Contemporary Television and the Character-Driven Plot

I’m calling it the “Walking Dead Phenomenon.”  The “it” I’m referring to is the increased use of quasi-ensemble, revolving door casts in current television dramas.  Granted, I don’t regularly watch many tv shows, so it’s possible that what I’m identifying as a trend might simply be a collection of isolated situations.  However, the fact remains that it’s resulting, at least in my opinion, in shitty storytelling.

The storytelling angle is really the only reason why I have any business at all analyzing television shows.  I know virtually nothing about the television industry.  However, as any  writer should, I know at least a tiny bit  about how to tell a story.  Before I explain why the “Walking Dead Phenomenon” is problematic, I should probably define it in more detail.  The casting situation I’m referring to is founded on a semi-ensemble cast that is bloated with characters.  I say semi-ensemble because, in most cases, there are a few “key” characters that are more important than the others.  The revolving door component references the way in which characters are frequently killed off with all the ceremony of a toddler wielding a chainsaw.  This is, of course, to make room for more characters, who will likely fall prey to the same chainsaw-wielding toddler within the next season.

The “Walking Dead Phenomenon” irritates me primarily because I’m a fan of the character-driven plot.  Well-developed and otherwise interesting characters will sell me on just about anything.  This isn’t to say that I’m not a fan of action, but rather that I don’t think that a story can survive on action alone.  I don’t care if you’re writing a story about dragons that shoot laserbeams out of their toenails; if you fuck up the character development, my interest level will drop.  In fact, I’ll probably stop reading it.  If you disagree with me regarding the necessity of character development, I understand and respect that.  However, I hope that you’ll also be able to understand where I’m coming from as I itemize the reasons why I think that the “Walking Dead Phenomenon” (hereafter to be referred as the WDP) is a storykiller.

  • Insufficient Attention to Subplots Due to the Unmanageable Number of Characters

The Following is one of my favorite new shows.  There are some fantastic narrative things going on there.  However, because so many characters are introduced in the first season, there are a number of backstories and subplots that emerge in relation to the second-tier (i.e., not Kevin Bacon or James Purefoy) characters.  This, alone, is not problematic.  What bothers me is the fact that, due to the necessity of moving the main plot and resolving central conflicts, these backstories and subplots are abandoned or poorly developed.  This is closely connected to my next gripe, which is…

  • Killing Characters Off in MId-Arc

Sometimes, the reasons why the aforementioned subplots and backstories are abandoned are that the characters involved get killed off in the middle of their arcs, and are never fully developed as a result.  (The Following contains a number of examples of this, which I won’t discuss in detail so as to avoid spoilers.) In my opinion, this is just poor form.  It seems like the narrative equivalent of driving into a brick wall.  Who knows why this is happening, but I theorize that it’s related to the size of the casts.  Because these shows already have more characters than they can manage, they have to clearcut their casts in order to add any new characters, even if it means leaving storylines unresolved.  Incidentally, my next complaint is…

  • Meaningless Character Death

I get really emotional when I have to kill off my own characters.  I also get emotional when other people kill off theirs.  (People always say to me, “Why are you crying? None of this is real.”  I think that they are oversimplifying their definitions of real and unreal, but that’s neither here nor there.)  Killing a character is a big deal.  It should matter.  If it doesn’t matter that a character dies, then why should we, as the audience, care about anything that they do while they’re alive?   The WDP facilitates a cycle of character death without consequence.  Shows like The Walking Dead and The Following have large casts, and they do a decent job of individualizing their secondary characters.  However, they also kill them off so frequently and unceremoniously that the audience becomes desensitized to the implications of their deaths.  As mentioned before, these character deaths can also leave characters partially developed and conflicts unresolved.  It seems, in many cases, that the WDP creates a climate in which character death is a shock-value commodity with little or no bearing on the development of the story as a whole.  All of these things are discouraging to an audience; why would we bother getting invested in any of the characters at all?

I hope that this illustrates, at least in part, my concerns regarding what I’ve dubbed the WDP.  To be clear, I don’t think that the shows I’ve mentioned are bad shows.  As I mentioned, The Following is one of my new favorites.  I referenced them only to provide examples of the phenomenon I wanted to discuss.  My point is simply that storytellers have responsibilities to their audiences, regardless of their medium. 

 

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National Poetry Month and the 30/30 Challenge

I’m so grateful for the fact that there’s an entire month dedicated to the celebration of poetry.  As a poet, I sometimes worry that poetry is marginalized by current, maintstream culture.  If you look up the New York Times bestseller lists online, none of the categories listed are for poetry.  They have categories for children’s picture books and manga, but not poetry.  Certainly, there are entire organizations and events devoted to celebrating poetry at any time of the year.  Weekly open mic nights dapple the nation.  The National Poetry Slam gathers together poets from around the world every summer.  Magazines publish pages upon pages of poems every month.  It’s not like poetry is only an active force in the world during the month of April.  Still, I worry that this force is not as noted as it should be on a regular basis.  I worry that people care more about 50 Shades of Grey by E.L.  James than they do about Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey.  Because of all of this, I find it validating to have a nationally-sanctioned poetry month.

During April, many poets participate in something called a 30/30.  This involves writing a poem a day for every day of the month.  I’ve done a few 30/30s, in April or otherwise, and have found them to be fruitful pursuits.  I haven’t done one in quite awhile, mostly because I’ve been feeling alot of pressure from other areas of life.  I figured the last thing I needed was the added stress of having to write a complete poem every single day.  This year, I’ve decided to do it.  Why?  Certainly not because I’m under less pressure.  Currently, I’m working as an adjunct college professor.  It’s a job that I love, but my adjunct status means that I have to teach twice as many courses to make half as much money as my fulltime counterparts.  As a doctoral student, I’m also studying for a candidacy exam that covers 120 authors.  I’ll be taking that beauty in May.  I’m doing the 30/30 because I have to prioritize my writing in the same way that I prioritize anything else matters to me.  That’s not something that the world will do for me.  My identity as a writer as just as important to me as my identity as a teacher and a scholar, so I have to treat it accordingly.  I think that sometimes non-artists perceive art as a frivolous or trivial vocation.  It’s not.  I respect my artist self, and I respect yours, too.

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How to Sort of Succeed in Writing While Trying Really Hard

One of my goals in starting this blog was to chronicle my experiences as a writer. You may have noticed that many of these experiences have related to my strategies for dealing with the gut-punch of rejection letters. Despite that, I do manage to get published every now and then in various litmags, journals webzines, etc. However, the most monumental development in my writing career to date occurred in December of 2013, when my first full length poetry collection, How a Bullet Behaves, was released by Scars Publications. Granted, you probably won’t find my book at your local Barnes and Noble, but people can buy it on Amazon (and actually have!), which is still pretty cool. (Plus, I bet Barnes and Noble could order it for you, if that’s your thing.)

Publishing my first book has been probably my longest-standing writing goal. Getting to this point made me think about my future goals as a writer. Sometimes, I worry about stagnating, or entering into a slow decline. I always want to be moving forward with my art. I always want to be working toward achievements that excite me as much as this one did. I perennially want to be a better writer. For all of this reasons, I attended a writing conference this weekend, sponsored by the New Hampshire Writers Project. I got to hang with writers of all sorts, including friends, strangers, and a few wildly successful bestselling authors.

One thing that struck me while I was at this conference was what I truly wanted out of my writing career. On a basic level, I want my books to be published and I would like people to read them. If only it started and ended there. At the conference, I had the opportunity to listen to many authors present on the more practical aspects of a career in writng, such as the challenges of working with agents, negotiating contracts, and simply getting paid. This made me question how I define success, and whether a big-money, high profile book deal is a necessary component of that concept. Don’t get me wrong; if a publishing giant ever offered me a multi-book contract with a nice advance, I would consider myself extremely fortunate and would jump on that opportunity. However, if that doesn’t happen, and it probably won’t, will I count it as a failure? I don’t think I will, and here’s why. For one thing, many of the bestselling authors presenting happened to work in genre fiction or “blockbuster” novels. I, on the other hand, write poetry and quirky, literary fiction. These are not genres that are currently clogging bestseller lists(regardless of whether I think they should be). The current list of NYT Bestsellers in Fiction includes authors like Janet Evanovich, Tom Clancy, John Grisham, and Linda Lael Miller. Although I respect and admire their talent,I will never write like these authors, nor do I aspire to. This may not preclude the possibility of my achieving commercial success, but it probably won’t grease any wheels.

In considering these things, I’ve realized that commercial and financial success is not at the top of my priorities list as a writer. DISCLAIMER: This is not the moral high ground. This isn’t a commentary on anyone who values these things. Now that we’ve established that I’m not trying to be obnoxious, I’d like to stipulate that I would certainly be thrilled if I happened to achieve fame and fortune as a result of my artistic endeavors. I’m not saying that I don’t want these things, or that I would reject them. I’m simply saying that it won’t ruin my life if I don’t get there. I would consider myself a failure if I stopped writing. I would consider myself a failure if I never tried to publish another book or schedule another reading. If I can manage to be an active writer for the rest my life, I’ll probably feel pretty good about that.

Postscript: I left the conference feeling humbled, motivated, and fortunate to have received guidance from such brilliant artists. Props to NHWP for putting on such a killer event, and much gratitude to all the authors who taught workshops, especially Alice B. Fogel, Andrew Merton, JoAnn Adinolfi, and Elaine Isaak.

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Shut Up, Rape: Gender Politics in “Super”

This post is slightly tangential to the usual focus of this blog. However, I think that my role as a writer is at least partially responsible for the fact that I overanalyze everything, so it somewhat relates. Today, I want to talk about the movie “Super,” a 2010 release featuring Rainn Wilson as the Crimson Bolt, a twisted vigilante superhero. Ellen Page also stars as his trusty sidekick, Boltie. Oh, Netflix. You had me at “superheroes” and “Rainn Wilson.” This is exactly the kind of dark, indie gem that would normally find it’s way into my weekly rotation. I loved Rainn Wilson as the dorky, unlikely hero, trying desperately to save his junkie wife (Liv Tyler) from the clutches of her mobsteresque dealer (Kevin Bacon.Seriously,who doesn’t love Kevin Bacon as a Villain?). I was even on board with the romantic tension brewing between the Crimson Bolt and Boltie. I mean, his wife basically left him for Gary Oldman’s character in “True Romance”. she kind of had it coming. I was totally sold until the third act, when the movie inexplicably shot itself in the foot.

I’m referring, of course, to scene in which Ellen Page’s character rapes Rainn Wilson’s character. Yes, you read that correctly. After artfully building a charmingly bumbling romantic arc for the Crimson Bolt and Boltie, the writers proceed to drive it straight into the ground in a scene that ends with Rainn Wilson on his knees, puking into the bathroom toilet. (If you think that I’m being overly dramatic, here’s a link to the clip from the movie. It skips the part where Rainn Wilson’s vomit takes the shape of Liv Tyler’s face, a la Virgin Mary tortilla, but you get the point. http://www.joblo.com/videos/movie-clips/ellenpage_superHD )

What bothers me is not that the movie contained a rape scene. What bothers me is that it was not treated as a rape scene. Within moments, the Crimson Bolt and Boltie have resumed their adorable Batman and Robin dynamic, teaming up against evil Kevin Bacon in the final battle. The rape is never addressed. Boltie retains her girl-at-the-comic-book-store charm, and remains a sympathetic character until the final credits roll.

I find this problematic because it indirectly condones female-on-male sexual violence. In this film, the non-consensual sex scene is played off as the resolution of a romantic plot point. I doubt this would have been executed in the same manner had The Crimson Bolt been the aggressor, with Boltie on the receiving end of his advances. I’ve tried to consider alternate perspectives in my examination of this scene. For example, since this is listed as a “dark comedy,” perhaps the writers were trying to satirize the gender dynamics traditionally portrayed in the superhero genre. However, even if this were the case, I find it to be an effort made in poor taste. Here’s why.

In the past few weeks, I had the opportunity to teach a portion of Mary Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” in my literature class. As always,it was a reminder of how long humanity has been concerned with gender inequality, of the progress we have made and the obstacles we have yet to surmount. On the other hand, movies like “Super” make me worry that we’ve lost sight of what gender equality really means. Kant tells us that certain types of revolution succeed in doing nothing but turning the oppressed into the new oppressors. By simply inverting the hierarchy, we are making no progress.

I constantly see efforts in the media to condemn sexual violence against women. While I fully support these efforts, I also believe that everyone has the right to be safe. Considering the fact that gender and sexuality are fairly fluid concepts, should they really be the primary considerations in relation to what constitutes rape? Are scenes like the one in “Super” sending the message that the only people who count as victims of rape are women involved in heteronormative sexual altercations? I worry that they are. More than that, I worry that they’re slipping past us unnoticed.

I don’t have any answers. This is an issue that is so much larger than I am. But I’m a writer. So I write.

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Why S.T.E.M. Shouldn’t be More Important than Shakespeare

Days like today make me wonder if I’ll ever be able to calmly navigate the process of trying to get published. It seems like I’m constantly moving through the same circuit of extreme emotions, starting with giddy nervousness at completing a big submission and waiting for a response and moving on to devastation in the face of callous rejection. Peppered between these extremes are periods of guilt over the fact that I should be writing/submitting/revising more than I am. Occasionally, this writerly cycle of masochism is interrupted by a brief period of elation upon receiving an acceptance letter. However, the whole thing is exhausting.

There are, doubtless, writers out there who are much more well-adjusted than I am. I’m sure they have fewer panic attacks over query letters and don’t get sick to their stomachs every time they log into their email accounts. However, it also occurs to me that the reason why I’m so spastic over my writing is because it matters to me. In many ways, the extremity of my responses is a measure of my dedication, and I’m not convinced that this is a problem. Arriving at this conclusion makes me wonder why I’d be feeling abnormal about the whole situation in the first place.

I don’t know that I necessarily have a good reason yet, but I have pieces of one. These stem around the idea that it’s somehow socially unacceptable to be excited or upset about artistic pursuits. It’s okay vent about being passed over for a promotion, but not about being passed over for publication. Or exhibition. Or production. (Please note that this is not to say that communities of artists are not tremendously supportive, because they are. My gripe is with the general public and “normative” society.) Is this because art is viewed as a frivolous and inconsequential vocation? If this is the case, I find it unacceptable. The implications of this potential problem are far reaching, to say nothing of the increasing marginalization of the humanities in education. Smarter people (who probably have fewer panic attacks about the publishing process) have written extensively about them, so I’m not going to even attempt my own analysis here. I will say that the bottom line seems to be this: If we continue marginalizing the arts in our society, BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN.

I don’t know how to fix this. I don’t even know how to fully define it. All I know is that I wholeheartedly support anyone’s right to be neurotic about the things that matter to them. If you want to blow a gasket about the stock market,your comicon costume, or the fact that you got cast opposite a complete dolt in “The Importance of Being Earnest,” that’s cool with me. I’d appreciate the same consideration, but until then, I’ll be here, climbing off this soapbox and waiting impatiently for my latest rejection letter.

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Back from the Dead

I know that zombies are en vogue right now, but no amount of limp, humanizing zombie propaganda (I’m looking at you, ‘Warm Bodies’) is going to convince me that I wouldn’t rather end up as a vampire.  I should specify that I mean thoroughly badass vampires like Juliet Landau in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and Kiefer Sutherland in “The Lost Boys.”  Under no circumstances do I wish to rise from the dead as a character from a young adult novel.  Anyway, I digress.  After a few months of internet silence, I’m back from the dead, so to speak, and just in time for Halloween.

It’s taken me a few months to figure out how to balance writing and teaching with life as a doctoral student.  This past June, I started working on my Ph.D in Literature and Criticism.  I knew it would be a challenge.  I thought I knew what was coming.  I didn’t.  It was absolutely brutal…and I couldn’t have loved it more.  Academic utopia aside, one concern I did have about the program was how it was going to affect my writing.  How could I write a poem or work on a novel when I was fighting off panic attacks about the candidacy exam?  However, since June I’ve found that a sustainable balance exists.  Here’s what happened:

I spent two months in a small town in Pennsylvania.  I thought that I’d write a lot of poems about being in a new place, but I spent most of my time in classrooms and libraries.  As a result, I wrote a lot of poems about being in school. In the midst of all this, my book was rejected during my first couple weeks aways, when I was still feeling pretty homesick and overwhelmed. True to drama-queen form, I had a full-blown meltdown.  The thing was, though, I didn’t really have the time to lick my wounds.  After some tearful phone calls to home, I had to get back in the saddle and read another hundred pages of Plato.  If the summer taught me anything in regard to life skills, it’s resilience.  

It’s not that I wasn’t resilient before.  All artists have to stand up to disappointment, rejection, blocked creativity, and insecurity at some points in their careers.  (Unless they are both supremely talented and impossibly lucky, in which case I respectfully doff my hat.)  The thing is, I used to wallow in these things for awhile.  I felt like I needed to, and it’s not that I don’t still wallow a little bit.  I do.  However, being in a situation that didn’t allow me the luxury of being crippled by self-defeating garbage made me realize that I can push through it faster.  Maybe even immediately.  I can write and also feel gutted by my latest rejection letter.  The two are not mutually exclusive.  Case in point:  I got my latest rejection letter today.  As per usual, it felt like the Incredible Hulk punched me in the stomach, but last night I wrote a poem.  Tomorrow, I might write another one.  For now, I’m writing this.  To you.  

This is a little more Hallmark-esque than usual.  Don’t worry, it probably won’t happen again. :)  It’s good to be back.  I missed you guys.

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A Few Words for Jack McCarthy

I’m taking a break from my literary heroes series this week, simply because I’ve been defeated by one of my attempted posts. The poetry world (and the world at large) recently suffered a tremendous loss when Jack McCarthy passed away. Jack was an immensely influential force in the poetry community and a good friend to my home venue, Slam Free or Die. I’m grateful for his talent and his kindness, and I really wanted to write a literary heroes post devoted to him. I tried for weeks, but everything I wrote was crap. After several failed efforts, I conceded defeat. I decided to leave the memorializing to those who are doing it far more eloquently. The best I have to offer right now is my memory of the caption on Jack’s flyer for his first feature at Slam Free or Die. It read, “In the world of slam poetry, he’s a rock star.” He truly was.

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