Two weeks ago I was discussing the movie Tremors, and among other things praising the characters for reacting to their situation in a “fairly realistic” manner. If you’re wondering what I mean by that, I guess the core of the idea could be boiled down to this:
– If a character puts their hand on a hot stove, and doesn’t immediately recoil from doing so, you’d better have a good reason.
“Because my script needs their hand on that stove” is not a good enough reason by itself, at least not if you’re hoping for some level of audience investment in what’s happening to the character. If you can’t figure out a decent explanation, even for yourself, then it’s a good sign it might be time for a rewrite.
Do you have to immediately spell out the explanation to the audience? That can be its own pitfall, so no, I don’t believe that’s always appropriate. What’s important is a certain sense of consistency; an internal logic of character that is at least as important as the internal logic of your world. If you’ve established someone as a timid follower, scared of their own shadow, you probably shouldn’t write them as being the first to poke their nose into the spooky abandoned house unless you’ve got an answer for that, and sooner or later are prepared to let your audience in on that answer. On the other hand, if you established someone as curious and reckless, you can treat that as a sort of shorthand for behavior that fits along those lines and get on with things.
I just re-watched Alien recently and noted a perfect example of this with Kane, who out of all the “space truckers” of the Nostromo crew has the most enthusiasm about venturing into the unknown, volunteering without hesitation to go out after the distress signal. There are people who complain that his decision to peer over an opening egg is monumentally stupid and only happens because it has to happen for the plot… and if it had been the griping, nervous Lambert in the same situation, I would agree. But it’s Kane. Is it smart? No. But perhaps even more important than your folks being smart in a manner consistent to their character, is when they’re stupid in a manner consistent to their character. Who else but Parker would have ever tried to knock a seven foot tall monster aside to save the girl? (Dallas, earlier on: “Parker – I don’t want any heroics out of you, all right?”) Not to mention Lambert had just recently saved his life in the tussle against a certain robot.
Alien works, in my opinion, because even if the characters involved are doing things you personally would never do, chances are you know some people who might react like that. It’s accessible in that way, and that lets you get involved and start to care. I think that’s why every death in Alien feels shocking in a way that most of its imitations can’t seem to capture, beyond just the blood and guts (although oh, those are still some nasty ways to go). These were people, and what’s happening to them is therefore quite tragic.
Keeping a character-driven consistency in the actions and reactions of your people is a great way to present who they are to an audience without needing to dump a ton of exposition on their heads. Deviating from expectations can also be rewarding, since I think all of us know people who have surprised us with some relationship or reaction even after we’ve known them for years. Go too far in one direction and the character seems unrealistic because they’re so “one-note”. Go too far in the other and they become a random mess. How do you capture that elusive middle ground? Hell, I’m still working on that, myself. Some readers expected Suzie to come out shooting as soon as she found the McCartys on her land. She didn’t — which I’m fully willing to say may actually have been the dumb choice under the circumstances — but if it seems like a deviation from her character all I can tell you is I don’t feel it’s an unreasonable one, both in terms of aspects of her that have been presented to you so far and aspects that haven’t.
And with all that said, it’s time to finish packing for Comic-Con! No table for us this year, but if you happen to be one of the lucky ones attending, make sure to stop by the Art Show upstairs in the Sails Pavilion where Dawn will have some great original art and prints available. We’ll be having sketch time next Wednesday before continuing the story, but I’ll be here with my blog as usual. See you then!