could lower the threshold of what it takes to get people to kill one another, trusting that the “humans are bastards always on the cusp of murder” trope would be swallowed by the audience. The world doesn’t work like that, but I’d guess in horror you might be able to get away with it.

The realistic version would be grueling and awful. Two days with no water and everyone is sad and angry and that damn toddler in the back won’t stop crying… Yeah, the hardest of passes on “grinding torture porn,” thanks. Reducing people to animals and then watching them tear each other apart in desperation is not entertainment. The crazy person cheat is a cheat, though it’d work for a straight-to-cable hack job provided the blood and gore were strong enough. “Slasher movie in a subway car that never stops” is recognizable as a story. The “everyone’s a bastard, everyone starts a’killin’” story would be about the same as the crazy person cheat but more fantastical and cynical (while pretending to be clear-eyed realism, because that’s what cynics do) and thus crap.

To get the killing going in reasonably short order – so the audience doesn’t identify too strongly with the passengers’ desperation and suffering, which would make the killings sad rather than horrifying or thrilling -- how about the demon/djinn/evil spirit manipulates people. It whispers in people’s ears, makes them hallucinate, and so forth. Maybe it makes secret micro-deals with individual passengers to heat up the situation: “Kick that guy and a full water bottle will appear in your bag,” “Stab that woman with the pen in your pocket and I’ll let you and only you off the train,” etc.

At the midpoint, the train should stop. The characters wanted it to stop, and it does. Hooray!

Now it’s a Whole New Pile of Trouble. Less hooray! They could end up in an awful place, or maybe the djinn has a new game, or maybe the djinn has been replaced with something worse…

Harvey Jerkwater said...

How about the ex-girlfriend was always into occult stuff, and the boyfriend played along back then. And it turns out that maybe he didn’t quite stop either. When he assures his current girlfriend that he’s clean, he’s not being honest. Inject some drama, dang it!

Maybe the Big Twist is that the new girlfriend is also into occult stuff, but for real (the ex’s “occult” activities were silly nonsense) and that the new girlfriend set the whole thing up. She’ll lose control of the situation, because of course, but the disaster was at her instigation, not caused by the dying junkie ex.

I say it almost every time, but it’s true here: this could gender-flip and work well, if not better. The ex-girlfriend roped into helping out her dirtbag ex, the current boyfriend coming along for “protection” but actually jealousy, etc.

Okay, so the core fear here is powerlessness. “The train won’t stop at any station” is the fear that comes with surrendering control to the train system. What if the system decides one day that it doesn’t want to do what it’s supposed to do? What could you do? The train has all of the power. Then comes the wrinkle: the djinn shows up and offers an “out” that’s obviously bullshit and doesn’t address the problem, but it allows people to do something, as though they were taking control of their lives. Granted, this keeps them from doing anything helpful and provides the djinn what it wants, but at least it’s an action. People will seize on any damn nonsense to keep from feeling totally powerless.

Going to rescue the ex could be an extension of this metaphor. The boyfriend could say no, just like a commuter could not take the subway, but the costs of that are high. And once you say yes, it’s out of your control. Invite that human disaster back into your life, and…oh damn.

The story is in how you address this core. How do they react when their agency has been stripped and they’re being tormented by a malevolent power? Do the characters figure out how to break free and seize control? Do they try to break free, fail, and get dragged into misery and death? In the horror genre, that’s an acceptable answer, after all. Is there a way to turn the tables on the controller? Deny the djinn what it wants in return for safety? Find something else that will screw with the djinn? Come close but get hosed?

What does the djinn want? How did the ex-girlfriend (or current girlfriend, if being twisty) conjure the djinn? What did she want?

I listened to this podcast while riding an underground train to work: the Washington DC Metro. I refrained from killing anyone and the train did let me off where it was supposed to. Yay!

Matt Bird said...

All of your points are good, and many of them are in the direction I intended to take it but we never got there in our discussion. I clarified this for James but took it out for time, so I'll clarify here: The djinn is the one keeping the train from stopping, it's not just a coincidence that he shows up. In terms of the killing, it was James's idea that people start killing each other just because the train isn't stopping, but my idea was like yours: the djinn would inhabit them one by one, give them fireball powers, tempt/entrance them with their heart's desires, basically possess them, and get them to kill each other that way, then they have to kill each person he's possessing. And yeah, the ex-girlfriend has some history with the occult (and so does the guy, a little bit) which is how she ended up in this situation. As for what the djinn wants, he wants the strongest possible new host. Obviously, it's just a tossed-off idea I never pursued but I did make a little scarier to ride the subway this morning, right? I still like the elemental-untapped-fear aspect.