Sunday, September 23, 2012

Looking for the familiar

By: Joelle Charbonneau

My husband is a huge fan of the Phantom of the Opera.  Me…eh…I like it just fine, but if you got into a musical theater debate with me, I’d probably come up with all sorts of reasons why I think the show needs a bit more tweaking.  Which is probably a bit audacious of me, but hey, I’m allowed my opinion, right?

Anyway, because my husband is a fan, he has been following the launch and reworking of the sequel to Phantom, Love Never Dies, with great interest.  While Phantom of the Opera was a huge hit, the sequel hasn’t set the world on fire.  In fact, a lot of die hard Phantom fans (my husband not included) have had huge complaints about the new show.  Because of that, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and team have reworked the music and tinkered with the story.  But no matter the changes, the musical still has yet to connect with the existing fan base.


The writer in me has a theory.  It is because the characters have changed.  The story opens almost a decade after the original ended.  Of course the characters have changed.  They gotten married, had children, led lives. It only stands to reason that things will be different.  But, to me, the problem isn’t that the characters’ lives have changed—that which makes them what they are has changed.  The heroine is no longer heroic.  The musical opens with her having committed betrayals that at the core change who she is and how the audience connects with her.  The Phantom—the villain or anti-hero of the first musical—is now the hero.  Characters we liked have become warped and filled with jealousy and hate.  While the characters are still familiar by name, they are not familiar by nature which automatically disconnects the audience and disrupts the story before it ever has a chance to begin.

Crime fiction is filled with continuing characters and long running mystery and thriller series.  Time passes in between the last page of one book and the first page of the next.  Weeks, months and years go by between one case and another.  Readers are willing to accept that their favorite characters’ lives have continued.  But despite those changes when they open the next book, the reader expect to “know” them.  They expect that the choices that the characters have made between one book and the next will reflect the character’s core values and beliefs that are demonstrated on the page.  Those core values can change, but not out of the sight of the reader.  A reader wants to see those changes.  To live them alongside the character.  To feel the emotional tug-of-war and experience the path the character takes to come out the other side.  To change the core of a character out of sight of the reader is akin to pulling a bait and switch.  Which isn’t fun for anyone.

I’ve stopped reading a number of series because the characters felt distant and unfamiliar at the start of the next book.  Have you ever had that problem?  Have you ever felt cheated because a character had a major experience that you didn’t get to be a part of or changed them in a way that made the character unappealing?  And if you’re a writer, how do you deal with the time gaps that inevitably occur in between books?  Do you worry about what hasn’t been shown on the page?  And hey – who knows—maybe the folks in charge of Love Never Dies will read your comments and figure out how to make it the next blockbuster musical.  My husband would be grateful if they did!


Dana King said...

Excellent point. People can deal with characters who evolve; people do i naturally, so it grounds them a little. Leaving a character alone for an extended period makes the character appear to have changed instead of evolved.

Think of people you know. If you say "So-and-so has changed, you probaby haven't had many dealings with that person for an extended period. Those you see or chat like all the time rarely seem to change too much, at least not in a unexpected manner. You're living through their evolution.

This was part of the problem with Dennis Lehane's MOONLIGHT MILE. No one was a bigger fan of the Kenzie-Gannaro stories than me, but this book left me flat. They had evolved as characters in Lehane's mind, but to me, as a reader who hadn't seen them for a long time, they were just different.

Dave White said...

I have a major problem with Christine in Phantom. She falls in love with a mass murderer... lays a big ol' kiss on him because he sings all weepily, and in turn tries to make the audience feel sorry for him too. Meanwhile, the good guy, who goes through a ton of crap to save her and treat her right has to keep his mouth shut about their engagement. Blech, Christine, blech.