The Evolution Of Character Underdevelopment On Once Upon A Time
by Guest Writer Sara West (@Montreat11)
Being “out of character” is a phrase that is used in the arts when a character does something no one would have expected. The phrase is defined as “not in keeping with someone's usual pattern of behavior”. For example, if a vegetarian character were to suddenly reach for a burger without reason or explanation, that would be out of character. Or if a character who has always professed to hate dogs and love cats suddenly adopted a dog and gave away their other furry friends, that would be out of character.
With proper development, it is difficult for writers or authors to write a character that is “out of character”. Why? Because they created the character. And chances are that they did not create the character to be a straight line of non-existent development. In the creation of the character room is left to grow, for opinions to form, change, and disappear completely. Properly developed characters should have a flow to them, they should be different by the end of the story and with each new episode we should be able to see how they have grown, not necessarily changed, over the course of the episode.
This is what makes characters so relatable. They are human. They are supposed to change just like we change. Can you honestly say that you are the exact same person you were five years ago or when you were in college? No, because you have grown. You have developed. And ten years from now you will continue to be different because you are still developing and will always develop. You don’t ever stop. Your life, your experiences, all of this contributes to your development as a person and this is exactly what contributes to the development of characters as well.
There is a problem with characters on Once Upon a Time. With each passing episode the phrase “that was out of character!” seems to get thrown around with growing anger. Though the characters on each episode may vary, this complaint is constant. So, what has happened with Once Upon a Time? Why are these characters that once used to be so wonderfully put together and “in character” suddenly accused of being “out of character”?
The answer? They are not out of character, they’ve simply become underdeveloped.
They weren’t always underdeveloped. The sad truth is that it was the characters and how wonderfully developed they were that made us all fall in love with them, recognizing that good and bad and struggle were inside all of them. Some weeks they made mistakes, others they sought out forgiveness and acceptance. They reminded us of ourselves and it made them relatable.
In the beginning there were six main characters: Emma Swan, Snow White, Prince Charming, Regina, Henry, and Rumplestiltskin. With six main characters the story was manageable and clear. If you break down the numbers, consider that an episode of Once Upon a Time is, on average, about 42.5 minutes and, for the most part, there are 22 episodes in each season that give us a total of 935 minutes of screen time. Divided evenly among the six main characters that is 155 minutes each character gets each season (7 minutes per episode if everything were even).
Now, we know that this number is a bit optimistic. Even back in Season One characters we would not consider “main characters” got centric flashback episodes when they were pivotal to the plot of a particular episode, notably Hansel and Gretel, Dreamy, even Red and Granny. But it is important to note that when these characters got centric episodes they were heavily involved with one of the main characters. Dreamy and Red’s episodes both featured Snow White and Mary Margaret while Hansel and Gretel was essential to Regina. In addition to that there was always an acknowledgement that certain characters, like Emma Swan, were more focused upon than most, but it was alright, because for the most part the story fit. Though Emma Swan and Henry Mills had no flashbacks, they were featured in the present story while flashbacks centered around characters that were only featured in the present with Emma and Henry. The screen time for each character might not have been equal, but it was fair and the story, at least in present day, was clear.
But as seasons passed, more and more characters were added. Though some of these characters were not “regulars”, that is they entered knowing full well they would not last more than a season, they became regulars for that season because they were essential to the plot. And they took screen time. A lot of screen time.
In Season Five, if we take all the characters that regularly appeared, all the characters that were essential to the plot, and all that got a centric episode, we are left with a total of 22 characters. Emma Swan, Captain Hook, Henry, Prince Charming, Snow White, Regina, Robin Hood, Rumplestiltskin, Belle, Zelena, King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, Lancelot, Merlin, Nimue, Merida, Hades, Cora, Peter Pan, Dorothy, Red, and Mulan. That’s a hefty list of characters to provide backstories, current conflict, and maintain the development of long-time characters. And it shows.
If we consider 23 episodes of 42.5 minutes in Season 5 that is 978 minutes. Divided evenly, among the 22 characters, we are left with an optimistic average of 44 minutes per character. If we divided that number evenly among all 22 characters each episode then each character would get no more than 2 minutes of screen time per episode. Of course there are wonderful people that have broken these numbers down accurately. All you have to do is google “Once Upon a Time Screen Time” and you’ll get accurate graphs that show you season by season the time each character spent on screen. These graphs will show that some characters have no problem reaching over 100 minutes of screen time. The problem is that while they gain it, other characters lose it. There are certain characters, regular characters, who struggle each and every season to hit their average. Some like Robin Hood, Belle, and Henry struggle to hit more than thirty minutes all season even when they get a centric episode.
Why is all this relevant, you may ask. It’s just a bunch of numbers, it doesn’t mean anything. But it does. It explains why the characters we’ve grown to know and love are so underdeveloped. It explains why they appear “out of character” so often. Put simply, there are entire chunks of them that have been redacted and eliminated completely in order to pursue other characters and push the story forward. Instead of a perfect flow from their point A to point B we are left with small hiccups, brief glances into their lives when more often than not they are focused on the plot instead of themselves. Their characters have continued to morph and change and grow. To the writers who created them, these characters are developing, but we haven’t seen any of it. And as anyone who has ever reviewed television or movies or even books will tell you, if we, the audience, don’t see it, then that means it never happened. This is how they have become underdeveloped.
Take Belle for example. In Seasons One through Three she declared that she believed love was layered, that she was never going to stop fighting for Rumplestiltskin, and that she accepted the Darkness inside of him. But in Seasons Four and Five Belle is a character that is frequently accused of being “out of character” as she takes steps away from Rumple to protect herself from the devastating events of what happened in 4A. Without rhyme or reason she begins dating Will, she goes off on an adventure while her husband is seen “dying”, and rejects Rumple, wanting her father to wake her from a sleeping curse. It does seem quite the turnaround from the girl we met in Season One, doesn’t it? What happened?
Belle has changed. Just like you and I she is not the same person that she was in Season One and it would be silly to hold her to those standards. She has new experiences, opinions, and events to build off of that define her character in the present day and have forced her to grow and change. Season 4A came to a very traumatic conclusion for her, a woman scorned by her husband. By itself her character developed, but we didn’t see any of it. Too many characters mean that there is too much to show and Belle’s screen time was reduced. We don’t see any aftermath of what happened at the town line. We don’t see how she was the morning after or the day after or even the week after. We don’t see how or why she started a relationship with Will Scarlet and we don’t see how she feels about it when he’s not around. Is she in denial? Is she suffering from PTSD? Did aliens descend from Mount Olympus and replace her brain with purple peas and blue carrots? We don’t know. In fact the only real glimpse we get into her life is barely a minute in 4x12 when she and Hook talk about it, a conversation that left viewers stunned all on its own because we missed the moment Belle and Hook began working together and formed a friendship. What happened to Belle? The writers know. If asked, they could probably tell you exactly what she was thinking and exactly how her character has changed for them. But as long as they don’t show it, it doesn’t exist.
Hook, in my opinion, is also a character that suffers from lack of development and it has caused a rift among fans of the show. Half cry that he is fabulous and a truly reformed villain, the other half cry that he’s done no more than Rumple to prove that he’s a hero and yet gets far more credit. It appears to viewers that he woke up one day and just decided to be a good guy and nearly all of Storybrooke accepted this without question. There are missing scenes for Captain Hook, mostly during 3B when it became apparent that a wonderful and remarkable transformation occurred to change his character and his heart. And we saw very little of it. In fact we saw almost none at all. When explained, the premise that he fell in love with Emma Swan and was changed, makes sense, but it still leaves us scratching our heads and searching for scenes as we ask “where exactly did that happen?” For many it seems as though Captain Hook went from being in lust with Emma Swan to being deeply in love in the blink of an eye . . . and we all blinked.
It is clear that, like Belle, the Captain has changed over the course of the show, but the scenes are not there. We missed the great revelation: the moment that he realized he loved Emma and wanted to turn away from his wicked former life, and also the moment that the other heroes learned to trust him and rely upon him as though he was one of them. His current status as “hero” to fans seems something that was given to him instead of earned.
Fans are giving up on this show. They miss the close attention to detail and story that was once paid to their favorite characters when they got more than a measly 45 minutes of screen time just so another character that we would never see again after the season ends would also get a measly 45 minutes of screen time. Character development is wasted on a plethora of characters that are there only for a season instead of the characters that made this show what it was in the beginning, and that was great!
Fans may be giving up on this show . . . but they are not giving up on these characters. Once Upon a Time Fanfiction, Fanart, and Fanvids are growing. Why is this? Because it is Fanfiction and Fanart that are currently giving the fans what they want. Each creation picks a favorite character, or a favorite couple, or a favorite plot, and works with only those characters while the rest show up for minor roles and though it may not be the same as Once Upon a Time, it is working. Fans flock in droves to FFNet, AO3, and tumblr after the conclusion of each episode to get what they no longer do from the show. Development. Emotion. Time. Character.
Fans are desperate to understand their favorite characters. They are desperate to not be disappointed. They are desperate to see interaction with more of the characters they fell in love with instead of temporary characters, and the result is that week after week they are abandoning the show for their favorite works of art. The more the show declines, the more fanworks thrive.
This used to be a show about character and character development. Characters grew from nothing into something in only 42.5 minutes and it was clear that the actors loved portraying it. But now the spark has gone. Good characters have been sacrificed to confusing stories, action and graphic driven scenes, and relationships that remind us more of a soap opera than a television drama we all once loved.
In Season 6 the fix to this problem is simple. Get back to the characters. Stop taking entire episodes to explore minor characters when their history can be revealed in a few short sentences. Stick to the timeline; when time jumps occur, and we understand they must because there are children involved, show development instead of stagnated characters, and when a day passes over the course of a couple episodes use proper pacing, think about where people are physically and mentally and show it. When something traumatic happens show the effects of it. Instead of pushing action and physicality, focus on the heart.
If characters are developed properly, the story will follow.
Opinion pieces represent the views of the writer and not necessarily the opinions of OUAF staff.