Thursday, March 29, 2018

Telling the Future [GIF warning]

My blog lately has mostly been personal stuff or philosophical rambles, but when I first started it, it was mostly because I wanted a semi-personal blog that focused on my own writing career and also writing-related advice. With a side of book reviews thrown in.

As I've been spending less time with my writing and have no projects in the publishing pipe right now, it's drifted into more everyday topics, and mixed in with the personal stuff and cartoon nerd stuff. But now I have something writing-related to talk about that's also both personal AND about cartoon stuff!

This week my favorite show Steven Universe released four new episodes, and two of them focused on my favorite character Garnet. It was the second one that really got my attention, and caused me to write an essay the next morning that I threw onto Tumblr and one of the first people to reblog it tagged it "#GO F#&*%ING READ THIS PLEASE." People seemed excited about what I wrote, but these observations and clarifications came out very quickly and easily for me because they drew on writing experience I've had for over a decade. Okay, wait, I'll explain a little bit better.

On the show, Garnet is the leader character--for a couple good reasons. First, she's the calm/cool/collected one--just a good match personality-wise if you want someone who can lead a team in high-stress, dangerous situations. But the second reason is a pretty big deal: Garnet has a limited ability to foresee possible futures. 

Garnet uses that ability to guide the team toward mission objectives and keep them safe. I've written a couple of characters with similar abilities--one in my webcomic Negative One, one in my novel Bad Fairy--and I see a LOT of similarities between how Garnet is written and how I've written Adele and Delia.

And maybe it's arrogant of me, but I feel like my experience with this has helped me understand aspects of this show's writing that others seem to miss--especially since the more we learn about how Garnet uses future vision and what limitations it has, the more it seems to dovetail with the experiences of the characters I write. Here's the problem I've been seeing: If you have a character in your story who can tell the future, you have to be very careful about how you use her. After all, if your character can foresee disasters and then your story includes a disaster, why didn't she report it? Prevent it? Did she not see it? If not, what's the sad excuse why not?

That's what I see a lot of in criticism of this character, and of precognitive characters in general. Viewers seem to think it's "cheap" when these characters conveniently see some things and not others. Some critics think it's bad writing if sometimes their abilities just aren't working or they decide to let bad things happen so other characters can learn from it. And let's be honest, it's true that if you have characters who can see the future around, the opportunity for any character allied with them to be surprised by unexpected crises goes down, limiting some realism for your storytelling.

There have been some huge developments in the show over the past couple seasons which, yeah, wouldn't have happened if Garnet had predicted the future correctly. She at least tried to stop the first one--Steven's dad got kidnapped by aliens--but in her defense, in that case it made sense that she had no solution for the problem because the kidnapping involved her oldest enemy, a Diamond, and she was scared to death of her, to the point that she just kept saying she couldn't even put it into words. She told Steven not to go to Korea and he went to Korea anyway. So what happened wasn't really her fault. 

But after that? 

A series of catastrophes occurred in a row and she had nothing to say. A Ruby came to Earth and tricked their team, and their only spaceship got stolen. Steven got involved with another kidnapping plot and sacrificed himself to the enemy, ending up stranded on the Gem homeworld with one of his friends who ended up DYING in a battle. (Don't worry, he's okay now.) And then after he miraculously got himself back to Earth, he ended up stranded, AGAIN, on a distant moon with his best friend. There was not a whisper from Garnet about worrying about these events or preventing them. She has said very little for the entire previous season. Some critics of the show are saying the writers seem to have forgotten she's part of the cast, and they make wisecracks about her voice actress being too expensive.

This week, the new episode "Pool Hopping" revealed that the recent events have not been showing up on Garnet's radar and the whole experience has been baffling to her, and she's actually really upset about it. 

She is not an emotionally expressive character, so you never know what she's thinking behind that stoic mask (or those epic shades) until or unless she gives you a rare glimpse or has a breakdown or something. This episode had one of those breakdowns. Ordinarily, Garnet does not behave as if she's struggling at all--she believes that the others need a strong, confident leader who never falters and is entirely sure of everything she does, so she doesn't like to admit when she's feeling weak. But in this episode, she deliberately behaved in ways that were very strange for her, believing that it would help her access these "improbable" futures she's been missing. It was funny at first, because watching this typically stoic character doing silly things like getting a job at the donut shop, posing as a model for a local artist, and running around throwing pizza at people seemed like wacky fun until you realize it was desperation. 

In this episode, she admits to Steven that she has felt utterly lost lately because things keep happening that she never saw coming, and she doesn't know why. Through some investigation, they realize she's been considering certain futures unlikely because she's failed to acknowledge how mature Steven has gotten lately, and that's affected how likely she judges certain futures to be and how she interprets her results. Paths she didn't see as probable or possible just blindsided her because she didn't follow them where they would naturally lead, and she's been really upset about it because she knows it's her job to lead everyone--that they look to her for what to do, and she's supposed to have the answers.

Some of the folks who watch this show are treating this like new information--the idea that a character like Garnet interprets and guides her ability has apparently never occurred to some of them. I'd already picked up on this from a much earlier Season 2 episode (context: we're in the middle of Season 5), where Garnet didn't see a really intense internal betrayal happening right in front of her because she believed a villain was responsible, and she grumped about how annoying it was that she just couldn't see any futures with them catching the bad guy. She doesn't just see an objective series of futures and possibilities. This ability, like anyone else's typical senses, is guided by what she expects to see.

When you write characters with poorly understood powers, tying them into familiar methods of judgment and other senses makes them more relatable--and also adds the necessary flaws so they don't become overpowered or create plot holes. One of my webcomic characters frequently encounters murky spots in her otherwise clear visions because of emotion; if she WANTS something to be true or has a lot of investment in its outcome, that colors whether she's seeing it properly, so she's trained a lot of her life to downplay her feelings when she shifts her consciousness. It's just not always possible, because searching the future is not an emotionless task in itself. And present knowledge limits what questions my fantasy novel character knows to ask; she has a lot of reach with her "knowing magick," but she still has to know where to point it, and sometimes her usefulness is undermined by her own understanding of what's possible.

Those are both aspects of Garnet's character that the show's been presenting all along, and aspects of her that have recently been explicitly discussed in the episode "Pool Hopping." And from this, I can extrapolate that her future vision is identical in some ways to my character Adele's prophesying and my character Delia's knowing magick. Most notably, it's very human, though that's an inappropriate word to apply to three characters who aren't human. It's relatable to human audience members because of how it incorporates ordinary perception in its handling of characters with an extra sense or two. As I mentioned in the analysis post I shared on Tumblr earlier this week, it might make more sense if you compare it to typical senses whose limitations and function you understand. Let's say we're talking about sight: just because you can see does NOT mean you know exactly where to look (or even CAN look) to acquire information that can be obtained visually, and it also doesn't mean you'll understand what you saw or be able to describe it accurately.

Same with hearing: maybe you hear a car alarm but you thought it was a fire alarm, and then if people who can't hear are confused as to why you acted like there was a fire, it's really hard to explain to them how EXACTLY two types of alarms can be mistaken for each other. Why would a warning for fire sound so similar to a warning for a car being broken into? Those problems are not similar at all, so why does your hearing insist they might be the same thing? You can't really explain that to people who don't hear. And if you're the only person who hears in your group, it might be hard for the others to understand that you're not really qualified as an expert in types of alarms. Just because you can hear them doesn't mean you understand what they're telling you. That's the role Garnet is stuck in sometimes: she has to interpret these visions of possible futures because she is the only one on her team who can even gather the input, but it's still subject to her interpretation--subject to her judgment, which despite experience can be ordinary.

If a character's "extrasensory" abilities are treated like any other sense in a story, they fall into line very well with good storytelling. Imperfect judgment in both the gathering and the interpretation of that input can control a super-powered character's abilities so they don't make everything so easy for the protagonists that the story becomes boring. It's such a delightful thing to see characters assigned the duty of being sure are just doing their best to be sure; they're people, not impartial oracles with no will, and it's even more "humanizing" to see them just wanting to do a good job. As much as I love Garnet and therefore hate seeing her upset, it was inspiring to see her expressing disappointment with herself balanced against desperate measures to make it right, and seeing her quiet version of panic when it didn't work. 

"Anything could happen to these cats!"
When you write a character whose abilities make them powerful, especially if you write them as uniquely responsible for using that power well, you must understand and express how that ability affects them emotionally and mentally, and also how their emotions and mental state affect the ability. They should always be a person with every talent they have woven into who they are, and if you're a writer struggling with how this works, you can try compare the extraordinary to the ordinary. 

The intent shouldn't be "how can I make the character more flawed?" or "how can I limit their power so the story doesn't get boring?" Flaws and limits are usually natural side effects to exploring all the aspects of a character; if they follow naturally, they'll fill themselves in, so there's no need to deliberately build failsafes and hurdles into a talent. If you think about it and really imagine how experiencing these things would affect a character, especially if they've always had those abilities and fully built their own minds around using them, you will easily find drawbacks--along with various nuances that will help you make a more authentic character.

No comments:

Post a Comment