Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Two Cent Tuesday: After Happily Ever After

ANNOUNCEMENT:  All this month you can enter to win a free paperback of my superhero novel Girl Power from Goodreads.  It's valued at a whopping $5.99 (plus shipping)!  Two copies will be given away, probably to people who will give it one star without saying anything.  So if you read this blog please enter so I don't end up spending my hard-earned money to give books to ingrates.

This was an interesting blog post by author A Lee Martinez about why characters in fiction don't get to the "third act" or that period where they're relatively content and settled in their own skin.  The example he used was for Spider-Man where Act 1 is where he gets his superpowers and Act 2 is where he struggles to become comfortable with his role as a superhero and then the mythical Act 3 is where he would become comfortable with being a superhero and be able to settle down with Mary Jane.  In other words, why do we so rarely go beyond where the character rides off into the sunset or "They Lived Happily Ever After."

My response was basically the reason we don't do this when we write stories is that it serves no purpose.  If you write about a character who's happy and content it creates what I describe as "reverse catharsis."  In regular catharsis you feel better about your real life because a fictional character has it worse than you.  I may be fat, bald, and broke but at least I'm not being chased around by brain-eating zombies or nearly getting blown to atoms to stop a nuclear bomb or stomped by a 100-foot kaiju or whatever.  Reverse catharsis then is where the fictional character's life is so good it makes me feel like shit because I'm fat, bald, and broke.  You can read this book review from 2005 where I describe an example of this.

Added to that, when a character's life seems really good or really ordinary it's BORING.  Except in a few examples (like Ulysses) no one gives a shit about your character getting up, taking a shower, eating breakfast, getting coffee from Starbucks, fighting rush hour traffic, talking about last night's episode of Breaking Bad, managing his fantasy football team, so on and so forth.  That's shit we do in real life only because we have nothing better to do.  More to the point, I'm not paying $10 for a book to read about all the shit I experience everyday for free.  Because for the most part we want books for escaping reality, not describing it for us.

The other thing is the point of most fiction is to impart a life lesson of some sort.  A fairy tale like Cinderella is supposed to teach perseverance and being yourself or some shit like that.  We end it with "They Lived Happily Ever After" because no one gives a shit about what comes after that, when Cinderella gets knocked up by Prince Charming and packs on twenty pounds and worries she's unattractive and all that.  We learned our lesson and that's that.  Next story.  (Incidentally I wrote a flash fiction piece about a sleazy fairy tale divorce lawyer for the We Are Now anthology last year that covered a lot of that ground and basically says the one who lives Happily Ever After is the divorce lawyer.)

As I pointed out in my response, I pretty much stop all my series at a point where the main characters get to that point where they're relatively settled.  In my first series, the First Contact series, it ends in Book 3 with the two main characters hooking up and riding off into the sunset.  Meanwhile most of the secondary characters from the first book are dead.  (Seriously, there is a very high body count in that series.)  In the Children of Eternity series (starting with Forever Young) it ends in the fourth book with the main character married to her sweetheart and with a daughter while her best friend is also married and with a kid.  The Scarlet Knight series ends with Emma pretty settled with her long-time boyfriend and a couple of kids.  And the Chances Are series ends with Stacey married and seemingly ready to live Happily Ever After.


In all those cases, I probably could have come up with more.  I went over that about the Scarlet Knight and Chances Are series in this blog entry.  Any time I actually try to think of that I just go "Meh, why bother?"  I mean when things end pretty well, why go fuck it up?  This is why I never like sequels long after the fact like Godfather III or Indiana Jones IV or undoubtedly Star Wars VII.  You ended it in a good spot and we're all used to it ending there so what's the point of tacking on another entry except to make money?  I'm sure within 20 years we can add a Harry Potter sequel to that list.  Also probably Twilight, the Hunger Games, etc when their authors need money.  Stephen King already got into the act with a sequel to The Shining coming out.  Now maybe if my series sold millions of copies and were adapted into huge movies and stuff I'd get more motivated, but for right now, fuck it.  (The only example I can think of a sequel working long after the fact is Rocky Balboa and that's only because Rocky V was such a piece of shit.)

Another issue in Martinez's blog entry is why don't we have more married couples in fiction?  Or why is it when Peter and Mary Jane or Lois and Clark get married we have to reboot it back to Square One?  It seems like it's pretty much always that way.  I mean when the genie in I Dream of Jeanie married Master the show got canned soon after.  When Lois and Clark got married on that show in the 90s it was soon canned.  I'm sure there are other examples.  That Bones show will probably soon be added to the list.  Part of it is I suppose writers are lazy and don't know what to do with married characters since that doesn't fit the templates that we've been using forever now.

Maybe another part of it is we just don't want our characters to grow up.  Maybe we want them to be like Peter Pan or Charlie Brown and never age.  The Simpsons has stayed on the air 25 years by maintaining the status quo while The Flintstones got canned after it tried to grow up Pebbles and Bam-Bam.  Or like The Cosby Show or Full House where the original kids started to get older and less cute so they had to bring in new cute kids--and then limped on for a couple of years before being canned.  I'm not sure if it's a nostalgia thing or simply that when our characters age it reminds us that we too are getting old.

So I reckon until they get cancelled Peter and Mary Jane will never stay together long and neither will Lois and Clark or Superman and Wonder Woman or any other super couples.  When there's no more money to be made, then I suppose they'll get to ride off into the sunset, as I think recently happened on Futurama in its last episode.

But speaking of characters who grew (younger) and changed, tomorrow's Phony Photos focuses on the witches of the coven from the Scarlet Knight series!

7 comments:

  1. I concur, Happily Ever After is boring. When the kids grow up, and we need new cute kids, or the couple are happy and content it is stagnant.

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  2. You evidently stuck with the Rocky franchise long after I did. I think I stopped at Rocky II. I agree with you about all these long after-the-fast sequels, They just aren't very good.

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  3. I know Moonlighting was one of the most awesome shows ever until all that sexual angst finally got released. After that I'm not sure anyone ever watched it again.

    Anyhey, off to goodreads.

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  4. I think the HEA happens in romances all the time.

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  5. With an ongoing series, there is no way to do the 3rd act since the 3rd act is the resolution. You have to stay in the conflict of the 2nd act. However, that is not to say that characters in fiction don't get a 3rd act, just not characters in series fiction.

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  6. The Moonlighting romance effect also happened in Cheers. Oddly enough, Chuck was one of the few exceptions.

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  7. Every time a character in Lost actually came to a resolution, they died. But this sounds like a writing challenge. Of course, the thing about stories is that they're designed to climax with conflict resolution. When you have a story that continues, it's hard to say that continuing the conflict is not a good thing. Even a troubled marriage will look like it's got to end. Maybe that's why the Matrix sequels were so difficult for people to swallow, because everyone assumed that the story ended perfectly in the first one. Even by the end of the third entry, the story wasn't really over, but that's what people actually expect. If they're contradicted, they rebel, as you point out. The Killing fatally chose to end its first season without resolution. The Sopranos angered fans with the fade-to-black. Heck, even Lost fans were upset because they wanted answers to everything. Heroes ended its first season so perfectly that fans didn't see where it could go next, like the Matrix effect. Of course, you also have things like Nick and Nora from the Thin Man films, who were a happily married sleuthy couple. I'm kind of surprised that they haven't been brought back. Even as a TV series they'd be a refreshing change of pace, show everyone how it's done again.

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