Saturday, June 13, 2009

When reset buttons work

I hate reset buttons.

I didn’t have any strong feelings about them until I watched Star Trek: Voyager, where they were a weekly occurrence. The ship would be half destroyed in a battle, but by the next week it would be as though the damage never happened. Or someone would die/turn into a salamander/make some other major change, only to be restored/rehumanified/returned to wherever they’d been before the change. On the whole, this struck me as a cheap way to wring sentiment from the readers while not disturbing the status quo.

And some time after that I read the anti-reset button, George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, which further cemented my belief that when characters suffer (or die), they shouldn’t be miraculously healed or resurrected in a hurry. In other words, no reset buttons.

So it came as a bit of a surprise to enjoy a book with a reset-button plot – especially to the point where it made me want to write something similar. And it made me want to analyze why that worked.

The book is question is a Star Trek: Deep Space Nine novel titled Fallen Heroes, by Dafydd ab Hugh. In it, two characters are involuntarily sent forward in time by a few days, and they find everyone else murdered. They have to get back to their own time and prevent the murders.

So, why did this work for me?

The story made me want the button to be pressed.

A lot of reset buttons change a bad situation. They don’t change a situation so unbearable that the reader will want any way out of it, any way at all.

In the Star Trek universe, of course, the writer didn’t have a choice – the main characters couldn’t have died (and certainly not en masse). But the cleverness of the story was to make the readers grieve for their deaths – flashbacks showed how they went down fighting – and want this to be undone.

If a character is mutilated by the villain, as in David Farland’s The Runelords, I don’t want them to be magically healed (so I stopped reading the series when that happened). If just one character dies nobly, the readers might resign themselves to the character staying dead. But all of them, down to the kids? That’s too much to take. Anything would be better, including the reset button.

The story made the characters committed to pressing it.

If the plot is focused on something other than the reset button, activating this plot device will feel like a cheat. Say the hero is trying to find the mystical jewel of Lumpit (so he can give it to a wizard to use against an invading army), and during his quest he loses an arm. Or two, or three. But when he finds it, the jewel magically restores him to full health. Readers will feel justified in hurling the book at the wall. Or in my case, placing it on the floor and jumping up and down on it.

Fallen Heroes, on the other hand, worked because it acknowledged the reset button from the start, rather than trying to slip it in as a happy coincidence or after-effect of some other event or object. The restoration of the status quo didn’t seem like something bestowed on the characters by an author who was too fond of them to let anything permanently bad happen to them. It was a goal the characters struggled towards and finally reached. And when they did, I was happy for them.

No matter how much I dislike some plot device, there’s always an exception – when the author is good enough to make it work.


Paige Jeffrey said...

I think authors need to find their personal line between too innocent/not realistic and too gritty or depressing - and I think readers make their own too depending on their reaction to the book they're reading.

If a book does use something like a reset button and coddles its characters, it begins to feel fake and that'll ruin one's immersion into the story. Depending on one's personal tastes, some books can go too far to the other side and their grittiness turns depressing, especially if the reader wants to escape from their stress!

Anyways, fantastic article!

Anonymous said...

Interesting comments about this. I read one book which had not one, but two reset buttons. The main character was trashed so badly that she was going to die. Reset button #1: She eats a dead critter whose meat heals her. But when she does that, she loses her magic abilities because the dead critter has corrupted it. Reset Button #2. It's temporary. It wears off a chapter later.

The worst part was that if the author hadn't trashed the character to the point of death, neither of the reset buttons would have been needed.

L.M. Adams

Anonymous said...

That's why I love sci-fi shows like, Farscape and B5. The characters change and grow from their experiences.

I do love ST (I grew up on it), but the thing that always bothered me, is that they were never emotionally affected by *anything*. They could die and come back to life, be cloned, be reduced to animal selves, and the next episode they would be absolutely fine. (The only time they ever dealt with anything was with Picard and the Borg. He got that one ep when he visits his brother on Earth to come to terms with his ordeal)

I'm not sure if those examples are "reset" because they never said the things in the episodes never happened. It's just from ep to ep, things were conveniently forgotten.

Marian Perera said...

Hey Tasha,

That's a good point, though IMO emotional reset buttons are much more common in fiction - for instance, in romance, that would be the heroine who's nearly raped by the villain but who forgets it as soon as the hero kisses her.

In the Star Trek example, I wonder if writers were constrained from changing the characters from whatever default that they were at the start of the series. It would have been wonderful to see an gradual realistic example of character growth or devolution - to witness someone slowly changing their views on racism, for instance. In either direction.

Marian Perera said...

Hey Linda,

I really dislike it when whatever affects the character is temporary and they (and we) don't realize it. It's just too much of a happy event courtesy of the author.

What you said about the author trashing the character reminds me of an R. A. Salvatore novel where the drow capture and torture Drizzt, reviving him through some kind of magic potion which magically heals him so they can keep torturing him. Needless to say, they leave a flask of the potion nearby and when his friends inevitably break in, they use it to magically heal him.

Talk about eating your cake and having it too.

Marian Perera said...

Hi Paige, thanks for commenting!

Yes, I think many reset buttons are used for the reason you mentioned - the bleakness and tragedy gets to be too much.

Even my perennial favorite example, A Song of Ice and Fire, has a couple of instances where characters believed to be dead are found to be in somewhat better condition. Though that's always due to the characters' own skills or resources.

Polenth said...

That's one of the few time travel books I actually like. I think it's because despite resetting the past, there are consequences. They remember what happened in the future and will have to live with it, so they still have scars.