July 29, 2015

Just don't stand there

I recall an actor extolling the benefits of smoking. On screen, that is. He'd grown up in the old studio system, back when people smoked without apology. It all came down to keeping one's hands busy, giving the actor something to do when he wasn't actually doing anything:

Take out a pack, extract a cigarette, give it a couple of taps to pack the tobacco, search the pockets for a book of matches, find it, get one out, strike it, light the cigarette, wave out the match, take a puff, exhale smoke. And on it goes.

The thing is, even when people are "doing nothing," they're actually doing a lot. And neither do they stand around declaiming in soliloquies. And when they do, listeners aren't suddenly struck by blinding realizations and run off realizing the error of their ways.

(In other words, real political life is not like The West Wing.)

And yet the engine of a story has to idle occasionally. The protagonists can't be in pursuit of the plot 24/7. So what are they doing when they're not?

In real life, people are pretty boring. Middle class, suburban teenagers in particular are really boring. But you can't bore the viewer in the name of "realism." Hence that most reliable of genre fantasy plots: boring kid discovers he's not.

Harry Potter, Peter Parker, Luke Skywalker, to name a few.

The job of the teenage superhero is Saving the World, except Saving the World gets boring week after week too. It really does. Besides, what do they do when the world doesn't need saving? As Kate suggests, it's a problem solved "by simply giving the main characters jobs."

I'd argue that the appeal of action heroes like Tony Stark, Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker, and Clark Kent is due in large part to the fact that they all work for a living. At least when we first meet them. And the less real work they do, the less interesting they are.

I'd prefer to see more of Peter Parker using his superpowers to creatively enhance his job as a photojournalist instead of battling the latest comically absurd supervillain. In other words, less time spent saving humanity (sorry, humanity), more time making a living.

For the Y/A protagonist, being a student can qualify as a job. One of the best examples of this is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy's two jobs (student/Slayer) means that the mundane is constantly bumping up against the supernatural. This is great for story possibilities.

Manga and anime execute this formula to great effect.

In The Devil is a Part-Timer, our villain with a good heart has gotten stranded on Earth and has to get a job at McDonald's to make ends meet. Even funnier, being the competitive guy that he is, he works hard and cares about being successful at what he does.

So in-between destroying/saving the world, he's got to staff the late shift and keep the customers coming when a Kentucky Fried Chicken opens across the street. It's a much better way to humanize the protagonist than being nice to children and rescuing wayward pets.

(Though just to be sure, he does that too.)

When it comes to non-paranormal melodramas, the budding manga artist is a popular job for a teen protagonist. In Hanasaku Iroha, Ohana works at her grandmother's inn while attending school. In Kodocha, eleven-year-old Sana is a hard-working child actress.

Serious hobbies also qualify. The sports manga/anime is its own huge genre, but there the sole (even relentless) focus of the story is often the sport. There are exceptions: I'm thinking specifically of stories where the story is about something other than the "job."

I think Yawara falls into that category. Yawara Inokuma's grandfather has trained her since infancy to be a judo champion. But now a teenager, she's rebelling. There's plenty of judo, but the story is more about her relationship with her grandfather and classmates.

In K-On, five students at an all-girls high school form a band that turns out to be pretty darn good (almost despite themselves). The running joke is that they're always so busy doing other things that they only get around to practicing the night before a gig.

In Garden of Words, Takao wanting to become a shoemaker works because it keeps him from moping all the time and gives him a goal in life. And it being an odd thing for a teenager to be interested in makes him all the more interesting.

Genre fiction gets boring when it tries too hard not to be. The result is a storm of action and emotions, except that constant action is exhausting and emotions are effervescent. Forcing characters into regular contact with the ordinary world is what brings them to life.

Related links

The Devil is a Part-Timer (H)
Hanasaku Iroha (H CR)
Kodocha (Netflix)
K-On (H)
Yawara (Netflix)

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# posted by Blogger Katherine Woodbury
7/29/2015 10:19 AM   
My favorite version of Superman is Lois & Clark, largely because Clark Kent IS the real persona while Superman is the disguise.

With Christopher Reeves' classic Superman, it was exactly the other way around: Superman was the real guy while Clark Kent was the disguise. This worked to an extent but it did mean that Reeves spent an awful lot of time in those tights (Lois & Clark has the opposite problem; a few episodes have almost no Superman in them at all!).

By making Clark WANT to be Clark Kent (rather than Superman) and for Lois to love him as Clark (not as Superman), the writers earn themselves instant internal conflict--not an easy thing to do with this particular superhero!