Tuesday, January 19, 2016

At First [GIFs]

This will probably be a little convoluted and disorganized because I'm frazzled. You are warned.

I had a conversation with my mom the other day about initial impressions, centered around American cartoons. (Because of course it was.) I was telling her how when I was in high school and got super obsessed with Animaniacs, I actually had a negative impression of the show before I saw it. I didn't like the character designs; I thought they looked suspiciously like a cross between Mickey Mouse and some amorphous old-timey "cartoon character." (The latter, I heard later, was intentional.) I tend to be less excited about fiction that humanizes animals, too, and my first impression of these cartoon characters was that they were some kind of bunny or dog.

But some of my friends were kind of obsessed with the show and I wanted to understand what the fuss was about, so I watched a clump of three episodes one day and I was immediately hooked. Like I mean it was instantaneous. Looking back, I don't have any idea why. It just was. I was about to go on a camping trip when it happened and I was all upset that I couldn't collect more of them while I was gone, so I actually made a friend tape them for me, and binge-watched it when I got home. This is in the days before Internet, too, so even though I'd gotten into it after the show had been on for a long time, it was a long time before I saw the majority of the episodes. I had to wait for them to come on one by one and enjoy them that way. And I had no master list, so when they started repeating, I never knew when the next one that came on might be a new one or a new-to-me one.

I still remember that I was turned off by the show's presentation, though--that I wasn't interested in checking it out until my friends liked it, and that I disliked the character designs. Some combination of seeing the characters' antics in context and the phenomenal voice acting really sold it for me, and I basically thought everything Yakko did was the most adorable thing in the universe, even though I used to think he wasn't interesting at all. If I tried to explain to people why I liked it so much, they usually still had whatever impression they'd initially had of the show, thinking it was too juvenile or obnoxious for them based on the commercials or how the characters looked. And I could understand that, even though I usually tried to evangelize and drag them into watching it with me.

Twenty years later, almost the exact same thing happened with Steven Universe. I saw images floating around Tumblr of these characters and didn't really read anything about the show; I thought it looked like another dumb action show from Cartoon Network with superheroes fighting monsters, and the character designs really put me off. I thought the oversimplified, geometric body types were awkward, and what really makes me laugh now is I remember I was especially annoyed by the design of the character who became my favorite. (I remember the first pictures I saw of the characters featured Garnet with her gauntlets out and I was like "why the HELL is that character wearing BOXING GLOVES? And why does her head look like a bread loaf?")

I'm not sure why I found the designs so unsettling when I first saw them, but I did. I didn't have the same problem with it that I did with the Animaniacs characters, thinking they were some kind of animal, but it was in the ballpark because I couldn't figure out what they were supposed to be. Were they some kind of stylized humans? (Then why would one of them be purple?) Robots? Monsters or something? Well, aliens, it turns out. Gemstone people from space. Works for me. Anyway, I had no interest in checking it out based on first impressions, but when Tumblr gets excited about something I usually end up checking it out just so I can even understand my dashboard. 

It has really been hit or miss, too--I'd say about half the time I just don't get whatever they're into (and then I feel old), but the other half the time I do see the appeal. Avengers fandom? Couldn't get it. Homestuck? I had trouble following it and gave up. RWBY? To tell you the truth I'm baffled. But when everyone started talking about Welcome to Night Vale I jumped in and continue to be a fan to this day. And I watched playthroughs of the game Undertale and I think it's super. When Steven Universe kept coming up in discussions of LGBT representation in my online circles, I'd wonder about it, then scroll past like I did with Loki fanfic and trolls with astrological symbols on their shirts, because I figured if I ever did check it out, I wouldn't want to be spoiled. When I saw a post discussing same-sex relationships in cartoons and saw SU compared to Legend of Korra (one of my favorite shows), I was kinda impressed that people were claiming it was an ongoing show with multiple same-sex relationships (and then I watched people arguing about whether it counted because the characters were female-presenting but were also sexless aliens), so I figured I needed to check it out despite my misgivings about the character design and my vague impressions of it as a shallow superhero show.

When fans of Steven Universe tell other people about the show, they often rush to tell potential "converts" that they will need to give it time to get good. I can't even tell you how many times I've heard "Make sure you keep watching until Episode 12" or even "It really gets good around Episode 25." (It always seems to be those two.) The truth for me was that I was pretty hopelessly in love with it by the end of Episode 1. When I am trying something new, I usually give it a good long try before either giving up or admitting I just didn't care for it, but historically, there is an immediate connection for me when I love something, and I know it practically from the first minute. For SU, there's just a brilliant combination of (again) voice acting and music, compelling concepts, and soulful character interaction, and that completely revolutionized the impression I had of it from seeing stills of the characters and witnessing sort of hokey commercials.

And I basically think everything Garnet does is cute, even if she does sometimes look like an overly stoic boxer with a square head.

~I think you're just mad 'cause you're single~
I'm that way with books, too. I can usually tell right away if I love something, because I'll have a connection with the characters or the voice or the flavor of the book. I can still like something if I didn't connect with it that way, like if I appreciate the message or I think it's a good idea or I can objectively understand that it was well-told and probably appealing to others. But if something doesn't cast that spell more or less immediately, I don't give it more than four stars on Goodreads and I don't add it to my favorites list.

The way I appreciate media has of course helped me figure out certain important aspects of how to write good stories, too. There's something to be said for the twist, for the build, for the reveal, for the long game. But you have to give the audience something amazing to connect to from page one--the thing they're sticking around for. The thing they care about. The character and concept they want to see play out. You don't have to show your whole hand and spend Chapter One doing a song and dance with all your best cards, but you have to lay the groundwork with a sense of permeating the audience's initial experience with a scent they like. And it can be really hard to figure out how to do that.

Ow, he hit me!
Ow, she bit me!
For me, I think that spell is usually constructed from personality and history. When I was watching Animaniacs, there wasn't really a story, per se, but the characters had clear personalities and I was entertained to see that they knew what to expect from one another, like a real sibling relationship. There were subtle cute things that happened, like how Wakko and Dot knew Yakko as the eldest brother was the talker and advocate of the group, so he was always at the front without complaint rattling off the jokes and supporting the others when it was their turn. Or how the CEO of the studio was always expecting the main characters to show up and ruin everything. Or how they had funny little personality clashes sometimes even though they primarily worked together to annoy people and crack jokes. The cartoon wasn't really about the characters' relationship to the extent that most other things I like are, but I saw it and loved it.

Goop hug!
In Steven Universe I obviously retained my tendency to have a crush on the leader, though she's the opposite of a talker, and I'm amazed by the layers of history these characters have racked up with each other. (I guess being together for several thousand years will do that to you.) But they gave me enough in Episode 1 to see that more was coming, without feeling too much like they were deliberately teasing me and stringing me along; since the show is presented from the point of view of a child character who wasn't there for the history that provides the framework, I can feel like the mysteries are natural and lend themselves well to a very slow reveal. You can respect that it takes its time with the forward plot and the architecture of its history, because you're learning about its existing relationships while watching new layers form. The future is a promise, but it's still based on something the creators gave you now.

So, as a writer and a person-who-sometimes-gives-advice-to-writers, all I can say is that this is how you do it. Do something right away that gives a peek at the soul of why people should consume your story. What's really special about it? What about that can you hint at or show during the audience's first exposure to it? Make sure you do it. Because even though some people will stick around and wait for you to get going, some others won't, and if they've given you the chance to talk to them by cracking the cover or pressing play, you may not have long to sell what you're offering. And even if you're not too fixated on keeping your audience interested, you should be interested in casting that spell as thoroughly as you can at the outset so people know what they've signed up for. You never want to feel like you need your audience to humor you until you get to the good part, at which point they'll realize what all the buildup was for.

There can be a feeling of payoff when they see where you were going with all that, but there has to have been something to stay for right at the beginning too. Even if your restaurant is about the food, give them a pleasant seating experience and a cushy chair. Even if your school is about the knowledge, give them a teacher they want to know more about and a classroom with learning tools in sight. Even if your story is about an adventure culminating in a hero defeating the bad guy, show us the hero's relationships and make us develop some feelings about his skills. Don't let us feel like we're kindly letting you tell us something you think is interesting. Make us want to be there by bringing your story's soul to Page One, and get us invested. Then we won't be able to wait to hear what you say next.

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