Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Popular Character Hell

So, there are a lot of characters out there that are popular and have been popular for a long time...and have suffered for it.  It isn't true of all popular characters, but it certainly seems to afflict a number of them.  I'm going to talk about some of the signs and symptoms of this.

This is the root of everything that can be called Popular Character Hell.  What happens is that if things change around in a popular title, then a vocal portion of the fanbase will up and decry "They changed it, now it sucks" or "It's Ruined Forever" and decrying that they're never reading the comic again.  Some of them will definitely mean it, others will simple be ranting and would eventually come to enjoy the change as much as the story before the change.

At this point, the people in charge of the story have to come to a decision.  They can either trust that the majority of the readers still enjoy the story and will keep reading to see what happens, or they can panic and try to "fix" the story in order to save their readership.  The problem is, the answer is not clear cut.  Sometimes a change really is a poor decision, so fixing it is not a bad thing.  However, there is the danger of becoming unwilling to make any changes for fear of losing readership.  At which point you enter this trope and start seeing the threat of Popular Character Hell.

Now, to be fair, Status Quo is God is not always a bad thing in and of itself.  Some stories are designed with such a situation in mind.  Like Looney Toons or GI Joe.  Stories that are episodic in nature are by their nature less prone to Popular Character Hell.  It is stories that have an intended storyline that this is a problem for.

The main issue is that the people controlling the story are more afraid of losing money than making a bad story.

This isn't a hit against corporations or people trying to make money.  Without money, there's no story.  To which some people will respond that the artist could simply write the story they want regardless of whether they're paid for it or not.  However, being paid for writing means being able to spend more and more of your time on writing rather than other jobs.  Because if you're not writing you have to earn your living somehow.  The more time you can spend writing, the better your writing gets (for the most part).  As such, professional authors are in general going to be capable of becoming the best writers of all because they have more time to spend writing.  Of course, not all of them will productively use that time to work on their craft and instead simply write the stuff they know, but just because they don't make use of the potential for self-improvement doesn't mean that they don't have access to it.

(Despite this, I still expect that the most talented and even most skilled writers and artists are probably people that no one will ever hear)

So, worried about money is a good thing, however, there is a balance point at which all the decisions are based on whether or not something will make money and being unwilling to make any changes at all means that there is no development to speak of.

The Popular Character cannot expect a Happy Ending, because the story must keep going while it is making money.  The owners of the story will do anything they can to avoid a happy ending or even any ending.  Personalities will be frozen or have the most spoken of portions of their character exaggerated.

There will be a tendency to view angst as the true source of drama while forgetting that angst in general is only interesting if it is eventually resolved.  Either for good or ill, the angst needs to be resolved in order for there to be drama.  Without the chance of angst being resolved, it becomes a non-issue that nobody really thinks about anymore.  BUT resolving any angst means upsetting the Status Quo and suddenly you have the vocal part of the fanbase railing "you changed it!"  And thus you can't resolve the angst.

This, of course, means that instead of a loud, sudden drop in viewership or readership that you instead have a slow, quiet dwindling of people paying attention as the fans that are interested in the story fall off as they give in to disappointment.  This dwindling will be hidden because you will have new readers coming in to see the story on the strength of its reputation, but more and more these new readers will tend to be more temporary in nature so eventually a drop in popularity will be noticed.  Especially as new characters come up and people start talking about those new stories, causing the owners/controllers of the popular character in question to start looking for ways to revitalize the story.

These attempts at revitalization may appear to resolve some issues in an attempt to move on to new ground, and sometimes they successfully do so.  However, it is more likely that this resolution will eventually be unwritten and reset back to status quo.

A direct consequence of the leaving of the fans who enjoy the story on a greater depth means an increase in the influence of fanon on the fanbase.  Since a lot of the fanbase is younger and newer to the story, they will often have a less thorough understanding of the story and thus the discussions of what the story is about will start to drift further away from what the story really is focused on.  In some extreme instances, the story will start to bend toward this fanon.  Fanon can be more complex than the actual story, but in general, fanon is a simplified and exaggerated version of the story as a whole.  Because the fans are the most visible part of a franchise and the biggest advertisement for it, the more and more out of step from the canon that the fanon becomes, the more people interested in a story with depth would be turned aside from viewing the story.  Eventually the character and his or her story become a sort of standing joke or unintentional parody.

The capability of the characters will seem to grow more and more powerful, but at the same time they will keep adding reasons as to why a past story-arc's power up is no longer useful thus making the story fall into the territory of "New Powers As the Plot Demands".

There are some very good examples of Popular Character Hell:

Bleach - There have been several points where they could have brought the story to an end satisfactorily but they keep pushing the story on and on.

Spider-man - One More Day is hardly the only time he's fallen prey to this.  Marvel once answered questions of why Peter doesn't sell his web formula by having some developers show interest and then decide against it when they learned about the fact the formula goes away in one hour.  Aside from the obvious uses that the webbing could have in construction, medicine and non-lethal weaponry, there's the fact that the one hour limit was deliberately engineered by Peter and thus COULD BE MADE WITHOUT IT.

Drizzt Do'Urden - Started as a randomly created sidekick for a dwarf and his adopted human kids, but then he turned out to be a rather more interesting character than the more characteristic types that the story had.  But then he became popular and kept getting story after story after story.  For another Salvatore example, look to Cadderly from the Cleric Quintet.  At the end of his story he seems to be casting himself to death, but then he cameos in a Drizzt story later and is hale and healthy.  Though his is a much more minor situation given that he's a less well known character.

Now, some characters that aren't examples of this are rather surprising:

Naruto, despite having a fanbase that gives the series a rather horrid  reputation, Kishimoto seems to pushing on with whatever the hell he wants rather than respond to the various gnashing of teeth that arises anytime he does something.

One Piece was designed pretty much to last forever and thus Status Quo was pretty much always intended to be God.

Aragorn of Arathorn, Dracula, Frankenstein and other such characters aren't in this category either for the simple fact that their stories were finished and the further use of the characters or adaptation of the characters currently going on is happening in isolation from the base story and can easily be dismissed.

All that said, I hope someday to have to worry about facing this.

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