“Do-Over”: Part One, Genesis of an Idea

The germ of the idea for Do-Over came while watching Rumiko Takahashi’s InuYasha with my son. InuYasha is an anime (from Takahashi’s manga) telling the story of Kagome, a 15-year-old Japanese girl magically transported 500 years into her past, feudal Japan. Large portions of the story focus on the relationship Kagome forms with the titular character, a half-human dog demon.

While watching this anime a couple of things struck me. First, Kagome can move relatively freely between modern times and the past. Most stories like this have the protagonist sent back in time at the beginning and returned to their own time at the end. In many, the protagonist is unable to return to their own time and is forced to adapt to a different culture. The structure of InuYasha allows Kagome, in the end, to decide whether she wants to stay with InuYasha or return to her own time. That, plus the story’s setting in Kagome’s own past, frees the author to more-or-less ignore cultural and technological changes and focus on the plot. It also allows the audience to connect with Kagome’s experiences, whether by seeing her in her modern setting or the historical past they’re all familiar with.

Second, while Kagome undergoes quite a bit of personal growth, the other characters do not. Many plot points center around relationship growth rather than personal growth. For example, InuYasha is little different in the end than he was in the beginning of the story. There is certainly nothing wrong with that, and Takahashi handles it very well, but it is different from what we’re taught in “story class”: interesting characters must show personal growth.

I’m going to leave both of these concepts for now, but I’ll come back to them later because they’re central to my approach to Do-Over.

One of the first connections I made outside InuYasha with “going back to the past” is Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. (Going forward I’ll refer to Twain’s work as “Yankee” for obvious reasons.) In “Yankee” the protagonist Hank Morgan meets King Arthur in 7th-century Britain after getting hit in the head by a crowbar. He industrializes medieval England with modern technology (Gatling guns, electricity etc.). In the end Hank returns to the present via Merlin’s sleep spell. The story implies Hank had only dreamed his adventures as part of the injuries suffered in the beginning of the story.

The primary difference in intent between InuYasha and “Yankee” is key. “Yankee” is at once a satire on the nobility’s control over citizens and a longing to return to more innocent times. InuYasha is a simple, albeit enjoyable, fairy tale with little social commentary outside of the complex relationships people can have. Twain, being the genius he was, wrote a story that can be read as he intended or as a fairy tale. That is, it is possible to enjoy “Yankee” in the same way one can enjoy InuYasha: pure entertainment.

In both InuYasha and “Yankee” we have a context the authors’ audiences can easily connect to. InuYasha handles feudal Japan accurately and the audience is familiar with the subject. Although “Yankee” is full of anachronistic references to Arthurian legends, such as plate armor and the Holy Grail (both not a part of the English traditions until the 12th century), Twain did so deliberately. For his setting he used Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, well after the historical Arthur but more familiar to Twain’s audience. Both Twain and Takahashi built a world their readers would understand without having to look them up – which in turn lets the reader get more involved in the story rather than the setting.

I love to play with ideas. The idea of traveling back in time, bringing modern knowledge to a primitive society, is full of possibilities. In both stories a lot of those possibilities are not explored; both Kagome and Hank exist in their own past and they are aware of it. From an author’s perspective, all that requires is a good history text and some knowledge of the culture of the desired time period. That’s plenty to use as a story setting – it clearly works in both stories – but I wanted to do some exploring.

Step One was picking a protagonist. It’s a lot easier for me, a trained scientist, to relate to an adult male engineer than to a 15-year-old high school girl. For various reasons I wanted my protagonist to be a person called “the competent man”. Here’s Robert Heinlein’s explanation, as described in Heinlein’s novel Time Enough for Love by the main character Lazarus Long.

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

But there’s a catch (two, really) in using a competent man. The first catch is obvious: is this Superman? A better comparison is Batman. Consider DC Comics’ Justice League of America. Batman is an equal member with Superman, Wonder Woman, and all manner of superbeings despite having no superpowers. There are lesser examples in the real world, so this is not an unreasonable concept.

The second catch is less obvious. How does a person become like this? In Heinlein’s novel Lazarus Long is over 2,000 years old, giving him plenty of time to learn things. If I made my protagonist a young man he becomes a Marty Stu. If you haven’t heard that name before, or of Mary Sue, the definition is “a young or low-rank person who saves the day through unrealistic abilities.” The term comes from fan fiction; for more on this concept see the Wikipedia article on Mary Sue.

I dislike writing fan fiction; I don’t like playing in someone else’s universe unless I’m invited. Therefore I have to address both catches to writing a competent man. Making my protagonist an aged scientist not only solves the first catch, it opens a lot of possibilities for plot actions.

To solve the second catch, I remove some of the competent man’s capabilities and add one pertinent fact: the main character is more anti-hero than hero, fundamentally flawed in a particular way. I have to leave him with some good qualities and skills, of course, or he won’t be an interesting character – and he’ll need some survival skills or he’ll die before the story gets moving.

So I made my protagonist a 67-year-old scientist, a parent to two grown children, and someone who practices a form of kung fu and tai chi to remain physically fit. That gives him time to adjust to the society plus the intelligence and interest in oddball knowledge to know at least something about many different fields. It does, however, leave a small problem.

As I mentioned above, one of the reasons I enjoyed InuYasha is the focus on interpersonal relationships. “Yankee” explores that as well with the relationship Hank develops with Demoiselle Alisande a la Carteloise, whom he calls “Sandy”. But it’s not easy to make a 67-year-old man a romantic interest and, as mentioned above, using a younger protagonist runs a risk of creating a Marty Stu character.

To learn how I solved that problem see Do-Over: Part 2, Character Creation.

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