Common Language: Awesome

Remember how I said the last Common Language was a hard one to start with? This one was even worse.

Yes, okay, this is one that actually has a dictionary definition, but as I may at some point bring up in a review or the like the idea of awesomeness, and how some works seem to lack for it and others to possess it in spades, I figure I should address the notion of what awesome is to me. Certainly it is to inspire awe, as opposed to being simply something I like, but how is awe inspired?

I would argue there are lots of ways. The internet (which I have noted has been wrong before) seems to believe that awesomeness is defined by simple qualities such as ninja, or Chuck Norris, or Batman, or a pirate zombie robot fighting dinosaurs. This I personally find tedious, because buzzwords and internet memes are not in and of themselves awesome. Awesome is defined by context. It is a high moment that serves as the culmination of events. Without context, an awesome moment is nothing but a Michael Bay-esque snapshot, explosive and pornographic. In short, nothing is awesome in and of itself. A moment or a character or anything becomes awesome because of what surrounds it, and the way it is portrayed.

An awesome moment can be a wide variety of things.  It can be a duel between two characters, like Jubei Kibagami and Himura Gemma in Ninja Scroll, Jesse Custer and Jody in Preacher, or Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader (the first one; the second was okay but nowhere near as powerful).  It can be a conversation, like Kevin and Mirth spending a whole issue of Mage discussing whether or not Kevin will pick up a baseball bat (trust me, it works!), or Redcloak and Right-Eye’s last argument in the Order of the Stick book Start of Darkness before one brother kills the other, or Sherman Davies from Box Office Poison telling off his slimebag of a father. It can be a revelation, like the identity of the Mask Killer in Watchmen or Kaiser Soze in The Usual Suspects. It can be a tragedy, like John Proctor’s confession and his wife’s lie in The Crucible or [SPOILER] Aeris’s murder in Final Fantasy 7. It can be a declaration of love, like Holden and Alyssa in Chasing Amy or Scott and Ramona in Scott Pilgrim. It can be an epic battle like Helm’s Deep in Lord of the Rings. Or it can be a whole series/work, like Gurren Lagann or Walt Simonson’s Thor or Paradise Lost.

Maybe I’m name-dropping a bit too much here, and maybe I’m giving the impression that awesomeness is just a bunch of stuff I like. Obviously taste is subjective, and what I find awesome, you may not. I suppose the point I’m trying to make is awesome runs the gamut, but that doesn’t mean it is simply anything and nothing at all.  Awesome is when a storyteller makes you care, makes you believe, and turns all that context and setup into something worth experiencing. It’s a satisfying payoff that results from a satisfying story. Awesomeness is that ethereal quality which lifts a work onto a level beyond passable entertainment. Obviously, as a writer, I think of this in terms of stories and my examples show that, but there is plenty of awesomeness to be found in music, art, and just about any form of expression.

I believe stories lose a lot when, in an attempt to be more “realistic,” they eschew the awesome.  They pull back from the high moments, perhaps because those moments are seen as what’s expected. I can understand the desire to do this, because so many stories have been told, and novelty is a noble goal. That said, I think it’s one of the few things you can’t do without in a good story.  Eschewing catharsis and awesomeness in favor of novelty is effectively sacrificing one necessary element for another. One example I find of this is George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Now, I may have elsewhere referred to the beloved series as amoral blood porn, and while I stand by that, it’s not exactly the darkness of the series that is, for me, the real problem.  The problem is that the series is, in effect, anti-fantasy. Martin takes largely everything that people love about fantasy and turns it on its head. While normally I’d be all over this, because of my love of novelty, it’s not the trappings or the ideas or any of the stuff of fantasy that is stale Martin changes. He effectively makes war on all the storytelling techniques fantasy does best. His heroes never seem to actually defeat his villains. When his villains lose, it’s usually a result of outside treachery or death at the hands of random people. He has characters who should by all rights be moving at a decent pace toward grand destinies stand perfectly still for thousands of pages. He has plot elements that should hang to be used later destroyed. Even when some characters who really deserve it get the axe, they seem to come back as undead as often as not. Sure, a lot happens, and it’s all very visceral, but it’s similar to severing an artery. Effective in the moment, but eventually you’re going to run out of blood. Martin’s books, while creating the anti-fantasy genre, have also created something of an anti-awesome, bereft of high moments. I guess there’s a market for this, but I personally do not understand it at all.

Another pitfall that is often fallen into is trying too hard to be awesome. I mentioned earlier the internet definition of awesomeness, and there are even those who use this effectively for comedic effect, like The Adventures of Dr. McNinja, Axe Cop, and Real Ultimate Power.  These stories work because they know that what they’re doing is overkill, and they simply run with it for laughs. Sadly, there are some serious stories which fall prey to this as well, though less intentionally. A good example is the movie The Mummy Returns. The original movie was slightly campy, but fun in the vein of some classic adventure movies with a nice touch of modern sensibility, as well as some entertaining action and horror. In the second movie, it really seemed like they felt they had to not only top the first one, but make it as epic as possible, with three major villains and an epic battle going on in the background of the major plot.  So much was happening that it was overwhelming and in fact took away from each of its plots rather than enhancing them all.

It’s a balancing act, and considering the end result is something so subjective, it is easy to ask if it’s worth it to seek awesomeness.  I believe so, of course. Any story, whether it’s about knights in armor or geopolitical intrigue or a single mother trying to raise her children, should have something of awesomeness in it. Awesomeness isn’t the only thing that makes a story worth reading, but if all the other elements are in place, chances are you’re going to end up somewhat in the realm of the awesome. That, of course, is what we should all be striving for, so I say be bold, and do your best to bring the awesome to everything you create!