Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Redemption Arcs: The Tragedy of Backstory – Part 2

Welcome back from Part 1, everyone! For those who missed it, click the link to check out my theories on the two types of Backstory for redemption arcs. I’ll be using that theory a lot in here and it may not make much sense without reading Part 1 first…

Anyway.

Ch.19 - The Tragedy of Backstory - Part 2

Yay! Another case-study, you know you all love them so much…

So, I don’t know if anyone’s noticed, but Disney’s been doing this thing recently where it remakes all its best animated films into ‘live-action’ versions?

Oh, you’ve heard already?

Anyway, I’ve taken to calling the whole trend ‘Disney’s Tragic Backstory Series’, because that seems to be the biggest addition they make to justify telling me the same story over again, though DVDs of the original films don’t exist and aren’t freely available. In every single film, there’s a new section dedicated to providing insight into someone’s tragic past, and I’ve never really found this addition to be very helpful, but rarely in ways I could easily identify before.

Then the 2017 Live-Action Beauty & The Beast came out and I finally had a good case study to talk about, so here we are!

Firstly, I wanted to look at the backstory as presented in the film, and then we’re going to roll up our sleeves and think about another way to add in a tragic backstory that’s better.

But before we start that…

The Lesson of Beauty & The Beast – A Very Brief History

This might seem a strange place to start, but the Beauty & The Beast started out as a morality tale, much like Cinderella, and as such any retelling of it inevitably comes with some form of lesson baked into it. I’m sure there’s someone out there who’s tried to erase this, but the fact that I haven’t heard of any such version suggests that it wasn’t a very successful attempt. In Beauty & The Beast, every single incarnation has someone learn the lesson that True Beauty is found within a person, not in their external features.

Originally this lesson was learned by Belle. Since the story was originally penned to be read by young women in an age of arranged marriages, Belle stands in for a lot of young women who were married to men they didn’t really know, and who would have seemed very intimidating and potentially undesirable. The lesson she must learn is that when she gets to know the Beast, she finds him to be very learned, intelligent and gentle, and in learning to love him for what he is on the inside, his outward appearance changes to match this, like a reward for her.

I bring this up because, as a result of this lesson, the Beast is usually shown to have been cursed because of something his parents have done wrong, not him. In the 1946 Jean Cocteau version, the Beast explains to Belle that he was cursed because his parents had angered the local fairies. The fault for his curse belongs to others, not him, although he must suffer for it and hope for release by another as well. It’s all very tragic and pitiable, and we yearn for Belle to learn to love him so he can be freed. 2017’s version seems to have really liked a lot of elements of Jean Cocteau’s version, and I think this is reflected not only in the visuals but in the message too.

However.

The 1997 Animated Disney version took a different route, which was definitely a good idea in a modern world with different societal norms. Now the person who must learn a lesson about the importance of looking inside for true beauty and the importance of character over outward features in falling in love is the Beast. As a result, he’s the one who must learn to become someone with an inside worthy of being loved by Belle. Therefore the Beast’s backstory, as told in the opening scene, is that he was a selfish prince who was cursed by the Enchantress after she tested his kindness in the form of an old hag. The fault and the lesson are both his, making it far more the Beast’s film than Belle’s if you think about it.

Victor Hugo-Style Deviation on European Folklore

(Sorry, I swear this won’t be a regular thing, but I just have to…)

As a quick side-note, I just want to clarify something that has been oft-repeated on the internet without its proper context.

There’s this established belief that the prince should not have been cursed because letting strangers into your home is Bad. Especially if those strangers are magical in some way. Therefore the prince was only doing what was right by turning away an old lady into the stormy night, rather than just asking for her to be given food and shelter at least until morning or the storm passes.

If you are of a mind to agree with this, I’m not going to judge you, but I will say that you would not make it past the first five minutes of Supernatural: Fairy Tale Edition.

For those who don’t know much about European customs and folklore, Hospitality was, and is, fantastically important. Like, sacred duty, etched into your soul, Do Not Mess With important. If you had a house, especially if you were a lord or I-don’t-know a prince, then you were honour bound to provide those who begged at your door with food and shelter. Failure to do so, at least in stories meant to underline the importance of such duties, is absolutely always met with disaster in some form.

In folklore, providing fairies or spirits with food and shelter meant that they were indebted to you and therefore could not trick you, or harm you in some way, so it was always a good idea. There’s a reason that so many plucky heroines in old stories will offer strange old ladies in the woods whatever of their food they have, even if it is their very last crumbs; it shows that they are good and generous people, yes, but it also establishes that they understand the importance of sharing whatever they have. Kindness in folklore is a tactical advantage as well as a morally-upright character trait.

There are plenty of other examples of the importance of guest-rights outside of children’s fairy stories too. Grace O’Malley, the Irish Pirate Queen, straight-up kidnapped the Earl of Howth’s heir and held him hostage when they refused her shelter in a storm, refusing to ransom him back for gold until she had an apology. The family took this lesson so much to heart that to this day always set an extra place at Howth Castle in case they get unexpected visitors. Even the Bible has examples, my favourite being the tale of Sodom and Gamora where God sends the angels in disguise to see how they are treated as strangers, and then utterly destroys the place when they are not received well.

All I’m saying here is that a temporary curse with an established release clause is the absolute best-case scenario the prince was facing for this utter dereliction of duty, while he sat there in his big-ass palace with his hordes of servants and whatnot. When instant and painful death is among your options, suddenly a cursed form seems like a weird bright-side, no?

The 2017 Live-Action Version

For those playing the home game, the quotes I’ll be looking at here are from the screenplay for the film, which can be found here.

The 2017 Disney Beauty and the Beast was clearly made by a lot of really creative people; although largely based on the 1991 animated version, it also pulled from other sources such as the 1946 Jean Cocteau La Belle et La Bête, and they came up with plenty of cool new ideas I hadn’t seen before.

Unfortunately, they don’t seem to have such a good team of heartless editors, because none of the cool new ideas really have any space to breathe and get explored properly.

I really liked the idea that not only do all the villagers get forced by magic to forget about the palace and its inhabitants, but the town, like the castle, is trapped in time for all these years. That’s a fun expansion on Belle’s first lines in the film; “Little town, it’s a quiet village/ Every day like the one before.”

But this never really comes up enough – Le Fou and Gaston have been away in the war – did they not notice that everything’s exactly the same? There’s this bit in the screenplay:

Belle looks at the clock on the church counting to 8am. Wait for it. 3. 2. 1.

EXT. VILLAGE OF VILLENEUVE – MORNING

On cue, the villagers begin their day. A HOUSEWIFE opens a window, nods to a WOMAN shaking out a rug nearby. A BUTCHER opens his shop, waves to a COBBLER moving past with his cart.

VILLAGERS

Bonjour. Bonjour. Bonjour. Bonjour.

So is this more like a Groundhog Day thing, and every day is literally the same to the point of knowing what comes next? No one gets older all these years, we see that, so does anyone die, if they can’t get old? Or sick? Since they also added in the thing with Belle’s mother dying of the plague, does that actually save the village itself, if no one gets sick?

I have so many questions!

Anyway.

There’s another angle that gets added into the 2017 version of Beauty and the Beast and that’s a much expanded backstory. Or more accurately, it adds in what feels like little snippets of at least three backstories: Belle’s mother dying of the plague and her father not wanting to talk about his wife anymore; the Beast’s mother dying and his father abusing him until he becomes a cruel and vain a**hole; and the staff feeling that they deserve to be cursed because they didn’t help the Beast when he was a child.

That’s a lot of backstories, and I feel like the writers didn’t think too hard about what purpose any of these backstories were serving in the main story. It’s not that the ideas themselves were bad (although I feel like the servants’ story was the weakest by far.) It’s that they are never tied into the main story’s thesis to feel like they needed to be there.

The 1991 Beauty and the Beast uses its backstory purely as Context. I’ve put the text at the end of the post, because it’s so tightly written, giving only the relevant information, and yet still sounds so poetic, like a real legend-of-old. Literally called ‘The Prologue’ in the soundtrack, it’s only there to introduce the setting, one of the main characters, and the lesson that he must learn. The question at the end of the Prologue is “For who could ever learn to love… A Beast?” and the answer by the end of the film is ‘No one, so stop being a beastly person and become a better one. Only then will anyone love you.’

Judging by the amount of time given over to backstories in the 2017 version, the way that backstory is revealed in snippets and chunks all the way through the film right up to the third act, I think it’s safe to say that this was something Disney really wanted to get creative with, just as they did in the live-action Cinderella and Maleficent. But it falls into the Mutton/Lamb trap in which it’s not Contextual Backstory being expanded and reused to be Constructive Backstory, it’s just Contextual Backstory taking up more than its fair-share of space!

Rather than get all miffed about that though, I propose that we have a good look at all the bits of backstory and make ourselves a Constructive Backstory for the film, OK? The rules are that we can’t add in new things, we can only expand on what’s already there and we can cut things out, OK?

Reshaping And Reusing

As already mentioned, there are a lot of ideas in Beauty and the Beast to pick from, so I’ve nabbed three that I think can go together really well. Lemme know in the comments if you had ideas from the film you think would add up into their own story in a cool way?

1. The Servants’ Role

The castle servants being tied in with the Beast’s life more closely, resulting in their being cursed, is a good idea.

Their role gets expanded on in the 2017 version, even more than in the 1991 film when they became actual characters for the first time. However, they do start sapping the Beast’s contributions to the plot: things like Lumiere offering Belle a room instead of the Beast, Cogsworth banning her from the West Wing, and the pair even making the decision to ask her to dinner, which the Beast refuses to consider even before Belle does!

This runs the risk of reducing the connection between Beast and Belle, as Belle is spending so much time interacting with the servants, even singing a verse in ‘Days in the Sun’ which is all about the servants wanting to be, if you will, ‘Human Again’.

But if we tied the servants’ in much more to the Beast’s character then this isn’t so much of an issue because the servants will start to feel more like an extension of the Beast’s character and struggles instead of a separate group.

2. That Enchanted Book

I know that the Enchanted Book being added into the 2017 film has got a lot of flack, but I think that’s mostly because the poor thing had nothing to do! It’s premise in the film makes no sense at all, at least the way the Beast explains it:

The beast unlocks a desk cabinet. In it, resting on velvet, its gold-leaf cover faintly glimmering with magic, is a LEATHER BOUND BOOK covered in a thick layer of dust.

THE BEAST

Another little “gift” from the Enchantress…

The beast cracks open the book to reveal AN ANTIQUE WORLD ATLAS. No  countries. Just land and sea.

THE BEAST (CONT’D)

A book that truly allows you to escape… It was her cruellest trick of all. The outside world has no place for a creature like me. But it can for you.

Like, did the Enchantress have to be the one to give it to him? He couldn’t just have a magic book in his centuries old library already? Also if being able to travel the whole world instantly is the price for being turned into the Beast, I’m not sure if this is the terrible fate that’s being suggested.

I enjoyed one critic’s idea that this was the Enchantress trying to give him the means to go out into the world and find someone who’ll teach him kindness and love him for himself or something, and that the Beast was too pathetic to understand and he hid himself away and didn’t use it at all.

It was rendered even more pointless than expected because it’s a teleporting book that takes you anywhere, yet Belle doesn’t use it to get to her father the quick-way, instead taking the scenic route via horseback. We’ve established that Belle can use this too, so why doesn’t she go home by magic, like she does in the Jean Cocteau version (with a glove) or the original fairy tale (with a magic ring).

But.

I have a better idea. Since the book was only really used to give Belle’s tragic backstory of her mother’s death, let’s repurpose this thing. Belle doesn’t need to know how her mother died for this story in any sense, and clearly the story as being told doesn’t want teleportation to be established for plot reasons. So.

What if the Enchantress gave the Beast a book that would only show him his own past? It can’t take him anywhere, it isn’t keyed into someone else’s life, it’s just his own past. And she gives it to him so that he can understand his own mistakes, like the Ghost of Christmas Past does:

“I told you these were shadows of the things that have been,” said the Ghost. “That they are what they are, do not blame me!”

3. The Beast’s Upbringing Creating the Reason for the Curse

This one’s a hard one; the way it is presented in the film, the concept that the Beast is the way he is because of his parents is … unconvincing. For one thing, the Beast himself doesn’t mention his parents, either of them once. Not even when they share the revelation that Belle’s mother is dead (of the plague, I’m not letting this go, why did they need this?) does the Beast mention his mother dying when he was young. His father is mentioned once in the story too, and that’s by Mrs Potts:

BELLE

Why do you care so much about him?

MRS. POTTS

We’ve looked after him all his life.

BELLE

But he has cursed you somehow.

(off their silence)

Why? You did nothing.

MRS. POTTS

You’re quite right there, dear. You see, when the master lost his mother, and his cruel father took that sweet innocent lad and twisted him up to be just like him… we did nothing.

And we as an audience see nothing for ourselves. The only time we see the parents, the mother lies dying and the father leads the child away from her death bed. I know the music tried to make this feel sinister, but parents are not supposed to leave small children to clutch at the cold dead hands of the lately deceased, so for all we get told that the Beast’s father was a cruel man, all the film shows us is responsible parenting. Good job.

Still, there is something like potential here, I believe. If the point of the film is that the Beast must learn to throw away the poor behaviour and values he learned in his youth and grow and change as a person to be a good man worth loving, then focussing on his upbringing isn’t a bad idea.

A Recipe For Learning From the Past

Right, putting all of these elements together with the rest of the story, I give you: A Suggested Backstory Integration.

Let us consider, for a moment that, rather than dying as is traditional for Disney’s parental figures, the King and Queen were utterly emotionally distant from the Beast as a child, leaving him to be raised entirely by the servants (as would have been more time-appropriate). When they do interact with him, it is largely to be critical, and we can reuse some of that dialogue for criticisms from the Beast over Belle as well. Nice tie-in and illustration of how the Beast has internalised the lessons of his parents.

Let us suggest that the servants were perhaps not very good at raising a prince. That very much like Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden, he was given whatever he wanted in an effort not to get the servants into trouble and to keep him out of the way and quiet. Therefore, the Beast grows up to be spoiled and with no real sense of consequences or empathy. The servants are the only people really in his life and they are subservient to him, so his understand of interpersonal relations will be a bit warped.

(Much of this can be explained overtly via the cinematic miracle of voice-over, as is traditional with Disney’s version of Beauty and the Beast)

Then we have the curse from the Enchantress, yada yada, and she leaves him with the book and instructions that he must use it to learn the lessons he needs to.

Then Belle shows up, we’ve had the exchange for her father scene, and the Beast and Belle argue a lot and he keeps offending her with criticisms of her etiquette and dress and whatnot (in place of his thing of calling her father a thief?)

In the 2017 film, Belle asks the servants about the curse several times, getting details on why the servants are cursed and what will happen to them if the curse is not broken:

BELLE

What happens when the last petal falls?

LUMIÈRE

The master remains a beast forever. And the rest of us become…

MRS. POTTS

Antiques.

LUMIÈRE

Knickknacks.

PLUMETTE

Lightly used houseware.

COGSWORTH

Rubbish. We become rubbish.

Instead, why not have Belle asking the Beast these questions as soon as they start getting to know each other. The Beast takes her to the library (since in this version he’s not giving her the library, it’s just the location of something he wants to show her) and hands her the Enchanted Book. He could say something like “I was given this by the Enchantress so that I could learn where I went wrong in my life. I have looked at its contents many times, but you are far wiser than I ever was, and I think that you need only look at it once.” He makes to leave, but Belle catches his arm and suggests that they look at it together instead.

They watch the Beast’s childhood in snippets, but this time the focus could be angled more towards the young man the Beast started to grow into and on the rising concerns of the servants. Perhaps you could have multiple little silent moment of the worried looks from the main servants (Mrs Potts, Cogsworth and Lumiere) as the Beast treats the people he meets rudely and with casual cruelty. You could even go so far as to Belle and the Beast overhearing a conversation in which Lumiere is trying to tell Cogsworth that they need to do something about the Beast before he truly grows to be a man, worried about the kind of king he will be, and Cogsworth reiterating what is clearly an old argument about how it is not their place to interfere, it is not for them to tell the prince how to behave. Have Lumiere throw all subtlety out of the window and intone that the prince will “soon be more beast than man!”

The point is that Beauty and the Beast is not a subtle story – a man literally reforms his beastly nature and therefore turns physically from a beast into a man! – there’s no reason not to go all the way with it and have a Beast of Christmas Past moment, if you’ve invented the Enchanted Book to do it with!

It also means that the film is showing us more, instead of telling us what’s happened, and Belle and the Beast have to spend more time together and Belle genuinely has to get to know the Beast through watching his life. Perhaps you could give the pair all these fun snippets of conversation while they watch his past life? Like, when the Beast first comes ‘on-stage’ as a small child, and Belle cooing over “how cute you were!” and the Beast getting all bashful at the praise. And Belle would get the context of all those mean things he’s said to her in the first act and understand that no one taught him not to be awful and rude to people.

They could find common ground in games they both played as children, or songs they both learned to sing. You could have little moments of fun too, like the Beast’s first dancing lessons as a child, and grown-up Beast taking Belle through the same steps in the background of the room, so they’re having fun together as well as learning important backstory.

I’m not saying that this is the only way to do it, but if Disney is so interested in fleshing out it’s old stories with ‘humanising’ backstories, then I’d like to see them use it more inventively. Lots of people have been saying recently that Disney is out of ideas, but the sheer amount of unexplored-yet-deeply-interesting ideas in the 2017 Beauty and the Beast alone could have filled a few films!

Ideas are not in short supply – but having fun with only a few at a time makes for a much more satisfying ride.

So that’s my ideas on having fun with the Beauty and the Beast 2017’s backstory. Did you like it? Do you have cool ideas that you think would work in the same way? Were there ideas thrown up in the film you wish were explored more? Let me know in the comments and see you next time!

The 1991 Prologue

Behold the wonder of this writing! It’s beautiful…

Once upon a time, in a faraway land,
A young Prince lived in a shining castle.
Although he had everything his heart desired,
The Prince was spoiled, selfish, and unkind.
But then, one winter’s night,
An old beggar woman came to the castle
And offered him a single rose In return for shelter from the bitter cold.
Repulsed by her haggard appearance,
The Prince sneered at the gift,
And turned the old woman away.
But she warned him not to be deceived by appearances,
For Beauty is found within.
And when he dismissed her again,
The old woman’s ugliness melted away
To reveal a beautiful Enchantress.
The Prince tried to apologize, but it was too late,
For she had seen that there was no love in his heart.
And as punishment,
She transformed him into a hideous beast,
And placed a powerful spell on the castle,
And all who lived there.
Ashamed of his monstrous form,
The beast concealed himself inside his castle,
With a magic mirror as his only window to the outside world.
The Rose she had offered,
Was truly an enchanted rose,
Which would bloom until his twenty-first year.
If he could learn to love another,
And earn her love in return
By the time the last petal fell,
Then the spell would be broken.
If not, he would be doomed to remain a beast
For all time.
As the years passed,
He fell into despair, and lost all hope,
For who could ever learn to love… A Beast?

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

Redemption Arcs: 5 Basic Rules for Building Your Own Moral System

This post was intended to only be a quick off-shoot from Sailing Without a Moral Compass, but just like the beanstalk of legend, it has rather grown and grown and grown!

Last time, we talked a lot about why I wasn’t going to be talking morals through the rest of this series, but of course we all incorporate some sort of moral code into our works, even if we do it unintentionally!

So I thought it might be useful to come up with a few really basic ‘rules’ to keep in mind when building the societal mores against which your characters will be called upon to make moral choices. Which let’s face it, they sort of have to be if you want to have any kind of conflict in your story.

Ch.17 Redemption Arcs, 5 Rules to Build Your Own Morals

On 10th December 1950, in his speech at the Nobel Banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm, William Faulkner famously said this:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

I often think about this speech, and you should absolutely look up the full transcript if you haven’t already.

I think that fantasy writers can easily fall into the same traps that Faulkner was worried about. It’s really easy to write a story in which your big concern is ‘Will the Dragon eat me?’ And if your story is resting on those kinds of questions then there’s a big risk that any appeal it could have will be fleeting.

It’s not speaking to any universal human concerns and, as I said in the last post, there’s only so concerned you can get about the fate of someone who doesn’t exist, who may be eaten by the dragon that also doesn’t exist. And all the pretty scenery and finely-crafted languages in the world isn’t going to make that more interesting.

George R.R. Martin’s books are so interesting because although the world of Westeros is fascinating and the cultures of its peoples are intricate and fun, the actual struggles of the characters are deeply human and relatable. Do you put your family ahead of everything else? Do you sacrifice a golden opportunity for gain or love? How do you prioritise several major tasks, with failure not really being an option?

We may not be facing ice zombies and dragons, but we all have to ask ourselves some of these questions.

So it’s well-worth any writer’s time to sit down and really think about what web of rights and wrongs your characters are manoeuvring in.

#1 – Consistency is Key

This is one of those universal first rules of any element of world-building, and here it is cropping up again. Whatever you decide, you need to keep it consistent. If you establish something, and then you change it, you need to acknowledge that too.

I should mention that this is especially hard to keep track of and stick to if you are writing a series, so please, please, please give extra thought to establishing rules you can stick to as early as possible, if you can. It’s so tempting to make the rules into whatever you need for the plot to be advanced, but that’s the absolute worst thing you can do in a series.

If you are establishing that the Bad Guys are bad because they use certain methods, or do certain things (killing and/or torturing others would be the easy example here), maybe don’t have the Good Guys use those same methods later on, but now try to frame those actions in a totally different light because this time it’s The Good Guys.

Inconsistencies ruin reader’s trust in writers. (Note: Unreliable Narrators are a different matter.) If you keep changing the goal-posts to suit yourself then no one can take anything you say seriously.

There’s a reason why, for most of the Second Wizarding War, in Harry Potter, Harry’s signature move is to disarm his opponents, rather than kill them. All Harry needs to do is make sure they can’t hurt people, he doesn’t need them dead, so he uses the pre-established spell to make this happen. If Harry from Book Five onwards was killing people right and left, but the Death Eaters were condemned for killing their opponents, well… We’d all be a bit less inclined to root for Harry and his cause, wouldn’t we? (Note: This is also why Harry actively torturing a man, before being complimented for it, in the last book is tricky for me to get past, for the record.)

Something that always bothered me in the Harry Potter series, by contrast, was the attitudes on child-safety. I mean, it’s hard to argue with Mrs Weasley in The Order of the Phoenix when she’s desperate to keep her children out of the war effort for their own safety. This is a totally reasonable thing for any mother (or responsible adult) to strive to do. The kids may not be happy about it, but there’s probably names for adults who use child-soldiers, and I doubt they are polite ones.

However.

This is a little bit rich when Harry and his friends have been endangered by the wizarding world every single year Harry’s been in school, and none of the adults have been overly concerned about it until now. Heck, in The Chamber of Secrets, the whole school had a murderous threat attacking students roaming the school freely and neither the school staff, nor the parents, thought that perhaps the school needed to be closed until this thing was caught? Really?

1 cat, 1 ghost and 4 students were petrified, before another student was straight-up kidnapped, and the school still wasn’t closed and the parents didn’t withdraw their children?

Not to mention the very next year, in which soul-sucking demons were considered a perfectly good choice to provide security for this same school of children, despite boarding the train there, and invading twice, posing a massive health risk at all times?

And this is the society that now thinks children should be protected at all costs?

Do you see how these kind of inconsistencies can end up making perfectly normal and understandable beliefs suddenly seem totally weird and out of place? And yes, I know that if any adults in those books had done the sane thing then there would have been no stories, but that isn’t the issue here.

There should be absolutely nothing wrong with Mrs Weasley wanting her children to be safe. This should not feel weird. And yet I was sat there completely siding with Harry the emotionally unstable teenager over the responsible adults because child-safety has never once before seemed even remotely on anyone’s list of concerns.

#2 – Why is pushing boundaries okay (or not)?

As discussed last time, every single rule that society runs on has an ‘Unless’ Clause buried in there somewhere, although what can be included in that clause tends to change over time. Examples of ‘Unless’ Clauses may include; unless it was in self-defence, unless they deserved it, unless they believe in something different to you, unless they look different in some way.

Everyone’s lines are in different places, but pretty much everyone has some form of ‘Unless’ written into their ideas of what is ‘wrong’. Therefore it makes sense that every single one of your characters has an ingrained code of ethics, and some form of ‘Unless’ Clause to go with it (See #5).

I should note here that this is not the same as the concerns of #1, detailed above. The difference between allowing yourself to slide into inconsistencies, and building in ‘Unless’ clauses is that the latter is done both on purpose and for a purpose. It needs to be addressed within the narrative, and preferably justified either by the narrator, or between two characters. It should be making a point about the personal morality of the characters and potential short-comings of the beliefs they may hold. Changing your rules half-way through to better suit the plot is jarring for the reader, but the hesitance of a character to follow their own rules is interesting character development.

Some writers have been especially creative in establishing societal mores and when they can be pushed or broken, and my favourite example of this is Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. In his world, all humans have dæmons, physical manifestations of their souls, walking around with them. So far so good. And no one, no one, is allowed to touch someone else’s dæmon ever. There are physical reactions to this being broken, and emotional and mental damage can be done as well. As readers, we read about the effects of someone touching another’s dæmon, and it’s absolutely sickening.

So the rule is: Never Touch Another’s Dæmon.

As readers, we instantly feel like there’s a logical reason for this, because why would you want random people touching your soul? We may not have dæmons ourselves, but we certainly don’t think the idea of someone getting handsy with something like our souls, do we?

Unless…

Of course there is an established exception. People touching other people’s dæmons without that level of trust is immediately understood to be intrinsically wrong, and Pullman doesn’t need to keep hammering that in to his readers every time it happens. But if we were to see two people touching dæmons without any negative repercussions, then we immediately understand that we’re being told something important too.

Unless You Are Especially Intimate With Them and Trust Them That Much.

And there it is! Because we’ve had this rule so firmly established, when we first understand that people could touch each other’s dæmons without anything awful happening, the implications feel enormous, without Pullman needing to belabour the point. He can trust his readers to make the jump and because the impact of the gesture in the world is so huge, it feels huge to us too.

This is a great example of really efficient story-telling, where by establishing something nice and early, an author no longer needs to tell the audience how to feel about something that happens, or what it means. We can figure that out for ourselves, and react as is appropriate. No I’m not trying to find ways to not write things and still have a story, honest!

#3 – Costs and Consequences

So, I know I’m far from the first person to say this, and this certainly won’t be the last time it’s brought up in this series, but: All Actions Should Have Consequences.

In too many stories, especially children’s, there’s a pervasive idea that ‘good’ actions are easily identifiable, and have no downsides, thus making them easy to pursue. And only bad actions cost people, because ‘crime doesn’t pay’ or something.

I respectfully disagree with this idea, not just because I find it unrealistic and unhelpful to children who may believe us when we sell them this idea.

No I dislike it because it automatically ruins half the drama inherent in every single decision a character makes, and renders them dull. A writer has to find other ways to make a character interesting, but seems unaware that a much better solution was frantically waving from the cutting room floor where it’s been tossed.

Let’s take a moment to talk about my favourite version of this in action: George Bailey’s character in It’s a Wonderful Life. Now lots of people have this rosy image of this story; they remember the angel, Clarence; they remember George running down the street in the snow at the end shouting Merry Christmas! to everyone; and if they want to pick it apart a bit, they’ll sneer at the idea that being a spinster librarian is the worst thing that could happen to Mary, because being alone in life with a job no one will thank you for is absolutely marvellous, as I can personally attest.

But taking a second, more adult look at this story reveals the interesting idea that George Bailey has done all these good acts through his life, and been soundly punished by the universe for his troubles. He saves his brother from drowning and in doing so he loses the hearing in his left ear. He stops his boss from accidentally putting poison into a child’s prescription, and has his ears boxed. He gives his tuition savings to his brother so he can ‘temporarily’ run the family business, giving up his own plans to see the world in the process, but Harry gets a better offer when the time comes to repay George the favour, and George just has to keep smiling throughout all of it.

And what fascinates me when I watch this procession of good deeds going punished, is how much George doesn’t like performing them. He’s aware at every point of what he’s giving up, what he’s suffering, for the sake of doing the right thing. He’s not happy because of his choices. And he does it anyway. Not because he’s selfless, but because it’s the right thing to do.

The other thing I love about this story is the subversive way that the film represents evil. Not in the form of Mr Potter, the face of capitalism (I think? That’s what Mr Potter represents, right? I didn’t do film theory). No, the wrong or ‘evil’ choice to juxtapose with the good is the decision to simply do nothing.

In the world where George isn’t born, we get to see what happens, not of people making the wrong choices, but in no one making any choice at all. The world where George doesn’t save his brother, doesn’t prevent his boss poisoning a child, doesn’t save the Building and Loan.

We too often see the descent into evil in stories as a series of ‘bad choices’, like it’s something one has to actively chose. But the choice to do nothing can be just as bad.

It’s a Wonderful Life teaches us that the point of doing the right thing isn’t to be rewarded, George doesn’t get a grand reward at the end so much as he isn’t punished for another’s mistakes. The point of doing good is simply that it must be done, no matter what the cost.

#4 – Create Your Own Grey Areas

Now, you may read this one and think, But Cameron, isn’t this just #2 all over again And no, that’s not what I mean.

I mean that you need to think of areas which are developing in the world you are building which simply don’t have an established set of rules yet, or where those rules are starting to be questioned so much that they are actively breaking down.

For an example, think of our world today and the increasing rise of A.I. and robots and how human society is finally having to struggle with the same issues that Science Fiction always said we’d struggle with; humans becoming redundant, computers becoming more intelligent than ourselves, what is and isn’t acceptable from A.I., whether or not the robots will rebel. (Are we still worried about that? I think we’re still worried about that… Maybe only Hollywood thinks we’re still worried about that…)

Any day now I suspect we’ll all reach a stage when we have to start the discussion on A.I. Rights and whatnot. Somewhere out there, Issac Asimov is so proud of us.

Anyway every single era of history has had to confront some new oncoming storm of change, and had to change or evolve its ideas of right and wrong to accommodate it. Whether this might be Europe in the aftermath of the Black Death, in which women were able to achieve more independence in a diminished society and how this confronted established ideas about a woman’s place (this one comes up time and again; see also The Frist and Second World Wars), or the sixteenth century wherein the invention of the printing press allowed the rapid spread and discussion of ideas which shook the foundation of religion, science, and politics, or the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when the rise of capitalism allowed for greater social mobility as trading families made enough money to stand shoulder to shoulder with Old Money.

There’s literally never been a point in history when Time stood still and there was some great internal struggle in society, so why write yourself a fantasy world in which everything is settled and has been for a long time?

Have a bit of fun with your world and think of some interesting ways to challenge its inhabitants and push them into confronting new areas of right and wrong which they may not be comfortable in. The easy way is to start a war of course, but I do urge fantasy writers to go and spend time with the sci-fi guys (What? I liked that rhyme.) and think of other things that can be invented or discovered to throw everything into question and turmoil. Did a new industry grow up to disturb traditional employment and wealth acquisition? Did new magic get developed to extend life-spans or preserve people’s minds forever?

#5 – A Sense of Scale or What is an acceptable loss?

So… So this one’s not a nice thing to think about, but I would also argue that it is the most important thing to define as a writer when world-building for any story whatsoever.

It’s tied into #2 to some extent and that is the question of what does your society at large, and then the individuals within it, consider to be an acceptable loss in any situation?

What can be tossed to the wayside, if necessary, to get through a situation? For your business to succeed, smaller businesses will go bust, is that an acceptable loss? If you are on a quest that gets difficult, would leaving your animal sidekick behind to an uncertain fate be an acceptable loss? How many people could die on this quest before it became an unacceptably high price for your mission?

In terms of crafting the climax of your story, this point is especially interesting, because it raises the issue of whether your characters may find their victory ‘Pyrrhic’ (when the victory is considered to have cost more than it was remotely worth.)

Now before going any further, it’s important to recognise that none of this will come out of nowhere. For society to consider something to be an acceptable level of loss, it needs to be tied into what that society prizes and thinks is important.

Consider a real-world example; if a bus were to crash and thirteen people were injured, but none were killed, it may be reasonable to call the thing a relief, despite the fact that those thirteen people are most certainly not going to agree with you. That’s because we tend to consider anything less than death to be a good outcome, regardless of the long-term effects on those who survive.

When building your own society, have a good dissect of our own values and the actions that these values inform and enforce, and see what you might change in your own world. Do you want a world to feel exactly like our own, or one that feels totally foreign to your reader and makes them uncomfortable?

For example, if there was a disaster in which people had to give up their lives to save others, in the West, we’d naturally save the children before anything else, because we value their innocence and the chance of a new beginning that they represent. If I were to build a culture that inherently feels totally alien to a Western world, therefore, I might build a society that prizes not innocence but experience, and have the same scenario play out but with the evacuation going from the oldest to the youngest, as those with more experience and knowledge would be considered more valuable than those who know comparatively little. If you just felt vaguely weird right there, then good. That’s what you should feel.

Putting It All Together…

And now we put all of these elements together! Aaaand then we start writing a story where all of these elements come into conflict with each other…

Yep, because let’s face it, no system of morality covers every scenario, that’s why humans are asked to be good at thinking for themselves. We can’t always do what the instruction manual tells us, because life gets in the way.

And this is where William Faulkner’s words from the start of this post come back for us, because the real drama in the best stories comes not from the fear of the bomb blowing up, or the dragon eating our hero. It’s because our hero believes two or more things to be true and right, and then finds that he can only follow one of those rules. And now he must decide which road to travel.

That’s where the conflict comes in.

There’s been a lot of emphasis, it seems to me, over the past five years or so, in writing grittier, more edgy fantasy. We seem to be getting away from the Swords & Sorcery style of stories, and heading towards a darker, ‘more realistic’ world. And the best way I can think of to do this is to give some real thought to different ways that societies can approach this complicated practical exam called Life. To establish in new and inventive ways all the aspects of life that would be affected by the values and costs of such beliefs. To get the audience reeeally comfortable in a certain way of thinking… and then heartlessly push them into all the uncomfortable quandaries those approaches leave our characters in.

Depth doesn’t come from a bigger dragon, it comes from the smaller moments when we face up to the hard questions and know that there aren’t any good or easy answers. And accept, deep down where it hurts us most, that someone is going to pay the price of those answers either way.

Next time we’re going to be thinking about redemption as the paying of debt. If this post was interesting to you, check out the rest of the series here. And if you’re interested in the potential to be found in experimenting with the structure of a redemption arc, check out my case study of Susan Pevensie: The Redemption Arc That Never Happened.

 

Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Redemption Arcs: Why We’re Sailing Without Our Moral Compass

I don’t know if this happens to other bloggers, but sometimes it happens that I decide to write a bunch of posts on a theme, and I list out all the topics that I want to talk about, I collect up some good case-studies, and I start writing… and then I realise that I’ve started in the wrong place.

This is one of those times.

Because this series was intended to focus almost entirely on the structural aspects of a good redemption arc, to look at creating a sense of narrative balance, and the most effective ways to use the more common mechanics redemption arcs include, such as a Tragic Backstory, or a Turning Point. And as I re-read my notes I realised that there was a curious lack of any discussion about the moral issues that redemption arcs raise and struggle with and (hopefully) answer.

This wasn’t exactly a missing piece; I didn’t simply forget about morality or anything, but I realised that I did need to start the series off properly with some sort of discussion about why I’ve decided to leave morality out for the most part.

Sailing without our moral compass

Everyone Knows It’s Wrong…

One of the reasons why I feel like a writing series like mine has no business talking about morality is that, quite simply, everyone’s ideas about what’s morally right or wrong are different. I know we all think that we agree on the broader aspects of what’s acceptable and not, but everyone draws the line in a different place.

Like most people, I have a variety of friends with whom I like to discuss films, books and TV shows, and we’ll happily natter along about characters, scenes, and most importantly themes in various pieces of work. It’s all good fun, and it helps me to figure out what I really like about things and how I can incorporate elements into my own work and it also helps me, if for example I’ve seen a film that rubbed me up the wrong way in some form, work out what it was that I found objectionable.

The thing is, though, that the biggest and most long-running arguments I’ve ever had with my friends have been on those very same topics. It’s even reached a point where with every single friend there is at least one film, or book or franchise that we have mutually agreed to Never Speak Of Again. (The capital letters mean that it’s serious this time!)

Why do we get to this stage? You may be wondering.

Well, it’s essentially all down to one thing – we have different moral compasses and there are simply very different things we’ll all bend on or not. Things we’ll allow to slide for the sake of an interesting character or a really juicy plot, and other things which we feel simply cannot be walked back on later.

For example, sometimes you find yourself arguing that a character accidentally killing someone else through their bad decisions earlier in the story is simply a mistake and they should be allowed to amend their ways, learn from the experience and get on with their story. And another person may equally correctly argue that if this same character had used an ounce of common sense from the start, that entire episode would never have happened.

So no, there’s no point in assuming that all my readers will have the same moral code I have at all, and therefore judging a story on its morals is a little tricky.

After all, fiction isn’t real life, and the rules are what writers tells us they are.

And speaking of writers…

Why You Can Never Trust Writers

Apart from being highly personal, morality is also a completely relative concept.

It’s utterly dependent on the context of an idea or action, and that’s what’s always been its biggest strength and weakness combined. Is killing wrong? Yes. Except when you did it for a good reason. Is theft wrong? Yes. Except if it was for a good reason. And we make our minds up as outside observers based entirely on what information is presented to us in order to contextualise a character’s actions.

This will not be news to you as writers, even small children instinctively know this after all, and no one needed to tell them!

Ask any pair of six year olds about the fistfight you just broke up and you’ll promptly be given two totally different stories, in which the child speaking is clearly the innocent party and the other was utterly at fault. You know as you listen to them that they’ve edited out their poor behaviour and emphasised the other’s in an effort to justify themselves. They may not have all the fancy terms to describe this rhetorical device, but they certainly know how to do it!

What I’m building up to here is this: Never Trust a Writer.

No seriously, never ever trust writers! Even if you are also a writer!

Why?

Because writers can make anything seem like a reasonable action to take. Anything. You thought you would be against some action no matter what? Too bad! Writers can make you sympathise with it, at least for a little while. You thought some things were only done by monsters? Writers will give you some lovely, related protagonists and have you cheering them on as they perform exactly those acts!

Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express has you desperately hoping that a bunch of unrepentant murderers get away scot free. The Italian Job has you cheering on a crew of career-criminals stealing $4 million, not to mention utterly ruining a whole city of people’s day by causing a city-wide traffic jam for hours. How anyone manages to do that considering how much everyone despises getting stuck in traffic, is amazing to me!

Why are writers especially good at this? Well, as writers we are completely in control of the worlds our stories take place in. This isn’t history, wherein a narrative that’s been built up out of selectively picked bits of information can be overturned when someone looks up all the information that’s been carefully left out. Writers, especially in fantasy and sci-fi, must create all of the information that could ever exist.

You want the murderers in Murder on the Orient Express to get away with it because the man they killed murdered a child and caused the deaths of four more people, before escaping justice. Those people just want to get closure and justice and the law failed them so they did it themselves. You hate that man, and by the end you’re really glad that he’s dead.

But the only things we’re told about the murdered man is that he’s a kidnapper, a brutal child-killer, and an extortionist who’s now a bit sad that after a life of crime people want to kill him.

What we don’t see him do is feel remorse for what he’s done. We never see him trying to make amends by, I don’t know, funding several orphanages and schools to ease his conscience as to the origins of his wealth. Therefore we assume he doesn’t feel any, and he probably didn’t. But his death would immediately feel different if you knew that he was trying to make amends and that more unseen people are going to suffer now that he’s dead.

Nothing Is Real

You know how I mentioned in the first section that fiction is different from real life? (Yes, I know, I totally blew your mind with that insight!) Well, this is where that really comes into play.

Because we might all have different beliefs about morality, but we are all united in one thing with fiction: Nothing that happens in it is real and these characters do not matter.

I know, I’ve just broken the cardinal rule of writing, but it’s worth thinking about.

Because while fiction can reflect real life and shape real life, maybe even help us deal with real life, you know what it’s not? Real life.

So the actions that characters take in your work of fiction do not, on the most basic of levels, matter.

It’s one of the reasons why, where possible, storytellers like to tell you that their story is ‘Based on Real Events’. Because you care more about what happens when you think that you’re being given something real.

The Titanic movie wouldn’t be nearly so compelling if you didn’t know that all those people you watched die – by drowning, by freezing, by the engines blowing out – all those people really died. If they were just a bunch of made-up people who died in a totally made-up disaster, would you actually care all that much? Probably not.

Horror films like using this technique for the same reasons, although obviously that takes more of a suspension of disbelief, because I absolutely will buy that there’s a lot in this world we’re not aware of, but I feel like if vampires were readily available, I wouldn’t be hearing it first from a 2009 movie…

This is why fantasy writers are at a disadvantage. Yes, we have the freedom to get all creative with our worldbuilding and make up anything we want to, but all the events and actions and conflicts that we create to happen inside that world are effectively as tangible as Scotch Mist.

This isn’t the engine room of the Titanic burning men to death in 1912; it’s a dragon burning people for raiding its treasure hoard. That’s never going to fly if you tell people it really happened, and if it didn’t really happen then why should your audience care?

Of course, this challenge is by no means insurmountable. In fact you’ve probably scaled it in your writing already! Because while the events of a work of fiction are made-up, the emotions shouldn’t be. People’s thoughts, their feelings and logic should all feel real, it’s why people do things that matters in fiction, not what they do.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand this links us back up to the second point I made earlier. Don’t Trust Writers With Morality!

Because you’ll only care if the writer makes you care, or allows you to care. If you ever need a good example of someone being really aware of how much power a writer has over a reader’s empathy and moral investment in the events of a story, I can think of no better case than the dedication in one of Terry Pratchett’s books.

In 1989, Terry Pratchett wrote Guards! Guards!, the first book in a series about characters who would, in any other fantasy setting, be at best supporting characters, but usually only existed in the background of bigger stories; The Night Watch of Ankh Morpork.

They may be called the Palace Guard, the City Guard, or the Patrol. Whatever the name, their purpose in any work of heroic fantasy is identical: it is, around about Chapter Three (or ten minutes into the film), to rush into the room, attack the hero one at a time, and be slaughtered. No one ever asks them if they wanted to.

This book is dedicated to those fine men.

What interests me here isn’t the subversion of the fantasy trope, in which the side characters are the heroes and the young man with a sword called in by the city to save the day is so utterly meaningless that I’m not sure he ever got a name. (If he did, I didn’t catch it on my first thirty times of reading the book…)

What fascinates me is the way Terry Pratchett blatantly points out that we as an audience customarily watch or read about these, say, twelve men getting killed for just doing their jobs … and we don’t care. We don’t know their names. We don’t know if they had families to whom they are never going to return. The story will barely remark upon their whole existence, except to revel in the hero’s skill at killing people.

Terry Pratchett made some of his best characters in this series. And he made them by giving faces and names and lives to the people we normally are never told to care about.

I keep saying in this series that writers wield a huge amount of power over their characters and readers. Well this is another of those times.

Because writers literally have the power to make a rational, good person desperately want someone to get away with murder. To want people to successfully rob banks. To not bat a single eyelid in the face of a senseless loss of life.

 As writers, we are all totally free to use whatever moral hoops we need to make a story interesting, compelling and tangible. Have a good think about what you really want to paint as being ‘acceptable’ and not, because you literally do make the rules in your own world!

As an audience, it is always worth asking yourself, ‘Why am I okay with this action? Would I think it was okay if I knew more about these people?’ Hopefully it won’t spoil a story for you; that would be awful! I just think its good practice for looking at real life, where we often have to go looking for more information than is readily given to us.

Also, considering the vast army of reboots and remakes in the film industry at the moment that spring from the idea that the villain from the original was actually the Good Guy the whole time, maybe take it as a chance to remember why they were the villain all along?

If you enjoy talking about the nitty-gritty of putting stories together, be sure to check out the rest of the Chronicles in Creation series.

Also let me know in the comments if you end up having weirdly intense arguments with your friends about the actions of people who don’t exist and why they wouldn’t be invited to your equally non-existent dinner parties. I need to know it’s not just us…