Coded

I’ve been writing, professionally and otherwise, for over 20 years now, and while I’d never claim to be an expert, I’ve learned a lot over the years. I continue to learn a lot, which is why I’m reluctant to call myself an expert. But I won’t deny I’ve spent hours and hours and hours of my life thinking about storytelling specifically and art in general. It’s why I’m sometimes perceived as a bit too critical of much of media, particularly storytelling media. It’s not a point I can disagree with because most people don’t care about much of what bugs me. There’s some truth to the “overthinking” it counter-criticism, but that isn’t a bulletproof defense of weak storytelling either.

Lately, I’ve become obsessed with coding in media. I’m sure there’s a more technical term out there, but it comes down to the observation that media influences us via expectations and cultural defaults. And we aren’t usually aware of it. But what does that even mean?, you’re probably asking, if you’re still reading.

It’s a simple idea at its core. Let’s assume that you enter this world with zero expectations. There’s research that this isn’t true, and that a certain amount of human nature is built into our DNA, but let’s ignore that. Let’s just enter the world at zero. It isn’t long after that you’re presented with the rules and regulations of whatever society you’re part of. Your family, your culture, your media, your friends, everything is part of the bath of expectations that you’re soaking in from the get go.

Why do you find some people more attractive than others? What do you consider admirable? How do you identify villainy (for use of a simplistic term)? What kind of person do you aspire to be? What goals matter to you, and what are you willing to do to achieve those goals? There are literally thousands of questions like this we’re confronted with in our lives, and our cultural bath is happy to give us easy answers. Because humans love using shortcuts, much of what we come to love / hate / be indifferent to is programmed into us with a bunch of default assumptions.

A big part of media is using those assumptions as a framework. Done properly, you can get an audience to choose a side or root for a particular character or desire a particular outcome. Social and cultural coding is just as much of storytelling as grammar and plotting. And I know writing stuff like that makes me sound like a pretentious writer, but it doesn’t make it less true.

My favorite example is how we are trained to root for attractive people. Even in the world of books, where a character’s appearance shouldn’t matter that much, there’s still this default physical coding in description. Sometimes, it makes sense, as in the romance genre. Others, not so much. Yet how often does a character being described as unattractive stand in for a failure of their character? If a character has a hairy back or is balding or is fat, it’s often there to let the audience know that, even if they aren’t bad people, they aren’t the main character. The “fat best friend” is a staple of fiction, and if there is a book where it is explicitly stated that a character has a small penis where that character isn’t meant to be mocked for it, I haven’t run across it yet.

The other end though is that we are trained to dislike “shallow” attractive people. That’s why most protagonists in fiction are “natural beauties”. They might be beautiful, but they don’t work that hard at it, so you can still like them. Even most romance characters are beautiful by default, waking up with a glowing radiance. Sure, they might dress up now and then, but it’s not like they need it.

Movies and TV get away with a lot by how readily they trade on our natural desire to root for attractive people. A personal favorite is the movie Passengers, which would be a completely different film if the Chris Pratt role was filled by Steve Buscemi. Everyone loves Robert Downey, Jr’s portrayal of Tony Stark, but would they love it quite so much if he was played by Dan Fogler? No. Just no.

This isn’t meant to be a slight on either Buscemi or Fogler, both of whom are only guilty of being not Hollywood handsome. Fogler is actually one of my favorite actors, but since Balls of Fury he’s mostly been the funny, fat friend. Balls of Fury is the exception there because it’s a comedy that combines ping pong and Enter the Dragon and Fogler’s casting is a deliberate subversion of the athlete hero archetype.

Much of great comedy (and bad comedy) comes from subverting cultural coding. Balls of Fury does this throughout, by both playing to and against that coding. Christopher Walken plays a villain, but a weird version of a supervillain obsessed with ping pong. James Hong is the ancient master, but again, a master of ping pong and a vulgar, ridiculous version of one at that. Fogler is the washed up Randy Daytona, who has the traditional heroic arc even as he embodies a goofy everyman subversion. My favorite subversion is Walken’s “harem” of sex slaves, made up entirely of men apparently who in all ways function as helpless damsels that would normally be played by beautiful women. And the extra subversion is that none of the harem men are especially attractive. About the only failure of subversion in the film is in Maggie Q as the love interest, but no film is perfect. And Q is a solid actress regardless.

But even the subversion of cultural coding in media is coded, i.e. we are trained to see it as a sign of silliness or comedy. I love subverting expectations in my novels, and so many people think I’m simply writing goofy stories, i.e. parodies or satires. It doesn’t help that I do use humor in my novels, but it’s more than the books being funny. It’s baked into the very premise of most of them.

“A space squid supervillain battles an evil brain for the fate of the world.”

“A country fried vampire and werewolf battle supernatural evil in the middle of the Arizona desert, including a teenage cultist and zombie cows.”

“The gods are real, and they want to crash on your couch.”

“Constance Verity is a woman who saves the world on a daily basis and can do almost literally anything.”

I’m not saying they aren’t funny novels. I’m just saying that a lot of what people find funny about them isn’t necessarily intended to be that silly. I know even saying that about my stories isn’t going to make sense to everyone, even many of my consistent readers. I still almost always hear, “Your books are really fun / funny / silly” from fans, and I’m not going to complain if someone likes what I write.

But even my reputation as a “funny” writer is a type of coding. One I can’t argue against, but also, one that I struggle against. I know, even as I write a story featuring a minotaur girl as the protagonist that many people are just going to see it as a really long joke, and I accept it. I play against expectations, and I can’t be surprised when someone scans it as simply comedy and nothing more. And everyone brings their own baggage and judgment to every bit of media they consume. It’s hardly surprising that we would color our consumption with our own experiences and cultural assumptions.

Realizing this, I’ve had a harder time seeing media as simply good or bad. It’s all about the expectations and coding you’ve come to play by. I’ve watched a handful of episodes of A Game of Thrones and wasn’t wowed by it. It simply doesn’t push my buttons. I’m not excited by epic fantasy, low fantasy, or grimdark fantasy. I find the nudity and sex gratuitous and distracting, and I prefer having characters I can unapologetically root for. Yet all those strikes against the show for me are actually positives for most of its fans. If you were to ask me if I thought the show or novels it is based on where “good”, I’d have to say, “Not for me”, but I’m also not foolish enough to dismiss something for striking a chord with others. (Not that I can imagine anyone involved with the show or novels cares a whit about what I have to say. Nor should they.)

The thing about A Game of Thrones too is that it isn’t subverting expectations to a point. As it kills characters and employs gruesome violence, it’s not hard to figure out what will happen as the pattern develops. One of my gripes against dark fiction is that it isn’t really a subversion. Every dark fiction story I’ve ever read is as predictable as every traditional heroic story I’ve read. It’s just realizing what expectations are in place.

The first step to being a better artist (and maybe a better audience) is understanding how those expectations shape our perceptions. The next step is understanding that this isn’t a good or a bad thing. It’s just a thing, and no matter how many memes you’ve memorized or storytelling basics you’ve absorbed, it’s probably more complex than you realize.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

LEE

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One Comment

  1. Nathan (Wilson)
    Posted October 1, 2017 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

    I think that’s what I’m drawn to in your writing, the subverting of expectations. Yes it’s funny, but it’s also what I’m interested in. I’m male, but I’ve been enjoying kickass female protagonists since I was 12, and all my male friends preferred the male protagonists.

    I usually like stories that subvert or avert the popular tropes, and your stories that attempt to go against the most ingrained and popular of tropes in our culture are the most appealing in that fashion. I think the first book of yours that I read was “Too Many Curses” and that fact that the protagonist was a kobold who was obviously ugly on the outside was one of the reasons I picked it up.

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