A Writing Thought from ‘Victoria’

I’ve started watching ‘Victoria’ recently. It’s pretty good; very well acted, very well designed, so decent writing. It definitely gets overly melodramatic at times, not to mention on the nose, sometimes overdoes the sneering jerkiness of the ‘bad’ characters (I would be very surprised to find that the real King Leopold would actually talk down to Victoria in the way he does here), and it’s clearly trying hard to be the next ‘Downton Abbey,’ but the story of Queen Victoria and her reign is more than interesting enough to keep things going.

Now, I’m only about three or four episodes in, but there was an incident in the last episode I watched that stood out to me. Victoria and Albert (when she’s still trying to make up her mind if she wants to marry him) are walking on the grounds of Windsor when Victoria’s dog Dash gets caught in a snare. Albert takes charge and tends to the dog, which leads…somehow to him shouting at her about the state of the poor, during which the dog is pretty much completely forgotten.

This kind of encapsulates what I think is a problem with a lot of contemporary stories: they focus on the wrong thing. They’re always diverting from the really interesting stuff, like nobility, virtue, courage, and character and getting bogged down in a boring morass of ‘issues.’ But in fiction, even historical fiction, the important thing isn’t the larger issues in the world of the story, but the individual characters and how they react. The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, but they are the substance of the story. Now, the most interesting thing about this scene is not the plight of the poor in early Victorian London. As far as that goes…well, it’s not exactly a pressing issue for us the viewers at this point. It matters only insofar as it reflects upon Victoria, Albert, and the other characters.

So, we have a scene where Victoria’s beloved dog is injured and Albert takes charge to help. The focus of this scene needs to be on Albert’s actions and Victoria’s reactions to it; he is stepping up to help Victoria in something that has nothing to do with her status as Queen, but is vitally important to her as a person. This shows they are on the same wavelength, that she can rely on him to care for her as a woman and not just as a monarch. But then, out of nowhere, they suddenly turn it to an argument about social justice solely to gin up some patently artificial conflict, while the poor dog is literally forgotten.

Let me be clear: it’s perfectly acceptable to have Albert and Victoria clash over matters of the poor. But not in that scene or at that time. It doesn’t fit what’s going on, the reactions aren’t natural, and, frankly, it’s disappointing. To take a really quite interesting and emotionally on-point scene and turn it to boilerplate social justice talk is like reading a story with a really imaginative and creative opening paragraph that suddenly turns into a political essay. It isn’t interesting to hear another tired variation of how the rich girl doesn’t know how the other half lives; it is interesting to see the ruler of the most powerful nation on Earth crying over her hurt dog and watch her princely paramour ripping the sleeve off of his shirt to bandage its leg. That’s got some dramatic meat to it, some romantic weight and encapsulates a lot into very little. In a word, it makes for a good story. Albert and Victoria shouting at each other about the underclass does not make for a good story.

So, my point is that, when telling stories, it’s the characters who are interesting; the larger surrounding issues are important only insofar as they reflect upon the characters. That, and you should know when and how to fit your de rigueur blow-up argument between the romantic leads into the story so that it neither feels forced nor leaves an injured puppy dog forgotten on the ground.

 

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