We all want to get it right, to connect with the reader so strongly that they grow with our characters. That they stick with them throughout our stories. That they love them like we love them. That they cheer at their victories and mourn their losses. But how do we do it? What is that “it” factor that draws the audience in and keeps them hooked?
In one word: believability. I’m going to use two pop-culture phenomenons that requires a leap of faith from the audience to show that it’s the believability of stories that make them powerful.
Love and loss in Doctor Who
In 2005, the BBC introduced a new generation of viewers to the 1960s sci-fi show Doctor Who. He’s an alien, flying through space and time in a blue box, saving the world. Hard sell? Yes. But it works like a charm because the show mixes the magical with the mundane. If we followed the Doctor without a human companion, the show would fall flat. The audience can’t identify with a superhuman character, no matter how many flaws we give him (rage, arrogance, a certain reluctance to use force) because he’s too alien and too close to all-powerful. We need that human companion not just to have someone to ask the questions for us, but to have someone to identify with in the show.
If we look at the doctor’s companions: Rose, Martha and Donna,* they’re all everyday characters. The doctor didn’t pick an alien companion, or someone from the future or past, he picked someone from modern-day London, someone down-to-earth with real problems. In addition, showing the families of the companions, especially the interaction between the doctor and the companions’ mothers, adds that extra layer of realism. The show isn’t just about a human and an alien flying through space and time, saving the world, it’s also about love, family, friendship, romance and eventually about loss. About tough choices made very real by the addition of everyday life. Without that element, the true tragedy of the Doctor—that everyone he knows and loves will eventually die—would not matter. It’s the human element that makes him a favorite hero.
Inhuman evil in Harry Potter
In eight movies (and seven books), we follow Harry Potter, a normal kid who finds out he’s a wizard. He’s introduced to a magical world with us and his friends Ron (who’s born into it) and Hermione (who’s a fullblood human with magical powers). Throughout eight movies they have to face evil, while still surviving boarding school, sports, bullying, hormones and finals. Even though we can’t relate to having magical powers, or to facing ultimate evil, we can all relate to the mundane things that take up our hero’s everyday life, and that is why we buy the inhuman villain and the frankly non-functioning monetary system and society of the magical world of wizards and muggles.
I have to admit that I love the Harry Potter movies more than I love the books (don’t hit me!). The streamlining of the plot in the movies work well for me, but that’s not why I love them so much. It’s because we follow a group of children as they grow up and go to war.** The story only grows more powerful as the color scheme in the movies mirror the darkening mood of the whole series (see the development of the Warner Brother’s logo for emphasis). The mood, the plot, the characters, the choices they face get more and more difficult as they grow up. Add to that the fact that the child actors grow with their characters and you have a powerful coming-of-age combo.
In case you, like me, have forgotten how much the characters have grown through this past decade, I give you two clips which both show the development in mood and the growth of the characters throughout the series. This is Harry and Hermione’s first meeting and here is after they’ve gone to war.
To keep an generation captive through a decade of new releases is something most writers can only dream of, but one thing we can all take from J.K. Rowling’s success is her mix of the mundane with the magical. That mix creates truly believable characters and plot and that’s what we need to keep our audiences coming back for more.
*Note that I’m stopping this review after the end of series 4 of this show. In my opinion, the lack of character development in series 5 and 6 is an excellent example of how not to do something.
**Sure, you can argue that the books are about the same thing, but it’s not nearly as clear-cut or as powerful.