How Many Stories Does A Character Have To Tell?

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 10.854% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

When we got out of Star Wars, my daughter was ablaze with all the things she wanted to see in the Star Wars Universe.  “We don’t know how {$CHARACTER} got Darth Vader’s helmet,” she said.  “I bet that’s an interesting tale. And how did {$CHARACTER} get ahold of that lightsaber?  Wow, how did that happen?”
I was quiet, because she was so excited.  But deep down, I was thinking, That’s just logistics.  Those aren’t stories. 
And last night I watched Creed, the latest movie in the Rocky series, for the second time – and it’s amazing how much more attention to pay to sequels and reboots when you’re writing the third book in a series.  Now, whenever I watch a sequel, I have that tickle in the back of my head, knowing that if sales hold up maybe they’ll ask for a fourth book in the ‘Mancer series.
And while I love Rocky with all my heart, every Rocky fan knows that there’s only two really good movies in the original series – the first Rocky, where our lovable lunk becomes a contender, and the third Rocky, where he suffers from PTSD after being beaten out of his comfort zone.  (And arguably Rocky Balboa, which feels more like a fond coda than a series finisher.)
The other movies exist.  Things happened in them.  But they don’t stick in the fans’ minds because what happens in those films are retreads.  Rocky II is basically Rocky I, except with a slightly happier ending.  Rocky IV is Rocky III, except with an even more cartoonish villain.
Rocky learns the same lesson in II that he does in I.  Rocky learns the same lesson in IV that he did in III.
There’s only so many significant lessons a man can learn in life.
And I think of Batman, and how many thousands of comics devoted to Batman stories have been written, and most of them were fine – they existed, Batman beat a villain, and they slid into the massive vat of Batman stories to be quietly forgotten.  They were exciting at the time, but Batman either didn’t learn a lesson beyond Here’s How To Beat The Riddler This Time, or he learned a lesson very much like what he’d learned before – Batman Will Always Be Alone, or Batman Needs His Allies, or Batman Must Not Kill.
Stories that didn’t tell us anything new.
So we liked them when we were reading them, but they didn’t stick.
There are a handful of great Batman stories, and it’s not surprising that those are the ones the movies gravitate towards – Batman is crippled and must work his way back to greatness.  Batman encounters a man who tries to seduce him into abandoning his world view.  Batman battles old age as he struggles to remain relevant.  And, of course, Batman’s origin.
Those are the real stories.
And the trick is, Batman can’t have too many of these significant lessons, because then Batman stops being Batman.  If Batman learns that killing is, actually, more efficient, then he’s suddenly not the guy we can market on lunch boxes. If Batman learns that channelling his great wealth into social programs is more efficient, then Batman as we know him is over.
Truth is, most characters have only a handful of lessons they can be taught before they become something so different, they evolve into people who weren’t what we were drawn to.
Yet audiences want to hear stories about the people they love.  They want to warm their hands by Batman, and Rocky, and Sherlock Holmes, and all the other great characters, and publishers want to make money, so they ask authors, “Hey, can you have them do something so the fans can tag along with this person for a while?”
So what you get are what I call potboiler tales – they exist because you’re happy to go back to see Spidey fighting Doc Ock again, but they’re just going to shuffle deck chairs around.  Maybe Spidey will have lost a power or two, but he’s lost them before.  Maybe Aunt May will be in trouble again, but that old biddy’s always been his boat anchor.  Maybe Spidey will, once again, have some mundane commitment he’s missing out on while he saves the day, and will pay the price in his personal life for being a hero.
Again; nothing we haven’t seen before.  And we’ll give Spidey new villains, and more events, and maybe a new girlfriend…
And once every decade or two, an author will stumble upon a tale that does teach Spidey a lesson we haven’t seen before, something fitting and new, and fans will talk about how brilliant it was, and it’ll revitalize interest in Spidey in a way that no crossover or revolving-door-death ever will.
That will be the next of Spidey’s significant stories.  It’ll take its place in the pantheon.
And slowly, that will become another one of the Lessons Spidey Must Learn, and we’ll see the same endless churning of Spidey stories except that’ll be incorporated into the repertoire.
There’s nothing wrong with potboiler tales, naturally.  I read a billion of ’em when I was a kid, and they did me just fine.  And they’ll probably show {$CHARACTER} getting Darth Vader’s helmet, and they’ll bolt in some character arc somehow, and it’ll be a good story that will satisfy people who already liked Star Wars.
Yet as an author, I note that people respond to the significant stories much better.  They’ll watch Rocky II.  They’ll remember Rocky III.  They’ll watch Star Trek III, but they’ll remember Star Trek II.
But as an author, at this point, I want only the significant stories.  I want the ones where a character goes into the tale as one person, and comes out as another person entirely.  And my point is that even the great characters only have a couple of those significant tales they can live through before they’re done evolving.
(And in some cases companies don’t want the significant tales to be written, because in the end with Star Wars the big changes have to happen on-screen, and you can’t have Rey’s big moments taking place on paper when the celluloid is what grabs the big bucks.)
My wife likes reading the potboilers.  I support her in this.  Yet I think in her heart of hearts, she’s searching for the next great significant story.  One will provide nutrition to get you through the day; the other is a meal.
And I think that if you’re a writer, you can poison yourself on potboilers when it comes time to tell your own original stories.  In general, the potboilers work for people who already liked this stuff.   And stealing too many techniques from the potboilers risks telling a story that doesn’t have enough muscle to grab people by the lapel and lift them off the ground.
When you’re writing a tale, maybe consider whether this is potboilerish or significant for your main characters.  Ask if this is the critical incident in their lives.
And if it’s not, maybe figure out what would be.  Because god damn, people thirst for that significance, even if they don’t necessarily know they want it.

1 Comment

  1. BJ
    Jan 6, 2016

    This encapsulates why I gravitate so strongly to Bujold’s books, because each one has That Story for the character. Not that she doesn’t have a few pot-boilers, but there’s always a small lesson for the character to learn and sometimes a huge lesson and sometimes it’s to BE the lesson someone else learns, and learning to cope with that.
    And why, as much as I enjoy them, the Dresden books don’t grab my guts and shake them. Even the “big revelation” books don’t, really. Because the lead character doesn’t really change, in the end. Just confirmation bias for his worldview. IMHO
    Thanks for summing that up.

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