Writing Right with Dmitri: What Are the Monsters About? (II)
Where were we? Oh, yes, talking about monsters. Once you've figured out what the monster is about, you've got to figure out what his-her-its dilemma is – and whether it's soluble, based on a personal choice or the need for intervention by caring others, or insoluble (and therefore tragic). This is where more writers fall down than I care to think about.
Rather than picking apart complex narratives like short stories or novels, let's stick to television. Television has advantages as a critical tool: it's readily available, so you can look for yourself, an episode takes an hour or less to watch, and the presentation is simplified for a broad audience. It's useful for our purposes. I'm going to discuss an example of failed monster dilemmas.
First, however, let me point out: not all the monsters are supernatural. Most of them, in fact, are human. Even admirable human characters can behave in monstrous fashions. This analysis is more pertinent than you think.
Law & Order: SVU – 'Father's Shadow' (Season 13, Episode 13, aired 8 February 2012)
Plot summary: The Special Victims Unit arrests a dodgy reality show producer for routinely drugging and raping actresses during auditions. The producer's young adult son, Eddie, becomes distraught and holds his live-in girlfriend and her 8-year-old daughter hostage, demanding his father's release. When the callous father refuses even to consider helping talk his son down unless he himself receives full amnesty ('everything's a negotiation'), Eddie's mother and sister arrive from out of town to explain that the family estrangement was caused by the father's molesting the sister. When nothing moves Eddie, who still has a handgun pointed at the little girl's head, Detective Olivia Benson steps in. Putting herself in the line of fire, she persuades the young man to release his hostages and, finally, to surrender, by 'sharing' her personal story as the child of a rape victim.
Audience response: 'an excellent episode that was firing on all cylinders.' (Fan blog.)
My view: this is wrong on so many levels it gave me a headache. Let me tell you about them.
Let's look at this episode from the point of view of the writing team. Their task? To make the story exciting, and to make Olivia Benson look like a superhero whose secret weapon is compassion. To do this, they contrived. And contrived, and contrived. The result, to me, was a dog's dinner of a plot with a very iffy moral basis and no psychological validity at all. Here's why.
- The character of the father was correctly drawn. This man makes up for his own professional mediocrity by misusing others – not only the rape victims, but also his staff and his son. He's a classic narcissist, well-played by Michael McKean. It is clear that Eddie has been psychologically damaged by the emotional abuse of being raised by a narcissist. Children of narcissists suffer enormously, and often seek professional help. They aren't usually prone to initiating hostage situations.
- The script fails to show Eddie as an abuse victim. Instead, we see the son as the father's most enthusiastic supporter. He loves and admires his father, and is blind to his faults. His dad has given him a job and an apartment, and enabled him to play house with his girlfriend. Let's talk about the girlfriend.
- The girlfriend also works for the narcissist father. It is obvious why she's living with Eddie: he puts a roof over her head and takes care of her daughter Lily, of whom he appears to be fond. This changes in an instant when Eddie becomes enraged, of course. The girlfriend's motives for her actions are clear at the beginning – these are people who view life as a series of transactions. What is not properly motivated is the girlfriend's actions in giving the police material evidence against Eddie's father. Why would she jeopardise her comfortable life? A sudden attack of conscience? We are being sold short here, and so is the character. From the moment the hostage situation develops, she's reduced to a counter in the story. Then she gets shot and has to be rescued. Lazy plotting.
- Lily, the little girl, fares much worse. She goes from playing with her 'stepdad' to having a gun held to her head. Instead of worrying about how to get this child out of danger, Detective Benson concentrates on winning Eddie's trust. On one level, this is understandable: it's okay to say and do anything to rescue the hostages. And see? It works. It works because the script writers cheated.
- The script writers cheated because Eddie, in a fit of remorse, sends the hostages out of the room and turns the gun on himself. Why does he do this? Only the script writers know, because we don't. He seems to have decided that he's a bad person. Benson gently tells him that he's not: it's not his fault that his dad is a monster. Her biological father was a monster, too. That's the story's 'message' – that you can use your own traumas to help others. Eddie plays along, gives Benson the gun, they exit the building together. Eddie is arrested, but Benson looks sad: he was a victim, too.
Bah. In spite of being played by a former child actor who still looks about 14, Eddie is an adult. He chose to abreact his own confusion by victimising anyone within reach. The script writers are being codependent here by choosing to direct their sympathy toward their guest star and regarding the hostages as 'extras'. In a psychologically motivated story, this shouldn't happen.
There is such a thing as responsibility, people. If all you want to do is write 'action', then leave truly vulnerable people out of the equation. Make your hostages drug dealers, or something. But don't pretend to solve real-life questions with Band-Aids and platitudes. Remember: the actions of each character in a story should be motivated by the experiences and moral compass of that character. Leave the Deus ex machina up in the wings of an 18-century opera, where it belongs. Give us all a break.