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. 

Embracing The End

_There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story._ Frank Herbert.png

After our last post about webcomics, a very common thread appeared as I ranted about why I fell out of touch with some formerly beloved comics: many of them just need to end. And this doesn’t just apply to webcomics, we realistically could have an entire other blog just on anime series and television shows that need to end for a myriad of reasons.But embracing the end of a series is hard; it’s something that I as a creator have really only dealt with once. I finally finished a long fiction project that I started when I was a teenager (no, you can’t read it).  I’m by nature a creator and ending a work is hard. If left to my own devices I would never finish a story, hell the long fiction piece I was working on I continue to dip into that well with short stories and side narratives. I’m afraid to let this piece of fiction go. But we’ve established that I’m a bit of a self-indulgent writer. This fiction piece will never be seen by mortal eyes so it’s okay for me to relish in trudging up old plot points. But for creators who create to be seen, embracing the end is vital.

Before we dip too far into series that refuse to end, I want to talk about a few that ended perfectly. Cowboy Bebop obviously is a perfectly ambiguous ending that if you don’t question when the movie is supposed to be happening ends a serious and dramatic series on a serious and beautiful note. Adventure Time just gave us an ending full of heart and power thus proving that Pendleton Ward is now even better than his master, Butch Hartman (a man who is physically incapable of ending anything[ unless a network demands him to do so]).

Comic books are always in a strange limbo as far as endings go because death means nothing and a character will continue on despite different continuities and canons but that doesn’t mean that comic books don’t ever end. Watchmen as a graphic novel had a fantastically powerful ending. The Death of Superman was such an intense cultural touchstone that folks actually assumed the comic book industry is would collapse upon itself after the death of a beloved icon.

And even an unsatisfying ending is better than nothing. I’ll go on record saying that the end of Trigun is hot garbage but hey, at least it ended. Wolf’s Rain had a terrible ending that I am still angry about but more episodes wouldn’t have fixed the show’s serious structural problems.  InuYasha and really most of the big shonen series have had lackluster endings but them ending has been so powerful and cathartic.

Enjoy positivity, we’re here to talk about the times where a show refused to end and thus have all dragged us down with its pathetic death rolls. I mentioned Sister Claire in my webcomics post and that’s very high on the list for me as far as webcomics that just need to end: we are so far from the original plot that it’s embarrassing. Case Closed is an anime that started many years before me and is now approaching the 1000th chapter of the manga and the point of the main series is so far buried that it is up to be the next mystery for Conan to solve. One Piece should have ended literally years ago and I am refraining myself from talking about it further because it will make me the angry.  

But wait, my usual strawman screeches from the rafters:

But series have to keep going because of money!

Thank you, strawman. Where would I be without you?

Okay, so in anime especially there’s plenty of reasons why a company would keep a series going. Free! Is a series with zero plot that did not need a season three and the third season has taken a series I love and has made me hate it. Boruto is a sequel no one asked for because hey, you kids loved the Naruto. Bleach is going to get a stupid sequel because hey, you love that show, too, right? And many of these series just ended. Bleach’s ending was awful and weak and had easily 4-5 ending points that you can see where painfully drawn out because money. While I could have any entire post about the cash-grab sequel and the horrible thing that is a filler arc, this is more about a lack of an ending due to being a poor writer.

And I don’t say that to insult any writer who is objectively better than I am. But not being able to end a body of work does show some weakness as a writer: one very common to many writers including me, a well-intending idiot.

InuYasha comes to mind. Rumiko Takahashi is a brilliant storyteller and its because of her characters that I am the fan I am today. But she started with a series that could have easily been a few volumes and stretched it out into a series that finished when I was in college. For the record, I started this anime and manga at the same time when I was 12. And it finished when I was an adult: that’s weak storytelling. You can even see the series start and stop and drag on and not know what to do with its at times bloated cast and meandering point. And you can see her be more concise with her more traditional romances, no other series of hers has such a problem ending: she simply struggled with InuYasha. She likely built a world too big for herself and then spent a great deal of time trying to fill that world. Eventually the ending to InuYasha Final Act which was already beginning to meander on after the first anime was cancelled due to her not being able to end she had to rush an ending that left longtime fans like me deeply unsatisfied: but hey, it did eventually end.

Webcomics are an entirely different format that are suited for being longform. And for a slice of life, that’s okay. It’s okay to have a webcomic that doesn’t have a foreseeable end as long as it stays consistent. Girls With Slingshots ran for a small eternity but stayed consistent for its 10 year run and when it did it, it was satisfying and perfectly appropriate for that series. But comics like Sister Claire are now so far removed from its plot that I long for its final end. I’m happy to know that Menage a Three is hopefully wrapping up soon and the other affiliate comics should wrap up.

To rag on a franchise I love, Harry Potter as a world has refused to die because Jo Rowling apparently has too much time on her hands and truthfully her intrusions into the lore and canon of Hogwarts have only soured my desires to continue my studies with the esteemed school: I’m happy to go rogue and create my own stories based on scaffolding that Rowling built for us.

As I mentioned at the top of the post, I divulged that I just finished up one of my long-running fiction pieces. It’s based on a series I love and I started it when I was in high school. I finished a few years ago because I was determined to finish it. During my time after high school, the muse I had to write the series was my then partner, but when my partner left me, I stopped writing. I did my best to will myself to finish the work and I did. It likely will never be published because it’s about as self-indulgent as self-indulgent can be and likely no one would want to read such a thing. But I struggled to end that work and I still dabble in its lore and with its characters because I’m afraid of what will happen if I let this rest. I’m scared I’ll lose that world, those characters, their personalities.

When I say that refusing to end a work is a weakness it’s one I’m fully aware of.

One day, this blog will come to an end.

But not any time soon.

See you next time.