Normally I hold off on TV show reviews until its had a full season so I can review the entire season’s arc, but I’ve been enjoying Westworld so much that I just had to write something up about it. It has so many aspects to talk about. There are parallels between Westworld and video games, fascinating explorations about the nature of identity and consciousness, the difference between natural and artificial life… is there a difference at all? The list goes on. I might talk about all of them eventually, but the one thing I want to focus on is how Westworld tells such an amazing story while at the same time explaining exactly how they’re telling you the story.
Honestly, if you want to learn how to tell a good story, just listen to Anthony Hopkin’s talk about his characters and world. They should show this in creative writing 101. It’s exciting to see the mundane world of writing presented in such a unique way, and that’s why I’m going to spend the next 1500 words rambling on about how awesome it is.
I’ve tried to keep spoilers to a bare minimum, but there are still a couple, so reader beware. If you haven’t seen Westworld, I highly recommend it if you enjoy Scifi, Westerns, or just plain old good writing no matter what the genre.
A Storyteller’s Story
Westworld is a futuristic theme park unlike any that’s ever existed, one filled with artificial people that have been programmed to live out hundreds of branching storylines to create the illusion of a living world. It’s like a video game on a massive scale and taking place in real life (or at least that’s how it’s presented, though I have my doubts as to what’s really happening.) It’s a writer’s dream job, and yet a writer’s nightmare at the same time, given the level of complexity involved.
Unfortunately the lead writer of the Westworld narrative is an idiot; that is the narrative within the show’s setting and not the actual scriptwriters for the show, who I am convinced are probably geniuses. The head writer of the Westworld themepark wants to create a new story and how he pitches the story to Anthony Hopkins tells you exactly what kind of story it is.
“I have vivisection, self-cannabalism[…] this is the apex of what the park can provide. Horror, romance, titillation[…]”
His story has only one goal: to shock. He doesn’t talk about the characters, who they are or what their goals are, or the plot of his story beyond kill, kill, kill…and maybe some sex along the way.
The head writer of the narrative is what I imagine most screenwriters in Hollywood are like: he equates action, shock, violence, and gore with good writing. These are the people that write the sometimes entertaining, but often terrible and utterly forgettable crap that comes out: Independence Day Resurgence, every Terminator sequel after 2, every movie based on a board game, and all of Michael Bay’s movies. They write every game with a tacked-on single player, such as Call of Duty and Battlefront.
Yet, stories can be so much more. As Ed Harris’s Man in Black so eloquently put:
“…I think there’s deeper meaning, something hidden under all that, something the person who created it wanted to express. Something true.”
Those are the authors who create A Tale Of Two Cities, War and Peace, Of Mice and Men. The screenwriter who writes Schindler’s List, Inside Out, Gladiator. The screenwriters behind TV shows like Breaking Bad, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and now Westworld.
These are the writers who understand that blood, guts, sex, and violence are spices to be used in a story and not the story itself. They’re the writers who can write a great story without ever using any of those spices. Who, like Anthony Hopkins, yearn to create something truly alive whether it be through a book, movie, or video game.
“Do you know why your backstory is so mysterious? Because we never bothered to give you one.” – Anthony Hopkins to Teddy
When the show begins Teddy is a cipher of a character in the Westworld theme park, as far as characterization is concerned Teddy might as well be a two-by-four on legs.
Sadly this is true in most shows, secondary characters like Teddy are glossed over with no thought given to their backstory. They lack depth, and because they lack depth they’re not so much characters as simply part of the environment; something for the main characters to interact with. I didn’t feel it was any kind of tragedy when Teddy died the first time, he had no backstory. I didn’t know him. It’s why in the theme park no one cared enough to follow his storyline.
Yet when Anthony Hopkins gives him a backstory, suddenly Teddy becomes alive, and the patrons who once ignored him completely now feel compelled to follow him. They want to hear his story, experience it. That’s what a good backstory can do for a character.
This is exactly what I was talking about in my review of Luke Cage. I never felt like Diamondback had a backstory. Sure, he tells us the cliched story of his father leaving the bastard for the true born son, but that’s pretty much it. Where was he during all those intervening years? How did he come to possess the Judas Bullets? How did he become a criminal kingpin? Why does he quote bible verses when his father the preacher betrayed him, why didn’t that make him reject religion entirely?
We had the same problem with Corypheus in Dragon Age: Inquisition. Who was Corypheus before he stepped into the Golden City? Did he have a wife and children? Was he always a cruel manipulator? What was life like for him before his fall? As far as the audience is concerned, Corypheus simply popped into existence for the sake of the story.
The problem is not that the writers never spelled out these characters’ histories for the audience, the problem is that I don’t believe even the writers knew their backstory. They simply came up with a name, personality, and loosely defined motive for their character and let them loose in the story. If they’d known their own character’s history, then elements of their backstory would have naturally crept into the story. A good writer will have all their major characters have their own personal history.
It doesn’t have to be a meticulous history stretching from birth to current events. It just has to be enough to convince the audience that the character has been living in this world, and didn’t just pop into existence for the sake of the story. Teddy’s backstory is a great example, he doesn’t start his monologue talking about life as a little boy, he keeps to the important parts. He was once a soldier, he fought Indians (perhaps reluctantly), he had a superior officer who disappeared and went nuts, and he had a near death experience with that same officer.
Boom, suddenly Teddy has dimension to him. A past who shaped the person he’s become. Think about any great character that you’ve loved, and you’ll find that you know a lot about who that character was before the story began:
- Walter White’s job as a chemistry teacher and the missed opportunity of starting a conglomerate.
- Han Solo’s career as a smuggler, recently with a price on his head.
- Captain America’s life as a scrawny kid who wanted to help people but couldn’t.
In every case there was always a backstory, a history that showed our favorite characters had lives before the story began, something to suggest these characters were more than they appeared. Without that, we’re left with hollow characters that don’t operate so much as people in a story than mere window dressing for the setting and plot.
It’s that kind of background, that character building, that leads to genuine moments like this:
“Are we very old friends?” Dolores to Anthony Hopkins
Now I’ve seen and read so many stories that when I hear this line, my mind immediately begins filling in the response. You know the ones:
“Yes, very old friends.”
“We were once.”
“A long time ago.”
Those, and variations on those, are the expected responses. And yet Anthony Hopkins’ response was completely unexpected.
“No, Dolores, I wouldn’t say friends. I wouldn’t say friends at all.” Anthony Hopkins to Dolores
I was grinning like an idiot during that entire exchange for a couple of reasons. First of all because it deepens the mystery surrounding Dolores, Anthony Hopkins, and Arnold. Secondly because it suddenly makes Dolores and Anthony Hopkins’ relationship more complex. It was also the incredible way in which the great Anthony Hopkins delivers the line, a truly masterful performance by one of the best actors in the world.
But mostly, I was grinning because it surprised me. It took an old, tired line and gave it a new shine, and more than anything else, that’s what makes this a storyteller’s story. It shows you that even the most well-worn and tired stories can be told in new and exciting ways.
As much as I remind myself that there is nothing new under the sun, and that every story has been told, I still find myself struggling on occasion with worrying if a story is worth telling. Westworld is a reminder that every story may have been told, but originality and enjoyment doesn’t come from the story itself, it comes from the person telling the story. The unique perspective of the writer, or writers, is everything. Everything can been new when you see it through someone else’s eyes.
“I imagined a story where I didn’t have to be the damsel.”
A girl not wanting to be the damsel is almost as old as the damsel in distress itself, but seeing it through Westworld’s eyes makes it feel brand new. It makes me feel like I’ve never seen anything like this before. Everything in this artificial world filled with both science fiction and western tropes as old as the genres themselves, feels brand new.
If you haven’t seen Westworld and you want to write a story, you should watch it. If you haven’t seen Westworld and you enjoy good stories, you should watch it. If you enjoy reading my blog, you should watch it since I have a feeling I’m going to spend quite a bit of time talking about it. This is a story that’s taking us somewhere and, as Anthony Hopkins might put it:
“They’re here because they want a glimpse of who they could be.”
I’m sticking around to see if I get a glimpse of who I could be as writer, but this show is so good that I might see a glimpse of something even more profound. I hope you’ll join me in taking that glimpse.
Nice article John, sorry that I haven’t commented in a while but uni has been kicking my ass and I thought you were dead or something because of a long break in content, sorry :(. Anyways I haven’t seen Westworld but from what you’ve described I might check it out. I liked how you went into great detail as to what made a good story (realistic characters, backstory, emotion, etc) and what didn’t (pointless violence, sex, explosions and Michael Bay). It kind of reminded me of your excellent Star Wars: The Clone Wars vs Prequel series and I think I’d like to see more of that content. I’ve been writing my own space opera manuscript lately as well (I’m at 40,000 words) and I’d love to see you compare good stories to bad ones to show us what works and what doesn’t and most importantly why. Show us when and how backstory should be used and when it shouldn’t. Show us what makes an engaging and meaningful battle scene. Show us how to make an antagonist deeply evil without being a cliched bad guy (a problem I am facing with one of my villains right now). I think your at your best when your reviewing stories while at the same time teaching us how to make good ones on our own. Whatever you do I’ll still be reading your content as always. 🙂
No need to apologize, I did let my blog die out there over the summer, my father’s death really knocked me for a loop. Good to hear work on your book is going well, 40k words is more than I’ve managed do! Though I’m hoping to get that done during Nanowrimo. I’d love to read it one day. Yeah I’ve noticed those are my most popular articles and they’re the ones that I enjoy writing as well. I’m thinking of doing a comparison article between Witcher 3 and Dragon Age Inquisition since they both set out to tell similar stories but only Witcher 3 succeeded in telling it.
That sounds good, though if its possible I’d ask you to shy away from spoiling the most essential and riveting plot points in Witcher 3 as I haven’t played it (and won’t until I play the first 2 so I can fully appreciate the tale). But if you need to then go ahead. If you want to read some of what I’ve got then I’d be happy to send you my work, hopefully its not terrible and you’ll end up enjoying it somewhat.
Such a great post as I have been thinking a lot about the writing for the Westworld park too. The discussions of storytelling are so interesting. Being that writer would be my dream job!
Great pitch, you had me at Westworld. Man, i was so worried about it after sitting and crying through this years remake of magnificent 7 2016. (Why oh why put the soundtrack on at the end you muppets!!!) but i really love this show. They have stirred up something quite special here, i have thoughts of Rutger hauers Roy Batty being chased down by replica hunters. Pleeeezeeee writers!
“Ive seen things you people wouldnt believe!”