Category: pet peeves

Pet Peeves: Protagonists that are the Villains of their Stories

Sam and Dean Winchester are the villains of the show. In this essay I will…

My wife got me into SUPERNATURAL. I just finished up the eighth season and, I’ve come to realize that the Winchesters are the villains of their own show. Many of the problems they face are of their own making, either because of selfishness, ignorance, or legitimate villainy. Sometimes, it makes the show difficult to watch.

There is an exchange late in the eighth season that demonstrates what I mean, and how the show is at least peripherally aware of it. SPOILERS AHEAD for an episode that originally aired in 2013.

STOP READING TO AVOID A MINOR, INCONSEQUENTIAL SPOILER.

Alright, so one of the Prophets of God, Kevin, able to read the Word of God, has been kidnapped by the King of Hell, Crowley. Crowley has imprisoned him in a set-up indistinguishable from his hideout and had his demons take the form of Sam and Dean Winchester, who Kevin trusts, in order to learn where Kevin has hidden one of the tablets. Kevin figures out that he’s not dealing with the real Sam and Dean. This exchange follows:

Crowley: “What gave it away?”

Kevin: “The real Sam and Dean would never go across town to get me barbeque.”

Crowley: “So, my demons were too polite?”

Supernatural – S8:E21 “The Great escapist”

That’s indicative of the show at large–many of the biggest issues Sam and Dean face they cause themselves. This is a trope in many stories, so much so that you can neatly classify it multiple ways depending on the intent of the story and motivation of the character. Tony Stark in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is another good example of this, as most of the problems he or the Avengers has to deal with are his own fault.

I find these tropes frustrating if handled poorly (as, unfortunately, Supernatural tends to) because it makes the characters harder to root for. In Supernatural’s case, I often wonder if Sam and Dean aren’t the actual villains of the entire series. I don’t want to be tricked into rooting for the villains.

Much of the time for a protagonist to inadvertently cause the problems or conflicts that the story hinges on, they have to make an irrational or sometimes downright stupid decision. Decisions like the ones pointed out here.

It can be difficult to write a compelling, conflict-filled story where people don’t make irrational decisions to keep the story going forward, especially for long-running series or when characters run out of ways to grow. So, as writers, we need to work extra hard to maintain that momentum and keep evolving with the story without pushing it too hard in any one direction.

Pet Peeves: Memory Loss

Love the jacket. Didn’t love the plot.

So I hear you’re in a bit of a bind with your story. You need a character to do something they know they shouldn’t, but aren’t sure how to get them to do it. Well, I’ve got the perfect solution for you, no matter the situation:

Temporary memory loss.

Yes, it means that the audience will have to relearn already established information with the character in question. Yes, the audience will have to watch certain plot threads and character arcs be re-litigated. Yes, it will make the stakes feel lower. But does it matter? You’ll have a blank slate to work with!

Clearly, I have issues with temporary memory loss for the reasons described above. To me, it feels like a cop-out; a way to dance around the plot for a while, buy some time, while the characters spin their wheels. It frustrates me because I want to see the characters grow and the plot progress.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle is a recent example of this. Galahad, one of the main characters in the first Kingsmen, is killed with a bullet to the head in the first movie. It serves as a large part of the conflict in the third act and motivation for the main character, Eggsy, to save the day. So when he’s brought back to life via a deus ex machina in the sequel it retroactively dilutes those stakes. Now when anyone takes a headshot you know they can just be brought back for story convenience. Not only that, but because he no longer has his memory we have to watch him re-establish his relationship with Eggsy. A large part of the movie is also spent just trying to get him to remember who he is, why he’s important, and what his skills are. Totally robs the story of forward momentum, in my opinion.

How common is this in storytelling? Common enough that TV Tropes has over 20 different classifications just for amnesia. I think it’s much more interesting to watch well-informed, intelligent characters use their smarts to work through problems than for the plot to be pushed forward because of convenient memory loss.

Bootstraps are Dumb

Not pictured: Bootstraps.

There’s this saying you’ll hear a lot if you follow politics: “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” What we think it means is to come up from nothing to become successful. We hear it all the time to describe supposedly self-made people like Jeff Bezos or Donald Trump. Politicians like Mitch McConnell use it to justify preventing new social safety net programs, raising the minimum wage, gutting existing programs, or making these programs more difficult to access.

But, like the myth that most of our most successful citizens are actually self-made, that phrase doesn’t quite reflect reality.

Do me a favor before we continue. Put on your shoes, sit on the floor, and try it. Try to lift yourself using your shoelaces or the tongue of your shoe. I’ll wait.

*Makes a nice cup o’ tea while waiting.*

Did it work? No? You actually pulled a muscle? I’ll be hearing from your lawyer?

Well, this didn’t go as planned. Regardless, let’s push on.

As you likely realize at this point, the phrase “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps” is a load of horseshit. And it’s etymology shows a very different intent behind its meaning. The phrase seems to have originated in an 1834 newspaper article discussing a man who claimed to have created a perpetual motion machine–a famously impossible thing to do. In reference to this invention, the author of the article wrote that the inventor may have claimed to be able to lift himself “… over the Cumberland river or a barn yard fence by the straps of his boots.” In short, the original meaning of the phrase was sarcastic and used to tell someone they were full of shit.

The phrase was used sarcastically throughout the early 20th century. It’s unclear when the phrase began to shift toward a more positive interpretation, but by the 1970s it was an accepted part of the lexicon for “self-made men.”

There is a lot to be said for the way language evolves. Especially how idioms can switch meanings (as this article on the history of the phrase covers). But it’s worth knowing the history of certain popular phrases, and understanding their intended use. It can illuminate the veracity of rhetoric, which brings me back to its use in politics. When trying to spin something, politicians reach into the rhetoric grab-bag for anything they think sounds good, sounds “down home,” and illustrates their point. They may or may not know or care what the intended meaning was, which can pervert and then eventually subvert a phrase. We should all view these types of idioms skeptically.

And next time you hear someone say others should “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” give them an etymology lesson and then tell them to fuck off.

Pet Peeves: Irresistible Protagonists

Great opening line, though.

On the recommendation of a close friend I’ve tried to read William Gibson’s NEUROMANCER multiple times. I always quit around the same spot. There are multiple reasons for my leaving the book unfinished, but the final straw in every attempt is a scene where the badass woman in the novel, Molly, a cybernetic “street samurai” suddenly and inexplicably* has sex with Case, the protagonist and anti-hero.

Most male creators fall into a trope of what I call the “irresistible protagonist.” This is well-documented, and (in my mind) is a combination of three well-known tropes, as detailed at TV Tropes: 1) The Pornomancer, 2) Chick Magnet, and 3) Most Writers Are Men.

In NEUROMANCER the moment feels random, unearned on the author’s part, and more like the author making himself the protagonist and then inventing a hot woman to desire him. I find this in a lot of storytelling. It’s so prevalent that there is a well-worn sitcom joke about the hot chick with the dumpy guy. In its worst cases, it feels like someone else’s fantasy playing out in front of the audience.

In real life, sex and relationships tend to be subtle things (unless they’re purposefully not–that’s a different story). What bothers me about these types of tropes, of the the irresistible protagonist in general, is that besides from being creepy it’s uninteresting. The nuances of attraction, the dance of courtship if you will, are where the interesting things happen between two people. For a character to meet someone and ten minutes later (seemingly for no other reason than an overwhelming physical attractiveness) they’re banging it out sucks the dramatic energy from the relationship. As with anything in storytelling, it’s more fun if the author earns it.

To me, there’s a fine line for suspension of disbelief for an author to walk. The irresistible protagonist is a good way to lose me.

*I know from later reading synopses of the novel that the sex is more about Molly than it is Case and therefore probably isn’t the best example to open this post. While reading, though, it feels random, which is exactly my pet peeve.

Pet Peeves: Hive Minds

A picture of independent beings with free will that will not stop just because their queen was defeated. Attribution: Waugsberg [CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]

Picture it: The heroes are overwhelmed. Bad guys swarm from every direction, beating them back as it looks like all hope is lost. But then, with a decisive final blow, the big boss is defeated and all of its minions fall dead.

Classic hive mind.

THE AVENGERS, THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, ENDER’S GAME, JUSTICE LEAGUE, STRANGER THINGS, EDGE OF TOMORROW, STAR TREK, and so many more stories fall prey to this trope. I don’t want to talk about what a hive mind is, or all the different variations of it throughout media, but instead what a hive mind means to any specific story.

While hive minds allow the writer to ratchet up tension by presenting the protagonist with overwhelming odds within a story, it also immediately deflates the established stakes by giving the heroes an easy out.

Part of one’s investment in a story is being drawn into the difficulty of the task at hand. We root for a character because their journey is difficult. In that difficulty we can often find ourselves reflected, because our own lives are so often difficult.

So when our protagonist finally overcomes the main villain, as the Avengers did with the Chitauri, and the rest also fall defeated, we’re negating all of the consequences of the conflict. It’s too tidy to be satisfying–because it doesn’t reflect our lived experiences. Even when we succeed at overcoming a challenge in our lives, there are loose ends and consequences that we still have to contend with.

This also better reflects our understanding of reality. Hive insects aren’t mindless drones that can’t operate without their leader. They’re independent beings that exercise free will. When something happens to, say, a queen bee the hive doesn’t end. It evolves. I find that to be a much more interesting possibility than the hive minds that are depicted throughout media.

There are applications for hive minds in great storytelling. ENDER’S GAME is great because of what its hive mind says about the story and humanity. But when used as an easy way to end a story and allow the hero to overcome overwhelming odds without actually losing anything or facing long-term consequences, you’re cheating the story and the audience.

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