Writing Excuses 11.43: Elemental Drama Q&A, with Tananarive Due
Q: Rather than having a protagonist change themselves, can a protagonist be an impetus for change in others as a source of drama?
A: Yes. James Bond and iconic superheroes rarely change, but the interesting stories are about the people around them changing. Episodic stories often have a main character who doesn’t change, with the changes happening to the people around them.
Q: What happens when a character refuses to learn and overcome their fatal flaw?
A: Tragedy. Key question is can the character change? If they fail, that’s a tragedy.
Q: What are the lines between drama and melodrama?
A: Music. True melodrama winks at the audience. Accidental melodrama usually means you didn’t introduce the characters and show us the motivation for the conflict. Make sure the emotion is earned.
Q: Do you have any tips for writing body language that reveals a character’s internal state?
A: Puppetry has three movements, aggressive, passive, and regressive. Aggressive, lean towards and engage further. Passive, sit still. Regressive, lean back and disengage or avoid. Add in open or closed silhouette, with arms out or crossed, reflecting engaging or not engaging. Top it off with the point of view character interpreting or reacting. Don’t overdo it! Use body language to remove ambiguity or emphasize. No head bobbing, please.
Q: When do you not show character growth? Is it sometimes good to have it not exist? Is there a reason not to add drama?
A: Contrast with external events, or contrast with another character.
Q: When writing a character that undergoes a great change that makes him or her radically different, how do you keep it realistic? Also, how do you realistically show people acting differently from their schema?
A: This is a reflection of the difference between what character is perceived to be and who they are internally. Hang a lantern on the fact that they are struggling with who they think they are and who they really are. Make the character realize who they really are and what they are really capable, and let them be heroes and heroines.
[Mary] Season 11, Episode 43.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Drama Q&A with Tananarive Due.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And we have special guest star, Tananarive Due. Say hi.
[Tananarive] Hello everybody.
[Brandon] Can you tell us briefly about yourself?
[Tananarive] Well, I am an author, I’m a screenwriter, I’ve written about a dozen novels either alone or in collaboration with my husband, Steven Barnes. And I’m very excited to be here.
[Brandon] We are super excited to have you. We are on the Writing Excuses Cruise.
[Brandon] And our wonderful writers here have given us some amazing questions. So we’re going to jump into these. The first one comes from both Gama and Clark. They both asked something very similar, which is “Rather than having a protagonist change themselves, can a protagonist be an impetus for change in others as a source of drama?”
[Brandon] Expand upon that, Howard.
[Howard] I… Well, last week we talked a little bit about the James Bond stories, and how Bond so rarely changes. But the things that he does, the things that the iconic superheroes do… James Bond. Superman. Conan the Barbarian. These folks don’t change. The interesting stories are the people around them who are changing, often as a result of what these people are thundering around and doing clumsily.
[Dan] Yeah. If you look at kind of the old-style episodic TV shows, The Fugitive, The Incredible Hulk… I’m thinking like 70s there, but I’m sure there’s modern ones as well. Bruce Banner never changed. He was the same character every week. But he would always prompt change in the people that he met and helped week after week.
[Mary] Usually, this is one of those… The ones that you will think about immediately are where the character feels that the secondary character has self-esteem issues, and then they feel better about themselves by the end of the episode. Those are the classic and most easily represented ones. But another source of change is, honestly, the bad guy. The bad guy thinks that they’re at the top of the world, and they go through a character change when they interact with the superhero. Which is now they are in jail…
[Mary] And sad.
[Dan] Character change via face punching.
[Brandon] I would say most westerns and the Mad Max series in its entirety are like this, where the main character is really not the main character.
[Mary] Oh, you’re right. Fury Road is an excellent example of that.
[Brandon] Bill asks, “What happens when a character refuses to learn and overcome their fatal flaw?”
[Mary] That’s usually a tragedy. So when you’re looking at something, it’s… The basic question you’re asking with a character story is can the character change? Can they be reconciled with their identity? Can they find an identity that they’re happy with? When you land at the end, you’re looking at either a positive or a negative state. A positive state means that you answered yes, they can make a change. That is a happy ending. A negative state is no. They cannot change. The reason it’s a tragedy is because they have failed at the thing they were trying to do.
[Tananarive] That was actually the word that popped into my mind. Tragedy. Because the reader can see the absolute necessity for the change, and the characters around them can see the necessity for the change, but the lack of change creates a sense of tragedy.
[Brandon] Would you say that in many of the stories, does it get worse? Is that kind of a hallmark of tragedy, or is it just they’re at already the most absolute bad point and they just refuse to change?
[Dan] I think either way it can happen. I want to give a word of warning. As somebody who has written tragedies. It can be very hard to make it work. Because a modern audience is so conditioned for that happy ending. So writing a tragedy in which the character doesn’t come out on top at the end can work and be incredibly moving, but you really have to sell it and you really have to do it right.
[Howard] The other aspect of this is, if you’re just bound and determined to write that happy ending, is that your tragic case is the case that mirrors the one that our protagonist is on. We are following the character arc of someone who fails to overcome the tragic flaw. Part of their point in the story is to show us the consequence set that awaits our hero if they fail.
[Mary] The other thing is that your subgenre, if you’re doing a subgenre of drama, that can be… You can have that be a happy ending, and you can have your primary driver be your tragic ending. Or the other way around. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl does this. The prime event genre, the main driver, is total failure and tragedy. But the character growth… She… Where she winds up at the end, he manages to deliver a sense of a happy ending, while in the middle of a complete tragedy meltdown.
[Tananarive] I tried to do that in my novel My Soul to Keep, as I think about it. I have an immortal character who seems to want all the right things. He wants to stay with his family and his child. But in doing that, he’s put them in great danger from his brothers who don’t want their secret told. So really, he needs to step away. He will not. He absolutely will not step away. That is his tragic flaw is his hubris and his selfishness.
[Brandon] So, let’s take this a slightly different direction. Mark asks, “What are the lines between drama and melodrama?” It’s a really good question.
[Howard] Dun, dun, DUNNN!
[Brandon] Would true melodrama…
[Mary] [inaudible… Here John… Music cue… There]
[Brandon] True melodrama winks at the audience. Like, if you’re going to actual melodrama, melodrama. Accidental melodrama is the worry here. Not… A real… The genre of melodrama is you wink at the audience. You overplay it, you overblow it. Pratchett would do this. It is played for laughs. But how do you not do accidental melodrama? I think that’s what the question is.
[Tananarive] I see this a lot in students. It’s like we join our conflict already in progress. I don’t know the characters. I don’t understand the root of the conflicts between them. And anytime the characters are speaking in exclamation points and I’m still wondering who you are exactly…
[Tananarive] I just have a problem with this.
[Mary] What could you possibly mean!
[Dan] In the last episode, when Mary talked about Saving Private Ryan made her cry without earning it, for me, that’s really where the line is. Is this emotion earned or not? Do I actually believe it? Do I care or do I not? So how do you find that line? You give it to a lot of other readers. You use a writing group, you use whatever. Make sure you can fine tune that reaction so that it pulls off, instead of misses the landing.
[Mary] I think the other thing is that melodramas are more likely to rely heavily on cliché and tropes.
[Brandon] All right. So, question. Amy asks, “Do you have any tips for writing body language that reveals a character’s internal state?” Which I really like, it’s kind of a subtle look at drama.
[Mary] I have an entire class on that. Does anyone mind if I just take this one?
[Go for it. Take it away.]
[Mary] Okay. So, in puppetry… What? Mary’s going to talk about puppetry?
[Mary] There are three different basic types of movement. Aggressive, passive, and regressive. Aggressive movement is anything that you want to engage with further. So anything that you lean in towards. You step towards, you turn towards. This is happiness, curiosity, certain types of anger. Passive is something you don’t have strong feelings about. You stay more or less in the same spot. Regressive is anything you do not want to engage with. So revulsion, fear, again certain types of anger. That’s a movement away from. So a step back, a turn, a lean. So there’s a difference between the training phrase “What did you say?” “What did you say?” She leaned across the table. “What did you say?” She pushed back from the table. So this is a very simple piece of body language that we are used to doing, to reading all by ourselves, normally. The other piece of body language, and again, it works just the same way on stage as it does on paper, is open or closed silhouette. So arms crossed is, again, something you don’t want to engage with. Cold, even though we’re talking about a temperature, you don’t want to engage with that. It’s still a closed body movement. Fear. Often these will be closed. Open body language, arms out, again things you want to engage with. So. “Hello.” She spread her arms. “Hello.” She crossed her arms. Those are things that your readers will know how to interpret. So that’s one thing is the kind of body language that you use. The other piece of that is your point of view character’s interpretation of these things. Their own emotional response to it will cue your readers. Okay. That was me with my compressed thing.
[Brandon] I’m going to stop us…
[Howard] [garbled] a very brief aside because I’m drawing the pictures all the time. I regularly will cut from inset panel, inset panel, where we’re just seeing faces, to a panel where I have moved the position of the characters without showing them walk around, because drawing people walking is really hard. Their position and the open or closed posture, often it will just be silhouettes. I am signaling their emotional state with that tool.
[Tananarive] One quick warning. I would say to writers, don’t overuse those gestures, especially from the point of view character. It’s great if your point of view character is noticing gestures, but we don’t… We’re not often aware of the gestures we’re making. So the ear tugging and nose scratching and all those sorts of things sometimes serve as a substitute for their internal emotional process that would be better served by just saying what they’re feeling, or their stomach is cramping.
[Mary] I’m in complete agreement with you. The metric that I use is that I’m looking for body language that removes ambiguity or that emphasizes something. But if I don’t need to emphasize or remove ambiguity, I try to leave it out, otherwise it goes into what we call in puppetry head bobbing.
[Brandon] I’ve seen a lot in new students in my class, that a lot of students will want to modify every sentence of dialogue with a motion. It’s made me really aware of how much I do this as well, saying, “You know, I think I do this too much.” The more my career has progressed, the more I’ve pulled back on some of these things.
[Mary] I’m very much the same way. As I say, we call it head bobbing in puppetry, where if the puppet moves its head with every single syllable, it drives us crazy. Oddly, Brandon, the example that I frequently use with my students when I’m talking about movement that has become meaningless is “Nynaeve tugged her braid.”
[Brandon] Right. Yeah. Too much done and it becomes… Yeah, it’s really interesting. But we have to move on…
[Brandon] We have to do book of the week because we have Tananarive. You’re going to tell us about Ghost Summer.
[Tananarive] I have my first short story collection out. It just had a second printing. Ghost Summer.
[Tananarive] It was tough to sell, so I’m happy about how well it’s done. It’s basically stories, some of them 15 years old. Horror, primarily, but some science fiction thrown in there. Post-apocalyptic. I’m very excited about it. We have some TV news about it, but I guess I can’t share it yet.
[Tananarive] But I’ll tease you with it.
[Brandon] They can find that in good bookstores everywhere, I…
[Tananarive] Hopefully, yes. Or order it from your favorite independent bookseller.
[Brandon] Excellent. Well, let’s move on to… Two people asked a very interesting question. Kind of related to something we talked about last week, which is, “When do you not show character growth? Is it sometimes good to have it not exist? Is there a reason not to add drama?” Cory asks that.
[Tananarive] In a story where there are profound external events, a character’s lack of change can become very significant in and of itself. Almost, to the point… Especially in short fiction, I think it’s a little easier to get away with that. Where it just shows how far gone the character is, how numb the character is, that a character isn’t growing, even though they should be by all obvious indications.
[Dan] I think another opportunity is to show contrast. If you got two characters. The example that lept to mind is the movie Rainman, which is about two brothers. One who kind of can’t change, and the other one who is forced to adapt around him. That contrast between the two is actually really touching.
[Brandon] I would say that… I wrote a book… My first published book, Elantris, one of my goals going into it was to write a character who didn’t have a deep dark tragic past. Which I really love to do, if you’ve read my other books. Lots of deep dark tragic pasts. I’m like, I just want a person that is more… All that’s happened to him is external. It is a good person put under a ton of pressure and they weather it. It was a really fun story to write. That character didn’t really change. That character was the source of change to other people. It was really appropriate for the story, because of the terrible position they were put in. So, I’d say that you can write stories like this that have a lot of drama around them with that main character. It doesn’t have to be like a superhero, necessarily.
[Howard] I would categorize this as negative space. It’s a place where you haven’t put a bunch of drama, so that the things that are around it are more accentuated.
[Howard] There are other things you want to say.
[Brandon] Almost never changes. And he is wonderful as he is.
[Brandon] Steven asks, “When writing a character that undergoes a great change that makes him or her radically different, how do you keep it realistic?” This is very similar to another question, which asks, “A lot of people in real life go the other direction, they make changes all the time. Like they… We will make choices that are… Seem very different from our schema.” So how do you write these realistic transformations or characters realistically acting not according to who they are supposed to be?
[Mary] I think it’s the difference between who a character is perceived to be and who they are internally. One of the places that a lot of I think character conflict comes from is when a character’s self-identity does not match the assigned identity that people give to them. That’s one of the things that makes it feel like someone is making a 180° turn. They’re probably not. It’s just that their internal consistency is not matching what you think they’re going to do.
[Howard] It’s funny that Brandon brought up Schlock, because as of this recording, he’s undergoing a bit of an identity crisis and there have been moments in which he’s offered a fancy weapon and the food he loves, come help us kill things, and he says, “I just don’t think I can.” The reason he says that is because he’s had moments in which he’s thought about the actual cost to other people of his actions, and I needed to demonstrate to the readers that when you have that experience, it puts a blockade in front of you and acting, that has a cost. There was no character who could better sell that than Schlock, who we just expect to grab his guns and go start shooting. Which is not, in this story, what he leads with.
[Dan] Going the other direction, one of the… The kinds of scenes that I love to write almost more than anything else is a moral compromise. Where a character basically talks him or herself through a situation and then does the wrong thing because they’ve convinced themselves that it’s the only way to go. What that really comes down to is a conflict between who a character really is and who a character thinks that they are. They are forced… Really hang a lantern on it, they’re forced to finally justify which side of that line they’re on.
[Tananarive] I love that. To piggyback on that, in writing horror, a lot of what I write is about characters who don’t realize that they’re up to the challenge. First of all, they didn’t even know there were demons, but secondly, who thought you would be able to vanquish one? It’s trying… I’m trying to guide myself, because we all have that heroism within us. Lord forbid, if something were to happen on this ship, we would discover heroism in ourselves. We would save people. We would help people. Well, yeah, as long as you stay close. I mean, most of us would.
[Tananarive] I see a few of you who would jump ahead of people in the lifeboats.
[Howard] Oh, burn.
[Tananarive] Just kidding. Just kidding.
[Tananarive] But it’s that moment when we realize who we really are and what honestly we are all capable of, because we all do face those moments where we are forced to be heroes and heroines.
[Brandon] I think we’re going to call it there. I really want to thank Tananarive for coming on with us.
[Tananarive] Oh, thank you.
[Brandon] And I want to thank our audience.
[Brandon] Howard has some homework for you.
[Howard] I do. The name for this is if I only had a brain. We’re going to be starting issue with our next month of elemental genre. We’re talking about the issue elemental genre. What I want you to avoid is the strawman. Take the issue that you are planning on writing about or take an issue about which you are passionate. Identify both sides. Identify which side you are on. Then take the other side and write it convincingly. Put a brain in the strawman. In fact, go ahead and put meat and bone and all of the other body bits on the strawman and turn this into a person, because actual people hold the position that you abhor or disagree with, and they are actual people. Once you can do that, once you can write both sides convincingly, we will believe your book.
[Brandon] Excellent. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.