Some thoughts on science fiction fandom, over-indentification with characters, and the search for salvation. Spoilers? There be no spoilers here…unless you haven’t seen Natural Born Killers the end of the second series of Doctor Who.
It’s amazing how narrative perspective can completely control audience sympathy for a character. The person whose eyes we see the world of the film or book or show through is generally where our sympathy rests. Characters have to be pretty irredeemable, or filled with self-loathing for the majority of people to hate that character. Or I suppose just badly written. Once the sympathy of the audience is captured, it merely needs to be maintained, and then, well after that the audience will follow that character into the depths of hell in hope of witnessing their salvation. We expect that character to be the hero. No matter their sins we expect to witness their redemption. After all that is the journey at the heart of nearly every epic story. Redemption. For your own crimes, or those of your fore-bearers. Love and Revenge feature pretty highly on that list too. And the three are often tightly bound.
Which is undoubtedly why bad writing or characters behaving ‘out of character’ annoys fans of a series (whether it be books, movies, television or comics) so much. Especially a central character. The one who serves as our guide through their own particular world. Change the perspective from which we view that world fine, skew that perspective fine, but without a clear explanation, consistent within that world, hackles will rise. Perhaps this explains why young Rose Tyler fell from grace during the second series of Doctor Who. Last year our view of her world was almost entirely through her eyes. But lately the perspective has changed. We’re watching from another angle. Through the eyes of someone else, someone who’s watching the pair of them, and doesn’t like what they see. She had a purpose before. The Doctor and Jack could find their own redemption through her, and return they kept her safe. Until the day she turned round and rescued them in spite of their attempts to keep her safe. But now, now we’re seeing that it’s not that simple. Redemption is never quite that easy. The hard decisions still have to be made, and equally so do the painful sacrifices. And no matter how much the guilt burns, the choice must still be made, and the answer will be the same.
It’s an idea I’ve come across before. It’s hardly possible to have done more than stumble through the works of messieurs Tarantino, Palaniuk or Finch without realising it. Mickey and Mallory are psychotic murdering monsters, but other people made them that, and you have to be pretty cold not to miss how devoted they are to each other, or not root for them during their prison break. There’s even an odd sort of satisfaction in the deaths of Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Downey Junior’s characters, monsters of a lesser, yet less sympathetic nature. Natural Born Killers is almost entirely about how the media and people in general twist monsters into heroes and gods into monsters. Rewriting the narratives to suit our own needs. That’s what the majority of fanfiction is about at heart. It serves the desire to fill in the gaps, to know what happens next, to repair perceived ‘wrongs’, even in some cases to exorcise our own demons through the characters. There’s nothing wrong with that. To a certain extent all writing is about that. Creating characters that both the author and the audience care about, that both of them want to know what happens next to, to tackle issues they care about, to make the monsters a little less scary.
Watchmen is proving an interesting read, for precisely these reasons. I’m approximately half way through and I’ve discovered the interesting fact that there don’t appear to be any good guys. It’s a world of corruption, monsters and masks. And that’s before we even get onto those folks in multicoloured costumes. Though we view their world through different perspectives via flashbacks, monologues, diaries, articles and memoirs, our guide through that world is Rorschach, crazed, obsessed and paranoid, but moral in his own twisted way. Odd that. We love our soldiers, pirates, cowboys and samurais in cinema. We witness their terrible, horrific acts and grant them forgiveness because they know regret. Glorifying them because they have some kind of strange moral code. Twisted and fractured though it may be they understand and abide by their own codes of honour and morality. They are not like us yet we make them like us, not because they need our acceptance (for you can be sure that if there’s one thing they don’t want from us it’s that) but because we need to believe that in their shoes we could walk that line. That we would not become the savage monster, would not loose or sense of self in the face of the vastness of the ocean, the desert, the jungle or space. We need to believe in their redemption, in order to reassure ourselves that our own salvation is equally certain. And in blind delusion, to hell we ride.
Written June 2006.