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Willingham, Fables, and the Demon Monologue 
26th-Apr-2009 08:24 pm
red riding hood

While reading the issues I've missed over those months, I asked myself the same question - the Fables world is an incredibly well constructed world, and the plots are indeed simply epic - not in itself a good thing, but even though I dislike the War and Pieces plotline and the aftermath, the Dark Ages storyline has been fascinating and the world never stops being interesting. The nature of Fables as explored in Jack of Fables is an idea I'm in love with and I'm very excited for the Great Fables Crossover.

But then, I was reminded also why I don't buy the title any more, and what does grate about Willingham's writing; though I'll say right now that this is more because of a personal preference than because I think he's an irreparably bad writer - Willingham's approach to characterisation annoys me.

This won't be any surprise to readers of Robin, who witnessed Willingham's treatment of Stephanie Brown, Alfred Pennyworth and Tim himself with some incredulity. Willingham suffers from Winick syndrome; regardless of his ability to create passable worlds and characters of his own, he fails spectacularly when it comes to something he didn't create. Which is how someone who rendered a main DCU title unreadable could also create such an amazing title as Fables. The problem for me, as someone who loves character-led stories and is a sucker for interpersonal reaction, is that he falls constantly forgets to show-not-tell, and commits the crime of what I started calling the Demon Monologue during season 3 of Supernatural.

The Demon Monologue is when a significant amount of screen or panel or page time is devoted to having one character tell another character all their personality problems, and outlines the motivation behind everything they've done recently, just so the writer can make absolutely sure that we, the readers haven't missed out the opportunity to see-what-he-did-there. A lot of writers do it*, usually between two characters who know each other, but Supernatural really grated my nerves when it would be delivered by someone who'd never met the Winchesters before that episode.** Then, importantly, the character to whom this monologue has been given, goes off and continues to act in the exact same way.

Which is fair enough; when have long conversations about personality problems ever affected a change in anyone other than to think "wow, that other person's a real dick"? But it does beg the question - if the conversation doesn't advance the plot, and doesn't affect a character development, then what exactly is the point, other than to tell the readers something that either they knew already or they didn't; if they did, the scene is unnecessary; if they didn't, then that's because the writer didn't write that behaviour well enough.

In the Fables context, take this exchange between Boy Blue and Rose Red from issue #81:

After which, of course, Rose continues to act in the same way (although it's only been a couple of issues). Otherwise, Willingham is just telling us what he's been trying to show us, which makes for frankly boring and rather preachy couple of pages that didn't invoke the least bit of reaction from me.

I realise that it's arguable this is about Boy Blue's character development, and we're supposed to be proud of him, on his death bed, rejecting the woman he once pined for because she's such a... well, he doesn't explicitly say the word, but the implication's there, and that's a whole different FedEx arrow-shaped pattern, if Willingham's treating the character as Rose as a device to motivation Blue, rather than a character in her own right.

Arrow or clumsy storytelling, it's an example of the kind of thing that was irking me; something I see less of in Jack of Fables; either I don't notice it, or it irks me less because of the different tone of the storytelling, or it just happens less, Willingham isn't the only writer. Whatever it is, I'm enjoying Jack, and have enjoyed the recent Fables well enough to probably be putting it back on the pull-list; it's just unfair that I should pay money for Runaways and not this, so a simple swap might be in order.

In my own writing, I struggle a lot with "show-don't-tell." There's little I love as much as having a character monologue to another about their personality or that of someone else, and I spend more time constructing these monologues than I do actually plotting the actions in question. This is why I need to self-edit so much; just because I like them doesn't mean I ever want to show them to the world; and why I'm glad when I catch someone else doing it. I guess I'm a given critic - in the actual sense of the world, not the popular sense with the assumed negative connotations. So as much as I like to write so much about people doing it wrong, so I understand the need to have characters soapbox along similar lines.

You read and you learn.

EDITED TO ADD: Ha, I just finish writing and post a long post criticising Willingham's failure to show not tell, then start reading Justice League of America #32 and get all excited over McDuffie doing the same thing in reverse - Vixen and John Edwards talking about Black Canary's positive qualities in a way that McDuffie's completely failed to show in his writing.

The reverse in how I feel about it? Well, they're praising a character I like, of course, which helps, but they're also talking about a person that's completely consistent with the way other writers have written her, and I'm willing to buy into (only not literally) the notion I've seen bandied about; that McGuffie's been restricted into doing his best under DCU editorial mandate regarding this title; a mandate which apparently reads Dinah shall act like a spoiled child throwing all her toys out of the pram when the grown ups don't play with her the way she wants them to. And she's an abusive spouse. Maybe Kreisburg got the same memo.

It's still indicative of bad writing, but at least shows that McDuffie "gets"*** the character on some level, even if it's not coming through in his direct portrayal of her.

*Joss Whedon specifically doesn't do it (although some writers of his creations do - see the BtVS episode Lovers Walk), and this has caused some consternation in some fans who don't like, for example, character-action A and are frustrated because they don't understand it, but because it gives me opportunity after opportunity to theorise and re-watch and re-read and bring my own context to what I'm reading, it's possibly one of the things I love most about Joss.

**I'm pretty sure that SPN-verse demons and similar all have CW, and are watching the boys, probably with popcorn, after a day's demoning. It makes more sense than a weekly Hell-wide memo regarding 'News of the Winchesters.

***and by 'gets', I mean 'agrees with me'.
26th-Apr-2009 10:16 pm (UTC)
Character development of Boy Blue? Really?

Because, by my reading, that's just Willingham deploying yet another male character--conveniently placed into a situation in which he's impossible to criticize--for the sole purpose of castigating yet another female character for how she done him wrong (and, by extension, how all women everywhere have done men like Willingham wrong).

Rose Red must sit there and take her penance, because Willingham offers her no other option. But, naturally, she goes off and does the same, because that's just how women are, aren't they?

I think you give him far too much credit to allow for even the possibility that there is anything more profound--or talented--going on there.
27th-Apr-2009 07:04 am (UTC)
Although I do think that Rick has a great point here, my main issue of why reading that panel felt icky is that ... it's so improbable to me, given the Deep 3 AM Personality Conversations I've had, that anyone (especially a guy-- sorry!) could be simultaneously so wounded/righteous and so perceptive. The former tends to cloud the latter, so that no matter HOW right the analysis is, nobody would just sit around and take it because it would either a) exaggerate or b) be expressed douchily.
27th-Apr-2009 08:07 am (UTC)
I've been that person. Pretty much - everytime I've had a break-up, (and I treat friendships like relationships so that's more than you'd think), and also had the talk at me, and yes, each time the 'analysis' has been projection, delusion and designed to hurt rather than be factual. In this case, though, I think Willingham believes it as much as Blue.
28th-Apr-2009 04:48 am (UTC)
Oh, I'm sure he does.

But that very lack of self-awareness in him is part of the problem, IMO.

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