Friday, March 04, 2011
A few months back, I mentioned having somewhat obsessively been watching episodes of an old favorite TV show. It’s a damned good show, and it’s held up pretty well over the years, too. Historicals have a way of doing that, since they avoid getting dated by wardrobe and hairstyle the way contemporary shows do.
When the idea for what ended up being The Young Riders was first conceived back in the 1970s, it was focused on the character called The Kid. (No, he never did have another name. It became a running joke, all the way up until the wedding in the series finale.) In early 1989, when the pilot was filmed, the series still had that focus, and was supposed to be called simply The Kid.
But in picking up the series, the network decided that it should be about all the characters, not just one. The title of the show changed to The Young Riders and episode 2, which is called Gunfighter, was about another young man. And let me take a break here to say that in any group, real or imagined—be it the cast of a television show, the characters in a book, a bunch of kids on the playground, or coworkers in an office—someone’s gonna emerge as the natural focal point. It may take time, but it always happens. And it isn’t always who you think it is.
And that's my first point. If you write in first person, sure, your protagonist is your POV character. But if you're writing in third person, keep in mind that any one of them could chose to rise up and take over at any moment.
(Although in the case of The Young Riders, let me just express my incredulousness for one measly second and say that how the hell the producers expected to use Wild Bill Hickok as one of the characters and not have him take over, is beyond me. The man's a legend. He probably dominated any assembly he found himself in in real life, too.)
So: as writers, let’s not presume to think we know how things are going to turn out when we first start writing our stories. Let’s please keep an open mind as to how the story will develop, and which of our characters will turn out to be more important and which less, because too much of the time, holding on tightly to our own ideas of what’s going to happen can prevent us from seeing a much better storyline opening up ahead.
Everyone in the world, or at least in America, has heard of Wild Bill Hickok. He was a real person with a real history, one that many people are familiar with. And there were only so many changes the producers of The Young Riders could make to his character. They made him younger than he would have been in 1861, they gave him a job with the Pony Express that he never had, and they gave him a difficult family history. The Young Riders’ Jimmy Hickok can’t read, while James Butler Hickok was actually pretty well educated.
Jimmy and Lou—that was her name—had a hell of a lot more chemistry than Lou and The Kid ever did, and would probably have been very happy together, but this was where those inconvenient historical facts cropped up again. The real James Butler Hickok didn’t get married in 1861, nor was there any way that anyone would believe that the character as he was played would have left the girl he loved to scout for the Union army. Yet that was what Wild Bill did during the Civil War. It’s a historical fact. It happened. So what had seemed to have such potential on screen ended up fizzling out into nothing.
Now, I know that most of us don’t write about historical characters with real histories we have to work around, but the same issues can come up in our books, if we give out too much information too soon. Some of us plan out everything about our characters before we even sit down to write, and if we put too much of that backstory into our books before we have to, we’ve hamstrung our characters. On the other hand, some of us write by the seat of our pants, and just give our characters a background, any background, without much thought to the future. Either way, we end up with problems. Sometimes, something wonderful might develop in book 3 of a series. But if we’ve already established in book 1 that the character came from elsewhere, the background was different, he/she doesn’t have any cousins, is the wrong age, can’t read... we’ve taken away the opportunity to benefit from whatever wonderful thing it is.
So that’s my bit of wisdom for the day. I’m off to watch some reruns of Firefly now. Research, you know. For that science fiction romance I might write one day.
And if you have any golden nuggets of knowledge gleaned from TV or movies, feel free to share with the rest of the class!