Thursday, January 19, 2017

Why It's Important To Let Your Characters Tell Their Own Stories

Yes, It Really Works That Way

This is the most surprising thing I've learned as an author. I remember fighting it in one of my early attempts at writing a book. I had a married couple who were supposed to love each other to Saturn and back, but every time they had a conversation they started bickering. Then, when the wife started noticing strange occurrences in the house (it was a ghost story), she told her husband and he didn't believe her. And she got angry because he wasn't taking her seriously. I was alarmed. This wasn't how their relationship was supposed to work! They were supposed to be the perfect couple. I just had to work the story back around to their delirious love for one another. But every time I wrote a scene with both of them in it, they started arguing again. What the heck! I thought I was doing something wrong. I thought I was allowing my story to go in a direction it wasn't supposed to go. What I found out later was that wherever the characters want to go, that's where they're supposed to go.

An Example To Illustrate My Point

I'm going to use the television series Nip Tuck as an illustration for both the right and wrong way to go about character development. Okay, I know the show isn't on anymore, so I'm not going with anything current. And I know there are people out there who never watched it because it just wasn't for them. I mean, it got pretty raunchy at times with its graphic sex scenes and even more graphic surgery scenes. So if you missed it and you're perfectly fine with that, then I'm perfectly fine with that too. But you'll still be able to follow my line of thinking because I'll give all the examples you need to understand what I'm talking about.

The Sad Story of Christian Troy

Before there was Christian Grey, there was Christian Troy. The similarities between the two characters are so striking that for a while I was sure Fifty Shades was written by a disgruntled Nip Tuck fan. I found out later that I was wrong and if you don't know that story there are plenty of places to google it. I won't explain it here because it's beyond the scope of this blog post.

From the first episode of Nip Tuck it was clear that Christian's character was designed to melt the hearts of the show's female fans. In the first scene we are introduced to his charming side. Okay, he's a womanizer, but at this point who cares? He's handsome. He's intelligent. He's a successful doctor. And he's apparently great in bed because later on when he takes Kimber back to his house she doesn't seem to be complaining much. By the end of the episode we see a little deeper into his psyche, into the parts of him he doesn't reveal to the women he sleeps with, or even to his best friend. It is revealed that the patient they have just treated is a child molester, then we see a flashback to Christian as a little boy. It's fairly subtle, but the implication is strong that Christian was abused as a child. A later episode confirms this to be true. So right off the bat we've got a character who's handsome and charming, but who's been through some seriously traumatic crap in his life. In love with him yet? I think a lot of women were after that episode aired.

Then later Kimber comes back. Remember Kimber? He had a one night stand with her in the pilot, made her feel so crappy about her body she had to call the office and schedule some minor cosmetic surgeries, hinted that there might be the possibility for some kind of relationship between the two of them, then dumped her in the rudest possible way. She disappeared for a few episodes, but now she's back and she's pissed. An odd relationship forms between the two of them at this point, but it quickly becomes clear that Kimber is pretty darn far from being ready to forgive and forget. Then she asks Christian, "Why couldn't you just love me?" His response is typically jerk-like, but it broke my heart just the same. He says, "It's not your fault. I've never loved anyone." Aw...poor Christian. Let me be the one to teach you how to love.

Well, it turns out Christian does learn how to love. Only it's not a woman who teaches him. It's a child. One of his one night stands comes back into his life to inform him she's pregnant. At first he's understandably distraught, but then his sense of responsibility for the baby kicks in and he finds himself doing the kinds of things for this woman that a husband would do for a wife. Christian Troy being all domestic? Yeah...that's what impending fatherhood does for him. Of course, it's eventually revealed that the baby isn't really his, but by that point he loves the kid so much he can't imagine abandoning him. The scenes with Christian and that child are all so touching I still get goosebumps thinking about them.

Okay, we're at the end of season 1 now and we've established a certain story arc. We've discovered that, among other things, this show is about Christian and his journey from womanizing jerk to sensitive caring guy. But he has to go through a few more tragedies before his character can really become all he's capable of being. The first tragedy is losing custody of the baby when the biological father comes back on the scene. Oh my goodness, I don't think a TV show has ever made me cry so hard. Christian is broken after that, and as he's trying to put himself back together he finds he can't go back to the life he had before. He's been shown that there's more to relationships than just sex, and he's ready to explore some of that with a woman. He enters into what is probably the first monogamous relationship he's ever had. It doesn't work out. He finds that the woman he's chosen is just not the right one for him, but in their time together she helps him feel all the emotions he's run away from in the past. Again, some incredibly touching scenes came out of all that.

Then we come to the end of season 2 and Christian is attacked by a serial rapist who began making appearances a few episodes prior. Again, his life is spiraling out of control. Again he looks to a woman to help him find his way. This time it's Kimber. His feelings for her grow to such a point that he finally asks her to marry him. Christian Troy, married? It's not in keeping with his personality from the first season, but so much has happened to him by this point that it's perfectly believable. He's finally found that place within himself where he's capable of loving. Where he doesn't need to be with a different woman every night just to prove his manhood. Then Kimber is kidnapped on the day of their wedding, and Christian thinks she's walked out on him. He's furious. And he goes back to his old womanizing ways in order to work out his feelings of being stranded at the altar. But when he discovers what really happened to Kimber, he's overcome with remorse. He wants to renew their relationship, but she's been through too much and can't continue with him.

So now we're in season 4 and we'd like to expect the steady growth we've seen up to this point to continue. But something very unfortunate happens in season 4. It's like the writers have realized his character is nothing at all like he was in the first episode and they want to restore him to his former glory. So they force him to morph back into a womanizing jerk. Only this time the actor has begun to go bald and has put on a few pounds, so there's this whole annoying story arc where Christian becomes obsessed with his physical appearance to the point that he misses the birth of his best friend's son because he's having liposuction done at the moment the wife goes into labor. Really, Christian? You leave your best friend alone at a time like that because you're too vain to accept you now have love handles?

It only gets worse as the show goes on. The writers strip him of everything that made him a likable character. They stop focusing on his inner turmoil over that fact that, let's see, he was molested as a child, he fell in love with a baby he thought was his son only to lose the baby to the biological father, he was raped by the same man who kidnapped his fiancée and caused that relationship to come to an end, and on and on and on. In season 4 it's like none of that stuff matters to him anymore. But for the love of God don't let the man have love handles. That would be the end of the freaking world.

The Moral of the Story

The point is that as a writer you may have an idea of who you want your characters to be. When they begin to develop their own personalities and move in directions which are different from the ones you envisioned, you may be tempted to reel them back in and put them back on the path you originally designed. Don't give in to that temptation. Please. Let Christian Troy become the good man he wants to be and not the womanizer you thought he was supposed to be. Your audience will thank you. 

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