Writing Right with Dmitri: What Constitutes a Nuance?
A few weeks ago, I was holding forth, as I am wont to do, on the subject of nuance. I'm for it, which is one of the reasons I particularly refuse to watch Harry Potter movies. Subtle, they're not. The ensuing discussion, however, brought up the idea that maybe I was giving the subject what my aunt always called 'a lick and a promise'. Maybe we need to talk a bit more about this nuance business. After all, there's not a lot of it going around in our public discourse or popular entertainment. And maybe we need to workshop a few ways to make our own work more nuanced.
The online dictionary calls a nuance 'a subtle difference'. Subtle as in 'not obvious'. If everything we say or write is obvious, why say it? What was it Alexander Pope said?
True Wit is Nature to advantage dress'd.
What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd;
Something whose truth convinced at sight we find,
That gives us back the image of our mind.
Yeah, like that.
We should use writing to put into words what others are struggling to express in their minds. That way, we help the process of thought along, and improve the public discourse. We need to do this: it's part of the job.
Recently, I realised that one way to do this was by writing fiction that takes a nuanced approach to popular memes. And I found a really good example in the Canadian series I've been binge-watching on Netflix, called Travelers. Travelers is a taut little science fiction series that is both engrossing and intellectually challenging – but it has a warmth of characterisation that is surprising for a time-travel thriller.
The situation in Travelers will not be unfamiliar to h2g2ers: somewhere in the future, Earth is nearly uninhabitable. The few humans left huddle in domes, are poorly fed, can barely reproduce. They're not ready to give up and die out: they use time travel and an AI called The Director to go back and try to change events in the 21st Century. They can only do this by consciousness transfer, replacing people who die. It's a clever premise, with lots of puzzling plot twists. But the people are what makes the series worth watching. The story doesn't take place in the future: it takes place in the here and now.
The writers don't pretend that everybody from the future is so terribly evolved that they can solve 21st-century problems with a snap of their fingers. A little bit of (flawed) knowledge is practically the only advantage they have, along with a few technological parlour tricks. The Travelers are faced with some hard challenges in their new lives – they have to take over the lives of their 'hosts', the previous occupants of their bodies, and try to live out their lives. One Traveler finds himself with an unexpected heroin addiction, another with an abusive husband and a baby to raise, one with teenager hormones, yet another with brain damage. They struggle, and in the process they provide the writers with an opportunity to explore human problems we are all familiar with. And that's where I find the series interesting.
Canadian writers tend to be more nuanced in their approach to the human condition than their colleagues south of the 54th parallel. I don't know why – perhaps it's less economic pressure to attract the largest possible audience – but they seem to write smarter than Hollywood. (Okay, the scenery's a bit familiar, but I'm willing to trade looking at that same lake and mountain in all my science fiction for getting better writing.)
For example, in a US story involving spousal abuse, the husband would obviously be the 'bad guy', the wife the 'good guy', and the outcome clear. Since the Traveler now inhabiting the wife's body is a trained soldier, she will clean his clock. If he doesn't go down and stay down, he will be killed. Audiences will cheer: the 'bad guy' got what was coming to him. We move on. The only lesson to be learned is that spousal abuse=bad thing.
In the Canadian series, we find out much more about this young couple. Yes, the husband (a policeman) is controlling by nature. He has a drinking problem. He tends to 'double down' when caught in an error. He lacks empathy. Thrust into the role of wife, the Traveler discovers that her host, too, has flaws. When the two begin fighting, the state takes the child away. As they struggle to work out their marriage problems and convince the authorities that they are fit parents, they grow a little. They have setbacks. The husband lapses, has too much to drink, and gets pushy with his wife. She reacts with her military training. Only the intervention of another character with science-fiction-provided foresight is able to prevent a tragedy… You get the idea: nuanced storytelling is hard work.
To get the nuances, you have to set up more complicated situations than 'the bad guys attack, our hero is alert, bam, pow!' You have to be patient with your material, refuse to rush character development, and avoid snap judgements about people. But oh, is it rewarding. You learn more than you thought you would. You might even learn something, dare we say it, that could be applied to real life.
You save characters, too. "Bad guys' can hang around longer if they're interesting.
Don't you write her off like that
She's a real fine lady, don't you see?
McGuinn, Clark and Hilman