Character Matters

                Are we living in the future of storytelling? Is everything post-post-post modern and non-linear and full of narrative tricks and twists until we don’t know what a story is? I don’t know. Maybe that’s true, but I think we still need stories with logical arcs and characters that we care about. Great artists can create works that go against this — and it’s always great when they do — but I’ve seen two recent works that don’t really bother and I think they suffer for it.

                First up is a podcast — Welcome to Night Vale. It takes the form of a news broadcast from a bizarre desert town packed with paranormal, conspiracy theory and surreal activity. There are mysterious Hooded Figures, freaky angels, a police state local government, underground cities and all sorts of Nameless Eldritch Horrors waiting to make their appearance. Welcome to Night Vale has excellent production values, great writing and even cool musical interludes. It’s frequently very funny — and also very scary and weird. But it’s not really much of a story. Sometimes there are callbacks to the odd events — a mysterious Glow Cloud returns, for instance — and there may even be some kind of over-arching story surrounding a horrific Dog Park. But there are really no characters. The reporter checks in with some of the town’s residents, but they’re all one-note sorts who are used as punch line or set-ups for some weird joke. As a result, there’s really nobody in Night Vale who I care about. If the next report revealed that the whole town was gobbled up by some cosmic cow or something (a very real possibility in Night Vale) I wouldn’t really care. It just wouldn’t matter as there’s nobody in Night Vale who is a real person. I think it’s a pity that Welcome to Night Vale doesn’t do more with what they have. Too often, the show is just a recitation of odd events which, while entertaining, can’t really establish an emotional connection with the listener. I’ll stick with Night Vale and I hope it’ll change and I’ll get my Lake Wobegone as written by HP Lovecraft fix, but right now, it’s adherence to formula stops it from being truly great.

                Next on my list is this new movie called Europa Report. It’s about a privately-funded expedition to Europa where a bunch of scientists search that icy moon of Jupiter for alien life. I won’t spoil what happens, because it’s pretty cool — but I will say that it’s a flawed movie because it tries to be non-linear and ignores character building to its detriment. The movie starts in the middle, flips back to the beginning and then goes to the end. It’s a cute trick, I suppose — but it stops us from getting close to the characters. These astronauts remain sort of aloof figures, darting about in their spaceship and chatting about all the dangers outside, but we never see them as real people. When they start getting bumped off, it’s met with shrugs instead of actual emotion as we’ve never had the time to know them before they’re gone. Europa Report tries to offset this (as a lot of movies do) by telling instead of showing. A character video tapes the ship and talks about how much he loves his young son. Nice try, Europa Report,  but having a character say ‘boy, I sure have emotions and loved ones’ once or twice doesn’t actually make us care about them. The final astronaut to die is actually one who we spend very little time with. She could be as cool as Ripley in Alien, but because we never get a sense of what she’s like or her personality, she’s just another random astronaut. Oh, and Europa Report is found footage which, as usual, comes across as gimmicky and silly. Still, I enjoyed the movie overall. It had some cool moments and did a decent job with how vast and terrifying the void of space is, but it’s hard not to see the much better film that could have been made with a good main character and a traditional structure and filming style.

                That’s really what I feel about both of these things. I do enjoy reading, viewing and listening to experimental works that break these rules — but they can’t half-ass it. If you want to make a traditional story of some sort, don’t neglect compelling characters for cheap gimmicks or easy jokes, because while the latter may earn a few half-smiles or even a chuckle, the former will create a story that earns my interest and my emotions — and that’s the goal of almost all fiction, no matter what the future holds.

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