WRITING: Character Journeys

Or, ‘how and why I got overinvested in Shannon from Lost‘.

(I will try to make the below as painless as possible for Lost non-watchers.)

When Lost premiered in 2004, it blew me away. It was nothing like I’d ever seen before, playing with story and character beautifully. In its sprawling ensemble cast, I had plenty of favourites. Early on, I had no idea that one of those would be Shannon Rutherford, played by Maggie Grace in the show’s first two seasons. She was weak, bitchy, whiny and, as the other castmates kept telling her, “useless”. She was a minor supporting character of little importance.

Somewhere around the midpoint of the season, my opinion of her began to change. I grew deeply invested in her. Her unlikely romance with a reformed Iraqi soldier. Her distrust of mysterious, spiritually-creepy Locke. Her complicated sexual relationship with her step-brother. Something about her fascinated me, to the point where she was one of my favourite parts of the show. And my disillusionment with the show, which would become famous amongst my friends and family for ages after, occurred in early season two, when the writers decided to kill the character off.

My family suspected I had a crush on Maggie Grace. (Eventually they realised that was unlikely.) I myself didn’t really understand what about the character had drawn me to her so intensely. It’s only now that I understand my reaction:

She was on a journey, one which I’d become emotionally invested in. And when that journey was cut off before it could reach its full potential, that’s where the outrage started.

Let me back up. Shannon was an outsider in the community. She was bored, snarky, self-centred. Lazy. She was also nursing a secret fear, one that flared up whenever someone used that word: useless…  That they were right. And over the course of the first season, she began to realise that she didn’t want to be that person. She realised that she had more to offer than anyone, least of all herself, could imagine. And slowly, she started to become part of the community. She started to stand up for what she believed was right. She showed potential to become someone really impressive.

I realise now, having grown up a little, that I ended up going through that exact same journey. When Lost premiered, I was thirteen years old. I was bored, snarky, self-centred. Lazy, too. Instead of doing anything, I sat back and mocked the idea that it needed to be done at all, or ignored it until it went away. I expect there were plenty of teenage boys like me. What I saw in Shannon, that journey, resonated, despite the fact that I wouldn’t actually become self-aware enough to go through it until I was eighteen or nineteen. Over the course of a few years, I went from a lazy do-nothing to someone who was relentlessly focused on what I wanted. I developed ambition. I found what I wanted, and pursued it like a shark. I didn’t realise it, but I attached so intensely to Shannon because there was a seed of truth to her story that I hadn’t found anywhere else.

I overinvested because, I realise now, I saw Shannon’s journey as my own. And when the writers closed it off, complete with “Well, we just didn’t know where to go with the character…” comments in the media, it was a betrayal of my journey. It was a personal insult.

Why tell this long story about my onetime crush on the leggy blonde that was killed off of Lost 28 episodes into its 120+ episode run?

Because that’s what the audience does. They invest in your characters. It could be merely sympathy (“I can see why this grieving mother guest star is sad about her son dying.”) It could be understanding (“I, too, have trouble talking to my brother!”). And maybe, if you do it just right, you put your character on a journey that deeply resonates with your audience, to the point where they can’t miss another episode/movie/book. If you do it right, then where they end up will become very important to your audience, not because the person has suffered through so much and deserves a happy ending, but because part of them wants you to validate how they see the world. Or how they see themselves.

Sometimes, it’s even people who do horrible things can be redeemed. Sometimes, it’s people who do horrible things never change, so don’t trust them. And if the members of your audience feel that you are with them, and then betray them at the end, that is when you inspire righteous fury. They know, in their gut, that they feel the ending was wrong. Because a character is on a journey, and the steps of that journey should, ultimately, be determined by the destination they are moving toward.

Between seasons one and two of Lost, I was involved in fandom and fanfiction. I plotted out my own version of Lost‘s second season as a labour of love and excitement. And Shannon’s story in that wasn’t one of early, throwaway death. It was of her realisation of her strength, her ascendency to something greater than she thought she could be. Because that is where I saw her journey moving toward. That is where I’d hoped my journey would lead.

Find stories that mean something. Give characters journeys that are going somewhere. Because if you do, your audience will follow you to hell and back.

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