I Care About Your Work Not at All: When Characters are Not Interesting

19 Mar



Yes, Google Tell Me

Recently, my husband started watching this show. My interest in this show was satisfied by two Google searches: 1) Who killed Rosie Larsen?, 2) Why did so-and-so kill Rosie Larsen? Now, I can continue not to care. Why so apathetic? says flat mouthed Joker. Well, no character was remotely interesting, and I didn’t like Twin Peaks the first time I saw it. Dual Spires was much more compelling (Yahtzee voice: Look it up!–Look him up!).

It’s not just this show that lacked any characters I could pretend were real people. After finishing all seven seasons of Supernatural, I wanted a new show to watch on Netflix (I do not have cable so shows are like days long movies that I watch until responsibility knocks, pesky jerk). I also tried Once Upon a Time–blech, then Terra Nova–rage quit, Being Human (U.S)–heavy sigh, then finally found something that peaked my interest in American Horror Story: Murder House.

Once Upon a Time (in Mexico? No, Storybrooke. Oh, I see what you did there, clever beyond repair) was half interesting, as in the current timeline was interesting but the fairy-tale land scenes were so unwatchable I felt my eyes needed Windex for all those horrible sets, costumes, and hair. Terra Nova was infuriating. Now the rant tangent begins (feel free to skip it):

Okay, end of the 22nd Century and the Earth is basically a ball of dust that rivals Mars in desert sunsetscapes. Humans are on the brink of extinction because they screwed the planet like it was a watermelon (picture it!), and to keep things going until maybe the problem is fixed there are population caps. Our main characters say “Screw you” to everyone else on the planet by having a third kid, and I’m supposed to like these jerks? Nuh-uh. Oh, but wait, they hop an illegal ride to the past so they can live together because since they broke the law the government is mad at them. But wait, there’s more (says the late Billy Mays)! When asked why they had a third child, dad says “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” Why? because you didn’t have a futuristic condom good enough and had to get your rocks off just then? because you hated everyone else on the planet? No answer? Fine! Then their teen-aged son starts acting like a self-absorbed jackass, and his parents get mad at him. Seems the apple doesn’t fall far from the self-absorbed jackass tree. And I’m supposed to root for these people? Suck it, Terra Nova.

Rant done. Being Human, one word: predictable. And, this is a big one, the vampire kills somebody within the first five minutes which was a totally avoidable action. He could have not tried to get laid. He could have pushed her off when he was having trouble and said something like “I’ve got to go to the bathroom” and pretended to have diarrhea (so less embarrassing than figuring out what to do with a dead body). But noooo, he’s got to try to get some. (Note: This scene represents what would have happened on Bella and Edward’s wedding night had the work been realistic.) And I’m supposed to root for him? Suck it, Being Human.

It’s not just T.V. shows that can lose me if the characters are not sympathetic as The Killing, Terra Nova, and Being Human were perfect examples of lackluster character attempts. Books and movies can do this too. The Lorax and Avatar spent more time trying to send me a message than they tried to make me actually care so my sighs through Avatar were justified by the predictable plot as well (And don’t tell me it is visually appealing. So is a lava lamp, doesn’t mean they should turn it into a movie. What are we, cats? Also, watch that movie on a screen less than twenty inches wide and the pretty lights don’t hold up).

I had this happen to me with a couple of popular books as well. I read the first two 50 Shades books (gasp, she admitted it!), got to the third, and became bored. The characters were just fairy-tale copies (a prince/thief–of virginity–and a princess, pure and chaste) and couldn’t hold interest for three books, even/coupled with sometimes good, sometimes way too freaky sex, pointless drama (said in a How-it-should-have-ended voice), and bad prose. I read the first Shiver book for a possible piece on Young Adult (not creative but journalistic) and started reading the second novel when I had to stop when my audible sighs became too annoying to my own ears.

But it’s not just modern pop work that isn’t immune to my demand for at least one compelling character. I want to read the classic pop novels and can’t do it. I get fifty pages in and cannot care anymore: The Lord of the Rings, Dune, Interview with a Vampire, etc. I’m not what sure goes wrong, but it does. I can’t figure out what I’m missing either, since I love the live-action versions of these things (not old Dune with Kyle MacLachlan, though this was my introduction to Dune, not the theatrical version but the extended version, which by the way is as long as all three Lord of the Rings extended movies put together–It has a lecture at the beginning, which I sat through as a very bored, insomniac fourteen year old).

Not even the classic novels are immune. Aren’t these supposed be good? Aren’t these writers supposed to be the masters of their craft? The only reason I made it through The Scarlet Letter is because I had to for an exam. Everyone in Wurthering Heights was irredeemable. Henry James is the perfect material to put anyone to sleep with (To read his work I need someone crashing cymbals at random intervals behind my head so my eyes don’t close and suddenly I’m George Bergeron). I am supposed to read Ulysses over the next few weeks and that scares me because it is (read in Carol/Cheryl Tunt’s fancy dinner party voice:) “the greatest novel ever written”, which usually seems to mean that you’ll need to read it one million times to understand it, when you probably won’t get through the first reading nor like it or find it enjoyable.

So can I not be satisfied? Actually, I can. I could go through a list of novels, shows, and movies I love, but that seems like a boring way to do this. I’ve already mentioned that I like Supernatural and that I was satisfied with American Horror Story: Murder House, and I’ll talk about the last one.

I watched all of this season in two days. I consumed it like it was chocolate cake with raspberry sauce drizzled on top (i.e. like a I was a Hoover). It wasn’t just the mystery (jeez, there’s more than twenty dead people by the end); the characters were also interesting, with the great exception of Vivian. Ben and Violet were compelling. They had flaws. They made mistakes. They wrestled with their humanity–sometimes they wrestled naked with others (what? sex is interesting and you know it!). Vivian was the worm in the character apple of that show.

Ben: I know you don’t want me here, but my patients see me here, so I’ll leave after my last patient.

Vivian: *really long mean rant followed by* You can see your patients here, but you will leave after your last patient.

Me: Did you not hear what he said? He literally just said that’s what he would do. Are you so self-absorbed that you can’t hear what he’s saying?

Husband: You know she can’t hear you, right?

Me: That’s my point!

I hope the writers bring just as much awesomeness to Asylum and leave off on the bad wife cliche.

Empathetic Characters

1) show emotion (unlike Linden of The Killing), 2) have flaws that they are aware of (unlike the parents of Terra Nova), 3) make mistakes and at least consider taking responsibility for them (unlike Vivian of AHS: Murder House), and 4) are mostly good people (unlike the vampire from Being Human–I can’t be bothered to remember/look up his name, that’s how little I care: not even a quick Google search level of caring).

Some of the problem works I mentioned have other, bigger problems than a lack of empathetic characters, but this seems to be the most important part to me. Without at least one likable character, the plot better be so damn interesting or compelling that I’m pissing my pants because I can’t be bothered to go to the bathroom.

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Posted by on March 19, 2013 in Craft of Writing, Empathy


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