Or… What I Learned From Binge-Watching a Superhero TV Show
So I have to come clean. I love superheroes. I grew up reading DC and Marvel comics as guilty pleasures alongside the classics, and have never outgrown my fascination with the tortured heroes and heroines, the save-the-world stakes, and the moral gray areas of a good superhero series.
My critique group will not be surprised to hear that my latest love is Arrow. (Jessica Jones is my spirit animal, but that’s a post for a different day.)
What has struck me over the weeks I’ve watched — wait for it — 115 shows is the amount of online bilious hate for one of my favorite characters, the tech nerd Felicity Smoak. (For the uninitiated, imagine Hermione Granger with an advanced degree in cybersecurity, stylish clothes, and a super-cool ear piercing.) Some of the Felicity forum frost comes from the fact that her appearance as our hero’s love interest runs counter to the DC canon of comic literature.
But some of it seems to originate in a problem that this writer, who just can’t turn off her Writer Brain, has noted. From time to time, Felicity makes a poor decision and/or mistake which is not accompanied by immediate remorse or regret. Because what she does as a hacker is abstract and necessarily distant from the hand-to-hand combat the Arrow team is engaged in, her errors can feel equally abstracted and distant. Eventually, we do get a sense of her anguish and we see her owning her “stuff,” but this usually comes about much too late for a very vocal minority of the fandom and results in their collective loathing (complete with YouTube videos like “Ten Reasons We Hate Felicity”).
Which has led me to thinking a lot about how to write scenes reflecting the aftermath of a character’s missteps in word and deed. My thoughts in a nutshell:
- Strong secondary characters — and even lesser secondary characters — need to have their own “sequel” moments of processing their actions after the fact, especially if those actions have resulted in hurting or damaging someone else. This doesn’t have to occur in a secondary character POV scene unless the harm is so great that the story would benefit from allowing the reader to experience remorse and sadness with the character. If the harm is slight but still needs to be acknowledged and addressed, it can be incorporated into a scene with a main character. Nor does it have to be a full-on rending of garments and gnashing of teeth. Sometimes it’s enough to see the character tear up or go mute at a reminder of their failure.
- The character’s remorse should be at the level expected by the audience, not by the character herself. In a good Felicity example from the Arrow episode “Monument Point,” she has to reroute a nuclear missile from striking Monument Point, a city of 2 million people, and ends up being forced to dump it on Havenrock, a much smaller city of tens of thousands. We see her upset and blaming herself exactly once until the following season when a survivor of the Havenrock tragedy shows up. Even then, her grief isn’t front and center. On one level, sure, the moral calculus is clear — she had to save the most people possible — but causing the deaths of tens of thousands is still a huge weight that can’t be shed easily (or shouldn’t). This viewer was disappointed that we didn’t have either a strong sequel moment to witness her personal devastation (could she sleep at all that night? did she cry herself to sleep?) or see her experiencing those emotional ripples over the next 2-3 episodes as she struggled to come to grips with what her crime-fighting has forced her to do.
- Amends, retributions, and apologies need to be made within a reasonably short period of time unless the character arc demands otherwise. In the case of a secondary character whose arc might be shorter or less dramatic, patching things up with others shouldn’t drag out too long. Otherwise it just causes consternation in the audience or reader and is seen as “drama for drama’s sake” rather than a legitimate character arc. It should also be on-page to some extent, or else it feels as if the reconciliation isn’t earned. Even worse, the lack of amends could make the character unsympathetic and unlikable. If the hero or heroine is usually quick to make amends, then that should be their MO — unless their reluctance to feel regret and make any necessary retribution is part of a larger story arc and as such should be amply motivated.
- If the character doesn’t make amends for her wrongdoing, be prepared for people to hate her. To the point where she literally can’t do anything right. I’m not kidding. Some vocal members of the audience, if emotionally invested in the story, can sometimes pull a line of dialogue, a gesture, or a facial expression completely out of context and paint an entire scene as though the character has ruined it for all eternity. (These folks clearly need a safe space where they won’t be triggered, but alas, such a space doesn’t exist as long as they’re glued to the show or book or trilogy or what-have-you.)
I’m sure there are more tidbits in there that could be sussed out on this topic, but those are the principles that struck me as I was watching — let’s do the math, shall we? — 75.33 hours of Arrow. Hours I will never, ever get back in my life.
Good thing I was able to pull a writing lesson or two out of them, huh?
Sandra K. Moore has been writing one thing or another since she could scribble on a Big Chief tablet. A former Silhouette Bombshell author, Sandra has given up (temporarily) the kickass heroine and is now writing from her softer side for the self-published Promise House series. This novella quartet explores the journeys of four young women finding their way — and remaining true to themselves — through the social expectations and turmoil of 1950’s Houston.