I finally posted a new video to my horror vlog! After months of being busy (and slacking off), finding time for video making is hard…
But after watching both You’re Next and Would You Rather last month, I couldn’t stop thinking about why I really liked one but not the other movie. So I talked a bit about it!
They’re both low budget horror movies, with all of the delightful pros and cons that come from low budget filmmaking, but the thing that really struck me was the difference in their protagonists. Which got me thinking more about writing good characters in general. Which I’ve already been thinking a lot about because I’m writing and developing my own characters.
(I love Kate Beaton)
Right. But in a practical sense, what does that mean? Strong Female Character. Obviously, she’s someone I want in my story. I don’t want no weak, ill defined, stereotype messing my things up. Right? But what’s strong? Physically, emotionally, mentally…
Actually, even better, what about this? What about some defining adjective other than “strong” for my characters?
I feel the same way about defining a character as “strong” as I do about using “attractive” in a character’s description. Like, what does that have to do with anything? Why does it matter if Johnny’s Mom is Attractive unless Johnny’s best friend has a crush on her and that actually comes into play somewhere in the story. Which in most scripts I’ve read, it doesn’t. Attractive doesn’t tell me anything other than that you maybe imagine casting Scarlett Johansson as your lead. Trust me, 99% of the time your script is not good enough…
So forget Strong. Forget Attractive. How about something like this?
A lanky, sunburned girl with eyes brown and playful, and a shiny, boyish face.
That’s from the Maltese Falcon. It comes right after Sam Spade is described as looking “rather pleasantly like Satan.”
Now that’s good. Both are visual but the second also contrasts with the first giving us not only a physical sense of these characters but a clue into how they’ll interact, what their personalities might be like. It then gives us context for the dialogue that follows.
I’m off on a tangent though.
I originally started talking about You’re Next and Would You Rather and that was really all about character too. But character in the bigger sense of how they fit into their stories. Obviously character is not just about descriptions, it’s about actions. What does our character do when we throw them into the story? How does their personality and life experiences inform their actions? How do their actions then move the plot along? What are the consequences?
I liked You’re Next so much because what happened was so tied into what the characters were doing, who they were as people. There was even a surprising amount of nuance in the family dynamic. I think a great example beyond our lead Erin, is one of the supporting characters – sister Aimee. That spelling right there should tell you something about this family and this girl…
So Aimee is the only girl in the family and it’s clear that she’s been competing with her brothers their entire lives. She feels like she constantly needs to prove herself, show that she’s just as good as they are. This need flavors all of their conversations and also leads very directly to the decision she makes that decides her fate. I won’t say more for spoilers. But it’s there. And the rest of the movie follows this example with all of the characters. Erin’s decision at the end feels like the right, natural decision she would make. It’s not forced on us by the filmmakers, it’s just the only thing she has left to do. And it’s still maybe not the best decision and she still gets to face consequences for her actions. But she’s a flawed person and the decision makes sense for her.
Contrast! Would You Rather. And why I’m so mad at this movie. Unlike Erin and even Aimee, Iris makes one decision early on and then… does nothing. I mean, she has little moments but she doesn’t drive the story. She doesn’t change anything. It’s not even like she’s trying to overcome her shyness and only at the end does she come to believe in herself. Or some nonsense like that. She’s passive and it’s so incredibly frustrating to watch. She’s the only character with any decent character development (I’m sorry, goth eye liner does not character development make). So when the one character we know does nothing about anything… who are we supposed to care about?
Also, most of the movie takes place in one room sitting around one table. Which, kudos to them for that ballsy decision I guess. It’s really hard to make a movie in one room around one table engaging. This premise could have potentially worked… except that it didn’t and the movie was not particularly engaging or interesting or emotionally satisfying. Or even horrific. I wasn’t scared, I wasn’t even really grossed out. For some reason, a lot of people also ended up getting shot. Weird decision for a movie that seems to be trying to be the next Saw. Or something.
I’m rambling again.
I don’t know what’s happening anymore.
Clearly I’m still thinking about these things though. Which probably means I need to get back to my own characters and keep working on them and telling their stories…
We can learn from these things! Make our characters more complicated like, you know, real people. Their decisions should be organic not just plot driven. And there are more words out there than just “strong” or “attractive.” Let’s do better than that. I think we can.