Writerly Sound Bites, Number 4: Character Progression – Or Character Destruction?

Gunsmoke‘s main cast

I was privy to a discussion on character progression sometime in the past month. While I did not take part in it, that conversation got me thinking: many storylines in a variety of franchises with long or established characters aim for “shock and awe” character changes. These usually happen when everything appears to have settled into a comfortable routine. Then something occurs – generally something world-ending or personally painful – to upset the characters’ lives and drive them apart.

When the writers are asked why this is done, invariably they say something along the lines of “it’s character development.” Things were too comfortable or too predictable, and so the writers decided to adjust the world to be more interesting. After all no one – writer or audience – wants the characters to stagnate. But is this really “character development” as authors have understood it throughout time and into the present?

One of my writing mentors once told me that in a solo film or a single novel an author only has so much time to introduce their protagonists and antagonists to the audience. In a series, the author is able to “plumb the depths” of their heroes and villains in a variety of ways over a longer time period.

What writers discovered in the previous century is that some series or characters are so popular that audiences do not want them to end. They want new stories featuring their favorite heroes and villains. Occasionally this means that they will pressure the author into continuing with the franchise. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s* experience with Sherlock Holmes is by far the best-known example of this phenomenon; long after he tired of the great detective audiences were still clamoring for stories featuring him. He had to resurrect Sherlock after literally throwing him down a waterfall in an attempt to permanently dispatch him.

Gunsmoke* – the TV series – is one of the longest running serials in history for a similar reason. The television show lasted twenty years following on the heels of its radio production that lasted nine. Five made-for-TV movies came afterward, all starring James Arness, the man who brought the character of Matt Dillon to life on the small screen when the show first started in 1955.

For the most part the characters in Gunsmoke never change. They are pushed to the brink in certain episodes but they rarely have the same sort of world-ending calamities visited upon them that superheroes, space knights, and starship captains experience. Part of that may be attributed to the fact that the Western genre doesn’t have room for very many resurrection devices; it also does not allow for time travel, or the intervention of cosmic entities. Not as a matter of course, at least.

That being said, I think it likely that the producers, directors and writers for Gunsmoke may have also had a greater perspective on how best to approach a series and its characters. They left the back stories for the characters vague, only making a few mentions of their families or backgrounds when it served the story. In addition, the characters were all standard archetypes of the American West which meant they were expected to behave a certain way by the audience. If the writers stepped outside those expectations that could be tolerated, but only to a point.

The writers knew they could write a story about Matt Dillon furiously chasing down a man who nearly beat to death Miss Kitty, his consistent love interest. They could show him lift a rock over his head as he prepared to kill the man – only to be stopped when the posse arrived and one of the men fired into the air. In essence, the writers for Gunsmoke knew they could push Matt Dillon to the edge.

114 best Gunsmoke images on Pinterest

But at the same time they knew they could not push him over that border. Not without losing their audience who would feel betrayed by such a portrayal of their Iconic Hero. Rather than take their audience for granted and satisfy their own urges, they adhered to the archetypes and themes of the story they were telling. The fact that the series lasted twenty years, uninterrupted to the end, attests to the respect they had for their viewers.

Also, the lack of a detailed backstory allowed the writers to avoid noticeable continuity issues. Although there might have been some inconsistencies, they were minor and easily overlooked. If fans wished to play with the ideas that these errors represented, they could do so through fan fiction or by becoming writers in their own right. For the purpose of continuing the story of Gunsmoke this wasn’t necessary – though it could be done on occasion. But only so long as it did not violate the characters’ archetypal roots or the setting of the series.

One need look no further than Star Wars to see an example of authorial misconduct with regard to archetypal “character development” in action. Luke Skywalker is an archetypal Aspirational Hero. He attains higher states of grace the further he climbs in his pursuit of obeying the will of the Light Side of the Force. This means there must be an increase in the threats to his soul as he becomes more heroic and noble.

Lucas and Kasdan, the screenwriters for Return of the Jedi,* made plain just what those risks were in the climactic battle between Luke and Vader in the film. Luke cuts his father’s mechanical right hand off when pushed into a blind rage, an action which brings him to the brink of spiritual death. If he continues to let his anger control him, then he will take his father’s place beside the Emperor to perpetuate the cycle of terror and death the two of them have enforced over the galaxy during Luke’s life.

That is why his decision to declare “I am a Jedi, like my father before me” is such a triumphant scene and the crowning achievement of the original trilogy. Luke has passed the test his father failed; he has maintained his character in the face of adversity and extreme temptation. He has remained a hero and avoided his father’s fate. If he can do so, then so can the audience.

Star Wars Expanded Universe novels and stories did not always maintain Luke’s character as well as they could have from novel to novel. Timothy Zahn more or less took other writers in the franchise to task for this in his Hand of Thrawn duology* where he did his best to clarify Luke’s character and make him face the errors he had made in prior books. From this point on there is a notable symmetry to authors’ presentation of the Grandmaster of the resurgent Jedi Order. Despite what this writer might consider waffling in certain areas, the writers at Lucasfilm received Zahn’s message and did their best to make sure Luke largely remained within his original Aspirational parameters following the release of Specter of the Past and Vision of the Future.

Disney’s Star Wars film trilogy completely ignored these Aspirational parameters in The Last Jedi when they abandoned everything that made Luke Skywalker such a hit with fans in the first place. Even Mark Hamill was upset, shown when he was interviewed by a variety of entertainment news outlets before The Last Jedi premiered. Look up any video interview featuring Hamill, and the change in his expression regarding “what Luke has learned since Return of the Jedi” will tell a viewer everything he thinks of the film. In hindsight, one can take his statements as veiled warnings to the fans meant to prevent them from being disappointed by the movie.

Star Wars Vision of the Future HC (1999 Novel) BC Edition ...

Disney, to cover their faux pas, proceeded to blame Star Wars fans for not enjoying The Last Jedi. They claimed that viewers were at fault – thereby taking their audience for granted – and that they had invested too much in the continuity of the story. Why they believed this was a good idea is a matter that others have gone into and which I will not mention here, or this post will go on far longer than it must. The fact remains that this was done, and it was done in the name of “character development” – in violation of established canon and continuity.

For long-running fictional series, from the Ancient myths to the Arthurian Saga to Star Wars, canon and continuity are as necessary to the fictional characters as the laws of the real universe and true history are to us. Living, breathing human beings are the product of previous generations. Even the orphan, with no memory of his parents and is raised in an orphanage or on the street, is affected by the genetics and traits of his parents from whom he inherits by blood more than mere physical characteristics. No matter what choices or individual habits and thought patterns he develops on his own, there will remain echoes of his parents’ personalities within him. These will drive him in certain directions and give him inclinations he may not fully understand.

This is why orphans searching for their parents or wishing to know their heritage remains a potent story formula. We instinctively know that we are shaped by those who came before us, that we have our roots in a past, in a home somewhere beyond that in which we find ourselves at present. Even if the home we come from is a broken or unloving one, knowing about it will teach us more about ourselves – and show us where we do or do not wish to go in our own lives as we move forward into the future.

It is for this reason that writers creating series or stepping into a position to shepherd a continuing series forward have to be aware of – and respect – the canon, continuity, and archetypes that compose it. As I have said elsewhere, archetypes tie us to the past; they are the wisdom of the ages passed down via any story to the present generations. To abuse or break them means severing those links, denying present and future audiences the ties that bind us together and make us human. In short, to willfully destroy an archetype is to leave the audience orphans.

Canon and continuity aid archetypes in accomplishing this goal. Canon covers worldbuilding and the quirks of a fictional universe, making it something like real-world physics. Established canon that explains how the Force, superpowers, or warp drive works grounds the fantastic in ways that allow the audience to understand that although things in this fictional world are different, they still abide by certain rules that man cannot bend. Just as, in the real world, man cannot (and should not) bend everything to his will.

History – in this case personal history, national history, and even world history –tells a man where he is coming from and gives him an idea of where he wants to go. A series’ continuity from before and after it premieres acts in that capacity for the characters. Even allowing for time travel in Star Trek or Marvel Comics, there has to be an established history or continuity that lets the audience know where things began and where they are or could be going. There have to be rules and responsibilities tied to using time travel as well; mindlessly playing with time could destroy the series’ continuity as it could eradicate our history, if it were possible in the real world.

Pin by Daniel Thomas on Star Trek | Star trek, Star trek ...

Star Trek*’s reboot or Kelvin Timeline gets away with revamping the original Star Trek world and continuity by being an alternate universe set in motion by an unavoidable delay in addition to a madman’s revenge. Picard, in contrast, violates canon in a number of ways by demonizing Starfleet and making a mockery of several characters. Longtime fans do not recognize the series as part of the franchise for this reason since it makes several characters behave out of character and violates the stated moral continuity of Starfleet.

This is perhaps best summed up in the changes made to Seven of Nine, whom we last saw in a relationship with Commander Chakotay in the finale for Voyager.* While that relationship may have fizzled out, it isn’t mentioned in Picard where Seven is portrayed as a hardened warrior instead of scientist. It doesn’t make sense that she assumed this role due to her adopted son Icheb being mortally wounded by Borg harvesters. Seven should have been the harvesters’ target, not Icheb, since she was the first human drone to regain her individuality. Icheb could be considered bait to capture her, certainly, but not a viable or even a preferable substitute. Hugh, another former drone, might have been an even higher priority than Seven.

There is also no reason given for why there would be a need or even an interest in harvesting Borg parts. Nor are the Borg, a prominent enemy of the Federation, considered a threat in this universe. Janeway’s plan to destabilize the Collective in Voyager’s finale was clever but it was never implied to have defeated the Borg completely. There was always the possibility that the Hive, if not the Borg Queen, would return. But the writers for Picard clearly had no interest in exploring these things, so they went for “shock and awe” character and world alterations that left fans discontent with the series.

Marvel’s crossover event, Avengers: Disassembled, was plagued by many of the same problems. The 2004 comic book event rightly drew fans’ ire over the spiteful treatment of long-standing Avengers and the absolute disregard the writers showed for the universe’s continuity. Although it was not the first time the mainstream Marvel universe’s continuity had been bent or outright violated, this was a notable moment when it was done with malice aforethought.

A look at the depiction of Quicksilver/Pietro Maximoff makes this plain. In the sequel event to Disassembled, House of M, it is revealed that a distraught Pietro asked his insane sister to remake the world so that mutants may rule over normal humans. This is the dream of the twins’ biological father, Magneto, a man whom both siblings have repeatedly refused to follow or accept any paternal interest from due to his anti-human sentiment.

The change makes no sense, even when one considers that Quicksilver fears for his sister’s life due to the X-Men and the Avengers debating Wanda’s fate following her breakdown. Having killed several Avengers and other heroes in her madness, which shows no signs of stopping or being contained and is threatening to send her out of control again, some of the heroes believe Wanda should be killed for the greater good. The Avengers, however, are determined to try to talk their teammate back to sanity.

https://d1466nnw0ex81e.cloudfront.net/n_iv/600/2571104.jpg

Rather than trust his friends, Quicksilver runs to his father – the man from whose arms he yanked his own child, Luna, with the words “get your filthy hands off my daughter!” – and begs him to do something. He then takes matters into his own hands to save his sister, asking her to fulfill their father’s dream, which he has long denied and vociferously repudiated. Yet Disassembled and House of M both ignore his character, along with Marvel canon and continuity, in the name of “character development.”

It makes no sense. Any honest student of storycraft can look at these changes to Seven of Nine, Quicksilver, and Luke Skywalker and tell you that. Whether one believes these changes were meant only to “shock and awe” or to insult the audience matters little to the topic at hand. That topic is character development, and this short overview paints a clear picture of what is character destruction.

Why do I say this? Come back next week, and I’ll explain. We have run out of room to do more today, I am afraid, or I would continue onward. For now, see if you can spot the reasons why yourselves. It will make comparing notes in a week’s time more intriguing.

If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth, while her poetry appeared in Organic Ink, Vol. 2. She has also had stories published in Planetary Anthologies Luna, Uranus, and Sol. Another story was released in Cirsova Magazine’s Summer Issue in 2020, and she recently had a story published in Storyhack Magazine’s 7th Issue and Cirsova Magazine’s 2021 Summer Issue. Order them today!

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7 thoughts on “Writerly Sound Bites, Number 4: Character Progression – Or Character Destruction?

  1. The Main Difference between those “writers” and the fans is that to the fans the characters are Real People but to those “writers” the characters are things that the “writers” can “change” without “harming” the characters. 😡

    Liked by 1 person

    • Maybe it is merely a spot of cynicism but I would have said “The Main Difference between those “writers” and the fans is that the writers are totally invested in drawing attention to the show so it can get viewer percentages which sell ads so the show can make a profit and pay the staff and bills.”

      Liked by 1 person

      • Beg to differ.

        Your thought is a secondary difference.

        You’re explaining “why they are willing to change the characters so much”.

        I’m saying that the fans see the characters as Real People who change in a manner that Real People could/would change.

        Of course, those “writers” have extremely poor judgment concerning “what would sell”.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you Caroline, very informative. The character warping most disappointing in my adolescence was turning Ripley in Alien, the well educated, sharp-tongued, and very poised junior officer, into a moping, blue-collar machinist, in Aliens. Shucks, can’t even keep one’s movie crushes, as a 20 year old. ;-`

    An even greater no-no was what Peter Jackson did to the Faramir I looked to as a personal hero, turning him from the fellow who honestly asserted, tip-of-the-tongue, about the ring, “I would not take this thing, if it lay by the highway. Not were Minas Tirith falling in ruin and I alone could save her, so, using the weapon of the Dark Lord for her good and my glory. No, I do not wish for such triumphs,” — into just another of the weak and the navel gazing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Writerly Sound Bites, Number 5: Character Progression – Which Archetype Are You Using? | A Song of Joy by Caroline Furlong

  4. Pingback: Writerly Sound Bites, Number 6: Character Progression – Consistency and Repetition Make Even a Broken Character Who He Is | A Song of Joy by Caroline Furlong

  5. Pingback: Writerly Sound Bites, Number 7: Character Progression – How Broken Mentors and Mentors Who Aren’t Broken Deal with the Loss of What They Held Dear | A Song of Joy by Caroline Furlong

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