December 22nd, 2006


Everything and Nothing - some thoughts about worlds, characters and how to break them both

One thing that becomes entirely obvious when writing a story is that they can be about _anything_. There are no restrictions on plot, genre, character or any other facet of fiction - shold you wish to write about a young girl kidnapped by 500 foot tall mutant Gila Monsters, and how she goes on to become a famous fashion writer before marrying a gay cowboy who tracks down paedophile nuns in 1930s Hollywood you can do so. And this complete lack of restrictions is both a blessing and a curse, because while being able to do anything at all is terribly freeing, tying it all together into something people will actually care about is most decidedly not.

People are generally only interested in stories they have some kind of emotional attachment to, and that emotional attachment requires a certain level of believability in the story being told. Which isn't to say that the story can't be full of the aforementioned gila monsters, or other fantstical elements - but it does mean that the audience must feel that they can place their faith in the stability of the story without having the rug whisked out from under them. Generally this is such an unspoken built-in assumption that it's not even mentioned, only surfacing when it's violated.

One of my favourite examples of this is From Dusk Till Dawn, which starts off as one kind of movie, and halfway through becomes another type. Now, personally, I really enjoyed this, and felt it happened early enough that it counted as a plot twist, but some people felt completely betrayed that they'd been involved in one type of story when another one came out of left field. This pulled them completely out of any narrative involvement and reminded them, effectively, that they were being told a story. _Anything_ could happen, which strips meaning from whatever it is that does.

The X-Files violated this narrative cohesion in a different way - as a collection of individual stories it was generally fine, but it had pretensions to being a bigger story, throwing in occasional episodes and plot elements that purported to tie everything in to a massive conspiracy. The problem being that as time went on there was more and more evidence that said massive conspiracy was being made up as it went along, and thus because it could mean anything, meant nothing. To begin with mentioning The Conspiracy caused viewers to get more interested, and gave them a hook to keep them watching longer, but keeping this going for too long, first without closure and then with with no hope of decent closure just made people turn off.

Of course, it doesn't just apply to action/adventure/investigation plot - it's just as important when it comes to character-based plot. It's my belief that the reason slash fiction causes so much upset isn't because placing (probably) straight characters in gay situations causes a homophobic reaction, but because it causes a narrative break for the reader - the reaction most people have isn't "Eww!" it's "He'd never do that!"

When characters out out-of-character purely because the plot demands it, it weakens out interest in both the plot and the character - one particularly outrageous example being in season 7 of Buffy, when Giles spends several episodes not touching anyone, purely because that way people will suspect he's not actually Giles, but The First Evil (who has no physical presence, but can look like anything). This made no sense for the character at all, and merely made it clear that the writers would do anything to temporarily raise tension, even at the expense of any investment the audience had in the characters.

Prioritising plot above the internal logic of either the characters or the world is a trap that's terribly easy to fall into, and it can work remarkably well for a single moment, but every time you bend the either the world or the characters you weaken them - do it enough and people cease to care.