Character Bootcamp: Part 1

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So I love characters. I love making them. I love learning about them. I love when they do things I don’t expect. If I had to pick one strong point of my own writing, it would probably be characters. Therefore, I would like to introduce…

Character Bootcamp: Part 1
Knock them off their high horse.

When I first started writing, I was sure of one thing. There were funny characters, and then there were cool characters. Funny characters could slip and fall in mud, blurt something they meant to keep secret, make awkwardly nerdy references at serious moments.

Cool characters, however, were blessed with flawless coordination, a total inability to be ruffled, and a lack of surprise at the world around them. They couldn’t step in dog poop, they couldn’t get sick and babble nonsense, they couldn’t accidentally walk into a wall in a dark room. Because they were cool. And cool characters were untouchable.

I was sure of this dichotomy. That is until I realized how fun it is to screw with cool characters.

I’m serious. It’s SO. MUCH. FUN.

Case and point: Loki from Avengers.

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He’s pompous. Theatrical. He’s such a clever manipulator that they actually MUZZLED him at the end of the movie so he couldn’t talk. He was in charge of a massive alien army and had a cool power staff. Loki is a serious, seriously cool threat.

And yet the best (and funniest) moments in Avengers came when the unparalleled Joss Whedon showed us that even power-hungry deities can be a little, well, pathetic. Without spoiling anything, I’m referring to “performance issues” and “puny god.”

When we see the coolest characters debased, when we get to laugh at them, it shows us that there’s someone like us under all the posturing.

There was an Entertainment Weekly Review of “Archer,” “Eastbound & Down” and “Delocated” that used a phrase I absolutely loved. They were discussing how viewers can keep watching shows that feature offensive egomaniacs and said “How can these offensive men remain so watchable? They’re all self-assured goofballs who are regularly punished for their hubris. The message of this trio of shows is reassuring: A-holes — they’re just like us!”

I couldn’t figure out why I loved “Archer” so much until I read that review. It’s because Archer, who’s pretty much James Bond without any semblance of a moral code, is regularly humiliated by mommy issues, a crippling fear of crocodiles and his own incompetency. You put up with his ego because you know he’s going to get screwed over soon anyway. And you almost kind of like him for it.

So try it. Go against all your instincts and walk that mysterious elf warrior right into a tree, then watch how flustered he gets when he tries to regain his coolness (it’s okay to giggle at him—he can’t hear you). Punish your characters for their hubris. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a comedy or a serious epic. Readers want to know that characters aren’t above them.

Character Examples: Zuko from “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” Howl from Howl’s Moving Castle, Skulduggery from Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy, pretty much everyone in “Supernatural”

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3 responses »

  1. Interesting point – though I can’t help but notice both Loki’s humiliations come towards the end of the movie, allowing him to remain badass until just before he’s defeated. And he recovers from the first one by throwing someone out of a window, so, erm, still quite badass…
    I guess, like everything else, you have to get the balance just right. Staying on a Joss Whedon theme, Jayne in Firefly is perfectly balanced between dangerously amoral and downright dumb, and neither quality ever overcomes the other…

    • Jayne is another really good example, I agree. Mal too–he’s the strong mysterious captain but he has his own awkward moments. Though Loki does get thrown off at other points in the movie: Black Widow fools him and he’s visibly anxious when he’s in the plane and realizes Thor is on his way, but I see your point. And yes, he is totally completely badass but, like anyone else, he can mess up too. 🙂
      I think Whedon is just really good at not putting his characters on a pedestal. That’s part of the reason even his more serious characters have funny moments.
      Thanks for reading!

    • By the way I saw that you’re creating a series on CBBC! That’s amazing! I’m stuck over here in the US where TV isn’t quite as awesome so I watch a lot of BBC shows. I’ll keep an eye out for Wolfblood!

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