Fiction

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.

 

Musings on character

Today I’ve been thinking about character. Or rather, how to write a great character. Really, how do you create a character that resonates? One that people remember years after their first encounter. One they return to again and again. One whose birthday they remember.

Today is Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s birthday.

I’ll admit, I didn’t remember Buffy’s birthday myself. Twitter reminded me. But she’s definitely a character that has stuck with people through the years, myself included. The last episode aired in May 2003, and almost eight years later, people still think about it. That’s a pretty remarkable accomplishment for everyone involved.

But why? Granted, anyone who was a fan of the show will tell you that it was an ensemble piece. Great dialog, acting, plotting, special effects…I could go on and on. But the show isn’t really what I’m talking about today. I want to talk about character.

I’m a big fan of novels, book series, and television series. I think it’s because you get to settle in with the characters for a good long while. You watch them change and grow. You watch their actions leave lasting impacts on their lives. If they don’t, then it’s probably not a very good story. Because character is at the heart of story.

With a character like Buffy, you get a masterpiece. Sure, there’s the superficial allure: she’s a pretty cheerleader who hunts monsters. But beyond that, on the allegorical side, she walks right on the edge of the knife, the dividing line between feminine (pretty cheerleader) and masculine (fights monsters), adulthood (responsible for the safety of others) and childhood (a teenager who just wants to have fun with her friends), love (her boyfriend, friends, family) and hate (so often they become monsters themselves). Beyond the allegorical, she deals with issues that all teenagers deal with–fights with friends, struggles to fit in at school, trying to grow up. It’s just that the storyteller puts her in a position where her decisions on these everyday issues impact not just on her, but potentially the whole world.

If this was it, if allegory was all there was to this character, she still wouldn’t succeed–she still wouldn’t resonate with readers (and neither would similar characters, like Harry Potter). She needs to have flaws. Not dramatic Achilles Heels, but rather, those small issues that we all have, that make us human and sometimes lead us to make mistakes. Buffy has a superficial streak and abandonment issues. Harry Potter has a need to be the hero. These flaws make them vulnerable, but we can relate to them.

Still, a character would just be an idea without the flesh that shapes them. The way they speak, move, breathe, think…. Every sentence the writer adds must work to define this shape. Consistently. And consistency doesn’t even matter if it isn’t done well. If the dialog doesn’t have an actual voice. If the movement is jumbled or stumbles the plot. If the thought and action inexplicably don’t match. What do you have then? I think this flesh is perhaps the most important part. You can have great characters without the allegory, but you can’t have them without dialogue, action and motivations that move them. Otherwise they are statues. Or caricatures.

Doesn’t it seem impossible now? Look at all those piece, the stars a writer needs to align. And then, as the story moves forward, realign. And align again. The more I think about it the more daunting it seems.

But then I’ll think about those great characters, the ones that have stayed with me since I met them, and I think it seems worth it to keep trying. If those other writers hadn’t kept trying, think of all the great fictional friends we would have missed out on.