Over on Scribophile, a writer recently asked this question: How can I find out if my idea already exists?
I understand the concern. I don't want to write what's been done before.
Recently, I was explaining parts of my current work-in-revision to a non-writing friend. At various points, he would nod and toss out comments, like: Oh, that's like Legend of Korra. (I've never watched it.) Or—oh, that's like Mistborn. (I've read that one; it's vaguely similar—sorta.) Oh, that's like …
I felt a little wounded. My ideas were suddenly not so original.
Some scientists who have investigated creativity think it is not so original; it’s just a mashing and twisting of the things that we’ve seen before. I'm sure that point is debatable, but this is what it means to me when people say there's nothing new under the sun. Our original ideas are derived from our vast and often subconscious experiences. We may stretch, tear, wrench, tangle or puree them, but the particles of other ideas are still in there. And through all that, they've been filtered through our worldview. They've been altered by our efforts to make sense of the world around us. And that final ingredient is where true creativity lies.
"Originality is not seen in single words or even in sentences. Originality is the sum total of a man's thinking or his writing." —Isaac Bashevis Singer
Hatching New Ideas
Ideas are like eggs. Eggs are magic; it's true. They can be made into cake, cookies, bread, quiche, omelets … Developing an original noodle recipe with eggs doesn't mean its derivative. The ingredients might be familiar, but the product isn't (or might not be.)
Ideas are only one ingredient in a story. We also have theme, premise, concept, characters, character arcs, incidents and plot. After that, we can go deeper, into how the story is told to the reader: scene, setting, tone, foreshadowing, mood, etc. And then those go deeper into style, diction, syntax, tense, narrative mode, figurative language, etc.
So you put all together and … voila! PIE! Look, I made pie!
Desperately Seeking Originality
"Good writing is full of surprises and novelties, moving in a direction you don’t expect." —Iris Murdoch
It would be criminally disingenuous to take all this as meaning creativity doesn't matter. Like most writers, I want to surprise my readers. Not just once or twice, but throughout.
What we call writing is a stack of skills. I break it down into levels of Story, Story-Telling, and Language (something I learned from an acquaintance a few years ago.) At each level, I look for the original. In story, I look for original characters, original motivations, original incidents, original arcs. In taking that Story and deciding how to present it, I look for original scene constructions, original narrative attack, original motifs and metaphors. In language, I look for original style, diction and figurative language.
However, that doesn't mean I should stress because I discover similarities to another novel. Any story you find will have similarities out there, somewhere. Harry Potter and Hunger Games have both had strikingly similar works pointed out. Who cares? They had enough going for them to appeal to a broad audience. What matters is that there is enough surprise and newness to the overall product when it’s done.
Okay, But How?
There's the big question, right?
I remember Orson Scott Card, somewhere, saying that he never took the first idea. He would make a list and usually go with the fourth or fifth idea, because the first two or three were usually the most obvious. I've done this myself, and it works pretty well.
Brain science also offers some suggestions on creativity. These can be researched, but I won't cite sources for this since they're just some ideas to get started. Here are some things science has shown to promote creativity:
It's a little weird how most of those things tend to be common writer traits anyway, isn't it?
So, yes, originality is important, but it need not be in any one area. Look for a good dose of it throughout the process, from start to end. And don’t sweat the small similarities. You can’t avoid them.
"If there were only one truth, you couldn't paint a hundred canvases on the same theme."
I’ve found as I read about the craft that words like theme and premise have a wealth of multi-colored definitions floating lazily through the ether that is the internet. Let me guess—as soon as I said that, you reached for your definition to tell me what they really are. Okay, maybe not. You’re much cooler than that, right? I get it.
Rather than try to sort out the one-true Holy, I’ll just grab a dictionary and run with it like a pair of rusty scissors. (Because what the dictionary says isn’t always what is meant in the contest of the craft, but in this case, it’s a start.)
This isn’t my definition so much as my label that I’m stamping on some ideas so they can be discussed a little.
So, a couple weeks ago I delved a little into what is good fiction, and how I think there is a handful of ways a story might be good. One of those was philosophy—an idea or motif that binds it together. Kind of sounds like that theme stuff above, huh?
In that post, I suggested that a story that strikes multiple notes in the “what is good” chord should have a better chance of being noticed, so a theme (and premise) is your way of striking that note and letting it sing.
Your story might be about zombies or alien invaders, but the theme is the idea it presents, like maybe “unity” when the humans band together and fight off those bastard aliens.
You don’t need one when you start, though. Loads of writers have found their theme while writing.
And hell, half the time, your critiques and readers will find one that you missed anyway.
When you do identify it, you can build upon it. Your story will feature some key moments. Your characters will face some tough choices. Knowing theme, you can find ways to enhance it as you revise and polish.
Lajos Egri, a playwright and guru, suggested that a premise should hint at a character or characters (some people lacking unity), a conflict (leads to), and a conclusion (victory against outside forces).
That Egri fellow is highly regarded—and one hell of a dry and long-winded read. I’m not so strict in my thinking to put forth a single way of doing anything, but I see premise as a refinement of your theme, a step further, a sharpening of a blade, a first tink on the big block of granite. We not only can say it’s about something on the abstract side like “unity,” but we can see other dramatic elements coming out in the clay. (Yep, I just tossed a whole bunch of metaphors into a bag and pulled those out at random.)
I see that Wikipedia makes a distinction, when it comes to theme: what the work is about, and what the work says about the subject. (I just gave them different words, sort of, to avoid confusion.)
I suppose a work can go without one, but what I think is more common might be a jumble of disconnected themes never fully formed, and that can be like splicing movies together, or mixing metaphors, or making three kinds of cookies from one batch of dough. You might do it, but if you do it well, you knew what you were doing and had some experience at it.
"If a theme or idea is too near the surface, the novel becomes simply a tract illustrating an idea." —Elizabeth Bowen
"To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be that have tried it."
"Quality is never an accident. It is always the result of intelligent effort."
Last week, I suggested that there is no good writing; or rather, that “good” is actually a heaping handful of different flavored candies. I like peppermint. You like caramel.
Whenever the question of “good” comes up, the inevitable, easily anticipated “it’s all subjective” line will soon to follow, just like a trailer follows a semi-truck.
Here’s an analogy: some people have said, “Sex is like pizza; even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.”
That sounds reasonable on the surface. Maybe, but what if you're in prison? Is prison pizza still pretty good? That’s dark, I know. Suddenly, we’re speaking to a very quiet room.
There certainly is a lot of taste and personality involved in what one reader likes versus what another reader likes. But, I can’t help that notice some things are liked more and some things are liked less, which makes me wonder if some evaluation might exist, despite all the hormone-ish subjectivity.
And experts evaluate quality in film and book all the time. Are they consistent, or merely reporting through a filter of their own taste buds?
Here are a few ideas. These are considerations, not yardsticks. They’re intended for me, as a writer, to evaluate my work with something alongside of taste and enjoyment.
Authorial Intent and Relative Comparison—We could call it “fitness of purpose.” An author may just aim for a novel of a specific flavor: fun, emotional, philosophical, idea-driven, zombies, post-apocalyptic-mole-folk, or what-have-you. If we have a notion of what the author intended (and that can be a big question in itself), we can compare it to other novels of a type to see how it matches up. Yep. that is hard when we’ve roamed far beyond our own flavor profile.
Surprise, Originality, Insights—Aside from just comparing reactions and similar titles, we can consider how what new elements were brought into the chosen arena, whether it’s elements of fun, emotion, or philosophy. I think a zombie novel with new ideas, emotions, action, and arguments is going to be much better to read than one that rehashes the same old stuff we’ve seen. (Consider the film Maggie for an example of a new approach to a zombie film. It’s got great emotion and philosophy, but it lacked in action, so comes off weak as a zombie flick.)
Focus and Relevance—A story is composed of characters and incidents (the events of the story). Some of those elements will relate directly to, and speak of, the authorial intent of the work. Some will be random elements that either weren’t related or failed to support the core material the way the author wanted. The more unrelated material, the less focused it is on the kind of story the author intended. (Or the author intended something we just don’t grasp, which is a bag of mixed nuts. Again, intent is a viper here.)
Execution—This is a big ball of wax, and those other examples run alongside of execution again. If a work excelled in all of the above areas, but still feature docile character arcs, flat characters, sparse incidents, bloated scene construction, meandering and uninspiring language, etc. Well, it’s still something we can examine and criticize.
These aren’t listed for a way to criticize other works, though they might serve as the beginning of that too. Instead, they’re the ideas I consider when I evaluate my own work, to see if I have a worth project set in front of me or not. And that’s why intent is such a viper. In other works, it can be a big black pit. But I know at some point what my intent is for my own work.
What I don’t do is quibble over the worthiness, the nobility, of the intent. I see no need to criticize a story that only wants to be a good time, or that only wants to illustrate a philosophical idea, or only wants to explore an idea.
Salability and Market Appeal? Well, those just aren’t my forte, so I don’t give them much thought. It’s a fair ball for any writer who does care, though.
Consider this: No book has ever been universally loved. Nada. Zilch. Whatever title you bring to the table, if you spend time looking, you will find a few mehs in the room. (If the room holds all of humankind, that is.)
Universally hated? We might come up with something, if we tried to make it so. Even then, statistically, someone somewhere might claim to like it just to be artsy or contrary.
Classic literature, often favored by critics (and me), still inspires yawns in many everyday readers. Those same critiques often scoff at today’s popular books and films. Yet, they are popular. And yes, this is a bit of an oversimplification. There are exceptions, but those exceptions spawn from individuality, and individuality is why we won’t find anything universally loved by all of humankind. (Go ahead—try to find one.)
Yet, how easy is it to find some blog, book or forums post claiming to tell you what good writing is. Or, how many story structures were born from supposedly analyzing thousands of “good stories” without ever analyzing what the word “good” means?
Some will say it’s purely subjective. Many will say it, in fact. Yet, there are some measures of quality involved in the craft of creating and telling a story, and we shouldn’t forget popularity either. We can’t. Does a fantastic sales-record—often driven by clever marketing—indicate that a book or film is good? If so, then a poor sales record would indicate a book is bad. Yet, both will have admirers and haters.
Thus, the problem, I think, is one of category and definition. Or lack thereof.
Aside from execution and technique, here are the over-arching categories of good that I see:
Reading the list, you might realize that many of the examples could fit into several categories. Disney’s Up is entertaining as well as emotional, and offers a little in the way of interesting ideas too.
In fact, my belief is that a good deal of strength can be found in a story that scores high in several of those categories. Frank Herbert’s Dune, for example, is quite fun with its giant worms and adventure. There is a healthy dose of emotional punch too. And it’s not short on philosophy or cool ideas, either. No wonder it was among the bestselling science-fiction books of all time.
By strength (yeah, I avoided “good” there), I mean all-aroundness—potential to be enjoyed by critics, consumed by readers, and general just be appreciated by more than just a handful of friends and family. It gives it a greater chance to appeal to an individual reader. (Again, this is putting execution and technique to the side for a moment.)
So, I say, good fiction doesn’t exist, despite our constant struggles to create it and understand it. Instead, I think we gain quite a bit of traction by discarding the word and understanding general categories of what might make up good fiction.
Now, of course, taste matters. And this is where it becomes subjective. The philosophy of Dune might escape some, and might be rather light to others. Similarly, I like survival stories, but other readers like dragons or vampires or zombies or weirdness or a certain kind of narrator. Big huge etcetera. We all have our own preferences, both in subject and in category. Some just want a good time. Some crave an emotional experience, and others are interested in ideas.
That is where writers need to not only write what they know, but write what they enjoy and want to read. If you have zero tolerance for philosophy and no stomach for emotion, then you’d probably well advised to skip those in your story and focus on a roaring good time and cool ideas instead. You’ll have an audience, you glorious heartless monster you.
As must surely be obvious, I took some time off from the ol’ blog due to some changes in the old personal life. There were also minor technical issues with the blog that I just didn't want to wrestle with. Equally obvious, I’ve decided to change the name and look of said ol’ blog for similar reasons.
With all that done, I thought it might be nice to re-launch with some thoughts about why we write fiction at all.
And the answer is pretty much f*ck all if I know, which is to say that it’s personal and varies by each individual writer. Everyone’s got their own demons and toys in the attic. But there is some common ground here. For example, sometimes, we just want to know how to survive a raptor attack.
How to Survive a Raptor Attack
All of the words you know were made up. Some of them came about by accident; others just kind of wandered into being and sat down for a cup of coffee. A few were invented by a clever misfit who couldn’t find the right word for a thing.
But we’ve been telling stories almost as long as we’ve been using words and gestures to communicate. In the early caveman-and-raptor days, (because in my world, they totally existed at the same time), stories weren’t just for fun because we hadn’t invented the Blu-Ray yet. Stories were survival; stories were school. We had stories before we had writing. If cave dweller Bob survived a raptor attack, we wanted to hear the story—not just to share in the experience as sympathetic herd-instinct creatures, but so we could learn about how to survive raptors too. (And we're still telling that story.)
From there, we found we could pass all sorts of things on to our kids, especially moral crap, fantastic tales about how things came to be, and we used to fight off raptors with our bare hands, not them fancy spear-things kids use today.
Today, we haven’t seen raptors in a while, but it’s still a good idea to be prepared, and not just for the raptorpocalypse, but for lousy bosses, unwieldy bureaucratic systems, and the ever-important how to Woo Women (or Men). Stories help us with that. Still. It’s a wonderful reason to be engaged in telling of stories.
The List Goes On
More than just the plain old how-to, both reading and writing are a way to study and understand human beings and the crazy choices we make from time to time (i.e., three times before breakfast, most days.)
But wait, there is more (or less). Some writers just want to entertain, to provide a good time. Some are unsatisfied with the written world they’ve explored, so they try to add to it.
Other writers have something to say to the world. They have a particular way of making sense of something, or a whole shitload of things, and they feel the need to attempt to add their insight to the general kaleidoscope of insights in which we live. Some see literature and modern story as a big, beautiful human-wide conversation about cultures, morals, philosophy, psychology and the human condition.
And the list goes on: self-therapy is a common one. Psychologists have been using storytelling as therapy and bridge building for decades now. Maybe more. Writing about your problems can help solve them. Sometimes, we just want to quiet the voices in our heads.
Exploration—where science studies man and his world, literature can explore the intersection of man and world in ways that may be more difficult for the sciences, though to what extent is debatable. We all study each other. Toddlers learn by watching their parents, and the habit never goes away. Writers just put their observations down on paper through fiction. Toddlers rarely do.
Or how about the exploration of ideas found in speculative fiction—the great What If?
Some see literature as a great human conversation carried on through the centuries, tackling new concerns and ideas as they arise.
O Me! O Life!
BY WALT WHITMAN
Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
Why I Write
When I write, it’s all of these things, but perhaps not all at the same time. On one day, I may be just looking to tell a rollicking good yarn. The next day, I may have something to say. Another reason: habit may be driving my finger onward simply because I started something and I should probably finish it.
Some days, I just refuse to give up and writing doesn’t need a reason.
But I hope that understanding the reasons can sharpen my understanding of what I do, shape my approach to a writing, or maybe just keep my fingers moving when they’d rather just wrap around an alcoholic beverage of some sort while I watch oh-so-badly written television.
The two most common narrative points of view are first person and third person, and I hear plenty of fiction writers, especially new-to-the-crafters, fuss over which to use. Often, it winds up as a question of preference and polling friends.
With first person, the idea that it is immediate, close, or immersed often comes up. I don't see that. I think when third person is close and the author understands free indirect discourse, third person can be just as immersive and close. The character's voice can come through just as well.
I do find a couple of other advantages though.
Among them is that use of what I call the memoire effect. In past tense, first person can look back with a sense of maturity and experience in a way that can help a story. The counter-part to this in third person is the external narrator, who can look at a story objectively or at a distance, or can guide us on a journey through time and space to other POVs when needed. We tend to avoid it these days, but an external narrator can even act as a confidante. "What Todd didn't know was … " (And the lack of an intruding external host can be why first person feels more intimate or immediate to some readers.)
The memoire effect can be seen in Nabokov's Lolita when he says, "Lolita began with Annabel." This comes early on in the book when he is trying to explain what the narrator believes contributed to his sickness. It's a mature and introspective analysis that the young could not have offered.
We can also see this in Ketchum's The Girl Next Door when the neighbor's mother is introduced as a vile and manipulative person, but then on-scene is a beloved friend, creating a contrast between now and then. Later, the first-person narrator explores the us-vs-them psychology of the events and the small details that alienated the victim in the story as it progressed.
They're small moments that add a lot to the story.
And in both first and third person, these particular advantages (they aren't the only ones) deal with getting around the here-and-now viewpoint in some way, whether it's just switching to another character or providing a different perspective on the incidents.
But not all first-person narratives have so much chronological distance. Nabokov later switches to quoting a journal, where he only has a day's worth of perspective to add to the events, rather than years. Here, he takes on the more introspective analytical tone on the events, but without the experience of murder and rape to soften the demeanor. In contrast, it's a wonderful tour of the psychology of the character.
And some narratives skip this memoire effect altogether. A popular candidate is the Hunger Games, which led a stampede of other first-person present-tense narratives. Here, the narration lacks a looking-back introspection, though it can still be introspective. Being first-person, it skips the external narrator (notice that the movie version benefited from switching POV to give us some omniscient events.) Personally, I think this narrative mode worked for the first book, but the second and third books could have benefited from either an external narrator or a memoire effect to help cover some of the incidents.
First-person has other strengths to consider, such as the omnipresent voice and perhaps the intimacy of a one-on-one conversation. In fact, I think all narrative modes have advantages that need to be explored and understood. Too often, they're overlooked in favor of personal preference, or they're labeled with vague terms like "immediacy" that could be applied to other modes as well.
Right now, this very instant, I'm having a great time typing away on my meager little blog.
Of course, I am. I'm a writer, right?
True enough, but that's not the reason.
The reason is I have an amazing keyboard. And of course, there's a bit of a story behind it. Not as interesting and dramatic as my normal story-telling, but—let's hope—informative, nonetheless.
Years ago, I made a switch to ergonomic keyboards. I spend a lot of time at the keyboard, so it makes sense. Despite that, I developed RSI problems anyway. Right now, this very instant, I can only feel half of my fingers. Thanks a lot, ergonomic keyboards.
Last spring, I started at a new job, working next to an old friend who introduced me to mechanical keyboards. I thought, well, that's nice and a little weird, but they don't seem to have ergonomic keyboards with mechanical switches, so … I tried one anyway. Eventually. I can only take so much preaching before I give in, apparently.
The thing is, sitting at his desk and trying his keyboard for a few seconds didn't sell me on the idea. I had to use it for a few days before I finally got it. Now, it feels amazing. I type faster. There's a learning curve, the keys feel so much better, but they also work different. I found myself typing like a dyslexic reads at first. It took a little concentration because my new keyboard can take all kinds of input and throw it on the screen faster than I can realize I've lost control of my fingers—and I love it.
A few details.
The difference in a mechanical keyboard is the switches. Most keyboards use little air-cushion pads that separate contacts. Mechanical switches rely on, obviously, some kind of mechanical action. But there are different kinds of switches. Gamers like some kinds. Typists like others. I use a kind called Cherry MX Brown at home because my activities vary, and Cherry MX Blue at work because I only type there and that's what they're best at.
And there is a lot to learn behind the switches: actuating force, grounding out, travel distance, etc. I'm only a beginner, so I'll spare readers my efforts to explain what I know.
Not only do they feel more satisfying to use and speed up typing, but they last longer too. Mechanical switches are more durable. Most mechanical keyboards can handle a bigger number of inputs for super-fast typing and gaming situations.
The downside: mechanical keyboards are expensive. There's a reason mainstream manufacturers went with the little airbag-button keyboards. I got my first one for my birthday because I didn't have anything else to tell my family I wanted. I bought my second for work a month later. I'm a frugal guy, but as a writer and a coder, I wouldn't work without a mechanical keyboard now.
I do still wish they'd make more in the way of ergonomic options though. I found a few, each of which were even more expensive, but they didn't fit they style I wanted to use. That single thing kept me from switching for a while. (My friend at work was an ergonomic keyboard fanatic before he switched as well.)
Last, here are some links.
An article by Ferris Jabr posted in The New Yorker this week made a connection between writing, thinking, and walking.
"Perhaps the most profound relationship between walking, thinking, and writing reveals itself at the end of a stroll, back at the desk. There, it becomes apparent that writing and walking are extremely similar feats, equal parts physical and mental. When we choose a path through a city or forest, our brain must survey the surrounding environment, construct a mental map of the world, settle on a way forward, and translate that plan into a series of footsteps. Likewise, writing forces the brain to review its own landscape, plot a course through that mental terrain, and transcribe the resulting trail of thoughts by guiding the hands. Walking organizes the world around us; writing organizes our thoughts." —Ferris Jabr
Such simple wisdom, yet it hardly needs science or research to back it up. I think most of us understand this intuitively.
Reading the article made me think back to a time I often call the happiest year of my life, Alaska sometime around '95. I had nothing.
(This is modified from a forums post I made earlier today.)
It was something of an experiment. I got rid of everything in my life. I lived in a trailer that I borrowed from a friend and parked it in the back lot of my father's steel yard, in the corner. We ran an extension cord out to it for power, but I had to go into his office for running water.
I had no bills, no insurance, and no car. I walked everywhere. I could live for months on $50 from odd jobs, buying a big bag of rice and some spices or condiments in bulk. Finding a quarter and walking down to the arcade for a game was a thrill. I spent a few dollars a week on showers, but the bulk of my time was walking somewhere: library, friends' houses, local shops, just walking out on the Homer Spit to watch bald eagles and white-capped waves.
Since then, I've been around the world and worked all kinds of jobs, from diesel mechanic to truck driver to missionary to (current) software engineer. I'm married and settled down with plenty of money and no debt and nice cars and such—but the happiest time of my life remains that year of walking and thinking. Having so little, even on purpose, meant that little things, like a game at the arcade, or buying a Big Mac when they were on sale for a dollar, meant so much more. Not only was there the time to think and enjoy, but the rarity of what is otherwise common and everyday became extraordinary and thrilling.
(I'll note that this experience is much different from those who have needs and not enough to provide for them. While I had nothing, I also needed nothing. I was young, healthy, and single. Lacking money when money is needed is an active stressor and takes a terrible toll on body and mind.)
I'm going for a walk today. That walk will end at my desk and my Work in Progress.
Who's with me?
Choosing a viewpoint character can take a little thought, but some writers don't invest much time in the decision. They go with whatever seems right and sometimes that is enough, but here are a few thoughts that can be used either to decide on a viewpoint character or to uncover hidden problems that may exist with the choice.
The viewpoint character is the one (or more) character that becomes our window into the world. Obviously, this only applies to narratives with a limited narrator. It might be surprising what can change in a story when the story is told from the viewpoint (not to mention voice and opinions) of another person.
A well-chosen viewpoint character can offer insight and opinion on the world, whether that world is real or imaginary. A bland choice will live in the world, but have no thoughts about the world. Kind of ironic to see so much thought put into building a world, with no one giving that world much thought from within it. A good choice will not just see and describe the setting, but will let us know how they feel about what they see too. The same applies to people and events too.
Somewhat related to insight because it can offer an interesting and engaging portal into the world, voice can be tricky for many authors. I'm referring specifically to the character's voice. In several narrative modes, the character's voice bleeds through and colors the narration even outside of dialogue. Chuck Wendig's Blue Blazes is a good example of this. The story is third-person-limited, but the narrator sounds much like the main character due to the closeness of the narrative distance.
A viewpoint character may have secrets and information the writer wants to unveil. On the other hand, another character may have secrets and internal thoughts the writer wants to leave alone. I think Sherlock Holmes is a good example of this. Watson has opinions and his own interior, but Sherlock is left a little mysterious through the stories, and I think that makes the character much stronger. It is because his thoughts and decisions aren't laid out for us that we're so fascinated with understanding his mind.
Sympathy While sympathy is typically an attribute best left for a focal or main character rather than a viewpoint character, stories where the main character is unsympathetic for a good portion of the story might call for a viewpoint character that can draw sympathy. It can also be a good reason to make the main character a viewpoint character. The reader might need a better view of the character's interior (if one is offered) to fully sympathize with the character.
As fun and exciting as Guardians of the Galaxy might be, it pulls some punches in terms of arc. Perhaps this is an effect of juggling too many characters, conference-room screenwriting, or the editing room floor. Whatever the reason, we have:
A main character that changes from being concerned about reputation and money to being concerned about a girl (not a big stretch) to self-sacrifice, without much to inform the arc along the way. The self-sacrifice is weak, too. Without giving away spoilers—he was about to die anyway.
Groot has a heart from the beginning and still has a heart at the end. He's a lovable character, but he doesn't change.
Gamora shows vulnerability and desire to be free that informs her goals quite well, but even though she struggles to save her enemy in a critical moment, she is much the same at the end as she was—just free from her father now.
Rocket the raccoon eventually gives in and does something warm and fuzzy, though I couldn't say exactly what events led to that change. Drax admits to having friends and sets his revenge goal on a lesser tier, and I think Rocket's arc is much like this. He isn't choosing self-sacrifice as much as he is choosing to stay with his friends. Still, in the cases of both Drax and Rocket, the arcs felt a little thin and underdeveloped to me, though still present.
But what do we want from a movie like this? It's meant to be fun, right?
Hell yes it is fun. And maybe some stories can be merely fun with no heart to them, but Guardians doesn't fall into this category because of the simple reason that it tries to have heart, but really doesn't. It sets things up. Rocket doesn’t feel accepted; Gamora only wants to be free of her father; Drax doesn't need anyone's help, he only needs revenge; etc. All of these things set my expectations, which left me feeling unsatisfied by the end despite the excitement.
Perhaps it all just sets up the expected sequels.
Writer of speculative fiction. Current work in progress is an untitled dark fantasy novella.