You ever come across a character with all the guise of furniture? They get walked all over, used to push the plot along, and could easily be replaced by an attractive lamp and have it not affect the story. I think, understandably, we’re quick to notice and damn these types because it’s irritating to read or watch a character that only exists to get shoved around, or to shove forward the development of the plot or other characters. However, we mustn’t confuse the characters’ actual traits and role in the cast with the way they’re being written. A character with a passive personality is not necessarily a doormat, nor is one in a love interest role doomed only to be a love interest. It all comes down, to borrow phrasing from this post, to the respect and power they’re given by the narrative.
Margaret Schroeder, who remains the best thing about my brief watch of Boardwalk Empire, immediately seemed like a damsel pushover the first time I saw her. She was an abused housewife just trying to do right by everybody even if they pushed her around, her own passive nature and kindness getting the better of her. Until, of course, Nucky has her asshole husband framed and murdered, and sets her up with a job, a better angle in life and eventually a position as love interest to the main character (him. Of course). She still seemed unable to do anything for herself if she wasn’t nudged in that direction by other characters, namely her doting love interest, with whom she kind of filled the role of She Who Will Bring Out His Good Side.
But, Margaret grows over the first season and comes out of her shell, the resilience and kindness we see exhibited with her children mixing with her developing charisma and ability to Play The Game, all the while going into a tiny crisis of morals while trying to get the best lot in life for her and her family. So, Margaret’s plotline is intrinsically tied to Nucky, and if he hadn’t been interested in her none of it would have happened, but even with her position as love interest she manages not to be reduced to furniture.
Mostly because a) she consistently has her own plotline, however linked with Nucky’s life it is, b) she develops as a character and it becomes clear that her passivity and niceness are just one of many traits that make her up and she begins to stick up for herself once she’s developed that confidence, and c) the narrative itself doesn’t screw her over, but moves her along in interesting ways that remain relevant to the story overall and to her as a character.
Margaret is, then, a love interest heavily linked with the growth of the main character, but not reduced to that or unable to be separated from him—a contrast to the Chicagoan prostitute (whose name I’ve forgotten, and presumably everyone else has as well) who was only present for a couple of episodes and served entirely as (no pun intended) something for Jimmy to do plot-wise while he was there, and get injured and then killed to show him how cruel gang life is. Had she been replaced by a sexy lamp the rival gangsters had smashed, it wouldn’t have made an awful lot of difference because her entire character was defined by a role the story needed filled. You dig?
To bring up an example of the flipside of the Margaret problem (and because I can’t go three posts without mentioning Fate), I feel like I need to mention a character who appears to be strong, magnificent and agency-imbued, but ends up on multiple occasions just acting as a role-filler when it suits the plot. As discussed before, Saber is the undisputed queen of the franchise—she’s supposedly the strongest Servant class, she’s legendary with a sword, she ran a kingdom back in the day and generally she has an air of majesty and brilliance and radiant strength, and of course, a fantastic establishing character moment that inescapably sets the audience up to be in awe of this tiny badass girl. However, all that fine craftsmanship and any illusion the player/viewer may have had are somewhat shattered when she’s repeatedly used as a plot or exposition device.
Saber, for all her other good graces, seems to be a notch on the sliding scale of How Villainous Is This Villain, used consistently as some sort of knight-shaped litmus paper—when characters interact with her, you can tell if they’re good or bad because of how they do so. Both Casters, when they appear as main villains, act creepy and possessive around her (and in directly sexual ways, too) as does Gilgamesh, as if we needed any more proof he was a total egomaniacal asshole. When she’s not being sexually harassed to tip off a protective instinct in the reader, she’s being injured horribly as a shocking show of how powerful the latest opponent is.
My issue is not, to clarify, that in Unlimited Blade Works the unexpectedly badass Souichiro (everyone’s a goddamn assassin. The priest, your dad, the teacher, probably the mailman too) reveals his badassery by deflecting her attack and nearly breaking her in half, because everyone gets injured in Fate and it comes part and parcel, and Saber gets credit here for being imperfect and fallible as well as strong and wondrous. My issue is the way that part is handled, with the fact that Saber, majestic perfect Saber, touted multiple times as the Strongest Servant, was not strong enough to defeat this man! is used as a shock device and to establish the threat of the new character.
She’s also shoved into a love interest role in the Fate route, the connection between her and the protagonist working so well because she’s essentially the embodiment of his ideals. She has the makings of a great character, but she’s turned into a tool by the narrative more than the character who actively describes herself as a tool (who also gets pretty damn shafted, but that’s a discussion for another day). A character can be presented as the strongest, most totally agency-imbued person on the board, but if the narrative itself treats them as a pawn to get a point across/kick-start someone else’s development/provide some fan service, that lack of respect removes their agency as a character, regardless of their personality.
It’s the Sansa Stark problem all over again—just because a character is passive, easily frightened and gets pushed around by other characters and events, it doesn’t mean they’re a bad character. Sansa’s getting screwed over by every faction she runs into, and there’s really nothing she can do about it but endure, but that’s what’s happening in the story. The writing itself is still holding her as a major character, charting her development and internal dialogue, and treating her as an important part of the story and an important and three-dimensional person in and of herself.
She might be immediately less physically active in her story than, say, her sword-wielding badass sister Arya, but in terms of how the narrative treats them, they’re both as active characters as each other. Even if the mechanics of the plot screws them over, well, that’s just drama happening, and is noticeably different to when a character is screwed over by the writers (case in point, swinging back up to Boardwalk Empire: the nonsensically axed plotline with the cute lesbian lovers. There’s one postcard from the now-absent secret girlfriend, and then the story totally forgets about it and leaves Angela in the lurch without exploring it. And then she got killed for manpain. Stop magnetising this kind of bad writing, Jimmy).
A love interest is not necessarily reduced to only be a love interest, a character that gets pushed around because it’s in their nature is not necessarily a plot doormat, and a super strong badass character is just as capable of being shafted and turned into an exposition or plot-propelling device as anyone else. So be not fooled. A lamp is not always a lamp.