Character is revealed by choices–and not regular old choices. Decisions under stress.
There’s a good bit from philosophy about looking at this, because it’s binary choices don’t describe the real world.
“Brave” and “cowardly” doesn’t cover the range and complexity of humanity.
A five-part scale does a better job: cowardly – meek – measured – brave – reckless
So here’s a little writing prompt where the goal is to have a character–a hero or villain you love–respond to conflict in their unique way, in a single line of dialogue.
The problem: You’re in line to buy steak for a big summer BBQ, and Bob the Butcher just put his heavy thumb on the scale.
A normal person might ask Bob to try again, which is expected and somewhat boring.
A meek person would maybe raise and eyebrow and hope Bob sees the error of his ways. A coward would simply pay to avoid confrontation.
A brave person would refuse to get cheated and walk out unless Bob the Butcher did things fairly, while a reckless character would start a fist-fight with Bob in the middle of the butcher shop.
But we all know characters who’d react far differently than even those basic examples, which is what makes fiction fun. I did four quick ones just now. Have at it.
Four one-line responses
Hannibal Lecter: Bob, I’d love to have you for dinner.
Obi-wan Kenobi *waves hand*: That’s not the price you’re looking for.
Bruce Wayne / Batman: Bob, I won’t be paying for these steaks, or this basket full of other goodies I grabbed, because I just bought your store.
Darth Vader: Pray I don’t cut off your other hand.
This sort of situation is the acid test for a truly memorable character. Is their response clearly different than other characters we all know, or are they pale copies and stereotypes of what heroes and villains are supposed to be?
ARCHER — the TV show about a dude with arrows, not the cartoon spoofing James Bond — isn’t horrifically good or amazingly bad, which are the two types of things that are worth discussing and dissecting.
Yet this middling show about a middling superhero is worth taking apart to see the good, the bad and the ugly.
It’s also a good test case, a chance to learn a few lessons from where ARROW works and when it doesn’t. Useful less for anyone who ever wants to write stories, novels, TV shows and movies — or become a masked avenger who lives with his mom.
On the mark: Constant action
There’s no lack of fights, chases and conflict. The opening scenes are often quite good, sometimes starting in the middle of a battle without any boring exposition at all, making you wonder, “Who are those guys Archer is ventilating with green arrows?”
Off the mark: Constant special talks
The fights aren’t bad. The dialogue, though, can kill you.
Every conversation is a special talk that ends in zingers. It’s like the showrunners hired some guy who helped choreograph fights on Jason Statham’s last movie to handle all the fights, then kidnapped the entire writing room of THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS to provide the dialogue.
On the mark: A big bad guy
At least in Season 1, the show avoids the Villain of the Week problem, even when it usually has a different villain of the week, by overlaying the entire thing with a conspiracy headed by a Big Bad Guy who tends to sneak into the bedroom of Arrow’s mom to talk smack about their evil plans.
The big villain also happens to be the billionaire father of Arrow’s best friend, who happens to be sleeping with Arrow’s ex-girlfriend. Also, Arrow’s underaged sister has a thing for the best friend. It’s all rather complicated and weird.
Off the mark: A sea of sidekicks
Read that last paragraph again, because it’s the tip of the iceberg. Arrow does live with his mom in a version of Wayne Manor, and his mom (a) ordered Arrow kidnapped earlier to find out what he knew about (b) having Arrow’s dad killed in the same boat sinking that (c) killed the sister of Arrow’s ex-girlfriend and (d) stranded Arrow on an island for years.
It’s weird enough for any adult character to live with their mom. The show gets even weirder with Arrow’s new step-dad also living there and running his dad’s old company, plus the detective who keeps trying to catch Arrow is his ex-girlfriend’s dad.
So yeah, it’s a hot mess of a soap opera, and when Arrow isn’t fighting, he’s having special talks with EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THESE CHARACTERS.
On the mark: Island flashbacks
I hate flashbacks. They’re usually lazy, useless bags of exposition. Info dumps.
The scenes on this show about the island are fun, because there’s all kinds of conflict, suffering and growth as a spoiled rich kid tries to survive and eventually learns the skills to become a superhero.
Off the mark: All dialogue is on the nose
This was the second reason I thought the showrunners kidnapped the entire writing room of THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS.
There’s no subtlety to the dialogue, which beats you over the head like a sledgehammer. Everybody says exactly what they mean and they do it in the meanest possible way.
It’s a cornucopia of melodramatic zingers and overwrought angsty nonsense.
The melodramatic dialogue makes the plot veer off all over the place. Characters will throw epic hissy fits, then reverse course in the next episode — or next scene. Archer goes all Bruce Wayne by pretending to be a drunken playboy and telling his ex-girlfriend to stay far, far away from him. Then he shows up at her apartment with a pint of ice cream for them to share while curled up on the couch.
If you fire up Netflix and binge-watch three episodes, Arrow will have a major falling out with his mom, ex-girlfriend, best friend, sidekick, sister and five other people, then make up with all of those people only to piss them off again by the third episode.
Though this is not high art, and middling superhero trash, I like my trash to be as watchable as possible. It’s fun, but could be far better, not by increasing the budget for costumes and sets, but by simply ditching the melodrama and killing off most of the sidekicks.
Special note to showrunners: “More villains! Fewer special talks! Also, don’t have Arrow live with his mom, because that’s creepy for somebody who’s gotta be closer to 30 than 15! Kthxbai.”
There’s a funny little post on reddit that actually gives us (1) a nice laugh and (2) a great little lesson in writing.
Here’s the story:
At the grocery store he’s running around doing superhero moves with a fierce expression and making kind of a spectacle of himself. A lady says, “Hello, young man, what’s your name?”
In a little kids’ version of a growly voice, he says “I’m Batman.”
The lady laughs. “I mean, what’s your real name?”
Again: “I’m BATMAN!”
“No, what’s your actual real name?”
As a father and a fan of Batman, I love this.
As a writer, I see a story in 66 words. How many words could you kill without hurting the story? Not many.
Everything has a purpose.
If you read this silly blog, you know about setups and payoffs, which are essential tools for writers of all sorts, whether you’re a blogger, a journalist, a speechwriter or a novelist finishing a 242,000-word epic about elves with lightsabers riding dragons. (Sidenote: I keep waiting for somebody to actually write this Jedi elf saga as a parody, or send me a link to the actual books, because THEY MUST EXIST.)
This little story has multiple setups that all pay off with the last line. It’s beautifully done and the laugh comes not just from the surprise, but from all those careful setups.
Bonus Video: little kid instructs adult in proper Batman voice