Sunday, July 6, 2014

Set Apart

While crocheting with determination this weekend--see yesterday's blog--I had the television on in the background. Mostly, I watch PBS or Netflix when I turn on the TV. Yesterday I watched Fifth Element.

I've seen the movie many times. And each time, I've enjoyed so many different aspects of the story, characters, costumes. Anyway, I started thinking about what sets certain movies, books, songs, artworks, performances apart. Why do some touch us so deeply we want to experience them again and again?

Subject matter isn't the reason. Creativity isn't enough. Romance, pathos, hilarity, eroticism, none of those are enough to set a particular work on a pedestal. If they were, then every vampire story/movie would be the same. Every romance would tug at our hearts. All werewolves would be as satisfactory. There would be no difference between the aliens of Avatar and the aliens of Fifth Element.

So what is it?

Of course, the indefinable essence is different for each of us, but still there are specifics that cross the spectrum. The creator--writer, director, composer--must be involved with the characters. If the creator doesn't care about them, why should we? It is not enough to replicate a story. That's why so many sequels fail. Everyone jumps on the bandwagon, convinced if story A was a screaming success, well then, it follows that a hundred more just like it will also be successful. Unfortunately, they leave out the important part, the part about compelling characters. With very few exceptions, once the story is told, the audience is ready to move on.  

Die Hard was a classic tale of good vs. evil. We cheered for the protagonists. We booed the bad guys. Good triumphed in the end. Yay!!! But how many times--realistically--can one man face overwhelming danger and win? With each sequel, our interest was diluted.

Secondly, it is not enough to have novel idea. What sets E.T. apart from Cowboys and Aliens? They're both about aliens. But one endures and the other doesn't. The idea must grab us, enthrall us so we want to experience it over and over. Special effects don't trump original performances and characters. That's why remakes are often failures, especially with those who are familiar with the originals. It's why authors who leap on the bandwagon aren't usually as successful as the original author. It's true that any two authors given a specific set of characters would still produce different stories. But the idea is the same. Just as a rose is a rose is a rose, an alien/menage/werewolf/suspense is only unique once. The second time around, it's been done already.

So how do we set our work apart? Original ideas are good. Back in the beginning when I first started writing, I wrote a four book series called the Flowers of Camelot. They were set in Camelot--naturally--and featured some of the characters from King Arthur's court. And that's about all they had in common with the original legends. I didn't even attempt to stick to the story. I wrote my own. Think Mel Brooks' version of Frankenstein.

More importantly, we must care about the characters. Why is one TV series a smashing success and the next an abysmal failure? Because the audience loves/hates the characters in the first and are totally indifferent to the characters in the second. If the characters don't engage the audience or reader, the story just doesn't matter.

In my Mystic Valley series, the characters are what my readers write to me about. They express concern for them, hope that I'll write the story for one or the other of them, urging me to solve this one's problem or tell them what will happen to that one. The fact that the characters have blue skin and live in an exotic valley is secondary. What they're interested in are the character's lives. They want to know 'what will happen next'?

In the end, that is what sets one movie, one book, one story apart from the next. It's not whether or not they're vampires, aliens, SEALs, bounty hunters, or space pirates. It's whether or not we care about what happens to them. If we don't, then the story is a waste of film, pixels, bytes, or paper. 

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