Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Unorthodox Inspiration: Professional Wrestling, part 1

Continuing the conversation that began here, we continue our dive into unorthodox sources of inspiration by taking a serious look at the world of professional wrestling.

Yes, really.

While the annals of professional wrestling are filled with terrible storylines, bad acting, cheesy concepts and embarrassingly offensive stereotypes, it's also a fascinating collection of structures. It's got rules it plays by, methods it prefers, and a collaborative, audience-centric approach that has a surprising amount to offer creators of fiction, especially GMs.

It also has Luachadores, which are just the strongest example of running with a genre convention I can think of.

They live, love, solve crimes and get married. All without taking off those masks.

Learning the ropes, and the turnbuckles that connect them

Before we get started, let's break down some of the structures that Professional Wrestling inhabits.

You have a collection of characters - who are varying degrees of well-thought out and acted - who compete for limited opportunity by pounding the crap out of each other. Usually, two sides will clash repeatedly, with multiple minor skirmishes of various sorts, until a climactic battle either escalates the conflict even further, or finally brings it to a close. These stories of conflict are told on a recurring basis - often weekly - with plot arcs coming to a head in big events about once a month.

Everybody knows it's scripted. The point is to be entertaining.

So without further ado, let's introduce some concepts, and then we'll talk about what we can do with them.

Concept 1: Faces, Heels, and the Turn

You've seen this before, even if not in so many words. A "Babyface," or just Face, is your good-guy character. Maybe they're heroic, or maybe they're a scary vigilante anti-hero, but the role of the Face is simple: give the audience someone to root for in a conflict.

Conversely, you have the Heel. The mirror image of the face, these cats are the antagonists of the wrestling world, and they exist so that the audience has someone to boo, or at the very least, to provide a foil for the Face. 

A lesser-used variant is the "Tweener," who splits the difference, sometimes in the same program. This is usually reserved for long-running, beloved characters who've been both Heel and Face in their careers, and carve out a sort of "Antihero" niche, where they live in shades of grey. 

This is essentially the alignment matrix of the Wrestling world, and it is entirely malleable. TV tropes has some great articles on the turn, but the basic idea is simple: in a particularly dramatic moment, a given character switches their alignment, often in violent fashion in the middle of a conflict.

Alignment isn't treated as some innate property in Pro Wrestling; Face and Heel are booking decisions. The important takeaway is that these are their role in the story, and sometimes switching that around is exactly what a given story needs to really "pop."  

Concept 2: Heat, and Overness

Heat is a pretty simple concept; it measures audience reaction to a given character, storyline, match - everything that happens is evaluated in terms of Heat. Note that Heat isn't intrinsically positive or negative - it's about strength of reaction, not direction (more on that in a second.) If someone gets booed or cheered, they've got Heat. If people are quiet, or start chanting "this is boring" or whatever, there's no Heat there. But if they go nuts - sometimes known as "a pop" - when something starts, well, you've got Heat.

Let's be clear: nobody likes this guy.
Overness is how popular someone/thing is, plain and simple. People might go nuts for a certain type of match, angle (storyline element, basically), wrestler or whatever. This can get into some interesting dynamics; let's say that you have a Heel who's crazy over. They come out to a chorus of boos, but frankly, the crowd's eating it up, the Heel's egging them on, and they're loving it. 

There's an innate acceptance that yeah, this is entertainment, and what's happening is entertaining. So, people go nuts for the villain, while genuinely hoping they fail. A great non-wrestling example is Littlefinger from Game of Thrones1. He's a great villain, and many viewers look forward to him getting screen time; he's wickedly entertaining.

That doesn't mean that they like him, and it certainly doesn't mean they want him to succeed in his goals. Indeed, part of what makes the character so compelling is how absolutely dreadful he is. Even so, he's a joy to watch.

That leads us into the final concept I want to talk about to day, which is a philosophical approach:

Concept 3: Booking for Emotion, not Elation

As put forward by the eloquent Greg DeMarco for, promoters often book for emotion, not elation. Elation is nice, sure, but it's only one strong emotion among many. If you're tired of stories where "the good guys always win," you're in luck - Pro Wrestling has been doing things specifically to upset its fan base for as long as it has been a recognizable entity.Everybody's hopes and dreams are riding on the scrappy underdog beating the odds? Everybody's on the edge of their seat, hoping that good will triumph over evil?

That's just as likely to end with evil's triumph as not. Possibly more likely. 

Bringing it all together

At the end of the day, what we have here are structures that are decidedly audience-facing. Everything, and I mean everything, is evaluated in terms of how it's affecting - or might affect - the audience. It's incredibly dynamic. It's also able to turn on a dime when something clearly isn't working, and traditionally unafraid to do so. If your hero's boring, might they work as a villain? If a character's being misused, what situation would better suit them?

Stories don't work without conflict. But they also don't work without audience investment.

Maybe prioritizing the audience's interest shouldn't be a novel approach. But it is, and it has a lot to recommend it as an approach. Now, the flip side of this - as wrestling has certainly shown over the years3 - is that it's easy to fall prey to the practice of throwing a bunch of ideas against a wall, seeing what sticks, and changing what doesn't. Sometimes a good idea requires time to really take root. Shutting things down before they have a chance to find their footing can cause plenty of problems. Although, there's certainly something to be said for recognizing that what you're doing doesn't work, and altering your course accordingly.

This is getting kind of long

I know, I know. We'll get into some much more practical applications of this stuff, specifically as regards RPGs and fiction in general, in subsequent entries. Pro Wrestling has a lot of insider language, and to play with these concepts, we first need to understand them. 

So up next: playing. 

Till then!


* * *

1 - Really, GoT is a great example of these concepts in a different context. George RR Martin has  deep and abiding love of the Heel Turn, and Mr. Balish executes it brilliantly by the end of  book/season one. 

2 - Not to belabor the point, but Mr. R.R. Martin certainly has some familiarity with this approach as well.

3 - It's worth noting that Pro Wrestling has featured some incredibly hateful, bigotry-fueled stereotypes over the years. It's inexcusable, disgusting, and certainly not something that The Blog of Doom endorses. It's also featured Evil Dentists, numerous Singing Cowboys, and middle-aged, pudgy guys in glitter-covered stormtrooper helmets