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(Storytelling) The Breath of Life

21 Apr

Myth 150I watched the series finale of Once Upon a Time in Wonderland a few days ago, and I have to say that the ending of it kind of encapsulated what was wrong with the series as a whole. There were a number of surprisingly dark moments but they paled in comparison to the writers’ commitment to making sure that there were almost no lingering consequences to them and the characters who should have been affected most by them didn’t really need to deal with them at all. By the end of the hour, the villain had been vanquished, anything bad that had ever happened to the protagonists had been rectified and “rewarded”, and everyone got to live happily ever after.

It was frustrating. There was a much more interesting and inventive take on Wonderland somewhere inside that show, but it only got to shine infrequently and was immediately snuffed out. I certainly don’t mind the idea of a family-friendly adventure show — in fact, it’s what I was hoping Wonderland would be — but there’s a weight to the series that was sorely missing.

The characters really stood out to me as a central problem. Alice, while portrayed admirably by Sophie Lowe, was pretty much a walking cliche generator about the power of love. The only thing that defined her was her dedication to the cursed genie Cyrus. Her giddy optimism seems completely unmoored from her experiences within the series; when we first meet her, she’s been mentally beaten down in an insane asylum, and is just about to admit that her time in Wonderland is completely made up. Throughout the series, we find out that Alice’s relationship with her father has suffered mightily, and she’s been all but replaced by a new stepmother and sister in the meantime. These are character-defining tragedies, but we can’t trace the Alice of the series back to what we knew of her before her latest stint in Wonderland.

The Knave of Hearts, Alice’s stalwart companion in this adventure, doesn’t fare much better. Throughout the series we learn that he left the fairy-tale realm of Sherwood Forest with a girl named Anastasia because of her disapproving mother. They live a hard-scrabble existence in Wonderland before Anastasia is seduced by the Red King while attempting to steal his jewels. She promptly abandons him, marries into royalty and becomes the Red Queen. There’s little to make us understand why she would do this, and why she would eventually change her mind on her wedding night. The Knave, so heartbroken by the betrayal, asks for his heart to be removed by the Red King’s mother (?). Then he goes on about his business before breaking Alice out of the asylum.

The Knave is supposed to be a cynic/pragmatist, but there’s clearly still a beating heart underneath that. He wants to do the right thing, and it’s clear that cynicism is a bad defense mechanism that never really fit. But if any semblance of emotion was literally ripped out of his chest before the events in the series takes place, where does this morality come from? Is there something beyond emotion that provides a person with a sense of right and wrong?

This could be an interesting thing to play around with, but Wonderland never does. The Knave goes from a cynical foil for Alice to a love-lorn romantic to little more than a plot device over the course of the series; the more we learn about him, the less clearly defined his character.

The others in the series — villain-turned-ally Red Queen/Anastasia, super-villain Jafar, and living MacGuffin Cyrus — don’t fare much better. We’re given a series of events that justifies what each of these characters want, but we have little sense of why they want it other than being implicitly asked to buy that they’re supposed to. We know what they want, what they need to do to get it, but no idea who these people are really.

But it’s not for lack of trying, I suppose — the writers try hard to make sure their characters are distinct, that their stories are told functionally well. It makes me wonder what exactly is missing with Wonderland’s characters, why they don’t feel like living, breathing people.

That was a question that gives me pause; in general, what do you look for in characters to make them feel whole? For me, it’s got to be the stuff in the margins — little things that point to deeper character traits, that make those characteristics feel ingrained, almost subconscious. Let’s say that the Knave is a bit of packrat because being surrounded by a lot of stuff comforts him; he spent a good bit of time poor with Anastasia, and anything that reminds him of that reminds him of how sucky it was and that he lost the love of his life. Maybe there’s some secret bit of him that believes if he accumulates a lot of wealth he just might be able to win her back. Or, say, Alice has a very hard time being alone, or being accused of lying is one of those things that will send her off to a rage. Maybe she has a hard time opening up to strangers because of her experiences with her stepmother.

We, as people, contain multitudes of ideas and ideals. We’ve been touched by so many different things that influence us. It makes sense for habits, conscious and otherwise, to arise from these influences. When a character can be boiled down to one trait only, that character won’t be interesting enough to carry a serialized TV series, shortened season or no. The fairy-tale characters of Once Upon a Time in Wonderland should probably be steamlined, heightened into archetypes, sure — but when you have 13 hours to tell your story there’s got to be room for a little more texture in there.

As it stood, the characters seemed relatively inert, bouncing from event to event with little in the way of an internal life to influence their trajectories. As a result, the characters felt like pieces being moved on a chessboard; while the game being played here might be interesting in a thought exercise kind of way, there just wasn’t much of an emotional hook to really get me to settle in.

The lesson to be learned here is that you need to make your characters as real as you can with the space you’re given. If you’re telling, say, a 30-minute story in an anthology episode or something, that’s one thing. Not a lot of real estate for detail, so you strip the character down to their essentials. But if you have a lot of time with a character, it really helps for us to slow down and take a look at them away from the story, to give them texture and room to breathe. Once we understand why characters relate to certain ideals in the way they do, we engage with them more deeply. When we understand what they want and why they want it, we want it for them much more readily.

But for now, I’ll open up the floor: when do you notice yourself becoming really invested in a character? What are some of your characterization pet peeves?

 
4 Comments

Posted by on April 21, 2014 in Reviews, Television, Writing

 

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4 responses to “(Storytelling) The Breath of Life

  1. georgesquares

    April 21, 2014 at 1:41 PM

    When I took my first writing classes, the first piece of advice given to me was “make your characters suffer.” This was something that bothered me initially. I liked my characters very much. I didn’t wan’t to sacrifice subtle discomforts for edge. But soon, I realized that this was an exercise in decision making and handling consequences. I never felt like a story with dire physical repercussions necessarily hooked me more than problems that had social, psychological, or domestic impacts, and that still holds true today. I took the scary first step of writing characters who made very bad decisions.

    After I realized the weight of consequence in a character, I could also distance myself from the idea that a character had to be likable to be interesting or somebody to root for. If you’re empathetically present on a character’s personal journey, you should be allowed feel the shift in their world after they make an action. But suddenly, if this world changes itself to alleviate the friction of a character’s choice, there is a bit of narrative vertigo. The character is is no longer compromised– the world of the character is compromised, and the world of the character is just another name for the story itself.

    Castles turn into cardboard. Emotional victories become a bowling match with the bumpers turned up. A Karma Houdini that punishes a villain in a deus ex machina fashion can rob them of their threat and can weaken their potency.

    A character with wit and sharp dialogue may win me over faster, but their journey and the individual ways that they pay for their transgressions with the world around them will make me stay for the long haul. If I think of a conflict and can say “this is how she would try to solve this,” the character is fixed in my head.

     
    • jakebe

      April 23, 2014 at 11:45 AM

      Right, exactly! It’s not that I want a “dark” story where all is suffering and woe for all eternity, but I want a character who’s forced to make difficult choices to live with the consequences of that choice. It’s one thing to, say, have a character make a choice to get what they want at the expense of something else and have it work out that way, and a character where the negative consequences are erased by the author’s fiat that things should always work out for the best always and forever.

      Nothing will take me out of a story faster than seeing a looming consequence evaporate once a character goes down a certain path. Life doesn’t work that way, and we want our stories to be a reflection of our lives in some way. Sure, some of us like to be reassured and entertained, but just a little bitter makes things that much sweeter.

       
  2. Bad Horse

    July 20, 2014 at 8:02 AM

    I haven’t seen the show, but these are its writing credits on IMDB:

    Jane Espenson … (creator) (11 episodes, 2013-2014)
    Zack Estrin … (creator) (11 episodes, 2013-2014)
    Adam Horowitz … (creator) (11 episodes, 2013-2014)
    Edward Kitsis … (creator) (11 episodes, 2013-2014)
    Jenn Kao … (3 episodes, 2013-2014)
    Jerome Schwartz … (3 episodes, 2013-2014)
    Richard Hatem … (2 episodes, 2013-2014)
    Rina Mimoun … (2 episodes, 2013-2014)
    Katie Wech … (2 episodes, 2013-2014)
    Adam Nussdorf … (2 episodes, 2014)
    Jan Nash … (1 episode, 2013)

    That’s a lot of writers. Maybe too many, if you want consistent character interpretations and character arcs.

    >But suddenly, if this world changes itself to alleviate the friction of a character’s choice, there is a bit of narrative vertigo. The character is is no longer compromised– the world of the character is compromised, and the world of the character is just another name for the story itself.

    Close, but not, I think, quite right. Changing the world to alleviate the friction of a character’s choice is the nature of fantasy, the defining feature of the genre. A fantasy world is one where, when Jesus, I mean Aslan, pure and sinless, gives up his life, (spoiler!) he gets it back again. Where Frodo’s mercy to Gollum is repaid not by a knife in the back in the dark, but by saving the world. Where Luke trusts the force instead of a field-validated targeting computer, and it works.

    The trick, in classic post-Roman Western fantasy, from Beowulf to Tolkien, is not to conceal the cheat, but to highlight it. The world accommodates the character’s choice, but only when the moral rightness of that choice, and the moral claim that the story is making (virtuous acts of this kind will be rewarded in the end), are obvious. The formative idea behind pre-deconstructionist fantasy is that ethics are virtue-based, not consequentialist, and a completely pure and virtuous action will be repaid in kind, regardless of the circumstances.

    BTW, Jakebe, that Clarion write-a-thon? You’re going down. I have both the power of evil and the magic of friendship behind me.

     
  3. baddhorse

    July 20, 2014 at 8:05 AM

    https://jakebe.com/2014/04/21/the-breath-of-life/#comments

    I haven’t seen the show, but these are its writing credits on IMDB:

    Jane Espenson … (creator) (11 episodes, 2013-2014)
    Zack Estrin … (creator) (11 episodes, 2013-2014)
    Adam Horowitz … (creator) (11 episodes, 2013-2014)
    Edward Kitsis … (creator) (11 episodes, 2013-2014)
    Jenn Kao … (3 episodes, 2013-2014)
    Jerome Schwartz … (3 episodes, 2013-2014)
    Richard Hatem … (2 episodes, 2013-2014)
    Rina Mimoun … (2 episodes, 2013-2014)
    Katie Wech … (2 episodes, 2013-2014)
    Adam Nussdorf … (2 episodes, 2014)
    Jan Nash … (1 episode, 2013)

    That’s a lot of writers. Maybe too many, if you want consistent character interpretations and character arcs.

    >But suddenly, if this world changes itself to alleviate the friction of a character’s choice, there is a bit of narrative vertigo. The character is is no longer compromised– the world of the character is compromised, and the world of the character is just another name for the story itself.

    Close, but not, I think, quite right. Changing the world to alleviate the friction of a character’s choice is the nature of fantasy, the defining feature of the genre. A fantasy world is one where, when Jesus, I mean Aslan, pure and sinless, gives up his life, (spoiler!) he gets it back again. Where Frodo’s mercy to Gollum is repaid not by a knife in the back in the dark, but by saving the world. Where Luke trusts the force instead of a field-validated targeting computer, and it works.

    The trick, in classic post-Roman Western fantasy, from Beowulf to Tolkien, is not to conceal the cheat, but to highlight it. The world accommodates the character’s choice, but only when the moral rightness of that choice, and the moral claim that the story is making (virtuous acts of this kind will be rewarded in the end), are obvious. The formative idea behind pre-deconstructionist fantasy is that ethics are virtue-based, not consequentialist, and a completely pure and virtuous action will be repaid in kind, regardless of the circumstances.

    BTW, Jakebe, that Clarion write-a-thon? You’re going down. I have both the power of evil and the magic of friendship behind me.

     

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