Whether you’re creating media or consuming it, there’s one question that needs to be answered. If you want to hook a reader or a viewer or a listener — or if you’re any of those things settling down to give of your time to someone’s art — four little words lie behind everything you are about to do.
Why Should I Care?
It sounds like a rude question. It kind of is, most of the time you might hear it. But when you’re talking about media and art, it’s the single most important question that keeps you as a consumer engaged and you as a creator the ability to captivate people.
You can’t just dump rose petals on the ground and expect everything to be hunky-dory.
In the past six months, I’ve seen two particularly noteworthy examples of television that answered this question particularly well. As such, this post will contain some spoilers for Doctor Who (Episode 4.08, Silence in the Library and it the following 4.09) and How I Met Your Mother (Episode 9.16, How Your Mother Met Me). You’ve been warned.
Both of these episodes have something major in common: they introduce a brand new character. In the instance of HIMYM, this character has hitherto been ultimately a concept, the M at the end of HIMYM, a barely-faced, barely explored entity who has somehow powered the entire show. Even though we’ve seen her a couple times, this is the first chance we’ve had to really get to know her. In Doctor Who, River Song shows up for the first time in this episode — but we’re working with almost blank slates for both of these characters.
Let’s start with Doctor Who.
Silence in the Library
They say you have one page to hook a reader. I think you have 20-40 minutes of television to hook a viewer. Some factors can make that number skew a bit — if you’re watching something everyone has told you to, you might be more prone to give it a few episodes before throwing in the towel. When I read The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, I gave it 100 pages — and I’m glad I did. But let’s say you have one episode. One single slot of time in which to snag someone’s attention and make them care. Make them feel something.
Give them a question.
When River Song waltzes into the library with her archaeology team, one of the first things she does is give you a question. She knows the Doctor. Her reaction to him is one that makes that question. She knows him. And personally — maybe intimately. But he doesn’t know her yet. Even better, she refuses to tell him more.
Hint at the question’s answers.
Later in the episode, River is seen using a sonic screwdriver that’s more advanced than what the Doctor has. When asked where she got it, she replies that he gave it to her. This is another breadcrumb in the question — why would a future Doctor give River his sonic screwdriver?
When you answer the question, make it breed more questions.
Throughout this fabulous two-parter, the story of River’s interaction with the Doctor doesn’t so much unfold as play peek-a-boo. When it’s revealed that the Doctor gave River his screwdriver, it makes him wonder why…which makes us wonder why. And when we discover that he can use it to save her life, well, my mind immediately went to wondering who this woman was, that he cared enough to make sure she had it. More questions.
Not only that, but River sacrifices herself for the Doctor — something he (and we the viewers) don’t understand. When she answers that question, it makes more. Who is this woman, this woman so determined to make sure the Doctor still meets her in her own past? What happens with them? Why is she so special? Even in asking those questions, she becomes special. She is a fascinating character.
By the end of this two-parter, I was a blubbery mess of tears for a character I’d just met. Even though I knew she’d turn up later, this was a perfect answer to the why should I care question. I cared because she came to life. Because she left things unanswered, yet her story begged me to find out more.
How Your Mother Met Me
The entire basis of the show How I Met Your Mother is the story of Ted Mosby’s journey to finding his wife. For the show’s run, we’ve seen glimpses of her, an ankle here, a yellow umbrella there — but until the final episode of season 8, we’d never seen her face.
This season, we’ve gotten a few more chances to meet her. I’ll be honest and say that I approached season 9 with no small amount of trepidation. Having invested in these characters and this story for so long, I knew I wanted the chance to actually get to know this person. I didn’t want the show to end with Ted and The Mother shaking hands…and scene.
I wanted to see who she was, know she was a person, know she fit in with the others in the group. In short, I wanted to know her. So I am entirely thrilled to be able to say that a couple weeks ago, an episode of How I Met Your Mother (cheekily titled How Your Mother Met Me — including a redone opening credit montage) was the episode I’ve been waiting for…for EIGHT LONG YEARS.
They made me care as much for The Mother (it’s driving me crazy not to know her name) as I do for all the other principal cast members.
They gave her a backstory.
This is a tricky thing. This doesn’t mean they told us where she went to high school and that she used to hate artichokes and now thinks they’re the bee’s knees. No. They didn’t do that. Instead they showed her at the East Side MacLaren’s (with a charming tie-in to the main group at their West Side MacLaren’s) at her 21st birthday, waiting for her boyfriend to show up.
And he didn’t.
Instead she got a call I think every one of us dreads.
He wasn’t going to show up. Not that night or ever again. Her boyfriend had passed away.
Anyone who has ever gotten a call like that (and I have) probably couldn’t help but feel something at that moment.
Prior to that moment, she wasn’t sad. She was happy. Excited to see what her boyfriend would get her this year because every other year he’d gotten her amazing things. And when she gets home finally after his memorial, she opens the gift he’d gotten her. It’s a ukulele.
We got to see her overcome her backstory.
Losing someone like that hurts like someone blew a hole in the middle of your torso. Two years ago, I was in the car five minutes from work, discussing random things with my husband who was driving — when I saw I had a message from an Ohio number. It was my cousin Andrea. She was calling to let me know that my cousin Nate had been killed in a car accident. It was a week after his 30th birthday. His baby girl (who is my namesake) turned 1 the day after his funeral. I still feel that hole. It doesn’t go away.
HIMYM did a fantastic job of showing how that hole does not go away. As we saw The Mother go through her grief, meet someone new, and be on the response side of a proposal, we saw that hole.
It culminated when she went outside to ask her dead boyfriend Max if it was okay for her to move on. Boy, was I feeling feelings.
She went back inside and told her boyfriend no. She packed up her bags and left. She returned to the hotel where Barney and Robin were to be married (her band was to play the next day), and she took her ukulele out of her case. Then she went out onto her balcony and sang one of the most stirring renditions of La Vie en Rose that I’ve ever heard. I had tears running down my face and goosebumps all over my arms when the camera panned over to show Ted listening in silence on the other side of the wall between their balconies.
And holy explosion of farting German cows, did I care.
These are two examples of how media made me care — and judging by the Facebook comments on HIMYM’s page (for once, positive), I wasn’t the only one. The comments that a few months ago were judging Cristin Milioti on her dentition were now proclaiming how much they loved her.
I look forward to every River Song episode — and now I am sincerely looking forward to the final episodes of How I Met Your Mother. Because the writers restored some of my faith in the show by finally allowing me to get to know this woman I’ve waited eight years to see — and making her fantastic.
As media creators, it’s our job to make that happen — not just answer the question of why consumers should care, but hammer it home and make them feel something.