Recently on the good ol’ Netflix I’ve been getting into the new series Once Upon a Time. For those unfamiliar with Once, the idea is that the evil queen from Snow White cast a powerful curse on fairy tale land, transporting them to our world where they live their lives stuck in a boring Maine town where they can never have happy endings. The series merges what happened before the curse in fairy tale land and what’s happening current day.
Ahem, SPOILER ALERT.
There, you’ve been warned, although I don’t know that this particular spoiler will ruin the whole series for you. But as I said, you’ve been warned.
So going into about the seventh or so episode, one of the more prominent characters dies. And guess what? I didn’t care. It’s not that it wasn’t sad or that I didn’t believe this would have some kind of impact on anyone, it’s just that the writers hadn’t bothered to make me really care about this character before giving him the axe.
For those who haven’t seen the show… **LAST SPOILER ALERT WARNING**
Our heroine, Dr. Cam—er, Emma, is a stranger to the town of Storybrooke. For reasons you can discover going and watching the series, she ends up a deputy to the Sheriff named Graham. Prior to this episode I’m guessing Emma and Graham had about 2 minutes total what-could-be-conceived-as-romantic screen time. Most of the series up to this point is heavily focused on Emma’s relationship with her son and outwitting Ms. Villain.
I figured at some point she’d have a thing with Graham because he seemed like the only available guy in town. But just because someone is available doesn’t automatically equate love, nor does it equate a good love story.
Despite Emma clearly demonstrating her lack of interest in Graham other than as a colleague fighting against evil, and also discovering Graham is sleeping regularly with Ms. Villain, the writers decided they wanted to go there. When Emma finds out Graham is with Ms. Villain, we have even more reason to believe any and all romantic inclinations toward Graham are probably gone. Graham tries to explain things, clearly showing he had an interest in Emma, but Emma seems more disgusted he’s with Ms. Villain than worried that he’s involved with anyone.
So then, using a quick cheap way fix relationships you haven’t bothered to fully establish, they hand lines to characters who know Emma to establish that yeah, despite our better judgement I guess she liked him. I mean, it’s obvious, and if you have someone say it’s obvious, who are your viewers/readers to say differently?
So now that the audience has been informed Emma obviously likes Graham, they go off on an adventure together, with Emma still not invested in liking Graham anymore than friends, but hey, someone told us it was obvious… After a confrontation with Ms. Villain (where we still don’t really get anything to make us believe Emma is interested in Graham that way), Emma and Graham are back at the office fixing wounds. This is the very first time a real scene happens between these two that might hint at realistic romance—unfortunately the episode is 5 minutes from over and Ms. Villain decides to kill Graham via magic.
Graham kisses Emma and remembers he’s a fairy tale character and is about to tell Emma all about it when he topples over dead. Emma is upset because the script told her to be, but not in any kind of romantic way. My first thought was, “Oh no, Emma didn’t get to learn the truth about the Queen’s curse.” And never, “Oh no, Emma lost someone she really, really loved.”
THOR’S LOVE STORY SUCKS TOO
It’s the same problem I had with the movie Thor. The love interest there was basically Natalie Portman giggling, smiling, and lusting after Thor who barely notices she’s around except when he needs to get somewhere. I guess she
rescues him helps facilitate his rescue and that’s supposed to count for sudden romantic interest, but Thor’s a demi-god who probably sees humans as something lesser.
Friends, certainly, but the woman he loves? Unlikely. When Thor returns home you barely remember he’d met Natalie Portman in the first place, except when someone that’s not Thor reminds us.
BACK TO ONCE
So Graham is dead, and I don’t really care and oddly enough the whole Once universe seems to be just fine without him. Out of all the characters I’d met up to this point, Graham seemed the most expendable and it turns out he was. But Once goes on, and I’ll probably forget Graham ever existed.
SO MAKE ME CARE
I bring this up because as writers we must be careful how we introduce relationships and especially careful with what we expect out of them. In earlier versions of Shade an editor I was working with pointed to one of my major characters and said, “So what happens to the story if this guy disappears? Because as far as I can tell he’s only around to carry stuff.”
I had in my mind what kind of character Mr. Carry-Stuff was supposed to be, but I hadn’t shown it in my story. And honestly, all I needed was a few more private conversations and/or little actions written in to both show that Mr. Carry-Stuff and my protagonist were friends and that my protag wanted Mr. Carry-Stuff around.
What I had been doing is have other characters tell my readers Mr. Carry-Stuff and the protag were friends, or have the protag say it himself. Telling vs. showing = poorly written story = characters we’re supposed to care about that we don’t.
I think Graham from Once could have still been killed and Emma could have still cared about it, but not forced in a romantic way. If they’d wanted romance, I’d like to see a bit more flirting, a few more private conversations—even if they were only a few seconds.
And Thor… where do I start?
Please! All you storytellers out there, whatever medium you’re using, establish the relationships! You know who’s going to be whose friend and who’s going to fall in love with whom, so lay the groundwork and make us care.
Your turn. Have you ever read a novel or watched a show where you didn’t believe the relationship they were trying to foist on you? Where have you seen it done well? Where have you seen it done poorly? What would you recommend to those struggling to make their characters’ relationships works? Let us all know below!