There are a lot of different elements that make up a story, and if you ask a hundred different literary scholars, you’ll hear all of them, I’m sure. Setting, theme, atmosphere, plot, metaphor—there are essays on it, each written by a person, who according to themselves and possibly the person who taught their lit class, is totally correct and who has worked very, very hard to assure themselves is not a matter of opinion.
Me? Well my favorite part of storytelling is building the world and if I looked hard enough, I could give you a lot of reasons why it’s the most important part too. In fact, the place I read instead of literary essays, Cracked.com, just recently ran an article making just that claim.
And I totally disagree.
While it’s my favorite thing to do and will always be the big draw, especially in movies, I don’t think setting is the end all and be all of a story. No matter how many interesting concepts I introduce, no matter what kind of society I draw, or set-pieces I describe, they won’t mean anything without someone to move around in them, experience them, and give shape to my tale. You know, characters.
Characters are the part of the story that move, for lack of a better description. They live in the world and it is their actions that make up the plot. And the most important part of any character, whether they’re a farm boy out to join the rebellion, or the gruff, filthy Canadian that’s the best at what they do (and what they do isn’t pretty), is that the audience understand them.
‘Understand’ here being a relative term. They don’t need to know why, say, the Joker is insane, but they do need to know that he is, in fact, insane and that any change to that insanity will be explained in a way that makes sense.
It call comes back to that suspension of disbelief thing from last article and can be summed up pretty well by dropping some SCIENCE! On you:
For those of you that didn’t play the video, don’t speak English, or are just plain confused as to why I posted the Bill Nye opening theme beyond nostalgia for eight grade science classes: one of the line said in voice over in the theme goes like this:
‘Inertia is a property of matter’.
To refresh that eight grade science lesson, Inertia is described as follows: the tendency of an object in motion to stay in motion and an object at rest to stay at rest unless acted on by an outside force. You don’t even have to know that much though, because your brain already sort of knows that that’s a rule. So if you throw a ball and it stops in midair and just hangs there, you know something is wrong, science or no science.
The same thing happens when a reader is reading along and suddenly a fun loving, cheerful character becomes a self hating masochist over the course of some fifty pages, They know that something is wrong. And if you don’t give a good enough reason for that change, they will take this as a breech of the unspoken contract to suspend their disbelief that I mentioned in the last article.
See, when you try to throw that ball, there’s no rational explanation beyond a capricious hand of god trying to drive you insane (possibly on a bet like with Job), but when this sort of glitch in the Matrix happens in a story, the reader instantly knows that this thing happened because there’s a guy (or gal) writing those words and they just did something stupid.
In a word, your characters must remain consistent. Hack writers and editors trying to force changes on character or covering up the fact that they didn’t do any research will try to say that this is the same as stagnant, but don’t you believe them.
A consistent character can and does change over time (usually), but this change is either gradual or a well sudden or explained extension of who they are. A normal average Joe can have his determination magnified by circumstance and become a badass; a conniving wretch can have their sympathies played on and become noble, and a shy wallflower can be forced to take a stand and become assertive from it. And all of these can remain consistent as long as you make sure that the audience understands what’s going on.
So how do you manage this?
In season two of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angelus tells Spike “To kill this girl… you’ve gotta love her.” And in order to keep a character consistent, you have to love them.
Oh, you might not them as people. It’s not like I have any personal affection for Simon Talbot or Wartorn, but like a good parent, I love my ink babies enough that I know everything about them and do my best to translate that to the page.
Take for example, Morganna:
She was never completely healthy mentally; what with an Elektra Complex and slowly degrading ability to tell fantasy from reality. She eventually turned to magic to make her father proud and over the years can’t tell her father from the ’cause’ of magic. She doesn’t see other people as individuals with hopes, dreams and favorite TV shows; just as props in the story of her life as she tries to do right by her father/magic. This informs her insane schemes and explains her casual cruelty.
And because I know how she works, I know what I would have to do to redeem her (That sound you hear is me laughing long and hard at the idea of ever redeeming Morganna), how to make her worse, or even how to kill her in a meaningful way. I can change her to serve any purpose I might need and (I hope) I can make that happen in such a way that lets the audience step back and see exactly why.
And just like all fiction, that’s all you really need: an explanation that makes sense in context. It should also be satisfying, but that’s another article.
The best part about fiction is that that whole suspension of disbelief contract can help you sustain that. Remember that ball example? Well it turns out that your neighbor is a witch who hates baseball. You should go and talk to her, get to know her and become friends, eventually culminating in her coming over and playing baseball with you, using her powers.
Sure, you laugh now because in the real world, witches are just Wicca practitioners and most of them are either fans of or indifferent toward baseball (also, they probably can’t break physics. I haven’t done a lot of research). But you know where it makes total sense? My new urban fantasy, Covening the Bases, on sale this September (not really).
Anyway, that’s it for this week. Next week is the end of this series; Breaking the Rules; a post all about when, why and how to take everything I’ve been talking about all month and just tossing it aside in a fit of madness. Might want to bring a shield to bite for that last part.