Monday, March 7, 2011

Character Transformations

By Sandra Ruttan

If it wasn't for the fact that I'm too old to get down on my knees, I think the events of last Tuesday's episode of Biggest Loser would have had me banging my head against the floor.

Actually, I take that back. It's the events after the show, on Twitter, that had me completely baffled. (And before you dismiss this as a post about reality shows, I'm bringing this around to writing, so bear with me.)

Okay, so I watch Biggest Loser. And Survivor. And American Idol. I am fascinated, on multiple levels. By the willingness people have to completely expose themselves to the world in pursuit of a goal, whatever that may be. The $1,000,000 prize might be enough to entice most of us to try Survivor if we had the chance. If I tried out for American Idol I'd probably be in their audition bombs special, so we'll forget about that.

But this is my first time watching Biggest Loser, and it's a whole different story watching that show. It's really hard to view it as a competition, and we don't see the same type of strategizing and manipulation that you see on other "reality" shows.

At least, not most of the time.

This season, BL has been comprised of couples. Friends, husband-wife, father-daughter, mother-daughter, twin brothers, and there are two sisters in there as well. And in the midst of all these pairs, the show welcomed their heaviest contestant ever, in the form of Arthur.

Now, what's been interesting with this show is that nobody seems to wish ill of anyone else. Since the pairs were split into two teams which competed against each other to lose the most weight each week, having your team succeed in their weight loss goals was important. If a team doesn't win the weigh-in, then (unless there's immunity) they have to vote someone out and send them home.

And early on, the eliminations were almost easy. The twin brothers deliberately blew off the weight loss on the show and gained weight so they'd be sent home. It ticked off their trainers and their teammates, and me, too, because there were other people who wanted to be on the show and didn't make it. These two got on and quickly quit, but they didn't have the decency to just outright quit the game and walk away. They forced everyone to put them through it. And after the first brother went home and the second brother was partnered with another person, he got her to gain weight as well so that their team would lose the weigh-in because he wanted to leave.

Talk about selfish. The people on this show, for them, food is like alcohol. They have a real problem with their weight, and for some of these people learning to control their weight and be healthy really is a matter of life and death, so I was completely offended by the idea that anyone would persuade someone else to gain weight just because they wanted to go home.

So it should come as no surprise that I wasn't too happy with the black team a few weeks ago.

There were going to be two eliminations. One would be by vote. The other would be by red line. The person who lost the least amount of weight that week would be automatically eliminated.

One of the mother's on the black team seemed to instigate a team meeting to conspire together about how to save Arthur. Since the team felt Arthur was at the greatest risk of going home, some felt they should make sure he wouldn't be the one to shed the fewest pounds. Arthur's dad actually got pretty upset about the whole thing, because he felt pressured to throw the weigh-in so that Arthur could stay. After all, both of the mothers were saying they'd throw the weigh-in to make sure their daughters would stay. Shouldn't Arthur's dad do the same for him? And then one of the sisters threw a hissy fit and stomped off.

It was actually one of the very rare behind-the-scenes moments where you saw a team fighting.

Meanwhile, over on the red team, nobody was talking about throwing the competition. One of the dads, Moses, was quite worried about his daughter because she'd already lost a good bit of weight, and she was one of the smaller contestants. It's harder for the smaller contestants to pull a big number and lose a lot. So Moses woke her up extra-early every morning and they did an extra workout together every day and really pushed hard.

And at the weigh-in, they put up some great numbers. Neither came close to elimination. The red team won the weigh-in, easily.

The black team lost, with one of the mothers gaining quite a few pounds. And then, there was the vote.

And the team sent Arthur's father home.

The whole thing was so upsetting. It was really too bad those mothers didn't have the same confidence in their daughters that Moses did. Oh, I understand why they did what they did, but they could have made a better choice for everyone, themselves included.

But it was the episode from this past week that led to the twitter comments that had me stunned.

chimp_phil Phil Kirwin
@Ali_Sweeney @MyTrainerBob @JillianMichaels Just watched#BL11. #Reds have shown no class sending Arthur home! Kick their asses #Blacks!
Me too. I felt general they are not as respectful...RT @irunlikeagurl Disappointed in the Red Team this episode #BL11shame on them
Disappointed in the Red Team this episode #BL11 shame on them
fattack Lady FaFa
Regardless the red team are horrible creatures. Good luck @ArthurBL11 - you SHOW them!!! you can do it! #bl11
bluedani01 Danielle
The Red Team has shown themselves for what they really are. I hope they watch this back and are disgusted. I know I am.#BiggestLoser #BL11
bluedani01 Danielle
Justin, go fuck yourself. You disgust me in so many ways I can't even say. #BiggestLoser #BL11
niicoletraceyy nicole whelan
Just watched this weeks episode of #BL11 not impressed, at all. BS elimination!!!
And it goes on and on and on.
Why did this have me pulling my hair out?
Several weeks ago, the couples faced a temptation. They were locked in a room with all their favorite foods. Fried chicken. Mac 'n' cheese. Pizza. Monkey Break. Geez, I'm making myself hungry just typing it up. The couples that ate the most calories got to pick who left their team for the week and went with the other team. Couple after couple walked into that room and resisted the urge to eat.
And then Arthur and his dad went in. Dad wasn't tempted at all. Arthur was concerned about leaving their fate in someone else's hands. Dad said it didn't matter, if they went with the other team for the week they were going to do the same thing they were doing where they were - train and work out and lose weight. Yeah, Arthur's dad got it.
But Arthur had to be in control, so he ate. He was the only person out of all the couples who ate.
Then there was the Valentine's challenge. There was an opportunity for whoever ate the most, again, to move players onto different teams.
And who do you think ate the most?
In both cases, Arthur was single-handedly responsible for switching teams for other players. His decision in one case directly contributed to the elimination of a contestant who otherwise would still be there. And in the other case, he blatantly stated he'd switched the teams so that he could bring a weaker player onto his team so that if his team lost weigh-in he wouldn't get voted off.
Arthur's been the only person who's really played BL the way you see people scheme on shows like Survivor. But he's big and needy and cries, so all the women on the black team have adopted him.
And apparently, so has America. Now, don't get me wrong. There are things about Arthur I like, too, and he definitely needed the assistance of the show to help him lose weight.
However at the end of the day, it's a show, and a game, and you can't ask people who have exposed themselves to the world via TV, people who've shown off their love handles and then some as they've been weighed in, people who've been that vulnerable because their weight is such an issue and they're so desperate to do something about it, to just walk away for someone else.
But that isn't the real point here. What this all got me thinking about was why people cared so much about Arthur. A few weeks ago, I'd been ready to throttle him. Week after week, Arthur had pulled some pretty low numbers at the weigh-ins, which suggested he hadn't really embraced the program. He had the odd better week, but at his weight his rate of loss should have been higher. Several contestants who'd weighed less had already lost more than 100 pounds, while Arthur was eating to ensure control in temptation challenges and first he sent the strongest players on his team to the other team, and then he did it again to bring on weaker players so that someone else would do worse than him on the weigh-in.
And yet you need to look no further than twitter to be convinced that Arthur has developed a following, and I was also choking back tears as Arthur went home.
What Arthur reminded me of is the fact that flawed characters are often more compelling. This is often true in fiction. We can actually buy in to the idea that they're going to change, and that's often what we become more interested in. People love the idea of change. Whole TV shows and book series have built an audience on the Will they, won't they? question alone.
Imagine how boring a show or book would be if nobody changed anything in their life ever because everything was perfect.
Now, meanwhile, over on Survivor, Russel has been regarded as one of the most evil people ever to play the game, but I'm so ticked that he was voted off. Oh, his lying tribe probably thought they were protecting themselves and making the smart move, but damn. Watching Russel lie, cheat, steal and fight with other players was entertainment. Nobody tunes in for group hugs and campfire songs. They watch to see what he'll do next.
Frankly, without a villain, the show is dull. And without someone you feel needs to change, and want to believe in, really want to see succeed, BL is just a show. Don't get me wrong. I'll be watching to the very end, and I like the red team, and there's really only one player that I can't stand. It's almost more of a family feeling, wanting to tune in and see these people succeed.
But for a lot of people, it seems if the black team gets eliminated and only reds are left, they might not stick around. It's the power of connection with your audience, and it's also the desire to see a successful transformation that drives that show.
I think writers can learn a lot from these types of shows. About conflict, drama, tension, and what it really is that makes people connect with someone. Some of our most loved characters in our genre have obvious flaws; Jack Taylor's an alcoholic, as is Rebus (and I suppose if I were to list the alcoholic protagonists in crime fiction we'd be here for quite a while).
Here's the conclusion I've drawn about character development. External conflict is one thing, but if your character has no internal conflict, they will become static. And that's why Arthur tugged so many heartstrings. He was still working it out, and we could all see his needs. He was wrestling with his demons.
He handled his elimination with a class that put him in a league of his own. For the first time, Arthur wasn't the one everyone else was protecting. He stood up and took it like a man, and didn't point fingers or lay blame at anyone. He was gracious and grateful.
In that moment, he became a leader and, as Ali Sweeney said, an inspiration to us all.
If you could create a character people cared about half as much as they cared about Arthur, you'd have a multi-book deal and TV series to follow. Never underestimate what you can learn from watching how people respond to others.
This week, from the #onlyinCanada file: Man dies after igloo collapses.
And a teaser of things to come...
Back when I was starting out in the mystery genre, I deliberately set out to write about protagonists who were fundamentally decent people. I wanted to know if it was possible to make them as interesting as characters who were obviously flawed. Could I create two good characters people would want to spend time with, and leave the readers wanting more?


John McFetridge said...

Yeah, internal conflict. I finally got around to watching the TV series, "Justified." the last line from the pilot is the main character, Raylan, talking to his ex-wife. He says, "I'm not an angry man," and she says, "Oh Raylan, you hide it well and most people don't see it, but you're the angriest man I've ever known."

He looks surprised - a little. And that sets up the entire series as Raylan finally deals with his own inner self, his own buried anger.

So I agree, characters need flaws, but they need to be aware of them and try to do something about it.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Yeah, that's the thing. If they're content to stay the way they are, then there's no internal conflict because they're fine with their problems.

I could say it ties into the whole idea some women have, that they can fix a man. (Not saying men don't think they can change women, but there is a bit of a stereotype in the other direction.) I think that's why a lot of readers like the characters they do. Of course, we never really think about what would happen if they worked out all their problems. Would they be boring?

I also think this is why you don't see too many happily married couples in our crime fiction. It's very hard to make it work and keep it interesting.

John McFetridge said...

Nick and Nora Charles and MacMillan and Wife and that's about it, I think.