Sunday, March 26, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Audiences Demand Skeptical Heroes

You’ve created a fantastical plot. You just made it up, and your audience knows you just made it up, and now you’ve got to convince them that it’s true. Your audience is skeptical of your story, so they want at least one of your heroes or major supporting characters to feel the same.

Whatever fantastical element your story has, whether it’s an actual sci-fi or fantasy element, or just a conspiracy of some sort (which almost every story has, in some form), at least one of your heroes should roll his or her eyes at first, because that’s what your reader will be doing. As your hero is gradually convinced that the problem is real, your audience will be as well.

One of the most alienating things is when everybody gets on board with the plot too quickly, before the audience is ready. When you have a lone hero, that hero must be skeptical. When the hero has a close companion, the hero can be credulous while the companion is the doubter.

I’ve said before that one great way to make a plot is to ask “What if it’s all true?” You can bring your audience along in any direction, even giving them a plot that they would normally find offensive or outrageous, as long as at least one of the heroes starts off saying the same thing the audience says, “It can’t be true!”

One of the reason later season “X-Files” didn’t work is that it didn’t make any sense that Scully would be a skeptic anymore. She had been our way into the story, but now the whole story had gone around the bend, and the audience tended to just roll our eyes.


James Kennedy said...

Great point. And it can be a sympathetic or unsympathetic character.

In STAR WARS, it's the charismatic Han Solo who doesn't believe in the Force, and we like him (but don't necessarily trust him).

But in HARRY POTTER, it's the absurd and awful Dursleys. The Dursleys have been set up to be so dreadful, that the audience would never want to share an opinion or have anything in common with them. So when they talk about how they don't believe in, and don't like, magic, we are inclined to be pro-magic because we don't want to be like the Dursleys.

Other examples?

Nick said...

Big Fish is a good example of the sceptical lone hero, as our desire for Edward Bloom's son to be right about the hokiness of his father's tall tales waxes and wanes with our sympathy for each character.

Anonymous said...

@ James Kennedy:
The Dursleys do believe in magic. They want others (including HP) to believe it doesn’t exist and that they don’t believe in it. Harry Potter is sceptical at first iirc, even though he has seen it happen.

Anonymous said...

Another important thing is, imao, that it’s not portrayed as ‘all sceptics are morons/blind/whatever’, but as ‘most people haven’t witnessed such things’. It helps if esoterics are mostly wrong also (eg if breaking a mirror actually brings bad luck, walking under a ladder or seeing a black cat doesn’t; if cliché aliens exist, reincarnation/afterlife and bad luck don’t). Of course, mention this at most once, else the esoterics will be insulted.

MCP said...

I totally agree about the X Files. The first episode I ever saw involved a Loch Ness monster type of thing, that ended up being an alligator. But then at the end they had a shot that indicated maybe the prehistoric monster might exist. And I loved it.

To the best of my knowledge that was the only time Scully was ever right about it NOT being a monster/alien/weird thing. I think the show would have been much stronger if 20% of the time or so she was correct.

Brian McLachlan said...

I find that skeptic characters are usually quite unlikeable. They are the ones who stop me from enjoying the story, by reminding me I'm suspending disbelief. It usually take me out of the story. This is probably because I enjoy mythic stories, over mundane ones, so I know that for some audience members, there is a harder time buying in. Like how they can't commit to the archetypes of Lord of the Rings, but they can do it for pro wrestling.

James' example of Han Solo is great, because he doesn't really stop the adventure from continuing, or whine too much about magic. It's more like a shrug. In Star Wars, even the skeptic is willing to go along with the story because it suits his needs.

It's fitting that the character in a horror movie who says "There's no such things as monsters" is usually only seconds away from dying via said monster, and reminding us to re-engage our suspension.

Anonymous said...

@ Brian:
I’ve yet to see a character whine on and on about how nothing that happens right before them is real. This advice is more about how you can’t have something happen that people wouldn’t believe and then have everyone accept it without evidence.
Obviously in LOTR you can have hordes of genuinely mindless slavs (sorry, orcs) and courageous, noble arians (sorry, elves). People believe in that iRL, so they won’t have a difficult time believing it in Story where there actually is (supposed to be) evidence.

Brian McLachlan said...

I often notice a character who says something like "Now hold on, you're telling me those things we saw out here were vampires?" just after they have been exposed to them. Then we get the brainy character give some exposition, and the first character says "In plain English, doc". Those scenes always rub me the wrong way. It's like the writer is trying to justify the story to me when I'm already invested in it, talking down to me the whole time.

I also think I didn't like the X-Files, partially because of the skeptic character. I preferred a story like Buffy that said "there are weird things, and anyone after the first episode who doesn't believe that, doesn't get screen time. Let's dive into a fun/mythic story". Notice how Doctor Who tends to hand wave the "yeah, yeah, it's bigger on the inside" reveal to get back to the monster of the week. In my opinion, the skeptic character can be a liability in stories that want to full on engage with supernatural/superheroic/sci-fi/horrific/fantastic elements. They work if you want to ground them strongly in reality with some mysterious elements. But different viewers will have different preferences, and I just want to weigh in on the side of being skeptical of skeptics. :P