This weekend, my wife and I watched a delightful movie called Ruby Sparks. It has a fun premise: a writer struggling to complete (well, start) the follow-up to his wildly successful first novel creates a character straight out of his dreams–and somehow makes her real. Ruby is everything he’s written down, and he’s able to change her simply by starting a new page. It reminded me a lot of Stranger Than Fiction,though from the opposite angle (and, frankly, more well done). As people who watch movies, we enjoyed it; it poses some interesting ethical questions, and it’s well written and produced.
But as a writer, it really got me thinking.
What writer wouldn’t want to be able to converse with their characters in the flesh? What would it mean to the story you’re crafting? How much more developed would your characters be if you could take them out for a coffee interview? Sounds like a pretty interesting opportunity.
But this movie isn’t really about a writer whose character becomes real. It’s about a writer who gets so attached to his character that he can’t distinguish her as such–she becomes a girlfriend and lover, instead, and he even stops “writer her” for a time because of it. The result, of course, is that he sets aside his work, only developing her character/story when it suits him to do so (watch it for specifics–no spoilers here). The movie treats this in a very literal way, but there’s an unspoken metaphor underlying the film: what happens when you get too attached to an ideal?
In the movie, Ruby starts to grow on her own, according to the backstory and personality Calvin has “written into” her. A natural way for a character to develop; I think we’ve all had characters run amok in our stories once they have enough steam of their own, as it were. But she grows in unexpected ways, so the prime conflict of the movie becomes Calvin trying to mold her into his perfect woman. Again, lots of ethical questions and considerations here, but the point is that Ruby isn’t what he expects, and those expectations cause a lot of trouble.
It all got me to thinking: what happens when we, as writers, make up a character that doesn’t perform to expectations? Or, worse, what happens when they do, and we grow so attached to them that we refuse to let them take risks?
Superman is an excellent example. A character written by so many different writers that he’s less a character than an icon; the ideal of who Superman is has become so entrenched that any deviation is a bombshell. Anyone remember when Superman died? Personally I don’t like Superman, but I hung onto that story with every page. It was an important moment in the character’s arc, and his sacrifice epitomized everything he stood for. Then, he came back, and everything was ruined.
Superman dying was a watershed moment for the character–but his return negated that. Suddenly death can’t even raise the stakes. But why bring him back at all? Because it would be ridiculous to actually kill of Superman and leave him dead and gone–he’s too well loved.
Getting attached to a character can be dangerous. When they don’t live up to your expectations, you can end up disappointing, sure, but often they’ll surprise you in other ways that make up for it. At the least, when a character takes you in an unexpected directions, it’s often a sign that the story needed to go there anyway (in my opinion). But if you’re so attached to your character that you can’t see them take risks, you’re in trouble. Suddenly they become invincible like Superman, and you can’t (or won’t) raise the stakes enough to put them into real danger. Which means they won’t grow, and they won’t learn.
I felt that Harry Potter fell into this trap, to an extent. Yes, he learned a lot about life and friendship along the seven book journey, but there was never really any doubt that he’d end up winning. The stakes seemed high because everyone else was at risk–but Harry never truly was, and because of that I felt he was one of the least interesting characters in the books. But that’s my own opinion.
Star Trek–as much as I love my Star Trek–is bad for this too. You know that the bridge crew is going to survive every away mission, and that no matter how many Romulans or Jem-Hadar they’re facing against, they’re going to pull a rabbit out of their hat and get away on top. It’s even become a running joke–only the “Redshirts” are ever in real danger. Although I love watching these stories, I know there’s no danger to Kirk or Picard, and so they’re less interesting to me too.
But you can’t write every main character with the intent to die, can you? Well, on the other end of the spectrum is George R. R. Martin–if you haven’t read the Song of Ice and Fire series, I’ll just recommend you don’t fall too fond of anyone in particular. He’s a master of high stakes, but he gets away with it because there are so many well developed characters in his books. They’re almost cannon fodder. What’s better is that he revisits even the characters who die–if not literally, their memories haunt the rest of the series.
And there are other ways to invoke serious risk on your characters. Another Star Trek example: one of the best episodes of any of the series is In the Pale Moonlight form Deep Space Nine’s sixth season. Captain Ben Sisko has to make a deal with the devil in order to win a protracted war. The episode is told in flashback, so you know he’s at no physical risk–but the stakes are incredibly high. He’s breaking regulations, breaching ethics, and going against everything he believes in, all for the greater good–and he’s not even sure it was all worth it. The conflict here isn’t any tangible risk; it’s that he’s done something that will live with him the rest of his life, something he may not be able to forgive himself for–and what’s worse, it’s all off the record, and he can’t tell anyone about it. This one episode developed his character substantially.
In the end, we as writers need to realize that our characters are not just our creations–they belong to the reader as much as to us. It’s easy to write a character that you grow attached to, and it sounds almost callous to say that you have to put them in harm’s way for your story to be interesting. But the reader will see it differently: the characters who play it safe and take no great risks fall to the background; they become extras without conflict. A writer who really loves their characters will make them march through Hell–and the reader will love you for it.