"It's Too Late For That! I Want Revenge!"


Just one more follow-up to my post on characters who don’t explain themselves: one commenter pointed out, rightly, that it sometimes wouldn’t do any good for characters to explain themselves. If Batman had tried to explain to Two-Face that he did, in fact, try to save Rachel in The Dark Knight, Two-Face would have been too crazy to care. And yet it would still have been better if Batman and Commissioner Gordon had tried to explain themselves, even though it wouldn’t have changed the plot. It’s important for characters to state the obvious because that proves they’re not stupid, and characters who aren’t stupid are more clearly worth rooting for. (Of course, The Dark Knight was so incredibly successful that it’s not a good example to use here; I think that movie had some storytelling flaws, but the general public obviously didn’t.)

I think that sometimes the failure of characters to say what they know — due to an attack of plot-induced stupidity — is due to the writers being worried that it would wreck the plot, that if someone brought up the truth (they didn’t sleep with whoever, they didn’t do whatever) the audience won’t go along with the story any more. Go back to that scene in Grey’s Anatomy where Derek was chewing out Meredith for sleeping with a guy, even though she hadn’t. Why didn’t the writers just write a line or two where she mentions that she didn’t sleep with the guy, and Derek doesn’t believe her? Because they thought that would make things worse: if they bring up the issue, we’ll start to question the flimsy basis of the story. Whereas if they just avoid mentioning it, there’s a chance that we won’t think about this stuff at all until the episode is over. The theory here, and a counter-argument to my belief that characters should always deliver the necessary information, is that the less information the characters give each other, the less chance there is for the viewer at home to spot plot holes. Sure, a few of us nit-pickers are frustrated by the stupidity of the characters, but many other times we just won’t notice. Whereas if they start talking about the source of the misunderstanding, then we’ll all notice and be dissatisfied.

But I think that the audience is usually willing to go along with a story even if it has some obvious holes or logic leaps, and that this is a reasonable trade-off for the writers treating us fair and not making the characters idiots. The example I used in the subject line was from an episode of the Pinky and the Brain cartoon show. (One of the last episodes, in fact.) Pinky and the Brain and their nemesis Snowball are all held prisoner by a cat who was sent through the same genetic mutation machine they went through; embittered by being an ugly talking cat who isn’t loved by children, she becomes a supervillain and decides to… okay, I’ll stop the synopsis now. But she’s about to send the other critters through a process that will turn them into normal, non-talking animals, thus removing the threat to her evil plan. And one of the characters actually brings up the obvious point: “Wait! Why don’t you just send yourself through this machine and reverse the process? Then you’ll be pretty again.” And the villain replies: “It’s too late for that! I want revenge!” And that’s fair enough, isn’t it? She’s the villain, she’s evil she’s crazy, she’s illogical, so her reply doesn’t have to make a lot of sense. What’s important is that the characters did not conceal or forget about the piece of information that could have changed the plot if the villain were willing to listen. The plot still works, but due to the villain’s insanity, not the regular characters’ stupidity. That’s a better arrangement.