Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Get Out of My Head

Have you ever had a song stuck in your head?

These are the first words I've written about one Juro Patton in about six years. I created him as part of a collabrative storytelling effort for a now-defunct fan website for a series of books, games, and online short stories*. I was perhaps 14 when I started frequenting the site's message boards, fleshing out the universe in which our characters would inhabit, discussing minutiae that seemed important at the time but escape me all these years later. We had a structure to the whole thing, but there was freedom to develop our own characters, stories, and niches.

*I won't be linking you to the site for a few reasons. First, it only semi-exists anymore. The front page doesn't have any links on it, and you'd have to fiddle around to get anywhere. Second, I'm not gonna lie--this whole enterprise was more than a bit nerdy. I started this whole blog thing to impress women, after all, so we'll be avoiding any temptation to comb through my unfortunately well-preserved post history. Sorry. You can probably still find it if you're a good internet detective.

Central to the whole process was the creation of a character that you'd use in writing said collaborative stories. It was part amateur sci-fi, part game. You'd write part of a story from your character's point of view, leave off at a dramatically appropriate point, then let the next person take over from their character's point of view, and so on. The point wasn't really to win, per se. Just to tell an interesting tale.

I came up with the idea for Juro Patton out of a need for a strong central character in one particular area. Juro, embarrassingly enough, started off as a bit of a Mary Sue, and for a short while was named Joseph Patton, which combined the names of my favorite general with, uh, my name.

Give me a break. I was 14.

The process of creating him was convoluted, so I'll spare you most of the nerdy details. You had to come up with the obvious physical traits, habits, hobbies, and so on. The real meat of the process was in a character's Virtues and Flaws, heroic traits and failings that could come up at any point in a story. This was important to the whole system because another player, while not allowed to take direct control over your character ("Biff Manly* shot a rocket at Juro Patton, blowing him into little piles of barely-recognizable gore"), could utilize his Virtues and Flaws in an appropriate way ("Biff Manly insulted Juro Patton, noticing that his words had a visible effect on the quick-to-anger soldier").

*I once created a fake player named Biff Manly in a baseball video game. He was seven feet tall and weighed four hundred pounds. I think he hit a hundred home runs in the one season I had him play.

The whole process actually helped me get better as a writer. It's useful to realize that your characters need to have realistic flaws and can't be super-awesome badasses a hundred percent of the time. Juro Patton eventually took form as a charismatic but deeply flawed tragic hero, an intensely loyal leader of men whose temper was quick, blinding, and almost crippling. He was mischievous but lacked tact. He leapt at danger but constantly overestimated his own capabilities. He was, without a doubt, the best character I'd ever created.

I should have stopped there. But I kept refining him.

The best movies, stories, characters, and plots are ambiguous and uncertain. The scariest and most memorable image from Jaws isn't the shots of the shark rising up out of the water--it's his fin, inexorably moving beneath the waves toward his prey. I should have left Juro Patton as a strongly defined collection of traits, bound together by a loose physical description, background, and anecdotes.

The end result was that I only ever wrote ABOUT him. Every time I thought he was ready, some perceived flaw would crop up--was kind of music did he like? Where did he get that scar on his cheek? What color were his parents' eyes? Was he a sportsman? A conservationist? What were his political positions?

Juro Patton became a Koch Snowflake.

It's a mathematical fractal, made by adding triangle after triangle to the primary shape. Here's an example of the first four iterations:

The length of a Koch snowflake is infinite, as it keeps on getting more and more complex. Its area is finite. You could draw a circle around it and it would never touch the boundary, even after increasing its area a billion-fold. By constantly redefining my character, I limited him.

I never wrote a story featuring him. Not one. He exists only in my head.

Worse, he's stuck there. If one puts that much effort into defining a character, it's tough to get rid of him. Juro Patton is six feet five inches tall, two hundred and thirty pounds, with blue eyes, shoulder-length black hair, a scar (from a teenage gang-fight) on his right cheek, extending from his ear to his lip, fond of jaunty uniforms and history, a harmonica player who loves the outdoors. I'll probably remember that for years.

You ever have a song stuck in your head? Try an entire person.

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