Who is Your Character?

I mostly write fan fiction, and therefore have read quite a bit of it.

In the Harry Potter universe, Draco Malfoy is well-known as Harry’s nemesis through most of his school years.  Only much later in the books does he really reveal any redeeming qualities at all.  The problem, though, is that he was represented in film by Tom Felton.  Many girls developed a crush on the actor, and so when they turned to writing fan fiction in the HP world, they wanted to include Draco and they wanted him to be “good”.  Now, I can deal with someone writing a storyline that drifts from what the author originally wrote, but if they are going to change the nature of the characters to any appreciable extent, they need to provide a valid reason for the change.  We have seen Draco be nothing but arrogant, snotty, rude and even downright mean, particularly toward Harry and his friends.  If you want me to believe that they are all now “best buds”, then you need to show me a compelling reason for that change.  Why did Draco turn away from all that bad behavior and become someone who could be friends with the Trio?  Or did the Trio have a compelling reason to give up being good and go join Draco in being bad?

Why does this matter?  It’s part of staying true to the character.  It isn’t a bad thing for a character to change over the course of time and events, but show that change happening, show what is causing it to happen.  Few people make a drastic personality change on a whim for no discernible reason.  J.K. Rowling understood that, and changes in Draco were incremental through the course of the book, so that toward the end, you understood a little of how and why he regained respectability.  These fan fiction authors don’t ‘get it’, and they make a complete turnaround in behavior happen in the blink of an eye for no reason at all.

What about your characters?  Do they stay true to how you wrote them?  Do they make logical changes over time, based on things that happen to or around them?  Spoiled and petulant teenage girls don’t become the Duchess of Cambridge without a lot of work happening in between the two.  Muscle-bound bullies don’t become champions of the weak without a compelling reason.  Gangbangers don’t suddenly beome priests without some defining event altering their perception.

When you write each character, you must first begin with knowing who they are.  Then as you go along, ask yourself how they would react in each new situation they face.  Yes, sometimes they can do something surprising – perhaps even to themselves – but there still should be a reason.  Maybe they rose to the occasion and finally stopped whining, complaining and avoiding doing what was right.  Maybe something happened earlier that affected them more than they realized or acknowledged, and not until this moment does it strike a chord in them.  An example would be the Black Panther in the Avengers: Civil War movie.  [spoilers]

His father is killed, sending him off on a vendetta to kill the person responsible.  For a long time, he is pursuing the wrong person (who has been framed for the crime).  Then when he finally comes face to face with the true culprit and sees how this man was so broken by his own loss of family that HE went on a revenge vendetta, he realizes that killing him won’t bring back Black Panther’s father or make him feel any better.  He sees himself in his enemy and changes his actions.  But we have seen him come to this point, and we aren’t particularly surprised by his choice.

So look at your characters closely.  Know them.  Know how they think and act and react.  Keep them true to that, no matter what.  And, if you want them to change, introduce catalysts for that change – some spark.  Would Black Widow be seen crying?  Would Steve Rogers disembowel someone just because he could and didn’t happen to like the person?  I’m sure you can think of many other characters in books or on tv and movies, and you know how you expect them to act based on the character you have been shown.  You know what you would find very odd about their behavior or language.  We see it all the time, whether voiced by others or ourselves.  A movie is made of a book we’ve read and loved.  Immediately a howl goes up:  That’s not who that person is!  That’s not how they would act!  You got them completely wrong!

Many Lord of the Rings book fan were outraged by Faramir’s treatment in the Peter Jackson’s movies.  In the books, he was completely honorable and never once came close to succumbing to the Ring’s power.  He gave the Hobbits aid and sent them on their way.  Instead, in the movie, we see him dragging them with him to Minas Tirith, with dreams of glory put in his thoughts by the Ring.  Only much later does he come to his senses (and not for an entirely clear reason) and let them go.  Suddenly it looks like mental illness runs rampant in the entire line of Stewards: father, older son and younger son, with each succumbing all or in part to Sauron’s evil.  Lost are the important differences in motivation and reason for their actions, and completely lost is Faramir’s utter integrity and strength of will that he didn’t succumb.

Peter Jackson’s problem was in changing the nature of someone’s character, a person known and beloved from the books.  Had his movie been an original story, that person acting in that way would not have elicited such a strong response.  But Lord of the Rings (book) fans knew who that character was, and it wasn’t the man they saw portrayed on the screen.  That disconnect affected their enjoyment of the movie.  That detail jarred the viewer out of the story.  And the last thing you want to do is lose your reader/viewer because you derailed them.

Know your characters.  Keep them true.

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Movie Review: Two for the price of one

I don’t usually do movie reviews, but I thought I’d make an exception.  Since I signed up for Netflix, I’ve found some more obscure films.  Some are rightly obscure – nothing to write home about.  Others might not have been blockbusters, and they may have problems but they have nice “moments” that make them worth watching, at least once, and sometimes more than once.

Two that I stumbled on happened to have Reese Witherspoon in them.  I haven’t seen much of her work and there haven’t been any of her major films that moved me particularly, but I do like both of these.  They are fairly gentle romantic comedies, at heart, though one of them does not have that as the main storyline.

The two are Just Like Heaven (also with Mark Ruffalo) and Penelope (also with Christina Ricci).

There isn’t anything very remarkable about the story in Just Like Heaven, but what makes it enjoyable are the characters.

The Netflix summary is thus:  Shortly after David moves into a new place, winsome Elizabeth shows up to assert that the apartment is hers, then vanishes. When she starts appearing and disappearing at will, David thinks she’s a ghost, while Elizabeth is convinced she’s alive.

And that is basically it – the two of them trying to work out what exactly she is while falling in love.  But they are surrounded by quirky friends and family:  Elizabeth’s sister, David’s best friend Jack and a guy who works in a bookshop and firmly believes in the paranormal.  There is a scene where Elizabeth manages to ‘inhabit’ David’s body, well acted by Mark Ruffalo, and Jack’s zingers are amusing.  But mostly it is a sweet love story with plenty of obstacles along the way.

The other movie, Penelope, I didn’t actually know Reese Witherspoon was in until I was watching it.  Netflix’s summary says:  In this modern-day fairy tale, a young woman cursed with the nose of a pig lives her entire life in seclusion — until an unlikely beau stumbles onto the scene and convinces her to celebrate her inner beauty.

Some reviewers thought the pig nose looked fake, but I had no issue with it.  They do sort of drop a few ideas over the course of the story, but they aren’t terribly essential to the story.  Catherine O’Hara plays the mother, in an over-the-top performance.  While it somewhat suits the character, she is pretty annoying.  Despite the extreme reactions when people see Penelope for the first time, her appearance doesn’t truly warrant it.  Indeed, one becomes accustomed to the prosthetic nose because it blends in well with Christina Ricci’s face, and most would almost forget about it after a time.  There is some question as to why the eventual resolution didn’t ‘work’ sooner, but that can also be forgiven.  The heart of this movie is the interaction between Penelope and Max (James McAvoy), and later with other people she meets.

The resolution is a worthwhile message for anyone, but particularly young girls, about accepting themselves.  And another nice touch is that Peter Dinklage gives a delightful performance as a reporter, and his size isn’t even noticed at all in the story.  It simply is irrelevant – he’s a reporter.  Little people are not always afforded that courtesy in life or as performers, so it was good to see.

One rather strange thing about the movie is that it is evident it is set in England, but the British/Scottish actors use American accents (for the most part) and it is put forward as if it were in America.  It’s not clear why it wasn’t simply set in England.  Perhaps the filmmakers thought that was cliché.

At any rate, it is nice to see Penelope come into her own and find her own happy ending.

Unless you absolutely hate any kind of romantic comedy, you might enjoy these.  Note:  I saw them on DVD from Netflix.  I’m not sure if they are available via streaming there.

Caricatures

[I wrote this a while ago, but am just now posting it.  More recently I’ve been putting in long, stressful hours at work – and then was sick – so I wasn’t accomplishing much of anything at home.]

Have been watching old DVDs, deciding which ones I want to keep and which to give away.  I hadn’t watched the three Crocodile Dundee movies in quite some time, so they were on the list.  These movies are enjoyable fluff, at least in my opinion, but I was reminded of their biggest problem – they have more caricatures than characters in them.

The parts that focus on Australia and the people there are pretty good, but once they head off to New York or Los Angeles, they don’t seem to know how to write the other characters.  All the “players” are stereotypical:  black guys, hookers, gang members, petty criminals, gays, etc.  None of them have any depth and despite different clothes and hair, they are all interchangeable with one another.  Everyone is extremely clean and their toughness is revealed mainly through crude language.  The scary thugs/gang members aren’t particularly scary, the hookers are just sweet girls who are nice as can be, and all the blacks talk in jive speech patterns.

Yes, if you ignore all that, you can enjoy the movies and just go with the silliness of it all.  But my point is, how much better would they have been if the characters were real?  If we believed they were what the credits or other characters said they were?

Similarly, do the stories we write suffer in that way?  Not all young black men are basketball-playing, uneducated, gangbangers.  Some black boys grow up to be Neil DeGrasse Tyson or Denzel Washington.  Most gangbangers aren’t cool, pleasant, clean people that you’d love to hang out with.  Etc., etc., etc.

Too often we see, and then follow the example, of stereotyping people – whether by race, religion, political party, occupation or even gender.  But if you look around at the world, things don’t line up.  Little girls might prefer playing with trucks rather than dolls.  Boys might rather practice the piano and write poetry than take up a sport.  Not all Chinese or Japanese children are scientific or musical prodigies.  You can probably think of a lot more examples.  When you write, you don’t have to do what is expected just because the world of literature/art/movies/tv have said it’s expected.  If your character doesn’t fit the mold, guess what?  They don’t have to!  And your story will be the stronger for it.  Don’t push to make it happen, but why can’t the person in the wheelchair be good at sports?  Why can’t the Muslim and the Jew be best friends?  Does the girl have to always be smarter than the boys?  Do all the boys have to be insensitive to others?  Why can’t there be a ‘cat guy’, with 15 cats?

You probably fit into numerous “categories” yourself, but are you identical to all the other people who fit into any or all of those categories?  Probably not.  So don’t fall into the trap of letting it happen to your characters.

Lost in Space

A movie is well done when you know how it turns out, but you’re still on the edge of your seat in the getting there.  I recently rewatched Apollo 13 and was reminded of that The odd thing, though, is that while I vividly remember watching the Apollo 11 moonwalk on TV, I don’t remember anything about Apollo 13 “in real time” at all.  Granted, at 16, it wasn’t a big part of my world, but still.

Another example of keeping the tension despite knowing it’s coming is a scene in The Sixth Sense.  Something happens that made me jump the first time I saw it.  And though I know it is coming, I still jump.  I’m not sure if that’s me reacting to Haley Joel Osment’s reaction, or something else.  But it still works.

Sometimes filmmakers do get it right.  They touch all the right notes and you are in that world and those circumstances on the screen.  One of the best for creating completely believable false realities was Jim Henson.  We believed a frog could ride a bicycle because we saw it and nothing suggested it wasn’t absolutely real.  People still believe that Miss Piggy bats her eyelashes, even though Frank Oz has pointed out that her eyelashes are fixed and can’t move.  And my absolute favorite – Muppets are more believable musicians than most human actors.  Watch most actors pretending to play a guitar – their hand on the neck strings never move, as it should.  Muppets may not have five fingers, but their few fingers do move, giving a far better impression of actual playing.  A friend made a puppet movie that involved a groundhog.  People picked apart things in the movie (a student film), but none realized they had never questioned for a second that a groundhog puppet could blow out a lit match.

Movie-making done right captures moments like these that stay in our memories long after many other movies are forgotten.