How To Write Bad Characters: An Inspection of Secret Circle

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I’m getting ready to do an examination of the Firefly series, mostly because I think it’ll do the writing community good to have an in-depth analysis of a decent show. Firefly is dated material, but it’s had a haunting effect on its fan base. The writing, acting, sets, and all the other minutia about it were wonderful, and more writers want to be able to produce that quality of work. The show isn’t all perfect, of course, and I’ll talk about its flaws, too.

Before slicing into Firefly, however, I want to take a look at Secret Circle. It, like Firefly, was a Spec-fic drama that got canceled after one season. Someone might be tempted to compare them; when Fox cancelled Firefly, the fan base seemed to agree that the decision was ill informed. I think it’s important to look at the two shows’ differences, lest that accusation be a rallying cry behind Secret Circle, and become input that network executives more easily ignore.

On paper, Secret Circle looks like it had a good shot at being a success story. It drew its aesthetic heavily from Twilight, and its other elements

Obviously not trying to attract Twilight fans.

from Charmed, both of which are wildly popular IPs. They have flaws, of course, and Twilight has a hater base that’s at least as rabid as its fan base, but that doesn’t stop a movie or a show from being heavily consumed. For every terrible flaw in Twilight, I can point at a reason why it’s succeeded. Had Secret Circle succeeded, however, I would be genuinely mystified.

The first major problem was that it had tropes, not characters. I love tropes, but only as the starting point for a character. The population of Secret Circle was never more than actors filling heavily familiar roles. The male cast was a weird alteration of the Smurfette Principle in that every reoccurring male character was the same iteration of intolerable White Knighting. That is, none of them had anything going on in their lives outside of caring about whether the female cast was okay. In the real world, that’s creepy. Even if a character’s screen time is devoted to his love for another character, it needs to be obvious that he collects stamps or raises giant mushroom off camera. This problem would be really hard to see from the aerial-level view of a network executive or a producer, or even a writer, because the problem would be completely invisible on a beat sheet, and it would look minor, at best, on the scripts.

The same problem is easier to spot in minor characters; writers are warned all the time to never have their minor characters be labeled “COP 1” or “WAITRESS 3.” It puts all of the creative work in the hands of whoever is reading the script, and it’s a red flag for a lack of creativity. For the same reason that a bit character should be an “ANGRY COP” or a “HIGH COP,” the main characters in a show need to be more than their first name. Cassie Blake, the female lead in Secret Circle, was always just Cassie. The reluctant witch part of her character was happily abandoned whenever they needed her to act tough, and the new girl in town part of her character faded after a few episodes. With no goals to motivate her other than the next plot intrigue, she quickly felt phony.

All of the characters in Secret Circle suffer from this. Never mind that the male characters all look like they came from the same underwear catalogue; that’s a point in their favor, since the show very much wanted sexual appeal to its young female target market. What makes them unwatchable is the shared goal between them; even when Cassie’s mysterious and supposedly evil father makes his appearance midway through the series, he never had any real motivation. Cassie was in constant danger, so the male cast members wanted to save her. This probably looks okay on paper, because it makes a degree of sense, but it would only become entertaining if Cassie’s constant need for rescue was a clear drain on the other aspects of their lives. It wasn’t. They happily played the cavalry of white knights, and attacked whatever tower Cassie was being held in on any given week.

The female characters are more diverse, but still do very little to break out of their obvious tropes. Cassie is, of course, Faux Action Girl, and she’s got her three friends—the responsible one, the free spirit, and the bitchy one. Given a few seasons, the female cast would likely have gotten to explore their characters beyond the tropes, but the same can be said of any rough draft.

In this scene, the evil black villain forces mind-control drugs onto our pristine white victim-princess. Secret Circle may have lacked self-awareness.

As an exemplary episode, let’s look at when Cassie’s father makes his appearance. This could have been the episode where the show turned around; her father had been played up as an evil force that would have to be reckoned with since early in the series. Father drama has an innate appeal, I think, and at the very least, a proven track record—Darth Vader’s name literally translates to “Dark Father,” and he’s one of the most beloved villains in the spec fic world. This trope’s inclusion into Secret Circle, however, wasn’t enough to rescue it. The episode is riddled with the series’ normal problems—Cassie has no goal, and everyone else’s goal, including the father’s, is to protect her. But something interesting almost happened; she almost killed her father after learning that he might not be such a bad guy.  In an episode that had no guiding theme or obvious character goals, this could have redeemed not only that script, but the 13 or so scripts before it.  Cassie would have had baggage, and her reluctance to be a powerful witch would then be at odds with her desire for revenge.

Instead, Cassie’s white knights show up at the last second, preventing her from magicking her father to death. And because the show didn’t have a theme of team work or the value of friendship, which could have saved this ending in a show aimed at younger people, the last-minute rescue felt like deus ex machina.

Firefly is, as I hope to show in my coming in-depth examination, largely free from these problems, and beyond that, beneficial to its genre as a whole by leaving behind new ideas for writers to play with. Far from this, Secret Circle left behind a lot to criticize, and will mostly be forgotten about over the next few years.

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