Make Me Care

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.


Once Upon a Time Emma

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.

Once Upon a Time BuddyTv

See these bars? They represent the plot gap between us stopping this future relationship from becoming legit.

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?

Mary Margaret and Emma Once Upon a Time

Emma, it’s obvious you like Graham. -MM
Huh? Since when? -Emma
Since the script ordered me to tell you about it. -MM

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.”


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.

Thor bridge

Don’t destroy the bridge. If you do you’ll never see her again -Loki
Her who? *smash* -Thor

Thor Mom

He’s thinking about her, isn’t he?
Her who?  When did he bother to tell us about that relationship?  Wait, did you read the script?


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.


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!

26 thoughts on “Make Me Care

    • Yep, this certainly reinforced to me the importance of laying the groundwork for relationships in a story. Our readers are already there wanting our stories to be good. It’s really just up to us not to screw it up. 😉

    • To be honest, other than that flub it’s a decent show. That’s what infuriated me more is that up to that point it was pretty good until they took the cheap shot. But he’s gone now, so hopefully the show won’t be dragging its feet anymore.

  1. So many stories to choose from…I’ve actually read some romance novels where I totally wasn’t buying the whole love story, and that’s definitely one of my biggest petpeeves in stories. A novel I read that I just didn’t care when they started killing off characters was XVI. There were 2 deaths that I was just like “so what?” I felt a little callous, but I didn’t care about the characters that died, and I didn’t connect with the main character even though I should have.

  2. Tell us how you really feel? 😉

    How to make your characters relationships work? How about not letting them get together even though they really want to. Tension can be a good thing. Seriously, throw a couple of wrenches, or creatures, or whatever, at them and see what happens. That way the reader gets to discover if they really do want to end up together by how they react to/overcome the tension.

    That’s one of the reasons I don’t watch much TV. There aren’t many shows that can hold my interest. I guess movies spoiled me, the really good ones anyway. The only scripted show I watch is The Walking Dead, and the whole second season bored me to death. The first two episodes of season three are much better. Thank goodness.

    A movie that gets it right…I’d say If Lucy Fell. Writer, director, and actor Eric Shaeffer made this indie film in 1996, starring himself and Sarah Jessica Parker. It’s a quaint romantic comedy about two friends who have failed in love numerous times so they come up with a “death pact”. If neither of them falls in love by a certain date they agree to kill themselves. The catch is they can’t say no to anyone who asks them out, even if they normally wouldn’t date them. I don’t want to ruin the movie, but I will say if you haven’t seen it, you may want to give it a try. I’m not a romantic comedy kind of guy, but this is my favorite. I even got my sister to love it, but my last girlfriend wasn’t a fan. This may be Scarlett Johansen’s first movie. The Black Widow is just a kid, maybe ten, in this. Ben Stiller makes an appearance as well as a nutty artist. If you watch it, let me know what you think.

    • Lately I’ve been watching a lot of Korean dramas on Netflix. They do the whole “will they, won’t they get together” really well. I’m not saying the rest of the story is perfect by any means, but it gets almost ridiculous how difficult it is for the love interests to get together. I don’t mean to say, write all stories like theirs, I’ve just been analyzing it, wondering what it is that keeps me having to watch the next episode. And when it doesn’t work (there’s one drama I got fed up with and quit), why didn’t it work?

      So then I have to ask, have you watched the BBC’s latest rendition of Sherlock? Stephen Moffat is a pretty clever writer. I’ve enjoyed his episodes immensely on Doctor Who, and the new Sherlock is his creation.

      • No, I haven’t watched Sherlock, and I’m not a fan of Doctor Who. Never really got into the good Doctor’s show, or Sherlock Holmes (movies, books, shows). I did enjoy Torchwood though, Primeval too. I really miss Survivors (think the Walking Dead without the zombies). The BBC had some awesome shows. I just thought of a better romantic comedy. I had to think long and hard about which ones I actually enjoyed and The Matchmaker starring Janeane Garofalo was the only other one I really liked. As a matter of fact that’s my favorite. It takes place in Ireland and is wonderfully shot, acted, and written. The Matchmaker is definitely worth your time. I’m going to have to re-watch these two films as a writer and see if I still like them as much as I used to.

      • You must watch Sherlock. I love Doctor Who, but Stephen Moffat didn’t really get his groove on until season 2 or 3. One of the best episodes he ever wrote was “Blink.” If you’re determined to pass on Doctor Who (which would be a shame, especially if you love time travel), you should at least watch “Blink.” Gives you a whole new perspective on the possibilities of villains.

        Sherlock is great because it proves that he can easily fit right into a modern world scenario. It’s also fascinating because you see that if you create great characters they can adjust to almost any setting they’re thrown into. As a writer, I really think you should give “Blink” and Sherlock a go. Sherlock’s only got 6 episodes available anyway. “Blink” is Doctor Who season 3 episode 10. Seriously, I think you’ll be quite intrigued.

        • How can I say no to all that logic? Okay, I’ll give Blink a watch. It’ll be my “homework” for the weekend. It’ll have to wait until I’m done with Flash Gordon. I’ll try and catch Sherlock on TV. I’ll make up my mind about Sherlock afterward.

      • And by Doctor Who, I mean the series from 2005 on, not the older episodes. Other than a few select Tom Baker episodes, I really couldn’t get into old school Doctor Who either.

  3. I actually haven’t had the chance to watch this season. With school and everything else, I’ve only made time for Doctor Who and Vampire Dairies and that’s about it. My daughter likes to watch Doctor Who with me. 🙂

    • I hope to one day share the pure awesomeness that is Doctor Who with my children. I envy you. And I need the next season to show up on Netflix… Come on BBC. Come on!

      • She just started watching them with me…she’s just now really getting into TV, even though she’s almost 3. I’ve been watching Doctor Who for years now. Love it! Now she’s into it! 🙂 She’ll curl up with me on the couch and watch it with me..another reason why I try to make time for it.

  4. I fully enjoy Once, and never did I think that Graham was meant to be Emma’s love interest. I saw what could have been the beginnings of a romantic spark, but when he died, I didn’t think that Emma needed to grieve over him as a lover, because he wasn’t that.

    I think the point of his death was to feel exactly what you felt, “Oh no! Emma doesn’t know the truth about the curse” not “Aww, her kinda-almost-lover died”.

    There are things about Once that bother me, but as entertainment, I thoroughly enjoy the show. Especially Rumple. He’s by far my favorite character.

    Also..DON’T BLINK. Blink and you’re dead.

    Yea. Total Whovian over here. 😉

    I’ll have to look into Sherlock (this is the BBC one available on Netflix, yes?) — I didn’t know it was Moffat behind it.

  5. Yes! I thought I was heartless for not caring about the whole Graham-Emma thing (and seriously, how could it go from nothing to kissing?), but I’m glad to read that I’m not the only Once fan who h trouble over that…thing (I’m not gonna call it a storyline).
    Also, it’s good to link that point to writing. I guess I don’t think about whether some characters are pointless. (I love mine all way too much!) I may have to get rid of some of my MC’s brothers… xD

    • Seriously, when Snow White was like, “Duh, you obviously like him?” I nearly out loud said, “Since when?!?” It’s one of our greatest tasks as writers to make sure we don’t leave convenient plot points lying around. I’ve had several occasions where I was tempted to take the easy way out of a situation and when I refused and pondered on it a better explanation came for moving the plot along. (I’ve also been lazy about it too). Have you ever read Robert McKee’s “Story”? It gets into the nitty gritty of these sorts of things.

      • Ridiculous, right?
        Ah, yes. It’s always harder to take the more complex option, but i’ts always better to craft a better story.
        No, I’ve not read it. Not even heard of it, in fact. What’s it about?

      • Well, essentially it’s about story. He goes through each part of crafting story piece by piece. He explains every element. Though this was originally a book for screenwriters, the elements he’s talking about apply to any kind of story told. One of my favorite quotes of his is, “If exposition is a scene’s sole justification, a disciplined writer will trash it and weave its information into the story elsewhere.” There’s lots of other nuggets of gold in there like that.

        The nice thing is he uses fairly well-known movies as examples so you can understand what he means. I’ve been making notes as a read, kind of creating my own worksheet for my novel when I get back to editing it.

  6. Oh goodness, Once Upon a Time. I tried watching it last year, but it was so hokey that I had to stop. My friends kept telling me to give it another try, but I said no — until I saw Entertainment Weekly’s picture of Captain Hook. Now I’m a huge fan.

    Anyway, I agree that the show certainly has some issues with character relationships, but because of the flashbacks, it still makes you care about the individual characters. It clearly shows their development, which is great, and something a lot of TV shows lack. Especially when it comes to the villains — and Once Upon a Time has some great villains (like Captain Hook…*swoon*)

    Good link to writing. I know I have created characters for the specific purpose of dying, but even if that’s their main role, it’s important to give them another, just so the reader (and the protagonist) cares.

    • I think we can call ourselves successful when a character we’ve created for the purpose of dying is never discovered by our readers as having that purpose. At least if we want it to have any kind of meaning. Otherwise, why bother, right?

  7. That’s one of my major pet peeves. I can’t stand it, and it happens a lot, when two characters JUST MET but they’re magically in love. When they didn’t have any time to build any sort of relationship. Its extremely irritating.

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