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Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Talking Shop: MacGyver, Mood Congruence, and Building Good Characters • by Eric Dontigney


So, I was reading about MacGyver (the 1980s incarnation) the other day because that’s the kind of thing you do if you’re thinking about Swiss Army Knives, you’re American, and you remember anything about 80’s pop culture. One of the things they mention in the article is that he displays something called mood congruence. The basic explanation of mood congruence is this: a person’s (or for our purposes, a character’s) emotional state shows consistency with the broader situation. For example, MacGyver gets sad when faced with a personal loss.

It seemed like a trite sort of observation at first blush. I mean, obviously, characters’ emotions should reflect the situation they are in within the bounds of their roles. Except, it’s not so obvious. In fact, characters in books, films, and TV shows routinely fail to show emotional congruence. It’s especially bad among “heroes.” How often do we see heroes blithely waltz through absolutely lethal situations with a pithy comment on their lips? How often do we see these characters shrug off the horror of some tragedy with no ill effect?

Don’t get me, wrong. A little gallows humor is a perfectly acceptable coping strategy for characters…in the moment. Compartmentalization is a perfectly acceptable coping strategy for characters…in the moment. Yet, these coping strategies presuppose some emotional awareness on the part of the characters. Without that emotional awareness, you’ve just got an emotional zombie pantomiming the actions of a hero.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized how important something like mood congruence is to building good characters. Now, novelists have it a lot easier than people making movies or TV shows. It takes an uncommonly skilled actor or actress to convey that inner awareness and inner turmoil without recourse to clumsy dialogue or even clumsier narration/voiceover work. As novelists, we can explore that ground with relative ease. The real question is why so many of us don’t. It’s pretty common to find protagonists with inner monologues as blasé about pain, suffering, and tragedy as their exterior posturings project.

I’m not advocating that every author must plumb the depths of their characters’ emotional states. That would get tedious, especially in action-driven genre fiction. What I am suggesting is that having characters exhibit a bit more mood congruence, if only in their internal musings, would create better characters. A good character is one that the reader can relate to on some level. We all cheer for Superman because he’s superhuman and accomplishes superhuman feats. But, in the end, he’s not especially relatable. We admire Batman because we can understand and relate to him on some level. Most of us have felt fury at some injustice. We can think to ourselves:

“If I had billions of dollars, I might have gone that way.”

We love MacGyver because he’s a direct reflection of us. He might be smarter than most of us, but that’s it. He’s not made superhuman by solar radiation or afforded the force multiplication of billion-dollar technology. He’s a smart guy who feels the things we expect we’d feel in the same situations. Then, he pushes through those feelings as best as he can to get the job done. When it’s over, though, he’s affected by what he’s seen. He doesn’t shrug it all off like nothing happened. It’s that mood congruence that lets us invest in him in ways that we never can with those emotional zombie “heroes.”

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