In life we know that letting go is one of the most difficult things you can do. As it is in reality, so too is that truth relevant in fiction. We become attached to other people or objects, whether real or not. We become invested in characters and stories we’ve followed for a long time. Sometimes that emotional investment clouds our perceptions, and other times it results in us not wanting a certain world to close or story to end, even when a conclusion is perhaps a necessity, or the overall quality of what we’re enjoying has certainly taken a nose dive. We are ultimately beings of intimate emotion and tangible feelings, striving for connection. But is there a point where this need for attachment becomes too much in the creative process? Is there a point where it begins to harm your narrative, and becomes a weakness? Or is it a writer’s strength in bringing their characters to life?
I watch a fair amount of series and movies, often with my girlfriend. We share interests, even if individually we’re not crazy about them, and I thoroughly enjoy getting into what she enjoys and having her reciprocate by watching what I enjoy. Naturally there are some things we don’t watch together because one of us just won’t like it at all, and every couple does need their own individual interests too. Where we can, however, we share and I love that. I bring this up because I watch The Vampire Diaries and Grey’s Anatomy (I’ve genuinely really enjoyed these shows) with her, and she watches Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead with me. It’s a particular interest of mine as a writer myself to see how shows handle character attachment and fan service, and compare it to how I am personally.
In the latest season of The Vampire Diaries, both of us have been getting annoyed at the excessive attachment to characters, even supporting ones, and the show’s relentless desire to include everyone even if they have no relevance to the plot, and it feels as though things are being pulled out of a hat to remain inclusive. I use this example because it’s on the extreme side of the spectrum, that of being overly attached to characters. It is not wrong, rather it is one method to narrative. This show has built up relationships between its fans and characters over years, with fans intimately connecting with the cast and not wanting to see them go. The strength of this is that fans relate to the characters more and almost consider them ‘real’ to some extent, but the problem is indeed that inability to let go and the consequence of that festers in the show itself, with writers being unable to cut ties or put their characters through real risk and tests. I mean, even side characters who are leaving get episodes made in tribute to their passing or exit.
Then there’s Grey’s Anatomy, which in my opinion is the much healthier of the two. It’s more on The Vampire Diaries side of the spectrum, but far less extreme. The show clearly loves its cast and we connect with them and relate to them too, but the show is absolutely not afraid to put them through horrendous ordeals and truly test every inch of their strength, as well as that of the fans. There is no supernatural thumb-sucking or warped reasoning to bring characters back here or lessen their pain. That itself embeds the show in reality for me. Sure it has its fan service and indulgences like any other show, but it’s never felt ludicrous to me in its attachment to its characters and doesn’t shy away from breaking them down and testing what they stand for. Case in point would be a certain couple in the present season currently suffering through one of the most horrendous pregnancy cases you can imagine.
On the complete extreme opposite side of the spectrum you get Game of Thrones in which, aside from about three or four characters who are clearly the apples of the bunch, characters are shown no mercy whatsoever, irrespective of whether they’re protagonists or idols to the fans. It’s impossible to have zero attachment, as certain characters will always shine or be loved by the artist, but Game of Thrones is an awesome kind of narrative in which you yourself are afraid of becoming attached to characters because life is so uncertain and damage is so permanent, and consequence is so tangible. Life just isn’t fair in this show, but my word does it test your resolve. The risk is incredibly high here, as is the freedom of expression.
As a final example I will use The Walking Dead. I would prefer to use the comic rather than the series, because it’s ten times less ‘friendly’, but that’s also the reason why I can use it because it functions as another Grey’s Anatomy example, except the opposite. It’s not quite extreme, but it’s definitely on the lack of attachment side of the spectrum. There are a variety of characters that are loved, supporting characters get given more than their fair share of screen time, but it too is high risk and freely able to put characters through ordeals that don’t always have a neat and fan service ending. If only it adapted more of the comic though.
As you can deduce from the four examples above there is no wrong or incorrect way of telling a story and dealing with your characters. There are pros and cons to each method. However that doesn’t mean too much attachment can’t be a weakness, as I feel it has become in the case of The Vampire Diaries. There’s no sense of urgency, no consequences, no risks being taken and no surprises. It seems to be motivated purely by fan service lately rather than by a story it believes in telling. That’s what I feel getting stuck in a rut is like, and too much attachment to characters and being unable to let go certainly can play a major part in resulting in this. The benefit of course is that fans are so invested in the characters that they’re still around out of personal connection, and will happily indulge in more, and the writers can base episodes around individual characters even in the absence of any compelling story arc going on.
The strengths for a show like Game of Thrones is that the lack of attachment can mean total freedom of expression, without being afraid of risk or fans jumping ship since a show like this isn’t surviving on fan service, but on the depth of its world and quality of its narrative and diversity of its stellar cast. The downside however is exactly that fear I mentioned among fans, and some may grow tired of plot threads and character arcs completely crumbling into nothing in a single episode, despite weeks of investment. For some viewers it can be a bit too much, especially those not in touch with the books or that style of drama.
Personally I’m probably on the more extreme side of the spectrum in having a lack of attachment to my characters, with the only exception being my protagonists. I feel my present weakness is pouring all of my writing efforts and thinking into my protagonists in an attempt to make them deep and intriguing, but with the result being that supporting or side characters don’t get enough attention to be deep personalities in their own rights. However I’m certainly not adverse to unleashing hell on any of my characters, whether protagonist or not, if it’s for the purpose of the story, and I always feel no regret or sadness about it. However that consequence for the supporting cast is something I’d definitely love to improve on, and will aim to become better at in each successive book.
I would hope that you’re beginning to see what I’m trying to convey here. Too much attachment is not necessarily a weakness in the same way that too little attachment is not necessarily a strength. They each have their own pros and cons. However being overly attached to characters certainly has the potential to become a weakness, and harm not only the progression of a story but also its ability to stand on its own two feet. I used TV series because they’re easily relatable, but this same topic can apply to books, comics and video games pretty easily. What you believe in will hopefully be what works for you, but you should always be wary of the risks and rewards and what you can possibly fall victim to, and in the end never shy away from trying to evolve or adapt your approach.