Bad Characters vs. Bad Writing

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. >:)

9 thoughts on “Bad Characters vs. Bad Writing

  1. thank you for the link at the bottom! i kept reading her name in your blog and going, “Diana G… Diana Gabaldon….Gabaldon…where do I know that name from??” and it was from that wank!

    I completely agree with you – allowing characters to do bad things is actually one of the best ways to make them compelling. But forgetting that they have? Or not allowing them to work through those things? Or not dethroning them for doing them? Stupidly annoying. I absolutely hated Gwen by the end of the first season in Torchwood because they didn’t actually allow her to grow with her own actions in any rational way (and the maintenance of her as the primary POV bothered me from the second or third episode — at the beginning it was obvious but fine, but after? bleh).

    fanfic! you should do it! i would read it!

  2. Dethroning! That is the PERFECT word for what I’m talking about. I am all about letting characters fuck up — fuck up badly, fuck up personally, do things they’re fully aware they’re going to regret later — it’s what makes them fascinating. They can still be the author’s darlings even (Hail, Lestat!), but you can’t keep them on a pedestal anymore.

    As for Gabaldon fanfic — hells no. :P You got recs, I’d love to read them, but I’m not doing it myself.

    Actually I wrote a short story (original fiction) that was tangentially motivated by my response to the Lord John books. I plan to post it after I polish up the ending and get Shelley to proof it. You want to be another beta? :D

  3. I think what I love about you is that you always seem to bring up the issues that matter to me too.

    Hypocrisy in general is one of those things that can make me, if not completely hate, HORRIBLY dislike a person quicker than about anything else. Stupidity and prejudice can do it for me too, but I guess I’m just one of those weird people that is actually bothered LESS by the morons and assholes if they say it loud and say it proud (which happens pretty much never, so I guess it’s not that huge a deal).

    I will quite possibly hate a fictional character forever if they show a frustrating degree of hypocrisy (meaning, if it seems like everything they do seems to defy something they said or did earlier), and that’s if that was specifically the writer’s intention, which does happen, and I appreciate anyone that can bring that degree of emotion out of me, positive or negative.

    However, if it’s one of those things where no one even seems to notice the inconsistencies, I tend to just put the damn thing down in disgust, complete with a noise similar to vomiting. :P

    Maybe my standards are just too high for this day and age (or at least that’s what my brother keeps telling me), but I guess I’m just the sort of elitist bitch that thinks if you can’t at least understand basic human principles, you shouldn’t be writing at all. Or at least, stay the fuck away from the kinds of books I like to read.

    (Of course this all applies to non-literary forms of entertainment also, but shitty books can drive me crazy like No Other.)

  4. (way belated, but…)

    Stupidity and prejudice can do it for me too, but I guess I’m just one of those weird people that is actually bothered LESS by the morons and assholes if they say it loud and say it proud

    I’m completely with you there, actually. Because there are people who believe any number of hateful/offensive things, some who’ve thought about it but a lot who… haven’t. They were brought up to believe that miscegenation/gay marriage is wrong, and never had the reason or opportunity to question it before.

    In fact, one thing on my To-Do list is writing a protagonist who has a visceral aversion to homosexuality akin to what the rest of us would feel for pedophilia. So when a colleague gets outed to him as gay, it’s less incomprehensible when his reaction is, “How on earth can I treat you the same way, knowing that you do THAT??”

    idek, I’m kind of drunk.

  5. I hope your intention was to make me fall on the floor laughing, because you have succeeded, my good sir. Just the ending to that cracked me up so hard. XD

    Question: How long is that to-do list and how long am I going to have to wait for that? Because I think you could make something along those lines damn good. It would be really interesting to read a homophobic viewpoint from a gay writer, especially one that I know would make this person a person, and not just into Homophobic Asshole Cutout A. It’s too much like those writers that make Horny Gay Male Cutout A. v______v

  6. Hahahaha, glad to hear it.

    And I don’t know how long you have to wait on said homophobic character (spoiler, he’s Keilja’s eventual love interest, I don’t know if you’ve read that short story), but it’s occurred to me as an interesting intellectual challenge — how to write someone with a moral opposition to homosexuality, when I-as-a-writer seriously can’t even come up with any legitimate opposition to it.

    The closest I can come is summoning up my own feelings of revulsion toward other sex acts and trying to make them transfer. Because if you’re gay, and you’d been friends with a coworker, and they found out about it and were suddenly like WHOOOOAAA HOLY FUCK I CAN’T EVEN INTERACT WITH YOU NORMALLY ANYMORE and you’d be like, Dude. I’m still the same person that I was yesterday. Which seems self-evident and logical, but from the other side –

    This guy you’d been friends with at work and you thought you’d known, suddenly turns out he likes to fuck nine-year-old girls, how is that not going to color every interaction you ever have with him again? Even when it has nothing to do with his sexual preferences?

    Obviously I don’t conflate homosexuality and pedophilia — but given the political rhetoric being kicked around in America today, it seems like a lot of other people do. You don’t need to argue the difference to me, I know it, but a comparison of the two (an analogy, as Card puts it) is useful for helping to understand the blind prejudice with which others might react.

  7. Okay, DAMN YOU, now you have me outright drooling. I MUST HAVE THIS. (Oh hell yeah, I read that! Loved every single word, too.) It’s always a great idea to try and wrap your mind around shit that Makes No Sense, whether you’re a writer or not, because it’s always the best way to enter into arguments. You take their viewpoints and twist them so people can see how fucked up they are. (Captain of the debate team AND chess club in high school. Can you tell?)

    My father is, disgustingly, a raving homophobe, and speaking from his perspective of things (after many exhaustive and “STFU before murder is done” conversations), apparently he can never think of this person or talk to this person without picturing them in DISGUSTING GAY SEX RELATIONS EWWWWWWW. That is the best explanation I can come up with for said perspective.

    Although, man, I give you mad kudos for even considering it. If you can pull that off and make it believable, you’ll probably become my favorite writer online. You don’t have to tell me how hard it is to try and work your mind around to trying to figure out how that mindset works, and writing it for a person and keeping them generally likable and human would be downright impossible for most people. And I would want you to compile all your Keilja stories and make them into a book, but I want that anyway, so I guess that goes without saying.

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