Wrestling, like all forms of entertainment, has evolved from its earliest form. What began as a legitimate sporting contest grew into the sports entertainment of today, where the talking outside the ring is as important as the wrestling inside it. As a result of this evolution, changes to the way characters are handled and angles are booked became a necessity. Early on, the wrestlers and their matches had little motivation beyond winning the match itself and eventually the titles that came with that, but, over time, feuds developed to add a personal dimension to the matches to keep fans coming back to see the same two men fight repeatedly. Characters and angles continued to grow in complexity reflecting the world (and entertainment) around them.
By the end of the 1990s it could be argued that wrestlers in North America’s three biggest promotions (WWF/E, WCW, and ECW) were fully-developed, three-dimensional characters in comparison to their cartoonish ’80s contemporaries. Characters like ECW’s Raven fed off of childhood abuse and neglect to create a believably scarred monster while WCW’s Hollywood Hogan posed as a believable transition of a celebrity with everything descending into the depths of his own megalomania. And the angles creating these characters also reflected this sort of complexity; for example, the motivation for the WWF’s biggest angle of all time, Mr. McMahon vs. Steve Austin, was the fact that Mr. McMahon, the company’s owner, felt Austin was a poor role model for his company. Before this, heel turns would often come across as justified in the eyes of the villain (Paul Orndorff being ignored by his best friend, Hulk Hogan; Randy Savage feeling Hogan was taking liberties with Savage’s on-screen valet, Miss Elizabeth; Andre the Giant feeling slighted by Hogan not offering him a title shot), but they almost always had an element of exaggeration on the part of the heel to allow the face to stay in the right. With McMahon/Austin, it was hard not to see Mr. McMahon’s point. Austin cursed profusely on national television, he was hostile to anything resembling authority, and he openly mocked McMahon himself. Few employers would argue with firing an employee like Austin in real life, which added an unusual element of complexity to the story where the crude jerk employee was now the hero and the exasperated boss was the villain. As the ’90s turned over into the ’00s and continued on to today wrestling has tried to maintain that same level of complexity in its stories and characters. Unfortunately, this complexity today’s big two (WWE and TNA) strive for actually seems to be a detriment to the overall product for both organizations.
While the extra character development may have helped create fully-realized characters, it also damaged the mystique of many others. For every Raven there is a Kane, a character whose backstory is so convoluted and confusing from years of attempted character development and ham-fisted retconning that it’s almost impossible to feel anything for the actual character. Where Kane once held an aura of genuine dread, every attempt to humanize the character caused a growing sense of apathy to build about him. Beginning as only the Undertaker’s deformed brother, Kane, much like Raven, grew into the product of an abused childhood that saw him physically deformed at the hands of his brother only to end up having sex years later with the corpse of a dead cheerleader? This sort of nonsensical plotting has crept its way into characters beyond just Kane, finding its way into the stories of Abyss and Hornswaggle, among others.
Another unfortunate product of wrestling’s pursuit of unneeded character development is the constant shifting in alignment of faces and heels, or a dissolution of the concept entirely into “shades of gray.” In the ’80s you could always rely on a few characters, like Ricky Steamboat, Hulk Hogan, and Dusty Rhodes, to defend what was right, while you could always count on the Four Horsemen or an evil Russian stereotype to present a threat to those heroes. Some, like Steamboat, even became career faces/heels based on the fact that the fans couldn’t believably buy into them on the other side.
Today, it’s almost inconceivable to think of a wrestler that hasn’t turned face or heel multiple times, sometimes even within the same year (or show). Wrestlers like AJ Styles and Sting continue to be forced into the role of a heel in an attempt to shock fans when neither has ever shown a propensity for the role, and both have proven to resemble Steamboat in the sense of being career babyfaces. Conversely, any time a wrestler shows the slightest signs of drawing a positive reaction from the crowd they’re almost always turned face. This attempt at jumping the gun almost entirely derailed Randy Orton’s career midway through the ’00s when WWE mistook a lukewarm face reaction for Orton as signs he should be pushed as a face. He only recently has developed the sort of reaction (and skill required) to warrant such a turn, until then representing the antithesis to an AJ Styles as what might have been a career heel.
It should be said that wrestling doesn’t always need to be complex; not every character needs a motivation beyond just being evil or virtuous; and some of the best stories are also the simplest. To muck things up with layers upon layers of story or unneeded face/heel turns, as with Kane or Sting, just causes confusion for the fans, who most often are only interested in watching Wrestler A beat Wrestler B. In short, keep it simple.
Tags: AJ Styles, kane, randy orton, Steve Austin, Sting, vince mcmahon