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I've been pondering this notion for a while. Namely, that of character status and how it intersects with plot mechanisms to create a compelling – or boring – narrative. Our case studies, once I get bitching about Lost Girl out of my system, will be Part One, The Devil Wears Prada vs Burlesque, and Part Two, The Avengers. And whatever else I feel like pointing at as we go. ALSO GIFS.

(I am not kidding about the gifs.)

Character status: Wha?
I haven't actually ever studied narrative or literature or related whatnots, I just pick stuff up willy-nilly, so I don't know if there's correct jargon for this stuff, if I'm using it, or if I'm using it right. For my purposes here, I'm using "character status" as a measure of the characters that drive the story, basically. (For plot-driven stories, obviously the plot has high status and the characters will largely all have low status.) At this point, I'm reckoning it as a combination of the character's agenda and their agency to achieve it, although that may evolve as I write this. Strap in, kids, it's gonna be a ride!

To note, there is a high/low status dynamic in comedy, which is somewhat related, but not what I'm talking about. (I did a quick google search, and I thought this improv comedy article, arguing for the dynamic's place in improv, was a fairly good quick rundown of the broader concept. Or you could just look at this gif for a bit, because it covers quite a lot of it:
status for comedy

^ superb, but not what I'm talking about.

Also to note, Mary Sues and Gary Stus are essentially characters with unrealistic and unearned status in the story. They are expressions of fantasy, the desire to be the *specialist snowflake*, by virtue of which life and people revolve improbably around you. It's not surprising that the most blatant Sues are mostly produced by teenagers, being at the stage of being pushed out of childhood into the wider world, and the discovery that it doesn't revolve around them nearly as much as they thought it did.

Status is, obviously, a fluid thing. It can be gained and lost, earned or bestowed, shown or hidden, traded off or combined. Audiences are going to find different things appealing, for different reasons, ie see above, re: Mary/Gary Sues. Which is why I'm not going to try to talk about it any further in abstract terms but look at examples.

Lost Girl tangent and the role of show and/or tell in matters of status
Arg. ARG.
I blame tumblr.
and this is why.

yes I started tumblr-shipping them not the point move along

[several paragraphs of rant, redacted]

Lost Girl is, bluntly, a mess. Production-wise, it's treading water somewhere pretty far below Buffy S1, and they just roll with the bad campy effects, and that's fine. We can't help the budget we're given, and they're squeezing what they can out of it, more power to them etc. It's the writing that's the problem, on several levels, and the reason it finally kicked me into gear to talk about character status generally.

As far as character status goes, particular roles automatically carry particular status in a narrative. The role the main character on Lost Girl has been textually assigned is Central Moral Hero. We are told, repeatedly and then repeatedly again, that she is good, strong, moral, smart, selfless, independent, special, and so on, all the contemporary designated markers of such heroes. She's given all the accoutrements of that role: plucky loyal sidekick, angsty seerius love interests, secret powerful heritage, mysterious mentor figure, painful backstory, and it goes on. (Not that any of these tropes are bad, obviously, they're popular for a reason. Always, it's how you employ them.)

The problem is that her shown actions do not match up with the status she has been given. The show is constantly – and I mean constantly – deus ex machina-ing her out of trouble, and glossing over anything she does that might be morally dubious. (Which, given the fairy-tale conceit of the show, could also be a really interesting story, but it simply doesn't work both ways.) The show accords her actions the weight of Central Moral Hero, but not the consequences; her actions themselves and the personal cost to herself never earn it. What tension there is to the story belongs almost entirely to the secondary characters. And unless we're looking at an unreliable narrator situation (we're not), it's poor storytelling and it's frustrating. It is, simply and sadly for a show so focussed on sex, flaccid. See also: Main Characters, And The Creators Who Love Them Too Much.

Which is probably the easiest and least interesting way to mess up status. For a comparison, although I wasn't really intending to make one, see Orphan Black: a similarly low-budget Canadian syfy show about an itinerant seekritly speshul main character navigating a new and unknown world and coming into her badassery. Which remains almost unbearably taut in all the ways Lost Girl isn't, even when it's a bit ridiculous; they know how to manage consequences, and are never afraid to let their special main character be wrong and suffer, so that every turn and every action are high stakes nailbiters.

The Devil Wears Prada vs Burlesque: comparative character status
It's not often that Hollywood gives us an opportunity to make a 1-for-1 comparison of how character status interacts with plot to affect the story dynamics, but for that reason alone, we can be eternally grateful for the Cher-Christina Aguilera vanity project, Burlesque. (Aside from Cam Gigandet in bowler hat and eyeliner and vest-over-singlet which, as it turns out, I never knew how much I wanted until I saw it, so well played, Burlesque.) It is, virtually point by point, and Stanley Tucci by Stanley Tucci, the exact same plot as Prada, with a single major adjustment: the status of the main character. What's fascinating about it is the knock-on effect, how the status of all the other characters have to be adjusted around her in order to still make the plot mechanics work, and how that impacts the story itself.

Story hour! Gather 'round, everyone! Today we have A Single Story In Two Gifsets, illustrated by the internet. (I swear to you I made nary a pair to make my point. Also, I can't gif.)

Once upon a time, there was a very special little girl, named Andy and Ali.

AndyAli had heart and talent and pluck, and that is why she was a very special little girl. But one day, it was time for her to become a big girl! So AndyAli put on her big girl pants and ventured boldy forth into a whole new big girl world, full of hope and excitement (and heart and talent and pluck).

When AndyAli got to this wonderful, dazzling new world full of big girls, she met a very big girl – the biggest, most special girl of them all!

This Big Girl is the Boss of this world! She is very impressive and even scary (and barely moves her face, which is also scary). AndyAli is still only a little girl, but the Big Girl Boss sees her special heart and talent and pluck. So even though the Big Girl Boss is impressive and scary she gives AndyAli just one chance to become not just a big girl – but maybe a very very special big girl.

But before AndyAli can become a big girl, let alone a very very special big girl, she must work under a big girl who is more special than all the other big girls but not really all that special, because she does not have heart and talent and pluck. She only has hard work and years of experience and dedication, and is very proud of having made herself more special than the other big girls through them.

AndyAli also works very hard, but because she is a very special little girl, she gets Stanley Tucci as her fairy godsnarker!

And AndyAli learns how to do big girl things, like makeup! And wearing very fancy big girl clothes! Set to a Madonna song montage!

Then AndyAli shows all the big girls that she is a big girl now too.

Not just any big girl, but a big girl with heart and talent and pluck. This makes her more special than the other special big girl, because the other special big girl screws up because she doesn't have heart and talent and pluck, only hard work and years of experience and dedication and so isn't really special, because if she were this would be her story. (That's okay because in the end, they make friends, sort of, because that's what happens when AndyAli has heart and talent and pluck.) The Big Girl Boss sees all this, and knows that AndyAli is on her way to being a very very special big girl.

But wait, AndyAli also knows a boy. A very nice boy, who knows she has heart and talent and pluck and likes her a lot a lot, even before she proves she can be a big girl like the others, although he also really likes her big girl clothes. She likes him too, and lives with him, and hangs out with him a lot, because he is very nice.

Then AndyAli meets another boy, except he is a big boy. He is naughty as well as nice. He also sees AndyAli's heart and talent and pluck and big girl clothes, and he likes it a lot too. And AndyAli likes that he likes it, it is very exciting for her, because he is a big boy (and naughty as well as nice).

But then, while she's doing nice exciting things with the big boy, she discovers he is going to do something naughty! Something that will hurt the Big Girl Boss and make her sad and make her not the Boss anymore!

AndyAli has come to like the Big Girl Boss even though she is impressive and scary, and the Big Girl Boss has also come to like AndyAli, because they are both very very special like each other, in a very very special way that no one else is very very special.

AndyAli doesn't want the Big Girl Boss to be hurt and sad and not the Big Girl Boss anymore, so she decides she doesn't want to be with the big boy even though he is still nice and naughty and exciting. AndyAli runs to tell the Big Girl Boss about what the big boy is doing, and the Big Girl Boss stays the Big Girl Boss, and the day is saved! (And PS, AndyAli remembers how nice the other, very nice boy is, and how he does not do naughty things because he is not naughty, and discovers that he still likes her, so that's nice.)

Hooray for everything. The end.

So. That happened. Twice, in fact.

(Also, because I would hate for my snark to mislead, I adore The Devil Wears Prada. I didn't hate Burlesque, it was fine for what it was trying to be, and occasionally amusing, but the most interesting thing about it is how it went about wonkifying the dynamics, which is not really a great sign for a movie.)

It's worth noting that both movies are, unlike Lost Girl, internally consistent. The different statuses of the two ingénues correspond with what they achieve in the course of the movie; the events progress logically from what we're shown of both the characters and the world they inhabit. Yet just because it works doesn't mean it's good. How satisfying anyone will find either movie is subjective, but Prada is the better movie objectively. The character statuses and plot points complement each other in the story, organically setting every element off to best advantage and full, vibrant expression. When Burlesque inflated its ingénue's status in this specific ingénue plot, and what she achieves, it required the other characters to deflate, and wound up dulling the story itself. It slathers on heapings of fantasy and glitz and razzle dazzle to compensate, and then slathers some more, but that's an apt comparison (as perhaps can be seen in the gifs above): rhinestone to diamond.

This is best demonstrated by the climactic plot-solution moment, the moment that resolves the conflict and cements the ingénue character's coming-of-age. (It can be tracked right across the board, but I won't be detailing it because this one makes the point beautifully. Also I have a bad habit of indulging in snideitude with no edifying value, so let's save that for The Avengers nip that in the bud right there.) We're talking about this bit: AndyAli runs to tell the Big Girl Boss about what the big boy is doing, and the Big Girl Boss stays the Big Girl Boss, and the day is saved!

In Prada, Andy does her desperate dash to tell Miranda about the coup on her position as Editor In Chief of Runway, and is immediately and thoroughly shut down before she gets a word out. Miranda – as befits her position as Supreme Grand Dame of fashion in that world (to the point that our Stanley Godsnarker notes, without hyperbole, that "her opinion is the only one that matters") – does not ever, in any way, require her neophyte assistant to tell her which way the wind is blowing. Nor what to do about it. Showing herself every inch the ruthless dragon savant that got her to Supreme Grand Damenity in the first place, she has already stealth-judoed the situation by the time Andy bursts in on her to tell her about it, and is properly appalled at Andy's gaucheness in doing so. Miranda saves the day, and the premier fashion magazine in a global industry worth $$$$$$$$$, and Andy is on the sidelines, witnessing what lengths of screwing people over it takes to do so. Andy's climactic coming-of-age moment is to have it reflected back on her that she herself is capable of those lengths, and to make the decision whether or not she wants to go down that path.

In Burlesque, Ali does her desperate dash to tell Tess that her mortgaged-out-the-ass-and-struggling burlesque club is going to be bought up and knocked down and built over by Marcus, and is shut down for about two seconds. Tess – confusingly for someone who runs any part of something as complex as a live show club – is perpetually bewildered and in denial about how the real world works, hides from responsibility and consequences, and when faced with losing all she holds dear is Not In The Mood for Ali's blabbering; she has a plan: go drink a lot, straight from the bottle. But Ali's insistent gaucheness demands to be heard, because Ali has figured out the solution! Air rights! (Which Marcus inadvertantly told her all about because he never realised it would be Turned Against Him For Great Poetic Justice!) Showing the addled petulant incompetence that in no way explains what's so great about her in the first place, Tess shrugs and goes along with it. Together they go stealth-judo the situation, and get Tess out of debt and ensure Marcus can't build a tower there instead, and save ... some outdated and financially unfeasible club in LA that not a lot of people seem to even know about, while alienating someone who seems to have a fair amount of influence in that area (and, incidentally, buying out the only adult in the club who seemed to have any concept of or interest in how business works). And Ali's climactic coming-of-age moment is total bullshit, because at no point has she been anything other than gauche and pushy and has learned nothing new about herself other than how she looks in stage makeup, and all this only confirms that gauche and pushy is the way to go (because the movie is a fantasy and like Tess is allergic to long-term consequences, so it stops before everything falls apart a year later).

And then we realise that we have actually been watching an underdog-makes-good story dressed up in an ingénue's coming-of-age plot in order to flaunt the available T&A, and because the people making this thing saw Prada and said THAT'LL DO and just stuck sequins all over it. (And made sure to say pretty much everything twice, sometimes thrice – and even in song! – because they do not trust you to Get It, but that's an entirely different problem. Also pretty funny.)

Of course, abstractly, coming-of-age and underdog-makes-good are neither better nor worse stories. However, in this case, these exact same plot points and different character statuses serve the first far better than the second. Crafting a good story demands that you match character and plot in such a way that they enhance one another, and create genuine stakes that involve the audience.

And on that note, Part Two! Coming up later sometime maybe! (But before that, a detour through The Good Wife's character stuff.)


( 3 speakses — have a speak )
Sep. 29th, 2013 09:12 pm (UTC)
The show is constantly – and I mean constantly – deus ex machina-ing her out of trouble, and glossing over anything she does that might be morally dubious.

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It is, simply and sadly for a show so focussed on sex, flaccid.

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The Devil Wears Prada vs Burlesque

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Part Two, The Avengers.

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Sep. 30th, 2013 05:38 am (UTC)
HIIIIIIIIIIIIIIhihihiiii. Sam. I c u thar. *approved*

You Kenzi-spammed me! ILU.

Re: Lost Girl.
Mid-S1: Kenzi has had a big, hard day, or something's gone on for her, I don't remember. She comes in and checks on how Bo, similarly bad-dayed, is doing. Bo says, we always talk about me and how things are for me (ME: TRUFAX). Let's talk about you for once. Kenzi: stunned (because "for once" TRUFAX) and excited (and I mean actually says "Seriously? Can we? O.O" excited), starts telling Bo about what's going down in Kenzitown. Bo: immediately spaces, stares at Dyson's jacket or some shit while Kenzi's voice mutes out. Actual thing.

Early S2: Bo: worries about being selfish. Kenzi: aw babe, no, you are the *most* unselfish! ME: SPITS DRINK, LAUGHS, WEEPS. Actual. Thing.

Mid S2: Bo ONCE AGAIN discovers that things are not as they seem and people lie to her (cf, EVERY SINGLE EPISODE). Bo, to Kenzi: You know, some day I'm going to stop being so naïve about this stuff. ACTUAL FUCKING THING. (ME: !!!!!!!!... Passive aggressive disgruntled writer on board? Pleeeease let that be it.)

I geek out for you, babe. So we can be Sisters In Snark. Part Two shall be strong in the Snark, I suspect.

Edited at 2013-09-30 05:41 am (UTC)
Sep. 30th, 2013 04:40 pm (UTC)
Ahahahhhaaaa, Bo is the worst. Your summary made me almost spit out my coffee, too funny.
( 3 speakses — have a speak )

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