The other day, as we so often do, S and I were talking about stories and storytelling. I think we were making supper, and I was chopping up vegetables for salads at the time. This isn’t necessarily a good time for deep conversation, since I’m using a sharp object near my own fingers, and a certain amount of concentration is recommended. But on this particular occasion, she said something quite intriguing that made me stop to think, halfway through slicing a radish.
She mentioned seeing people on Twitter and Tumblr who feel that certain characters on TV “deserved better” than they got. And she said that this was starting to annoy her.
Now, personally this had never annoyed me before, but then I don’t spend much (or really, any) time on Twitter and Tumblr, so I haven’t seen these kinds of complaints. So then I gave it some thought, in the middle of this radish, and I realized that when people talk about what a character “deserves,” they’re really talking about one of several different things: 1) personal identification, 2) apparent moral rectitude, or 3) the narrative promises made by the author. And as S and I discussed this, we agreed that whether a complaint about a characters “just deserts” seems legitimate depends on which of the three it is.
This is the simplest, but, I’m sorry, also the silliest kind. The reader likes and identifies with Susan, and then something bad happens to her. Her boyfriend dumps her, she loses her job, her car breaks down, and she has to wait for the bus in the rain. Now the reader is mad, or sad, or disgruntled, and wishes things had worked out better for Susan, and the reader says, “Susan deserved better!”
As an author—even an amateur one—I have to say that this sort of complaint leaves me scratching my head, because making the reader identify with the character and care what happens to her is, in fact, one of the main goals of storytelling. A story where only good things ever happen to a character is incredibly dull. I mean, even in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off—a movie about a kid for whom everything always works out—Ferris faces setbacks. So from the writer’s perspective, this sort of complaint is tantamount to the reader saying, “Susan is so dear to me that I never want a story to happen to her!”
This is closely related to the complaint where viewers or readers say, “I just want (character name) to be happy!” One of our best friends used to point out, in the context of daytime soaps, that if a character was ever happy, then that basically meant that the character’s storyline would be over. So, in fact, wishing for a character to be “happy” was wishing for that character to disappear from the show and for the actress playing her to be fired.
The Character’s Morals
“The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.” As Miss Prism from The Importance of Being Earnest reminds us, part of why people read fiction is for a sense of closure and rightness that real life sometimes lacks. We want to see good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. We want to see plucky little Oliver Twist succeed. We love it when Hermione punches Draco Malfoy right in his sneering face.
Some people might find this to be a simplistic way of looking at literature, but I have some sympathy for it. At the very least, I’d say it’s a perfectly reasonable expectation for a reader to have. If someone said to me, “I prefer the original Star Wars to Empire Strikes Back because the story is better-written,” or “because the characters are more complex,” or “because the special effects are superior,” I would have to look at that person askance. But if the person said, “I just prefer stories where the good guys win in the end,” then I would have to say, “Fair enough.”
I’ve mentioned the “Covenant of the Arc” before—it’s Blake Snyder’s storytelling “law” that says that every character must change. It’s an implied promise by the author that when he introduces a character, the reader can be assured that something interesting is going to happen with this person. When we open up The Lord of the Rings for the first time, in other words, and we start reading about Hobbits and the Shire, Tolkien is implicitly telling us something. He’s saying, “Yes, I realize these little creatures seem a bit silly and dull right now, but trust me, if you stick around, you’ll see them do something awesome.” That’s the “Covenant of the Arc.”
As with all promises, though, there’s a danger that at the end the recipient might not feel that the promisor has delivered. “You promised me this character would matter,” the reader might say, after reading George R. R. Martin’s infamous “Red Wedding.” “You made me sit through page after page with Robb Stark, and then it turns out I might as well not have bothered.”
Of all three kinds of complaints we’ve discussed, I find this one the most interesting and, frankly, the most legitimate. The first two really just amount to the reader saying, “That’s not how I wanted it to happen.” This third one, though, is the reader saying, “You didn’t finish the job. You promised me this was going somewhere, and then it didn’t.” The author has, therefore, committed the cardinal sin of all storytellers: wasting the time of his audience.
And so as not to waste anymore of my own audience’s time, I’ll leave it there for today. Perhaps S will have further thoughts on this later. Or perhaps she’ll give an update on the story she started writing as my birthday present (which I have now seen and which is wonderful). As for me, I’m doing my prep work for my July Camp NaNo novel, and maybe next week sometime I’ll talk about that.
In the meantime, however, I’ve got things to do. Like slicing radishes.