Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Dorothy Effect - Ordinary Protagonists Facing Extraordinary Worlds

I have a confession: I'm not really interested in aliens who eat sulfur while solving differential equations for the sole purpose of "becoming one with math."  I like math, but not enough for that.  Now, if you give me a snot-nosed little twerp who tells his older brother to turn off those Saturday morning cartoons because he's studying calculus to become an astronaut, on the other hand, I'd be willing to follow that story.  I'm not convinced that he'll become an astronaut, but I don't need to be - what I really want to know is whether or not I have a chance of becoming an astronaut - and that little twerp will help me understand my own chances with NASA.  And if it just so happens that NASA is currently short on manpower because of the ongoing war with the aliens from Centauri Prime...well, I still want to know what cartoons are on.  It is, after all, Saturday morning.

As you've noticed, this is a science fiction course, but this course addresses the topic with a bit of a twist - rather than focusing completely on how to write the weirdly awesome and fantastical journey, we'll be talking about how to write the ordinary, everyday people who make these journeys.  I like to think of this as the "Dorothy Effect."  Basically, one reason The Wizard of Oz works so well as a story is that we get to see the tale from the point-of-view of someone we can relate to - a farm girl from Kansas.  She doesn't have magical powers or any special ideas on how to strike down wicked witches - all she has are guts, a desire to go home, "and her little dog, too."

I've decided to focus this course on the "Dorothy Effect" because much of the science fiction I've read tends to ignore this important aspect of characterization. Something that makes Dorothy such a compelling character in The Wizard of Oz is that, despite her ignorance of the rules of this new world, she's determined to return home.  She has an ordinary - and perfectly understandable - motive driving her actions.  At the same time, though, she adheres to a compelling set of moral standards.  When she runs across people in need - the Scarecrow with no brain, the Tin Man with no heart, and the Lion with no courage - she offers to help.  She brings them along on her journey to see The Great Wizard.

As readers, we like to think that we, too, would be like Dorothy.  She's plucky and brave, and willing to help a friend.  As it is for our own lives, her fate is a complex result of luck and determination.  Her house falls on the Wicked Witch of the East, earning her an enemy.  But when the Wicked Witch of the West gets out of hand, Dorothy doesn't just stand for it - she fights back.  She's got her Ruby Slippers, and she'll keep them on her feet, by golly.

In considering Dorothy, though, we must also pay attention to the personal nuance of her character.  Part of the interest comes from her unwillingness to kill others.  She's saddened by the fact that she killed the Wicked Witch of the East.  Never mind that it was accident, or that she has secured the freedom of the Munchkins - someone has died under the weight of Dorothy's own home.  Later, when the Wizard commands her to destroy the Wicked Witch of the West, Dorothy isn't sure she can do it.  More compelling still, Dorothy tries to save the Wicked Witch from fire.  It's true that the bucket of water does kill the Wicked Witch, but Dorothy's motive for tossing the water is pure.  She tries to prevent her mortal enemy from burning to death.  If she only cared about getting home, she would have set that fire herself or - better still - sprayed on some gasoline to keep it going.  But Dorothy isn't that kind of person.  She's a farm girl from Kansas, with a kind heart and complex desires.

In our own writing, we want to compose our Dorothy characters with a complex combination of traits.  Some characters are gutsy like Dorothy - others will be cautiously terrified like the father in Finding Nemo.  Some characters will be honest and noble to a fault, always standing for "Truth, Justice, and the American Way" like that icon Superman - contrast that with the characters played by Marlon Brando and Al Pacino in The Godfather, two individuals who are too astute to imagine that the good guys always win (or that the good guys are even honest...)  And note that although very simple traits may define our characters, but it's often the antithesis of these traits which define the development of that character over the course of a story.  Dorothy favors kindness over getting home while the cowardly papa fish Marlin overcomes agoraphobia to to search for his son; Superman blatantly lies to Lex Luthor at the end of Superman II while that money-minded gambling boss Don Corleone makes an impassioned speech against selling drugs.

As we go through the course, we'll talk about more ways to meet this balance of writing characters who are physically ordinary while being emotionally complex.  And we'll contrast this with something I'll call the "Peter Parker Effect," in which a character who has superhuman abilities is still driven by very human emotional needs.

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