Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Why You Should Watch III: Dialogue and Characters (yes, characters again, but different)

The triumphant conclusion!  And by "triumphant," I mean "you can really tell I was losing steam, fast."  Join me, then, as I name-drop more stuff I have read/seen/played.  Part I is here, and Part II is here.

2. Good dialogue. I have a confession to make: I am a bad reader. Long descriptions of a person's surroundings bore me to tears. Unless it really, really catches my eye, I'll flip past them, looking for the next instance where the characters stop looking around and start talking again. I had to read the last section of Neal Stephenson's Anathem (a book that's generally superb when it comes to set pieces and long-term plot) four times, because I kept accidentally flipping past the story's climax. What draws my attention, though, is the witty one-liner. The sarcastic barb, the clever word twist. It's why I loved 18th century rake-hero plays, and Spy Groove, and Gilmore Girls. Judging from the explosion of comedy podcasts, I'm not alone here. (You will never see those three things in the same sentence again.) If the set piece is the first thing a person thinks of when they try to remember why they liked a story, then the memorably dialogue is the first thing they say.

Really good dialogue, though, is more than a series of zingers. It should always flow from a recognition of who is saying it, and under what conditions. A happy go lucky character shouldn't be uttering sarcastic one liners, no matter how funny it is, or how necessary the line is for some expository purpose. Good dialogue means knowing how what you have the characters mouthing serves plot, character, and audience. And this is where videogame stories, in particular, often fall terribly flat. In this case, it's a problem of logistics--no matter how clever a line is, if the character shouts it every time he jumps, it's going to get repetitive and forced. Voice acting has started to pick up a lot of the slack in this regard--the right delivery can save a very hokey line. The reason some people still speak positively about a show like West Wing years after its ending is that it discussed politics in an intelligent, compelling way, but it almost always did that through its characters' dialogue, in a natural (well, natural within the established TV world) manner. From Buffyspeak to 30 Rock's Jack voice, it's both what you say and how you say it.

1. Compelling Characters. And that brings us to the element I most look for in my stories, a cast of compelling characters. I've separated this element from character development, because I actually think it's more important to show characters as immediately interesting and fascinating, rather than become interesting over time. Often, that does mean starting with a cliche and building from there, but, well, you do have to start somewhere. And you need characters that present themselves as immediately interesting to a large swathe of your intended audience. Spider-Man is a good example--witty and smart, but also with a swathe of tragedy. Batman weighs in a little more on the tragedy side, but functions in a similar way. It becomes clear pretty quickly if a character stands the test of time--Sherlock Holmes, for example, is undergoing something a resurgence, because there's something about the surly intellectual type that people enjoy. (But that's another blog post entirely.) Even though they're arguably not the main characters, Sheldon Cooper and Barney Stinson form a large part of the appeal for their respective shows, simply for being characters that push the extreme of acceptable social behavior. As a final example, the most compelling part of Veronica Mars is its portrayal of one of the most elusive character forms of all, a tough-as-nails teenage girl who's still basically a good person.

Of course, even more important than the main character is the way the characters play off each other. Whatever my problems with Supernatural (and believe me, I have a lot of them), the one thing the show does in an exemplary fashion, the thing that forms the cement that holds the rest of the show together, is the relationship between the two brothers, Sam and Dean. Sam plays the slightly more innocent, slightly more white knight character, and Dean is more sarcastic and bitter. It's a very small difference, sometimes, but a crucial one. Arrested Development had a huge cast, and each had a slightly different set of dysfunctionalism that framed the others. The Ocean films, on the other hand, illustrate what happens when a cast gets too unwieldy, and you're left with characters reduced to one-liner "wacky" traits. (Still a fun movie, though.) The reason that the Game of Thrones series has met with such appeal is less the huge gigantic plot that Martin's fit together (although that does play a large part) but the way it's shown to us through a massive cast of characters whom we genuinely grow to like and admire.

It should be noted that none of these 5 elements exist in isolation of the others, and the exact balance shifts depending on what show you're talking about. Community has a core cast of seven characters, who are pretty well balanced at this point. It's rather thin on the ongoing plot, besides the episode-to-episode stuff and the overarching idea that it's 4 years of college. But its focus, generally speaking, is its witty dialogue. It's a comedy, and it functions on jokes. 30 Rock works in a similar manner, though I'd argue that Community draws a bit more on set pieces (the one room episode, the paintball genre benders). For contrast, Battlestar Galactica's most notable bits were probably its character development and its ongoing plot, though the latter occasionally overwhelms the former. The point is, in order for a show to keep my interest, it's got to keep consistently high levels in more than one of the elements I've described.

And that, at long last, brings us back to our main topic, why you should watch Avatar: the Last Airbender. As one might imagine, my argument is that it's very high in all elements. There's plenty of set pieces, which range from extremely well choreographed fight scenes to prolonged sabotage (when the main four work to stop a giant Fire Nation drill from breaking the Earth Kingdom wall) to lighter things, such as Saka's haiku rap performance that I alluded to a few posts back. There's the ongoing plot--the obvious one, yes, of defeating the Fire Nation, but also lesser elements, ranging from traversing the world to establishing its rather unique animal kingdom (Here's a list of all of 'em. My favorite's the tiger-dillo.) There's a regular stream of callbacks and one-liners that make the dialogue--and it's established rather quickly which characters will be the sarcastic ones. And character-wise, it's excellent. There's no black and white villains or heroes, which is a big failing of fantasy in general. Everyone gets human motivations, and everyone grows.

So watch it. It's worth your time.

Later Days.

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