Whatever your message, make sure the story you are creating (the world, the characters, the events) is actually compatible. I’ve seen writers completely change characters part way through, or change the way that their world works, in order to try to accommodate a particular message.
The most commonly occurring example of this error is when writers, in an attempt to show their support for the gay community, will take a character who we’ve known for a long time and who has thoroughly displayed a heterosexual disposition and the writers change the character to make them gay, and then say that the character was gay all along and was just pretending to be straight.
Now to be clear, I’m not saying that writers cannot or should not do this. In real life people come out all the time. But there are right and wrong ways to do this, in order to get the message across more effectively. When writers decide to do this with a character then they should plan ahead and write that character in such a way that the change and explanation is believable. A lot of writers do this very well. Oscar on the American version of The Office never did anything contradictory to his orientation before it was revealed, so it did not seem against his known character when he came out. Aunt Patty on The Simpsons, on the other hand, is a prime example of how not to do this. Patty had been established as heterosexual for a long time, due mainly to her fixation on MacGyver but also including an episode early on where she dated Principle Skinner. Then, in the sixteenth season, the writers decided to change her mid-way. They at least dropped some hints leading up to the episode, and in so doing they tried to prepare ahead of time for the revelation that she was lesbian (which was a wise move), but in so doing they had to go against what had already been known about the character since the show began.
The point of these episodes, in most cases, is the message that people are born this way and should be accepted for who they are. The message doesn’t work when the characters were created one way and then changed partway through the story for the sake of convenience. It flies in the face of the point the writers were trying to make.
There are times when such changes can be made to characters midway, but you as the writer have the responsibility of checking what the audience already knows about the character, and making sure that any revelations you want to bring about are not a clear contradiction to anything that’s already been established. Heck, even bicuriosity would be believable in many cases – the character experimenting just because they’ve reached a place in life where they feel unsure or they’ve rediscovered something. Patty’s coming out would have made more sense if it had been a gradual discovery on her part, carefully analyzing her own interests and then naturally coming to that conclusion, but the writers went with the statement that she had always been into women and there was never a change. Her long-lasting fixation on MacGyver was phased out of the show because it no longer made sense, but it also meant that you had to ignore the earlier episodes.
Recently the comic book community was in an uproar because Captain America revealed that he had been a Hydra agent this whole time. That simply doesn’t make sense, and the fans know that. Not because it’s weird for a character to switch sides, but because we’ve seen things from Captain America’s perspective, and we know that it doesn’t fit his views of himself or the world. The revelation asked people to ignore what they already knew for the sake of a plot twist. Fans were understandably upset.
When we’ve already seen things from that character’s perspective and they are clearly one way or another, and then you ask the audience to ignore all of that for the sake of pretending that they had always been another way, then you lose the confidence of your audience. Why should they take anything you say seriously after that?
In summary what I’m trying to get across is this; any time you have to change the way things are in order to make a point about the way things are, you nullify the point you were trying to make. The audience can sense when something is off or out of character, and anything you were trying to say through those elements will end up meaningless.
Don’t change your characters for the sake of a message. Know the nature of your characters, and how they fit with the message you want to tell. Or if necessary, add new characters. In either case, the message comes across much more believably when the characters are true to themselves. Because people may not relate to a message for its own sake, but they’ll relate to the characters.
In my next post on Storytelling, I’ll talk about what Tension is, why it’s important, and what kills it in a story.
For more on these and other writing topics, The Storyteller’s Handbook is available for purchase now.