Saturday, February 18, 2012

Authorship, Blame, and Neutrality

The role of an author or artist in fiction is to design and develop worlds. They set up settings, characters, and events into a hopefully compelling and dramatic narrative so that the audience may become emotionally and vicariously connected to those things and thus have an emotional response. This is the ostensible goal of fiction: to create a false world, or to tell a lie, that is convincing enough that the audience will become immersed in it. When I talk about "believability", I'm trying to point out tools and techniques that will help smooth the edges over and hide the facade of fiction behind a veneer of plausibility. My goal in discussing these things is to provide you, my readers, with an understanding of the way that sensory information, logical sequencing of events, and justifiable character traits can help the audience to forget the falsehood of what they're seeing and to see it instead as a cohesive story or narrative.

Yet despite this, the role of a creator is to orchestrate and manipulate, and while it creates more tension to make a story that can immerse the audience in its own internal consistency, the fact of the matter is that fiction is a lie, and thus a creator can say whatever they want to and it will be equally "true". A lie is not bound by the things that make reality consistent and cohesive, because no matter how plausible or implausible it is, it will always be fake. The author, artist, writer, creator, director - whoever's in charge - is totally in control of what happens in the world he or she has created, and they are not beholden to any rules about what can or cannot happen.

The problem with this arises when the audience stops feeling like they're being presented with a "real" world, and starts feeling like they're being presented with The Author's Lie. When the influence of a creator spills over into the world they've created, it calls attention to the fact that there is a creator - that this isn't real, but simply a complex series of falsehoods. Obviously the audience knows it's not real from the start, but the point of immersion in a game, movie, show, or whatever is to temporarily make the audience's brain forget. They want to see what comes next and what happens, and if they think they can predict it based on the author's values, the immersion is lessened and so is the emotional connection it brings.

This is an issue I've talked about in the past in a fairly limited sense: the issue of power and strength as an author-derived statistic, rather than something believable in-universe. But, in addition to that issue, there are several other issues that arise from the visible presence of an author.

Authorial Agendas
One of the most common issues that arises when an author realizes the power they wield over their universe is the idea of "righting wrongs": to make things in their world that reflect what they want, or what they think the world should be like. This may be intentional, or it may be unintentional. Intentional examples come when an author goes out of their way to change things to their liking - to "right the wrongs" of reality by depicting an escapist utopia where things are exactly as the author wishes them to be. Unintentional examples come from the by-necessity slanted perception of an individual reflected upon a fictional world as an attempt to be "realistic".

For example, in the World of Gor series (whipcrack), men are established as being dominant and powerful, and women are submissive and eager to be made into sex slaves. This is almost certainly an example of an intentional agenda, as the alternate-world nature of Gor suggests that it is an escapist fantasy for the author (in the guise of the protagonist, world-jumping professor Tarl Cabot). Gor is a world crafted for the author, where everything works the way he wants it to. In an unintentional agenda, Gor would simply be a reflection of how the author thinks the world already works: "women enjoy being beaten in real life, right? so I made a book where the female characters enjoy being beaten". They're both offensive to most people, obviously, but it's important to distinguish between them because one is a direct appeal to the author's own viewpoint, and the other is founded in ignorance.

That's not to say that people with truly good intentions cannot also suffer from authorial influence. It's easy to single out people who use authorial power to promote sexism, racism, and other forms of hate-speech or discrimination, but positive viewpoints that rely too heavily on authorial power also suffer. Even if it's a sentiment that you or I agree with, if the story feels forced or unnatural, it doesn't really help establish the moral or its applicability to reality. The phenomenon of Positive Discrimination is essentially a reflection of this concept. If an author is trying to make a statement like "women can fight just as well as men" and doesn't back that up in-universe with things like training, hard work, and the threat of failure, it's going to feel artificial (because it is). If the idea being conveyed is "women can do anything that men can", and the hard work aspect isn't conveyed, it's not going to be a convincing argument - it's just going to be escapism, a feel-good experience for people who already believe that women are equal to men that does nothing to actually convey the value or realism of that sentiment.

An authorial agenda is the literary equivalent of a cheat code. The immersive value of a narrative derives from its consistency and its tension. In the Lord of the Rings, we empathize with Frodo because the arduous journey of getting the One Ring to Mordor is a long and unpleasant, yet necessary, task. That empathy is taken away if we are made to ask "wait, why didn't they just ask the eagles to carry them?", because now it's stopped being a legitimately hard situation and started being a faux-difficult farce. Any task can be hard if you make it hard, it's not tense unless someone or something else is making it difficult. When you "make the world work" for your viewpoint or your favorite character - when things just click for no reason other than "I'm the author and what I say goes" - you're destroying the tension of the situation in exchange for a largely self-congratulatory sequence of fictional events.

Authorial Blame
In addition to being disconcertingly unimmersive, authorial agenda also opens the doors to invitations of blame. The fact that the author controls everything in the work brings up the question of "why did they do this" or "why didn't they do that". Because it no longer feels natural, if the audience doesn't like something that happened, they have someone to either appeal to or blame. It's a lot like Theism in ways I'm not comfortable discussing, so don't get all smug about it or anything.

See, we established that the tension of fiction comes from its forced consistency. If a threat feels real, and not "a thing the author put in to fake tension", then it's going to work better because the audience accepts it as part of the in-universe set of events. They'll accept a character's death or misfortune as a tragic part of the narrative, and grieve for the character "in-universe". If the death feels fake, then the reaction will still be negative, but it's going to be negative in a meta-sense. For example, when R.A. Salvatore killed off Chewbacca in one of his Star Wars novels, the response was less "oh no, Chewbacca's dead, how tragic", and more "what the hell, why did Salvatore kill off Chewbacca?" Their reaction distanced them and de-immersed them from the narrative they were taking part in. If a female character feels real, and not "a thing the author put in because she's sexy", then the audience is going to accept her as part of the universe as well. They might not like her as a person, but here's the dividing point: whether the audience focuses on the author or on the setting.

There's a term in Professional Wrestling called "Go-Away Heat" that I think helps explain this difference. "Heat", in wrestling terms, is how much a crowd boos a villainous wrestler ("pop" is the cheering equivalent for heroic wrestlers). Normally, this is an accepted concept, because wrestlers who get (or seek) heat are playing as villain characters. A wrestler who plays a slimy, greedy, untrustworthy character is hoping to get booed, because that's the fans responding to their character. The more boos he or she gets, the more attention they're paying to the character. In some cases, you'll get people who boo heroes and cheer villains, but generally those people are still connecting with the characters - they're just making different value judgments than what's presented to them by the wrestling narrative.

"Go-Away Heat" is legitimate booing: they're not booing because they hate the character, they're booing because they hate the wrestler. Booing a heel wrestler means he's doing his job right; booing a wrestler that you legitimately dislike means "stop letting this person wrestle, kick him out of the industry please". John Cena has been a long-time victim of this because of his relatively dull persona and, perhaps more importantly, how obviously he's been supported by the WWE's writing team. His victories feel forced and unnatural, and while he's popular with a large segment of the fanbase, the way he's played up and presented by the WWE has earned him a lot of antipathy as well. The point is that the fans are taken out of the story because the problems they have with Cena are largely based on his presentation: he feels fake, he feels unnatural, he feels spoonfed to the audience. They're no longer capable of addressing his issues in-universe, and so they break from their "immersion", such as it is, to complain about how he's represented in reality.

When people talk about hating characters like Ivy from Soul Calibur or Samus in Metroid: Other M, it's never really about the character and it's almost always about the designer. The character is not held responsible for their personality or their attire because "they" didn't choose it, the creator did. It's impossible to actually respond to them as "people" because they're not presented as such. A well-written, well-rounded character can have views and perspectives that you might not enjoy, but you can still consider them "their own person" and decide you disagree with them. A poorly-written character does not allow for that, because there's no point "disagreeing with them" - they're not real enough to even pretend that's acceptable.

For example, when Starfire in DC Comics starts talking about how great nudity is and how prudish humans are, there's two things that you can do. The first is to agree/disagree with the character's perspective, thus making them feel more real and rounded to you as a reader. The second is to go "what a blatant, transparent justification by the writers and artists to have a character who spends all of her time naked", and thus become disconnected from the narrative. You don't think of her as a real character because she's too fake to let you get immersed enough to do that. She's just a marionette, justifying objectification in the guise of female empowerment (as written by male comic book staff who want to see some big ol' titties).

Similarly, Sejuani from League of Legends (who you may remember from that other article I wrote) has been vaguely justified by the idea that "she wears a bikini in the cold as a sign of her toughness!" This plays off the idea that style and utility can be traded off, and the former becomes more meaningful by the sacrifice of the latter. Yet it's also easily possible to construe that particular line of reasoning as a shallow excuse whipped up after the character was already designed in order to justify the concept of "we wanted her to have tits". People who would be offended by the idea of a female character being designed only for titillation aren't going to be pacified by the in-universe reasoning if it's not convincing; they're just going to go "what an awful justification" and continue to hate it. Because it is, it's an awful justification.

I've made a Venn Diagram that I think helps to illustrate the visual design process in terms of in-universe and meta reasoning.

On the left you'll see the red circle, illustrating "why characters do things". On the right you'll see the blue circle, indicating "why designers do things". In the middle you'll find the common ground that they share, where the reasoning of the character and designer will probably be the same. When a member of the audience disagrees on the execution of something about the character (i.e. in the red circle), then it reflects on the character themselves. When a member of the audience objects to a perceived issue in the design process (i.e. in the blue circle), then it reflects on the designers.

A character can be a "bad person", or "stupid", or "abrasive", and still be well-rounded as a character. After all, it's not like those traits don't exist in real life. The key is just making it so that it's a reflection of their character (red circle), and not a reflection of the artist (blue circle). If it's just part of their personality, you might not like them, but you'll address them as a person (that you don't like). If it feels like they're there to be representative of a particular sex or ethnicity, you'll probably be offended if you're part of the targeted group. Whether it's male or female, black or white or Asian or Hispanic, straight or gay, if you feel like a character is a bad person because of what they are and not who they are, then you're not going to think of it in terms of "the character", you're going to think of it in terms of the author's personal vendetta.

The problem with Samus Aran in Metroid: Other M wasn't that she was a passive character who constantly relies on men to do things for her and collapses emotionally at several points, it's the fact that Yoshio Sakamoto was making his presence felt. It was the fact that we were supposed to apparently think "yes, this is how a normal woman behaves, this is what women do". Samus as a character wasn't the issue, Samus as "what Sakamoto thinks women are like, or should be like" was. This was worsened by the fact that Samus' previous incarnation hadn't had the same personality, so it felt even more artificial and forced. To quote Sakamoto himself from a Joystiq interview:

"And one of the specific goals here is to convey the charm of Samus as a character and to bring forth several perspectives on what kind of personality she has and how she reacts to situations."

Did you see that word, "charm"? That's how we know that Sakamoto is doing this. That's how we know he designed this passive, weak-willed, feeble character as "someone you should like", and why our dislike for the character turns into dislike for him, dislike for the game, and justifiable accusations of sexism and bad writing. It's because she's not an "independent character", presented neutrally, but rather an author-project character, presented in a manner that we're obviously supposed to think is great. He's trying to make our judgment for us, when most people are going to respond negatively to the sorts of things he thinks are "charming". We react badly because it's being forced upon us.

In contrast, let's talk about Valkyria Chronicles for a bit, if only so I can drudge up the most game-defining picture that's ever been produced:
Only the dead have seen the end of kawaii
Valkyria Chronicles basically had two groups of playable characters: "main characters" and "everyone else". The main characters were terrible because they were forced upon the player, both in the form of cutscenes and near-mandatory inclusion into battles. You could not get away from the main characters if you played Valkyria Chronicles, and the way that events unfolded in the game showed that the game had a pretty obvious agenda too, because every character ends up admitting that the main character is awesome and right 100% of the time.

However, the "everyone else" category got fairly little characterization. There was no sense of authorial influence on them because that would be too much time spent paying attention to side characters. Instead, they're presented as they are: cheerful or dour, hard-working or lazy, smart or stupid, accepting or racist. The player is allowed to make judgments about them based on their characters and not what the game seems to want them to think. There's no "oh, we all realized that you're right!" moment for those characters. There's no sense of the universe coming together to show how awesome and correct they are about everything. Maybe there's the sense that you should like one character or another, but it's never shoved in your face or anything. You can get attached to one character and dislike another, and reflect that in-universe by favoring the former and ignoring the latter.

People can have differences of opinion on which characters they like and don't like. Maybe you liked one and your friend didn't, while your friend thinks another is awesome but you can't stand them. But the thing is, it's your opinion. The game isn't coming out and going "you need to like this person, if you don't like this person you can stand over here with all the haters who are proven wrong and are also dumb and ugly" with these side characters, it's just presenting them as people. That's the value of a neutral point of view: if you disagree with something a character says, then it develops them as a person. If you disagree with something the author says, it's going to reflect poorly on the work as a whole, and even if you agree with a forced sentiment it's still going to feel fake.

The end result, or at least what I'd like you to take from this article, is the idea that if you want something to be believable and immersive and to connect with the audience, you have to be able to present it without making the audience realize there's an authorial voice. That's obviously not going to happen 100% of the time, because people have different perceptions about "reality" and what constitutes an "agenda," so even if you make a totally realistic world with justified characters that fit the setting, you're still going to have people who think it has an agenda purely on a different interpretation of what "reality" is. But in general, the most believable option for world-building and story-telling is to set things in-universe as they are, rather than as you want them to be. The difference is not in the content, necessarily, but the presentation of the material as its own air-tight story rather than a convoluted lie you're telling to the audience.

On a subconscious psychological level, people have different beliefs about how the world works and how things are. Things like political affiliation, social standards, and moral values aren't some petty traits plastered on top of someone's "real" personality, they're a highly ingrained part of the human psyche connected to basic reactions. The gist of this is that when you present material, as an author or as an artist, your audience is going to be diverse enough that they'll react to it in different ways. If you present it with a slant or an obvious bias, it's going to be about you - about your views, your biases, and whether or not you are a good person. If you present it neutrally, the discussion will be about different interpretations of the material itself, which keeps the audience interested in that material. This is the foundation of believability - to make a story or setting that stands on its own and lets the audience take part in its world without dragging them out to slam a "lesson" in their face.


  1. i'm not familiar with valk chronicles - what's defining about the screenshot?

    1. The fact that it's a combination of a quasi-serious war game trying to deliver a deep message about conflict (hence the bombed-out brown background and utilitarian equipment) and a cutesy game with anime characters (hence the girl with the pigtails doing a little pose).

  2. Samus' relation to the baby metroid has always been important, but Metroid Fusion's storytelling was kind of annoying and blatant. It wasn't bad, but it lost any sense of subtlety. I am a great fan any games of METROID series that I collect from at PIJ.