Critiquing Story Writing

Being stuck inside like everyone else for over a year now, I’ve been watching and reading an exorbitant amount of story reviews and critiques. A lot of this comes from my own insecurities and desire to avoid what a lot of critics will argue detracts from a story. However, as many of you already know, no two critics are so alike as to have the exact same opinion. Criticizing stories is a very subjective topic of discussion and I know many of my own peers worry about impressing their respective communities a lot. But how does one do that if critics themselves are so varied and nuanced in their own opinions? There’s quite a few things I’ve noticed that could categorize reviewers into two broad camps. There are reviewers that focus on the “logic” and those that focus on the “heart”. In this context, logic refers to worldbuilding and character consistencies and heart refers to character drama and tension. Both aspects are incredibly important and a balance between the two is vital for a successful story in any medium.

Slight spoilers for: Darksiders #1, Voltron: Legendary Defender, The Reckoners Series

In the context of story writing, logic takes on a different understanding. As a reader, it’s incredibly difficult to detach yourself from the logic you use in your day-to-day life. In stories that take place in a fictional setting, the worldbuilding dictates what the logic of that world is. It can range from things as complex as societal norms in the cultures of that world being entirely different than that of the real world or as simple as people can jump a few meters higher than normal. The issue here though is that the story and characters must adhere to the rules set by this worldbuilding and follow the logic in the setting and their characterization. A writer should never turn off a rule of the universe or a character’s reasoning for the sake of fulfilling a plot point otherwise they create plot holes and inconsistencies that can ruin a story. There is a modicum of suspension of disbelief, allowing for things to be believable that normally wouldn’t be realistic, but it can only go so far if not set up correctly.   

But a story that only focuses on the logic and worldbuilding of a story can often make people detached from the outcomes of the story. Modern day story telling is very character driven and if the worldbuilding is amazing but the characters are flat it can create a forgettable story. The best example that comes to mind is from the video game Darksiders. The lore in this universe is amazing and for anyone looking for an example of worldbuilding for fantasy, I can’t recommend this setting enough. The first in the series has you playing as War, one of the four horseman of the apocalypse, traversing the post-apocalyptic world of Earth on a generic quest for vengeance. The world building is fantastic as it relies heavily on the politics amongst angels and daemons and explores the mythology between the two warring factions. There are laws and rules in place followed by the angels and daemons with power structures that are fascinating to learn about. However almost all of the characters are flat and so one-note that there can hardly be anything attributed to character development. War himself is such a bland and uninteresting character that there’s barely anything to be invested in. Progressing through the game is more of an exploration of the fantastic world, it’s rules and it’s politics on heaven and hell’s interactions, rather than anything to do with the fate of War despite the beginning of the plot focused on him. He and the majority of characters become forgettable and are often devices to further the plot than tell an exciting narrative.

Logic without heart can create characters like War that are hollow and empty. Again the key to modern day storytelling is character driven stories and if the main cast of characters aren’t likeable or charming in some way it can be hard for the audience to really be invested in the outcome of their story. The protagonist needs to be a character striving towards a goal and working hard to get there, failing and succeeding in a rhythm that keeps people invested in their journey. The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell is a good review of how to structure the journey of a protagonist that people have historically enjoyed. The heart of stories is the characters and how they interact together. Their dreams, goals, struggles and effort is what makes them loveable. Without that, it’s hard to really care about the outcome of the story.

But it’s easy to get carried away with character focus that the logic of the worldbuilding fails and the plot is filled with questionable moments that serve more for drama than anything else. There’s a danger in writing where the stakes are pumped up and the outcomes are determined solely to get an emotional response out of the audience rather than make something narratively satisfying. Voltron: Legendary Defender on Netflix is a really good example of this after season 2 as the story increasingly focuses on feeling something rather than being a well structured character driven story. For example, the entire storyline involving Shirou became so convoluted and resolved in a way that felt like it cheated the audience when you really thought about it. I was so invested in his story but ultimately was disappointed with how it was carried out. Without spoiling too much, Voltron: Legendary Defender relied heavily on random events or power ups happening to save the day. Now there isn’t anything wrong with this if the events or power ups are hinted at earlier in the series with some foreshadowing. In examples like Voltron: Legendary Defender, a lot of emotional moments where the characters feel like they’re in danger are often resolved by a feels good deus ex machina to save the characters and have emotional post action moments. The character’s own logic, and that of the universe, started to crumble in service of making the audience feel tense and invested in the drama in the moment.

When writing a story, there needs to be a balance between the two to make a story that makes almost everyone happy. It’s impossible to please everyone, however it is always possible to write a story the appeals to most people who read it. My favorite example of a series that has really well thought out world building rules while still maintaining endearing character moments and tense drama is The Reckoners series by Brandon Sanderson. With how diverse and varied the powers are it would have been very easy for such a story to fall into conveniences and deus ex machina moments or play it so safe as to not create inconsistencies that the character drama feels mundane for a sci-fi novel. But Sanderson strikes a perfect balance with keeping everything consistent while allowing the characters to be creative and work within the confines of the rules to create real tension and satisfying character drama. I can’t recommend the series enough as an example of getting the balance right.

A combination of world building with consistency and dramatic character moments are vital to creating a story that is both enticing and thoughtful. This is true regardless of what the medium the story is being told in. Books, movies and games are all capable of telling amazing stories that can be loved by many. Darksiders 2, to this day, still remains as one of my favorite examples of amazing worldbuilding and characterization. However it’s always important to recognize, unfortunately, that you really can’t please everyone. For me, I don’t really care for grimdark or gritty “realistic” stories. I’ve always been inspired by stories that are heroic or inspire a sense of hope and optimism. It’s a very personal thing and you can’t force someone to like the story you’ve created. But with enough care and focus, you can write a story that most people will enjoy.

– Raphael

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