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Archive for October, 2012

My principal sends out a morning email each school day with information about events that will occur that day. My favorite part is the quote at the end. Today’s was:

Sports do not build character. They reveal it. – Heywood Hake Brown

It made sense but it also begged another question. What builds character?

I tried to brainstorm a list:

  • Personal hardships – like having to choose between buying food for your family and gasoline to drive to work?
  • Physical Pain – like from breaking a leg and then discovering which of your friends still want to hang out with you even though you can’t walk.
  • A living example – like that favorite teacher who understood you in that one moment when it really mattered and gave you a hug.

I thought I spotted a pattern – that internal motivations built character while external reactions showed character – but that doesn’t quite work. All of the externals do reveal character but the internals are nebulous. It also seems these concepts are hard to separate. Where I see the building of character I almost always see a revealing too.

There’s something there but I can’t see it. What I can see is the answer to a long-standing mystery: Why is there evil in the world? For good. Because it reveals character. As we are tested, we reveal what’s inside so God tests us to reveal our character just as scripture states. Note that it is not because He doesn’t know what we are but because we don’t know ourselves.

So, how does this relate to writing? Revealing character is easy. Building character not so much.

(This suggests other questions like, “Does a writer need to build character in the first place?”  but that is a topic for another post. We can assume it’s a useful skill a little longer.)

So what builds character? The only thing I can think of that might exclusively build character as opposed to reveal it or involve some combination of the two is to watch another human be a good example. Humans imitate what we see others doing. We want to be like people we like. It doesn’t always happen, of course, but when we do imitate one another it’s evidence that character building has taken place.

Maybe that’s why there are so many father figures and mother figures in fiction. Even more heroes and mentors. As writers, we need our readers to identify with the protagonist and all protagonists need something to live for, some goal to obtain. So if readers get to observe the moment when the protagonist bonds with a likable hero or mentor figure, then readers will more likely bond with the protagonist.

Even more if the hero or mentor dies later.

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My recent post imitating the excellent Cockeyed Caravan blog garnered such a great response that I’ve decided to start my own series of writing rules. I’ve dubbed it Rules of the Writing Road since the Storyteller’s Rulebook was taken. 😉 I intend this to be a collection point for my insights into the craft of writing as I discover them.

Which brings me to today’s topic, the first topic of my Rules of the Writing Road.

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House, M.D. and Fringe have something in common. They both started out as excellent shows. House was a medical mystery drama starring a very unconventional doctor. Fringe was a near-future science fiction mystery show in the vein of The X-Files and The Twilight Zone.

I started watching them from the beginning and from the beginning I was hooked. I waited eagerly for each new episode to come out. Our Tivo was my best friend. And when a new episode did air I sat gratuitously glued to the one-eyed monster like a mesmerized lapdog consuming every magical moment.

Each episode of House and each episode of Fringe centered around a mystery. I *love* mysteries and while those unfolded I got plenty of character development and world exploration too. They were a joy to watch.

But something went wrong. After a few seasons, both shows changed their formula of building the episodes around a mystery and both shows fell flat for me.

You see, the problem is that viewers (including me) engage in an unspoken contract with writers. If I want mystery stories and the writers agree to provide them then I will watch. If-Then. Those mysteries were what hooked me and millions of other viewers on both shows. When the writers changed the formula they also broke the unwritten contract and I lost interest.

For me, House devolved from a medical mystery drama to a near-pure drama with only a weak medical mystery component. In some episodes there was no medical mystery, just the main characters working through some internal or relationship struggle. That’s not what I signed up for.

Fringe did the same though I don’t recall ever watching an episode that was completely devoid of all semblance of a mystery plot. Rather, Fringe’s mysteries were completely transformed. They began as discrete, tightly-constructed but loosely-connected mysteries and became a single, epic, interconnected mess. The show went from unraveling a single mystery per episode to consuming more than an entire season to partially explore one grand saga which never fully tied up all the loose ends. Again, I lost interest.

If it wasn’t already obvious, here is the rule: Keep your promises to the audience. How you get them is how you keep them as most marriage counselors know. Courting viewers is the same as courtship before a marriage. Just because you’re past the point of establishing the relationship doesn’t mean you can change the rules after the fact. Again, how you act during courtship is how you are expected to continue to act after marriage. When people make this mistake everyone suffers. Ratings fall, viewers tune out, shows get cancelled early, and writers lose their jobs.

So keep those promises.

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