(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Gravity. This post is revised and expanded from my original review/rant.)
It’s always a weird feeling to dislike a beloved prestige film. I have to wonder what everyone else saw in it that I didn’t, and sometimes it’s hard to even pin down the problem that I have with it. Of course, with Gravity, I didn’t just dislike it, I despised it, and I know exactly why. Part of it might just be my being a misanthropic jerk, but I have science to back me up. And I’m not talking about the film’s horrible excuse for astrophysics, either.
The film starts out on a space walk where George Clooney’s commander is a genial chatterbox, there’s a redshirt who’s just thrilled to be there, and Sandra Bullock’s character Ryan Stone is slightly ill and completely wooden, no hints of a personality at all. Then shit goes bananas, right then and there. Everyone’s instantly thrown into mortal danger, which okay, but I don’t know who any of these assholes even are and thus have no vested interest in what happens to them. Yeah, people die. It happens. Oh, some people inside the shuttle died? Might have been heartbreaking if I knew they existed before that second.
Like I said, I’m probably kind of a bitch to think this, and I won’t deny that. But see, there’s this concept called Dunbar’s number, also colloquially known as the monkeysphere. It posits that there’s a limit on how many people you can actually conceive of as people before your brain starts looking for other ways to label them, and there’s quite a lot of research to back it up. You know the saying, “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic”? That’s the monkeysphere. Your brain is not physically capable of scaling empathy without cutting corners, because your brain is a lazy son of a bitch.
This might not be the case for people who don’t consume as much media, but heavy readers–like, for instance, agents, editors, reviewers, and everyone else who’s critical to the creation and success of a novel–get introduced to a lot of characters in their lives. Since that’s not exactly the same as a close, personal relationship with a non-fictional person, it doesn’t quite tax the brain in the same way as defined under Dunbar, but there’s still an upper bound. That means that the characters in a new work all start outside the monkeysphere, and something has to bring them inside.
This is why three-act structure exists. You don’t have to hew to it exactly, but it’s common because it’s effective, because it lines up with how our brains work and respond to things. One of the major established beats is the inciting incident, the moment where everything changes. But see, you can’t recognize change if you don’t know the original state. That’s why experiments need control groups and baseline data, and that’s why you have to be extremely careful about opening with the inciting incident. Even in novels where it does work (The Nightmare Dilemma springs to mind), that moment doesn’t happen on the very first page, so there’s been some time to introduce the character and the world, to start cracking the shell of the monkeysphere.
Now, movies will try to get around this by trading on your familiarity with an actor so they don’t have to work as hard to create a connection to the character. That’s clearly what Gravity is going for when it gives only a cursory introduction to its characters, that we’ll be rooting enough for Sandra Bullock that we don’t notice that Ryan Stone is pretty much a non-entity and only the object of our concern because protagonist. Unfortunately, I can’t say that I had that kind of connection with Ms. Bullock, which might not have been a problem were this not a castaway movie where 100% of the tension is based on concern for her survival. Combined with the repetitive tedium of the dangerous setpieces (Hey, we escaped the destruction of one space station! Let’s celebrate by escaping the destruction of a second one!), by the end I was actively rooting for her to die.
(The character, not the actress. Despite the title of this post, I’m sure Sandra Bullock is a lovely person and I wish her no ill will, and please don’t sue me.)
It’s tempting to just dive in and get to the good stuff, but give us a glimpse of normal before you throw us into chaos. Remember that your audience is going to be filled with jaded misanthropes like me, and you have to put in the work to make us care. “Because protagonist” is not sufficient.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to The Pericles Commission. I know I slap this disclaimer on everything just in case, but this one is definitely more spoilery than usual.)
Of the many virtues we writers possess (she said with great humility), the one most intrinsically tied to our profession is empathy. After all, the Collins Dictionary definition of the word, “the power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person’s feelings,” doubles rather handily as the job description of a writer. It’s expected and even desirable that we put a little of ourselves into our characters as we explore their headspace because it helps flesh them out into real people. The danger, though, is when we put in so much of ourselves that it overrides what’s natural for the character. This is a particular issue for writers of historical fiction, since there’s independent evidence of what “natural” would be.
Morality, you see, is largely a social construct. Things are usually considered immoral when they endanger the survival and stability of the group (although most people don’t approach the subject from such stark sociological terms). As the needs of the group change over time, so do its morals. Throughout history, people have engaged in practices that, while we would find them anywhere from iffy to downright deplorable today, at the time were viewed neutrally or even positively. So the question becomes, how can you faithfully and sympathetically write a character whose concept of decency and justice is so different from your own? Disappointingly, many writers simply don’t. (Though as the examples on that page show, films tend to fall into this trap much more often.) This is why I found it so refreshing to read The Pericles Commission.
The novel is a fictionalized investigation of a real murder that took place in ancient Athens at the dawn of modern democracy. Nicolaos is appointed to solve the crime before the delicate balance between the aristocratic Council of the Areopagus and the people’s assembly, the Ecclesia, can boil over. Nico is sympathetic to the democratic cause, which makes his perspective accessible to our modern one (especially given how classical ideals were baked into the founding of the U.S.). However, the democracy he’s defending is not our modern one, and never pretends to be. All citizens are given the right to vote, but women and slaves are not considered full citizens.
And every single character is okay with this, even the women and slaves.
Well, not okay okay. Nicolaos is very much not happy with the way the elders wish to handle Euterpe’s household after Ephialtes’ death, and he seems rather appalled when he learns that the murder victim had been willing to leave his illegitimate daughter to die of exposure simply because she was inconveniently a female. He also shows quite a bit of sympathy for the struggles of slaves Pythax and Achilles. But while he sympathizes with the difficulties arising from their oppression, he’s not exactly looking to eliminate that oppression. He’s a reformer, certainly, but just moving power out of the hands of a wealthy few is considered pretty radical. If he started questioning the morality of holding slaves or of using women as mere connective tissue between men of power, everyone would start looking at him like he was from another planet, women and slaves included.
So what makes this work? First, Nico’s personal principles are very clear: he values truthfulness and transparency, and craves the ability to choose his own destiny. This helps him identify with the non-citizen characters, since he’s also being forced into a role he doesn’t want (specifically, his father’s career). Indeed, Nico treats everyone with dignity, regardless of their station. He sees them as individuals–and more importantly, the author treats them as individuals, letting the marginalized speak for themselves rather than filtering their plight through the eyes of an “enlightened” (read: modernized) hero. Nico shows concern for the welfare of his friends who get screwed by the system, even as he works to save that same system. But I think the thing that really sells it in this case is that Nico himself gets caught up in the system when he’s put on trial for the very murders he was investigating and gets royally screwed just when he thought he’d made it through. It emphasizes that Athens is a huge, terrifying machine and that no one is truly safe from it, citizen or otherwise. We understand that Nico is doing the best he can, and is trying to weigh his own sense of morality against the greater good. That’s something a modern audience can relate to even if they find the social structure of the ancient city-state to be completely alien.
Writing a vastly different perspective is one of the most difficult things a writer can do, but it’s also one of the most important. Fiction and film are powerful tools for understanding our history, and that means confronting its unpleasantness. After all, we can’t really appreciate how far we’ve come in adjusting our social attitudes if we pretend that they haven’t changed.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Die Hard.)
Spare a thought for the poor goon, will you? After all, the bad guy can’t do all that heavy lifting himself, and the good guy can’t go straight to the top and sort shit out off the bat or we wouldn’t have much of a story. Like an impressive skyscraper, it all comes down to the support structure; an organization is only as good as its people. Sure, the baddie can throw wave after wave of anonymous masked bastards at the problem, but that’s not very engaging for the audience. So speaking of impressive skyscrapers, let’s take a look at Die Hard.
Yup, in addition to being indisputably the greatest Christmas movie of all time, it’s also widely considered to have a nearly perfect structure. I’ve gotta fill a whole month of topics, you knew it was going to come up. Hans Gruber’s flunkies aren’t fully-fledged characters, true, but they’re far from faceless bullet fodder.
For starters, all twelve “terrorists” have names, which is uncommon. Usually beyond the Dragon and a couple of important henches, the rest of the crew usually ends up credited as “Soldier #5.” True, they’re not really given backstories or motivations to go with the names, but it helps make their interactions amongst each other feel realistic. It doesn’t so much matter if I remember which one Marco is, just that they’re worried McClane might have gotten him.
Speaking of interactions, special mention goes to Karl and Tony, the very blond brothers. You get a hint of their personalities and relationship in the brief scene where Karl takes a chainsaw to the phone lines Tony is trying to patch. But their biggest significance to the plot comes when McClane kills Tony and taunts the terrorists with his corpse, and Karl loses his shit. His dogged pursuit of McClane isn’t because of sadism or orders from Gruber, it’s because this is the bastard who killed his little brother and he wants to make him pay. It’s not enough to make us root for him or anything, but it makes him human.
The movie’s filled with little humanizing details like that, from the dude who nabs a candy bar during a standoff to the guy who pours Ellis a soda during his failed negotiation attempt. The director’s commitment to realism was such that he used extra-loud blanks that permanently deafened his star, and that realism carries through in the depiction of the bad guys. Even though you don’t know their histories or their personal goals, they feel like real people, which makes them more interesting foes for McClane. There’s more tension in him trying to evade a cunning, desperate individual than there would be if it were some dumbass blindly following orders.
Die Hard skillfully balances a lot of different characters, but I think the restraint shows best in the goons. There’s just enough personality and humanity to give them some depth and intrigue without stealing screentime and sympathy from the good guys. That’s not an easy trick to accomplish, and it adds quite a lot to the movie’s core. Hans Gruber just wouldn’t be the same without his gang.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to The Book of Life.)
A little while back, during one of those Twitter writer events I’m so fond of, the question was posed: “What does your main character fear most?” The responses were, well, a little disappointing, because so many people’s answers boiled down to “the bad guy.” Well, yeah. Presumably anyone would be afraid of some big scary monster or determined psychopath, but that doesn’t tell us anything about a character. A person’s worst fear is going to be something deeper.
The Book of Life tells the story of a bet between two gods of the underworld, centered on Manolo Sanchez, the pacifist young matador who’s never finished off a bull. When Manolo discovers that Xibalba cheated, he gets the dark god to agree to restore him to life if he can face one last challenge. And the task?
XIBALBA: Now, tell me, boy, what keeps you up at night? What eats at you from the inside? What, do tell, is your worst fear?
Then they’re all transported to a stadium where Manolo must defeat every bull who’s ever been killed by a Sanchez. The thousands of bulls merge into one giant motherfucker:
But Manolo does not fear the bull.
Manolo fears becoming the man who would kill a helpless creature. He fears his father’s disapproval and censure for not being a true bullfighter. But his biggest fear, the one that Xibalba sees in his heart, is that the two can never be reconciled, that he’ll be forced to choose between his family’s honor and his own, that he’ll lose something of himself no matter the outcome.
A titanic, flaming bull would be scary to anyone, but for Manolo, it holds a particular terror, one that is deep-seated, complex, and–above all–personal.
That’s why it’s not enough for him to merely slay the beast; he has to resolve that impossible choice. He takes a third option and sings the bull into submission, finding a way to defeat the monster while remaining true to himself, and earning the respect of his family in the process.
Monsters are not scary merely because of the physical threat they represent. They are scary because they reflect the darker parts of ourselves, the things we bury that we’re not willing to confront until they manifest in a form that can bite our tits off. The strongest and most effective external conflicts are the ones that mirror some internal conflict, where resolving one can help resolve the other.
So, with all this in mind, let’s ask it again: What does your main character truly fear? And do you make them face it?
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Big Hero 6.)
Let me say this up front: I loved Big Hero 6. A lot. It was probably one of my favorite movies of 2014. Baymax is an instant classic character, and I want to have Honey Lemon’s girly science babies. It’s just a solid, heartfelt, entertaining film.
And I was ready to tap out within the first 10 minutes.
We start out really strong with Hiro’s bot fight. Then Tadashi rescues him from a beatdown and we get the line, “You graduated high school when you were thirteen, and this is what you’re doing?”
Um, I thought. Okay. That’s an awkwardly self-conscious line. But maybe it’s important that we know that right up front. And so I settled back into the fun moped chase, glossing with only a little irritation over the stiff explanation of bot fighting and Hiro referring to his big brother as “big brother.”
Then they get picked up from jail by Aunt Cass, who starts off saying, “For ten years, I have done the best I could to raise you.”
Oh, thought I. Oh dear. But no, it’s cool. That’s not a completely unreasonable thing for a person to say. And indeed, it seemed to be part of a sort of no-filter anxious monologue which turns out to be very much in character for her. We’re still fine.
Then we go upstairs, and there’s this:
TADASHI: What would Mom and Dad say?
HIRO: I don’t know. They’re gone. They died when I was three, remember?
Yup, I thought, that is a thing that happened. That is dialogue that someone got paid to write. Dialogue that survived who knows how many rewrites and script sessions. Dialogue that no one has ever said to a sibling. Ever. In the history of siblings. It was such an utterly painful As You Know that it threw me clean out of the story.
The biggest sin of that exchange is that it is completely, fundamentally, 100% unnecessary. A woman they’ve identified as their aunt already told us that she raised them, so clearly the parents aren’t in the picture. Does it matter why? Do the filmmakers assume that if we see anything other than a traditional nuclear family on screen, we’ll flip our shit and demand an explanation before we can proceed any further? I’ll give you that Tadashi’s line and the first part of Hiro’s response aren’t totally unnatural; Tadashi’s trying to help set his errant brother straight, and it makes sense he’d think about their parents in that context. But there’s no conceivable reason why they’d need to remind each other of how long it’s been. And there’s not even any good reason to remind the audience.
It makes me think of when I saw Up for the first time, with its long, wordless montage of Carl and Ellie’s marriage. When the film cut from the two of them painting a nursery to her sobbing in a doctor’s office, there was a voice from the row behind me, a girl who couldn’t have been older than about 7 or so. I didn’t see who she was talking to, but I heard her quite clearly: “She’s sad because she lost the baby.”
I will never forget that little girl as long as I live.
Audiences and readers are smart. Especially early on, they’re actively trying to connect the dots and put the pieces together. It’s okay to trust them to draw certain conclusions on their own, especially when the story won’t suffer if they don’t get to exactly the same spot you had in mind. And indeed, if you leave some things to your audience to fill in with their own imagination, that collaborative quality will make them more invested in the story (this is known as the IKEA effect). But it’s not “connect the dots” if the dots are so densely packed that they’re pretty much a line already.
Like I said, I do love this movie, and the clunky opening isn’t a dealbreaker. Almost immediately after that pointless line, we go to Tadashi’s lab and meet his classmates; the scene is still expository, but we’ve moved from As You Know to Naive Newcomer, so it makes sense within the story, and things get moving after that. But then, it would take a lot to get me to walk out of a movie theater. If I were flipping through channels on cable, or if this were a book? I’d have done an Immerse or Die and pulled the plug after the third WTF.
Personally, I favor erring on the side of too little exposition. Beta readers and editors can help you find the balance, but I’ve always found it easier to add in extra clarification than to try to figure out what can be safely removed. What’s important is that you trust in the power of your own words and images, and trust in the ability of your readers to follow your lead. You don’t have to hit us over the head with it, I promise. If you sell short your audience, you’re going to sell yourself short, too.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Neverwhere.)
Of all the tools at a writer’s disposal, simile and metaphor have to be among the most powerful. Sure, you might spend paragraphs or pages trying to convey an image or an idea in exact detail, or you could get the entire thing across just as clearly in a single phrase. What we do is basically magic, you guys.
True, as an extremely powerful tool, this one is also really easy to cock up. (Side note: It would appear that the answer to the question, “Is there a Tumblr of that?” is always yes.) However, I think more can be learned from examining the ones that do work, and breaking down what makes them work so well.
One of my favorite descriptions of all time ever comes from one of David Levithan’s chapters of Will Grayson, Will Grayson:
The whole place smells like debt.
Just bask in that one for a moment. This is not an explicit description; after all, the concept of “debt” does not emit molecules that are picked up by olfactory receptors and interpreted by the brain as sensory data. What it is, is evocative. If you’re given no other description of an apartment other than that it “smells like debt,” chances are pretty good you’re still going to have a mental picture of the place. Now, one person may envision musty hand-me-down furniture while another sees a home filled with battered Wal-Mart offerings, but the beauty is that that doesn’t really matter. Where the specifics aren’t important, you can fill in the blanks yourself.
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman is another rich trove of great description. Take this introduction to the assassins Croup and Vandemar:
There are four simple ways for the observant to tell Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar apart: first, Mr. Vandemar is two and a half heads taller than Mr. Croup; second, Mr. Croup has eyes of a faded china blue, while Mr. Vandemar’s eyes are brown; third, while Mr. Vandemar fashioned the rings he wears on his right hand out of the skulls of four ravens, Mr. Croup has no obvious jewelry; fourth, Mr. Croup likes words, while Mr. Vandemar is always hungry. Also, they look nothing at all alike.
It’s a fairly long stretch of pure description, the kind of thing that some writing coaches might tell you to avoid on principle. Unlike the first example, this one is explicit description, of details that are very well-chosen. (The fourth point in particular gives you quite a solid lock on their respective personalities.) The poetry comes from the fact that you’d need a way to tell apart people who look nothing alike; this tells you that they’re a unit, two halves of a single malevolent entity, their interchangeability as torturers and killers more significant than their physical discrepancies. Plus, there’s a punchline, and the Rule of Funny overrides pretty much everything.
Here’s another passage that’s deceptively straightforward:
Richard could already tell that he was the type of person who was always in motion, like a great cat.
A solid, concrete visual aid to establish the mannerisms of just about anyone. But he’s not describing just anyone. He’s describing the Marquis de Carabas, a powerful figure who takes his name (and possibly more, for it is that kind of place and that kind of tale) from Puss in Boots. It’s a pattern that persists throughout the novel, as de Carabas is repeatedly described in decidedly feline terms, and other characters get their own epithets: Croup and Vandemar are frequently depicted as a fox and a wolf, for instance, and Hunter’s descriptions always come back to leather and caramel. This usage makes it easier to keep straight the large and colorful cast, and also helps evoke the almost totemic power of these ageless creatures.
It’s fine to have description that’s purely sensory, that only tells us what an object or action looks or sounds or smells like. But when you’ve got the opportunity to also tell us more about what that thing means, what that thing is? That’s when the magic happens.