The Broken Character Cycle

I’m not a huge fan of mainstream American storytelling, especially in longform mediums like TV or serialized novels. This may come as a surprise to longtime readers who have seen me comment on a number of such works in the past, many of which I said I liked. Well, odds are I still like them but as I’ve consumed more and more of them I’ve noticed one plot in particular occurring over and over again, a plot that has grown quite old and worn. I refer to this plot as the Broken Characters Cycle and this week I want to take a quick look at what it is, why I think it’s grown so popular and why, ultimately, I think it needs to go.

First things first. What is the cycle? In broad strokes it looks something like this:

  • There is a character who has made Bad Choices
  • That character seeks a New Start or undertakes a Great Work of Atonement
  • The New Start or Great Work requires the character to form new Relationships
  • The character is improved and edified through the Relationships and values them highly
  • At some point the Great Work forces the character to betray the Relationship or the other(s) in the relationship learns of the Bad Choices the character has made causing them to question the Work
  • The character sacrifices the Relationships for the Great Work (or visa versa)
  • Completing the Work or saving the Relationship leaves the character unfulfilled and full of guilt
  • The character seeks a New Start or undertakes another Great Work
  • Repeat ad nauseum

So why is this so popular? Two reasons.

First, it is a really good structure for a story. It has conflict built into it already, the structure is very flexible and can apply to anything from a courtroom drama to a hospital procedural and still function as is. Pretty much any kind of character can fit into the story structure, from cheerful slackers to driven geniuses. Second, the end of the cycle seamlessly blends into the beginning, allowing movies in a franchise or seasons of a TV show to return their characters to their neutral starting position and facilitating an easy set up for the next installment.

Both of these storytelling considerations are very important for the writers of long, ongoing media properties. Each movie, book or season needs to start at a place where new audience members can easily join and that makes the second point very important. The first point makes keeping up with the grueling timetable of a modern media franchise much easier as the basic framework of story and narrative beats never changes, just the details plugged in to them.

But these are only benefits for the production crews working on these media properties. The broken characters cycle doesn’t really provide a whole lot of benefits for the audience beyond a steady stream of story. And even that steady story can become a drawback.

The thing about the cycle is that it isn’t particularly complex and is very predictable, with story beats that come in very specific times and from very specific directions for maximum impact. You don’t have to be a media glutton or a trained story analyst to start seeing through the cycle, it just starts happening after a little while. And, worst of all, it doesn’t let the character at the center of the cycle grow from their experiences at all. There’s no character growth or substantial change to the status quo that isn’t quickly made irrelevant or undone entirely.

That gets frustrating very quickly. Media franchises need some kind of escalation over time, especially when they run for more than three installments. When the plot deliberately cuts that out of the equation through every iteration then it gets harder and harder to get invested.

Worse, while the cycle does provide great potential for conflict, both internal and external, for all those involved it’s very easy to see it coming, to the point where who falls in which roles can be determined as soon as a character starts down the cycle. With a story so easily predicted it can be easy to lose your audience. Think of it this way. I loves me a good pot of chili, but if I had to eat it every day for a month I’d get tired of it no matter how good the ingredients were or how skillful the chef that prepared it. The cycle is the same way – it’s not flawed inherently but today pretty much any story seeking to be dramatic executes the cycle at some point, if not as it’s primary story arc then as the arc for a supporting character. An most of them will run through the cycle repeatedly.

Now it’s true that there aren’t really any original stories, just new takes on character arcs like the broken characters cycle. And the lack of novelty is one of the reasons why anything attempting something fresh, from presentation to technique, tends to attract the attention of media critics. But with pretty much every major dramatic media franchise leaning on this cycle to some extent broken characters wear out their welcome very quickly.

I don’t really know what to do about the broken characters cycle. As I said before, it’s grown so popular for good reason. With the endless churn of Netflix, Hollywood and TV constantly demanding new content it’s entirely possible we won’t see a change of direction simply because relying on crutches like the cycle are the only way to keep up. But with the rise of the Internet independent media has begun to challenge old production cycles and changed the playing field. I hope to contribute to that change myself. But even if you don’t be on the lookout for this kind of ingrained wisdom. Stepping outside of it is sometimes all it takes to be a breakout in the media world.

See you next week when we talk about not talking.

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