An Essential Violation of Character
Yes, yes – I’m still alive. Been over a month since I posted on this blog, but that’s been because life has a way of keeping me busy. I hope you haven’t missed me.
No, that’s not true – I hope you’ve missed me terribly and this blog post comes and an enormous relief.
I’ve only got a spare few minutes, so naturally what I want to talk about is something larger than can be contained in so short a post, because that’s how I roll.
I want to talk about character.
The other day, I was being interviewed by a grad student who asked me, essentially, how do I create characters in my stories/novels. This is a good question – a significantly better question than the usual “where do you get your ideas” thing – and part of what made it good is that I hadn’t really thought through it in any kind of concrete way and this question forced me to, all at once.
My answer went like this: at the start, every character is built around a core concept (or high concept, if you like). This is the central, fundamental trait that defines most of their behavior. So, by way of example, I used Fred Rodgers (who is a real person, not a character, but bear with me). Mr. Rodgers’s core concept is that he wishes to see the best in all people and wishes to be kind and understanding to all, and so create a more compassionate and loving world. This desire to be compassionate and kind drove every aspect of what he did – it is central and indispensable. To use another example, Tyvian Reldamar is fundamentally selfish and cynical – he does not believe that true “goodness” exists, and therefore he sees no reason to aspire to it.
The core concept is important, but it is only the starting point. You must then layer a character’s experiences around that concept. What happened to them to make them that way? Once that way, what actions did they take in accordance with their core concept and how did that shape them further. If the core concept is the mold (or the outline), the experiences give that outline depth and contour. Fred Rodgers created his show; Tyvian abandoned his family to become a pirate. Because Mr. Rodgers created his show, he became a beloved personage and found himself an essential part of millions of children’s lives; because Tyvian became a pirate, he became part of a criminal underworld which he later mastered.
But of course we are not done. The next thing – and this is possible the strangest step of all – is to ask yourself under what circumstances will that character violate their core concept. Because, you see, none of us wholly live up to who we think we are. Smart people do dumb things, angry people can be kind, and the cruel and hateful can still love. Mr. Rodgers, for instance, sued the KKK when they aired ads using his his image. It actually made him – him – mad. You can watch the interview where he talks about this: there he is, the King of Kind, his lips pressed tightly together and his syllables clipped, because nothing (nothing) makes Fred Rodgers angry except hatred. Likewise, there is Tyvian, the world exploding around him at the start of The Oldest Trick, and what does he do? Takes a second to save the life of a worthless street kid. Why? Even he doesn’t know. In fact, it take the guy a full four books to figure out the answer to that question.
This moments – what I will term the character’s moral limitations – are super important to making a character that people love and one that resonates with readers. These moments are immensely illuminating as character building moments, since all the best and most interesting characters must be capable of change, and we crave that particular quality in every character we encounter.
I’d also, as a brief gaming aside, that the same exact thing goes for Alignments in D&D and other such character-building tools in other RPGs. People aren’t robots – they can and do violate their core beliefs all the time. It’s the circumstances under which they do so and why that make them human and, therefore, relatable and interesting.
Anyway, that’s my .02. Keep watching the Mandalorian everyone. I’m sure I’ll get Disney+ soon enough and then I’ll see what all the fuss is about.
In Memoriam: Tasha Yar
Today, I saw Lt. Tasha Yar of the USS Enterprise get killed by an evil alien oil slick. The event was every bit as lame as I remembered it. It wasn’t so much that it was sudden – I have always been somewhat pleased that the evil alien oil slick just killed somebody to start off, since that makes sense (if only the Daleks were so direct) – no, my problem was that it was pointless and arbitrary.
Though, now that I’m thinking about it, her death was not significantly more pointless or arbitrary than Tasha Yar’s character as a whole, so in this sense, the death was fitting. Tasha’s character was sketchy at best; she came from a dark past, but we never really believed it. There was nothing about her that indicated a childhood of fear and anger and aggression. Yes, there was a lot of talk about ‘rape gangs’ (she was always itching to tell the bridge crew about the rape gangs), but her smiles were a bit too sunny and her personality just a bit too balanced to fill out the character. She was a woman who was good at martial arts and…well…something about rape gangs.
Denise Crosby, who portrayed Tasha, wanted off the show before a season was out since her character was not being developed, and I don’t blame her. I mean, what was she given to do, exactly? It almost seemed as if the writers got this novel idea for a (hold on to your hats, folks) woman who (get this) knows aikido and runs security! Then, after creating this character, they thought to themselves “well, jeez, any woman who knows aikido probably didn’t have parents and had to dodge rape gangs!” Shortly after this conversation, they ran out of ideas and then just had Denise Crosby talk about…well…nothing for twenty-some-odd episodes. Occasionally she lamely shot something with a phaser.
Tasha Yar, to my mind, was a victim not of an oil slick monster, but of two things:
- Screenwriters in 1987 had no idea what to do with a woman who could beat up men, so they didn’t bother trying.
- Gene Roddenberry couldn’t write believable ‘gritty’ characters if they wore skull necklaces and ate babies.
Apparently, according to the internet, Tasha Yar was supposed to based on Vasquez from Aliens – the tough chick with the giant machine gun. The thing is, though, while Vasquez was able to out-macho the guys in an environment full of machismo, Yar is stuck in a world of gender neutral clothing and a complete lack of the crass, devil-may-care attitude our culture assigns to ‘manly-men’. So, if your point is to introduce a female character who can keep up with the guys in the combat arena, but you stick her in a society where they don’t believe in fighting and do not indulge in the typical male posturing around warrior-hood, you quickly find that your character isn’t edgy or groundbreaking or even interesting. She’s just part of the furniture.
But, you know, that should be good, right? Tasha was so believable as security chief that it was never a big deal that she was security chief. Well, if they had played it straight like that, maybe it would have worked. Instead, though, they always had her obsessing over her femininity and went out of their way to show her as feminine (1987 keeps nudging you and saying “guys, she’s a girl! Get it! A GIRL!”). This starts to get weird and confusing. You, the viewer, start saying things like “look television, I understand that Tasha is competent and tough and am totally okay with that…but why are you having her complain about not having pretty clothes like Troi?”
In the end, the character was a hot mess, and not in the good way. She just didn’t seem to make sense; she was an incomplete sketch, more so than any other character on that show in the first season. The only real character hook she seemed to have was the possession of breasts, even though the whole point of the character was that it didn’t matter that she had breasts. What’s an audience supposed to do with that? What is an actress supposed to do?
Well, apparently, what is done is see to it that you are killed by an evil alien oil slick.
Fare thee well, Tasha. You set the stage for Ensign Ro Laren and, later, Major Kira in DS9, so you can be said to have not lived in vain. You also have the distinction of being more interesting than almost every character on Voyager. That, though, isn’t saying very much.
The Action Hero’s Arc
So, this past weekend and much of last week, my wife was very busy with work and very tired. As a side-effect of this, I was able to watch some action movies, which are rarely available for viewing in the Habershaw household, seeing as my wife generally doesn’t enjoy them and I’d rather watch something we both like instead of making her suffer for my own, sole enjoyment. Anyway, I (finally) saw The Book of Eli and Rambo IV. They got me thinking about character arc, since in both stories the action hero goes through a kind of character shift, except in once instance it is a bit more plausible and understandable and in the other it seems entirely arbitrary. So, with that in mind, lets talk a little bit about character arc.
In the first place, just about every story has at least one protagonist in which the audience invests their emotional interest. Some of your more complicated stories have several characters that might qualify, but we’re not here to talk ‘complicated’ stories; we’re talking action movies. In action movies (and lots of other straightforward, three-act tales from RomComs to Westerns to Courtroom Thrillers), there is pretty much always an identifiable protagonist – the hero, if you will. In good stories, this protagonist will be a round character (i.e. with identifiable and varied character traits that make them like real people) and one that is also dynamic (i.e. they change over the course of the story). Indeed, the quality and cohesion of this change is essential to whether or not the movie is a ‘good’ one or not.
Contrary to popular belief, action movies with fabulous action and terrible character arcs aren’t ‘good’. They might be diverting or mildly amusing, but they won’t really thrill you to the core. Guy loses girl, guy blows up mob, guy gets girl is, well, derivative and boring, no matter how much kung-fu he knows. I’ve discussed this at somewhat greater length here, but it bears repeating: action is only interesting insofar as we care about and understand the stakes of the action involved. In a good action movie, the action sequences and the plot serve to change the protagonist in some way and we, as we watch this change, develop sympathy for the character’s plight. At the moment of catharsis (that is ‘dramatic release of tension’), we ought to feel an upswell of pathos and understanding. We have traveled with the hero and now understand how he has come to this powerful realization. This is the path of all the best action flicks, from The Rock to Conan the Barbarian to Casino Royale. This brings me, now, to the two movies in question. (spoilers below, for those of you who care)
I was really looking forward to this film, primarily because I really like the Rambo character. Yeah, he isn’t the most well realized action hero ever, but the internal struggle against his own ‘warrior nature’ is a compelling one for me. His story is about a man who seeks redemption but never manages to find it. I was curious to see how that troubled character matured into an older man, and Rambo IV was that movie.
So, we are given the fairly stock story about a bunch of well-meaning white westerners who butt their heads into some affair in Asia and get seriously burned and it becomes Rambo’s job to (reluctantly at first) rescue them from a horrible death at the hands of evil South Asian War Criminals. Despite how it sounds, the first two acts of this movie do a pretty good job of showing Rambo struggling with his conscience. He doesn’t want to take the missionaries upstream, but he does anyway because, deep down, he wants to believe that they can fix things. He wants to be a good man. He wants to be a man of peace. The big, bad world, though, isn’t a peaceful one, and Rambo winds up having to lead a team of rough and tumble mercenaries deep into Burma to save them.
But then, in the third act, while Rambo mercilessly slaughters a hundred billion Burmese soldiers in a shower of gore and explosions, the moment of catharsis somehow seems to elude us. One second he’s standing there, resolute and angry, over the corpses of his vanquished enemies, gazing down at the leader of the missionaries (who finally ‘gets it,’ I suppose) and then, after a fade out, we see him returning home to Arizona with a smile on his face.
What the what?
If Rambo’s problem is that he can never escape his ingrained predisposition to be an ungodly killing machine and, thusly, never can return home, how does this latest iteration of ungodly killing machinations change things? It would be one thing if he found God (even if it would ring hollow) or fell in love (which he clearly doesn’t) or something about the timbre of this violence has a visible effect on him (which it doesn’t seem to), but all we get is Rambo triumphant and then, magically, Rambo redeemed. That’s it? That’s not a character arc, that’s a character cliff. He just falls off the wagon of perpetual-war-addiction and goes to see his Dad. What, do they make a patch for that?
The Book of Eli
Meanwhile, in the character of Eli, we are given a similar protagonist as Rambo. Eli is old, the veteran of many battles, and trying to find his place in a world gone mad with violence and cruelty. His guide is his book – the one and only copy of the Bible – that he carries and reads from constantly and that he trusts will somehow bring him to the Promised Land. Like Rambo, Eli’s attempt at solitude and contemplation is disrupted by his encounter with Evil Men and his wish to protect an innocent woman. He fights to protect his book, but, in the end, after all the bullets have flown, he must give it up to save Solara.
Unlike Rambo, though, in that moment we have our moment of catharsis. Eli realizes something about the Book and gives it away. While we sit there, baffled at his decision to sacrifice his life’s work and, probably his life for the life of an innocent, a process of understanding begins. Though we figure it out later, by the end we see what Eli saw: the book isn’t the important thing. He is the Book. What the Book teaches him is essential, but the actual physical Book itself is not. When Carnegie asks Eli “God is good, is he not?”, Eli’s reply of “All the time” is sincere. It is because, at that moment, he understands. He lets go and, by letting go, he is victorious. This is a character arc; this is catharsis.
This was a better movie.
Now, I don’t mean to say that Book of Eli was the greatest movie ever – it was just ‘pretty good’ to ‘okay’, and I’m not entirely sold on the big twist at the end – but it was definitely better than Rambo and understood what it was doing on a level superior to many of its action movie brethren.