I’m a big fan of the various comic book inspired TV shows that seem to have taken over all of television recently. I’ve watched almost all of them, and I keep up with all of the shows in the DC TV universe. But one thing I noticed between most of them is that many end up with ensemble casts wherein not every character is relevant or compelling. Moreover, the characters I see lacking most consistently are the female leads who, at least in the comic book source material, are supposed to be paired romantically with the male hero.
In the shows they seem to be given little to do, are often vanilla “every-woman” sort of characters, and, as such, are often sidelined in favor of more fun and compelling characters. Some of these new side characters even end up taking over the romantic subplot that the “love interest” characters were originally supposed to fill.I’m not exactly sure how the writers of these shows seem to consistently get this wrong, but I think it’s worth looking at, and I think if you’re an aspiring writer, you can learn some things from this.
Of note, there are some spoilers ahead, so if you aren’t caught up on the shows, you may want to pass on this article.
Since Arrow was one of the first in this new this new wave of comic book TV shows, we will start there. It also happens to be, I think, the biggest offender of the point I raised.
There are many iterations of Black Canary, but perhaps the most well-known is Dinah Laurel Lance who is supposed to be the romantic partner of Oliver Queen, or the Green Arrow. The writers of Arrow included Laurel Lance in the original cast of the show, and it seemed that they were setting things up for her to be the romantic interest of Oliver Queen, just as in the comics. They even had a love triangle set up between Oliver, Laurel, and their shared childhood friend Tommy that was the primary romantic subplot of the first season.
But as the show has continued on, it’s become clear that the writers are no longer pursuing that direction. The problem was, the writing for Laurel Lance wasn’t all that interesting. A lot of the good character writing funneled into another female character, Felicity Smoak, who has since taken up the mantle of Oliver’s love interest. This also ended up sidelining Laurel who became a character on the show without any truly interesting subplots. In season two she barely did anything, and even in following seasons when she became Black Canary, she ended up just being another sidekick with a mask.
I’d also argue that both Speedy and Diggle are more compelling sidekicks given their evolving relationships with Oliver and their connections with Malcolm Merlyn and ARGUS, respectively. Laurel’s subplot seems to be one of finding herself and measuring up as Black Canary, which is sort of fitting given her state as a character on the show, I suppose.
On the one hand I commend the writers for following through on the relationship between Oliver and Felicity because it paired the two most compelling characters in the series together, and I think that was a good decision. However, if Laurel had been better written from the start, I don’t think this is an issue that ever would’ve come up.
The Flash has done a slightly better job of integrating comic book love interest Iris West into its story line, and it seems that she is still in line to be the primary romantic interest of Barry Allen, but there are a lot of times she still feels like a bit of an extraneous character to me.
While having Iris be Barry’s adopted sister brings a nice familial element to the show, there don’t seem to be too many times where she is directly helping Team Flash accomplish its goal of fighting various meta-humans. Everyone else in the group has some skill set or job that allows them to directly aid the Flash, but Iris’ story lines so far haven’t had much to do with the primary plot, especially in season two.
I think Iris West, or at least her DC TV iteration, is more compelling than Arrow’s Laurel Lance, but I still think there’s a lot more the writers could do with her. For example, she has a job as a reporter, but she doesn’t seem to cover any stories relevant to Barry’s operation. Even just having her be a crime reporter who brings news items or clues to the team’s attention would integrate her into the team better. Or maybe there could be a longer series thread where she is investigating someone who ends up being a major villain, and then she’s in a position to help feed information on this person to Barry. But as of now, she sort of stands apart from the meta-human shenanigans.
It’s possible that Iris will serve a larger function in the grand scheme of season two, but so far she sort of been ancillary to the primary plot. She also hasn’t even really served as the lead for the romantic subplot, a role that went to Patty Spivot, a character I personally think the writers cut out of the show too soon, and in a pretty awkward way. I actually thought the actress who played Patty was really funny and compelling, and I almost get the feeling that The Flash writers didn’t want to create another Felicity Smoak, and so they wrote her out of the show.
Like I said, the second season isn’t over, so some of these plot lines may take interesting turns and negate some of what I’ve said. But all in all, I still think the writers haven’t done the best job of really making Iris West shine.
In the comic books, Barbara Keane is traditionally portrayed as Commissioner Gordon’s wife. When Gotham began, Keane and Gordon were actually engaged, and so it seemed that the show was going to stick with that aspect of canon. The thing was, yet again, Keane as the primary romantic interest for the male lead was not very compelling. She was a very vanilla character who didn’t really seem to do much in the show. This became even more evident when Dr. Lee Tompkins was added to the show as Gordon’s coworker. She was far more funny, cute, and engaging, and it seemed that the writers had set up a love triangle that Keane simply couldn’t win.
Of course, this all takes an entirely different turn, when Keane is kidnapped by a serial killer and ends up going insane herself. She became an incredibly interesting character, when she became Gotham’s pseudo Harly Quinn. But I’m not entirely sure if that was the writers’ intention from the start, or if they found they had a bland character that they needed to do something with in order to keep her relevant. It’s possible that the transformation of Keane was planned from the start, but if so I would still say it wasn’t particularly well executed. I think more focus on Keane, and better writing for her, could have made her transformation from socialite to serial killer much more engaging, and kept her as a fun character throughout the series rather than having her only be interesting when she goes crazy.
Of these three examples, Keane is the most well executed, in the sense that her character overcomes its very vanilla origins and turns into something really fun and interesting on the show. But like I said, I think the execution could have been better, and if the writers had intended for Keane and Gordon to be together, then they probably should have written more interesting parts for Keane from the start.
Now, I do have issues with the romantic subplots on Supergirl. However, unlike the above shows, Supergirl has managed to avoid creating extraneous characters. Both Wynn and Jimmy Olsen are resources for Kara in her fight against the threats that face National City. They are an integral part of her team. So even when things get weird between them romantically and cause complications, they are still relevant on the show, and they don’t get sidelined to being just some other random ensemble member.
Part of this could be that Supergirl has a somewhat smaller cast, but I’d also argue that both Wynn and Olsen are compelling in their own rights, even when some of their interactions with Kara can be written to be a bit heavy-handed.
Similarly, I think Legends of Tomorrow, and the Marvel shows Agents of SHIELD, and Agent Carter, do a good job of making sure all ensemble members have an important role to play in the story. Not all the shows have romance subplots, at least not yet, but even when they do, those parts serve to enhance our understanding of the relationship between different team members, rather than just adding another character who’s supposed to be the love interest.
As a writer, what can you take away from this?
First of all, make everyone on your team useful. One way to do this is to give them multiple roles, especially if the character in question is supposed to be “the love interest”. If someone on your team is a hacker, then he will always have a job to do. But love interest isn’t a job, it’s a role that often isn’t developed until much later in the story. So up until that point the character has to be compelling.
Secondly, and maybe more importantly, make sure you make your love interest actually interesting. It seems that a lot of character development around love interests ends with “she’s hot and kind hearted…and hot” (especially for female love interests, less so for males). Don’t make a bland vanilla character that “anyone could like” because paradoxically this makes the character boring and unrelatable. Instead, take risks and give your character quirks, flaws, and goals; make her real, and that will make her more compelling.