This one's a bit long. Sorry.
All right, then … this post follows on from the last, where I made the rather expansive claim that ‘a story is the set of choices its protagonist makes’.
What does that mean, what implications does that have, and why is it directly related to why some – misguided, wrong – Doctor Who fans don’t like Tinkerbell Jesus?
Protagonists want something. Often the most sophisticated stories have protagonists with the most simple desires – ‘revenge’ or ‘true love’.
Robert McKee makes a useful distinction between Conscious and Unconscious desires. In the standard Hollywood formula movie, what the hero SAYS he wants invariably turns out not to be the thing he ACTUALLY wants. Indeed, many Hollywood movies are precisely about the revelation of what the Unconscious (and invariably ‘true’) desire is.
The busy executive doesn’t really want the money and status he’s working so hard to earn at the start of the movie, he really wants some special time with his kids – and the movie is about him coming to realise that he’d rather see his kid’s baseball game than get that promotion. (I’d pay good money to see a movie which ends with a businessman saying ‘stuff my kids, I choose the money’, by the way – that is, after all, the choice all the Hollywood execs have made).
A story is basically about the Protagonist pursuing his object of desire - with varying degrees of application, luck and success.
Now … in a running series, the emphasis is a little different. Sherlock Holmes wants to solve the case in hand, Batman wants to track down the supervillain, the Doctor wants to defeat the monsters. They want the same thing next time. And the next. And the next. There’s no psychological progression. The stories are variations on the theme, the best ones are the ones rich in imaginative detail.
We’ve got a taste for heroes with more of an inner life these days, and so authors of running series tend to concentrate a lot more on the psychology than they did when the characters were created. Batman writers over the last twenty years have wrestled with the question ‘what sort of man would dress up as a bat to fight criminals?’. The problem they have is … er … no-one would do that. It’s a barmy thing to do, and by definition, you’re not going to make any great insight into human nature by asking the question. The character just can’t bear the load. To paraphrase Charlie Brooker, it’s not a good idea to do a story where Postman Pat goes postal. It’s why The Killing Joke is Alan Moore’s least successful work. In my opinion.
Did I mention I wrote a book about Alan Moore?
But the Doctor has a desire, it’s perfectly conscious and it’s ‘find out what the monsters are really up to and defeat them’.
During the story the Protagonist has to make choices to attain his desire. Big choices and little choices. He doesn’t always realise at the time which are the big choices and which are the little ones. The recent Doctor Who episode Turn Left is a great example of a story where a trivial decision has literally universe-shattering consequences. If Donna turns her car one way, she meets the Doctor. If she doesn’t, she doesn’t.
Often the hero is the hero precisely because they have insight – folk tales commonly have the hero realising that the smelly old tramp is really a great warrior or god in disguise. Captain Kirk, Batman, Sherlock Holmes and the Doctor can all walk into a room and realise that an everyday item that’s been on public display for years without anyone paying it any attention is actually some amazing and unique item that’s the key to winning the day.
But real life isn’t like that very often, and most stories don’t work quite like that. Usually stories feature a choice that you probably won’t be faced with, but might – you find a bag of money in your back garden … do you keep it? Do you tell your partner? How do you spend it without anyone noticing? What happens when the owner shows up? Hitchcock’s movies were brilliant at plunging normal people into increasingly perilous situations because each sensible choice they made exposed them to more harm.
Soap operas basically have an engine that throws out a dozen decisions an episode – very simple moral dilemmas, usually, like ‘should that character have an affair?’ or ‘should that character steal that money?’ or ‘should that character reveal a secret?’. The choices are all laid out, they’re usually ‘yes/no’ decisions’ and they’re all simple to understand.
If you watch the soap, you know something about the characters – that character’s a bit thick, that one is always unlucky in love, that one is one bad day away from becoming a drunk.
And those two things – simple decisions, made by well-defined characters - mean that millions of people watch the soaps, and millions of people can kind of see everything coming, and millions of people shout out at the telly things like ‘don’t do it, he’s a love rat’ or ‘don’t do it, you’ll hurt your best friend’.
Not all writers will consciously do this – every writer is different. But I think even the most sophisticated or literary writers, by accident or design, use this technique. They just dress it up in posher clothes.
Right … here’s the key sentence of this article: ‘for a story to work, the reader has to understand the decisions the protagonist is faced with, and why the protagonist makes the choices he does’.
If you get that right, you’ll write a good story. And if you bash the piano keys in the right way, you’ll be a great concert pianist.
The audience doesn’t have to agree with the decision the Protagonist makes, it doesn’t have to be the decision they would make. The audience often know more than the character (‘don’t marry him … he’s only with you for the money and he killed his last wife!’ – if the Protagonist had that information, you’d hope they’d factor it in to their decision). The audience do have to find it convincing that the Protagonist made the decision.
The hardest decision for an author to make convincing is often the very first one. The biggest choice is what Joseph Campbell terms The Call to Adventure. There will come a point in most stories where the protagonist is, well … basically invited into the story.
When a horror movie starts with a group of teenagers deciding that, gosh, the most sensible thing to shelter from the rain is go into the spooky house where all those teenagers got killed ten years ago that very night … the audience groans. Horror movies still tell those stories, but invariably make a postmodern joke about what a stupid decision it is.
In Star Wars, Ben asks Luke to come with him to Alderaan and learn the ways of the Force. Luke, of course …
Campbell notes that most heroes refuse once – the pull of their ordinary life is too strong, or they need a better incentive to take a risk. George Lucas is a devotee of Campbell. I’d go as far as to say that you can’t really understand Star Wars unless you’ve read ‘The Impact of Science on Myth’, which is a 1961 essay that basically says ‘someone really needs to invent Star Wars’ (One Star Wars fan I said this to hasn’t spoken to me since, because he hasn’t read it and felt I was calling his very Star Wars fanitude into question. It’s not as though it’s difficult to find). Having read his Campbell, Lucas has Luke refusing the Call to Adventure and deciding to stay on Tatooine … then his aunt and uncle are murdered, and he realises where his destiny lies.
In Doctor Who there isn’t always a call to adventure – it’s implicit in the series. When the villager says ‘oh Doctor, these Daleks came along and they’re hurting us, can you help?’ … the Doctor doesn’t exactly agonise about the decision. This is unusual – James Bond and Sherlock Holmes usually start by being offered a mission or case. They always decide to take it, but they do consciously decide. Even Superman usually gets a line like ‘looks like I’ll be a few minutes late for dinner with Lois’ as he swoops in to catch a bad guy he’s spotted.
All these choices lead somewhere, and that’s the end of the story. Now … I’m going to skip to that. I’ll do the middle bit next time.
The key thing that audiences always like at the end of a story is a sense of justice. Not necessarily a happy ending, but an ending that fits the story. Protagonists have a desire. The story ends with them reaching a level of understanding about their desire – usually they win the girl, defeat the bad guy, solve the crime. That sort of thing. Unhappy endings see their desire thwarted or revealed as futile or unsatisfactory.
I got in terrible trouble with my Doctor Who book The Gallifrey Chronicles, because it ends before the Doctor defeats the monsters. I knew I would get in trouble when I wrote it. We know the Doctor will win, but we WANT TO SEE HIM DO IT.
Audiences used to like to see the Protagonist get handed the reward he deserved. Plays and novels ended with good, kind characters suddenly inheriting a great deal of money, or being married off to someone good looking who was barely in the story up to that point, or facing some sudden form of external justice and being dragged away.
Even that seems naturalistic compared with Greek and Roman plays, which often ended with a god coming down and pointing at each of the main cast in turn, making definitive pronouncements on who was to get what reward and what punishment.
So in Orestes, the play’s going about its business until suddenly, at the end, literally without warning, the god Apollo appears and says (after a deep breath, one assumes):
‘Menelaus, calm thy excited mood; I am Phoebus, the son of Latona, who draw nigh to call thee by name, and thou no less, Orestes, who, sword in hand, art keeping guard on yonder maid, that thou mayst hear what have come to say. Helen, whom all thy eagerness failed to destroy, when thou wert seeking to anger Menelaus, is here as ye see in the enfolding air, rescued from death instead of slain by thee. 'Twas I that saved her and snatched her from beneath thy sword at the bidding of her father Zeus; for she his child must put on immortality, and take her place with Castor and Polydeuces in the bosom of the sky, a saviour to mariners. Choose thee then another bride and take her to thy home, for the gods by means of Helen's loveliness embroiled Troy and Hellas, causing death thereby, that they might lighten mother Earth of the outrage done her by the increase of man's number. Such is Helen's end.
But as for thee, Orestes, thou must cross the frontier of this land and dwell for one whole year on Parrhasian soil, which from thy flight thither shall be called the land of Orestes by Azanians and Arcadians; and when thou returnest thence to the city of Athens, submit to be brought to trial by "the Avenging Three" for thy mother's murder, for the gods will be umpires between you and will pass a most righteous sentence on thee upon the hill of Ares, where thou art to win thy case. Likewise, it is ordained, Orestes, that thou shalt wed Hermione, at whose neck thou art pointing thy sword; Neoptolemus shall never marry her, though he thinks he will; for his death is fated to o'ertake him by a Delphian sword, when he claims satisfaction of me for the death of his father Achilles. Bestow thy sister's hand on Pylades, to whom thou didst formerly promise her; the life awaiting him henceforth is one of bliss.
Menelaus, leave Orestes to rule Argos; go thou and reign oer Sparta, keeping it as the dowry of a wife, who till this day ne'er ceased exposing thee to toils innumerable. Between Orestes and the citizens, I, who forced his mother's murder on him, will bring about a reconciliation.’
You don’t see that sort of thing on EastEnders. The characters don’t all shout out ‘push off, we’re in the middle of something, here’, they accept the judgement and the play ends.
The god appearing at the end to pass judgement was as much a convention of drama then as things like opening credits sequences are now. The audience knew to expect it, it was a highlight. There would be mechanisms that allowed the god to make a spectacular entrance – they’d float down or spring up, or appear to materialise. It was all about the special effects, even then.
Hmmmm … a god came out of a machine. Or, in Latin, ‘deus ex machina’.
It’s a dirty word, now. It’s come to mean an ending that comes out of nowhere – a quick solution suddenly appears. In the end of the Day of the Triffids movie, it turns out Triffids dissolve in salt water. In Superman: The Movie, Superman suddenly acquires the ability to turn back time. It feels like a cheat if some external force just arrives to solve the problem – like that bit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where they’re being chased by a cartoon monster and the animator suddenly drops dead and the monster vanishes. HG Wells just about gets away with all the Martians dying of the flu in The War of the Worlds, but it’s not entirely satisfying. It feels too easy.
Some Doctor Who fans have complained that the end of The Last of the Time Lords was a ‘deus ex machina’ ending. The Doctor literally descends as a god and passes judgement. I don’t think it’s a fair criticism (I think what happens doesn’t come out the blue, it’s engineered by the Doctor using elements that have been set up previously in the story. Russell Davies plays tricks with the convention – just look at Journey’s End, where character after character pulls out artifacts of amazing power that represent an easy solution … then they don’t work) … but the reason the fans don’t like it is that they think it feels like a cheat.
Nowadays we like stories where the fate of the Protagonist is down to the choices we see him make.
Modern audiences like the Protagonist to win his own battles. He can recruit allies, he can pull things out of his hat. The Protagonist can cheat … but his author can’t. Writers have to explain who the Protagonist is, the choices he faces, the skills and tools he possesses and why he makes the choices he does.
So, after all that, a bit of writing advice:
When you’re planning or writing a story, always look at the choices your Protagonist is making. Answer these questions:
1) Is it clear to the reader what the choice is and what the potential consequences of the choice are?
2) Is it clear how the Protagonist came to the decision they did? Is it consistent with what we’ve been told about the Protagonist? Is it consistent with what the Protagonist desires?
3) Is there a better choice to be made, and if so, why isn’t the Protagonist making it? (One question I often find myself asking is – ‘why don’t they just get help?’. It’s a joke in the Doctor Who episode Blink – nine times out of ten, characters in contemporary drama never call the police when they ought to).
Now … real writing isn’t like a checklist. Go on instinct. Write the damn story. But if something isn’t ringing true or working or feels forced, or too sudden, or unconvincing … take a step back. Look at your Protagonist, what they desire, the choices they are making. If you know who your Protagonist is and how they reach the decisions they do, you’ll find that getting your story to work is a lot easier.