Sunday, December 11, 2005
Writers can be extremely lazy people.
When a writer creates a protagonist, s/he wants to make it a sympathetic one (if it’s supposed to be a good person). And for that, you need a lot – backstory, relationships, dramatic tension, and perhaps romance. But, as I said, writers can be very lazy, and the easiest way for a writer to introduce all these elements to a character is this one word – trauma. Make the character a tragic figure, and the whole audience is on your side. And I hate that.
As a reader, I want the writer to have taken effort in writing the story, and the already-tragic figure makes me feel cheated. The kid who has lost one or both parents, the only survivor in a major accident, the abused character, the geeky kid who is made fun of – all these are legitimate characters, but when you start seeing them everywhere – when they make the overwhelming majority – you realise that the writers are throwing these around easily, without focus or concentration.
Consider this character: its parents are alive, it has enough good friends, it has a loving partner it loves back, it is popular, relaxed and happy with what it has. The first reaction of any reader to this person is jealousy, and I think that a writer should, once in a while, take the challenge of making us love this character and side with it. (I am talking about drama, of course. Comedy – especially situation comedy – has enough happy characters, although the tragic ones are still more interesting.)
But getting right down to it, my complaint is not against the character who goes through tragedy, but the one who goes through tragedy which has little to do with the story.
One of the most depressing examples of this for me was Lin’s tragedy in Perdido Street Station, mainly because she was more-or-less the only character I liked in there. But the tragedy is such that I can’t bring myself to hold a grudge against Miéville, although I don’t know exactly why. (Aishwarya’s answer: ‘Because he’s Miéville and is thuggishly hot.’ I kinda agree.)
The most irritating example of this that I have come across in recent times is in the book American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Now first I will say that I love Gaiman’s books, and think that Coraline is one of the best stories I have read (not to mention some of his Sandman stories). But coming back to American Gods: The protagonist is a guy called Shadow. He is an out-and-out good guy, but he is a closed person, and somewhat unsympathetic by nature (which is kinda necessary to the story). And we need to like him fast. Cue tragedies. He is in jail right now (Tragedy 1). He has a loving wife outside (a couple of sex scenes apparently enough to demonstrate their emotional bonding) whom he misses (Tragedy 2). But on the day he is to be released, he learns of his wife’s death (Tragedy 3, which also frees him to go cross-country taking part in the story). And then, after he comes out, he learns that his wife had been cheating on him (Big Heart-Stopping Tragedy 4).
And it works. We are on Shadow’s side from beginning to end, but I felt cheated, because I was giving few reasons to actually like him as a person other than the vague notion that ‘he is a good guy’.
This tactic was most unashamedly used in the tv series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is among the two-three modern tv shows that I liked. All the major characters (most of all Buffy herself) go through partners (and other tragedies) at an almost alarming rate. The only person free from this is Rupert Giles, but he’s British, which is reason enough to pity him. Joss Whedon, the creator of the series, himself said that happy characters are not interesting characters, and he displays this conviction amply throughout the series. But he compensates this by making us like the characters for other reasons too, and anyway, one should realise that this series was shown one hour per week (two hours for some episodes), and to do this without thinning out the pace requires some dependence on clichés.
But there is one major difference between the two that makes me accept the tragedy in Buffy – the tragedy is almost always an integral part of the story. It is what drives the story. It does not say to me, “Okay, this character is sad, like it, and then we’ll get along with other, more important, things.”
There are definitely justifications for traditional tragic figures. When one works within a set structure, one has to conform to some guidelines. But why should this happen almost every time? I feel that for every three characters that fall back on tragedy, there should be one character that challenges the writer.
I accept such characters in one particular situation – a short story in which you have to sympathise with the character. Here, I accept this (albeit grudgingly), because I read short stories for story, and I don’t want the writer wasting unnecessary time driving us around.