The “I’m Spartacus!” moment

Writer David Brin has an interesting article on Locus Online about “why films and novels routinely depict society and its citizens as fools.” He points out how a lot of stories pit the main character against society, often unrealistically. Yet we, the collective audience, who make up that society in the real world, are meant to empathize with the hero, not the dumb society. After all, who doesn’t go around thinking in his head that his own life philosophy is the objectively best one? No one goes around thinking he’s morally wrong in his philosophical beliefs, at least not while keeping sane. So it’s easy to naturally vilify the rest of the dumb world that just doesn’t (or refuses to) see and understand all the obvious truths you see so clearly.

Of course, there are plenty of stories in which worldly rejection is established as a character flaw to be overcome. For example, in the animated film Shrek, our ogre hero says something like: “It’s the world that seems to have a problem with me! They take one look at me and say, ‘Ah! Help! Run! A big stupid ugly ogre!’ They judge me before they even know me.” Or Jean Valjean of the Les Misérables musical and recent film, who sings: “For I had come to hate the world, this world that always hated me.” The point of this sort of conflict isn’t so much that the rest of society is truly evil and stupid, but that the main character’s attitude toward the world needs to change, regardless of whatever the world did to help instill that attitude.

What caught my attention in Brin’s article was what he mentions of the Spider-Man films:

One of my favorite recent exceptions is the series of four Spiderman flicks. None of them are highbrow or classy. But despite their clichéd fluffiness, there appears to be a little-noticed tradition. In all of the first three films, Spiderman repeatedly saves New Yorkers from harm. But there is always a moment of brief role-reversal… when normal people, regular New Yorkers, step up and save Spiderman. Indeed, when I watched the recent fourth one – the reboot – I had to start by quashing sadness over Hollywood’s craven inability to ever try anything new. Still, there came a moment, near the end, when – once again and with style — citizens stood up again for their hero. And I felt a thrill.

I felt proud.

How do such unpoisonous moments manage to sneak in, despite the driving needs of jeopardy pacing?

A moment like this came in a 2009 animated film I recently watched called Summer Wars. Near the end, one of the main characters finds herself unable to defeat a villain because her virtual account has run out of resources. She’s at a brick wall. Who should come to her rescue but countless other online players, willing to give her their accounts so that she can defeat the villain. (And the better the accompanying film music, the more this moment can be milked for its dramatic power. Summer Wars features a heavenly choir swelling at this moment.)

Or there’s the more quotable moment in the 1960 epic Kubrick film Spartacus. Wanted by the authorities, a soldier asks a defeated group of slaves which one of them is Spartacus. He must be crucified for his crime of a leading a slave rebellion. All the slaves come to Spartacus’s defense. “I’m Spartacus!” they all say, each willing to share in their leader’s fate.

It is the complete opposite of feeling rejected. Not only is it support for the main character as a person, it’s support for what the main character is fighting for. No one says, “I’m more capable of being the hero here, stand aside and let me take over.” But it’s not so much that the hero maintains his status and receives personal validation, but that what the hero is fighting for is proved to be something bigger than the hero himself. The hero does get to maintain his status, not because of who he is, but because of what he represents in the story. What he’s fighting for is something that affects everybody.

In this way, the main character’s connectedness to society is emphasized. Not only is his goal something bigger than himself, but he himself is part of something bigger than himself: society as a unity, not a bunch of a competing individuals. Note, this is not collectivism as opposed to individualism; rather it’s the marriage of both. Society is made of each individual, so each individual adds to the whole. Each individual is just as important as the whole, and vice versa. They make each other. They are separate, but they are part of each other.

Like love, and as an element of love, every human instinctively understands this. Perhaps not necessarily as a philosophical concept (collectivism vs. individualism and selflessness vs. selfishness are incomplete understandings), but as an instinctual desire, something that will satisfy the human soul because it is what the human soul is made of.

And stories are great at giving humans glimpses of this.

A variation on this sort of moment is when a supporting character comes to the hero’s aid in the battle’s final moments. It might be the return of the rogue, such as Han Solo of Star Wars flying into battle to help the rebels’ assault on the Death Star. Or it might be the ever-reliable Samwise Gamgee of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King proclaiming: “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you!” Our hero rises with the aid of a supporting character. Again, it’s a powerful moment for the same sorts of reasons.

Appendum: The “Rescue the Hero” moment

Now that I think more about it, I’d call the “I’m Spartacus” moment a type of more general “Rescue the Hero” moment.

The “Rescue the Hero” moment may happen shortly before the climax, as one or more supporting characters aid the hero in getting to the climax. Examples include Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, or Gonji in Yojimbo.

It may happen as part of the climax (especially when the main character is not the protoganist), as in the bike flying of E.T. in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, or the sacrifice of the giant in Iron Giant, or the entrance of T-Rex in Jurassic Park.

It may happen right after the climax, to save the hero from his own self-sacrifice. Examples include Dr. Jones Sr. holding Indiana over an abyss in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, or the mentos mountain rescue of Vanellope von Schweetz in Wreck-It Ralph. Or, again, Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. And again with the eagles in the same film, lifting the hobbits to safety.

Finally, it may happen as icing on the cake as a “Thank the Hero” moment, when the climax is over. Examples include Chief Bromden’s tragic “rescue” in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the bowing to the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the money donations to George Baily in It’s a Wonderful Life, or the medal ceremony in Star Wars.

Whenever a crowd gives the character support instead of just one supporting character, I’d call it an “I’m Spartacus!” moment, a crowd variation on a “Rescue the Hero” or a “Thank the Hero” moment.

First novel progress update

Just a quick update. Progress slowly continues on my upper-middle-grade fantasy novel attempt, Moonrise Ink, my first thus-far-successful attempt at writing something of this length. Almost to the end. I’m still slogging through the climax scene. But it’s like Zeno’s paradox; the closer I get to the climax moment of the climax scene, the slower I seem to write. It’s as if I want to be more and more careful about everything, and obsess over every detail. A reader will probably read over several hour’s worth of work in less than a minute. That is, my extra effort will probably go unnoticed.

And, I confess, I feel apprehensive about something, though I’m not sure what. Perhaps I shouldn’t even try to guess, but I think it’s the insecurity of imagining no agents or publishers ever being interested in this work, and feeling like all the time and effort put into this thing will come to nothing. Which I rationally realize is ridiculous. Odds are rarely in favor of a first novel being professionally published, and the middle-grade fantasy market is crowded. And, anyway, I’ve learned a lot about writing in the process. Looking back to the novel’s first chapters, which I wrote about a year and a half ago (and which will certainly need plenty of editing), I feel my writing has definitely improved. The novel is already a success in that regard. Still, the fear eats at me every now and then.

But my emotions also swing the other way, when I’m not thinking about craft technicalities or career dreams, when I’m just thinking about the world and the characters and the story. I get goosebumps and feel all epic. What writer doesn’t? It’s the call that lures any storyteller.

Anyway, only a few parts left to write of the climax, then three or four short scenes to wrap things up. I wish I could say I’d be done by the end of the week, but at my current rate, who knows. One word at a time.

Intruder words

Writer Bryan Thomas Schmidt recently made a nice post about using “intruder words” in writing. I had never heard the phrase before, but I think I understand what they are. As Schmidt says:

‘Wondered, felt, thought, saw, knew, heard,’ etc. are all ‘intruder’ words. They intrude on the action, by stating extemporaneously what can be written more actively. They pull us out of the intimate POV of the character and throw things into telling or passiveness.

When we experience everyday life, we don’t consciously think about the mechanics of our own perceptions. Our focus is on our experiences themselves. So when we want to make the reader experience a story from a character’s POV, reminding the reader of those mechanics tends weaken the illusion (unless, I suppose, the character is consciously thinking about those mechanics himself).

Looking back through my novel-in-progress, I use “intruder words” a lot. I am guilty, guilty, guilty. “Thravien jumped when he noticed the silhouette of a man…” “Thravien heard his heart beating.” “Quoll heard nothing but gushing water.” “Thravien didn’t see Sinta’s ship…” “Thravien watched the ships…” It is definitely something I will have to keep in mind as I finish writing a first draft and begin a second draft. So many of my sentences can be reworded to put the reader deeper into the characters’ experiences.

This might be a topic for another post, but I wonder if this might be why reading about glances and glares annoys me as a reader. “He gave her an amused glance.” “She returned an annoyed glance.” “They shared a thoughtful glance.” Bleh! If I am called to imagine the look of a glance, then I have to step outside the character and watch him like a camera-man. It takes me out of the experience of being that character. And my imagination can choose the appropriate look of a glance quite well on its own, thank you very much.