The Art of Character Development: A Lesson from Stranger Things
"Now that you're out of high school, which means you're technically an adult, don't you think it's time you move on from primitive constructs such as popularity?"
That was a line from a 13-year-old nerd named Dustin Henderson, who comes from a tiny – yet quite abnormal – town called Hawkins. He delivers the striking line as he addresses Steve Harrington, one of the fan favorites from last season. Alas, I won't discuss the primitive constructs such as popularity today, rather the not-so-hidden symbolism in this particular quote. That theme is the idea of growing up and moving on, a trope that Stranger Things has mastered quite well. This concept of growth, however, is not just a product of continuity, or of the cast getting older - but rather a reflection of what Stranger Things has always executed so perfectly: character development.
Getting this out of the way, I loved season 3 of Stranger Things. A lot. Again, it’s hard to pinpoint an exact reason why I enjoyed this season as much as I did. On one hand, it seems like the plot has become an unvarying pattern in the series (essentially, a group of kids fighting mysterious monsters that nobody seems to know about). But then I came to the realization that in Stranger Things, the plot is just an undercard to the real reason why we love this show: the characters. I don’t think television has ever met more lovable characters than the ragtag group of misfits in Hawkins. It fascinates me how, after every season, The Duffer Brothers find a way to make each returning character more intriguing than the last season, while fitting in more new – but just as beloved – characters, too.
The opening scenes of season 3 reveals a new antagonist, the Russians, who are suspiciously attempting to re-open the gate that Eleven closed at the end of the second season. This, however, abruptly transitions into a scene where Mike and Eleven are making out in a bedroom while Hopper is outside, clearly disturbed. I was completely shocked, and not not at the creepy Russians with Stark Industry-esque technology opening a portal to another realm, but rather with the two tweens kissing to the tune of “I Can’t Fight This Feeling” by REO Speedwagon. It served as a sort of wake-up call for me. These weren’t the cute and adorable kids of season 1 anymore. The kids have changed and it was awesome to see that change. Their growth throughout the seasons (both physically and emotionally – damn Mike is tall now!) is what makes them appear so real to us, and this character realism is unequivocally what allures me to binge-watch the entire series in a day.
As the season goes on it seems like every character is going through their own growing pains. We see Mike and El going through the ups and downs of a first love, Dustin and Lucas exploring the “new species” (females), Steve struggling in a low-paying “post-highschool” job, Hopper not knowing how to parent a teenager, Joyce having a difficult time moving on from a dead ex-boyfriend, Nancy and Jonathan experiencing the realities of corporate America, and Will being unable to accept his friends choosing girls over Dungeons & Dragons as seen in his hilarious Dungeonmaster tirade. Not to mention, these characters also have a gigantic human-consuming beast to deal with! The Mindflayer aside, these are the familiar life moments that many of us have gone (or will go) through. Remember the day in 7th grade when we ditched Nerf Wars for girls? Remember that first “break-up” from a relationship that lasted a heartbreaking two whole weeks?
These kinds of “side-” storylines are what set Stranger Things apart from any other show. Stranger Things is, indeed, a never-ending story in the sense that its characters are perpetually evolving. I loved seeing Steve’s redemption story from King-of-High-School Harrington to “Can’t-Get-Date” Steve. I loved seeing the awkwardness of Mike and El’s relationship. I loved seeing Hopper trying to grasp the concept of fatherhood. I loved Robin coming out in the bathroom stall. And I loved Erica, just in general.
While each character has their own individual story arcs, it’s how they influence each other that makes Stranger Things so damn good. Steve and Dustin’s brotherly dynamic, Joyce and Hopper’s “sexual tension”, even Billy and Mrs. Wheeler’s forbidden romance. This chemistry between characters creates a very home-y community, you know, just like Hawkins itself.
The way in which the Duffer Brothers craft and develop such lovable characters is what ultimately made me fall in love in with Stranger Things. I am so damn invested in these fictional lives, it’s becoming quite absurd. And don’t think they’re done anytime soon. Season 4 will see even more change as the kids are separating (after a gut-wrenching goodbye scene) and entering high school. As said in Hopper’s letter, life does indeed go by very fast, and sooner or later, people begin to change.
So, as a closing lesson from a not-so-dead Jim Hopper and the rest of Stranger Things: Slow down, don’t rush, and cherish every single moment in life, because one summer can really change everything.