Learning the Ropes of Character Tropes

So sometimes I like to watch YouTube videos that make me angry. This usually happens at ungodly hours of the morning/night in a sleepy haze, and I usually regret them the next morning. The variety of these videos changes as time goes on, but recently the genre of video I find myself drifting toward is the “criticize Original Characters/Other People’s Art”-variety.

I should say that this isn’t the first time I’ve referenced these types of videos. I actually referred to them a while back on this post, but in that one I was more standing in defense of young creators in general. This time, I want to address one particular point in one particular video. I’d feel strange linking you this video, since I feel like my anger toward them may be a bit blown out of proportion, and thus, I don’t want to draw any undo hatred onto this person, so instead, below is a transcript of the specific point of theirs I want to debunk.

“Number Five: Be Creative.

Now I know that sounds really cliche and unhelpful, but this is actually really important. Make your character different. Just different. Just put a bunch of character traits on a list and pick a few at random and work with that, I don’t care. 

How many people make a character that is completely bland and uninspired? It is really amazing how such great and talented artists can draw exceptionally well but their ideas are just so, so boring.

I think the most important thing someone can ever do when making an OC (original character) is thinking. Just think. Play around with different ideas; anything can be used. There are no boundaries. Make something new and unique.”

(Actually, fine, here’s the video. Do with it as you will.)

I see a lot of advice of this ilk thrown around in guides to making characters, and it always strikes me how completely useless it is in particular. He even says it himself at the beginning – it’s cliche and unhelpful. But you know, he’s gotta say it anyway? I guess? For brownie points? Who knows.

You ask, “How do I make an interesting character?” and this advice answers, “Make an interesting character.” I’m sure I’m not the only one who can see the issue.

So allow me to help. The answer lies in the most dreaded, most feared concept in character creation, perhaps even in all of fiction. A trope.

…I’m kidding, obviously, but it is somewhat taboo to suggest using tropes to your advantage. For many young writers, artists, and creators it may seem contrary to the goal of creating an interesting character to look to commonly used character and story conventions. That’s fair, but here’s another way to look at it.

In the world, over the course of all time, hundreds of thousands of millions of billions of characters have been created for the enjoyment of audiences and creators. Do you think it’s easy, or even possible to create a character that is completely original?

And even putting that fact aside, there’s a reason why tropes persist. The art of storytelling is essentially the art of using the space you’re given in the most efficient way possible. The best storytellers want to minimize the amount of time spent explaining things about their characters (and world as a whole, but for now we’re focusing on characters) so they can get on with the story. After all, exposition is often the most boring parts of any story.

That’s where tropes come in. Tropes are commonly used and understood storytelling conventions. The princess in a tower is a trope, as is the heroic quest. Even the concept of a hero is a trope – a brave, youthful person with unusual abilities or strengths.

Tropes are often confused for cliches, and tropes can be cliche, but not inherently. Tropes become cliche when they’re repeated over and over for no reason other than to fit a perceived trend and not to contribute anything to the story itself. The love triangle is an example of this. In the past, love triangles were put into a story for a reason beyond just to create needless drama, and the outcome of who would end up with whom was normally unclear, adding intrigue. Nowadays, though, most love triangles are unnecessary, boring, and predictable.

However most tropes aren’t cliche, and can actually make for really efficient storytelling. Think of a trope as a shorthand for a lot of other information about a story element. Since we’re specifically talking about characters here, let’s pick a character trope for example. A jock, let’s say.

Now, what is a jock? Well, a jock is a person who plays sports, and defines themselves primarily by the sport they play. A jock is athletic, and usually places physical prowess above mental and emotional skills. Most jocks also are popular with other people, and can be seen as a hero by fans of the sport they play.

That’s a pretty sizable amount of information about a character. So consider the efficiency! If you establish that your character is a jock, you don’t have to explain why any of these things are true. They simply are. So when a character who is established as a jock (explicitly or implicitly) is approached by a group of, let’s say, students of their high school, a writer doesn’t have to explain why they treat them like a hero-figure. The jock trope contains that fact, and thus, explains it.

But this is not to say making every character an exact copy of a trope is a good thing. No, of course not, but tropes are incredibly valuable jumping-off points for creating an interesting character.

So let’s take our jock again. Let’s call them… Theresa. Theresa is a jock, and she plays… let’s say, hockey. Theresa is a hockey jock. We establish that Theresa is a jock by depicting her playing hockey and wearing hockey-related memorabilia a lot. In this way, our audience will make assumptions about Theresa based on this trope – she’s athletic, she’s popular, she doesn’t care about intelligence or emotion. But we can make Theresa an interesting character by throwing in traits that aren’t necessarily a part of the jock trope.

For one, making Theresa a girl immediately makes her more interesting than your normal jock. Girls don’t usually fill the “jock” trope in fiction. And picking hockey as her sport of choice is another unconventional choice, you might more commonly see football or basketball as the jock sport. But we can add even more. Perhaps Theresa was once very close with a group of friends who more align themselves with the “nerd” trope? This establishes that she might care more about intelligence than your typical jock, and gives her history and conflict with other characters. Perhaps, while she is very skilled at hockey, she isn’t entirely sure she wants to play hockey in college, but the financial benefit of accepting a hockey scholarship is difficult to ignore?

Now Theresa is a more well-rounded character. Sure, she very much fits the mold as a jock, but it’s the ways that she differs from this trope that make her interesting. Now, you get the benefit of the trope – that readers will automatically understand a selection of facts about your character pertaining to that trope, reducing the amount you need to explain – but you also get an interesting, original character.

This effect increases when you add in the fact that these tropes can just as easily be applied to genres where they might not be traditionally expected to appear. Consider the possibility of a fantasy jock! A sci-fi jock! A historical fiction jock! The possibilities are, to quote an actual cliche, endless.

So that’s why I always find fault in people who advise others to strive 100% for originality always. It certainly sounds like good advice, but in practice, it doesn’t really help, I think. There’s too much out there that’s already been done, so if you were to try to make a character who isn’t like any of those characters, your character would probably end up a blank slate of strange, inexplicable traits.

I suppose you could make a character drawing random traits from a list, like the video maker suggests, but I have a hard time believing that that character wouldn’t end up falling into some tropes anyway. Might as well embrace it, especially if it will help make the process of character creation easier.

 

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GUEST WRITER – Throwing Rocks at the Moon

The following is a zine created by my best friend Marie Hamilton for a project! I got to contribute a short story as well as a few illustrations, and it was a great project overall! Take a look at it below the cut!

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Stranger Song Selections

I just finished watching season two of “Stranger Things”. Spoiler alert: it was super good, for a lot of the same reasons season one was super good. I thought I might do a post after I finished critiquing the series, but honestly, I felt like it was a solid follow-up to the incredible first season. I know there’s probably a lot of people out there who disagree, but my experience was overwhelmingly positive.

Just like season one, season two had an incredible atmostphere. Just like season one, season two had great, realistic, well-developed and likeable characters (well, save for one newcomer, Billy, but I suspect we’re going to see more depth in him in season three). Just like season one, season two had a fun, interesting plot that doesn’t explain itself too much nor too little. Just like season one, season two had a fun score full of 80s goodness… well, except for just one misstep.

Yep, my biggest problem with the new season of “Stranger Things” was one song choice in once scene in one episode. But, believe me, it was a big misstep.

So, before we move on, a quick warning. I will be spoiling some details for season two. Nothing big, but one subplot needs to be traced in order to truly understand what bothered me so much about the music choice. Also, the scene in question is the last scene in the last episode, so while it’s not a huge spoiler for the plot as a whole, it’s still an ending scene and therefore inherently spoiler-y.

So, let’s discuss Eleven and Mike.

In season one, Eleven and Mike’s relationship was a fairly major subplot. After an entire season of dancing around each other, the way kids with crushes do, Mike invited Eleven to his middle school’s “Snow Ball” and we watched them share a chaste little kiss before Eleven made her big sacrifice in the finale. At the beginning of season 2, as expected, we see a relative amount of angst on both Mike and Eleven’s parts on their sudden separation. I joked with my floormate several times about the middle school drama between them, but in all seriousness, it was quite touching. Eleven uses her psychic powers to keep an eye on him, and he continuously reaches out to her via walkie-talkie, fully aware that she probably won’t be able to reply.

So considering all the drama surrounding their separation, they reunite with a lot of fanfare. It’s all so touching, so wholesome, so pure.

It’s that wholesomeness that I want to focus on. Eleven and Mike are very young, much younger than a romantic couple would usually be on a TV show. Personally, I think that changes the game a little bit when considering how their romance should be depicted. They’re middle schoolers. True, they’re middle schoolers who have had a lot of crazy shit happen to them, but still. They’re babies! Their love is innocent and good and something to root for.

So, of course, as one might expect, the season ends with the “Snow Ball” teased in the first season. While technically Eleven is not allowed out in public, Hopper pulls a few strings and manages to allow her to go. And so, in the final scene, Eleven, done up in light makeup and a poofy blue dress, arrives and gets her dance with Mike.

And what song is picked to accompany this touching, adorable scene? Why, “Every Breath You Take” by the Police, of course.

And oh, in that moment, how I wished I had been able to watch this with my dad.

See, my dad used to DJ a lot of weddings back when “Every Breath You Take” was a popular first-dance song for newlyweds. And that makes sense. It’s a pretty, slow ballad by a popular and talented band.

And oh, did I mention it’s about a stalker?

Yeah, it’s not at all the beautiful romantic ballad it seems on the surface. I mean… look at the lyrics. “Every breath you take / Every move you make / Every bond you break / Every step you take / I’ll be watching you”? I suppose you could read it romantically, and many people do, but taken as a whole, it’s really a much more possessive than any healthy romance really should be. And even disregarding the debate over whether or not this song is truly romantic, is it really a song that should wrap up Eleven and Mike’s relationship up to this point? A relationship that, as I mentioned above, is entirely youthful and wholesome?

Okay, yes, it was a popular song at the time, and it’s not out of the question for inappropriate songs to be played at middle school dances. But the fact of the matter is that this is a conscious choice by the creators of the show to play this particular song over this particular scene. This isn’t real life. It isn’t coincidence. It’s a narrative choice.

Although, wait. Hold on. Maybe I was too blinded by my particular experience with this song. Maybe I judged too quickly. Because if this song was a conscious choice by the creators to play over Mike and Eleven’s first dance, then it must be stating something…

Oh…

“Every step you take, I’ll be watching you”? Eleven has psychic powers, and thus keeps an eye on Mike throughout the season without his knowledge, making sure he’s safe?

…Alright “Stranger Things.” Clever. I’ll give you that. Perhaps a little on the nose. But I can appreciate being a little on the nose, I guess, especially when it involves such a good song used in such a good season of such a good show. So you get a pass. For now.

(Don’t get used to it.)

 

 

A Killer Podcast

Would you be surprised to know that my surefire method of beating off anxiety is listening to a podcast about murder?

Well, it’s true. A few months ago, my best friend Marie got me into “My Favorite Murder”, a true crime podcast hosted by best friends Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark. And despite the scandalous, gory stories Karen and Georgia tell, there’s something incredibly comforting about sitting down and listening to them excitedly discuss every facet of the world of true crime.

Each week, Karen and Georgia share one story of their favorite murder of the week. In addition, they release shorter “minisodes” where they read “hometown murders” submitted by fans. Despite the serious subject matter, it’s a comedy podcast. Maybe that’s a little weird to comprehend, but it’s amazing how well of a balance the podcast strikes between light humor and serious discussions of real-world issues.

I’m not fully caught up with it yet, but I’ve been making solid progress. It’s basically what I listen to all the time – on the way to and from class, while doing homework, before bed, wandering around the dorm… I’d say a solid chunk of my day is spent with Karen and Georgia. But what is it about these gruesome murders that keeps me coming back for hours and hours at a time?

Honestly, it’s gotta be the hosts themselves. Even as they tell the most frightening real stories, they’re relatable. Between discussions of serial rapists and murderers, they discuss their therapy sessions, their enthusiasm for new TV shows, and all manner of daily observations that make it feel less like I’m listening to a radio show and more like I’m having a conversation with two close friends. It’s dramatic enough of a difference that it makes even the most frightening of stories feel comforting and wholesome.

But it’s also worth it to mention that the hosts themselves talk about how discussing true crime helps to ease their own personal anxieties. In a way, it kind of makes sense. By talking through the absolute worst-case scenarios, you feel prepared for them, in a strange way. There’s a good chance I’ll never run into a real serial killer, but if I ever do, I’m prepared… more or less.

Still, putting all that anxiety stuff aside, is the subject matter too serious for the comedic tone of the podcast? It’s an issue that has been brought up by the podcast’s… well, anti-fans several times throughout the history of the podcast. And I suppose on the surface it might seem to be taking advantage of or making light of others’ tragedies. But that’s not at all what happens.

In reality, I think Karen and Georgia have the most sympathy of all for the victims. Unlike the stories you might get in the news, “My Favorite Murder” takes the time to tell every part of the story. You not only get background information on the victims, but also on the perpetrators. Often, tragic tales of serial murderers start with tragic tales of abused and neglected children who grow up to become these horrible criminals. It definitely doesn’t excuse the actions of these people, but rather explains why they would stoop to such a terrible depth as to take innocent lives.

I admire “My Favorite Murder” for how complete every story is. While it does, in some cases, languish in the gory details, there’s a definite respect for the personhood of everyone involved in each story. And sure, they’ve made mistakes. But Karen and Georgia are both incredibly open to constructive criticism, and have, on many occasions, changed their language or way of speaking about certain topics based on critiques they’ve received from fans. Above all, it’s clear that “My Favorite Murder” is a place for learning, not only for the fans, but also for the hosts. It’s a friendly place, a fun place.

I’m incredibly thankful to have this podcast to come into my life at this time. College is, quite frankly, a weird, wonderful, terrifying experience, so it’s nice to have two best friends who are always there for me, anytime, anywhere, with tons of exciting stories to tell.

So this week’s recommendation? Listen to “My Favorite Murder”, stay sexy, and don’t get murdered.

Guest Writer: Fuller House is Bad… Or Is It?

Hello all! I’m incredibly pleased to introduce the second ever Guest Writer post! This time it’s my best friend of many (many, many) years, Madison Sveen! I absolutely adore her goofy look at season three of “Fuller House”, a series I’ve never personally watched. Even though I didn’t really know what she was talking about… it’s still a great read.

Enjoy!


Over the last week or so, I watched all of “Fuller House” season three. (Or at least, what’s out so far.) They were just SO HUNGRY for a cliffhanger and maybe some upped viewership come part two they had to split it into two parts. The amazing “Full House Reviewed” blog already tore apart season one, and I don’t remember season two, so I want to talk about season three and bring to light just how terrible it is. Spoiler alert: it’s many times worse than the previous two.

The opening scene of the first season is the perfect way to give a taste of the “Fuller House” viewing experience, here’s a non-exact recap of the very beginning of the show.

Danny Tanner enters; crowd goes wild. Shot of the baby doing something. Other original cast members enter; crowd continues to cheer. Sex joke. Old catchphrase. Aged up kids from the original enter, to more cheers. Kimmy Gibbler comes in and makes a bad joke. New kids enter. Political joke. Joke aimed at the Olsen twins not appearing in the new show. Cast stares at the camera for a long time to let it sink in.

And that’s pretty much the formula. The show is almost entirely structured around referencing the original. “Fuller House” is nothing without the original. And you know what, that’s okay. Its purpose is to be devoid of meaning outside of the context of the original, and that’s not so bad.

Seasons one and two are pretty much more of the same. Somewhat exasperating at times, (just choose Matt already, DJ, don’t drag this ON SO LONG), but pretty harmless, and just not made for me. I didn’t watch the original, but I did watch all of “Fuller House” so I must like something about it? Why else would I have watched the whole thing? Maybe I liked it because it was background noise? And I mean it’s sometimes entertaining, and it most certainly got a reaction out of me (even if that reaction is JUST CHOOSE MATT ALREADY). And that’s really the point of entertainment, isn’t it? So it’s not that bad.

What is bad is season three. And maybe I’m alone on this. Maybe I just lost interest and it’s really not worse. I’m certainly not against liking “Fuller House”. I’m not even sure I could say I dislike it. Even though I think it’s bad. And season three starts out bad. It starts with a musical number, and not just that, a dream sequence musical number about summer. How… topical. In fall. The song isn’t good and the singing isn’t good and it’s just all very painful to watch. I don’t want a long musical number lead by a kid who can’t sing that has no relevance to the plot at all. Or maybe it’s charming and I’m just too critical of this show. Here it is. And I’m not a person to be against a musical number! Musicals are pretty much my thing. I’m usually of the opinion that a musical number can improve anything. Well, I was proven wrong.

Then there’s the main cast. Not only can they not sing (with exceptions, particularly Stephanie, since her job in the show is music) most of them aren’t great at acting either. But I feel mean saying that… they’re not that bad, I don’t think. I can’t really tell good acting anyway.

DJ is our main character. I’m not really sure what her personality is? She seems kind of inconsistent to me. Or just bland. She has three kids. Jackson, he’s just kind of a TV middle school kid. His subplot for the season is that he goes to summer school and also is dumped by his girlfriend. He’s fine, I guess. Then there’s Max. He’s a really divisive character, it seems like. He’s one of those TV kids who acts like an adult most of the time and is really sassy. People either think he’s the worst or they think he’s cute. I don’t really know where I stand on Max. He has a girlfriend too even though he’s 9 or something? This show is really stretching to have as much relationship drama as possible. I thought the middle schoolers dating as seriously as they are in the show was a stretch. Then there’s Tommy. He’s a baby. That’s it.

We also have Stephanie. She’s my favorite and is, in my opinion, the best actress. Her subplots include being a struggling musician and thinking that she’s not able to have kids. This is also kind of a divisive thing from what I’ve seen. A lot of people it seems wanted Stephanie to be okay with not having kids and were rubbed the wrong way by the amount of pressure her family was putting on her to get tests done anyway. I do think it seems like a cop-out to have her suddenly have a chance at having kids, and would have been nice to see her be fulfilled by helping raise DJ’s kids, but I guess it makes sense that she would want kids? Though Becky is really pushy and makes it come off as a little weird. Stephanie also has a boyfriend named Jimmy, who is Kimmy Gibbler’s brother. I kind of like them together. He’s really stupid, that’s his character.

And rounding out the trio raising the kids is Kimmy, DJ’s best friend. She doesn’t do a lot this season. She and her husband Fernando worked out their relationship issues in the first two seasons and now they’re just kind of comic relief. Fernando moves out of the house this season and then moves in next door? I’m not really sure why he moved out at all. They also have a daughter, Ramona. She’s pretty cool. Except she has a jerk boyfriend. She breaks up with him during the season and it’s actually pretty well done, I think? Even though it’s more middle school relationship drama, at least it’s something. She doesn’t do much else that I can remember.

As for the old dad/uncles/Becky, they almost never show up. So those watching the show because they loved the original will probably be disappointed by that. Steve, DJ’s boyfriend from the original, is a pretty central character, but we’ll get to him. DJ’s old high school… enemy, I think, shows up some and has a daughter in summer school with DJ’s son. They’ll probably get together in part two of the season. The daughter is actually pretty entertaining, I like her reactions to how unrealistic the family is.

Finally, before I get to the plot, I’d like to discuss the comedy. The comedy is actually very strange to me. The jokes are, first of all, not very funny. To me at least. And a lot of the time it feels like the show knows this, and knows it’s not very good on the whole. So they show the baby! People like babies so they put a baby on the screen to maybe distract people from how unfunny that joke just was. They do the same with the dog, they like to take advantage of cuteness. But the show is also full of adult jokes that I feel make it inappropriate for kids. I would think that the show would want to be at least somewhat aimed at kids, much like the original. Maybe they only aimed it at people who grew up with the original.

I think this is kind of a microcosm of why the show doesn’t work for so many. It has lost the spirit of the original, in that it isn’t so much aimed at families anymore as much as an older demographic. It has, not only in the jokes, but in every part, lost the wholesome sweetness that made the original so… well, “Full House”. It’s only really “Full House” by way of reference after reference, not in capturing the soul of it’s predecessor. But anyway, let’s get to the plot.

Now, the main plot is that DJ’s old boyfriend Steve is getting married. In Japan, because apparently this show needed a Japan episode. Kimmy is planning the wedding and DJ is kind of upset that her ex is getting married. For those who aren’t caught up on your “Fuller House” lore, DJ has been struggling with a love triangle for two seasons now. She’s stuck between Matt, a handsome, kind, smart and cool vet she works with, and Steve, her ex from high school. Now, if you watched the original you know Steve. He likes food. That’s the main thing I know about him. But in “Fuller House” he has always rubbed me the wrong way. His obsession with DJ and not-very-subtle hinting at wanting to get back together is relentless, even when she made it clear in season one she didn’t want that. During season one, however, she decided to get back into dating. It makes sense that she’d give Steve a chance after that, but I still wasn’t keen on Steve. He came off as a little creepy to me. DJ spent two seasons deciding and when she was finally ready, she found out Steve and Matt were both already dating other girls. At first it implied they got with each other which would have been INCREDIBLE but they didn’t. Steve, get ready for this, I hate this so much, got with a girl named CJ. She looks like DJ, has a similar job to DJ, and even uses a knockoff of  DJ’s signature catchphrase. And they play this for laughs. Like, clearly he’s going to ruin CJ’s life? Or at least break her heart? How is she okay with this? Does she know she’s just a runner up to DJ? She’s MET DJ. Anyway, Matt also has a new girlfriend but they break up pretty quickly and he comes back to DJ and they get together. Then the big reveal, I believe in the season finale, is that she was going to pick Steve. Yet she still gets with Matt? Although she gives Matt a fair chance and it’s not too serious for a while. And it is possible to have feelings for multiple people. However, in season three this really gets bad. DJ is pretty desperate to connect with Matt and tries really hard to feel the same way for him she feels for Steve. Which is pretty good, I guess? She even seems sincere when she says she loves him. I’m honestly kind of confused on whether she does or not? But the fact that she’s leading him on so much is just awful. I feel like if they handled this in a serious, emotionally mature, self-aware way it could have been interesting. Maybe if DJ was more relatable throughout and communicated. They could have hit on real problems and feelings. I don’t know. I’m trying so hard to give the benefit of the doubt here.

So finally, in the big finale, they’re all on a plane to Japan to go to Steve’s wedding. DJ, who is wearing a face mask, thinking Kimmy is next to her, finally admits that she’s upset that Steve is marrying someone other than her. She says she always imagined it would be her and Steve. But – gasp – Steve was the one next to her and he hears all this. He doesn’t know what to do and quickly runs off. Meanwhile, Matt asks Stephanie if he should propose to DJ in Japan. (Hey, dude, don’t propose at someone else’s wedding, that’s not cool. That’s their thing.) Stephanie says he should. WHAT WILL HAPPEN? It’s over that’s it come back for part two in December. I was pretty mad. I assume they’ll go through with Steve/DJ in the end. I feel really bad for Matt and CJ. I’ve always been Team Matt. What is DJ thinking? Maybe she wants to recapture her high school days and forget everything she’s gone through since. Maybe the trauma of losing her husband is causing her to try to revert back to the familiar-

Wait a second. DJ’s dead husband! He was hardly mentioned at all this season. I think he was mentioned once in passing. And DJ made a lot of comments that made it seem like he never existed! In one scene she tries on a wedding dress saying “I may need one someday” or something, rather than “I might need one again.” And when she says she always thought it would be her and Steve, she makes no mention of the time she actually did marry someone other than Steve. What happened? Did the writers forget she used to be married? Actually, I forgot until I saw someone point out these very points! That’s what kicked off the whole show! And the original! The Tanner family curse!

Maybe this is actually a deep character study of a woman’s regression to high school to cope with the trauma of losing her husband. Maybe it’s a chronicle of a family cursed, for the eldest child to tragically lose their spouse after only having three kids. HOLD ON. I even forgot until this very moment that Danny got remarried, and then divorced his new wife in between seasons of “Fuller House”! He even lost his second wife, albeit in a different way. Will this continue? DJ will soon lose Matt while chasing Steve. Will she lose Steve too? Will Jackson’s future wife die tragically? The only way for the curse to end… is for the show to end…

The only way for the curse to end is for the show to end.

That must be why it’s so bad… this show is begging for death so the characters may keep their lives. This show with all it’s bad jokes and painfully long plotlines is just the characters begging to be freed from the inside, trapped by the relentless necromancy of nostalgic properties. The nostalgia keeping this show alive, or more aptly put, a zombie of its former form, is the very enemy of the characters themselves! Perhaps this whole time “Fuller House” has been a deeper commentary on a world that will simply not stop bringing back old TV shows, movies, books, everything, no matter the cost to the original.

…Nah the show just sucks.

Musical Month Week 5: Curtain Call

So we’ve come at last to the final week of my first ever themed month. This has been a fun little experiment, and I’m sure I’ll do more themed months in the future, but for now, I’ll be honest, I’m looking forward to going back to a variety of types of content.

And since I’m being so honest, I’ll tell you something else – I had no ideas at all for what I wanted this week’s post to be. I had made my plans for this month banking on the fact that October would have four Sundays. But oops! It has five. So while I had plans for all four of the posts leading up to this one, this last week remained kind of a question mark. Until I thought… duh. I’ve talked up and down all this month about specific musicals and songs from musicals I liked, but I haven’t really talked about what it is about musicals in general that is so appealing.

And I think that really is an important thing to consider when looking at musicals. It’s a unique genre with it’s own unique rules and quirks, and I think it’s definitely worth going into.

So what makes musicals so good? Well… the music, obviously.

I don’t think this is a wild, earth-shattering revelation. It’s the music that sets a musical apart from a stage play. It’s the music that has lent musicals the reputation of being unabashedly unrealistic (How many times have you seen the “why do we burst into song out of nowhere?” joke repeated ad nauseum about them?) And it’s the music that makes musicals appealing, at least for me.

Music is a very powerful tool of storytelling. Believe me, I’m a big fan of the storytelling power of music; see my post all about it. So I think that’s one of the biggest draws of musicals for me. It utilizes the storytelling power of music in a way that is incredibly literal and often really fascinating.

And while, yes, music from musicals can often be really straightforward as to how to tells story through music (usually through people just singing about whatever is happening or about whatever they’re feeling), there’s also a lot of potential to add in a lot of depth and nuance just through how the songs are performed, or written, or composed.

Take for example “Natasha & Bolkonskys” from “Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.” This song song tells the literal tale of main character Natasha going to meet her fiance’s family for the first time. It’s obvious just from the dialogue that the visit does not go well, but more depth is added to the dynamic between Natasha and her future sister-in-law, Mary, just in the way their notes clash on the “Constrained and strained” lyric. The audience can understand that Mary and Natasha don’t particularly like each other, but through this musical clue, they can also understand why they don’t like each other. They come from fundamentally different places in life, and have clashing perspectives that cannot be reconciled without a change of perspective. Thus, the notes they choose to sing literally clash just as their worldviews do.

But that’s a pretty straightforward use of music to tell the audience key details about the characters. How about something a little more abstract? Consider Angelica Schuyler in “Hamilton.” Her big solo number and the introduction to her character is “Satisfied”, where we learn about her short-lived relationship with Alexander Hamilton before she more or less gave him up to her sister. What’s interesting about this song, though, is the fast-paced rapping Angelica does. Rapping in “Hamilton” tends to clue the audience into the character’s revolutionary attitudes, so the fact that Angelica has the rapping ability to rival Alexander’s, it lets the audience in on the fact that she is his intellectual equal. Compare that to her sister’s songs, entirely sung and not rapped, and the fundamental intellectual difference between the two women is clear. (Not insulting Eliza at all, as she’s my favorite character, but she’s definitely less of a revolutionary/intellectual.)

But there are even more interesting ways to tell stories using musical conventions. Consider the reprise. The reprise is a fascinating way to connect plot points throughout the story of the musical. For example, compare “Dead Girl Walking” and its reprise from “Heathers.” The first song is mostly a way of cluing the audience into Veronica’s rapidly decreasing caution when faced with the circumstances of the story. Also, it sets up her relationship with JD. The reprise, on the other hand, is the breakdown of her relationship with JD, and features her taking responsibility for her role in the disasters that have taken place in the story, due in part to that aforementioned recklessness. The fact that one song is a reprise of the other connects the entire arc of Veronica’s character really nicely. (Also, both songs are some of my favorites in the whole musical).

So, all that being said, I think I admire musicals for how how their structure leads to some really unique ways of telling story. Plus, it’s done with lyrics and music, and I love lyrics and music. And storytelling. And incredible performances. And musicals!

Thank you for hanging on with me through this Musical Month. Your regularly scheduled varied-topic shenanigans will resume next Sunday.

 

Musical Month Week 2: Pierre & Natasha

I want to start this post with a slight disclaimer. I think a lot of parts of this analysis are a bit self-indulgent on my part. I think in many cases analysis of things we love can often fall to self-indulgence due to the fact that the things we love very often connect to ourselves in a personal way. I don’t think it’s unusual or detrimental to an analysis to feel a personal connection, but I also think it can make it difficult to see opposing sides of an analysis.

So, wordy apologies aside, I want to talk about Natasha and Pierre. I want to talk about them both individually but I mostly want to talk about their relationship. This analysis will mostly focus on four songs – “No One Else,” “Dust and Ashes,” “Pierre,” and finally, and most importantly “Pierre & Natasha.” So, let’s break this down.

Part 1: Natasha

At the beginning of the musical, Natasha is defined by her youth. It’s the first thing the audience learns of her – she is young, she is in love. In “No One Else,” this idea is expanded upon even further. In a sweeping ballad, Natasha declares her love for her absent fiance.

While the audience could definitely take note of her passion, they might also take notice of her innocence. Consider her repetition of “I love you,” as if in childish glee over the new adult emotion she feels. Or when she expresses her want to “put her arms ’round her knees,” “squeezing as tight as possible,” and “flying away”. Or, maybe most notably, her naive wish that Andrey will suddenly appear, “sitting in the drawing room” and she’s only missing him because she “forgot” he was there.

Ultimately, while the audience might be charmed by Natasha’s love for Andrey, it’s hard to ignore the fact that she loves him without a hint of realism. In a way, that’s admirable, but as the musical progresses, it becomes obvious that it’s detrimental.

As Natasha is caught up with Anatole, it’s clear that her passion for Andrey was fueled more by childlike glee than actual adult emotion. Throughout the musical, she continues to make uninformed decisions, getting involved with a dishonest man, nearly eloping, and then almost killing herself. While Natasha’s idealism in “No One Else” is beautiful and touching, it is also ultimately hollow.

One could blame Natasha for rushing into things, but in a way the blame could also be put on the world she lives in. She is young, after all. Her marriage to Andrey was not her own decision, and although she was willing to convince herself that she loved him, swept up in the idealism of being a wife, it was ultimately grounded in very few of her own decisions. Similarly, Andrey’s disappearance to fight in a war is out of Natasha’s hands. So is her whirlwind romance with Anatole, who repeatedly is the one to make the plans, up to where he almost whisks her away on a troika. She is repeatedly a victim of her society and those around her, using her for their own ends.

So, by the time of “Pierre & Natasha,” Natasha has had her innocence and naivete beaten out of her. While she certainly deserves some of the blame, it is obvious that the mistakes of others have been pinned to her, bringing great shame to her name.

Part 2: Pierre

Unlike most of his fellow characters, Pierre is not explained with a short little word and phrase. Instead, Pierre gets an entire song, aptly named “Pierre,” to explain his mentality at the beginning of the musical.

Essentially, Pierre is a man unsatisfied with his current life. He feels as though he has declined in his age. He constantly compares himself to Andrey, feeling as though Andrey’s choice to go to war makes him a better man. In comparison, Pierre views his life as too quiet, too sedentary. The rest of the cast appears to see him as a sad, yet generally good-hearted old man. (Interestingly, Pierre doesn’t really seem that much older than the rest of the cast, at least not physically. Regardless, he gets referred to as the old man a lot.)

However, we also are introduced to Pierre’s romantic life, or the lack thereof. While he is married, his wife, Helene, clearly doesn’t love him. The two of them argue, and refer to each other only as “wife” and “husband.” In addition, Helene’s romances with many other men (and probably also women, let’s be honest) is pretty much common knowledge to the rest of the cast. Pierre only briefly touches on this situation in “Pierre,” when he remarks that “the women they all pity me / because I’m married / but not in love / frozen at the center.”

It’s not until Pierre almost dies in a duel with Dolokhov that we get to hear his true feelings on romance. In “Dust and Ashes,” Pierre comes to the conclusion that the only reason he feels compelled to stay alive is that he still hasn’t fallen in love. He hypothesizes that only through love (romantic love, mind you) can one find divinity.

Pierre, Natasha, and Marriage

So it’s easy to draw comparisons between Natasha and Pierre. Both seem to put a lot of stock into romantic love. For both, it’s their downfall, the main source of their pain and dissatisfaction with their life. But I want to take a look at what part of romance has caused them such grief, because I don’t think you can argue that it’s simply romance as a whole. No, it’s marriage.

Think about it. Pierre is stuck in a loveless marriage, and it’s that marriage that is preventing him from being able to find love, and by extension, divinity. Natasha, on the other hand, is controlled by her impending marriage to Andrey. When she’s finally convinced to act on her “own terms” without worrying about that marriage, she’s caught up with Anatole and ruins her life by trying to elope with him. It’s not love or romance, it’s marriage specifically that is causing both characters such trauma.

In addition, I’d be willing to make this analysis even more specific. It may not just be marriage that is causing both characters problems, it may be the idea that marriage and romance are the same thing. Natasha’s seemingly endless passion for Andrey is actually not at all lasting, and goes away as soon as Anatole becomes a more present option for marriage. And then it’s her haste to marry Anatole that ruins her life. In both cases, her longing to marry both of these men is mistaken as romantic feeling.

On the other hand, we don’t really know why Pierre married Helene. Though, once again, their marriage by no means equals romance.

So, with that in mind, I want to look at “Pierre & Natasha,” the last song I’ll be analyzing. In this song, after Andrey has firmly rejected Natasha, Pierre tries to comfort her. However, the conversation that takes place starts to say a lot more about their relationship with one another.

First of all, I want to point out that in War and Peace, Natasha and Pierre were good friends when they were younger. This song draws attention to that friendship early on, when Natasha refers to him as “Peter Kirilovich,” and he corrects her, wanting her to call him “Pierre.” Not only does this show he feels comfortable enough with her to be on a first-name basis, but “Kirilovich” was his former last name, before his now-deceased father allowed him to take on the name “Bezhukov.” It shows that she knew him during a time before now, when they were both young and idealistic. It’s a sign of familiarity and friendship.

Another point to draw attention to is Pierre’s question to Natasha about Anatole, and her response:

[PIERRE]
But I should like to know one thing
Did you love—
Did you love that bad man?

[NATASHA]
Don’t call him bad
But I don’t know, I don’t know at all

Natasha doesn’t know now whether she ever loved Anatole, and I think this goes to show my point earlier about her confusing marriage and romance. Now that Anatole is firmly not a candidate for marriage, Natasha isn’t sure whether or not she ever truly loved him, or was more excited for the possibility of their wedding.

After this exchange, Natasha breaks down into tears, and Pierre, at this sight, also begins to cry. Despite the fact that Pierre tries to “despise her” for what she’s done, he cannot help but feel for her on a personal level. Again, the audience is shown the connection the two of them share on an emotional level.

He promises her that they do not need to speak of the situation with Andrey again, and says “But one thing I beg of you, consider me your friend / And if you ever need help, or simply to open your heart to someone / Not now, but when your mind is clear / Think of me.” Repeatedly it’s the friendship and close emotional connection Natasha and Pierre share that is brought up. Neither expressly declares a grand, sweeping passion for one another, but it’s made abundantly clear that they care deeply for one another. Even after Natasha tries to say she doesn’t deserve his care after the things she has done, the music cuts out and Pierre delivers the one spoken line in the entire musical:

[PIERRE]
If I were not myself
But the brightest, handsomest
Best man on earth
And if I were free—
I would get down on my knees this minute
And ask you for your hand
And for your love

And yes, you read that right, Pierre heavily implies that he wishes to marry Natasha. Remember how I said that marriage and romance in this play are intertwined in the minds of the characters? It’s this line that confirms what the audience may have been suspecting this whole time – Pierre loves Natasha romantically.

But here’s the thing. Pierre can’t marry Natasha. He’s a married man, she’s disgraced and shamed, “unmarriable.”

Still, this doesn’t seem to sadden either Natasha or Pierre. In fact, it leads Natasha to “weep tears of gratitude / tears of joy / tears of thanks” and to leave the room “smiling.” Pierre too weeps some “tears of joy” of his own, and leaves the room to deliver the final, hopeful number of the musical.

So what does this all mean for their relationship? Well, I don’t think it’s an accident that the couple that cannot even consider marriage is the one that seems the most happy with the idea of their love for one another. Plus, it’s the couple whose platonic love for one another that gets their happily ever after, in a sense.

Pierre’s declaration of love for Natasha is a microcosm of what makes their relationship work. Unlike the rest of the musical, sung grandly with beautiful language, he states his love for her frankly with no music in the background. It’s not grand, but it’s earnest and well-thought-out.

And so what do we take away from Pierre and Natasha’s relationship? The kind of romance that lasts and brings happiness can only exist on a foundation of friendship and shared emotional connection. It has very little to do with passion or grand gestures or traditional marriages.

We don’t get to see what comes of Pierre and Natasha, but I think the audience nonetheless leaves the theater (or the YouTube playlist) satisfied, knowing that the too have found a real love. Platonic, romantic, lasting, and happy.