Saturday, March 21, 2015

17695--Don't Make Me Angry, Mr. McGee

I'm raising my head from the writing desk to turn my scowl upon an issue that's ignited debate, derision, and controversy.  It isn't the first time, but with the current trends dominating the mainstream media it is a topic that's caught more general notice than in years past.  I want to talk about what's making nerds so fussy.

Now, I don't want to presume a level of arrogant pontification that insists I speak for all nerds nor imply that the nerd collective is a homogeneous group.  From a mass psychology standpoint, though, I think I may have a few insights.

What are nerds bitching about?

Usually, it's about change.  Most often debates arise over the merits of some minor tweak or a new development in the mythos of a beloved character.  That's to be expected.  Seldom does a creative decision garner universal praise.  That's alright, though.  It should be welcomed by the creative forces.  It means readers care.  

Ostensibly, that's what any creator seeks for his work: an audience that cares about, perhaps even understands, what's been presented.  Where works of fiction are concerned, especially the flights of the fantastic, a reader is expected to BYOSuspension-of-disbelief.  It's such a given that printing it on the invitation isn't even necessary.  Opening a comic book or sitting down to watch a movie, you've entered into a tacit social contract to be open to accepting the world of the story within the parameters of its reality.

Where do things go wrong?  Well, like with any set of quantum realities, every change creates the possibility of branching in at least two different paths.  Crossing from one medium to another is fraught with hazard enough, but the change of creative teams is inevitably going to result in a lot of fans getting their imaginary spandex in a twist.  I don't think I have to tell you how painful that can be, so I'll just go on with the reasons for it.

Fans of a character are such because they enjoy and embrace the mythos built and handed to them.  They accepted it on a psychological/emotional level as an alternate reality as the aforementioned tacit social contract asked them to do.  Most of the realms of movies and comics, unfortunately for the fans, are not populated with creator controlled characters.  This means that new, sometimes frequently changing, hands are going to be pulling the strings of whatever hero is out to save the world this time.  Harry Potter and his fellow students may have made popular reading, but I'm pretty sure that if JK Rowling had stepped aside and allowed Zack Snyder, McG, and finally Tim Burton to take the creative helm on the movie adaptations, the on-screen products would've turned out very differently and we'd still be hearing echoes of the fan outcries.

There's an advisory bit that writers dole out that says "Kill your darlings."  It isn't actually advocating wholesale slaughter of your most beloved characters, but is a reminder not to make things too easy for them.  To challenge a protagonist and keep readers interested, a writer needs to find someplace in the middle to work adversity into the story.  A character's creator is intimately connected to the character's odyssey in a way that fresh hands and minds are not.  Attachment to the character's journey inspires a creator to build upon what has come before rather than to abandon it for a new shiny.  When a character's fate changes hands, that intimate connection rarely survives the transition.  Likewise, the social contract with the fan is often set by the wayside in favor of market forces.

"Market forces" is a fancy way of saying "the company needs to be fed money".  To keep the feed coming, a publisher or a studio will often set sights on new, potential fans even at the risk of losing those already established.  How does this drive the abandonment of the original social contract?  Elements of the previously established mythos are often altered, sometimes eradicated, to allow radical, attention-getting changes to be introduced.  It's the murder of the darlings, but...they're somebody else's darlings, so only the people who were attached to them would mind.  The last creators are gone, so that just leaves the loyal fans.  Feeling betrayed at the theft of the reality they agreed to embrace, they cry out.  Some pack up and leave.  Destroying the tacit social contract, compounded with the realization that no amount of hard-earned cash will keep it from happening again (if anything, the hunger seems to accelerate the cycle), is just more than some wish to bear.

Can nerds not handle change?

They aren't crying out because they can't handle change or because they're racists or hate women and puppies.  The problem is that the fan collective was asked to treat the mythos as real and they did.  Then, stuff was changed.  Why is that bad?  One, because that's not how the real world works; yes, life is rife with change, but you don't just erase your history when you're tired of dealing with it.  Two, because they fell in love with it; then, their bait was switched.  That's how they feel, anyway.  The creation they came to respect and adore was altered rather than built upon.  If you shoot Old Yeller and force a new puppy into the story while saying "just go with it", somebody's going to be upset because of the bad storytelling.

Sadly, the trampling of continuity only seems to have grown more blatant, even callous, over the last several years in comics.  Reboots and retcons are almost regularly scheduled events.  This violates one of the reminders I picked up years ago when I got started writing.  It goes "If anything can happen, who cares what does?" and I keep it in mind to remind me to play out a story within a set of established parameters, to give characters limits.  No matter how many stories we're given to show us that genies and time machines will cause at least as many problems as they may solve, the comic book and movie people seem to have devolved into a rut of wiping slates and altering realities whenever it suits them.  Luring as large a group of readers as you can attract into a new reality, telling them to get comfy with bacon and hot chocolate, and then eradicating the place before they're done with it ("It's a trap!") just isn't cool.

If you're going to create stories for a mythos, try to respect that you're a guest in somebody else's house.  If you can't do that, maybe you should build your own.