Who Cares about Barb Holland: Nothing Characters and Fictional Death

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In my previous post, I said I was going to start trying to write shorter blog posts, which I would be able to finish in a reasonable length of time and which would then, with luck, actually be posted. That’s preferable to writing long, complex posts about six related topics that need to be reorganized four or five times and therefore never actually get finished.

Also in that previous post, I pointed out some errors in a particular review of Stranger Things 4, arguing (once again) that disinterest makes reviewers inattentive. But there was a section of the review that was wrong for a different reason, and I would rather talk about the issue separate from the review itself, because I’ve seen it echoed elsewhere more than once.

It’s the idea that Barb Holland is a “nothing character” and her death shouldn’t be such a big deal. 

I’m not surprised that people make this mistake. It’s commonplace for horror or thriller shows to introduce a character solely for the purpose of killing them off. It’s a clear and easy way to establish the threat the villains/monsters/whatever present. And Barb is that character. She’s dead by the first few minutes of episode three and up to that point she’d had maybe 30-some lines of dialog. 

So, a throwaway, right? Motivation for the plot, an excuse to show two frames of the monster’s face and another mysterious disappearance for everyone to scratch their heads over.

And maybe she would have been, if this show had been on the CW or something. The CW would have cast a thin, pretty underwear model, hung some nerdy/preppy accessories on her, and when she died she would have been completely forgettable. 

The Duffer Brothers went another way. They cast Shannon Purser, an attractive but overweight actor, then dressed her all the way down in the uncoolest clothes, glasses, and hairstyle they could manage. She defined Barb with in her big jeans and high frilly collar and giant glasses, clutching her schoolbooks to her chest and calling Nancy on her bullshit.

She was different. Vulnerable. Smart. Excluded. Specific. And a big segment of the viewers saw themselves in her. Barb was created to elicit sympathy in a way that the Lab Coat Guy, who appeared in the very first scene in the series, could not. Also, as Nancy’s best friend, as I’ve talked about, Nancy’s concern for her completely upends the teenage romantic plot that the show was building from the first two episodes.

Barb mattered to the characters onscreen and to the audience offscreen.

It’s not like Stranger Things doesn’t have nothing characters. Lab Coat Guy was one. The broken bodies strewn around Hawkins Lab in season two or the hospital in season three were not personalized, for the most part. They were extras dressed in blood spatters. But they didn’t have personality or specificity.

When I was writing Child of Fire, I wanted that first “death” by the side of the road to be memorable. And, judging by people’s reactions, it was.

But as much as I tried to turn it into someone no one had ever seen before–to the point where the kid doesn’t even really die–I didn’t take the time for him as a character. The circumstances of his death are memorable (as are the circumstances of Barb’s death, since it’s the first scene set in the Upside Down) but not him. I sort of wish I’d done what the show did, and gone for both.

The conversation reminded me of a comic book, number 12 in the run of Grant Morrison’s “The Invisibles” which some people have called the greatest single issue of a comic book ever. In the first issue of this run, the villain/anti-hero King Mob shoots a guard while he’s invading some facility or other. It’s a single panel (maybe two, I haven’t seen it lately), and he doesn’t even pause in his dialog. It’s a moment designed to show King Mob’s ruthlessness as he guns down a nothing character. 

The story continues until issue 12, when it stops and returns to this nothing character. It portrays his life, all jumbled up, showing the abuse he suffered as a child, the abuse he perpetrated as he grew up, the people he cared about, how he hurt those people, and how he died. At which point, he wasn’t a nothing character any more. 

And really, none of them are, but depending on the genre, the story has to treat them like set dressing sometimes, because there have been so many and we can’t delve into the backstory for all of them. 

That was the case for the kid in my book. After he’s gone, Ray and Annalise dig through his home, looking for clues about who he (and his family) were and what happened to them. After that, he faded away. He wasn’t nothing, even after the story was done with him. 

The same is true for Barb, although judging by season four, the show is not done with her yet.

In personal news, I’m working through the notes I received for The Flood Circle, making sure all the story beats are clear and every important moment has the emphasis it needs. I’m also fussing with the text.

If you’re a Kickstarter backer for these books, expect a somewhat more detailed update around the start of August.

I’m also trying to work out what project I’ll tackle next. There’s an idea that’s really nagging at me but I don’t think I’m the one to write it. Also, it turns out that my son is already tackling a very similar project, and under no circumstances should his dad bigfoot his latest thing.

A Finished Draft of a New Twenty Palaces Novel, and More

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If you’re a Kickstarter backer for the two new 20P novels, you’ve likely already received the announcement that the zero draft (aka: the vomit draft) of The Flood Circle is done. That means both this new book and The Iron Gate are ready for revisions, and since they sort of tie together, it’ll be good for me to tackle them together. So, Yay for that, and also I wish I wrote cleaner first drafts.

In other pleasant news, my months-long plan to say “Or we could just play Jinkies” every single time my gaming group was about to try a one-shot or switch games has had the desired effect. One of our players is taking a holiday trip, so I get a chance to try out this game I’ve had in my personal, figurative on-deck circle for months. It’s like getting an extra Giftmas present a week before the holiday.

In less happy news, I had to switch to a new doctor this year, and my wife convinced me to make an appointment for a minor health issue that’s been bothering me for (literal) years. Basically, I break out in itchy hives any time I get slightly warm. A hot shower will do it. A walk to the grocery store will do it. A tense conversation with my wife will do it. On the advice of my previous doc, I take an OTC allergy med, but that only eases the itching, it doesn’t eliminate it, and it does nothing for those ugly fucking hives. It’s just so gross and embarrassing, and it’s been getting in the way of my exercise plans for literal years.

So I went to the doc. I told him I’d spent months working hard to lose weight and had dropped 40 lbs. Then I went to my father-in-law’s house to help my wife deal with his estate, and the place was not exactly clean. (Which is not a dig on my f-i-l. He was a good guy, but he was in his eighties and his health had been terrible for years.) It was there, cleaning out that house, when I started breaking out in hives, and it took me weeks to figure out why. (Finally, I googled “I am allergic to my own sweat.” — It turned out I wasn’t actually allergic to my own sweat, although some people can be. It was just body heat.)

That was in January, 2012.  My appointment with the doc was last July, and after I ran through the whole thing, he ordered the usual tests, then said nothing about the hives. When I sent a note asking about it, he told me I’d need to make an appointment for it.

Which I already did. Last July.

I suspect he’s over-focused on my weight, which has indeed gone up now that any sort of exercise makes me look, feel, and act like a leper with fleas.

Eventually, I’ll have to go in for that followup appointment to cover the actual issue I went to see him for in the first place, but the holidays are busy and I have writing to do and whatever. I’d be more willing to go if I thought something good would come of it. Very discouraging.

On the plus side, the internet assures me that this issue usually goes away by itself in three to thirty years, so really, this will might be fixed any day now.

Anyway, that’s it. Take care of yourselves and happy holidays.