Tuesday, June 4, 2013

"A legend, Mr. Wayne"

So one piece of advice that I frequently see given to new writers is "Define your goal." Is finishing the book enough by itself--does your satisfaction come from the act of creation? Do you want an agent? Are you writing a "niche" book with the hope of finding a small cult following? Or are you out for a place on The New York Times bestseller list and a movie deal?

In the two years since I made the decision to start publishing my stories, the answer to that question has eluded me. I certainly find satisfaction in telling stories--I don't think writing would be worth doing if you didn't. And I'm as invested in the development of my characters as a parent in his children. (What does it say about me that I'm nevertheless willing to kill them off with gay abandon? Don't ask.)

But that's not enough. I've known for a long time that I wasn't content simply to invent people and let their adventures bounce around between the four corners of my brain. That's why I was a roleplayer before I was a novelist. I have things to say, and I don't want to just talk to myself. (If you do that, people think you're crazy. Oh, wait....)

That New York Times bestseller thing sounds kind of nice, too. And I wouldn't say no to a movie deal. (Actually, if I got one, I'd probably be so stunned that I'd stand there babbling incoherently.) But while all of those things (making fiction, finding an audience, achieving commercial success) are goals of mine, they're not my goal. None of those things, if achieved, would make me sit back and go "Yup, this is what I got into publishing to do."

So what would? Good question. And a few weeks ago, I realized that I didn't have the answer.

While I was thinking about it, my mind wandered to Batman Begins. (If you're looking for a logical connection between "writing goals" and "superhero flick," don't waste your time.) I remembered something Liam Neeson said at the start of the movie: "If you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, then if they can't stop you, you become something else entirely."

To which Christian Bale asks "And what is that?"

To which Liam Neeson replies, "A legend, Mr. Wayne."

And he was right. The reason that the Batman franchise can be rebooted over and over again is that the character has achieved such a stature that the specifics of his adventures hardly matter. He is an icon. A fairy tale. And because of that, individual storytellers can tinker with the specifics of his world and still have their narrative accepted by the audience. Heath Ledger's Joker, for example, bears little resemblance to Mark Hamill's, but I didn't hear many viewers complaining. Which version is right? They both are! And so is Jack Nicholson's. As long as the legend is right, the details are fungible.

The success of ABC's Once Upon A Time is built on the same principle (though in that case the characters are literally fairy tales). Audiences will readily accept a version of the Snow White story that differs radically from either the Grimm's tale or the Disney movie because the specifics of her story are irrelevant. There's a Snow White. There's an evil queen. There's a magic mirror. The rest can take care of itself.

And that's my goal. I want my characters to win a place like that in the minds and hearts of readers. Thirty or forty or sixty or seventy years from now, I want someone to reboot Hunter Gamble's story and name the zombie something other than Sam Pollard. Or make his courtroom opponent someone other than Ellis Boyer. Or even do something really gutsy, like kill off Weldon somewhere in the book. And I want it to be okay that those details are different from the details in my version of the story, because the legend is the same: a hard-charging young lawyer who stands up when no one else will.

Do you think I'm asking too much?