Characterization Lessons from Pop Culture (Updated)

1. Narcissist

Audiences love watching characters in dire situations work their way out. We want to believe that with enough determination anyone can lift themselves up by their own bootstraps. More than that, we want to believe that people have the power to look inward and turn themselves into someone better.

A character’s growth should account for shifts in his attitude, but if his personality does a complete 180 it will affect his believability. New situations should nurture the hero’s evolution, while his nature should remain the same. Inconsistencies in the hero’s essence will feel like a betrayal to the audience. The more the hero changes, the more parts of them need to remain the same.

Allow me to illustrate my point with a sampling of references pulled from pop culture: from Bill Murray’s filmography, to panned superhero movies, and the Star Wars rereleases.

What Bill Murray Teaches Writer’s About Constructing Characters

Western storytelling is built on the idea that human beings can change. A TV executive who’s outgrown his conscience can still learn the true meaning of Christmas. A jaded big city weatherman can still discover the joy of helping others in a small town. A crotchety old drunk can still be a hero to someone.

Audiences want to see Bill Murray better himself while continuing to be the charming cynic we’ve grown to love. Whether he’s bonding with a neglected woman in Japan, tracking down the mother of his child, or hunting a mythical shark his outlook evolves while his personality remains the same.

Many of Bill Murray’s roles play to his public perception: the man who laughs in the face of Armageddon, the slacker soldier, the narcissist we just can’t resist. In the 80s and 90s, when audiences saw Bill Murray’s name on the marquee they walked into the theater with certain expectations. He’s expanded his repertoire since, but at the time the man was a well established brand.

Before writers’ can set their characters on the quest to better their lives they must first discover their hero’s inner Bill Murray, that core of the character that remains pure. You can’t duplicate the appeal of the man, the myth, the national treasure that is William James Murray, but you can build fundamental traits, like his, into your characters.

If your story opens with your hero making jabs at his surroundings, he shouldn’t lose that edge once he likes what he’s seeing. If your hero was a lawyer in the first act and a civilian by the second, don’t expect him to forget all of that legal jargon. If your hero has obsessive compulsions, a narrative victory isn’t going to cure him.

Everyone has traits that remain the same no matter what our circumstances are. We all have our resting happiness rates. We all lean one way or the other on the introversion/extroversion spectrum. We all have quirks that are too deeply ingrained to change.

If you want to know how audiences react when their favorite characters’ natures are altered beyond repair look no further than Superhero movies.

What Superhero Movies Teach Writers About Character Consistency

I have a friend who is a hardcore fundamentalist (when it comes to superhero films). He doesn’t treat graphic novels like they’re gospel. He doesn’t swear by the sanctity of the source material, but he is puritanical about the representation of superheroes, orthodox about their origins, and trenchant about their treatment on the big screen.

It shakes his faith when their spirit is violated. He cries, “Heresy,” when he sees them misrepresented.

After watching the Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer he said, “Why would Batman ask someone if they bleed? He’s a protector not an instigator.”

I used to think that he was taking these movies too seriously, but time has made a convert out of me. I shared his feelings about X-Men: The Last Stand. The compassionate Professor X of the first two X-Men films sat that film out. An impostor stepped into his place. The man who worked so hard to tame Wolverine’s savagery lost his patience. He dismissed his friend.

“I don’t need to explain myself, least of all to you.”

In the first two films Magneto was established as an unwavering advocate for all of mutant kind, but in X-men: The Last Stand he’s a mustache twirling villain. When his lieutenant/lover is stripped of her powers, he turns his back on her. “She was beautiful once.” When his first wave of mutant followers fall in battle, he grins. “That’s why the pawns go first.”

The writers strayed too far from their characters’ emotional cores for the audience to recognize them anymore. These changes broke my suspension of disbelief.

How Jared Leto’s Joker Proves My Point

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I went into a nerd rage when I saw the recently revealed image of Jared Leto as the Joker for the upcoming The Suicide Squad movie.

They gave the Joker a grill, a teardrop, and an old English tattoo. These accessories are cheap Hollywood shorthand for ‘thug.’ Jared Leto’s Joker isn’t the enigma that Heath Ledger brought to The Dark Knight. He’s a stereotype. By cramming the Joker into an established mold they betray the mysterious nature of the character.

As for his other tattoos: the skull in the jester hat, the smile on his forearm, the playing cards, and patterns of ‘HA-HA-HA,’ they all seem redundant. Slapping the word ‘Damaged’ on his forehead reduces him to a Halloween costume with a label of what he’s supposed to be on it. Cool ink can add an edge to a character, but this Joker is over branded. His presentation is a contradiction. He’s a lunatic with the patience to sit in a tattoo parlor long enough to get complex shading.

This is the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to character design. He wears a purple glove on one hand and a fist full of rings on the other. I can’t help but imagine the brainstorming session where all of these accessories were envisioned.

“Let’s Marilyn Manson him by 15%.”

“Can we add some juggalo into the mix?”

“What if he only wears one glove like Michael Jackson?”

The Joker has never been subtle, but he’s never conformed to the look of a typical criminal. This image shows the producers of the Suicide Squad don’t get the core of the character. The Joker is an outsider, a conundrum to cops and criminals alike. This interpretation looks like he belongs in prison. His mystique is gone.

This is what happens when a character changes hands too many times. The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand intended. It tries to make a figure shrouded in mystery fit a convention.

I think Jared Leto is a good fit for the character, but I don’t trust the people writing the material he’s working with. They seem too concerned with modernizing the character. The same thing almost happened with Spiderman.

(UPDATE) There’s some evidence to suggest that this promo image does not represent the way Jared Leto’s Joker will look in the film and that the tattoos were an exclusive to this picture. If that’s the case, then well played Warner Bros. That’s one way to get a lot of ink, so to speak. Here’s hoping for the best.

Another Reason Sony Lost Spiderman

An ex-MTV executive pitched an “experimental exercising” Spiderman to former Sony head Amy Pascal. He thought it would be cool if the web slinger was into Hot Power Yoga, Tough Mudder Triathlons, and the Color Run. He wanted to play up the character’s athleticism. He thought a EDM listening, Snap-chatting, humble bragging Spiderman would appeal more to millennials.

The ex-MTV executive wanted to see Spidey on social media. Never mind the fact that Peter Parker’s shy nature is at the core of his character. The coveted millennial demo means all the previous characterization had to go. Rather than appreciate a hero’s timeless appeal a middle-aged man tried to suss out what teenagers think is cool. Imagine how well this “buzzworthy” Spiderman would’ve aged compared to the original films.

This is why Sony and Warner Bros are losing the Superhero arms race. In the process of modernizing their heroes they betray their fundamentals.

2. Alas

Why It’s Important for Writers to Remember that Han Shot First

When George Lucas rereleased the Star Wars special editions he altered an important scene. In A New Hope Han Solo finds himself corned by a bounty hunter in a bar. In the original film Han demonstrated his guile by shooting Greedo under the table. In the new edit Greedo shoots first. Han awkwardly tilts his neck, dodges the blast, and returns fire.

In this edit Han Solo is less of a scoundrel and less resourceful. His back is against the wall. He freezes. Then finds his courage after a spot of luck. That’s not what someone with Han Solo’s swagger would do. Han shooting second was a betrayal of his character.

It’s these things authors have to pay attention to when editing their work. Ask yourself if your hero would allow you to make alterations to their behavior and still be the same character. Your hero should change over time, but their evolution should be gradual. They need a rudder to keep them on course. Parts of their personality need to stay set in stone.

The audience should feel like all the good the story drew out of your hero was buried in them from the start.

19 thoughts on “Characterization Lessons from Pop Culture (Updated)”

  1. I’m not as familiar with all these pop culture references as I perhaps should be, but there’s definitely some good points made in this post and I agree wholeheartedly with its essence.
    At the same time, your comments on the X-Men characters had me reconsidering these scenarios in a new light, but in the end I’m inclined to disagree.

    In Professor X’s case there’s a lot going on emotionally at that moment: Scott is gone, Jean has returned from the dead, and the consequences of her return could be catastrophic. In addition, I get the strong feeling from the scene that in choosing “the lesser of two evils,” the Professor is trying to justify–to himself as much as to Wolverine–a decision that weighs heavily on his conscience. Under enough strain it’s not uncommon for a person to falter with a moment that may seem “out of character” when in fact what you’re seeing is something emerge from deeper than the surface you usually see. I interpret the scene as that, revealing a darker depth rather than a betrayal of his character.

    Magneto’s case is less philosophical. His “You’re not one of us anymore” line to Mystique is harsh but certainly in keeping with his strong Them/Us mentality that the first two movies strongly establish. As for the pawns going first, he was perfectly willing to sacrifice Rogue for his cause in movie one, so the precedent is set for him to use those he advocates. The grin was unnecessary.

    For the record, I’m not familiar with source material, so there may subtleties I’m overlooking or misinterpreting here.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did considerer Professor X’s urgency in this situation. I figured that with the strength of his friendship with Wolverine that the conversation would’ve gone differently. Professor X didn’t have the time to be patient, but it was hard to believe he’d tell Wolverine off.

      I do like how you rationalized Magneto’s outlook. One of the great things about these movies is how they invite our imaginations into the universe. You found a better explanation for Magneto’s outlook than I could.

      Thanks so much for sharing your opinion.

      Like

    1. Thank you so much for reading. I know not being edging stating that Han Shot first. The folks at Redlettermedia.com have gone on at length about why it’s so important to his character. If your a Star Wars fan you should check out their 70 minute review of the Phantom Menace.

      Like

  2. Another really good piece, Drew. When it comes to characters that “change hands” often — like superheroes — where is the line drawn between a fresh interpretation and an in-name-only usurper? At what point is the character’s “emotional core” corrupted beyond recognizability?

    When you write “Let’s Marilyn Manson him by 15%,” you’re not off the mark; there’s an actual mathematical formula to it, as I discovered when I compared the Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger depictions of the Joker: http://www.seanpcarlin.com/whos-laughing-now-different-depictions-of-the-joker-part-2/

    I’ll be curious to see — because I can’t determine strictly off the teaser photo — if Jared Leto’s incarnation continues in the tradition of the Joker (Romero and Nicholson and Ledger’s portrayals were each unique unto themselves and their particular eras but all recognizably “Joker”) or Catwoman (Julie Newmar and Michelle Pfeiffer and Halle Berry and Anne Hathaway’s interpretations shared few traits — maybe just “sexy” — in common).

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I hope the tattoos aren’t a sign of how on-the-nose this interpretation of the Joker is. Hopefully Jared leto will make the role his own, because my trust is with him as his ability.

      As always, thank you so much for reading.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Lot’s of thoughts on this; but (for once) I’m going to keep it to just a couple short ones.

    1.) While it is definitely disconcerting and even irritating when movie characters “change hands,” there is at least the excuse that several (perhaps lazy) minds are attempting to interpret the characters. What is more disconcerting and irritating — even disorienting — is when ONE writer does this with a character across a his own series, or even within the scope of one book. Inexcusable.

    2.) Speaking of character and being true to it, I applaud your humility, Drew. You have the courage to take strong stands and put yourself out there; and yet you handle criticism, correction and dissent not only graciously, but with what would appear to be true humility. I trust you’ll be true to these traits in your own person as you continue to write your blog, your books and your life.

    And I still always appreciate your poetry in prose approach. I appreciate the extra care and thought you put into your craft, to not only say a thing but to say it with depth and class.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Agreed on all points. I tend to be more forgiving than some when it comes to adaptation–don’t blindly follow the source material, that’s fine, but keep the spirit of thing OR reinvent it in ways that are still fresh, interesting, and reveal something about character or world-building or something. That’s why I don’t get as up in arms about stuff like the house elves being drastically from the later Harry Potter movies. I mean, yeah, it’s an interesting and important sub-plot, but let’s be realistic about visual mediums–there’s only so much time in a feature film, and something always has to go.

    That said. I’m less than thrilled with the costume reveal for the Suicide Squad Joker. There’s way too much going on there–it’s impossible to focus on anything. I didn’t even notice the rings on his other hand until you mentioned it, and I’ve seen this picture like a dozen times now. It’s way, way too much. Even if it wasn’t a character I care about, it would be too much.

    And having said THAT, I have to add–I’m not honestly that invested in any of the new DC universe movies. Once the Dark Knight trilogy ended, I felt like the Bat-verse had gone as far as it needed to go in a cinematic climate, and I didn’t need another Batman movie, kind of ever. So I’m happy to sit this one out; it doesn’t bug that much. Also, if the picture is an exaggerated version of what we’re actually going to get in the movie–that doesn’t surprise me. It looks too posed and deliberate to be anything but–like I said, too much going on. I could do without everyone who’s been saying, “But we all thought Heath Ledger was a weird choice, we should wait and see!” because I NEVER thought that he was a weird choice. I dunno which one of his movies everyone else was watching, but he was a terrific actor, always. Skeptics, meh, I guess they have a point, but I remember arguing with so many people that he’d be fine in the part and feeling very smug when the movie proved me right.

    But never mind.

    The important thing to remember is Han Shot First. I’ll probably expand on that in my own blog when I do my Star Wars rewatch this Monday.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I feel just the same as you do, Rhoda, about THE DARK KNIGHT RISES: It was the perfect end to a perfect trilogy — the “last Batman story,” if you take my meaning — and it completely sated my need for any further Batman movies (or, for that matter, any further Batman STORIES, and I’m a lifelong fan of the comics!). When Bruce “retired” at the end of the film, it seemed, in a poetic way, an ideal opportunity to retire the character — to relieve him of his eternal obligations (as both fictional crimefighter and pop-cultural fixture) at long last. (But, as a billion-dollar corporate asset, there’s no way Warner Bros. was going to allow THAT to happen!) But, for me, certainly, RISES is the Last Word on the Caped Crusader; I SHOULD be excited for the forthcoming DCCU, but I’m definitely having trouble mustering enthusiasm for it (though general superhero fatigue isn’t helping matters). Judging from the glimpses of Affleck and Leto, the filmmakers are definitely going for a more flamboyant, “comic-booky” approach in contrast with Nolan’s grounded aesthetic; if they’re going to tell more Batman stories (whether we need them or not), I guess they have to do it differently.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for another excellent post! ^-^

    I agree that characterization is one of the things that you just have to get right. As writers, I think that we always have to fight that urge to bend a character to fit the plot we have set in our heads. Your plot should always be serving the characters, not the other way around.

    Liked by 1 person

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