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FFC #67 - Poldark

Posted February 15th, 2021 at 02:12 PM by The Grim Reaper's Friend
TGRF's Fan Fiction Chronicles - Entry #67

When I posted my most recent fan fiction, Valkyrie, I said there was a lot of stuff which had happened with my writing which I was eager to share. Now, I know most of it probably isn't that interesting, and honestly a lot of it is just untested theories. But there is one bit I've come to realize recently, which I intend to experiment with in whatever I write next, and which I hope will help my writing a lot. I'd like to share it.

It concerns the TV show Poldark. Now if you haven't seen the show, I won't spoil anything. But I will say that you need to see it. It is just an awesome show. Free on Amazon Prime.

Poldark is one of those British drama shows, in the same vein as Pride & Prejudice (albeit with substantially more action, and vastly more relatable plots). Every part of it is written well, and the plots are amazing. But it shines in two areas above all else: viewer investment, and character development.

It's the latter I want to talk about, because I've come to see just how the show handles character development, and it's genius.

I want to compare some of my own writing. Here's the opening paragraphs from Utgar:
The wind roared above, howling and hissing. Below it, in a pit of darkness, separated from the raging wind only by a few feet of rock, Utgar sat, holding his daughter close, surrounded by at least two hundred other kyrie. They knew they were safe in the pit, crowded as it was, but hearing the storm so close above them was enough to inspire fear, even though it was a common enough occurrence.

“Tell me about the sky again,” Runa whispered to her father, looking up at him as he held her. “From the old stories.”

Utgar looked down. Runa’s eyes were wide, the pupils dilated in the eternal night of the pit. But there was a hint of fear in them as well. Utgar had raised Runa practically since she was born, twelve years ago, and he could tell.
And we're off. The story has barely begun and I'm scrambling to introduce things at breakneck speed. In the first chapter alone, I've got to hook the reader's interest, supply sympathy for the main character, introduce the setting sufficiently so that the reader doesn't feel lost, and get as much character development in as I can before the plot kicks off (somewhere in chapter two). These are all things I DO need to do. My mistake is in trying to do them all at once.

Compare that to Poldark. Again, no spoilers. Poldark is a multi-layered character. If the writers tried to show us even half of what makes him up in the first episode, you'd have something like the above: something which is rushed or forced.

But they don't do that. They take their time. They pick one part of Poldark's character (certainly not the most important or influential part, either), and open with a scene designed specifically to show it in a light which gains sympathy for him. Then they stop trying to show his character entirely. Indeed, I think we only really have an idea of who Poldark is by the end of the season, and even after, new parts keep showing themselves.

How do they do that? The answer is with character interactions.

Now, I haven't read the Poldark books, by Winston Graham. So I don't know how different they are from the TV show. But just looking at the show, it seems to me that the characters are broken down like this:

You start with the main character. The main character has several traits making him up. Some of these conflict ('inner conflict' - a device used to make characters more memorable and less easy to dissect or anticipate), some build on each other, and some stand alone. But there are a lot of them. Pick one trait which can be easily shown in an action-oriented opener and will garner sympathy for the protagonist.

Then, for each aspect of the main character, create a side character. Each side character should be designed so that if the main character is in the same room as them and interacting with them, the targeted character trait will be dead obvious.

For example, Poldark holds to one very specific ideal. How is this ideal, and his dedication to it, shown? Through the main antagonist, who is similar to Poldark in many ways, but holds to the exact opposite ideal. When presented with the same situation, these two characters react in completely different ways. When they interact, sparks almost always fly. With every interaction, another piece of Poldark's character is slowly revealed. This happens almost every time he interacts with any character.

Certain characters can be combined, so that they can fill different roles. Other cannot, and exist solely to show one aspect of Poldark's character.

For these side characters, some of whom may have their own PoV later on, you need more traits. And then you need more characters for the side characters to interact with, so that their traits can be shown. However, these side characters can be a lot simpler than the main character, with a lot fewer traits. You can also use existing side characters instead of creating more, to keep down on cast.

The process repeats until you reach the background characters, who have one single trait, aren't seen very much, and are there to be interacted with, or reacted against. Not all of these characters will be named. They may only appear in a few scenes.

So why am I bringing this up? Because if you create your cast of characters this way, you can literally forget about showing your character to the reader, and focus solely on the plot. As long as your character runs into the rest of the cast at some point, aspects of his character will be shown automatically. And it will be done in a much more dynamic and natural way than if you had created scenes to specifically show elements of his character.

Up to now, that's how I've been handling character: I create scenes designed to show who they are and how they are changing. These scenes almost always seem out of place at best, forced at worst.

Now that I have a new way of handling characters, I'm excited to try it out. I also want to see how it works with character arcs, because when a character changes, you've got to show how traits are changing, leaving, or being added.

I intend to use this method in my next story, which indicates I'll be working with a fairly large cast, and lots of inter-character dynamics - something I've been trying to achieve for a while now.

But until then, keep reading. And writing. And critiquing.

Posted in FFC
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TheAverageFan's Avatar
This type of character showing always makes me think of Sherlock Holmes and the narrative decision to have Watson be the POV character. Not being inside Sherlock's head is very integral to those stories I think—you have to see his character as opposed to being told about it via narration or inner thoughts etc.

Posted February 15th, 2021 at 03:02 PM by TheAverageFan TheAverageFan is offline
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