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Marissa Lingen

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Arcs and disagreement [Apr. 9th, 2011|09:29 pm]
Marissa Lingen

Earlier this week I took a poll about how people feel about protagonist deaths. The substantial majority of respondents said that one of the factors that mattered was whether the death fit a character's arc. And I agree with that; it's important to me, too. And yet when we were hanging out watching the ballgame after most people had answered, timprov said, "Every single author who annoyed people with their character's death felt like it was part of the character's arc."

Yah. That's hyperbole--I'm sure we can all come up with examples of why an author (even one who isn't Conan Doyle) would kill a character otherwise, even a protagonist. But for the most part, I think most authors really, truly feel that they are doing what the character's arc requires.

So how do we talk about where they--we--screw up? What are the markers for where the author has generally failed to convey the intended arc to the reader, or where the readership is going to overwhelmingly disagree about whether it fits? I think that's a far more contentious question, because unlike the generality, it does better if we point at specifics--not just specifics that worked, but specifics that didn't. And I wonder if we end up talking about TV and movies in this kind of conversation not just because there's less to watch than to read and therefore more assumed overlap but also because we have less risk of having to point at a friend or colleague and say, "You. You really screwed that one up."

The thing is, we often get to this sort of point on panel discussions. Someone will say something like, "The story needs the ending it needs." Which is absolutely true, and a lot more satisfying than alternatives such as, "The story needs the ending dictated by convention." Sometimes that first-order generality needs saying. But I think it's much harder to really dig into what that means and what it doesn't, and sometimes we're so thrilled to have found agreement on a panel that pushing past it back to disagreement sort of gets lost. I'm not sure, other than disagreeing really politely and kindly and giving each other the benefit of the doubt, how to make that happen less often on panels. But it seems like it might get to some worthwhile insights, even if they don't apply for everyone's process or everyone's specific story.

[User Picture]From: reveritas
2011-04-10 02:56 am (UTC)
Off topic, but I wanted to see if you had read the story in the most recent New Yorker about George R. R. Martin and how pissed his fans were that he wasn't finishing his series quickly enough. Actually it's not totally off topic because my first response to this post was "It's not the author's job to please the reader!" but then I thought, well, I guess it kinda is if they want to sell more books. And then it made me think of the Martin stuff, which this NYer writer made sound like a big war -- him against his readers, who mock him for not writing fast enough. Sounded like a nightmare.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-04-10 03:01 am (UTC)
No, I haven't read the latest thing, but I've run into the GRRM stuff before. And it's really problematic, because on the one hand we all run into life stuff and books are not factory-made widgets, and on the other hand, Martin is so far behind schedule, and does a really good job of making it look like he totally does not care. So yah. Tough one there.

I think that too much of an extreme of the "it's not the author's job to please the reader" position not only makes it hard to sell books but also makes an author effectively criticism-proof. "That was my artistic vision and I don't have to please you" is absolutely true, but it can also keep a writer from learning from astute critics with interesting points to make. You don't have to please every reader. You don't have to reach every reader. But writing is communication; if we're failing to communicate, that's something we should know, as writers. And then what we decide to do about it can vary.
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[User Picture]From: sartorias
2011-04-10 03:06 am (UTC)
I think at times readers can feel that the author didn't present a convincing case for whatever the (usually disappointing, but sometimes unearned happy ending) incident was. Like Mansfield Park which until its last ten percent is probably Austen's most brilliant book. But then, for the sake of delicacy (and also because she felt that the character arc needed it, though we're told her sister Cassandra begged her to reconsider), she closes the curtain on the action and shoves the narrator to the front of the stage to tell us what happened, why, and what conclusions we are to draw. This, after the story has been shown so beautifully, letting us draw our own conclusions, apparently caused mixed reactions at the time, and today, when many don't share Austen's scruples, it causes sharper disappointment.

Yet Austen, hailed for two centuries as a genius, felt that that was the right character arc.

Edited at 2011-04-10 03:08 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-04-10 03:10 am (UTC)
I think that being a genius is overrated and doing things at genius level is a great deal more interesting. And I think that nobody is consistently amazingly brilliant. Nobody. Ever. Some are more consistent than others, but just being a genius is not enough to make everything you do brilliant.

So if someone is trying to justify the proposition, not that Jane Austen was a genius, but that the end of Mansfield Park is brilliant and correct, they'd need to make a case for why it was better to tell than to show at that point, what other things it achieved that make up for how it disappointed. They'd have to explain what the balance was there, what was traded off to achieve that effect.

I mean, there's always, "I meant to do that," but, "I meant to frustrate you and make you feel talked down to," is not usually so much the thing.
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From: swan_tower
2011-04-10 07:09 am (UTC)
But for the most part, I think most authors really, truly feel that they are doing what the character's arc requires.

Well -- and maybe you were thinking of this as one of your examples of other reasons -- I think sometimes the author's eye is on a different character's arc. And that's one of the situations which will really annoy me, because if I was invested in this character and seeing them as having their own story, then having that get cut short to serve somebody else's angst (see Refrigerator, Woman In), then it totally breaks the story inside my head.

What are the markers for where the author has generally failed to convey the intended arc to the reader, or where the readership is going to overwhelmingly disagree about whether it fits? I think that's a far more contentious question, because unlike the generality, it does better if we point at specifics--not just specifics that worked, but specifics that didn't.

This, definitely. Not a character-death example, but the movie A.I. is one of my clearest examples of "the story I was watching was apparently not the story the film-makers thought they were telling." It had a brilliant ending . . . and then it kept going. If I were to watch it again, I could undoubtedly point at the markers that set up the story I was watching, and make an argument for why they were the more compelling story by far than the alternative.

But I think part of the problem in discussing specifics is that you really need both sides: the reader's and the author's, so you can see where they didn't match up. And that does kind of require the author to stake herself out for target practice, at least in the case of examples that didn't work. I mean, I am more than willing to discuss why I gacked various characters in my books, but I admit I whimper a bit at the notion of doing so in a context where I'm going to have someone else arguing vehemently that I did it wrong.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-04-10 11:37 am (UTC)
Hmm. I don't know; sometimes the author being there to say "I'll tell you what I was thinking" is very useful, but sometimes discussion of it can get the reader there without the author's help. "Because we see X in the ending, we can look back and see that X' was meant to signify the Xitude." And "meant" is a shaky verb there, because it's meant to approximate what's on the page rather than what's in the author's head--it may be that the actual author thought the Xitude was so obvious that he/she didn't need X' to signal it. But at the very least an astute reader can sometimes work backwards once the ending is known. Sometimes.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-04-10 11:42 am (UTC)
Aw crud. We have been awaiting The Book Where He Gets His Apartment Back; it should be in the mail to us already. I'm sorry it isn't more doomful.

As for spoilers: you know now that my solution to this is interpretive dance.

More seriously, I think that's true and difficult, but sometimes if a panel is going to be any good, you have to tell people to put their hands over their ears etc., because you're not going to get to the meat of any problems if you can't talk about spoilers.
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[User Picture]From: desperance
2011-04-10 11:32 am (UTC)
So how do we talk about where they--we--screw up? What are the markers for where the author has generally failed to convey the intended arc to the reader, or where the readership is going to overwhelmingly disagree about whether it fits?

On the other hand and contrariwise - and I have read your point in an earlier comment about artistic vision and criticism, and I do not dispute that at all - it nevertheless remains the case that art is not and never can be a democracy, and readers absolutely do not get a vote. Not until the book is a fact, that is: not over who lives or dies, which way the story goes, which path a character chooses. That's not fiction, that's roleplaying. It's a different thing. It's the author's privilege to make those choices, and the reader's privilege to criticise them for it.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-04-10 11:50 am (UTC)
Oh, of course it's not a democracy. But we also shouldn't ignore where our best intentions did not make it into the text.
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[User Picture]From: cathshaffer
2011-04-10 01:06 pm (UTC)
It all comes down to promises made at the beginning of the book. The ending of any book must fulfill those implied promises made on the first page and in the first act. If the first page promises a rolicking fantasy adventure in which the plucky heroine overcomes the dark lord through persistence and ingenuity, then we don't want to find out halfway through that the book has become Tess of the D'Urbervilles and the plucky heroine is going to suffer and eventually die in order to show the Violence Inherent in the System.

I generally don't like books where protagonists die. It's a hard sell for me, personally, as a reader, and so I'm sensitive to books that contain that possibility/probability as part of their opening sales pitch. Traditionally, the way you let the reader know that this might happen is to give the protagonist a pretty big sin. A popular trope is the "One last heist before I go straight" story. That's a movie thing, but when you watch a movie with that premise, be prepared to see your protagonist riddled with bullets at the end--no matter how noble he has been, no matter how he has overcome or paid for his crimes. That's just the kind of end a person comes to who has lived a life of crime. (more in the next comment)
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[User Picture]From: cathshaffer
2011-04-10 01:12 pm (UTC)
Same thing with Tess of the D'Urbervilles, actually. Tess is a very sympathetic character, but she did a big sin, by the standards of the time, by having relations out of wedlock. We see her struggle, we see her repent, we see her pay 1000x over for the mistake she made, but by starting with a sin, the author hints that the protagonist will die, and that is part of the accepted conventions of literature.

What we have today, however, is a larger cultural trend where moralizing isn't cool, and a minor cultural movement in popular entertainment for turning expectations upside down to achieve more impact. So you get stories where the character is going to pull one last heist before he goes straight...and he makes it. And you also get stories where the author feels the need to kill off a very traditional protagonist who would have been expected to prevail based on the set up of the story. (The tension is not whether the protagonist will prevail, but HOW he will do it given the overwhelming obstacles in his path.)

We also have a lot of crappy endings, in my opinion, due to the craze for series and trilogies, where a new author (or even an experienced one) can sell a series of books based on the first book, which is not really a complete story, therefore skipping a traditional step in the getting published process where you have to prove you can write a complete story. Those bad endings may include a character death or not, but lately I would say I read 3 bad endings for every successful ending. (more)
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[User Picture]From: fidelioscabinet
2011-04-10 04:13 pm (UTC)
I think sometimes the character's arc may conflict with the story's arc (insert remarks ad libitum on writing fiction as the equivalent of herding cats et c.), and the whole thing gets away from the writer, because even in the best-regulated establishments, things don't always run smoothly (insert remarks on fiction /= exact science). Sometimes they do, and you end up with Sydney Carton in Paris and "ending well" takes on a rather different meaning. But sometimes they don't, and there you are.

It's also true that character deaths are a sign things are for real, and so a less-deft writer may use that, less deftly, to indicate "This are srs bizness; I are srs riter!" (This can also be the case with excessive amounts, applications, and depictions of violence; sometimes these read not as necessary and integral, but as if the writer is proving how Real and Gritty they can get.) There have been deaths I've resented; deaths I felt weren't fair (although they worked, and were right for what was being done), but there have also been deaths I felt were a little too cheap and easy, a little too convenient-and then there's the "Rocks fall; everybody dies", which either comes off as bad stuntwriting, or utter cluelessness about how to handle the conflict between the different arcs (unless we're talking about HMS Ulysses, where the point is "This thing? It kills people right, left, and sideways, pretty much like this").

So while there deaths I've accepted, even though I wasn't happy with them, I can also think of examples where I felt things were not well-handled, but I suspect this is an area where YMMV is the rule, not the exception.
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From: diatryma
2011-04-10 05:29 pm (UTC)
Every once in a while, I read a book where I can see what I would do with it and then the writer doesn't. The best example, from years ago, was Animorphs: a minor character came back and the protags did not take the trivially easy step I assumed was obvious to keep her around. Stopped reading the books right then because it was obvious what should have happened.

I don't think that my wishes dictate to the writer, but I do think that readers are useful data points. If half your readers object to a death because it doesn't fit the arc, it doesn't mean you have to change the death or the arc or anything like that, but it does mean that you are not conveying what you think you are conveying to that half of your readers.
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[User Picture]From: cakmpls
2011-04-10 09:57 pm (UTC)
I am not a fiction writer, nor do I play one online, so if this is of no use to the discussion, please ignore it, even delete it if you want.

This whole business of story arc is pretty much incomprehensible to me. To me, real life doesn't have a story arc--I am very much not a person who believes that "things happen for a reason" in any metaphysical or cosmic sense--so I don't expect fiction about real life to have one.

I tend to be perturbed when purely in service of the story, in fiction that is supposed to be realistic, (1) characters who are supposed to be "like" real people behave in ways that are highly unlikely for similar real people in similar situations or (2) physical situations are shown as other than they really are. (For example, (1) professionals in a field behaving as real people in that profession would not in their professional capacity, or (2) a structure fire producing almost no smoke and the people trapped in it being able to see clearly. This bias on my part got me pretty much banned from a certain fiction writer's LJ.)

But it doesn't bother me at all when the story itself takes a turn I never foresaw, a turn different from the one I might have given it (could I write fiction), a turn totally different from what I hoped for (and I do sometimes have hopes, because writers can make me care about a character).

Unexpected things, unpredictable things, nonsensical things happen all the time in real life. Real people turn out to have entirely different backgrounds than we think they do, and to take actions that puzzle us, no matter how well we thought we knew them. People die when they shouldn't, and people who really need killing thrive. Life is messy, and I don't mind when fiction is, too.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-04-10 10:07 pm (UTC)
I think that your situation 1 is mostly what people are talking about when they say that something doesn't fit a character's arc. The feeling that so-and-so "just wouldn't" do something is not limited to their professional training/capacity--it's just easier to point it out semi-objectively in those circumstances.

I mean, yes, there are also times when someone gets hit by a car or catches a horrible infection out of the blue. But one of the things you learn when you're publishing fiction is that "but this actually happened!" is not sufficient justification for it happening in fiction, where by "sufficient" I mean "satisfying to a large number of your target readership."

Edited at 2011-04-10 10:08 pm (UTC)
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