I have worked long and hard as I write to establish that the characters have distinctive personality attributes. These can change gradually over time as the characters mature, grow, or occasionally fall into temptation or madness. I think this is important and makes the characters feel like real people. Readers can come to appreciate the characters and will cheer for (or against) them. My current work in progress is a series of five books telling a story that spans many years (in the present – it also briefly touches on things several hundred and even thousand years in its past), so the growth should be evident.
I’m writing this because my wife and I watched an episode of a television series last night that made me hate it so much that I have decided never again to watch it. It was the old British series Poirot. I have ranted about its shortcomings before, but this time they went too far.
In an episode in the third season (and through 7 episodes thus far they have only used their tired plot device discussed in my previous rant once or twice), Poirot simply decides not to be Poirot. The decent, honest, law-abiding man who hates crime decides that he has fallen for a criminal he just met, so he arranges to let her get away with her crimes (even going so far as to help cover up her participation) and helps her flee the country. Really?!?!?! This was like the Peter Jackson version of LOTR where instead of Aragorn having spent the last several decades preparing for the moment when he could reclaim his crown and earn the right to wed Arwen (which is what Tolkien said happened in the books) we find that Aragorn is a wishy-washy pansy who wants to avoid responsibility. This was that moment in The Two Towers when Faramir makes the long speech about finding the hobbits and the one ring alone in the wilderness with a company of men at his command and then taking them captive.
These all represent the intentional abandonment of a character’s character for the shock value (or to make some ephemeral and illusory point that will be missed for the fact that you trashed your character). Writers, I beg you – don’t do this. Build your characters as your characters and grow them naturally.
It is all well and good for Darth Vader to turn on the emperor when we have been establishing for two full movies that the one thing he has been seeking is his son. It would be another thing entirely for Luke Skywalker to suddenly turn his back on his friends and join the emperor (though quite frankly, I am a little surprised that George Lucas hasn’t released a version of his movies where this happened). Shock value is not worth abandoning good writing to achieve. Good characters, good stories, and surprises within that context that upon reflection fit perfectly within the larger framework of the story. Think Severus Snape in The Deathly Hallows.