In the first article, I discussed plotting tools and how to captivate your audience by making them feel smart. The second article covered characterization and growth of your protagonist. In this third article, I’m going to cover the blending of plot and narration with secondary and tertiary characters.
Spec Ops: The Line is a first-person action game set during a fictitious conflict in the middle east. Before you groan, the game features a surprising amount of depth and some of the best character development in any media. Brendan Keogh has an excellent analysis of Spec Ops: The Line that you should probably read if you have any interest in such things.
In its purest form, Spec Ops is a retelling of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Though possibly a bit closer to the Apocalypse Now version. In the game, a freakish sandstorm captures the city of Dubai. The city’s wealthy elite flee before the situation worsens, but the population of native and migrant workers is left to fend for themselves. The U.S. Army responds at the request of the UAE government, led by Colonel John Konrad, with the intention of aiding the mass evacuation before the city is completely cut off from the world. If it worked, we wouldn’t have a game.
The player takes on the role of a special forces operative who enters the conflict six months later. Konrad and his infantry battalion have gone rogue, and it’s up to our hero (appropriately named Walker) to skirt the fine line between brutality and savior, finding a delicate balance between the insurgent survivors, remnants of the 33rd infantry, rogue CIA operatives, and an assortment of terror suspects.
What Spec Ops accomplishes that few other books, games, or movies have done successfully is to shift the audience’s sympathy throughout the game. The player is introduced to a brutal world of a collapsed city struggling for survival and infested with terrorists, but we quickly learn the terror suspects are simply survivors who’ve mistaken Walker and his team for members of Konrad’s brutal 33rd. The lost battalion had ensnared the city in an iron grip, punishing civilians and enlisted with death for the slightest infraction. As the game progresses, we learn that the 33rd also aren’t entirely to blame. From the game’s outset, Walker and his men started shooting first and the 33rd acted to preserve the civilian population.
Much of the story is relayed through dialogue between Walker (the player) and his two special-operations companions, Lugo and Adams. It’s through these secondary characters that the player is given insight into the world and allowed to dwell in the land of shoot-your-enemy. Spec Ops doesn’t give the player a choice with violence, which ends up being a choice in and of itself. By the game’s conclusion, we learn that Walker wasn’t entirely sane to begin with and the player’s entire view into the world of Spec Ops was through this unreliable narrator.
When structuring believable fiction, come to terms with the beliefs and ideals of your characters, particularly the ones which differ from your own. It’s through these firmly-held ideals that characters enter into conflict, which not only serves the dramatic tension of your story but binds the reader to your character by making them rounded and complete. We come to understand Walker through his dialogue with his squad-mates, his actions in the game, and his observations from cut-scenes. In one pivotal moment, Walker and his men are pinned down by the 33rd. Angry that Konrad has convinced soldiers to kill one another, Walker decides to end the battle as quickly as possible by firing white phosphorous grenades into the entrenched enemy. During the next cut-scene, we see Walker and his men striding through the remains of both entrenched 33rd and cowering civilians. Walker comments that the 33rd weren’t trying to kill him, they were trying to protect civilians. By using white phosphorous, Walker (and by extension, the player) has committed an atrocious crime, killing innocent women and children simply because he didn’t want to engage in a long-running gun battle. Rather than lament his decision, as his men are want to do, Walker instead curses Konrad and the men at his side, claiming it was Konrad who forced his hand.
Leading your reader to a conclusion is extraordinarily difficult to do without being obtrusive. Most novels accomplish it through characterization, though not always successfully. Think of Jurassic Park’s Dr. Ian Malcolm. As a mechanism for Crichton to reveal the scientific aspects of his story, Malcolm also serves as a sounding board for the theme – the dangers of biotechnology and exponentially increasing scientific understanding with little regard for consequences. Spec Ops: The Line weaves the player/audience through a minefield of difficult subject matter, from the dangers of using chemical weapons on civilian populations to the ever-expanding role of military which often results in violence, all masterfully told through a protagonist who believes wholeheartedly in his convictions.
What makes a good character? Certainly you'd want your protagonist to go through some kind of journey. Otherwise you'll have...