Recently I tried watching Sense 8 on Netflix. I had such high expectation. With the creator of Babylon 5 on one hand and the writers of Matrix on the other this was going to be the next big thing right?
What a disappointment:While the series started really strong then it felt…. flat.
There are many people criticizing Sense 8, because “there were too many homosexuals in it”. They are generally right, but they are also a little bit off the mark. The problem is not the presence of homosexuals in the story, rather that the story focuses too much on their personal lives. I spent episodes, upon episodes learning about the love life of the characters, their every day life, their dreams and fears. The show was trying to make me care, but I couldn’t really make myself care. On the contrary, I found myself despising the protagonists because not a single one of them tried to discuss their new power with the other seven, or wonder about it, or even experiment. At least not for the first seven episodes.
This is what I call the “Burning Questions” issue.
The “Burning Questions” Issue
The “Burning Questions” issue is when a story drops a bomb in the scenario and then focuses on something completely different, like the protagonist’s love life, thus leaving the audience “burning” with questions.
In Sense 8, we start with 8 characters who suddenly each sees and feels what the other 7 see and feel. These characters are spread throughout the world and are living different lives. Pretty interesting huh? I am sure by reading just this sentence right now you are already thinking one thing:
-How did this happen? Why?
This is our “burning question”. The heroes had something completely abnormal happened to them and we need to know how and why. Notice that our main questions does not have to do anything with the characters themselves. We do not, at least not immediately, care who these people are or how is their love life. Sure it may be interesting, but DUDE YOU CAN MAGICALLY FEEL WHAT OTHER 7 PEOPLE FEEL AROUND THE GLOBE, YOU CAN TELL ME ABOUT YOUR BOYFRIEND SOME OTHER TIME.Don’t get me wrong, at some point I would like to know more about the characters but the story structure these TV Series are following… It’s like seeing a guy getting out of an exploding car, being chased by aliens and then you ask him, “So how are your marriage problems?”.
Now, it’s okay if the series does not answer these critical question right away. We wouldn’t want the scenario to unfold immediately. However, it is a problem when the heroes seem to ignore these questions as well. I don’t really get what is the point of having a huge blast in the story and then have the scenario focus on the characters instead. This is a problem many science fiction or fantasy shows, like Battlestar Galactica, Last Resort, Dominion, Stargate: Infinity.
This is happening what was clearly meant to be a plot-driven story is treated as a character-driven one.
Character-Driven vs Plot-Driven Stories
Generally stories are being divided into two categories. Character-driven and plot-driven. Character-driven writing is focused on the characters and the internal change. Plot driven writing is focused on the events. To borrow a definition from Gordon Dorrance:
Character-driven – [..] character-driven writing focuses on the inner conflict of the characters that you’ve created. [..] your reader will spend time thinking about the characters and their attitudes, personal evolutions and decisions, and how those, in turn, change the shape of the plot and the story as a whole
Plot driven – Plot-driven stories, on the other hand, place a larger emphasis on the actual plot itself. Factors such as plot twists, action and external conflict are what make up the focus of this style of writing. In most cases, the goals of the story are more external in that they are focused on the development of a situation.
In other words when it’s a plot-driven story we ask questions about the events. If it’s a character-driven one we ask questions about the characters.
Plot driven story example?
One good example of a plot-driven story is “The Lord of the Rings”. It’s a story where actions take priority over characters. It’s not that we are not rooting for the hero, but think about it: How much information do you really know about the members of the Fellowship of the Ring. Gandalf was a mystery, if someone wants to know about him he must read the Silmarilion. Same goes for Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Boromir and name me one thing about the 4 hobbits’ background, besides “being related to Bilbo”. Frodo, for example, the protagonist decides to undertake a life-changing, dangerously hopeless quest, because… wait, why does he do it indeed? I mean a decision like that , we must spent at least some pages analyzing the motives of the hero right?
Oh right, he is one of the good guys. He does it because it’s the right thing to do. Right…
See, this is the magic of the plot-driven story. You still root for the good guy even though you don’t really know anything about him. The story is made like that. You are not supposed to really care. They are the bad guys , we are the good guys, get over it and pack your things we are going on an adventure!
Character driven story example?
If you want to see character-driven story done right go watch “12 Angry Men”. The story of the movie is that twelve jury member get inside a room to discuss whether they will condemn a young man,accused for murder, to the death sentence. Eleven of them are in favor of the execution. One is not.The movie depicts their conversation. That’s it. No explosions, no aliens, no spaceships, no out-of-this-world events (please take a not of that, it’s important). Just twelve men, with their personalities, their egos, their prejudices, their views upon their world trying to reach a decision about a fellow citizen.
This is how you do a character-driver story. In fact there is a whole murder in the story and we don’t even care about the crime ( the movie never really tells us whether the accused was guilty or not). What we really care is the characters. Why do they behave they way they do? How does their personality and lives affect the way they view the very same events? What makes them decide someone is guilty or innocent?
Let me, however, state something up front: This is not exact science. Nor there are formalized definitions of which is which. Here I am giving some extreme example but it doesn’t mean that every story is either strictly plot-driven or character-driven. Some are a mixture of both and this is not a necessary bad thing. Having said that, it doesn’t mean that every story is suited to have elements of both. Science fiction tends to be better-suited for plot-driven stories.
It’s basic showmanship
You remember before when I said that in 12 men there are no out-of-this-world events? There is a reason for that: When you have big explosions and spaceships on on screen it’s really hard to convince your audience to focus on down-to-earth events like character development. An event that breaks the laws of reality, is bound to steal the attention. Simply put, you are off to a bad-start. As I said in the Burning Questions part in the beginning “WHO CARES ABOUT YOUR BOYFRIEND,HOW CAN YOU FEEL WHAT OTHER PEOPLE DO???”. Every performer will tell you the same thing: “If A is more flashy than B and you want people to focus on B you never put A and B together on stage”. FIFA knows this very well: In the Olympic Games the big stars of football teams do not participate in the event. Football popularity is so big that will erase everything else from the map. However, in the Olympics they want people to focus on other sports , they have Mundial for football. Thus, they remove flashy A from the scene, so that the audience can focus on humble B.
Character development in TV series also has one more thing going against it: TV is a medium that favors visuals. In a book we can use our imagination to give equal importance to events and to character’s thoughts. On TV though where explosions are explosions and character’s internal monologues get translated into just a 2-second close up in their eyes , the deck is stacked against you. So, yes, spaceships, aliens and paranormal activity on TV series is your Mundial and character development is your Olympic Games. They can equally be entertaining but put one next to the other, and the Olympics don’t stand a chance.
Not the best place for character development…
Let’s face it, stacking spaceships on your screen will not make the audience wonder about the inner-workings of your characters. By definition you are moving the focus elsewhere. On a book you can make it happen, but on the screen is almost impossible. There are exceptions like Solaris or STALKER but notice how both movies keep the special effects to a minimum. Especially in STALKER the paranormal element was… a room. An empty room where wishes come true. In the movie Sphere the plot is very similar, it’s just that the wish granting device is an alien golden sphere in an alien spaceship at the bottom of the ocean. It is clear which movie wanted to question human behavior and which movie aimed for the “wow” factor.
Then why? Why do writers do this to themselves and keep trying to shove character development in a story that is clearly not fit for it?
Lack of imagination: It’s easier to do a little bit of both
You know who was good in writing good characters? Dostoevsky. Read Crime and Punishment You get drawn in by the main character Raskolnikov immediately. You put the book down and you keep thinking about the character. It shows how bad spoon fed TV-based character development is ( this is a scene where we show you that the character is cruel, this is a scene where we show you that the character is also sensitive -> character development complete). Yes, good character development is that hard.
Having said that, character writing plot-driven stories for fantasy universes is just as hard! You need to set up a whole universe, rules, lore, story and I am forgetting some. Do you think writers from the Start Trek Next Generation are easy to find? Or that every book has a well-structured universe like Middle Earth?So what do you do? If doing either really good is hard, to compensate you do a little bit of both. This way you avoid to either have a very good structured and imaginative universe or to have deep and well written characters, since the focus of your viewers is divided. The fallacy they are falling into is that these two elements are not additive. A story with half-character development and half-plot development usually does not equal one which is exceptional in either fields.
Essentially putting character elements in a plot driver story, is an attempt to “cheat” the system. And it usually fails.
Oh Battlestar Galactica why?
If you want me to give you an example of how hard it is to write proper science fiction you can have a look at Battlestar Galactica . I knew from episode 3 that the series was going to be lame. Why? The first alarm was the intro ( more to that later) ,but I was truly convinced when I saw episode 3: It was about a prison riot. Yes a prison riot. Here you have a show revolving around mankind’s last battleship, in a desperate fight against evil robots from the future and we get… a prison riot episode.
I knew that if the writers can’t come up with some different on Episode 3 and they were already running out of science fiction ideas, then we were off to a really bad start. In the end the show proved me right: They writers had no clue what they were doing, the story was all over the place and after 4 seasons , they had to release an extra movie to explain what happened in the ending ( because 75 episodes are, obviously, not enough). When a science fiction TV series has a prison riot for its third episode, just turn around and keep walking. It’s a waste of time. The reason they did episodes like that? They are easy to write. Anything to avoid answering the “burning questions”, anything to prolong the plot for as long as possible using the least imagination needed.
You can find plot devices like that in almost every TV show: Stargate Universe had the “long-range communication stones” which allowed people’s conscience to travel back to earth, thus allowing writers to write episodes with down-to-earth plots like love-triangles. Last Resort, a show which started with a nuclear war and the mutiny of a submarine with nuclear warheads, had episodes about… dating. Why? Well do this simple test: Ask yourself what would really happen if a nuclear submarine went rogue. You can’t really think of an answer straight away can you? Well, neither could the writer. He probably did something like this in his head:
“Wait what would happen in case there was a captain with some nuclear warheads at his disposal running wild? Uhhhh you know what? I am going to write an episode about a date. Easier”.
A prison riot, an unfulfilled love,a love triangle, someone standing up to a bully or to this boss, these are all events that to a greater or lesser extent, we have all been exposed to over the course of our lives. It’s easier to write stories about something familiar. Writing about the impossible, about civilizations different than our own, about the wonders of a fictional universe is hard. It requires a resourceful imagination and a rare talent to create memorable and lifelike universes.
And last but not least, let’s not forget the king of “Burning-Questions-let’s-focus-on-some-flashbacks” Lost. Again the same concept: Story starts with a blast, a deserted island where weird things happen, then it start focusing on character flashbacks about their lives ( actually Lost took it to a whole new level by introducing flash-sideways and flash-forwards ).Narrative-wise, that series was such a mess, I would probably need a whole post, just to analyse that show. However, Lost did one thing right: It always introduced a new “Burning Question” every 2-3 episodes, which made the audience completely forget the previous plots and focus on the new story. Of course, by the time the story ended, the piled “Burning Questions” were so many that no one could even connect everything with one explanation. In fact the writers didn’t even try to do that. Here is a video to help you remember how bad this , very successful show, was in this area:
Again and again and again it’s the same story: Good story set up, followed up by focus on the characters.
This is a point where Japanese story tellers put American ones to shame. Japanese writers are masters of setting up complicated universes with strict sets of rules and then basing a story by exploring this set of rules. In fact their whole TV show structure is revolving around how to properly introduce an audience to a new universe. I will make a post just for that at some point, as well ( too many posts pilling up).
Fantasy and Science fiction is about the “Call to the adventure”
I think that on some level these shows don’t really believe in their fantasy. A part of them treats science fiction as childish, so they are trying to make it more mature by adding character development. In the end I think this is the reason that these shows are failing to deliver an entertaining experience. The problem is not the addition of character-driven story elements. It’s the reason of adding them.
In it’s very heart science-fiction and fantasy is about amazement and wonderment. It’s about what they call in storytelling the “Call to the adventure” moment. It’s about forgetting this world for 2 hours and jumping into another universe which promises mystery, excitement, danger, action, bewilderment and wonders the likes we have never seen. Every single element of the production is tuned to amplify this notion.
When focus is shifted on characters in order to procrastinate your story progression or , even worse, to make your show look more mature, it’s where things are starting to go downhill. This is when the TV show is giving you this “I take myself more seriously than I should” vibe and completely misses this adventurous element. To get you an idea have look at Battlestar Galactica Intro
and this is the intro, but with the music from the original Battlestar Galactica on top. Notice how the vibe of the show changes, just with a single music track and also notice how the element of adventure suddenly re-surfaced.
It’s all about the narrative
To make a conclusion it’s almost never the events of the story: It’s the narrative which is at fault. No, it’s not the homosexuals in Sense 8, it’s not that Starbucks in Battle Star Galactica, came back to life inexplicably, nor the fact that in the end Lost was about magic wine holding evil at bay. You don’t mind how Ray learned how to fight with light sabers so fast, Luke Skywalker gave his ,battle-hardened veteran galaxy-wide known pilot, Darth Vader a hard time flying in Episode 4, even though he was just a farm-boy.
If you start arguing about how something in Science Fiction is unrealistic then it means that the writer failed to trigger your suspension of disbelief. If you are bothered by the protagonists’ sexual preferences it means that the writer failed to make you interested in something more important than that.
I will close with how easy it is to make people care about your characters without huge budgets. I started watching a TV series recently on youtube to pass time. The story is this:
“A musician, a lawyer on a loosing streak, a journalist and a failed private detective, all former classmates, re-unite by chance and decide to fulfill their childhood dream of opening their own radio-station”.
- Interesting and weird assortment of people? Check
- Rooting for the characters since they are trying to fulfill childhood dreams? Check
- Making you curious about how will all this turn out? Check
This is how you properly set a character-driven story. Notice how you immediately get interested about the characters. Who are they? Why do they want to open a radio station? More importantly you identify yourself with the characters and you feel connected with them, something really hard to do in Science Fiction where characters generally find themselves in unnatural situations.
Yeap, it’s that simple.