Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Worst Thing You Could Do To Your Characters

"i never thought the worst thing you could do would be to me." - Blair in Monday night's episode of Gosspi Girl.

Really, Chuck should have said this line and directed it to the writers of the CW's hit show, because they did something awful. (See yesterday's post, I won't rehash my anger).

Don't go running just yet if you aren't a Gossip Girl fan. That's okay. This post is about writing and about your characters, just inspired by the epic fail of Monday night.

For those of you who do not watch the show - a quick recap. Basically, Chuck Bass, a character the writers of Gossip Girl have spent THREE YEARS developing (and developing well!!!) did something in the last episode that COMPLETELY went against his character. Why? For drama. For a twist. For shock. All good things to have in a story, but NOT at the expense of your previous hard work to build a character.

Character development is key to any story. If your characters don't feel realistic, then who will connect with them? Why should we be invested in your book? Hopefully, you've taken the time to get to know your characters. Having them develop and grow is so important, and letting the reader in on it is kind of a magical experience. When the process is slow and graceful, it can be really cool to look back and say, "Hey, wow, look how far this character has come!" When done right, the change is so gradual you may not realize it is happening.

At the same time, plot is important, too. I openly admit that characters are more interesting to me than plot, but the fact is, every book needs a story. Let's focus on YA primarily. A YA novel, no matter the genre, needs to be exciting to keep a reader going. Maybe it's a violent action adventure. Maybe it's a steamy romance. Whatever it is, it has to be exciting and interesting to keep a reader going.

I know we use the word "drama" for TV and movies most of the time, but drama for literature is important, also. We need tension and conflict - and yeah, the occasional big "OMG!" plot twist is a good idea.

That said, sacraficing your characters for the drama, tension, or "OMG!" moment is a big bad scary no-no.

Look back at Gossip Girl for a minute (just a second! I promise I'll shut up about it soon!). The episode was meant to have an "OMG! Noooooo!!!!" moment. But as far as I can see, most fans were too consumed by the "Wait . . . what? Um, that makes no sense because Chuck isn't that kind of character" reaction.

Be true to your characters. Just because it would provide drama and a plot twist, doesn't mean your character should do it. Find motivation for everything. How would your character rationalize this? Has your character been decieving people all along? If this is the case, HINT to it. Saying Billy Bob is the murderer out of nowhere doesn't work unless we can flip back through the pages and say "Oh, wow, he totally almost confessed here!."

If you aren't true to the characters you have spent time letting the reader get to know, the reader will totally notice. And then how do they stay invested in teh book?

Don't do the worst thing to your characters. Don't make them do something they wouldn't. Don't go against your own character development for the sake of drama. Take care of them and be respectful to them. Trust me, breaking character just isn't worth it.

And that's my rant of the day. Hope everyone is well!


Debra L. Schubert said...

This is exactly how I felt watching "Up In The Air" when (SPOILER ALERT!) the female lead turned out to be married and annoyed when Gorgeous George finally truly pursued her. WTF? I don't think so. It was disappointing and took a lot of credibility out of the movie for me.

Great post, Kody. Keep it real, people, keep it real. ;-)

Josin L. McQuein said...

I couldn't agree more.

Too often those sort of "against type" revelations are a way of skirting the literal definition of deus ex machina. Rather than pull a new character out of thin air to fix everything the way it needs to be, writers allow some alien force to possess an already established character to do the same thing.

If you're writing about alien body-snatchers or supernatural puppet people, this might be acceptable if you've set up for such a thing to happen. But, if your readers get to the end and wonder where character X's evil twin came from... not so much.

It's also an extension of the "great excuse" -- It's fiction, it can be whatever I want.

No. No. No. And NO!

It cannot.

At the beginning, you establish the rules for your world. Those rules include the personalities of your characters. You are expected to follow those rules through to the end.

If a character has a major trauma or life-altering revelation, then they are allowed to act against type. But there MUST be a set-up and pay off for said action.

Great post (And I don't even watch GG.)

Courtney Allison Moulton said...

Love this post. You are so right on.

I think the worst thing we as writers could do to our character is force them to sacrifice someone else and their own life isn't an option. Kind of how Buffy had to sacrifice Angel at the end of season 2 to save the world. Friggin breaks my heart for her every time.

Emilia Plater said...

This is all SO true. "Saying Billy Bob is the murderer out of nowhere doesn't work unless we can flip back through the pages and say "Oh, wow, he totally almost confessed here!" - adore. I'm actually trying to work on that re: the big plot twist in AC. Fantastic post, Kody!

jessjordan said...

Courtney: A fellow Buffy fan! I heart you. And that episode still breaks my flippin' heart every time. Every. Time. Now THAT was well-done, believable, playing-within-the-rules-of-your-made-up-world fiction.

sarahenni said...

Great post. There's nothing that makes me lose interest in a book more quickly than a character's extremely out-of-character action. As a reader it almost seems like the author is being disrespectful -- I have the intelligence to know this is weird!

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