Friday, September 8, 2017

How the Sacrificial Ending Ended a Relationship

Sort of.

I just finished up season eleven of hit television show, Supernatural. If you’ve followed me up until this point, you’d know that I haven’t been that impressed with it.

“Then why the hell are you watching it?” you, if you’re anything like my brother, might be wondering.

I don’t know. I sit on Facebook a lot, and I don’t particularly enjoy that either.

But my past reflections on the series were definitely based around the low point I had found myself in while I attempted to get through it. It was good enough, at least, to be better than the gaping void that filled me, but the negativity and T.V. formulas bothered me to a deep level.

Now that I’m in a better place, my confusion of the show’s popularity had waned. I see the humor more, am less put off by philandering, and don’t struggle to concentrate nearly as much as I used to. I take things in as they come, and can appreciate the “escape from reality” storytelling of daytime television.

So while I do appreciate the show’s qualities more, I stand by my irritation at the vast majority of their endings. Not just seasons, but each episode. Do the writers know how to tie things up if they couldn’t just murder everyone? Hell, the main characters die just about as often as the minors (I was about to say minorities. Apt.) except usually they’re brought back to life.

In any case, as I get to the final episode of the season, yet once again they are trying to taunt the audience into worrying about the brothers’ safety. Of course each brother wants to be the one who sacrifices himself. Of course he offers to do it without the remotest of fear, despite that these self-sacrifices have caused a lot more problems for the whole of humanity than anything else.

I mean, to give credit where credit is due, the writers never back down from a shit storm their last solution caused, which is one of the greater qualities of the series. They have no problem hurting their protagonists, and it’s not like they’re going to get off scot free, even when you know their noble volunteering won’t actually be the catastrophe otherwise suggested.

I’ve always hated the self-sacrificing trope, honestly, long before I even realized it was common enough to be a trope.

It’s really easy for people to say they’ll do the right thing from the safety of our own homes, but most of us have sat around at one point thinking, “I would never cheat/do drugs/steal/backstab!” before reality struck us with a ton of bricks and we very much fucked it up via poor decision making, selfishness, or unpredictable factors beyond our control.

I always thought I would stand up for people in need if confrontation happened in front of me, but I didn’t factor in how something unexpected can hobble you, or how little nuances can make your planned reaction look over the top and emotional.

For instance, some time ago I watched a video featuring a man striking his girlfriend in the middle of the street. The “Candid Camera” situation saw people of all sorts coming to her aid. When the roles were reversed and the girl was beating the crap of her boyfriend, no one said anything.

Well, I’m not going to do that, I thought.

Lo and behold, it’s New Year’s Eve in New York City. The sidewalk around Central Park is crowded and people are shoving to get through. One man is shouting loudly—obnoxious, but somewhat comical—about the stupidity of people trying to get a glimpse of Times Square from 59th street. His girlfriend (I presume), right behind him, smacked him upside the back of the head.

“Shut up!” she said. “You’re being a jerk.”

It happened quickly. She hit him twice and kept moving. Neither of them were angry—irritated, but not hostile. It didn’t sound hard, but I bet it stung a little. It was certainly bad enough that I might have said something if the genders had been reversed, but as it was, I didn’t exactly think about it, I wasn’t involved in the conversation, both of them were bigger than me, and honestly what would I have said, in New York City, to a couple I don’t know, when neither of them seemed to be bothered by what had occurred?

I’m not saying it wouldn’t have had an effect; a great deal of abuse or just toxicity occurs because it has been normalized. Pointing out that I don’t think it’s appropriate to strike your partner would have at least caused them to question it. But it probably would have also gotten me yelled at.

My point?

It’s easy to say that you’d do the right thing theoretically, that you’d sacrifice yourself for the greater good if came to that. It’s even easier to have a character do it. And there are people who really would die for a cause. But I, for one, have never felt tension or admiration at a character’s offer to make the leap. In fact, not making the decision hard on them trivializes it in a way. Truly touching in on the smaller sacrifices can be far more effective than screaming, “I WILL LOSE MY SOUL FOR YOU!” It’s unrelatable.

This exact argument was a straw in the camel’s back of a break up. I mean, it wasn’t just that, and it didn’t even end it at the time, but my staunch philosophy and refusal to budge on this subject brought into light for the first time my biggest flaw in that (and subsequent) relationships.

I can be a surprisingly good doormat when I want to be. I suppose that one of the reasons I don’t like black and white mortality or the bluff of self-sacrifice is how important doing the right thing is to me. How, despite constantly reflecting on my beliefs and appropriate behavior, I can still do the wrong thing from time to time, sometimes that being too accommodating.

In any case, five years ago my boyfriend at the time was a director for a repertory group. He needed a play to fit the cast, and I offered to co-write it with him. He’d never really written a play before, but that didn’t concern me. He was a good oral story teller and honest about his tastes which are pretty good foundations for being a talented writer.

The problem? He really didn’t have a lot of artistic respect for me.

My first lesson from all this mess is to value yourself and what you’re contributing. I felt because he was taking a chance on me—an unpublished unknown—I needed to suck up and attempt to make the play he wanted.

He was indecisive, passively critical, and surprisingly closed-minded about anything out of his comfort-zone. To be clear, I consider him a kind-hearted person, a giver himself, none of his actions malicious. But he was easily influenced by reputation and I had none.

So we rewrote the entire plot about three times. If he had had his way, we could have had an upwards of 12 totally different plays. He couldn’t focus on one concept or incorporate those into each other. Everything he read or watched inspired him, and I struggled to lead him away from overt plagiarism. It wasn’t until I took charge and stuck with one idea (of his) that I liked that we got rolling. I put a little of all his concepts together, none of them fleshed out enough to be a story alone, and added characteristics and details that made the piece interested and inspired me. He wanted to write it together, but also wanted to procrastinate. When we did eventually sit down, we tried him dictating it to me, but his dialogue was far too on the nose and insincere to pass. Any criticism shut him down immediately, even if it was a mere idea.

As we went through, I bent over backwards in order to make it the play that he wanted, and I will say this: It is one of my better pieces. He was a plot guy while I’m a character girl. By writing for him instead of for myself, it forced me to think outside the box, care about areas I normally ignore, and really flesh it out before starting. I’d say the concept, the base idea, is mostly his/Stephen King’s, but everything else—from character to style to events to how the plot actually pieced together—was me. Despite the enormous amount of frustration and feelings of disrespect, working on that piece really pushed me into different areas of my abilities.

But the real kicker? The ending.

See, I was more frustrated than he was. Spending most of my time thinking about what he would like and getting him to have fun, I allowed for a great deal of dissention and criticism that I did not supply out. I chose my arguments very carefully and tried to compromise to write something we’d both like. He did not recognize my efforts.

In fact, the opening night, we were walking to the theatre and got into an argument:

“You know that I factored in all your ideas? I wrote the play that you wanted to write!” I said.

“What did you want to write?”

I reminded him of the concept I pitched on our first meeting, to which he replied, (and I quote) “Well that’s because your idea was stupid!”

He did apologize after the show did very well and thanked me, but the damage had already been done.

I had suspected that he didn’t see eye to eye with my perception of my compromise when it came down to the few things I put my foot down on, things I had a staunch artistic reason not to do: plagiarize, write contemporary, and have the main character falsely go to sacrifice himself at the end before he is miraculously saved.

Plagiarism was a morality issue, writing contemporary was more of a knowing myself—I really, uniquely struggle to be inspired to write about modern day Earth—but as for the ending? That was the idea I thought was stupid.

A good ending has tension or meaning. It’s relatable. It’s an analogy. It teaches us. It excites us. It brings out emotions we struggle to experience on our own. It doesn’t need to do everything, but it needs to do more than just have a quasi-stakes that induce meta-thinking and showcase two-dimensional morals. It can’t just be a cliché bang that does it’s perfunctory job of “and now it looks like the hero might fail!”

I might end up being a hypocrite here depending on your interpretation. The play did end with a character sacrificing himself, just not the protagonist. He achieves redemption in his death, to the heartbreak of the other characters. Some didn’t like the “unhappy” ending, but I believe it worked.

I have another manuscript in which the love interest goes to sacrifice himself for the world until the heroine doses him. Then there’s the one in which the hero throws himself into the arms of his slavers in order to get vengeance on the man who hurt someone he love. I don't count these because, well of course I don't! But also because I believe the characters have agency. They know what they're in for they find their way out of it. There's tension outside of "Will he die?!" Perhaps one of these days I’ll end a book with the full blown cliché itself, in which case, feel free—please—to tear me a new one.

But I’m not actually saying that a sacrificial ending is always a bad thing, something to be criticized or avoid. Just to always remember that most people don’t expect you to go through with it, and there’s much better ways to show what a good person your protagonist is then him giving his word for a plan that everyone knows won’t come to fruition.

There were several occasions that led me to believe my ex was not going to be the one. I cared about him deeply. He was good to me on many non-artistic levels. Most of our issues could be attributed to both of our immaturity. But there were signs that my opinion and needs weren’t as important as some others’, that we didn’t see eye to eye on our plans for life. This wasn’t necessarily the moment that I started to realize we wouldn’t last, but it was the moment that I knew if he couldn’t at least be open to the validity of my philosophies as a long-term writer, I wasn’t going to be able to stand him for the next 50 years.

As Buffy the Vampire Slayer says before she goes to sacrifice her life to save the world, “The hardest thing in this world is to live in it,” and the hardest sacrifice to make is the one you have to keep making over and over again. Sacrifice is not always the best way to solve a problem, and killing your characters might just kill your relationship instead.

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