Creative Cowardice: The Scourge of Good Stories

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If there’s one thing that annoys me more than anything else in terms of fiction, it’s when an otherwise good story is ruined by the creator’s cowardice. It drags down a story that has kept my attention, one that had me hungry for more content, and sometimes? It makes me disregard other material that the creator already has out there. What’s worse? It seems to get more prevalent with each passing year.

Today, I’m going to step up onto a soapbox and explain to you why you need to stick out your jaw, and own your work.

It comes in many forms, and it has many causes, but the kind of cowardice that keeps me awake at night seems to present itself in movies more often than not.

There’s a culture in Hollywood, one that is driven by profit. That’s okay. You should make money for your work! So should other people. If nobody got paid, then there wouldn’t be much content coming out. That’s just… that’s just true.

An unfortunate side effect of this motivation is the dilution of stories that could have been great, but missed the mark because of fear– fear of the lack of acceptance by the audience.

What do I mean by this? Often, it’s the insistence on having stories end on a happy note, or at least a really hopeful one, when there is absolutely no reason for there to be any hope. 

Let’s take “I Am Legend” as an example. This movie had me, man. I saw it in the theaters, and I was riveted. The plague, the vampires, the obvious decline in the protagonist’s sanity from years of isolation. Even his persistent routine and the rather cringe-inducing way he spoke to mannequins worked. He’s working desperately to find a cure for this plague, and every attempt fails. Two humans find him, and they mention some kind of holdout zone for the uninfected. As his stronghold is attacked by the vampires, and they start breaking in, his final trial to create a cure succeeds! He hands the synthesized cure to the humans, and tells them to hide in a bolt-hole, just as the vampires make their way down to him. Our protagonist, steel-jawed and defiant, looks at the surprisingly intelligent vampire leader, and pulls the pin on a grenade, which explodes.

Had the movie ended right there, it would have been perfect. The audience would have been left wondering about the fate of the other two humans, and, by extension, humanity as a species. The protagonist’s sacrifice would have been rendered more poignant, because it would have been based on something that was uncertain. Even the supposed safe zone would have been questionable, as it had never been shown or heard of previous to those two characters’ introduction!

Instead, we’re treated two a three minute montage of a car driving into the safe zone, with a voiceover from one of the two humans who escaped, reflecting on the importance of the main character’s contribution and sacrifice. It shows the two of them entering the gated community, seeing that there are other humans after all!

Basically, everything is going to be okay.

It made me hate the movie. I had such a bad taste in my mouth afterward that I refused to watch it again. Because you could just tell that it was a cop out. Rather than leave the audience with questions, they decided to answer way too much. They were so obviously afraid that moviegoers wouldn’t react well to something that ended so abruptly, or on such a (possibly) depressing note that it prevented them from providing something that was actually satisfying. It diminished the character’s entire arc to have it summed up in the final thirty seconds, and reduced the meat of the film to basically just “a bad time between two good times.”

Yeah. It made me angry. Probably more angry than it should have. But this kind of thing gets under my skin in a way that few others can. I wanted to take the people responsible for that ending, and make them watch the film without it, and then have them explain to me why they did it. I knew the answer they would give:

Because they didn’t want to leave audiences upset.

Look, there’s a lot to be said for writing for an audience. You need to make a product that will fit the consumer, and that should be in the back of your head when you’re making something. But you know what?

You get to decide who your audience is. I can’t figure out who would be happier with the ending of “I Am Legend.” I don’t know who they think that would please more than just stopping the movie a couple of minutes earlier. The only conclusion I can draw is that they were trying to appease movie executives who were concerned about families. The thing is that this was not a family movie. Let “Marley and Me” or something in that vein have that audience. You don’t need to cater to everyone.

In fact, when you are so afraid that you won’t please someone, and change your product to do so, you usually wind up pleasing nobody.

You can’t be afraid that people won’t like what you produce. In terms of writing fiction, you need to do your best to overcome that fear of not being accepted by one group or another. Your focus needs to be on making the best story you can.

For example, you can’t be afraid to kill off a character if it serves the story better. It can be risky if that character happens to be a fan favorite. An extreme example is “A Song of Ice and Fire”– that’s “Game of Thrones” to those who refuse to pick up a book. George R.R. Martin has demonstrated time and time again that nobody is safe. He kills off a main character at the end of the first book– the guy who, in the hands of a less confident writer, would have been the series main protagonist. Then, he kills off the guy who you thought would take over as lead protagonist. Then he kills off another character that you loved because he was so friggin’ awesome. And he continues, with example after example. Seriously, the guy has a bigger body count than typhoid.

The end result is a much better product. Every scene is packed with tension, because you’re keenly aware that any of these characters can die at any moment. When one of their fates is left in doubt, you’re on edge. Really, the series would just be a bland pseudo-fantasy story if he wasn’t so willing to commit fictional murder, and it would be far less interesting as a result.

For a TV show, take “The Walking Dead.” The cast expands and contracts many times over each season, with new characters to love being mercilessly slaughtered in front of your eyes. It causes fan revolts from time to time, but that’s because each death does its job. They aren’t killed for no reason at all; they’re killed because the creators want you to feel something. Sometimes, it’s vindication that Karma will eventually find those who try to avoid its deadly grasp. Sometimes, it’s deep sorrow over the loss of someone you adored and with whom you identified. Others, it just pisses you off because it seemed so senseless! But they all serve a purpose, and their intended message is made clear with each one. If the show’s writers and producers didn’t have the stones to write out characters, it wouldn’t have nearly the same impact that it does.

For an opposite example, take “True Blood.” There are characters that lasted way too long on that show.

Am I talking about Tara?

I’m talking about Tara.

She was horribly uninteresting, and didn’t seem to serve any narrative purpose except to be Sookie’s only normal friend. Except she wasn’t a particularly good friend, and spent most of her time whining. I don’t know anyone who thought she added anything to the story. Pretty much everyone I spoke to wondered why she was still alive. The reason, it seems to me, was fear.

The writers appeared to be afraid of having wasted too much time on Tara’s characterization and her story arc that they refused to kill her off. Rather than blow all of that effort and put Tara out of her misery, they decided to double down, and spend more time on her. Fans still didn’t like Tara. So then they added more backstory– which, by the way, had no relevance to the plot– in an effort to make her character more interesting. When that didn’t work, they made her a vampire-hating bisexual! Surely fans would love her now!

Nope. Still obnoxious.

Then they did what everyone wanted: they killed her! And it was wonderful. Tara was gone! Now the show could move past her! But…

Nope. They brought her back as a vampire. Clearly, the writers though that this was the silver bullet they were looking for. Tara hated vampires with a passion, as was established a few episodes ago, and now she was one! How deliciously fascinating!

Wrong. The only thing about that change that was interesting was Pam’s relationship with her, and that was only because Pam was a good character. Tara was still a whiny little pissant who took up way too much time from characters people actually liked.

As a final joke, they killed her off for real in the last season. I couldn’t have been more pleased– until, of course, other characters began being visited by her spirit.

Yes. They figured out how to kill Tara twice without removing her toxic presence from what was an otherwise good show.

The fact is that you can’t be afraid to move on from work you’ve done in the past. I get that the writers had put a lot of effort into Tara at first, but when the feedback brought to them consisted of what had to be almost entirely negative opinions, they really should have just offed her.

Now, earlier in this section, I told you that you can’t be afraid that your work won’t be accepted, but I also just said that when the audience didn’t accept something, it’s good to change! How do I reconcile those two points when they seem to contradict?

By telling you this: it is about serving the story. Your job as a writer is to tell the best story you possibly can. And when you’re telling an ongoing story, feedback is important. If you write one book, and one character isn’t well-received, that’s okay! But if you’re writing a book series, and a recurring character is despised, you can’t be afraid to kill them just because you’ve spent so much time on them. In fact, you can make their death an important plot point, or give them a particularly awesome death, maybe resulting in a moment of redemption! You can turn a fan negative into a story positive by removing the element people dislike in a way that serves the story well.

Don’t let past work restrict future effort. You can’t let it get in the way of creation. The point here is that you can’t be afraid to let go of things that just don’t work. You need to look at your stories as objectively as you can, and be ruthless.

Let me wrap up with a list of things you can’t let yourself fear.

1. Don’t fear your own ideas. Maybe your story has vampires that are overweight and watch cartoons all day. Maybe that’s really friggin’ interesting in context. Don’t be afraid that it won’t be accepted because they don’t fit the common vampire archetypes. Different can be really cool, as long as it’s done well.

2. Don’t be afraid to kill characters or abandon plotlines. If something in your ongoing story doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. If you can’t come up with a way to actually make it fit– a way that is natural and not a shoehorned fix to a problem– just let it go. Move on, and introduce new ideas.

3. Don’t be afraid to leave your audience with an ending that isn’t happy. Seriously, this is pandemic, and it needs to stop. Not everything can or should end with everyone holding hands and singing a song. Life doesn’t work that way, and neither should your story.

Creative cowardice is a blight on good fiction. Don’t let yourself be crippled by it.

 

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