Sunday, July 09, 2006

Writing: It's the process stupid.

I read a recent take on Joss Whedon's Buffyverse that attempted to contend that he's really a closet racist. The subconscious kind, who thinks "being color blind" is ok. Putting that aside, and I really do think Martin Luther King would differ here- but we're putting it aside because it's not integral to the discussion at hand, one of the writer's points to support her argument really struck me.

She mentioned how stereotypically Gunn was portrayed in his first few appearances. For those not yet on the Buffy-Angel bandwagon, Gunn was a vampire slayer from a poor, inner city neighborhood who basically was a gangleader, but a gang of (relatively) good guys.

This struck me as a classic mistake of a lot of amateur writers (and I don't mean this perjoratively- strictly in the "how do you make your living" connotation). They think of writing in two ways: it can be art and it can be straightforward communication.

This leads to mistakes like the one this author made. If Gunn is the stereotypical black banger, the author either made an artistic choice, or he's flat out trying to communicate something to us.

The problem is, writing on a schedule, with a deadline, a set length and all that other good stuff professional writers must do, is neither art nor communication. It's a craft. It's a process.

Certainly it ASPIRES to one, art in the case of a drama, communication in the case of a news program or documentary but the process, the craft, subsumes and dominates whatever other aspirations the writer might have.

Building a chair for example, is recognized by most people as a craft. The reason for this is that the FUNCTION of the chair takes precedence over any artistic desire on the part of the carpenter to make it aesthetically pleasing.

There are certain things a chair simply MUST have: four legs, a seat. Maybe some other stuff like a back and arms, padding etc but the basic format is determined by the process. You can't make a two-legged chair. You're constrained by the need for functionality.

Which brings us back to Gunn. According to the writers, Gunn was intended as a one-shot character. While you certainly CAN go to the trouble to make each and every guest-of-the-week a fully realized individual, in most cases it's a wasted effort.

Also, relying on a known trope (and like it or not, the banger is a known trope, regardless of race, we all know a Hollywood gang member when we see one) gives you a shortcut. You don't have to TELL us the character is poor, tough and not really fond of cops. Give us enough details to recognize the tropes and we can fill in the blanks ourselves.

When the writers decided they liked Gunn (especially his chemistry with Angel), when they first started to bring him back they were hampered from a desire to make him consistent with what had come before. If they had made him radically different it would have been jarring.

Thus Gunn slowly grew out of the stereotype. Not because the of any artistic or communicative choices of the writers (though they could have chosen to LEFT him one-dimensional). But mostly because the process channeled them in a certain direction.

RPG books are like this as well. Some people moan about crunch in sourcebooks. Everything should be nice and fluffy. But the fact is, crunch sells. There are some exceptions but not many. And even when I have a counter-example pointed out to me, I'm usually left scratching my head.

Magical Medieval Society for example, is often pointed to with a triumphant "fluff rules!" Heck, it even markets itself as 100% fluff as I recall.

This is because people have come to see crunch as just more rules they already have (classes, feats, skills, talents, etc). But Magical Medieval Society is LOADED with tables and game information. That's crunch boys and girls. And if the book had been released without that information it would not have sold as well (imho).

It's the process. TV shows need guest stars, those guests need to NOT outshine the principal characters and RPG books need crunch.

A little rambling but hey, I was rambling.


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