Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Active Characters

I can't believe I'm going to blog about Survivor, today. But I am. And how does this classic reality TV show relate to writing?

Well, on pondering the outcome of the finale on Sunday night, I decided it was a perfect example of why we popular fiction authors write proactive protagonists.

For those of you not addicted to this show, (that I swore I would NEVER watch when I first heard the premise, but find more addictive than crack -- not that I've tried crack, just saying), the final two contestants were Amanda and Pavarti. Two very pretty girls who'd both been contestants on previous seasons and were part of the original "favorites" tribe.

I read a few blogs about the outcome and I think it's fair to say that most fans of the show expected Amanda to win. The final winner is based on a vote of the last 8 people voted off the show before them, and so it's expected that the players who have done the most backstabbing will lose, because the "jury" is raw from just being turfed off and often want revenge. That's the way this show normally goes -- the most liked player generally wins at the end -- and so the contestant who gets the power to choose who to take to that final vote with them, typically takes someone the others don't like, and that's what Amanda did in picking Pavarti. Pavarti had flirted with a bunch of the jury members -- men and women -- she'd lied to just about everyone, and she'd staged a coup against one of the most popular and powerful players, Ozzie, who was so angry he wouldn't even let her talk that night.

Now Amanda, in my mind, was no angel in the game. In her "confessional" interviews, (when it's just her and the camera), I thought it was pretty clear that she had a strategy and was pretty smart about the game and pretty smart about who to trust and who not to trust and how to keep people trusting her. She was good at the game.

BUT... In the final tribal council she made a huge mistake. She decided to play the innocence card. She sat there with her big brown eyes wide open and told people how trustworthy she'd been. How she'd been lucky to be in the right alliance. How she'd only lied to people she believed had lied to her. How she'd been really loyal to the people she'd given her word to.

While Pavarti took the opposite tack. She owned up to all her devious actions and, in fact, took more credit for the powerful "women's alliance" forming than I thought she deserved. I know we only see what the producers/editors want us to see, but it seemed to me that Cirie and Amanda were both pretty big players in orchestrating the amazing blindsides these girls pulled off. But Pavarti took the credit/blame. Even as everyone they'd tricked was spitting venom at her, she just sat there, didn't get defensive, and said, "Yes, I did it. I fooled and tricked you all."

And it worked. In spite of everyone saying how much they hated her, the majority of them voted for her to win the million.

Why? I think it was at least in part because Amanda cast herself as the passive character. The one who sits back and lets things happen to her. This let Pavarti take clear hold of the active role. The one who makes things happen.

And the cast, the jury, the people voting, didn't see what we'd seen at home. They hadn't heard Amanda scheming behind their backs as we had. They hadn't seen her taking action. (Except maybe with Erik, but that was so funny, no one except Erik would hold it against her.) So, they believed that Amanda had been passive most of the game and gliding along on the Pavarti ride. And they went with the woman of action.

And I took that as a good lesson for why readers like active characters.

See? It ties in.

Post Script (that I could probably fit in above if I weren't too lazy to do some editing, but I really must get back to my manuscript...)

This outcome was also a lesson about not letting your protagonist cry. I think Amanda's tears, that many took as false the night she chose Pavarti over Cirie, really worked against her. Fresh from seeing her acting job in tricking Erik, many questioned the sincerity of her tears, plus they made her seem weak. Now, I'm a big crier myself, but readers don't generally like their main characters to cry. Just saying.


Anonymous said...

Smart and true. I don't want to read about a character pulled along by events. Characters I enjoy make decisions, right, or wrong, and accept the consequences.

Molly O'Keefe said...

That's such an interesting point. I'm watching House again - and loving it. LOVING IT. Last night - fantastic. And I think the show went off the rails two seasons ago with the David Morse detective guy and I think part of the reason I didn't like the show that season was because House wouldn't just own up. He was pissy and dumb.

You know in Ain't She Sweet - the heroine - pretty unlikeable - does an incredibly strong and redeeming thing by sticking out that party that she was hired to waitress. She didn't run, she didn't hide - she owned up.

Hmmm...stuff to think about for all those sort of unlikeable heroines we've got rolling around in our heads.

Ummm...I'm having bizarre sex dreams about David Cook. Again. Should I be worried?

Jess Riley said...

My husband and I used to watch Survivor together.

Then he got an XBox...*sniff*

(Good point about the crying, though!! :-)

Anonymous said...

Last night's episode of House was really great. Love the Wilson, Amber and House dynamic, and really didn't think I would..

How 'bout Battlestar this week? Wow! I'm not sure I should have loved that episode this much.

Maureen McGowan said...

Yes, House was great this week. I was getting annoyed at the "mystery", the whole bus/amnesia thing was starting to feel like a silly trick to make a normal episode seem like more than just an episode... but then the pay off was worth it.

Molly O'Keefe said...

BSG was great! And I think it's because instead of just plot episodes we're getting some character and plot. The scene when the six shoots the other six? Amazing. Perfect. It's that stuff that makes that series better than anything else - perfect little moments when plot and character coincide.

Kimber Chin said...

That's a business lesson a mentor taught me early on. Take responsibility. Responsibility=Power. Other people may not like the person in power (they seldom do) but they do respect her.

'Course, you always have to know that if you're going to stick your neck out, you'll get it chopped off from time to time. That's part of the fun.


And yeah, crying in public is a bad, bad thing.

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