Tag Archives: narrative

How “Megamind” Subverts Expectations The Right Way (And Why Recent Attempts Keep Failing)

Every now and then, a narrative trend comes along that I neither care for nor understand. I get why many trends catch on. I’ve even been caught up in a few. I remember when stories about asteroid impacts became popular, as well as romance stories that relied on best friends falling in love. Some lasted longer than others. Some burn out. I think “Friends” alone killed the whole friends-falling-in-love-gimmick.

However, certain trends seem to catch on for all the wrong reasons. I’m not just referring to the gimmicky tropes of every sitcom attempting to rip off “Seinfeld,” either. These are narratives that attempt to troll the audience in hopes of a bigger reaction, as though that can somehow take the place of a compelling story.

Lately, the trend that I’ve found particularly frustrating is the idea of subverting expectations. It’s become a major buzzword in recent years, but not for good reasons. It became a big deal after the fan reaction to “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and only intensified with the final season of “Game of Thrones.”

Now, I don’t want to get into extensive discussions about those emotionally charged subjects. I’ll let the fan bases continue to debate that in whatever way they see fit. Instead, I want to take a moment to look at this trend, note how it can be done well, and highlight why recent attempts are misguided and counterproductive.

While subverting expectations sounds cunning on paper, it’s one of those concepts that’s difficult to make work. The concept is simple. You take an audience’s expectations about a story, build up some narrative tension, and then go in an unexpected direction that changes and enhances the impact of that story.

It sounds simple, but it’s not. When it works, it’s amazing. When it fails, it’s downright toxic to itself. I would argue that neither Star Wars: The Last Jedi nor the final season of Game of Thrones” succeeded in that effort. However, one movie did succeed in this effort and it did so back in 2010, long before this trend even began.

That movie is “Megamind,” a film I’ve praised before for how it parodies the superhero genre. There’s a lot more I can say about this underrated gem, but this is one element that I feel is more relevant now than it was when the movie first came out. To date, I’ve yet to see a movie subvert expectations as well as this one.

The way Megamind” goes about this is not at all subtle, but it’s still powerful. It’s in the premise of the movie. It asks what happens when the evil genius supervillain actually defeats the handsome, square-jawed superhero? What do they do afterwards? Why did they pursue this goal in the first place?

The first 15 minutes of the movie do an excellent job of setting up the basic, generic premise of every superhero narrative since Superman. Metro Man is the hero. That’s how he carries himself. That’s how others see him. That’s how he’s perceived. Conversely, Megamind is the villain. That’s how everyone sees him. The prison warden himself says it before the opening title screen. He’ll always be a villain.

Everything is in place for a traditional hero-versus-villain struggle. Old concepts like justice, hero worship, and public perception come into play. Then, in the first real battle we see between Megamind and Metro Man, the unthinkable happens. Megamind, despite his grandiose boasting and casual bumbling, defeats Metro Man.

It’s not framed as some M. Knight Shamalyan twist. It’s not an attempt to shock the audience. It’s not some minor plot point, either. In fact, the rest of the movie is built around this sudden subversion of standard superhero stories. Every event, choice, and character moment stems directly from this subversion. It’s not just a minor element of the plot. It is the plot.

What makes it work is how this subversion helps tell a very different kind of superhero story. It’s not just about flipping the script for the sake of novelty. It makes a case that superhero narratives are capable of doing much more than simply having the hero save the day from the villain.

Throughout the movie, Megamind finds himself playing a part in every tried and true trope we’ve come to expect in a superhero movie. He starts off being a villain because that’s what he assumes he’s meant to be. He starts questioning that assumption because by defeating Metro Man, he finds himself without a greater purpose. In pursuing that purpose, he find out that those assumptions had serious flaws.

Such assumptions weren’t inherently right or wrong. It was a matter of digging a little deeper into the concept of heroes and villains, finding out along the way that the role he thought was right for him wasn’t the one he ultimately wanted. By the end, he still dresses like a villain. He’s still not nearly as handsome or powerful as Metro Man. However, he still chooses to become Metro City’s greatest hero.

This subversion of expectation works because it’s used to build a story rather than just tweak a few details. Moments like the revelation about Rey’s parents being nobodies or Arya Stark killing the Night King had only minor shock value, but they didn’t really factor into the larger plot.

If someone other than Arya had killed the Night King, then it wouldn’t have changed much in terms of how the last few episodes of “Game of Thrones” panned out.

If Rey’s parents turned out to be someone important in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” it wouldn’t have substantially altered how the events that followed played out. Rey still wouldn’t have joined Kylo.

Ultimately, those subversions just felt like trolling. These details that people thought were important just turned out to be tricks or ploys meant to get a reaction. It comes off as both dishonest and insincere. They might not have been intended as such, but given the fan reactions, I can understand that sentiment to some extent.

You thought all those prophecies about Jon Snow and the Night King meant something? Well, that turned out to be a big waste of time.

You thought Rey’s parents would impact the course of the movie? Well, that was just a complete waste of time, at least until “Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker” changed that.

At times, it felt like the story was tempting people to get engaged and then slapped them in the face the second the plot went in a different direction. As a result, it didn’t feel at all surprising or engaging. It just felt insulting.

Contrast that with “Megamind.” At no point does the plot attempt to demean the audience or anyone who enjoys the traditional superhero narrative. The subversion is in the synopsis. That same subversion is used to build a larger story that fleshes out characters who started out in generic roles, but ultimately embraced a different role.

This shift never feels forced or contrived. It’s not done just to get a cheap thrill or to stand out. At its core, Megamind” uses the concept of subverting expectations to tell a better story than it could’ve told if it stuck to the traditional superhero narrative. That’s why it works.

Unfortunately, that’s also why other recent attempts keep failing. Whether it’s a movie, a TV show, a comic book, or a video game, the concept has been used in a misguided effort to do something different. Subverting expectations has become synonymous, to some extent, with doing something new and bold. The importance of telling a compelling, coherent story is never more than secondary.

I get the importance of trying new things, especially when that genre has been played out in so many forms. However, doing so does not mean taking audience expectations and defying them in a way that feels blatant. At best, it just makes the story confusing. It’s just different for the sake of being different. At worst, it insults the audience and makes them feel denigrated for enjoying that narrative in the first place.

It can be done and done well. “Megamind” is proof of that. It doesn’t just subvert expectations for the superhero genre. It dares to build a story around it and even have a little fun with it along the way. It doesn’t at all take away from the genre it parodies. It just uses it as a foundation to tell a unique story.

No matter how many expectations you subvert, there’s no substitute for a quality story. Megamind” gives us that and the undeniable charm of Will Ferrell. That’s what makes it so enjoyable.

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Filed under Game of Thrones, movies, outrage culture, rants, Star Wars, television

The Reasons And Excuses Of Character Development

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Think about your favorite character. Whether it’s Superman, King Arthur, or Christian Grey, think about what made that character tick. Why did they do what they do? How did they go about doing it? What was it about those traits that made them your favorite character?

These questions and whatever answers you give, however basic or kinky they might be, is the hot iron from which great characters are forged. You could have the greatest story since the Iliad. You could have a plot so great that Shakespeare himself would lick the dirt off your feet and say it tastes like candy. It still won’t work if the characters aren’t well-developed, compelling, and iconic.

In fact, being a great character can help them endure piss poor plots and come out unscathed. Superman is the most iconic hero of the 20th century and he was once in a comic where he made a sex tape with someone else’s wife. I swear I’m not making that up. See Action Comics #592 and #593. Who else but Superman could come out of that and remain iconic?

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I celebrate the power of great characters because they are, by far, one of the hardest parts in the creative process. As an aspiring erotica/romance writer, I can attest that this part of crafting a novel is more demanding than tongue kissing a lizard after dental surgery. I probably three times as much energy on crafting the characters compared to the overall plot.

This brings me back to the concept of reasons versus excuses. I said in my first post about the concept that it would apply to erotica/romance novels. I may have an excessive fondness of superhero comics, football, and beer, but I’m a man of my word.

Think back to your favorite characters again and apply that concept to their actions, emotions, and motivations? How many of those traits qualify as reasons? How many of them qualify as excuses? How many are a little of both? If the answers are all over the place, then that’s further proof that the character is compelling and well-developed.

That should be abundantly clear because a great character is like an explorer on a journey with no GPS and a map with gravy stains on it. A lousy character is a glorified rat in a maze whose soul purpose is getting to the cheese. One is inherently more interesting than the other and unless you’re also a rat, you know which is which.

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I’ve learned in my own experience with character development that you can’t have characters completely driven by excuses. That would give them the maturity of a 7-year-old on a toy store. You also can’t have them driven completely by reason either. That would make them as bland as robot with no personality or sex appeal.

Great characters, no matter what the genre or style, have a potent blend of reasons and excuses. Soldiers and warriors like those in Greek or Chinese myths are driven by duty. Those are tangible reasons. They’re also driven by more obscure concepts like honor, hubris, and ambition.

Then, you have characters who are students, parents, lovers, cowboys, business tycoons, athletes, and even prostitutes, like in my novel, “The Escort and the Gigolo.” They have reasons that are tangible and useful for doing what they do. They go to class because they’re students. They practice for a big game because they’re an aspiring athlete. They have sex with a lonely housewife because they’re paid to do so.

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When it comes to excuses, that’s where the complexity really expands. Excuses help explain why someone is a certain type of student, a certain style of athlete, or a certain kind of prostitute. Not all students, soldiers, and prostitutes are the same. They have different motivations for doing what they do. They have just as many motivations for why they do it.

Sure, a student is a student because they have to be, but that same student could be an overachiever because they want to be the next Elon Musk. That’s both an ambitious dream and an excuse, but it’s also helps guide the character. Not every student wants to be the next Elon Musk so the way this character conducts themselves will be distinct.

With respect to erotica/romance, the blend of reasons and excuses gets a lot more potent, not to mention sexy. As hard as it is to create compelling characters with the right mix of reasons and excuses, creating two compelling characters and having them hook up in a believable way is just adding more moving parts to a machine that can blow up in your face if you let it.

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Any story can just have two random people come together and have sex. That’s basically the plot of every porno ever made. However, porn isn’t crafted with the aim of telling compelling stories or crafting elaborate plots. It’s designed solely to make other people horny on the most basic level. Erotica/romance has to be ten times more elaborate while still making people horny. It’s a hell of a juggling act to say the least.

Take two characters from my book, “Skin Deep.” Ben Prescott and Mary Williams are the primary romance in the story. They both have similar reasons for wanting to be together. They’re both functional, non-sociopath humans. They seek connection, intimacy, and understanding with others. They able console one another when they’re in difficult, vulnerable situations.

Those reasons help make their chemistry believable. Beyond the reasons, though, the excuses add more layers to that chemistry. Ben was not that attractive at the start of the story. He didn’t have a lot of confidence. He’d basically accepted that Mary, who is described in the book as “a young Carmen Electra,” is way out of his league.

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On Mary’s side of things, she knows she’s attractive. She knows she’s popular. She’s not with Ben in the beginning because she feels as though she should be dating the kinds of meathead guys that beautiful women are supposed to date. It’s an excuse because it’s built on a shallow assumption. Even though others around her completely understand and accept it, that doesn’t make it less of an excuse.

Later in the book, without getting too deep into spoiler territory since I do want people to buy it, there are some cold, inescapable reasons that essentially force them to re-evaluate how they feel about each other. They make excuses to avoid it. They make other excuses to embrace it. In the end, though, it makes for some pretty passionate moments.

The process of developing that romance was not easy. It had a lot of moving parts, a lot of moving targets, and a lot of graphic nudity. That only made it more satisfying when I completed the story. That’s another thing about crafting great characters with a solid blend of reasons and excuses. When you feel you’ve made one, you feel like you just got to polish the shine on Jennifer Lawrence’s ass. It’s a great feeling.

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With my upcoming book, “Passion Relapse,” which comes out on April 18th, I feel I’ve created two strong characters who come together for all the right reasons with all the right excuses. I made it a point to make sure that the way they come together and how they come together feels genuine. I hope those that read it are as satisfied at the end as I was when I completed it. If you can keep your pants on, then consider that a bonus.

Whether you’re writing your own novels, crafting your own erotica/romances, or just celebrating your favorite fictional characters, understanding their reasons and excuses can go a long way towards appreciating them even more. It also ensures that when they hook up with someone whose just as compelling, it’ll be that much sexier.

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The (Non-Monetary) Root Of All Evil

What is it about the human race that makes some people amazingly generous while others become sickeningly depraved? It’s a question we’ve all contemplated in some form or another. What drives the person who helps out at a soup kitchen every week? What is it that drives the person who throws cherry bombs at mailboxes just for kicks? How can one species have this much variation in terms of evil and altruism?

As an erotica/romance writer, and a writer in general, I have to contemplate these questions more than most. In every story I write, whether it’s a sexy love story like “Holiday Heat” or an erotic thriller like “The Escort and the Gigolo,” I need to understand on some levels what makes people tick, for better and for worse.

Questions about evil aren’t new. In fact, they’re among the oldest questions that we, as a species, have asked ourselves. It’s right up there with questions about why aliens haven’t landed yet and why some insist on using anal probes. It’s an existential question as much as it is a scientific question. It’s one of the few questions that both science and religion work hard to answer, albeit with different methods.

In western religious traditions, which primarily involve the big three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, there are certain assumptions about human nature that are intrinsically tied to the faith. In this tradition, human nature is believed to be inherently evil and in need of redemption. Anyone who spends more than two hours watching reality TV will probably find some merit to that argument.

Then, there are other traditions like Hinduism, Taoism, and Buddhism that don’t make the same assumptions. In these traditions, there are other forces that make human beings good or evil that aren’t necessarily innate. To be evil by nature is too simplistic in these traditions. There’s a whole host of factors, divine and otherwise, that contribute to someone’s capacity for either.

Neither tradition can be completely right, but that doesn’t mean both are wrong. Scientific studies on human nature are quite varied, but come to some intriguing conclusions. According to a Scientific America article from 2012, the current body of research suggests that humans are innately good and evil is more of an aberration.

That doesn’t mean that we humans should be thumbing our noses at the rest of the animal kingdom though. This research, like all scientific research, is incomplete and subject to change. New research could emerge tomorrow that concludes that every human being has a depraved, psychotic asshole lurking within and we’re doing just enough to keep it at bay.

These are very difficult questions to answer and many of those questions don’t have clear answers. I look at the concept of good and evil the same way I look at what makes something sexy. The line is not clear and constantly shifting. In the same way we find strange things sexy for stranger reasons, we see the line between good and evil as an exceedingly obscure sea of gray.

Everybody has their opinions on what makes someone good, but I’ve noticed that people have stronger opinions on what makes someone evil. It happens every time there’s a heinous crime, like a mass shooting. Everybody has their theories as to why someone does something so evil.

Some claim it’s bad parenting. Some claim it’s a product of poverty. Some claim it’s a product of abuse. Some say it’s genetic. Some say it’s a learned behavior from someone’s environment. Some just claim that some peoples’ brains are wired poorly.

The most frustrating part of this issue is that to some degree, every one of those theories might be right. Some people become evil due to bad parenting or a rough environment. Some become evil through severe mental illness that makes it difficult for them to make sense of right and wrong. Human beings are erratic, diverse creatures. We’re never content to just have one reason for doing something.

This becomes even more pronounced when you apply it to fiction. As an admitted comic book fan, the distinction between superheroes and supervillains is a cornerstone of the genre. Most people can pick up a comic and know who’s who. You see a comic with Superman and you know he’s the hero. You see a comic with Dr. Doom and you know he’s the asshole who will make people miserable.

However, recent years have given more emphasis to the villains, as opposed to the heroes. I like to think of it as the Walter White effect. We now expect our villains to be more complex and multi-dimensional. It has lead to developments like Dr. Doom becoming Iron Man and Lex Luthor becoming Superman. It’s as crazy a concept as it sounds, but believe it or not, it works.

It’s a strange era with respect to our understanding of evil. On one hand, our most cherished traditions say we’re intrinsically evil. On the other, science says we’re intrinsically good. What do we make of this? That’s a question nobody, especially not an aspiring erotica/romance writer, is equipped to answer in a single blog post.

It’s still a question that I find myself contemplating more as I prepare my next round of projects. In every major story, there are protagonists and antagonists. It’s not too hard to put a lot of energy into what makes a protagonist tick. They are, after all, the lens through which the story is told. The antagonists, on the other hand, present a different challenge.

For the most part, I haven’t had a chance to flesh out complex antagonists. The two most notable examples I’ve had, to date, are Warren Irvine in “Skin Deep” and Madam Felicity in “The Escort and the Gigolo.” In both cases, I made a concerted effort to give layers to these characters. I think I did the most with what I could, but I do feel there’s room for improvement.

For me, this means seeking a greater understanding of evil and what makes evil people tick. It’s a potentially scary subject, but I survived high school and puberty so I think I have the stomach for it. If it means being able to write more complex, well-rounded characters, I’ll gladly take that chance.

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