Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

Characterisation demands planning

When Suzy's half-brother's dog-beautician's uncle is revealed as her secret love-child , and why TV soaps have an excuse for that but you don't.
Some writing tips today, and I'm not even going to bill you for them. I'm nice like that. This arose from a recent conversation with a colleague about the character implausibility of some movie sequels. If you've ever wanted to throw a brick at the TV after an improbable twist in your regular soap opera, this is for you.

When I did Clarion, one of the tutors told us a very wise thing: it's bad writing to hide things from the reader that a POV character would know. Sometimes that's factual stuff - Character X worked for Organisation Y and so would have known fact Z, so don't build a story on withholding that from the reader - but frequently it's about the mental fabric of the characters themselves, about their family and upbringing. I never worked out how anyone could write a character and hold that stuff back anyway, because I "method write," but it's pretty common.

TV soaps are a good example. The character whose previously unmentioned but estranged sister shows up in town with a whole new pile of problems. The character whose troubled past hasn't ever been so much as hinted at but suddenly acquires one halfway through the series. The character who has no discernible past but is suddenly revealed to have been raised in a grim children's home or by a drunken, violent mother, although she's shown no evidence of that before. And so on. They're a symptom of not having thought things through when you started, the characterisation equivalent of deus ex machina event-based plot twists. They happen when you're groping for new ideas and a getting a bit desperate.

But soaps have a real excuse for that, and nine times out of ten they probably can't avoid it. Let's put to one side all the pressure they're under to beat a rival network's show - if one series has a volcano engulfing the town, the others invariably pick up that storyline sooner or later, and so on. I'm talking about the nuts and bolts of writing a soap, the technical constraints to the craft. You have an indefinite run usually with no firm planned end in sight for the story arcs, so you can't plan the character arcs in every detail: the writing team will change frequently over the life of the series, which can easily be thirty or forty years, not weeks: actors will come and go for all kinds of reasons: and you have to churn out several shows a week. The fact that soaps manage to be even vaguely coherent under those conditions is a testament to the hard work that's put into them. Viewers don't know how soaps are written or the constraints the teams work under, of course, and so they just know what works for them and what doesn't. Fair enough: as a pro, your problems are your problems, and the customer should never see them or have to make allowance for them. But even so, let's cut soaps some slack. (And marvel at how the BBC turned coping with a change of cast into a fundamental part of the plot and characterisation that, at least eleven* Dr Whos later, still works perfectly.)

Most books, movies, and other forms of fiction don't have those no-end-in-sight issues to deal with. They often don't know if they're going to get a green light for sequels, though, and so they often don't or can't plan as much as they need to. But there are some basics of characterisation that you should always bear in mind so that you don't end up with characters who suddenly change their fundamental nature, and not in a good or managed way.

You can pull a lot of stunts with external stuff - the world they inhabit, or the random stuff (meteor impacts, floods, car crashes) that life throws at them. But if you make your characters inconsistent - give them an internal life they never had before - your audience will notice; maybe not consciously, but they will spot it. They're humans. They instinctively know how humans work.

Unless your character has a psychiatric condition, or amnesia, they'll know if they have siblings, and their behaviour and psychological dynamics will be consistent with that. (I'm not including "separated at birth" type scenarios here. I mean a character who simply must be aware they're not alone.) If you have an elder sister or a younger brother, it shapes the way you relate to other people. Plenty of studies have been done on family composition and how where you are in the birth order combined with your gender affects how you relate to others. That means it's an integral part of characterisation for a writer - but it's also something the character will know. They'll show that they know they have siblings. And the tighter the point of view - i.e., the more you show of their thoughts and memories - the more obvious and frequent that awareness will be. If you've never revealed in your character's thoughts that he has a brother, then nailing one on halfway through the series or sequel is going to jar at best or stand out like a sore and rather dumb thumb at worst.

Ditto parents or children. Look, you know if you've got them. (Again, I'm not including the "I thought my mother died giving birth to me" stories, or stories that just don't cover the character's family history.) Close family members that you don't know exist are the central core of stories, foundations to build from, not details to be added later. Parents shape you in every possible way. Good or bad, sooner or later, your character will show it in their words and actions. And children - parenthood changes a person. If, for example, your heroine gives up her baby for adoption, regardless of the reason, that will never leave her. Whatever her reasons and whatever she feels about the baby, it'll feature in her thoughts and attitudes. So if you run out of ways to continue your saga and decide to give the heroine a previously unmentioned baby handed over to nuns twenty years ago, don't expect the reader/viewer/listener to buy that twist.

Twists like that have to be built in from the start, when you create that character. It's part of who they are. If your heroine doesn't think about her adopted baby, then you have to have a bloody solid psychological rationale for that, one that the audience can see, even if it's cloaked in a mystery. That can be done, of course. For example, you can create a heroine who recalls losing a kitten as a child and knows that it upset her, but reveal later that this is her adult reaction to actually handing over her baby, a way for her tormented mind to shut it out and cope with it. Yes, this is a full scale psychiatric job. There's something wrong with a heroine who has to bury an event in that way, and it could and should be absolutely central to the story - maybe the whole punchline ending.

But shoehorning a baby in later? Giving the heroine siblings or close relatives she never, ever thinks about or shows signs of having until you add them in halfway down the line? No. You've changed the core of the character. And you may well change them into something you really don't want. ("What, she had a kid, gave it away, never gives it a thought, never mentions it to her husband, acts like it she hasn't got a care in the world, then she's suddenly angsting over it?") Unless the point is to suddenly reveal the character as not what they seem - and that's something you can never achieve if you're showing what's happening inside their head, unless you take the delusion route - then retrofitting the fundamental family dynamics stuff just doesn't work.

I have sympathy with (and a lot of respect for) writers who have to wring something fresh out of the same formula for decades at a time with no end in sight, let alone all the other TV-specific constraints they have to work with. But if you're working on a shorter and more finite scale, you've got the latitude to do better than that. You can follow the characters. You can develop them from the foundations that you gave them, and resist throwing in bolt-on stuff that you really should have worked out from day one.

Your audience might not always know why certain characters resonate with them and others don't. But they'll always respond to a character who behaves like a real human being. It's all about believability.

Once you've made your creative bed, it's better to lie on it. Work with the character, follow their natural flow, and ramp up the drama along the way by thinking smarter about where their family set-up and psychology would take them rather than grabbing for the first relative or secret you can think of and squeezing that square peg into a round hole that it was never designed to fit. Or if you really can't do that, just pull the plug, admit that you're rebooting, and start over.

(*If you're about to argue the toss on DW - "at least" allows for the movie versions and other media. Don't even think about it...)