Monday, June 14, 2010

Hijacking the Narrative

I have three daughters. The younger two, who are 5 and almost 7, recently discovered the show “Full House” on one of the umpteen Nickelodeon channels we get. Who knows why this show has caught their fancy? Maybe it’s merely that the show features three girls, and they could relate.

I had to explain to them the concept of re-runs – that the show ran from 1987-1995, which was way, way, way before they were born. Then I had to break it to them that these kids they’re seeing are now all grown up. Well, first I had to tell them that Michelle was actually played by the Olsen twins. I did this without getting too much into the specifics of the Olsen twins’ lives and certainly without touching upon the notion of “made millions on merchandising” or “clubbing” or “heroin chic.”

What’s interesting seeing the episodes in this compressed format – the reruns are on every day and are often out of order – is that it’s readily apparent how the show evolved and that Bob Saget sort of got shunted aside more and more with each successive season. I don’t know this for a fact, but I’m assuming that originally the show was supposed to be a vehicle for Bob Saget, and it was supposed to be about his struggles as a father cobbling together a life after his wife dies.

Clearly, though, as time went on, the John Stamos character got a lot more airtime, and they also focused on the girls’ exploits in high school and such. But obviously – at least obviously to me – John Stamos got more screen time because he was way cuter and more appealing to viewers than Bob Saget. (That doofus Dave Coulier’s character pretty much stayed the same throughout each season, which is lucky for him. Had I been a writer on that show, he would have met with a grisly fate midway through the third episode, perhaps in a tragic fireworks accident: “And that’s why you should never, ever light illegal Chinese bottle rockets in the basement, kids.”)

So it got me thinking about how sometimes when you’re writing a story, you start out writing about one character only to have another hijack your narrative. Maybe this happens as you go along and you realize that hey, this one guy is way more interesting than this other guy. Maybe I'll go in that direction. Or maybe you write one character’s story but then your readers – well, they’re less interested in what you’re interested in. Basically, you’ve written an entire novel about Bob Saget, and they want John Stamos.

I would guess that at some point every author deals with this, particularly when you’re dealing with agents and publishers who might have different ideas about what's going to appeal to readers. Maybe they find a subplot more compelling than the main plot or maybe they just know readers will be less interested in the travails of your paraplegic ventriloquist MC and more intrigued by his roommate, who’s a smoke jumper struggling to fit in with normal society because as it happens, he’s also a werewolf. In a weird way, it’s kind of a compliment, but it still presents problems. What do you do now? How do you break the news to Bob Saget that he’s no longer the focus of attention?

I’m curious to know 1) if you’ve had this happen when being critiqued or maybe before you even get to that point – maybe you had one character pulling you off in a direction you hadn’t intended to go; and 2) how you handled it.

I suppose the greater question is: Do you consider it a reasonable compromise or a complete capitulation to give the reader what he/she wants?