Writing Lessons From Wrestling: Part 2
Wow, I was a little surprised people actually wanted more of this, to be honest I left the door open not expecting anyone to want to walk through it. But clearly y’all enjoyed breaking down writing advice through wrestling, so let’s keep at it! And I’ll start things off with the topic I promised at the end of Part 1…
What Makes a Good Anti-Hero
Anti-heroes have been a bit mistreated over the last few decades. Originally catching on with darker superheroes like Punisher (I know he predates the 90s but we’re talking about when he got over) and Spawn, the idea got pushed way too hard way too fast, over-saturating the market and forgoing much of what made the original concepts work. Nowadays an “anti-hero” is just a good guy wearing a trench coat with maybe 1-2 vices that they’ll shed during the run of the story. Angst has been used in place of good story-telling, and the character archetype has turned into something of a punch line.
So, what makes a good anti-hero? I thought about this a lot, and the best answer I have is this: An anti-hero is someone doing evil/illegal things whose goals happen to align with general morality. For example, let’s say I live in the 1940’s and I want gold to buy a private island. I steal a bunch from my nearest target: a government safehouse. I am a thief. Now, let’s twist one element of that. I live in the 1940’s and want gold to buy a private island. I steal a bunch from my nearest target: a Nazi bunker. I am an anti-hero. Nothing changed about my motivations or actions, all that shifted was that my target was agreed by people as a whole to be a greater evil, and thus weakening them made me momentarily good.
And boy, it’s hard to find a better case study of that than Stone Cold Steve Austin. Because, lest any of you forgot, that persona came out as a heel. Even Austin 3:16, one of his most noteworthy catchphrases, came about because he was mocking the religion of Jake The Snake Roberts, a beloved (at the time) veteran wrestling icon. But Steve Austin had too much charisma; the fans loved him. He was going over no matter what, so Vince McMahon decided not to fight it. He also, quite wisely, didn’t try to tone Austin down or take away the character elements people embraced. Instead, they just created a bigger heel for Austin to fight against, something nearly everyone could relate to: a shitty boss keeping a boot on people’s necks. McMahon made himself the biggest of heels, and specifically went about fucking with Austin. That was the bulk of how they made Stone Cold a face (yes diehard fans, I’m skipping some stuff. We’re going for bullet points here). They kept him exactly the same beer-drinking, no shit-taking, foul-mouthed Texan but they made his personal goals align with the general morality of stopping McMahon. They built a face on the idea of an anti-hero, and it became what is arguably one of the most famous personas in wrestling history.
Manage Your Pops
A “pop” is when you get a sudden extreme reaction, usually positive, from a crowd. The most common form of this is the sudden appearance or return of an unexpected wrestler. Maybe a babyface is getting their ass-kicked in the ring, and things look dire, and then suddenly, after months of absence due to one of many injuries, the glass-break of Stone Cold Steve Austin’s music plays and he races down to the ring. People lose their fucking minds, because you just gave them an unexpected twist featuring someone they love. Other pops come from extremely cool moves, seeing a wrestler finally get a surprise well-deserved win, justice get served on a heel, etc.
Here’s the thing though: as amazing as pops are, they also need to be rare and unexpected. Remember, I’m not talking about slow-building payoffs like we discussed last time, I’m talking about sudden, often unexpected moments that make everyone want to stand and cheer. You can’t have those happen every match, or you’ll dilute what makes them special. Over-exposure is a big problem, especially when you have major talent, and it’s tempting to use them as much as possible to keep raking in ticket/book sales.
As writers, that’s something we have to keep in mind when doing our story structures. Long, strong narratives with danger, characters, and satisfying conclusions are the meat and potatoes of story-telling, while pops are more like candy. Awesome and delicious, for sure, but if they’re all you have then it’s not going to leave people feeling fulfilled at the end of the story. I’ll use one of my own favorite pops in my work as an example. (Minor Spoilers for Super Powereds: Year 3) During Lander’s Crucible, a lot of stuff that’s been built through the whole book was coming to fruition. Story lines were finding their conclusions, and characters were getting hard lessons. But during all that, I brought back Titan for one scene over two chapters. His fight was small in the scope of everything going on around him; however, the views and reaction were huge. People got one of their favorite characters when they weren’t expecting him, and he got to show his stuff by whipping another strongman’s ass. It was a pop, pure and simple, a spike of excitement in the current of escalating tension. And that wasn’t by accident, with as heavy as those chapters were I knew we needed a moment to make people want to cheer. Shifting the mood, giving folks a moment to catch their breath, that’s just one use of pops in your narrative.
Recognize the Importance of Losing
You know the greatest wrestling lesson that I think more writers could learn from? That it’s okay to lose. Your babyface doesn’t need to, and in fact shouldn’t, win every one of their matches. Not just through DQ or interference: it’s okay to let a face lose clean, to fall short, to just flat out not be as good as the heel they’re set against. Because wrestling understands a truth that I’ve seen many stories fail to grasp: the world doesn’t end after just one loss. Losing can be a motivator, maybe the face/character in question has been sliding on their training, getting more swept up in other parts of the job, and this is the push they need to get their shit in order. Or maybe it’s a full-on wake-up call: they’ve lost their way recently and a strong loss is a shock to the system, forcing them to realize they need to make changes. Hell, you can even go for the classic narrative: the heel is just better, and the face has to climb a mountain of effort to stand at the summit with as the heel’s equal. In wrestling, that would be represented by battling through the heel’s stable of cohorts, defeating each one, though with some more losses thrown in, growing in skill and strength until they’re finally able to put on a good match with the heel who squashed them. Anyone who read the Part 1 can see that’s a classic example of building to the payoff, and you can’t do it without losing.
The same goes for characters. Your MC doesn’t need to, and again shouldn’t, come out on top in every single exchange, be they physical, verbal, or romantic. No one in the real world wins all the time. We admire characters for their ability to win, but we relate to them through their losses and failures. All of us have fallen short, have come up against someone so undeniably better than us at something that we couldn’t imagine catching up. Don’t try to sell us fantasy of being that guy, as a culture we hate that guy. Sell me the fantasy of being the kind of person who doesn’t balk at seeing such a wide gap in skill, who buckles down and starts climbing that seemingly unassailable mountain. I’m not saying your MC has to suck constantly, but don’t be afraid to let them face some failures and hardship. Let them struggle to reach a goal, put all they have into it, and then that turns out to not be enough. Not just as part of a build-up to a payoff, but sometimes just because that might not be a thing they’re good at. Losing is a crucial tool in the writer’s handbook; don’t be afraid to bust it out when it makes the narrative stronger.