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Monday, July 9, 2018

Writing Extreme Characteristics

A couple of weeks ago, Jurassic World was on t.v., and I watched the starting of it. Now, I like that movie, but from a writing perspective, there are a few things about it that, for me, make it feel like it was written by an intermediate writer rather than a professional, Hollywood screenwriter. One of those things is Claire's characterization. Within the first few minutes, the film shows us (basically back-to-back) multiple instances that illustrate how distant and cold Claire is to other living things. Dinosaurs, people she works with, family members, one-time love interests. She doesn't even understand why it's a problem the I. Rex has no socialization.

Claire isn't just kind of distant and cold.

She's really distant and cold.

Those attributes of her are extreme.

Most human beings aren't that extreme. Sometimes when I'm writing, I have to remind myself that very rarely is someone 100% anything. Instead, it's more like human beings have boundaries. It's the villain who is killing people left and right, but then opens a can of cat food for a stray feline. It's the hero who swears he'll never kill anyone, but when he can't find a way out and wants to protect other innocents, he pulls the trigger. The other day I was researching how Thomas Jefferson owned one of the largest plantations and yet spoke out against slavery.

When you boil behaviors down like these, it feels quite hypocritical or contradictory, but that's because we've cut out the thought processes and details and complexities. The realities are that all of us have characteristics that have conditions or boundaries. As I've said before, smashing contrasts in characters, and then exploring those is how we create complexity. Political opinions aside, let's look at Thomas Jefferson as an example of a real human being like this. Jefferson spoke out against and fought slavery, but he also had a tremendous amount of debt, and didn't think it was helpful to simply release slaves with no place to go or no means of employment. The more you dig into his relationship with slavery--a seeming contradiction--the more you understand his thought process--whether or not you agree (again, just using him as an example of a real person like this).

But once in a while you run into characters who are walking extremes. And they can be very difficult to write, simply because of what I've just talked about. If they don't have boundaries and conditions, and they are extreme, they often don't feel complex. They may feel unreal or flat.

Claire has a character arc, and yet, when I watch her on screen, she still feels rather flat to me. Part of this is because she's so extreme. The other part is that the filmmakers made the mistake of illustrating the same extreme characteristic back-to-back-to-back, moment after moment, scene after scene. It almost feels as if distance and coldness are the only characteristics Claire has.

I've said this a lot lately: hitting the same thing over and over in a story doesn't make it stronger to the audience, it makes it weaker.

Because Claire is so distant and cold, we really only needed one or two (and definitely no more than three) moments that showed us that in the beginning, not 100. We get it.

Something like that might work in an "unreality" story, like a Dr. Seuss book or  Lemony Snicket, where seeing it back-to-back is sorta of tongue-in-cheek or comical or serves a higher purpose in and of itself, beyond the character.

So how do you make an extreme character work?

If you have an extreme character, it's almost always important (as it is with any character) to give them multiple dominating qualities.

(Sorry, not sorry, but I recently saw Hamilton and loved it, so I'll probably be referring to it in some of my posts.)

Hamilton is extreme as well. In fact, I heard his thematic line ("I'm not throwing away my shot!") so many times that I was sick of it before I even gave the musical a chance (now that I'm familiar with the story, it doesn't bother me). It's an important line and characteristic because it relates directly to the theme and his character arc. And he's extreme. Hamilton never says no to an opportunity to move ahead and doesn't consider opportunities and lifestyles that he views as stagnant--he's determined not to throw away his shot, regardless of what others--Burr or Eliza or Angelica or George Washington--say or imply to him.

It's extreme. Like Claire, when we meet him, he's in it 100%.

But it's not his only dominating attribute that we are introduced to.

We get plenty of others. He's "obnoxious, arrogant, loud," a powerful writer, ambitious to the point of being a workaholic, and popular with the ladies ;)

We now have several characteristics to hit and play with through the story, rather than his most extreme.

If you have a main character that has an extreme attribute, it's highly likely it's going to come into play in the character arc (aka how the character grows). If the extreme attribute doesn't relate primarily to the arc, it will probably be secondary to it.

It's hard to have a dominating extreme characteristic through the whole novel without an arc, because it's difficult to sustain. It becomes stagnant. It's not changing or contrasting and it draws so much attention. It's hitting the same thing. As Brandon Sanderson says, what's interesting about Superman is not his extreme, larger-than-life abilities, it's his limitations--it's when his superpowers are undone by kryptonite.

What's interesting about Hermione is when she actually breaks rules, not adheres to them. If she went through the entire series without ever breaking any, it'd be annoying because there is no change.

In Hamilton, it's Hamiltion's own extreme characteristic that brings his undoing. When he's writing the Reynolds Pamphlet, what does the song say? "Wait for it, wait for it, wait for it"--and it gets louder the closer he is to completing the pamphlet. But does he wait for it? No. Because he's extreme, he's at 100%. Not even his own family gets considered before he publishes the thing. But the result and what happens after forces him to change, forces him into a character arc--because it ruins both his public and personal life.

At one point, even when Hamilton is trying to say no to something, literally praying to God to help him to say no something, he still fails--"I do not say no!"

The only way to get him to change is to force him by having him wreck havoc upon himself. The story wouldn't be half as interesting or half as meaningful if he'd stayed at 100% the entire time.

Worth noting, too, is that he's foiled nicely by Burr, who is extreme in the opposite direction. He never takes risks; he never stands for what he truly believes. He waits around and only gets involved when it's safe. But with that attitude, he's not excelling at the rate Hamilton is. But again, Burr doesn't stay the same. He has his own arc. In fact, as foils, Burr and Hamilton intersect and end up on different sides. Hamilton throws away his shot, and Burr takes his too quickly.

Setting up foils like this also helps round out extremes, and again, having contrasts gives the story complexity, because it allows us to explore the differences in the opposing ends. That's what gives us depth. (I've heard people argue that Shakespeare was amazing because he used foils so well.)

Whatever extreme characteristic you are dealing with, it almost always needs some kind of motion. Luckily, Claire does get an arc, but it would have been richer and more powerful if it included other characteristics.

For Hamilton, all his other dominating characteristics feed into the arc of his most extreme:

Because he's such a non-stop workaholic, he refuses to go on vacation, worried he'll lose his job . . . but ultimately ends up losing his whole political career by staying behind.

Because he likes ladies, is good with ladies, and has a reputation for it . . . he makes a great target for a setup with one. And he's more likely to give in, when in a state of weakness and loneliness (from staying behind).

Because he's a loudmouth and always speaks his mind he's sure (maybe to the point of being arrogant) that being honest in the Reynolds Pamphlet will save him from political problems.

Because he's a fantastic writer, he thinks the answer is writing his way to safety.

These don't all have to be direct, but notice how his other qualities fed into what happens.

I was watching Lucy the other day, and I felt bad for Scarlett Johansson, because the character she plays is extreme and has hardly any other dominating characteristics and little motion on the personal level. Time and again it's just Lucy getting smarter and more powerful with little emotional development. Boring. And one of the reasons the movie was a flop.

BBC's Sherlock Holmes, on the other hand, is another great example of a character with extreme qualities, in fact, several extreme qualities--and they are in motion. Sure, even those that aren't at first glance, like his great deductions, still have moments of limitation and at one point work, like Hamilton, to bring havoc upon himself because Sherlock wants things to be more complicated than they are.

Even if the qualities are universally considered good, they probably need to be in some kind of motion. For example, it's good that Hermione isn't a rule-breaker. But as the series goes on, she becomes more of one, and that's interesting.

However, if you are working with a dominate character that is extreme and yet doesn't change, you have to make up for it by ramping up the costs. For universally good qualities, you do this by following the motto "No good deed goes unpunished"--the cost of adhering to that extreme needs to be huge, but worthwhile. Choosing to be 100% something--it takes a lot. In Les Mis, if Fantine made a decent salary, it'd be easy to send that money to Cosette, and that's a good thing to do. But she doesn't have a decent salary; she has to sell her hair, teeth, and body in order to do a good thing--"No good deed goes unpunished." (Note that while Fantine isn't an "extreme" character, it illustrates my point.)

Here is another one. It's a good idea to rescue people. But what if pushing a child out of the way of a car meant that a renowned doctor would have to live the rest of his life paralyzed? That's a big sacrifice, not only for the doctor doing the rescuing, but for the community he's helping. The cost and sacrifice to be 100% anything is a lot. Life isn't clear-cut. It's messy and complicated.

So when working with extreme characteristics, here are some things to consider:

1. Give them additional dominating qualities (bonus points if they can play into the arc of the extreme in some way)

2. In the opening, don't illustrate the same extreme quality in ten different situations. Trust that the audience will get it with one or two good instances then move on with the story. Remember that hitting the same thing over and over makes it dull and annoying, not stronger and more interesting.

3. The more extreme and dominating the quality, the more likely it needs to be part of the character arc.

4. In any case, put it in some kind of motion or at least explore limitations or how it can be used against them.

5. Set up a foil to help create more depth and complexity in the story.

6. Look at the cost and sacrifice it takes to maintain an extreme and maybe the havoc and pain it brings upon the individual adhering it and those around him or her.


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