On Barb, and Hugh

If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook you will have seen me gush about the Netflix series Stranger Things, which is one of my favourite things on TV (or whatever we’re calling it when stuff ‘airs’ on Netflix) in a very long while. Stranger Things is a wonderful, creative piece of SFF and I hope there’s more in its vein to come. If you poke around on social media you’ll see lots of people having passionate reactions to the show and its characters, and there’s one in particular that has stuck out at me and that I wanted to write about today.

[[ IMPORTANT NOTE: The rest of this entry contains spoilers for some parts of Stranger Things, so if you are the sort of person who is bothered by spoilers as well as not having seen the show yet, stop reading now and I’ll see you next week, or after you’ve watched the series. By the way, if you read this blog and you haven’t seen Stranger Things yet, I heartily recommend going and doing so. It’s very good. ]]

And we’re back.

Fans of the show have reacted very strongly to the performances of Winona Ryder (who I thought was very good), David Harbour (who I also thought was great), and both the character of Eleven and the actor who portrays her, Millie Bobbie Brown (who is amazing). None of that surprises me, but there is also a reasonably vocal discussion centring around a character that does surprise me a little: Nancy’s friend Barb.

Barb is pulled into the Upside Down by the monster towards the end of episode 2, and unlike Will Byers is unable to survive long enough to get rescued (she’s somewhat disadvantaged by starting off in an Upside Down echo of an empty pool), apparently dying in episode 3 with her fate confirmed by Eleven in episode 7. Although Nancy is deeply worried about her friend, we don’t see the same reaction to Barb’s disappearance as there was for Will Byers, and I think this is part of what has led to people being upset or unsatisfied with how the story treats her.

(It is true that there is some narrative justification for this; the Shadowy Government Lab fabricates a story that Barb has run away rather than mysteriously disappeared as Will did, with only Nancy and Hopper being aware of the truth for most of the series. It is still probably a fair point that we don’t then see a lot of concern about Barb having ‘run away’, although it’s also fair to say the relatively tight schedule the show is on didn’t leave it a lot of room to show this.)

In any case if you poke around online you’ll find a lot of affection for Barb’s character, as well as dissatisfaction (some perhaps tongue in cheek) with her story, that we didn’t get more of it, and that she doesn’t get the (relatively) happy ending that Will Byers did. Part of what’s going on is that the Duffer Brothers created a character that was interesting and engaging enough that a lot of their audience bought in to her during episodes 1 and 2, so that they wanted more of her story and perhaps a different ending to it. From a writer’s perspective, getting the audience hooked into a character who is going to be a victim is exactly what you want – you want that loss or death to hit home and not get shrugged off. The dissatisfaction, though, isn’t what you want, and the two things are shades-of-meaning apart.

I had a slightly similar experience with my own writing, during the editing process for King in Darkness. There’s one character, Hugh, who I called into being solely for one specific scene. (Yeah, I’m restricting the spoilers of my own story. It’s my blog and I’ll be inconsistent if I want to.) You meet him slightly earlier to establish that he exists, then he does his scene and (I thought) he disappears unproblematically from the stage thereafter. I didn’t, to be honest, expect that anyone would get particularly interested in or attached to Hugh (sorry, imaginary person) and that he’d basically vanish into Stage Left, his purpose served, and no-one would mind one way or the other. (really sorry, imaginary person)

Didn’t work out that way. All of the editors for King in Darkness gave me notes to the effect of ‘need closure about Hugh’, ‘what happens to Hugh?’, ‘we need to see how things work out with Hugh’. Basically as soon as more than one editor calls for something, I figure it Must Be Done, and so I wrote a new scene that ties up Hugh’s part of the story a little more completely for the final draft of the book. I think it made the story better in the end and I feel like I have now done better by one of my imaginary people.

The more important part of the process, though, was realizing that people might latch on to characters that I didn’t expect them to, and didn’t intend them to. I’m still not sure exactly what it was that made people want to know how things worked out for Hugh in King in Darkness (I kind of wish I did, so that I could sprinkle that magic on future imaginary people) but obviously there was just enough there to get the people who read the manuscript to get bought into him, and his story, enough to want there to be more of it than I originally planned to give.

I suspect (and of course, it’s just a guess) that this is what has happened with Barb in Stranger Things. She’s not written as a major character, she appears to have been created as a way to get Nancy actively engaged in trying to solve the mystery of what is going on in Hawkins, and probably also to indicate to the audience in an impactful way that the monster that took Will is an ongoing threat. Lots of stories, horror stories and others, have these ‘victim’ characters in them that serve this kind of narrative purpose, as well as providing a moment of terror or pity when they meet their doom.

However, Barb’s fate, and the reaction of the world of Stranger Things to it, does touch on wider issues of female characters in fiction, and in SF/horror in particular, where they have all to often simply been used as recipients of violence and/or motivators for male characters. I believe I’ve touched on the Women in Refrigerators issue before, and people have made the argument that Barb fits into this pattern as well (despite not being a superhero, although the concept has I think been broadened to think about how female characters get treated in SFF in general). Looking at things from a plot perspective, the main thing Barb’s character does is to be a second (well, third) victim for the monster and thus provide Nancy (who is a main character) her motivation to get involved in trying to figure out what is happening in town, thus hooking her into the main stream of events leading up to the climax.  This does tick some problematic boxes, ‘female character as victim/motivator’ in particular.

It’s also true that Barb is not used to motivate a male character – in fact part of the issue people have with what happened to Barb is that some of our male characters don’t seem to particularly react to what happens to her. Her disappearance is a motivating factor for another female character, one who does not settle into a passive role and becomes an active part of driving the plot forward. I would argue that’s an important distinction. (I also think that although Hopper doesn’t really seem to react much to what happens to Barb, he’s already pretty fully engaged in trying to figure out what’s going on in Hawkins by the point, and Will’s disappearance probably has more personal impact for him because Will is closer in age to his deceased daughter) I don’t think the intention of pointing out the Women in Refrigerators issue was to say, either, that you can’t ever have a female character who is a victim in a story, just that it can be a lazy plot device and that it seemed to happen to female characters in comics disproportionately. For what it’s worth I think Barb’s role in the plot is both important and handled with relative care (we don’t see a lot of fallout from her disappearance, but it’s more than Benny gets!). I think, overall, Stranger Things presented some really strong and interesting female characters and so, overall, I think the Duffers deserve far more praise than criticism here.

I also wonder if, since Barb is not one of the ‘cool kids,’ and appears to fit kind of awkwardly into her social world, that since SFF tends to attract a reasonable proportion of the socially awkward, shy and introverted to its audience (definitely include me in that number), that audience saw ‘themselves’ in her a little bit, and that’s part of why her fate has attracted as much discussion as it has. Barb is kind of like many of us in the audience, so we want to root for her a bit and are extra disappointed when things end badly for her. Which gets us back to the idea of the audience getting attached to characters you maybe didn’t expect them to, as a writer. In the end, to me, it’s a really cool feeling when someone reads my stuff and feels a connection to it. One of my favourite things in the time that King in Darkness has been out has been hearing from people who read it and dug one or more of the characters; sometimes ones I expected people to like and sometimes ones I didn’t.

I think it’s a great gift as a writer to have your characters end up having an impact on people and mattering to them; it’s very hard to think of a better compliment from a reader. (Aside, perhaps, from ‘please write more’) I hope that’s how the Duffer Brothers are taking the reaction to Barb in Stranger Things. They created a whole cast of characters that their audience really bought into, and left many of them wanting a little more about one of them. I hope they continue to give us the same rich selection of imaginary people in their next project.

And perhaps I’ll write a little more of Hugh’s story one day.

Thanks for reading.

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