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.

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