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. 

Respecting the Bones of It

I have been writing fanfic since I was 12. Now, fanfic gets a bad rep because why not just write fiction on your own? Well, that’s hard. Creating entirely new worlds and new ideas is not easy to do and it’s beautiful when someone can create a sandbox that millions get to play in.

A sandbox is a great way to imagine a creative work. Since I firmly believe the author is dead, I imagine all works as being up for interpretation and reanimated as the reader so does wish. Now, can the author while still alive add to the work? Sure. I do think that’s possible but it is rare that truly something substantive can be added….wait, does anyone hear an elephant?

As soon as anyone mentions death of the author, we have to talk about Dear Auntie Jo. Now, if you read my column on Fangirl Nation then you know that my relationship with Jo Rowling is…icy. I have not found her Twitter musings helpful to the story though I am grateful to her giving me and countless others a fictional home in Hogwarts. Her recent transphobia made it even easier for me to like Napoleon claim ownership of this sandbox she built for us and I will continue to insist that Harry shouldn’t have married Ginny and that Draco has some feelings to work through when it comes to Potter. 

But while we’re on the topic of sandboxes and death of the author…I want to talk about a phenomena that I have recently been able to put words to that has been brewing in me for a while now as I continue my career as a proud fanfic writer. What do you do when you love the lore of a work but dislike almost every other part of it?

In an earlier post, I say that I write for revenge. Fundamentally, that’s what drives me as  fanfic writer. If I’m writing fanfic it’s because there’s a part of the world I want to see more of. I want more positive representation of Slytherins: so I write. I want to see a certain ship sail: so I write. I want to see a certain part of the galaxy that isn’t full of damn Skywalkers: so I write. 

And being a nerd: I love lore. I may not like Lord of the Rings but I love The Silmarillion. I’m not a huge fan of the Harry Potter books( I love the movies up until the 4th one) anymore but Pottermore is incredibly important to me. I love reading the Forbidden Jedi Texts and the expanded comics in Star Wars but real talk, I don’t want to watch the movies again…

Speaking of Star Wars…let’s drop a truth bomb. I used to be a soft prequel apologist but after finishing the most recent trilogy and the old trilogy; maybe…the movies aren’t good? I mean the old trilogy is a classic but to me is mostly old men hitting each other with light bulbs.  The prequels are of course a nightmare and the new trilogy is a genderbent romp through the old trilogy if you ignore The Last Jedi where Rian Johnson knocked over all of JJ Abrams’ toys in his sandbox. At least the prequels tried to expand the lore, albeit, badly. And the new trilogy seems entirely unconcerned about lore and far more concerned with intertextuality and nostalgia. 

But you have already heard me rant about Star Wars and you all certainly have heard me rant about Auntie Jo Rowling. But there is something new that I find I love the lore but hate the series execution of the lore and for those close to me, this is not a surprise or if you listen to my podcast. But if you aren’t in either of those categories: it’s Game of Thrones

Now, let me preface by saying this. Yes, I know the show is a hot mess and yes I know that the books are “better” and yes I know that it’s a popular thing but hear me out. I still don’t think I like the show. I think the show is little moments of meme-tastic brilliance with some fantastic casting but overall, I still have huge problems with how the show and the show’s source material handles race, gender, violence against women and rape as plot points. I know this stuff happened in history but it’s a choice to make it so prominently in a not fantasy fantasy novel. 

But as a lore nerd, I love the bones of Game of Thrones. I love learning house symbols and house mottos. I love house colors and aligning yourself to a house (which does feel a bit like a race to the bottom as really everyone is awful but on what scale). I love learning the history of the different lands and how the Dornish are so equal with sex and gender because of their strong ties to marriage and their lack of desire to bend to the ways of the West. I love knowing that everyone makes fun of the Tullys for their dumb fish. I love that we all agree the Greyjoys are awful and that if anyone voluntarily aligns themselves with Lannisters, you probably need to back away. 

All of these things I love without really liking the show and the show’s intense violence, racism and misogyny. 

So what do you do when you come across a series that you like in theory but not in practice? Well…study. Do what I did for Game of Thrones. I ingested hours of media and study about the show and watched episodes as I could stomach and was honest when I couldn’t stomach them. I watched video essays (actually it was Lindsay Ellis’ video series on GoT that got me to finally watch it). I watched the video series where each of the house heads talk about their land and their land’s mythology. 

Write. For the love of all that is good: write. If there is a fictional world that you love: study it, master it, make it yours. The author is dead, long live the author.

I think that may be one of the reasons I’m so perplexed by the people who get so angry at media being bad that they have to attack actors and actresses online (which is never the answer). If you don’t like the thing…make something new. That’s way more constructive than being a troll. I also didn’t like The Last Jedi, so what did I do? Went back and re-read the now non-canon book series and comic books.

It’s okay if you don’t like the way a creator or director has taken something you love. It’s okay if you don’t like how a show or movie ended. It’s okay if you don’t like a certain actor’s take on a role. What matters is what you do with that anger and in my opinion, it’s way more healthy and way more constructive to do something with that passion than simply to simmer in sisyphean anger.