Watch the Soap in your Writing

bat-1 bat and moonSince Easter was the usual rain-soaked affair here in the UK I indulged in a little downtime and re-watched old “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” episodes on Netflix. After several years of absence from Joss Whedon’s “Buffy-verse” I greatly enjoyed meeting Buffy, Zander, Willow, Anya, Tara, Angel and Spike again.

What struck me watching this ground-breaking series this time round was that truly great writers always allow their characters to grow and develop to their full potential within a story arch but only within the boundaries of that particular character’s personality. Integrity is a much underrated quality, yet it is that very character trait in both writer and their creations that will lure readers and TV audiences back again and again.
For example, a small town girl or boy is far more likely to reach conclusions and make choices based on their upbringing than suddenly come up with a solution that falls totally out their normal experiences and understanding, something that would be more logical to adopt for a big city girl or boy. We are very much influenced by our surroundings – our natural habitat if you like – and our choices in life reflect just that.

Honey good, soap bad

Writers and TV producers who don’t seem to have grasped this simple principle (what I usually call the Jane Espenson school of bad writing and producing) have strong female characters like Gwen (played by Eve Myles) in Russell T. Davies “Torchwood” suddenly turn into blithering, simpering idiots in Torchwood Series 4 (under the ill-fated leadership of producers Starz). Audiences and critics hated series 4 so much that Torchwood came to an abrupt end – I bet most people didn’t even bother watching all of series 4, because it was so bad; I stopped watching half-way through the second episode.HumanRobot

It had lost all of its Cardiff-induced charm and Welsh cultural heritage, and its main protagonists were transformed to suit American audiences without the slightest attempt being made to keep what the existing fandom would have perceived as the essence or main character traits.

Sometimes we, the audience, notice that lines that were obviously written for totally different characters are now spoken by another character simply because the writer or producer didn’t want to waste what’s in the script but can’t grasp who should “speak” the lines (BBC’s Merlin producers Capps and Murphy, according to some of the show’s actors). It throws a story out of balance, makes the reader or TV audience instantly switch off their suspended belief.

They stop identifying with the characters and thus the “magic” is gone. In TV terms this means the viewer either switches off, goes to make a cup of tea or stops watching the show completely. In book terms it means you’ve lost a reader who won’t buy the next book from your series. You want to build a honey trap and lure your audience into your story, not cover the road in soap flakes and trip them up en route.

Doctor, this girl has lost her head…and backbone

As soon as our favourite characters do or say things that are out of character, we the writers or TV producers had better come up with a believable explanation or we’re screwed. Example of hit-and-miss characterisation: “Willow” in Buffy the Vampire is grieving so much over the death of her lover that she uses her magic powers to such terrible ends, she nearly destroys the world. She hunts down her lover’s murderer and flays him alive.

green bookYet, almost at the very beginning of the next series she’s seduced by a pretty but awful girl called Kennedy and the two start a relationship without anyone ever mentioning the dead lover again. Since Kennedy is supposed to be in her early teens (15) and has neither magic powers nor interest in the subject, the relationship is reduced to a purely physical one – totally out of character for Willow.

When I began to analyse my instant loathing to the Kennedy character I realised it was not simply because she was portrayed as a lesbian predator (beware of cliché) but because Willow’s character had suddenly taken a total nose-dive in my estimation. We’d gone from a young woman who grieved over losing the love of her life to a Willow character who seeks instant gratification with somebody whom she normally wouldn’t have given the time of day to, let alone start an affair.

While some allowances have to be made for people grieving, I simply stopped believing in the Willow character as it had been portrayed within the Buffy-verse. She had lost her head and her backbone.

This type of writing – in TV, film sequels and in series of books – could be called the “soap” effect, where writers run out of ideas or can’t be bothered to think within the boundaries they’ve set for their primary and secondary characters. Writers will use the next sensational thing, the next explosion in Hollywood terms, to carry the plot. It happens most frequently in soap operas, where the pressure to create ever bizarre and sensationalist plot lines makes script writers lose their heads completely.

The internal journey your characters undertake throughout each and every book in your series should remain within the boundaries of each person’s traits of character.

In the Buffy-verse both slayerette Cordelia and vampire Spike are on the road to redemption, but they continue to be sarcastic and uncomfortably insightful; the former is a vain, shopping obsessed brat, the latter a serial killer at heart. Their wish to atone for earlier sins does not turn them into fluffy bunnies. They ultimately remain what they were, but gain greater knowledge of themselves that may help them to become a more useful member of society.

So if your readers like their slayers to be strong, vampires to be dark and brooding and slayerettes to stand up to scrutiny, remind yourself once in a while throughout your series-writing that trying to rub soap into your readers’ eyes won’t sell more books long-term. Fans you’ve won can be easily lost when strong characters turn flaky and weak characters’ faces are no longer covered in mud (or egg, if you’d like to return to my initial Easter theme).