Posts Tagged ‘characterization’

Character Change as a Catalyst for Conflict

A few weeks ago, my sister finally convinced me to join Pottermore and get sorted into a house. Now, I was 14 when I started reading the Harry Potter books, and over the years I have taken a lot of sorting quizzes. The good majority of those came up about 50/50 Gryffindor (due to a sometimes ill-advised tendency to jump to people’s rescue without thinking things through) and Ravenclaw (because I am a giant nerd and love puzzles). Once I got Slytherin, which was a bit thrilling, because I went through a phase where I was really into Slytherin (much like I went through a phase where I was really into the Empire a few years before), but even I had to admit that was probably a fluke.

I was expecting Ravenclaw from Pottermore. I got Hufflepuff.

“Hufflepuff?” I said to my sister, who had sat with me on the phone while I went through the quiz. “I have never been a Hufflepuff. Aren’t Hufflepuffs nice? And like other people?”

My sister is also a Hufflepuff, but she is, like, stereotypically Hufflepuff. If she’d taken those gazillion of quizzes back in the day, they all would have said Hufflepuff.

My sister said, “I think most parents are probably Hufflepuff.”

Which I’ve been thinking about, because that’s what I do. And I think she’s right. It’s not that I no longer have the qualities that marked me as a Gryffindor, it’s that I have to stop and think about what I do before I do something, to think about how it will affect my family. And it’s not that I’m not still a giant nerd or no longer love puzzles, but when presented with a choice between working on a devilishly hard Sudoku puzzle or having a tea party with the small, mobile ones, the latter tends to win out.

People change. It’s what they do. And characters also change, at least if you want them to remain realistic. There are always thread to who they were, sure, but people are affected by life. Good things, bad things. A character raised out of poverty to a life of luxury is not going to be the same person they were when they were living in a cardboard box. A character who has lost their spouse to cancer is going to be affected by that, one way or another. Characters make choices–choices that force them to reevaluate their priorities, to face the darker parts of themselves (or not to), to pick where they want to go and what they want out of life.

And that, dear Squiders, can be a wonderful catalyst for conflict within a story. It can drive internal conflict. Maybe a character knows they need to do something–for themselves, for their family, for their soul–but can’t bring themselves to separate from a part of their selves that they feel is essential. Maybe their goals are hurting them, but they’re not willing to let go. Or they know what they need to do, the change that needs to be made, but feel like it’s out of their reach.

It can drive interpersonal conflict as well. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “He’s not the man I married.” When people change, it can affect how they interact with the people closest to them. People react to pressure or success in different ways, ways that not be compatible with those of their loved ones. Someone can make a change for the better only to find their old friends trying to pull them back down, or someone can feel that someone else is leaving them behind.

Don’t forget change, Squiders. People response to outside stimulus, good or bad–and characters should too.

I think I’ll skip Thursday, but I should be back to post on Friday, unless I get swallowed by family things. (All state parks have free admission on Friday to try and combat the Black Friday phenomena, and that’s hard to say no to.) If I don’t see you then, have a happy Thanksgiving, American Squiders, and a great weekend, global Squiders.

Oh, and thank you to everyone who’s picked up To Rule the StarsWe’re sticking up pretty decently in our Amazon categories, hooray! The ebook version is still on sale for $.99, and the paperback is now available as well, so pick it up while you can if you haven’t yet!

Good Characterization at Work: Avatar The Last Airbender

The larger, mobile one and I watched Avatar: The Last Airbender (referred to as A:TLA from here on out) a few years back, which I had heard of and had recommended many times before, and had just never gotten around to. We watched the whole thing, as well as the first season of the sequel, The Legend of Korra, which we then stopped because Korra is quite a bit more mature and there were elements that I found terrifying so I wasn’t going to show it to my small child.

I mentioned something about A:TLA to him last week or so, and he didn’t remember the series at all, despite being his favorite and us reading the comments and the works. So we’re watching it again. Well, he’s watching it, and I’m watching my favorite bits, which has unfortunately included most of the third season so this week’s been a bit low on the productivity.

But I noticed again how interesting Zuko’s character arc is–oh, I should warn you that there are spoilers ahead, though to be honest, it’s been eight years since the series ended and I think that ship has sailed, and also I knew a bit about people’s arcs going into the show and it did not ruin my enjoyment of it at all.

For those that are unfamiliar with A:TLA, it’s a Nickelodeon show that ran in the mid-2000s about a world where the people are divided up into four people based on their element affiliation. Most people are normal people, but there are some who are “benders,” people who can manipulate their element in various ways. There’s one person at any time, the Avatar, who can manipulate all four elements: Earth, Fire, Air, and Water. When the Avatar dies, he or she is reincarnated into the next element in the cycle.

In the time period that A:TLA takes place in, the Fire Nation attacked the others about a century ago, plunging the world into war. The Avatar, a 12-year-old airbender named Aang, accidentally got trapped in an iceberg, and avoided being wiped out by with the rest of the airbenders, who the Fire Nation destroyed, knowing that the Avatar would be an airbender since the previous one had been a firebender. So the series focuses on Aang and his need to master all four elements so he can face the Fire Lord and hopefully put the world back into balance.

The bending worldbuilding is very good–they based each on a different martial art, and within each type of bending the movements are very consistent and logical. Earthbending, for example, features a lot of wide stances and grounding yourself; waterbending is fluid and moves quickly from form to form, etc.

Perhaps the strongest thing about the show, though, is the characters. There are several main characters, and each are given a complex and reasonable backstory. None are treated are caricatures or stereotypes, and each have flaws and strengths like real people. Not only that, but major secondary and side characters are given the same treatment. Even Aang has understandable and relatable flaws despite his being the all-powerful Avatar.

There’s five “main” characters: Aang; Katara, the last waterbender from the Southern Water Tribe; her brother, Sokka, who is the sole nonbender and functions as the tactical mastermind; Toph, a blind earthbender; and Zuko, crown prince of the Fire Nation. Sokka is probably my favorite, because he’s sarcastic and fun most of the time, but as I said above, I’ve always been fond of Zuko’s arc.

Zuko starts off as the primary antagonist, hunting down Aang and leaving a swath of destruction to get to him. But the show makes it clear that he feels he has to–he was banished three years previously, at age 13, for talking back to a general during a war meeting, and his father told him that finding the Avatar was the only way he’d ever be allowed back home. Zuko’s stuck between his cruel father who’s determined to make the Fire Nation dominate the world, and his uncle, who preaches balance and kindness. Throughout the series, he’s forced to confront his beliefs and his past constantly, which is handled well and believably. In the end, he joins up with Aang and the others to help Aang master firebending and fights directly against his family to help put the world back into balance. I know from experience how hard it is to successfully take someone from a villain to a hero, so it’s interesting to see it done well. At no point does Zuko change his core personality, which is a nice touch.

Anyway, if you haven’t seen A:TLA, you should watch it as an example of characterization done right. Yes, it’s meant for children, but they made the world and characters feel real, and put in plenty of complexity for adult viewers. It’s an easy watch too–the episodes run about 25 minutes, and there’s 20 to a season. All seasons are free to stream on Amazon, and I imagine it’s also available on other streaming services. Korra is also an excellent show, at least the parts I’ve seen, though much darker in tone. It’s obviously meant for a much older audience.

Do you have other examples of TV shows or books that do a really excellent job with their characters? Thoughts on A:TLA if you’ve seen it?

Star Trek Deep Space Nine and Relationships

So, I believe it was last week when I mentioned I’d gone back to watching DS9. I’m a few episodes into Season 5 (watched two this morning, both of which I think I’ve somehow never seen before) and I was again struck by something that has been very noticeable this time around, and that’s the relationship between Captain Sisko and his son, Jake.

I think, as a kid and then later a college student, that I just lumped this in with the rest of the (admittedly, usually excellent) relationships which are, I would argue, really what makes DS9 work. But as a parent myself, rewatching these episodes (especially the tear-jerking season 4 episode “The Visitor”, which you should watch whether you’ve watched any other DS9 or not) have really resonated this time through. And they do a great job–any episode that has focused on Sisko and Jake has tended to be very strong. Kudos to everyone who wrote or acted or was related to them, because I do think it’s one of the best parent/child relationships I’ve seen portrayed on television.

DS9 tends to be people’s favorite or least favorite of the Trek series, probably because it’s so different. But because they have a “home base,” so to speak, it allowed them to do things differently, including a lot more focus on characters and relationships. I love the original series and Next Generation, but they’re more adventure of the week stories. Data and Spock are really the only characters whose background/feelings/growth are explored, and that’s because they’re the Other. DS9 does that to some extent with Odo, but almost every character–even side ones, like Rom or Nog–gets a character arc at some point.

And it explores family more too. There’s actually a lot of single father examples. Besides Sisko and Jake, there’s Rom and Nog and also Worf and Alexander at points. The O’Briens are a complete family unit with small children. They go into sibling relationships with Quark and Rom. And unlike Next Gen, where at times it’s not really clear where the children go during emergencies (or how they deal with the aftermath), these family relationships can be central in an emergency instead of being glossed over.

And I think, as an adult, I can appreciate this all more, both as good television and good writing skills. I stopped watching as a kid (I must have been 12 or 13) because of something silly which, in retrospect, was an opportunity for them to explore what happened when someone was isolated from their own type, even if they’d never really been home in the first place. To adapt to change. To live as something different but common, instead of being what you were and alone.

Anyway, if you want excellent ensemble television, with the occasional explosion or time travel romp, I highly recommend DS9. You do kind of have to watch it in order, though, to understand the multiseason Dominion War arc (and its predecessor wars with the Cardassians and the Klingons).

Fan of DS9, Squiders? Like Trek in general? Why or why not? Which series is your favorite?

Voltron and Problematic Characterization

Since we seem to be on a characterization kick, why stop now?

The small, mobile one likes robots, so while ditzing around seeing what was available in the cartoon robot department on Amazon Prime, we discovered Voltron: Defender of the Universe. Now, for those of you who are unfamiliar, Voltron was a mid-80s port of a Japanese show called GoLion, I believe, about five robot lions that can combine to form a giant “people robot,” as the small one would say, whose purpose is in theory is to defend the galaxy, though he spends most of his time defending Planet Arus, which the bad guy is unfathomably interested in and so spends a lot of his resources on, for whatever reason.

(This is not to be confused with a new TV show called Voltron Force, which I know nothing about except it’s some sort of modern take on Voltron.)

Now, Voltron used to be on Cartoon Network back before CN started to make its own shows, and I used to watch it, because one of my online RPing friends was obsessed, and had a Star Trek/Voltron crossover RP I would occasionally do with him. So, going into watching this with the small one, I had fond memories of the show.

But when we actually started to watch it, I was kind of horrified. Yes, in general it’s a shining example of a lot of the terrible tropes 80s cartoons tended to have. But I was especially upset with the treatment of the single female on the show, Princess Allura.

Original Voltron Force

(Guess which one she is?) From voltron.wikia.com

Beyond being the token female in pink, she’s supposed to be the leader of Planet Arus. But the other characters don’t think much of her at all, despite the fact that she’s continuously trying to learn new things or be responsible, efforts that are constantly shut down by her male companions, either her advisor or the other members of the Voltron Force. There’s a scene early on when her old governess returns to the castle, flips the princess over her knee, and spanks her in front of everyone else. And everyone else laughs.

My husband doesn’t want the small one watching Voltron anymore because he thinks it’s too violent. I don’t want him watching anymore because wow, what a horrid way to treat someone.

I will admit that this is not a new form of characterization, the ruler that they won’t let rule, because it’s too dangerous or they want them to appear incompetent or whatever. But coupled with the constant derision of the other characters, and the humiliation that seems heaped on the character, it’s really unfortunate. And that she’s the only female main character on the show–that’s not going to teach the small one anything about respecting people, especially women.

And it’s too bad, because if you look at Allura without her male companions, she’s pretty great. She’s been isolated in an attempt to protect her, but she wants to learn and protect her people, and is willing to do whatever’s necessary. But when you add in everyone else, she’s just a giant joke, the woman who won’t get in her place and let the men do things.

Oy.

The lesson here may be not to revisit shows from your childhood. Or it might be that, if you only have one woman on the show, not to treat her like crap.

Have you watched any shows or movies recently, Squiders, that you used to like but couldn’t get over some aspect of now?