Summary of this month’s movie:
Here come the spoilers! Free City is an online video game where player cause general mayhem and NPCs live out repetitive scripted lives, unaware that they live in a game. A sequel is due to release soon and will completely replace Free City, effectively terminating all of the game's NPCs.
NPC Guy begins to deviate from his programming, and his new choices lead him to shoot a player robbing a bank, which shouldn’t be possible under the game’s programming. When he takes the robber’s glasses—the way the games marks players vs NPCs—Guy can access the players' view of the game. Guy rapidly progresses through the game, standing out from other players and becoming a worldwide sensation known as "Blue Shirt Guy," and other NPCs he interacts with also begin to develop self-awareness.
Meanwhile, Millie, an unemployed game designer, is searching the game for proof Antwan, the CEO of the company that created it, stole the source code from a game she developed. Guy decides to help get the evidence Millie needs. The popularity of Blue Shirt Guy threatens the plans to launch the sequel, so Antwan orders a server reboot, which resets Guy's memories. But Guy regains his self-awareness when Millie kisses him.
Guy recalls the location of remnants of source code and attempts to reach it before the sequel launch wipes out all old content. In a last-ditch attempt to stop him, Antwan begins smashing the game servers with a fire ax, erasing much of the game world. Before he can destroy the final server, Millie offers a deal to abandon her lawsuit and surrender the profits of the franchise to him in exchange for her creation. Antwan’s sequel is a flop, and Millie salvages her code and releases it in an indie game more like The Sims, which includes Guy and all the other NPCs from Free City living their best lives.
Carly: I really enjoyed this movie. It is just pure fun. And maybe it made me feel a little bad about all the NPCs I’ve killed over the years. Oops. Honestly, I don’t have much to say about the movie. It was funny, enjoyable, and interesting. The acting is great, the references are fun, and luckily it was a Disney production so they had access to a lot of franchises to reference.
Jeni: As a very casual gamer and also someone who tends to overly identify with fictional characters and anthropomorphize inanimate objects, I kinda feel like this movie was made just for me. The scene when Millie was basically talking about how she was falling in love with Guy in real life… I may or may not have felt called out about video game crushes I, a married adult woman, have had in real life. And I definitely play games way too nicely and never kill anyone if I can help it. So, yeah. Oh, and I love Ryan Reynolds so there’s also that. But even beyond that, I also really enjoyed it. It is fun, and the writers did a great job of having this “real world” story as well as the video-game world story where the pieces all overlap to create one cohesive plot. And I really love the way they created the link between the real world and the video game AI. We didn’t mention that in the summary so I’m not going to spoil it here either, but it was so cute and made my heart grow three sizes. I definitely don’t think there’s anything groundbreaking or anything. Thematically, it covers a lot of the same territory as other sci-fi stories over the years. I’m thinking specifically of I, Robot and Blade Runner. This isn’t as reflective or philosophical but looks at some of the same concepts in a fun light that’s more accessible to a lot of modern viewers. But this is a solid, enjoyable movie, and I will probably rewatch at some point. So, what’s something this movie does well that authors can use in their writing?
Carly: The lie. This whole movie is about the Lie we tell ourselves that is an impetus to our character growth. So what is “the Lie” in writing? “The lie” is what a character tells themselves that stops them from achieving their goal. It can be something as simple as “I can’t get that job because I’m not good enough” and then they find out that they are good enough. So how does that show up in the movie? Basically, the Lie here is that Guy is real. He truly believes he lives in a real world and is making his own choices. But in reality he is an NPC, and he must learn this truth in order to grow and become fully self-actualized. Once he recognizes that he is an NPC, he is able to push further and make true choices for himself. He’s able to push others to see outside their own limitations. Overcoming this lie gives all the characters in Free City the ability to grow and become whoever they want to be. No other movie has such an explicit lie that literally makes all the character arcs grow. Okay that might be a lie, I’m sure plenty of movies have such an explicit one. But the meta-ness of these characters being literal NPCs allows you to really pinpoint the Lie and the growth that they achieve after overcoming that lie.
Jeni: Yesssss I’m so excited we’re talking about this. I feel like the Lie is really the heart of a story. So much so that I really encourage authors to know their character’s lie before they start drafting if possible. You touched on what the Lie is, but I’d like to go into a little more detail about it. So, we’ve talked a lot in various episodes about emotional wounds and sometimes touched on the Lie as well, but we haven’t gone into a lot of detail about what those are or how they function in a story. Nope. That’s a lie. We talked about emotional wounds in Episode 24 about Shang Chi. In that episode, Carly defines the emotional wound as “a negative event or series of events from your character’s past that colors the way they see things, that causes pain on a deep psychological level.” The lie is a misconception the character has about themselves, the world, or both that comes about as a result of the character’s attempts to cope with the pain of their emotional wound. Humans do this naturally as a part of psychologically processing painful events. We try to figure out why it happened and what we can do to avoid it in the future, and we end up with beliefs about those events that come from that place of wanting to protect ourselves. But we don’t always see those events objectively because of our pain, and so we end up making assumptions that may not be true. Now, here’s the part I get really excited and nerdy about. That misconception that’s come from this attempt to cope becomes a defining part of the character’s psychology and the motivation behind everything they do. So, as they’re trying to defeat the bad guy or solve the mystery or make it to Mordor or whatever, they are coming at the external obstacles from this place of misconception. That means every choice they make, every action they take, every relationship, every interaction is all–at least to some extent–colored by this thing they believe that isn’t really true. This is what makes any plot unique to that particular character, and it’s the basis of the entire character arc. Guy interacts with his world believing that he is a real person with free will and agency. If he had known from the beginning that he was a NPC and what exactly that meant, how might he have reacted differently? He might not have had a positive growth arc. In fact, based on how he reacts when he does find out, I could see him even having a negative arc at that point. This definitely would have been a very different story. So the Lie really impacts so much about the story, and a lot of the writing craft techniques and concepts really come back to this. I could go on and on about this, but instead, I want to recommend listening to our previous episodes about character agency, deep POV, emotional wounds, character arc, and GMC.
Carly: Okay so how do you identify your character’s lie? Honestly, you need to ask yourself: why does my character think they can’t achieve their goal? So you need to know their goal. You can also ask yourself: what happened in my character’s past that makes them view the world or their circumstances incorrectly? That will lead to how they view the world incorrectly, and that is your lie. This all will tie in a lot to GMC which we’ve covered… many times. Does your character feel unlovable? Is that stopping them from finding success in a relationship? Does your character believe that achieving their goal will help them, when in fact that goal will hurt them? All of this is looking at your character’s GMC and the plot to see where the conflict is and then you can use that to figure out the Lie that your character is telling themselves. The other way to go about it is to find the reactions that your character is having to certain conflicts. These will be symptoms of the Lie. For example: when another character tries to show them love they reject it or don’t believe it. By finding their reactions or their symptoms, you can ask yourself “what lie are they telling themselves that makes them react this way?” In this case, the Lie may be that they believe themselves to be unlovable. Basically: How does your character react to the world that may be seen as irrational without context? Then what is the context that makes it make sense?
Jeni: Like a lot of things when it comes to character, this does not only apply to your main character. Allies, antagonists, and other secondary characters can also have their own Lies, and in fact, it can really help fully develop a secondary character when they do. We also talked about secondary characters in a previous episode. That was one of our first episodes, I think? Like, episode 2 or 3? Anyway, good stuff in that one too. It feels like this show is the one that pulls all our other shows together. So. Secondary characters. When the reader/viewer understands the secondary characters’ motivation, emotional wounds, and Lie, we see them as being more like real people, and that really helps develop the whole world and story. The scene where Keys is talking to Millie and tells her about the things the other NPCs have done since they developed self-awareness is a great view of this. Like, the NPC that’s just called “the bombshell” writes a book about patriarchy. We suddenly see her as being more than just a “bombshell” and realize that she’s much more complex than just her appearance. For me, I love love love when a villain has a complex Lie. Some of my favorite villains ever really do believe they are the hero and are doing what they believe is right. So, I don’t necessarily think you need to do this for every single character, but it can be very beneficial when you’re developing your important secondary characters. And I guess add that episode to your listen list too.
Carly: Next you want to create conflict between characters with their inner lies. Characters’ lies can unintentionally conflict with each other, and when that happens it is truly great. The easiest place to see this is in a romance novel. Often the two love interests having conflicting lies that make it seem impossible to be together. In a classic historical romance maybe one character believes no one can love them because their family needs money and the other character believes that someone would only want to marry them for money. These two lies will butt up against each other creating a ton of fun inner conflict. Often this can be done by also creating goals that conflict with each other. In this movie, you can see that with Antwan and the rest of the characters, but on a smaller scale you can see that with Mille and Keys. They both started out with similar goals, but they went in different directions when they sold their company. Keys just wanted a job and to keep doing things he likes while Millie quickly decides she wants to prove that their code has been stolen. Their goals conflict and they conflict because they’ve told themselves vastly different lies. Keys told himself that their game was a flop and this is the only way to succeed while Millie told herself that she needs validation. As Jeni pointed out to me the other day, she literally says that in the little interview they do at a press conference. .Also, keep in mind that characters can manipulate each other intentionally if they know the other’s lie. Think of the villain who tears down the protagonist by confirming all their worst fears. We see this a ton with Antwan and Keys. Antwan knows that Keys feels like a failure, he uses that to get Keys to do a lot of work for him. He’s a genius and he has put himself into a customer service role because he feels inadequate. And Antwan uses that inadequacy to steal his code and use it in Free City without him noticing. Honestly, knowing someone’s lie is the best way to manipulate them, in life too. Not to give people bad moral ideas.
Jeni: Most of the time when we talk about the Lie, we are talking about the inner lie, the thing the character believes about themself or the world that’s holding them back from having what they really need. But there can also be outer lies. These are more about social structures and beliefs, and they will impact the plot in more obvious ways. The first example that comes to mind when I think about this is The Hunger Games. The totalitarian government really oppresses its people, and a key part of that is making everyone believe it’s necessary. Otherwise, no one would go along with a government that requires a reality show where kids kill each other. In Free Guy, the Lie we’ve been discussing is really an outer lie because it affects all the NPCs, and then each character has their own inner lies. Guy’s is that his life doesn’t really matter. Buddy’s is that he can’t handle how scary everything is. Millie outright says hers is her need for validation. Obviously Antwan’s is that the love of his life, Stede Bonnet, left him and made him turn evil again. Little nod to my Our Flag Means Death people. Anyway, a lot of stories have outer lies as part of their worldbuilding. It’s easy to go straight to dystopian, but there are those outer lies in real life too, which means they can be part of contemporary stories. In fact, I could argue that a lot of stories that are considered “issues books” are really dealing with outer Lies in our society. In this essay, I will… just kidding. But if you’re writing a story with an outer Lie, consider how the world is oppressing the characters and the impact is has on those characters. How does that influence the plot? How does it influence how various characters feel about themselves and their inner Lie?
Carly: So your story can have an inner lie, an outer lie, or both. We’ve talked a lot about both in this movie. But let’s get into some other examples. So for example, Encanto, to go to a controversial movie for us. But in that one we talk about character arcs. Mirabel, for the most part, has a flat arc. And that is because the Lie she overcomes is an outer lie. It is a lie within the world and others. If the MC has a flat arc, there’s not an inner lie, only an outer lie. Inner and outer lies may or may not be tied to each other. In this movie the Lies are tied in pretty inexorably. The outer lie is that the NPCs aren’t free-thinking and Guy’s lie is that his life doesn’t matter. He believes this because of the outer lie. And by proving his inner lie wrong he is able to show the world that the outer lie is wrong as well. But to go back to The Hunger Games, the outer lie is about everyone needing the totalitarian government to keep them safe. But Katniss’s inner lie is about her worth to her family. Her inner lie interacts with the outer lie, but they aren’t directly connected. Play with these different lies and see how they can interact and influence each other.
So this month our query is a middle grade fantasy. Jeni, what are your thoughts on this query?
Jeni: These are great comps, and stories about animals are a perennial favorite for young readers. Your premise and word count really put this story in the 7-10 range more than the 9-12 range. In terms of the content, this feels more like a synopsis than a query letter. Remember that a query letter is intended to sell your story as much as it is to explain the premise. What is unique about this story? What is there for readers to identify and engage with? What is at risk? In other words, what would make this story stand out to an agent who reads hundreds of query letters a month? What’d you think, Carly?
Carly: This story sounds so cute! I will say there is a focus on details that aren’t pertinent in the query. I want more of the humor and voice and details about the two main characters. We’re getting distracted showing how the inciting incident starts instead of focusing on the journey that the characters go on. Also, be a little more explicit in your bio portion. How do you have that experience? Don’t just tell us it exists, show us where you got it.
Next month, we are watching the sci-fi horror, NOPE. We will also have another query or blurb critique. If you want your query featured on the podcast, you can find the details about how to do that on our website or Twitter page.