Thursday, August 2, 2012

Earning that win -- emotionally

Continuing the topic of story characters earning their wins, some thoughts on character-dependent story elements. See the first part about physical challenges.

Character development accomplished
We've all seen stories where a character simply sets aside a lifetime's worth of habits, beliefs, or fears and fully embraces something they initially rejected or that their society believes is wrong. They cry a few tears, hem and haw a bit, and then they're OK.

As a lifelong fat woman who's ten years into recovering from what popular culture ingrained into my young mind, I find this annoying. Character development is tough.

Fears faced
Once bitten, twice shy. Not "once shy" or someone-told-me-it's-okay and the fears are magically overcome. Fear is a primal urge that makes people behave irrationally, and it's there to keep us alive. The more times a character faces their fears and fights to overcome them, the better developed they are and the more invested the readers will be.

The catacombs below Paris -- I'd love to visit, someday.
Photo by Atif Gulzar, available at
Biases overcome
I have known, all my life -- and experience has reinforced this -- about the universe's contrary nature. If you need a thing, you won't be able to find it. If you don't need a thing, you'll be tripping over it constantly. Things break when you really need them to work, and things only go wrong when you aren't ready for them. If things are going well, disaster is coming to fix that. And if the universe can publicly embarrass me along the way, all the better.

How much would it take to convince me the world is a wonderful, kind, magical place?

Yeah. So the next time a character just decides to see past their racism, sexism, classism, etc., consider how difficult it is to ignore things you know in your bones. This goes double in situations where characters have to suspend their belief in ordinary, reasonable things like "pigs don't fly" or "walls are solid."

Consequences weathered
If your good guys did something questionable, or risky, if they lost a bet and now must pay up -- this makes for excellent character development. It shows the reader what sort of honor this character has, their strengths and weaknesses, and what they'll do when they get desperate. Like facing fears, the more readers see a character putting in the work, the more invested they are in the outcome. A get-out-of-jail-free card is not the writer's friend. 

I love a good redemption story, where a character works their way back to honor and dignity, pays for the mistakes they made, frees themselves of burdens they took on or were punished with. We all want to believe that if we put in earnest, hard work, we'll be rewarded. We like to see it happen to imaginary people, too.

It's a specific form of consequence, one where the character does not start out a "good guy" or penitent about what he's done. Realizing the need to face the consequences of past action is usually part of the character's development. There may be a great deal of disagreement on exact shades and precise amounts, but in general people will know when a character has paid for their past sins -- they're sensitive to when there hasn't been enough payment. Accordingly, writers tend to go overboard in the challenges they put before characters seeking redemption, just to be sure, and that's all right. So long as the character's success doesn't strain credulity.

Are there things a character can't earn redemption for? That depends on your audience and your personal biases. This actually leads into another blog post I'm going to write on the functions of death within a story -- because death is the only way a character can buy redemption, sometimes. What do you think?

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