I’m spending a lot of time watching the Olympics this month. Maybe some people would think it a frivolous waste of time, but I’m just fascinated by the human aspect to everything.
It really shows me a lot about characterization, motivation and subtext. About how everybody thinks they’re the hero, even when they might be dead wrong.
Take the woman’s eppee controversy. I really felt sorry for Shin A Lam from South Korea, but at the same time, I felt horrified.
Still do. And to be honest, the horror by far outstrips the sympathy.
Okay, since a lot of people aren’t all that interested in fencing and therefore might not have heard about the controversy, I’ll quickly set the scene…
We’re in the semi-final. The winner goes on to compete for the gold medal. The loser for the bronze. After nine minutes of fighting (I.E. after the full allotted time), the score was 5-5 between Shin and her opponent (Britta Heidemann). Shin had priority, so if she managed to get through the one minute sudden death round evens with Heidemann, she would go through to the finals and potential glory.
59 seconds pass and Shin doesn’t concede a point. And after a last second infringement by Shin, the president (fancy fencer name for ref) resets the clock at 1 second and continues the bout. Heidemann launches a lightning fast attack, but Shin hits at exactly the same time. No points. Time left: one second.
Another attack by Heidemann and another simultaneous hit. Time left: one second.
And another. Time left: one second.
Heidemann attacks yet again, but this time she scores a valid hit. The president stops the bout and the second ticks away. South Korea’s coach is furious. Because how long could one second take? Shin refuses to leave the piste. The president and technical staff confer. The point holds.
More tantrums follow and another meeting happens, this time with officials from the FIE (the International Fencing Federation). After a total of 70 minutes, the president confers the win to Heidemann.
But it doesn’t end there, because Shin refuses to leave the piste, staring off into the distance when FIE officials break the news. Her coach is escorted from the building. Shin gets a yellow card for unsportsmanlike conduct. She breaks down into tears as she’s half helped, half dragged from the piste.
So yes. Drama. Lots of it. And let me get this out of the way. She lost the chance at the gold medal in a total of one second. And yes, as someone who was timekeeper at fencing competitions, I can say this much. It’s very feasible that the fencers could score three or four hits in the space of one second. I felt sorry for her.
But her conduct and especially that of her coach absolutely repulsed me as a fencer. From the day I started fencing, I was taught the importance of our (even if it is unwritten) code of honor. We are the descendants of duellists. Ungentlemalike conduct is not an option.
And the actions of her coach and Shin herself… well, that’s probably the worst conduct I’ve ever seen or heard of in a fencer. And I’ve seen some. Heard of even worse.
So while I felt bad for her as a person, I couldn’t help but think that she got off lightly. Yellow cards go to fencers who aim to bruise opponents on purpose. Or who brought malfunctioning weapons onto the piste. Disrespecting officials and other fencers get red cards. Continuing to disrespect them results in being black carded. In other words: a ban from competing.
She got a yellow card. And a loss of the gold or silver medal. As a result of all this shit happening, a lot of people are paying attention to Fencing, but not because it’s a wonderful sport, but because one fencer didn’t know how to behave.
Where does this come in with characterization and subtext? Well. She thought (and probably still does) she was in the rights. A lot of people who never had any exposure to fencing probably agree with her. But my background as a fencer completely colored the way I looked at the main actor in this drama (Shin).
If most other people wrote this situation in a story, Shin would probably have been a tragic but sympathetic character. If I wrote it, she wouldn’t have been. Because I would have included all the cultural background involved with being a fencer. Things that non-fencers just wouldn’t understand unless a fencer took the time to explain.
And that really got me thinking. Writers could make any character sympathetic or unsympathetic, depending on the subtext and background they work into the story. Look at heist movies. Thieves shouldn’t be heroes, but give them a sympathetic cause and everyone roots for them. So I guess the lesson here is: write a character as bad as you want. Just make sure you have justification. The worse the bevaviour, the better the justification.
Have you ever written an unlikable character as your story’s hero?