Sunday, May 19, 2013

Take Happily Ever After Away from your Characters

I admit that there are a few television shows that I watch religiously. Some of them are good and some of them are just awful. The good ones are easy enough for me to justify watching: good writing, good storyline, good acting. The bad ones...well, sometimes it just feels good to turn your brain off and wallow in mindless entertainment, but usually there is a  reason I continue to watch those shows.

I get emotionally involved with the characters.

Lately, I've been watching Revenge. I have to say that I really appreciate the writing on this show. The twists and turns, the Hitchcockian subterfuge about things that really aren't important, the chemistry between the performers---yep, Revenge is one of those shows that has a great blend of drama and melodrama. Think of the '80s show Dallas and all those characters you loved and hated at the same time--that's Revenge.

Supernatural is another television show I've watched for years. Okay, I admit that I started watching because it has some delicious male eye candy, but the writing hooked me. I liked the urban fantasy idea of these two brothers fighting demons and, later, angels as they sought to rid the world of evil--an impossible task to be sure. However, I noticed that once the original writer, Jeremy Carver, left, the show took a turn. And it wasn't for the best. Things got stale. People got killed off that I didn't care about. Then Mr. Carver returned and things pepped up...a little. At least, neither brother died at the end of this season. It was a nice change from the previous three where one of them kicked the bucket only to be miraculously revived for the next season.

So if I was so unhappy with Supernatural those previous seasons, why did I continue to watch?

For the same reason I started watching Revenge. Emotional attachment.

In television, writers have an ace up their sleeve called actors. Even if the writing is only so-so, an actor who is liked and brings flair to a character can actually help the show along. We get involved with them, feel their pain and suffering. We have to know if So and So is going to get what's coming to them!

In book writing, the author has to work even harder to create that emotional attachment. We have to create characters that are relatable and have qualities that are redeeming--even the bad guy. They can't always be perfect and their flaws should often be revealed.

Only then can we truly love them.

This is tricky work and something  not to be taken lightly. There is power in emotional attachments which can keep the reader coming back for more. Or, depending on how you wield that power, it can really piss them off!

It's fun to play with that emotional attachment. Here's a trick that always gets me: give the characters everything they want and then take it all away as soon as you can. How they deal with the whatever disasters you've saddled them with will determine what their character is made of and how much we care about what happens to them. Give your hero and heroine lots of lingering looks, lots of moments where they express their feelings. Lead them to the pivotal moment when their love is declared and then systematically start taking it away.

This is a great technique if you're working on a series. A series gives you the freedom to not necessarily have everything in a tidy bow at the end of Book One. Perhaps everyone lives happily ever after in that first tale, but by the time Book Two rolls around, you gotta start revealing the thorns in the garden of happily ever after.


  1. Absolutely, Mary Ann. There's too much of an obsession with the fairy-tale type ending - people DON'T live happily ever after and, unless you're writing in a formulaic genre that demands it, avoid it like the plague.

    We're hooked on Revenge, too - it's a kind of Dallas with poisonous fangs - but I'd also add in about how '24' was brave enough to write off key characters. The first season (for example) opened with a plane crash, bringing home the 'badness' of the bad guys.

  2. I've heard similar advice on throwing obstacles in your character's way, but honestly, this is the best expression. You've gotten through my thick (and Supernatural addict) head. I'm inspired. I'm too soft on my characters. Look out, guys, my laptop is no longer a haven.

  3. Clive, I'm glad to know I'm not the only one addicted to Revenge! I never watched 24 , but heard it was wondeful!

    Kath, I 'm too soft on my characters, too!

  4. I love creating bad guys and then letting fate decide whether they prosper or suffer as a consequence of their actions.

    Emily VanCamp (Revenge) has got a whole host of superb facial expressions - just a twitch conveys so much. I'd love to be able to put even half of them down in words!