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Character-building December 3, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in fangirl, television.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

As most of you know, I’m a shameless Joss Whedon fangirl. As far as I’m concerned, Whedon can do no wrong, and his name being attached to a particular project confirms for me that said project will be amazing. So far, I’ve never been disappointed.

There are three main reasons why I love Whedon’s work so much: the amazing stories he tells (and themes he conveys through these stories), the brilliant way with words he has, and the fantastic characters he creates. It’s this third thing I’d like to talk about here.

At this point I should probably note that ‘Whedon’s’ brilliance is not all down to Whedon: his own talents are supported and supplemented by the writing skills of an ever-growing group of collaborators, all of whom do so much to bring Whedon’s creations to life. When I say ‘Whedon’ in this post, I mean, by extension, ‘Whedon and his co-writers’.

Whedon is the only TV writer so far who creates real characters. I’ll say that again, so that you have time to let my words sink in: there is no other writer on television (except perhaps Amy Sherman-Palladino, the creator of Gilmore Girls, and in her case only some of the characters fulfil this criterion) whose characters seem like real people. That is to say, you could take any one of Whedon’s characters, from Buffy Summers to Zoe Washburne, from Winifred ‘Fred’ Burkle to Topher Brink, plonk him or her in our world and imagine how he or she would act in any given situation. This is not limited to the main characters: I can imagine pre-Season 6 Jonathan as a real person, just as I can imagine Anne Steele (‘Chanterelle’ from Buffy, later on Angel) wandering around real-world LA.

Of course, this characterisation works better on Whedon’s longer-running shows, Buffy and Angel, where Whedon had longer to develop characters and show them reacting and interacting in a wider range of situations, and it’s one of the reasons why Firefly‘s cancellation still hurts. It’s also one reason why Dollhouse was so much less welcoming and so much more ambitious than Whedon’s other shows: when half your characters change personality every episode, how are we to get to know them as people?

In any case, Whedon’s characters spoiled me for regular TV. Since Firefly ended (with a brief respite during which Dollhouse screened), I have found no television show that ever approached anything Whedon created in terms of characterisation. This is not for want of trying. I’ve tried Heroes (never again), Supernatural, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, the BBC’s Robin Hood, Being Human, Battlestar Galactica (which I gave up for reasons other than characterisation, but which still suffered this problem), Merlin, and, more recently, Glee. Of these, only Supernatural comes close to approaching Whedon’s talents of characterisation, and only in relation to Sam and Dean. No matter how many new characters are added, the show remains the Sam-and-Dean show, and while it is wonderful at developing the complex relationship of the brothers, it fails to demonstrate how the brothers relate to the outside world.

The other shows I’ve listed are even worse. They fail on so many ways. Some of them (Terminator, Merlin, Robin Hood and Being Human in particular – I wonder if it’s a failing of BBC shows in general?) lack any kind of character development. In Buffy, not one character begins a season in the same place that he or she ends up, and not one character in Season 1 is the same person they are in Season 7. After two seasons, Merlin is still resentful about hiding his magic, Arthur (and all the other main characters save Gaius) are still unaware of Merlin’s abilities and Uther is still bigoted and opposed to magic. Real people change. They change subtly or they change dramatically, but change they do. No person could experience the things that any character on any of these shows experiences and remain the same. (Robin Hood is a particularly egregious example of this: SPOILER ALERT at the end of Season 2, Marion, the love of Robin’s life, is killed. Season 3 sees Robin rageful and grieving for about half-an-hour, and then reverting back to his cheerful, anarchic ways. END SPOILER)

Many of the other shows fail because their writers do not realise that giving characters ‘quirks’ or ‘flaws’ does not make them real people. Heroes and, in particular, Glee are the worst culprits in this regard. Many critics and fans seem to think that Glee is edgy or groundbreaking because it features minority characters in major roles. But after watching the show, you realise that all of these ‘minorities’ have been reduced to their ‘minority-ness’: Mercedes is The Sassy Black Girl, Artie is The Saintly Disabled Boy, Kurt is The Camp Gay Guy (happiest singing show tunes and giving makeover advice) and Tina is The Shy Asian Girl. There is absolutely nothing else that defines or drives them. It’s insulting to think that these characters somehow put an end to whitewashing in popular culture. Take any one of them out of the Glee-verse and you’d be scratching your head to figure out how they’d behave. They’re about as complex and three-dimensional as pieces of cardboard.

A character’s believability lies in how long it would take to describe him or her. What I’ve said about the characters in Glee is all I’d be able to say to a person who asked ‘Who is Mercedes? What drives her? What kind of person is she?’ If someone asked me the same question about Willow Rosenberg, or Mayor Richard Wilkins III, or Mal Reynolds, or Shepherd Book, or Angel, or Rupert Giles, or Adele DeWitt, or even Victor (the Doll), you’d be here until the end of the week.

What most TV writers fail to grasp is that people are more than the sum of their parts (whether these parts be flaws, positive qualities, neuroses or cultural influences). A truly great television character is someone whose life you can imagine in scenes where he or she does not appear, or after the screen goes black. I might’ve been spoiled by Joss, and I might be castigating the writers of the shows I’ve discussed for not writing the shows that I want to see, but I refuse to believe that Joss Whedon and the small coterie of writers he’s gathered around him are the only ones capable of creating characters who are completely and utterly human.



1. Sibylle - December 3, 2009

Have you seen The Wire? It may just be the most realistic piece of fiction to have been broadcast on television and it’s got very impressive characterization, it feels so much like a documentary. Deadwood is also incredibly layered and I can’t define its characters with just a few words.
However, the best example would probably be, to me, Once and Again, one of my favourite shows – I love it so much. The characters evolve realistically, and they’re real people to me, I wouldn’t even know how to describe them except with very generic info (“she’s 16 when the show starts” “she’s about to get a divorce when the show starts.”)
I can imagine new days for the characters of all three shows.
You mentioned Gilmore Girls already so I’m not going to talk about it, especially as you probably already know my feelings about the show.

2. dolorosa12 - December 3, 2009

I’ve been meaning to check out The Wire for ages, and just got distracted by things. I’ll certainly follow up your other recommendations.

You probably feel more strongly about Gilmore Girls than I do, but I certainly would include it with the Joss Whedon shows in terms of characterisation, at least of the central cast. I feel it fails a little bit with the less-major characters (ie, some of the residents of Stars Hollow, who come across as quirky, likeable people but not entirely three-dimensional). But as far as the Gilmores and their close friends and love-interests go, the characterisation is excellent.

As you may be able to tell, this rant is inspired mostly by Glee.

3. Matt Rubinstein - December 3, 2009

I agree with you on the first and third things but I think the second thing compromises the other things somewhat; Whedon’s dialogue often feels to me too self-conscious and showy, too wordy, and not quite perfect enough to get away with it (cf The Wire, which is also self-conscious but pretty much unfaultable). The exception I would think is Firefly, where it’s all so over-the-top it’s perfectly suited. But every other time I’ve seen it (and I haven’t seen that much of it) it’s been a distraction.

Also, Massive Attack is/was possibly the best thing ever.

dolorosa12 - December 4, 2009

Oddly enough, I’ve heard that complaint about Whedon’s dialogue before, and for many people, it’s enough to stop them getting into his shows.

I guess for me I enjoy the very showiness and self-consciousness of it. It doesn’t throw me, even though it’s obvious to me that no teenagers are as witty and articulate as Buffy and co, for example.

I’m glad that you like Massive Attack. I struggle to find fellow fans.

4. jess - December 4, 2009

(Between this blog post and the whole of my Chinese lit course last year, I think I finally understand what is meant by ‘characterisation’)

I, like Emma, also have a love-hate relationship with Glee, but probably for reasons closer to yours. I would like to think the writers on Glee are being ironic with some of their stereotypes and fully aware of all the politics that go with it (when they blatantly refer to the other Asian as “the other Asian,” for example) but as the show goes on and Asian girl, Black girl, wheelchair guy, and gay guy don’t continue to lack the character development that makes me want to learn their names (I don’t really know the main characeters’ names either because they’re not especially exciting either). The show makes me want (for lack of a better word) to reproduce their really shallow social identities with such labels, actually

I’m not one to say that something needs to be didactic or especially representative of reality to be good, but I think the more I think about characterisation, the less interesting any story (or characters within) with poor characterisation becomes. I haven’t quit watching Glee yet because musical theatre is fun (and I currently live with a musical theatre geek* who also watches the show) and it really takes a lot for me to quit a bad show. For some reason, I am still watching Heroes, and it took until season 5 or 6 of Smallville for me to quit that train-wreck.

*Living with her is actually interesting because she is fully aware of a lot of the criticism, but not so much interested in it at all, because she’s mostly just too excited by the musical arrangements to care for it. I mostly understand it, but I think we disagree on what sacrifices are sometimes made for the sake of “putting on the show.” However, she’s also had the fun of being the only person objecting to the use of blackface in the American midwest and having a clue as to why it might be offensive…

dolorosa12 - December 4, 2009

That’s my problem with ‘ironic’ texts. Far too often, it seems, people are using ‘ironic’ as a way to escape accusations of racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism and so on (cf my problems with Tarantino and his fans, but that’s a whole other blog post), or to escape being accused of the same as a result of enjoying a show that is racist, sexist or whatever.

When I say ‘realistic’, I don’t mean ‘real-world’. I mean ‘real’ in the sense of ‘true’. It’s one of the reasons I’ve always said Buffy is a much better example of realism than say, Sex and the City because you could take the characters out of Sunnydale and plonk them into 1990s America, and they would function just fine as people. That is my main complaint with all the shows I’ve been discussing: not their lack of didacticism, not their ‘representation of reality’, but their lack of ‘realness’. It’s a hard distinction to make, and I’m not sure I’m explaining myself clearly, but oh well.

5. jess - December 4, 2009

I think I know what you mean. I think that’s what I meant (or tried) by bringing up didacticism or representativeness of reality, that it wasn’t the standard I was holding the characters up to. Anyways, I’m back to not being sure whether I know what is meant by characterisation again. The only text I’ve ever read on the topic was by Lukács and a year later I’m not sure what I got out of it.(except that the only good novels are socialist realist novels, or something like that…)

But I know what you mean by real/true. Even if they are not realistic (which could be the problem with Buffy-speak and Whedonisms in general for some people), they are fully-functioning whole persons.

6. Jordan - December 6, 2009

What about the West Wing? What about Six Feet Under? What about the first several seasons of the Simpsons, before the characters became caricatures of themselves?

Hell, I even disagree on Battlestar Galactica – some of the characters are a little one-dimensional, but others aren’t.

“Whedon is the only TV writer so far who creates real characters.”

You have to know this is ridiculously hyperbolic, right? I mean, if someone were to try and seriously claim that only one twentieth century fiction author or one cinema screenwriter could create real characters, you’d think that was absurd.

7. dolorosa12 - December 6, 2009

Of course it’s hyperbolic. It’s a blog post written in rage – never the best of ideas. If I were to be more accurate, it would read something like ‘Whedon is the only TV writer whose shows I’ve watched whose every character from the main to the secondary to the tertiary to the extras is three dimensional AND whose stories engage me.’ The subtitle of this post should be ‘Ronni’s rant about Glee‘.

Two of the examples you’ve given I’ve never watched, one of them I found unrealistic and the other (BSG) I gave up on for reasons other than the characters, although I also found the characters, while fully realised, utterly unengaging.

It is pretty stupid to write a blog post making generalisations about the entire TV corpus, especially when it’s based on only a handful of shows that I’ve watched, so thank you for pulling me back down to earth.

8. Jordan - December 6, 2009

Yeah, I write on the stength of my anger as well. In my latest blog post, which was a reaction to a headline, I accuse Tony Abbott of being a communist. Well, sort of.

Whichever of the two shows mentioned you haven’t seen, you’ve got to see them. I’d be interested in what you find unrealistic about the other.

Comparing Whedon to glee or heroes is like comparing the beagles to the spice girls. Clearly he’s going to kick their arses – he’s Joss friggin whedon – but it doesn’t do much to show that he’s the best creator of tv shows, let alone that no one else can even manage a respectable second.

dolorosa12 - December 6, 2009

Yeah, I should. I’m one of those strange people who didn’t grow up watching The Simpsons and whose only experience is thus watching the occasional episode when it happens to be on when I’m visiting a friend’s house. The sheer number of episodes is a bit daunting, however, and also the way that people of our generation seem to treat The Simpsons as sort of background noise hasn’t helped in encouraging me to watch it.

(The show I considered ‘unrealistic’ was The West Wing. I’ve only seen the first season, but it just seemed like too much wishful thinking to me.)

I read the Tony Abbott is a communist post. I wish you’d open your blog up to anonymous or name+url comments so that I could respond to some of the things you’re saying, but it’s your blog, and it’s just one more thing pushing me slowly towards getting a Google account…

Now I shall have to stop talking to you about this for 48 hours or so, as I’m about to fly home to Australia. See you soon!

9. Jordan - December 6, 2009

I’ve opened it up to anonymous comments – I hadn’t realised it wasn’t. Not sure if that was off by default or I picked that setting to stop spammers or something.

Looking forward to having you back in Australia!

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