Sunday, August 10, 2014

Right Turn, Clyde - What Happens When Your Character's Character Changes? #amwriting

My husband and I are rabid devotees of the British radio drama The Archers. It's been on the air for over 60 years, but I didn't luck into listening to it until I moved to London in 2001. Every day at 1:00 p.m. (prior day's episode) or 7:00 p.m. (new episode) we'd tune into the Beeb and wait with baited breath for the top of the hour news to finish.

We thought we'd have to give up The Archers when we moved to East Texas in 2007, but we eek out enough internet speed in our slice of Redneck Paradise to stream the 13-minute episodes. Thank goodness. We've done without McVitie's Digestives and Galaxy chocolate since the move, but I'm not sure how we'd cope without The Archers.

The BBC describes The Archers as "Essential drama from the heart of the country." Bah. It's the story of a bunch of people - many of them involved in agriculture - who live in an imaginary place called Ambridge in an imaginary county called Borchester in rural England.

More specifically, it's a delicious mix of gossip and righteousness about how their lives will be tangled up by new roads that could split a family farm, the birth of a child with Down Syndrome, personnel changes at the local pub (The Bull), an outbreak of tuberculosis among the dairy herd, e-coli in the organic ice cream factory, a gay relationship, the loss of organic status on the pig farm, or the breakup of a marriage.

The people who write The Archers' episodes are usually excellent at their jobs, but let's face it: over the course of 17,000+ episodes, the plot lines need a little jiggling now and again. Lately, the writers have taken an annoying approach to liven things up: changing a character's personality, or their character, right out of the blue. It's totally disconcerting.

Some examples:

Tony Archer, an amiable fellow for as long as I've known him, has suddenly developed a case of the whinging nasties and is on the outs with his mom, Peggy, because he thinks she doesn't believe he's capable of running a successful farm.

Tony's son Tom (he of the Tom Archer's Organic Sausage empire) leaves the lovely Kirsty at the alter, abandons his pigs in their fields, and makes off for Canada. Only a couple of months ago his grandmother named him as primary beneficiary in her will, and he was focused on his future with Kirsty, building a house, and expanding his sausage and ready-meal business.

Steadfast Roy Tucker cheats on his sweet wife, Hayley, with his posh boss Elizabeth Pargetter who is still mourning the untimely death of her husband Nigel four years ago (I'm still irked over that) and has shown no interest in a relationship, sexual or otherwise, since.

Granted, these character changes can send the story off in new directions, but the ham-handed way they're delivered makes you wonder if the writers have had a hay bale dropped on their heads.

Perhaps the most annoying aspect of these changes is that once the drama is over, the writers often drop the characters back into their normal lives with nary a ripple of the change remaining. Take the 2011 discovery by Tony and Pat Archer that after their eldest son's death, his girlfriend gave birth to a son. She so despised Tony and Pat that she didn't tell them. Once they learned about him, Pat obsessed for weeks about meeting her grandson but once she did - poof - that storyline disappeared into the ether. We're left wondering why they wasted so much airtime on Pat's anguish if the kid can so easily vanish from the story.

At times it's enough to make me stop listening, but after 13 years of knowing these (admittedly imaginary) people, I'm committed.

Lessons for the author? First, if there's a change coming in a character's personality, give the reader hints that something's going on. In fairness, the writers tried to do this with Tom Archer's hard-hearted dumping of Kirsty by making Tom moody and forgetful before the wedding. We knew something was going on, but thought it had to do with his old flame, Brenda Tucker. Were there signs that the weight of the pig farm was too much for Tom? That his assumption of the 'heir' role rather than the 'spare' role after his brother's death years ago was haunting him? If so, they were so subtle as to not exist.

Second, once a character's character changes, make sure the impact continues to flow through the story so readers believe the change was essential, rather than a cheap way to hold their attention. The writers are trying to do this with the Roy Tucker / Elizabeth Pargetter affair, but Roy's behaving so badly after Elizabeth told him their one night stand was only a one night stand, that we wonder if Roy was ever the steadfast guy we thought he was.

And third, over the course of the story help the reader understand why a character's character changes. There has to be a reason Tony Archer's in such a tizzy and battling with his mother all the time. Doesn't there? do you feel when a character's personality makes an unexpected turn? Does it throw you out of the story?

photo credit: fidothe via photopin cc