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September 28, 2012

Spirit Showdown # -1: A Distinction

So apparently, this whole “Spirit Showdown” feature is a thing that’s happening here on Cross-Up.  I think I’ve done the lion’s share of the work, in the sense that my (so-so) art is all finished.  Likewise, the announcement video and the first teaser are done -- and contrary to what I suggested in the post, it took me a long, long, long time to get all the components in place.  Honestly, it was going to be even more complex…but as I’ve said before, I find art to be a tedious (though rewarding) practice.  That’s not to knock any artists or would-be artists; it’s just that as a dabbler, I’d rather stick to writing.

Anyway, the first hero will be revealed in full very soon.  My current plan is to stick to a once-a-week schedule on that front; I don’t expect each post to be as in-depth (or long) as, say, posts for the Kingdom Hearts Retrospective or random video game discussions.  Hopefully, they’ll be about the same length as a chapter of I Hraet You, which generally run to 2,000 words -- well, give or take.  So they won’t be too strenuous, and I’ll be sure to balance out the humor with the twinkly-eyed sales pitches.

But before I get too ahead of myself, I want to make sure I’m clear on what’s going to go down -- a definition, of sorts.  So let’s make sure we’re clear on what’s to come before I make a fool out of myself on the internet.  Let’s go over what I mean when I say “spirit”.

It has nothing to do with horses...yet.

Thousands of years ago, I put together a four-pointed list on the elements of a good story.  Well, truth be told, I did that with this project in mind -- it’s a key element that no story should ignore, but I recognize that there are other pieces with similar worth.  (And of course, my definition will always differ from someone else’s.)  In any case, here are my reproduced thoughts on “spirit” in a nutshell:

“You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘spirit of _______’ in one form or another.  A spirit of adventure!  A spirit of wonder!  Each one brings with it colorful connotations -- qualities that make a story unique and affecting.  If you can sum up a story’s essence in one word -- one adjective or noun that brings with it a plethora of feelings -- then chances are that the story’s not only pretty good, but also worthy of being remembered by virtue of its character.

“But a story’s spirit is largely a matter of conveyance.  Writers (or creators in general) have plenty of tools available to them to show their story’s spirit, be it the characters, the world, the events, the themes, and of course their minds.  With the limitless canvases that fiction provides, there’s no reason why any creator should go without giving their product some much-appreciated flair.”

...And there was some mention of a certain under-appreciated badass.  Fun times.

Hopefully I got my point across from that little section, but I want to expand on that a bit.  Ask any writer -- or heck, any person -- what they think is the most important part of a story, and they’ll probably say “characters”.  That’s a given.  It seems so obvious that I didn’t even bother mentioning on my list from way back when.  But characters (the leads, especially) are a key determinant of a story’s spirit; bad characters lead to a bad spirit, which leads to a bad story.  As a reader -- as a person who enjoys stories, no matter what medium they appear in -- you can probably name some examples.  

But for argument’s sake, let’s pick on a notable example.

As far as I know, everyone seems to love (or at least like) the original Star Wars trilogy.  And as far as I know, the prequel trilogy is universally reviled.  There are probably a lot of reasons for this -- with the Plinkett reviews likely naming each and every one -- but let’s talk about the Skywalkers each trilogy centers on, Luke and Anakin.  It would probably help if I was a major Star Wars buff, but let’s see if I can make my way through this.

Luke Skywalker is our hero.  He’s the lynchpin of the original trilogy, in spite of being just a small component of the story as a whole.  He’s a character we’re meant to identify with in a sense, and sympathize with.  He’s the perfect outlet for introducing an audience to the varied worlds of the franchise, but more importantly he serves as the road viewers are meant to travel.  He starts out as a nobody on a desert planet that wants more out of life, and gets it -- he becomes entangled in a battle that spans the entire universe, becomes part of a ragtag crew, trains in the art of the sword, braves the revelations brought about and endures the call of darkness, and OH MY GOD Star Wars sounds almost exactly like a JRPG.

Pictured: an early design of Luke.  Scrapped due to zoning clearance required on shoes.

Cross-cultural and generational similarities aside, Luke is the hero of The Hero’s Journey.  He starts with nothing but a good heart, but ends up growing into a powerful warrior with allies by his side, stakes to his name, and tragedies fresh in his head.  But in the end, it’s his goodness that ends up becoming his greatest weapon, even more so than his energy katana or sweet robot hand.  While he’s inevitably shaped by the people and circumstances around him -- as heroes often are -- it’s his innate qualities and lessons learned that bring some semblance of a satisfying conclusion to the story.  There are a lot of things you could declare as the original trilogy’s spirit (heroism, justice, adventure, virtue), but if you’ll let me do a bit of wordplay I’ll name the spirit “peace.”  The protagonists all campaign for peace.  Becoming a Jedi -- at least one of the noble ones -- requires inner peace, as I imagine any samurai would espouse.  Saving the universe requires not only stopping the empire, but bringing peace to the Force.  Luke manages to bring peace to Vader’s heart before the lord’s death, and manages to convince him to perform a redemptive sacrifice.  Basically, Luke is a good guy.  We want to follow him because he’s out to do something noble, and it’s reflected upon both the world and the story at large.  And thus, the story gets its spirit.

Anakin, on the other hand, hasn’t been so well-received.  Kid Anakin starts out as a kid (and I mean kid) who’s pulled into a galactic…er, trade dispute from his sandy home planet, in an obvious parallel to Luke.  Outside of some improbable piloting and podracing skills, Anakin doesn’t have too much of a presence in The Phantom Menace -- which may be a bit of a blessing -- so his stake in establishing the story’s spirit is comparatively weak.  In Attack of the Clones, he’s given more of a focus -- along with a forbidden love angle that serves as a precursor to his downfall.  But beyond that, Anakin isn’t nearly as enjoyable to watch and follow along as Luke is.  He’s impulsive, irritable, self-important, and commits the worst sin any character can in a story: he’s whiny

Pfft.  Walk it off, ya baby.

Say what you will about how much we needed to hear Vader’s origin story, but what’s important to note is that we have to (or should at least try to) consider the prequel trilogy as a story with its own merits.  If this was its own separate tale -- concepts and legal issues aside -- would it be able to hold up on its own?  Probably not, because Anakin is a pain to watch.  Ignoring the fact that his conflicts are generated via stupid actions, Anakin himself doesn’t do anything to win viewers over.  He revels in angst.  He makes some really bad decisions.  He has a shallow love interest that probably should’ve gone running to Kashyyyk before marrying the clearly-unstable murderer.  His character arc is all over the place, both in terms of the trilogy and in each movie.  It’s impossible to feel anything for a character that’s irredeemable thanks to his stupidity and remains thoroughly unlikable throughout.  So in other words, he’s a bad JRPG protagonist.

Again, what a person decides to call the trilogy’s spirit will vary -- but in my case, I’d call it “tragedy”.  It’s a tragedy by design (by poor design), and it’s a tragedy in the sense that it wrecks the names of both George Lucas and his franchise.  Anakin is supposed to be a tragic character, which I get, but the thorough incompetence brings down both his presence and the story as a whole.  So the moral of the story is simple: get your lead all sorted out and make him good.  If you can’t, don’t bother making a story at all.

Pictured: an early design of Anakin.  You can just feel the disappointment.

Now, to be fair, there ARE other elements of a story’s spirit.  Themes go a long way, for example, as you probably noticed when I talked about the original Star Wars trilogy.  The hero (and other characters) serves as vessels to convey those themes, most notably through their cooperation, conflict and even basic interaction.  Likewise, the setting itself plays a HUGE part in establishing the spirit.  Speaking as someone who’s played too many video games in his life, there’s a distinct difference in feeling and overall effect from a game like LittleBigPlanet -- which looks like this:

As compared to a game that looks like this:

You can use the world and the events therein, in conjunction with your characters and themes, to give your story the spirit you want.  You can twist those expectations at your leisure if you’re bold enough (can you imagine Sackboy exploring a place like Sao Paulo?).  So, let it be known that the options available to creators are incredibly varied.  But in my case, I’d prefer to have the key defining characteristic of the spirit be my lead characters -- the heroes.

Why?  Because they’re the first and last thing one should -- and often does -- remember about a story.  People are drawn to heroes, to exploits and adventures well beyond anything the average man can bring about.  People associate things with faces, and heroes can offer them something worth taking to heart; you see, behind each hero lays a set of ideas and traits that one can agree or disagree with.  A story at large functions as a way for a hero to prove him/herself and those ideas, AND the story’s spirit -- and because of it, they have the potential to elevate themselves into the public conscious in a very big way.  Fandom, inspiration, or just plain entertainment -- there’s a lot riding on them, but if they’re worth their salt they can pull off a win.

And that’ll just about do it for now, I think.  See you guys around -- I’ve got some work to do, you see.  If I’m going to prove that my own heroes and their respective spirits are worth your time, I’d better put in the hours.

I’m starting to get a little hyped.  Aren’t you?

(By the way, there’s something that always bugged the crap out of me with the prequel trilogy.  Did they ever explain why Anakin aged ten years while Padme and Obi-Wan stayed almost the same?  Do they have different physiologies that affect the speed in which they age?  Isn’t it weird that Padme -- a senator and a queen -- ends up marrying a boy from a backwoods planet at least ten years her junior?  Was he even of age?  How big of a time skip was there?  And if there was one of at least ten years, wouldn’t Obi-Wan and Anakin have a much better relationship than what’s shown in the movie?  I’m sure these are all valid questions, but the simple answer is likely that the prequels sucked lemons dipped in hot glue.)    

Next: Hope you like swords, because this guy has...well, two at the most.

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