Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Why You Should Watch II: Plot and Character Development

And here we continue why you should watch Avatar: the Last Airbender.  Part I is here, and II is after the jump.

4. A Long-term Plot. The story arc, the series' plot, the long game. Whatever you want to call it. It's the part of the story that grows over time, developing its themes and mythos. It's also the first item here that is probably Not For Everyone, which is why it's somewhat low on the list. A Long-term Plot asks for--and in some cases, demands--some work from its viewers. Because it is work, to remember all the plot points and characters and how they all fit together. Can you trace the crew members of Battlestar Galactica back to the 12 colonies? Can you name all the major houses of Game of Thrones? How many seasons of Lost did you make it through? It takes work, and a lot of people don't like working for their entertainment. The elitist geek view is that the average person is lazy; what's closer to the truth is that there's so many claims to our attention that we need to make choices to survive. (As a pop culture scholar, my personal stance is that any artifact is worth discussing, which leads me to a lot of diamonds in the rough--and a lot of wasted time.)

That said, there's a reason that the big money is in the serial, whether it's film or otherwise. People like ongoing stories, because they offer a sense of progression and familiarity. There's a sense of seeing something larger than yourself unfold. And long-term narratives in fiction have a benefit that real-life events don't, in that we can generally see the story in its entirety, and appreciate the full complexity of the event. (Augmented Reality Games and MMOs are compelling, I think, because they offer a compromise: a chance to watch something much larger than yourself unfold, but also to participate in it, to a degree of participation that you can determine.) Personally, my favorite long-term stories are the ones that start off small and scale naturally: the webcomic Order of the Stick, Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files, the Disney cartoon Gargoyles. But I'm a sucker for virtually anything with an ongoing story, and I'll often stick to things long after my interest has expired, out a sense of inertia (See: webcomic Questionable Content, and most superhero comics in general.). And I'll accept a plot that meanders and progresses at a glacier pace, if it's got a good hint of the next element.

3. Character Development.
This is the element that I'm probably the most finicky about. Character development, for me, speaks to the way characters develop and change over time. Nothing annoys me in quite the same way as an episode that introduces a significant change to a character, then never mentions it again. The Star Trek series was always particularly bad for this: Miles O'Brien would spend the mental equivalent of a decade in prison, and not miss next week's game of racquetball. Deanna Troi would gestate and give birth in a period of days, and still be in time for the next poker game. Paris and Janeway mutate into supercreatures, make supercreature babies, then go back to their professional relationship. It was as if every episode of the show ended with the characters turning to each other and solemnly swearing "And we will never speak of this again."

The problem with this element is that it's nearly impossible to pull off in shorter works. Your basic action film doesn't have time to develop character because the protagonist is busy shooting people and things. And for longer stories, there's not a lot of incentive for the producers. Character development means constantly altering the characters from the model that the casual viewing public is familiar with. Development usually has to take very familiar paths, and that often means visiting a series of cliches. (ie. a season long arc of HIMYM where Lily and Marshall prepare to become parents.) Videogames, especially the JRPG, are in theory great forums for this development, as you can construct a 40+ hour story that shows the character changing, and I've talked before about that in Grandia. But there's two basic problems there. First, there's the fundamental disconnect, the tenuous link and struggle between telling a story and playing a game. And second, in modern RPGs like Mass Effect and Elder Scrolls, character development is a casualty to freedom of choice. Because you have such control over your PC's action, you're far more likely to act in a way that seems to create the best "set piece" at hand than is consistent with the character. There's some irony in that in your modern RPG, your teammates can grow and change, but you're left fairly static.

And yet, even with all the strikes against it, character development is absolutely essential for me. When it's done particularly well, it feels as if you've changed with the characters. Taran, in Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles, is my go-to guy for this one. Even something that seems as kid-oriented as Lemony Snickett's A Series of Unfortunate Events has, in the overview, a very dark character development, as the children slowly move from good vs. evil struggles to a series of grey. (Culminating to their final decision, where they give up on an island of people who won't admit that their home is in danger, and leave them all to die. ...Children's book!) Some of the Angel cast did this pretty admirably as well--try comparing the original Wesley, who put the prat in prat fall, to the much more sober man of the final season. And generally any of Robin Hobb's characters fit this to a T. The appeal of character development is similar to the appeal of long-term plotting, but it has the extra advantage of being more personal.

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