Last month, I read Susan Cushman's blog on learning from the outtakes from the TV show The Good Wife - incidentally my husband's favorite, as well - and I thought of my own favorite TV show.
No, it isn't new. In fact, I'm probably giving away way too much if I tell you that it debuted in 1989 and lasted three seasons. Yes, I still love it, and yes, I do occasionally give myself permission to stream a few episodes on Netflix. It’s a damned good show, and it’s held up pretty well over the years, too. Historicals have a way of doing that, since they avoid getting dated by wardrobe and hairstyle the way contemporary shows do. (Consider that a free nugget of advice: don't date your writing by being too trendy. Unless you're e-publishing, and you're willing to rewrite frequently, avoid mentioning anything too pop-cultureish.)
But in picking up the series, the network decided that it should be about all the characters, not just one. The title of the show changed to The Young Riders and episode 2, which is called Gunfighter, was about another young man. And let me take a break here to say that in any group, real or imagined — be it the cast of a television show, the characters in a book, a bunch of kids on the playground, or coworkers in an office — someone’s gonna emerge as the natural focal point. It may take time, but it always happens. And it isn’t always who you think it is.
However, sometimes we’ve already shot ourselves in the foot by that point, and we can’t take advantage of the new direction our work is going. We can’t let it develop naturally, organically, the way it should. And here’s why, again using The Young Riders as an example:
Everyone in the world, or at least in America, has heard of Wild Bill Hickok. He was a real person with a real history, one that many people are familiar with. And there were only so many changes the producers of The Young Riders could make to his character. They made him younger than he would have been in 1861, they gave him a job with the Pony Express that he never had, and they gave him a difficult family history. The Young Riders’ Jimmy Hickok can’t read, while James Butler Hickok was actually pretty well educated.
Now, I know that most of us don’t write about historical characters with real histories we have to work around, but the same issues can come up in our books, if we give out too much information too soon. Some of us plan out everything about our characters before we even sit down to write, and if we put too much of that information into our books before we have to, we’ve hamstrung our characters. On the other hand, some of us write by the seat of our pants, and just give our characters a background, any background, without much thought to the future. Sometimes, something wonderful might develop in book 3 of a series. But if we’ve already established in book 1 that the character came from elsewhere, the background was different, he/she doesn’t have any cousins, is the wrong age, can’t read... we’ve taken away the opportunity to benefit from whatever wonderful thing it is.
Obviously I’m not saying not to give out the information that’s necessary to develop the character. And part of the fun of watching 18-year-old Jimmy Hickok turn into Wild Bill is knowing what will happen to him later. But in the case of The Young Riders, it also limited what could be done with that particular character, and it can do the same thing to our characters and our books if we don’t watch out.
So that’s my bit of wisdom for the day. I’m off to watch some reruns of Firefly now. Research, you know. For that science fiction romance I might write one day.