I was doing a brainstorming session with a client not long ago, and she mentioned how she finds herself trying to emulate George R. R. Martin and Brandon Sanderson by adding multiple layers and and intrigues and subplots, and it was frustrating for her, because it wasn’t really what she wanted to write, but she felt like she should in order to please a certain audience.
She also mentioned at one point also that she was considering changing her protagonist from a male character to female. I asked why, and her answer was because it seems like that’s what’s popular right now–strong, YA females.
Another time, I was discussing a friend’s story, and that friend was concerned because the political climate in her story parallels to an extent the political climate in the United States right now, and even though she originally wrote the story a couple years ago, she doesn’t want it to appear as though she’s making a political commentary, so she was trying to figure out a way to change that without making it unrealistic.
The thing that these three instances have in common is that they all involve changing something within a storyline that already exists.
Of course, this happens all the time. That’s what editing is for, and in many cases changing some things is necessary in order to improve the story. But there’s a fine line between changing things to improve them and changing things simply to change them.
If you change your story or your characters or your motivations for the wrong reasons, it will make them feel contrived, because they will be contrived. In some cases, a female protagonist might serve the story better than a male protagonist. A secondary character may come forward as the true focus of the story. A subplot may add dimension. A different motivation might make more sense depending on the character or situation than what was there previously.
But if you change things to try to fit with a current trend, your audience will feel it. It won’t be true to the story.
How can you tell if your changes will feel contrived?
Every time you consider changing something, ask, “Why do I want to change it?” Then ask yourself, “How will this improve my story?” You already know that each scene should propel the story forward. Each character should contribute, even if it’s just as a prop. Adding or changing things just for the sake of being popular or politically correct or trendy is the wrong reason.
Essentially what I told my client was, “You may write a story with a strong, YA female protagonist at some point, but this is not that character. You may write a story with layers and layers of intrigue and subplot, but this is not that story. You already know your purpose and what you’re aiming for with this story. Don’t try to make it into something it isn’t.”
In the case of my friend, it was more a matter of “How can you change the politics and the character motivations to reflect what you’re aiming for plot-wise so it’s not a political commentary without changing the dynamics of the character at the core or the world as it’s already set up?”
Any plot device or character arc or world building should serve your story. If it doesn’t, then it is contrived.