Writerly Sound Bites, Number 12: Emotional Continuity for Characters in Fiction

Crossover Queen had a thought-provoking post on her site about emotional investment in the characters of her favorite stories. This was spurred by the tumblr post here, which is interesting reading in itself. Both of them pointed out that plots revolving around “saving the world” and a “Chosen One” – as they are presently presented, at least – lack emotional engagement to some degree for the audience.

This is an issue which I have noticed and more or less discussed previously, though not in-depth, here. Declan Finn prompted that article with his post here, which hinted at the same issue and emphasizes the problem discussed at length in the Writerly Sound Bites series: by and large, the market is saturated with writers who have forgotten how to tell stories. Having been trained that the stakes and/or the plot matter more than the characters, they often leave aside the continuity of their characters’ personalities and psyches in their tales. They pursue “the splash and dash” or the “razzle-dazzle” instead of the characters themselves. In effect, they focus on the window-dressing and not the people who are on the stage.

Audiences do not show up for the plot of a story so much as for the characters who move and are moved by the action. This is another reason why Crossover Queen’s post resonated with me, because I am familiar with the issue from a slightly different perspective. I care for the people who save the world, not the plot to save the world itself. Heroes who fight the battles no one else can, in part due to training and circumstance, but also because these conflicts threaten those they care about personally. After all, if they don’t save the world, what happens to those they love?

Emotional continuity is something a lot of “blockbusters” and “bestsellers” are missing these days. Not all of them, certainly, but this is a trend that needs to be addressed, and I think the films Sing* and Sing 2* are a perfect way to do this. If you have not seen these films before, David Breitenbeck has awesome reviews of them here and here. He makes many notes about the how the characters were handled by the writers/directors, some of which relates to the points which Crossover Queen mentioned as well.

The rather formulaic plot of Sing often lends itself to a formulaic sequel these days. Having achieved their dreams of fame and fortune, the characters in stories like Sing typically “lose their way.” Following a “liar revealed” movie, the second film in the franchise usually defaults to “fame makes people jerks.” We all know the trope: young, sweet Starlet(s) get a taste of fame and become horrible people who spurn those who were once close to them, only to find redemption after everything falls apart around them. Extra points if the liar from the previous movie is the one whose new moral standards remain intact as he tries to save the people he put on stage and essentially “ruined” in the first place.

Sing 2 very neatly eschews this familiar sequel plot by maintaining its characters. Buster Moon, the con man ringleader of the troupe in the first film, returns in a wiser capacity in the sequel. However, this does not mean he is an angel – on the contrary, he still has that “lie to get the job done” streak in him. It is tempered by the support of his core cast and lessons learned previously, but it is still there.

In this case, Buster does not set out to deceive anyone or fast talk his way into a potentially dangerous situation. He uses underhanded means to reach for an opportunity a talent scout said he couldn’t acquire honestly, but other than that his intention is to be as genuine as possible. When a member of his acting troupe says something that gets the attention of the media mogul he is trying to impress, though, Buster seizes the opening with both hands.

This is consistent with Buster’s character, emotionally as well as in terms of personality. A dreamer and a showman with a flair for the con man’s art by nature, when something threatens his dreams, Moon resorts to whatever means necessary to achieve his vision. When his attempt at a candid audition fails but a chance to pursue his desire rears its head anyway, he grabs it and lies as much as he needs to in an effort to buy himself the time to make his lies the truth.

Johnny, the young gorilla gang member-turned-singer-and-dancer, heads one of the main subplots in the second film. A “nice guy,” his arc in the first film saw him chasing his passion for music at the ostensible cost of his father’s love and respect. The two finally reach an understanding when Johnny ultimately embraces his dream, showing his potential in a life his father didn’t choose for him, but which still makes him proud.

SING Movie Review - The Fanboy SEO

An impressive point about Johnny’s story in the first film is that Buster does not mentor him personally. While his father makes an effort to do so, it backfires on him and Johnny, as the mentoring goes against his son’s natural nice guy inclinations. In the sequel, the young gorilla runs into further issues with the professional choreographer who actually does understand him, yet hates him regardless. Klaus Kickenklober is a dancer and so can recognize those who have the potential to become performers as well. He just doesn’t think Johnny has what it takes to make it, and his “teaching” style rubs this disbelief in the youth’s face.

To reach his potential in the first film, Johnny was mentored by Buster’s ancient female secretary, Ms. Crawley. This time he is mentored by a young street dancer named Nooshy, a kindhearted lynx voiced by Letitia Wright. While some might see this as emasculating or problematic, it does in fact make sense; the only parental figure we see in Johnny’s life in both films is his father. His mother, for whatever reason, is not present at all.

Meg Meeker has two books aimed specifically at parents: Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters* and Strong Mothers, Strong Sons.* While I can no longer find the articles that quote from these books on this particular subject, Ms. Meeker points out in these works that fathers naturally encourage their children to try new things. For daughters, this is important, as otherwise they will not stretch beyond themselves and tend to follow their natural inclination to “play it safe.” For a mild example, a father will encourage his daughter to try a new type of ice cream rather than the type she prefers because she “knows” it and is afraid she won’t like the new flavor.

Up to a point, fathers do this for sons as well. But boys need the counterbalance of emotional support, affirmation, and quiet encouragement offered by mothers. Where girls need to be nudged to try new things, boys need their attempts at something new emotionally validated.

Ms. Crawley offered Johnny that validation in Sing by teaching him to play the piano, reminding him to bow to the crowd, and generally just taking care of him. That was in a situation where he knew his father loved him despite their inability to see eye-to-eye and their difficulty communicating. Sing 2 sees Nooshy take over as Johnny’s emotional support against Kickenklober, who is actively cruel and harsh to the gorilla in an effort to make him quit. She specifically tells him, “Klaus has drained all [his] confidence” by “throwing [him] into the deep end” and teaching him more complicated dance moves rather than build him up to the tougher motions gradually.

Her focus isn’t on his dancing skills so much as it is on him. This comes through again in the climactic moments of Johnny’s arc when Kickenklober faces him onstage and “defeats” him in a duel. Having lost to his teacher in public, the young man lies flat on his back, every criticism the choreographer threw at him likely running through his head at speed on a loop.

Nooshy doesn’t stand for that, encouraging Johnny and reminding him to have confidence in himself. The other performers join in, giving the young gorilla the strength to face Kickenklober with aggressive, emotional confidence. He then proves he has what it takes to be a great dancer, humbling Kickenklober, who kneels to the student he belittled. Johnny, ever the nice guy, smiles kindly and doesn’t rub his victory in his adversary’s face.

It is a neat little series of moments that fit human psychology and, while I would be surprised if the directors or the writers read Ms. Meeker’s books, I don’t doubt that they understand how people “work.” Their management of Johnny’s arc in particular tells me they are not only dedicated to their craft, but to making the Sing films genuinely good movies that do not lose the thread of the characters’ psyches. While continuity is always a tricky beast to handle, the fact that they managed to maintain it from film one to film two without missing a beat – something Hollywood regularly fails to do – is impressive, worthy of note, and far more worthy of imitation.

From here we can turn to the characters who got a little less screentime than in the first movie. Meena returns and is, as before, a shy elephant. While she can sing onstage without the slightest hesitation now, she is still quiet and a little bit reticent. This is as it should be since Meena’s main issue in the first film was her stage fright. Having overcome that does not mean she isn’t shy – she still is something of an introvert. In a surprising diversion from the usual Hollywood pattern, the writers remember this and make use of it. Meena receives a romantic part in the play at the heart of the film, something that makes her nervous because she has never had a boyfriend before. How can she reliably fake it with a stranger?

Buster makes the classic error of hiring an actor who gets good reviews to be her partner, only for the two of them to discover this actor is a narcissistic jerk. He is not an actively malicious person; he is simply so self-absorbed that he does not realize anyone else exists, or that they may find his behavior discomfiting. The audience sympathizes with Meena during their rehearsals because her partner climbs all around and over her. When she escapes outdoors just for some air to breathe it makes perfect sense, and the fact that she finds true romance in the process simply adds icing to the cake.

Rosita, too, remains the same character as before. More to the point, so does her family; a common trope in sequels to stories like Sing is to have the husband become obsequiously subservient to his wife after she “proves herself” to be “more than” a mother and a homemaker. But Rosita’s husband, Norman, never bows and scrapes to her like a slave. He does his best to support her emotionally when a routine rehearsal reveals a fear of heights no one – even Rosita – knew that she had and takes offense on her behalf when someone refers to her uncharitably as a “mommy pig.”

Sing 2 Character Posters Released, New Trailer Coming Tomorrow

A cut line from the film has Rosita herself stating she is quite happy being a “mommy pig,” something the film shows by how she receives her family when they arrive early for a visit. Swarmed and once again knocked to the ground, she nevertheless laughs and embraces her piglets, then kisses her husband. One of the first things she says upon recovering from her vertigo high up on the stage is, “Oh, my gosh, did my kids see that?” She doesn’t want to ruin her image not with an adoring public, but with her children.

Furthermore, it is nice to note that when the gang is having doubts about auditioning in front of a professional entertainment company, Rosita is the one who stops the bus from leaving. She proceeds with the expected speech about dreaming of performing professionally since she was a little girl, which would be standard operating procedure in a film like this. However, she then follows it up with a very natural statement many mothers have used throughout the ages: “Plus, I just convinced my husband to babysit our kids for the next twenty-four hours…”

One thing which caring mothers are good at is finding ways to avoid wasted time, wasted trips, and wasted efforts. Rosita pivots from the standard and, as Foxfier puts it, “feral trope” of “this is my dream and I will not lose it” to the more natural motherly response. It is a little thing but it is – and has been for some time – overlooked by most storytellers in film. The fact that Sing and Sing 2’s creators put in the time, thought, and consideration for this emotional continuity for the character is a testament to their dedication to the craft.

Finally, we come to Ash, the porcupine. There are several directions which Hollywood usually takes a character such as Ash and the writers avoided all of them. One of the two or three I thought the studio would use would be to have Ash become so confident she decided she didn’t need a boyfriend, yet ended up with an assistant who was madly in love with her. At the end of the film, they would realize it and she would gain what she had missed with her first significant other.

Another option I thought they might use would be to have her meet a new guy she would treat like trash while he swooned over her, with another fellow coming along later or becoming her assistant. The second guy would either prove to be a gentleman where the first was a cad, or the first would man up to prove himself to her while the second turned out to be as bad or worse than her boyfriend.

But the Sing director and writers went with neither of these unhealthy options. While Ash is far more confident and certain of herself within the film, she does not have a romantic interest at all. This would make sense in real life: once bitten, twice shy, and any girl in Ash’s position in the first film would be wise to wait before attempting to date again. Hollywood threw wisdom out a long time ago and so typically skips over the growing period where a girl learns what type of life partner she truly desires to have.

Here, though, the writers have Ash bridging the gap between the cast and the famous singer they want/need to recruit to make their show a success. This singer – Clay Calloway – lost his wife fifteen years before the movie started. What Ash was searching for in the first film, he has lost, and with that loss has gone all of his passion and creativity. Suffering from a different and utterly inconsequential defeat by contrast to him, Ash nonetheless reaches out to him and helps him rediscover fervor for music.

The two movies together offer an excellent illustration of character and emotional continuity, with the protagonists neither changing too much nor being too similar to where we found them first. Rather than resort to “shorthand,” as film often does, or follow tropes thoughtlessly, the creators treated their characters with respect. It is no wonder why Sing did so well when it was released, nor why Sing 2 was such a hit when it came out. Apart from the fact that it likely appeased audiences’ desire for a light, happy show, it is a well-crafted piece of fiction.

If you wish to learn more about maintaining the emotional continuity of your characters, future authors, pick up Sing and Sing 2 today. The movies offer a short but rich lesson on preserving the thread of character development at the same time the stakes and/or stories differ from one another. Thus, they keep the audience’s interest without sacrificing the protagonists’ growth, making their tales more appealing to all who come to watch.

Continuity is taking a pounding in present media. Go against the flow and give us stories that respect “what happened last time” or continue from where the characters and the audience left off. Readers will love you more for the consistency than anything else, as it will make your tales more realistic and relatable than a great many options currently on the market.

Most importantly, it will allow you to have fun. What is storytelling if it isn’t fun?

*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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5 thoughts on “Writerly Sound Bites, Number 12: Emotional Continuity for Characters in Fiction

  1. Pingback: Friday Five: At A Loose End Edition – Peat Long's Blog

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