This year, I’m going to do my best to keep a weekly (except first Fridays) blog here on the site, just a place to put down my thoughts on my work and the various things that influence it. One of those things, I like to call The Process; a segment where I talk about my writing process, including the tools and tropes I use to get stories out of my head and onto the page. This is the first in that series, about two tools I use often in the series: Belligerent Dwarves and Dancing Monkeys.
In my gaming group, the DMs (myself included) have something we like to call the ‘belligerent dwarf’ trick. The term comes from Jolly Blackburn’s Knights of the Dinner Table. In on strip, the party is in a tavern when a dwarf comes in and starts insulting the party, touching off a session-spanning bar fight. In the end, the DM, B.A., comments that whenever he doesn’t have a plot for the session, tossing in a belligerent dwarf works just as well.
The concept has become something more in my gaming group. For us, a belligerent dwarf is a character (sometimes an object or situation) that instigates action from the player characters without being an actual quest giver or antagonist. The prime motivator here is usually spite; the dwarf tells the characters that they can’t do something, makes fun of them for not doing something, or by his own actions, drive the PCs to revenge. A variant is where the dwarf is someone the PCs want to best (he’s going after the treasure? We’re going to get there first!) or who is about to do something that while not directly antagonistic, can cause problems for the PCs.
What’s important here is that direct action against the dwarf just won’t cut it. Dealing with the dwarf always leads to bigger problems or makes an existing problem worse.
The first time I recognized a belligerent dwarf in media, it was Julian Keller, AKA Hellion from the excellent New Mutants vol 2. Hellion is (Was. His character has sense suffered an avalanche of indignities and lost all of his best qualities. Also, his hands) a classic Jerk Jock and a bit of a mutant supremacist. In a previous generation of stories, he would be a villain. Instead, he’s just a jackass classmate and that’s what makes him a great characters.
In the tragically short run of the series, Hellion is a massive source of conflict without being the enemy, up to the point of dating the leader of the protagonist team. The moment that cements his dwarf cred though is a sequence where, upon hearing that one of his friends is in FBI custody, he decides to gather up his pals and take on the FBI.
Mind you, this is the Marvel Universe, where people hate mutants to the point of murder just for existing. Attacking the FBI as a mutant is pretty much the suicide version of genocide. Hellion’s boneheaded move drives the protagonists to do their level best to stop him and his buddies lest the FBI put the boot down on their school/species.
And that’s the beauty of the belligerent dwarf. He can cause problems, push the plot forward, and the characters can’t make it stop by just killing them (without ceasing to be heroes at least). Nine times out of ten, their antics aren’t even illegal, meaning they won’t even got to jail. They’re instantly reusable.
In the DU, I’ve set up several dwarves, but I don’t end up using them as much as I like. The earliest, of course, is Lily Goldenmeyer, the younger Descendants’ resident Libby (TVTropes.org now calls this ‘Alpha Bitch‘. TVTropes.org can kiss my ass for that, but that’s another rant) . While Lily didn’t get a lot of play, she got to play the dwarf in [intlink id=”126″ type=”post”]Freaque[/intlink], where she spent all of her screen time making the situation worse by antagonizing Freaque and yelling at Our Heroes.
A better example, and one who isn’t mean for a change, is the gremlin from [intlink id=”692″ type=”post”]The Gremlin and The Game[/intlink]. He’s merely lost, but literally everything he does causes problems for Our Heroes. It’s not even his fault, but none of the chaos that results could have happened without him.
I try to use these sparingly, because I do have a stable of great villains to use, but occasionally, it’s fun to have a story that has action and conflict without evil This even happened accidentally in Beer Money, where the trio of ‘villains’ there were conceived as violent and cruel, but worked much better as funny. They became belligerent dwarves when their actions bought actual danger into play.
And then there are dancing monkeys.
How to explain a dancing monkey? Well, we could speak at length about literary theory and my own personal philosophy about the covenant between reader and creator and how sometimes there is more to content than ‘plot’.
You went and watched the monkey didn’t you? It’s okay to admit it, people like monkeys, people like dancing, so it only makes sense that dancing monkeys are a thing that they like. There’s really no shame in it. No, really. Stop crying.
And lo, I have filled three paragraphs without saying anything substantive. But it was entertaining, no?
That, my friends, is a dancing monkey. It is the candy of writing; no nutritional value, but tasty nonetheless. These are the little things in a story that serve pretty much the opposite function as belligerent dwarves; they don’t move the plot at all, don’t add to world building, don’t serve any purpose whatsoever beyond being purely entertaining.
A dancing monkey can be anything, from a conversation (for example, what TVTropes.org calls Seinfeldian Conversations) to whole scenes to characters.
For example, on The Simpsons, the Itchy and Scratchy segments usually have no bearing on the show other than to occasionally mirror the main plot. It’s just there to be funny and eat time and is therefore a dancing monkey. Similarly, characters like Bumblebee Man or Sideshow Mel are also usually dancing monkeys; only showing up to deliver funny, but unimportant lines.
In my mind, when you’re trying to produce a set amount of content on a schedule, a dancing monkey is the alternative to other padding technique like hyper-aware description or ‘history lessons’ where we find out not only the exact colors, patterns and thread-count of the curtains, but who they were made by and how they came to be in the house. I call these Squatting Monkeys, because they sit there, doing nothing interesting and sounding vaguely offensive.
Squatting monkeys are what I blame for my antagonistic attitude toward many of the classics. Dickens in particular did this a lot because he, like me, was publishing on a serial schedule and needed to make page/word count. Unfortunately, this resulted in describing a room every time the characters come back to it and such. There is absolutely no such justification for Willa Cather’s My Antonia, which would have been all of fifty pages if every useless paragraph (those that include the words ‘red grass’ in them were removed.
I think a lot of people hate otherwise decent works (namely classics) because of squatting monkeys and that a lot of lit majors mistake them for attention to detail and use the Death of the Author concept to assign artistic value to the author’s ‘oh shit, I need one thousand more words! Time to make a timeline for the carpet’.
As for me, I try not to use squatting monkeys; when I describe something overmuch, it’s usually because the scene’s been fermenting in my head a long, long time and I’m imagining it rather more vividly. But I use dancing monkeys constantly.
I put out at least five pages of each story out every week. The thing is, sometimes, a chapter just doesn’t take that much space, especially if it ends up consisting of dense paragraphs without many breaks. For those moments, I break out the monkeys.
Most of the time, while they don’t move the plot or anything, they do at least reinforce characters. These are the moments where Isp and Osp are helping Warrick cook, or someone has a pop-culture fueled discussion that adds a little bit to the world. Petty little discussions make the world go ’round, both in and out of fiction.
Sometimes it works, sometimes, it doesn’t. One of the monkeys that I had to ‘kill’ was Adel. His whole character was just a joke about how boring he was and he stuck around far, far too long without really adding that much content.
On the other hand, the Sneak Thief has been incredibly successful at this. Except for one appearance (as of this writing), he’s added little to nothing to the plot (Even in [intlink id=”251″ type=”post”]Love You Madly[/intlink], he’s ‘saving’ Cyn, who is effectively immortal). Cyn is on a crusade to take him down, and yet he’s completely unattached to any plots.
And that’s why he’s awesome.