Friday, August 3, 2012

A Case Study of Plot and Character Problems

Fencers, McGill University, Montreal, 1925
     What with America's Olympians running around in London, now is a good time to discuss crafting our own heroes and their stories.
     We usually have no trouble identifying the hero. You know, the one who lives through a surprise attack of flaming arrows/bullets/raining acid while all of his friends/enemies die around him, then tortures himself for leading them into danger that he never could have anticipated.  Sometimes we can believe in the incredible escapes are believable, and we root for the character to overcome their obstacles...and other times, we don't. Other times we yawn and wish the story was over already. Worse yet, sometimes the protagonist annoys us so much, we root for the other side. Why is that? There are many things that can cause this apathy, but today we'll talk about two reasons I recently identified.
     Not long ago, I read about a fighter heroine (let's call her Racine) that didn't command my belief or sympathy. In her case, there were two reasons for this:
     Reason #1: Credibility of Actions. Story audiences usually have a high level of tolerance for stretching believability, but there still has to be some credibility for the reader to keep engaging. Good storytellers can suspend disbelief. When reading about Racine, I believed she could protect herself from certain things that other people couldn't; however, after a point it became ridiculous.  She was stabbed or shot with arrows several times in the book, but she never took more than a few days rest before hopping back into her usual grueling work. I know that days of black-out sleep make for boring reading, but that's what white space is for. A real person can't run around like that without physical consequences. This story stretched Racine's strength beyond the realms of plausibility.
     So what's Reason #2?
     The Pity Party. Lazy or inexperienced authors characters create problems simply by being self-absorbed. Racine could have solved three and a half out of five of her problems by snapping out of her self-pity. She kept harping on mistakes she made, or things that weren't even her fault. Sure, she made mistakes, but she needed to get over them.  I call this "hero complex," and Racine had it bad. Her self-absorption caused several other problems, like sickness, anxiety among her friends, and broken hearts. In one situation, the her soul mate  practically slobbered his love all over her, but all she said was, "Oh, but he couldn't possibly love Terrible Me. He's just being all flowery." No. He wasn't. Her problems had easy solutions that she couldn't seem to see.
      The author of this book was hinging on people feeling sorry for Racine, and wanting her to succeed. Frankly, the whole book, I was thumping my fist into my forehead saying, "DUH! Just stop being dumb!" (Okay, maybe I didn't really thump my forehead, because then I'd have a bruise, and I can't afford such a blot on my image *hair flip* (( Speaking of hair flips, conceit is rarely a good way to gain reader sympathy either. Unless we're talking about Dagny Taggart. Brag away, dear, I think you've earned it. Or Hank Rearden. SaWOON!)))

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