Howard Tayler is the writer and illustrator behind Schlock Mercenary, the Hugo-nominated science fiction comic strip. Howard is also featured on the Parsec award-winning “Writing Excuses” podcast, a weekly ‘cast for genre-fiction writers. Howard’s artwork is featured in XDM X-Treme Dungeon Mastery, a role-playing supplement by Tracy and Curtis Hickman, as well as in the board game “Schlock Mercenary: Capital Offensive” coming in May 2012 from Living World Games.
His most recently published work is Schlock Mercenary: Emperor Pius Dei. He lives in Orem, Utah with his wife Sandra and their four children.
“Satisfactory Sub-plots.” That might seem like a nice, narrow topic, but I think it’s still too big. If I’ve learned anything from three years of fifteen minute podcasts, it’s that a tight focus is king. So I’m going to talk about character sub-plots, which are probably the most satisfying kind anyway.
We’re going to do this with pictures. Hopefully that means that what would otherwise be a giant column of tl;dr will keep your attention all the way to the end. Also, this will allow me to talk to you about why I do things they way I do them while simultaneously showing you exactly what I did.
First, a helpful dichotomy: a sub-plot either ends with the character achieving their objective, or failing to achieve their objective. This is particularly useful when you want to create something gritty that has a happy ending. Your main plot can be resolved to everyone’s triumphant satisfaction, while one or more sub-plots end in disaster. This juxtaposition (success in the main plot :: failure in a sub-plot) can also let you create a moment of true heroic sacrifice in which one or more characters give up achieving their own goal in order to save the day.
Let’s look at what I did while I talk about why I did it. The examples are going to come from Longshoreman of the Apocalypse (one of 2010’s losers for the Best Graphic Story Hugo Award), and will feature two characters: Aardman and Para Ventura. I’ll try to do this with as little back-story as possible, without contaminating the sub-plot with a discussion of the big plot. Why? Because if the sub-plot can tell a story without the big plot, it’s probably a solid story.
We’ll begin with introductions. Both of these characters enlisted with the company towards the beginning of the book. Here’s Aardy’s first appearance.
What we have here is the beginning of a running gag. Or, if you want to get technical about it, it’s the beginning of a try-fail cycle. Aardy is going to try to get surgery for his nose. Let’s look at Aardy’s first try-fail iteration…
Let’s pause for a moment. Why am I bothering to give these brand-new characters their own goals? Why add the complexity of a try-fail cycle to a character who was just introduced, when there are plenty of beloved characters in the story who already have hopes, dreams, failures, successes, and ongoing character arcs?
The question should answer itself. I want more beloved characters. You might argue that this is because I’m a heartless monster who wants additional leverage over the reader in order to inflict anguish, but maybe it’s because I want more ways to portray triumph. Maybe I want to sweeten victory by having more characters able to share it.
Or maybe I’m getting ready to kill somebody off, and I need fresh meat.
This one wasn’t the aftermath of an attempt at facial damage — it was a plot-related disaster with other implications. This is a handy way to keep readers engaged by making sure the sub-plot has connections to the main plot. At any rate, since Aardy was injured I was able to take just a moment to switch gears and iterate his try-fail cycle again.
Of course, it comes across as a running gag, which is fine since the epic science fiction I’m writing must maintain the “just a comic strip” disguise.
Back on task… I chose these two sub-plots in for this essay because one of the reasons they’re satisfying is that I managed to tie them together for additional reader satisfaction. Here’s the pair of strips where that happens:
There are several directions I could have taken these, and at first glance the option to turn the clever, petite technician into a killing machine might seem a bit hackneyed. At the very least, the trope has its own name (warning: TV Tropes will eat your soul.) But there’s more to come. I wanted to convey the idea that violence yields consequence, and Para’s story continues in that vein. The “killing machine” moment is nicely triumphant in the context of the rest of the story, but it’s not the end of Para’s story.
By the way, there’s an adjacent sub-plot regarding Captain Tagon. He needs to be awesome. Sometimes that means he’s a bad-ass, and sometimes it means he’s just a really good commanding officer. Right here his arc is running up into Para’s, and it’s one of my favorite moments in the strip. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Finally, here is the payoff for Para’s sub-plot in this book. If you recall, she wants to do robot stuff, not kill people.
So, Para gets what she wants (permission to play with the company’s robots), and Aardman gets what he needs (acceptance for his enormous nose.) Both of them made heroic sacrifices — Aardy took an enemy bullet instead of a friendly one, and Para traumatized herself by killing an angry mob. Gritty! Also, a long-standing character mentioned in one of the strips above turns out to be dead.
Of course, the story continues to move on, and Para’s arc in particular affords me all kinds of good story fodder. During Force Multiplication we learn that Para Ventura now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, and will freeze in combat. Again, I decided to tie her sub-plot into other things to enhance reader satisfaction. Her big moment in that book is another of my favorite pieces of work. No, I’m not going to link directly to it. You want it? Start here, and work for it. You’ll enjoy it more.
I hope this has been helpful. I also hope it serves as a nice introduction to my work, which you can enjoy absolutely for free on the internet through the magic of what I like to call the “Free Content Business Model,” but that’s the subject of an entirely different essay.