#Secondthoughts: Building the party

Time flies, so they say, when you are having fun.  There are some scientific explanations for this – which I’m not going to go into here.  Suffice it to say that I can’t believe that it is two years since I suggested that you could use the principles of roleplay games to help you develop your characters’ backstories, and indeed to help you make your bit part characters less one dimensional.  (If you’ve forgotten, or are new to the blog, that post is here).  I decided to do this follow up some time ago, but life.

Lots of stories focus on a single character: the lone wolf detective, the commando behind enemy lines, the vigilante seeking a brand of justice – or perhaps just someone trying to find their best life without the benefit of a support network.  Equally, there are lots of stories about teams, pooling their skills to bring about the best result possible, and dealing with whatever shenanigans come their way.  So what I’d like to do in this post is revisit the roleplay gaming angle, and throw-in a bit of management theory.  You read that correctly: management theory and RPGs.  (You might be surprised at the synergies here; I’ll try not to make this to cringe-worthy).

Let’s take the Management bit first.  There are all sorts of different models people have come up with for talking about different personalities, how to get different people to work together, and how to get the best out of individuals.  Some have better scientific foundations than others, some are more like a psychology tarot, but I’m not here to debate that.  As an example let’s look at Belbin’s team roles.  Meredith Belbin’s model identifies nine team roles, eight of which have features of personality types, and the final one is the “specialist” – someone with unique skills who may or may not be part of the normal team.  The types are:

Action Oriented Roles Shaper Challenges the team to improve.
Implementer Puts ideas into action.
Completer Finisher Ensures thorough, timely completion.
People Oriented Roles Coordinator Acts as a chairperson.
Team Worker Encourages cooperation.
Resource Investigator Explores outside opportunities.
Thought Oriented Roles Plant Presents new ideas and approaches.
Monitor-Evaluator Analyzes the options.
Specialist Provides specialized skills.

(Table adapted from https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newLDR_83.htm)

When you study these sorts of models in Management training, one of the things they teach you is how to put a team together.  Think about Jim Phelps, flipping though his Impossible Missions Force folder: a lot of what he is doing is putting the specialist skills together, but he’s also thinking about the personalities, and the team skills they bring.  When you complete the test, you get a primary role and a secondary role: one of the tasks of the chair and team leader roles is to get the best out of people by playing to their strengths.  Another is to recognise that all the roles will need to be filled sooner or later and so people might end up having to work outside of their comfort zones, and they’ll need to provide extra support for people in those circumstances.  One of the typically exercises that trainers will do with students is to put them together in extreme groups: a group of ‘plants’ for example, never tend to get beyond the ideas stage…  There’s another team where we can see some of these roles coming through very clearly…BAAdeBA badeBA beBAdeba ba de bebeBA BAdeBAA ba ba BAA.

In the A Team, Hannibal clearly demonstrates the qualities of the Shaper, Coordinator and the Plant – perhaps it’s unusual to have three such strong characteristics, but they are a small team.  If it’s possible to find anyone who is more strongly a Resource Investigator than Face, then I would be pleased to have your suggestions.  He also has to work overtime as the Team Worker, lubricating the machine to make sure that Murdoch and BA don’t kill each other.  The whole team have unique talents that they bring to the party, but Murdoch, Howling Mad though he may be, is the Specialist’s Specialist: there is not an aircraft he can’t fly, not an aircraft he can’t land even in adverse conditions.  I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that the thing that he and BA have in common is that they are both Completer Finishers…  BA though is very much the Implementer.

So far so good.  But what about the RPG angle?  Isn’t that just Wizards and Warriors?

No.  For a start, there are a whole range of RPGs out there, with myriad settings.  But let’s stick to a Fantasy setting.  Different systems use different terminologies, but in general we can talk about types and jobs.  Types are usually reduced to the classical four: Academic, Rogue, Warrior, Ranger.  ‘Jobs’ provides the opportunity for some subtlety and for career growth: a straight up wizard might turn to the dark side and become a necromancer or daemonologist.  A humble guard might work their way up the ranks and perhaps even become a knight.

But we were talking about Belbin and management – what’s that got to do with RPGs and characters?   Well, essentially, the RPG angle gives us the opportunity to bring in special skills, but if we want a team, rather than a rag-tag group of friends, then we need to think about our characters, and their roles in this roleplay.  Which brings us to the team of characters in a story – or are they a team? Perhaps the conflict in the story arises from the lack of a Team Worker, holding the group together.

Another aspect of management theory that could be helpful when pulling your team together in your story world has a name which I’ve forgotten, but essentially points to the stages that you go through when pulling the team together.  The Magnificent Seven gives us some pointers in this regard: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing.  We pull the team together and get to know each other, people argue whilst they settle into their roles and establish demarcation, the team practices and gets slick, the mission is accomplished (or not…).

If you think that RPGs are just about bashing orcs and ogres, rescuing princesses, raiding dungeons and so on, then I invite you to read Jeremiah Tolbert’s take on this – you might be surprised.  Also, in my previous essay in this area, I referenced Kristen Lamb’s blog post, which was on of the articles that got me thinking along these lines in the first place.  Last time I was pointing to the different personality types (Lawful/Chaotic, Good/Evil etc), but in the same article she makes an excellent point about adding conflict to your team.

In summary, I’m not suggesting that writers should always go and and play a game of AD&D or something, but there is a surprising level of depth to the games, depth that can help a writer when it comes to thinking about their characters, and the way these characters behave when they’re forced to work in a team with people who don’t necessarily have the same values…

© David Jesson, 2019

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Two characters in search of a coffee

“You look rough!”

“Thanks, I don’t think. You’d look rough too, if your author was editing.”

“Let’s get a drink, and you can tell me all about – woah! You’ve gone green!”

“Let’s get a coffee, and I’ll tell you all about it.”

*****

“OK, what’s this all about then?”

“My author’s editing -”

“Yes, you already said.  Mine does that from time to time.  He keeps on trying to strip out all the adverbs, but it’s not that bad really.”

“It’s rude to interrupt. My author’s editing, and they’ve decided that I drink. A lot.”

“But you’re tee-total!”

“I KNOW! Ooh, I should not have shouted…my head.”

“You should sue.”

“That’s not the half of it. My author’s publisher wants more diversity, so now I’m gay.”

“Oh…but aren’t you asexual?”

“Yep.  But what’s a character to do when a publisher makes demands and a writer starts getting creative?”

© David Jesson, 2018

#Secondthoughts: Where Eagles Dare

“Broadsword calling Danny Boy…Broadsword calling Danny Boy…”

There are some phrases that just seem right.  They work.  They’re so good that they enter the population and almost become some kind of genetic memory.  These days we tend to call them memes and they get hacked about by anybody with access to a meme-generator, in order to illustrate a point.  I will freely admit to having done it myself once or twice.  But before the internet, before we knew they were memes, there were lines from books and films that became short hand for jokes, or action scenes, for heroism, or dark deeds.

Thirty years or so after the first time that I read “Where Eagles Dare”, and the famous radio call-sign exchange still brings back memories of Alastair McLean novels, and a slew of WWII films.

“Broadsword calling Danny Boy…Broadsword calling Danny Boy…”

Social Media can be a strange place.  You never quite know what will catch on.  By chance, I happened to notice that #WhereEaglesDare was trending on Twitter the other day, so I thought that I would have a quick look.  It turned out that the film was showing on some channel or another, and people were flagging it and then talking about.  The opening credits came in for a mention, and yes, they are pretty good.  I’d dispute that it is the best film ever, though.  The film has some great set pieces, but I’m going to go out on a limb, and say that it was miscast, and that the adaptation of the dialogue was not quite up to the mark.  I’d even suggest that it is worth remaking the film – Richard Burton, as Smith, is rather wooden, and Clint Eastwood, as Schaeffer, is…Clint Eastwood.  To his credit, at least he put a bit of effort into climbing the rope, instead of using a scissor lift…  a young Nathan Fillion might have been a good Schaeffer, I don’t know who the equivalent would be at the moment.  But I digress.

In any film, there are a number of things that need to come together, including the casting (and the on- and off-screen dynamic between the cast), the cinematography (including special effects), and the script.  In the case of a film adaptation, the casting is especially important, as is the script.  For fans of the book, if the writer did a good job then you will have a mental picture of the characters.  In terms of the dialogue to inform the script, you’d hope that it could just be picked up and plonked down as is, but of course there will be scenes that can’t be included – but you really need that line, yes that one there – and so the process of revising the script begins.

In terms of a film adaptation, whilst I love Guns of Navarone, Force 10 from Navarone and WED – all for different reasons – I’d argue that Where Eagles Dare is the best adaptation of the three.  But it also shares in one of the biggest frustrations that I have with the Lord of the Rings films: they messed up the humour.

When you think of Lord of the Rings, the inherent humour is probably not what springs to mind.  I will be the first to admit that we are not talking about a laff-a-minute, light-hearted read, but there is humour, albeit somewhat understated. The film adaptation, to my mind, makes the cardinal sin of rejecting the humour that Tolkien wrote into the book, and importing a totally unnecessary slap-stick element, usually at the expense of Gimli and the dwarfs.  I recently came across the term “Mary Sue” to describe a character who is improbably skilled at everything: in LOTR, the Elves, and in particular Legolas, become a race of Mary Sues, leaving the dwarfs to bumble along as the comedy country-bumpkins.  But that’s another essay.  Suffice it to say, that my view is that Legolas and Gimli were designed to be a balanced pairing in the author’s mind, and that there are all sorts of things that don’t work properly because the relationship between Gimli and Legolas is undermined.

So too, then, the balance between Smith and Schaeffer is not quite right in WED.  The humour is muted, the dialogue doesn’t sparkle.  Burton is, as I’ve said, a bit wooden – it almost feels like it should be one of his last performances, but it’s not; Burton died young, but worked for another 15 or so years after this film.  The book is a little more thoughtful, and doesn’t reduce the Germans to ciphers – at least, not all the time.

“Broadsword calling Danny Boy…Broadsword calling Danny Boy…”

And now for the kicker.  Having written all of the above, having assumed that the book came first, I’ve just discovered that McLean wrote the film first and then the book.  Apparently Eastwood didn’t like the original script and asked for fewer lines, which surely must be a rarity in the acting profession.  On the other hand, he got to do most of the action, so it probably worked out about even.

Even with that last minute shock revelation, I stand by the view that the book is better than the film, but perhaps now we need to say it is because McLean had the opportunity to polish things – and he didn’t have to worry about troublesome actors.  His characters would do as they were told.  He also had the opportunity to embellish some scenes and add depth – so for example the pilot who drops off the team and picks up the survivors gets to be a proper character rather than just an extension of the aircraft.

How about you?  Any films where the script/casting messed up a really neat book?  Any favourite books that got a good film treatment? Any films that fell flat even though they had an all star cast and the dialogue was straight off the page?

“Broadsword this is Danny Boy…Broadsword this is Danny Boy…Recieving”


© David Jesson, 2018