The Danger of Giving Your Characters Everything They Want

Can we talk about the end of How I Met Your Mother? If you haven’t watched it, I’m going to spoil it, so don’t say I didn’t warn you (and maybe go watch it and come back in 100 hours or so?). I’m also going to spoil the end of Twilight.

Ready?

Ok.

There’s nothing wrong with a happy ending where the character gets everything they wanted and lives happily ever after. But there’s a really big problem when you sacrifice the story you were telling to give them this ending. If the story was about them struggling with choices and those choices end up not making any difference at all? Well, unless that’s the point of the story, your audience is going to feel cheated in the end. Because you copped out and put giving your characters what they wanted before the integrity of your story.

Now, let’s talk about HIMYM. One thing I always loved about the show was that it had a running theme that tried to present us with a Truth About Life. The type that requires capital letters. The type that’s usually present in books that we consider literature, vs those we don’t. For HIMYM, that Truth was that your decisions are leading you somewhere, but you don’t know where that is until you get there. You’ll only get there when the time is right, and then you’ll look back and see that you were headed there all along. I loved that. I enjoyed watching Ted’s cumulative love story as each relationship or bad decision led him on the next step in his journey. And I loved that the format, with him looking back and telling the story from 2030, allowed him to have that perspective on his story.

(Did I ever mention that I wrote my graduate thesis on narrative distance, or the difference between when the story took place and when the narrator told the story? Obviously a television show centered around a narrative distance device was going to be up my alley.)

There’s a poem by Dorianne Laux, “Music in the Morning,” that ends with the lines

…But I know it’s only luck
that delivered him here. Luck and a love
that had nothing to do with me. Except
that this is what we sometimes get
if we live long enough. If we are patient
with our lives.

Life has all these forks in the road, and you might head this way or that, but hopefully we all get those points where we realize “Oh, good. I’m here. Thank God I made the choices that brought me here.”

The twist on this idea at the end of How I Met Your Mother went another rotation further: You might think you are heading toward point A or point B, only to have that “I’m here” moment at point Z. And you might even convince yourself that point Z is the entire point of the story. But then, you might end up back at point A after all. Life is exciting that way.

The fact that Ted went all the way to point Z, the mother, Tracy, and then was surprised to find himself back at his point A, Robin, fits very well into that big Truth that HIMYM was telling us the whole time. I can get behind it. Ted danced his way around Robin on his way to Tracy, and they both loomed large in his life. There’s nothing wrong with having more than one great love in a story. The point I think the writers were trying to make was that you can want something desperately and it still might not happen. And you can find something else that you fully embrace and love that fate for all it has to offer. And life can still surprise you even after that, and you’ll look back and realize “Hey, I actually was heading here all along.” That’s actually a beautiful ending.

My problem isn’t with where HIMYM ended, it’s with how it was executed. Because the writers were the ones who created the dilemma that forced Ted to give up on Robin and move down that path toward Tracy. They wanted different things, and ultimately neither could give the other what they wanted without giving up what they wanted. The show spent years on this impasse. The characters have to live with the consequences of those decisions. But then, in literally the last five minutes, the writers remove all the barriers and everyone gets everything they want. Yay?

Doing this so quickly actually has the effect of turning Tracy, who had just finally been realized as a character and given a name in that episode, into vehicle to give the writers the ending they wanted—one where Ted gets the family he wants, Robin gets the career she wants, and they get each other too. Tracy is reduced to a surrogate, an easily removed barrier—which weakens her as a part of the series*. Instead of it feeling like part of the Truth, it just feels like writers decided it should end that way, so it did, regardless of the rest of the story we’ve been watching.

Now, let’s talk about the Twilight series, because I think Breaking Dawn, while not a bastion of great literature, is a fantastic example of an author undoing the story she was telling.

The Twilight series is centered on the premise that in order to be with the “man” she loves, Bella has to give up her humanity—her parents, her friends, her ability to have children, her self-control, her mortality, her ability to grow and change. It’s presented as such a huge thing to give up that no one actually wants this for her, including Edward, the vampire she’s in love with. But she decides that being with him is worth it and makes that sacrifice.

Then, way too conveniently, all those things she was giving up? She doesn’t have to give them up after all! Her dad can still come around, her best friend stays her best friend (and miraculously has his broken heart healed by magical instalove). Instead of being overcome by bloodlust, she has unheard of levels of self-control. And, best of all, vampires can have babies now! No one grows old or suffers or dies or has to live with the consequences of their actions. All those heart-wrenching decisions that consumed hundreds of pages in the first three books? Completely pointless in the end.

In both How I Met Your Mother and Twilight, the “happy” ending is disappointing because it feels undeserved. It feels like the writer is in control, not the story. Instead of living with the decisions and sacrifices made, the characters live in a universe where the consequences and barriers have been removed. It doesn’t feel like fate, it feels like the writer interfered in the story being told. Like they meddled. It doesn’t feel like the Truth.

Many writers have heard that phrase “Kill your darlings.” And it usually means to kill the phrases and words that feel oh-so-clever to you, because they probably aren’t, and sometimes they just don’t work. But it applies to your characters too—don’t sacrifice your story to make your characters happy.

When I was in grad school, one of my professors, Pete Fromm, told us a story about finishing the novel he’d been working on. He finished writing and went into the kitchen and sadly told one of his kids that he’d just killed off one of his main characters and it was a bit of a surprise, even to him. And his kid was upset (much like us students, he’d probably heard bits of this novel read over the years as his dad wrote it), and said “Well, go back and fix it.” And Pete told him “I can’t. She dies. That’s the story.”

Even stories that are filled with sadness and sacrifice can have happy endings. Things that seemed impossible can end up being possible. But, as writers, I think we have a responsibility to make sure we’re staying true to the story. We can’t rush past or remove barriers to get our characters there more quickly. We have to stick to that Truth we were aiming at all along. Even if it turns out to be a surprise.

 

*Also, this casts an odd and uncomfortable light on some of the running Marshall/Lily jokes, such as Marshall’s inability to fantasize about other women unless Lily dies in his fantasy first, or the “last letter” joke with a fake out on Lily’s death.

 

What are we talking about when we talk about content?

Even though I still consider myself primarily a writer and editor, over the last few years my role in various projects has also been described as “content strategist,” “content manager,” or “content marketing manager.” What always surprises me is how differently people interpret those titles—even when they’ve bestowed them upon me.

I’ve recently been working across the organization at my current job to learn more about how we’re using content and forming content strategies in our different divisions and among different teams. What was really surprising to me was that there was no consistent vocabulary to discuss our various projects. People, even people in marketing or communications roles, often mean different things when they say “content” or “content strategy.”

So I scoured the internet and came up with this list of definitions to help us all speak the same language when we talk about content. (I tweaked all the wording of the definitions a little to suit my own needs, so consider then paraphrases. I cite my primary sources for the definitions in italics after each one. This was one exercise where I thought it was valuable to have the backing of industry expertise, rather than just my opinion about what words mean.)

  • Content strategy
    The plan for the creation, delivery and governance of useful, usable content.
    Kristina Halvorsen
  • Content management
    The processes and tools/technologies used to collect, create, manage and deliver content.
    Halvorsen, Wikipedia, Slice of Pie
  • Content marketing
    A marketing technique of creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience with the objective of driving profitable customer action.
    Content Marketing Institute
  • Thought leadership
    The ideas, research and content that showcase and validate an individual or organization’s expertise, foresight and unique perspective.
    Thought Leadership Strategy
  • Sales enablement
    The messages, information and tools that help customer-facing personnel advance the sales process.
    American Marketing Association
  • Product literature
    Content that assists with the selection, purchase and use of specific products.
    AMA, Marketing Wiki
  • Media
    The format of production (PDF, video, blog, etc.)
    Northwestern University Content Strategy MOOC
  • Platform
    The destination/method of delivery (paper, browser, mobile, etc.)
    Northwestern University Content Strategy MOOC
  • Content
    Specific, purposeful pieces (a paper, a microsite, a video, etc.)
    Northwestern University Content Strategy MOOC
  • Copy
    The actual words/text on the page or website
    Northwestern University Content Strategy MOOC

Have you encountered words or terms that are being used differently in your organization? How do you get people speaking the same language? Do any of these definitions seem debatable to you?

Well, hello there.

Halfway up this flight of stairs, I encountered a pair of fellow travelers, taking a break to rest. We'd already climbed so far, and they didn't know if they'd make it. But we did. And the view was breathtaking. All of Paris spread out before us.

Halfway up this flight of stairs, I encountered a pair of fellow travelers, taking a break to rest. We’d already climbed so far, and they didn’t know if they’d make it. But we did. And the view was breathtaking. All of Paris spread out before us.

I’ll admit, I’m not the most reliable when it comes to personal blogs. I have two and sometimes they get put on the back burner. Since 2011:

  • I changed jobs within my company, then moved on to new job with a new company. Both were good moves and expanded my professional opportunities and experience.
  • I moved to a new apartment, which needed some major work and spent about 7 months painting, repainting and fixing broken fixtures.
  • I took on a leadership role with a very active foodie social group here in Milwaukee.
  • I ran two half marathons and my first full marathon.
  • I ended a relationship, started a relationship, ended a relationship.
  • I worked hard on a proposal for a second book on jewelry making, only to discover that I didn’t actually want to write a second beading book. At least, not the same way I wrote the first one (following the traditional proposal – draft- edit- publish model). I’m planning to take a more segmented approach that I think works better with today’s publishing opportunities, and requires a bit less of a “drop everything and do nothing but work on a book for 6 months” approach.
  • I read well over 100 books.
  • I learned to garden.
  • I started biking.
  • I resumed working on my grad school novel (still in progress! There is so much research to be done when you write about a different era).
  • I started traveling again, something I didn’t have the time or means to do during the grad school years or when I was a contract employee with an uncertain future. I did a solo trip to Paris this past fall, and it was life changing.

It’s been a rich and full two years with a lot of creative fulfillment. But I want to resume and pursue the conversation I started here a few years ago. It’s true, I could just delete the old entries and start from scratch (I doubt my entire 15 former readers would notice). But it’s nice to have this record of how I thought about writing and reading and storytelling back in 2011. And the nice thing about being the author of your own story is that you get to decide where to start. So let’s begin again, in February of 2014.

Balancing Passion and Practice

A few nights ago I went to a jazz club. I love watching musicians play, especially jazz—there’s something about the way they move. Not just their fingers, but entire bodies seem to create the rhythm or melody of the music.

I’m inept as a musician. Mostly because I never really practiced. I also lacked the drive to practice. When I was very young, my cousin and I both started playing instruments around the same age (me=violin, him=flute). I’ll admit I did the bare minimum to be competent. I learned how to play decently, but not well. My cousin, however, had a real drive to practice and improve. Every time I saw him, he had that flute with him. He was passionate about it, and it drove him to play and practice. I never felt that way about music. Writing, on the other hand…

I think that with any artistic type of endeavor, there needs to be a balance between the passion that drives you to practice and improve and the precision you achieve. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell theorizes that it takes 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to be great at anything. And I’ve heard (I’m sorry, I can’t remember where) that the true successes, those masters that really excel at what they do, love the practice as much as they love the performance. The trying and striving is as important to them as the final achievement.

When we focus too hard on the end result, on perfection, I think the soul goes out of what we’re doing. A musician might hit all the notes, but if there’s no feeling behind the playing, the audience feels the emptiness. Likewise, a writer just churning out technically perfect prose often lacks the emotion that draws readers in. I know when I was halfway through my MFA program, on the 10 or 12th round of edits for the same chapter, I felt like the chapter had died and I was just trying to figure out what to do with the remains. In workshop, I’d get few comments, but there just wasn’t much to say about it. The writing was fine, but the feeling had been chased out.

Everybody gets there sometimes, that point where practice makes something so automatic, so natural you don’t need to think or feel it—you just do it. But, there’s a fine line. You can’t just play the notes. The practice makes it so that your fingers will automatically hit the right keys, but the passion is what makes it a living creation. Same with writing. There are technical aspects that must become automatic—not just the mechanics like grammar and spelling, but the style and rhythm of your writing. Only when you have these basics firmly in your grasp are you able to consistently move beyond them. To improvise.

So write and revise, write and revise, write and revise.

Quick Grammar Lesson Two: Less vs. Fewer

Strictly speaking, this isn’t a grammar lesson; it’s a vocabulary lesson. But I’m including it anyway because it was requested.

Less and fewer are commonly confused, and there are plenty of instances where the error has been institutionalized to the point that it’s believed to be correct (For example: “15 items or less” at the grocery store). Keeping these two adjectives straight is really pretty easy, if you just remember two simple rules:

1. Less is for mass or abstract objects (time, money, food), while fewer refers to specific, countable objects (hours, dollars, apples).

2. Less is used with singular words or plurals that don’t end with “s,” while fewer is used with plurals that end with “s.”

What does this mean? Here are some examples:

I plan to watch less TV by saving fewer shows to my DVR.

There are fewer products being manufactured in the Rust Belt, so there is less employment available.

I want to eat less, so I need to bake fewer cakes.

Got it? The “s” is really the easiest way to remember: Words that end in “s” are described with “fewer.” Of course, like any grammatical (or vocabulary) rule, there are always exceptions. And there are also cases where common usage trumps “correct” usage—”10 items or less” might be incorrect, but don’t be surprised if you’re told to get a life when you inform your local grocery store.

Playing with perspective: A Visit From the Goon Squad

I am a lucky, lucky book lover.

A few months ago, I casually retweeted a @VintageAnchor tweet about a contest to win a call from Jennifer Egan for my book club. And I was one of three people who won the call. A week after that, Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer for A Visit from the Goon Squad, and a few weeks later my book club actually had a chance to talk to her over the phone about her book.

She was wonderful—very prepared, answered all our questions, and had lots of anecdotes about the book and the writing of it to share. This was our club’s second Egan book (we read The Keep two years ago), and we had plenty of questions about her experimental style.

One thing that particularly stood out for me in this call (Warning: Spoilers ahead) was near the end, when we were discussing the final chapters of the book, set in the future. I mentioned that I found the last chapter absolutely terrifying and asked if Ms. Egan frequently got that reaction. It turns out she does; people find the environmental foreshadowing an eerie possibility for our future. But that wasn’t what I was talking about at all. When I asked the question, I was thinking of a scene between two characters in a restaurant, when a teenage girl begins texting the person sitting across the table from her because she feels too uncomfortable actually speaking to him. I think it speaks to the power of the world Ms. Egan created that there’s plenty of fear to go around, while the chapter is ultimately about music bringing people together and offering them simple hope.

We all have different things that we’re afraid of, but the beauty of using different perspectives in a long piece like this is that you get to understand all the variations of fear that exist. We stay in Sasha’s head for a while and learn her fears, then later we see those fears overcome from another perspective. By the time we get to the end, we’ve faced down so many fears that all that’s left is the unknown future and the vaguely frightening and hopeful possibilities it affords us. That’s one reason why I think the experimental style of this “shnovel” or novel made of short stories (a phrase invented by the great Jack Driscoll) is so captivating is that it offers us this variety of perspectives, not just for the sake of variety as an end itself, but as a means of finding the best way to explore each character.

Not all perspectives work for all characters. Some must be written in third person past tense, others first person present. If you try to match the wrong perspective to the character and the story you’re telling, it just doesn’t work. Your piece won’t sing the way it should. I’ve learned that lesson the hard way myself, when, after a little experimentation, I found myself rewriting the first 50 pages of my grad school novel from a different perspective. You can’t be afraid to experiment, even if it means throwing out work or starting over. It’s the only way to learn how the story wants to be told. The reason Egan was successful with this novel was that she experimented and started again and threw away pieces that weren’t working and ultimately came up with a Pulitzer-prize-winning collection of various viewpoints that all feel honest, rather than form driven or experimental for the sake of experiment.