Make Me Care

Recently on the good ol’ Netflix I’ve been getting into the new series Once Upon a Time.  For those unfamiliar with Once, the idea is that the evil queen from Snow White cast a powerful curse on fairy tale land, transporting them to our world where they live their lives stuck in a boring Maine town where they can never have happy endings.  The series merges what happened before the curse in fairy tale land and what’s happening current day.

Ahem, SPOILER ALERT.

Once Upon a Time Emma

There, you’ve been warned, although I don’t know that this particular spoiler will ruin the whole series for you.  But as I said, you’ve been warned.

So going into about the seventh or so episode, one of the more prominent characters dies.  And guess what?  I didn’t care.  It’s not that it wasn’t sad or that I didn’t believe this would have some kind of impact on anyone, it’s just that the writers hadn’t bothered to make me really care about this character before giving him the axe.

For those who haven’t seen the show… **LAST SPOILER ALERT WARNING**

Our heroine, Dr. Cam—er, Emma, is a stranger to the town of Storybrooke.  For reasons you can discover going and watching the series, she ends up a deputy to the Sheriff named Graham.  Prior to this episode I’m guessing Emma and Graham had about 2 minutes total what-could-be-conceived-as-romantic screen time.  Most of the series up to this point is heavily focused on Emma’s relationship with her son and outwitting Ms. Villain.

I figured at some point she’d have a thing with Graham because he seemed like the only available guy in town.  But just because someone is available doesn’t automatically equate love, nor does it equate a good love story.

Once Upon a Time BuddyTv

See these bars? They represent the plot gap between us stopping this future relationship from becoming legit.

Despite Emma clearly demonstrating her lack of interest in Graham other than as a colleague fighting against evil, and also discovering Graham is sleeping regularly with Ms. Villain, the writers decided they wanted to go there.  When Emma finds out Graham is with Ms. Villain, we have even more reason to believe any and all romantic inclinations toward Graham are probably gone.  Graham tries to explain things, clearly showing he had an interest in Emma, but Emma seems more disgusted he’s with Ms. Villain than worried that he’s involved with anyone.

So then, using a quick cheap way fix relationships you haven’t bothered to fully establish, they hand lines to characters who know Emma to establish that yeah, despite our better judgement I guess she liked him.  I mean, it’s obvious, and if you have someone say it’s obvious, who are your viewers/readers to say differently?

Mary Margaret and Emma Once Upon a Time

Emma, it’s obvious you like Graham. -MM
Huh? Since when? -Emma
Since the script ordered me to tell you about it. -MM

So now that the audience has been informed Emma obviously likes Graham, they go off on an adventure together, with Emma still not invested in liking Graham anymore than friends, but hey, someone told us it was obvious…  After a confrontation with Ms. Villain (where we still don’t really get anything to make us believe Emma is interested in Graham that way), Emma and Graham are back at the office fixing wounds.  This is the very first time a real scene happens between these two that might hint at realistic romance—unfortunately the episode is 5 minutes from over and Ms. Villain decides to kill Graham via magic.
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Character Development (BKSP notes)

Perfect is boring.  Sometimes we like our characters so much it’s hard to let some of those flaws come to the surface.  But that’s what makes them interesting.  Use your character’s weaknesses or flaws to make them compelling.  Think about fight scenes.  If your main character always beats every villain in a fight and comes out unscratched, after awhile the fights become meaningless.  But when they’re beaten inches from death and somehow find the strength to keep on fighting, that’s what makes them interesting.

I recently re-watched The Princess Bride.  Remember when Inigo finally catches up with the 6-fingered man only to be knifed in the gut?  Everything his whole life has been about seems to be teetering on the edge of complete failure.  But he finds the courage to stand up, and even then the Count stabs him again.  He gathers even more strength, repeating the words he’d promised to say to Count Rugen over and over again: “Hello!  My name is Inigo Montoya!  You killed my father.  Prepare to die!” Now it becomes a chant giving him power to finish the job.  How uninteresting would the scene have been if when he’d first encountered the Count he’d just killed him right then?

We have to see the troubles to see the complete person.  That’s how we connect with a character.  If you fully love someone, you love all of them–including those weaknesses.  But, as they advised in the forum, don’t let your ego get in the way.  Don’t broadcast information about yourself.  Draw on your own experience to give depth to a character, yes.  But don’t use that character to talk about yourself.  They recommended not writing about yourself or things that happened to you, because you’ll likely do this.  And just because it actually happened doesn’t necessarily make it good fiction.

Some ways to really connect with your character include practicing empathizing with them.  Think like them.  How would they see the world?  One character might see New York as the city of magic where she had her first romantic experience.  Another would look at that same city with loathing, the place where she lost her boyfriend.  Even mimic their movements.  How do they walk?  How do they talk?  Are they confident?  Shy?  How would a person like that behave in a social situation?  Where are they comfortable?  Etc.

A couple of other writers and I actually practiced this while trying out good eats at Max Brenner’s.  We tried to take on the mannerisms of the waitress to catch her attention.  I know, it sounds weird, but hey, she finally came over so we could place an order for these delicious babies!

If you feel uncertain about doing this sort of thing, go to the park and people watch.  What can you derive from watching a person that tells you about them?  Put that into your story.

I’m just people watching the other people watching me…

They also mentioned Hemingway’s iceberg, that we put a lot more thought into a character than actually ends up on paper.  Don’t do the dreaded “info dump.”  You probably know what I mean, where you try and tell us their entire life history on the first page.  I know I’ve done that in early writing.  I still do sometimes in early drafts.  That’s why we can all be grateful for rewrites!

You have to be willing to put down what’s wrong on a page to get what’s right.  You can’t be afraid of making mistakes all the time or you’ll never get anywhere.  Just accept that first, second, third, etc. drafts will likely not be the final draft.  Find readers who you trust to see if what you’ve written feels authentic.

And one odd tip I found interesting and I think will be extremely helpful in the future.  Print off your whole book and read it backward page by page to check the grammar.  You can’t get sucked into the story and you’ll be able to see errors you couldn’t otherwise.