A Question of Character

Creating a series, whether it is for television, prose stories, or some other purpose presents challenges that a novel or short story writer don’t have to face.  The novelist is telling one tale, albeit a long one, and can create and discard characters at will as they fit the narrative.  At the outset of a series, though (and I say this having created several prose series, but, regrettably, no television ones), the author must look at creating a roster of characters that can be engines for storylines far down the line.  This can be more difficult than it sounds, and sometimes characters you think will be great just don’t work out in practice. 

I’ve mentioned on here before that I write (well, wrote at this point.  I haven’t finished any new stories in ages) a comedic fanfiction series set in the Star Trek universe.  It was a project I started in college, and all of the characters were terribly exaggerated versions of my friends.  At the time, I thought it would be one story.  Then it became two.  And then I just kept doing.  Fairly soon, though, I realized that I had absolutely nothing for the ship’s doctor to do.  The character was a complete dead end and was honestly kind of annoying.  I decided to get rid of her.  One personality-altering accidental drug injection later, she went evil and tried to kill a member of the crew, and then I shipped her away forever.  Well, not forever.  She was actually more fun as an antagonist, so I used her a couple more times.

I would say that my own example is just a young writer (I was 18 at the time I created the character) figuring out what does and does not work, but this sort of problem happens on television on a semi-regular basis.  I would argue that Shannon on LOST quickly turned into a character that the writer’s had no idea what to do with.  And this season, we have two examples just on the few shows that I watch.

Gotham and The Flash are both based on existing characters from DC Comics, so in many ways their cast lists were set before the shows hit the air.  However, television is a different medium than comics, and both shows went through the adaptation process to create something that would work on a weekly basis.  The Flash has quickly (Yes, I see what I did there) become one of my favorite shows and one that I’m eager to see week after week.  I was never a reader of the character’s comics, so I was coming into things with a relatively blank slate (I did watch the 1990 television series, which didn’t actually pull all that much from the comics).  I very quickly liked Barry Allen and the relationship he has with Joe West, the police officer who raised him after Barry’s father was imprisoned for the murder of Barry’s mother (Spoiler Alert: Barry’s dad didn’t do it.).  Likewise, I felt that the relationships between most of the other characters, especially between Barry and Dr. Harrison Wells, have been very well done.  I’m enjoying seeing these characters each week and the various villains they’re up against.

That said, there’s one major character (and huge piece of Flash lore) who has been a narrative dead end almost since the pilot: Iris West.  Iris is Joe’s daughter, the love of Barry’s life, and, from what we’ve been told, his future wife.  This should be someone vitally important to the storylines, but for 19 episodes, she has been actively kept in the dark about Barry’s activities while literally EVERY SINGLE OTHER MAIN CHARACTER (and many of the villains) know Barry is the Flash.  Her involvement in most episodes has been more people talking about her (usually about how no one can tell her that Barry is the Flash because…reasons) than her actually doing anything. 

About halfway through the season, Iris joined the staff of a Central City newspaper as a reporter, but we haven’t seen her doing much in the way of reporting.  Yes, Lois Lane constantly needed to be saved by Superman, but it was because she kept investigating stories that got her in trouble.  As sexist as the portrayal of Lois was throughout most of the history of Superman, she had more agency than Iris has in 2015.

Now that Iris has discovered Barry’s secret, my hope is that the writers will take some time to lay out how her character fits into the future of the show.  She’s not a cop or a scientist, which makes her different than the show’s other main characters.  It also makes her more difficult to fit into storylines the way the show is currently structured.  You’ve got all summer, Flash writers.  Figure it out!

Iris has hope for development, though.  Similar arguments were made about Laurel Lance on The Flash’s sister show, Arrow, but the writers have made her more of a part of the team.  Viewers can debate the pace of her character development, but there’s no denying that it is there. 

I am less optimistic for Gotham’s Barbara Kean, a character who seemed pointless from the moment the show began.  I’m not sure that there was ever a plan for her.  I suspect that she was put in the series just to give Jim Gordon a humanizing influence.  Otherwise, he would come across even more one-note than he already does.  They probably assumed they’d figure out what to do with her as they went along. 

They didn’t.  Instead, she was pushed to the side except when she was doing incredible stupid things and putting herself in danger.  And then she disappeared for many episodes altogether.  Gordon barely seemed to notice that he’d broken up with her and got into a relationship with the far more interesting Dr. Leslie Thompkins.  Gotham’s first season has been full of bad writing, odd choices, and inconsistent characters.  Fish Mooney spent the last third of the season before the finale in what seemed to be a complete different series.  With all of that craziness, the Gotham writers still couldn’t find something for Barbara to do until almost the end of the season, when she showed back up just in time to be seduced by a serial killer, who then kidnapped her, drugged her, and took her on a trip to kill her parents.

Full disclosure time: I started writing this post before I watched the Gotham season finale.  I decided I should wait to see what the writer’s had in store for Barbara before I made my final judgment.  And…well…

They had her turn evil and try to kill Thompkins.  I wish I could claim that I had some wonderful plan that brought Barbara’s plight back around to what I did with my useless ship’s doctor, but I don’t.  The Gotham writers just did the same damn thing all on their own.

Barbara’s fate was left ambiguous at the end of the season.  Thompkins had just beaten the crap out of her, and there’s the small detail that Barbara admitted that she was the one who actually killed her parents.  At this point, I’d be tempted to assume that next season she’ll be in Arkham never to be seen or heard from again.  That would certainly be easier on the writers.

But there’s the small problem of the existing Batman lore that they’re trying to be a part of it.  In some versions, Gordon’s wife is named Barbara, and in all of them, he names his daughter Barbara.  It’s going to take some seriously amazing work to turn this character into someone that Gordon could marry or name his daughter after.  Right now that turn of events seems unlikely, to say the least, and more than a bit creepy.

I would say that I’ll check back in on Barbara next season to see what they actually do, but I’d be lying.  Gotham is dropping off of my to-watch list after a meandering first season that made me wonder if the writers have a plan for the show at all.  The Flash, however, still has my attention.  There are two more episodes to go this season, and I will definitely be back for season two.  I just hope that they give Iris a reason to be there, too.

- Alan Decker

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