Feb 15, 2012

Team Dynamics: How much does popular opinion affect a writer's choices?

Last night while watching Monday’s episode of How I Met Your Mother, the boyfriend and I got into a discussion about the dynamics of fictional relationships, how the audience affects the outcome, and why people pick teams.  I would love to continue that discussion here.
Robin and Barney from How I Met Your Mother on CBS
Let's get married, even though neither of us likes commitment!
How I Met Your Mother - CBS
Here’s the thing that annoys me: when choosing teams, people root for the characters they like.  Well of course they do, what’s wrong with that?  The reality is the most fun, nice, likable, etc. character isn’t always the best option for the character in question.  Let’s take the aforementioned How I Met Your Mother.  SPOILERS IF YOU CARE SKIP TILL MORE CAPSLOCK:  So this week Robin gets proposed to, and she actually wants to say yes.  Now, this guy is great, he’s probably the best thing that could happen to Robin, and I was all for it.  But still I had zero excitement when this happened because I knew the writers would never carry through.  Why?  Because he doesn’t even have a team!  He’s not one of the core characters of the show, and for some reason core characters have to end up together whether or not it’s a good and healthy relationship dynamic.  I think everyone wants Barney and Robin to end up together, but I certainly don’t.  They were a terrible couple.  Do people really think this is going to change?  I don’t.  END SPOILERS FOR THAT SHOW BEGIN THEM FOR SCRUBS:  Take J.D. and Elliot in Scrubs.  Again, horrible couple.  Just because they’re great friends, and the darling core single characters of the show should not dictate their fates!  I hated that they ended up together (Okay, I hated the last couple seasons of this show period.  Seriously, stop making shows before they start sucking.  It’s killing me, I can barely even watch How I Met Your Mother anymore).  END SPOILERS.  
Elliot and J.D. from Scrubs on NBC and ABC
Oh J.D., I'm pretty sure we hate seeing each other naked.
Scrubs - NBC/ABC
I’m so frustrated with this issue that I’m straying away from television all together.  I don’t know who I’ve lost faith in.  Have I lost faith in viewers because they won’t be happy unless their two favorite core characters end up together, even if they’re not right for one another?  Have I lost faith in the writers who make this happen?  Have I lost faith in the producers who dictate these endings to please their fanbase?  Maybe all of the above.  So I turn to my refuge, books, and while I feel like here authors take more liberties to make things right, the dynamic of picking teams and shipping for match-ups is even more rampant.
Bella and Jacob from Twilight by Summit Entertainment
Sorry Jacob, if you kiss me I'll probably cry.
Twilight - Summit Entertainment
The original: Team Edward vrs. Team Jacob.  Say what you will about the books, Twilight ignited the team picking dynamic and turned it into a wildfire.  The entire time reading the books I was utterly confused about why this happened.  Jacob never had a chance.  You hear me Team Jacob?  JACOB NEVER HAD A CHANCE!  Why would readers stand so ardently behind a character who obviously was not Bella’s interest?  Oh but it’s okay fans!  Stephenie Meyer didn’t leave you hanging, she conveniently made the who Renesme creepiness to make fans happy and tie Jacob up all nice and neat so that nobody had to go home a loser.  Was this a case of a writer pandering to her audience to make them happy?  The cynic in me wants to scream “Of course!”, but the reality is, I can’t make those judgements, I can only speculate.  
Jo and Laurie from Little Women by Columbia Pictures
Jo, forget everything you want and be with me!
Little Women - Columbia Pictures
Now, it seems, love triangles and team picking exists in every YA series.  I’m continually surprised to see fans picking the side of the character they like best, and not the character who is the best match.  Look at Cynthia Hand’s Unearthly series.  SPOILERS IF YOU HAVEN’T READ HALLOWED SKIP THIS PART: You have Christian, and you have Tucker.  Now, let me assure you that I love Tucker as much as everyone else, but after reading Hallowed, I am not cheering for him to end up with Clara.  Why?  Because at the end of the day, Christian is a better option for her to be happy, and to not hurt the one she’s with.  END SPOILERS.  The same thing happened in the classic, Little Women.  People still rant about Jo not ending up with Laurie, but guess what?  They would have been a terrible couple!  Just because Laurie is wonderful and an awesome friend doesn’t mean he was the right choice to make Jo happy for the rest of her life.  He wasn’t.  Mr. Behr challenges Jo and compliments her personality in ways that Laurie never could.  

Katniss and Peeta from The Hunger Games by Lionsgate
I love you, shame I'll have to kill you.
The Hunger Games - Lionsgate
Then there’s those series where it’s a coin toss, like The Hunger Games.  Suzanne Collins presents us with two potential mates for Katniss, Peeta or Gale.  They’re both essentially good guys, both of them compliment Katniss in different ways and could be good matches.  So how did Collins reconcile this?  SPOILERS FOR MOCKINGJAY LOOK AWAY:  She makes one go essentially war crazy so that we can feel all warm and snug in our beds at night knowing Katniss made the right choice. END SPOILERS.  Again, this to me is the author’s way of worming out of having the characters make a tough decision, and a way to make readers happy.

I’d love to hear what other readers think about this dynamic.  Do you think authors consider readers too much when making the tough relationship decisions?  Do you think they do it to make us happy, or to make themselves feel better?  Do you wish that one person would end up with their heart crushed all over the floor and everyone would just deal with it?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.


  1. Great piece, and great questions. I love a love triangle, and I love an unexpected but still happy ending.

    Not that the ending of Jane Eyre is unexpected... but I recently re-read the book, where the love triangle is Jane, Mr Rochester, and St. John Rivers. I didn't want Jane to end up with either of them! However, I think that in the end, her pick (don't want to spoil it so I won't mention names) was an expression of the author's, Charlotte Bronte's, fantasy fulfillment. If Charlotte couldn't be with Mr. Heger, then Jane could be with (no spoiler here). You'll have to look up the story of Charlotte and Mr. Heger if you want to know more about that unfulfilled romance. Anyway, back to the questions: in the case of Jane Eyre, the resolution to the love triangle was, I think, what the author wanted and was not influenced much by what the audience would have wanted. The audience didn't even know who was actually writing the book (it was published under the male pseudonym Currer Bell)!

    While it's neat that the audience can provide some input via internet forums these days, I think the decision is often better and more interesting if it's made by the author--critics be damned.

    1. That is such a great point! I feel like it's a little different for writers today with all of the exposure and social media abounding, but that doesn't mean this dynamic is new. It IS totally possible that writers are doing for their characters what they were unable to do for themselves. I liked how in A Northern Light, Jennifer Connolly points out that most of the famous women writers that have persisted in popularity over time wrote love stories they themselves never experienced. Most of these women lived in a time when they were forced to make a choice, and men were left by the wayside. I am happy that in this day and age, so many of our favorite authors can create worlds that don't have to make up for personal tragedies.

  2. Personally, I think that the decision ought to lie with the author. I mean, sure fan input is great, but at the end of the day, the story needs to stay true to the story and NOT be what the fans want. I'm sure I worded that completely awkwardly. BUT, while I enjoy reading and picking teams and was totally team Jacob even though I knew that Edward would win, I just want the final choice to lie with the author and not the audience.

    1. I agree, the decision should be the author's entirely! I just wonder if/how much authors let themselves get swayed by fans' opinions. Hopefully not at all. I honestly like the thought that authors write happy endings for the 'losing' character because they are themselves attached to the character and want a good ending for them, rather than to placate fans.

  3. Hmm. Great discussion post. I am thinking about this one and I feel like I still need to think about it. So this is my stream of consciousness thoughts now!

    I think maybe popular opinion is a factor in TV shows, but I'm not sure it's the same with books. Well, not exactly. I think I think this because with TV shows there's more than one writer and for that reason it seems like a more conscious decision to do something with a romance, they must have huddled and discussed and made the romance more appealing to the wider demographic. I guess a single writer writing a book could do this too, especially in a series, but I dunno, I think one person making the decision means that they could go with the less pandering route.

    The other thought I had about this is.. well the writer made those characters most interesting so we would WANT them to get together, so it may not be the popular opinion driving the romance, but the writers driving the character's popularity so that people would like the eventual romance! Could be! But then I think of your example with Jacob and Renesme and my argument is invalid. :P haha. Cause that was a romance thrown in there last minute. It was too WTF to be planned from the beginning. Right? Yeah. I'd be disturbed if that was the plan from the beginning.

    1. You're right, it's definitely a bigger factor in TV, and having multiple writers is a big part of that. I also think there's a lot more money at play with TV, not just profit, but all of the salaries and jobs of everyone involved with a production makes keeping the public happy and ensuring the show's success important on a different level from books that usually affect a much smaller group of people.

      Also, that is SUCH a good point that somehow never occurred to me! The writers create those characters and situations--not just the outcomes. I think 'most' writers probably do have a good idea of where they're going when they start out. I'm sure Meyer always knew Bella was going to end up with Edward, but she probably realized a bit late she had to do something with Jacob too. :P

  4. The Elliot/JD thing irritated me too, as well as shows that keep going just to keep going. I wish that authors would stop triangles all together (or maybe cut back by half). To me there is always the obvious pick (the winner, if you will) and then the other guy that keeps things interesting (the loser, if you will). And ultimately I think that is what it is: a ploy. It's a "how can I make this book/tv show/etc more interesting" thing, because I'm sure the author knows from the beginning who she is going to end up with and writes the book accordingly. I agree with what you said about Hunger Games, it's a perfect example of this. It's not usually a surprise for me who the girl is going to end up with (even if I like the other guy better).

    I'm reading Unearthly right now and it's killing me to not read what you had to say. But I'll be back after I finish Hallowed.

    1. I hope you love Unearthly and Hallowed! I really did.

      I'm glad someone else hates when their favorite shows just keep going and shouldn't! I'd rather shows I like end while they're still good than get ran into the ground embarrassingly. Ah well, I guess I can't begrudge all those people for wanting to keep their jobs, but that doesn't mean I have to keep watching (I just cancelled 30 Rock on the DVR as an example of this).

      I agree the trend should end, but I do understand why it exists. I feel like it's getting less prevalent, and even when 'love triangle' situations exist in new series, they tend to be less of the 'pick teams!' type, and more of the 'well there's this other guy, but he doesn't really have a chance' type. Unearthly is of the more pick teams type, but it's still really good. =)


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