Writerly Sound Bites, Number 6: Character Progression – Consistency and Repetition Make Even a Broken Character Who He Is

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Considering the points made in the previous two articles here and here, one has to wonder what makes a character at all. If it isn’t earth-shaking events like those seen in Picard, Avengers: Disassembled, or The Last Jedi that make a character who he is, then what does? What does real character progression look like?

The answer is simple: consistency and repetition. We do this every day ourselves without noticing it, readers and future writers. Remember that favorite book you take out and read every time you need a pick-me-up? How about that favorite bistro you stop by for a treat at the end of every week? The way you play with your hair, your fingers, or nearby objects when you’re nervous? What about that cup of Joe you have every morning?

We call these things habits or rituals because we do them consistently, and these are just the conscious actions we develop more or less on purpose. The unconscious ones – how we speak, our body language, the things that make us grind our teeth or which make us laugh – are all patterns that build up from infancy to adulthood and beyond. We do them without noticing. Moreover, everyone does.

As an example, when you were young your mother consistently picked up after you, so much so that you did not always notice her retrieving your clothes from the floor or putting away that glass you left on the counter. Your dad’s head was always on a swivel when you were young because he was keeping an eye out for trouble. He also maintained hold of your hand so that he wouldn’t lose you or you wouldn’t run off and be hit by a car. Married couples usually know the other’s tics and habits so well that they can pick up a change in their significant other’s tone, the way their eyes move, or the way they stiffen to know when something is changing or even wrong.

Character, in contrast to what mainstream “sound bite” advice says, isn’t forged in an instant. It doesn’t change in a moment, either, even when the person under discussion seems to alter instantaneously before one’s eyes. There is generally a period – however brief – of the character coming to terms with the “earth-shattering event” that just occurred. No one changes on the spot or all at once. Change, particularly after a person reaches a certain age, takes concentration and time.

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Dragonheart, both the film* and the novelization*, follows this pattern. Bowen, the knight tasked with training and raising Prince Einon to be a better king than his father, is devastated when his pupil is nearly killed in a peasant uprising. When the queen leads him to a dragon’s cave and Einon appears to expire after swearing an oath to uphold the Old Code, Bowen reacts with anger and lashes out at the ancient creature.

His fears are put to rest when the dragon shares his heart with Einon, restoring the young king to life. With his charge alive and whole, Bowen repents his earlier bout of temper and promises the dragon his services if he ever needs or requests them in the future.

This is in keeping with his earlier characterization: Bowen is a knight of the Old Code. He does his best to abide by the chivalric statutes he cherishes. In essence, he is an honorable man trying his hardest to find a cause and a kingdom he can worthily serve. He loves the Old Code and wants to restore it to a world that has forgotten it. To paraphrase the words of the novelization, he admires builders and wants to serve those who will build upon the foundations of the past.

Einon brings that dream crashing down when he proves to be just as bad as – if not worse than – his father. Rather than spare the peasants who killed his father, the new king rounds up the leaders and remaining fighters. He sentences them to work in a quarry to build a new, more impressive castle for him to call home. The cruelty Einon displays is so at odds with his previous behavior that Bowen cannot immediately recognize the deception the younger man has played upon him. Where Bowen loves the boy as a brother or son, Einon only saw the knight as a means to an end.

Now that he is king, he sees no reason to hide this anymore. Infuriated and heartbroken once again, Bowen returns to the dragon’s cave, loudly blaming him for the young king’s “change” of heart. He vows vengeance, promising to kill every last dragon in the world to prevent their corruption from spreading.

Contrary to appearances, this is actually in keeping with Bowen’s character. We have already seen that when someone or something he loves is apparently killed, he reacts rashly. He says things he later regrets and tries to make amends when he has calmed enough to think clearly.

The earth-shattering loss of Einon and his dreams of serving a good king apparently breaks Bowen, resulting in him becoming a dragonslayer who murders dragons for gold. His sarcasm and impudence increase while he puts on the airs of one whose only concern is filling his purse, drinking his wine, and forgetting the past. But, as the story goes on to show, none of this truly covers up his better habits and nature.

Dragonheart-Draco 2 by GiuseppeDiRosso on DeviantArt

Whenever he dismisses Avalon and the Old Code, Bowen’s tone becomes sad. He mourns what he believes is lost and tries to atone for what he believes is his initial mistake – allowing Einon to be wounded and then “corrupted” by a dragon – by killing all the dragons in the realm. As the novelization makes clear, despite his bravado, Bowen hates the task he has set himself. He may despise dragons but the hatred is not straight from his heart; it is born of pain and loss, which his hair-trigger temper cannot deal with save by the expedient of violence.

His subsequent adventures with Draco, Kara, and Brother Gilbert have the effect of “bleeding” these false notions and this anger out of him. This is where Bowen truly does break, in the sense that he breaks away from a false image of himself, Einon, and the world. While others will see his earlier, cynical behavior as the real break it is not actually a true interruption that cuts to the heart. The initial loss of his prince and “betrayal” of the dragon broke Bowen’s naiveté, as he himself admits later, but he clung to a different type of ingenuousness to avoid facing that fact.

The true break comes when he faces himself and his past actions in Avalon. Alone and drenched by the rain, Bowen hears the ghosts of King Arthur and his knights reciting the Old Code. Realizing that the Code is real and that it is alive – in him – he is finally able to come to terms with Einon’s betrayal and become the knight he was always meant to be, but which he was afraid to become.

Bowen’s break isn’t permanent and it doesn’t run deep enough to counteract the character he has spent unconscious years developing. Einon’s treachery cracked his false idealism, forcing him to find a way to cope. Unsurprisingly, his first instinct was an unhealthy one exhibited by the fact that his behavior went completely against his natural inclinations. He basically adopted a false persona to deal with his grief, which he later sheds with the help of his friends, becoming a stronger and better person as a result.

Are there other examples of this type of break? Yes, and they are easy enough to find. In the TV series Leverage*, all of the characters are “broken” to some extent. Parker is the most obvious, but Nathan “Nate” Ford is also dealing with an earth-shattering event that made him retreat to the bottle: the death of his son, Sam.

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Nathan “Nate” Ford

Nate is devastated by Sam’s death in part because he knows he could have saved him. The company Nate worked for refused to pay for an experimental treatment for his son to save money and because his boss didn’t care about the boy’s life in the first place. As an insurance investigator and the son of a criminal himself, Nate possessed the skills necessary to steal the treatment to save his son’s life, or the contacts to hire people to do it for him. But because he didn’t want to be a thief (something he repeatedly states in season two of the series) he went through regular channels to try and save his son – and failed.

His disgust with himself and his desire to avoid becoming a criminal to take vengeance upon his boss means he turns to drinking to “deal with” (read “run from”) his failure. When an old acquaintance asks him for help “stealing back” property another company ostensibly took from him, he deliberately uses Nate’s son to convince him to do the job. Unfortunately for this man, that was a very bad idea, as Nate now has reason to want to see him put behind bars.

Thus begins the saga of Leverage, where a crew of thieves begin playing Robin Hood* by stealing from rich criminals to help their victims and put these monsters in prison. Unlike the Leverage team, all of whom are honest thieves (that is, they do not pretend to be upstanding citizens), the crooks they take down are trying to have their cake and eat it, too. They wear the façade of being “good people” when they are the exact opposite.

This is a primary source of Nate’s struggles in season two. Where season one of Leverage saw him overcoming his alcoholism and gaining closure through avenging his son, season two follows the contradiction he feels playing the team’s “Black King” when he has striven for so long to be a “White Knight.” Nate wants to be the good guy and, while his crew undoubtedly targets and ruins bad people, they do so through criminal means. For a man who has tried so hard to be good, the disparity is disheartening and confusing.

His conflicting feelings come to a head in the season finale when Nate is arrested protecting his team. Having vociferously insisted he is not a villain throughout the season, when his old friend comes to arrest him Nate smiles. Confused, his previous compatriot asks him what he’s so happy about. “You were right,” Nate replies. “I am a thief.”

For the first season, Nate’s break seemed to be the fact that he couldn’t come to terms with the loss of his son, nor could he stop drinking to excess. Season two, however, shows the break ran deeper: it was a question of what it means to be a “White Knight” in a world where the law protects a variety of bad guys worse than the thieves, hitters, hackers, and grifters Nate used to chase down when he held his old job. His compatriot, the man who arrests him, even tells Nate in a flashback that they “don’t care about who’s right or wrong, only who pays.”

It is not a good enough answer for a man who wants to be good. Nate’s desire has always been to be a “White Knight,” but the path he chose to become one wouldn’t allow it. He could catch obvious criminals but not those who hid behind the veneer of high society and polished virtue. There was no way for him to follow “the Old Code” as an insurance investigator, but there is a way for him to do so as the Mastermind for the Leverage crew. And in the finale for season two, he finally admits this fact to himself and his former friend, as well as the team that has become a family to him.

Once again, we see a type of break that does not alter a character fundamentally. Literature Devil actually talks about this in his video on Mr. Freeze, where he describes it as a wound. Of course, not every character has a wound or becomes a hero or a villain due to being wounded in mind, body, and/or soul. That being said, wounds have their place in fiction and, as we have seen thus far, they can propel characters to act in certain ways.

Bowen’s wounded heart and soul drove him to act contrary to his nature. Nate’s desire to be a “White Knight” clashed with the parameters of the law but not morality, leaving him torn in how to respond to a variety of wrongs. Only when he admits that he is in fact a thief does he finally become a balanced, healthy person. The next three seasons show a Nate Ford who is at peace with himself and, therefore, a much better Mastermind and leader for the team.

In both these cases, the wounds these heroes suffered led them to act in unhealthy ways to deal with the pain. Most people don’t like pain and they don’t like seeing where they fell short, so this makes sense. If they feel they failed, they also tend to punish themselves for their failures. What the writers for these stories remembered and what other contemporary storytellers have forgotten is that behaving in unhealthy ways does not mean the fundamental aspects of a character have or will change. It just means a good person is doing something hurtful to themselves and others because they are trying hard not to admit they are in pain or why they suffered that injury in the first place. Or because they are punishing themselves for their failures, perceived or real.

Ladyhawke* is another good example. In the film two lovers marry secretly: Isabeau, a noblewoman, and Navarre, a knight. Navarre is the captain of the guard for the bishop of Aquila, who covets Isabeau despite his vow of chastity and her repeated refusals. The bishop’s obsession with Isabeau runs so deep that, when he learns she has married someone else, he makes a deal with the devil to curse her and her husband. For two years after this, Isabeau and Navarre wander the realm. By day she is a hawk; by night, he is a wolf. Only for a brief moment every morning can they see one another and almost touch, before the transformation occurs and Isabeau is returned to her hawk form. Thus are they cursed to be “always together, eternally apart.”

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Being forced into the form of a wolf every night for two years would be enough to drive most men mad, if not make them as cranky and near-single-minded as Navarre proves to be in the film. Isabeau herself is depressed and sad, since she cannot support the love of her life in his struggles and is deprived of his support in turn. Navarre has determined the only way to break the curse is to kill the bishop, something Isabeau knows and does not necessarily disagree with. She only worries that killing him will leave them cursed still, and/or that it will break Navarre entirely.

Mouse, the young thief Navarre conscripts to help him defeat the bishop, ends up acting as a go-between for the two over the course of the film. He lies through his teeth about what the lovers have said (or, more accurately, not said) about one another during the day and the night. In doing so he gives Isabeau hope and strength while tempering Navarre’s anger, which borders on rashness. He also reminds him not to give in to hopelessness and not to become someone his wife will hate.

Isabeau and Navarre’s wounds have had two years to fester. That being said, they have maintained the characters they had before tragedy struck. One of Navarre’s former subordinates recognizes and greets him, to be greeted warmly in return. The priest who married the two lovers acknowledges they are the same people he met before even as he does his best to warn Navarre against succumbing to his natural desire for vengeance.

The wound doesn’t make the man – or the woman – a hero or a villain in and of itself. Even the unhealthy actions a character takes after being injured in mind, body, or spirit may not be enough to overturn years of character-building habits. In the end true heroes are those who eventually face their brokenness, shed the unhealthy responses they had after receiving this injury, and return to the path they temporarily left.

Villains like Einon, the corrupt businessmen and politicians of Leverage, and the bishop don’t want to be healthy. If they did, they wouldn’t engage in the evil they perpetrate before and after encountering the heroes. That is the difference character makes when dealing with wounds like these.

But what about the other wounds to the human psyche? Come back next week, and we’ll discuss those. There’s no more room or time to do it today, unfortunately.

*These are Amazon affiliate links. When you purchase something through them, this author receives a commission from Amazon at no extra charge to you, the buyer.

If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth, while her poetry appeared in Organic Ink, Vol. 2. She has also had stories published in Planetary Anthologies Luna, Uranus, and Sol. Another story was released in Cirsova Magazine’s Summer Issue in 2020, and she recently had a story published in Storyhack Magazine’s 7th Issue and Cirsova Magazine’s 2021 Summer Issue. Order them today!

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4 thoughts on “Writerly Sound Bites, Number 6: Character Progression – Consistency and Repetition Make Even a Broken Character Who He Is

  1. Pingback: Writerly Sound Bites, Number 7: Character Progression – How Broken Mentors and Mentors Who Aren’t Broken Deal with the Loss of What They Held Dear | A Song of Joy by Caroline Furlong

  2. Pingback: Writerly Sound Bites, Number 8: Character Progression – How Characters Broken by Trauma Recover and Rebuild, Part 1 | A Song of Joy by Caroline Furlong

  3. Pingback: Writerly Sound Bites, Number 8: Character Progression – How Characters Broken by Trauma Recover and Rebuild, Part 2 | A Song of Joy by Caroline Furlong

  4. Pingback: Writerly Sound Bites, Number 8: Character Progression – How Characters Broken by Trauma Recover and Rebuild, Part 3 | A Song of Joy by Caroline Furlong

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