David Hines (hradzka) wrote,
David Hines

more thoughts on the Bullshit Reversal, and some case studies

Earlier, I talked about the Bullshit Reversal (better known as Refusing the Call). This occurs when the hero is presented with the opportunity to do what we know he's going to do because we bought our ticket to see him do it, except the hero initially says no and a variable amount of additional dialogue is required to talk him into it.

I hate the Bullshit Reversal for two reasons: first, it's a waste of time. Of course the hero is going to do the thing he initially refuses to do: the audience wants the hero to do it, and has tuned in based on the ads trumpeting the hero's doing of that very thing. The second, deeper, reason is that characters are defined by their choices. Thus, as a general principle, it is more interesting to see people doing things that they choose to do, things they *want* to do. You learn a lot more about the character that way. The Bullshit Reversal is bullshit because it is a falsification of two choices. For a Bullshit Reversal to be not bullshit, the hero has to have a good reason to initially refuse. A good, strong reason, not just "I don't wanna." The hero then has to have an even *better* reason to reverse this decision. The best Bullshit Reversal I have ever seen, one of the few that actually works, is in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. This is it:

Note that it's not a pure Bullshit Reversal, in that our primary identification is not with the character making it. It's not the hero who's refusing the call, but a supporting character who initially refuses and then answers the call of the hero. This builds the hero up, because he bends the supporting character to his will. But note this: it also builds up the supporting character. Because Lawrence traps Auda abu Tayi into agreeing, not by simple greed or extortion, but by *appealing to the core of who Auda abu Tayi is.* That appeal would not necessarily work on a different character. But it works on Auda abu Tayi. That tells us quite a lot about Auda abu Tayi, and it makes Lawrence all the more impressive to us for his ability to see that.

One argument in favor of the Bullshit Reversal is that it lampshades a particular difficulty authors face: adventure is dangerous! Lots of people would prefer to avoid it unless it is thrust upon them. But speaking for myself, I am very uninterested in reading about these people. I want to read about people I can admire, wish I was like, and see aspects of myself in them so I can imagine that I *am* like them, as opposed to the weak, cowardly thing that I am. I want my adventurers to *like adventure.* If I do have a hero who doesn't want adventure, then I want that hero to *act* like someone who doesn't want adventure. (See: the first DIE HARD.) If the hero initially refuses, then takes up the adventure as if he'd meant to all along, why did he refuse in the first place?

I think part of the persistence of the Bullshit Reversal is that it helps frame a lazy answer to a question that bedevils all writers: how do you get your protagonist involved in the adventure? This is particularly a problem for series fiction. Crazy shit can happen to anybody -- once. The more adventures the protagonist has, the harder it is to come up with new ways for them to get involved, unless the series is so designed so that it is designed to funnel adventure to the protagonist. (This requirement probably explains why so many paranormal/urban fantasy novels involve private detectives. Authors of these books tend to want their fictional world to strongly resemble our own. This means that magic is relatively rare or at least kept secret from the mundanes, and the hero is one of the special people who know about it. This poses a problem: if magic is obscure, how does the hero find out about such secret and special problems? Obviously, the hero has to be someone to whom such secret and special problems are brought on a regular basis, which problems may lead to danger and adventure. Ergo, the hero is a private detective. Simple.) The Bullshit Reversal comes in as part of one such answer: how does the hero know about the problem? Somebody brings it to him. You can see the conversation play out: But the protagonist wouldn't give a shit about somebody else's problem! That's okay, we'll shoehorn the protagonist into it.

Here are some more approaches that avoid the cliche of the Bullshit Reversal and still get your hero involved in the problem, possibly while telling us something about him:

1) The hero LIVES FOR THIS SHIT. Two words: Indiana Jones. The thing that sets Indy alight isn't the money, or the fact that only he can help, it's that *somebody has found the lost city of Tanis.* You could almost say that the job of Refusing the Call is passed onto Marcus Brody in RAIDERS, except for the fact that while he's telling Indy that the ark is like nothing Indy's ever gone after before, he's also saying he thinks the trip is awesome and he wishes he were going too.

2) Captain Exposition lies. Carl Weathers does this to Arnold Schwarzenegger in PREDATOR. Hey, look, Dutch, it's a mission! To rescue hostages! You like rescuing hostages! …oh, whoops, there aren't any hostages and the mission is actually a CIA black book op to bust up some guerrillas, and now we're getting stalked by an invisible alien hunter? MY BAD.

3) Captain Exposition tells the truth! The initial task at hand is a simple, uncomplicated little affair, just as promised. It's what happens AFTER that occurs that everything gets hairy.

4) The hero actually needs the object of the mission, or has no choice but to get it, and not because Captain Exposition has a gun to his head or has threatened the hero's family. The hero is not accomplishing anything if his struggle is to get back everything and everyone he had at the beginning of the movie. That's not a character arc; that is stasis. (It's like all those fantasies that involve the hero trying to get home, just because it was in THE WIZARD OF OZ. If you got zapped to a fucking awesome fantasy kingdom where you were powerful and important, would you want to go home? For most people, the answer is FUCK NO, because turnips are not that awesome (Oglaf, NSFW).) Maybe the hero just *wants* it badly.

To illustrate, let's consider two separate works: Richard Adams's novel WATERSHIP DOWN and the Hayes/Miller/Hannant film THE ROAD WARRIOR (wr. Terry Hayes, George Miller, and Brian Hannant; dir. George Miller). Two very different properties: one is about the survivors of a terrible apocalypse who struggle to forge a new life and defeat cruel, brutal enemies; and the other is a movie starring Mel Gibson. But they both do a great job of making the characters accept difficult choices believably.

WATERSHIP DOWN is one of my favorite novels, a book so brilliantly plotted and characterized that there are only two minor false notes in it. It's the story of several rabbits who leave their warren after one of their number has a horrifying premonition of disaster. (Most of them do so, not because they believe the premonition strongly, but because they are discontented.) But the premonition comes true, and the rabbits and a couple of stricken survivors must find their way through the dangers of the open land to join or found a new warren. Along the way, they encounter a warren populated by decadent rabbits kept for food, who dare not speak of the horror of their existence, and Efrafa, a brutal juche-style dictatorship in which every aspect of existence is brutally regimented. The choice I wish to talk about comes at the start of the third act of the novel. The rabbits have just escaped from Efrafa in a thrilling action sequence that pays off a lot of stuff from earlier in the book. But now the story cries out for resolution: it's not enough to escape the bad guys; we want to see our heroes beat them. But it's a ridiculous idea and the odds are overwhelming. *Why the hell would any sane rabbit possibly go back there?*

And the answer is: because they *have* to. They need does. They know that the does of Efrafa are discontented, and many of them would want to leave. The new warren is a sausagefest, and if they don't get more women and start making baby rabbits they'll all just be dead in a few years anyway. There's no question that does would come with them willingly. There's also no question that General Woundwort, the ferocious rabbit running Efrafa, is not going to let that happen without blood.

That's how you get a protagonist to go into the shit: not to get something back, but so the protagonist can build something new.

THE ROAD WARRIOR, a wholly perfect movie, faces a similar issue. Like WATERSHIP DOWN, it takes place in a post-apocalyptic landscape. But THE ROAD WARRIOR's apocalypse is even bigger: it's not just one place that's been lost, but all human order. Society has been destroyed, and all *trust* has been destroyed. The world is in complete anarchy, and the only reason humans can interact is to kill each other or to find some tenuous mutual advantage. Seen properly, THE ROAD WARRIOR is actually a Western. The constraints of civilization do not exist, and the choices the characters are not reflexive actions of their culture but tell you everything about who these people are. When Max, the protagonist, intercedes to protect a fortified refinery's crew from the deadly gang that chases them, he does so not out of any love for justice but because he can take the surviving crew member back and be rewarded with as much gasoline as he can carry. But the man he rescued dies, and now Max is stuck at the mercy of the refiners. Worse, so is Max's lifeblood, his only hope for escaping the gangs -- his car. And the refiners have no reason to give him his freedom or his car.

What changes? The gangs launch an attack on the refinery. It's foiled, but the refiners decide they want to pull out. Except their only resource is their gasoline, which is in a tanker… that they have no way of hauling. Enter Max, who saw a semi with a dead man in it a while back (at the beginning of the film). "You want to get out of here," he says, "you talk to *me.*"

And so on. But you see how neat that is? Everything proceeds logically from who the characters are, what they can do, and what information they have available to them at the time. And none of those reasons are bullshit. And when characters do act with humanity and selflessness, it's all the more noteworthy, because it's not reflexive action in civilized society, but a real and a risky choice for them to make. Especially noteworthy: none of the people who act with humanity and selflessness in ways that could materially impact them are the protagonist. Max acts out of need and revenge; his largest kindness is tossing a music box to a feral child. He doesn't choose kindness or nobility when it would cost him something. And that makes the kindnesses in the film that much more believable: they're not there to bring the audience's sympathy to a hero for whom they wouldn't make sense as actions in character. They're there to show everything the hero's not.

Originally posted on my DW. | comment count unavailable people have commented there. | Do so yourself, if you like.
Tags: writing

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