Comic Books, Basketball, and Writing: Why They All Connect for Me

Prologue: Comic Books and Basketball

When I was younger, I was a comic book nerd.  Batman, The X-Men, and the Hulk were some of my favorites, but thanks to the intervention of my cousin, Joey, I had numerous old Spider-man titles.  It didn’t matter, as I would read my fill of numerous comics, no matter how different, or how silly.  Before sports entered my life in a big way, a day with my friends involved reading comics and playing video games.  Comics, and the trading cards that emerged from them, were so interesting to me, as they not only told a little bit about the character, including real names, hometowns, and vitals, but they also spoke a little bit about the characters’ strengths and limitations.  Furthermore, with character arcs moving  across multiple issues, just as basketball players change from game to game, I was able to pick up a fair deal about characterization through what I’d observed in comic books — as well as the many print books that I simply devoured in my youth.

When basketball came around, my parents and my grandfather each would give me basketball periodicals and books.  I devoured those, as well.  I still read the old Basketball Almanacs for nostalgia, reflecting on what people expected of the likes of Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Kobe Bryant back when they were fresh-faced teenagers who had just made the leap to pro ball.  Years ago, my best man suggested that these, along with the NBA Live video games, were the reasons why we became such big fans of the NBA.  When we truly went from Warriors fans to Warriors fanatics, the Warriors were perpetual underdogs, but we were always happy to think about the possibilities, and of the many characters that came through the San Jose Arena (one year) and the Oracle Arena (pre-Oracle).   The Warriors haven’t been the underdogs for two seasons now, and the general pulse around the rest of the country is that the Warriors are a super-team full of characters worthy of vilification.  If they are a superteam, they are a super-team that still has that tantalizing burden of potential.  If they are villains, then they’re the nicest villains I’ve ever seen.  Tonight, they face off against the Cleveland Cavaliers for their best of seven series for the highest title in professional basketball.

The headlines will continue to discuss Steph Curry, two time defending MVP; 2014 MVP Kevin Durant; 4-time MVP LeBron James; and the nine other players in this series who have played at least one NBA All-Star game.  However, each of these players, and the twelve to fifteen other players who may play in this Finals series, are each on their own trajectories.  Whether a continuing rebound from a nearly career ending injury or becoming the first NBA player from their island nation to play in the NBA Finals, there are innumerable personal stories, and far more than 30 personal career trajectories (including players, coaches, execs, and owners, among many others), that are now hinging upon the next four to seven games.

We’re too close to the action now to see the “character arcs” for these individuals, and how these players will be viewed after their careers have come to an end.  However, we can foresee players roles in this event.

NBA Finals: On Writing

As people are prepared to cheer for their favorite team, and turn their lambasting of the other team and its fans up to 11, realize that most people don’t see their team, their favorite players, or themselves as villains. It doesn’t matter who threw the first punch, or where the technical foul came from, people will generally view themselves as being in the right (even rationalizing things that the average person would consider abhorrent) — up until the point where they admit (to themselves or to others) that they’ve made a big mistake.  Furthermore, an antagonist will go out of their way to find an individual’s negative traits. This doesn’t mean that someone necessarily needs to have an adversarial relationship with somebody else, or that these antagonists are necessarily wrong in their assessment of the other person’s character.

Whether talking about a controversial arm motion (or, if you will, punch) in Game 4 of last year’s finals or your primary antagonist’s raison d’etre as your book reaches its climax, one person’s act of heroism or self-determination can sometimes be viewed as flagrant disrespect by someone else.  I recently read something in a political piece (I’ll leave it at that) that discussed one thing that made the most vicious villains: their obsession with the notion that they were not wrong to do what they were doing, and that they are being wronged by the rest of the world. While a difference of opinions may be what separates the protagonist from the antagonist, it may also be what makes individuals distinct on their own character arcs.  Even in such a small sample set as a playoff series, players are in motion along their own character arcs, and may embark on a variety of side-stories while in the midst of a much larger arc.

It’s hard for many fans to imagine this now, but Steph Curry, Draymond Green, and even LeBron James were not always the All-Star players that they are now.  They also weren’t vilified by any particular fanbase (except if somebody had it out for Davidson, MSU, or St. Vincent-St. Mary’s).  We are seeing these three players on relative high points in their career arcs (not necessarily the apex, as there’s a lot of the story that is not yet written).  Shawn Livingston may have been on that trajectory, as well, had it not been for a serious injury that almost removed him from the profession.  Similarly, outside of short stories, fictional characters are hardly a snapshot of who they are in a given point in time — even something as basic as a character’s role changes from one point of the story to the next.  Characters change, and how they change and who they are at the end is a product of (at least) five basic factors:

-Who they are on a fundamental level
-Where they came from
– Where they hope to be
– Whether or not they’ve actually made strides toward where they want to be
– How they perceive the World

From a basketball standpoint, the answers to these questions might end up being a few standby archetypes in the sporting world:
– The Chosen One (LeBron, maybe Irving)
– The Golden Child (Love, Steph & Klay)
– The One with Something to Prove (Durant, maybe Tristan Thompson, Javale McGee, Derrick Williams)
– The Unsung Hero (Iguodala, Tristan Thompson, Ian Clark)
– The Gritty/Wily/Cagey Vet (Richard Jefferson, Shawn Livingston, Pachulia, Korver, Deron Williams)
– The Young Gun (McCaw, Felder)
– The One with the “Chip on His Shoulder” (Barnes, Draymond Green)

From a fiction perspective, there are so many archetypes, and so many characters that you may boil down to a few words.  For instance, Absconded by Sin has two major players that fall under the category of the disgraced veteran.  They are secondary characters who ascend in importance throughout the novel, and they each have their own trajectories.  Some of their trajectory relates to their station in life before the novel takes place (Major and PFC), and some of their trajectory relates to where they have been, but their trajectory also has something to do with how they see the World.

Some of the archetypes you may see in your novels are the reluctant hero, the whore with the heart of gold, the damsel in distress, and the so-called action girl.  It’s up to you to determine if those characters follow a traditional character arc or trajectory for those archetypes, and whether that trajectory will be ascending or descending.  It could be a roller coaster; I never watched professional wrestling for enjoyment (just to fit in with friends), but what little I saw surprised me at how often a character could take a heel-face turn, going from good to bad and back again.  It’s no different from professional basketball, except that the heel-face turn largely depends on the court of public perception, and the same may also be true of your novels.  The antagonist may be pure evil, as well see in space operas and epics, or they may be a character that is scared, frustrated, or determined.

Epilogue: Characterization Challenges in My Writing

In a few minutes, my mind will be on the Warriors, hoping that they will be able to beat the Cavaliers at their best, or whatever state that they may be in.  I’ll also try to spend some time working on my novel, bearing in mind the archetypes that I’m using (if they apply to my characters, which they often do), and the types of character arcs I expected of these characters.

One of the challenges  I foresee in my current novel is making sure that the many divergent archetypal characters and character arcs can coalesce at the right points.  I focus on two characters, an aging small-town sheriff and a ne’er-do-well young woman who has lost her direction in life.  These two characters are often together, and thus the only time we get to see character arcs for their supporting characters are through the main characters’ eyes.

Another challenge is in taking the antagonists and making sure that their motivations and character arcs are equally believable.

A third challenge is balancing out the character arcs, and making sure that I am paying particular attention to the inner monologues and motivations that push my characters to the resolution.

####

Update #1: Community Writers – presenting Their Sharpest Thorns

I’ve been working on my public speaking. On Saturday, I delivered another portion of an unpublished work, sharing the moment where the aging sheriff mentioned above comes across the second in a series of homicides that plague his small town.  I received a lot of positive comments, and was surprised that I didn’t once hear any mention of the pace.  In the five minutes that I’d read, I only briefly touched upon the dead body or the immediate investigation surrounding it.

From the perspective of an orator, I think I did a better job at enunciating, maintaining a steady cadence, and being forceful in my speech.  There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done, but I hope that I can build on what I did this weekend.

Update #2: Current Work in Progress – Their Sharpest Thorns

I was able to finish my initial draft (let’s call it draft zero, as it is awfully drafty) of Their Sharpest Thorns.  One thing that I’ve noticed as I’ve begun editing it is a disconnect from the beginning of the novel to the end.  There are some inconsistencies in terms of setting (such as the physical location of buildings), and it will help me to work this out via notes, maps, and anything else that I can do to firm up the setting and focus on the quality of the writing.  I’ve read a few books that have this level of inconsistency, and it is sometimes confusing, and sometimes maddening.

As some of you may remember through a variety of conversations, this blog, NaNoWriMo, or even Twitter, I ran into a problem toward the end of my preparation stage this past October, as I lost all of the outlining work I did for Their Sharpest Thorns when my thumb drive ended up in several pieces.  Thus, I am facing the challenges that frequently come from writing by the seat of my pants (pantsing) or only providing a limited outline.  This is not to say that mistakes like this dont happen for worldbuilders, but the efforts that go into mapping out settings and providing detailed character sheets prior to any writing will alleviate inconsistencies.

I’ve heard some people argue that issues like this are why we have editors.  This may be true for some of us. However, speaking as someone who has edited various types of works, I can attest that it is far easier to look at something critically, and to offer commentary of substance, when an author (novelist, analyst, poet, whatever) has already taken a critical eye to their own work.

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Okay, well, I think that’s it for now.  Until next time, cheer for your favorite team and take a critical eye to your characters!

(Go Warriors!)

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