Character development and rooting for characters

Quick update on my writing

I haven’t written much in a long while. I’ve been composing music and programming my “symphony generator” instead. Hopefully I’ll get back to writing something soon though. I still have parts 2, 3, and 4 of Insane Fantasy plotted and ready to write. Part 1 only sold like… 2 or 3 copies so far, which is terrible, so I wasn’t all that motivated to continue right away. I was hoping to write a standalone novel between parts. But I just can’t seem to finish plotting anything. I’ve started plotting several, but I keep getting stuck. I also tried writing some stories without outlining, but that didn’t work either. So I’ll probably just go ahead and start writing part 2 of Insane Fantasy while I try to finish plotting something else…

So that’s where I am with writing. Now onward to some random thoughts on character development and audience empathy.

Random thoughts on character development and audience empathy

I was thinking about this last week because of an interesting blog post about the “pulp revolution”: “No Real Plot” in ERB/REH Books

In the post, the author writes:

But consider this: how much more poignant, how much more depth, how much more interesting would the whole Barsoom cycle be if John Carter had been torn away from a wife and child, or (worse!) a young, pregnant wife on Earth?

That would make his attraction to Thoris a conflict. That would make his return to earth after asphyxiation a mixed blessing. That would add emotion to his every success on Mars: it all came at the expense of an innocent woman and child back on Earth…and yet, it wasn’t of his own choosing, he is powerless to go back (so why shouldn’t he make their loss mean something good for Barsoom?)…and since his complete disappearance means she is also moving on with her life back on Earth…?

I commented on the post with the following:

I read A Princess of Mars a month or so ago and, overall, really enjoyed it. (It was slow to start. Lots of pages with no dialog was boring me, but the pace eventually picked up.) One thing I really liked about it was that there were no big moral conflicts or conundrums, John Carter doesn’t have to struggle to figure out the morally right thing, so he’s able to have a pure straight-up adventure.

If John Carter had been torn away from a wife and child on Earth, for instance, that would not be a very interesting conflict to me in the moral sense because I would already have a strong attitude about what his moral obligation would be, which is that he should be faithful to his wife on Earth. Conflict solved.

Now if the character of John Carter agrees with me and is not tempted to sway, there’s no conflict (in the moral sense).

If he agrees with me, but struggles with the willpower to stay true, that inner conflict would bore me, and, if anything, make me like him less.

If he doesn’t agree with me in the first place, then his character would annoy me, and if he comes to change his mind, his “character development” would feel very forced to me.

I couldn’t help but think about the issue a bit more. I still feel the same way about John Carter; the fact that he doesn’t do much in the way of character development in the moral sense works nicely for me, because he doesn’t have to. He starts out as a good honest respectable man, so there’s not much development needed in those regards. (I’d argue there’s still character development in his relationships with other characters and his understanding of Mars’s “Barsoom” culture.) Since he’s an honest man, I can root for him the whole time, in a way I would not be able to if he had a wife he was tempted to cheat on, for example.

(Digression: This is precisely why I thought Brandon Sanderson’s Words of Radiance was ultimately weaker than The Way of Kings; I went into the second book considering the character Kaladin to be a pretty honorable man, as the first book seemed to establish. Instead, he’s still stupidly racist (there’s eye-color racism in his world, “eye-ism” I suppose), and at one point in the story he’s tempted to assassinate a powerful figure because the ends seems to justify the means, but he snaps out of it later. These character flaws felt completely out of character, and felt very forced by the author.)

That said, there are stories that I love in which the character is faced with moral conflicts and develops through them. Examples include The Lion King, Les Miserables… um… what else? A Christmas Carol perhaps? Come to think of it, I can’t even think of that many. Usually character development deals with one or two particular flaws, and they’re usually not moral ones. They’re usually about relationships or the acceptance or understanding of something, which I wouldn’t necessarily equate with a moral conflict. Likewise, I wouldn’t equate a moral ambiguity with a moral conflict. “You can save the king from assassination, as is your duty as a guard, or your wife! Choose one! Haha!” That would certainly an interesting conflict, but not really a moral one.

In Les Miserables (the musical, I haven’t read the book), the moral development happens right at the beginning, when the priest gives Jean Valjean the silver and “buys” his freedom and his “soul for God”. Jean Valjean then swears to turn his life around in “What Have I Done?”. “What spirit comes to move my life? Is there another way to go? … Jean Valjean is nothing now, another story must begin!” No more moral conflicts, and we can root for him for the rest of the musical. The character development takes precisely one story beat. He doesn’t brood over it, or go back and forth, which would be agonizing for the audience. A priest treats him with kindness, and boom, his heart changes. (On a side note, I think these sorts of heart-changing beats work especially well in musicals, as you get all the energy of the music to help stir the emotions. Sometimes these sorts of moments can be difficult to write in novels and screenplays.) (Jean Valjean makes another moral decision with the song “Who Am I?”, but it’s not really much of a struggle and takes less than three minutes to decide to do the right thing.)

Similarly, in The Lion King, the “moral development” all happen in contained story beats. Simba’s never brooding in constant moral conflict. “Should I go back and claim the throne? Should I stay? I’m not really sure…” No, or at least we don’t see it. He embraces “hakuna matata” in the scope of one catchy song, and changes his mind pretty instantly when a patriarchal cloud tells him to “remember who you are!” And in the moral sense, we’re only rooting for Simba after the moment. Before that, why do we root for him? Probably because we know he’s been manipulated and lied to by his scheming uncle (injustice almost always creates empathy). Plus he’s cute furry royalty, I guess, and not really too much of a jerk.

Ultimately, even if the characters at first have some moral lesson to learn, they don’t really struggle with it. They’re either sure that they’re right, or they don’t even think about it at all. They don’t go back and forth, they’re not wishy washy or indecisive. And when they develop, it takes place within a solid story beat (or, perhaps, a pair of beats; action and reaction (scene and sequel)).

What about anti-heroes?

But why might we root for an anti-hero or a tragic figure?

Some of my favorite films are about despicable characters. In Amadeus, Salieri is hardly a model of virtue. He’s a scheming envious petty egotistical God-hating maniac. In Sweeney Tood, the title barber murders a number of innocent people in cold blood. In Once Upon a Time In America, Noodles is a gangster.

Since these stories all end in tragedy, I wouldn’t say we’re really rooting for these characters at all, or at least not in the same sense. Our interest in their journeys lies somewhere else. They all feature some injustice, real or perceived, to which the character responds to in a clearly immoral way. In Amadeus, Salieri accuses God of being unjust, as he believes he deserves the talent given to Mozart. In Sweeney Todd, the barber was framed by an evil judge who wanted to steal away his wife while he rots in prison. In Once Upon a Time In America, Noodles is battling even worse gangs.

In a sense, it’s not really the character we root for, but the settling of the injustice through the character. And, ultimately, often despite him, as he usually gets his comeuppance in the end. Salieri ends a mad house after a suicide attempt, Sweeney Todd dies by his own knife, and Noodles loses the love of his life and all his friends.

I suppose there are some movies in which an evil character gets away. Especially in horror films, but those films are meant to be unsettling. I can’t think of a movie in which an evil character gets everything he wanted and the audience is meant to feel good about it…

Anyway, those were just some random thoughts. It’s something I’ll probably keep thinking about…