cataloging

On character development

I was discussing this a little with deadlybride, but Tumblr doesn't offer much elbow room--so I came over here where I can ramble a bit more comfortably. This is something I've been thinking about a fair bit thanks to a) watching a number of procedurals (mostly British murder mysteries) with my mom, b) trying to watch some episodes of a particular US mystery show because of a particular director I admire, and c) being reminded in a couple places of some of the more subtle ways SPN has developed Sam and Dean over the years.

Let's start by giving a character--let's call him Joe--the trait of not liking bananas. It's early days, you're still figuring out how Joe ticks and what distinguishes him from your other main character (James), and that's an easy way to do it: James has already been established as being a sucker for banana splits. Now, fast forward 10 seasons: does Joe still hate bananas? Does James still make a point of ordering banana splits everywhere they go? It seems like long-running TV shows handle this kind of question one of three ways:

  1. Caricature: Joe's dislike of bananas is referenced somehow every other episode. James would do anything for a banana split, to the point of blowing off his job (and completely sidetracking what's supposed to be the episode's plot) just for the possibility of getting his hands on one. Possibly wacky hijinks ensue when the two characters' preferences collide, or there's recurring squabbling over this that's supposed to add tension but is really just annoying.

  2. Throwaway: These preferences are referenced once or twice and then completely disappear in subsequent episodes, to the point of even being reversed somewhere down the line. This is similar to the "hobby/job of the episode!" syndrome, and makes it almost impossible to do any significant character development.

  3. Character-building: Instead of beating the banana thing to death or completely forgetting it, those preferences get tucked away somewhere they can be found again, and are pulled out only when relevant. For added bonus points, they shift or deepen with each reoccurence. Perhaps Joe is won over by James at some point. Perhaps James overdoses on banana splits, or finds some other ice cream confection he likes even better--as happens with real people as they age and experience new things. Perhaps we find out at some point that Joe's family was so poor that the only fruit he ever ate as a child was bananas, and now it carries all sorts of connotations he can't stand (or he just got absolutely sick of the taste). Or James has some really good memory connected with banana splits and eats them for the remembered emotional high as much as for the taste. (Or even--Joe has actually been trolling everyone all along and really doesn't care about bananas one way or the other.)


Notice that this third option is longer than the other two combined--I could have continued for another couple of paragraphs just listing more ways to spin how these characters interact with bananas. Obviously it's the best way to avoid your characters becoming mere cardboard cutouts. But it also carries some risk: because there's more to remember, there's also much more potential to outright contradict past canon instead of flowing smoothly from it. The writers need to be well acquainted with the characters and the smaller details of the show in order to avoid this, which can be tricky with high turnover. Couple that with how nit-picky fans can be, and it's easy to understand why so many shows--especially those on their 8th or 11th or 13th season default to options 1 & 2 instead. They're more limiting, but they're also easier and 'safer'.

This is why I've never been bothered in SPN by the "Grand Canyon gaffe", or Dean using the term WASP in season 1 but being confused by it in season 10. These sorts of things are the minor slip-ups caused by fallible memories, not by the writers giving up on writing living, growing characters. And as a fan, I can actually reconcile both those particular instances (and most of the rest) within canon very easily. The only time they affect my ability to enjoy the show is when I run into a whole bunch of people complaining about them as though they prove that the writers secretly hate the characters and show they're creating.

(And very tangentially off that--I know some people are really nervous about the changes in the writing staff. But if you look at their credentials, they're all coming off a combo of horror and mystery, which has me very hopeful that we'll be getting a turn to more MotW episodes and non-Heaven/Hell drama. Which would be nifty.)
Lovely post! I adore the banana comparison.

Let me add my two cents:

- Sometimes it's difficult to differentiate between character development and retcons. For example a lot of people on my dash complained about the oregano moment in 11x19, claiming that it contradicted the brothers' previous drug discussion in 3x10. Meanwhile I interpreted it as a change in Sam and Dean's relationship which allowed them to talk more openly about these things than they did seven, eight years ago. Likewise, I'm sure there were several things this season which I rejected as non-canon-compliant, whereas you were easily able to integrate them into your perspective on canon.

- It seems to me that for many fans character development is a one-track road, meaning that it only counts if the character becomes a better, more idealised version of themselves, while everything else is perceived as a travesty of previous canon. Which if you ask me would make for a show that's boring as hell, but what do I know.
I had a lot of fun with the banana comparison. :P

Likewise, I'm sure there were several things this season which I rejected as non-canon-compliant, whereas you were easily able to integrate them into your perspective on canon. - Yes, I seem to recall a few. ;D

But this would definitely be an interesting point to consider further: what does distinguish a retcon from character/plot development? I'm actually tempted to argue that the only real difference is the level of skill involved: if it's done well, no one notices, or everyone says, "yes, of course". If it's done poorly (or doesn't match the prevalent fanon/headcanon), people start shrieking "retcon!" (Sidenote: I've actually done a ton of retconning at work--only there we call it "retro-conversion" and it involves going back through older parts of our library's collection and recataloging them to match current standards. Perhaps that makes me a little more sympathetic to the whole idea.) Some of the best-loved parts of Lord of the Rings, to pick a fairly well-known example, are actually retcons--they were just mostly completed before the books went to publication (though after the fact for The Hobbit). Of course, this is a luxury not available in the world of TV, where you have to pump out a new episode every X number of days.

It seems to me that for many fans character development is a one-track road, meaning that it only counts if the character becomes a better, more idealised version of themselves, while everything else is perceived as a travesty of previous canon. Which if you ask me would make for a show that's boring as hell, but what do I know. - Also a very interesting point, and one I pretty much agree with, although I've never thought about it quite that way before.

If you consider people in real life, often they learn entirely the wrong lesson from a situation, or reaction to some difficult circumstance in a way that makes things worse--and yet when characters do the same, the writers are accused of trashing them or just not caring. (Which drives me nuts: it's basically slandering someone who will never have a chance to rebut--and even if they did, there's no way for them to disprove the accusation. Because it's all internal and therefore intangible. Just--argh. That might be the thing I hate the most about fandom mob-mentality.)
Totally agreed about the three different ways writers handle these things -- and I think you're right that one of the main reasons characters get "flanderized" in later seasons (turned into caricatures of their former selves) is because it's just easier for the writers to remember and deal with small canon details the more exaggerated they get and the more they're referenced on the show. It's weird to me that fans get as bent out of shape as they do at tiny inconsistencies with minor details that were mentioned six seasons ago. I've forgotten things I included in a fanfic three chapters ago. You'd have to have a superhuman memory to keep track of every line of dialogue in 11 seasons of episodes!

I also feel like fandom itself is guilty of caricaturing the characters to an even greater degree than the actual writers (not talking about SPN specifically here, but TV generally), especially in their demands for perfect "consistency" -- as if human beings themselves are consistent. I've forgotten and relearned a lot of facts over the course of my lifetime; it's always weird to reread an old journal entry and stumble across something minor -- a placename, a foreign word, a word I'm unfamiliar with -- and realize that I used to know it and forgot. I've changed my mind on things. I've realized I now like foods I used to dislike, and dislike movies I used to like. People change, and not just in major, lifechanging ways, but in tiny ways like forgetting something you used to know or no longer laughing at something you used to find funny. Characters who were written like real people would probably seem too inconsistent to audiences to be believable.
Yes, exactly! Especially your point about fandom expectations (and it's definitely true of other fandoms; SPN just happens to be the one I'm hanging in now, and boy oh boy is it a prime example). Sure, fiction needs to be plausible (while reality can get away with anything), but to springboard off what frozen_delight points out above, characters without rough edges and weird bits usually aren't interesting or compelling. I can think of several examples that were lauded by fandom for the direction of their character movement, where my reaction was, "oh great--the writers are turning them into a Mary Sue".

And this probably will probably makes sense to only me, but when I see that happening in a series (whatever the medium), it gives me the same sort of feeling I get when one of my aunts (I have two who do this) tries to fix everything. Even the things that aren't actually problems. In the case of my aunts, I usually just bite my tongue so I don't tell them "please go away!". But when it comes to fiction, that's usually the point where I pack up and leave.
This makes me think of the concept fandoms have of fanficcers "writing it better" and why I despise that concept so much. I've found that if number three involves the darker, less perfect side of the characters (you know, the characters being human and making mistakes) it leads to an influx of fix-it fic and alternate endings, the kind where character developement and nuance is tossed out the window for the sake of the author getting what they want, and being praised by readers for "doing things better than the writer."

Not that I'm saying there's anything wrong with fix-it fic per se. But most of the time you can be sure that the situation presented in the episode will be treated so black and white in fanfic that the characters seem more like children, and it's incredibly uncomfortable to read. I guess I also find it hypocritical, and it makes up part of why I dislike nit-picking. One person's issue is another person's plausible, and people seem to forget that just because they disliked how the characters reacted or were portrayed, it doesn't mean that what was presented wasn't viable.
Yesssss. I've come across, like, two ficcers who I think did "write it better", but both were cases where the show's writers had obviously stopped trying to maintain any sort of character development/continuity, and both ficcers worked within/off of canon as much as possible. And as far as I can tell, neither of them were fandom darlings.

people seem to forget that just because they disliked how the characters reacted or were portrayed, it doesn't mean that what was presented wasn't viable.

And another big YES. This is one of my running irritations with fandom.
You know my very strong feelings about Sam's characterization in SPN, so I won't repeat it here. But, to use your banana example: I think they did a good job of it with Sam's fear of clowns. It only gets mentioned once a season, if that, but it's a running theme that they use to get a few laughs, and then move on. Perhaps it's that SPN has such elbow room, with their now-12 seasons, but they didn't know that'd be the case as they were going along--I just think it's impressive that they didn't lower themselves to "running gag" territory.

One advantage that we have with Supernatural is that Jared & Jensen seem to have a great deal of input into what the Sam & Dean choose to do. Not the arc of an episode/season, of course, but lines of dialogue and stage direction seem to be very much under their supervision. With the revolving door of directors and writers, we really have only two people who have been with the Winchesters the whole time and truly understand them. (Singer has been there, too, but he doesn't seem to be hands-on with every episode.) The problem with the fandom, which we see over and over again, is that the fans have the leisure time to watch each episode multiple times and literally memorize everything about it--so, when the writers "make a mistake," the fans get furious and whiny because the writers *obviously* don't care about the show as much. What they're forgetting is that for most of the writers this is a job, not a passion, and so they're not going to have perfect recall. The Grand Canyon thing is, I think, a perfect example of that. I can't really reconcile it (and would be interested to hear how you have), but what I did is say, "Okay, either a) the writer didn't know about the comments in the past, which is too bad but not catastrophic, or b) Sam is experiencing severe mental distress and is making something up, which is strange but believable enough in this situation." Not worth getting worked up over.

On another topic, which is mentioned in the above comments: I actually find that the fandom is overly obsessed with the "dark" side of characters. With Sam, especially--he *used* to be angry and have very dark impulses, but after the scouring of the Cage he is a different person. That's a good thing! It would be ridiculous if he were exactly the same. But the fandom returns, again and again, to this desire for Boy King!Sam or dark!Sam to reappear in latter seasons, and by doing so they negate all of the progress Sam has made toward happiness. (NB: even relatively thoughtful fans do this, and it's such a disappointment to me every time. 'Why,' I think, 'can't you just look at the text as a text and see that we've MOVED ON?') But this is just another part of the fandom clinging overly hard to headcanons, and not allowing the show and characters to move on. A long-running show should be an evolving, breathing thing, and fans not accepting that is childish at best, and can actually force the producers into safe/dumb choices at worst. This is why I tend not to watch procedurals, in fact, and why Supernatural is and will remain my favorite show.

Edited at 2016-07-06 04:29 pm (UTC)
You know my very strong feelings about Sam's characterization in SPN, so I won't repeat it here. - *laughs* Just a bit! :P

But, to use your banana example: I think they did a good job of it with Sam's fear of clowns. It only gets mentioned once a season, if that, but it's a running theme that they use to get a few laughs, and then move on. [...] they didn't lower themselves to "running gag" territory. - Yup. In the three examples of it that I can think of off hand--2.02, 7.14, and 11.07--they use it differently each time. In 2.02 it does seem to be a bit more of a gag ("hey, if they're going to be working in a carnival, let's make Sam scared of clowns! That'll be funny"), but it also levels the field a bit between him and Dean. Dean is so wrecked by suppressed grief that it would be easy for Sam to just take over. But because he's so on edge because of the clown thing, they wind up functioning pretty much as equals.

In 7.14 it's pretty much a necessity because of past canon and the main setting for the episode, and it all slots together neatly. And 11.07 gives us the lovely parallel to the mid-season finale of Sam being trapped in a box with something he deeply fears. In each case it's funny, but it's also more than just that. (Gosh I love this show so much)

The Grand Canyon thing is, I think, a perfect example of that. I can't really reconcile it (and would be interested to hear how you have), but what I did is say, "Okay, either a) the writer didn't know about the comments in the past, which is too bad but not catastrophic, or b) Sam is experiencing severe mental distress and is making something up, which is strange but believable enough in this situation." - My go-to interpretation is that baby!Sam was told by Dean/John that it was the "Grand Canyon" to get him to be more cooperative. Adult!Sam has since figured out/been told the truth, but still thinks of it as "the time we went to the Grand Canyon", and because of how the fever was affecting him, that's how he talked about it. (Also, if I remember correctly, the writer actually caught and apologized for the mistake after it was too late to fix it.)

And in reply to your entire last paragraph: YES. VERY MUCH YES. Especially the bit about clinging to headcanons. (Which I will admit to being guilty of, sort of, in my very first fandom. But the circumstances there were completely different from anything in SPN, so--eh. *shrugs*)

At this point I watch procedurals only to keep my mom company, because yeah: you can tell that the focus is pretty much just "keep the demographic happy" and not "let's risk letting the story and characters grow". But, as you say, we have SPN for that. :P