Sunday, January 26, 2014

Ring Psychology #2 "Stone Cold..."

So just how does professional wrestling help inform my idea of presenting a character in fiction?  Last time I discussed the idea of ego and how it's perhaps the dominant feature of wrestling.  Seems kind of obvious.  But let's see it in action.

Better yet, in the form of Steve Austin!

One of the longstanding forums of the wrestling fan community is Pro Wrestling Illustrated, a magazine that has covered the wrestling scene since 1979.  Since 1991, it's presented the PWI 500, a compilation of the top wrestlers each year.  If you assume Steve Austin didn't crack the top ten of that list until his best days late in the '90s, you'd be wrong.  In fact, he made his first appearance in 1992.

What was Austin doing in 1992, and how is this at all relevant to the idea of character, much less writing fiction?  He was competing for World Championship Wrestling, and about two years into his career.  He had matches against the likes of such respected wrestlers as Bobby Eaton (best known for competing in the tag team the Midnight Express), Barry Windham, and Ricky Steamboat.  PWI normally compiles its annual list half on the basis of wrestlers who have had a successful year as a personality and half for those who have simply been the best wrestlers that year.  Austin would have made the cut that year as a wrestler.

Two years later he cracked the top ten again.  1994 was his final year in WCW, which famously decided that Austin had gone about as far as he would likely go, a relatively unexceptional talent having reached his peak.  In the year previous Austin'd had an unexpected breakthrough when he was thrown into a tag team with Brian Pillman.  The Hollywood Blonds weren't expected to accomplish anything but fill up space on the card, but unexpectedly they clicked, and it was Austin's first taste of developing a character.  But by 1994 he was on his own again, back on cards opposite Steamboat, whose career came to a premature end thanks to a back injury.

Then Paul Heyman's Extreme Championship Wrestling called, and Austin had his first chance to unleash himself as a character, a classic example of a bitter wrestler who felt betrayed by a major promotion.  He gave some of his first biting promos in this period, but his long hair in these initial appearances proved we were still going to be waiting for the Austin even those who have never followed professional wrestling (or at least admitted to it) would recognize.

After a few months in ECW, Austin was recruited by World Wrestling Entertainment (at that time it was still known as WWF, because those pesky pandas had not yet objected loudly enough).  When he debuted for WWE, Austin was was similar to what he'd been in WCW.  He was billed as "the Ringmaster" and his main distinguishing mark was serving as the new "million dollar champion" thanks to an association with Ted DiBiase.

And then he became "Stone Cold."

In fact, he was in this new mode for a little while before the 1996 King of the Ring tournament, which was the event that would transform his career forever.  On his way to winning the tournament, Austin found himself pitted again Jake "the Snake" Roberts, who at that time had a character whose main feature was thumping his Bible as a born-again Christian.  After Austin beat Jake, he cut one of the most famous promos in wrestling history.  "Talk about psalms, talk about John 3:16...Austin 3:16 says I just..."  Suffice to say, but the rest of that quote is not fit for a family-friendly blog (which hopefully this one is).  Anyway, it immediately repositioned Austin into one of the most dynamic personalities of the company.

And personality has a lot to do with character.  What Austin had always lacked was a true personality.  He may have had a character.  To be a wrestler is to be able to present a character in a match, even a rudimentary one.  But to give personality to that character is to give it potential in any given scenario.  From the moment Austin pushed himself off the aging Jake Roberts, he was distancing himself from everything he had ever been, and everything every other wrestler had ever been.  He built a new template, a new narrative in wrestling.

A new story.

And it took a while for the story to develop.  At first, WWE had no idea what to do with the new "Stone Cold."  The rest of 1996 didn't really have much to say about this emerging development.  Bret Hart was the guy, ironically enough, who helped Austin along.  Hart was one of the few wrestlers in WWE at that time who could give Austin the kind of match he'd accomplished in his WCW heyday, a real old-school technical classic.  Hart's most famous match in 1996 was his hour-long main event against Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 12.  The rivalry between Hart and Michaels was real enough that their respective egos would come close to destroying both careers.  Hart walked away for a good portion of 1996 to give Michaels plenty of room to grow as champion, and he returned in time to find that it was Austin who was creating the biggest buzz.

Of course, in 1996 the story of the year was in WCW with the New World Order.  Of all possible ironies this was a story arc that would have been perfect for Steve Austin, especially as he was finally emerging into "Stone Cold" that year.

Except Austin was in WWE, competing with Bret Hart.  It wasn't until 1997's WrestleMania 13 that Austin and Hart really distinguished themselves in this feud.  When Austin refused to submit to Hart's famous Sharpshooter, he passed out in a pool of his own blood (just go with it), creating an indelible image that proved far bigger than anything else that happened that night.  Later in the year, Austin's career nearly ended at the hands of Bret's brother, the late Owen Hart, when Own dropped Austin on his head.  The resulting trauma to Austin's neck would later shorten his career (much as what had happened to Steamboat's), but wouldn't be enough to stop what would become the story of 1998.

So, 1998.  The year they finally figured out what to do with "Stone Cold" Steve Austin.  This is what writing about character and professional wrestling is all about.  The employee versus the boss.  That's the story Austin fell into (thanks in large part to how Hart and Michaels settled their feud in the final months of 1997), with WWE owner Vince McMahon becoming a character himself in order to present a clear storyline, because the success of this story was as much what Austin did in a wrestling match as what he did outside of it, a conflict between himself and McMahon that built for months.

Austin dominated 1998.  By 1999, WWE was smart enough to develop a number of other wrestlers to compete in the main event, among them "The Rock" Dwayne Johnson, Mick Foley, and Triple H.  While Austin's antics continued much as they'd been going, his neck was bothering him enough to require a lengthy hiatus for surgery.  By the time he returned in 2000, he needed new purpose.  He set his sights on the man the storyline had held responsible for his time away from the ring, Triple H, and then Austin did the unthinkable in 2001, which was actually join forces with McMahon, his previous mortal enemy.

Truthfully, a lot of fans still have a hard time figuring that one out.  They never understood how the Austin from 1998-1999 could even entertain the idea, much less act on it.  The thing is, it's all about the needs of the character.  An Austin who was one-dimensional would have kept doing the same thing.  But Austin had enjoyed enough of a taste of mainstream success (at one point he was a recurring guest star on Nash Bridges) that he felt comfortable expanding what his wrestling persona could do.  Instead of just the angry loner who rebelled against everyone and everything, he could interact with others a little more directly, even while he kept a comfortable distance.  And he could even be funny.

By 2002, his need to be in the main event whenever he was an active part of the roster had diminished, something Austin had been working on since his heyday.  But even Austin had a problem with that by then.  He took a backseat when The Rock battled Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania that year.  Attempts to put him in a feud with Ric Flair similar to the one he'd had with McMahon weren't enough to keep him amused, nor the idea that he become easy fodder to the emerging Brock Lesnar.  So he walked away.  He was never an active member of the roster again.

In 2003, however, he staged a year-long comeback as a personality, acting of all things as an authority figure, amusingly in direct opposition to Eric Bischoff, who shared this role with him.  This Austin combined the earlier "Stone Cold" character with the later one.

What can you learn from Steve Austin?  That character is something that needs context.  Sometimes the context works and sometimes it doesn't.  Most of the time you'll be able to see if the character is working, even if you need a little extra work for the character to truly shine, to be at its very best.  Austin was always a notable wrestling commodity, but there was a brief period where he was untouchable, because he was presented in his best possible context.  It's all about knowing how this character works against that character.  That's professional wrestling in a nutshell.  When it works, it really works.

Most of us know the epiphany of creating a character who truly speaks to our sensibilities as a writer.  The trick of being a good writer is knowing the difference between the idea as it is in your head and how the idea works in an actual story.  There's always a difference.  A truly good concept can work despite awful execution, because it'll have been presented just well enough that the concept speaks for itself.  A truly good story is a concept that's executed perfectly.  Usually in fiction the concept is the central character.  Sometimes it's the premise, but in the majority of fiction it's character.  And it's the same in wrestling.

So that's what you can learn from a guy called "Stone Cold" Steve Austin.

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