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What I Learned about Writing this Week…from Heroes

Courtney Cantrell's weekly writing advice

Courtney Cantrell's weekly writing advice

Many, many moons ago (approximately eight months, to be inexact), someone informed me I would enjoy the sci-fi TV series Heroes. I suspect most of you will be familiar with it, but just to summarize:

In Heroes, a group of people? segment of humanity? emerging new race? discover that they possess superhuman abilities. Some of them are good guys, some of them are bad guys, and all of them are possessed of quirkiness appealing to my sense of whimsy.  The show follows their impact on each other and on the world at large.  Shazam!

One Leitmotif of the show is “Save the cheerleader, save the world.” The cheerleader in question is one Claire Bennet, whose superpower is the ability to heal from any wound. Especially during the first two seasons, Claire is the fulcrum on which the entire world of Heroes turns. I cannot emphasize this point enough without going into a play-by-play of the show’s action; just take my word for it that Claire is what triggers the sizzle, zip, and zowie. Without her — her history, her actions, her personal growth — the show would be mighty lacking in said zowie, and that would just be all kinds of unfortunate.

About three episodes into watching the first season (okay, maybe during the second half of the first episode), I was hooked. I am now three episodes away from finishing Season 4 and dreading being caught up — but at the same time, I’m feeling a bit frustrated by a development concerning Claire. You see, suddenly, after three-and-a-half seasons, the writers of the show have Claire exploring a relationship with her lesbian roommate.

Things that make ya go hmmm.  From this viewer’s perspective, that development is coming completely out of nowhere.

The Importance of Being Consistent

I suppose one could make a case that sexual orientation is something that many people don’t figure out until they — like Claire — leave home, go to college, and start connecting with people who are different from their life experiences thus far. But in Claire’s case, she has already left home multiple times and met people who are vastly different from anyone she has ever known. Throughout the first three seasons, she was consistent in her interest in boys — at least, as consistent as she could be while on the run from government agents and psychopaths. Her every romantic involvement has been with someone of the male persuasion. Now, all of a sudden, without a single hint over the course of three-and-a-half seasons, she’s starting to feel interested in girls? Sorry, writers, but I don’t buy it.

Characters develop. I know that.  Characters change. That’s of fundamental importance in every story — because a story in which the characters don’t change is a dead story. It’s on its way to The Great Big Nowhere, and at breakneck speed. If a TV show’s characters never change, grow, learn, develop, then most viewers will drop that show from one week to the next. (That’s what I do, anyway; I don’t have time to coddle.) In the same way, if your characters don’t change, they will stagnate. A stagnant story wafts the stench of inertia. Nothing will make a reader drop a story faster.

In the TV show Heroes, Claire Bennet is changing as a result of growing up. That change is necessary. That change is good. So why am I perturbed over her relationship with her roommate? Shouldn’t I be rejoicing that this character is proving she’s anything but stinky stagnant? Shouldn’t I be thrilled to see that her choices in this are moving the story forward?

The answer to this, my dear inklings, is a resounding No. Why? Because this particular change in Claire is not consistent with what the writers have shown me thus far.

Know When To Hold ‘Em

When it comes to stories and the development of characters, I’m pretty gullible. I’ll admit it. If a writer drops a few hints here and there to prepare my subconscious, I will believe anything about the characters. And I do mean anything. Show me a couple of random, apparently unconnected thought associations in Chapter Three, and by Chapter Six I’ll be ready to believe your character is a latent telepath. Give me a brief glimpse of your character pulling the wings off a fly as a child, and by the climax of the story, I’ll accept the horrible reality of his psychopathic tendencies. Let me see her hand lingering a moment too long on the bare shoulder of her confidante, and by the time I read “The End,” I’ll believe that she’s been in love with the other girl for years.

But change something fundamental about the character from one chapter to the next, and you’ve lost me. Because that kind of change is not legit in writing. It’s unbelievable. It creates distance between the viewer/writer and the story. It’s an artificial way of changing a character. It’s deus ex machina (yes, you’ve read that term on this blog before) at its worst. To put it bluntly: It’s sloppy writing, it’s lazy, and it’s cheap.

Do not — I repeat — DO NOT do this to your readers. Ever. It disappoints and alienates them.

Aaron has talked about putting your cards on the table. As writers, you must must MUST be willing to do this. No, you don’t have to blare your character’s sexual preference from the rooftops…but you do have to show me a hint — early on! — that it’s not boys she gets giggly over. Yeah, you can wait until after the story’s climax to reveal that her favorite color is blue — but color preference likely isn’t going to be important enough to change the course of your story. Sexual preference, however, is a big thing in our society. So are things like political preference, religious beliefs, social class, family history, and mental state, to name just a few. No matter what world your story is set in, these particulars have enough punch and pizazz to knock your readers out or to dazzle them.  (One might say these details put the ¡ay, caramba! into the zowie. If one wanted to say such, that is.)

Me, I’d rather have a reader with a sparkle in her eye than one who’s got a shiner and is going to toss my story out of the ring the second she regains consciousness.

If we want our stories to be believable, we must know our characters, and we must be consistent. Our readers deserve nothing less.  (And they definitely want the caramba-ed zowie.  Trust me.)

And that, my dears, is WILAWriTWe!

(Click a link, share some of your hard-earned cash with Amazon, and feed a writer!)

P.S. My most enamored thanks to Julie for the new photo you see at the top of this post! Lemme tell ya, this lady can click. She had me relaxed and just being me by the second shot — not to mention that her work makes you want to step through into every image and just be there. Check out her galleries — I predict you’ll heart them with gusto! I do.

4 Responses to “What I Learned about Writing this Week…from Heroes”

  1. I love Heroes. Er…Love(d). I guess we stopped watching somewhere in season 3 because I have not yet discovered Claire’s new interest.

    Boo! Boo, I say to this bizzare character change! I planned on going back and finishing the series, but knowing this tidbit makes me little less eager to do so.

    The creators of the show have done some really cool things – my favorite is probably the whole character of Sylar and the story behind him. BUT they have done some really off, wacko things too (especially starting 3rd or 4th season).

    It can be really frustrating as a partaker in the show to be yanked around in such a way.

    • Oops. I was afraid of that–that this article would end up being a spoiler. But you seem to be forgiving of my blunder, Becca, so hopefully I haven’t ruined the show for you!

      I would say, though, that in spite of the character switcheroo, the show is definitely still worth watching. Because of Sylar, for one thing. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed watching a psychopath this much. ;oD (Yeah, they did some odd things with his char for awhile, but it gets a lot better in Season 4.)

      Plus…I would always watch the show for Hiro. I wholly adore him. :o)

  2. I love heroes too but that whole claire arc has bugged me too. There is a bunch of TV lately that seems to get stuck for story ideas and throws a gay angle in where it doesn’t belong. And don’t get me started on JK Rowling saying Dumbledore was gay….

    • Umm, can we say publicity stunt? Yes, indeed, I do believe that is in our vocabulary. Don’t get me started on that either, Justin. Putting in any type of “token” character in order to cure writer’s block is sure to pull me right up on top of my dear old soapbox! Lol