Breaking Characters Down

I love the moment when  a character is at their lowest point. When they can’t look up and see the light, when they’re down and being kicked, when things are a mess. I love drama and mess and catharsis. What I don’t love is when writers tend to beat characters down for no good reason. We’re going to go over a few examples of breaking characters down in mostly western dramas because it is a unique issue faced by series that go on for hundreds of episodes with a constant need to ratchet up the tension. Because we’ll be talking character arcs and plot points: a spoiler warning is in effect: proceed with caution if that’s something you’re particularly sensitive to. 

 Dr. Spencer Reid has been through a lot. His time in all 15 seasons of Criminal Minds saw him battling an addiction to painkillers, the death of his girlfriend at the hands of an insane stalker, the continued ups and downs of his mother’s deteriorating mental health and the death of his mentor, loss of his best friend and the faked death of a beloved coworker. Spencer has been through a lot to say the least. But what does that do for Spencer? Spencer who is already kind, trusting, supportive and loving: what does it do for him? Does having his mentor murdered and having to solve the case make him a better investigator? Does having to watch his girlfriend die make him more empathetic? Does losing Morgan after years of dating- I mean, friendship do anything for him? No, it makes him hardened and sad and pathetic. And while he is far from the only character in Criminal Minds to have episode after episode hurt him, it feels particularly undeserved for Spencer; who as of the narrative has already been through so much. 

Sam Taggart is a nurse we meet in ER and when she’s introduced she’s scrappy, young and has a child despite her young age. She’s often referred to as Teen Mom and becomes less known for her actual character traits and more for the men she sleeps with from Dr. Kovac to Dr. Why is John Stamos Here. Sam is also known for her no good ex who is a literal convict and garbage human. She does her best to distance herself and her son from her horrible baby daddy but a dramatic season finale and season opening episode duo have her literally kidnaped by her convict ex along with her son. She is taken on a hostage road trip for a while after her convict ex stabs her then ex-boyfriend with a paralytic drug and during the road trip, she is raped by her ex. For network television, we see a pretty decent amount of the crime which turned my stomach upon first viewing. You see the light leave Sam’s eyes, you see her lay here, you see her resist and then not. It’s a tragic scene that ends with her murdering her attacker and taking herself and her son to freedom. What was that supposed to teach Sam? What is the lesson? What was the reason? Was the lesson to continue to do what she had been doing: not trusting her ex and being strong? Was the lesson that rape makes a woman stronger? Was the lesson that overcoming your attacker with violence makes a woman stronger? What was the lesson Sam and thus the audience is meant to learn from her trauma? 

By now you may be asking why I care so much. You may be curious since I started by saying that I love melodrama and stakes. Well, I do. But they have to amount to something. We’re going back to Criminal Minds for an example of an arc done right. Aaron Hotchner, the person who revealed that I have Daddy Issues, had an amazing arc of him losing his marriage and wife because of his dedication to his job at the BAU. After his season nemesis, The Fox, escapes and threatens the safety of his ex-wife and son; he drops everything to save his family. The episode is full of tension and drama and ends with Hotchner losing his ex-wife, who he still loves dearly and is the mother of his only son: Jack. The funeral scene that we get of Hotchner eulogizing his wife and actually taking time off of work to be there for his son shows us how important his job is and was to him but how much this particular loss hurt him. Hotchner was broken but did learn a lesson; one he continued to learn until he was killed off of the show because his actor was bad. 

Any time a character is hurt, it should mean something and shows that go on for hundreds of episodes: it’s hard to keep making pain meaningful. It’s hard to continue to invent new, fresh horrors for fictional characters to undergo and the nature of serialization means that oftentimes, many of these things happen in intense proximity to each other. Spencer Reid goes through many of his losses in what we can only assume is a year’s time. That’s enough to break anyone down. It’s especially distressing when this happens to female, BIPOC or neurodivergent characters because oftentimes trauma is a shorthand for character development for these kinds of characters. It’s lazy and bad experiences do not make up for a lack of character development. Breaking characters down does not make them more relatable, more human, more complex or anything: it just leaves them broken. And especially when dealing with characters of color, the neurodivergent or female characters; it’s so important to let them have stories that are happy and okay. So many queer characters, female characters or characters of color are faced with stories that are just punishing; they often end in death or suicide and that does something to you when the only representation you see is that of strife and pain. That does not minimize the stories that are painful, those will always be there but being able to just one see everything come out okay in the end: that would be truly something. 

Unfortunately, Required Reading: Episode 46- A Wrinkle in Time (With a Special Guest)

This week Tori and Amanda are joined by special guest and benefactor of the pod: Jason as the group talks about A Wrinkle in Time, Amanda goes full Soviet and we muse on the “merits” of having a crappy childhood.

Growing Up With Your Characters

I have been writing since I was 10 years old. Back then it was mostly poetry or at least, what a 10 year old could call poetry. It took me a long time to sort out fiction of my own but as soon as I found that world, I fell in faster than Kagome fell into that damn magical well. Fiction was a beautiful escape from my comic book protagonist reality: I had recently lost a parent, I was living with my strict aunts, I was teased in school but in fiction, oh in fiction, I could be anyone. And so I was.

I, like many early fiction writers, had a flock of Mary Sue original characters. Now, a Mary Sue, for those who do not know is a female character who is just too darn perfect. They’re usually self-insert characters made to allow mostly female writers to simply place themselves into the narrative. This means usually doing not so great writing things to pair off with the fictional character you want and to do whatever you fictionally want. Many grow out of the Mary Sue-stage but some stay there. And boy, did I stay there during those early years. I also don’t think I can impress upon you just how many fandoms I touched back then and still do. It was a lot of anime and manga sure but comic books, video games, books: basically if I was into it, I likely had a project relating to it (and possibly still do.).

The characters I wrote back then were almost all female and almost all were very strong: all the things I wanted to be. But they also reflected the concerns I had at the time, many were cursed or held under the thumb of the villain. And if you knew me during that time, you’d be able to see that in my own life. I was held under the thumb of strict aunts and wanted to badly to break free but never felt like I could so despite displaying outward strength, I was never and thus my characters were almost never, strong enough to leave their binds, their curses, their fates. Luckily, there were plenty of angsty male characters to “rescue” them and thus me back then.

High school, oh high school. I was for sure starting to develop more as a writer back then and that often meant that my writing reflected the things I was interested in: boys, intimacy and gender. By high school, I had this funny feeling inside of me that “female” only felt so right. I started writing more and more male characters in high school. I found immense power and comfort in writing as a male.  That also meant writing things of a more… carnal nature. I won’t go into detail here but let’s just say high school me’s writing very much was a look into my concerns and psyche: I wanted attention, I wanted intimacy, I wanted control and I wanted things just as I wanted them. These characters back then, especially the male ones, were melodramatic, self-absorbed, somewhat useless but well-intended and always, always rescued by a handsome prince/host-type. And these were long projects: some of them I just finished recently, recently, dear reader. But let’s not lose that train of thought, remember that duality of spirit I mentioned? That duality: the two types of male characters I wrote, would continue to be a duality even in my character. Part of me is a useless blob of self-indulgence and another wants so desperately for those around me to feel special because I know what it was like to even for a moment not feel important. It would be a duality that I struggle with even as I continued to write when I was in college.

I didn’t have much time for fiction in college. I was an English major. I had plenty of other things to write but my somewhat rigid schedule gave me all the time in the world to dive into a world I had dipped my toe into while in high school: roleplaying. I found a partner that I loved more than anything else and got to play characters I loved more than anything else. I was back to playing mostly host/prince types and living my best truth. In college, I found myself even using more and more male nouns in common speech. Writing fiction kept me going through school, stress, work, the loss of my mother and more stress. Fiction did for me then exactly what it did for me as a stressed out pre-teen: it gave me a place to escape but only so much so to keep me grounded by with a pleasant little distraction to power me through the rough times.

I stopped writing when I graduated. The years between college and career were less than kind and while I kept up some fiction writing, I had mostly abandoned my other projects. I had to build a portfolio and keep writing things that mattered to employers.

In 2014, I moved and that changed many things. I chose a partner who loved my fiction writing and encouraged me to do so more. I did so for them. They were my reason to keep writing. Which was all fine and good until that person left me. I didn’t write for months after that breakup, I couldn’t go back to the worlds we built together without them.

However, I’m a stubborn thing, it took me a while to get back to it but I did. Trust me, I did. I even finished a project I began when I was in high school and then immediately built upon that foundation: I’ve managed to add to it ever since then.

I manage to find time and inspiration in bursts. Maintaining my blog is a bit more of a priority to me than fiction mostly because I don’t see myself publishing that anytime soon. Not that I don’t think it’s any good, just that I think that phase of my life is over. Who knows, I may change my mind one day.

It’s amazing and sometimes a little painful to go back and read those old pieces and even more interesting to read the long-term projects. It’s amazing to see how my writing has changed, how my characters changed, how I changed. How I accepted myself and accepted the parts of my past that I was desperate to work through in writing. It’s fascinating to see how I’ve matured and how my characters matured.

It’s simply amazing to see a record of who I was, who I am, and who I can be.