Character and Choice
In the previous post comments, we were talking about how much some of us disapproved of what the Doctor did to Donna at the end of her run. Well, “disapproved” is a little weak; try “bitter and enraged.” But thinking about it coldly, what’s interesting about the choice is how much it characterizes the Doctor. That is, what’s interesting to me as a story wonk is that character choices not only shape the reader’s perception of the character, they shape the character. It’s difficult to separate “I like/don’t like the choice that character made” from “I like/don’t like that character.” I think the larger the bank of character choices (that is, the longer you’ve know the character and the larger the list of choices you’ve approved or disapproved of), the less impact any one choice has, but some choices are so overwhelmingly indicative of character that they cancel everything else out.
I watched the excellent first episode of Single Handed, a mystery series set in Ireland, and I would have signed on for the whole series except for the choice the protagonist made at the end of the first episode. He was incredibly cruel to someone who’d shown him nothing but love because he was horrified and ashamed and in shock; that I could have bought. But he also kept crucial information from her, essentially keeping a secret that she needed and deserved to know, making the decision that his needs were more important than hers. It was still terrific writing and acting, I just didn’t want to spend any more time with that character.
All of the other choices that character had made I’d approved of. He was in a very difficult situation in a very difficult setting, and he slogged on, doing the right thing to the point of nobility without swanning around about it, just here to do his job, nothing flashy. In one episode he’d banked enough good choices that I was completely on his side. And then in that one scene, that one choice, he lost me, even though in retrospect I can see that it was completely in character for him to have made that choice; I just realized I didn’t like his character. The “I know better than you” part of his personality that I had applauded when he used it on liars and predators was vile when he used it on a defenseless person who had let him into her life.
The thing is, I think that’s really, really good writing. That’s outstanding characterization. If he’d been a supporting player, I’d still be watching the show. But I just don’t want to follow this guy through multiple episodes now. Even if he arcs later, his last choice lost me. Which does not mean that the writers should have written him differently; lots of people will still follow this story because it’s so very well done and because they probably don’t have the same issues with lying that I do, or the same requirements for protagonists-I-will-follow-through-multiple-episodes.
This has happened to be before in Angel with Cordelia Chase. I loved Cordy: she was selfish and rude and honest and strong and active and capable of great growth. And then she slept with a boy she’d known since he was a baby, the son of a man who loved her and had sacrificed for her. It was despicable, so much so that when it was revealed several episodes later that she was possessed by an evil entity, it didn’t matter. That choice destroyed the character for me.
The Doctor has banked enough choices that I survived the Donna atrocity, but I didn’t like him as much any more. No, that’s not true; now that I think of it, I blamed Davies more than I blamed Ten, but that’s because I’m a writer. The Doctor’s anguished but patriarchal actions seemed like a character violation to me, unless I could accept that he’d do something so selfish just to avoid pain. Of course, it helped that he was on his way out, too, just three episodes away from turning into Matt Smith. And somehow, I don’t see Eleven doing what Ten did. Eleven was so much colder (in a good way), that I think he’d have made the right choice.
So I’m interested in this, not characters that make bad choices–that’s just good characterization–but characters that make choices that destroy them in the readers/viewers eyes. So new question for Argh Nation: Have you ever had a character you loved, one you’d been willing to follow through everything, make one choice that damaged the character so badly you couldn’t think of him or her the same way again, or a choice so bad you abandoned him or her completely? What triggers that revulsion for you?