Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Subtle Things #1: Character innocence

I was watching The Cabin in the Woods -- I'm not much of a horror fan, but I am a Joss Whedon fan, so it had to be done. Joss's commentaries are always thought-provoking, too, which was part of why I wanted to see it. And one particular scene jumped out at me because 1. it's a reliable hallmark of good writing, 2. it's something I'm wrestling with in writing Disciple, Part VI and, 3. it's a subtle thing and I've been compiling a list of those lately.

The scene was an excellent example of character innocence.

We're all going to die, aren't we...
What do I mean by "character innocence"? (It's just the term I came up with.) Joss's characters don't act according to knowledge they don't have. They're completely innocent of "authorial knowledge" -- those things the author knows about the story, which can leak into the characters' behavior in subtle ways. The scene that so nicely illustrates this is when one of the characters in Cabin is going to try to go for help. He takes a moment to say good-bye and sketch out some plans in case various, quite reasonable, things go wrong. None of which are what actually goes wrong, of course -- and that's the entire point.

The character doesn't know he's in a horror movie. As far as he knows, he's out in a cabin with his friends -- who he treats as friends, because he doesn't know they're going to die -- and weird, bad things are happening. He acts like the reasonable, stand-up guy that he is, in response to that.

The observant viewer of the movie knew what was going to happen. It creates either dread, for the observant, or a gut-punch for those who forgot about the set-up and got this nasty reminder.

"Well, of course the character wouldn't know he's about to die." Yes. But keeping characters in the dark can be easier said than done.

Disciple is told from a first-person perspective. Mostly. Because of that "mostly," the readers know some things, going into Part VI, that my narrator does not. My narrator is trying to deduce what those things are, and it's difficult to write because I hate for her to be wrong -- and because I know the truth in great detail. I wrote it. It happened.

Why can't she just come to the right conclusions? Because -- like what happened to the guy in Cabin -- the truth is something she has no reason to expect. Letting her make that kind of intuitive leap, without sufficient clues, would ring false. It would take away her "innocence."

Authorial knowledge creeps in very subtly. It can be very difficult to put your finger on. In a lot of situations -- genre movies in particular -- the audience is more than complicit. They expect it, to a degree. And yet the story is always better when the characters are completely innocent.

A lesser writer, to go back to Cabin, would've had the guy just announce "I'll go get help!" and head off to his doom. Because it doesn't matter what he says or thinks -- he's going to die. This is a horror movie and characters are expected to die. The fact that a character didn't say or think, in such a situation, is a form of admission that he knows it doesn't matter what he says or thinks.

But in Cabin, the characters gathered round for a moment to give meaning to this one character's departure. It validated that this was real and serious, to them, which is what real people would do.

No real person wants to be the redshirt. So no "real" character should act like one.

Subtle things
I've been collecting a list of "subtle things" as I've been thinking about that vast, foggy land between "serviceable writing" and "excellent writing." We've all heard the standard writing advice maxims: Show, don't tell. Characters need to be sympathetic. The story needs to progress toward a goal. Don't forget to add a backdrop for the action. Etc.

All of those are guaranteed to improve one's writing. But they won't win you a Hugo. At a certain level of writing skill, personal tastes, audience expectations and artistry come into play -- and it's no longer a matter of whether you did something right, it's whether you sold it to the reader. The elements of good writing that can be pinned down become -- subtle. Small. Argue-able. A sentence here, a few words there. Which, if taken out of context, may not look particularly good in and of themselves.

So you will see these posts pop up, as they come to me and as I find examples. What are some subtle hallmarks of good writing that you've noticed? I've got seven more on my list...


Michael Offutt, Speculative Fiction Author said...

Great authorly advice as always. I hope your books eventually win a Hugo. That would be awesome.

Liz said...

I haven't seen Cabin in the Woods because of my distaste for horror, although I too love Joss Whedon. Don't know if I will.

Interesting post.

L. Blankenship said...

FWIW, the night scenes were so dark, on the DVD, that I could barely see what was going on. Which was fine by me. The screaming got the point across.

What carries the movie is the homage/deconstruction, the observation of the genre's forms while putting them in a new context. The understructure of the story is sound and it's got every ounce of wit you'd expect from Joss. It's not some stupid torture porn splatterfest. Plus, it's got actors.

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