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February 12, 2014

D.O.X. is Dead #2: Leads and Partners

Old habits die hard.

This post was originally going to be focused on one character and one character only.  And with good reason; I’m pretty sure I’ve drilled a certain phrase into this blog over and over again, and I don’t see much reason to repeat itMAINCHARACTERDEFINESASTORYagain.  It should go without saying, then, that the MC of D.O.X. was one of the major defining factors of the story.  He owned it.  He shaped it.  He changed it.  And while the story started with him being bored one day in class, the story -- wrapping up over the span of three days, sans epilogue -- ended with him punching the canine embodiment of the apocalypse in the face.  Said canine, by the way, would have been big enough to its mouth stretch from one end of the horizon to another.  Character development’s a hell of a thing.

I’m not so bold as to claim that the MC is absolutely perfect, but each new version of the story helps said MC get closer and closer to the ideal form.  I’ve done what I’ve can, and then I did even more.  But the thing that I’ve realized is that he was never D.O.X.’s problem.  Never.   The problem, without question, came from virtually everyone else.  And by extension, there was one major issue that I’ve fixed with this third and final version -- but the fact that I only recently made such a fix means that certain “trends” are a lot more heavily-engraved than anyone would care to admit.  Anyone can fall prey to them.  Even me.

So let me say this to start: D.O.X. had a pretty good MC.  The problem was that it needed two.

...Yeah, it's kind of like that.

If you’ve been with this blog for a while, you probably know that I have certain preferences when it comes to character.  First and foremost, I want them to have character.  And second, I want them to give me something to latch onto -- no matter the alignment (you can’t spell “character” without “care”!).  The corollary I’ve been screeching about for months now is that I prefer heroic characters -- though that might just be a knee-jerk reaction to the Age of Gritpocalypse the video game industry is ass-deep in -- because I think they’re more interesting.  The morality, the charisma, the ideals, the general goodness…they’re things that we’re always on the lookout for, whether we appreciate it or not.  But that’s a topic for another day.

That all said, I’m not against the occasional anti-hero (or even borderline villain).  I’m not.  I said as much when dealing with Batman and Wolverine, and I meant it.  I mean it to this day.  What’s important isn’t whether a character is good or evil; it’s whether they’re interesting.  That’s why villains are an important part of the equation.  That’s why characters who are nothing but squeaky-clean constantly get crapped on by fans (apparently I’m one of about eight people in the world who likes Cyclops -- and deserve being punched for thinking as much, according to the Best Friends Zaibatsu).  Making an interesting character is what any creator should strive towards.

It’s a good thing, too.  Because my MC was an asshole.

Not like that, though.

Still,  I'm not using hyperbole here.  That was the core part of his character.  It still is, in a lot of respects.  He acknowledged it several times throughout the story, even if he didn’t do much to change public perception.  His selfish, self-serving actions end up costing him in a big way well before story’s end, and it’s arguable he had to learn the same lessons --and common decency -- multiple times before it stuck, and only after making sacrifices he wouldn’t have made if he just did the right thing.  Nearly every member of the main cast called him an asshole over the course of the tale.  And I’ve done the same just by describing him to others.  He’s a character who can be nice, and is something very close to a heroic figure, but in general?  He’s not the kind of person I’d imagine anyone would want to hang around with for too long.  He’s like Shrek, I guess -- there’s a good person in there, but you’d better be ready to peel several hundred onion layers to get to it.

What I find supremely interesting is that even if he’s a less-than-savory character, input from readers suggests that he’s still incredibly likable.  (And that includes male and female readers, in case you were wondering.)  They acknowledged that he was a “dark” character -- and that’s very true, in many respects -- but they knew that he wasn’t irredeemable or intolerable.  They liked that he was bold.  Confident.  Intelligent.  Sharp-witted, and sharp-tongued.  They gave me every indication that he was a character they were willing to follow, and seemed genuinely disturbed by his death.  I guess there really is just something about bad boys.

So let’s not delay any longer.  Lady and gentleman, I give you the (original) MC: Arc Howard.  In his many incarnations over the ages.

(Just...just don't think too hard about the art quality.  I know I didn't.)

Let’s see what old files have to say about Arc.

While he may look emo and gloomy, he’s anything but; witty, outspoken, cocky and sarcastic to a fault, he’s always ready to let fly an insult or two.  He may only be 15, but his ambitiousness and resolve tower over men twice his size (if only he had the height to match…).  Once he sets his eyes on something, good luck trying to talk him out of it.  Despite that -- or maybe, because of it -- he’s about to learn a very brutal lesson -- one that’ll take him to the grave and back.

Huh.  I probably should have mentioned somewhere that his real name is Archie.  For foreshadowing purposes.

If I had to describe Arc in one word, it would be “extreme”.  He’s no “ordinary high school student”, I can tell you that.  For one thing, he’s shorter.  But silliness aside, he’s a guy who’s completely earnest in pursuing -- and is controlled by -- his ambitions.  Sometimes that’s a good thing, because it drives him to go beyond normal and create the sort of world he wants.  Other times it’s a bad thing, because anyone that doesn’t conform to his absurdly-high standards ends up getting the cold shoulder.  And, you know, it’s pretty much his ambition and push to learn the truth that ends up getting him killed.  Slaughtered, even.

In the first version of the story, Arc’s character development came from him realizing that he has no friends, and as such no one to love him or appreciate that he was gone.  That plot thread is no longer a concern.  It’s just too BORING for anything I want to make, at least with a story like this.  So no, this isn’t a story about a sour-faced anti-hero learning about the power of friendship; in fact, V2 had him outright (justifiably) calling a fellow cast member out on trying to throw that in his face, because they didn’t even know each other for a full day beforehand.  So that got repurposed into him searching for a new, true desire in his life, and pursuing it steadfastly.  That, in essence, gave him the chance to both reach the zenith of human potential as well as march steadfastly to a hell of his creation.   In fact, you could pretty much chart out D.O.X.’s plot progression along with Arc’s progression as a character.  Essentially, there are seven distinct phases that he goes through.

So let’s get right to it.  With the appropriate music, ofcourse.

Phase 1: The introduction.  Arc starts to get in deep with a mystery around town, but despite his bravado things go WAY off the rails and he’s forced to realize he’s losing control of the situation.  And then he dies.

Phase 2: The big trial.  By some “miracle” (more on that another time), Arc finds out that he has a chance to come back to life and fight against the ghosts and creepy-crawlies wreaking havoc -- but only if he can overcome a slew of mental challenges that threaten (and do) break him in two.

Phase 3: The revival.  Arc makes it back with ghost powers in tow, and starts his big comeback tour against the enemy ghosts.  However, he finds that even with his new powers it’s still not quite enough, so he has to find a way to fine-tine his new powers…and rely on his unlikely comrades.  And then bad stuff happens.

Phase 4: THE TURNING POINT.  The cast gets split up, and Arc uses it as a chance to take on a personal mission.  It’s here that we see some of the best parts of Arc, and his slow-but-certain evolution.  Unfortunately, it’s in this phase that some of his worst parts are teased and built up.  It comes to a head when he’s forced to fight the most painful duel of his life.  And he loses more than just the fight.  He breaks.  HARD. 

Phase 5: The truth.  Arc veers right off the edge, and goes from comrade to killer for the sake of his self-ordained mission.  In the midst, something major about Arc is revealed -- something that sheds a new light on his character, and explains (but doesn’t justify) why he does the things that he does.  But his comrades get fed up with his maverick ways, and they boot him out -- meaning that he’s forced to fight alone.  And, you know, get worse.

Phase 6: The despair.  Arc gets worse.  He and his comrades are at their lowest point, but our “hero” has practically turned into a shell of his former self.  Beaten down by the world itself, he’s left to his devices in a dark, cold, and lethal world.  So he does the only “logical” thing: he turns into a berserker obsessed with killing in a purgatory content with throwing undying phantoms at him until the end of time…at least before he gives up and decides to give in to his despair.  Paradoxically, it’s at this point -- when he’s at absolute zero -- when he comes to a sudden realization, and fights off his despair to rise once again with newfound purpose and willpower.  Shame that it gets worse…for someone else.  But for him by proxy.

Phase 7: The stand.  Arc makes it back to the battlefield just in time to get some heartbreaking news.  But despite that -- or maybe because of it -- he presses onward, doing his best to make up for what he did and ultimately storming the big baddie’s lair for one hell of a punch-up.  But as these things tend to go, things get even worse as the truth is revealed, he’s forced to fight despite being mere minutes from death, and the apocalypse bears down on him.  And yet, despite all that, he wins.  Cue bittersweet ending.  Well, there’s some other stuff, but I’ll keep that a secret for now.


Okay.  So you know how when I talked about Metal Gear Rising, I coined the phrase “The Yo-Yo Dichotomy”?  Assuming that you’re still reading his page and haven’t scrambled to find the link, in a nutshell it’s about making a badass character look more badass by not making him/her badass every second.  Like most things in the arts, it’s all about balance.  Highs and lows.  You can get a lot more from a character that gets brained by yo-yo flying at the back of his head than a character that catches it out of the air with superhuman reflexes and foresight.  Arc used to be that faux-badass character in the first version of the story.  In V2?  He’s one of the most put-upon characters in the entire story -- both in a joking sense, and a serious one.

Basically, Arc has to get broken to get his character development.  The story -- and fate itself -- seems curiously eager to shit all over his day, so every step he takes to reach his apex is one that comes after he rebuilds himself.  Physically and mentally, obviously; the problem with him isn’t that he needs friends, family, and love.  The problem is that he is (even now, maybe more so) a character that’s all about concepts.  Ideas and lofty ideals.  On one hand, that’s something to admire in some cases; on the other, it puts pressure on him to try and have everything and everyone go his way.  Is it worth it?  Well, you saw that rundown, didn’t you?  You tell me.

There’s probably more than I can say about Arc.  A lot more.  But again, I’m trying not to make the same mistake twice.  So let’s take a moment to switch gears. 

Let’s go ahead and assume the best of me.  Let’s say that D.O.X., right now, is just-good-enough to get published.  Let’s say that Arc can do the job by virtue of his furious fists.  (Yeah, he uses his fists, by the way.  More on that another time.)  And maybe all that is true, without the need for playing the hypothetical game.  But here’s the thing: even if that’s the case, it would be a complete and utter personal failure.  Why?  Because in light of this blog, I’d be doing a LOT of things that I’ve done my best to speak out against.  It just goes to show how pervasive some of the problems with storytelling can be…and on the flip-side, how it’s possible to point them out and overcome them before we have a complete disaster on our hands.  Usually.

So.  Let’s chat a bit about Katie Noether.

It really doesn’t say good things when I have to cut pictures of her out of multi-character drawings instead of relying on a safely-stored archive.  But whatever.  Let’s dig up an old profile. 

“Arc’s right-hand woman (who just happens to look half his age), the two of them go back several years.  She’s inexplicably cheery and active much of the time, but her perceptiveness and disdain for normalcy makes her a perfect complement to her partner’s aims.  When New Rock City starts falling apart at its seams, Katie gets caught in the chaos -- but oddly enough, she’s taking it quite well… “

If I had to rank the characters in this story in terms of importance, Katie would have been right behind Arc.  In many ways, she’s his foil -- a nicer, brighter person to be around, and more concerned with norms and society than he’ll ever be.  Arc may be fiercely intelligent, but even in the earliest versions she had a certain wisdom that he didn’t.  There was a reason that he called her his partner, and she called him his.  And it went beyond just some big reveal; it was something that would have been set up from the start, and paid off in every instance.

Too bad I completely botched the execution.

She had it the worst in V1.  She was in no uncertain terms Arc’s girlfriend, but with all the worst aspects of her character and role dialed up.  In her first appearance she was insanely hyper and prattled on and on about going to a pep rally.  She called Arc a few scenes later because he missed their lunch date.  In her first (brief) scene alone, she couldn’t think about anyone or anything else besides Arc -- and being a girl, but whatever.  Her role in the plot wasn’t established by her actions, but by things happening to her -- something that Arc would have to sort out with zero input from his “partner”. 

She wasn’t even there for several important scenes, up to and including the climax (i.e. Arc’s death scene).  And that’s not even the worst of it.  She was completely excised from the story until it was time for her to be the lynchpin in a big plot twist -- one that anyone with knowledge of certain South Park episodes or a vague understanding of the Darkstalkers franchise could predict.  Simply put, I didn’t sell her as someone Arc (or the reader) should ever care about -- which was sort of the point, as per the big twist, but there was no payoff for that sort of plotline.

She fared better in V2.  She got more scenes to be herself -- someone sugary on the outside, but carrying some serious baggage on the inside -- and more scenes to prove exactly why Arc would claim she could back him up in a fight.  (I’ll get into this later, but for now I’ll say that Arc is a pure Fragile Speedster, while Katie’s got more of a lean towards power, a la Paul Phoenix from his Street Fighter X Tekken incarnation.)  She had a bigger emotional range, and more pronounced desires; she was Arc’s partner, but she was also something of his keeper.  His protector.  So when he dies, she does NOT take it well, and pushes her more smoothly toward the big twist.  The darker aspects of her character -- aspects that you’d expect from Doctor Doom crossed with Hannibal Lecter -- flared up at opportune moments, and hit their peak as needed.  She was set up as a person as dark, or even darker, than Arc himself. 

But the base problems were still there.  The main cast, even today, consists of a team of eight -- Arc and Katie included -- but back then Katie spent the entirety of it excised from the rest.  That’s not exaggeration; she only met two other members of the core eight, and even then only for a handful of pages.  She put on airs of being useful to Arc and trying to bring about a resolution, but not enough to put her on equal ground with the MC.  The issues with V1 just kept dragging the newer version down, no matter how many scenes I added, or how much retooling I did with dialogue or personas.  In hindsight, it was something like putting flame decals on a car that had tumbled off a cliff and exploded.

You might think that I’m being hard on myself, and maybe that’s true to some extent.  Maybe I’ve just forced myself to move on to V3 as a way to overcompensate -- because I over-thought certain aspects and now I think the whole thing is a hot mess.  That’s a very real possibility.  But here’s the thing: if I’m not hard on myself, who will be?  If D.O.X. went out there and got a pass from critics, what’s stopping it from getting savaged by readers -- the dedicated fans, men and women, who can spot those flaws much more readily than the pros?  It would be like me releasing DmC with a grin and a thumbs-up -- and I can’t bring myself to do that.  Not with V2.

Why?  Because Katie died at the end.  She died, and she doesn’t get to come back.  Ever.  Because in order for Arc to live, she had to sacrifice herself and give him another chance.

That right there is some skeezy shit.  Okay, sure, it fits in perfectly with the story and the plot’s progression; Arc was using Katie as an emotional crutch -- a concept -- and just barely saw her as a person with her own will and opinions.  (To be fair, Katie did the same, to the point where they were each other’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl.)  He was willing to turn his back on everything and everyone, but paradoxically, the one person he needed to leave behind the most was the person he couldn’t do without. 

And given that it was either “take her life and fight one more time against the end of the world” or “let everything and everyone that will ever exist cease to exist”, it was the only choice, given as much gravitas and painfulness as you’d expect.  But damn it all, I made a mistake.  Katie shouldn’t have had to been the fall guy.  Not when I barely did anything with her besides literally slotting her into the princess role, give or take a few variations.  She wasn’t the character she needed to be -- and because of that, the core eight was pretty much just the core seven.

And I ain’t havin’ that. 

If you follow this feature for however long it goes on, you’re going to find that several characters have been given DRASTIC overhauls from what they used to be.  And Katie is one of them.  Sure, she’s got the same basic backstory -- same schoolgirl, same family members -- but like everyone else, parts of her character have been played up or played down.  What’s been played down is her former role as the princess, and her status as simply “the opposites-attract girlfriend”; she’s still got that brightness to her, but it’s much more mellow and focused. 

What’s been played up is her role in the story; in V3 -- which I’ll give a proper title eventually -- she makes her first appearance in the second chapter, and helps Arc start sorting out the mysteries in the city.  In the next chapter, she and Arc face down some mutating street thugs, but she leaves to get their teacher to safety…and then comes back by chapter’s end to help kick ass alongside Arc.  She gets to fight almost as often as Arc does, and gets to prove herself in and out of a scuffle in her own distinct way.  On her own terms.  She doesn’t have to share the spotlight, and she doesn’t get pushed into the shadows when it’s time for the boys to do their thing.  She’s got her own….which would probably explain why she’s been rebranded.

Bye bye, Katie Noether.  Say hello to Kaylee Hazlett.  And her new partner, Arc Siegel.

(Hey, what's with those alphas next to their names?  Pretty good question...hmhmhmhmhmmmmm...)

I could go on about the changes to both, but I don’t want to say too much that’ll reveal my hand.  But for now, I’ll say a few things I think are important to these new characters, condensed into four points.  First: Concepts are going to be vital to both of them, and the fact that they hold different things in high esteem is going to create some friction.  Second: One of the main ideas -- the themes, or at least the phrase repeated a number of times -- is “leaving it all behind”.  What that means for these two, and other characters, is going to vary.  And cause more problems, of course. 

Third: Like Katie Kaylee, Arc has had his character tweaked as well; he’s less of an aggressive asshole and more of a cooler, muted one.  Imagine turning the tint down on your TV when it’s too red, and you’ve got the idea.  Fourth: That said, in light of the new affect of the story, both these characters are likely going to end up darker, and more contemplative -- forced to face not just the worst parts of themselves, but the worlds around them.  And when all’s said and done, BOTH these characters are going to be much sadder than their V1 or V2 counterparts.  ESPECIALLY Arc; when you find out who he really is or why he does the things that he does, you may want to pour one out for him.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand…that’s about all I’ve got for you.  Guess I’d better wrap it up for now.  What’s the next topic going to be?  Conventional knowledge would suggest that I should move from one pair to the next, but think back to how I started this post: old habits die hard.  And it’s time for me to break one of them by tackling a different issue.  So I’m thinking that I need to go into a bit more detail on -- you guessed it -- the setting.  And the circumstances around it.  And more gimmicks.  And (possibly (tangentially)) the main baddie.

We’ll see how it goes.  I’d like to avoid accidentally making a V4, obviously.  Even though 4 is -- as discussed -- the greatest number of all.

Oh wait, one more thing I want to mention: me being me, you can expect a fair number of hidden video game references/tributes.  More specifically, there are a number of allusions to the Guilty Gear franchise, to the point that the main characters have some winking nods.  Example?  In V1/V2, Arc and Katie made nods to characters Eddie/Zato-1 and May, respectively (and Arc himself shares a name with the franchise’s makers, Arc System Works).  That said, in V3, Arc and Kaylee make nods to Eddie and Millia Rage.  


...Lord Ishiwatari, play me out!

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