That One Character
Please note that this post includes spoilers for the show Criminal Minds and the series Harry Potter. Especially the latter.
Over the past week, I’ve been inhaling episodes of the CBS show Criminal Minds. I’m watching them generally in order, but a friend who loves the show sent me a master list of ones to watch, ones to skip, and ones that deal with one specific character, to follow his arc over the four and a half seasons so far. I’ve heard her go on and on about this series for as long as we’ve been friends, so I finally relented and took a week off to watch it. Because really, is there any better way to take in a series?
This character is one Dr. Spencer Reid, played by Matthew Gray Gubler (who deserves an Emmy). He’s kind of the Doogie Howser of the B.A.U., the Behavioral Analysis Unit at the F.B.I. Except instead of being a fifteen-year-old doctor, Reid is a twenty-something year old genius with an IQ of 187, an eidetic memory, a heart-breaking childhood, a penchant for putting himself in harm’s way, and next to zero social skills. And really awesome hair.
I should probably state up front that I’m not big on violence or procedurals. Sometimes it’s amazing stuff, like with Castle or House, which I’m pretty sure are the only procedurals I watch on a regular basis, but the thing with those two shows is the main character. I wouldn’t watch Castle without Castle, and I wouldn’t watch House without House. I’ve tried stuff like NCIS and CSI; I watched CSI for multiple seasons until the violence became too much, and I watch NCIS with my family when it’s on. Then again, NCIS has Abby, DiNozzo, McGee, Gibbs, Ducky – you get the point.
The title is Criminal Minds, not Reid. It’s an ensemble, and the other characters are interesting. They have diverse backgrounds, suffer trauma and go through tragedy, have fears and history, and are entertaining to watch. After all, that’s the point, right? Entertainment.
But Reid stands out, partially because of the writing and partially because of how brilliantly Gubler plays him. This character has trauma not just in his history, but in his present, too. He’s quiet, but he’s also the smartest guy in the room. He cares about his teammates, and we’ve seen him relate to unsubs (unknown subjects/the perps) in a way that speaks volumes about the character. And in those moments when he opens up, he becomes vulnerable and human. He’s a sympathetic character, and the audience cares about him. Never underestimate that power.
In my opinion, every story needs one of those characters. There might be blood and conflict and violence all around the protagonist, whose struggle and goals we care about, but somewhere in there is a character whom the audience/reader really feels for. Ideally all characters would have this kind of impact, and I’m sure someone somewhere is thinking about how the audience has to care deeply for every character, but not even the best do that.
Don’t get me wrong – everyone has different tastes and prefers different characters. But for example, look at the Harry Potter series. Here’s this scarred orphan who finds out he has to defeat the most evil Dark Wizard of all time on his own, and we want him to succeed. We want him to succeed so badly that we follow his story for seven enormous books. Well, okay, four enormous books and three normal-sized books. We care about him, and we want him to succeed.
But the vast majority of fans I know, when asked who their favorite character is, don’t name Harry. Normally someone who does is the kind of reader who has only read the series once or twice, and therefore Harry is their favorite by default, since we spend the most time with him. But there are characters in the series who have emotional arcs who the readers really grow attached to, more so than Harry or Ron or Hermione.
For instance, Neville Longbottom. The other ‘chosen one’, whose parents were tortured into insanity by Death Eaters. There’s a scene in Order of the Phoenix where he’s in the hospital visiting his parents, and his mother gives him a bubble gum wrapper. His grandmother tells him to throw it away, but instead Neville puts it into his pocket. I don’t reread all of OOTP, but I do reread that scene whenever I go back to that book. Neville doesn’t have to say a word, but I dare anyone to read that scene and not feel for him.
Another example would be Remus Lupin. He’s incredibly sympathetic; he’s a werewolf whose self-loathing never allowed him to really let people into his life after the deaths and betrayals of his best friends, until Nymphadora Tonks shows up and badgers her way past his barriers. Given the way he’s been treated in society all his life, it’s no surprise that he tries to push her away, but she keeps coming back because she loves him. They marry, she becomes pregnant, and he tries to take off to protect her and his unborn child. Not because he doesn’t love her (puppy shippers), but because he loves her so much that he’s willing to sacrifice his own happiness to keep her and their child safe. Long story short, Harry knocks some sense into him, and he comes back. At the end, just before the final battle of Hogwarts, Remus shows Harry a photograph of his newborn son. This scene is the last time we see Remus until he’s lying dead in the Great Hall next to his wife, their infant son left an orphan like Harry. I haven’t reread Deathly Hallows and likely never will, and it’s because of that scene, knowing what’s to come for their family. It hurts.
Reid’s story hurts. You don’t have to know first-hand what his experience is like in order to feel it. You don’t have to be an isolated, socially-awkward genius to feel for him and relate to what he’s been through. But that character is so well-written and so well-acted and so utterly human in a world full of monsters that I’ve waded through the never-ending violence just to see Reid play out, and he is the reason I will continue to do so.
Create a character like that, and you’ll have me every time.