Saturday, May 26, 2012

Why Do Some Stories Resonate?

Yesterday I saw The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and loved it—so much that I want to see it again. I woke up thinking about it. Why do some stories touch us so much that we keep thinking about them? Why do the characters come back to visit our dreams many times?
Maybe part of it is the way each character’s story resolves itself—not necessarily happily but in a just and satisfying way. Sometimes the resolution isn’t what we expect, but if it seems to fit, if it’s what the character has earned, we’re pleased.
In Marigold, the characters grew. Each one developed in some way that made us cheer. The characters were not all likable, but they were interesting and each elicited an emotional response. We cared.
The point is, aside from recommending a very good movie, that we should try to do the same thing in our stories. But how? We need to give each of our main characters some weakness or undeveloped trait and then impose conflict and circumstances that force the character to react. From those reactions, the characters should learn, gain confidence, and move along their path. This doesn’t have to be a positive path, but if it’s your protagonist, he or she will probably then need to overcome the negative aspects—unlikely in a short story because it takes time to show so much change.
Placing the story in a foreign or culturally different setting imposes change and provides opportunities for the character to react according to her personality and outlook. “Foreign” could be anything different from the norm. An egocentric, in-charge character might become a patient in a hospital. A timid, indecisive soul could find himself in charge of a group of children in a hostile environment. Those are extreme examples, but forced change is a good way to do it. In Cold Comfort, Claire is an ordinary woman who becomes a killer’s target, forcing her to move outside—way outside—her comfort zone. Riley, because of a personal failure, hates working with women, but a debt of honor forces him to help Claire.
There are many ways to do these things, limited only by our imagination. Do you consciously think about making your character grow? How did you do it? What vehicles or devices have you used?
Note: Read about the “real” Marigold Hotel


Sandy Cody said...

Excellent advice, Ellis - as usual.

Polly said...

Now you're making me think. I write stories about people, whether mystery or suspense or romance, and I can't conceive of having them remain the same throughout the book. There are a couple of bestselling series where the characters never change from book to book. Boring. People change. Situations change them. They have to grow or evolve or experience something that transforms them, or I'm not interested--either in writing them or reading them. So I'd say the growth is a natural progression created by circumstances.

Georgia said...

Excellent post. We are a sum of our choices, and live our consequences. Realistic characters have opportunities and results. No change in character is boring.

Ellis Vidler said...

Thanks, you all. When I write these blogs, it makes me take a harder look at my own stories. Sigh. So many questions--Have I done enough? Have the characters changed? I think Claire and Riley did, but my wip is still giving me fits. I think my heroine needs to grow more. Thinking, thinking . . .