Writing Smell: Character Overdrive

Character OverdriveAfter watching the first two episodes of Star Trek Discovery, I realized a I was missing a smell of bad writing: the Character Overdrive. Let’s have a look.

What is it?

I reviewed a story for a writing group once, that featured a main character traveling through a desert. He encountered a group of wagons drawn into a defensive circles, defending against a group of raiders. What follows is a drawn-out scene describing how an unnamed man and wife battle desperately against raiders, and how the wife dies in the arms of her husband. He then screams his agony at the heavens.

The entire scene made me yawn. It’s not that the idea was wrong, but the build-up was. A man losing his wife (or vice versa, or a husband losing his husband, or a wife losing her wife) is an emotional thing, which I can truly relate to. However, when I know neither person, a drawn-out death scene is not going to thrill me. It’s a character arc in overdrive, throwing the reader headlong into the end of an arc without the context to empathize.

Character overdrive is closely related to melodrama, of course. In both cases, the emotion the writer tries to convey is not supported by the build-up. When I originally wrote the post on melodrama I didn’t really think there was a difference. I’ve come to believe there is. There are over-emotional reactions that are believable, but the context is missing (character overdrive) and emotional reactions that are just not believable (melodrama).

Some examples

I started this post with a reference to Star Trek Discovery. As viewers we hardly see any background on the protagonist of the show (Michael Burnham), but we do see her make a life-changing reckless decision. Basically, we’re seeing the pivotal point in a character arc, without the rest of the arc.

The movie Zoolander opens with his three closest friends being blown up in a gas-station accident. You hardly know the three, but the protagonist is destroyed by it. This comedy did it on purpose, of course, but it’s still a good example of what this is about.

How to fix it

Readers can only identify with emotions of a character if they know them and empathize with them. The stronger the emotion, the more build-up you need. Of course, the threshold at which it throws a reader out of the story is different for everybody, but it’s always there.

One solution is to improve the build-up. Make sure the readers empathize before throwing an emotion bomb at them. That way they’ll believe the emotion, at least. Even if they don’t agree with it, they can understand it.

Star Trek Discovery could have spent more time on Michael and her background, for example, but chose to spend screen time on space walks and Klingons, which is why it falls flat.

The other solution is to dial down the emotion. If you write the scene with the goal of triggering an emotional response, you’ll fail. If you write it only as an inciting event, or a backdrop to explain the world to the reader, then you can avoid this trap.

Zoolander did this quite well. The death scene of his friends is not meant to actually make us feel sad. It’s a way to make fun of the character Zoolander, and advance the story. It’s one of funnier scenes in the movie actually, even though it is also horrific.

In short: do proper build-up, and try to achieve the right thing.

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands