Everything I learned about storytelling I learned it from Final Fantasy VI

With the release of “Tempest Blades: The Withered King” closing in, I thought it was fair to talk about one of my biggest influences in terms of writing and storytelling: Final Fantasy VI.

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What? Were you expecting a book or a writer? Certainly, there is some of that. But I’m talking here about storytelling -and to a certain degree- concept development and cast management.

If you want to know why I consider Final Fantasy VI one of the best entry of the series, I remit you to this article at Kotaku. But for the purposes of this blog post, I will focus on how it influenced my writing and thus, influenced Tempest Blades.

I got to play the game, around 1996. A friend of a friend was selling his old SNES games and I wanted to buy Chrono Trigger, but my best friend got it first and I was left with FFVI and Secret of Mana. In hindsight, it all worked for the best as those two, along Turtles in Time remain my favorite videogames. And they were my first RPGs too. But I digress.  The first thing that struck me when I started playing was the music. FFVI has orchestra level music. The second thing that struck me was the detailed story -in an admittedly barebones worldbuilding-, but I will talk about that later. The third thing was the cast. The MASSIVE cast.

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I mean, the game has 14 characters, 12 main ones, and 2 optional. And every one of them, EVERYONE, has a character arc, backstory -as short as it might be- and a role to play in the story. You get to assemble the cast through beats of the story that feel like smaller episodes that build towards the overall plot. Innocuous comments at the start become a massive plot point, later on, e.g. The Figaro brothers story and relationship with certain coin, Relm’s relationship with dogs, Setzer and the flying ships, Shadow whole plot… Every character has aims, goals, dreams and a role to play. And while some might get more screen time than others, all feel like fully realized characters. Heck, each character has it’s own leifmotiv theme that works as a shorthand of what to expect from them.

When I was in the earlier stages of plotting Tempest Blades: The Withered King, I had a massive cast, which I had to rework in order to make the story work. Characters got merged with other, roles got reassigned, others were used in short stories and a couple had to be cut (but don’t worry, those two will be introduced in the sequel) and one was created exclusively for the version you will be reading in a few weeks. So with the remaining cast, I had to plot

Now the thing is, you can have a massive cast but if you are not careful, most of those characters will end being barely memorable at best, cardboard cutouts at worst. Their personal histories, interests, weaknesses, fears, goals, have to impact one way or another into the larger plot. It is said that every person is the hero of their own story. That’s true. Even if in this first novel Fionn’s story drives the overall plot, Gaby, Alex, Sam, and even Sid and Harland have desires, goals, skills to contribute with but more importantly, are the heroes of their own stories. That by being those heroes, the impact and contribution to the larger plot is palpable and thus, the readers come to know the characters and invest their emotions in them.

In summary, the lesson I learned from FFVI is that you need to ‘write’ the book several times in your head/notes from the perspective of each main character, as to see how their arc, personalities, and skills contribute to the plot like they are real people.

Diane Morrison, author of the Wyrd West Chronicles and one of the ARC reviewers of the novel, wrote this in her review at Goodreads:

Each of the characters is sympathetic, flawed and interesting, and each has their own character arc that is fun to follow. I don’t want to give you any spoilers (any more than I have) so I won’t get into the details. I will say that I came to care about the characters and their fates very much, and I was even a bit teary at the end.

I think I managed to achieve what I mentioned before. Phew.

Now, even if you have that solve, you need to find how to introduce the characters in a way that feels unobtrusive, but rather part of the plot and that contributes to the pacing. Introducing the characters in a forced manner will break the flow of the story. Because in real life, unless someone is setting you up to meet someone like in a date, you meet people in a seamless manner. FFVI, as I mentioned earlier, introduced its characters in ‘episodic’ manner. You start by playing with Terra, a mysterious girl, that soon finds herself into troubles. She is then aided by Locke, a treasure hunter that takes her to another character that can help her, King Edgar. And then, as you move forward you start meeting allies and enemies alike. You recruit Ceres after Locke has to run an undercover mission for vital data. You recruit Cyan and Gau after Sabin gets separated from the party and has to find a way back to the original crew. You are joined by Setzer after you trick him to lend you his airship because it is needed to reach a part of the map that’s way too far for the means of the characters. And so on.

Leo McBride at Altered Instinct, when he reviewed an advanced copy of my book, mentioned this:

Ricardo really handles the build-up of this team well – it reads like episodes of a series, each of which adds an extra layer to what has gone before. Before you know it, you have come to know a whole team of heroes, and care for each of them. Just in time for their world to start falling apart.

Another lesson learned and applied. By the time the big part of the plot hits your characters, they are already introduced and the reader is invested in their fate.

Now, at the start, I mentioned the storytelling in barebones worldbuilding. FFVI might be one of the best RPGs, but its worldbuilding is… simple. You have a few nations at conflict, a pretty basic legend about a magic war, and a rebellious group trying to topple an evil empire. Pretty basic, pretty common stuff in fantasy. Most of the first half of the game is about that. Then the evil guy wins, destroys the world and you need to find again all the cast to convince them not only to rebuild the world but the stop the madman transformed into a god, fulfilling the final parts of each character arc.

But even with that basic worldbuilding, the story is engaging because of the way the characters make it feel like a real place with small snippets in their comments. And the way the basic plot gets turned around into a new one with that middle game twist. You don’t need a complex plot with twists and turns to get your story done, nor a massive bible for every detail of the world. Those can grow with the story, as you find the need to solve plot points or hide Chekhov’s Gun. Every plot, as simple as it might be, can be useful if you create characters with arcs that strengthen it. Plot and characters need to play along, as that could help you to work your stories even if complexity is not your thing.

One needs to write and play to one’s strengths. FFVI is a fine example of it. I would like to think I learned that lesson.

A final note… pun not intended, is that the Final Fantasy games are known by their eclectic mix of magic and science. Mixing those things is easy. Doing it in a coherent way is tricky. Magic, even one with defined rules, will change how technology develops if it is relatively easy to use. Weapons, transport, communications, health care, and even fashion are influenced by the presence of magic and/or technology, or better known as Magitek.  The rule of thumb is that people develop magic and/or science to solve problems or achieve things that aren’t able to do by the means at hand. That why technology has evolved the way it has in the real world. Add magic to the mix and you can imagine how things change. I might write more in detail about that particular subject later on.

In short, these are some of the lessons I learned from one of my favorite games on my path to becoming a writer. Next time I will explain how Secret of Mana taught me how to create magical objects that feel part of the plot and not just MacGuffins.

A frequent comment I’ve received from people that have read the book is that it has a vibe similar to Final Fantasy. Well, now you know why. Because of one of its games, that served as my very personal Creative Writing class. So if you, like me, are a fan of Final Fantasy, my book is for you.

Remember that you can preorder it here: http://mybook.to/TempestBladesWK

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