Friday 1 May 2020

Essentials of Believability in Escape Fiction

I was reading a better-than-average-but-still-crappy indie e-book the other day and, linked with all the superhero fiction I've been binge-streaming while in lockdown, it made me wonder why some seemed so much more plausible than others.

For example, HBO's "Watchmen," which, on the surface, is an absurd story filled with hyperbolic characters, or Jordan Peele's latest: "Us" which eventually reveals a wild and extremely improbable premise. Both shows remain credible regardless of how they skew reality. Both had me engrossed and left me satisfied. Star Trek Discovery and WestWorld (seasons 2 and 3) had the exact opposite effect.

To seem credible, a story needs only two things: 1) plausible characters and 2) strict world rules. Note that the world doesn't have to be plausible. The interest lies in seeing how people we can relate to might behave under unusual circumstances.

Regular episodic TV shows often start strong but erode into ridiculousness because they have to adhere to a schedule that stretches the premise and writers beyond their limits.

The original story is interesting because it's generated with plausibility: Plausible characters, with plausible world views and flaws, acting within a situation. In the beginning, it's easy to stick to the world rules and the characters because that interaction is interesting. But once the plausible interactions play out and with a half dozen episodes still left to fill, something has to change. You either dump a character or dump the world. But when both have strong followings, TV networks resort to keeping both but radically altering one or both to behave against type.

Most usually, it's the characters who pull a fast one: often with a hero sabotaging an effort that would end the conflict. That "the hero is actually the enemy" is a shocking reveal guaranteed to keep audiences in their seats, but only in the short term. The improbable behaviour impacts the plausibility of the preceding storyline, as well as every other character, often sabotaging their established intelligence. At that point, fans either cringe and bear it or turn it off.

Consistency of character is why we can accept James Bond in his improbable world, but find CW's Flash a cringe-fest. No James Bond villain would ever incinerate the universe just because he has a hate-on for the hero. In the TV-hero universe, that seems to happen weekly and twice on Sunday.

The best heroes are ones who are up against the best villains, and the best villains are those who are most plausible; especially those who hold defendable points of view. One that always impressed me was Magneto in the first X-Men movie. Professor Xavier believed mutants should reason with humans and work towards peaceful coexistence. Magneto believed mutants had to be proactive in defending themselves against humanity. Both views are credible.  Pitting ideals against pragmatism is something we can all relate to and what makes the ensuing conflict all the more poignant.

Similarly, heroes are not defined by their physical attributes or demeanour. The best heroes are ones who can see the grey in a situation but are bound by rigid core values. Another struggle that we can all relate to.

A TV action series is based on a "show rather than tell" model but will end up devoting more and more time to psycho-babbling rants as characters try to justify improbable turnabouts. For the audience, such turnabouts reveal that there are big gaps in the "showing" of the story and viewers can no longer trust what they see. Since the motivation for flip-flopping actions can't be easily demonstrated, the program begins focusing on the "telling" and the action soon gets usurped by speech-making.

Like wobbly wheels on a scooter; it starts with one anomalous wiggle that quickly degenerates into undulating chaos that soon shakes the vehicle to pieces. Characters start misbehaving then rehabilitating so that others can misbehave. Forgiveness and apology take over as themes, Star Trek becomes The Young and the Restless, and then the wheels fall off, entirely.

That's when they reboot: Someone wakes from a dream, there's an unprecedented cataclysmic event, the entire universe is destroyed and regenerated, the whole thing's a simulation, or there is time travel—the penultimate sci-fi cheat that instantly renders everything that was, is or will be, completely meaningless.

And the cycle repeats.

And that makes me angry.

You wouldn't like me when I'm angry.

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