Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Balancing Action and Character--A Dystopian Dilemma

This week I found an article entitled, Love and Heroics in the Time of Dystopia (Source: L.A.Times). It's really just a review of Lauren Oliver's Delirium Trilogy, but it got me thinking about the dystopian trend and it's potential drawbacks.

The author of the article claims that the premise of Oliver's trilogy is a compelling one--a world where love is a disease that must be 'cured' in order to live a good, easy, normal life--and diving in, the trilogy is very compelling. As it goes along, though, the article claims, character dynamics are sacrificed in favor of heroics and action, in order to keep the audience interested.

I've never read the Delirium trilogy, but it occurs to me that this might be a problem in more than one dystopian story. The philosophical ramifications of dystopian societies are endlessly interesting and make us stop to think about our choices on a personal and societal level. Dystopians also tend to be save-the-world kinds of stories, though, which means we feel like we need to put lots of high-action scenes in them. Once the philosophical question is posed, it may also be hard to keep the audience reading, so we fall back on action scenes to keep them turning the pages.

So how do we balance action and character arcs?

It's a tricky thing with no hard-and-fast rules that would apply universally, but here are a few tips that might be useful.

1. Plan your character arc in advance. Make sure your characters (the main ones at the very least) change throughout the course of the story. Wherever they begin, be it on an emotional, psychological, or philosophical level, they should end somewhere different, which is why it's called a character arc.

Luke Skywalker starts out a naive farm boy, but ends a strong, confident Jedi. Harry Potter starts out with a pathetic life and completely ignorant of his true origins, but ends a knowledgeable, victorious wizard. Seeing a pattern? Decide how you're character will change in advance and run through a progression of scenes to show the change. Intersperse them with action and you won't lose the literary aspect of your story.

2. Alternate action with ramification. High action scenes generally contain violence and/or ground-breaking events. Unlike most Hollywood action films, people don't just take such things in stride and go to lunch. Your characters need to have emotional reactions to what's happened or happening to them. Show them dealing with it on a visceral level. Alternate such scenes with the actual action sequences and your audience will get neither bored nor burnt out.

I was a big 24 fan when it was on t.v. Some of my favorite scenes, which often got cut on T.V. were when Jack Bauer, in between smack-downs with terrorists, would have a quiet moment to cry, puke, or have a tender second with a loved one. On the surface, he was a super-cool, bada**, terrorist's nightmare, and we loved him for that. But scenes of vulnerability made him more human. It made us identify with him so much more, and gave the character a realistic feel. Even for 24.

3. Trust your audience. While your readers don't want to be bored, don't assume that any scene that isn't high-action is boring. As long as you are moving your story forward and your readers are identifying with your characters, they can potentially love every scene. For me, some of the best scenes in both films and books are the ones where the characters become tender or sentimental; where they break down their walls, show us their past, their beliefs, or their vulnerability. If you do this well, when you dive into the next action sequence, your readers will be behind your characters a thousand percent more strongly than they would have been without that emotional connection. Trust me on that.

What was the best scene of Hunger Games? When she was running for her life, preparing for battle or fighting one? That was pretty dang cool, but the scene that stuck with us and made us hate the Capital on Katniss' behalf was when she buried Rue and the entire world watched her give Rue's sign. Right? We needed that emotional connection. I could give other examples, but I think you get the point.

What do you think? Do our stories too often short change character development in favor of action? Is this a bigger problem in dystopia than in other genres? How do YOU balance the two?


  1. I tend to focus as much if not more on the characters. That's what makes a story for me.

  2. Characters are definitely the vital part. Without good characters the story - no matter how good - can't really go the distance.

  3. Great points Liesel. One of my favorite things about 24 was Jack was determined, but not cruel. It made his arc work.

  4. I completely disagree. First of all, as someone else commented, characters are what make a story. The high stakes involved in Dystopian fiction create some incredible opportunities to explore human emotion. The conflict of succumbing to a natural emotion (love) when it has been outlawed and demonized provides the ultimate backdrop to, what else, a great love story.

    I have read Delirium (and am currently working on the 2nd book, Pandemonium) and, as I mentioned in my review which can be found here: , the characters came across flat at times. This was by no means a fault of the dystopian genre but, rather, a choice of the author to stay true to the story setup of an emotionless society. I was hoping that the lead character would show some growth in the subsequent books and I am pleased to say that she has.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post!