Wednesday, March 28, 2007

You Like Me, You Really Like Me...

84,000 words

...Or not.

Yesterday was rainy as hell (winter coming), so the Dynamo and I went to see Miss Potter. Fine, fine film, and for a couple of hours I was totally a 30something English spinster at the turn of the last century. I laughed, I cried, it became a part of me.

Then later that night I watched another movie (a rental) that completely lost me. The heroine was a racist control-freak jerk, and her love interest was a passive patsy pushover. I've felt more identification with faces glimpsed in bus windows. Really.

Where did one go so right and another go so wrong?

One important part of the ID (it's not even dawn yet, and I can't be bothered writing 'identification' over and over) process as writers is the cues we give our readers. Or viewers. Whatever. Part of the magic of fiction is that our common experiences make it possible to go where we've never been before-- into the heads of secret agents, werewolves, street urchins, feline aliens and emasculated former ambulance drivers.

But fuck it up, and your audience will pull your story to shreds. The Dynamo and I sat through the Bad Movie pointing out all the logic flaws to each other. Why? We didn't care. Now, every bit of fiction will have some kind of 'leap of faith' somewhere. We make this stuff up, after all. But build the ID right, your audience doesn't even notice they've crossed that gulf with you.

Bad Movie had character transformation at its heart. The heroine was supposed to go from being so uptight and fussy about what she wanted in a man that she was lonely as hell, to finding true love when she learned to loosen up a little.

Fair enough. Can't say I know what that's like (it might be argued that I have historically been, shall we say, too loose about what I wanted), but I'm game.

And yes, the character transforms. She was almost likeable by the end, except that so much distaste had built at the beginning. The first act of the story was handled in a very straightforward manner: we got heaps of evidence that the heroine was an uptight jerk and no reasons to *want* to see her transformed.

She had to do SOMETHING redeeming in those first few minutes, to get us all on her side.

Best example comes to mind is a 40's noir about personal transformation (might be This Gun for Hire, but I could be wrong. I'm shite with titles), where a cold-blooded hitman redeems himself. This guy kills people for money, beats a woman and generally establishes his credentials as a bad bad man in the first ten minutes. But we also see the seed of redemption when he saves a little kitten.

Nobody doesn't like someone who saves kittens.

In fact, from now on I'm going to call this sort of cue Saving the Kitten. Bad Movie needed some serious Kitten-Saving to get us on side.

Coming back to yesterday and Charles' and my ongoing villainoscopy (it's a perfectly cromulent word), if you want to gray those villains up, give em a little Kitten Saving. If you want to gut-punch your readers (I know I do), make the Kitten Saving part of the reason for their badness.

For example, an illiterate drug dealer just trying to afford the medical expenses for his handicapped child. He has to be hard and cruel to command obedience, but he loves his kid too much not to.

Or the antiheroes in James Ellroy's American Tabloid. They cozy up to the mob, run heroin in from Vietnam and fucking kill Kennedy, for crying out loud. And they do it all for the good of their country.

Of course, that's emblematic of one fucked-up time. They had to kill the kitten in order to save it.

Busy day ahead, so I should go. I'm *really* behind on my drawing (like, hoping angry clients aren't reading the blog today behind), some errands just have to be run and no way am I stopping or slowing down on the novel.


Charles Gramlich said...

Depending on the reader's mood, a character or scene detail may take on great significance or be passed over with scarce a glance. I often wonder how I would have reacted to movies or books that I didn't care for if I'd read them or watched at a different stage of my life. Sometimes I wonder that about the ones I like too.

Steve Malley said...

Last couple years, I've been on an odd and occasional capaign to revisit much-beloved older works.

Some still keep their power. Others, I'm either reminded how different I was then or left wondering what I was thinking....