I promise, I’m not addicted to Orson Scott Card. Well, maybe his writing advice, but that’s because he seems to understand that he can’t provide universal rules that apply to every single situation. Storytelling is an art, and as such can’t be broken down into a science. Adding X plot device together with Y characters and Z ending doesn’t automatically equal a good story.

So, if I mention him a good bit that’s why. I think he says things well, and in the right way, and so why not mention him?

Anyway, my review of Captain Phillips mentioned the way that the film seemed to develop its characters. That is, the film developed the characters not in the standard way, that way being develop them first, then put them in danger later. Instead, the film developed the characters in the danger. In other words, it is because of the extreme amount of peril the characters are in that we care about them. That’s an interesting approach to character development, and at least in Captain Phillips it worked. Orson Scott Card has something to say about that form of character development.

His primary claim, from the book Characters and Viewpoint, is that this type of character development is, well, tricky. Sometimes it works well, and if it does then you’ve saved yourself some time in the story and can jump right into the action. Other times it doesn’t work and then you, generally, get two results.

Card's Book on characters is fabulous
Captain Phillips is able to do what Card tells us is possible, but difficult–developing the characters through the danger.

The first possible result is that the audience just doesn’t care about the characters. They’re disengaged and removed from the story, allowing them to guess twists and turns and judge the story in a cold and disconnected manner. That’s probably not a good idea. When the audience is constantly running a story through a checklist to make sure it’s checking all the boxes, it usually means that they’re not immersed in it. Instead of a story grabbing their attention and refusing to let go, it’s just a thing that’s happening.

That result puts the storyteller in a bit of a tough place.

The other result that Card lists is also probably not desirable. That result is that, in the pursuit of making us sympathize with the characters because of the huge amount of peril they’re in, the storyteller places the characters in so much peril that the audience can’t stand it. It’s so intense, so visceral, the audience has to walk away.

Card cites the example of him having to walk out of the films Alien and Aliens. The amount of peril the characters were in was too much for him. He had to leave and disconnect. So he did. Eventually he was able to make it through them, but not in the theaters.

The key is the amount of danger. How dark, how intense, how visceral, how dire is the character’s circumstance? There’s not a magic amount, or a formula that tells the storyteller when they’ve put enough, too little, or too much peril into the story.

Personally, I don’t think I will, at least for a while, try this type of development. I’d be preoccupied with the reaction of the audience so much that I wouldn’t be able to focus on the story itself. Nevertheless, I appreciate Captain Phillips’ success in the area. It seems like a hard thing to pull off, and Card certainly seems to think it is. However, for me, it just isn’t a danger worth taking.