Friday, October 26, 2018

The Friday Discussion: The Marginalised Swan Song

There is a myth that a swan sings just once, beautifully, before it dies.

After watching and reading numerous Urban Fantasy shows and books we have found another, more plaintive herald of impending death: The Marginalised Swansong

All too often we see a marginalised character relegated to their standard roles - standing in the background to add diversity points, disappearing into the plot box for several episodes, existing only to serve the main character, devoid of their own plot lines and, quite possibly not even having any lines - and then suddenly they start talking! People notice them! They even pretend to care!!! They have sudden relationships (being LGBTQ and in a relationship is especially dangerous) and maybe even a storyline!!!

And then they die.

It’s reached a level of almost comedy that we can predict this happening so often. Of course it comes down to classic tokenism: they’ve decided to add some marginalised characters but that’s about all the effort they’re willing to spend on them. Look, they’ve given you some dark skin and the token gay, give them the damn cookies already! But when it comes down to killing off their disposable characters (and marginalised characters are so very very disposable) they have a dilemma.

No-one cares about them. And it’s a waste of good drama to kill someone no-one cares about

A classic example for this is T-Dog from The Walking Dead. T-Dog was such an utter background character that sometimes he went entire episodes being nothing but set dressing - fandom was actually more concerned with the fate and eventual death of Merle who not only appeared in three episodes less than T-Dog, but was objectively a terrible person. T-Dog was pretty much non-existent. No-one cared about T-Dog. There was reasonable chance half the audience didn’t even remember he existed. How do you kill off a character like that when the likely reaction of most the viewers will be “who?”

This is not the emotional reaction most writers aim for when they kill off a cast member

So they desperately try to big him up, slap some characterisation on him before he finally falls off his perch and joins the choir invisible. Which is exactly what we saw with T-Dog a couple of episodes before he actually died, he suddenly started talking, he had lines, he even build an almost friendship with Carol. Then he died.

He’s not an isolated incident. The Walking Dead alone did similar things with Noah, Denise and Sasha (and likely more). The Vampire Diaries belatedly remembered Luke existed and was involved in a life and death decision a couple of episodes before he died. The Last Ship finally pulled Aleisha out of the set dressing to suddenly focus on her relationships (after seasons of blink-and-you-miss-it-portrayal and a general disinterest in family life for any character) so we could remember her name before she died. Bitten tried with Jorge. And Penny Dreadful desperately tried to slap some characterisation on Sembene before killing him off. Supernatural took Charlie from being a briefly appearly one off whacky adventure character to finally involving her in the main plot. She was involved! She was important! She was a real character! And she was dead. And it’s no consolation that I predicted it three episodes before BECAUSE of this trope.

Even Game of Thrones a show that actually lives up to the claim that anyone can die, had to throw in some belated mother-daughter bonding between Ellaria and the Sand Snakes to try and squeeze some emotional impact out of their deaths.

It can be hard to drag up examples because, by definition, these characters are not memorable: because this desperate last minute characterisation is poor, shallow and doesn’t help create the emotional impact the writers are striving for. When we sat down to write this post, we knew it was prevalent but had trouble remembering examples because these characters are inherently unmemorable. We actually discovered Jorge from Bitten in our notes on the episode and both asked “who was Jorge?!” we didn’t even remember the character existed, let alone that he died.

This belated shallow characterisation to try and convince us to care about their deaths is not only dismissive and insulting but it simply doesn’t work. Not to create emotional impact - but to actually flag that this character is due to die: we predicted both Aleisha and Charlie’s deaths episodes before they happened.

Ultimately it comes down to that old, tired trope: tokenism. So little effort has been put into creating these characters and integrating them with the greater storyline that the viewer had no reason to invest in them. And this investment is not something you can fake at the last minute. If you want us, the audience, to care about a character (and their deaths) then you, the writer, need to care about the character and their lives.

As we’ve mentioned before, this would also help cut the sheer number of marginalised characters who die. The reason why that your disposable characters are minorities is because they’re not developed enough to be anything other than disposable, as we’ve mentioned before. This is especially glaring on darker shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones which need a high death count to carry off that “anyone can die” theme: you need disposable characters for these shows and so long as your minority characters are undeveloped you’re going to treat them like fodder to keep the body count up.

But equally, so long as they’re nothing but fodder, their deaths will remain meaningless (except, perhaps, to enrage minority viewers who are sorely tired of this nonsense): so while Game of Thrones tends to treat anyone as disposable fodder, it’s still telling which deaths create a Ned-Stark-Being-Beheaded moment or a Red-Wedding moment or even a Tywin-on-the-toilet moment/Joffrey Poisoning moment or Littlefinger’s death - I’m not suggesting these deaths were upsetting but they were compelling; they were important, they mattered because their characters were big and important. A compelling character death doesn’t have to be a sympathetic or even sad death - but it has to matter, on some level we have to be invested; even if we’re cheering rather than crying.

We can only have an emotional response to a fully realised character. And you cannot fake that by slapping on a couple of episodes of attention after ignoring them for so long.