Friday, May 27, 2011

Series Breaking: Don't Let This Happen to You!

Okay, so for today, I am going to froth at the mouth a bit, but I seriously do have a point.

And for those of you looking at this post in your blog viewer, and don't want to listen to me expound upon my point, here it is up front: when you have a series of anything--comics, books, TV shows, you "break" that series by doing something radically different than you established in the first book/show/issue.

Still with me? 

*cricket cricket* 

Okay then!

There are a lot of examples of effectively executed series, and plenty of example of...not so effectively executed series. I am going to talk about a TV show near and dear to my heart, Criminal Minds. It's a police procedural about FBI agents who are profilers. They use clues and behavior to catch serial killers and other bad guys. This show has a very regular cast of characters. They've replaced regular cast members before, but this last season the show has dropped a major ball (all of this is entirely my own opinion).

In an effort to reach a younger audience, they got rid of two of the regular female characters and instead brought in a new (younger) female character. Most of this is pretty standard television shenanigans, but the big problem came with the new character, Ashely Seaver, and her lacking backstory.

They have spent the entire six seasons of the show talking about how these profilers are elite. They mentioned it in the very first episode of the series, that one does not just decide to become a profiler. You have to go through special classes, and have prior experience in the FBI before you would even be considered as a candidate for the team. The show set up the "rules" of their world, just like you set up the rules of your world when you write a book. People cannot fly. Magic needs spell components. Profilers are elite.

If you break these established rules, you break your series.

When the new character Seaver was introduced, it was as someone who hadn't graduated the FBI academy yet. They pulled her in for an episode because her father was a serial killer. They thought she could give an inside scoop on a gated community. 

Now she's a series regular. She hasn't met any of the requirements they set down, and yet, here she is. Profiling. To make matters worse, the TV show executives are aware that a lot of fans dislike the character (for those reasons and because most of us think she can't act well, and her character is generally annoying) The writers of the show have now tried to make Seaver seem cooler on subsequent episodes, but it just makes it worse.

When you have a series, you set up reader/viewer expectations. There will be no aliens on CSI: Miami (expect Horatio) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the TV show) did not suddenly turn into a police procedural. As writers, we hear about genre, and some of that goes into your series, but it's more than just that.

Your plucky always-the-bridesmaid-never-the-bride heroine in your romantic comedy series is not suddenly going to go goth. It's not that the characters can't evolve, but there are certain core traits inherent in your setting (the presence of aliens or police procedures), your characters (the lack of suicidal depression, the presence of manic hyperactivity), and your world (always set in New York City, never set in somewhere cold) that people are looking for to ground them. You break these elements at your risk and peril.

In the case of Criminal Minds, they broke a big rule (Profilers must be trained and have lots of prior experience) and made an exception for this character. Instead of addressing these problems in the show, and having the character SHOW us why she needs to be there, why it's okay she's an exception, they just tell us how essential she is, and how she's a part of the team. 

And my question is WHY? You must justify everything to your audience. You put something in the episode, in the book, in the comic because it matters in some way. It adds to the setting. It shows X aspect of the character's personality. It foreshadows the events to come. You cannot sit outside of the medium and say "Yes, this character is awesome and you all should really love her" and then do nothing to show us why. It comes down to that old sawhorse "Show don't tell". 

We don't want to be told someone is awesome. We don't want to be told why we should love or hate someone. You have to show us this person doing a triple back flip from a high dive while on fire and holding a box of orphaned kittens. You have to let the reader come to love or hate the characters through their actions, not through what you are telling them.

When you break a part of your series, the effect is tangible. Watching the later episodes of Criminal Minds is a very different experience than the earlier episodes. Because Seaver is so under-qualified, the other characters are having to break their characters to maneuver around her. Characters who would normally protest at a new person being there are staying silent. Characters who would made it harder on the new girl are welcoming her with open arms, because the TV exes know that there's a large portion of the fans who strongly dislike Seaver, and don't want the characters on the TV showing similar dislike. 

The entire show is getting warped around this one rule breaking. You can either ignore that the rule was broken or you try to explain it away. Both situations have their drawbacks.

The important point is to recognize what are the core elements in your series, and stick with them. If you choose to have the main character go through a major personality change, show the reasons why. Show the other characters commenting on this character's change. Show the consequences of those actions. Don't just hand wave it away.

Can you think of examples where a show or book broke character and it ruined things for you?


  1. I think this is a great example. I detest the character of Ashley Seaver because not only does she add nothing to the show, the other characters trying to act like she's not the big white elephant in the room makes them all weird, too. It's the book equivalent of substituting dog poo for chocolate frosting in a cupcake shop, and then getting pissed when customers complain.

    As a reader (and a viewer) I don't consider it my job to overlook things. It's the writer's job to catch things BEFORE they go out and fix them so that they're a non-issue. In the case of Criminal Minds, I'm still scratching my head that the group who created some of my favorite characters could also come up with a brainless BAU Barbie. Or, you know, that they would want to. No doubt she's bringing in the male 18-49 demographic, but I wonder if that will make up for the women they're losing. I can't even watch the show anymore without being insulted.

  2. Thank god they got rid of the character. :D