Friday, September 5, 2014

Why hamminess works, and why experienced villains abandon it

I talked yesterday about "bad" dialogue, hamminess, and so forth. I said something that apparently surprised a few readers - ham works, some of the time. So let's get some definitions on the table, kids.

Hamminess is the act of imparting superfluous drama to your words and actions. There's a lot of reasons for ham, but that's what it is at the end of the day.

Drama is the creation of tension over what's being done and to whom. You watch movies, attend theater, and binge-watch shows on Netflix to find out what's coming next and to see it happen. Even if it's terrible things happening to characters you love, you're still drawn into it.

Tension is the mental desire to resolve an uncertainty. Will the bomb go off? Will your characters escape the blast? Will John marry Marsha? All that bullshit. Stories are interwoven blobs of tension that - hopefully - pay off at the end.

In short, ham is a shortcut to attention management. It's like adding spices or seasoning or extra butter to a bland meal - it's unhealthy, but people will chow down on that shit anyway. It's the pointless action sequence or love scene meant to keep asses in seats during the movie, because nobody will watch the thing otherwise.

So why does ham work? Because people like the tension, and they especially like the payout. People love it when their lives produce drama that wraps itself up neatly for their entertainment. Even if what they're being fed is pablum, they'll lap that shit up.

Ham is important because there's two very different narratives going on. Say for a second that you're robbing a bank - a cliché all its own, but what do you want? If you've read my guide and planned your robbery out in advance, your internal narrative goes something like this: "Walk into the bank - lay down demands - demonstrate powers to ensure compliance - seal the door if possible - get civilians and security to disarm and lay down - collect loot - assume manager pressed the panic button - assume cops are on the way - start internal timer for typical police response time to this location - finish looting - get away using powers or previous arrangement."

That's not super dramatic. That's just a checklist of items that you've worked out and are running through in your head. There might be some unknowns, like "superhero shows up unexpectedly", "cops arrive early", "teller is a superheroine in disguise", or whatever, but you just jump right to "run away" in the event of something you're not prepared to handle. You do, right?

Anyway, remember that there is this other narrative running through the heads of everyone else in that bank. "By Odin, a supervillain! He's masked! He's going to kill us all! My will isn't made out. My kids are at school, they're in danger too. Is he after me? What does he want?" Sure sounds scary, doesn't it. It might have variations like "I've got this pistol, maybe I can be a hero and get that pretty teller girl to like me by saving everyone" or "I don't get paid enough to be security on this gig, so I'm going to lay down like he says" or whatever. But in general, most people's heads are not filled with the same story that's going on in your head.

Here's another true fact. People feel better when the expected thing happens. If people are expecting you to be violent, be violent. If people are expecting a calm, methodical shakedown of the place, do that thing. Your reputation, the mood of your chosen city, and a bunch of other factors play into this. But until you know those things, you do know two things. First, that you're a supervillain. This comes with a ton of baggage all its own. And second, you're committing a crime.

This is where ham comes in. Supervillains are bright, loud, and theatrical. That's our overall reputation. So start with the ham. "KNEEL BEFORE <your name here>! If you value your lives, deliver your goods! And open that vault, or I'll rend it asunder with my <your power here>!" That sort of business. This is unconvincing against professionals who've dealt with villains for awhile, but it works wonders on civilians.

This also explains why ham falls out of favor as you get more experience. First, your capers become more sophisticated, and put you into a different crowd of people. Those people can see through the ham, so it doesn't serve its intended purpose. A thing that becomes useless in the capers you're doing should be discarded. And second, your own reputation and personal style will become more and more distinct, as should your public speaking skills, meaning that ham is no longer necessary to cover that deficiency. You will have a reputation that you can play on, and you'll have the experience to know how.