Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Redemption Arcs: The Tragedy of Backstory – Part 1

Ah, backstory. A vital part of any character design (and rarely as necessary to the story being told as we all thought it was in the first draft.)

I remember I once wrote a draft of a now-abandoned novel, and the friend I asked to read it found so much more backstory than was required she just highlighted all instances of backstory and then handed the printout back to me wordlessly. It was a bit humiliating. In some places I was telling more backstory than actual story.

Yeah.

I suspect that this experience was what caused me to really examine how different writers approach this device, in all stories I now encounter. It’s basically a whole separate hobby by this point. And it’s really fascinating to me: all the different effects and uses writers can find for the simple act of telling me what’s happened before the story I am encountering even gets started.

Backstory is a narrative device with many, many uses, and one backstory can serve a whole slew of different aims. Some of the most common examples might be giving a sense of history to a fictional world, a sense of age to characters (if they were having adventures seventy years ago, their experience counts for a lot), and is a good way of feeding readers lies or half-truths in the form of legends passed down for generations. We don’t have time to talk about all of them, right now. But this is the redemption arc series, so that’s what we’re going to focus on, OK?

There are, I think, two main categories of backstory in a redemption arc: Contextual Backstory and Constructive Backstory. They are completely different in style, form and narrative purpose, and we’re going to check them out and see some really good examples of each. Then we’re going to look at the problems that can occur when writers get confused. (It happens to the best of us).

Let’s take a look…

Ch.19 - The Tragedy of Backstory - Part 1

Contextual Backstory

Contextual Backstory tends to be very short, and simply gives a hint of how a character has reached the point in their life where they are ready for a redemption arc. It’s short and simple; there’s not too much nuance presented. There doesn’t need to be – all the character development for the arc will take place in the main story and the Contextual Backstory is simple set-up.

This can be as simple as a character answering the question “Why are you helping me?” with one sentence: “I lost my wife years ago because I was foolish, and I’m not going to repeat my mistakes.” Because really, that sentence probably tells us everything we need to know – there was an event in your past that you feel the need to atone for and now the plot is going to follow you doing just that. Fine.

I worry that some writers, especially newer ones, get the impression that length equals quality, or is in some way necessary. (Like I did with that now abandoned novel.) Absolutely everything I’ve learned from editing could be summed up as: ‘You need to tell people way less than you think.’

Yes, you could expand on this traumatic past event, but do you actually need to? Are you sure?

A really good example of Contextual Backstory in action can be found in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, in which Mr Darcy’s backstory is genuinely given right at the end of the book! That’s how much you needed it for his character arc!

“I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle. As a child I was taught what was right, but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit. Unfortunately an only son (for many years an only child), I was spoilt by my parents, who, though good themselves (my father, particularly, all that was benevolent and amiable), allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing; to care for none beyond my own family circle; to think meanly of all the rest of the world; to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own. Such I was, from eight to eight and twenty; and such I might still have been but for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth! What do I not owe you! You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you, I was properly humbled. I came to you without a doubt of my reception. You showed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased.”

The way Austen structures Pride and Prejudice fascinates me. I can’t think of many stories where a character’s backstory is given after they learn the lesson of their arc, thus allowing the reader to finally appreciate the magnitude of the lesson they learned, but I’d like to see more of it.

Mr Darcy’s speech is a perfect example of Contextual Backstory in action, because while it’s interesting for the reader to learn how Darcy managed to become the proud and disagreeable man that he is throughout much of the book until forced to learn better, it does not matter why he’s like this. Story-wise and audience-wise, it absolutely does not matter.

Mr Darcy is utterly unpleasant to everyone who shows him kindness and welcome for the whole first half of the book, and the fact that he was spoiled by his parents does not excuse this at all. It doesn’t exempt him whatsoever from learning how to behave decently to other people, and he knows this.

Structurally, we are shown the effects of Darcy’s mistakes long before we learn the context; Mrs Bennet, despite having five unmarried daughters and despite Darcy’s large fortune never once tries to encourage her girls to secure a match:

“But I can assure you,” [Mrs Bennet] added, “that Lizzy does not lose much by not suiting his fancy; for he is a most disagreeable, horrid man, not at all worth pleasing. So high and so conceited that there was no enduring him! He walked here, and he walked there, fancying himself so very great! Not handsome enough to dance with! I wish you had been there, my dear, to have given him one of your set-downs. I quite detest the man.”

When Wickham tells lies about Darcy in Meryton, we are shown how everyone is completely willing to believe them because of the poor impression Darcy has made on everyone:

The whole of … his claims on Mr. Darcy, and all that he had suffered from him, was now openly acknowledged and publicly canvassed; and everybody was pleased to know how much they had always disliked Mr. Darcy before they had known anything of the matter.

Miss Bennet was the only creature who could suppose there might be any extenuating circumstances in the case, unknown to the society of Hertfordshire; her mild and steady candour always pleaded for allowances, and urged the possibility of mistakes—but by everybody else Mr. Darcy was condemned as the worst of men.

And of course there’s the fateful moment when Darcy is shown how and why he must change if he is to have a chance at the life he wants:

“From the very beginning— from the first moment, I may almost say— of my acquaintance with you, your manners, impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form the groundwork of disapprobation on which succeeding events have built so immovable a dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.”

In short, so many of Darcy’s problems in life (and love!) stem from the impression he makes on people, and the reason why he makes this impression is not relevant; he needs to change regardless. That’s his half of the story that we all know and love, and the lesson is impactful because we get to watch it happen.

We know that it might not be easy, nor should it be or there’d be no plot. Austen even sets up Darcy’s struggle ahead of time so we, the readers, can enjoy watching it pay-off:

“I certainly have not the talent which some people possess,” said Darcy, “of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done.”

“My fingers,” said Elizabeth, “do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women’s do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault—because I will not take the trouble of practising. It is not that I do not believe my fingers as capable as any other woman’s of superior execution.”

Contextual Backstory is best used either for set-up or pay-off. In Pride and Prejudice Austen uses it as a pay-off for all the lessons Darcy has learned over the course of the story. It feels cathartic to watch a character tell us how much he needed the lesson, and why he’d got himself into that mess, now that it’s all over.

When used at the beginning of a story, as a set-up, it essentially boils down to something like this: “Once upon a time there was a spoiled prince, and he was cruel to all those around him until an enchantress cursed him” (We’ll look at that in Part 2, don’t worry). It just explains how we got into the position where the story starts, and then we all get on with the fun of the story itself.

Constructive Backstory

Constructive Backstory will always be much longer and plays a larger role in the main narrative. A character needs to actively deal with their past, going over past circumstances and actions and dealing with the repercussions that came from them.

The best place to use this type of backstory is in any story where the lesson being learned by the character is the primary plot (rather than a sub-plot in the case of Mr Darcy – it facilitates the primary plot of Darcy and Elizabeth’s love story, but it isn’t the primary focus of the book). That means that your readers need all the available information possible, as such stories work best when written from the perspective of the character learning the lesson.

In this field, we really can’t look at any better example than Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Look at how much space Christmas Past takes up, nearly a third of the story! And in doing so it covers all the main themes the story encompasses: that money cannot buy happiness, that happiness is worth more than money, that having friends may be harder than keeping entirely to oneself but that doesn’t make it a bad idea.

Looking at the story from a structural approach, there’s plenty of good build up before we dive into spectral shenanigans. We get a good look at what Ebenezer Scrooge is like, we see the people in his life – his nephew and his clerk principally – and we hear his views on poverty, wealth and the role society has to play in both. Not to mention the famous speech on why he wishes people would just stop with the Christmas thing!

But when we take a look at his past life, we see where he’s acquired his attitudes and he sees, from an equally removed position what this has cost him, and the lessons he has forgotten.

We get a certain amount of Contextual Backstory in the way Scrooge’s need to be wealthy was developed and why he clings to it:

`What Idol has displaced you.’ [Scrooge] rejoined.

`A golden one.’

`This is the even-handed dealing of the world.’ he said. `There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth.’

`You fear the world too much,’ she answered, gently. `All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master-passion, Gain, engrosses you. Have I not.’

But this isn’t what makes up the majority of Christmas Past, and tellingly it isn’t the thing that people remember and take away from the story at all. What people remember is Dickens’s use of Constructive Backstory. What makes the difference, is the way that Dickens always makes sure to tie the backstory into the story of Scrooge’s present. Take this moment when the value of happiness and money is compared:

`A small matter,’ said the Ghost, `to make these silly folks so full of gratitude.’

`Small.’ echoed Scrooge.

The Spirit signed to him to listen to the two apprentices, who were pouring out their hearts in praise of Fezziwig: and when he had done so, said,

`Why. Is it not. He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise.’

`It isn’t that,’ said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self. `It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count them up: what then. The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.’

He felt the Spirit’s glance, and stopped.

`What is the matter.’ asked the Ghost.

`Nothing in particular,’ said Scrooge.

`Something, I think.’ the Ghost insisted.

`No,’ said Scrooge,’ No. I should like to be able to say a word or two to my clerk just now. That’s all.’

As a reader, we can visibly track Scrooge’s progress towards learning to be a better person through examining his past. This isn’t information which enhances the story, this is information without which you couldn’t have a story.

Mutton Dressed As Lamb… The Backstory Version

Let’s be honest, there’s only so many stories out there. It feels like we’re still right in the middle of a movement to retell old stories in new ways, either with fairy tales, or indeed nostalgic reboots.

And that’s absolutely great! Telling old stories in new ways is the best way to keep stories relevant and therefore keep having a reason to tell those stories again and again. I will never understand people who get all uptight about only looking at ‘the original version’ of fairy and folk tales – like such a thing exists since those stories existed for centuries before they were ever written down! Stories are made to change with every retelling. That’s genuinely what they are for!

Having said that…

One of the benefits as a writer of looking through lots of different versions of the same story is that it allows you to gain a better understanding of narrative devices as being distinct from the story itself. The story is the same between different versions, but the changes in where focus is placed, or what is expanded or cut out, or how various actions being given to different characters affects the story as a whole is very helpful, as you are effectively forced to see the story as both a whole and the sum of its parts.

Case in point: Backstory.

I have for the past few years used the utterly professional and academic term ‘Mutton/Lamb Backstory’ It’s not elegant I know, but it’s the best way I can find to summarise the feeling I get when one type of backstory is used the wrong way. The end result is something that feels unconvincing and dissatisfactory for me, like I’m being sold a lie, but I think it’s more likely to be the product of using a perfectly good narrative device in the wrong place.

In original works, I find this mostly manifests as Constructive Backstory being mistaken for Contextual, by which I mean there are signs of a rich and complex backstory that reflects or ties into the events of the main story but hasn’t been sufficiently explored to feel satisfactory.

I confess that most of the time I find this in either amateur fiction online or in the drafts of works I’m beta-reading, so I can’t easily give an example without betraying confidences. However, if you are yourself getting feedback on your work that includes a lot of ‘this could be expanded upon’, then maybe consider if this is your problem? Have a look at tying your backstory in a bit more, and have your characters explore the repercussions of their actions and experiences. Let the lessons learned from this inform how they act for the rest of your story.

In bigger-budget retellings of familiar stories, however, is the more (for me, at least) objectionable mistake. When Contextual Backstory is used as if it is Constructive. I cannot express how disappointed I become when I have to experience this.

Essentially, this will manifest itself as a relatively simple backstory which doesn’t affect the actual plot of the main story at all, but which is given far too much time and focus. It keeps cropping up, under the guise of ‘being revealed in stages’, when it often could be easily summarised and have the same effect. It may even be hinted at several times – as if building up to its reveal is necessary for it to be interesting.

Doing this with your Contextual Backstory tends to sap the time given to real character development we all tuned in for, and in terms of narrative structure it does wonders to kill any joy in that story for the audience, because all the interesting stuff has clearly happened before this story.

As a reader, I’m sorry, but I don’t care that your characters used to be interesting if they aren’t interesting now. Are the adventures they used to have overshadowing the one I’m supposed to be reading?

If so, why don’t you just tell me that story then, if this one isn’t good enough?

There’s also a bad tendency, especially in the context of redemption arcs, for this misused backstory to appear to be excusing a character for their awful actions within the main story. Having a miserable past does not entitle you to make others miserable now. Why would you write that?

In 2015 Disney published A Frozen Heart, written by Elizabeth Rudrick, based off the hit movie Frozen. As is common with Disney’s expansions on its own stories, it includes a lot of backstory for the film in an effort to put the story’s villain, Hans, in a favourable and sympathetic light. It builds heavily off the line from Hans to Anna that his twelve older brothers were mean to him, including two of them pretending that he didn’t exist for years. We get to read this pretty harrowing tale of Hans’s upbringing and the emotional abuse he suffers from his father, who seems to have really subscribed to the ideas of Social Darwinism, and his brothers and…

And no, I’m sorry. I just… I can’t. Backstories can explain behaviours; they can’t justify them.

As we established in the previous post, your characters need to earn their redemption through their actions and the lessons they learn. You can’t have them build up a strange credit-system wherein if they suffer in their backstory they can get away with murder in the main story.

Hans in the Frozen movie genuinely tries his level best to murder the crowned queen of a foreign nation, having left the heir to the throne to die, and falsifying a claim for himself, effectively taking the crown by force.

Two women nearly died, and while it’s not all on his shoulders, Hans still does his level best to steal himself a kingdom at their expense. I know he wanted to escape his family, but seriously? We’re just going to hand-wave an attempted coup by a foreign power away like that? I suppose we’ve learned where Hans got his ruthlessness from, but I think that could have been summarised in a paragraph at the start. The only other thing we get out of it is the impression that we shouldn’t hold Hans responsible for his actions in the story we’ve already been told in the film and I find that a questionable approach to take in both fiction and real life.

What I’m saying here, structurally speaking, you can’t redeem your character through their backstory. It doesn’t work!

A common defence of poorly used backstory is that is seeks to ‘humanise’ a character, to which I always reply that if a writer cannot make a character ‘human’ simply by writing them well, then backstory will not fix the issue. I can think of nothing so ‘human’ as to seek power at the expense of others, but I don’t see how a rotten childhood contributes to that ‘human’ redemption here.

When writing any story of any kind, the number one thing writers must ask themselves will always be this: Why am I telling people this? Do they need to know?

Backstory is really easy to over-use or mis-use, and I’m speaking as a writer who learned this the hard way! In Part 2, we’re going to have ourselves an experiment! We’ll be looking at a recent Disney film and see what can be done with the backstory. See you next time!

Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Redemption Arcs: Balancing the Books

BLACK WIDOW: It’s really not that complicated. I’ve got red in my ledger, I’d like to wipe it out.

LOKI: Can you? Can you wipe out that much red? Drakoff’s daughter? Sao Paulo? The hospital fire? Barton told me everything.

The concept of ‘Redemption’ has always been tied in with the imagery of a debt being paid off. In the days of the Roman Empire, when the Christian Church was just starting to figure out what it believed in, the term was usually used in relation to the release of prisoners of war, or when securing the liberty of those who sold themselves into slavery, often to pay off a family debt.

Ch.18 - Balancing the Books

I should note at this point that the Christian Church’s message (or parts of it at least) around this time was all about how mankind no longer needed to pay its way out of damnation because Christ had paid that debt through his sacrifice. Saint Paul, when writing his letters to the Corinthians, argued at length that the death of Christ effectively freed all Christians from slavery to the laws of the Old Testament or to death, and into the freedom of Heaven, thus redeeming everyone in one fell swoop.

You were bought at a price. Therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s. (1 Corinthians 6:20)

Also reiterated here: 

You were bought with a price; be ye not the servants of men. (1 Corinthians 7:23)

(To say that Saint Paul wrote some important letters is like saying that Alexander Hamilton had one or two things he wanted to get off his chest.)

Anyway, the idea’s still around that redemption for crimes should involve an element of cost, and I think that as a model of storytelling in particular, the model of someone earning their forgiveness is a really powerful and useful one. Partly because I think you can set yourself up for such a hard-sell if a character is forgiven their crimes without earning it in some way.

Yes, forgiveness is something we all want really badly at some point in our lives, but it’s really easy for your story to give the impression that you were just done with this plot-thread and had your character be simply forgiven as an excuse to never need to talk about those events again. Having a character undertake actions to earn forgiveness is just more powerful for a story and gives a better sense of there being a character arc, rather than simply an abrupt Thing happens, Forgiveness given, Done. Move On to Next Plot-Point.

The Wages of Sin

Ages and ages ago I found this thought on Tumblr and now that I have the perfect use for it, naturally, for the life of me I cannot find the name of the person who wrote it. Sorry, it’s another one of those quotes, guys…

Sin is expensive. Incredibly expensive. But the price isn’t paid in cash, it’s paid in mental, emotional, and spiritual pain… [God’s] anger towards lying, stealing, cheating, coveting, murder, jealousy, and pride is because all of these behaviours destroy relationships.

I don’t know why, but I found this quote to be really helpful in my writing. It’s a great way to crystallise, at least for me, what it is that a character is being redeemed for. Like, what is it that he’s making up for? He’s atoning for the pain and misery his actions have caused people, himself included maybe.

This harkens back to an earlier post in this series, because the actions of characters simply aren’t real in the way that emotions can be. I can care about a character’s tears and pain far more than I can ever bring myself to care that he’s lost his car, even if these two events are linked.

When plotting out any arc, but especially something like a redemption arc, or a hero’s fall, the first thing I do is make notes on the consequences of my character’s actions on his relationships with other characters. Not ‘and then he lost all his money’, or ‘and then he was lost in the woods’ sort of consequences. Rather, I think about things like ‘and then his mother realised that he’d been lying to her for months’ or ‘and then his benefactor had to suffer being arrested for fraud which he didn’t commit.’

Chances are that I won’t ever show those moments in the story at all. But the echoes of those scenes will be felt in the rest of the story, either when the character has to confront those relationships later on, or when a third character’s impressions of the main character are coloured already with the effects of his previous actions. I like to think it adds a sense of depth to the story, because things have clearly happened ‘off-stage’ as it were…

False Equivalency

ELIZABETH: Commodore, I really must protest. Pirate or not, this man saved my life.

NORRINGTON: One good deed is not enough to redeem a man of a lifetime of wickedness.

JACK SPARROW: Though it seems enough to condemn him.

NORRINGTON: Indeed.

So… So sometimes, we write things because of plot reasons and they could be taken as having unfortunate real-world applications. I feel like plotting out redemptions arcs has forced me to confront something that I’d sort-of known in the back of my mind for ages, but now have to actually acknowledge out loud.

Basically, if we’re thinking about redemption arcs in broad terms of: Guy does Bad Thing, Then He’s Sorry, Then He does Good Thing to make up for it; there’s a problem in here somewhere. Like, there’s this inherent idea that one good act cancels out a bad act or something.

And I don’t think that’s really true in real life so much, but I do have to acknowledge as a writer that, again Fiction isn’t Real Life, and that this is an inevitable feature of story structure and I’m not sure how easy it is to avoid all together.

Like, I have a friend who, when we talk about X-Men and the respective world-views and histories or Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr, keeps equating the two men’s awful childhoods. And the thing is, I will argue until the sun goes down that Charles’s experiences of his father dying in a lab accident when he was young, and his mother losing herself inside her depression and addictions, and his step-father being a prat and his step-brother beating him up – those are all terrible and all. But Erik literally lost his entire family and his own identity in the actual Nazi Holocaust, and then lost his daughter to a French mob because she was the child of a Jewish-Romani marriage.

These things are not the same, is what I am saying.

But I do have to acknowledge that they do perform the same function within the story. They both show two men’s different reactions to learning early in life about the cruelty inherent in mankind and build them into the strong but very different men that they are in the X-Men stories.

I don’t really have anything else meaningful to add to this point; I just wanted to raise the matter and point out its inherent problems if not managed carefully.

In really bad amateur writing this can manifest somewhat hilariously as ‘I wasn’t hugged enough as a child and thus I shall burn the world down and kill all who stand in my way.’ Naturally that’s the kind of thing editing and beta-readers will tell you about (when they stop laughing at you) but it’s worth thinking about as you sit down and draft out a plot. Some things don’t really balance each other out.

Forced Restitution

SHYLOCK          I’ll have my bond; I will not hear thee speak: 1720

I’ll have my bond; and therefore speak no more.

I’ll not be made a soft and dull-eyed fool,

To shake the head, relent, and sigh, and yield

To Christian intercessors. Follow not;

I’ll have no speaking: I will have my bond.

(Act III, 3, 1720-1726)

OK, so this was a major feature of redemption arcs in early Victorian novels, and we don’t do this anymore. I bring it up only because it really was a trend, and I believe all writers should be aware of what has gone before us. OK?

The trend, especially in Victorian women’s Gothic novels went as follows: a female character makes some terrible mistake; she elopes with a dreadful man, she jumps the gun on a relationship, she disobeys her parents, she distrusts a faithful lover, that sort of thing. Then she is punished for most of the rest of the story for this act by basically suffering, just all of the suffering, until the universe has extracted a toll, a figurative pound-of-flesh from her in recompense. Then when her character has been redeemed by all of this suffering, she is rewarded either with a good man to marry her and take her away from her terrible existence, or death. I mean, she goes to heaven and all, but she’s still dead.

Victor Hugo’s character from Les Miserables, Fantine, stands on these women’s shoulders. Her having a child outside of wedlock is indeed punished by her miserable life including dying as a prostitute, before becoming an angel-figure after death, but she is at least distinguished by Hugo’s Humanist approach to her. Yes, she suffers for a mistake, but Hugo’s writing of her does not frame this as justice, as the world working as it should do. Rather she is used to shown the suffering endured by the helpless, and the unfair way the world was working and why it has to be changed.

The difference is all in the attitude of the writer, and I suspect that his audience at the time would probably have been struck more by that than readers of today, who automatically assume that this is a terrible fate rather than her just desserts.

And this is why I thought it was important to write my post on why we are leaving morality out of this series first. Because I could talk to you about the moral implications of a view that bad things only happen to bad people and that anyone who is suffering must have done something to deserve it.

But I think as writers we need to focus instead on the fact that this is terrible writing right here!

Why?

Because it means that the character, who is presumably the protagonist, isn’t making any choices.

She hasn’t chosen a single thing about her plot-line, she’s just being taken along by the story and deposited at the end. And that’s just not compelling. It’s never compelling to watch characters get pulled around by the plot, it’s compelling when characters push the plot forwards through their actions and the choices behind them.

Like I said before, the trend died a well-deserved death as writing trends moved on, and I don’t think it will ever come back (please, let it never come back). But it’s still worth thinking about, if only to make sure to avoid this in your own writing.

Paying Your Debts

“A Lannister always pays his debts”

So, we’ve now established the model of redemption as a payment of debt, and that a character should really make a deliberate choice to repay that debt in some way. So: How should a character go about doing that?

Well, you will doubtless be utterly thrilled to read that answering this question is all on you, as a writer. Yep, no easy answers here.

I mean, a lot of how your character pays off the debt his has incurred through his actions will depend on what those actions were and what effect they had.

Did your character’s actions get a whole bunch of people killed? Then I’m not sure how he can make it up to those people, per se, but he could go on this long quest in which he tries really hard to save lots of other people, and maybe go out of his way to teach other rage-filled lost young men about the importance of peace? That would be interesting to play around with.

Did he ruin people’s lives financially, like Ebenezer Scrooge is implied to do, not for personal reasons, but as a matter of business? In which case a life of philanthropy is a pretty good answer to earning redemption. This one’s a bit of a favourite, as you’ll see next time, but that’s mostly because the crime isn’t financial greed, but a callus lack of care for others, which is solved by taking an interest in the world and people around you. The issue is one of attitude, not actions specifically.

What you’ve doubtless noticed is something of a theme. I like all the elements of my stories to join up and connect to each other in some way, and I feel that redemption arcs are much more compelling when the manner in which forgiveness is sought and earned is directly connected to the reason redemption is required.

This sort of brings us back to that point before about a false equivalency, because it’s much easier for readers to feel unconvinced by a redemption arc when the Bad Thing the character did is wiped out by a totally unconnected Good Thing. Like, um, if a character causes the death of the hero’s entire family, but it’s totally ok by the end because he went off to volunteer at a hospital for sick cats. Like, volunteering to help heal animals is nice and all, but what does that have to do with the crime of getting people killed?

Having said that, I should note that there’s a more tragic take on that issue that you can try out if you are feeling sufficiently sadistic as a writer.

Because sometimes you can set up a character’s actions in such a way there’s just no coming back from it. Maybe they let a small number of enemies into their fortified and besieged city, and then those few enemies let in a whole army and now the whole city is dead except for our main character. So if everyone’s dead, then there’s no one left to earn forgiveness from. There’s no one left alive to sit our character down and say ‘Enough. You’ve done enough. It’s OK now.’ Right?

So our character spends his whole life potentially trying to redeem himself for his crimes against people who are too dead to appreciate his actions, and it eats away at him, over and over. What he’s done and what the consequences were and how he feels that he can never make up for it, but he must keep trying anyway. That it must have all meant something in the end.

This sort of character arc can really only end when the character dies. There’s just no way for him to reach the end of the arc alive and not have the thing feel really awkward afterwards, but it could be really compelling because there’s still the uncertainty in the minds of the reader and the characters involved themselves, about whether it will ever be enough. Especially if you leave it open-ended.

Like the Susan Pevensie character arc, it will likely never feel really complete, but in a good way. It hurts to read, because as empathetic readers we too get uncomfortable with the idea that we might never know if the good we’ve done in the world outweighs all the bad. And we will likely never get the answers in this life-time.

 If you aren’t a horrible, sadistic writer though, remember to balance those books by the end!

Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Susan Pevensie: The Redemption Arc That Never Happened (Part 2)

This is the second of a two-part post, and I don’t expect that it will make any sense without having read Part 1 first…

Susan Pevensie Part 2

Growing Up or Growing Apart?

I hope that by now, you will see how Susan is established firmly in the books as an integral part of her family unit? I say this, because now we are going to look at how Susan becomes distanced from her siblings.

It’s easy to say that Susan does not reach Narnia in The Last Battle because she forgot about it, and while that is broadly correct, to think that way effectively robs Susan of her own agency in her life, which is a bit distasteful. Susan’s fall, should you think of it like that, is not a passive process, but rather a series of choices, such as we all make every day of our lives.

In literal terms, Susan does not reach the True Narnia, or the True England, with her siblings simply because she was not on the train which crashed. The Pevensies’ parents are never told about Narnia, do not visit it, and therefore do not need to believe in it, yet there they are:

Suddenly they shifted their eyes to another spot, and then Peter and Edmund and Lucy gasped with amazement and shouted out and began waving: for there they saw their own father and mother, waving back at them across the great, deep valley.

It is Susan who shatters her bonds with her family, who refuses to attend the Friends of Narnia meeting. But why would she do such a thing? As a general rule, I believe that all proper tragic moments stem from a misunderstanding, and Susan’s separation is just such a one. Susan, we are told, wishes to be a Grown Up, but like many young people may not really understand what she is asking for.

Susan is called many complimentary things in the Narnia series, but she is only ever called Grown Up as a criticism. We’ve talked about Susan as being sensible, but this is almost always presented as a good thing. The only times when this differs is when she uses good sense as a way to talk down to her siblings, thereby distancing herself from them by assuming a position of authority over them. As can be expected in a children’s book, this is rarely taken well, either by Edmund and Lucy, or (from my memories) by a child reader. At least in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Susan’s clearly acting in Edmund’s best interest, even if no ten-year-old wants to be told to go to bed by a sister two years older then he.

“I think he’s an old dear,” said Susan.
“Oh, come off it!” said Edmund, who was tired and pretending not to be tired, which always made him bad-tempered. “Don’t go on talking like that.”
“Like what?” said Susan; “and anyway, it’s time you were in bed.”
“Trying to talk like Mother,” said Edmund. “And who are you to say when I’m to go to bed? Go to bed yourself.”

But a year later on, we see Susan using this assumed distance to question and undermine her sister’s story, and since we know that Lucy is right, it feels far more irritating to endure:

“Where did you think you saw him?” asked Susan.
“Don’t talk like a grown-up,” said Lucy, stamping her foot. “I didn’t think I saw him. I saw him.”

Susan’s attempts to be Grown Up are always shown in conflict with her familial bonds and, as those ideas and her character develop, in conflict with her beliefs in the unseen, and therefore with Narnia. As a result, we’ve had enough clues and foreshadowing that it feels a lot like the conclusion of a sad tale instead of last-second twist, when we learn in The Last Battle:

“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”
“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.'”

And it is this which makes Susan’s story at the end of the series so tragic, because unlike the events of Prince Caspian, this time there will be no chance for Susan to apologise to her family and make things up. By The Last Battle, Narnia’s time has run out, and so too has Susan’s time with her loved ones.

Valar Morghulis

The Chronicles of Narnia are very distinctly children’s books, but The Last Battle deals with an issue which we don’t tend to deal with until well into our adult lives (if at all): the notion of running out of time before one is ready or prepared. There might, narratively speaking, be a sense of completeness in a series which begins watching the construction of an entire new world, and ends with its total destruction, but as a child (and as an adult) the idea of everything ending unexpectedly is a difficult one to grasp.

Susan is a young woman when the series ends, in her early 20’s and with every reason to expect that she and her family will have many years together. That there will be plenty of time to reconcile and rebuild bridges.

Polly, an old lady by the seventh book, has a rather better idea about the value of time, and is scathing of a younger woman’s mistake of believing that time can and will stand still:

“Grown-up, indeed,” said the Lady Polly. “I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”

I don’t know if it was C.S. Lewis’s original intent, but the way he set up the idea of Narnia having a time all of its own is brilliant for driving home the fickle and shifting nature of time for all of us. But with magic, because that makes everything cooler.

The Pevensies originally ruled for many years before tumbling without warning out of Narnia and back to England, and when they get back literally everything they ever knew has crumbled and changed beyond recognition. Like, so much time has pasted that a small river has created a deep valley by now:

“I’m not sure the High King is lost,” said Trumpkin. “What’s to hinder this river being the Rush?”
“Because the Rush is not in a gorge,” said Peter, keeping his temper with some difficulty.
“Your Majesty says is,” replied the Dwarf, “but oughtn’t you to say was? You knew this country hundreds—it may be a thousand—years ago. Mayn’t it have changed? A landslide might have pulled off half the side of that hill, leaving bare rock, and there are your precipices beyond the gorge. Then the Rush might go on deepening its course year after year till you get the little precipices this side. Or there might have been an earthquake, or anything.”

That’s a long time.

Literally everyone the children knew in their first out-timing is dead, and I know everyone else talks about The Problem of Susan, but this is the thing I never got over as a child! I never got to say goodbye to Mr Tumnus, and neither did Lucy, and I’m nearly thirty and I’m still not past this!

In fact, every book has some version of this huge leap forward in time, save for The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, possibly because even C.S. Lewis could break our hearts in every book by making us care about characters who will be dead the next time we see then (Caspian in The Silver Chair is an elderly man who dies at the end, it still counts!) Jill earlier on in The Last Battle speaks for us all, I feel:

“Ha!” cried Tirian, “are you then that Eustace and that Jill who rescued King Rilian from his long enchantment?”
“Yes, that’s us,” said Jill. “So he’s King Rilian now, is he? Oh of course he would be. I forgot——”
“Nay,” said Tirian, “I am the seventh in descent from him. He has been dead over two hundred years.”
Jill made a face. “Ugh!” she said. “That’s the horrid part about coming back to Narnia.”

My point is, that if the Narnia books taught us nothing except that climbing into wardrobes can only lead to good things, it’s that relationships can be cut short really abruptly and that the future is an uncertain place. That you may not see people when you think you will, and that you can’t bank on having tomorrow.

Others have written about the items C.S. Lewis chose to define Susan’s current life, dwelling on how utterly feminine they are:

“Oh Susan!” said Jill, “she’s interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations.”

And they certainly are entirely womanly. But what interests me far more is how all three items are also completely ephemeral in nature. They are all items which exist in the moment and then are gone, discarded and worthless. Nylons (as any of us who have worn them can attest to!) tear and develop holes and runs, lip-stick is wiped off at the end of the day or the evening, and invitations are lovely to receive and anticipate, but are nothing but reminders at most when the party is over.

Nothing in Susan’s life, as we are presented with it, will last, certainly not like familial bonds can. Perhaps Susan knows this, and is merely enjoying them all while they are there, secure in the knowledge that her family will be waiting for her when she’s ready to talk.

But they aren’t.

Redemption Interruptus

It may be better to plan on begging forgiveness, but that only works when you can guarantee that it will come. And in real life there are no such guarantees. And as writers, perhaps we should ask ourselves more often if we should hand out such guarantees either.

I know setting up good characters takes time and effort, and it can feel completely counterproductive to abandon them without warning in the middle of a character arc. But if you do it right, it can be extremely effective; making your stories feel more real and making your readers feel uncomfortable as they confront harsh truths.

People remember what happened to Susan. You will probably know that Susan Pevensie did not return to Narnia long before you remember who King Tirian is, and he’s in the same book!

You remember King Tirian, right? The last King of Narnia, who wasn’t too proud to ask for help without any sign that he’d be heard. Who held true to his beliefs and watched his people and friends die and his world literally end, but not before it was torn apart from within and without. Who faced an unknown danger and possible death with as much dignity and grace as can be expected, while also getting a kick-ass moment of tackling his main enemy in an if-I’m-going-down-I’m-taking-you-with-me way.

In any other story, Tirian would be the star and yet in his story he is utterly upstaged in people’s memories by the horrible realisation that Susan hasn’t returned with everyone else, and that her relationship with her siblings was so painful that they literally can’t bear to talk about it except to tell us that she wasn’t with them when British Rail murdered them horribly.

This isn’t an insult to either C.S. Lewis or his readers, rather I think it’s a brilliant example of just how effective it can be to challenge readers expectations occasionally. Susan’s a main character we like, she’s got lots of good traits, but also relatable flaws which fittingly foreshadow her fate in a way that’s straight-up Shakespearean once you think about it. And the tragedy of her status at the end of The Last Battle so forces us all to face up to the uncomfortable truths of our own lives.

What The Problem of Susan teaches aspiring writers is that sometimes bravery pays off.

Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Susan Pevensie: The Redemption Arc That Never Happened (Part 1)

I have to be honest here; I have never understood the phenomenon known as ‘The Problem of Susan’. I just never ever got it. I am a terribly literal person and I just…

I’m mean, take all the allegory out of the equation for second and you are left with a whole bunch of people who are outraged, outraged!, that a young woman wasn’t horribly smashed to death in a train crash. Really think about that for a second.

Yes, I know that everyone else dies and goes to ‘Heaven’ and she’s left all alone and everything, but seriously. Are we all collectively wishing death on a young woman now? Really?

OK, got that out of the way.

So, as always when I don’t understand A Thing, I’ve been giving the matter a lot of thought and I’ve come to the conclusion that maybe one of the reasons people get so sniffy about that unforgivable fact that Susan is alive at the end of the Chronicles of Narnia series, is that she seems to be all set up for a Redemption arc that never comes. And that raises all sorts of questions in us that we’re uncomfortable with. So let’s look at that shall we?

Susan Pevensie Part 1

Begging Forgiveness

There’s this phrase that we’re all familiar with. We see it in a lot of cop-dramas, it’s the undercurrent in a lot of sci-fi tv series and spy movies. We might even say it ourselves. It’s this one:

It’s better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission

I personally hate that phrase, on a deep and physically level. Why? Because there’s no Plan B in there. It assumes that you will – having done whatever you seem to know you shouldn’t be doing (since you seem to know you’ll need forgiveness) – be given said forgiveness without question. To which I say; what if I don’t forgive you? What then?

We’re going to come back to the expectation of forgiveness and why it is a terrible thing that is bad in another post, but for now we’re going to take a look at the interesting effects available for writers in simply not redeeming a character, of defying the expectations of your readers in a way that simply isn’t explored often enough.

Sense and Sensibility

Some of you may remember back to the start of A Very Potter Case Study, where we looked at characters and how they shouldn’t so much have flaws as character traits which are both advantageous and disadvantageous depending on the circumstances?

Well, Susan is another really good example of that philosophy in practice.

She’s very sensible and always thinking ahead. When all four children finally get into Narnia at the same time, it is Susan who suggests that this land of snow and ice is going to require the warm fur coats.

“Ugh!” said Susan, stamping her feet, “it’s pretty cold. What about putting on some of these coats?”
“They’re not ours,” said Peter doubtfully.
“I am sure nobody would mind,” said Susan. “It isn’t as if we wanted to take them out of the house; we shan’t take them even out of the wardrobe.”
“I never thought of that, Su,” said Peter. “Of course, now you put it that way, I see. No one could say you had bagged a coat as long as you leave it in the wardrobe where you found it. And I suppose this whole country is in the wardrobe.”
They immediately carried out Susan’s very sensible plan.

She’s also shown to be very observant. In the same chapter, she’s the first to notice that there’s something off about this wardrobe:

“O-o-oh!” said Susan suddenly. And everyone asked her what was the matter.
“I’m sitting against a tree,” said Susan, “and look! It’s getting lighter—over there.”
“By jove, you’re right,” said Peter, “and look there—and there. It’s trees all round. And this wet stuff is snow. Why, I do believe we’ve got into Lucy’s wood after all.”

Susan is quickly established as a girl who doesn’t shy away from unpleasant possibilities, preferring to tackle them head on. When the group is doubtful of the existence of Narnia, and Peter and Susan decide to consult an adult on the matter, it is Susan who voices their greatest concern:

“We were afraid it mightn’t even be lying,” said Susan. “We thought there might be something wrong with Lucy.”
“Madness, you mean?” said the Professor quite coolly. “Oh, you can make your minds easy about that. One has only to look at her and talk to her to see that she is not mad.”

The result is that Susan has excellent critical thinking and is just as much of a strategist as Peter is. Unlike Lucy, who bounds off into the unknown with nary a thought as to how she’d get herself out of trouble when she finds it, Susan will actively question the merits of the options available to the group. Peter, as the oldest, may be the leader, but he is constantly asking Susan for her input and usually agrees with her.

“I—I wonder if there’s any point in going on,” said Susan. “I mean, it doesn’t seem particularly safe here and it looks as if it won’t be much fun either. And it’s getting colder every minute, and we’ve brought nothing to eat. What about just going home?”

“Shut up—you!” said Peter, who was still very angry with Edmund. “What do you think, Susan?”
“I’ve a horrid feeling that Lu is right,” said Susan. “I don’t want to go a step further and I wish we’d never come. But I think we must try to do something for Mr. Whatever-his-name is—I mean the Faun.”
“That’s what I feel too,” said Peter.

I feel that this important to emphasise at this stage, because many critiques of the Narnia series have a bad tendency to isolate Susan from the group early on, they emphasise her ‘otherness’ (having good sense being apparently one such trait) and that’s just not upheld by the books at all! Susan is with Lucy when they witness Aslan’s sacrifice and resurrection, not the boys, she goes and helps liberate the White Witch’s petrified prisoners. Susan is an active player, she defends her friends and family, she talks tactics and makes plans, she keeps both her own and the group’s focus in difficult moments:

When they had sat down [Lucy] said: “Such a horrible idea has come into my head, Su.”
“What’s that?”
“Wouldn’t it be dreadful if some day, in our own world, at home, men started going wild inside, like the animals here, and still looked like men, so that you’d never know which were which?”
“We’ve got enough to bother about here and now in Narnia,” said the practical Susan, “without imagining things like that.”

In fact, in Prince Caspian, there is a moment when Susan chooses not to share her thoughts and observations with Peter until after the fact, and he is cross with her about it.

“I suppose your Majesties know the way all right?” said the Dwarf.
“I don’t,” said Susan. “I’ve never seen these woods in my life before. In fact I thought all along that we ought to have gone by the river.”
“Then I think you might have said so at the time,” answered Peter, with pardonable sharpness.

That said, as with all good character traits, Susan’s forward-thinking and sensible nature can work against her, especially in a world filled with magic.

Susan often doubts her intuition in favour of what she can observe, and in Narnia that’s not always the best idea. In Susan’s second outing in Narnia, Prince Caspian, Susan utterly refuses to trust in Lucy’s word that Aslan was communicating with the group because she, Susan, didn’t see him.

Later she confesses that she might have believed that he was there, but the lack of evidence and smaller concerns got in her way.

“What do you say, Susan?”
“Don’t be angry, Lu,” said Susan, “but I do think we should go down. I’m dead tired. Do let’s get out of this wretched wood into the open as quick as we can. And none of us except you saw anything.”

“I can’t see anything,” said Peter after he had stared his eyes sore. “Can you, Susan?”
“No, of course I can’t,” snapped Susan. “Because there isn’t anything to see. She’s been dreaming. Do lie down and go to sleep, Lucy.”

Later on, Susan is proven wrong, and Lucy’s version of events is proven (again) to be right. I actually really enjoy how even the book seems to know that the reader has spent several pages yelling at the group that Lucy’s crazy stories are always borne out by future events. It’s one of my favourite aspects of C.S. Lewis’s works; the sense of humour in them and a sort of proto-Peter S. Beagle or proto-Terry Pratchett style where the books totally know that they’re books. It’s a nice touch.

“Well, there’s just this,” said Edmund, speaking quickly and turning a little red. “When we first discovered Narnia a year ago—or a thousand years ago, whichever it is—it was Lucy who discovered it first and none of us would believe her. I was the worst of the lot, I know. Yet she was right after all. Wouldn’t it be fair to believe her this time? I vote for going up.”

Anyway, once proven to have been wrong all along, Susan does apologise gracefully. And I really like that Lucy (and more especially the plot) doesn’t drive this point in. Susan makes a completely understandable error in judgement and the plot treats this fittingly.  Susan apologies, Lucy accepts it, Aslan breathes courage on her and the story moves right along. It’s just nice to see that C.S. Lewis didn’t feel the need to hammer in the lesson about trusting your gut or something.

“Lucy,” said Susan in a very small voice.
“Yes?” said Lucy.
“I see him now. I’m sorry.”
“That’s all right.”
“But I’ve been far worse than you know. I really believed it was him—he, I mean—yesterday. When he warned us not to go down to the fir wood. And I really believed it was him to-night, when you woke us up. I mean, deep down inside. Or I could have, if I’d let myself. But I just wanted to get out of the woods and—and—oh, I don’t know. And what ever am I to say to him?”
“Perhaps you won’t need to say much,” suggested Lucy.

Susan’s reliance on what she sees can lead her astray with people as well as magical lions. In The Horse and His Boy, set at the height of the Pevensie’s reigns as Kings and Queens of Narnia, Susan is shown having been taken in by the good looks and charming demeanour of a man with less than honourable intentions:

“That was my folly, Edmund,” said Queen Susan, “of which I cry you mercy. Yet when he was with us in Narnia, truly this Prince bore himself in another fashion than he does now in Tashbaan. For I take you all to witness what marvellous feats he did in that great tournament and hastilude which our brother the High King made for him, and how meekly and courteously he consorted with us the space of seven days. But here, in his own city, he has shown another face.”
“Ah!” croaked the Raven. “It is an old saying: see the bear in his own den before you judge of his conditions.”
“That’s very true, Sallowpad,” said one of the Dwarfs. “And another is, Come, live with me and you’ll know me.”
“Yes,” said the King. “We have now seen him for what he is: that is, a most proud, bloody, luxurious, cruel and self-pleasing tyrant.”

“Do you mean he would make me his wife by force?” exclaimed Susan.
“That’s my fear, Susan,” said Edmund. “Wife: or slave, which is worse.”

The take-away from this is that Susan is absolutely an integral, main character to the books and their readers. We sympathise with her when she’s cold and unhappy or lost and hungry, we root for her when she has archery competitions, and we are completely invested in her interests throughout the books.

And then… Well, then The Last Battle happens.

Follow me along to Part 2 to look at C.S. Lewis’s most tragic and chilling lesson: our own mortality.

Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Forty Days and Forty Nights – The Redemption Arch Series

Happy Shrove Tuesday Everybody! Enjoy your pancakes, whatever you choose to put on them!

Now, don’t panic, I’m not threatening to write you forty posts for Lent! However, I did want to take a break from talking about character design and world-building, and celebrate the season of Lent this year with a series looking at that most popular of character arches: The Redemption Arch.

We all love a good redemption arch, don’t we? I think it’s partly because it gives us all hope that no matter what mistakes we make ourselves in our lives, we can still make up for them somehow and earn forgiveness, from our friends and from the world at large.

And because this plot-line is so popular, there are many different approaches. Some of them good, some of them less so, as always.

A well-written redemption can be gripping and uplifting and nerve-wracking and soul-crushing all along the way. We get so invested in a character’s struggles as they seek to turn themselves piece by piece into a better person, and we really root for them as they stumble and pick themselves back up and keep going until finally they, and we, know that they’ve done it at last. It’s an amazing, emotional climax to a plot, and we’ve followed that character every difficult step of the way.

A poorly-written redemption is such a damp squib. I’ve experienced them, you’ve experienced them, and I think we can all agree that they are always such a disappointment. I think that redemption arches can go wrong in a different way from many other regular plot-lines, partly because there’s a moral theme as well as a narrative one that’s coming into play. And that can lead to one side or the other becoming unbalanced, leaving the reader feeling unsatisfied.

Well, for the next few weeks, we’re going to take some long, hard looks at redemption arches, good and bad, and some of the themes that come into play which separate the great from the meh. Things like restoring balance to the galaxy, or the role of tragic backstories, and even take a long, hard stare at the relationship between forgiveness and revenge.

Coming up next, we’ll tackle the first topic: what happens if the redemption arch is interrupted, and why it is a risky but interesting approach…

First time checking out the Chronicles in Creation series? Catch yourself up with the full post-list here.