Category Archives: characters

What Bad Movies Can Teach You About Writing: Part Three

riddick2In my last two posts, I talked about how terrible movies can teach you much about how not to write. This week, I’ll wrap up this three-parter with an analysis of the character of Riddick (the always-wooden Vin Diesel) in the fourth movie of the Riddick series, released in 2013 and named simply Riddick.

First, a synopsis of this epic tale. In the previous Riddick film, Riddick had been heading for his home planet, Furya, with an escort provided by his nemesis, Vaako. Naturally, this was a ruse to kill Riddick on an unknown planet; of course, the escort doesn’t double-tap, so this installment thus opens with Riddick waking up after having been left for dead.

Riddick gets himself together and ekes out an existence for an unspecified amount of time before discovering a mercenary station. He sets off a beacon, bringing two competing ships full of bounty hunters to catch him. Naturally, Riddick kills all but a few, all the while fighting escapees from the Tremors series. Of course, in the end, he escapes the planet with the help of the three surviving bounty hunters, including a lesbian mercenary (Dahl, played by the fabulous Katee Sackhoff) whom he manages to turn straight (at least briefly) with his manly charms.

He just keeps going and going and going.

He just keeps going and going and going.

Now what’s going on with our hero in this movie? The writers have presented us with a seemingly tough-as-nails antihero who’s immune to all pain. You can stab him, tranquilize him, poison him, and leave him for dead, but like the Energizer Bunny, he just keeps going.

Riddick appears to have no heart; after all, doesn’t he kill almost all the bounty hunters while betraying no emotion? Oh, no, Riddick does have a heart, see, because he saves a dingo puppy, which then becomes his best friend. And when the vile Santana (a bounty hunter) kills that dog, well, all bets are off. Santana just pissed off the wrong guy!

Additionally, you wouldn’t expect a guy like this to live by any conventional moral code, but that doesn’t mean he’s amoral. Of course not! For he rescues Dahl when she is attacked by Santana (because a damsel can’t save herself); later, Riddick reveals that he previously killed the son of one of the bounty hunters to save a child. So he he does have a code – it’s just of his own devising.

Yes, Riddick is one manly man. Throughout the movie, he overcomes all odds, but, the writers hope we’ll surmise, what is he really fighting for? Sure, he wants to go home, but what is there for him on his home planet? He’s driven only be nostalgia for his mostly depopulated homeworld, as well as revenge against Vaako. Ah, such an empty, ultimately pointless life! (This, of course, is left unresolved so that the filmmakers can inflict yet another Riddick movie on the public.)

Variations exist on this theme: the bad girl with a heart of gold (Pretty Woman); beware the good man who goes to war (Braveheart); and, my absolute favorite awful theme, the bad guy who just needs the love of a good woman (Beauty and the Beast).

What lovely eyes you have.

What lovely eyes you have.

Now, what can you learn about what not to do in fiction from this movie? Just about everything. The movie is riddled with character clichés. Riddick himself is a walking caricature: from carrying secret emotional pain disguised by a brutish exterior to his preternatural ability to escape death. This is just silly and unbelievable. With a few notable exceptions, such as the historical “mad monk” Rasputin, no one is actually this slippery. Yes, this is a movie, and we can suspend some disbelief, but readers of modern fiction are simply too sophisticated for this (unless your character actually has preternatural abilities, but even Superman had his Kryptonite).

It is possible to create an antihero with depth – for example, Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) in The Walking Dead. The key, which the writers of Riddick seem to have dropped down the Port-A-Potty, is to make your antihero a thoroughly complex character, with good and bad points and internal conflict more pronounced than an immunity to all pain but his emotional pain. Resorting to the “emotional pain” trope or the unkillable superman may be easy, but it isn’t believable – and it doesn’t make for a story that stands the test of time.

What Bad Movies Can Teach You About Writing: Part Two

As I wrote in my last post, bad movies can teach you a lot about how not to write. This week, we’ll look at one of the most awful movies of all time – The Evil Dead. Long before the Syfy channel cashed in on the “movies that are so bad they’re good” genre, film buffs were enjoying this 1981 cult classic from Sam Raimi.

Just in case you actually don’t know the plot of this wretched bit of cinema, it unfolds like so: A group of college friends, intending to spend a weekend relaxing in a cabin in the woods, discover a strange book in the cabin’s cellar. They then play back a tape recording on which the previous tenant muses on the book. It’s through this recording that the group discovers that the book is bound in human skin and written in human blood.

Strangely, this is not enough to make them flee; instead, they continue listening to the tape. The voice on the recording pronounces incantations from the book, then reports that this has raised the demons mentioned in the book. These demons have possessed his wife, whom he must now dismember. Naturally, this recording raises the same demons, who possess several of the group; the possessed then do away with all but one of the group (the ever-entertaining Bruce Campbell, playing Ash).

Quite apart from its entertainment value (which, if you have not seen it, you really must), The Evil Dead can teach writers much about giving characters consistent and believable motivation for their actions. Examples of poor decision-making abound in this film, but I’ll give you three.

  1. The tape recording drives Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) to hysteria. Then, when a storm drives a tree through the cabin window, she begins to hear strange voices in the woods. Naturally, as anyone would, she goes outside alone and unarmed, calling out, “Who’s there?” Then, clad in a nightgown and slippers, she begins to wander in the woods. Why this action has no rational motivation: Do I even need to explain it? No reasonable person would wander around in the woods at night, alone, unarmed, and in slippers, especially after hearing mysterious voices in those woods.
  2. As Cheryl wanders in the woods, the trees come to life and attack and rape her. When she escapes and returns to the cabin, once again hysterical and clearly having been attacked, the group pooh-poohs her story. Even more ridiculous, Ash must be convinced to drive Cheryl – who is actually his sister – into town to stay at a hotel (although this plan falls through). Why this action has no rational motivation: True, generally when someone claims to have been attacked by trees, the first impulse is to consider the person nuts – but Cheryl has clearly been attacked by something. This should have been reason enough for the group to abandon their vacation plans. But the incoherent motivation is compounded when Ash is reluctant to drive his own sister into town – if not because she is hysterical, then for medical attention.
  3. When Ash does attempt to drive Cheryl into town, they discover that the bridge connecting their part of the woods with town has been destroyed. Ash thus return with Cheryl to the cabin, where the other two women, Linda (Ash’s girlfriend, played by Betsy Baker) and Shelly (Sarah York) have a great time playing psychic games with cards. Why this action has no rational motivation: No one is troubled by the destruction of their route back to civilization, especially when they have obvious evidence that at the very least, wild animals lurk outside. This bizarre reaction is aggravated by the smashed cabin window, which provides easy entry for those wild animals. What’s more, why are the other two women settling down to an enjoyable game of cards, instead of comforting their companion, who has been attacked?

Almost none of the characters’ behavior in The Evil Dead is rooted in believable motivations. The characters’ failure to take a single reasonable action throughout this film is so egregious that it will cure even the most inobservant writer of the habit of forgetting to consider motivation when crafting a story.

So if you’ve never watched it, do so. Not only is the movie fun for playing Mystery Science Theater 3000, it’s a valuable lesson in what not to do in your fiction.

What Bad Movies Can Teach You About Writing: Part One

Far from being mere mindless wastes of an hour and a half, bad movies can actually teach the observant viewer much about what not to do in fiction. Now, you might think you can learn far more valuable lessons from good fiction, but in my opinion, bad examples are the more instructive because they are so blatant, whereas good literature is so seamless that only a very critical eye can identify the craftsmanship. So, as examples, I have selected three absolutely terrible movies: Congo, Evil Dead (1981), and Riddick.

This week, we’ll talk about Congo. This cringeworthy 1995 movie, based on the eponymous book, stands out for its shameless use of one-dimensional stock characters. Herewith, a list.

  • R.B. Travis – The head of TraviCom, a multinational communications firm, he’s your typical heartless businessman. When we meet Travis, he is still carrying his golf club (because don’t all executives spend their days making deals on the golf course?). Worse, when a TraviCom expedition for a rare diamond, led by his own son, meets with disaster, it’s not his son Travis wants to rescue – it’s the diamond. Why you should avoid this character: In real life, anyone this devoid of humanity is clearly a sociopath and probably behind bars.
  • Karen Ross – Ah, yes, the Tough Bitch. Ross bullies her way into an expedition, takes no crap from the African warlord who temporarily kidnaps her team, shoots down heat-seeking missiles from an airplane, jumps out of that airplane, shoots lasers, and single-handedly takes down Travis. She’s the resourceful, no-nonsense gal who turns out to be more useful than those sissyboys. Why you should avoid this character: The Tough Bitch is designed to be incongruous, cause, see, she’s a girl, but she’s still tough! Will wonders never cease? The attempt to turn a stereotype (damsel in distress) on its head is now just another stereotype.
  • Elliot and his pet, hanging out.Dr. Peter Elliot – A primatologist after Dr. Doolittle’s own heart, Elliot prefers animals to humans, because, as he reassures Ross, “Humans are dangerous. Gorillas are very gentle.” When Ross asks Elliot whether his pet gorilla is dangerous, he defends animal honor with, “Don’t perpetuate the . . . myth of the killer ape!” Surprise, surprise, killer apes off most of their team by movie’s end. Why you should avoid this character: The classic wide-eyed innocent, this character is clearly ignorant of the very animals he professes to prefer; anybody who truly studies animals respects animals enough to know they’re deadly when crossed.
  • Eddie Ventro – The Quirky Guy. See, we know Eddie’s unconventional, because when he comes on-screen, he’s wearing a brightly colored shirt – in the middle of a war zone! He also sports a single, dangling earring. Sassy! Why you should avoid this character: Real humans are much more complex than the sum total of their outfits and jewelry.
  • Munro Kelly – The Great White Hunter leading the expedition into the Congo, he’s seen it all, is fazed by nothing, and has a droll remark about everything. Also, he’s supposed to be British, but Ernie Hudson, who plays Kelly, has the worst British accent I’ve ever heard. Why you should avoid this character: Jaded and world-weary is cliché. Especially cliché, because it seems Hudson has never actually heard an Englishman speak, which is the cinematic equivalent of putting an exotic foreigner (about whose culture you know nothing) in your novel just to give it some spice. And speaking of exotic foreigners . . .
  • Herkermer Homolka – Posing as a rich Romanian philanthropist, Herkermer is consumed by a single-minded covetousness that, predictably, leads to his grisly death, because Evil People Should be Punished. Why you should avoid this character: Instant karma doesn’t always get you.

So, what can this horrible movie teach you about writing fiction? Don’t take the easy out of making your characters cardboard cutouts. No one is this much of a caricature. If you’re writing a villain, give him or her a redeeming characteristic; if you’re writing a guy who marches to the beat of his own drum, make that a surprise. Real people are complicated and confusing, and nobody is a textbook case of anything. Give your characters a break – give them souls.

Who Tells the Story: On Point of View

The term “point of view,” or POV, is familiar to most of us. Most writers know about and can use first-person point of view, but did you know there are actually several more POVs from which a story can be written? Let’s talk about them.

  • First-Person Multiple POV. Of course, first-person POV always uses “I,” and the action is related through the eyes of a single narrator. First-person multiple POV, while using the “I” viewpoint, shifts from one first-person viewpoint to another, with the shifts generally coming in each new chapter or section of a work. The benefit of this POV is that you can show the same event through different eyes, thus achieving a sort of omniscience, without, of course, using the omniscient POV.
  • Third-person Subjective POV. This POV is quite common. Though the action is related in third person, using the name of the character through whose eyes we see the action, we are also privy to that character’s thoughts and feelings. However, when a writer uses this POV, it is generally impossible to describe the appearance of the character through whose eyes we are seeing the action. We are, so to speak, inside the head of that character and cannot see him or her objectively. This POV is not that different from the standard first-person POV, except that it achieves an air of distance.
  • Third-person Objective POV. In this POV, we don’t know the main character’s interior drama; all we know is how the main character is interacting in his or her world. Further, when we see the action, we do not see it as through the eyes of another character; the writer chooses to tell us what the character he or she has chosen as the focus is doing and how that character appears.
  • Third-Person Limited Omniscient POV. This may be understood as a combination of the previous two points of view. We not only see the action – what the main character is doing – but we’re also privy to his or her thoughts.
  • Third-Person Multiple POV. Sometimes called contrapuntal, in third-person multiple POV, the narration shifts viewpoints within a work from one character to another. This POV is distinct from an omniscient POV in that you, the author, do not intrude with information that any given character cannot know.
  • Objective POV. Called the “theatrical” POV, writing in this POV requires you as the writer to stay out of heads, but to describe all action, favoring none and implying nothing.
  • Second-Person POV. Just as the name implies, this POV addresses the reader (through the use of “you”), essentially leading him or her through the action as if recounting what the audience has actually done.
  • First- and Second-Point of View Combined POV. In this POV, the writer, while speaking in the first-person, seems to address another person (identified as “you”). Highly intimate and difficult to pull off, this is a rarely seen POV.
  • Third-Person Plural Observer POV. Though the action is told through from the viewpoint of an observer, the observers – a pair of siblings, a husband and wife, children – are multiple in number.
  • First-Person Collective Observer POV. Again, the action is told through an observer, but when you use this POV, you speak as a group: we saw, we thought, we sometimes said.

Each of these viewpoints has its own uses. Consider, when you plan a work, the possibilities of some of these more unusual viewpoints, instead of sticking to plain old first-person.

For a more extensive explanation of each of these POVs, see Josip Novakovich’s Fiction Writer’s Workshop, in which each of these POVs is discussed, as well as a few I left out.

Give Your Villains a Break — And Rough Up Your Heroes

One of the hardest feats to pull off when writing characters is creating complete, realistic characters. Usually, you’ll find this most difficult when you’re either writing a character whom you despise—or when you’re writing a character based in part on yourself.

When you’re writing a character whom you despise, you run a quite high risk of making the character one-dimensional. For example, I wrote a short story featuring a brutal doctor, Dr. Arnold Hollingsead II. Hollingsead, in my mind, was a judgmental bigot who did not care about his patients. I gave him no quarter and painted him as the suave sadist I imagined him to be — resulting in a thoroughly one-dimensional character about whom readers felt absolutely nothing. Not hate, not pity, not even dislike.

Why was this? After all, hadn’t I shown him to be despicable? Well, yes, but I hadn’t shown him to be a real person. In real life, few, if any people, are wholly good or bad. Most of us are a mix of good and bad traits. Even saints, for example, often led colorful lives before reforming — think of St. Augustine, who fathered an illegitimate child, or St. Mary of Egypt, who was quite the seductress. And even for the person who goes on to become as good as gold, the past can still trouble him or her.

St Augustine -- Not always such a saint.Characters whom you want to show as despicable should also comprise good and bad traits. In order for your readers to hate your villain as much as you do, you must make the bad guy sympathetic. For example, I gave my villain, Dr. Hollingsead, no characteristics with which readers could empathize. And the key is that a reader must see a bit of himself in that vile character. Because no one believes that he or she is evil, if you can show your reader a slice of himself, he or she will have that emotional reaction you seek to evoke.

The other difficulty writers run into in creating characters is a failure to make a main character truly come alive. This almost always occurs because that main character is a part of the writer. We know ourselves too well; it becomes impossible to separate yourself from your character, and the result, again, is a one-dimensional representation. Or, for example, because you love your character so, you give him or her no bad traits at all.

How do you get around this? You can use character worksheets, as I mentioned in my previous post, to truly give that character a separate life from yourself. When you use this method, try to think of traits that you don’t have — maybe you’re obsessively neat, so make your character a bit of a slob. Maybe you didn’t give him any vices — so now his vice is compulsive gambling.

I know, I know, you don’t want to have to do this. You love your main character, and you want others to love him, too, because he is really you. But again, if you don’t give him dimensions, you risk creating a flat character with whom no one can identify, not least because you haven’t drawn him out.

So go ahead, give even your villains a break, and rough up your heroes. You might be surprised by the results.