Several of the fandom arguments I’ve seen recently are more similar than they seem at first, not just because of how they express (though that is also important). They are similar at what I believe to be a root cause level, and it has to do with my favorite subject – subconscious biases. In this case, the subconscious biases belong to the authors/creators.
In this article, I’m going to be arguing about base axioms, which is dangerous ground. I’m not going to say that one is inherently better than another, but simply to state my personal preference and (here’s the sticky part) that the other causes the exact problems we see in audience reactions to certain fandoms.
With all of that dancing around out of the way, let’s get to the discussion.
Game of Thrones, Endgame, and many other large-cast properties suffer from a similar problem – the creators are not fans of the characters, or rather, they are not fans of ALL the characters.
That’s a rather bold statement, so let me unpack it. (Spoilers abound for multiple franchises.)
I realize that other writers work differently, so it’s not always accurate to extrapolate my approach to others, but I can tell that there’s something going on. My conclusion is based on what I consider to be the most logical assumptions about their process based on what I observe of their products. Let me illustrate with two properties that many people enjoy and have long completed: Leverage and Battlestar Galactica.
For me, there is a staggering difference between these two series in terms of how they treat their characters. In Leverage, not only the main cast but the recurring villains are treated as interesting throughout their entire arcs. Adversaries like James Sterling, Jimmy Ford, and others are engaging because they work towards their goals consistently and competently. Jimmy Ford gets sent home in the end, but it’s a fitting conclusion to a satisfying story. Even Wil Wheaton’s relatively shallow “Chaos” character has an implied depth and history in his few appearances, and his return in the Last Dam Job is a thoroughly rewarding conclusion to a character we love to hate.
In Battlestar Galactica, characters seem to move in and out of favor with the creators. Some, like Gaius Baltar and Saul Tigh, consistently make terrible decisions yet are disproportionately rewarded by the story. Others, like Cally and Boomer, are doing the best they can but are often treated like plot objects rather than characters whose wants and needs (or even bodily autonomy) are valid. The very construction of the Number Eight arc displays a certain amount of disregard for her humanity. In many ways, she is there as both a literal and figurative device. She’s an object to be manipulated for Cylon-based plot reveals – killed multiple times, displayed as just a body, and used for menial labor even among the Cylons themselves. And seriously, don’t even get me started on how badly they treated Cally.
Being Fans of Your Characters
Okay, so they’re different, but what do I really mean about being fans of the characters? Well, when creators are fans of their characters, even the bad characters have satisfying arcs. We enjoy how Sterling and Chaos turn out, even though we have spent multiple episodes hating them. We are even made to enjoy hating them.
When creators are not fans of some of their characters, they treat them unevenly. Some get rich, full arcs, while others have their arcs cut short or twisted around to serve the characters the creators DO like. We may find ourselves liking a character that the creators are using merely as a plot device, and then we end up unsatisfied with a story that treats our character more badly or simply more shallowly than it treats other characters. Or we might get lucky and happen to like the same characters as the creators, and then we’re confused when other people are upset.
And that’s the problem. Because so often when people complain about the treatment of their favorite character, other people chime in to tell them it’s perfectly “logical,” as if logic is the defense of a good story. Let me say this right now for every single one of those arguments: a creator chooses the logic they want to follow. If they wanted to create a reasonable story that treated those characters differently, they could. They chose this one.
So Let’s Talk About These Things
Game of Thrones just ended, and although I’m not watching the TV series I can see this effect happening to a lot of people. The characters they liked were treated poorly, and the characters that the creators liked were treated disproportionately well. In particular, we have Daenerys vs Jon Snow. Dany’s ignominious turn and death was unsatisfying for many because in the end she stopped being an interesting character and simply became a tool for others. Jon, on the other hand, made countless mistakes and yet remained The Prince That Was Promised even though he didn’t actually do much in the end. You could do a similar unpacking of Arya vs Bran, or the fact that Brienne apparently exists mainly to remember Jaime Lannister.
Note – these issues are not just issues with the TV show – they are absolutely present in the books. The treatment of Daenerys in Dance With Dragons is very much the sign of a creator who isn’t a fan of her but is simply using her for the plot. Back in Feast for Crows I really wanted to like Brienne, but I felt like she was just a punching bag for Jaime’s plot. I didn’t watch the series not because I thought the books were better but because the books themselves made me give up on the franchise.
And then there’s Endgame. Between Black Widow’s ending (because the Russo brothers do not understand love), Captain Marvel’s absence (because the Russo brothers do not understand this character), and Pepper having to comfort Peter (because the Russo brothers do not understand the circle of grief), it’s absolutely clear that the creators of this movie are only fans of some characters, and the rest are there to serve those main characters.
Also, in both of these examples (and in Battlestar Galactica) do you notice how often it’s the women and people of color being de-protagonized for the sake of the white men?
Sidebar – Why The Last Jedi Isn’t On This List
It’s clear from The Last Jedi that Rian Johnson is a fan of all the characters, with the possible exception of Snoke. (If you’re a Snoke fan, I can understand your grumpiness, but also…why?) I know that some of my friends have complained that they felt Luke got treated badly, but I would suggest those people watch the movie again. Luke got the best arc and ending of any Jedi in the entire series, bar none. Better than Yoda, better than Obi-Wan, and certainly better than Anakin. And even in the beginning, Luke was climbing cliffs and spearing fish with a 100-foot pole even though he was (as we discover later) disconnected from the Force. He was a hermit, but a badass one.
No, the real problem that people have with The Last Jedi is the fact that Johnson IS a fan of all the characters. He’s a fan of Rey and Rose, but they don’t like those characters so they’re angry. He’s a fan of Finn and Poe in ways they don’t expect (i.e. – making them deeper than two-fisted pulp heroes), so they’re angry that they don’t get their fan service. And he’s clearly a fan of Kylo, who is an unusual and fascinating villain.
So yeah, I preemptively reject any attempts to shoehorn The Last Jedi into my thesis. 🙂
Write What You Want, And Like What You Like
In the end, all of this is just my viewpoint. If you enjoy a story despite how it treats some of its characters, that’s fine. Enjoy those stories as much as you want, and write that way if that’s how you write. But this is the reason I often don’t like the same things that other people like, and I believe it explains a lot of the discourse we’re seeing right now about these properties. Perhaps it will help you understand your own frustration or empathize a little more with the frustration of others.