Embracing My Inner Fanboy – 10 Things That Fuel My Obsession With a Story

“I don’t really like Fantasy or Science Fiction, but I think I’ll write stories in those genres anyway.”

-No one

This month I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo.  It had been a while since I had written anything, and I felt like it would be a good opportunity to try.

Then life happened…a lot.  And, long story short, the only way I’m going to make 50,000 words is if I change direction and write a graphic novel where I draw 50 pictures.  Get it?  Because a picture is worth a thousand words.  Sorry, bad joke.

The good news is that I do have a story, and a mythology.  I even have some characters.  I’ve done some of the foot work.  And, one of the exercises that accomplished this for me is that I pulled from my inner-fanboy.

I’m one of those people, like many of you I presume, that gets overly engaged in stories.  I obsess over books, TV series, movies, etc.  I’ve done so since I can remember.  When I was a kid, it was Dune, Highlander and X-Files.   There was also Star Trek and Quantum Leap.  Later on, my Lost obsession was borderline clinical.  After that there was Fringe, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead.  Right now, it’s Doctor Who.

So, when I decided to come up with a story for NaNoWriMo, I looked back at these obsessions and tried to figure out the “what?” and the “why?”  What about these stories engaged me?  And, why did they engage me?  Ten is a nice round number.  Here are ten things that fuel my obsession with a story.  Please note that these things are not discrete.  They bleed into and interact with each other.  So, having only one or two of them wouldn’t work.

  1. Characters I Care About – This may be considered blasphemy in some circles, but I have trouble getting through some of Asimov’s books because although he creates really interesting worlds and thought experiments, the characters are flat as boards.  They’re basically there to explain things, which isn’t good enough.  Whereas George R.R. Martin tells a story that spans across an entire world through the intimate points of view of many different characters, who he fleshes out in excruciating detail.  I find Asimov’s world fascinating, but I’m heavily invested in Martin’s world.  I’ve written about this as it pertain to The Walking Dead.
  2. Characters Who Care About Each Other – This extends naturally from my previous point.  Lead characters should form a family of sorts.  Ideally, disliking each other in the beginning and then becoming very close is the way to go (Gimli and Legolas), but it’s not necessary (Sam and Frodo).  If we care about the characters and they care about each other we are pulled into their family.  I thought that Fringe did this very well.  I consider it one of the more undervalued series.  You take away all of the science fiction stuff in that series, and it was about a family trying to stay together.  I think, ultimately, having too many alternative realities became too confusing for most people to keep with it.  I’m not smarter than the people that abandoned the series, but I’m more comfortable being confused (mostly due to practice).
  3. Characters in Peril – This one follows naturally from my last two points.  You have to laugh and cry with the characters.  You have to have been through struggles with them.   You have to worry about their safety and wellbeing.  My favorite character in A Song of Fire and Ice is Arya Stark.  I named my daughter after her.  When she was in peril I didn’t want to stop reading until she was safe.  Breaking Bad used peril really well by setting up some amazingly impossible-to-get-out-of scenarios.  Even though he was a bad guy, you wanted to see Walter White win, because you’ve seen him get through so much already.  I never got more anxious watching a series than when I watched Breaking Bad.
  4. Interesting Thought Experiments – Fantasy and Science Fiction allow us to take reality, change some variables and ask “What if?”  This is more than just entertainment.  This is exploration.  I’ve written about this as well.  Time travel is particularly interesting to me in storytelling.  When characters can travel into the past, you are asking the question “What if the past still exists?”  When characters can travel into the future, you are asking the question “What if the future already exists?”  And, if they can do both, then you are asking the question, “What if everything is happening at once and we can only perceive it linearly and unidirectionally?”  These question lead to more fundamental questions about things like free will and fate.  Every story’s mythology had to decide how it wants to handle time travel.  Doctor Who has the notion of fixed points that can’t be changed, and variable points that can.  Also, the Doctor has stated that paradoxes tend to resolve themselves.
  5. Interesting Mythologies – When you open a book or watch a movie, you are dropped into a world with a particular history and properties that are often unfamiliar.  The story you are being told is one that takes place within this mythology.  It is affected by it, and it also illuminates it.  If it is heavily fleshed out and is interesting, then the story will be also.  X-Files had two types of episodes.  It had episodes that could almost be plopped into anywhere in the series.  They were isolated stories.  Then they had mythology episodes.  These episodes allow the viewers to discover more about the underlying mythology of the series.  In the case of the X-files, misdirection was often applied.  So, you could end up knowing less after one of these episodes and not know it.  Either way, because it was interesting, you cared.
  6. Interesting Story Structure – The story, in its raw form, happens in a linear sequence of cause and effect (baring time travel).  The author decides what to tell and when to tell it.  And, they can make it interesting.  Lost did this very well with flash backs, flash forwards, flash sideways as well as flashes that defy explanation.
  7. Mystery Boxes– This brings us to the notion of mystery boxes.  I recommend this TED talk by J.J. Abrams.  Keep giving us a new mystery box to open, and we will stay engaged.
  8. Making the Fantastic Realistic – Good fantasy and science fiction is like most dreaming.  When you’re in it, it makes sense.  When you explain it out load, it sounds crazy.  I don’t know the secret to this, but I would say making the characters and storyline realistic helps make the fantastic elements realistic.  So, apply most of my previous points to this.
  9. Conscious Altering – Good stories change you.  Your mind has had an experience that it hasn’t had before, and experiences change the mind.  The more palpable this is for the experiencer the better.  One device for this is loose ends, which I have written about.  I was always left with a very odd sensation when I watched Twin Peaks.  My mind wanted to tie the loose ends when the story didn’t.  Keep in mind, that loose ends should be used judiciously.  You can make a lot of people mad (think Lost).
  10. Stories about Me – In the end, the most engaging thing about a story is what it can tell me about myself and my world.  Honestly, if you have most of the points above, this one tends to solve itself.  Whether a story tries to or not, it contains messages.  These messages are something that we take away even when we don’t realized it.  Some might say they are the reason for stories.

I apologize that most of my examples have come from TV shows.  My fiction reading has suffered.  This is something that I plan on remedying.  It should be stated, though, that TV shows are actually a great medium.  There are so many garbage shows out there that give TV a bad name.  However, TV shows allow us to tell enriching stories that can go on for years and only take an hour out of our week (or 50 hours out of a single week if you are Netflixing).

I’d like to hear your thoughts on the items I discussed above?  Did I miss anything?  Did I get something wrong?  Daresay, did I get something right?

I neglected something important.  I mentioned the “What?” and the “Why?”  Those are actually the easy questions.  It’s the “How?” that is the most difficult one.   It is resources like Mythic Scribes and The Roundtable Podcast that help us with that every day.  Even though my word count is low, I have been observing how online communities of authors are working with and helping each other this month.  This is extremely heartening to see.  Storytelling is important.  Fiction storytelling is important.  Humankind needs it and has needed it since its inception.  Stories drive us and change us.  When I’m obsessed with characters and worlds that don’t technically exist, it’s not because I’m delusional or immature.  It’s because I identify with something that I may or may not be able to articulate about the story that I need spiritually, intellectually or emotionally.  Story is experiential insight.  Stories matter.

Thank you, Storytellers.

Are you a fanboy or fangirl?  Which books or series are you obsessed with, and what draws you to them?

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Jamie Rose
4 years ago

Ultimate Fanboy (or Fangirl) achievement – naming a child after a fictional character! Of course, it helps that Arya is a pretty cool name anyway. But my other half wouldn’t even let me call the cats Merry and Pippin.

I agree about Asimov – I’ve read one a couple and just couldn’t get invested in them. Characters aren’t the only factor in a good story, but they certainly help.

Antonio del Drago
7 years ago

I felt the same way about the Lost finale.  While I loved the show, the finale never even attempted to answer the central mystery that had hooked so many viewers.  Yes, it may have handled the characters and their arcs beautifully, but the mystery was left too open.

rocknrollforyoursoul
7 years ago

Nathan Lauffer
“Keep in mind, that loose ends should be used judiciously.  You can make a lot of people mad (think Lost).”
This resonated with me. I looovved that show, and the end just crushed me.

Dagmara Smith
Dagmara Smith
7 years ago

Dr Who Who Who Dr Who Who Who……..

Monique Rockliffe
Monique Rockliffe
7 years ago

I loved it! John Hurt is awesome, and the dynamic of the three was fantastic and highly entertaining!

Nathan J. Lauffer
Nathan J. Lauffer
7 years ago

I’ve actually never heard of that movie. I prefer to read the book(s) first when I can.

Nathan J. Lauffer
Nathan J. Lauffer
7 years ago

I’m on it. Thanks, Evan!

Evan Shane
Evan Shane
7 years ago

And Mistborn is one of the most amazing sagas I’ve ever read. Everything fits perfectly. I highly recomend it.

Evan Shane
Evan Shane
7 years ago

The book is so much better than the movie. Actually the movie is parody of the book.

Nathan J. Lauffer
Nathan J. Lauffer
7 years ago

Star Trek: TNG was one of my first obsessions. My favorite episode of all time is The Inner Light (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Inner_Light_(Star_Trek:_The_Next_Generation)). Deep Space Nine was great, too.

Nathan J. Lauffer
Nathan J. Lauffer
7 years ago

Babylon 5 is on my queue. A friend of mine worked on the CGI for Blood and Chrome, so I’ve seen that. I liked it a lot. Grimm and Supernatural are on my queue as well. I’ve started Dracula, but have only watched the first one. I haven’t heard of Haven. I’ll have to look into it.

Nathan J. Lauffer
Nathan J. Lauffer
7 years ago

I’ve heard a lot about Starship Troopers, and saw the movie a long time ago. I’ve never heard of Mistborn. I’ll have to check it out. Thanks.

Nathan J. Lauffer
Nathan J. Lauffer
7 years ago

The characters makes those worlds so real to me. Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit actually choke me up emotionally. The sensation is similar to what is described by C.S. Lewis in Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surprised_by_Joy).

Nathan Lauffer
Nathan Lauffer
7 years ago

Mike Cairns Thanks for the kind words.  I’m surprised that I didn’t mention comics more, too.  I came into them a little later in life.  I like the Batman ones a lot, especially The Killing Joke.  My first one that I fell in love with was The Watchmen.   I have a Sandman book I’m anxious to dig into as well.  I also highly recommend a book about comics called Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art By http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scott_McCloud (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Understanding_Comics).  I’m going to use your list above to help me decide what new comics to buy next.  Thank you!

Nathan Lauffer
Nathan Lauffer
7 years ago

Dan Bonser I completely agree about the emotion.  Whovians like to call it “the feels”.  And, that series uses them masterfully.  I get very choked up when I watch Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.  Those characters and that world LIVE in me when I read about it and watch it.

Nathan Lauffer
Nathan Lauffer
7 years ago

WeeMadAggie After the article was already posted, I realized I missed the presence of a great villain.  Thanks for mentioning it.  That is very important to me.  If I had listed it, it would have come right after “Character in Peril”.  I good villain gives you that.  One of my favorites is The Governor in The Walking Dead books and TV series.  He’s actually portrayed differently in the TV series and I like him more there.  The various Batman stories receive a lot from good villains.  See The Killing Joke (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Batman:_The_Killing_Joke).

Mike Cairns
7 years ago

Hi Nathan
I loved this post, so thanks. I’m not sure I’ve read a better description of my own experiences of stories, both in your early paragraph, and the last. So yes, I am unashamedly a fan boy, and have been for much of my life. 
I was slightly surprised that you didn’t mention comics anywhere, except with The Walking Dead (which i took to mean the TV show). Some of my geekiest moments have been when reading amazing stories such as Sandman, Love and Rockets, Strangers in Paradise, Preacher, Spiderman, the list goes on 🙂
I thought your list was pretty much bang on, and starting with characters is a must. In fact, more and more these days I’m attracted by characters. If I’m not feeling something for them, the quality of the plot is pretty much irrelevant. I think this is particularly interesting when applied to scifi and fantasy, as. like you with the Asimov books, I find quite a lot of fantasy where the characterisation is just too thin to engage me. It seems that for some authors, the presence of dragons/magic/killer penguins (delete as applicable) cancels out the need for real people!
thanks again
Mike

Antonio del Drago
7 years ago

Dan Bonser Faceless hordes of unnamed, undifferentiated characters is a pet peeve of mine as well.
Although some of his changes have been controversial, you have to give credit to Peter Jackson for rectifying this with his Hobbit films… especially the upcoming Desolation of Smaug.   
In the book, the dwarves are captured by a faceless, nameless group of Elves who are never defined as characters.  By giving some of these elves individual names and personalities, Jackson is making them come alive as characters in their own right.  And the fact that Legolas would have been there, according to Tolkien’s own chronology, makes this all the better.

Dan Bonser
7 years ago

There’s always three things that have to happen for me to enjoy a story.  1. Character, 2. Emotion, 3. Reality.  I have to like the characters to enjoy the story.  I recently read the Strain trilogy, and by the third book I found myself skimming…I didn’t care in the slightest about the characters, I had no emotion for the ending except happy to know how it finally ended….  Emotion is absolutely key.  I have to feel.  When Jake Sully sees his navi love ride on the back of the flying creatures in Avatar, I cried….  I cried every time.  Its beautiful, the freedom he is about to feel, knowing that ‘back home’ he’s wheelchair bound….  Reality is something that has to happen.  A friend recommended a book entitled “The Darkness that Comes Before.”  I really wanted to like it.  But scenes didn’t feel real enough.  There was a scene of two people talking on a crowded boat…and the ENTIRE scene was filled with faceless people.  In my minds eye, I seriously was seeing mannequins around them….  I didn’t even get a fifth of the way through that book….

Emily Hanson
Emily Hanson
7 years ago

I am a fangirl of many series. I enjoy classic shows like Star Trek, Doctor Who, Babylon 5, Forever Knight, Lois and Clark, and some of the current shows like Haven, Grimm, Supernatural and Dracula.

Evan Shane
Evan Shane
7 years ago

Doctor Who, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Starship Troopers, Mistborn, and few more.

Lisa Steeves
Lisa Steeves
7 years ago

Babylon 5, Forever Knight, Star Trek Deep Space Nine to begin with for television shows… too many books to name and all of them contain the things listed in the article.

Tony Dragani
Tony Dragani
7 years ago

I’m obsessed with Doctor Who, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and more. All of these stories feature characters that I care about, and have fantastical scenarios that engage my imagination.

WeeMadAggie
WeeMadAggie
7 years ago

That was almost like reading a page of my diary (if I kept a diary). There are a range of emotions that have to be ticked off before I will declare a story (on screen on in text) great. The rarest, for me at least, are triumph and vengeance. Aeryn Sun treated me to the former time and again in Farscape. As for that really powerful feeling of righteous fury and payback I look to David Weber’s Honorverse.
Also a really compelling villain is hard to find.  And oups,  I have a word count to hit today. This was a really nice read though.

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