So for those of you, if any, who’ve been hoping for another bestiary post; I’m sorry. I meant to write one, I even got started on it, but they take a lot of research and I’m really tired at the moment. It’s easier to write On Writing rants because I keep most of that information in my head. Also, I’m open to ideas if anyone would like a rant/would like to read my thoughts on a particular subject.
This week’s (weeks? Bugger I’m getting slow at this) rant is brought to you by my irritation with how often characters’ skills and traits are treated as easily switched-out accessories (the ones which flash in and out of existence like a bunny in a magician’s top hat). These “Magic Trick Traits”, for lack of a better term, are really unhealthy for a story and, frankly, they drive readers and viewers so far up the wall that they’re standing on the freaking ceiling. Frankly, I think T.V. series are probably to blame for this one, given that most shows on the telly are written by an ever changing set of writers – many of whom have never seen the show they are writing for and none of whom have time to read all the episode scripts. Given that only some shows are wise enough to have an open file for all writers that lists the basic skills and traits of each character, this is somewhat unavoidable for overworked, underpaid screenwriters in television. It’s decidedly NOT unavoidable in other forms of writing, yet it all too often turns up there anyway. So whether you’re trying to mitigate the problem or avoid it all together, please consider the following:
1. Skills and traits shouldn’t appear out of nowhere. Seriously – your character is not a magic trick. The audience will not applaud when something turns up out of nowhere. In fact, it’s likely to tick them off. I can’t even begin to list the number of stories, both professional works in all media and fanfics, in which characters got new traits and skills applied to them haphazardly whenever the plot needed something and working with what was already there would have required effort. Inevitably, the result was that the audience (and by that I mean that other people complained, not just me) would become irritated as they viewed the character as a whole while the writers viewed characters more by instalment. That is to say that when someone takes in a story, be it reading or watching, they accept the illusion that it is real and therefore the fiction that a character is consistent – if a character couldn’t fight off an attacker in chapter one but in chapter four is revealed to be a black belt they will cry foul. Comparatively, the author – or authors – of a work are viewing it from the technical side and therefore are less likely to cry foul at random additions because they are consciously aware that they are creating the character as they go rather than telling the story of someone who exists as a complete being (the way the viewers see it).
Here’s an example to show why it doesn’t work. Um, spoiler alert? In Star Trek: Enterprise they tried to go back to the TOS way of having the main seven cast be divided into the main three (Kirk, Spock, McCoy) and the four secondary characters (Sulu, Chekhov, Uhura, Scotty) but in Enterprise the back up four (Reed, Sato, Phlox and Travis) got far less screen time than the TOS secondary quartet. In fact, Reed was the only one who really got much of a personality (and worse, the main three – Archer, T’Pol and Trip – were the main characters primarily so they could be the love triangle rather than say because they were interesting or competent). Then, in the last season, it was revealed that Reed was actually a secret agent for Section 31, or (to translate out of Trekkie) they had JAMES FREAKING BOND on the secondary cast for years and he was never one of the main three. And worse, they barely did anything with it after the reveal. There were a few episodes in which the secret agents had a complicated (and really badly put together – as in “how are these people even secret agents” bad) and other than that: nothing. Yet there were a huge number of incidents wherein being a secret agent would have, or should have, be at least hinted at before and it really screwed up a lot of the believability of the world because a Section 31 agent should have been able to solve a lot of earlier plotlines in half the time but just …didn’t. That’s how it looks to the audience when additional skills and traits are dropped on a character with no foreshadowing – it looks like the earlier story is absurd. Now, from a writer’s point of view that’s not fair because they didn’t know ahead of time their character was going to turn out to be a secret agent, but that’s the point. You NEED to know ahead of time. You NEED to build reveals like that off things that have come before, because if you don’t it won’t matter how many good reasons you have from the technical side of writing: your audience will get annoyed and assume you’re an idiot.
2. If you have to pull them out of nowhere, make sure they make sense. I’ll grant that sometimes you work with a medium – like television or comic strips – where you can’t be sure you (as the writer) know everything about a character from the start or where you’ve got a team of writers and no time to go back and research everything, so you have no choice but to pull something out of nowhere. But here’s the thing: when you have the choice you should ALWAYS choose to avoid Magic Trick Traits. So, here you are, writer for some reason unable to pull some trick or trait out from previous scenes, standing before an audience who are ready with the rotten tomatoes and desperately in need of some sort of prop – but the props department is busy – and so you pull a rabbit out of your hat. That wouldn’t be so terrible, except that you didn’t have a hat on stage with you either. The audience isn’t going to applaud you for getting a rabbit out of a hat-from-nowhere; they’re going to want to know why you didn’t pull the rabbit out of the sleeve of the coat you were wearing or, better yet, a playing card from the sleeve of your coat. That, to them, would have made sense.
Or, to give a more applicable example, when you need to pull a new trick or trait out of your arse, made damn sure you’re applying the right sort of trait to the right sort of person. If you have a tomboyish princess, a farm hand and a jester on an adventure and suddenly need one of them to save them from an attacking beast, it makes a heck of a lot more sense for princess tomboy to know enough about proper fighting with weapons and use the wood axe or hunting bow to save them than for the farm hand to do that or for the tomboy princess to develop random magic powers and “tame” the beast or for the jester to do either of the above. This is because the tomboy princess is the most likely to have learned to fight, given that nobles did not typically allow farm hands to handle real weapons and would be more likely to cave for a princess than a peasant, while jesters are typically safer if they are “harmless” and magic powers from nowhere is always a bad idea. (If the jester pulls out a jesting trick to scare it off, that’s not even a Magic Trick Trait, that’s a trait from previously established traits and the sort of thing you want your characters doing). To compare to the metaphor from earlier; a tomboy princess who can fight is like pulling a card out of a sleeve which is already on stage – the set up is there and the item/trait fits the set up and character. Meanwhile the farmhand with secret sword skills is like pulling a rabbit out of a sleeve that was already on stage (yes there’s set up there but the item doesn’t fit) and the princess with sudden magic powers from nowhere is like pulling a rabbit out of a top hat which also wasn’t on stage (even if the rabbit fits with the hat, the hat/set up comes out of nowhere).
3. If you can; go back and foreshadow. Now, if you’re not writing something that is published in increments, like a webcomic or a television show, you have the chance to go back and foreshadow the skill from nowhere before you send your work out into the big bad world. DO THAT. If you’ve gotten most of the way through writing a book and discover you need your character to rock-climb their way to safety but have never even implied they know how to do that, go back and change a café-talking scene into a talking-while-rock-climbing-for-a-hobby scene. Or put a few rock climbing competition trophies in the description of your character’s bedroom. It’s simple, it’s straightforward, and it stops your audience from trying to tear YOUR hair out in frustration because they don’t appreciate random new deus ex machina being dropped in willy-nilly to save the day. Now, this also means you have to think about how having this trait will have affected your character earlier – if they got out of somewhere by other means when they could have climbed: why didn’t they climb? Or why don’t they use those other means later? Want to stick with the climb? Okay. So they climb out rather than more complicated means and therefore don’t run into the guard and …oh dear, would you look at that: the string of events has changed so much that they’re never in the original rock climbing debacle in the first place. Good. This means you were paying attention as you re-plotted and added that trait. That means you aren’t giving your characters traits that – like a magic trick – last for one scene and no longer. That’s good. Unless a trait is shown as being learned or lost (painter goes blind, to give a very blunt example) during the story, the character should be able to do it consistently the whole way through – not just when it’s convenient for the author to get help them escape from or keep them in trouble.
4. If you can’t foreshadow; pick up past plot threads and tie them in. Or take incidents and relate them to this new thing so that in hindsight it looks like the person actually was using their skill earlier or had good reason not to. Either way, once you’ve added a Magic Trick Trait you need to stabilise it – to tie it to the rest of the story so it’s not just some random puff of smoke floating by and obscuring things without ever truly affecting them. This is, again, more something which should be done in incremental fiction rather than fiction which can be edited and redrafted before publication. A book will go through many drafts before publication, a film or play many re-writes of script and a fanfic can be re-drafted even as it is published chapter by chapter. But it’s harder to do that with a webcomic and it’s impossible to do it with a television series. So sometimes the best you can do is make sure to anchor this floaty new trait to things that have come before – to take a moment to go over past events and explain how it relates to them.
For the sake of clarity, let us keep with the example of a character suddenly being revealed as a secret agent, but drop the specificity of the Star Trek example. A character is revealed suddenly, well into a story, to be a secret agent. There isn’t time for the author to give lots of spy related adventures or emotional drama of broken trust between characters before the story ends, so it does feel like it comes completely out of the blue. The unwise writer will allow this to stand, possibly making no further mention whatsoever; even in the climax when mad spy skills would be damn useful, and so the whole mess becomes an ugly Magic Trick Trait – there one minute, gone the next. The wise writer, on the other hand, throws in a few one or two line conversational moments wherein the suddenly-a-spy character reveals that some of the apparent lucky coincidences (but not plot holes – there shouldn’t be any plot holes if you’re doing your job right) were neither lucky, nor coincidences, but them working behind the scenes using spy skills. This gets around the “why didn’t you do that earlier you arsehole?!?” reaction the audience will have, although done clumsily it can seem very contrived. A simple joke by a character chapters or episodes later about whether it’s wise to tell personal problems to a spy who might have to make a report on them keeps the new trait from disappearing as if it never was, and that is important. If the spy was friendly to another character at first and then drifted away without explanation, they might mention that they were feeling them out for recruitment and decided against it and suddenly the never explained has an explanation and is no longer dangerously close to a plot hole (a plot dent?). Whatever the skill or trait, whatever character gains it, one basic rule still stands: the more unlikely the introduction of the trait (such as out-of-nowhere-ness) the more often you have to reference and use it in the rest of the plot to keep it from ruining everything like a hit-and-run incident on a quiet street.
5. If you’re willing to be inventive you don’t need to add new traits whenever you’ve written yourself into a corner. Seriously. Let’s go back to the princess, farmhand and jester example for a moment. How many of you would never have thought of having the jester scare off the danger by being a jester? I can’t see through your computer screens for a show of hands, but if that question was applied to the writing world at large the answer would have been: far, far too many. Unlike a tomboy princess or farmhand suddenly showing off never-before-mentioned fighting skills or magical powers, a jester being a jester is not a case of deus ex machina or Magic Trick Traits. It’s a case of being inventive and, frankly, it’s a hell of a lot more interesting than yet another inexplicable-sword-fight or glow-y powers of authorial interference episode. When you can’t rely on just adding something new, and hoping the sparkly newness distracts from the fact that you couldn’t figure out how to rescue your own characters from the mess you got them into, you are forced to get more creative and that’s GOOD. Being creative means telling interesting stories: audiences like interesting stories. Yet another blah-blah-blah-Magic-Trick-blah-blah just means they can tune it out and return when what is supposed to be a more interesting than average moment is over. It means they can easily confuse it with the ten million other stories which did the exact same thing.
When the Apollo 13 was falling apart in space and they needed to solve enough problems to get home, mission command didn’t help figure out a solution for them by bringing in things they didn’t have in space with them – they never said “well, we can get you home but you’ll need three spare rockets, four more rolls of duct tape than you have and a cow”. They solved the problem with what they had. If an author finds themselves in the position of apparently having written themselves into a corner, the “if only I had four more rolls of duct tape and a cow” thought may be the most prominent, but that is the train of thought which leads to Magic Trick Traits (there one moment, forgotten the next) and deus ex machina. You should never get on that train of thought. Instead you should glare at the mess you’ve made and jury-rig a workable wagon of thought from what you’ve got – even if that means putting in a lot of effort and getting sweating dragging that damn wagon across the plains of thinking until you reach solution station. When you’re forced to find a solution for your characters with only what you’ve already put in the story, you get a better and far more interesting story. Yes, it takes more work. But here’s the thing: writing is work – it’s not easy and it isn’t meant to be. Put the rabbit and the top hat back on the shelf and let the story shine.