Sunday, September 03, 2006

Disordered Thoughts on Character Appeal

I blame my deteriorated mental state for the Kalinara-esque title. I'm still sick, but this was rattling in my head and needed to be written. Pardon my structure.

This is a tricky one to start, because the comment that got me thinking, was a slight misstatement on the part of the commenter. However, there's sometimes truth in tired miswritings, and the misreadings in them. Especially when they echo vague ideas we've seen before. Retraction aside, this quote has me thinking about writers, and how they market characters to women, and how they market female characters to men.
Guy resonates with people because his problems are our problems, well .. except brain damage maybe.. Fiancee stolen by someone he thought was a friend who lied to him, left for dead, taken advantage of. Guy wasn’t feminine.. he was innocent. As in young and idealistic. Eventually he got hurt badly enough that it fractured his mind and put him into a Coma that the Guardians had to heal him from. Girls just like Guy because at least he’s upfront and is really a nice guy deep down.

What gets me, and again I'm not personally going after the commenter, but it says a great deal that the two thoughts are separate.

Here it is again, the first thought:
Guy resonates with people because his problems are our problems.
And the second:
Girls just like Guy because at least he’s upfront and is really a nice guy deep down.

And no, I'm not about to take someone's head off over "People" and "Girls." I just find it interesting that the commenter felt a need to bring up a "girl reason" for liking Guy in his comment. I think this attitude about fans of opposite sex characters needs closer examination.

We already talk, all the time, about how female characters suffer when written as objects rather than people. They are written that way, at times, because the writer is writing a character as a person the reader "wants to be with" rather than someone the reader "wants to be."

I've seen the "excuse" for this, that most writers are male, most readers are male.

The idea that, to write for a female audience, women will be categtorized as "want to be" personalities and men as "want to be with" personalities is along the same lines as the one where female characters get objectified. Without even getting into the heteronormativity of the matter, it bothers me on the front because it pretty much says that a man cannot identify with a woman, and vice versa. It really bugs me because that's not how I, personally, pick my favorites.

Oh, you've all seen this site. You all know I like to get down to the jokes about Green Lanterns and their assets. The first thing Chris Sims said back when I mentioned I was making a list for Tom Bondurant's 50 Greatest DC Characters Survey was "Lemme guess, 1) Kyle Rayner's Ass, 2) Hal Jordan's..." and to this day I'm sure he'd still claim I only put Kyle on that list by virtue of his hindquarters.

He'd be wrong, though, because I don't pick my favorites based on "hawtness." Rather, I am insistent that certain characters are "hawt" because I like them so much.

And while I have mentioned the appeal of Kyle as "The artistic guy who actually does have a core of strength" that's not why I enjoy reading him. I enjoy reading him, particularly when Marz writes him, because it's very easy -- with Kyle's attitude and narrative voice -- to place myself in the story through Kyle. That's why in JLA Kyle was such an anchor early on, because he was an easy character that way.

That's also why, when it changed to Winick, many of the Kyle fans through Marz despised the character changes (Kyle's narrative voice was traded in for moral superiority), and why now, fans who got into Kyle through Winick think he's gone "backwards" with the new writer.

That is an entire other series of posts, though.

My point is, though, that while I can see the appeal of Kyle as a romantic interest, and make cracks about his appearance, I wouldn't really give a shit for the character if I didn't have a personal connection to him. Kyle's a character who thrives on relatability.

While the idea of the fantasy man who never occurs in real life is appealing, I believe that that's more of a reason to like them if you prefer the character's love interest to the character themself. I think people as a whole tend to gravitate towards characters because they see something of themselves in them -- either a character trait they have and identify with, or a character trait they would like to emulate.

That's not to say every character I enjoy needs to be a carbon copy of myself, there only needs to be a spark there. A sliver of personality. A trait I can step into, or a trait I would like to step into.

John Stewart, for example, would be a favorite for idealism. I never thought much of John until I read his origin story by Denny O'Neil. The first page, where he stands up to that policeman for picking on those kids really resonated with me, and I've been completely mad about the character ever since. Because it's a compulsion that I, in my best moments, act on, and I wish I was able to do something so courageous as effortlessly as John does.

That's just a little something that gets to me when I see a "Girls like character X because..." statement about a male character (or a "Guys like X" about a female character). It usually describes a reason for a a fan who doesn't really like the character, but has a fetish for whatever trait. Not that there's anything wrong with that, in theory, it's just not a line of thinking that leads to solid writing that will appeal to a wide audience. In my experience, I, and most readers of both genders, prefer to follow a character they personally relate to as opposed to one that they would just like to fuck.


  1. Based on the 'Girls like X because of...' that you've described, does that mean someone is likely to think my complete and unabashed love for Batman is because I actually think he's a healthy mate and I so want to hit that?

    And that I've wanted to hit that since I was 4-5 yrs old?!

    Does that mean that if a guy likes Batman, it's because Dick's or Jason's or Tim's or Stephanie's ass was just so fine and they wanted to be in a situation to get 'a piece of that' ?

    Because I think they'd jump down my throat if I suggested it (or try to, I've a very tiny mouth). I think they'd talk about Batman's quest for justice and his love of his city and his need to make it impossible for a small child to have to say good bye to mom and day while they're dressed in sunday best and lying in a coffin.

    So I agree that it's totally cocked up that just by right of gender I'm supposed to view the text in a certain way.

  2. While I don't think this is an excuse, the reason why you probably get that a lot from guys is because guys tend to be more visual and everything becomes T&A...unless you're gay and everything is P,C&A (Pecks, Codpiece and Ass). I've loved the way Kyle Rayner has developed over the years and, on some levels, he is probably my favorite member of the Green Lanterns because we both have art backgrounds, but, at the same time, I can't help but say to myself, "And, he's got a cute ass!" ;)

    Most women get to the bigger picture faster than guys. But, when it all boils down to it and why we truly love the characters we love, it's because of exactly what you mentioned -- you want characters you can relate to, whose personalities you like and who's lives have been fleshed out. Funny how, in the end, men and women want the same things?

  3. I agree. I can't think of one comic I've ever read because I'd want to screw the lead, not even among the one or two T&A books I've scoped out. That always struck me as a particularly... juvenile? wanky? weird? reason to keep reading a book.

    I think that you've hit on one of the problems/benefits (depending on your POV) of comics. It isn't like real life. It's part of the escapist trap/facet of fantasy in general in that these stories are supposed to be better than real life, even when they're dealing with depressing subjects. Right/good/cool/love will always win out, no matter how unrealistic it is. I had a lady friend ask me just yesterday (well, two days ago now) why guys aren't more like the ones on TV. The only answer I really had was "Because life is real and life sucks sometimes. Fantasy has to give you an out."

    I think that there are a lot of characters, male and female, where the "want to be"/"want to be with" idea is a two-way street. The ones that end up with dedicated fandoms are the ones that, as you say, have traits you can identify with. Peter Parker is a good example, and a properly written Dick Grayson is, too. Lois Lane, Mary Jane, and probably Jean Grey are other examples.

    All of these characters are well rounded, but also idealized to an extent. They're what we could be, or could date/marry/hang out with, if only we had X/intestinal fortitude/attitude. That's that sliver I think you're talking about. We could almost do this, if only ____. It gives us an in to the escapism and lets us get away from our problems for a little while.

    Attraction (real to unreal) in comics is very interesting to me. Have you read Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's Flex Mentallo at all? There's a good bit in there where the main character is going back over his memories of all these comics he was into as a kid. Midway through the third issue, he remarks, "Because, listen, when it all comes down to it, how could you love anybody the way you loved Thundergirl? You try and it's like Heaven. But it's only like Heaven. It's not the same, is it?"

    That's directly related to this idealism thing. Who wouldn't want a Mary Jane or Linda West to be there to prop you up when you're broken, or a Wally West or Clark Kent to be dedicated to you? Then again... who can find them?

    I dunno. Idealization vs Realism could probably be a series of posts on its own. Comic characters, particularly tights'n'fights ones, tend to wade through real problems with their heads held high. We've seen very little of Bruce Wayne's reaction to the death of his parents beyond his narrowed eyes in Year One and his mission statement later on. In real life... well, I don't particularly want to imagine it.

    It's rare that you see one collapse under the weight. Peter Parker did it, just pre-Clone Saga, and it was shocking and scary. Wally West did it during Blitz, and it was shocking there. Most of the time, though, you don't see these folks curled up in a corner crying like most people would be. That's probably why we like them so much. They are strong where we are not, but not necessarily in ways that we cannot be. (I'm probably way off-topic now.)

  4. The Kyle example reminded me of a similar case going on with Raven between the cartoon and comic. Same premise and origin, but different attitude and personality. Both are introverted and withdrawn, but the cartoon's version ended up taking the comic's quiet, pacifist, morose and solemn Raven and changing her to be a cynical, dour, sarcastic goth who was given much more active powers (much more offense with a sorta telekinesis). There are fans of the old, comic Raven don't like this version at all, and fear Geoff Johns is turning "their Raven" into the cartoon's. They argue she's acting different, not the same personality. I'd argue Johns is just developing the character further after being free from worrying about Trigon and all that, but some people feel something crucial is missing. I like both Ravens, but I end up preferring the cartoon's spin. Cartoon-Raven just seems more active than the usually demure comic Raven. And I think that trait is what I like and "step into."

    A lot of things go into why a certain character is appealing, it's tricky. There are "types," traits of a character's personality that a person likes to see, there are those they can relate with. There's also themes that are a part of the character that can strike a person. I mean, I find I like tough or tomboy, driven, quick-witted characters (Pantha, Marrow, Silent Hill's Heather, Street Fighter's Makoto, Cartoon-Raven), but then characters who can be complete opposites in some aspects I like too (Eureka 7's Eureka, Lain, Cartoon-Raven being shy and withdrawn; Beast Boy being goofy, self-depriciating). It's the themes of identity and existence that interest and resonate with me and connect characters like Pantha, Lain, Eureka, and Raven. It's hard to boil it down to a definitive set of uncontradictory things (someone like, say, Robin may have some of those characteristics, but I just don't care for him at all... dislike might just as be tricky too). It is that personal relation to something in the character.

  5. hear! hear!

    I can say with some certainty that I didn't instantly adore Huck Finn because I wanted to date him. I wanted to hang out with him. In some ways, I wanted to be him. But date? please.

    I remember reading once (I think it was in Where the Girls Are by Susan Douglass) that the real secret to Beatlemania was that the girls were not just in love with their favorite Beatle - but that they wanted to be that Beatle. Girls tended to pick the Beatle that was most like them or how they wanted to be - and Beatlemania let them act out in ways society would normally frown upon. They myth that it was all teenage lust/love gave the girls freedom they wouldn't have otherwise to try on new roles and emulate behaviours usually forbidden to teen girls at the time.

    It's not always easy to seperate "wanting to be" and "wanting to be with" - but that's why it's so annoying when people asssume that it must be only the latter and not at all the former (or vice versa) - simply because of respective gender/sexuality.

    Life is not binary.

    Seriously - that's going to be my motto from now on.

  6. Funny how, in the end, men and women want the same things?

    Loren, I think we all want the same thing from the beginnings...

  7. Sinspired, true that. I think I just used "in the end" because it was the end of what I was saying moreso than saying that it's only at the end that men and women want the same thing. ;)