Thursday, November 21, 2013

Character Study: Barney Stinson

My friend Samantha asked recently during a How I Met Your Mother binge session, "How do they make Barney so likable?"

And it's a valid question. He's a horrible person, at least on the surface and in the early years. He treats women terribly, he's shallow, misogynistic, selfish, and condescending at best. His only goal in life is to hook up with hot chicks (his words, not mine), and he's incredibly rude about it as he does so.

And yet we root for him. He's one of the central characters on the show, and he's arguably the most enjoyable part of the show.

How do they do that?

Samantha and I came up with what we're calling The Trifecta: he's funny, his back story is super sad, and he grows a lot over the course of the show. I wanted to break that down a little more, see what I can learn from it (since my whole schtick is showing villains in a positive light). Here's what I came up with:

1. Barney is likable because he is funny. 
You could really pick any one trait to emphasize. Funny works for Barney because this is a sitcom. The other characters are funny, sure. But the heart and soul of the show is a pretty schmoopy-love-sick character, and Barney fills in the gaps, making sure there are a lot of laughs, even when the episode is serious.

He's responsible for the catch phrases that made the show famous: "Haaaaaave you met Ted?" "LEGEN-DARY." "Wait for it..." "<fill in the blank> Five!" "Challenge... accepted!"

They gave him one trait that was undeniably positive and it never goes away. He might not be funny to his friends on the show, but he always delivers the laughs to the audience, and that's what matters.

2. His back story is sad. 
You cannot help but feel bad for Barney once you learn his back story. It gets told in pieces, spooled out a little at a time (that's its own storytelling lesson), but each piece is a little more sad than the last.

He was dumped in a very heartless way. He was raised in a broken home filled with lies. He doesn't know who his dad is. He finds his dad and that's more sad than you could ever have imagined. Compared with Ted and Marshall, whose upbringings were hunky-dory suburban blandness, Barney's story is heart breaking.

His story is a little too over-the-top for any other type of story - you couldn't get away with such extreme measures in most stories, but the nearly-slapstick nature of HIMYM makes it work. But making us feel sorry for a character is a guarantee that we will forgive a lot of his abhorrent behavior.

3. He grows. 
No doubt, Barney's character arc is the most dramatic over the course of the show. It's nine years altogether, so everybody changes, but Barney makes the biggest changes, hands down.

By the time we enter season nine, Barney has opened himself up, abandoned most of the childish, hurtful behaviors of the earlier seasons, and just becomes a really stand up guy.

This goes a long way toward making audiences like him. If he were to continue being the same selfish womanizer from season one, we would have grown bored with him long ago. But he doesn't, so we don't feel bad rooting for him.

Because there's a chance he just might become the guy we hope he'll become.


Monday, November 18, 2013

Storytelling Tips from "Melissa and Joey"

One of my guiltiest pleasures is the ABC Family show, Melissa and Joey. It's adorable and funny and just cheesy enough that I can't turn it off. (No, seriously, I can't. I'm completely addicted.) I've been bingeing on Netflix since they added new episodes, and I realized there are a lot of lessons to learned from this show.

Not good lessons, more like a long list of "what not to do" tips.

The writers on this show take a lot of shortcuts. The most generous explanation for this is that they are deliberately hearkening back to the cheeseball nineties sitcoms that created the stars (Melissa Joan Hart and Joey Lawrence), but who knows?

In any case, here are the lessons I've been learning from this show:

- People are not plot points.

Or, more specifically, people are not merely plot points. During the first two seasons of M&J, characters marched onto the show, served as a plot point for a single episode (Lennox is thinking about having sex! Joe has a new girlfriend! Mel has an archenemy at work!), and then were never heard from again.


- Characters should grow over time.

Mel and Joe never change. They even make jokes about how they're the same people they were before they were in charge of these kids, and even all the way back to high school. We start to see the slightest inklings of a change at the end of season three, but that's nearly sixty episodes in. That's too far.

- Keep track of time.

There have been sixty episodes to date, over the span of three years. Mel has had approximately fifty new "boyfriends" during that time. First, that's a LOT of sexual partners for that amount of time. It's not impossible, of course, but it's improbable. It's even more unlikely given how much she cares about her political career and she's in a pretty small city. But beyond that, she's a woman in her thirties. She knows better than to think of a one-night-stand as a "boyfriend". Most of these men come and go within a single episode, meaning she starts dating them and then moves on within a week of TV-time.

When they do finally decide to make Mel get serious with someone, she's talking about settling down and having a family after two or three weeks together. It's not true to the character, and it's not true to life (deciding to have a baby together after only three weeks is fast by anybody's standards and would be a shocking revelation on any other tv show), and it's just not fair to the audience.

- Pay attention to where you are.

The show takes place in Toledo, Ohio. This is a city that is warm-ish in the summers, has distinct spring and fall, and a cold, snowy winter. Yet no character ever dons a winter coat, or wears functional boots. Everyone is perpetually dressed as if it's an early spring day: light layers and fashionable shoes. An episode set at "Christmastime" features Mel in a sundress with a light cardigan, no tights, and sky-high stilettos, and the dudes are all in jeans and t-shirts, no jackets.

On a more serious note, the city in real life is ethnically diverse, yet the show is overwhelmingly white. Real-life Toledo is only 64% white, and yet only a handful of black characters have walked through the M&J set.

The real lesson:

If you craft something that is cute enough, or reaches your target audience in just the right way, you can probably get away with making a lot of "mistakes." I forgive this show a lot of its "problems" because I like the stars, I think they're funny, and I like the veritable parade of 90s teen stars that marches across the screen.

We all know books that have been a huge success but have been riddled with problems, things that make most authors tear their hair out.

But you know what? It doesn't matter. You need to strike the right note and understand what your audience wants. Make sure those pieces are right, and let the rest fall where it will.

For me, personally? I'll work hard to make sure I don't fall into the M&J problem areas.


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Requerying

If you have agent friends, or agency experience, or publishing experience, I'd love to hear your responses to this. I'm thoroughly confused, and I genuinely want answers. This is not a "complaint" and it's certainly not just a rant.

When is it okay to requery?

Wait.

I want to be very clear up front: I would never requery an agent or editor unless I had significantly rewritten the manuscript, including the query and the synopsis, and let a significant amount of time pass. Six months, bare minimum. Probably more like a year. (I have not been querying long enough, nor have I racked up enough rejections for me to feel like this is an issue yet)

Now that I've cleared that up...

When is it okay to requery?

Lots of agents have interns or assistants who read their slush, and I would guess in these cases they don't read... I dunno... seventy? eighty? percent of what comes through their inboxes. Those interns and assistants probably turn over at a very fast rate, as most entry-level positions tend to do. So, in all likelihood, the intern who sent me a form rejection without even passing it on to the agent last year probably doesn't even work there anymore.

Trends change. Markets change. What felt old or stale last year, might be making a resurgence now. What felt weird and alien last year might feel just quirky enough to work today.

What about all the authors who queried for years with the same manuscript? Or who racked up hundreds of rejections on the same manuscript? Surely they requeried at least some of the people on their list?

When does it stop being "perseverance" and become "super annoying"? Or is a very tenacious author who keeps rewriting just actually a really annoying person?

One agent (who I have a lot of respect for, and I am not trying to insult her style or her methods) said that she is absolutely not a fan of the requery. At all. And she remembered someone who queried her (and got a form rejection, by the sounds of it) six years ago. 

Six. Years.

Granted, I would have written about six more novels in that time, and I probably would have been querying one of those instead.

However.

Lots of people say they go back and rewrite their trunk novels. Is it impossible to requery those... ever??? 

And, truth be told, there are times I can't even remember the substance of a book I read six years ago, much less the content of the back cover blurb. How do agents remember that long?

And if they do, is it really in my best interest to be all, "Hey you rejected this once, wanna have another gander?" Or is mentioning a significant rewrite sufficient? What if they don't remember me, am I only making it worse by mentioning that I queried before?

I'm genuinely confused by this. Please help.