The Ditchwalk Book Club is reading and discussing Rust Hills’ seminal work, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. Announcement here. Overview here. Tag here.
The full title of this section is The Series Regulars, as against the Guest Stars. As you might suspect, the title references television drama, and advances the assault Hills began two sections earlier. Continuing the discussion of characterization forward from the previous section, Hills states:
You can perhaps see better how it ought to work by looking at television series dramas, which have got it all just exactly backwards.
As I said in response to the aforementioned section on slick fiction, it’s important to remember that Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular was originally written in 1977. Television has changed a lot since then, but at the time Hills’ criticisms were accurate. Continuing from the above quote:
The regulars in the classic TV series never change. They are the fixed characters. The doctors, sheriffs, private detectives and police chiefs, who are the central figures of these programs, always remain the same. If they are shown falling in love, you know the girl’s got to be done away with….
Hills goes on to explain how guest stars in circa-1977 television dramas were the characters who ended up changing or being moved by the story, and as a first-hand witness to television of that era I can tell you he’s right. That’s pretty much what TV was like, and I’ll have more to say about that in the next post.
But as readers of the Travis McGee mystery novels probably realized while reading the last elided line in the quote, this is not a problem limited to television. In an attempt to provide his detective with an emotional life during the long-running series, as well as personal motivation for solving the mysteries that drifted across McGee’s path, John D. MacDonald regularly brought a love interest into the picture. The problem, of course, as diagnosed by Hills, was that at the end of every book in which McGee found love, the woman had to be done away with. And done away with she was, usually in a fatal way.
Most recurring characters seem to present some variation of this problem. As a solution authors either limit the potential for change or return the main character to the default state in time for the next episode. Whatever I know about Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot, little of it has to do with evolution of those characters, and I’m sure the same is true for recurring characters in romance, science fiction, and every other genre.
Personally, I’ve often found recurring characters enjoyable precisely because they’re familar, but I still agree with Hills analysis:
…the essence of meaningful plotting is that a character will be affected by action he himself takes or doesn’t take — otherwise the significance of what happens to him as a result of the action is very much minimized.
In literary fiction, and good storytelling in any medium or genre, the moved character and the moving action(s) are indivisibly linked. But that’s not the case with many recurring characters and the ‘guest stars’ they interact with on an episodic basis. As Hills points out, it’s often the recurring characters who move the guest characters through action. By doing so the authors of such stories effectively cleave the relationship between moved character and moving action in two, necessarily diluting the dramatic power of the change.
Personally, I don’t see this as a reason not to write recurring characters. Rather, I see it as a craft problem to be solved — albeit one with practical limitations which I’ll explore more in the next post. If you’re interesting in writing a series of books with a recurring character I encourage you to do so, but set aside some time to think the implications of that decision through from a craft perspective.
Hills closes the section by providing more historical context, then makes a key point in support of his criticism:
…even though we only see the same aspects of the regular characters week after week, we’ve come to have at least some idea of what their character is — we know them in at least somewhat more depth than we know the guest stars.
As Hills notes, this is depth of characterization defined yet also denied. Movement of recurrent characters may be interrupted or prevented or reset by the author for each new story, but the reader will still develop a fuller sense of that character over time. To the extent that familiarity, consistency and stability of character are traits one might admire and enjoy in fiction as well as in real life, it’s easy to see this kind of characterization as a positive.
The problem, however, is that none of these laudable traits has anything to do with drama. While that’s generally a good thing in real-world relationships, it’s a big problem when your business is telling stories.
Next up: Types of Character.
— Mark Barrett
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