how to love asshole characters, by an acknowledged expert in the field

Jan 05, 2014 16:49

So apparently Tumblr has a character limit on text posts? THE MORE YOU KNOOOOOOOOOOOOW! I really don't think hitting it was entirely my fault - there were two long tag-spirals on that post, which means a whole lot of coding for what didn't look like many words - but still, clear indication that a post was really long enough to belong on a journal, SO. auroramere: ladyofthesilent: It always irritates me when people claim to have a “bad boy syndrome” or “a thing for complex characters” and then proceed to explain away all the shit said characters did. What’s the use in being interested in a fucked up character when the first thing you do is find reasons to deny they’re fucked up? Trying to get behind a character’s motives is one thing, but I will never understand why, e.g., a difficult childhood or merely one dramatic incident is reason enough to absolve them of whatever it is they’ve done. In the end, I could never be interested in characters who are not to be held responsible for their actions. Being able to understand or relate to why someone did what they did is absolutely essential for me to get into a character in the first place, but so is free will. And free will, for me, includes the ability to take on responsibility for one’s actions, fucked up as they might have been.
[Supernatural spoilers] #this has been a pet peeve of mine since the Harry Potter fandom #I loved Snape to pieces #but he WAS a Death Eater at some point and I am sure he wasn’t responsible for watering #Voldemort’s house plants #I’ve encountered the same thing in the SPN fandom #with Castiel after season 6 #even though it is pretty much canon he killed a substantial part of his kind #AND tried to become God #leading to him killing people on Earth as well #and even in season 9 #he’s pretty cold-blooded #Needless to say #the same thing happens in the Loki fandom #because some people appear unable to put up with the fact that you can be pretty #and tragic #and still do horrible things kelasparmak’s tags: #yes#thank you#all my faves are really messed up#and to some extent i like other fans to sympathise with them#but (and this happens especially with gabriel)#i don’t like people negating the importance of his actions#it’s not ‘oh well he’s had a tough life so it’s okay that he’s killed all these people’#’it’s not just because he’s a bad person it’s because he’s sad’#like#okay#but just because he has sympathetic reasons for what he’s doing and what he’s become#doesn’t mean he hasn’t /really/ done or become those things y’know?#and they will have had an effect#i think maybe it’s difficult for people to relate to that and that’s why they simplify it down to just being a ~misunderstood baby~#but the complexity of these characters (and their morals) is exactly what i like about them#it is also why i am eternally grateful for the ds9 fandom
auroramere: I agree completely about not erasing the terrible things done by a character. I don’t want to do that, even for characters I love. I want to acknowledge them in all their complexity and moral ambiguity. But as a fan of a character, how do I do that? I can say, “The character did terrible things, so they aren’t a favorite of mine anymore.” That’s fairly noncontroversial. But if that isn’t the case, what should I do? What shouldn’t I do? Is it still OK to ship the character? To write humor or fluff about them? To write love stories about them? Yes, it’s hard to relate to characters who have deliberately murdered tens or thousands of people. But on some shows it’s hard to find a recurring character who hasn’t. How do I write and read in that kind of fandom?

So I actually had SO MUCH to say on this topic that I need two posts. So here’s the quick and dirty answer:

I think I am being precise and not pedantic when I dispute the OP’s use of “explain” for “excuse and/or justify.” Because I’d agree that it’s bullshit to claim to embrace bad boy characters and then use that acknowledgement of a superficial aesthetic preference as cover to indulge in minimizing, dismissing, or applauding bad behavior.

But “explain”? I disagree, to the point where I’m actually going to embrace prescriptivism: YES, love them or hate them, we SHOULD explain terrible characters when we understand them.
  • "Morally wrong" and "COMPLETELY UNSYMPATHETIC AND WILDLY INEXPLICABLE" are not synonymous terms. Not in the least. We should not conflate comprehension with erasure or forgiveness.
  • For that matter, even as someone who uses this shorthand as much as any, “terrible character” =/= “character who has done a terrible thing.” “IS fucked up” is passive, “DID fuck up” is active. Parsing how much of each of those phrases apply is a really good way to understand a character.
  • Understanding dangerous people as well as possible is a very real safety tool. Pretending those people are all just poor woobies is not, of course, but understanding the mind of someone who is a threat to you? Acknowledging that someone you understand can still be a threat to you? Um, USEFUL.
  • I don’t pretend to understand people who ~~love a character so much~~ as long as they ignore a big part of their story, but I don’t think we’re loving a morally ambiguous character wrong unless we’re reading them the riot act. There’s an uncomfortable censuring of people’s emotions there, which I don’t care for.
  • So for me, I’m pretty much comfortable reading meta where someone acknowledges their own (positive or negative or ambivalent) feelings about a morally ambiguous or awful character, states plainly (no weasel words) some of the objectionable behavior to which the trait they’re more interested in has led, and then dug down into the character to find me some gem I never would’ve seen on my own. And if that’s not happening….why bother? I get bored looooong before I get irritated? VERY MATURE I know.

[Supernatural spoilers]
I don’t think it hurts to acknowledge that sometimes there are honest-to-Cas reasons (sympathetic reasons or even commendable reasons) for the ~terrible behavior of ~terrible characters. Am I really failing to appreciate Castiel if I say “I can understand how someone who had just lived through one attempted genocide and was about to be straight-up forced into kickstarting another would make with the desperate measures, and someone who’s just spent a few millennia having all independent thought literally drilled out of him probably cannot reasonably be expected to have impeccable judgment”? Because I kind of think that is more about “I understand the character’s legitimate concerns on the first thing and have sufficient compassion for someone who was systematically victimized to at least acknowledge that the second thing is pretty relevant here.”

I’m leaning on the drill thing because, yanno, drill, which is not exactly “merely one dramatic incident,” but even more than that because it’s illustrative of some of the reasons I like to unpack characters’ behavior. Philosophically, I take issue with the idea that agency is some kind of on/off switch, where either someone is a helpless little woobie-doll or deserves no discussion that could arguably be construed as defending them. I’m comfortable with morally grey. And then as a non-normative question, just in terms of how I engage critically with a narrative, I think that “how much, if any, agency did this character have when they made a choice or a series of choices?” happens to be a perfectly valid thing for a story to explore. I think it’s really important to explore the subjective experience of what it’s like to have your autonomy drained from you, because a lot of people experience that IRL, and I honestly do take issue with the idea that a character being victimized to a certain extent makes them inherently not worth our interest. Moreover, I’m totally capable of saying “yeah, that’s on them, but I like them anyway” or “they’re shareholders but not sole owners in that snafu” or “that particular thing was not their fault at all but they can still go fuck themselves generally.”

I am also a big proponent of, for lack of a better word, a little bit of grace in how we respond to each other. I can’t pin down an abstract guideline for when I feel this in someone else’s thoughts, but like, when I say “Klaus Mikaelson has anger and trust and self-worth issues that stem from his formative experience of being harshly and even violently othered in his family unit because of an innate and invisible trait that he could not control or even know about until major damage was done”….I am not just talking about Klaus Mikaelson, you feel me? This whole idea that you’re WRONG if you talk about a character who appeals to you on some emotional level in a way that doesn’t jump up and down on why! they! are! terrible! is kind of silencing regardless, but it can be, you know, REALLY alienating and shitty. I don’t know people’s lives or whatever, but I am fairly comfortable assuming that, say, a person who really identifies with Loki is unlikely to have actually pulled any of Loki’s crap, and I personally am five by five with erring on the side of privileging a real person’s opportunity to work their shit out over the terrible fate of Extras 100-1148 or whatever.

The thing about Extras 100-1148 is pretty key, as well. While in real life I find it pretty abhorrent that one death is a tragedy and a million deaths is a statistic, we do have to talk about fiction as fiction, and sometimes those mass murders you’re talking about have a different function. Vampires on The Vampire Diaries cause a lot of deaths, but getting hung up on the literal consequences of their vampirism is missing the forest for the trees, because those deaths are really about providing a magnifying glass through which we can look at much more intimate and relatable hurts and injustices. That’s not a narrative device that works for everyone (weird! but hey, some people juggle geese) but I only really engage with people who are savvy enough to accept “vampires are a metaphor” as a given in our conversations.

That’s pretty much my thing overall. There are instances where erasure of particular sins and flaws is insidious, widespread, and upsetting enough that I really do need to see them clearly acknowledged in order to engage. If someone attempts substantive writing on the Winchesters and doesn’t say that Dean’s abusive behavior is a bad thing then I err on the side of self-care and don’t engage with that person. I do have that uncomfortable negative reaction to fandom apologism about Katherine Pierce, and I honor it by pinpointing the specific and painfully prevalent patterns of victim-blaming and abuse denialism I see in conversation about her - and you know what, working that through as directly as possible has helped me keep a surprising amount of my affection for and investment in the character. But really, I’m willing to presume good faith as long as I see a couple of these indicators of it.

And by the way, everything I’m saying goes for “good” characters when they are doing “good” things for which there is no pressure to provide explanations. Like, I don’t think anyone would really get up my ass about how much I adore Lee Adama, and pretty much nobody considers his behavior at the end of S3 to require “explanation,” which is why I feel more obligated to point out the ways in which he was being a disableist, sexist, hypocritical, spineless little shit, and I don’t go into that without explaining why I think the incident makes sense with the aspects of his characterization that I find most sympathetic.

I bring up the Lee thing because - well, because when do I not want to talk about Lee Adama - but even more so than that because I want to illustrate without really getting into the unspoken, normative, and tbh often arbitrary or even immoral fandom expectations for which characters deserve explanation and which ought to get more widespread condemnation. LBR, if Lee had less of a reputation for that self-righteous stick up his ass, OR if his gambit there had been unsuccessful and he’d taken an in-universe hit in status for it, the ~acceptable parameters of fandom discussion about his behavior there and character generally would look a lot different.

I am riding this “explain” thing right into the ground because this whole conflation of “explanation” with “denial of free will” with “absolution”….is not even apples to oranges. It’s apples to pillowcases to former Soviet bloc nations. And yet, they get conflated both by people looking to tap-dance their way into the most flattering interpretation of their faves and by people who….are irritated that other people’s faves are not their faves, I guess? I am writing a lot because the OP goes in a lot of different directions and I wanted to address most of them with examples and thoughts even if I’m not real clear on the takeaway? Like, I agree that it’s shitty to erase or excuse bad behavior, but it’s also kind of silencing to say “well, PEOPLE do not vilify a particular type of character ENOUGH.”

tl;dr, I guess my own “how to love asshole characters as ideally as possible” two cents is just…try to be as clear with myself about why I do like them and why other people might not, and keep all that in mind while conversing with the good faith I hope other people are willing to extend. But that’s my “how to love conventionally heroic characters as ideally as possible” two cents too, so. Four cents, I guess.

(btw I am, for once, not being a smartass when I say I got warm fuzzies from being tagged in the “how to love asshole characters” post. IIIIIIIIF YOU CARE TO FIIIIIIIIIND MEEEEE, look behind the bleachers where I’m smoking up with Bender and Spike.)

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