Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Law of Character Conservation

In a bit of a break today, I’m going to talk about one of my personal observations on writing/characters: the Law of Character Conservation.

It goes like this: You’re watching a tv show and the handsome detective hero is pursuing a serial killer, because that’s what tv detectives do. He is aided by his trusty female computer-geek partner, who for reasons of fiction, is in love with him and they’ll flirt a lot, because of course they will. Now, you know that the computer nerd grew up on a farm in a small town and had a hard life, etc. etc. backstory, etc.

Then, in the twist end of the season finale, you find out that the serial killer is the nerd’s long-lost brother!

This is an example of the Law of Character Conservation. In essence, because we already know the backstory of the computer geek, we ALSO know the backstory of her serial killer brother. In essence, the show then doesn’t have to explain who he is and where he comes from. That’s already been accomplished. All they have to do is explain why he’s a serial killer and it’s done. They have just used the same backstory for both characters and thus, Conserved a Character.

NOTE: Is it wrong that I keep wanting to type ‘serial killer’ as ‘cereal killer?’

You tend to see this most often on tv shows, where they have a limited budget and run time, so they can get to the exciting parts (the detective fighting the serial killer) faster, rather than spending an entire episode on backstory. Movies and books tend not to do it as much.

Now, it’s not an absolute. New characters with new backstories and no relation to the current cast will and do appear, it’s just that once you notice how often this is used, you’ll start to see it all over the place.

And it doesn’t necessarily have to be a brother or sibling to an established character. It can be a college buddy or former boyfriend/girlfriend or their next-door neighbor. They just need to have some connection.

‘But wait!’ some of you are saying. ‘Isn’t this because it’s more shocking and/or surprising to have the killer/victim/whatever be related to an existing character and not because of your weird little law?’

To which I say: maybe at first. Maybe when tv shows were a new thing it was surprising to have the killer be the brother or the babysitter or something, but does that really surprise anyone anymore? I think it’s actually more surprising nowadays to have a completely unrelated killer/whatever.

Anyway, once you get used to spotting this, it’s a great way to annoy/impress your friends and family by going ‘oh, I bet it’s his sister’s best-friend’s former babysitter’ right off the bat and then being right.



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