When Bad Things Happen to Good Characters
by Lucy Gillam
I don't know how anyone else rang in the new year, but I myself
spent a chunk of New Year's Eve watching the South Park movie. I also acquired the soundtrack, which means I've had various songs stuck in my head for about a week now.
Naturally, this abundance of South Park has turned my mind to the comtemplation of all things Sick and Wrong. And since no one is submitting columns, I thought I'd spend a little time exploring a fanfic phenom I have no cute label for, but basically involves the repeated stomping on of one particular character within the same storyline.
I should preface these ramblings by saying that I love h/c fic. Always have. Also, when I'm not reading fanfic or rhetorical theory, most of the stuff I read is pretty violent: occult fiction, sci-fi, comic books, murder mysteries. The tv I watch tends toward the action-drama side (never been a big sitcom fan). I'd rather watch a good John Woo movie than a chick flick any day (I'm *drooling* over the new MI movie).
So I've never understood why certain fanfic stories (or more often series) make me finally turn away in serious squickdom over the violence inflicted on a character.
Except I finally realized: it isn't the violence. It's the excessive victimization. Now, that may sound odd coming from an h/c fan - I *like* to see characters put through the wringer. So what are the squick factors? Let me explicate by example. I'm using three series chosen for no particular reason other than they're the first three I thought of.
1. A gen TS series called "Happy Families" by Sharon
2. An unnamed Herc slash series by Aramis
3. A TPM (slash - duh) series called "Searching" by Esmerelda (available at the Master-Apprentice archive)
These 3 series have several things in common:
1. One character (Blair, Iolaus, and Obi-Wan) is repeatedly subjected to various forms of abuse from multiple assailants.
2. This character is completely incapable of acting in his own defense in the slightest. Blair, known to take out bad guys with a well-thrown baseball, pretty much curls up in a tight ball at the first sign of trouble; Iolaus, who can take out an entire gang of thieves while flirting with the maiden fair, occasionally fights off the rapacious stranger, but mostly just panics and crumbles, and has to be rescued by Herc or Autolycus; and Obi-Wan, Jedi Apprentice, trained from infancy in combat and the use of the Force, the man who took on a dozen combat droids without breaking a sweat, the man who single-handedly killed the Sith his master failed to defeat, mostly just thinks about how hopeless every situation is.
- Blair is (I'm working from memory, here) shot, stabbed, kidnapped several times, becomes addicted to drugs, made to think he has AIDS, loses his hearing, loses both kidneys *and* the first transplant, sets himself on fire, and a few other things I can't recall (I may be mixing in stuff from some of Sharon's other stories, but this particular series is about 14 stories long, and something nasty happens to Blair in each one).
- Iolaus is raped, beaten, nearly raped, raped again, date raped - and this is all by different people. Pretty much everyone he meets tries to rape him.
- Obi-Wan is kidnapped and assaulted by slavers, becomes addicted to drugs, assaulted with intent to rape, and tortured and raped by a pirate.
3. The other character (Jim, Hercules and/or Autolycus, and Qui-Gon) escapes more or less unscathed. Qui Gon develops amnesia and gets smacked around a bit, but that's about it. Of course, they suffer plenty of emotional anguish at the suffering of their beloved (or, in the case of Jim, beloved friend), and their own inability to prevent said suffering.
4. Character 1, who was never very confident or stable to begin with, spends the majority of the series crying and running away from Character 2 in shame. Blair at least has the excuse that Jim is presumed dead; Obi-Wan, whose greatest reaction in the movie to Qui Gon's decision to take Anakin as padawan was a slight frown, runs off in hysterics. Iolaus takes off first because Herc hits him (the most spine he shows in the whole series) and then because the second rape has made him afraid of sex.
4. While almost every story ends with a realization of how much the two characters love and need each other, how much they belong together, and how much stronger they are together than they are apart, each successive story has them making the same damn mistakes over and over again. Little to no growth or change is displayed, even though Character 2 often muses on how strong Character 1 has become through his suffering.
Now, I'll admit that part of what squicks me about these series is characterization. I've long railed against "helpless, weepy Blair," have no patience for what Helen A. Handbasket (did I get that right?) calls the Cult of the Pallid Hunter, and I prefer my Obi-Wans adult and competent, thanks. But I can't put my whole reaction down to characterization, because what finally drives me nuts is the abuse of the characters. And I've had some trouble figuring out why this should be so when two of my all-time fav TS stories are Susan Williams' "The Devil You Know" and "Masks," a really brutal rape and recovery story, and I've got Sandy's rape recs bookmarked right next to Jedi Hurtaholics and the Angst Archive.
I've speculated that the problem is that, in such stories, the "h" outweighs the "c," and certainly this is a problem. Sharon's stories in particular have pages and pages of suffering with maybe a hug at the very end. However, I've read and enjoyed stories (especially rape stories) that cut the comfort short, so that can't be the sum total of the problem, either.
I could also argue that the problem is that the suffering has no "purpose," in that it doesn't serve to either change the character or reveal anything about him. However, I think that argument is sometimes a rationalization for the fact that we just plain like to see characters put through hell. Moreover, I've seen the "change through suffering" device used in ways that bug me. Anyone who watches soap operas knows that the quickest way to turn a bad girl into a sympathetic heroine is to have her raped. It happens so often, in fact, that it's become more the rule than the exception: name any soap that's been on for more than 5 years that hasn't had at least one (often more) characters go through redemption-by-rape.
So the seeming pointlessness of the suffering isn't the problem either. Am I dealing, then, with a combination effect? Bad characterization, lack of comfort, and pointless suffering? Maybe. But the strength of my reaction to this stories (I have been known to explode at the fifth or so atrocity with a good, hearty "Jesus H. jumped-up Mother of God," my most powerful, if somewhat mangled, expression of sheer exasperation) indicates something more at work.
I've finally, I think, boiled it down to one simple, gut level reaction: if I were any of these characters, I'd kill myself.
I mean, the entire world (galaxy, in Obi-Wan's case) is out to get them. Blair has more enemies than Saddam Hussein. Iolaus can't leave his house without someone trying rape him - even a friend slips him a date-rape drug. And Obi-Wan, who at least has the excuse of walking straight on into danger, crashes his ship, goes into withdrawl and is kidnapped by a sadistic, rapacious pirate while on vacation.
I've read stories where one obsessed, demented @#$% put a character through seven kinds of hell and not been turned off. I think the key difference is between the character suffering at the hands of either fate (say, an illness) or one person, and suffering at the hands of just about everyone. Why that should make such a difference, I can only explain by that gut reaction: how much of the world has to be out to get you before you finally say "screw this" and kick yourself back on the wheel?
Life may not be a bowl of cherries for our heroes, but it's usually not a viper pit, either. And when it becomes one, you have to wonder many bites they'll take before just climbing out.