Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Balance of Loss and Gain

First, before we even get started, I apologize in advance for any typos I don't catch while writing this.  I am typing it up on my phone because my computer crashed earlier today, and trust me, it is no easy task. :p. (And also, there will be spoilers for "How to Train Your Dragon 2" ahead, so if you don't want to find out some key plot points from the movie, you might as well stop reading now.)

 Today I'm going to be talking about consequences (usually resulting in a loss of some kind) within a story.

So the other day my dad and I went to the movies. We chose to watch "How to Train Your Dragon 2" for obvious reasons, and of course I ended up falling in love with the characters all over again.  Hiccup reminds me of my younger brother, how he talks and acts, and generally is as a rule.  Astrid is that typical bad-ass female every girl imagines herself to be while reading books about strong, sword wielding, dragon riding females... And then there is Stoik.

Much like his name suggests, Stoik is very... well, stoic.  A steadfast leader, he loves his son but often doesn't know how to react to Hiccup's feelings.  His expectations of Hiccup are great but he seems to forget to be a father while trying to balance parenting with being the chief of an entire tribe of Vikings.  And then, of course, the writers decided to introduce Hiccup's long-thought-dead mother to this varied cast of eccentric characters.

When Stoik is re-introduced to the wife he thought had been dead for years, we were allowed to see a side of him we didn't get to before: a tender, softer, more caring side of the loud, proud, and strong leader of Burk that we've known up to this point.  We see real regret in him for things he thinks he could have done better, we see longing, we see love, we see joy, and we see passion...

And then the writers kill him.

And of course they don't just kill him in battle, oh no! God forbid this character we have grown so close to in such a short time be given a simplistic and general death.  No... They kill him off while he is protecting Hiccup from (get this...) Toothless.  And not just regular Toothless either, as if this whole scene isn't twisted and heart-rending enough, but Stoik is protecting Hiccup from a Mind-controlled, raging Toothless who wants to kill him.

Yes, you read that right.  Toothless kills Stoik.

As I watched Hiccup grieve over his father and then, with the help of his friends, see Stoik laid in a boat for his final sail as a Viking Chief, and watch as the characters set the boat to flame, I started thinking about all that Hiccup gained in these movies... And all that he had lost.  When he gained his best friend he lost his leg.  When he gained his mother, he lost his father.  And these weren't just minor losses or obstacles set in his way... These were big, life changing losses that completely set his world on end.

Suddenly I realized that THAT was the very thing that made me love these movies so much.  The loss in these stories was real... You knew that Hiccup would never get his leg or his father back... These were things he was going to have to live out the rest of his life with.  These were things that would stay with him and haunt him, even long after he came to terms with them.  And these things... These great and deep losses... Were what made the story of this movie really stick with me.

As I was walking out of the theatre that day, I realized that the reason this stuck with me so fiercely was because that's how it is in real life.  The writers of that movie were able to take an element of real life that is so fundamental to reality that it is all too often overlooked in many of the newer movies, and apply it to just one movie, and move audience after audience with it. (This is the same reason why I love the movie "Up"... And why I end up crying every time I watch it. :p )

And I found myself thinking as I exited that theatre, "if they can do this in movies, then they can do this in books."

Now, I've read many books that make me cry... I've read scores of them.  But what made this experience unique was how the loss was just as strong as what was gained (in my opinion at least... Some of you may argue with me...). It wasn't like in a lot of the Doctor Who episodes I know and love (no matter how heart rending they may be) where one character dies, only to somehow show up later with a whole story about how that could actually work.  It wasn't like the books I've read and cried over, like "Where the Red Fern Grows", where the boy's male dog is sliced clean open by a mountain lion and dies, and the girl dog dies of grief out on the male dog's grave...

This was almost an equal amount of loss and gain... They evened each other out in the end.  And I remember thinking if I could only master that one aspect within my own writing, how much more compelling my stories and their characters would be.

That's something to really think about, too.  All stories (all of the good ones at least) have some small elements of reality in them that make them more believable to the readers, and often writers talk about how important it is to really flesh out a character in order to make them relatable.  We try to make our characters as realistic as possible but all too often we either avoid having truly heart-breaking things happen to our characters in a realistic manner, or we get carried away with piling on life-changing circumstances and revelations and losses and torture and emotional and physical pain to the point that (while being fun to write and often almost unbearably heart-rendingly enjoyable to read) isn't actually realistic anymore.  To this, we speculative fiction writers often say, "but it really doesn't have to be realistic because it is fantasy (or science fiction) after all."  Yet I look at "How to Train Your Dragon" and it's sequel, and the one element that really sticks out to me is the one that is perhaps the most realistic in the whole thing... And that element is what MAKES the entire movie, in my mind.  Oh what wonders it could unearth if only it were carefully, willingly, and lovingly applied to the world of literacy!

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