The New Archetypes: Part 4

Shane Hong Kong Premiere Booklet 1953 P1309907

I’ve been talking about how the modern storytelling of movies has given us archetypes that are also uniquely modern.  Modern they may be but they still tend to follow classic Hero journeys.  A Rogue Cop is still our good guy and must still defeat the bad guys.  The Nobody will travel on a journey of discovery and emerge changed in the third act, hopefully for the better.  But there is a modern archetype whose story arc goes backwards.

The Retiree.  The Retiree as his name implies is at the end of his career or no longer in the line of work.  Whatever this line of work was it was dangerous or illegal or both.  The Retiree has probably enjoyed great success in theline of work even if that success is simply measured by the fact that he’s still alive.  The Retiree in many cases probably never thought he’d make it this far but now that he has he wants to get out of the field.  Older, wiser, past his prime and fully aware of it he dreams of different life.  A safe, normal life where he can forget about his past and grow old like everyone else.  At this point one of two things happens.  Either The Retiree has ‘just one more job’ before he can realize his dream or his retirement is interrupted because he gets ‘pulled back in’.

We might as well get right to Shane since it’s one of the first, one of the best, and pretty much the template.  There were definitely men in the Old West who made their entire living with their gun.  They were just as definitey not somebody you would run into all over the place.  Most people had real jobs.  But in the mythic West of the movies the gunslinger becomes a man of adventure and danger.  He lives by the gun and dies by the gun.  He lives by a code and dies by that code too.  Shane gets a chance to live a normal life when he’s taken in by a farmer and his family.  He works on the farm as a hired hand and seems like he has a chance at happiness and a normal life. 

Of course it’s never that easy.  The nefarious ranchers hate the farmers and their plowed fields and fences.  Shane backs the farmer who’s courageous but not a fighter.  When the ranchers hire a gunslinger to enforce their will there’s only one way to beat him.  Shane must strap on his peacemaker and become a gunslinger again.  The template is repeated in plenty of movies.  Pale Rider, another Western, is pretty much the same story but so is Soldier a sci-fi flick with Kurt Russel.  You can substitute any job that’s not 9-5 and the story will work.  He could be a car thief (Gone in 60 Seconds), he could be a mountain rescuer (Cliffhanger), or he could even be a ping pong player (Balls of Fury).

There’s a couple of things that make this archetype modern.  One is the simple idea of retirement.  Heroes of ancient myth didn’t really retire.  They fought monsters and wars then they died and their death was usually a big part of their story.  They rarely got old.  Being a hero wasn’t really a job anyway which brings us to the second thing.  The modern idea that you can choose (or at least try to) who you are.  The fates of ancient heroes were set down before they were born.  The Retiree, whatever his life was until now, has a choice to be something different, something better.  Like The Assassin story a good Retiree story has redemption at it’s core.  Shane chose to face his fate as a gunslinger.  He gave up that life to protect it and that final sacrifice is usually the emotional punch in the best of these stories. 

Enhanced by Zemanta

Gender Bias

Recently, I was reminded of the scene from the film As Good As It Gets where the novelist Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson’s character) is talking to a receptionist. She asks Udall, “How do you write women so well?” and he replies, “I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.”

Is there a distinctly masculine or feminine voice in writing? Is it possible for a man to write a convincing first person narrative from a woman’s point of view—or vice versa? Or will an author’s gender bleed into a story no matter how hard he or she tries?

Let me explain what prompted these questions. I entered a writing contest last spring, and when the winners were posted, I noticed something: There were no male names on the list of finalists—none, zero, zip. I thought this was rather interesting, considering that the lone judge of the writing contest was male.

First of all, it’s important to understand that I’m a rather sore loser. Nevertheless, I also like to give credit where it is due, and if someone outdoes me in something, I believe I have enough good sense and character to acknowledge a job well done. Maybe these women outdid all the males who submitted material to the contest. If so, bravo! Yet I have to wonder what it was about these ladies’ writings that this particular judge found so appealing? Doe he simply have a penchant for feminine voices? Were there gender differences in the writings themselves—either in terms of subject matter or style—to which he unconsciously gravitated?

What about me? Does an author’s gender matter? Both male and female writers are certainly represented on my bookshelves at home, and I like to believe that I judge an author’s writing based on its own merits and not its creator’s sex. However, in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that the male writers do outnumber the females in my library nearly three to one. Am I biased? Because I read Edward Abbey and not Danielle Steel, does this make me an insensitive, misogynistic brute? I’m not sure. You’d probably have to ask my ex-wife.

The New Archetypes: Part 3

When Lego Ninja Attack...
Image by Neil Crosby via Flickr

Last time I talked about the Nobody.  Everybody has felt like a Nobody at some point which makes the Nobody a sort of everyman.  If you can’t root for him at least you can identify with him.  Before that was the Rogue Cop.  This guy (it’s almost always a guy) plays by his own rules but we know he’s the good guy.  But what if our good guy doesn’t do good things?  What if he’s a bad guy?  How can he still be the hero?  Why do we root for the modern Archetype of The Assassin?

Murder is by and large a bad thing, even in the violent make believe world of movies.  We the audience can’t seem to get enough killing though and the storytellers are always happy to oblige.  But that whole morality thing keeps popping up.  Even if it’s fiction some of us might feel guilty for cheering on killers.  Some of us might feel guilty enough to digitally alter (and not very well, I might add) a decades old iconic scene to make a cantina shooting look like self-defense.  So how do we make it okay for the hero to murder people in cold blood?  Simple.  We pay him lots and lots of money.  For some reason we love movies about assassins.  The ProfessionalAssassins, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Grosse Pointe Blank, WantedLa Femme Nikita/Point of No Return…that’s just off the top of my head but the list is pretty long.  So what is it about the Assassin?

Well for starters he’s cool.  I don’t know anything about the real world of assassins.  I don’t know if they’re cool or not but in the movies they’re cool.  They wear cool clothes and use cool weapons.  They have cool training sequences perhaps in a cool facility or in some secret ninja stronghold in the mountains.  They have cool moves for every situation; getting into and out of buildings, finding their targets and evading detection.  They remain cool under all kinds of pressure whether they’re being shot at or laying in wait for their targets.  Just laying in wait has to be cool.  You can’t just sit on a lawn chair with a deer rifle; you have to hang on to the chassis of a car or climb headfirst down a rope or…whatever.  Call it the Batman factor:  if you look cool enough it doesn’t matter how insane your actions are.

There has to be more to it though and I think there is.  It’s not just cool moves that are attractive but the power and freedom.  The Assassin strikes at will and without hesitation.  He has the power of life and death.  He’s free from moral judgement, at least from himself, because he’s only doing his job.  A plumber doesn’t feel guilty about snaking a drain.  Despite the fact these people are ending lives most of us wish we could operate so surely and powerfully.  We live by countless rules every waking moment and being free of those rules is a strong fantasy.  Of course there’s a price to pay and that’s humanity.

Humanity is the other side of the coin for the Assassin.  Most of these characters have either been stripped of their humanity through training or lost their connection to humanity from years of killing.  It’s the lack of morality and humanity that give the Assassin storytelling legs.  The assassin story is usually a redemption story.  Perhaps the Assassin never wanted the life he was in and has to find a way out (Point of No Return).  Perhaps there is an unexpected connection that makes the Assassin want to be human again (The Professional).  Sometimes the Assassin sees the effect he has on the rest of humanity and wants to make things right (The Killer).  Whatever the case the Assassin is usually trying to regain his lost humanity and we root for him to make it.  If a paid killer can find redemption than so can the rest of us.   

Enhanced by Zemanta

“Our doubts are traitors…” Measure for Measure (I.iv.77)

First edition cover
Image via Wikipedia

In his collection of journals entitled Confessions of a Barbarian, the twenty-five-year-old Edward Abbey ponders the progress he is making on his first novel:

“The novel, my terrible novel, will drive me to ruin…A frightful labor!

“And the worth of it, the quality—the problem worries me night and day. At times I’m afraid to read what I’ve written, almost superstitiously afraid—and then at other times I do work up enough courage to hastily read snatches chosen at random. The effects are mixed—parts of the book seem hilariously funny, beautifully written, packed and quivering with life. And then I’ll read the same passage again, or another, and it will seem dead as junkyard iron, pretentious and false, weak, thin, spineless, empty and hideous.

“Who is right? The critic or the author? I swing constantly, if erratically, between power and confidence, and antipodal despair; between surges of triumph when I look at myself grinning at me in the mirror and can say, “Abbey, oh Abbey, you monstrously clever fellow,” and dank gloom of dark defeat, convinced of failure, crushed by doubt…”

I think all writers can empathize with these sentiments, regardless of their inherent abilities or levels of success. Writing is a lonely business, and when we are “in the zone” and experiencing the sweet rush of creativity, nothing seems impossible. But of course, those rushes don’t last forever, and at some point we go back and reread what we’ve written and wonder if what we’ve crafted is really any good at all. “I’m a hack!” we say. “A fraud! Why would anybody want to read this?”

On the one hand, it’s comforting to know that a gifted and respected wordsmith like Ed Abbey experienced the same ups and downs the rest of us do. For most of us, it is a natural part of the creative process. Yet this knowledge does little to shake off our self-doubts.

Speaking personally, I’ve found that being part of a writing group does wonders to keep my creative fires burning. Part of this is the accountability it affords, but more importantly, the honest and encouraging feedback my group provides is enormously helpful in pushing me through the “desert moments” of the creative process.

What about you? How do you combat the struggles and doubts that come with writing?

Enhanced by Zemanta

The Pitfalls of “Originality”

One of the distinguishing features of modern society is our preoccupation with originality. Giving proper credit to the creator of something is the basis of everything from copyright law and patent offices to anti-plagiarism policies in high schools and universities. Much of this stems from an artist’s desire to get noticed in some way (as well as paid). While this desire is certainly not bad, the quest for originality also carries certain temptations.

In the 1934 book, Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande discusses some of the dangers that often plague inexperienced writers:

“When the pitfall of imitation is safely skirted, one often finds that in the effort to be original an author has pulled and jerked and prodded his story into monstrous form. He will plant dynamite at its crisis, turn the conclusion inside out, betray a character by making him act uncharacteristically, all in the service of the God of Originals. His story may be all compact of horror, or, more rarely, good luck may conquer every obstacle hands down; and if the teacher or editor protests that the story has not been made credible, its author will murmur ‘Dracula’ or ‘Kathleen Norris,’ and will be unconvinced if told that the minimum requirement for a good story has not been met: that he has not shown that he, the author, truly and consistently envisages a world in which such events could under any circumstances come to pass.”

I see this all the time when I ask my high school students to write narratives. What starts off as an interesting story suddenly ends with a “surprise” twist: The starving orphan is actually the long-lost child of the city’s wealthiest citizen; the heroine’s disease is miraculously cured with an experimental drug; or worse yet, “I woke up and realized it was all a dream.” When I point out that these sorts of endings are not very convincing, the students counter, “But I wanted my story to stand out.”

Brande reminds writers that the key to originality is not distorting a tale into something unrecognizable. Rather, it is telling a story from your own perspective. “There is one sense in which everyone is unique. No one else was born of your parents, at just that time of just that country’s history; no one underwent just your experiences, reached just your conclusions, or faces the world with the exact set of ideas that you must have. If you can come to such friendly terms with yourself that you are able and willing to say precisely what you think of any given situation or character, if you can tell a story as it can appear only to you of all the people on earth, you will inevitably have a piece of work which is original.”

Remember what Agnes Mure MacKenzie says about originality in The Process of Literature: “Your loving and my loving, your anger and my anger, are sufficiently alike for us to be able to call them by the same names: but in our experience and in that of any two people in the world, they will never be quite completely identical.” This principle is true regardless of genre, and when you think about it, isn’t bringing individual experiences to life in an engaging and believable way the basis of all good—and original—art?