Recently I’ve been binging on a TV series called The 100. It has an interesting premise — humans made the Earth uninhabitable through use of nuclear weapons, but far enough in the future that there were a few hundred people living in orbit on various stations. Those humans banded together both metaphorically and mechanically to preserve the species. The plan was to live in space (in orbit) until 300 years had passed and the radiation levels had subsided to normal back on Earth. Then the human race would return to Earth and live happily ever after.
They discovered 97 years into the plan that the oxygen scrubbers on the cobbled together station – dubbed The Ark – could not last the full 300 years. In fact, they had about four months until critical failure. In one of their attempts to find an alternative to dying, they pulled 100 juvenile offenders from lock-up and put them on a dropship to Earth. That’s 100 less lungs to feed and an unwilling test group to determine just how fast the radiation would kill a human.
Sprinkle on a little TV magic and, inexplicably, the radiation is not a factor for our band of young ne’er-do-wells. The show is a little bit Lost, a little bit Lord of the Flies. Mostly I enjoy it, but I still find myself lecturing the TV every episode.
The characters waffle a little too much. Your bad guys turn good, the good guys go bad, and everyone is overly emotional. Even the barely human guy who’s almost in charge and keeps hiding behind the extremist laws to solve every problem finds moments to be self-sacrificing and irrationally caring. These are not evolutions that span seasons of episodes, the change can happen from one episode to the next — even from the beginning to the end of an episode. It’s like the writers roll dice for each character at the start of the script to decide who’s using their heart this episode, who’s using their head, and who is using their gun.
In many ways, this approach makes sense because the characters are dropped into an extreme survival situation and more than 50% of the screen time is dedicated to teenagers trying to rebel and be a society at the same time. What I disapprove of (what I yell at the TV for) is the use of cliched archetypes and plot devices.
Among the adults, you have a female doctor who is constantly bucking the system for the betterment of mankind. She’s charged with crime after crime and always manages to avoid real punishment. Then you have the elected leader who is only capable of making a decision if he gets to offer his own life in sacrifice (something his followers always talk him out of).
Down on Earth with the kids, you’ve got the doctor’s daughter being responsible and trying to run the show…until she starts to become corrupted by the idea that the means is not as crucial as the end result. Her counterpart is a guy who tried to kill someone just to be on the dropship going to Earth — in order to protect his little sister. He decides to put himself in charge using both force and political sliminess…until at some point he remembers he had a heart once and becomes everyone’s big brother. His sister is the cliche wild child who never thinks before she acts and is always in search of a guy to save her while letting her be repeatedly reckless.
I know the way I’m describing the show make it sound bad, but somehow the mercurial characters and situations are working together to entertain. And like Lost, there is so much the viewer still does not understand about this new Earth.
It gets me thinking though, both about my writing and the stories I’ve read in my lifetime. I think writers rely on cliched drama and character types in order to explain less. It’s a way to be brief in your storytelling. I don’t have to tell you too much about my character’s backstory if I pour them into this familiar mold instead of sculpting them free-hand. I’d love to condemn this mentality in creative people, but I also know that there is a large part of the population that doesn’t want to go deep and get to know a character inside out. They want to be entertained without much effort on their part. That’s why movies with weak plots and huge explosions are so popular – the moviegoer can sit back and let it all wash over them for two hours, then go home jazzed and unburdened by a moral or stirred up social conscience.
I can enjoy this myself at times – I love Pixar movies and colorful science fiction – but it’s not the kind of writing I aim to be known for. I want my characters to grow, but I also want them to be reactive based on their experiences instead of a proven formula. Somewhere there must be a happy medium that allows a writer to entertain and challenge the reader to invest a little more of their brainpower.
Do you have any pitfalls that you work to avoid in your writing? Are you a purist or have you found yourself entertained by the very things you seek to overcome? Do you have any stories that you wrote before your writing evolved that you would like to tear apart and rewrite employing more recent sensibilities or skills?
Just a few days left for both NaNoWriMo and our November writing contest. Arrival is due on Sunday before midnight. Tell us how you go there.