4 Lazy Character Shortcuts Hollywood Can't Stop Using
The best movie characters are usually the ones whom we sort of identify with. Whether they're a simple middle-class teenager or a grizzled Matthew McConaughy playing a nihilistic detective trying to find aliens from the future inside a black hole, they work because when they make decisions, we get it. We learn who they are and understand them. Sometimes, though, writers don't really have time for that shit. Instead, they use some kind of shorthand which (they hope) will have the same profound effect with far less effort. This usually doesn't work at all. Particularly when ...
Sudden Sacrifices Are A Substitute For Heroism
What is more powerful than one human being sacrificing their own life to save others, usually to the accompaniment of an orchestra that sounds like it's about to parade through the screen? You could probably base a whole religion around it. In the world of Hollywood screenwriting, sacrifices can also be written in not to provide a satisfying end to a character's arc, but to add instant heroism to a character we barely know.
Kong: Skull Island (which I think is a great movie) includes a bunch of dispensable soldier characters who are tailor-made to be ape food. There's nothing wrong with that. I'm a fan of slasher films, so I have an appreciation for characters who only exist to say "Hey, guys, what was that noise?" But then, while under an assault from mutant reptiles, one of the soldiers, Captain Cole, pulls out two grenades and stares down one of the beasts. The rest of the cast does the typical "NO! DON'T DO THIS!" thing, like the audience is expected to. No, don't do it, guy with literally two personality traits.
The guy's plan goes awry and he ends up being a bloodstain on the side of a cliff, but that's beside the point. The point is ... well, what is the point? The sacrifice doesn't add a dimension to his character, nor does it say anything poignant about him. Instead, it just makes him look like he's very bad at thinking through decisions. You're stranded on an island with a monster ape and ubiquitous leviathans, and your plan is to waste yourself and two precious grenades with your patented "Stand there and hope" maneuver?
Of course, they also did this with Superman at the end of Batman v Superman, in a Hail Mary effort to give us some reason to care. They did the same in I Am Legend, in which Will Smith sacrifices himself to maybe blow up some of the zombies, which is such a pointless act that the director's cut has Will Smith not do that.
And remember Chappie, that Black Mirror episode, but with more decapitations? At the end of that, Ninja -- played by Ninja of the rap group Die Antwoord -- tries to sacrifice himself in dramatic slow motion, as if the movie is under the impression that we liked his character. He just spent two hours cursing and emotionally abusing a childlike robot. Sacrifice away, idiot.
If they want us to care, they need to scroll backward a few dozen pages in the script and write the character as someone we'll either be sad to see go or happy to see redeemed. Oh, and the character needs to stay dead.
Making A Character Suddenly Badass (In A Way That Makes No Sense)
There's nothing better than when a badass character gets a badass payoff. My boys in the Dragon Ball franchise are constantly training so that when the time comes, they can triumphantly punch holes through people. This is immensely satisfying because you, the viewer, get to anticipate seeing them use their skills. There is build-up. So it's baffling whenever "badass" characters either get that way out of nowhere, or are assigned badass traits that don't fit their progression at all, like if The Karate Kid ended with Daniel challenging Johnny to a snowmobile race.
Take Arya Stark in Game Of Thrones. A big point is made that she's not built for swordplay. Her cranky travel companion Sandor Clegane points out that her tiny frame and flimsy sword is useless in a gritty fantasy universe full of giant men in armor. Thus, she learns how to work with poisons and magic disguises, leading us to believe that she'll be pulling off some rad espionage tactics to fool bad guys who could crush her skull like an egg. Instead, within a couple of seasons, Arya becomes Jason Bourne Lite, shrugging off stabbings and doing sweet parkour. Later, she faces off in a practice duel with giant sword master Brienne and outmaneuvers her easily, smirking the whole time.
Regardless of the fact that she is never shown acquiring that level of skill, the problem is that this character is now superhuman and is in no way someone you can identify with.
Writers can't resist this, even when a lack of combat training is the entire point of a character. This happens in the recent Death Wish remake, in which Bruce Willis, a surgeon, suddenly becomes a mix of Jigsaw and Rambo, all because he lost his family ... and he's a surgeon? This movie had a lot of problems, but at the very least, it could've made sense. I can't claim to know what they teach you at medical school, but I sincerely doubt it involves target practice. I mean, not yet, anyway. But they couldn't think of any other way to have him beat the bad guys.
And look, I love Harry Potter's Neville Longbottom, but the whole point of him is that he's a clumsy, nerdy boob. He continues to be that for the first seven and a half movies, until his arc completes with him ... cutting a giant snake's head off in slow motion with a sword? Why? At no point in the series are we clamoring for Neville to be the guy who decapitates magic serpents. He's shown as having talents -- specifically, using magical plants -- but all of that goes out the window because in the end, being a hero only means being great with traditional fighting techniques.
I'm not saying that Neville should've been watering the shrubs while Voldemort was attacking, but maybe give us something more in line with his character. He can be cool without being Conan. Hell, Breaking Bad spent its whole run inventing ways for a sickly chemistry teacher to defeat drug lords who are stronger and more well-armed than he is. They didn't simply make him suddenly good at ninjutsu.
Gritty "Realism" Is Conveyed Through Ceaseless Cursing
People curse in real life. They do it in the car, they do it in the bedroom, they do it when they're in line at Gamestop and GODDAMN, RICHARD, THE TRADE-IN VALUES ARE NOT GONNA BE THAT GOOD NO MATTER HOW MANY "PRO" POINTS YOU HAVE, SO GET THE FUCK ON WITH IT, SHITLIZARD. But since lots of movies are shooting for PG-13 and network TV shows usually try to be family friendly, they have to keep it clean. When creators find themselves without those restrictions, they tend to go hog-wild.
So I get it, prestige TV dramas. You get to put on your HBO/Showtime Big Boy Pants, and you naturally want to curse a lot because Mom and Dad aren't around to tell you no. But do so many characters absolutely need to do it like they're auditioning for a Rob Zombie film? For example, the sister character Debra is the heart and soul of Dexter, considering the show reminds you at all times that the titular character lacks a heart and soul. But there are ways to illustrate that she's deep and troubled other than peppering all of her dialogue with curses that make her sound as if she's just discovered Urban Dictionary. You know, like actually giving her an important role on the show? That's just my two cents.
It comes up in Game Of Thrones, which desperately wants to be Definitely Not Lord Of The Rings, and Boardwalk Empire, which desperately wanted to be Definitely Not The Godfather, or Deadwood, which desperately wanted to be Definitely Not Renewed For A Fourth Season. I love you, Deadwood. I live and breathe you, Deadwood. But holy shit, it's hard to market a cowboy show, much less a cowboy show that constantly plays like a Greek tragedy and includes an errant dropping of "fuck" every six seconds.
Compare that (again) to a show like Breaking Bad, which was only allowed one or two F-words per season. When they come, they actually have impact. When Skyler reveals to Walter that she's sleeping with her boss, it's "I fucked Ted." Not "I've been messing around with Ted," or "I let Ted play on my slippery dulcimer, if ya' know what I mean." It's a gut punch. The fact that, realistically, she'd probably say it that way is just icing on the cake.
Some of you might say that these shows use gratuitous nudity in exactly the same way (that is, because they can), but at least beautiful naked people is a selling point. Who's out there saying, "Man, I'm not crazy about the plot of that show, but some of the cursing is amazing. It gave me a full erection."
Geeky Characters Are Defined Only By Their Ability To Spout Pop Culture References
A lot of people in the world are geeks. Not me. I only talk about Digimon when I'm drunk. But a lot of people are. And you'd think that since "geeky" interests are so commonplace, we'd get more great geeky characters in pop culture. Characters that we see aspects of ourselves in. Sadly, what we do get are shows like Big Bang Theory, or characters like Steve Urkel from Family Matters, Ross Gellar from Friends, Morgan from Chuck, Noah from the Scream TV show, and about 75 percent of the denizens of Kevin Smith movies. These are characters who don't make geekiness look fun. Instead, they drag it around like a cross, burdened by their own existence.
I would probably relate to more "geeky" film characters if the writers knew how to identify them as geeks without having them bleat like farm animals about Star Wars or Dungeons & Dragons. Either that or they're like Spencer from Criminal Minds, who refuses to shut up about how his special, powerful, super computer brain works differently from the average brain. He's supposed to be likable, but I've never met a single likable person who went into detail about how much smarter he or she is than most of the population.
It's like they're so afraid that we won't get it unless they crank it up to cartoonish levels. The "funny" control room employee in Jurassic World wears a Jurassic Park shirt with the original movie's logo on it. That's great! It builds his character and it adds to the theme of the movie that you probably shouldn't recklessly commodify prehistoric beasts. But he then explains why he wears that shirt and how much it costs and how much he loved the first Jurassic Park, and any chance we had of identifying with him goes out the window. If I buy a Spider-Man shirt, I don't go around the mall asking people about their favorite Doctor Octopus moments; I just wear the shirt.
It's so strange because you'd assume that most writers are themselves geeks, the ones who have to borrow clothes to attend a red carpet premiere and then are kept far away from the cameras. You have to imagine them toiling away on their sitcom pilot thinking, "Hmmm ... what would a geek say in this situation? It's so hard for a cool, sexy beast like me to put myself in their mindset. I know, I'll have them suddenly speak Klingon."
Daniel has a Twitter, which he uses as a platform to yell about Pokemon.
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