Complex Characters

There are only a handful of actors and directors that immediately catch my attention. With the latest Robin Hood movie, I didn’t even have to see a preview. All it took was a poster listing Ridley Scott, Russell Crowe, and Cate Blanchett. I knew that (a) I had to see it, and (b) I would love it.

(For reference, see Gladiator and A Good Year — two of Hubby’s and my favorite movies of all time.)

On Saturday, we finally got the opportunity to drop the kids off somewhere and catch a date night at the theater. Not only were we not disappointed, but everybody who has also seen it says, “Wasn’t that amazing? Didn’t you love it?”

For me to really love a movie, it has to do everything right: cinematography, development and pacing, acting. And in this movie, one aspect I really found myself loving was the complexity of the characters.

Unfortunately, for any of my analysis to make sense, I’m going to have to spoil a few things. IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE MOVIE YET, KEEP READING AT YOUR OWN RISK!

The first part that won me over was when Robin does the guessing game and Little John accuses him of being a cheat. When Robin threw that punch, I knew I’d like him. It was a character flaw that made sense: his sense of honor had just been challenged. He probably shouldn’t have punched the guy. He probably should have “let bygones be bygones” and all that. But that punch showed us he’s human.

Shortly after that, I loved the whole sequence with King Richard. We know that everybody likes him, but we’d already seen that he could be a little grouchy (complaining the soldiers were too loud). When he goes out looking for an honest man, finds Robin, listens to Robin’s very heartfelt, moving speech about the massacre, and then throws Robin and his three associates in the stocks, I appreciated his character.

Who wants a boringly likeable king? Where’s the fun in that? So much better to have a well-liked king with flaws that keep you guessing.

But the character I ended up loving best was Oscar Isaac’s portrayal of Prince/King John.

"Still of Oscar Isaac in Robin Hood," photo credit: David Appleby — (c) 2010 Universal Studios

We meet him as his mother walks in to break up the affair he’s having with a French princess right in front of his English wife. And I loved that in that very first scene, he shows us what he’s made of. He doesn’t want a barren English wife, especially since Richard has no heirs, either; he knows that a French wife will make a better alliance; and he knows that the feisty personality of the woman in bed with him will make a better queen than the squeamish one outside the door. He might not be a very moral character, but he’s complex in a way we can respect.

And his complexities showed up again and again.

I loved the scene where his French queen now has to convince him of the plot against him — how he ranted and toppled furniture and scared her to the point that she threatened to kill herself, but then he apologized with such sincerity and kissed her with such feeling.

I loved how he resembled Richard now and again, like in how he dealt with William. He discarded William, then realized William was his true friend and sought him out, only to spit on William’s advice and ride off, only to show up at the council of the barrens and take William’s advice after all. It showed that he was stubborn and hated to be told he was wrong as much as Richard had hated that, yet he was reasonable enough to see the sense of things eventually.

I loved how he could be likeable when he chose to be, like his line, “I can do better than nod,” or when they’re going into battle: “It’s my first time. I shall lead.”

And I loved how, in the end, he stayed true to his nature, hating the barons for trying to take away his “God-given” powers as king and not caring what promises he’d made to them, ignoring his wife’s warning hiss: “John!”

Complex characters are what drive the best stories because their choices — a combination of good and bad ones, whether they are the “good” guys or the “bad” guys — create the twists of the plot and keep us guessing about whether or not things will turn out all right.

Who are your favorite complex characters, from movies or books or TV, and what are your favorite scenes exposing their flaws?

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Character Desires

Last summer I attended a writing conference where Martine Leavitt, author of Keturah and Lord Death and other amazing YA novels, was in charge of the workshop I participated in. One of Martine’s biggest suggestions for all of us was to figure out what our characters want — what their concrete desire and their emotional desire are — and to make it clear from the very first page.

I’ve been trying, and I’m gradually getting there, but the past three Saturdays have finally convinced me that Martine was right: this is crucial. My story won’t work if those objects of desire aren’t in place.

Three Saturdays ago, I met with other writers for a critique and they told me the first 1/4 of my novel is too slow. Not an insurmountable problem, but the trouble with a problem like that is getting to the root of it.

Is it that I’ve started at the wrong time in the story? Have I used the wrong set of scenes to introduce the characters? Is it just too many scenes? I cut 4,000 words from the beginning right after the critique, but I didn’t feel like that solved it.

So two Saturdays ago, when my best writer friend came into town to visit from Texas, I had her talk it through with me. And the thing about Holly is that she can be brutal in her assessments but she’s almost always right. She said, “I don’t even know what your characters want.”

I’ve been stewing over it ever since. In fact, writing production sort of halted this week because I felt like such a failure as a writer. (Holly, if you’re reading this, I still love you!)

I also felt a bit of denial/rebellion, like, “Most real people don’t even know what they want. Why should a character have to know? Why should it matter? Isn’t a quest often external, like someone shows up at the door and says we need you to go find this magic sword? What do these silly objects of desire have to do with it?”

Okay, so enter yesterday, Saturday #3. We watched Sherlock Holmes for the first time, and I started to think about character desires again, still thinking, “I really doubt that what the characters want has much to do with it. This is an action movie, so it won’t matter.”

Um, yeah. I was wrong.

The first scene where they’re racing in to save the thrashing sacrificial victim I didn’t count, because it feels like a prologue, so I started my analysis with the first character-driven scene: where we see Watson talking to a patient and then going in to intervene with Holmes, who’s been firing a gun in the house.

Here’s what we learn about them right away. Watson wants to get married and leave, but he cares about Holmes. Holmes wants a challenging case — he’s miserable without one — but he also doesn’t want Watson to leave and he doesn’t want to work without Watson, though Watson’s ready to split ways.

We learn about Holmes’s other emotional object of desire — Irene Adler — a little bit later, but knowing the conflicting desires of Holmes and Watson is what gets the movie started. And then, of course, the villain’s desire to take over the world throws in the main conflict that moves the plot, and we know that Holmes will fight the villain because we already know that Holmes desperately wants a challenge.

Fine. So maybe character desires matter.

And I think it also matters that the two main characters have conflicting desires. The supreme example I always think of is in a romantic comedy where the emotional desires match (they’re attracted to each other and want each other) but the concrete desires conflict.

Think of You’ve Got Mail. I know that came out a while ago, but it’s the epitome of this in my head. She runs an independent bookstore. He runs a bookstore chain that is putting her out of business. They both want to be successful, but it’s not possible for both of them to get what they want.

I hated that she couldn’t keep her bookstore in that movie. I thought that was so unfair. But then, Holmes doesn’t get all of his desires, either (though I won’t tell you which ones in case you haven’t seen it yet).

I think it often happens that a character has to sacrifice one desire, either emotional or concrete, for the other. Sometimes a noble character who wants what’s best for the kingdom or some other greater good (concrete desire) will sacrifice his or her personal (emotional) desires. And while we hate for it to be that way, we also need it to be that way.

We need that kind of conflict and sacrifice to draw us into the story, to keep us on the edge of our seats wondering how it will work out, wondering if they’ll find some compromise that allows them to “have it all.”

So fine. Holly, you’re right, as usual. The thing that’s dragging down the first 1/4 of my novel isn’t the scenes themselves, it’s that we need to know what the characters want and how their desires conflict. We need to wonder how there can possibly be a happy ending — because a happy ending is entirely dependent on what the characters want.

At least now I know where to start with my next set of revisions.

What do you think? Have other great examples of how character desires drive a story?

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Casting Characters

Last week I wrote a post relating the movie Clueless to writing and mentioned how it’s based on Jane Austen’s Emma. Then last night (Sunday) my hubby read that post (he’s an accountant and currently VERY BUSY during the week) and decided he wanted to watch Clueless (which is ironic because of what I said in that post). And as we watched it, here’s what I couldn’t stop noticing:

Call me crazy here, but don’t you think the cast of the 1996 Emma and the 1995 Clueless look just a little too similar in their respective roles?

First you have Gwyneth Paltrow and Alicia Silverstone, both with their iconic silky long blond hair.

Then you have Jeremy Northam and Paul Rudd with that thick dark hair and those narrow, piercing eyes.

Toni Collette and Brittany Murphy both did the curly red-head thing and have similar facial features.

And I swear that even the two Elton characters and Mr Martin and Travis looked similar.

So my question is . . . was it on purpose? Did the 1996 movie capitalize on the popularity of Clueless by casting similar-looking characters that would be easily identified by Clueless fans? Or is it just pure coincidence?

And isn’t it funny how we latch onto a certain view of certain characters?

My neighbor adores the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice and loves to argue with me about how my favorite version, the Focus Features one from 2005, gets Darcy completely wrong because Colin Firth is the true Darcy. Plus, she prefers the more buxomish Lizzy to the skinny, flat-chested Keira Knightley (and maybe I prefer Keira Knightley’s figure because I am skinny and flat-chested, which brings up the question of how much we assume or want our favorite characters to be like ourselves). But beyond that, I just think the entire cast of the Focus Features film better fit the characters as I’d pictured them — beautiful, shy Jane down to silly Lydia; Darcy and Bingley down to Charlotte and Mr. Collins (despite the fact that Collins in the book is described as tall).

And of course, it happens the same way with modern books as it does with classics. There was the outrage over Robert Pattinson as Edward when he was initially cast, because he didn’t mesh with fans’ mental image of the character — until they got used to the idea, and now he is Edward, probably forever, the way Matthew Broderick will always be Ferris Bueller. Some characters overtake the actor, even.

I saw the first three Harry Potter films before I read the books, so those actors were the characters in my head. There was no separating them.

But on the other hand, most of the time I don’t want the faces of characters to be given to me. This past week I spent hours and hours in the 563 pages of Beautiful Creatures, loving the characters so much that they were real to me. I was so glad that the book trailer I’d seen right before I started reading didn’t include any faces so that I was free to picture them for myself:

[UPDATE: However, if you want faces for your characters, you don’t have to look any further than the fansite for a book, such as one I stumbled on just a few hours after publishing this post; a fansite for Beautiful Creatures just put up a cast list complete with a poll for visitors to vote for their favorite Ethan. I’d never heard of any of the actors on the poll, but I voted for Logan Lerman just based on the photos provided — and he’s winning! So this means that I have good taste in character casting, right? Or at least popular taste.]

How do you feel about putting faces to your favorite characters? Have some movie adaptations disappointed you because of the casting? Do you like having a character’s face on the cover of a book or in a book trailer? Which ones have worked for you and which ones haven’t? And is it a face and a physical description that make a character real, or something else? What is it that makes the picture fit the words?

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Avoiding Cluelessness: Self Evaluating and Revision

Last night I showed a clip from the movie Clueless to my intermediate class, and some of my students began to question why I even own that dvd, let alone know it well enough to choose a clip from it.

“What?” they asked. “Did you have your husband watch it with you last weekend or something?”

I laughed. No, I hadn’t watched it recently, but come on — Clueless is a classic. Why shouldn’t I own it?

Okay, in reality, I didn’t think of that answer on the spot. I told them I probably got it out of a $5 bargain dvd bin. I also didn’t think to tell them that, hello!, Clueless is a young-adult retelling of Emma, which makes it dang cool.

But anyway. What I showed them, and what I would show here if I weren’t so clueless with video editing (if it’s not already on YouTube, I don’t know how to put it there), is the part where Cher starts to figure out that something is wrong. She walks around questioning why it should bug her that her step-brother likes her friend, and then — as a fountain and lights come to life behind her — she has the epiphany that she likes Josh.

I don’t stop there, though. I show the awkward scene with Cher and Josh where she has no clue how to act around him, then where she goes and gets advice from her dad, followed by Cher thinking about what makes her friends likeable people and finally deciding on a course of action to make herself more likeable.

In other words, it’s a series of scenes where Cher goes through the revision process, once again proving that movies can explain the world of writing time and again.

Revision is actually a process of evaluation, and the steps Cher goes through to figure out how to remake herself are also the steps we go through to remake a piece of writing:

  1. Recognize that something is “off”
  2. Question possibilities to zero in on the issues
  3. Identify the underlying problem
  4. Brainstorm solutions
  5. Consider obstacles
  6. Seek advice
  7. Compare with others to get ideas
  8. Choose a solution
  9. Act
  10. Re-evaluate (repeat steps 1–10 as necessary)

My students pointed out plenty of tips for making these steps as effective as possible:

  • In order to even recognize something is “off” you need to reread your own writing, maybe out loud so you can hear what’s not working.
  • You need to think ahead about things like your purpose and your audience — especially about what objections your audience might have — so that you can consider those issues.
  • When you get down to step six, seeking advice, they all agreed that there’s helpful feedback and there’s not-so-helpful feedback, and to make the most of it you need to clue your critiquer in about what kind of help you need, and then you need to sift through the advice they give you and decide what will work best for you.
  • Comparing with others is all about reading as many examples of similar writing as you can to figure out what works.

These are probably pretty basic steps for most writers, but still. This blog is partially about dissecting the writing process, and I think this breakdown is worth a glance. Revision is hard; it’s a multi-step process; it’s a process of questioning and comparing and trial-and-error.

What do you think about revision? What strategies have you discovered that make it most effective for you? What advice would you give to novice writers about evaluating their own writing?

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A line from our favorite old black-and-white movie, Philadelphia Story, popped into my head as I was contemplating this post. It’s where Jimmy Stewart, very surprised, says to Cary Grant, “C. K. Dexter Haven, you have unsuspected depth!”

What makes it particularly great is that the movie itself is such a comedy and the roles so hilarious and brilliant in the hands of Katherine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, and Cary Grant that the depth of the movie might be at first an unsuspected surprise to the audience as well. It deals with stereotypes about rich and poor and overturns them by the end.

Similarly, hubby and I watched a film last night that did the same thing with gender: took our assumptions and turned them on their heads. It’s called Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and it was so brilliant that we stayed up until midnight talking about it, about the twists and turns and how at first you think one thing and then they throw some other angle in there that makes you think differently.

I’m surprised how often the phrase “makes you think” scares people away from certain books and movies. I get that media is entertainment and that people want to just relax and enjoy a good story, but what’s wrong with gaining new ideas to think about while you’re at it? 

A friend of mine told me, “Life’s hard enough without having to be exposed to other people’s problems” — as in watching movies where the characters are dealing with difficult issues. I can understand where she’s coming from to some extent. But for me it’s only a sometimes thing. Sometimes I want a fun story, while other times (most times?) I want a movie or book with more substance.

At the bookstore yesterday I gushed with a bookseller about our recent favorite YA books and we laughed at how some of them were “fluffy.” Sometimes it’s nice to just “eat potato chips,” as she told me another customer said. But I can’t read more than one “fluffy” book in a row any more than I can live off junk food.

It’s depth that ultimately matters to me. I need a little weightiness. I want to feel changed. I want to gain a new perspective on life.

For me, reading and watching films is ultimately about that more than entertainment. I want to experience the sensation of walking around in the shoes of someone different from myself. It was a graduate course in creative writing theory that initially turned me on to the importance of stories, and I haven’t been able to forget it since. Stories teach us empathy. We need to be exposed to other people’s “problems” not only to feel gratitude for our lesser ones but to feel a sense of community with our fellow human beings — to remember to care about people besides ourselves.

That’s not to say I can always stomach it. There are films and books about horrific-but-true subject matter that I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch or read. Everybody decides for themselves, I guess, what they can handle. I know that there are movies whose images would haunt me for life if I watched them.

But last night I felt grateful that my hubby had heard about this movie (he’s the film/music guy in our marriage, while I hear about the books) and that he wanted to watch it with me and wanted to talk about it afterwards. It felt like, if nothing else, the depth of the film gave depth to our conversation that followed, gave us a reason to discuss love and relationships in ways we hadn’t, gave us insights into our own relationship, and gave us the kind of experience I treasure, connecting with another human being on a deeper level.

That it happened to be my husband was a nice bonus. Both of us said to each other, “I’m so glad you can appreciate this kind of movie.”

What do you think about substance and fluff, deep vs shallow stories? Do you like a variety? Does depth bog you down? Does it depend on the subject matter? What books and films have changed you, or do they all?

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Change the World

Yesterday was the first day of spring semester for Salt Lake Community College, and while I’ve never considered myself to be one of those movie-type teachers that inspires and changes lives, last night I decided to give it a shot — because the more I thought about it, the more it fit with the curriculum for my intermediate class.

When they came in, I had them answer three questions. The first two were just “warm-up” questions to get them primed for the third, but I didn’t tell them that:

  1. something nerdy about you
  2. your claim to fame
  3. one issue you’d tackle/change

(Originally, question three read “one thing you’d change about the world,” but I tested it on my intro class, and half of them said “war” or “world peace.” Oops. A little too broad.)

My answers were (1) I have my library card number memorized but not my bank account number, (2) I have students who like me enough to take both the intro and intermediate courses from me (about a third of the class last night), and (3) I’d change how English teachers teach grammar.

And my students had awesome answers. They’d change CEO overcompensation or disability awareness or put more reform in the healthcare reform or more initiative and inventiveness in education reform or stop the ways we put third-world countries into debt. I wish I could remember all the ideas.

Then I showed this clip from Pay It Forward:

Best of all, it’s not only possible to have one idea change the world, it happens all the time. In the newspaper over New Year’s I read about “People to Watch” in the next decade, and they were all working on different things: studying stem cells, mapping Down Syndrome genes, saving the Jordan River here in Salt Lake County, using saliva as disease diagnosis, running cities, serving in the senate, drawing alternative energy from waste lagoons, writing plays.

That’s how the world changes. You decide on the thing within your reach you want to tackle, and you tackle it.

My dad is part of the 29th Street Weed & Seed Coalition in Tucson — a neighborhood group that unites residents, schools, and businesses in working to reduce crime and build community. They’ve had some amazing success, including a 43% drop in crime compared to 15% in Tucson in the same period.

Also, my dad gets grants of all kinds to help improve the education of his middle school students and the lives of their parents. Last year he started teaching a weekend/evening workshop for parents that focuses on how to have stronger families. The course is free for those who are selected because of the grants my dad applied for. And it helps end cycles of domestic abuse, neglect, poverty, etc.

That’s how the world changes.

For my students this semester, they’ll be changing the world with a website. I showed them some of the ones from last semester, how one student’s site worked to educate people about the connection between drug abuse and gang violence, how another helped families of people diagnosed with a particular form of sclerosis learn how to cope, how one student used his experience working at a credit union to set up a site teaching people about avoiding debt, how another focused on finding happiness by avoiding consumer mentalities. (There are links on my English 2010 page for anyone who wants to see the sites.)

Now that I’ve taught one semester of this class, I realize that it is exactly like that Pay It Forward clip. It really is about changing the world and teaching students how, through writing, they can make things happen — the way my dad writes proposals and gets grant money.

Writing can change the world, and I like that thought a lot.

What about you? What’s something nerdy about you? What’s your claim to fame? And what would you tackle? How would you change the world?

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