Tropes, Intentions, and Critical Role
Whenever writers get criticized for invoking troubling tropes in their stories, there’s one excuse that crops up more than any other: “this was where the story needed to go.” Yes, many other stories have shoved girlfriends in fridges or killed off the lesbian characters or had the black guy die first, but they weren’t thinking of that when they were writing this story. The story told them that this needed to happen, for the good of the narrative, and so that’s what happened.
It’s almost as though the writers have no say in where the story goes. The narrative takes over their brain, and any critical thinking ability or chance of reflecting on things vanishes. There’s no editing, no critical thought, just the all-powerful Story.
This has always struck me as complete nonsense, since no matter how “in the moment” a writer might be when creating a first draft, they have plenty of editing time afterwards to consider a story’s implications. But I’ve been thinking about it in more depth recently, inspired by my new favorite thing to recommend to people, whether they want to hear about it or not, Critical Role. Critical Role is half improv show, half radio play, built around the mechanics of Dungeons and Dragons. Not only is the story mostly improvised, but it happens in reaction to the randomness of dice rolls. Who lives, who dies, who tells their story… in the end, the dice decide. For once, the writers really don’t have total control.
And one moment sticks in my mind, from several months ago now. (Spoilers for episode 68, Cloak and Dagger). Once upon a time, a character called Vax struck a fanboy on the head, knocking him out, to show him how out of his league he was and warn him not to get messed up in the sort of stuff that the protagonists of Critical Role face. About 50 episodes later, that kid shows up again, allied with some of their enemies, and in the ensuing fight, he almost kills Vax’s girlfriend, Keyleth. She doesn’t die, but it’s close, and she only survives because the dice rolls come out in her favor.
It was a really interesting narrative moment for me, because it had great unplanned narrative symmetry, a consequence of Vax’s harsh actions coming back to bite him after so long. If it were planned, it would be compelling, but also troubling, as a female character was killed off for a male character’s story arc. Unplanned, it might actually represent that unseen pure case that writers often attempt to invoke, where “that’s just where the story wanted to go.”
The hypothetical has stuck in my head for months since the episode aired, precisely because I’m wondering how I would have reacted to this trope actually appearing by accident. Would it still have bugged me? Would the fact that she’s an independent character controlled by her own actress have changed how things felt? Intention isn’t magical, but to what extent does invoking a trope by accident excuse the troublesome implications? It didn’t happen, so it’s all hypothetical, and I won’t dig into it too deeply, because I think it’ll make my head explode with all its problems and contradictions.
But one thing I know is that, even if the story had come together completely randomly, it wouldn’t have stopped the idea that a female character dying to enhance a male character’s story is troubling. That the actors would have needed to handle things carefully, both during and afterwards, to ensure that Keyleth’s death had remained a key part of Keyleth’s story, and not been all about Vax’s mistakes and the consequences on him. And if pure random chance doesn’t completely override the context of troubling tropes, regular storytelling methods have no excuse.