At the end of last month I took a look at what I’ve been doing in 2017. This week I’ve been looking further back and reading some of what I was writing since the start of this decade. And I’ve come to realise just how far I have come in that time as a writer. I’ve gone from writing sporadically or when I am inspired to writing every day. I’ve gone from tenative to confident. I think my approach has become more mature and nuanced in that time too.
But there’s a lot that has stayed the same too. There are certain themes and tropes that I have returned to time and time again during the last eight years. I am a total sucker for a redemption arc. I’ve done them repeatedly in several different ways, both in fanfiction and original fiction, across half a dozen settings. Even my latest story has an element of it.
Though it’s a theme I’ve used repeatedly, I think the strongest use I’ve put it to is when I’ve turned it on its head somewhat. I said in my New Year’s Eve post that I wanted to return to the Horrible Monster project (though it really needs a better name than that). In that story, early versions had it as a straight redemption arc for the second main character: a criminal who ultimately helps the protagonist uncover corruption and becomes a hero. But I was never happy with that. It fell flat. It was too easy. It meant that my protagonist didn’t really develop much. She occupied a saviour role, in which her actions enabled the secondary main character’s redeption arc, of which she was the primary judge. And that was boring.
When I finally managed to write a full draft, the saviour element was gone and the protagonist’s arc was much darker. Her motivations were more selfish, her actions to help the secondary character driven by goals other than to benefit him. The arcs for these two characters became mirrors of one another. They were not lifting one another up, but holding each other back from the extremes of what they might have achieved alone or with other allies. There remained something of the redemption arc, but there was also an inverted version, a character development that went in a very different direction. And it made the whole story so much stronger and more compelling.
In a lot of what I have been reading of my old stories, I noticed the tendency to succumb early to the idea of a happy ending, even if there was a lot of plot to go. My favourite characters would join forces, reach a truce, and work together towards a common goal – even if those goals had changed radically for some characters to enable this teamwork. I was too eager to see concord, but it cost the stories I was writing because there is a lot of power in conflict to drive a story forward, to explore themes, and to develop characters, that everyone getting along cannot achieve so easily or at least so interestingly.
I often think about my favourite character arc in fiction: that of Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender, which I explored four years ago on this blog. What makes Zuko’s arc so powerful is that we, the audience, root for him, and specifically root for him to see that Aang is right and his father is wrong – but when he first is presented with a real choice to side with Aang, he doesn’t. And that’s not because he’s evil, because he isn’t. It’s because Zuko has spent so long working towards a powerful personal goal that he is incapable of making the selfless choice. All Zuko has ever wanted is his father to be proud of him. For three years he has lived in exile trying to redeem himself in his father’s eyes, and no amount of lessons from Uncle Iroh or understanding the impact that the Fire Nation’s attacks have had on the people of the Earth Kingdom or kindness from Katara can override that for Zuko.
It is not until he sees the consequences of his choice, and experiences the reward of it, that he can understand the context both of his original exile and of what Aang is trying to achieve. It’s only when he gets what he wanted that he begins to understand whose approval is really worth getting. If Zuko had sided with Aang in Ba Sing Se like so many of us desperately wanted, he couldn’t have completed his redemption arc fully, because he couldn’t have seen the harsh reality of what his desires really meant, and contrasted that reality with the way he had imagined it. He couldn’t have come to realise that his own opinion of himself is much more valuable than his father’s opinion.
A lot of what I wrote when I was much younger took the Ba Sing Se choice and closed the redemption arc too soon. I was focussed too much on the destination and not enough on the steps that needed to be taken to reach it. The endings fell flat. They hadn’t been worked for. The characters hadn’t been developed, I’d written wrongs into them and nearly instantly forgiven them, and then I’d written circumstances to help my other characters forgive them too.
Thankfully, I have got a lot better at this. My more recent stories, Horrible Monster in particular, have been more powerful because I have resisted the urge to indulge in the destination without making the journey.
The other pitfall I wandered into in a lot of my earlier stories, especially those that I abandoned quickly, was to make the redemption arc the centre of the conflict. It is an interesting arc that I am very much drawn to, and it is all too easy to fall into the trap of making it the only arc I spend much time on. The stories I like the best now, months or years later, are those in which there are other themes involved too: grief, identity, coping with illness, friendship, community and so on. Those stories had different types of conflicts, nuanced relationships, changing contexts, and better opportunities for those redemption arcs that I am so fond of to go somewhere different and interesting.
A little self-reflection and analysis is a very good thing, and after spending some time looking back at my old stories I feel I’m a lot better equipped to move forward writing stories which have something interesting to say, featuring characters who are more human and more entertaining.