Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Authorial influence and fiat.

The goal of this blog has been, and will be, to explore believability. This means that it looks at ways that a fictional world can be made more "real", in the sense that it's tangible and logical to the audience. However, there is one major interfering factor when it comes to the issue of authorship. No matter how logically or illogically a story is developed, there is one key rule that absolutely cannot be forgotten: what the writer says happens is what happens. It doesn't matter how little sense it makes, or how much: if there is logic, it is because the writer has arranged the story in a way that things make sense. If there isn't, it's because they didn't bother to arrange the story in such a way. There is no actual system of logic in play: it's all set up by the writer, regardless of the end result. Of course, the audience is free to make their own conclusions about the morals and lessons taught by the events, but the events themselves are orchestrated entirely by the author.

All of the updates on this blog - past and future - have the goal of making it so that the author has more tools at their disposal to create the illusion of reality. This is done to make that illusion more tangible and palpable so that the audience can maintain their suspension of disbelief. The less things that draw their attention to the fictitious nature of the enterprise, the less likely that this major issue (the fact that it is fiction, and hence it's all made up anyways) will be breached. But this is an optional objective - there are many writers more concerned with telling "the story they want" than worrying about consistency or logic. Can you stop them? Of course not. It's their story. If Karen Traviss (pictured left) wants to say that all Mandalorians are super-awesome warriors who are way better than every Jedi, then technically she's right - insomuch as she's making it all up anyways, and one made-up thing is just as true as another.

A writer is essentially on their own in terms of logic. There is no system governing what they can and cannot write, except in a meta-sense (censors, legal issues, etcetera). If they want something to happen, it is going to happen. This brings us to the issue of fiat (Latin for "let it be done"), a general term referring to things like deus ex machina or anything where something happens because "the author wills it". This is most obvious when there is a logical leap or gap and it's not bridged by anything other than the author saying it happened. However, if we examine the initial statement, then every single thing that happens in a story is fiat. The difference is separating the fiat that's logical from the fiat that's not - what's believable and what's implausible.

In an earlier post I compared the idea of enemies being plausible threats and/or beings in their own right to enemies being static non-entities who exist to be trampled by the hero. As you might guess, both things in this case come down to fiat: will the author portray it plausibly, or will they just go the easy route and make all the enemies stand still to get blown up? In the end, it comes down to how the author wants to show it. You can talk about plausibility and believability all you want, but the actual events are only influenced by how the author chooses to depict things.

No example shows this more clearly, in my mind, than Berserk's hundred-man battle. This is combat that is simultaneously difficult and trivial. Both of the protagonists have to block enemy strikes and counter in weak spots, rather than just blasting through them with no effort. There's a real effort to show that they're outnumbered, they're getting tired, and they're on their last legs. But at the same time, the enemies never bring their superior numbers to bear in a logical way, the protagonists get away with a lot of stuff that they shouldn't (at one point Guts waves his cape and this is enough to somehow knock crossbow bolts away), and ultimately the moral of the story is "The good guys kill a lot of guys who attack in a way that allows the good guys to kill them". The consistency of the situation is there for atmosphere, rather than to shape events.

This example is important to me because there's an attempt to have a logical, grounded system for the whole affair, but ultimately it comes down to "we need the good guys to survive and beat the odds, and the bad guys to all die messily". The plausibility of the scene is a speed bump on the road to Guts winning. There's a similar feel around the series "Gundam: 08th MS Team". The three main pilots are meant to be fairly normal, but none of them die even when the odds are against them. This is a good clip to illustrate what I mean: Shiro is a normal human who is forced to resort to a desperate ambush against his opponents - something that wouldn't happen in any of the other series - but at the same time he dodges gunfire from a mech, and then later he shoots down some tiny anti-personnel mines. He's superhuman, but not; he's really whatever the story needs him to be in order to survive. The "realism" of the show is part of the illusion, but in actuality he's going to win no matter what it takes.

This brings us to another key issue: the capabilities of a character will always be whatever they need to be. I touched on this briefly when discussing PvP/PvE, but here's the bottom line: measuring strength is always going to be ridiculous because the strength of a character is derived solely from the writer. If I write a story where I say "this character is a normal human but he can eat the sun", should you be impressed with this character? Would you be drawn to learn more about him and how his totally insane logical inconsistencies can exist? Well, there's no logic behind it. He can eat the sun because I, the author, said he can. That's it.

Now let's compare this to some actual shows and movies. I've touched on the later Gundam series before, but they really are a pretty good example because they rely on the audience being impressed by "this mech is powerful". What is there to be in awe of? The weapon is powerful because the designer made it powerful. Without context or drama, what is that "power" appealing to? Even with that one clip, they won't leave well enough alone and power it up even more. What does this accomplish? There's no tactile or experience-based viewpoint to actually approach the gun from, so it might as well be a sentence reading "this gun can blow up everything". Its power exists in a vacuum. Giant mecha can do everything from destroy an army to throw a galaxy like a shuriken, and what does it mean? It means that the writer said "and then the giant mecha threw the galaxy like a shuriken" - no more, no less.

This problem can almost be made worse if there's an attempt to connect to some sort of realism (although arguably all things try to appeal to realism at some level - more about this in a future update). For example, in the game "Halo: ODST", the player takes the role of an Orbital Drop Ship Trooper (essentially a futuristic paratrooper). The difference between normal Halo games and ODST is meant to be justified by the fact that in most Halo games you play as a shield-equipped super-soldier, whereas in ODST you are a normal guy. However, the grand list of things that changes about the game is this: you can no longer dual wield. Your health regenerates, your movement is light and quick, your guns are bolted to your frame rather than swinging wildly around, and you can punch through tanks. The aspect of "being normal" has absolutely no connection to the gameplay because it all exists as author fiat, and "author fiat" only wanted the player to be an ODST so they could expand on an element they thought was cool. The ODST, as a soldier, is exactly as strong as the game needs him to be. And yet there is a trope praising such characters on the basis of "it's more impressive because they don't have any powers", forgetting that the only power they need is the power of "the author wants me to win". Nothing else matters except that.

However, there is one method of storytelling that actually has the potential to overcome this hurdle: luck-based or skill-based gaming with a solid rule system to ensure fairness. This primarily takes the form of RPGs, but actual gameplay in videogames may also count. Games in general have a few distinct traits that can free them of the quagmire of authorial directorship:

1: The Game System Provides The Rules. One of the issues with authorship is the issue of consistency: an attack might not be enough to harm an enemy in one scene, but it is in another. The consistency of the story is up to the author to maintain, and if they want to ignore it there's nothing that can be done. Games, on the other hand, establish a solid system, and with the exception of cutscenes generally try to maintain that system at all times. If a character is low level, they're going to have these capabilities. If they level up, their capabilities will improve. In this way, the playing field can be kept consistent, if not necessarily level. A character will consistently be the same strength unless they take an action in-universe to change it.

An issue related to this is "real logic" versus "game logic" - that is to say, a game meant to represent some sort of "reality" (humans are humans, physics are physics) inaccurately representing that reality. One could also point to "higher-level" stuff, which suffers from the same "higher numbers = better than" mentality seen in DBZ or any other high-powered anime series. The difference here, to me, is that there's a concrete method of improvement and a concrete level of power. If you want to be high level, you have to earn your way there. If you're a low-level person and you attack a high-level person, you're probably going to lose. There's no arbitrary "well he's tougher than me in every way but I'm a good guy so I win" stuff unless, say, the player rolls a critical hit. This leads into the second point.

2: Events Change Based On Luck or Skill. Earlier with regards to Berserk, I mentioned that, in essence, the way combat was portrayed was unimportant because the end result had to be "Guts wins". In a game, it can all come down to either a roll of the dice (for most role-playing games) or the player's capabilities (for more direct action games). The gaming comic Knights of the Dinner Table actually has a lot of characters dying and campaigns failing as the result of bad rolls and bad decisions, which is perfectly logical and happens all the time in real D&D campaigns. The success or failure of the characters actually has a lasting impression, and this makes it far more tense because the story might actually change. You don't just get a do-over, you could totally screw up and all your characters could die and that's it, the story is over for them.

It's important to note, however, that the way an adventure is tailored and challenges are shown affects this. Oftentimes, encounters are "balanced" to provide an optimal combat threat. I don't support this method; I prefer a system where enemies are whatever type it would make sense for that area, and it's up to the players to analyze their chances. If they're out in the woods and they hear a hill giant approaching, it should be up to them to do something about it - either take it head-on (if they're confident), set a trap, run away, or try to hide. If the encounter's balanced, there's no real reason to do anything other than "fight normally"; if it's unbalanced, the players have to think on their feet and react to the monster as an event, rather than an obstacle. A hard encounter should be overcome with guile and cunning, instead of just not happening until the party's ready for it.

3: The Players Make Decisions And Direct The Course Of Their Characters' Actions. This is the point that's least universal - there are plenty of railroading DMs who want to put their players through "my story", and far more videogames that do the same thing. Still, in most RPGs the onus of activity lies with the players, often to the detriment of the DM who has to keep up with their pace. This freedom is shared with a lot of wide-open sandbox games, although video games are inherently limited by things like resources and design.

The importance of this freedom is that it makes the story much more malleable: it's the result of a logical (well, not always logical, but at least player-decided) train of thought leading to a rule-moderated conclusion based on planning, strategy, and luck. The more that the DM or developers say "no you can't do that", the less it's going to feel like the player has any influence on what's happening. In this case, the DM and developers represent "fiat": you can't do that because I said you can't, deal with it. To be a truly interactive, developing story, these restrictions must be minimized.

RPGs are naturally equipped to deal with this - unlike a computer, a human DM can adapt new material "on the fly" (or at least relatively quickly) based on consulting rules and stats in the book. If the players want to hire mercenaries, the books will probably have rules and tables for that. If the players want to build a castle, the books will probably have rules and tables for that. In fact, this aspect is why I personally prefer AD&D to newer editions - the lighter, less-intensive combat system means there's more time devoted to establishing background data and materials for the DM to call upon.


I appreciate the stories generated by pen-and-paper RPGs and sandbox games because they're naturally occurring; a system was established, and the players let events happen. To me, it's much more of a "big deal" to hear about an expedition that nearly failed but managed to survive at the last second, or an X-COM recruit who managed to get off that lucky shot. These stories are more real to me because they operate under similar rules to reality, most importantly "success isn't guaranteed". In contrast, authored stories are, well, authored: what the author says happens, happens. If they're a good author, I'll be drawn in enough that it's not predictable and I can try to figure out what's going to happen, but in essence it comes down to what the author wanted to happen.

There's a term in fandom that I think is fairly important for this: in a series where many characters die, it is the author who "kills their characters". Even if a show or book or movie depicts war in an accurate sense, the characters who died are, in fact, killed by the author, because it is the author's decision whether they live or die. In the last, climactic book of the Harry Potter series, many characters died - but those characters lived and died because J.K. Rowling wrote them living or dying. She could have spared any one of them, and every one that died did so because she desired it to happen. Gundam director Yoshiyuki Tomino (pictured left) has actually been criticized for making series where characters are killed off frequently, despite the fact that most of these series are war-oriented. Structured rules take the decision out of the "author's" hands by making it up to the dice. War is fatal, and it may end up being random whether you live or die - but there's nothing "random" about an author, because the author's role is to govern the story, and they have absolute control over every aspect of it.

This is the base concept of what I'm trying to get at: no matter what, it's all going to come down to the author's decision. An author can kill characters off to try to achieve the "randomness" of war, and logically their choice will be justified, but essentially the characters who live and die are still chosen by the author. This is why internal consistency is so important: because the decision an author makes should be backed up by logic for the audience to become invested in them. Without internal consistency, each decision sits alone in a void, and the audience is essentially listening to a dictated list of events without any connection to why any of it is happening. The more rules the author abides by, the more "fair" their decisions will seem.

I constantly bring up Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan on this blog for various reasons, and to me there is one major difference between them: Band of Brothers is based on true events, and Saving Private Ryan is not. When a character dies in Band of Brothers, it is because it actually happened based on a logical system of events in real life. When a character dies in Saving Private Ryan, it is because the script called for them to die. Even if the death is done well and feels natural, it's going to be underscored by the fact that the death happened as part of the script, not "naturally". Perhaps, then, scripts should be built off of role-playing sessions? It's worth a gamble.


  1. I realize that this is long after you posted this, but I just read it. I generally agree with you, but some authors do have elements of randomness in their fiction and do not make every decision. I know Philip Dick wrote at least one story using the I Ching to guide its writing. Similarly, collective storytelling, such as happens in RPG's, in fiction can yield interesting results where no one author has complete control.

  2. Is their any way a writer can avert this then? Other than killing the lead, which could end the story?