Keep Your Characters Interesting and Unique

I feel that in many forms of media, the features that make characters interesting, unique and multi-dimensional are being lost to anxieties about diversity and inclusion checklists.

When it comes to the stories, people and cultures represented onscreen and in print, I am absolutely in favour of diversity. Diversity means difference. It suggests a robust variety of images and representations. It does not mean sameness and equality of every character portrayed onscreen or written into a narrative.

In Lord of the Rings, it is a fact of the narrative that Frodo Baggins is a tiny Hobbit, innocent to the outside world, without any useful skills in battle, wizardry or strategy. Yet Frodo is entrusted with the task of destroying the ring and embarks on this dangerous quest, almost certain of failure and death, where he (and we) discover the courage and frailties of his true character. If Frodo were endowed with ability to fight like Aragorn, or wield magic like Gandalf, and we were constantly told that “size doesn’t matter”, it would have made his journey moot and we viewers and readers of Lord of the Rings would not be invested in his story arc.

What made Princess Leia unique in the original Star Wars trilogy was the fact that she was commanding and independent, but also frightened and vulnerable. She commanded armies and yet was caught off guard by love. In the hands of Carrie Fischer, Princess Leia was as well rounded a character as one could be in a space opera. Sigourney Weaver was equally as compelling, and a force to be reckoned with, as Ripley in the first two Alien movies. And while a completely different character type than Princess Leia, Ripley’s hard edge was softened by a certain vulnerability, a glimpse at her femininity, uniquely her own. She could stand toe to toe with the guys, have a laugh with them, work with them and remain fiercely independent. Her character was so well developed that at no time did people roll their eyes when she was left to fight the aliens. We believed in her abilities and accepted her heroism. Furthermore, because she was imperfect, we also feared for her safety, which made the movie far more exciting to watch.

Story arc is so important to a character’s development. It took two movies, and many years, for Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor to come into her own. And that was the correct approach. If the movie were made today, the Sarah Connor character would be a mixed martial artist, a weapon’s expert and have no need for man’s help. Boring. Again, it was the vulnerability of Sarah Connor, thrown into a world of absolute disbelief and mayhem, forced to accept her fate of a future yet written, that had viewers emotionally invested in her character – and in the Terminator movie as a whole.

The same can be said for the story arc in Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita. It is the way the main character transforms throughout the movie, becomes more empowered, but still limited and vulnerable that allows us to invest in the character. Today, the same character (without possessing any superpowers), would defy gravity and biology, tossing men who outweigh her by 300 pounds around like teddy bears…and no one would really care for the character.

I have always been surprised at how long it took Hollywood to figure out what a great idea it would be to adapt comic book characters into movies, especially superheroes. What I can’t understand is how they continue to screw it up. Even Marvel, for all the money their movies make, really don’t make great movies. The first Iron Man, Winter Soldier and First Avenger were good, and the Black Panther (one of my fave comic book characters) was certainly visually appealing, but highly overrated. And when did superheroes start taking off their masks every five seconds? I haven’t read comics in some time, but I distinctly remember part of their character was keeping their identity secret. Now, it looks like Hollywood agents negotiate face time for the actors. So-and-so must have 60 minutes of time onscreen without his or her mask. The battle scene at the climax of End Game where each character takes off their mask or helmet to show you the actor’s face was – no better word for it – stupid. In other movies the character’s mask gets torn in battle…but not their costume. I can’t get excited about movies that have become more about the actor than the character they’re playing. I want to see Spiderman, not Tom Holland.

Into the Spiderverse, a movie I really did enjoy, continues the fatal error of stripping away a character’s uniqueness. At one point (and I’m avoiding spoilers), we see a crowd all wearing Spiderman masks and someone giving a speech says something like: “We’re all Spiderman.” No. They’re not. And we can’t all be Spiderman, even if we want to be…that’s the point. There can be only one – and that’s not a shot at Miles Morales.

Indiana Jones worked because we didn’t see Harrison Ford. Luke Skywalker worked because we didn’t see Mark Hamill.

In the field of animation, talented voice actors have been replaced with stars simply using their own voices, phoning in their roles. The art and uniqueness of hand drawn animation and the amazing animators who infused their characters with such personality, has been replaced with 3D garbage. Some movies, like The Incredibles, are very entertaining, but for the most part one studio or its feature are barely distinguishable from the next.

I’ll take Fleischer’s Popeye and Betty Boop over this nonsense any day. Gimme vintage Disney and Warner Brothers and gimme characters like a stuttering Porky Pig and the dim-witted Elmer Fud over the over-processed, offense-evading characters of today.

How did we get to a point where we can’t laugh at each other and ourselves? We all have ticks and quirks. Some of them are interesting and some of them are funny. Some of us are tall, others are small; some are bald, some are pretty, some are charmingly eccentric. And as we get older almost all of us discover that it’s a person’s character that continues to make them attractive.

The Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers are funny for many reasons, but one key reason is their quirks are magnified to the point of being ridiculous. They never apologize for who they are, and they never break character. Thus, the situations each character finds themselves in leads to hilarity. And yes, we are laughing at them and their ticks. That’s the point.

As writers, we must consider the character we want to write and be fearless in our execution. Write what you know and that will give your character (s) authenticity. Do not get involved with worrying about public opinion. Do not edit or censor your character because you worry someone might be offended. We’d have no real comedy if people did that. That said, writing something intentionally hurtful for the single purpose of causing injury is cheap and cowardly. Developing a personal moral compass is valuable for a writer.

I don’t care what colour your character is. I don’t care what sex it is. Tell a good story. I don’t care if a sci-fi movie is about non-binary aliens. Start with the character and tell a good story. Don’t promote a message of the world you want to live in. Don’t lecture me. Don’t cry for the death of patriarchy. And don’t change canon and characters to suit revisionist ideologies. Be original. Entertain me. Frighten me. Excite me. But please, stop trying to “enlighten” me.

Characters should take us on their journey. We should learn about their good qualities and their weaknesses. They should fail and have limitations. Keep them interesting and unique. That’s true diversity, and far more appealing than cookie cutter ideology present in so much of our entertainment today.

 

Kaja Blackley is the author of Maggie MacCormack and the Witches’ Wheel Wheel now on sale: maggiemaccormack.com