When doing these character analyses, I generally stick to characters that are well written. Simply because a well written character has more depth to them than a poorly written one, and therefor have more to discuss. I’ve broken down a few negative characters, but I prefer to stay positive. It’s more fun to appreciate a good character than it is to complain about a bad one.
But I had a thought: could a poor character be fixed? Well, more often than not, yes. Question is: could we do it? And could we do it well?
So, today, I’m going to try something new. I’m going to break down a character that doesn’t work, examine why that is, and see if we can spin them in a new way that would make them more interesting, relatable, and compelling. Can we take the groundwork laid out by the original writer and build something on top of it?
And just to be clear, this isn’t me attacking the writers behind whatever character I pick. Nor is it to prove that I’m better than them. It’s just a fun little test of my creative chops. And yours too, if you have your own take on the character that you’d like to share.
To begin with, I’m going to go with something pretty personal to me and my family: the latest seasons of Doctor Who.
Seasons 11 and 12 of Doctor Who, dubbed the Chibnall Era, are the most divisive seasons of the show to date. Which is quite impressive, considering the near sixty-year lifespan of it. While the current show has its fans, many people harshly criticize it for awkward dialogue, uninteresting storylines, and of course: sloppy character writing.
The main cast, dubbed the ‘Fam’ (ugh) by the Doctor herself, is where most of this criticism is aimed. Mostly because the only member of the group with a consistent character is the Doctor herself, and even she is horribly inconsistent. Everyone else is a mostly flat, lifeless piece of wood that exists to ask questions and explain what is happening in the plot. Hardly very compelling characters.
The main problem is that none of the character traits introduced to these characters really stick. Often times, they’re replaced by traits later on that completely contradict what was already established. It’s like the writers are taking one step forward and one step backward over and over, never realizing that they aren’t making any progress.
For example, these are the traits and general things Ryan is established to have in the first few episodes, with some examples:
- YouTube channel; literally his first scene is him speaking into a camera in a YouTube video
- Dyspraxia; he has a hard time with coordination (can’t ride a bike)
- Easily frustrated; he doesn’t take defeat well (throws the bike off the cliff)
- Rocky relationship with Graham (doesn’t call Graham his granddad, despite him being married to his grandmother, whom he’s very close to)
- Reliant on others (calls the police when he finds the strange onion alien thing)
- Has a rocky relationship with his father
- Greed (he asks whether he’s eligible to compete for money as soon as he finds out about the alien contest thing in S11E02)
- Quick to violence (first solution in a stressful situation is to grab a gun, same episode)
- Skilled with a gun (plays Call of Duty… my eyes are rolling out of my skull)
- Doesn’t listen to others (doesn’t listen to the Doctor in that same scenario)
I’m going to make the bold assumption that you’re not stupid and you noticed the problem with that list. Some of those points directly clash with other ones. And not in a way that would create a complex, interesting character. More like trying to fit a square peg into a circular slot.
Now, the foundation of a character is in there. All of the pieces necessary are present. The problem is that the writers (mostly Chris Chibnall, if we’re being honest; all the other writers on these last few seasons are actually somewhat competent) don’t actually stick to any of these points. The only two that are even somewhat consistent are his rocky relationship with Graham and his father. That’s it.
So, how do we fix it? Well, it’s pretty simple, really. We choose the points from that list we want to keep, blend them together, and then just… stick to it. Easy, really.
These are the points we’re going to keep.
- YouTube channel
- Easily frustrated
- Rocky relationship with Graham and his father
- Strong relationship with his grandmother
- Doesn’t listen to others
From these, we can craft a character with a compelling arc. One that could have some fun interactions with our title hero and those around him.
You may be wondering why I kept his YouTube channel around. Isn’t it annoying and kinda cringe-inducing when YouTube is incorporated into TV and movies? Yes, it is. But for our version of Ryan, it’s an important aspect of his character that plays into all of his flaws. It’s an escape to him.
See, our version of Ryan is ambitious. He wants to make big money and have a successful career. Maybe he could want to do this to support his grandmother, or maybe he could want it to prove himself better than his dead-beat dad. Either way, this version of the character would be driven by the goal of success.
However, because of his dyspraxia, Ryan struggles to succeed in the fields he wants to. He struggles just to ride a bike. Playing sports is more difficult for him, higher-paying work is more difficult for him, so on and so forth. His dyspraxia is a major source of frustration for him, as it makes his life much harder and often compels people to help him, which he sees as a blow against his pride.
This is part of why his YouTube channel is still around. It’s a simple career that could be very lucrative. For someone who struggles as much as Ryan and gets so easily frustrated, it would be a good choice.
And it would work well as a point of conflict with the Doctor.
Think about it. When Ryan steps on an alien planet for the first time, what would be his first impulse after getting over the initial shock? Simple! He’s bust out his phone, turn on the camera, and just spin around. What would get more views online than footage of an actual alien planet?
Naturally, the Doctor wouldn’t be happy about this. Sharing evidence of alien/future worlds/technologies is usually a big no-no in Doctor Who. Therefor, Ryan’s recording of them would put him in conflict with the Doctor. And her refusal to let him do his thing would only further incentivize him to not listen to her.
This works on a few levels. One: it’s an easy way to create conflict and drama in a story. Two: it works well for Ryan’s character arc.
In the show, the primary ‘arc’ Ryan goes on is one of mourning. After losing his grandmother in the first episode, he spends the rest of the season growing closer to Graham and learning how to move on from his loss. At least, that’s what I think they were going for. It’s hard to tell, given how frequently they forgot how these characters were supposed to be.
With this more consistent version, Ryan’s arc could be more easily presented. As the season goes on and Ryan’s actions frequently put everyone in danger, he learns to rely more on the others in the Tardis crew with him more, particularly the Doctor and Graham. This would all culminate at the end of the season, where Ryan goes to the Doctor for help in order to save Graham from some dangerous situation, admitting that he loves him and calling him grandpa.
Now, while I’m confident in this arc, I can hear your concern. That does sound like the foundation for an annoying and unlikable character. If a character like this weren’t executed well, they could very easily become infuriating. Luckily, we can use these same pieces to create moments of sympathy that attach the audience to Ryan.
For example: perhaps Ryan could meet someone with similar parental issues to his own. They were abandoned by their father and it hurts them immensely. In this scenario, we could see the more compassionate side of him. Maybe he could channel his grandmother and use methods she used to make him feel better to help make them feel better. Or perhaps he could try and show them some of his videos in an attempt to cheer them up.
With all that combined, Ryan could be a much more nuanced and interesting character. Some people still wouldn’t like him, finding him annoying. But if put into the right stories, this could easily be a character that could shine.
And there we go! We’ve fixed Ryan! He may not be the best Doctor Who companion. But at least he’s got more to him than exposition and mediocre dialogue.
Now we just need to fix Yaz. And Graham. And the Doctor. And everyone and everything else in those seasons.