Over the Transom: Degrees of Freedom

Characters in unbreakable cycles, or in literally inescapable traps, usually make for uninteresting stories.

There’s a certain type of story that we’ve seen more than once in our inbox. I call it (SPOILER!) the “robot fails to overcome its programming” story. It goes something like this: The protagonist is a robot on a mission. It is ingenious and resourceful, surmounting obstacle after obstacle that lies between it and its goal, despite the fact that the circumstances it faces are perhaps not quite what it was designed to handle. As the day draws to a close, it succeeds (or maybe it doesn’t) and in accordance with its programming, it returns to its home base for the night where it expects to receive further instructions. Except the base isn’t there, or there’s no one left to provide the next set of instructions — in any case, it’s unable to complete the circuit in a satisfactory manner. But this robot fails gracefully, as it was designed to do. It recharges as per protocol, and the next day, it will set out on its mission again, as it did today.

It has a sympathetic character with a goal, obstacles, and a twist ending. So what’s wrong with this story, aside from the fact that Douglas Adams did it more pithily?

There are lots of stories, actually, that turn out to be this story in disguise. They can be about soldiers isolated on a distant front, cut off from command, dutifully continuing to follow the last order that was given to them, for example. Honestly, any story that focuses on a character that’s stuck in a rut for any reason can fall into this category.

Stories that don’t go anywhere — of which those that come full circle are the very definition — are a hard sell to begin with. But that’s not the only problem: The characters we’re talking about either don’t have choices, or the ones they make ultimately don’t matter. These stories go out of their way to rob their characters of meaningful decisions, and it’s not only the ones that hit the reset button at the end that demonstrate this weakness.

Something that writers are often told to do is to put their characters in greater jeopardy. Bigger ups and downs make for more drama, and characters who have something to risk become more compelling. No one particularly wants to follow characters as they breeze through life, effortlessly piling success upon success. But the key thing is risk, not certain doom. A character trapped on a wrecked space station out in the infinite blackness of space with the life support slowly failing is a setup full of tension, but if there is zero chance of escape or survival, we’ll suddenly become a lot less interested in watching the clock run out. Indeed, we’ve seen a number of stories that present dire scenarios, often described in striking detail, but as the characters get churned up by the narrative machine, they ultimately leave us cold.

One of the reasons these stories fall short is often because the situation feels like an intricately constructed trap created for the sole purpose of dropping characters into it. We usually begin the story when our protagonists are tipped into the monster’s gaping maw, or when it first dawns on them that they are in peril. We don’t know where the monster came from; we’re simply in a world where the monster exists. The characters seem to have done nothing to deserve their fate, other than be in the wrong fictional world at the wrong time. No choice that they’ve made is responsible for their current predicament and no action they can take will save them. We don’t even know them well enough to sympathize with them, except in the most general way. It becomes a story about the world itself, not the people, and seeing people suffer for no good reason isn’t any more satisfying than watching people lead a perfectly charmed life.

If Vogons come out of nowhere to blow up your planet and no one manages to escape, that’s not much of a story. There’s a huge difference between the seemingly insurmountable and the literally insurmountable. It’s the difference between the characters having a measure of control over their fates and being impotent spectators to their own undoing. Take control out of the characters’ hands and the story is just running on rails; not only is the destination fixed, but also how we’ll get there. Once you set the train going, the characters better have the means to slam on the brakes or cause a derailment, or the reader is going to disembark. This doesn’t mean we insist on happy endings, that the heroes must always save the day. We only ask that characters have a chance to succeed even if in the end they fail, or achieve only a Pyrrhic victory, or hitch a ride with the Vogons themselves.

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