Keeping Things Fresh

Another subject that people on Twitter have asked me to cover in the blog is how to keep a long-running show “fresh”. After three seasons of Wolfblood, I suppose I should know a few things about that…

One of the things that CBBC have always pushed us to do is never repeat the same theme or story engine from season to season. The first season of Wolfblood was driven by the jeopardy of discovery: “Will the people around us find out our secret?” It would have been easy to repeat that threat in the second season – after all, it’s the obvious jeopardy in this kind of story, and there were still plenty more people to discover the secret! But it would have locked us into telling the same stories with different characters. So we moved away from that, exploring the wider Wolfblood world instead – and in season three, drawing our characters into a conspiracy on a scale they’d never faced before.

Another key to keeping the show fresh is to develop the minor characters. While the K’s as a unit function as fantastic comic relief, when we get one of them on their own, we can tell terrific character stories with them. The same applies to Jimi, Liam and Sam. The whole ‘werewolf hunter’ plot in season two began as a subplot to develop Liam’s character, and evolved into a key story element for the whole season.

Finding ways to use the adult world in a story without diminishing the child characters also gave us new stories and new emotions to explore. Tying the new characters strongly to the child characters – Rhydian’s mum, Jana’s father and pack – made them part of the regular characters’ stories, but great performances have made them popular characters in their own right.

It’s also easy to get stuck using a character in the same way all the time. Alric, Jana’s father, worked fantastically for us as a threat throughout season two – but the last time we brought him back, we decided to reverse all that and show him as a broken man who’s lost everything. Immediately everyone’s relationship with him changes and there are new stories to play. So look for logical, compelling ways to use characters in different ways.

Finally, don’t be afraid to break the format now and then. The season two episode “The Mottled Poppy” was essentially a haunted house story, completely different to anything we’d done before, and I think it helped show aspects of the characters and elements of our world that we wouldn’t have been able to show in a ‘normal’ episode. We couldn’t tell those kinds of stories every week, but once in while, they help keep the show interesting and dynamic.

Anyone else have any tips? What great techniques have you seen your favourite shows use to stay fresh and exciting?

Vampire, Werewolf, or Ghost?

On Twitter the other day, someone was joking that, in the wake of Being Human, they now look at every new character in any TV show and ask themselves “werewolf, vampire or ghost?”

It’s an intriguing thought, especially when applied to Coronation Street! But actually, isn’t there something we can learn from this as writers?

As we all know, every fictional character needs a flaw. Perfect people are unconvincing, undramatic, and don’t generate interesting plots and conflicts in the way that characters with flaws and failings do.

And you could make the case that all character flaws fall into three categories: vampire, werewolf and ghost.

The vampires are self-obsessed. It’s all about them: their needs, their wants, their desires. They’re the characters who need to learn to care about others – everyone from the grizzled action hero who needs to learn to reconnect with humanity, to the work- obsessed dad who needs to value his family above his job.

The werewolves are decent people, but they’re at the mercy of their deepest desires. They’re the junkies, the alcoholics, the thieves and the people who can’t stop running their mouth. They’re the big flashy roles that stars are often drawn to, because they have a lot to overcome during the course of the film or series.

And lastly, the ghosts. The ghosts are haunted by the past. They have unfinished business, physical or (more likely) emotional, that they need to deal with during the course of the story. Their story will only be over when they learn to move on and live in the present, not the past.

So, is your hero a vampire, a werewolf or a ghost?

Where Is As Important As What

I’ve touched on the importance of setting in a couple of other posts, but I thought it might be useful to consider some of the ways  the physical location and the social location (the community it takes place in) can affect your story.

Stop for a moment and think of a few movies where you found the settings particularly memorable. Why was that?

It was probably because the setting was thematically linked to the plot in some way. The best locations for stories symbolically reinforce the central character’s situation and desires.  A character who feels trapped, and lives in the shadow of a prison, or in a house full of locks and a high-tech alarm system,  finds her inner feelings mirrored in the physical setting. Alternatively, her desire for escape might be manifested in the flocks of birds that wheel over the garden every day, or the busy train station just across the road.

Additionally, choosing the right location can provide opportunities for the plot.  One of the key skills to writing action scenes for Hollywood movies is the ability to find the right setting for each scene. The confrontation between the hero and the villain in an ice cream shop will be very different to the same confrontation on a building site. There’ll be different objects to hand to use as weapons, different places to hide, different means of escape. You may not be writing action scenes, but in the same way, you can use the setting to provide the things you need to make your story work – obstacles, allies, enemies and problems.

Choosing the right setting can create a vivid social world for your central character to inhabit. If a key point in the story is your central character’s relationship with the neighbours, then you can have him living on a busy suburban street – or you might want to have only two cottages down an isolated country lane to intensify the relationship between two families. If the central character is going to try to kill his wife, then have them live somewhere that provides interesting opportunities for murder and for the disposal of the body.

It can introduce a unique element into a familiar story.  If the plot or even the characters of your story are fairly well-worn, you can create additional interest by placing the whole thing in an unusual physical or social setting. Instead of setting your family drama on a housing estate, why not locate it in the married quarters of an army base, or among the live-in staff of a public school?   Instead of a tough comprehensive, have your teacher teach at a Steiner school, or a specialist school for children with autism. A little research into this unfamiliar world, and you create a whole new level of interest for your readers.

A well-chosen setting gives a level of realism to a fantastical plot.  This is the approach we took with Wolfblood – everything’s the same as real life, except that some characters are Wolfbloods. The characters struggle with homework, friendships, parents and money troubles – oh, and a few other problems when the moon rises. The ordinary, everyday setting “grounds” our supernatural story in a world that feels familiar and real.

Alternatively, you can set the story in a fantastical version of reality, showing the reader that they’re entering into a new world where new rules apply. Alice In Wonderland shows us a fantastical version of Victorian society, where society is reflected in a distorting mirror and all the rules are changed. In contrast, The Water Babies sets a tale of the supernatural against the grim reality of life as a child chimney sweep. Both have extremely vivid, effective settings – they’re just different approaches.

So, how can you use a thematically appropriate, vivid setting to make your story stronger and more believable?

Fully Wolf And Fully Human

“… I thus drew steadily nearer to the truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two.”

Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

 

So many great characters have a dark side.  From Luke Skywalker tempted by the dark side of the Force to Bruce Banner trying to tame the Hulk within, we love watching another human being wrestle with their darkest impulses – and sometimes what we love best is watching them lose.

The dark side of man is deeply woven into European myth, and reaches its peak in those two classic nightmare figures, the vampire and the werewolf. Though human in appearance (at least part of the time), they’re at the mercy of an uncontrollable animal nature that threatens to well up when they’re exposed to certain cues – the full moon, the smell of blood – and overwhelm them.  They’re dangerous to others, and at best can only exist on the margins of society, where their true nature can be hidden or controlled.

Or can they?

While developing Wolfblood, I wanted to take a whole new approach to the animal nature.  Because I believe mankind is, as Dr. Jekyll observed, “truly two” – or five, or twelve, or any number of facets.  We all carry within us all kinds of apparent contradictions.  We can be gay and devoutly religious: a career woman and a dedicated mother; conservative on some issues and virtually libertarian on others.  And as long as we openly acknowledge the different facets of our personality, and appropriately towards those around us, that’s a good thing.  It’s the interactions between the differing facets of our personality that make us who we are.

So the characters in Wolfblood don’t fear and hate their animal nature.  It’s a valued part of them.  This, of course, meant making some story-telling decisions on how that animal nature is expressed, because once they’re ‘fully wolf and fully human’ (as I told everyone, a lot more times than they needed to hear it!)  the old rules don’t apply any more.

So we rewrote the werewolf myth as a gift rather than a curse, a natural ability rather than an unnatural one, something that empowered our characters rather than tormented them.  Is transformation pleasant or unpleasant?  How much control do they have over when it happens? How far do they remain themselves in wolf form? What part do wolf senses and instincts play in their human lives?  All up for grabs in this new world…

The best part of all this, of course, is that we were able to pick and choose from existing werewolf stories, taking the elements we found useful and discarding others – and there are plenty of myths and legends still waiting to be explored!