Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Oh, yeah. That whole happy people thing.

I forgot to mention one of the most important personal reasons why I am such a fan of Azumanga Daioh and by extension Questionable Content. And that reason would be that both works are great depictions of happy people, which is a normally a nightmare for writers to pull off. After all, if you've got happy protagonists, where's the plot tension and drama going to come from? How in the hell do do you keep the readers hooked when nothing world shaking is at stake?

That's a tough one. Especially for someone like me who likes to write about the worlds of espionage, international conflict, exploration, and big picture philosophical questions that have real-world implications in the form of technology and social upheaval set at the turning points of history. Drama and scene tension come cheap in those environments.

Happiness though, how do you get the readers to buy into that crap? This an important question because scenes of happy characters can play several useful roles in good drama. If you can construct a story opening that causes the readers to share the characters' joy or contentment, then the readers have something at stake when events threaten to go off the rails and end the characters' happiness. If that happiness is lost, then there is something worth struggling for to restore it.

But that's a rather cheap and obvious use of happiness. Something marginally subtler is to use scenes that evoke happiness or contentment to leaven a dramatic plot with moderating emotional pauses. It's good to give both readers and characters a chance to catch their breath every so often. Too much drama and tension can be mindnumbing after awhile, which is a consistent problem with many would-be Hollywood blockbuster films. Many an otherwise promising action film falls apart for me when I find myself feeling numbed after forty minutes or more of spectacle and adrenalin.

George R.R. Martin is someone who is good at using pauses of contentment to moderate the bleak emotional landscape of his Song of Ice and Fire series. Sometimes he does this with moments of genuine deep happiness created by a character's relationship with the people around him or her, but more often he evokes a feeling of nice animal contentment through a good use of food. Trenchers of hollowed out bread filled with stew, crackling capons, garlic infused snails, and plum-sauced suckling pig all provide much needed moments of relief while remaining engaging for readers.

Something subtler still is to use moments of happiness to carry out character development. Which is about ass backwards from the way that character development is normally handled, using moments of doubt, crisis, decision, and the threat of terrible failure. The use of happiness as a transformative instance is harder to pull off, which is one reason why writers normally avoid going that route. However, the successful realization of happiness as a catalyst of change or the crystallization of past choices can be uniquely engaging and possess its own flavors of intensity.

But how to evoke happiness in readers though the characters?

A consistent solution to this in Questionable Content and Azumanga Daioh is through humor. This can take the form of jokes and funny storytelling done by the characters, as well as minor pratfalls or even a little absurdity in their thoughts and actions. Though the latter takes a light hand to pull off without killing any sense of sympathy for the characters.

All too often when writers (over-educated, over-read silly creatures that they are) think of absurdity, they think of Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller. Shortly thereafter they typically veer off into realms of plot where the characters are gruesomely simplified parodies of the complex beings that humans are. And when politics gets in the mix, stereotypes and gross cliches are often not far behind.

Fortunately, there's no need to go that kind of extreme to evoke absurd humor. Especially when looking for humor that makes a character feel more rather than less human.

After all, humans are filled with unrealistic inner hopes, day dreams, silly aspirations, and are prone to exaggeration when boasting. Hell, they even strive for hyperbole deliberately sometimes when telling funny stories and jokes or deliberately having mild fun at their friend's expense. All of which are bonding moments both in real life and for characters who exist only in ink or pixels and in the perception of writers and readers.

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