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This was an interesting blog post by author A Lee Martinez about why characters in fiction don't get to the "third act" or that period where they're relatively content and settled in their own skin. The example he used was for Spider-Man where Act 1 is where he gets his superpowers and Act 2 is where he struggles to become comfortable with his role as a superhero and then the mythical Act 3 is where he would become comfortable with being a superhero and be able to settle down with Mary Jane. In other words, why do we so rarely go beyond where the character rides off into the sunset or "They Lived Happily Ever After."
My response was basically the reason we don't do this when we write stories is that it serves no purpose. If you write about a character who's happy and content it creates what I describe as "reverse catharsis." In regular catharsis you feel better about your real life because a fictional character has it worse than you. I may be fat, bald, and broke but at least I'm not being chased around by brain-eating zombies or nearly getting blown to atoms to stop a nuclear bomb or stomped by a 100-foot kaiju or whatever. Reverse catharsis then is where the fictional character's life is so good it makes me feel like shit because I'm fat, bald, and broke. You can read this book review from 2005 where I describe an example of this.
Added to that, when a character's life seems really good or really ordinary it's BORING. Except in a few examples (like Ulysses) no one gives a shit about your character getting up, taking a shower, eating breakfast, getting coffee from Starbucks, fighting rush hour traffic, talking about last night's episode of Breaking Bad, managing his fantasy football team, so on and so forth. That's shit we do in real life only because we have nothing better to do. More to the point, I'm not paying $10 for a book to read about all the shit I experience everyday for free. Because for the most part we want books for escaping reality, not describing it for us.
The other thing is the point of most fiction is to impart a life lesson of some sort. A fairy tale like Cinderella is supposed to teach perseverance and being yourself or some shit like that. We end it with "They Lived Happily Ever After" because no one gives a shit about what comes after that, when Cinderella gets knocked up by Prince Charming and packs on twenty pounds and worries she's unattractive and all that. We learned our lesson and that's that. Next story. (Incidentally I wrote a flash fiction piece about a sleazy fairy tale divorce lawyer for the We Are Now anthology last year that covered a lot of that ground and basically says the one who lives Happily Ever After is the divorce lawyer.)
As I pointed out in my response, I pretty much stop all my series at a point where the main characters get to that point where they're relatively settled. In my first series, the First Contact series, it ends in Book 3 with the two main characters hooking up and riding off into the sunset. Meanwhile most of the secondary characters from the first book are dead. (Seriously, there is a very high body count in that series.) In the Children of Eternity series (starting with Forever Young) it ends in the fourth book with the main character married to her sweetheart and with a daughter while her best friend is also married and with a kid. The Scarlet Knight series ends with Emma pretty settled with her long-time boyfriend and a couple of kids. And the Chances Are series ends with Stacey married and seemingly ready to live Happily Ever After.
In all those cases, I probably could have come up with more. I went over that about the Scarlet Knight and Chances Are series in this blog entry. Any time I actually try to think of that I just go "Meh, why bother?" I mean when things end pretty well, why go fuck it up? This is why I never like sequels long after the fact like Godfather III or Indiana Jones IV or undoubtedly Star Wars VII. You ended it in a good spot and we're all used to it ending there so what's the point of tacking on another entry except to make money? I'm sure within 20 years we can add a Harry Potter sequel to that list. Also probably Twilight, the Hunger Games, etc when their authors need money. Stephen King already got into the act with a sequel to The Shining coming out. Now maybe if my series sold millions of copies and were adapted into huge movies and stuff I'd get more motivated, but for right now, fuck it. (The only example I can think of a sequel working long after the fact is Rocky Balboa and that's only because Rocky V was such a piece of shit.)
Another issue in Martinez's blog entry is why don't we have more married couples in fiction? Or why is it when Peter and Mary Jane or Lois and Clark get married we have to reboot it back to Square One? It seems like it's pretty much always that way. I mean when the genie in I Dream of Jeanie married Master the show got canned soon after. When Lois and Clark got married on that show in the 90s it was soon canned. I'm sure there are other examples. That Bones show will probably soon be added to the list. Part of it is I suppose writers are lazy and don't know what to do with married characters since that doesn't fit the templates that we've been using forever now.
Maybe another part of it is we just don't want our characters to grow up. Maybe we want them to be like Peter Pan or Charlie Brown and never age. The Simpsons has stayed on the air 25 years by maintaining the status quo while The Flintstones got canned after it tried to grow up Pebbles and Bam-Bam. Or like The Cosby Show or Full House where the original kids started to get older and less cute so they had to bring in new cute kids--and then limped on for a couple of years before being canned. I'm not sure if it's a nostalgia thing or simply that when our characters age it reminds us that we too are getting old.
So I reckon until they get cancelled Peter and Mary Jane will never stay together long and neither will Lois and Clark or Superman and Wonder Woman or any other super couples. When there's no more money to be made, then I suppose they'll get to ride off into the sunset, as I think recently happened on Futurama in its last episode.
But speaking of characters who grew (younger) and changed, tomorrow's Phony Photos focuses on the witches of the coven from the Scarlet Knight series!