Frustration With Story Characters

When I sit down with a book or watch something on screen, I have certain thoughts and feelings throughout that determine whether or not I’ll enjoy it. This doesn’t apply as much to comedy as to other categories. When I’m reading or watching drama, thriller, mystery, action/adventure, science fiction, or horror, I need to be on somebody’s side. I can tolerate to a certain extent switching support for different characters as the story unfolds. But, there must be someone I can support. I don’t know why it’s so important to me, but it is needed in order for me to enjoy said book or movie. The difference is that a movie takes about two hours, while a novel can take days to finish. Therefore, novels can affect my mood longer.

Many books start out with a relatable main character or characters. At this point I’m on their side and want to see them succeed. However, as the story progresses the primary characters usually make mistakes. At that point I have to decide whether the mistake is understandable and something I could easily make myself or a foolish, avoidable mistake I would not have made. Granted, I’m not in the story. The characters usually have some kind of special training in a field I have no experience with or knowledge of. Yet, I am critical of their actions as though I did have all their knowledge and experience. I also don’t take into account how strong emotions, such as overwhelming fear and stress, can affect one’s judgement. I want to believe the characters I’m supporting are competent and always make clearheaded decisions. That way if some misfortune overtakes them and they find themselves injured or in danger, I feel that there is nothing they could have done differently to prevent it and I am still supportive as if the characters were me. I understand that the circumstances are beyond their control and I can, therefore, accept their fate. Of course, I will be disappointed if they do not escape those circumstances, but I will be in their corner until the end. If and when they escape the peril they’re in, I’m all the more glad.

Alas, many times the characters I should support make foolish and easily avoidable mistakes. That is when I get upset and consider switching sides in my mind. If the protagonists make mistakes I think I would not have made and the antagonist gets the upper hand on them, I start to side with the antagonist. When the antagonist captures or hurts the protagonists, I can think to myself, “well, they had that coming to them,” or “they wouldn’t be in that situation had they not done x, y, or z.” That pacifies my anger. In order for me to continue reading or watching, there must be some character I can support.

If the antagonist has the advantage and makes a foolish decision that gives it away, I switch back to supporting the good guys again. That frequently happens when the antagonist has the protagonists in his grasp and it looks like he is just about to win. That’s when the bad guy delays finishing off the good guys for no real reason. There are two very common outcomes that result from this. One, the protagonists might get into the head of the antagonist and manipulate him into turning on his fellow antagonists or unwittingly giving the protagonists a useful item, thereby giving the protagonists the chance to escape or attack. The other most common outcome is that the bad guys wait too long, giving the cavalry enough time to arrive and save the day.

However, there are times when the protagonists and antagonists all make easily avoidable mistakes that give the other the upper hand. When that happens, I can’t support anyone in the book or movie. Unfortunately, when there aren’t any characters I support, I begin to lose interest in learning what happens to those characters and, therefore, in the book or movie itself. If the mistake made by the protagonists is rectified quickly, my anger subsides and I remain interested in what happens with them next. But, the worst scenario is when all sides make foolish mistakes repeatedly, shifting the advantage back and forth between the good guy and the bad guy. There comes a point when I get fatigued from all the switching of support and can no longer let go of my disappointment in the characters. When that happens, I don’t want to see a certain character get the advantage again. So, when the advantage does swing back in his or her favor, it makes me upset all over again.

When I get no relief from my agitation because of the permanent disappointment in all characters and don’t want either side to have the upper hand, I may stop reading the book as a result. And, if the main characters are flawed beyond a certain level, I can’t read that book at all. For example, main characters who cheat on their significant others, are complete jerks, or are corrupt in some way is enough for me to put away the book. That has happened to me on a few occasions. That is not so much the case with movies as with books. A movie lasts a short time, so I don’t remain in that mindset for long. But, a book takes a lot longer to get through and, therefore, leaves me in that aggravated mindset a lot longer. I can only stay in that state for so long before it becomes unbearable and I want out. That means there is a line the author has to walk carefully in order for me to stay engaged in the story. I don’t know if this happens to many people, but it does to me. Keep in mind that all of these thoughts and feelings are confined to my head and to fictional stories. If I were to view good people making similar mistakes in real life, I believe I would be much more forgiving and merciful. I wouldn’t write someone off so easily in the real world. If I did, I would have written myself off long ago.

4 thoughts on “Frustration With Story Characters

  1. I share some of your pain but I don’t typically go so far as to “switch sides.” Yes, the “good guys” are forever “getting themselves into trouble” for no good reason! It’s maddening. But I do try to remember that what makes sense in a story and what makes sense in real life are different. OF COURSE, if you are in real life and the villain says you must come to the abandoned warehouse by yourself and unarmed, you’re not going without hidden arms and lots of back up! But in the story, it’s ONE way to put the heroes in danger. I greatly prefer it though when the “good guys” are actually pretty brilliant but get in trouble anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

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