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Where Are All the Complex Female Characters?

Last night Sweetie and I saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I felt nervous while handing over my hard-earned $20 for tickets, because Sweetie told me the reviews are highly polarized. Critics call The Last Jedi the best movie in the Star Wars franchise. On the other hand, half of the audience members on Rotten Tomatoes say it's a slap in the face to Star Wars fans.

So I went into the theater bracing myself for a three-hour-long advertisement for porg toys, filled with gratuitous explosions and bad jokes.

Porg toy

To my great surprise, I landed on the side of the critics. While there were many gratuitous explosions, and the porg gags were tiresome, my dominant feeling when the credits rolled was, "Unbelievable, a new Star Wars movie actually made my heart hurt."

That hasn't happened to me since The Empire Strikes Back. After those three cheesy prequels, the transparently fanbase-pandering Force Awakens, and the edgy-for-the-sake-of-edginess Rogue One, I'd thought it would never happen again.

(Avast, there be spoilers ahead!)

The character arcs of Kylo Ren and Luke Skywalker were affecting enough to make me overlook the porg commercials, the unfunny wisecracks, and the poor storytelling choices (i.e., let's not talk about that admiral who withheld vital information from her crew for no rational reason other than to give Poe his dramatic moments). The twisted soulmate relationship between the confused heroine and the conflicted villain was brilliant. Luke Skywalker was never a perfect hero, and I was delighted that he didn't simply become the ever-wise Obi-Wan who dashes in with a lightsaber and saves the day.

I have only two primary criticisms. The first is expressed well by the author of this article: "The Last Jedi came thrillingly close to upending Star Wars–but lost its nerve." The movie flirts with showing the moral ambiguity of rebellion and the tragic consequences of using violence in the name of good, but in the end it chickens out and delivers the safe, comforting Aesop that "light is good, dark is bad."

Though the story is inherently tragic, the creators buried as much of the heartbreak as they could to preserve the "fun" tone of the movie. Kylo Ren and Luke Skywalker are the only characters whose personalities and actions are affected by guilt and grief. Everyone else shrugs off the deaths of their friends and skips away to their fighter pods armed with predictable quips.

My other criticism is not shared by the author of that article. The heroine, Rey, is a boring and passive character.

Despite the best efforts of the actress to give her depth, Rey is ultimately a Mary Sue wearing the costume of a Strong Female Character. Her motivations are nonexistent and her inner conflicts, if you can call them "conflicts," are banal. When you compare her as a protagonist to Luke Skywalker in the original trilogy, the difference is striking.

What was Luke's motivation for finding Yoda? He wanted to live up to the heroic legend of his father and take down the empire that brutally murdered his family.

What is Rey's motivation for finding Luke? The rebels told her to. And, uh...some sort of power inside her is "awake" and she's scared.

What does Luke see when he confronts the dark side of the Force on Dagobah? A vision of himself as the embodiment of evil.

What does Rey see when the darkness under the island sucks her in? A vision of herself snapping her fingers a couple of times, because it's a cool visual effect.

How does Luke become a master Jedi? Through gruelling training and self-sacrifice born of a desperation to save the people he loves.

How does Rey become the Last Jedi? She picks up a lightsaber and instantly turns into a goddess who can handily defeat the next Sith Lord and telepathically lift whole rockslides.

Rey was a tragic waste of potential. Her backstory set her up to be truly interesting. As a young girl, she was sold into slavery, and she lived a lonely and miserable life. Yet, somehow, she grows up to be a nice and helpful hero. Where is her rage at the world? Where's her hidden anger against herself for being too weak and cowardly to escape? Where's her resentment against the imperial rulers who allow their supposed citizens to live under systematic cruelty?

Instead of being drawn to the dark side because it "calls to her," Rey could have been lured by the promise of a power she could use for good. She could have been tempted to harness the dark side to stop the endless fighting, and to shape a new utopian galaxy where no children like her will endure exploitation and abuse. Instead of seeing Kylo Ren's outstretched hand and Byronic pleading eyes and deciding, "Oh, no, darkness is bad," she could have struggled to make her decision. She could have been an actual person instead of a perfect heroine.

Rey is only one example of a broader problem with the characterization of women in works of fiction. Every book and movie made today features a "strong" female heroine, but it's still rare to find a complex one.

Imperfect heroines are unlikeable.

While anyone can rattle off dozens of examples of imperfect male heroes and antiheroes, it's a tough task to come up with the names of famous heroines who are less than perfect. They're all smart, resourceful, pretty, and righteous; they capture the hearts of every handsome man and always do the right thing.

"Nu-uh," people say, "There's Katniss in The Hunger Games, and Tris in Divergent, and Katsa in Graceling, and tons of other ones." And what supposedly makes these heroines complex? They have chips on their shoulders. That's it.

Do they struggle with depression and cling too tightly to childhood fantasies, like Quentin Coldwater in The Magicians? Are they addicted to opioids and feel compelled to alienate the people around them, like Gregory House in House?

Of course not, because having a flaw any bigger than a cool sassy attitude, and/or an inability to decide which handsome man they want to marry, would make a heroine unlikeable.

Female characters typically fall into three categories: perfect heroine, reviled villain, and blameless misunderstood victim. When a female character who is supposed to be a heroine strays too far from perfection, the audience instantly despises her. If a heroine makes bad decisions, like Rebecca Bloomwood in Confessions of a Shopaholic, reviewers rant that she's sooo stupid and they can't stand her. If the character has violent or manipulative tendencies, like Amy Dunne in Gone Girl, journalists rage at the author for spreading "misogynist fantasies about how women act."

Every heroine represents every woman.

I've never seen a journalist complain that Patrick Bateman in American Psycho spreads "misandrist fantasies about how men act." I've never heard a peep about self-destructive playboy Tony Stark's many bad decisions in the Iron Man movies. Everyone loves insufferable jerks like Gregory House.

Why do people enjoy screwed-up male characters, but they react so negatively when the character is a woman instead? Because Patrick Bateman, Tony Stark, and Gregory House are all seen as individuals. Everyone knows that's not what all men are like.

Female characters, on the other hand, supposedly represent the author's attitude about all women everywhere.

This tacit belief might stem from our long history of under-representation of women in fiction. Until very recently, it was common for Hollywood movies to star only one token female in a sea of men.

Movie posters showing many male actors and only one female actor

In a September 2017 interview for Glamour magazine, Reese Witherspoon recounted...

"I remember, 15 years ago, being a young actress and starting to audition for movies in L.A. There were always a lot of young women waiting in the green room for their shot at the one part there was for a girl in any given movie. Because that's all there was—one part. As I got some of those parts, I would arrive on set to realize I was the only girl with a speaking part."

That one girl with a speaking part represented the entire female audience. She was always smart, spunky, attractive, kind, and supportive, because that is how all women are supposed to be.

Because this is what we're used to, when we see a female on the screen or in a book, we instinctively think of her as the girl who represents everything the writer believes about women. If she's an irresponsible shopaholic, we rail, "That's an outdated stereotype!" If she's a manipulative psycho, we scream, "That's not what we're like at all!"

I hope we can soon move past this knee-jerk reaction and recognize that deeply flawed female characters are characters, not universal representations of womanhood. By insisting that all female characters must be strong and smart and perfect, and that anything else is offensive, audiences persuade creators to stick to Mary Sues like Rey, instead of developing memorable heroines like the one Rey could have been.

The Underutilized Potential of Visual Novels

When I decided to turn my wuxia trilogy into a visual novel series, I immediately started on it the way I begin every creative endeavor: research. I found lists of recommended visual novels and read about them, surveyed all of the visual novels sold on Steam, and purchased a few to play through myself.

To my surprise, I found the visual novel industry is seriously disappointing.

The visual novel medium has MASSIVE potential to be awesome. But instead of capitalizing on that potential, developers put out mediocre games that are less innovative and engaging than static printed graphic and prose novels.

Disappointment #1: They're written as if they're plain old books.

The whole point of visual novels is that they're visual. They're supposed to use both pictures and words to convey a story more effectively than either can alone. Yet many visual novels are nothing more than plain, boring old books with some pretty pictures.

For example, the words describe scenes that pictures already show.

Picture of a sunset with the words, 'I sighed, and found myself looking up at the darkening sky. The sun was beginning to set.'

Or the words describe scenes that pictures should have shown.

Picture of a Kyoto alley with the words, 'I could hear the ronin beg for his life as he stumbled back. The person in the blue coat said nothing, just stepped forward, his sword raised.'

Not only do these games fail to show their stories with pictures, they don't even show them with words. They tell, tell, tell.

In Hakuoki, the writers don't show a boy's changing feelings towards the heroine through his dialog and actions. Instead, the heroine helpfully informs the audience that he seems interested in her.

Picture of a Hakuoki character with the words, 'His eyes narrowed as he stared at me, as though I'd suddenly become more interesting.'

And instead of showing the audience the heroine is tense through her tone and nervous habits, the heroine simply says, "I found myself depressed and tense."

Background picture of Kyoto with the words, 'Small wonder, then, that I worried for my father's safety. My mind would concoct horrible possibilities and I inevitably found myself depressed and tense.

(Side note: Yes, this heroine "finds herself" doing things frequently, as if she wanders through life in a daze and realizes only during rare lucid moments, "Ah, I'm looking up at the sky!" I didn't make it very far into the game, but I like to think a twist at the end reveals the reason she's always "finding herself" in the middle of actions, instead of simply doing them, is that she was possessed by a mind-controlling demon the whole time.)

Disappointment #2: They suffer from Oprah Syndrome.

Sometimes the telling takes a different form. In Hotel Dusk, the script shows at the sentence and scene levels, but it tells at the structural level. The game itself doesn't have any plot to speak of, and all of the drama comes from characters literally standing still and telling their stories in the past tense.

In Hotel Dusk, Helen asks Kyle, 'Would you lend your ear to a sad and shameful story?'

In "dating sim" type visual novels, the player character chooses which hot guy or gal to pursue from a harem of potential love interests. Each romance typically ends with a climactic scene of the chosen partner delivering a teary-eyed confession about a difficult childhood, a tragic loss, and/or trauma-induced insecurities...and this is the full extent of the "story."

In Katawa Shoujo, Hanako tells her story: 'The fire happened when I was eight years old. It was night, and we were sleeping when it started.'

In other words, the stories in these visual novels play out like episodes of Oprah. The affable protagonist talks to the audience for a bit, then interviews some people who sit on a sound stage and bare their souls.

Why is Oprah Syndrome so common in visual novels? I have a few theories.

Most visual novels were made in Japan.

Most Americans have never heard of visual novels. The medium is much more popular in East Asia, particularly in Japan. If you Google "best visual novels," all of the results will be lists of exclusively Asian titles with art in a stereotypical anime style.

East Asian storytelling is different from Western storytelling in many ways. In American TV shows, scenes are zippy and full of motion. The most dramatic moments are short and exciting, with a lot of shouting, passionate kissing, and/or gun-waving.

In Japanese, Chinese, and Korean TV shows, there are few guns and very few kisses (maybe one or two per series). Instead, the characters do a lot of talking. The most dramatic scenes are often long emotional monologues by actors literally sitting still on a sound stage. When Sweetie and I watched Father Is Strange over the summer, we groaned whenever we saw Father and Mother sit down together, because we knew the next five minutes would be yet another discussion of their feelings.

Most visual novels were made by small teams with tiny budgets.

Big developers with money don't make visual novels. They make epic space operas, NFL simulators, deliberately addictive mobile games, and zombie apocalypse shoot 'em ups. Visual novels are made by quirky small studios, or even by lone hobbyists with big dreams.

Words are cheap and easy to type. Art is expensive and requires a lot of time and effort to create. So it's tempting for a small developer with a limited budget to write a ton of words illustrated by a few static pictures of characters with different facial expressions. Quality storytelling and fully illustrated scenes would require much more work, which costs money if you need to hire someone else to do it.

Visual novel protagonists are usually blank slates.

Because developers want players to immerse themselves in the games, protagonists often have little to no character. They're stock characters with genre-standard personalities, bare-bones life stories, and bland or outright customizeable facial features.

The choice to make an "everyman" protagonist makes sense for fighting and adventure games, but it hobbles visual novels. Good stories need active protagonists with goals to chase and flaws to overcome. If you create a totally blank protagonist, all of the drama has to come from the other characters. Then you end up with Oprah episodes.

Disappointment #3: The stories are purely "on rails."

In theory, visual novels offer players the opportunity to explore story worlds and shape them through their choices. But in reality, many visual novels out there are very linear and don't allow players to play.

"Find the Trigger" Rails

In some games, player choice is a halfhearted illusion. You can run around the map all you want, but nothing meaningful will happen until you stumble onto the one and only story path.

For example, in Hotel Dusk you can roam freely through the hotel in every chapter, but the plot will progress only if you move to certain places, pick up certain items, and/or find certain people to talk to. I wasted a lot of time skulking up and down empty halls, knocking on all the doors, trying to figure out what the game wanted me to do to progress. Eventually I gave up playing in earnest and found a walk-through that would tell me where I had to go to trigger the next scripted conversation.

"Branch of No Return" Rails

In "branching storyline" type games, players are often sent down rigid paths based on one or two choices. For a hypothetical example, if the player chooses to bake cookies with Vampire A instead of planting flowers with Vampire B, she is then destined to marry Vampire A and can't even get to know Vampire B for the rest of that play-through.

In the most frustrating games, innocuous choices force players onto dead-end branches, and there's nothing they can do about it. E.g., merely choosing to go to the kitchen instead of the garden will seal the unwitting player's fate with Vampire A. I will be forever sour about the time I innocently agreed with the school nurse's suggestion to get more exercise in Katawa Shoujo, unaware that I was committing myself to a branch of no return.

The school nurse asks the hero to be more serious about exercising in Katawa Shoujo

Does this look like a life-defining choice to you?!

My Ideal Visual Novel

My ideal visual novel is fun, emotionally engaging, and frustration-free, without any of the disappointments above.

The protagonist should participate actively in the story.

The logic for having a blank, mute protagonist doesn't apply to visual novels. In most types of games, mechanics are more important than story; players will tolerate laughable dialog and nonsensical plots as long as they have fun.

But in visual novels, the story is the fun. And to craft a fun story, you must have a protagonist who protags.

The player should be able to explore the entire story in one play-through.

I don't know why visual novel developers think "one bazillion unique endings!" is a strong marketing point. There's nothing fun about fast-forwarding through a game a bazillion times. It's fun to play a game once...maybe twice. After that, most people get bored and move on to something new.

The standard "branching" structure of visual novels today is so stale, players don't even play them for real. They consult charts that show "How to get all bazillion endings" and abuse save files to navigate the known branches. After the first playthrough, they're probably not even reading the story. They're just collecting the endings for 100% completion.

The branching formula also means players who attempt to play without a chart will most likely trigger a disappointing ending. They'll like Vampire B best, but they'll somehow end up marrying that jerk Vampire C or leaping off a cliff with that idiot Vampire F instead. If every story were accessible in one playthrough, and a player could hand a Kleenex tissue to Vampire F without consenting to leap off a cliff with him, this wouldn't be a problem.

The player should be able to go anywhere and find a story waiting.

Writers are accustomed to thinking of stories linearly. Plot Point A at Setting X causes Plot Point B at Setting Y, which leads inevitably to Plot Point C at Setting Z. After all, causal relationships between plot points make the difference between a story vs. stuff that happens.

This poses a problem for writing visual novels, because players might want to zip straight to Setting Y instead of visiting Setting X first. That's why visual novel developers tend to force players onto frustrating "Find the Trigger Rails"—because Plot Point B at Setting Y wouldn't make any sense if Plot Point A didn't happen first.

However, there are solutions other than very obvious rails. The key to creating a game that feels open, but still has a great story with a proper plot, is to write more than one story.

Examples:

  • In MMOs like Final Fantasy XI, there are many epic adventures to choose from. Once you start a storyline you do have to accomplish tasks in a certain order to progress, but you can always run off and do something else too.
  • In modern RPGs like Xenoblade Chronicles, the main story is linear, but the experience of playing through it is very open. The player can run around to many places and find NPCs offering "side quests" that play out in mini-stories.

If you offer parallel threads like this, the game won't feel like a tedious exercise in "finding the right door to knock on." Players can follow the story that starts in Setting X and ends in Setting Z, but they can also discover a story that starts in Setting Y and ends in Setting X. Going to the settings "out of order" won't be a complete waste of time.

The player's choices should influence the story in a logical way.

This one should be obvious, right? If a player makes a choice in a game, it should have a logical outcome. There's no reason why anyone would create a game in which actions and their effects would be totally arbitrary and nonsensical.

And yet they do.

I think writers of visual novels get so caught up in the weeds of building branches and defining "flags," they lose sight of what players will logically expect to happen when they make choices. The writers think, "We need a flag that puts the player down the Emi path. Oh, this part where the school nurse asks the hero to exercise more works, because Emi is the Sporty Spice." They don't think, "What choice would players make if they want to go down the Emi path?"

To conclude, here is a short excerpt from chapter 127 of the Chinese webtoon Wo Jia Dashi Xiong Naozi You Keng, by an artist who shares my sentiments.

Chapter 127 of Wo Jia Dashi Xiong Naozi You Keng

Crafting Tragic Tragedies

Last month I watched The Miles of Peach Blossoms, an epic and very expensive xianxia drama.

While the story of the main couple was interesting, in my mind the Best Couple Award goes to two side characters: Bai Fengjiu and Donghua Dijun*.

* Dijun is an honorific title for an imperial lord.

Promotional photo of Vengo Gao as Donghua Dijun and Dilrama Dilmurat as Bai Fengjiu

Fengjiu is the young princess of the kingdom of Qing Qiu, a mischievous nine-tailed fox merely 30,000 years old. Donghua Dijun is the former emperor of the heavens, one of the ancient deities born from nothingness when the world was chaos. Heartless and unfathomable, Donghua fought for hundreds of thousands of years to bring peace to the Nine Kingdoms under the rule of the Celestial Tribe.

One day, Donghua rescues Fengjiu from a rampaging tiger demon.

Donghua rescues Fengjiu
Donghua rescues Fengjiu 2

Lovestruck, Fengjiu chases him back to the Celestial Kingdom. She does all sorts of crazy things to catch his attention, from sneaking into his palace disguised as a maid to shapeshifting into a baby fox to become his literal pet. Amused, Donghua eventually thaws and learns how to express his emotions.

Screenshot of Fengjiu hugging Donghua and saying, 'I like you.'
Screenshot of Fengjiu nuzzling Donghua and saying, 'I like you so much.'
Screenshot of Donghua pushing Fengjiu away and saying, 'Even if you didn't tell me...'
Screenshot of Donghua telling Fengjiu, '...I would still know that.'

Their relationship is adorable and, in many ways, stronger than the convoluted one between the main couple.

But though the main couple gets a happy ending, Fengjiu and Donghua do not. Their melancholy ending, and the heartbreaking events leading up to it, were responsible for at least one dozen of the sopping wet Kleenex tissues that ended up in my trash can during that show.

In the comments on DramaFever, I read that Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms is based on a series of novels by Tang Qi, and that Fengjiu and Donghua star in one of them! The commenters hinted that the conclusion of story in the drama is very different from the ending of the novel.

I tracked this book down and read it within a couple of days. To my surprise, at the end Donghua and Fengjiu get married and live happily ever after! I've seen many Hollywood adaptations turn tragic endings into pat ones, but never before had I seen a movie or show trade an original happy ending for a sad one.

However, though you'd think I'd squeal with delight to see my favorite couple in blissful matrimony, I didn't feel much of anything. In fact, I preferred the tragic ending in the drama.

Though the ending of the book was technically happy, it didn't make me happy because the story leading up to it was a mess. While the drama versions of Donghua and Fengjiu made me giggle and bawl, the book versions were bodice-ripper stock characters who spent all two volumes misunderstanding and hurting each other. The ending wasn't truly happy because the "tragic" romance leading up to it wasn't tragic at all.

1. For a story to be tragic, the protagonists must lose something precious.

I didn't root for Book Fengjiu and Book Donghua because they weren't very happy together. Fengjiu spent most of her time crying that Donghua hurt her so much and she should give up on him. Donghua spent most of his time lying to Fengjiu and feeling guilty about it. I didn't care much whether they could save their relationship because it really wasn't worth saving.

But the drama successfully showed the happiness these two characters lost when they were forced to separate. Both demonstrate how much they care for each other through their actions. Fengjiu works earnestly to make Donghua comfortable (though she usually makes a comic mess of it), and Donghua breaks his stone-cold character to help Fengjiu when she's in trouble.

When Donghua descends to the mortal realm to experience the trials of human life, Fengjiu follows. Then we get a taste of the sweet and simple life they could have had if they were normal people.

Screenshot of Fengjiu and Donghua as a married couple in the mortal realm

But they're not normal people, they're royalty. Immortal royalty at that. And so they must make heartbreaking choices.

2. The protagonists' choices should cause the tragedy, and these choices should be understandable and preferably unavoidable.

In tearjerker movies, brooding heartthrobs fall in love with delicate beauties, and then one of them dies unexpectedly from a fatal disease or a sudden encounter with the hypnotic Truck of Doom.

Meme of a Korean drama heroine staring at an approaching semi and waiting to get hit

While these movies are sad, I personally don't consider them "tragic." They're just stories in which Bad Things Happen. To be properly tragic, the Bad Things should be caused directly or indirectly by the protagonists' choices. E.g., if the hero must die from a fatal disease, it should be because he chose to delay treatment to live happily instead of simply longer, as in the YA novel The Fault in Our Stars. If the heroine must succumb to the Truck of Doom, it should be because she plowed into it on purpose to save a group of preschoolers, as in the Korean fantasy Goblin.

Of course, the choices must be relateable to work. Characters who make nonsensical or purely selfish choices don't elicit sympathy from the audience. For maximum impact, the choices should also be inevitable. In the most enduring tragedies, the characters couldn't possibly make different choices to dodge cruel fate—either because every choice available to them would also end in tragedy, or because choosing the one path to a happy ending would compromise their morals.

Book Donghua and Book Fengjiu do make choices that cause tragedies, but those choices are neither understandable nor inevitable. For example, near the end Donghua fails to show up for their wedding feast. Fengjiu leaps to the conclusion that he ran off with a princess from the Demon Kingdom, decides their love was a lie, and descends to the mortal realm to hide for 300 years. Unbeknownst to her, Donghua missed the feast because he was saving the universe (again). Fengjiu comes back to the Celestial Kingdom to find him wasting away from a mystical poison, preparing to sacrifice his life for the greater good, etc. Oh, if only she'd known! If only they could have had those few short centuries of happiness together!

I was supposed to cry for them at this point, but instead I rolled my eyes. Book Fengjiu's decision to hide in the mortal realm was idiotic.

  • Donghua had an established track record of suddenly loping off to save the universe, and no track record of showing interest in any woman—any person, even—other than Fengjiu.
  • Fengjiu and Donghua were already officially married and living together, so they should have been long past the stage of petty jealousies and misunderstandings.
  • Fengjiu was pregnant. Why would she choose to raise her infant son in poverty and isolation, instead of staying in Qing Qiu with her doting parents and grandparents?

The only reason Book Fengjiu would make the choice she did is to manufacture last-minute "tragic" circumstances to squeeze out some tears from the readers.

In contrast, Drama Donghua's ultimate decision to break up with Fengjiu is completely understandable. After fighting for tens of thousands of years to bring the Nine Kingdoms to a fragile state of peace, Donghua believes his marriage to Fengjiu would cause political turmoil.

Screenshot of Donghua and Fengjiu during the final battle against the Demon Lord

"I've used my life to protect all lives. If I insist on my relationship with you, it would surely cause ceaseless wars within the four seas....Bai Fengjiu, you're not some common woman. You're the future queen of Qing Qiu! Don't be absurd!"

In the end, Drama Fengjiu must accept his decision and resign herself to a lonely life on the throne.

Screenshot of Fengjiu at her coronation ceremony

"Dijun, from this day forth, I will become the queen of Qing Qiu....I can no longer act willfully anymore. I can't enter Taichen Palace to make you tea and stay with you all night without considering my identity."

Disappointed fans complain the ending is "stupid," but to me it's painfully sensible. Though Donghua Dijun has unparalleled power, he doesn't have unlimited freedom, and it would have been grossly out of character for him to choose his personal feelings over the stability of the heavens.

3. The seeds of tragedy should be sewn at the beginning.

To be honest, the drama version of Fengjiu and Donghua's story had flaws, too. The biggest is that Donghua didn't explain why he couldn't be with Fengjiu until very late in the game. Very, very late in the game. We're talking episode 52 of 58.

Characters who refuse to explain themselves are very common in East Asian dramas, so I'm used to it. I've learned that when characters push their loved ones away, they usually have Noble Reasons that will be revealed eventually. So when Donghua looked at Fengjiu tenderly but treated her coldly, I trusted he too had Noble Reasons and rooted for the couple to the end.

But most Western viewers aren't that patient. Because Donghua spent most of the drama running hot and cold—one minute giving up half of his life force to heal Fengjiu's injuries, the next throwing her out of his palace and claiming he never wants to see her again—many fans of the show hated their romance line. They'd say Fengjiu is "so annoying" for chasing after Donghua when he obviously doesn't want her. Or they'd ask, "When is Donghua going to get over himself and admit he likes her?" I believe these viewers would have had a different reaction if they'd known from the start that Donghua could never marry Fengjiu, but he couldn't stop himself from acting on his feelings and giving her false hope.

The most effective tragedies set up the insurmountable obstacles at the beginning. The first lines of Romeo and Juliet tell the audience about the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues. The first paragraphs of The Fault in Our Stars establish that the seventeen-year-old heroine is dying from cancer. When she meets her first love at a support group, young readers know there can't possibly be a happy ending to the relationship, but they desperately hope for one anyway.

***

Tragedy is the essence of every genre. The efficacy of the central tragedy makes the difference between a shallow romance and a touching one, a boring mystery and a captivating one, or a cliché fantasy and a memorable one. Even in comedy, adding solid tragic elements can transform the work from a farce into a classic (like Annie Hall, Dr. Strangelove, and The Producers).

Speaking of comedy, here's a funny behind-the-scenes clip of Vengo Gau (Donghua) and Dilrama Dilmurat (Fengjiu) filming a "difficult" scene.