There’s a curious phenomenon I’ve noticed in recent years: characters do something awful, or hypocritical, or both — but instead of treating this behavior as an ugly glimpse into a side of the character we hadn’t seen before, it instead becomes clear that the writers don’t identify it as problematic at all.
Given a paradox like this, you have two options. You can take their actions at face value, and hate the character. Or you can say their actions are ridiculous and out of character, and blame the writer.
Take, for example, the BBC series Garrow’s Law, which is about the dude who pretty much invented criminal defense, back when they didn’t believe the accused deserved things like rights. In one episode, when Garrow is reluctant to defend a serial-stabber, his love interest lady convinces him to do it, by telling him that either he believes in justice for everyone, or he doesn’t believe in it at all. Fair enough. Only then in the very next episode, Garrow successfully defends a man accused of rape — who was, yeah, pretty obviously guilty as sin — and his lady friend has the nerve to get self-righteously angry at him.
That, my friends, is called hypocrisy. And that’s fine. Write me a hypocrite, someone who believes what they like, when they like it, and changes their mind when it’s inconvenient — but don’t expect me to admire them. If the character is behaving in a way that would be irrational and self-deluding in a real person, don’t expect the audience to approve of it in a fictional person.
(In an aside — why is it overwhelmingly female characters who fall into this trap? Is it some latent chauvinism on the writers’ part, like, “I find women incomprehensible, so I have carte blanche to write them completely erratically”?)
Or Gwen from Torchwood and her pattern of infidelity to her fiance, Rhys. Having one ill-advised affair I can understand — you can love someone and still fuck up. Dumping Owen and trying to move on to Jack, however, shows a lack of interest in her relationship with Rhys and a lack of interest in trying to fix it. It is selfish and irresponsible to keep stringing him along while she’s just shopping around for better options. (Not to mention the truly horrifying scene where she
roofies retcons Rhys so she can offload her guilt with a consequences-free confession that he won’t remember.)
Taken in any light except that of TV-land logic, that makes her a goddamn terrible person. And you know what? I’d be cool with that. I think there should be more terrible-person protagonists.
No, the brain-breaking part comes when it’s made clear that we’re still supposed to sympathize with and LIKE these characters. That they’re presented to us as good people we ought to respect and root for. (Less so on Torchwood, granted — I don’t think we’re supposed to approve of Gwen’s affairs, but they do push the RESPECT GWEN AND JACK’S UNPOSSIBLE LOVE!! angle pretty damn hard, and hers is still the point of view we’re invited to see the world of Torchwood through.)
Either these characters are terrible people, or these writers are terrible writers. It’s one or the other.
** What I disliked from the middle of Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade **
(The Lord John books are a spin-off from Diana Gabaldon’s historical romance Outlander series — instead of featuring her primary couple, Claire and Jamie Fraser in 1700s Scotland, they follow Lord John Grey, a homosexual officer in the British army.)
So in this, the second book in the series, Grey gets a beau, Percy. I liked Percy lots, as a character in his own right and not just because he was the only one around that Grey got to bang. He’s sweet without being saccharine, subtly cynical, more vulnerable than he lets on and more calculating than we first realize. Fabulous! Cynical, vulnerable, calculating people deserve love too.
Unfortunately, Diana Gabaldon is writing this world, and nobody in it is important except in how they relate to her
Gary Stu to her Mary Sue favorite character, Jamie goddamn Fraser.
Which means that Grey is saddled with an obsessive crush that will not die. He meets a hot new guy? Not as hot as Jamie Fraser. Has a moral dilemma? Wonder what Jamie Fraser would do. Did someone say Scotland? Jamie Fraser is from Scotland, mmm!
On the slightest excuse he drops whatever he’s doing and goes off to visit Jamie goddamn Fraser, who is like cornstarch to Gabaldon’s prose — Jamie Fraser who does not like the British, does not like homosexuals, does not have the slightest respect for Grey, or sympathy or reciprocity for his interests. It’s goddamn masochistic, is what it is (and more than a little creepy, seeing as Grey is also the one keeping Jamie prisoner) and it made me furious on Grey’s behalf, that he’s not allowed to get over this asshole the way any self-respecting adult would.
Then it gets worse.
** Spoilers: What I despised from the end of Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade **
Through some complicated happenings, Percy gets arrested for sodomy and Grey is one of the people who’s going to have to testify against him. More complications ensue, and suddenly Grey’s the only one left who can testify against him. If Grey tells the truth, Percy hangs. If Grey lies, everyone will know he’s lying, but since he’s the only direct eyewitness, Percy gets to live.
The set-up is fantastic. Grey’s behavior is rage-making.
I lay all the blame at the feet of the author.
Grey doesn’t go talk to Percy after the arrest until he’s forced to go in his official capacity. Percy confesses the whole of his sordid history that he’d been afraid to tell him before, and Grey is unmoved. (Chrissakes, Grey, GIVE HIM A HUG.) Percy apologizes and swears that he really does love him; Grey admits to himself that he loves Percy too — “But oh welp, no point in telling him that now, since he just gonna die!”
He lets Percy kick around for a bit in prison while he ponders what to do, then hits on a brilliant notion: What Would Jamie Goddamn Fraser Do? and off he goes to ask. (I, for one, do not give a damn what Jamie Fraser would do, I think he’s wholly irrelevant to this discussion, and also I hate his face.)
And that’s the emotional climax of the book. Instead of getting a dramatic scene with the actual love interest, we get Grey making a fool of himself in front of Jamie Fraser, again.
Eventually Grey does man up and save Percy — which, yeah, I appreciated — even if it’s in the most noncommittal way. He hires some thugs to sneak Percy out of prison, and when they ask if he’d like a chance to say goodbye, he’s like, “Nah, don’t think I will.” Then he gets on with wrapping up the other mystery in the book and Percy drops off the radar.
That’s it. Apparently this relationship that she spent the book developing doesn’t merit any more closure than that. And this makes me see red because Diana Gabaldon is a goddamn romance writer and you know that if this had been about her favorite heterosexual couple there would have been grand passion and dramatic gestures and emotionally-charged confrontations galore. But no, apparently gay romances aren’t worth the same level of investment. Fuck off, Diana Gabaldon.
Man, you know what I could really go for right now? Some FANFIC to fix this shit. >:)