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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Character Derailment, or "Wait, what?"

Character Derailment

or, "Wait, what?"


You are reading a steamy romance where a dashing but poor soldier arrives in town and falls in love with the daughter of a rich man.  She eventually returns the love, her heart winning out against her better judgment, but complications abound.  The story is chugging along, gathering steam, the reader being pulled along by the writer as you shovel more emotion and conflict into the plot and show the two lovebirds struggling against the world around them.
Then this bit of conversation happens: 
They twirled across the dance floor.  “My Darling Brad, I have terrible news,” Amanda exclaimed, and then broke down completely on his shoulder.  Fortunately, the orchestra music hid her sobs from the surrounding dancers.  “My father has forbidden us from marrying after all!”
The tall, handsome man pulled her close as his talented feet continued sweeping them around in the crowd, heedless of the scandalized looks from the couples around them.  “My dearest Amanda, my love,” he finally said, “did the fact that I saved him from false charges not sway his resolve at all?  Have I not proved my honorable intentions?”
She sniffled and pulled the perfumed handkerchief from her sleeve to dab her eyes.  “Nay, my love, he remains resolute. He will never admit you desire me and not the fortune I will inherit.  He insists I marry the Duke before the month is out.  There is nothing for it but we must elope, as you have begged me to do this past year.  I have bribed the ship’s captain, as we planned.  We leave on the morning tide”
He looked back over his shoulder at the young girls gathered around the punch bowl, giggling and whispering to each other.  “You know,” he said, “the Duke has a lovely daughter.   Maybe we’re doing this the hard way.  You marry the Duke, I’ll seduce the daughter, and the three of us can still fool around under his nose.”
Amanda thought for a minute.  “Do you think the captain will give me a refund?” she asked.        
The train jumps the tracks as the story is derailed and the reader says, “Wait, what?”  An otherwise fine story becomes a victim of Character Derailment.
F. Scott Fitzgerald in drag.  Some hidden talents are unbelievable.

Celia had a great article on her blog recently, discussing how characters in a story that are too predictable can run the risk of being too boring.   She pointed out that for an interesting and three-dimensional character, it’s important to have the players in the drama surprise the reader by doing something unexpected once in a while, or perhaps displaying some hidden talent or strength or even flaw.  It’s a great point, and if you haven’t read the article yet pop on over to http://www.celiayeary.blogspot.com/
In her blog comments, I made the observation that this is one of those juggling acts where the writer risks Character Derailment if they go too far and a character does something completely opposite or foreign to our expectations without sufficient justification.  Celia challenged me to contribute a short essay on the subject, so here I am.
Celia is exactly right, in that it is important we look for ways to surprise the reader and challenge their assumptions.  But, once the reader gets to know a character - especially one of the main players in the drama - any action that stands out as contrary to what we expect had better be justified to the satisfaction of the reader.  If not, the story is derailed.
“Well of course,” you say.  Any experienced writer knows this.  “Oh, really?” I reply.  Let me give you an example of Character Derailment from a recent multi-million dollar movie where professional script writers who should have known better completely blew it.  I’m talking about Dark Shadows, the 2012 movie staring Johnny Depp and directed by Tim Burton.  A top actor and director, and they managed according to most critics to make the big budget turkey of the year.  What happened?
Character Derailment.   The movie is a gothic romance about a tragic, tormented man cursed to be a vampire by a jealous witch who also murdered his True Love.  He is dug up after 200 years, where he quickly encounters the reincarnation of his lost love, the lovely Victoria.  Once again he must battle the seemingly immortal witch for the life of his beloved.  Barnabas is actually a good man in spite of his curse.  He is the archetype of the troubled soul.  He has to be sympathetic for the audience to care about his struggles.
But shortly into the movie, he encounters some hippy campers out in the woods.  He sits and has a pleasant conversation where they give him some good advice, thanks these innocent people who offer him only good will, then casually remarks that he’s going to kill them all and drink their blood.  Then he does so.
The audience goes, “Wait, what?” The story jumps the tracks, a victim of Character Derailment.  Nothing the character does from this moment on really matters because he never shows a bit of remorse for this horrific mass murder, so we never really care if he gets his happy ending.  He doesn’t deserve one.
Now about my little scene above between Brad and Amanda.  Brad certainly courts derailment with his sudden shift in character, especially since Amanda fails to react so the shocking behavior is not justified in the story.  Like the reader, she should be shocked.  This is her lover, the dashing soldier, the hero, suddenly spouting hurtful nonsense in her ear!  So have we succumbed to Character Derailment?
Remember, I said “it must be justified.”  So let’s change the ending of the scene.

He looked back over his shoulder at the young girls gathered around the punch bowl, giggling and whispering to each other.  “You know,” he said, “the Duke has a lovely daughter.   Maybe we’re doing this the hard way.  You marry the Duke, I’ll seduce the daughter, and the three of us can still fool around under his nose.”
Amanda gasped and jerked out of his arms.  “You’re not my beloved!” she exclaimed.  “It’s true, what the old midwife claimed.  Brad really is being possessed by the ghost of his evil twin brother!”   She slapped the leering face before her, the crack of her hand on his cheek causing the orchestra to stutter to a halt
Now we have justification and the story continues screaming down the tracks, picking up steam while the reader can’t wait to find out along with Amanda what’s going to happen next.
So, can you think of any instances of Character Derailment that ruined an otherwise good story?       

7 comments:

  1. Great blog. No examples come to mind at the moment but I certainly enjoyed yours. It was a very humorous read.

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  2. Gerry, I loved your examples. I could see it happening. I can think of one example that I use when I teach my classes. It's in Conagher--I think I told about this over at Celia's blog--but it's just so unbelievable that the "bad guy", Smoke Parnell, would just completely so such an about face in the middle of the story it jerked me out of it and made me ask, "Wait, what?"LOL Conagher catches up to him and passes out, falls off the horse, and Smoke Parnell, instead of killing him as he's vowed to do, tells one of the younger more inexperienced outlaws to take care of Conagher and if he can learn to be half the man Conagher is, he'll be "worth his own salt" or something like that. What a letdown! That truly was Character Derailment! LOL Great post--I enjoyed it.

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    1. Thanks for both of you, and I know when I'm reading a novel or watching a movie and this sort of thing happens, it jerks me right out of the story. If it's a series on television sometimes it's because we have new writers unfamiliar with the characters. With a movie, I think it's sometimes the fault of too many fingers on the script, where every producer and studio head and even director thinks he knows how to write a story. And yes, it's almost never a woman in those positions but that's a different rant. For books, it's sometimes caused by editing I suppose. It's just one of those mistakes that can happen. No book is perfect, after all.

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  3. I liked your examples. I read an American Revolutionary story where the heroine betrayed her country for love of an English nobleman who promptly left her to return to England. A worthy young man loves her and wants to marry her (my hopes began to build that she would see what a fne man he was), but she turns her back on this love and, at the end of the book, she plots how she can go to England to pursue the man who left her. I felt like ripping the book apart abd burning it. I was surprised that her editor didn't catch that and ask for a rewrite.
    Marvelous blog today.

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    1. Thanks and it does make you wonder sometimes, doesn't it? I think for writers, it's seeing the potential buried under the derailed story that upsets us the most. Not that its always fatal, or even something everyone agrees on. For instance, I have a low tolerance for stories where the plot is basically driven by "This smart character is going to suddenly act like he's an idiot every time the story requires something bad to happen."

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  4. Gerald--Grace Kelly in High Noon came close to derailing her character by picking up that gun and killing one of the bad men our to get her husband. But no, we admired her--just like we admired Melanie in Gone With the Wind.
    The only example that comes to mind is a recent release from one of my favorite authors--and one of the most successful NY pubbed authors--She began with a hero that was just absolutely crazy and wild and quirky--but we knew he wasn't really a bad guy. But toward the end of the book, the author had taken both the hero and heroine out of the wild scenario of the first half, and moved both into a really goofy situaion. Both characters changed and in doing so, became quite boring. I contacted her and said so...but she didn't answer my note. However, the book is making millions, so why should she care?

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  5. Gerald--Grace Kelly in High Noon came close to derailing her character by picking up that gun and killing one of the bad men our to get her husband. But no, we admired her--just like we admired Melanie in Gone With the Wind.
    The only example that comes to mind is a recent release from one of my favorite authors--and one of the most successful NY pubbed authors--She began with a hero that was just absolutely crazy and wild and quirky--but we knew he wasn't really a bad guy. But toward the end of the book, the author had taken both the hero and heroine out of the wild scenario of the first half, and moved both into a really goofy situaion. Both characters changed and in doing so, became quite boring. I contacted her and said so...but she didn't answer my note. However, the book is making millions, so why should she care?

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Comments relevant to the blog post are welcome as long as they are noninflammatory and appropriate for everyone of all ages to read.
Thank you for your interest and input.